Brett Tabke Interview

Jun 5th

Brett Tabke is one of the most well known names in the SEO vertical, playing a crucial roll in building up Webmaster World & the Pubcon conference. We recently interviewed him about some of the latest changes in search & where online publishing is heading.

One of the more famous pieces of content on WMW (or really the whole of the SEO industry) over the years has been Successful Site in 12 Months with Google Alone: 26 steps to 15k a day. That predates my entry into the SEO niche & yet seems surprisingly relevant over a decade later. Are you surprised how well that has held up given how much search has changed? If you were to write it today, what would you add or change?

The surprise was how well received it was at the time. I wrote that piece in about an hour start-to-finish. It has held up well because it is a article about content production first and SEO second. If I had to rewrite it, I would drop the references to specific timings and numbers. Those numbers have been washed away with progress over the years. 

At a recent SEO conference a few months back someone asked who was a big brand or worked for big brands & something like 80%+ of hands in the audience went up. When I got into search it was sort of the other way around, where most attendees were small publishers & affiliates. Originally when I got into search I felt that some conferences were a bit more corporate & Pubcon had far more "in the know" independent affiliate types who test lots of things out & such. How has Pubcon done such a good job of staying relevant throughout the shift in landscape of the industry?

Part of it is our 10 year game plan. I didn't realize I had a 10 year game plan in 2001, but I did. That plan was to add just "one thing more" to each conference. One thing more awesome that the last. We have done that for 10 years running, and each time we do, the conference grows a little bit in that direction. We make sure that as the audience grows in their knowledge, then we do too.

The other part of it, is our roots. We have been committed to sticking with the successful 'independent' website owners. By making sure we support them, we know that we have tapped into people who are experts in their particular field. We are not a 'vertical niche' conference. We are 8 to 10 'vertical niche' conferences combined. I always felt the niche conferences were great (blogging, affiliates, webhosting, domaining), but people have needs that cross over from discipline to discipline. By stretching across those genres, we attract the corporates that need to reach them, and keep the experts that are "in the know".

A lot of people who speak on authority about search & the SEO niche claim that the shift to big business is natural, legitimate & the way it should be. Do you agree with that, or feel that is mostly self-serving advice?

I don't believe SEO has become "big business". I do believe that SEO is no longer a question of SEO, but rather general marketing. It is a tricky and potentially inflammatory topic. I've come to realize, that you can't go on gut instinct alone in this business. We have been in-the-trenches with SEO since 95. Our whole world outlook has been through SEO. To stick our heads in the sand and not see the winds of change would be both foolish and detrimental to our bottom lines.

Yes, SEO has changed remarkably over the years. We started by just trying to get listed in the directory or search engine at all. Then we went on to on-the-page optimization. Google came along and turned it into "all links all the time" era. Finally today, we are into an obtuse era, where the the genres of optimization are so diverse from maps, to local, to authorship, to what friends you have on social networks. It has left alot of SEO's wondering where they should focus their energies at.

I've talked with many website owners that are starting to wonder if Google has become a losing value proposition for them. They are getting more traffic now from other engines and social sites. They wonder if Google actually wants to send them traffic. That the value of their website to Google, is nothing more than the data it can provide to train the machine for other SERP's and not theirs.

Facebook has so far failed to disrupt search and BingHoo has failed to disrupt Google.  Do  you see anything on the horizon that will change the search landscape?

I disagree. I think $100 billion IPO disproves that theory. Facebook just did an IPO for 100 x Gross income. Wow. Lets think about that for awhile. If you or I go to sell our businesses, we are going to be lucky to get 3x to 4x in this climate and Facebook just took on investors that were tagged to 100x their yearly gross!? Fantasy land. That is the same fantasy that a handful  of guys at Instagram built into $1bilion dollar sale.

Facebook has totally disrupted Google and BingHoo. We just need to adjust our thinking. People know how to find what they want on the web. The great days of random web exploration are over. The grand days of social interaction are here. 

Look at all those changes that Google has done the last 4 years: Google local push, Google Instant, Google Plus Network, and even partially Android. Those changes are a result of social media - of Facebook and Twitter.  Those changes were not part of the 'grand plan' - they were short term and reactionary. 

In SEO, in many cases those who lie are often heralded as being "white hat" while being granted greater access, whereas those who have knowledge and openly share it are often branded as being "black hat." Does this trend at some point reverse course? How many people can be labeled as black hat before the label lacks meaning?

As long as people focus on their own sites, and work to promoting them, there are no hats - only marketing. What you do on the privacy of your own site, is your business. As long as no laws are broken, there are no hats.

What is the most trite & least correct SEO tip that is shared publicly relentlessly?

Great question. About 2 years ago I heard a well known SEO suggest that you should remove all outbound links from your site in order to 'sculpt' page rank on your site. This spring, I heard that same SEO tell people they need to link out to make their links and site "look natural". The 'sculpt pagerank SILO'ing articles were based out of my work on Theme Pyramid from 2001. While the outbound linking was directly from previously mentioned 26 Steps article. I took alot of heat in "26 Steps to 15k a Day" for recommending that people link out to other sites. The theory then was that clearly SE's were going to look at outbound links to determine a sites theme. There are alot of metrics that outbound linking can be used as a quality (or lack their of) signal for search algos.

I think I saw you mention something about getting links that drive traffic. Why are links that drive traffic more valuable than those which do not?

Google is using every signal it can. They have:

  • Google Analytics
  • Google Adsense
  • Google Toolbar
  • Google Chrome browser.

They can track traffic over most of the web. They know what sites people spend time on and what links get clicked most. Links that drive traffic tend to drive higher SERP rankings.

If enough independent SEOs get driven out of the ecosystem, won't that at some point have a knock on effect on the wages of in-house SEOs at larger companies?

