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

Jul 27th

Mobile Ad CTR

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

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

Screen Real Estate

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

Horizontal iPhone = all ads above the fold.

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

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

Vertical Kindle is about 2/3 ads.

Horizontal Kindle is 100% ads above the fold.

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

Controlling the Ecosystem

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

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

Reinforcing the Obvious

Jul 26th
posted in

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By cornerstones I mean things like:

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

The Matt Cutts Decoder Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since 2008...

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Answer?

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

Let me give you a recent example:

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

One of the first slides I viewed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Why's Behind Some Aspects Of Link Building

Jul 20th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link Popularity

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

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

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

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

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

Relevance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Curious case of small business and SEO

Jul 19th
posted in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The business owner

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

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


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

SEO Company

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



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

Google

Yes Google.

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

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

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

The SEO Community

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

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

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

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


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

SWOT Analysis for Web Publishers

The rapid changes in the search industry over the last sixteen months have left many web publishers wondering whether they should pivot their business models or exist the industry entirely. This is a difficult question for business owners who have invested years of their lives and much of their wealth in firms which may no longer be viable contenders in the "new" search industry.

SWOT analysis is a technique which business owners can use to strategically analyze their businesses in relation to their competitors and the marketplace as a whole. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunites, Threats.

  • Strengths are attributes of the organization which provide an advantage in the marketplace.
  • Weaknesses are attributres of the organization which cause a disadvantage in the marketplace.
  • Opportunities are actions the organization could take to create an advantage in the marketplace.
  • Threats are events which could happen in the environment and cause the organization to be disadvantaged.

The first two areas, Strengths and Weaknesses, focus primarily on the internal attributes of the organization. The last two areas, Opportunities and Threats, focus primary on how the organization may be affected by external events.

Specifics for Web Publishers

Many firms in the same industry will share similar Strengths and Weaknesses. Even more so, most firms in any industry will be responding to similar Opportunities and Threats.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Take a look at your organization. If you feel that your organization has an attribute which makes it stronger than it's competitors, add that to your Strengths list. If you feel that your organization has an attribute that makes it weaker than it's competiors, add that item to your Weaknesses list.

  • Access to Funding
  • Brand Recognition
  • Domain Authority
  • Industry Connections
  • Technical Skills
  • Marketing Savvy
  • Vertical Expertise

Examples of Strengths might include:

  • We have ready access to venture capital
  • We own a widely recognized brand name
  • We own a PageRank 8 domain
  • I have Matt Cutts on speed dial
  • Our technical team members are experts in our platforms, development tools, and applications
  • Our marketing team members can make linkbait about lug nuts go viral
  • We invented this niche and our competitors have no hope of ever catching up

Examples of Weaknesses might include:

  • Our working capital is limited to what's in my wallet
  • Our top domain is a hyphenated .us domain
  • We're hoping to gain PageRank at the next update
  • Matt Cutts blocked me on Twitter
  • Our technical team is outsourced to Pakistan
  • Our marketing team is outsourced to Bangladesh
  • I read a book about this niche and it seems very exciting

Opportunities and Threats

The same event might be an Opportunity or a Threat, depending upon how your organization can respond to it. Search is a zero-sum game. For every winner, there must be a loser.

Take a look at your organization. If you feel that your organization has the ability to benefit from a coming change in the business environment, add that to your Opportunities list. If you believe that your organization is at risk from a coming change, add that to your Threats list.

  • Our niche (travel, local, etc...) is being taken over by Google (unless you are Google)
  • Our niche is being persecuted (gambling, medication) or promoted (green energy, section 8 housing) by the government
  • Our niche is being regulated by the government, which benefits large companies and hurts small ones
  • Our niche is being increasingly dominated by the top brands (unless you are one of the top brands)
  • Our niche is growing (iPads) or shrinking (Blackberries)
  • Profitability in this niche is rising (medical training) or falling (almost everything else)
  • Some marketing tactics may be filtered or penalized (directory submissions, blog commenting, profile building)
  • Significant competitors are entering (or leaving) the niche

Examples of Opportunities might include:

  • Legislation could force consumers or businesses to buy our goods and services
  • Government regulation could force small competitors out of the market, and we're a large competitor
  • Google is increasingly ranking the top brands for all searches, and we're a top brand
  • Our niche is growing
  • Profitability in the niche is rising
  • Our marketing tactics are being increasingly rewarded by the search engines
  • Our niche has significant barriers to entry which prevent competitors from entering the market

Examples of Threats might include:

  • Legislation could make our business illegal in our country
  • Government regulation could force small competitors out of the market, and we're one of those small competitors
  • Google is increasingly ranking the top brands for all searches, and we're not a top brand
  • Our niche is shrinking
  • Profitability in the niche is falling -- unless you can operate on thinner margins than your competitors and take their market share when they fail
  • Our marketing tactics are being increasingly filtered or penalized by the search engines
  • One of our competitors just did an interview with Forbes bragging about the high profit margins in this niche

Responding to the Results of Your Analysis

After listing your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats you should have a pretty good idea where your business stands. From here, it's time to take advantage of this new knowledge.

