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24

Every Marketer Does Not Need To Be Technical

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I read a post on SEOmoz a couple weeks ago.  Every Marketer Should Be Technical.  There were some valuable links, all of which I plan to mine.  But I’ve got a few problems with a (the?) concept in this post.

Now I’m not a fan of labeling everything – growth hacking, technical marketing, SEO 2.0, etc. I only accept “inbound” marketing as a term under protest (it makes me itchy, like it was invented to serve a meta-marketing purpose, not completely unlike Valentine’s Day).  The author of this SEOmoz post had some congruent commentary on the labeling as well, but that notwithstanding, my first objection is with the title.

If this post were called, “Every Marketer May Benefit From Being Technical,” I could more easily get behind that.

If you read my blog (I’m thankful to those who do), you may have read rants on the definition of SEO.  The sun must be in the right alignment with the moon, because it’s a hot topic again (for the moment).  To recap my opinion – there are several definitions for SEO, and they’re all correct depending on what your goals are.  Some parts of SEO are not marketing.  Some of it is.  That said, there’s certainly a role for non-technical marketers in this space.  We still refer to SEO as an art and a science, right?  The “art” part only entered into the picture within the last 6 years or so. That’s clearly the marketing part.

If marketing were a solar system, we are but a single entity sharing off other parts of the system. I studied marketing my whole life, and ultimately landed on Planet SEO.  But I certainly acknowledge the other planets out there.  I had a 6 year career in a major digital agency, where some of the smartest, most influential marketers weren’t technical in the slightest. They didn’t need to be. They found ways to be successful with their toolset.  I refrain to use the word “limited” in terms of their toolset, because it suggests a negative connotation.

I’ve seen other SEOs essentially call out their peers for not knowing how to cache pages on their blog, build an .htaccess, scrape, etc.  I’ve always pushed back on that limited view.  If SEO is partially comprised of marketing, then this isn’t fair.

Does knowing the technical side of digital marketing help you communicate better in the digital space?  The author believes so.  I agree it can help, but it’s not absolute.  I believe the non-technical marketer can have just as valuable role online.  Depending on their role and the campaigns, maybe even more.  Their creativity is not limited by what they can do, which tends to happen to those who have a firm grasp of “their” rules (or, the extent of their technical knowledge).

A few years ago I was part of a social media marketing committee at an agency, where the entire channel was being built around developing a software that could measure the ROI of a social engagement.  At the same time the tool was being built, so were possible strategies we’d offer in our client package.  Ultimately, we drove ourselves into a corner.  We couldn’t come up with anything inspiring, creative, daring, influential, or original.  In this case the “technical marketing” component was an anchor.  I promptly (and proudly) quit that group, which to this day, still hasn’t officially birthed.  The smartest guy in the group – a non-technical marketer – also stepped out.  He continued to build some amazing non-technical digital marketing campaigns for some huge brands, simply by partnering with an analytics group who could do the monitoring and reporting with him.

Just like the old days.  The osteology is new, the heart is the same.

So, with that said, this comment thread particularly interested me.

explorionary

explorionary | December 12th, 2012

“Stated simply, a great technical marketer can devise, develop, launch, and analyze their marketing campaigns without or no assistance.”

In the context of the headline and this definition, would marketers like Ogilvy, Halbert, Vaynerchuk, and Claude Hopkins be considered great or just outliers?

 

gfiorelli1

gfiorelli1 | December 12th, 2012

I think you have answered yourself calling Ogilvy and Co. “Marketers” and not “Technical Marketers”.

But, if you look back to their works, they were also technical marketers in their specific field, which, obviously, wasn’t previewing the importance of Internet.

Possibly an Ogilvy of the XXI century would be also a tech marketer, IMHO.

I liked your comment by the way, because in digging deeper in a possible answer, we could start talking about the competitive advantages an SEO/Web Marketing Agency may have with respect to a traditional Media Agency.

Jamie

Jamie | December 12th, 2012

A great question. In the case of Ogilvy and Halbert, technology wasn’t what it is now when they were coming up, but I’d argue they were still quite technical for their time. Ogilvy helped pioneer television attribution, in addition to being a brilliant and creative mind. And Halbert was a pioneer (if not THE pioneer) of direct response. They were technical enough to devise these methods, perhaps not in the way we think of being ‘technical’ today, but certainly way ahead of their time.

As a side note, Ogilvy is using flash on their site. :-( This makes me think they may still be one of the best at branding, but they’ve got a lot to learn about the web.

My thoughts are more about being a marketer today, than in the 20th century. But I’d still argue that those who were the most successful had the creative mind along with the understanding and capability to measure what is successful.

 

There’s that label again.  That cornering “technical marketer” label.  It’s a term that scares me – like giving rock n’ roll too many rules, or telling an artist he has to paint in the lines.  I worry that a post like this will polarize SEOs who don’t read closely enough to comments like “…I’d still argue that those who were the most successful had the creative mind along with the understanding and capability to measure what is successful.”  If that’s all this post were about, I’d completely agree with that.

