Can we start using HTML5 now?

It’s 15 years in December since the specification for HTML 4 was published by the W3C.  That’s a long time, and the web has changed quite a bit since then which is why in 2004, the W3C started work on the specification for HTML5, although like any community driven decision making process, it’s now 8 years since the discussion started, and there is no final specification agreed for the HTML5 technology.

Of course, it’s not like no-one is using HTML5.  There are plenty of guides around to help developers through the process, and a lot of sites are now developed using the specification – not least, Google, Twitter, Facebook, as well as all users of recent WordPress implementations.

There is good support from all of the main browsers too: according to the data at HTML5test.com, the latest Chrome, and Firefox releases all score well.  Although IE9 has some support, IE10 benchmarks well:

The story is pretty much the same on mobile devices with support  improving all the time:

So why do we need HTML5?

Well, it really comes down to experience.  The web has changed so much over the past 15 years that the functionality offered by HTML4.0 is no longer sufficient to deliver the kind of experience that users expect.  Sure, Flash provided many of the same things that HTML5 will around video and interaction, but at a high cost for batteries, crashes, and inflexibility from an SEO perspective.

Not only that, but it also lacks cross device support.  In 2012, we use screens interchangeably, mobile phone, laptop, tablet, TV, and this creates huge problems for developers trying to offer a coherent user experience, increasing the cost of website builds, and creating the need for native apps on mobile devices rather than simply offering website access.

The fact that HTML5 is being used by the big players online – albeit not to its full abilities – is good, and should be pushing more people towards implementation.  The fact that most browsers now support HTML5 is also good, it means that user experience is converging to the point where developers will now have justification for using modern technology for websites.

While not everyone thinks they need HTML5, and right now, any investment in websites can be quite far down a business’ priorities, however the fact is that in the long run, HTML5 implementation will actually be a cost saver, as people need to reduce their investment in multiple versions of a website, and ultimately, the functionality will also reduce the need for a standalone application to provide services.

So, can we all start using HTML5 now?  We probably already are.

Does Pinterest Really Drive more sales than Facebook?

According to this post on econsultancy, the answer would appear to be yes.

At the risk of sounding like a killjoy on this though, I can’t help feeling that the methodology behind the story is a little suspect, and comes down to the way in which people use Pinterest vs the way that they use Facebook.

The data from Google Ad Planner, suggests that 100% of the UK traffic to Boticca is female and is aged between 25-34.  The stats for Pinterest in the UK suggest around 41% of users are female, and the largest portion of them (44%) fall into the same age group as Pinterest. Given that the user base of Pinterest in the UK is around 80x that of Boticca, you have a situation where a large percentage of Boticca customers are also Pinterest users.  They’re also probably Facebook users.

Let’s talk about stereotypes…

…but we’ll at least back it up with some science.

Women shop in a more visual way than men.  Think about a women’s boutique vs a mens.  Clothes are presented differently, hung to face the customer rather than folded on shelves or hung perpendicular to the customer.  Bags are placed on pedestals and the layout of the shop is less cluttered to ensure that the product is framed as well as possible.  This arrangement isn’t accidental, tonnes of research has been done on merchandising in shops because it impacts bottom line.  Here’s a table from a 2010 study into the effect of visual merchandising:

Visual stimulus by gender
response to visual stimulus by gender

In every question above, women rated their response higher than men.  Women shop by looking.  That’s why (stereotype alert) women browse multiple shops and multiple items when choosing their clothes.  And that’s why women are generally better dressed than men.

The challenge with shopping online is that it’s far harder to compare items, you can’t necessarily hold them up to each other and get a feel for which one is best, but if your friendly retailer adds a handy pin-it badge to their pages…

This is just an image, but you can pin it if you want 🙂

…it’s really easy to place items side by side so you can look at them, or better still, show them to your friends so that they can contribute to the decision making process.

Given that Pinterest links each image back to the page where it came from, it’s pretty easy for our visually driven social shopper to get back to the product that they and their friends like best and buy it, leading to a situation where Pinterest appears to drive more sales than Facebook:

because you’re measuring at the last click and you have a tech savvy customer base who fall into a broadly similar demographic to the site that they’re using as a companion to your online retail website

To a certain extent, there’s an argument that Pinterest is acting almost like the voucher code affiliate or cash back websites and adding an extra, superfluous step into the purchase funnel.  A little bit of multi channel analysis of Boticca’s Google Analytics data would show the path to conversion and whether my hypothesis for their success is accurate.

