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


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cambodia4kidsorg/3290848235/

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.

  • 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!

Google Paid Inclusion Programs: Buy a Top Ranking Today

Jun 22nd

Google announced they were going to extend their vertical paid inclusion program to product search queries, where the paid inclusion results are put inline with the organic search results, often driving most (if not all) of the organic search results below the fold.

The layout of the result looks something like this

Or if you put it in Google's browser analysis tool, it looks something like this

And with that move, if you are in ecommerce & you don't rank #1 you are essentially invisible to most searchers.

As John Andrews highlighted on Twitter: "Notice Google tells us "paid relationships improve quality" and then penalizes for paid links?"

As always, it is more profitable to follow Google's biz dev team than Google's public relations pablum.

In some cases Google might include 3 or 4 different types of monetization in a search result. In the below search result Google includes:

  • AdWords ads
  • Google Offers
  • Hotel Comparison ads
  • Hotel Price ads


And those are *in addition* to featuring promotional links to Google Maps & Google+ in the search results. Further, some of these vertical results consist exclusively of paid inclusion & then have yet another layer of PPC ads over the top.

As SEOs we focus a lot of energy on "how do I rank 1 spot higher" but when the organic results are displaced and appear below the fold why bother? The issue of the incredibly shrinking organic result set is something that can't be over-emphasized. For many SEOs the trend will absolutely be career ending.

AdWords, product listing ads, brand navigation, product search, local, etc. A result like this has a single organic listing above the fold & if Google decides to rank their local one spot higher then that turns to zero.

If you look at the new TLD announcement Google applied for .MBA & .PhD (as well as many names around entertainment, family & software). Thus it is safe to say that education will eventually be added to local, video, media, shopping & travel as verticals where Google is displacing the organic results with links to more of their fraternal listings. About the only big categories this will leave unscathed will be real estate, employment & healthcare. However those first 2 are still in contraction during our ongoing depression & Google blew a lot of their health credibility by pushing those illegal ads for steroids from a person posing as a Mexican drug lord.

In addition to these fixed vertical that cover the most profitable areas of search, Google is also building a "vertical search on the fly" styled service with their knowledge graph. Their knowledge graph extracts data from 3rd party websites & then can be used to funnel traffic and revenue to Google's various vertical services. To make it seem legit, Google will often start by sending some of the traffic onto 3rd party sites, but the end destination is no different than product search. While it is a "beta" product it is free to justify an inferior product being showcased front & center, but after Google gets enough buy in they monetize.

There is a non-subtle difference between Google's approach and Microsoft's approach to building a search ecosystem.

Sucking the Brains Out of the Internet

After Google was unable to acquire Yelp they offered Yelp (& sites like TripAdvisor) an ultimatum: "either let Google steal your content & displace you with a competing service consisting largely of the stolen content, or block GoogleBot if you don't like it." While Google sucks in the value created by such 3rd party sites, they also explicitly exclude them from various vertical services aligned with the most valuable keywords. Yet at the same time, all this is to be seen as legitimate because there is a computer used somewhere. It as though humans are not making these profitable business decisions at all & so Google hires lawyers to write coin operated legal opinions about how computer generated results are free speech.

Nextag's CEO wrote a scathing article about Google in the WSJ, which promoted a response from Amit Singhal.

If you've wondered why Google keeps appearing before regulators, keeps being called evil, was just sued by the Texas AG, & has their own hate organization the above exemplifies why.

Let's compare that behavior against Yahoo! or Bing.

Yahoo! has long been considered out of the search game, yet when they want to have a competitive advantage they do things like license photos from Getty. They use the content with permission on agreed terms.

Google's approach is more along the lines of "scrape it now & figure out legal later." And after a long enough period has passed they will add monetization & mix it into the core of their offering, like they recently did with books:

This launch transitions the billions of pages of scanned books to a unified serving and scoring infrastructure with web search. This is an efficiency, comprehensiveness and quality change that provides significant savings in CPU usage while improving the quality of search results.

Both Bing & Google are creating knowledge graphs. Bing does things like partner with Britannica, Yelp & Qwiki.

Eric Enge interviewed Stefan Weitz about the new Bing interface. As part of that interview, Stefan described Bing's editorial philosophy on building a search ecosystem

We partner with 3rd party services instead of trying to build or acquire them. There are probably something like a million apps out there today.

I talk to probably two dozen start-ups every week that are doing different cool things on the web. To think that we are ever going to be able to actually beat them, or out-execute them (when they are talking about 12 guys with half a million angel funding building some really interesting apps), it is just not likely.

Ars Technica also has a piece discussing the creation of entity graphs (which is where the "sucking the brains" line came from). A key difference between Bing & Google is that Bing feels they should partner with sources & link out, whereas Google links the results back into more Google searches. What's more, when Google features their own vertical results in many cases links to the data sources are not provided at all & you stay on a fully Google experience, in spite of the cost to 3rd parties in building & maintaining databases that are scraped to power Google's offerings.

Off the start forays into new categories might provide some value to publishers in order to get buy in, but eventually the "first hit free" stuff shifts to paid & Google continues to displace publishers across more and more of the ecosystem, using content scraped from said publishers.

Funding Scraping

When Google or Apple drive cars around the country or fly military-grade planes over cities to create 3D maps of cities they are creating databases & adding new information. Outside of collecting private data (like wifi payload data) there is little to complain about with that. They are adding value to the system.