I don't think so. It is rare to run into "single task" SEO's at all but the largest corporations. Even the big media sites with well known SEO's require those people to work in other marketing areas as well. The knowledge of the general SEO today is vastly further along that we were just a few years ago.

The financial fall out from 2008 was that advertising and marketing agency budgets were cut to the bone in late '08. As those agencies were jettisoned, in house marketing people were given the task of SEO. In 08, we saw our InHouse panel attendance go from a few dozen to a few hundred as corporations sent their people to be trained. It was a breath taking switch. Those corporations learned the value of a good SEO fairly quickly in 2009. That trend has continued today with InHouse divisions paying more than ever before for quality SEO's. 

As the table keeps getting tilted, at some point do smaller independent players decide to opt out of search en mass, sort of like you did with the robots.txt blog? Does more and more featured content eventually end up behind paywalls as ad-based models are seen as less reliable among algorithmic uncertainties?

Well, paywalls are also finding where their wall is at. There has to be some huge value add to having a pay wall. I think we have seen the failures of many pay wall sites as well as some huge successes. The big problem with pay walls, is that it is hard to keep it behind the wall.

I do think we are seeing people playing with more revenue opportunities than ever before. Ads, affiliates, and links are all being explored as viable alternatives.  There is also a second (or is this the third?) wave of ecom sites being built. The big change this time is the reliance on conversion. People are getting pretty savvy about building sites that convert.

A lot of the biggest algorithmic holes & flaws that have been created over the years were created by attempts to over-compensate for other issues. Do you see brand (or brand-type) signals & usage signals dominating search for years to come? 

Yes, yes I do. There is no other way around it. People want the authority of brand. Google can only give them so much before they wander back to big brands as the authority in various spaces. 

Is authority bias / brand bias / etc. a crutch until enough vertical search technology has been deployed to where the regular organic results are largely irrelevant and below the fold for any query with a sniff of commercial intent? Are we moving from open ecosystems to closed ones? If so, is it a trend that reverses at some point?

I do think we are transitioning from a 100% search based traffic economy to a greater percentage being driven by other traffic sources. Social media will continue to grab more and more of the traffic pie. 

The new tablet and phone traffic economies are more suited for social than search. Search is a proactive, brain-fully-engaged activity. Social is much more of a click and 'let it come to me' experience. Search is about products, and research, and finding the right bits of information. Social is about chilling with the tablet in the easy chair while watching reruns on your Netflix TV and surfing your buddies Facebook pictures.  There is also the coming wave of new intelligent TV's that will lean them selves to more of a passive social experience than an active search experience. Those new technologies are disruptive to the old search economy.

If companies like Amazon.com create large distributed ad networks won't that eventually push Google to back off their authority bias? 

I don't think anyone but Facebook could dislodge Google's ad dominance.

One can find free consumer reviews by the boatload on authority sites & vertical marketplaces, but are in-depth expert reviews being driven out of the marketplace due to shifts in algorithmic preferences? 

I agree to a degree. The one push back on that, is Quora. Other than that, the Bizarre Voice driven review model continues to grow without any major competitors.

What is something people will see at Pubcon that they can't find elsewhere?

Expertise. 55% of Pubcon attendees consider themselves to be experts in their field, while another 30% consider themselves to be advanced. That leads us to ask speakers to bring their Grade A1+ game to their presentations and they do. I feel our level of content is the highest in the entire educational conference space. That, and we keep the conference reasonably priced  for the average techhead.

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Thanks Brett. This year's Pubcon is once again in Las Vegas, Nevada & takes place the week of October 15 through 18.

How Selling Insurance Helped Me Sell SEO Services

May 29th
posted in

Post-Google update season is typically a boon for SEO providers (good ones and bad ones unfortunately). The industry isn't dead or dying, it's simply evolving. In fact, most things in the business world do not "die", they simply evolve.

I suppose dying versus evolving is a matter of personal preference. I prefer to view markets, verticals, and models as evolving because it helps me accomplish a few different things:

  • learn why certain practices and opportunities faded, or are fading, away
  • learn what is working now and why
  • combine those two basic pieces of knowledge to shape future plans and opportunities

If all you do is bemoan the fact that a particular area of your business is evolving past what may be working now then you'll surely miss the boat on the next wave of success. Even if you don't miss the boat completely you'll be stuck in a self-perpetuating game of always chasing something rather than being out in front of it.

Chasing successful models, rather than creating them, certainly can be profitable but you should strive to have a mix of both in your business. Whether it's a completely new business segment (say PPC if you largely do SEO) or just new tactics (more diverse link building for your own web properties, as one small example) you should be looking behind you, to your left and right, and in front of you.

Diversification Advice

If you are a solo SEO, or mainly run your own web properties, one smart way to diversify your revenue stream is to get into some client work. This can be a tough proposition, it was for me, because many of us who run our own properties are not too keen on scheduled meetings (especially frequent ones) or dealing with some of the timeless issues of client work:

  • billing
  • impatience
  • rapidly changing expectations
  • red tape
  • lots of chefs
  • writing custom proposals

Many of these items can be thwarted by having a clear, frank discussion about what you'll be doing and by setting parameters from the outset. Hopefully you're in a position where you don't have to sell to eat; meaning, running lean and avoiding debt-leveraging is the best way to be able to hand pick your clients (in my experience).

If you have to take on everyone who walks in the door then your results will suffer, your reputation will suffer, and your work will become a big burden to bear. If you have employees who deal with clients in this type of environment then you will likely lose your best people over time and your workplace will become nothing more than a sweatshop with computers.

In addition to all of those negatives, having to sell/sell/sell probably means your margins are thin which directly leads to client's not getting the appropriate service and attention, relative to what they are being billed for.

