How To Thrive In Crowded SERPs

May 17th
posted in

Google is favoring big brands.

If Google's comments and actions of late, are anything to go by, the chances of the little guy, armed only with SEO chops, being able to compete with deep-pocketed corporates are becoming less and less likely. Google algorithms tend to reward the big players - the people everyone talks about, and links to.

How can we combat this situation?

Back To Business

Ever notice how a page on FaceBook, or some other behemoth site, which consists entirely of a Wikipedia cut-n-paste, can often rank well on Google? At the same time, many unique, interesting pages are buried deep on SERP #20?

It's happening a lot.

It's hard to fight against a domain that can distribute high link authority down through hundreds of thousands, or millions of sub-pages. SEO chops alone are unlikely to cut it if your niche is full of such sites. The game is rigged, and it doesn't favor you.

One approach is to not fight such competitors at their own game.

Instead, take a new look at your business. How unique is your offering? Are you competing with many other sites that offer pretty much the same thing?

If you offer a similar product and service to all the rest, then it is inevitable that you'll eventually lose to the company with the deepest pockets. Google, and the world in general, tends to reward those who already have the most.

The USP

I'm sure you've heard about the Unique Selling Proposition.

For those who haven't, the Unique Selling Proposition, or USP, is the term is used to refer to an aspect of a service or good that differentiates it from similar services or goods.

For example, a USP of Amazon is that it sells the widest range of books online. Your local rare bookstore, on the other hand, has a USP of stocking and selling rare books. Both Amazon and your local bookseller sell books, but their services are clearly differentiated from one another.

The concept of a USP came about as a result of a marketing problem that exists when markets are crowded. If many companies offer similar things, then how can any one company stand out?

A USP isn't critical if there are few players in a market. This was the case in the early days of the internet, when finding a site that met your needs wasn't assured . As the internet became more populated, webmasters used techniques such as SEO in order to rise above the masses, safe in the knowledge that searchers will typically click on the top few results. They still do, of course, but if Google increasingly favors the most popular sites, then the return on SEO for the smaller player decreases.

These days, with plentiful options, the searcher either finds what they want on their first search, or they rephrase, and make their search more specific. It is in the second option where the most opportunity lies for the little guy. The visitor is rephrasing in order to be more specific. "Dell Monitor Cheap" may become "Used Dell Monitor Free Overnight Delivery". Vagaries of Update Panda aside, the guy who has a USP of dealing in used monitors, and offers fast delivery times, can still compete in Google.

The USP isn't just an add-on marketing tactic. It's a fundamental aspect of your business.

The Benefit

USP's are about specific benefits for the customer. Put yourself in the customers shoes and ask "how does this benefit me?". In the example I used above, the benefit is "a low cost, recycled monitor that will be delivered quickly".

The twist is that you need to make your offer unique. Look at your competition and ask yourself "what aren't they doing that they should be doing, and that the customers wants"? If you find it difficult to answer such a question after having evaluating your competitors, it may be a sign the market is too crowded, and you may be better off trying something else.

But What If You Can't Move Niches?

There are various ways to introduce a USP if you're selling a similar product or service to others.

One idea is to make your process unique by making your site more usable.

For example, I buy cases of discount wines online. Whilst there are many other sites offering this service, I use one particular site mainly because the ordering process is so streamlined. The benefit is saved time. The site retains my login and billing details, and it prompts me for re-orders with emails sent out at intervals based on my previous order history, and the previous selections I have made. The site pretty much "knows" what I want before I've even thought about it, and I can order with a couple of clicks. The wine always arrives promptly.

So their USP is in their process. They sell the same wine as the other sites, but the process is "unique", from what I can tell. It's also troublesome for me to switch. It invites a set-up cost (time), risk (they may not deliver), and I lose my history.

What's this got to do with SEO?

Once your visitor finds you, give them a very good reason to bookmark you, join, and keep coming back. Once that happens, you don't need to rely on new leads form Google so much.

A USP Must Be Supported By The Fundamentals Of Your Market

It's not enough to just come up with unique angle.

The unique angle has to be workable. There has to be a niche of people who want the unique aspect you deliver, and are prepared to pay you enough for it to make the effort worthwhile. For example, offering fresh pizza in the middle of a desert may be unique, but it is unlikely to succeed as a business model, because of low demand.

Finding a workable USP is a matter of research, and trial and error. Look thought the search keywords related to your term and look for an angle. What are people asking for? Type that keyword term into Google and see if anyone is servicing that demand. Ask your existing customers what they want, or what you could do better. Buy third-party research to help discover where the market is heading, and how demands are changing.

Imagine the future, as opposed to mimicking the past.

How To Define Your USP

1. List Your Key Benefits

What aspect do you do really well, and that other people really like? If you're at a loss, what could you change to make it so?

2. What Pains Your Customers?

They kinda want something. They might vaguely feel they need it. But if you find something they absolutely must have, so much so that it pains them not to have it, then you're onto something big. What is that thing?

3. Be Specific & Provide Proof

It's one thing to say it. It's another thing to do it. How many sites say "we're the best". Or "Experts in SEO". It's meaningless.

"We get your site thousands of qualified visitors at half the cost of your Adwords spend" is a specific, meaningful benefit.

Then you need to show how you do that. Case studies are great. You can seldom have enough case studies. Say what you were going to do it, do it, then tell them you've done it.

4. Be Concise

You only have a few seconds. You need to state your USP quickly. Short phrases. People read the first line, then the next, but only if the first line was worth reading. They'll scan through to pick something that interests them.

This is where graphic design is important. Pictures really are worth a thousand words if the person is scanning for information. Does you graphic design underscore, or detract from, your USP?

5.Your USP Flows Through Everything You Do

If your USP is, say, to provide individual attentive service, then you need to answer the phone right away. You need to respond to emails quickly. You need to make it easy for people to talk to you.

