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Case Study (Or It Didn’t Happen)

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I want to see more proof.

There’s a time and place for theoretical marketing posts (including SEO); I’ve written my share.  I still do.  I’d say about half of my posts are philosophical.  John-Henry Scherck called me “the prove it” guy, but I still welcome and value the philosophical posts.  However, I dislike when some posts suggest facts that haven’t been proven, or when they raise more questions than they answer.  As content producers we need to be conscious of this.  If we make a claim, or recommend a strategy or tactic, we better have some proof that it worked. Otherwise you could be misleading your readers. Do you have the cure to manual penalties? Do directories still have value? Is comment marketing worth doing? Prove it.

SEO has more unknowns than it’s had in a while.  With dozens of new, major algorithm changes, we’re back in the dark in a lot of ways.  In the days of old, we would argue things in forum boards with testing results. Now I believe we’ve become accustomed to accepting things more easily.

Are We Still Testing?

We have more Googlers sharing information with us.  That’s new. Matt Cutts, John Mueller, and a few Google forum boards are very helpful.   But the nuggets we get are usually as ambiguous as anything written in Webmaster Guidelines.  Is this fluffy information answering most SEOs questions?  Personally, I tend to find myself more confused, walking away with more questions I know Google will never answer.

So I test.  A lot.  I have a few website playgrounds.  Many have gotten torched.  I built them as a reaction of getting burned by being a passive believer.

Remember Page Rank sculpting with nofollows?  For a while there, I remember every website talking about the right ways to do Page Rank sculpting.  They were treating the positive impact of the tactic as fact. SEOmoz had a few posts that served as the playbook for me. I loved it.  I understood it perfectly and used it on many, many ecommerce websites, believing it was law.  I spent my client’s money on it.  My mastery of it was something I was proud of, until Matt Cutts dropped a bombshell that Page Rank sculpting with nofollows had stopped having impact about a year prior.

I’d been living a lie.

A lot of websites and SEOs had egg on their face.  If we were really testing, as an industry we probably would have figured this out for ourselves.  Regardless, this was a poignant moment in my career.

Question Everything

I follow a lot of SEOs who are either great producers of content or great curators.  Some of this content, though, is fluffythin, or quite assuming.

I don’t blame the curators – I’m glad they’re passing this stuff along so I can have it on my radar. I use Twitter more than I use my RSS reader.  But I do hold the “producers of content” accountable.

Last week I watched a Whiteboard Friday about doing SEO on someone else’s website. Good concept, but I found myself asking questions:

“If you have positive press out there or if you’re going to start generating some and get it to rank well for your brand name, that’s even better than reputation management.”  How? Why?  Can you show me some examples?

“Remember Twitter, in particular, Google just loves to rank Twitter pages for brand names.” Can you show me?  I haven’t seen this.

“I’ve seen SlideShare URLs ranking for all sorts of highly competitive phrases.”  I haven’t – can you show me an example?

“If you’ve got a great link from a source, and especially if Google’s not crawling it or they haven’t crawled it yet or that link doesn’t appear to have had much impact, you might want to point some links at it to help that page gain some extra authority, particularly if it’s on a powerful domain, but you’re feeling like, man, it’s just not getting the credit, what I would normally expect it to provide to me, you can pump that page up.”  Getting links is tough – can you convince me that this is worth my time?  This could be an expensive and time consuming wild goose chase.

Granted – this was a video, and maybe isn’t the best vehicle for all of my questions, but this is the kind of thing that personally leaves me with frustrated.  I hate when movies do it (it destroyed the Star Wars prequels), and I really hate when our industry does it.  Takes me right out of the moment.

It seems to me, as a whole, we’re apparently mostly on board with authorship being “huge”, and that “social signals are important”, but compared to the old days, there really isn’t any persuading evidence out there that I’ve seen to make me stop the press.  Just a lot of fluffy blog posts and convention presentations.  We have some guys, like AJ Khon who properly positioned authorship as a concept to be aware of, and guys like Bill Slawski who point us to patents that suggest it may come into play.  But there are others who praise it as being a game changer without showing us why.  We have to be careful with that.  Remember how +1 clicks were going to improve rankings?  How many posts and presentations said it already started?  Yeah, well, it never did.

