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Next Generation SEO

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There is a good thread on Webmaster World entitled “Next Generation SEO”. Many webmasters hit hard by the uncertainty created by Panda and Penguin are wondering what approaches might work best in the future.

Here at SEOBook, we’ve long advocated the approach of grounding SEO within a solid marketing-based strategy, so we post frequently on this theme. But this is not to say the technical side – algorithm gaming – no longer works, because it most certainly does.

Let’s take a look at both approaches, and how they can be fused.

Rationale Of SEO

The rationale of search engine optimization is simple. If we can work out what factors the search engine algorithms favor, we can do more of it. Our reward will be a high ranking, meaning more people can find us, which results in more traffic.

In theory, the incentive of the search engine and that of the SEO should be aligned. The SEO works out exactly what the search engine wants, and hands it to them on a plate.

The problem is reality.

Search engines, in reality, aren’t near as clever as those running them sometimes make out. They are susceptible to gaming. Sergey Brin, a few years back, even went so far as to suggest “there is no spam, only bad algorithms”. The existence of a webspam team appears to indicate the algorithms still need plenty of work.

There are other problems in terms of incentives. The search engines make their money not by the relevance of the search results, but by the relevance of the advertising. Unless competition is finely balanced between search engines – which it hasn’t been for many years now – the search results need only be “good enough”. Does a search engine really want the searcher finding the most relevant content in the main search results? The business case would demand something a little more subtle, which is not good news for webmasters who rely on gaming the algorithms.

Secondly, a search engine would prefer the money being spent on SEO was going into PPC. If it is considerably cheaper to game the algorithm than run PPC, then few people would bother with PPC. In this respect, SEOs are a competitive threat to the search engines advertising business, yet the incentive for the webmaster is to minimize marketing spend. The search engines, therefore, would have an incentive to drive up the cost of SEO.

Gaming The Algorithm

Given search engine algorithms aren’t yet as clever as those who run would like them to be, the search engines engage in a mixture of algorithm adjustments and FUD in order to counter the effectiveness of search engine optimization. Lately, they have been ramping up activity in both areas, which suggests to me that they see “enthusiastic” search engine optimization as a significant problem.

SEO is a significant problem because it works.

The minute something starts to work a little too well, and the knowledge of how to do it becomes a little too widespread, the search engines have typically jumped in to reset the game. This tends to affect the “low-hanging fruit techniques” i.e. anything that is cheap to do, widely known, and therefore widely practiced.

Take link building. It’s a well known fact that links will result in higher rankings. Google recently jumped into this area, with a mix of adjustments and FUD, to scare off those who buy links. We have the now ridiculous scenario whereby webmasters are paying to have links removed. I can imagine the Google “web quality” team in fits of laughter. Meanwhile, a cottage industry has sprung up in response i.e. people demanding money to delink.

Many of the links webmasters are removing aren’t causing the problem.

Link buying still works. Webmasters just need to stay away from the most blatant “low hanging fruit techniques”, such as identical anchor text and obvious paid link networks. At SEOBook, we’ve made side-by-side comparisons of sites that were harmed by their links, and those that weren’t, yet there are often only minor differences in their link graphs. Paid links aren’t the problem. Failing to mix it up is the problem.

Search engine optimization is also about content, and the evidence doesn’t suggest that having a lot of content is a negative. It depends where content sits. If the domain has a strong link structure, then the content can be….less than stellar. If your site lacks a stellar link graph, then it becomes more important to have engaging content i.e. fewer immediate click-backs

Moving Forward

The problem with algorithmic-centric approaches is that when the algorithm shifts, so too does the approach. This is fine for people who like chasing the algorithms. It works less well for those who don’t have a lot of time and money to spend doing so, or have less scope to radically change approach.

“Next generation SEO” is essentially “marketing”, whilst keeping the search engines firmly in mind. It’s what good SEO has always been about, it’s just that some in the industry have lost focus and become obsessed with traffic for its own sake.

It’s about looking at the underlying business to find problems and opportunities. It’s about focusing on the needs of the visitor to help ensure higher conversion rates. This means optimizing for usability, conversion, and relevance.

It’s about building links for traffic, juice and awareness. It’s about establishing networks, particularly in the social space, as we have to go where the people hang out. It means paying attention to the rise of mobile usage. It means paying attention to verticals, such as Amazon. There is evidence to suggest people are moving away from search engines, or not using them quite as much.

In short, SEO will become more like a pay-per-click approach, without paying per click.

Mix And Match

This is not to say you need to do any of the above. You can still do well in SEO by publishing pages and pointing links at them. However, there are many aspects that can be optimized. If nothing else, optimizing a web business can be more fun, and more prosperous, than chasing Google’s near constant algorithm updates in pursuit of raw traffic.

SEO will be around for many years yet. Whilst search engines are a conduit for traffic, then there will be people doing SEO. It’s fair to say the barrier to entry has been raised, so it’s now more difficult and therefore costly to undertake SEO. This flushes out some competitors, however it is rarely those with holistic marketing strategies that get flushed.

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SEO Book.com

Google Disavow Tool

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Google launched a disavow links tool. Webmasters who want to tell Google which links they don’t want counted can now do so by uploading a list of links in Google Webmaster Tools.

If you haven’t received an “unnatural link” alert from Google, you don’t really need to use this tool. And even if you have received notification, Google are quick to point out that you may wish to pursue other avenues, such as approaching the site owner, first.

Webmasters have met with mixed success following this approach, of course. It’s difficult to imagine many webmasters going to that trouble and expense when they can now upload a txt file to Google.

Careful, Now

The disavow tool is a loaded gun.

If you get the format wrong by mistake, you may end up taking out valuable links for long periods of time. Google advise that if this happens, you can still get your links back, but not immediately.

Could the use of the tool be seen as an admission of guilt? Matt gives examples of “bad” webmaster behavior, which comes across a bit like “webmasters confessing their sins!”. Is this the equivalent of putting up your hand and saying “yep, I bought links that even I think are dodgy!”? May as well paint a target on your back.

