You Can't Copyright Facts

The Facts of Life

When Google introduced the knowledge graph one of their underlying messages behind it was "you can't copyright facts."

Facts are like domain names or links or pictures or anything else in terms of being a layer of information which can be highly valued or devalued through commoditization.

When you search for love quotes, Google pulls one into their site & then provides another "try again" link.

Since quotes mostly come from third parties they are not owned by BrainyQuotes and other similar sites. But here is the thing, if those other sites which pay to organize and verify such collections have their economics sufficiently undermined then they go away & then Google isn't able to pull them into the search results either.

The same is true with song lyrics. If you are one of the few sites paying to license the lyrics & then Google puts lyrics above the search results, then the economics which justified the investment in licensing might not back out & you will likely go bankrupt. That bankruptcy wouldn't be the result of being a spammer trying to work an angle, but rather because you had a higher cost structure from trying to do things the right way.

Never trust a corporation to do a librarian's job.

What's Behind Door Number One?

Google has also done the above quote-like "action item" types of onebox listings in other areas like software downloads

Where there are multiple versions of the software available, Google is arbitrarily selecting the download page, even though a software publisher might have a parallel SAAS option or other complex funnels based on a person's location or status as a student or such.

Mix in Google allowing advertisers to advertise bundled adware, and it becomes quite easy for Google to gum up the sales process and undermine existing brand equity by sending users to the wrong location. Here's a blog post from Malwarebytes referencing

  • their software being advertised on their brand term in Google via AdWords ads, engaging in trademark infringement and bundled with adware.
  • numerous user complaints they received about the bundleware
  • required legal actions they took to take the bundler offline

Brands are forced to buy their own brand equity before, during & after the purchase, or Google partners with parasites to monetize the brand equity:

The company used this cash to build more business, spending more than $1 million through at least seven separate advertising accounts with Google.
...
The ads themselves said things like “McAfee Support - Call +1-855-[redacted US phone number]” and pointed to domains like mcafee-support.pccare247.com.
...
One PCCare247 ad account with Google produced 71.7 million impressions; another generated 12.4 million more. According to records obtained by the FTC, these combined campaigns generated 1.5 million clicks

Since Google requires Chrome extensions be installed from their own website it makes it hard (for anyone other than Google) to monetize them, which in turn makes it appealing for people to sell the ad-ons to malware bundlers. Android apps in the Google Play store are yet another "open" malware ecosystem.

FACT: This Isn't About Facts

Google started the knowledge graph & onebox listings on some utterly banal topics which were easy for a computer to get right, though their ambitions vastly exceed the starting point. The starting point was done where it was because it was low-risk and easy.

When Google's evolving search technology was recently covered on Medium by Steven Levy he shared that today the Knowledge Graph appears on roughly 25% of search queries and that...

Google is also trying to figure out how to deliver more complex results — to go beyond quick facts and deliver more subjective, fuzzier associations. “People aren’t interested in just facts,” she says. “They are interested in subjective things like whether or not the television shows are well-written. Things that could really help take the Knowledge Graph to the next level.”

Even as the people who routinely shill for Google parrot the "you can't copyright facts" mantra, Google is telling you they have every intent of expanding far beyond it. “I see search as the interface to all computing,” says Singhal.

Even if You Have Copyright...

What makes the "you can't copyright facts" line so particularly disingenuous was Google's support of piracy when they purchased YouTube:

cofounder Jawed Karim favored “lax” copyright policy to make YouTube “huge” and hence “an excellent acquisition target.” YouTube at one point added a “report copyrighted content” button to let users report infringements, but removed the button when it realized how many users were reporting unauthorized videos. Meanwhile, YouTube managers intentionally retained infringing videos they knew were on the site, remarking “we should KEEP …. comedy clips (Conan, Leno, etc.) [and] music videos” despite having licenses for none of these. (In an email rebuke, cofounder Steve Chen admonished: “Jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site. We’re going to have a tough time defending the fact that we’re not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn’t put it up when one of the co-founders is blatantly stealing content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it.”)

To some, the separation of branding makes YouTube distinct and separate from Google search, but that wasn't so much the case when many sites lost their video thumbnails and YouTube saw larger thumbnails on many of their listings in Google. In the above Steven Levy article he wrote: "one of the highest ranked general categories was a desire to know “how to” perform certain tasks. So Google made it easier to surface how-to videos from YouTube and other sources, featuring them more prominently in search."

Altruism vs Disruption for the Sake of it

Whenever Google implements a new feature they can choose to not monetize it so as to claim they are benevolent and doing it for users without commercial interest. But that same unmonetized & for users claim was also used with their shopping search vertical until one day it went paid. Google claimed paid inclusion was evil right up until the day it claimed paid inclusion was a necessity to improve user experience.

There was literally no transition period.

Many of the "informational" knowledge block listings contain affiliate links pointing into Google Play or other sites. Those affiliate ads were only labeled as advertisements after the FTC complained about inconsistent ad labeling in search results.

Health is Wealth

Google recently went big on the knowledge graph by jumping head first into the health vertical:

starting in the next few days, when you ask Google about common health conditions, you’ll start getting relevant medical facts right up front from the Knowledge Graph. We’ll show you typical symptoms and treatments, as well as details on how common the condition is—whether it’s critical, if it’s contagious, what ages it affects, and more. For some conditions you’ll also see high-quality illustrations from licensed medical illustrators. Once you get this basic info from Google, you should find it easier to do more research on other sites around the web, or know what questions to ask your doctor.


Google's links to the Mayo Clinic in their knowledge graph are, once again, a light gray font.

In case you didn't find enough background in Google's announcement article, Greg Sterling shared more of Google's views here. A couple notable quotes from Greg...

Cynics might say that Google is moving into yet another vertical content area and usurping third-party publishers. I don’t believe this is the case. Google isn’t going to be monetizing these queries; it appears to be genuinely motivated by a desire to show higher-quality health information and educate users accordingly.

  • Google doesn't need to directly monetize it to impact the economics of the industry. If they shift a greater share of clicks through AdWords then that will increase competition and ad prices in that category while lowering investment in SEO.
  • If this is done out of benevolence, it will appear *above* the AdWords ads on the search results — unlike almost every type of onebox or knowledge graph result Google offers.
  • If it is fair for him to label everyone who disagrees with his thesis as a cynic then it is of course fair for those "cynics" to label Greg Sterling as a shill.

Google told me that it hopes this initiative will help motivate the improvement of health content across the internet.

By defunding and displacing something they don't improve its quality. Rather they force the associated entities to cut their costs to try to make the numbers work.

If their traffic drops and they don't do more with less, then...

  • their margins will fall
  • growth slows (or they may even shrink)
  • their stock price will tank
  • management will get fired & replaced and/or they will get took private by private equity investors and/or they will need to do some "bet the company" moves to find growth elsewhere (and hope Google doesn't enter that parallel area anytime soon)

When the numbers don't work, publishers need to cut back or cut corners.

Things get monetized directly, monetized indirectly, or they disappear.

Some of the more hated aspects of online publishing (headline bait, idiotic correlations out of context, pagination, slideshows, popups, fly in ad units, auto play videos, full page ad wraps, huge ads eating most the above the fold real estate, integration of terrible native ad units promoting junk offers with shocking headline bait, content scraping answer farms, blending unvetted user generated content with house editorial, partnering with content farms to create subdomains on trusted blue chip sites, using Narrative Science or Automated Insights to auto-generate content, etc.) are not done because online publishers want to be jackasses, but because it is hard to make the numbers work in a competitive environment.

Publishers who were facing an "oh crap" moment when seeing print Dollars turn into digital dimes are having round number 2 when they see those digital dimes turn into mobile pennies:

At The New York Times, for instance, more than half its digital audience comes from mobile, yet just 10% of its digital-ad revenue is attributed to these devices.

If we lose some diversity in news it isn't great, though it isn't the end of the world. But what makes health such an important area is it is literally a matter of life & death.

Its importance & the amount of money flowing through the market ensures there is heavy investment in misinforming the general population. The corruption is so bad some people (who should know better) instead fault science.

... and, only those who hate free speech, capitalism, democracy & the country could possibly have anything negative to say about it. :D

Not to worry though. Any user trust built through the health knowledge graph can be monetized through a variety of other fantastic benevolent offers.

Once again, Google puts the user first.

Mozilla Firefox Dumps Google in Favor of Yahoo! Search

Firefox users conduct over 100 billion searches per year & starting in December Yahoo! will be the default search choice in the US, under a new 5 year agreement.

Google has been the Firefox global search default since 2004. Our agreement came up for renewal this year, and we took this as an opportunity to review our competitive strategy and explore our options.

In evaluating our search partnerships, our primary consideration was to ensure our strategy aligned with our values of choice and independence, and positions us to innovate and advance our mission in ways that best serve our users and the Web. In the end, each of the partnership options available to us had strong, improved economic terms reflecting the significant value that Firefox brings to the ecosystem. But one strategy stood out from the rest.

In Russia they'll default to Yandex & in China they'll default to Baidu.

One weird thing about that announcement is there is no mention of Europe & Google's dominance is far greater in Europe. I wonder if there was a quiet deal with Google in Europe, if they still don't have their Europe strategy in place, or what their strategy is.

Added: Danny Sullivan confirmed Google remain the default search engine in Firefox in Europe, though there is no formal financial deal associated with the relationship.

Google paid Firefox roughly $300 million per year for the default search placement. Yahoo!'s annual search revenue is on the order of $1.8 billion per year, so if they came close to paying $300 million a year, then Yahoo! has to presume they are going to get at least a few percentage points of search marketshare lift for this to pay for itself.

It also makes sense that Yahoo! would be a more natural partner fit for Mozilla than Bing would. If Mozilla partnered with Bing they would risk developer blowback from pent up rage about anti-competitive Internet Explorer business practices from 10 or 15 years ago.

It is also worth mentioning our recent post about how Yahoo! boosts search RPM by doing about a half dozen different tricks to preference paid search results while blending in the organic results.

