Darryl, the man behind dotmailer’s Custom Technical Solutions team

Why did you decide to come to dotmailer?

I first got to know dotmailer when the company was just a bunch of young enthusiastic web developers called Ellipsis Media back in 1999. I was introduced by one of my suppliers and we decided to bring them on board to build a recruitment website for one of our clients. That client was Amnesty International and the job role was Secretary General. Not bad for a Croydon company whose biggest client before that was Scobles the plumber’s merchants. So, I was probably dotmailer’s first ever corporate client! After that, I used dotmailer at each company I worked for and then one day they approached a colleague and me and asked us if we wanted to work for them. That was 2013.  We grabbed the opportunity with both hands and haven’t looked back since.

Tell us a bit about your role

I’m the Global Head of Technical Solutions which actually gives me responsibility for 2 teams. First, Custom Technical Solutions (CTS), who build bespoke applications and tools for customers that allow them to integrate more closely with dotmailer and make life easier. Second, Technical Pre-sales, which spans our 3 territories (EMEA, US and APAC) and works with prospective and existing clients to figure out the best solution and fit within dotmailer.

What accomplishments are you most proud of from your dotmailer time so far?

I would say so far it has to be helping to turn the CTS team from just 2 people into a group of 7 highly skilled and dedicated men and women who have become an intrinsic and valued part of the dotmailer organization. Also I really enjoy being part of the Senior Technical Management team. Here we have the ability to influence the direction and structure of the platform on a daily basis.

Meet Darryl Clark – the cheese and peanut butter sandwich lover

Can you speak a bit about your background and that of your team? What experience and expertise is required to join this team?

My background is quite diverse from a stint in the Army, through design college, web development, business analysis to heading up my current teams. I would say the most valuable skill that I have is being highly analytical. I love nothing more than listening to a client’s requirements and digging deep to work out how we can answer these if not exceed them.

As a team, we love nothing more than brainstorming our ideas. Every member has a valid input and we listen. Everyone has the opportunity to influence what we do and our motto is “there is no such thing as a stupid question.”

To work in my teams you have to be analytical but open minded to the fact that other people may have a better answer than you. Embrace other people’s input and use it to give our clients the best possible solution. We are hugely detail conscious, but have to be acutely aware that we need to tailor what we say to our audience so being able to talk to anyone at any level is hugely valuable.

How much of the dotmailer platform is easily customizable and when does it cross over into something that requires your team’s expertise? How much time is spent on these custom solutions one-time or ongoing?

I’ll let you in on a little secret here. We don’t actually do anything that our customers can’t do with dotmailer given the right knowledge and resources. This is because we build all of our solutions using the dotmailer public API. The API has hundreds of methods in both SOAP and REST versions, which allows you to do a huge amount with the dotmailer platform. We do have a vast amount of experience and knowledge in the team so we may well be able to build a solution quicker than our customers. We are more than happy to help them and their development teams build a solution using us on a consultancy basis to lessen the steepness of the learning curve.

Our aim when building a solution for a customer is that it runs silently in the background and does what it should without any fuss.

What are your plans for the Custom Tech Solutions team going forward?

The great thing about Custom Technical Solutions is you never know what is around the corner as our customers have very diverse needs. What we are concentrating on at the moment is refining our processes to ensure that they are as streamlined as possible and allow us to give as much information to the customer as we can. We are also always looking at the technology and coding approaches that we use to make sure that we build the most innovative and robust solutions.

We are also looking at our external marketing and sharing our knowledge through blogs so keep an eye on the website for our insights.

What are the most common questions that you get when speaking to a prospective customer?

Most questions seem to revolve around reassurance such as “Have you done this before?”, “How safe is my data?”, “What about security?”, “Can you talk to my developers?”, “Do I need to do anything?”.  In most instances, we are the ones asking the questions as we need to find out information as soon as possible so that we can analyse it to ensure that we have the right detail to provide the right solution.

Can you tell us about the dotmailer differentiators you highlight when speaking to prospective customers that seem to really resonate?

We talk a lot about working with best of breed so for example a customer can use our Channel Extensions in automation programs to fire out an SMS to a contact using their existing provider. We don’t force customers down one route, we like to let them decide for themselves.

Also, I really like to emphasize the fact that there is always more than one way to do something within the dotmailer platform. This means we can usually find a way to do something that works for a client within the platform. If not, then we call in CTS to work out if there is a way that we can build something that will — whether this is automating uploads for a small client or mass sending from thousands of child accounts for an enterprise level one.

