The 'Scam' Site That Never Launched

Dec 14th
posted in

(A case study in being PRE negatively seo'ed)

Well it has been a fun year in search. Having had various sites that I thought were quality, completely burnt by Google since they started with the Penguins and Pandas and other penalties, I thought i would try something that I KNEW Google would love….. Something dare I say would be “bulletproof.” Something I could go to bed, knowing it would be there the next day in Google’s loving arms. Something I could focus on and be proud of.

Enter www.buymycar.com, an idea I had wanted to do for some time, where people list a car and it gets sent to a network of dealers who bid on it from a secure area. A simple idea but FAR from simple to implement.

Notes I made prior to launch to please Google and to give it a fighting chance were:

  1. To have an actual service and not to be an affiliate. Google crushed my affiliate sites and we know they are not fond of them as they want to be the only affiliate I think.
  2. To make sure the content was of a high quality. I took this so seriously that we actually made a point of linking out to direct competition where it helped to do so. This was almost physically painful to do! But I thought I would start as I meant to go on. I remember paying the content guy that helps me, triple his normal fee to go above and beyond normal research for the articles in our "sell my car" and "value my car" sections.
  3. To make the site socially likeable. I wanted something that people would share and as such to sacrifice profits in the short term to get it established.
  4. To give Google the things it loves on-site. Speed testing, webmaster tools error checking (even got a little well done from Google for having no errors, bless), user testing, sitemaps for big G to find our content more easily, fast hosting, letting it have full access with analytics…
  5. TO NEVER, EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES PAY FOR A LINK. Yes, I figured I would put all the investment into the site and content this time. If it went how I had hoped perhaps I could find the holy grail where site’s link to us willingly without a financial incentive! A grail I had been chasing for some years. Could people really link out without being paid? I had once heard a rumour it was possible and I wanted to investigate it……

Satisfied I had ticked all the boxes from hours of Matt Cutts video’s and Google guidelines documents, I went to work and stopped SEO on all my smaller sites that were out of favour. I was enjoying building what I had hoped would be a useful site and kicked myself for not having done so sooner. I also thanked Google mentally for being smart enough now to reward better sites.

Fast forward 4 months of testing and re testing and signing up car dealers across the country and I decided to do a cursory check to see if anyone had liked what I was building and linked to it. I put my site into ahrefs.com and to my surprise, 13,208 sites had!! What was also nice was that all of them had used the anchor text “Buy My Car Scam” and had been so kind as to give me worldwide exposure on .ru, .br and .fr sites in blog comments amongst others.

In seriousness, this was absolutely devastating to see.

A worried competitor had obviously decided I was a threat and to nip my site in the bud with Google and attack it before it had even fully started. The live launch date was scheduled for January 7th, 2013! I was aware of negative SEO from other sites I had lost but not in advance of actually having any traffic or rankings. Now I was faced with death by Google rankings to look forward to before it had any rankings, add to that my site being cited as a scam across the Internet before it launched!

My options were immediately as follows:

  1. Go back and nuke the likely candidates in Google who had sabotaged me. Not really an option as I think it is the lowest of the low.
  2. Start trying to contact 13,000+ link owners to ask for the links to be removed. When I am heavily invested in this project anyway and have a deadline to reach, this was not an option. Also, Xrummer, Scrapebox or other automated tools could send another 13,000 just as easily in hours for me to deal with.
  3. Disavow links with Google. To download all the links, disavow them all and hope that Google would show me mercy in the few months Matt Cutts said it takes to get to them all removed.
  4. Give up the project. Radical as this may sound, it did go through my mind as organic traffic was a big part of my business plan. Thankfully I was talked out of it and it would be "letting them win."

I opted for number 3, the disavow method but wondered what would happen if I kept being sent 10’s of thousands more links and how a new site can actually have any protection from this? To set back a site months in its early stages is devastating to a new on-line business. To be in a climate where it is done prior to launch is ridiculous.

Had I fired back at future competitors as many suggested I did, there would be a knock on effect that makes me wonder if in the months to come, everyone will be doing it to each other as routine. Having been in SEO for years I always knew it was possible to sabotage sites but never thought it would become so common and before they even ranked!


Robert Prime is a self employed web developer based in East Sussex, England. You can follow him on Twitter at @RobertPrime.

Our Looking into the Crystal Ball of 2013 Predications Post

Dec 13th
posted in

It's hard to believe it is the middle of December and a whole year has blown by.  To say 2012 was an interesting year would be an understatement, one thing is for sure, it was never dull!

Some of the SEOBook Moderators and I want to share what we feel will be hot (or not) in 2013, we have a diverse mixture of topics, opinions and practical marketing tactics for you to consider.  First up is our fearless leader Aaron Wall!

Aaron Wall

Aaron Wall Drawing.

Google Verticals

I believe we'll see additional Google verticals launched (soon) and they'll be added to the organic search listings.  My guess is that (now that the advisor ad units are below AdWords) we can expect to see Google seriously step into education & insurance next year. I also expect them to vastly expand their automotive category in 2013.

SEO's Move On

Tired by the pace of change & instability in the search ecosystem (along with the "2 books of guidelines" approach of enforcement in the search ecosystem), many people who are known as SEOs will move on in 2013. Many of these will be via acquisitions, and many more will be due to people simply hanging it up & moving on.

Rebranding Away From SEO

A company in the SEO niche that has long been known as an SEO company will rebrand away from the term SEO. After that happens, that will lead to a further polarization of public discourse (where most anything that is effective and profitable gets branded as being spam), only further fueling #2.

Geordie Carswell from Clearly Canadian (err, we mean here)

Geordie Carswell Drawing.

Adwords

Regarding Adwords, Google will aggressively dial up Quality Scores on keywords that have languished in activity due to low-QS but haven't yet been deleted by advertisers. They seem to have given Quality Scores a bump across the board in Q4, bringing in unexpected increases in traffic and cost to advertisers who weren't aware 'dormant' keywords were even still in their accounts. It's a fantastic revenue generator almost on-demand for Google if the quarterly numbers aren't looking good.

Peter DaVanzo (aka Kiwi)

Peter da Vanzo Drawing.

Building Brand

More focus on building brands i.e. the people behind the site, their story, their history.

This is to encourage higher levels of engagement, leading to increased loyalty. Making the most of the traffic we already have

Eric Covino  (aka vanillacoke)

Vanilla Coke Drawing.

SEO Diversifies

I think the industry will continue to become more divisive as more people either get out or go more underground and those that continue to remain overly-public will continue to invent language to serve their own commercial purposes while chastising those who do not fall in line; labeling these folks as spammers and bad for the industry in desperate attempts at differentiation so they can continue to try and sell to brands and the lower part of the consumer pyramid (read: mindless sheep)

There will be exceptions where the company will do and probably continue to do really well, but largely those who try and move from being pure SEO agencies to full service [insert new term here] ad-type agencies will fail at delivering real value to their clients. These people will resort to more outing and public spam report filings despite their amusing posts on how they are "different" and "clean". I believe this will spawn a return of enterprise-level SEO services to competent SEO's and SEO firms but not to the "point, link, report ranking agencies". I believe the latter will die a faster death in 2013. Technical proficiency in SEO will become more and more valuable as well, especially if enterprise-level SEO returns as I think it will.

SEO Pricing Structures Will Change

A fractured search landscape where data is harder to come by (not provided, rank checking issues, mobile disruption) in addition to frequent algo shifts and confusion with local rankings will make low-cost SEO much harder to justify and measure, especially in the local area. These issues, coupled with the rising cost of doing business online, will make low to even moderate budget SEO (really low 4 figures or high 3 figures per month) difficult to provide effectively and profitably over a sustained period of time.

The closing window will stay somewhat wide for those that stay around and can afford to take down the margins a bit on some projects. This would be a result of a fairy sizable exodus from the industry as a whole (the self-SEO crowd, for lack of a better term)

Debra Mastaler from Alliance Link

Debra Mastaler Drawing.

Mobile Applications (apps) and Content for Them

Doesn't it seem like everyone has been talking about the mobile explosion for years now?  I'm jumping on that bandwagon but from a slightly different angle.