If you USP is a massive inventory, then the user has to be able to get to that inventory easily.

You can never repeat your USP too often. Do so on many levels. People aren't really paying attention, so take every opportunity to remind them what is special about you :)

What's Your Story?

May 6th
posted in

With Google making the life of the SEO harder and harder, it pays to add as many marketing strings to our bows as we can. In this article, we'll look at a way to brand and position using stories. Hopefully, if we have a good story, and tell it well, people are more likely to remember us, and more likely to pass the story on.

Are We Special?

Most people think their site is special. But, by definition, few sites in a given niche can be special.

If we target a keyword term, that many other sites are targeting, we'll probably write a similar keyword-loaded page, including the same synonyms, derived from the same keyword tools, using the same headings in bold, in the hope of appearing in the top ten list of pages - which are just like the others.

We may distinguish ourselves by managing to rank in the top three, but, as we know, there are no guarantees we'll maintain this advantage.

We Need Something Else

If SEO is our only strategy, then this will only work if few other people are using SEO. How many niches worth fighting for are like that these days?

Not many.

Generally speaking, the more mature the niche, the more you need something besides SEO. You need to make as much effort to stand out as possible, otherwise people will likely overlook and forget you. There are too many other sites and options.

Let's look at a differentiation strategy based on stories.

Why Use Stories?

Stories are universal.

The human race has been using stories for thousands of years. We use stories because they are informative, memorable, and easily spread to others. Isn't that what we want our sites to be, too?

Every news story is a tragedy. Every religion is a story of redemption. Politicians tell stories, some of which are true! The alternative would be to give people a string of disconnected data and facts. Such data and facts may be 100% true, but they are seldom memorable or easily repeatable. Telling a compelling story is one good way to contextualize information, and make it more meaningful.

A story isn't just words on a page, saying how great a company is, and what products they have, and if you want them, you should "click here". That's surface. Think of "story" as a sub-text, the underlying, perhaps unspecified tale of who you are, what you're doing, and how you can help people solve their problems. This is a form of positioning, and branding, but I find it's helpful to reduce those high concepts down into a simple narrative. It helps bring a lot of different, and sometimes complicated, marketing aspects together.

Everyone can tell a story, especially about themselves.

The Mechanics

Every business has a story.

Take Amazon.

The Amazon is the largest river in the world, which is an appropriate name for a site which aimed to be the largest retailer on the planet. Amazon is huge. Amazon is huge because they took the shopping experience, made it easier, and people loved it. With one click, a customer could order a book, or a DVD, and many other products and have it sent to them. Amazon faced some huge challenges. Just how do you store and ship a vast array of products and still make money? Amazon do massive volume, and use unique, sophisticated tracking and packing systems to overcome these challenges. Amazon's cloud computing service alone has revenues in excess of $500m.

Amazon's story is mostly about "being big". All very well for Amazon, of course, but what about the little guy showing people how to build stuff? There's a story in that, too.

Tim Carter founded "Ask The Builder.com". Tim provides tips for DIY, answers building questions, and provides product and tool reviews. Rather than the home DIY enthusiast going out and buying manuals, or hiring an expensive builder, Tim provides his information for free, and his video's provide depth that printed books do not. Tim clearly cares about building, and the home DIY enthusiast. Tim's gone a step further, and told his life story.

Try boiling your site down into such a story. Once you have a story, you can then flesh out narratives that flow through everything you do, from your graphic design, to your copy, to your approach to customer services.

For example, Tim's story is a "small, personal" story. It is fitting that he doesn't have a glossy, corporate theme, as this would grate against the narrative. Rather, the site is a bit raggedy and amateurish, in a good way. He is providing one-to-one personal help, so it fits that he talks directly to camera. It fits that, unlike Amazon, you know who is behind the site. It fit's the the About Page is a personal history. It's approachable. It's all part of the "small, personal" story. It helps make the site more convincing, and hopefully more memorable, if common themes are repeated.

A story helps achieve focus, clarity and distinction.

How To Construct A Story

If you're having problems getting started, here's a work-plan.

1. Describe Your Brand

What do you do? Make it short and sweet i.e. "Provide advice to home DIY enthusiasts". "Sell books online".

2. Where Did You Come From, And Where Are You Now

How did you start? Why did you start? What did you do before you started? What position are you in now?

3. What Challenges Do You Face?

What problem do you solve? What are challenges have you overcome? It helps if these are the same challenges and problems your customers face.

4. Personify/Quantify These Challenges

Did you overcome people? Organizations? Time? Money? Lack of knowledge?

5. Who Is Your Target Market?

Who, exactly, are you trying to help? Where do they live? What is their time of life? What challenges do they face?

6. What Does Your Target Market Care About?

Security? Being first? Individual care? Low prices? Value?

7. Why Should They Buy From You?

What do you offer that other sites do not?

8. What is your end goal?

How do you know you're completed what you set out to do? What is the measure of victory?

Answer these questions, and it becomes easy to make decisions about design, positioning, branding, and marketing.

Hopefully it helps make your site more memorable, too.

Web Manager's Guide To SEO Strategy

Apr 20th
posted in

When your boss/client asks you why your web site can't be found in Google, what are you going to say? You should prepare, because, eventually, that question will be asked.

Should you cross that bridge when you come to it? Employ an SEO specialist to "do some stuff", after launch, in order to get the site ranked? Isn't SEO just another marketing function, like buying advertising?

In this article, I'll outline why it's a bad idea to treat SEO as an add-on. I'll look at how to roll SEO, seamlessly, into your web strategy.

Strategic Considerations

These days, SEO is not a series of easily-repeated, technical steps.

You may have heard that SEO is about adding meta tags. Changing the underlying code. Making a few minor changes to content and submitting a site to a search engine. If you follow this process, your site will be found on the first page of search results.

