Why I’m not worried about Personalized Search or Caffeine (And why you shouldn’t be either)

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Webmasters and SEO firms everywhere are all in a tizzy over the announcement last week about personalized search being turned on for everybody. The gist of it is that unless you expressly opt out a specific browser, you’re going to get cookied and search results will be reflective of various sites you have clicked through before.

“The possible impact to all is staggering”, they cried. “The rich will get richer”, they bemoaned. The overall atmosphere is one of woe and fear for what’s to come. Personalized search will change the whole game of SEO, and make it harder to rank and compete.

A Quick Sidebar about SEO

First let me remind everyone that optimizing for an algorithm you don’t own (aka SEO) is a game that is forever changing. The very nature of the game is that it’s always getting more complicated – what worked yesterday may or may not work tomorrow and no one really wants to share anyway. So something will always be coming down the pipeline that will “change the whole game of SEO” and the best way to deal with it is roll with the punches, monitor results, see what’s changed, test different hypotheses and make decisions according to the data/anecdotal evidence you see. If you’re running a real business, now would also be a good time to start thinking about diversifying your traffic sources and moving away from the crutch that is Google.

No Big Whoop

Personalized search will make a difference in certain verticals, primarily e-commerce and large informational sites. I personally don’t think it’s bad for the user experience – if you tend to click on Amazon or About.com results more frequently, then that’s probably the result set that’s right for you anyway.

The smaller sites and publishers who view this as a threat should instead view it as an opportunity. We tend to think in terms of search volume, but behind  most  queries, even the big ones (think [credit cards] or [web hosting]) are millions of people who have never searched for that term before. What happens when it’s your site that ranks on either competitive terms or the long tail? You’ll benefit by getting more exposure because of personalized search.

But My Ranking Software is Now Obsolete

It’s probably true: with different results being served to different people, it will make it harder to chart overall rankings. Your real guide should be your analytics software anyway – that’s probably the only place you’ll be able to monitor trends and get a feel for how you’re doing in personalized search.

Ranking Factors Haven’t Changed

Beyond all this hubbub is the fact that many things have stayed the same. Google still uses links as a large factor in rankings, and you can still make Google look stupid with the best of them.

Decaf, Please

Some comments on Caffeine: Never in the history of Google updates have they gone to such great lengths to let people know about changes ahead of time. It’s a game of misdirection that would make Sun Tzu proud. From looking at various result sets and churn, I think a large part of the new structure is live and has been live for some time now.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter anyway. The result sets on Caffeine data centers aren’t finalized, and can be influenced and optimized in roughly the same way as the “old” data sets. A lot of this stuff is smoke and mirrors to keep SEOs second guessing themselves. My advice: Figure out what works and keep doing it until it stops working.

New Outing Policy

One of the purposes of this blog is to bring back real information to the SEO world and prevent SEO from going completely underground. To that end there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to post about, including, but not limited to:

  1. cloaking/ip delivery to increase conversions
  2. Backlinks you don’t want to see in your link profile
  3. How Corporate SEO is not like regular SEO

(In Fact many of these posts are already written).

There are concrete examples showing real life case studies about how things work. Of course by doing so I’m going to be showing techniques and sites that might not make Google so happy. I also have issues with outing in general, but I feel that the information shared more then makes up for the outing in general.

Therefore, the SEO Contrarian new outing policy and guidelines is as follows:

  1. Outing will not be used as a deliberate tactic to expose competitors. (Unlike certain other SEO blogs).
  2. Sites that are owned by small to medium sized business will not be displayed where possible.
  3. Sites that only generate revenue/traffic from search (According to available usage tools) will not be mentioned.
  4. Brands, Publicly Traded Companies, Fortune 1000, INC 500 and all other well known companies are fair game.
  5. If it’s possible to display concrete examples while blocking out real site information, then that’s the first choice (similar to the WebMasterWorld model).
  6. I can change this policy or ignore it at my discretion.