What do you see as the future of marketing automation technology?  Will one size ever fit all? Or more customization going forward?

The 64 million dollar question. One size will never fit all. Companies and their systems are too organic for that. There isn’t one car that suits every driver or one racquet that suits every sport. Working with a top drawer partner network and building our system to be as open as possible from an integration perspective means that our customers can make dotmailer mold to their business and not the other way round…and adding to that the fact that we are building lots of features in the platform that will blow your socks off.

Tell us a bit about yourself – favorite sports team, favorite food, guilty pleasure, favorite band, favorite vacation spot?

I’m a dyed in the wool Gooner (aka Arsenal Football Club fan) thanks to my Grandfather leading me down the right path as a child. If you are still reading this after that bombshell, then food-wise I pretty much like everything apart from coriander which as far as I’m concerned is the Devils own spawn. I don’t really have a favorite band, but am partial to a bit of Level 42 and Kings of Leon and you will also find me listening to 90s drum and bass and proper old school hip hop. My favorite holiday destination is any decent villa that I can relax in and spend time with my family and I went to Paris recently and loved that. Guilty pleasure – well that probably has to be confessing to liking Coldplay or the fact that my favorite sandwich is peanut butter, cheese and salad cream. Go on try it, you’ll love it.

Want to meet more of the dotmailer team? Say hi to Darren Hockley, Global Head of Support, and Dan Morris, EVP for North America.

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Controlling Search Engine Crawlers for Better Indexation and Rankings – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

When should you disallow search engines in your robots.txt file, and when should you use meta robots tags in a page header? What about nofollowing links? In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand covers these tools and their appropriate use in four situations that SEOs commonly find themselves facing.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to talk about controlling search engine crawlers, blocking bots, sending bots where we want, restricting them from where we don’t want them to go. We’re going to talk a little bit about crawl budget and what you should and shouldn’t have indexed.

As a start, what I want to do is discuss the ways in which we can control robots. Those include the three primary ones: robots.txt, meta robots, and—well, the nofollow tag is a little bit less about controlling bots.

There are a few others that we’re going to discuss as well, including Webmaster Tools (Search Console) and URL status codes. But let’s dive into those first few first.

Robots.txt lives at yoursite.com/robots.txt, it tells crawlers what they should and shouldn’t access, it doesn’t always get respected by Google and Bing. So a lot of folks when you say, “hey, disallow this,” and then you suddenly see those URLs popping up and you’re wondering what’s going on, look—Google and Bing oftentimes think that they just know better. They think that maybe you’ve made a mistake, they think “hey, there’s a lot of links pointing to this content, there’s a lot of people who are visiting and caring about this content, maybe you didn’t intend for us to block it.” The more specific you get about an individual URL, the better they usually are about respecting it. The less specific, meaning the more you use wildcards or say “everything behind this entire big directory,” the worse they are about necessarily believing you.

Meta robots—a little different—that lives in the headers of individual pages, so you can only control a single page with a meta robots tag. That tells the engines whether or not they should keep a page in the index, and whether they should follow the links on that page, and it’s usually a lot more respected, because it’s at an individual-page level; Google and Bing tend to believe you about the meta robots tag.

And then the nofollow tag, that lives on an individual link on a page. It doesn’t tell engines where to crawl or not to crawl. All it’s saying is whether you editorially vouch for a page that is being linked to, and whether you want to pass the PageRank and link equity metrics to that page.

Interesting point about meta robots and robots.txt working together (or not working together so well)—many, many folks in the SEO world do this and then get frustrated.

What if, for example, we take a page like “blogtest.html” on our domain and we say “all user agents, you are not allowed to crawl blogtest.html. Okay—that’s a good way to keep that page away from being crawled, but just because something is not crawled doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be in the search results.

So then we have our SEO folks go, “you know what, let’s make doubly sure that doesn’t show up in search results; we’ll put in the meta robots tag:”

<meta name="robots" content="noindex, follow">

So, “noindex, follow” tells the search engine crawler they can follow the links on the page, but they shouldn’t index this particular one.

Then, you go and run a search for “blog test” in this case, and everybody on the team’s like “What the heck!? WTF? Why am I seeing this page show up in search results?”