This was true years ago ago. It isn't true now.

If that is all you do, chances are your site won't appear on the first page of results. It might not appear until page 72. If at all. The search engines have grown more sophisticated. They look at many different factors, and they don't place weight on meta-tags when determining rank.

What do they look for?

They look at a variety of factors.

One factor is the vote. In search, a link is a vote. In order to get people to vote for your site, you need a site that is link-worthy. And the voting box is rigged. A vote from a huge brand, like Microsoft, for example, is worth way more than many votes from sites few people have heard of. The search engines tend to reward popularity, as determined by other sites. If the information you're providing isn't popular enough, you won't be ranked.

In order to get these links, you need to publish pages people will link to. And not just the home page. You need links into internal pages, too. Ask yourself: what sites would you link to? What pages would you link to? Chances are, you're unlikely to link to a competitor. You're unlikely to link to someone else's e-commerce product catalogue. You'll most likely link to pages of note. Pages of reference material, pages of news, and other remarkable content that is noteworthy.

That's what everyone else does, not just in search, but in social media, too.

Another factor is the quality of your information, which we'll look at shortly.

Sound difficult to achieve?

Do You Even Need SEO?

You may not.

If you have a known brand that your existing customers will navigate directly to, you won't need to do much in the way of SEO. So long as you can be found under your brand name, you'll be rewarded. However, if you want to attract new customers, and attract customers away from competing brands, then you need to give SEO serious thought. At very least, you'll need to ensure your site is crawlable.

You can participate in the search channel without using SEO. You can buy clicks, using PPC. The downside is this can get expensive, as the incentive for Google is to force click prices ever higher via bid competition. You need to weigh the ongoing cost vs the cost of implementing an SEO strategy. Many people undertake both SEO & PPC, of course, in order to maximize a sites' visibility.

You need SEO if a long-term, cheap, visitor traffic stream is important to you. You need SEO if you seek to attract search visitors who may not have heard of your company before. You need SEO if your competitors are doing it, as they'll take your market share, given they have a presence in the channel, and you may not.

OK, I Need SEO

What is the optimal way to approach SEO?

If you've yet to launch a site, or you're planning on launching a new site, you're at a distinct advantage to those who must retrofit an SEO strategy. This is because SEO flows from strategy. It is very difficult to retrofit if the web strategy works against SEO, which can easily happen.

For example, Google tends to favor a regularly updated, well linked, reference information publishing model. One example is Wikipedia. Obviously, commercial sites aren't going to look anything like Wikipedia, however there are a few lessons to be learned. The key point is to integrate some form of detailed, text information publishing into your site, which preferably has a reference angle i.e. it's not just a page of sales copy.

Take a look at Amazon. Amazon is a product catalog, with a twist. Amazon lets users write reviews. The review text can be crawled by search engines. The existence of review text helps distinguish Amazon from other product catalogs, which to a search engines, would all look pretty much identical i.e. book name, publisher name, price, product description, etc. Search engines tend to relegate duplicate content.

So, you should include a section on your site that allows for the regular publication of unique, reference material. For example, industry news, a trade dictionary, discussion forums, blogs, feedback loops encouraging user content and comment, tutorials, user education, and so on. You might decide to split your web strategy across multiple sites. One site is the corporate umbrella site, another site is information based. Your SEO will likely have many ideas on this front, so the key is to involve them early.

Retrofitting SEO

SEO can be added after a site is launched, but it can be problematic.

Possibly the worst case scenario is a brochure site, consisting of thin product information and mission statements. Links don't tend to flow to such sites, and they don't tend to be information rich. Links will most likely need to be purchased, adding to the cost, and the search engines take a dim view of this practice, so it can increase risk if pushed too hard. If your competitors are attracting links without having to buy them, then they'll always be at a competitive advantage, and be very difficult to catch as each day passes.

There are a couple of ways around this problem. Create a new section of the site devoted to publication of reference material i.e. industry news, a trade dictionary, glossary, discussion forums, blogs, tutorials, and so on.

If the site isn't suited to this approach, consider splitting your web strategy across a number of sites.

Neither are particularly elegant, but the important takeaway point is that SEO isn't something that can just be tweaked under the hood. It needs to be an integral part of your site, and these days, that means adopting some form of information publishing strategy beyond simple sales copy.

User First

The web is about putting the user first, and search is no exception.

Web content is commodity. If your site doesn't have the information the user wants, then there is nothing keeping them on your site, and no reason for them to visit in the first place. There are plenty of other sites. The site that gives the users exactly what they want, wins.

Luckily, in search, the user is already telling you what they want.

SEO's have a great way of mining this information. They can access keyword data, collected by the search engines. This data shows what terms users are looking for. You could create an entire web strategy based on this information.

For example, let's imagine a site owner sells heating systems. It would pay to know that a lot more people search for "solar heating systems" than "boiler heating systems". Obviously, interest in solar energy is increasing, so the owner may want to feature these products more prominently, and provide news on the latest developments by way of a blog. Keyword research shows a lot of people also want to know about installing heating systems, so the owner may want to provide guidance and/or a nationwide list of installers who install his product. That list of installers could be broken down into regions, which will likely attract regional search traffic. The site owner could encourage his national network of installers to link to his site, especially since he has demonstrated he is happy to send traffic their way. The site owner could also include a glossary of heating terminology, in order to cover every conceivable heating related keyword term.

Do the same with your site. Ask "what are the users really looking for?". Ask your SEO to research keyword lists to see what is really on your potential visitors minds. Provide a means to publish this information. Encourage people to link to your site by giving them a good reason to do so. Create genuinely useful content, then have your SEO and marketing teams get out there and hustle that information.

The Message Is Integrated

This is an integrated SEO strategy, based on the idea of putting the user first, giving them what they want, and encouraging them to share it.

