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This is a rant about writing good stuff. It started with a tweet, some snark, and eventually settled as an opinion (and intention) leading to this content.
Microblogging is quite different than blogging. It has to be – it’s a soundbite or headline vehicle at 140 characters. But I believe writers have the responsibility to keep their audience from drowning in an ocean of ennui. Take AJ Kohn’s offerings of TL;DR summaries, or Tom Critchlow giving the “cliff notes” right up front in one of his recent posts. As Frank Zappa would say, this gets us right to the crux of the biscuit. To be clear though, it’s not so much about where or how you decide to layout the actionable “point,” but making sure you have a clear one somewhere in your document.
I’ve cried about it before on this blog: SEOs abuse “content is king.” Pause, and ask yourself what the last really good content you produced did for the reader. Did you copy and paste someone’s idea, regurgitate a concept, or try to cash in on something that others are being successful with? Or did you invent something? Did you make noise, or did you forge a new trail?
In the tweet above, John and Joel made some good points. I tweeted that out after reading another “top x link building tactics” list. A fluffy, chewed up piece of tactics we’ve all seen before. It didn’t claim to be written for beginners – which would have at least described the intended action of the content – but it was just more noise that wasn’t helpful for a reasonably experienced SEO. It was also praised in the comments and shared quite a bit… but so are the annual “SEO is dead” posts, and I’ve yet to find a new takeaway from that topic either (yes – us curators and contributors need to think about the actionability of our role too).
It’s like a Nicholas Cage movie. They come around every once in a while, and you always want your time back after you sit through it. Listen, if one more person tells me that sponsoring an event is a great way to get links, without telling me how, or why, or what the level of effort was, or how they got client buy-in, or giving me a real world example or formula to follow, I’m going to kick a puppy. Hard. It will be your fault. I believe this link building tactic came out of reality, but I don’t believe many people are actually doing it. They’re just regurgitating something they read. They’re curating, not blogging effectively.
Using the above example, this is really relevant to SEOs. It’s a worm on a hook. We want to know more. When a tactic like that comes from Seer, you can be damn sure you’re going to get some color around it. How did Wil and his crew get where they are? They’re proving themselves as experts. They’re not afraid to share their secrets, and they’re proving their experience.
Our industry is to market to clients while (apparently) marketing to our peers. Branding is part of marketing, and some of us are heavily about ourselves. That’s fine. But the rules don’t change when you’re writing on behalf of your client’s industry. You should be writing content that doesn’t leave people asking more questions than they started with. When I watched Superman II in the 80′s, I remember asking my father how Clark Kent could change into Superman so fast. He told me Clark was wearing his Superman suit under his work clothes. But even his boots? He was wearing penny loafers over his boots? I called bullshit, and I was only eight years old. I wanted the movie to address that. But that’s fiction. Most of us are writing things that have a purpose, a goal, and an agenda. What’s a better place to provide something actionable and answer some questions?
By the way, in case you misinterpreted the crux of the biscuit in this rant, I’m not totally against “top lists” – I love using bullets in my emails to get a point across. I like structured content. Paddy Moogan had great intent at Mozcon with his Top 35 tips, and he’s often credited as a highlight of that convention. I just want the intent to be actionable content, and I notice that a lot of “top” lists are considerable rubbish.
TL;DR – The action I’m trying to encourage is to get you to think about your content (if you’re a typically thin writer), and do everyone (especially your client) a better service by answering needs. Be a marketing superhero and save the interwebs of crap villainy.
Bloggers and content marketers get writer’s block.
Luckily, if you mine Google Analytics, inspiration is right around the corner.
We know a few things -
Market research you say? We already have that at a cursory level.
This is the obvious one. Pull up your search keyword reports (ignore and grit your teeth at the [not provided]), and look for keywords that may have brought some long-tail traffic.
According to this, one of the engines think I already have some relevance for “the difference between Google and Bing”. Now I’m inspired. I don’t really have an article like this, so maybe I can spend some time thinking about what my take on this would be.
In May I blogged about Google Analytics new social reporting features. If you haven’t gotten into these reports, check them out (or read my post). I find myself in here a lot. How do you know what people are interested in? They’ll tell you by sharing and clicking.
