SEO, Popularity And The Way Forward

Google's Eric Schmidt identifies one of Google's core problems:'ve got somebody who really is very trustworthy, but they're not as well-known and they compete against people who are better known, and they don't "in their view" get high enough ranking. We have not come up with a way to algorithmically handle that in a coherent way

The Google algorithm is essentially a popularity contest.

Google doesn't know what information is worthwhile and what isn't. It looks at the signals provided by others as to decide what is and isn't worthwhile. What people deem noteworthy may not be worthwhile, right or truthful, to you, of course.

We see this same problem in SEO punditry.

There is a wealth of SEO information published each and every day. How does anyone know if this information is right or wrong?

Typically, if someone who is well known to the SEO tribe writes an article, and the article sounds authoritative, it will be deemed by the SEO tribe to be "quality". If you're unknown, and write the exact same article, it is likely to get buried. SEO punditry has largely become a cult of personality.

Recently, news outlets have been arguing that because they are established news outlets, they provide "quality". This self-serving circular argument appears to be what Google also believes, because it favors established media in the form of Google News.

But just look at the atrocious journalistic standards that some established news outlets provide:

For April Fool’s Day we posted a video of a fake mission where it appeared that we had lost our judgment and crashed a funeral. We fooled thousands of angry YouTube users into thinking it was real. The biggest fools of all were the CW 11 news team who reported on the funeral as if it actually happened. They didn’t do one bit of research or fact checking, they simply broadcast a YouTube video and reported it as fact

Right now, it's not about quality. It's about entrenched power structures and popularity.

On, we've been writing a lot about the intersection between SEO with related fields such as marketing, PR, advertising and business strategy.

This is the way SEO is going. SEO is being integrated into other forms of promotion. Without undertaking such promotion, ranking will be that much harder, especially in crowded niches.

Ranking signals have traditionally been about links, however code tweaking and link begging is fast becoming a marginal activity. Ranking signals in the future will be about attention.

Those who command the most attention, win.

So let tie the concepts we've been discussing together into a strategy.

1. Be Popular, Or Appear To Be Popular

  • Get in front of an established audience. Offer to write for someone who has authority already, and get a link from that site. Or offer to interview them. Speak at conferences. Post detailed, informative posts to forums. Post detailed, informative posts to other people's blogs. Find out where your audience hangs out, and get in front of them any way you can. The aim is to generate awareness.
  • Once you have signs of credibility and activity make them obvious. Encourage comments and actively respond to them. Have a lot of subscribers? Put a Feedburner widget with subscriber count in your sidebar. Get mentioned in the media? Add a "as seen in" section.
  • Build a personal network. Figure out what you can do for people, and give forward. In future, it will be easier to get your stuff noticed if you can call in favors from friends.
  • Establish a cult of personality. Have an opinion, and beat it to death. No one likes wishy-washy. Objective doesn't sell. Subjective views, stated boldy - sell. Make your name synonymous with your brand. It is very difficult to counter a brand build on personality. Ask Incisive Media if Danny Sullivan can ever be replaced.

2. Create A Viral Message So People Spread The Word For You

  • Have you given people something to talk about? Give people a message they feel compelled to repeat. If that doesn't happen, the message is wrong. Rework it until you find an angle worth repeating.
  • What incentive do people have to repeat your message? Does it make them look smart? Does it earn them money? Does it increase their status? Does it enable them to help a friend? Does it enrich them?
  • How should they talk about you? Should they link to you? Should they write about you? Should they tweet you? Have you made it obvious to people what you want them to do? (By the way, if this post has proved in any way valuable to you, we would be eternally grateful to you for a link. Or a mention. Or a comment ;)

3. Carve Out Your Niche, Focus On Quality And Building Critical Mass

It might not seem like it now, but providing quality information amidst the noise is the holy grail Google, and others, are working towards.

