What I Learned In 2014

October 09 2014 // Life // 181 Comments

(This is a highly personal post so if that isn’t your thing then you should move on.) 

It’s not 2015 yet but I already know what I learned in 2014. I have Follicular Lymphoma. Here’s my story.

Stomach Pain

Ouch with Nails

Last year I began to have some stomach issues. The first time it looked like it might have been food poisoning, which I blamed on Chobani. One minute I was fine and the next I was throwing up and had abdominal pain and bloating for the next 48 hours.

I binge-watched action flicks until I was okay. Afterwards I felt a small twinge on my left hand side of my lower stomach. I didn’t want to be the guy that let something go and have something bad happen so after three weeks I saw a doctor. He thought it might be diverticulitis and suggested a change in diet and referred me to a gastroenterologist.

I remember talking to a school-parent friend at a Halloween get-together about diverticulitis. It sounded both dreary and scary. I was bummed.

Colonoscopy

Fletch Prostate Exam

In early April of this year I got over my fear and got a colonoscopy and endoscopy. The prep for this was truly nasty – chugging a substance that tasted like purple chalk death and then having what looked like pee come rushing out of your bowels for the next 24 hours.

The results of the test were basically clear. No diverticulitis and only some mild irritation was noted. In short, idiopathic IBS. Or for the rest of us, ‘you have some screwed up intestinal issues that don’t seem to have a known cause.’

This was a relief to some degree but also not. What the hell was causing my flare ups?

Flare Ups

Solar Flare

Because over the course of the year I’d have small flare ups. Usually I’d wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning with the pain, go downstairs and take some Tylenol, Gas-X and/or Mylanta and lay on the couch watching TV to distract me from the cramping pain until I fell asleep.

Food seemed to be the culprit. I’d drink beer and then have that cramping abdominal pain. I’d eat onions and that seemed to trigger it. Never were these flare ups that long nor exceedingly painful. They were 5-6 on the pain scale. I figured it was just my stupid intestines and getting old. So I gave up beer (oh sweet IPA) and avoided onions.

I had maybe 5 or 6 flare ups of varying intensity and went for a long time (3 or 4 months) with no flare ups at all.

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday Candles

Friday night was my birthday and I was going to a nice restaurant with my wife, daughter and parents. By the time we got home I could tell I was having a flare up. I took Tylenol and some Mylanta but the pain got more intense. At 11pm, after about 3 hours of truly intense pain (8-9 on the pain scale) I drove myself to the ER.

I checked-in and sat there tapping my fingers together as the pain surged and watched Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones. Once in the ER they pumped me with 4mg of morphine (wow is that a strange feeling) and took at CT scan of my abdomen.

Hospital

John Muir Medical Center 2014

Soon after the CT scan I was visited by a doctor who said they wanted to admit me to the hospital because they’ve found abnormal lymph nodes on my CT scan that needed more investigation. When I pressed her she admitted that the worry was that what they were seeing might be lymphoma.

The world just became very clear and the focus of things shifted. I’m not saying I believed it right then and there but for whatever reason it felt true and just like that I felt the axis of my life changing and I simply had to adapt.

I called my wife at this point and gave her the news. I was stunned and scared but numb too and not just from the morphine.

Diagnosis

OMG LOLcat

On Saturday I was officially admitted to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. I noted that my room was on the Oncology ward and when I saw the Oncologist she said that, in her opinion, the odds that it was Lymphoma was 70-80%.

The best way to tell was to get a biopsy of one of the lymph nodes and the fastest way to do this was for me to stay in the hospital until Monday when that department was working. So that’s what I did.

It wasn’t horrible but it was odd laying there in the oncology ward watching football, an epic 18 inning Giants game win and a marathon of Bar Rescue.

The biopsy itself was a piece of cake but the waiting was the worst part. Because at this point I think I’d come to terms with the idea I had cancer. Sure I read the test results and tried to find evidence that it could instead by some sort of infection. Many House jokes were made. Sarcoidosis anyone?

