Fighting Review Spam: The Complete Guide for the Local Enterprise

Posted by MiriamEllis

It’s 105 degrees outside my office right now, and the only thing hotter in this summer of 2017 is the local SEO industry’s discussion of review spam. It’s become increasingly clear that major review sites represent an irresistible temptation to spammers, highlighting systemic platform weaknesses and the critical need for review monitoring that scales.

Just as every local brand, large and small, has had to adjust to the reality of reviews’ substantial impact on modern consumer behavior, competitive businesses must now prepare themselves to manage the facts of fraudulent sentiment. Equip your team and clients with this article, which will cover every aspect of review spam and includes a handy list for reporting fake reviews to major platforms.

What is review spam?

A false review is one that misrepresents either the relationship of the reviewer to the business, misrepresents the nature of the interaction the reviewer had with the business, or breaks a guideline. Examples:

  • The reviewer is actually a competitor of the business he is reviewing; he’s writing the review to hurt a competitor and help himself
  • The reviewer is actually the owner, an employee, or a marketer of the business he is reviewing; he’s falsifying a review to manipulate public opinion via fictitious positive sentiment
  • The reviewer never had a transaction with the business he is reviewing; he’s pretending he’s a customer in order to help/hurt the business
  • The reviewer had a transaction, but is lying about the details of it; he’s trying to hurt the company by misrepresenting facts for some gain of his own
  • The reviewer received an incentive to write the review, monetary or otherwise; his sentiment stems from a form of reward and is therefore biased
  • The reviewer violates any of the guidelines on the platform on which he’s writing his review; this could include personal attacks, hate speech or advertising

All of the above practices are forbidden by the major review platforms and should result in the review being reported and removed.

What isn’t review spam?

A review is not spam if:

  • It’s left directly by a genuine customer who experienced a transaction
  • It represents the facts of a transaction with reasonable, though subjective, accuracy
  • It adheres to the policies of the platform on which it’s published

Reviews that contain negative (but accurate) consumer sentiment shouldn’t be viewed as spam. For example, it may be embarrassing to a brand to see a consumer complain that an order was filled incorrectly, that an item was cold, that a tab was miscalculated or that a table was dirty, but if the customer is correctly cataloging his negative experience, then his review isn’t a misrepresentation.

There’s some inherent complexity here, as the brand and the consumer can differ widely in their beliefs about how satisfying a transaction may have been. A restaurant franchise may believe that its meals are priced fairly, but a consumer can label them as too expensive. Negative sentiment can be subjective, so unless the reviewer is deliberately misrepresenting facts and the business can prove it, it’s not useful to report this type of review as spam as it’s unlikely to be removed.

Why do individuals and businesses write spam reviews?

Unfortunately, the motives can be as unpleasant as they are multitudinous:

Blackmail/extortion

There’s the case of the diner who was filmed putting her own hair in her food in hopes of extorting a free meal under threat of negative reviews as a form of blackmail. And then there’s blackmail as a business model, as this unfortunate business reported to the GMB forum after being bulk-spammed with 1-star reviews and then contacted by the spammer with a demand for money to raise the ratings to 5-stars.

Revenge

The classic case is the former employee of a business venting his frustrations by posing as a customer to leave a highly negative review. There are also numerous instances of unhappy personal relationships leading to fake negative reviews of businesses.

Protest or punishment

Consumer sentiment may sometimes appear en masse as a form of protest against an individual or institution, as the US recently witnessed following the election of President Trump and the ensuing avalanche of spam reviews his various businesses received.

It should be noted here that attempting to shame a business with fake negative reviews can have the (likely undesirable) effect of rewarding it with high local rankings, based on the sheer number of reviews it receives. We saw this outcome in the infamous case of the dentist who made national news and received an onslaught of shaming reviews for killing a lion.

Finally, there is the toxic reviewer, a form of Internet troll who may be an actual customer but whose personality leads them to write abusive or libelous reviews as a matter of course. While these reviews should definitely be reported and removed if they fail to meet guidelines, discussion is open and ongoing in the local SEO industry as to how to manage the reality of consumers of this type.

Ranking manipulation

The total review count of a business (regardless of the sentiment the reviews contain) can positively impact Google’s local pack rankings or the internal rankings of certain review platforms. For the sake of boosting rankings, some businesses owners review themselves, tell their employees to review their employer, offer incentives to others in exchange for reviews, or even engage marketers to hook them up to a network of review spammers.

Public perception manipulation

This is a two-sided coin. A business can either positively review itself or negatively review its competitors in an effort to sway consumer perception. The latter is a particularly prevalent form of review spam, with the GMB forum overflowing with at least 10,000 discussions of this topic. Given that respected surveys indicate that 91% of consumers now read online reviews, 84% trust them as much as personal recommendations and 86% will hesitate to patronize a business with negative reviews, the motives for gaming online sentiment, either positively or negatively, are exceedingly strong.

Wages

Expert local SEO, Mike Blumenthal, is currently doing groundbreaking work uncovering a global review spam network that’s responsible for tens or hundreds of thousands of fake reviews. In this scenario, spammers are apparently employed to write reviews of businesses around the world depicting sets of transactions that not even the most jet-setting globetrotter could possibly have experienced. As Mike describes one such reviewer:

“She will, of course, be educated at the mortuary school in Illinois and will have visited a dentist in Austin after having reviewed four other dentists … Oh, and then she will have bought her engagement ring in Israel, and then searched out a private investigator in Kuru, Philippines eight months later to find her missing husband. And all of this has taken place in the period of a year, right?”

The scale of this network makes it clear that review spam has become big business.

Lack of awareness

Not all review spammers are dastardly characters. Some small-timers are only guilty of a lack of awareness of guidelines or a lack of foresight about the potential negative outcomes of fake reviews to their brand. I’ve sometimes heard small local business owners state they had their family review their newly-opened business to “get the ball rolling,” not realizing that they were breaking a guideline and not considering how embarrassing and costly it could prove if consumers or the platform catch on. In this scenario, I try to teach that faking success is not a viable business model — you have to earn it.

Lack of consequences

Unfortunately, some of the most visible and powerful review platforms have become enablers of the review spam industry due to a lack of guideline enforcement. When a platform fails to identify and remove fake reviews, either because of algorithmic weaknesses or insufficient support staffing, spammers are encouraged to run amok in an environment devoid of consequences. For unethical parties, no further justification for manipulating online sentiment is needed than that they can “get away with it.” Ironically, there are consequences to bear for lack of adequate policing, and until they fall on the spammer, they will fall on any platform whose content becomes labeled as untrustworthy in the eyes of consumers.

What is the scope of review spam?

No one knows for sure, but as we’ve seen, the playing field ranges from the single business owner having his family write a couple of reviews on Yelp to the global network employing staff to inundate Google with hundreds of thousands of fake reviews. And, we’ve see two sides to the review spam environment:

  1. People who write reviews to help themselves (in terms of positive rankings, perception, and earnings for themselves either directly from increased visibility or indirectly via extortion, and/or in terms of negative outcomes for competitors).
  2. People who write reviews to hurt others (for the sake of revenge with little or no consequence).

The unifying motive of all forms of review spam is manipulation, creating an unfair and untrustworthy playing field for consumers, enterprises and platforms alike. One Harvard study suggests that 20% of Yelp reviews are fake, but it would be up to the major review platforms to transparently publicize the total number of spam reviews they receive. Just the segment I’ve seen as an individual local SEO has convinced me that review spam has now become an industry, just like “black hat” SEO once did.

How to spot spam reviews

Here are some basic tips:

Strange patterns:

A reviewer’s profile indicates that they’ve been in too many geographic locations at once. Or, they have a habit of giving 1-star reviews to one business and 5-star reviews to its direct competitor. While neither is proof positive of spam, think of these as possible red flags.

Strange language:

Numerous 5-star reviews that fawn on the business owner by name (e.g. “Bill is the greatest man ever to walk the earth”) may be fishy. If adulation seems to be going overboard, pay attention.

Strange timing:

Over the course of a few weeks, a business skyrockets from zero reviews to 30, 50, or 100 of them. Unless an onslaught of sentiment stems from something major happening in the national news, chances are good the company has launched some kind of program. If you suspect spam, you’ll need to research whether the reviews seem natural or could be stemming from some form of compensation.

Strange numbers:

The sheer number of reviews a business has earned seems inconsistent with its geography or industry. Some business models (restaurants) legitimately earn hundreds of reviews each year on a given platform, but others (mortuaries) are unlikely to have the same pattern. If a competitor of yours has 5x as many reviews as seems normal for your geo-industry, it could be a first indicator of spam.

Strange “facts”:

None of your staff can recall that a transaction matching the description in a negative review ever took place, or a transaction can be remembered but the way the reviewer is presenting it is demonstrably false. Example: a guest claims you rudely refused to seat him, but your in-store cam proves that he simply chose not to wait in line like other patrons.

Obvious threats:

If any individual or entity threatens your company with a negative review to extort freebies or money from you, take it seriously and document everything you can.

Obvious guideline violations:

Virtually every major review platform prohibits profane, obscene, and hateful content. If your brand is victimized by this type of attack, definitely report it.

In a nutshell, the first step to spotting review spam is review monitoring. You’ll want to manually check direct competitors for peculiar patterns, and, more importantly, all local businesses must have a schedule for regularly checking their own incoming sentiment. For larger enterprises and multi-location business models, this process must be scaled to minimize manual workloads and cover all bases.

Scaling review management

On an average day, one Moz Local customer with 100 retail locations in the U.S. receives 20 reviews across the various platforms we track. Some are just ratings, but many feature text. Many are very positive. A few contain concerns or complaints that must be quickly addressed to protect reputation/budget by taking action to satisfy and retain an existing customer while proving responsiveness to the general consumer public. Some could turn out to be spam.

Over the course of an average week for this national brand, 100–120 such reviews will come in, totaling up to more than 400 pieces of customer feedback in a month that must be assessed for signs of success at specific locations or emerging quality control issues at others. Parse this out to a year’s time, and this company must be prepared to receive and manage close to 5,000 consumer inputs in the form of reviews and ratings, not just for positive and negative sentiment, but for the purposes of detecting spam.

Spam detection starts with awareness, which can only come from the ability to track and audit a large volume of reviews to identify some of the suspicious hallmarks we’ve covered above. At the multi-location or enterprise level, the solution to this lies in acquiring review monitoring software and putting it in the hands of a designated department or staffer. Using a product like Moz Local, monitoring and detection of questionable reviews can be scaled to meet the needs of even the largest brands.

What should your business do if it has been victimized by review spam?

Once you’ve become reasonably certain that a review or a body of reviews violates the guidelines of a specific platform, it’s time to act. The following list contains links to the policies of 7 dominant review platforms that are applicable to all industries, and also contains tips and links outlining reporting options:

Google

Policy: https://support.google.com/business/answer/2622994?hl=en

Review reporting tips

Flag the review by mousing over it, clicking the flag symbol that appears and then entering your email address and choosing a radio button. If you’re the owner, use the owner response function to mention that you’ve reported the review to Google for guideline violations. Then, contact GMB support via their Twitter account and/or post your case in the GMB forum to ask for additional help. Cross your fingers!

