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"?

  • 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!

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.

Next Generation SEO

Oct 9th
posted in

There is a good thread on Webmaster World entitled “Next Generation SEO”. Many webmasters hit hard by the uncertainty created by Panda and Penguin are wondering what approaches might work best in the future.

Here at SEOBook, we’ve long advocated the approach of grounding SEO within a solid marketing-based strategy, so we post frequently on this theme. But this is not to say the technical side - algorithm gaming - no longer works, because it most certainly does.

Let’s take a look at both approaches, and how they can be fused.

Rationale Of SEO

The rationale of search engine optimization is simple. If we can work out what factors the search engine algorithms favor, we can do more of it. Our reward will be a high ranking, meaning more people can find us, which results in more traffic.

In theory, the incentive of the search engine and that of the SEO should be aligned. The SEO works out exactly what the search engine wants, and hands it to them on a plate.

The problem is reality.

Search engines, in reality, aren’t near as clever as those running them sometimes make out. They are susceptible to gaming. Sergey Brin, a few years back, even went so far as to suggest “there is no spam, only bad algorithms”. The existence of a webspam team appears to indicate the algorithms still need plenty of work.

There are other problems in terms of incentives. The search engines make their money not by the relevance of the search results, but by the relevance of the advertising. Unless competition is finely balanced between search engines - which it hasn’t been for many years now - the search results need only be “good enough”. Does a search engine really want the searcher finding the most relevant content in the main search results? The business case would demand something a little more subtle, which is not good news for webmasters who rely on gaming the algorithms.

Secondly, a search engine would prefer the money being spent on SEO was going into PPC. If it is considerably cheaper to game the algorithm than run PPC, then few people would bother with PPC. In this respect, SEOs are a competitive threat to the search engines advertising business, yet the incentive for the webmaster is to minimize marketing spend. The search engines, therefore, would have an incentive to drive up the cost of SEO.

Gaming The Algorithm

Given search engine algorithms aren’t yet as clever as those who run would like them to be, the search engines engage in a mixture of algorithm adjustments and FUD in order to counter the effectiveness of search engine optimization. Lately, they have been ramping up activity in both areas, which suggests to me that they see “enthusiastic” search engine optimization as a significant problem.

SEO is a significant problem because it works.

The minute something starts to work a little too well, and the knowledge of how to do it becomes a little too widespread, the search engines have typically jumped in to reset the game. This tends to affect the “low-hanging fruit techniques” i.e. anything that is cheap to do, widely known, and therefore widely practiced.

Take link building. It’s a well known fact that links will result in higher rankings. Google recently jumped into this area, with a mix of adjustments and FUD, to scare off those who buy links. We have the now ridiculous scenario whereby webmasters are paying to have links removed. I can imagine the Google “web quality” team in fits of laughter. Meanwhile, a cottage industry has sprung up in response i.e. people demanding money to delink.

Many of the links webmasters are removing aren't causing the problem.

Link buying still works. Webmasters just need to stay away from the most blatant “low hanging fruit techniques”, such as identical anchor text and obvious paid link networks. At SEOBook, we’ve made side-by-side comparisons of sites that were harmed by their links, and those that weren’t, yet there are often only minor differences in their link graphs. Paid links aren't the problem. Failing to mix it up is the problem.

Search engine optimization is also about content, and the evidence doesn’t suggest that having a lot of content is a negative. It depends where content sits. If the domain has a strong link structure, then the content can be....less than stellar. If your site lacks a stellar link graph, then it becomes more important to have engaging content i.e. fewer immediate click-backs

Moving Forward

The problem with algorithmic-centric approaches is that when the algorithm shifts, so too does the approach. This is fine for people who like chasing the algorithms. It works less well for those who don’t have a lot of time and money to spend doing so, or have less scope to radically change approach.

“Next generation SEO” is essentially “marketing”, whilst keeping the search engines firmly in mind. It's what good SEO has always been about, it's just that some in the industry have lost focus and become obsessed with traffic for its own sake.