Selling, itself, might be the biggest hurdle for you. Before I got into this industry I was an insurance agent, Being an insurance agent helped me immensely with being able to sell an otherwise complicated product to folks who didn't have a full grasp of all the relevant subject matter (specific coverages, exclusions, and so on). Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful for you and your SEO sales.

Similarities Between Insurance and SEO

I sold Personal Insurance (car, home, renter's, condo, jewelery, etc) and it was a weird product to sell. It's one of the few things people buy that they hope they never have to use and they have to buy it every year (assuming they have stuff they need to protect). There are some interesting parallels to selling SEO, oddly enough. The serious buyers in the insurance and SEO marketplaces are looking to protect a valuable asset; in insurance it may be their home, car, or life. In SEO it's basically their online presence.

As with any other industry, there are tire kickers and price shoppers. I would caution against excluding price shoppers from a "preferred" client list. They may require a bit more upfront work but just because the might be doing cost comparisons it doesn't necessarily mean they are cheap. In fact, they might be a dream client so avoiding the "well they are price shopping so they must be cheap" argument would serve you well.

Remembering that the sales process is some odd combination of value, facts, and emotion helped me avoid the (very easy to fall into trap) of selling price. I knew many insurance agents that sold on price and did pretty well short term. A more defensible strategy long term, and where agents really make their money, is on retention. If you set the client's expectation that your only benefit to them is price they will leave you, soon, for the same reason.

If you are looking to build a solid client base you have to be able to compete on price but not sell on price. You should be able to answer questions beyond price if you truly believe in the product you are selling.

Before I was an agent I was an underwriter and responsible for the profitable growth of an insurance agency's book of business. I managed anywhere from 50-75 agencies at a time. I can tell you, without equivocation, that the agencies who avoided the trap of selling (not competing) on price absolutely killed it on retention.

In the insurance world, as in the SEO world, retention is mission critical to long term success. If you let price define your business then you'll be participating in a race to the bottom and end up like barely profitable PC makers.

So, how did I compete on price but not sell on it?

  • framing
  • basic study of behavioral economics

An example here would be conditioning the client to understand the difference between best price, better price, and lowest price. A stripped down policy that doesn't cover everything they want to cover or need to cover, which is $300 cheaper that what I'm selling, isn't the best price or even a better price compared to my price. It's the cheapest but not the best.

In my experience, most people who have stuff to protect (new cars, homes, boats, jewelry, etc) will spend the extra money to get a quality policy from someone they feel they can trust and whom they feel is knowledgeable and those are the the type of clients you want!

A company or person who values their online presence and marketing initiatives should be willing to pay a bit more for more reputable work from a reputable company. If you have evidence to back up your claims of being that company then you will win more than you lose even if you aren't the lowest price.

Framing the Offer

What never worked for me in SEO sales was pre-packaged offers. I know it works for some agencies but I always felt like I was selling Hot Cakes and Hash Browns rather than an actual service. Plus, as time goes on and the market becomes more complex and sophisticated so do solutions.

Offering add-on services is great for ROI, so if you're an SEO firm maybe you start offering PPC, conversion, and social services. Add-ons make package pricing super-tough if you are doing it at scale. Packages significantly keep pace with increased RFP demand but are you really delivering the appropriate price for each client as well as for your bottom line?

I do not see how you could advocate for packages across the board because the core of the "for" argument would be that you can sell 2 different sites at the same price inside of different verticals. If you do that how are you maximizing value to you and the client? You aren't, it's that simple. Are they in the same vertical? Ok, but the competition is likely different, the search volume is likely different, and so on.

If you just sell a pre-priced packaged you will negatively affect quality in a variety of ways:

  • client being overcharged
  • client being undercharged
  • cutting corners to save margin
  • under-delivering and taking more margin to try and save the account
  • not maximizing the balance between client ROI and company profit

I do like using packages after customizing the quote, this is where the framing comes in. As an insurance agent we were generally pushed to try and get folks to prepay the policy for the year through a variety of methods:

  • full payment discounts
  • increased cost for use of credit cards
  • monthly billing fees

So if you were my client I would frame this as "billing discounts". Take a $1,000 policy as an example:

  • stipulating a normal $5.00 per month billing fee totaling $60.00 per year = 6%
  • most companies give a 5-10% discount for paying in full (cash or check), we'll say it's 5%

The discussion would be something like "We can save you over 10% per year if you pay in full with cash or a check via our cash discount option." Or you could frame the non-cash payment option, which removes the 5-10% discount as a convenience charge of some sort. The information is the same either way, but frame it in that way and you'll have much more success with those kinds of sign-ups.

If you go the custom quote route with SEO proposals you get all sorts of benefits:

  • built-in up-sell opportunities (more keywords/verticals, more competitive keywords/verticals, PPC, social, conversion, etc)
  • the ability to not only cross-sell services but explain the benefits as well. Explaining how PPC can benefit SEO (and vice versa), with examples, at the time of quote delivery is more powerful then just lumping it into a pre-packaged, pump and dump quote
  • paint a better picture in a more holistic campaign, specifically targeted to their business, versus a pre-packaged one (add and remove specific services that might not be needed or relevant after some initial conversations prior to quoting the service)
  • play quotes off each other (offer at least 3 options, shooting for at least the middle option)

Package pricing works far better in the insurance world versus the SEO world. Insurance options and coverages have specific costs to them determined by predetermined risk tables.

In SEO you have to evaluate competition against an unknown, ever-changing algorithm in addition to figuring out potential ROI in the PPC world against CPC's that could be all over the place from industry to industry as well as potential profitability from conversion optimization help you might be interested in offering.

Being able to customize quoting options puts you in a better position to frame your offers versus a more stagnant pricing model like you see in the insurance market (even though you can still introduce framing effectively there). Of course, custom quoting comes with its own issues like spending time of RFP's versus actual work.

