The Search Power Of Brand

Sep 3rd
posted in

In that past, we’ve talked a lot about Google’s brand bias, but no matter how a brand is defined in technical terms, the reality is that Google cannot leave popular brand sites out of the search results.

If a person searches for, say, AVIS, and doesn’t see AVIS in the top spot, then as far as the searcher is concerned, Google is broken. If a person searches for various car rental terms and does not see AVIS somewhere, then it's also likely they'll expect Google is broken.

Google isn’t perceived as broken, however, if car-rental-cars-online.com is nowhere to be seen. Some might argue Google is doing the searcher a favour by ignoring such a site.

Crowded Planet

There was a time on the web when relevant information was harder to come by. Not so now. Now, we have too much information. We don’t even know how big the internet is. They're guessing two trillion pages. And counting.

So, the real competition is clutter.

The real opportunity is to find clear space amongst the throng.

One way to do that is by developing a clear brand identity.

What Is A Brand

A logo? A set of graphics? A catchy name?

Not really.

Plenty of companies have logos, graphics and a catchy name but they do not have strong brand identities. A brand is largely about how other people define you. They define you based on the experience they have when engaging with you.

For example, take Apple. How would you define their brand? The logo? The shops? The fonts they use in their advertising?

These aspects are not Apple’s brand. Apple’s brand is in the way Apple’s customers feel about Apple. It’s a feeling tied up with concepts such fashion, design, innovation and quality - and unique to Apple.

This feeling creates a clear identity in the mind of the customer.

Having a clear identity makes you memorable. People will remember your site name. People will search for your site name. And when enough people do that, then there is little chance Google can ever drop you below number #1 for brand searches. If you get it right, Google will even rank you against relevant related keywords you aren't targeting.

Because Google would look broken if it didn't feature you.

Tooting our own horn here, but if you typed “seo book” into Google, and didn’t see this site, you’d think Google was broken. There are plenty of books on SEO, but only one “seo book” that owns a clear brand identity in this space. And SEO Book gets plenty of traffic from other search search related terms that it does not target, because Google associates the site so strongly with the "SEO education" niche. The people who search on SEO queries click on this site, and once they arrive, they don’t click back too often.

Own Your Space

Any company, no matter how small, can develop unique brands and build their own brand related search stream, and associated searches, over time.

If you run a small company, do you occupy clear space? By clear space, think focused, unique selling proposition. What is the thing you offer that others do not? If other people offer what you do, then what is the thing you do better? How do people describe you? Can they reduce it to an elevator pitch? Is what you offer focused, or confused?

It’s about more than providing something a bit unique. In a cluttered environment, like the web, it's about creating something genuinely different. Probably radically different, given the high level of noise in the search results.

Once you have your differentiation down you can then advertise it, which creates further brand awareness: "High dwell campaigns are three times more efficient at stimulating branded search."

This makes for a more defensible search marketing strategy, because it's difficult for generic competition to emulate you once you've carved out a clear identity. It’s not about offering more features. Or a lower price. Those things are details. It’s about crafting a unique identity that others will know you by. Focus on the parts of your business that really make the money, and considering orienting your entire identity around that one aspect.

The problem with not having a clear identity and point of difference, when it comes to SEO, is that it is a constant battle to maintain position. Google can easily flush all the me-too sites that chase generic keywords and Google’s users aren’t going to complain. The sites with unique identities don’t have to spend near as much time, energy and money maintaining rank.

But hang on, doesn’t this go against everything SEO is about?

There’s nothing wrong with chasing generic terms. It’s a completely valid strategy. However, if we’re in it for the long haul, we should also make an effort to develop a clear, differentiated brand. It means we can own our space in the search results, no matter how Google changes in future.

Look at Trip Advisor. Google may be gunning for the travel space with their own content acquisitions, but they’re going to look deficient if they don’t display TripAdvisor. They are going to look deficient if they don't show Trip Advisor when people are looking for just about any travel review queries, whether Trip Advisor is targeting them or not, because Trip Advisor are synonymous with travel reviews. By not featuring Trip Advisor, Google would merely encourage more people to by-pass Google and search Trip Advisor directly.

