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.....

  • Over 100 training modules, covering topics like: keyword research, link building, site architecture, website monetization, pay per click ads, tracking results, and more.
  • An exclusive interactive community forum
  • Members only videos and tools
  • Additional bonuses - like data spreadsheets, and money saving tips
We love our customers, but more importantly

Our customers love us!

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 :)

Who Benefits From Following Google's Guidelines?

Oct 28th
posted in

Some of you may have been hit by Google's 20 October algorithm change.

And some of you wouldn't have noticed any difference.

On 20 October, a number of sites got trashed. Rankings, and traffic, plummeted through the floor. The webmaster forums lit up. Aaron noticed it. I noticed it. Yet, other webmasters wondered what all the fuss was about.

As many of you know, there is not just one ranking algothimn. There are many algorithms. What affects one site may not affect another. Rather interestingly, Google's John Mu dipped into this thread on Google's support forum, offering these words of wisdom (HatTip: Barry)

It looks like the changes you're seeing here may be from an algorithmic change. As part of our recent algorithmic changes (which the outside world sometimes refers to as the "May Day update" because it happened primarily in May), our algorithms are assessing the site differently. This is a ranking change, not any sort of manual spam penalty, and not due to any technical issues with regards to crawling or indexing your content. You can hear more about this change in Matt's video: "

...and....

Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times, depending on what our algorithms find. While we initially rolled out this change earlier this year, the web changes, sites change, and with that, our algorithms will continually adapt to the current state on the web, on those sites. While it might be confusing to see these changes at the same time as this issue, they really aren't related, nor is this a general algorithm change (so if other sites have seen changes recently, it probably doesn't apply to them as well).

Matt's video, made four months ago, was talking about the algorithmic MayDay change. John Mu adds: "Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times" In other words, whatever happened in May may not affect your site in May, or June, or July, but might hit you many months later. This implies that your site may trip a threshold, and be judged quite differently than it was the day before.

This still doesn't completely explain why so many sites were hit on the same day, but then Google don't typically explain things in detail.

To complicate matters, there was an acknowledged indexing problem, affecting new content, particularly on blogs. Again, John appears to suggest this was a separate issue.

Forget About Search Engines, Just Publish

Now, all SEOs are used to algorithm changes. Nothing new. But this one has me genuinely perplexed, mainly because of the type of sites that got hit.

Time for some self-searching Q&A about one of my own sites:

Q: So, how many links did you buy?
A: None.
Q: Are you selling links?
A: Nope.
Q: Linking to "bad neighborhoods"?
A: Not that' I'm aware of.....
Q: Did you link-build in an aggressive manner?
A: No. I did no link building, whatsoever.
Q: Huh?
A: That's not a question.
Q: So you just published content?
A: Right.
Q: And people linked to your site, of their own accord?
A: Yep. I guess they liked it.
Q: Was your content heavily SEO'd?
A: No. In fact, I gave writers specific instructions not to do anything resembling "SEO copywriting". It ruins the flow for readers.
Q: All original content?
A: All original. Hand written. No machines involved anywhere.
Q: So this site conforms to Google's Webmaster Guidelines?
A: I'd say it lies well within them. "Be useful to end users", was the guiding principle.

Yet it got hit hard.

What's also interesting is the nature of the sites that replaced it. I checked keyword after keyword, and found script driven, aggressive black-hat, content-free sites in top positions. Not in all cases - there are certainly useful sites that deserve to be there, and deserve to appear above mine. Fair play. However, there were plenty of sites of - shall we say - dubious merit- occupying high positions.

Curious.

Be Useful. Perhaps

Now, I believe in publishing useful, unique content, and not paying too much attention to SEO, other than covering the basics. SEO is one strategy amongst many, and sites should, first and foremost, prove useful to people.

Clearly, no site is immune. You can stay within Google's Webmaster guidelines, and get taken out. I knew that anyway, but when the sites that don't follow the guidelines replace you...

....I'll admit - it grates.

Presumably, Google rewards the sites it likes with high rankings, and if we see a lot of aggressive sites filling the top page, should we therefore assume that aggressive sites are what Google actually wants?

I'd like to think not.

Perhaps they are just trying to mess with our heads?

Or they messed up?

Or the changes are still bedding in?

Or they really do want it this way?

I'm still watching, and considering. Perhaps the site will just pop back up in due course. Or perhaps I need to go back to the drawing board. I'll let you know how I get on.

If you've noticed something similar on your sites, chime in on the comments.

