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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Most of SEO a Boondoggle? Jill Whalen Sticks to Her Guns

After sending a congratulatory email to longtime SEO voice of reason Jill Whalen, for her plucky article Is Most of SEO Just a Boondoggle?, I sent a few followup questions, hoping for elaboration.

As typically ensues in this seemingly perennial debate, some of those who disagreed with Jill in comments took to personal attacks. Other raised specific technical points. All in all, the debate highlights the need to take the open questions more seriously: in what direction is the measurement of relevance going, and what should companies *really* be doing to improve their search visibility?

Unsurprisingly if you know her, far from backing down in response to detailed questions, Jill kicked it up a notch! Sit back and enjoy an entertaining and informative interview.


Traffick: So you've associated much of the SEO industry with "boondoggle," defined as "work of little or no value, done merely to look busy." Reminds me of unnecessary road paving projects! So are you saying that we should maybe pull a few hundred thousand unemployed folks into no-account SEO service, just to give them some work and self-respect, and to stimulate the economy, like a white collar version of the New Deal? Why didn't Bernanke et al. think of that?

JW: This may already be happening, judging by the fact that many of the larger SEO companies are hiring even though the rest of the world is laying folks off.


Traffick: Seriously: there are still SEO companies offering to fix meta keyword tags, and do URL "submissions"? Yikes! But isn't that because there are tons of uninformed clients out there (who will say flat out to you with some pride that they know "just enough to be dangerous") asking specifically for those functions? So why not give them what they want, seems to be the response of some shady operators. In this equation, how far does the client's responsibility go to be educated enough to ask roughly for the right services, or to do a good job selecting a vendor? How can they go about getting that type of education?

Whalen: It absolutely does fall on the client's shoulders to get themselves educated about SEO. Which is a lot easier said than done because no two SEOs agree on what's helpful and not helpful. Plus, of course, every website is different and has different needs. That's actually one of the most important things that clients need to understand. We often see SEO RFPs that ask for all this boondoggle crap and when we tell them, "no, we won't do that, but we'll do this" they're not interested. You can't really answer an RFP if it doesn't address the actual website's needs. This is why it's critical that when a client is looking for SEO services, they don't send out RFPs, but instead, talk to a variety of SEO companies and find out if they feel they can increase your targeted search engine traffic. Different clients will be a good fit for different SEOs.


Traffick: You imply that some SEO knowledge "expires" but on your website you also make the point that classic fundamental SEO techniques don't require much by way of constant change - it's only tricks that make you have to change tacks every year. What, in a nutshell, is classic fundamental SEO?

Whalen: I don't think I meant to imply that some SEO knowledge expires. What expires is the propaganda that Google throws out to SEOs like bones to a dog. Many SEOs, especially those that weren't in biz before search engines started throwing out bones, are all too eager to believe anything Google says. Be it via Matt Cutts or their Webmaster Guidelines, they seem to think that the information will help them perform SEO. It won't; It's just a smokescreen. Pretty much anything Matt says has to be taken with a grain of salt, imo, as his objective is to keep the Google results free from spam. That said, I agree with most of what he says, as I too want to keep Google free from spam. But it doesn't mean it's really the way Google does stuff.

In a nutshell, fundamental SEO is what my High Rankings tagline says, "making sites be the best they can be." I know it sounds cliche now, but I'm happy to say that through the 10 or so years I've been using that tagline, more and more SEO consultants have come to the same conclusion. (Usually after chasing their tails on SEO tricks for so many years.) SEO has always been--and will always be--providing the best, most relevant page to the searcher who's at the other end of Google looking to solve some sort of problem or answer some sort of question. It's nothing more, nothing less. It's not H tags, sitemaps, submissions, or Meta tags.


Traffick: What do you say to the rapid-tactic-shifting SEO's who define SEO as pretty much just that? That if you don't do "SEO" the way they define it, you're lazy, or living in the past? Does "classic fundamental SEO" also evolve? What have been some of the main areas where evolution has been rapid?

Whalen: First I ask the rapid-tactic-shifting SEO if they have their house completely in order. In other words, is their website in perfect shape with all the fundamentals? If it is (and most company website's never are) then go ahead and experiment with whatever little trick you may have thought up. There's certainly no reason to just sit on your hands and do nothing. I have nothing against experimenting, or even with pushing the envelope a bit to see what can give you that little bit of extra edge. But not until you have already exhausted all the other important items on your to-do list. That's where my beef lies. People are pushing the envelope instead of fixing stuff that's actually broken.

As far as classic SEO evolving, it's hard for me to recognize the evolution because it happens so incrementally and I barely notice it. But it certainly does, or maybe it doesn't, but we just figure more stuff out? For instance, having the appropriate site architecture that is most valuable to the search engines is something I never knew about in the mid-90's. Does that mean it wasn't important to search engines back then? I don't really know if it was or it wasn't. It was just something I realized at one point many years ago and so I began to recommend it to my clients once it was apparent how important it was. So the question is really does SEO evolve or does our knowledge evolve?


