Scarcity, SEO, Integrity and Lemons

November 26, 2009  |  by Ari  |  SEO  |  17 comments

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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.

10 Truths about Social Media that “Gurus” Don’t Want You to Know

November 15, 2009  |  by Ari  |  Social Media  |  8 comments

So social media is the big craze right now. From Twitter to Facebook, to social media marketing companies and self appointed Gurus, no one will shut up about it. But no one really talks about the darker side of Social Media and what goes on behind the scenes. Let’s do some bubble popping, shall we:

  1. Twitter does not generate revenue for your company. The bullshit about Dell generating $3 million on Twitter forgets to take into account the last 25 years since Michael Dell started the company and built it into the mega-brand it is today. Seriously – do you think anybody could offload that much in product if they weren’t on brand via a frigging micro blogging service?
  2. The only reason Facebook and associated gaming companies have made any money is because they con the hell out of the end user. From diet rebills to mobile subscriptions, FB has some of the more scummy offers you’ll find on a CPA network. Say what you want about Microsoft and Google, but at least there’s some value to the end user.
  3. There is no conversation. Scoble, et al. just needed jobs.
  4. Spending time on Twitter, Facebook etc during working hours when not related to work is theft, just so you know. Although as a web publisher I love the work week – traffic and conversions go way up the from 8AM EST to 5PM PST, Monday – Friday.
  5. The majority of traffic to sites like MegaVideo, YouTube, and the various Chinese video sharing sites like Tudou is to pirated uploads of various television series and popular movies. You won’t see it in any official  statistic, but if you get access to unfiltered logs, you’ll see that I’m right.
  6. Most of the stuff that goes “viral” is prepared by expert marketers with extensive contacts, networks and resources at hand. Very few things go viral by themselves. Anyone who will tell you otherwise is full of it.
  7. The only company I can think of that got real exposure and sales from YouTube is BlendTec. Besides that often hyped case study, I haven’t seen anything come remotely close.
  8. Most of the Social Media “gurus” couldn’t launch a viral campaign if it killed them. There are a few who are really good – the rest just spout platitudes and corporate double talk.
  9. By using Social Media, you  give up the hard earned right to privacy. People paid with blood for the freedom to protect information, and here we are giving our whole lives away on the interwebs. You don’t even own your own data, anymore.
  10. This is not strictly Social Media related, but TechCrunch primarily rewrites press releases into fawning best technology ever articles. Occasionally they feature personal spats that Arrington is having with someone.

Please Ignore Rand: What Matt Cutts Really Said at PubCon

November 15, 2009  |  by Ari  |  SEO  |  1 Comment

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):

saratogaplumber.com
carmichaelplumbing.com
http://www.philbarnettplumbing.com/
http://www.millbraeplumbing.com/
http://www.rocklinplumbing.com/
http://www.sanfranciscoplumbingpro.com/
trivalleyplumbers.com
cupertinoplumbingpro.com
alamoplumbingpro.com
.losaltosplumbing.com
mantecaplumbing.com
sacramentoplumbingpro.com
burlingameplumbing.com
folsom-plumbing.com
fostercityplumbing.com
sanjoseplumbingpro.com
woodsideplumbing.com
sunnyvaleplumbingpro.com
oaklandplumbingpro.com
philbarnettplumbinginc.com
fairoaksplumbing.com
orangevaleplumbing.com
escondido-plumbing.com
bakersfieldplumbingpro.com
alltracyplumbing.com
encinitas-plumbing.com
walnutcreekplumbingpro.com
stockton-plumbing.com
.lodi-plumbing.com
moragaplumbing.com
fresnoplumbingpro.com
alamedaplumbingpro.com
morganhillplumber.com
roseville-plumbing.com
santaclaraplumbingpro.com
losgatosplumbingpro.com
lathropplumbers.com
paloaltoplumbingpro.com
unioncityplumbing.com
concordplumbingpro.com
montereybayplumbers.com
oceanside-plumbing.com
emeryvilleplumbing.com
elkgrove-plumbing.com
sanbrunoplumbing.com
berkeleyplumbingpro.com
citrusheights-plumbing.com
sanmarcos-plumbing.net
hollisterplumbingpro.com
sancarlosplumbing.com
vista-plumbing.com
mountainviewplumbingpro.com
sacramentoplumbingpro.com
northhighlandsplumbing.com
oaklandplumbingpro.com
piedmontplumbingpro.com .
sanmateoplumbingpro.com
carlsbad-plumbing.com
allmilpitasplumbing.com
pleasanthillplumbing.com
shinglespringsplumbing.com
barnettplumbing.com
sanjoseplumbingpro.com/
ranchocordova-plumbing.com
pittsburgplumbingpro.com
eldoradoplumbing.com
orindaplumbing.com
plumbing-san-diego.com
campbellplumbingpro.com
eldoradohillsplumbing.com
shinglespringsplumbing.com/
martinezplumbing.com
sunolplumbing.com
cerritos-plumbing.com
antiochplumbingpro.com
gilroyplumbing.com
modesto-plumbing.com
tiburon-plumbing.com
salinas-plumbing.com
scottsvalleyplumbing.com
http://www.sacramentoplumbingpro.com/
http://www.elkgrove-plumbing.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.