However, at the same time, Google not only scrapes themselves, but they are a revenue engine that drives a lot of third party scraping. And they design penalties in a way that allows those who scrape penalized sites to outrank them. With batch penalty updates some folks can chain redirects, expired domains & so on to keep exploiting the combination of copyright violations & Google penalties to make a mint. Google also had a long history of funding Traffic Equalizer sites, sites like Mahalo that would take a copy of a search result & auto-generate a page on it, newspaper sites that would hang auto-generated stub preview articles on subdomains, & sites like eHow which integrate humans into the process.

While many sites are still penalized from the first version of Panda, downstream referrals to eHow.com from Google in the US were up over 9% last month. They know "how to create SEO content."

Yes, this really is an ad inside an ad, from eHow.

Recently a start up that launched a couple years ago decided to take their thousands of subdomains of scraped databases & partner with authoritative websites to syndicate that content around the web. Some of those get double listings & for some search queries there is the same page (with a different masthead logo) 5 different times. Those sites don't get hit by duplicate content filters or algorithms like Panda because they have enough domain authority that they get a free pass. Including AdSense in the set up probably makes it more palatable to Google as well.

If you have scale you can even auto-generate a bunch of "editorial" questions off the database.

More data = more pages = more questions and comparisons = more pages = SEO alchemy (especially if you don't have to worry about Panda).

The parent scraper site includes links back to itself on every syndicated page, which to some degree makes it a glorified PageRank funnel. WPMU.org got smoked for syndicating out a sponsored theme on one of his own sites, but the above industrial-scale set up is somehow reasonable because it was launched by a person who sold their first start up to Google (and will likely sell this start up to Google too). The site also includes undisclosed affiliate links & hands out "awards" badges to the best casual encounter sex dating sites, which then get syndicated around the web & get it many inbound links from "high quality" porn sites.

I won't name the site here for obvious reasons, but they are not doing the above in a cloak of darkness that one has to look hard to find & do deep research to patch together. For some search results they are half or more of the search result set & they even put out press releases when they add new syndication partners, linking to numerous new automated subdomains or sections within sites related to various categories.

When the search results look like that, if you do original in-depth reviews that are expensive there is zero incentive structure to leaving your content and ratings open to Google and these sort of scraper/syndicaters.

There is always a new spin on the mash up low end content with high trust websites and try to feed it into Google. So long as Google biases their algorithms toward big brands & looks the other way when they exploit the ecosystem that trend will not end.

The Illusion of Choice

It is hard to see & feel the cost of a dominant market participant unless you have to do business negotiations with them:

The Independent Publishers Group, a principal distributor of about 500 small publishers, recently angered Amazon by refusing to accept the company’s peremptory demand for deeper discounts. Amazon promptly yanked nearly 5,000 digital titles. Small-press publishers were beside themselves. Bryce Milligan of Wings Press, based in Texas, spoke for most when, in a blistering broadside, he lambasted Amazon, complaining that its actions caused his sales to drop by 40 percent.

However, even when companies are brutal in some aspects they do amazing things in other areas, so one has to weigh the good with the bad.

Now more than ever we are drowning in perceived choice, but if you look at market after market they are far more consolidated on the business side.

Into hipster indie music? Those labels are heavily reliant on the bigs. The increased flow of online streaming royalties will further increase the consolidation as big businesses prefer to negotiate with other big businesses & small players lack the resources needed to move the needle.

At any point Google can fold one vertical into another or extend out a new model. The Android Marketplace feeds into Google Play, Google local feeds into Google+, Google search force feeds just about everything else & even free offerings on sites like YouTube will eventually become pay to play stores.

Where Google lacks marketshare & forced bundling isn't enough to compete they can buy the #2 or #3 player in the market & try to propel it to #1 using all those other forms of bundling.

Part of what made search competitive against other platforms was its openness & neutrality. But if the search results are Wal-Mart over and over again (or the same scraped info 5 times in a row, or a collection of internal listings) then the system becomes more closed off & the perception of choice becomes an illusion. John Andrews wrote a couple great Tweets expressing the shift in search:

  • "Google SEO is no longer worth the effort for those who are not writers, artists, speakers, trainers, or promoters. What happened to Search?"
  • "If you want to see what Google will look like after it locks up, look at Apple. ipad users are already "managed" very tightly."

When companies try to expand the depth of their platform with more features it is a double edged sword. At some point they capture more value than they create and are no longer worth the effort. When they get to that stage it becomes a race to the bottom with scrapers trying to outscrape one another. Then in turn the company that created the ecosystem problem uses the pollution they rewarded to further justify closing off the system, guaranteeing only more of the same. Those who actually add value move on looking for greener pastures.

Protecting Privacy

Google promotes that they make browsing safe & Firefox will soon stop passing referrer data. Apple was granted an anti-Big Brother patent. StopBadware partnered with Google, Facebook & others to create a self policing industry organization named the Ads Integrity Alliance.

When these companies are not busy "protecting" users they acquire recognition technology, collect a treasure trove of personal data, deliver fake endorsements, provide false testimonials & sell off the data to third parties.

Microsoft filed a patent for serving mood-based ads & there is research on how depressed people use the internet.

These companies compete on both the hardware & software level, collecting more data & creating more ad formats.

