Content Farms Vs...

Feb 3rd

Is the following an SEO strategy?

  • Research keywords
  • Select keywords that have existing traffic
  • Write pages based on those keywords
  • Publish pages
  • Get those pages ranked against those keywords

How is this different to what a Content Farm does? So, if Content Farm pages are undesirable, so too is SEO content?

Low Quality Content?

Perhaps people take issue with low-quality content.

The problem with arguments about quality is that such arguments are subjective. Is Wikipedia quality? How about the Huffington Post? Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies, and the Huffington Post is not above fixating on trivia, like what - or who - Charlie Sheen did in the weekend. These exact same criticisms are often leveled against Content Farms.

One could argue that those two sources at least attempt to provide a high degree of quality, most of time. However, quality is in the eye of the beholder. eHow may not be to everyone's taste, but it isn't true to say eHow is all worthless, to all people, all of the time. Perhaps some people don't want to wade through the dense academia of Wikipedia. They simply want someone to tell them what that weird spot is on their cat's mouth.

How One Content Farm Describes Other Content Farms

What is a Content Farm, anyway? Is a magazine a Content Farm? Wikipedia's own definition of a Content Farm displays the same level of trite fluff often found on eHow:

  • "The articles in content farms are written by human beings but may not be written by a specialist in the area" The same could be said of many newspapers, websites and magazines. So what?
  • "Content farms are criticized for providing relatively low quality content as they maximize profit by producing just "good enough" rather than best possible quality articles". If that criteria was applied to all publishers, most would disappear overnight.
  • "A typical content writer is a female with children that contrasts with sites expecting voluntary unpaid contribution for the sake of idea....." . Seriously, WTF?

Economics Drive EVERYTHING

Now, I'm not saying I like the fact that Google searches often return fluff content. But that problem is a direct result of the economics of the web. It's difficult to publish "quality" web content that provides a return to the writer, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that publishers either drive down the cost of production, erect pay-walls, or simply never publish in the first place.

Who Hates Content Farms?

Criticism regarding Content Farms appears to be coming from two camps.

One camp consists of professional journalists and established publishers. This is hardly surprising, as the Content Farms are undermining their publishing model. If the reader doesn't care much about standards, then it's difficult to charge a premium for them.

The other camp is SEOs, which is odd, given that Demand Media appears to be built around an applied SEO model. Perhaps some people just don't like the competition.

I guess the important aspect, as far as SEOs are concerned, is how Google defines a Content Farm, and what they intend to do about them.

"As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content."

Matt's definition of spam has been reasonably consistent over the years, and is detailed on Google's Webmaster Guidelines. The interesting bit is Google's definition of "low-quality content". Well, it would be if they would tell us, but they don't.

Six of One, a Half Dozen of the Other

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.

Barry reports Google hasn't rolled out their Content Farm algo, if indeed there is such a thing: "After we spoke with Matt Cutts today, we learned that the new algorithm that went live last week is related to blocking low quality content scraper sites and not content farms".

Watch this space :)

Focus On Adding Value

Jan 27th
posted in

Times are tough.

In times like these, clients tend to focus on the value proposition. "Throw it at the wall, see if it sticks" is not a phrase you hear a lot in recessions.

Instead, your customers will tend to have their eyes transfixed on your value proposition. "How does this spend make me better off?"

Whilst we may think search marketing services are essential, the spend on search services typically comes out of marketing budgets, and marketing budgets tend to be the first thing companies cut when things get tight.

So, they might need more convincing that usual.

If you weren't doing so already, it can be a good time to go over your proposals and pitch, and look to emphasize, and add to the value proposition you offer.

A few points to consider....

1. Address Genuine Needs

Address the need a client has, which may be different than the need they articulate.

This may seem obvious, but often people aren't quite sure exactly why they need search marketing, or they may have wrong ideas about it. Their genuine business need may be buried. You need to tease this out.

To do so, listen. Hard.

One common mistake people who are "fixers" - seos tend to be fixers - can make is that they'll go through the motions of listening, but really they're just waiting for an opportunity to launch into their solution.

A client will tell you a lot, and perhaps cover a lot of angles you hadn't thought of, if you let them talk long enough. They will like the fact you are interested in them and their problems, and it will make your eventual solution sound more considered and tailor-made.

Because it will be.

If you don't solve a genuine problem, your relationship is more likely to be a short one. Services that don't solve genuine business problems are more likely to get cut.

2.Go Beyond

Look for ways you can enhance your offering.

