Consultant to Agency - What I Learned From the Jump

Aug 20th
posted in

I've been in the online marketing space since 1998. Somewhere around the year 2000, I stumbled into affiliate marketing. I played in very competitive spaces via SEO from the get go - and ranked. In 2007, in order to scale my affiliate marketing efforts, I co-founded MFE Interactive, a website publishing company, and built out several affiliate brands.

I'd always done consulting here and there throughout the years, but never on a regular basis. To be honest, I liked (and still do like) the affiliate (on your own schedule and no one to answer to but your bank account) lifestyle.

In 2009 I made my first foray into running a consulting company. I quickly found out that there was a lot to making the jump from consultant to agency - a lot of which I hadn't thought about, hadn't properly positioned myself for and I decided to sell my shares less than two years after venturing into that realm.

After 18 months of what my friends like to call "semi-retirement" and living very comfortably off the passive income I'd spent nearly a decade developing, I decided once again to start an agency and officially launched PushFire in May of 2012 and we're already a team of 13 and growing.

But this time I knew a bit more about what I was getting into and as a result, had positioned myself better for the task. I figured I'd share with you what I've learned about making the jump from occasional consultant to agency over the last three years in hopes that maybe someone else can be better prepared for "the jump" if and when they decide to take it.

Deciding Whether to Go Solo or with a Partner

I personally know what I'm good at and what I'm not. I couldn't see launching an agency - at least one you want to experience quick growth - without having a partner (unless you want to invest the salary to have someone handle a "partner" position as a paid employee). There is simply too much for one person to do for them to do it all alone - and fast.

My personal weakness lies in operations. I don't like being chained to the office every day and travel too much promoting the agency to be the person managing operations. My personal strength lies in business development, growth and strategy. My weaknesses make me a horrible COO. My strengths make me a good CEO. I've found that the absolute key to creating a successful partnership lies in making sure that your partner has strengths where you DON'T. In PushFire, my partner Sean and I compliment each other very well. I'm a veteran with SEO and link building. He's great with PPC management (something completely foreign to me). I'm good at business development and client strategy. He actually enjoys (and is good at) managing the staff and clients. That makes him a fantastic COO.

Before you rush to launch an agency solo, ask yourself if you can really handle every aspect of running said agency (or are willing to hire to fill the gaps). If not, ask yourself who you know that would be a great COMPLIMENT to your skill set. And then make sure you vet that they actually have the skills you think they do and that you can work as a team without wanting to kill each other and being "locked" into a company from a public perspective. Work quietly together for a few months and see how it goes (that is what Sean and I did for about 3 months). And if all goes well, make it official.

Business Formation and Operating Agreement

Once you decided to make it official you need to form your business. I actually own part of an incorporation service (an accounting firm owns the other half) so I got my advice on what KIND of company to form from my partners in that site since I didn't know all the intricacies of owning a business in Texas (where I'd recently moved). If you're not sure of what kind of company will work best for you (Incorporation, Limited Liability Company, S Corporation, etc) be sure to consult with an accountant or attorney to figure it out. It's a pain to change after the fact.

If you are forming your business with a partner, it is absolutely imperative that you have an Operating Agreement from day one. IMPERATIVE. The Operating Agreement defines your ownership (if it's not a corporation which issues shares), your roles and your responsibilities. Be sure to include what happens should a partner want to leave, should you want a partner to leave, should a partner die, should a partner get divorced - EVERY POSSIBLE THING THAT COULD GO WRONG SHOULD HAVE AN AGREED UPON SOLUTION IN THE OPERATING AGREEMENT AS SOON AS YOU BECOME AN OFFICIAL COMPANY.

I don't care if your partner is your parent, sibling, friend - you need an Operating Agreement and you need one from day one. Sean and I are married and we STILL have an Operating Agreement that details out every possible scenario and what happens in the event of it. And if there is one area where you stretch the budget and pay a lawyer (and NOT use some free template online) it is for the Operating Agreement if you enter into a partnership.

The Business Paperwork

Next up you'll need to file all that awesome paperwork with the IRS, state and in some cases even your county. Getting an EIN, getting a sales tax number, and getting local operating licenses (or even finding out if they're required). And if you're hiring employees, then you'll need to file paperwork to pay unemployment taxes, etc. I personally hired a local accountant to ensure we didn't miss anything in regards to these. I'd rather pay a modest hourly fee now than much more expensive government penalties later.

Business Insurance

If you plan to have an office and employees (which is likely because you decided to no longer be a sole consultant), then you're going to want to get insurance. The basics would be General Liability and Property Insurance and Workers' Compensation Insurance.

Additionally, because what we do for a living as online marketers is not an exact science, you'll likely want to look into getting Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance too.

The GLP and Workers' Comp insurance was fairly easy to find and get setup. E&O was another story. Most insurance agencies I spoke with didn't handle "digital marketing firms" and it took me a long time to find a recommendation to a company that not only provided E&O for people who do what we do, but also was willing to include copyright infringement into the policy (say for an employee using a picture or content they don't have permission to use, unbeknown to you). I finally was referred to TechInsurance and was able to get all three insurance policies via them.

For the record, I was not compensated in any way for mentioning them - I just had a REALLY hard time finding an E&O provider and they had all the coverage I needed and at what I thought was a fair price. Cost for the policies will vary on a multitude of factors, including your personal experience at what we do, if you've ever been sued, etc.

Also know that if you plan to take on Fortune companies as clients, this insurance - and proof of having it - will be a standard requirement and they usually request that your GLP and E&O insurance covers you in the 1-2 million dollar range.

The Legalities

As an agency, you're going to need contracts if you weren't using them as a consultant. And you're going to want them to be drawn up by (or at least overlooked and approved by) an ACTUAL LAWYER.

We had a Master Services Agreement (MSA) drawn up as well as a Statement of Work (SOW) for each service type we provide (which at the moment is SEO, Link Building and Promotion and PPC).

We also had a Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) created. Additionally, if you plan to use contractors or employees, you'll need contracts drawn up for each (one for employees and one for contractors). While some clients require you to use THEIR contracts (they like to keep any legal disputes in their home territory) many clients will not have these types of contracts and you will need to provide them.

For the record, I don't "hold" clients into contracts. If a client wants to stop using our services they can do so at any time. We have a 30 day notice "out" clause (for either side) in our standard MSA. But we still have contracts that clearly state what we've been hired to do and what our (and the client's) responsibilities are. Even if you don't have clients signing "one year deals" etc, you still should have contracts. Cover Your Ass - it's a statement to live by as a business owner.

Finding Office Space

Since you're opening an agency, that means you plan to have employees - otherwise you'd remain a consultant. Office space is a tricky issue for a brand new company. You often don't need a lot of space in the beginning, but if your company does well and finds itself quickly expanding, you could find yourself outgrowing your initial space soon.

I'd recommend you'd do your best to find office space (at least initially) with a short term lease (which for office space is usually 1-2 years). Also, since most of your business - at least in the beginning - will be over the Internet, you shouldn't kill your budget trying to rent a Madison Avenue worthy space in the beginning (whether you should do it at ANY time is up to you).

We took a 1 year lease in an industrial building with a killer Chicago loft like interior and a great kitchen. From the outside, it looks like a trucking company (because we're next to one). But it's got a great look and feel on the inside and 90% of our clients will never come to our office anyway. The one year lease was key because we were way too small for the space when we took it and will be way to big for the space when our 1 year lease is up.

Additionally, don't stress too much over location. I talk with a lot of folks that ask us when we'll be moving from the small town we're in (Katy, TX) to the "big city" ten minutes away (which is Houston, TX). Sean and I just discussed this the other day and I don't know that we'll ever make that "move" so to speak. It is much easier to get local press coverage and be a "top" employer in a smaller town. And again, most of our clients will never come to our office anyway. I take my cue from Marty Weintraub, who, rather than ditch Minnesota for the more "tech" scene states as a newly minted Inc 500 company, instead chose to become a pillar business there.

Contractors Vs. Employees

I was very adamant from the day we launched that we were going the in-house, local employee route. It is tempting to work with long distance contractors - especially when you know they're talented but would never move. As a consultant, I utilized long distance contractors for years (and all of our long term contractors are "grandfathered in" to this new decision).

But if you plan to grow an agency, it's my opinion that you need people in-house to effectively do it. Especially when it comes to management positions. It's simply much easier to call a company meeting with in-house staff then to arrange a Skype call between 13 people. It's much easier to develop positive relationships and company camaraderie as well.

What to Know about Hiring and Having Employees

Hiring is a task you pretty much only learn via experience. You have to make sure you find people who will fit in with the company culture you want to build - so you'll need to put some thought into what that is before you start posting "help wanted" ads.

To attract great employees we've learned two things. The first is not to skimp on paying for a job posting, especially if you live in a smaller town. We post our ads on Monster.com and haven't been disappointed in the quality of applicants we've received by doing so. Prior attempts using more local services were a waste of time, especially when looking for people with online marketing and/or technical skills - they're all looking online.

