Distance from Perfect

Posted by wrttnwrd

In spite of all the advice, the strategic discussions and the conference talks, we Internet marketers are still algorithmic thinkers. That’s obvious when you think of SEO.

Even when we talk about content, we’re algorithmic thinkers. Ask yourself: How many times has a client asked you, “How much content do we need?” How often do you still hear “How unique does this page need to be?”

That’s 100% algorithmic thinking: Produce a certain amount of content, move up a certain number of spaces.

But you and I know it’s complete bullshit.

I’m not suggesting you ignore the algorithm. You should definitely chase it. Understanding a little bit about what goes on in Google’s pointy little head helps. But it’s not enough.

A tale of SEO woe that makes you go “whoa”

I have this friend.

He ranked #10 for “flibbergibbet.” He wanted to rank #1.

He compared his site to the #1 site and realized the #1 site had five hundred blog posts.

“That site has five hundred blog posts,” he said, “I must have more.”

So he hired a few writers and cranked out five thousand blogs posts that melted Microsoft Word’s grammar check. He didn’t move up in the rankings. I’m shocked.

“That guy’s spamming,” he decided, “I’ll just report him to Google and hope for the best.”

What happened? Why didn’t adding five thousand blog posts work?

It’s pretty obvious: My, uh, friend added nothing but crap content to a site that was already outranked. Bulk is no longer a ranking tactic. Google’s very aware of that tactic. Lots of smart engineers have put time into updates like Panda to compensate.

He started like this:

And ended up like this:
more posts, no rankings

Alright, yeah, I was Mr. Flood The Site With Content, way back in 2003. Don’t judge me, whippersnappers.

Reality’s never that obvious. You’re scratching and clawing to move up two spots, you’ve got an overtasked IT team pushing back on changes, and you’ve got a boss who needs to know the implications of every recommendation.

Why fix duplication if rel=canonical can address it? Fixing duplication will take more time and cost more money. It’s easier to paste in one line of code. You and I know it’s better to fix the duplication. But it’s a hard sell.

Why deal with 302 versus 404 response codes and home page redirection? The basic user experience remains the same. Again, we just know that a server should return one home page without any redirects and that it should send a ‘not found’ 404 response if a page is missing. If it’s going to take 3 developer hours to reconfigure the server, though, how do we justify it? There’s no flashing sign reading “Your site has a problem!”

Why change this thing and not that thing?

At the same time, our boss/client sees that the site above theirs has five hundred blog posts and thousands of links from sites selling correspondence MBAs. So they want five thousand blog posts and cheap links as quickly as possible.

Cue crazy music.

SEO lacks clarity

SEO is, in some ways, for the insane. It’s an absurd collection of technical tweaks, content thinking, link building and other little tactics that may or may not work. A novice gets exposed to one piece of crappy information after another, with an occasional bit of useful stuff mixed in. They create sites that repel search engines and piss off users. They get more awful advice. The cycle repeats. Every time it does, best practices get more muddled.

SEO lacks clarity. We can’t easily weigh the value of one change or tactic over another. But we can look at our changes and tactics in context. When we examine the potential of several changes or tactics before we flip the switch, we get a closer balance between algorithm-thinking and actual strategy.

Distance from perfect brings clarity to tactics and strategy

At some point you have to turn that knowledge into practice. You have to take action based on recommendations, your knowledge of SEO, and business considerations.

That’s hard when we can’t even agree on subdomains vs. subfolders.

I know subfolders work better. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Let the flaming comments commence.

To get clarity, take a deep breath and ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will this change, tactic, or strategy move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Breaking it down:

“Change, tactic, or strategy”

A change takes an existing component or policy and makes it something else. Replatforming is a massive change. Adding a new page is a smaller one. Adding ALT attributes to your images is another example. Changing the way your shopping cart works is yet another.

A tactic is a specific, executable practice. In SEO, that might be fixing broken links, optimizing ALT attributes, optimizing title tags or producing a specific piece of content.

A strategy is a broader decision that’ll cause change or drive tactics. A long-term content policy is the easiest example. Shifting away from asynchronous content and moving to server-generated content is another example.

“Perfect”

No one knows exactly what Google considers “perfect,” and “perfect” can’t really exist, but you can bet a perfect web page/site would have all of the following:

  1. Completely visible content that’s perfectly relevant to the audience and query
  2. A flawless user experience
  3. Instant load time
  4. Zero duplicate content
  5. Every page easily indexed and classified
  6. No mistakes, broken links, redirects or anything else generally yucky
  7. Zero reported problems or suggestions in each search engines’ webmaster tools, sorry, “Search Consoles”
  8. Complete authority through immaculate, organically-generated links

These 8 categories (and any of the other bazillion that probably exist) give you a way to break down “perfect” and help you focus on what’s really going to move you forward. These different areas may involve different facets of your organization.

Your IT team can work on load time and creating an error-free front- and back-end. Link building requires the time and effort of content and outreach teams.

Tactics for relevant, visible content and current best practices in UX are going to be more involved, requiring research and real study of your audience.

What you need and what resources you have are going to impact which tactics are most realistic for you.

But there’s a basic rule: If a website would make Googlebot swoon and present zero obstacles to users, it’s close to perfect.

“All other things being equal”

Assume every competing website is optimized exactly as well as yours.

Now ask: Will this [tactic, change or strategy] move you closer to perfect?

That’s the “all other things being equal” rule. And it’s an incredibly powerful rubric for evaluating potential changes before you act. Pretend you’re in a tie with your competitors. Will this one thing be the tiebreaker? Will it put you ahead? Or will it cause you to fall behind?

“Closer to perfect than my competitors”

Perfect is great, but unattainable. What you really need is to be just a little perfect-er.