I don’t know the author and one of the commenters, but I do know David Cohen (@explorionary) from Seer Interactive, and his work.  He and I had a quick chat over the weekend about this post. It dawned on us that we might have the makings of a pretty good read.  From here on, inspired by the format of a Nick Eubanks / Anthony Pensabene post, a semi-real time continuation of our thoughts here:

 David Cohen

I felt like this post needed a soundtrack. For me, it’s the Foo Fighters song, The Colour and the Shape. It’s not a technical song from a technical band. But the Foo Fighters just work really well together, each contributing something unique to create their dynamic sound.

Alright. The title of the aforementioned post sounds like it bothered you. It annoyed me. “Every Marketer Should Be Technical“. Why? What’s the point?

According to the author, a great marketer can now develop a high-level marketing strategy, use SQL to pull email lists, write copy, design landing pages, and then code them. I’m guessing a great contemporary marketer should also know how to make a killer Hollandaise sauce, and know how to weld wine racks too.

 Bill Sebald

There’s some good commentary over at inbound inspired by the post we’re discussing.  I think it’s a real distraction if it becomes a “them vs. us” type of battle.  SEOs already deal with it against the design folk, straight copywriters, the UX/IA teams.  We don’t need a civil war, but at the heart of marketing is creativity.  Psychology.  The art of communication.  At some point years ago SEO outgrew its technical definition, especially when it became a marketing channel in several major agencies who did online work.  I watched it happen in my old company, as it left the IT department and moved into the marketing department.

There’s room in this industry for SEOs who only know development.  There’s always a need for the person who knows the whole jQuery library or can optimize web code (etc.), just like there’s always a need for the graphic designer, the database admin, the data analyst in an online marketing campaign.  That’s vital.  But that’s not marketing.  I used the example above of “technical marketing” being an anchor.  Clearly not the case in every campaign, but I believe it can happen enough to not accept a black and white opinion on this.

 David Cohen

As a marketer, here’s a dream come true scenario for me – you decided to build a tool that listens to people better so you can create context around your marketing better.

You bring a team of devs and designers together to build this tool. The team of devs and designers allows a rep from the social and marketing teams to be a part of their creation process. And then once this tool that’s designed to help marketers create context is ready for testing, you let storytellers, copywriters, social and PR people learn its nuances, test their behavior as they use the tool, iterate, and then roll out your minimum viable product.

Then as your next iteration launches into the jungle of humanity and you have a team analyzing user behavior, you also have a community manager and PR team confidently ready to attract attention and earn people’s trust to give the tool a try. And if you can get a community built around your brand’s vision and core beliefs, the potential to meet your business objectives is high.

So, I’m not into compartmentalizing people by labeling them. Let’s just build diverse marketing teams with people who do 1 or 2 things really well and see what happens.

 Bill Sebald

I like that.  It’s like a band (and yes, I consider a drummer – a non melody maker – a musician) – bring in all the SMUs and create together, dependent on each other.  Make it iterative and you’re aiming at agile development.   I’m with you 100% David, which I figured I’d be after guessing where you were going on the SEOmoz comments.

I think this is a pretty sound counter-opinion.  I also think the opposite (original post) could be offensive to some marketers.

 David Cohen

Maybe some marketers were offended. The headline was annoying but the post was funny, and then I got sad. Especially when it got to the “12 Ingredients To Be A Technical Marketer” part. Putting the idea that marketers have to learn how to do everything from web dev, design, copywriting and technical SEO wouldn’t leave much time for a marketer to learn how to talk to actually talk to people and understand markets.

Even if a marketer fits in the ‘technical’ category, they can become better at what they do by understanding the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the people they are developing and creating things for. Just like storytellers, copywriters, and social folks can learn from technical or analytical minded people.

Last point here. And this is about marketing leadership. I think one of the best things we can do is help marketers who are coming up through the ranks to understand that you don’t actually have to be the person described in the SEOmoz post to become successful and provide value to a team.

I think we can do better (me included) at giving young marketers a clearer vision for how they best fit in the broad and diverse world of marketing. And once they catch that vision, to help them gain confidence and a strong knowledge-base. Helping people who are eager to learn to build confidence and self-esteem is one of the greatest things we can do as professionals who’ve been in the game awhile.

What do you think? Jump into the conversation.


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10

What The End Of The World Taught Me About SEO

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Read this post instead: What Your ‘X Taught Me About Y’ Post Actually Taught Me and learn that you shouldn’t click posts titles like this!  Have a great holiday.

(I turned off the autoplay so you can now enjoy the rest of my homepage without a soundtrack!)


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4

Link Building With Your Sales Force

sales force

Like this post? Vote for it on inbound.org.

B2B is known as the more difficult commerce sector.  Undoubtedly you have a sales force, high expectations, and a history of failed marketing campaigns.  In this space, the success rate is lower compared B2C. However, despite whether in B2B or B2C, your sales force can be your ally. If your company has any kind of inside sales team catching incoming leads or placing their own outbound calls and add-on offers, you may have the opportunity to tap into a huge link negotiating fleet.

There’s commonly a pretty thin wall between sales and marketing.  That line can be, well, strained.The sales team wants you to bring more leads, and you want the sales team to close more to validate that your leads are qualified.  You have a love/hate relationship.

Ben (a coworker in the marketing department) and I were in this same position.  When your marketing department works lean, you need to get creative with scalability.  Here are a few things we’ve recently come up with, while enjoying some reasonable success.  

