Archive for February, 2011


SEO: The Beast with Two Heads (part One)

When we talk about “search engine optimization,” we are really talking about two very different projects, projects that take very different routes and very different skill sets but work together toward a common goal—increased search engine prominence.

Every SEO Professional knows this. They tend to break it down into “on page” and “off page,” or “internal” and “external,” or “site elements” and “off-site elements.”  Some SEOs specialize in one or the other, but most take on both task with every optimization project.

ONE: On Page SEO (or, how to make new spidery friends)
These are the core elements of a website that interact with search engines and other users. They are built into the site and are fundamental to search engine success. These elements all impact the website at every level, starting with the website’s bones (or architecture), then to navigation, to keyword targeting, to meta-data, to content organization (or semantic hierarchy, if you are a true SEO geek), and even content development. All of these things are so interwoven into a website that they are hard to separate from design and construction. So interwoven, in fact, that I’m going to argue that these optimization elements should be done by web developers and designers, up front, before launch, before links, before any other damn thing. And who better than the people who are there from the very beginning.

Sometimes, this side of the process is called “spider-friendliness.” That’s a great way to think of it: does your website welcome the search engines in, show them around, explain what their content is about, and make an argument for why they deserve a higher prominence than all those other websites in the same topic space? To get all detailed about it:

  1. Architecture. The way your site is deployed to your web server is where this all starts. Your folder names and the way they are laid out. File names—page files, image files, media files, include files, all of them. Database structure and interface. All of that gross techie stuff matters. Your website has to be constructed on a framework that can be understood by search spiders, and driven by a system dynamic that doesn’t interfere with spider access.
  2. Navigation.Once a spider stumbles across the site, can it find its way through from the home page to every other page? That’s really important. I’ve seen sites with thousands of pages of content, but only a couple of hundred indexed by Google all because there was no clear path from the home page to all the others.
  3. Keyword targeting. You really really really have to know your keywords. Not kidding. You really really really need to know them. The best time to do learn your keywords is BEFORE YOU START WRITING CONTENT.  Seriously. Do you know what the website is intended to do? Do you know what products or services or information you are trying to disperse? Then you have everything you need to start working on keywords.
  4. Meta-data. This the first place your keywords will go. Yes, I know that meta-tags are out of favor. I know that they have been sorely abused. I know that they’re just not cool. Still, what if you build a 12,000 page website without them and then suddenly they’re cool again? Oh, you’ll be happy you put in at least a descriptiontag, alt tags, and I even still use the keyword meta-tag as a handy place to put a page’s 4 or 5 top keywords. If for no other reason than so the next SEO guy knows what the hell we did here.
  5. Content organization. This is getting more and more important all the time. From the page title, to the <h#> tags, to bullet lists, and bold text, and image captions. Hierarchical organization is your very best opportunity to let spiders (and humans, too) know what the stuff on your pages is about.
  6. Content development. So you built a site, and its all spider-friendly, and you got lots of keywords and metastuff, and hierarchies, and everything. That’s great and all those things will take you a long way toward Google Nirvana. But you can’t just coast. You must continue to think of new, valuable things to say about your topic.  Because spiders prefer their meat fresh. So build into your internet business plan a strategy for identifying, developing, and deploying useful content on a regular basis.

TWO: Off-page SEO (to be continued in tomorrow’s blog! Stay tuned!)


Google Puts Content Farms Out to Pasture

Google has pulled the trigger on a major algorithm update and busted a cap in an entire industry, the Content Farm. In case you don’t know, a content farm usually refers to a domain that exists solely to generate high-ranking pages for high-search keywords by cranking out minimally useful (if useful in any sense at all) content. Sometimes this content is scraped (stolen) from other sites, sometimes it’s written by freelance “buck-a-page” hacks, and sometimes is near-gibberish generated by computers stringing random words together. The reason these sites flourish is that their pages have tended to rank very very high for a very very high percentage of searches.