So Pinterest Doesn’t matter…

Actually it does.  Pinterest matters because if it is becoming that step in the conversion path, it’s the place where your customers will go to decide which of your products they’re ultimately going to buy.

I’ve posted before about ugly ecommerce websites being bad for business.  Pinterest, and the inevitable rash of clones that are cropping up demonstrate the importance of making things beautiful.  If you make your products more attractive to users, you shape their choices in a way that will make a difference to how they perceive them.  If you make your imagery something that engages with people’s emotions rather than just being a functional part of the site, then you encourage them to become involved with the product.  If you take a lesson from high end boutiques and art galleries, and minimise the design of the site to emphasise the design of the products, then you create a visual environment which users will respond to by treating the imagery as worth sharing.  To their credit, that’s exactly what Boticca have done really well, and giving users the opportunity to pin directly of the page is what’s driving their success.

On a separate note, Boticca really need to clean up their code, they’re including the full stylesheet for the site on every page, rather than in an external CSS file, and they haven’t updated the copyright date on the site since last year.

Penguins, Spinning, Spam, and Outbound Links

“the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” Matthew 8:12

Google Penguin Update
Hello Boys

Google launched their Penguin update on April 24th, and Matt Cutts wrote about how it was another laudable step in “rewarding high quality sites”.    In the post, Matt made the comment that in many cases:

“Sites affected by this change might not be easily recognizable as spamming without deep analysis or expertise.”

He also linked to the original Google Webmaster Central post about high quality websites that included a list of pointers to keep in mind when building content, which focussed very heavily on the idea of trust:

  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?

In the same post, there were notes on the depth of content on web pages being a key determinant of quality – points about whether a piece of writing contained a balanced opinion, or had been properly spell checked.  This is pretty much stuff that any serious business should be focusing on anyway.  Think about a restaurant.  If the floor is dirty and the waiters are rude and can’t answer questions about the ingredients, you’re not going to trust them enough to eat there.

Penguin comes hot on the heels of (and I’m guessing is closely related to) the recent updates about the anchor text used for link, but it’s interesting to note that there are only tangential mentions of links in Matt Cutts’ post:

  •  The net result of making a great site is … more people linking to or visiting a site
  • webspam techniques … link schemes that attempt to propel sites higher in rankings
  • a site with unusual linking patterns that is also affected by this change
  •  the outgoing links are completely unrelated to the actual content

The site that was “affected by this change” is described in the same sentence as outgoing links, and spun content.  In a similar vein, we have this statement in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines:

Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.

Google explicitly stating that outbound links to sites they consider to be spam will penalise you.

Recently, we had the situation where large link networks like Build My Rank were getting smashed into millions of glittering pieces.  Those networks were obvious spam.  They used spun content, and posted largely unrelated links into the text which didn’t benefit users of the sites in anything other than the regard of getting away from the crap they were looking at.

Google have talked about a notional 3% of queries being affected by this change compared to the 12% or so from Panda.  That’s interesting because it suggests that it’s more targeted to the kinds of terms that are being actively optimised for rather than the broad strokes impact of Panda that seemed to be more aligned to reducing the value assigned to low quality content that targeted long tail variations with large numbers of pages.

From my reading of the situation, it looks as though there’s a kind of cascade effect through the different stages of web spam that is being handled by Penguin.  Websites with what is assessed to be low quality content that is either spun or poorly written (a la Panda) are being penalised actively, and the outbound links from those websites are being wiped out.  This results in the sites which rely on those links seeing an initial  drop in their rankings.  Subsequent to this drop, the sites which are using this technique are being reviewed separately, and having a further ranking penalty based on the % of their activity which is spammy.

From comments on various boards I get the impression that there are a lot of people who don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.  They talk about the quality of their sites and the amount of effort that they put into them.  This could be naïveté.  These webmasters may have read up on some “SOE” techniques and thought that they were a quick route to success.  There are probably people who fall into this category.  But, I also think that there are plenty of people who in an equally naïve way have built content that they consider to be of a very high quality, but which is rushed and derivative, which they’ve inadvertently stuffed with keywords that they want to target.  Stuff like:

If you're looking for cheap
If you're looking for cheap, low quality content, you've come to the right place...

This type of content structure is rife on the SEO friendly web.  It’s easy to write, and as a result lots of people write it. Or use subtle variations of it across their site, which to an algorithmic eye might seem to be spun.

When you add to this the type of blog spam links that get submitted with a little bit of flattery to the writer, you get a situation with a false positive spun content issue, and also outbound links to unrelated and spammy websites that Matt Cutts alludes to in his post.