Yelp

Policy: https://www.yelp.com/guidelines

Review reporting tips

Yelp offers these guidelines for reporting reviews and also advises owners to respond to reviews that violate guidelines. Yelp takes review quality seriously and has set high standards other platforms might do well to follow, in terms of catching spammers and warning the public against bad actors.

Facebook

Policy: https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards

Review reporting tips

Here are Facebook’s instructions for reporting reviews that fail to meet community standards. Note that you can only report reviews with text — you can’t report solo ratings. Interestingly, you can turn off reviews on Facebook, but to do so out of fear would be to forego the considerable benefits they can provide.

Yellow Pages

Policy: https://www.yellowpages.com/about/legal/terms-conditions#user-generated-content

Review reporting tips

In 2016, YP.com began showing TripAdvisor reviews alongside internal reviews. If review spam stems from a YP review, click the “Flag” link in the lower right corner of the review and fill out the form to report your reasons for flagging. If the review spam stems from TripAdvisor, you’ll need to deal with them directly and read their extensive guidelines, TripAdvisor states that they screen reviews for quality purposes, but that fake reviews can slip through. If you’re the owner, you can report fraudulent reviews from the Management Center of your TripAdvisor dashboard. Click the “concerned about a review” link and fill out the form. If you’re simply a member of the public, you’ll need to sign into TripAdvisor and click the flag link next to the review to report a concern.

SuperPages

Policy: https://my.dexmedia.com/spportal/jsp/popups/businessprofile/reviewGuidelines.jsp

Review reporting tips

The policy I’ve linked to (from Dex Media, which owns SuperPages) is the best I can find. It’s reasonably thorough but somewhat broken. To report a fake review to SuperPages, you’ll need either a SuperPages or Facebook account. Then, click the “flag abuse” link associated with the review and fill out a short form.

CitySearch

Policy: http://www.citysearch.com/aboutcitysearch/about_us

Review reporting tips

If you receive a fake review on CitySearch, email customerservice@citygrid.com. In your email, link to the business that has received the spam review, include the date of the review and the name of the reviewer and then cite the guidelines you feel the review violates.

FourSquare

Policy: https://foursquare.com/legal/terms

Review reporting tips

The “Rules and Conduct” section I’ve linked to in Foursquare’s TOS outlines their content policy. Foursquare is a bit different in the language they use to describe tips/reviews. They offer these suggestions for reporting abusive tips.

*If you need to find the guidelines and reporting options for an industry-specific review platform like FindLaw or HealthGrades, Phil Rozek’s definitive list will be a good starting point for further research.

Review spam can feel like being stuck between a rock and a hard place

I feel a lot of empathy in this regard. Google, Facebook, Yelp, and other major review platforms have the visibility to drive massive traffic and revenue to your enterprise. That’s the positive side of this equation. But there’s another side — the uneasy side that I believe has its roots in entities like Google originating their local business index via aggregation from third party sources, rather than as a print YellowPages-style, opt-in program, and subsequently failing to adequately support the millions of brands it was then representing to the Internet public.

To this day, there are companies that are stunned to discover that their business is listed on 35 different websites, and being actively reviewed on 5 or 10 of them when the company took no action to initiate this. There’s an understandable feeling of a loss of control that can be particularly difficult for large brands, with their carefully planned quality structures, to adjust to.

This sense of powerlessness is further compounded when the business isn’t just being listed and discussed on platforms it doesn’t control, but is being spammed. I’ve seen business owners on Facebook declaring they’ve decided to disable reviews because they feel so victimized and unsupported after being inundated with suspicious 1-star ratings which Facebook won’t investigate or remove. By doing so, these companies are choosing to forego the considerable benefits reviews drive because meaningful processes for protecting the business aren’t yet available.

These troubling aspects of the highly visible world of reviews can leave owners feeling like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their companies will be listed, will be reviewed, and may be spammed whether the brand actively participates or not, and they may or may not be able to get spam removed.

It’s not a reality from which any competitive enterprise can opt-out, so my best advice is to realize that it’s better to opt-in fully, with the understanding that some control is better than none. There are avenues for getting many spam reviews taken down, with the right information and a healthy dose of perseverance. Know, too, that every one of your competitors is in the same boat, riding a rising tide that will hopefully grow to the point of offering real-world support for managing consumer sentiment that impacts bottom-line revenue in such a very real way.

There ought to be a law

While legitimate negative reviews have legal protection under the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, fraudulent reviews are another matter.

Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Communication Act states:

Unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are hereby declared unlawful.”

Provisions like these are what allowed the FTC to successfully sue Sage Automotive Group for $3.6 million dollars for deceptive advertising practices and deceptive online reviews, but it’s important to note that this appears to be the first instance in which the FTC has involved themselves in bringing charges on the basis of fraudulent reviews. At this point, it’s simply not reasonable to expect the FTC to step in if your enterprise receives some suspicious reviews, unless your research should uncover a truly major case.

Lawsuits amongst platforms, brands, and consumers, however, are proliferating. Yelp has sued agencies and local businesses over the publication of fake reviews. Companies have sued their competitors over malicious, false sentiment, and they’ve sued their customers with allegations of the same.

Should your enterprise be targeted with spam reviews, some cases may be egregious enough to warrant legal action. In such instances, definitely don’t attempt to have the spam reviews removed by the host platform, as they could provide important evidence. Contact a lawyer before you take a step in any direction, and avoid using the owner response function to take verbal revenge on the person you believe has spammed you, as we now have a precedent in Dietz v. Perez for such cases being declared a draw.

In many scenarios, however, the business may not wish to become involved in a noisy court battle, and seeking removal can be a quieter way to address the problem.

Local enterprises, consumers, and marketers must advocate for themselves

According to one survey, 90% of consumers read less than 10 reviews before forming an opinion about a business. If some of those 10 reviews are the result of negative spam, the cost to the business is simply too high to ignore, and it’s imperative that owners hold not just spammers, but review platforms, accountable.

Local businesses, consumers, and marketers don’t own review sites, but they do have the power to advocate. A single business could persistently blog about spam it has documented. Multiple businesses could partner up to request a meeting with a specific platform to present pain points. Legitimate consumers could email or call their favorite platforms to explain that they don’t want their volunteer hours writing reviews to be wasted on a website that is failing to police its content. Marketers can thoughtfully raise these issues repeatedly at conferences attended by review platform reps. There is no cause to take an adversarial tone in this, but there is every need for squeaky wheels to highlight the costliness of spam to all parties, advocating for platforms to devote all possible resources to:

  • Increasing the sophistication of algorithmic spam detection
  • Increasing staffing for manual detection
  • Providing real-time support to businesses so that spam can be reported, evaluated and removed as quickly as possible

All of the above could begin to better address the reality of review spam. In the meantime, if your business is being targeted right now, I would suggest using every possible avenue to go public with the problem. Blog, use social media, report the issue on the platform’s forum if it has one. Do anything you can to bring maximum attention to the attack on your brand. I can’t promise results from persistence and publicity, but I’ve seen this method work enough times to recommend it.

Why review platforms must act aggressively to minimize spam

I’ve mentioned the empathy I feel for owners when it comes to review platforms, and I also feel empathy for the platforms, themselves. I’ve gotten the sense, sometimes, that different entities jumped into the review game and have been struggling to handle its emerging complexities as they’ve rolled out in real time. What is a fair and just policy? How can you best automate spam detection? How deeply should a platform be expected to wade into disputes between customers and brands?

With sincere respect for the big job review sites have on their hands, I think it’s important to state:

  • If brands and consumers didn’t exist, neither would review platforms. Businesses and reviewers should be viewed and treated as MVPs.
  • Platforms which fail to offer meaningful support options to business owners are not earning goodwill or a good reputation.
  • The relationship between local businesses and review platforms isn’t an entirely comfortable one. Increasing comfort could turn wary brands into beneficial advocates.
  • Platforms that allow themselves to become inundated with spam will lose consumers’ trust, and then advertisers’ trust. They won’t survive.

Every review platform has a major stake in this game, but, to be perfectly honest, some of them don’t act like it.

Google My Business Forum Top Contributor and expert Local SEO, Joy Hawkins, recently wrote an open letter to Google offering them four actionable tips for improving their handling of their massive review spam problem. It’s a great example of a marketer advocating for her industry, and, of interest, some of Joy’s best advice to Google is taken from Yelp’s own playbook. Yelp may be doing the best of all platforms in combating spam, in that they have very strong filters and place public warnings on the profiles of suspicious reviewers and brands.

What Joy Hawkins, Mike Blumenthal, other industry experts, and local business owners seem to be saying to review platforms could be summed up like this:

“We recognize the power of reviews and appreciate the benefits they provide, but a responsibility comes with setting your platform up as a hub of reputation for millions of businesses. Don’t see spammed reputations as acceptable losses — they represent the livelihoods of real people. If you’re going to trade responsibly in representing us, you’ve got to back your product up with adequate quality controls and adequate support. A fair and trustworthy environment is better for us, better for consumers and better for you.”

Key takeaways for taking control of review spam

  • All local enterprises need to know that review spam is a real problem
  • Its scope ranges from individual spammers to global networks
  • Enterprises must monitor all incoming reviews, and scale this with software where necessary
  • Designated staff must be on the lookout for suspicious patterns
  • All major review platforms have some form of support for reporting spam reviews, but its not always adequate and may not lead to removal
  • Because of this, brands must advocate for better support from review platforms
  • Review platforms need to listen and act, because their stake in game is real

Being the subject of a review spam attack can be a stressful event that I wish no brand ever had to face, but it’s my hope that this article has empowered you to meet a possible challenge with complete information and a smart plan of action.

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Reblogged 2 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Stop Ghost Spam in Google Analytics with One Filter

Posted by CarloSeo

The spam in Google Analytics (GA) is becoming a serious issue. Due to a deluge of referral spam from social buttons, adult sites, and many, many other sources, people are starting to become overwhelmed by all the filters they are setting up to manage the useless data they are receiving.

The good news is, there is no need to panic. In this post, I’m going to focus on the most common mistakes people make when fighting spam in GA, and explain an efficient way to prevent it.

But first, let’s make sure we understand how spam works. A couple of months ago, Jared Gardner wrote an excellent article explaining what referral spam is, including its intended purpose. He also pointed out some great examples of referral spam.

Types of spam

The spam in Google Analytics can be categorized by two types: ghosts and crawlers.

Ghosts

The vast majority of spam is this type. They are called ghosts because they never access your site. It is important to keep this in mind, as it’s key to creating a more efficient solution for managing spam.

As unusual as it sounds, this type of spam doesn’t have any interaction with your site at all. You may wonder how that is possible since one of the main purposes of GA is to track visits to our sites.

They do it by using the Measurement Protocol, which allows people to send data directly to Google Analytics’ servers. Using this method, and probably randomly generated tracking codes (UA-XXXXX-1) as well, the spammers leave a “visit” with fake data, without even knowing who they are hitting.

