Has Google Gone Too Far with the Bias Toward Its Own Content?

Posted by ajfried

Since the beginning of SEO time, practitioners have been trying to crack the Google algorithm. Every once in a while, the industry gets a glimpse into how the search giant works and we have opportunity to deconstruct it. We don’t get many of these opportunities, but when we do—assuming we spot them in time—we try to take advantage of them so we can “fix the Internet.”

On Feb. 16, 2015, news started to circulate that NBC would start removing images and references of Brian Williams from its website.

This was it!

A golden opportunity.

This was our chance to learn more about the Knowledge Graph.

Expectation vs. reality

Often it’s difficult to predict what Google is truly going to do. We expect something to happen, but in reality it’s nothing like we imagined.

Expectation

What we expected to see was that Google would change the source of the image. Typically, if you hover over the image in the Knowledge Graph, it reveals the location of the image.

Keanu-Reeves-Image-Location.gif

This would mean that if the image disappeared from its original source, then the image displayed in the Knowledge Graph would likely change or even disappear entirely.

Reality (February 2015)

The only problem was, there was no official source (this changed, as you will soon see) and identifying where the image was coming from proved extremely challenging. In fact, when you clicked on the image, it took you to an image search result that didn’t even include the image.

Could it be? Had Google started its own database of owned or licensed images and was giving it priority over any other sources?

In order to find the source, we tried taking the image from the Knowledge Graph and “search by image” in images.google.com to find others like it. For the NBC Nightly News image, Google failed to even locate a match to the image it was actually using anywhere on the Internet. For other television programs, it was successful. Here is an example of what happened for Morning Joe:

Morning_Joe_image_search.png

So we found the potential source. In fact, we found three potential sources. Seemed kind of strange, but this seemed to be the discovery we were looking for.

This looks like Google is using someone else’s content and not referencing it. These images have a source, but Google is choosing not to show it.

Then Google pulled the ol’ switcheroo.

New reality (March 2015)

Now things changed and Google decided to put a source to their images. Unfortunately, I mistakenly assumed that hovering over an image showed the same thing as the file path at the bottom, but I was wrong. The URL you see when you hover over an image in the Knowledge Graph is actually nothing more than the title. The source is different.

Morning_Joe_Source.png

Luckily, I still had two screenshots I took when I first saw this saved on my desktop. Success. One screen capture was from NBC Nightly News, and the other from the news show Morning Joe (see above) showing that the source was changed.

NBC-nightly-news-crop.png

(NBC Nightly News screenshot.)

The source is a Google-owned property: gstatic.com. You can clearly see the difference in the source change. What started as a hypothesis in now a fact. Google is certainly creating a database of images.

If this is the direction Google is moving, then it is creating all kinds of potential risks for brands and individuals. The implications are a loss of control for any brand that is looking to optimize its Knowledge Graph results. As well, it seems this poses a conflict of interest to Google, whose mission is to organize the world’s information, not license and prioritize it.

How do we think Google is supposed to work?

Google is an information-retrieval system tasked with sourcing information from across the web and supplying the most relevant results to users’ searches. In recent months, the search giant has taken a more direct approach by answering questions and assumed questions in the Answer Box, some of which come from un-credited sources. Google has clearly demonstrated that it is building a knowledge base of facts that it uses as the basis for its Answer Boxes. When it sources information from that knowledge base, it doesn’t necessarily reference or credit any source.

However, I would argue there is a difference between an un-credited Answer Box and an un-credited image. An un-credited Answer Box provides a fact that is indisputable, part of the public domain, unlikely to change (e.g., what year was Abraham Lincoln shot? How long is the George Washington Bridge?) Answer Boxes that offer more than just a basic fact (or an opinion, instructions, etc.) always credit their sources.

There are four possibilities when it comes to Google referencing content:

  • Option 1: It credits the content because someone else owns the rights to it
  • Option 2: It doesn’t credit the content because it’s part of the public domain, as seen in some Answer Box results
  • Option 3: It doesn’t reference it because it owns or has licensed the content. If you search for “Chicken Pox” or other diseases, Google appears to be using images from licensed medical illustrators. The same goes for song lyrics, which Eric Enge discusses here: Google providing credit for content. This adds to the speculation that Google is giving preference to its own content by displaying it over everything else.
  • Option 4: It doesn’t credit the content, but neither does it necessarily own the rights to the content. This is a very gray area, and is where Google seemed to be back in February. If this were the case, it would imply that Google is “stealing” content—which I find hard to believe, but felt was necessary to include in this post for the sake of completeness.

Is this an isolated incident?

At Five Blocks, whenever we see these anomalies in search results, we try to compare the term in question against others like it. This is a categorization concept we use to bucket individuals or companies into similar groups. When we do this, we uncover some incredible trends that help us determine what a search result “should” look like for a given group. For example, when looking at searches for a group of people or companies in an industry, this grouping gives us a sense of how much social media presence the group has on average or how much media coverage it typically gets.

Upon further investigation of terms similar to NBC Nightly News (other news shows), we noticed the un-credited image scenario appeared to be a trend in February, but now all of the images are being hosted on gstatic.com. When we broadened the categories further to TV shows and movies, the trend persisted. Rather than show an image in the Knowledge Graph and from the actual source, Google tends to show an image and reference the source from Google’s own database of stored images.

And just to ensure this wasn’t a case of tunnel vision, we researched other categories, including sports teams, actors and video games, in addition to spot-checking other genres.

