Your USPs are Neither Unique, nor Selling Points.

Core to any brand is the idea of what makes it special.  What differentiates it from other businesses that operate in the same sector, and in turn why a customer should choose them.  Increasingly, when I’m involved with new engagements with companies, I find myself questioning the ideas they have about what makes them special.  In most cases, this crystallizes around the concept of Unique Selling Points (USPs).

More often than not, the USPs that I see businesses claiming are neither unique, nor of interest to buyers.  In fact, you can see that they have been developed internally, probably by management committee, and trotted out without any real thought about what they mean.

If you want to see what kind of things serve as USPs, let me Google it for you, but here’s a sample from the top 10 results:

  • We prefer long-term relationships
  • Systemic and inter-disciplinary
  • Fast, flexible and focused
  • Our business model is all about shared risk.
  • Agile process to meet aggressive timelines & requirements

The problem with all of these is that they are so generic as to lose all meaning.  They could apply to any business or organisation, and say very little to the consumer aside from suggesting that the company has absolutely no idea of what unique means.

They might be selling points, but they’re not going to help a buyer.

And that’s the problem.  These types of quasi-unique selling points are all about the way in which certain individuals within an organisation see it, and more often than not, those people are not customer facing, and don’t necessarily have insight into how customers see an organisation.

Which brings us on to…

Unique Buying Points

Thanks to social media, the perception of what makes an organisation special is increasingly public and disparate.  Everyone has an opinion about their engagement with a company that they are free to express, and that’s a good thing.   It means that companies can get feedback about why people choose them, and the values that they associate with them.  I’ve written before about the fact that brands can no longer be controlled internally, and that if a business wants to have a social presence, it needs to be open to the opinion of their community.

Unique Buying Points are the customer centric view of a business.  They are not about what a small group believe are the reasons why people will be interested in becoming customers, but the factors that made real customers choose a particular brand.

Customer defined UBPs are less likely to be filled with corporate platitudes, and include a more realistic and compelling recommendation for other people to make a decision about who to choose.

UBPs could be perceived as a risk internally because they might contradict the beliefs held within an organisation, and they might include uncomfortable truths about the external perception of an organisation, but the truth is, a business that recognises and values the opinions and choices of their customers is likely to be more in tune with them, and put themselves in a position where they can use that external definition to promote their services in a way that actually resonates with their customers.

Some 2012 Predictions for SEO and Social Media

Even if the ridiculous Mayan prophecies are proven to be correct, it means we still have 351 days of the Internet remaining before the world ends, which is plenty of time for lots of things to happen.  My belief is that 2012 will be a pivotal time for online marketers, and that a lot of the technologies and networks that we use will come of age to redefine our approaches to both search marketing and social media.

Increasing Control Over Media

There’s been socio-political change across the world in 2011, and a lot of this has been facilitated by online conversation.  From the uprisings of the Arab Spring to the London Riots and the Occupy protests, we’ve seen people leverage social channels to organise and bypass traditional methods of communication.  This will continue, and it scares people.

There’s an awful lot of censorship of social media across the globe, and this is going to grow.  I think that in 2012, we’ll see “democratic” governments like the US and UK use bills like SOPA to curtail social communication by the back door.

It will not work.  There are now more Facebook users in the US than people who voted for Obama in 2008.  That’s a big challenge to the authority of a government, but it is also protection against draconian measures being proposed.  An increasingly out of touch legislature will lose credibility if they are protecting free speech by curtailing the freedom to communicate, and people will rally against it.

Cookie Crumble

If you think that the outcry from the SEO industry was loud over the decision of Google to withhold keyword referrer data, the introduction of the European Cookie Directive in May is going to sound like a nuclear bomb going off.

Websites that do not comply with the cookie directive and get explicit consent to place tracking cookies on user machines will be fined.  Those that do add the consent request to comply with the legislation will find that most people opt not to take the cookies.  That’s bad news.  The ICO was one of the first sites to implement a cookie opt in option for users.  As shown in this image, it has a big impact on their ability to track users:

ICO Analytics Traffic
ICO Analytics Traffic, Pre and post cookie Opt in

The above image source is BrockVicky on Flickr who obtained the data via an FOI request to the ICO.