Low Cost SEO

Oct 27th
posted in

If you're considering getting some SEO work done, but working to a tight budget, here's a look at the key issues, and trouble-spots to look out for.

Buying Professional SEO Services

If you're short on time, or SEO skills, or inclination, then you may be looking at getting an eternal supplier to undertake SEO work. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for, and SEO is no exception. There is also a danger you could get a whole lot less, of course.

Like any profession, there are many great operators, and many poor ones.

Set Clear Business Goals

Start by writing down the goals you want to achieve. What business problem are you trying to solve? Do you need more conversions? More traffic? Higher rankings? Only one of those requirements is likely to make you any money.

Traffic and higher rankings can make you money, but can just as likely make no difference to your business, whatsoever, unless they are tied into your website strategy. For example, you may receive more traffic after engaging an SEO, but if this traffic isn't interested in what you offer, they will click back. Likewise, you could gain high rankings for keywords that no one searches on. This will result in no traffic increase, and no new business.

Devise your own metrics for success. Some SEOs will devise metrics for success that are easy for them to achieve, but make no real difference to your business.

Watch Out For Hidden Costs

If you have an existing site, you may need to make changes to your design and layout. Depending on how your site has been built, these changes may be minor or significant in terms of cost to rectify.

The Problem With Cheap

Whilst high cost alone will not guarantee you good results, there's a high probability that low cost will almost guarantee poor results.

SEO is labour intensive and requires skill and knowledge. As a rough ballpark, a small site, that doesn't have design issues, that has had no previous SEO work, could take, at very least, five days of full-time SEO work. This work involves link building, adding keywords and content to the site, and other external promotional activities. Get the SEO to breakdown the work into hours and tasks, and see if the amount charged equates to the work required.

If the SEO is pricing significantly under their competitors, there may be a legitimate reason. They may use cheaper labour, often located in emerging economies. This is fine, however make sure any firm you do use has a good knowledge of the country and culture in which you operate. Marketing, SEO or otherwise, requires an intimate knowledge of language use, culture and location, so ask to see previous work, and check references.

On the other hand, there are agencies that will charge like a wounded bull for essentially the same tasks as everyone else. Obtain a few quotes and compare, as pricing can be all over the place. The industry is not standardized.

Do It Yourself

Anyone can do SEO. However, that doesn't mean that everyone should.

What does SEO involve? It can involve restructuring a site, coding, content creation, marking up content, market research, strategy, link building, and public relations. Do you have the time, or the inclination to do this? The learning curve, for the beginner, is steep. It's also time consuming. How much is your time worth?

However, there are many aspects you can do yourself. Start with a good, solid SEO course ;) Join forums where other SEOs hang out. Look for content management software that is reasonably SEO friendly, out of the box, such as Wordpress (free). Using SEO friendly software means you'll avoid a lot of technical problems that can be expensive to rectify if you use software the search engines find difficult to crawl.

Search engines like content. Generally speaking, the more pages you publish, the more chances you'll have to be seen. If appropriate, adopt a strategy similar to that of magazine publishing. Publish often.

Once your business case and site content are established, you need to build links. A site without links is pretty much invisible. Here are a few link building strategies. In summary, submit your site to directories, get your partners to link to you, issue press releases featuring links back to your site, put links in your online signature. You can never have too many links, so long as they accurately represent the content is on your site, and they appear in places your audience hangs out.

Hybrid Approach

You can go a long way by buying in some help, and doing the rest yourself.

Pay for a few hours of consulting where an SEO evaluates your site and your market niche. It's well worth paying top dollar, for someone good, for this part - as it most likely only takes a few hours. Setting off on the right course can pay high dividends, whilst heading down the wrong path can be difficult, and costly, to recover from. Engage them in an advisory-only role, and ask them to provide you with a strategy. Some SEOs will do this, some won't.

The most important thing is to ensure they establish your site has no technical issues that will prevent it being crawled, and that your content is structured correctly. Once these problems are ironed out, SEO becomes a lot less troublesome.

Only you know your skills, but the following areas are reasonably straightforward for those with a little web knowledge. Keyword research is easy enough to do yourself, using readily available keyword tools, as is content generation.

Simply write on topic and sprinkle keywords through your content and headings, or have your copywriter do so.

You may also wish to undertake link building yourself. This involves requesting links, submitting your site to directories, and building effective partnerships. It can be a good idea to get consultancy as to where you should focus your link building energies. Some links are worth a lot more than others, and there is a strategy to it.

