This isn’t a 2013 prediction post. This is “what I’d like to see in 2013.”
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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:
Are you of the video persuasion? Here’s the a screencast of the tactic:
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.
Your 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.
Doing big ecommerce for years meant I didn’t get too much experience with local search. You may not know, but (for example) the Toys R’ Us website and the brick and mortars aren’t really connected, which is (fortunately or unfortunately?) pretty common in enterprise ecommerce. Many big retailers who have an online presence only put a small amount of their funds and attention into the .com, typically resulting in silos.
Now in my latest role as a B2B marketer for a regional business, I was excited to dive into some local work. The problem is, I didn’t do a great job keeping up with this specialization. I needed to ameliorate myself. I didn’t totally understand the Venice update, and there were changes with the packs that I didn’t totally follow. I was more experienced with optimizing local pages in Google’s general search, than for the more intuitive local packs.
At Mozcon 2012, Darren Shaw had one of the most useful presentations for me. I asked him to go to dinner (yes, I wasn’t afraid to ask for a date apparently) to pick his brain. He was meeting his family that night, but was kind enough to help me out following my Seattle visit via email. I’m a regular user of Whitespark now. There’s a great citation finder tool (with a positive SEObook review here), and they have services that dig way deeper than, say, Yext. Whitespark also teamed up with Citation Labs to create the darling Link Prospector. He’s humble about it, but Darren and Whitespark should be on your radar.
I asked him some questions and decided to share the answers – hopefully if you’re at the same level as I am with local search, this will be very useful to you to too.
What are some ways local search can help drive qualified traffic that sites without a brick or mortar counterpart haven’t considered?
There are plenty of local service based businesses without physical offices. Appearing in the local pack listings can often drive more clicks than an organic listing, especially if you’ve taken the time to set up Google Authorship to make make your listing stand out with a profile photo.
One major benefit to having a local listing are the reviews that potential customers can read to evaluate and select your business. A prominent local listing combined with plenty of positive reviews is a guaranteed business booster far beyond what you’d see with only a high organic ranking. People trust user reviews more than what you say about your services on your website.
Can you define the Venice update? Does Venice only affect Google’s local vertical (ie, the local packs), or does it also contribute to rankings in the regular results.
In a nutshell, Venice localized the organic results. Since Venice, if google detects local intent in the search query, they’ll try to return locally relevant organic results in addition to the local pack. For an excellent, in-depth, guide to the implications of Venice, check out this post from Mike Ramsey on SEOmoz’s blog.
What are some of vital local search tactics, maybe compared to life before the Venice update?
The blended algo was already in place prior to Venice, but the organic factors (onsite & links) gained more weight.
The local search tactics we employ didn’t change post Venice. The core tactics remain:
- Local Google+ Page optimization (categories being the most important)
- Website optimization
- NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) consistency (audit and clean up of existing citations)
- Citation building
- Review acquisition and reputation management (responding to reviews).
- Content development and link building.
Does Google+ integration change tactics and strategies much?
Not much. There are two things that changed:
1) We now encourage our clients to be more active in Google+. I’m not convinced that social signals are providing any permanent ranking benefits at the moment (although we are seeing temporary boosts), but I figure it’s going to be valuable in the long term to have some social authority built up.
2) Businesses can review other businesses AS the business rather than an individual, so this opens up new ways of acquiring reviews by asking your business partners to review you. You review them, they review you, win-win.
What are some of your favorite ways to optimize for local search inside and outside of the packs?
– Tracking down and cleaning up inconsistent NAP data in your citations is a time consuming and frustrating task, but it can have a very positive impact once all the issues have been sorted out. We’re going to be launching a service for this soon.
– Getting a few very high quality, locally relevant, links can give a great boost to your rankings. Sponsorship opportunities at the local colleges are good for this. (this tip courtesy of David Mihm)
– We love citations from locally relevant and industry specific sites. You can use the Local Citation Finder to find them (see the how-to at the bottom of this post), or you can just hire our citation building service to do the hunting and submitting for you.
