The Business of SEO: Perception vs. Reality

By SEOMoz

As SEOs we often live in a bubble, sometimes it’s a social media bubble where we only tweet amongst our peers, sometimes it’s a literal bubble that we don’t explore outside our comfort zone, but that bubble can easily keep us from seeing things that to consultants in other fields is painfully obvious. At the end of the day, an SEO consultant isn’t any more special than a CPA or a Financial Planner, we’re all consultants and ultimately our job is to give our clients what they want.

The question then is, what do our clients want?

Our clients want value, our clients want progress, and they’re willing to invest in consultants to get what they want, but it falls to us to prove not just the value that we know exists in SEO and other Inbound Marketing tactics, but to also deliver the perception of value. Not only to our primary contact, but to their superiors and anyone else who might be reading the documents you leave behind.

I was talking with Tom Critchlow about this and he said something to me that I asked his permission to share here and I couldn’t agree with him more. Tom said, “There’s no good nailing value, if you don’t nail perceived value.”

He’s absolutely right. Starting out as an SEO consultant, my every focus was on the value of SEO and I believed with all my heart that White Hat SEO was valuable, that our tactics would increase our client’s revenue, that we had the answers to the recession’s tough questions.

I set out, a one man operation at the time, to educate my local business community about SEO. I spoke at luncheons, attended more networking events than I did actual client work, and just “hustled” to steal the term from Gary Vaynerchuck.

Our company grew, we gained clients, Image Freedom as a brand started to develop, we were providing SEO but my salesmanship abilities were primarily responsible for creating that perceived value. Value that was not shown in my documentation or my reports. My documents sucked, our logo sucked, our analytics reports changed every other month. We were a mess, all strategy, no presentation.

Image Freedom completely lacked consistency, and while we were growing, we were hindered by our emphasis on SEO’s ACTUAL value, which you and I know intimately as readers of SEOmoz and members of this community, but I wasn’t doing a good enough job on the perceived value component.

In 2010 we hired Prologue Branding, a consulting duo who helped us develop a consistent brand message throughout all of our documents, a great new logo, conducted past and present client interviews, the works. They stripped us down to our core.

It wasn’t an easy experience to embark upon. Client interviews, especially the interviews with clients we’d let down, or who I’d failed to help maintain that perception of value with. It was a painful but humbling experience that I recommend every entrepreneur experiences on at least an annual basis.

Through pain comes growth and I lost many nights of sleep re-developing documentation, research, reports, guides, and whatever I could to help me bring the perception of SEO that my clients took away from our meetings closer in line with the reality that SEO really was a fantastic tool for growing their business.

We used to provide PDF’s of our research, our audits, print outs from Google Analytics (don’t lie, you know you’ve done this) and basically weak leave behinds that were far from inspiring to our clients. They perceived disorganization, inconsistent brand messaging, and that just wasn’t the message I wanted them to take away, but I was stuck in my craft, I was the SEO, I knew what they needed and if they could just accept that it all lived in my head and not on paper then we can get on with the work of creating this value.

I was dead wrong.

Perception is reality, and through my branding audit, through our rebirth as a team and as a company, we started delivering not just perceived value in presentations and workshops about SEO, our documentation expressed that value, our audits were professionally printed and spiral bound. The documents felt substantial to hold, they escaped the “unicorns and rainbows” theoretical hindrance that effects so many in the Social Media and SEO spaces and became documented plans, strategies, and it was hard to look at what we delivered without knowing that we had a plan and you were in the right hands to get your business to where you want it to be.

I’ve owned an Internet Marketing company for two years now. As a team, we’ve exceeded my every expectation but we’ve made our share of mistakes along the way. If I can pass on one piece of wisdom to my fellow Entrepreneurs, to my fellow SEOs, it’s the need for expressing the perceived value of what you do, and not just your belief in the value of your trade.

You’re on SEOmoz, you’re educated about SEO, you’re reading tips and tactics from the greatest SEOs I’ve had the pleasure to meet and learn from. What you do is valuable, and you can break out and be a success. You can grow your business into a brand to be proud of.

Just don’t forget that perception is reality. As soon as we established the perceived value of what we did, our clients started investing more into SEO, our momentum started to snowball beyond what we had expected and we were able to deliver, without fail, not just the things we knew our clients needed, but also the things our clients wanted.

Big Brand SEO

by SEOMoz

Throughout my six years as an SEO, there have been times when I’ve questioned the value of SEO for clients. The reasoning behind this was that popular non-brand phrases were unlikely to drive business or in some cases where markets were dominated by aggregator sites, where people require choice from the offering, rather than an individual brand. Data was often backed up by generic paid search generating negative return and eventually being switched off.

There are always long tail phrases that will generate return but ultimately, that is not what this post is about. Brand terms are vital and in the majority of cases drive more revenue than high volume generic phrases, especially for big brands yet are often ignored on the basis that a site should rank for them. There are also opportunities that are not strictly related to the brand itself that are often ignored.

Working at OMD has exposed me to working with some of the biggest brands out there and my role is getting stuck in to the chunky pieces of work. Working with existing media clients, it would not make sense to not offer the service and it wouldn’t wash to argue the toss for not doing SEO. For the same reason, integration with other digital and above the line channels is crucial too. Offline marketing types don’t tend to understand digital and to be fair, there is likely a mutual misunderstanding but the two channels need to work together for the greater good and co-ordination is required between teams.

Campaign Based SEO Integration

One common failing of above the line work is that there is no measurability. There are ways in which to rectify this by the use of vanity URLs/domains and redirecting with campaign tracking codes but not everyone will remember the brand, let alone the URL. As much as TV advertisers will hate to admit it, people will often remember the advert but not the brand, unless the brand is drilled in to your head to the point of infuriation like the Go Compare and We Buy Any Car adverts here in the UK. If the branding is not strong however, there are other ways to get visitors to the site via other marketing channels and ensure the brand message is passed. Taking the first example to come to mind:

 

I remember watching this video and not being entirely sure what it was for immediately afterwards, so this is a perfect example of what I am talking about. In actual fact, the video is promoting Cadbury’s Dairy Milk; however, even four years after the advert, there are related terms that are not brand related:

gorilla-keywords

I’ve deliberately excluded unrelated and brand terms, which add to the number of searches and while the volumes aren’t ground breaking, the advert is four years old and is still receiving search volume. Searches for these phrases further extend the measurement of above the line activity and increase traffic and ensure the brand association is made online, if it was not clear to begin with. In this particular example, the brand (Cadbury’s) appears eighth in the search results for the phrase, though visibility is poor due to the dominance of universal search:

drumming-gorilla-serp

None of the videos or images are from an official YouTube channel and the brand association is not clear on the titles which is certainly not ideal. Other, non-TV advertising can quite happily live on the site in harmony with regular content, particularly if it is humorous or emotive in some way. This could be in the form of advertising from newspapers, magazines, pub toilets or public transport. The same rules apply.

My strategy for integrating campaigns in to search and to gain maximum exposure and offline tracking would look something like the following:

1.       Ensure the client keeps you in the loop with any upcoming marketing activity

It is difficult to carry out campaign optimisation strategy without being forewarned. This is often the most difficult part so prepare to be reactive.

2.       If at all possible get a sneak peak of the campaign from the client or at the very least a brief

Again, a nice luxury if you can make it happen but seeing the campaign first hand will give a better understanding of what the campaign it is and allow you to properly brainstorm potential related keyword searches.

3.       Create official YouTube and Flickr accounts if they do not already exist

Fairly obvious point, however you’d be surprised by the amount of brands that don’t have a branded YouTube account.

4.       Prepare a paid search campaign covering brand and advert related terms, as well as any generic phrases that may apply, i.e. “drumming gorilla”

We all know that ensuring number one positions for every potential keyword is difficult so for maximum exposure and tie in to above the line, PPC will help assist and ensure maximum coverage.

5.       Ensure there is a section of the site for adverts and campaigns and use a tailored landing page for paid search, as well as SEO

Again, an obvious point but not all brands have spaces on their site for their advertising campaigns.

6.       Brief other digital teams to include relevant imagery for display and affiliate activity to amplify the campaign digitally

Display creatives should be altered on a regular basis and while I’m no expert on display, it would make sense for them to match any television advertising. The same creatives could be passed on to affiliate networks for affiliates to use on their own site, which should amplify the impact and engrave the advert on peoples’ minds.

7.       Prepare and optimise a landing page for the campaign in question, include imagery and a description of the campaign for the visually impaired

Not the same as point five, which suggests having a dedicated section of the site for advertising, my point here is to ensure a dedicated landing page for each advert and not all adverts on a single page.

