Jim Boykin Interview

Apr 4th

Internet Marketing Ninja Jim Boykin has promoted link building since before I even knew what SEO was. Nearly a decade later so many things have changed in SEO (including renaming We Build Pages to Internet Marketing Ninjas), but he still sees links as a key SEO driver (as do I). I recently interviewed him about links & the changing face of SEO.

so, links links links ... these were the backbone of ranking in Google for years and years. are they still? Is social a huge signal, or something that has been over-hyped?

Yes, I do see backlinks at the backbone of rankings in Google. Every day I see sites that trump the rankings with links, and no social signals...but I've never seen a site that had "poor" backlinks compared to others, but a strong social signal, be ranked great.

There are other signal that I feel are more important than social, like content and user behavior, but then after those, I'd put social signals. Even though I don't think they're more important thank links by any stretch, I do feel that social has a place, in areas like branding, community building, and in assisting in organic search results. I always recommend that people have a strong social presence, even if for only sending additional signals to Google to assist in higher rankings.

Google recently nailed a bunch of lower quality bulk link networks. Were you surprised these lasted as long as they did? Was the fact that they worked at all an indication of the sustained importance of links?

Well...surprised...no... filtering out networks is something that's always going to happen....once something gets too big, or too popular, or too talked about...then it's in danger of being burned... the popular "short cuts" of today are the popular penalized networks of tomorrow... there will always be someone who will create a network (of others sites they control, or their new friends control, or of near expired domains, or blogger groups, etc etc) and that someone will start selling links, and advertising, and it will catch on, and they will sell to everyone and it will become so interconnected that it will cause it's own algorthymitic penalty, or it will get popular, and get the eyes of Google on it, and then it will get filtered, or there will be exact match penalties, or entire site penalties.

If that's the game you play, just understand the risks...or, don't play that game and give other reasons for people to link to you, and get permanent non-paid links, but that takes a lot of time and effort and marketing. That's the price you have to pay...because, yes, rankings in Google still comes down to #1, Links.

After such networks get hit, how hard is it for such sites to recover? Does it create a "flight to quality" impact on link building? Are many of them better off starting from scratch rather than trying to recover the sites?

We've worked with several people who have come to us with after being penalized by Google to some degree (either phrase based penalty, or entire site penalties). Probably the low budget people who got hit just started other sites and tossed their penalized site, but most of the people who come to us can't afford to toss their branded site away.

In almost all of those cases it takes someone removing all the paid and un-natural links that they can. They must understand then that their days of buying links are Over, and they Must create great things on their site that gets natural links....and they must forever give up the chase of being #1 for the big short tail phrases..unless you own the exact .com, or your brand name includes that phrase...In order to recover, they must purge the backlinks of the paid links and the networks, do a reinclusion request, and then start doing "natural things", and then wait and wait and wait...90 days is typical...it's the one Google gave to themselves after you pointed out that Google themselves were buying blog links.

Over time it has become easier to hit various trip wires when link building. You mentioned some things being phrse based or entire site & so on...how does a person determine the difference between these? Some of Google's automated penalties and manual penalties have quite similar footprints, are there easy ways to tell which is which?

A phrase based penalty work like this...let's say you've been targeting "green widgets" and "red widgets" for years...you have lots of backlinks with those exact anchor text....and you were in the top 10 for both phrases....then one day, you rank somewhere on page 3 or higher for those phrases.. you may still rank #3 for "cheap red widgets" or #7 for "widgets green" (reversed phrases)...but for the few exact phrases...it's page 3+ of the SERPS for you....nothing else changes, just those exact phrases.. on the other hand, a sitewide penalty is where pretty much nothing rankings on page 1 or page 2 in the SERPS, when the prior day you had lots of keywords rankings in there. I have no way of knowing which were automatic and which were hand done....sometimes I have a feeling in my gut...but it doesn't really matter...the solution is always the same...clean up the backlinks, and change your methods.

Earlier you mentioned foregoing the head phrase, in spite of things like Google Instant guiding searchers down a path, is there still plenty of tail to be had? Are tail keywords significantly under-rated by the market? How does one square going after tail keywords with algorithms like Panda?

I'm a big believer in the long tail. When we analyze content on a site we tend to grab ranking data from ahrefs for the client, as well as for several of their competitors, and we end up merging all the phrases and showing the search volume and the average cost per click for each phrase...we can always find a huge long tail, even if the clients site currently doesn't have that content (they have to add new original content), there is always a huge long tail to be had.

In 98% of the cases, there are no one or two or three main phrases that account for more than 2% of the total potential search traffic. Even with a sites existing content and existing traffic, the short tail tends not to be more than 5% of traffic for any sites I've been seeing.We often find that a site that may have 5,000 pages, but only 500 pages that site are of value via ranking for anything that has a decent search volume, and a decent worth in a CPC value in Google. If you look at those 500 urls, and you optimize each url for say 5 phrases on average, then you're looking at 2,500 phrases...of those, 50 phrases might be the short tail, and 2450 I would consider the middle tail. If you also add words like "shop" "store" "online" "sale" "cheap" "discount" etc to all those pages, you'll pick up tons more phrases. And from there, the more original content you can add, the more long tail you can get.... but..be careful...no one wants a site to be hit from a Google panda update...make sure the content is original, of value, and that it's of use to the viewers of the page.

When going after head or tail keywords...with one or the other do you feel that link quality is more important than link quantity?

Link quality always trumps. Otherwise, I'd buy those 10,000 backlinks for $100 packages that I see in Google AdWords... and my job would be a lot easier :)

With Google it is getting easier to hit tripwires with anchor text or building links too fast, does this also play into the bias toward quality & away from quantity?

I think it is easier to hit tripwires...but it's nice that Google sent out 700,000 "be careful" emails a few weeks ago... those were automatic....I think the "over optimization update" that Google has been speaking of will trip a lot of wires and people will have to mimic the natural web more and not focus on exact short tail phrases.

Those scammy AdWords ads proming link riches for nothing in part shape the perception of the cost & value of links. How do you get prospective clients to see & appreciate the value of higher quality links (while in some cases some of them will be competing with some of the bulk stuff that ranks today & is gone tomorrow)?

Well, luckily I'm not in sales calls anymore so I don't have to do the convincing :) but I'd say that if you can get links that you just can't buy (ie, a link from NASA.gov or harvard.edu/library/) then they're priceless. Each update Google will filter out some of the links from sites that it feels are artificial. If you can build things that stick and stand the test of time, and if you don't need to be #1 tomorrow, and are willing to invest in the sites content and the sites future, then think long tail and long term. If you're all about today, then do what you have to do today, but those cheap links won't move you much anyways & you'll just have a spammy backlink profile.

Building quality links that last isn't particularly cheap or easy. Even harder to do it in volume. What has allowed/enabled you to succeed where so many others have failed on this front? Is it that you care more about the client's well being, or is it that you have to tie together a bunch of clever bits to make it all back out?

Well, I have an army here....nearly 100 ninjas..the biggest group is the link builders, so I have a lot of link ninjas, we also have a lot of tools...tools that suggest the things we should write that has the highest probability of getting trusted backlinks, we have a content teams that knows how to write to get links from professors and orgs and government agencies, etc.

We have tools that help us to know who to write to after we've written the content..and we have tools that help us send out a lot of personal emails...between the tools and the people and the content, we manage to make it work. If we had to do all the work by hand, and by human guesses, it would never work, but with the tools (and human intervention along the way), we're able to get the links and scale it, while keeping the high quality.

When you talk about getting quality links that are priceless, those have that sort of value precisely because they are so hard to get. How big of a role does content play in the process? Is this something anyone can do?

Content is Key to getting links. There's different types of links....there's the low hanging fruit..then there's the fruit that's way on the top of the tree....the things that tend to be harder to get, also tend to be the most valued and the most trusted. If I wrote to a college professor at Harvard and said, "Hey, Professor Bob, I just wrote a great paper on "The History Of Widgets", you should add it to your article in the Harvard library" then if the article isn't Great, they'll never link to it. It starts with a great idea that morphs into great content, and then we promote it to those we're targeting. Anyone can write this content, guess at what a gov page would link to, or a college professor..see what they currently link out to...write them an email that's been personalized...and with enough emails, you can get the links if your content is good enough. It's a long slow process, but anyone can do it. Thank goodness I have tool that make that process much easier and more accurate to getting links.

You mentioned thinking long term, how long does it usually take to start seeing results from quality link building? Do you ever work on new sites, or do you mostly try to work on older websites that tend to respond quicker? Also have you noticed newer sites being able to rank much quicker if they do a quality-first approach to link building?

With getting the trusted links we tend to see an increase in traffic during the first 3 months. I do the 3 month review phone calls here, and my goal is to show them the ROI via overall rankings increase of the long tail, and an increase in google's organic traffic. Sites tend to see much better increases in these if they also follow our internal linking strategies, and our on page optimization strategies. If someone does link building, on page optimization, and internal linking, after 3 months there's almost no way someone can not increase the traffic to their site.

----

Thanks Jim!

Jim Boykin is the founder and CEO of Internet Marketing Ninjas (formerly We Build Pages, since 1999). Jim's team of marketing ninjas offer a full range of internet marketing services including link building services and social media branding, as well as they employ an in-house team of website designers. Follow Jim and the Ninjas on their blog, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, foursquare, and Linkedin.

Patience is a Virtue

Apr 3rd

Sorry I haven't blogged as much lately, but one of our employees recently had a child and Google sending out so many warning messages in webmaster central has created a ton of demand for independent SEO advice. Our growth in demand last month was higher than any month outside of the time a few years ago when we announced we would be raising prices and got so many new subscribers that I had to close down the ability to sign up for about 3 or 4 months because there were so many new customers.

Google has been firing on all cylinders this year. They did have a few snafus in the press, but those didn't have any noticeable impact on user perception or behavior & Google recently rolled out yet another billion Dollar business in their consumer surveys.

Google is doing an excellent job of adding friction to SEO & managing its perception to make it appear less stable, less trustworthy and to discourage investment in SEO. They send out warnings for unnatural links, warnings for traffic drops, and even warnings for traffic increases.

Webmaster Tools is a bit of a strange bird...

  • Any SEO consultant who has client sites tied into Webmaster Tools makes it easy to connect them together (making any black swan editorial decisions far riskier).
  • Any SEO company which has clients sign up for their own Webmaster Tools account now has to deal with explaining why things change, when many of the changes that happen are more driven by algorthmic shifts (adding local results to the SERPs or taking them away, other forms of localization, changing of ad placement on the SERP, etc.) than by the work of the SEO. This in turn adds costs to managing SEO projects while also making them seem less stable (even outside of those who were use paid link networks). Think through the sequence...
    • Google first sends a warning for traffic going up, and the SEO tells the client that this is because they did such a great job with SEO.
    • Then Google sends a warning for traffic dropping & the client worries that something is wrong.
    • The net impact on actual traffic or conversions could be a 0, but the warnings amplify the perception of changes.
  • Any SEO who doesn't use Webmaster Tools loses search referral data. It first started with logged in Google users, but apparently it is also headed to Firefox. Who's to say Google Chrome & Safari won't follow Firefox at some point?

Google has changed & obfuscated so many things that it is very hard to isolate cause and effect. They have made changes to how much data you get, changes to their analytics interface & how they report unique visitors, changes to how tightly they filter certain link behaviors, they have rolled in frequent Panda updates, and they have nailed a number of the paid link networks.

BuildMyRank shut down after leaving a self-destructive footprint that made it easy for Google to nuke their network, and some of the remaining paid link networks are getting nailed. Some of their customers are at this point driven primarily by fear, counting down their remaining days as the sky is falling. Fear is an important emotion designed to protect us, but when it is a primary driver we risk self-destruction.

The big winners in these moves by Google are:

  • Google, since they grant themselves more editorial leeway. If everyone is a scofflaw then they can hit just about anyone they want. And the organic search results are going to be far easier to police if many market participants are held back by a fear tax.
  • Larger businesses which are harder to justify hitting & which can buy out smaller businesses at lower multiples based on the perception of fear.
  • Sites which were outranked by people using the obvious paid links, which now rank a bit better after some of those paid link buyers were removed from the search results.
  • SEOs who out others & market themselves by using polarizing commentary (at least in the short run, whereas in the long run that may backfire).
  • Those engaging in negative SEO, which sell services to smoke competitors.

The big losers from these Google moves are:

  • some of the paid link networks & those who used them for years
  • under-priced SEO service providers who were only able to make the model work by scaling up on risk
  • smaller businesses who are not particularly spammy, but are so paralyzed by fear that they won't put in enough effort & investment to compete in the marketplace

One of the reasons I haven't advocated using the paid link networks is I was afraid of putting the associated keywords into a hopper of automated competition that I would then have to compete against year after year. Even if you usually win, over the course of years you can still lose a lot of money by promoting the creation of disposable, automated & scalable competing sites. If you don't mind projects getting hit & starting over the ROI on such efforts might work out, but after so many years in the industry the idea of starting over again and again as sites get hit is less appealing.

It is not just that the links are not trusted, but now they stand a far greater chance of causing penalties:

Dear site owner or webmaster of ….

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Sincerely,

Google Search Quality Team

If that doesn't change then negative SEO will become a bigger issue than paid links ever were.

What is hard about Google penalizing websites for such links is that it is cheap & easy for someone else to set you up. Shortly after Dan Thies mentioned that it was "about time" to Matt Cutts on Twitter someone started throwing some of the splog links at his site. It is safe to say that Dan didn't build those links, but there are many people who will be in the same situation as Dan who did nothing wrong but had a competitor set them up.

And there is no easy way to disconnect your site from those types of links.

If you go back a few years, it was quite easy to win at SEO by doing it in a "paint by number" fashion. One rarely got hit unless they were exceptionally excessive and stuck out like a sore thumb.

But after all of Google's recent moves, a few missed steps in a drunken stupor can have the same result.

Now more than ever, patience is a virtue!

Review of Jim Boykin's Free Broken Link Tool

Mar 21st
posted in

Jim Boykin recently released a free, but powerful tool, that can help you check on broken links, redirects, in addition to helping you generate a Google Sitemap.

Being a free, web-based tool you might think it's a bit lightweight but you'd be wrong :) It can crawl up to 10,000 internal pages, up to 5 runs per day per user.

In addition to the features mentioned above, the tool offers other helpful data points as well as the ability to export the data to CSV/Excel, HTML, and the ability to generate a Google XML Sitemap.