Crawlers

This type of spam, the opposite to ghost spam, does access your site. As the name implies, these spam bots crawl your pages, ignoring rules like those found in robots.txt that are supposed to stop them from reading your site. When they exit your site, they leave a record on your reports that appears similar to a legitimate visit.

Crawlers are harder to identify because they know their targets and use real data. But it is also true that new ones seldom appear. So if you detect a referral in your analytics that looks suspicious, researching it on Google or checking it against this list might help you answer the question of whether or not it is spammy.

Most common mistakes made when dealing with spam in GA

I’ve been following this issue closely for the last few months. According to the comments people have made on my articles and conversations I’ve found in discussion forums, there are primarily three mistakes people make when dealing with spam in Google Analytics.

Mistake #1. Blocking ghost spam from the .htaccess file

One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to block Ghost Spam from the .htaccess file.

For those who are not familiar with this file, one of its main functions is to allow/block access to your site. Now we know that ghosts never reach your site, so adding them here won’t have any effect and will only add useless lines to your .htaccess file.

Ghost spam usually shows up for a few days and then disappears. As a result, sometimes people think that they successfully blocked it from here when really it’s just a coincidence of timing.

Then when the spammers later return, they get worried because the solution is not working anymore, and they think the spammer somehow bypassed the barriers they set up.

The truth is, the .htaccess file can only effectively block crawlers such as buttons-for-website.com and a few others since these access your site. Most of the spam can’t be blocked using this method, so there is no other option than using filters to exclude them.

Mistake #2. Using the referral exclusion list to stop spam

Another error is trying to use the referral exclusion list to stop the spam. The name may confuse you, but this list is not intended to exclude referrals in the way we want to for the spam. It has other purposes.

For example, when a customer buys something, sometimes they get redirected to a third-party page for payment. After making a payment, they’re redirected back to you website, and GA records that as a new referral. It is appropriate to use referral exclusion list to prevent this from happening.

If you try to use the referral exclusion list to manage spam, however, the referral part will be stripped since there is no preexisting record. As a result, a direct visit will be recorded, and you will have a bigger problem than the one you started with since. You will still have spam, and direct visits are harder to track.

Mistake #3. Worrying that bounce rate changes will affect rankings

When people see that the bounce rate changes drastically because of the spam, they start worrying about the impact that it will have on their rankings in the SERPs.

bounce.png

This is another mistake commonly made. With or without spam, Google doesn’t take into consideration Google Analytics metrics as a ranking factor. Here is an explanation about this from Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s web spam team.

And if you think about it, Cutts’ explanation makes sense; because although many people have GA, not everyone uses it.

Assuming your site has been hacked

Another common concern when people see strange landing pages coming from spam on their reports is that they have been hacked.

landing page

The page that the spam shows on the reports doesn’t exist, and if you try to open it, you will get a 404 page. Your site hasn’t been compromised.

But you have to make sure the page doesn’t exist. Because there are cases (not spam) where some sites have a security breach and get injected with pages full of bad keywords to defame the website.

What should you worry about?

Now that we’ve discarded security issues and their effects on rankings, the only thing left to worry about is your data. The fake trail that the spam leaves behind pollutes your reports.

It might have greater or lesser impact depending on your site traffic, but everyone is susceptible to the spam.

Small and midsize sites are the most easily impacted – not only because a big part of their traffic can be spam, but also because usually these sites are self-managed and sometimes don’t have the support of an analyst or a webmaster.

Big sites with a lot of traffic can also be impacted by spam, and although the impact can be insignificant, invalid traffic means inaccurate reports no matter the size of the website. As an analyst, you should be able to explain what’s going on in even in the most granular reports.

You only need one filter to deal with ghost spam

Usually it is recommended to add the referral to an exclusion filter after it is spotted. Although this is useful for a quick action against the spam, it has three big disadvantages.

  • Making filters every week for every new spam detected is tedious and time-consuming, especially if you manage many sites. Plus, by the time you apply the filter, and it starts working, you already have some affected data.
  • Some of the spammers use direct visits along with the referrals.
  • These direct hits won’t be stopped by the filter so even if you are excluding the referral you will sill be receiving invalid traffic, which explains why some people have seen an unusual spike in direct traffic.

Luckily, there is a good way to prevent all these problems. Most of the spam (ghost) works by hitting GA’s random tracking-IDs, meaning the offender doesn’t really know who is the target, and for that reason either the hostname is not set or it uses a fake one. (See report below)

Ghost-Spam.png

You can see that they use some weird names or don’t even bother to set one. Although there are some known names in the list, these can be easily added by the spammer.

On the other hand, valid traffic will always use a real hostname. In most of the cases, this will be the domain. But it also can also result from paid services, translation services, or any other place where you’ve inserted GA tracking code.

Valid-Referral.png

Based on this, we can make a filter that will include only hits that use real hostnames. This will automatically exclude all hits from ghost spam, whether it shows up as a referral, keyword, or pageview; or even as a direct visit.

To create this filter, you will need to find the report of hostnames. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the Reporting tab in GA
  2. Click on Audience in the lefthand panel
  3. Expand Technology and select Network
  4. At the top of the report, click on Hostname

Valid-list

You will see a list of all hostnames, including the ones that the spam uses. Make a list of all the valid hostnames you find, as follows:

  • yourmaindomain.com
  • blog.yourmaindomain.com
  • es.yourmaindomain.com
  • payingservice.com
  • translatetool.com
  • anotheruseddomain.com

For small to medium sites, this list of hostnames will likely consist of the main domain and a couple of subdomains. After you are sure you got all of them, create a regular expression similar to this one:

yourmaindomain\.com|anotheruseddomain\.com|payingservice\.com|translatetool\.com

You don’t need to put all of your subdomains in the regular expression. The main domain will match all of them. If you don’t have a view set up without filters, create one now.

Then create a Custom Filter.

Make sure you select INCLUDE, then select “Hostname” on the filter field, and copy your expression into the Filter Pattern box.

filter

You might want to verify the filter before saving to check that everything is okay. Once you’re ready, set it to save, and apply the filter to all the views you want (except the view without filters).

This single filter will get rid of future occurrences of ghost spam that use invalid hostnames, and it doesn’t require much maintenance. But it’s important that every time you add your tracking code to any service, you add it to the end of the filter.

Now you should only need to take care of the crawler spam. Since crawlers access your site, you can block them by adding these lines to the .htaccess file:

## STOP REFERRER SPAM 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} semalt\.com [NC,OR] 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} buttons-for-website\.com [NC] 
RewriteRule .* - [F]

It is important to note that this file is very sensitive, and misplacing a single character it it can bring down your entire site. Therefore, make sure you create a backup copy of your .htaccess file prior to editing it.

If you don’t feel comfortable messing around with your .htaccess file, you can alternatively make an expression with all the crawlers, then and add it to an exclude filter by Campaign Source.

Implement these combined solutions, and you will worry much less about spam contaminating your analytics data. This will have the added benefit of freeing up more time for you to spend actually analyze your valid data.

After stopping spam, you can also get clean reports from the historical data by using the same expressions in an Advance Segment to exclude all the spam.

Bonus resources to help you manage spam

If you still need more information to help you understand and deal with the spam on your GA reports, you can read my main article on the subject here: http://www.ohow.co/what-is-referrer-spam-how-stop-it-guide/.

Additional information on how to stop spam can be found at these URLs:

In closing, I am eager to hear your ideas on this serious issue. Please share them in the comments below.

(Editor’s Note: All images featured in this post were created by the author.)

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Understand and Harness the Power of Archetypes in Marketing

Posted by gfiorelli1

Roger Dooley, neuromarketing expert, reminds us in his book Brainfluence that in 80% of cases we make a decision before being rationally aware of it.

Although Dooley explains this effect in terms of how our brain works, in my opinion, distinctly separating neuroscience and the theory of archetypes would be incorrect. On the contrary, I believe that these two aspects of the study of the human mind are complementary.

According to
Jung, archetypes are “[…] forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the Earth as constituents of myths and—at the same time—as individual products of unconscious”. He then, added something that interests us greatly: “The [forms and images] are imprinted and hardwired into out psyches”.

Being able to design a brand personality around an archetype that connects unconsciously with our audience is a big first step for: brand loyalty, community creation, engagement, conversions.

The Slender Man is the “Internet age” version of the archetype figure of the Shadow

Archetypes can be also used for differentiating our brand and its messaging from others in our same market niche and to give that brand a unique voice.

If we put users at the center of our marketing strategy, then
we cannot limit ourselves in knowing how they search, how they talk on social media, what they like to share or what their demographics are.

No,
we should also understand the deep psychological reasons why they desire something they search for, talk the way they talk, share what they share, and their psychological relation with the environment and society they live in.

Knowing that,
we can use archetypes to create a deep emotional connection with our audience and earn their strong positive attitude toward us thanks to the empathy that is created between them and us.

Narrative modes, then, help us in shaping in a structured way a brand storytelling able to guide and engage the users, and not simply selling or creating content narrative doomed to fail.

The 12 archetypes




graph by Emily Bennet

The chart above presents the 12 Jungian archetypes (i.e: Hero), to what principal human desire (i.e.: leave a mark on the world) they correspond and what is the main behavior each one uses for achieving that desire (i.e.: mastery).


Remember: if the audience instinctively recognizes the archetypal figure of the brand and its symbolism and instinctively connect with it, then your audience is more ready to like and trust what your brand proposes
.

On the other hand, it is also a good exercise to experiment with archetypes that we would not think are our brand’s one, expanding the practice of A/B tests to make sure we’re working with the correct archetype. 

The Creator

In my last post I used Lego as example of a brand that is winning Internet marketing thanks to its holistic and synergistic use of offline and online marketing channels.

I explained also how part of its success is due to the fact Lego was able to shape its messages and brand personality around the Creator archetype (sometimes called the “Builder”) which is embodied by their tagline, “let’s build”.

Creators tend to be nonconformist and to enjoy self expression.
A Creator brand, then, will empower and prize its audience as much as it is able to express itself using its products.

The Ruler

The Ruler is the leader, the one setting the rules others will follow, even competitors. Usually it’s paired with an
idea of exclusiveness and status growth.

A brand that presents itself as a Ruler is suggesting to their audience that they can be rulers too.

A classic example of Ruler brand is Mercedes:

The Caregiver

Altruism, compassion, generosity.
Caregiver brands present themselves as someone to trust, because they care and empathize with their audience.

The Caregiver is one of the most positive archetypes, and it is obviously used by nonprofit organizations or governmental institutions like UNICEF, but brands like Johnson & Johnson have also shaped their personality and messages around this figure.

The Innocent

The Innocent finds positive sides in everyone and everything

It sees beauty even in things that others will not even consider, and feels in peace with its inner beauty.

Dove, obviously, is a good representation of the Innocent archetype.

The Sage

The Sages wants to know and understand things. 


The Sage is deeply humanist and believe in the power of humankind to shape a better world through knowledge
.

However, the Sage also has a shadowed side: intolerance to ideas others than their own.

Google, in both cases, is a good example a Sage brand.

The Explorer

The Explorer is adventurous, brave, and loves challenges. He tends to be an individualist too, and loves to challenge himself so as to find his real self.


