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The Dream of Social Media

“The dream of social media is that in 10 years we will have no more crappy products.”

I heard that at a panel discussion on Social Media at the Search Engine Strategies (SES) conference in NYC. Like most profound things it was both simple and elegant.  And isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that what consumers and businesses dream of? A world with no complaints? There’s a real fear of social media/networking as well. It’s not: ‘What if they write that I suck?’ The real fear is: ‘What if I suck, then they write about it?’ Remember, what is written on the web is forever. Just ask ‘Cisco Fatty.’

But, the dream of social media is that problems get addressed – in real time.  Especially when you deal with health & safety issues (Healthcare, for example), when the worst case scenario is death. Death is the ultimate negative. It’s the nuclear option. You can’t, as they say, put a price on a human life.  People take that kind of stuff seriously. So when some blogger/tweeter/guerrilla-columnist-du-jour outs incompetence, true or not, the fear is that your gene pool, life source, cash flow, will dry up and come to an ignominious end.  This fear of online complaints is often an illusion preventing your business from delving into social media. Rather than hiding your head in the sand, it is best to simply address it as you would any complaint. Thinking that going to social media will open a can of worms is an illusion. Social Media already exists – your only concern is if you want to have a seat at the table. This fear of engaging in social media is an illusion. But fear of illusion is real.

Feel the fear, and do it anyway

This is the new paradigm, love it or hate it. Social networking is about radical transparency. Institutions and businesses need to act as if their clients have x-ray vision into the inner workings of their business – warts and all. The only remaining question is: how will your business deal with it?

Here’s the new paradigm:

  • Consumer crave information and power
  • If it can be known, it will be known by all (the web causes transparency)
  • If it can be rated, it will be rated
  • If it can be free, it will be free
  • Professionals who are active players in the new vertical marketplaces win
  • There can be no vertical marketplace without community
  • The digital media model rules (local is giant)

(from Rich Barton, of Zillow )

If you are not part of the dialogue that’s out there, the dialogue will go on without you. What are ways that businesses deal with this social networking phenomenon?

Here are the new rules of engagement:

  • Respond 
    But first you have to listen for the pin dropping. Do you have anyone monitoring Twitter? Blogs?
  • Create Brand equity and goodwill
    Do you know the answer about how to create brand equity through PR and Marketing?  One story at a time. Social Media allows you to put your side of the story out there.


A Corporate example

Comcast is known to be actively listening on Twitter, with several “listeners” with Comcast corporate Twitter accounts responding to Tweets with the keyword ‘Comcast.’ Comcast, once pilloried as having horrible customer service is now doing such a good job that there are reports that folks get better Comcast service on Twitter than they do with the phone reps.  Their dual goal is excellent customer service, but also putting the smoke out before it can become a forest fire.

Traditional Marketing is about top-down broadcasting. Social Media is about ‘bubble up’ word of mouth.  Traditional Marketing is about control: controlling the message, the image, the Brand. Social Media Marketing is less about control, and more about containment, response and vital change.

Remember the dream of social media? No more crappy products.  How is that dream realized? Through actively listening to the repeated gripes, complaints and insults, (and occasional praise), and responding in a way that is diplomatic, professional, and satisfying to the griper/praiser.

What if the problem is systemic, ingrown, “part of the system?” Well then, change the system.  I’m not being flippant here (not completely, anyway  ). Make the change that’s necessary so that your business will be seen as responsive and service oriented. If your business is not doing its best, the news will out itself anyway. In today’s socially connected world, that news just comes out faster. Social media is a whirlwind. Twitter is not just ‘what are you doing now.’ It is also: ‘Socially-proofed recommendations expressed in real time.’

Learn to ride the whirlwind.  Be at one with the quality you know your business can demonstrate, and become part of the dream of social media. Your customers will love you for it.

 

 

No Fear SEO

Unlike, say, gravity, nuclear fusion and thermodynamics, SEO is not a law of nature. It follows no absolute guidelines that are absolutely true throughout time. When I am asked how much traffic my optimization methods could generate I offer an answer that will most likely be proven wrong: I will either be wildly successful – or not.

Luckily, I’ve mostly erred on the side of wildly successful, blowing most estimates completely out of the water…but, there is always the fear of not succeeding as much as I think I should have.