8.       Launch the campaign

By launch, this could be the first TV airing, date of coverage in newspaper, etc. The following post launch strategy should occur as soon as possible afterwards and should be fairly self explanatory:

  1. If video based content, upload the video to YouTube and link to the landing page in the video description with Analytics tracking
  2. If image based, it wouldn’t hurt to upload to Flickr and watermark any images relating to the campaign for branding in universal search
  3. Optimise images for related terms in the filename and alt attributes, ensuring the latter are descriptive of the image in question
  4. Embed the campaign/video in to the pre-prepared landing page
  5. Put the paid search campaign live
  6. Amplify the launch by promoting through official social media channels and PR
  7. Do not remove the campaign page from the site

The last point is important; often brands will remove older adverts from their sites and YouTube channels, which is completely unnecessary. If the campaign is successful and memorable it can drive traffic for years to come. One further point I’d highlight is tracking content on third party sites using the Google Analytics URL builder where possible.

Search can be avoided altogether with the use of QR codes, however I’d argue that until QR code readers are native in modern smartphones, rather than requiring a third party app, the uptake is likely to be small and regardless, there will always be searches, so it is still worth covering all bases.

Extended Brand Terms

Campaigns are not the only brand related searches that get overlooked. There are many extended brand terms where a brand will not rank in first position. Often brands have parent or sister companies that will outrank them, even if they are less relevant and traffic is lost to these sites. This can be avoided by linking between the sites or if required, by link building targeting these terms.

In my experience there is one common brand related suffix that is usually outranked by third party sites and they relate to the brand and vouchers/discounts. Those pesky voucher code affiliates dominate these terms though this is often due to not having a relevant landing page on the site. If there is no brand presence, people will visit the affiliate sites for these terms anyway, so why not have a discount and voucher code landing page on the site? The offer doesn’t have to be earth shattering, as long as it gets the traffic to the site and not your affiliates. This can be supported through paid search.

Other common brand variations include complaints, contact, prices etc. Make use of your Analytics data, internal search and Google suggest for common variations and see where you rank. I’d imagine you’d be surprised at what ranks for these terms. If you don’t rank, it’s likely that there is no relevant landing page.

Brand Products

Products are effectively brand terms. To use the example above, the main brand was Cadbury’s; however the product was Dairy Milk, which is a brand in itself. Often the product can have greater search volume than the main brand. Again, ensuring a dedicated page for each brand assists with this, though in many cases, the product will have its own site. Of course, there are further terms relating to the product, Dairy Milk itself is a chocolate bar, a milk chocolate bar at that.

Vanity Searches

This leads nicely on to vanity searches, something which the largest brands seem to be adamant on ranking for, despite a likely poor ROI. The brand association is enough for them to want to rank. In the continued example, Cadbury’s and Nestle may want to fight it out for “chocolate”. Levis and G-Star may want to fight it out for “jeans”. It would be poor show to not advise the client that ranking for these terms will take a lot of resource, time and effort for little return but for them, it is often necessary and as long as they have a reasonable budget, there is no reason not to chase it.

Related Terms

There are always less obvious related terms that can be taken advantage of, on top of the primary generic keywords. For food related terms, there are always nutritional searches. “Calories in chocolate”, “fat in chocolate” are two examples following the same theme. Governments, particularly in the UK and the US, are placing a larger emphasis on health awareness and encourage brands to educate their consumers. It is good PR for brands associated with obesity to actively promote healthy eating and a balanced diet. Being upfront and offering honest advice can lead to good publicity and help capture more search traffic, though of course, people will be critical of the dealer preaching to the addicts approach.

Piggybacking

Finally, piggybacking on current affairs is a great way to increase search traffic assuming that it can be made relevant. This could be the form of linkbait or just simply an article/blog post discussing the topic. I’d advise that it is kept on topic and that caution is taken with the topics that you chose to jump on. Choosing a topic that is close to people’s hearts can lead to negative attention and unless you’re Ryanair who seem to thrive from trolling the public, bad publicity is not good publicity. One very recent example is a Dragon’s Den funded popcorn brand that jumped on the riot bandwagon:

social-media-fail

This particular gem was blogged about by Andrew Burnett and the image is from his post.

The key here is to discuss events relevant to your site and brand, perhaps showing some thought leadership while avoiding potentially emotive topics.

After all this, I still believe there are companies that will not see a significant return from search. My experience has told me however, that there are always ways to increase traffic, even if you are concentrating solely on integration with campaign based marketing and brand terms. The extra traction from SEO and search as a whole is 100% worthwhile, if you can get the integration part right.

SEO Interview Questions

Howdy, SEOmoz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re talking about SEO interview questions, how there are a lot of times in your professional life when you’re going to be either interviewing someone who might be working with you on an SEO team inside your company, who might be contracting for you, perhaps a consultant, you’re interview someone, you’re the CMO or the VP of marketing and you want to know who all these SEO people know their stuff. It can actually be kind of tough to know what questions to ask unless you’ve got some background experience. Likewise if you are someone who might be interviewing for an SEO position, if you’re someone who is a consultant and might be talking to some clients and you want to be prepared for the questions that they’re going to throw at you, this Whiteboard Friday is for you.

So in the SEO interview process, the questions that I would ask, these are very SEO specific ones. So in every interview, particularly when you’re bringing someone on to your team, you’re going to asking questions about cultural fit and background and their biography, like what have they done in their past. Are they going to be a good fit for your team? Are they going to be able to handle the responsibilities? Does their work/life balance work with sort of organization you’ve got? I’m not going to talk about that stuff. I am going to talk about the very specific knowledge kinds of things that you want to use with an SEO or that you want to be prepared for as an SEO when you’re going into these types of discussions.

So the first general section, the section that I start with is general knowledge. This is a great way to feel out whether someone is comfortable and capable. I would use these, honestly if we were doing this, I would be using these on phone screens or maybe even in the interview process, like right in the form field just to get a sense, like, “Does this person have a good sense of SEO? Do they know things like, what’s a rel=canonical? What does it do? How does it work? How do search engines treat the meta refresh? What’s an image title versus an alt attribute?” So you’ve got different properties of a particular graphic or an image, and you want to know that the SEO person understands. “Yeah, I know that image title describes the image, but it isn’t necessarily being used by search engines to the same degree that the alt attribute is. It doesn’t show up when you hover in Firefox. It’s not going to become the image label in Google image search, those kinds of things, versus the alt attribute that gets used as anchor text when the image links off to somewhere. So those kinds of things.

You might even have a question like, “How do you remove personalization from search results?” What you want to see is somebody goes, “Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s google.com/search?Q=whatever the search term is @pws=0.” You find someone who can write off search strings and tell you, “How do I change the country language code?” “Well, you just add in @gl=uk. To get the UK or ‘us’ to get the US.” You want to see that sort of knowledge that indicates that they’re really deep into the process of doing SEO. They live and breathe this stuff. They know it like the back of their hand. That’s what you want to see from an SEO, and this general knowledge section is a great way to get a sense of that.

Now next up, I like to get a little deeper and understand a person’s thought process and be able to explain your thought process to somebody else. That’s why we have a section on strategy and tactics. So this is asking questions that will elicit a response that indicates to you how well this person can really do the functions of SEO. A lot of this general knowledge stuff they should have a good background, but if they miss a few of these questions, it’s fine. They can always go learn them. They can go look them up. They’ll figure it out, it’s okay. But you really want to know things like, “Do they understand how to run a keyword research campaign? Do they understand how to run link building? Do they understand what’s involved in a content strategy? What does that mean? It doesn’t just mean a blog, does it?” It’s all sorts of different things.

So I like asking broad questions like, “How would you create a site to rank for give them a keyword or a set of keywords?” Like, “I am getting into the men’s fashion industry. Just imagine for me, brainstorm with me a site that’s going to perform really well in men’s fashion.” And if you hear things like, “Well, I would like to build a site that naturally incents lots of creators, lots of designers of clothing, and lots of brands to put their stuff on our site. So it will be a big important site where lots of people will come to. They’ll put their stuff up and they’ll essentially promote it for us, but we have a lot of unique form fields and unique content that they have to fill out so that the content itself is unique and it doesn’t just look like the manufacturer’s suggested description across everything else, because we don’t want to have duplicate content problems.” That’s shows some level of depth in terms of thinking. It gives you a sense of how they’ll tackle problems.

You can ask questions like, “What are some of your favorite scalable link building tactics?” And if they say something like, “Well, I really like contacting webmasters.” No, like, “Nope, you’re clearly missing this word scalable and also probably favorite, because nobody really likes contacting webmasters.” That’s the least fun part the SEO’s link building job. But if they say things like, “Well, I really like building up popular social accounts,” or, “I like running a blog and building up content to attract a community,” those are pretty good answers. If they say things like, “I really think that content syndication or image licensing or badges and embeddable widgets is a great link building strategy that’s scalable,” those are great answers. You want to hear that kind of stuff.