Here’s one of the most profligate: eHow. In pursuit of total web dominion, eHow has built a megalith site of over 20 million pages.  What? TWENTY MILLION FREAKING PAGES? About everything. They do web research to mine high-search keywords, and then build very minimally useful content pages around the terms. But the site is so huge and so interconnected and so competent at SEO that they rank first page for an unbelievable percentage of the keywords they pursue.

It’s not really spam, really. I mean, there is some sort of content there, right? Problem is, they (and all the other content farmers like them) have made searching the internet just that much harder for everyone. Want to know how to unclog a drain? Search for “unclog a drain” and you’ll find the first page of results a virtual sink-full of virtual content-farmed pseudo-content that you will have to stick your arm into all the way to the elbow in order to fish out one useful bit of knowledge.

Well, Google’s not happy about that. So Google made a little change. The Farmer Update.

This update—said to affect as much as 12% of all searches worldwide—will definitely make an impact on searching the internet, particularly for the content farmers cash crop, How-To information.

This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.  —the Official Google Blog

But there’s a potential boll weevil in all this: Google claims to be devaluing “low-quality” content. Which, in cases like eHow, is pretty easy to spot and pretty hard to argue with. The bug is what (and who) actually gets to define “quality”? Does Wikipedia, with almost 70 million pages of diverse content, make the cut? Or get the axe? Do blog sites like WordPress, with 300,000,000 pages of stuff ranging from the sublime to crap (like the blog you’re reading right now) get penalized across the domain just because 80% or so of what’s there is “low-quality”?

Time will tell, and webmasters will yell, and SEOs will prosper. And as for the content farms, those who get rich dealing manure can’t really complain when they find themselves upwind.

More on the Google “Content Farm” Update

Official Google Blog: Finding High Quality Sites in Search
Google Breaks Up Content Farms
Google Tightens the Screws on Content Farmers
Google Goes After Content Farms with Update
Google Forecloses on Content Farmers
Legit Sites Could Get Caught in Google’s Content Farm Crosshairs
Seeking to Weed Out Drivel, Google Adjusts Search Engine


Friday’s SEO Site of the Week

Our SEO Site of the Week goes to Matt Cutts’s Blog.

Who the heck is Matt Cutts, you ask? Good question. Let me explain.

Suppose you were interested in successfully ranking your favorite keywords in Google. Suppose further that you wanted to gather all the information possible about what to do, what not to do, and what not to EVER EVER do?

Then ask yourself: “What would it be worth to have a guy inside Google who is willing to share official and semi-official Google thinking on the subject of SEO?” Admit it, whether your hat is black, gray or white, that sort of inside scoop would be golden.

Matt’s that guy.  He’s been with Google since 2000. He’s the head of the Google Spam Team. And while his blog is definitely not an official Mouth of Google, it is pretty much the Company Line. Which is good. Because we know all sorts of places to get the speculation, innuendo, rumor, sky-is-falling, fear-mongering, and fabrications about Google, their plans and strategies and policies, but Matt is one of the few places to go for a reasonably intelligent discussion from inside the walls.

I follow the blog and subscribe to his twitter feed. You could definitely learn something here.

Three mouse clicks, two hats, and a bat named Gary


10 Step SEO # 1: Keywords

This is quite oversimplified, of course, but if you’re having trouble getting your brains wrapped around the process of Search Engine Optimization, you can break it down into 10 easy-peasy steps. Well, it seems easy enough….

  1. Keyword research
  2. Content
  3. Meta tags
  4. Headline tags
  5. Internal links
  6. External links
  7. Labels
  8. Content
  9. Navigation
  10. Sitemaps

I’m going to go over these steps, one every Thursday, for the next ten weeks. Today, we start with the job that has to come first, and that is probably the hardest task for people to get a good grasp on:

Keyword Research
You cannot do anything else with SEO—not a single damn thing—until you have determined at least a handful of the most important keywords/keyword phrases for your website. “What?” you say? Keywords before content?