But Wednesday around mid-day I got the call that confirmed the diagnosis. I had follicular lymphoma.

What’s Next

Kick Cancer's Ass

I’m going in for a bone marrow biopsy tomorrow (wow, that hurt) and a PET scan next week to determine the true severity of my lymphoma. (Do you capitalize it or not? I don’t know but I choose not to give it capital status right now).

From there it’ll be a 6 month regimen of chemotherapy. I’m already busy researching what specific cocktail might make sense for me and will discuss that with my oncologist after all the results are in. But it looks like I’ll be starting treatment by the third week of October.

I will kick cancer’s ass.

Make no doubt about it. No matter the severity I will beat this ugly thing to the ground and kick it a few times on the way down in hopes that it won’t return. Mind you, it probably will. But if it does it will get another beat down.

Lymphoma isn’t curable but it’s also not fatal.

Follicular lymphoma (FL) is not considered a curable cancer, chiefly because it is considered an indolent, or non-aggressive, cancer. However, ‘incurable’ should not be mistaken in this instance for ‘fatal’, as most patients with FL will not die from their lymphoma. It is considered a manageable disease, so often patients will endure some form of therapy, then go from months to years without any therapy or symptoms, then take up some form of therapy again when necessary.

So the odds are that I won’t die of Lymphoma. But I’ll die of something else! Oddly, that’s pretty comforting. My goal is just to be here for as long as I can (like 40 more years damn it!) so I can see my daughter grow up (oh man, getting teary eyed) and live a great life with my wife.

I don’t want lymphoma to define my life. So I absolutely plan on working during my treatment. However, I will probably scale back on new clients (even more), may need some flexibility and may not be able to travel. I’ll know more soon.

Lymphoma is an unwanted guest but will be a speed bump in the scheme of things. So while it’s important to manage this disease it’s also important to love the life I have and to keep doing most of the things I normally do.

What You Can Do

Right now there’s not much others can do. I’ve got a very supportive family here and access to wonderful healthcare. Of course I appreciate your thoughts and encouragement as I kick cancer’s ass.

I’m a believer in ‘particles’ and magical thinking. (In my spare time I chant ‘I’m going to be okay’ over and over again.) So think of me getting better. And if the time comes when I need the support from a larger group I’ll absolutely reach out.

Perhaps I’ll just keep updating this post with my progress. I’m not sure I want to start a whole new blog (cancer doesn’t deserve that) nor do I want to have multiple posts here on this topic. Because I do intend to keep blogging normally.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned.

Sitelinks Search Box

September 19 2014 // SEO // 41 Comments

Google’s new sitelinks search box threatens to take your hard won branded traffic and hand it over to competitors unless you implement the specified markup.

Here’s what’s happening and why you need to bump the sitelinks search box markup implementation to the top of your priorities.

Sitelinks Search Box

Sitelinks Search Box YouTube Mobile

On September 5th Google announced the launch of an improved search box in sitelinks for branded queries.

When users search for a company by name—for example, [Megadodo Publications] or [Dunder Mifflin]—they may actually be looking for something specific on that website. In the past, when our algorithms recognized this, they’d display a larger set of sitelinks and an additional search box below that search result, which let users do site: searches over the site straight from the results, for example [site:example.com hitchhiker guides].

Now I’d argue that the prevalence of any search box in sitelinks was minimal at best. I hardly ever saw them. That’s going to be important to this story later on.

Sitelinks Search Box Email

On September 15th several of my clients received a ‘Make your site ready for the new sitelinks search box’ email informing them that their site was eligible for this feature.

Sitelinks Search Box Email

Soon after that email went out I began to see sitelink search boxes appearing on branded queries. That was fast!

Sitelinks Search Boxes UX

What if you haven’t implemented the markup yet? If you don’t implement the markup and connect it to your own search engine Google will simply perform a site: search using your domain and the user’s search query.