Look to solve genuine problems in closely related fields. For example, a client may lack a content strategy. They may want to publish content regularly, but haven't got around to doing so. You could enhance your offering by incorporating this work in your offer, reasoning that it dovetails nicely with your SEO strategy, thus killing two birds with one stone.

This can also get you on-going work, if pitched right, and may involve little more than hiring the services of a copywriter.

3. Establish Feedback Mechanisms

Feedback is important.

Not only does it give you added insight into what the client is thinking, it also offers you the opportunity to demonstrate your value proposition in action.

You said you would do X, you do X, then show them you've done X. This helps build trust.

Clients will often elaborate, if given the opportunity, which can give you more ideas on how to "Go Beyond", and how to "Address Their Real Needs".

4. Look At Jobs As Partnerships

If you've ever bought services, you know that selecting a service provider can be a pain. It is time consuming, and there is risk involved. A wrong choice can lead to opportunity cost, and having to repeat the process all over again.

No one wants that. People want partnerships with their suppliers. They want someone on their side.

Once you've landed a client, try to see them as a business partner. This is certainly how they will view you if they like you. They are unlikely to go back out to the market unless they are disastisfied, so try to make their business, your business.

Take the approach that you will boost your own business by building theirs.

5. Every Job Is An Opportunity To Build Hybrid Skills & Knowledge

Let's say you have a travel client.

Learn everything you can about the travel industry. Press the client for information. Research and understand the wider industry, not just the search marketing opportunity within that industry.

One of the golden things about being a consultant is that you get to look inside people's businesses. This information is valuable and difficult to obtain by other means, yet you're getting paid to learn it. You're learning about real business issues, who's-who, and the language of the industry.

You then become more valuable to any other travel-related client as you're now "a travel guy". You can pitch convincing to them, because you speak their language, understand their problems, and you've got industry history.

Starting A New SEO Business In 2011?

Jan 25th
posted in

A new year brings new resolutions.

Some readers might be considering taking that giant leap from their boring day job into the wonderfest that is full-time SEO. Huge money! Party central! Hangin' at conferences with Matt Cutts! What could possibly go wrong?

Let's take a serious look at what your new life will look like.

It's Going To Hurt

SEO is a world of hurt.

When you start, you'll have little money. Your bills don't stop coming in. Google, rather uncooperatively, may not rank your sites for six months.

Maybe longer.

Perhaps you've already got a few sites ranking. You've got some steady adsense/affiliate money coming in, which is right about the time Update Oh-My-God happens.

A Google update, like a demented hurricane, trashes your site for no good reason. OK, maybe, maybe you had *some* links that were not, in the cold light of day, strictly-speaking, based 100% on merit. But hey, everyone else was doing it, right?

It will be no consolation that everyone else's sites will have been trashed, too. You will meet these people in SEO forums, gnashing their teeth as if the world has just come to end.

It has, of course.

There are few more heart-breaking moments than when Google sends an H-bomb crashing down on your dreams. Google say they do this to improve their "service", but mostly they do it "because it's fun".

Your SEO forum buddies will explain, sometimes using elaborate math, why everyone's rankings dropped. These explanations are bullshit and can be safely ignored. Well-intended they may be, but your buddies don't have a clue. Chances are they just read something in another forum, thought it sounded profound, so they repeated it.

The sad reality is few people are doing any real testing these days.

Even more annoying will be the person who claims his site hasn't been affected. He will lecture everyone else on how, in the latest update, Google is finally rewarding higher quality sites.

Don't worry. This sanctimonious fool will likely get his site trashed in the next update. It will then be his chance to gnash his teeth.

In SEO, everyone gets their turn eventually.

Right about this time, that autographed picture of Matt Cutts hanging on your wall will start to look sinister. You could swear the picture is pulsing red with the faint glow of hells-fire.

Feeling scared and alone, you take it down and hide it in the drawer.

Are You Serious?

Events, like those described above, are just life's way of testing to see if you're serious.

If you are serious, you climb back up on the horse, get back in that saddle, and go rope some steers. Or, if you're an SEO, not a cowboy, you start fixing your sites.

Alternatively, you could decide that the performance-based SEO lifestyle is way too difficult, and vow to become an SEO consultant instead. Being an SEO consultant really takes the pressure off. Mostly, you just talk about stuff. Repeat things you've heard in forums.

Firstly, gather together some cryptic sounding jargon - "latent semantic indexing" is always a crowd pleaser - and apply to talk at the SMXWebmasterWorldSearchEngineStrategies conference. Next, get your smiling, drunken self into a photo, with your arm around Matt Cutts. This implies you have an inside line at Google. Finally, knock together an SEO consultant web site to display it all to the world. Claim to be an "SEO Expert". Often.