Losing around 90% of analytics data is going to cripple a lot of businesses, and also going to make things like Conversion Rate Optimisation incredibly difficult to do.  The bill is misguided and lacks insight into the importance of data to the online marketing industry.  During a time of recession and low economic growth, it seems utterly stupid to enforce it, however the EU are hell bent on imposing the law to the letter, and beyond.  According to the most recent guidelines, the bill covers tracking without consent and is not just limited to cookie placement.  You might get away with using Urchin to measure traffic, but without the cookie tracking, you’re going to lose out on a lot of returning traffic data which will skew the ability to attribute value to traffic.

The bill seems unworkable, but heavy fines being threatened, and a need for businesses to remain compliant with the law means that it will be introduced, and we will have to deal with the consequences.

Social Is Everywhere

Google have done a lot with social media already, and over the past year, we’ve seen the launch of Google+.  Despite the furore over the Google Chrome paid linking nonsense over the past couple of days, it hasn’t stopped the growth of in marketshare that Chrome has/  It may still be the 3rd placed browser, but that’s not going to last much longer:

Desktop Browser Marketshare 2011
Desktop Browser Marketshare 2011

Source: Net Marketshare

Chrome will probably overtake Firefox into second place this month or next month, and based on current trends, could well overtake IE late this year or early next year.  That’s big news, because one of the great advantages of Chrome is that it makes your settings and apps portable.  That requires a Google account, and it won’t be long before a Google Account comes with Google+ as standard.

Chrome also calls home, a lot, and provides a huge amount of user data back to Google about how you interact with the web.  Assuming that this isn’t crippled by the Cookie Bill, that additional data is going to provide massive amounts of user information to influence search results and suggestions to make them even more personalised.

Better search results for individuals based on their demographic profile and their personal preferences.  That’s a big thing for SEO, because it means that anyone who focuses on using rankings as a sole measure of campaign success is going to have very little to write home about.  It’s a good thing for businesses though, as it means that they should get a better quality of customer.  Obviously, they won’t be able to measure anything about them, but they’ll still get the additional sales.

Bye Bye Links

Well, not all links, obviously.  The fact is that people don’t link in the way they did, and for the SEO community, the link habit is proving pretty hard to shake off.  Google got nailed for their paid links to the Chrome website this week, Beatthatquote got a ban hammer earlier in 2011, as did JC Penney and others.

They got it because the links neither looked, nor were natural.

Building connections is going to be as important in 2012 as it was in 2003, it’s just the type of links that you need that will change.  Social citations will make the difference, but not the kind you buy for £5 per 100 from backstreet link dealers.Links?

The rise in social media value attributed to search results means that bulk buying social bookmarks will be as ineffective as bulk buying directory submissions.  You’ll need to hunt down people who are demographically relevant, have authoritative profiles, who don’t link out much, and who are influential if you want to get any value out of them.  I’m willing to bet that in 2012 we see the follower:followed ratio become the new PageRank for link sellers.

Social Metrics Worth Measuring

Facebook

You will share almost every type of content from your website via Facebook, so it is important to track as many metrics as possible about your interaction with this channel.

Number of fans in Facebook

While it might not be something that you want to track on a daily basis, knowing how many people are fans of your page on Facebook is very useful, as it gives you an indication of the total audience you have access to every time you post some new content.

On average, a Facebook user has around 180 friends, which means that for each person who comments on your post, or follows you, you acquire this much reach.

Tracking how many people follow you, and then monitoring traffic from Facebook will give you an idea of how large your reach is, and what kind of overall click through rate you get from different types of content.

Number of comments on posts

Under most privacy settings, when another user makes a comment about one of your posts, that will be mentioned in their news feed. The more people comment, the more exposure you get.  It is relatively easy to get a feel for the amount of exposure you are getting by viewing the number of friends that each of your commenters has.  Remember that not everyone logs into Facebook on a daily basis, but this will still give you an idea of the exposure you’re getting.

Look also at who is commenting – is there a hard core of people who are regularly interested in your posts, and if so, what can you do to influence them to comment more often, or become brand ambassadors for you.

Over time, build up a chart of what types of content get the most positive/negative comments, and push your output in the best direction for your audience, as the things that they are most engaged with are the ones that will encourage greater participation.

Number of Likes

As above, the number of likes a post gets has an impact on how widely it is seen in people’s news feeds.  Over time, build up a picture of what type of content gets the most likes, as this is the content that your audience is most interested in.  Produce more.