– Using the Link Prospector to find local guest post opportunities, and getting a citation as well as a link in the post has been working well for us. We also use it to find those high value, local, sponsorship opportunities that I mentioned above.
My Twitter is @billsebald, and I hope every one of you follow and communicate with me. Read on and find out why.
Sometimes you have to make your own luck. You don’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. You won’t win a marathon if you don’t get out of your chair. And you don’t make friends if you don’t communicate with people. We’re wired to grab at opportunities that seem obvious, but we don’t typically pause for serendipitous moments.
The more SEO evolves, we find ourselves stretched thinner and thinner. There’s a lot of noise – it grows faster than the tools we create to carve through. Our focus is rarely pinpoint, while our attention span needs to be wider. It can get scary and overwhelming. It’s the fright that drives a bigger swarm of rabid land-grabbers to the same obvious relationships. Whether you’re a link builder or in PR, you know you’re fighting in a mosh pit of like-minded peers after the same prize.
I love networking. Not necessarily through the traditional kind of awkward meet and greet, name-tagged, stuffy network events. I’ve always liked digital networking. Since I can remember, semi-anonymous communications to people on Myspace, mIRC, chat rooms, Listservs, BBS, etc., was always more comfortable for me. Like most of us, I used to hide behind usernames before truly branding myself. I’m a social butterfly though only on the web. You can imagine why I’m a Twitterholic.
I get many calls for consulting work. If I were consulting full time I wouldn’t be hurting for clients. Many are from old co-workers, old client referrals, current client referrals, and friends I’ve made on Twitter or LinkedIn. By being helpful, being generally kind, and not being afraid to give something away for free, I’ve seen returns. I’ve created great friendships just by chance communications on Twitter.
A relationship that sits above the business deal is huge. I know for a fact some major agency deals are made because of past relationships and current friendships (I’ve been in the room!!!). I’ve seen companies go through the whole RFP dog and pony show as part of procedure, when in actuality the vendor was already chosen based on prior relationships. Keep and eye out for luck and you have this: Serendipity > New Contacts > Nurture > Friendship > Opportunity. You define friendship.
Twitter is amazing for this. I respond to everyone who ever sends a note to me. It’s not that hard because I don’t have a Rand or Danny following and schedule (now that would be difficult!). I’ve blogged about relationship nurturing on Twitter, and how the SEO industry should maintain the practice of supporting each other without labels/levels/titles or any other ego. But I also think the same friendly quality should go to everyone you communicate with on Twitter and Linkedin (or any other digital network), including those outside your industry. You’re creating more luck.
Here’s a recent case where the serendipity could have worked for someone in our industry. I was working lightly with a client who needed a specific function of SEO, something I just didn’t have the bandwidth to handle. Concurrently, I followed an SEO who occassionaly tweets about this niche. I sent him a few tweets to feel him out. They weren’t, “hey – are you free to take this client?” It was more of me trying to jump into the conversation where I thought I could add value, and just see what kind of warmth I would get. I got no response, while I was looped out in the continuing conversation.
Another topic came up a few weeks later and I tried to add some color again with the same SEO. Still no response. Eventually, since I was still thinking about him for this opportunity, I sent a public tweet directly to him asking him a question related to his niche. Still no reply.
Takeaway: Perception Is Reality
There was a chance for this SEO to strike up a conversation with me, to where I probably would have DM’d him with the opportunity. For whatever reason, he didn’t take the chance of communicating, and I lost interest in him. Later when I was pruning my “following” list, I apparently made a semi-conscious decision to cut him. Now he’s completely off my radar.
I don’t know if he’s looking for work or not, but it’s still a missed opportunity. And I have the perception of him as a “not so warm and fuzzy” guy because he didn’t get back to me. True or not, perception is reality. This is where some people say, “it was never meant to be.” That statement drives me crazy. Of course it’s not meant to be if you don’t nurture serendipity.