“How would you get video content into Google?” More of a tactical question, but it gives you a sense of some of the knowledge and then how they do it. So if you hear a question like that and the person gives you a response and they say, “Well, Google has this video protocol.” All right, they do, Google does have a video protocol. But what you really want to hear is, “Oh, it’s great! What I like to do is make content using YouTube or Wistia or Vimeo,” or whatever it is, whatever their preferred video hosting service of choice is and let them tell you why that is, “and then embed it on our pages and we use the video XML sitemaps feed to send to Google so that appears as rich snippets in the search results.” Perfect, this person clearly understands the tactical knowledge, and maybe they don’t even know how to craft it. I don’t know how to write a video XML sitemap. I couldn’t start writing you the protocols from scratch, but I can go find it online and copy what Google suggests it needs to be. I just need to have the knowledge of how to do that.

So that strategy and tactics section, also really important.

Last up. I do like to ask about some tools and metrics because this can give you a great sense of both an SEO’s depth as well as they way they think about a lot of problems. Because the field of SEO, granted, is some art, some science, and a lot of research and learning and trying new things, the tools and metrics, the statistics that we use, the correlation data kinds of things, the link data that comes out of Yahoo Site Explorer, or Bing Webmaster tools, or the Google link command, or Exalead, or Majestic SEO, or SEOmoz, you want to know that they’ve got a good grasp on, “Oh, here’s all the ways that I could potentially get that data and here’s why I like this one and I don’t like this one. I like the Bing or the MSN Ad Center or the keyword tool. I don’t like the Google keyword tool. I really don’t like some keyword tool here, but I think Keyword Spy’s great or SpyFu is awesome,” or whatever it is. And you want to know, not just what those tools are, but how do they evaluate them.

That gives you a really good sense for how that person thinks about problems, how they’re going to attack things, whether they’re a critical thinker or whether they just take things on face value, which in the SEO world is not a great idea. Like even the things that I might be telling you on Whiteboard Fridays, you probably want to verify for yourself. So things like, “What data would you use to use to judge the value of a link?” And you want to hear things like, “Well, I’d try and gets some metrics around how important the domain is, how important that specific page is. I’d try and get some metrics about where is that link going to be placed, what sort anchor text will it use, how many other links are on that page, where do they point to, or they spammy or manipulative, or are they good and authentic?” Those kinds of things. “What tools do you use to measure competitors’ keywords and traffic?” And if they tell you, “Well, I really like this SpyFu or KeyCompete, or some of these other ones, Compete.com has a competitive intelligence tool. Hitwise has one, very enterprise level.” Hey, yeah, those are good ways to measure keywords.

On the traffic question, if they say, “Well, I really like, Alexa.” I’d be like, “You do? Why do you like Alexa? What do you find useful about it?” There are good answers, which is, “Well, for the top 1,000 or 5,000 sites on the Web, Alexa’s pretty good at saying what the relative difference is between them.” Which is relatively true, most of the time at least. But for those sites in the tail, sites in the midrange, Alexa’s terrible. You kind of want to hear, “Well, none of the data sources are particularly excellent, but I like to look at Google Trends for websites, or Compete.com, or I like to look at Quantcast. I like to compare across the set. But I really like to look at maybe how many people are subscribing to their blog through Google Reader. That’s a great signal.” It’s let’s you know that person is thinking more deeply about these questions.

“How do you measure social activity on a site?” That’s more of a broad based question. Like, “Do you just track tweets? Do you have some sort of an analytics tracking? What do you set up for that? Are you using something simple like a shared count? Do you have a statistics dashboard? Would you be using a Twitter client to be measuring that?” Whatever they’ve got.

If you ask these questions or you can answer these questions, I think you’re going to do a lot to cement a good relationship between things. If you’re in SEO right now and you’re thinking to yourself, “Boy, I’m not sure I can answer all those questions that Rand had on the board,” I mean, these aren’t the toughest things that’ll get tossed at you at an interview. They shouldn’t be definitely. So you might want to spend some time having good answers to these questions, thinking hard about these things, researching them. And likewise, if you’re an employer or a contractor and you’re trying to find SEO people to work for you, do consulting work, you definitely want to amass a good set of these. I would actually recommend trying to ask relatively consistently again and again with the same people because having that consistency between questions let’s you really grade people on the same level. If you change up your questions every time, it can get tough to remember how well a candidate might have done against another one.

All right, everyone. I hope you’ve enjoyed this addition of Whiteboard Friday. I hope you’re going to find some great jobs and some great SEOs, and I look forward to seeing you again next time. Take care.

Great Content for SEO: Simpler than You Ever Imagined

by SEOMoz

Today I want to share an incredibly simple yet massively powerful process for building search-optimized, “great content.” There’s no fancy tricks and nothing propetiary about the approach, but it is rare indeed to find an organization that follows these steps and hence, it’s a way to potentially differentiate and build a competitive advantage.

Step 1: Build a Survey

No one knows what searchers want better than the searchers themselves, so let’s hear what they have to say. To find out, we’ll start with a short series of questions asking the survey taker to imagine they’ve just performed the desired query. Here’s an example:

Content Experiment Form
See the full form in action here

The basic structure is simple – request the top 3 content pieces your audience desires, then ask specifically about features that would make the page worthy of sharing (this is important, because it often differs substantively from what makes a page merely answer the user’s query). Finally, you can ask them to actually do the search (you don’t want them to do it until the end, because what they find might bias their responses) and report any results they liked (which can provide additional insight).

Step 2: Send it to Your Customers / Potential Customers

I cheated and used a tweet:

Tweet for Content Experiment

You can find customers or potential customers virtually anywhere – your friends, neighbors, co-workers, friends on social networks, etc. Anyone who fits your customer demographic or is creative enough to imagine themselves as that demographic will work. A link in the bottom of your email newsletter or a share on Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter can often do the job, too. You might even try posting a link in a relevant industry forum or discussion group (so long as you’re sure it won’t be perceived as spammy).

Step 3: Record Responses + Leverage them to Build What the People Want

My Twitter followers are clearly office chair experts because I got some fantastic responses:

Content Experiment Responses

There are some fantastic suggestions in there – enough to form a serious roadmap for content generation and to steer me clear of crafting a landing page missing these features (which would likely increase bounce rate, earn less links/shares and, probably, have a lower conversion rate).

It gets even more fleshed-out with the next section:

Content Experiment Responses

You can see all the responses to my Tweet here

Simply amazing. I really believe that by following the recommendations of these few, late-night, Twitter-obsessed, good web-samaritans, I could build a page of content better than anything the top 20 at Google or Bing have to offer right now.

When you’re doing this formally, collect as many responses as you reasonably can (before all the answers start to look the same) and use your intuition plus the aggregates of the data to make the best page possible. Any feature/content mentioned by 3+ respondents should definitely make the cut. From there, you can learn from what they liked/didn’t in the current SERPs and bolster it with any remarkable suggestions they gave for making the page “share-worthy.”


That’s all there is to it.

And while you’re thinking, “He’s right! It’s so easy… I can do this in 15 minutes tomorrow and have the perfect roadmap to build something searchers will love,” you’re probably busy and might put this on the back burner for another time. Don’t do it! Implement now – even for just one keyword and one page. Even if you only get 2 responses! Heck, you can just fill it out yourself 4 or 5 times with how you think others might respond and it will still give you a better plan than 90% of what’s in the top 10 results for most queries.

If you follow this process and have examples to share, I’d love to see them in the comments. Feel free to use live links to your pages, feedback forms or responses. You might even be able to recruit some Moz readers to take your survey 🙂

What’s New in SEO for April 19, 2011

Writing by SEO Journal


We have compiled the latest news and updates from the big three, Google, Bing and Yahoo as it relates to SEO and the search engines overall.

WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK WITH GOOGLE:
Beefing up goo.gl with new features
Google has completed a series of feature rollouts for URL shortener goo.gl based on user feedback. Users can now copy to clipboard and remove items from the dashboard. New features also include spam reporting and ongoing speed and stability improvements.

WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK WITH YAHOO!:
Yahoo! Search Trends: Fitness Summer Jobs
Some spring search trends include searches for outdoor workout routines, eating right, and summer jobs.

WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK WITH BING:
See How the Bing Business Portal Can Help Your Business Grow
Bing recently launched the Bing Business Portal beta, a new service to help business owners create and control their online listing, making it easier for their customers to find them on Bing.

So there you have it, the latest news in search from Google, Bing and Yahoo. We will be bringing you more exciting updates and news related to SEO and the world of search engine optimization each week, so check back often!

