I remember a few years ago blowing the mind of a boss with a theory that Google would eventually rank (in part) based on their own internal understanding of your object. If Wikipedia could know so much about an object, why couldn’t Google? In the end, I was basically describing semantic search and entities, something that has already lived as a concept in the fringe of the mainstream.
For one reason or another, plenty of sites are in the doghouse. The dust has settled a bit. Google has gotten more specific about the penalties and warnings through their notifications, and much of the confusion is no longer… as confusing. We’re now in the aftermath – the grass is slowly growing again and the sky is starting to clear. A lot of companies that sold black hat link building work have vanished (and seem to have their phone off the hook). Some companies who sold black hat work are now even charging to remove the links they built for you (we know who you are!). But at the end of the day, if you were snared by Google for willingly – or maybe unknowingly – creating “unnatural links,” the only thing to do is get yourself out of the doghouse.
Ever wonder how powerful some of the oldest SEO recommendations still are? With the birds and the bears (and a little caffeine) changing so much in SEO since 2011, I wanted to see first hand some of the results we can get from some moves like internal linking and title tag optimization. Using my own site as the proving ground, and moving quickly between tweaks and first results to try and exclude any other ancillary update or change, I decided to test some optimizations I still see recommended or used in the field. The set of competing pages I chose below don’t move very often, so I thought this might be a good group to experiment with.
I stumbled upon an interesting service I don’t think many SEOs know about – at least, not the few I’ve asked. It’s called repost.us. Looks like it’s about 2 years old. Simple premise: Add your site to the database, and others can republish your content. They say, “It’s the wire service reinvented for the web.”
As an SEO I bet your chest just tightened up reading that. We’ve all been there. Our lot in life will put us there again. When the spotlight is put on natural search performance, it’s almost always put on you as a performer (at least semi-consciously). Maybe you feel threatened or defensive. The counter-arguments start squirting through your neocortex.
We direct all our SEO prospects to our online material, which we candidly post on the website (go to our homepage and click the tour button for an example). We don’t have fancy leave-behind decks, or spend hours sweating over pitches like some agencies I’ve worked with. I’ve seen much less time (and cost) succeed with the right kind of catered communication, especially in the SEO industry alone. Our services are specific – SEO consulting with a lower emphasis on labor. In our online tour, we share our history, our beliefs, our differentiators, and our price. We have found that this helps qualify the next conversation. Some prospects read this and never return, presumably looking for another type of SEO service. While others only feel more confident about partnering with us. Through this second conversation, our conversion rate is very high.
My fiancé loves shoes. Like the stereotype, she has a closet full. I don’t get it. I own three pair, and one pair are flip-flops. One afternoon she came into my office and said, “you’re the Google geek, find me these shoes.” She had a pair of Candie’s that broke right in the middle of the sole. I found out she searched for about 45 minutes looking for these shoes, to no avail – I suspect much longer than the average person. Challenge accepted – I’m supposed to be good at this, but within 30 minutes I couldn’t find anything either. I used everything from reverse image search to the most descriptive keywords I could image. I looked in CSE’s, Pinterest, Amazon, and a few major shoe retailers. I went deep into supplemental pages of smaller retail sites (which is a very scary place).
I’ve had my share of SEO predictions fall flat on their face. But I remember distinctly sitting in the office of a VP in my former ‘big agency’ life (guessing around 2009), talking about how Google will have to move into identifying, comprehending, and processing intent, while finding new ways to judge popularity. PageRank was a great start, but it can’t scale. Our culture is completely online now – the Google algorithms, relativity speaking, can’t keep up. It’s easy to forget Google isn’t magical. They’re still a powerful but limited machine.
I would postulate on Google eventually looking at more abstract factors where good old fashioned online marketing campaigns could get recognized. Where pieces and results of campaigns become crumbs that make up influence in aggregate. Truth was, I was seeking internal support for expanding the SEO group’s output, instead of mild data crunching and producing thin, quick-and-dirty recommendations. In 2009 it seemed obvious that Google would eventually shut down “gaming the system” schemes – of which they recently did a reasonably good job (with some causalities). It seemed to me that if anyone could understand programs to scale and distort, it’s Google. It also felt like the routine tactics of SEO couldn’t last forever. It felt like time to start getting creative.
I wanted to believe in the power of marketing effecting SEO. Not just because that was my college background and interest, but because it seemed logical. Marketing has shaped our culture. Our culture is online. Thus, Google needs to continue understanding the culture’s role and response in marketing. In there lies understanding of the queries.
I didn’t (and still don’t) think all SEOs need to be marketers. Digital PR? Not all SEOs use the same side of their brain but still remain pertinent. It’s sensational to say, “the SEO industry must adapt to *THIS* or die!” Like anything in any marketing channel, that’s awfully limiting. Defining rules and standards? Not for me, I shake that kind of stuff off. No person (or concept) is going to be able to drive the SEO bus alone. The Magical Mystery Bus drives itself.