Secondly, you need to offer benefits if you want to be competitive with the other companies around you. A great company culture and an exciting position usually don't make up for a lack of health benefits in the United States. We looked to our banking service to get us recommendations for small business health insurance.

They introduced us to Digital Insurance who got us a great quote for health insurance for our growing team (again, I'm only mentioning them because we found them to be awesome and extremely helpful). When looking at health insurance keep in mind that - at least here in Texas - you need 75% participation in your plan and need to pay a minimum of 50% towards the health insurance premiums of all your covered employees.

To give us an edge over competing employers, we decided to get a higher quality plan with a low co-pay and lower deductible and contribute more than the required 50%. Make sure that you consider your health insurance costs for your employees when deciding on salaries. Even if you don't have health insurance for the first few hires, when you DO implement, you'll have to contribute for everyone, regardless of if their salary took it into account.

Additionally, once you're past having one or two employees, you're likely going to need an HR manual. Our accountant was able to get us a standard HR Manual we were able to edit to fit our specific needs - and once again, have a lawyer look over the final product.

We also work hard to keep the team motivated. From team building events with prizes (our latest was laser tag, our next outing is bowling) to performance incentives (this month, we're giving away the New iPad as a performance bonus), you'll need to ensure your team is emotionally satisfied in addition to being financially satisfied to keep retention high. We appreciate our team and their dedication to the company and do our best to show them that.

Creating Internal Processes and Tools

Hiring employees means you're going to need to train them. In the beginning, you'll likely do this by doing it verbally, but when you get to the point that you're hiring frequently, you'll want internal training documents for your new team members to read first and for you to answer questions about later. And different jobs will likely require different processes and training documentation. We've been creating this as we go. But we've found that a lack of written documentation can cause confusion and frustration. So the sooner you can get everything on pen and paper, the better.

Additionally, at some point you're going to find yourself doing a lot of repeated basic processes that could be better handled by legitimate automation. We just hired our first developer for PushFire to begin building internal tools to not only make our team's job easier, but to make it less mundane as well. Be sure to keep an eye when hiring on if you're hiring because of a genuine need or because your current team is wasting time doing things they don't need to do. When the latter occurs, I'd look into hiring a developer to fill those productivity gaps with automation. We're already seeing the benefits of making our team's life easier.

In the meantime - don't try and reinvent the wheel. There are tons of great tools out there that can make your team more productive. From Raven Tools to Ontolo to HighRise to tons of other services - there is likely someone, somewhere with a tool to make your specific team's job easier. Seek them out. Then hire someone to build what ISN'T available as you grow.

The Books

My opinion? Never do the books yourself. EVER. Because saving yourself a few hundred to a few thousand in accounting fees could cost you BIG BUCKS down the road. We use FreshBooks for our invoicing and have an accountant who then downloads the FreshBooks data into Quickbooks.

I find FreshBooks easier (though I used Quickbooks until recently) and she prefers Quickbooks. Our accountant provides us with a Profit and Loss (P&L) statement every month and keeps track of our invoicing and cash flow. This allows us to ask her any information we need to know financially while keeping our eyes focused on the business growth and day to day operations. For now, we outsource accounting, but we know that at some point we will need to take it in house as we grow.

We also utilize the payroll services at our bank (Wells Fargo) because it's easy and they pay all the required taxes for us. Our accountant still runs our payroll, but through their service. Additionally, most payroll companies offer you a guarantee that if you're ever hit for them improperly accounting for taxes, that's on them and not you. To me, it's worth the (what I consider) small fee to utilize the payroll services.

I'm Still Learning

I'm by no means the definitive source on making the move from an individual consultant to an agency. I can't offer advice on financing or funding because we've bootstrapped ourselves the whole way. But I hope the above let's you know some of what to prepare for and what you'll need, at the very minimum, to launch a successful consulting agency.

Lastly, DREAM BIG. DO GOOD WORK. BE A GOOD PERSON, PARTNER, BOSS, CLIENT AND SERVICE PROVIDER.

P.S. If you live in, near or are willing to relocate to Houston? We're hiring. ;-)

The Social Media Ponzi Bubble Implodes

Aug 17th

The Next Google?

Facebook had their first tranche of insider lock ups expire yesterday & the stock ended off over 5%. Anyone who has ever invested for a significant period of time knows what the following graphic looks like: the collapse of a bubble.

What has caused such a poor performance for Facebook?

For starters, this couldn't have helped:

If they committed to spending big bucks with Facebook, how could they be assured a return on their investment?

Mr. Zuckerberg's response, according to one of the attendees: "That's a great question and we should probably have an answer to that, shouldn't we?"

Also harming Facebook...

The Real Next Google

Users do not want social in search, but even if they did Google can turn it on with a flick of a switch.

If you want to invest in "the next Google" at a valuation above $100 billion then the best way to do so is to buy Google.

I won't claim that Google's growth there has also passed through to online publishers. It many cases it has not, as Google has begun dominating their own results & pushing competitors below the fold.

SEO is Harder than Ever

Breaking into search with a new site is harder than ever. That is reflected in the static nature of the ecommerce market and just how many ill informed opinions there are about Google's various updates.

Unless you are already well trusted or are willing to hack websites, brute force SEO is getting much harder. Even getting a boatload of exposure like the following graph shows may have zero impact on Google rankings.

Other important trends are:

This does not mean that the opportunity of SEO has disappeared, rather that strategy becomes far more important as the market grows more challenging.

Public Relations

Social media is sold as being revolutionary, but its impact is generally more marginal. What matters is funding the baseline message that then gets syndicated across networks.

Due to the Filter Bubble (& format concision) most people won't question the depths of where they are wrong or dig deep into the background of a story, but rather syndicate the payola headline & biased research that PR professionals wanted them to see.

Out-of-context facts only need to sound good in 140 characters.

Reputation Management

Occasionally a company can be so idiotic that their Progressive(ly) incompetent behavior creates a categorical example of failing their customers. But that sort of failure only matters if it gets shared frequently on blogs & media sites off the social media platforms.

I haven't heard of anyone spending big money to try to have a Tweet rank lower, but people spend significantly trying to drive down bad search results.

Most Tweets are largely forgotten after a few days. A bad search result can create a progressive self-reinforcing problem that lives on as long as a brand does.

Social Media Platforms Begin Lockdown

It isn't just Facebook that has had problems. A number of the other social stocks have tanked.

The problem with social media is that it's performance hasn't been particularly stellar thusfar & they have only just begun to start screwing over people playing on their platforms. A big part of what caused Zynga to miss so badly on their last quarterly result was:

"Facebook made changes to their platform that favored new game discovery," he said. As a result, Zynga users "did not remain engaged and did not come back as often."

That change is in addition to gutting companies that specialized in optimizing Facebook pages & other companies which worked closely with Facebook. Further, Facebook's edgerank limits how many of your subscribers see your own message. They want you to pay once to build a following & then pay again to access the audience of followers you already built.

It is not just Facebook that is locking down their ecosystem. Twitter is headed down the same path: "I sure as hell wouldn’t build a business on Twitter, and I don’t think I’ll even build any nontrivial features on it anymore."

Many mobile start ups are also suffering from the same "saturated ecosystem" problem.

More Social Media Sites Launch

The economic recovery has been uneven & while the above platforms are imploding it hasn't stopped some of the founders from creating more platforms that will also compete for attention.

Why Social Media Isn't as Exciting As Claimed

All Users Are Not Created Equal

There is a difference between targeted search traffic & the stuff that people sell as "unlimited traffic for $6."

Social media can drive some conversions with coupons, but it can also make people (who would have converted anyway) expect coupons and discounts to purchase. Part of the problem with attributing anything to social media is so much of it can be attributed to activity bias. Anyone who follows you & similar business & so on is going to be more likely to convert in those areas. That they at some point in time were on a large social network doesn't mean that the social network added any value to the sequence or caused a conversion.

Even if you know exactly how influential people are it still wouldn't mean that you would be able to influence them (generally the more popular someone is the less receptive they are to pitches). And generally speaking traffic on your site is worth more than traffic from social media sites, as it is already more targeted. This is why traffic exchange systems suck...those atop the pyramid suck most the real value out of it while those lower in the system give away their visitors for scraps.

The #1 rule of online traffic is that relevancy is more important than volume.

False Sense of Closeness & Empathy (Cuts Both Ways)

Online petitions have a low cost (go nowhere & click a mouse), so even in large numbers they usually don't mean much. Whereas people who go through barriers to entries & jump over hurdles are far more committed to a goal.

With sites like Twitter there can be a wow factor in that there is a false sense of closeness, but in reality many celebrities pay others to tweet for them and sell tweets.

And every bit as fake as the "celebrity who really cares about you" there are also the enraged non-customers who try to leverage social media to level the playing field. But in most cases those were never going to be good relationships anyhow. For most people the best solution is to ignore them.