The answer is, you told the engines that they couldn’t crawl the page, so they didn’t. But they are still putting it in the results. They’re actually probably not going to include a meta description; they might have something like “we can’t include a meta description because of this site’s robots.txt file.” The reason it’s showing up is because they can’t see the noindex; all they see is the disallow.

So, if you want something truly removed, unable to be seen in search results, you can’t just disallow a crawler. You have to say meta “noindex” and you have to let them crawl it.

So this creates some complications. Robots.txt can be great if we’re trying to save crawl bandwidth, but it isn’t necessarily ideal for preventing a page from being shown in the search results. I would not recommend, by the way, that you do what we think Twitter recently tried to do, where they tried to canonicalize www and non-www by saying “Google, don’t crawl the www version of twitter.com.” What you should be doing is rel canonical-ing or using a 301.

Meta robots—that can allow crawling and link-following while disallowing indexation, which is great, but it requires crawl budget and you can still conserve indexing.

The nofollow tag, generally speaking, is not particularly useful for controlling bots or conserving indexation.

Webmaster Tools (now Google Search Console) has some special things that allow you to restrict access or remove a result from the search results. For example, if you have 404’d something or if you’ve told them not to crawl something but it’s still showing up in there, you can manually say “don’t do that.” There are a few other crawl protocol things that you can do.

And then URL status codes—these are a valid way to do things, but they’re going to obviously change what’s going on on your pages, too.

If you’re not having a lot of luck using a 404 to remove something, you can use a 410 to permanently remove something from the index. Just be aware that once you use a 410, it can take a long time if you want to get that page re-crawled or re-indexed, and you want to tell the search engines “it’s back!” 410 is permanent removal.

301—permanent redirect, we’ve talked about those here—and 302, temporary redirect.

Now let’s jump into a few specific use cases of “what kinds of content should and shouldn’t I allow engines to crawl and index” in this next version…

[Rand moves at superhuman speed to erase the board and draw part two of this Whiteboard Friday. Seriously, we showed Roger how fast it was, and even he was impressed.]

Four crawling/indexing problems to solve

So we’ve got these four big problems that I want to talk about as they relate to crawling and indexing.

1. Content that isn’t ready yet

The first one here is around, “If I have content of quality I’m still trying to improve—it’s not yet ready for primetime, it’s not ready for Google, maybe I have a bunch of products and I only have the descriptions from the manufacturer and I need people to be able to access them, so I’m rewriting the content and creating unique value on those pages… they’re just not ready yet—what should I do with those?”

My options around crawling and indexing? If I have a large quantity of those—maybe thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands—I would probably go the robots.txt route. I’d disallow those pages from being crawled, and then eventually as I get (folder by folder) those sets of URLs ready, I can then allow crawling and maybe even submit them to Google via an XML sitemap.

If I’m talking about a small quantity—a few dozen, a few hundred pages—well, I’d probably just use the meta robots noindex, and then I’d pull that noindex off of those pages as they are made ready for Google’s consumption. And then again, I would probably use the XML sitemap and start submitting those once they’re ready.

2. Dealing with duplicate or thin content

What about, “Should I noindex, nofollow, or potentially disallow crawling on largely duplicate URLs or thin content?” I’ve got an example. Let’s say I’m an ecommerce shop, I’m selling this nice Star Wars t-shirt which I think is kind of hilarious, so I’ve got starwarsshirt.html, and it links out to a larger version of an image, and that’s an individual HTML page. It links out to different colors, which change the URL of the page, so I have a gray, blue, and black version. Well, these four pages are really all part of this same one, so I wouldn’t recommend disallowing crawling on these, and I wouldn’t recommend noindexing them. What I would do there is a rel canonical.

Remember, rel canonical is one of those things that can be precluded by disallowing. So, if I were to disallow these from being crawled, Google couldn’t see the rel canonical back, so if someone linked to the blue version instead of the default version, now I potentially don’t get link credit for that. So what I really want to do is use the rel canonical, allow the indexing, and allow it to be crawled. If you really feel like it, you could also put a meta “noindex, follow” on these pages, but I don’t really think that’s necessary, and again that might interfere with the rel canonical.

3. Passing link equity without appearing in search results

Number three: “If I want to pass link equity (or at least crawling) through a set of pages without those pages actually appearing in search results—so maybe I have navigational stuff, ways that humans are going to navigate through my pages, but I don’t need those appearing in search results—what should I use then?”

What I would say here is, you can use the meta robots to say “don’t index the page, but do follow the links that are on that page.” That’s a pretty nice, handy use case for that.