One problem.

Being an SEO Expert is not a rare commodity. There are 22,345,947 SEO experts in India alone. And many work for less than your weekly beer bill. So unless you've got the sales skills of Tony Robbins, the solitary SEO consultant gig is a tough one.

You may decide to join an SEO agency. This is an easier gig, as you can focus 100% on SEO, surrounded by people who claim to know a lot more about SEO than they actually do. Many of your co-workers post regularly on forums.

You will soon enjoy the delights of heading off to a client site to tell a room full of hostile designers why their award winning flash site will have to be redesigned, from scratch, preferably using bare HTML.

Best of luck.

Following that lively exchange of views, you may wish to kiss the dark arts of SEO farewell, and move into the world of PPC.

PPC is a lot easier than SEO. Well, it is if you have a bank balance the size of Texas. If you don't have a lot of money, you'll spend all your time tweaking budgets, which, if you get them wrong, can end up costing you your credit limit. PPC is dangerous, but at least you can take that autographed photo of Matt Cutts back out of the drawer.

He cannot touch you now.

If you fail miserably at being an SEO and PPC consultant, don't despair. You can always take the easy way out.

Become a social media consultant.

Becoming A Social Media Consultant

The beauty of this gig is you don't need any technical chops at all.

Simply grab a book on public relations, rewrite it by dropping the word "Facebook", or "Twitter" in every second paragraph, and hit the speaking circuit. Rehash the same old stuff about "reach", "audience share", and "convergence" and mix it up with new terms like "re-tweet". If you're feeling confident, throw some Cluetrain Manifesto quotes in, like "Markets are conversations", and "Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy".

They love that stuff. No one knows what it means, but that simply validates your high fees.

The problem is the barrier to entry for becoming a social media consultant is set even lower than becoming an SEO consultant. That, and the fact everyone started calling "bs" on the whole thing last year.

My advice: don't quit your day job.

But I know you'll ignore me.

Have fun in 2011 :)

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How To Measure Bias In Google's Results

Jan 21st
posted in

Here's an interesting study, conducted by Benjamin Edelman and Benjamin Lockwood, from the Harvard Business School. The study measures how much search engines, Google in particular, favor their own web services.

We find that each search engine favors its own services in that each search engine links to its own services more often than other search engines do so. But some search engines promote their own services significantly more than others.... we find that Google's algorithmic search results link to Google's own services more than three times as often as other search engines link to Google's services. For selected keywords, biased results advance search engines' interests at users' expense

People have debated this topic for a while, some saying the search engines can do what they like, others feel the search engines must be held to account.

However, the study brings up an important point. If Google claims to have algorithmic, "objective" search results, then it follows that Google should not favor their own companies properties, unless those properties achieve a top ranking based on their own merit.

Google can't have it both ways.

The problem, of course, is that Google could tweak the algorithm to favor whatever qualities its own properties display e.g. the PageRank of Google's own pages could be calculated - in truly cryptic and oblique fashion - as being of higher "worth". After all, there's no such thing as "objective" when it comes to editorial, which is the function of a search algorithm. There are merely points along a continuum of subjectivity.

But where it gets interesting is the study goes one step further. It tries to figure out what the user wanted when she searched. Did the user want to find a Google service at #1? And if not, then isn't Google doing the user a dis-service by placing a Google property at #1?

In principle, a search engine might feature its own services because its users prefer these links. For example, if users of Google's search service tend to click on algorithmic links to other Google services, whereas users of Yahoo search tend to click algorithmic links to Yahoo services, then each search engine's optimization systems might come to favor their respective affiliated services. We call this the "user preference" hypothesis, as distinguished from the "bias" theory set out above

They tested this theory using click-thru data. Regarldess of the search keyword, users almost always favor the #1 result - 72% of the time. So what if the user clicks further down, indicating that the first result is less relevant?

Gmail, the first result, receives 29% of users' clicks, while Yahoo mail, the second result, receives 54%. Across the keywords we looked at, the top-most result usually receives 5.5 times as many clicks as the second result, yet here Gmail obtains only 53% as many as Yahoo. Nor was "email" the only such term where we found Google favoring its own service; other terms, such as "mail", exhibit a similar inversion for individual days in our data set, though "email" is the only term for which the difference is large and stable across the entire period

There is a huge incentive for search engines, which increasingly crossing the line into publishing territory, to skewer the results towards their own properties. The traffic is valuable, and, whatismore, can be channeled away from competitors.