Unlike terms for specific TV shows and movies, terms in each of these other groups all link to the actual source in the Knowledge Graph.

Immediate implications

It’s easy to ignore this and say “Well, it’s Google. They are always doing something.” However, there are some serious implications to these actions:

  1. The TV shows/movies aren’t receiving their due credit because, from within the Knowledge Graph, there is no actual reference to the show’s official site
  2. The more Google moves toward licensing and then retrieving their own information, the more biased they become, preferring their own content over the equivalent—or possibly even superior—content from another source
  3. If feels wrong and misleading to get a Google Image Search result rather than an actual site because:
    • The search doesn’t include the original image
    • Considering how poor Image Search results are normally, it feels like a poor experience
  4. If Google is moving toward licensing as much content as possible, then it could make the Knowledge Graph infinitely more complicated when there is a “mistake” or something unflattering. How could one go about changing what Google shows about them?

Google is objectively becoming subjective

It is clear that Google is attempting to create databases of information, including lyrics stored in Google Play, photos, and, previously, facts in Freebase (which is now Wikidata and not owned by Google).

I am not normally one to point my finger and accuse Google of wrongdoing. But this really strikes me as an odd move, one bordering on a clear bias to direct users to stay within the search engine. The fact is, we trust Google with a heck of a lot of information with our searches. In return, I believe we should expect Google to return an array of relevant information for searchers to decide what they like best. The example cited above seems harmless, but what about determining which is the right religion? Or even who the prettiest girl in the world is?

Religion-and-beauty-queries.png

Questions such as these, which Google is returning credited answers for, could return results that are perceived as facts.

Should we next expect Google to decide who is objectively the best service provider (e.g., pizza chain, painter, or accountant), then feature them in an un-credited answer box? The direction Google is moving right now, it feels like we should be calling into question their objectivity.

But that’s only my (subjective) opinion.

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Why the Links You’ve Built Aren’t Helping Your Page Rank Higher – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Link building can be incredibly effective, but sometimes a lot of effort can go into earning links with absolutely no improvement in rankings. Why? In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand shows us four things we should look at in these cases, help us hone our link building skills and make the process more effective.

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 chatting about why link building sometimes fails.

So I’ve got an example here. I’m going to do a search for artificial sweeteners. Let’s say I’m working for these guys, ScienceMag.org. Well, this is actually in position 10. I put it in position 3 here, but I see that I’m position 10. I think to myself, “Man, if I could get higher up on this page, that would be excellent. I’ve already produced the content. It’s on my domain. Like, Google seems to have indexed it fine. It’s performing well enough to perform on page one, granted at the bottom of page one, for this competitive query. Now I want to move my rankings up.”

So a lot of SEOs, naturally and historically, for a long time have thought, “I need to build more links to that page. If I can get more links pointing to this page, I can move up the rankings.” Granted, there are some other ways to do that too, and we’ve discussed those in previous Whiteboard Fridays. But links are one of the big ones that people use.

I think one of the challenges that we encounter is sometimes we invest that effort. We go through the process of that outreach campaign, talking to bloggers and other news sites and looking at where our link sources are coming from and trying to get some more of those. It just doesn’t seem to do anything. The link building appears to fail. It’s like, man, I’ve got all these nice links and no new results. I didn’t move up at all. I am basically staying where I am, or maybe I’m even falling down. Why is that? Why does link building sometimes work so well and so clearly and obviously, and sometimes it seems to do nothing at all?

What are some possible reasons link acquisition efforts may not be effective?

Oftentimes if you get a fresh set of eyes on it, an outside SEO perspective, they can do this audit, and they’ll walk through a lot of this stuff and help you realize, “Oh yeah, that’s probably why.” These are things that you might need to change strategically or tactically as you approach this problem. But you can do this yourself as well by looking at why a link building campaign, why a link building effort, for a particular page, might not be working.

1) Not the right links

First one, it’s not the right links. Not the right links, I mean a wide range of things, even broader than what I’ve listed here. But a lot of times that could mean low domain diversity. Yeah, you’re getting new links, but they’re coming from all the same places that you always get links from. Google, potentially, maybe views that as not particularly worthy of moving you up the rankings, especially around competitive queries.

It might be trustworthiness of source. So maybe they’re saying “Yeah, you got some links, but they’re not from particularly trustworthy places.” Tied into that maybe we don’t think or we’re sure that they’re not editorial. Maybe we think they’re paid, or we think they’re promotional in some way rather than being truly editorially given by this independent resource.

They might not come from a site or from a page that has the authority that’s necessary to move you up. Again, particularly for competitive queries, sometimes low-value links are just that. They’re not going to move the needle, especially not like they used to three, four, five or six years ago, where really just a large quantity of links, even from diverse domains, even if they were crappy links on crappy pages on relatively crappy or unknown websites would move the needle, not so much anymore. Google is seeing a lot more about these things.

Where else does the source link to? Is that source pointing to other stuff that is potentially looking manipulative to Google and so they discounted the outgoing links from that particular domain or those sites or those pages on those sites?

They might look at the relevance and say, “Hey, you know what? Yeah, you got linked to by some technology press articles. That doesn’t really have anything to do with artificial sweeteners, this topic, this realm, or this region.” So you’re not getting the same result. Now we’ve shown that off-topic links can oftentimes move the rankings, but in particular areas and in health, in fact, may be one of those Google might be more topically sensitive to where the links are coming from than other places.