That's a powerful place to be.

Not everyone can dominate the travel space like Trip Advisor, of course. But it is worth noting that Trip Advisor started small & the principle is the same, no matter what the niche. It’s about becoming the most memorable site in your niche. No matter if it’s poggo sticks for one legged dogs, then be the go-to site for poggo sticks for one legged dogs. Eventually, word gets around, and such a site become synonymous with poggo sticks for one legged dogs, and associated terms, whether they optimize for related terms, or not.

Google will associate keywords with this site in order to deliver a relevant result, and if this site owns the “poggo sticks for one legged dogs” niche, then their SEO workload is greatly reduced.

Are They Talking About You?

Your brand should be something people will talk about. Where are all the links coming from these days? Social networks. Google pays attention to social signals - tweets, Facebook, Google+ and other social links - because that is the way many links occur. They are markers of attention, and Google will always look for markers of attention.

And as their audiences click through to you, Google gets valuable signals about your relevance to entire groups of people. You can be sure Google is grouping these people by interest - creating demographic profiles - and if your site interests a certain group, then this will flow through into searches made by these groups. Google can also tie many of these users back to their identities by using persistent cookies & Google+.

That's the way it's going. SEO, and wider marketing and brand strategy, will all meld together.

Do You Trust Me?

Aug 30th
posted in

Well, you might - if you knew what a trustworthy guy I am :)

But I know that’s nowhere good enough. I know I would need to earn it.

"Do I trust you?" is a question your web visitors are probably asking themselves right now.

Do they trust your title tag description and snippet enough to click the link? If they click the link, and land on your site, do the trust you enough to stay? Do they trust you enough to click deeper into your site? Do they trust you enough to hand over their e-mail address, or their credit card details?

If your site ranks well, but visitors don't trust it, is your search marketing campaign broken? Blowing an opportunity to form a trust relationship, which can be broken in less than a few seconds online, earns nothing but a click-back.

Webmasters need to establish trust quickly in order to get people to take the next step.

I'm Trustworthy!

All webmasters look to establish trust. We intuitively know that in order to convince someone else of something, they first need to trust us. No webmaster would want to project an air of untrustworthiness, although some mistakenly do, by overlooking a few simple steps.

If you have an existing site, or you are planning a new one, consider undertaking an audit of trust factors.

Your visitors will want to know....

1. Who Am I Dealing With?

This is especially important online, because there is little context to our interaction.

If we walk into a doctors office, we may see medical equipment, and nurses, and qualifications on the wall. It provides us with sufficient context to establish a level of trust that this person is likely a qualified doctor who knows what she is doing. The environment gives us a pretty good idea of who we are dealing with.

Not so online.

A web site, especially a website that is previously unknown to us, provides little in the way of context. Anonymity can lend an air of the mysterious, but it doesn't do much to help establish trust.

Let visitors know who they are dealing with. This doesn’t necessarily involve telling them your life story, or showing them a photo of you and the kids, although that can work well for personalized forms of marketing.

If you don’t already have them, consider adding staff photos and position details, detailed company description and history, and ensure address and contact details are prominently displayed. If you have a physical location, show it. Provide a map. The tech-savvy will likely want to see you on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, too.

This point is obvious, I know. Most webmasters do it. Audit your site to see if you provides visitors a clear idea of who they are dealing with.

2. Overcome Fear

There is fear in new engagements.

Not spine tingling fear. Just a low level fear of the new. Your visitors may fear your site is wasting their time. They may fear they might be ripped off. They may fear you won't deliver on the promise made explicit in your title tag and heading.

Look at ways to counter fear of the new.

The familiar carries less fear than the unfamiliar. Obviously, if you've already established a reputation, then you will already be familiar to your visitors, and therefore likely appear more trustworthy that someone a visitor doesn't know.

But search marketing is often focused on attracting the new visitor, so an established reputation may not be something we can rely on. This is why it can be good idea to leverage reputation from elsewhere.

For example, a commonly used tactic is the “As Seen In...” references used by sites such as ForSaleByOwner.com. Whilst also providing credibility by association, it is also a means of leveraging the trust in those brands with which the visitor is already familiar.