As Aaron pointed out a few months ago, if Google choose to enter a new vertical, such as travel or local, then you'd better watch out if you compete in those verticals. Regardless of how relevant you are to the search term, it's below-the-fold you'll likely be going.

So, yes, it may be Google's search engine, but they can't make claims about focusing on the user above all else, otherwise they'd return results the user wants, as opposed to possibly directing the user to Google properties due to other considerations. How can they claim "Democracy works", if they don't favour whatever site the link graph "votes" most relevant? And doesn't this come down slightly on the wrong side of "evil"?

So, What To Do?

If you feel Google can position their own sites where they like, then nothing.

Personally, I think any company can do what they like, until they reach a point where they become so influential, they can use their sheer size to reduce competition and choice. If we believe that free markets require healthy competition in order to thrive, then we should be wary of any entity that can reduce competition using anti-competitive behavior.

I'm not saying that is what Google is doing, but watch this space. Some European agencies are investing allegations of anti-trust violations.

The Commission will investigate whether Google has abused a dominant market position in online search by allegedly lowering the ranking of unpaid search results of competing services which are specialised in providing users with specific online content such as price comparisons (so-called vertical search services) and by according preferential placement to the results of its own vertical search services in order to shut out competing services

The fact Marissa Mayer said this:

[When] we roll[ed] out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair right, we do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first... That has actually been our policy, since then, because of Finance. So for Google Maps again, it’s the first link

....makes matters......interesting ;)

Secondly, if you're big enough, you could make a point of taking Google on. Check out Trip Advisors take on Google Places displaying Trip Advisors data in repackaged form, which could cause Google users to stay on Google, and not go to the Trip Advisor site:

Google is no longer able to stream in reviews from TripAdvisor to Places pages after the user review giant blocked it. TripAdvisor confirmed the move today in an email, stating that while it continues to evaluate recent changes to Google Places it believes the user does not benefit with the “experience of selecting the right hotel”. As a result, we have currently limited TripAdvisor content available on those pages,” an official says

But Google aren't really going to care much about you if you don't have some major clout.

Thirdly, stay out of any vertical Google is likely to want to own. It is likely that Google will be going after the big verticals, because a big company needs to score big on projects. Long tail stuff isn't going to make any difference to their bank balance, except in aggregate, so there will be millions of verticals in which you'll never face a direct threat.

This is also a timely reminder to build up your non-search traffic in case Google, or any other search engine, decides to change the game significantly in their favor. Encourage users to bookmark, develop your social media brand, build mailing lists, put some valuable content behind log-in/pay walls, and build membership sites. Relying on Google has always been a risky strategy, do diversify your traffic strategy where you can in 2011.

Oh, The Opportunity

Dec 16th
posted in

I'm doing keyword research.

The opportunities I see before me still amaze me.

Keyword lists, showing the frequency of searches, are market research nirvana. It's like being a god, delving deep into the minds of mortals.

And most people outside SEO. Still. Don't. Get. It.

Ever explained keywords to people, and received blank looks in return?

We can trawl through a keyword research tool and list thousands of niche business opportunities. Demand is on display. It is being broadcast to us.

Once we discover demand, we measure the competition, quantify the opportunity, build a site, and dive into the demand streams that have existed long before the internet was invented.

Demand, meet supply.

Just look at all this demand:

  • "japanese translation" 450,000 Monthly searches
  • "hospital jobs" 823,000 Monthly searches
  • "forklift certification" 27,100 Monthly searches
  • "address labels" 301,000 Monthly searches
  • "digital signage" 201,000 Monthly searches
  • "student credit cards" 135,000 Monthly searches
  • "coin collecting" 60,500 Monthly searches

And as we know, that's just ONE keyword per niche. The real gems can be found deeper into the long tail of associations, permeations, and similarities.

The search channel still amazes me.

It's so powerful, and so under-rated.

Mad Men

Have you seen Mad Men?

If you haven't, it's a great show about an advertising agency, set in the 1960's. The ad executives were the rockstars of the time, paid well to know what was on the minds of consumers.

What would they have made of a keyword research tool, I wonder?

Or our digital zeitgeist?

And unlike fifty years ago, there are fewer barriers to entry to many traditional markets. In the past, in order to compete-nation wide, or internationally, a huge, multinational machine, of people and capital, was needed. Now, with a credit card, we just tap into a vast network in an instant.

Fifty years ago, publishing a book was difficult and expensive. A large publishing company could get shelf space at a major retail outlet, but you couldn't. Probably still can't. You needed to print many copies, a risk and cost out of reach of most people. A publisher could reach out to reviewers, and work the publicity machines.