Number of referrals from Facebook

The number of referrals you get from Facebook will give you a good feel for how effective Facebook is as a channel for promoting your content.
Correlate information about the frequency of posts, number of likes/comments, number of fans/friends, and the number of visits you get to your website.
If Facebook is a relatively poor referrer, despite having a lot of followers, you should reconsider the type of content you are promoting from it.

Twitter

Twitter is a channel that is generally best for sharing fresh content on an instant basis, and as such, will typically only deliver short term boosts in traffic.

Number of Followers on Twitter

Knowing how many people follow you at any one time is the best immediate indicator of your reach.  The number of followers should not be the be all and end all of your Twitter campaign; it is the way in which they interact with you and your content that is most important.

Number of Retweets on twitter

The behaviour on Twitter is to forward content via a re-tweet if appreciated.  Track the number of retweets that each piece of content you post gets.  A reasonably accurate way of doing this is to use Bit.ly or another URL shortening service, as these track the different times when the content is shared.

Over time, you can build up a picture of how the number of retweets you get correlates with different types of content.

Number of referrals from Twitter

The chances are that every piece of content you post on Twitter will get some traffic.  Investigate how many visitors you get from each piece of material you post, and correlate this with retweets, and follower numbers.  You would not expect a direct relationship between the different aspects, but it is important to consider how the different numbers interplay.

Number of Follow Fridays on Twitter

Follow Friday is a tradition on Twitter in which users promote other users who have been particularly useful to them over the past week.  It is worth tracking this number over time to see if the number of recommendations that you get increases in line with the number of followers you have.

Number of mentions on Twitter

Remember the point about not just using Twitter to promote your content? This is really important to measure.  If you are considered to be helpful and approachable, then you will get a fair number of mentions and indirect messages.  As you develop more followers, you will get more and more mentions as users interact with you.  The network effect that you have within Twitter means that as more people communicate with you, the more likely you are to be mentioned in their stream, and the more other users you are exposed to via their data.

Youtube

Number of video views on YouTube

Monitoring the number of views that you get on any YouTube video is important for two reasons.  Firstly, it provides you with direct feedback about the popularity of your content, secondly, YouTube takes video popularity into account within its content ranking algorithm, so a more popular video within a particular interest group will rank more highly in the search results, and therefore be seen by more people.

Popular videos will also be transferred into the main Google Search results, and this can be a significant source of traffic.

  • You should compare the number of video views that you get with:
  • The number of views your other videos have received
  • The number of subscribers that you have
  • The number of views that similar videos have

Number of referrals from Youtube

You should always include a link to the most relevant page on your website within the description of every single video you upload onto Youtube.  This link has comparatively little benefit from an SEO perspective, so it is useful to add a tracking parameter to it – something like:

http://yourdomain.com/productpage.html?source=youtube&video=123

If you do provide each link with a unique parameter for tracking, then you should also place a rel=canonical tag in the page header of any pages that you link to to ensure that the search engines only monitor that content on a single page.

Make this link unique for each video, and you can measure their success as traffic drivers individually, as well as seeing the wider picture in analytics for your overall traffic from this source.

Number of Comments on Videos in Youtube

Video comments provide you with feedback and an opportunity for discussion about any content that you have uploaded.  It is important to read these, and bear in mind that they are part of the content of a page on the website, and  as such help to add weight to a particular page in terms of what the page subject is – good for SEO.

Number of subscribers on Youtube

As with the number of friends or followers that you acquire on other social networks, Youtube subscriber count is a handy indicator of the size of your network.  It is important to note that due to the way in which people predominantly find information on Youtube as a referral from Google search on a particular phrase, the number of channel subscribers that you have will likely be significantly smaller than the number of views you have.

Growing your subscriber base is useful from a networking and marketing perspective, as these users will be notified about any new content that you place.

You should also look at how many followers or subscribers similar businesses to yours have.  Bear in mind that they may have been online longer than you, but use them as a benchmark, and measure relative growth over time in order to assess the growth of your own network

Your Blog

Number of people taking your blog feed

You should make it as simple as possible to subscribe to the RSS Feed that your blog produces.  Many people use RSS readers including Outlook to track feeds from a range of blogs in order to keep up with information about what is being posted.  Feed subscriber numbers are a lot lower than they were in the past thanks to people using Twitter as a de facto feed manager; however it is still useful to know.

Many people plug the RSS feed from one blog into their own, and this can provide valuable back links that are helpful for search engine rankings.

Number of visitors to your blog

This is the number of people whose first arrival at your website was to a blog page, rather than a page within the main website.