The web publishing industry is currently undergoing a major contraction. Some organizations will choose to continue in this business, while others will choose to pivot into related business or to exit the industry entirely. AdSense publishers may decide to move into affiliate marketing or selling white label products. Web publishers may decide to halt development on their own projects and offer their services as SEO's to large enterprises. Entrepreneurs may simply close their companies and accept positions with larger firms.

If your niche is travel, which Google is slowly taking over and Wikimedia is considering a push into, you might consider moving to a different niche, pivoting your web publishing business into an SEO firm, or moving into the nascent eBook market. If your niche is 3D printers, you might seek funding to stake out early market share in a niche that may be about to cross the chasm from the early adopter stage of development.

If you have deep knowledge, experience, and connections in your niche, you might try to stick with it and be the last man standing after your weaker competitors have failed. If your knowledge is less niche focused and more related to publishing and marketing, you might sell SEO services or take a job with one of the huge multinational brands which Google is currently favoring in the SERPs.

If you have access to large amount of venture capital, you might take advantage of that to become one of the large brands which Google prefers to rank. With enough funding, anything can be ranked well in Google. I would caution, however, against entering a niche which is likely to be on Google's roadmap. Google, in being able to control the order of search results, has an unbeatable advantage in promoting their own properties (YouTube, Google+, etc...).

As margins in the industry are falling in our race to the bottom, you may even find a significant competitive advantage in having a lower cost structure than your competitors. Lower costs create larger amounts of retained earnings which can be used to fuel development and growth.

Summary

The two most important aspects of SWOT analysis are to be honest with yourself and to take action based upon your analysis. As Virgil wrote, fortune favors the bold. Be bold in your honesty and your actions and fortune will smile upon you.


Will Spencer is the CEO of MemeBridge and Alpha Geek at The Tech FAQ.

Online Journalism: eHow, Journatic & Narrative Science

Jul 17th

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Stop Questioning Negative SEO -- It Exists and It May Kill Your Niche

Jul 16th
posted in

Cygnus Drawing.

The best part about a growing and very quickly changing industry is the diversity of viewpoints; the worst part is the exact same thing because sometimes 1 always equals 1 and doesn't need bullshit in lieu of evidence. I try my best to stay out of the limelight and just focus on making things happen. However, occasionally a topic will bother me so much that I have to chime in. The last time was over 5 years ago so I figure I'm due to speak up again. Today's topic? Negative SEO. My issue with the topic? Deniers.

There've been several posts on how negative SEO doesn't exist (those are the worst) or that maybe it exists but only weak sites can get hit (in other words, people with opinions that didn't do any testing). I'd like to put those topics to rest as best as a guy that keeps to himself can. I really should be able to do this in one sentence, but in the event what I write as the second half of this sentence doesn't do it for you, I have a couple stories; if crappy SEO of over-optimized anchors and junky links are to blame for ranking drops, how can it be said one cannot do this to someone else, and even if you were to deny this, then why the sudden rush to denounce certain links? On to some anecdotes!

While leading a training session overseas I mentioned a site I watched get hit by some negative SEO activities. I know that it was negative SEO and not a slip up on the SEOs' part by virtue of knowing the history/team behind the site and watching it as part of my normal data routine; the site was managed by the kind of guys that get asked to speak at SEOktoberfest...the kind of people I'd go work for if my bag of tricks ever ran out. Ok, so you're asking how I know it was negative SEO. The easiest explanation is that I watched the site spike heavily with on-theme anchors from junk sites over a one week period and was filtered shortly thereafter. It stayed filtered for just under few months, but 2 days after discussing the site and explaining how I knew the site was hit it magically reappeared (yes, there were googlers in the audience).

If you are skeptical then your first response better be that I'm only loosely describing one example so let me say that in the same industry where I've shared my knowledge of the subject on some more sophisticated methods (first released in the SEObook community), I feel almost like an information arms dealer since even the larger brands have themselves or through affiliated relationships been clubbing each other over the head. You read that right; I explained how I thought negative SEO could be employed and then watched a bunch of people actually do it, repeatedly. Unfortunately, I was hit too, but that's a different issue. In this particular industry, the only people left standing now are some poorly matched local results with fake reviews, a bunch of hacked domains, and the flotsam of macroparasites that gained popularity post Penguin. The only one that came back? The one I publically shared at a conference, explaining exactly how they were a victim based on the link patterns that didn't fit with the site's history over a several year period.

I'll wrap this up with a bit of humor. As a joke a friend of mine asked me to negative SEO him for his name. Let's say his name is John Doe and his domain is johndoe.com. The negative effect was temporary, but I was able to get him filtered for a little while on his name for maybe 120 seconds of my time and less than $50. The site did come back after a few days, but our mutual feeling on the matter is that for an extra $50 double-dose I could probably get the site filtered again. Neither of us wants negative SEO to get any more prevalent than it already is, so I'll skip the details on exactly how it was performed. There are multiple forms of negative SEO significantly scarier than someone with a copy of xrumer and in some cases there is very little you can do to prevent it; if a jerk wants to take you down, it can happen. If your niches begin to look like the wasteland I described above where I shared my thoughts a little too freely, then heaven help you because it doesn't look like Google is going to.