I’ve encountered situations where I quadrupled traffic, and felt like a loser, because I expected twice that. My error was not in optimizing the website: my error was in the estimate.

In SEO, there are no guarantees.

Google, the 800 lb gorilla search engine defines its own laws of search engine physics. And the laws can change at any time. “Cloaking”, or serving content to the search engines that might be different than what the user sees – was just an SEO technique that worked – until it didn’t.

The shot fired across the bow of the SEO world was in 2006 when BMW was banned from Google results for applying cloaking. There was a collective “Whoa!” heard across SEO world. A major website was unfindable. It also revealed the power that Google wielded. Like, who would actually type in “BMW.DE”? Not even a dotcom domain. That’s right: nobody. Or maybe just internal BMW folks. Can we just round that down to zero?

That marks the time that SEO officially became hard. All the blackhatter techniques were now suspect, and using anything not squeaky-clean white-hat SEO put websites, and clients, at risk.

In SEO, everything is fair game – until it’s not. Thin content was just an SEO technique, employed by the likes of the ehow’s of the world – until it was not. Until Google decided it was not. The rules of Google are mutable and mysterious. Which grants SEO professionals the mantel of “Artist” as in “SEO is the Art of optimizing for search engines.”

I don’t think that’s particularly correct. I think it’s better to be a scientist about it, to create a hypothesis, and then test rigorously. Don’t trust what Google puts out in press release and blog posts. For example, their post on being able to crawl Ajax website was not correct. I personally experienced this on a client website. Developer’s were telling me that Google stated their Search Engine bot can now read Ajax; that there were many articles that stated that Google can read Ajax websites. Emphatically, I responded:

‘That is incorrect. I know you read that, but in practice that is incorrect.’

The same for human-readable words in URLs. I know from experience that human-readable URLs are a primary ranking factor. That strings of incomprehensible ids just don’t fly McFly. I’ve been challenged by developers on this point as well. They would cite reading ‘…numerous documents state this…’ But if you think about it in regards to human factors – it makes sense.

Google has no problem reading URLs that are incomprehensible gibberish to the rest of us – why should they? It’s simply code. But humans need words to communicate. Words describe – and an URL that is easy to say, easy to spell, reads like a sentence, has human factors that encourage interaction.

Google is like Pinnocchio: a toy who wants to be a boy. For our example, Google is a machine trying to think like a human being. Trying to figure out what matters most to human beings. An SEO strategist, on the other hand, is a human being trying to think like a machine that’s trying to think like a human being. What metrics would translate to human factors? Time on page implies content that is valuable enough to take the time to scroll, read and digest. Page Views implies Content Depth – interesting enough to encourage a clickthrough. A bounceback implies thin content, and lack of content depth not worthy of further viewing. Playing to those metrics then plays to optimization techniques.

You have to read between the lines of recommendations. For example:

Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link

Why? Why text links? Why not javascript hide/show links, or flash links or…whatever?

One reason is to be able to serve the blind and visually impaired. We are not in a completely “abled” world. Text readers for the blind stumble on javascript only links. So that super-advanced website all Ajaxy and shit might be invisible to text readers. Great, you’ve just made the blind more blind. How does that feel? There are other reasons besides the ADA adherence, but being a decent website steward should be enough, ranking lower is just the stick of the ranking higher carrot.

The goal of Google can be stated as: “No more crappy website results.” If you stay on the side of not catering to a “traffic-at-all-costs” mentality, you may find that there are plenty of so-called “techniques” available to rank higher.

The problem is: Google doesn’t tell you the rules of its game. It’s not in their best interests to do so. Once they let it be known that links were a key to their ranking algorithm – Search Engine Optimizers all of a sudden got into linking “techniques” later known as “schemes.” SEOs are nothing if not opportunists. We don’t ask philosophical questions like: Why are they called apartments, when they’re all stuck together? We just live in them.

We are pragmatists: we use optimization techniques, all the while trying to stay on the right side of the law Search Engine algorithms. We try to future-proof websites so that they do not fall prey to what Google decides what was once a “legal” technique is now “illegal.” For the best, our pragmatism extends to preventing damage as much as accumulating traffic.