Hits Can Be Somewhat Unpredictable

In addition to the fickle here today, gone tomorrow nature of social media, the results are typically quite unpredictable. What is even more challenging is that you can optimize for relevancy or virality, but to try to guarantee one you usually have to sacrifice signifcantly on the other. That means that either you can get links & audience, or you can create some conversions, but it is quite hard to do both.

Further, popularity on such networks tends to fade quickly (unless you keep going back to the well). But at any point in time even newer networks can decide to change how they feature you & cut out whoever they want to, and the more often you keep going back to the same network the more beholden you become to it. Invariably all these social networks that start off as being somewhat open close down & control the ecosystem to boost monetization as growth slows.

Signal Creation vs Amplification

It is easy to point to success like Double Fine & Ouya as proof of the power of some of these networks, but some of that success is due to past success. Anyone who loved playing Psychonauts would love to invest in helping to create another release.

P&G can lay off some of their marketing department because their brands already have such a strong share of voice across all mediums.

And Louis CK can sell a million Dollars worth of his own downloads and a hundred thousand tickets fast because he is already well liked.

Mainstream media writers can offer tips on how to have a dead cat bounce on Twitter. That isn't so hard for the mainstream media to do given how much they dominate Twitter trends & the top shared stories on Facebook. However if you don't have an organic audience channel & a built in cumulative advantage then likely either your story will go nowhere, or even if you share something great what will end up happening is someone else with more distribution will rewrite your story and displace you as the lead source.

Social media can have value as a signal amplification tool, but if you do not already have a separate audience base (via email, RSS, or some other similar channels) then time spent on social would likely be better spent building up some of those other channels first. If you are not building off an organic audience channel then social media promotions will typically fall flat.

Dominate a Small Pond

I don't think I would have done well with SEO if I spent most of my time on the largest sites when I was new to the industry. What helped me along was joining the great crew on SearchGuild who taught me a lot in a short period of time. On smaller sites we can become a bigger fish in a small pond.

The fatal attraction with large sites is that the audience is large, but it is largely inaccessible. The largest sites are the most appealing to the least interesting people. Or, put another way, we are most alike where we are the most vulgar & the most unique where we are the most refined. This is why even when we are on the large sites we typically pay far more attention to what our friends say or do than the ads on those platforms that take thousands of impressions to generate a single click.

There is nothing wrong with spending some time on social sites for fun, but if it becomes the bulk of your publishing time & effort you are probably contributing far more than you get back. Especially when you consider that a lot of the deep insights & continuations of stories that once happened on blogs has fell by the wayside for quick temporary Tweets that disappear into nothingness. Many companies have mistakenly abandoned blogging & will have to experience the pain of starting over when some of these networks go away to appreciate the depth of the error.

Why Marketers Promote Social Media

Addiction to "the New"

If you promote things that are new that buys further coverage because you are seen as being innovative.

Twitter allowed spam & had few people employed fight it. Why? More "users" equates to a higher growth rate, which equates to a higher market valuation on subsiquent investment rounds. Twitter stated that in 2009, 11% of their tweets were spam.

During a social media ponzi bubble a whitepaper about Twitter of Facebook has sizzle because it allows you to leach off the story of that broader platform. And so long as those companies are raising money or trying to go public they want to show the maximum growth possible, so they are unlikely to crack down on forms of marketing manipulation that help growth their platform size and valuation. After they are public though & growth has slowed their approach toward controlling their platform will become much more adversarial.

Google has been public for nearly a decade now & if you speak in the language of SEO that is a term that has already been well defined through the dominant market player.

A Desire to be Seen as a Broader Service

If you are only seen as being about "SEO" then anytime Google forces drastic changes onto the market you are seen as being of limited value & thus at great risk of being washed away. This is even more risky if you are leveraging up and trying to raise funding. But if you claim to be more generalist it allows the frog to turn into a prince, as you have more "growth" opportunities in the near future.

Give it a Different Name

A lot of people try to slag off SEO for self-promotion & then say "don't do spam like the SEOs, instead do x."

And if you read off the list of items that are represented in the "x" invariably it reads like an SEO checklist.

So why do people try to redefine SEO? A number of reasons:

  • if they can create a new term that they "own" then anyone who shares it is building the value of their company
  • they can use polarizing marketing to capture attention & then differentiate themselves from what they actually do by claiming to be doing something else
  • some of the most egregious SEO spammers (eg: Jason Calacanis) never could have got away with running their projects as they were without first distancing themselves from the SEO market

The MLM Factor

In most MLM schemes step 1 is often "follow us" with step 2 being "spread our message" (or, feed us your young, get your friends to hate you, sell your soul, etc.)

This same factor is baked into social media services. Rather than going directly to money though it uses attention as an intermediary.

I am not saying that asking people to follow you is necessarily bad, but if you tell people that social media will change the world and that they should follow you for tips then of course that is a great way to get a bunch of desperate, ignorant & shameless newbs to syndicate your spin. If those people are re-defining old school SEO techniques using a new vernacular they are both the customer (buying into the re-marketing of old concepts) and the product (evangelist spreading false gospel & generating social proof of value).

The above message is never stated in the various "correlation analysis" charts that aim to prove the value of social media to SEO.

Given how easy it is to manipulate social media, even if they are not doing well it is easy for someone like Ellory Bennette to sell the image of success.

Noise vs Signal

There are loads of ways to create a core baseline social "signal" on the cheap. Newt Gingrich was called out for having some fake Twitter followers. There are boatloads of services & tools out there targeting all the social networks & free hosts: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Blogspot, Wordpress, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Digg, Pligg, and even Pinterest.

Given how Newt got "called out" for having fake followers, I wouldn't be surprised to see some marketers buying fake followers for other convenient targets to create a story to sell.

Selling a Bag of Smoke

While composing this, a spam email hit my inbox stating the following:

It's a fact: more people find out about your business on Facebook or Twitter than on search engines. Making these sites work maybe tricky for you, but it s business as usual for us. Let us improve your visibility and enhance your image. It s part of our complete Internet Marketing package. We ll be more than your friends --- we ll be your partners."

Social metrics are easily gamed. If you just want numbers not only are they sold by the social networks as ad units, but they can be had in bulk on sites like Fiverr.

Probably the best comment I have ever read about the "bag of smoke" concept was from Will Spencer:

SEO's like to sell social signals as ranking factors because social media marketing is an easy product to deliver while collecting good profit margins.

The fact that it doesn't work... doesn't seem to bother those people.

The "good guys" in the SEO business aren't the people who parrot Google's lies to a wider audience; the "good guys" in the SEO business are the guys who make their clients money.

Ignorance of Relevancy

Search engines may put out research about social networks like Twitter, but would Google count Twitter as a primary relevancy signal without owning Twitter? Color me skeptical.

Even more laughable than SEOs selling social media as the key to SEO is their open ignorance of the political nature of various relevancy signals.

  • Does Facebook sell likes? Yes. Why would Google want to subsidize a competing ad network? It isn't hard to notice Google's dislike for Facebook through their very public black PR campaigns.
  • The same sort of "why would I subsidize a competitor" issue is also in place with Twitter. They sell retweets & follows, so why would Google want to subsidize that?
  • Google counts YouTube ad views as organic views, but they own it & they only rolled out universal search *after* they acquired YouTube.

In summary...

Google Copyright Transparency Report

Aug 13th

Google timed a nice Friday evening release to update of their policy toward copyright infringement.

Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.

Wow. Sounds like trouble. Surely that means that YouTube's rankings are about to get torched.

Oh, nope. One quick exemption for the video king:

This data presents information specified in requests we received from copyright owners through our web form to remove search results that link to allegedly infringing content. It is a partial historical record that includes more than 95% of the volume of copyright removal requests that we have received for Search since July 2011. It does not include:

  • requests submitted by means other than our web form, such as fax or written letter
  • requests for products other than Google Search (e.g, requests directed at YouTube or Blogger)
  • requests sent to Google Search for content appearing in other Google products (e.g., requests for Search, but specifying YouTube or Blogger URLs).

Google does not state where the thresholds will be set & grants blanket immunity for themselves, yet they (illegitimately) emphasize that they are being transparent.

Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner. And we’ll continue to provide "counter-notice" tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated. We’ll also continue to be transparent about copyright removals.

YouTube vs Sites Cleaner Than YouTube

Courts have ruled that embedding a YouTube video is not copyright infringement. The EFF has mentioned that embedding a video is simply a link.

And yet, a UK student faces up to 10 years in jail in the US for founding a crowdsourced site which links to sites that allow you to watch TV online.

Kim DotCom suffered a militant raid on his house & had his assets frozen for running MegaUpload, which was a tiny spec of dirt compared to the size of YouTube.