Chasing perfect can be dangerous. Perfect is the enemy of the good (I love that quote. Hated Voltaire. But I love that quote). If you wait for the opportunity/resources to reach perfection, you’ll never do anything. And the only way to reduce distance from perfect is to execute.

Instead of aiming for pure perfection, aim for more perfect than your competitors. Beat them feature-by-feature, tactic-by-tactic. Implement strategy that supports long-term superiority.

Don’t slack off. But set priorities and measure your effort. If fixing server response codes will take one hour and fixing duplication will take ten, fix the response codes first. Both move you closer to perfect. Fixing response codes may not move the needle as much, but it’s a lot easier to do. Then move on to fixing duplicates.

Do the 60% that gets you a 90% improvement. Then move on to the next thing and do it again. When you’re done, get to work on that last 40%. Repeat as necessary.

Take advantage of quick wins. That gives you more time to focus on your bigger solutions.

Sites that are “fine” are pretty far from perfect

Google has lots of tweaks, tools and workarounds to help us mitigate sub-optimal sites:

  • Rel=canonical lets us guide Google past duplicate content rather than fix it
  • HTML snapshots let us reveal content that’s delivered using asynchronous content and JavaScript frameworks
  • We can use rel=next and prev to guide search bots through outrageously long pagination tunnels
  • And we can use rel=nofollow to hide spammy links and banners

Easy, right? All of these solutions may reduce distance from perfect (the search engines don’t guarantee it). But they don’t reduce it as much as fixing the problems.
Just fine does not equal fixed

The next time you set up rel=canonical, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using rel=canonical to make up for duplication move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: Not if they’re using rel=canonical, too. You’re both using imperfect solutions that force search engines to crawl every page of your site, duplicates included. If you want to pass them on your way to perfect, you need to fix the duplicate content.

When you use Angular.js to deliver regular content pages, ask yourself:

“All other things being equal, will using HTML snapshots instead of actual, visible content move my site closer to perfect than my competitors?”

Answer: No. Just no. Not in your wildest, code-addled dreams. If I’m Google, which site will I prefer? The one that renders for me the same way it renders for users? Or the one that has to deliver two separate versions of every page?

When you spill banner ads all over your site, ask yourself…

You get the idea. Nofollow is better than follow, but banner pollution is still pretty dang far from perfect.

Mitigating SEO issues with search engine-specific tools is “fine.” But it’s far, far from perfect. If search engines are forced to choose, they’ll favor the site that just works.

Not just SEO

By the way, distance from perfect absolutely applies to other channels.

I’m focusing on SEO, but think of other Internet marketing disciplines. I hear stuff like “How fast should my site be?” (Faster than it is right now.) Or “I’ve heard you shouldn’t have any content below the fold.” (Maybe in 2001.) Or “I need background video on my home page!” (Why? Do you have a reason?) Or, my favorite: “What’s a good bounce rate?” (Zero is pretty awesome.)

And Internet marketing venues are working to measure distance from perfect. Pay-per-click marketing has the quality score: A codified financial reward applied for seeking distance from perfect in as many elements as possible of your advertising program.

Social media venues are aggressively building their own forms of graphing, scoring and ranking systems designed to separate the good from the bad.

Really, all marketing includes some measure of distance from perfect. But no channel is more influenced by it than SEO. Instead of arguing one rule at a time, ask yourself and your boss or client: Will this move us closer to perfect?

Hell, you might even please a customer or two.

One last note for all of the SEOs in the crowd. Before you start pointing out edge cases, consider this: We spend our days combing Google for embarrassing rankings issues. Every now and then, we find one, point, and start yelling “SEE! SEE!!!! THE GOOGLES MADE MISTAKES!!!!” Google’s got lots of issues. Screwing up the rankings isn’t one of them.

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From Editorial Calendars to SEO: Setting Yourself Up to Create Fabulous Content

Posted by Isla_McKetta

Quick note: This article is meant to apply to teams of all sizes, from the sole proprietor who spends all night writing their copy (because they’re doing business during the day) to the copy team who occupies an entire floor and produces thousands of pieces of content per week. So if you run into a section that you feel requires more resources than you can devote just now, that’s okay. Bookmark it and revisit when you can, or scale the step down to a more appropriate size for your team. We believe all the information here is important, but that does not mean you have to do everything right now.

If you thought ideation was fun, get ready for content creation. Sure, we’ve all written some things before, but the creation phase of content marketing is where you get to watch that beloved idea start to take shape.

Before you start creating, though, you want to get (at least a little) organized, and an editorial calendar is the perfect first step.

Editorial calendars

Creativity and organization are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can feed each other. A solid schedule gives you and your writers the time and space to be wild and creative. If you’re just starting out, this document may be sparse, but it’s no less important. Starting early with your editorial calendar also saves you from creating content willy-nilly and then finding out months later that no one ever finished that pesky (but crucial) “About” page.

There’s no wrong way to set up your editorial calendar, as long as it’s meeting your needs. Remember that an editorial calendar is a living document, and it will need to change as a hot topic comes up or an author drops out.

There are a lot of different types of documents that pass for editorial calendars. You get to pick the one that’s right for your team. The simplest version is a straight-up calendar with post titles written out on each day. You could even use a wall calendar and a Sharpie.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Title
The Five Colors of Oscar Fashion 12 Fabrics We’re Watching for Fall Is Charmeuse the New Corduroy? Hot Right Now: Matching Your Handbag to Your Hatpin Tea-length and Other Fab Vocab You Need to Know
Author Ellie James Marta Laila Alex

Teams who are balancing content for different brands at agencies or other more complex content environments will want to add categories, author information, content type, social promo, and more to their calendars.

