Oh Semalt. What are you doing now?

My exposure to Semalt is pretty much limited to filtering their crawlers from websites and removing their referrer from Analytics so my data isn’t being uselessly polluted with visits that never happened.  I’m sure that some people probably get some benefit from them, but given that their website doesn’t actually say what they do, it’s difficult to give a reasonable opinion.

What is clear is that a lot of people don’t like them.  And that’s understandable.  Once you’ve managed to block the fake referrals from Semalt, you then find that you’re troubled by other ones like Buttons for Websites or Kamba Soft.  It’s frustrating, and it’s not really helped by the constant identikit responses from Nataliya their Twitter rep:

The reasons most people don’t complain about search engines’ bots crawling their sites is because:

  • They don’t appear in their analytics reports
  • They provide traffic in return for your data.  For free.

There seems to be another problem with Semalt though.  Here’s a pic of the Google results for a search of site:semalt.com.  Notice anything?

please-stop-spamming-me

It looks as though Semalt caches a version of their client’s site on a unique sub domain.  I can think of a tonne of reasons why they might do this.  Stuff like usability testing or page analysis.  I can’t think of a single reason why that page should be accessible to search engines.

I know what you’re asking.  And I’ll be honest, I was wondering the same thing.  What happens if you click the link?

this…

stop-it-you-re-annoying-me

You get redirected to Semalt’s home page – the one that doesn’t tell you what they do.  Also, as an aside, the grammar here really boils m’piss.  Not quite as much as adverts that encourage me to “shop the latest styles”, but a lot.  Anyway…

That’s now what Google sees though.  If you look at the cached versions of all the mysterious sub-domains in Semalt, you see actual real websites there…

honestly-i-ve-got-better-things-to-do

I searched the Google to see if Semalt pages were appearing in the search results for the brand names of the companies that they mirror.  They don’t seem to.  I haven’t searched exhaustively, because quite frankly, I’ve got better things to do.

So, is this a problem?

I can’t help thinking it might be.  These pages are after all duplicates of another website.  If you look closely at the cached version, it says that it’s Google’s cache of the website at its actual domain name, rather than the Semalt Sub Domain whereas the page uses a 302 redirect to the Semalt home page.  That sort of suggests a conditional redirect to me.

Which is generally a bit of a no-no.

In fact, depending on how charitable a you were feeling in your judgement of this, you might say the following:

Duplicate content

Sneaky redirect

Feels like

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_eYSuPKP3Y

Oh, if you’re bothered by Semalt appearing in your referrer list in Analytics, there’s a plug-in for it that you can find on Rishi’s blog

Link Networks: The links are the footprint

Google’s been a lot more aggressive in going after spam over the past couple of years.  Aside from the headline updates like Penguin and Panda, there’s also been a few high profile penalisations handed out – most recently Rap Genius got a brief kicking for some obvious spamming.

The one area that Google (and by Google, I mean Matt Cutts) seem to have had a particular gloat about is link networks.  Quite a few of these have been kicked over in the past 12 months.  Usually with a little one of these to mark the occasion:

To be honest, I’m reasonably indifferent to link networks.  They’re not for me, because I tend to get involved in projects to promote brands who want to retain a single domain rather than taking a churn and burn approach to SEO, but if you’re working at the greyer end of the market, then they probably come in useful for the short term.

However, they’re not a long term solution, and no matter how careful the owners are with trying to remove any footprint, there’s always one.  In most cases, it’s the websites that they link to and the co-citations that arise within the network.

Co-citations  They’re good right?

Typically an SEO will build links to build authority for a website.  One of the techniques that’s grown in the past couple of years has been co-citation whereby you include links to high authority competitors in the same page as the links to your own site.  The thinking behind this is pretty sound.  If a web page lists 5 of the top sites n a niche alongside yours, then the assumption is that your website is associated with them in the minds of the writer.  This is, “A Good Thing” and it happens naturally on the web where people make “best of” lists, or offer advice in forums.

I’m going to skip over the ethical debate about whether “Company A” should be placing links to “Company B’s” website without their permission and potentially putting their visibility at risk of a penalty.

Over time, these positive associations work should confer authority.

Link Networks – the Economics

If you’re in the market for a lot of links, a network seems like a good idea.  You get a lot of links fairly quickly, and with minimal effort being expended.  Owners of networks are typically pretty cagey about how many sites they own, but typically talk in the thousands of websites.

Owning a network of links isn’t all that cheap.  Typically you need to buy a bunch of expired domains which already have some authority in Google, and you’d do it across a range of different subjects.  Even at £10 per domain, you’re looking at £10K to buy a thousand domains.

You’d almost certainly want to use something like WordPress for content management, although you’d modify it to allow for easier management of multiple websites without having to log in.   That’s either a development cost for something custom, or an off the shelf solution.  Few hundred quid.