On the copyright front YouTube was rotten from the start:

  • "In a July 19, 2005 e-mail to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen wrote: 'jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site. We’re going to have a tough time defending the fact that we’re not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn’t put it up when one of the co-founders is blatantly stealing content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it.'"
  • "Chen twice wrote that 80 percent of user traffic depended on pirated videos. He opposed removing infringing videos on the ground that 'if you remove the potential copyright infringements... site traffic and virality will drop to maybe 20 percent of what it is.' Karim proposed they 'just remove the obviously copyright infringing stuff.' But Chen again insisted that even if they removed only such obviously infringing clips, site traffic would drop at least 80 percent. ('if [we] remove all that content[,] we go from 100,000 views a day down to about 20,000 views or maybe even lower')."
  • "In response to YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley’s August 9, 2005 e-mail, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen stated: 'but we should just keep that stuff on the site. I really don’t see what will happen. what? someone from cnn sees it? he happens to be someone with power? he happens to want to take it down right away. he get in touch with cnn legal. 2 weeks later, we get a cease & desist letter. we take the video down.'"
  • "A true smoking gun is a memorandum personally distributed by founder Karim to YouTube’s entire board of directors at a March 22, 2006 board meeting. Its words are pointed, powerful, and unambiguous. Karim told the YouTube board point-blank:
    'As of today episodes and clips of the following well-known shows can still be found: Family Guy, South Park, MTV Cribs, Daily Show, Reno 911, Dave Chapelle. This content is an easy target for critics who claim that copyrighted content is entirely responsible for YouTube’s popularity. Although YouTube is not legally required to monitor content (as we have explained in the press) and complies with DMCA takedown requests, we would benefit from preemptively removing content that is blatantly illegal and likely to attract criticism.'"
  • "A month later, [YouTube manager Maryrose] Dunton told another senior YouTube employee in an instant message that 'the truth of the matter is probably 75-80 percent of our views come from copyrighted material.' She agreed with the other employee that YouTube has some 'good original content' but 'it’s just such a small percentage.'"
  • "In a September 1, 2005 email to YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and all YouTube employees, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim stated, 'well, we SHOULD take down any: 1) movies 2) TV shows. we should KEEP: 1) news clips 2) comedy clips (Conan, Leno, etc) 3) music videos. In the future, I’d also reject these last three but not yet.'"

Broader Copyright Questions

There still are a lot of murky questions in Google's "transparency."

  • If a person embeds an image from Imgur, ImageShack, TinyPic, PhotoBucket or elsewhere & the page that has a hotlink gets a DMCA how does that count?
  • If a brand is large enough does it take many DMCAs to get hit?
  • Is there any analysis of the underlying business model of the site? What happens to document storage sites like DocStoc & Scribd, or even image sites like Pinterest?
  • What happens to sites that link at penalized sites too frequently?
  • What happens to ad networks that frequently fund such copyright violations?

HUGE Impact on the Web

Has anyone registered DMCASEO.com & DMCA-SEO.com yet? ;)

In terms of impact on the web for publishers, this change is every bit as big as Florida, Panda & Penguin. It may not seem so at first (as it will take time for market participants to consider the uses) but this is a huge deal. Consider some of the following scenarios...

  • You try to create something like YouTube for another form of content (Pinterest?) and it gets hit as spam for following Google's lead.
  • You offer a free blogging platform that competes with Blogspot, but it gets hit as spam for following Google's lead.
  • You decide to create a project like Google's book scanning project & you get hit as spam for following Google's lead.
  • You run an ad network & start growing quickly. As you grow some sketchier publishers enter your ad network. Like Google AdSense, a large portion of your ad network is filled with sites that have copyright violations on them. Suddenly working with your ad network gets people hit as spam because your business model is too similar to Google's.
  • You create a new social network & are struggling to compete with Google's preferential ranking & hard coded placements of their own network. You make your network more open to encourage growth & you get hit as spam.
  • If You are Amazon or eBay you can afford premium featured content to pull up your other listings. But if you can't afford their cost structure & hire freelance writers or work with outsourced workers to create some of your content & they use some copyright work without you knowing. But does Amazon now have to vigilantly review their reviews for plagiarism?
  • A competitor licenses some of their content as Creative Commons for years & doesn't mind wide use of it. Then you use it & one day they see you as a competitive threat and remove their Creative Commons license & bulk DMCA you. Or you have a lifetime syndication deal with a company, they later change the policy & claim that your documents are forged.
  • Getty images presumes you didn't license an image that you did & files a DMCA. At some point there is no purpose in targeting the webmaster or host...just go direct to Google knowing that you can create the equivalent of a "patent trolling" styled business model where you create a business model where it is cheaper for people to pay to have the issue resolved the quick way before they lodge a formal complaint. Some organizations might even have a subscription service set up where you pre-pay for immunity.
  • A former employee who wrote content for you claims you used it without permission. Or that same former employee used pirated images & longish quotes from other sources that they didn't disclose to you that they now highlight via DMCA.
  • You license data from a source & they do a mid-contract change leveraging the small print & have a bot lined up to send 40,000 DMCAs against you if you do not agree to the higher pricepoint.
  • Google is considering making an investment in your site & you want too much money. As an edge case near the threshold of this copyright limit you know you have immunity if you join the borg, but lack it if you don't work with them.
  • Big media players that play in the gray area will be fine, but smaller sites that try a similar model will be sunk by DMCAs and/or legal fees.
  • Your leading competitor realizes that your blog publishes comments by default with editorial review (and that even later has lax review) and then they file DMCA reports against you. Or they could just grab chunks of content from Google's leaderboard of complainers and post them into your web forum, knowing that those companies will file a DMCA report against you.
  • A site has some content public & some behind a paywall. With a page partially indexed, how does Google respond to DMCA requests when the alleged infraction is behind a registration wall or paywall?
  • A competitor (inspired by Google no doubt) hires off shore "contractors" to copy your site & then file DMCA reports against you in bulk. How long until people start uploading their own content to file their own DMCAs against certain sites with user generated content?
  • Even if your site is 100% legal, a combination of ignorance & crowd-driven vigilante justice can still take you down.
  • Any site that offers interactive features & has user generated content is at risk of being labeled as spam unless they have tight editorial control over user generated content. And at the same time, Google can enter vertical after vertical with scrape & displace garbage knowing that they don't have those editorial costs due to their self-granted blanket immunity.
  • If you do not register your sites with Google & counter claims (even bogus ones) then you are seen as being a spammer. And if you register with Google then when they don't like something one site does they can hit other sites all at the same time. No point going to the host or registrar, go direct to Google & start building up negative karma.

Why did Google feel the need to grant themselves blanket immunity from the policy?

That question was largely missing among the fanboi blogs & journalists who were encouraged by Google's "transparency."

24 Karat Pyrite On Sale for Only $100 an Ounce

If YouTube is going to win big, then that's a great place to invest, right?

Maybe not.

Some venture capitalists are investing in YouTube channels, but that is a fool's game.

  • Google is also investing in select channels (like Machinima). It is quite hard to outperform Google in returns while investing into a platform that they control & thus have better data on than you ever could.
  • As YouTube's dominance increases (and it will now that competing platforms with a similar business model will be smeared as spam), you can count on them offering premium partners crappier revenue share deals in years to come. They will offer nice deals to Warner Bros. & such, but the independent smaller players will get cut out of the ecosystem in much the same way as they did in Google's organic search results.
  • Google, prince of transparency (for everyone but Google), requires that premium publishers *not* disclose the terms of their deals: "The Partner Program forbids participants to reveal specifics about their ad-share revenue. Rates can vary depending on the size and demographics of the partner’s audience and an array of other metrics."

Note that I don't claim YouTube is a bad host for your own content, but that I am skeptical in applying the VC model to it with a belief that you can out-invest Google on their own site; particularly when they own the dominant platform, control the non-public revenue share rates, invest in competing channels & can offer free promotion + higher rates to anyone they invest into in order to dominate the category.

And the issue isn't just video either. The same dynamic can apply to just about any other infrastructural layer. For instance, Google could buy out a torrent site (say like uTorrent) and have that site gain immediately immunity for being part of the borg, while other sites that compete now absorb both greater editorial filtering costs & greater risks that destroy their ROI.

As Google continues to lock down search, you can expect more smart publishers to hedge investments in search and YouTube with investments in proprietary non-search applications that Google can't take away.

The Devil is in the Details

"We are optimistic that Google’s actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites, and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe. We will be watching this development closely — the devil is always in the details — and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves." - Michael O’Leary, Senior Executive Vice President for Global Policy and External Affairs of the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.

The concerned with Google pitching themselves as the preeminent authority on copyright is they have consistently played both sides of the fence.

When Google was competing against YouTube, this was how they viewed copyright internally.

Business Objectives Drive "Relevancy" Signals

Google is a big player in business online and off. They can sell private data exclusively & their online profits are so huge that they are now buying auto loan bonds.

Now that Google wants to sell premium content they (sort of) respect copyright (& are willing to hold the rest of the web to a higher standard than themselves to create this impression).

I have long believed that relevancy signals were often politically driven & that internal business development goals often lead or create various signals. Certainly that was obvious when Google+ was hardcoded in the search results. It was equally true when Knol outranked the original content sources. Google frequently pretends to be (belligerently) unaware of externalities, but when the issues impact their own business they gain an elevated sense of importance.