3. Will This Work For Me?

There’s more to relevance than matching a keyword. How will your solution work for your visitor? How do you know what is really relevant to them when all you have for a clue is a keyword phrase?

This is easier said than done. You need to get inside their head. You need to know their questions and objections and be able to answer them. If people feel you care about solving their problems, they are more likely to trust you.

But how?

Listening. Being clear about what problem you’re going to solve. Is it a real problem, or an imagined one? Look for opportunities to have your visitor define their problem in their own terms, using surveys, visitor tracking, market research (i.e. the language they use in forums, on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, et al)

The best sites seem to know exactly what you are thinking. They reflect you, back at you.

This can be underlined with your copy. Use “you” as opposed to “I”. Look how many times “you” has been used in this copy. This is a very effective selling technique, because your visitors really don’t care about you, they care about them.

4. Deliver

We've dealt with superficial areas, most of which can just as easily be abused by the manipulative and deceitful as used properly by the honest and trustworthy.

Trust also a process. People will judge you by your actions.

  • Tell them what you'll do.
  • Do it.
  • Tell them you've done it.

Does your website demonstrate this? One good way to show process is by using a case study. You outline the problem. Show how you planned to solve it. Then you show that you solved it. For extra points, show how happy people were with the outcome.

Offer free trials, where possible. Offer free downloads. Look for tangible ways to prove you do what you say you do.

Once a visitor has engaged your services, ensure your process is transparent, communicated and you do what you said you’d do.

5. What Will Everyone Else Think?

This is related to fear.

Will I be ridiculed for choosing your service? Made to feel stupid? There was a saying in the IT industry that “no one got fired for buying IBM”. It wasn’t that IBM was necessarily a better provider, it was that many people used them, so there was perceived strength in numbers of the tried and true.
People tend to go where other people are. Can you provide similar social validation?

Customer references are a great way to provide social validation. If the customers are from companies with which your visitor is already familiar, all the better. Faces. Lot’s of happy faces provide social validation.

Also include the number of people who use, or have used, your service.

In summary:

  • Have you let people know who they are dealing with?
  • Have you made reference to the familiar?
  • Have you addressed their needs in their own terms?
  • Have you included references and case studies?
  • Have you done what you’d said you’d do?

PS: Thanks to Seth Godin for the inspiration, off whos' post I’m riffing :)

How to Free Your E-Commerce Site from Google's Panda

Aug 29th

On Feb. 25, 2011, Google released Panda to wreak havoc on the web. While it may have been designed to take out content farms, it also took out scores of quality e-commerce sites. What do content farms and e-commerce sites have in common? Lots of pages. Many with zero or very few links. And on e-commerce sites with hundreds or thousands of products, the product pages may have a low quantity of content, making them appear as duplicate, low quality, or shallow to the Panda, thus a target for massive devaluation.

My e-commerce site was hit by Panda, causing a 60% drop in traffic overnight. But I was able to escape after many months of testing content and design changes. In this post, I'll explain how we beat the Panda, and what you can do to get your site out if you've been hit.

The key to freeing your e-commerce site from Panda lies at the bottom of a post Google provided as guidance to Pandalized sites:

One other specific piece of guidance we've offered is that low-quality content on some parts of a website can impact the whole site’s rankings, and thus removing low quality pages, merging or improving the content of individual shallow pages into more useful pages, or moving low quality pages to a different domain could eventually help the rankings of your higher-quality content.

Panda doesn't like what it thinks are "low quality" pages, and that includes "shallow pages". Many larger e-commerce sites, and likely all of those that were hit by Panda, have a high number of product pages with either duplicate bits of descriptions or short descriptions, leading to the shallow pages label. In order to escape from the Panda devaluation, you'll need to do something about that. Here are a few possible solutions:

Adding Content To Product Pages

If your site has a relatively small number of products, or if each product is unique enough to support entirely different descriptions and information, you may be able to thicken up the pages with unique, useful information. Product reviews can also serve the same purpose, but if your site is already hit by Panda you may not have the customers to leave enough reviews to make a difference. Additionally, some product types are such that customers are unlikely to leave reviews.