Seth Godin wrote a book called "All Marketers Are Liars". In this book, Seth notes that, these days, marketing needs to be integrated into the product from conception. The days of bolting a pretty marketing face on to a generic box, after it comes off the factory line, are long gone.

It's the same thing with search. It should flow through your web strategy, just like usability, your message, your brand, and your language.

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SEO For Designers, Developers & Managers

Apr 13th
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SEO on your own site is straightforward, at least in terms of the politics. SEO'ing a site that a team works on is another matter.

You will come up against barriers. These barriers are often put up by designers, developers, copywriters and management. Frustrating as it is for the SEO, this is the reality of working on a site alongside other people, all of whom have agendas and requirements that may differ markedly from your own.

So how do you navigate this space? How do you ensure your SEO objectives can be met when other people may be resistant to change, or openly try to block you? In this post, we'll take a high-level, conceptual look at the challenges the SEO faces when working on a client site, and talking-points to help explore and clarify concepts.

1. Why Are We Doing SEO At All?

SEO is a pain.

It's complicated. It gets in the way, particularly when it comes to design. Why do we need headings and a lot of text when a picture tells a story? SEO appears to be an arbitrary, dark art with little in the way of fixed rules, and the client probably doesn't care about it anyway.

The thing is - if SEO is done well, a client may throw a whole lot more money at the site in future. Everyone likes to build on success, and that means more business, and more exposure, for everyone involved. On the internet, traffic = success. Traffic = money. A site that few people see, no matter how well executed, will likely fail, just like a site that fails to engage and convert visitors will fail. The client may not know they want SEO now, but you can be certain they'll be asking questions about it after launch.

If SEO is done poorly, the site may not be seen by as many people as it otherwise would. What use is a beautiful design that is seldom seen? What use is great code that is seldom used?

The value proposition of SEO is that it helps get a site seen. It's a powerful marketing channel, because most people use search engines to navigate the web. Sites that deliver what the search engines want stand to gain a lot more traffic than sites that do not undertake SEO. If your competitors are undertaking SEO, this puts your work at a competitive disadvantage. Their site will be seen more often by search visitors. Their web agencies will likely get more business as clients see greater returns on their investment.

That's why we do SEO. To be seen.

Of course, a site can be seen by other means. Word-of-mouth, social media, links, brand awareness, and offline advertising. A site doesn't need SEO, but given that it is a relatively easy win in terms of cheap traffic acquisition, the extra effort involved is negligible compared to the upside benefits. It's like being given a choice of having a shop located on main street vs a location way out in the desert. Much the same effort involved in building, but significantly different traffic potential.

2. SEO Is A Design Element

Just as copywriters require space to insert paragraphs and headings, SEO's require space to do their thing.

If you're a designer, an SEO will likely provide you with a list of their requirements. These requirements need not be onerous, any more so than leaving space for copy is considered onerous.

There are two key aspects where SEO needs to integrate with design. One aspect is the requirement for machine readable text, provided in a format the search engines are able to read, and derive meaning. Search engines "think" mostly in terms of words, not pictures. Make design allowances for copy that includes lot of headings and sub-headings, a technique which also dovetails nicely with usability.

The other key aspect is crawl-ability. A search engine sends out a spider, a piece of code that grabs the source code of your website, and dumps it back in a database. It skips from page to page, following links. If a page doesn't have a link to it, or no crawlable link to it, it is invisible to the 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. Similarly, you should ensure your site navigation is crawlable, which means using standard hyperlinks, as opposed to scripted/executable links. If you must use scripted links, try and replicate the navigation elsewhere on the page in non-scripted form, or within the body of the text.

For most sites, that's pretty much it when it comes to design considerations. In summary, the inclusion of machine readable text, and a means for a spider to crawl easily from page to page.

An SEO may also wish to specify a page hierarchy and structural issues, where some pages are given more prominent positions than others. Of course, this needs to be weighed against navigation considerations for visitors who arrive at the site via other means.

3. SEO For Developers

Like design, there are two key areas of integration.

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

The title tag appears in search results as a click able link, so serves a valuable marketing function. When search visitors consider which link to click, they'll use the title tag and snippet to influence their decision.

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 is 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. For an in-depth look at technical considerations, see "SEO For Designers".

One workaround if the database needs unique codes is to translation at the URL level, using URL rewriting.

4. SEO Is A Marketing Strategy

The on-page requirements, as dealt with above, are half the picture.

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 reference value. This is a strategic decision that needs to weighed during site conception. Obviously, few sites strive, or want to be, Wikipedia, however there are various ways to incorporate reference information into commercial sites where the primary purpose of the site is not the publication of reference information.

For example, include a blog, a news feed, publish the e-mail newsletter to the site, and/or incorporate a reference section within the site. It doesn't matter if this section isn't viewed by visitors who navigate directly to the site. It provides a means to get a lot of information-rich content into the site without disrupting design and other commercial imperatives. Think of it as a "mini-site" within a site.

Not every page needs to be for the purposes of SEO. SEO can be sectioned off, although this is often less ideal than more holistic integration throughout the site.

5. Strategic Factors For Managers

Concept, design and development can screw-up SEO.

Poor integration can result in loss of potential traffic. This traffic will go to competitors. The longer a site doesn't use an SEO strategy, the harder it is to ever catch the competition, as a head-start in link building is difficult to counter.

If your aim, or your clients aim, is to attract as much targeted traffic as possible - as most site owners do - then SEO integration must be taken as seriously as design, development, copy and other media. It may influence your choice of CMS. It may influence your strategic approach in terms of how and what type of information you publish.

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. If SEO is integrated in the planning stage, it is reasonably straightforward.

The time to incorporate SEO is during site conception. SEO is a text publishing strategy. Design and development will need to make minor changes to the way they approach a site build. Doing this retrospectively, whilst not impossible, is more difficult, and therefore more costly.

