Risk Taking Google Dependent Businesses

The StarTribune recently ran a story about a Minnesota based above-ground pool company that’s heavily Google dependent for business:

The Backer brothers say their online business, B. W. Inc., wouldn’t last long if it appeared way down the list of a Google search. “If you’re not on the first page,” said Jay Backer, “you can see 50 to 60 percent drops in business.”

That’s a tough way to run a business.

As Google continually tweaks its ranking formula, the Backers find themselves up and down the company’s search results. It’s a common frustration among many small business owners, as the Internet company makes unannounced changes, cloaked in secrecy. “We’re guessing on a moving target,” Jeff Backer said.

It’s true that Google’s ranking formula is not public data, it’s well known that one of the largest factors influencing rankings is the quantity and quality of inbound links to your site from other websites. The more people (credible people) that link to you, the higher you’ll rank vs. similar sites competing for the same search terms (in this case, stuff like “above ground pools”).

So, while Google doesn’t share that information, we can still take a look at the quantity and quality of links to a given website to get a feel for how credible they may be perceived to be by Google.

I decided to check out this company’s site, familypoolfun.com, to see what I could see. Here is an example of sites that are linking to an above ground pool company in Minnesota:

*.bristolbayadventures.com
*.internetmarketingservicessite.com
*.themlsonline.com/
*.roguerivertrips.info/
*.creative.com/
*.beartoothoutfitters.com/
*.skagwayfishing.com/
*.jjjinvesting.com/
*.upwardrankings.com/
*.twincityattorneys.net/
*.alaskafishon.com/
*.humidorvault.com/

You may ask yourself, “why the heck are Alaskan fishing companies linking to an above ground pool company in Minnesota?” and if you did, you’d be onto something. The deal here is that a lot of the links to familypoolfun.com are coming from pages like this one:

http://resources.bristolbayadventures.com/services.asp

Which are just long lists of links to unrelated businesses:

resources.bristolbayadventures.com/services.asp

Now, think about this from Google’s perspective: Google is trying to rank the most relevant pages they can find for the term “above ground pools” at the top of their search results. One of the companies competing for that term has a ton of links coming into their website from hundreds and hundreds of different websites. So far so good. But, on closer inspection, something strange appears to be going on here. The links aren’t really endorsements from the other websites, are they?

Here are a few more examples of pages linking to familypoolfun.com:

– prague-car-rental.com/linkman/links.php
– www.autorepairmanuals.biz/site/573683/page/591489
– www.psychic-reading.tv/links2.htm
– www.rugscarpet.info/resource.php
– www.sanjosepodiatrist.net/link_1.jsp

Google eventually figures out a way to correct for this type of gaming, and gets back to providing the high quality search results their users have come to expect from them.

SeoMarketingServicesOnline.com & WhereToBuyBacklinks.com Spam

I’ve noticed an incredible spike in blog spam from two websites: SeoMarketingServicesOnline.com and WhereToBuyBacklinks.com

Both sites are peppering this blog with ridiculous amounts of spam (thankfully, all of it is caught by the spam filters). Here is an example of what they’ve spammed this site with over the past 2-3 days:

SeoMarketingServicesOnline.com / WhereToBuyBacklinks.com

If you’re looking for a company to work with for link building, do NOT consider working with either of these two. They’re pure spammers.

I’m not alone in noticing this. Barman from PPC.bz has called this company a scam, and has a collection of 239 spam comments from SeoMarketingServicesOnline.com posted on his blog.

Coincidentally, the NY Times has a story up today that explains why companies do this (and why it’s not a good idea). Also, check this out: I just linked to the NY Times NOT because an SEO spammed this site on behalf of the NY Times. I linked to them because they created something worth linking to. That is a best case scenario form of link building for ya.

Hey, Merlin Mann: Is Bashing Charlatans Useful?

I’m a fan of Merlin Mann’s work on 43 Folders and how he approaches problems. Figuring out good ways to do things and, more importantly, what’s worth doing at all, is good stuff.

One of Merlin’s favorite subjects is pointing out the ridiculousness of “productivity” websites that post new tips dozens of times per day. As he’s mentioned, you’re not doing anyone any favors by chewing up their time with recycled productivity tips. The best tips, in most cases, being, “get back to work.” He gets into this starting around 3:15 into this video:

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now) from Merlin Mann on Vimeo.