Traffick: By pointing factually to detail SEO techniques that have little or no real-world impact today, you leave some tantalizing questions open. For example - H1 tags have no special merit. I believe you. But is there a deeper principle at work here? Since on-page SEO is keyword-oriented, we can agree that keywords are still important. Why not so much in H1 tags? If not there, in what page elements (other than the obvious, title tags)?

Jill: H1's have always been a point of contention between me and most other SEOs. Back in the 90's they were already thought to be of significance by everyone in the industry. I was on the bandwagon then too. But then I had a number of client's whose website backends just didn't support the addition of H1's. So we did without. We still had great keyword rich headlines and the like, they just weren't wrapped in H tags. To my surprise it didn't seem to matter at all. Now, of course, it's impossible to say for sure for those websites that if we had used an H tag instead whether that would have pulled them up a notch. But many years later, I did do some experimenting where I could and still could not find any verifiable differences between using an H tag for a headline or simply a B tag or any others.

As to what page elements really do matter, yes, definitely the obvious Title tag (although you'd be surprised how many still don't use those correctly!) but it's also just within the content in general. It doesn't matter what tags you use, as long as you talk about your product or service on the page that you want to rank for that product or service! The other extremely important element for keywords is within anchor text. Many have still not come round to the importance of your internal labeling of your links. Basically, using your keywords in a way that makes the page more understandable to the reader of that page, is good for SEO as well. You have to imagine the person at the other end (or the search engine) knows nothing about you or what you offer and describe it at that level. While a person is apt to be able to figure out what you're all about even if you're not all that clear by using visual cues, the search engines aren't that smart (yet).


Traffick: What about keyword density!? Hehe.

Whalen: Blech


Traffick: If XML Sitemaps are relatively useless, why do you think we collectively headed down this path?

Whalen: Because Google told us to. 'nuff said.


Traffick: Has it ever occurred to you that certain vehicles, like XML Sitemaps or wikified SERP's, have unintentionally morphed into great ways for search engines to study spammer behavior, and maybe even to triangulate who the most vigorous spammers are and what they tend to get up to? Like the Wile E. Coyote putting out "Free Bird Feed."

Whalen: It most certainly has occurred to me. Although, where you say "unintentionally" I am more jaded and would say "intentionally."

This is the main reason why I never did an XML sitemap when they first came out (still haven't actually). Remember all those poor saps who as soon as they'd submit an XML sitemap in the early days suddenly found their sites missing from Google SERPs? Coincidence? It seemed to happen way too often, imo. Who even knew about XML sitemaps at the time? Only those interested in SEO for the most part.


Traffick: That brings up the whole evolving puzzle of SEO ranking factors. We can all agree that life has become more complicated with SERP's being personalized to user histories, geography, and keyword intent. We can agree that universal and blended search, as well as paid search, have changed what people see on the page. But for what's left, as far as SEO ranking factors goes, is that an incredibly complex puzzle in your view, or less complicated than people let on?

Whalen: It became more complicated when Google became the only engine worth caring about. It used to be if you couldn't get rankings in one engine, it didn't matter too much because the other 4 or 5 were fine and brought you tons of traffic. Now it's rank in big G or bust!

And yes, the fact that rankings can no long be accurately used as a measure of success does suck. I used to long for the old days when our job was to just get rankings and whether or not that brought in traffic or conversions wasn't our job or our concern. Rankings are easy. Traffic and conversions, not so much. Why do you think most SEO companies are holding onto their rankings boondoggle?


Traffick: What do you think of the expert surveys, such as the one put together by SEOmoz, that aggregate SEO expert opinion on what are the most salient ranking factors? Do they give SEO's any kind of blueprint to work from? Like you, I participated in the survey. Did you understand all the questions? Most?

Whalen: The SEOmoz ranking factors survey was the most ridiculous thing I ever read. Seriously. It might as well have been written in Latin (was it?). Where they ever dreamed some of the crazy theories asked about in that survey I'll never know. Much of it had no resemblance to SEO as I've ever known it. I just hope that clients aren't actually paying to do some of the things that were being asked about in the survey.


Traffick: If working on stupid stuff is boondoggle, then do we need to change how SEO's are perceived? Compensated? What do you think of the proposals put forth by Richard Zwicky and others to place more weight on performance (increased traffic or revenue) in SEO compensation?

Whalen: The problem with performance based SEO is that it has to be tracked through the SEOs own server, rather than the client's. And typically when the contract is up, the client is left with their pants down and no traffic or sales. It's a great business model for the SEO of course, but if I were a client I wouldn't want to do it as it doesn't address any fundamental problems you may have with your website. Of course, if it makes the client more than they're paying, and they don't mind paying forever, then there's certainly nothing wrong with it if that's how they prefer things to operate.