Now we can compete.

We can get more far more reach, in in much less time, for a fraction of the cost.

So many niches, so little time.

So, what are you going to do today?

Keyword Research Resources

Bleeding Edge Reverse PR SEO Strategy

Dec 7th
posted in

Here's a sure-fire way to get ranked high in Google.

Piss people off.

Reportedly, DecorMyEyes founder Vitaly Borker was arrested and charged with defrauding customers, and making repeated and violent threats to customers who attempted to return defective goods.

Not a fan of "How To Win Friends And Influence People", then :)

This bit will interest SEO fans:

Hello, My name is Stanley with DecorMyEyes.com,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven

If you look at the backlinks for DecorMyEyes.com, you'll find a significant volume of inbound linking, some of which is junk, but also includes links from the likes of the New York Times. The high-profile links are a direct result of bad publicity.

Of course, this has always been the fly in Google's ointment. Google's link-oriented approach to ranking reflects the attention a site receives. This doesn't necessarily mean the site is endorsed, and in this case, the opposite is true.

Facing a PR disaster, in all senses of the word, Google were quick to act:

We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience. Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live

Hmmm....was the algorithmic solution "if domain = DecorMyEyes.com, then PR=0" :)

Jokes aside, Google outlined the options they could have taken to prevent such a problem, but chose not to, then cryptically hint at the step they did eventually take:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result

Reading between the lines, it is clear that.......erm.......hmmmm.........I don't know about you, but I'm none the wiser! That could mean anything! Assembling a team of hand editors to baby sit the results of an algo, or the beginnings of some frightfully clever semantic analysis.

Hard to tell.

Google make out the case is an outlier, although that would only be true on the surface. The fundamental problem, for Google, is link context, and that is a far more difficult problem to solve.

Link As A Vote

When Google started, they used a clever backlink check as a form of voting. The more backlinks a site had, from sites deemed to be authoritative, the higher the rank.

But the web has changed.

These days, we have Facebook and social media. Most people on the web aren't web publishers in the traditional sense. Most people participate on the web, but don't have their own websites. They post on other people's sites, over which they have little control. Google has to make sense of all this, because Google still wants to know what information people pay the most attention to.

The beating heart of a link is a mark of attention.

Google collects markers of attention.

As the PR - as in public relations - problem with DecorMyEyes reveals, popularity and authority calculations are not enough. Google's black box also has to figure out context. Most SEOs would guess Google is putting a lot of work into semantic analysis.

This is why it is becoming increasingly important to treat SEO as a public relations exercise. Links can come from anywhere, and whether they are no-followed, scripted or otherwise, they are all markers of attention. Google's job will always be to collect them, and make sense of them. To the webmaster, all markers of attention are valuable.

Well, almost all.

DecorMyEyes turned it into a marketing strategy, but in terms of SEO, it was never going to last. First rule of SEOClub is that you don't publicly embarrass Google.

The Lesson

Be interesting.

In a useful way.

Oscar Wilde said "the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about". Malcolm Mclaren said something similar: "bad publicity isn't as good as good publicity, it is ten times better". Brendan Behan "All publicity is good, except an obituary notice".

Get positive ratings. "Encourage" reviews. Go to where your customers are, and get the conversation started. Do you have a story? Be controversial, if it suits. Find an angle and work it. Link out.

When you think PR, think Public Relations.

What Google Buying Groupon Means For Search Marketing

Nov 30th
posted in

Is Google buying Groupon? For billions?

The rumor mill is going crazy. And it might be for 5 or 6 billion!

As a comparison, Yahoo! is worth about $21 billion, but that includes over $3 billion in cash AND equity investments in Yahoo! Japan + Alibaba that are likely worth close to $10 billion. In other words, Google might be offering to buy Groupon for 75% of the value of Yahoo! (excluding their cash on hands & foreign investments). $6 billion would be more than Google paid for DoubleClick and Youtube combined.

Groupon is a discount site that offers one major deal per day. Some are saying Groupon would be an unusual purchase for Google, as Groupon has no leading edge technology that Google is desperate to get their hands on. On the contrary, a Google employee could probably knock together a similar site in day or two.

Groupon offers something much more, however. Groupon offers something that has evaded Google, and every other search engine, for quite some time now.

Local.

Groupon has tentacles deep into local businesses advertising budgets, and on a massive scale. Groupon have a large sales force that hand-holds local businesses into online advertising, and reduces risk by offering win-win deals.

Contrast this with Google, who have found it difficult to get small businesses to spend up large on Adwords. The reality is that search marketing is just too cryptic and time consuming for a lot of small business operations.