  1. Help sales understand SEO.  Put together a class or lesson plan.  Use this opportunity to make some new friends.  Everyone likes beer and cake (so bring some!), but sales people really want money. Take a cue from their skillset – sell them on SEO.  Show them there’s gold in the SERPs.  Help them understand why a link they help place can bring more ranking opportunity.  Maybe turn acquired links into a bonus?  Help them make your SEO successful by making it easy for them.

    When sales people are talking to the current roster of customers, they can point the customer to a value proposition or some kind of company promotion.  You just need to support the creation of this. Some examples may be a portal of pages that show what your company does for the community (maybe you’re a local company), the earth (maybe there’s green values), or a particular cause. Promote the hell out of why you’re special.  Help the customer craft a custom press release.  Offer to release it.  Get creative.

    Next, help your sales team “empower” the customer.  In most cases the sales team is dealing with an office manager, a facilities manager, a sustainability manager, or someone who could use a little bit of help impressing their employees and management.  Just like as a consultant, where our job is to make the client look good, a salesperson could use this content to make the customer look good. Help them say, “hey employees, did you know that the widgets that we use in our company are made with 80% plastic?  That’s the equivalent to planting 5,000 trees in one year!  That’s right, we care about the environment here at ACME Widgets!”

    The content you need to produce will live on your site.  Your sales team can ask the business to link to it for their employees and their own prospects.  You’re simply asking them to help spread the word. Of course you would provide the linking code to make it easier.  And (just putting this out there) if you’re a little gray, maybe offer a discount to any customer/site that “helps you get the word out.”  Be careful not to dictate how to do this, or you’ll end up like Overstock a few years back.  

    How successful can it be?  It’s totally dependent on the message you can come up with, the interest and tolerance of your customers, and the buy-in from your sales team  I would shoot for a 4% success rate from this program.  In our experience some of the smaller customers were more inclined to promote this.  Usually one’s with an easily updated blog. Unfortunately many times it wound up on an intranet or in internal email communications. Not a big help for SEO, but I’m certainly OK with the mindshare.  We didn’t try to control the anchor text – we considered this to be too much regulation, and more of a burden on the customer.  Let it grow how it wants to grow.
      

  2. Once the sales force understands SEO, they’ll be more inclined to use their precious hours to mine through Linkedin questions, Quora, Yahoo Answers, social media, and forum boards. This is a great benefit to you since they’re probably the most knowledgeable about your company and products.  Plus it’s easy for you to keep tabs on what they’re doing (if you can’t get this into the CRM system, you always have Google Alerts).   Again, you’ll have to show them the ropes, and teach them to be mindful of the community.  You don’t want your sales force to become spammers (which they could easily, and innocently, become if not set straight from the beginning).  Now with providing answers online, you’re building your brand, referring some new traffic, and hopefully dropping a few links in the process.  

    How successful can this be?  Quite, especially for referring traffic.  Again dependent on the same as #1, this can actually turn up some huge clients.  Many of them are here (especially in Linkedin). We have a couple savvy sales people who became quite adept with Followerwonk and nurturing relationships through Twitter.  If you’re working on a CPL or targeting bigger clients, this can be a huge success by getting you in through the side door.  
     

  3. Now that the sales team has some practical experience with SEO marketing, they’re ready to feed you some ideas.  You’ve taught them, now extract everything they can teach you. What are the questions they’ve been answering?  What are the roadblocks they’ve encountered?  What are the perceptions that need to be enforced or changed?  After all of this work, you should find it pretty difficult to find something to write about for your inbound content marketing strategy.  With some content inspired by, and developed out through your sales team, your chance is much greater that the questions that were taking place in Quora and Linkedin start to get answered right on your own site… right next to the shiny form that helps the customer engage directly with you.  Write this content to be link-worthy so it can earn you continued natural backlinks.  Despite how good your content is, some sites will only link to you if they don’t feel it’s overly promotional.  These content pages don’t have to be a sales pitch. They’re altruistic search pages designed to help.  The fact that this is hosted on your domain with a simple call to action may be enough to save you from pushing the funnel too hard.

Realign, Aim, Fire

Easier said than done?  It can be.  Take a few days to draft out a plan, get the proper buy-in, and give it a spin.  Alter this with your own ideas.  B2B marketing is different, but for those who like a challenge, there’s a huge reward in beating it up.  Hopefully this post gave you some ideas to consider.


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8

Is Google Image Search Worth a Marketing Look?

Today I’m the proud recipient of one of our industry’s most fun and creative writers, Anthony Pensabene (@content_muse).  There are three things I can tell you about Anthony.  One, he can hang later than me at a party.  Two, my fiancé is a little too attracted to him (“when are we seeing Hot Anthony again?”), and three, he’s got style.   Thanks for taking the time, sir.  - Bill

____________________________

Much like Santa’s helpers, I’ve been busy, tinkering around of late, using my site as a platform to learn some technical and development insights.

In the last weeks, I’ve broken links, torched tags, and performed cosmetic alteration, acting the WordPress Dr. Moreau.  It’s been fun; some alternations turned out looking okay, some not so much.

Let’s take opportunity, and discuss things I could do differently, considering strategy along the way.