One solution to the sunk cost on creating custom proposals is to, after your initial discovery call/feeling out call, charge a fee relative to a few hours of your time (or however long it takes you to do a mostly accurate proposal or even a ballpark figure if the client is comfortable with a range). If they balk at that then they probably aren't serious and they likely do not respect your time. If you have a solid reputation you can probably do this with some success, if you are new and unestablished you might need to bite the bullet for awhile.

What Makes Sense For You

There are so many variables that come into play when figuring out this piece of your sales process. You can have some packaged pricing for sure, many PPC companies offer a percentage of spend as a base fee as an example. With the recent, frequent (and substantial) algorithmic changes it really is important to be able to put together a package specifically for a client based on their situation, goals, and budget. It's going to be hard to base your business on selling SEO as a widget-type process (20 links per month, 10 articles per month, etc) going forward.

Some SEO's are all-client based, some just run their own properties, and I think there is a trend starting where SEO's are doing both. Each business model has its own pro's and con's, as well as many different variables, so one set of tips will likely not resonate or be specific to all. However, I think there are a few overarching points that SEO's looking to diversify into client work or who want to be more profitable on the client side should consider:

  • get to a point financially (cash flow, debt, margins) where you can pick and choose clients ASAP as it is such a beneficial position to be in on a number of fronts
  • if you are currently a packaged product seller start experimenting with custom quotes (and try to put out at least 3 options)
  • try a few different pricing options for the actual proposal work and delivery
  • be as clear as possible when discussing deliverables (my biggest mistakes have been because of this, bad for me and bad for the client)
  • before and during the design of your pricing strategy read Rafi Mohammed's books on pricing

"Educating" the Market

May 24th

Is outing & writing polarizing drivel hate baiting or a service to the community?

It is all a matter of perspective, isn't it?

Some people would like to claim that it is one thing when they do it & something else when somebody else does it.

Unfortunately for those who want to have their cake & eat it too, consistency matters.

Even these guys know that.

If you brand those who fall outside the guidelines or get hit by updates as scammers to be avoided, then when your company gets caught working an angle & "scamming" (based on your own past sermons) your own judgement gets cast against yourself.

Is that fair?

In a word: yes.

Any belief system that is imposed onto others, but unacceptable when imposed upon the person who states it, isn't a belief system at all. It's duplicitous hackery at best - possibly much worse.

If your own company doesn't follow your own advice, then what does that say about your value systems? How many people have had their potential held back by listening to your misinformation & making the unfortunate mistake of trusting you? What does that sort of behavior do to the reputation of the industry? Now everyone else is suspect because you pitched bogus pablum at newbies.

To speak publicly about the pitfalls of doing "blackhat" techniques and then turn around and be caught red-handed for the same just gives credibility to the naysayers claiming our industry is filled with slime balls.

If you want to be a polarizing asshat, then don't be surprised when you eat your own cooking. To expect anything less is an open expression of ignorance of the field of inbound marketing marketing.

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

Our customers love us!

Whitespark's Local Citation Finder Review

May 23rd

Local citations are a critical part of a local SEO campaign. In looking at David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors you can see that a majority of the top 10 factors focus on business information structure and links. Half of the top ten factors relate to items which local citations can help with:

  • Physical Address in City of Search
  • Crawlable Address Matching Place Page Address
  • Volume of Traditional Structured Citations (IYPs, Data Aggregators)
  • Quality of Inbound Links to Website
  • Crawlable Phone Number Matching Place Page Phone Number

Making local citation building a part of your local SEO campaign has more benefits than simply "building citations". Think of all the ways it can help with both local search (see factors above) and web search in general:

  • Many of the better citation sources are actually good links (for your domain in general), from diverse domains
  • A good amount of folks searching locally are likely to use apps for searches in addition to Google (you want to make sure you are listed in as many places as possible)
  • Ensuring that your business data is structured in a similar way across the web helps with client communication and Google Places
  • Building citations naturally leads to other business enhancing activities you can offer your clients; things like helping them get their clients to leave positive reviews and provide helpful feedback to the company post-sale
  • A potential client is likely to do research on your or your client's business before they buy. Being represented, in a good way, across the web helps the company's reputation and clout with potential customers

Citation building can be tedious on multiple fronts. Finding quality citations that you do not currently have, comparing citation profiles (yours and your competitor's), and actually building the citations as well as following up on them.

Whitespark takes care of the first two, searching and comparing, quite well and provides the framework for building citations efficiently. Whitespark can also rerun your search queries to check on whether your citation has been completed or not.

Whitespark Pricing

Whitespark has 5 plans:

  • Free
  • 20$ per month - 20 searches per day, 5 projects, unlimited citations per search, comparison tool, monitoring tool, CSV export options
  • 30$ per month - 30 searches per day, 10 projects, and all the features of the 20$ plan
  • 40$ per month - 40 searches per day, 20 projects, same features as above
  • 100$ per month, 100 searches per day, unlimited projects, same features as above

I like how the pricing scales with projects and searches. The pricing is a great value for anyone doing local SEO at scale and there are options to support any size agency.

Setting Up a Project

When you first get inside the tool you'll be able to set up a search straight away. You'll be able to select the following:

  • Country (Whitespark supports over 30)
  • State/Province
  • City or Town (they pull from a database, when you start typing you'll be able to select your desired location)
  • Keyphrase (just the keyword)
  • A drop down to select your preferred search phrase
  • Project Assignment or Creation

Here, I've started a query for insurance quotes in Providence, Rhode Island

When you select state and city/town it sets the location inside of Google. However, sometimes you do need to add the state or state abbreviation to the query to get the best results (in my experience).