Truly complex editorial calendars are more like hybrid content creation/editorial calendars, where each of the steps to create and publish the content are indicated and someone has planned for how long all of that takes. These can be very helpful if the content you’re responsible for crosses a lot of teams and can take a long time to complete. It doesn’t matter if you’re using Excel or a Google Doc, as long as the people who need the calendar can easily access it. Gantt charts can be excellent for this. Here’s a favorite template for creating a Gantt chart in Google Docs (and they only get more sophisticated).

Complex calendars can encompass everything from ideation through writing, legal review, and publishing. You might even add content localization if your empire spans more than one continent to make sure you have the currency, date formatting, and even slang right.

Content governance

Governance outlines who is taking responsibility for your content. Who evaluates your content performance? What about freshness? Who decides to update (or kill) an older post? Who designs and optimizes workflows for your team or chooses and manages your CMS?

All these individual concerns fall into two overarching components to governance: daily maintenance and overall strategy. In the long run it helps if one person has oversight of the whole process, but the smaller steps can easily be split among many team members. Read this to take your governance to the next level.

Finding authors

The scale of your writing enterprise doesn’t have to be limited to the number of authors you have on your team. It’s also important to consider the possibility of working with freelancers and guest authors. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of outsourced versus in-house talent.

In-house authors

Guest authors and freelancers

Responsible to

You

Themselves

Paid by

You (as part of their salary)

You (on a per-piece basis)

Subject matter expertise

Broad but shallow

Deep but narrow

Capacity for extra work

As you wish

Show me the Benjamins

Turnaround time

On a dime

Varies

Communication investment

Less

More

Devoted audience

Smaller

Potentially huge

From that table, it might look like in-house authors have a lot more advantages. That’s somewhat true, but do not underestimate the value of occasionally working with a true industry expert who has name recognition and a huge following. Whichever route you take (and there are plenty of hybrid options), it’s always okay to ask that the writers you are working with be professional about communication, payment, and deadlines. In some industries, guest writers will write for links. Consider yourself lucky if that’s true. Remember, though, that the final paycheck can be great leverage for getting a writer to do exactly what you need them to (such as making their deadlines).

Tools to help with content creation

So those are some things you need to have in place before you create content. Now’s the fun part: getting started. One of the beautiful things about the Internet is that new and exciting tools crop up every day to help make our jobs easier and more efficient. Here are a few of our favorites.

Calendars

You can always use Excel or a Google Doc to set up your editorial calendar, but we really like Trello for the ability to gather a lot of information in one card and then drag and drop it into place. Once there are actual dates attached to your content, you might be happier with something like a Google Calendar.

Ideation and research

If you need a quick fix for ideation, turn your keywords into wacky ideas with Portent’s Title Maker. You probably won’t want to write to the exact title you’re given (although “True Facts about Justin Bieber’s Love of Pickles” does sound pretty fascinating…), but it’s a good way to get loose and look at your topic from a new angle.

Once you’ve got that idea solidified, find out what your audience thinks about it by gathering information with Survey Monkey or your favorite survey tool. Or, use Storify to listen to what people are saying about your topic across a wide variety of platforms. You can also use Storify to save those references and turn them into a piece of content or an illustration for one. Don’t forget that a simple social ask can also do wonders.

Format

Content doesn’t have to be all about the words. Screencasts, Google+ Hangouts, and presentations are all interesting ways to approach content. Remember that not everyone’s a reader. Some of your audience will be more interested in visual or interactive content. Make something for everyone.

Illustration

Don’t forget to make your content pretty. It’s not that hard to find free stock images online (just make sure you aren’t violating someone’s copyright). We like Morgue File, Free Images, and Flickr’s Creative Commons. If you aren’t into stock images and don’t have access to in-house graphic design, it’s still relatively easy to add images to your content. Pull a screenshot with Skitch or dress up an existing image with Pixlr. You can also use something like Canva to create custom graphics.

Don’t stop with static graphics, though. There are so many tools out there to help you create gifs, quizzes and polls, maps, and even interactive timelines. Dream it, then search for it. Chances are whatever you’re thinking of is doable.

Quality, not quantity

Mediocre content will hurt your cause

Less is more. That’s not an excuse to pare your blog down to one post per month (check out our publishing cadence experiment), but it is an important reminder that if you’re writing “How to Properly Install a Toilet Seat” two days after publishing “Toilet Seat Installation for Dummies,” you might want to rethink your strategy.

The thing is, and I’m going to use another cliché here to drive home the point, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Potential customers are roving the Internet right now looking for exactly what you’re selling. And if what they find is an only somewhat informative article stuffed with keywords and awful spelling and grammar mistakes… well, you don’t want that. Oh, and search engines think it’s spammy too…

A word about copyright

We’re not copyright lawyers, so we can’t give you the ins and outs on all the technicalities. What we can tell you (and you already know this) is that it’s not okay to steal someone else’s work. You wouldn’t want them to do it to you. This includes images. So whenever you can, make your own images or find images that you can either purchase the rights to (stock imagery) or license under Creative Commons.

It’s usually okay to quote short portions of text, as long as you attribute the original source (and a link is nice). In general, titles and ideas can’t be copyrighted (though they might be trademarked or patented). When in doubt, asking for permission is smart.

That said, part of the fun of the Internet is the remixing culture which includes using things like memes and gifs. Just know that if you go that route, there is a certain amount of risk involved.

Editing

Your content needs to go through at least one editing cycle by someone other than the original author. There are two types of editing, developmental (which looks at the underlying structure of a piece that happens earlier in the writing cycle) and copy editing (which makes sure all the words are there and spelled right in the final draft).

If you have a very small team or are in a rush (and are working with writers that have some skill), you can often skip the developmental editing phase. But know that an investment in that close read of an early draft is often beneficial to the piece and to the writer’s overall growth.