Ultimately, Google, or any knowledge management tool, must return sufficiently high quality information in order to survive as the aggregator of choice. "Sufficient" means "better than the other guy". Google also piles on the value by giving away quality mail tools, stats tools, and more. In a competitive niche, popularity won't be enough to sustain position. The popular aggegator that provides the most quality, and the most value, wins.

Quality will be the next layer of differentiation.

  • Do the same thing as Google. How can you add value? What can you do that other guy is not doing? What can you give away that the other guy is selling? How can you be better that other guy? Figure out what your audience wants - ask them directly, if need be - and give it to them.
  • Pick your niche and own it. Niche too competitive or too broad? Keep slicing it finer (go niche within a niche - e.g. rather than take on travel, become the biggest authority on Fiji) until you find space in which you can compete. If your aim is to make money, be careful to pick a niche that is worth slicing. How do you know if a niche is worth slicing? Look at the value of AdWords bids in that niche and the volume of searches. The Search-based keyword tool is your friend.
  • Make sure anyone searching that niche knows your name. Advertise on other sites in that niche. Appear on other sites in that niche. Figure out a way to lock people into what you're doing. It might be as simple as encouraging them comment on your blog. The aim is to get them to remember you, to interact with you, to internalize your message, then to pass it on.

4. Build Brand

Brand will be so important. What is yours?

If someone mentions your niche, do they mention your site or your name? You must be synonymous with your niche, so that if Google doesn't rank you number one, people would think Google was deficient for omitting you. This is how BMW can break Google's rules and get a free pass. To not find BMW would make Google look bad. To not find is of no concern. Can you imagine searching for the term "seo book" and not seeing this site top ten? You'd think Google was deficient.

That's where your brand needs to be.

Hope we've been giving you some food for thought :)

Published: April 16, 2009 by A Reader in marketing


April 17, 2009 - 4:22am

I couldn't agree more with viral tips. Viral to this day is still the most powerful form of marketing.

We watched & amazed facebook reach an audience of 50 million in just 2 years! 2 years!! The Ipod took 4 years to reach that same audience volume!

I also totally agree with the first point, being popular or appearing to be popular, its just common sense.

Nice post, I enjoyed the read!


April 17, 2009 - 3:56pm

The iPod ***selling*** 50 million units in 4 years is much more impressive than a ***free*** viral network getting to 40 million users (many of which are automated spam bots) in half the time.

This tiny niche website has been loaded something like 15 or 20 million times, but our number of paying customers is only in the 10's of thousands.

April 17, 2009 - 5:10am

Seems like there's actually little change then - dropping your name on blogs and forums, begging for/buying/bartering links, scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours interviews/articles, link building, and the most important thing (the reason people would give you their attention) : quality content/products/services.

I haven't seen any fundamental shifts in SEO in years now. It seems that the basics remain: concentrate on your product/service in terms of constant improvements, create a website that people want to come back to (and therefore remember, recommend), and eh...keep those quality links coming in via any means necessary that don't get you banned.

Wake me up when there's an absolute, in-your-face fundamental shift in SEO that should stop us doing what we've been doing for years (with success) and be forced to do something new.

April 17, 2009 - 6:24am

Andrew, the strategies are pretty much all the same but there are many more ways to go about deploying them. Especially with the social networks and all that type of movement :)

April 17, 2009 - 3:56pm

Just wanted to say that you have some great tips. When you are just starting out, seo can be one of the most overwhelming things to accomplish. Great job, keep it up!

Mark Turgeon

April 17, 2009 - 4:19pm

Above all else, brand is the most important thing to any business. In fact, you cannot earn huge money and be successful if you don't carry a brand or trademark. I guess before every marketer starts an online business, they should focus first on the brand they wanted to be perceived. :-)

April 17, 2009 - 4:50pm

You say that link begging is getting less effective, but I'm not sure I agree. It's getting less popular (eg relative to linkbait) sure - but that should actually just make it more effective. Assuming, of course, that you're doing it right (cough hubs ;) ).