  Yahoo Ads Yahoo Organic Results
Placement top of the page below the ads
Background color none / totally blended none
Ad label small gray text to right of advertiser URL n/a
Sitelinks often 5 or 6 usually none, unless branded query
Extensions star ratings, etc. typically none
Keyword bolding on for title, description, URL & sitelinks off
Underlines ad title & sitelinks, URL on scroll over off
Click target entire background of ad area is clickable only the listing title is clickable

 

Though the revenue juicing stuff from above wasn't present in the screenshot Mozilla shared about Yahoo!'s new clean search layout they will offer Firefox users.

It shows red ad labels to the left of the ads and bolding on both the ads & organics.

Here is Marissa Mayer's take:

At Yahoo, we believe deeply in search – it’s an area of investment and opportunity for us. It’s also a key growth area for us - we’ve now seen 11 consecutive quarters of growth in our search revenue on an ex-TAC basis. This partnership helps to expand our reach in search and gives us an opportunity to work even more closely with Mozilla to find ways to innovate in search, communications, and digital content. I’m also excited about the long-term framework we developed with Mozilla for future product integrations and expansion into international markets.

Our teams worked closely with Mozilla to build a clean, modern, and immersive search experience that will launch first to Firefox’s U.S. users in December and then to all Yahoo users in early 2015.

Even if Microsoft is only getting a slice of the revenues, this makes the Bing organic & ad ecosystem stronger while hurting Google. (Unless of course this is a step 1 before Marissa finds a way to nix the Bing deal and partner back up with Google on search). Yahoo! already has a partnership to run Google contextual ads. A potential Yahoo! Google search partnership was blocked back in 2008. Yahoo! also syndicates Bing search ads in a contextual format to other sites through Media.net and has their Gemini Stream Ads product which powers some of their search ads on mobile devices and on content sites is a native ad alternative to Outbrain and Taboola. When they syndicate the native ads to other sites, the ads are called Yahoo! Recommends.

Both Amazon and eBay have recently defected (at least partially) from the Google ad ecosystem. Amazon has also been pushing to extend their ad network out to other sites.

Greg Sterling worries this might be a revenue risk for Firefox: "there may be some monetary risk for Firefox in leaving Google." Missing from that perspective:

  • How much less Google paid Mozilla before the most recent contract lifted by a competitive bid from Microsoft
  • If Bing goes away, Google will drastically claw down on the revenue share offered to other search partners.
    • Google takes 45% from YouTube publishers
    • Google took over a half-decade (and a lawsuit) to even share what their AdSense revenue share was
    • look at eHow's stock performance
    • While Google's search ad revenue has grown about 20% per year their partner ad network revenues have stagnated as their traffic acquisition costs as a percent of revenue have dropped

The good thing about all the Google defections is the more networks there are the more opportunities there are to find one which works well / is a good fit for whatever you are selling, particularly as Google adds various force purchased junk to their ad network - be it mobile "Enhanced" campaigns or destroying exact match keyword targeting.

Peak Google? Not Even Close

Search vs Native Ads

Google owns search, but are they a one trick pony?

A couple weeks ago Ben Thompson published an interesting article suggesting Google may follow IBM and Microsoft in peaking, perhaps with native ads becoming more dominant than online search ads.

According to Forrester, in a couple years digital ad spend will overtake TV ad spend. In spite of the rise of sponsored content, native isn't even broken out as a category.

Part of the issue with native advertising is it can be blurry to break out some of it. Some of it is obvious, but falls into multiple categories, like video ads on YouTube. Some of it is obvious, but relatively new & thus lacking in scale. Amazon is extending their payment services & Prime shipping deals to third party sites of brands like AllSaints & listing inventory from those sites on Amazon.com, selling them traffic on a CPC basis. Does that count as native advertising? What about a ticket broker or hotel booking site syndicating their inventory to a meta search site?

And while native is not broken out, Google already offers native ad management features in DoubleClick and has partnered with some of the more well known players like BuzzFeed.

The Penny Gap's Impact on Search

Time intends to test paywalls on all of its major titles next year & they are working with third parties to integrate affiliate ads on sites like People.com.

The second link in the above sentence goes to an article which is behind a paywall. On Twitter I often link to WSJ articles which are behind a paywall. Any important information behind a paywall may quickly spread beyond it, but typically a competing free site which (re)reports on whatever is behind the paywall is shared more, spreads further on social, generates more additional coverage on forums and discussion sites like Hacker News, gets highlighted on aggregators like TechMeme, gets more links, ranks higher, and becomes the default/canonical source of the story.

Part of the rub of the penny gap is the cost of the friction vastly exceeds the financial cost. Those who can flow attention around the payment can typically make more by tracking and monetizing user behavior than they could by charging users incrementally a cent here and a nickel there.

Well known franchises are forced to offer a free version or they eventually cede their market position.

There are sites which do roll up subscriptions to a variety of sites at once, but some of them which had stub articles requiring payment to access like Highbeam Research got torched by Panda. If the barrier to entry to get to the content is too high the engagement metrics are likely to be terrible & a penalty ensues. Even a general registration wall is too high of a barrier to entry for some sites. Google demands whatever content is shown to them be visible to end users & if there is a miss match that is considered cloaking - unless the miss match is due to monetizing by using Google's content locking consumer surveys.

Who gets to the scale needed to have enough consumer demand to be able to charge an ongoing subscription for access to a variety of third party content? There are a handful of players in music (Apple, Spotify, Pandora, etc) & a handful of players in video (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime), but outside of those most paid subscription sites are about finance or niche topics with small scale. And whatever goes behind the paywalls gets seen by almost nobody when compared against to the broader public market at the free pricepoint.

Even if you are in a broad niche industry where a subscription-based model works, it still may be brutally tough to compete against Google. Google's chief business officer joined the board of Spotify, which means Spotify should be safe from Google risk, except...

Google's Impact on Premium Content

I've long argued Google has leveraged piracy to secure favorable media deals (see the second bullet point at the bottom of this infographic). Some might have perceived my take as being cynical, but when Google mentioned their "continued progress on fighting piracy" the first thing they mentioned was more ad units.

There are free options, paid options & the blurry lines in between which Google & YouTube ride while they experiment with business models and monetize the flow of traffic to the paid options.

"Tech companies don’t believe in the unique value of premium content over the long term." - Jessica Lessin

There is a massive misalignment of values which causes many players to have to refine their strategy over and over again. The gray area is never static.

Many businesses only have a 10% or 15% profit margin. An online publishing company which sees 20% of its traffic disappear might thus go from sustainable to bleeding cash overnight. A company which can arbitrarily shift / redirect a large amount of traffic online might describe itself as a "kingmaker."

In Germany some publishers wanted to be paid to be in the Google index. As a result Google stopped showing snippets near their listings. Google also refined their news search integration into the regular search results to include a broader selection of sources including social sites like Reddit. As a result Axel Springer quickly found itself begging for things to go back to the way they were before as their Google search traffic declined 40% and their Google News traffic declined 80%. Axel Springer got their descriptions back, but the "in the news" change remains.

Google's Impact on Weaker Players

If Google could have that dramatic of an impact on Axel Springer, imagine what sort of influence they have on millions of other smaller and weaker online businesses.

One of the craziest examples is Demand Media.

Demand Media's market cap peaked above $1.9 billion. They spun out the domain name portion of the business into a company named Rightside Group, but the content portion of the business is valued at essentially nothing. They have about $40 million in cash & equivalents. Earlier this year they acquired Saatchi Art for $17 million & last year they acquired ecommerce marketplace Society6 for $94 million. After their last quarterly result their stock closed down 16.83% & Thursday they were down another 6.32%, given them a market capitalization of $102 million.

On their most recent conference call, here are some of the things Demand Media executives stated:

  • By the end of 2014, we anticipate more than 50.000 articles will be substantially improved by rewrites made rich with great visuals.
  • We are well underway with this push for quality and will remove $1.8 million underperforming articles in Q4
  • as we strive to create the best experience we can we have removed two ad units with the third unit to be removed completely by January 1st
  • (on the above 2 changes) These changes are expected to have a negative impact on revenues and adjusted EBITDA of approximately $15 million on an annualized basis.
  • Through Q3 we have invested $1.1 million in content renovation costs and expect approximately another $1 million in Q4 and $2 million to $4 million in the first half of next year.
  • if you look at visits or you know the mobile mix is growing which has lower CPM associated with it and then also on desktop we're seeing compression on the pricing line as well.
  • we know that sites that have ad density that's too high, not only are they offending audiences in near term, you are penalized with respect to where you show up in search indexes as well.

Google torched eHow in April of 2011. In spite of over 3 years of pain, Demand Media is still letting Google drive their strategy, in some cases spending millions of dollars to undo past investments.

Yet when you look at Google's search results page, they are doing the opposite of the above strategy: more scraping of third party content coupled with more & larger ad units.

Originally the source links in the scrape-n-displace program were light gray. They only turned blue after a journalist started working on a story about 10 blue links.

The Blend

The search results can be designed to have some aspects blend in while others stand out. Colors can change periodically to alter response rates in desirable ways.

The banner ad got a bad rap as publishers have fought declining CPMs by adding more advertisements to their pages. When it works, Google's infrastructure still delivers (and tracks) billions of daily banner ads.

Search ads have never had the performance decline banner ads have.

The closest thing Google ever faced on that front was when AdBlock Plus became popular. Since it was blocking search ads, Google banned them & then restored them as they eventually negotiated a deal to pay them to display ads on Google while they continued to block ads on other third party sites.

Search itself *is* the ultimate native advertising platform.

Google is doing away with the local carousel in favor of a 3 pack local listing in categories like hotels. Once a person clicks on one of the hotel listings, Google then inserts an inline knowledge graph listing for that hotel with booking affiliate links inline in the search results, displacing the organic result set below the fold.

Notice in the above graphic how the "website" link uses generic text, is aligned toward the right, and is right next to an image so that it looks like an ad. It is engineered to feel like an ad and be ignored. The actual ads are left aligned and look like regular text links. They have an ad label, but that label is a couple lines up from them & there are multiple horizontal lines between the label and the actual ad units.

Not only does Google have the ability to shift the layout in such a drastic format, but then with whatever remains they also get to determine who they act against & who they don't. While the SEO industry debates the "ethics" of various marketing techniques Google has their eye on the prize & is displacing the entire ecosystem wholesale.