Many content teams peer-edit work, which can be great. Other organizations prefer to run their work by a dedicated editor. There’s no wrong answer, as long as the work gets edited.

Ensuring proper basic SEO

The good news is that search engines are doing their best to get closer and closer to understanding and processing natural language. So good writing (including the natural use of synonyms rather than repeating those keywords over and over and…) will take you a long way towards SEO mastery.

For that reason (and because it’s easy to get trapped in keyword thinking and veer into keyword stuffing), it’s often nice to think of your SEO check as a further edit of the post rather than something you should think about as you’re writing.

But there are still a few things you can do to help cover those SEO bets. Once you have that draft, do a pass for SEO to make sure you’ve covered the following:

  • Use your keyword in your title
  • Use your keyword (or long-tail keyword phrase) in an H2
  • Make sure the keyword appears at least once (though not more than four times, especially if it’s a phrase) in the body of the post
  • Use image alt text (including the keyword when appropriate)

Finding time to write when you don’t have any

Writing (assuming you’re the one doing the writing) can require a lot of energy—especially if you want to do it well. The best way to find time to write is to break each project down into little tasks. For example, writing a blog post actually breaks down into these steps (though not always in this order):

  • Research
  • Outline
  • Fill in outline
  • Rewrite and finish post
  • Write headline
  • SEO check
  • Final edit
  • Select hero image (optional)

So if you only have random chunks of time, set aside 15-30 minutes one day (when your research is complete) to write a really great outline. Then find an hour the next to fill that outline in. After an additional hour the following day, (unless you’re dealing with a research-heavy post) you should have a solid draft by the end of day three.

The magic of working this way is that you engage your brain and then give it time to work in the background while you accomplish other tasks. Hemingway used to stop mid-sentence at the end of his writing days for the same reason.

Once you have that draft nailed, the rest of the steps are relatively easy (even the headline, which often takes longer to write than any other sentence, is easier after you’ve immersed yourself in the post over a few days).

Working with design/development

Every designer and developer is a little different, so we can’t give you any blanket cure-alls for inter-departmental workarounds (aka “smashing silos”). But here are some suggestions to help you convey your vision while capitalizing on the expertise of your coworkers to make your content truly excellent.

Ask for feedback

From the initial brainstorm to general questions about how to work together, asking your team members what they think and prefer can go a long way. Communicate all the details you have (especially the unspoken expectations) and then listen.

If your designer tells you up front that your color scheme is years out of date, you’re saving time. And if your developer tells you that the interactive version of that timeline will require four times the resources, you have the info you need to fight for more budget (or reassess the project).

Check in

Things change in the design and development process. If you have interim check-ins already set up with everyone who’s working on the project, you’ll avoid the potential for nasty surprises at the end. Like finding out that no one has experience working with that hot new coding language you just read about and they’re trying to do a workaround that isn’t working.

Proofread

Your job isn’t done when you hand over the copy to your designer or developer. Not only might they need help rewriting some of your text so that it fits in certain areas, they will also need you to proofread the final version. Accidents happen in the copy-and-paste process and there’s nothing sadder than a really beautiful (and expensive) piece of content that wraps up with a typo:

Know when to fight for an idea

Conflict isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s necessary. The more people involved in your content, the more watered down the original idea can get and the more roadblocks and conflicting ideas you’ll run into. Some of that is very useful. But sometimes you’ll get pulled off track. Always remember who owns the final product (this may not be you) and be ready to stand up for the idea if it’s starting to get off track.

We’re confident this list will set you on the right path to creating some really awesome content, but is there more you’d like to know? Ask us your questions in the comments.

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A Vision for Brand Engagement Online, or "The Goal"

Posted by EricEnge

Today’s post focuses on a vision for your online presence. This vision outlines what it takes to be the best, both from an overall reputation and visibility standpoint, as well as an SEO point of view. The reason these are tied together is simple: Your overall online reputation and visibility is a huge factor in your SEO. Period. Let’s start by talking about why.

Core ranking signals

For purposes of this post, let’s define three cornerstone ranking signals that most everyone agrees on:

Links

Links remain a huge factor in overall ranking. Both Cyrus Shepard and Marcus Tober re-confirmed this on the Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors session at the SMX Advanced conference in Seattle this past June.

On-page content

On-page content remains a huge factor too, but with some subtleties now thrown in. I wrote about some of this in earlier posts I did on Moz about Term Frequency and Inverse Document Frequency. Suffice it to say that on-page content is about a lot more than pure words on the page, but also includes the supporting pages that you link to.

User engagement with your site

This is not one of the traditional SEO signals from the early days of SEO, but most advanced SEO pros that I know consider it a real factor these days. One of the most popular concepts people talk about is called pogo-sticking, which is illustrated here:

You can learn more about the pogosticking concept by visiting this Whiteboard Friday video by a rookie SEO with a last name of Fishkin.

New, lesser-known signals

OK, so these are the more obvious signals, but now let’s look more broadly at the overall web ecosystem and talk about other types of ranking signals. Be warned that some of these signals may be indirect, but that just doesn’t matter. In fact, my first example below is an indirect factor which I will use to demonstrate why whether a signal is direct or indirect is not an issue at all.

Let me illustrate with an example. Say you spend $1 billion dollars building a huge brand around a product that is massively useful to people. Included in this is a sizable $100 million dollar campaign to support a highly popular charitable foundation, and your employees regularly donate time to help out in schools across your country. In short, the great majority of people love your brand.

Do you think this will impact the way people link to your site? Of course it does. Do you think it will impact how likely people are to be satisified with quality of the pages of your site? Consider this A/B test scenario of 2 pages from different “brands” (for the one on the left, imagine the image of Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola, whichever one you prefer):

Do you think that the huge brand will get a benefit of a doubt on their page that the no-name brand does not even though the pages are identical? Of course they will. Now let’s look at some simpler scenarios that don’t involve a $1 billion investment.