If your product lends itself to having an app, I'd urge you to get one started, even if it's a basic program or you have to partner with someone to make it happen.  Recent statistics show there are one billion smart phone users and five billion mobile phone users in the world; being seen on mobile devices is no longer a novelty when those kinds of numbers are involved.  So how do you get your content in front of mobile users? 

For Android fans, you can turn your best content into an Android App by using tools like AppsGeyser.  Their simple three step process allows you to create apps by using content you've already written or showcasing a widget you have in service. If you have evergreen content or a popular widget a lot of people download, create an app to keep them one click away and receiving fresh streams of content from your site.

If you're in a space already filled with apps or can't create one, consider creating unique content to go with what is out there.   For example, novelist Robin Sloan created an iPhone app for “tappable” content.  To move the story along, you tap the screen to the next page.  It is a super simple concept that has exploded over the Internet.   (For more tappable story examples visit here)  creating this kind of content sets you apart from your competitors and provides you with a fresh news angle to pitch the media.

If you do create an app, add it to popular download sites like iTunes but make it exclusively available on your website first. 

(Tip:  Search on “content for iPad” for ideas on creating unique content for tablets and then use the suggestions above to promote them)

Video

OK, more impressive stats to start this section: 

“In general, we know that 800 million people around the world use YouTube each month, a stat that I'm sure we're going to see increase to a billion soon.  And nearly all 100 of AdAge's top 100 advertisers have run ad campaigns on YouTube and Google Display Network–98 in fact.”

There is the word “billion” again!  But there's more and it comes appropriately, right after my pitch for mobile apps:

…”mobile access, which gets over 600 million views a day, tripled in 2011.”

They are talking about access to YouTube here, that's an astonishing number of views per day.  Add to it video results have a tendency to:

  • be shown in the first fold of the organic search results (so annoying)
  • help make a site “sticky”
  • are easily passed around social media sites “like” Facebook

Three sound reasons why you should be involved in making and promoting video in 2013.  Since video works well on smartphones, I'd focus equal resources on creating, optimizing and promoting video and written content in 2013. Check out what top brands are doing on YouTube for promotion ideas, where they're pimping their vids and how.   (And an app to play them on, see above) J

Content Partnerships and Variety is a Search Spice

I think everyone will agree using “content” is the tactic du jour when it comes to attracting links and traffic.  I expect the trend to continue and with good reason, online news outlets, magazines and topical blogs are as eager to run good content as webmasters are to place it.   Finding good outlets will be key, when you do, consider developing a “content partnership" with a set number of sites and negotiate to place more than written content.

What is a content partnership?  In a nutshell it's an exclusive commitment you have to provide content to a set number of sites.  You find a handful of authoritative sites to write for and negotiate the amount and type of content you want to submit. They in turn, get a steady stream of well-produced content and build a solid editorial team.  Win-win!

In a perfect world it's best to be the only one writing on a topic but we all know perfection is hard to achieve.  In that case, zero in on what you want to write about and approach an outlet with a narrow focus.  For example, instead of saying "I'll write all your baby food articles", say, "I'll provide articles, podcasts and videos on natural and organic baby food".  You are much more likely to get what you want if you agree to create content on a specific subject rather than a broad or general topic.

Authentic networking will be key in the future, lock down your sources early and take advantage of the popularity boost you'll receive associating with highly visible, authority sites in your niche.  Use a variety of content methods, the public doesn't live on written content alone.  Video, news and images dominate universal search results; create this type of content so you improve your chances of being seen especially if brands dominate your sector. (So annoying!)

Will Spencer from Tech FAQ

Panda Update Drawing.

The Value of Links

With Google penalizing obviously generated links instead of simply ignoring them, the value of less-obviously generated links will continue to rise. This will result in higher prices for paid links and an improved return on investment for those links. It will also bring link trading back in vogue, particularly with three-way linking.

We'll be paying more (or charging more) for links than ever before. With most links being discounted or penalized, it will require fewer links to rank -- but those links will have to be acquired at higher prices.

Anita Campbell from Small Business Trends

Anita Campbell Drawing.

Website Design Goes Pinterest

We are seeing more websites and blogs designed and displayed a la Pinterest. Content appears in visual boxes with limited text. With that comes a lot more of the infinite scroll – the page that never ends. The new Mashable design is an example. It is hard to tell whether this is a short term fad or a long term trend – but when you have an infinite scrolling page the footer often goes. So all those footer links – well, many may go away.

Social Media Gets the Blender Effect

Social media aggregators are popping up like mushrooms. Tools like Rebelmouse, Scoop.it, Paper.li and a dozen more grab Facebook posts, tweets, retweets and/or blog posts, and mix them all together in a visually appealing presentation that you can embed on your own domain. Some of these tools are not so hot for SEO (all the content is in javascript and/or iframes) or they duplicate a page that resides on the tool's own site, and search agencies will have to get good at sorting them out and explaining the pros and cons to clients who say “I want one!”

The Line Between Content and Advertising Further Blurs:

The CPM rates of banner ads continue to drop, and the standard banner ad sizes are less appealing except as AdWords. The hot types of advertising today are:

  • Rich media such as ads that slide out or down when you slide over or large videos that begin to play, and larger sizes that take up a lot of space on the page (even Google this year introduced the 300 x 600 “half-page” size ad);
  • “Native ads” which are ads that sites like Twitter and Facebook sell such as sponsored tweets and sponsored posts – leading to the further commercialization of social media;
  • Sponsored content, such as sponsored blog posts and sponsored content features on news sites.

There are different schools of thought around sponsored content, and publishers and agencies need to understand the differences and figure out where they want to play. The natural tendency of many SEO professionals is to think of sponsored content purely as link building. But in my experience, sponsors can have many goals and they may have nothing to do with link building. For many sponsors, their goals are branding, product launch exposure, co-citation/co-reference, thought leadership, sales lead generation, general PR, and/or building positive social media sentiment.

Depending on the sponsor's goals, sponsored content covers a wide range. It can range from run-of-the-mill link buying and selling, to various levels of guest blog posting ("spun" junk to high quality well-researched articles), to custom-written content pieces such as articles, eBooks and webinars that are clearly labeled as sponsored, designed to build thought leadership, reach out to new audiences, and to associate the sponsor's name with certain topics.

Marketing agencies will want to sort out the client's objectives, and also educate clients on the broader benefits to be had from sponsored content.

Now you know our thoughts for 2013, what are yours? 

On behalf of everyone here at SEOBook, we wish you a joyous holiday season and much success in 2013!


Debra Mastaler is an experienced link building & publicity expert who has trained clients for over a decade at Alliance-Link. She is the link building moderator of our SEO Community & can be found on Twitter @DebraMastaler.

Manage Your Reputation

Dec 5th
posted in

How much value do you place on your good reputation?

If we looked at it purely from a financial point of view, our reputations help us get work, make money, and be more influential. On a personal level, a good name is something of which you can be proud. It is something tangible that makes you feel good.

You're Everywhere

As it becomes increasingly easy for people to make their feelings known and published far and wide, many businesses are implementing reputation management strategies to help protect their good name.

This area used to be the domain of big business, who employed teams of PR and legal specialists to nurture, defend and promote established brands. Unlike small business, which didn’t have to worry about what someone on the other side of the country might have said about them as it didn’t affect business in their locality, larger entities were exposed nationally, and often internationally. It was also difficult for an individual to spread their grievance, unless it was picked up by mainstream media.

These days, everything is instant and international. Those with a grievance can be heard far and wide, without the need to get media involved. We hear about problems with brands across the other side of the country, or the world, just as easily as we hear about them in our own regions, or market niches. If someone is getting hammered in the search industry, you and I probably both hear about it, at roughly the same time. And so will everyone else.

Media stories don’t even have to be true, of course. False information travels just as fast, if not faster, than truth. Given the potential, it’s a wonder reputation problems don’t occur more often that they do.

This is why reputation management is becoming increasingly important for smaller firms and individuals. No matter how good you are at what you do, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, so it’s quite possible someone could damage your good name at some point.

Much of the reputation management area is obvious and common sense, but certainly worth taking time to consider, especially if you haven’t looked at reputation issues up until now. When people search on your name, do they find an accurate representation of who you are and what you’re about? Is the information outdated? Are you seen in the same places as you competition? How does their reputation compare to yours?