To wit: A former client I let go last summer emailed me this week to say my work has maintained his rankings this whole time.

April 17, 2009 - 6:20pm

Links being harder to get may mean you don't need as many links as you would have to rank well, but I get a lot more noisy spammy email link requests than I used to. Most of it is off topic garbage and/or completely one-sided. All that noise raises the bar as far as what needs to be done to be citation-worthy.

April 17, 2009 - 5:48pm

Excellent post, Peter.

Btw, I can't even imagine searching for the generic term 'seo' and not seeing

I would think Google was deficient. Just like it makes Google look foolish when I search for John Chow and where's he? There's Twitter, Patrick and DaveN giving some love, other wannabes taking advantage of his brand, but where the hell is John Chow himself. Not everybody knows the story, of course. And do I care if Google banned him; I want him that's why I search for him.

And they look even more foolish when TLA doesnt rank for their brand name, but hey, they do appear on Adwords. So Google has no problem with TLA actually, as long as they get their own cut.

April 17, 2009 - 9:23pm

I was reading the google remote quality rating guidelines that were leaked, and I was very stuck by the following statement:

Pg. 25

The homepage for someone named "Leon Harris", other than the ABC reporter, whose homepage would be of interest to a significant number of people/

This is a very rational way to go about ranking a result, however, there are consequences to using that sort of algorithm.

That statement right there really drove home to me that google is largely a broadcast channel for established media. And that CNN and FOX and them will all go through a rough transition...bloated newspapers will close (I have a friend who is a newspaper reporter and does ~3hr of work/day). But then there will be something just like the established media, but in a new form, dominating the serps.

We won't seem the democratic search engine that some wish for.

We will see a popularity contest, as you so aptly stated.

April 18, 2009 - 2:03am

@richardbutler, you say "Above all else, brand is the most important thing to any business. In fact, you cannot earn huge money and be successful if you don't carry a brand or trademark."

To me, your brand is your product/service 90% and 10% (rough split) how you present/promote it. Brand is the quality of your product that sets you apart from your competitors.

If that wasn't true, businesses would be easy to copy - just spend money to create a successful business. Just sell any old crap (invest 5% of your money on the product/service) and spend big on marketing/SEO expertise (95% of your money) to ensure success. Thankfully it doesn't work that way. Why do you think Google have bought many companies who already have successful products, but struggle to make new successful products themselves? Because it's not easy, no matter how much money you have. And that's a good thing. That's why your brand is your product/service, and that's why "one man bands" can beat large corporations.

Quality comes from dedication, being an autodidact, sheer enthusiasm and love for your product/service, patience and perseverance. Aaron is a good example here. These things are actually not that easy to incubate/foster if you work for a large corp.

Ensuring you are one of the best in your niche, if not the best, is what brand is (in my humble opinion).

April 18, 2009 - 2:00am

But on another note Andrew, a lot of people basically repackage what I offer, hype it up, and outsell me 10 to 1 on something that is not a higher quality product, just one that is marketed more aggressively (with more polish, less substance, and to a more desperate audience). In fact, many of the $2,000 super secret squirrel all-in-one internet marketing program packages are actually filled with a bunch of links to our blog posts and our tools (and I know that because many of them link to us, send us traffic, do not protect their member's area, and so I have a peak at what they are doing).

April 18, 2009 - 3:10am

Is there a big difference between #3 and #4 or do they overlap a lot..or in othr words does #3 automatically lead to #4?

When I think of how I could become a "brand" that a search engine wouldn't want to remove from their top10, it makes me think of the whole "becoming the obvious expert in your niche" kind of thing (for which you better pick one that's small enough (not too small of course) for you to totally conquer).

Trying to become the "authority" and super visible in your niche.

On another note, that raises the question to me how that is different than it has been already. Becoming THE authority in your niche has led to a lot of links so far, and thus made sites rank.