Source of visitors to your blog

You need to look in detail about which websites refer the most visitors.  Look for patterns that you can make use of.  For example if how to posts consistently attract a large number of visitors from Twitter, but fewer than the normal volume you get from Facebook, you can see make the conclusion that your Twitter followers prefer this kind of content.

Google will typically pick up blog content very quickly, and add it to its index straight away.  Look at the kinds of keywords that refer traffic to your website, and investigate which result in conversions.  Use this information to develop a future content strategy for your blog.

Look at how the distribution of traffic varies over time.  In most cases, you would initially expect the highest levels to come from social media channels, but over time this might change, and you might well see increasing interest from search.

Average number of pages viewed by a visitor to your blog

More is better.  Unlike a conversion focused website, where the goal is normally to push the visitor to convert as quickly as possible, your blog is all about communication, and selling the brand experience.  Having engaged readers who visit numerous posts on each visit is a very good sign.

Look at the factors that have an impact on user engagement – are visitors from certain channels more pre-disposed to look at multiple pages than others.

Bounce Rates

Essentially this is the inverse statistic of the one above.  The Bounce rate is the number of people who left the blog without navigating away from the first page they arrived at.

Look at the different factors that impacted on this, and never be too harsh on yourself.  In some cases – particularly with long tail search referrals, you will find that visitors were able to find what they are looking for on the page of the website that they initially arrived at, and had no need to investigate further.

If you do see a bounce rate that is high – above 75% say, look at whether there are any factors that you can change.  If there do not appear to be any specific reasons, it may be worth specifically asking people what they think.  Perhaps the design that you thought was great is actually hideously ugly and puts people off; perhaps the navigation is not clear enough.

Number of people commenting on your blog post

In many ways, this is the ultimate metric of engagement for your blog.  Compare the rates at which people comment to the number of people who are reading.  There will always be a difference – some posts are more contentious than others, but it is always worth finding a way to boost interaction.

Look at what kind of themes within the content attract more comments – look at ways of precipitating discussion – try signing off the post with a question, or adding a poll.

Number of people linking to your blog

You can usually find information about the number of people who have actually written content derived from your blog by checking the link information in your blog dashboard – assuming that you’re software includes information about track backs.

Other than that, consider using Yahoo Site Explorer.  By doing a search for all links to your blog folder or sub domain, you can get an indication of the kind of content that attracts other people to link to you.

Percentage of blog visitors who went onto the website

If there is a single ultimate goal of your social media project, it should be tied into the overall commercial goal that your website has.  Unless you plan to offer order fulfilment via your blog (and there is no reason why you shouldn’t), the goal of your blog should be to push traffic through to the commercial part of your website.

If only a very percentage of visitors actually move beyond the blog, you should always look at why this is the case.  Investigate whether you are making the user journey clear enough; try running tests on the site to try different layouts or alternative messages about visiting the sales pages.  Monitor the rate over time, look at how different content impacts on user journey, and increase the amount of successful content that you add to the blog – although balance this against the content that leads to other success metrics being achieved.

Percentage of return visitors to the blog

Over time, you want to build a community for your brand, and engage more with potential and existing customers to improve the quality of service and product that you offer in line with customer needs and expectations.
If visitors start to return to your website more frequently and the percentage of return visitors increases over time, then this aspect of the campaign is clearly successful.  If not, look at factors such as where traffic is coming from – a high share of visitors from social networking websites should result in a high number of returning visitors, as these guys are already partially bought into what you offer.

In addition to the percentage, you should also look in detail at the raw numbers.  If returning visitors are increasing in terms of actual numbers, but falling as a percentage this is a success, if the opposite is the case, then you are doing well at selling to your existing customers, but failing slightly at acquiring new ones.

Most Importantly…

Conversion Rate of Socially Acquired Customers

Investigate whether your socially acquired visitors are more predisposed to convert into customers than others.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that they should be – after all, they have already engaged in a relationship with you that raw referral customers have not.  If the rate is not significantly above the norm, you should ask questions why:

  • What is the journey from blog to sale?
  • Does the sales website match the social brand?
  • Is the message getting lost?

 

Best SEO & Social Blogs 2011 / Nominations

It’s that time of year when a young man’s (or woman’s) thoughts turn to awards and recognition, and with this in mind, it’s time we ran a little competition.