In that sense, I guess it’s an art. Tiptoeing the knife-edge of the thin grey line separating decent search results from sucky ones chaos. Google is the caretaker of results, with the power to withhold traffic and reserving the right to taketh away what it has so generously giveth.

For the SEO, the end result is to eliminate the fear, proceed with effective strategies, and forget the fear of traffic loss.

When a client asks what kind of traffic they can expect, I give them my best estimate based on past experience, weighing the quality of their website benchmarked against my mental list of comparable websites, the competitive environment and the state of Google at the moment. I state it, knowing, in the end that I am wildly wrong, one way or the other.

 

 

SEO is Dead (Long Live SEO)

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. I get that question less and less, and am surprised now when I hear ‘what does that stand for?’ So, there you go.

I get this every so often. A content manager, digital director, production manager du jour – once they find out that I specialize in SEO they inevitably end up saying some version of: ‘I read that SEO no longer works anymore…’

Dead stare, thoughts rolling through my head on: where to start exactly? Should I start on how I just increased traffic by 900% in 4 months at my current consultancy? How I quadrupled traffic at a site that thought they had reached their peak at 3 million UV’s?

That SEO should just be called Digital Optimization – or something. That it now includes content curating, site architecture, technical SEO and SEO usability. That SEO makes Social Media it’s bitch.

That after doing good work at one consulting job and doing salary negotiations I spat out a what-to-me sounded like a ridiculous hourly, they responded: ‘What else do you want?’ Hmmm…daily desk massage? Endangered animal under glass? Etcetera ad infinitum, ad absurdem.

I’ve since branched out to Appstore Optimization (ASO), Local SEO, Reputation management, PPC and Adsense Optimization, but SEO has always been, and will almost certainly be, an long arrow in my quiver – at least as long as Google exists.

Let me give it to you: SEO still exists, it’s still relevant. It’s especially relevant to the company whose traffic dropped over 90% (and which I recovered in the aforementioned 4 months). It’s still relevant to companies that still want to dominate a segment that throws off 10′s of millions of visitors.

‘But we don’t want just ANY visitor, we want relevant visitors…’ they say, when they are just getting traffic in the hundreds per month.

Well, it’s not like I can optimize their site for just anything.

Let me reassure you: you can only rank for “blue widget” when your site is actually about ”blue widget”. And ‘too many visitors’ is what I call a high value problem. Most businesses call me in once they realize that they’ve exhausted all that they know, and what they have been able to Google with their mad Googling skillz. After they’ve applied title tags, keyword density and xml sitemaps…

I’ve talked to a Marketing Director talking about how they’ve applied schema, as if that were a silver bullet to ALL their website issues. As in: ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re applying schema throughout our entire site. It’s going to be huge!’

I just nod my head, and say, ‘sounds like you have everything well in hand,’ as I thought: ‘That’s it? What else you got?’

I know, sounds arrogant. It probably is. But it’s arrogance bred from expertise. From trying to convince the corporate officer du jour on why SEO is important, trying to figure out the best way to communicate to the spot where their knowledge ends and mine starts.

I have a particular set of SEO skillz

I have a particular set of SEO skillz

All I have to say really is: SEO is irrelevant until it becomes relevant. When the pain of philosophical questions such as: ‘If a website gets created and no one shows up, does it still exist?’ haunt their waking lives.

Word gets around. The best in many industries do not toot their own horn. But people find them. The person who needs the guy may not know the guy, but through social media they can meet the guy that knows the guy. And for SEO, that guy is sometimes me.

SEO is dead. Long live SEO.

Non-SEO SEO: Establishing expertise

So, I was giving SEO advice to a friend who is thinking of hiring an SEO firm. Their advice seemed good, but I kept returning to the hard part – establishing expertise and an audience. He already had an audience, his website was already #3 for “Boulder sports psychologist“, did he really need an SEO firm behind him?

I told him that he already did the hard part. He is a bona-fide expert, a Ph.D., and a soon-to-be-published author. He doesn’t have to establish his credentials – he already has them. Some people start to write for the web in order to create “expertise”, because the perception is that once you publish you are, by default, an expert.

If that is the case, the barrier to entry to expertise is nearly non-existent. Think about that the next time you pick up a relationship book: what exactly is the author’s expertise in the subject? You’d be surprised how many so-called relationship experts are going through their third divorce.