Then it’s time to sort out the hosting.  You don’t want to bung all the sites on the same server, because then they’ll all be on a single IP address, and that’s pretty obvious.  You don’t necessarily need a dedicated IP address for everything, but you’ll need a lot.  Let’s be conservative and say that you just go for 100 multi website hosting packages.  You’d want to stick your sites in a major company’s data centre, because having them on bigger shared servers will help to mask what you’re doing.  You could use someone like GoDaddy and get a £3.99 per month package which allows unlimited websites.  Let’s take 100 of those.  £399 per month. £4788 for a year.

So, our network is going to cost roughly £15,000 per year (£1250 per month).  That’s a reasonable investment that we’d want to recoup.

Anglo Rank, the network that Matt Cutts and his team busted in early December had a fairly comprehensive price list, and also provided some details about how they placed links.

  • All links on the home page
  • Less than 10 links per site

The adverts also provided pricing information:

  • 150 links for $280  (£170ish) or $1.86 per link
  • 250 links for $480 (£290 ish) or $1.90 per link

Based on our numbers above, the network owners need to sell about 1100 links to break even.  Ideally they’d want to make a bit of a profit though, so lets say that they want to sell around 2250 links per month – 15 packages.

This wouldn’t completely fill up their inventory of course, if they only had 1000 sites, their total inventory would be 10,000 links – or 40 of the larger packages.  Anglo Rank limited the number of packages that they were selling to 100 – which suggests that their network was bigger than 1000 websites, but probably not an order of magnitude bigger.  Maybe 5000 websites, maybe a little less.

Anyway, using our assumptions, we need to sell 1.1 links on each site to break even, and about 2 links on each site to make a profit.

And therein lies the problem.

Co-Citation Goes Wrong

The Anglo Rank Network was a blind buy and links were placed randomly so you didn’t know where your links would appear.  Also, you didn’t (don’t) get a link report “for obvious reasons”.  Of course, as a customer, you want to know that you’re getting what you’ve paid for, so you’ll check where your new links are using Majestic SEO, Ahrefs, or Open Site Explorer.

And this is the problem.

Let’s say I’m a , all I need to do is spend $280 on a package of 150 links from the network, and it is compromised totally.  All I need to do is to look at the links to my test site that are obtained in the period where I’m buying them, Then I need to look at the sites which are co-cited with mine on the same pages.  Then look at the other sites which also link to them, and the sites which are linked to from those websites.

Pretty quickly I’ll be able to spot the patterns of which websites are commonly linked from the same pages.  Here’s a simplified example:

link-network-visualisationThe relationships between the different sites become apparent quite quickly.  Google have pretty sophisticated link analysis software.

So:  Link Networks Don’t Work?

Actually they do work.  For a time.

Google can’t crack the network until there is sufficient information about the relationship between the sites.  The longevity of the network is probably inversely proportional to its success.  If you get in at the start of the network, you’ll get some value from it, but my gut feeling is that by the time it starts getting advertised in the black hat forums, it’s pretty much a spent force, and the owners are probably looking to cash out.

 

 

Thoughts on Disclosure for Bloggers and Content Marketers

Last week the ASA released some clarification on the compliance requirements for disclosure on paid for blogs and social media.  The essence of the briefing for bloggers is that if you’re being paid to write a promotional post about a product or business then you’re required to include disclose that you’re being paid to do so.

Given that a lot of off page SEO is now centred on the idea of blogger outreach and social media promotion, this should have pretty big implications for how campaigns need to be approached, but before we talk about that, it’s worth recapping on why this requirement is in place.

Customer / Brand Protection

When I enter into a transaction with a business to buy something, then I have a right as a consumer to get what I paid for.  Similarly, the company I’m buying from needs to be protected from false expectations as these could have long term repercussions.

As an example, if I buy a car that’s falsely advertised as having air bags and anti lock brakes, and then I’m involved in an accident where the outcome would have been affected by these inclusions, then I’d have a pretty good case against the business – and they’d have the risk of those claims against them.

Some types of false advertising are kind of endemic as in this example put together by Damian Davila of IDAConcepts:

False Advertising
Damian Davila’s Example of false advertising

In the long term, false advertising is really bad for business – it undermines any amount of trust that a consumer has in the products and brand.  After all, if I don’t get what I paid for, then I’m pretty unlikely to recommend a business to a friend.

Focus on the Benefits

When you’re selling anything, the pitch is generally more successful if you focus on the benefits to the end user.  Adverts are the same.  They typically show you an idealised version of a product or experience and create a desire in the audience to buy it.  But this is done in context. IE:  The audience know that it’s an advert.

Native advertising is a little bit more contentious, but the same rule apply.  We’ve had product placement in movies since movies had audiences.  Sometimes these are pretty subtle inclusions like the rotating coke can in Sigourney Weaver’s fridge in Ghostbusters that ensured users saw both logos during a scene:

ghostbusters-fridge-can

Other product inclusions are a little bit more explicit – James Bond’s cars, watches, and VD cream.

There are rules about product placement which require that both disclosure and honesty are present while also recognising that the audience have an awareness of both context and fictional claims – for example, although Bond receives an Aston Martin in a movie, it’s made clear that it’s not a stock model and benefits from modifications.