And these business objectives not only influence the relevancy algorithms, but also the editorial guidelines.

And even while Google is rolling out this "copyright violators are spammers" algorithm (which they are exempt from) they still chug on with their ebook offering:

They posted several of my 41 books up as free downloads (some were missing a few pages at most a single chapter) It took several e-mails from me pointing out that they were infringing copyright before they took them down. During the time my books were free on Google my sales of e-books fell dramatically. " - K C Watkins

When Google started scanning books an internal document stated: “[we want web searchers interested in book content to come to Google not Amazon” ... or, as put another way, in that same document, “[e]verything else is secondary … but make money.”

  • 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!

How is Search Spam Defined?

Aug 12th

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What is Spam?

Creative Broken Link Building Tips with Jon Cooper

Aug 8th
posted in

Here are some quick tips on how you can use blogrolls to compose a list of as many related blogs as possible, then checking those blogs to see if any of them return 404s.

A good free tool to use for finding blogs is the SoloSEO link tool, which will pull up blogs (and other assorted advanced search operators) based on the keyword you input.

After going through the ways to build the list, I’ll run through a few ways you can use it.

Step #1: Find a few blogs

Start off by finding a few related blogs that have blogrolls. The more blogs & the longer the blogrolls of each, the better. This is our seed list that will soon multiply itself.

Step #2: Multiply your list

Take the URLs of these blogs and throw them into Buzzstream’s blogroll list builder. In the example below, I just started off with one (an HR blog):

Once you hit Go, it searches the blog(s) and finds every blog in their blogroll (note: I was having issues with it in Chrome, so if you do as well, switch browsers):

Step #3: Rinse and repeat

Next, download the results as CSV. Open it up in Excel, then copy & paste the blogroll URLs back into the list builder tool (you might have to refresh/reopen the page).

Keep doing this until you have a sizeable list. The bigger the better, but as you keep expanding, you’ll run into the issue of irrelevant blogs entering the list, so just keep that in mind.

Step #4: Check the status of the URLs

Next, throw your list of URLs into Citation Lab’s URL Status Checker tool. This will check to see if any of the URLs in the blogroll are 404s.

Once the report is finished, you can export it as a CSV.

Step #5: Pick your poison

Now it’s up to you how you want to use this list for broken link building. Here are a few popular options:

1. Blogroll Links

Go down the list of 404s and plug them into any of the bigger link tools on the market, Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs.Com, or MajesticSEO. Scan their top links for any that are coming from a homepage. These are almost always blogroll links.

Go to these homepages and use the Check My Links chrome extension, because if one link in their blogroll is broken, then there’s usually a few others.

From there, reach out to the bloggers letting them know of the broken links. Then ask them if one of them could be replaced with a link to your blog since it’s related.

2. Dead Content Links

Once again, plug the 404s into the link tool of your choice. This time however, instead of checking their links, click on Top Pages section in the tool.

Find their most linked to content, double check each to make sure the page is no longer available, then plug those URLs into Archive.org to see what content used to be there.

Next you’re going to rewrite the content, but do your best to make it even better. If it’s a little outdated, then update it.

This content will not only attract links on its own with proper promotion (the old one did, the new one probably will as well), but you can now use this for broken link building.

Take the URLs of the broken, linked-to content and plug it into your link tool(s). Go down the list and find the most valuable links to that content, then reach out to the webmaster/blogger of those sites and let them know that page is broken.

Tell them that “you took the burden” of recreating it, and that for the sake of their readers, they should update the broken link by now linking to you.

Other purposes

You can also use the initial list of 404s to see if any of those domains are:

  • Expired & available to register
  • Available to purchase in auctions
  • Available to outright purchase

If they have enough links to them, you can put some content up and include a few links back to you. If you’re going to do this, make sure you put content up on their Top Pages, since these are already loaded with link juice.

Finally, you can take that list of blogrolls, remove all the 404s & duplicates, and use the Mozscape API (with excel) to find the most authoritative blogs in your niche. From there, build relationships, ask for product reviews, or anything else you can think of.

Final thoughts

So many of the tools we have ready at our fingers can be used in various combinations. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

What do you think of this process? What do you think can be improved? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Bio

Jon Cooper is an SEO consultant and the author of Point Blank SEO, a link building blog. Follow him on Twitter @pointblankseo.

Local SEO as a Gateway Service

Aug 1st
posted in

Over the years we've encouraged the diversification of income-generating web properties to help webmaster stave off eventual onslaughts from Google.

Despite popular belief it's not just penalties and filters that cause said onslaughts, but also continued self-insertion by Google in its own SERPs. Not all insertion is bad, from a user POV, but when it consists of scraped content without source attribution it's a problem.

Recently I read about this idea that updates do not affect the best SEO's. So, here we can see what happens in saturated markets. That statement is meant to drive some kind of wedge between different types of SEO's or to somehow convince clients of an otherwise dubious claim.

I mean, what is "best" anyway? Does "best" mean to be so conservative that you never find the edges of your industry? Does it mean ignoring tactics over the last decade or so which could have generated a king's ransom and allowed you to invest in other areas of the business or start a new business or retire or what?

Accuracy Pays Off

If you have never been effected by a Google update then you've been overly-conservative and never pushed the envelope on things. How many of the best of anything get to be the best without pushing the envelope? It's like saying the best employees never call in sick (has nothing to do with talent, really).

It requires to much intellectual honesty and time, apparently, to break things down to risk/reward so things tend to get defined in broad terms (black/white hat). Some tactics die off, some take off, some become more risky, some become somewhat less effective, and on and on and on. What "best" really is, when used as a divisive and self-promotional tool , is high school trophy-ism at best.

Again, in saturated markets folks resort to making outrageous claims to put themselves or their company on a imaginery pedestal for clients to see. Saturated industries can become bubble-icious so it's wise to look for strategies to diversify away from where the bubble might pop.

I've taken an interest in real estate this year and I read an excellent quote in a really solid book by Gary Eldred:

During irrationally exuberant boom times, investors perceive little risk, but real risks loom larger and larger as prices climb higher and higher, rental income yields fall, and unsustainable amounts of mortgage debt pile up - even though rent collections remain too low to cover operating expenses and debt service

You could substitute a few words there and wrap up the current state of a good chunk of web publishing (from the view of a publisher) inside of Google. However, it's still a worthwhile business model to pursue, if you practice good SERP profiling and SERP competition analysis but it's as important as ever to continue to diversify your income streams so you can withstand such bubbles.

Local SEO Services

For web business options, becoming a local SEO provider is still a solid option for diversification purposes and for a business in general. Not necessarily because there are huge money keywords in every locale, in abundance, but because of the other services you can layer on to your SEO service.

Local SEO services are alive and well, as evidenced by our recent interviews with Adam Zilko and Jacob Puhl of Firegang and Darren Shaw of Whitespark.

Why Local SEO?

You'd could also diversify your self-publishing business by working with larger brands, which is a perfectly profitable model, but you'll likely have to scale up on staff and overhead. Again, zero wrong with that but before you jump into that ocean you might want to work with local businesses for a bit (especially if you haven't done a lot of formal client work in awhile) so you can:

  • work on establishing processes (billing, contracts, business processes, project management, crm's, managing information, etc)
  • audition staffers until you find your initial, trusted team
  • learn how to best integrate service offerings
  • have your hands in every aspect of their marketing campaigns, so you are not viewed as a commodity
  • hone your presentation skills by speaking engagements at smaller, local venues

It typically is a bit easier to be a full-fledged marketing agency for a smaller, local business because there is less red tape, quicker time to market with strategies, more willingness to allow you to run the SEO, PPC, social media, conversion optimization, and even offline marketing campaigns for them.

The more success you have, along with the more hooks you have into the business, the more likely the client is to spend more/scale more and recommended you to other business owners in the area.

Local SEO recommendations are *crucial* to success and they can spread like creamy, organic peanut butter :D (quickly and deliciously).

In local markets, trust is critical and it is pretty easy to be the big fish in the small pond, essentially becoming the default, go-to agency for local business marketing needs.

Margins are quite a bit lower out of the gate versus large brand work, but over time I've seen and experienced healthy spend increases once the initial fear of "oh no is this another cold SEO caller selling garbage services" is gone.

The Growth of Small Business as an Option

I suspect that as more and more "normal jobs" continue to either be cut, moved to part-time, or have measly wage increases new job market entrants will begin to start their own businesses, many probably starting out as local, rather than going to work for someone else.

Of course, this could be a few years out but not too far because the education bubble is likely the next bubble to pop and right now new college graduates can't afford to start a new business given the amounts of student loan debt many are saddled with.

Hopefully, this economic disaster will awaken upcoming generations to what's possible without large amounts of debt. This is likely years away though but in the near future there certainly needs to be more job growth at the small business level.