Where’s The Bus Going?
Let’s think about the clues we have at hand, which to me suggest a path towards SEO marketing.
Here’s the definition of marketing from the AMA. “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”
I really wish PPC didn’t get the label of search engine marketing (SEM). It doesn’t seem to fit today. It’s like when alternative music became mainstream – it became the alternative to what? I would like to use the term search engine marketing for the concept of big ideas that Google notices, appreciates, rewards, and shares. I want to impress Google by impressing their users first. I’m not going to try to make up a new term (I have shame), but we refer to it at Greenlane as SEO marketing; a non-creative name for creative campaigns. It’s what I couldn’t convince a big agency of doing.
Here’s a couple very recent things we know:
They took away all our keyword-level data
This is a raw nerve. [not provided] is a jerk, but not that significant a change in my book. Lazy SEOs can now fully hide behind this when they tell their clients, “sorry – I can’t prove how awesome we are without keyword level data.” Or, they can promote themselves to the client when total organic data is on the rise (even if it’s branded terms from some other online marketing channel in the other side of the house, where the SEO had no influence). There’s lots of posts floating around basically admonishing you from caring about this total loss since the “representational sample” we’ve been playing with was already soiled since October 2011. On that I totally agree. When Annie Cushing called these keyword data remnants “junk data,” it’s not just because she’s proven, but because it’s common sense. I do however disagree with the posts that scold you for ever caring about keyword data in the first place. That’s got to be tweetbait!
For me, I did like the remaining organic keyword data in at least one of the ways I liked all the organic keyword data. I liked it as a unique source of inspiration and guidance. Those weird keywords you found that you wanted to immediately discount. I got into the habit of analyzing them hoping to find a wormhole to another universe. I loved the, “why the hell did Google think I was relevant to that, and why did people come to my site for it,” moments. This keyword data led to topic creations that flourished for not only my own site, but my clients as well. However, this was quite limited – it was only important for the handful of possible topics you were already somehow relevant for in Google’s eyes, not the myriad of topics you could be relevant for in the demands of searchers. You need to think the other possible topic universes are even richer in opportunity.
The keyword data was great to have, but it was a small sample of your actual opportunity. We have to adapt.
Google wants to be better an answering questions. We assume it’s more than turning Google into what Ask.com was supposed to be. Every query is a question, so Hummingbird presumably is a good old fashioned Google engine update. If Hummingbird’s value is to understand the meaning of the words, ” communicating, delivering….” for the value of “customers, clients, partners, and society at large” seems to be more important in my book. This suggests to me SEO is more about communication than ever before. Content, as a general artifact, isn’t the king it used to be. The topic that answers presumed query intent may be more valuable, and that takes some iteration to get right. That’s certainly a content marketing principal.
Why does Google care about site speed? Why do they care where ads are located? DOM, bounce, hierarchy – whether Google infers or uses GA data is debatable (either Google is lying, or they’re not). The bottom line is these are things I believe they should be looking at, but won’t make too prominent because they’re all game-able direct signals. Until they can weed out bots artificially crawling a site and leaving footprints to emulate a visitor’s “happy, successful site session,” we might as well (at the minimum) look at these items as a usability feature to improve the visitors experience aside from Google. As an SEO, we did a good job getting the traffic, but why should we stop there? Why not make sure the material the searcher receives is indeed inline with their query.
Not all direct signals are cut and dry. So maybe Google plusses don’t help you rank. They sure help you figure out what your community likes; that could help you rank.
We’ve seen Google overcome a lot of garbage the last few years. Sure, they blew up a few innocent communities bombing the bad guys, but they’re not afraid to make changes. They’re wise to pull back on things that can backfire. So with some technical site characteristics being a factor, it’s safe to think there will be more, no? Help the conversation continue by helping the site improve. In the meantime, take advantage of everything else and produce good communication that will maybe have its day in the sun when the algorithm catches up.
The Kind Of SEO I Have Become
The (re)launch of our agency came with many changes from my original launch as a sole proprietor in 2005. From a partner, to employees, to 15 clients – it all brings different responsibilities. Some Keith and I still need to learn. Case in point – this week we lost our first client. It was mutual. We weren’t on the same page, and as part of our postmortem, I see why. Where we are promoting the big picture ideas above, they were looking for the type of work I was doing in 2009 at the big agency. Strictly keyword focused stuff. I don’t want to say we evolved, because I don’t want it to downplay the significance of other SEO approaches, but we have organically morphed into something shaped by our personal 13 year SEO experience. We are looking for clients that have morphed the same way we have.
