What Would D-Mac Do


Monday, October 31, 2011

Nobody Cares What You Know Until They Know You Care

I was reading a post earlier (I was going to link to it but I think that distracts from my point) today where the author in question was suggesting how a SEO professional could use dating to explain how SEO works. He makes analogies to how Google is like the parents of impressionable girls deciding who their daughter should 'date' (the dater of course being your clients' website). Everything was sound and ultimately drew some amusing comparisons. Then it occurred to me that reams and reams of blog posts have been written about 'how to explain SEO' but almost all of them are just witty ways to take jargon and make cute examples they think your client will be able to relate to. Now there’s' nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but one thing that I think isn't really said very much in our industry is that at the end of the day, our clients don't hire us because of how smart we are. They hire us because they trust us to be their coach on all things SEO/Digital. To that end, a coach is only worth what he can motivate his/her athletes to do. The same is true in the agency world. I've definitely seen enough evidence through my career to convince me that this is true.

To that end let me go ahead and say this: The best SEO's out there aren't necessarily the most knowledgeable. There is one main reason for this. It is patently obvious to anybody who's worked on any enterprise account, but 7 out of 10 things a client probably SHOULD do, they simply won't do. URLs won't be SEO-perfect, site load-times don't always net out where you'd like them to be, certain phrases will never appear anywhere on a client's site even though that's precisely the way people look for them, splash pages will continue to exist because the client got orders from on high to require the user to 'pick a country', the Facebook Page will never be integrated with the site 'because that's handled by a different team and they have their own budget and agenda' etc. etc. ad nausea. The larger the organization the more moving parts, and the more elaborate otherwise-simple situations becomes. Your job is to maximize those 3 things they CAN do, or to be enough of a Type A personality to push through SEO initiatives above other projects. If you can't do either of those because you're too hung up on whether or not this or that canonical tag is implemented, well you may be a clever SEO, but your client still hasn't moved the needle.

I've said this to people on my team before, but I truly believe the best SEO's are ones that think of themselves less like a consultant and more like a personal trainer (I've had a coach for years for triathlon so this is a relationship I'm quite familiar with). A good coach doesn't wait around for you to complain that you’re cramping up on your Saturday workouts to point out that you may want to rest. They email you on Friday to say "hey your heart rate is running high this week; you should probably lay back on the bike for Saturday". Good coaches communicate with words that imply that you are on the same team. Russ emails me when I'm having trouble getting workouts in and says "I'm concerned we might need to change direction on the workout times to have the most effect for Memphis next month". See what happened there? First off, I didn't email him asking about it, he reached out to me. And on a more fundamental level, he uses words like "we" when talking about our goals. He could have very easily said "I notice you're not finishing all the workouts I give you. You may have a tough time in Memphis". Notice that essentially is giving me the same information as the former sentence, but is very much in a contentious accusatory tone. Now I'm on the defense. And he's less of a coach and more of a consultant.

Back to my original point. The following aren't rules or guidelines I've ever seen posted anywhere (and I fully expect they do exist somewhere because I know I'm not the only one that thinks like this). They probably apply to all facets of business (and relationships in general), so take or leave. But without disclosing too much, I'll just say that we've had a very very successful year on my team and while it's important my team has the knowledge to navigate our clients through the various challenges, I would say the REAL factors in our success could largely be attributed to the following (caveat: my own experiences proves these things true to me and me alone- I don't expect them to prove true for every circumstance. This is purely my own observations):

-We use language that implies we're on the same team. The importance of this actually dawned on me when I was getting my bike fitted. Adam over at Get A Grip is their resident fitting expert (for those unfamiliar with high-end cycling, there's a lot more than adjusting a seat height to properly fitting a bike to a person, it also cost a pretty penny...about $300 for an hour of Adam's time). So we've done the video sequence and I've sat on the fitting model bike. Then Adam looks at some charts, writes down various things about your range of motion etc etc. Then as we're making adjustments, Adam takes ownership of what's going on. "I'd like for your left knee to point in more, we'll get more power on the downstroke that way"...."I'm concerned where your shoulders are, that's going to start being a problem on longer legs" "I'd like to have your back straighter because then we can just let the carbon's rigidity do the work on climbs". See what's going on here? This is Adam working alongside me. He sounds like he thinks of us as a team (nevermind that I haven't seen Adam since the Chili cook-off last year and other than Chicago, he's never actually been to one of my races). Anyway after that fitting, I thought "Why can't I apply that same mentality to MY clients?" I started doing it. I talked in terms like "I'd this title tag to use xxxx keyword at the front because we'll really pop out in a result page and we'll be able to get more clicks" or "I'm concerned we're not as authoritative as we could be because we've got some old domains we didn't redirect to the new site". It seems trite but minor tweaks like this in how you communicate things can be the difference between perceived indictments on the client's website the constructive oversight of a coach on the team.