Cygnus has been involved in search since 1997 and loves tackling new and interesting (and of course lucrative) projects. Follow @Cygnus on Twitter for his rants.

The Importance of Determining SERP Competition

Jul 6th
posted in

Great detectives are timeless and now is a great time to start stepping up your SERP sleuthing :)

SEO has long been a process in which instant financial gratification has been hard to come by (especially on a brand new project). I believe the "patience" trait required by the nature of SEO is what causes many projects to fail due to a couple of different things:

1. Many people getting into SEO get sold on "make a lot of easy money working from home" mantras and are lured in by otherwise dishonest marketers.
2. SEO has a lot of upfront cost that may not be recouped for months (or years)

As organic real estate continues to become more elusive and expensive inside of Google (and harder to evaluate thanks to *not provided*) it really has never been more important to appropriately evaluate your competition and your keyword market.

Mistakes now cost more, homeruns are harder to hit, singles and doubles are harder to evaluate based on Google "protecting" keyword data (not on AdWords...obviously).

When you hear the term harder you shouldn't be discouraged so long as you are willing to study, learn, evaluate, and build relationships. "Harder" is good if you are on the wheat end of the wheat/chaff separation.

Furthermore, one needs to approach a new SEO project with an open mind and allow the keyword research & competitive analysis processes to take place in a fluid way rather than coming to the dance with a keyword list you are unwilling to change (data be damned!).

Evaluation Points

You should consider the following points when addressing SERP Competition:

  • Strength of websites competing organically
  • Google's Knowledge Graph
  • Google Maps/Places Inserts
  • Google's Lead Generation Forms (Google Hotels, Google Flights, etc)
  • Google Serving Ads Off of Local Listings
  • AdWords Ads with Social Extensions, Site Links, etc further pushing organic results downward
  • Adding Google Carving via Video Inserts, Paid Inclusion, News Results, and so on

When evaluating a competing website you'll want to look at things like:

  • Domain Age
  • Appearance of Known Brands in the SERP
  • Anchor Text Profile
  • Quality/Size of Backlink Profiles
  • Spammy Link Practices (perhaps this is an industry where spammy links rule, you'll need to decide if you want/can go that route in order to compete)

Once you find a core keyword you can run through the SERPS (logged out, cookies cleared, and so on in order to avoid personalized results) to check it against the metrics mentioned above.

It is advisable to go in with your core keyword and different versions of your core keyword (singular, plural, synonyms, etc) because SERPS can be fairly different for each. Conversely, you might find that not only is the head term uber-competitive but the tail may be the exact same way; whereas this may not be the case for others.

The three type of keywords I usually come across are:

  • Keywords that look appealing based on the numbers (volume, existence of a long-tail, and so on) but are probably money pits based on brand bias + Google bias
  • Keywords that have minor differences which result in huge analysis swings (plural vs singular, car vs auto, broad match vs exact match for example)
  • Keywords with somewhat limited volume but are homeruns because they are the antithesis of the type of keywords described in the first bullet point

"Too Good To Be True"

One of the uglier areas right now is the travel space. So I was thinking of spending the weekend in Boston with my family recently and I thought it would be a fun exercise to use Google for the searches (rather than my usual search provider, Bing).

The keyword [boston hotels] is certainly a keyword that fits into the bucket of being appealing based on numbers. It's quite appealing based on the numbers for the core term as well as the volume and depth of its tail.

As with any major city there are many landmarks that come into play which are quite easy to tailor content and user experience for. For Boston you could get into waterfront modifiers, back bay modifiers, Fenway park & Faneuil Hall modifiers, reviews and so on.

When I evaluate a SERP one thing I do is to consider that at some point in the future, probably the near future, Google will do to the tail what they are doing to the head.

If it's just brand bias then you can probably hang with that to an extent but if it's anything like what I saw with [boston hotels] then you should dig a bit deeper, go lateral, or go somewhere else:

If you follow the green arrows, you'll see quite a bit of stuff that should give you pause about this market:

  • adwords with site links and +1's
  • google travel box
  • big, strong brands
  • google maps and google offers to the right
  • google monetizing their own local listings
  • a total of 3 organic listing

So not only is Google monetizing most of this SERP at the expense of organic listings but they've actually taken away organic listings below the fold.

This is SERP is pretty ridiculous but it is reality. Expedia is listed 3 times above the fold, the lack of choice here is apparent and unfortunate. I've used Expedia and I like Expedia but seeing it 3x is a bit much given that 7 other options were completely removed. Condense, monetize, and brand the SERP; these are the ones that would give me significant pause while conducting competitive analysis.

The key point is that not only is your competition fierce (in the top 3 organic listings) but once you include Google as your competition, and you most certainly should, it becomes being close to impossible to consider this keyword at all.

If you were to move down the tail you would see, while not as egregious, pretty similar stuff and one would likely be correct in saying that eventually the tail, especially the juicy part, will eventually look like the head.

Here is [boston waterfront hotels] (excuse the multiple maps, full screenshot on the non-visible part of the browser seems to have picked up the map twice)

Similar stuff but at least organics remain below the smaller places insert.