Google have added a form for people who think they’ve been unfairly penalised by penguin.  It’s here.

Over-optimisation

SEO is pretty straightforward isn’t it?

You make sure you get your keyword into the page as much as possible, putting it in <h> tags, the internal links to a page, and ensuring that it appears in the <title> and <meta> elements.  Then you go off and get a load of links to that page which include the same keyword in the anchor.  Then you rank.

And then Google comes along and tells you that actually, that’s not what it wanted at all, the industry lets out a collective shit, then moans about an over-optimisation penalty as though it is in some way a surprise, as though it should be simple to rank in Google and get all that lovely “free” traffic, as though simply by being the most optimised page according to a particular set of measures is justification for ranking.  It isn’t.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, Google’s now a social platform.  In the same way as Pinterest is a place where you can share the images you like and discover new pictures that your friends like, Google is a place where you can find content that meets your needs and is similar to what your friends like.

Most people use Google with a cookie, and do so from a single machine.  Most people don’t switch from one browser to another willy nilly, and aren’t afraid of logging in to a service if it means better results.  Most people don’t care about Google’s privacy policies because they don’t feel the need to read them, and that’s because most people simply want the best results for them.

Occasionally in SEO, we don’t work for the best clients in a particular field.  It would be nice if we could, but there’s something called economic reality, which means that we’ll often take on profitable business because it means we are able to pay the bills at the end of the month.  Because we don’t necessarily work for the best company in a particular field, we need to try harder.  We need to do more SEO to achieve the same results as companies that are better in order to deliver on a commercial promise.  We need to be more aggressive than the market, outscoring the competition on things like page relevance and link density.  If we don’t do that, we don’t rank.

But that’s really not what Google wants.  Because ultimately, that’s not what users want.  They don’t want to have their choice about where to buy their goods made based on something like the number of artificially created links to a page, they want to buy their goods from a place which will offer them a great service, and a good price.  Those are not things that can be measured by things like keyword placement or whatever spurious buzz tactic you’ve just heard about.  Those are things that can only be measured by customer satisfaction, and recommendations.

Over-optimisation penalties are nothing new, sites which took the piss have always suffered (after a while), it’s just that more recently, the bar has been lowered in terms of what’s acceptable, and a lot of lazy marketers haven’t moved quickly enough.  They’ve kept doing what they’ve always done, links, more links, and a few more links, and they’ve discovered that it now takes fewer to tip things against them.

No-one wants a Google where only the big sites with massive brands can rank.  That stifles consumer choice, and cripples smaller businesses.  But at the same time, no-one wants a Google where sites which are poor quality rank because their SEO company did a better job than their customer service team.  Google’s pivot to a search engine which takes user feedback into account means that SEO companies will need to re-think their engagement with their clients.  It’s probably time to start talking about organic search traffic as earned media in the same way as word of mouth or genuine social traffic is.

Its probably time for SEO agencies to think about delivering a more consultative service where user analysis and satisfaction metrics take a bigger role in the strategy than they might at the moment, but most of all, it’s probably time to stop moaning about what Google does, and start moaning about what your business does.  If you’re not good enough to deserve to rank, you won’t rank.

Which Social Network Delivers the Most Traffic?

If you’re planning any kind of marketing activity, it’s pretty important to know what kind of return you’re going to get from it.  Social Media is doubly hard, because it combines the creativity of traditional advertising with the accountability of digital.  Assuming that you have a great message that you know will resonate really well with your audience, the question is, where to post it.

Here’s some interesting stats about which social network is the best referrer of traffic.

The Numbers

Hitslink have some great statistics about the % of referrals from different sources.  I chose their top 6 social networks for traffic and took the % of referrals data over the period from Apr-11 through until Feb-12:

Referral Traffic From Social Networks
Referral Traffic From Social Networks

It’s immediately obvious that Facebook’s a bit of a dominant force here, as it should be: at the last count, it had close to 850 million users.  At first glance, what’s a bit strange is the drop in traffic from Twitter.  I think this line is a bit misleading, I’m guessing that the drop to 0 coincides with the time when Twitter started wrapping all external links in a t.co shortener which means that the referral traffic being recorded would no longer be twitter.  Slap on the wrist to the data boys.