-We Email Ad Hoc ideas for the site without the client asking for them - I liken this to being at a restaurant and having a waiter that notices if your water/soda is empty and refills it without you asking. It's subtle, doesn't really put the waiter out of their way as they are bustling around anyway but yet it makes a major difference on your perception of service. Being a SEO is a lot like this. Common things we'll reach out to the client on include any time a new tag/tool is launched we let the client know (the rel-prev tag was a recent example of this). It doesn't take us more than 5 minutes to read the blog post (which we'll do regardless) and send a note to a client. If you apply the first principle of speaking as a team ("This is a tag I think we should take a look at because the site has a huge library and I'd like to make sure engines have as many indicators as possible what page to show users in results") you can get huge gains in perception from this.

-We respond to emails from a client immediately (or absolutely ASAP). If I'm at my desk, you can be sure that if you're a client on my watch, you'll get a response from me within minutes of sending me an email. This is actually a lesson I learned from my web hosting industry days. Back then, uptime was everything (it probably still is). We had 99% Service Level Agreements which basically stated if we were down for more than 1% of the time out of a year without notice, we were on the hook to refund fees. This mentality filtered through our customer service as well. We generated buzz in the various hosting forums about our quick responses and we created a reputation as being the best in the business for service (that hosting company has since been sold and suffice to say, the owners live quite comfortably now). Now when I'm talking about a response, I don't mean that we necessarily are able to answer the client's question (or address a concern). At this juncture we just acknowledge the email and let them know we'll be getting back to them (if needed). We make sure we tell them what we'll be doing in the meantime (if we need to check with somebody, if we're going to need some time to put data together, or even if we have other things we need to finish up). We try to make sure they have a reasonable expectation of when we'll get their issue addressed (by noon, end of day, end of week etc). I've heard horror stories about consultants and agencies taking days (?!!!) to get back to clients on things. This rapid response cuts both ways too. We've found that the quicker we are to respond to our clients, the quicker they are to respond to us. It's like that old adage, 'you teach people how to treat you'. Again- this isn't a time suck (as a wise man once told me "the point of marketing isn't to be busy"), but it's a subtle habit that makes a world of difference in the SEO's relationship with their client.

-We relate our outcomes to what we want for users not search engines - This one is an easy pitfall for SEO's to fall into. But the basic premise is it's a lot easier for a non-search person to understand how a recommendation will affect the end user more than it will a spider. For example, when we're talking about something like a XML sitemap (or lack thereof), the benefit I would say in a technical sense is "Having this will allow a spider to crawl the site quicker and more effectively which will allow more pages to be rapidly indexed". You know what? That means nothing to the C-level guy who deals with the site as a matter of procedure because he's tasked with the digital marketing of his company. But what if you skip all the nuts and bolts and cut right to the chase? "I want to make sure when we're appearing for a search related to the Widget 5674 Lugnut set, we're showing people the page that has the Widget 5674 Lugnut set on it instead of a homepage that they'll have to click around to find it (who can't relate to that seriously?). This file will help engines understand all the pages on the site and why the Widget 5674 Lugnut set page is a better page to show people than the homepage if that's what they are looking for". Sure there are a lot of things involved in landing page optimization, but at the end of the day, I'm conveying a benefit that is a lot more relate-able than anything regarding indices and crawl rates. I've noticed that Google's engineers will talk in terms like this. I'm sure Matt Cutts could bore somebody to tears talking about the various intricacies of Google's spam detection algorithms and the Python therein. But he doesn't. I also suspect that there's a sense of confidence that shines through when one doesn't rely on jargon and talking over people's heads to establish credibility. Matt Cutts probably doesn't have any real problem with self-confidence because well, he's Matt Cutts. And as a result, he is able to communicate fairly complex concepts in relatively simple ways (you could get into a huge discussion about latent semantic indexing and keyword taxonomy just to explain that Google doesn't want to show users pages about boiling puppies if they search for 'hot dogs' or you could just say "We want to make sure when somebody searches for a hot dog, they don't get content about boiling puppies"). I realize this is a bit anti-thesis to typical SEO projects as our industry seems to pride itself on the various acronyms and jargon we come up with, but regardless, I've found doing away with all that is huge for moving the needle. Especially the higher-up the chain in the company you go.