Here's [boston hotel reviews]:

Again, similar stuff except no Google Travel box (because it's not a commercial search, or as commercial as the other 2) and a total of 3 organic listings on the page as well as an extra AdWords ad (no doubt making up for the Travel Box removal :D )

Similar Keywords, Big Differences

Another group of keywords you will run across are keywords that have multiple versions (synonyms, singular versus plural, and so on) where one of the versions makes up a significant chunk of the search volume for that particular product or query.

Over the years Google has tied together the singular and plural versions of keywords, in so far as similar SERPS, pretty well but they still have a ways to go on synonyms or just similar meanings in general.

Singular and plural versions are easy enough to figure out and there are multiple ways to find related words. You can use:

  • Google's Keyword Tool and toggle the "closely related" option on and off
  • Wordtracker's related search tool (paid)
  • SeoBook's free keyword tool (powered by Wordtracker) and all the tools that you can link to from our tool
  • Online thesauruses and encyclopedia-type sites which give meanings, uses, and AKA's of words you look up and research

You might find situations where 2 similar terms produce significant search volume with similar competition levels inside of their respective SERPS. In those cases, you can use Google Trends and Google Insights to see the trend of each word (is one picking up steam and the other isn't, are they the same, is one better for my targeted region?) to help decide which keyword is more likely to continue to grow and produce volume long term.

Here you can see 2 such terms, car and auto insurance, over "all years" (pretty close)

Over the last 12 months it seems as if Car is trending up, vs Auto:

If you play around a bit with the regions it would seem that the East coast, particularly the Northeast, tends to use Car as do the bigger states in the Northwest/West Coast while the gap tends to close a bit, or go in the other direction in bigger southern states like Texas.

There are many examples like this where the data supports either/or and your decision is likely to be based on SERP competition. In this example, the SERPS for auto and car insurance are fairly similar with respect to brand bias but without the Google monetization built in (like we saw in the travel SERPS).

If went down the tail a bit, into a more commercial term, you can see where the singular/plural makes a huge difference in terms of volume and trends.

Search volumes for these terms are pretty juicy (as is the CPC and commercial intent) but as you can see there is a huge difference between the singular and plural versions:

Digging in a bit further you can see that the trend is certainly towards the plural version and this should help with your decision because all 4 SERPS are pretty strong (as are many insurance related queries).

Also take into account future localization of these SERPS; which is sure to happen at some point based on all the other localization Google is doing in the professional service industry.

Finding More Ideal Keywords

Another type of keyword is one that doesn't necessarily blow your socks off with volume, but upon further SERP evaluation does appear to be a solid target based on a few different factors:

  • Search volume
  • Appearance of Google verticals
  • Presence of organic listings
  • Lack of localization (unless that is part of your play)
  • Weaker sites ranking
  • Deep subpages of bigger sites ranking

Another thing to consider is predicting if your market is one Google will get into (like they do with travel and some areas of finance).

It's likely insurance is one of those markets based on how lucrative it is and Google's previous finance plays) as are other areas of finance and probably broader areas of e-commerce and comparison shopping. I would assume the latter is further down the road than the finance sectors are.

Tech is an area that is likely to (continue to) be a growth area with respect to portable devices and such. Tablets, ultra books, laptops, smartphones, and so on are all areas you could look in to find examples of these kinds of preferred keywords.

After running through some keyword research (remember to use Microsoft AdIntelligence as well!) I paired down my list to the following keywords:

  • ultrabook reviews
  • best ultrabooks
  • best gaming laptop
  • best gaming laptops
  • gaming laptop reviews
  • gaming laptop
  • gaming laptops

In looking at the SERPS, outside of some Google Shopping stuff in the upper right and some authorship imagery (present on ultra book keywords and the last 2 gaming laptop ones) the SERPS are fairly clean.

Lots of deep brand pages are ranking with some being for specific brands only and a couple subpages on weaker sites are ranking as well. Google Trends shows "ultra books" significantly outpacing "gaming laptop" in terms of trend while gaming laptop still has quite a bit more volume.

After evaluating the SERPS I like both markets here. I think the ultrabook market is more of a play for down the road (between the two), though depending on how fast they catch on outside of the MacBook Air it could happen quickly.

I also think that gaming laptops will continue to become popular as better technology will allow gamers to eventually replace the need for a big, beefy desktop to run their advanced video needs.

Coupling these thoughts with the search volume and associated tails, the lack of extreme Google SERP take over (by Google) and the lack of strong, dedicated sites (there is a decent ultrabook site but I think it can be beaten/outdone) to the topic would make me lean towards entering both markets.

Final Thoughts

There are tools out there that do a pretty decent job of evaluating competition from a metric standpoint but there is no substitute for your own eyes, brain, gut, and experience.

These tools ought to add a Google factor so you can see if you are up against multiple instances of Google vertical inserts and self-monetization plays. If you choose to ignore those as currently constituted, or ignore the possible presence of them in your SERPS down the road, you are doing so at your own peril and it's a big, big mistake.