Like any complex professional service, you'll still need to monitor and measure, even if you do opt for expensive, comprehensive outsourced options. There's no sitting back with marketing, and that includes SEO.

Whatever path you choose, make sure the SEO work is aligned with your business goals.

What Is SEO, Really?

Oct 21st
posted in

Lisa Barone wrote an interesting piece entitled "Are SEOs Responsible For Rankings Or Money?". At a recent SMX conference, Matt McGee posed the SEO myth "SEO is about rankings”. Lisa was relieved when the panel concluded that SEO was really all about the money.

I agree, but then all business activity is ultimately about money. We could say car racing is all about money, but it's also about engineering. It's about skill, excitement, and winning the game.

So what is SEO these days, anyway?

A Very Brief History Of SEO

Back when SEO started, SEO wasn't called SEO. It was probably best described by those who did it as a form of hacking.

The first search engines weren't particularly clever, so it was relatively easy to figure out their sorting algorithms. There was a time when Infoseek's algorithm was almost entirely based on keyword density and keyword position.

Whilst this hacking was still ultimately about money, it was as much a game as anything else. I'm sure many old school SEOs remember those days with a sense of nostalgia. It was more of a pure technical pursuit back then.

As search engines got more sophisticated, and more money flowed online, the nature of the game changed. SEO moved beyond technical hacking to an exercise in making connections.

In Googles early days, you could buy a few high PR links - or beg for them - and that was enough to get you ranking top ten in most keyword areas. Buy a few more if you really wanted to go hard. Saturate the long tail with auto-gen, just like your competitors were doing, and it was game on. Some may say we haven't completely left this phase, but the sun is setting on this approach.

These days, a more holistic approach is required. The search engines, Google in particular, have become more and more oblique, which means systematic technical approaches are less effective than they once were. This begs the question - what is a client hiring an SEO to do, exactly?

BTW: For those who want to read deeper on a history of SEO, check out this excellent Danny Sullivan interview. He knows more than most about the history of SEO.

Explaining SEO

Ever had trouble explaining to people what you do?

I've worked out a succinct answer that is easy for non-technical people to understand. When people ask me what I do, I tell them "I'm a drug dealer".

It isn't true, of course, but I just figure it's easier for people to grasp. If pushed, I'll launch into a detailed explanation of SEO, internet advertising and web publishing models - an explanation which is universally guaranteed to be met with the response "huh"?.

Often, they'll conclude: "so you rank web sites in Google, then?".

To which my reply is "well, that's part of it". As I explain further, I'm still not sure I'm making any headway, so figure it's time everyone had another drink and talk about something else.

The SMX panel is right. SEO is not about just about ranking websites, it's about so much more. Some SEOs, myself included, use SEO as part of a business strategy, a strategy that is just as much about publishing, domain names, brand building, marketing and traffic acquisition. It involves metrics, tracking, conversions, split/run testing, adwords, adsense, writing, researching, managing and changing the light-bulb in the office when it blows. The commonality is that it is oriented around the search ecosystem. Except for the light-bulb.

Some SEOs focus on very specific areas. It is their job to take a site from nowhere in the search engines to achieving desirable rankings. Their job ends there. I suspect such a role is becoming less common as search companies like Google extend their tentacles into every corner of the web, and search consultants invariably follow.

Ask ten different SEOs what they do, and you'll probably get ten different answers. None of which the lay person will likely understand, unfortunately.

Learning SEO Today

If you're starting out in SEO now, I don't envy your challenge. If you're reading this, and you're an SEO veteran, please feel free to add your comments below. What is your advice to those starting out?

Here's mine. ;)

It helps to understand the big picture first. The reason people engage in SEO is ultimately about making money. Even a non-profit may make money from SEO by saving money they would have spent on some other marketing channel.

They want people to find their web site. They want people to connect with them, rather than their competitors. They want people to do this so they can convert these people to buyers, of their goods, their services, or their ideas. If a site were only to rank - say, on keyword terms no-one searched for, or that weren't directly applicable to the objectives of the business, then the SEO work is largely useless. It matters not if a site appears in Google's index. If no one visits via a search in Google, then all that's happened is the bandwidth costs have increased i.e. Google's spider visits and digests pages, and the ROI for the SEO spend looks dire.

So SEO isn't about rankings.