SmallBizTrends, an excellent resource for small businesses, published a post a few weeks back about children of entrepreneurs following in the footsteps of their parents. The post cited a study from 2010 from the Kaufman Foundation which states (among other things):

Nevertheless, the desire to start a business over other careers has risen slightly for young adults (18 to 21 years of age), from 19 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2010.

They have stats in there from the 8-12 year old age group, which I think is a bit early, but the overall trends for young adults and adults is trending upward. I can only imagine this will continue to rise as more and more parents begin to teach the new generation about how post-secondary education is largely a rip off when you look at the balance between debt ratios and income potential.

What this Means for You

This is a great time to be in our industry. The diversification options for earning income are wide open and while some models have shrinking margins and elevated risk, there are other pools you can dip your toes into where you can leverage many aspects of online marketing:

  • Create & sell digital products
  • Find private label products and sell them
  • Publish sites and monetize with contextual ads and/or ad space
  • Take on various types of client work if you are over-leveraged on pure publishing models
  • Create membership sites...and on and on

The beauty of all that is these can all be approached individually or layered on top of each other, mixed and matched, etc.

The point of this post being about local seo services further illustrates the wide range of services you can provide once you break the monetization methods I mentioned above down even further.

Local SEO might start off as a discussion about organic and places rankings but it can quite easily turn into a discussion about PPC, social media, conversion optimization, email marketing, and offline marketing as all of these practices tie into the end goal of increasing revenue and exposure for the business you are trying to take on as a client.

A Quick Look at Cell Phone SERPs & the Mobile SEO 'Opportunity'

Jul 27th

Mobile Ad CTR

Worstream recently put out an infographic where they suggested that 64.6% of search result clicks on highly commercial keywords are clicks on AdWords ads. Shortly before Google's quarterly announcement RKG put out their digital marketing report. In it they highlight how search ad CTR differs by device.

What causes a higher CTR on cell phones & tablets? A smaller search interface, which allows ads to dominate a larger portion of the screen real estate.

Screen Real Estate

Vertical iPhone = 1/3 of an organic listing above the fold.

Horizontal iPhone = all ads above the fold.

Vertical iPad is about 2/3 ads above the fold.

Horizontal iPad has about half of a single organic listing above the fold.

Vertical Kindle is about 2/3 ads.

Horizontal Kindle is 100% ads above the fold.

And the above interfaces are not going to look any less ad heavy as Google adds paid inclusion shopping results.

Controlling the Ecosystem

Google offers sitelinks when they think a search query is navigational in nature. In spite of that, for some brands they will still show 3 AdWords ads above the organic search results, in an attempt to force the brand to re-buy their own brand equity.

If you control what is above the fold (and can get away with serving nothing but ads above the fold) you can make a lot of money.

Reinforcing the Obvious

Jul 26th
posted in

Search is more complex than it's ever been. There are many factors which contribute to this increased complexity and where more complexity exists, specific advice is harder to find (and rightfully so BTW).

By specific advice I mean stuff that actually works a majority of the time rather than pie in the sky theories which largely consist of Google talking points.

You can find this kind of stuff from people who are not actively engaged in day to day SEO, or haven't been for quite some time. When you hear someone backing up their theories solely on the basis of "I talked to so and so" or "I see X, Y, Z" then you should take caution in clinging to that advice.

Surely there are conversations between SEO practitioners where information is shared and trends are spotted but usually it is a result of (at least) a two sided conversation between 2 people who are engaged in the actual practice.

I mean, would you want a dentist trying to fill a cavity who actually hasn't done it for years (or ever) but had someone tell them how to do it :) ? In almost any profession there is no substitute for experience.

Barriers to Entry

There is a huge barrier to entry to SEO but there is no barrier to entry for folks who want to dispense advice publicly and it makes cutting through the rubbish quite difficult.

The other issue for information seekers is that as any revenue generating model, like SEO, becomes more complex people tend to not share the specific advice which happens to be working for them because if they did it would take away the one remaining, unique tool one has in their arsenal (actual data).

In terms of complexity, the issues facing SEO now tend to be:

  • Faster, Far-Reaching, Less Forgiving (you might need to start over) algorithims
  • Google's continued domination of search marketshare
  • Double speak from search engines, lack of clarity or purpose in their "transparent" communications
  • The increased cost, indirect and direct, of bad advice
  • Google forcing its way into commercial markets
  • A swath of tools which are marketed to be THE TOOLS YOU NEED TO SUCCEED, when in reality most of them are simply also-ran's or essentially half-baked solutions to markets that have already been solved. Time-sucks are dangerous

I've seen quotes like "well years ago I told you social signals would blah blah links" or other beauties like the whole railing against exact match domains over the years.

You do SEO to generate revenue for a particular business in some way, shape, or form.. Having different types of sites that generate revenue in different ways (tools, AdSense, PPC, ad sales, affiliate marketing, and so on) is a great business model.

If you had followed the kind of advice I mocked above, then you left and continue to leave a lot of revenue, data, and experience on the table. This is what I mean by dangerous advice. Mocked in the sense that forgoing years of revenue for what might happen in the future (maybe it is happening a tad now). But again, no need to pick one or the other. Do both!

The truth is many of the age-old underlying tips and techniques are still the cornerstones of successful SEO campaigns, despite all the talk of brands, links, social signals, domain names, content, and all the rest.

By cornerstones I mean things like:

  • Market/Keyword Selection
  • Technical Expertise
  • Link Building and PR

The Matt Cutts Decoder Ring

There is nothing else that shows the desire of bloggers and/or industry people to find some magical way to differentiate themselves than an an update from Matt Cutts. When Matt Cutts says something you can rest assured blog posts and tweets will be flying about, trying to "read between the lines" to find that "ah-ha!" statement which is then bantered about as some type of holy grail.

People please, Matt Cutts is an extremely smart guy who is unbelievably good at PR. Matt generally offers some good talking points which are safe, practical, but are just not a reality with respect to ranking in quite a few competitive markets or outranking sites doing more "creative" things than you would be.

For example, this video in 2010 talks about the relationship between great content and great links. You can skip to around the 1:24 mark where he mentions "bugging people by sending out spam emails asking for links" :

Then he proceeds to talk about how great content naturally attracts links. No, it doesn't. There is an element of marketing involved, you have to "bug" people to showcase your "great" content otherwise you'll be rocking pages 7-10 in the SERPs forever.

This was the mantra for awhile; "Create great content and links will come naturally". This is a pipe dream *unless* you have a built in readership. Getting to that point is a solid goal indeed, but for many new sites or projects it is simply not the case. For people trying to get to that level of built-in branding this kind of advice is poor at best.

More recently, in what I thought was a really solid interview overall, Matt was interviewed by Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting (a sharp guy) and the fallout from this interview was infographics possibly being devalued at some point. Platitudes aside, it's likely true but as with most things it comes down to variables.

In the me-first nature of the web, really thin posts starting popping up (presumably as...GASP..linkbait) about infographics being devalued at some point and what this means for the future of SEO. When, if you just read the interview, you'd understand exactly what he was saying.

The obviously shifty stuff will probably get dinged (infographics about kittens pointing to a pet site, later to have its embed code changed to point to a Payday Loans site) but a reasonable person would understand that infographics do have value when done correctly for lead generation, brand buzz, branded links, social signals, and so on.

What it boils down to is the argument between content and links, and there really is no argument. Arguments tend to get created.

Since 2008...

This site, specifically Aaron in this post, has been talking about mixing up your business model as an SEO and viewing SEO as part of a holistic approach since 2008. It's always been a good idea to get your business outside of just rankings in a search engine as part of your business model.

One cannot ignore what has been obvious for the past 4 years...which is this:

  • You can rank not great content with links
  • You cannot rank great content without links (putting aside sites with built in readership)

If you ignored that for 4 years then you left a lot, a lot, a lot of revenue & data on the table and if you continue to ignore the power of links for ranking inside of the largest search engine, which provides super-targeted traffic, then you continue to leave revenue on the table.

Maybe that is a business model folks would rather not pursue, that's cool, but giving people the idea that you have to spend lots of money/time on design, interactivity, promotion, content creation, and so on to rank in search engines, in lieu of links is flat out wrong and dishonest when it applies to SEO.

Link juice matters, anchor text matters, and content matters (to a lesser extent because content is subjective) to search engine rankings; fact not opinion. On the flip side, you can absolutely create great content furthers your business or your client's business even more. Do both, if you have the budget, and you'll be in a great spot.

What is the Answer?

The answer is both. As online marketers, and as marketers in general as online/offline continue to merge, it's important to maximize what works now and what you believe will work in the future when it comes to generating revenue for yourself and/or your clients. It's important up to the point where you want to fork off your business model into one or the other or a mix of both.

Let me give you a recent example:

Over the years I've learned and continue to learn some really cool, effective stuff from Wil Reynolds (CEO of SEER Interactive). I encourage you to follow him on Twitter if you do not already. I wasn't at MozCon but I was browsing through some of his slides and this is where I think some context needs to be added.