Some webmasters have been victims of negative SEO. Some webmasters have had scrapers and autogen sites that steal their content, and then link back. There are legitimate reasons to disavow links. Hopefully, Google makes an effort to make such a distinction.

One wonders why Google simply don’t discount the links they already deem to be “bad”? Why the need for the webmaster to jump through hoops? The webmaster is still left to guess which links are “bad”, of course.

Not only is it difficult working out the links that may be a problem, it can be difficult getting a view of the entire link graph. There are various third party tools, including Google’s own Webmaster Central, but they aren’t exhaustive.

Matt mentioned that the link notification emails will provide examples of problem links, however this list won’t be exhaustive. He also mentioned that you should pay attention to the more recent links, presumably because if you haven’t received notification up until now, then older links weren’t the problem. The issue with that assumption is that links that were once good can over time become bad:

  • That donation where you helped a good cause & were later mortified that “online casino” and “discount cheap viagra” followed your course for purely altruistic reasons.
  • That clever comment on a well-linked PR7 page that is looking to cure erectile dysfunction 20 different ways in the comments.
  • Links from sources that were considered fine years ago & were later repositioned as spam (article banks anyone?)
  • Links from sites that were fine, but a number of other webmasters disavowed, turning a site that originally passed the sniff test into one that earns a second review revealing a sour stench.

This could all get rather painful if webmasters start taking out links they perceive to be a problem, but aren’t. I imagine a few feet will get blasted off in the process.

Webmasters Asked, Google Gaveth

Webmasters have been demanding such a tool since the un-natural notifications started appearing. There is no question that removing established links can be as hard, if not harder, than getting the links in the first place. Generally speaking, the cheaper the link was to get the higher the cost of removal (relative to the original purchase price). If you are renting text link ads for $ 50 a month you can get them removed simply by not paying. But if you did a bulk submission to 5,000 high PR SEO friendly directories…best of luck with that!

It is time consuming. Firstly, there’s the overhead in working out which links to remove, as Google doesn’t specify them. Once a webmaster has made a list of the links she thinks might be a problem, she then needs to go through the tedious task of contacting each sites and requesting that a link be taken down.

Even with the best will in the world, this is an overhead for the linking site, too. A legitimate site may wish to verify the identity of the person requesting the delink, as the delink request could come from a malicious competitor. Once identity has been established, the site owner must go to the trouble of making the change on their site.

This is not a big deal if a site owner only receives one request, but what if they receive multiple requests per day? It may not be unreasonable for a site owner to charge for the time taken to make the change, as such a change incurs a time cost. If the webmaster who has incurred a penalty has to remove many links, from multiple sites, then such costs could quickly mount. Taken to the (il)logical extremes, this link removal stuff is a big business. Not only are there a number of link removal services on the market, but one of our members was actually sued for linking to a site (when the person who was suing them paid to place the link!)

What’s In It For Google?

Webmasters now face the prisoner’s dilemma and are doing Google’s job for them.

It’s hard to imagine this data not finding it’s way to the manual reviewers. If there are multiple instances of webmasters reporting paid links from a certain site, then Google have more than enough justification to take it out. This would be a cunning way around the “how do we know if a link is paid?” problem.

Webmasters will likely incorporate bad link checking into their daily activities. Monitoring inbound links wasn’t something you had to watch in the past, as links were good, and those that weren’t, didn’t matter, as they didn’t affect ranking anyway. Now, webmasters may feel compelled to avoid an unnatural links warning by meticulously monitoring their inbound links and reporting anything that looks odd. Google haven’t been clear on whether they would take such action as a result – Matt suggests they just reclassify the link & see it as a strong suggestion to treat it like the link has a nofollow attribute – but no doubt there will be clarification as the tool beds in. Google has long used a tiered index structure & enough complaints might lower the tier of a page or site, cause it’s ability to pass trust to be blocked, or cause the site to be directly penalized.

This is also a way of reaffirming “the law”, as Google sees it. In many instances, it is no fault of the webmaster that rogue sites link up, yet the webmaster will feel compelled to jump through Google’s hoops. Google sets the rules of the game. If you want to play, then you play by their rules, and recognize their authority. Matt Cutts suggested:

we recommend that you contact the sites that link to you and try to get links taken off the public web first. You’re also helping to protect your site’s image, since people will no longer find spammy links and jump to conclusions about your website or business.

Left unsaid in the above is most people don’t have access to aggregate link data while they surf the web, most modern systems of justice are based on the presumption of innocence rather than guilt, and most rational people don’t presume that a site that is linked to is somehow shady simply for being linked to.

If the KKK links to Matt’s blog tomorrow that doesn’t imply anything about Matt. And when Google gets featured in an InfoWars article it doesn’t mean that Google desires that link or coverage. Many sketchy sites link to Adobe (for their flash player) or sites like Disney & Google for people who are not old enough to view them or such. Those links do not indicate anything negative about the sites being linked into. However, as stated above, search is Google’s monopoly to do with as they please.

On the positive side, if Google really do want sites to conform to certain patterns, and will reward them for doing so by letting them out of jail, then this is yet another way to clean up the SERPs. They get the webmaster on side and that webmaster doing link classification work for them for free.

Who, Not What

For a decade search was driven largely by meritocracy. What you did was far more important than who you were. It was much less corrupt than the physical world. But as Google chases brand ad Dollars, that view of the search landscape is no longer relevant.

Large companies can likely safely ignore much of the fear-first approach to search regulation. And when things blow up they can cast off blame on a rogue anonymous contractor of sorts. Whereas smaller webmasters walk on egg shells.

When the government wanted to regulate copyright issues Google claimed it would be too expensive and kill innovation at small start ups. Google then drafted their own copyright policy from which they themselves are exempt. And now small businesses not only need to bear that cost but also need to police their link profiles, even as competitors can use Fivver, ScrapeBox, splog link networks & various other sources to drip a constant stream of low cost sludge in their direction.

Now more than ever, status is important.