The other data points available to you are:

  • URL of the page spidered
  • Link to an On-Page SEO report for that URL
  • Link depth from the home page
  • HTTP status code
  • Internal links to the page (with the ability to get a report off the in-links themselves)
  • External links on the page (a one-click report is available to see the outlinks)
  • Overall size of the page with a link to the Google page speed tool (cool!)
  • Link to their Image check tool (size, alt text, header check of the page)
  • Rows for Title Tag, Meta Description, and Meta Keywords
  • Canonical tag field

Using the Tool

The tool is really easy to use, just enter the domain, the crawl depth, and your email if you don't care to watch the magic happen live :)

For larger crawls entering your email makes a lot of sense as it can take a bit on big crawls:

Click Ninja Check and off you go!

Working With The Data

The top of the results page auto-updates and shows you:

  • Status of the report
  • Internal pages crawled
  • External links found
  • Internal redirects found
  • External redirects found
  • Internal and External errors

When you click any of the yellow text(s) you are brought to that specific report table (which are below the main results I'll show you below).

This is also where you can export the XML sitemap, download results to Excel/HTML.

The results pane (broken up into 2 images given the horizontal length of the table) looks like:

More to the right is:

The On Page Report

If you click on the On Page Report link in the first table you are brought to their free On-Page Optimization Analysis tool. Enter the URL and 5 targeted phrases:

Their tool does the following:

  • Metadata tool: Displays text in title tags and meta elements
  • Keyword density tool: Reveals statistics for linked and unlinked content
  • Keyword optimization tool: Shows the number of words used in the content, including anchor text of internal and external links
  • Link Accounting tool: Displays the number and types of links used
  • Header check tool: Shows HTTP Status Response codes for links
  • Source code tool: Provides quick access to on-page HTML source code

The data is presented in the same table form as the original crawl. This first section shows the selected domain and keywords in addition to on-page items like your title tag, meta description, meta keywords, external links on the page, and words on the page (linked and non-linked text).

You can also see the density of all words on the page in addition to the density of words that are not links, on the page.

Next up is a word breakdown as well as the internal links on the page (with titles, link text, and response codes).

The word cloud displays targeted keywords in red, linked words underlined, and non-linked words as regular text.

You'll see a total word count, non-linked word count, linked word count, and total unique words on the.

This can be helpful in digging into deep on-page optimization factors as well as your internal link layout on a per page basis:

Next, you'll get a nice breakdown of internal links and the text of those links, the titles, and the words in the url.

Also, you can see any links to sub-domains as well as external links (with anchor text and response codes):

Each section has a show/hide option where you can see all the data or just a snippet.

Another report you get access to is the image checker (accessible from the main report "Check Image Info" option):

Here you'll get a report that shows a breakdown of the files and redirects on the page in addition to the image link, image dimensions, file size, alt text, and a spot to click to view the image:

After that section is the link section which shows the actual link, the file type (html, css, etc), status code and a link check (broken, redirect, ok, and so on)

Additional Reports

The main report referenced at the beginning of this post is the Internal Page Report. There are five additional reports:

  • External Links
  • Internal Redirects
  • External Redirects
  • Internal Errors
  • External Errors

External Links

This report will show you:

  • HTTP Status
  • Internal links to the external link
  • Actual link URL
  • Link anchor text
  • Where the link was first found on the domain

Internal and External Redirects

  • HTTP Status
  • Internal links to the external link
  • Actual link URL
  • Link anchor text
  • Page the URL redirects to

Internal and External Errors

  • HTTP Status
  • Internal links to the external link
  • Actual link URL
  • Link anchor text
  • Give it a Spin

    It's free but more importantly it's quite useful. I find a lot of value in this tool in a variety of ways but mostly with the ability to hone in on your (or your competitor's) internal site and linking structure.

    There are certainly a few on-page tools on the marketing but I found this tool easy to use and full of helpful information, especially with internal structure and link data.

    Try it. :)

    • 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 Instant Answers: Rich Snippets & Poor Webmasters

    This is a pretty powerful & instructive image in terms of "where search is headed."

    It's a Yahoo! Directory page that was ranking in the Google search results on a Google Android mobile device.

    Note the following

    • the page is hosted on Google.com
    • the page disclaims that it is not endorsed by Google
    • the page embeds a Google search box
    • the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory search box
    • the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory PPC ads (on the categories which have them)
    • the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory logo
    Recall that when Google ran their bogus sting operation on Bing, Google engineers suggest that Bing was below board for using user clickstreams to potentially influence their search results. That level of outrage & the smear PR campaign look ridiculous when compared against Google's behavior toward the Yahoo! Directory, which is orders of magnitude worse:

     

    Bing vs Google Google vs Yahoo! Directory
    editorial Uses user-experience across a wide range of search engines to potentially impact a limited number of search queries in a minor way. Shags expensive hand-created editorial content wholesale & hosts it on Google.com.
    hosting Bing hosts Bing search results using Bing snippets. Google hosts Yahoo! Directory results using Yahoo! Directory listing content & keeps all the user data.
    attribution Bing publicly claimed for years to be using a user-driven search signal based on query streams. Google removes the Yahoo! Directory logo to format the page. Does Google remove the Google logo from Google.com when formatting for mobile? Nope.
    ads Bing sells their own ads & is not scraping Google content wholesale. Google scrapes Yahoo! Directory content wholesale & strips out the sidebar CPC ads.
    search box Bing puts their own search box on their own website. Google puts their own search box on the content of the Yahoo! Directory.
    user behavior Google claimed that Bing was using "their data" when tracking end user behavior. Google hosts the Yahoo! Directory page, allowing themselves to fully track user behavior, while robbing Yahoo! of the opportunity to even see their own data with how users interact with their own listings.

     

    In the above case the publisher absorbs 100% of the editorial cost & Google absorbs nearly 100% of the benefit (while disclaiming they do not endorse the page they host, wrap in their own search ad, and track user behavior on).

    As we move into a search market where the search engines give you a slightly larger listing for marking up your pages with rich snippets, you will see a short term 10% or 20% lift in traffic followed by a 50% or more decline when Google enters your market with "instant answers."

    The ads remain up top & the organic resultss get pushed down. It isn't scraping if they get 10 or 20 competitors to do it & then use the aggregate data to launch a competing service ... talk to the bankrupt Yellow Pages companies & ask them how Google has helped to build their businesses.

    Update: looks like this has been around for a while...though when I spoke to numerous friends nobody had ever seen it before. The only reason I came across it was seeing a referrer through a new page type from Google & not knowing what the heck it was. Clearly this search option doesn't get much traffic because Google even removes their own ads from their own search results. I am glad to know this isn't something that is widespread, though still surprised it exists at all given that it effectively removes monetization from the publisher & takes the content wholesale and re-publishes it across domain names.

    Interview of Jonah Stein

    Mar 16th

    I was recently chatting with Jonah Stein about Panda & we decided it probably made sense to do a full on interview.

    You mentioned that you had a couple customers that were hit by Panda. What sort of impact did that have on those websites?

    Both of these sites saw an immediate hit of about 35% of google traffic. Ranking dropped 3-7 spots. The traffic hit was across the board, especially in the case of GreatSchools, who saw all content types hit (school profile pages, editorial content, UGC)

    GreatSchools was hit on the 4-9 (panda 2.0) update and called out in the Sistrix analysis.

    How hard has GreatSchools been hit? Sistrix data suggested that GreatSchools was loosing about 56% of Google traffic. The real answer is that organic Google-referred traffic to the site fell 30% on April 11 (week over week) and overall site entries are down 16%. Total page views are down 13%. The penalty, of course, is a “site wide” penalty but not all entry page types are being affected equally

    Google suggested that there was perhaps some false positives but that they were generally pretty satisfied with the algorithms. For sites that were hit, how do clients respond to the SEOs? I mean did the SEO get a lot of the blame or did the clients get that the change was sort of a massive black swan?

    I think I actually took it harder then they did. Sure, it hit their bottom line pretty hard, but it hit my ego. Getting paid is important but the real rush for me is ranking #1.

    Fortunately none of my clients think they are inherently entitled to Google traffic, so I didn't get blamed. They were happy that I was on top of it (telling them before they noticed) and primarily wanted to know what Panda was about.

    Once you get over the initial shock and the grieving, responding to Panda was a rorschach test, everyone saw something different. But is also an interesting self - reflection, especially when the initial advice coming from Greg Boser and a few others was to start to de-index content.

    For clients who are not ad driven, the other interesting aspect is that generally speaking conversions were not hurt as much as traffic, so once you start focusing on the bottom line you discover the pain is a little less severe than it seemed initially.

    So you mentioned that not all pages were impacted equally. I think pages where there was more competition were generally hit harder than pages that had less competition. Is that sort of inline with what you saw?

    Originally I thought that was maybe the case, but as I looked at the data during the recovery process I became convinced that Panda is really the public face of a much deeper switch towards user engagement. While the Panda score is sitewide the engagement "penalty" or weighting effect on also occurs at the individual page. The pages or content areas that were hurt less by Panda seem to be the ones that were not also being hurt by the engagement issue.

    On one of my clients we moved a couple sections to sub-domains, following the HubPages example and the experience of some members of your community. The interesting thing is that we moved the blog from /blog to blog.domain.com and we moved one vertical niche from /vertical-kw to vertical-kw.example.com. The vertical almost immediately recovered to pre-panda levels while the traffic to the blog stayed flat.

    So the vertical was suddenly getting 2x the traffic. On the next panda push the vertical dropped 20% but that was still a huge improvement over before we moved to the subdomain. The blog didn't budge.

    The primary domain also seemed to improve some, but it was hard to isolate that from the impact of all of the other changes, improvements and content consolidation we were doing.

    After the next panda data push did not kill the vertical sub domain, we elected to move a second one. On the next data push, everything recovered - a clean bill of health - no pandalization at all.

    but....

    GreatSchools completely recovered the same day and that was November 11th, so Panda 3.0. I cannot isolate the impact of any particular change versus Google tweaking the algorithm and I think both sites were potentially edge cases for Panda anyway.

    Now that we are in 3.3 or whatever the numbering calls it, I can say with confidence that moving "bad" content to a sub-domain carries the Panda score with it and you won't get any significant recovery.

    You mentioned Greg Boser suggesting deindexing & doing some consolidation. Outside of canonicalization, did you test doing massive deindexing (or were subdomains your main means of testing isolation)?

    We definitely collapse a lot of content, mostly 301s but maybe 25% of it was just de-indexing. That was the first response. We took 1150 categories/keyword focused landing pages and reduced to maybe 300. We did see some gains but nothing that resembled the huge boost when Panda was lifted.

    Back to the rorschach test: We did a lot of improvements that yielded incremental gains but were still weighed down. I reminds me of when I used to work on cars. I had this old Audi 100 that was running poorly so I did a complete tune up, new wires, plugs, etc., but it was still running badly. Then I noticed the jet in the carburetor was mis-aligned. As soon as I fixed that, boom, the car was running great. Everything else we fixed may have been the right thing to do for SEO and/or users but it didn't solve the problem we were experiencing.

    The other interesting thing is that I had a 3rd client who appeared to get hit by Panda or at least suffer from Panda like symptoms after their host went down for about 9 hours. Rankings tanked across the board, traffic down 50% for 10 days. They fully recovered on the next panda push. My theory is that this outage pushed their engagement metrics over the edge somehow. Of course, it may not have really been Panda at all but the ranking reports and traffic drops felt like Panda. The timing was after November 11th, so it was a more recent version of the Panda infrastructure.

    Panda 1.0 was clearly a rush job and 2.0 seemed to be a response to the issues it created and the fact that demand media got a free pass. I think it took 6-8 months for them to really get the infrastructure robust.

    My takeaways from Panda are that this is not an individual change or something with a magic bullet solution. Panda is clearly based on data about the user interacting with the SERP (Bounce, Pogo Sticking), time on site, page views, etc., but it is not something you can easily reduce to 1 number or a short set of recommendations. To address a site that has been Pandalized requires you to isolate the "best content" based on your user engagement and try to improve that.

    I don't know if it was intentional or not but engagement as a relevancy factor winds up punishing sites who have built links and traffic through link bait and infographics because by definition these users have a very high bounce rate and a relatively low time on site. Look at the behavioral metrics in GA; if your content has 50% of people spending less than 10 seconds, that may be a problem or that may be normal. The key is to look below that top graph and see if you have a bell curve or if the next largest segment is the 11-30 second crowd.

    I also think Panda is rewarding sites that have a diversified traffic stream. The higher percentage of your users who are coming direct or searching for you by name (brand) or visiting you from social the more likely Google is to see your content as high quality. Think of this from the engine's point of view instead of the site owner. Algorithmic relevancy was enough until we all learned to game that, then came links as a vote of trust. While everyone was looking at social and talking about likes as the new links they jumped ahead to the big data solution and baked an algorithm that tries to measure interaction of users as a whole with your site. The more time people spend on your site, the more ways they find it aside from organic search, the more they search for you by name, the more Google is confident you are a good site.

    Based on that, are there some sites that you think have absolutely no chance of recovery? In some cases did getting hit by Panda cause sites to show even worse user metrics? (there was a guy named walkman on WebmasterWorld who suggested that some sites that had "size 13 shoe out of stock" might no longer rank for the head keywords but would rank for the "size 13" related queries.

    I certainly think that if you have a IYP and you have been hit with Panda your toast unless you find a way to get huge amounts of fresh content (yelp). I don't think the size 13 shoe site has a chance but it is not about Panda. Google is about to roll out lots of semantic search changes and the only way ecommerce sites (outside of the 10 or so brands that dominate Google Products) will have a chance is with schema.org markup and Google's next generation search. The truth is the results for a search for shoes by size is a miserable experience at the moment. I wear size 16 EEEE, so I have a certain amount of expertise on this topic. :)

    Do you see Schema as a real chance for small players? Or something that is a short term carrot before they get beat with the stick? I look at hotel search results like & and I fear that spreading as more people format their content in a format that is easy to scrape & displace. (For illustration purposes, in the below image, the areas in red are clicks that Google is paid for or clicks to fraternal Google pages.)

    I doubt small players will be able to use Schema as a lifeline but it may keep you in the game long enough to transition into being a brand. The reason I have taken your advice about brands to heart and preach it to my clients is that it is short sighted to believe that any of the SEO niche strategies are going to survive if they are not supported with PR, social, PPC and display.

    More importantly, however, is that they are going to focus on meeting the needs of the user as opposed to simply converting them during that visit. To use a baseball analogy, we have spent 15 years keeping score of home runs while the companies that are winning the game have been tracking walks, singles, doubles and outs. Schema may deliver some short term opportunities for traffic but I don't think size13shoes.com will be saved by the magic of semantic markup.