1. Cover major options related to a product or service on “money pages”

Imagine that a user arrives on your auto parts site after searching on the phrase “oil filter” at Google or Bing. Chances are pretty good that they want an oil filter, but here are some other items they may also want:

  • A guide to picking the right filter for their car
  • Oil
  • An oil filter wrench
  • A drainage pan to drain the old oil into

This is just the basics, right? But, you would be surprised with how many sites don’t include links or information on directly related products on their money pages. Providing this type of smart site and page design can have a major impact on user engagement with the money pages of your site.

2. Include other related links on money pages

In the prior item we covered the user’s most directly related needs, but they may have secondary needs as well. Someone who is changing a car’s oil is either a mechanic or a do-it-yourself-er. What else might they need? How about other parts, such as windshield wipers or air filters?

These are other fairly easy maintenance steps for someone who is working on their car to complete. Presence of these supporting products could be one way to improve user engagement with your pages.

3. Offer industry-leading non-commercial content on-site

Publishing world-class content on your site is a great way to produce links to your site. Of course, if you do this on a blog on your site, it may not provide links directly to your money pages, but it will nonetheless lift overall site authority.

In addition, if someone has consumed one or more pieces of great content on your site, the chance of their engaging in a more positive manner with your site overall go way up. Why? Because you’ve earned their trust and admiration.

4. Be everywhere your audiences are with more high-quality, relevant, non-commercial content

Are there major media sites that cover your market space? Do they consider you to be an expert? Will they quote you in articles they write? Can you provide them with guest posts or let you be a guest columnist? Will they collaborate on larger content projects with you?

All of these activities put you in front of their audiences, and if those audiences overlap with yours, this provides a great way to build your overall reputation and visibility. This content that you publish, or collaborate on, that shows up on 3rd-party sites will get you mentions and links. In addition, once again, it will provide you with a boost to your branding. People are now more likely to consume your other content more readily, including on your money pages.

5. Leverage social media

The concept here shares much in common with the prior point. Social media provides opportunities to get in front of relevant audiences. Every person that’s an avid follower of yours on a social media site is more likely to show very different behavior characteristics interacting with your site than someone that does not know you well at all.

Note that links from social media sites are nofollowed, but active social media behavior can lead to people implementing “real world” links to your site that are followed, from their blogs and media web sites.

6. Be active in the offline world as well

Think your offline activity doesn’t matter online? Think again. Relationships are still most easily built face-to-face. People you meet and spend time with can well become your most loyal fans online. This is particularly important when it comes to building relationships with influential people.

One great way to do that is to go to public events related to your industry, such as conferences. Better still, obtain speaking engagements at those conferences. This can even impact people who weren’t there to hear you speak, as they become aware that you have been asked to do that. This concept can also work for a small local business. Get out in your community and engage with people at local events.

The payoff here is similar to the payoff for other items: more engaged, highly loyal fans who engage with you across the web, sending more and more positive signals, both to other people and to search engines, that you are the real deal.

7. Provide great customer service/support

Whatever your business may be, you need to take care of your customers as best you can. No one can make everyone happy, that’s unrealistic, but striving for much better than average is a really sound idea. Having satisfied customers saying nice things about you online is a big impact item in the grand scheme of things.

8. Actively build relationships with influencers too

While this post is not about the value of influencer relationships, I include this in the list for illustration purposes, for two reasons:

  1. Some opportunities are worth extra effort. Know of someone who could have a major impact on your business? Know that they will be at a public event in the near future? Book your plane tickets and get your butt out there. No guarantee that you will get the result you are looking for, or that it will happen quickly, but your chances go WAY up if you get some face time with them.
  2. Influencers are worth special attention and focus, but your relationship-building approach to the web and SEO is not only about influencers. It’s about the entire ecosystem.

It’s an integrated ecosystem

The web provides a level of integrated, real-time connectivity of a kind that the world has never seen before. This is only going to increase. Do something bad to a customer in Hong Kong? Consumers in Boston will know within 5 minutes. That’s where it’s all headed.

Google and Bing (and any future search engine that may emerge) want to measure these types of signals because they tell them how to improve the quality of the experience on their platforms. There are may ways they can perform these measurements.

One simple concept is covered by Rand in this recent Whiteboard Friday video. The discussion is about a recent patent granted to Google that shows how the company can use search queries to detect who is an authority on a topic.

The example he provides is about people who search on “email finding tool”. If Google also finds that a number of people search on “voila norbert email tool”, Google may use that as an authority signal.

Think about that for a moment. How are you going to get people to search on your brand more while putting it together with a non-branded querly like that? (OK, please leave Mechanical Turk and other services like that out of the discussion).

Now you can start to see the bigger picture. Measurements like pogosticking and this recent search behavior related patent are just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly, there are many other ways that search engines can measure what people like and engage with the most.

This is all part of SEO now. UX, product breadth, problem solving, UX, engaging in social media, getting face to face, creating great content that you publish in front of other people’s audiences, and more.

For the small local business, you can still win at this game, as your focus just needs to be on doing it better than your competitors. The big brands will never be hyper-local like you are, so don’t think you can’t play the game, because you can.

Whoever you are, get ready, because this new integrated ecosystem is already upon us, and you need to be a part of it.

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Creating Demand for Products, Services, and Ideas that Have Little to No Existing Search Volume – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

A lot of fantastic websites (and products, services, ideas, etc.) are in something of a pickle: The keywords they would normally think to target get next to no search volume. It can make SEO seem like a lost cause. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand explains why that’s not the case, and talks about the one extra step that’ll help those organizations create the demand they want.