It’s about looking at the underlying business to find problems and opportunities. It’s about focusing on the needs of the visitor to help ensure higher conversion rates. This means optimizing for usability, conversion, and relevance.

It’s about building links for traffic, juice and awareness. It’s about establishing networks, particularly in the social space, as we have to go where the people hang out. It means paying attention to the rise of mobile usage. It means paying attention to verticals, such as Amazon. There is evidence to suggest people are moving away from search engines, or not using them quite as much.

In short, SEO will become more like a pay-per-click approach, without paying per click.

Mix And Match

This is not to say you need to do any of the above. You can still do well in SEO by publishing pages and pointing links at them. However, there are many aspects that can be optimized. If nothing else, optimizing a web business can be more fun, and more prosperous, than chasing Google’s near constant algorithm updates in pursuit of raw traffic.

SEO will be around for many years yet. Whilst search engines are a conduit for traffic, then there will be people doing SEO. It’s fair to say the barrier to entry has been raised, so it’s now more difficult and therefore costly to undertake SEO. This flushes out some competitors, however it is rarely those with holistic marketing strategies that get flushed.

Persuasion Optimization

Oct 2nd
posted in

There are many ways to optimize.

We optimize to align a site with search engine algorithms in order to gain higher rankings, which, in turn, leads to visitor traffic. Other forms of optimization occur after the visitor has landed on our pages.

One such optimization is called persuasion optimization.

After going to the effort of getting a visitor to land on our pages, the last thing we want them to do is to click back. We want them to read and act upon our messages.

There Are Many Ways To Persuade

Robert Cialdini, a Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, identified six categories into which persuasion techniques commonly fall: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity.

We can use these techniques to optimize both our content and site design so that visitors are more likely to stay on our pages, and more likely to convert to desired action.

Whilst these techniques could be seen as being manipulative, it depends how they’re used. If used in good faith, they’re a natural part of the ritual involved in selling people on our point of view. On the other hand, being aware of these techniques makes them easy to spot if used against us!

1. Reciprocity

Reciprocity is when we give something to someone, and they return the favour. The act of reciprocity is so ingrained in our culture, it can occur whether the person asked for the favor or not, and whether the people involved previously knew each other, or not.

Reciprocity creates an obligation.

Examine your offer to see if you can give something of real value away. For example, some information product vendors give away large chunks of the product, or long trials. People may reciprocate by paying for the remaining sections or full product. They may have been less likely to do so if the vendor gave less value up front. Think about what you can do for your audience, rather than the other way around.

Another way of thinking about reciprocity is to provide a concession. If you concede something small, but do so early, the other party may feel obligated to concede something greater later on.

For example, ask for something significant. When this is turned down, ask for something moderate - the moderate request being what you wanted all along. The second request is more likely to be accepted as it appears you’ve already made a concession, so the other party feels obligated to do likewise.

2. Commitment and Consistency

People like people to be consistent.

People who lack consistency can be seen as untrustworthy or disorganized. If we’re consistent, it reduces complexity, because other people don’t have to re-evaluate us each time they need to make a decision about us. They merely need to remain consistent with their previous evaluation of us, and their previous decision. If we start acting differently, it forces a re-evaluation.

The same goes for websites.

Look for areas of your website where the messages may conflict. This could be as obvious as a mistake in the copy about the offer, or as subtle as a change in tone of voice. Each page should flow from one to the next in a consistent manner, using consistent tone and design, and the message should not contradict, or wander off on unexpected tangents.

There are exceptions of course. If you’re trying to shock people, or draw attention to something out of the ordinary, then playing against consistency can work. However, consistency would have to have been established first, before it’s possible to successfully play against it.

3. Social Proof

Does your site show evidence that other people find it valuable? Examples may include testimonials, reviews, and associations.

Social proof helps establish trust quickly by leveraging existing trust relationships. If someone trusts those associations you cite - say, “As seen in the New York Times” - or is merely inclined to trust the crowd over their own judgement, then the path of least resistance is to trust you, too.