Below is a snapshot of Twitter visits (click to enlarge):
I did a blog post about about lessons learned through unfollowing people on Twitter. SEOmoz picked it up in their Top 10 and drove a ton of traffic, which is a sign right there that people seem to be interested in Twitter topics. On days where the SEOmoz influence wasn’t directly present, I was able to click around in this report to see that it was tweeted 40 times since its posting. More inspiration that people liked the topic, right? Well, maybe – though Twitter sent it 187 visits, it had a low Average Visit Duration. I dont know about you, but I can’t read an article in 36 seconds. Something about this article didn’t appeal to most of the people who read it through a Twitter link.
However, a more recent article called Search Marketing Content vs Digital PR didn’t get the share-heat that the Twitter article did, but it’s average visit time was over 3 minutes. I’m inspired – I have some more perspectives on search content writing.
Time On Site
Mentioned above, I use time on site as an indicator that someone is actually reading my stuff. As a writer, that’s my goal (as well as funneling them through conversions). By clicking Content > Site Content > All Pages, you can sort by visits and duration.
This is based on all traffic. With this view there’s a little more redemption for my Twitter article. The Average Time On Page is up. I don’t segment my different digital channels, but if I did and wrote for one channel only, this would be useful. Audiences of different channels have different habits based on the medium they used to find you – it’s always fascinating to me, especially how different it can be in eCommerce.
That’s All Folks
Nice and easy, and tends to give me enough inspiration to kick off a brainstorming session and fill my editorial calendar (which I do hope you’re using). If you’re interested, here’s the editorial calendar template I use. I leave mine in Google Docs so I can quickly pull it up, jot a couple of ideas down, and save for when I’m ready to write an actual post.
Make sure you check out Anthony Nelson’s comment below – that’s a great tip as well.
My father gave me some good advice once. Never act on anything you learn at a convention until 2 weeks have passed. Wait until the shine has worn off, then see if what you captured is really the “game changer” you originally believed.
I attended Mozcon in the end of July. There were some great presentations, though some attendees said they weren’t as actionable as the year before. Admittedly, several of the presentations seemed like they were vying to win a “best keynote” award, but I certainly got what I expected from an SEOmoz convention. A common, developing theme spoke to the evolution of our industry more as content providers, at the mercy of Penguin and Panda. We’ve heard this before (in many less than constructive ways) – the last two years were heavy on social media for SEO, while 2012 was expected to be the year of “real” content marketing. Earlier this year I expected the “content is king” adage to evolve. Build My Rank and other thin content purveyors suddenly went down, shaking more people into rethinking the term “content.” Tom Critchlow closed the conference with an off-the-cuff presentation where he said, “SEOs have a problem.” He suggested we’re not doing the kind of content development PR firms do, and we need to become digital PR before the traditional PR firms figure it out.
As a whole, I partially disagree.
I believe SEO has many definitions. For some, it’s just about getting properties to rank well. That’s fine. For others, it could certainly be digital PR. From the perspective of my marketing sensibilities, I like that concept, and I was initially really taken with it. It seems likely that the time is right for SEOs to take over that void – for those that want it. But there’s still a huge need for search only content.
Look at Wikihow, eHow, and the others. Panda was supposed to spank them for thin content, but luckily I still see them.
Yes, I said luckily.
Though their content is often thin, I’m glad these sites exist. They serve a purpose. When I searched how to change the oil in a 2004 Harley Davidson Sportster, I discovered an article particularly for that specific bike and year. That’s pretty awesome. The directions could have been better, but the article was efficient enough to answer my need, and served to be quite convenient on my smartphone out in the garage. When I needed an article on the right tool to use to unscrew a Nintendo Wii, it was a long-tail targeted Wikihow article. Today when I searched how to fix low volume issues of a Fender Twin, I got eHow.
That’s search content that’s provided not by digital PR, but by content marketing and analyzing long-tail queries. I don’t want to see SEOs quit focusing on this kind of content. I’m willing to bet all my cookies nobody goes to the eHow homepage and just navigates for fun. I’m willing to bet my prized beer can collection that if they removed their homepage, nobody would notice. Search is big for them, and SEOs can certainly take a cue for their own initiatives. But maybe we could just be a little more thoughtful when we write search marketing content.
