Optimizing Against Competitors

Feb 11th
posted in

You’ve got to feel a little sorry for anyone new to the search marketing field.

On one side, they’ve got to deal with the cryptic black box that is Google. Often inconsistent, always vague, and can be unfair in their dealings with webmasters. On the other side, webmasters must operate in competitive landscapes that often favour incumbent sites, especially if those incumbents are household names.

Sadly, much of the low hanging search fruit is gone. However, there are a number of approaches to optimization that don’t involve link placement and keyword targeting.

Competitive Advantage

Like any highly active and lucrative market sector, the web business can be challenging, but complaining about the nature of the environment will do little good. The only real option is to grab some boxing gloves, jump in the ring and compete.

In the last post, we talked about measurement. We need to make sure we’re measuring the right things in order to win. This post is about measuring our competitors to see if we enjoy a competitive advantage. If not, we need to rethink our approach.

Underlying Advantages

One of the problems with counting links, and other popular SEO metrics, is that they can be reductive. High link counts and pumped-up Google juice do not guarantee success, more traffic, or business success. For example, we might determine our competitor has X links from sites A, B and C, so we should do likewise. If we do likewise, plus a little more, then we win.

But often we don’t.

We often don’t win because there are multiple factors in play. Our competitor’s site might rank for reasons that are difficult to determine, and even more difficult to emulate. They may have brand, engagement metrics or historical advantages. But most challenging of all, they could have some underlying competitive advantage that no amount of link building or ranking for keyword X by a new site will counter. They may just have a better offer.

Winning The Search War Against Your Competitors

There’s an old joke about a two guys out walking in the African Savannah. They come across a hungry lion. The lion eyes them up, then charges them. One man turns and runs. The other man yells at him “you fool, you can’t outrun a lion!” The other man yells back “that’s true, but I don’t have to outrun the lion. I only have to outrun you!”

Once we figure out what Google wants, we then need to outrun other sites in our niche in order to win. Those sites have to deal with Google’s whims, just like we do.

Typically, webmasters will reverse engineer competitor sites, using web metrics as scores to target and beat. Who is linking to this page? How old are the links? What are their most popular keywords? Where are they getting traffic from? That’s part of the puzzle. However, we also need to evaluate non-technical factors that may be underpinning their business.

Competitive Analysis

Competitive intelligence is an ongoing, systematic analysis of our competitors.

The goal of a competitor analysis is to develop a profile of the nature of strategy changes each competitor might make, each competitor's possible response to the range of likely strategic moves other firms could make, and each competitor's likely reaction to industry changes and environmental shifts that might take place. Competitive intelligence should have a single-minded objective -- to develop the strategies and tactics necessary to transfer market share profitably and consistently from specific competitors to the company. We should look at the sites positioned around and above us and analyse what they do in terms of business.

Do they understand the target market a little better than we do? Are their goals different from ours? If so, how are they different, and why? How are they pricing their products and services? How do their services differ from our own? In other words, do they know something we don’t?

We can optimize for competitive advantage. It's about identifying what market your competitors capture, and where that market is heading in the future. Once you've figured that out, you might be able to discover opportunities your competitors have missed.

How To Undertake Competitive Analysis

It would be great if we could call up our competitors and ask them exactly what they're doing, how they’re doing it, and where they are heading - and they’d tell us. But we all know that's not going to happen.

So we have to dig. We don't want to do too much digging, as it is time consuming, expensive and, truth be told, somewhat tedious. Thankfully, a lot of the answers we need are sitting right in front of us and readily available.

To undertake a competitive analysis, try asking these questions:

  • What is the nature of competition?
  • Where does the competitor compete?
  • Who does the competitor compete against?
  • How does the competitor compete?

1. The Nature Of The Competition

The little guy used to prosper in search just by being clever. If you knew the tricks, and the big companies didn’t - and typically, they didn’t - you could beat them easily. This is now harder to do. These days, traditional power structures play a greater role in search results, so it is often the case that big brands can dominate SERPs by virtue of their offline market position. Their market position is creating the signals Google tends to look for, such as regular major press mentions, resulting links and direct search volume, often with little direct SEO effort on the part of the brand.

So, if you’re the little guy coming up against big, entrenched competition, that’s going to be a hard road.

We saw what happened with Adwords, and now the same thing is happening in the main search results. Those with the deepest pockets could run Adwords campaigns that appear to make absolutely no fiscal sense, either because they’re getting their revenue from elsewhere to subsidise the Adwords spend, or, as is often the case, they’re prepared to wage a defensive war of attrition to prevent new competitors entering or dominating their space.

I think these long-term trends are mostly due to increasing competition. As more and more companies bid on Adwords for a finite number of clicks, it inevitably drives up the cost of clicks (simple supply and demand). It also doesn’t help that a lot of Adwords users are not actively managing their campaigns or measuring their ROI, and are consequently bidding at unprofitably high levels. Google also does its best to drive up CPC values in various ways (suggesting ridiculously high default bids, goading you to bid more to get on page 1, not showing your ad at all if you bid too low – even if no other ads appear etc).

Of course, this is just my data for one product in one small market. But the law of shitty clickthrus predicts that all advertising mediums become less and less profitable over time. So I would be surprised if it isn’t a general trend

In the main search results, a large companies position will be influenced by spend they make elsewhere. Big PR media campaigns, and the resulting press, links, and mentions in other channels, all result in a big data footprint of attention and interest that Google is unlikely to miss.

However, the little guy still has one advantage that the big businesses seldom have. The little guy is like the speedboat compared to an ocean liner. They may be small, they may be easily swamped in a storm, but they can change direction very quickly. The ocean liner takes a long time to turn around.

The little guy can change direction and get into new markets quickly - “pivot” in Silicon Valley parlance. The little guy can twist new markets slightly and invent entire new markets, whilst the bigger business tend to sail pre-set courses along known routes. This is how the once nimble Google trounced their search competitors. They didn’t take the competitors head on, they took a different tack (focused on the user, not advertisers), made strategic alignments (Yahoo), a few twists and turns (Overture) , and eventually worked themselves in the center of the search market. Had they just built another Yahoo, they wouldn’t have got very far.

If you’re a small business or new to a market, then it’s not a great idea to take on a big, entrenched business directly. Rather, look for ways you can outmanoeuvre them. Are there changes in the market they aren’t responding to? Are the markets about to change due to innovations coming over the horizon that you can spot, but they can’t? Look for areas of abrupt change. The little guy is typically well placed to take advantage of rapid change in markets. And new, fast developing markets.

Choose your market space carefully.

So, how do you become the next Picasso? The same way you build a powerful brand. Create a new category you can be first in.
...
The best way to become a world-famous artist is to create paintings that are recognized as a new category of art. - Al Ries

2. Where Does The Competitor Compete?

For example, are they limited to a certain geography? Culture? Language? Do they have an offline presence?

You could take their business model to a geographic location they don’t serve. Is there something that succeeds in the US, but has yet to reach Australia? Or Europe? Are your competitors targeting nationally, when you could target locally?

3. Who Do You Compete Against?

Make a list of the top ten competitors in a niche. Compare and contrast their approaches and offerings. Compare their use of language and their relative place in the market. Who is entrenched? Who is up-and-coming?

The up-and-coming sites are interesting. If they’re new, but making headway, it pays to ask why that’s happening. Is it just because they’re getting more links, or is it because they’re doing something new that the market likes? Bit of both?

I think the most interesting opportunities in search are found by watching the sites that aren't doing much in the way of SEO, but they are rising fast. If they’re not playing hard at “rigging the search vote” in their favour, then their positioning is likely due to genuine interest out in the market.

4. How Does The Competitor Compete

What are the specifics of the products and services they are offering. Lower prices? High service levels? Do they provide information that can't be obtained elsewhere? Do they have longevity? Money, staff and resources? Are they building brand? What are they doing besides search?

What prevents you doing likewise?

5. Are They More Engaging?

Google talk about engagement a lot, and we saw engagement metrics become important after updates Penquin/Panda.

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.

Engagement is a measure of how interesting visitors find a site. Do people search for your competitors by name, do they click through rather than back to the SERPs, and do they talk about that site to others?

The click-back, or lack-thereof, is a hard one to spot if you don’t have access to a websites data. Take a look at your competitors usability. Is it easy to navigate? It is obvious where visitors need to click? Are they easy to order from? Is their offer clear? Do they have fast site response times? Of course, we view these things as fundamental, however many sites still overlook the basics. If you can optimize in these areas, do so. If your competitors ranking above you have good engagement design and content, then you need to do it, too.

One baseline to look at is branded search volumes. If people are specifically & repeatedly looking for something that typically means they are satisfied with it.

Matt Cutts has recently mentioned that incumbent sites may not enjoy the previous “aged” advantages they’ve had in the past.

This may well be the next big Google shift. It makes sense that Google would reward sites that have higher user utility scores, all other factors being equal. Older sites may have built up a lot of links and positive SEO signals over time, but if their information is outdated and their site cumbersome, the site will likely have low utility. Given the rise of social media, which is all about immediacy and relevance (high utility as perceived by the user), Google would be foolish to reward incumbency at the expense of utility. It’s an area we’re watching closely as it may swing back some advantage to the smaller, nimble players.

6. Do They Have A Good Defensive Position?

Is it hard to enter their market? Competitors may have a lot of revenue to throw around, and a considerable historical advantages. Taking on the likes of Trip Advisor would be difficult and expensive, no matter how good the SEO.

If they have a strong defensible position, and you have limited resources, trying creating your own, unique space. For example, in SEO, you could compete with other SEOs for clients (crowded), or your could become a local trainer who trains existing SEOs inhouse (less crowded). You could move from selling widgets to hiring out widgets to people. You could repackage your widgets with other widgets to create a new product. An example might be selling individual kitchen utensils, but packaged together, they become a picnic kit.

Look for ways to create slightly different markets that you can make your own.

7. What’s In Their Marketing?

What does their advertising look like? Scanning competitor's ads can reveal much about what that competitor believes about marketing and their target market.