Yup. If you plan to do this thing right, it has to be first things first.  Of course, you can optimize existing content with your keywords (in fact, that’s mostly what professional SEOs do for a living). But that’s really missing a very important point. Keywords are NOT some magic incantation that creates money from the aether.  What keywords—and the process of keyword research—really truly are, and this is important, is:

Understanding what your website is about, what you want it do, and who you want to visit it.

If what you are building here is an online business, you really must know these things before you start. It’s Basic Business Building 101. If you know the answers to those four questions, you’ll know what your keywords should be.

What is the site about? Are you selling track shoes? Then it’s about track shoes. Not generic “shoes,” not “shoe-fly pie,” not “stiletto heel shoes.” The site is about “track shoes.”

What do you want the site to do? Direct sales to customers? Then you want the site to sell track shoes. Not elaborate on the history of track, or demonstrate which shoes are worn by which superstar. You want you visitors to “buy track shoes.”

Who do you want the site to appeal to? High school track teams? Then you are targeting amateur runners. Not Olympic stars, not amateur runners, not ultra-chic street fashionistas. You want to attract people who buy track shoes for “high school track teams.”

So far so good! We now now what, why, and who. Time to do some research. Here’s where a lot of professional SEOs start: Google AdWords Keyword Tool. It’s free, it’s easy to use, and it rocks. Quick, think of 100 words or phrases that either variations of or related to “track shoes.” Get yourself a cup of coffee. This is going to take a while. OR, you could just think of maybe three or four of those phrases, enter them into the Google Tool, type in the “Captcha,” and push “Search.” Google will spit out a very nice list, but BONUS!!! Not only will you get a whole bunch of variations of “track shoes,” you’ll also get some statistics to go with them! Stuff like “Average Global Monthly Searches,” “Average CPC (that’s the average price folks are willing to pay Google for a single click on an ad generated for that keyword),” and more. This data is going to be Very Helpful.

So you generate a nice list. Download it (there’s a button for that), and open the file into your favorite spreadsheet program. Sort the list by Monthly Searches, ordered from largest to smallest. You now have a list of search terms related to “track shoes” that is ranked in order of the most-to-least searches. Wow. Think of the power of that knowledge. You now know that the search phrase “track shoes” gets searched for in Google about 40,000 every month. You also learned that “running shoes” gets around 1,000,000., and “track shoe store” gets less than 150.  Bingo! You want to use the search phrase “running shoe” on every page! Right? Well, no, not exactly.

Because the next step will help you decide which search terms you can actually compete for. Meaning, what’s the point of all this trouble if at the end of the day, despite all the SEO you can muster, you still end up no higher that Google page 6, because there’s just so much brutally competent competition? You really think a little SEO is gonna get you higher than NIKE for the “running shoes” phrase? Hmmm?

Not going to happen. What you really want is a set of search phrases that

  • generate a useful amount of traffic
  • are highly relevant to your website
  • are actually “winnable”

Quick gut check. Pick the three keywords from the Google tool that you think might help you sell your product, and also have high traffic numbers. Plug each one of those into Google search, surrounded by “quotes”. I’m going with “running shoes (1,000,000 visits/month),” “track shoes (40,000 visits/moth),” and “track & field shoes (6,600 visits/month).” On the search results page, you’ll see a number, right below the search box. For “running shoes” I see About 21,100,000 results, for “track shoes” the number is 520,000. What that means is that there are 21 million webpages competing for the term “running shoes,”  and only half a million trying to capture “track shoes.” You chances of getting somewhere for “track shoes” is 40 times better. What about “track & field shoes”? A mere 6,600 potential monthly visits, but with 200,000 competitors. You are twice as likely to get a good rank with “track & field shoes” but the potential gain is only about 8%. Huh? What up with that? It’s because a lot of websites think “track & field shoes” is better for traffic than it actually is. (Of course, it’s really really really a LOT more complicated than that, but a good enough explanation for this exercise.)