This brings us onto native advertising online…

Native Advertising

There’s quite a lot of scope for what is and isn’t a marketing communication – for ease of use, these are all laid out in the CAP Code, but essentially, it boils down to the idea that:

If you’re paying to get awareness, then you’re advertising

Advertorials are specifically covered in the code – section III-K fact fans:

k. An advertorial is an advertisement feature, announcement or promotion, the content of which is controlled by the marketer, not the publisher, that is disseminated in exchange for a payment or other reciprocal arrangement

The definition is media agnostic: it doesn’t matter what vehicle you’re using – twitter, blogs, YouTube, local newspaper websites – what matters is that the content is “controlled“.

Control in this context isn’t a vague concept.  It means that the publisher doesn’t have final say.  Guest posts are controlled by the advertiser because they’re written on behalf of them – If I write a post for your blog to promote my business (or client), it’s marketing communication and needs disclosure.

Promotional posts by the publisher of a blog can be considered controlled by the advertiser if guidelines for writing have been set, or if sign off is required.

Ultimately, if you’re publishing adverts on behalf of a brand, then you’re bound by the Advertising Standards Agency code of practice, and you need to disclose that something’s an advert to avoid misleading customers.

Disclosure and SEO

It’s no secret that Google played a big part in drafting the new guidelines for disclosure and the definitions of marketing communications that were put together in 2012.  Matt Cutts wrote about pernicious paid posts that lack disclosure back in 2007.  The case he used was emotive, but it emphasised the importance of honesty and disclosure.

With my SEO hat on, disclosure looks like a bad thing.  I’m essentially paying for a link, and then undermining the value totally by labelling it as paid for.  Google’s probably not going to count the link in their ranking calculations, so I’m paying for nothing apart from the awareness and exposure.

Awareness and Exposure are obviously good things.  But they’re typically not a KPI that a pure SEO campaign is being judged on.  I’ve heard the following sentiment expressed within the SEO community:

Fuck disclosure. I’m not doing Google’s job for them.

This seems kind of seductive to an outlaw mentality – after all, that’s what SEO should be:  We’re here to identify and exploit loopholes to benefit our clients; but ultimately it’s a fairly unwise stance to take.

As an industry, online marketing is self policing, largely because people tend to have an interest in complying with regulations and guidelines on behalf of their clients.  The ASA isn’t a government body and they don’t really have the power to apply financial  punishments.   You’re not going to get a fine for missing a disclosure message off a paid for blog post.  However, what you do risk is the appearance of an advert like this above the results pages for searches for your brand:

ASA Non Compliance Sanctions
ASA Non Compliance Sanctions

From a branding perspective, this is pretty damaging, and not something that you’ll want to have to explain in a client meeting.

When is Advertising not Advertising

Given the clear directions about disclosure, you’d think that there are some pretty clear loopholes to avoid them, and avoid the need for disclosure.  And there are.

If you don’t control the content of a post, and it’s written totally at the editorial discretion of a blogger, there’s no need to disclose that it’s advertising.  Look at any “reputable” gadget blog, and you’ll see a swathe of posts about gadgets that have been supplied to the blogger for free and yet there’s no disclosure present on the posts.  Integrity is both assumed and valued by the reader, and protected by the publisher.  If they start taking back handers to publish a positive review, then they lose the integrity of their blog, and with that, the authority that they’ve built up.

Google got a lot of criticism for their stance on penalising incentive based blogging when apparently promoting the same tactic in their satchels advert for Chrome.  We see Julie Deane searching for fashion bloggers and then sending this as an email:

satchels

A review based on this probably doesn’t constitute advertising – there is no control implied in the invitation – no requirement regarding sentiment, and no request to link.  It’s been left entirely at the discretion of the publisher.

This is fine if you’re the originator of a product.  If you’re Apple or The Cambridge Satchel Company, you’ve got product to shift, and it doesn’t matter so much whether you sell it direct or whether someone buys it from John Lewis.  However, if you’re a retailer, or services company that competes with other similar companies to shift the same list of products, then it’s more difficult. If I own a shop and send a free iPad to a blogger I’d much prefer that they mention me in the post rather than an alternative supplier.

So what can I do?

If I’m a retailer, I should probably concentrate on what differentiates me from the competition – my amazing service, or streamlined checkout process.  I could send a voucher and invite the blogger to writer about their experience of buying from me.  I invite them to buy, and experience my X-Factor for themselves, but I don’t tell them what to write or whether to link.  Then it’s not marketing communication, it’s an honest review.

Perhaps I’m a bank and I want a reviewer to experience how much better my voice recognition software is for handling enquiries is.  Or a garage who wants to demonstrate how my team can do an MOT quicker than a Formula 1 team pitstop and at half the price.

As a business, I want to differentiate my service from my competitors, and that’s what I need to focus any reviews on.  Inviting people to review the elements I have control over in an honest way means that I can still perform blogger outreach without a requirement for disclosure.