Do NOT, however, disallow those in robots.txt—many, many folks make this mistake. What happens if you disallow crawling on those, Google can’t see the noindex. They don’t know that they can follow it. Granted, as we talked about before, sometimes Google doesn’t obey the robots.txt, but you can’t rely on that behavior. Trust that the disallow in robots.txt will prevent them from crawling. So I would say, the meta robots “noindex, follow” is the way to do this.

4. Search results-type pages

Finally, fourth, “What should I do with search results-type pages?” Google has said many times that they don’t like your search results from your own internal engine appearing in their search results, and so this can be a tricky use case.

Sometimes a search result page—a page that lists many types of results that might come from a database of types of content that you’ve got on your site—could actually be a very good result for a searcher who is looking for a wide variety of content, or who wants to see what you have on offer. Yelp does this: When you say, “I’m looking for restaurants in Seattle, WA,” they’ll give you what is essentially a list of search results, and Google does want those to appear because that page provides a great result. But you should be doing what Yelp does there, and make the most common or popular individual sets of those search results into category-style pages. A page that provides real, unique value, that’s not just a list of search results, that is more of a landing page than a search results page.

However, that being said, if you’ve got a long tail of these, or if you’d say “hey, our internal search engine, that’s really for internal visitors only—it’s not useful to have those pages show up in search results, and we don’t think we need to make the effort to make those into category landing pages.” Then you can use the disallow in robots.txt to prevent those.

Just be cautious here, because I have sometimes seen an over-swinging of the pendulum toward blocking all types of search results, and sometimes that can actually hurt your SEO and your traffic. Sometimes those pages can be really useful to people. So check your analytics, and make sure those aren’t valuable pages that should be served up and turned into landing pages. If you’re sure, then go ahead and disallow all your search results-style pages. You’ll see a lot of sites doing this in their robots.txt file.

That being said, I hope you have some great questions about crawling and indexing, controlling robots, blocking robots, allowing robots, and I’ll try and tackle those in the comments below.

We’ll look forward to seeing you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care!

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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Big Data, Big Problems: 4 Major Link Indexes Compared

Posted by russangular

Given this blog’s readership, chances are good you will spend some time this week looking at backlinks in one of the growing number of link data tools. We know backlinks continue to be one of, if not the most important
parts of Google’s ranking algorithm. We tend to take these link data sets at face value, though, in part because they are all we have. But when your rankings are on the line, is there a better way to get at which data set is the best? How should we go
about assessing these different link indexes like
Moz,
Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush for quality? Historically, there have been 4 common approaches to this question of index quality…

  • Breadth: We might choose to look at the number of linking root domains any given service reports. We know
    that referring domains correlates strongly with search rankings, so it makes sense to judge a link index by how many unique domains it has
    discovered and indexed.
  • Depth: We also might choose to look at how deep the web has been crawled, looking more at the total number of URLs
    in the index, rather than the diversity of referring domains.
  • Link Overlap: A more sophisticated approach might count the number of links an index has in common with Google Webmaster
    Tools.
  • Freshness: Finally, we might choose to look at the freshness of the index. What percentage of links in the index are
    still live?

There are a number of really good studies (some newer than others) using these techniques that are worth checking out when you get a chance:

  • BuiltVisible analysis of Moz, Majestic, GWT, Ahrefs and Search Metrics
  • SEOBook comparison of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and Ayima
  • MatthewWoodward
    study of Ahrefs, Majestic, Moz, Raven and SEO Spyglass
  • Marketing Signals analysis of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and GWT
  • RankAbove comparison of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and Link Research Tools
  • StoneTemple study of Moz and Majestic

While these are all excellent at addressing the methodologies above, there is a particular limitation with all of them. They miss one of the
most important metrics we need to determine the value of a link index: proportional representation to Google’s link graph
. So here at Angular Marketing, we decided to take a closer look.

Proportional representation to Google Search Console data

So, why is it important to determine proportional representation? Many of the most important and valued metrics we use are built on proportional
models. PageRank, MozRank, CitationFlow and Ahrefs Rank are proportional in nature. The score of any one URL in the data set is relative to the
other URLs in the data set. If the data set is biased, the results are biased.

A Visualization

Link graphs are biased by their crawl prioritization. Because there is no full representation of the Internet, every link graph, even Google’s,
is a biased sample of the web. Imagine for a second that the picture below is of the web. Each dot represents a page on the Internet,
and the dots surrounded by green represent a fictitious index by Google of certain sections of the web.