Traffick: What do you say to the legions of SEO's who will no doubt reply to you with case studies proving their "boondoggles" provided a lift?

Jill: If it works for you, then keep doing it. But don't assume it will work for every site, and don't assume it was just that one thing that provided the lift. Also, I'd suggest testing specific elements in isolation as much as possible as that's the only way of really know what works and what doesn't. But if the only thing you offer to do for a company put their headlines in H1 tags, then you're ripping them off. (I don't actually know any companies who would only do that, thankfully!)


Traffick: I notice from your website that you offer an array of SEO services from full service, to lite or full audits, to various coaching and teaching types of offerings. Regarding the latter, do companies typically follow through once they're introduced to the key SEO techniques and concepts, or is there still a wide chasm between awareness and implementation?

Whalen: [Big Sigh] Unfortunately, many companies do not follow through. Many don't ever implement even one thing. Not even the easy things. Honestly, I don't understand it. The ironic thing is that it seems that the more a company spends on SEO, the less they implement. I don't let it bother me anymore and still make myself crazy by making sure I don't miss even one little thing that might help them when I'm writing my reports. I do often wonder why I work so hard at it knowing deep down there's a good chance it will never even be read.

Some of my best and favorite clients were ones that chose lower priced options because they actually performed most of the suggestions and then realized amazing results. Those type often come back later and spend a little more to learn more and gain additional results!


Traffick: If the chasm is often wide, does that mean companies are essentially "not doing SEO" after being introduced to it and getting a partial start? Shouldn't they scour the planet for a quality in house SEO, or quality agency, to go deep and stick with the project through to something closer to completion?

Jill: Yeah, of course they should. I think perhaps part of the problem is that they go into SEO thinking it's one thing (H1's and sitemaps perhaps?) only to find out that it's actually a huge amount of work. I guess they get discouraged by that so they do nothing. But those who do follow through as always amazed at how much more their phone rings and how much more qualified traffic they receive. SEO is still amazing that way when done well. We have one client who never quite understood what we were doing or why, but still let us do whatever we wanted. She told us recently on the phone that she's completely booked up now and can't even take anymore customers. Not only that, but those who call her are ready to sign on the dotted line and don't need to be sold to because her website now explains very clearly exactly what her company is all about. It's so cool when that happens!


Traffick: What's on the horizon for you and High Rankings?

Whalen: Well, right now we're just trying to make it through the recession. We're always testing different SEO consulting options and educational opportunities to find what best fits the current market. So far so good, but it's certainly scary out there! It seems to me this should be the time to increase SEO budgets not decrease them, but I'm not sure if that's what's happening.

We're continuing with our very customized in-person SEO training classes, and we're also working on some online SEO training, which I will have more info on in the Fall.


T: Thanks for speaking with us! Have a great summer, Jill!

J: No problem, you too!

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, June 03, 2009

PageRank Sculpting is Dead? Good Riddance

Danny Sullivan reports on an update in Google philosophy and algorithmic emphasis. As I interpret the story, at one point Matt Cutts didn't rule out the idea that you could slap nofollow tags on some internal links on your pages to conserve "link juice" for your important pages. Hence, the practice of "PageRank sculpting" was born. SEO's had another cool story to tell their clients, and each other.

Danny's interpretation of this is that making this kind of technique available, and then taking it away, is a violation of a broad principle of "backwards compatibility". Shame on Google, he implies, for making the advanced SEO's scramble to undo what they already did now that Google's algo has supposedly undergone this massive shift and a page with ten links passes only 10% link juice to each link on the page, rather than, say, doubling the juice on the remaining links if you nofollow half of them.

I don't think I agree. Here, Danny is standing up for the constituency of advanced SEO's, many of whom are currently attending SMX Advanced. My take is that SEO's taking actions on speculations about the algorithm are themselves building the new "features" that lack "backwards compatibility." This is especially the case when the "features" (tactics) address no known principle of third-party trust or relevancy of sites or pages.

But for those of us who don't believe all of Matt Cutts' stories and non-stories, and take a holistic view of business strategy, information architecture, audience development, and traffic growth, we had a lot of lower-hanging fruit to work on than using a short-term fad method of "telling" Google which pages are important.

Long term, search fails when site owners try to "tell" search engines which pages are important, short of burying the unimportant ones in their architecture so they're literally invisible. Importance shouldn't be arbitrarily determined by site owners, though certainly users and engines appreciate it if they provide indications.

Search Engine Land itself has undergone a surge of traffic in recent months, all no doubt a product of holistic audience development. I'd love to hear Danny's take on how much of that improvement in fact resulted from deliberate PageRank sculpting. None? A lot of it?

No matter: holistic brand building and audience development and overall quality content, combined with sound organization/architecture of the content, are what gave Search Engine Land its mojo - not short term tactics. And that's how most companies should look at the SEO exercise.