    On the other hand, if I were running an ecommerce store, particularly if I was competing with Amazon, Bestbuy, Walmart and the hand full of giant brands that dominate the product listings in the SERP, I wouldn't bury my head in the sand and pretend that everyone else wasn't moving in that direction anyway. Maybe if you can do it right you can emerge as a winner, at least over the short and medium term.

    In that sense SEO is a moving target, where "best practices" depend on the timing in the marketplace, the site you are applying the strategy to, and the cost of implementation.

    Absolutely...but that is only half the story. If you are an entrepreneur who likes to build site based on a monetization strategy, then it is a moving target where you always have to keep your eyes on the horizon. For most of my clients the name of the game is actually to focus on trying to own your keyword space and take advantage of inertia. That is to say that if you understand the keywords you want to target, develop a strategy for them and then go out and be a solid brand, you will eventually win. Most of my clients rank in the top couple of spots for the key terms for their industry with a fairly conservative slow and steady strategy, but I wouldn't accept a new client who comes to me and says they want to rank a new site #1 for credit cards or debt consolidation and they have $200,000 to spend..or even $2,000,000. We may able to get there for the short term but not with strategies that will stand the test of time.

    Of course, as I illustrated with the Nuts.com example on SearchEngineLand last month, the same strategy that works on a 14 year old domain may not be as effective for a newer site, even if you 301 that old domain. SEO is an art, not a science. As practitioners we need to constantly be following the latest developments but the real skill is in knowing when to apply them and how much; even then occasionally the results are surprising, disappointing or both.

    I think there is a bit of a chicken vs egg problem there then if a company can't access a strong SEO without already having both significant capital & a bit of traction in the marketplace. As Google keeps making SEO more complex & more expensive do you think that will drive a lot of small players out of the market?

    I think it has already happened. It isn't about the inability to access a strong SEO it is that anyone with integrity is going to lay out the obstacles they face. Time and time again we see opportunity for creativity to triumph but the odds are really stacked against you if you are an underfunded retailer.

    Just last year I helped a client with 450 domains who had been hit with Panda and then with a landing page penalty. It took a few months to sort out and get the reconsideration granted (by instituting cross domain rel=canonical and eliminating all the duplicate content across their network). They are gradually recovering to maybe 80% of where they were before Panda 2.0 but I can't provide them an organic link building strategy that will lift 450 niche ecommerce sites. I can't tell them how they are going to get any placement in a shrinking organic SERP dominated by Google's dogfood, shopping results from big box retailers and enormous Adwords Product Listings with images

    From that perspective, if your funding is limited, do you think you are better off attacking a market from an editorial perspective & bolting on commerce after you build momentum (rather than starting with ecommerce and then trying to bolt on editorial?

    Absolutely. Clearly the path is to have built Pinterest, but seriously...

    if you are passionate about something or have a disruptive idea you will succeed (or maybe fail), but if you think you can copy what others are doing and carve out a niche based on exploits I disagree. Of course, autoinsurancequoteeasy.com seems to be saying you can still make a ton of money in the quick flip world, even with a big bank roll, you need to be disruptive or innovative.

    On the other hand, if you have some success in your niche you can use creativity to grow, but it has to be something new. Widget bait launched @oatmeal's online dating site but it is more likely to bury you now than help you rank #1, or at least prevent you from ranking on the matching anchor text.

    When a company starts off small & editorially focused how do you know that it is time to scale up on monetization? Like if I had a successful 200 page site & wanted to add a 20,000 page database to it...would you advise against that, or how would you suggest doing that in a post-Panda world?

    This is a tough call. I actually have a client in exactly this position. I guess it depends on the nature of the 20,000 pages. If you are running a niche directory (like my client) my advice to them was to add the pages to the site but no index the individual listing until they can get some unique content. This is still likely to run fowl of the engagement issue presented by Panda, so we kept the expanded pages on geo oriented sub-domains.

    Earlier you mentioned that Panda challenged some of your assumptions. Could you describe how it changed your views on search?

    I always tell prospects that 10-15 years ago my job was to trick search engines into delivering traffic but over the last 5-6 years it has evolved and now my job is to trick clients into developing content that users want. Panda just changed the definition of "good content" from relevant, well linked content to relevant, well linked, sticky content.

    It has also made me more of a believer in diversifying traffic.

    Last year Google made a huge stink about MSN "stealing" results because they were sniffing traffic streams and crawling queries on Google. The truth is that Google has so many data sources and so many signals to analyze that they don't need to crawl facebook or index links on twitter. They know where traffic is coming from and where it is going and if you are getting traffic from social, they know it.

    As Google folds more data into their mix do you worry that SEO will one day become too complex to analyze (or move the needle)? Would that push SEOs to mostly work in house at bigger companies, or would being an SEO become more akin to being a public relations & media relations expert?

    I think it may already be too complex to analyze in the sense that it is almost impossible to get repeatable results for every client or tell them how much traffic they are going to achieve. On the other hand, moving the needles is still reasonably easy—as long as you are in agreement about what direction everyone is going. SEO for me is about Website Optimization, about asking everyone about the search intent of the query that brings the visitors to the site and making sure we have actions that match this intent. Most of my engagements wind up being a combination of technical seo/problem solving, analytics, strategy and company wide or at least team wide education. All of these elements are driven by keyword research and are geared towards delivering traffic so it is an SEO based methodology, but the requirements for the job have morphed.

    As for moving in house, I have been there and I doubt I will ever go back. Likewise, I am not really a PR or media relations expert but if the client doesn't have those skills in house I strongly suggest they invest in getting them.

    Ironically, many companies still fail to get the basics right. They don't empower their team, they don't leverage their real world relationships and most importantly they don't invest enough in developing high quality content. Writing sales copy is not something you should outsource to college students!

    It still amazes me how hard it is to get content from clients and how often this task is delegated to whoever is at the bottom of the org chart. Changing a few words on a page can pay huge dividends but the highest paid people in the room are rarely involved enough.

    In the enterprise, SEO success is largely driven by getting everyone on board. Being a successful SEO consultant (as opposed to running your own sites) is actually one quarter about being a subject matter expert on everything related to Google, one quarter about social, PR, Link building, conversion, etc and half about being a project manager. You need to get buying from all the stake holders, strive to educate the whole team and hit deliverables.

    Given the increased complexity of SEO (in needing to understand user intent, fixing a variety of symptoms to dig to the core of a problem, understanding web analytics data, faster algorithm changes, etc.) is there still a sweet spot for independent consultants who do not want to get bogged down by those who won't fully take on their advice? And what are some of your best strategies for building buy in from various stakeholders at larger companies?

    The key is to charge enough and to work on a monthly retainer instead of hourly. This sounds flippant but the bottom line is to balance how many engagements you can manage at one time versus how much you want to earn every month. You can't do justice to the needs of a client and bill hourly. That creates an artificial barrier between you and their team. All of my clients know I am always available to answer any SEO related question from anyone on the team at almost any time.

    The increased complexity is really job security. Most of my clients are long term relationships and the ones I enjoy the most are more or less permanent partnerships. We have been very successful together and they value having me around for strategic advice, to keep them abreast of changes and to be available when changes happen. Both of the clients who got hit by Panda have been with me for more than four years.

    No one can be an expert in everything. I definitely enjoy analytics and data but I have very strong partnerships with a few other agencies that I bring in when I need them. I am very happy with the work that AnalyticsPros has done for my clients. Likewise David Rodnitzky (PPC Associates) and I have partnered on a number of clients. Both allow me to be involved in the strategy and know that the execution will be very high quality. I only wish I had some link builders I felt as passionate about (given that Deborah Mastaler is always too busy to take my clients.)

    You mentioned that you thought user engagement metrics were a big part of Panda based on analytics data & such...how would a person look through analytics data to uncover such trends?

    I would focus on the behavioral metrics tab in GA. It is pretty normal to have a large percentage of visitors leave before 10 seconds, but after that you should see a bell curve. Low quality content will actually have 60-70% abandonment in less than 10 seconds, but the trick is for some searches 10 seconds is a good result: weather, what is your address, hours of operations. Lots of users get what they need from searches, sometimes even from the SERP, so look for outliers. Compare different sections of your site, say the blog or those infographics & bad page types.

    Its hard to say until you get your hands in the data but if you assume that individual pages can be weighed down by poor engagement and that this trend is maybe 1 year old and evolving, you can find some clues. Learn to use those advance segments and build out meaningful segmentation on your dashboard and you will be surprised how much of this will jump out at you. It is like over optimization: until you believed in it you never noticed & now you can spot it within a few seconds of looking at a page. I won't pretend engagement issues jump out that fast but it is possible to find them, especially if you are an in house SEO who really knows your site.

    The other important consideration is that improving engagement for an given page is a win regardless of whether it impacts your rankings or your Panda situation. The mantra about doing what is right for the users, not the search engine may sound cliche but they reality is that most of your decisions and priorities should be driven by giving the user what they want. I won't pretend that this is the short road to SERP dominance but my philosophy is to target the user with 80% of your efforts and feed the engines with the other 20.

    Thanks Jonah :)

    ~~~~~~~~~~

    Jonah Stein has 15 years of online marketing experience and is the founder of ItsTheROI, a San Francisco Search Engine Marketing Company that specializes in ROI driven SEO and PPC initiatives. Jonah has spoken at numerous industry conferences including Search Engine Strategies, Search Marketing Expo (SMX), SMX Advanced, SIIA On Demand, the Kelsey Groups Ultimate Search Workshop and LT Pact. He also developed panels Virtual Blight for the Web 2.0 Summit and the Web 2.0 Expo. He has written for Context Web, Search Engine Land and SEO Book

    Jonah is also the cofounder of two SaaS companies, including CodeGuard.com, a cloud based backup service that provides a time machine for websites and Hubkick.com, an online collaboration and task management tool that provides a simple way for groups to work together-instantly.

    Branding & The Cycle

    Mar 7th

    Since it took me a few hours to put together my SMX presentation I figured it was worth sharing that information on the blog as well. This post will discuss examples of how Google has dialed up their brand bias over time & points to where Google may be headed in the future.

    Note that I don't have anything against them promoting brands, I just think it is dishonest to claim they are not.

    Against All Odds

    When analyzing Google's big-brand bias the question is not "do some small sites manage to succeed against all odds" but…

    • What are the trends?
    • What are the biases?

    Quotable Quotes

    Eric Schmidt once stated that "Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard wired."

    We have a fear of the unknown. Thus that which we have already experienced is seen as less risky than something new & different. This is a big part of why & how cumulative advantage works - it lowers perceived risk.

    A significant portion of brand-related searches are driven by offline advertising. When a story becomes popular in the news people look online to learn more. The same sort of impact can be seen with ads - from infomercials to Superbowl ads. Geico alone spends nearly a billion Dollars per year on advertising, & Warren Buffet mentioned that 3/4 of their quotes come from the internet.

    Some of the most profitable business models are built off of questionable means.

    Many big brands are owned by conglomerates with many horses in the race. When one gets caught doing something illegal they close it down or sell off the assets & move to promote their parallel projects more aggressively.

    If things aligned with brands become relevancy signals then to some degree those measure longevity & size of a company (and their ad budget) rather than the quality of their offering.

    Even before the Panda update Google's Amit Singhal suggested the problem with this:

    Companies with a high page rank are in a strong position to move into new markets. By “pointing” to this new information from their existing sites they can pass on some of their existing search engine aura, guaranteeing them more prominence.
    ...
    Google’s Mr Singhal calls this the problem of “brand recognition”: where companies whose standing is based on their success in one area use this to “venture out into another class of information which they may not be as rich at”. Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect, he adds.

    Since Panda Overstock has moved into offering ebooks & insurance quotes while companies like Barnes & Noble run affiliate listings for rugs.

    As an example of the above trend gone astray, my wonderful wife recently purchased me a new computer. I was trying to figure out how to move over some user databases (like our Rank Checker & Advanced Web Ranking) and in the search results were pages like this one:

    The problems with the above are:

    • actual legitimate reviews get pushed down by such filler
    • the business model behind doing such actual reviews gets eroded by the automated syndicated reviews
    • outside of branding & navigation the content is fully syndicated
    • that particular page is referencing the 2005 version of the software, so the listed price is wrong & the feature set has changed a lot in the last 7 years

    Such scrape-n-mash content strategies by large brands are not uncommon. Sites like Answers.com can quickly add a coupons section, sites like FindTheBest can create 10s of millions of automated cross-referencing pages that load a massive keyword net of related keywords below the fold, news sites can create auto-generated subdomains of scraped content, etc.

    Eric Schmidt highlighted FindTheBest publicly as an example of a successful vertical search play. That site was launched by an ex-Googler, but if I did the same thing you can be certain that the only way Google would highlight it publicly would be as a "type of spam."

    The issue with broadly measuring user experience is that I am still going to visit Yahoo! Sports repeatedly even if my experience on Yahoo! Downloads is pretty crappy. A site which is a market leader in one niche can take those signals to launch a "me too" service in other parallel markets & quickly dominate the market.

    Potential Brand Signals

    When attempting to debunk the concept of "brand bias" some people claim that it would be ridiculous for Google to have a list of brands that get an across-the-board boost. Of course that debunking is debunking a straw man that was never stated publicly (outside of the irrelevant debunking).

    However, some of Google's old rater documents *did* have certain sites whitelisted & Google's Scott Huffman once wrote the following:

    At a [search] quality level, we have something similar. On a continuous basis in every one of our data centers, a large set of queries are being run in the background, and we’re looking at the results, looking up our evaluations of them and making sure that all of our quality metrics are within tolerance.

    These are queries that we have used as ongoing tests, sort of a sample of queries that we have scored results for; our evaluators have given scores to them. So we’re constantly running these across dozens of locales. Both broad query sets and navigational query sets, like “San Francisco bike shop” to the more mundane, like: Here’s every U.S. state and they have a home page and we better get that home page in the top results, and if we don’t … then literally somebody’s pager goes off.

    (Outside of some fraternal Google properties) the algorithm isn't hardcoded to rank sites x & y at #1, but if some sites don't rank for certain queries it does cause an alert to be sent out.

    Google has a wide host of quality-based metrics they could look at and analyze when determining if something gets a brand boost, gets ignored, or gets hit by an algorithm like Panda.