Coda: Flash Workarounds For SEO

There are various workarounds to existing search-unfriendly design, but I'd advise to avoid the problem in the first place.

Flash, whilst a useful tool for embedding within sites, should be avoided for the entire site. Flash is a graphics/animation format, whereas search - and the web in general - is primarily a text format. If you build an entire site using Flash, then your competitors will overtake you in terms of search visitors. The formats simply do not gel.

One work around is strategic - split the site in two. Use Flash as a brochure site, and create a hub site that is text based. Consider including a "printable" version of the site, which will give the search engines some text to digest. Whilst there are technical and strategic ways around Flash, they are often clumsy and tedious.

The search engines can make sense of most sites, but if you're expecting to get rewarded by search engines, then it pays to stick as close to their technological strengths and weaknesses as possible.

Poke The Box Review

Mar 17th

I received this book in the mail.

It's nice to be sent books. And it's by Seth!

The book is called Poke The Box. It's about making a start. Seth encourages us to just jump in and do things. It doesn't matter if they go wrong, the important thing is to make the start. To break out of conservative patterns. It's a scatter-shot rant about the death of the industrial revolution, with Godin inciting us, over and over again, to take action.

Gotta say, I was a little disappointed by the book. It skates over the surface, didn't really hang together, and recycles some pretty tired themes. This review amused me.

Or maybe this book is the start of something else Seth has in mind. I don't know. Having said that, I think the central point of the book is valuable, and that is to.....

Start Something

Do you ever regret not buying a particular domain name? Or a particular site? Do you regret not having started a site in that niche that is now taking off? Do you ever feel you've missed the boat on affiliate marketing? Do you regret not going harder at SEO in the days when it was just that much easier?

I think a lot of us can relate. There are always regrets and missed opportunities.

We *could* have done some of these things. But, for whatever reason, we didn't. And we probably still find reasons not to make a start on things today. Chances are, we're going to regret not having started them when we look back five years from now, too.

Take Seth's advice, and just make the start on that thing you are thinking of doing.

Fail At Something

Often we don't start something because we're scared of failing. However, as we know, failure is a part of life. The old cliche about the only way never to fail is to never try anything - rings true.

In SEO, one thing that might be good to start, if you're not doing so already, is some simple testing. Buy a few cheap domain names, add a little content, and try to get the site ranking for some obscure keyword term. As you don't really care about the keyword term, you can remain focused on pure SEO. If it fails to work, it doesn't matter. In fact, that tells you something about whatever technique you were using.Throw a few links at it. What happens? Does this fail to produce rankings? At least you know who not to get links from in future!

This is something I've let slip lately, so I'm going to make a new start on it, too.

Do Something Worth Doing

Seth mentions Tom Peters, who wrote "In Search Of Excellence". Seth sees that Peters is frustrated, because people are hearing his message, without embracing the thinking behind it. Being excellent isn't about doing what working extra hard at doing what you're told, it's about making the leap and doing work you decide is worth doing.

Sometimes, the thing that enables us to keep going with a site is simply that we believe in it. Nobody else might be paying attention. The rankings are mediocre. No one is linking to it. But if we feel what we're doing is worthwhile, we're more likely to work through the rough patches when there is no other reward on offer. If we don't really believe in a project, it's hard to find the will to work through the inevitable challenges.

Summary

Well, I guess should just say "Go!" :)

Why not - today - start something new.

The Problem With Following Prescription

Mar 10th
posted in

You can't learn great SEO from an e-book. Or buying software tools.

Great SEO is built on an understanding.

Reducing SEO To Prescription

One of the problems with reductive, prescribed SEO approaches - i.e. step one: research keywords, step two: put keyword in title etc can be seen in the recent "Content Farm" update.

When Google decide sites are affecting their search quality, they look for a definable, repeated footprint made by the sites they deem to be undesirable. They then design algorithms that flag and punish the sites that use such a footprint.

This is why a lot of legitimate sites get taken out in updates. A collection of sites may not look, to a human, like problem sites, but the algo sees them as being the same thing, because their technical footprint is the same. For instance, a website with a high number of 250-word pages is an example of a footprint. Not necessarily an undesirable one, but a footprint nevertheless. Similar footprints exist amongst ecommerce sites heavy in sitewide templating but light on content unique to the page.

Copying successful sites is a great way to learn, but can also be a trap. If you share a similar footprint, having followed the same SEO prescription, you may go down with them if Google decides their approach is no longer flavor of the month.

The Myth Of White Hat

A lot of sites that get taken out are white hat i.e. sites that follow Google's webmaster guidelines.

It's a reasonably safe approach, but if you understand SEO, you'll soon realize that following a white hat prescription offers no guarantees of ranking, nor does it offer any guarantees you won't be taken out.

The primary reason there aren't any guarantees comes down to numbers. Google knows that when it makes a change, many sites will lose. They also know that many sites will win i.e. replace the sites that lost. If your site drops out, Google aren't bothered. There will be plenty of other sites to take your place. Google are only concerned that their users perceive the search results to be of sufficient quality.

The exception is if your site really is a one-of-a-kind. The kind of site that would embarrass Google if users couldn't find it. BMW, for example, in response to the query "BMW".

It's not fair, but we understand that's just how life is.

An Understanding

For those readers new to SEO, in order to really grasp SEO, you need to see things from the search engines point of view.

Firstly, understand the search engines business case. The search engine can only make money if advertisers pay for search traffic. If it were too easy for those sites who are likely to use PPC to rank highly in the natural results, then the search engines business model is undermined. Therefore, it is in the search engines interest to "encourage" purely commercial entities to use PPC, not SEO. One way they do this is to make the natural results volatile and unpredictable. There are exceptions, covered in my second point.