Gotchas

No doubt you’ve thought of a few. A couple thoughts – not that we advocate them, but realize they will happen:

  • Intentionally build spam links to yourself & then disavow them (in order to make your profile look larger than it is & to ensure that competitor who follows everything you do – but lacks access to your disavow data – walks into a penalty).
  • Find sites that link to competitors and leave loads of comments for the competitor on them, hoping that the competitor blocks the domain as a whole.
  • Find sites that link to competitors & buy links from them into a variety of other websites & then disavow from multiple accounts.
  • Get a competitor some link warnings & watch them push to get some of their own clean “unauthorized” links removed.
  • The webmaster who parts on poor terms burning the bridge behind them, or leaving a backdoor so that they may do so at anytime.

If a malicious webmaster wanted to get a target site in the bad books, they could post obvious comment spam – pointing at their site, and other sites. If this activity doesn’t result in an unnatural linking notification, then all good. It’s a test of how Google values that domain. If it does result in an unnatural link notification, the webmaster could then disavow links from that site. Other webmasters will likely do the same. Result: the target site may get taken out.

To avoid this sort of hit, pay close attention to your comment moderation.

Please add your own to the comments! 🙂 Gotchas, that is, not rogue links.

Further opinions @ searchengineland and seoroundtable.

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SEO Book.com

Business Lessons From Pumpkin Hackers

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Working nine to five can suck.

You might be working for a boss who is an idiot. You know he makes stupid decisions. When he’s off making yet another stupid decision, it’s you left doing all the work. As for job security – that’s a joke these days. He can fire you on a whim.

So why not cut out the weak link? Why not go into business for yourself?

The reality, of course, is that starting a business isn’t as easy as saying it. You’ll likely work longer hours, for less money, and there are no guarantees. While your friends are looking forward to the weekend, you might not see a weekend for a while. Most small businesses fail in their first five years, taking dreams and savings along with them.

Everything has a downside.

However, many businesses not only survive, they prosper. They make their founders wealthy. Even if they don’t make fortunes, they can provide lifestyle benefits that are near impossible to achieve with a regular job. There’s a lot to be said for being the master of your own destiny.

To achieve that, it’s best to start with some good advice.

Makin’ Mistakes

I’ve been running my own small business for a decade now. Whilst it’s been rewarding, and I achieved the goals I set for myself, there has also been a fair few missed opportunities and inevitable wrong turns. I jumped in blind, and like many in the search marketing industry, pretty much made it up as I went along.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But I wished I had understood a few fundamental truths first. I wished someone had imparted some profound wisdom, and I wished I had been smart enough to listen. Come to think of it – they did, and I wasn’t.

Such is life.

I’m in the process of setting new goals for the next few years. I’m restructuring. So I decided to reflect on the past, examine the good and the bad, and try to do more of the former, and less of the latter.

One of the problems I identified was that I was spreading myself way too thin over many projects. I have a *lot* of sites. I have domains I’d even forgotten I owned. I have domain names I keep renewing, vowing to do something with one day, yet never getting around to it.

In short, I was growing an awful lot of small pumpkins.

Getting The Fundamentals Right

I’ve decided to ditch almost all of what I have been doing in the past, and focus on a very narrow range of activities, one of which is working with Aaron on SEOBook.

One book I really wish I’d read when I was starting out – had it been available, which it wasn’t – is called “The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy To Grow A Remarkable Business“. I’d like to share the central theme of the book with you, because I think it’s a great lesson if you’re thinking of starting a business, or, like me, optimizing an existing one.

It’s the lesson I wished I’d understood when I started. I certainly hope it’s of help to someone else 🙂

If You Want To Prosper, Learn To Grow Pumpkins

There are geek farmers who obsess about growing huge pumpkins. They are the hackers of the vegetable world. In order to grow a huge pumpkin – weighing half a ton or more – you can’t just throw seeds on the ground. You can’t grow a whole lot of pumpkins and hope one of them turns out to be huge.

You’ve got to follow a process.

And here it is:

  • Step One: Plant promising seeds
  • Step Two: Water, water, water
  • Step Three: As they grow, routinely remove all of the diseased or damaged pumpkins
  • Step Four: Weed like a mad dog. Not a single green leaf or root permitted if it isn’t a pumpkin plant
  • Step Five: When they grow larger, identify the stronger faster growing pumpkins. Then, remove all the less promising pumpkins. Repeat until you have one pumpkin on each vine.
  • Step Six: Focus all of your attention on the big pumpkin. Nurture it around the clock like a baby and guard it like you would your first Mustang convertible
  • Step Seven: Watch it grow. In the last days of the season this will happen so fast you can actually see it happen

What’s this got to do with business? It’s a process for growing not just pumpkins, but businesses. Let’s apply it:

  • Step One: Identify and leverage your biggest natural strengths
  • Step Two: Sell, Sell, Sell
  • Step Three: As your business grows, fire all your small time, rotten clients
  • Step Four: Never, ever let distractions – often labelled as new opportunities – take hold. Weed them out fast.
  • Step Five: Identify your top clients and remove the rest of the less promising clients
  • Step Six: Focus all your attention on your top clients. Nurture and protect them. Find out what they want more than anything and if its in alignment with what you do best, give it to them. Then, replicate the same service or product for as many of the same types of top client as possible
  • Step Seven: Watch your company grow to a giant size

In essence, it’s about focusing on those things you do best. It’s about focusing on your very best customers, and ditching the rest. It’s about creating your own niche by identifying and solving the problems that no one else does.

None of this is new, of course. There are plenty of business advice books that say similar things. However, this is one of those great little stories I wish I had internalized earlier. Rather than grow a lot of small pumpkins, focus on growing those that matter.

Given recent changes at Google, I dare say a lot of SEOs – particularly those who run their own small sites – may be rethinking their approach. Unfortunately, the small guy is being squeezed and the rewards, like in most endevours, are increasingly flowing to large operations. Search conferences, which used to be the domain of the lone-wolf affiliate guy and mom and pop businesses are now jammed full of corporates and their staff. The entire landscape is shifting. New approaches are required, not just in terms of tactics, but in the underlying fundamentals.

It would be interesting to hear your lessons in business. What are the things you know now that you wished someone had told you when you started? Please share them in the comments.

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SEO Book.com

How to Obfuscate And Misdirect an Algo Update

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Sharing is caring!