What are the best social media and SEO blogs?  You have until Monday 13th December 2 011 to enter your nominations via the comments form below in the following format:

  • Best SEO Blog:
  • www.someseoblog.com
  • Best Social Media Blog:
  • www.somesocialmediablog.com

You don’t have to nominate in both categories, and remember that this is a UK Poll, so it’s only open to UK Blogs.  The winners in both categories will get a prize.  Probably a can of pop or a Mars bar.

Closing Date for nominations: Midnight 13 December, 2011.

 

Facebook’s $100 Billion IPO

Back in February, I posted about the value of Facebook and Twitter.  This was at a time where a big investment from Goldman Sachs had put them at around the $50 billion mark.  Back then, with just (!) 600 million users, the value of each user was about $83.  The current figure places the per user value at around $125 given the current user numbers of 800 million.

That’s a big increase in value.

One of the key things I noted back in February was the fact that although the value of each user was  high, the revenue from each user was a lot lower – last year, Facebook made about $4 for every user, although it did make a profit.

Over the past 9 months, the amount of advertising on Facebook has increased, both in terms of the competition for eyeballs, and the amount of different opportunities that advertisers have.  It’s probably fair to assume that when Facebook  publish their revenue / profit figures this year, they’ll be hitting more than $10 per user in revenue, and, they have more than a third as many users now as they did back at the beginning of the year:

Growth of Facebook
Facebook Users Over Time

Earlier this year, it looked as though Growth for Facebook was tailing off a little, but it’s actually increased over the course of 2011, and given that they announced their 800 million user landmark in late September, they should be hitting the 900 million figure early in the new year.

Given that the rumours around Facebook’s IPO put it around April time, it’s highly likely that if user growth continues at the current level, they’ll be around the 1 billion user mark.  I’d expect an announcement to that effect around the date that they ultimately set – in fact, given the amount of data that Facebook collect, I would expect that they might engineer a coincidence of the two events.

In April, I blogged about how the big challenge for Facebook would be turning those users into income post IPO when they start having to maximise profit for investors.  It’s going to be a massive challenge.

More Advertising

They’ll almost certainly roll out advertising through the mobile versions of the site – That’s actually likely to be really useful for both members and businesses:  think events near you, special offers at shops based on geo-location tech in your smartphone.  It’s also an untapped market for them at the moment – according to Facebook’s stats page, around 350 million users access the service through their mobile.

Advertising rates will almost certainly rise.  A lot of cash is already getting spent on Facebook adverts and sponsored stories.  The auctions will intensify, and the CPCs will rise.  We’ve seen it with Google, we’ll see the same from Facebook.

Premium Features

Facebook is not going to start charging for memberships.  That is simply not going to happen.  It’s also highly unlikely that they would ever charge for businesses to have a presence on the site – Facebook would not risk the amount of ancillary promotion that they get from other people’s advertising campaigns – “visit our Facebook page”.

However there are plenty of things that businesses would pay for – additional analytical data about how people access their content is one thing.

Making “Organic” Social Harder

This would be controversial.  Right now, a lot of businesses run their Facebook activity for the cost of the time it takes to manage their profile page and the amount of time they spend engaging with users.  Getting likes and commentary is organic and based on the amount of content that you can share that resonates with your audience and what they feel comfortable sharing.

Given that Facebook own their platform in the same way as Google own their search results and can manipulate the EdgeRank algorithm in the same way as Google manipulate theirs, it can make organic social media much harder and push paid engagement as a better option.

Is that likely?

6 Degrees of Gary Speed

There used to be a paradigm that only only six steps separated us from anyone else on the planet.  The small world phenomenon even spawned a game “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” – there’s even a website for it which allows you to calculate the Bacon number  for any actor based on the movies that they’ve appeared in.

The idea of six degrees of separation was based on the average number of people a person knew, and the average number of people known by those people.  Now of course, people maintain connections with larger groups through online social networks, and that’s led Facebook to release numbers this week that suggest that we live in a world of 3.74 degrees of separation.

This has benefits.  It’s easier to get introduced to people you might want to know, although it does make “friend of a friend” stories a little harder.  It also causes problems.  And can lead to unwanted consequences.

At the weekend, the Wales Football Manager Gary Speed took his own life.  It’s tragic.  I’m Welsh, and it was nice to see some progress for the national team.  I’m also a casual Everton fan, and he was a great player for the team and although he was only there for a season and a half, he made a huge impact with fans.