    A while back we wrote a post on potential brand signals, but a short list of examples would be:

    • Classical relevancy signals
      • domain name
      • website age
      • anchor text
      • link diversity
      • keyword co-citation
      • inclusion in trusted databases
    • Search behavior
      • keyword search volume trends
      • CTR of users on search results (including how users respond to changes in rank)
      • URL-based searches & other branded searches (the most popular keyword on Google is Facebook)
      • back button clicks (did the user find what they were looking for? or did they look somewhere else?)
      • repeat visitors (if someone repeatedly visits a website that is generally a pretty strong indication they had a positive user experience)
      • search query chains (Google suggested this was a big driver in the Vince update)
    • Passive user monitoring
      • search has become the primary mode of navigation online
      • Google has long offered a search toolbar & paid to have it installed in new computers
      • Google paid Mozilla about a billion Dollars for default search placement in Firefox
      • Google owns Chrome & Android
      • Google offers the most widely used analytics program
      • Google can also use AdSense ads and YouTube data to track users
      • Google was recently caught in privacy-related snafus with tracking Safari & Internet Explorer users

    Brand-focused Editorial

    In 2008 Rhea Drysdale created the following image, which highlighted how the same activity could be viewed as a legitimate marketing strategy or spam based on nothing other than who was doing it.

    The Vince Update

    In 2009 Google rolled some of their brand bias directly into the relevancy algorithms. A bunch of branded sites all jumped up in rankings out of nowhere for core industry keywords.

    Around that time Microsoft offered a search funnels tool, which showed what people searched for after searching for a particular keyword.

    The above screenshots (from Rankpulse and the Microsoft Search Funnels) are both from now defunct tools, but Yahoo! has since launched a tool called Yahoo! Clues which shows similar relationships.

    Amit Singhal told the Telegraph that Google is "the biggest kingmaker on this Earth."

    A Google engineer admitted that the Vince update was largely driven by search funnels. Google then rolled out a search results interface change which promoted brands & stores directly in the search results.

    If you search for "fishing gear" and then click their Bass Shop refinement link in the search results, you are thus directly creating that search funnels relevancy "signal." Even if you don't click on that link the exposure to the term may make you remember it and search for it later.

    Paid Links

    Are paid links evil?

    Once again, it depends on who is doing it.

    When the largest flower websites were caught buying massive quantities of links, a Google spokesperson told the New York Times: "None of the links … had a significant impact on our rankings, due to automated systems we have in place to assess the relevance of links."

    When some small bloggers were selling paid links to K-Mart as part of a "sponsored conversations" outreach, Matt Cutts equated the practice to selling bogus solutions to brain cancer & stated: "Those blogs are not trusted in Google's algorithms any more."

    Google also started sending webmasters automated messages for bad links pointing at their sites:

    Dear site owner or webmaster of domain.com, We've detected that some of your site's pages may be using techniques that are outside Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
    ...
    We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you've made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google's search results.

    So if you run a big site & they automatically detect paid links they generally just ignore those links and leave your site alone. If you are a small site & they automatically detect paid links they may decide to automatically penalize your site.

    Same offense, entirely different outcome.

    Cloaking

    Is cloaking evil?

    Once again, it depends on who is doing it.

    I have a Vistaprint Visa card (so I could get a credit card with our dog's picture on it) and one of the pages that was ranking for Vistaprint Visa was the Singapore Groupon website.

    The page forces a pop up and you can't do anything on that page (view the content, scroll around the site, etc.) other than filling in the lead generation form or logging into an existing account. I would never try that because I know I would get smoked for it. ;)

    Groupon has also ran AdWords accounts where the only option was to fill in the lead generation form or click into the TOS which are in another language!

    After the first iteration of the Google Panda update Google allowed users to vote to block websites. Experts Exchange was hated among some programmers in part because they used scroll cloaking. That in turn got their site hit by the second Panda update.

    Google then later rolled out a new ad unit where you pay for viewing content by taking a Google survey & some YouTube videos use preroll ads.

    Doorway Pages

    Are doorway pages evil?

    Once again, it depends on who is doing it.

    After the Panda update Ikea's thin content-free pages started ranking page 1 for some pretty competitive keywords.

    Huffington Post later wrapped 3rd party Tweets in their site's template & ranked those in Google.

    Smaller webmasters who ran network of sites in some cases got hit with "doorway page" penalties for owning networks of sites registered in Google Webmaster Tools, even if each site was a full fledged ecommerce website.

    Content Farming

    Is content farming evil?

    Once again, it depends on who is doing it (and where it is hosted).

    Long before the Panda update I highlighted some of the informationless videos Demand Media was uploading to Youtube.

    In spite of Google's Panda hitting eHow, Google still decided to pre-pay Demand Media to keep uploading YouTube videos.

    Another thing that is interesting about the content farms and the alleged need for the Panda algorithm was that in spite of flagrant editorial violations by both eHow and Mahalo, Google didn't smoke them until it could be done "algorithmically."

    On the flip side of the above, in some cases Google has chose to keep smaller webmasters penalized because content that was at one point on their site months in the past!

    Google+

    When Google+ launched I highlighted how it was acting as a scraper site by outranking original publisher content. About a half-year later some tech blogger noticed that issue & caused a big stink over it. A Google engineer then suggested that it was childish to place any of the blame on Google. Shortly after that Google integrated Google+ in the search results far more aggressively.

    A couple weeks after that aggressive promotional integration Amit Singal stated: "The overall takeaway that I have in my mind is that people are judging a product and an overall direction that we have in the first two weeks of a launch, where we are producing a product for the long term."

    The problem with build preferential rankings first & increase quality later is that is the exact opposite of what Google is asking publishers to do with algorithms like Panda. Worse yet, Google not only does this integration when you are logged in, but also shows it on obscure longtail advanced queries when you are not logged in.

    Affiliates

    When Google's ad ecosystem was young they loved affiliates, but that changed over time.

    In Google's remote rater documents they suggested that hotel affiliate sites be marked as spam, even if they are helpful.

    On Google's reconsideration request form they also stated: "In general, sites that directly profit from traffic (e.g. search engine optimizers, affiliate programs, etc.) may need to provide more evidence of good faith before a site will be reconsidered."

    And while Google has biased their editorial philosophies away from affiliates, some of the trusted brands like Barnes & Noble added affiliate listings to their websites, selling things like rugs.


    The Business Cycle

    Most businesses tend to grow in a cycle...

    • Bootstrap / self-funded
    • Raise funds / take out a loan
    • Build exposure
    • Monetize attention
    • Re-invest in increased quality
    • Build a brand
    • Build further exposure
    • Monetize more attention
    • Re-invest in increased quality

    The broken piggy bank in the above cycle highlights the break that exists in the process to building a big brand. It is quite hard to have any level of certainty in the search ecosystem with an algorithm like Panda. Without that level of certainty companies must build from low cost structures, but that very constraint makes them more likely to get hit by an algorithm or search engineer.

    Pricing Risk

    Being an entrepreneur is all about taking smart calculated bets & managing risk. However as search engines become closed off portals that compete with (& exclude) publishers, there are so many unknowns that estimating risk is exceptionally challenging.

    Penalties: How Hard Were They Hit?

    • Years ago when BMW or Wordpress.org got caught spamming aggressively they were back in good graces in a mater of days.
    • About the only times well known (non-affiliate) sites have been penalized for a significant duration was when JC Penney & Overstock.com were hit. But that happened around the time of the Panda fiasco & Google had incentive to show who was boss. When the flower sites were outed for massive link buying that was ignored because Google had already rolled out Panda & reasserted the perception of their brand.
    • When Google was caught buying links (again) to promote Google's Chrome browser & that story spread widely throughout the mainstream press, Googlers lied & claimed there was only 1 paid link in 1 single page & penalized a single page of their site. Small website owners that have been caught in similar link buying (or selling) campaigns have been hit much harder. Remember the above story about the bloggers blogging about K-Mart? So far this year Google has sent webmasters over 700,000 messages in Google Webmaster Central.

    1 Strike - You're Out

    In 2009 Google banned over 30,000 affiliates from the AdWords auction. In some cases the problem was not with a current ad (or even a landing page the advertiser controlled), but rather ads that ran years ago promoting 3rd party products. In some cases Google changed their AdWords TOS after the fact in an ex post facto style. Google won't allow some of these advertisers to advertise unless they fix the landing page, but if they don't control the landing page they can't ever fix the problem. Making things worse, to this day Google still suggests affiliates do direct linking. But if the company they promote gets bought out by someone too aggressive then that affiliate could be waiting for a lifetime ban through no fault of their own.

    A popular programmer who has been an AdSense publisher for 8 years had their AdSense account arbitrarily suspended without warning. After an ex-Googler expressed outrage over the issue he was able to get his AdSense account reactivated. A publisher without those friendships would have been done.

    In Australia a small travel site had a similar issue with AdSense. The only way they were able to get a reconsideration was to lodge a formal complaint with regulators. If that is how Google treats their business partners, it colors how they view non-business partners who monetize traffic without giving Google a taste of the revenues.

    Why Does Google Lean Into Brand?

    • Minimize legal risks: if they hit small businesses almost nobody will see/notice/care, but big businesses are flush with cash and political connections. When Google hits big businesses they create organizations & movements like Fair Search & Search Neutrality.
    • Minimize duplication: some small businesses & affiliates simply repeat offers that exist on larger merchant sites. That said, many big businesses buy out a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th site in a vertical to have multiple placements in the search results.
    • Better user experience: the theory is that the larger sites have more data and capital to improve user experience, but they don't always do it.
    • Business partnerships: if Google wants to strike up closed door business partnerships with big business then some of those negotiations will have specific terms attached to them. It costs Google nothing to give away part of the organic results as part of some custom deals. If Google wants to sell TV ads & run a media streaming device they need to play well with brands.
    • CPA-based product ads: on some searches Google provides CPA-based product ads above the search results. It makes sense for Google to promote those who are buying their ads to get the best relationships possible.
    • Fewer people tasting the revenues: the fewer organizations an ecosystem needs to support the more of the profits from that ecosystem that can be kept by the manager.
    • More complete ad cycle: if Google caters to direct response advertisers they get to monetize the demand fulfillment of demand, however that is only a small slice of the complete ad cycle. If Google caters to brands they get to monetize (directly or indirectly) every piece of the ad cycle. For example, buying display ads helps build brand searches which helps create brand signals. In such a way, improved rankings in the organic results subsidize ad buying.
      • Attention
      • Interest
      • Desire
      • Action
      • Satisfaction
    • Brands buying their equity: Google has create exceptionally large ad units & has convinced many brands to buy their own pre-existing brand equity.

    Lack of Diversity

    The big issue with brand bias is that a lot of the same *types* of companies rank with roughly similar consumer experiences. If there is a mix of large and small businesses that rank then many of those small businesses will be able to differentiate their offering by adding services to their products, doing in-depth reviews, and so on.

    Sure Zappos is a big company known for customer service, but how different is the consumer-facing experience if I click on Target.com or Walmart.com? Sure the text on the page may be slightly different, but is there any real difference beyond aesthetic? Further, a lot of the business models built around strong in-depth editorial reviews & comparisons are eroded by the current algorithms. If the consumer reviews are not good enough, then tough luck!

    Do Brands Always Provide a Better User Experience?

    Some larger retailers track people in ways that are creepy:

    For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. "If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we've sent you or visit our Web site, we'll record it and link it to your Guest ID," Pole said. "We want to know everything we can."

    Many big media companies provided watered down versions of their content online because they don't want to cannibalize their offline channels. Likewise some large stores may consider their website an afterthought. When I wanted to order my wife a specific shoe directly from the brand they didn't have customer support open for extended hours during the holidays and their shopping cart kept kicking an error. Since they *are* the brand, that brand strength allows them to get away with other issues that need fixed.

    Some of those same sites carry huge AdSense ad blocks on the category pages & have funky technical issues which act like doorway pages & force users who are using any browser to go through their homepage if they land on a deep page.

    Missing the Target indeed.

    That above "screw you" redirect error has been going on literally for weeks now, with Target's webmaster asleep at the wheel. Perhaps they want you to navigate their site by internal search so they can track every character you type.

    Riding The Waves

    With SEO many aggressive techniques work for a period of time & then suddenly stop working. Every so often there are major changes like the Florida update & the Panda update, but in between these there are other smaller algorithmic updates that aim to fill in the holes until a big change comes about.

    No matter what Google promotes, they will always have some gaps & relevancy issues. Some businesses that "ignore the algorithms and focus on the user" are likely to run on thinner margins than those who understand where they algorithms are headed. Those thin margins can quickly turn negative if either Google enters your niche or top competitors keep reinvesting in growth to buy more marketshare.

    Profit Potential

    Given the above pattern - where trends spread until they get hit hard - those who quickly figure out where the algorithms are going & where there are opportunities have plenty of time to monetize their efforts. Whereas if you have to wait until things are widely spread on SEO blogs as common "tricks of the trade" or wait until a Google engineer explicitly confirms something then you are likely only going to be adopting techniques and strategies after most of the profit potential is sucked out of them, just before the goal posts move yet again.

    People who cloned some of the most profitable eHow articles years ago had plenty of time to profit before the content farm business model got hit. Those who waited until Demand Media spelled their business model out in a Wired article had about 1.5 years until the hammer. Those who waited until the content farm controversy started creating a public relations issue to clone the model may have only had a couple months of enhanced revenues before their site got hit & was worse off than before they chased the algorithm late in the game.

    Ride The Brand

    If Google does over-represent established branded websites in their algorithms then in many cases it will be far easier to rank a Facebook notes page or a YouTube video than to try to rank a new site from scratch. There are a ton of web 2.0 sites driven by user generated content.

    In addition to those sorts of sites, also consider participating in industry websites in your niche & buying presell pages on sites that rank especially well.

    Collecting (& Abusing) User Data

    Google has been repeatedly branded as being a bit creepy for their interest in user tracking.

    Their latest privacy policy change was rolled out in spite of EU warnings that it might not comply with the law.

    Collecting that data & using it for ad targeting can have profound personal implications (think of serving a girl with anorexia ads about losing weight everywhere she goes online, simply because she clicks the ad, in such a case Google reinforces a warped worldview). Then when the person needs counseling Google can recommend a service provider there as well. ;)

    Trust in Google's ability to do the right thing would be greater if they were not caught in that drug sting selling ads to fake Mexican pharmacies selling illicit products, a practice they were involved in before going public.

    They also take aggregate collected data and sell it off to banksters.

    Google as Content Host (& Merchant)

    Throughout the history of the web there will be many cycles between open and closed ecosystems. Currently we are cycling toward closed silos (Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook). As these silos become more closed off they will end up leaving gaps that create new opportunities.

    Google has been pushing aggressively for years to host content & crowd out the organic search results.

    While on one front Google keeps making it easier for brands to compete against non-brands, Google also keeps clawing back a bigger slice of that branded traffic through larger AdWords ad units & integration of listings from services like Google+, which can in some cases outrank the actual brand.