Please share 🙂

Embed code is here.

If you find the following a bit hard to read due to font size, a wider version is located here.

Google Algo Changes.

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SEO Book.com

Marketing Analytics and the Problem of Attribution Modeling

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Posted by RuthBurr

Guys, we need to talk about attribution modeling. It’s a hot issue in our industry and most of us (SEOmoz included) aren't doing it as well as we want to be. It's tough stuff. Mike P from Distilled gave a great MozCon presentation on the topic, but most of us aren't anywhere close to that sophisticated – and even his model is impacted by Google Analytics' limitations.

It’s been covered in far more detail elsewhere, but in a nutshell: attribution modeling attempts to solve the problem of which channel gets credit when a user touches multiple channels prior to converting. Many marketers simply throw up their hands and say the last touch gets all the credit – but then we have to live with the knowledge that some of our efforts are far more effective than we give them credit for.

Not-so-super modeling

dog model
Supermodel by Soggydan on Flickr

Unfortunately, attribution modeling is very hard to do well for a lot of reasons: 

  • Any site to which users return daily (like, for example, SEOmoz.org) quickly fills up with touches that may or may not be related to conversions.
  • Channels like social media and community building are often a first touch but rarely the only touch before conversion, meaning they tend to get less credit than they deserve.
  • Attributing offline sales to online efforts can be very painful, not to mention tracking one user’s conversion path as she uses multiple devices during her buying decision.
  • In our post-Panda world, we’re spending a ton of time and effort on content that may end up on third party sites, opening us up to the near-impossible task of tracking view-through conversions.

In my opinion, however, the biggest problem with the attribution models available to us today is that their roots lie in web analytics tools like Google Analytics. This means that attribution models tend to be biased toward on-site efforts. The bulk of our marketing efforts doesn’t happen on-site, so why should our measurement? Our competitors certainly aren’t doing things on our site, so why should we content ourselves with on-site data?

Web-analytics-based attribution models also tend to break up sources at the channel level: organic search, social media, direct traffic, etc. Anyone who’s worked for months on driving traffic from Twitter and then had one tweet from Rand break their site can tell you not all social media touches are created equal, so why lump them all into Social Media?

tweet from @randfish

Finally, attribution models are incredibly difficult to implement for success metrics beyond conversion (more on that later).

Marketing analytics is about campaigns, not channels

Here at the MozPlex, we’ve been talking a lot about marketing analytics: the way we measure and optimize our marketing activities. I think Joanna put it best in her post: “Marketing analytics is the act of looking past mere website results, and asking yourself, ‘How did that marketing campaign really go?’”

Marketing analytics means going beyond the data we can get from our web analytics tool so you can measure off-site and even offline activities. Capturing that additional data about how your off-site and on-site marketing activities are performing allows you to test with greater confidence, and as marketers, we should always be testing. It’s probably not as simple as “social media doesn’t drive as many conversions as organic search.” Instead, we can test how to spend our time and money – which levers to pull at which time and in which way – to attract, keep, and delight our customers. At the same time, we can take a cross-channel, holistic view of our efforts to see what messages are resonating best.

All conversions aren’t created equal

Of course, one thing we want to do with our marketing efforts is make more money. ROI-driven modeling is always going to be part of what we’re measuring. However, modern marketers are driving for more than just the lead or the sale or the free trial. We’re looking at micro-conversions like newsletter signups. We’re watching and participating in conversations about our brand. We’re investing in customer happiness. We’re tracking shares, tweets, mentions, and views – and we’re keeping an eye on how are competitors are doing, too.

In addition to major conversions, marketing analytics is about tracking customer loyalty.

customer loyalty
Forever Friends by dprotz, on Flickr

We can often gain as much revenue from keeping our existing customers happy as from getting new ones. What happens after the conversion?

Marketing analytics is also about tracking brand identity. This is becoming more and more important as the major search engines focus more and more on brand strength as a quality indicator. This is another area where typical attribution models just don’t go far enough. Brand-centric campaigns are as much about generating conversation and positive feelings as they are about directly causing more conversions – this makes it harder to prove value if conversions are your only KPI. Branding has an influence on direct traffic, but it also has a big influence on organic search traffic from branded keywords.

So, should that traffic still count as organic search, if branding efforts are what inspired the search in the first place? This is another area where a more campaign-centric view can provide more insight than simply attributing conversions to channels.

Getting closer to marketing analytics

We’re still in the early days of true marketing analytics, which means we’re still mashing up data from a bunch of different tools and struggling to find the right ways to track campaigns. In the meantime, we can start hacking our web analytics’ attribution monitoring tools to go beyond simple channel attributions:

Advanced metrics for attribution modeling

  • Top referrers (separated out from the rest of referral traffic)
  • Top keywords (separated out from the rest of the keywords)
  • Long-tail keywords (same deal)
  • Top partners and/or affiliates
  • (not provided) search traffic
  • Branded and non-branded search traffic
  • Individual social networks (A friend and a follower may not be the same!)
  • Individual feeds
  • Individual paid advertising sources

We can also start thinking of (and tracking) our data with a marketing analytics mindset:

Advanced metrics for marketing analytics

  • Messages
  • Type of touch (Branding? Promotion? Retention? Happiness?)
  • Type of product
  • Audience
  • Time of day
  • Conversations

In the end, marketing analytics is more useful than straight-up attribution modeling, because it allows you to view your marketing efforts holistically. When you view individual customer touches as part of a larger whole instead of siloed by medium, you can take a longer and more customer-driven view of your marketing efforts.

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SEOmoz Daily SEO Blog

Say No To Opportunities & Clients

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What are you best at?

If you happen to be Google, you’re pretty good at search. And infrastructure. It remains to be seen if you’re any good at social media. It’s fair to say you weren’t much good at Answers, Catalog search, Page Creators, Audio Ads, Wave-ing and Buzz-ing.

The Google example demonstrates that no one can be good at everything, even if they do hire a lot of smart people and have billions in the bank. People, like companies, are good at doing some things, and are okay, or poor, at everything else. Not because they can’t do other things, but because they don’t have the time, inclination or disposition.