-We avoid absolutes - Imagine you're a client who has paid considerable money for a website. It's entirely flash driven, and there's nothing in a static form to work with. It's essentially a single URL splash. Now imagine a SEO consultant comes in and the first thing they say is that your site will not be SEO (or mobile for that matter) friendly until you essentially create an entirely new site. You have no hope of ever ranking or moving the needle for that site for anything until you essentially blow the thing away and start over. If you talk in absolutes ('this won't rank', 'the site cannot be crawled'), this is exactly what is being interpreted by your client. What do you think they'll think about the viability of SEO for your project? All of a sudden those dollars seem better spent focusing on things you CAN move the needle on and as far as the client is concerned, you've basically told them your of little to no use to them. Sure you could research keywords and harp all day long about the virtues of social media but as the wise man said 'being busy isn't the point'. Believe me, we've found ourselves in this position with clients MANY times. But we play the hands we're dealt. Perhaps here I would say "Well there's definitely some challenges with a site like this, so we should look at some options to compensate and help get our content to the engines and also find some avenues to promote the content beyond just this site". I can address the cost/benefit of creating an xml feed of content or a static version of the site later, but the last thing I want a client thinking at this site is the situation is utterly hopeless. Sometimes redesigns happen down the road, but at this point, we're now in a coaching role for that new site.

I'm sure there's plenty of other factors that have helped us be successful (boyish charms? rugged good looks?) but ultimately, I am of the mind establishing the groundwork for a partnership comes from how you treat your client, not necessarily by beating them over the head with Google's webmaster guidelines.

Monday, October 24, 2011

E-Commerce Article online

An article I wrote for E-Commerce Magazine is online here. I was trying to get across that there are plenty of free resources for SEO online in addition to premium tools...many of which are everyday things that can assist in optimization but are often overlooked.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Site Categories and SEO

I've been working with a lot of higher level strategy and one of the things we've been concerned with is site categorization. It occurred to me that not much has been said about how categorization can be used in a SEO strategy. The funny thing is that understanding how things categorically play together (or against each other as the case may be) is actually pretty important in a number of different ways. I decided I'd take it upon myself to walk through the various ways you can use categorized site data to inform you day to day SEO projects as well as higher level strategy. I plan on this being a 5-6 part series. I was going to put a post on it here, but since I wrote it out in a word doc, I put the PDF of the first section here. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Webmaster Tools sees sub-domains as internal links

This is extremely helpful for our larger sites. While I've relied increasingly on SEOmoz's linkscape for backlink analysis, it's nice for Google to recognize the difference. Wonder what this looks like for all the people who didn't buy vanity domains for their Blogspot accounts? :-)

More than likely, this is to curb hub pages and diminish the sentiment that link profiles for sub domains are treated as separate entities (I've never seen any real evidence of this, but that hasn't stopped the peanut gallery from suggesting it). But all in all, it does help see the trees from the forest for our sites with half a billion subdomains.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

California's internet tax

So California in its infinite wisdom has decided to put a sales tax on the Internet sales in that state.
Now on one hand, I understand the thinking - these are sales done in their state, they should be entitled to their cut since, after all, it's their state that the sale takes place in (there's all sorts of points to be made against the ethics of that, but we'll ignore those for now). On the other, this sort of thing just smacks of how short-sided lawmakers can be when meddling in the world of e-commerce. As the article states, Amazon and Overstock have now cancelled their affiliate deals with merchants in those states. 25,000 of them to be exact. The article suggests the larger ones will simply leave the state. But there's another piece of this. I'm talking about all the online businesses run entirely on the merits of their affiliate deals (Shoemoney's fanboys basically). Logic dictates that these 'businesses' will likely fold if their main source of revenue is taken away.