For many, starting a blog is their way of establishing their expertise. It’s their road to financial rewards and the roar of the crowd. It’s not a bad way to do it. How does one establish expertise? Like anything else: one story at a time. In my friend’s case he’s already done so. Look, he works with the Olympic committee and, oh yeah, Apollo-freaking-Ohno! I’d say he already has his bona-fides in place. Blogging is just the icing on an already elaborately-constructed cake.

How about hiring an SEO firm to help him rank #1 in 60 days? (My first question: ‘Number one for what?’) As an SEO guy, I cringe at that a little. There’s truth in that, but also a little falsity. The answer in SEO-terms, is that it always depends. For this guy, an SEO firm can make a promise like that, because his site already ranks. He’s also somewhat known and has had his website for over 10 years. They can make that promise because he’s already done the hard work. To take someone from nothing and have them rank number one is not impossible, but can be difficult. Do I as an SEO analyst have tricks up my grey-sleeves to help a site rank higher faster?

Well…yes I do.

That’s what I do. But ranking a website when it is already ranking for competitive terms is on the easier side of the easy<—>f**king impossible paradigm.

My typical answer to the question ‘Why isn’t my site #1 for ‘insert-keyword-phrase-here?’:

Why should it?

Why should the answer to the question posed by the search query, in the face of thousands of other answers, be the absolute best answer? Are you an expert? If you are, how did you convey your expertise? An article? A blog? An Infographic? Oh, you don’t have content that responds to that query? Then how do you expect Google to find, index and rank it? How do you express your expertise without content?

Again, the question: how do you establish your expertise? The first step: be the expert. Second step: one story at a time.

My cringing comes from the reaction for many people that SEO is in some way ‘gaming the system.’ I am infamous for saying, on camera, something to the effect of ‘SEO is the art and science of ranking a website #1, whether they deserve it or not.’ There’s some truth to that, especially in the early days of SEO. But Google, for all it’s faults, has been a good steward of de-gaming the SEO system. JC Penney’s link scheme exposure, content farms (do we really need over 6,000 articles on ‘How to tie a shoe’?) and efforts to prevent those types of egregious SEOing with responses such as Panda, moves the pieces toward the signals that display true expertise. Does your site deserve to be number 1? Are you the expert?

Be the expert first. After that, SEO is easy.

 

Review: Jaron Lanier talks about the failure of Web 2.0 with Aleks Krotoski

Review: Jaron Lanier talks about the failure of Web2.0 with Aleks Krotoski.

Jaron’s brand of big-brained loftier-than-thou ideas are nothing of the sort. He’s as much a (technorati) mobster as the “mundane Masses” he vilifies. What he’s so blind to for web 2.0 is something he probably doesn’t engage much in – socializing. You know, shooting-the-shit? Everything has to be so wrapped up in cerebral pontification he mistakenly used super-glue instead of scotch tape – hard to break through that to the enlightenment within. Yeah, some people are mundane and like stupid cat photos and Jackass-dumbification. What he doesn’t see is any value in doing so. It’s like he was hoping for a Renaissance and all he got was the Dark Ages. Really? How about simply engaging with others without, you know, having a point? Sharing positive emotion (and the latest Gallifinakis ‘Between Two Ferns’ interview)?

I like how at the end he throws the overall internet a bone as he tramples over web 2.0. I think he misses the point. The best use of technology, in my opinion, is the way it brings people together – virtual, or real. Forget datings sites – think Meetups, Evites, Groupon – and, oh yeah, dating sites. I am more connected to my relatives in Guam than I’ve ever been.

What’s up with THAT Jaron? Maybe you are so enamored of your walled garden you don’t want the Visigoths at the gates to trample on your intellectual flowers ikibanaed so nicely next to your well-selected web 2.0 bon mots? Hmm Jaron, hmmm? Oh, here’s a really funny FML – don’t forward it to Jaron, he won’t get it.

If you still think SEO is still about Title and H1 tags…

…then you’ve got another ‘think’ coming. And just because you had this sudden revelation that in today’s digital world that optimizing for search engines isn’t the end-all be-all, could you just go away.

You’re stressing me out.