Secondly, search engines must provide sufficient information quality to their users. This is an SEO opportunity, because without webmasters producing free-to-crawl, quality content, there can be no search engine business model. The search engines must nurture this ecosystem.

If you provide genuine utility to end users, the search engines have a vested interest in your survival, perhaps not as an individual, but certainly as a group i.e. "quality web publishers". Traffic is the lifeblood of the web, and if quality web publishers aren't fed traffic, they die. The problem, for webmasters, is that the search engines don't care about any one "quality publisher", as there are plenty of quality publishers. The exception is if you're the type of quality publisher who has a well recognized brand, and would therefore give the impression to users that Google was useless if you didn't appear.

Thirdly, for all their cryptic black box genius, search engines aren't all that sophisticated. Yes, the people who run them are brilliant. The problems they solve are very difficult. They have built what, only decades ago, would have been considered magic. But, at the end of the day, it's just a bit of maths trying to figure out a set of signals. If you can work out what that set of signals are, the maths will - unblinkingly - reward you. It is often said that in the search engine wars, the black hats will be the last SEOs standing.

Fourthly, the search engines don't really like you. They identified you as a business risk in their statement to investors. You can, potentially, make them look bad. You can undermine their business case. You may compete with their own channels for traffic. They tolerate you because they need publishers making their stuff easy to crawl, and not locking their content away behind paywalls. Just don't expect a Christmas card.

SEO Strategy Built On Understanding

Develop strategies based on how a search engine sees the world.

For example, if you're a known brand, your approach will be different to a little known, generic publisher. There isn't really much risk you won't appear, as you could embarrass Google if users can't find you. This is the reason BMW were reinstated so quickly after falling foul of Google's guidelines, but the same doesn't necessarily apply to lesser known publishers.

If you like puzzles, then testing the algorithms can give you an unfair advantage. It's a lot harder than it used to be, but where there is difficulty, there is a barrier to entry to those who come later. Avoid listening to SEO echo chambers where advice may be well-meaning, but isn't based on rigorous testing.

If you're a publisher, not much into SEO wizardry, and you create content that is very similar to content created by others, you should focus on differentiation. If there are 100's of publishers just like you, then Google doesn't care if you disappear. Google do need to find a way to reward quality, especially in niches that aren't well covered. Be better than the rest, but if you're not, slice your niche finer and finer, until you're the top dog in your niche. You should focus on building brand, so you can own a search stream. For example, this site owns the search stream "SEO Book", a stream Aaron created and built up.

Remember, search engines don't care about you, unless there's something in it for them.

Google Update Panda

Mar 9th
posted in

Google tries to wrestle back index update naming from the pundits, naming the update "Panda". Named after one of their engineers, apparently.

The official Google line - and I'm paraphrasing here - is this:

Trust us. We're putting the bad guys on one side, and the good guys on the other

I like how Wired didn't let them off the hook.

Wired persisted:

Wired.com: Some people say you should be transparent, to prove that you aren’t making those algorithms to help your advertisers, something I know that you will deny.

Singhal: I can say categorically that money does not impact our decisions.

Wired.com: But people want the proof.

This answer, from Matt Cutts, was interesting:

Cutts: If someone has a specific question about, for example, why a site dropped, I think it’s fair and justifiable and defensible to tell them why that site dropped. But for example, our most recent algorithm does contain signals that can be gamed. If that one were 100 percent transparent, the bad guys would know how to optimize their way back into the rankings

Why Not Just Tell Us What You Want, Already!

Blekko makes a big deal about being transparent and open, but Google have always been secretive. After all, if Google want us to produce quality documents their users like and trust, then why not just tell us exactly what a quality document their users like and trust looks like?

Trouble is, Google's algorithmns clearly aren't that bulletproof, as Google admit they can still be gamed, hence the secrecy. Matt says he would like to think there would be a time they could open source the algorithms, but it's clear that time isn't now.

Do We Know Anything New?

So, what are we to conclude?

  • Google can be gamed. We kinda knew that....
  • Google still aren't telling us much. No change there....

Then again, there's this:

Google have filed a patent that sounds very similar to what Demand Media does i.e looks for serp areas that are under-served by content, and prompts writers to write for it.

The patent basically covers a system for identifying search queries which have low quality content and then asking either publishers or the people searching for that topic to create some better content themselves. The system takes into account the volume of searches when looking at the quality of the content so for bigger keywords the content would need to be better in order for Google to not need to suggest somebody else writes something

If Google do implement technology based on this patent, then it would appear they aren't down on the "Content Farm" model. They may even integrate it themselves.

Until then....

How To Avoid Getting Labelled A Content Farmer

The question remains: how do you prevent being labelled as a low-quality publisher, especially when sites like eHow remain untouched, yet Cult Of Mac gets taken out? Note: Cult Of Mac appears to have been reinstated, but one wonders if that was the result of the media attention, or an algo tweak.

Google want content their users find useful. As always, they're cagey about what "useful" means, so those who want to publish content, and want to rank well, but do not want be confused with a content farm, are left to guess. And do a little reverse-engineering.

Here's a stab, based on our investigations, the conference scene, Google's rhetoric, and pure conjecture thus far:

  • A useful document will pass a human inspection
  • A useful document is not ad heavy
  • A useful document is well linked externally
  • A useful document is not a copy of another document
  • A useful document is typically created by a brand or an entity which has a distribution channel outside of the search channel
  • A useful document does not have a 100% bounce rate followed by a click on a different search result for that same search query ;)

Kinda obvious. Are we off-base here? Something else? What is the difference, as far as algo is concerned, between e-How and Suite 101? Usage patterns?

Still doesn't explain YouTube, though, which brings us back to:

Wired.com: But people want the proof

YouTube, the domain, is incredibly useful, but some pages - not so much. Did YouTube get hammered by update Panda, too?

Many would say that's unlikely.