Why is this important?

For a start, it’s important because an event like Gary Speed’s suicide brings attention to conditions like depression.  It encourages people to seek help and to talk to friends and family about how they feel.  It encourages openness about a taboo subject, which hopefully means that some good can come out of what is a pretty awful situation.

Seriously, if you do need help, try one of these resources:

If you don’t need help, but feel like you can help other people, you could always volunteer for the Samaritans, or donate to a charity like Mind.  These are good things to do, you should do them.

Anyway

In most cases, none of us are particularly unpleasant people.  We  generally don’t like to hurt other people if we can avoid it, and the last thing we’d do if we knew the family of someone who had committed suicide would be to mock them.  On the other hand, when someone is in the public eye, they’re often considered fair game, we feel relatively comfortable joking about it when something unfortunate happens to a famous person.  We might even update our Facebook status with a cutting remark, or a joke at their expense.

I’ve got a Facebook Friend like that.  We all probably do, someone whose Facebook stream is pretty much a copy&paste of whatever tickles his fancy on Sickipedia.  That’s fine, and most people ignore it.  This weekend, he posted something pretty tasteless about Gary Speed.

No-one “liked” the update, but about 20 people commented on it.  The 46 comments they made were a mix of “good one” and “too soon”.  It’s probably not the kind of comment that my friend would have made face to face with Gary Speed’s widow or his kids, however, it’s exactly the kind of comment that they’ll see a lot of over the coming weeks.   It probably won’t help them much.

Because of the way content surfaces for people in Facebook it attracts people from outside your direct social circle to contribute.  If I see that a friend has commented on a piece of content that might interest me, I’ll sometimes take a look.  On occasion, I might decide that the person is interesting enough for me to connect with.  Given that there are apparently 3.74 degrees of separation between me and anyone else on Facebook, I’m not that far from content about them.

The act is, with Facebook, nothing is so private any more, and that the more connected we become, the more responsible we have to be about what we post.  Offending people for the sake of it isn’t cool.  Especially when that person is already hurting.  As Spider-Man would say:  With great power comes great responsibility.

Do you see the point?

There’s a saying that’s worth bearing in mind:

Don’t feed the trolls.

Nowhere is this more pertinent than on Facebook.  If you wouldn’t want your mum to read something, don’t write it, if you don’t agree with something, don’t comment on it.  If you don’t want someone who is likely to be offended by a post to be exposed to it, don’t share it.

Infographic: Infographic Use

Here’s a beautiful infographic that shows infographic use.

Infographic about Infographics
Infographic about Infographics

It’s not particularly accurate, but it isn’t meant to be.  Like most infographics that you’ll see, it is there to tell a story and to bend the facts a little bit to present some information in a particular way.

The representation of data has a huge impact on the way in which we can understand and engage with it.  Visualisation of data has been transformed into an art form in recent years, and has become part of the structure of the web.

Because of the inherent simplicity (and often the beauty) of their presentation, infographics have become a staple of the web and a popular link bait tactic.  Unfortunately, as more and more people use them they’re starting to lose their appeal because the data that they present is becoming more and more mundane.

That’s not to say I think that infographics are dead.  In fact, I think as a creative medium they have huge value.  being able to present data or process in a straightforward way has huge benefits, and properly organised information is a huge advantage when learning.

They are a perfect means to present a flow of information, or advice – users like them because they help to make things understandable.

When an infographic is used for the right reason – to inform or simplify a process or pile of data, it is good for users. On the other hand, when it is presented simply as an alternative to any genuine value add content then it has no value.  Well thought out infographics that can be treated as a useful resource will naturally attract links, and because they are portable and usable, they will attract more links than flat content.  However, just because you have put a pretty graph and some “innovatively” presented text on a gradient back ground, it does not mean that your website will suddenly start to rank well.

Cloaking still works … Why

Although there are plenty of reasons why you might want to use cloaking techniques for your website – having a conditional redirect that pushes people through to a mobile version of your website if they arrive using a mobile phone is one – it’s pretty much a technique that has been consigned to the depths of the black hat world, and is pretty likely to get you banned from Google.

Cloaking can be pretty simple – here’s a quick and dirty piece of PHP that would serve Google with a nice clean piece of content but redirect everyone else to a spam site where I might be flogging viagra:

<?php $useragent = $_SERVER['HTTP_USER_AGENT']; 
if( strpos($useragent,"Googlebot") ) 
{ echo "here is the nice keyword rich code for Mr Google"; }
else
{ header("Location: http://spamsite.info/viagra"); }
?>

Pretty simple and quite elegant isn’t it?