I assume the point is mostly that becoming that authority will be even more important in the future (as Google will look at other factors to determine whether you are that brand/authority in your niche..than just links..)?


April 18, 2009 - 7:49am

@aaron re: that $2000 program that links to you.

I once met a collaborating partner in one such network.. let's call it Thumper just for fun. Word was, Thumpers are hungry, and need to be fed. That was an excellent characterization in my eyes... it was all about finding the Thumpers willing to pay to eat, and the high price acted as the filter to isolate those from the rest. Once the Thumpers were found, it was known how hungry they were, and the mission became "feed them".... to keep them coming back to the trough.

It's a business model... plain and simple.

Seo blogger
April 21, 2009 - 4:27am

Lots of preaching, but very little useful information.

You say "be this, be that and you'll be a genius" -
Let me ask you, did you try to follow your "great" advices yourself?

People cannot be anything they are not, no matter how hard one tries to teach them how to become another person, and such general recommendations certainly do not help.

How can someone become a great expert, a writer, a leader and create a brand out of a blue sky, if he didn’t have a bent for it? And if he did – he probably wouldn’t need your advice.
Instead of going round the houses, you could give much fewer of less grandiose but more practical advices, those would really be appreciated.

I am sorry, but I am disappointed; very disappointed.

April 22, 2009 - 6:31am

I was not born an author...if anything my skills were more that of a mathematician. Practice leads people down the path toward success. Some people are smart and can piece data points together. Others are dumb and have no chance at becoming successful. We write for the people we think we can help.

April 21, 2009 - 12:32pm

@Seo blogger:-

"How can someone become a great expert, a writer, a leader and create a brand out of a blue sky, if he didn’t have a bent for it? And if he did – he probably wouldn’t need your advice."

This is true. It's like trying to teach perseverance, patience, tenacity....or (ironically) how to be an autodidact. You can't teach these things. Yet all these things are what you need to be successful.

edit: what I have learnt over the years that has helped me has been specifics like : which domains/pages are particularly influential in terms of links, "domaining" techniques (specific tools, particular techniques to understand what makes a valuable expired/expiring domain). It's all specifics - the very thing that loses value the moment you release such info to the general public. I guess that's the bind a lot of SEO commentators find themselves in - you can't get too specific without devaluing information (that is valuable because not many people know it). But then the flipside is : the less specific you are, the more frustrating it is for people who want to know the specifics. It just takes time to dig deep into the web and learn this stuff by yourself - dedication, perseverance, self-teaching (being an autodidact). The web is there at your disposal.

April 22, 2009 - 1:06am

AndrewL/Seo Blogger

The blog is pitched at people of differing skill and knowledge levels. What is common knowledge to some is new to others.

People cannot be anything they are not, no matter how hard one tries to teach them how to become another person, and such general recommendations certainly do not help.

I'm not sure I'm advocating someone be someone they are not, rather ask them to think about holistic marketing and brand building ideas.

How can someone become a great expert, a writer, a leader and create a brand out of a blue sky, if he didn’t have a bent for it?

By learning and applying that knowledge. I don't think anyone is a born brand builder, or marketer, or SEO. It is a skill that can be learned. It is mostly to do with hard work.

Instead of going round the houses, you could give much fewer of less grandiose but more practical advices, those would really be appreciated.


I am sorry, but I am disappointed; very disappointed.

Sorry to hear that. Perhaps it wasn't aimed at your individual level.