Explorer brands prompt their audience to challenge themselves and to discover the Explorer within

Red Bull is a classic example of these kinds of brands, but REI and Patagonia are even better representations.

The Hero

In many aspects, the Hero archetype is similar to the Explorer and Outlaw ones, with the difference that the Hero many times never wanted to be the hero, but injustice and external events obliged him to find the courage, braveness, and the honor to become one.

Nike, and also its competitor Adidas, shapes its brand voice around this archetypal figure.

The Magician

The Magician is clever, intelligent, and sometimes his ability can be considered supernatural. 


The Magician is able to make the impossible possible
. Because of that some of the best known technology brands use this archetype as their own to showcase their innovation and how they use their advanced knowledge creatively.

Apple—even if you are not an Apple fan—created a powerful brand by shaping it around this archetype. 

The Outlaw


The Outlaw is the rebel, the one who breaks the rules in order to free his true self
.

The Outlaw goes against the canon and is very aware of the constrictions society creates.

A great example of a brand that very well represents the Outlaw archetype is Betabrand.

The Everyman

It is perfectly fine to be “normal,” and happiness can come from simply sharing things with people we love.


Brands targeting the Everyman audience (and painting themselves as such) craft their messages about the beauty of simple things and daily real life
.

Ikea is probably the brand that’s achieved mastery in the use of this archetype over the past few years.

The Jester 

Fun, irreverent, energetic, impulsive and against the established rules at the same time, the Jester is also the only one who is able to tell the truth with a joke. 

Jesters can be revolutionary too, and their motto could be “a laugh will bury you all.”


A brand that presents itself as the Jester is a brand that wants to make our lives easier and more bearable, providing us joy.

The Lover


Sensuality is the main characteristic of the Lover archetype
, as well as strong physicality, passion, and a need for deep and strong sensations.

But the Lover can be also the idealist, the romantic longing for the perfect love.

Archetypes and brand storytelling

Our brain, as many neuroscientists have proved, is
hard-wired for stories (I suggest you to watch this TEDx too).

Therefore, once we have decided what archetype figure best responds both to our audience and our values as a brand,
we must translate the psychology we created for our brand into
brand storytelling.
That storytelling must then be attuned to the psychology of our audience based on our psychographic analysis of them.

Good (brand) storytelling is very hard to achieve, and most of the time we see brands that miserably fail when trying to tell branded stories.

Introducing the Theory of Literary (or Narrative) Modes

In order to help my clients find the correct narrative, I rely on something that usually is not considered by marketers: the
Theory of Literary Modes.

I use this theory, presented first by
Northrop Frye in it essay Anatomy of Criticism, because it is close to our “technical marketer” mindset.

In fact:

  1. The theory is based on a objective and “scientific” analysis of data (the literary corpus produced by humans);
  2. It refuses “personal taste” as a metric, which in web marketing would be the same as creating a campaign with tactics you like but you don’t really know if your public is interested in. Even worse, it would be like saying “create great content” without defining what that means.

Moreover, the
Theory of Literary Modes is deeply structured and strongly relies on semiotics, which is going to be the natural evolution of how search engines like Google will comprehend the content published in the Internet. Semantic thinking is just the first step as well explained 
Isla McKetta here on Moz few months ago.

Finally, Northrop Fryed
considers also archetypes this theory because of the psychological and semiotic value of the symbolism attached to the archetypal figure.

Therefore, my election to use the Theory of Literary Modes responds 

  1. To the need to translate ideal brand storytelling into something real that can instinctively connect with the brand’s audience;
  2. To make the content based on that storytelling process understandable also by search engines.

The Theory of Literary Modes in marketing

To understand how this works in marketing, we need to dig a little deeper into the theory.

A literary work can be classified in two different but complementary ways:

1) Considering only the
relation between the nature of the main character (the Hero) and the ambient (or environment) where he acts.

2) Considering also
if the Hero is refused or accepted by society (Tragedy and Comedy).

In the
first case, as represented in the schema above, if the Hero:
  1. Is higher by nature than the readers and acts in a completely different ambient than theirs, we have a Romance;
  2. Is higher by nature than the readers, but acts in their same ambient, we have an Epic;
  3. Is someone like the reader and acts in the reader’s own ambient, we are in field of Realism;
  4. Is someone lower by nature than the readers and acts in a different or identical ambient, we are in the realm of Irony, which is meant as “distance.”
A fifth situation exists too, the
Myth, when the nature of the Hero is different than ours and acts in an ambient different than ours. The Hero, in this case, is the God.

If we consider also if society refuses or accepts the hero, we can discover the different versions of Tragedy and Comedy.

I will not enter in the details of Tragedy, because
we will not use its modes for brand storytelling (this is only common in specific cases of political marketing or propaganda, classic examples are the mythology of Nazism or Communism).

On the contrary,
the most common modes used in brand storytelling are related to Comedy, where the Hero, who usually is the target audience, is eventually accepted by society (the archetypal world designed by the brand).

In
Comedy we have several sub modes of storytelling:

  1. “The God Accepted.” The Hero is a god or god-like kind of person who must pass through trials in order to be accepted by the society;
  2. The Idyll, where the Hero uses his skills to explore (or conquer) an ideal world and/or become part of an ideal society. Far West and its heir, Space Opera (think of Interstellar) are classic examples. 
  3. Comedy sees the hero trying to impose his own view of the world, fighting for it and finally being awarded with acceptance of his worldview. A good example of this is every well ending biopic of an entrepreneur, and Comedy is the exact contrary of melodrama. 
  4. On a lower level we can find the Picaresque Comedy, where the hero is by nature inferior to the society, but – thanks to his cleverness – is able to elevate himself to society’s level. Some technology business companies use this narrative mode for telling their users that they can “conquer” their market niche despite not having the same economic possibilities as the big brands (this conquering usually involves the brand’s tools).
  5. Finally we have the Irony Mode of Comedy which is quite complex to define. 
    1. It can represent stories where the hero is actually an antihero, who finally fails in his integration into the society. 
    2. It can also be about inflicting pain on helpless victims, as in mystery novels. 
    3. It can also be Parody.

Some examples

The Magician, gamification, and the Idyllic mode

Consider this brand plot:

The user (the Hero) can become part of a community of users only if he or she passes through a series of tasks, which will award prizes and more capabilities. If the user is able to pass through all the tasks, he will not only be accepted but also may have the opportunity to be among the leaders of the community itself.

And now
consider sites, which are strongly centered on communities like GitHub and Code Academy. Consider also SAAS companies that present the freemium model like Moz or mobile games like Boom Beach, where you can unlock new weapons only if you pass a given trial (or you buy them).

The Magician is usually the archetype of reference for these kinds of brands. The Hero (the user) will be able to dominate a complex art thanks to the help of a Master (the brand), which will offer him instruments (i.e.: tools/courses/weapons). 

Trials are not necessarily tests. A trial can be doing something that will be awarded, for instance, with points (like commenting on a Moz blog post), and the more the points the more the recognition, with all the advantages that it may offer. 

Gamification, then, assumes an even stronger meaning and narrative function when tied to an archetype and literary mode.

Ikea, the Everyman, and the Comedic mode

Another
example is Ikea, which we cited before when talking of the Everyman archetype.

In this case, the Hero is someone like me or you who is not an interior designer or decorator or, maybe, who does not have the money for hiring those professionals or buying very expensive furniture and decoration.

But, faithful to its mission statements (“design for all”, “design your own life”…), Ikea is there to help Everyman kind of people like me and you in every way as we decorate our own houses.

On the practical side, this narrative is delivered in all the possible channels used by Ikea: web site, mobile app, social media (look at its
Twitter profile) and YouTube channel.

Betabrand, the Outlaw, and Picaresque Comedy

A third and last example can be
Betabrand.

In this case both the brand and the audience is portrayed using the
Outlaw archetype, and the brand narrative tend to use the Picaresque mode.

The Heroes is the Betabrand community who does not care what the mainstream concept of fashion is and designs and crowdfounds “its fashion.”

How to use archetypes and narrative modes in your brand storytelling

The first thing you must understand is what archetype best responds to your company tenets and mission. 

Usually this is not something an SEO can decide by him- or herself, but it is something that founders, CEOs, and directors of a company can inform.

Oftentimes a small to medium business company can achieve this with a long talk among those company figures and where they are asked to directly define the idealistic “why?” of their company.

In case of bigger companies, defining an archetype can seem almost impossible to do, but the same history of the company and hidden treasure pages like “About Us” can offer clear inspiration.

Look at REI:

Clearly the archetype figure that bests fits REI is the Explorer.

Then, using the information we retrieve when creating the
psychographic of our audience and buyer personas, matching with the characteristics each archetype has, and comparing it with the same brand core values, we can start to understand the archetype and narrative mode. If we look at REI’s audience, then we will see how it also has a certain affinity with the Everyman archetypal figure (and that also explains why REI also dedicates great attention to family as audience).

Once we have defined the best archetype commonly shared by our company and our audience, we must translate this figure and its symbolism into brand storytelling, which in web site includes design, especially the following:

  • Color pattern, because colors have a direct relation with psychological reaction (see this article, especially all the sources it links to)
  • Images, considering that in user-centric marketing the ideal is always to represent our targeted audience (or a credible approximation) as their main characters. I am talking of the so called “hero-shots”, about which Angie Shoetmuller brilliantly discussed in the deck I embed here below:

If you want to dig deeper in discovering the meaning and value of symbols worldwide, I suggest you become member of
Aras.org or to buy the Book of Symbols curated by Aras.

  • Define the best narrative mode to use. REI, again, does this well, using the Idyllic mode where the Hero explores and become part of an ideal society (the REI community, which literally means becoming a member of REI). 

We should, then:

  1. Continue investigating the archetypal nature of our audience conducting surveys
  2. Analyzing the demographic data Google Analytics offers us about our users 
  3. Using GA insights in combination with the data and demographic information offered by social networks’ ad platforms in order to create not only the interest graph of our audience but also to understand the psychology behind those interests 
  4. Doing A/B tests so to see whether symbols, images, and copywriting based on the targeted archetypes work better and if we have the correct archetype.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

The Danger of Crossing Algorithms: Uncovering The Cloaked Panda Update During Penguin 3.0

Posted by GlennGabe

Penguin 3.0 was one of the most anticipated algorithm updates in recent years when it rolled out on October 17, 2014. Penguin hadn’t run for over a year at that point,
and there were many webmasters sitting in Penguin limbo waiting for recovery. They had cleaned up their link profiles, disavowed what they could, and were
simply waiting for the next update or refresh. Unfortunately, Google was wrestling with the algo internally and over twelve months passed without an
update.

So when Pierre Far finally
announced Penguin 3.0 a few days later on October 21, a few things
stood out. First, this was
not a new algorithm like Gary Illyes had explained it would be at SMX East. It was a refresh and underscored
the potential problems Google was battling with Penguin (cough, negative SEO).