What was supposedly "given" to advanced SEO's in the short term has now been taken away. Nofollow and for that matter XML sitemaps are just supplements in a much more important larger "grand scheme of things." PageRank sculpting turns out to be just another time-waster that contributed mainly to "Advanced SEO" bragadoccio on the barstool. It's gone now? Boo hoo.

If you spend your life hanging on Matt Cutts' words about SEO, well then mark these words: you will, in turn, find yourself annoyed with Matt Cutts.

In conclusion, I propose a new tag that should only be used by Advanced SEO's - square brackets used so as not to screw up the HTML on this page: [this page is really frickin' important] [/as you were]

Rand Fishkin, in a spiffy flow chart, seems to approximately (and diplomatically) agree with my take, highlighting the key low hanging fruit that comes before frivolity like PR Sculpting: content development, information architecture, link acquisition, internal link structures, and conversion rate optimization. But as for Rand's example of a site that is a large one with many deep URL's, as an example of one that might benefit from the sculpting, this might depend on the query we hope to rank for. Overall, I've seen no major problem ranking very deep pages on relevant long tail queries (for example, at HomeStars.com). Those pages rank or don't rank for a variety of reasons, as many as the tail is long. And from what Cutts is saying today, the point is moot anyway, as the provisional tactic/loophole has now been closed. Back to working on the important parts of the business.

Hmm, and I'd love to think my take on this is just common sense and uncontroversial, but the statistics out there seem to indicate (even outside of major sites like Wikipedia) that there was a massive rush to play with the nofollow tag among the "SEO community". Like Rip van Winkle, I slept peacefully through the stampede.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Worlds Colliding: Interview du Jour

Aaron Wall, well-known SEO guy, has a lengthy interview with PPC guy (me).

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bad SEO Holiday Alert

I'm waiting for the family to arrive, so you get to enjoy the following bit of trivia:

The Geox website is so unfindable that you cannot find it unless you pretty much search for "Geox.com."

The use of meta description information on this home page could use some work. Look at what the SERP looks like on Google:

Please, get the flash player, click here. P.IVA, Cod. Fisc. e Iscr. Reg. Imp. TV 03348440268 | 2008 Geox spa - Tutti i diritti riservati.

Sigh. All this from a major international brand. Our work continues.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, October 10, 2008

RedFlagLeads.com

Yesterday a consulting lead came through and I viewed the company's site on my mobile device. Very illustrative indeed! For whatever reason that showed me a lot of the hidden junk they'd stuffed on the page. I immediately decided against working with them.

Getting back to my laptop and taking more time to view the source code only confirmed my decision. Code like "input type= hidden" and "class=stealth" feels like it's begging to find its way into a Matt Cutts PowerPoint, guaranteed to get laffs at the "what not to do" seminars.

The company also had four more kinds of metadata than necessary in the document head, stuffed full of the exact same kinds of keywords in an overkill type scenario. Looks like something someone sold to someone, telling them it would get them somewhere.

Granted, most of what this prospect was looking for was paid search -- but experience has shown that companies doing so much deceptive stuff are hard to talk to in general. They may say one thing and mean another. Why listen to someone who says "oh yeah, we really want to go legit" when there are plenty of folks out there who say it and mean it?

input type = hidden. LOL! "class type = stealth" -- nothing like naming your CSS styles after sneaky SEO tactics!

In some cases you do have a company that is mortified that their SEO company did all that stuff, and they're looking for someone to genuinely help them go legit. In which case, it shouldn't be all that hard to get off on the right foot: there is plenty of field space in our lead forms over at Page Zero to explain background situations like "hey by the way, we know there is a lot of black hat code on our site right now -- this is not our philosophy at all, and we are seeking to hire you because we know you are reputable and we are looking for a firm that will do things right."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I'm a Criminal, But Please Take Me Seriously...

Some search marketers do protest their outlaw image too much. Others revel in it. Whatever, you comport yourself in this way, don't be shocked by the lukewarm response when you try to "go straight."

(P.S. The actual blog content is good, but do you really want those thread topics following you around for the rest of your 'professional' career?)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, April 09, 2008

SEO to Give Way to DAO?

Leafing through this month's issue of PROFIT magazine (sorry but the current issue is not yet online as I write this), I came across a sidebar about a concept called DAO or "Digital Asset Optimization." The argument is that a more comprehensive strategy is required today for websites trying to maximize their visibility for all types of searches for all types of media and content (for example, video, products, news, images, etc.). Lee Odden was quoted in the piece. I had to say to myself "nice PR work, Lee, getting quoted in that story!"

Looking back to the first mention of this term around June 2007, it turns out that our good friend Lee Odden at Toprank may have coined the term, but it hasn't yet fully caught on (after enjoying a brief heyday). A number of people responded to his June 2007 post, and seemed willing to use the term, but you don't see a million "DAO" references in Google. One SEO from India got so excited about the term, though, that he registered the domain "daodigitalassetoptimization.com" in February 2008.

