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Top 10 Lists Must Die

Top 10 Lists Must DieI’ve given up reading Top 10 lists.

We’re an industry that taught the world “content is king,” and we certainly practice what we preach.  We’ve also read a million times that a successful way to draw a reader or search engine spiders is to use something kitschy like a top 10 list (or top 20, or top 30).  Clearly it’s worked for Billboard and Mashable as entertainment.  I’ve certainly been swept up in the hype and recommended it to my clients more than once.  I actually have a “Top X” list somewhere on this blog.  But now I find myself ignoring tweets after tweets promoting another “brilliant” top 10 list.  I’ve seen a million white papers in the last year that have promoted the “Top 10 Best Landing Page Tips,” or “Best Social Media Tips,” “Best SEO Tips,” etc.  I’ve also seen the same posts again just using different words, almost as if it was spit out of The Best Spinner.

We’re talking about online marketing.  It’s bigger than 10 – it’s bigger than a million – and these fluffy pieces tend to make people forget it’s still only as applicable to your marketing campaign as it is relative. 

Today I broke my rule.  I just read a Top 10 from a popular search company, put out as a downloadable white paper (I know it’s a lead generation trick – I’m expecting to be ignoring a call any moment now).  This document was clearly written to be generic “industry” fodder. 

On this list, number four definitively suggested the best marketing landing page is bare-bones, one font page, with very little content, functionality, or design.  Sure, you’ve seen that before, but you’ve also seen others say the complete opposite – that a long, content rich page is the way to go. 

In our industry, for every expert opinion, there’s an expert opposing-opinion.  But not everyone takes it with a grain of salt.

Both of these design “tips” are general, and don’t know a thing about your vertical, customer or visitor habits, business goals, products, brand history, or your own company experience.  To me, that makes a lot of Top 10 lists nothing more than noisy fluff.

For example, are you running an inbound marketing campaign, where your top keywords are for a term or concept that the public isn’t really familiar with?  Do you need to be brief because your searchers are qualified, or do you need to provide options or funnels to support further information gathering?  In this case I’d have to think about what kind of landing page I’d want to create, but I’m fairly sure I’d be misled if I blindly followed this particular Top 10 list.

Personally, I think these lists need context, and need to be way more granular.  Granted, they wouldn’t have as sexy a headline or as wide an audience appeal, but they’d be targeted and, well, useful.  They’d actually provide content that is capable of moving the reader forward in their own goals.  If these lists exist, then I’d be all for them, but right now they’re as real as unicorns.  Maybe they’re just off my radar.  My Twitter stream may just be too polluted with fluff.


Search Engine SPAM With Facebook (Round 2)

In early November Google promoted their ability to execute AJAX/JS to index some dynamic comments.  A few years ago, Jed Singer and I did some digging to see just how well Facebook pages were crawled and indexed.  The answer – not very well, but Facebook still enjoyed decent rankings for profile and brand pages alike, despite spidering issues.  Our review suggested a heavy dose of domain authority and backlinking signals, and not necessarily on-page relevance.  

Then, suddenly, Facebook pages started to show up less and less (somewhere around the time “Google Me” was the rumor) except for specific people and brand searches.  I assumed a manual algorithm tweak to clean up the search engine result pages, and make general Facebook pages less of a player.  The same kind you saw with Digg pages, Amazon subdomains, etc.

But when I read that Google is getting better at interpreting Facebook comments, I assumed they also got better at reading all Facebook’s public tabbed content.  Still, I assumed they wouldn’t change their algorithm suppressing Facebook rankings. 


This is one of several examples I found.  It worried me about my long-tail for my websites, and sure enough, Facebook SERP SPAM there too.  I don’t know if Google took their eye of their algorithm and made some changes without considering their prior intention, or if this is a real decision (can’t imagine why, though).  I expect it won’t last long.

In the meantime, black hats will go at it, and white hats (and shoppers) will need to be annoyed by it. What a thoughtful holiday gift, Google!