Also, some marketers offer reputation monitoring and management as an add-one service to clients so it can be a potential new revenue stream for those offering consultancy services.

The Indelible Nature Of The Internet

In some respects, I’m glad the internet - as we know it - wasn’t around when I was at school. There were far too many regrettable nights that, these days, would be recorded from various angles on smartphones and uploaded to YouTube before anyone can say “that isn’t mine, officer!”

You’ve got to feel sorry for some of the kids today. Kids being kids, they sometimes do stupid things, but these days a record of stupidity is likely to hang around “forever”. Perhaps their grand-kids will get a laugh one day. Perhaps the recruiter won’t.

Something similar could happen to you, or your firm. One careless employee saying the wrong thing and the record could show up in search engines for a long time. If you’re building a brand, whether personal or related to a business, you need to look after it, nurture it, and defend it, if need be. We’ll look at a few practical ways to do so.

On the flip side, of course, the internet can help establish and spread your good reputation very quickly. We’ll also look at ways to push your good reputation.

Modern Media Is A Conversation

People talk.

These days, no matter how big a firm is, they can’t hide behind PR and receptionists. If they don’t want to join the conversation, so be it - it will go on all around them, regardless. If they aren’t part of it, then they risk the conversation being dictated by others.

So a big part of online reputation management is about getting involved in the conversation, and framing it, where possible i.e. have the conversation on your terms.

Be Proactive

Most us haven’t got time to constantly monitor everything that might be said about us or our brands. One of the most cost-effective ways to manage reputation is to get out in front of problems before they arise. If there is enough good things said about you, then the occasional critical voice won’t carry as much weight by comparison.

The first step is to audit your current position. Search on your name and/or brand. What do you see in the top ten? Do the results reflect what you’re about? Is there anything negative showing up? If so, can you respond to it by way of a comment section? This is the exact same information your customers will see, of course, when they look you up.

If you’re not seeing accurate content, you may need to update or publish more appropriate content on your own sites, and those sites that come up in the top ten, where possible. More aggressive SEO approaches involve flooding the SERPs with positive content in an attempt to push down any negative stories below the fold so they are less likely to be seen. This is probably not quite as effective as addressing the underlying issues that caused the negative press in the first place, unless the criticisms were malicious, in which case, game on.

Next, conduct the same set of searches on your competitors. How does their reputation compare? Are they being seen in places you aren't? Are they getting positive press mentions that you could get, too? How does your reputation stack up, relatively speaking?

Listen

You can monitor mentions using services such as Google Alerts, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, and various other tools. There’s another big list of tools here. Google runs "Me On The Web" as part of the Google Dashboard.

Monitor trends related to your industry. Get involved in fast breaking, popular trends and discussions. Be seen where potential customers would expect to see you. The more other people see you engaged on important issues, in a positive light, the more credibility you’re banking for the future. If you build up a high volume of “good stuff”, any occasional critical voice will likely get lost in the noise, rather than stand out. A lot of reputation management has to do with building positive PR ahead of any negatives that may arise later. You should be everywhere your customers expect to see you.

This is a common tactic used by authors selling on Amazon. They “encourage” good reviews, typically by handing out free review copies to friends, in order to stack the positive review side in their favor. The occasional negative review may hurt them, but not quite as much as if the number of negative reviews match the number of positive reviews. Some of them overdo it, of course, as twenty 5 star reviews, and nothing else, looks somewhat suspicious. When it comes to PR, it's best to be believable!

Engage

Create a policy for engagement, for yourself, and other people who work for you. Keep it simple, and principle based, as principles are easier to remember and apply. For example, a good principle is to post in haste only if what you are saying is positive. If something is negative, pause. Leave it for a few hours. If it still feels right, then post. It’s so easy to post in haste, and then regret it for years afterwards.

Seek feedback often. Ask people how you’re doing, especially if you suspect you've annoyed someone or let them down in some way. If you give people permission to vent where you control the environment it means they are less likely to let off steam somewhere else. It may also highlight potential trouble-spots in your process, that you can fix and thus avoid repeats in future. I’ve run sites where the sales process has occasionally broken down, and had customers complain. It happens. I make a point of letting them vent, giving them more than they originally ordered, and apologizing to them for the problems. Not only does going over-and-above expectations prevent negative press, it has often turned disgruntled customers into advocates. They’ve increased their business, and referred others. Pretty simple, right, but good customer service is all part of the reputation management process.

Figure out who the influential people are in your industry and try and get onside with them. In a crisis, they may well help you out, especially if they see you’re being hard done by. If influential names weigh in on your behalf, this can easily marginalize the person who is being critical.

Security

Secure your stuff. Check out this awful story on Wired:

In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.

Explaining what happened and getting it published on Wired is a pretty good crisis management response, of course. When you look up “Mat Horan”, you find that article. Separate your social media business and personal profiles. Secure your mobile phone. Check that your privacy settings are correct across social media. Simple stuff that goes a long way to protecting your existing reputation.

What To Do If You Do Hit Trouble

We can’t please everyone, all the time.

A critical factor is speed. If you spot trouble, get into the conversation early. This can prevent the problem festering and gathering it’s own momentum. However, before you leap in, make sure you understand the issue. Ask “what do these people want to happen that is not currently happening?”.

Also consider who is saying it. What’s their reach? If it’s just a ranter on noname.blogspot.com, or a troll attempt, it’s probably not worth your time, and engaging trolls is counter-productive. Someone influential, of course, requires kid glove treatment. One common tactic, especially if the situation is escalating beyond your control, is to try and take it offline and reach resolution that way. You can then go back to the online conversation once it has been resolved, rather than having the entire firefight a matter of indelible public record.

It’s illegal for people to defame you, so you could also consider legal action if the problem is bad enough. You could also consider engaging some PR help, particularly if the problem occurs in mainstream media. PR can be a bit hit and miss, but reputable PR professionals tend to have extensive networks of contacts, so may get you seen where it might be difficult for you to do so on your own. There are also dedicated reputation management companies, such as reputation.com, reputationchanger.com, and reputationmanagementagency.com who handle monitoring and public relations functions. NB: Included for illustration purposes. We have no relationship with these firms.

Practical examples of constructive responses to negative criticism can often be seen in the Amazon reviews.

For example, a writer can respond to any reviews made about their book. A good approach to negative statements is to thank the reviewer for taking the time to provide feedback, regardless of what they said, and address the issue raised in a calm, informative manner. Future customers will see this, of course, which provides yet another opportunity to sway their opinion. One great example I’ve seen was when the writer did all of the above AND offered the person providing the negative review an hour of free consulting so the reviewer could get the specific information he felt he was missing! One downside of this strategy, however, might be more copycat negative reviews aimed at getting the reviewer free consulting!

The same principle applies to any negative comment in other contexts. When a reader sees your reply, they get editorial balance that would otherwise be missing.

It’s obvious, yet important, stuff. If you’ve got examples of how you’ve handled reputation issues in the past, or your ideas on how best to manage reputation going forward, please add them to the comments to help others.

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Counterspin on Shopping Search: Shady Paid Inclusion

Nov 28th

Bing caused a big stink today when they unveiled Scroogled, a site that highlights how Google Shopping has went paid-inclusion only. A couple weeks ago Google announced that they would be taking their controvercial business model global, in spite of it being "a mess."

Nextag has long been critical of Google's shifts on the shopping search front. Are their complaints legitimate, or are they just whiners?

Data, More Reliable Than Spin

Nothing beats data, so lets start with that.

This is what Nextag's search exposure has done over the past few years, according to SearchMetrics.

If Google did that to any large & politically connected company, you can bet regulators would have already took action against Google, rather than currently negotiating with them.

What's more telling is how some other sites in the shopping search vertical have performed.

PriceGrabber, another player in the shopping search market, has also slowly drifted downward (though at a much slower rate).

One of the few shopping search engines that has seen a big lift over this time period was Yahoo! Shopping.

What is interesting about that rise is that Yahoo! outsourced substantially all of their shopping search product to PriceGrabber.

A Self-Destructing Market Dynamic

The above creates an interesting market dynamic...