Another topic that he often tackles is charlatan businesses such as the snake oil salesmen we see pimping SEO (Search Engine Optimization) services and self-proclaimed social media gurus. These tend to be consultants who may or may not be able to provide anything of value to clients. Additionally, at least part of what they sell isn’t all that far from common sense (ex. “If you want more online friends, don’t act like a jerk online.”).

Merlin tends to make some blanket statements about consultants in industries like this, suggesting that they’re ALL basically selling common sense advice or snake oil. Clearly, if people are selling snake oil, there is a problem. But when did selling common sense advice become a scam? People are more than willing to pay to hear things they already know. Look at how many people sign up for marathon training groups and weight loss programs. Common sense has value – especially when it comes from people who’ve been down that road before who can adjust the wheel a bit if necessary.

Somehow, this inspired me to talk to the camera a bit to cut a response to Merlin’s narrative. This is my attempt to differentiate the people who deserve to be ridiculed from those who are under the radar and those who actually know what they’re doing.

I’m all for knocking on companies and consultants who write checks with their mouth that their ass can’t cash, but let’s be clear that this is generally only a small slice of people working in any given industry (outside of MLM).

SEO for Google Reader

Try searching on Google Reader’s feed discovery search engine to get a feel for what shows up on searches important to your industry.

Here’s an example for the term “Minneapolis”:

Minneapolis - Google Reader

In this example, a local news station, KARE 11, has the top search result for this term. Minneapolis largest local daily, the StarTribune, happens to be much further down the list of blogs Google Reader recommends to people searching for the term “Minneapolis.”

So, what factors are at play here?

A few that appear to matter:

1. Title Tag: Use important terms to describe your blog.

2. Blog Description: This seems much less important than titles, but seems to have an effect.

3. Subscriber Volume: This isn’t seem to have a strong signal, but it makes sense that they’d give higher weight to blogs others have subscribed to.

4. PageRank: I’m looking for an explanation for why Thomas Friedman’s blog from the NY Times ranks as high as it does. The description uses the term Minneapolis, but it seems like it may be the PageRank of the NYTimes.com website that helps Friedman’s blog rank so high for a term that’s only loosely relevant to the search.

What else do you think is at play?

META Keywords are Legally Dead

I believe I’ve had at least one conversation regarding the effectiveness of meta keywords in search engine rankings every week for the past 10 years. For some reason, it’s a sub-topic of SEO that inexperienced website owners hear about and suddenly latch onto as if they’ve suddenly discovered the keys to high search engine rankings.

Imagine for a second that meta keywords really were that powerful. Wouldn’t that mean that website owners who had discovered their magical power would suddenly dominate search results while the unknowing fell further behind? While that may seem plausible, imagine being in Google’s shoes. They’re trying to provide the most relevant results they can to their users, so using a hit or miss factor like this would correlate with search results quality that would be arbitrarily influenced by the use of this magical key.

While I feel that I’ve done my part helping explain the lack of value in meta keywords over the past decade, I don’t think anything comes close to the decision that came down this past week: A judge ruled that meta keywords are worthless, which means that using a competitor’s trademark in a meta keyword tag can’t be a trademark violation since it provides no benefit.

Why would a company do that? Imagine you’re a porn site that’s trying to attract visitors and you come to the realization that many people search for the term, “playboy,” online and they may be interested in checking out your offerings . . . if they only knew about them. While you could pay for advertising, instead, you decide to add the term “playboy” to your website’s meta keywords under the hope that this will improve your search engine rankings. At one time, it may have. A long long time ago. But even then, it was only one of many factors search engines used to determine whether a site was relevant for a given term and deserved to rank high. Playboy actually was involved in some lawsuits similar to the above scenario back in 1997.

David Snyder of Marketing Pilgrim succinctly explains the benefit this ruling provides professional SEOs:

Court Declares META Keywords Dead

So the next time you get a phone call from a shady SEO malpractitioner selling you on the idea that you are not coming up in the SERPs because of a lack of Meta Keywords, go ahead and tell them that Meta Keywords are dead, and you have the death certificate.

Problem solved. Moving on.

The Meta Keyword Is Dead

If you ran a search on Google, clicked on the top search result, then failed to find the words you searched for on the page Google sent you to, would you consider that to be a good or bad experience? I’m guessing that 99% of you would say, “bad.”

Now, imagine that you work for Google, where your company’s revenue is based almost entirely on people continually coming back to your site to search for stuff. Consider how important it must be for Google to create good search experiences over bad ones like the one described above.