A label or an interest is a vector for ad targeting. There is no need to worry about de-anonymizing data for ad targeting when it is all in-network and you monitor what someone does, control which messages they see, & track which ones they respond to. Tell someone something often enough and they may believe it is true.

The Contempt Large Companies Have for their Customers

There is a sameness to customer service from a lot of big companies. They spend loads & loads to track you and market to you, but then disappear the moment things go wrong, as they are forbidden to care.

Perhaps the only thing worse that AOL's customer support is the unmoderated comments on the YouTube page.

Google will rate YOUR customer service, but when it comes to customer service FROM them you are on your own:

Denise Griffin, the person in charge of Google’s small customer-support team, asked Page for a larger staff. Instead, he told her that the whole idea of customer support was ridiculous. Rather than assuming the unscalable task of answering users one by one, Page said, Google should enable users to answer one another’s questions.

Even their official blog posts announcing that they are accepting customer feedback for your applications go unmoderated.

This sort of contempt exists at essentially all large companies.

Everything seems on the up & up, but that "private listing" was maybe for a counterfeit product.

If it isn't a counterfeit & you get too good of a price you are threatened with a lawsuit, and the branded network falls behind a "oh we are just a marketplace and can't be bothered to give a crap about our customers" public relations angle.

If a company has size there is a limit to how much they can invest in any individual transaction. And so ebooks made of YouTube comments invade Amazon.com.

Apple creates "beautiful" products designed around forced obsolescence:

The Retina MacBook is the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart: unlike the previous model, the display is fused to the glass—meaning replacing the LCD requires buying an expensive display assembly. The RAM is now soldered to the logic board—making future memory upgrades impossible. And the battery is glued to the case—requiring customers to mail their laptop to Apple every so often for a $200 replacement. The design may well be comprised of “highly recyclable aluminum and glass”—but my friends in the electronics recycling industry tell me they have no way of recycling aluminum that has glass glued to it like Apple did with both this machine and the recent iPad. The design pattern has serious consequences not only for consumers and the environment, but also for the tech industry as a whole.
...
Every time we buy a locked down product containing a non-replaceable battery with a finite cycle count, we’re voicing our opinion on how long our things should last. But is it an informed decision? When you buy something, how often do you really step back and ask how long it should last? If we want long-lasting products that retain their value, we have to support products that do so.

One last bit of absurdity on the YouTube front. Google recently threatened to sue a site designed to convert YouTube videos into MP3s.

  • How does Google's "computers deserve free speech rights" & shagging 3rd party content to fill out their own vertical search services compare against their approach when someone uses YouTube content in a way Google does not desire?
  • There are AdWords ads promoting free unlimited MP3 downloading & song burning bundled with shady adware.
  • Google's AdSense for domains funds boatloads of cybersquatting. While Google threatened to sue this particular site, they could have just took the domain due to it cybersquatting on the YouTube trademark. The fact that they chose to turn this into a press event rather than simply fix the issue shows that this is more for posturing.
  • Further aligned with the above point, while Google singled out a specific MP3 conversion site, there are other sites designed around doing the same exact thing which are PREMIUM ADSENSE PARTNERS, with the body of the page looking like this:

How Small Companies Are Taxed With Uncertainty

When Google decided to move away from direct marketing to brand advertising things that are often associated with size, scale & brand recognition became relevancy signals.

For big brands there is no shortage of companies trying to service the market that Google is favoring. For smaller companies it's a struggle. There are so many things to know:

  • how to create & pitch feature content
  • what do unnatural link warnings mean & how do I interpret reinclusion request replies?
  • how much to invest in marketing, where to invest it, how to balance the need for short term cashflow with the required reinvestments to build real (or fake) brand signals
  • how long does the market have left before Google enters the niche and destroys the opportunity that organic SEO once represented
  • should you run 1 website, or many to hedge risks? and how many is optimal?
  • how big should your site be?
  • if one of your sites gets penalized, should you try to fix it up, should you start over with a new site, or should you consider SEO to be a pointless goal?

Google mentions that they want people to do what is best for the user & not worry about Google, but that advice is a recipe for pain

If you do not run a large & authoritative website there are so many landmines to trip over with the increasing complexity of SEO. And any of Google's "helpful" webmaster messages can suspend a webmaster in fear, leading them to an eventual bankruptcy.

Small companies need to do all sorts of canonicalization hoops & prune content and such to hope to avoid algorithms like Panda. Then Google changed their host crowding preferences to let some large sites get up to 8 listings in a single search result page for their LACK OF effort. Those larger sites can then partner with glorified scraper sites that syndicate databases feeding on domain authority with no risk of Panda.

Due to how Google penalizes smaller sites, those that rewrite their content will outrank them when they get hit. These horrible trends are so obvious that even non-SEOs like Tim Carter (who was a Google golden boy for years) highlights how the tables have tilted away from what is most relevant to what pays Google the most.

The promise of the web (especially search) was that it could directly connect supply and demand. However, just like propaganda promoting the superiority of certain countries in the physical world, it is unfortunately fast becoming a myth.

SEO Success Secret - Help Your Community, Grow Your Business

Jun 21st

I was out shopping last week for a pair of speakers for my music system.  There's a street in town that sells every type of audio accessory.  Everyone goes there to buy gadgets.