As I said, Facebook’s dominance is no surprise, given their size.  It’s possible to get information about user numbers from the various other networks listed.  I used a number of sources, including Wikipedia, StumbleUpon’s blog and Google Ad Planner.  This is what I found:

Social Network User Numbers
Social Network User Numbers

I used these numbers to get a feel for what the propensity to share of different networks based the number of people in the networks.  I got the following:

Sharing Behaviour by Social Network
Sharing Behaviour by Social Network

First reaction is that StumbleUpon is incredibly powerful, however bear in mind that it is a network that is based purely on the principal of sharing content, and the primary engagement for most users is to move from one site to another.  That’s not to say it’s not a great option for a traffic generation campaign, there is a good response when you get the message right, the only question is what kind of impact that traffic is going to have.

Facebook is a comfortable second her, with around 3x the referals per user that Twitter has – gut feeling is that this is a result of the tighter social network element on Facebook – more detailed profiles mean that users have more in common.  Twitter is in third place.

I’ll be honest, I expected Reddit to have a bigger score than either Facebook or Twitter, because it’s a network based on sharing content, however that underplays the fact that Reddit’s primary engagement space is on the comments page.  Perhaps users are more likely to discuss content rather than visit it.

LinkedIn is also a relatively poor performer, however again, this is likely to be a result of the user behaviour on the site.  Do people really use LinkedIn to discover great content, or is it more of a relationship tool?  I’d go for the latter.

What to do?

The value of social traffic isn’t in doubt, and there is also no question that great content is more likely to be shared than bad content.  The key message is probably still that Facebook rules the roost in terms of being the key focus of activity, however it is also worth remembering that no social network exists in isolation.  People who use StumbleUpon for discovery of content will also share content elsewhere  – with the current browser bars, you can tweet/like straight from the page you’re on.  The same is of course true of all the different networks.  People cross-post all the time.

FB and Twitter are probably still the best bet as your primary share buttons, and you probably still want to focus on promoting the placement of them, however if you use a configurable sharing solution like Shareaholic, you might want to think about which networks you give the most prominence to.

10 Google+ Tips for Businesses

The more I use Google+, and the more I see it being used by businesses, the more opportunities I see with the platform.  I’ve posted before about how I believe it is more than just a social network in the way Facebook is, and I stand by that.

Google is a search company.  They tell us again and again that providing the best possible results for their users is their core objective, and the fact is, that results are better when they’re most relevant, and they’re most relevant for users when they are tailored to them personally, and when they reflect the interests of their peer group.

Even businesses who have a broad appeal can still profile customers into demographic groups based on the products they need, or the advertising messages that they best respond to, and this is the area where Google+ adds the most value.

10 Google+ Tips

1: Have a Reason for the Page

You need a social media strategy.  Ask yourself why you’re going to use Google+.  How is it going to contribute to your communication strategy?  What kind of engagement are you expecting from it?  How are you going to measure success?

2: Set up a Google+ Page

If you haven’t done it yet, do it now.  You can’t invite people to play if you don’t have somewhere to do it.  There are loads of guides around the internet about how to set up your page, but it’s pretty simple just to follow the walk through as you actually do it.

And while you’re at it, make sure that you add Google Direct Connect to your site to verify that your G+ page is official.

Make sure that your page is attractive.  Personalise the image bars with pictures that tell the story of your business using the products that people most identify with.

3: Add +1 Buttons to your Website

If you’re going to make  a serious attempt to leverage G+, make sure you let your customers know you’re on it.  Add +1 buttons to your page template where they’re going to get noticed and clicked on.

4: Tell your customers about it

There’s often a tendency towards building something and expecting that it will become popular immediately.  It won’t.  You only get out what you put in.  The reason why companies like Coca-Cola have millions of Facebook Fans is because they tell people they have a page.  They advertise the page within their marketing material.

Include a link to your G+ page alongside your Facebook and Twitter accounts on your next email newsletter.

Encourage staff to +1 you and add your page to their circles, give customers an incentive to share.

5: Give people a reason to visit

Google aren’t unknown for giving their own properties a boost in the search results.  There’s probably nothing sinister in that – websites like YouTube are pretty powerful platforms in terms of PageRank, and will naturally acquire links.  G+ is the same.  Think about promoting things like exclusive voucher codes via G+ (do this for Facebook too – create a tab for [YOURBRAND] Voucher Codes, and you’ll often out rank the major voucher code affiliates).  If you create content that is exclusive to a platform, people will have a reason for using it.

6: Proactively Follow the right people

Google suggest some people for you to add to your circles when you first set up the page.  That’s kind of them, but do you really want to follow people like Britney Spears.

Look at your best customers on your other platforms.  Who comments most frequently, and who comments in the most positive way.  The great thing about G+ is that Google are keen for it to be filled with genuine people.  Invest time and effort in tracking down your best friends on Facebook and adding them to your G+ circles.  This might take time, but it’s time well spent.  If you can add 100 people who are going to participate in your conversation and it takes a week to do it, you will benefit more than simply spending half a hour clicking randomly on different profiles.