Are they changing their message? Offering new products? Rebranding? Positioning differently? This is not absolute, of course, but it could offer up some valuable clues. There’s even a Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals devoted to this very task.

Big Topic

Whilst competitive analysis is huge topic, the value of even a basic competitive analysis can be considerable.

By doing so, we can adjust our own offering to compete better, or decide that competing directly is not a great idea, and that we would be better off entering a closely-related market, instead . We may create a whole new niche and have no competition. At least, not for a while. We might make a list of all the things we need to do to match and overtake a fast rising new challenger who isn’t doing much in the way of SEO.

There's much more to search competition that algo watching, keywords and links. And many ways to compete and optimize.

Measure For Business Benefit

Jan 28th
posted in

Matt Cutts is just toying with SEO’s these days.

Going by some comments, many SEOs still miss the big picture. Google is not in the business of enabling SEOs. So he may as well have a little fun - Matt has “called it” on guest posting.

Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.

The hen-house erupted.

The hens should know better by now. If a guest post is good for the audience and site, then do it. If it’s being done for no other reason than to boost rank in Google, then that’s a sign a publishing strategy is weak, high risk, and vulnerable to Google's whims. Change the publishing strategy.

Measuring What Is Important

Although far from perfect, Google is geared towards recognizing utility. If Google doesn’t recognize utility, then Google will become weaker and someone else will take their place. Only a few people remember Alta Vista. They didn’t provide much in the way of utility, and Google ate their lunch.

Which brings me onto the importance of measurement.

It’s important we measure the right things. If people get upset because guest posting is called out, are they upset because they are counting the number of inbound links as if that were the only benefit? Why are they counting inbound links? To get a ranking boost? So, why are some people getting upset? They know Google doesn’t like marketing practices that serve no other purpose than to boost rank. Or are people concerned Google might confuse a post of genuine utility with link spam?

A publishing strategy based on nothing more than Google rankings is not a publishing strategy, it’s a tactic. Given the changes Google has made recently, it’s not a good tactic, because if they can isolate and eliminate SEO tactics, they will. Those who guest post on other sites, and offer guest post placement in order to provide utility, should continue to do so. They are unlikely to eliminate genuine utility, regardless of links, and at worst, they'll likely ignore the site it appears on.

Interesting

To prosper, we need to be more interesting that the next guy. We need to focus on delivering “interestingness”.

The buzzword term is “visitor engagement”, but that really means “be interesting”. If we provide interesting material, people will read it, and if we provide it on a regular basis, they might come back, or remember our brand name, and then search on that brand name, and then they might link to it, and that this activity combined helps us rank. Ranking is a side effect of being genuinely interesting.

This is not to say measuring links, or page views, are unimportant. But they can be an oversimplification when taken in isolation.

Demand Media's eHow focused on pageviews rather than engagement. Which is a big part of the reason why the guys who sold them eHow were able to beat them with wikiHow.

Success depends on achieving the underlying business goal. Perhaps high page views are not important if a site is targeting a very specific audience. Perhaps rankings aren't all that important if most of the audience is on social media or repeat business. Sometimes, focusing on the wrong metrics leads to the wrong marketing tactics.

What else can we measure? Some common stuff....

  • Page views
  • Subscriptions
  • Comments
  • Quality of comments
  • Syndication
  • Time on site
  • Videos watched
  • Unique visitors
  • Traffic sent to partner sites
  • Bookmarking activity
  • Search engine exposure
  • Brand searches
  • Offline mentions
  • Online mentions
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Conversion rates
  • Number of inquiries
  • Relationships
  • Sales
  • Reduced costs

The choice of what we measure depends on what we’re trying to achieve. The SEO may say they are trying to achieve a high rank, but why? To get more traffic, perhaps. Why do we want more traffic? In the hope more people will buy our widget.

So, if buying more widgets is the goal, then perhaps more energy needs to be placed into converting the traffic we already have, as opposed to spending the same energy getting more? Perhaps more time needs to be spent on conversion optimization. Perhaps more time needs to be spent refining the offer. Or listening to customers. Hearing their objections. Writing Q&A that addresses those objections. Guest posting somewhere else and addressing industry wide objections. Thinking up products to sell to previous customers. Making them aware of changes via an email list. Optimizing the interest factor of your site to make it more interesting than your competitors, then treat the rankings as a bonus. Link building starts with "being interesting".

When it comes to the guest post, if you’re only doing it to get a link, then you’re almost certainly selling yourself short. A guest post should serve a number of functions, such as building awareness, increasing reach, building brand, and be based on serving your underlying marketing objective. Pick where you post carefully. Deliver real value. If you do guest post, always try and extract way more benefit than just the link.

There was a time when people could put low-quality posts on low-quality sites and enjoy a benefit. But that practice is really just selling a serious web business short.

How Do We Know If We're Interesting?

There are a couple of different types of measurement marketers use. One is an emotional response, where the visitor becomes “positively interested”. This is measured by recall studies, association techniques, customers surveys and questionnaires. However, the type of response on-line marketers focus on, which is somewhat easier to measure, is behavioural interest. When people are really interested, they do something in response.

So, to measure the effectiveness of a guest posting, we might look for increased name or brand searches. More linkedin views. We might look at how many people travel down the links. We look at what they do when they land on the site, and - the most important bit - whether they do whatever that thing is that translates to the bottom line. Was it subscribing? Commenting? Downloading a white paper? Watching a video? Getting in contact? Tweeting? Bookmarking? What was that thing you wanted them to do in order to serve your bottom line?

Measurement should be flexible and will be geared towards achieving business goals. SEOs may worry that if they don’t show rankings and links, then the customer will be dissatisfied. I’d wager the customer will be a lot more dissatisfied if they do get a lot of links and a rankings boost, yet no improvement in the bottom line. We could liken this to companies that have a lot of meetings. There is an air of busyness, but are they achieving anything worthwhile? Maybe. Maybe not. We should be careful not to mistake frenzy for productivity.

Measuring links, like measuring the number of meetings, is reductive. So is measuring engagement just by looking at clicks. The picture needs to be broad and strategic. So, if guest posts help you build your business, measured by business metrics, keep doing them. Don’t worry about what Google may or may not do, because it’s beyond your control, regardless.

Control what you can. Control the quality of information you provide.

Disavow & Link Removal: Understanding Google

Jan 26th

Fear Sells

Few SEOs took notice when Matt Cutts mentioned on TWIG that "breaking their spirits" was essential to stopping spammers. But that single piece of information add layers of insights around things like:

  • duplicity on user privacy on organic versus AdWords
  • benefit of the doubt for big brands versus absolute apathy toward smaller entities
  • the importance of identity versus total wipeouts of those who are clipped
  • mixed messaging on how to use disavow & the general fear around links

From Growth to No Growth

Some people internalize failure when growth slows or stops. One can't raise venture capital and keep selling the dream of the growth story unless the blame is internalized. If one understands that another dominant entity (monopoly) is intentionally subverting the market then a feel good belief in the story of unlimited growth flames out.

Most of the growth in the search channel is being absorbed by Google. In RKG's Q4 report they mentioned that mobile ad clicks were up over 100% for the year & mobile organic clicks were only up 28%.

Investing in Fear

There's a saying in investing that "genius is declining interest rates" but when the rates reverse the cost of that additional leverage surfaces. Risks from years ago that didn't really matter suddenly do.

The same is true with SEO. A buddy of mine mentioned getting a bad link example from Google where the link was in place longer than Google has been in existence. Risk can arbitrarily be added after the fact to any SEO activity. Over time Google can keep shifting the norms of what is acceptable. So long as they are fighting off Wordpress hackers and other major issues they are kept busy, but when they catch up on that stuff they can then focus on efforts to shift white to gray and gray to black - forcing people to abandon techniques which offered a predictable positive ROI.

Defunding SEO is an essential & virtuous goal.

Hiding data (and then giving crumbs of it back to profile webmasters) is one way of doing it, but adding layers of risk is another. What panda did to content was add a latent risk to content where the cost of that risk in many cases vastly exceeded the cost of the content itself. What penguin did to links was the same thing: make the latent risk much larger than the upfront cost.

As Google dials up their weighting on domain authority many smaller sites which competed on legacy relevancy metrics like anchor text slide down the result set. When they fall down the result set, many of those site owners think they were penalized (even if their slide was primarily driven by a reweighting of factors rather than an actual penalty). Since there is such rampant fearmongering on links, they start there. Nearly every widely used form of link building has been promoted by Google engineers as being spam.

  • Paid links? Spam.
  • Reciprocal links? Spam.
  • Blog comments? Spam.
  • Forum profile links? Spam.
  • Integrated newspaper ads? Spam.
  • Article databases? Spam.
  • Designed by credit links? Spam.
  • Press releases? Spam.
  • Web 2.0 profile & social links? Spam.
  • Web directories? Spam.
  • Widgets? Spam.
  • Infographics? Spam.
  • Guest posts? Spam.

It doesn't make things any easier when Google sends out examples of spam links which are sites the webmaster has already disavowed or sites which Google explicitly recommended in their webmaster guidelines, like DMOZ.

It is quite the contradiction where Google suggests we should be aggressive marketers everywhere EXCEPT for SEO & basically any form of link building is far too risky.

It’s a strange world where when it comes to social media, Google is all promote promote promote. Or even in paid search, buy ads, buy ads, buy ads. But when it comes to organic listings, it’s just sit back and hope it works, and really don’t actively go out and build links, even those are so important. - Danny Sullivan

Google is in no way a passive observer of the web. Rather they actively seek to distribute fear and propaganda in order to take advantage of the experiment effect.

They can find and discredit the obvious, but most on their “spam list” done “well” are ones they can’t detect. So, it’s easier to have webmasters provide you a list (disavows), scare the ones that aren’t crap sites providing the links into submission and damn those building the links as “examples” – dragging them into town square for a public hanging to serve as a warning to anyone who dare disobey the dictatorship. - Sugarrae

This propaganda is so effective that email spammers promoting "SEO solutions" are now shifting their pitches from grow your business with SEO to recover your lost traffic

Where Do Profits Come From?