  • the long established market leader can wither on the vine for being too focused on their niche market & not broadening out in ways that increase brand awareness
  • a larger site with loads of usage data can outsource the vertical and win based on the bleed of usage data across services & the ability to cross promote the site
  • the company investing in creating the architecture & baseline system that powers other sites continues to slide due to limited brand & a larger entity gets to displace the data source
  • Google then directly enters the market, further displacing some of the vertical players

The above puts Nextag's slide in perspective, but the problem is that they still have fixed costs to manage if they are going to maintain their editorial quality. Google can hand out badges for people willing to improve their product for free or give searchers a "Click any fact to locate it on the web. Click Wrong? to report a problem" but others who operated with such loose editorial standards would likely be labeled as a spammer of one stripe or another.

Scrape-N-Displace

Most businesses have to earn the right to have exposure. They have to compete in the ecosystem, built awareness & so on. But Google can come in from the top of the market with an inferior product, displace the competition, economically starve them & eventually create a competitive product over time through a combination of incremental editorial improvements and gutting the traffic & cash flow to competing sites.

"The difference between life and death is remarkably small. And it’s not until you face it directly that you realize your own mortality." - Dustin Curtis

The above quote is every bit as much true for businesses as it is for people. Nothing more than a threat of a potential entry into a market can cut off the flow of investment & paralyze businesses in fear.

  • If you have stuff behind a paywall or pre-roll ads you might have "poor user experience metrics" that get you hit by Panda.
  • If you make your information semi-accessible to Googlebot you might get hit by Panda for having too much similar content.
  • If you are not YouTube & you have a bunch of stolen content on your site you might get hit by a copyright penalty.
  • If you leave your information fully accessible publicly you get to die by scrape-n-displace.
  • If you are more clever about information presentation perhaps you get a hand penlty for cloaking.

None of those is a particularly desirable way to have your business die.

Editorial Integrity

In addition to having a non-comprehensive database, Google Shopping also suffers from the problem of line extension (who buys video games from Staples?).

The bigger issue is that issue of general editorial integrity.

Are products in stock? Sometimes no.

It is also worth mentioning that some sites with "no product available" like Target or Toys R Us might also carry further Google AdSense ads.

Then there are also issues with things like ads that optimize for CTR which end up promoting things like software piracy or the academic versions of software (while lowering the perceived value of the software).

Over the past couple years Google has whacked loads of small ecommerce sites & the general justification is that they don't add enough that is unique, and that they don't deserve to rank as their inventory is unneeded duplication of Amazon & eBay. Many of these small businesses carry inventory and will be driven into insolvency by the sharp shifts in traffic. And while a small store is unneeded duplication, Google still allows syndicated press releases to rank great (and once again SEOs get blamed for Google being Google - see the quote-as-headline here).

Let's presume Google's anti-small business bias is legitimate & look at Google Shopping to see how well they performed in terms of providing a value add editorial function.

A couple days ago I was looking for a product that is somewhat hard to find due to seasonal shopping. It is often available at double or triple retail on sites like eBay, but Google Shopping helped me locate a smaller site that had it available at retail price. Good deal for me & maybe I was wong about Google.

... then again ...

The site they sent me to had the following characteristics:

  • URL - not EMD & not a brand, broken English combination
  • logo - looks like I designed it AND like I was in a rush when I did it
  • about us page - no real information, no contact information (on an ecommerce site!!!), just some obscure stuff about "direct connection with China" & mention of business being 15 years old and having great success
  • age - domain is barely a year old & privacy registered
  • inbound links - none
  • product price - lower than everywhere else
  • product level page content - no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • no reviews, thin scraped editorial, editorial repeats itself to fill up more space, 3 adsense blocks in the content area of the page
    • the above repetition is to point out the absurdity of the formatting of the "content" of said page
  • site search - yet again the adsense feed, searching for the product landing page that was in Google Shopping I get no results (so outside of paid inclusion & front/center placement, Google doesn't even feel this site is worth wasting the resources to index)
  • checkout - requires account registration, includes captcha that never matches, hoping you will get frustrated & go back to earlier pages and click an ad

It actually took me a few minutes to figure it out, but the site was designed to look like a phishing site, with intent that perhaps you will click on an ad rather than trying to complete a purchase. The forced registration will eat your email & who knows what they will do with it, but you can never complete your purchase, making the site a complete waste of time.

Looking at the above spam site with some help of tools like NetComber it was apparent that this "merchant" also ran all sorts of scraper sites driven on scraping content from Yahoo! Answers & similar, with sites about Spanish + finance + health + shoes + hedge funds.

It is easy to make complaints about Nextag being a less than perfect user experience. But it is hard to argue that Google is any better. And when other companies have editorial costs that Google lacks (and the other companies would be labeled as spammers if they behaved like Google) over time many competing sites will die off due to the embedded cost structure advantages. Amazon has enoug scale that people are willing to bypass Google's click circus & go directly to Amazon, but most other ecommerce players don't. The rest are largely forced to pay Google's rising rents until they can no longer afford to, then they just disappear.

Bonus Prize: Are You Up to The Google Shopping Test?

The first person who successfully solves this captcha wins a free month membership to our site.

Engagement Marketing 101

Nov 13th

Getting traffic to a site is one thing. How do we best engage visitors once they arrive?

Since Update Penquin/Panda, engagement metrics have become more important. In order for our sites to rank well, we need to avoid the bounce - the immediate click-back - or we’re likely to experience drops in ranking. We need to pull visitors deeper into our site. We need more genuine engagement.

Even if engagement metrics had no impact on rankings, optimizing for engagement is always going to be beneficial. The more engaged our audience, the more influence we’re likely to have, and we derive the benefits that flow from it.

Here are a few ideas on visitor engagement, and how to optimize for it.

Two-Way

When visitors have so many options, it’s difficult to engage them for long. We can’t accommodate every need on one site. It’s certainly impossible to accommodate every need within one or two clicks. So, to make the most of every opportunity, we should be optimizing engagement factors.

One problem with content-based approaches is that they tend to be top-down. The visitor is assumed to be a somewhat passive recipient of published information. However, at the heart of engagement is a two-way conversation. In order to foster engagement, we must encourage participation, as opposed to simply deliver content.

The web is moving from an information age to a relationship age. Social media demonstrates that information is intersecting in new ways. Information is being sliced, diced, repurposed, remixed and redelivered, turning “recipients” into producers. The act of consumption changes the information, and often creates new information. Conversation, as discussed in the Cluetrain Manifesto, is crucial in this new economy.

“Historically, the authors state, the marketplace was a location where people gathered and talked to each other: they would discuss available products, price, reputation and in doing so connect with others (theses 2–5.) The authors then assert that the internet is providing a means for anyone connected to the internet to re-enter such a virtual marketplace and once again achieve such a level of communication between people. This, prior to the internet, had not been available in the age of mass media (thesis 6.)”

And that conversation will largely be decided by our visitors. It certainly reshapes marketing. To give an offline example, what’s the problem with marketing television and radio? We watch or listen to the content, but the marketing keeps jumping in, which is intrusive and disruptive.

Engagement Marketing is the opposite. The marketer hangs back and engages with the visitor of and when they need it. Look for ways the visitor can initiate and direct the engagement.

Benchmark/Define Success Metrics

How do we best measure engagement?

We start with a benchmark, which is the current level of engagement. We could look at the engagement link in Google Analytics. Typical measurements include time on site, pages per visit, inbound links, mentions on twitter, return visits, new users per date range, categories of interest, and page depth.

All good. If those metrics increase, it certainly feels like we’re being more engaging. One example might be to examine visitor flow through the site. If we can identify bottlenecks - the point where engagement breaks down - then we can adjust our approach at this point to clear the bottleneck.

But we need to be sure this engagement benefits us. Are these metrics aligned with our business goals? People might well be spending a lot of time on our site, but that might be because they’re lost. We might be getting a lot of mentions on Facebook and Twitter, but are these people actually buying anything? Mentions on Twitter & Facebook might be great metrics for a brand strategy, but not so great for conversion strategy, at least, not in the short term, and not in isolation.

Engagement must translate, and be aligned with, business goals. When choosing what engagement metrics to measure, ask yourself how this type of engagement helps achieve your goals. Also, are there other types of engagement we could foster to support own goals?