This is why search engines, including Google, have decided to drop Meta Keywords as a ranking factor for their search results.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, when did this happen?” Others may be thinking, “Dude, this is OLD news.” The correct milestone for this was October 1, 2002. That’s when Danny Sullivan, the most respected name in search engine marketing for almost as long as search engines have existed and continuing through today, declared the keyword meta tag dead on his site (at that time), Search Engine Watch.

Five years is a long time (especially in Internet time) for news to spread, but I can tell you that search engine ranking factors are still a mystery to most people.

In fact, I had lunch with a friend who tests and refurbishes industrial testing equipment for municipalities across the country. It’s not exactly glamorous work, but it’s a steadily growing business with a reliable customer base.

Like most small businesses, the web has become a major source of leads for his business. He dabbles a bit with pay per click advertising, but doesn’t really understand how PPC works, and especially not search engine optimization. In fact, he only learned the term SEO today. Luckily for him, he’s in an industry with little online competition so by simply having a web presence, many prospective customers are able to find him. He wouldn’t be so lucky is a more competitive industry.

He asked me about meta keywords after hearing about them from his website designer. She seems to know a lot about graphic design but little about search engines. This is troubling considering that the success of my friend’s business depends on her building a site that’s professional looking, easily navigable, and search engine friendly. Without all three factors covered he could end up with a great looking site that nobody sees.

The scary thing here is that he seemed to think – with his tip about Meta Keywords from his designer – that he had uncovered a hidden secret to high search engine rankings. By the look in his eye, it was clear to me that he was convinced that he could turn on a cash flow spigot with around 5 minutes worth of work once he implemented his designer’s tips.

Sadly, I had to let him down and explain that things of value come from hard work rather than loopholes that were closed more than half a decade ago.

What he failed to understand before lunch was that search engines already understand what he does. They just don’t think his site is the most authoritative site on the entire Internet for some terms he considers important.

To correct this problem he needs to increase authority rather than keywords. And authority, in the online world, is largely measured by how many times other websites have linked to your web site. Just like in the offline world, third party endorsements build more authority than anything you say about yourself.

The Long Tail of SEO

The long tail, for those of you not familiar with the concept, is a working theory that the web allows for much more diversity than the off-line world. For example, an online bookstore doesn’t have the real estate constraints of a typical retail store, or an online music store like iTunes could conceivably sell every song ever recorded while a Best Buy store simply can’t.

When choice becomes the norm, the popularity curve shifts to the right. The most popular content becomes slightly less popular, but that’s made up for with an increase in popularity of the newly accessibly obscure.

How is this reflected in search engine optimization? Dramatically.

Below is a graph showing the popularity of the top-100 search terms to a website over the past 30 days. As you can tell, there are some terms that drive a tremendous amount of traffic. However, that drops off fairly quickly. While this chart has a tough time showing it, the 100th most popular search term still managed to drive 13 visitors to the site over the course of the month:

Search Term Volume

What’s missing from this graph? The remaining parts of the long tail.

How much further would this graph extend to the right if it displayed every search term that generated traffic for the site over the past 30 days?

Care to guess?

Twice as far to the right?

10 times further right?

In this case, the chart would need to extend 40 times further to the right to display every search term that generated traffic.

How does one manage to acquire traffic on such a large number of terms? Have a large amount of content that people find valuable.

I can guarantee you this: if your website only has a handful of pages, you won’t see this type of traffic patter. You’ll basically cut the legs off your site’s long-tail potential.

An even worse situation would be building your site using non-search friendly markup such as Flash. Words search engines can’t see don’t help generate traffic for your site.

Should you care?

Probably. The biggest reason why is because the far end of the long tail tends to consist of very specific searches. In many cases, this is the type of traffic that converts to sales the best while the left end of the tail – while driving tons of traffic – tends to convert at a lower rate.

Balancing Search Term Quantity and Quality

Sally Kavanagh from Atracks.co.uk has a published a great case study on how to select appropriate keywords for a site by finding an appropriate balance between search volume and conversion rates.

This builds upon yesterday’s post discussing whether conversion rates for individual keywords matter. They do, and Kavanagh’s post explains how they can be used to find the sweet spot where a site gains traffic from both SEO and PPC through terms that provide the most value.