April 22, 2009 - 5:24am

@PeterD, my own posts are not really a criticism of this specific post, but perhaps just highlight the nature of SEO commentary in general (be it on, or other SEO sites). Namely, the REALLY valuable tips are specific information, but they can't be divulged because the value of the info lies in how few people know it. Namely :-

- specific domain names and webmasters who are trustworthy and run decent sites, and are good article writers, therefore article swaps add genuine value to your site, while you can link build (legit exercise)
- bloggers who are good writers and can drop in some links for you that are 100% natural (btw, finding bloggers who are good writers AND are willing to do this AND are good at this is very hard) (again, legit exercise)
- specific domaining tips/techniques that mean you can purchase valuable domains at lowish (often back order) prices (again, nothing wrong with this)
- trial and error content creation - where to place "buy" buttons, how to write, how to place navigation on sites. Yes, you can "learn" usability via etc but honestly there's nothing to substitute real life experience with how people react to YOUR site and YOUR products

All this information cannot be publicly disclosed (apart from perhaps the last point) otherwise by doing so, the information/tips become less valuable since the very value of it is in the "secrecy" of this knowledge.

I've learnt this knowledge just through plodding along - trial and error, seeing what works, what doesn't. What's "legit" and what isn't (in terms of search engines). I didn't find this info out from an SEO commentary blog because nobody is publishing the specifics (I don't blame them). Any other SEOer must be doing the same - they will have their own "secret knowledge" of bloggers, webmasters, content creators etc that is ONLY valuable BECAUSE it's secret.

BTW, I say all this and still find your posts of value in that you are a big proponent of quality content, and pushing the message that being a success online is difficult, but achievable.

April 22, 2009 - 6:23am

Framing matters. If Google engineers *think* something was done *for SEO* then they are more likely to attack it.

The other issue is not just that devulging specifics lowers value (it does) but also that what works for me might not work for you (especially if I do not know your situation and/or you are paying me $0 to work for you - you get what you pay for).

To give an example...I once recommended my old programmer friend to a client who needed a programmer and a site redesign. That client waited on the project for like 3 months, and then wanted a rush job done AFTER summer break was over. My programmer was then busy with college homework AND trying to complete the project.

But rather than looping me in on the project or paying my rates (for the value I would have added), that (thankfully, former) client kept changing the project. That annoyed my programming friend. Eventually the client got pissed off at my programmer who eventually started to blow him off. So then then asshole starts sending me hate emails about how bad of a person I am.

So I got no cash out of their relationship, they cost me time, it cost me money (since time is money), and I was unable to use my programmer (since he was busy working on someone else's website). Worse yet, the client still ranks #1 in Google (with site links), Yahoo! Search (double listing), Microsoft Live Search, and (double listing) 5 years after I worked for him, AND somehow feels poorly about me in spite of providing him a marketing ROI in excess of 180,000% (as buying that same traffic through AdWords would have cost over 180,000% of what I charged him for SEO, and that ratio keeps growing every day he ranks #1).

That programmer buddy is now a Google engineer, and they are pretty strict with who they hire. But sharing him with that client did not work. It was just that the client did not know how to appreciate talent and was too damn greedy for his own good. I know if someone's work made me a multi-millionaire for only a few thousand I would send them a Christmas card every year. But that client hasn't. If his rankings ever fall and he contacts me again I will send him a link to this comment.

April 22, 2009 - 5:35am


You're correct in that you learn by doing. Absolutely.

It's all specifics - the very thing that loses value the moment you release such info to the general public.

You've answered your own question?

I guess that's the bind a lot of SEO commentators find themselves in - you can't get too specific without devaluing information (that is valuable because not many people know it).

Whilst I understand the desire to have simple, prescriptive solutions to ranking, I think it's unlikely you'll ever see such information in the public domain.

Firstly, if anyone had such information, why would they tell anyone about it? Why would they sell it to others, or, even more laughably, give it away for nothing? As you point out, the information would go from highly valuable to worthless the minute after they publish.

Secondly, Google will always move to counter prescriptive ranking techniques. The more effective a technique, and the easier it is to implement, the faster Google will move to counter it. Their business model depends on it.

So, at best, such prescriptive techniques tend to be short lived. You can't build an empire on such an approach.

We cover a lot of theoretical PR, marketing and brand topics because this is the way we see search marketing moving. SEOs, especially those new to this topic, will need to know much about these areas that they have in the past.