Mind Your Legacy

Publishing a well-received post is great.  There is immediate gratification, and you feel like, “Cool, I didn’t spend all that time dressing dapper, donning a bow tie tonight for nothing.”

But, don’t be a temporary gent; be a timeless one.  Think about content’s legacy, not its immediacy. How will your brand be remembered when its pages are old and wrinkly?

Let’s take a look at my blog’s overall impression so far.  This snippet reflects all-time terms searched, leading to Content Muse traffic.

In the beginning, I started this blog as a branding platform, associating my name and grown-up alias, content muse.  I’ve done a decent job; however, what else is getting searched and clicked on?

“best buy holiday overstock shopping spree giveaway” —  ”http:redeem..” —  and one other reference to a Best Buy/Overstock issue I got to the bottom of, is quite prevalent.

I could have done better (along the way), considering how I want readers, peers, and clients associating my brand in an ongoing fashion.

I’m interested in content creation, creativity, branding, reputation management, public relations, peer relations, etc.  Turn-ons include nice smiles and big brains.

Let’s consider strategy.  For instance, lately I’ve been digging the leverage of search operators, writing twice on the topic in a short time frame.

Let’s go in Webmaster Tools, taking a look at how the endeavor influenced reader search behavior as well as results.

I’m not taking over the SERs for the term, but I made a small impression’s impact, likely affecting the reception of peers and readers too, creating a stronger association to the topic and endeavor of using operators.  ["Search operators? Oh, Anthony likes playing with those.."]

 

 

That’s a good thing.  How do you want your brand remembered?  Develop a branding strategy, infusing branding principles.

Now let’s consider a blunder I made.

When uploading a picture in WordPress(.com), one may create a separate URL to the image, like here.  I noticed my site performing slowly, got to thinking I could improve speed, and began eliminating extraneous URLs.

I (thought) I tested what happens if the URL is eliminated, not wanting to rid the blog of the picture, just the link.

But rather than from the actual HTML of each, I made alterations from the media files, which was dumb.

…I broke the images to those pictures, spending hours making sense of my posts, adding new pictures, but now I know better.

Let’s go back to the notion of legacy.  One can also make a legacy via pictures.

I wrote a post a while back on authenticity, including a visual reference to Plato’s cave allegory.

An included picture was tagged with associated terms, appearing in SERs and attracting click-throughs to my pages.

 

The traffic is serendipitous in nature, but shows how graphics serve browser queries.

So, I was doing some thinking..

..which is dangerous in itself, but potentially helpful for small businesses.

This is interesting.

 

My post ranks decently for the phrase, “allegory of the cave.” I grew curious of the phrase’s data.

 

The phrase and associated varieties get monthly search traffic, despite the obscure, long-tail nature.

Then I got to thinking..more.

Rather than a didactic term or one associated with a scholarly rather than commercial pursuit, what do images look like for commercial-related terms, such as “eighties t shirts”?

I call upon my SEO ninja utility belt and Moz tools.  I look at the first image.  The page’s domain authority is low, has only fair Moz rank, but G serves up an on-page image first for a competitive search term, like “eighties t shirts.”

This page, associated to the first picture of the image search, offers long content.  It’s not outstanding, yet the page offers a mixture of prose, graphics, video, and outgoing links; a consumer may be pleased, confronted with the variety and nature of the content.

The aligned image doesn’t have eighties-related alt text.

That’s a primary, optimizing images on a web page suggestion.

Let’s look at another image, regarding the same “eighties t shirts” image search.

This page has low domain authority, nil page authority, and Moz tools does not think much of it altogether.

From a consumer’s perspective, it offers little, the page continuing on and on in a ridiculous fashion, listing site-wide tag links.

I wonder if there is some real potential here for small vendors to make a big impact via image searches.

As mentioned, the first (reading top to bottom, left to right) image is associated to a good (not great) content page, with other pages in the image results having little valuable content, a number being connected to high-authority domains, pulling weight.

Suggestions

Let’s take a look at our phrase “eighties t shirts” using Ubbersuggest (it has no image search suggestions for the term, but plenty for web searches.)  Let’s say we wanted to begin taking precedence in the ‘image’ SERs for “eighties band t shirts.”

I would consider establishing a small business’ content strategy, targeting these eighties t shirt related searches, by emulating a blog rather than product page structure.

For example, let’s relate t shirts to a concert experience, fan opinioneccentricities, etc, formulating stories featuring and relating the product.

Get creative with content, making it enjoyable as well as commercial.

Check From Exactly Where Potential Leads/Traffic is Coming

I want to see if Google makes a distinction between web and image searches related to my sought, “eigties t shirts” term.

It doesn’t when I try to discern in the keyword suggestion tool.   I do a quick search online for discussion on the matter.  Making a distinction as to where exactly traffic is coming/going is important, and I would like to hear from any one with some insight on the image search matter.

There may be opportunity for small businesses to gain traction via image search, though consumers are well conditioned to restrict behavior to web searches only.

Perhaps creating an image-centric browser tool or extension would help condition behavior.  What about teaching consumers to use Google differently, in a way more advantageous to your business?

Does every consumer do this?

No, but every consumer could if conditioned to do so.

Going back to my blog’s alignment with Plato’s cave, I believe it has to do with the obscure, long-tail nature of the search term, and my domain/page’s decent authority/traffic, a situation which could parlay itself to commercial opportunity.