Sometimes Advertising is Advertising, and Advertising is Good

What’s important to remember is that sometimes, getting a post on a popular website has benefits beyond the link.  If I can negotiate a promotional placement on a website with a million visitors each day and it’s going to mean an increase in interest in my business, then I’ll probably swallow the disclosure pill.

But I’ll make damn certain that I track the impact of the post in terms of traffic uplift for the website, and claim those visits as a direct benefit of my SEO campaign.

 

 

 

Right, what’s left?

About a month ago, I wrote a piece about the ultimate fate of SEO being ground out in discussions about how companies are going to distribute their digital marketing budgets over the next few years.   Predictably, this led to a few strange looks around the Latitude office the next time I was in there.

A few things have happened since then, and they’re probably hastening those decisions.

Google moved pretty much all of their search traffic to SSL, and as a result, pretty much all organic search referrals in analytics are now “not provided.  I’m not going to dwell on that, because pretty much everything that needed to be written about this has been.

There are a couple of points worth noting:

The red eyed evilness of Google in allowing advertisers to retain keyword data is probably being a little overstated.  There are some fundamental differences in the mechanics of how traffic flows from organic and paid search, the primary one being that paid search advertisers control the URL that they push traffic to – either by specifying a landing page, or appending campaign and source data onto the URL like this:

SomeDomain.co.uk/gclid=CKnrqsvEiroCFVLJtAoduD0Auw

This contrasts with the way organic data was traditionally provided through the referring URL which would look something like this:

google.co.uk/search?q=bank+loan&oq=high+risk+poker&variable=abunchofotherstuff

Google refine their results based on previous history, so the things you search for before you search stay in the URL.  I think that the outcry from users if their previous search history was being passed to unrelated third parties without their consent probably outweighs the concerns of the small, but beautifully formed SEO community.

Another thing that happened ON A FUCKING FRIDAY NIGHT was a Penguin Update:

Not a great couple of weeks.

cryingspidey

All in all, it makes SEO a much harder sell:

  • No guarantees
  • No data
  • Tonnes of risk

Don’t get me wrong.  SEO still works.  Really well.  Even the stuff that doesn’t work still works.  But there’s a lot of reasons why businesses don’t need to hire an SEO in 2014:

  • All of the above
  • Modern CMS aren’t crap
  • Copywriters write better copy
  • PR people build better links
  • Your 14 year old nephew probably has a better grasp of social media

Something Else

Something else happened in the last couple of weeks:

hummer

Google Hummingbird:  According to David Grohl, Hummingbird’s about using semantic cues to measure context.

He does a better job of explaining it over there, go read.

Hummingbird’s exciting to me, in the same way as Google Caffeine, and Google Big Daddy were.  It doesn’t feel like an algorithm change, because it was live for a few weeks, and no-one really noticed at the time.

The thing about Caffeine and Big Daddy was that they enabled different kinds of change within Google.  Platform changes create opportunities for Google to update their algorithm in new ways to provide better results with less SPAM.

Get to the Point

At the risk of prompting further awkward looks in the office, I stand by my earlier assertion that a bunch of super important people who make super important decisions probably aren’t going to be deciding on SEO next year, despite their importance, they’re wrong.

The guys who’ve been doing this SEO stuff for a while are nothing if not adaptable.  Ultimately SEO has never really been about links, 301 redirects or boring shit like that, it’s been about loopholes, exploits, creativity, and problem solving.

Next year’s budget shouldn’t have a line in it for last year’s techniques.  Next year’s SEO is more about understanding the motivation of users and the story that precedes and succeeds the action of searching.  If anything, it’s about marketing.

SEO’s Not Dead Until I Say So

Here’s a Google Trends Chart showing the UK search interest in a few SEO type keywords:

Google Trends for SEO
Google Trends for SEO

See those barely visible lines at the bottom of the chart. That’s where “content marketing” and “inbound marketing” are in relation too SEO.  Link Building’s down there too, but that’s our dirty little secret isn’t it.  We don’t talk about that, even to our clients.

So, why the navel gazing guys?  Why are we as an industry so convinced that SEO’s dying?  It’s getting on for a decade since Google’s Florida Update, and the birth of the SEO is Dead Meme.  The chart above suggests that if anything, SEO has never been healthier.  There’s never been so much demand for the assortment of skills that SEO brings to a business.  We should be happy.

But we’re not.  People who’ve been around for a while can see that the raging boner that the world has for SEO is fast becoming flaccid.  At the moment, SEO reminds me of this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GQSwMCHJNU&t=0m25s

I’ve been a fair few pitch meetings this year where a prospective client has been burned by a previous agency.  I’ve been at way too many conferences where people from within the industry have swerved the description of what they do into something that emphatically doesn’t include the words “Search”, “Engine”, or “Optimsiation”.

In a lot of cases, when you ask a  “content marketer” or “Inbound strategists” what they do, they’ll explain it like this:

fucking-social-media-strategy

(source)

Utter shite.