Establishing trust quickly is critical online, because it’s easy for the user to click back, so social proof can be a very powerful technique.

It’s also easy to get wrong, as to can look contrived. People are most likely to be persuaded by social proof if the person or entity providing the proof is a known authority. Who does your audience already know and trust? Some sites make the mistake of using testimonials from non-entities.

4. Liking

People like to do business with those they like.

Attractive people, rightly or wrongly, can be persuasive, as others tend to assign them positive traits. At a base level, the use of physically attractive male and female models is a staple of the advertising industry. At a higher level, people respond to people who are like them. The attraction is based on similarity.

In terms of web marketing, your level of “likeability” will very much depend on the audience. A
site selling fashion is likely to be aspirational i.e. less like the actual audience, but exhibiting attractive traits to which the audience aspires. A site selling technical solutions will likely focus on familiarity and affinity. A site about weighty subjects will likely convey intellectualism. It's all a way of mirroring the audience, either literally who they are or how they perceive they are, in order to be liked.

Another aspect of liking is association. Look at ways you can associate yourself with entities or people you visitors already like. Common tactics include aligning your site with a charity, celebrity or industry event.

5. Authority

People often respond to authority figures.

“Correct conduct” is a response to authority figures. For example, the “white hat/black hat” positioning in SEO is defined by an authority figure, in this case, the search engine and their representatives.

Authority on websites can be conveyed using symbols, qualifications and associations. However, these days, people tend to more cynical of authority than in times past. They will likely question authority by wanting to see evidence of claims made, and try to establish if the person telling them the information is trustworthy.

Does your site offer evidence and proof of your claims?

6. Scarcity

We tend to undervalue what is plentiful, and overvalue what is scarce.

An overt use of this tactic is to create artificial scarcity, particularly in the frauduct world. For example, I’m sure you’ve seen aggressive marketers claiming there are only so many places/products left, in an attempt to make you perceive scarcity, so you’re more inclined to act impulsively.

Cialdini notes:

“According to psychological reactance theory, people respond to the loss of freedom by wanting to have it more. This includes the freedom to have certain goods and services. As a motivator, psychological reactance is present throughout the great majority of a person's life span. However, it is especially evident at a pair of ages: "the terrible twos" and the teenage years. Both of these periods are characterized by an emerging sense of individuality, which brings to prominence such issues as control, individual rights, and freedoms. People at these ages are especially sensitive to restrictions”.

People are most attracted to scarcity when they are newly scare i.e. they haven’t always been scarce, and secondly, when other people are competing for the same resources. In terms of a website, these two concepts could be combined. Time is both running out, and demand has been overwhelming. This is also a form of social proof, of course.

Summary

Seth Godin said “All Marketers Are Liars”

There are elements of manipulation and story-telling in marketing, and no doubt you can see these concepts in some of the worst examples of web marketing. But they also exist in some of the best. And no doubt we all use some of these techniques, possibly unknowingly, in our everyday lives.

These ideas can be very powerful when combined on a website. Try evaluating your competitors against each of the six categories. Have they used them well? Overused them? Then audit your own site, experiment and track changes.

A little effort spent on persuasion can go a long way to maximizing the value of the traffic you have already won.

The Death of SEO [Infographic]

Oct 1st

Over the weekend Google did an update which continues their trend of diminishing the value of domain names in an SEO strategy as they "pump up the brand."

In light of that, we thought it would be a good time to get out in front of the tired "Death of SEO" meme that is sure to appear once again in the coming weeks. ;)

The font size is somewhat small in the below image, but if you click through to the archived page you can see it in it's full glorious size.

The Death of SEO.

Want to syndicate this infographic? Embed code is here. We also created a PDF version.

Insulating Ourselves From Google's Whims

Sep 26th
posted in

Ranking well for our chosen keywords involves putting in a lot of effort up front, with no guarantee of ranking, or reward.