Location on page. So I’ve got a page here and maybe all of my links are coming from a bunch of different domains, but it’s always in the right sidebar and it’s always in this little feed section. So Google’s saying, “Hey, that’s not really an editorial endorsement. That’s just them showing all the links that come through your particular blog feed or a subscription that they’ve got to your content or whatever it is promotionally pushing out. So we’re not going to count it that way.” Same thing a lot of times with footer links. Doesn’t work quite as well. If you’re being honest with yourself, you really want those in content links. Generally speaking, those tend to perform the best.

Or uniqueness. So they might look and they might say, “Yeah, you’ve got a ton of links from people who are republishing your same article and then just linking back to it. That doesn’t feel to us like an editorial endorsement, and so we’re just going to treat those copies as if those links didn’t exist at all.” But the links themselves may not actually be the problem. I think this can be a really important topic if you’re doing link acquisition auditing, because sometimes people get too focused on, “Oh, it must be something about the links that we’re getting.” That’s not always the case actually.

2) Not the right content

Sometimes it’s not the right content. So that could mean things like it’s temporally focused versus evergreen. So for different kinds of queries, Google interprets the intent of the searchers to be different. So it could be that when they see a search like “artificial sweeteners,” they say, “Yeah, it’s great that you wrote this piece about this recent research that came out. But you know what, we’re actually thinking that searchers are going to want in the top few results something that’s evergreen, that contains all the broad information that a searcher might need around this particular topic.”

That speaks to it might not answer the searchers questions. You might think, “Well, I’m answering a great question here.” The problem is, yeah you’re answering one. Searchers may have many questions that they’re asking around a topic, and Google is looking for something comprehensive, something that doesn’t mean a searcher clicks your result and then says, “Well, that was interesting, but I need more from a different result.” They’re looking for the one true result, the one true answer that tells them, “Hey, this person is very happy with these types of results.”

It could be poor user experience causing people to bounce back. That could be speed things, UI things, layout things, browser support things, multi-device support things. It might not use language formatting or text that people or engines can interpret as on the topic. Perhaps this is way over people’s heads, far too scientifically focused, most searchers can’t understand the language, or the other way around. It’s a highly scientific search query and a very advanced search query and your language is way dumbed down. Google isn’t interpreting that as on-topic. All the Hummingbird and topic modeling kind of things that they have say this isn’t for them.

Or it might not match expectations of searchers. This is distinct and different from searchers’ questions. So searchers’ questions is, “I want to know how artificial sweeteners might affect me.” Expectations might be, “I expect to learn this kind of information. I expect to find out these things.” For example, if you go down a rabbit hole of artificial sweeteners will make your skin shiny, they’re like, “Well, that doesn’t meet with my expectation. I don’t think that’s right.” Even if you have some data around that, that’s not what they were expecting to find. They might bounce back. Engines might not interpret you as on-topic, etc. So lots of content kinds of things.

3) Not the right domain

Then there are also domain issues. You might not have the right domain. Your domain might not be associated with the topic or content that Google and searchers are expecting. So they see Mayo Clinic, they see MedicineNet, and they go, “ScienceMag? Do they do health information? I don’t think they do. I’m not sure if that’s an appropriate one.” It might be perceived, even if you aren’t, as spammy or manipulative by Google, more probably than by searchers. Or searchers just won’t click your brand for that content. This is a very frustrating one, because we have seen a ton of times when search behavior is biased by the brand itself, by what’s in this green text here, the domain name or the brand name that Google might show there. That’s very frustrating, but it means that you need to build brand affinity between that topic, that keyword, and what’s in searchers’ heads.

4) Accessibility or technical issues

Then finally, there could be some accessibility or technical issues. Usually when that’s the case, you will notice pretty easily because the page will have an error. It won’t show the content properly. The cache will be an issue. That’s a rare one, but you might want to check for it as well.

But hopefully, using this kind of an audit system, you can figure out why a link building campaign, a link building effort isn’t working to move the needle on your rankings.

With that, we will see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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How to Avoid the Unrealistic Expectations SEOs Often Create – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

With all the changes we’ve seen in the field of SEO in recent years, we need to think differently about how we pitch our work to others. If we don’t, we run the risk of creating unreal expectations and disappointing our clients and companies. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand explains how to set expectations that will lead to excitement without the subsequent let-down.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat a little bit about the expectations that SEOs create and sometimes falsely create. It’s not always our fault, but it is always our responsibility to fix the expectations that we create with our teams, our managers, our executives, and, if we’re consultants, with our clients.

So here’s the problem. This is a conversation that I see happen a lot of the time. Here’s our friendly SEO guy over here, and he’s telling his client, “Hey, if we can rank on page 1 for even 10% of all these terms that I’ve selected, we’re going to drive a 500% increase in leads.”

Here’s the client over here, and she’s thinking to herself, “That sounds amazing. 500% increase in leads, that’s going to do wonderful things for my business. So let’s invest in SEO. This is going to be great. We only have to get 10% of these keywords on there. I don’t know anything about SEO, but that sounds totally possible.” Six months later, after all sort of stymieing and challenging problems, here she is going, “You told me we’d increase our leads by 500%!”

There’s the SEO saying, “Well yeah, but we have to get the rankings first, and we haven’t done that yet. I said we’d get the leads once we got the rankings.”