Users were generally unable to distinguish between ads and organic listings *before* Google started mixing the two in their knowledge graph. That is a big part of the reason search ads have never seen the engagement declines banner ads have seen.

Mobile has been redesigned with the same thinking in mind. Google action items (which can eventually be monetized) up top & everything else pushed down the page.

The blurring of "knowledge" and ads allows Google to test entering category after category (like doctor calls from the search results) & forcing advertisers to pay for the various tests while Google collects data.

And as Google is scraping information from third party sites, they can choose to show less information on their own site if doing so creates additional monetization opportunities. As far back as 2009 Google stripped phone numbers off of non-sponsored map listings. And what happened with the recent 3 pack? While 100% of the above the fold results are monetized, ...

"Go back to an original search that turns up the 3 PAC. Its completely devoid of logical information that a searcher would want:

  • No phone number
  • No address
  • No map
  • NO LINK to the restaurant website.

Anything that most users would want is deliberately hidden and/or requires more clicks." - Dave Oremland

Google justifies their scrape-n-displace programs by claiming they are put users first. Then they hide some of the information to drive incremental monetization opportunities. Google may eventually re-add some of those basic features which are now hidden, but as part of sponsored local listings.

After all - ads are the solution to everything.

Do branded banner ads in the search results have a low response rate? Or are advertisers unwilling to pay a significant sum for them? If so, Google can end the test and instead shift to include a product carousel in the search results, driving traffic to Google Shopping.

"I see this as yet another money grab by Google. Our clients typically pay 400-500% more for PLA clicks than for clicks on their PPC Brand ads. We will implement exact match brand negatives in Shopping campaigns." - Barb Young

That money grab stuff has virtually no limit.

The Click Casino

Off the start keywords defaulted to broad match. Then campaigns went "enhanced" so advertisers were forced to eat lower quality clicks on mobile devices.

Then there was the blurring exact match targeting into something else, forcing advertisers to buy lower quality variations of searches & making them add tons of negative keywords (and keep eating new garbage re-interpretations of words) in order to run a fine tuned campaign specifically targeted against a term.

In the past some PPC folks cheered obfuscation of organic search, thinking "this will never happen to me."

Oops.

And of course Google not only wants to be the ad auction, but they want to be your SEM platform managing your spend & they are suggesting you can leverage the "power" of automated auction time biding.

Advertisers RAVE about the success of Google's automatic bidding features: "It received one click. That click cost $362.63."

The only thing better than that is banner ads in free mobile tap games targeted at children.

Adding Friction

Above I mentioned how Google arbitrarily banned the AdBlock Plus extension from the Play store. They also repeatedly banned Disconnect Mobile. If you depend on mobile phones for distribution it is hard to get around Google. What's more they also collect performance data, internally launch competing apps, and invest in third party apps. And they control the prices various apps pay for advertising across their broad network.

So maybe you say "ok, I'll skip search & mobile, I'll try to leverage email" but this gets back to the same issue again. In Gmail social or promotional emails get quarantined into a ghetto where they are rarely seen:

"online stores, if they get big enough, can act as chokepoints. And so can Google. ... Google unilaterally misfiled my daily blog into the promotions folder they created, and I have no recourse and no way (other than this post) to explain the error to them" - Seth Godin

Those friction adders have real world consequences. A year ago Groupon blamed Gmail's tabs for causing them to have poor quarterly results. The filtering impact on a start up can be even more extreme. A small shift in exposure can lower the K factor to something below 1 & require the startups to buy exposure rather than generating it virally.

In addition to those other tabs, there are a host of other risks like being labeled as spam or having a security warning. Few sites are as widely read inside the Googleplex as Search Engine Land, yet at one point even their newsletter was showing a warning in Gmail.

Google can also add friction to

  • websites using search rankings, vertical search result displacement, hiding local business information (as referenced above), search query suggestions, and/or leveraging their web browser to redirect consumer intent
  • video on YouTube by counting ad views as organic views, changing the relevancy metrics, and investing in competing channels & giving them preferential exposure as part of the deal. YouTube gets over half their views on mobile devices with small screens, so any shift on Google's rank preference is going to have a major shift in click distributions.
  • mobile apps using default bundling agreements which require manufactures to set Google's apps as defaults
  • other business models by banning bundling-based business models too similar to their own (bundling is wrong UNLESS it is Google doing it)
  • etc.

The launch of Keyword (not provided) which hid organic search keyword data was friction for the sake of it in organic search. When Google announced HTTPS as a ranking signal, Netmeg wrote: "It's about ad targeting, and who gets to profile you, and who doesn't. Mark my words."

Facebook announced their relaunch of Atlas and Google immediately started cracking down on data access:

In the conversations this week, with companies like Krux, BlueKai and Lotame, Google told data management platform players that they could not use pixels in certain ads. The pixels—embedded within digital ads—help marketers target and understand how many times a given user has seen their messages online.

"Google is only allowing data management platforms to fire pixels on creative assets that they're serving, on impressions they bought, through the Google Display Network," said Mike Moreau, chief solutions officer at Krux. "So they're starting with a very narrow scope."

Around the same time Google was cracking down on data sharing, they began offering features targeting consumers across devices & announced custom affinity audiences which allow advertisers to target audiences who visit any particular website.

Google's special role is not only as an organizer (and obfuscator) of information, but then they get to be the source measuromg how well marketing works via their analytics, which can regularly launch new reports which may causually over-represent their own contribution while under-representing some other channels, profiting from activity bias. The industry default of last click attribution driving search ad spending is one of the key issues which has driven down display ad values over the years.

Investing in Competition

Google not only ranks the ecosystem, but they actively invest in it.

Google tried to buy Yelp. When Facebook took off Google invested in Zynga to get access to data, in spite of a sketchy background. When Google's $6 billion offer for Groupon didn't close the deal, Google quickly partnered with over a dozen Groupon competitors & created new offer ad units in the search results.

Inside of the YouTube ecosystem Google also holds equity stakes in leading publishers like Machinima and Vevo.

There have been a few examples of investments getting special treatment, getting benefit of the doubt, or access to non-public information.

The scary scenario for publishers might sound something like this: "in Baidu Maps you can find a hotel, check room availability, and make a booking, all inside the app." There's no need to leave the search engine.

Take a closer look & that scary version might already be here. Google's same day delivery boss moved to Uber and Google added Uber pickups and price estimates to their mobile Maps app.

Google, of course, also invested in Uber. It would be hard to argue that Uber is anything but successful. Though it is also worth mentioning winning at any cost often creates losses elsewhere:

Google invests in disruption as though disruption is its own virtue & they leverage their internal data to drive the investments:

“If you can’t measure and quantify it, how can you hope to start working on a solution?” said Bill Maris, managing partner of Google Ventures. “We have access to the world’s largest data sets you can imagine, our cloud computer infrastructure is the biggest ever. It would be foolish to just go out and make gut investments.”

Combining usage data from their search engine, web browser, app store & mobile OS gives them unparalleled insights into almost any business.

Google is one of the few companies which can make multi-billion dollar investments in low margin areas, just for the data:

Google executives are prodding their engineers to make its public cloud as fast and powerful as the data centers that run its own apps. That push, along with other sales and technology initiatives, aren’t just about grabbing a share of growing cloud revenue. Executives increasingly believe such services could give Google insights about what to build next, what companies to buy and other consumer preferences

Google committed to spending as much as a half billion dollars promoting their shopping express delivery service.

Google's fiber push now includes offering business internet services. Elon Musk is looking into offering satellite internet services - with an ex-Googler.

The End Game

Google now spends more than any other company on federal lobbying in the US. A steady stream of Google executives have filled US government rolls like deputy chief technology officer, chief technology officer, and head of the patent and trademark office. A Google software engineer went so far as suggesting President Obama

  • Retire all government employees with full pensions.
  • Transfer administrative authority to the tech industry.
  • Appoint Eric Schmidt CEO of America.

That Googler may be crazy or a troll, but even if we don't get their nightmare scenario, if the regulators come from a particular company, that company is unlikely to end up hurt by regulations.

President Obama has stated the importance of an open internet: “We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas.”

If there are relevant complaints about Google, who will hear them when Googlers head key government roles?

Larry Page was recently labeled businessperson of the year by Fortune:

It’s a powerful example of how Page pushes the world around him into his vision of the future. “The breadth of things that he is taking on is staggering,” says Ben Horowitz, of Andreessen Horowitz. “We have not seen that kind of business leader since Thomas Edison at GE or David Packard at HP.”

A recent interview of Larry Page in the Financial Times echos the theme of limitless ambition:

  • "the world’s most powerful internet company is ready to trade the cash from its search engine monopoly for a slice of the next century’s technological bonanza." ... "As Page sees it, it all comes down to ambition – a commodity of which the world simply doesn’t have a large enough supply."
  • “I think people see the disruption but they don’t really see the positive,” says Page. “They don’t see it as a life-changing kind of thing . . . I think the problem has been people don’t feel they are participating in it.”
  • “Even if there’s going to be a disruption on people’s jobs, in the short term that’s likely to be made up by the decreasing cost of things we need, which I think is really important and not being talked about.”
  • "in a capitalist system, he suggests, the elimination of inefficiency through technology has to be pursued to its logical conclusion."

There are some dark layers which are apparently "incidental side effects" of the techno-utopian desires.

Mental flaws could be reinforced & monetized by hooking people on prescription pharmaceuticals:

It takes very little imagination to foresee how the kitchen mood wall could lead to advertisements for antidepressants that follow you around the Web, or trigger an alert to your employer, or show up on your Facebook page because, according to Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, Facebook “wants to build a system that anticipates your needs.”

Or perhaps...

Those business savings are crucial to Rifkin’s vision of the Third Industrial Revolution, not simply because they have the potential to bring down the price of consumer goods, but because, for the first time, a central tenet of capitalism—that increased productivity requires increased human labor—will no longer hold. And once productivity is unmoored from labor, he argues, capitalism will not be able to support itself, either ideologically or practically.

That is not to say "all will fail" due to technology. Some will succeed wildly.