We do creative things. We consult with companies – hand in hand – to create and drag the right campaigns to the ground. It’s all very much based in SEO, but in thinking of all the strategies and projects we have going on across our portfolio, I’m pretty excited to see where SEO goes. I feel like we’re seated well. I’m banking on it, so to speak. I think this is one prediction that shows no sign of falling on its face, and something I hope all SEOs are taking a good hard look at from time to time.
The first thing I do when I wake up is grab my iPhone and delete about 40 junk emails that come in overnight. I do this while eating my Cheerios. No matter how many times I unsubscribe, the trash keeps coming.
This morning I received this subject line: “Regarding Guest Post Opportunity On Your Blog.” I’m sure you’ve all gotten these. I’m sure some of us have sent our share of these. So why did I stop to read this one? Why didn’t it get deleted with my other morning garbage? Not because it was good, but because I was drawn to it (though not for the right reasons).
I’m not against guest posting. I do, however, wince a little when I see the tactic poorly executed in 2013. This is an old tactic now, and I like to think it’s matured.
This type of prospecting email may work fine when you’re pitching a site who’s model is to publish guest posts. They’d snap up this type of opportunity faster than me with a plate of hot wings. But for my site, I don’t usually have much guest posting here. It’s not because of any reason besides pickiness. Anthony Pensabene is the only one so far, and that’s because it was unique, he knew my blog’s tone, he’s a known entity, and he’s a very clever writer.
See, I knew as much about him as he knew about me and my site.
In the case of the guest post pitch, I didn’t get the feeling this author took the time to review my site at all. The three titles he pitched didn’t really fit my style of writing or my subject matter. The truth is, I’m actually open to guest posting pitches. I would have been excited if this were a thorough pitch. I really could have taken it (or at least gotten to know the writer and worked with him in some capacity going further).
What I Would Have Changed
I would have started with some research. I would have spent some time on the Greenlane blog to see what kind of posts have been done to date. The titles sent over, while I censored them above, were akin to “top 5 ways to do something that’s been rehashed a million times in the SEO blogosphere.” I don’t really have much content like that anymore. Frankly, it’s rare when I read that kind of article now and it doesn’t come off as lazy. I would have thought up some ideas that flow with my blog. How about a take on something I’ve written about before? I’d much rather you come me with the concept of something unique, than a backlog of generic, homogenized, no-frills copy.
I would have written a better subject line. The subject was confusing. Regarding what guest post opportunity? I haven’t actually posted, tweeted, or facebooked any defined opportunity. This subject was about as spammy as it gets for me, and looks a lot like the ones I now have a habit of deleting without a thought. If it were me, I would have been more open to “An idea for a guest post,” or “Question for you.” These are subjects suggesting a visitor wants to engage with me, not pitch me. Or, just like the concept of “the neon resume gets remembered,” maybe a subject line of “Hey jerk, your opinion is wrong, and I have a counterpoint article to prove it.” I would love that. That would be speaking my language!
I get pitched all day long from vendors. I welcome an opportunity that doesn’t feel like a hard sell. I believe most business owners and webmasters agree. We want to be pitched on really awesome ideas. It makes us look better to our bosses and employees when those ideas come to life.
I would have used my real name. The author’s name in this email was different than the name he used in his Search Engine Journal example. Someone is getting duped. See, I do my homework. I suspect many others do as well. Granted, I’m in the industry so I care about things like authorship and the writer’s reputation. But if you use your real name, and have created a cache of great material, that’s a selling point. Show me what you’ve written, and show me some kind of biography. Show me that when you say you live in Montana, you don’t really live in Tibet.
I know you’re busy… That line was the closer. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it easy for you.” I bet that sounds great to a lot of busy affiliates who run thousands of sites, especially if they don’t care about what gets published on their site. But as a business owner, or even a webmaster looking out for the integrity of their site, I’d like to have some control on what I get and post. I’d rather hear, “I’d love to work on some ideas with you. I can send you over a draft.”
I would have customized the email. I can still smell the cntrl-V in this email. At least it was specifically sent to me (instead of being in the BCC field with 10,000 other recipients). Still, I’m sure this was an attempt to be scalable. All good, but again, this type of email isn’t going to win a site like mine. I have personality all over my blog, all over my Twitter, etc. If the guy wrote, “hey man, I love your band,” that would have probably worked – I’m a sucker for egobait. The truth is, a site like mine may not have a huge PageRank or DA (whatever you prefer), but I do have a big mouth. I do have followers who would have seen this post. I think I’m worth the little bit of extra attention.
Where do these opinions come from? Experience. I’ve tried – and failed – at good guest posting opportunities, and digital PR opportunities, because I was lazy. I am lazy no more.
Scalable Marketing Shouldn’t Be The Same As Lazy Marketing
Our blog isn’t like Problogger, Ezine Articles, or even Search Engine Journal or Search Engine Watch. We’re not a depository. We have our own distinct voice (hopefully). In my case, communication matters.