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8 Easy Wins for On-page SEO

by SEOMoz

Even the best advice is useless if you can’t put it into play. As a consultant who started his professional life as a coder, I always try to consider the effort and cost of implementing any changes I advise. Don’t get me wrong – some difficult changes have to be made, despite the pain. Usually, though, there are a few easy wins that won’t take days of development or thousands of dollars to put into play. I’m going to give you 8 fixes to on-page SEO problems that I see pop up regularly…

“Easy” Isn’t Always Easy

A quick disclaimer – what’s “easy” for one person or on one platform might not be so easy on another. Sitewide changes (TITLE tags, for example) can be tricky, but they’re generally a lot easier than a complete redesign or a switch to a new platform. One area I won’t mention in this list is improving your URLs. Although that can be a powerful tactic, I’m seeing too many people who want to make relatively minor changes to URLs for SEO purposes. Sitewide URL changes are risky and often difficult to do correctly – they aren’t worth it to go from “good” to “slightly better”. The changes I’m proposing here are generally low-risk.

1. Canonicalize Internal Duplicates

While there may not be a duplicate content penalty (with a Capital “P”), there can be serious consequences to letting your indexed pages run wild, especially in a post-Panda world. Google often does a poor job of choosing the right version of a page, and low-authority sites can end up diluting your site’s index and pushing out deeper, more important pages (like product pages).

There are three common varieties of internal duplicates, in my experience:

  1. Duplicates caused by session variables and tracking parameters
  2. Duplicates caused by search sorts and filters
  3. Duplicates caused by alternate URL paths to the same page

If search spiders see a new URL for the same content (whether that URL appears static or dynamic), they’ll see a new page. It’s important to canonicalize these pages. When the duplicates really are identical, using the canonical tag or a 301-redirect is often the best bet. In some cases, like search sorts or pagination, the situation can get more complicated.

2. Write Unique TITLE Tags

The TITLE tag is still a powerful ranking factor, and it’s still far too often either abused or neglected. Pages that you want to rank need unique, descriptive, and keyword-targeted TITLE tags, plain and simple. You can easily track duplicate page TITLEs through the SEOmoz PRO Campaign Manager, including historical data:

Duplicate Titles in PRO App

This data is available from multiple locations, including the Campaign Dashboard and “Crawl Diagnostics” tab. You can also track exact duplicates in Google Webmaster Tools. You can find it under “Diagnostics” “HTML Suggestions”.

The solution here is simple: write unique TITLE tags. If you have a huge site, there are plenty of ways to populate TITLE tags systematically from data. Writing some decent code is well worth it to fix this problem.

3. Write Unique META Descriptions

While the META Description tag has little or no direct impact on ranking these days, it does have 2 important indirect impacts:

  1. It (usually) determines your search snippet and impacts click-through rate (CTR).
  2. It’s another uniqueness factor that makes pages look more valuable.

Again, there are plenty of ways to generate META descriptions from data, including just using snippets of product descriptions. Try to make descriptions meaningful and attractive to visitors, not just pseudo-sentences loaded with keywords.

4. Shorten Your TITLE Tags

Long TITLE tags tend to weaken the SEO impact of any given keyword, and can also turn off search visitors (who tend to skim results). The most common culprit I see is when someone adds their home-page TITLE to the end of every other page. Let’s say your home-page TITLE is:

“The Best Bacon Since 1983 | Bob’s Bacon Barn”

Then, for every product page, you have something like this:

“50-pound Mega-sack of Bacon | The Best Bacon Since 1983 | Bob’s Bacon Barn”

It may not look excessive, but you’re diluting the first few (and most important) keywords for the page, and you’re making every page on the site compete with your home-page unnecessarily. It’s fine to use your company name (or a shortened version, like “Bob’s Bacon”) at the end of all of your TITLE tags, but don’t repeat core keywords on a massive scale. I’ve seen this go to extreme, once you factor in long product names, categories, and sub-categories.

5. Re-order Your TITLE Tags

On larger, e-commerce sites, it’s common to list category and sub-category information in TITLE tags. That’s fine up to a point, but I often see a configuration that looks something like this:

“Bob’s Bacon | Bulk Products | Bacon Sacks | 50-pound Mega-sack of Bacon”

Not only does every TITLE tag on the site end up looking very similar, but the most important and unique keywords for the page are pushed to the very back. This is an issue for search usability, too, as research has demonstrated that the first few words in a title or headline are the most critical (possibly as few as the first two). If you’ve got a structure like the one above, flip it around:

“50-pound Mega-sack of Bacon | Bacon Sacks | Bulk Products | Bob’s Bacon”

It’s a relatively easy change, and it’ll put the most important keywords up front, where they belong. It will very likely also increase your search CTR.

6. Add Direct Product Links

On sites with 100s or 1000s of pages, a “flat” architecture isn’t possible or even desirable. So, you naturally end up taking a hierarchical approach where products are 3+ levels deep. I think that’s often fine, if the paths are clear to crawlers and visitors, but it can leave critical pages with very little ranking power. One solution is to pull some of your top sellers to the home-page and link directly – this effectively flattens the architecture and pours more link-juice where it’s needed. Don’t go overboard, but a “Featured Products” or “Top 10 Sellers” list on the home-page can really help boost important deep pages.

7. Re-write Internal Anchor Text

I’m amazed how often I see internal links, even main navigation links, given cryptic, vague, or jargon-loaded labels. If you’re trying to rank your category page for “kid’s clothing”, don’t label the button “Apparel (K-12)” – it’s a bad signal to search engines, and it probably doesn’t make much sense to visitors. Your internal anchor text should reflect your keyword strategy, and your keyword strategy should reflect common usage. Use labels people understand and don’t be afraid to be specific.

8. Remove 10 Low-Value Links

There’s an old adage in copywriting – say what you need to say in as few words as possible, and then, when you’re done, try to say it in half that many words. I think the same goes for internal linking. If most of your inbound links are coming to the home-page, then your site architecture is the single biggest factor in flowing link-juice to deeper pages. It’s natural to want to link to everything, but if you prioritize everything, you effectively prioritize nothing. Find 10 links on your home-page that are either low priority for search or that visitors never click on (a click-mapping tool like Crazy Egg is a great way to test this), and remove them. Focusing your remaining link-juice is an easy way to boost your most important pages.

I’d love to hear any tips you may have for easy wins on-page. I’d also recommend Rand’s post on building a perfectly optimized page. While link-building is critical, fixing on-page issues is often a lot easier and can have an immediate impact, so it’s important not to ignore either front of the SEO battle.

Google Told You So.

by SEOMoz – Laura

Music selection to enjoy with this post: The Unforgiven (Metallica)

In October of 2007 I was standing in front of a full house at the Yahoo Sunnyvale headquarters. I was on a mission to try to explain, with very little actual evidence, that SEO is more than just site “optimization”. I could see what was coming down the pipeline loud and clear. SEO isn’t SEO anymore, it’s different. SEO (especially for enterprise-level sites) equals a damn good product.

Here’s a slide from the presentation:

Search engines vs. spam timeline

See the point here? It’s the epic frenemy battle of SEOs vs. Search Engines that whittles the SEO techniques down to what eminently points to no other option but to have a great product. What is a great product? It’s a site that people want to go to, return to, share with their networks, email their friends, etc., (aka building natural links and “buzz”). Get it? Great content and natural links and buzz = the new SEO.  But it’s not actually new, it just hasn’t always been adopted very well.

Until now. Remember what it’s like when an algorithm shift changes the rules of SEO? Of course you do.

Since this timeline I threw out there in 2007, not a lot has changed on the “spammy methods” side of things (and doesn’t that just tickle the “SEO is dead” funny bone). But wait, do you know what popular widely-preached tactics since 2007 are missing since this chart?  C’mon, think Panda/Farmer update. In the current days of black-hats-gone-grey, what’s the spam tactic to be battled at this point?

If you’ve ever bothered to follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines or anything that Matt Cutts has ever said anytime in the last x years, you’ll see that you, my build-content-for-search-engines friends (I still love you, you tried), have had warnings sitting out there as clear as day. Might I show you a select few?

Google Webmaster guidelines on content

Matt Cutts blog post snippets on quality content

 

And I quote: “Great content has to be the foundation of any good site, because mediocre content tends not to attract exceptional links by itself. And if you’re trying to get exceptional links on really really crappy content, you’re going to be pushing uphill.”  “You want to have a well-rounded site, and one of the best ways to do that is to have fantastic, interesting, useful content, great resources, great information, and then that naturally attracts the links.  And then search engines want to reflect the fact that the web thinks that you are interesting or important or helpful.

But I build exactly what people are looking for in search, how can that be bad?

There’s a difference between building content to attract your audiences and building content to attract search engines. But, your audiences are doing the searches in the search engines, right? So what is the difference? Someone asked me recently why ‘content-rich’ Suite101.com was on the Farmer update loser list. Here’s exactly what I sent back to him in an email:

  1. Its obviously created for *search traffic*, meaning the company goal isn’t to invest everything into creating something rich and meaningful for their audiences, but instead the primary goal is to create content for search traffic, THEN maybe throw a little investment into the rest of the site experience.  That’s a Google no-no.
  2. When there’s “shallow content”, the site likely isn’t the best resource for anyone researching something through search. Do you want your search results for how to cope with your depression to be this article plastered with ads from Shauntee Jackson (mother of two rambunctious toddlers in Ft. Worth, TX) who even says in the article “I’m no expert in depression” or would you rather have a site that not only has experts dedicated to helping you learn about and cope with your depression issues, but also provides hotlines, medical information, community support and resources, maybe even tools for diagnosis or self-treatment options.