Michelle Phan has been able to leverage her popularity on YouTube to launch a makeup subscription service which is at an $84 million per year revenue run rate.

Those at the top of the hierarchy will get an additional boost. Such edge case success stories will be marketed offline to pull more people onto the platform.

While a "star based" compensation system makes a few people well off, most people publishing on those platforms won't see any financial benefit from their efforts. Worse yet, a lot of the "viral" success stories are driven by a large ad budget.

Even Google has done research on income inequality in attention economies - and that was before they dialed up their brand bias stuff.

Category after category gets commoditized, platform after platform gets funded by Google, and ultimately employees working on them will long for the days where their wages were held down by illegal collusion rather than the crowdsourcing fate they face:

Workers, in turn, have more mobility and a semblance of greater control over their working lives. But is any of it worth it when we can’t afford health insurance or don’t know how much the next gig might pay, or when it might come? When an app’s terms of service agreement is the closest thing we have to an employment contract? When work orders come through a smartphone and we know that if we don’t respond immediately, we might not get such an opportunity again? When we can’t even talk to another human being about the task at hand and we must work nonstop just to make minimum wage?

Just as people get commoditized, so do other layers of value:

In SEO for a number of years many people have painted brand as the solution to everything. But consider the hotel search results which are 100% monetized above the fold - even if you have a brand, you still must pay to play. Or consider the Google Shopping ads which are now being tested on branded navigational searches.

Google even obtained a patent for targeting ads aimed at monetizing named entities.

You paid to build the brand. Then you pay Google again - "or else."

One could choose to opt out of Google ad products so as not to pay to arbitrage themselves, but Google is willing to harm their own relevancy to extract revenues.

A search in the UK for the trademark term [cheapflights] is converted into the generic search [cheap flights]. The official site is ranking #2 organically and is the 20th clickable link in the left rail of the search results.

As much as brand is an asset, it also becomes a liability if you have to pay again for every time someone looks for your brand.

Mobile apps may be a way around Google, but again it is worth noting Google owns the operating system and guarantees themselves default placement across a wide array of verticals through bundling contracts with manufacturers. Another thing worth considering with mobile is new notification features tied to the operating systems are unbundling apps & Google has apps like Google Now which tie into many verticals.

As SEOs for a long time we had value in promoting the adoption of Google's ecosystem. As Google attempts to capture more value than they create we may no longer gain by promoting the adoption of their ecosystem, but given their...

  • cash hoard
  • lobbyists
  • ex-employees in key government rolls
  • control over video, mobile, apps, maps, email, analytics (along with search)
  • broad portfolio of investments

... it is hard to think they've come anywhere close to peaking.

Gain a Competitive Advantage Today

Your top competitors have been investing into their marketing strategy for years.

Now you can know exactly where they rank, pick off their best keywords, and track new opportunities as they emerge.

Explore the ranking profile of your competitors in Google and Bing today using SEMrush.

Enter a competing URL below to quickly gain access to their organic & paid search performance history - for free.

See where they rank & beat them!

  • Comprehensive competitive data: research performance across organic search, AdWords, Bing ads, video, display ads, and more.
  • Compare Across Channels: use someone's AdWords strategy to drive your SEO growth, or use their SEO strategy to invest in paid search.
  • Global footprint: Tracks Google results for 120+ million keywords in many languages across 28 markets
  • Historical data: since 2009, before Panda and Penguin existed, so you can look for historical penalties and other potential ranking issues.
  • Risk-free: Free trial & low price.
Your competitors, are researching your site

Find New Opportunities Today

How Does Yahoo! Increase Search Ad Clicks?

One wonders how Yahoo Search revenues keep growing even as Yahoo's search marketshare is in perpetual decline.

Then one looks at a Yahoo SERP and quickly understands what is going on.

Here's a Yahoo SERP test I saw this morning

I sometimes play a "spot the difference" game with my wife. She's far better at it than I am, but even to a blind man like me there are about a half-dozen enhancements to the above search results to juice ad clicks. Some of them are hard to notice unless you interact with the page, but here's a few of them I noticed...

  Yahoo Ads Yahoo Organic Results
Placement top of the page below the ads
Background color none / totally blended none
Ad label small gray text to right of advertiser URL n/a
Sitelinks often 5 or 6 usually none, unless branded query
Extensions star ratings, etc. typically none
Keyword bolding on for title, description, URL & sitelinks off
Underlines ad title & sitelinks, URL on scroll over off
Click target entire background of ad area is clickable only the listing title is clickable

 

What is even more telling about how Yahoo disadvantages the organic result set is when one of their verticals is included in the result set they include the bolding which is missing from other listings. Some of their organic result sets are crazy with the amount of vertical inclusions. On a single result set I've seen separate "organic" inclusions for

  • Yahoo News
  • stories on Yahoo
  • Yahoo Answers

They also have other inclusions like shopping search, local search, image search, Yahoo screen, video search, Tumblr and more.

Here are a couple examples.

This one includes an extended paid affiliate listing with SeatGeek & Tumblr.

This one includes rich formatting on Instructibles and Yahoo Answers.

This one includes product search blended into the middle of the organic result set.

Google SEO Services (BETA)

When Google acquired DoubleClick Larry Page wanted to keep the Performics division offering SEM & SEO services just to see what would happen. Other Google executives realized the absurd conflict of interest and potential anti trust issues, so they overrode ambitious Larry: "He wanted to see how those things work. He wanted to experiment."

Webmasters have grown tired of Google's duplicity as the search ecosystem shifts to pay to play, or go away.

Google's webmaster guidelines can be viewed as reasonable and consistent or as an anti-competitive tool. As Google eats the ecosystem, those thrown under the bus shift their perspective.

Within some sectors larger players can repeatedly get scrutiny for the same offense with essentially no response, whereas smaller players operating in that same market are slaughtered because they are small.

Access to lawyers, politicians & media outlets = access to benefit of the doubt.

Lack those & BEST OF LUCK TO YOU ;)

Google's page asking "Do you need an SEO?" uses terms like: scam, illicit and deceptive to help frame the broader market perception of SEO.

If ranking movements appear random & non-linear then it is hard to make sense of continued ongoing investment. The less stable Google makes the search ecosystem, the worse they make SEOs look, as...

  • anytime a site ranks better, that anchors the baseline expectation of where rankings should be
  • large rank swings create friction in managing client communications
  • whenever search traffic falls drastically it creates real world impacts on margins, employment & inventory levels

Matt Cutts stated it is a waste of resources for him to be a personal lightning rod for criticism from black hat SEOs. When Matt mentioned he might not go back to his old role at Google some members of the SEO industry were glad. In response some other SEOs mentioned black hats have nobody to blame but themselves & it is their fault for automating things.

After all, it is not like Google arbitrarily shifts their guidelines overnight and drastically penalizes websites to a disproportionate degree ex-post-facto for the work of former employees, former contractors, mistaken/incorrect presumed intent, third party negative SEO efforts, etc.

Oh ... wait ... let me take that back.

Indeed Google DOES do that, which is where much of the negative sentiment Matt complained about comes from.

Recall when Google went after guest posts, a site which had a single useful guest post on it got a sitewide penalty.

Around that time it was noted Auction.com had thousands of search results for text which was in some of their guest posts.

About a month before the guest post crack down, Auction.com received a $50 million investment from Google Capital.

  • Publish a single guest post on your site = Google engineers shoot & ask questions later.
  • Publish a duplicated guest post on many websites, with Google investment = Google engineers see it as a safe, sound, measured, reasonable, effective, clean, whitehat strategy.

The point of highlighting that sort of disconnect was not to "out" someone, but rather to highlight the (il)legitimacy of the selective enforcement. After all, ...

But perhaps Google has decided to change their practices and have a more reasonable approach to the SEO industry.

An encouraging development on this front was when Auction.com was once again covered in Bloomberg. They not only benefited from leveraging Google's data and money, but Google also offered them another assist:

Closely held Auction.com, which is valued at $1.2 billion, based on Google’s stake, also is working with the Internet company to develop mobile and Web applications and improve its search-engine optimization for marketing, Sharga said.

"In a capitalist system, [Larry Page] suggests, the elimination of inefficiency through technology has to be pursued to its logical conclusion." ― Richard Waters

With that in mind, one can be certain Google didn't "miss" the guest posts by Auction.com. Enforcement is selective, as always.

“The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” ― Vladimir Lenin

Whether you turn left or right, the road leads to the same goal.

Use Verticals To Increase Reach

In the last post, we looked at how SEO has always been changing, but one thing remains constant - the quest for information.

Given people will always be on a quest for information, and given there is no shortage of information, but there is limited time, then there will always be a marketing imperative to get your information seen either ahead of the competition, or in places where the competition haven’t yet targeted.

Channels

My take on SEO is broad because I’m concerned with the marketing potential of the search process, rather than just the behaviour of the Google search engine. We know the term SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s never been particularly accurate, and less so now, because what most people are really talking about is not SEO, but GO.

Google Optimization.

Still, the term SEO has stuck. The search channel used to have many faces, including Alta Vista, Inktomi, Ask, Looksmart, MSN, Yahoo, Google and the rest, hence the label SEO. Now, it’s pretty much reduced down to one. Google. Okay, there’s BingHoo, but really, it’s Google, 24/7.

We used to optimize for multiple search engines because we had to be everywhere the visitor was, and the search engines had different demographics. There was a time when Google was the choice of the tech savvy web user. These days, “search” means “Google”. You and your grandmother use it.

But people don’t spend most of their time on Google.

Search Beyond Google

The techniques for SEO are widely discussed, dissected, debated, ridiculed, encouraged and we’ve heard all of them, many times over. And that’s just GO.

The audience we are trying to connect with, meanwhile, is on a quest for information. On their quest for information, they will use many channels.

So, who is Google’s biggest search competitor? Bing? Yahoo?

Eric Schmidt thinks it’s Amazon:

Many people think our main competition is Bing or Yahoo," he said during a visit to a Native Instruments, software and hardware company in Berlin. "But, really, our biggest search competitor is Amazon. People don't think of Amazon as search, but if you are looking for something to buy, you are more often than not looking for it on Amazon….Schmidt noted that people are looking for a different kind of answers on Amazon's site through the slew of reviews and product pages, but it's still about getting information

An important point. For the user, it’s all about “getting information”. In SEO, verticals are often overlooked.