This policy is effective immediately, but I would love to solicit reader feedback. If you have issues with this policy, please post in the comments.

Announcing the Weekly Horseshit Roundup

I want to put out a brief post and announce the Weekly Horseshit roundup.

Every week I”ll post the worst articles published on the web about anything related to Search, mock them, and tell you why they suck.  But I need your help – thankfully I don’t see most of the crap out there, so please use the contact form and send me the worst crap you’ve seen each week.

Why am I doing this?

  1. So I can bring back the link roundup (even if it’s via Bit.ly to block link juice).
  2. Because I can:-)

How to Be a Better SEO in 30 Minutes a Day

My previous post on Scarcity, SEO, Integrity and Lemons elicited both publicly and privately a number of responses. One of the major themes that seemed to pop up was that if most of the information that is publicly available is crap, how does one become  better at Search Engine Optimization?

Beyond that – I was recently rereading No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs by Dan Kennedy. He talks about using dead time (on planes, waiting for a doctor’s appointment etc) to go through various trade journals and magazines to keep up to date on your industry. As I read that I reflected that there are a lot of blogs and forums within the Search Marketing industry, and if you didn’t know any better you could spend most of your day reading what’s written, treating it as gospel and continuously not ranking.

With that out of  the way, here are a number of things you can do each week to improve your SEO skills and rank higher, faster.

30 Minutes: Research in other verticals

Want to find new ideas, devious ways of link building, bizarre rankings, and new link sources? The best way is to move out of your incestuous little niche and see how people and companies are building links across different segments of the web. If you’re involved in retail, spend some time researching B2B rankings. If you’re an affiliate, go see how the corporate companies do it. There’s a never ending fountain of ideas for the taking, you just need to go and find them. See my SEO Toolbox post for excellent link research tools.

30 Minutes: Conduct R&D

My buddy Branko spends most of his SEO time conducting all kinds of tests and experiments to figure out what works. Not only that, he actually gets paid to do it, too! While I doubt you can fully apply the scientific method to an algorithm you don’t own, it’s still an excellent way to gauge how different types of links and content affect various search results. For added benefit, try risky tactics on competitors first.

30 Minutes: Get Better SEO Training

There are a number of SEO Training programs out there. The only one I vouch for, as a very satisfied customer, is the SEO Training by Aaron Wall at SEOBook.  I know there are other ones and you can try them, the only one I’ve used is Aaron’s. Let’s just say that the forum and the people you’ll meet there will pay for itself in gold.

30 Minutes: Step Outside the SEO Circle Jerk

We’ve already established that most SEO blogs are crap. But there are a TON of well written, informative blogs on subjects like lead generation, sales, conversion optimization, web design, offline marketing, online marketing, business processes, and everything else related to running a business besides SEO. One day I’ll get around to making a list of some of them, but a few google searches will point you in the right direction.

30 Minutes: Read a book

I read. A lot. The amount of inspiration, solid ideas, tactics and strategies that I have derived from books is incredible. The value you get from good writing by competent authors is tremendous. Obviously business books are important – I’ve read most of the books on the Personal MBA list.  At the same time, books on your favorite subject, on a new field, or pretty much anything that isn’t a trash thriller will stimulate your mind and help you to see things from a new perspective.

30 Minutes: Competitive Research, Baby

This isn’t strictly about finding better links. What sites are your competitors running? How are they positioning themselves? Go through their sales process – see how your competitors upsell, cross sell, and build their customer list. How do they treat existing customers? Call customer support and be incorrigible. What kind of deals do they send you after you’ve been a first time customer? The possibilities are endless.

The only thing holding you back from being better is yourself. There’s plenty of ways to build your own knowledge base and your own experiments that with time, will help you wipe the floor with your competition.