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

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about a particularly challenging problem in the world of SEO, and that is trying to do SEO or trying to do any type of web marketing when your product, service, or idea has no search volume around it. So nobody is already looking for what you offer. It’s a new thing, a new concept.

I’ll use the example here of a website that I’m very fond of, but which there’s virtually no search volume for, called Niice. It’s Niice.co.

It’s great. I searched for things in here. It brings me back all these wonderful visuals from places like Colossus and lots of design portals. I love this site. I use it all the time for inspiration, for visuals, for stuff that I might write about on blogs, for finding new artists. It’s just cool. I love it. I love the discovery aspect of it, and I think it can be really great for finding artists and designers and visuals.

But when I looked at the keyword research — and granted I didn’t go deep into the keyword research, but let’s imagine that I did — I looked for things like: “visual search engine” almost no volume; “search engine for designers” almost no volume; “graphical search engine” almost no volume; “find designer visuals” nada.

So when they look at their keyword research they go, “Man, we don’t even have keywords to target here really.” SEO almost feels like it’s not a channel of opportunity, and I think that’s where many, many companies and businesses make mistakes actually, because just because you don’t see keyword research around exactly around what you’re offering doesn’t mean that SEO can’t be a great channel. It just means we have to do an extra step of work, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

So I think when you encounter this type of challenge — and granted it might not be the challenge that there’s no keyword volume — it could be a challenge in your business, for your organization, for some ideas or products that you have or are launching that there’s just very little, and thus you’re struggling to come up with enough volume to create the quantity of leads, or free trials, or customers that you need. This process really can work.

Key questions to start.

1) Who’s the target audience?

In Niice’s case, that’s going to be a lot of designers. It might be people who are creating presentations. It might be those who are searching out designers or artists. It could be people seeking inspiration for all sorts of things. So they’re going to figure out who that is.

From there, they can look at the job title, interests, demographics of those people, and then you can do some cool stuff where you can figure out things like, “Oh, you know what? We could do some Facebook ad targeting to those right groups to help boost their interests in our product and potentially, well, create branded search volume down the road, attract direct visitors, build brand awareness for ourselves, and potentially get some traffic to the site directly as well. If we can convert some of that traffic, well, that’s fantastic.”

In their case, I think Niice is ad-supported right now, so all they really need is the traffic itself. But regardless, this is that same type of process you’d use.

2) What else do they search for?

What is that target audience searching for? Knowledge, products, tools, services, people, brands, whatever it is, if you know who the audience is, you can figure out what they’re searching for because they have needs. If they have a job title, if they have interests, if you have those profile features about the audience, you can figure out what else they’re going to be searching for, and in this case, knowing what designers are searching for, well, that’s probably relatively simplistic. The other parts of their audience might be more complex, but that one is pretty obvious.

From that, we can do content creation. We can do keyword targeting to be in front of those folks when they’re doing search by creating content that may not necessarily be exactly selling our tools, but that’s the idea of content marketing. We’re creating content to target people higher up in the funnel before they need our product.

We can use that, too, for product and feature inspiration in the product itself. So in this case, Niice might consider creating a design pattern library or several, pulling from different places, or hiring someone to come in and build one for them and then featuring that somewhere on the site if you haven’t done a search yet and then potentially trying to rank for that in the search engine, which then brings qualified visitors, the types of people who once they got exposed to Niice would be like, “Wow, this is great and it’s totally free. I love it.”

UX tool list, so list of tools for user experience, people on the design or UI side, maybe Photoshop tutorials, whatever it is that they feel like they’re competent and capable of creating and could potentially rank for, well, now you’re attracting the right audience to your site before they need your product.

3) Where do they go?

That audience, where are they going on the web? What do they do when they get there? To whom do they listen? Who are their influencers? How can we be visible in those locations? So from that I can get things like influencer targeting and outreach. I can get ad and sponsorship opportunities. I can figure out places to do partnership or guest content or business development.

In Niice’s case, that might be things like sponsor or speak at design events. Maybe they could create an awards project for Dribble. So they go to Dribble, they look at what’s been featured there, or they go to Colossus, or some of the other sites that they feature, and they find the best work of the week. At the end of the week, they feature the top 10 projects, and then they call out the designers who put them together.

Wow, that’s terrific. Now you’re getting in front of the audience whose work you’re featuring, which is going to, in turn, make them amplify Niice’s project and product to an audience who’s likely to be in their target audience. It’s sort of a win-win. That’s also going to help them build links, engagement, shares, and all sorts of signals that potentially will help them with their authority, both topically and domain-wide, which then means they can rank for all the content they create, building up this wonderful engine.

4) What types of content have achieved broad or viral distribution?

I think what we can glean from this is not just inspiration for content and keyword opportunities as we can from many other kinds of content, but also sites to target, in particular sites to target with advertising, sites to target for guest posting or sponsorship, or sites to target for business development or for partnerships, site to target in an ad network, sites to target psychographically or demographically for Facebook if we want to run ads like that, potentially bidding on ads in Google when people search for that website or for that brand name in paid search.

So if you’re Niice, you could think about contracting some featured artist to contribute visuals maybe for a topical news project. So something big is happening in the news or in the design community, you contract a few of the artists whose work you have featured or are featuring, or people from the communities whose work you’re featuring, and say, “Hey, we might not be able to pay you a lot, but we’re going to get in front of a ton of people. We’re going to build exposure for you, which is something we already do, FYI, and now you’ve got some wonderful content that has that potential to mimic that work.”