An Open Letter To The SEO Client

If you work in an agency or run your own consulting business, I know you’ve been frustrated.  So put your tongue in your cheek, and have fun venting with me.  

By the way, this post was admittedly written with a few past clients in mind, in a previous life.  I’ve since put myself in a position to only work with clients that match with my ideals.  In consulting, that’s how it should be.  I highly recommend happy relationships.  It makes SEO fun.

Dear client,

Chill out.  You hired us to improve your natural search traffic, your brand recognition, and your reputation.  You did your homework and made us prove our value.  The proposal and RFP was brutal. But we passed. Now have faith, and listen.  That’s right.  Listen.  Learn.  We’re trying to help you.  We picked you as a client, just like you picked us as a vendor.

In over a decade of SEO, I’ve had many different kinds of clients.  The big brands you’d see in a mall or shopping center, to small shops that serve the most niche audience.  From hands-on CMOs to passive, uninterested specialists.  I’ve done my best to teach all of you the ways of Google, and to do right by you.  Admittedly, I’ve made mistakes – but I learned.  I’ve also learned a lot while studying your industry, but that took time.  I never told you SEO would give you instant results. You need patience, and you need to give us some space.  I had nothing to do with you setting unreal expectations with your boss – I was very open with you in the beginning.

I also said that to achieve your goals, we would need the full support of your organization.  You need to help us help you.  If you’re the bottleneck, then we’re both going to have pains in the morning.  We’ll both start dreading our SEO calls.  And we’ll start getting snippy with each other.

Granted, we’re in an agency, and ultimately we have to give you what you ask for.  But if you give us a little slack, we’ll keep you from having to worry about SEO.  


I just re-read what I wrote.  Maybe I’ve been a little snarky.  I really do love you, and I really want to make this relationship work.  So maybe we can we try again?  Everything will be great – as long as you never pull this shit again.




PS: Oh, and a few extra personal notes:

Don’t ever ask me again what your ROI is from a title tag.  I don’t care how big an apparel brand you are.  You’re obviously not listening.

Don’t ever ask me why you’re not getting traffic when you don’t take my deliverables and implement them.  I don’t care how big a television network you are.  You’re not taking this seriously.

And please stop asking me for giant analysis deliverables if you don’t have any use for the data.  I think it’s time we end this relationship… but we can stay friends.



Quality Deserves Freshness, The Sequel

I remember the Quality Deserves Freshness algorithm over a year ago.  This update allowed fresher content to have a better chance at ranking.  For example, if you’re looking for information on SMX East, you’d want to be served the 2011 conference… not the 2010 conference.

Well sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  Like many people, we were directed to the 2010 SMX East page in September.

It makes sense that Google would reintroduce this now following so many Panda updates.  It says to white hats, “go forth and write more. We appreciate it.”  It says to black hats, “don’t quickly write crap as a spam tactic.  Panda will get you.”  Whether that’s true or not, I’m sure the timing of this update was by design.

The potential issue with this in my mind is how domain authority may play into it.  Is this a factor that will weigh higher with big websites (high domain authority), of which usually has a higher budget to be able to hire writers to crank out new content more regularly?  I still like the old feeling of natural search being a ground where small guys are on a level playing field with the rich dudes.

Official Google announcement here.


When Google Gives Us Lemons…

Both Avinash Kaushik and Jeff Jarvis tell us that we don’t own our sites. In fact, our visitors / customers don’t even own our site anymore. Google owns our site.

Need proof? Ask your mom to name her favorite store in the mall. Then ask her to their website online. If she doesn’t use the search bar in her browser or go directly to, I’ll give you a dollar.

We know people are creatures of habit.  Search engines have become the main touch point in their online day-to-day.  For many people, if you restrict their access to a search engine, they’ll fall apart like I do when I’m given an O’doul’s at a party. Why didn’t your mother try to type the website directly into the URL bar?