If you can add unique and useful information to each of your product pages, you should do so both to satisfy the Panda and your customers. It's a win-win.

Using Variations To Decrease Product Pages

Some e-commerce sites have large numbers of products with slight variations. For example, if you're selling t-shirts you may have one design in 5 different sizes and 10 different colors. If you've got 20 designs, you've got 1,000 unique products. However, it would be impossible to write 1,000 unique descriptions. At best, you'll be able to write one for each design, or a total of 20. If your e-commerce site is set up so that each of the product variations has a single page, Panda isn't going to like that. You've either got near 1,000 pages that look like duplicates, or you've got near 1,000 pages that look VERY shallow.

Many shopping carts allow for products to have variations, such that in the above situation you can have 20 product pages where a user can select size and color variations for each design. Switching to such a structure will probably cause the Panda to leave you alone and make shopping easier for your customers.

Removing Poor Performing Products

If your products aren't sufficiently unique to add substantial content to each one, and they also don't lend themselves to consolidation through selectable variations, you might consider deleting any that haven't sold well historically. Panda doesn't like too many pages. So if you've got pages that have never produced income, it's time to remove them from your site.

Getting Rid of All Product Pages

This is a bold step, but the one we were forced to take in order to recover. A great many of our products are very similar. They're variations of each other. But due to the limitations of our shopping cart combined with shipping issues, where each variation had different shipping costs that couldn't be programed into the variations, it was the only viable choice we were left with.

In this option, you redesign your site so that products displayed on category pages are no longer clickable, removing links to all product pages. The information that was displayed on product pages gets moved to your category pages. Not only does this eliminate your product pages, which make up the vast majority of your site, but it also adds content to your category pages. Rather than having an "add to cart" or "buy now" button on the product page, it's integrated into the category page right next to the product.

Making this move reduced our page count by nearly 90%. Our category pages became thicker, and we no longer had any shallow pages. A side benefit of this method is that customers have to make fewer clicks to purchase a product. And if your customers tend to purchase multiple products with each order, they avoid having to go from category page to product page, back to the category page, and into another product page. They can simply purchase a number of products with single clicks.

Noindexing Product Pages

If you do get rid of all links to your product pages but your cart is still generating them, you'll want to add a "noindex, follow" tag to each of them. This can also be a solution for e-commerce sites where all traffic enters on category level pages rather than product pages. If you know your customers are searching for phrases that you target on your category pages, and not specifically searching for the products you sell, you can simply noindex all of your product pages with no loss in traffic.

If all of your products are in a specific folder, I'd recommend also disallowing that folder from Googlebot in your robots.txt file, and filing a removal request in Google Webmaster Tools, in order to make sure the pages are taken out of the index.

Other Considerations: Pagination & Search Results Pages

In addition to issues with singular product pages, your e-commerce site may have duplicate content issues or a very large number of similar pages in the index due to your on-site search and sorting features. Googlebot will fill in your search form and index your search results pages, potentially leading to thousands of similar pages in the index. Make sure your search results pages have a rel="noindex, follow" tag or a rel="canonical" tag to take care of this. Similarly, if your product pages have a variety of sorting options (price, best selling, etc.), you should make sure the rel="canonical" tag points to the default page as the canonical version. Otherwise, each product page may exist in Google's index in each variation.


Maxmoritz, a long time member of our SEO Community, has been working in SEO full time since 2005. He runs a variety of sites, including Hungry Piranha, where he blogs regularly.

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Getting Site Architecture Right

Aug 27th

There are many ways to organize pages on a site. Unfortunately, some common techniques of organizing information can also harm your SEO strategy.

Sites organized by a hierarchy determined without reference to SEO might not be ideal because the site architecture is unlikely to emphasize links to information a searcher finds most relevant. An example would be burying high-value keyword pages deep within a sites structure, as opposed to hear the top, simply because those pages don't fit easily within a "home", "about us", contact" hierarchy.

In this article, we’ll look at ways to align your site architecture with search visitor demand.