This truth has led to specialization. Individuals specialize. Companies specialize. Countries specialize. In economics, this is the principle of comparative advantage and it is the basis of trade. We do the things we’re good at, and buy in the things we’re not so good at, or don’t want to do.

We Can’t Be Good At Everything

Like Google, we can’t be good at everything.

Many small businesses make the mistake of trying to do everything, mainly due to lack of resources. However, the opportunity cost of trying to do everything can mean they end up being not very good at doing any one thing. This approach can make them uncompetitive.

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Like many web professionals, I can do some coding. Some web design. A bit of this. A bit of that. But I know there are people who are way better at those things that I am, so I let them do it. If I focus on what I’m good at, then I can make money doing that, and buy in the skills I need.

There are many benefits to specialization. For starters, it’s much easier to build a reputation or brand. Who is the go-to guy for Search Engine News? Many people would answer Danny Sullivan. Who is the go-to guy for search patents? That would be Bill.

Another advantage is that specialization leads to omptimized and more efficient processes, and therefore lower costs. The specialist can optimize and improve their approach to a niche activity in a way a generalist seldom can because their focus means they are more likely to see the details.

Most of us occupy very crowded marketplaces, which makes it difficult to stand out as a generalist. Brands, and reputations, can get confused and diluted if businesses spread themselves over multiple service areas. Virgin gets away with it – mainly because of the brand that is Richard Branson – but they are an exception, not the rule.

Not that this article is about the merits of specialization vs being a generalist. More a case of optimizing a business to focus on those areas that are most lucrative, and literally weeding out everything else.

Weeding Out Clients

A lot of companies, like a lot of people, live paycheck to paycheck. They don’t want to turn down any business, because the more clients, the better, right? The more opportunities, the better?

Not all clients are equal. Not all opportunities are a good fit. A client who costs a lot to service, who doesn’t pay their bills on time, who makes life difficult for you is probably not a client worth having. Sure, they might help keep us going to the next paycheck, but this is not an optimal way to run a sustainable business long term. Such clients present an opportunity cost i.e. we could be working with better clients, be making better money, and honing our service around mutual benefit.

For this reason, many companies make a habit of firing clients, or never take them on in the first place.

For example, last year, I received a letter from my accountant. She advised me they were reviewing their business and letting a lot of their clients go, although they were still happy to work with me, and asked that I have a chat with them if I had any concerns.

I did have a chat with them, mainly to confirm my suspicions.

They were deliberately getting rid of 50% of their clients. They had figured out who their top clients were i.e. the clients who took them the least time to service because their books were in order, and they eliminated the rest i.e. those clients whos books were a mess and were generally a pain to deal with. They downsized their business, reduced overhead and now tell me they are making more money than they previously were due to their optimized cost structure. They also appear to be playing a lot more golf!

They optimized their business, became more profitable, and have a lot more time because they made a point of figuring out the core of their business, and saying “no” to everything else.

Say No

Saying no can be very powerful. Prospective clients seem to respect this more, not less. There is something very appealing about a service that is exclusive and beyond reach. It signals a level of confidence that can be attractive.

Exclusive positioning is not just done for the sake of it. It’s a way to filter clients in order to find a good fit, which is especially important for small companies, as they have less resources available to carry bad risks. If we can figure out a client need that we know we can service well (specialization), with sufficient margins for us to be enthusiastic, and the client gets the value they were looking for, then everyone wins.

Let’s say running a PPC bid management service earns an internet marketing company the most money with the least effort. Let’s say they also do web design, but this is a lot more work (read: higher cost to service), and the margins are lower.

Would this company be better off saying “no” to new web design business? Quite possibly. They could dedicate more time to PPC, their PPC processes would get more refined through increased specialization, and they would likely be better placed to compete in the PPC space as their brand and attention becomes more focused. They could let go of the web designer, thus reducing overhead.

Granted, there are many factors to consider, but the question is this: are some areas of your business being serviced only because you can? Or does it make sense to focus on the areas where there is best fit? i.e. better margins, lower costs, most productive relationships – even if that means letting some clients, and even some staff, go?

Could we get better at saying “no”?

Categories: 

SEO Book.com

The ‘Scam’ Site That Never Launched

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(A case study in being PRE negatively seo’ed)

Well it has been a fun year in search. Having had various sites that I thought were quality, completely burnt by Google since they started with the Penguins and Pandas and other penalties, I thought i would try something that I KNEW Google would love….. Something dare I say would be “bulletproof.” Something I could go to bed, knowing it would be there the next day in Google’s loving arms. Something I could focus on and be proud of.

Enter www.buymycar.com, an idea I had wanted to do for some time, where people list a car and it gets sent to a network of dealers who bid on it from a secure area. A simple idea but FAR from simple to implement.

Notes I made prior to launch to please Google and to give it a fighting chance were:

  1. To have an actual service and not to be an affiliate. Google crushed my affiliate sites and we know they are not fond of them as they want to be the only affiliate I think.
  2. To make sure the content was of a high quality. I took this so seriously that we actually made a point of linking out to direct competition where it helped to do so. This was almost physically painful to do! But I thought I would start as I meant to go on. I remember paying the content guy that helps me, triple his normal fee to go above and beyond normal research for the articles in our “sell my car” and “value my car” sections.
  3. To make the site socially likeable. I wanted something that people would share and as such to sacrifice profits in the short term to get it established.
  4. To give Google the things it loves on-site. Speed testing, webmaster tools error checking (even got a little well done from Google for having no errors, bless), user testing, sitemaps for big G to find our content more easily, fast hosting, letting it have full access with analytics…
  5. TO NEVER, EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES PAY FOR A LINK. Yes, I figured I would put all the investment into the site and content this time. If it went how I had hoped perhaps I could find the holy grail where site’s link to us willingly without a financial incentive! A grail I had been chasing for some years. Could people really link out without being paid? I had once heard a rumour it was possible and I wanted to investigate it……

Satisfied I had ticked all the boxes from hours of Matt Cutts video’s and Google guidelines documents, I went to work and stopped SEO on all my smaller sites that were out of favour. I was enjoying building what I had hoped would be a useful site and kicked myself for not having done so sooner. I also thanked Google mentally for being smart enough now to reward better sites.