You have options on the final keyphrase. The dropdown, seen below, gives you the option to broaden the area, rearrange the order of the query, or create a custom query:

Once you click on that, you can add whatever query you want. In this case, based on my experience, I just added "RI" to the end of the query to help with hyper-local targeting.

Next up is the project creation (or addition). I haven't created a project to store this query in, but it's super easy to do from this page. Click on "Manage Projects" and you'll be able to create a new one:

You are then brought to the create project page. You can name your project and add your phone number (I added one for an agency ranking organically for the term) to check current citations.

*Important* - The formatting of the number is important. You should use (401) 438-8345 or 401-438-8345 as 4014388345 results in far fewer results than properly formatted numbers.

You should add the business name (yours or your client's) as the project name for more accurate citation mapping.

Now just go back and add that query to that particular project on the Search by Keyphrase Page and you are good to go. The tool will email you when the results are ready.

Ideally, you'll want to have a seed list of terms to start out with so you can check your results versus your competitions across your most important local terms. So for an insurance agency I might go with:

  • Auto Insurance Providence RI
  • Life Insurance Providence RI
  • Insurance Agent in Providence Ri

In a perfect world you'd want to do some keyword research on these terms, look at keywords your competition might be ranking for, look at the site's current analytics and PPC data (if available), and so on in order to find the best keywords to target.

Search by Phone Number

While we are waiting for those results to come back, let's talk about the search by phone number option. This is a great way of checking your own citations or that of a competitor, or even a prospective client (especially if their citations are a mess or missing).

So I added a competitor, their phone number and saved it to my project. Very simple, very straightforward. We'll let that run and circle back to it once the report is ready.

Working with the Data

It took about 3 minutes for our first query to complete :)

You can go back to your project and view all the searches assigned to it:

From here you can edit the name and phone number of the project, view the searches (I have the 1 keyword phrase search and the competitor phone number search) assigned to the project, and just view the citation opportunities for the business without the competitor information.

There are 2 components to a keywords search report. The first piece displays the top ranking (in places/maps) sites for the query. It allows you to see the total citations for each site and offers links to view specific sources for each site as well as a comparison of those sites:

You can view sources for each competitor or compare them against each other for total citation counts.

The second piece of the report are the actual citation sources. The citation sources have the following data points:

  • Site (the citation url)
  • Link to the submission page, if available
  • OC - number of times the citation source appeared in the SERP during the searches (higher counts are good indicators of domain authority)
  • Discovery - date the citation source was discovered
  • Site Type - the type of site (still in beta), could be social, directory, news, etc
  • AC - Majestic SEO's AC Rank
  • DA - SeoMoz's Domain Authority
  • Got It (checkbox) - used for when a citation is acquired
  • Useless - used when a citation source is not applicable or undesired

All columns are sortable, making it easy to manipulate the data however you'd like to spot the best opportunities.

When you view the report that includes the competition, you can click the plus sign to expand the URL of the citation source for more specific data:

You'll be able to see a spread of co-occurring citations on specific pages. This can be useful in spotting category listing opportunities on specific citation sources (for example, being listed on YellowPages.Com/Providence-RI/Homeowners-Insurance as well as your own listing).

If you have associated the search with a project, then for citations that already were acquired before the search was run, you'll see them as highlighted in green with the "got it" check box already checked:

When you check off one as "useless" it simply gets grayed out.

A cool feature here is that already acquired (citations found by Whitespark and citations checked off by you) carry across other searches in your project. At any point you can come back to the search and re-run it (after a citation building campaign is always a good time) to see the status of your citation profile.

Also, when you export the list it exports (2 options) the following criteria:

(Choosing Export as CSV)

  • Root Citation URL
  • SERP Appearance Count
  • AC Rank
  • Domain Authority
  • Submission URL (if available)
  • Got It and Useless check marks

If you choose "Export CSV (w/URLs) you get all of the above plus the url's of the actual citations.

Choosing the first option makes it incredible easy to hand off to a citation builder.

Darren's Pro Tips

I always like to go directly to the creator of a tool to get their thoughts and tips. Darren was gracious enough to provide his insights for us (see below):

The local citation finder has two main citation search capabilities:

  1. Search by keyword and the tool will find all the top ranking businesses, then find their citations, and present them in a big list for you.
  2. Search by phone number, and the tool will find the list of citations for that particular business. Use this to find your own citations, or a specific competitor's citations.

We use the data in three ways:

  • Use it to find places where your competitors are listed, but you're not, and then get listed in those places.
  • Use it as a competitive analysis tool to identify where the competition is getting citations. This extends beyond basic business directories as the tool will reveal competitor's citations from local blogs, newspapers, event listings, job sites, business partners, etc. Looking at their strategies will give you ideas for creative citation building tactics you can employ in your practice.
  • Use it to find citation sources focused on the city, or the industry

I think the best way to look at the tool is as competitive analysis. You run a keyword search, see who's rankings, then get a big list of all the citations they collectively have. You can click the "compare citations for this business" link to see who's listed where.

A great little hidden feature of the tool is to do a phone number search for your business, plus a keyword search, then in the Your Search Results section, check off the two searches and choose "compare" from the dropdown at the top of the table. This will show you all the places where the competition is listed and you're not.

I also like to use the tool to find hyper-local citation opportunities. Here's how:

  1. Run a LOT of KW queries on the local citation finder in the city/niche and associate them all with a project. So, for a lawyer in chicago: chicago lawyer, lawyers, attorneys, dui lawyer, robbery lawyer, criminal lawyer, etc.
  2. Go under “Your Projects” and ALL the citation sources from all the queries will be listed under “view sources”. Ctrl-f in your browser for “law”, “legal”, “chicago”, “illinois”, etc.
  3. Any niche or location related terms. Copy all the domains that match the Ctrl-f searches into a spreadsheet. These are your hyper local citations.