I saw Rand tweet this out a few days ago...

... and thought "wow, that couldn't possibly be any less correct."

When ecosystems are stable you can create processes which are profitable & pay for themselves over the longer term.

I very frequently get the question: 'what’s going to change in the next 10 years?' And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: 'what’s not going to change in the next 10 years?' And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time….in our retail business, we know that customers want low prices and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery, they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, 'Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher [or] I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.' Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long-term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it. - Jeff Bezos at re: Invent, November, 2012

When ecosystems are unstable, anything approaching boilerplate has an outsized risk added by the dominant market participant. The quicker your strategy can be done at scale or in the third world, the quicker Google shifts it from a positive to a negative ranking signal. It becomes much harder to train entry level employees on the basics when some of the starter work they did in years past now causes penalties. It becomes much harder to manage client relationships when their traffic spikes up and down, especially if Google sends out rounds of warnings they later semi-retract.

What's more, anything that is vastly beyond boilerplate tends to require a deeper integration and a higher level of investment - making it take longer to pay back. But the budgets for such engagement dry up when the ecosystem itself is less stable. Imagine the sales pitch, "I realize we are off 35% this year, but if we increase the budget 500% we should be in a good spot a half-decade from now."

All great consultants aim to do more than the bare minimum in order to give their clients a sustainable competitive advantage, but by removing things which are scalable and low risk Google basically prices out the bottom 90% to 95% of the market. Small businesses which hire an SEO are almost guaranteed to get screwed because Google has made delivering said services unprofitable, particularly on a risk-adjusted basis.

Being an entrepreneur is hard. Today Google & Amazon are giants, but it wasn't always that way. Add enough risk and those streams of investment in innovation disappear. Tomorrow's Amazon or Google of other markets may die a premature death. You can't see what isn't there until you look back from the future - just like the answering machine AT&T held back from public view for decades.

Meanwhile, the Google Venture backed companies keep on keeping on - they are protected.

When ad agencies complain about the talent gap, what they are really complaining about is paying people what they are worth. But as the barrier to entry in search increases, independent players die, leaving more SEOs to chase fewer corporate jobs at lower wages. Even companies servicing fortune 500s are struggling.

On an individual basis, creating value and being fairly compensated for the value you create are not the same thing. Look no further than companies like Google & Apple which engage in flagrantly illegal anti-employee cartel agreements. These companies "partnered" with their direct competitors to screw their own employees. Even if you are on a winning team it does not mean that you will be a winner after you back out higher living costs and such illegal employer agreements.

This is called now the winner-take-all society. In other words the rewards go overwhelmingly to just the thinnest crust of folks. The winner-take-all society creates incredibly perverse incentives to become a cheater-take-all society. Cause my chances of winning an honest competition are very poor. Why would I be the one guy or gal who would be the absolute best in the world? Why not cheat instead?" - William K Black

Meanwhile, complaints about the above sorts of inequality or other forms of asset stripping are pitched as being aligned with Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews. Obviously we need more H-1B visas to further drive down wages even as graduates are underemployed with a mountain of debt.

A Disavow For Any (& Every) Problem

Removing links is perhaps the single biggest growth area in SEO.

Just this week I got an unsolicited email from an SEO listing directory

We feel you may qualify for a Top position among our soon to be launched Link Cleaning Services Category and we would like to learn more about Search Marketing Info. Due to the demand for link cleaning services we're poised to launch the link cleaning category. I took a few minutes to review your profile and felt you may qualify. Do you have time to talk this Monday or Tuesday?

Most of the people I interact with tend to skew toward the more experienced end of the market. Some of the folks who join our site do so after their traffic falls off. In some cases the issues look intimately tied to Panda & the sites with hundreds of thousands of pages maybe only have a couple dozen inbound links. In spite of having few inbound links & us telling people the problem looks to be clearly aligned with Panda, some people presume that the issue is links & they still need to do a disavow file.

Why do they make that presumption? It's the fear message Google has been selling nonstop for years.

Punishing people is much different, and dramatic, from not rewarding. And it feeds into the increasing fear that people might get punished for anything. - Danny Sullivan

What happens when Google hands out free all-you-can-eat gummy bear laxatives to children at the public swimming pool? A tragedy of the commons.

Rather than questioning or countering the fear stuff, the role of the SEO industry has largely been to act as lap dogs, syndicating & amplifying the fear.

  • link tool vendors want to sell proprietary clean up data
  • SEO consultants want to tell you that they are the best and if you work with someone else there is a high risk hidden in the low price
  • marketers who crap on SEO to promote other relabeled terms want to sell you on the new term and paint the picture that SEO is a self-limiting label & a backward looking view of marketing
  • paid search consultants want to enhance the perception that SEO is unreliable and not worthy of your attention or investment

Even entities with a 9 figure valuation (and thus plenty of resources to invest in a competent consultant) may be incorrectly attributing SEO performance problems to links.

A friend recently sent me a link removal request from Buy Domains referring to a post which linked to them.

On the face of this, it's pretty absurd, no? A company which does nothing but trade in names themselves asks that their name reference be removed from a fairly credible webpage recommending them.

The big problem for Buy Domains is not backlinks. They may have had an issue with some of the backlinks from PPC park pages in the past, but now those run through a redirect and are nofollowed.

Their big issue is that they have less than great engagement metrics (as do most marketplace sites other than eBay & Amazon which are not tied to physical stores). That typically won't work if the entity has limited brand awareness coupled with having nearly 5 million pages in Google's index.

They not only have pages for each individual domain name, but they link to their internal search results from their blog posts & those search pages are indexed. Here's part of a recent blog post

And here are examples of the thin listing sorts of pages which Panda was designed in part to whack. These pages were among the millions indexed in Google.

A marketplace with millions of pages that doesn't have broad consumer awareness is likely to get nailed by Panda. And the websites linking to it are likely to end up in disavow files, not because they did anything wrong but because Google is excellent at nurturing fear.

What a Manual Penalty Looks Like

Expedia saw a 25% decline in search visibility due to an unnatural links penalty , causing their stock to fall 6.4%. Both Google & Expedia declined to comment. It appears that the eventual Expedia undoing stemmed from Hacker News feedback & coverage about an outing story on an SEO blog that certainly sounded like it stemmed from an extortion attempt. USA Today asked if the Expedia campaign was a negative SEO attack.

While Expedia's stock drop was anything but trivial, they will likely recover within a week to a month.

Smaller players can wait and wait and wait and wait ... and wait.

Manual penalties are no joke, especially if you are a small entity with no political influence. The impact of them can be absolutely devastating. Such penalties are widespread too.

In Google's busting bad advertising practices post they highlighted having zero tolerance, banning more than 270,000 advertisers, removing more than 250,000 publishers accounts, and disapproving more than 3,000,000 applications to join their ad network. All that was in 2013 & Susan Wojcicki mentioned Google having 2,000,000 sites in their display ad network. That would mean that something like 12% of their business partners were churned last year alone.

If Google's churn is that aggressive on their own partners (where Google has an economic incentive for the relationship) imagine how much broader the churn is among the broader web. In this video Matt Cutts mentioned that Google takes over 400,000 manual actions each month & they get about 5,000 reconsideration request messages each week, so over 95% of the sites which receive notification never reply. Many of those who do reply are wasting their time.

The Disavow Threat

Originally when disavow was launched it was pitched as something to be used with extreme caution:

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.

Recently Matt Cutts has encouraged broader usage. He has one video which discusses proatively disavowing bad links as they come in & another where he mentioned how a large company disavowed 100% of their backlinks that came in for a year.

The idea of proactively monitoring your backlink profile is quickly becoming mainstream - yet another recurring fixed cost center in SEO with no upside to the client (unless you can convince the client SEO is unstable and they should be afraid - which would ultimately retard their longterm investment in SEO).

Given the harshness of manual actions & algorithms like Penguin, they drive companies to desperation, acting irrationally based on fear.

People are investing to undo past investments. It's sort of like riding a stock down 60%, locking in the losses by selling it, and then using the remaining 40% of the money to buy put options or short sell the very same stock. :D

Some companies are so desperate to get links removed that they "subscribe" sites that linked to them organically with spam email messages asking the links be removed.

Some go so far that they not only email you on and on, but they created dedicated pages on their site claiming that the email was real.

What's so risky about the above is that many webmasters will remove links sight unseen, even from an anonymous Gmail account. Mix in the above sort of "this message is real" stuff and how easy would it be for a competitor to target all your quality backlinks with a "please remove my links" message? Further, how easy would it be for a competitor aware of such a campaign to drop a few hundred Dollars on Fiverr or Xrummer or other similar link sources, building up your spam links while removing your quality links?

A lot of the "remove my link" messages are based around lying to the people who are linking & telling them that the outbound link is harming them as well: "As these links are harmful to both yours and our business after penguin2.0 update, we would greatly appreciate it if you would delete these backlinks from your website."

Here's the problem though. Even if you spend your resources and remove the links, people will still likely add your site to their disavow file. I saw a YouTube video recording of an SEO conference where 4 well known SEO consultants mentioned that even if they remove the links "go ahead and disavow anyhow," so there is absolutely no upside for publishers in removing links.

How Aggregate Disavow Data Could Be Used

Recovery is by no means guaranteed. In fact of the people who go to the trouble to remove many links & create a disavow file, only 15% of people claim to have seen any benefit.

The other 85% who weren't sure of any benefit may not have only wasted their time, but they may have moved some of their other projects closer toward being penalized.