When I entered the first store and asked for the component I wanted, the clerk smiled and said it wasn't in stock.  Then, she did something that surprised me at the time (but made perfect sense later, when I thought about it).  She directed me to another store a block down the road where I could find it.

No, she didn't just point me in the right direction and say, "Go there!"

She stepped out from behind the counter, and walked along with me to the small, easy-to-miss shop.  She then introduced me to the girl at the front desk and explained what I was looking for.  A few seconds of friendly banter later, she smiled and waved goodbye as she went back to her store.  And her friend helped me out.  I returned home, happily carrying the part I needed.
On the ride back, I thought about what had just transpired.

How easy it would have been for the shopgirl to merely guide me to the other place, or even just state that she didn't have the part in stock and move on to another customer.  Yet she took the time, trouble and effort to guide me - to her competitor!

As a businessman, I wondered: "How does THAT make any sense?"

Well, it does.  When you see the big picture.  And think about adding value to the entire community of audio equipment sellers.

Every customer arriving at that street was a potential buyer looking for a specific type of item.  Every store on the street sold related items.  If one didn't stock a specific piece, someone else surely had it.  By helping a customer (me) find what he wanted, even if it meant guiding him away from her own store, the brilliant businesswoman (she) was actually growing the value and brand of the ENTIRE STREET, the whole community of musical equipment stores!

That's why everyone in our town goes there to buy audio stuff.  We know we'll find it - somewhere.  Which means we'll keep going back there every time we need more of the same.

And then, I had my big 'A-ha' moment! 

It guided how I practice SEO - and share my experience with fellow consultants and specialists in my field.

"You Help Your Competitors Too Much!"

After publishing some popular SEO articles like "How much does SEO cost" and "The Ultimate List of Reasons Why You Need SEO" at Search Engine Land (one of the Web's most popular SEO destinations), I had several comments saying how I share too much information with other consultants and agencies - who are my competition.

But as the lady at the little speaker shop taught me, you are not adding "too much value" for your competitors... only to your customers!

In the short term, it might appear as if you're giving away the farm.  But this isn't charity - it's an investment.  Into your brand.  Your reputation.  Your future success. 

By helping everyone around you, you are not only helping consolidate the position of your entire industry... you are growing your influence within your peer group.

SEO is a huge market.  You're not going to claim each and every piece of the large pie.  You will never be able to reach every potential client of yours and educate them about the power of SEO in their business.  But collectively, along with all of your peers in the SEO consulting field, you can make a big impact in an area that matters most in getting the right SEO clients for yourself.

Selling SEO Is Not Technical - It Is Emotional!

Too often we see SEO experts try to sell prospective clients on "results" - more page 1 rankings, higher traffic, better keywords.  Effective SEO is about all this... and more.  It is about going higher up the Maslowian hierarchy of needs, and touching clients on an emotional level.

You're not selling the #1 position on Google (which is unstable anyway).  You're selling "safety".  You offer a secure stream of prospects for their products and services.  You're helping future proof their business.  You're showing them a way to sustain their profits.  And by doing this, you're taking an express elevator up the pyramid of their emotional needs - while your competition is laboring up the stairs!

In their groundbreaking book, Al Ries and Jack Trout talk about marketing as war.  However, your competition (or enemy) is NOT other consultants within the SEO-industry - it's your clients.  Clients buy SEO services.  The battle you wage is for their mind.  And to secure your place firmly in their mind, you must first win the contest for their heart.  As negotiation experts Roger Fisher and William Ury say in "Getting To Yes":

It is not enough to know that they see things differently.  If you want to influence them, you also need to understand empathetically the power of their point of view, and to feel the emotional force with which they believe it.

You must get into the very heart of their business.  Understand what they do, and what they need to do.  Show your prospective clients how you will add the value they need and seek.  Paint a picture of the future you are helping them craft for themselves.  Convince them that your approach and actions will make them winners.

People do not always decide and act upon facts (logically).  They act upon how they interpret what you say, and upon how that makes them feel (emotionally). 

Atmosphere, chemistry and the energy between you and your client is as important as the SEO spec or offer itself.  When you circumvent this process by thrusting facts and figures into their faces, you are destroying trust even before it has had a chance to take root and flourish.  You are becoming a "Business Prevention Unit".

How Education Marketing Helps Find Your Perfect SEO Clients

Few business managers and executives know much about SEO.  It's up to you to show them the value an optimized website will add to their business.  Blindly pitching SEO services to a company with little experience or knowledge will be a futile effort that is wasteful of time and energy.

If you spend the larger part of your marketing day running after new clients, it will suck away your most precious asset - your time.  And unless you are able to attract the right kind of client, the one who understands the strategic importance of SEO and is able to see beyond the band-aid of a SEO checklist that will win a #1 ranking on Google, all your client-hunting efforts will be wasted.  Quick sales are quick fixes; they can back fire on you.

All of that changes when you start viewing your competitors as "colleagues" or even "partners".

Look, not every client is the right one for you.  By sharing your knowledge and getting fellow consultants to follow suit, you are effectively "crowd sourcing" the process which will educate your buyers about the value of SEO in their business.  In one master stroke, you'll save yourself time, effort and money spent on 'marketing' - and even shape the future of the SEO industry.

By educating your clients, you eliminate time wasters and skeptics among your new buyers.  This helps you retain clients for longer, and gain their trust and support for your strategic initiatives to help them dominate search results.  You'll get the budget you need to implement an effective SEO blueprint without having to slash your own rates to the bone.  And you'll do it sans quick fixes - lifting your clients to a higher level, by giving them a strategic focus.