I was looking for information on creating a firepit in my yard. I thought a homemade firepit might be fun to build, so I hit Google. I found an article on a website that I wouldn’t normally visit, but it was coincidently a niche my client serves in. While reading the article (and enjoying the warm tone of the blogger), I decided to write her a note telling her I liked the article, asking a follow up question, and then giving a subtle link pitch. We had about 3 emails back and forth before the link pitch was reintroduced. Not only did I get a link, but I got a glowing review, completely unprompted. I also found out she has some other sites I was interested in, and that she and I grew up in the same town. I added her on LinkedIn, and sure enough, got a surprise SEO referral from her 2 weeks later. All because I squeezed everything I could out of a firepit post.
Takeaway: Take Time To Learn What A Person Has To Offer
When you come up to someone’s front door with a vacuum cleaner in hand, you look like a vacuum cleaner salesman. The door won’t open. Understandably serendipity isn’t scalable, but you’ll get things out of it that the other land-grabbers are probably not getting. Once luck hits, I like to romance the connection.
1n 1998 I started hanging out in a local record shop. The owner wanted to take his music shop online (which back then mainly meant selling through eBay), so I offered to help him out for a couple bucks while I was in college. One of our customers wanted a direct connection to get first dibs when new CDs came in. I didn’t mind sending him emails when something I knew he liked came in (I could have blown him off). I did this for years, and we started having great musical discussions through his prodigy email address. It turned out he worked for Atlantic Records, and started getting me backstage passes to shows when they came through Philadelphia. With all the access to rock stars, I got inspired to interview them and post it online. Two years later I had an online music magazine, amazing experiences, and was introduced to search engine optimization. I wasn’t seeking any of this initially.
Takeaway: Good Will For All
My SEO career started by chance because I was a music fan, and was willing to look into an opportunity instead of sitting on my ass. I took chances, tried things without worry that I wouldn’t like it, didn’t sit around thinking too hard about everything, and just positioned myself for opportunities. By putting myself out there and doing favors, it paid off and led me down a path I’m incredibly thankful for.
Hopefully this gives you something to think about while we all do this SEO thing together.
This is me. Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger. I look a lot like Mikey from the Goonies.
This is Google:
The other day the clouds opened, and the mighty hand of Google left a note in my Google Webmaster account. It was the rumored “Manual spam action revoked” email. As @armondhammer put it on Twitter, “That’s like getting a presidental pardon, Google style.”
For those who like recovery stories, here’s how I figured mine out. Like Rudy, I didn’t give up. I had a huge mountain of uncharted trails ahead of me. And I, well, I also got lucky as hell.
I have a lot of sites, but only one got spanked back in March. I always want to be trying everything in SEO; most of my sites were clean, some were a touch dirtier. The niche I was battling in had(has) an abundance of spammers. Somewhat familiar brands were using forum spamming, paid linking, link wheels – you name it. They were pounding the big box retailers on head terms. Although I didn’t get too sucked into the vortex, I did ultimately lose to the urge to fight fire with fire. I participated in some blog link networks to level the playing field. I went gray.
This was the post that woke me up: Unnatural Link Warnings and Blog Networks from SEOmoz. I heard rumblings of the blog link networks getting sacked (including Authority Link Network). I knew a lot of posts were being deindexed and the junk links were being severed, but that’s the risk you take when you break Google’s commandments. Historically, the worst thing that could happen is Google would devalue those links from perceived bad neighborhoods. They wouldn’t actually penalize the website. But thanks to that SEOmoz post, my confidence was rattled. I remember getting home from work and reading this post 30 times in a sweat. I can still picture Carson Ward’s smiling profile picture.
Thanks to Carson’s post, I learned about the “unnatural links” warning that Google started sending out in Webmaster Central. Up until then, I rarely went into GWT. But sure enough, I logged in, and there it was. It might as well been written with a neon font and Myspace-style glitter .gifs – it couldn’t have been more sickening. It felt like a busted high school party – the cops were outside, and everyone was dashing to make sure they weren’t the unlucky schmuck who got nabbed. I instantly went to Build My Rank and chose the remove live posts option that BMR was kind enough to offer, and hoped my error would fade into obscurity.
What Was I Thinking?