    Google has multiple platforms (Android Marketplace, Chrome Marketplace, Enterprise Marketplace) competing against iTunes. Google recently decided to merge some of their offerings into Google Play. In addition to games, music & books, Play will soon include audiobooks, magazines & other content formats.

    Google also wants to compete against Amazon.com to launch an Amazon Prime-like delivery service.

    Having a brand & following will still be important for allowing premium rates, fatter margins, building non-search distribution (which can be used to influence the "relevancy" signals), and to help overturn manual editorial interventions. But algorithmically brand emphasis will peak in the next year or two as Google comes to appreciate that they have excessively consolidated some markets and made it too hard for themselves to break into those markets. (Recall how Google came up with their QDF algorithm only *after* Google Finance wasn't able to rank). At that point in time Google will push their own verticals more aggressively & launch some aggressive public relations campaigns about helping small businesses succeed online.

    Once Google is the merchant of record, almost everyone is just an affiliate, especially in digital marketplaces with digital delivery.

    Is Bryson Meunier Full Of Manure? Learn Why SEO Consultants Push Brand

    At SMX I gave a presentation on brand & how Google has biased the algorithms toward brands. having already seeing the bulk of my argument months prior, Bryson Meunier spoke after me and put together a presentation that used bogus statistics & was basically a smear of me. He was so over the top with his obnoxious behavior that when Danny Sullivan mentioned the next speaker after him he jokingly said "up next, Ron Paul."

    I honestly thought the point of the discussion was to highlight how Google has (or hasn't) biased the algorithms, editorial policies & search interface toward brands. However, if a person speaks after you and uses bogus statistics to reach junk conclusions, you can't debunk their aggregate information until after you have looked into it some. An honest person can put what they know out there & share it publicly in advanced, a dishonest person hides behind junk research and the label of science to ram through poorly thought out trash, collecting whatever "data" confirms their own bias while ignorning the pieces of reality that don't.

    • As an example, he suggested that based on the number of employees and revenues Wikipedia is a small business. He then went on to say that since Wikipedia wasn't on Interbrand's "scientific" study that they were not a top brand. Nevermind that no countries, religions, sports, celebrities, or non-profits make the list of top "companies."
    • After IAC figured out that they were able to get away with running Ask.com as a thin scraper site, they outsourced "the algorithm" and fired many of their employees. Because they have fewer employees, Bryson considers Ask as "a mid-sized business" even though they are part of a multi-billion Dollar company and IAC is Google's #1 advertiser!
    • According to Compete's downstream traffic stats, YouTube receives about 1 in 13 search clicks from Google, but since it wasn't on Interbrand's list "who cares?" Incidentally, the folks at Interbrand do have a mention of YouTube on their top 100 brands page, but it was a suggestion that you watch their videos on YouTube. Their methodology is so suspect that Goldman Sachs and Yahoo! made the cut while YouTube didn't, even though YouTube is one of their few offsite promotional channels they promote on that very page. Their list also puts Microsoft's brand value at about double Apple's (and the list came out when Steve Jobs was still alive).
    • Bryson also claimed that since big brands are inefficient and slow moving they already have a big disadvantage so it makes sense for search engines to compensate for that. That is at best an illegitimate line of reasoning because those companies have plenty of solutions available to them & have the capital needed to buy out competitors. Even when the SERPs look independent, a lot of the listed sites are owned by large conglomorates. As an example, here is a random search from earlier today:

      Meanwhile the same idiotic logic ignores the lack of resources at small businesses. Nowhere in his presentation was a highlight of how Google favored affiliates & direct marketers until the profit margins of the direct response marketing model started to peak & then Google transitioned to promoting brands, as they wanted to keep increasing revenues and monetize more clicks.
    • Bryson also shared an example of where he got a photo sharing site 40,000 unique visitors a month as a case study of the power of white hat SEO. 40,000 monthly visits to a photo sharing site might fund a light Starbucks addiction (assuming you value your time at nothing, have no employees, ignore hosting costs and the SEO is free), but not much beyond that. If that is a success case study, that shows how much harder the ecosystem is getting to operate in as a small business.
    • He also put out a painfully fluffy "white paper" / sales letter which stated that since Wal-Mart has a page about SEO they should outrank seobook on "SEO" related queries if my theories of brand bias are correct. That misses the point entirely. I never stated that garbage content on branded sites always outperforms quality content on niche sites, but rather that a lot of smaller websites were intentionally being squeezed out of the ecosystem. Sure some small sites manage to compete, but the odds of them succeeding today are much lower than they were 3 or 4 years ago.
    • At SMX near the end of our session a question was asked about the audience composition & most people were either big brands or people working for big brands. If you go back to when I first got into SEO in 2003 the audience composition was almost entirely small publishers and independent SEOs. This squeezing out of small players is not something new to search or the web. If you look at the history of any modern communications network this cycle has repeated itself in every single medium - phone, radio, television, and the web.

    To be fair, I can understand why a no-name also ran SEO consultant would want to pitch himself for being up for doing SEO work for large brands. Brands generally have fatter margins, economies of scale, and large budgets. As Google tilts the algorithm toward the big brands (to where they can fall over the finish line in first place) they are the best clients to work for, since you are swimming downstream.

    Why push huge boulders up the side of the mountain for crumbs when you can get paid far more to blow on a snowflake at the top of the mountain?

    That is why so many SEOs fawn over trying to get brand clients. The work is high-paying, low risk, and relatively easy.

    If we were ever to close up our membership site & focus primarily on SEO consulting work in more structured arrangements then absolutely we would aim at brands & help them fall over the finsh line in first place. ;)

    Back when I worked with Clientside SEM we did a good number of big brand projects with some of the largest online portals & retailers. Understanding the business objectives & communicating things in a way that builds buy in from other departments is of course challenging. You need simplicity & directness without oversimplifying. But (if you work for great clients - like we did), then that is nowhere near as challenging as building a site from scratch into something that can compete for lucrative keywords. I recently stepped back from the client consulting model for a bit simply because I was pulling myself in too many directions & working too long, but Scott is still flourishing & delivering excellent results for clients.

    I have nothing against the concept of branding (think of how many years I slaved building up this site & the capital I have poured into it), but I like to share the trends in the ecosystem as they are, rather than as a hack warping my view to try to pick up consulting clients. Our site would likely make far more income if we kept using the words "enterprise" "brand" "fortune 500" and then sold consulting to that target audience. In fact, a large % of our members here are fortune 500s, conglomerates, newspaper chains, magazine publishers, and so on.

    It is not that brand counts for nothing (or that it should count for nothing) but anyone who claims the table isn't tilted is either ignorant, a liar, or both.

    Truth has to count for something.

    Disclaimer: I am not saying enterprise SEO is always easy (there are real challenges, especially with internal politics that add arbitrary constraints). And I am not saying that everyone who targets the enterprise market is a hack (there are some super talented folks out there). But the challenge of being a profitable small webmaster is much more of a struggle than ranking a site that Google is intentionally biasing their algorithms toward promoting.

    Disclaimer2: I realize refuting a douchebag like Bryson Meunier is batting below my league, however as a matter of principal I won't let sleazeballs get away with taking a swipe using junk science. The word science deserves better than that.

    Maximizing Google Analytics Insight for SEO with Custom Reports

    Mar 5th

    Google Analytics - one of the most powerful tools for any SEO, assuming you know how to get the data you need from it. One of my favorite things about Google Analytics is how many tools that put at your disposal for quickly analyzing the data you care most about. But again, that all assumes you know how to get it.

    A custom report in Google Analytics is similar to their custom dashboard features in a lot of ways. Remember, the dashboards are meant as snapshots of what's going on with your campaign, these custom reports are what you should be using to fully analyze the results.

    Custom Report Categories

    To start, you should consider setting up Custom Report categories to organize your reports by subject. You will find this to be the most aggravating/irritating/infuriating part of the process as you attempt to drag your first custom report into your new category folder. The secret is to drag your report slightly to the right while hovering over the category you want to place it in. Then let go and hope for the best. Once you have one report in there it gets much easier.

    Creating a Custom Report

    There are two key components to a custom report:

    1. Metric: a numeric measurement (like number of visits).
    2. Dimension: a description of visits, visitors, pages, products and events.

    There are also two types of Custom Reports you can create:

    1. Explorer: Allows you to drill down into sub-dimensions and includes a timeline where you can compare metrics in the same graph.
    2. Table: Allows you to compare dimensions side by side, with metrics also populated within the table. There is no timeline in this report.

    Creating the custom report is easy. You choose from a drop-down menu of metrics and dimensions that you're interested in segmenting your report by.

    Creating a Custom Report

    You can also create tabs in your report to keep it organized. Any filters you setup on one tab will automatically apply to any other tab that you setup (there isn't a way to turn them off for the other tabs).

    Another great feature of custom reports is your ability to use them cross-profile and to share them. To share a report, all you need to do is click the Actions drop-down menu from the Custom Reports overview page, and click share. You will then be able to share the configuration (not the data) of the custom report you just created.

    Sharing Custom Reports

    SEO Custom Report Examples

    If you'd like to save time in your SEO analysis, consider creating custom reports similar to the ones outlined below. I've included the share link for each custom report so you don't have to rebuild it yourself. I tried to mix up when I'd tailor the report to look at e-commerce data, and when it would only look at goal data. You'll need to customize those aspects of the report to best meet your needs.

    Also, don't forget to modify the keyword filters I've added. You want to make sure to replace our branded keyword (book) with your own.

    Audience Custom Report

    Understanding your audience's demographics is an often overlooked SEO practice, but it can go a long way in making certain aspects of SEO (like link building) that much easier.

    Audience Custom Report

    There are two components to this custom report:

    1. City and Language Overview - this part of the report looks at what cities and languages you receive the most visits from and make the most money off of. You may be surprised to see languages your site isn't even translated in yet that are very profitable.
    2. Keyword Targeting - this part of the report lets you drill down all the way to the keywords that are used by each country and language visitor demographic, and calls out how profitable they are for you. This is a great way to refine your keyword targeting.

    How this can help you from a link building front is seeing what foreign languages your blog/linkbait content is most popular in, and then translating it. You could then distribute the translated content for links to popular industry blogs in that language.

    Add the Audience Custom Report to Google Analytics

    Content Custom Report

    The purpose of the Content Custom Report is to identify which content is performing the best with organic traffic. I've set this report up as a Explorer Custom Report so you can drill down and see which keywords are sending traffic to a specific Landing Page. This is a great way to make sure you're targeting the right keywords on the right pages in your SEO campaign.

    Content Custom Report

    There are a number of engagement metrics I have this report looking at. One in particular I think is important to have with this report is the Social Actions metric. This is a great way to see if the number of social actions correlates with increases in traffic and conversions.

    You might consider adding an additional filter (or creating a new custom report) that only looks at your blog content. I'd keep similar metrics in the report so you can quickly identify which blog posts perform the best so you can try and duplicate the results in future content. You may also want to add any event goals you've created to the report, especially if you've set up a event to track comments on your posts.

    Add the Content Custom Report to Google Analytics

    Keyword Analysis Custom Report

    I think this is one of the most valuable custom reports you can run, and it's one of the bigger custom reports that I like to create in my accounts. There are three components to the report: targeting, engagement and revenue.

    Keyword Analysis Custom Report

    Targeting
    This part of the report is pretty straight forward. It's a Flat Table report that places the Page Title and the Keyword that is sending it traffic side-by-side. From there I've added a handful of metrics to determine if I am targeting the right keyword on the right page. Perhaps I'm getting a lot of traffic for this particular keyword, but the majority of people are going elsewhere and/or not converting. This may lead me to do some testing around changing which page I'm optimizing for this particular keyword.

    Engagement
    Similar to the Content Custom Report, this component focuses on how engaging visitors are when they visit the site via a specific keyword. I love traffic just as much as the next guy, but if that traffic isn't doing anything on my site - what good is it? This report will help you identify problems and opportunities for keywords that have low/high engagement rates.

    Revenue
    Just how much money is a keyword making you? This component of the report looks at the number of transactions, the revenue generated and the per visit value of organic traffic for each keyword.

    Add the Keyword Analysis Custom Report to Google Analytics

    Link Analysis Custom Report

    Which of the inbound links that you've built are sending you the most quality traffic? Don't forget, there's much more to links than rankings, they are also opportunities for sending high quality traffic to your site that may even convert.

    This custom report looks at which of your referrals are sending you the most engaging traffic. Knowing which links are sending you the most quality traffic will help you determine if you should be going back for more or if you can find other sites just like it to get links set up on.

    Link Analysis Custom Report

    If you're investing a lot of time in getting specific links built, you may even consider tagging them with Google's URL builder tool. This will allow you to track the effectiveness of your link building campaign.

    Add the Link Analysis Custom Report to Google Analytics

    PPC Content Custom Report

    I'm a big fan of using paid search as a way to test which landing pages you want to target your keywords on for relevance. The goal of the test is to determine if you were to target a specific keyword on that page, would the visitor find what they are looking for and convert? This is a great way to minimize the risk of focusing on the wrong keyword on the wrong page and investing months of SEO work to get it traffic.

    PPC Content Custom Report

    You can use this custom report to look at just that: which keyword/landing page combinations are the most effective from a revenue perspective. Even if you don't run a test like the one I just described, you can still get a pretty good grasp on this just by pulling the report and looking for these opportunities.

    Add the PPC Content Custom Report to Google Analytics

    PPC Keywords Custom Report

    Continuing with our holistic custom reports, the goal of the PPC keywords custom report is simple: identify high performing keywords from your paid search campaigns that you could consider targeting in your SEO campaign.

    PPC Keywords Custom Report

    The report calls out a couple qualifier metrics, including how much money bidding on the keyword is costing you, and what your cost per conversion is. This is a great way to decide if you can't afford to target the keyword via PPC, can you make up the loss of traffic via SEO?

    Add the PPC Keywords Custom Report to Google Analytics

    Social Media Custom Report

    We've seen the influence social media has on SEO, and now it's time to make sure we're well-informed of any social media data that can be leveraged to improve our campaigns.

    This report uses a filter created by Site Visibility to look at all referring traffic from a variety of top social sources. With this filter applied you can look at which social traffic is most engaged with your content.

    Social Media Custom Report

    If you're tracking social actions you can quickly see which content you've created is being shared the most, so you can figure out what they like about the content and duplicate the results.

    I also like to see which social media is converting the best so I can determine if we should be increasing our participation efforts on that social network, or even start experimenting with advertising on that social network.