What we are seeing, if not lighting-fast growth of the term DAO, is growing acceptance of the idea. People are coming at the idea of "being more visible" from a variety of angles: talking about the growing importance of blended and universal search; deliberate & planned use of video to augment written articles and promotions; properly labeling & tagging your existing digital media content; etc.

What you call something seems to have an impact on whether people think it is something worth talking about. Greg Jarboe mentioned that attendance to training sessions (Incisive Media - in conjunction with SES) rose when they changed the title from "Getting Found in All the Right Places" (people didn't know what it was supposed to mean) to "Universal and Blended Search" (people cottoned onto the fact that it was something new and technical that Google was doing that we'd better be aware of).

So, I guess we probably won't all be calling it DAO (but just in case, I've stuffed this post with the term), or GFIATRP, but rather, "Universal and Blended Search," "Online Reputation and PR," and "Social Media Marketing." They're interrelated, but they can be discussed as if they were separate topics.

The general idea is unlikely to go away, and it will keep marketers mighty busy keeping on top of these trends.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, January 02, 2008

If It's Hard, Do It

SEO techniques typically linger long after their "good til" dates. 2008 should be no exception, but if you're paying attention it's time to move onto the stuff that works.

This useful review of techniques that Google clamped down on this year included:

  • Ho-hum reciprocal linking schemes. I link to you because you link to me. The authors of the article said "time to get one-way links". What!? Are you crazy? Do you know how hard that is in this day and age? Well, there are a couple of ways to achieve this. Do something cool enough that people really want their friends to know about it. Or, send someone a brown envelope full of cash for a link. Google can't track this (yet). Don't overpay.
  • Ye Olde Directories. So-called "directories" that are only in business so lazy business owners can "get links" so "Google ranks them better" have been on the way out for some time. Little wonder; there is no editorial discretion and as directories they are useless to 99.9% of the population. In fact, I bet Googlers (manually looking for trouble) see a JoeAnt link as a red flag for further investigation. So what now? When Ye Olde Directories are gone, something may have to take their place, so it seems we're in a bit of a warped phase of widespread soft-spamming of Wikipedia, Digg, Reddit, and - as long as it's a trusted circle of some sort - you name it. Gray is getting grayer. How Google chooses to weight all the many potential quality and "not-spam" signals out there is anyone's guess, but you can guess this much: Google can't possibly have perfect answers to combat ever-increasing levels of opportunism in the pursuit of visibility. What I personally see as legitimate in this ethical and practical quagmire? See above, under "Do something cool enough..."
  • Bye-bye to 10 Blue Links, Hello Universal. I get the concept, but are we being oversold by a reinvented crop of Universal Gurus eager to create a new SEO sub-specialization for themselves? I'd love to see some empirical data about how the gradual decline of the "10 Blue Links" concept is actually affecting companies' search referral traffic, regardless of whether they profess to "get it" or not.
(hat tip Search Engine Roundtable)

One thing that won't change: search marketing professionals will be selling you something this year. With the authors of that article, I hope folks will at least be buying relatively current services, not futile make-work projects.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, October 25, 2007

Google Shoots Arrow into Heart of "Link Economy"

There's an unwritten rule in search marketing: when a Google update knocks the stuffing out of a bunch of sites that were unfairly ranking too high, you're not supposed to gloat if you came out unscathed. But for the Grace of GOOG, there go I, etc.

Even when the infamous Florida update had webmasters scurrying in circles, and we noticed a sharp uptick in interest in paid search opportunities, I only gloated mildly.

That's why I almost considered letting this latest assault by Google on the practices of link buying, link farming, and business models that constitute premeditated interlinking schemes by their very nature, slide by without comment. But the lessons learned by this latest cannot be emphasized enough. It's time to stop ignoring these things or treating them as episodic examples of Google's high-horse madness, and to begin realizing that they continue to take aim at rank improvement "schemes" in their role as consumer advocates, attempting to reflect legitimate real-world authority and usefulness, just as they do with their increasingly tough rules on the paid search side.

Sounding every bit like a woman with a clear conscience, Jill Whalen gloats a bit in her recent commentary about these developments, and resolves to get out the popcorn to watch things unfold.

Put plainly, the reason the majority of the search marketing world responds so ineffectually to such issues is because of tunnel vision. At the most general level of professionalism, many in the "agency world" will advocate "integrated marketing," "brand management," and other long-term views of marketing strategy. This is the furthest thing from the minds of many SEO hacks.

And granted, that's too high-concept and not appropriate to the work many search marketers do. However, I'd propose that to be effective, the hyper-focus on the details of ranking tactics needs to be brought back into a mid-level focus. More on this as we go, later in this post.