A colleague serendipitously turned me onto Build My Rank. It was cheap (when cheap actually worked), and was an an efficacious defense to my spamming competitors. I had already been writing original content for guest postings; in my mind this was merely a more automated extension of that. I felt a risk but really never thought Google was going to use them as a rally point, let alone make them into a Panda poster child. Of all the things Google had to clean up (and ultimately got with Penguin), low PR blog link networks should have been prioritized later in my opinion. But it was like crack – the rankings went up for nearly every keyword I targeted using BMR. I kept pushing my secret drug. The more the service started to feel dirtier, the more blind I made myself.
[box title=”Build My Rank” color=”#000000″]Build My Rank allowed the user to pay a “per article” fee on top of the monthly subscription. The writers (who I believe were in-house – not sure if that’s true) weren’t very good, but BMR also let you write your own unique content. They’d prohibit your article if it didn’t meet their uniqueness and quality standards (though the rules seemed to be lax for their own authors). This was their way of justifying to their audience that they were Google-proof. Clearly that didn’t work out so well for them.[/box]
So, while this network was getting caned with bamboo, my targeted rankings plummeted. I didn’t know if it was because I cut all these links out of my link profile, or because I was being penalized. There was a lot of confusion at this point, and very little details from Google. They kind of let us, well, sweat.
I sent in my first (of many) reinclusion requests. I was honest. I told them about the crack I’d been smoking. I also told them I’d removed the posts and I wouldn’t disappoint them again (I’ve kept my word). My thought was this request would really go to nobody, but while months went by (as did several Panda updates, and a Penguin) I slowly started to see my rankings return. I was also now doing nothing other than clean, G-approved SEO. I had a reputable news company helping with legitimate content marketing. I worked with them to make sure the pieces was informative, unique, question-answering content. They did internal linking, and studied the analytics to look for other content marketing opportunities.
It was about this time I saw virtually all my rankings return, except about 6 of my major converting keywords (all synonyms and plurals of each other). Those were my big terms. In this website’s niche there isn’t a lot of long-tail, so I was still a wounded SEO. Meanwhile I was now getting new, fuzzy WMT messages: “Site violates Google’s quality guidelines,” with notes like look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site. Wonderful. Is this sort of the same issue spoken a different way? Was it something else? It appeared like this doesn’t have anything to do with Build My Rank anymore, but how could I be sure? This looked like problems with my external links (ie, backlinks from other sites). The blogosphere generally seemed to think so, so I went with it.
I pulled an OSE link report and saw a lot of spam – much of which was there before I started with this client, though some was new. A link wheel was pointing to me, started in August 2011 (according to the posting dates in the post’s meta data). Now, I admitted I wasn’t squeaky clean, but this wasn’t my doing. This was a huge sloppy footprint that I found in minutes. I assumed the Penguin algorithm could find just as easily. It targeted only one keyword – my industry’s biggest head term. That can’t be good, but Google wouldn’t let negative SEO work, right? I promptly sent this discovery to Google in yet another reinclusion request.
This is where Google ultimately let me down. They seem more interested in tackling the webspam they helped promote with PageRank. There would be casualties, including more innocent casualties than I. There wasn’t anything in OSE or the links reported in GWT that looked too bad except this link wheel. Does that mean the other spam links were ignored? Never found? I think it was June/July when I finally jumped into the “negative SEO works” camp, and ate my decade-long Google fanboy hat for breakfast. For a company that wants to be transparent, this brick wall causes more problems from generally helpful SEOs.
I Started To Feel Like Dr. Richard Kimble
I made a mistake, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, thinking that I was still “kinda” doing what wasn’t explicitly called out as bad by Google. I fell into a bad crowd. Now I’m in a shitstorm that I can’t explain, fix, or understand. I had to buy a Remove’m package to basically send Google a spreadsheet saying I tried to contact every shit website that was linking to me. 5% of the results that showed from that tool had a contact associated, and I heard back from 1% of the recipients I sent an email to. Still, I sent this in yet another reinclusion request with the note, “I tried.” This was – and still is – absolutely absurd.