Let's make no mistake about it.  Buying SEO is difficult.  It involves making smart decisions, insight, and an understanding about the complexity.  Once the decision makers in any company or business truly understand SEO, they will shun the snake oil sales pitches of tactical SEO shysters, and even resist the temptation to 'outsource' their SEO to an in house IT team.

That means we, as SEO consultants, must do our bit to educate our market about the nuances and intricacies of our work on their behalf.  When we do this successfully, collectively, we make the pie bigger - and tastier!  It will boost your chances of being able to tack on an extra zero to the bill you present clients after your work is done.  It will stop your ideal prospects from viewing SEO as a cost, and start viewing it as an investment.

Informed Prospects Are Better Buyers

Knowledge, insight and understanding about SEO in the market often leads to more sales - and bigger sales.  Of course, bigger deals need to be rooted in a sound mastery of the technical basics.  Marketing managers, CEOs or board members of large professional companies don't spend millions on things they are doubtful about.  They research well and look for quality providers. 

But they are also people, with their own deep seated needs and desires - for safety, for security, for comfort.  And they evaluate service providers on more than just merit. 

Talking bad about your competitors is bad karma.  Saying good things about your fellow professionals while simultaneously differentiating yourself through better positioning is a win-win deal.  It profiles you as a nice person, honest and trustworthy.  When it comes to long term business relationships and lifting clients to a higher plane of strategy driven SEO, this is the "extra 1%" that can boost you ahead of everyone else... even when you are slightly behind in other elements.

Going after the big deals means you must be well prepared.  And a critical part of that preparation involves educating the buyer.  Without a strong belief in your capabilities, and confidence in the value and revenue that this investment will create, you cannot expect them to invest heavily.  All players in this game (consultants like myself, and agencies) are contributing to making the pie bigger.  By helping everyone else, we are actually helping ourselves over the long run.

Earlier this year, my company and our biggest competitor jointly won a prize called "Gulltaggen - Beste Søkstrategi" (gold/winner) in Norway.  Sharing an award for the best Search Strategy for the year with our competitor may seem odd - but in fact, it is fantastic.  Together, we can help each other in many ways.  We are two companies, both professional and staffed with smart, skilled, great people, who now have a better foundation to convince the marketplace and the people engaged in the selection process that what we do is valuable.  In concert, we can feature more success stories, more customer case studies, and symbiotically we are investing in our collective success.

So, as busy SEO consultants, what can we do to make it easier for ourselves to find quality clients, with enough time (and less stress) to complete the job and focus on results and business growth for them?  How can we stop worrying about budget overruns, or defend ourselves against competitors who make unreasonably low bids (that are unsustainable in the longer term)?

The simple answer lies in educating our buyers.  By ensuring they make better, and more qualified, buying decisions.  With insight and understanding, correct decisions will naturally follow.  It's the age-old 'chicken and egg' situation.  The chicken (SEO knowledge provided to prospective customers) will deliver the egg (your big budget client, with extra zeroes added to your bill!)

Educate Your Way To Higher SEO Budgets

There's a danger to pricing your services too cheap.  Attracting new clients through rebates and extreme discounts can get you into trouble.  While you may win a few new accounts, the razor thin margins make them less valuable over time.  Selling your SEO services at the right level is important.

Understand this... your prospective buyer is looking at the industry as a whole, and trying to make sense of it.  SEO is a team effort.  Even one bad player on the team can ruin the match.  That's why, despite SEO being one of the most cost effective forms of marketing, we are still struggling to get a secure trust-based footing in our market's mind.

Here's the reason.  Most marketing and business executives haven't learned about SEO at school.  Sure, they've read the headlines, and realize they probably need SEO.  But they don't know about the dynamics and synergies. 

If they believe a rubber boat is all they need to sail the treacherous ocean of online business tactics, then that's what they'll look to buy.  But what happens when a big wave hits?  They get hurt. 
Or if they are convinced that rowing their way all along the shore is best for them, they'll miss the chance of shooting ahead of their competition by going straight across on a freighter. 

It's up to us to fix this lacuna, and show our clients what effective SEO really is.

If just closing a sale is the sole focus of an SEO consultant, even if it means charging rock-bottom prices, then you are constrained to using the least resources so that you can afford to get the job finished. 

But what happens when external environmental changes force a change in course?  Your hands are tied!

Your client feels unsafe, uncertain and scared.  You must then give them more attention, more time.  Your resources are being strained to breaking point.  When your clients can't see the differences between your SEO efforts and traditional marketing (CPC and CPM models), and you're forced to reluctantly admit that you cannot guarantee results, they must go to the board and explain to the CEO or executives that the money spent on SEO isn't delivering any return. 

Executives risk looking stupid, and so they become stressed.  They ask difficult questions.  Interfere in minor SEO details.  Force you into a defensive stance.  And they may even slash an already inadequate budget.

You're halfway across the ocean - and have run out of steam!  You won't reach your destination, and the goods remain undelivered.

How To Navigate Stormy SEO Seas

As the captain of your SEO ship, you have no room or time for unscheduled stops at every fjord or port.  You must stick to the course you've charted. 