7: Use Circles Intelligently

The thing that really differentiates G+ from Facebook is the ability to target specific groups of people with specific messages.  Create circles for the different types of customer you have so that you can provide them with the most appropriate content.  You’ll have general news that goes out to everyone, but you might want to give your best customers early news about a new product.  Put them in a circle that gets advance warning of special offers.  Put difficult customers in a circle that is bothered less frequently and only gets the best deals.

8: Use Hangouts

Why wouldn’t you want to talk to your customers?  Schedule time each week for a customer chat.  Use Hangouts to allow people to feedback about what you’re doing, or ask questions.  Be open and honest with your customers and respond to their thoughts.  Treat it like a radio phone in where people get the opportunity to engage with the people who represent your brand.

9: Encourage Participation

Ask questions, and contribute to the discussion.  When people post about you, respond, when people ask you questions, answer.  If all you ever do is talk at the crowd, they will listen but they won’t hear.  Ultimately, as a business, you’re going to be using G+ and other platforms to encourage more people to buy your stuff, but it’s not a place for the hard sell.  Social platforms are all about a conversational sell.  They give you an opportunity to give people the balanced information they need to make a decision, and ask questions about what choices they want to make.

If you’re active on G+, people will feel more comfortable in asking questions of you and be confident that they’ll get a response.

10: Keep it Real

If you’re not “down with the kids”, don’t try to be.  Stay true to your brand on whatever social network you are on, and you won’t alienate people.  You need to be more open than you might on a corporate news letter, but you also need to maintain professionalism.  Don’t swear on Hangouts, don’t pretend to be something you’re not, and don’t post stupid

Dear Bloomreach, Please fuck off. Yours sincerely, the Internet

So there’s this new service, yeah, and what it does is grab loads of keyword variations from the internet and then create a huge number of new pages on your site that are scientifically optimised for user queries.  It gives you an 80% increase in traffic, and it’s so amazing that the company behind it is going to be worth like $10 billion next week.  Not only that, it’s such an exciting company to work for that it’s got people from places like Google, Facebook, and every other tech company worth mentioning queueing up to get a job there.  And did I mention that it’s going to completely destroy the SEO industry over night.  Oh, and the whole conceit is so exciting and convincing that bloggers are falling over themselves to write the most effusive and panting posts about it.

From the breathless excitement of the blatant advertorial post on TechCrunch  about Bloomreach (no link guys, sorry), you’d think that the world of digital marketing was about to change.

I disagree.  And not just because of my job.  I disagree because the whole Bloomreach project smells like a big pile of shit, and I think that people who get sucked into using it are going to be putting their businesses at risk.

If you cut through the buzzword laden arse dribble that that the Bloomreach PR team TechCrunch Advertorial team blogger wrote yesterday, you can summarise Bloomreach like this:

  1. Do keyword research
  2. Expand list with vague synonyms
  3. Create pages specific to each variation
  4. ???
  5. Profit

But let’s not be too hasty.  They’ve got some stats to look at:

In a pilot programme for an education company, they drove a 15% increase in conversions, and a 50% increase in advertising profits.  I don’t trust percentage statistics, they tend to cover up the truth, and they tend to get used most when the real numbers aren’t that impressive.  15% of what?

But there are other statistics too.  They’ve also been piloting their programme with 70 big name brands including Orbitz, Crate+Barrel, and Oodle.  They delivered an extra 25 million visits per quarter across those websites.  Exciting stuff.  That’s 100 million extra visits per year.  Visits are great if they convert, but there’s no information about that.  The revenue uplift that the post talks about is $143 million in 2012.  That’s across all of the new clients they hope to sign up off the back of the TechCrunch advert, not the clients they’ve already been running with in stealth.  I’m going to be charitable and suggest that they’ll pick up another 630 clients worldwide to increase the size of their network by an order of magnitude.  If they deliver a similar amount of growth, in page volumes, that’s a billion visits this year.  That means their average eCPC will be $0.14.

Except it won’t, because despite the adulation that’s been heaped on Bloomreach, it’s not the messiah.  It’s not giving away this amazing traffic, it’s charging for it.  They’ve had $15 million in funding so far, and they need to make that back.

Also, it won’t work, because it’s fundamentally flawed as a concept.