So now what? So now, you sort through the list and pick the best possible compromise keyword phrase between Relevance to Your Business,  Monthly Average Searches and the Number of Potential Competitors. It’s a little bit art, a little bit science, a little bit luck, a little bit instinct, and okay, it’s a little bit dark magic.

Pick the best one. That is your site’s main keyword. This is the one you will optimize into your home page content. Done! Easy!

Now you can go forth and do the same thing for every single page on your site. Crap! That’s a lot of work! Well, we can whittle that down some. Every product page has a built-in keyword: the product name. I.e., “Brooks Nerve LD Track Spike.” That is going to cut out most of your pages, most likely. Also, you can forget about keywords for any pages you have that you don’t particularly care about traffic for: sitemap, list of phone numbers, legal statements, etc.

So you really only have to do keywording for the home page, category pages, and any pages with content that is designed to draw search traffic, like video demonstrations, how-to instructions, and the like.

I keep my keywords in a spreadsheet. Columns as follows:

Primary keyword
related keywords (2 or 3)

Now you have done your initial keyword research, pour yourself a beer to celebrate. Then you can get busy writing content. See you next week!


The Big List of SEO Resources

Here is a rather large (although not all-inclusive) list of some of the SEO resources that are available online for free. Annotated, too!

Resources for Search Optimizers


SEO Is Headed for Boot Hill

Ten years ago, the internet looked like Tombstone, Arizona, 1880. Google owned a big old silver mine,  saloon business was booming, and SEO was dealing Faro.  Faro seemed like a pretty good job to get in on—a sort of fair, sort of fixed game with few rules and lots of money, and the dealers had a major advantage. They knew how the game worked. All anybody else knew was that there was a big pile of money on the table.

And if you were an SEO back in the wild heady days of the early millennium, you were sitting pretty. The companies that were quick to adopt search optimization tactics kicked their competition’s butts all up and down the web. There was no distinction then between the shades of your hat. If you had a good strategy to get your client top rankings, you won.

I worked for a company that sort of invented DNS cloaking. They were selling top five Google listings like a commodity. Any company who could pay the per-click, could actually expect top ranks. Money poured in. The Faro dealers started branching into other games like Yahoo paid listings, GoTo’s (soon to be Overture to be Yahoo Search Marketing to be Billy Clanton) rank for bid model, and a host of other lame-brain wanna be Cowboys with dollars in their eyes and no sense in their heads.

Until Google decided to clean up the town. First they shut down the obvious crooked games like the cloaking enterprise mentioned above. The cloakers adapted. Instead of shell-game redirects, they switched their focus to the paid and bid listings. But the Faro games continued. Some the dealers turned honest, offering a fair game with decent odds. They could still help your keywords rank higher, but it took time and was not completely certain to succeed. Other dealers  moved to the back alley and continued to ply their fast-bucks, Lady-Luck’s-a-hooker game.

And now we have a Faro industry dealt by hats in various shades from white to black and all the grays between.

Oh, it is a good game. White hats make a nice living. Grays make out a bit better. And the black hats in the alley are still cleaning the suckers out. Too bad it won’t last.

In fact, I think we’re about to see the OK Corral of search marketing. And the Marshal’s name is Watson, along with his brother Wolfram Alpha.

Search optimization thrives for one reason only. Search engines all rely on some complex algorithm or another to rank search results. The algos are so complex that it takes a specialist (SEO) knowledge to game them. And they change often enough that the specialists have a steady base of new and returning clients.

That’s great, as long as it lasts. But, what if search engines get really really smart? What if they get so smart that they can actually understand what you mean when you ask for “paris hilton photos” based on your history, your search behavior, your gender, the context of your day’s searches, and even your facial expressions? IBM’s Watson just demonstrated that computer programming can solve for human intent. Wolfgram-Alpha has already demonstrated that computer programming can return knowledge instead of just references.