Let's look at the process:

  • For the disavow to work you also have to have some links removed.
    • Some of the links that are removed may not have been the ones that hurt you in Google, thus removing them could further lower your rank.
    • Some of the links you have removed may be the ones that hurt you in Google, while also being ones that helped you in Bing.
    • The Bing & Yahoo! Search traffic hit comes immediately, whereas the Google recovery only comes later (if at all).
  • Many forms of profits (from client services or running a network of sites) come systematization. If you view everything that is systematized or scalable as spam, then you are not only disavowing to try to recover your penalized site, but you are send co-citation disavow data to Google which could have them torch other sites connected to those same sources.
    • If you run a network of sites & use the same sources across your network and/or cross link around your network, you may be torching your own network.
    • If you primarily do client services & disavow the same links you previously built for past clients, what happens to the reputation of your firm when dozens or hundreds of past clients get penalized? What happens if a discussion forum thread on Google Groups or elsewhere starts up where your company gets named & then a tsunami of pile on stuff fills out in the thread? Might that be brand destroying?

The disavow and review process is not about recovery, but is about collecting data and distributing pain in a game of one-way transparency. Matt has warned that people shouldn't lie to Google...

...however Google routinely offers useless non-information in their responses.

Some Google webmaster messages leave a bit to be desired.

Recovery is uncommon. Your first response from Google might take a month or more. If you work for a week or two on clean up and then the response takes a month, the penalty has already lasted at least 6 weeks. And that first response might be something like this

Reconsideration request for site.com: Site violates Google's quality guidelines

We received a reconsideration request from a site owner for site.com/.

We've reviewed your site and we believe that site.com/ still violates our quality guidelines. In order to preserve the quality of our search engine, pages from site.com/ may not appear or may not rank as highly in Google's search results, or may otherwise be considered to be less trustworthy than sites which follow the quality guidelines.

For more specific information about the status of your site, visit the Manual Actions page in Webmaster Tools. From there, you may request reconsideration of your site again when you believe your site no longer violates the quality guidelines.
If you have additional questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum.

Absolutely useless.

Zero useful information whatsoever.

As people are unsuccessful in the recovery process they cut deeper and deeper. Some people have removed over 90% of their profile without recovering & been nearly a half-year into the (12-step) "recovery" process before even getting a single example of a bad link from Google. In some cases these bad links Google identified were links were obviously created by third party scraper sites & were not in Google's original sample of links to look at (so even if you looked at every single link they showed you & cleaned up 100% of issues you would still be screwed.)

Another issue with aggregate disavow data is there is a lot of ignorance in the SEO industry in general, and people who try to do things cheap (essentially free) at scale have an outsized footprint in the aggregate data. For instance, our site's profile links are nofollowed & our profiles are not indexed by Google. In spite of this, examples like the one below are associated with not 1 but 3 separate profiles for a single site.

Our site only has about 20,000 to 25,000 unique linking domains. However over the years we have had well over a million registered user profiles. If only 2% of the registered user profiles were ignorant spammers who spammed our profile pages and then later added our site to a disavow file, we would have more people voting *against* our site than we have voting for it. And that wouldn't be because we did anything wrong, but rather because Google is fostering an environment of mixed messaging, fear & widespread ignorance.

And if we are ever penalized, the hundreds of scraper sites built off scraping our RSS feed would make the recovery process absolutely brutal.

Another factor with Google saying "you haven't cut out enough bone marrow yet" along with suggesting that virtually any/every type of link is spam is that there is going to be a lot of other forms of false positives in the aggregate data.

I know some companies specializing in link recovery which in part base some aspects of their disavows on the site's ranking footprint. Well if you get a manual penalty, a Panda penalty, or your site gets hacked, then those sorts of sites which you are linking to may re-confirm that your site deserves to be penalized (on a nearly automated basis with little to no thought) based on the fact that it is already penalized. Good luck on recovering from that as Google folds in aggregate disavow data to justify further penalties.

Responsibility

All large ecosystems are gamed. We see it with app ratings & reviews, stealth video marketing, advertising, malware installs, and of course paid links.

Historically in search there has been the view that you are responsible for what you have done, but not the actions of others. The alternate roadmap would lead to this sort of insanity:

Our system has noticed that in the last week you received 240 spam emails. In result, your email account was temporarily suspended. Please contact the spammers and once you have a proof they unsuscribed you from their spam databases, we will reconsider reopening your email account.

As Google has closed down their own ecosystem, they allow their own $0 editorial to rank front & center even if it is pure spam, but third parties are now held to a higher standard - you could be held liable for the actions of others.

At the extreme, one of Google's self-promotional automated email spam messages sent a guy to jail. In spite of such issues, Google remains unfazed, adding a setting which allows anyone on Google+ to email other members.

Ask Google if they should be held liable for the actions of third parties and they will tell you to go to hell. Their approach to copyright remains fuzzy, they keep hosting more third party content on their own sites, and even when that content has been deemed illegal they scream that it undermines their first amendment rights if they are made to proactively filter:

Finally, they claimed they were defending free speech. But it's the courts which said the pictures were illegal and should not be shown, so the issue is the rule of law, not freedom of speech.
...
the non-technical management, particularly in the legal department, seems to be irrational to the point of becoming adolescent. It's almost as if they refuse to do something entirely sensible, and which would save them and others time and trouble, for no better reason than that someone asked them to.

Monopolies with nearly unlimited resources shall be held liable for nothing.

Individuals with limited resources shall be liable for the behavior of third parties.

Google Duplicity (beta).

Torching a Competitor

As people have become more acclimated toward link penalties, a variety of tools have been created to help make sorting through the bad ones easier.

"There have been a few tools coming out on the market since the first Penguin - but I have to say that LinkRisk wins right now for me on ease of use and intuitive accuracy. They can cut the time it takes to analyse and root out your bad links from days to minutes..." - Dixon Jones

But as there have been more tools created for sorting out bad links & more tools created to automate sending link emails, two things have happened

  • Google is demanding more links be removed to allow for recovery
  • people are becoming less responsive to link removal requests as they get bombarded with them
    • Some of these tools keep bombarding people over and over again weekly until the link is removed or the emails go to the spam bin
    • to many people the link removal emails are the new link request emails ;)
    • one highly trusted publisher who participates in our forums stated they filtered the word "disavow" to automatically go to their trash bin
    • on WebmasterWorld a member decided it was easier to delete their site than deal with the deluge of link removal spam emails

The problem with Google rewarding negative signals is there are false positives and it is far cheaper to kill a business than it is to build one. The technically savvy teenager who created the original version of the software used in the Target PoS attack sold the code for only $2,000.

There have been some idiotic articles like this one on The Awl suggesting that comment spamming is now dead as spammers run for the hills, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Some (not particularly popular) blogs are getting hundreds to thousands of spam comments daily & Wordpress can have trouble even backing up the database (unless the comment spam is regularly deleted) as the database can quickly get a million records.

The spam continues but the targets change. A lot of these comments are now pointed at YouTube videos rather than ordinary websites.

As Google keeps leaning into negative signals, one can expect a greater share of spam links to be created for negative SEO purposes.

Maybe this maternity jeans comment spam is tied to the site owner, but if they didn't do it, how do they prove it?

Once again, I'll reiterate Bill Black

This is called now the winner-take-all society. In other words the rewards go overwhelmingly to just the thinnest crust of folks. The winner-take-all society creates incredibly perverse incentives to become a cheater-take-all society. Cause my chances of winning an honest competition are very poor. Why would I be the one guy or gal who would be the absolute best in the world? Why not cheat instead?" - William K Black

The cost of "an academic test" can be as low as $5. You know you might be in trouble when you see fiverr.com/conversations/theirusername in your referrers:

Our site was hit with negative SEO. We have manually collected about 24,000 bad links for our disavow file (so far). It probably cost the perp $5 on Fiverr to point these links at our site. Do you want to know how bad that sucks? I'll tell you. A LOT!! Google should be sued enmass by web masters for wasting our time with this "bad link" nonsense. For a company with so many Ph.D's on staff, I can't believe how utterly stupid they are

Or, worse yet, you might see SAPE in your referrers

And if the attempt to get you torched fails, they can try & try again. The cost of failure is essentially zero. They can keep pouring on the fuel until the fire erupts.

Even Matt Cutts complains about website hacking, but that doesn't mean you are free of risk if someone else links to your site from hacked blogs. I've been forwarded unnatural link messages from Google which came about after person's site was added in on a SAPE hack by a third party in an attempt to conceal who the beneficial target was. When in doubt, Google may choose to blame all parties in a scorched Earth strategy.

If you get one of those manual penalties, you're screwed.

Even if you are not responsible for such links, and even if you respond on the same day, and even if Google believes you, you are still likely penalized AT LEAST for a month. Most likely Google will presume you are a liar and you have at least a second month in the penalty box. To recover you might have to waste days (weeks?) of your life & remove some of your organic links to show that you have went through sufficient pain to appease the abusive market monopoly.

As bad as the above is, it is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • People can redirect torched websites.
  • People can link to you from spam link networks which rotate links across sites, so you can't possibly remove or even disavow all the link sources.
  • People can order you a subscription of those rotating spam links from hacked sites, where new spam links appear daily. Google mentioned discovering 9,500 malicious sites daily & surely the number has only increased from there.
  • People can tie any/all of the above with cloaking links or rel=canonical messages to GoogleBot & then potentially chain that through further redirects cloaked to GoogleBot.
  • And on and on ... the possibilities are endless.

Extortion

Another thing this link removal fiasco subsidizes is various layers of extortion.

Not only are there the harassing emails threatening to add sites to disavow lists if they don't remove the links, but some companies quickly escalate things from there. I've seen hosting abuse, lawyer threat letters, and one friend was actually sued in court (and the people who sued him actually had the link placed!)

Google created a URL removal tool which allows webmasters to remove pages from third party websites. How long until that is coupled with DDoS attacks? Once effective with removing one page, a competitor might decide to remove another.

Another approach to get links removed is to offer payment. But payment itself might encourage the creation of further spammy links as link networks look to replace their old cashflow with new sources.

The recent Expedia fiasco started as an extortion attempt: "If I wanted him to not publish it, he would "sell the post to the highest bidder."

Another nasty issue here is articles like this one on Link Research Tools, where they not only highlight client lists of particular firms, but then state which URLs have not yet been penalized followed by "most likely not yet visible." So long as that sort of "publishing" is acceptable in the SEO industry, you can bet that some people will hire the SEOs nearly guaranteeing a penalty to work on their competitor's sites, while having an employee write a "case study" for Link Research Tools. Is this the sort of bullshit we really want to promote?