We found that getting listed on sites that had the city or keyword in the domain provided a big boost in the local rankings. The more you can find, the better. You'll have to pick through the list to pull out actual directories, as many of the results will be businesses with the city or keyword in the domain, but it's worth it.

Thanks to Darren for the insight and for making Local SEO a bit easier :) Give Whitespark a try for your local SEO campaigns, I think you'll like it :)

If Matt Cutts Was Made of LEGO, What Would He Look Like?

May 21st

Maybe something like this...

Matt Cutts Drawing.

...or this...

Matt Cutts Drawing.

A bunch more here, with cut & paste code near your favorites.

GWT notice of detected unnatural links to http://www.seobook.com/

May 9th

I am already getting fake webmaster tool notification messages using the above subject line & the following message:

Hello dear managers of http://www.seobook.com/! My name is Olivia, and the issue I’m gonna to discuss is for sure not new, but really actual and complicated, otherwise your website and therefore business wouldn’t have lost their favourable positions. Yes, I want to talk about Google Panda and Penguin. These virtual beasts become more and more freakish. Don't you think it's time to pacify them? Google intends to clean its search results from poor content websites, low quality links and hype. Are you sure your website has nothing common with this stuff?
Our team has been constantly studying Google search algorithms. We have already faced the latest freaks of Google Panda 3.4 and will be happy to win back your top positions.
We will heal your website from:

  • poor on page optimization;
  • same content submission;
  • low quality links to your website;
  • absence of website moderation;
  • black hat SEO applied earlier.

We will make Google be proud of you with:

  • high quality SEO strategy;
  • backlinks from relevant resources;
  • quality SMO;
  • links diversity;
  • unique content for every submission directory;
  • constatnt situation analysis and reporting.

Contact us and you will get a reliable website healer, strategy planner and safe guard of your top positions.

Looking forward to your answer!

And Gmail is letting this stuff slide through the spam filters. Along with garbage like this:

Our Web Site [the url] is definitely related to yours and by placing a link from your site to a Web page of ours, you may not only bring further value to your visitors but you may improve your search engine rankings potential as well. By NOT being what Google and other search engines refer to as a "dead-end" site or a site that does not link to other industry related and content sites, your rankings have a good chance of increasing for important keyword searches. We can explain this in further detail following a response from you.

Create FUD & some huckster will sell into your messaging with inbound spamming.

If you ever wonder where the "reputation problem" of the SEO industry comes from, wonder no more.

One company in particular does a great job of riding these trends on through to their logical conclusion, then riding them a bit longer. And that company is Google.

On a positive note, it great to see Demand Media had solid growth & a stellar quarter. They will plow that capital into registering about 100 new domain extensions. Nothing to worry about there. It's not like they were known to redirect expired customer domain names for their link juice.

Good job Googlers!

Ha! Bullets Can't Hurt ME

May 8th

Negative SEO vs Sabotage

Just about any independent SEO worth their weight who publishes a number of websites has at least once hit a snag & been filtered or penalized. A person can say "not me" but how do they operate optimally in both the short term and long term if they never operate near limits or thresholds? But now that Google has begun actively penalizing sites for unnatural link profiles & tightening these thresholds, competitors have been giving one another shoves. Some of the most widely highlighted examples of crappy SEO were not attempts at SEO, but intentional competitive sabotage.

Why Many SEO Thought Leaders Remain Ignorant About SEO

Recently there have been numerous claims that negative SEO doesn't work made by people who should know better.

Many of them don't know any better though, due to a combination of being naive, trusting public relations messaging as being the truth, and a general lack of recent experience on smaller sites.

If someone only...

  • does consulting for large corporate clients
  • works in house at a big company
  • publishes a site about SEO and doesn't build & market sites in competitive areas

... it is easy to bleat on about how negative SEO isn't generally possible except for weak sites. Sites that (allegedly) deserve to be hit & must (obviously) lack quality to be so weak.

The Risk of Labeling "Spam"

As highlighted above, some of the most frequently & widely cited spam examples were not examples of spam, but examples of competitive sabotage. Thus anyone who recommends highlighting "spam" can potentially hose businesses that did nothing wrong.

Why Many SEO Consultants Pretend Success & Cheer Brand

Most sites focused on search typically write a syndication of Google fluff public relations and/or are doing cloaked sales pieces claiming that the death of spammers is great because they and their clients keep becoming more successful. Its all fake it until you make it / fake it until you too are driven out of the ecosystem & pretend things are always getting better even when signs point the other direction. This is done for a variety of reasons:

  • not wanting to lose access to Google
  • signaling you have experience working with big brands
  • wanting to signal that you are a safe play in the marketplace

Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.

Marketers Sell Whatever Google Promotes

It is far easier to get paid to do nothing than it is to get paid to fight against the waves of the ocean.

So long as Google keeps feeding macro-parasites trying to kill off smaller & independent players you can expect a lot of consultants to push themselves as being a good fit for the big brands that Google is explicitly designing their algorithms around promoting. However this trend won't last forever. Many of those bigger sites are becoming ad networks & at some point Google will see that competitive threat for what it is. They will then decide "the user" would like a bit more diversity in the results & to see more smaller sites rank.

Most Businesses Must be Small

Much like wealth, business distributions follow power laws & most businesses are small in scale. Sure "build brand" is a nice cure all, but building a strong brand requires scale. Not all businesses have the margins required to build brands. And businesses take time to grow.

Quality vs Scale

Scale & quality are not the same thing. Some businesses are intentionally kept small because their owners feel scale requires compromising on quality. Remember the Olive Garden review that went viral, or what the biggest banks did to the global economy a few years ago?