And why do you do this?

because-google

Which makes me say:

Let me roll back my contempt a bit

I’ve done a couple of conferences this year, and there were a couple of common themes to what I was talking about:

  • A lot of the changes that Google’s making to their organic algorithm are pretty good for actual people.
  • SEO’s no more than a convenient acronym

Oddly enough, real people.  Customers and what not  trust what they see in Google.  A lot of people think that companies rank because they’re “better” than their competitors, or that when they search for “cheap”, a magic computer manages to get the websites in order of price.

Idiots?

No, they’re your fucking customers.

I get to speak to the odd Googler, and when I do, I get the impression that they do care about users.  Googlers feel a certain degree of responsibility to ensure that the people who use their service.  Hence the malware warnings, and the agressive pursuit of spam.  They want websites to rank on merit,  not because of the number of shitty links that they can buy from a team of monkeys dropping comments on blogs.

So the other thing.  SEO’s a convenient acronym, and it’s essentially meaningless.  I for one, don’t remember the last time that I optimised a search engine.  Of course, it’s a fairly familiar TLA, and marketing managers around the world know that they need a bit of it.  But probably not for much longer.

I’ve said before, SEO people are pretty lazy.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – ask Bill Gates:

bill-gates-lazy

Of course, for every person who develops a really efficient way of giving themselves more time to spend doing things they like, there’s also a person who finds a really sloppy way of doing something that gets results.  Like buying a tonne of crappy links, rather than, y’know, earning them.

Point is:

SEO isn’t dead.  Yet.  But the only reason it isn’t dead is that people are still asking for it.  People still want some of that Link Juice running down their chin, and still see those number one rankings as the holy land, and like crusaders, they believe that once they have all that sexy number 1 time, all of their transgressions will be forgiven.

This year, pretty much every sales pitch I’ve been in has involved a bit of a chat about how fucked over the company in question was by their last SEO Agency.  How things had gone well for ages, and then they’d been bent over and shafted by Google.  A lot of these online marketing managers were complicit in the apparent “destruction” of their business by signing off on those ever increasing link budgets, and drooling over the ROI that SEO was delivering.  But hey, SEO=Plausible Deniability.

Anyway.

We’re at a tipping point.  A lot of people have been burned.  A lot of businesses have suffered from bad decisions.  That’s nothing new, but now, there’s a scapegoat that’s as convenient as its acronym.

A lot of companies aren’t going to sign off on those big SEO budgets next year.  Or the year after.  Savvy marketing managers are a bit chastened by Penguins and Pandas.  They’re more tuned to the fact that a lot of the short cuts that have worked in the past no longer do.

We’re going to see the cash that was earmarked for “link building” get invested in brand building, and the cash that was spent bastardising content to include specific keywords used to clean up the shitty mess that SEO made of user experience.

Will SEO be dead next year?  No.  But we’ll probably be calling it something very different.  I just hope it doesn’t sound as wank as “Earned Fucking Media”.

Orange Customer Services: Unhelpful, Rude, Arrogant

Orange Customer Services are unhelpful, truculent, dishonest robots with no concept of customer care.  They’re not my favourite people at the moment.  In addition to the above, I’ve found them evasive, uninformed and unempowered, and the experiences I’ve had are of a team who are de-motivated to the point where they treat customers as an inconvenience.  That’s not good, especially when the company that they represent tries to paint a picture of itself as an organisation that puts customers first

Orange Customer Services
Orange Customer Services

Orange Customer Services Experience

I’ve had a few experiences with Orange Customer Services over the years, and every time I’ve come away from the phone frustrated by the staff who do everything in their power to avoid actually resolving your issue.  Whether it’s a signal quality issue (you’re living in the wrong place / you should have checked the signal quality before you chose Orange), a broadband speed issue (you live too far from the exchange to get the advertised speed), or a delivery issue (we sent it, if you didn’t receive it, it’s your fault).

At the weekend, Orange Customer Services were overwhelmed with angry customers again.  This time:  the decision to raise contract prices by 3%.

Orange Customers were predictably up in arms about that.  No-one likes price rises, especially when wages are being kept pretty flat across the board (I’m pretty confident that one of the reasons why the Orange Customer Services team are so irked about having to discuss the issue with customers is that none of the 3% is being passed onto them).  People also don’t really appreciate price rises when they’ve signed up to what they think is a fixed cost contract for a period of 2 years.

My own issue with Orange is pretty petty.  I called them to cancel a phone about 14 months ago.  I was cancelling because they offer better deals for new customers than upgrading customers.  That’s probably because their primary success KPI is about acquisition rather than retention.  It took about 20 minutes for my call to the Orange Customer Services cancellations team to get answered.  They do this to try and make it harder to disconnect.

I’d had the number for a couple of years, and a bunch of people knew it, so I asked to keep it.  The guy at the end of the phone in the Orange Customer Services team told me that if I wanted to retain the number on a pay as you go basis, I’d need a new SIM. (I don’t know why – a SIM is a just memory chip that can be flashed with any information remotely and unlocked locally with a PUK.  You don’t need a new SIM for a new number.  I suspect it’s to keep your account live long enough to squeeze a couple more days line rental out of you).