On the bright side, when 50% of your natural search visits are from variations of your brand name or URL spelling, at least your numbers look good – that may give you some job security if you spin it right.

But Google is a pain in the ass because with all this ownership and inside data, they don’t really play well with others.  They don’t share.  Take WMT for example – it’s very thin data in the grand scheme of things. It’s like giving a free sample, but never letting you buy the product.

And what’s with the rich snippets?  I give you the content, and you post it in your result pages?  I want people to click through.  How do I know they’re not clicking through?  Because I’m not even clicking through on my own site. I’ve been sucked into the Google vortex.

Don’t get me started on feeds,, or Google Places.

Granted, there’s a lot to gripe about. When I go to a search convention, I see I’m not alone. I never skip a panel with a Googler – it’s always a fun beatdown.  But the same thing happens every time.  By the end of the scolding, the Googler – be it an engineer or product manager, essentially commits social suicide, as he throws his hands in the air with the answer, “I don’t know.”  As hard as he tries, he can’t answer all the questions he gets.  It’s not always because he’s not allowed to, but I think it’s because he doesn’t know how to.

I think there are ghosts in the machine. I envision Dali painting with a thousands of gears all clumped together.  Turn one, there’s no telling how many others will connect.  At this point, I don’t think Google knows.  They can try to reshape the monstrosity, but at this point the algorithm has to be pretty insurmountable.  Add on top of this, there are several other algorithms running different Google properties that are probably comparably unruly.

But let’s face it.  Google created this mess, and search engines created the SEO – both the good and the bad ones.  But despite the hat you wear, we’re all dealing with our own KPI’s against this mutant algorithm. So are our competitors.  Trial and error, testing, and patience are the key to building your experience. When you put together a marketing strategy, you’re typically trying to overcome an obstacle.  You’re putting together a plan to move past the immovable objects.  Google is an immovable object, so the SEO needs to strategize with that in mind.  That’s far different than what many SEOs do by trying to defeat or complain about it.  Since goal setting is the key to proper strategy, the SEO (and the employer of the SEO) need to plan touchpoints that accept these realities.

Things to ask yourself when choosing your tactics:

  • Why do I think this tactic will work?  (What experience or data do you have)
  • What will this affect if it does not work?  (Will your scheduled touchpoints be affected)
  • What is this tactic’s plan B?  (To stay on schedule, what is your alternative tactic and bandwidth)
  • What are the points where we measure and analyze?  (When do you take a break and make sure you’re on track)
  • When is it time to abandon the strategy?  (Sometimes your best plans fall flat – be willing to accept that)

With this clarity comes opportunity.  Again, many of our competitors are dealing with Google head on, and trying to plow through the algorithm instead of dance with it.  They’re probably granted the same amount of time and budget as you.  SEO is a household word in business, but it’s still rarely done right in the grand scheme of things.  Spend some time with a clear understanding of what Google really is to your website, and spend more time in the planning stage.


(not provided) – What’s That Mean, Google?

If you haven’t heard, about a week ago Google rolled out a change that affects your data in analytics.  I started seeing (not provided) as a natural search keyword.  Google has decided to go all SSL on us people who log into Google, and based on how they built it, that hides the keyword data from our analytics.  They’re telling us it’s for privacy.

(not provided)

Let’s put it this way – if you have 100 natural search visitors in a month, and they all come to your site by Googling a different keyword, you’d expect to see 100 different keywords in your natural search keyword report.  Now, if 50% of those 100 people were logged into Google (ie., logged into Google Plus, or Gmail, or Docs, etc.), you’d see 50 different keywords, and one (not provided) stat showing 50 visits.


When I first heard the news I looked at my Google Analytics.  The (not provided) only represented .001 of my natural search visitors.  I checked again today, and it’s up to .05 of my visitors.  I expect it to grow as it continues to roll out through data centers, and as more people started joining up with the Google products that make them log in.  Does this roll into mobile too?  I assume so.