Of course, Google isn’t the only organization that crawls the web. Other organizations like Moz,
Majestic, Ahrefs, and SEMrush
have their own crawl prioritizations which result in different link indexes.

In the example above, you can see different link providers trying to index the web like Google. Link data provider 1 (purple) does a good job
of building a model that is similar to Google. It isn’t very big, but it is proportional. Link data provider 2 (blue) has a much larger index,
and likely has more links in common with Google that link data provider 1, but it is highly disproportional. So, how would we go about measuring
this proportionality? And which data set is the most proportional to Google?

Methodology

The first step is to determine a measurement of relativity for analysis. Google doesn’t give us very much information about their link graph.
All we have is what is in Google Search Console. The best source we can use is referring domain counts. In particular, we want to look at
what we call
referring domain link pairs. A referring domain link pair would be something like ask.com->mlb.com: 9,444 which means
that ask.com links to mlb.com 9,444 times.

Steps

  1. Determine the root linking domain pairs and values to 100+ sites in Google Search Console
  2. Determine the same for Ahrefs, Moz, Majestic Fresh, Majestic Historic, SEMrush
  3. Compare the referring domain link pairs of each data set to Google, assuming a
    Poisson Distribution
  4. Run simulations of each data set’s performance against each other (ie: Moz vs Maj, Ahrefs vs SEMrush, Moz vs SEMrush, et al.)
  5. Analyze the results

Results

When placed head-to-head, there seem to be some clear winners at first glance. In head-to-head, Moz edges out Ahrefs, but across the board, Moz and Ahrefs fare quite evenly. Moz, Ahrefs and SEMrush seem to be far better than Majestic Fresh and Majestic Historic. Is that really the case? And why?

It turns out there is an inversely proportional relationship between index size and proportional relevancy. This might seem counterintuitive,
shouldn’t the bigger indexes be closer to Google? Not Exactly.

What does this mean?

Each organization has to create a crawl prioritization strategy. When you discover millions of links, you have to prioritize which ones you
might crawl next. Google has a crawl prioritization, so does Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush. There are lots of different things you might
choose to prioritize…

  • You might prioritize link discovery. If you want to build a very large index, you could prioritize crawling pages on sites that
    have historically provided new links.
  • You might prioritize content uniqueness. If you want to build a search engine, you might prioritize finding pages that are unlike
    any you have seen before. You could choose to crawl domains that historically provide unique data and little duplicate content.
  • You might prioritize content freshness. If you want to keep your search engine recent, you might prioritize crawling pages that
    change frequently.
  • You might prioritize content value, crawling the most important URLs first based on the number of inbound links to that page.

Chances are, an organization’s crawl priority will blend some of these features, but it’s difficult to design one exactly like Google. Imagine
for a moment that instead of crawling the web, you want to climb a tree. You have to come up with a tree climbing strategy.

  • You decide to climb the longest branch you see at each intersection.
  • One friend of yours decides to climb the first new branch he reaches, regardless of how long it is.
  • Your other friend decides to climb the first new branch she reaches only if she sees another branch coming off of it.

Despite having different climb strategies, everyone chooses the same first branch, and everyone chooses the same second branch. There are only
so many different options early on.

But as the climbers go further and further along, their choices eventually produce differing results. This is exactly the same for web crawlers
like Google, Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush. The bigger the crawl, the more the crawl prioritization will cause disparities. This is not a
deficiency; this is just the nature of the beast. However, we aren’t completely lost. Once we know how index size is related to disparity, we
can make some inferences about how similar a crawl priority may be to Google.

Unfortunately, we have to be careful in our conclusions. We only have a few data points with which to work, so it is very difficult to be
certain regarding this part of the analysis. In particular, it seems strange that Majestic would get better relative to its index size as it grows,
unless Google holds on to old data (which might be an important discovery in and of itself). It is most likely that at this point we can’t make
this level of conclusion.

So what do we do?

Let’s say you have a list of domains or URLs for which you would like to know their relative values. Your process might look something like
this…

  • Check Open Site Explorer to see if all URLs are in their index. If so, you are looking metrics most likely to be proportional to Google’s link graph.
  • If any of the links do not occur in the index, move to Ahrefs and use their Ahrefs ranking if all you need is a single PageRank-like metric.
  • If any of the links are missing from Ahrefs’s index, or you need something related to trust, move on to Majestic Fresh.
  • Finally, use Majestic Historic for (by leaps and bounds) the largest coverage available.