In my experience, most websites, media outlets, and companies want to be engaged. If you think I’m a diva, I promise that some of the big, jucier prospects are even worse. If you’re looking for quality over quantity in your links/citations/brand mentions, then you must be careful when you reach for your prospecting weapon of choice. If you’re aiming for a cat, and you pull out a machine gun, you’re only going to make a mess.
Just to get ahead of any nasty comments or tweets – I am NOT against scalable or automated link building. I’d be an awfully big hypocrite. While I’m certainly not great at it, I’m always impressed by those who do it well. By well, I mean smart. Those who can do good marketing with scalable (or automated – I’m aware they aren’t the same thing per se) techniques are brilliant. It certainly has its place. But trying to win over a guy like me, that certainly isn’t its place.
No cats were harmed in this blog post.
Let’s face it – the SEO industry has a tendency to stomp a tactic into the ground. Some of us even get lazy (pleny of this kind of junk around).
Directory submissions were once wildly valuable, then SEOs started creating directories by the thousands thanks easy-to-install directory scripts. Some SEOs / webmasters blatantly charged a fee for the “SEO value”. Additionally, cheap directory submission tools popped up like Directory Maximizer. Back then there wasn’t as much fear of Google making sweeping changes; thus, the tactic was pushed hard for years. Eventually Google sussed out the tactic – directory links aren’t even close to what they were.
Article marketing worked for a while as well. The same suit followed. Article sites and tools like Unique Article Wizard and Article Marketing Robot came and left a huge footprint. Originally some article marketing was even editorial when the webmasters scrutinized each article before publishing, but it was quickly outshadowed by services and bloggers that would take (and publish) any crap.
Next came blog networks. ALN and Build My Rank (now redirects to www.hpbacklinks.com) were among the first to get a real Penguin beat down. Spinning tools (that literally “spun” your content to look unique, but rarely made articles that users could understand) became popular as content for these blog networks. These illegible articles were pumped out by the thousands. For some SEOs this (somewhat) resembles what we think of today with the guest post tactic.
Now SEOs are waiting for the guest blogging [filter|penalty|panda|penguin] update.
Google Doesn’t Hate Guest Posting
As far as I know, Google doesn’t hate guest posting, at least according to this video 2012 video. Things may have changed, but I don’t think so.
Google has made some illogical decisions. Really, obvious mistakes. I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt and been wrong before.
Dumb Bill Sebald quotes:
“Negative SEO can’t exist. Google knows how easy it is to blast a bazillion garbage links at a website. They’ll figure out the fraud!”
“Google doesn’t need help with duplicate content. They told us so!” (Next day they came out with the canonical tag).
The truth is, at the risk of putting my foot in my mouth again, I really don’t want to jump onto the guest post scaremongering band wagon. As I said with the great Anthony Pensabene, I think we’re reading too deeply into things:
But aside from a few a lot of bad eggs, why would Google hate guest posting? This can be amazing, user-loved content!
This is what Google’s infamously vague Google Guidelines say:
Additionally, creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines.
An editorial piece of text is an unpaid, opinion piece. It is a piece placed by an editor to give value to the reader. In newspapers (for example) editorials have often been the opinions of authors who may not have been associated with the publisher. Google might be powerful, but I don’t see them having the power to change a definition.
We live with a noisy web, where soundbites are everything. Tweets are our headlines. Sometimes newsreaders and social bookmark sites give us the news with a short 70 character headline. Sometimes it’s even exploitative. This leads to major misinterpretation and FUD.
What I Think Could Happen
While Google’s done a great job in the last year of pruning gamed results out of their index (I actually found it quite difficult to find some truly “bad” examples using Google), they could still possibly monitor heavier for footprints. For example, they may be able to tune up their recognition of certain footprints left in the byline. SEOs will adapt, and maybe start seeding their backlink elsewhere in the text other than the byline, and vary up their bylines more frequently, but the lazier SEOs could probably get swept up. Have you created a sea of trash guest posts? You might need to worry, but you couldn’t have thought your thin content was a long term play.
Authorship may come into play more, and either highlight good authors or flag spam authors. I just don’t think Google will be able to get too liberal here. They’re the best search engine we have, but they’re still not talented enough to truly understand the intent of any content online. They’re just not that good. They have to know that.
Famous last words.
Sites like Moz, major tech sites, recipe sharing sites, entertainment sites, countless online newspapers,etc., would likely get swept up if Google pushed this update. We’ve seen so many babies get thrown out with the bathwater just with Panda and Penguin alone. For me, I’m going to sit back, have a homebrew, and keep on recommending guest posting where it makes sense and proves out to be a real marketing opportunity.
Related: Why I Will Continue With Guest Blogging As Part Of My Strategy! SEtalks.com