Your offer was based on the estimate of a certain number of hours to achieve specific results.  If you waste these resources on a hesitant, unsure and skeptical client, you won't be able to deliver upon your promise.  Even if you make no promises, you'll still fall short of the one-sided expectations of your client - and your contract will not be renewed.

Even if you are well paid for your effort, serving the wrong clients can set you back several steps.  In the same time, you might be working with a better qualified client, raising the bar and adding zeroes to your bills, all the while partnering with well-informed prospects who have bought in to your strategic long-term plan that can add value to their business in more than one direction.

What if you could eliminate this wasteful effort of reaching, convincing and working for "wrong" clients? 

Sharing knowledge within the community (even with non-clients) will play a major role in creating such a better future for all SEO experts.  Nobody will hate you for helping them.  It's very likely that you'll get some new friends and followers along the way, and they may even call you later with a job offer, or to seek advice, or even to order your SEO services. 

That's when you'll know that you've won the battle for their minds - and hearts!

is Head Of SEO at MediaCom Norway with over 10 years of experience. He can be found on Google+, Twitter and his Norwegian SEO blog.

Bing Offers Up a Free Link Graph

Bing refreshed their webmaster tools offering & now allows you to look up link data for 3rd party sites.

We recently interviewed Bing's Duane Forrester about the new SEO tools & their product roadmap.

Here is a screenshot of their new link explorer, but I highly recommend setting up an account and checking it out firsthand.

For a long time Yahoo! provided great link data, but most other search engines were more reserved with sharing link data for competing sites. What were some of the driving forces behind Bing opening up on this front?

Bing values the power of strong partnerships as one way to spur innovation and deliver compelling experiences for our users. For any partnership to be effective, remaining as transparent as possible is critical, including those we forge with agency and publisher partners. Sharing link information was something very clearly asked for by tool users, so after doing the internal work to see if we could provide the information, it was an easy decision to build this tool when the answer came back positive. You wanted it, we had it and could share it. Done.

As a search engine your web index is much much larger than most SEO tools. On Twitter Rand mentioned that the index size of Bing's new Link Explorer was fairly comparable to Open Site Explorer. Is the link data offered in the tool a select slice of the index? Were you trying to highlight the highest quality link sources for each site?

We see the entire index, or at least "can" see the entire index and link ecosystem. We’re limited to the actual number we can show at any given time, however.

Currently it appears as though the tool lists link source URLs & page titles. Will the tool also add anchor text listings at some point?

On the list – sometimes we run into data sourcing issues, so when we hit those walls, it takes us longer to add features. Bing WMT pulls data from all the sources available within Bing Search, and sometimes those have limits imposed for other reasons. In those cases, we must abide by those rules or seek to influence changes to increase our own access/capacities. A search engine is a complex thing it turns out… J

There are filters for "anchor text" and "additional query." What are the differences between these filters?

Anchor Text is pretty clear to most SEOs. "Additional Query" allows you to look for, as an example, a page with "N" text appearing on it. So text not just as "anchor text", but simply appearing on the page.

Currently if I search for "car" I believe it will match pages that have something like "carson" on it. In the future will there be a way to search for an exact word without extra characters?

I’m going to split this answer. Users can enable “Strict” filtering to only see “cars” data by selecting the “Strict” box. To your point, however, this is what some of our tools are Beta. We will continually refine them as time goes on, adding features folks find useful.

Will you guys also offer TLD-based filters at some point?

First time anyone's mentioned it, so I’ll add this to our list for consideration.

A few years ago my wife was at a PPC seminar where a Bing representative stated that the keyword search data provided in the tools matched your internal data. Is this still the case?

Bing Advertising is completely separate from Webmaster Tools. I’m not sure if that rep was meaning data within the adCenter tools matches data or what. Bing WMT does import CPC data to showcase alongside keywords which sent traffic to your site. That data matches as we pull direct from adCenter. The data we show through our tools comes direct from Bing Search, so that’s a match if this is what you’re referring to.

Bing's Webmaster tools offers an API with keyword research & link data. Bing's Ad Intelligence is easily one of my 3 favorite SEO tools. Will Bing eventually offer a similar SEO-oriented plugin for Excel?

No plans on the roadmap for an Excel plugin.

At SMX Derrick Connell suggested that there was a relevancy perception gap perhaps due to branding. What are some of the features people should try or things they should search for that really highlight where Bing is much stronger than competing services?

Without doubt people should be logging in and using the Facebook integration when searching. This feature is tremendously helpful when you’re researching something, for example, as you can reach out directly to friends for input during your research process. While searching, keep your eyes open for the caret that indicates there is more data about a specific result. Hovering over that activates the “snapshot” showing the richer experience we have for that result. Businesses need to make sure they focus on social and managing it properly. It’s not going away and those who lag will find themselves facing stiff, new competition from those getting social right. Businesses also need to get moving adopting rich snippets on their sites. This data helps us provide the deeper experiences the new consumer interface is capable of in some cases.

You have wrote a couple books & done a significant amount of offline marketing. One big trend that has been highlighted for years and years is everything moving online, but as search advances do you see offline marketing as becoming an important point of differentiation for many online plays?

In a way yes. In fact, with the simplification of SEO via tools like our own and many others, more and more businesses can get things done to a level on their own. SEO will eventually become a common marketing tactic, and when that hits, we’re right back to a more traditional view of marketing: where all tactics are brought to bear to sell a product or service. Think of this…email marketing is still one of the single best converting forms of marketing in existence. Yet so many businesses focus on SEO (drive new traffic!) instead of email (work with current, proven shoppers!).