It is important to point out that the likelihood that all the URLs you want to check are in a single index increases as the accuracy of the metric
decreases. Considering the size of Majestic’s data, you can’t ignore them because you are less likely to get null value answers from their data than
the others. If anything rings true, it is that once again it makes sense to get data
from as many sources as possible. You won’t
get the most proportional data without Moz, the broadest data without Majestic, or everything in-between without Ahrefs.

What about SEMrush? They are making progress, but they don’t publish any relative statistics that would be useful in this particular
case. Maybe we can hope to see more from them soon given their already promising index!

Recommendations for the link graphing industry

All we hear about these days is big data; we almost never hear about good data. I know that the teams at Moz,
Majestic, Ahrefs, SEMrush and others are interested in mimicking Google, but I would love to see some organization stand up against the
allure of
more data in favor of better data—data more like Google’s. It could begin with testing various crawl strategies to see if they produce
a result more similar to that of data shared in Google Search Console. Having the most Google-like data is certainly a crown worth winning.

Credits

Thanks to Diana Carter at Angular for assistance with data acquisition and Andrew Cron with statistical analysis. Thanks also to the representatives from Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and SEMrush for answering questions about their indices.

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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How to Combat 5 of the SEO World’s Most Infuriating Problems – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

These days, most of us have learned that spammy techniques aren’t the way to go, and we have a solid sense for the things we should be doing to rank higher, and ahead of our often spammier competitors. Sometimes, maddeningly, it just doesn’t work. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about five things that can infuriate SEOs with the best of intentions, why those problems exist, and what we can do about them.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

What SEO problems make you angry?

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re chatting about some of the most infuriating things in the SEO world, specifically five problems that I think plague a lot of folks and some of the ways that we can combat and address those.

I’m going to start with one of the things that really infuriates a lot of new folks to the field, especially folks who are building new and emerging sites and are doing SEO on them. You have all of these best practices list. You might look at a web developer’s cheat sheet or sort of a guide to on-page and on-site SEO. You go, “Hey, I’m doing it. I’ve got my clean URLs, my good, unique content, my solid keyword targeting, schema markup, useful internal links, my XML sitemap, and my fast load speed. I’m mobile friendly, and I don’t have manipulative links.”

Great. “Where are my results? What benefit am I getting from doing all these things, because I don’t see one?” I took a site that was not particularly SEO friendly, maybe it’s a new site, one I just launched or an emerging site, one that’s sort of slowly growing but not yet a power player. I do all this right stuff, and I don’t get SEO results.

This makes a lot of people stop investing in SEO, stop believing in SEO, and stop wanting to do it. I can understand where you’re coming from. The challenge is not one of you’ve done something wrong. It’s that this stuff, all of these things that you do right, especially things that you do right on your own site or from a best practices perspective, they don’t increase rankings. They don’t. That’s not what they’re designed to do.

1) Following best practices often does nothing for new and emerging sites

This stuff, all of these best practices are designed to protect you from potential problems. They’re designed to make sure that your site is properly optimized so that you can perform to the highest degree that you are able. But this is not actually rank boosting stuff unfortunately. That is very frustrating for many folks. So following a best practices list, the idea is not, “Hey, I’m going to grow my rankings by doing this.”

On the flip side, many folks do these things on larger, more well-established sites, sites that have a lot of ranking signals already in place. They’re bigger brands, they have lots of links to them, and they have lots of users and usage engagement signals. You fix this stuff. You fix stuff that’s already broken, and boom, rankings pop up. Things are going well, and more of your pages are indexed. You’re getting more search traffic, and it feels great. This is a challenge, on our part, of understanding what this stuff does, not a challenge on the search engine’s part of not ranking us properly for having done all of these right things.

2) My competition seems to be ranking on the back of spammy or manipulative links

What’s going on? I thought Google had introduced all these algorithms to kind of shut this stuff down. This seems very frustrating. How are they pulling this off? I look at their link profile, and I see a bunch of the directories, Web 2.0 sites — I love that the spam world decided that that’s Web 2.0 sites — article sites, private blog networks, and do follow blogs.

You look at this stuff and you go, “What is this junk? It’s terrible. Why isn’t Google penalizing them for this?” The answer, the right way to think about this and to come at this is: Are these really the reason that they rank? I think we need to ask ourselves that question.