The fallout of Google's latest rejiggering has been fairly severe, if you go by PageRank. On one of the PageRank checkers I use, you can see the multiple datacenters, so you see the "old" PageRanks and the "new." Traffick.com, I had nary a worry about because of the long-term, stable way we gathered external mentions since launch in 1999. We're stable at 7.

A number of the blog networks have been hard hit, with sites like AutoBlog losing one or two notches in PageRank. I would have to assume that this would take a direct hit out of the pockets of blog network owners such as Nick Denton. Organic traffic from search engines is a free lunch to many private entrepreneurs like this. Quality content deserves search visibility, of course. The question is really how much. There is only so much search traffic in a given month, so every Google reassessment of ranking and weighting methods amounts to a zero-sum game of "who gets the available free referrals."

One well known search industry site, Search Engine Guide, clocks in with a drop of 6 to 4, at least if you believe this PR checker. In the old days, they often came in with an 8, which is very high. I'm not saying the current drop is justified - Google decides on that. But it is probably the case that the 8 was too high.

And yes, I realize that PageRank's only a rough guide to Google's opinion of your site's authority, after weeding out phony forms of authority as best as they can. Some of those hard hit are claiming they see "no drop in traffic" and speculate that "Google is putting on a show." In denial to the end? Could traffic drops be coming soon?

Dropping two notches in PageRank may not sound like much, but it could constitute a severe penalty because the scale is logarithmic. The difference between 4 and 6 is really significant, as any experienced site owner will tell you.

But the point here is not to single any one actor out. It's to point out that search marketing as a profession became so popular so fast that many actors assumed that popularity or prevalence equated to real marketing expertise. The momentum of the industry translated into a "everything's fine here" sensibility, and an insular view that more experienced marketers had nothing to teach us. We're taking over! (With bought links, keyword research, and meta tags, you're taking over?)

What it looks like, to draw upon some of the beautiful photos I picked out to dress up this post, is that search marketers were so sure of themselves that they turned into the fuzzy, wool-bearing little creatures below. Matt Cutts says bought links are bad? Selling PageRank is bad? Baaaa humbug! 1,000 of my friends agree with me, so Matt must be wrong, and possibly evil.



















The thing about it is, if you're in high school and well compensated (if not well dressed), you and your peers don't look like sheep to one another. It's such a cool gig to have, you actually look like Heathers...





















No, I did not mean those heathers, and plus there are still sheep grazing nearby... can someone please...


Right, that's better. Heathers.

These Heathers were so compellingly popular, it seemed sometimes like you'd want to do anything to be like them. Even if you were the aloof, independent, and lovely Winona Ryder. Stop, Winona! You're better off without them!




So, I'm here to make the case for a mid-level focus rather than a close-up view that a narrow set of tactics in a toolkit will give you any clear guide of what to do to improve your company's long term reach and connection with prospects. As Goldilocks (or Winona, before she began shoplifting) I'll suggest that for many search-focused professionals, the idea of "integrated marketing" is too high level to be practical; whereas pure old-school SEO tactics always get you into the same mess eventually. You're not VP Marketing at a Fortune 500, or any other type of lifer; nor are you going to get far in life if your only skill is to tweak an H1 tag. In between, there needs to be an integrated understanding of what makes customers and markets tick today, and how to put that together with a search visibility strategy. That entails a lot of detail work, but deciding on the appropriate types of campaign work will be more effective if it's done within a structured framework that recognizes Google, and other sites for visibility online, as the complex consumer advocates they are. Call it "integrated online attention-getting," if you will.

So whereas for a couple of years on the Page Zero site, we joked about that we don't do SEO at all, we realize that what we've developed for some clients (at the moment we call it SEO 2.0) is something that yes, we actually do, and will continue to do. A long-term focus on "integrated online attention-getting" means a sustained strategic implementation, with particular action items leading to detail work performed by the appropriate party (sometimes us). When we launch the new version of our consulting site in a couple of weeks, that's what we'll make clear to current and prospective clients.

If that's gloating, well... unwritten rules were made to be broken. The way we see it, our clients are not in business to sit around wondering when they'll be "Google-slapped."

Update: Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media, responded to this piece to note that "the Google demotion of link farms has only hit offending blog networks. Engadget and other Weblogs Inc blogs have taken a hit of a couple of points of PageRank. But Gawker sites, which are much more sparing in their linking, are unaffected by the latest change."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My Next Target: The Title Tag

OK, maybe I'm not about to call for its "death" as I did with the keyword meta tag, but Duane Forrester's fine piece about Big SEO and automation just triggered a couple of morbid thoughts about our old friend "title tag".

Let's say you have a million pages. So you say you need SEO, eh? That sounds like it's going to be a mighty big job. Forrester correctly points out there isn't very much you can do manually. Although I would counter that you can work on between 500 and 2,000 pages to cover some pretty impressive ground, search-frequency-wise, if you're so inclined.

So what is on-page SEO, exactly. Is it adding appropriate titles, heading tags and headings, meta keyword tags and description tags, to all pages, thereby increasing their rank potential?