In fact, neither alone is the "best" strategy for most online businesses. It’s a blend of everything. Social happens either with you or without you. You can influence it, and by participating, the signals the engines see change. We can see those changes and it helps us understand if a searcher might or might not have a good experience with you. That can influence (when combined with a ton of other factors, obviously) how we rank you. Everything is connected today. Complex? Sure, but back in the day marketers faced similar complexity with their own programs. Just a new "complex" for us today. More in the mix to manage.

What is the best part about being an SEO who also works for a search engine?

On Wednesday, June 6th at 10AM PST, I was part of the team that brought a new level of tools forward, resetting expectations around what Webmaster Tools should deliver to users. Easily one of the proudest moments of my life was that release. While I’m an SEO and I work for the engine, the PM and Lead Engineer on the WMT product are also SEOs. ;) To say Bing is investing in building the partnership with SEOs is no mere boast. Great tools like this happen because the people building them live the life of the user.

What is the hardest part about being an SEO who also works for a search engine?

Still so few people around me that speak this language. The main difficulty is in trying to understand the sheer scope of search. Because everything you thought you knew as an SEO take son an entirely different dimension when you’re inside the engine. Imagine taking every SEO conversation and viewing it through a prism. So many more things to consider.

And, finally, nothing against Matt here, but why are dogs so much better than cats?

1 – they listen to you and execute commands like a soldier
2 – generally, they don’t crap in your house
3 – you can have a genuine conversation with a dog
4 – one of my dogs drives
5 – when was the last time your cat fetched anything for you?
6 – your dog might look at you funny, but won’t hiss at you
7 – guard cat? Hardly… you’d be better off with peacocks in the yard.
8 – dogs make great alarm clocks
9 – even YOU know you look strange walking your cat on a leash…
10 – dogs inspire you to be a better person

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Thanks for the interview Duane & the great new tools. :)

Duane also did a video review of their new tools on SEOmoz, which highlights how they show rank & traffic data on a per keyword & per page basis. To learn more about Bing, subscribe to their search blog & their webmaster central blog. Duane also shares SEO information on Twitter @DuaneForrester & via his personal blog.

Local SEO Tips from Darren Shaw of Whitespark

Jun 8th
posted in

Based on feedback we get from time to time, there seems to be a growing interest in the area of setting up and running a local SEO business.

In addition to building local SEO tools, Whitespark also offers local SEO services. We recently reviewed Darren's Local Citation Finder, which is a must-have for any local SEO, and today he was kind enough to answer some questions on the local SEO market as a whole as well as specific strategies he recommends (and uses for his clients).

1. What are you advising your clients to do and how are you adjusting your local seo strategy in the wake of the latest change to Google Places (IE Google+ Local)?

Get active on Google+. You want to start posting content on Google+, and also start circling friends, family, influencers, and other businesses AS YOUR BUSINESS on Google+. If you’re engaging them, they’ll engage with your business and circle you back, +1 your content, share your content, etc. Use your existing Google+ business page if you already have one, as this business page will eventually merge with your Google+ Local page. If you don’t have one yet, then get one here. To use Google+ as a page, look for the dropdown under your photo. Also, now that Google+ Local pages are indexed, it’s a good idea to link to your Google+ Local page. There was no value in linking to the old place pages because they weren’t indexed.

2. A recent WSJ Article outlines an upcoming change to how Google will be interacting with SMB's. It appears to be tying back to G+ (of course) but also presenting a unified dashboard that SMB's can use to interact with all Google products. When you look at the local SEO landscape, how do you present to clients as the importance of singular keyword rankings become less and less important in the face of a more holistic, unified online marketing campaign?

It’s tough because the typical SMB often comes to you with the goal of ranking for particular keywords and doesn’t see the bigger picture. So, when we present to clients we make sure to discuss all the details of our local SEO work:

  • Google Analytics conversion tracking and custom reporting configuration.
  • Keyword research
  • Competitive analysis
  • Google+ Local page optimization (I’m going to have to revise our process now!)
  • Technical site audit
  • Keyword mapping and website optimization
  • Content strategy
  • Link building (developing linkable assets, digging through competitors’ link profiles looking for ideas, guest posting, press releases, interviews, researching business partners for link ops, infographics, videos, e-books, contests, wordpress plugins, selective social bookmarking to our own content and to content we get placed. I find myself referencing this great post by Ted Ives fairly regularly when coming up with link building strategies for clients.)
  • Citation audit and clean up
  • Citation building
  • Review acquisition strategy
  • Image geo-tagging, optimization, and uploading to appropriate sites
  • Video geo-tagging, optimization, and uploading to appropriate sites
  • Social strategy

We’re focused on content strategy these days and try to educate our clients from the start about what will be involved. That means getting a blog installed on their site if they don’t already have one and setting up a schedule of weekly blog posts.

There are plenty of quality writers out there that will write posts at a reasonable price for the business if they don’t have time. We brainstorm topic ideas with our clients, and then sort them into “our blog” and “guest posts”.

We then build out lists of prospects using our sister tool, the Link Prospector, and use Buzzstream to manage our outreach and relationship building. We work on creative ideas that will push our clients beyond what their competition is doing.