Second, we were not seeing the impact that we expected. The rollout seemed to begin with a heavier international focus and the overall U.S impact has been
underwhelming to say the least. There were definitely many fresh hits globally, but there were a number of websites that should have recovered but didn’t
for some reason. And many are still waiting for recovery today.

Third, the rollout would be slow and steady and could take weeks to fully complete. That’s unusual, but makes sense given the microscope Penguin 3.0 was
under. And this third point (the extended rollout) is even more important than most people think. Many webmasters are already confused when they get hit
during an acute algorithm update (for example, when an algo update rolls out on one day). But the confusion gets exponentially worse when there is an
extended rollout.

The more time that goes by between the initial launch and the impact a website experiences, the more questions pop up. Was it Penguin 3.0 or was it
something else? Since I work heavily with algorithm updates, I’ve heard similar questions many times over the past several years. And the extended Penguin
3.0 rollout is a great example of why confusion can set in. That’s my focus today.


Penguin, Pirate, and the anomaly on October 24

With the Penguin 3.0 rollout, we also had
Pirate 2 rolling out. And yes, there are
some websites that could be impacted by both. That added a layer of complexity to the situation, but nothing like what was about to hit. You see, I picked
up a very a strange anomaly on October 24. And I clearly saw serious movement on that day (starting late in the day ET).

So, if there was a third algorithm update, then that’s
three potential algo updates rolling out at the same time. More about this soon,
but it underscores the confusion that can set in when we see extended rollouts, with a mix of confirmed and unconfirmed updates.


Penguin 3.0 tremors and analysis

Since I do a lot of Penguin work, and have researched many domains impacted by Penguin in the past, I heavily studied the Penguin 3.0 rollout. I 
published a blog post based on the first ten days of the update, which included some interesting findings for sure.

And based on the extended rollout, I definitely saw Penguin tremors beyond the initial October 17 launch. For example, check out the screenshot below of a
website seeing Penguin impact on October 17, 22, and 25.

But as mentioned earlier, something else happened on October 24 that set off sirens in my office. I started to see serious movement on sites impacted by
Panda, and not Penguin. And when I say serious movement, I’m referring to major traffic gains or losses all starting on October 24. Again, these were sites heavily dealing with Panda and had
clean link profiles. Check out the trending below from October 24 for several
sites that saw impact.


A good day for a Panda victim:



A bad day for a Panda victim:



And an incredibly frustrating day for a 9/5 recovery that went south on 10/24:

I saw this enough that I tweeted heavily about it and
included a section about Panda in my Penguin 3.0 blog post. And
that’s when something wonderful happened, and it highlights the true beauty and power of the internet.

As more people saw my tweets and read my post, I started receiving messages from other webmasters explaining that
they saw the same exact thing, and on their websites dealing with Panda and not Penguin. And not only
did they tell me about, they
showed me the impact.

I received emails containing screenshots and tweets with photos from Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. It was amazing to see, and it confirmed
that we had just experienced a Panda update in the middle of a multi-week Penguin rollout. Yes, read that line again. Panda during Penguin, right when the
internet world was clearly focused on Penguin 3.0.

That was a sneaky move Google… very sneaky. 🙂

So, based on what I explained earlier about webmaster confusion and algorithms, can you tell what happened next? Yes, massive confusion ensued. We had the
trifecta of algorithm updates with Penguin, Pirate, and now Panda.


Webmaster confusion and a reminder of the algo sandwich from 2012

So, we had a major algorithm update during two other major algorithm updates (Penguin and Pirate) and webmaster confusion was hitting extremely high
levels. And I don’t blame anyone for being confused. I’m neck deep in this stuff and it confused me at first.

Was the October 24 update a Penguin tremor or was this something else? Could it be Pirate? And if it was indeed Panda, it would have been great if Google told
us it was Panda! Or did they want to throw off SEOs analyzing Penguin and Pirate? Does anyone have a padded room I can crawl into?

Once I realized this was Panda, and started to communicate the update via Twitter and my blog, I had a number of people ask me a very important question:


“Glenn, would Google really roll out two or three algorithm updates so close together, or at the same time?”

Why yes, they would. Anyone remember the algorithm sandwich from April of 2012? That’s when Google rolled out Panda on April 19, then Penguin 1.0 on April 24,
followed by Panda on April 27. Yes, we had three algorithm updates all within ten days. And let’s not forget that the Penguin update on April 24, 2012 was the
first of its kind! So yes, Google can, and will, roll out multiple major algos around the same time.

Where are we headed? It’s fascinating, but not pretty


Panda is near real-time now

When Panda 4.1 rolled out on September 23, 2014, I immediately disliked the title and version number of the update. Danny Sullivan named it 4.1, so it stuck. But for
me, that was not 4.1… not even close. It was more like 4.75. You see, there have been a number of Panda tremors and updates since P4.0 on May 20,
2014.

I saw what I was calling “tremors”
nearly weekly based on having access to a large amount of Panda data (across sites, categories, and countries).
And based on what I was seeing, I reached out to John Mueller at Google to clarify the tremors. John’s response was great and confirmed what I was seeing.
He explained that there
was not a set frequency for algorithms like Panda. Google can roll out an algorithm, analyze the
SERPs, refine the algo to get the desired results, and keep pushing it out. And that’s exactly what I was seeing (again, almost weekly since Panda 4.0).


When Panda and Penguin meet in real time…

…they will have a cup of coffee and laugh at us. 🙂 So, since Panda is near-real time, the crossing of major algorithm updates is going to happen.
And we just experienced an important one on October 24 with Penguin, Pirate, and Panda. But it could (and probably will) get more chaotic than what we have now.
We are quickly approaching a time where major algorithm updates crafted in a lab will be unleashed on the web in near-real time or in actual real time.

And if organic search traffic from Google is important to you, then pay attention. We’re about to take a quick trip into the future of Google and SEO. And
after hearing what I have to say, you might just want the past back…


Google’s brilliant object-oriented approach to fighting webspam

I have presented at the past two SES conferences about Panda, Penguin, and other miscellaneous disturbances in the force. More about those “other
disturbances” soon. In my presentation, one of my slides looks like this:

Over the past several years, Google has been using a brilliant, object-oriented approach to fighting webspam and low quality content. Webspam engineers can
craft external algorithms in a lab and then inject them into the real-time algorithm whenever they want. It’s brilliant because it isolates specific
problems, while also being extremely scalable. And by the way, it should scare the heck out of anyone breaking the rules.

For example, we have Panda, Penguin, Pirate, and Above the Fold. Each was crafted to target a specific problem and can be unleashed on the web whenever
Google wants. Sure, there are undoubtedly connections between them (either directly or indirectly), but each specific algo is its own black box. Again,
it’s object-oriented.

Now, Panda is a great example of an algorithm that has matured to where Google highly trusts it. That’s why Google announced in June of 2013 that Panda
would roll out monthly, over ten days. And that’s also why it matured even more with Panda 4.0 (and why I’ve seen tremors almost weekly.)

And then we had Gary Illyes explain that Penguin was moving along the same path. At SMX East,
Gary explained that the new Penguin algorithm (which clearly didn’t roll out on October 17) would be structured in a way where subsequent updates could be rolled out more easily.
You know, like Panda.

And by the way, what if this happens to Pirate, Above the Fold, and other algorithms that Google is crafting in its Frankenstein lab? Well my friends, then
we’ll have absolute chaos and society as we know it will crumble. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get my point.

We already have massive confusion now… and a glimpse into the future reveals a continual flow of major algorithms running in real-time, each that
could pummel a site to the ground. And of course, with little or no sign of which algo actually caused the destruction. I don’t know about you, but I just
broke out in hives. 🙂


Actual example of what (near) real-time updates can do

After Panda 4.0, I saw some very strange Panda movement for sites impacted by recent updates. And it underscores the power of near-real time algo updates.
As a quick example,
temporary Panda recoveries can happen if you
don’t get out of the gray area enough. And now that we are seeing Panda tremors almost weekly, you can experience potential turbulence several times per
month.

Here is a screenshot from a site that recovered from Panda, didn’t get out of the gray area and reentered the strike zone, just five days later.

Holy cow, that was fast. I hope they didn’t plan any expensive trips in the near future. This is exactly what can happen when major algorithms roam the web
in real time. One week you’re looking good and the next week you’re in the dumps. Now, at least I knew this was Panda. The webmaster could tackle more
content problems and get out of the gray area… But the ups and downs of a Panda roller coaster ride can drive a webmaster insane. It’s one of the
reasons I recommend making
significant changes when
you’ve been hit by Panda. Get as far out of the gray area as possible.


An “automatic action viewer” in Google Webmaster Tools could help (and it’s actually being discussed internally by Google)

Based on webmaster confusion, many have asked Google to create an “automatic action viewer” in Google Webmaster Tools. It would be similar to the “manual
actions viewer,” but focused on algorithms that are demoting websites in the search results (versus penalties). Yes, there is a difference by the way.

The new viewer would help webmasters better understand the types of problems that are being impacted by algorithms like Panda, Penguin, Pirate, Above the
Fold, and others. Needless to say, this would be incredibly helpful to webmasters, business owners, and SEOs.

So, will we see that viewer any time soon? Google’s John Mueller
addressed this question during the November 3 webmaster hangout (at 38:30).

John explained they are trying to figure something out, but it’s not easy. There are so many algorithms running that they don’t want to provide feedback
that is vague or misleading. But, John did say they are discussing the automatic action viewer internally. So you never know…


A quick note about Matt Cutts

As many of you know, Matt Cutts took an extended leave this past summer (through the end of October). Well, he announced on Halloween that he is
extending his leave into 2015. I won’t go crazy here talking about his decision overall, but I will
focus on how this impacts webmasters as it relates to algorithm updates and webspam.

Matt does a lot more than just announce major algo updates… He actually gets involved when collateral damage rears its ugly head. And there’s not a
faster way to rectify a flawed algo update than to have Mr. Cutts involved. So before you dismiss Matt’s extended leave as uneventful, take a look at the
trending below:

Notice the temporary drop off a cliff, then 14 days of hell, only to see that traffic return? That’s because Matt got involved. That’s the
movie blog fiasco from early 2014 that I heavily analyzed. If
Matt was not notified of the drop via Twitter, and didn’t take action, I’m not sure the movie blogs that got hit would be around today. I told Peter from
SlashFilm that his fellow movie blog owners should all pay him a bonus this year. He’s the one that pinged Matt via Twitter and got the ball rolling.

It’s just one example of how having someone with power out front can nip potential problems in the bud. Sure, the sites experienced two weeks of utter
horror, but traffic returned once Google rectified the problem. Now that Matt isn’t actively helping or engaged, who will step up and be that guy? Will it
be John Mueller, Pierre Far, or someone else? John and Pierre are greatly helpful, but will they go to bat for a niche that just got destroyed? Will they
push changes through so sites can turn around? And even at its most basic level, will they even be aware the problem exists?

These are all great questions, and I don’t want to bog down this post (it’s already incredibly long). But don’t laugh off Matt Cutts taking an extended
leave. If he’s gone for good, you might only realize how important he was to the SEO community
after he’s gone. And hopefully it’s not because
your site just tanked as collateral damage during an algorithm update. Matt might be
running a marathon or trying on new Halloween costumes. Then where will you be?