Evaluating SERP competition, and including Google as your competition, should be at the top of your priority list at this stage of the game. All the volume in the world and all the longest tails will not save you if you are battling extreme brand bias, disappearing organic listings, Google lead generation, and ad-monteized local inserts.

If the travel example doesn't give you an idea on how Google feels about organic listings, maybe this does :)....Friday humor.

CLARITY – Methodology for Picking the Right Agency

Jul 5th


(Image Source – my poorly built logo creator)

In my long career as an Online Marketer, I have had to often pick an agency to partner with or to carry out the different mixes of online marketing, such as SEO, Paid Search, Affiliate marketing, Email Marketing, Analytics, Social Media etc etc. Fact is, I am a rounded marketer who, although spends time on SEO the most, understands and works in most online fields. This means I am often the go to person for brands when they want to pick an agency to work with.

One such day, while in the middle of listening to an agency pitch, I felt quite a bit perplexed. The two pitches I heard were vastly different, and I wasn’t happy with either. The core problem I had with agency pitches was around the following observations:

  • They tend to be too boiler plate. Replace your business with any other and it may feel that it doesn’t matter.
  • They miss the main questions that a business may want the answers for.
  • They miss the opportunity to really sell their USP (Unique Selling Proposition)
  • If they are customised, they lose some of the generic elements necessary
  • They often leave too much room for questions, which can take the process either way.

The above is often true, even if you have issued a clear brief to your agency as to what you would expect to see, or what questions you would want answered. Any agency can follow a brief and answer it, but very few in my opinion see beyond the brief. And as an experienced agency recruiter for brands, I would like to see much more answered within the pitch than I am still seeing.

Many agencies don’t make it CLEAR what they aim to achieve, nor do they try to CLARIFY what the businesses need or want.


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nomad9491/2399208582/

So I formulated the CLARITY model for briefs, which could be a frame work for answering pitches – help you answer your brief, while allowing you to demonstrate much more than the questions at hand. CLARITY, in my opinion, is an agency model that would score very highly but would also form the ethos of an agency environment that is really geared to helping their clients.

At the same time, the model has helped me pick the right agencies over and over again, and as such could be used by in house Digital marketers to form their own judgement sheets.

Although many SEObook readers are SEOs, many are in the agency environment themselves having to pitch, or in house and may have to from time to time help pick an agency. Many are like me, interested in SEO, but involved in much more online and offline marketing. As a result, I felt that sharing my model may help at least a few readers.

Warning: This is a rather long post, and could sound a bit preachy.

Defining CLARITY

The model is a mnemonic that covers the 7 elements below:

  1. Communication
  2. Learning and Development
  3. Access to Support
  4. Respectable and Responsive
  5. Intelligence both in people and processes
  6. Technology and innovation
  7. Yield Based Approach

Communication


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ventodigrecale/315084105/

When working with any outside agency, the type of communication is vital. The overall tone and approach as well as the individual team members all add to a business’s communication strategy. Some businesses like being overly formal, while others find that formal approaches are annoying and could hinder work. When picking the right agency for you, understanding how they communicate with clients and amongst themselves is extremely important to make sure that the working relationship is a healthy one.

For example, how your agency dresses and behaves in meetings is fairly important – it is a subliminal communication signal. As part of a pitch process I was involved in, one very talented SEO turned up, but was wearing ripped cuff jeans.

The Head of Ecommerce was at the meeting and was not impressed that for such a large pitch, the key person delivering was in scruffy jeans.

Result? They didn’t get the gig because the Head of Ecommerce was distracted by the fact that this person hadn’t bothered to dress appropriately.

My tips to people running a pitch:

  • Find out what the communication standards are for the business – do they favour email over phone, or vice versa?
  • How do the key stakeholders behave, dress or communicate? If they are formal in their communication, you may have to resort to matching their style, or loosen up if they are a team that prefer informal approaches.
  • Keep your presentations clear and concise, and ALWAYS identify your communication strategy, especially things like reporting regularity, formats, availability of account holders, and even down to how you would deal with a crisis situation that requires communication out of hours.
  • When presenting or pitching, make the objectives clear – many a pitch goes a bit haywire if the summary of the presentation or of the overall service isn’t clear.

Learning and Development


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/4984567320/

In the digital world, things change daily. And sometimes small changes make big difference – take the latest Penguin Algorithm update from Google. The change in the way Google is treating a majority of low quality links has caught many an agency unprepared to turn around quickly - and to my knowledge a few, if not a majority, have since drafted communication to their clients about the change and what it means for their SEO.

As part of a pitch process, identifying the potential for such large scale impacts on channels is important – but more important is to show that your team is up to the challenge. It is important to indicate that your team is an ever learning, ever developing beast, and it may be worth showing some examples where you have bucked the trend, or foresaw changes and indicate how you managed to save, support or shift your other clients strategies.

For example, knowledge of your discipline isn’t enough – you have to garner some knowledge about your potential clients industry and changes occurring within it, such as legislation.