Some folks are now engaging in overt extortion:

I had a client phone me today and say he had a call from a guy with an Indian accent who told him that he will destroy his website rankings if he doesn't pay him £10 per month to NOT do this.

Branding / Rebranding / Starting Over

Sites that are overly literal in branding likely have no chance at redemption. That triple hyphenated domain name in a market that is seen as spammy has zero chance of recovery.

Even being a generic unbranded site in a YMYL category can make you be seen as spam. The remote rater documents stated that the following site was spam...

... even though the spammiest thing on it was the stuff advertised in the AdSense ads:

For many (most?) people who receive a manual link penalty or are hit by Penguin it is going to be cheaper to start over than to clean up.

At the very minimum it can make sense to lay groundwork for a new project immediately just in case the old site can't recover or takes nearly a year to recover. However, even if you figure out the technical bits, as soon as you have any level of success (or as soon as you connect your projects together in any way) you once again become a target.

And you can't really invest in higher level branding functions unless you think the site is going to be around for many years to earn off the sunk cost.

Succeeding at SEO is not only about building rank while managing cashflow and staying unpenalized, but it is also about participating in markets where you are not marginalized due to Google inserting their own vertical search properties.

Even companies which are large and well funded may not succeed with a rebrand if Google comes after their vertical from the top down.

Hope & Despair

If you are a large partner affiliated with Google, hope is on your side & you can monetize the link graph: "By ensuring that our clients are pointing their links to maximize their revenue, we’re not only helping them earn more money, but we’re also stimulating the link economy."

You have every reason to be Excited, as old projects like Excite or Merchant Circle can be relaunched again and again.

Even smaller players with the right employer or investor connections are exempt from these arbitrary risks.

You can even be an SEO and start a vertical directory knowing you will do well if you can get that Google Ventures investment, even as other similar vertical directories were torched by Panda.

For most other players in that same ecosystem, the above tailwind is a headwind. Don't expect much 1 on 1 help in webmaster tools.

In this video Matt Cutts mentioned that Google takes over 400,000 manual actions each month & they get about 5,000 reconsideration request messages each week, so over 95% of the sites which receive notification never reply. Many of those who reply are wasting their time. How many confirmed Penguin 1.0 recoveries are you aware of?

Even if a recovery is deserved, it does not mean one will happen, as errors do happen. And on the off chance recovery happens, recovery does not mean a full restoration of rankings.

There are many things we can learn from Google's messages, but probably the most important is this:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

  • 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!

Yahoo! Secured Search Rolls Out

Jan 22nd
posted in

Yahoo! is currently rolling out secured search, which prevents sending referrers to unsecured sites. The roll out is ongoing, but currently they do pass data to secured sites. Unlike Google's secured search roll out:

  • rather than showing a referrer without keyword data the traffic will show up as direct site visitors
  • there is no default automated workaround for advertisers

Even though the data is being blocked for both ads & organics right now, advertisers can quickly use Bing Ads Editor to add tracking strings to their URLs passing the relevant keyword data likeso

http://www.site.com/folder/page.html?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=mycampaign{IfContent:content}&utm_term={Keyword}&utm_content={QueryString}&match={MatchType}

A couple quick questions:

  • Will Yahoo! add a Google-like data flow exemption for advertisers beyond URL tracking parameters?
  • Will Yahoo! make guarantees to secured sites that organic data will flow to justify the cost & significant risks associated with site migrations?
  • How accessible will Yahoo! data remain within Bing?
  • If/when Bing makes secured search a default, how will their solution differ from those of Google & Yahoo!?

Update: It looks like Yahoo! is now passing about 36% of their search traffic through an internal redirect which strips keyword referral data. The r.search.yahoo.com redirect is still used & does not pass keyword information to the publisher website, even if the site which is being linked to is secured.

Google's Chris DiBona On Search Ecosystem Diversity

Jan 16th

It's hard to deny that some folks working at Google are geniuses. It's also hard to deny the disconnect in their messaging.

As Google locked down their "open" ecosystem (compatibility as a club, abandonware, deleting privacy settings, extensions required to be installed from store, extensions required to be single-purpose, forced Google+ integration, knowledge graph scrape-n-displace, “We could either sue him or hire him," etc.), I thought an interview of one of their open source evangelists would be entertaining.

Chris DiBona delivered:

Can you imagine if you didn't have the malware protection and the process isolation of Chrome, that Chrome brought to other browsers? Can you imagine surfing the web the way it is right now? It's pretty grim. There's a lot of malware. You end up basically funnelling people into fewer and fewer sites, and therefore fewer and fewer viewpoints and all the rest.

There are many hacked websites, but sometimes large sites serve malware through their ads. Ad networks are one of the best ways to distribute malware. The super networks core to the web ecosystem are home to much of the malware - even GoogleBot was tricked into doing MySQL injection attacks. But even if we ignored that bit, it doesn't take much insight to realize that Google is achieving that same kill diversity "goal" through other means...

...as they roll out many algorithmic filters, manual penalties, selectively enforce these issues on smaller players (while giving more exploitative entities a free pass), insert their own vertical search services, dial up their weighting on domain authority, and require smaller players to proactively police the rest of the web while Google thinks the n-word 85 times is totally reasonable on their own tier-1 properties.

We have another post coming on the craziness of disavows and link removals, but it has no doubt gone beyond absurd at this point.

Why is diversity so important?

Dissent evolves markets. The status quo doesn't get changed by agreeing & aligning with existing power structures. Anyone who cares to debate this need only look at Google's ongoing endless string of lawsuits. Most of those lawsuits are associated with Google (rightly or wrongly) taking power from what they view as legacy entities.

Even on a more personal level, one's investment returns are likely to be better when things are out of favor:

"Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful." - Warren Buffett

In many markets returns and popularity are inversely proportional

Investing in Internet stocks in 1999 was popular, but for those who stayed too long at the party it was a train wreck. Domain name speculators who bought into the carnage a couple years later did well.

Society is so complex & inter-connected that its very easy to think things run far more smoothly than they do & thus buy into to many fibs that are obviously self-evident until the moment they are not.

Popularity is backward looking, enabling the sheep to be sheared.

Unfortunately depth & diversity are being sacrificed to promote pablum from well known entities in formats that are easy to disintermediate & monetize.

Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularisation. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems – rather this is one of our most frightening problems.
- Benjamin Bratton

Innovative knowledge creation and thought reading tattoosthe singularity is near.

SEO 2014

Jan 11th
posted in

We’re at the start of 2014.

SEO is finished.

Well, what we had come to know as the practical execution of “whitehat SEO” is finished. Google has defined it out of existence. Research keyword. Write page targeting keyword. Place links with that keyword in the link. Google cares not for this approach.

SEO, as a concept, is now an integral part of digital marketing. To do SEO in 2014 - Google-compliant, whitehat SEO - digital marketers must seamlessly integrate search strategy into other aspects of digital marketing. It’s a more complicated business than traditional SEO, but offers a more varied and interesting challenge, too.

Here are a few things to think about for 2014.

1. Focus On Brand

Big brands not only get a free pass, they can get extra promotion. By being banned. Take a look at Rap Genius. Aggressive link-building strategy leads to de-indexing. A big mea culpa follows and what happens? Not only do they get reinstated, they’ve earned themselves a wave of legitimate links.

Now that’s genius.

Google would look deficient if they didn’t show that site as visitors would expect to find it - enough people know the brand. To not show a site that has brand awareness would make Google look bad.

Expedia's link profile was similarly outed for appearing to be at odds with Google's published standards. Could a no-name site pass a hand inspection if they use aggressive linking? Unlikely.

What this shows is that if you have a brand important enough so that Google would look deficient by excluding it, then you will have advantages that no-name sites don’t enjoy. You will more likely pass manual inspections, and you’re probably more likely to get penalties lifted.

What is a brand?

In terms of search, it’s a site that visitors can use a brand search to find. Just how much search volume you require is open to debate, but you don’t need to be a big brand like Apple, or Trip Advisor or Microsoft. Rap Genius aren't. Ask “would Google look deficient if this site didn’t show up” and you can usually tell that by looking for evidence of search volume on a sites name.

In advertising, brands have been used to secure a unique identity. That identity is associated with a product or service by the customer. Search used to be about matching a keyword term. But as keyword areas become saturated, and Google returns fewer purely keyword-focused pages anyway, developing a unique identity is a good way forward.

If you haven’t already, put some work into developing a cohesive, unique brand. If you have a brand, then think about generating more awareness. This may mean higher spends on brand-related advertising than you’ve allocated in previous years. The success metric is an increase in brand searches i.e. the name of the site.

2. Be Everywhere

The idea of a stand-alone site is becoming redundant. In 2014, you need to be everywhere your potential visitors reside. If your potential visitors are spending all day in Facebook, or YouTube, that’s where you need to be, too. It’s less about them coming to you, which is the traditional search metaphor, and a lot more about you going to them.

You draw visitors back to your site, of course, but look at every platform and other site as a potential extension of your own site. Pages or content you place on those platforms are yet another front door to your site, and can be found in Google searches. If you’re not where your potential visitors are, you can be sure your competitors will be, especially if they’re investing in social media strategies.

A reminder to see all channels as potential places to be found.

Mix in cross-channel marketing with remarketing and consumers get the perception that your brand is bigger. Google ran the following display ad before they broadly enabled retargeting ads. Retargeting only further increases that lift in brand searches.

3. Advertise Everywhere

Are you finding it difficult to get top ten in some areas? Consider advertising with AdWords and on the sites that already hold those positions. Do some brand advertising on them to raise awareness and generate some brand searches. An advert placed on a site that offers a complementary good or service might be cheaper than going to the expense and effort needed to rank. It might also help insulate you from Google’s whims.

The same goes for guest posts and content placement, although obviously you need to be a little careful as Google can take a dim view of it. The safest way is to make sure the content you place is unique, valuable and has utility in it’s own right. Ask yourself if the content would be equally at home on your own site if you were to host it for someone else. If so, it’s likely okay.