It was at this point we learned that these were manual penalties, and I was at the mercy of a Googler who just didn’t like me. Yes – I did take it personally. Who the hell was this manual hand editor? Why couldn’t I win his heart? This reinclusion request was rejected as well. I was still a fugitive.
My Last Reinclusion Request
At this point I had given up. I was sick of hearing tips from people who never claimed to come back from the manual penalty (many of whom seemed to be confusing this as Penguin). It was chaos in the streets. A month had passed since my last failure. I had no more changes to make. So I drafted one last reinclusion request, even though I didn’t do any more clean up. I had nothing left to do.
[quote style=”1″]Dear Google,
I am truly sorry our relationship had to end like this. I should not have cheated on your Webmaster Guidelines. Call it a momentary lapse of indiscretion, but it’s all gone too far. You tell me my back links are poisonous, but I did not create any that you are now showing me in my Webmaster account. I truly don’t know how to remove them. I wasn’t trying to hurt you and your users. I do not want to torch my site because it really is a valuable resource for searchers. I hope one day we can be friends. Call me.
But luckily I had another idea before I hit send. I started think about “over-optimization”. Though I didn’t believe I was in a Penguin filter, I was manually flagged nonetheless – it still could have been a Penguin-type, on-site, over-optimization crime. Since the webmaster message they send is obviously canned, and there’s quite a number of things a webmaster can do that is “wrong”, maybe I can try not taking the message so literally. Maybe it’s not about “links to my site” as in external links, but maybe it’s over optimization in my current site. Maybe I’m not reading between the blurry lines Google has always been known for.
I started looking through the content marketing articles I had on the site from the news company (mentioned earlier). They used internal links between the articles and the top-level pages as an SEO best practice. I started to realize that at some point the anchor text started to get very similar – in fact, it began centering on my 6 core keywords. The more of their articles I read, the more the penalty trigger seemed obvious. Look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site. Well, these looked artificial, unnatural, and they were pointing to my site (even though they were already within my same domain). The intent of the links were to pass PageRank, deepen crawls, and yes, help with certain keyword rankings. Maybe Google only recognized the third intention? I had nothing to lose – I removed these links from 80 posts and sent the reinclusion request.
Admitting My Mistake
All of this was pretty humbling. I made a mistake that set of a chain of events that I didn’t expect but should have forseen. I know Google. I know how they are vague in their guidelines. I know how the search product is always full of surprises, both good and silly. Every SEO makes mistakes – we’re in a field where very little is textbook. Secretly I know a few big name SEOs who (in confidence) have similar stories. I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it earlier, but I took my eye off my tactics. I’m saddened that Google took such a hard line with me while those blatant spammers still exist and dominate. But there’s something to be said about “doing your time.” I truly think I gained some good experience in a new world order. I also believe that Panda and Penguin – which now appear long overdue, and not the “wreckless moves” I used to consider them – are some of the smartest filters Google could have put in. They’re taking a risk with the casualties, to bank on better results by the end of the year. I mean, as a business built around algorithmically serving the best webpages, how could they not get more aggressive (and include humans, Mahalo style). It really was just a matter of time.
If you like recovery stories, a good one was just posted on YOUmoz.
Bloggers and content marketers get writer’s block. Unfortunately, we’re only human.
Luckily, if you mine Google Analytics, inspiration is right around the corner.
We know a few things. These are cornerstones of writing for an audience:
- We want to write about things people are searching for and interested in
- We want to write about things people like to share (create some advocacy)
- We want to write something fresh
Market research you say? We already have that at more than 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 fresh take on this would be. Let me look around the web and read a few articles that already exist for inspiration. Keeping in mind I don’t want to copy the wheel, maybe I have a take, or can update an outdated take.
Some questions I may ask myself:
- Am I writing a piece as an SEO landing page or more of a digital PR?
- What are the queries I can rank for? (Keyword research time!)
- Who is my audience? What do I know they like since I want them to be inspired to share?
- Is this a news or evergreen piece?
- What is the tone of the piece? Fun? Corporate?
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). I leave mine in Google Drive or Evernote 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.
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.