See if specific images are providing traffic.  If so, how is your brand best optimizing on-page elements? If you’re getting click-throughs from images, ensure the page further capitalizes.  That’s conversion-rate optimization.

If you are not optimizing images, consider advantages the enterprise could afford.

Can you influence your consumers to search differently for your variety of services/products?

Google image search may be worth a marketing look, eh?


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4

What I’d Like To See In 2013

This isn’t a 2013 prediction post.  This is “what I’d like to see in 2013.”

  • I’d like to see more people spending time on the value of their content.  For all the research we gain digging into a link prospect, I’d like to see the same effort put into the writing.  Use some of the same nuggets you discover.  That will lead to more niche, more detailed, and more “search” writing.  We don’t need big content pieces if they’re just pixels on a screen; we need to get better at answering long-tail queries.  The BMRs are dead, the cheap content houses are less valuable to us, and “write good content and they will come” is challenged.  Marketers aren’t always great media producers, just like they’re not all salespeople or business managers.  We’re asking what the new definition of SEO is, and it seems obvious that smart writing is a necessity.  Sometimes our content isn’t needed to explode into a confetti bang; instead, it should just sit in the library waiting to be checked out.  That’s OK.  If Google is the Dewey Decimal System, we don’t have to keep trying to push the content up people’s nose.
  • I’d like to see more from Google.  They’re testing so many products, from entity search to snippets. They’re slow to really improve these products.  I’d like to see them use social signals in a smarter way and and finally consider the authority of the producer.  I’d like to see them improve with citations, both linked and unlinked.  That makes so much sense.  The gameable +1 doesn’t, nor does the previously heavy reliance on PageRank.  But I want to also see them improve their own latent semantic indexing-like methods.  What I think we’re getting today is the hump in the middle – I’d like to see them scoop the mids and rely on the fringe, harder to quantify content and signals.  Plus, that will take the reliance of Google+.  
  • I’d like to see Google honestly level the playing field despite brand equity.  There’s a thousand conspiracy theories on why big brands rank so well.  Perception is reality – if they want to win the hearts of smaller markets, and soften the hard stares, make the right changes this time.  Again, scoop the mids, but let us know they have a point of view on equality.
  • I am 100% in favor of more hand editors, more manual reviews, and more human judging.  I’m not saying Google should be Mahalo or Wikipedia, but when Google started they had some hand editors to make sure the results were sensible.  That went south.  There may be a thin line between sensibility and bias, but 2012 has shown me that human intervention really was a good thing.  Especially when it comes to picking up the litter in the algorithm.  Though I still see some competitors who are still ranking on spam, and have somehow gotten through the Panda/Penguin nets, it’s finally something I think Google might catch.  In 2011 I had no faith in their ability to trap spam.
  • I’d like to see some more details in the strategies and tactics, and more case studies from the industry material we produce.  2012 was a year full of bland posts and presentations, an observation I recall making to my peers many times more this year than any year before.  The events have been great, but the takeaways, not so much.  That certainly doesn’t go for everyone.
  • Less solo acts, more collaboration.  
  • And as always, I’d like to see SEOs start turning their technical chops to UX and design related optimizations.  When I do an audit for a client, I can’t help but notice my checklist dropped.  We focused on improving crawlability, but that need has lessened.  From Google reading PDF files, to their abilities with JS, and a much more fueled spider, just focusing on “removing obstacles” isn’t going to do the same thing for your rankings as it used to.  It just isn’t.  This comes from a real place of experience, as I had to unclog spider jams on tons of big, horribly developed ecommerce signs.  Now, the clogs are being unclogged by spiders.  The smart SEO starts to focus on conversions over just a clean crawl or traffic, or they’re going to start to offer to limited a value.  Is CRO and usability part of SEO?  Sure – why not?  Many have been suggesting it for over 6 years or so, but how many of us are actually dedicating time to learn this?  I’d like to see 2013 be the time more SEOs become marketers concerned with the full path and completion of the product or goal.

I’d love to know what you’re hopeful for.


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14

Case Study (Or It Didn’t Happen)

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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Own Your Role In SEO

Driving in today took a while.  First snow in Philadelphia and the state hits the brakes – literally.  

It forced me to stop my world, momentarily.  I was thinking about this post I read last night; moreso, the comments.  Instead of being about strategies or tactics, the work we do, running a business, or managing clients, this post was a commentary on our industry.   

We’re a digitally grown industry (one of the first!) with our classroom in forum boards and blog posts.  We’re going to be a little sideways sometimes.  If you’re not completely engulfed, and can get a bird’s eye view, try it.  We’re kind of absurd sometimes.  But absurd is fun and educational.  I also consider myself quite lucky to be making money in this industry. 

smack some sense into meAs a collective, we spend plenty of time telling each other how we think this industry should be.  Every SEO convention in 2012 had the virtual banner of “change or die.”  A very popular, very bright SEO asked me after Mozcon, “this was fun, but I’m still successful bumping up rankings the way I’ve been doing it.”  It grounded the entire 3 day event and equalized the hype that had been somehow hypnotizing me.  It was a useful smack.    