One thing that we don’t know, that we can never know, is: Have these links been disavowed by our competitor here?

I’ve got my HulksIncredibleStore.com and their evil competitor Hulk-tastrophe.com. Hulk-tastrophe has got all of these terrible links, but maybe they disavowed those links and you would have no idea. Maybe they didn’t build those links. Perhaps those links came in from some other place. They are not responsible. Google is not treating them as responsible for it. They’re not actually what’s helping them.

If they are helping, and it’s possible they are, there are still instances where we’ve seen spam propping up sites. No doubt about it.

I think the next logical question is: Are you willing to loose your site or brand? What we don’t see anymore is we almost never see sites like this, who are ranking on the back of these things and have generally less legitimate and good links, ranking for two or three or four years. You can see it for a few months, maybe even a year, but this stuff is getting hit hard and getting hit frequently. So unless you’re willing to loose your site, pursuing their links is probably not a strategy.

Then what other signals, that you might not be considering potentially links, but also non-linking signals, could be helping them rank? I think a lot of us get blinded in the SEO world by link signals, and we forget to look at things like: Do they have a phenomenal user experience? Are they growing their brand? Are they doing offline kinds of things that are influencing online? Are they gaining engagement from other channels that’s then influencing their SEO? Do they have things coming in that I can’t see? If you don’t ask those questions, you can’t really learn from your competitors, and you just feel the frustration.

3) I have no visibility or understanding of why my rankings go up vs down

On my HulksIncredibleStore.com, I’ve got my infinite stretch shorts, which I don’t know why he never wears — he should really buy those — my soothing herbal tea, and my anger management books. I look at my rankings and they kind of jump up all the time, jump all over the place all the time. Actually, this is pretty normal. I think we’ve done some analyses here, and the average page one search results shift is 1.5 or 2 position changes daily. That’s sort of the MozCast dataset, if I’m recalling correctly. That means that, over the course of a week, it’s not uncommon or unnatural for you to be bouncing around four, five, or six positions up, down, and those kind of things.

I think we should understand what can be behind these things. That’s a very simple list. You made changes, Google made changes, your competitors made changes, or searcher behavior has changed in terms of volume, in terms of what they were engaging with, what they’re clicking on, what their intent behind searches are. Maybe there was just a new movie that came out and in one of the scenes Hulk talks about soothing herbal tea. So now people are searching for very different things than they were before. They want to see the scene. They’re looking for the YouTube video clip and those kind of things. Suddenly Hulk’s soothing herbal tea is no longer directing as well to your site.

So changes like these things can happen. We can’t understand all of them. I think what’s up to us to determine is the degree of analysis and action that’s actually going to provide a return on investment. Looking at these day over day or week over week and throwing up our hands and getting frustrated probably provides very little return on investment. Looking over the long term and saying, “Hey, over the last 6 months, we can observe 26 weeks of ranking change data, and we can see that in aggregate we are now ranking higher and for more keywords than we were previously, and so we’re going to continue pursuing this strategy. This is the set of keywords that we’ve fallen most on, and here are the factors that we’ve identified that are consistent across that group.” I think looking at rankings in aggregate can give us some real positive ROI. Looking at one or two, one week or the next week probably very little ROI.

4) I cannot influence or affect change in my organization because I cannot accurately quantify, predict, or control SEO

That’s true, especially with things like keyword not provided and certainly with the inaccuracy of data that’s provided to us through Google’s Keyword Planner inside of AdWords, for example, and the fact that no one can really control SEO, not fully anyway.

You get up in front of your team, your board, your manager, your client and you say, “Hey, if we don’t do these things, traffic will suffer,” and they go, “Well, you can’t be sure about that, and you can’t perfectly predict it. Last time you told us something, something else happened. So because the data is imperfect, we’d rather spend money on channels that we can perfectly predict, that we can very effectively quantify, and that we can very effectively control.” That is understandable. I think that businesses have a lot of risk aversion naturally, and so wanting to spend time and energy and effort in areas that you can control feels a lot safer.

Some ways to get around this are, first off, know your audience. If you know who you’re talking to in the room, you can often determine the things that will move the needle for them. For example, I find that many managers, many boards, many executives are much more influenced by competitive pressures than they are by, “We won’t do as well as we did before, or we’re loosing out on this potential opportunity.” Saying that is less powerful than saying, “This competitor, who I know we care about and we track ourselves against, is capturing this traffic and here’s how they’re doing it.”