Scarcity, SEO, Integrity and Lemons

Before reading this post, it would help you to read two posts by John Andrews:

SEO and the Market for Lemons (the original paper is here)

SEO going underground

Unfortunately, both of John’s predictions are largely coming true. More and more I get burned clients coming to me who have paid a lot of money to well known consulting firms, and all they got were directory submissions and pretty looking reports, but no actionable results. Alternatively they had great results for 2 months, and then are surprised to find sites banned from the index because their SEO firm built shady links without advising them of the risk involved.

Or how about the consulting firm who said they can rank a well known company in it’s niche for a site that spends 7 figures on PPC, but  is 3 years behind in SEO, for only $10,000 a month? They’re not even in the top 100 and it’s a lucrative vertical where a lot of very smart affiliates play. In 2006 it could be done for a $1.5k/m spend in Text Link Ads, but that play won’t work anymore in 2009.  It will take a lot of work and a lot more link building then it did then to achieve the same results – a lot more then $10k.

These things happen because many of the most read, well known names in the industry spew a lot of crap. Every day, in and out, I see the same 20 link building tips reformatted in different ways, eaten up by the masses who don’t know any better. Granted, there are some excellent pieces now and again, but they are the exception, not the rule. I understand that many of these are written for linkbait and branding, but these people need to understand that they are contributing to the death of an industry – their own.

Because when outing becomes an acceptable tactic used by a well known personality within Search, or when a supposed published expert blogs about using the “Google Toolbar as a link harvesting tool”, we’re in trouble. A lot of trouble.

As the Good SEO goes underground to private SEO forums, informal networking events and invite only meetups, the public face of SEO will continue to be one of fly by night scammers, snake oil salesmen and a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about (Does “We will rank you on the google using our 10 way linking service with pagerank 8 web 2.0 domains using Angela and Paul’s backlinks” sound familiar?).  But when companies continuously fail to see results and return on their rankings, they’ll write off search, pour their money into pay-per-click, emailing, affiliate networks, and wherever else they see a return online. But try and pitch them on SEO and you’ll get kicked out the door and never be invited back in.

As for the big brands, Google’s already done them a favor and ranked them without having to hire an SEO.  Even corporate SEO faces a slow death knell, the big brands rank, and the small to medium size companies will hire in-house.

Trying to make it as an SEO Consultant? If most of your knowledge comes from SEO Blogs and public sessions at conferences, you may be able to make a pitch and talk the talk, but you sure as hell won’t rank.  The real information and knowledge belong to those who test, those who network and those who share. The drivel posted for common consumption will only cause you to have wasted time better done preparing your resume.

Please Ignore Rand: What Matt Cutts Really Said at PubCon

I wasn’t at PubCon for family reasons (good ones, no worries), but I Did catch a lot of the sessions via the excellent liveblogging over at Search Engine Roundtable. So when I saw that Rand was taking some things out of context, I thought I would do a service to the larger webmaster community and let you know what Matt Cutts was really talking about:

“Blocking Internet Archive may be a Negative Signal”

As Michael Martinez points out, this is not built into the crawler, but only used by the Spam team when doing a hand check.  Google has its own set of archives (probably not as far reaching as Archive.org) but I think Matt was probably referring to re-purposed or expired domains specifically. I for one will go on blocking IA bot so people can not easily scrape my sites and competitors can not see what I’ve done to maximize conversions.

“Having Multiple Sites Targeting Subsections of the Same Niche can be Indicative of Spam”

If you look at the liveblogging for this one (ctrl + F plumber), this is a guy spamming Google Local up the wazoo for plumbing in California. The site itself was low quality, and all the sites were pretty much the same, just different cities. So it wasn’t even WebSpam per se, but more like Map Spam. So yes, MC was saying that if you have 50 domains like these (from the LiveBlogging):

piedmontplumbingpro.com .

Then you’re probably on the wrong site of the web map spam team. As a side note, Evan Fishkin got the short end of the head shaver – this isn’t web spam, this is map spam. World of difference. Sorry Evan!