This kind of expectation and many others like it are a huge challenge. It is the case that modern SEO takes a lot of time to show results. Modern content marketing works the same way. You’re not going to start producing blog posts or interactive content or big content pieces and 3 months from now go, “Well, we made 50 new content pieces, and thus our traffic has tripled.”

That’s not how it works. The problem here is that SEO just doesn’t look like this anymore. It did, kind of, at one point. It really did.

We used to engage in an SEO contract. We’d make some changes to the existing pages, do some keyword targeting, some optimization, maybe fix things up that weren’t SEO friendly on the site, get our link structure in order. Great. Do a little bit of link building to the right kinds of pages that we need on our site from the right kind of places. We’d get those rankings. Now we can easily prove the value of the search traffic that’s coming through by looking at the keyword referrals in our analytics report, because keyword traffic is showing.

This process has been broken over the last five, six, seven years. But expectations have not caught up to where we are today. Modern SEO nowadays is really like this. You engage in that SEO contract, and then the SEO’s job is to be much more than an SEO, because there are so many factors that influence modern search rankings and modern search algorithms that really a great SEO, in order to have impact, has to go, “All right, now we’re going to start the audit.”

The audit isn’t going to look at which pages do you have on the site and what keywords do you want to match up and which ones do we need to fix, or just link structure or even things like schema. Well, let’s look at the content and the user experience and the branding and the PR, and we’ll check out your accessibility and speed and keyword targeting. We’ll do some competitive analysis, etc. Dozens of things that we’re going to potentially look at because all of them can impact SEO.

Yikes! Then, we’re not done. We’re going to determine which investments that we could possibly make into all of these things, almost all of which probably need some form of fixing. Some are more broken than others. Some we have an actual team that could go and fix them. Some of those teams have bandwidth and don’t. Some of those projects have executives who will approve them or not. We’re going to figure out which ones are possible, which ones are most likely to be done and actually drive ROI. Then we’re going to work across teams and executives and people to get all those different things done, because one human being can’t handle all of them unless we’re talking about a very, very tiny site.

Then we’re going to need to bolster a wide range of offsite signals, all of the things that we’ve talked about historically on Whiteboard Friday, everything from actual links to things around engagement to social media signals that correlate with those to PR and branding and voice and coverage.

Now, after months of waiting, if we’ve improved the right things, we’ll start to see creeping up our rankings, and we’ll be able to measure that from the traffic that pages receive. But we won’t be able to say, “Well, specifically this page now ranks higher for this keyword, and that keyword now sends us this amount of traffic,” because keyword not provided is taking away that data, making it very, very hard to see the value of visitors directly from search. That’s very frustrating

This is the new SEO process. You might be asking yourself, “Given these immense challenges, who in the world is even going to invest in SEO anymore?” The answer is, well, people who for the last decade have made a fortune or made a living on SEO, people who are aware of the power that SEO can drive, people who are aware of the fact that search continues to grow massively, that the channel is still hugely valuable, that it drives direct revenue and value in far greater quantity than social media by itself or content marketing by itself without SEO as a channel. The people who are going to invest successfully, though, are those whose expectations are properly set.

Everybody else is going to get somewhere in here, and they’re going to give up. They’re going to fire their SEO. You know what one of the things that really nags at me is? Ruth Burr mentioned this on Twitter the other day. Ruth said, “When your plumber fails to fix your pipes, you don’t assume that plumbing is a dead industry that no one should ever invest in. But when your SEO fails to get you rankings or traffic that you can measure, you assume all SEO is dead and all SEO is bad.”

That sucks. That’s a hard reality to live in, but it’s the one that we do live in.

I do have a solution though, and the solution isn’t just showing how this process works versus how old-school SEO works. It’s to craft a timeline, an expectation timeline.

When you’re signing a contract or when you’re pitching a project, or when you’re talking about, “Hey, this is what were going to do for SEO,” try showing a timeline of the expectations. Instead of saying, “If we can rank on page one,” say, “If we can complete our audit and fix the things we determine that need to be fixed and prioritize those fixes in the order we think they are, then we can make the right kinds of content investments, and then we can get the amplification and offsite signals that we need starting to appear and grow our engagement. Then we can expect great SEO results.” Each one of these is contingent on the last one.

So six months later, your boss, your manger, or your client is going to say, “Hey, how did those content investments go?” You can say, “Well look, here’s the content we’ve created, and this is how it’s performing, and this is what we’re going to do to change those performances.” The expectation won’t be, “Hey, you promised me great SEO.” The promise was we’re going to make these fixes, which we did, and we’re going to complete that audit, which we did. Now we’re working on these content investments, and here’s how that’s going. Then we’re going to work on this, and then we’re going to work on that.

This is a great way to show expectations and to create the right kind of mindset in people who are going to be investing in SEO. It’s also a great way not to get yourself into hot water when you don’t get that 500% increase 3 months or 6 months after you said we’re going to start the SEO process.

All right everyone, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Look forward to chatting it up and having a discussion about modern SEO and old-school SEO and expectations that clients and managers have got.

We will see you again, next week, for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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How To Select The Perfect Clients

Posted by Bill.Sebald

I truly believe in the power of partnerships. There have been some incredible partnerships that changed the fabric of our culture. Larry Page and Sergey Brin. William Procter and James Gamble. The Olson Twins.