Even if we do attain rankings, and even if do get rewarded, there is no guarantee this situation will last. And this state of flux, for many seos, is only likely to get worse as Google advises that updates will be “jarring and julting for a while

Even more reason to make every visitor count.

If we can extract higher value from each visitor, by converting them from visitor to customers, and from short term customers to long term customers, then our businesses are less vulnerable to Google’s whims. We don’t need to be as focused on acquiring new visitors.

There is great value to be had in optimizing the entire marketing chain.

Hunting For Customers Vs Keeping Customers

It comes down to cost.

According to a Harvard Study a few years back, it can cost five times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to keeping a current customer happy. Of course, your mileage may vary, as whether it really costs five times as much, or three, or seven really depends what your cost structure.

However, this concept is an important one for search marketers, as it’s reasonable to assume that the cost of acquiring customers, via keyword targeting, is rising as Google makes the marketing process of keyword targeting more expensive than it has been in the past. This trend is set to continue.

If the cost of customer acquisition is rising, it can make sense to look at optimizing the offer, the conversion rates and optimizing the value of existing customers.

Underlying Fundamentals

If you have something a lot of people desperately need, and there isn’t much competition, it typically doesn’t cost much to land those customers. They come to you. If you have something genuinely scarce, or even artificially scarce, people will line up.

The problem is that most businesses don’t enjoy such demand. They must compete with other businesses offering similar products and services. So, if there is a scarcity issue, it’s a scarcity of customers, not service and product providers.

However, by focusing on a specific niche, businesses can eliminate a lot of competition, and thereby reduce the marketing cost. For example, a furniture manufacturer could conceivably make furniture for a wide variety of customers, from commercial offices, to industry, to the home.

But if they narrowed their focus to, say, private jet fit-outs, they eliminate a lot of their competition. They’d also have to determine if that niche is lucrative, of course, but as you can see, it’s a way of eliminating a lot of competition simply by adding focus and specialization.

By specializing, they are more likely to enjoy higher quality leads - i.e. leads that may result in a sale - than if they targeted broadly, as it is difficult to be all things to all people The cost of marketing to a broad target market can be higher, as can the level of competition in the search results pages, and the quality of leads can be lower.

Conversion Optimization

Once we’re focused on our niche, and we’ve got targeted visitors coming in, how can we ensure fewer visitors are wasted?

Those who do a lot of PPC will be familiar with conversion optimization, and we’ll dive deep into this fascinating area over the coming weeks, but it’s a good concept for those new to SEO, and internet marketing in general, to keep at front of mind.

You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get people to your site, so make sure they don’t click back once they arrive!

Here’s a great case study by a company called Conversion Rate Experts. It outlines how to structure pages to improve conversion rates. Whilst the findings are the result of testing and adaptation, and are specific to each business, there are a few few key lessons here:

Length of the page. In this case, a long page improved conversion rates by 30%. Of course, it’s not a numbers game, more the fact that the longer page allowed more time to address objections and answer visitor questions.

As Conversion Rate Experts point out:

The media would have us believe that people no longer have any capacity to concentrate. In reality, you cannot have a page that’s too long—only one that’s too boring. In the case of Crazy Egg’s home page, visitors wanted their many questions answered and that’s what we delivered. (If you’d like more people to scroll down your long pages, see the guide we wrote on the topic.)”

It’s best to experiment, to see what works best in your own situation, but, generally speaking, it pays to offer the visitor as much timely information as possible, as opposed to short copy if there is a analytical, need-oriented motivation. Short copy can work better if the customer is impulsive.

As we see in the Crazy Egg case study, by anticipating and addressing specific objections, and moving the customer closer to the point of sale, the webpage is doing the job of the salesperson. This is an area where SEO and PPC, linked with conversion rate optimization, can add a ton of value.

The second interesting point was they optimized the long-term value of the customer to the company by making a time-sensitive offer.