Why Is Google Really Doing This?

I don’t know.  Right now it only affects natural search.  If a user clicks an AdWords ad from, the keyword referral data is still passed through whether the user is logged into Google or not. Speculation is that display companies are using natural search data to better target their ads, and since Google is focused on the display game now (trying to own it… which they’re completely on par to do), they’re possibly trying to lock away some of their keyword data.  But those same companies can normalize the same keyword data from Yahoo/Bing and still be close.

If (not provided) grows, and a percentage of your keyword referral data is lost, will people start getting “rank crazy” again?  Will people start scraping Google for rankings they think they should rank for, versus knowing they should (or shouldn’t) rank for with traditional ranking reports?  Google hates when we scrape them and inflate their AdWords numbers.

But what really ticks me off is that I use my keyword data to better my visitors’ experience.  With personalized search, social search, and all the cute little things Google does now, I get a lot of interesting queries in my keyword report.  Sometimes they’re things I wouldn’t normally rank well for, but because there’s”some relevance” with my site, I get these rare keyword entries.  They often inspire me to create content.

If I had a site for plastic sneakers, and I got a one time natural search keyword visit for “how to run with plastic sneakers and not get blisters,” I might assume there’s a pocket of people with that same question. I might write a blog post and answer the question.  I might put an article on my main site to attract visitors. In the end, this might provide a great value to searchers, and my own website.  But now, if the user who entered this query was logged in, I’d never see it in analytics.  Inspiration may never hit. Everyone loses.

Ok, maybe right now it’s not something to freak out about.  It’s another “Google wait and see” game, but we’re used to that now, aren’t we?  This is just an odd one.  Data is so important to content providers.


SEO Fantasy Camp

They say you ground your current experiences in past experiences. I worked in the music industry in the 90′s. Think Napster, Chemical Brothers, and music festivals.  For me, the SEO blogosphere is reminiscent of that time.

I’ve been doing SEO for 11 years. There have always been SEO rock stars. Like Hendrix, many of them were pioneers of a new frontier. These SEOs are still around, but for one reason or another, many seem to have gone the way of Foreigner.

But today it’s a much different scene.  We have a much bigger industry and heap of digital communication platforms. We’re so much more than just the HighRankings forum now. Still, I continue to see an odd centralization on today’s perceived rock stars. Almost as if there’s a (gasp) mainstream.  Its amazingly cool to watch people sign autographs at SMX, even if these people won’t reply to you on Twitter. It’s also funny to see the egos on some of these peeps, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the singer of Everclear (That’s right whatsyourname singer from Everclear… Took me 10 years but I’m finally calling you out!  I didn’t forget our fight!).

How can there even be a mainstream?  There are hundreds more verticals than styles of music, hundreds more strategies than pop song formulas, and an endless need for experimentation. When’s the last time a rock star in the mainstream did anything new?  And I’m not counting a meat-dress as experimental.

Looking back, Sphinn was pretty bad. Some of the most useless SEO content was sphunn up because of the name of the author or curator. But if you bothered to dig deeper, there was some great indie stuff. Google Plus is better because of the difference in interaction, but can be just as bad. In this case the curator (or DJ???) gets more rock god status.  Twitter is the wild west, but my choice for really digging deep.

With all that said, there’s still great, “followable” people who have achieved rock star status. Rand Fishkin’s team at SEOmoz is still making hit songs. My friend Wil Reynolds and the SEER team still teach me actionable stuff weekly. They’re still highly relevant for the style of SEO I do.  Alternatively, other friends like Eppie VojtIan Howells, John Doherty, and Mike King make me take notes – these guys may not be on the Billboard Top 20, but they’re brilliant players.  That’s who’s on my feed reader and my Twitter list.  I have a lot more of these indie rock guys than the mainstream players (with notable exceptions).