This post isn’t a knock on any website or anyone in particular. As I said, I’m guilty of it too, but I now try to answer the questions I’m raising when I can.  In this case for example, I couldn’t show the client’s pages, but I did show as much as I could to prove the case.

Articles With Proof Live Forever

I’m training an employee to learn link building.  I immediately went to this post by James Agate, published in February. Thanks to Evernote, I have a list of posts that I want to remember because they’re rich in proof. That post by James has built the core of our outreach program, not because he made claims, but he showed some data.  I don’t walk away with questions after a post like that.

If you come across a post that is leaving you unsatisfied, use the comments like we used to use forum boards.  Do it for your industry.

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    1. Nick Eubanks
      December 6, 2012

      Preaching to the choir my friend… at this point, with the visibility, budget, and talent we have in (and around) SEO, there is no excuse why we shouldn’t be seeing less hypothetical strategies and results and more hard data and case studies.

      I mean, who cares if it failed? Show us? The results weren’t stellar, or not as great as projected, so what – share it anyway! I mean, show me something!


    2. Nick makes a great point – “who cares if it failed?” the more i get ingrained in the community and speak with smarter people,the more i believe the better practitioners/successful people are not judging, and have not/don’t kill it all the time themselves

      real life is not optimized, so marketing cannot always be; it’s a process. one of the coolest things i heard at BlueGlass was Brian Clark and Greg Boser, two successful dudes, admitted they did wrong things here and there. that’s humbling/encouraging to hear.

      that’s not a call to arms to do any and everthing, but it should be a call for more practice in testing and in entertaining less fear.


    3. Yuriy Yarovoy
      December 7, 2012

      I think Nick and Anthony hit the nail on the head. This is a great point that often gets overlooked. Something is better than nothing. Even if you’re case study failed to produce expected results, we can still learn from it as a community. Maybe someone sees your errors and conducts the study on their own and does get the results you were looking for. We’d never know unless you published your findings in the first place.

      Indeed, it’s humbling to hear when people admit their mistakes. Our industry is predicated on SEOs marketing themselves, getting posts published, and grooming their images. It’s not often that you hear these same people admit failure or mistakes. I would love to see more people share, regardless of the outcome and as a result bolster growth and learning in the overall community.


    4. Kane Jamison
      December 10, 2012

      I agree with the majority of this, and would love to see more case studies from the industry and from myself.

      One response to your examples: I think many writers pushing the future of Authorship would agree that it has relatively small effects on rankings at the moment. But, it’s growth in the future seems inevitable, as Google has shown time and time again that they can’t handle spam with their current approach. It’s easy to forget that nothing’s inevitable in this industry, which is why I think most posts on Authorship skip the disclaimer of “this may or may not affect rankings now and we’re speculating on why we think it will be important in the future.”


      • Bill Sebald
        December 11, 2012

        I mostly worry about the posts that tout it as the next big thing before it is the next big thing. Like +1′s, searchwiki, and real-time search were supposed to be for SEO.


    5. AJ Kohn
      December 15, 2012

      I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t think Authorship is a ranking signal now, though clearly it does have an impact on CTR. And I’ll tell you, because I’m so jazzed about it, I’m very skeptical when someone thinks they’re seeing it implemented. Do I think it’s something Google’s working on and passionate about? You bet and there’s ample evidence to support that.

      I’m cognizant that for every ‘theory’ post I should also have a post that is truly productive, actionable or fact-based. It’s one of the reasons I like to develop bookmarklets or write about Excel tips (though I haven’t done the latter in a while.)

      A lot of the time I try to show the work that I’m doing via my blog – dogfooding. I hope that something like my post on changing the title tag falls into that camp.

      Unfortunately, real client case studies are often difficult to use because of confidentiality issues. But in all I agree that there needs to be more practical versus theoretical. James Agate is a very good example of this and I think I actually told him so on Google+ a few weeks ago.