4. Valuable Content

Google does an okay job of identifying good content. It could do better. They’ve lost their way a bit in terms of encouraging production of good content. It’s getting harder and harder to make the numbers work in order to cover the production cost.

However, it remains Google’s mission to provide the user with answers the visitor deems relevant and useful. The utility of Google relies on it. Any strategy that is aligned with providing genuine visitor utility will align with Google’s long term goals.

Review your content creation strategies. Content that is of low utility is unlikely to prosper. While it’s still a good idea to use keyword research as a guide to content creation, it’s a better idea to focus on topic areas and creating engagement through high utility. What utility is the user expecting from your chosen topic area? If it’s rap lyrics for song X, then only the rap lyrics for song X will do. If it is plans for a garden, then only plans for a garden will do. See being “relevant” as “providing utility”, not keyword matching.

Go back to the basic principles of classifying the search term as either Navigational, Informational, or Transactional. If the keyword is one of those types, make sure the content offers the utility expected of that type. Be careful when dealing with informational queries that Google could use in it’s Knowledge Graph. If your pages deal with established facts that anyone else can state, then you have no differentiation, and that type of information is more likely to end up as part of Google’s Knowledge Graph. Instead, go deep on information queries. Expand the information. Associate it with other information. Incorporate opinion.

BTW, Bill has some interesting reading on the methods by which Google might be identifying different types of queries.

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer program products, for identifying navigational resources for queries. In an aspect, a candidate query in a query sequence is selected, and a revised query subsequent to the candidate query in the query sequence is selected. If a quality score for the revised query is greater than a quality score threshold and a navigation score for the revised query is greater than a navigation score threshold, then a navigational resource for the revised query is identified and associated with the candidate query. The association specifies the navigational resource as being relevant to the candidate query in a search operation.

5. Solve Real Problems

This is a follow-on from “ensuring you provide content with utility”. Go beyond keyword and topical relevance. Ask “what problem is the user is trying to solve”? Is it an entertainment problem? A “How To” problem? What would their ideal solution look like? What would a great solution look like?

There is no shortcut to determining what a user finds most useful. You must understand the user. This understanding can be gleaned from interviews, questionnaires, third party research, chat sessions, and monitoring discussion forums and social channels. Forget about the keyword for the time being. Get inside a visitors head. What is their problem? Write a page addressing that problem by providing a solution.

6. Maximise Engagement

Google are watching for the click-back to the SERP results, an action characteristic of a visitor who clicked through to a site and didn’t deem what they found to be relevant to the search query in terms of utility. Relevance in terms of subject match is now a given.

Big blocks of dense text, even if relevant, can be off-putting. Add images and videos to pages that have low engagement and see if this fixes the problem. Where appropriate, make sure the user takes an action of some kind. Encourage the user to click deeper into the site following an obvious, well placed link. Perhaps they watch a video. Answer a question. Click a button. Anything that isn’t an immediate click back.

If you’ve focused on utility, and genuinely solving a users problem, as opposed to just matching a keyword, then your engagement metrics should be better than the guy who is still just chasing keywords and only matching in terms of relevance to a keyword term.

7. Think Like A PPCer

Treat every click like you were paying for it directly. Once that visitor has arrived, what is the one thing you want them to do next? Is it obvious what they have to do next? Always think about how to engage that visitor once they land. Get them to take an action, where possible.

8.Think Like A Conversion Optimizer

Conversion optimization tries to reduce the bounce-rate by re-crafting the page to ensure it meets the users needs. They do this by split testing different designs, phrases, copy and other elements on the page.

It’s pretty difficult to test these things in SEO, but it’s good to keep this process in mind. What pages of your site are working well and which pages aren’t? Is it anything to do with different designs or element placement? What happens if you change things around? What do the three top ranking sites in your niche look like? If their link patterns are similar to yours, what is it about those sites that might lead to higher engagement and relevancy scores?

9. Rock Solid Strategic Marketing Advantage

SEO is really hard to do on generic me-too sites. It’s hard to get links. It’s hard to get anyone to talk about them. People don’t share them with their friends. These sites don’t generate brand searches. The SEO option for these sites is typically what Google would describe as blackhat, namely link buying.

Look for a marketing angle. Find a story to tell. Find something unique and remarkable about the offering. If a site doesn’t have a clearly-articulated point of differentiation, then the harder it is to get value from organic search if your aim is to do so whilst staying within the guidelines.

10. Links

There’s a reason Google hammers links. It’s because they work. Else, surely Google wouldn’t make a big deal about them.

Links count. It doesn’t matter if they are no-follow, scripted, within social networks, or wherever, they are still paths down which people travel. It comes back to a clear point of differentiation, genuine utility and a coherent brand. It’s a lot easier, and safer, to link build when you’ve got all the other bases covered first.

Did Matt Cutts Endorse Rap Genius Link Spam?

Jan 4th

On TWIG Matt Cutts spoke about the importance of defunding spammers & breaking their spirits.

If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is break their spirits. You want to make them frustrated and angry. There are parts of Google's algorithms specifically designed to frustrate spammers and mystify them and make them frustrated. And some of the stuff we do gives people a hint their site is going to drop and then a week or two later their site actually does drop so they get a little bit more frustrated. And so hopefully, and we've seen this happen, people step away from the dark side and say "you know, that was so much pain and anguish and frustration, let's just stay on the high road from now on" some of the stuff I like best is when people say "you know this SEO stuff is too unpredictable, I'm just going to write some apps. I'm going to go off and do something productive for society." And that's great because all that energy is channeled at something good.

What was less covered was that in the same video Matt Cutts made it sound like anything beyond information architecture, duplicate content cleanup & clean URLs was quickly approaching scamming - especially anything to do with links. So over time more and more behaviors get reclassified as black hat spam as Google gains greater control over the ecosystem.

there's the kind of SEO that is better architecture, cleaner URLs, not duplicate content ... that's just like making sure your resume doesn't have any typos on it. that's just clever stuff. and then there's the type of SEO that is sort of cheating. trying to get a lot of bad backlinks or scamming, and that's more like lying on your resume. when you get caught sometime's there's repercussions. and it definitely helps to personalize because now anywhere you search for plumbers there's local results and they are not the same across the world. we've done a diligent job of trying to crack down on black hat spam. so we had an algorithm named Penguin that launched that kind of had a really big impact. we had a more recent launch just a few months ago. and if you go and patrole the black hat SEO forums where the guys talk about the techniques that work, now its more people trying to sell other people scams rather than just trading tips. a lot of the life has gone out of those forums. and even the smaller networks that they're trying to promote "oh buy my anglo rank or whatever" we're in the process of tackling a lot of those link networks as well. the good part is if you want to create a real site you don't have to worry as much about these bad guys jumping ahead of you. the playing ground is a lot more level now. panda was for low quality. penguin was for spam - actual cheating.

The Matt Cutts BDSM School of SEO

As part of the ongoing campaign to "break their spirits" we get increasing obfuscation, greater time delays between certain algorithmic updates, algorithmic features built explicitly with the goal of frustrating people, greater brand bias, and more outrageous selective enforcement of the guidelines.

Those who were hit by either Panda or Penguin in some cases took a year or more to recover. Far more common is no recovery — ever. How long do you invest in & how much do you invest in a dying project when the recovery timeline is unknown?

You Don't Get to Fascism Without 2-Tier Enforcement

While success in and of itself may make one a "spammer" to the biased eyes of a search engineer (especially if you are not VC funded nor part of a large corporation), many who are considered "spammers" self-regulate in a way that make them far more conservative than the alleged "clean" sites do.

Pretend you are Ask.com and watch yourself get slaughtered without warning.

Build a big brand & you will have advanced notification & free customer support inside the GooglePlex:

In my experience with large brand penalties, (ie, LARGE global brands) Google have reached out in advance of the ban every single time. - Martin Macdonald

Launching a Viral Linkspam Sitemap Campaign

When RapGenius was penalized, the reason they were penalized is they were broadly and openly and publicly soliciting to promote bloggers who would dump a list of keyword rich deeplinks into their blog posts. They were basically turning boatloads of blogs into mini-sitemaps for popular new music albums.

Remember reading dozens (hundreds?) of blog posts last year about how guest posts are spam & Google should kill them? Well these posts from RapGenius were like a guest post on steroids. The post "buyer" didn't have to pay a single cent for the content, didn't care at all about relevancy, AND a sitemap full of keyword rich deep linking spam was included in EACH AND EVERY post.

Most "spammers" would never attempt such a campaign because they would view it as being far too spammy. They would have a zero percent chance of recovery as Google effectively deletes their site from the web.

And while RG is quick to distance itself from scraper sites, for almost the entirety of their history virtually none of the lyrics posted on their site were even licensed.

In the past I've mentioned Google is known to time the news cycle. It comes without surprise that on a Saturday barely a week after being penalized Google restored RapGenius's rankings.

How to Gain Over 400% More Links, While Allegedly Losing

While the following graph may look scary in isolation, if you know the penalty is only a week or two then there's virtually no downside.

Since being penalized, RapGenius has gained links from over 1,000* domains

  • December 25th: 129
  • December 26th: 85
  • December 27th: 87
  • December 28th: 54
  • December 29th: 61
  • December 30th: 105
  • December 31st: 182
  • January 1st: 142
  • January 2nd: 112
  • January 3rd: 122

The above add up to 1,079 & RapGenius only has built a total of 11,930 unique linking domains in their lifetime. They grew about 10% in 10 days!

On every single day the number of new referring domains VASTLY exceeded the number of referring domains that disappeared. And many of these new referring domains are the mainstream media and tech press sites, which are both vastly over-represented in importance/authority on the link graph. They not only gained far more links than they lost, but they also gained far higher quality links that will be nearly impossible for their (less spammy) competitors to duplicate.

They not only got links, but the press coverage acted as a branded advertising campaign for RapGenius.