I use everything from Social Mention, to Google Analytics, to Crowdbooster, to Ubersuggest (the list goes on) to provide content ideas for my own organic growth, and for link building fodder and outreach. It’s not quite as future-less as I think some of the Mozcon presentations were suggesting. I like the idea of repositioning the mouth of the content marketing funnel, but I sure don’t want to shrink it.
Indeed there’s a lot of necessary clean-up from our past content marketing oil spills (some of which requires manual removal, and some Google is just ignoring). I don’t see it as black and white though. I think an SEO copywriter still has a lot of opportunity in the gray area.
Digital PR sounds like a great new hat to put on, build on, study on, and practice. But search marketing content done right is still necessary, even if the article and blog networks don’t rank anymore. Luckily (hopefully) your site still does, and you can build a home for this content if you haven’t already. We can still rank by helping Google answer the billions of questions they’re asked. That part hasn’t changed.
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There are shenanigans going on in TV land. A couple weeks ago DirecTV was feuding with Viacom, content distributors with 26 channels. Viacom owns staples like comedy Channel, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon. A couple weeks ago Viacom ordered DirecTV to shut off their content (channels). That followed with a schoolyard “he said, she said” public fight between the whiny C-suite.
Luckily everything has been worked out, and I can once again watch Teen Mom.
I don’t know how long this dispute was gearing up behind the scenes, but from what I gathered, this wasn’t a surprise to DirecTV. When I found out I’d be losing these channels I googled for information to see if this was temporary, what channels I lost, and any reason to keep DirecTV at that point. I found this site’s webpage: http://www.directvpromise.com/other-ways-to-watch - granted, this 404′s now that the shitstorm is over (a 301 might have been wiser here peeps), but it was a pretty candid explanation of what was going on from DirecTV’s perspective. It was there right away, and helped satisfy my questions. I also noticed journalists and radio personalities repeating a lot of the same information on this page. I’m sure it was a resource for others, like it was for me.
Being a nosy SEO, I also noticed the organic rankings for this site were improving daily (which seems in sync with a recent backlink spike beginning June 9th). I’m guessing this is a slightly aged microsite (not old enough to be in the Wayback Machine) that is being repurposed to speak to the issues. I don’t know if the links were from intentional link building, organic growth based on the news, or both.
Well done DirecTV. A great use of an SEO landing page (assuming for a moment you actually meant to do it in part for search).
I’m not sure it’s a common practice to think of SEO as a channel to use for getting in front of breaking issue or demand. In ecommerce we think about it all the time for holidays, but I rarely see it in place for new product launches. SEO landing pages are a big part of my work for the last decade, so here are a few real-life examples from past clients where SEO could have been a bigger part of the integrated marketing strategies. I can’t tell you the client names (and I’m sure you won’t be able to figure it out because I’m really good at keeping secrets), but it’s always good to learn from mistakes.
Example 1 – In 2008 I worked with a company that had a Superbowl commercial (back when they were still funny). It was a silly commercial – I’m completely blanking on the plot, but it was the goofy kind with some kind of cute animal, and probably some slapstick violence to a human thrown in for good measure. The company ran the spot, but failed to pre-launch an SEO landing page that could be optimized for people searching out this commercial. Assuming there would be an influx of new brand traffic, we neglected the searchers who forgot the brand’s name (too many beers?), but searched for “monkey punching human superbowl commercial” instead. All the Superbowl ads got some heat that year from SEO news sites; admittedly our client was very deserving of this as well. Putting up a defensive play in the form of long-tail SEO landing pages is now engrained in my DNA. It’s so easy to do, yet we wasted that little window of opportunity because we didn’t think broader.
Example 2: I worked with a very large denim company based in San Francisco. They were launching a “feature” on their website using the still-secret Facebook open graph. The world didn’t know what 2010′s F8 conference was going to bring, so there were plenty of bloggers and news sites looking for crumbs. This brand had a secret project to basically use the Like button to promote products and bring in purchasing influence from Facebook. It’s normal to see the open graph integrated into ecommerce now, but back then this was a new opportunity to make some money and build the brand, as well as earn some great editorial links.
The only problem was the brand didn’t even include their own SEO team in the secret project.