I never received the new SIM.  I tried calling to chase it a couple of times, but I’d already wasted enough of my life trying to talk to Orange Customer Services.  So I assumed that my approved disconnection request would be sufficient for me to stop getting invoiced.

14 months later, I found that Orange were still taking the monthly subscription for my supposedly cancelled contract.  That’s partly my fault.  I check through my account statements regularly, but perhaps not in enough depth, although in my defence, there are other direct debits going to Orange for various other services, and this one got lost in the pack.

At the weekend, I was one of the people who received the 3% price increase letter.  A couple of them. So I called and asked why.  The conversation with Mark at Orange Customer Services went pretty much like this:

20 minute wait listening to low bit-rate pop music being told how important my call was

OCS: Hi there, how can I help

ME: Here’s the situation as explained above…

OCS: Well that’s your fault if you didn’t activate the new pay as you go SIM

ME: I never received the new SIM

OCS: It’s not our policy to help customers

ME: Any chance of speaking to a manager

OCS: They’re all busy

ME: Seriously or just y’know, can’t be bothered

OCS: They won’t give you a refund

ME: Put me through to someone who could help

OCS:  I can’t, you’ll need to dial 150

ME: That’s the number I dialled

OCS: You’ll need to call in again, I can’t put you through

ME:  That’s a joke, you’re a fucking telecoms company

OCS: WHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT.  I’ve never heard language like that.

OCS: You’re not going to get  a refund

ME: Bye.

I don’t normally say fucking on the phone.  It’s not nice.  but the reaction of Mark was a little overblown.  he must be the only Geordie on the planet who hasn’t been exposed to such industrial language.

So, no luck with the Orange Customer Services Call Centre.  That’s about what I’d expect from them, given previous experience.  Once, they tried to charge me a £100 disconnection fee for broadband because I was moving house and I didn’t want to continue with their service.  Actually I did, but my new house had no existing phone line, so I’d opted to take Virgin Media instead.  That’s another mistake I regret almost daily.

Having given up on the ability of the Orange Customer Services call centre team to provide customer service, I decided to try their Facebook team.  Orange Helpers. This was no less frustrating:

One look through the public posts on their wall tells you all you need to know.  Orange Customers are unhappy.  Multiple posts every hour about woeful service, ignorant staff.  it also becomes apparent pretty quickly that they don’t operate any kind of CRM for dealing with customer issues via Facebook.

Posts don’t seem to be handled sequentially, and there is no consistency in who responds.  The only constant is the following:

  • Public Post
  • Stock Response to use a Private Message
  • Stock response to private message
  • More customer frustration

There’s no ownership of a problem, and no real drive to solve it.  The impression that the various contributors from Orange Customer Services gives is one of disinterest.  They’ve probably been well trained in evading the issue, and based on experience, I’d venture that the team are measured on how many responses they give rather than how many  answers they provide.

Like all mobile companies, Orange have become a victim of their own success.  When a mobile phone was a luxury, there was a cachet in owning one.  Now, they’re a mundane fact of life, a utility, and with that, they become a grudge purchase.  yes, you can have a shiny new handset, but you need to keep it for 2 years, and you pay a fixed monthly fee to subsidise it which the network can adjust at any time.

Orange are as complacent as any of the power companies have become.  They have an audience who are largely trapped by inertia and the lack of a credible alternative.  They know you’d love to leave, but they don’t care because the alternatives are just as bad.

On Review Centre, Orange get a 1.5/5 score, on Trust Pilot, they get 5.3/10.  They get comments like:

  • Atrocious Service
  • Inefficient Bullies
  • Beware of their Dodgy Sales People

Customers should be the conscience of business.  And they generally are.  The day that companies forget who they work for generally coincides with the day where they start to fail.  When you put people who don’t care about customers in charge of managing those kind of relationships, you lose your conscience.  When you overlook long term relationships  in favour of short term opportunities, you lose your future.

Unfortunately, Orange Customer Services display the symptoms of an organisation that is losing touch.

**Update, 12 03 2013**

Subsequent to my post here, and a lengthy email to the executive office at Orange, a customer service rep reached out to me via Facebook in a far more conciliatory manner, and offered to investigate further.  After a short period of time, she responded that as a gesture of goodwill, they’d refund me the charges I’d incurred, which is great, and I really appreciate that.

While I understand that it’s not in the interests of a company to simply roll over every time a customer feels like they’ve been badly treated.  It shouldn’t take a public blog, emails to the CEO and a tonne of prominent comments on a Facebook page to at least open a discussion with a customer services person.

Companies who want to engage with their customers via Social Media need to empower the representatives to make judgements and resolve issues quickly.  If they’re forced to work within a super rigorous framework and provide stock answers from a very short list of options, then they’re going to find it difficult to do their job to the satisfaction of their customers.

In my email to the CEO of Orange, I drew comparisons with two different businesses: HMV and Apple.  HMV struggled and ultimately failed because they charged more and were less convenient than their competitors, Apple succeed in charging more because they offer a better product (much as it pains me to admit it).