Practical Lessons In Engagement

This video is a little sales pitch-y, but contains some interesting lessons on optimizing engagement.

Optimizer, Dan Siroker, who once worked for Google before moving onto the Obama campaign talks about how they used metrics to increase engagement. Both Obama campaigns have demonstrated effective use of digital engagement and measurement to help produce a desired election result. The techniques involve establishing a baseline i.e. seeing what they do already and increasing performance by making tweaks and adjustments, and measuring the result.

He found that, generally speaking, these rules apply when optimizing for engagament:

Start By Defining Success: How will you know if your engagement optimization has worked? Decide on a few, quantifiable measures based around a visitor taking a desirable action. Link those actions to business return.

Less Is More - if we reduce choice, people are more likely to engage. In this example, they reduced the fields people needed to fill in to only those actually required, rather than all the information that may be desirable. Look for ways you can streamline and thus boost engagement.

Words Matter - focus on your call to action. Calls to action tend to work best when you tell the visitor exactly what they have to do. Be explicit. In this example, they compared the phrase “Free trial” vs “Try It Free”. The latter resulted in 14.6% improvement. This was most likely because it was an explicit call to action. However, the “why” doesn’t really matter. The point is to measure one thing against another and see what actually works.

Fail Fast And fail cheap!. It’s all about being iterative. Being flexible. Trying things out. The underlying presumption is that a lot of things we do aren’t going to work, no matter how logical and rational they seem to be when we devise them.

So, rather than be afraid to make a change, as this may result in failure, grasp the opportunity to make a change and be sure to “fail fast”. If something is not working out, cut it quickly, and try something else, until it does work. If it hurts, dump it quick and move on.

Start Today It’s easy to talk about being engaging, but what really matters is taking action to be more engaging. If there’s one thing you can do today to make your site more engaging, what would it be? Go do that. Test it. And then do something else tomorrow :)

In the video, Dan talks mostly about process changes. Another area is, of course, web design.
This article talks about the influence of design on engagement, based on opinion on what design is preferable to another.

If we go back to the rules of engagement, the important thing to do is to test. Test one design against each other to see which is more engaging based on desired visitor action. Ensure the engagement measurement is aligned with a business goal i.e. “we want more 50% orders via our web site”.

Social Media Engagement?

Do Blogs, Twitter and Facebook help you meet your engagement goals?

Is anyone reading our posts? If they do, what do they do next? Anything? Many people are very busy in this space, but generate little or no return on investment. When it comes to engagement, it’s one thing to measure activity, quite another to measure if that activity actually means something.

Part of the problem is not focusing on ROI. Determine your business goals, then shape your social media approach to bring about these goals. One example might be “Twitter traffic makes a donation to our cause”. We’d measure the Twitter traffic, and link it to a successful donation.

This is a good example of where metrics can be deceptive. If we measured Twitter traffic, and time on site, and depth of their activity on-site, that might look great in terms of engagement, but if it doesn’t serve a business purpose, then why are we doing it? If people spend more time on site, is that good? Well, not if we want them to sign up, but they didn’t

Engagement Media & Strategy

There is no substitute for relevance. Relevance is the first, essential step. The next step is pull the visitor in, get them contributing, and get them coming back.

Alan Moore, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, puts it well:

Engagement marketing is “premised upon: transparency - interactivity - immediacy - facilitation - engagement - co-creation - collaboration - experience and trust, these words define the migration from mass media to social media. The explosion of: Myspace, YouTube, Second Life and other MMORPG's, Citizen Journalism, Wicki's and Swicki's, TV formats like Pop Idol, or Jamies School Dinners, Blogs, social search, The Guinness Visitor Centre in Dublin or the Eden project in Cornwall UK, mobile games like Superstable or Twins, or, new business platforms like Spreadshirt.com all demonstrate a new socio-economic model, where engagement sits at the epicentre

In order for the following media examples and strategies to work well, they should have as many of these qualities - transparency - interactivity - immediacy - facilitation - engagement - co-creation - collaboration - experience and trust - as possible. No doubt you've experienced the frustration of heavily moderated and delayed visitor comments on mainstream media acticles. They rob the interaction of immediacy and trust, so it’s no wonder their business model is dying in the face of relatively open and immediate citizen media and reporting.

A quality content strategy is likely to keep people reading, bookmarking, and coming back. Quality is, of course, relative. Compare your content with that of your opponents. Obviously, your stuff needs to be better. Even if people do click away, they may well return if they look at your competitors and find their quality lacking.

Video and audio are linear, so people, once engaged, are likely to engage as long as the media lasts. Likewise, webcasts engage people in the same way, with the added bonus that visitors can interact, if they wish. If increasing time on site aligns with your business goals, then video and audio might be good media to try.

People love giving their opinion. Look for ways to allow them to do so. Blog comments, obviously. Forums. Encouraging people to Tweet or post to their favored social media channel. Implement chat applications, where appropriate, to seek direct feedback. Amazon’s value is considerably increased by their review system - by giving their customers a voice, whether their opinion is positive or negative.

Use mailing lists. These are especially useful for up sells and cross sells post-purchase. Up-sells are when you encourage the customer to buy something more expensive. Cross-selling is when we sell the existing customer an additional item. I receive special discounts from a clothing retailer I buy from on a regular basis, based on my previous buying history. This retains engagement after I've left the site, and because it's relevant and beneficial, it doesn't feel intrusive. It’s considerably more expensive to get a new customer, rather than look after those customers you’ve got, so look for ways to pass on that value to existing customers. They are likely to be highly receptive and willing to engage, as you’ve already convinced them once.

Brand. A huge topic, but let’s take a look at brand in terms of engagement. A brand is an experience. We associate feelings and thoughts with a brand. Apple’s brand is as much about technology as it is about fashion, desirability and identity. Apple creates engagement on a number of levels, but perhaps the most effective is that you become a “member of a club” when you buy an Apple product. The sense of belonging, and defending and asserting your purchase in the cleverly constructed “Apple vs everything else” debate creates a deep level of engagement.

Try to foster a sense of community. It runs very deep in the human psyche. We used to get a sense of community by geographic location. but now our sense of community is largely defined by the tribes to which we belong.

Soft Launching SEOTools.net

Nov 2nd

Last month we soft launched SEOTools.net. Here are a few entries as a sample of things to come...

... do subscribe to the RSS feed if you like what you see thusfar.

Why create yet another site about SEO?

Good question, glad you asked. ;)

Our customer base on this site consists primarily of the top of this pyramid. I can say without doubt that I know that some of our customers know more about SEO than I do & that generally makes them bleeding edge. ;)

And then some people specialize in local or video or ecommerce or other such verticals where there are bits of knowledge one can only gain via first hand experience (eg: importing from China or doing loads of testing of YouTube variables or testing various upsells). There is becoming so much to know that nobody can really know everything, so the goal of our site here is to sorta bring together a lot of the best folks.

Some people newer to the field & a bit lower down on the pyramid are lucky/smart enough to join our community too & those who do so and participate likely save anywhere from 1 to 3 years on their learning curve...leveling up quickly in the game/sport of SEO. But by and large our customers are mostly the expert end of the market.

We could try to water down the community & site to try to make it more mass market, but I think that would take the site's leading strength and flush it down the toilet. In the short run it would mean growth, but it would also make the community less enjoyable ... and this site is as much a labor of love as it is a business. I think I would burn myself out & no longer love it if the site became noisy & every third post was about the keyword density of meta tags.

What Drives You?

When SEOBook.com was originally created SEO was much less complex & back in 2003 I was still new to the field, so I was writing at a level that was largely aligned with the bulk of the market. However, over the past decade SEO has become much more complex & many of our posts tend to be at a pretty high level, pondering long-term implications of various changes.

When there are big changes in the industry we are usually early in discussing them. We were writing about exact match domains back in 2006 and when Google's algorithm hinted at a future of strong brand preference we mentioned that back in 2009. With that being said, many people are not nimble enough to take advantage of some of the shifts & many people still need solid foundational SEO 101 in place before the exceptions & more advanced topics make sense.

The following images either make sense almost instantly, or they look like they are in Greek...depending on one's experience in the field of SEO.