In one pitch I was part of, we identified that the client was suffering from Voucher Code site abuse – where the voucher code sites would consistently rank for long tails of the business. Interestingly, the client hadn’t picked up on the fact that the reason that they were losing a lot of organic traffic wasn’t because they had had ranking losses – rankings were all fine. The reason they were losing their traffic was because this voucher code site was ranking immediately below the clients sites with a discount offering! Our strategy tackled that by investigating the legislation, both applied and subscribed to within the voucher code industry in the UK, and as a result managed to craft a communication brief, which would enable the client from stopping the abuse.

We won the contract, and the work we did was implemented. In the end we came to an agreement with the site in question and they stopped. Clients SEO traffic and conversions soared.

A good agency has an arsenal of resources at its disposal – indicating these as well as how you constantly add to the armoury is very important – after all, often agency relationships with clients can span years.

Access to Support


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pat-h3215/7500230750/

For any business, support is important. For any business with large budgets and complicated marketing campaigns, support is critical. Although most agencies work in a 9am to 5pm daily shift 5 days a week, many brands don’t see themselves that way. Their business online is churning round the clock, 7 days a week.

Which means a crisis, issue or even an opportunity may raise itself at the least possible convenient time. Although in a pitch these sort of issues aren’t expected by most businesses, I often find that if an agency covers it, they tend to get “bonus points” especially if they highlight likely scenarios and how they would respond to them out of hours. Although this point is a subset of communication, it is also important enough as a winning point to be isolated.

One SEO agency I hired for a holiday business proposed that during peak periods of the business refreshing site wide content, (an annual occurrence) they would send one of their content SEOs to sit with the content team to start optimising content as it gets written, and getting it to the publishing team within a very short period of time. Excellent foresight, and was one of the contributing factors to a contract that still runs 5 years on.

On the flip side, another agency pitching an email support platform worth $100,000 in fees a year to them insisted that they would prefer all the communication via email and had a very complicated tracking system that runs through to first line support, then second line and then finally to a specialist if the first two lines couldn’t solve a situation. This scared the client – sometimes you just can’t wait for three layers of conversations before actioning an urgent change - and as a result they weren’t short listed.

Respectable and Responsive


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mafleen/402792862/

It sounds obvious that you have to be both respectable and responsive to potential (and current!) clients. However what you as an agency see as being “respectable” may not be necessarily what they feel the definition of the word may be.

Respectable also implies respecting your clients intelligence. One of the key primary things I teach to agencies is that they should research their potential clients carefully. By making your pitch too simplistic may offend their intelligence and could cost you.

Take for example a UK SEO agency that was pitching to a business I was consulting a few years ago. The pitch was about SEO and how they would help the business grow its SEO. Before hand, they had a list of all the attendees, which included my name and the name of the head of Ecommerce (who would at least have a rudimentary knowledge of SEO).

Now if you are pitching to me, you SHOULD know that I know a bit about SEO, if only you bothered to Google my name :)

Yet, in the pitch, the starting slide was an animated slide, which was a web with spiders running up and down it – explaining to us what a search engine bot was and how it crawls the web(!) apart from the fact that the animation was poor (a gif of a spider running up and down the web), they actually assumed that a multi million pound business that they were pitching to:

  • Need to see what a web spider is in a picth presentation
  • Be spoken to as if they were total amateurs

In addition, as I was in the audience I found this actually quite insulting – the fact that they hired me to be in the room meant that they were serious about a decent SEO strategy. The Head of Ecommerce had the same horrified response as I had – did the agency think we were complete idiots?

Needless to say, they lost the pitch in the first round.

Intelligence


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mukumbura/4043364183/

To be perfectly frank, expect a serious pitch to be faced with some serious questions. At the same time, you would be expected to show real intelligence in the way you present and prepare for the meeting.

Displaying intelligence isn’t showing how many clients you have, or sprouting your company’s internal strap lines. It isn’t displaying how many results you have gotten for other clients.

Intelligence is more about:

  • How well you have both, understood and answered the clients brief
  • How well you have actually understood the clients business
  • Demonstrated a working knowledge of the clients business and THEN demonstrated how your activity would help
  • Demonstrated both creative and critical thinking, and looked into trying to future proof campaigns.
  • Indicate that the right people would be working on the right portions of the campaign. Make some of those people part of the brief

The worst case scenario would be that you have a really intelligent hands on SEO prepare your presentation, and then instead either get an account manager or sales person actually present it, without the SEO present to field any questions. Often the result is a disaster – yet this a very common approach. Believe it or not, this has happened to me at least three times. Neither the account manager nor the sales person actually knew any SEO (PPC in one PPC agency pitch). Which meant though their presentation was solid, they ability to field questions intelligently was fairly limited to “We can come back to you on that”.

Technology and Innovation


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/3232133635/

In the online world, when data flows (fairly) freely, technology has to be at the forefront to deal with that data, to rationalise, monetise and sanitise it. An agency coming in to pitch within the digital sphere needs to show (to me at least):

  • Usage of relevant tools and technology existent in the market
  • Development plans for new tools / or custom tools
  • An understanding of how technology available can be suited to your campaign

Similarly, an agency that doesn’t innovate is low on my “like” list. I would be willing to spend more time with one that has interesting ideas about innovating, than one that actually just rehashes ideas that exist in the market and brand them as their own.