How You Can Spam Google Local for Fun and Profit in 10 Easy Steps

November 14, 2009  |  by Ari  |  Spam  |  16 comments

At PubCon, some guy asked for a site review – turns out he was attempting to spam Google Local. Why he asked for a site review from Matt Cutts is unclear, but I thought I would make his life easier and Google’s a little bit more difficult by putting together a guide to spamming (manipulating) Google Local. All this is purely based on Conjecture. And even if it’s based on more then just conjecture, it’s not something I do anymore, anyway. Note that this is not about hijacking legitimate entries, but rather creating and ranking your own entries.

Why Spam Google Local Search?

A tremendous amount of the traffic online is local, even for terms that have no traditional  geographic point of reference. Local is also  on a tremendous growth track. While it’s obvious that services offered and provided on the local level, like insurance, tourism, telephony have a lot of local searches, you will often see local traffic on terms relating to finance, retail, and  b2b services.

As Google continues to push its onebox in the regular search results, local modifier searches are increasingly dominated by the enhanced one box:
google local pack for estate attorneys in dallas, texas

Even searches without a local modifier, but related to local services (hotels, doctors, car rental, etc) will typically return a Onbox:

search for [hotels] done from a Boston IP

Google has even begun pushing local hard on core keywords to users that it can geotarget:

Search for [mortgage], no local modifier

In essence, Google Local is the easiest way to rank a new website, and it’s a great way to do CPA arbitrage as well.

What You’re Going to Need

Before we get started with the guide, I recommend you get your hands on the following:

  • An Asterisk or Similar VOIP based PBX solution with access to numbers across the country or area you plan on targeting. I suggest you look around for a hosted Asterisk solution.
  • A Data Entry Service, preferably cheap and offshore. You can find some on sites like Elance or ScriptLance, or you can ask a blackhat SEO to use his dedicated offshore team.
  • A Good dedicated server with at least a few IPs
  • Access to postal mail forwarding services is a plus but not required. Usually you can get this at any UPS Store.
  • A Cheap Registrar with Bulk Pricing, an API and whois privacy. Godaddy, Moniker and eNom all have APIs.

Google Local Basics

The ranking factors in Google local are fairly simple, and bring back memories of SEO with meta tags and keywords.

Fundamentally, they are:

  1. Geographic Location
  2. Citations
  3. Reviews
  4. Business Name
  5. Business Verification

1. Geographic Location

Google places weight on the proximity of a business to the center of the town or city. So if you’re searching for something in Houston, one of the ranking factors Google will use is proximity to the center of town. How do you determine the center of the town? That’s easy: where the city name is located on the Map, is typically the center of town as Google sees it.

austin

2. Citations

Citations are sort of like links, but not exactly. They’re like links in the sense that they are references to your site, but they don’t require anchor text or even an actual hyperlink to be counted. Typically citations will be your business name, address and phone number, and will usually be found in various types of directories, yellow pages, etc.

3. Reviews

Google gets reviews from two sources: Direct from maps and from various partners they pull data from. In non competitive to mildly competitive marketplaces reviews are not that big of a deal, but in competitive verticals it’s a good idea to have some reviews. More on that below.

4. Business Name

If the exact match bonus works for domains, then it also works for business names. So on a search for “locksmith”, if your business is named Locksmith, Inc, it’s certainly going to help the ten pack.

5. Business Verification

Google places a big premium on verifying the listing of a business. This is either done with a telephone call or a piece of mail with a PIN sent to the business address.

Down to Business: Spamming Local

Now that we have a very basic understanding of how Google Maps functions, lets go through the process of ranking a new site, step by step.

Step 1:

Register your domain name. If it’s available an ideal name will be name of keyword + name of location. In the example of the would be Plumber King, the ideal domain would be oaklandplumber.com, or plumberoakland.com. If that’s not available then variations and perhaps more granular geo targeting are the order of the day.

Step 2:

Create a template and database. The template should call variables depending on the domain name. It should be able to rotate out cities, addresses and phone numbers. Most of the other content can stay, but the ability to automatically swipe out locations and location information is critical. I’m not going to go into the technical details of creating a CMS for map spamming, but if you’re not the type then creating a simple spec for someone on RentACoder.com should not be a problem.

Step 3:

Begin assigning local phone numbers via your VOIP PBX to each name, and generating addresses in the center of town for each location you want to rank for. Make sure you can forward all of the local numbers in one click, and keep everything in a spreadsheet or database.