Get what I mean?  Suite101, like every client that says their number one company goal is to get search traffic, is doing it wrong.  Their number one goal needs to be providing value to audiences.  Which in turn provides valuable content for search results. And on top of that, it provides a cleaner, less spammy and more useful web overall. Leave it to Google.

Learn from past mistakes

You’ve heard about the “quality content” mantra, right? If you’ve been in SEO for ten minutes you’re preaching it. So where did we all go so wrong? How can an entire innovative, on-the-ball SEO industry have let this go right over our heads? How can the warnings of the Do No Evil Silicon Valley giant have been so blatantly ignored as if nothing would ever come of them?

If you sit back and think about it (and if you’re old enough), you might get an eerie sense of those dotcom bubble burst days when millions of investor dollars were thrown into internet companies with no staff, no experience, no plan, and only existed as an overblown trend-following idea on paper. Some people had some new ideas and made some money online and all of a sudden everyone’s building online businesses, with dreams of (being) sugardaddies dancing in their heads, forgetting a very basic, fundamental core of a good long-term business model – providing actual value to their audiences. Shallow much?

The 2011 spin on quality content

This is the deal. We know that search engines want to provide sites that people (aka audiences) find valuable. We know that they use signals like social mentions and influence, and clickthroughs from search, and potentially dozens of other buzz-measuring indicators that go into determining if a site is something that people are really into or just some shallow content hanging around the web trying to feign legitimacy like Snooki at a Mensa convention. How to be one of those sites that people are into, that seeps of naturally linkable, sharable, emailable, tell all your friends, come hither, and come hither again content is fodder for another article. But as you create any content online ask yourself this question: “Self? How will this be more valuable to my audiences than what my competitors are doing?”  If you are lucky enough to not have any competitors, then just take that part off the sentence.

But I don’t have to tell you that, because if you’re listening…

Google Panda update announcement

…Google already told you so.

Stay tuned for my next post on how this update doesn’t just change an algorithm, it changes the web.

xo, Laura

White Hat SEO: It F@$#ing Works

by SEOMoz

I hate webspam. I hate what it’s done to the reputation of hardworking, honest, smart web marketers who help websites earn search traffic. I hate how it’s poisoned the acronym SEO; a title I’m proud to wear. I hate that it makes legitimate marketing tactics less fruitful. And I hate, perhaps most of all, when it works.

Here’s a search for “buy propecia,” which is a drug I actually take to help prevent hair loss (My wife doesn’t think I’d look very good sans hair):

Buy Propecia

Like most search results in the pharma sphere, it’s polluted by pages that have artificially inflated their rankings. This is obvious to virtually everyone who’s even partially tech-savvy and it does three terrible things:

  1. Marketers and technologists who observe results like this equate SEO with spamming. If you’ve read a Hacker News or StackOverflow thread on the topic, you’ve undoubtedly seen this perspective.
  2. SEOs new to the profession see this and think that whatever these sites are doing is an effective way to earn rankings, and try repeating their tactics (often harming their sites or those of employers/clients in the process).
  3. Consumers learn not to trust the search results from Google, killing business value for everyone in the web world, e.g. this post on Why You Should Never Search for Free WordPress Themes in Google

Spam removes economic and brand value from the search/social/web marketing ecosystem. If you create this kind of junk, at least be honest with yourself – you’re directly harming your fellow marketers, online businesses, searchers and future generations of web users.

Last week, Kris Roadruck wrote a post called “Whitehat SEO is a Joke.” He was upfront about the fact that it was intentionally provocative, not entirely truthful and more sensational than authentic. Despite these caveats, I think a response and some clarification about my thoughts on black hat in general are in order. I’m responding less because I think Kris believes it and more because of the surprisingly supportive response his post received in parts of the search community.

Some Points on Kris’ Post:

Kris begins his article with a personal realization:

“… I started realizing there were only really 2 kinds of white-hats. The ones complaining about how they were doing everything by the book and getting their asses handed to them by “unethical tactics”, and the ones that were claiming success that didn’t belong to them… because they… happened to be in a niche that bloggers find interesting or entertaining…”

“It’s easy to preach great content when you have a great subject. But no one gives a shit about non-clog toilets or pulse oximeters or single phase diode bridge rectifiers. Sure you might be able to piece together 1 or 2 bits of link-bait but you can be sure that you aren’t going to get the anchor text that you want.”

Kris’ premise seems compelling and even has elements of truth (great content does work better in fields where there’s more interest from web-savvy site owners), but on the whole, it’s a lie. That lie – that “great content” doesn’t work in boring niches – is one told out of laziness, jealousy and contempt. It’s told by spammers to other spammers because it glosses over the fact that white-hat, legitimate marketing can work well in ANY field, for any site.

How about some examples, you ask? Happy to:

Ready for Zero

  • Here’s Ready for Zero. It’s a Y-Combinator backed startup tackling the horrificly spammy and, worse-than-boring, field of credit card debt relief. They don’t rank yet (as they’ve just launched), but if they invest in SEO, they will. They have content – in this case a great team, great story, great investors and the right product – to earn all the links they’ll need. If I were an SEO consultant for a company seeking rankings for debt relief type searches, that’s exactly the “great content” I’d recommend.
  • Here’s one that does rank – Oyster Hotel Reviews. Today, they’re on the first page for nearly every hotel they’ve covered, and in position 5 for the massively competitive phrase “hotel reviews” (and they’re the best result in the SERPs).
  • Another that ranks – Pods Moving Company. It’s not the most exciting site in the world, but it’s a good idea with good marketing and it’s on the first page for “moving company,” another incredibly competitive result. And guess what? No links from bloggers, either (nor any black/gray hat links I could find).
  • Speaking of not exciting but white hat and “great content,” here’s Ron Hazelton’s DIY Home Improvement. A mini-celebrity thanks to a home repair-focused TV show, his site isn’t exactly drawing in the Linkerati, but he markets it well and his stuff is good, so when you do searches like ‘toilet replacement‘ Ron’s site is #1.
  • Slightly less boring, but more competitive and equally un-blogger friendly is the world of business invoicing and bill paying. Yet, the gang at Freshbooks is kicking butt and taking page 1 rankings all over the place.
  • Sound effects are another unlikely arena for building a big SEO success story, but despite avoiding every black hat tactic leveraged by the typical ringtone spammers, Seattle-based Hark.com has kicked serious butt here. They generate millions of visits from more than 750K keyword phrases each month, and they’ve built a serious brand in an industry rife with manipulation.
  • Kris specifically called out bridge rectifiers as being an impossibly boring industry, yet here’s AllAboutCircuits, who shows up on page one for virtually every diode-related search. There’s nothing fancy there, either – it’s just great content, like this one on rectifier circuits. The illustrations are detailed, the content is awesome and they follow an almost-Wikipedia-like model to get contributors, many of whom link back.

I try hard, in my writing, my presentations and my professional contributions to this industry to be warm, generous and understanding. But, black hats telling the world that they turned their back on white hat because it’s impossible is a load of crap, and I’m not feeling very empathetic toward that viewpoint.

Yes, white hat SEO, particularly in boring industries for non-established sites is a tremendous challenge. It requires immense creativity, huge quantities of elbow grease and a lot of patience, too. Black hat takes some creativity sometimes, but often it’s about finding or learning the tactic Google + Bing haven’t caught up to and applying it over and over until it burns down your site and you have to find another. Black hat is fundamentally interesting and often amazingly entertaining, much in the same vein as movies and TV shows featuring clever bank robbers. But a statment like this has no legs to stand on:

“… the longer I practiced and studied greyhat, the more annoyed I got with the piss poor advice and absolute falsehoods I saw being doled out by so called SEO experts to newbie’s who had no way of knowing that the advice they were soaking up was going to keep them at the back of the search engine results pages (serps) for the foreseeable future. Whitehat isn’t just a bit slower. It’s wishful thinking. It’s fucking irresponsible.”

Thankfully, it’s easy to refute Kris’ points with hard, substantive examples (something his post doesn’t do at all).

Simply Hired

Job searches are among the most challenging, competitive results in the SERPs. Back in 2008 (when we still had a consulting practice), we worked with the crew at Simply Hired to set up a long term strategy to win. It involved a syndication strategy with smart linking and anchor text, embeddable widgets, a search-friendly, crawlable site, a data-rich blog and a massive online brand building campaign, too. After 6 months, Simply Hired had improved rankings and traffic, but they certainly weren’t #1 across the board. Today, however, I’m incredibly proud of their progress and I continue to stay in touch with their team and help out informally when/where I can. They’re on page 1 for “job search,” they rank for hundreds of thousands of job title + geo combinations and thanks to SEO (and dozens of other successful marketing + sales programs) they’re poised to be industry leaders in a massive market.