Google has never really been able to do direct sales well at all," Ambrose said, citing Google's failed attempt to sell and market the Nexus One smartphone on its own site. And, he added, Google's revolutionary AdWords product is not intuitive for many of the small-town businesses that have caught the Groupon fever. "AdWords for a local business is really, really hard," Ambrose said and pointed out the number of AdWords "experts" and consultants offering their services to brick-and-mortar businesses

At the time of writing, nothing official has been announced, however.

Regardless if Google buys Groupon or not, Google's on-going march into non-traditional content arenas is unmistakable. There used to be a separation between search and state - heh - but there isn't anymore.

Google's recent moves should be a wake-up call to anyone involved in the following areas:

1. Coupons

If a company like Google combines coupon offers with local search data, they make local search a lot more enticing. Given Google Place-driven search results are already pushing other local results down the fold, expect to see the same thing happen in coupon searches, too, especially if the Groupon sale goes ahead.

Google also has a voucher program in beta.

2. Local Search

"A new kind of local search result that organizes the world’s information around places", says Google.

One could argue local directories already do this, although Google goes one better and orients around maps. Again, this pushes a lot of locality aimed SEO below the fold.

The hook into mobile applications is obvious, especially with Google owning Android.

3. Thin Affiliate

Google launches Boutiques.com and there's no Google logo to be seen anywhere! There's nothing "Google-y" about it.

There is a tiny link at the bottom of the About Us pages which states:

"Boutiques.com charges merchants to include products on this website in most cases"

Retailers sign up directly, and Google gets rid of various middlemen in the process. Fashion is a fairly innocuous place to start. It looks like a test run, but expect Google to roll out a lot more vertical "affiliate/paid inclusion" sites, especially if Boutiques.com does well. It is not hard to do well when your public relations blitz means you rank in a day. And you can sell yourself free ads!

Common Themes

There are a few common themes in evidence here.

Google is making it easier for the small LOCAL retailer to get into search marketing by providing more options. There is a much greater degree of hand holding evident, especially if you compare this approach with the alternative up until now, which is building a site and then promoting it with SEO or PPC.

(By comparison, small ONLINE retailers which are not local are being thrown under the bus by things like Google Product Ads which promote the largest retailers and are priced on a CPA basis to maximize yield. Most small businesses can't match Wal-Mart when it comes to leverage over the supply chain!)

I suspect Google have learned a thing or two from Facebook i.e. you've got to make it click-and-point easy. The network effects take care of everything else, and Google will largely control those. For the rest, there may be a great deal more hand-holding. Increasingly, vendors will want to be part of the Google platform.

Is it all doom and gloom for SEO?

No.

Google can't own everything. It may be able to provide scalable tools and platforms, but it can't become a publishing house that covers every topic and every industry. The long tail of search is, well.....long.

SEOs need to stay away from competing directly with Google. Instead, they need to provide value that Google can't provide easily, but will still need to display in order to be considered useful i.e. deep content, relationships, customer service, community, and unique-ness.

And let's not even get started on this or that.....

Should You Buy An Exact Match Domain Name?

Nov 19th

According to Matt Cutts, speaking at a recent PubCon, Google will be looking at why exact domain matches rank so well. For example, if you have a site at blue-widgets.com it may rank a bit too well for the keyword phrase [blue widgets].

Curious.

Don't Google know? ;)

More likely, Matt would not make a concrete statement, one way or the other. "Yes, exact Match domains rank better!", is not something Matt is likely to say.

Secondly, the implication is that exact match domains are a problem.

Why Use Exact Match Domain Names

Exact match domains names, as the name suggests, are domain names that match the search keyword term. i.e. Hotels.com, shoes.net, planetickets.org etc.

Is it a good idea to adopt this strategy for SEO? Ask ten different SEOs and you'll likely get ten different answers.

On the plus side, an exact match may help you target one, specific keyword phrase. Your link text and domain name match up naturally. The domain name will likely be highlighted in Google's search results, thus giving the listing more visibility. There may be ranking advantages, depending on who you ask.

On the negative side, an exact match only "helps" you target one keyword. It may be too generic for wider applications, such as brand building. Exact match domains may be over-hyped, and not worth a premium. There are, after all, many domains ranking #1 that aren't exact match, so it is debatable how much SEO advantage they actually provide, particularly as Google keeps pushing brand.

Is There A Problem With Exact Match Domains?

So why would Matt imply exact match domain names might be a problem?