The one-time offer test illustrates another important principle of conversion optimization: Don’t let the fear of a short-term loss stand in the way of a long-term gain

The offer they made turned a short-term customer into a long-term customer. If we have a lot of long term customers on our books, it can take some of the pressure off the need to constantly acquire new customers.

Optimize Everything

We engage in SEO because there are many similar sites.

The benefit of SEO is we can occupy premium real estate. If we appear high on the search result pages, we are more likely than our competitors to command the customers attention. But we stand to gain a lot more stability if we are not wholly reliant on occupying the top spots, and therefore less vulnerable to Google’s whims.

3 Reasons Google Won’t Offer Car Insurance Comparisons in the US Anytime Soon

Sep 20th

The following is a guest column written by Rory Joyce from CoverHound.

Last week Google Advisor made its long-awaited debut in the car insurance vertical -- in the UK. Given Google’s 2011 acquisition of BeatThatQuote.com, a UK comparison site, for 37.7 million pounds ($61.5 million US), it comes as little surprise that the company chose to enter the UK ahead of other markets. While some might suspect Google’s foray into the UK market is merely a trial balloon, and that an entrance into the US market is inevitable, I certainly wouldn’t hold my breath.

Here are three reasons Google will not be offering an insurance comparison product anytime soon in the US market:

1) High Opportunity Cost

Finance and insurance is the number one revenue - generating advertising vertical for Google, totaling $4 billion in 2011. While some of that $4 billion is made up of products like health insurance, life insurance and credit cards, the largest segment within the vertical is undoubtedly car insurance. The top 3 advertisers in the vertical as a whole are US carriers -- State Farm, Progressive and Geico -- spending a combined sum of $110 million in 2011.

The keyword landscape for the car insurance vertical is relatively dense. A vast majority of searches occur across 10-20 generic terms (ie - “car insurance,” “auto insurance,” “cheap auto insurance,” “auto insurance quotes,” etc). This is an important point because it helps explain the relatively high market CPC of car insurance keywords versus other verticals. All of the major advertisers are in the auction for a large majority of searches, resulting in higher prices. The top spot for head term searches can reach CPCs well over $40. The overall average revenue/click for Google is probably somewhere around $30. Having run run similar experiments with carrier click listing ads using SEM traffic, I can confidently assume that the click velocity (clicks per clicker) is around 1.5. So the average revenue per searcher who clicks is probably somewhere around $45 for Google.

Now, let’s speculate on Google’s potential revenues from advertisers in a comparison environment. Carriers’ marketing allowable is approximately $250 per new policy. When structuring pay-for-performance pricing deep in the funnel (or on a sold-policy basis), carriers are unlikely to stray from those fundamentals. In a fluid marketplace higher in the funnel (i.e.  Adwords PPC), they very often are managing to a marginal cost per policy that far exceeds even $500 (see $40 CPCs). While it may seem like irrational behavior, there are two reasons they are able to get away with this:

a) They are managing to an overall average cost per policy, meaning all direct response marketing channels benefit from “free,” or unattributable sales. With mega-brands like Geico, this can be a huge factor.

b) There are pressures to meet sales goals at all costs. Google presents the highest intent of any marketing channel available to insurance marketers. If marketers need to move the needle in a hurry, this is where they spend.

Regardless of how Google actually structures the pricing, the conversion point will be much more efficient for the consumer since they will be armed with rates and thus there will be less conversion velocity for Google. The net-net here is a much more efficient marketplace, and one where Google can expect average revenue to be about $250 per sold policy.

How does this match up against the $45 unit revenue they would significantly cannibalize? The most optimized and competitive carriers can convert as high as 10% of clicks into sales. Since Google would be presenting multiple policies we can expect that in a fully optimized state, they may see 50% higher conversion and thus 15% of clicks into sales. Here is a summary of the math:

With the Advisor product, in an optimized state, Google will make about $37.50 ($250 x .15) per clicker. Each cannibalized lead will thus cost Google $7.50 of unit revenue ($45 - $37.50). Given the dearth of compelling comparison options in insurance (that can afford AdWords), consumers would definitely be intrigued and so one can assume the penetration/cannibalization would be significant.