The case study looks at a the performance of a site that sells calendars online:

‘personalised calendars’ may have produced the most traffic (1980 visitors), but it did not produce the most sales, with a conversion rate of only 1.16%. ‘Create a calendar’ on the other hand produced the most sales (240 sales) and ‘dog calendars’ produced the highest conversion rate at 67.34%. Going back to my point about the need for both quality and quantity of visitors, I need to look at both the actual level of sales and the conversion rate. There is no point putting all my effort into a keyword that converts every time (ie has a conversion rate of 100%) if only one visitor a month uses it! A balance must be struck between quality and quantity.

Quality vs quantity.

The biggest mistake I see here comes from companies that focus too heavily on ranking high for the most generic term in their industry. While it’s not a bad thing*, it’s often done with no regard for more relevant and higher converting terms.

Best case scenario: every page of your site pulls in traffic for relevant search terms. The most general page on your site (normally, the homepage) targets generic terms, while internal pages rank well for more specific terms. PPC should be used to drive traffic to the most appropriate pages. Don’t drive traffic from really specific search terms to the site’s homepage.

* This certainly isn’t a bad thing since a site that ranks well for a generic term likely has high PageRank, making it relatively easy to rank well for less competitive terms if your site is thoroughly indexable.

Optimizing Company Name for Newspapers

This site is called Technology Evangelist, but if I’m asked by a reporter what the site is called, it’s TechnologyEvangelist.com.

Why?

Company Name Optimization

Take a look at this two-paragraph excerpt from a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s website.

Links within StarTribune.com Stories

That excerpt COULD include links to:

  • Facebook
  • Target Rounder Program Site
  • Target’s Facebook Site
  • drillTeam

Yet it only links to Facebook. As I understand it, this isn’t because they actively chose to link to Facebook, but that their web publishing system automatically links to terms ending in “.com”.

Since newspapers aren’t quite up to speed on hyperlinks, make it easy for them by giving them a “.com” version of your name.

10 Blue Links is Dead. Blended Search Lives

I had a chance to check out Monday afternoon’s Search Engine Strategies panel on, “Universal, Blended, and Vertical Search” to learn about how search engines are mixing up the types of results their serving up these days.

The theme of the panel is that search results containing simply 10 blue links is dead. Search engines have determined that searchers would like to use a single search box for all types of searches rather than first selecting a more specific search property like maps, news, blogs, images, video, etc. So that’s what they’re doing.

Search engines’ challenge is to figure out what mix of results are relevant based on the terms a person types into the search box. For example, a search containing a city/state combo or address will generally include a map or link to a map at the top of the results. Searches for terms like, “pictures of Hawaii” will include a few thumbnail photos with a link to additional image search results. Those are the simple cases.

Blended Search Panel

Here’s a slightly more challenging example: a search for “New England Patriots” on Google:

New England Patriots Search Result

In this case, Google determined that this is a newsworthy topic, so slipped in a few news results at the top of the page.

The search site credited with pushing blended search results the furthest today is Ask.com. For example, a search for “Buenos Aires, Argentina” includes results from webpages, sponsored links, images, news images, a Wikipedia excerpt, current time, and current weather. They also have links to help refine the search result.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

From a web analytics standpoint, this move to providing more answers directly in the search result rather than forcing users to click through for answers has led to new challenges. For example, search engines are seeing lower click through rates from their search results, which makes one wonder if they’re abandoning the results because of a bad experience or a particularly good one.

Search Engine Optimizer Perspectives

Search engine optimizers in the audience see new challenges here. For one, they now see the need to create and optimize content for many more web based channels, which means they need to coordinate with more and more people within their client’s organizations. However, another way to look at this would be to say search engines are not providing additional opportunities for search visibility – especially for those who jump on this early.

Another frustration came from a search engine optimizer who helps company market relatively obscure plumbing parts. He didn’t think video could be created for his client’s products. My guess is that this is a false assumption since the people working at that company could probably talk all day about the products they sell. Additionally, unless they’re the ONLY company selling what they sell, videos describing their product’s features and benefits would be valuable. Other things like pushing inventory to Google Base, properly tagging images, and pushing out press releases when they have news to announce would also help capture additional search engine results real estate.

Multimedia Search Results More Compelling?

Mike Grehan made a great point about how the new multimedia mix of search results is creating more compelling options for searchers. As Mike explained it, your site may be #1 ranked, and may have an incredibly compelling title tag and call to action in the snippet, but what happens when that has to compete against images?

Mike shared a personal anecdote about some “research” he was conducting on Shakira where he never made it to the first blue linked web result. Somehow, his mouse ended up clicking on one of the images instead:

Shakira Search Result