Own It

I stand by my statement: SEO has a lot of definitions, all of them are right.  This industry is the United Nations, and always has been.  It’s pretty evident this will only grow.  And I don’t mean simply regarding your area of expertise in SEO, but your agenda as well.  

Maybe you have one, none, or many of these traits or experiences:

  • Humble beginner.
  • Conceited ego.
  • Want to be personalities or popular.
  • The love helping others.
  • Like to share.
  • A marketing background.
  • Like to be first.
  • Want to be linked to higher profile SEOs, network with the elite.
  • Black hat tendencies but claim to be white hats.
  • SAAS developers who sell tools to clean up their crappy links.
  • Comedian.
  • Writer who know very little about the technical side of SEO.
  • Obsessed with link building.
  • Just like to argue.
  • Algorithm chasing.
  • Desperately trying to find their voice.
  • Affiliate.
  • In-house marketers thinking about making the leap to consulting.

Maybe none of these apply, but you probably could come up with your own list.  What can we learn from you?

All We Need Is Value

Despite who you are and why you’re in this industry, what are you really giving us?  Why are you blogging?  Why are you presenting?  Why are you speaking out on Twitter?  

I’m a musician.  I’ve always had disdain for the artist who says, “we play what we like. If others like it, so be it.”  I don’t buy that for a second.  If public-facing musicians who say this were telling the truth, they’d never leave their garage.  They’d never want to be performers.  This is just something they say to sound profound (ahem, Pearl Jam).  

If we’re striving to be heard in this industry, we obviously want to be a performer (or, insert your word here) on some level.   I’m referring to the bloggers, the speakers, and anyone who uses any medium to be heard.  I’m not referring to people who have casual conversations on Twitter or blogs and forums.  

Think about what you’re adding.  Think about your words that are being immortalized.  Even if you’re wrong (everyone from SEOmoz to Search Engine Land has been scrutinized for some comments that simply didn’t wind up making sense), at least you’re driving at value.  Putting something out there allows for our own form of socratic method, and leads to a more centralized answer. 

Get Out Of The Echo Chamber

It’s distracting.

To repurpose a comment I left on Jon’s post (this post is really an expansion on that comment anyway):

Size doesn’t always matter. Posts and articles are like music compositions. The memorable songs uniquely mix themes, ornamentals, and emotions.

So here we’re talking about our industry; for our clients maybe there is value in a long-tail targeted rehash if you already have the presence of mind. It’s possible (again, no rules to a composition). But in the deeply psychological world of marketing (for those SEOs who consider it marketing, it’s not all of us), thought pieces are really valuable. A certain kind of composition proves to leave more behind.

It’s a problem where some of us crank out posts. It’s a problem where we curate things that are rehashed because a bigger SEOs name is on it (something Inbound.org has gotten better with) or because the headline was sexy. It’s also disrespectful of our time. I don’t have the time to read all day so I focus on those I trust. How many articles have you bailed out of already today? I’d like to learn from other unique viewpoints and experiences, so for our industry, considering Jon’s advice going forward would be a great thing for many like-minded writers/SEO/marketers.

Want To Help The Industry?  

Before you publish, audit yourself and think about how you can “optimize” your contributions.  You may have a point of view, but do you have any value?  Or did someone say it better – curate that. Wait for your moment to share something that really matters.  


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Revisiting A Local Landing Page Tactic in 2012

I’ve commented on Twitter about how some old SEO tactics have become relevant again after the march of Penguins and Pandas.  In some regards, the SEO we’ve been resorting to feels retro. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

One old-school tactic that I’m having a lot of luck with again is dynamic local landing pages.  For most, I suspect this is an SEO 101 type tip, but for others it might inspire some new campaigns.

Before you continue with this post, you should have a quick read of Google’s (intentionally) vague definition of Doorway Pages. This tactic is specifically mentioned. We’ll come back to this later…

Take a look at these screenshots.  This isn’t my doing, but a good example of the local landing page tactic from my neighborhood. These custom local pages are getting pretty good placement for competitive terms.  Same website, different targeted local landing pages.

(click for larger images)

King of Prussia Local Search Example

Collegeville Local Search Example

What Are We Talking About?

Remember the days when it seemed like local queries pulled up loads of specific location-based local pages in the natural results?  They were often thin pages with tons of duplicate content (compared to the site’s other location pages).  There was also a ton of footer links connected to other dupe pages in hopes of providing more crawls and PR spreading.  There were several companies who sold a service of building these pages out and allowing you to host them in a directory or subdomain.

It got spammy.

But one day these pages started to fade in the SERPs; partially due to more Google Places listings pushing them down, but also seemingly due to an algorithm change as well.  At least, that was my impression.  I abandoned the tactic of building these local pages.

A few months ago I was looking at some competitor results and started to see a lot of these pages again (my client is in a medium-aggressive, though ripe with spam).  I started taking notes.  At about the same time I saw a note from John Mueller (from Google) answering a forum question about how much boilerplate text needs to be different to stand out and avoid duplicate content filters. His response (paraphrasing), “a few sentences should do it.”

Duplicate content has always been necessary on some sites, especially ecommerce, news sites, and dynamically generated location pages.  Google has always recognized that sometimes duplicate content is a good user experience, but struggled with tuning their algorithm to adjust for it.  They gave us functions, like the canonical tag, to help Google rank content properly (one of the few times they truly empowered SEOs).  But it seems to me, the algorithm is now in a state where it’s doing a reasonable good job of parsing duplicate content on its own.