Of course there are other impacts to consider: How would this affect competition and average revenue for non-cannibalized clicks? Will responders to Advisor be incremental and therefore have zero opportunity cost?

2) Advisor Has Poor Traction in Other Verticals

Over the past couple of years, Google has rolled out its Advisor product in several verticals including: personal banking, mortgage, and flight search.

We know that at least mortgage didn’t work out very well. Rolled out in early 2011, it was not even a year before Google apparently shut the service down in January of 2012.

I personally don’t have a good grasp on the Mortgage vertical so I had a chat with a high-ranking executive at a leading mortgage site, an active AdWords advertiser. In talking to him it became clear that there were actually quite a bit of similarities between mortgage and insurance as it relates to Google including:

  1. Both industries are highly regulated in the US, at the state level.
  2. Both verticals are competitive and lucrative. CPCs in mortgage can exceed $40.
  3. Like insurance, Google tested Advisor in the UK market first.

Hoping he could serve as my crystal ball for insurance, I asked, “So why did Advisor for Mortgage fail?” His response was, “The chief issue was that the opportunity cost was unsustainably high. Google needed to be as or more efficient than direct marketers who had been doing this for years. They underestimated this learning curve and ultimately couldn’t sustain the lost revenue as a result of click cannibalization.”

Google better be sure it has a good understanding of the US insurance market before entering, or else history will repeat itself, which brings me to my next point...

3) They Don’t Yet Have Expertise

Let’s quickly review some key differences between the UK and US insurance markets:

  1. Approximately 80% of car insurance is purchased through comparison sites in the UK vs under 5% in the US.
  2. There is one very business-friendly pricing regulatory body in the UK versus state-level, sometimes aggressive, regulation in the US.
  3. The UK is an efficient market for consumers, the US is not. This means margins are tighter for UK advertisers, as evidenced by the fact that CPCs in the UK are about a third of what they are in the US.

As you can see, these markets are completely different animals. Despite the seemingly low barriers for entry in the UK, Google still felt compelled to acquire BeatThatQuote to better understand the market. Yet, it still took them a year and a half post acquisition before they launched Advisor.

I spoke with an executive at a top-tier UK insurance comparison site earlier this week about Google’s entry. He mentioned that Google wanted to acquire a UK entity primarily for its general knowledge of the market, technology, and infrastructure (API integrations). He said, “Given [Google’s] objectives, it didn’t make sense for them to acquire a top tier site (ie - gocompare, comparethemarket, moneysupermarket, confused) so they acquired BeatThatQuote, which was unknown to most consumers but had the infrastructure in place for Google to test the market effectively.”

It’s very unlikely BeatThatQuote will be of much use for the US market. Google will need to build its product from the ground up. Beyond accruing the knowledge of a very complex, and nuanced market, they will need to acquire or build out the infrastructure. In the US there are no public rate APIs for insurance carriers; very few insurance comparison sites actually publish instant, accurate, real-time rates. Google will need to understand and navigate its way to the rates (though it’s not impossible). It will take some time to get carriers comfortable and then of course build out the technology. Insurance carriers, like most financial service companies, can be painfully slow.

Conclusion

I do believe Google will do something with insurance at some point in the US. Of the various challenges the company currently faces, I believe the high opportunity cost is the toughest to overcome. However, the market will shift. As true insurance comparison options continue to mature, consumers will be searching exclusively for comparison sites (see travel), and carriers will no longer be able to effectively compete at the scale they are now -- driving down the market for CPCs and thus lowering the opportunity cost.

This opportunity cost is much lower however for other search engines where average car insurance CPC’s are lower. If I am Microsoft or Yahoo, I am seriously considering using my valuable real estate to promote something worthwhile in insurance. There is currently a big void for consumers as it relates to shopping for insurance. A rival search engine can instantly differentiate themselves from Google overnight in one of the biggest verticals. This may be one of their best opportunities to regain some market share.

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