My mom and I chat frequently, but she tells me some of the posts here tend to be pretty deep / complex / hard to understand. Some of them take 20 hours to write & likely read like college dissertations. They are valuable for those who live & breathe SEO, but are maybe not a great fit for those who casually operate in the market.

My guess is my mom is a pretty good reflection of most of the market in understanding page titles, keywords, and so on...but maybe not knowing a lot about anchor text filters, link velocity, extrapolating where algorithm updates might create future problems & how Google might then respond to those, etc. And most people who only incidentally touch the SEO market don't need to get a PhD in the topic in order to reach the point of diminishing returns.

Making Unknowable SEO More Knowable

SEO has many pieces that are knowable (rank, traffic, rate of change, etc.), but over time Google has pulled back more and more data. As Google gets greedier with their data, that makes SEO harder & increases the value of some 3rd party tools that provide competitive intelligence information.

  • Being able to look up the performance of a section of a site is valuable.
  • Tracking how a site has done over time (to identify major ranking shifts & how they align with algorithm updates) is also quite valuable.
  • Seeing link spikes & comparing those with penalties is also valuable.

These data sets help offer clues to drive strategy to try to recover from penalties, & how to mimic top performing sites to make a site less likely to get penalized.

The Difference Between These 2 Sites

Our goal with SEO Book is to...

  • try to cover important trends & topics deeper than anyone else (while not just parroting Google's view)
  • offer a contrary view to lifestyle image / slogan-based SEO lacking in substance or real-world experience
  • maintain the strongest community of SEO experts, such that we create a community I enjoy participating in & learning from

Our goal with SEO tools is to...

  • create a site that is a solid fit for the beginner to intermediate portions of the market
  • review & compare various industry tools & highlight where they have unique features
  • offer how to guides on specific tasks that help people across a diverse range of backgrounds & skill levels save time and become more efficient SEOs
  • provide introduction overviews of various SEO-related topics

Why Does Business Talk That Way?

Nov 1st
posted in

It goes like this.

Our Mission is to provide the best SEO services in the world. We nurture win-win scenarios to create enduring value for our customers. We were voted top SEO agency in Texas and voted the best place to work. We value our staff - we want people to be the best we can be, so as we can maintain our preeminent position in the search industry

Place gun to my head. Pull trigger.

How many times have you come across corporate-speak and thought “who are these people trying to kid”? Yet, when many business people sit down to write, that is the sort of thing they invariably come up with.

Why?

Because they are business people. They are talking about business. That is how business sounds.

Well, it’s how they think business should sound, because that’s the way it has always sounded - a monotone drone of description, chest puffed out. These people are stuck in the business-speak echo chamber.

No one sounds like business-speak in real life. If you ask someone how their job is going, a lot of them will invariably say “it sucks”, "too busy", "it's okay". These same people might work for the firm that has says they were nominated “best place to work”. The image and the reality don't match. At best, people will ignore business-speak. No one really believes it.

There are better ways to communicate.

Truth

A lot of business-speak fails to communicate because it isn't rooted in truth.

I once worked at a Telecommunications Company. The marketing team was having a meeting about a new brochure and came up with the slogan - I am not making this up - "(Company Name) - first in service!". Once I stopped wondering how any of these people ever managed to land a job in Marketing, I asked how we knew we were "first in service"? It seemed a reasonable question, but I may as well have asked the Pope if he really believed in God.

Apparently, it was self-evident we were first in service! There was no basis of truth in it, of course. Just an empty slogan, meaning nothing. No measurement. It was a phrase that "sounded positive!"

I doubt any customers believed it, especially those waiting in call queues.

Do you notice how some small companies try to appear large? They list multiple offices, when in, reality they consist of two guys who have a call forwarding service. I’m not quite sure why a company would pretend to be any bigger than it actually is, because as soon as they get a customer, they are going to get found out. The feeling they’ll likely leave with that customer is that they are fundamentally dishonest.

Which is a strange approach to take.

Many customers consider small to be an advantage. Small can mean you are more connected with your customers as there is no barrier between you and the customer. They can talk directly to you. They can email you. They can see you Twittering. Many customers love that. Big companies have “policies”. They have call centers. They have barriers to entry. It’s no wonder they talk in business-speak. It’s just another means to keep people at a distance.

Small companies sometimes try to appear big because they think they need to be big in order to attract big companies as clients. This is sometimes true, but mostly false. It is true that big companies often like to deal with other big companies, mostly so they can successfully sue them if they stuff up. It is false because smart big companies will know a great idea when they hear one, and size simply won’t be a consideration so long as the small company has got something the big company wants.

For example, I mentioned I’d been reading “The Pumpkin Plan” recently. There is a story about a tiny two person company. They came up with a new way of marketing pharmaceuticals.

One major problem many pharmaceutical companies face is that they need to change their marketing approach in different regions, even though they are marketing the exact same product.

In some areas, they have to market based on price (Los Angeles). In other markets they need to influence the cardiologists (Boston). In other areas they must talk directly to African-American patients (Atlanta). Exact same product, different marketing strategy for each city. Get the strategy wrong, and they waste a lot of money and lose market share.

Two guys came up with a way to crunch the numbers that tell pharmaceutical companies exactly what the biggest driver of performance is in each territory.

Through a network of colleagues, they managed to land a meeting with a pharmaceutical company. Not just any meeting - they go straight to the top floor, and talk to the Chairman Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals. They barely get five slides into their presentation when the Chairman stops them to call in his VP of marketing. They both love the idea! This solves a big problem for Johnson and Johnson. The result is that this two person company lands 500K worth of business on the spot, $4m worth of business in the first two years, and $14.2m by year four. They expand, of course.

So, they were two guys pitching to one the biggest pharmaceutical businesses in the world. They landed millions of dollars worth of business because Johnson and Johnson like their idea. They didn’t need to convince Johnson and Johnson they were anything more than two guys with a good idea. It didn't require any business-speak about mission statements, just a focus on finding and solving a real problem.

Tell A True Story About You (And Them)

If you’re ever tempted to write business-speak, try telling a story instead. Turn your pitches into stories. Turn your proposal into stories. Turn your presentations into stories. Make them true stories. Tell them in your authentic voice. People love to be told a story as stories are both familiar and revealing. A string of facts is never going to have the same impact. Business-speak will invariably leave an audience focused on their smartphones.

A story can be about how you solved a problem in the past. A problem just like the one your prospective clients are having. What was the problem? Why was it painful? What did you do to solve it? What was the result?

Easy and memorable. You can structure almost anything as a story. Stories move from the status quo, straight into a crisis (business problem), then the crisis is resolved, and a new status quo is reached. Start with a problem. Explain why it is painful. Bring in the hero - you - and tell them what you did to solve the problem. Then tell them the result - the new status quo.

Are you more likely to recall the text of my opening paragraph, or the story about the two guys pitching to Johnson and Johnson?

Stories can be so much more effective than business-speak.

Say No To Opportunities & Clients

Oct 29th
posted in

What are you best at?

If you happen to be Google, you’re pretty good at search. And infrastructure. It remains to be seen if you’re any good at social media. It’s fair to say you weren’t much good at Answers, Catalog search, Page Creators, Audio Ads, Wave-ing and Buzz-ing.

The Google example demonstrates that no one can be good at everything, even if they do hire a lot of smart people and have billions in the bank. People, like companies, are good at doing some things, and are okay, or poor, at everything else. Not because they can’t do other things, but because they don't have the time, inclination or disposition.

This truth has led to specialization. Individuals specialize. Companies specialize. Countries specialize. In economics, this is the principle of comparative advantage and it is the basis of trade. We do the things we’re good at, and buy in the things we’re not so good at, or don’t want to do.

We Can’t Be Good At Everything

Like Google, we can’t be good at everything.

Many small businesses make the mistake of trying to do everything, mainly due to lack of resources. However, the opportunity cost of trying to do everything can mean they end up being not very good at doing any one thing. This approach can make them uncompetitive.

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Like many web professionals, I can do some coding. Some web design. A bit of this. A bit of that. But I know there are people who are way better at those things that I am, so I let them do it. If I focus on what I’m good at, then I can make money doing that, and buy in the skills I need.