Fast forward 4 months of testing and re testing and signing up car dealers across the country and I decided to do a cursory check to see if anyone had liked what I was building and linked to it. I put my site into ahrefs.com and to my surprise, 13,208 sites had!! What was also nice was that all of them had used the anchor text “Buy My Car Scam” and had been so kind as to give me worldwide exposure on .ru, .br and .fr sites in blog comments amongst others.

In seriousness, this was absolutely devastating to see.

A worried competitor had obviously decided I was a threat and to nip my site in the bud with Google and attack it before it had even fully started. The live launch date was scheduled for January 7th, 2013! I was aware of negative SEO from other sites I had lost but not in advance of actually having any traffic or rankings. Now I was faced with death by Google rankings to look forward to before it had any rankings, add to that my site being cited as a scam across the Internet before it launched!

My options were immediately as follows:

  1. Go back and nuke the likely candidates in Google who had sabotaged me. Not really an option as I think it is the lowest of the low.
  2. Start trying to contact 13,000+ link owners to ask for the links to be removed. When I am heavily invested in this project anyway and have a deadline to reach, this was not an option. Also, Xrummer, Scrapebox or other automated tools could send another 13,000 just as easily in hours for me to deal with.
  3. Disavow links with Google. To download all the links, disavow them all and hope that Google would show me mercy in the few months Matt Cutts said it takes to get to them all removed.
  4. Give up the project. Radical as this may sound, it did go through my mind as organic traffic was a big part of my business plan. Thankfully I was talked out of it and it would be “letting them win.”

I opted for number 3, the disavow method but wondered what would happen if I kept being sent 10’s of thousands more links and how a new site can actually have any protection from this? To set back a site months in its early stages is devastating to a new on-line business. To be in a climate where it is done prior to launch is ridiculous.

Had I fired back at future competitors as many suggested I did, there would be a knock on effect that makes me wonder if in the months to come, everyone will be doing it to each other as routine. Having been in SEO for years I always knew it was possible to sabotage sites but never thought it would become so common and before they even ranked!


Robert Prime is a self employed web developer based in East Sussex, England. You can follow him on Twitter at @RobertPrime.

Categories: 

SEO Book.com

Why Does Business Talk That Way?

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It goes like this.

Our Mission is to provide the best SEO services in the world. We nurture win-win scenarios to create enduring value for our customers. We were voted top SEO agency in Texas and voted the best place to work. We value our staff – we want people to be the best we can be, so as we can maintain our preeminent position in the search industry

Place gun to my head. Pull trigger.

How many times have you come across corporate-speak and thought “who are these people trying to kid”? Yet, when many business people sit down to write, that is the sort of thing they invariably come up with.

Why?

Because they are business people. They are talking about business. That is how business sounds.

Well, it’s how they think business should sound, because that’s the way it has always sounded – a monotone drone of description, chest puffed out. These people are stuck in the business-speak echo chamber.

No one sounds like business-speak in real life. If you ask someone how their job is going, a lot of them will invariably say “it sucks”, “too busy”, “it’s okay”. These same people might work for the firm that has says they were nominated “best place to work”. The image and the reality don’t match. At best, people will ignore business-speak. No one really believes it.

There are better ways to communicate.

Truth

A lot of business-speak fails to communicate because it isn’t rooted in truth.

I once worked at a Telecommunications Company. The marketing team was having a meeting about a new brochure and came up with the slogan – I am not making this up – “(Company Name) – first in service!”. Once I stopped wondering how any of these people ever managed to land a job in Marketing, I asked how we knew we were “first in service”? It seemed a reasonable question, but I may as well have asked the Pope if he really believed in God.

Apparently, it was self-evident we were first in service! There was no basis of truth in it, of course. Just an empty slogan, meaning nothing. No measurement. It was a phrase that “sounded positive!”

I doubt any customers believed it, especially those waiting in call queues.

Do you notice how some small companies try to appear large? They list multiple offices, when in, reality they consist of two guys who have a call forwarding service. I’m not quite sure why a company would pretend to be any bigger than it actually is, because as soon as they get a customer, they are going to get found out. The feeling they’ll likely leave with that customer is that they are fundamentally dishonest.

Which is a strange approach to take.

Many customers consider small to be an advantage. Small can mean you are more connected with your customers as there is no barrier between you and the customer. They can talk directly to you. They can email you. They can see you Twittering. Many customers love that. Big companies have “policies”. They have call centers. They have barriers to entry. It’s no wonder they talk in business-speak. It’s just another means to keep people at a distance.

Small companies sometimes try to appear big because they think they need to be big in order to attract big companies as clients. This is sometimes true, but mostly false. It is true that big companies often like to deal with other big companies, mostly so they can successfully sue them if they stuff up. It is false because smart big companies will know a great idea when they hear one, and size simply won’t be a consideration so long as the small company has got something the big company wants.

For example, I mentioned I’d been reading “The Pumpkin Plan” recently. There is a story about a tiny two person company. They came up with a new way of marketing pharmaceuticals.

One major problem many pharmaceutical companies face is that they need to change their marketing approach in different regions, even though they are marketing the exact same product.

In some areas, they have to market based on price (Los Angeles). In other markets they need to influence the cardiologists (Boston). In other areas they must talk directly to African-American patients (Atlanta). Exact same product, different marketing strategy for each city. Get the strategy wrong, and they waste a lot of money and lose market share.

Two guys came up with a way to crunch the numbers that tell pharmaceutical companies exactly what the biggest driver of performance is in each territory.

Through a network of colleagues, they managed to land a meeting with a pharmaceutical company. Not just any meeting – they go straight to the top floor, and talk to the Chairman Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals. They barely get five slides into their presentation when the Chairman stops them to call in his VP of marketing. They both love the idea! This solves a big problem for Johnson and Johnson. The result is that this two person company lands 500K worth of business on the spot, $ 4m worth of business in the first two years, and $ 14.2m by year four. They expand, of course.