Client Selection & Getting Seen In The Right Places

I'm going to digress a little....how do you select clients, or areas to target?

I like to start from the audience side of the equation. Who are the intended audience, what does that audience really need, and where, on the web, are they? I then determine if it’s possible/plausible to position well for this intended audience within a given budget.

There is much debate amongst SEOs about what happens inside the Google black box, but we all have access to Google’s actual output in the form of search results. To determine the level of competition, examine the search results. Go through the top ten or twenty results for a few relevant keywords and see which sites Google favors, and try to work out why.

Once you look through the results and analyze the competition, you’ll get a good feel for what Google likes to see in that specific sector. Are the search results heavy on long-form information? Mostly commercial entities? Are sites large and established? New and up and coming? Do the top sites promote visitor engagement? Who links to them and why? Is there a lot news mixed in? Does it favor recency? Are Google pulling results from industry verticals?

It’s important to do this analysis for each project, rather than rely on prescriptive methods. Why? Because Google treats sectors differently. What works for “travel” SEO may not work for “casino” SEO because Google may be running different algorithms.

Once you weed out the wild speculation about algorithms, SEO discussion can contain much truth. People convey their direct experience and will sometimes outline the steps they took to achieve a result. However, often specific techniques aren't universally applicable due to Google treating topic areas differently. So spend a fair bit of time on competitive analysis. Look closely at the specific results set you’re targeting to discover what is really working for that sector, out in the wild.

It’s at this point where you’ll start to see cross-overs between search and content placement.

The Role Of Verticals

You could try and rank for term X, and you could feature on a site that is already ranked for X. Perhaps Google is showing a directory page or some industry publication. Can you appear on that directory page or write an article for this industry publication? What does it take to get linked to by any of these top ten or twenty sites?

Once search visitors find that industry vertical, what is their likely next step? Do they sign up for a regular email? Can you get placement on those emails? Can you get an article well placed in some evergreen section on their site? Can you advertise on their site? Figure out how visitors would engage with that site and try to insert yourself, with grace and dignity, into that conversation.

Users may by-pass Google altogether and go straight to verticals. If they like video then YouTube is the obvious answer. A few years ago when Google was pushing advertisers to run video ads they pitched YouTube as the #2 global search engine. What does it take to rank in YouTube in your chosen vertical? Create videos that will be found in YouTube search results, which may also appear on Google’s main search results.

With 200,000 videos uploaded per day, more than 600 years required to view all those videos, more than 100 million videos watched daily, and more than 300 million existing accounts, if you think YouTube might not be an effective distribution channel to reach prospective customers, think again.

There's a branding parallel here too. If the field of SEO is too crowded, you can brand yourself as the expert in video SEO.

There’s also the ubiquitous Facebook.

Facebook, unlike the super-secret Google, has shared their algorithm for ranking content on Facebook and filtering what appears in the news feed. The algorithm consists of three components…..

If you’re selling stuff, then are you on Amazon? Many people go directly to Amazon to begin product searches, information gathering and comparisons. Are you well placed on Amazon? What does it take to be placed well on Amazon? What are people saying? What are their complaints? What do they like? What language do they use?

In 2009, nearly a quarter of shoppers started research for an online purchase on a search engine like Google and 18 percent started on Amazon, according to a Forrester Research study. By last year, almost a third started on Amazon and just 13 percent on a search engine. Product searches on Amazon have grown 73 percent over the last year while searches on Google Shopping have been flat, according to comScore

All fairly obvious, but may help you think about channels and verticals more, rather than just Google. The appropriate verticals and channels will be different for each market sector, of course. And they change over time as consumer tastes & behaviors change. At some point each of these were new: blogging, Friendster, MySpace, Digg, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, etc.

This approach will also help us gain a deeper understanding of the audience and their needs - particularly the language people use, the questions they ask, and the types of things that interest them most - which can then be fed back into your search strategy. Emulate whatever works in these verticals. Look to create a unique, deep collection of insights about your chosen keyword area. This will in turn lead to strategic advantage, as your competition is unlikely to find such specific information pre-packaged.

This could also be characterised as “content marketing”, which it is, although I like to think of it all as “getting in front of the visitors quest for information”. Wherever the visitors are, that’s where you go, and then figure out how to position well in that space.

The Only Thing Certain In SEO Is Change

SEO is subject to frequent change, but in the last year or two, the changes feel both more frequent and significant than changes in the past. Florida hit in 2003. Since then, it’s like we get a Florida every six months.

Whenever Google updates the underlying landscape, the strategies need to change in order to deal with it. No fair warning. That’s not the game.

From Tweaks To Strategy

There used to be a time when SEOs followed a standard prescription. Many of us remember a piece of software called Web Position Gold.

Web Position Gold emerged when SEO could be reduced to a series of repeatable - largely technical - steps. Those steps involved adding keywords to a page, repeating those keywords in sufficient density, checking a few pieces of markup, then scoring against an “ideal” page. Upload to web. Add a few links. Wait a bit. Run a web ranking report. Viola! You’re an SEO. In all but the most competitive areas, this actually worked.

Seems rather quaint these days.

These days, you could do all of the above and get nowhere. Or you might get somewhere, but when so many more factors in play, they can’t be isolated to an individual page score. If the page is published on a site with sufficient authority, it will do well almost immediately. If it appears on a little known site, it may remain invisible for a long time.

Before Google floated in 2004, they released an investor statement signalling SEO - well, “index spammers” - as a business risk. If you ever want to know what Google really feels about people who “manipulate” their results, it’s right here:

We are susceptible to index spammers who could harm the integrity of our web search results.

There is an ongoing and increasing effort by “index spammers” to develop ways to manipulate our web search results. For example, because our web search technology ranks a web page’s relevance based in part on the importance of the web sites that link to it, people have attempted to link a group of web sites together to manipulate web search results. We take this problem very seriously because providing relevant information to users is critical to our success. If our efforts to combat these and other types of index spamming are unsuccessful, our reputation for delivering relevant information could be diminished. This could result in a decline in user traffic, which would damage our business.

SEO competes with the Adwords business model. So, Google “take very seriously” the activities of those who seek to figure out the algorithms, reverse engineer them, and create push-button tools like Web Position Gold. We’ve had Florida, and Panda, and Penguin, and Hummingbird, all aimed at making the search experience better for users, whilst having the pleasant side effect, as far as Google is concerned, of making life more difficult for SEOs.

I think the key part of Google’s statement was “delivering relevant information”.

From Technical Exercise To PR

SEO will always involve technical aspects. You get down into code level and mark it up. The SEO needs to be aware of development and design and how those activities can affect SEO. The SEO needs to know how web servers work, and how spiders can sometimes fail to deal with their quirks.

But in the years since Florida, marketing aspects have become more important. An SEO can perform the technical aspects of SEO and get nowhere. More recent algorithms, such as Panda and Penguin, gauge the behaviour of users, as Google tries to determine information quality of pages. Hummingbird attempts to discover the intent that lays behind keywords.

As a result, Keyword-based SEO is in the process of being killed off. Google withholds keyword referrer data and their various algorithms attempt to deliver pages based on a users intent and activity - both prior and present - in order to deliver relevant information. Understanding the user, having a unique and desirable offering, and a defensible market position is more important than any keyword markup. The keyword match, on which much SEO is based, is not an approach that is likely to endure.

The emphasis has also shifted away from the smaller operators and now appears to favour brands. This occurs not because brands are categorized as “brands”, but due to the side effects of significant PR activities. Bigger companies tend to run multiple advertising and PR campaigns, so produce signals Google finds favorable i.e. search volume on company name, semantic associations with products and services, frequent links from reputable media, and so on. This flows through into rank. And it also earns them leeway when operating in the gray area where manual penalties are handed out to smaller & weaker entities for the same activities.

Rankings

Apparently, Google killed off toolbar PageRank.

We will probably not going to be updating it [PageRank] going forward, at least in the Toolbar PageRank.

A few people noted it, but the news won't raise many eyebrows as toolbar PR has long since become meaningless. Are there any SEOs altering what they do based on toolbar PR? It’s hard to imagine why. The reality is that an external PR value might indicate an approximate popularity level, but this isn’t an indicator of the subsequent ranking a link from such a page will deliver. There are too many other factors involved. If Google are still using an internal PR metric, it’s likely to be a significantly more complicated beast than was revealed in 1997.

A PageRank score is a proxy for authority. I’m quite sure Google kept it going as an inside joke.

A much more useful proxy for authority are the top ten pages in any niche. Google has determined all well-ranking pages have sufficient authority, and no matter what the toolbar, or any other third-party proxy, says, it’s Google’s output that counts. A link from any one of the top ten pages will likely confer a useful degree of authority, all else being equal. It’s good marketing practice to be linked from, and engage with, known leaders in your niche. That’s PR, as in public relations thinking, vs PR (Page rank), technical thinking.

The next to go will likely be keyword-driven SEO. Withholding keyword referral data was the beginning of the end. Hummingbird is hammering in the nails. Keywords are still great for research purposes - to determine if there’s an audience and what the size of that audience may be - but SEO is increasingly driven by semantic associations and site categorizations. It’s not enough to feature a keyword on a page. A page, and site, needs to be about that keyword, and keywords like it, and be externally recognized as such. In the majority of cases, a page needs to match user intent, rather than just a search term. There are many exceptions, of course, but given what we know about Hummingbird, this appears to be the trend.

People will still look at rank, and lust after prize keywords, but really, rankings have been a distraction all along. Reach and specificity is more important i.e. where’s the most value coming from? The more specific the keyword, typically the lower the bounce rate and the higher the conversion rate. The lower the bounce-rate, and higher the conversion rate, the more positive signals the site will generate, which will flow back into a ranking algorithm increasing being tuned for engagement. Ranking for any keyword that isn’t delivering business value makes no sense.

There are always exceptions. But that’s the trend. Google are looking for pages that match user intent, not just pages that match a keyword term. In terms of reach, you want to be everywhere your customers are.