Good partnerships provide support, motivation, and complementary skills, often allowing you to overcome hurdles faster and create some truly marvelous things. In consulting or any agency work, the concept of “partnership” should be the backbone of your relationship. Like a puzzle piece, sometimes the fit is initially difficult to find – if available at all. The truth is, you’re only secure if your clients are walking in the same direction as the flow of your service. If they’re walking against the current, you have what I believe to be the most detrimental predicament a service provider can have –
a rift. That’s a truly offensive four-letter word.

What kind of rift are we talking about? Let’s do a little calculating.

First think about what you or your agency is really good at. Think about the components you have the most success with; this may actually be different than where you’re most experienced. Think about what you should be selling versus not (even if those items are currently on your menu – let’s be candid here, a lot of us casually promote services we
believe we should be selling even though it’s not a fully baked product or core competency). Think about the amount of time you really spent challenging a given service to make sure it’s truly impactful to a client versus your own bottom line.

Next, think about your past client debacles (if you haven’t stopped to perform a postmortem, you should). Chances are these led to events that cost you a lot of time, pain, and possibly money. They are the memories that make you shudder. Those are the days that made you dust off your resume and think about a career change.  

Finally, how many of these past clients should have never been signed in the first place? How many simply weren’t a fit from the start? How many simply never had a shot at being successful with you – and vice-versa? This computation really needs serious consideration. Have you wasted everyone’s time?

There can be a costly fallout. I’ve seen talented team members quit over clients that simply could not be managed. I’ve seen my colleagues go so far as to cry or start seeking therapy (in part) because of overwhelming clients who were not getting what they expected and a parent company who wasn’t providing any relief. Sometimes these clients were bound to an annual contract which only made them more desperate and angry. Rifts like this can kill your business.

This should never happen.

Client/agency relationships are marriages, but marriages start with dating

I really like this 2011 post from A List Apart called
Marry Your Clients. A few years old, but nothing has changed. However, my post is going to talk about the courting part before the honeymoon.

My post also assumes you make more money on longer consulting relationships. If you’ve somehow built your model through routinely hunting new business with the expectation you’re going to get fired, then that’s a different story. For most of us however, on-boarding a client is a lot of work, both in terms of hours (which is money) and brainpower. If you “hit it off” with your client, you begin to know their business more intimately, as well as their goals and KPIs. The strategies get easier to build; they also tend to be more successful as you become aware of what their tastes and limitations are. You find you have things in common (perhaps you both enjoy long walks to the bank). You often become true partners with your clients, who in turn promote your ideas to their bosses. These are your most profitable engagements, as well as your most rewarding. They tend to last years, sometimes following your point-of-contact to their next jobs as well.

But you don’t get this way simply because both parties signed a legally-bounding document.

The truth is not all parties can work together. A lot of client/agency relationships end in divorce. Like in romance, sometimes you just aren’t compatible.

A different kind of online dating

After my first marriage went kaput, I’ll admit I went to Match.com. For those who never tried online dating, it’s really an exercise in personal marketing. You upload your most attractive pictures. You sell yourself above everyone else. You send communications back and forth to the interested parties where you work to craft the “perfect” response; as well as ask qualifying questions. I found it works pretty well – the online process saved me from potentially bad dates. Don’t get me wrong, I still have some awkward online dating stories…

Photo from Chuck Woolery’s
Twitter profile

With consulting, if we’re supposed to ultimately marry our clients, we should obviously be allowed to see if there’s a love connection. We should all be our own Chuck Woolery. I tend to think this stage is crucial, but often rushed by agencies or managed by a department outside of your own.

Some agencies seem to have a “no dating” policy. For some, it’s not uncommon to come in to work and have an email from a higher-up with the subject, “congratulations – you’re now married to a new client!” Whether it’s a client development department, or an add-on from an existing client, your marketing department is suddenly forced into an arranged marriage where you can only hope to live up to their expectations.

This is a recipe for disaster. I don’t like to run a business on luck and risk, so clearly this makes no sense to me.

But I’ve been there. I once worked for an agency that handed me a signed contract for a major underwear brand – but I didn’t even know we were even speaking to them. Before I had a chance to get the details, the VP of digital marketing called me. I did my best to understand what they were promised in terms of SEO goals without admitting I really had no clue about their business. The promises were unrealistic, but being somewhat timid and naïve back in the day, I went with it. Truth is, their expectations did not fit into our model, philosophies, or workflow. Ultimately I failed to deliver to their expectations. The contract ended early and I vowed to never let that happen again. Not just for the stress and anxiety it brought upon my team and me, but for the blatant neglect to the client as well.

With this being something I never forgot, I would occasionally bring this story up with others I met at networking events or conventions. I quickly learned this is far from an isolated incident occurring only to me. This is how some agencies build their business development departments.

Once again, this should never happen.

How to qualify a client

Let’s assume by now I have successfully inspired a few things:

  1. A client/agency relationship should truly be a partnership akin to a good marriage.
  2. A client should never be thrown into a model that doesn’t make sense for their business (i.e., your style of SEO services), and process should be in place for putting all the parties in the same room before a deal is signed.

    Now we’re up to number 3:

  3. Not all relationships work, so all parties should try to truly connect before there is a proposal. Don’t rush the signature!

Here are some of the things we do at Greenlane to really qualify a client. Before I continue, though, I’m proud to brag a little. With these practices in place, our close rate – that is, the companies we really want to work with – is 90% in our favor. Our retainment is also very high. Once we started being prudent with our intake, we’ve only lost a few companies due to funding issues or a change in their business model – not out of performance. I should also add that these tips work with all sizes of clients. While some of our 20+ clients are smaller businesses, we also have household brands and public companies, all of which could attest to going through this process with us.