Of course, we can't cover everything, or give specifics relating to everyone's situation, but hopefully we can introduce people to ideas they can then adapt to their own needs.

Incidentally, what topics would you like to see covered?

April 22, 2009 - 5:38am

Post above was made before I saw your 05:24 AM reply :)

I think we're in broad agreement?

April 22, 2009 - 4:46pm

Maybe I am out of the loop but it seems anytime you see those three letters SEO you will see them closely followed by the word Google.

I find it refreshing to see a range of different topics in here especially when it comes to building networks of people rather than just linked sites etc which is just as much a SEO Tactic as people will also send you traffic and link to you.

I guess the one thing I would like more info on is how to target some of the other search engines like Yahoo etc. Do they just rely on links for placement or what do they depend on more. I actually find yahoo traffic more stable and tend to stay longer and buy more.

Anyhow look forward to your insights.


April 22, 2009 - 11:26pm

Definitely, with the approach that search engines are taking, branding will be more and more important. And having a great word of mouth campaign is the most useful thing in marketing these days, even on Internet.

April 23, 2009 - 2:13am


Whilst I understand the desire to have simple, prescriptive solutions to ranking, I think it's unlikely you'll ever see such information in the public domain.

I agree - If I have a good network of webmasters and content writers, bloggers in niche A, businesses in niche B would find this info less effective since it's not completely related to their niche. Each site owner has to dig deep to find their own little network - so actually no single website can follow a purely prescriptive answer in terms of SEO.

I am talking really about the very very difficult initial stages of building a successful site online. I'm aware of the "network effect" once you do start to REALLY get noticed.

Despite what Matt Cutts says, link popularity isn't something bestowed onto you as a reward for great content ALONE (oh, I wish it was) - you have to go out and get link popularity if you're new on the block (under a few years old I would consider new). Only until you hit a certain critical mass (network effect) would it then start to get anything like what Matt is pretending happens.

If you look at the graveyard of expired domains (70,000+ on daily basis) and you'll see businesses online often don't get passed that initial year or two.

Aaron wrote:

Framing matters. If Google engineers *think* something was done *for SEO* then they are more likely to attack it.

Sure, but many sites are in a "do or die" situation anyway, particularly new sites in terms of having to rank within a year and get some decent traffic to become profitable. Not every site has a budget for Google Ads or other paid forms of advertising (think time rich, cash poor single person businesses, particularly these days!). I think it would be naïve of Google to imagine an internet where what all webmasters do all day is write great content in the hopes of ranking well, and that they are oblivious to any kind of ranking algorithm.

Given that links ARE hard to obtain no matter how great your content, can you imagine Google's rankings if we DID just write great content in the hopes of getting noticed, without proactive marketing? They would be vastly different to what they are today. It would be truly based on quality of content. You have to be joking in reality though - I won't name names, but there are so many niches online that have 100% junk sites hitting top 10 rankings (with 1 or 2 quality sites in between) - generic content, broken links, no contact information, INACCURATE information, above all: it's clear the webmasters of such sites are not experts and not publishing quality content. So why would these sites rank well? Why are Google saying these sites are the best for this niche, when they are not? Who is linking to such sites purely out of a love for the content on such sites? (sarcasm).

So in many ways, Google are 100% complicit in ranking manipulation because their algorithm has been open to it for all time.

(wish I could get off the subject of Google and links, but Google traffic has become such a monopoly and business breaker/maker.....).

BTW, if any Google employee is reading this, this is more a plea to place more emphasis on actual quality of content as ranking factor than using links as a signal of quality content - in reality, this is not an accurate signal. I know dozens of niches that some human editing could quickly "knock on the head" CLEARLY low quality sites and de-rank them (again, won't name names, it's up to Google, and I'm sure they see these types of sites in their rankings often).

April 23, 2009 - 9:00am

From a market research perspective sometimes it is good when you see garbage sites rank. It could mean the barrier to entry is low. ;)

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