One of the first slides I viewed:

Links are a conduit to conversions and many of these other metrics mentioned in his slides when we view it in the context of SEO. Links help ranking, ranking brings traffic, traffic can be worked with to achieve success via the same metrics he is stating there.

Maybe he made those points, I don't know, but I do know that the person going through these slides looking for information from a respected source would get the same idea I did most likely and the idea is somewhat off.

The next couple of slides go through owning a conversion and he uses two of our favorite sites :D

Here the search is for SeoMoz vs SeoBook with a couple pieces of content from the SeoMoz.Org:

Fair points but let's look at some things that both links and product/content helped with:

Now let's circle back, since we are talking about SEO here, search volume for these comparative searches:

So what you can see here is that you have keywords that are way down the tail, likely towards the end of a buying process, and while they are valuable they are dwarfed by the volume of big money keywords. If you win those big ones, very few searchers will bother searching that far down (evidenced by the volume disparity).

This is my point, some link practices are crappy and harmful but links matter, link juice matters. How you acquire said links and PR is a separate discussion and certainly great products and great marketing will help, but so do links.

In the grand scheme of things, no, ranking for a term here and a term there is not evidence of anything other than success with that approach for that goal. Who knows, maybe rankings will change but for now and for a long time this ranking and associated rankings have been quite beneficial to the growth of this site.

The obviousness that I'm trying to reinforce is that it's not one or the other, for many sites and for many clients both practices are needed for long term success and for maximizing success. However, to throw out the benefits of links and link juice (and the algorithmic trust/authority they create) in the face of other metrics that links will help you get to is just wrong IMHO. Well, it's not even IMHO, the evidence is in the SERPs.

As mentioned above, it's been said for a long time here that thinking outside just rankings is a good idea (for years) and that SEO as part of a more holistic marketing approach is a solid move. Part of SEO, the ranking side of it anyway, involves links and their juice. You can utilize both methods together, to provide a powerful approach to SEO, rather than excluding one over the other (especially when the excluded approach still works very well).

The Why's Behind Some Aspects Of Link Building

Jul 20th

I recently got an email from a woman who had been reading through the link building articles here on SEOBook, she was new to the community and SEO in general and had questions she was shy about asking in our forum.   I’ve answered her directly but thought her questions were good and commonly asked so I wanted to share my responses in case someone else would benefit.

While I know her first name, I don't know what industry she is in or the name of her site so my answers will be given in general. Here's the first one::

Question: I’m trying to learn about link building and am going to try an article content creation tool. Where should I put my articles - can I put multiple articles on one blog site and each will act as a link or does only one article per blog website count as a link?  .

Before I answer, I thought I'd provide some background information on a couple of key concepts as they relate to the question and linking in general.

Writing articles is a common and basic link building method; most articles are between 400 - 700 words and use a couple keyword terms in the copy.  Articles created by automated content tools don't win Pulitzer prizes and aren't meant to; they're written and dropped as a way to secure a lot links which hopefully pass link popularity or "link juice".  Overall the tactic still works but works best when the content is dropped on "quality" pages.

What's a quality page?  In a nutshell it's a page ranking well for certain keyword phrases, has some age behind it and an active social profile.  Pages rank for a number of reasons, suffice to say if it's ranking well, it's doing something right and is a good place to secure links from. It's hard to definitely say the social aspect of things causes’ great algorithmic impact but my sense is this issue is being given more weight than we’re being told; it's just damn hard to prove. Plus, from a traffic and exposure point social can be huge; a site/blog with an active Twitter/Facebook presence is an asset, and one that can work to your advantage.

If you're using article marketing and content creation tools as a way to attract links, you're probably not going to create the type of content quality sites want to host.  The type of content those tools spit out tend to end up on low-quality blogs and/or in article directories, neither has much algorithmic weight behind them so you don't get the link popularity or content citations you're vying for.  Why?  To understand the "why" behind the question, we need to understand what link popularity is and how it's used to influence the way your pages rank.

Link Popularity

In its basic form, link popularity is comprised of three components and one influencing factor:  link quantity, link quality, relevance and anchor text.

  • Link quantity - the number of links pointing to a specific webpage.   Having lots of links is a good thing. :)
  • Link quality - quality is determined by the authority of the host pages/sites and the pages/sites linking to them.  Quality flows from one page to the next through links.  Most people know this factor as PageRank, (TrustRank for Yahoo and not sure what Bing calls it)
  • Anchor text - this is the clickable part of the link you see, it's a query ranking indicator and an endorsement, it tells both humans and bots what is about to come.  Anchors using keyword phrases provide additional "weight" and carry semantic value,  Google doesn't spell out much for us when it comes to the importance of ranking influences but they have in the case of anchor text:

"Anchor text influences the queries your site ranks for in the search results."

While the comment above was made in 2007 and recent events might make it seem like anchors are no longer a key ranking component that just isn't the case.   Anchor text itself is the not problem when it comes to poor rankings, aggressive webmasters are.  It's not smart to use the same anchor over and over, it never has been.   From a marketing and SEO standpoint it's best to use a wide range of anchors and to use them sparingly.  If it doesn't make sense to hyperlink a keyword phrase in your content - don't.   Nothing says "SEO article here" like multiple hyperlinked keyword anchors in the middle that lead to the same page or pages that don't support the conversation.

Make your content and your anchors conversational, if it makes sense to link out, do it.  There's nothing wrong with hyperlinking a "click here" or "for more information" in the body of your copy, it helps with the flow of information and to mix up your anchors.

Relevance

Links to and from contextually relevant or thematically related sites/pages are supposed to convey more authority, relevance helps establish where you belong topically and/or geographically.  You don't have to get links from pages in your keyword niches but it helps.  Why?  From an editorial standpoint, webmasters in the same/ancillary areas are more likely to link to other webmasters or pages that support their content.  Like attracts like, the concept is the same here.

The relevance component can be a key factor in the phenomena known as "negative SEO". If you're not familiar with the issue, read here and if you are, you know how easy it can be to have this happen to you.  If you've always linked along in your topical and/or geographic niche and someone comes at you with tons of off topic backlinks, being able to fight back/defend your link history becomes easier.  Stick to getting links from pages your demographic frequents and follow your history patterns.

Now that we have the link popularity explanations and support information out of the way, let's go back to the original question:

Question:  Where should I put my articles - can I put multiple articles on one blog site and each will act as a link or does only one article per blog website count as a link?

Link building is less about what you do, and more about where you do it.  Ideally you want to find:

  • a lot of pages (link quantity)
  • with high visible PageRank scores (link quality)
  • using keyword anchors (anchor text) 
  • on topically or geographically relevant pages (relevance) ranking well.

Sound familiar?  Problem is, hitting all four points is not easy, even for a seasoned linker.  There is a very high probability quality blogs won't take basic/respun/or tool generated content, they have reputations and readership to satisfy.  You'll have to go to a blog with a less discriminating palate and offer your content.  As long as the blog and your post are in the index, you will receive some measure of link popularity but less than what you'd get from a well ranked topical blog.  In link building, the ultimate goal is to get your links on pages ranking well for whatever terms you are targeting.  Simple in theory, not so easy in reality so always strive to hit as many of the four link pop factors outlined for maximum results.

There's nothing wrong with hosting multiple articles on the same site or blog but it's never a good idea to put too many link eggs in one blog basket.  Spread the wealth, preferably on blogs within your area. You will have a wider audience and expand your link and social graph which works to help you algorithmically.

Next question:

2) In which way should I spread my created articles across blog websites - am I correct in thinking duplicate use of article is a bad thing - each one should be unique?

If you have the time and resources to develop unique articles, that is your best course of action.  If you don't, reusing content is fine as long as it's different enough that anyone reading it won't be able to quote a sentence verbatim. The engines frown on content spread around for ranking purposes, Google has a page on this subject here.  To be safe, freshen up your content with new material each time you drop it, include new images and video, change up the anchors and where they point.

3) Do keywords through an article's/blog's text (on a blog site not the promoted website)have any impact for link building or do only the keywords I attach to the posting matter?

To be honest, I’m not 100% clear on what this question is asking so I’ll answer about the impact a keyword anchor has when sitting on someone else’s page.

Words on a blog/site are considered content, even if the words are hyperlinked.  Your keyword anchor is content for the page it sits on and also a query indicator for the page it points to.  The page the link points to gets the bigger ranking bang because the query indicator is more important to the ranking process. If you hyperlink “click here” instead of using a keyword rich phrase, you lose the influence for the keyword but the engine will still follow the hyperlinks and make the connection between the pages.   It’s highly probable the term “click here” is seen as frivolous content on the site and does not add to the relevance factor.

Even though a lot of people feel anchors have been devalued lately, I don’t;  I think the dial on the number of times the anchor is used and how it’s used has been turned up. Way up.

Use all of your terms and their variations along with company and surnames, hyperlink verbs and call to action phrases so you motivate people to click. Above all, hyperlink words in a sentence when it makes sense and then link to content that reinforces what you’re saying.  Link to off topic content too many times and people stop clicking and reading. 