Search Is The Same, But Different

To adapt to change, SEOs should think about search in the widest possible terms. A search is quest for information. It may be an active, self-directed search, in the form of a search engine query. Or a more passive search, delivered via social media subscriptions and the act of following. How will all these activities feed into your search strategy?

Sure, it’s not a traditional definition of SEO, as I'm not limiting it to search engines. Rather, my point is about the wider quest for information. People want to find things. Eric Schmidt recently claimed Amazon is Google's biggest competitor in search. The mechanisms and channels may change, but the quest remains the same. Take, for example, the changing strategy of BuzzFeed:

Soon after Peretti had turned his attention to BuzzFeed full-time in 2011, after leaving the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed took a hit from Google. The site had been trying to focus on building traffic from both social media marketing and through SEO. But the SEO traffic — the free traffic driven from Google’s search results — dried up.

Reach is important. Topicality is important. Freshness, in most cases, is important. Engagement is important. Finding information is not just about a technical match of a keyword, it’s about an intellectual match of an idea. BuzzFeed didn’t take their eye off the ball. They know helping users find information is the point of the game they are in.

And the internet has only just begun.

In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2044 were not invented until after 2014. People in the future will look at their holodecks, and wearable virtual reality contact lenses, and downloadable avatars, and AI interfaces, and say, oh, you didn’t really have the internet (or whatever they’ll call it) back then.

In 30 years time, people will still be on the exact same quest for information. The point of SEO has always been to get your information in front of visitors, and that’s why SEO will endure. SEO was always a bit of a silly name, and it often distracts people from the point, which is to get your stuff seen ahead of the rest.

Some SEOs have given up in despair because it’s not like the old days. It’s becoming more expensive to do effective SEO, and the reward may not be there, especially for smaller sites. However, this might be to miss the point, somewhat.

The audience is still there. Their needs haven’t changed. They still want to find stuff. If SEO is all about helping users find stuff, then that’s the important thing. Remember the “why”. Adapt the “how”

In the next few articles, we’ll look at the specifics of how.

Measuring SEO Performance After "Not Provided"

In recent years, the biggest change to the search landscape happened when Google chose to withhold keyword data from webmasters. At SEOBook, Aaron noticed and wrote about the change, as evermore keyword data disappeared.

The motivation to withold this data, according to Google, was privacy concerns:

SSL encryption on the web has been growing by leaps and bounds. As part of our commitment to provide a more secure online experience, today we announced that SSL Search on https://www.google.com will become the default experience for signed in users on google.com.

At first, Google suggested it would only affect a single-digit percentage of search referral data:

Google software engineer Matt Cutts, who’s been involved with the privacy changes, wouldn’t give an exact figure but told me he estimated even at full roll-out, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers on Google.com

...which didn't turn out to be the case. It now affects almost all keyword referral data from Google.

Was it all about privacy? Another rocket over the SEO bows? Bit of both? Probably. In any case, the search landscape was irrevocably changed. Instead of being shown the keyword term the searcher had used to find a page, webmasters were given the less than helpful “not provided”. This change rocked SEO. The SEO world, up until that point, had been built on keywords. SEOs choose a keyword. They rank for the keyword. They track click-thrus against this keyword. This is how many SEOs proved their worth to clients.

These days, very little keyword data is available from Google. There certainly isn’t enough to keyword data to use as a primary form of measurement.

Rethinking Measurement

This change forced a rethink about measurement, and SEO in general. Whilst there is still some keyword data available from the likes of Webmaster Tools & the AdWords paid versus organic report, keyword-based SEO tracking approaches are unlikely to align with Google’s future plans. As we saw with the Hummingbird algorithm, Google is moving towards searcher-intent based search, as opposed to keyword-matched results.

Hummingbird should better focus on the meaning behind the words. It may better understand the actual location of your home, if you’ve shared that with Google. It might understand that “place” means you want a brick-and-mortar store. It might get that “iPhone 5s” is a particular type of electronic device carried by certain stores. Knowing all these meanings may help Google go beyond just finding pages with matching words

The search bar is still keyword based, but Google is also trying to figure out what user intent lays behind the keyword. To do this, they’re relying on context data. For example, they look at what previous searches has the user made, their location, they are breaking down the query itself, and so on, all of which can change the search results the user sees.

When SEO started, it was in an environment where the keyword the user typed into a search bar was exact matching that with a keyword that appears on a page. This is what relevance meant. SEO continued with this model, but it’s fast becoming redundant, because Google is increasingly relying on context in order to determine searcher intent & while filtering many results which were too aligned with the old strategy. Much SEO has shifted from keywords to wider digital marketing considerations, such as what the visitor does next, as a result.

We’ve Still Got Great Data

Okay, if SEO’s don’t have keywords, what can they use?

If we step back a bit, what we’re really trying to do with measurement is demonstrate value. Value of search vs other channels, and value of specific search campaigns. Did our search campaigns meet our marketing goals and thus provide value?

Do we have enough data to demonstrate value? Yes, we do. Here are a few ideas SEOs have devised to look at the organic search data they are getting, and they use it to demonstrate value.

1. Organic Search VS Other Activity

If our organic search tracking well when compared with other digital marketing channels, such as social or email? About the same? Falling?

In many ways, the withholding of keyword data can be a blessing, especially to those SEOs who have a few ranking-obsessed clients. A ranking, in itself is worthless, especially if it’s generating no traffic.

Instead, if we look at the total amount of organic traffic, and see that it is rising, then we shouldn’t really care too much about what keywords it is coming from. We can also track organic searches across device, such as desktop vs mobile, and get some insight into how best to optimize those channels for search as a whole, rather than by keyword. It’s important that the traffic came from organic search, rather than from other campaigns. It’s important that the visitors saw your site. And it’s important what that traffic does next.

2. Bounce Rate

If a visitor comes in, doesn’t like what is on offer, and clicks back, then that won’t help rankings. Google have been a little oblique on this point, saying they aren’t measuring bounce rate, but I suspect it’s a little more nuanced, in practice. If people are failing to engage, then anecdotal evidence suggests this does affect rankings.

Look at the behavioral metrics in GA; if your content has 50% of people spending less than 10 seconds, that may be a problem or that may be normal. The key is to look below that top graph and see if you have a bell curve or if the next largest segment is the 11-30 second crowd.

Either way, we must encourage visitor engagement. Even small improvements in terms of engagement can mean big changes in the bottom line. Getting visitors to a site was only ever the first step in a long chain. It’s what they do next that really makes or breaks a web business, unless the entire goal was that the visitor should only view the landing page. Few sites, these days, would get much return on non-engagement.

PPCers are naturally obsessed with this metric, because each click is costing them money, but when you think about it, it’s costing SEOs money, too. Clicks are getting harder and harder to get, and each click does have a cost associated with it i.e. the total cost of the SEO campaign divided by the number of clicks, so each click needs to be treated as a cost.

3. Landing Pages
We can still do landing page analysis. We can see the pages where visitors are entering the website. We can also see which pages are most popular, and we can tell from the topic of the page what type of keywords people are using to find it.

We could add more related keyword to these pages and see how they do, or create more pages on similar themes, using different keyword terms, and then monitor the response. Similarly, we can look at poorly performing pages and make the assumption these are not ranking against intended keywords, and mark these for improvement or deletion.

We can see how old pages vs new pages are performing in organic search. How quickly do new pages get traffic?

We’re still getting a lot of actionable data, and still not one keyword in sight.

4. Visitor And Customer Acquisition Value

We can still calculate the value to the business of an organic visitor.

We can also look at what step in the process are organic visitors converting. Early? Late? Why? Is there some content on the site that is leading them to convert better than other content? We can still determine if organic search provided a last click-conversion, or a conversion as the result of a mix of channels, where organic played a part. We can do all of this from aggregated organic search data, with no need to look at keywords.

5. Contrast With PPC

We can contrast Adwords data back against organic search. Trends we see in PPC might also be working in organic search.

For AdWords our life is made infinitesimally easier because by linking your AdWords account to your Analytics account rich AdWords data shows up automagically allowing you to have an end-to-end view of campaign performance.

Even PPC-ers are having to change their game around keywords:

The silver lining in all this? With voice an mobile search, you’ll likely catch those conversions that you hadn’t before. While you may think that you have everything figured out and that your campaigns are optimal, this matching will force you into deeper dives that hopefully uncover profitable PPC pockets.

6. Benchmark Against Everything

In the above section I highlighted comparing organic search to AdWords performance, but you can benchmark against almost any form of data.

Is 90% of your keyword data (not provided)? Then you can look at the 10% which is provided to estimate performance on the other 90% of the traffic. If you get 1,000 monthly keyword visits for [widgets], then as a rough rule of thumb you might get roughly 9,000 monthly visits for that same keyword shown as (not provided).

Has your search traffic gone up or down over the past few years? Are there seasonal patterns that drive user behavior? How important is the mobile shift in your market? What landing pages have performed the best over time and which have fallen hardest?

How is your site's aggregate keyword ranking profile compared to top competitors? Even if you don't have all the individual keyword referral data from search engines, seeing the aggregate footprints, and how they change over time, indicates who is doing better and who gaining exposure vs losing it.

Numerous competitive research tools like SEM Rush, SpyFu & SearchMetrics provide access to that type of data.

You can also go further with other competitive research tools which look beyond the search channel. Is most of your traffic driven from organic search? Do your competitors do more with other channels? A number of sites like Compete.com and Alexa have provided estimates for this sort of data. Another newer entrant into this market is SimilarWeb.

And, finally, rank checking still has some value. While rank tracking may seem futile in the age of search personalization and Hummingbird, it can still help you isolate performance issues during algorithm updates. There are a wide variety of options from browser plugins to desktop software to hosted solutions.

By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that specific keyword data isn’t necessary and, in some case, may have only served to distract some SEOs from seeing other valuable marketing metrics, such as what happens after the click and where do they go next.

So long as the organic search traffic is doing what we want it to, we know which pages it is coming in on, and can track what it does next, there is plenty of data there to keep us busy. Lack of keyword data is a pain, but in response, many SEOs are optimizing for a lot more than keywords, and focusing more on broader marketing concerns.