When the “feature” launched, not only did we quickly realize it weighed down load time dramatically, but there wasn’t any descriptive content for all the different websites who wanted to report on this implementation. The buzz didn’t last very long because there were so many questions and no easily linkable resource to explain what a cool feature this actually was. Eventually bloggers figured it out on their own, or lost interest because they didn’t know what they were exactly looking at. Link growth was very low (and rankings were brutal), but with a pre-launch page seeding something special, and pushing that out to writers and the public, this could have been big. The brand would have been seen as trendsetters, instead of a beneficiary of some confusing technology. With an SEO’d pre-launch page, the authority could have been built up before the switch was hit that made this Like-ridden collection page live.
Example 3: Here’s a time where it did work (or, I was able to get ahead of the issue for once). I had a racecar driving client who was starting his own racing team and releasing diecast models of his car. We were secretly chosen to wholesale and retail it. Since he was a big star (with an even bigger famous father), I knew that these products would get out into the wild fast, and sell through every small NASCAR web store. I created a vague but hinting landing page, and worked with some big NASCAR blogs to start the buzz. Bloggers love to feel like they’ve been selected to be in the loop, even if it’s just to a minor degree. Egos can be toyed with! When the news broke and the product was released, and we uploaded the new announcement onto our now aged landing page, the second level buzz spread, and our links became big traffic funnels and bigger SEO drivers. While we sold hundreds through our retail channel, showing that demand was high, we sold fewer than expected through the wholesale channel (suggesting demand was lower there because people were buying them direct on our site). Score.
I’m sure you can think of some new ways to integrate SEO (be it landing pages or microsites) with some of your issues or new features/products. Most natural search clicks are from information searchers, and you know it’ll take a few weeks and some outreach to fuel up your page. Might as well try to get the information out there in advance before someone else beats you to it. Webpages are like bait, and looking at landing pages this way may give you some super worms to dangle in the lake.
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A bit of a rant here. At the risk of putting my credibility on the line, I can honestly say i don’t know for certain how to get better rankings post Penguin and Panda. I know others secretly say this as well. It was easy there for a while – I was almost willing to slap the guarantee sticker on my services. But the flux right now is completely ridiculous. The Google Dance is bad. I have no doubt we’ll figure it out soon, but in the meantime…
I think Google needs an intervention. I just want to shake them and scream, “help me help you!”
How many posts do you see now titled “How to recover / beat / game Google post-Penguin or post Panda?” Did you ever read one? The popular ones are rehashes of the traditional ways of clean SEO. Last night I met some great people from Microsite Masters (at the Philadelphia SEO Grail) who have claimed they’ve seen other sites recover from Penguin, and after explaining how, it sure wasn’t by the fluff that these other posts have been feeding. They went into detail. I believed them. I sure don’t believe the generic, recycled drivel my Twitter feed is being bombarded with. I’ve actually recovered from some Penguin stuff myself – again, not by the way people would expect if all you read is the SEO “content for content’s sake”.
As an industry, there’s a lot of us who are really guilty of patting ourselves on the back, playing the ego game, writing for content’s sake, and not being transparent. This is an industry born in the trenches with new students appearing everyday. The vets know how to look past the “characters” but it’s far from evident to the newbies. I saw a great character last night at my SEO event; many of us in the room enjoyed watching him jump around, but we weren’t going to let his vocal misinformation permeate with the newbies in the room. It was a good feeling of unity and what I think is really required from SEO’s to continue growing. Now’s your chance to put your stake in the ground and have a persona, if it doesn’t have value, it won’t last.
I urge you to start writing content that actually is either 1) actionable, 2) a strong opinion, or 3) proven to some degree. Teach your readers (kids) the things you’ve done to recover, not what you think the answer is. At least be transparent with them and say you don’t know, or you haven’t recovered yet. Do your part not to litter the SEO stream.
This goes for presenters as well.
Thank you for listening. I feel better now:
Updates to this post here: Maybe Authorship Is A Defensive Play
I buy into authorship / author rank as a ranking signal. I can envision the Googlers drawing a web on the white board with the outline to making this “one” supplemental ranking algorithm. The social signals we expected to see take dominance seem to have flamed out before they became a product release, while the spammer market continues buying and selling “likes” and “pluses” like blood diamonds.
The question I see bloggers ask is, “how can Google favor sites fairly through authorship when some high profile domains don’t really promote authors, or have enough concentrated authors?” Think through this. Here’s my WAG on what’s going to happen (I’ve actually been pretty accurate so far… I know, I’m surprised too!).