Most Big Companies Start Off Small

Since going public in 1987, Fastenal has been the fastest growing public company. The company was started by a guy who was sorting bolts and nuts in his basement. Now that they are worth $13 billion they are virtually untouchable, but if 30 years ago online was a big sales channel & someone negative SEOed him his business could have been toast.

Big businesses come from small businesses, as does most innovation. However, if the underlying market is absurdly unstable that retards investment in growth and innovation in companies like Fastenal:

The Fastenal story began in November 1967 when company founder Bob Kierlin opened the very first Fastenal store in his hometown of Winona, MN. The front counter was a salvaged door, about a dozen people attended the "grand opening" weekend, and the first month's sales totaled $157.

One of the biggest failures of modern societies is the self-serving myth of too big to fail.

If SEOs believe that size of a business is the primary legitimate proxy for quality, they should either hire thousands of employees or go get a job at Wal-Mart.

Google AdWords Ads Add Album Cover & Song Preview

Before I get any drops of jupiter hate on the following...I was typing in training.seobook.com & somehow accidentally hit enter after typing train & when the URL completion didn't work I got the following SERP.

If you click the feature video link it does a YouTube video overlay. The other links lead into the relevant iTunes webpage.

Such media extensions have been in place for movies for quite a while now, but this is the first time I have seen them on music-related search results. In time one could expect similar ad expansions to hit other media areas like books, games, and maybe even other vertical search features. Google could possibly roll it out globally on brand searches as well at some point, allowing companies to offer intro videos (or even reviews of new product lines) directly in the search results.

The Google Penguin Update: Over-Optimization, Webspam, & High Quality Empty Content Pages

Apr 27th

Huge Update

Google recently launched their webspam Penguin update. While they claim it only impacted about 3.1% of search queries, the 3.1% it impacted were largely in the "commercial transactional keywords worth a lot of money" category.

Based on the number of complaints online about it (there is even a petition!) this is likely every bit as large as Panda or the Florida update. A friend also mentioned that shortly after the update WickedFire & TrafficPlanet both had sluggish servers, yet another indication of the impact of the update.

Spam vs OOP

Originally leading up to the update, the update was sold as being about over-optimization. However when it was launched it was given no pet name, but rather given the name of the webspam update. Thus anyone who complained about the update was by definition a spammer.

A day after declaring that the name didn't have any name Google changed positions and called the update the Penguin update.

Why the quick turn around on the naming?

If you smoke a bunch of webmasters & then label them all as spammers, of course they are going to express outrage and look for the edge cases that make you look bad & promote those. One of the first ones out of the gate on that front was a literally blank blogspot blog that was ranking #1 for make money online.

As I joked with Eli, if it is blank then they couldn't have done anything wrong, right? :D

Another site that got nailed by the update was Viagra.com. It has since been fixed, but it is pretty hard for Google to state that the sites that got hit are spam, blend the search ads into the results so much that users can't tell them apart & force Pfizer to buy their own brand to rank. If that condition didn't get fixed quickly I am pretty certain it would lead to lawsuits.

Google also put out a form to collect feedback about the update. They only ever do that if they know they went too far and need to refine it. Or, put another way, if this was the Penguin update then this is GoogleBot:

So Worried About Manipulation That They Manipulate Themselves

When I was a kid I used to collect baseball cards. As the price of pictures from sites like iStockphoto have gone up I recently bought a few cards on eBay (in part for nostalgia & in part to have pictures for some of our blog posts). Yesterday I searched for baseball card holders for mini-cards & in the first page of search results was:

  • a big ecommerce site where the review on that product stated that the retail described the quantity as being 10x what you actually get (the same site had other better pages)
  • a user-driven aggregator site with a thin affiliate post made years ago & attributed to a site that no longer exists
  • a Facebook note that was auto-generated from a feed
  • an old blogspot splog
  • a broader tag page for a social site
  • a Yahoo! Shopping page that was completely empty


That blank Yahoo! Shopping page is also what showed up in Google's cache too. So I am not claiming that they were spamming Google in any way, rather that Google just has bad algorithms when they rank literally blank pages simply because they are on an authoritative domain name.

The SERPs lacked expert blogs, forum discussions, & niche retailers. In short, too much emphasis on domain authority yet again.

Part of the idea of the web was that it could connect supply and demand directly, but an excessive focus on domain authority leads users to have to go through another set of arbitragers. Efforts to squeeze out micro-parasites has led to the creation of macro-parasites (and micro-parasites that ride on the macro-parasite platforms).

SEO-based Business Models

Now more than ever SEO requires threading the needle: being sufficiently aggressive to see results, but not so aggressive that you get clipped for it (and hopefully building enough protection that makes it harder for others to clip you). That requires a tighter integration of the end to end process (tying efforts into analytics & analytics back into efforts) & a willing to view SEO through a broader marketing lens & throwing up a number of hail marry passes that likely won't on their own back out but will give you a lower risk profile when combined with your other stuff.

And your business model is probably far more important than your SEO skill level is. Imagine running a consulting company for a lot of small business customers for a few hundred Dollars a month each, based on stable rankings & then dealing with a tumultuous update that hits a number of them at the same time. And then they see an older (abandoned even) competing site of lower quality with fewer links ranking and they think you are selling them a bag of smoke. These sorts of updates harm the ability to do SEO consulting for anyone who isn't consulting the big brands. Yes many people made it through this update unscathed, but how many of these sorts of updates can one manage to slide through before eventually getting clipped?

The Unknowable Future

As search evolves, invariably anyone who is doing well in the ecosystem will at some point face setbacks. Those may happen due to an algorithm update or an interface change where Google inserts itself in your market. If you never get hit, it means you were only operating at a fraction of your potential. If you consistently get hit, you might be aiming too low. Many trends can be predicted, but the future is unknowable, so set up a safety cushion when things are going well.