And just because you trash SEO as just being about changing tags, and start repeating the last thing you read, a.k.a. “SEO is dead!’ – please keep your so-called revelations to yourself. That is soooo 2005.

If this advances your agenda of getting some props for pushing the trendy topic du jour (can you say “Content Marketing”) can you do me a favor and go over to that corner? That’s where the kids toys are.

SEO has advanced far beyond title, H1 and keyword density (although that’s a start). It’s been my career for nearly a decade, and until you have increased a website’s traffic by 2,800%, I really think you should sit back down and STFU!

SEO now involves:

  • Analytics
  • Usability
  • Content
  • Code
  • ASO (AppStore Optimization)
  • Local Search

…and a billion other things. I love the look of surprise when the work I do comes to fruition, and the client/employer says ‘Wow, I guess SEO does work!’ I just look back with a knowing look, and nod my head. Of course, what did you expect when you hired an SEO specialist?

All I did was prove I am one.

 

Will cleaning up directories help you rank higher in Local search?

local

In short: maybe.

I think you have to approach it as a most effort <—-> most results sort of paradigm. Cleaning up the top 20 directories versus every single little podunk directory is probably not very different in terms of search engine local rank, but very different in terms of effort, as in: some effort versus gargantuan.

Which do you want to do? Given that you are charging by location (you are, aren’t you?) wouldn’t you rather be sipping mai tai’s on the beach on the client’s dime versus calling up Joe-Bob’s directory du jour to see if they have updated the address and phone number of your client? Or spend money with one of the several local search directory providers, with no proof from them that they accomplished…anything? Why not just do Yext and be done with it?

Well?

I’m probably pissing off the local SEO guys by saying this, but saying that you send the client’s correct contact information to 500 (or 5,000) directories is not the same as correcting 500 directories. You’re just the freaking middle man. Places like Yext actually deliver. BTW, I am not paid by Yext, I just have seen their results, and man, are they impressive. They have actual business relationships with top-tier directories, and the corrections they make are nearly immediate.

Sure, send your money to the directory submission companies and…and what? You didn’t actually expect reporting, did you? Actual proof that they did anything at all?  How about affecting rank of local terms? Nothing? Pay & pray, pay & pray.

Sure, if the company actually provided a service, like create local landing pages, with goodies that the SEs like, like maps and directions and schema correct addresses, then it might be worth something. But what? What is that value? And if you have more than, say 100 locations, why the heck are you paying someone to do that for you? Don’t you have the know how to be able to do this relatively simple task yourself? Why pay a company per location on a yearly basis for creating pages that do not get updated that often anyway?

Sheesh.

There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo in local search, a lot of, in my mind, irrelevant complexity that serves the function of separating the client from their money, but as far as providing actual value I think that is debatable.

 

Content Marketing

A question I get frequently is: ‘What type of content is better: Infotainment (topical, blog and news related content, blogs, Huffington Post…), or Authoritative content (ex: Wikipedia).

My answer typically is: There’s a question before your question, and that is: What are your goals?

What are the goals for your website? Do you want to be an authority site? The one that everyone goes to to find the definitive answer to their questions? Or is your goal to inform readers about the most topical, newsworthy items regarding your industry?

Well, what is the difference?

Infotainment: Time-bound, spiked traffic, quick decline. Think breaking news, world events, celebrity news. Think Twerking vs the Wikipedia entry for Miley Cyrus.

Authoritative content: Think Wikipedia, IMDB, Wookieepedia.

For SEO, ideally, the answer is: both. If you are lucky enough to be in an industry that has the potential for both infotainment as well as authoritative articles, then that is the best of both worlds.

The reason is that authoritative, or evergreen content is timeless. It attracts links and bookmarks, shares and likes. It is part of the Canon, unquestionable and stands the test of time. It remains relevant to those types of queries, like “Symptoms of Asthma”.

The reason for infotainment articles is that sometimes everyone is searching for the hot thing of the moment – Twerking, Gangnam style, Fort Hood. This shows relevance to our times. Newsworthy items can lead to wild spikes in traffic – if you can catch the lightning bolt at the time of trend.

miley cyrus tongue

The other reason I recommend “infotainment” articles, is that by responding to relevant timely items of interest you show you are an authority in a different way. You are presenting, as an authority site, your reaction, your take, if you will, on that item.