Start By Building A Lexicon

Optimal site architecture for SEO is architecture based around language visitors use. Begin with keyword research.

Before running a keyword mining tool, make a list of the top ten competitor sites that are currently ranking well in your niche and evaluate them in terms of language. What phrases are common? What questions are posed? What answers are given, and how are the answers phrased? What phrases/topics are given the most weighting? What phrases/topics are given the least weighting?

You’ll start to notice patterns, but for more detailed analysis, dump the phrases and concepts into a spreadsheet, which will help you determine frequency.

Once you’ve discovered key concepts, phrases and themes, run them through a keyword research tool to find synonyms and the related concepts your competitors may have missed.

One useful, free tool that can group keyword concepts is the Google Adwords Editor. User the grouper function - described here in "How To Organize Keywords" to "generate common terms" option to automatically create keyword groupings.

Another is the Google Contextual Targeting Tool.

Look at your own site logs for past search activity. Trawl through related news sites, Facebook groups, industry publications and forums. Build up a lexicon of phrases that your target visitors use.

Then use visitor language as the basis of your site hierarchy.

Site Structure Based On Visitor Language

Group the main concepts and keywords into thematic units.

For example, a site about fruit might be broken down into key thematic units such as “apple”, “pear”, “orange”, “banana” and so on.

Link each thematic unit down to sub themes i.e. for “oranges”, the next theme could include links to pages such as “health benefits of oranges”, “recipes using oranges”, etc, depending on the specific terms you’re targeting. In this way, you integrate keyword terms with your site architecture.

Here’s an example in the wild:

The product listing by category navigation down the left-hand side is likely based on keywords. If we click on, say, the “Medical Liability Insurance” link, we see a group of keyword-loaded navigation links that relate specifically to that category.

Evidence Based Navigation

A site might be about “cape cod real estate”. If I run this term through a keyword research tool, in this case Google Keywords, a few conceptual patterns present themselves i.e people search mainly by either geographic location i.e. Edgartown, Provincetown, Chatham, etc or accommodation type i.e. rentals, commercial, waterfront, etc.

Makes sense, of course.

But notice what isn’t there?

For one thing, real estate searches by price. Yet, some real estate sites give away valuable navigation linkage to a price-based navigation hierarchy.

This is not to say a search function ordered by house value isn’t important, but ordering site information by house value isn’t necessarily a good basis for seo-friendly site architecture. This functionality could be integrated into a search tool, instead.

A good idea, in terms of aligning site architecture with SEO imperatives, would be to organise such a site by geographic location and/or accommodation type as this matches the interests of search visitors. The site is made more relevant to search visitors than would otherwise be the case

Integrate Site Navigation Everywhere

Site navigation typically involves concepts such as “home”, “about”, “contact”, “products” i.e. a few high-level tabs or buttons that separate information by function.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but the navigation concept for SEO purposes can be significantly widened by playing to the webs core strengths. Tim Berners Lee placed links at the heart of the web as links were the means to navigate from one related document to another. Links are still the webs most common navigational tool.

“Navigational” links should appear throughout your copy. If people are reading your copy, and the topic is not quite what they want, they will either click back, or - if you’ve been paying close attention to previous visitor behaviour - will click on a link within your copy to another area of your site.

The body text on every page on your site is an opportunity to integrate specific, keyword-loaded navigation. As a bonus, this may encourage higher levels of click-thru, as opposed to click-back, pass link juice to sub-pages and ensure no page on your site is orphaned.

Using Site Architecture To Defeat Panda & Penguin

These two animals have a world of connotations, many of them unpleasant.

Update Panda was an update partly focused on user-experience. Google is likely using interaction metrics, and if Google isn’t seeing what they deem to be positive visitor interaction, then your pages, or site, will likely take a hit.

What metrics are Google likely to be looking at? Bounce backs, for one. This is why relevance is critical. The more you know about your customers, and the more relevant link options you can give them to click deeper into your site, rather than click-back to the search results, the more likely you are to avoid being Panda-ized.

If you’ve got pages in your hierarchy that users don’t consider to be particularly relevant, either beef them up or remove them.