Here's some quotes from RapGenius on their quick recovery:

  • "we owe a big thanks to Google for being fair and transparent and allowing us back onto their results pages" <-- Not the least bit true. RapGenius was not treated fairly, but rather they were given a free ride compared to the death hundreds of thousands of small businesses have been been handed over the past couple years.
  • "On guest posts, we appended lists of song links (often tracklists of popular new albums) that were sometimes completely unrelated to the music that was the subject of the post." <-- and yet others are afraid of writing relevant on topic posts due to Google's ramped fearmongering campaigns
  • "we compiled a list of 100 “potentially problematic domains”" <-- so their initial list of domains to inspect was less than 10% the number of links they gained while being penalized
  • "Generally Google doesn’t hold you responsible for unnatural inbound links outside of your control" <-- another lie
  • "of the 286 potentially problematic URLs that we manually identified, 217 (more than 75 percent!) have already had all unnatural links purged." <-- even the "all in" removal of pages was less than 25% of the number of unique linking domains generated during the penalty period

And Google allowed the above bullshit during a period when they were sending out messages telling other people WHO DID THINGS FAR LESS EGREGIOUS that they are required to remove more links & Google won't even look at their review requests for at least a couple weeks - A TIME PERIOD GREATER THAN THE ENTIRE TIME RAPGENIUS WAS PENALIZED FOR.

In Conclusion...

If you tell people what works and why you are a spammer with no morals. But if you are VC funded, Matt Cutts has made it clear that you should spam the crap out of Google. Just make sure you hire a PR firm to trump up press coverage of the "unexpected" event & have a faux apology saved in advance. So long as you lie to others and spread Google's propaganda you are behaving in an ethical white hat manner.

Notes

* These stats are from Ahrefs. A few of these links may have been in place before the penality and only recently crawled. However it is also worth mentioning that all third party databases of links are limited in size & refresh rate by optimizing their capital spend, so there are likely hundreds more links which have not yet been crawled by Ahrefs. One should also note that the story is still ongoing and they keep generating more links every day. By the time the story is done spreading they are likely to see roughly a 30% growth in unique linking domains in about 6 weeks.

Gray Hat Search Engineering

Jan 3rd

Almost anyone in internet marketing who has spent a couple months in the game has seen some "shocking" case study where changing the color of a button increased sales 183% or such. In many cases such changes only happen when the original site had not had any focus on conversion at all.

Google, on the other hand, has billions of daily searches and is constantly testing ways to increase yield:

The company was considering adding another sponsored link to its search results, and they were going to do a 30-day A/B test to see what the resulting change would be. As it turns out, the change brought massive returns. Advertising revenues from those users who saw more ads doubled in the first 30 days.
...
By the end of the second month, 80 percent of the people in the cohort that was being served an extra ad had started using search engines other than Google as their primary search engine.

One of the reasons traditional media outlets struggle with the web is the perception that ads and content must be separated. When they had regional monopolies they could make large demands to advertisers - sort of like how Google may increase branded CPCs on AdWords by 500% if you add sitelinks. You not only pay more for clicks that you were getting for free, but you also pay more for the other paid clicks you were getting cheaper in the past.

That's how monopolies work - according to Eric Schmidt they are immune from market forces.

Search itself is the original "native ad." The blend confuses many searchers as the background colors fade into white.

Google tests colors & can control the flow of traffic based not only on result displacement, but also the link colors.

It was reported last month that Google tested adding ads to the knowledge graph. The advertisement link is blue, while the ad disclosure is to the far right out of view & gray.

I was searching for a video game yesterday & noticed that now the entire Knowledge Graph unit itself is becoming an ad unit. Once again, gray disclosure & blue ad links.

Where Google gets paid for the link, the link is blue.

Where Google scrapes third party content & shows excerpts, the link is gray.

The primary goal of such a knowledge block is result displacement - shifting more clicks to the ads and away from the organic results.

When those blocks appear in the search results, even when Google manages to rank the Mayo Clinic highly, it's below the fold.

What's so bad about this practice in health

  • Context Matters: Many issues have overlapping symptoms where a quick glance at a few out-of-context symptoms causes a person to misdiagnose themselves. Flu-like symptoms from a few months ago turned out to be indication of a kidney stone. That level of nuance will *never* be in the knowledge graph. Google's remote rater documents discuss your money your life (YMYL) topics & talk up the importance of knowing who exactly is behind content, but when they use gray font on the source link for their scrape job they are doing just the opposite.
  • Hidden Costs: Many of the heavily advertised solutions appearing above the knowledge graph have hidden costs yet to be discovered. You can't find a pharmaceutical company worth $10s of billions that hasn't plead guilty to numerous felonies associated with deceptive marketing and/or massaging research.
  • Artificially Driving Up Prices: in-patent drugs often cost 100x as much as the associated generic drugs & thus the affordable solutions are priced out of the ad auctions where the price for a click can vastly exceed than the profit from selling a generic prescription drug.

Where's the business model for publishers when they have real editorial cost & must fact check and regularly update their content, their content is good enough to be featured front & center on Google, but attribution is nearly invisible (and thus traffic flow is cut off)? As the knowledge graph expands, what does that publishing business model look like in the future?

Does the knowledge graph eventually contain sponsored self-assessment medical quizzes? How far does this cancer spread?

Where do you place your chips?

Google believes it can ultimately fulfil people’s data needs by sending results directly to microchips implanted into its user’s brains.

Quickly Reversing the Fat Webmaster Curse

Jan 1st

Long story short, -38 pounds in about 2 months or so. Felt great the entire time and felt way more focused day to day. Maybe you don’t have a lot of weight to lose but this whole approach can significantly help you cognitively.

In fact, the diet piece was originally formed for cognitive enhancements rather than weight loss.

Before I get into this post I just want to explicitly state that I am not a doctor, medical professional, medical researcher, or any type of medical/health anything. This is not advice, I am just sharing my experience.

You should consult a healthcare professional before doing any of this stuff.

Unhealthy Work Habits

The work habits associated with being an online marketer lend themselves to packing on some weight. Many of us are in front of a screen for large chunks of the day while also being able to take breaks whenever and wherever we want.

Sometimes those two things add up to a rather sedentary lifestyle with poor eating habits (I’m leaving travel out at the moment but that doesn’t help either).

In addition to the mechanics of our jobs being an issue we also tend to work longer/odd hours because all we really need to get a chunk of our work done is a computer or simply access to the internet. If you take all of those things and add them into the large amount of opportunity that exists on the web you have the perfect recipe for unhealthy, stressful work habits.

These habits tend to carry over into offline areas as well. Think about the things we touch or access every day:

  • Computers
  • Tablets
  • Smartphones
  • Search Engines
  • Online Tools
  • Email
  • Instant Messaging
  • Social Networks

What do many of these have in common? Instant “something”. Instant communication, results, gratification, and on and on. This is what we live in every day. We expect and probably prefer fast, instant, and quick. With that mindset, who has time to cook a healthy meal 3x per day on a regular basis? Some do, for sure. However, much like the office work environment this environment can be one that translates into lots of unhealthy habits and poor health.

I got to the point where I was about 40 pounds overweight with poor physicals and lackluster lipid profiles (high cholesterol, blood pressure, etc). I tried many things, many times but what ultimately turned the corner for me were 3 different investments.

Investment #1 - Standup/Sitdown Desk

Sitting down all day is no bueno. I bought a really high quality standup desk with an electrical motor so I can periodically sit down for a few minutes in between longer periods of standing.

It has a nice, wide table component and is quite sturdy. It also allows for different height adjustments via a simple up and down control:

A couple of tips here:

  • Wear comfy shoes
  • Take periodic breaks (I do so hourly) to go walk around the house or office or yard
  • I also like to look away from the CPU every 20-30 minutes or so, sometimes I get eyestrain but I bought these glasses from Gunnar and it’s relieved those symptoms

Investment #2 - Treaddesk

The reason I didn’t buy the full-on treadmill desk is because I wanted a bigger desk with more options. I bought the Treaddesk, which is essentially the bottom part of the treadmill, and I move it around during the week based on my workflow needs:

They have packages available as well (see the above referenced link).

I have a second, much cheaper standup desk that I hacked together from IKEA:

This desk acts as a holder for my coffee stuff but also allows me to put my laptop on it (which is paired with an external keyboard and trackpad) in case I want to do some lighter work (I have a hard time doing deeper work when doing the treadmill part while working).

I move the Treaddesk back and forth sometimes, but mostly it stays with this IKEA desk. If I have a week where the work is not as deeply analytical and more administrative then I’ll walk at a lower speed on the main computer for a longer period of time.

I tend to walk about 5-7 miles a day on this thing, usually in a block of time where I do that lighter-type work (Quickbooks, cobbling reports together, email triage, very light research/writing, reading, and so on).

Investment #3 - Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet

I’m a big fan of Joe Rogan in general, and I enjoy his podcast. I heard about Dave Asprey on the JRE podcast so I eventually ended up on his site, bulletproofexec.com. I purchased some private coaching with the relevant products and I was off to the races.

I did my own research on some of the stuff and came away confident that “good” fat had been erroneously hated on for years. I highly encourage you to conduct your own research based on your own personal situation, again this is not advice.

I really wanted to drop about 50 pounds so I went all in with Bulletproof Intermittent Fasting. A few quick points:

  • I felt great the entire time
  • In rare moments where I was hungry at night I just had a tablespoon of organic honey
  • I certainly felt a cognitive benefit
  • I was never hungry
  • I was much more patient with things 
  • I felt way more focused

So yeah, butter in the coffee and a mostly meat/veggie diet. I cheated from time to time, certainly over the holiday. I lost 38 pounds in slightly over 60 days. Here’s a before and after:

Fat Eric

Not So Fat Eric

I kept this post kind of short and to the point because my desire is not to argue or fight about whether carbs are good or bad, whether fat is good or bad, whether X is right, or whether Y is wrong. This is what worked for me and I was amazed by it, totally amazed by the outcome.

I also do things like cycling and martial arts but I’ve been doing those for awhile, along with running, and while I’ve lost weight I’ve never had it melt away like this.