All of this of course falls on deaf ears if you happen to be the sort of person who thinks the Government should have more money to do great things (and we all know how forward thinking government bureaucracies can be) and small businesses shouldn't be entitled to all the money that they earn. I however am of the opinion that while governments need cash flow, obtaining said cash in ways that limit commerce (or out and out eliminate it) ultimately harm the state. The response to this tax by Amazon and Overstock demonstrate that. California has unwittingly thrown the baby (a really big ass baby at that) out with the bathwater

So congratulations California. At best you just prompted hundreds (if not thousands) of small businesses to pick up and leave the state, and at worst, you just put them out of business entirely.

Monday, February 14, 2011

JCPenny and Paid Links

There has been an article from the New York Times making the rounds in the search industry over the weekend. Essentially, the Times worked in conjunction with Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain and discovered that JCPenny had engaged in a relatively expansive paid link project which included not only buying links on unrelated websites, but including links to irrelevant content on their own site. They contacted Google regarding their findings and within a matter of a few days, JCPenny's site no longer ranked for many of the competitive queries they previously were at the top for.

For their part, JCPenny claims that they had no knowledge of their agency (SearchDex) engaging in dishonest tactics to inflate their links and thus boost rankings. The article goes on to mention that they subsequently fired their agency upon discovering the approach.

The interesting thing about the actions of JC Penney’s SEO firm is that for the most part they were completely unnecessary for growing that brand’s link equity. Most large brands with large, dynamic sites have so much diluted link equity that more value could be provided by simply making sure they conserve what mass link equity they have than by trying to undermine engines' linking algorithm. Case in point: JCPenney.com has 38 URLs on their site that are temporarily redirected, and aren’t passing link equity for the 35,615 pages that are linking to them. Permanently redirecting these URLs would allow the engines to understand that these pages have moved permanently, and all link equity would be passed to JCPenney.com. Likewise, they have another 30 URLs that are giving 404 errors, representing 6,452 links, and 970 URLs that are blocked with robots.txt, that could be passing link equity from another 51,737 links. That’s almost 100,000 links that JC Penney could have had by hiring SEOs to find creative, white hat solutions to their authority problems and working with IT to implement the solutions. Unfortunately they took the easy, unethical route and bought their way to the top, which is almost always going to be a temporary, and sometimes tragic solution.

This is a story that has occurred before throughout the history of the search industry. Companies with large and respectable brands engage in some tactic (knowingly or unknowingly) that ultimately leads to a serious reduction in their rankings. This serves as a strong reminder to any company, large or small, that any attempts to mislead engines or inflate rankings result ultimately do not equate to viable long term strategies.

Artificial link building and link schemes have been repeatedly discouraged by Google, both in blog posts and on their official webmaster guidelines. Any attempt to game engines in this regard may, as the JCPenny example shows, work in the short term, but ultimately fail in the long term. In JCPenny's case, the drop in rankings will definitely cost them sales.

How to Avoid this Fate:

1. Avoid Any Practice that Appears to Mislead Engines
-If your agency suggests a tactic that will portray your site as being something it isn't, chances are it violates engine guidelines. There's really very few exceptions to this. There are ways of buying links that are acceptable but when these things happen, there are ways to ensure your site does not get penalized.

2. Build Links Organically
-Links are used by engines to weigh rankings because, ultimately, the belief is that they are a good indicator of how credible certain content is. The best and safest way to build links is to simply write content your users will want to link to to begin with. Not only does this help foster your user base, but it legitimately helps engines rank you for terms that are as closely associated with the audience you intend to reach as possible.

3. Demand Transparency
If an agency can't give you a straight answer on how they intend on building links to your site, through content outreach, directories, newswires, social media or otherwise, there's reason for concern. The simplest tactics outlined on Google's Webmaster Guidelines WILL produce results. Especially for a larger brand like JCPenny. There is definitely no reason a search agency in 2011 should feel like their SEO is a black box. If they are, then that could be a very likely indicator they are doing something with your site they don't want you (or Google) knowing about.