Update Penguin was largely driven by anchor text. If you use similar anchor text keywords pointing to one page, Penquin is likely to cause you grief. This can even happen if you’re mixing up keywords i.e. “cape cod houses”, “cape cod real estate”, “cape cod accommodation”. That level of keyword diversity may have been acceptable in the past, but it’s not now.

Make links specific, and link it to specific, unique pages. Get rid of duplicate, or near duplicate pages. Each page should be unique, not just in terms of keywords used, but in terms of concept.

In a post-Panda/Penquin world, webmasters must have razor-sharp focus on what information searchers find most relevant. Being close, but not quite what the visitor wanted, is an invitation for Google to sink you.

Build relevance into your information architecture.

Rank Modifying Spammers

Aug 23rd
posted in

My good friend Bill at SEOByTheSea has unearthed a Google patent that will likely raise eyebrows, whilst others will have their suspicions confirmed.

The patent is called Ranking Documents. When webmasters alter a page, or links to a page, the system may not respond immediately to those changes. Rather, the system may change rankings in unexpected ways.

A system determines a first rank associated with a document and determines a second rank associated with the document, where the second rank is different from the first rank. The system also changes, during a transition period that occurs during a transition from the first rank to the second rank, a transition rank associated with the document based on a rank transition function that varies the transition rank over time without any change in ranking factors associated with the document.

Further:

During the transition from the old rank to the target rank, the transition rank might cause:
  • a time-based delay response,
  • a negative response
  • a random response, and/or
  • an unexpected response

So, Google may shift the rankings of your site, in what appears to be a random manner, before Google settles on a target rank.

Let's say that you're building links to a site, and the site moves up in the rankings. You would assume that the link building has had a positive effect. Not so if the patent code is active, as your site may have already been flagged.

Google then toys with you for a while before sending your site plummeting to the target rank. This makes it harder to determine cause and effect.

Just because a patent exists doesn't mean Google is using it, of course. This may be just be another weapon in the war-of-FUD, but it sounds plausible and it’s something to keep in mind, especially if you're seeing this type of movement.

The Search Engine As Black Box

In ancient times (1990s), SEO thrived because search engines were stupid black boxes. If you added some keywords here, added a few links there, the black box would respond in a somewhat predictable, prescribed, fashion. Your rankings would rise if you guessed what the black box liked to "see", and you plummeted if you did too much of what the black box liked to see!

Ah, the good old days.

These days, the black box isn’t quite so stupid. It’s certainly a lot more cryptic. What hasn’t changed, however, is the battle line drawn between webmasters and search engines as they compete for search visitor attention.

If there are any webmasters still under the illusion that Google is the SEOs friend, that must be a very small club, indeed. Google used to maintain a - somewhat unconvincing - line that if you just followed their ambiguous guidelines (read: behaved yourself) then they would reward you. It was you and Google on the good side, and the evil spammers on the other.

Of late, Google appear to have gotten bored of maintaining any pretense, and the battle lines have been informally redrawn. If you’re a webmaster doing anything at all that might be considered an effort to improve rank, then you're a "spammer". Google would no doubt argue this has always been the case, even if you had to read between the lines to grasp it. And they’d be right.

Unconvinced?

Look at the language on the patent:

The systems and methods may also observe spammers’ reactions to rank changes caused by the rank transition function to identify documents that are actively being manipulated. This assists in the identification of rank-modifying spammers.

“Manipulated”? “Rank modifying spammers”? So, a spammer is someone who attempts to modify their rank?

I’ve yet to meet a webmaster who didn’t wish to modify their rank.

Google As A Competitor

Google’s business model relies on people clicking ads. In their initial IPO filing, Google identified rank manipulation as a business risk.

We are susceptible to index spammers who could harm the integrity of our web search results. There is an ongoing and increasing effort by “index spammers” to develop ways to manipulate our web search results

It’s a business risk partly because the result sets need to be relevant for people to return to Google. The largely unspoken point is Google wants webmasters to pay to run advertising, not get it for “free”, or hand their search advertising budget to an SEO shop.

Why would Google make life easy for competitors?