Further Reading & Sources:

Loah Qwality Add Werds Clix Four U

Google recently announced they were doing away with exact match AdWords ad targeting this September. They will force all match types to have close variant keyword matching enabled. This means you get misspelled searches, plural versus singular overlap, and an undoing of your tight organization.

In some cases the user intent is different between singular and plural versions of a keyword. A singular version search might be looking to buy a single widget, whereas a plural search might be a user wanting to compare different options in the marketplace. In some cases people are looking for different product classes depending on word form:

For example, if you sell spectacles, the difference between users searching on ‘glass’ vs. ‘glasses’ might mean you are getting users seeing your ad interested in a building material, rather than an aid to reading.

Where segmenting improved the user experience, boosted conversion rates, made management easier, and improved margins - those benefits are now off the table.

CPC isn't the primary issue. Profit margins are what matter. Once you lose the ability to segment you lose the ability to manage your margins. And this auctioneer is known to bid in their own auctions, have random large price spikes, and not give refunds when they are wrong.

An offline analogy for this loss of segmentation ... you go to a gas station to get a bottle of water. After grabbing your water and handing the cashier a $20, they give you $3.27 back along with a six pack you didn't want and didn't ask for.

Why does a person misspell a keyword? Some common reasons include:

  • they are new to the market & don't know it well
  • they are distracted
  • they are using a mobile device or something which makes it hard to input their search query (and those same input issues make it harder to perform other conversion-oriented actions)
  • their primary language is a different language
  • they are looking for something else

In any of those cases, the typical average value of the expressed intent is usually going to be less than a person who correctly spelled the keyword.

Even if spelling errors were intentional and cultural, the ability to segment that and cater the landing page to match disappears. Or if the spelling error was a cue to send people to an introductory page earlier in the conversion funnel, that option is no more.

In many accounts the loss of the granular control won't cause too big of a difference. But some advertiser accounts in competitive markets will become less profitable and more expensive to manage:

No one who's in the know has more than about 5-10 total keywords in any one adgroup because they're using broad match modified, which eliminated the need for "excessive keyword lists" a long time ago. Now you're going to have to spend your time creating excessive negative keyword lists with possibly millions upon millions of variations so you can still show up for exactly what you want and nothing else.

You might not know which end of the spectrum your account is on until disaster strikes:

I added negatives to my list for 3 months before finally giving up opting out of close variants. What they viewed as a close variant was not even in the ballpark of what I sell. There have been petitions before that have gotten Google to reverse bad decisions in the past. We need to make that happen again.

Brad Geddes has held many AdWords seminars for Google. What does he think of this news?

In this particular account, close variations have much lower conversion rates and much higher CPAs than their actual match type.
...
Variation match isn’t always bad, there are times it can be good to use variation match. However, there was choice.
...
Loss of control is never good. Mobile control was lost with Enhanced Campaigns, and now you’re losing control over your match types. This will further erode your ability to control costs and conversions within AdWords.

A monopoly restricting choice to enhance their own bottom line. It isn't the first time they've done that, and it won't be the last.

Have an enhanced weekend!

Understanding The Google Penguin Algorithm

Whenever Google does a major algorithm update we all rush off to our data to see what changed in terms of rankings, search traffic, and then look for the trends to try to figure out what changed.

The two people I chat most with during periods of big algorithmic changes are Joe Sinkwitz and Jim Boykin. I recently interviewed them about the Penguin algorithm.

Topics include:

  • what it is
  • its impact
  • why there hasn't been an update in a while
  • how to determine if issues are related to Penguin or something else
  • the recovery process (from Penguin and manual link penalties)
  • and much, much more

Here's a custom drawing we commissioned for this interview.
Pang Win.

Want to embed this image on your website?

To date there have been 5 Penguin updates:

  • April 24, 2012
  • May 25, 2012
  • October 5, 2012
  • May 22, 2013 (Penguin 2.0)
  • October 4, 2013

There hasn't been one in quite a while, which is frustrating many who haven't been able to recover. On to the interview...

At its core what is Google Penguin?

Jim: It is a link filter that can cause penalties.

Joe: At its core, Penguin can be viewed as an algorithmic batch filter designed to punish lower quality link profiles.

What sort of ranking and traffic declines do people typically see from Penguin?

Jim: 30-98%. actually, seen some "manual partial matches" some, where traffic was hardly hit...but that's rare.

Joe: Near total. I should expand. Penguin 1.0 has been a different beast than its later iterations; the first one has been nearly a fixed flag whereas later iterations haven't been quite as severe.

After the initial update there was another one about a month later & then one about every 6 months for a while. There hasn't been one for about 10 months now. So why have the updates been so rare? And why hasn't there been one for a long time?

Jim: Great question. We all believed there'd be an update every 6 months, and now it's been way longer than 6 months...maybe because Matt's on vacation...or maybe he knew it would be a long time until the next update, so he took some time off...or perhaps Google wants those with a algorithmic penalty to feel the pain for longer than 6 months.

Joe: 1.0 was temporarily escapable if you were willing to 301 your site; after 1.1 the redirect began to pass on the damage. My theory on why it has been so very long on the most recent update has to do with maximizing pain - Google doesn't intend to lift its boot off the throats of webmasters just yet; no amount of groveling will do. Add to that the complexity of every idiot disavowing 90%+ of their clean link profiles and 'dirty' vs 'clean' links is difficult to ascertain on that signal.

Jim: Most people disavow some, then the disavow some more...then next month they disavow more...wait a year and they may disavow them all :)

Joe: Agreed.

Jim: Then Google will let them out...hehe, tongue in cheek...a little.

Joe: I've seen disavow files with over 98% of links in there, including Wikipedia, the Yahoo! Directory, and other great sources - absurd.

Jim: Me too. Most of the people are clueless ... there's tons of people who are disavowing links just because their traffic has gone down, so they feel they must have been hit by penguin, so they start disavowing links.

Joe: Yes; I've seen a lot of panda hits where the person wants to immediately disavow. "whoa, slow down there Tex!"

Jim: I've seen services where they guarantee you'll get out of a penguin penalty, and we know that they're just disavowing 100% of the links. Yes, you get your manual penalty removed that way, but then you're left with nothing.

Joe: Good time to mention that any guarantee of getting out of a penalty is likely sold as a bag of smoke.

Jim: or as they are disavowing 100% of the links they can find going to the site.

OK. I think you mentioned an important point there Jim about "100% of the links they can find." What are the link sources people should use & how comprehensive is the Google Webmaster Tools data? Is WMT data enough to get you recovered?

Joe: Rarely. I've seen where the examples listed in a manual action might be discoverable on Ahrefs, Majestic SEO, or in WMT, but upon cleaning them up (and disavowing further of course) that Google will come back with a few more links that weren't initially in the WMT data dump. I'm dealing with a client on this right now that bought a premium domain as-is and has been spending about a year constantly disavowing and removing links. Google won't let them up for air and won't do the hard reset.

Jim: well first...if you're getting your backlinks from Google, be sure to pull your backlinks from the www and the non www version of your site. You can't just use one: you HAVE to pull backlinks from both, so you have to verify both your www and your non www version of your site with Google Webmaster Tools.

We often start with that. When we find big patterns that we feel are the cause, we'll then go into OSE, Majestic SEO, and Ahrefs, and pull those backlinks too, and pull out those that fit the patterns, but that's after the Google backlink analysis.

Joe, you mentioned people getting hit by Panda and mistakenly going off to the races to disavow links. What are the distinguishing characteristics between Penguin, Panda & manual link penalties?

Joe: Given they like to sandwich updates to make it difficult to discern, I like this question. Penguin is about links; it is the easiest to find but hardest to fix. When I first am looking at a URL I'll quickly look at anchor % breakdowns, sources of links, etc. The big difference between penguin and a manual link penalty (if you aren't looking on WMT) is the timing -- think of a bomb going off vs a sniper...everyone complaining at once? probably an algorithm; just a few? probably some manual actions. For manual actions, you'll get a note too in WMT. With panda I like to look first at the on-page to see if I can spot the egregious KW stuffing, weird infrastructure setups that result in thin/duplicated content, and look into engagement metrics and my favorite...externally supported pages - to - total indexed pages ratios.

Jim: Manual, at least you can keep resubmitting and get a yes or no. With an algorithmic, you're screwed....because you're waiting for the next refresh...hoping you did enough to get out.

I don't mind going back and forth with Google with a manual penalty...at least I'm getting an answer.

If you see a drop in traffic, be sure to compare that to the dates of Panda and Penguin updates...if you see a drop on one of the update days, then you can know if you have Panda or Penguin....and if you're traffic is just falling, it could be just that, and no penalty.

Joe: While this interview was taking place an employee pinged me to let me know a manual action that was denied, with an example URL being something akin to domain.com/?var=var&var=var - the entire domain was already disavowed. Those 20 second manual reviews by 3rd parties without much of an understanding of search doesn't generate a lot of confidence for me

Jim: Yes, I posted this yesterday to SEOchat. Reviewers are definitely not looking at things.

You guys mentioned that anyone selling a guaranteed 100% recovery solution is likely selling a bag of smoke. What are the odds of recovery? When does it make sense to invest in recovery, when does it make sense to start a different site, and when does it make sense to do both in parallel?

Jim: Well, I'm one for trying to save a site. I haven't once said "it's over for that site, let's start fresh." Links are so important, that if I can even save a few links going to a site, I'll take it. I'm not a fan of doing two sites, causes duplicate content issues, and now your efforts are on two sites.

Joe : It depends on the infraction. I have a lot more success getting stuff out of panda, manual actions, and the later iterations of penguin (theoretically including the latest one once a refresh takes place); I won't take anyone's money for those hit on penguin 1.0 though...I give free advice and add it to my DB tracking, but the very few examples I have where a recovery took place that I can confirm were penguin 1.0 and not something else, happened due to being a beta user of the disavow tool and likely occurred for political reasons vs tech reasons.

For churn and burn, redirects and canonicals can still work if you're clever...but that's not reinvestment so much as strategy shift I realize.

You guys mentioned the disavow process, where a person does some, does some more over time, etc. Is Google dragging out the process primarily to drive pain? Or are they leveraging the aggregate data in some way?