I’m not saying you need to go alternative. I’m saying you should check to see if you’re looking deeply enough for your taste in SEO. And if you’re not stealing licks (in other words, actively applying what you learn), you may not be following the real artists of today’s SEO scene.

SEO is about searching; it may take a while longer to uncover some new personal rock stars, but so what?  Is this your passion?  Rawk on!!!


What Should You Be Writing About?

In a previous post I was ranting about how the marketing industry seems to write for the sake of being noticed, but it’s akin to millions of people throwing confetti in the air.   We’re taught that content is king.  We’re told it will help us stand out and/or get noticed by the search engines.  Here’s the reality – nobody really stands out if they’re just writing small, non-descript content.  It’s just noise.  You’re actually doing more harm than good by wasting readers’ time.  Usually a single post determines whether you get added to an RSS feed, retweeted, liked, or linked.  It’s likely not going to make much of a dent in Google either.

I suggested not rehashing someone else’s opinion, but coming up with your own.  Simple enough, right?  If you don’t have a take, or something to offer, maybe don’t write.

So what does that leave?  What do you write about?   Where do you start?   Hell if I know – I’m not in your industry and haven’t taken the time to think through your industry.  But I do have a couple places you might think about going (these are my sources of inspiration).

1. Technorati – If you use Technorati wrong, you stand the chance of writing duplicate content. But if you search for a keyword (use the advanced search), and scan the resulting topics alone, you should have your first ingredient for an angle. What’s missing? Write it.

2. Your Sales Team Or Customer Service – These guys know the ins and outs of customers needs or problems.  Have a meeting, and figure out what the issues are.  Write something that gets ahead of these issues.  This alone might be content for years.

3. Q&A sites - From Quora to Yahoo Answers, people are asking questions.  If you don’t like the answers you see, then add your own to those – and your own – websites.

4. Use Social Mention - Conversations are happening, and even though you’re not in them, you can facilitate the conversation with something well written and targeted.  Social Mention will help you track those conversations on topics you are an expert about.

What are your sources of inspiration?

I’m begging the marketing community – please drop “content is king” and replace with “unique, relevant opinions are king.”  I can’t take the flurry of noise in my inbox, reader, and twitter stream anymore.


SEMrush Review

I love when clients ask, “What keywords am I ranking for?”

Well, unless you’re ranking for a keyword, and people are clicking through (where I can see it in your analytics), I have no idea.  I suppose I could do a few hours of keyword research and run that through a rank checker to see if you’re in contention.  Or I could use SEMrush.

SEMrush is a great tool, with a lot of keyword data for both PPC and SEO.  Basically they create their own ranking index of the web.  And, they’re pretty accurate.  It’s great as a competitive tool – enter in a competitor and check out what they’re ranking for.  This is eye-opening for several reasons.  With estimated volume along with each keyword, it’s great to illustrate keywords you’re not optimizing for (and maybe should be).

It does a few other “nice to have” things, like providing quick snapshots of competitors in Google.  Granted, you could do this yourself pretty quickly with your own Google search, but SEMrush gives you a decent .csv output.  I also like the competitive ad review feature (helps you figure out how your ad copy stacks up with your competitors).

This tool has been out for a while, though I’m always surprised how underutilized it is.  Give it a spin.


Fortune 100 And Social Media – How Engaged Are They?

I’m a firm believer that social media has very few – if any – actual rules (and minimal “best practices”).  Somehow many companies are still sitting and waiting for other companies to try something first. They spend so much time watching and not doing. Reading recipes and not cooking.  Worrying so much about the returns that they don’t dip their toe.

This not a good plan.  What works for others may not work for you, even if it seems like an obvious match. That’s about the only thing I’ve ever picked up watching others engage in social media.

If you are one of those companies who think what others do will determine your appropriate steps, Flowtown released this infographic that might help you realize just how behind you are.  Granted, this doesn’t really speak to strategy, just platform usage, but it’s indicates that after the last 3-5 years, social has pretty much validated itself as worth continuing.

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