    Add the Social Media Custom Report to Google Analytics

    So there you have it, seven custom reports to help you analyze your analytics data faster and easier. What other SEO-focused custom reports have you found valuable?

    Tracking Micro Conversions with Event Tracking for Improving SEO Campaigns

    Feb 28th

    Conversions. The one metric we all know we should be focusing on, and yet it's the one thing that gets overlooked the most. So many of us focus on just one main conversion point, and forget how many other types of visitor engagement exist on our sites. These other engagement points, or less-important conversions are what experts call "micro conversions."

    World-renowned analytics expert Avinash Kaushik is a strong supporter of the use of micro conversions. In his Excellent Analytics Tip series, he explains the benefits of tracking both micro and macro conversions:

    3. It will force you to understand the multiple persona's on your website, trust me that in of itself is worth a million bucks. It will encourage you to segment (my favorite activity) visitors and visits and behavior and outcomes. Success will be yours.

    When you understand your various visitor personas, you can create better targeted content, value-adds and better messaging overall. This will only strengthen your SEO campaign and will help guide you to improving your conversion rate and the ROI of your SEO efforts.

    Event Tracking in Google Analytics

    One of my favorite ways to track micro conversions is with event tracking in Google Analytics. Before I walk you through how to setup events, let's first make sure we understand the difference between events and your traditional goals in Google Analytics.

    In the past, a goal in Google Analytics was when any action a visitor would take on your site that took them to a confirmation page. When the visitor reached that confirmation page, Google Analytics would count it as a goal completion.

    An event, on the other hand, is when a visitor takes action on your site and there is no confirmation page. A good example of this would be when someone clicks a "Follow Me on Twitter" link on your site. It takes the visitor off of your website and makes you unable to add conversion tracking code to their destination page (because it lives on Twitter.com).

    In addition to bringing us cool features like custom dashboards, the new Google Analytics also made it much easier to track events as goals. Which is what we'll be focusing on today.

    Setting Up an Event

    Events are much easier to setup then you might imagine. All you need to do is add a little piece of customized code to the URL a visitor will be clicking on to trigger the event, and you're halfway there. Let's start with understanding what our event tracking options are.

    There are five fields in total that you can use to categorize your event, two of which are optional:

    • Category: The general name of the type of event you wish to track. If you'll be setting up events of a similar topic (like form submissions), you'll want to keep this consistent across all of the events you setup.
    • Action: A description of the action the visitor is taking to trigger the event. So if your category is set to "Forms", your action might be set to "Sales Inquiry".
    • Label: This is an optional field used to further describe the type of event. If you're tracking multiple forms of the same type (like contact forms), you may consider using this field to avoid any confusion with the other events.
    • Value: Suppose each micro conversion does have a monetary value of sorts for you, this is the field you'd use to track that numeric number.
    • Non-Interaction: A true/false field that you can use to prevent a visitor who completes the event and leaves your domain from being recorded as a bounce in Google Analytics

    Still with me? Now here comes the fun part: building the event tracking script.

    The framework of your event tracking script looks like this:

    onClick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'Category', 'Action', 'Label', Value, false]);"

    There are a couple of things you need to remember when you customize the various fields in the script (e.g. "Category"):

    • You must fill in the Category, Action and Non-Interaction fields
    • The Value and Non-Interaction fields do not have a single quote around around them like the others
    • If you choose to omit the Label or Value fields, also omit the single quote but not the comma that separates them from the other fields. In this example I've ommitted both fields, but not their commas:

    • onClick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'Category', 'Action',,, false]);"

    • The Non-Interaction field can only be set to true or false (remember: no quotes!)

    Now that you've set up the script, you should place it within the href component of any link you are setting up. Here's an example of what it would look like:

    <a href="http://twitter.com/seobook" onClick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'Category', 'Action', 'Label', Value, false]);">Follow us on Twitter!</a>

    The final piece of the puzzle is adding the event as a goal in Google Analytics.

    1. Click the gear icon in the upper right corner of the Google Analytics profile you're setting up the goal in
    2. Using the sub-navigation where your Profile information is listed, select the Goals tab
    3. Choose the goal set you wish to add the event to (I like to categorize my goal sets)
    4. After you name your goal, select the Event radio button
    5. You now need to populate the event details exactly how you set them up in your script. If you omitted a field, just leave it blank

    Event Tracking

    You've now setup your event as a goal!

    Types of SEO Micro Conversions

    Now that the hard part is out of the way, let's brainstorm some micro conversions we could be tracking.

    Social Engagement

    You can use event tracking to track Share This links and blog comments. That way you can quickly see which content has the highest engagement so you can build more of it.

    Affiliate Links and Ads

    You may also wish to track when someone clicks one of your affiliate links or a banner you have on your site. This is a great opportunity to take advantage of the Value field so you can keep track of how much each of those clicks are worth (and perhaps double-check that you're getting paid the right amount).

    Downloads

    If your site has white papers, presentations, video, audio or any other type of file that users can download, you can easily keep track of those downloads with event tracking.

    Follow Me/Like Us Links

    If one of your macro conversion goals is brand awareness, you should consider adding an event whenever someone clicks a "follow me on Twitter" or "Like us on Facebook" link on your site. That way you can track back the source of those follows/likes to SEO.

    Live Chats & Customer Support

    Many service companies still utilize live chat to quickly address customer inquiries and problems. When someone clicks the live chat link, you can trigger an event to count it as a goal completion.

    Additionally, if you use a third party customer support center, you can trigger an event whenever a user clicks the outbound links for those services.

    These are just a few of the micro conversions you could be tracking on your site. While every site is different and is interested in tracking different things, hopefully this will give you a few ideas of additional conversion points you could be looking at to better understand your audience. The better we understand our visitors, the better job we can do as SEOs to attract more of them.

    Interview with Local Marketing Experts Jake Puhl & Adam Zilko

    Feb 27th
    posted in

    Local SEO Interview.

    This is Eric here at SEO Book and today we're going to be talking all things local search with a couple of local search experts from Firegang.com.

    Jacob Puhl and Adam Zilko are joining us today, thanks for the time guys and we are thrilled to have you here.

    Adam: Thank you.

    Jacob: Thank you.

    For our readers (and listeners), this is quite a deep, informational interview so we've added a couple things to make the information perhaps a bit easier to digest.

    Below is an mp3 file which you can download or listen to at your leisure, and I've included links below to make it easier for you to jump back and forth between specific questions/answers. Also, there is a resource section at the end which contains links to any tool or resource mentioned in the post.

    MP3 Download

    (To Download just right-click and "save link as" locally)

    Play File (mp3 link)

    Eric: All right, so we've got a lot of questions to get through, here, so I'm going to jump right in. They're actually members here in the SEO Book Forums, and anybody who's listening to this who is a member has probably been amazed at some of the information that they give out. They're definitely experts at this, so we're happy to have them on and get some answers to some of the questions that you folks have been asking.

    Interview Sections

    Back to Mp3 Download

    Local Keyword Research

    Back to Topics

    So I think we'll start with probably a broader question that a lot of people have questions about typically. Running a local SEO campaign, the first part obviously, is how do you go about conducting your initial keyword research for a new site or an existing site? As we know, volume and information tends to be sparse. Do you have specific tools that you use? Do you look at competing sites? How do you do that?

    Adam: I can take that, sure. So what we do, if we don't have the data already, of course, is we try to assess competitive sites. We base keywords around services. So if you're, let's say, an attorney practicing in personal injury, then you have certain things you would focus on: car accidents, worker's compensation, to a degree, or wrongful death or things to that effect. So what we do is we build keywords around those service areas. The same thing with dentists: emergency dentistry, orthodontics, root canals, the list goes on basically.

    And then what we also have is an in depth intake form that all of our clients are required to fill out when we bring them on. So essentially what they do is they go through and they give us all of the services that they offer and then they tell us how they would search for them. That gives us a base for us to then start doing some research with. Then basically, from the services they mentioned, we can assess variations and if we need to, we can look at large markets and try to assess background profiles, basically based on their anchor text profiling and so on. And then we also try to look at their sites to see how they laid them out. If they've done it right, we can see what key phrases they've built their page copy around and their URL structure around and so on.

    Jacob: And carrying on with that, we also look at... Usually clients have Google Analytics already installed, so if they give us access to that, we can pull the past year and see what kind of long-tail traffic that they've just happened to pick up, so that gives us a good indication there.

    And then regarding keyword volume, that's an interesting one. Obviously, the best way and the most accurate way is to run a Pay-Per-Click campaign. We've run so many Pay-Per-Click campaigns in different cities that we have an idea based on population and based on business sector how much volume there is out there.

    So, for example, we'll take Cincinnati. There's about 1.7 million people here, and we know that a roofer, the roofing industry, there's about 30,000 searches there. I know that, just from past experience, for example, dry cleaners, there's about 5,000 searches. So you can use that to gauge, and then extrapolate on that, based on population size. And you're making assumptions here, but let's say that in a town that's smaller than that, half that size, then you can assume that there is half that volume.

    The other thing is looking at Impressions for Google Places. So we'll take a look at different clients in different industries. For example, Population 2 million. We may have about 1,000 to 1,500 Impressions on a fairly high ranking dentist, for example. So those are ways to really gauge different markets and then take population to create ratios and extrapolate that.

    Using PPC for Local SEO Campaigns

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    Eric: Interesting. So you did mention PPC in there a little bit. I wanted to piggy back on that. Do you find that PPC is crucial for keyword research? Or is it more important on a new site versus an old site? Or does your model of sort of having this data about core industries based on your experience outweigh that a little bit? Or do you find that clients aren't willing to spend that money up front for PPC or how does that usually work?

    Adam: I'll take that. So, PPC isn't terribly important to do this whole process. We have a lot of experience knowing or having a good idea as to what services that clients will typically try to focus on for your main headings; your dentists, your attorneys, and so on. So we have a good feel as to what people typically search for when it comes to those. But again, we just try to focus everything back around those main services that those clients offer, and what those... You know, if you were to just section those out, PPC really isn't going to tell you anything more than what you should already have a good idea of.

    So when we have our core keywords, let's say for instance it was cosmetic dentistry in a given geographical market; what we can do is we can write out a page copy and whatnot and try to build a backlink profile with diversity in those keywords. But we don't need a Pay-Per-Click to tell us that people look for cosmetic dentistry if that's something that the client does, because there's only going to be so many variations to a decent degree of that: teeth whitening maybe, Zoom, Ambizonline, things to that effect, if they offer those services. If they don't, then obviously you're not going to go after that.

    So that just directly ties into your anchor text and we try to basically internally link our backlink profiles and our anchor texts to those pages that are actually built around those specific keywords, if that makes sense. Tell me if it doesn't.

    Leveraging Market Knowledge for Keyword Research

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    Eric: No, it does. So you've got, say, for instance, you know, the core keywords sort of don't change from market to market, it's just obviously the geographical targeting, so it's not so much the volume. I mean, the volume is going to be what it's going to be. You're more interested in finding out what's actually relevant to the business and going from there, because you can't change the volume, but you can make sure at least the campaign is as targeted as possible.

    Adam: Right, and we'll still take their main services and run them through Google's Keyword tools or other tools that we have and we'll check other... I mean, depending on which market, some markets might type in dentists + city and other markets might more heavily type in the city + dentist. So we take that into effect. It typically is not the variation isn't so much that we don't have a good base to start with, if that makes sense.

    Eric: Right, yeah.

    Jacob: I would add to that too; sometimes we can comb through some of the long-tail in Pay-Per-Click and basically just see some insights that we didn't see before. For example, with a dentist, we've found that people are actually searching by insurance type, so we found those to be really fruitful keywords for us. A lot of times, just brand names, let's say you have Interior Designer or Interior Decorator, we find through Pay-Per-Click that they would search brand names. Each industry does have some long-tail out there that is easily discoverable through Pay-Per-Click, however, the business owner 9 times out of 10 can tell you those right off the bat.

    Eric: Right. So it's more of interviewing a little bit too, rather than going right to the keyword tool.

    Jacob: Right.

    Organic Strategy vs Places

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    Eric: So after you get into the keyword research and you look at the different things, obviously a big thing that you must deal with or that you have to deal with now is localization, specifically with maps. We get a lot of questions on ranking in maps, how that differs from ranking in the traditional search, if in some cases you can even tell the difference anymore. So what would you say the key differences are between the two when you're looking at your organic campaign versus your maps campaign?

    Adam: Right, and I'd like to preface this; we do have national clients, we have several of them, and we do have some real life examples as to the differences between the two. But with the maps, there's far more variations that you have to deal with. Organically, you can link build and assuming that you did it right, you can see a steady increase in results. But with the maps, you've got to worry road citations, dealing with Google's terms of service when optimizing your proximity results.

    So recently Google was showing maybe just a downtown of a city versus entire cities, so let's say you have an attorney that was just outside the downtown radius, they wouldn't show up anymore, so how do you deal with that? And again, there's no manual. Google doesn't say that, "Hey, we've just come out and changed these." You'll just wake up one day and the maps listings will be completely different.

    And so the main difference really is the ongoing management of your citations, and you've just got to try to watch it and watch it and watch it and when something changes, hope that you really already understand it. If not, then you've really got to network or just do a ton of research, get on the Google Places forums and really try to figure out what's going on and see if you can make some sort of effect.

    If Google goes to, let's say, a blended pack versus a seven pack, everything really changes and so then you attack that differently. Again, it's just a little bit more difficult to manage because of all the different variations you're now dealing with. There's not as much data out there as to how to handle these variations, so if Google were to change things, at any minute... We just saw them change a bunch of things in the last two weeks, and nobody saw it coming. It's just trying to kind of be a little reactive to it and try to make heads and tails of it so you can effectively get your clients to rank within those.

    Jacob: I want to add too, one thing we've found is if there is confusion with your name, address, phone number, any confusion whatsoever, really, it's going to act as a complete weight on your listing and traffic, long-tail and maps traffic. So the number one thing is to get all of your data exactly the same across the board, otherwise, you're going to be completely held down.

    Call Tracking Recommendations (Or Not?)

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    Eric: Yeah, we do see that a lot, especially with people who are trying to do campaigns with different phone number tracking, where they put different phone numbers in yellow and all these different places. Do you have anything? Do you use a specific type of call tracking application?

    Adam: No, we completely recommend against it, absolutely 100% against it. Any time you have any variations with your map, your name, your phone number, like Jake said, you're going to weigh down your citations, weigh down your listing, weigh down your trust with Google and that's been a big thing. We've seen, even without any other sort of off page efforts, just by cleaning up your citations across the web, we've seen a significant increase in rankings, many, many times because of that.