The Experiment

With that hope, I created a couple old-school local landing pages by hand, and linked them off a folder called /local/ on my website.  Sorry, I’d love to show you some specific examples, but it’s client work.  Instead I’ll continue with the site I featured above.

Footer Local Links

I used Google Analytics’ keyword report to show any local based natural search keywords to inspire my first three local pages.  In this folder was a healthy Philadelphia, Houston, and Phoenix based landing page, beautifully optimized for all the terms I wanted to rank for, including useful content catered to the uniqueness of each region. This was content I knew my visitors would love.  Yet, 75% of the text was identical, including the title tags.

Under the fold, I linked these sites together like the screenshot above, but much less spammy. On the homepage of my website, I shot a local link to one of these pages.  The DA of the website is decent, but I was immediately impressed how well they ranked.

The Experiment Continues 

With these three pages now pulling traffic, but still feeling a little spammy, I was able to optimize and “keyword wash” them a little better, until I had a go-forward template.  From Salesforce I was able to pull a good list of cities who convert well for this business, and prioritize my remaining hundreds of local pages.  With the help of my team, we had a few hundred built in relatively few hours.  This time, instead of the homepage link pointing to one page, we created a hub local HTML sitemap.  Every page I checked was indexed within a day.

It’s interesting to see this working again (it’s been years), but today I was working on on a dynamic template that now pulls from a database of zip codes.  In my database I have enough unique content to push the 75% dupe content to 25%, just to make it more penalty proof and user-focused.  I’ll have hundreds of these pages by the end of the week. This next step of care is going to make a bigger difference.

Results So Far

Now with almost 200 pages since May, it’s great watching the traffic come in.  The local pages represent 22% of my total natural traffic in October.  My natural search conversion rate is 23% higher for these pages than all my other organic keywords.  I’m exciting to grow this with more pages.

This Will All Die If…

Hopefully for a few of you this will be actionable, and might drive a new strategy.  But I beg you. Don’t spam this like we did before.  I’m clearly admitting my first rollout above was actually a little spammy because it was really just about the keyword ranking.  If a hand editor or algorithm marked this, they might knock it a bit for over-optimization.  Based on the last 10 months, we have every reason to believe Google will come after it without prejudice (if it’s not already on the docket).  Do this right, and make it valuable for the searchers.  Because this is drawn to pretty specific queries, your conversion rate will likely be higher.

I’m confused.  Isn’t this against Google guidelines?

Maybe. If your intent is to “manipulate search engines and deceive users by directing them to sites other than the one they selected, and that provide content solely for the benefit of search engines.” But what if your local pages are actually unique to location? What if while hoping to win in SEO, you’re also providing unique value for the targeted region? If you’re a service provider in Philadelphia, you could write something on your Philly page about the average wait time for Philadelphia service, or a unique phone number for Philly residents, or maybe other local resources that align with your offering? Suddenly a doorway page seems more valuable.

I don’t know of any page like this being Panda’d out; the popular definition of a doorway page is a page that deceives users (usually living on microsites) that funnel traffic to a destination they didn’t originally want. I don’t condone spam, but I do urge you to draw your own conclusion and take care when implementing this tactic.


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Using Google Webmaster Tools To Clean Up Your (404) Act

Here’s a quick link building (or link reclamation) tip for you.  Google Webmaster Tools has really grown.  Yeah, there’s still some squirrely reporting (like why my impression count is exactly the same every day), but the Crawl Errors function is vital for anyone who adds and removes a lot of pages, or has switched sites and URLs.

A client of mine recently got a new website.  More than a reskin, 98% of the URLs had changed (for the better).  With Screaming Frog and some insight on what the URLs were going to be, I was able to whip together a good .htaccess file to use.

The new site has been live for a few months now, and despite thinking I had the 404 issue pretty covered, I logged into the Crawl Errors tool in Google Webmaster Tools.

 

I thought I had it under control.  Clearly not.  But Google makes it easier than ever to fix.  Click the Not Found button, and take a look at the list of 404′s it gives you.

Ideally you can clean these up with a couple sweeping server redirects.  In my case I simply forgot to remove an old XML sitemap.  But the beautiful thing is that each resulting page can be clicked for more information:

That’s a pretty sweet link I was missing out on.  I made this my priority.  You might find some nuggets too with a fairly small amount of digging.

Are you of the video persuasion? Here’s the a screencast of the tactic:


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SEOs, What’s Your Opinion?

301 Redirecting to homepage

We get plenty of “soft tips” about creating content that attracts links.  I think many times SEOs are too vague with this recommendation.  Seasoned content marketers have created an art form developing compelling, (trans)actionable content.  They’re interested in an emotional response. For them a link has little to do with a search engine algorithm.

Since we’re encroaching on their discipline more everyday, we should be taking the right cues from them.

That's Just Your Opinion, ManYour opinion can be an ingredient in your strategy.  You know this, but how are you employing it?  In the same way humor, a “how-to” video, or a common customer service response could supplement a great piece for users, and could “attract” links, so could promoting your position.  You have the opportunity to be unique and write something that hasn’t been rehashed to death.  More importantly, you have the opportunity to elicit a response that could result in SEO-helping comments through social, local, and general search algorithms.