Step 4:

Have your data entry team create a Google account for each domain name. Alternatively you could automate this with something like uBot. After creating the account, enter the business information as defined in the spreadsheet. The name of each business should ideally manage the phrase you’re looking to rank for. If you were targeting local auto insurance keywords, then each of your businesses would be named:

  1. Auto Insurance Austin
  2. Auto Insurance Detroit
  3. Auto Insurance Brooklyn

Step 5:

This is a critical part: make sure to voice verify each and every listing. Forward all the numbers to your data entry team and have them authenticate each entry as they add it to Google Maps. For extra bonus points you can buy real mail forwarding for each address in each town, and also authenticate via post card, but I don’t think this is absolutely necessary.

Step 6:

Once you’ve seeded and authenticated your sites, now is the time to generate citations. All this means is that your data entry team should start seeding your “business information” (Business Name, fake address, URL, anchor text, and VOIP number assigned to the business) in various local directories. There are tons of local directories, but here are some ones off the top of my head:

Step 7:

The claim that Reviews make or break a listing are a little far fetched, in my opinion. That being said, with your data entry team it’s not that difficult to have 1 – 2 reviews created on a weekly or daily basis that are a glowing review of your business. You can also seed external review sites that Google uses. Some of the sites used for citations are also trusted by Google for local reviews:


Step 8:

Added bonus: Once you’ve authenticated your phone numbers, you can redirect them to a call center to pick up any leads that come in by phone. A fair amount of people will just pick up the phone, so if you have this ability it’s a good idea.

Step 9:

Go do something else. Ranking in Local takes anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months.

Step 10:

Rank and Profit!

That’s it in a nutshell – Post your  comments and thoughts on Google Maps, local search and anything related.

Quick Warning Shot

November 12, 2009  |  by Ari  |  SEO Scum  |  3 comments

After talking to all parties involved, this post is no longer relevant.

God Bless

Why Zappos Shouldn’t Be Your Business Model

November 11, 2009  |  by Ari  |  E-Commerce  |  2 comments

Everyone is at PubCon, and Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos gave the keynote yesterday in Vegas. I’m not there, but if you care to read what he said, you can read Lisa Barone’s excellent live blogging coverage of the keynote and other  sessions at the Outspoken Media Blog.

The Zappos story, culture and ethos of service is repeated everywhere by the media: It’s touted as a great way to build a company, have relationships with your customers, build your brand and provide amazing customer service. I’ll take their word for it, because I’ve never had the opportunity to buy something from them.

You know what Zappos is not touted as, though? Profitable. I did a little digging searched a little bit on Google and found two very interesting sites:

Zappos pre-tax net profit is in the low single digit range – 3-4%. For the independent SEO’s reading this , you’d be better off working in house on margins like that. For the veteran e-commerce players, you know that this is not a good long term business model.

Yes, I know they were acquired by Amazon for some obscene amount of money. The difference is that Amazon is a public company obsessed with market share and also less concerned with little things like profit margins.  I also imagine Jeff Bezos couldn’t stand that Endless.com was loosing to Zappos. Zappos was a venture backed firm, and I suspect they knew how bad the business model was, which is why they forced Zappos to sell out.

I think most people forget that the primary goal of any business needs to be turning a profit and increasing cash flow. To do that, you need to provide good services, products and value your customer, but all as a goal towards profit and cash flow. The business press would have you believe otherwise, but that’s why they write about business instead of running businesses.

Now, if you’re a venture backed firm with a sole goal of heading towards a big exit, then you don’t care about this stuff. You’re concerned with growth and market share, angling for an acquisition.

Most businesses aren’t venture backed, though. The majority are  long term endeavors started by entrepreneurs for all kinds of different reasons.  For those businesses, you need to focus on satisfying customers, there’s no doubt. At the same time, you can’t let customer satisfaction become the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal needs to be profits and keeping your business sustainable. Often this is partially obtained by keeping customers happy, but sometimes you’ll discover that keeping certain customers happy is not worth your while.

I’m not advocating being an ass to your customers, far from it. I just think that customer service needs to be a means to justify the end, and not an end unto itself.  Creating better products, selling more, making more profits, increasing your margins and other basic business issues are just as important and can contribute just as much, if not more, as customer satisfaction.

SEO Ethics: Advise Clients of Risks

November 10, 2009  |  by Ari  |  SEO  |  Comments Off on 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?

November 10, 2009  |  by Ari  |  SEO  |  3 comments

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.

Google Sandbox Retired

November 10, 2009  |  by Ari  |  Google  |  Comments Off on Google Sandbox Retired

Just saw this on http://www2.sandbox.google.com, where Caffeine was being tested. If someone finds said datacenter before I do, drop me a line (although I’m not 100% sure some of Caffeine hasn’t already been integrated):

We appreciate all the feedback from people who searched on our Caffeine sandbox.

Based on the success we’ve seen, we believe Caffeine is ready for a larger audience. Soon we will activate Caffeine more widely, beginning with one data center. This sandbox is no longer necessary and has been retired, but we appreciate the testing and positive input that webmasters and publishers have given.

4 Metrics to Replace Page Rank

November 6, 2009  |  by Ari  |  SEO  |  5 comments

“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.