For example, for one of our legal clients, we’re creating a kinetic typography video (what’s that? ) about a new law being passed that will mean immediate loss of your license if you get charged with a DUI. The implications of this new law are serious: loss of job, family troubles due to financial strain, etc.

We’ll be posting it to our blog, doing a press release, pushing it through social, and outreaching to all the news agencies and civilian bloggers in the province. Expecting this to drive some great brand mentions and links for our client. We’re always touching base with our clients to learn about up and coming news in their business and industry that we can leverage with content like this.

If a client isn’t able to invest some time to work with us on content, and providing us with the info we need, we try to assess that as early as possible and not take them on, or end the relationship. It must be collaborative or we’ll have a hard time getting the results, and that frustrates us and the client.

3. Do you think Google's push to centralize these offers for SMB's will actually help local SEO/marketing companies (like yours)? It seems to me that it would, it seems like things will be easier to manage and report on. While Google will be able to make inroads in this market, I still believe that many local SMB's will just be more apt to search for a reputable provider that can manage all this stuff for them. SMB's love time-savings...What do you think?

I don’t know if it will make much difference. The typical SMB client doesn’t have much knowledge about online marketing.

They would be just as lost in a unified dashboard as they are in the current setup, and will look to bring in a consultant to help. As far as reporting goes, we’ll have to see what that unified dashboard provides. If it’s anything like the useless stats in the current Google Places dashboard, I won’t be very excited about it.

4. Local, blended, pack, whatever rankings can be difficult to deal with if you are not the beneficiary of a nearby centroid. Can you walk us through how you deal with this both at the proposal level (quote multiple services, quote more keywords, etc) and in practice?

What are some ways around being an outlier to the centroid of the more highly searched areas? Fortunately, Google has recently dialed back the importance of the centroid. I only bring it up with new prospects if they are way out on the outskirts of the city (can be a bit challenging to overcome), or in a suburb and want to rank in the big city (near impossible to overcome unless they open a new location in the city).

To overcome centroid bias you need an order magnitude more citations, links, and reviews. If your competitors have 50 citations, get 150. If your competitors have 30 reviews, get 100. When you look at cases where a business is way outside of the centroid and ranking well, it’s typically a numbers game like this.

Be sure to also focus on acquiring plenty of locally relevant links and citations from authority sites, but I’d have the same recommendation for any local campaign, not just ones where you’re working to overcome centroid bias.

5. Given the increased complexity of local SEO, and local online ads in general, how are you handling the quoting process these days? Custom proposals for everyone? Packages for some? Do you find, on average, better overall success (ROI and retention) with one method or the other?

I have a pretty standard, all encompassing, package that I use for all clients. If the client is in an  ultra-competitive market, I’ll charge more, but we do pretty much the same work for all our clients and just scale it up based on how competitive it is.

6. How deep do you get into the client's business? Do you get into managing SEO, PPC, online ad buys, email marketing, offline advertising, and so on?

Typically we just do straight SEO. Specifically, local seo. That’s more than enough to deal with right now, and it’s what I love doing. I’m not that interested in anything other than local.

7. Citations are important but what about social stuff and reviews? How do you help clients set up and stick to an ongoing social engagement and how do you get them to be all over the reviews (obtaining reviews, following up on them, and so on)?

Reviews are extremely important and we put together a review acquisition strategy for each client. We get one of Phil Rozek’s Review Handouts for each client. This is something that the business can email or print and give to each customer that provides easy step-by-step instructions on how to leave a review. He’s updating it for the new Google+ Local review process. We also encourage our clients to mix up the places they request reviews from.

Get some on Google, some on Insiderpages, some on Yelp, etc. We always research where the competition are getting reviews and base our recommendations on that. I think keywords in the reviews are a big ranking factor. We ask our clients to tell their customers to mention the service they had completed when posting the review.

Social, well, I don’t push too hard on it. Certainly, the clients that are engaged in it will reap the benefits, but so many small businesses are too busy running their business to bother with it. Looking at David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors, the local SEO experts surveyed don’t put a lot of stock into social factors. David’s just about to release the 2012 version and i would expect to see the same.

8. I know there's always a desire for one to find some magic pill for their problems, and that's no different in the local SEO market. Sometimes though, there are no "secrets" and it's more about leverage, quality of work, and consistency. Let's close it out by giving folks some "must-have" tips on running a local SEO campaign, or company, in the current local SEO climate:

In local, my number one recommendation is to do a citation audit and clean up job. It’s horribly painful work trying to find all the places where your name, address, and phone number are incorrect, but like you noted, there are no short cuts.

Put in the hard work on this one and it will pay dividends. I’ve seen many cases where you analyze the top ranking competition and the business with the best on-page optimization, Place page optimization, citations, links, & reviews is not ranking as well as they should, and when you dig a little deeper it’s because of messy NAP data all over the place.

Consistent NAP is important to your “trust score” in local. If Google is getting conflicting data about your business from multiple sources, it lowers its trust in your data. I’ll be doing a post on the Whitespark blog soon about how we do citation audits. Also, keywords in reviews seem to be very helpful to rankings. See what I said about this above.

Also, citations from city and industry specific sites really help associate your business with the keywords you’re going after. In our experience, local rankings take off after we submit to 30 or 40 of these. For example, for a lawyer in Chicago, get citations on sites like:

Thanks Darren!

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.

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