For example, If you happen to write about marijuana laws, having articles regarding the laws of different states could be seen as evergreen content, whereas an article regarding the latest pot bust of a celebrity may be more infotainment related.

Ideally, you need both.

 

 

Google, or the Ghettoization of the web

For Google, innovation is not rewarded. You don’t simply rise to the top for being the best at solving problems, you be the best by answering the same question in 14,000+ different, but mostly similar ways.

rank-high

Why is that, you may ask? It’s because the search engines are in the business of supplying the most correct answer to your search query. So, if I want to rank for “How to Teach a Child to Tie Shoes With This Nifty Rhyme,” then I damn well better have a page that answers that specific query.

What this results in is: Landing Page Proliferation, (otherwise known as “Query Results Plague,” or QRP). Catering to how Google wants answers fragmented to match every query results in landing page proliferation ad nauseum ad infinitum.

But wasn’t the Panda algorithm change supposed to penalize QRP? Panda was designed to battle thin content sites, and for many sites of this type, it did result in a drop in rank and traffic.

Content spammers may have, for a moment, held their heads low. But then the Hummingbird algo came along and fucked things up.

Self-pity 
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
DH Lawrence

That small bird called Hummingbird is a return to QRP by catering to long phrase matching. Their assumption is that spoken search, say the kind one does when doing a search on your cell phone while driving (not that I ever have done that) are composed of long phrases. So content spammers SEOs looked at this and said: “Cool, I’ll just make thin content with long conversational titles such as “How to Teach a Child to Tie Shoes With This Nifty Rhyme.” …and never once did Hummingbird feel sorry for itself.

Google’s mission  is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Another mission could be: Expose the world to Landing Page Proliferation plague. And? Well, nothing. What? Did you expect a cure? Hey, we’re trying to run a business here!

Worse, Google lives in a world where it doesn’t have to cater to the likes of you. Eric Schmidt, ladies and gentlemen:

“If there’s any question that I can compute more accurately than another website, if I can give it to you faster, we want to be able to do that.” – Eric Schmidt, Former CEO, Google

Rather than display the link-based display for search engine results linking to web pages, Google, if it can, will just give you the damn answer.

denver-weather

Reportedly, when Google unveiled Google Maps and took the top slot away from Mapquest, traffic immediately dropped 20%. A month later, that dropped traffic 40%.

But I digress…

The point is, Google doesn’t reward innovation. Innovative products still need to practice optimization. They can’t just let “brilliance shine!” Innovative products till need to generate a ton of landing pages catering to search queries that result in a plague of landing pages.

Because of the way search engines run things, this has led to the ghettoization of the web. The web is filled with the jetsam and flotsam of duplicate, thin, only barely-relevant-to-a-specific-search-query collection of landing pages, now with incredibly long title and header tags to address the fresh hell new paradigm that the little hummingbird wroth.

Whattup, Google?

Now, websites are rewarded for spouting duplicate, thin, long-ass page titles. We play these reindeer games, because that’s what it takes to live and prosper in the Google world. Build crappy sites in order to garner traffic. Rinse and repeat.

A healthier view
But, is there a better view? A healthier view? The question is not: How do I rank for every query under the known Google sun?” the question is: “How do I demonstrate expertise without content?” The answer is: you don’t. There’s a reason why NIH.gov and WebMD.com rank high for the term “Asthma.” Could it be because WebMD has over 13K pages with the word “Asthma” in the title? Or that NIH.gov has over 51K pages?

The difference is that these two sites show expertise through content depth. These pages were not built to cater to every search query regarding “asthma” known to man, but rather supply relevant content on the subject matter of “Asthma”.

Search algorithms reflect human factors (or are supposed to). Multiple pages on a subject display subject matter expertise. Links to particular pages from other sites are votes for the relevancy of a web page for that blue underlined subject. Time on page reflects content that is deserving of the time and attention to read it. Low bounce-rate reflects additional content within a site that is interesting enough to click-through.

Keep those items in mind, and then your site will rank in spite of what Google does or does not do. Display expertise. Deserve the links you get. Create a site that deserves attention.

Rinse and repeat.