Now, there are ways and means of making your cloaking more robust, for example rather than using a specific user agent, I might want to use a list of IP addresses that I know are assigned to people who work at Google, or alternatively, it might make sense to redirect based on the browser choice.  It’s a safe bet to assume that most Googlers are currently running Chrome.

To get around the fact that it is comparatively hard to spot cloaking if it is well implemented, Google employ an army of quality raters who surf the web checking the integrity of the search results.  Their handbook has been “accidentally” released to the public a few times over the years, and you can even apply to join the programme.

The number of people who work as quality raters is not disclosed, however there are estimates around that there are in excess of 10,000 of them world wide.  According to PotPieGirl’s post, they are expected to work around 20 hours per week and assess around 30 sites per hour.  That means that they will get through more than 300 million assessments per year.

That’s quite a lot.

So, why does cloaking still work?

Well it doesn’t, really.  Not all of those 300 million websites get assessed immediately, or at the same time.  There will always be a gap between content going live and getting crawled by the spiders and starting to rank.  If the cloaker is also doing some mass automated link building with Xrumer or something similar, then the chances are that they’ll rank quickly and that’s the key.  Provided you can stay one step ahead of the game, you win.

However, and this is a big However

While it seems like there’s a lot of Google raters, there aren’t compared to the number of Google users.  Increasingly, we are all Google raters, so much user data is being collected  that we are all beginning to assess Google’s results (and those of other search engines) all the time.

While at the moment otherwise undetectable  problems need to be addressed via manual intervention, in a world where every user is passively curating the search results as they interact with them, the quality rater becomes redundant, and the number of visitors who can be affected by an individual piece of cloaking decreases.

There will come a point at which the number of people who can be cloaked to effectively by each instance of a script will fall to one.  That’s bad news for the current wave of black hatters, but it won’t be the end of it.  if anything, with such a low cost to entry for the web, we’ll see an explosion of hacked sites and other techniques arise.

Will Google+ get 100 million members for Christmas?

According to Search Engine Land, around a billion people around the world use Google each month, but so far, the number of those who’ve taken the steps to join Google+ are relatively small.  Depending on who you talk to, membership is somewhere between 40 and 80 million right now.  It’s not exactly small beans, but it’s not exactly Facebook either.  Yet.

This matters.  Google needs to overlay demographic data onto their search index to make results more relevant to users.  User centric personalisation is fine when someone is repeating a search, but you need pre-emptive personalisation to give better  results if someone hasn’t searched on a subject before.  For Google, this means understanding about who you are and what people like you want to see.  Google already capture vast amounts of data about users, but having their own social network means that they can get even more.

According to TechCrunch, Google’s quest to get more data about users just took a big step forward.  When  registering a phone using the new Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, users are requested to enter their credit card details, and sign up for Google+.

Ice Cream Sandwich
Ice Cream Sandwich. Tasty?

This could well be the tipping point For Google+

The latest stats on Android is that there are nearly half a million new devices being activated every day.  Not all of them are going to be running Ice Cream Sandwich at first, and historically it’s taken a while for each new iteration of Android to filter out to the masses, however Google have also released the source code for the OS, which should mean that it will be on older phones quickly.

It’s also nearly Christmas, which means even more demand for smartphones.

Back in March 2010, GigaOM predicted that by this Christmas, half of Americans would have a smart phone.  That’s probably not unrealistic, and given that Android currently boasts a 52.5% marketshare, it means that a pretty sizable jump in the number of people getting a reminder to join Google+ is likely at Christmas.

Google+ is at the heart of Google’s social strategy, encouraging people to log in and remain logged in across devices is essential if you want to be able to target them with advertising on a consistent basis.  If people jump from device to device it can be hard to get all the behavioural information that Google want, however if they are always within the Google eco system, then they can be tracked at all times.

The way I see it, there are two main things that are stopping Google+ from making the jump to the mainstream:

  • It doesn’t yet have quite enough members on it to encourage more people to join in
  • It isn’t getting the kind of coverage within other people’s advertising that Facebook and Twitter are

In many ways, it’s the former that is preventing the latter from taking place.

The thing is, once Google+ starts counting members in 8 figures rather than 7 – which could happen at Christmas – and companies start investing in promoting their shiny new Google+ Pages in their other marketing, both of those problems are going to evaporate.