Recommendations moving forward:

So where does this leave us? How can you prepare for the approaching storm of crossing algorithms? Below, I have provided several key bullets that I think
every webmaster should consider. I recommend taking a hard look at your site
now, before major algos are running in near-real time.

  • Truly understand the weaknesses with your website. Google will continue crafting external algos that can be injected into the real-time algorithm.
    And they will go real-time at some point. Be ready by cleaning up your site now.
  • Document all changes and fluctuations the best you can. Use annotations in Google Analytics and keep a spreadsheet updated with detailed
    information.
  • Along the same lines, download your Google Webmaster Tools data monthly (at least). After helping many companies with algorithm hits, that
    information is incredibly valuable, and can help lead you down the right recovery path.
  • Use a mix of audits and focus groups to truly understand the quality of your site. I mentioned in my post about

    aggressive advertising and Panda

    that human focus groups are worth their weight in gold (for surfacing Panda-related problems). Most business owners are too close to their own content and
    websites to accurately measure quality. Bias can be a nasty problem and can quickly lead to bamboo-overflow on a website.
  • Beyond on-site analysis, make sure you tackle your link profile as well. I recommend heavily analyzing your inbound links and weeding out unnatural
    links. And use the disavow tool for links you can’t remove. The combination of enhancing the quality of your content, boosting engagement, knocking down
    usability obstacles, and cleaning up your link profile can help you achieve long-term SEO success. Don’t tackle one quarter of your SEO problems. Address
    all of them.
  • Remove barriers that inhibit change and action. You need to move fast. You need to be decisive. And you need to remove red tape that can bog down
    the cycle of getting changes implemented. Don’t water down your efforts because there are too many chefs in the kitchen. Understand the changes that need
    to be implemented, and take action. That’s how you win SEO-wise.


Summary: Are you ready for the approaching storm?

SEO is continually moving and evolving, and it’s important that webmasters adapt quickly. Over the past few years, Google’s brilliant object-oriented
approach to fighting webspam and low quality content has yielded algorithms like Panda, Penguin, Pirate, and Above the Fold. And more are on their way. My
advice is to get your situation in order now, before crossing algorithms blend a recipe of confusion that make it exponentially harder to identify, and
then fix, problems riddling your website.

Now excuse me while I try to build a flux capacitor. 🙂

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Reblogged 5 years ago from feedproxy.google.com

Thank You for 10 Incredible Years

Posted by randfish

Below are letters written to you all (yes, you!) from both Rand and Sarah.

The first is from Rand:

Dear Moz Community,

Wow. Ten years. It’s been an incredible ride. Through the ups and downs (and there have been 
plenty of both), there haven’t been many constants in my life—my wife, Seattle, and, strangely enough—you, the Moz community. From my first days on the blog and in the forums of the SEO world, when I was deeply in debt and had no idea how to dig my way out, to the incredible rush of 2007 and 2012 when we raised funding rounds and felt like the sky was the limit, you’ve been there. And in the darkest hours of the past decade, when I’ve felt the most alone, guilty, and insecure, you’ve been there, too.

I get to see many of you in person—at conferences and events around the world. But I get to see you right here on the web, too—on Twitter, in the comments, through my email. Your support, empathy, and unwavering belief that Moz could and would do great things has been a beacon of hope and a challenge that I constantly strive to meet.

A decade is a long time. Few things in our lives or in the world last that long—the average tech startup 
doesn’t quite make two years. I’m honored and humbled that you’ve stuck with us all that time, and I promise that in the decade ahead, Moz will deliver more and better work in the areas you need most. We believe in making data that others hide transparent and accessible. We believe in delivering remarkable education and software that everyone can afford. We believe that all of this can be done not just without evil, but with real generosity of spirit and action.

Thank you for the ten remarkable years of warmth, friendship, and support. We absolutely couldn’t have done it without you, nor can we take the next steps without your help. I hope you’ll keep holding us to high standards, and telling us when we’ve met your expectations and when we’ve let you down.

With deep appreciation,

Rand Fishkin

Co-founder & individual contributor

Moz

The second letter is from Moz’s CEO, and one of the company’s earliest employees, Sarah Bird:

Dear Moz Community,

Moz is the steward of this community, but it’s owned by everyone who contributes with posts, comments, shares, and visits. Many, many people have passed through the community, leaving an indelible mark. I get emotional remembering the humor and generosity of 
Goodnewscowboy. I’m grateful and relieved that Dana Lookadoo is still fighting the good fight. I’m STILL impressed with the solid that Rhea Drysdale did the SEO community when she fought a nasty trademark battle on the community’s behalf. I salute all of the folks, and there have been many, who’ve been a force for good in my life and helped us all to take our game to the next level.

Our community is dynamic, but always TAGFEE. In fact, I’ve come to believe it is the truest expression of TAGFEE. People share openly and without a promise of getting anything in return (TAG). It’s a positive and supportive environment to become your best professional self (FEE). I’m proud that the Moz community is one of the few places on the web I’m not afraid to read the comments; I seek them out because they are consistently insightful and stimulating.

Thank you to those who paused here for a bit before continuing on your journeys, and for those who have stuck with us. There are people out there RIGHT NOW who haven’t yet discovered the Moz community, and who are going to help us keep it amazing in the future. I can’t wait to meet them. Without all of you, there is nothing here.

It’s been 10 years, but there is still a lot to learn and a lot to teach. It still feels like day one. The pace of innovation has increased, and the stakes are higher. We strive to share, adapt, and become the most TAGFEE and impactful professionals we can be. Thank you for creating a space to do that every day. Together, we dig deeper and go farther than would be possible without each other. Let’s keep it going and growing for the next ten years.

Hugs and High Fives,

Sarah Bird

CEO

Moz

If you have any fun or interesting memories from the last 10 years, whether they’re related to Moz, SEO, or whatever you think we might like to hear about (we’re feeling awfully nostalgic), please share them in the comments below!

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Using Modern SEO to Build Brand Authority

Posted by kaiserthesage

It’s obvious that the technology behind search engines’ ability to determine and understand web entities is gradually leaning towards how real people will normally perceive things from a traditional marketing perspective.

The
emphasis on E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness) from Google’s recently updated Quality Rating Guide shows that search engines are shifting towards brand-related metrics to identify sites/pages that deserve to be more visible in search results.

Online branding, or authority building, is quite similar to the traditional SEO practices that many of us have already been accustomed with.

Building a stronger brand presence online and improving a site’s search visibility both require two major processes: the things you implement on the site and the things you do outside of the site.

This is where several of the more advanced aspects of SEO can blend perfectly with online branding when implemented the right way. In this post, I’ll use some examples from my own experience to show you how.

Pick a niche and excel

Building on your brand’s
topical expertise is probably the fastest way to go when you’re looking to build a name for yourself or your business in a very competitive industry.

There are a few reasons why:

  • Proving your field expertise in one or two areas of your industry can be a strong unique selling point (USP) for your brand.
  • It’s easier to expand and delve into the deeper and more competitive parts of your industry once you’ve already established yourself as an expert in your chosen field.
  • Obviously, search engines favour brands known to be experts in their respective fields.

Just to give a brief example, when I started blogging back in 2010, I was all over the place. Then, a few months later, I decided to focus on one specific area of SEO—link building—and
wrote dozens of guides on how I do it.

By aiming to build my blog’s brand identity to become a prime destination for link building tutorials, it became a lot easier for me to sell my ideas on the other aspects of inbound marketing to my continuously growing audience (from technical SEO to social media, content marketing, email marketing and more).

Strengthening your brand starts with the quality of your brand’s content, whether it’s your product/service or the plethora of information available on your website.

You can start by assessing the categories where you’re getting the most traction in terms of natural link acquisitions, social shares, conversions, and/or sales.

Prioritize your content development efforts on the niche where your brand can genuinely compete in and will have a better fighting chance to dominate the market. It’s the smartest way to stand out and scale, especially when you’re still in your campaign’s early stages.

Optimize for semantic search and knowledge graph

In the past, most webmasters and publishers would rely on the usage of generic keywords/terms in optimizing their website’s content to make it easier for search engines to understand what they are about.

But now, while the continuously evolving technologies behind search may seem to make the optimization process more complicated, the fact is that it may just reward those who pursue high-level trustworthy marketing efforts to stand out in the search results.

These technologies and factors for determining relevance—which include entity recognition and disambiguation (ERD), structured data or schema markups, natural language processing (NLP), phrase-based indexing for co-occurrence and co-citations, concept matching, and a lot more—are all driven by branding campaigns and
how an average human would normally find, talk, or ask about a certain thing.

Easily identifiable brands will surely win in this type of setup.

Where to start? See if Google already knows what your brand is about.

How to optimize your site for the Knowledge Graph and at the same time build it as an authority online

1. Provide the best and the most precise answers to the “who, what, why, and how” queries that people might look for in your space.

Razvan Gavrilas did 
an extensive study on how Google’s Answer Boxes work. Getting listed in the answer box will not just drive more traffic and conversions to a business, but can also help position a brand on a higher level in its industry.

But of course, getting one of your entries placed for Google’s answer boxes for certain queries will also require other authority signals (like natural links, domain authority, etc.).

But what search crawlers would typically search for to evaluate whether a page’s content is appropriate to be displayed in the answer boxes (according to Razvan’s post):

  • If the page selected for the answer contains the question in a very similar (if not exact) form, along with the answer, at a short distance from the question (repeating at least some of the words from the question) and
  • If the page selected for the answer belongs to a trustworthy website. So most of the times, if it’s not Wikipedia, it will be a site that it can consider a non-biased third party, such as is the case with a lot of “.edu” sites, or news organization websites.

Although,
John Mueller mentioned recently that Knowledge Graph listings should not be branded, in which you might think that the approach and effort will be for nothing.

But wait, just think about it—the intent alone of optimizing your content for Google’s Knowledge Graph will allow you to serve better content to your users (which is what Google rewards the most these days, so it’s still the soundest action to take if you want to really build a solid brand, right?).

2. Clearly define your brand’s identity to your audience.

Being remarkable and being able to separate your brand from your competitors is crucial in online marketing (be it through your content or the experience people feel when they’re using your site/service/product).


Optimizing for humans through branding allows you to condition the way people will talk about you
. This factor is very important when you’re aiming to get more brand mentions that would really impact your site’s SEO efforts, branding, and conversions.

The more search engines are getting signals (even unlinked mentions) that verify that you’re an authority in your field, the more your brand will be trusted and rank your pages well on SERPs.

3. Build a strong authorship portfolio.

Author photos/badges may have been taken down from the search results a few weeks ago, but it doesn’t mean that authorship markup no longer has value.

Both
Mark Traphagen and Bill Slawski have shared why authorship markup still matters. And clearly, an author’s authority will still be a viable search ranking factor, given that it enables Google to easily identify topical experts and credible documents available around the web.

It will continue to help tie entities (publishers and brands) to their respective industries, which may still accumulate scores over time based on the popularity and reception from the author’s works (AuthorRank).