So, they were two guys pitching to one the biggest pharmaceutical businesses in the world. They landed millions of dollars worth of business because Johnson and Johnson like their idea. They didn’t need to convince Johnson and Johnson they were anything more than two guys with a good idea. It didn’t require any business-speak about mission statements, just a focus on finding and solving a real problem.

Tell A True Story About You (And Them)

If you’re ever tempted to write business-speak, try telling a story instead. Turn your pitches into stories. Turn your proposal into stories. Turn your presentations into stories. Make them true stories. Tell them in your authentic voice. People love to be told a story as stories are both familiar and revealing. A string of facts is never going to have the same impact. Business-speak will invariably leave an audience focused on their smartphones.

A story can be about how you solved a problem in the past. A problem just like the one your prospective clients are having. What was the problem? Why was it painful? What did you do to solve it? What was the result?

Easy and memorable. You can structure almost anything as a story. Stories move from the status quo, straight into a crisis (business problem), then the crisis is resolved, and a new status quo is reached. Start with a problem. Explain why it is painful. Bring in the hero – you – and tell them what you did to solve the problem. Then tell them the result – the new status quo.

Are you more likely to recall the text of my opening paragraph, or the story about the two guys pitching to Johnson and Johnson?

Stories can be so much more effective than business-speak.

Categories: 

SEO Book.com

What Separates a "Good" Outreach Email from a "Great" One? – Whiteboard Friday

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Posted by randfish

Outreach emails are sent for a variety of reasons, but the majority have one thing in common: they're structured too poorly to merit a reply. For every group of outreach emails we receive, usually only a few are worth opening.

However, creating "good" emails may not be the toughest part. To inspire a response, you have to get to "great." But what makes a great outreach email stand out from its "good" competitors? 

Today, Rand walks us through what it takes to create a great outreach email and gives his tips on making sure your next outreach goes into the "great" pile rather than into the trash.

 

Video Transcription

"Howdy SEOmoz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I want to talk a little bit about outreach emails.
 
Outreach emails are sent for a variety of reasons. It could be business development. It could be some kind of advertising. It could be to try and get a link or a mention. It could be to encourage someone to share something that you've produced.
 
The problem is . . . I get a lot of these. I mean, I cannot tell you how many of these I get. I love helping people, so I want to respond to a lot of them. But so many of them are terrible. There are a few that are what I would call good. Some of them are quite solid. But only a very, very select number are truly great.
 
I've received a few of these over the last few months, and I thought, what is it that makes these ones special? How can I dissect the ones where I go, "Man, what a great email." I'm not only happy to help that person, I want to help them again in the future. I hope I can do more for them, because I just love the way that they outreached and connected with me.
 
So I've put together a standard formatting. I think virtually every outreach email I see, terrible, good, great, in between, all follow this. They start with a greeting, they go to an intro, they have some sort of ask involved in them, a giveback, usually the good ones and the great ones have a giveback of some kind, a close, and then a signature.
 
Let me walk you through what separates the good ones from the great ones. I'm going to try and use this as an example. This person starts their email by saying, "Hi Rand," which is totally fine. The things that you're aiming for here, this is not huge and big and important. It's personal and friendly.
 
The wrong way to do this is, "Dear Mr. Fishkin." That's my grandfather. Dear Mr. Fishkin? Who's that? And people who email with "Dear CEO" or "My Friend," it's clear that they don't know you. There are some that work, like "Hey dude" or "Hey Buddy." It sort of has that colloquial association.
 
If it's someone that I know closely and they don't use my name, but I already know them very well, no problem. But that greeting is a very important opening point, and a lot of people, myself included, will click Delete or Report Spam if they see something in here that's not obviously friendly and personal and clear that we know one another.
 
Next, the intro. This person says, "I heard you might be in L.A. next month. Please drop me a line if you make it. We'd love to see you and Geraldine." Great. Now they've established a few things. They show that they know me, they like me, they trust me, and they care. Not only that, they're sort of following my activities, so they know that I'm going to be in Los Angeles for a few days.
 
When you can do this, you don't have to do it in this fashion. Maybe you don't know the person well enough to actually invite them to go hang out with you or that kind of thing. But if you know, for example, they're going to be in Los Angeles and that they love scotch, for example, you could say, "Hey, they're having a scotch tasting in the Santa Monica Pier on such and such a date. If you're there for it, you should definitely check it out. If not, blah, blah." Show that you know them, you like them, you trust them, and you care. That's what you're trying to achieve in that intro paragraph there or the intro sentence.
 
Next up is the ask. This is obviously a very, very important part of the email. But if you don't surround the ask with something else, unless you know that person extremely closely and you know that they're happy to share already, or do whatever activity you want, you're not going to get this. If I just say, "Hi Rand, do this for me, bye," who answers that? No, that's not how communication in the human world works. You need to have some empathy in there.
 
This person says, "FYI, my start-up was nominated for XYZ award," some particular award. "It would mean a ton to me if you could tweet or share the link." There's the link. That's the ask right there. They've done a few very smart things here. They've kept the ask short and sweet. This is two sentences, extremely few number of words, very obvious what they want and need.
 
They made the links easy to click and to share. So now I don't have to do much work if I want to fulfill this ask. That's also very smart. Make sure those links are clickable. Make sure there's only one of them. Make sure you're not asking for a ton of different things all at once. Make that share activity, that request activity very simple.
 
Then the giveback. And by the way, you can definitely flip the order on the ask and the giveback. You can do the giveback first before you make the ask. For example, this person says, "Also, we recently wrote about blah, blah, blah on our blog in reference to your post on the topic, at this URL. The team here loves Moz.com/Rand, my new personal blog, which is not doing that well in terms of links and traffic and attention. So they probably know that, and they know that that will get my awareness and attention. I'll be like, "Oh, cool, they're helping to share my new site that I haven't done much with yet. Please keep it up."
 
Very, very smart tactic here. They've identified an area where I need help, and they proved that they are a reciprocator, someone who will help without being asked for it, on the chance that I might help them. This doesn't need to be directly . . . you don't want to go at this aggressively.
 