Anchors and on-page content are not the only ranking influences an engine uses, they each have multiple factors which include social and user-interactions. It’s best to use a wide range of tactics when you link and keep the four points of link popularity in mind as you work.  While it is best to try and link between two topically or geographically related pages to reinforce your intent, unrelated linking won't hurt, it just doesn't help as much.

Thanks for submitting your questions Laura, hope this helps :)


Debra Mastaler is a long time 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.

Curious case of small business and SEO

Jul 19th
posted in

We all read the advice online: don’t build crappy links. Don’t use short term benefit tactics in SEO. But do we always heed that advice? Can we always afford to?

The latest reality check came in the shape of a small online business in the UK, Children’s Furniture Store (CFS). Jane Copland  tweeted about an online letter in which they announce that, due to Penguin update, they are forced to close their business down.

This really got me. Firstly, I hate to see a small business go under. These people put their hearts and souls into the business and it breaks my heart to see them being closed especially due to changes in Google algo. Furthermore, it seems from their closing letter that they were a victim of bad SEO advice and that reflects poorly on all of us. We have enough attention seekers out there calling us out for asshattery as it is so I would rather be pictured as someone who helps small businesses rather than the one that puts them under.

A lot of people started reaching out to Children Furniture Store’s twitter account, offering help and advice. Unfortunately, it was too late for them; they have already started folding up their business and have ceased trading.

I am sure this is not the only case that has or will have happened. As a matter of fact as a result of my activity on twitter around this, I was contacted by another small business asking for help on similar issues. Other people I know encounter these situations on weekly basis.

So why is this happening? Who is to blame for this? A business is closing down, people are losing their jobs, we can’t just dismiss it as “that’s life” and “business is hard”. We cannot learn anything from this case and other similar cases if we do not take a hard look at all the possible culprits responsible for these situations and try to understand what could have been done to prevent this from happening:

This is the list of guilty parties, according to my opinion, ranked by a decreasing amount of responsibility:

The business owner

The business owner is the most responsible party here. They probably didn’t mind when the money was rolling in and never thought about the “what if” scenario. These are the things that they did wrong:

  1. Never ever put all the eggs in one basket – I think this is the most common and widespread piece of advice given to website and general business owners, yet people manage to ignore it again and again. Had CFS had various sources of traffic (which they could have developed with the profits from the organic traffic) or even had they started developing offline business, Google Penalty would have hurt much less. This is true even if you are not using blatantly spammy SEO techniques, you never know where Google’s business goals may be tomorrow and when the line between what is kosher and what isn’t is constantly moving, you never know when you will find yourself on the other side of the line. Having additional sources of traffic/business immunizes (relatively) you against this scenario. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and PAY for the traffic – for example Paid Search. Building a social presence would help too. Luckily they HAD kept their mailing list and were able to sell any leftover inventory using it – but mail is a good channel to optimize sales too.
  2. Get educated – there is a lot of SEO information out there. No one can follow all of it. But it is your prerogative as an online business to keep abreast of the most important best practices and pitfalls within the marketing channel that is providing you with the majority of your income. Had this business done their due diligence, they would know not to rely on only one stream of traffic, they would know that the practices used by their SEO provider are shady at best, they would know that they are paying too little for the SEO services for them to safely provide them with edge over their competition in their niche. They would also know what to do when shit hits the fan and not wait for a full year for the second hit which will ultimately decimate their business.


    In this case, the business owner did say that they spent a lot of time trying to read on the internet about similar issues – apparently they didn’t find any “real” advice. Should Business Owners learn to navigate online information a bit better? Or should we, as an industry, make sure that the information found on these issues is top notch? But more about that further down. In this particular case, the owner of the business did several things – tried reading about the possible problem, turned to an independent SEO (who told her to let the site die and start anew) and fired the agency that was probably the cause of all this. Still there was much more to be done and I hope other businesses will act differently in similar situations.
  3. Reach out – as their “we are closing the business” letter started circulating, more and more people started saying that they are willing to help. In a matter of minutes, both in public and private channels, a picture of what needs to be done to help this website started emerging. Getting this kind of analysis from industry experts can cost a lot of money, but if a business owner harnesses the benefits of the SEO community, either through Twitter, SEOBook Forum, Google Webmaster Central forums, SEOMoz Q&A forum, G+, Facebook groups, etc., they can get a pretty clear picture about what hit them and what needs to be done. They would be more aware of the risk levels involved with the SEO strategies they were using and would be able to move away from them much earlier, making the cleanup a more viable option. With all the misgivings of this industry, it has some of the most generous and helping people in it and this can be a tremendous asset for small businesses that are struggling to come with terms with the challenges involved in promoting your website in organic results.

SEO Company

  1. Spammy strategies – one look at the CFS’ backlink profile shows patterns of a backlink network.



    Further conversations with people that are connected to the company showed that this is indeed the case. Bunch of footer links, clearly paid-for blog posts, sidebar sitewide links from non-related sites in non-English languages… You took a small business that doesn’t know what they are doing, promised them wonders at three-digit monthly recurring price and it worked for a while. Did you warn them about the risks? Did you tell them that if Google decides to target these link-building practices, their whole business can go down the drain? Or did you encourage them to enjoy the party while it lasts? Did you instruct them to take the profits of these short-sighted tactics and invest them in diversifying their traffic sources? No you didn’t. You are no better than a drug dealer, reaping profits from the lack of knowledge of unsuspecting client, allowing them to risk their whole business and you should be ashamed of yourself for that. You sir, are an ass hat. 
  2. No responsibility – as the graph attached above shows, the CFS site was hit at two occasions, one in May 2011 and the other in May 2012. According to them, they have stopped working with you by the time WMT warning notices have arrived. Do you think that releases you from the responsibility for your work? What did you do in between those two dates? Did you take responsibility for CFS situation? Did you instruct them on how to fix their situation? How did you allow a business that found itself in a shitty situation, partially due to your actions, to get to the point where they have to close their doors? Do you honestly not care that people are going to be jobless because of the bad advice you have provided?

Google

Yes Google.

By allowing crappy linking strategies to work for so long, they have created a situation where the only viable option to stay competitive in certain niches was to join the bandwagon and use spammy links. You can stand on your soapbox only for only that long and preach “whitehat” techniques while your competitors are laughing all the way to the bank and cashing in. So yes, at some point they will probably be penalized, but until then they will have developed enough capital to be able to safely switch to some other domain/SEO strategy and have developed their brand to the point where they are practically immune from algorithmic changes. You have created a situation in which following your Best Practices was a financially unviable option for a lot of small businesses and for this you carry a part of the blame

Furthermore, you should realize that the information you give out about these penalties is not read only by sinister SEOs spending their days and nights trying to reverse engineer your precious algorithm. Why is it so hard to tell the business owner what is it they are getting penalized for? Tell them “your site has a large amount of paid links/unnatural anchors. You can find these links marked with a huge red exclamation mark in your WMT link report. Get rid of them”. Doesn’t Google have a responsibility of providing decent, informed content around these sort of penalties so that  a business owner can refer back to the source? When they penalize a business – shouldn’t it be their responsibility to say EXACTLY why? Is a bland, notification in GWMT sufficient?

When you Google “Penguin” or “Panda” etc – shouldn’t Google’s own written guidelines on recovery be ranked at top positions, so no one else gets scammed? Yes, it is not all Google’s fault that these businesses were told that it is OK to do whatever it takes to rank. Yes, Google does not owe anyone anything but it would be a sign of goodwill towards those that provide the content of the web for Google to crawl and serve ads on.

The SEO Community

How is the SEO community responsible? By greatly diluting the information space in our industry. The number of inane posts, all written in the same “10 ways unrelated-X affects your SEO-Related-Y” format, all based on conjectures and rehashed hearsay, make it almost impossible for a non-industry person to get to the meaningful information. I have seen articles with link building strategies that were covered in 2006 being peddled as “current” and “cutting edge” in 2012.

Without knowing the authors, companies they work for, their level of experience and history of their posting, there is no way that a person who doesn’t spend significant amounts of time wading through the noise created in the SEO space can know what is reliable and what not. Furthermore, the lack of propensity to call out crap information when we see one, complete avoidance of confrontation within the industry, limiting critical discussion on quality of content behind gated walls of private Skype chats and limited Facebook groups, makes the pruning of this jungle of nonsense an impossible task and for that all of us bear some part of responsibility.

I am really sad for CFS. It depresses me that a business can go under so easily from causes that could have been prevented. There are real people behind these websites, making their living, in spite of Google doing a lot to make their success harder (by promoting big brands and at a switch of an algorithm button making previously acceptable and successful practices - damaging). I hope that this post will help other businesses make sure that they are doing everything possible not to find themselves in a similar situation.

Many thanks to Rishi for helping with editing and some background info.


Branko Rihtman has been optimizing sites for search engines since 2001 for clients and own web properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, Branko realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at SEO Scientist. Branko is currently responsible for SEO R&D at RankAbove, provider of a leading SEO SaaS platform – Drive.

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