I guess "who you know" helps.

In the Panda update some websites got owned. Others are owned and operated by Google. :D

Google: The Risk And The Opportunity

Mar 2nd
posted in

It feels like old times.

Google makes a big algorithm change, and all hell breaks loose. Well, some hell, and some jumping for joy, depending on which direction a webmasters rankings went.

As I wrote in Content Farms Vs... at the beginning of last month:

Put it this way. Any algorithm that takes out Demand Media content is going to take out a lot of SEO content, too. SEO copy-writing? What is that? That's what Demand Media do. As I outlined in the first paragraph, a lot of SEO content in not that different, and any algorithm that targets Demand Media's content isn't going to see any difference. Keyword traffic stream identical to title tag? Yep. A couple of hundred words? Yep. SEO format? Yep. Repeats keywords and keyword phrases a few times? Yep. Contributes to the betterment of mankind? Nope. SEO's need to be careful what they wish for....

There were a lot sites following the SEO model of "writing for the keyword term" taken out, not just sites pejoratively labelled as "Content Farms". Ironicly, the pinup example I used, Demand Media, got off lightly.

If you want more detail about what happened, and why, check out Aaron's post Google Kills eHow Competitors, eHow Rankings Up, and, if you're a forum member, this very detailed and insightful thread.

Collateral Damage

Some people have suggested there has been much collateral damage. Google have taken out legitimate pages, too.

What happened is that the pages that were taken out shared enough similarity to pages on Content Farms and the algorithm simply did what it was designed to do, although Google have admitted - kinda - that the change still needs work. The ultimate judgement of whether this is a good or a bad thing comes down to what Google's users think. Does Google deliver higher quality results, or doesn't it?

This Guardian article outlines the frustration experienced by many:

I'm pissed because we've worked our asses off over the last two years to make this a successful site. Cult of Mac is an independently owned small business. We're a startup. We have a small but talented team, and I'm the only full timer. We're busting our chops to produce high-quality, original content on a shoestring budget.We were just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. After two years of uncertainty, the site finally looks like it will be able to stand on its two feet. But this is a major setback. Anyone got Larry's cell number?

Scroll down, as there's also some very interesting comments in reply to that post.

This is nothing new, of course, It's been going on since search began. The search engines shrug, and send businesses that depend on them flying, whilst elevating others.

What can be done?

Spread The Risk

"Be less reliant on Google!", people say.

It's an easy thing to say, right, but what do you do when Google is the only search game in town? We know any business strategy that relies on an entity over which we have no control is high risk, but what choice is there? Wait for Bing to get their act together? Hope Blekko becomes the next big thing?

None of us can wait.

Sometimes, no matter how closely we stick to Google's Guidelines, Google are going to change the game. Whether it is fair or not is beside the point, it's going to happen.

So, we need to adopt web marketing strategies that help lessen this risk.

The best way to lessen this risk, of course, is to not rely on Google at all. Design your site strategy in such a way as that it wouldn't grind to a halt if you blocked all spiders with a robots.txt. Treat any traffic from Google as a bonus. Such a strategy might involve PPC, brand building, offline advertising, social media, email marketing and the wealth of other channels open to you.

Try the above as an academic exercise. If you had to operate without natural traffic, does your business still stand up? Are you filling a niche with high demand, a demand you can see in other channels? Is there sufficient margin to advertise, or does your entire model rely on free search traffic? Are there viral elements which could be better exploited? Are there social elements which could be better exploited?

Academic exercises aside, we can also look to mitigate risk. Think about not putting all your eggs in one basket. Instead of running one site, run multiple sites using different SEO strategies on each. Aaron talks about running auxiliary sites in the forum.

Try to get pages (articles, advertising) on other sites in your niche. If your site is taken out, at least you still have a presence in your niche, albeit on someone else's site. A kindly webmaster may even agree to repoint links to any new site you devise.

Do you have other ideas that help mitigate the risk? Add them to the comments.

It's An Advantage Being An SEO

Finally, be pleased you're an SEO.

SEO just got that much harder, and the harder it gets, the more your services are required, and the higher the barrier to entry for new publishers. Every day search is getting more complex. At the end of the day, it's an algorithm change. It can be reverse engineered, and new strategies will be adopted to maximize the opportunity it presents.

Until such a time as Google tells us exactly what they want to see, and rewards such content, SEO's will just keep doing what they do. And thank goodness Google isn't entirely transparent. If they were the value of your SEO knowledge as a competitive advantage would plunge. For many of us, wages would quickly follow.

Sure a short-term hit is painful, but the best SEOs will recover.

As they do, other content producers will be left scratching their heads.

Test, Test, Test

Feb 24th
posted in

I'm going to borrow this quote from Seth Godin, who borrowed it from Kevin, who borrowed it from The Count Of Monte Cristo:

"I have been told," said the count, "that you do not always yourselves understand the signals you repeat."

"That is true, sir, and that is what I like best," said the man, smiling.

"Why do you like that best?"

"Because then I have no responsibility. I am a machine then, and nothing else, and so long as I work, nothing more is required of me."

In SEO, what do people say works vs what actually works?

Filthy Linking Rich

If you haven't already seen it, check out Mike Grehan's Filthy Linking Rich from 2004. It's as relevant today as when it was written. Mike makes the point those who are already rich, tend to get richer. Those sites that have the most links, tend to get more, because those sites have the wealth of exposure already.

This is why it can be tough to get a new site ranked.

Those sites that are link poor, no matter how great they are, will struggle to be found in the search engines. "If you're great, people will link to you" is not necessarily true because a link-poor site is unlikely to show up in the search results in the first place. Initial discovery will likely happen via other means.

Search Engines Don't Care About "Great"

The search engines don't reward information that is great. The search engines reward information that is popular, or appears on a site that is deemed popular.