Show multiple scenarios. Many of the SEO presentations that I see and have seen and still see from consultants and from in-house folks come with kind of a single, “Hey, here’s what we predict will happen if we do this or what we predict will happen if we don’t do this.” You’ve got to show multiple scenarios, especially when you know you have error bars because you can’t accurately quantify and predict. You need to show ranges.

So instead of this, I want to see: What happens if we do it a little bit? What happens if we really overinvest? What happens if Google makes a much bigger change on this particular factor than we expect or our competitors do a much bigger investment than we expect? How might those change the numbers?

Then I really do like bringing case studies, especially if you’re a consultant, but even in-house there are so many case studies in SEO on the Web today, you can almost always find someone who’s analogous or nearly analogous and show some of their data, some of the results that they’ve seen. Places like SEMrush, a tool that offers competitive intelligence around rankings, can be great for that. You can show, hey, this media site in our sector made these changes. Look at the delta of keywords they were ranking for versus R over the next six months. Correlation is not causation, but that can be a powerful influencer showing those kind of things.

Then last, but not least, any time you’re going to get up like this and present to a group around these topics, if you very possibly can, try to talk one-on-one with the participants before the meeting actually happens. I have found it almost universally the case that when you get into a group setting, if you haven’t had the discussions beforehand about like, “What are your concerns? What do you think is not valid about this data? Hey, I want to run this by you and get your thoughts before we go to the meeting.” If you don’t do that ahead of time, people can gang up and pile on. One person says, “Hey, I don’t think this is right,” and everybody in the room kind of looks around and goes, “Yeah, I also don’t think that’s right.” Then it just turns into warfare and conflict that you don’t want or need. If you address those things beforehand, then you can include the data, the presentations, and the “I don’t know the answer to this and I know this is important to so and so” in that presentation or in that discussion. It can be hugely helpful. Big difference between winning and losing with that.

5) Google is biasing to big brands. It feels hopeless to compete against them

A lot of people are feeling this hopelessness, hopelessness in SEO about competing against them. I get that pain. In fact, I’ve felt that very strongly for a long time in the SEO world, and I think the trend has only increased. This comes from all sorts of stuff. Brands now have the little dropdown next to their search result listing. There are these brand and entity connections. As Google is using answers and knowledge graph more and more, it’s feeling like those entities are having a bigger influence on where things rank and where they’re visible and where they’re pulling from.

User and usage behavior signals on the rise means that big brands, who have more of those signals, tend to perform better. Brands in the knowledge graph, brands growing links without any effort, they’re just growing links because they’re brands and people point to them naturally. Well, that is all really tough and can be very frustrating.

I think you have a few choices on the table. First off, you can choose to compete with brands where they can’t or won’t. So this is areas like we’re going after these keywords that we know these big brands are not chasing. We’re going after social channels or people on social media that we know big brands aren’t. We’re going after user generated content because they have all these corporate requirements and they won’t invest in that stuff. We’re going after content that they refuse to pursue for one reason or another. That can be very effective.

You better be building, growing, and leveraging your competitive advantage. Whenever you build an organization, you’ve got to say, “Hey, here’s who is out there. This is why we are uniquely better or a uniquely better choice for this set of customers than these other ones.” If you can leverage that, you can generally find opportunities to compete and even to win against big brands. But those things have to become obvious, they have to become well-known, and you need to essentially build some of your brand around those advantages, or they’re not going to give you help in search. That includes media, that includes content, that includes any sort of press and PR you’re doing. That includes how you do your own messaging, all of these things.

(C) You can choose to serve a market or a customer that they don’t or won’t. That can be a powerful way to go about search, because usually search is bifurcated by the customer type. There will be slightly different forms of search queries that are entered by different kinds of customers, and you can pursue one of those that isn’t pursued by the competition.

Last, but not least, I think for everyone in SEO we all realize we’re going to have to become brands ourselves. That means building the signals that are typically associated with brands — authority, recognition from an industry, recognition from a customer set, awareness of our brand even before a search has happened. I talked about this in a previous Whiteboard Friday, but I think because of these things, SEO is becoming a channel that you benefit from as you grow your brand rather than the channel you use to initially build your brand.

All right, everyone. Hope these have been helpful in combating some of these infuriating, frustrating problems and that we’ll see some great comments from you guys. I hope to participate in those as well, and we’ll catch you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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