    Every now and again, you come across, say, a seven pack with dentists, you see one that maybe doesn't have a website, in a very competitive market. Typically, it's because his citations are so dialed in, he's been in one place for 30 years and the only data out there is exactly the same, so there's a lot of trust with the map. The same kind of rules apply. We completely recommend that you never use a tracking number, and if you have to use one on your site, you put it in the form of an image file, and we'll even go as far as to make the all tag on it their actual phone number. There's just no room for any confusion at all.

    Eric: Right, yeah, you must run into that if you do PPC campaigns and stuff; on landing pages with different numbers and such

    Adam: Right.

    Jacob: Yeah, the service we've used is Ifbyphone, and it seems to work really well.

    Eric: Yep.

    Jacob: But truth be told, it was such a headache that it was not worth it.

    Eric: Yeah, the traffic segments sometimes don't make a lot of sense to even start segmenting it out by phone number. You're just looking to try to get as many leads as you can and the campaigns aren't that much different. You should be able to tell where stuff is coming from in your Analytics, different goals, and things like that.

    Jacob: Also, I would mention too that if you don't use a tracking number, it incentivizes you as an agency and as their partner to really keep good communication up with them. We're constantly calling our customers and asking them how their phone calls are doing, but it's kind of a forced way to keep communication.

    Rank Checking Recommendations

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    Eric: Yeah, clients do like that, that's for sure. Speaking of, you were talking about keeping up on maps and changes and things like that, what type of rank tracking applications do you use to check your organic rankings in conjunction with map inserts and things like that?

    Jacob: Yeah, so that's a really good question and there hasn't been a ton of really good tools up to date, so we've tried almost everything. However, we haven't tried this one yet, but apparently Linda at Catalyst Marketing has come up with a tool called Places Scout, which we're hearing really good things about.

    But we actually track everything at this point manually, so we have an employee go in and change your location to whatever location the city is in and literally manually check it. It actually works really, really well for us because we're able to get a good idea of what the map looks like and make changes. Nothing replaces the human eye, so we do about four to five keywords per client and keep track that way. On the other hand, we keep track of very long-tail keywords through Advanced Web Ranking.

    Eric: Okay, yeah, that's a really popular app here at SEO Book. I know that sometimes too I've noticed between using Advanced Web Ranking, but more so I use Raven Tools, but when they have the blended results, those actually show up. I don't know if they can change the coding of the serves, or how they're doing it, but when it goes blended, it actually shows as an organic ranking in a rank tracker, rather than if it's a map insert.

    So you're right, you're almost better off having someone hand check it, because you don't know what you're looking at. Is this number two ranking a blended map insert or is it an organic ranking or am I ranking number two but there's a ten pack right above me and I don't know it?

    Jacob: Right.

    Adam: Exactly.

    Eric: All right, we'll link to that tool in the summary here. I'll have to check that out. I hadn't heard of that one yet.

    Adam: The Places Scout actually, I have played personally with it and it seems to work pretty well. We do have some of our team testing it at this point, to make sure that it works to what we need it to, but it definitely does allow us to track blended versus seven pack versus other variations to a good degree. So we're not 100% with it yet, but we're working towards it. If it can pan out, then we'll certainly bring it on board.

    Taking Over a Local Campaign, What Usually is Missing

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    Eric: Great, that's a great tip. When you take on a client, what are the two or three processes that you see which are often most neglected inside of a local SEO campaign?

    Jacob: Yeah, so taking on a client and onboarding them is actually interesting. I would say first off, not many small businesses out there right now are hiring folks to do a traditional campaign or to actually handle it day to day, so in that case you just have the business owner or somebody in marketing that's trying to handle it, kind of a do-it-yourself. In those situations, almost everything is neglected, which is good for a company like us, because we can come in and clean things up pretty quickly. So that's the first thing, is you don't really see those situations where there is a lot running.

    The biggest thing is definitely incorrect citations and incorrect data, for sure. So that would be a matter of going to the data sources, Axiom, Localeze, InfoUSA and getting that data correct. And then I would say, in my opinion, one of the biggest pieces that is neglected is the actual website being set up to convert. That means a big phone number, a big call to action, a big contact form everywhere on the site. We don't really see a ton of clients paying attention to that and we've found by just implementing that change they'll see a media increase in leads coming in.

    Eric: Awesome, yeah you're right. When I do searches, it's hard enough to find a local business that even has a website sometimes, right? And then you run into that issue too, where you get on the site and you don't really know what to do; it's hard to find contact information, etc. Those are good points.

    Jacob: I would also add too, Eric, a lot of the technical stuff is improperly managed. A lot of times there's no webmaster tools, there's no KML site maps, there's no site map at all, rich snippets, geomodifiers in the title tags, all of that from A to Z is usually neglected.

    And then one last thing; a lot of times people will try to take a shortcut, whether that be a bulk submission to UBL.org or something like that, and that may work sometimes, but oftentimes it just takes a very manual contacting of every one of these directories, which we see business owners just don't have time to take care of.

    Eric: All right, you're right. A lot of people do just do those mass submissions and then just sort of let it go and they don't really follow up on it, like you said, there's a lot of value in having correct data all over the place and you can't really substitute quality, hand-crafted work with the bulk stuff.

    Adam: Right.

    Duplicate Content Concerns, Same Services in Different Locations

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    Eric: And you're right, they certainly don't have time to do that. Another question that we get pretty often is how you deal with potential duplicate content issues, when you're dealing with say, a dentist who serves four or five different towns. Do you get into multiple sites type thing, multiple pages, how do you handle that?

    Adam: Well, typically most small businesses don't have the budget for multiple websites to be placed for areas that are... Say you're in a metropolitan area that has several sub-areas that you operate in; it really kind of comes down to if you actually have a business address in these other locations or not, if you operate in or around those areas. So that's really going to determine how we go after that.

    And what I mean is if you service people in a large geographical area, you can't necessarily get a Google Places listing in that area unless you have an address. So in that case, all we can do is to try to get your site to rank organically, but we typically can't get you to show up in the Google map because again, you don't have an address there.

    So what we'll try to do is if the areas are very close in proximity, we'll merge those into one page of content on your site, depending on what it is. If it's a sub-section, let's say, if you're a dentist, and you offer IV sedation, then we might put up a URL that says IV sedation in Town A and Town Z or whatever it is.

    However, if it's really a little bit further spaced out or if you really need to differentiate it because of competition or whatever, we may actually build out Town X dentistry and Town Y dentistry, so they're two separate pages on the site and then we attack that. And typically, in that case, that dentist only still has that one address so we'll keep that consistent across the board. But when we build, we'll try to incorporate those key words to the appropriate sub-pages so we can get those to rank appropriately. Typically, that doesn't have any effect on your map listing for the outside area, the other city that they don't exist in.

    Then when you get to the copy, we try to mention all the cities that they serve, and work all of your keywords to make sure that all your geomodifiers are consistent for all the areas that you service, as long as it makes sense. If they're serving national areas, then obviously, that wouldn't work. You'd have to create a bunch of sub-sites, microsites, and approach that differently.

    Marketing Local SEO Services & Client Acquisition Tips

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    Eric: All right, great. I think that covers a lot of the questions that we have on campaign stuff. A lot of the second part here is that we do get a lot of questions on the business side of things. People want to start building a local SEO business and then sort of grow it out from there to where people usually have most of their personal contacts and it's a great way to get started. Certainly, Google is pushing local all over the place, so it's definitely not a bad place to be.

    I think the first question that we would like to ask on that is how do you go about marketing your services and picking up new customers?

    Jacob: So yeah, this is the question we get all the time. It's like the Holy Grail question, right?

    Eric: Yep.

    Jacob: So the small business, or the SMB market, the way I see it is it's notoriously hard to penetrate. If you have a busy attorney, they're not typically on their phone calling out, asking for help for these things, right? So there's two ways to get to them.

    One is kind of the traditional way, which is to cold call them, and that's very, very difficult. However, there have been many companies that are successful doing that, who reach the locals and the yodels of the world are scaling out pretty wide, doing that type of sales. You can maybe pull up the old Yellowpages and see who's got the biggest ads; those folks are typically spending the most money, so they'd be a good place to start.

    However, we don't do that, because that's kind of the shotgun approach. For a smaller agency, we find more success with the rifle approach, which would be personal relationships, networking, establishing yourself in the different communities as an authority.

    One way to do that is to identify these connectors in this industry. Who are in these businesses' offices every day? So if you want to target attorneys, who are in their offices every day? If you want to target restaurants, who are talking to these guys? A lot of times that will be a secret, golden source are actually Yellowpage reps or old Yellowpage reps, because those guys and gals have relationships with so many business owners, I mean very, very personal relationships.

    The same thing with radio reps, radio ad reps, TV reps, even to the point, let's say, dental insurance, or a lot of these dentists will have people coming in selling them software. Those individuals have contacts with all the dentists in the entire city, so if you can get your hands on those folks, the connectors in the small business world, they will no doubt have people you can talk to.

    Eric: Right, and you can also do things like speaking, being active in the business community. Most Small Business communities have a Chamber of Commerce and things like that. If you do speaking engagements there locally, presentations, stuff like that.

    Jacob: Absolutely, stuff like that is probably the second biggest way. So personal contacts, and then speaking at a Chamber. Business owners are thirsting for this information, so most Chambers... And another good one, better than Chambers, are actual industry specific organizations, because you can go and speak to all the storage facility owners in your city, if you can get a hold of the organization that you're in.

    Eric: All right. So now, we've got all these customers with all those great tips.

    Jacob: The phone's ringing off the hook.

    Starting a New Local Business & Key Mistakes to Avoid

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    Eric: Yeah, the phone's off the hook, papers are flying everywhere... What do you see for new folks getting into this, as they're building up a client base, what do you see as the biggest struggle for them?

    Adam: Okay, so the first thing is not cutting corners. It's so easy to take the path of least resistance, but when you do then your results falter, if you will. So the big thing is that you've got to stay diligent, doing what works and doing it 100% of the time and just being really consistent with it, all across the board. And then building scalable systems; it's difficult, but it can be done and it's something that you certainly want to focus on is how can you put practices into place to keep yourself organized, but also be able to replicate those systems across 10, 20, 50, 100 clients so that everything gets done the right way every time and nothing falls through the cracks.

    And then the last big thing that is huge is finding a way to justify yourself when compared to 50 other people who claim to do what you do. These business owners have people beating on their door all the time, so what is it that makes you any better than the rest of them. Coming up with that is something that can be a little difficult, but once you find it, now you have a reason to talk to them that really sets you apart.

    Jacob: To add on that, communication with these guys is really, really big. These business owners are so used to...they've been ripped off a lot in their past by companies calling them from all over the country, promising them the next best thing. But if you can position yourself as their partner and keep constant communication going with them, and somehow scale your business out at the same time, which is the whole conundrum, that will do wonders for client retention and the business owner will hire you.

    For us, for example, we have contracts, but our contracts end, and at that point, it's the business owner's decision to keep on going with us. So we want to create a really high touch environment, where we're contacting them all the time and that leads to a very, very high retention rate.

    Adam: Another item that I would add is crucial for someone getting into this is really try to understand how local works, not just local SEO, but the local market. We don't know it all; we just try to pay really close attention. If we read and test, we're always trying to learn what's going on and we spend a lot of time, for instance, in the Google Places forums, helping and learning, constantly providing insights anywhere we can, and getting feedback from it.

    There's no industry guide put out by Google, so you have to either find someone who can help show you the way (which really doesn't exist in this area; very few people do it and are willing to share it) or you have to make your own path and figure it out as you go. The latter takes time, but it can work as long as you're diligent.

    Like Jake said, these business owners get beat on by hundreds of calls all the time; they're just inundated with it, with emails and other solicitations, so you can't be one of those guys that let's say uses tools that email blast them or just constantly are banging on their door with the same things that everybody else is saying. There really are no shortcuts and these guys just start to turn it off because now we're just looked at as another solicitation phone call, if you will.

    Taking that on to the next step, not all businesses are right for local and internet marketing, so you have to be able to prove your worth and justify your value and that's very difficult to do with businesses that don't focus on services where clients call them or email them. So for an example, it's extremely different to show a direct investment with a restaurant; how are you going to effectively track results? If they say, "Well, what did you do for me?" what can you prove to them other than, "Hey, we increased the traffic to your website"? How can you show that they actually got any business from it, because nobody's answering their phone, they just get foot traffic. Some restaurants, of course, may take reservations or get some calls, but again, it's very difficult to track.

    The next thing would be to find your niche and stick to it. Many companies try to do too much and spread themselves thin, so if you do one thing and you do it well, people will pay for it, and if you do many things mediocre, your term rate will increase and your results won't provide a good return on investment.

    The next thing I would say is to charge what you're worth. Don't think that businesses can't afford what you're doing. If you provide value and if your return on investment is very good, then you're going to be worth quite a bit of money. You look at industries' stats, an average client worth for a dentist could be anywhere from a $1,000 to $1,500. One dentist of ours, his average client worth is $1,434, I believe that is what he just told us. Every client we send him is worth that amount. You can take that into consideration when you're charging what you do; as long as it's fair, then people will pay it.

    Budget Myths

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    Jacob: I was going to say, interesting story there, about not really believing the business owners when they tell you they don't have money, because they will, if it brings them business; any smart person would.

    We had a client that was a prospect at the time, and never spent more than $300 for advertising a month, which was small for the guy. He was spending $40 a month on his website and thought that was too much, but come to find out, his website was a complete duplicate of thousands of other websites, so he was completely de-indexed and had never gotten one lead from the internet. So we went in and quoted him a couple thousand a month, because that was what it was going to take. We showed him exactly how he was going to get a positive ROI on that. Again, he's never spent more than $300 or $400 a month and sure as heck, he went with it, and he's very, very happy, still a client. So, again, don't be afraid to charge what you're worth.

    Eric: Yeah, I think a great point you made (though there were obviously a lot in that), but I think one of the biggest ones is the niche approach. You find certain people, like I know an agency that does work specifically with lawyers, and they do a great job, because they're used to dealing with... If you're somebody who deals with, say, insurance agents all day, and then all of a sudden you take on a lawyer client who's a bulldog, you're going to be like..oh no

    Jacob: Right.

    SEO & Non-SEO Tools the Help with Scaling

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    Eric: It's completely different. And I see that a lot. Some people work just with real estate agents or insurance agents or dentists or things like that, so that's a great point. I think that when we talk about scaling, obviously, and things like that, tools come into play. Everybody likes to talk about tools, right? Everybody wants to know what tools everybody uses. Funny thing is, the best ones are usually ones that are developed in house, and no one ever talks about them.