4. Don't Sign Off on Work You are Unclear on
-While I applaud JCPenny's efforts to pick up the pieces and move on, they probably are in this situation because they signed off on work they didn't entirely understand (assuming their statements are true). If an agency is going to do something underhanded, then likely, they will either be vague about what they are doing, or the client will be in on the practice from the beginning. Obviously if the latter is the case, then the client is just as culpable. However, anytime an agency is not forthcoming in how they will obtain links, there should be immediate red flags. There's no reason an agency should ever feel compelled to keep you in the dark on their day-to-day link building efforts.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The World Searches, we Listen

Lately I've developed a habit of posting oddities I come across when looking at search behavior on Facebook. The most recent was yesterday when I was doing some research around general searches for clothing, I found that in America, one of the largest subsets of clothing searches is actually plus-size type things. The logical thought behind that (at least the way my mind works) is that fat people probably aren't the types to go to the store and try things on for a variety of reasons concerning self-esteem so they tend to do shopping online. In other words, fat people don't necessarily buy more or less clothes than slender people, they are just more likely to browse and search for their clothes on Google than they are wandering around a mall.

I've always been a hoarder of random information. As such, I especially enjoy the oddball search behaviors that have larger behavioral implications. Someday I should write a book about all the little observations I've made across all the industries I've done search behavior research on. But until then, a blog post will have to do. Off the top of my head (I'm on my couch and not on my work computer so I don't have any deliverables in front of me) the following are some random things I have noted over the years that I found interesting. In no particular order:

-Contrary to what you'd assume (given the attention devoted to marketing clothes to women), there are 3x as many searches for mens fashion as there are for womens fashion

-Based on how people search for such things, it appears the general population considers whatever is said about Aspartame or Truvia to also be true for High Fructose Corn Syrup (and vice versa)

-Outside of New York, if you're a gay single male looking for other gay single males, the next largest city of single gay males out looking is Atlanta if search volume is any indicator. San Francisco is barely in the top 5.

-People are more likely to use brand names in their search strings when looking for sunglasses than they are when looking for cars

-If you're a restaurant of any prominence, the most common thing people will want from your restaurant online is coupons, followed by the menu (odd that we live in times where people are less interested in WHAT they eat and more interested in saving money). Usually, nutrition facts are way down the list.

-More people go to Google to find a dentist in Salt Lake City than anywhere else in the country

-There are nearly twice as many searches for wedding dresses online as there are engagement rings

-We Americans look for chicken recipes specifically more than any other particular kind of recipe

-Based on volume, more people are interested in making wine at home than they are making beer

-There's more people looking for horses for sale than kittens for sale on Google (perhaps because horse traders buy in bulk?)

-There's more than 15 times as many people looking for abortion clinics in a month than there are people looking for adoption services

Monday, January 3, 2011

Be Part of Our Winning Team!!

I’ve been working with a couple friends on Linkedin and through various sequences of IM’s on landing careers in the search industry. Unfortunately these two live outside of areas I actually have any personal connection so we’re using the want-ad method, in the various 21st century modes. It’s actually been a good many years since I’ve actively sought out a gig myself, but I HAVE been on the other side of the interview table many times. I assume if you peruse Craigslist, SEMPO, the SEOmoz job board or any other medium, that there are a few parameter ranges a candidate needs to adhere to if they are to be allowed into the presence of other SEM’s in a professional environment. There are some ads written in ways that so narrowly define the acceptable resume that there is absolutely no possible way they could get anyone but a 65 year old Fortran Junkie with CRM Certification and a masters in Business Administration with bachelors in Computer Science with an emphasis on Perl that tweets all day long.

The following are some actual lines I’ve seen in job listings in SEOmoz, Craigslist and SEMPO in the past couple of months. In the interests of objectivity, names/source is left off to protect the innocent (or punish the guilty, however you want to look at it).

“Must Be Google Adwords Certified”

I understand the premise of this requirement, but it’s always limiting. Why just adwords? What about their Analytics test? What about any number of the other equally challenging certifications out there? Not to mention, the only people who really care about this are agencies. Any of the independent affiliate marketers out there who have forgotten more about running an adwords campaign than most Adword Certificate holders know couldn’t pass the muster on this one.