Let's work through the logic here. You're going to make sure certain "core" keywords appear multiple times in the document, "amplifying" their weight. But doesn't that just take us back to keyword density?

If the automation process involves "a way to automate the insertion of meta tag based on the actual content of a given page," as Forrester writes, then let's be clear on what's really happening: you're taking what's already on the page, and copying and pasting it into another page element.

If you do something similar for titles, the logical principle is no different.

Let's be honest. These various page elements and approaches to ranking content were mostly invented for a manual world. Logically speaking, if all you're doing to try to rank better (on a million pages at once) is to replicate some existing words within other elements of the page, you're adding only slight value, and zero additional meaning. It might be a good idea, but it's hardly life-changing for the user.

There is still some minimal value left. Well-labeled pages are easier to find and respond to, in that page titles appear in SERP's and in the browser.

You'll need to automate correctly to put keywords and meaning-related cues in the URL structure of the site, as well... but largely because this seems to matter to search engines.

But if that's all we've got, it's not clear that such pages should be ranking higher than their equals with less zealous automated efforts at keyword densification/replication on any given search query. In the case of scraper sites who are super good at this kind of automation, of course their well-constructed pages should not rank at all.

It's little wonder that based on such characterizations of SEO, many businesses view it as a purely technical function. It is not.

It's certainly a sad thing that a good CMS deployment (for example) can improve your overall level of search referrals, as compared with a bad one. Sad or not, it's a practical reality that companies need to study, at least until search engines get even smarter.

Still, there are plenty of other elements of information architecture that tend to get lost in such discussions. Should we use breadcrumb navigation or not? What's the right number of links in the nav bar to aid navigation? What approach should we take to site search? Should we add interactive capability to the site?

Overdo your efforts to please search engines alone, and you might not allocate the time and budget you need to please users. And happy users are the ones that spread the word so well, giving you the off-page love that is a prerequisite to high reputation and thus standing in the search engines.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, October 08, 2007

Search Marketing Strategy: Don't Look Like a Duck?

Eric Enge's extensive discussion of hidden text and its dangers illustrates a key issue for anyone working on a search marketing strategy. (Hat tip seroundtable.com)

As much as you "might" escape sanctions from the Google indexing gods if you construct pages that "just look like" other, more spammy, pages, the reality is, if you go into the forest dressed up like a duck... it may not matter if you even quack like one, your danger rating goes up.

Basically: my personal philosophy on the SEO side is to dial back on excessive "on-page tactics" intended to give rankings that "extra boost." There are other ways to rank.

A particular SEO bugaboo for me is that "text way below the fold" technique. Fine if it's somewhat below the fold and it's navigational in nature. But not fine if it just looks cheesy and spammy. What "respectable" site would do that?

Search marketing is marketing first, and that involves a consistent, professional process for communicating with readers and customers. A comprehensive, analytical, patient approach *does* work. Creating more useful content *does* work. And above all, off-page stuff does the heavy lifting of enhancing your reputation and standing in the engines.

So back to why you'd use hidden text in the first place? Oh, I'm sure we can dream up all kinds of "legitimate" scenarios. Not pretending I play in this particular sandbox, the "illegitimate" scenarios involve low quality content being "thrown at" the search index while showing users something else. Whether they're gibberish pages users actually see, as opposed to gibberish hidden from users, and from there... gathering data on which of these two not only ranks in spite of Google's vigilance, and which leads to conversions to sales of porn or hot tubs... this would be the daily existence of the professional index spammer and the amateur index spammer-dabbler. If you're a real company, isn't it nice not to have to worry about those kinds of calculations? So if you are real, don't hire the amateur index spammer/dabbler person! A little knowledge residing in the brain of the business owner's nephew who built the site and knows "a lot about SEO"... can be a dangerous thing.

The bottom line? Quibbling about whether Google does or does not allow some specific sub-technique is not the way to go. It's not like they can give you "license" to work some "loophole". They use automated methods on both the paid and unpaid sides to flag violations. This in turn may trigger some human review, which can and will exercise editorial judgment as to intent. And as we've seen of late on the paid side, Google even makes official comments on "business models to avoid."

Google has been talking about intent for years. The spamsters don't want to hear it.

The webmaster forums may be loaded with folks trying to find out how to best spam Google with hidden text tricks they don't mind, or can't catch. But this misses the entire point. A human rater can look at your site and decide, based on criteria, that it falls into some category that is low quality in users' eyes, such as "thin affiliate." This can lead to low rankings, penalties, and banning. Even this system is highly imperfect because it still gives too much advantage to serial spammers and sophisticated cheaters. Something new is needed to rebalance things in favor of quality sites, even more so than today.

Creators of quality content will increasingly be rewarded through new ranking methods, in my opinion.