This year Google has moved faster than any year in their history (massive link warnings, massive link penalties, tighter integration of Panda & now Penguin) & the rate of change is only accelerating. Go back about 125 years and a candle wick adjuster was cutting edge technology marketed as brand spanking new:

Blekko has a decently competitive search service which they manage to run for only a few million a year. As computers get cheaper & Google collects more data think of all the different data points they will be able to layer into their relevancy algorithms. In some markets Chrome has more marketshare than Internet Explorer does & Android is another deep data source. And they can know what user data to trust most by tracking things like if they have a credit card or phone verified on file & how often they use various services like Gmail or YouTube. Google+ is just icing on the cake.

At the same time, they need to improve. As the search algorithms get better, so do the business models that exploit them:

I asked Kristian Hammond what percentage of news would be written by computers in 15 years. “More than 90 percent.”

There will be many more casualties in that war.

GoogleBowling, Negative SEO & Outing

Apr 19th

Excessive Complexity & Unintended Consequences

Sergey Brin recently said:

You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive. The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.

He was talking about Facebook, but those words are far more applicable to Google.

A Social Experiment

In the movie Dark Knight the Joker ran a social experiment where he offered 2 boats full of people the opportunity to save their own lives by blowing up the other boat. The boat full of "criminals" threw the button overboard & the other boat also decided not to push the button.

Of course taking someone's life is more extreme than taking their livelihood, but if you do the latter it might create stress and/or other issues which in effect lead to the former. Some people who see their income disappear might have a heart attack, others might have marriages that soon falls apart, leading into a spiral of depression and substance abuse & eventually suicide. Others still might have employees that get laid off & end up heading down some of the same scary paths - through no fault of their own.

Negative SEO Goes Mainstream

Anyone who outs or link bombs smaller businesses (small enough that Google punishing them destroys their livelihood rather than just giving them a bad quarter) is a _______. Anyone who advocates outing or link bombing such businesses is an even larger _______.

Why?

With all of Google's warning messages about abnormal links they have built the negative SEO industry in a big way. In some instances those who are not good enough to compete try to harm competitors. I received emails & support tickets like the following one for years and years...

...but the rate of demand increase for such "services" has been sharp this year. Every additional warning message from Google creates additional incremental demand.

And this is where outing a competitor makes one a total and complete _______ of a human being.

A Recent (& Very Public) Example of Negative SEO

Dan Thies mentioned that it was "about time" that Google started hitting some of the splog link networks.

Anyone who knows the tiniest bit about the social sciences could predict what came next.

In response to his Tweet, someone signed his site up for some splog links & Scrapebox action. Now he is getting warnings about his unnatural link profile. Dan didn't intentionally violate Google's guidelines, but he became a convenient target:

15th March - Dan Thies posts smug tweets to Matt Cutts and pisses off the entire internet.
18th March - seofaststart.com - blog posts started - anchor text "seo" "seo service" and "seo book"
22th March - seofaststart.com - 1 million scrapebox blast started - 100% anchor text "Dan Thies"
26th March - Dan Thies posts in Twitter that he has received an unnatural links message.

Since then Dan has installed a new template & his rankings tanked. Is it the template or the spam links? Probably the spam links, given how many other sites have got hit for using too much focused anchor text.

  • Will the site stay tanked? If so, now Google's approach to anchor text & link spikes allows independent websites to get torched in a few weeks for a few Dollars.
  • Or will the site come back stronger than ever with the help of the spam links? If it does, then how long is it before people start accidentally spam blasting their own websites & posting a public case study about burning a competitor on a forum, then citing that forum thread in their reconsideration request?
  • If the site quickly comes back, will that be due to a manual intervention by a search engineer, or from an algorithm more advanced than some people are giving it credit for being?

When asking such questions one quickly arrives at another set of questions. Is it the web that is broken? Or is it Google's editorial approach that is broken? If the observer breaks the system they observe, then the observer is the problem.

The Bigger Issue

The bigger issue isn't the short term trends for SEO related keywords or Dan's site (he will be fine & rankings are not that important for sites about SEO), but the big issue is that if this can happen to a decade old website then this can happen to literally anybody.

Piss off a ...

  • competitor
  • SEO
  • web designer
  • web developer
  • business partner
  • blogger
  • blog reader
  • former customer
  • freetard
  • ex-friend
  • bitter family member
  • insert any classification or category you like
  • etc.

... and risk getting torched.

When you out someone for shady links, you can't be certain they were responsible for it. They could have had a falling out with a consultant or business partner or another competitor who wanted to hose them. Or their SEO or webmaster could have been non-transparent with them.

Then you out them & they might be toast.

White Hat, Black Hat & ________ Hat SEO

Any of the ________ who promote competitor smoking or competitor outing as somehow being "ethical" or "white hat" never bother to explain what happens to YOU when someone else does that to you.

Sketchy marketers can make just about anything look good at first glance. No matter how shiny the package in concept, it is hard to appreciate the pain until you are the one undergoing it.

Building things up is typically far more profitable than tearing things down & if SEOs go after each other then the only winner is Google. Literally every other participant in the ecosystem has higher risk, higher costs & is taxed by the additional uncertainty. Sure some of the conscripts might get a bit of revenues and some of the "white hat" hacks might gain incremental short term exposure, but as the marrow is scraped out of the bone, they too will fall hard.

Google is betting that the SEO industry is full of ________. If our trade is to worth being in, I hope Google is wrong! If not, you will soon see most of the quality professionals in our trade go underground, while only the hacks who misinform people & are an unofficial extension of Google's public relations team remain publicly visible.

That might be Google's goal.

Will they be successful at it?

That depends entirely on how intelligent members of the SEO industry are.

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