If your aim is high rankings, then it could be argued it is better to focus on being popular, than it is to focus on creating quality. Look at a lot of the content on mainstream media news sites. Is such content really of higher quality than other sources, or does it just happen to appear on the right domain? If such content wasn't published on a popular domain, and was published on a brand new site instead, would it ever see the light of day?

When it comes to search engines, it really does matter who, not what, you know.

Test, Test, Test

People often repeat what they've heard.

I'd urge you to test, if only to be aware of the level of misinformation you're may be getting from SEO forums and blogs. There is a lot of "thuthiness" bouncing around the SEO echo chamber. But how much of it is based on evidence?

Challenge SEO punditry. By testing.

Search on a keyword phrase. If you search on a high volume phrase, chances are you'll see a page ranked at the top based largely on the link profile of the *site* on which it appears. The site will have many links, and this link value filters down through the pages. A few positions down the SERP, you'll likely see pages based on their inbound links, even if the site on which they appear doesn't have many links.

Take a look at the back-links.

How many of the sites you're seeing have backlinks that are clearly autogen? Blog spam, forum spam, etc?

Chances are, you might find quite a few.

I'm looking at a product-oriented serp right now that has Wikipedia at the top, followed by the brand holder of this product, followed by a site that has tens of thousands of auto-gen inbound links in position three. I kept scanning through the links until I found what I considered to be a great match to my query.

On page five.

Now, what I judge to be good might not be objectively great, of course. I've made a subjective judgement, just as Google has made a subjective judgement. Try it out yourself. Rather than rephrasing a query, scan through the pages until you find a page that does answer your query.

Then evaluate the sites above it. What, exactly, are they doing? How many of them are doing anything more complicated than "getting a lot of links"?

For all the fluff about 100's of ranking signals, it still appears that mass link bombing, from rubbish sites, works a treat.

Simple Testing

Am I talking nonsense?

One way to find out.

For those new to SEO, be wary of what you read. A lot of it is conjecture. What the old skool SEO's used to do, and the more serious SEO's still do today, is test for themselves, as opposed to relying on the pundits.

Testing can be done with existing tools, like the SEO Toolbar - and the tool set for members. Little plug there ;) There are a huge number of tools around, but one of the most important is a tool that will allow you to analyze link structures.

Grab one of these tools and go through the sites you're competing with, and pay close attention to the backlink profile of both the root domain and the page that is ranking well. Make a note of what is working, without making a moral judgement about the validity of the techniques being used.

You can also test with throwaway domains. Register a new domain, for an obscure keyword within your niche, and try and isolate the effects. Point one link at the domain, see what happens. Point ten links at it. What happens? Point links from a variety of domains. What happens? Change the link text. What happens?

Simple stuff, right. But simple stuff that will teach you much more about SEO than reading the pundits blogs and tweets today.

Including mine :)

Somewhere at MountainView

Feb 15th
posted in

Somewhere at MountainView.

Late afternoon.

Google Guy: Sigh. Our algo really does suck, sometimes.....

Other Google Guy: How so, dude?

GoogleGuy: It keeps returning low-quality farmer garbage

Other Google Guy: Mahalo!

Google Guy: Huh?

Other Google Guy: Sorry, just shouting out "Thanks!" to Marissa. She left me a cup cake this morning. You were saying?

GoogleGuy: Our algo, it keeps returning low-quality farmer garbage

Other Google Guy: Ah, right. We're gone all "Alta Vista" a bit lately, huh. People are noticing....

Google Guy: Hey! No one mentions the AV word around here, OK!

Other Google Guy: Sorry dude. So, what shall we do?

Google Guy: We could invent a cool new algorithm, like Sergey and Larry did all those years ago

Other Google Guy: Hahahaha....you ain't Sergey or Larry, dude. Anyway, they're more concerned with self-drive cars these days, aren't they? Search is so 2001.....

Google Guy: Look, we've got to do something. The technorati are getting uppity. They're writing blog posts. Tweets. Everything. And let's not forget the JC Penny debacle. The shareholders could get angry about this. Well, they would if they understood it.....

Other Google Guy: Do they?

Google Guy: Probably not.

Other Google Guy: So, what's the problem? My data is showing most of our users couldn't give a toss about the farmer stuff. Some of them like learning about how to pour a glass of milk. It's just the valleywags getting grumpy, and no one listens to them.

Google Guy: Right, but this has the potential to filter out. It might get on FOX! Too many people might get the wrong end of the stick, and suddenly we're not cool anymore.

Other Google Guy: But we're not cool n.......

Google Guy: Shut it. We're still cool, OK.

Other Google Guy: Anything you say, boss

Google Guy: Hmmm.......what we could do is go "social media". So hot right now. We could crowdsource it! We'd look very cool with the hipsters.

Other Google Guy: Mmmmmm.....sauce.....

Google Guy: We'll give 'em a Chrome extension. Yes! Make them do all the work. At very least, it's going to shut them up. They won't have to look at anything they don't want to look at. It will make them feel superior, and we can collect some data about what sites techno dudes don't like

Other Google Guy: Brilliant! Superb! One problem - won't content farmers use this against each other in order to take each other out?

Google Guy : Nah, it's just a "ranking signal". We have hundreds of 'em we apply to every search, don't you know ;)

Other Google Guy: Hahahah..."ranking signal". Nice one, Google Guy. You can add it to the other two hundred! Or was it three hundred? Shareholders love that stuff.

Google Guy: Laughs. Oh...kay.....almost finished this extension. It'll push it out there.....

Ten seconds pass.....

Google Guy: Hey! The first data is in already!

Other Google Guy: People use Chrome? Opps...I mean "People use Chrome!" Which sites are they blocking?

Google Guy: Wikipedia....

Other Google Guy: It figures.....

Google Guy: Oh, and Google.....sigh......

Satire. It never happened. Not really :)

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