There are many benefits to specialization. For starters, it’s much easier to build a reputation or brand. Who is the go-to guy for Search Engine News? Many people would answer Danny Sullivan. Who is the go-to guy for search patents? That would be Bill.

Another advantage is that specialization leads to omptimized and more efficient processes, and therefore lower costs. The specialist can optimize and improve their approach to a niche activity in a way a generalist seldom can because their focus means they are more likely to see the details.

Most of us occupy very crowded marketplaces, which makes it difficult to stand out as a generalist. Brands, and reputations, can get confused and diluted if businesses spread themselves over multiple service areas. Virgin gets away with it - mainly because of the brand that is Richard Branson - but they are an exception, not the rule.

Not that this article is about the merits of specialization vs being a generalist. More a case of optimizing a business to focus on those areas that are most lucrative, and literally weeding out everything else.

Weeding Out Clients

A lot of companies, like a lot of people, live paycheck to paycheck. They don’t want to turn down any business, because the more clients, the better, right? The more opportunities, the better?

Not all clients are equal. Not all opportunities are a good fit. A client who costs a lot to service, who doesn’t pay their bills on time, who makes life difficult for you is probably not a client worth having. Sure, they might help keep us going to the next paycheck, but this is not an optimal way to run a sustainable business long term. Such clients present an opportunity cost i.e. we could be working with better clients, be making better money, and honing our service around mutual benefit.

For this reason, many companies make a habit of firing clients, or never take them on in the first place.

For example, last year, I received a letter from my accountant. She advised me they were reviewing their business and letting a lot of their clients go, although they were still happy to work with me, and asked that I have a chat with them if I had any concerns.

I did have a chat with them, mainly to confirm my suspicions.

They were deliberately getting rid of 50% of their clients. They had figured out who their top clients were i.e. the clients who took them the least time to service because their books were in order, and they eliminated the rest i.e. those clients whos books were a mess and were generally a pain to deal with. They downsized their business, reduced overhead and now tell me they are making more money than they previously were due to their optimized cost structure. They also appear to be playing a lot more golf!

They optimized their business, became more profitable, and have a lot more time because they made a point of figuring out the core of their business, and saying “no” to everything else.

Say No

Saying no can be very powerful. Prospective clients seem to respect this more, not less. There is something very appealing about a service that is exclusive and beyond reach. It signals a level of confidence that can be attractive.

Exclusive positioning is not just done for the sake of it. It’s a way to filter clients in order to find a good fit, which is especially important for small companies, as they have less resources available to carry bad risks. If we can figure out a client need that we know we can service well (specialization), with sufficient margins for us to be enthusiastic, and the client gets the value they were looking for, then everyone wins.

Let’s say running a PPC bid management service earns an internet marketing company the most money with the least effort. Let’s say they also do web design, but this is a lot more work (read: higher cost to service), and the margins are lower.

Would this company be better off saying “no” to new web design business? Quite possibly. They could dedicate more time to PPC, their PPC processes would get more refined through increased specialization, and they would likely be better placed to compete in the PPC space as their brand and attention becomes more focused. They could let go of the web designer, thus reducing overhead.

Granted, there are many factors to consider, but the question is this: are some areas of your business being serviced only because you can? Or does it make sense to focus on the areas where there is best fit? i.e. better margins, lower costs, most productive relationships - even if that means letting some clients, and even some staff, go?

Could we get better at saying "no"?

Business Lessons From Pumpkin Hackers

Oct 19th
posted in

Working nine to five can suck.

You might be working for a boss who is an idiot. You know he makes stupid decisions. When he's off making yet another stupid decision, it's you left doing all the work. As for job security - that's a joke these days. He can fire you on a whim.

So why not cut out the weak link? Why not go into business for yourself?

The reality, of course, is that starting a business isn't as easy as saying it. You'll likely work longer hours, for less money, and there are no guarantees. While your friends are looking forward to the weekend, you might not see a weekend for a while. Most small businesses fail in their first five years, taking dreams and savings along with them.

Everything has a downside.

However, many businesses not only survive, they prosper. They make their founders wealthy. Even if they don't make fortunes, they can provide lifestyle benefits that are near impossible to achieve with a regular job. There's a lot to be said for being the master of your own destiny.

To achieve that, it's best to start with some good advice.

Makin’ Mistakes

I've been running my own small business for a decade now. Whilst it's been rewarding, and I achieved the goals I set for myself, there has also been a fair few missed opportunities and inevitable wrong turns. I jumped in blind, and like many in the search marketing industry, pretty much made it up as I went along.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But I wished I had understood a few fundamental truths first. I wished someone had imparted some profound wisdom, and I wished I had been smart enough to listen. Come to think of it - they did, and I wasn't.

Such is life.

I’m in the process of setting new goals for the next few years. I'm restructuring. So I decided to reflect on the past, examine the good and the bad, and try to do more of the former, and less of the latter.

One of the problems I identified was that I was spreading myself way too thin over many projects. I have a *lot* of sites. I have domains I’d even forgotten I owned. I have domain names I keep renewing, vowing to do something with one day, yet never getting around to it.

In short, I was growing an awful lot of small pumpkins.

Getting The Fundamentals Right

I’ve decided to ditch almost all of what I have been doing in the past, and focus on a very narrow range of activities, one of which is working with Aaron on SEOBook.

One book I really wish I'd read when I was starting out - had it been available, which it wasn’t - is called "The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy To Grow A Remarkable Business". I'd like to share the central theme of the book with you, because I think it's a great lesson if you're thinking of starting a business, or, like me, optimizing an existing one.

It’s the lesson I wished I’d understood when I started. I certainly hope it’s of help to someone else :)

If You Want To Prosper, Learn To Grow Pumpkins

There are geek farmers who obsess about growing huge pumpkins. They are the hackers of the vegetable world. In order to grow a huge pumpkin - weighing half a ton or more - you can’t just throw seeds on the ground. You can’t grow a whole lot of pumpkins and hope one of them turns out to be huge.

You’ve got to follow a process.

And here it is:

  • Step One: Plant promising seeds
  • Step Two: Water, water, water
  • Step Three: As they grow, routinely remove all of the diseased or damaged pumpkins
  • Step Four: Weed like a mad dog. Not a single green leaf or root permitted if it isn’t a pumpkin plant
  • Step Five: When they grow larger, identify the stronger faster growing pumpkins. Then, remove all the less promising pumpkins. Repeat until you have one pumpkin on each vine.
  • Step Six: Focus all of your attention on the big pumpkin. Nurture it around the clock like a baby and guard it like you would your first Mustang convertible
  • Step Seven: Watch it grow. In the last days of the season this will happen so fast you can actually see it happen

What’s this got to do with business? It’s a process for growing not just pumpkins, but businesses. Let's apply it:

  • Step One: Identify and leverage your biggest natural strengths
  • Step Two: Sell, Sell, Sell
  • Step Three: As your business grows, fire all your small time, rotten clients
  • Step Four: Never, ever let distractions - often labelled as new opportunities - take hold. Weed them out fast.
  • Step Five: Identify your top clients and remove the rest of the less promising clients
  • Step Six: Focus all your attention on your top clients. Nurture and protect them. Find out what they want more than anything and if its in alignment with what you do best, give it to them. Then, replicate the same service or product for as many of the same types of top client as possible
  • Step Seven: Watch your company grow to a giant size

In essence, it’s about focusing on those things you do best. It’s about focusing on your very best customers, and ditching the rest. It’s about creating your own niche by identifying and solving the problems that no one else does.

None of this is new, of course. There are plenty of business advice books that say similar things. However, this is one of those great little stories I wish I had internalized earlier. Rather than grow a lot of small pumpkins, focus on growing those that matter.

Given recent changes at Google, I dare say a lot of SEOs - particularly those who run their own small sites - may be rethinking their approach. Unfortunately, the small guy is being squeezed and the rewards, like in most endevours, are increasingly flowing to large operations. Search conferences, which used to be the domain of the lone-wolf affiliate guy and mom and pop businesses are now jammed full of corporates and their staff. The entire landscape is shifting. New approaches are required, not just in terms of tactics, but in the underlying fundamentals.