When I worked for a public company we had a huge legal and PR team that monitored every piece of content we wanted to put out.  A simple press release took months.  Most of us are not against those kinds of obstacles, so we should use that to our advantage.  I consider the lack of red tape a blessing with my small and medium-sized clients.  Currently I’m working in the green space – we have a lot of opinions; my company wasn’t afraid to take a stance.  By vocalizing, and handing out these opinions like band fliers in front of a venue, we’ve been able to get a good amount of exposure which resulted in links.  But we weren’t just spouting opinions out to see what would stick; we used data, an understanding of the audience and the space, and a strategic publication method.

I’ve worked in a lot of different niches through my time with agencies and consulting.  Every niche has things they believe in.

Let’s use my blog as an example.  I blog for fun and to experiment.  I’m not particularly using this site to get clients, become famous, make money, get free stuff, etc.  But let’s suppose I was trying to promote a service.  The content I’ve posted so far has been shared well on Twitter, G+, and has landed on a couple decent sites like Search Engine Land and SEOmoz’s Top 10.  Overall though, I haven’t written anything that earned me a great number of links.  For the 3,000 social clicks I’ve gotten in the last 6 months, I have about 10 new editorial links from sites that are responding to something I wrote.  If I were really trying to earn links, I’d be failing with otherwise good content.  I’d be raising my eyebrow at the recommendations of “write good content and the links will come.”

Why Am I Not Attracting Links? 

In this SEO niche, there’s a few things that could be at play.  To perform better, I’d have to start looking at the realities.  Here’s a few assumptions off the top of my head – ideally I’d want to really research these.  In the meantime take them with a grain of salt:

  • Impressions: We have a lot of content in this industry.  There is a lot of noise in the signal, so I’d have to work harder to get my content seen.
  • Popularity: We have cliques.  Some SEOs and websites are more popular than others (sometimes from public speaking or alliances with big names), thus their content – even despite occasional low value – can get hyped and linked more easily. Regular people have to work much harder.
  • Target: We have a big subculture with many subsets of specialization.  Most SEOs and bloggers don’t focus on one particular part of SEO,  This leads to less opportunities for inspiring a topic.
  • Perception: I don’t write long, technical posts.  I’m convinced most people don’t read them all the way through, so I like to drop my point and move on.  But I think long posts are perceived as “epic” and people want to tie themselves to it.

What Should I Do?

If I wanted to go with this strategy, and built around the four assumptions above, I should start kicking out my space in the mosh pit with steel-toed python boots.  I should post strong opinions but do it with integrity, keeping the four assumptions in mind.  I should absolutely mean what I say, and not be afraid of negative replies – the web owns your brand and you’re going to get stung if you deserve… despite your best efforts to control your perception.

For this example, here’s something I could write a whole post on.

[box title="Rankings Are Still Important As A Performance Metric" color="#696464"]I remember first hearing that rankings didn’t matter in 2007.  The concept being that Google and other search engines are personalizing their algorithms too heavily to use rank as a KPI. The alternative is to just report traffic or keyword conversions.  I remember a bunch of big name SEOs trying to inculcate us.

I think this is misguided.

Most of our data is directional – from Google’s estimated search queries, to Google’s showing  ”about 661 results” in SERPs instead of the real number, to OSE/Majestic/Ahrefs link counts or PageRank emulation.  We rely on traffic data from Hitwise or Compete, which is often very far from the real numbers.  Even the impression and click count from Webmaster Tools is directional.

I think it’s perfectly fine for marketers to continue aligning directional ranking data with other directional metrics.  I pull my rank reports daily through Microsite Masters, append with daily traffic, and trend.  It gives me a fantastic keyword-level heartbeat which leads a huge part of my optimization efforts.  Granted, there are other optimizations or strategy inspiration to be found solely with other KPIs, but discounting rankings is absurd.

If it’s simply a matter of not using them for reporting, because they’re only directional and not useful to a client or boss, with a quick education on what personalization really is, ranking reports can be your best friend.[/box]

Now I truly believe this, and would hope this could get me links.  This could elicit emotions and links at the same time.  But I’d have to get it out there.  We know the traditional, sometimes “noisy” ways, but my favorite is to go direct to influencers.  The beauty with this kind of content is how easy it opens doors.  I’d find influencers on Twitter (Klout and Crowdbooster can help here), or I’d drop this in the right LinkedIn groups, or cite it on Q&A sites like Quora.  I’d push this platform and ask for the perspective of my peers.  Many times it comes in the form of a comment in the post, but sometimes it comes as a blog post enriched with a link.

At the end of the day we’d have some branding, some buzz-building, gotten some links, and opened the door for future opportunities and serendipity.

Bottom line: for commercial purposes, certain opinions create link-worthy content, as long as they’re crafted to the right audience.  From a marketing standpoint, consider keeping your other irrelevant opinions to yourself so you’re not contributing white noise.  It’s quite possible you work in an industry that wants to stay neutral in all things.  Maybe you work for a mill and supply cut wood for a living, and don’t need to post op-ed stuff for your brand, but with a little creativity, you can also benefit from sharing your opinion for SEO purposes.


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