Unless companies are able to open themselves up to change and take on board consumer feedback, they’re missing an opportunity about how they can improve.

 

Wake Up SEO

The fact that there have been so many plausible theories put out about why Interflora got penalised says a lot about how far over the line they’d gone with their SEO recently.

We had @searchmartin‘s theory about Interflora overdoing the guest post / blogger outreach thing.  A bunch of bloggers getting free stuff in exchange for links.  Naughty.

We also had Anthony Shapley at Bronco post on Dave Naylor’s blog about the very naughty and extremely obvious network of interflora advertorial links from a bunch of newspaper websites. Tut tut.

Irish wonder picked up on the fact that Interflora appeared to be using their own network of sites to inflate links.  Oh dear.

There have also been rumblings about the frankly ludicrous number of pages on the Interflora website optimised for terms like “location+flowers”.  They have about 1800 partners in the UK, but felt the need to have around 25,000 almost identical pages covering flower delivery in pretty much every conceivable neighbourhood in the country. D’oh.

Of course, given the recent Google update about advertorials by Matt Cutts, we can make a pretty good guess which of the different  theories is most likely.

On the surface, the common factor in these putative reasons for Interflora having their arses handed to them is that they were done to excess:  Too many blogs; too many advertorials; too many websites in a network; too many pages.

This wasn’t a cheap piece of spam.  I had a guy from the same advertorial network as we see in the Interflora link profile offering me 200 advertorials across his network for £80 each.  The 150 placements in the purported network would have cost ~£12,000.  Wissam linked from Martin MacDonald’s blog to a set of search results with 41 blogs linking to Interflora and including the text “So Interflora contacted me…” .  That’s probably the tip of the iceberg.  Let’s assume that Interflora’s agency managed to get around 100 bloggers on board, and gave them the equivalent of a £25 bunch of flowers.  That’s £2.5K

IrishWonder found references to around 5k domains owned by a holding company that were part of the Interflora back link network.  Ignoring the hosting costs of those and picking a figure of £5 per domain for annual registration out of my arse, that suggests about £25K for owning the domains.

Our running total for link building so far is £39,500 without taking into account the time and effort needed to write content for advertorials, negotiate with bloggers, do the admin on domains, and do all of the other important SEO stuff.  It’s probably around the same again.

Interflora then have probably paid around £80K to get themselves up to number 1 for flowers before getting bent over and taking the punishment.  During Feburary there are probably about a quarter of a million searches for the term “flowers” – please correct me below…  Interflora probably cleaned up around 30% CTR from that because they’re a well known brand, and probably converted at about 5%, with a decent average order value of around £25 you get: £1.9 million.  Nice…

Except, Interflora don’t earn that.  Local florists take a slice for making up the bunches and delivering them and here are costs of doing business – staff, raw materials, computers, office space, stuff like that.   And marketing.

And this is the point.

All of the stuff that Interflora (or their seo agency*) were doing was expensive, but it wasn’t as expensive as it would have been to do things properly.

Rather than creating fantastic content and working with journalists to earn a place on authority news sites, Interflora bought their way in.

Rather than do something amazing for all of their customers in the hope that some might say something nice, they faked it.

Rather than create great content on their site, they auto-generated a fucktonne of crappy pages to target keywords that no-one searches for.

Rather than be the kind of business that attracts links naturally,they build a shit load of crappy websites, and pretended that they were popular.

Interflora spent a tonne of cash on pretending to be popular.  And disappointingly, no-one really talked about that.

I loved working in SEO.  I love the community, the people, and the thrill, but to be honest, the schadenfreude at Interflora disappoints me.  As does the “there but for the grace of god” sentiment.

It disappoints me that we’ve allowed ourselves to prostitute ourselves to clients who want to take shortcuts to success.  Who want to pretend to be popular when they’re not, who want to hide that they’re shit, or treat customers like scum, or commit fraud.

There is no such thing as an ethical SEO.  Because no-one working in SEO is even prepared to be honest with themselves.

**DISCLAIMER**

I work for an agency.  This is my opinion.  Not theirs.

 

 

* You have no idea how tempted I was to put a keyword rich link in here…

 

 

Are we having fun yet?

It’s sometimes difficult to fathom out just how much the world has changed in the last 10 years.  The web is ubiquitous.  Our computers are no longer a beige box hidden away in the corner, they’re in our hands, our pockets, and our TV sets.  Everything is on demand: technologies are shifting so quickly and evolving so quickly that there is no longer impossible.  There are ideas in the morning that are fully fledged businesses by evening.

The frameworks for developing ideas, sharing concepts, and building are there for everyone.

We’ve translated the app mentality into our lives, looking at micro ideas that can serve a single need.  We’ve created a world where learning can be measured in points scored and level reached.  We’ve built platforms that make things easier, redefined what a business can be, and what an organisational structure needs to reflect.