When the genii and gurus came up with the idea of dynamically creating vast numbers of doorway pages to make content more relevant to search engines in 2009/10, they probably had one eye on the gigantic success of the various Demand Media websites.  Making their investment case to their backers was probably a piece of piss given the valuation of $1.5 billion given to Demand Media at IPO.  At launch, their shares cost $21.  Yesterday, they were worth $7.  That’s still $500 million, but it represents a massive loss in value for shareholders over a year.

You can correlate the drops in Demand Media’s share price with the rollout of Google Panda.  Everytime their shitty websites took another knock, so did the valuation of the business.

Panda was all about cutting the low quality made for search pages out of the index to improve user experience.  Bloomreach is all about trying to put them back in.  Google’s guidelines about search quality say:

Doorway pages are typically large sets of poor-quality pages where each page is optimized for a specific keyword or phrase. In many cases, doorway pages are written to rank for a particular phrase and then funnel users to a single destination.

Whether deployed across many domains or established within one domain, doorway pages tend to frustrate users, and are in violation of our Webmaster Guidelines.

The Bloomreach approach to SEO reminds me of the general approach to SEO c2005.  It’s flawed and layered with buckets of fail.  It’s aimed at non-savvy marketers who think that they can take a short cut to success that simply won’t work.  It’s hugely bad for users, and seems to utterly fail to recognise that search marketing is not about dumbing down the internet in the futile pursuit of more clicks, it’s about developing a clear strategy that recognises customer needs and presents them with a persuasive and tailored solution that properly represents a brand and encourages engagement.

Auto generated content does not do this.

I don’t doubt that the Bloomreach team have developed a product that they believe is going to revolutionise the world and put every SEO Guru on the dole, but they haven’t, they’ve developed a massive spam factory that’s based on short term opportunism, and a lack of understanding of what marketing and customer engagement are.  The fact that one of their founders was a chief staff scientist on the Google Search Quality team seems to be a big selling point for them, suggesting that his inside knowledge of the ranking algorithms will benefit their clients, while also reassuring those clients that what they’re letting themselves in for is without risk.  It isn’t.

Creating millions of crappy doorway pages is a shit idea for any business who wants to have a sustainable presence in search.  It’s specifically mentioned in the Google guidelines, and those new pages are unlikely to have any long term value due to the Panda algo.

Anyway, cheer up, here’s a picture of a dog dressed up as Yoda.

Digital Smears

Remember Google bombing?  It was that thing a long time ago where by linking to a page using specific anchor text you could get it to rank for that phrase.  It meant that when you searched for miserable failure in Google, the top ranking result was for President Dubya.  Google bombing worked because SEO and link building work.  Google rank pages based on a combination of on and off page factors to determine best match relevance.

Thousands of people linked to the George W Bush profile on the White House website, and because of  a combination of existing website authority and topical links using “Miserable Failure” as anchor text demonstrating relevance, the algorithm made the assumption that the page was the most credible result for that search.  It may have been.

All that stopped working (kind of), and the need for a stronger relationship between the content of the linking page, the linked-to page, and the anchor text used meant that the effect of link bombing a page was lessened.  In fact the old dubya page no longer ranks in the top 10 for a “Miserable Failure”, which must be some comfort to the old duffer as he potters round his Texas ranch contemplating his legacy.

In the past, intelligent people would form opinions based on credible information.  Major publications, respected authors and authoritative, balanced journalism provided us with the evidence that we needed to determine the truth or otherwise of a piece of information.  Things are somewhat different today.  If a week goes past without someone dredging up a story about how Wikipedia is dominating search, it’s a surprise to me.  People form opinions based on data from unverifiable sources – Twitter, Facebook,Wikipedia, and Google Search.  While I’ve nothing against the opinions of my social connections, I don’t necessarily trust them to make a decision about my political choices.

Google bombing still works, but differently.  Just as the military have moved from indiscriminate destruction of entire cities to targeted destruction of entire people, it has become necessary to become much more targeted in the approach to smearing people, using content structures that appear legitimate and which gather authority from their spread through social media and citations from old media who force the stories deeper into the public consciousness, and simultaneously add weight to their presence.

This week, there’s been a big story bouncing around about some guy who seems to have pretty unrealistic expectations that he could be the next big thing in America.  He’s called Mitt Romney.  I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, but if I had a vote, there’s no way I’d be choosing him.

Why?

Because his name means “to defecate in terror”.  I know this because Google told me when I searched for information:

Shitting himselfI’m sure that Mr Romney would be a perfectly capable president, but imagine the look on a foreign leader’s face when they have to shake hands with Mr Shittinginfear, or the conversations that would happen around the world when he came to town.  Still, it’s not as bad as one of his rivals – the delightfully named Mr Santorum:

BleurrrghThat’s pretty nasty, and probably a difficult thing for the senator to explain to his kids when they ask.