There’s a bit more I want to clarify but until I can provide conclusive proof I’m going to leave this post as it is.

SEO Ethics: Advise Clients of Risks

This is just a quick post – sometimes I come across things that I just want to riff on and I think others will find it interesting as well.

I normally don’t put SEO and ethics in the same sentence: SEO is a marketing tactic, ethics are a system of guiding moral principles. However when doing SEO for clients I think it makes sense to say that there are basic ethics in how you treat the client, advise them of risk, which tactics you use for them, and the like.

Anyway, I’m doing some consulting work right now for a client in a fairly competitive niche, and one of the main competitors in the results is being ranked by some weird bought links. I know :in and of itself, nothing unusual. Anyone who plays in any kind of competitive result will find a large percentage of sites ranking on paid links.

What I did find unusual was that on the same sites where there are links to this company, there are also links to the SEO firm doing the optimization for this company. It gets to the point where the related:companysite.com brings up the SEO company site as a potential match.

I’ve also seen recently some SEO companies linking out to their clients from their sites with anchor text – are they so desperate they don’t have any other way of building links?

What happens when someone outs you on a blog? Then what do you do? What if some Google engineer hates your specific SEO provider (hey, it could happen)?

My point is – there’s a risk involved in admitting you’re doing active link building for a site, and even more risk involved publicly admitting your SEO company and their involvement in your site. If that risk is acceptable then by all means, go ahead – but SEO companies need to be upfront in advising clients of the risks inherent in certain murky practices.

Do We Really Need All These SEO Tools?

It seems everyday another company is either launching, white labeling or revamping their set of SEO Tools. Just today I got an offer for a free SES Chicago pass if I signed up for SEOMoz Pro, and Search Engine Journal just announced SEJTools, which looks like a white label of Raven SEO. Off the top of my head I can think of the following toolsets:

Most of these tools tend to do similar things – find and manage your backlinks, print pretty reports, give some concept of trust on the web, etc. A lot of these tools are designed with the professional in mind – advertising on various search blogs, attending conferences, making connections.  I’m sure each maker of the tools above will email or post in the comments about the specific awesome features in their toolset, but that’s not the point.

Tools or Skills?

Most of the Tools are centered around managing your link building, monitoring your rankings and helping you discover new linking opportunities. To me, I have no problem with tools that will manage some of your efforts for you – specifically the contact management and acquisition part of link building.

But discovering new links and deciding what’s trust worthy on the web? A good SEO needs to be able to eyeball a site, look at some basic metrics and see if it makes sense to try and acquire a link. A really good SEO knows that there are very few links that by themselves make or break a ranking, so instead he looks for ways to scale his acquisition techniques.

Don’t get me started on Finding links – you need a tool to help you find links, outside of Yahoo and Majestic data sets? C’mon people: If you don’t know the primary sources in your niche, if you’re incapable of acquiring the basic links your competitors have (even if Debra says that is being mediocre), and if you can’t run a decent linkbait now and then, are you sure you’re in the right industry? Even without site explorer you should be able to do some basic link building, and if you need someone else to tell you whether a website passes trust and rankings, chances are you need more then just a toolset.

Data Security

Then of course there’s the data issue. John touched on this, but briefly, you’re taking some of your most valuable data – how you build links, how you find new places to get more links, your domains and your keywords, and you’re trusting it to a third party provider. Don’t forget, a lot of these toolsets are owned/produced by SEO companies. While I don’t doubt their good intentions, I’m sure it’s a huge temptation to take a peak at that data – just look what happened over at SnapNames. Beyond that, what happens if the data is hacked? If you can’t imagine a competitor surreptitiously hiring some eastern european to get all this data, you’re naive.