We don’t need monolithic buildings and big business when we can have loose self organising teams that build applications and businesses in an ad hoc way without geographic constraints.  We need ideas, creativity, excitement, and the freedom to execute and complete.  We can work without annual release cycles and incremental upgrades because the web allows us to change things instantly.  We can pivot, twist, re-imagine and redefine the world around us and use technology to make it easier to understand, interact with, and ultimately enjoy.

And that’s the point, working in digital in 2012, you have the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of industry.  You have the opportunity to define how businesses communicate with their customers and how tomorrow’s commerce will work.

Little Earthquakes

The closer you are to an earthquake, the less you feel.  You need to step back from the epicentre to see how much the earth is moving.  It’s increasingly easy not to be amazed by stuff that’s really cool, because sometimes, change is just business as usual.  If you’re lucky enough to work in digital media, it should be challenging, it should open your eyes, and it should inspire you. If you’re working in digital media, whether search, display, email, design, or development, you owe it to yourself to enjoy the industry that you’re in.  You also owe it to yourself to challenge expectations from your clients (or your boss).

Sometimes, we fall into the trap of being led by old ideas.  Sometimes they’re right.  But if we don’t challenge them, we can’t change them.  If we don’t ask questions, we don’t get answers, and if we don’t let ourselves, we don’t have fun.

Are we having fun yet?

Another Box (Almost) Ticked: Vanity URLs in Google+

Pages for business in Google+ have been available since November 7 last year, and brands have been having a lot of success with them.  Apparently.

For me though, the real barrier to businesses promoting their G+ pages is the unwieldy URLs.  While a company can overlay their own branding onto Facebook and Twitter with their vanity URLs, Google+ hasn’t had that on offer.

Now, it appears that they have.  Kind of.

A few brands and questionable celebrities have already got vanity URLs on Google+, but as Google themselves say:

we’re not quite ready for everyone to start claiming their own custom URLs, we plan to expand the availability over time

It won’t be long.

Fighting a losing battle?

Google+ isn’t failing by any measure, but it does seem to be struggling to get the mindshare it needs to get real traction.  User numbers continue to rise, and if you look in the right places, there’s plenty of action going on, but it’s not forefront for businesses, and for me, that’s partly due to the fact that the URLs aren’t very shareable.  Making them a bit more brandable means that companies will probably feel a bit more comfortable in publicising their G+ in the same way as their twitter.com/brand, or facebook.com/brand URLs.  That can only lead to more user awareness.

The more that people get exposed to G+ as they surf, the more and more it will become a part of their lives, and the more they will start to engage with it.

It’s worth noting, that personal pages already have a kind of vanity URL associated with them because of the way that Google redirected profile pages to G+ when they “upgraded” them.  If you navigate to my Google Profile at:

http://profiles.google.com/jamesloweryseo

You’ll find that it takes you straight to my Google+ Page – however there isn’t a rewrite function, that maps the “profiles” to “plus”, so if you tried to navigate to:

http://plus.google.com/jamesloweryseo

You just get a 404 message – or at least you will until we all get vanity URLs.

 

A Master Class in Link Bait

The Australian electrical goods retailer Kogan hit the headlines this week by telling the world that they were going to start levying a browser tax on any users who arrived at their website using ie7 rather than a more modern browser.  According to the company spokesman, they’ve just finished redeveloping their website, and the need to be cross browser compliant and accommodate users of a browser that’s 6 years ago had increased their development costs to such an extent that they needed to recoup the additional cost by getting users to pay an additional 6.8% on purchases.

Cool Story Bro.

At the time of writing, there are about 225,000 results in Google for “Kogan Internet Explorer Tax” including pages from the BBC, Telegraph, Huffington Post, Gizmodo, The Register, and many more.  And guess how many of those are linking to Kogan?  A lot.  Check out the spike in links to Kogan registered on Majestic SEO this week:

Pow! 1,000 extra links in the space of a day.  Exactly the kind of links that Google is looking for post-penguin:  brand links from high quality news and social sites.  Exactly the kind of links that you typically can’t get from sending out emails to hundreds of webmasters offering a “unique” advertising opportunity.

Whether intentional or not (and my money is definitely on intent), Kogan delivered an awesome piece of link bait that got amazing results for them.  If I do a search for “LED TV” in Google Australia, and stand on my head to pretend to be from the colonies, I see Kogan ranking at position 2.  Behind Wikipedia.

Kogan got a tonne of links to their content because it was believable yet slightly shocking, and because it took the existing opinion of their desired audience to an extreme.  Who in the tech world misses an opportunity to have a pop at Microsoft or push an update now message?

The important thing about Link Bait is that a story only works once.  If you post a warning on your site tomorrow saying that you’re going to start charging IE7 users a 6.8% tax on purchases, it will be Kogan who get the link.  Your own link bait needs to be original.

The Secret

Regardless of whether you aim for the most outrageous story in history or something quite mundane, the key to success in link bait is simple.  You need to produce something that reinforces the prejudices of your audience.  When people see something that legitimises their own viewpoint, particularly one that is relatively contentioys, they will latch onto it as a justification, and they will share it.