Site developers commenting on several legitimate uses of hidden text techniques (see the comments in Eric's seomoz post) just serve to emphasize the point that certain sites might fall into an *automated* net that flags certain deceptive techniques, but they do not deserve to. That just increases the load of human judgment on Google, or the importance of other (off-page) factors indicating quality and relevancy. Spammers *will* find ways of hiding text that Google simply does not want to work too hard to find algorithmically, as it would create too many false positives in any case.

Related: Matt Cutts on "The role of humans in Google search"

Funnily enough, then, after looking at it from all angles, the presence or absence of any but the most one-sidedly spammy hidden text techniques would appear to be a very weak signal of quality; one that Google cannot realistically weight very heavily for ranking purposes.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hammer, Nails, Snake Oil, The Olive Tree, the Lexus, and The Yogi

That's the title of my upcoming... er,,,... this... post.

Mike, you may be right, but I'm guessing you'll never stop it. By "it," I mean the tendency of SEO snake-oil salesmen (sorry, "snake-oil 2.0") from selling their seemingly plausible SEO formula long past its "gone stinky" date.

I think in any industry that is sufficiently mysterious, and also lucrative and growing, you'll see this pattern. Even the most sincere practitioners will often be willing to give up aspects of this "let's just tell the truth to the clientele" fervor they had when they started in (this contrarianism sometimes proves profitable in the early going), to gravitate for the easy sell (because the gullible customer is often practically begging you to sell this way) that their competitors are making so much easy money on. It's called inertia, gravity, a plausible story, a myth you can't bust no matter hard you try, etc.

I don't believe in "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," personally. But many do.

Health clubs might be the perfect analogy. Localized small fitness club chains can remain relatively immune from the sales pressures of larger, publicly traded corporations. Local trainers are allowed to have their own personalities, they're allowed to help clients without selling, they're allowed to advise professionally without always tying it into a hook or a gimmick. Then one day, the fitness club gets bought up by a sales-oriented conglomerate, and some of the old staff are fired; others are asked to memorize sales pitches, even sleazy seduction tactics, in order to get the clients to buy more.

As you can guess, this recently happened at my health club. While I've always been somewhat amazed at the whoppers told by way of getting clients to sign up for personal training packages, it's become ever more cringe-worthy. They'll say anything, it seems. Especially to the newer customers. All in order to justify selling 16 sessions instead of 8, etc.

Examples:

  • "Once you add muscle, you'll burn more fat." A gross exaggeration the longer the point is made to the individual who has never exercised, and the more fictional a picture you can paint of a slightly more muscular individual shedding fat as they lay around watching TV and wolfing down corn chips.
  • "There is an electrostatic connection from your feet through to your head, so from-the-knees pushups are useless, whereas even 3-4 regular pushups have real benefit." Perhaps this is even true! But obviously the purpose is to create confusion and dependency as part of a regular, staged program of pseudoscience and quasiscience. Remember, even if something is somewhat true, or vaguely scientific, doesn't mean it's relevant or helpful. Often the purpose is directly related to sales. I mean really, the trainer is not all that taxed standing there watching you do four pushups. He has plenty of time to think up ways to get you to buy more from the health club.
  • Some unprintable type interpersonal stuff which is so consistently dished out I can only assume it works to boost revenues, either on or off the books.
Why does this stuff work? Because the methods are honed across many gullible clients, and as long as they're getting some benefit, truth matters less to the business than doubling or tripling the revenues from the same rough relationship and same basic quotient of truthiness.

Many in the search marketing industry have turned their back on outdated claims and demagogic pandering to the client's psychological propensity for wanting better metatags and higher PageRank. The best solutions evolve and work strategically with client needs, because unlike the physiology of the human body, the marketing landscape changes rapidly online, even if a few principles stay relatively consistent.

But Mike, don't think anything we say is going to stop all of the shenanigans or selling of outmoded methodologies... any more than I'd be well-advised to spend valuable energy karate-chopping the trainer who gets the client to sign up for more lessons with elaborate rationales for complicated exercise and naughty banter about Kegel exercises. I don't have time to learn karate, anyhoo. You know and I know there are always consultants out there willing to prey on ignorance, and firms that can even make that business model scale. Sadly.

But happily, in a way, because it reflects well on the health of our industry that there are many folks attuned to the benefits of a strong search presence.

Now give me ten pushups!

See, it was starting to work on you, wasn't it?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, April 08, 2007

Vanessa Fox Nude?

I have a somewhat strict policy against entering SEO contests, even impromptu ones. It boils down to the lessons taught by Homer, eagerly lapped up by Bart: "can't win? don't try." Or: can't win! Don't try!

So try to get [a high ranking on] Vanessa Fox nude? No way! But there, I've just helped Vanessa up a notch in her race against Naylor. (I hope.)

Dave, you can't win! Won't a ton of people link to her, not you? Don't try!

(Plus, she works at Google, so she can hand-tweak the results.)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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