First, this is likely going to be one algorithm in the pack of all the others. While some algos routinely get turned down with others being turned up (remember, “the natural search algorithm” we refer to is more like a rope made up of smaller algorithms embedded or encasing), this one would be vibrant. It will influence, but not at the cost of domain authority. It would have to be a conditional algorithm, maybe based on the type of sites it ranks against. It’s not going to be a game changer and make everyone change the way they’re producing content on the web. As crazy as Google can be, they’re not trying to turn users into their dogs.
Whether an intended component of author rank, I see it as a counter-balance to the “google favors big brands” complaint that they experienced in the past (and I accuse them again of now thanks to Penguin). Authority (using this not of the more common off-page metric, but instead of on-page authority) could only be counted by the brands impact on the web. Now, it’s digging deeper to spread the experts and relevance apart, opposed to their former approach of aggregating everything. Google makes things we think aren’t scalable just that.
In this there’s a chance that good writers can get the chance to beat, say, Mashable calibur sites, and give their little webpagse the chance for its 15 minutes of fame, because Google could potentially see it was deserving of it based on the writer’s past proving of themselves. Here’s an example – once upon a time I wrote a post about the link shortener services that passed SEO value. I went through every one I could find and tested each one. I got some traffic because I tapped into an interest before anyone else (it seemed). But then, the might Search Engine Land posted a very similar article, and mine got crushed. Still some first page rankings, but ultimately it faded. In this new model, despite my GreenlaneSEO having a PR of 2, I might actually have a chance to beat SEL and maintain some rankings for my own authority thanks to the added push of my personal brand equity.
Maybe I got authorship all wrong, but it makes sense to me. This is an optimization Google needs to make, and it looks to me like they know it. What do you think?
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I’ve worked in SEO for 13 years. I had a successful consulting business. I ran the SEO department for a company owned by eBay. I led SEO for brands like Calvin Klein, GNC, Levi’s, and Sports Authority. I’ve been asked to speak at search conferences. Have you heard of me? No – I’m not a rockstar. Well, not any more. **
Despite this I am really proud of what I’ve accomplished. I have some room to brag, and I have a lot of experience to share. I have even more to learn.
But so does the SEO rockstar. This industry caters to the popular (just like scientology), and thanks to the medium we’re in, we all get direct interaction with the spotlight.
That spotlight can make you crazy.
What Are SEO Rockstars
Our industry is like a music scene. We have the anti-hero Kurt Cobains, the technical wizards (Jimi Hendrix?), the thoughtful Bob Dylans, and a fair share of Kid Rocks (style, no substance). There’s also a sea of indie acts who want to be on MTV. Then, there’s the others who happily sit on the outside, happily playing music in their basement.
I hesitate to call that last group “outsiders” because I think that gives “the other side” too much weight. At the end of the day we’re all sharing. Unlike the music biz, where I can’t interact with Justin Bieber (no matter how many letters I write that little bastard), I have a shot at really communicating with some experts in this industry. For every Rand Fishkin or Danny Sullivan who won’t tweet back to you, there are hundreds of equally – if not more – qualified SEOs who will. Again, it’s the beauty of the medium we’re in. Go ask Justin Briggs, Jonathan Coleman, Ian Howells, Eppie Vojt, Nick Eubanks, Dan Shure, AJ Kohn, Dr Pete Meyers (the list goes on); these guys are happy to help you.
I can’t think of any industry where the genesis was the blogosphere. Our birth was through anonymous forum boards. We had flame wars on Jill Whalen’s or Search Engine Watch forum boards. We were maniacs. I got to learn my craft and play on the internet all day. If you were lucky enough to have a boss who understood the SEO thing, you had a great job. But from these humble beginnings it’s clear to me why we continue to have flame wars, outings, and complete silliness. We’re still maniacs. But, we also get brilliance and inspiration from an even larger, massive community of thousands of different personality types.
If you were expecting to learn how to be an SEO rockstar from this post, I can’t help you. I have no idea. But I can tell you that at the end of the day, if being good at what you do and supporting your family is your main concern, use the gift of the whole SEO community and establish yourself in your own networks. I’m most proud of the fact that each week I get calls from clients and recruiters asking for what time I have available.
That’s the kind of security every SEO can have. In that, we’re all in this together.