It’s all in the details

Your website is your Match.com profile. Your website is your personality. If you’re vague or promotional or full of hype, only to get someone on the phone to which your “car salesman” gear kicks in, I don’t think you’re using the website to the best of its ability. People want to use the website to learn more about you before the reach out.

Our “about us” page is our third most visited page next to the homepage and pricing (outside of the blog). You can see an example from a 
Hotjar heatmap:

The truth is, I’m always tweaking (and A/B testing) our message on the about us page. This page is currently part of a funnel that we careful put together. The “about us” page is a quick but powerful overview putting our team front and center and highlighting our experience (including some past clients).

I believe the website’s more than a brochure. It’s a communication device. Don’t hide or muddle who you are. When I get a prospect email through our form, I always lead them to our “Are We The Right Fit” page. That’s right – I actually ask them to consider choosing wisely. Now at first glance, this might go against a conversion funnel that heats up the prospect and only encourages momentum, but this page has really been a strong asset. It’s crafted to transparently present our differentiators, values, and even our pricing. It’s also crafted to discourage those who aren’t a good fit. You can find this page
here. Even our URL provides the “Are We The Right Fit” question.

We want prospects to make a good decision. We care so much about companies doing great that we’d rather you find someone else if our model isn’t perfect. Sure, sometimes after pointing someone to that link, they never return. That’s OK. Just like a dating profile, this page is designed to target a certain kind of interest. Time is a commodity in agency life – no sense in wasting it on a conversation that isn’t qualified. When we do catch a prospect after reviewing the page and hear, “we went with another firm who better suits our needs,” it actually doesn’t feel like a loss at all.

Everyone who comes back goes into our pipeline. At this stage they all get followed up on with a phone call. If they aren’t a good fit from the get go we actually try to introduce them to other SEO companies or consultants who would be a better fit for them. But 9 times out of 10, it’s an amazing conversation.

Never drop the transparency

There are a few things I try to tell all the prospects I ultimately speak with. One, I openly admit I’m not a salesman. I couldn’t sell ice water to people in hell. But I’m good at being really candid about our strengths and experiences.

Now this one tends to surprise some, especially in the larger agency setting. We admit that we are really choosy about the clients we take on. For our model, we need clients who are flexible, fast moving, interested in brand building, and interested in long-term relationships. We want clients who think in terms of strategy and will let us work with their existing marketing team and vendors. We audit them for their understanding of SEO services and tell them how we’re either alike or different.

I don’t think a prospect call goes by without me saying, “while you’re checking us out to see if we’re a good fit, we’re doing the same for you.” Then, if the call goes great, I let them know we’d like a follow up call to continue (a second date if you will). This follow up call has been where the real decision gets made.

Ask the right questions

I’ve vetted the opportunity, now my partner – who naturally has a different way of approaching opportunities and relationships – asks a different set of questions. This adds a whole different dimension and works to catch the questions I may not have asked. We’ve had companies ready to sign on the first call, to which I’ve had to divert any signatures until the next conversation. This too may seem counter-intuitive to traditional business development, but we find it extremely valuable. It’s true that we could have more clients in our current book of business, but I can proudly state that every current client is exactly who we want to be with; this is very much because of everything you’ve read so far.

On each call we have a list of qualifying questions that we ask. Most are “must answer” questions, while others can roll into a needs analysis questionnaire that we give to each signed client. The purpose of the needs analysis is to get more granular into business items (such as seasonal trends, industry intelligence, etc.) for the intention of developing strategies. With so much to ask, it’s important to be respectful of the prospects’ time. At this point they’ve usually already indicated they’ve read our website, can afford our prices, and feel like we’re a good fit.

Many times prospects start with their introduction and answer some of our questions. While they speak, I intently listen and take many notes.

These are 13 questions from my list that I always make sure get answered on a call, with some rationale:

Questions for the prospect:

1. Can you describe your business model and products/services?

  1. What do you sell?
  2. B2B or B2C
  3. Retail or lead generation?

Rationale
: sometimes when reviewing the website it’s not immediately clear what kind of business they’re in. Perhaps the site just does a bad job, or sometimes their real money making services are deeper in the site and easily missed by a fast scan. One of our clients works with the government and seems to have an obvious model, but the real profit is from a by-product, something we would have never picked up on during our initial review of the website. It’s important to find out exactly what the company does. Is it interesting? Can you stay engaged? Is it a sound model that you believe in? Is it a space you have experience in?

2. What has been your experience with [YOUR SERVICE] in the past?

Rationale: Many times, especially if your model is different, a prospect may have a preconceived notion of what you actually do. Let’s take SEO as an example – there are several different styles of SEO services. If they had a link building company in the past, and you’re a more holistic SEO consulting practice, their point of reference may only be with what they’ve experienced. They may even have a bad taste in their mouth from a previous engagement, which gives you a chance to air it out and see how you compare. This is also a chance to know if you’re potentially playing with a penalized site.

3. What are your [PPC/SEO/etc.] goals?

Rationale: Do they have realistic goals, or lofty, impossible goals? Be candid – tell them if you don’t think you can reach the goals on the budget they have, or if you think they should choose other goals. Don’t align yourself with goals you can’t hit. This is where many conversations could end.

4. What’s your mission or positioning statement?

Rationale: If you’re going to do more than just pump up their rankings, you probably want to know the full story. This should provide a glimpse into other marketing the prospect is executing.