Which means, of course, that in the very near future, algorithmic search engines will cease to exist, shut down by a bigger, smarter, tougher dealer—the intelligent search agent. Who will understand what you want and deliver it. And no Faro dealing SEO will be able to manipulate that much more complex game. Honest, actual content will be the only game in town.

And the last SEO Cowboys will be shot down like dogs in the street.


The Blog Is Dead; Long Live the Blog

According to an article in this morning’s New York Times,  the younger generations are abandoning that dusty old relic, blogging, in favor of even speedier conversational mediums like Twitter and Facebook. Seems they don’t like the idea of writing a complete sentence, let alone a complete thought. And the idea that maybe nobody will read your every word is just, well, just wrong.

So instead of the greatest democratizing media in history—enabling millions of people all over the world a free platform for expressing themselves in every way from the sublime to the absurd and back again—instead of that, we move steadily toward a communication network of tweets, texts, twits, twats, and twaddle. Every thought you can express in 140 characters or less spewed freely in the matrix, to be gobbled up by all 350 of your closest FaceFriends.

And why do I care?

I don’t, really. The pressure of technology on communication has always been toward the more concise, more efficient, more effective model. Where it ends is anybody’s guess, but it looks more and more to me like our human culture evolves rapidly toward some kind of über mind-entity, a kind of planetary intelligence, a kind of great big fucking bio-brain orbiting Sol between Venus and Mars.

But never mind that. What’s really important here—and I cannot stress this enough—is the coming end, the approaching death, the soon final breath, the inevitable terminus of SEO’s most cherished supply of backlinks, the blog comment. Millions upon billions of inane comment spam links have driven our e-Economy for most of a decade, by elevating J.C. Penny’s search terms to stratospheric heights, by feeding the families of innumerable professional link spammers and buying yachts for the CEOs of handful of giant SearchDEX style search marketing firms who’ve made their nut by pushing this particular flavor of snake oil.

The End Is Nigh. Blog comment links, we shall miss you.

New York Times Article

Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter
Is Blogging Really in Danger Because of Social Networks?


Friday’s SEO Site of the Week

Our first SEO Site of the Week spotlight goes to SEO Chat. Been coming to this site for years.  The sheer magnitude of search marketing information contained within the pages of this site is by turns impressive and intimidating.

Here’s a sample of what’s available:

  • SEO articles and tutorials covering just about every SEO topic you can think of, written by some of the best minds in Search today.
  • SEO tools–at least 50 and growing, everything from keyword suggesters to analyzers to various generators. Like the Home Depot of search marketing.
  • SEO Chat forums, thousands of threads, hundreds of thousands of comments. It would take you six years just to read all the thread titles.

And all packaged in a very user-friendly, no unnecessary stuff design that is easy-peasy to get around in.

All-in-all, SEO Chat is one of the very best places to go for information on search marketing and optimization. No kidding, this site belongs in the bookmarks of every professional SEO and every interested amateur as well.

Five mouse clicks and one magic hat for good measure.


Penny-wise? Penny’s Foolish

wanna buy sum cheep linx?

Maybe you’ve heard about JC Penny’s recent moment of “Oh crap, we got caught peeing in the pool” moment, but whether you  have or  you haven’t, there’s a serious object lesson here. To recap, the New York Times ran an article this past weekend detailing an undercover investigative report on JC Penny’s search engine optimization strategies.

Those strategies involved Penny’s SEO provider, SearchDEX, who for many years has made lots and lots of money doing just this sort of thing. What sort of thing?

Link fraud.

There. I said it. The most cruel and horrible crime in all of human history. Okay, not really. But the tactics employed in Penny’s behalf by SearchDEX—and the sheer wanton, flagrant scale of the operation—really does create a threat (if not measurable harm) to all the other businesses who try to compete in the search arena without resorting to nasty tricks.