It would be interesting to hear your lessons in business. What are the things you know now that you wished someone had told you when you started? Please share them in the comments.

Google Disavow Tool

Oct 18th

Google launched a disavow links tool. Webmasters who want to tell Google which links they don’t want counted can now do so by uploading a list of links in Google Webmaster Tools.

If you haven’t received an “unnatural link” alert from Google, you don’t really need to use this tool. And even if you have received notification, Google are quick to point out that you may wish to pursue other avenues, such as approaching the site owner, first.

Webmasters have met with mixed success following this approach, of course. It's difficult to imagine many webmasters going to that trouble and expense when they can now upload a txt file to Google.

Careful, Now

The disavow tool is a loaded gun.

If you get the format wrong by mistake, you may end up taking out valuable links for long periods of time. Google advise that if this happens, you can still get your links back, but not immediately.

Could the use of the tool be seen as an admission of guilt? Matt gives examples of "bad" webmaster behavior, which comes across a bit like “webmasters confessing their sins!”. Is this the equivalent of putting up your hand and saying “yep, I bought links that even I think are dodgy!”? May as well paint a target on your back.

Some webmasters have been victims of negative SEO. Some webmasters have had scrapers and autogen sites that steal their content, and then link back. There are legitimate reasons to disavow links. Hopefully, Google makes an effort to make such a distinction.

One wonders why Google simply don't discount the links they already deem to be “bad”? Why the need for the webmaster to jump through hoops? The webmaster is still left to guess which links are “bad”, of course.

Not only is it difficult working out the links that may be a problem, it can be difficult getting a view of the entire link graph. There are various third party tools, including Google’s own Webmaster Central, but they aren’t exhaustive.

Matt mentioned that the link notification emails will provide examples of problem links, however this list won't be exhaustive. He also mentioned that you should pay attention to the more recent links, presumably because if you haven't received notification up until now, then older links weren't the problem. The issue with that assumption is that links that were once good can over time become bad:

  • That donation where you helped a good cause & were later mortified that "online casino" and "discount cheap viagra" followed your course for purely altruistic reasons.
  • That clever comment on a well-linked PR7 page that is looking to cure erectile dysfunction 20 different ways in the comments.
  • Links from sources that were considered fine years ago & were later repositioned as spam (article banks anyone?)
  • Links from sites that were fine, but a number of other webmasters disavowed, turning a site that originally passed the sniff test into one that earns a second review revealing a sour stench.

This could all get rather painful if webmasters start taking out links they perceive to be a problem, but aren’t. I imagine a few feet will get blasted off in the process.

Webmasters Asked, Google Gaveth

Webmasters have been demanding such a tool since the un-natural notifications started appearing. There is no question that removing established links can be as hard, if not harder, than getting the links in the first place. Generally speaking, the cheaper the link was to get the higher the cost of removal (relative to the original purchase price). If you are renting text link ads for $50 a month you can get them removed simply by not paying. But if you did a bulk submission to 5,000 high PR SEO friendly directories...best of luck with that!

It is time consuming. Firstly, there’s the overhead in working out which links to remove, as Google doesn’t specify them. Once a webmaster has made a list of the links she thinks might be a problem, she then needs to go through the tedious task of contacting each sites and requesting that a link be taken down.

Even with the best will in the world, this is an overhead for the linking site, too. A legitimate site may wish to verify the identity of the person requesting the delink, as the delink request could come from a malicious competitor. Once identity has been established, the site owner must go to the trouble of making the change on their site.

This is not a big deal if a site owner only receives one request, but what if they receive multiple requests per day? It may not be unreasonable for a site owner to charge for the time taken to make the change, as such a change incurs a time cost. If the webmaster who has incurred a penalty has to remove many links, from multiple sites, then such costs could quickly mount. Taken to the (il)logical extremes, this link removal stuff is a big business. Not only are there a number of link removal services on the market, but one of our members was actually sued for linking to a site (when the person who was suing them paid to place the link!)

What’s In It For Google?

Webmasters now face the prisoner's dilemma and are doing Google’s job for them.

It’s hard to imagine this data not finding it’s way to the manual reviewers. If there are multiple instances of webmasters reporting paid links from a certain site, then Google have more than enough justification to take it out. This would be a cunning way around the “how do we know if a link is paid?” problem.

Webmasters will likely incorporate bad link checking into their daily activities. Monitoring inbound links wasn’t something you had to watch in the past, as links were good, and those that weren’t, didn’t matter, as they didn’t affect ranking anyway. Now, webmasters may feel compelled to avoid an unnatural links warning by meticulously monitoring their inbound links and reporting anything that looks odd. Google haven’t been clear on whether they would take such action as a result - Matt suggests they just reclassify the link & see it as a strong suggestion to treat it like the link has a nofollow attribute - but no doubt there will be clarification as the tool beds in. Google has long used a tiered index structure & enough complaints might lower the tier of a page or site, cause it's ability to pass trust to be blocked, or cause the site to be directly penalized.

This is also a way of reaffirming “the law”, as Google sees it. In many instances, it is no fault of the webmaster that rogue sites link up, yet the webmaster will feel compelled to jump through Google’s hoops. Google sets the rules of the game. If you want to play, then you play by their rules, and recognize their authority. Matt Cutts suggested:

we recommend that you contact the sites that link to you and try to get links taken off the public web first. You’re also helping to protect your site’s image, since people will no longer find spammy links and jump to conclusions about your website or business.

Left unsaid in the above is most people don't have access to aggregate link data while they surf the web, most modern systems of justice are based on the presumption of innocence rather than guilt, and most rational people don't presume that a site that is linked to is somehow shady simply for being linked to.

If the KKK links to Matt's blog tomorrow that doesn't imply anything about Matt. And when Google gets featured in an InfoWars article it doesn't mean that Google desires that link or coverage. Many sketchy sites link to Adobe (for their flash player) or sites like Disney & Google for people who are not old enough to view them or such. Those links do not indicate anything negative about the sites being linked into. However, as stated above, search is Google's monopoly to do with as they please.

On the positive side, if Google really do want sites to conform to certain patterns, and will reward them for doing so by letting them out of jail, then this is yet another way to clean up the SERPs. They get the webmaster on side and that webmaster doing link classification work for them for free.

Who, Not What

For a decade search was driven largely by meritocracy. What you did was far more important than who you were. It was much less corrupt than the physical world. But as Google chases brand ad Dollars, that view of the search landscape is no longer relevant.

Large companies can likely safely ignore much of the fear-first approach to search regulation. And when things blow up they can cast off blame on a rogue anonymous contractor of sorts. Whereas smaller webmasters walk on egg shells.

When the government wanted to regulate copyright issues Google claimed it would be too expensive and kill innovation at small start ups. Google then drafted their own copyright policy from which they themselves are exempt. And now small businesses not only need to bear that cost but also need to police their link profiles, even as competitors can use Fivver, ScrapeBox, splog link networks & various other sources to drip a constant stream of low cost sludge in their direction.

Now more than ever, status is important.

Gotchas

No doubt you’ve thought of a few. A couple thoughts - not that we advocate them, but realize they will happen:

  • Intentionally build spam links to yourself & then disavow them (in order to make your profile look larger than it is & to ensure that competitor who follows everything you do - but lacks access to your disavow data - walks into a penalty).
  • Find sites that link to competitors and leave loads of comments for the competitor on them, hoping that the competitor blocks the domain as a whole.
  • Find sites that link to competitors & buy links from them into a variety of other websites & then disavow from multiple accounts.
  • Get a competitor some link warnings & watch them push to get some of their own clean "unauthorized" links removed.
  • The webmaster who parts on poor terms burning the bridge behind them, or leaving a backdoor so that they may do so at anytime.

If a malicious webmaster wanted to get a target site in the bad books, they could post obvious comment spam - pointing at their site, and other sites. If this activity doesn’t result in an unnatural linking notification, then all good. It’s a test of how Google values that domain. If it does result in an unnatural link notification, the webmaster could then disavow links from that site. Other webmasters will likely do the same. Result: the target site may get taken out.

To avoid this sort of hit, pay close attention to your comment moderation.

Please add your own to the comments! :) Gotchas, that is, not rogue links.

Further opinions @ searchengineland and seoroundtable.

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