“Must Be Motivated”

I love when I see this one on an industry specific board. Dude, if I respond to your ad that I happened on from MarketingPilgrim, doesn’t that kind of imply motivation? “Well I was going to respond to this ad that I obviously have to know something about the industry to have even come across, but I’m not motivated so…”

The other thing I have with this is that it's premise is to weed out the flakes. I got news for you dude..most flakes don't actually know they are flakes. The biggest flake in this business that I'm aware of is convinced he is, in actual fact, the most productive person ever.

“Must have at least 6 years of search agency experience”

The fact there’s always some arbitrary number is amusing to me. Why not 7? What if they only have 5? For starters, if you have more than two years of experience in the search agency industry, you’re already more experienced than 75% of the professionals in this field. Not to mention anybody who was actually in this business 6 years ago knows that most search professionals were operating in house because agency fees didn’t allow for the kind of salaries one could earn in-house. Any of the Orbitz employees who were at Orbitz all this time in their search department would make an awesome fit for any search firm specializing in the travel industry.

“Must have a bachelor’s degree. Masters preferred. “

I understand the logic behind this. It’s a thinly veiled way of eliminating lazy people from the list. It’s not really all that effective at it. I mean if you are Google adwords certified, you have demonstrable motivation and you’ve been working at a search agency for 6 years, does it really matter what you spent your early 20’s doing? Or mid-late 20’s throwing money at a masters degree? It’s not like subject matter experts in our industry necessarily come out of the higher-education realm anyway. I certainly can speak for my own college experience in saying neither SEO or SEM tactics or principles have a thing to do with how I obtained my marketing degree (to be fair, that degree predates the industry entirely, but that’s kind of my point). Let me put it another way, if your social media/word-of-mouth agency posts an ad with this requirement, you know who couldn’t respond? Mark Zuckerberg. Hope your Business Intelligence Department doesn’t mind passing on Robert Scoble. Want to hire somebody to head up your SEO department? Rand Fishkin is out of the question. Guess the president of your Digital Agency won’t be Sergei Brinn or Larry Page if somebody who bothered to actually earn their masters degree is in the running. I mean really now, are we still pretending that formal education is a barrier to entry for people with brilliant minds for search?

“Demonstrated Success”

This is an interesting statement because “success” is a subjective term. I suppose technically anybody who’s managed to put a phrase in a title tag and see it show up at the top of a search engine result page has “demonstrated success”. Being me, I take it to mean “Don’t apply unless you’ve increased revenue from natural search by at least 50% in a six month window for an e-commerce client” but I suppose it could just as easily mean “Uploaded an XML sitemap to my root directory”. Lot of wiggle room.

“Frequent Contributor and Speaker at Industry Events”

You see some variation of this for account or upper management positions. While I certainly agree that there is a degree of participating in the industry required in order for somebody to be a card carrying member, most industry speakers worth a shit (I quantify that as being one who speaks at events because the event knows their name carries weight) don’t go trolling want ads. They don’t find you, you find them when it comes to career changes. When Greg Jarboe decides he’s had enough of running SEO-PR, he won’t look far to plot out his next move. That’s because all that time he’s spent building up credibility on the speaking circuit has garnered him enough contacts that he won’t need to go outside his own circle to make that move. I would go so far as to say it’d give me pause for anybody who claims to be a frequent speaker that didn’t already come recommended.

“Our Greatest Asset is our People”

I guess that’s heartwarming and all, but like, no shit that’s your greatest asset if you’re an agency. What were you going to say? “Our Greatest Asset is the Keurig Machine, followed by our kickass Sharepoint Deployment!” Really, if you have to point this out….

“Online Presence Such as a Blog or Facebook Profile”

This tends to go hand in hand with the one about contributing to industry events. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing but it shouldn’t be a disqualifier either. First off, most search professionals are savvy enough that their personal Facebook Profiles and Linkedin data isn’t out in the open for anybody. Secondly, many of the savviest search professionals don’t go blogging all day long because they are too busy making money for their clients. I mean really, if somebody has a proven track record and is dependable, does it matter what they do in their spare time? “Well it’s great you increased natural conversions by 50% for 80% of your clients in the past six months and your client is the top e-retailer for punk rock clothes, but this lack-of-a-Facebook-profile thing is really unacceptable”

I could riff on these for hours. Ultimately, my point is that there really is no one-size-fits all resume for the next SEO/SEM rockstar. They come in all shapes and all sizes.