There is no way that Facebook is going to decline  into a zombie network overnight* – it’s way too ingrained in our daily lives for that to happen, but as soon as we get a compelling reason to have a richer social interaction on Google+, we’ll find it becoming a bigger part of our daily lives, which brings us full circle the ultimate goal of the service, giving Google the data it really needs to overlay it’s existing search relevance with the demographic profiling it needs to preemptively personalise results for users.

* Statements like this can make people look very stupid very quickly.  Often overnight.

How much data is enough?

With the kind of fanfare and reaction that you’d expect, businesses can finally add branded entity pages to Google+.  At first glance the pages are pretty limited – there’s little of the customisation that you see on Facebook pages just yet, but that’s only a matter of time.  Once app developers have had the chance to play around with the API code, we’ll see the usual raft of additions like shops, and plug-ins springing up and an ecosystem falling into place to help us make more use of the platform.

There is a very big difference between Google+ pages and Facebook pages, and it all comes down to a little badge:

Google Direct Connect Badge
Google Direct Connect

The big story about Google+ Pages isn’t the pages themselves, it’s Google Direct Connect, the service that you use to authenticate your page and link it inextricably to your brand.  A big goal for Google+ has been to create real accounts for real people.  The service is not about anonymity because it has a much bigger purpose.  Google+ is about the collection and storage of demographic information about users which can be used to personalise a search experience.  By understanding relationships between individuals, Google will be able to better serve content (and adverts) to users that will be relevant to them.  By aggregating the information about what your connections like and extrapolating that into information about what you will like, your search results will be better targeted and more appropriate to your interests.

So far so good.

Data is great.  More data is better.

If you consider the volume of personal information that Google already collect about you as an individual, it’s a bit scary.  Every search you make in Google is logged, every click you make from the results is stored.  According to a study by Metric Mail, close to 50% of the top 1 million websites by traffic use Google Analytics.  Usage data about those websites is all aggregated by Google, along with the millions of other websites also using the platform.  If you use Chrome (or any other browser with the Google Toolbar installed) huge amounts of information about your usage is also captured by Google.  If you have connected your Twitter, facebook, Linkedin, or Youtube account to Google via your profile, then there is also information about your friends, connections, business type, age and entertainment interests.    If you’re one of the 48% of smartphone users who chose Android as your mobile OS, Google have data about where you go, what games you play, and what kind of data you access via your apps.  From your IP address Google know where you are, and by seeing where else you access your Google data via a shared connection (work), Google are able to associate huge amounts of information about the other people you work and live with with the data they capture from your own browsing habits.

By enforcing a policy of real identities on Google+, Google become able to tie all of your other data to a real person.

This should be pretty scary.

Google also have a lot of information about companies.  From a lot of the same sources that they get information about individuals.  Businesses that run Google AdWords accounts provide billing information and are subject to credit scoring, Whois data provides insight into domain ownership.  Google Enterprise Apps accounts give Google insight into the members of an organisation, while business email processed via GMail gives information about client connections.

With authenticated pages on Google+, businesses will also be providing Google with massive amounts of data about their organisational structure, but more importantly, they will be getting access to people within the wider community who have affinity with a particular brand.

What’s in it for me?

Nothing is free.  You just don’t always see what you’re paying, and a lot of Google’s services fall into that category.  Sure you get a free productivity suite, free email, free photo and video storage, and free analytics, but you reciprocate by providing data.

Businesses get customers from Google.  The more you give  in terms of data, the more you get in terms of revenue.  Signing up for a Google+ Page for your business is not about getting an additional social property that you need to maintain, it’s about providing Google with information about the social graph of your customers.  In return Google will be able to better optimise their search results for individuals to ensure that they get the results that are most relevant to them.

I’ve already said that we’re entering a period in SEO where instead of talking about what we rank for, we need to start talking about who we rank for, and that is going to become the norm.  With Google+ Pages and Google Direct Connect, I believe that a lot of businesses are going to see their traffic levels fall dramatically without any impact on their sales.

Siri
Siri

With services like Siri, you no longer need a set of ten results to choose from, you need the one best result.  You need the website that is most relevant to “you+keyword” rather than just “keyword”.  With individually personalised results, you will get that.  Businesses that know who their customers are will benefit because they will become more efficient, and customers will benefit from saving time and effort.