Joe: Oh absolutely they drag it out. Mathematically I think of triggers where a threshold to trigger down might be at X%, but the trigger for recovery might be X-10%. Further though, I think initially they looooooved all the aggregate disavow data, until the community freaked out and started disavowing everything. Let's just say I know of a group of people that have a giant network where lots of quality sites are purposefully disavowed in an attempt to screw with the signal further. :)

Jim: pain :) ... not sure if they're leveraging the data yet, but they might be. It shouldn't be too hard for Google to see that a ton of people are disavowing links from a site like get-free-links-directory.com, for Google to say, "no one else seems to trust these links, we should just nuke that site and not count any links from there."

we can do this ourselves with our own tools we have..I can see how many times I've seen a domain in my disavows, and how many times I disavowed that...ie, If I see spamsite.com in 20 disavows I've done, and I'd disavowed it all 20 times I saw it, I can see this data... or if I've seen goodsite.com 20 times, and never once disavowed it, I can see that too. I'd assume Google must do something like this as well.

Given that they drag it out, on the manual penalties does it make sense to do a couched effort on the first rejection or two, in order to give the perception of a greater level of pain and effort as you scale things up on further requests? What level of resources does it make sense to devote to the initial effort vs the next one and so on? When does recovery typically happen (in terms of % of links filtered and in terms of how many reconsideration requests were filed)?

Joe: When I deliver "disavow these" and "say this" stuff, I give multiple levels, knowing full well that there might be deeper and deeper considerations of the pain. Now, there have been cases where the 1st try gets a site out, but I usually see 3 or more.

Jim: I figure it will take a few reconsideration requests...and yes, I start "big" and get "bigger."

but that's for a sitewide penalty...

We've seen sitewides get reduced to a partial penalty. And once we have a partial penalty, it's much easier to identify this issues and take care of those, while leaving links that go to pages that were not effected.

A sitewide manual penalty kills the site...a partial match penalty usually has some stuff that ranks good, and some stuff that no longer ranks...once we're at a partial match, I feel much more confident in getting that resolved.

Jim, I know you've mentioned the errors people make in either disavowing great links or disavowing links when they didn't need to. You also mentioned the ability to leverage your old disavow data when processing new sites. When does it make sense to DIY on recovery versus hiring a professional? Are there any handy "rule of thumb" guidelines in terms of the rough cost of a recovery process based on the size of their backlink footprint?

Joe: It comes down to education, doesn't it? Were you behind the reason it got dinged? You might try that first vs immediately hiring. Psychologically it could even look like you're more serious after the first disavow is declined by showing you "invested" in the pain. Also, it comes down to opportunity cost. What is your personal time worth divided by your perceived probability of fixing

Jim: We charge $5000 for the analysis, and $5000 for the link removal process...some may think that's expensive...but removing good links will screw you, and not removing bad links will screw you...it's a real science, and getting is wrong can cost you a lot more than this...of course I'd recommend seeing a professional, as I sell this service...but I can't see anyone who's not a true expert in links doing this themselves.

Oh...and once we start work for someone, we keep going at no further cost until they get out.

Joe: That's a nice touch Jim.

Jim: Thank you.

Joe, during this interview you mentioned a reconsideration request rejection where the person cited a link on a site that has already been disavowed. Given how many errors Google's reviewers make, does it make sense to aggressively push to remove links rather than using disavow? What are the best strategies to get links removed?

Joe: DDoS

Jim: hehe

Joe: Really though, be upfront and honest when using those link removal services (which I'd do vs trying to do them one-by-one-by-one)

Jim: Only 1% of the people will remove links anyways; it's more to show Google that to you really tried to get the links removed.

Joe: Let the link holder know that you got hit with a penalty, you're just trying to clean it up because your business is suffering, and ask politely that they do you a solid favor.

I've been on the receiving end of a lot of different strategies given the size of my domain portfolio. I've been sued before (as a first course of action!) by someone that PAID to put a link on my site....they never even asked, just filed the case.

Jim: We send 3 removal requests..and ping the links too..so when we do a reconsideration request we can show Google the spreadsheet of who we emailed, when we emailed them, and who removed or no followed the links...but it's more about "show" to Google.

Joe: Yep, not a ton of compliance; webmasters have link removal fatigue by now.

This is more of a business question than an SEO question, but ... as much as budgeting for the monetary cost of recovery, an equally important form of budgeting is dealing with the reduced cashflow while the site is penalized. How many months does it typically take to recover from a manual penalty? When should business owners decide to start laying people off? Do you guys suggest people aggressively invest in other marketing channels while the SEO is being worked on in the background?

Jim: manual penalty typically take 2-4 months to recover. Recover is a relative term. Some people get "your manual penalty has been removed" and thier recovery is a tiny blip -up 5%, but still down 90% from what is was prior. Getting a "manual penalty removed" is great. IF there's good links left in your profile...if you've disavow everything, and your penalty is removed...so what...you've got nothing....people often ask where they'll be once they "recover" and I say "it depends on what you have left for links"...but it won't be where you were.

Joe: It depends on how exposed they are per variable costs. If the costs are fixed, then one can generally wait longer (all things being equal) before cutting. If you have a quarter million monthly link budget *cough* then, you're going to want to trim as quickly as possible just in order to survive.

Per investing in other channels, I absolutely wholeheartedly cannot emphasize how important it is to become an expert in one channel and at least a generalist in several others...even better, hire an expert in another channel to partner up with. In payday one of the big players did okay in SEO but even with a lot of turbulence was doing great due to their TV and radio capabilities. Also, collect the damn email addresses; email is still a gold mine if you use it correctly.

One of my theories for why there hasn't been a penguin update in a long time was that as people have become more afraid of links they've started using them as a weapon & Google doesn't want a bunch of false positives caused by competitors killing sites. One reason I've thought this versus the pain first motive is that Google could always put a time delay on recoveries while still allowing new sites to get penalized on updates. Joe, you mentioned that after the second Penguin update penalties started passing forward on redirects. Do people take penalized sites and point them at competitors?

Joe: Yes, they do. They also take them and pass them into the natural links of their competitors. I've been railing on negative SEO for several years now...right about when the first manual action wave came out in Jan 2012; that was a tipping point. It is now more economical to take someone else's ranking down than it is to (with a strong degree of confidence) invest in a link strategy to leapfrog them naturally

I could speak for days straight in a congressional filibuster on link strategies used for Negative SEO. It is almost magical how pervasive it has become. I get a couple requests a week to do it even...by BIG companies. Brands being the mechanism to sort out the cesspool and all that.

Jim: Soon, everyone will be monitoring they backlinks on a monthly basis. I know one big company that submits an updated disavow list every week to google.

That leads to a question about preemptive disavows. When does it make sense to do that? What businesses need to worry about that sort of stuff?

Joe: Are you smaller than a Fortune 500? Then the cards are stacked against you. At the very least, be aware of your link profile -- I wouldn't go so far as to preemptively disavow unless something major popped up.

Jim: I've done a preemptive disavow for my site. I'd say everyone should do a preemptive disavow to clean out the crap backlinks.

Joe: I can't wait to launch an avow service...basically go around to everyone and charge a few thousand dollars to clean up their disavows. :)

Jim: We should team up Joe and do them together :)

Joe: I'll have my spambots call your spambots.

Jim: saving the planet from penguin penalties. cleaning up the links of the web for Google.

Joe: For Google or from Google? :) The other dig, if there's time, is that not all penalties are created equal because there are several books of law in terms of how long a penalty might last. If I take an unknown site and do what RapGenius did, I'd still be waiting, even after fixing (which rapgenius really didn't do) largely because Google is not one of my direct or indirect investors.

Perhaps SEOs will soon offer a service for perfecting your pitch deck for the Google Ventures or Google Capital teams so it is easier to BeatThatPenalty? BanMeNot ;)

Joe: Or to extract money from former Googlers...there's a funding bubble right now where those guys can write their own ticket by VCs chasing the brand. Sure the engineer was responsible for changing the font color of a button, but they have friends on the inside still that might be able to reverse catastrophe.

Outside of getting a Google investment, what are some of the best ways to minimize SEO risk if one is entering a competitive market?

Jim: Don't try to rank for specific phrases anymore. It's a long slow road now.

Joe: Being less dependent on Google gives you power; think of it like a job interview. Do you need that job? The less you do, the more bargaining power you have. If you have more and more income coming in to your site from other channels, chances are you are also hitting on some important brand signals.

Jim: You must create great things, and build your brand...that has to be the focus...unless you want to do things to rank higher quicker, and take the risk of a penalty with Google.

Joe: Agreed. I do far fewer premium domaining + SEO-only plays anymore. For a while they worked; just a different landscape now.

Some (non-link builders) mention how foolish SEOs are for wasting so many thought cycles on links. Why are core content, user experience, and social media all vastly more important than link building?

Jim: links are still the biggest part of the Google algorithm - they can not be ignored. People must have things going on that will get them mentions across the web, and ideally some links as well. Links is #1 still today... but yes, after links, you need great content, good user experience, and more.

Joe: CopyPress sells content (please buy some content people; I have three kids to feed here), however it is important to point out that the most incredible content doesn't mean anything in a vacuum. How are you going to get a user experience with 0 users? Link building, purchasing traffic, DRIVING attention are crucial not just to SEO but to marketing in general. Google is using links as votes; while the variability has changed and evolved over time, it is still very much there. I don't see it going away in the next year or two.

An analogy: I wrote two books of poetry in college; I think they are ok, but I never published them and tried to get any attention, so how good are they really? Without promotion and amplification, we're all just guessing.

Thanks guys for sharing your time & wisdom!


About our contributors:

Jim Boykin is the Founder and CEO of Internet Marketing Ninjas, and owner of Webmasterworld.com, SEOChat.com, Cre8asiteForums.com and other community websites. Jim specializes in creating digital assets for sites that attract natural backlinks, and in analyzing links to disavow non-natural links for penalty recoveries.

Joe Sinkwitz, known as Cygnus, is current Chief of Revenue for CopyPress.com. He enjoys long walks on the beach, getting you the content you need, and then whispering in your ear how to best get it ranking.

Pages