5. How do you stand out?

Rationale: Sometimes this is answered with the question above. If not, really dig up the differentiators. Those are typically the key items to build campaigns on.  Whether they are trying to create a new market segment or have a redundant offering, this can help you set timeline and success expectations.

6. Are you comfortable with an agency that may challenge your plans and ideas?

Rationale: This is one of my favorite questions. There are many who hire an agency and expect “yes-men.” Personally I believe an agency or consultant should be partners; that is, not afraid to fight for what they know is right for the benefit of the client. You shouldn’t be afraid of injury:

 

7. Who are your competitors?

Rationale: Not only do you want this for competitive benchmarking, but this can often help you understand more about the prospect. Not to mention, how big a hill you might have to climb to start competing on head terms.

8. What is your business reach? (local, national, international)?

Rationale: An international client is going to need more work than a domestic client. A local client is going to need an expertise in local search. Knowing the scope of the company can help you align your skills with their targets.

9. What CMS are you on?

Rationale:
 This is a big one. It tells you how much flexibility you will have. WordPress?  Great – you’ll probably have a lot of access to files and templates.  A proprietary CMS or enterprise solution?  Uh-oh.  That probably means tickets and project queues. Are you OK with that?

10. What does your internal team look like?

Rationale:
Another important question. Who will you be working with?  What skill sets?  Will you be able to sit at the table with other vendors too?  If you’re being hired to fill in the gaps, make sure you have the skills to do so. I ask about copywriters, developers, designers, and link builders at a minimum.

11. What do you use for analytics?

Rationale:
A tool like Wappalyzer can probably tell you, but sometimes bigger companies have their own custom analytics through their host. Sometimes it’s bigger than Google Analytics, like Omniture. Will you be allowed to have direct access to it?  You’d be surprised how often we hear no.

12. How big is your site?  Do you have other properties?

Rationale:
It’s surprising how often a prospect forgets to mention those 30+ subdomains and microsites. If the prospect envisions it as part of the deal, you should at least be aware of how far the core website extends.

13. What is your budget, preferred start time, and end date?

Rationale:
The biggest question of all. Do they even meet your fee requirements? Are you staffed and ready to take on the work? Sure, talking money can be tough, but if you post your rates firm, the prospect is generally more open to talk budget. They don’t feel like a negotiation is going to happen.

Conclusion

While these are the core questions we use, I’m sure the list will eventually grow. I don’t think you should copy our list, or the order.  You should ultimately create your own. Every agency or consultant has different requirements, and interviewing your prospect is as important as allowing them to interview you. But remember, you don’t have to have all the business.  Just the right kind of business.  You will grow organically from your positive experiences.  We all hear about “those other agencies” and how they consistently fail to meet client expectations. Next to “do great work,” this is one powerful way to keep off that list.  

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When Is a Blog the Right Form of Content Marketing?

Posted by Isla_McKetta

You’ve heard the wisdom: 

“Your business should have a blog.” 

“Blogging helps your SEO.” 

“Why aren’t you blogging yet?” 

According to the experts, a blog will solve all your Internet woes. Blogging will increase your traffic, expand your audience, improve your engagement, position you as an authority, and allow you to shape the message in your space

In fact, blogging is so hyped as a panacea, you’d think that simply adding a blog to your site would also help you find the perfect spouse, cure the common cold, and even turn lead into gold. 

While I won’t deny the power of a good blog on the right site (seriously, as a writer, I’m pro-blog in general) to do all of those good things and more, you should always question anything that’s touted as the right answer for everyone (and everything). So should you blog?

When a blog is NOT necessarily the right form of content marketing

Now that you’re asking whether all that time and energy you’re putting (or planning to put) into your blog is really the right investment, let’s look at a few examples of when blogging is a bad idea (or is simply unnecessary).

1. You own your market

Johnson & Johnson. Amazon. Target. Google. These companies have already captured the hearts and minds of so many consumers that their names are nearly synonymous with their products. Here’s why blogging would only offer each of them a marginal benefit.

Traffic

Does Johnson & Johnson really care about traffic to its site when you already have Band-Aids (and all their other name brand products) in your medicine cabinet? Sure, they produce infographics, but there’s no real blog, and you were going to buy their products anyway, right?

Audience reach

Ordering anything from books to pet-waste bags online? You didn’t need a blog to discover Amazon, it’s so ingrained in your Internet history that you probably went straight there and those products will be on your doorstep in two days or less.

Engagement

Target mastered engagement when Oprah and Tyra started referring to the store as Tarzhay and shoppers only got more loyal as they added designer labels at discount prices. It didn’t matter that most of their products weren’t even available on their website, let alone that they didn’t have a blog. Their site has gotten a lot better in the past decade, but they still don’t need a blog to get customers in the door.

Authority

And Google… Sure they have a blog, but Google is such an authority for search queries that most of the consumers of their search results have no interest in, or need for, the blog.
So if you have little or no competition or your business is (and you expect it to remain) the top-of-mind brand in your market, you can skip blogging.

2. You have a better way of getting customers into the top of your funnel

A blog is only one way to attract new customers. For example, I live less than a mile from the nearest grocery store, and I can get there and back with a spare stick of butter before my oven even warms up. If the next nearest store had the most amazing blog ever, I’m still not going to go there when I’m missing an ingredient. But if they send me a coupon in the mail, I might just try them out when it’s less of an emergency.