** And to prove that years ago I was a rock star, c’mon… look at this picture!
Update: There was a good comment from Ross Hudgens that I thought I should add here:
Rand or Danny frequently won’t tweet back (which can be interpreted as them being dicks) because when you get that big and have that many responsibilities, they would get absolutely nothing done if they did that all day. I know for one that Rand is one of the helpful if not the most helpful SEOs in the industry, and to give him a “rockstar” monkier as if that makes him smug would be a huge, not justified descriptor. There definitely are people who probably are dicks who won’t respond purely because they ARE thinking they’re too cool, but the reality is that it’s frequently the randomness of trying to contact someone who simply doesn’t have the time to address every single @ mention.
One of my (small) points in this article was to not care if you get a tweet back from Danny or Rand, because (big point) there’s others – like you, Ross – who are equally skilled and might just have more bandwidth to help more people individually. We should be thankful to this industry for being one that shares and collaborates, and not think so much about labels.
There probably are people who get butt hurt when someone won’t respond to them, but that’s another issue that I don’t have an opinion on. If anyone read into this and thought I was trying to make anyone look smug, they misinterpreted my intent (not that I thought you were accusing me of that); I think you make a good point, and I’ll add this chat to my post.
A clarification before we begin. I don’t think Penguin will be eradicated or the name becomes a distant memory like Joe Piscipo (spelled wrong in case Joe has himself on Google Alerts – I’ve seen his arms!), but I am referring to pulling back on some of the areas that are overclocked, and reversing SOME of Penguin. There was some confusion by people who jumped at the title without reading the post. Fair enough, so I’ve tweaked the title for those I’ve infuriated. You’ve made my day.
I don’t know if Penguin is a penalty or a tweak (Update 7.28.2012 – you’re reading a post that’s a bit outdated; Matt Cutts said this is not a manual penalty) – I don’t care. At the end of the day it is a furthering attempt to organize the index to show less webspam. Either by downplaying some factors or emphasizing others, it’s a calibration nonetheless, and one that has thrown more babies out with the bath water than I have to believe was intended.
The best time to go on vacation is when Google makes a big algorithm adjustment. Ignore the posts for a couple weeks. When the dust starts to settle, and you see the end result is publically declared “bad rankings” across the board, it’s pretty hard for a company not to be reactionary. Google, who is usually pretty staunch, has to be listening to this one.
The SERPs look like they did a few years ago, when Google was getting heat for favoring big brands, which ultimately came from high domain authority. That didn’t bode well for them then, and it will be worse now.
These Google engineers are smarter than I’ll ever dream to be, but I truly believe that the algorithm they created is a monster. A series of thousands of gears built upon each other, so deep and complex that a master blueprint doesn’t even contain it. Until a Googler tells me otherwise (and even then I’m sure I’ll doubt), I think a lot of their search quality meetings end with, “Ok – let’s make that change and see what the hell happens.” I don’t think they will ever understand the true extent of what even a simple tweak will do. Forget this 3% or 7% shit – it’s clearly been a variable number with a huge “give or take.”
So, I think Google will silently develop another tweak and pull this one back. Maybe the requirement will be to pull back an offending Panda update that just isn’t meshing well anymore in this jumble, or pulling back the scrutiny lens on anchor text (including internal). I don’t know. But I do believe that headlines like As Google Tweaks Searches, Some Get Lost in the Web, from the Wall Street Journal, get passed around in the C-suite pretty quickly. Google knows perception is reality, and doesn’t want to be seen beating up the little guy.
If Google does reverse Penguin – and by “reverse” I mean pull back some of the overclocking errors, I have to think (and hope) there’s a down-turn in current domain authority factors, and a real algorithm thread that truly values this “quality content” we’re told by every SEO post to create. But without parameters, who the hell knows what a confused algorithm will consider quality.
I’m going back on vacation. Let’s see if Sebaldamus is right on this one!
Update 7.28.2012 – They still haven’t. Damn. The Google Dance is still on high. Results are still favoring brands, and SEOs are scrambling to develop more link tools to make a quick buck (like link removal tools). Penguin is starting to settle in, and as Wil Reynolds said at Mozcon 2012, it might have been the best thing to happen to our industry, and might actually improve the reputation of the SEO industry while allowing us to benefit Google. If they can just make the rankings good, well, that would be super.