This approach is a great complement to personal brand building, especially when you’re expanding your content marketing efforts’ reach through guest blogging on industry-specific blogs where you can really absorb more new readers and followers.

There’s certainly more to implement under
Knowledge Graph Optimization, and here’s a short list from what AJ Kohn has already shared on his blog earlier this year, which are all still useful to this day:

  • Use entities (aka Nouns) in your writing
  • Get connected and link out to relevant sites
  • Implement Structured Data to increase entity detection
  • Use the sameAs property
  • Optimize your Google+ presence
  • Get exposure on Wikipedia
  • Edit and update your Freebase entry

Online branding through scalable link building

The right relationships make link building scalable.

In the past, many link builders believed that it’s best to have thousands of links from diversified sources, which apparently forced a lot of early practitioners to resort to tactics focused on manually dropping links to thousands of unique domains (and spamming).

And, unfortunately, guest blogging as a link building tactic has eventually become a part of this craze.

I’ve mentioned this dozens of times before, and I’m going to say it one more time:
It’s better to have multiple links from a few link sources that are highly trusted than having hundreds of one-off links from several mediocre sites.

Focus on building signals that will strongly indicate relationships, because it’s probably the most powerful off-site signal you can build out there.

When other influential entities in your space are vouching for your brand (whether it’s through links, social shares, or even unlinked brand mentions), it allows you to somehow become a part of the list of sites that will most likely be trusted by search engines.

It can most definitely impact how people will see your brand as an authority as well, when they see that you’re being trusted by other credible brands in your industry.

These relationships can also open a lot of opportunities for natural link acquisitions and lead generation, knowing that some of the most trusted brands in your space trust you.

Making all of this actionable

1. Identify and make a list of the top domains and publishers in your industry, particularly those that have high search share.

There are so many tools that you can use to get these data, like
SEMRush, Compete.com, and/or Alexa.com.

You can also use
Google Search and SEOQuake to make a list of sites that are performing well on search for your industry’s head terms (given that Google is displaying better search results these days, it’s probably one of the best prospecting tools you can use).

I also use other free tools in doing this type of prospecting, particularly in cleaning up the list (in
removing duplicate domains, and extracting unique hostnames; and in filtering out highly authoritative sites that are clearly irrelevant for the task, such as ranking pages from Facebook, Wikipedia, and other popular news sites).

2. Try to penetrate at least 2 high authority sites from the first 50 websites on your list—and become a regular contributor for them.

Start engaging them by genuinely participating in their existing communities.

The process shouldn’t stop with you contributing content for them on a regular basis, as along the way you can initiate collaborative tasks, such as inviting them to publish content on your site as well.

This can help draw more traffic (and links) from their end, and can exponentially improve the perceived value of your brand as a publisher (based on your relationships with other influential entities in your industry).

These kinds of relationships will make the latter part of your link building campaign less stressful. As soon as you get to build a strong footing with your brand’s existing relationships and content portfolio (in and out of your site), it’ll be a lot easier for you to pitch and get published on other authoritative industry-specific publications (or even in getting interview opportunities).

3. Write the types of content that your target influencers are usually reading.

Stalk your target influencers on social networks, and take note of the topics/ideas that interest them the most (related to your industry). See what type of content they usually share to their followers.

Knowing these things will give you ton of ideas on how you can effectively approach your content development efforts and can help you come up with content ideas that are most likely to be read, shared, and linked to.

You can also go the extra mile by knowing which sites they mostly link out to or use as reference for their own works (use
ScreamingFrog).

4. Take advantage of your own existing community (or others’ as well).

Collaborate with the people who are already participating in your brand’s online community (blog comments, social networks, discussions, etc.). Identify those who truly contribute and really add value to the discussions, and see if they run their own websites or work for a company that’s also in your industry.

Leverage these interactions, as these can form long-term relationships that can also be beneficial to both parties (for instance, inviting them to write for you or having you write for their blog, and/or cross-promote your works/services).

And perhaps, you can also use this approach to other brands’ communities as well, like reaching out to people you see who have really smart inputs about your industry (that’ll you see on other blog’s comment sections) and asking them if they’ll be interested to talk/share more about that topic and have it published on your website instead.

Building a solid community can easily help automate link building, but more importantly, it can surely help strengthen a brand’s online presence.

Conclusion

SEO can be a tremendous help to your online branding efforts. Likewise, branding can be a tremendous help to your SEO efforts. Alignment and integration of both practices is what keeps winners winning in this game (just look at Moz).

If you liked this post or have any questions, let me know in the comments below, and you can find me on Twitter
@jasonacidre.

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!

Reblogged 5 years ago from feedproxy.google.com

How to Be TAGFEE when You Disagree

Posted by Lisa-Mozstaff

On being TAGFEE


I’m a big advocate of the TAGFEE culture at Moz. It’s one of the big
reasons I joined the team and why I stay here. I also recognize that sometimes
it can be hard to practice it in “Real Life.” 

How, for instance, can I
be both authentic AND fun when I tell Anthony how angry I am that he
took the last two donuts? I can certainly be transparent and authentic,
but, anger and confrontation…where does that get fun?

But those times when you need to be authentic—those are the times when being generous and empathetic matter the most. It may seem more generous and empathetic to just withhold that difficult feedback, but it’s not. Giving that feedback can be scary, and most people imagine things going horribly wrong and leaving everything in ruins when you really just wanted to help.

Having a little bit of self-awareness and a whole lot of hold-on- there-a-minute can really help with this. I’ve been sharing with other Mozzers a way to be Transparent AND Authentic AND Generous AND Fun AND Empathetic AND Exceptional. And I thought I’d share a little bit of it with you too.

Conflict can be productive

Why it’s important to have productive conflict

Why it matters

If you read about the psychology and physiology of confrontations, you’ll realize that our brains aren’t at their best when we’re in a confrontation.

When threatened, our bodies respond by going back to our most basic, primal instincts, sometimes called the lizard brain or (cue scary music) “amygdala hijack.” Blood and oxygen pump away from your brain and into your muscles so you’re equipped to fight or run away.

However, having your higher-order thinking functions deprived of oxygen when confronted by an angry customer or coworker isn’t such a good thing. Your lizard brain isn’t well-equipped to deal with situations diplomatically, or look at ways to find common ground and a win-win solution. It’s looking to destroy or get the heck out of there (or both), and neither of those approaches work well in a business environment.

To really communicate,*everyone* has to feel safe. If you are calm and collected and using the collaborative parts of your brain, but the person you’re talking to is scared or uncertain, you can’t communicate.

Fighting the lizard

Control the physiological and psychological reactions of fear

When you’re in a confrontation, how do you control the physiological and psychological reactions of fear so you can choose to act rather than react?

To bring your brain back, you need to force your brain to use its higher-order thinking functions. Ask yourself questions that the lizard brain can’t answer, and it’ll have to send some of that oxygen and blood back up into the rest of your brain.

Once you’ve freed your brain from the lizard, you have access to your higher thinking functions – and the resources to have a productive confrontation.

Questions to fight the lizard:

  • Find benevolent intent. Ask yourself what you really want from this interaction. Find an intention that’s benevolent for both you and the other person. Draw on your Empathy and Generosity here. 
  • Get curious. Ask yourself why you or the other person is emotional and seek to understand. The lizard brain hates “why” questions. 

This lizard has no choice, but you do! (Image by Lisa Wildwood)

What does productive conflict look like?

Giving up “winning” to win

Give yourself permission to try something new. Even if you don’t do it perfectly, it’s better than the lizard.

These steps assume you’ve got some time to prepare, but sometimes, you find yourself in a confrontation and have to do the best you can. Give yourself permission to try something new. Even if you don’t do it perfectly, it’s better than the lizard taking over. And the more you practice these, the easier and more natural they’ll feel, and the more confidence you’ll have in the power of productive confrontations.

Once I’ve walked you through all of these steps, I’ll talk about how to put it all together. Also note that these steps may be contrary to how you are used to behaving, particularly if you come from a culture that values personal success over teamwork. It may feel strange to do this at first, and it may feel like you’re giving up the chance to “win”… but it’s worth it.


Steps to productive conflict:

  1. Change your story.
  2. Talk about the right things. 
  3. Get curious.
  4. Inspire and be inspired
  5. Follow up.

1 - Change your story

Create a benevolent story and a positive intent

The first step to Productive Conflict is to change your story. And to do that, you first have to realize you’re telling stories in the first place…

We’re all amazing storytellers

We all make up stories every time we see something happen. It’s human nature.

Here’s my story:

This is Anthony, stealing my donut. He saw me coming and grabbed it
before I could.

He’s munching on my donut while I despair of ever
getting a donut.

I don’t get why he’s so selfish that he took two donuts. I mean, didn’t his mama raise him right?

Imaged cropped from an image courtesy of

Stéfan under Creative Commons license

My story is one we all make up sometimes. We paint ourselves as helpless victims thwarted by an evil villain. Sometimes we don’t see them as stories, however, but as reality, and that’s where we get into trouble.

The victim/villain story may get you sympathy, but it takes away your power. During a confrontation, it helps if you remember that it *is* a story, and it’s also:

  • Internal – Something you made up based on what you’ve seen, assumed, or experienced in the past in a similar situation
  • Of questionable validity. It could be true, partially true, or completely bogus 
  • Mutable!

“Mutable?” you ask. Why, yes, it is!

Changing the story you’re telling yourself is the key to having a productive (and powerful) conversation.

Make a happy story

You can read body language really well. And so can the person you’re talking to.

If you’re going to make up a story, make one up that helps you resolve an important issue and maintain your relationships.

Change your story to the most kind and generous one that fits the facts you’ve seen, and then believe it. Why? Because non-verbal cues, state of mind, fear or anger, and judgments and stories affect your reactions and approach to the conversation.

If you’ve planned your words out carefully but the intent doesn’t match, the other person can tell. If your intent isn’t good, the interaction won’t be good either. At best, you may appear to be trying to do the right thing but not really managing it. At worst, you appear insincere and manipulative.

Here’s your benevolent story, just waiting to hatch
(
Image by Pon Malar on Wikimedia under creative commons license)

How to change your story

To help change your story, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why might a reasonable, intelligent, courteous, kind person do that?
  • Could there be circumstances I’m not aware of that could be contributing?
  • What if it was me? How would I explain what happened from my perspective? Be as lenient/forgiving as you can to your imaginary self
Review the facts… what you’ve seen and what you’ve
chosen to pay attention to. They may all appear to support a nasty
story, but you don’t know for sure. Think of the Rorschach tests…
people see different things depending on how they’re feeling and their
unique view on life, so find a benevolent story.

My new story

So, let’s try this on my story.  I’ll start with the facts,
remove my emotional devastation at not getting a donut, and create a
benevolent story:

  • My facts are: I saw someone take the last two donuts.
  • My new benevolent story is: Anthony didn’t see me, and didn’t know how much I was craving a donut.

What do you see? (Image by Hermann Rorschach (died 1922), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

But my story is true!

Let’s assume for a moment, your not-so-nice story is completely, 100%, bonafide TRUE. This is hard, but consider this carefully… It Doesn’t Matter!

Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is the best way to motivate them to change. By creating a benevolent story, you give the person a way to improve AND save face. It’s magic!

Assuming the worst can severely damage your relationships, even if it’s true! Getting caught it a mistake makes people immediately defensive, which will hinder the conversation. Give them a chance to just fix things and they’ll be grateful to you and more inspired to make the change stick.

And then there’s the flip side… what if your story is partly or all wrong? This situation, as you can imagine, is much worse.

You’ll probably never find out what truly happened, and may find yourself arguing about the parts you got wrong rather than the real issue. It also damages the relationship, and here’s the key point: even if the person can get past their anger and hear your message, they will likely not like you, trust you, or want to work with you. And I’ve heard crow tastes really bad.

The power of a benevolent story and positive intent

The last part of changing your story is figuring out what you want from the conversation.

Think about what you want to happen, but also what you want from the relationship. The power of a benevolent story and positive intent is that it fosters a better relationship based on trust . That is huge and I recommend that it be part of the intent of all conversations.

Judgment doublecheck!

When you’re done, go back through what you’ve got down and make sure a not-so-nice story hasn’t crept back in:

  • Remove judgment
  • Check that the issue matches your intent

Some examples

Here’s some examples where I take a nasty story, break it down to the facts, and then create a new, benevolent story and a positive intent for a discussion.

Judgment & Nasty Story

Fact

New Benevolent Story

Positive Intent

What a jerk, he just cut me off! Are you trying to kill me?

A car changed lanes in front of me in a way that I found uncomfortable.

Wow, he must not have seen me.

Let him know a head check was needed.

Sue doesn’t respect me enough to respond to my email. She thinks it’s a stupid idea.

Sue didn’t answer my email when I expected.

Sue’s busy and either hasn’t seen my email or hasn’t had time to respond.

Follow up with Sue on what she thinks

What an idiot! That report Bruce turned in didn’t even try to answer the questions I had. It’s useless!

Bruce turned in a report that didn’t have the information I expected and needed.

Bruce wasn’t aware or misunderstood what information I needed.

Let Bruce know what I need in the reports.

Remember that stories spread…all storytellers love an audience. So make sure your story is spreading positivity

2 - Talk about the right things

Get clear on what the conversation needs to be about

What do you want from the conversation?

The next step is to think about what the real issue is. What exactly needs to happen? Who is involved? Who is impacted? Which facts are known? What information is available?

In TAGFEE terms, this is where transparency and being exceptional come in. Make sure that you’re talking about the right issue.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the impact to you and others?
  • What are the facts?
  • Scope – is this the first time? The second? The umpteenth?

Can you spot the judgment?

I just broke my own rules… can you see it?

I’ll give you a hint…it’s that last word in the Scope point… it sneaks in, so check!

Are you talking about apples when the issue is really oranges?

Scope is important:

  • If it’s the first time something has happened, you talk about what happened.
  • If it’s the second or third, talk about how it keeps happening.
  • If you can’t remember how many times it’s happened, talk about how the behavior is affecting your relationship.

Orange

Ask questions to understand and get to the root causes

Be an information maniac

Find out how the other person sees the situation.

Before you trip too far down that happy path, get more information. Seek to understand. Use Empathy and Generosity, and be Authentic. Ask neutral questions to create safety, and give the other person a chance to respond – you might find out something you didn’t know.

Asking neutral questions can create a space of collaboration, where you are both on the same side trying to figure out how to solve an issue you both agree needs to be resolved. It’s not always possible to turn a conflict into a collaboration, but you’d be surprised how many times it does work that way.

Another benefit of asking neutral questions is that it puts off conclusions and judgments until you have talked to the person involved and heard what they have to say. This is critical to keeping the conversation safe and collaborative.

Questions to ask:

  • What is your perspective? What do you see going on?
  • What’s important to you? Tell me more about that.
  • Here’s what I notice… What do you notice?

State conclusions tentatively

You can state a conclusion tentatively, making it clear you’re looking for their input on whether that conclusion is valid or if they have more information.

Listen carefully and continue to put off judgment until you’ve heard what they have to say.

Putting off judgment makes it easier for *you* to admit that you’ve been wrong. You may find what you thought was going to be a difficult conversation instead opens up a new level of authenticity and collaboration in your relationships.

Make sure anything you state definitively are only facts, devoid of judgment.

Be open to being wrong!

Or being surprised by more information that turns your story on its head.

Just maybe it wasn’t Anthony I saw “stealing” donuts in the stormtrooper outfit…

4 - Inspire and be inspiredCreate a mutual purpose or common goal that inspires everyone to move forward

It’s all upside

Why inspire others? Well, why not? There is no downside to inspiring people: it benefits everyone.

The earlier steps talk about getting clear of the negative. This is where the good stuff happens. The Fun in TAGFEE! If you start from what felt like a conflict and end up with a mutual understanding with someone about what an issue is and how to resolve it, all things are possible. It can feel like magic! You move from confrontation to collaboration and win-win thinking that can help you both step outside the box.

Here’s a chart that’s totally made up, but it communicates a key point in communication. Collaboration happens when you both trust and respect the people you’re talking to!

True collaboration

You need both a willingness and freedom to disagree, and mutual trust and respect to get into the “Collaboration Zone.”

The key to inspiring others is to seek to understand their point of view and their goals, and work together with them to find common ground.

Start the collaboration engine by asking some powerful questions and seeing what you can agree on and brainstorm solutions.

Collaboration engine questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What do you think?
  • What can we agree on?
  • What are we both interested in achieving?
  • What’s important about resolving this?
  • What can we try?

A rainbow of solutions

Solutions often go from the black and white “my” vs. “your”
choice to a synergistic combination of mine and yours and other ideas we
brainstormed along the way.

You may disagree on how to do something, but if
you can agree on a common goal, you’re one step closer to a win-win
solution.

Instead
of accusing Anthony of taking the last donut and demanding that he
promise to never do it again, or be reported to Team Happy for a
happiness “adjustment,” my conversation is now about fair access to
donuts at Moz. The entire conversation’s focus has shifted from “I want
Anthony to know how angry I am he stole my donut” to “how can we make
sure no-one at Moz is donut-deprived?” Magic!

Fair Access to Donuts at Moz – Possible solutions:

  • Work with Team Happy to make sure there’s enough donuts for everyone who wants them
  • Ask everyone at the company to only take one
  • Get a fresh donut machine where we can all make our own donuts on demand

5 - Follow up

Agree on what to do next and circle back around
This is a little step with a big impact.  Make sure you’ve captured your conversation and everyone is on board to take action to make your solutions a reality.

Being Exceptional and Authentic come into play here. You’re collaborating on a solution and then making it happen.

Once you’ve established a shared understanding of an issue that needs to be resolved, it’s time to figure out how. Solicit ideas for how to solve the problem. Listen, acknowledge feedback and discuss pros and cons on the solutions until you both agree the solution is a good approach.

Make sure everyone is in agreement on:

  • Goals. How will you measure success?
  • Due dates. Who will do what by when?
  • When to check in: What time will we check to see how we’re doing?

Wrapping it up

Have productive, inspiring conversations, whether you agree or disagree

Before you talk to someone

At first, it may help to write down what you’re planning on saying.

I’ve broken this down into discrete before and during steps, but it doesn’t always end up being that way in practice. Use these steps to plan and practice until it comes naturally.

Steps to prepare:

  • Calm down! Lizard brain begone!
  • Create a happy story
  • Make sure you’re talking about the right thing
  • Write out what you want to say and check for your old story & judgments
  • Remember your benevolent intent

Have the conversation

Steps:

  1. Ask if the person has time to talk
  2. State your benevolent intent
  3. Keep to the facts
  4. State conclusions tentatively
  5. Get curious – seek to understand their point of view
  6. Be open to being wrong. Change your mind if needed.
  7. Aim toward collaboration.
  8. Finish with summarizing what you’ve discussed, and who will do what, when.

Remember the conversation may dictate you take a different path.

If the conversation starts to get heated, re-establish safety:

  • Restate your intent
  • Explicitly state what you’re not trying to do. For example, “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m trying to help us come to a solution that works for both of us.”

When conflict finds you

If you find yourself in a conversation unexpectedly, these steps can still help. Get curious, find out what they want, how they’re feeling, and tentatively state your perspective and ask for feedback. Some other ideas:

  • Accept the input and acknowledge the emotions but don’t reciprocate. Ask yourself “what do I want from this interaction” to rescue your brain from the lizard.
  • Do your best to establish safety for you and the other person by establishing a positive intent. It can be as simple as “Wow, Lisa, I can see you’re really upset about not getting a donut. I’d like to figure out how I can fix this – can I ask you a few questions?”

Don’t hesitate to take a break

If the conversation is heated, it may be better to step away and take the conversation up later. You might say:

“I can see this is an subject we both care deeply about. I’d like to take some time to prepare for a productive conversation, can we take a break and meet back here in an hour.”

An example conversation

So, my side of the conversation with Anthony about the donuts might go like this:

“Anthony, do you have time to talk?”

“I’d like to talk to you about making sure everyone at Moz has the opportunity to get a donut. ”

“I saw someone taking the last two donuts this morning, and I was disappointed that I didn’t get one.”

“I thought it might be you, so I wanted to talk to you to see what happened.”

“I’m
not accusing you of taking the last two donuts. I’m trying to figure
out what happened and then work on how to make sure the donuts are
evenly distributed at Moz”

“Oh, so you were grabbing a donut for Crystal too! Wow, I totally misinterpreted what I saw!”

“Can you think of ways we can ensure everyone gets a donut?”

“Great, so I’ll contact Team Happy about getting a donut machine tomorrow, and you’ll approve the expense report on Friday.”

Image from Nostalgia Electrics

Perfection not required

Not everything will always turn out wonderful, but at least you’ve approached the problem and given feedback in a way that has the best chance for a positive outcome for everyone involved.

Maybe you’re a little closer to what the real issues are, or you’ve agreed to disagree; even those outcomes will keep miscommunication or confusion from being a source of problems.

If I really feel that donut was mine, and Anthony really thinks that donut was promised to Crystal, we may not agree, but at least everything is on the table where we have the chance to deal with it. And, we’re not telling our nasty stories to everyone but the person we need to talk to.

Feedback is a gift

Annette Promes, our CMO, said to me, “Feedback is a gift,” and it is.

Most folks want to know, and are truly interested in being better… better coworkers, friends, and humans. So let’s all resolve to give that gift in the best way we can. And receive it gratefully when it comes to us.

Oh, and that donut conflict… totally made up. I’m gluten-intolerant girl, so you can always have my share, Anthony! 🙂

Give me feedback

I experimented with converting a training class into a blog post, and would love to have your feedback on what works for you and what could be better.

You can also download this blog post in slidedoc format. It’s a communication technique that’s halfway between presentation and documentation. I learned about it at
Write the Docs this year. You can read more and get the free slidedoc ebook at their site. What do you think?

Other resources

You may find these resources helpful too:

5 Rules for Productive Conflict (TED talk)

6 ways to make conflict productive

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