The point is that different types of businesses require different types of tactics to get customers to notice them. 

My mom, a small-town accountant who knows all of her clients by name, doesn’t blog. She’s much more likely to get recommended by a neighbor than to be found on the Internet. If paid search brings you $50k in conversions every month and your blog contributes to $10k, it’s easy (and fair) to prioritize paid search. If you find that readers of white papers are the hottest leads for your SaaS company, offering a 50:1 ROI over blog readers, write those white papers. And if your customers are sharing your deals across email and/or social at a rate that your blog has never seen, give them more of what they want.

None of that means you’ll never have to create a blog. Instead, a blog might be something to reassess when your rate of growth slows in any of those channels, but if you’ve crunched your numbers and a blog just doesn’t pan out for now, use the tactics your customers are already responding to.

3. The most interesting things about your business are strictly confidential (or highly complicated)

Sure the CIA has a blog, but with posts like “CIA Unveils Portrait of Former Director Leon E. Panetta” and “CIA Reaches Deep to Feed Local Families” it reads more like a failed humanizing effort than anything you’d actually want to subscribe to (or worse, read). If you’re in a business where you can’t talk about what you do, a blog might not be for you. 

For example, while a CPA who handles individual tax returns might have success blogging about tips to avoid a big tax bill at year end, a big four accounting firm that specializes in corporate audits might want to think twice about that blog. Do you really have someone on hand who has something new and interesting to say about Sarbanes Oxley and has the time to write? 

The difference is engagement. So if you’re in a hush-hush or highly technical field, think about what you can reasonably write about and whether anyone is going to want (or legally be able) to publicly comment on or share what you’re writing. 

Instead, you might want to take the example of Deloitte which thinks beyond the concept of your typical blog to create all kinds of interesting evergreen content. The result is a host of interesting case studies and podcasts that could have been last updated three years ago for all it matters. This puts content on your site, but it also allows you to carefully craft and vet that content before it goes live, without building any expectation associated with an editorial calendar.

4. You think “thought leadership” means rehashing the news

There is a big difference between curating information and regurgitating it. True life confession: As much as I hate the term “thought leader,” I used it many a time in my agency days as a way to encourage clients to find the best in themselves. But the truth is, most people don’t have the time, energy, or vision to really commit to becoming a thought leader. 

A blog can be a huge opportunity to showcase your company’s mastery and understanding of your industry. But if you can’t find someone to write blog posts that expand on (or rethink) the existing knowledge base, save your ink. 

Some people curate and compile information in order to create “top 10” type posts. That kind of content can be helpful for readers who don’t have time to source content on their own, but I wouldn’t suggest it as the core content strategy for a company’s blog. If that’s all you have time for, focus on social media instead.

5. Your site is all timely content

A blog can help you shape the message around your industry and your brand, but what if your brand is built entirely around messaging? The BBC doesn’t need a blog because any reader would expect what they’re reading to be timely content and to adhere to the BBC’s standard voice. If readers want to engage with the content by commenting on the articles, they can. 

If you can explain the value that blogs.foxnews.com adds to the Fox News site, you’ve got a keener eye for content strategy than I do. My guess, from the empty blog bubbles here, is that this is a failed (or abandoned) experiment and will soon disappear.

6. Your business is truly offline

There’s one final reason that blogging might not fit your business model, and that’s if you have chosen not to enter the digital realm. I had lunch with a high-end jeweler in India recently where he was debating whether to go online (he was worried that his designs might get stolen) or continue to do business in person the way his family had done for at least three generations. 

If you are successful at selling your products offline, especially if your product has as much variation as a gemstone, an argument can be made for staying offline entirely.

When you should be blogging

Now that we’ve looked at some times it’s okay not to have a blog, let’s take a quick, expanded look at five reasons you might want to blog as part of your content marketing strategy (just in case you thought you’d gotten off scot-free by almost fitting into one of the boxes above).

1. You want traffic to your website

Conventional wisdom goes that the more pages you build, the more chances you have to rank. Heck, the more (good) content you create on your blog, the more collateral you have to showcase on your social channels, in email, and anywhere else you want to.

2. You want to expand your audience

If the content you’re creating is truly awesome, people will share it and find it and love it. Some of those people will be potential customers who haven’t even heard of you before. Keep up the excellence and you might just keep them interested.

3. You want to connect with customers

That blog is a fantastic place to answer FAQs, play with new ideas, and show off the humanity of all those fantastic individuals you have working for you. All of those things help customers get to know you, plus they can engage with you directly via the comments. You might just find ideas for new campaigns and even new products just by creating that venue for conversation.

4. You have something to add to the discussion

Do you really have a fresh perspective on what’s going on in your industry? Help others out by sharing your interesting stories and thoughtful commentary. You’re building your authority and the authority of your company at the same time.

5. You’re ready to invest in your future

Content is a long game, so the payoffs from blogging may be farther down the road than you might hope. But if a blog is right for your company, you’re giving yourself the chance to start shaping the message about your industry and your company the day you publish your first post. Keep at it and you might find that you start attracting customers from amongst your followers.

The gist

Don’t blog just because someone told you to. A blog is a huge investment and sustaining that blog can take a lot of work. But there are a lot of good reasons to dig in and blog like you mean it. 

What’s your decision? Do you have a good reason that you’ve decided to abstain from blogging? Or have you decided that a blog is the right thing for your business? Help others carefully consider their investment in blogging by sharing your story in the comments.

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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