It is understandable that some in the SEO community - perhaps an SEO working on client sites, or those who don't own any exact match domains and see others ranking above them - would have a vested interest in making a noise about the competition. If webmasters make enough noise about it, then Matt Cutts may feel a need to respond.

The supposed ranking power of exact match is probably a red herring. The problem Google may be hinting at is that exact match may be more likely to be involved with spam, thin affiliate, or other low value content than other types of domains. In other words, it becomes a quality signal.

If that is the case - and I'm not saying it is - then that may be the reason Google would look closer at exact match domains, not the fact that a domain matching a keyword is somehow evil.

Because it isn't.

There is nothing wrong with owning an exact match domain.

Should You Buy Exact Match Domain Names?

Aaron covered this question in an earlier post, Why Exact Match Domains Aren't As Important As Many SEO's Believe.

In summary, it depends.

It comes down to business fundamentals. If you're trying to build a unique brand, and resulting keyword stream, then an exact match domain name will be a hindrance rather than a help. You'll forever be competing with generic search traffic. Keyword domains names aren't particularly memorable.

The premium that an exact-match domain name commands, when sold on the after-market, may not be worth it. You don't need an exact-match domain name to rank well, so the money may be better spent getting a new $10 domain name to rank. Or, alternatively, you could buy an existing site that already ranks well for your keyword, and others, for similar money as an inflated exact match domain.

Finally, if you're competing with a clear market leader, then generic isn't going to help you much. i.e. owning searchengine.com isn't going to make Google lose any sleep. You may also be over-looking an opportunity to differentiate your offering against the market leader in terms of brand. Think Blekko vs searchengine.com.

SEOs Should Focus On Where Google Is Heading

Nov 17th
posted in

Interesting little snippet from Mr Cutts:

"Matt recommends SEOs do not “chase the algorithm” and instead try to predict where Google will be going in the future". Matt was addressing PubCon.

Good advice, methinks.

Trying to predict where Google is going is something we do a lot of at SEOBook.com. Whilst no one has a crystal ball, it's good practice to keep one eye on the search horizon.

So, where do we think Google might be heading?

Google Will Continue To Dominate Search

Easy one, huh.

Their biggest competitors appear clueless when it comes to search. Bing may make some inroads. Maybe. It's hard to imagine anyone eating Google's lunch when it comes to search, for many years to come.

Is Facebook a threat? I doubt it. Search is difficult, and I can see no reason why Facebook - which has a media focus - could own the search channel any more than Yahoo could.

Search is, after all, an infrastructure problem. Google's infrastructure would be very difficult to replicate.

Google Won't Be Doing All That Much About Blackhat Sites

A search result set only really contains spam if the Google users think it contains spam i.e. they don't see the answer they were expecting.

The fact a website may fall outside Google's guidelines might get competing webmasters' knickers in a knot, but it probably doesn't matter that much to Google, or anyone else.

Even though Matt Cutts says Google will devote more resources to this, I suspect Google's efforts will largely remain focused on outright deception i.e. misrepresentation, hijacking and malware.

The Web Reflects Power Structures

We can forget the San Fran techno-hippy ethos of the web. It will not be a free-for-all democracy, if it ever was. History shows us that power tries to centralize control in order to maintain it.

Google may try to keep users on Google for longer. They do this by owning more and more verticals, and extracting data and reformatting it. When they send visitors away from Google, they'll try to do so more and more on their own terms. Watch very carefully what type of sites Google rewards, as opposed to what they may say they reward.

Expect less competition in the market as a result. Some people are already getting angry about it.

Be Where Your Users Are

Google follows users. So does Facebook. Anywhere your users are, you've got to be there, too. On Google Maps. On YouTube. Wherever and whenever. Think beyond your website. Think in terms of getting your data out there.

As Rich Skrenta pointed out in a recent interview:

Social media can drive tons of attention, awareness and traffic. But the search box is the best way to navigate to stuff you want. Now what will drive those results - if I type in "pizza", what should I get? The answer can be very different depending on whether the results are coming from the web, Yelp, or Facebook. So I guess my answer is that I still see search being the core way to navigate, but I think what gets searched is going to get a lot more structured and move away from simple keyword matches against unstructured web pages

A Shift To Localization

Microsoft Research found that people tend to organize their memories in geographic terms i.e. where they were when something happened.

If you want to know where Google is heading, then watch Marissa Mayer. Marissa has been responsible for much of what you see in Google in terms of how it is organized. Marissa has just moved to head of Geographic and Location Services.

Google Earth. Google Maps. Google Local. Google Street View. Mobile location data and targeting. Expect more data to be organized around locality.

