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.

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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 :)

The Bad Ol' Days Of Search...What's Next?

Feb 11th
posted in

Interesting post from Matt Cutts, talking about how Google is so much better now than it was in 2000.

But it’s a misconception that there was no spam on Google back then. Google in 2000 looked great in comparison with other engines at the time, but Google 2011 is much better than Google 2000. I know because back in October 2000 I sent 40,000+ queries to google.com and saved the results as a sort of search time capsule

40,000+ queries! I'm guessing he wasn't using the WebPositionGold Reporter! Little joke for the old-timers, there ;)

SEO's will notice Matt's yeark 2K SERP consists of some old skool domain spamming, with hyphen-loaded domains, which were de rigueur at the time.

How times change.

Since 2000

Whilst tempting to think the golden days of opportunity are behind us, the internet, and search, is still a baby.

Adwords, launched in 2000, and has created a multi-billion dollar industry. Adsense was launched in 2003. The affiliate market has grown in breadth and depth. Domain name acquisition, solely for the purposes of search positioning, is a more recent development. There has been a lot of opportunity for search marketers since 2000.

What's next?

The Revolution Won't Be Televised

By the time most of us hear about the next big thing in internet marketing, the low hanging fruit will be gone.

The next money making opportunities in search, and internet marketing, will remain underground, because shouting new opportunities from the rooftops invites unwanted competition. A sure sign the horse has bolted is when someone launches an "all-new" get-rich-quick scheme on Clickbank. Consider that the mainstream media thinks SEO is new and exciting!

If we're going to continue to profit from internet marketing, then it helps to keep one eye on the future, rather than passively waiting for it to arrive.

How To See Around The Corner

Predicting the future is, of course, impossible.

However, by reading, watching and speculating we'll be less surprised when things do change. The only thing certain is change, and in internet marketing, the only thing certain is rapid change.

Here's a few ideas. If you've got some more, please share them in the comments.

Trendwatching Sites - Read beyond search. Get a feel for what is coming about in a broad section of related industries. Check out Trendspotting, Google Trends, Trend Hunter, Trendwatching.com, Springwise, Pew Research Centre and Tech Crunch.

Patent Filings - Bill looks at patents filed by Google and other search services. These often provide interesting insights into Google's future direction, although the filing of a patent is not an indicator that Google is making use of these ideas. Yet.

Product Announcements - watch out for new product announcements from companies related to your area of interest. Make use of Google News Alerts, and other automated news monitoring services.

BTW, Google are now into weddings.

Acquisitions & Mergers - Who is buying what and why? Figure out why Google wanted Groupon, and how Google's own search service could change as a result of launching a similar service.

There are a few red herrings, of course. Google acquired Blogger, and haven't done much with it. Recently, they've bought up companies who have developed speech synthesis, voice recognition, DRM, ebooks, and social gaming. At the time of writing, they're (still) interested in acquiring Twitter, as are Facebook.

History Repeats - history tends to work in cycles. The same things happen again, with a twist. Is Facebook that different from AOL, really? What previous tech trends may return, now that their time is right?

Not Typing Queries

Matt wrote what seemed like a throw-away line, or maybe he's just winding us up:

Wow, most queries were only a few words back then. And we had to type queries. How primitive!

Hmmm........not typing queries, huh.

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 :)

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.

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