Develop Internally

The really good SEO Tools are the ones you don’t hear about – these are the tools that savvy SEOs are having developed in house to meet their needs. I’m not talking about blackhat type stuff (which strangely enough, you can pretty much get off the shelf these days anyway, go look at Syndk8). I’m talking about tools that perfectly fit whatever the very specific needs of a specific project or site require, so for example:

  • Automating big parts of the link acquisition process
  • Automatically optimizing on site for higher ROI and rankings
  • Generating content ideas optimized for  revenue and traffic (see the Wired article on Demand Media)

Even if you’re on a budget, you can still get most work done for a decent price. Sit down and spec what you want your tool to do, and if you’re very explicit and willing to stick to your requirements, then you can probably get someone on RentACoder or Odesk to do the dirty work for you.

Do you use any of the SEO Tools publicly available? I’d love to hear your thoughts about whether they meet your needs or it’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole.

4 Metrics to Replace Page Rank

“If you don’t care about PageRank and your site is doing well, that’s fine by me.”Matt Cutts

In case anyone cares, there was a toolbar Pagerank update this week. Some integers went up, some went down. If you’re a  SEO worth their salt, you know Toolbar pagerank is meaningless, and have been for a few years. Yet many, many people continue to evaluate link acquisition based on page rank, and many link brokers still use pagerank as a method to determine cost of links.  With that in mind, here are 4 useful metrics that will actually help you determine whether a site is valued highly by Google or not.

  1. Cache Date – If the page has been cached inside the last few weeks, that means its important enough to Google that they spend money to keep it in cache. Note that Blogs and sites using the noarchive tag tend to screw this metric up a bit.
  2. SEMRush – In case you didn’t know, I’m a massive fan of SEMRush. If a site is really worth something then it probably ranks for some sort of decent keyword set. SEMRush is a good way to judge rankings and figure out how trusted the site really is.
  3. Compete – Take a look at a site’s referring traffic from Google. Chances are that if it’s receiving a lot of traffic from big G, then a link will be helpful.
  4. Majestic – Compare your target sites backlink acquisition graph against other known strong sites to get a baseline idea of how your links stack up against the web’s.

Is Your SEO Systematized?

In the E-Myth revisited, Michael Gerber goes on at length about the need to systematize everything in your business. The book itself is horribly written, using a poor metaphor of a pie-baker, and is a thin lead generation tool for Gerber, but the point he makes is an excellent one:

Your Business Needs to Be Systematized, and Your Business needs to serve you.

When I first sat down to really think about this, it was an eye-opener.  The average SEO/SEM/Affiliate does a lot of the same things, day in and day out. We optimize sites, build links, talk to merchants, run PPC campaigns, monitor cash flow, order content, promote content, and whatever else is necessary to turn a profit in our business. The thing is, how many of us spend the time to document what we do everyday, how we do it, why we do things a certain way, and how we can make it happen?

So I decided to spend some time paying attention to the different things being done by me, my employees, contractors and anyone else who does things for me repeatedly. I paid attention to things that tended to reoccur often and tried to map out both for myself and others the best way to accomplish certain tasks, and the steps involved in most of the things we do.

After doing this for a while and finally mapping out most of the major functions for our business, we’ve experienced a few interesting results:

  1. Streamlined a lot of the day to day functions – for example: we’re able to identify link targets much faster, acquire those links much faster. Overall that means more links for the same effort we were putting in previously.
  2. Less apprehension about employee turnover: One of the biggest fears in any knowledge based business, especially SEO, is having to find qualified employees, train them and then monitor their work before they can be 100% functional. When you start systematizing everything, it’s much easier to teach new employees what to be done, and actually allows us to lower standards for functions that were previously assigned to only high level people.
  3. Rethinking how we do things: Because I spent some time systematizing everything, it’s allowed me to spend some time in the internals of what we do and remove some of the deadwood and shifting our business model.
  4. More Time for Business Development: Since every thing is more streamlined now, there’s more time for Biz Dev, which means more growth and more money.

This is what’s helped us – what have you systematized in your SEO?