The rankings must translate to something tangible. In most cases, this means gaining qualified visitor traffic. To get this traffic, a site must do more than rank, a site must appeal to visitors. A visitor who clicks back isn't really a visitor. To appeal to visitors, the SEO must first understand them. What do they want? What problem do they have?

Once the SEO understands visitor intent - and they can do this by getting clues from the search query itself, and testing pages against alternatives - they then direct that visitor around the site in order to turn the visitor into something else i.e. a buyer, a subscriber, a reader. Some might say this goes beyond the job description of an SEO, however whether an SEO works on this part or not, they do need to understand it. If the client doesn't see a positive benefit from an SEOs work, they are unlikely to keep paying for the services.

So, yes, SEO is about money. But it is also about the long process by which money is made.

Facebook Vs Google: No Contest

Oct 19th

So the conversation in tech media of late is that Facebook is set to become a bigger cash cow than Google.

Why?

People spend more time on Facebook. Facebook has users locked-in (kinda). Facebook "owns" the social map. Facebook is popular. Facebook is everywhere. Facebook is big.

Uh-huh.

Facebook may be all those things, but when it comes to translating "viewers" into revenue, Google currently wins hands down.

Google wins because Google's advertising is closely aligned with the users primary activity, which is to seek topics and click links. The primary activity of a user on Facebook is to socialize. Translating this activity to a commercial imperative, in a way advertisers find profitable, is the challenge Facebook faces.

The primary user activity on Facebook isn't yet as conducive to effective advertising as the topic-matching system used by Google. This shows up in the revenue data.

Google's revenue, with supposedly fewer users than Facebook, is $23.531 billion - and rising. Facebook, with more users, who reportedly spend more time on the site, has estimated revenues around $1b. Admittedly a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison, but useful to get the two entities in perspective. Facebook is nowhere near Google in terms of advertiser revenue.

In short, being popular doesn't necessarily translate into revenue, or marketing value. Ask any popular blogger who is blogging on a non-commercial topic. It can be difficult to convert some audiences, and some activities, into revenue and advertiser value.

As a commenter, Chris Norstrom, on the TechCrunch page I linked to above pointed out:

500 Millions users does not mean those users want to accomplish EVERYTHING on your site. Facebook already tried their own version of "yahoo.Answers" and it failed. People come to facebook to lol with friends and waste time, nothing more. Not to check inboxes, not to ask questions, not to participate in groups, not to rate stores or check into places, not to send or receive money, not to edit documents.

Is he right, do you think?

Like Button Replacing The Link

Some commentators have suggested that the "like" button on Facebook will replace the link

Enter the Like button, the social solution to search, and the replacement of the link as a voting mechanism. The people as a whole are more effective at determining what content is relevant and most of those people are unfortunately not effective at creating links

A "thumbs up" system doesn't say much. It may help people find out what is most popular amongst the heard on any given day, but as anyone can see from Digg, exploding pancakes doesn't mean much, popular as the topic may be. I suspect Facebook users will use the Like button even less when they come to realise it's a form of permission marketing.

Google, on the other hand, is oriented around topical queries. Relevance is decided by alorithms that measure over a hundred different factors. It's fair to say that if a simple "Like" button worked as a means to determine relevance, Google would have implemented it years ago. They pretty much have one, but who really uses it?

In short, user voting is fraught with problems. It won't replace sophisticated algorithms. The link, the basis of the web, isn't going away.

Fit The Message To The Medium

Which, in a rather long-winded way, brings me around to my point.

The Google vs Facebook contest doesn't really matter as far as marketing is concerned. Both environments are valuable to marketers. Both need to be approached in different ways.

As we discussed in Google Keyword Research Tool: Not Popular, search is suited to concepts and services of which the searcher is already aware. Facebook is better suited to distraction media, viral campaigns, and marketing targeted at specific demographic groups.

Facebook may be useful at introducing people to new concepts - especially if those concepts fit into an existing social activity, as defined by members of a specific demographic i.e. the group "Porsche Owners Club" may be interested in new Porsche merchandise, whether they're actively seeking it or not.

Keep in mind the core function of Facebook. The Facebook user isn't likely to be actively hunting for something. They are killing time, or socializing. As a result, Facebook is less suited to direct sales, as it is difficult to determine which phase the buyer is at in the sales funnel. Facebook is more suited to brand building and awareness campaigns. It is suited to relationship building. Adjust your marketing approach accordingly.

For further reading on the specifics of Facebook marketing, SEOMoz offers a great overview of marketing approaches on Facebook.

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