And just what is this “link fraud” carried out by SearchDex? They purchased, created, or encouraged others to purchase or create thousands if not tens of thousands of links to Penney’s website from any and every source imaginable. Links from sites with no relevance to Penny’s market space. Links from fake sites. Links from dead sites. Links from link farms, links from spam inserted into legitimate content like blogs.

The benefit derived from this profligate scheme was incredibly high search ranks for Penny’s for hundreds of different keywords, some keywords even that had no relationship at all to Penny’s business.

They’ve created a gigantic black hole of search, one from which no searcher can escape.

Google, meanwhile, alerted to Penny’s devious plot to rank better, took action and devalued all the ill-gotten links. Now, this may not seem like much, but in truth, it probably amounts to 30-40% reduction in traffic for the retail giant. That kind of hit could cripple an internet retailer with small margins and large competition.  But maybe not such a hit for everybody. Like Penny’s maybe. Who, incidentally, spends millions of dollars on paid advertising in search engines every year. So they’ll still show up on the first page of search results for any keyword that matters to them. And  they’ll still be free to hire another SEO firm of whatever scruples (or lack thereof) and move on to the next blackhat strategy.

Now, what have we learned from all this?

  1. At least in the short term, it can pay huge dividends to operate on the dark side of search engine optimization.
  2. You will get caught.
  3. Unless you are Fortune 500 material, it will hurt.
  4. If you are Fortune 500, so what.

Here’s the real lesson, though. Whether it works for a while or not, whether you get caught or not, whether it hurts your business or not, playing the backhat game just ain’t right. SearchDEX (and all the other blackhat outfits like them) make life tough for everybody. They reduce the usefulness of search in general by diluting the results with irrelevancy. They damage the marketspace by creating an environment where only cheaters can make it to page one. They make it damned hard for shoppers to find the things they’re looking to buy. And for me, the worst thing: they destroy the public’s faith in SEO as a legitimate marketing tool.

And that’s pissing in my pool.

More JC Penny’s stories

Big Brands and Bad Linking: How to Avoid Google Penalties
SEO’s Achilles’ Heel: The Misdirected Attack on Search Engine Optimizers


The Game Is Afoot

Super Brainiac Ken Jennings Gets Pwned by Watson

This week, human society takes a sharp left turn into an unknown but very interesting side-street. Jeopardy, TV longest running game show for brainiacs just got invaded by a computer intelligence from the future. Humanity, meet your new Overlord, Watson.

Why do I care? Well, aside from the fact that it’s pretty insanely cool to see artificial intelligence reach this level of sophistication, there is a very direct bearing on the world of internet search and its symbiotic stalker, SEO.

Here’s what’s coming.  Watson’s ability to

  1. understand conversational human speech and
  2. to analyze large quantities of information in a millisecond,
  3. and to sort through all possible answers and
  4. to choose the best one by probability

allows computers based on this technology to:

  • respond directly to spoken language. “Watson, what does  ‘symbiotic’ mean?” instead of using a traditional search engine;
  • understand the question in all its nuanced human obliquity, including the understanding of you really meant to ask;
  • reply in conversational language. “‘Symbiotic’ refers to a mutually beneficial relationship among organisms, Dave” instead of a page full of possible answers ranked by some obscure algorithm.

Which means, I’m afraid, the whole game is gonna change. With Watson deciding which internet content best answers your search for information, SEO strategies become irrelevant. It won’t matter how many links from important sites you have. It won’t matter how many times you used the keyword or where.

Related articles about Watson’s Jeopardy run

Official Jeopardy site
‘Jeopardy’ man vs. machine draws record ratings
You Fools Have You Learned Nothing from Terminator2?
Watson, the ‘Jeopardy!’ computer, has grander plans
On “Jeopardy!” Watson Wins Is All But Trivial