The counter argument has been that webmasters provide free content, which the search engines need in order to attract visitors in the first place. However, now relevant content is plentiful, that argument has been weakened. Essentially, if you don't want to be in Google, then block Google. They won't lose any sleep over it.

What has happened, however, is that the incentive to produce quality content, with search engines in mind, has been significantly reduced. If content can be scraped, ripped-off, demoted and merely used as a means to distract the search engine user enough to maybe click a few search engine ads, then where is the money going to come from to produce quality content? Google may be able to find relevant content, but "relevant" (on-topic) and "quality" (worth consuming) are seldom the same thing

One content model that works in such as environment is content that is cheap to produce. Cheap content can be quality content, but like all things in life, quality tends to come with a higher price tag. Another model that works is loss-leader content, but then the really good stuff is still hidden from view, and it's still hard to do this well, unless you've established considerable credibility - which is still expensive to do.

This is the same argument the newspaper publishers have been making. The advertising doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of production and make a profit - so naturally the winner in this game cuts production cost until the numbers do add up. What tends to be sacrificed in this process - is quality.

NFSW Corp, a new startup by ex-TechCrunch and Guardian columnist writer Paul Carr has taken the next step. They have put everything behind a paywall. There is no free content. No loss-leaders. All you see is a login screen.

Is this the future for web publishing? If so, the most valuable content will not be in Google. And if more and more valuable content lies beyond Google's reach, then will fewer people bother going to Google in the first place?

The Happy Middle

Google argue that they focus on the user. They run experiments to determine search quality, quality as determined by users.

Here’s how it works. Our engineers come up with some insight or technique and implement a change to the search ranking algorithm . They hope this will improve search results, but at this point it’s just a hypothesis. So how do we know if it’s a good change? First we have a panel of real users spread around the world try out the change, comparing it side by side against our unchanged algorithm. This is a blind test — they don’t know which is which. They rate the results, and from that we get a rough sense of whether the change is better than the original. If it isn’t, we go back to the drawing board. But if it looks good, we might next take it into our usability lab — a physical room where we can invite people in to try it out in person and give us more detailed feedback. Or we might run it live for a small percentage of actual Google users, and see whether the change is improving things for them. If all those experiments have positive results, we eventually roll out the change for everyone"

Customer focus is, of course, admirable, but you’ve got to wonder about a metric that doesn’t involve the needs of publishers. If publishing on the web is not financially worthwhile, then, over time, the serps will surely degrade in terms of quality as a whole, and users will likely go elsewhere.

There is evidence this is already happening. Brett at Webmasterworld pointed out that there is a growing trend amongst consumers to skip Google altogether and just head for the Amazon, and other sites, directly. Amazon queries are up 73 percent in the last year.

There may well be a lot of very clever people at Google, but they do not appear to be clever enough to come up with a model that encourages webmasters to compete with each other in terms of information quality.

If Google doesn’t want the highest quality information increasingly locked up behind paywalls, then it needs to think of a way to nurture and incentivise the production of quality content, not just relevant content. Tell publishers exactly what content Google wants to see rank well and tell them how to achieve it. There should be enough money left on the table for publishers i.e. less competition from ads - so that everyone can win.

I’m not going to hold my breath for this publisher nirvana, however. I suspect Google's current model just needs content to be "good enough."

Get Valuable Work Done

Aug 21st
posted in

I run my own business, but I've just completed a short stint working on-site at another company.

And after a few months working for another company, I realized that, at my own company, I had fallen into routines and work habits not all of which could be considered productive.

Procrastination, which some argue can be beneficial, can also be a problem when we really need to get things done. So, it was refreshing to see how other people organize their work, and an opportunity to reflect upon, and improve, my own work approach.

In short, I really needed a way of getting more valuable stuff done each day.

How Often Do We Produce Business Value?

Do you sometimes find that you’ve been working all day, but end with a sneaking suspicion you didn’t create a lot of actual value? Are you sometimes busy for the sake of being busy?

That was true in my case.

But now I organize my work to ensure I deliver something of real value - every day.