Simply Hired

These strategies that worked for Simply Hired (and worked for other former SEOmoz clients like Yelp, Etsy and Zillow) aren’t some dark secret, either. I wrote a lengthy blog post explaining the process in depth in a post called Ranking for Keyword + Cityname in Multiple Geographies. And I’m not alone, blogs like those from SearchEngineLand, SEOBook, Distilled and all of these others give tremendously valuable advice day after day.

I think Kris owes us some examples of “piss poor advice and absolute falsehoods” being “doled out by so called SEO experts.” I’ll agree that there’s some bad advice floating around the SEO world, and I’ll even admit to giving some myself (remeber when I thought XML Sitemaps were a bad idea?), but that’s a bold statement to make without any evidence.

Unfortunately, this next statement can’t be written off so easily:

“If you are charging your clients for service and not being competitive then you are ripping off your clients. It’s as simple as that. I know you whitehats are squirming in your seat right now shaking your little fists and saying, “It’s not sustainable. Our strategy is based around long term results!”. No, it’s not. Your strategy is based around wishful thinking and hoping that someday Google will do your job for you so you don’t have to. Until Google starts enforcing the rules, there aren’t any. And as long as that is true anyone who is not waiting around for them to be enforced is going to rank. Anyone who does wait around won’t. You have an obligation to your clients to do everything in your power to rank their sites using the most effective methods currently available to you.”

He’s dead wrong on the false choice between either being black hat or “not using the most effective methods.” A tax advisor that recommends quasi-legal, high-risk shelters might be using “the most effective methods,” to protect wealth, but that doesn’t make his more responsible peers obligation-dodging sissies. Search marketers, whether in-house or consultant DO have an obligation, in my opinion, to know and understand the full spectrum of tactics, white hat or black, but we also carry the same responsibility as any other professional with specialized knowledge: to recommend the right strategy for the situation.

Unless your manager/company/client is wholly comfortable with the high, variable risk that comes with black hat SEO, you’d better stay clear. I’m also of the mind that there’s almost nothing black hat can accomplish that white hat can’t do better over the long run, while building far more value. Unless it’s “I want to rank in the top 5 for ‘buy viagra’ in the next 7 days,” you’d better explain that you’re recommending black hat primarily because you’re not smart, talented and creative enough to find a white hat strategy to do it.

But, Kris makes a fair point with regards to Google (and Bing as well). The engines are not doing enough to stop spam + manipulation from black hat tactics. And, for as long as they fail on this front, there will be those seduced by Kris’ viewpoint (Kris himself used to be quite white hat). To be fair, they’ve done a good job on several fronts recently – pushing down low quality content farms in the Panda/Farmer update, making original content rank better, and putting more high quality brands in the SERPs (even if they’re not doing perfect SEO).

The biggest problem currently (IMO) are manipulative, black hat links through paid sources, automated link drops, reciprocal spam, article “spinning” (possibly my least favorite tactic on the rise), low quality directories, link “rings,” etc. There’s not a lot of truly new types of black hat link manipulation, but the old ones are, tragically, working again in a lot of niches. I hope that’s next on Google’s + Bing’s radars. If it is, a lot of black hats are going to have some painful times, but I think that’s the only way to solve the problems webspam creates. One of my favorite parts of being a white hat is chearing for the search quality teams rather than against them, and getting that little bump in traffic every time they improve the quality of their algorithms.

Black Hat ≠ SEO

The last point of Kris’ I’ll tackle revolves around the jobs an SEO performs:

“If your main offering is quality content – YOU ARE NOT AN SEO, You are a writer. If you are billing your client SEO prices for writing services you are ripping them off. If you didn’t go to college for or otherwise study writing and literature and you are offering writing services to your client rather than advising them to hire someone who actually specializes and is trained in writing, you are ripping them off.

With the exception of very large sites, most onsite optimization opportunities can be identified and charted in an audit in a matter of a few days. Implementation in most cases won’t take very long either and doesn’t even really need to be conducted by an SEO if the audit is written up properly. What does that leave; content strategy and off-site SEO. The content strategy is just that… a STRATEGY, which can be handed off to a competent writer. If you are still charging your client after this point and you aren’t competing with all the tools available and you aren’t advising them of someone else who could or would, then you are doing your client a disservice.”

These are ludicrous statements, but I think Kris realizes it and is simply using them to generate controversy. Anyone who honestly believes that the extent of an SEO’s job is to develop content strategies, audit for on-page SEO and build links has never done the job professionally.

I wrote a blog post back in 2007 highlighting why SEO is so hard. In it, I talked about the massive quantity of things that affect SEO and that number has only grown. Today, a responsible SEO needs to be thinking about:

  • The business’ overall product, marketing and sales strategy and where SEO makes the most sense.
  • Keyword research + targeting (a process that requires tools, patience, intuition, testing and experience)
  • Funnel optimization (CRO has both direct and indirect SEO impacts these days)
  • Testing + optimizing content for users (time on site, bounce rate, engagement, etc. all matter directly + indirectly, too)
  • Content strategy (which ties into overall business strategy at the highest levels)
  • On-page optimization (black hats were actually some of the earliest to notice that Google’s gotten so much smarter about on-page analysis than just keyword use and repetition, so I’m sure Kris knows how in-depth this process can be)
  • Making the site search-engine friendly (a complex project even on many simple sites as features like faceted navigation, AJAX crawling, different treatment of Javascript/Flash and many, many more now exist)
  • XML Sitemaps (we recently gave a 90 minute webinar on this topic that generated dozens of questions; it’s no fire-and-forget tactic)
  • Analytics – visitor monitoring is just the start, there’s webmaster tools, link monitoring, brand/mention alerts, social media tracking and more
  • Alternative search listings (local/maps/places, video, images, news, blogs, shopping, etc. Just one of these can be a full-time job.)
  • Usability + user experience issues (since these can have a huge indirect and possibly direct impact on rankings)
  • Reputation tracking + management
  • Competitive research
  • Social media marketing (FB shares are the most highly correlated metric we found to Google’s rankings. No SEO can afford to ignore social today, and that’s a massive strategic and tactical undertaking)
  • Syndication, scraping, copyright and duplicate content issues

And hundreds of others.

If Kris thinks pounding links at a page until it ranks is the majority of his SEO responsibilities, I’m worried (Note: I don’t actually believe that; I’ve met Kris and he’s a very smart guy. Instead, I suspect significant hyperbole went into his writing). If anyone out there tells you this is how they’re going to do SEO, you’d better make sure they’re either a highly specialized contractor or find another provider who can help think holistically about all of the above.

Why We Can’t Ignore Black Hat Entirely

Last week, I was in Munich keynoting SMX and spent some time with a retiring black hat, Bob Rains (who’s moving to the White Hat world and joining TandlerDoerje in Germany). Bob and I were on a panel discussing some black hat social media tactics. In particular, Bob mentioned a tactic wherein he’d build Twitter + Facebook profiles for racehorses that would garner thousands of followers by making the profiles seem “more real than real” and even pretending to be “official” Twitter accounts for the horses. On gameday, he could then tweet/share a link to his gambling site to place bets on the horses, netting him big affiliate payouts.

SMX Munich Panel
_
Marcus Tandler, Mikkel deMib, Johannes Beus, Bob Rains and Rand at SMX Munich
(Note: You can listen to the full panel, a mix of German + English, here)

To do this manipulative work, though, Bob had to work incredibly hard to have real conversations on these social sites, upload photos from events, tweet interesting stats and experiences that could be verified. In other words… He’s building great content!

My recommendation was simple – just call the account a “fan page” and suddenly, you’re 100% white hat. You’re building a great social profile; why not make it something Twitter/Facebook won’t shut down if they get word of it from the real owners? Why not go one extra step, remove the “official” title and BE white hat! Yes, you might have a slightly harder time building up the profiles, but they’ll last forever! You can sleep at night!

I highlight this story because it perfectly illustrates how close black and white hat marketing often are. It also shows why I love talking to black hats and learning from them. There’s almost always a way to take the knowledge and experiences from black hats (the best of whom, like Bob, are often massively creative) and apply it in white hat ways.

Three weeks prior, in London and then New Orleans, Distilled hosted a one-day intensive seminar on link building. One of the talks at each event was called “Lessons from the Dark Side: What White Hats can Learn from Black Hat SEO.” Two presenters, Martin Macdonald (in London) and Kris Roadruck (in NOLA), gave talks about their experiences with webspam’s effectiveness, limitations and takeaways. I thought both presentations were excellent – they clearly indicated the danger of black hat SEO (Kris’ deck started with almost a dozen slides about how + why not to do what he showed), but didn’t pull any punches in showing the ups and downs of a spammer’s life.