You could think about, and I love this just generally as a content marketing and SEO tactic, if you go find viral content, content that has had wide sharing success across the web from the past, say two, three, four, or five years ago, you have a great opportunity, especially if the initial creator of that content or project hasn’t continued on with it, to go say, “Hey, you know what? We can do a version of that. We’re going to modernize and update that for current audiences, current tastes, what’s currently going on in the market. We’re going to go build that, and we have a strong feeling that it’s going to be successful because it’s succeeded in the past.”

That, I think, is a great way to get content ideas from viral content and then to potentially overtake them in the search rankings too. If something from three or five years ago, that was particularly timely then still ranks today, if you produce it, you’re almost certainly going to come out on top due to Google’s bias for freshness, especially around things that have timely relevance.

5) Should brand advertisement be in our consideration set?

Then last one, I like to ask about brand advertising in these cases, because when there’s not search volume yet, a lot of times what you have to do is create awareness. I should change this from advertising to a brand awareness, because really there’s organic ways to do it and advertising ways to do it. You can think about, “Well, where are places that we can target where we could build that awareness? Should we invest in press and public relations?” Not press releases. “Then how do we own the market?” So I think one of the keys here is starting with that name or title or keyword phrase that encapsulates what the market will call your product, service or idea.

In the case of Niice, that could be, well, visual search engines. You can imagine the press saying, “Well, visual search engines like Niice have recently blah, blah, blah.” Or it could be designer search engines, or it could be graphical search engines, or it could be designer visual engines, whatever it is. You need to find what that thing is going to be and what’s going to resonate.

In the case of Nest, that was the smart home. In the case of Oculus, it was virtual reality and virtual reality gaming. In the case of Tesla, it was sort of already established. There’s electric cars, but they kind of own that market. If you know what those keywords are, you can own the market before it gets hot, and that’s really important because that means that all of the press and PR and awareness that happens around the organic rankings for that particular keyword phrase will all be owned and controlled by you.

When you search for “smart home,” Nest is going to dominate those top 10 results. When you search for “virtual reality gaming,” Oculus is going to dominate those top 10. It’s not necessarily dominate just on their own site, it’s dominate all the press and PR articles that are about that, all of the Wikipedia page about it, etc., etc. You become the brand that’s synonymous with the keyword or concept. From an SEO perspective, that’s a beautiful world to live in.

So, hopefully, for those of you who are struggling around demand for your keywords, for your volume, this process can be something that’s really helpful. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments. We’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Why We Can’t Do Keyword Research Like It’s 2010 – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Keyword Research is a very different field than it was just five years ago, and if we don’t keep up with the times we might end up doing more harm than good. From the research itself to the selection and targeting process, in today’s Whiteboard Friday Rand explains what has changed and what we all need to do to conduct effective keyword research today.

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

What do we need to change to keep up with the changing world of keyword research?

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat a little bit about keyword research, why it’s changed from the last five, six years and what we need to do differently now that things have changed. So I want to talk about changing up not just the research but also the selection and targeting process.

There are three big areas that I’ll cover here. There’s lots more in-depth stuff, but I think we should start with these three.

1) The Adwords keyword tool hides data!

This is where almost all of us in the SEO world start and oftentimes end with our keyword research. We go to AdWords Keyword Tool, what used to be the external keyword tool and now is inside AdWords Ad Planner. We go inside that tool, and we look at the volume that’s reported and we sort of record that as, well, it’s not good, but it’s the best we’re going to do.

However, I think there are a few things to consider here. First off, that tool is hiding data. What I mean by that is not that they’re not telling the truth, but they’re not telling the whole truth. They’re not telling nothing but the truth, because those rounded off numbers that you always see, you know that those are inaccurate. Anytime you’ve bought keywords, you’ve seen that the impression count never matches the count that you see in the AdWords tool. It’s not usually massively off, but it’s often off by a good degree, and the only thing it’s great for is telling relative volume from one from another.

But because AdWords hides data essentially by saying like, “Hey, you’re going to type in . . .” Let’s say I’m going to type in “college tuition,” and Google knows that a lot of people search for how to reduce college tuition, but that doesn’t come up in the suggestions because it’s not a commercial term, or they don’t think that an advertiser who bids on that is going to do particularly well and so they don’t show it in there. I’m giving an example. They might indeed show that one.

But because that data is hidden, we need to go deeper. We need to go beyond and look at things like Google Suggest and related searches, which are down at the bottom. We need to start conducting customer interviews and staff interviews, which hopefully has always been part of your brainstorming process but really needs to be now. Then you can apply that to AdWords. You can apply that to suggest and related.

The beautiful thing is once you get these tools from places like visiting forums or communities, discussion boards and seeing what terms and phrases people are using, you can collect all this stuff up, plug it back into AdWords, and now they will tell you how much volume they’ve got. So you take that how to lower college tuition term, you plug it into AdWords, they will show you a number, a non-zero number. They were just hiding it in the suggestions because they thought, “Hey, you probably don’t want to bid on that. That won’t bring you a good ROI.” So you’ve got to be careful with that, especially when it comes to SEO kinds of keyword research.

2) Building separate pages for each term or phrase doesn’t make sense

It used to be the case that we built separate pages for every single term and phrase that was in there, because we wanted to have the maximum keyword targeting that we could. So it didn’t matter to us that college scholarship and university scholarships were essentially people looking for exactly the same thing, just using different terminology. We would make one page for one and one page for the other. That’s not the case anymore.

Today, we need to group by the same searcher intent. If two searchers are searching for two different terms or phrases but both of them have exactly the same intent, they want the same information, they’re looking for the same answers, their query is going to be resolved by the same content, we want one page to serve those, and that’s changed up a little bit of how we’ve done keyword research and how we do selection and targeting as well.

3) Build your keyword consideration and prioritization spreadsheet with the right metrics

Everybody’s got an Excel version of this, because I think there’s just no awesome tool out there that everyone loves yet that kind of solves this problem for us, and Excel is very, very flexible. So we go into Excel, we put in our keyword, the volume, and then a lot of times we almost stop there. We did keyword volume and then like value to the business and then we prioritize.