Everything Changes, But Not That Fast

Aaron talked about TechCrunch's tendancy to over-hype new developments:

"...but this changes everything..."

SEO hasn't changed all that much in years. We still find an audience (keyword research), we publish content, we build links to the content, and then we repeat it all over again.

The changes come around the edges, especially for big companies like Google. There is a lot of risk to Google in making radical changes. Shareholders don't like it. Why risk breaking something that makes so much money, and is so popular?

The biggest changes in the way we do things on the web are probably going to come from the upstarts. They're probably hard at work in their garage right now.

Search Power Plays, And How To Avoid Getting Crushed

Nov 11th
posted in

The little guy often loses.

As market niches get saturated, the winners are typically those with the deepest pockets.

Up until the last few years, the little guy has been able to prosper with SEO. The little guy didn't face much competition from big companies, because the big companies didn't get SEO. However, Google's current algorithmns and corporate strategy often have the side effect of benefiting large companies.

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the Internet is a "cesspool" where false information thrives....Brands, he said, are the way to rise above the cesspool

There is a danger in reading too much into Schmidt's words, however this statement mirrors a lot of what happens in the search results. A big company or brand, with a crawlable site, will find it easy to dominate the search results. A big company will be linked to, discussed in the media, and have established keyword query volume - all factors which Google rewards. All these factors are becoming increasingly difficult for the small guy to emulate.

Factor in Google's ongoing moves to "own" verticals, and many more little guys will be crushed underfoot. It doesn't matter if your site is white hat, grey or black, if your site competes directly with a big company, or with Google - who are now a big company themselves - you'll almost surely lose.

This isn't just true in the SERPs, of course. It's also true in Adwords, which essentially rewards those with deep pockets. It's true in print. It's true across all media. It's true in politics, in money markets, and in life.

Power is like that.

Even if you don't face competition from big operators, you'll face competition from a million other little guys, especially if there is no barrier to entry. This is often the case on the web. Check out this article by Tim O Shea, founder of the short lived UK group buying site Snippa. Snippa was similar to Groupon.

Due to the number of players, commission levels are being eroded far from the 40-50% that Groupon achieves down to 0% just to get the deal (at Snippa our deals averaged around 10-20%). Merchants are getting numerous phone calls from prospective group buying companies and the conversation with many is more about the commission level charged rather than how they could offer a great discount for a group of new customers. This will continue until a clear leader emerges that can demonstrate a large customer base allowing them to negotiate better deals and commission levels. Many companies chasing the same deal is counter productive for the end customer.

Too many competitors errode margins to zero. Eventually, the biggest operator wins.

How To Protect Yourself And Win

When you're looking for a niche to get into, how do you evaluate it?

Do you look at the search volumes and look to position a site top ten for that search volume? An ok strategy, and one used by many in the SEO business.

However, lets take it a step further.

If you're thinking long term, you need to consider other factors, especially competitive threats. Ask: is this niche likely to be so lucrative that it will attract big companies? If so, then you may need a strategy to become one, or be bought out by one. You may win such a fight for a while, but the big company will invariably win in the end through greater reach and purchasing power.

Are you the cheapest, or are you the best?

Pick one.

The little guy is almost always better off aiming to be the best at what they do. Being the cheapest requires volume, and is very difficult to sustain. Many companies, both big and small, get locked in a downward spiral of price cutting. Again, you'll last being the cheapest until a bigger company turns up. Bigger companies can get price advantage through volume. If the internet equivalent of Wal Mart is your competition, you're in trouble if you compete on price.

Zappos was a small company, that eventually became a big company, not by competing on price, but by competing on service. They aimed to be the best at service. Had they competed on price, they wouldn't have got anywhere. The big shoe and clothing chains would have crushed them.

Is SEO your only strategy to dominate a niche? If so, then you're vulnerable to the whims of Google. Instead, think about ways you can develop a brand. I use the term brand in the widest possible sense. Being the best guy in the world to talk to about, say, the eating preferences of neon tetra fish - is a brand. Whatever it is you do, if you're not competing on price, aim to be the very best. If you have to carve a niche even finer, do it, at least until the costs outweigh the benefits.

Think about ways you can lock in customers/visitors and keep them coming back. If you only ever have search volume, then you rely on people who haven't seen you before. Encourage visitors to bookmark you, or sign up for a newsletter. Hook them in some way. Above all, be memorable. Being memorable will create search volume out of nothing (how many people searched for Zappos years ago? Or SEOBook? ). Building an audience may not be enough to fend off big companies, but it will help you fend off other small companies and new entrants, especially if they only rely on SEO.

Be the big guy in the little niche :)

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