      • Bill Sebald
        December 16, 2012

        Right on AJ. You’re always one I would point to for providing data and proof to anything you share or get behind.


    6. J.C. Kendall
      December 16, 2012

      Nice Article, Bill. I think its a good reminder to avoid hyping a new strategy, but as AJ suggested many of us are pretty convinced that at some point Authorship is going to count. That said, we clearly have no idea how much. Thanks for the reminder to always try to put some meat into our assertions.


      • Bill Sebald
        December 16, 2012

        I definitely want to go on record that I think Authorship is valid to talk about. I’m a believer in it’s possible/probable future impact, no question. What I don’t like seeing is the tons of content about it as if it is working now, or worth a major left turn in SEO strategies that are actually proving to work.

        Again, AJ is not guilty of this frustration at all. He’s an example of a thought leader who is doing it right by my book.


    7. Tony Verre
      December 16, 2012

      Your point is well taken: show me the data. Like AJ said, case studies are hard to build, and even harder to publish with all the NDAs encircling every shred of data. Yet, it’s more than just the NDAs that are stopping me from publishing hard data on posts. The fact is, it takes a LONG time to test a hypothesis, and a long to devise a method that leaves little to no loop-holes. And, as the algo shifts/changes happen more frequently (at break-neck speed) what was “testable” 2 or 3 weeks ago, that window may have already closed.

      Then to publish those results, so that I can be viewed as an “expert” to peers? So that we can all have the same knowledge base and leave no differentiating factors between us? No thanks. You get credit for the data for a second these days, before the “Big Boys of Search” incorporate into their repertoire or claim it as their own discovery. Now I do my testing and discovery with my client sites and keep that knowledge to myself (good and bad).

      It’s why I’m given to writing about SEO theory, marketing tactics, business philosophy with search slants on it these days. It’s a lot more fulfilling to where to go and different angles on Search/SEO than it is to give away the data. It takes as much critical thinking to write great theory and philosophy posts as it does to conduct tests, IMO.


      • Bill Sebald
        December 16, 2012

        Fair enough. But you wouldn’t be afraid to tell the readers you’re being theoretical, right? I feel the majority of what I read doesn’t. The industry (including all of marketing by the way) tends to tell you “such and such” will grow hair on your chest, write 300 posts and presentations about it, but never prove it. To that I say no thanks (which is what this post is about), because I only feel like I’m in the echo chamber being marketed to by my own peers.

        As far as your findings being stolen, yeah. It happens. I had a nice post years ago about the PR passing shortened URLs that I saw some exact data go uncredited into a Search Engine Land post. I can understand anyone’s decision to not to want to share it, but if you’re doing the kind of posts I noted above (it sounds like you aren’t), I’d be frustrated.

        NDAs are tough (which I also noted in my post). I still argue there’s a way to blind enough data to show something. But most of the posts I’m criticising share nothing remotely convincing. And frankly, the industry happily goes along with it. That’s the crux of the biscuit for me.


    8. Mike Montali
      April 30, 2013


      I have found that there are a lot of posts out there written by people that don’t seem to “walk the walk”. When I look at their websites or those of their clients, they don’t have very high page rank or they don’t dominate in any substantial way. How can someone have credibility and authority when they’ve not been successful in their own right?

      On a more specific level, say someone is touting a particular method of link building in a blog post, if I can’t look at their own link profile and find any evidence of those links then it begs the question if they’re speaking based on hunches instead of proven success.

      It’s an unfortunate fact in this industry that you get a lot of people who present themselves as gurus when they really don’t know enough to authoritatively write an article or worse, charge someone for SEO services.



      • Bill Sebald
        May 1, 2013

        Couldn’t agree more!


    9. Spook Seo
      December 19, 2013

      Hi Bill,
      I couldn’t agree more with the suggestion to provide solid and clear proof in every conjecture. Without it, it’s like taking a journey through a path, half-blinded. Aside from proof, perhaps we can’t underestimate the value of case studies that seem empty at this point because concrete deductions may also be part of the clear solution.