What you don't want to say is, "Hey Rand, we linked to you on our blog. Please link to us now." No, it's not going to happen. Communication isn't done in that fashion. You need to have that empathetic touch in your communication. Prove that you're a reciprocator, apart from the ask, and you need to show that you're giving value as well as asking for it. This is a smart way to do this. It's sensitive, and it knows what I need and what I like.
 
Next piece, the close. "Hope Seattle's new baked baked goods laws are treating you well. They know that marijuana, for example, is legalized in the state of Washington. They're making a play off of that. They're using humor, surprise, interest, or empathy to show the connection between us, and that connection is a great thing. When they can do this . . . I mean, I find this kind of stuff humorous. Hopefully, they know me, and they know that I will find it humorous. That's great. That is exactly what they're trying to tie in. They're trying to make that personal connection.
 
Then the last piece, the signature. "Sincerely, Tony, CEO and Founder of XYZwebsite.com." This is smart. It seems like this would be a very small piece, but it's actually a big one for a lot of people, and I'll tell you why. I don't always remember everyone that I've met and that I've said, "Sure, email me and I'll be happy to help out with something." So they are making sure, without being obvious, without being too like, "Well, I presume you don't remember who I am because you meet lots of people," but instead I'm going to have this little thing at the bottom, which makes sure you remember me and links off to my website, so that you can check us out and be like, "Oh, yeah. Okay, put the pieces together. I remember this guy now."
 
It's fine, too, to say something like "we met here," or "you know me through XYZ," whatever. But don't assume that the person is going to remember you. Have a clear and obvious identity that shows authenticity. That authenticity piece is critical. When I get emails from folks who clearly are not actually associated with the company, but are doing outreach on behalf of a PR firm, doing outreach on behalf of an SEO firm, no offense to SEO agencies and consultants, but sometimes we're the worst offenders of this kind of stuff.
 
If you can do all of these things, you can transform a good outreach email into a great one. When you do that, the conversion percentage goes tremendously upward, and the chance that your contact will be shared or linked to, or that whatever activity you need done by this helpful group, will be accomplished. That's what we want to try and help with.
 
All right, everyone. Hope you've enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday. I look forward to some great comments, and we'll see you again next week. Take care."

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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SEOmoz Daily SEO Blog

Soft Launching SEOTools.net

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Last month we soft launched SEOTools.net. Here are a few entries as a sample of things to come…

… do subscribe to the RSS feed if you like what you see thusfar.

Why create yet another site about SEO?

Good question, glad you asked. 😉

Our customer base on this site consists primarily of the top of this pyramid. I can say without doubt that I know that some of our customers know more about SEO than I do & that generally makes them bleeding edge. 😉

And then some people specialize in local or video or ecommerce or other such verticals where there are bits of knowledge one can only gain via first hand experience (eg: importing from China or doing loads of testing of YouTube variables or testing various upsells). There is becoming so much to know that nobody can really know everything, so the goal of our site here is to sorta bring together a lot of the best folks.

Some people newer to the field & a bit lower down on the pyramid are lucky/smart enough to join our community too & those who do so and participate likely save anywhere from 1 to 3 years on their learning curve…leveling up quickly in the game/sport of SEO. But by and large our customers are mostly the expert end of the market.

We could try to water down the community & site to try to make it more mass market, but I think that would take the site’s leading strength and flush it down the toilet. In the short run it would mean growth, but it would also make the community less enjoyable … and this site is as much a labor of love as it is a business. I think I would burn myself out & no longer love it if the site became noisy & every third post was about the keyword density of meta tags.

What Drives You?

When SEOBook.com was originally created SEO was much less complex & back in 2003 I was still new to the field, so I was writing at a level that was largely aligned with the bulk of the market. However, over the past decade SEO has become much more complex & many of our posts tend to be at a pretty high level, pondering long-term implications of various changes.

When there are big changes in the industry we are usually early in discussing them. We were writing about exact match domains back in 2006 and when Google’s algorithm hinted at a future of strong brand preference we mentioned that back in 2009. With that being said, many people are not nimble enough to take advantage of some of the shifts & many people still need solid foundational SEO 101 in place before the exceptions & more advanced topics make sense.

The following images either make sense almost instantly, or they look like they are in Greek…depending on one’s experience in the field of SEO.

My mom and I chat frequently, but she tells me some of the posts here tend to be pretty deep / complex / hard to understand. Some of them take 20 hours to write & likely read like college dissertations. They are valuable for those who live & breathe SEO, but are maybe not a great fit for those who casually operate in the market.

My guess is my mom is a pretty good reflection of most of the market in understanding page titles, keywords, and so on…but maybe not knowing a lot about anchor text filters, link velocity, extrapolating where algorithm updates might create future problems & how Google might then respond to those, etc. And most people who only incidentally touch the SEO market don’t need to get a PhD in the topic in order to reach the point of diminishing returns.

Making Unknowable SEO More Knowable

SEO has many pieces that are knowable (rank, traffic, rate of change, etc.), but over time Google has pulled back more and more data. As Google gets greedier with their data, that makes SEO harder & increases the value of some 3rd party tools that provide competitive intelligence information.

  • Being able to look up the performance of a section of a site is valuable.
  • Tracking how a site has done over time (to identify major ranking shifts & how they align with algorithm updates) is also quite valuable.
  • Seeing link spikes & comparing those with penalties is also valuable.

These data sets help offer clues to drive strategy to try to recover from penalties, & how to mimic top performing sites to make a site less likely to get penalized.

The Difference Between These 2 Sites

Our goal with SEO Book is to…

  • try to cover important trends & topics deeper than anyone else (while not just parroting Google’s view)
  • offer a contrary view to lifestyle image / slogan-based SEO lacking in substance or real-world experience
  • maintain the strongest community of SEO experts, such that we create a community I enjoy participating in & learning from

Our goal with SEO tools is to…

  • create a site that is a solid fit for the beginner to intermediate portions of the market
  • review & compare various industry tools & highlight where they have unique features
  • offer how to guides on specific tasks that help people across a diverse range of backgrounds & skill levels save time and become more efficient SEOs
  • provide introduction overviews of various SEO-related topics
Categories: 

SEO Book.com

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