There are stories behind each of these smears.  Romney is being accused of being weak on national security – note the use of the emotive “TERROR” in his definition, while Santorum said some pretty nasty things about the gay community.  Also, they’re both big boys, they can cope with it.

Smearing people is nothing new in politics.  I’m reasonably confident that even in the days of SPAAAAAAAAARTA insults were thrown around and certain things would stick.  News papers, particularly those owned by certain sick fucks have a lot of power and influence and spread a lot of lies.  The difference is that older media has balance to it, and users have exposure to different sources.  Google (and Bing) return very similar results, and in many cases, there is no opportunity for a response.

The ease with which we can find information, and the trust we place in the automated systems that sort and quantify that information for us mean that we are often exposed to unsupported material posing as truth.  The ease of publishing opinion coupled with the lack of proper editorial standards on the web lead to a culture where nothing is questioned properly.  We have access to a world of data, but because in the first analysis this data is rated arbitrarily under metrics that can be circumvented, the value of that data is limited.

There’s no easy answer, fast takedown of content would inevitably be misused to hide the truth where it was inconvenient.  You could say that Google could take more care with its results and prevent malicious content from appearing, but again, that would be misused and would not stop the problem.

There’s an argument that Google should offer a right to respond on results which are questionable – a non algorithmic insertion that provides some balance, but again, that relies  on people being aware that negative content appears and is damaging their business or personal brand, and once again, is open to abuse.

It’s an oversimplification to say that people should be more responsible about what they post.  We have a right to opinion and free speech – maybe readers should be more discerning about what they read – but there’s no smoke without fire.

Smearing companies, celebrities, and businesses has become too easy, and even with the best PR companies at your disposal, it isn’t always easy to remove that content from the web.  Content is copied, reposted, linked to, shared, and emailed so much that it becomes like the Hydra.

Perhaps the truth is more straightforward.  We live in an open society in which access to information, and the ability to publish information is simple.  Perhaps it is up to individuals and businesses to behave in an honourable and appropriate way, to lead as they would want to be led, and to have principals that recognise the importance of truth and the fact that sneaky behaviour seldom goes unpunished.

If you can do it in house, why the f#*k don’t you?

From what some people tell me, you’d think that SEO was a pretty straightforward affair.  You get some keywords into a web page and then get some links.  Simple.  They’d probably say the same about any digital channel:

  • PPC – pop some keywords into Google and set your bids
  • Display – buy some inventory and design some banners
  • Affiliate – talk to AWIN and get people to promote you
  • Social – tweet to your customers

If your sole marketing objective is to tick a box with digital, then the chances are that the above are comprehensive enough to help you achieve your goals, however the fact is that if you want to achieve anything, you have to be prepared to put the work in.

Digital is not an easy option.  It’s evolved over the past decade.  Whichever channel you look at, the competition is intense and you need to do at least as much as your competitors if you want to out rank/bid them.  You need to look at the whole conversion path to ensure that you minimise wastage, and be prepared to invest ever more time and money in pushing more and more people into your sales funnel.

“You would say that, you work in an agency”

Yes I do.  Thanks for noticing.  Working in an agency means that I see hundreds of different campaigns and am able to take the best from them.  Agency teams talk to each other.  PPC and SEO work closely together to promote synergy, display and affiliate teams talk about opportunities.  SEO and Social Media have a big overlap.  No-one talks to analytics people because they smell.  Everyone talks to the analytics and planning team.  They know stuff.

A good agency puts the interests of a client’s business first.  They look for new opportunities to develop the business and increase profits.  This isn’t entirely altruistic of course.  The more an agency can demonstrate the value of both their approach to marketing, and also their ability to deliver results, the more a client will be willing to invest in their relationship, and ultimately the more money the agency will earn.

“Yeah, but we can do that in house”

I was talking to a prospective client recently, and before the meeting, they told me that they had internal resource who was responsible for SEO, so they only needed some help with the link building work.

So, before I met them, I did a fairly detailed review of their site.  There were numerous things that weren’t working properly – broken links, poorly thought out navigation, a lack of context for images, a content hierarchy that made little to no sense, and weird URL structures.  Additionally, the content was lacking any focus.  The content was beautifully written, no doubt about that, but there was no consideration about the language that had been used.  Products and categorisation seemed to have been done based on internal jargon rather than having any focus on the types of search term that users might consider when searching for their products.