    Jacob: Right.

    Eric: So what type of tools do you guys use to help scale your business and keep communication flowing and all that?

    Jacob: Yeah, I mean one of the tools we'll use is... The number one tool that we use is Basecamp; I can't say enough about Basecamp. We also use Raven Tools for reporting, which works really, really well. Then internally, we use Google Apps, Google Docs for internal communications and then we also, actually, another one...

    We get every client to sign up for Dropbox. We have them transport files and pictures to use through Dropbox because their website has to have pictures of the proprietary, of their buildings, of their office, their products; so we use Dropbox for that. And we also train our clients to use Jing, a screenshot program, so we communicate with them through that.

    A couple other ones we just started using... A software we just started using is called ProofHQ, for proofing, so that allows our designer to show us proofs and us to comment on it really easily. We use FreshBooks for billing, and it's very, very easy. We use SalesForce.com for all CRM; we use that to manage our email list.

    And then finally, for sales calls, it's important to kind of go out there with information, so if you're going out to see a vet, for example, you want to run his website through maybe Website Grader. We'll use SpyFu, we'll use SEO Screaming Spider to run the website and find any 404 errors and kind of show them, "Hey, look, you have these errors holding you down. Customers are going to these pages and there's nothing on them." Then we'll use Google's keyword tool and Open Site Explorer, to show them why they're not ranking, why their competitors are ranking number one. So those are the tools that we use from day to day.

    Eric: Awesome. So will you join me in the call for Basecamp to integrate Google Docs at some point in the next 10 years?

    Jacob: Yeah. I just read an article that they're coming out with a complete revamped version very soon that hopefully will include that.

    Eric: Yeah, it's funny. I know a lot of people who end up doing their own internal project management app, there's usually a very large group that does that, but Basecamp is, I think of all the pre-built solutions, the best of the bunch. There's just little things, like the Google Docs integration, and the fact that if I was your employee, you go to the Dashboard and you can't see all my to-do's the way that you can see yours.

    Jacob: Yes.

    Eric: So it's just these little things that I hope they change with Basecamp next, because if they do, they've got like 90%.

    Jacob: Seriously. It's great; this ProofHQ, the reason we chose that is because it does actually integrate in with Basecamp very well.

    What are Business Owners Looking For in a Company or Campaign?

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    Eric: Awesome. I should check that out. I think I was using Notable for a while, which is similar. So a couple more questions here on the business development side of things and then we'll let you get back to developing your business, as it were. When you meet with your local clients, what are they typically after? What do they ask, what are they expecting? How do you manage all that?

    Adam: I would say that business owners really care about a few things in marketing. The biggest thing, and most notably, is getting their phone to ring. Really, that will just lead to traffic through their door as long as they're answering their phone, and they've got a decent system in place to get those clients engaged, and whatnot, which will then lead to a positive return on investment. At the end of the day, it's all about the return on investment to them, so it all starts with the phone call or email lead to their business. Without that, nothing else really matters. So that's really got to be your focus, because that's their focus.

    I'd say that they kind of want you to be genuine and not just trying to push another product that again, everybody else has. One of the best ways to convey this is show them some live examples of real clients, if you have them in your existing area that they can relate to. Show them some positive testimonials of real, live, local businesses that are happy with your services.

    The burn and churn type companies out there, the ones that are notorious for people disliking their high churn rates, you're not going to have a lot of this, and they're certainly not going to have a good amount of clients, in most cases, that someone out there can just pick up the phone and say, "Hey, what were your experiences with this company and should I do business with them?"

    So, those are all really important, but the most important is getting their phone to ring, because that's really what they care about at the end of the day. If you do that, then a lot of other things just go away. They don't really care as much about the other nitty-gritty things as long as the phone's ringing.

    Pricing, Pricing, Pricing

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    Eric: Right. So a couple of the big, big questions that we always get... Pricing; we'll talk about this in a bit, but people talk about the scaling of a local service firm and things like that. Some people think that it's not possible; I disagree a little bit on that one; I'm sure you guys do too. But when you get into pricing, how do you price things? Do you do flat fees, per leads, a combination, or do you have a set structure for pretty much everything you do?

    Adam: That's actually a great question. So we actually model our billing and our fees kind of off the Yellowpages. As businesses are pulling out of the Yellowpages, we want to be there to scoop up that money, because there's literally on a national scale, billions of dollars every year that is just leaving small business pocketbooks to go elsewhere.

    The way the Yellowpages work is that they deal in monthly contracts, and that's exactly what we do. We'll schedule out typically anywhere from 9-12 month contracts; the Yellowpages has notoriously been a 12 month contract, and sometimes even more if they're integrating in digital products, depending on the cycle of when the book hits the streets to the end of the publication cycle.

    So there are a couple reasons we want to contract. Initially, we didn't want to contract, but we've found that it's good because it gives us time; it forces the client to have to wait for an SEO to take place. We all know that there's no overnight, you know you start doing some off-page SEO work and next week you hit number one and your phone is just blowing up. So we need clients and we try to set the correct expectation and we also try to get a good contract term and then we know that we're somewhat safe with them and whatnot.

    If they can make it through the time needed to let the SEO work take its place, and there's sufficient time, then that's not only going to allow them to see the return on investment, but if they start to be comfortable spending that money and then once the return hits, then the money's not even an issue and so it really works well.

    Monthly contracts are absolutely where it's at. If you go on out and try to beat the streets every time you want to make a new sale, it just doesn't make sense and I'll tell you, most of our clients, they've started with a contract, and many, a high percentage of them, are now out of contract and they keep us on a month to month, without issues. I mean, there's not even a question of it anymore.

    Jacob: So I would say, the paper lead for us hasn't been a good way to go, because they're only going to attribute a certain amount of leads that you brought them. But you're going to bring so much more business, whether it be word of mouth, whether it be just an article that you may have put out; all these other things that really you did, they're not going to attribute that to you, so we haven't found that very good.

    The key is, find out what their marketing budget is per month and try to come in somewhere in there. Also, no big upfront fees. Most of these business owners, for us at least, we don't try to hit them. Their budgeting is not structured in a way that they can take a big hit. So let's say you were going to charge them $10,000 for a website or whatever, it's tough for them to swallow that. However, if you can get them into a 12 month contract or a 9 month agreement, they're more apt to sign that.

    Eric: Right, so sort of rolling, if you're doing a website, things like that, roll that into your monthly costs over that 12 month period, rather than saying, "Oh, it's going to be $8,000 for this or $5,000 for this website, plus another 2, 3 grand, whatever it is a month for everything else on top of that."

    Adam: I would say that that's absolutely correct. But if you can get away from doing the website separately and then just allocating funds to a monthly SEO, that's great. The one thing I wanted to point out is there's no one-size-fits-all. You can't cookie-cutter internet marketing, and so we see many companies who say, "We're going to charge this amount for this product and it's just going to work for everyone." It's not that case with anybody.

    You walk in, you sit down with a client, and they're all after something different, they've all got different needs and wants, they all have different timelines, they all have a different budget amount that they're willing to spend. There are just so many things; you can look at somebody's citation profile and see that it's really clean, versus someone who's hired three or four knockoff SEO companies that just haven't, just have really made a mess of things. So that's all going to change as far as what you need to charge.

    That goes back to our initial statement on charging what you're worth and just holding to your guns. Hopefully you can help the client make heads or tails of it so that it makes sense and so that it works. But there's never one-size-fits-all, so usually, most of the time we're customizing our proposals to some degree.

    Eric: Well right, yeah, exactly. Quite frankly, sometimes you might want to... You may sit down with a client who gives you a much better feeling than another one, where you may be a little more apt to say, "Yeah, we can maybe roll that in," or whatever, versus a client who you think may take up a little more of your time and you want to be able to price for that accordingly.

    Jacob: Right, and also think about ROI; so, for example, the example I gave earlier, where that client had not spent more than $300 a month, and we came in at $2,000 a month, well that's because we knew how much traffic we could get, we knew roughly how many leads we could get for him, and we knew that he was going to get an astronomical return on investment with that. So it didn't matter to us how much he's used to spending; what mattered to us was how much money he was going to make.

    Eric: Right, exactly, and it goes back earlier, as you were talking about the fact that sometimes local marketing isn't for everybody and that's why I think it's important, like you said, not to take a cookie cutter approach. You could specialize in local SEO, but there's nothing to say that you can't just do a web design for a local coffee shop or help them with their social media. They may not need a full on SEO campaign.

    So like you said, it's good to be open because it opens up other areas and then who knows who they know. They may know other businesses that might value... You're right, so the networking approach, the custom proposal approach and having different services to offer I think is... You know, without going too wide, is certainly...

    Adam: And that really kind of goes back to try to keep your niche service industries intact. You know, we do get queried every now and again for the one offs, and we try to refer those out, if it's not in our main scope. The last thing we want to do is take someone on that's either going to pull our resources and tie them to somebody else that really needs it, or you know we're not going to be able to provide sufficient results for their money, which would then kind of put a bad taste in someone's mouth. That never works out for anybody.

    Favorite Local SEO Resources

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    Eric: Right. In terms of keeping up with the local SEO stuff, like you said, things change all the time, what are some of your key sources for keeping up with local SEO stuff?

    Adam: Sure, well, one of the main things is we try to stay really active in Google forums. We're constantly trying to be part of what's going on there, but I would say the other areas we're really involved with are Mike Blumenthal's blog; I communicate with Mike every now and again for various different things that I have questions on. Linda Buquet, she's got a great site. She deals specifically with dentists and she usually has good insights on things that are coming up. David Mihm, of course, just kind of your industry standard. And then SEO Book kind of gives us a top down approach to a lot of things that are kind of going on as far as more of a large scale, what's going on in the industry, algorithm changes, what people are seeing.

    At the end of the day, tracking our own results. We try different things out; we try to document it, see what happens, see what works. Sometimes we'll just make changes to see what will happen and what the income will be. We've learned a lot, as far as how to manipulate Google Places to our advantage. Those are some things that have been really neat that we've come across.

    The thing is that there is very little out there on local SEO from those who are actually doing it, so the ones that really share the information are really important to us. But most don't share their secrets. Even those guys probably don't share a lot of their secrets. So it's one of those things, so you've got to pave your own path, but the coming months we hope to put out some information, including a book that we'll use to try to share some secrets that we have and maybe give back to the community that's helped us out so much.

    Eric: Awesome.

    Jacob: I've got my RSS feed open and I'm just reading through what we check every day. Blumenthal, Greg Sterling, Small Business SEM by Matt McGee, David Mihm, OptiLocal is really good, Catalyst Marketing, NGS Marketing, Andrew Shotland, BIA/Kelsey Local is really, really good. They started in the Yellowpages industry and they do a lot of reporting on the small business world. The Google Places help forum, and then finally, a blog called GrowMap does some really great stuff.

    Debunking the "Local Marketing" is Unscalable Argument

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    Eric: Great. We'll also link to all that stuff in the post here. Just one final question; there's talk sometimes of the fact that (we talked about it a little, some of the key components), that there was a post recently out there that sort of shot down the whole local client type setup where people want $50,000 a month services, but they're only paying $1,000 a month. I find that this is the case for some clients, but I think if you guys maybe can just briefly talk about the evolution of your business...

    It seems like you would start as you get into business and maybe you take on a couple clients at a lower rate than you would like; then you sort of prove yourself and from there you grow into other services that you can provide. From that point you just keep expanding within your niche, to find other businesses, both locally and across the country. But I think it's not so much that it's an unscalable business model; I think it's just people try to go into it thinking that every client you sit down with is just going to hand you over a pile of cash without any qualifications.

    Adam: Right, which wouldn't be ideal, right?

    Eric: Yeah, which is probably what some people might be used to, as least back when nobody knew what SEO was. "Yeah, I'll point 20 spamming links at your site and you'll be number one and whatever." Yeah, give me... You know, I think it's, especially with the local businesses, in this economy, they're the ones that are really hit harder. We have a number of local businesses here that have been hit by the movement in of larger retail stores; a local hardware store, a local insurance agent who now is competing against the local State Farm and local Geico office, stuff like that.

    But if you guys could just maybe debunk that theory a little bit, in terms of it being an unscalable business model.

    Adam: I would say initially that as long as you can prove your value, you can really charge what you're worth. When we started out, we just tried to show our clients what we knew, what we were capable of, and found some that we actually knew and just went from there. Once we had a foundation of some proven results...

    There's two elements. You've got to prove to the client that you can do it, but you've also go to prove to yourself too. Once we did that, we knew that we were on the right track, and it was a lot easier to go after other clients, to say, "Hey, here's a real life example of what we've done with one person or another person and here's our plan as to what we could do with your company. Here's what sets us apart. Here's a testimonial from a customer in your industry and so on." So there's just a bunch to that.

    Jacob: I would add to that, there are companies out there trying to scale this out, right, to reach local and yodel and those type of things, and we both had vast experience working closely with these type of companies. I would say it's a spectrum, right? You can have high scalability and high automation, but you're also going to have a very low retention rate. And then you can have very low automation, very manual, and then have a higher retention rate.

    So I would say, it's scalable, but it's scalable in the way that an agency is scalable. We look at it as pods. So a pod of employees, say a project manager, a couple citation builders, maybe a designer, can handle x amount of clients in x amount of revenue. Once you get that pod, you just duplicate that pod and scale out, very, very similar to what an agency would be. Then, the best thing about that is you're keeping your retention rate very, very high.

    Eric: Right, it goes back to talking about the systems that you were talking about earlier, having a system in place. You don't necessarily have to have the upfront cookie cutter approach in terms of pricing, but on the back end, you really ought to have a scalable system that works as flawlessly as it can with human involvement.

    Jacob: Right.

    Eric: All right, great. Well, I think we covered a lot of stuff here. I just want to wrap it up here. Again, these guys are from firegang.com, like I said, very active and respected members of the SEO Book community, as you can tell by a lot of the information here, definitely on the expert level of the local SEO stuff. I know on your site now you have a downloadable guide on how to increase map rankings, and that's free. And then you also mentioned that you're coming out with a book in a couple months that covers pretty much the whole local SEO spectrum?

    Jacob: Exactly.

    Eric: All right, great. Well, let us know when that comes out. We'll certainly highlight that on the blog so everyone here can get a copy of that. I just want to take a brief moment and thank you guys for hopping on here. It's been an hour long call, so I hope everybody has their iPods ready, or whatever they use to listen to this.

    Jacob: Two time speed, right?

    Eric: Right. All right, guys. Thank you very much for your time.

    Adam: Appreciate it.

    Jacob: Thanks. Bye.

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