I discovered a method of working that has been around for a while, called Agile. Agile is a software development process incorporating a number of elegant concepts that can help skyrocket personal productivity. It is used by companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo and Salesforce.

Agile is a huge topic, and there are many flavors of Agile, but I’ve picked out the one key feature that can be very effective for individuals and small companies working in areas beyond software development.

But first, let’s talk about how a bunch of amateurs built a supercar in under three months.

Really?

Really.

Wikispeed are a group of part-time volunteers. They built a 0-60mph-in-under-five-seconds supercar, that can do 100mpg, and they did so in under three months. What is more astonishing is that the people building the car often weren’t in the same room, city or even country.

But with very little money, no factories, and little formal car-building experience they built something astonishing in a very short space of time. Currently, they’re building a full production car suitable for the mass market, and if you want to help build it, well, you can!

That's quite some feat in terms of both organisation and personal productivity.

Some people would be forgiven for assuming that the process must have been meticulously planned in advance, laying out precise complex technical and procedural detail, but that wasn’t the case. The project was broken down into very simple concepts even a child could understand

The work was broken down into stories

What Is A Story?

In Agile, a “story” is short, simple description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who will use the capability being created. It also defines the business value.

Here's a template for a story:

As a (type of user), I want (some goal) so that (some reason).

An example might be:

As a marketer, I want a report that shows the number of links coming to my site from Twitter so that I can measure if my Twitter experiment resulted in over 1000 links

We then create a list of tasks needed to accomplish the story.

For example:

  • Investigate software solutions for Twitter link measurement
  • Implement software solution
  • Run report

We then create success criteria to measure if the story has been completed i.e. what output of business value is created?

I can see a report that shows how many links are coming into my site from Twitter

Simple.

Ensure You’re Focused On Delivering Value

On a Monday, I write a set of stories about what I’m going to do that week. I estimate how long each story will take, and then I arrange them in a hierarchy. The order of the hierarchy is determined by which stories produce the most business value.

Next, I count up the hours involved, and if the hours involved exceed the number of hours I have available, the story gets put on the backburner for consideration next week.

I define tasks for each story, and then systematically work through them. It’s like a to-do list, but richer and more valuable because each story forces me to think in terms of delivering something of measurable, business value relative to each other unit of work I need to do. Needless to say, engaging with Facebook doesn't appear often in my stories.

Big projects, such as entire search marketing campaigns, can be broken down into multiple stories, spread over multiple weeks, chunked into tasks, and then timeboxed as a means of project management. In plain, simple language, everyone can see what needs to be done.

If you have trouble determining the business value of a chunk of work you’re doing, chances are it isn’t producing much value, so you should ditch it and find something that does. In this way, you fill your day with the things that matter most.

Satisfaction In a Job Well Done

There are, of course, many ways to manage projects, and many different ways to use Agile. Most companies adopt different flavours of Agile, or use only bits and pieces as it suits.

Personally, I have little use in my own business for the numerous meetings and the often tedious ritualistic activity Agile can involve. I’m also wary of over-hyped--latest-greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread work systems, but I do find stories a great way of deciding what work is most valuable to do at any given time.

I use this chart tool, called LeanKit, to align the story tasks into pre-set columns of “defined” (meaning I've written the story and estimated how long it will take), “in-progress” (meaning "I'm working on it") and “done” (yay!). You can also use sticky notes on a board if you prefer a more tactile approach

I work on one story at a time (the most important first), see it through to "done" status before I start the next one. If I underestimated how long the stories would take, then at least I can be assured I've done the most important work first. If time runs out, the low priority stories simply drop off the end for reconsideration next week.

Click the image for slideshow:

The chart, called a Kanban, is a nice visual representation of how work is progressing, and if other people need to see what I'm working on, and where I'm up to, they can do so at a glance.

As a bonus, it feels very satisfying to move each task across into the done “column”.

Do you use any systems to help ensure you get valuable work done? Please tell us about them in the comments!

PS: I’ve barely touched on Agile, and its many, many variants - a lot of it is more applicable to production processes rather than marketing - but if you want to read more, see the links below.

Further reading:

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.”

How is Search Spam Defined?

Aug 12th

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