What are all these new columns you’re showing me, Rand? Well, here I think is how sophisticated, modern SEOs that I’m seeing in the more advanced agencies, the more advanced in-house practitioners, this is what I’m seeing them add to the keyword process.

Difficulty

A lot of folks have done this, but difficulty helps us say, “Hey, this has a lot of volume, but it’s going to be tremendously hard to rank.”

The difficulty score that Moz uses and attempts to calculate is a weighted average of the top 10 domain authorities. It also uses page authority, so it’s kind of a weighted stack out of the two. If you’re seeing very, very challenging pages, very challenging domains to get in there, it’s going to be super hard to rank against them. The difficulty is high. For all of these ones it’s going to be high because college and university terms are just incredibly lucrative.

That difficulty can help bias you against chasing after terms and phrases for which you are very unlikely to rank for at least early on. If you feel like, “Hey, I already have a powerful domain. I can rank for everything I want. I am the thousand pound gorilla in my space,” great. Go after the difficulty of your choice, but this helps prioritize.

Opportunity

This is actually very rarely used, but I think sophisticated marketers are using it extremely intelligently. Essentially what they’re saying is, “Hey, if you look at a set of search results, sometimes there are two or three ads at the top instead of just the ones on the sidebar, and that’s biasing some of the click-through rate curve.” Sometimes there’s an instant answer or a Knowledge Graph or a news box or images or video, or all these kinds of things that search results can be marked up with, that are not just the classic 10 web results. Unfortunately, if you’re building a spreadsheet like this and treating every single search result like it’s just 10 blue links, well you’re going to lose out. You’re missing the potential opportunity and the opportunity cost that comes with ads at the top or all of these kinds of features that will bias the click-through rate curve.

So what I’ve seen some really smart marketers do is essentially build some kind of a framework to say, “Hey, you know what? When we see that there’s a top ad and an instant answer, we’re saying the opportunity if I was ranking number 1 is not 10 out of 10. I don’t expect to get whatever the average traffic for the number 1 position is. I expect to get something considerably less than that. Maybe something around 60% of that, because of this instant answer and these top ads.” So I’m going to mark this opportunity as a 6 out of 10.

There are 2 top ads here, so I’m giving this a 7 out of 10. This has two top ads and then it has a news block below the first position. So again, I’m going to reduce that click-through rate. I think that’s going down to a 6 out of 10.

You can get more and less scientific and specific with this. Click-through rate curves are imperfect by nature because we truly can’t measure exactly how those things change. However, I think smart marketers can make some good assumptions from general click-through rate data, which there are several resources out there on that to build a model like this and then include it in their keyword research.

This does mean that you have to run a query for every keyword you’re thinking about, but you should be doing that anyway. You want to get a good look at who’s ranking in those search results and what kind of content they’re building . If you’re running a keyword difficulty tool, you are already getting something like that.

Business value

This is a classic one. Business value is essentially saying, “What’s it worth to us if visitors come through with this search term?” You can get that from bidding through AdWords. That’s the most sort of scientific, mathematically sound way to get it. Then, of course, you can also get it through your own intuition. It’s better to start with your intuition than nothing if you don’t already have AdWords data or you haven’t started bidding, and then you can refine your sort of estimate over time as you see search visitors visit the pages that are ranking, as you potentially buy those ads, and those kinds of things.

You can get more sophisticated around this. I think a 10 point scale is just fine. You could also use a one, two, or three there, that’s also fine.

Requirements or Options

Then I don’t exactly know what to call this column. I can’t remember the person who’ve showed me theirs that had it in there. I think they called it Optional Data or Additional SERPs Data, but I’m going to call it Requirements or Options. Requirements because this is essentially saying, “Hey, if I want to rank in these search results, am I seeing that the top two or three are all video? Oh, they’re all video. They’re all coming from YouTube. If I want to be in there, I’ve got to be video.”

Or something like, “Hey, I’m seeing that most of the top results have been produced or updated in the last six months. Google appears to be biasing to very fresh information here.” So, for example, if I were searching for “university scholarships Cambridge 2015,” well, guess what? Google probably wants to bias to show results that have been either from the official page on Cambridge’s website or articles from this year about getting into that university and the scholarships that are available or offered. I saw those in two of these search results, both the college and university scholarships had a significant number of the SERPs where a fresh bump appeared to be required. You can see that a lot because the date will be shown ahead of the description, and the date will be very fresh, sometime in the last six months or a year.

Prioritization

Then finally I can build my prioritization. So based on all the data I had here, I essentially said, “Hey, you know what? These are not 1 and 2. This is actually 1A and 1B, because these are the same concepts. I’m going to build a single page to target both of those keyword phrases.” I think that makes good sense. Someone who is looking for college scholarships, university scholarships, same intent.

I am giving it a slight prioritization, 1A versus 1B, and the reason I do this is because I always have one keyword phrase that I’m leaning on a little more heavily. Because Google isn’t perfect around this, the search results will be a little different. I want to bias to one versus the other. In this case, my title tag, since I more targeting university over college, I might say something like college and university scholarships so that university and scholarships are nicely together, near the front of the title, that kind of thing. Then 1B, 2, 3.

This is kind of the way that modern SEOs are building a more sophisticated process with better data, more inclusive data that helps them select the right kinds of keywords and prioritize to the right ones. I’m sure you guys have built some awesome stuff. The Moz community is filled with very advanced marketers, probably plenty of you who’ve done even more than this.

I look forward to hearing from you in the comments. I would love to chat more about this topic, and we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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

Posted by randfish

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

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

What SEO problems make you angry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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