I’ve stopped the fasting portion and none of the weight has piled back on. Lipid tests have been very positive as well, best in years.

Even if you don’t have a ton of weight to lose, seriously think about the standup desk and treadmill. 

Happy New Year!

My Must Have Tools of 2014

Dec 30th

There are a lot of tools in the SEO space (sorry, couldn't resist :D) and over the years we've seen tools fall into 2 broad categories. Tools that aim to do just about everything and tools that focus on one discipline of online marketing.

As we continue to lose more and more data (not provided) and the data we have access to becomes a bit more unreliable (rankings, competitive research data, data given to us by search engines, etc) one has to wonder at what point does access to a variety of tools start producing diminishing returns?

In other words, if you are starting with unreliable or very, very inexact data does layering more and more extrapolations on top make you worse off than you were before? Probably.

I do think that a fair amount of tool usage scenarios have become less effective (or less necessary) at this point. Consider what were once the cornerstones of industry research and data:

  • Rankings
  • SERP difficulty analysis
  • Link prospecting
  • Competitive link research
  • Analytics

Each one of these areas of data has really taken a beating over the last 2-3 years thanks to collateral damage from broad-reaching, unforgiving Google updates, the loss of actual keyword data, the less obvious relationship between links and rankings, personalized search, various SERP layout changes, and on and on.

I believe the best way forward for evaluating what tools you should be using is to determine what does X best to the point where supplementing it with data from a similar provider is overkill and not worth the extra monthly subscription cost nor the cognitive overhead.

Which Ones to Choose?

Well, this certainly depends on what you do. I'm going to focus on the small to mid-size agency market (which also includes freelancers and folks who just operate their own properties) but for those tetering on mid-large size I'll make 2 recommendations based on personal experience:

If I were operating a bigger agency I'd strongly consider both of those. They both do a really solid job of providing customized reporting and research modules.

For the rest of us, I'll share what I'm using as a basis for my recommendations with reasons why I selected them.

These tools are focused on what I do on a daily basis and are the ones I simply cannot live without. They cover:

  • Reporting
  • Competitive Link & Keyword Research
  • Keyword Research
  • PR and Outreach
  • Advanced Web Ranking

    This is the tool I rely on the most. It does just about everything with the only drawbacks being the learning curve and that it is desktop software. The learning curve payoff is very much worth it though. This tool does the following for me:

    • Reporting for pretty much every aspect of a campaign
    • Interfaces with Majestic SEO for link data as well as data from Moz for link research and tracking
    • Connects to social accounts for reporting
    • Site audit crawls
    • Interfaces with Google Analytics
    • Keyword research
    • Competitor analysis
    • Rankings
    • On-page analysis

    They have a cloud version for reporting and I believe that in the near future a good amount of this functionality will go to its cloud service. This tool is highly recommended.

    Advanced Web Ranking - here's a basic overview of the software from a few years ago, though it has been updated a number of times since then

    Ahrefs

    I remember when this was for sale on Flippa! I find Ahrefs to be very reliable and easy to use. They have added quite a few features over the past year and, in my opinion, they are right up there with Majestic SEO when it comes to relevant, deep link data.

    Their interface has improved dramatically over time and the constant addition of helpful, new features has left other tools playing catchup. I'm hoping to see more integration with them in 2014 via services like Raven and Advanced Web Ranking.

    Ahrefs.com - here's a review from last year (though they no longer offer the SERP tracking feature they offered back then)

    Authority Labs

    The most accurate and stable online rankings provider I've used thus far. The interface has improved recently as has the speed of exports. I would still like to see a bulk PDF export of each individual site in the near future but overall my experience with Authority Labs has been great.

    I use it as a stable, online, automated rank checker to supplement my data from Advanced Web Ranking. It also has some nice features like being able to track rankings from a zip code and showing what else is in the SERP it encounters (videos, snippets, etc).

    Authority Labs - here's a review from 5 months ago

    Buzzstream

    Buzzstream is an absolute must have for anyone doing PR-based and social outreach. The email integration is fantastic and the folks that help me with outreach routinely rave about using Buzzstream.

    The UI has really been turned up recently and the customer support has been excellent for us. I'm positive that our outreach would not be nearly has effective without Buzzstream and there really isn't a competing product out there that I've seen.

    This is a good example of a really niche product that excels at its intended purpose.

    Buzzstream - here's a review from a couple years ago

    Citation Labs Suite

    We use the Contact Finder, Link Prospector, and Broken Link Building tool inside our prospecting process. Much like Buzzstream this is a suite of tools that focuses on a core area and does it very well.

    You have to spend some time with the prospector to get the best queries possible for your searches but the payoff is really relevant, quality link prospects.

    Citation Labs - here's a review from a couple years ago

    Link Research Tools

    While LRT is primarily known for its Link Detox tool, this set of tools covers quite a bit of the SEO landscape. I do not use all the tools in the suite but the areas that I utilize LRT for are:

    • Link cleanup
    • Link prospecting
    • SERP competition analysis
    • Competitive domain comparisons

    It's missing a few pieces but it is similar to Advanced Web Ranking in terms of power and data. LRT hooks into many third party tools (Majestic, SemRush, Moz, etc) so you get a pretty solid overview, in one place, of what you need to see or want to see.

    The prospecting is similar, to an extent, when compared with Citation Labs but you can define specific SEO metrics to prospect filtering as well as base it off of links that appear across multiple sites in a given SERP.

    LinkResearchTools

    Majestic SEO

    Majestic is still the defacto standard for deep link data (both fresh and historical data). They recently launched a new feature called Search Explorer, which is designed to be a specialized search engine devoid of personalization and what not, while showing rankings based on its interpretation of the web graph and how influential a site is for a given term.

    As of this writing, Search Explorer is in Alpha but it does appear to be a really solid innovation from Majestic. The other reason for having a Majestic subscription is to get access to it's API so you can integrate the data however you choose to. I use it (access to the API) inside of LRT and Advanced Web Ranking.

    Majestic SEO - here's a review from a couple years ago by Julie Joyce

    Moz

    I use Moz mainly for access to it's link data via Advanced Web Ranking. Compared to the other tools I use I do not see a ton of value in the rest of its tool suite and I also get data from it via my Raven subscription (which is where I tend to do a fair bit of research).

    If you are on a tight budget it's worthy of consideration for the breadth of tools the subscription offers but I think you could get better options elsewhere if you have some budget to spread around.

    Moz

    Raven Tools

    I don't use every single feature in Raven but I find Raven to be one of the most well-executed, stable tool suites on the market. I use Raven to:

    • Manage keyword lists
    • Research competitors
    • Manage and report on Twitter/Facebook profiles and campaigns
    • Track social mentions
    • Automate site crawls
    • Compare various, customizable metrics between sites
    • Google Analytics and Google/Bing Webmaster tools integration

    In 2014 I'm looking to do more with Raven in the content management area and in the reporting area. I still prefer to supplement GWT rankings data with rankings data from another source (Advanced Web Ranking, Authority Labs, etc) but a goal for 2014, for me, is to fit more reporting into Raven's already excellent reporting engine.

    Raven - here's a review from a few years ago

    SemRush

    In terms of keyword, ranking, and PPC competitive research tools SemRush really has moved ahead of the competition in the past year or so. I use most of the features in the suite:

    • Organic SEO Research
    • PPC keyword and strategy research
    • Multiple domain comparisons covering organic and paid search strategies
    • Yearly historical data feature on a specific domain

    I also like the filtering feature(s) that really help me whittle down keyword data to exactly what I'm looking for without worrying about export limits and such.

    SemRush - here's a review from a few years ago

    SeoBook Community and Tools

    Knowledge is power, naturally. All the tools in the world will not overcome a lack of knowledge. All of the specific, unbiased, actionable business & marketing knowledge that I've received over the last handul of years (and the relationships made) is the single most direct reason for any succcess I've had in this space.

    The SeoBook Toolbar is still one of my most utilized tools. It is data source agnostic, you get data from a variety of sources quickly and reliably. Seo For Firefox takes most of the info in the toolbar and assigns it to each individual listing in a given SERP. Both tools are indispensible to me on the research front.

    We also have some premium tools that I like quite a bit:

    • Local Rank - It scans up to 1,000 Google results and then cross-references links pointing from those sites to the top 10, 20, or 50 results for that same query. The tool operates on the premise that sites that are well linked to from other top ranked results might get an additional ranking boost on some search queries. You can read more about this in a Google patent here.
    • HubFinder - HubFinder looks for sites that have co-occuring links across up to 10 sites on a given topic. This is useful in finding authoritative links that link to competing sites in a given SERP.
    • Duplicate Content Checker - This Firefox extension scans Google for a given block of text to see if others are using the same content. The Duplicate Content Checker searches Google for each sentence wrapped in quotes and links to the results of the search.

    Screaming Frog SEO Spider

    This is my desktop crawler of choice for most sites, it's complimented by Raven's Site Auditor (which can be run automatically) and Advanced Web Ranking's site audit tool in my usage.

    Just about anything you can think of from a site architecture and on-page standpoint can be done with this tool.

    Screaming Frog - a few years ago Branko did a great review

    TermExplorer

    A cloud-based tool that processes large amounts of keywords pretty quickly and does a good job of bringing in terms from multiple sources.

    It also offers a competitive analysis feature that I don't use very much as well as white-label reports. It has pretty slick filtering options for keywords and scans for exact match domains (.com and .net) in addition to CPC and keyword volume data.

    Term Explorer

    Avoid Tool Fatigue

    There is going to be overlap across some of these tools and while the idea of all-in-one sounds nice it rarely works in practice. Clients are different, deliverables are different, and business models are different.

    The trick is to avoid as much overlap as possible between the tools that you use, otherwise you end up wasting time, money, and resources by overthinking whatever it is that you are doing.

    I have less than 20-ish toolsets that I use on an almost daily basis. Some of these are not used daily but definitely monthly. At one point I had access to over 40 different tools. The tools mentioned in this post are the ones that I've found the most value in and gained the most success from.

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