It turned out that the marketing manager was the person who was responsible for the SEO work.  He had read a couple of blogs (including this one.  Hi mate.), and knew his Pandas from his meta descriptions, and I’m pretty confident that if he’d been able to focus on SEO work, he’d have done a great job.  He couldn’t though.  As much as he loved SEO, he also had other work to do.  He’d rationalised this lack of time by pointing out the fact that if he’d engaged an agency and paid a few thousand pounds a month he’d have only got a few dozen hours of work for his money.

I pointed out though that although he’d have only got a portion of someone’s time, that was a person who was doing SEO 100% of the time.  He might not have had the benefit of their dedicated attention, but he’d have had the benefit of their dedication.

Roy Castle: Dedication's what you need!
Roy Castle: Dedication's what you need!

With the best will in the world, someone who is only able to spend a limited amount of time on SEO is unlikely to achieve the same results as someone who is dedicated to doing SEO all the time and only spends a limited amount of time on one specific campaign.

The outside perspective is the value an agency can add to a business.   Not only can we take an external, baggage free viewpoint of a website and its place within the market, marketing agency staff, particularly those within digital agencies are more likely to be in tune with changes in the market and be able to bring new ideas to the table.  While campaign data should never be shared between clients, and in my experience, never is, ideas about optimisation of activity and new opportunities should be, and are.  An agency SEO works in a team of people across multiple campaigns.  They see things that work and can determine the best implementation of ideas and concepts for different clients to balance the individual needs of a campaign.

There’s no problem with doing it in house.  In fact, some of the most successful SEO work is done by in house teams.  Problems only arise when you lie to yourself about your ability to do things in house.  Without the appropriate resource being in place, corners often get cut.  Work gets prioritised in a manner than can undermine a longer term strategy and ultimately, rather than saving money on the cost of an agency, money is left on the table because despite the fact there is a line on the marketing plan that says SEO, it’s money that isn’t actually being invested.

Do you even know what Google+ is?

Last Thursday Google released their financial results for the previous quarter, and from any rational perspective, they did pretty damn well.  Profits in excess of $2 billion, taking their overall profit for the year nicely above the $10 billion mark.  That’s not bad in the middle of the worst recession since the 1920s, however because the numbers fell below the expectations of “expert” market analysts, these figures were treated as a disaster.  I’m guessing that those “experts” are the same analysts who thought that structuring an entire global economy on the resale of packaged debt was a stroke of genius.

Anyway.   After alluding to the growth of various Google services like Android and GMail, Larry Page revealed that Google+ now had around 90 million users.  He went on to say:

By building a meaningful relationship with our users through Google+ we will create amazing experiences across our services.

The reaction to the 90 million number was a big meh, with lots of “experts” sniffing and saying that most of those 90 million users had probably logged in once and then ignored the service.  This kind of jibed with Page’s statement:

Over 60 percent of Google+ users use Google products on a daily basis. Over 80 percent of Google+ users use Google products every week

Even these numbers were dismissed, and the same idiotic nonsense about Google+ being a disaster and a service that people neither wanted nor used was trotted out by people who clearly don’t understand what Google+ is actually about.

Let me spell this out:

In the same way as Facebook is not just the website Facebook.com, Google+ is not just the stream of status updates and animated GIFs at plus.google.com.

Your Facebook account follows you around the web, it allows you to comment on blogs, bypass the log in forms on thousands of websites, and get insight into whether a piece of content is likely to be of interest to you based on how many of your friends also liked it.

Google+ is the same, think of Google+ as a prism through which to view the web rather than being a single website, and you get closer to what it’s purpose is.  Google+ unifies YouTube, GMail, Picassa, Adwords, Blogger, and most importantly Google Search to give you a personalised curation of the web.  It is baked into the latest version of Android too, and at some point in the future, it will be part of Chrome and the Google Toolbar too.

Google+ is about personalisation of the web.

When Larry Page talks about the 60% of G+ members who use the service on a daily basis, he’s talking about a global engagement across Google’s social enabled platform.  Search Plus Your World  is Google+ in action, recommended videos on YouTube is Google+ in action.

Used properly, to connect your online experience with people who actually matter to you, Google+ will make the web more relevant to you.  Used badly, as it is by many of the “experts” who dismiss it as a zombie network and who add thousands of arbitrary friends in order to make themselves look more influential, it won’t work.

Google+ is about identifying the social trends and community memberships that define us and using them to re-define our search experience.  The people who are still treating it as a Facebook like social network and polluting their experience with irrelevance will find that in the long run, all they will do is destroy any semblance of value that Google+ has to them.