One agency years ago insisted that they have “market leading” guides on SEO for internal staff - from content strategies to link building. When quizzed what kind of information they would share with the businesses content team for better SEO, we received a document that was clearly well set up, researched and written for the right audience. Sounds great right? Only problem was this was the SEOmoz guide that they simply wrapped up and presented to us. Seeing that I was on one of the top contributors to SEOmoz at that point ( I think I still rank in the top 10) I recognised the document and called them up on it.

Needless to say, I don’t believe they ever repeated that faux pas - and went out and had their own content written.

Similar situations exist when companies tell me of a revolutionary tool A or amazing platform Y - and in most cases they tend to be industry standards that they use and nothing out of the ordinary. Which is fine for a basic pitch – but for a stellar pitch you need to stand out.

Yield Based Approach


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Any campaign you build has to deliver a return. It doesn’t matter what the campaign is, it has to achieve its objectives. Which means if you have to pick an agency, the agency has to demonstrate the capability to not only come up with a plan or strategy that works for you it has to demonstrate that it understands what your businesses KPIs are.

This doesn’t simply mean an uplift in sales, traffic, but a clever demonstration of how the Return On Investment would be aimed at and achieved. If an agency cannot demonstrate a clear understanding of your businesses goals, and does not take the time to understand what the ROI of the specific channel being discussed should be, then they fail in using a yield based approach.

A few years back, an SEO agency pitched to me for a UK Holiday business. They were big on numbers by their own admission, and had a clear demonstration of how much it would cost us to rank for Keywords, and in fact had a clear chart identifying the top level “Category Killer” keywords.

They then went on to demonstrate how one of their current Holiday clients achieved those rankings with their help by spending the same figures that they demonstrated. The top level Keyword was “Holidays”.

2 problems with that.

First, if they already have a client in the space that they are working with to rank for those exact keywords, then I wonder to myself if the end result would become who spends the most to retain those positions. Which in itself is fine, I have no problem with agencies who have clients in the same niches, BUT, at what point does the competition with one client against the other show a negative return? If spend is the limiting factor, I wouldn’t want a competitor in that space to have the same resources as I do in terms of SEO talent, and then be simply beaten by their capability to throw more money at the campaign. Which wouldn’t be a worry, except if the agency was so willing to tell us exactly how much it cost their other client to rank, how can I trust them not to reveal the same data to our competitor?

The second problem with this scenario was they went straight for the proverbial jugular. They want to work on the money keywords (money for them!). A UK Holiday site may gain some sales on the back of ranking for “Holidays”, but I promise you that the conversion rate would be dreadful, and probably in the third decimal percentages.

If I had to pitch that gig, I would have started at the lower rung, moving upwards towards the chain to the category keyword “UK Holidays”. The spend to rank for most those would have equated to the total that the agency wanted as its fees, but the ROI for ranking for the RIGHT keywords would have been much, much higher. And an easier sell.

So the agency failed t understand the business, and as such failed to demonstrate that they could deliver the right ROI for them.

Conclusion…

If you have stuck with me so far, congrats (and thank you!). I am genuinely hoping that agencies that pitch, take something away from this post, and people who are paid to listen to pitches, do as well. I know that these principles have been successful for a large number of agencies when pitching, despite the fact that the agency didn’t realise that they were following a successful model.

The aim isn’t to follow my thoughts flat out, but learn form a person who has been involved I both sides of a pitch process, with a decent success rate in both, picking the right agency, and being picked for a campaign.

Rishi Lakhani is a freelance Online Marketing Consultant working with a number of brands and agencies in the UK, and spends a large portion of his free time on twitter. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/rishil

Top 10 List of Top 10 Lists for your Top 10 List Compilation

A lot of amazing technology is being created.

The Only Constant is Change

When you think of all the implications of the above video (and all the things that are going on in machine learning & search), it can be somewhat difficult to think about sustainable strategies.

Want to fund in-depth automotive reviews in part based on your organic rankings? That business model breaks down when the organic SERPs move below the fold.

When platforms are new they start off as being fairly open to win attention & maximize their growth rates. Over time as they push to monetize they shift gears & what was once true becomes misleading. Thus a lot people likely come off as sounding like quack jobs because they keep having to reinvent themselves & reassess their belief systems as the markets change.

Hello Mr. Cynic

If you write things that sound like rants & complaints a lot of people mistake it as thinking you are a crank full of gloom & nonsense. For what it is worth, in many ways I think the future of the web will still be bright, but just relatively less bright than it was in the recent past for smaller players.

During the creation of any new communications network there are amazing opportunities, but over time they get arbitraged away & returns move more toward the typical norm in business as the platform gets locked down.

No Longer An Isolated Channel

The web is becoming more & more like the physical world (and is merging with it). For a long time search & online was largely a meritocracy, where the best person could easily win even if they came from the most humble beginnings.

In the offline world there are many hoops one has to jump through to win and the online market is just becoming more like that & at an accelerating rate due to network effects that allow big companies to saturate channels & tracking leading to asymmetrical advantages.

From Meritocracy to Corporatocracy

In search of years gone by, large & complex organizations that were overly bloated and inefficient routinely had their asses handed to them by smaller & more efficient operations. But then size became a primary signal of relevancy & quality, and that all changed. As Larry Page & Sergey Brin warned, the relevancy algorithms inevitably follow the underlying business model of the search engine.