SEOs have a responsibility to understand and appreciate how and why black hat SEO operates. It’s certainly not the first or most important step in an SEO education, but it’s part of being a true professional. No one who does IT consulting would neglect to understand hacking + malicious attacks. No one who does public relations avoids studying the manipulative parts of their field. Even in industries like construction and contracting, it pays to understand how, why and when shoddy work and cut corners happen. So too must professional, white hat SEOs know the range of tactics at play in our field.

A few months back, I answered a related question on Quora:

Spam Techniques on Quora

Knowing more about each of those practices listed can make you a better SEO. I’m not someone who pretends to have great expertise in this field, but every time I hear a black hat share a successful tactic (that isn’t illegal or just drive-by spam), I learn something and am often able to come up with a way to leverage the same effect in a white hat way.

Why White Hat is Always Better

There’s very few things in the world that I perceive as wholly black + white. Spamming the search engines vs. authentic, organic marketing, however, is one of them.

It’s my opinion that for real brands and real businesses, the choice of going 100% white hat will pay massive dividends every time. Here’s why:

  1. There’s always a better way to spend that time + money. Spam isn’t free or easy, despite the image some black hats portray. When I hear about the actual costs and time commitments black hats invest, I’m blown away. For not much more time, and often less money, those same businesses and sites could invest in long-term, high value white hat tactics. Many just lack the creativity and willingness to do the hard work, others are seduced by the quick win or ignorant of the options available to them.
  2. White hat builds exciting companies, spam doesn’t. With a very small number of execptions, spam doesn’t build exciting, scalable, long-term companies. It creates relatively small amounts of temporary wealth. If you’re unwilling to trade short term gains for long term success, you’re probably hurting the online ecosystem – none of us should endorse that behavior.
  3. White hat rankings can be shared. That means never having to sweat hiding dirty secrets, protecting your tactics or link sources, jumping through hoops to keep your footprint anonymous or refraining from showing off your site. The benefits of transparency improve your ability to do PR, branding, networking and all of those, in turn, help SEO.
  4. Spam always carries risk. Whether it’s tomorrow, next month or 3 years from now before you’re knocked out of the search engines, it will happen. You can invest in multiple sites and tactics, shore up defenses and build anonymity to hide your online profile, but honestly, if you applied that creativity and effort to white hat…. Just saying.
  5. You’re renting rankings rather than buying them. Devaluation of spam tactics means you have to stay one step ahead of the engines, and can never spend a week free from sweating what will and won’t be found. White hat may take longer, but, if done right, it can build an unassailable position of strength long term.
  6. Reliability in the spam world sucks. The people who sell spammy links or offer spam services are nearly always fly-by-night operations, moving from one business model to the next. Spammers are almost never long-term operators.
  7. Any victory is a hollow one. I don’t just mean in a touchy-feely way, I mean that no matter how many times you rank well with spam or how much you make, it’s just money (and often far too little to sustain you, meaning you’ve got to go do more tomorrow). You’re not building something real, long-lasting and sustainable and you’re rarely fulfilling any of the other requirements for job satisfaction or happiness.
  8. The money’s not that good. Ask yourself who the most prolific, talented, high profile spammers are in the world. I can name a good dozen or so and none of them are retired, only a few are millionaires and not a one, to my knowledge, has done 8 figures (excluding a few truly dark hatted individuals who’ve earned their money from porn empires or illegal activities).
  9. There is legal danger. I hesitate to bring this up because some folks in the search sphere have over-emphasized this danger. However, the FTC, the British government and the EU all have regulations about disclosure of interests, and a lot of link buying and link spamming behavior violates these guidelines. We’ve yet to see serious enforcement, but personally, I have no tolerance for risk of this kind, and I suspect many others don’t either.
  10. Spam never builds value in multiple channels. What I love about the inbound/organic marketing philosophy is how it builds a site that attracts authentic traffic from hundreds of sources, often without any additional work. Spamming your way to a #1 ranking might send search traffic, but if the web shifts to Facebook/Twitter or if email marketing becomes the biggest tactic in your niche, or if a competitor wins purely on branding and branded search, you’re up a creek. You’ve built nothing of real value – nothing to make people come back and share and like, +1, tweet, link, email, stumble, vote for, shout to the heavens about. Spam builds a shell of a marketing strategy; one crack and it’s all over.

The graphics below were in a slide presentation I made, but they’re worth repeating here:

Who ranks #1 for “online dating?” It’s not a black hat, but a site that found a genius way to become a content and media hub, OKCupid. How about  “buy shoes online,” one of the top converting terms in the apparel industry. It’s Zappos, a brand that’s put customer service, great product and a unique business model part of their SEO (big props to Adam Audette, who’s made them a shining star in the SEO e-commerce world). Or “real estate values,” an incredibly competitive term that’s only risen in popularity with the market crisis? It’s Zillow. Or “travel blog site,” where some brilliant viral marketing earned Travelpod the top position. Or “art prints,” where Benchmark-backed Art.com outranks even the exact match domain.

I could go on and on and on. The sites that people WANT to click on in the results. The ones that make searchers, technologists, marketers and search quality engineers happy are sites that deserve to rank. When you build a brand that does that and optimize in a way that no webspam engineer would ever want to discount, you’ve built a true competitive advantage in SEO. Black hat is, much of the time, a sad excuse for a lack of creativity, discipline and willingness to invest in the long term.


Here’s to hoping the SEO industry continues to grow, flourish and attract brilliant, creative minds. Over the past 9 years of my career in the field, I’ve seen great progress, but not enough. I can promise that I, SEOmoz and our partners are going to do everything in our power to bring greater legitimacy, value and econmic opportunity to the field of search + inbound marketing. It’s a fight I look forward to every day.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments about why you’re a white hat, and if you do it, what success you’ve had (and feel free to link to your site).

p.s. I put out a call on Twitter for great white hat sites ranking for competitive phrases and received some terrific responses:

  • Online budget app, Budget Simple has a well-designed site and top 3 rankings for “online budget” and “free online budget,” competing against the likes of Mint and Intuit.
  • Mini Mave in Denmark has legendary SEO Mikkel deMib as a partner and top rankings for competitive terms like “Gravid” (Danish for “pregnant”). Last year, they recorded over a million keywords sending many millions of visits to the site.
  • TPMS maker, Orange Electronic has only been around for a few months, but is already ranking for electronic tire pressume monitoring systems and the common acronym TPMS off some great, authentic links from press, media and government sources.
  • Science equipment supplier Edmunds has a great site with links that rock and a brand that’s trusted throughout the community. Their rankings for hyper-competitive searches like “science equipment” and “scientific supplies” along with a massive long-tail presence show the power of white hat in e-commerce niches.
  • Online appliance retailer 8Appliances just started their online marketing, but they’ve already had success, earning more than 50,000 search visits monthly from top 10 rankings for queries like “miele kitchen appliances” (in Google Australia).
  • Mexican-focused travel site JourneyMexico has been having a lots of success in niche search results like “cultural travel mexico” and with their awesome blog.

White hat can be done, even in boring industries or for competitive queries. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth.

p.p.s This week I’m speaking at SMX Sydney. My first talk (originally Bing vs. Google ranking factors) has changed from the program’s listing and will now be on Black Hat / White Hat SEO. If you’re in Australia (or nearby), you should definitely attend.

Link Anatomy

by SEOMoz

Far too many of us in the SEO industry tend to think in absolute terms. You are either White Hat or Black Hat, this works or it doesn’t, this link is amazing or it is worthless…you get the point.

This is dangerous thinking because if something isn’t absolutely perfect or golden, we tend to evaluate it as useless. In nothing is this more obvious than in link building.

Link builders come from two schools of thinking. They either (a), pursue and take any link from anywhere or (b), research and scrutinize every potential link opportunity.

If you think like the first group, then this post is not for you. But if you are in the second group, this post should help you evaluate the value of a link.

Link Anatomy

The anatomy of a link can be thought of in five parts: anchor text, trust, relevance, placement and outbound links. Each one makes up a piece of the link pie.

I already know what you are thinking- what about authority? The five pieces of the pie mentioned above are what make the pie, but authority is what determines the size of the pie.

This means that if your link is on a high quality, authoritative website, search engines will pay a lot more attention to the metrics of that link that one on some spammy website.

Let’s look at each individual metric then and see what they all mean.

1. Authority

As I just mentioned, authority is what determines the size of the pie. The more authority a domain has, the more weight search engines give to the metrics of their outbound links.

Tip: Any search in Google will bring up websites with domain authority at least in the thirties. If the website you are considering for a link opportunity does not have at least a 30 for domain authority, you won’t get much value from it.