That is a big part of the disillusionment with Google. For many years they were a leveler which was concerned primarily with quality. That grew the importance of search & differentiated them from everyone else, but then they decided to be "the same" & so many who promoted them felt a bit betrayed.

If a person gives you something and then takes it away you likely view them worse than someone who simply never offered that in the first place. As a species we are biologically aligned with being adverse toward loss.

Vertical AND Horizontal Integration

I was chatting with a friend about the above trend & his responses were:

  • "you don't shoot the guy that didn't give you the job; you shoot the guy that gave you the job and then fired you"
  • "their public image as being a leveler becomes more grating too, given how much they no longer represent that"
  • "the biggest problem we have in search is that search engines don't view themselves as a medium. They want to be the cable operator + television show + in-show advertising + commercials...I'm not aware of another medium where it works that way"

The last of those 3 points is a big deal. Consider how popular music is & that Machinima drives about 2/3 as many video streams as all of VEVO does & yet Google invested directly into it. That gives Google power to rank the content (Google serps), host the content (YouTube), monetize the content (ads), and have an ownership stake in the content. All that is in addition to owning a browser, an operating system (make that two) & building hardware.

If Google's internal stats show someone else is catching up to a channel they invested in, Google can...

  • relay this news across to drive editorial quality, content quantity, or even ad placement
  • preferentially promote the network they are invested in (free ads, better rankings, more "you might also like" recommendations, more post-view recommendations)
  • give a higher revenue share to the network they are invested in (or offer them early access to new betas and exclusives that increase monetization)
  • slow the growth of the competing network by using more aggressive ad placement (or lower CPM ads)
  • slow upload speeds for competing channels
  • etc.

If you are batting for the home team, such advantages are great. But they blow for everyone else in the ecosystem.

Those sorts of issues don't just appear in a few isolated incidents, but appear over and over again.

Social networks should be open, unless they are Google+.

Affiliate links shouldn't count for ranking purposes, unless they are Viglink, which Google invested in. ;)

Affiliate links should be clearly labeled as such. When they are not clearly labeled & go through tracking redirects they are sneaky redirects in Google's remote rater guidelines. On YouTube the affiliate links to Amazon & iTunes are not labeled as such & add an extra layer of tracking redirects to the sequence.

Let Me See Your Backlinks!


Yesterday someone sent me an email about their reinclusion request being denied because someone else scraped their eZineArticles article & syndicated it to another 3rd party site.

They didn't create that link and yet they are somehow supposed to get a spammer (maybe one from another continent!) to remove it. In many cases spammers won't respond to anything other than cash, but if you do offer cash to get the job done then that spammer might keep adding more and more links over time, turning their mark into an easy source of subscription revenues.

What is Wrong With This Picture?

The above scenario is ridiculous.

If you look at *any* site closely enough there will be something wrong with it.

Just by the virtue of existing & ranking you will pick up dozens to hundreds of spammy links you don't even want, due to SERP scraper sites that are trying to rank on longtail keyword queries.

About 5 years ago I had a page get filtered out because it gained about 500 scraper links in a month. No matter what I did that page would not rank until it was rewrote with a fresh page title. When you could change things & have the algorithms re-evaluate them automatically there was at least a decent opportunity to get around such issues.

Now that there is a manual review process holding you responsible for the actions of third party webmasters the market is a bit more grim.
But at least a bunch of link removal services are cropping up to profit from Google's errant logic. ;)

Engineers Ad Networks Love Quality Websites Big Brands

A bigger company can always shut a site down, split off into sections, & so on. Plus if you are a bigger company you are more likely to enjoy the benefit of the doubt.

But if you are a low margin small business who has seen declining revenue AND have to jump through further hoops (rather than focusing on running your business) at some point it is easier to give up than to keep on fighting.

After this year's FUD there is zero camaraderie in the industry.

That's How Business Works

Eventually a lot of the displacement trends that are hitting the organic search market will hit the paid search market & Google will make many of the enterprise AdWords management tools obsolete via a combination of various free scripts & data obfuscation.

At that point in time some of the paid search folks will look like the guy to the right, but nobody will care, as those same people reminded us that this is just how business works. :D

Perhaps they're right:

Google appears to have a culture that condones shamelessly violating consumer privacy. How else can you explain a company that bypasses Apple's iPhone privacy settings in a reported attempt to strengthen advertising revenues?

It is hard to believe that Dave Packard or Andy Grove would ever tell a group of entrepreneurs that he did "every horrible thing in the book to just get revenues right away," or brag to trade publications that his company used behavioral psychologists to design "compulsion loops" into products to keep customers engaged. But Mark Pincus, the founder of Internet gaming giant Zynga, has done just that.

When corporate leaders pursue wealth in the winner-take-all Internet environment, companies dance on the edge of acceptable behavior. If they don't take it to the limit, a competitor will. That competitor will become the dominant supplier -- one monopoly will replace another. And when you engage in these activities you get a different set of Valley values: the values of customer exploitation.

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