2. Anchor Text

For the better part of the last decade or so anchor text has been the most important metric of a link. Marketers understood this and it is precisely because of this metric we saw the rise of the Google Bomb.

Blog comment spam is another malady that is directly tied to the importance of anchor text. It’s only because of this metric that I have to delete comments on my blog from readers like “cheap online cash advance overnight.”

Exact match anchor text isn’t the only way to be successful here. A website that sells mountain bikes and targets that keyword should not turn down a link with the anchor text “bicycles.”

Tip: Try and get links with your keywords in the anchor text. Be sure to maintain some variety though; search engines can detect unnatural amounts of identical anchor text.

3. Trust

A lot of people struggle to understand the difference between authority and trust. SEOmoz has their own metrics called authority, mozRank and mozTrust. I would recommend reading up on them to get a better idea for the difference.

Building trust with search engines is key to achieving great rankings. There is only one way to build that trust and that is to get links from websites that have a lot of trust built up already.

Tip: Writing a press release is a great way to get some trustworthy links. Lots of news and media outlets have trust with the search engines.

4. Relevance

Relevance is a measure of how connected your content is to the page that is linking to you. It makes a lot more sense for an exercise blog to link to a website that sells treadmills and not one that sells telescopes.

It is difficult to determine how relevant another website is to you however. One handy way is to use the LDA tool from SEOmoz. Just plug in your keyword and the URL of the page you are looking at and see how relevant it is to that term.

Tip: Try to get links from websites that have similar content to yours.

5. Placement

The original PageRank formula by Google treated all links on a web page the same. Each one would pass an equal amount of PageRank. This was called the Random Surfer Model.

Google and other search engines are a bit more advanced now. Bill Slawski explains how Google could be using a Reasonable Surfer Model in their current algorithm.

This means that having your link in the footer of a web page isn’t going to help you out a whole lot. A contextual link right at the top of the page in the middle of the content is more likely to be clicked, and thus, likely to pass more PageRank.

The same is true of lists. People are a lot more likely to click links at the top of the list, so those links could pass more link juice.

Tip: Get links that have a higher chance of actually being clicked.

6. Outbound Links

If all links on a page passed an equal amount of PageRank, then more outbound links on a page meant less PageRank per link. Every outbound link on a page devalues your link ever so slightly.

This is why some directories seem pretty useless these days. With hundreds of links on a page, what value is there in adding just one more?

Tip: Don’t post links on link farms or other pages with lots and lots of links already on them.

Conclusion

Back to my original point: in the SEO industry we tend to think all or nothing. It’s not uncommon to see people turn down a link opportunity with great anchor text and great placement on a relevant page because it didn’t have much trust or authority.

This seems flawed to me. Just because you can’t get every piece of the pie you don’t want any of it? Why turn down a little just because you can’t have a lot?

The same goes for partial pieces. A partial anchor text match is not as good as an exact anchor text match, but it’s better than nothing.

I’m not saying you have to settle for any link from anywhere, but if you can get even two pieces of the pie, I would take it, even if you don’t get the other three.

One Year Later: Changes in SEO

by SEOMoz

Kate's Distilled One Year

It’s been a year, one calendar year since I joined Distilled. My first task was to write a post for SEOmoz as the rest of the Distilled office (all in London then) was going to be out on holiday (the Brits and their bank holidays … geez). So I geared up to write my first blog post on SEOmoz, as my others were always YOUmoz posts.

In light of the fact that I have the honor of posting one year later, I wanted to review what has changed in SEO. We always talk back and forth about how things change so much and yet stay the same. The basics are still the basics, good architecture, content and links are the name of the game. Some take that as the industry never really changes — maybe we all make it up how things “change”, but I disagree. And this has been a rather tumultuous year for SEO.

Now most of what I mention will be Google based. We do have a tendency to be very Google focused in SEO as most sites see a majority of their search traffic come from Google. If you know of any other changes in SEO I might have missed, please let me know in the comments and I’ll credit you.

Please note that these are in no particular order … not by date, not by importance, just my rambling.

Panda/Farmer/Scraper

The most recent of the Google updates, there has been much written on this on DistilledSEOmoz, Search Engine Land, SERoundtable and many more. I am not going to babble on, but in short this update went after low quality sites using major advertising and little original content. We called it the Farmer update, Google called it the Panda Update, and soon after came the Scraper update … targeting scraper sites.

Mayday

Mayday Fremont Arts Council

The Mayday update was the first after I started, it was the beginning of this wonderful mess (I said wonderful … ) of an SEO year. If you think back, this update is very similar to the most recent update (Panda) in that it went for thin content sites … only this time it went after those that were ranking for long tail terms. This sent many sites into panic and reset so many marketing campaigns and site designs. The spotlight was shifted to not only creating good content, but creating the right amount of content at the highest quality that will gain links.

Caffeine

Around the same time as Mayday, Google released the Caffeine Index. This provided Google a way of offering fresher content, faster. The update helped get content found and indexed faster and lead to the future of SERPs pages that included social and integrated local results (which we will discuss later).

Google Instant

Google Instant is an area of pride for Distilled. Rob Ousbey first posted about it before Google announced it (sorry guys!) and then just this last week, Justin Briggs noted the addition of the term “scam” to the blacklist of Instant results. We know that pornographic terms and many others do not show Google Instant results, but now scam doesn’t either.

(But “scams” does *shrugs*)

site speedSite Speed

Those were the major changes to the algorithm and updates, but one other thing that has occurred in the last 12 months was the announcement that site speed was a factor in ranking. A minor factor, but something that Google wanted us to pay attention to.

Loss of US Market Share for Google

All Google, all the time. I know what you all are thinking right now. But this year did bring a bit of bad news to the Googlers in California. We have seen smaller drops over the last few years, but we have really started to see Google lose market share over the last year. The next 12 months should be interesting with Bing’s push to close that gap.

Bing/Yahoo Final Change

 

Speaking of Bing, one major change was of course the completion of the Yahoo/Bing merger … well search merging. All the paid accounts completed their merges and Yahoo’s results became Bing’s results. Sad day, but it’s not like Yahoo was always its own search engine anyway. *kicks dirt*

Multi-lingual Site Changes

2010 was the year for many companies to start thinking about taking their online strategy global. International SEO is one of the more advanced topics and something I personally have talked much about this year. But there was one big change to how international multi-lingual sites might operate. We all know that translating content is necessary to target certain users, but the same content just translated can pose problems for ranking and indexing. Google is trying to help with the rel alternate tag allowing sites to denote the same content in a different languages. This is not however the saviour to all of your international issues. This just helps with templetized content being translated on the same site … getting into targeting different countries, now that is still somewhat challenging.

SERPs Changes

Once Caffeine took effect, it swung open the doors for a wide variety of changes to what content was shown on SERPs pages and how … on Google that is. We have gone from 10 blue links and descriptions to Products, Maps, Integrated Local, Brand Refinements, Faceted Search, and user input. The most recent user input is of course the +1 button, in addition to the ability to flag and hide sites from your search results.

But the biggest change has been in preferred results from your social circle. This has been tested in many forms the “posts from your friends” at the end of results to avatars showing below search results noting which of your friends recommended the page. Things are getting real and it’s getting harder to game results that are totally dependent on a user’s actions and social circle.

 

Others of Note

There have been many other changes including those from players in the SEO world, many movers and shakers, and much news from the other sides of online marketing like social and paid. But I would be talking forever if I included all of those.

However, there were a few more that impact SEO directly and I thought they were worth mentioning.

  • Keyword Tool Change – Google updated their Keyword Tool, making it more relevant (or less in other’s eyes) by numbers but still not fully accurate.
  • New Analytics Interface – Brand new and still in beta (sign up here), but will definitely impact how SEOs do some of their work.
  • Weighted Sort – A personal favorite, but there was the release of weighted sort within Google Analytics. Just awesome.

Year in Review Takeaways

This wasn’t an earth shattering post for most, and I hate to leave you just reminiscing about what happened in the last year. We are all about teaching and learning at Distilled/SEOmoz (I’m sure some of you will school me with big things I missed on this list), so here is what I think we can all learn and take back to projects after this last year.

  1. Put Users First – plain and simple, if you keep them in focus you won’t go wrong by Google or Bing.
  2. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – Small changes in ranking, site speed, or any future algo changes should be taken with a grain of salt. Follow the first lesson and these changes should have little effect on you.
  3. Keep Your Ear to the Ground – But after that last note, I do recommend always knowing what is going on in the industry and with your own site. You should know at all times how your site is performing so that when the boss comes calling about not ranking for a keyword (personalized results FTW!), you can back things up with hard data and related industry trends.
  4. Create Good Sites, Good Content, and Get People Talking – Marketing. It’s all about marketing. Do it right the first time and don’t cut corners. Integrate your whole marketing plan and you will have many opportunities to get “real estate” on a SERPs page.