The problem? Competitors might suck away that traffic through paid ads on those site: queries. Here’s what it looks like.

Google Sitelinks Search Box

Cool Hunting isn’t a client by the way, just an example I happened to find. Now lets search for ‘electric cars’ using the Cool Hunting sitelinks search box.

Sitelinks Search Box Results

The user’s intent was to find Cool Hunting but if they use the sitelinks search box to find Cool Hunting content they are presented with a raft of ads for other sites. Not for every query obviously but if you’re running any decently sized brand and getting the sitelinks search box treatment there’s a good possibility for click attrition.

The sitelinks search box could steal your branded traffic.

What really burns here is that the original intent was on a branded term. You’d won mindshare and loyalty. The query intent was clear. Yet that search box might deliver them to unbranded results.

It would be nice to think that users would seek out the branded organic results but monkey clicks happen and the additional friction and options turn a slam dunk into a three point attempt.

Sitelinks Search Box Markup

Google You Got Some Splainin To Do

The experience doesn’t have to be like this though.

If you implement the markup on your site, users will have the ability to jump directly from the sitelinks search box to your site’s search results page. If we don’t find any markup, we’ll show them a Google search results page for the corresponding site: query, as we’ve done until now.

That’s clear enough. Yet the way in which this was rolled out is unsettling to say the least.

The prevalence of presenting the sitelink search box was very low before and even when shown wasn’t very prominent. So to go from that reality to one in which it’s shown far more often and more prominently with 10 days notice seems … uncharitable. That’s not even a standard two week sprint cycle!

I understand the value Google is trying to deliver here. And in some ways I think Google believes that a site: query might be better than many site’s own internal search engines. They’d be right on that account too in many instances.

But if that’s really what Google’s trying to do then searches through the sitelinks search box should only return content for that site. Shouldn’t the ads be suppressed at that point? Otherwise it seems rather self-serving from an advertising perspective. And it doesn’t honor intent.

Of course, by having it behave this way (and having someone like me ring the alarm bell) you might find adoption of the markup increase dramatically. That seems like an awfully big stick though. Not to mention the sites that may never understand what’s going on or have the technical chops and determination to fix it through markup.

TL;DR

The improved sitelinks search box threatens to divert branded traffic to competitors unless you implement the specified markup. Sadly, the current user experience doesn’t seem to match the user’s intent nor Google’s aim to serve the user.

Image Sitemap Indexation

September 09 2014 // SEO // 3 Comments

This post is a bit of penance for yours truly. Read on to make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

Image Sitemap Indexation

For many months I’d open Google Webmaster Tools and stare at poor indexation rates for images across a number of client accounts. Not just one or two but several clients with crappy image indexation rates.

Google Webmaster Tools Indexation Rate for Images

This didn’t make much sense to me since image traffic reported in Google Webmaster Tools was healthy.

Google Webmaster Tools Image Traffic

In addition, image traffic reported using Google Analytics filters was looking good too. Mind you the difference between image clicks reported in Google Webmaster Tools and what is captured in Google Analytics doesn’t match up, even when I add back in lost referrer data from Chrome and other browsers.

But that’s a story for another day.

Lazy Investigation

Cat on Couch with Beer and TV Remote

Image search is largely ignored and under appreciated. It’s tough to sell folks on it when the data is murky (at best) coupled with engagement and conversion that is usually very poor in comparison to web search. I think a proper attribution model would tell a different story. But I digress.

This is my way of rationalizing why I didn’t push harder on investigating poor image indexation rates. It’s an excuse. Of course I opened up the sitemap files and made sure that the images being passed were valid.

They were.

But I stopped there and chalked it up to a Google Webmaster Tools bug. This wasn’t out of the question and the engineering teams I was working with were top notch. I then reached out to other colleagues and asked if they had similar issues. Sure enough, a number said they too were encountering this problem.

So it wasn’t my fault. It was Google’s problem!

False Accusation

Harrison Ford in The Fugitive

I took it upon myself to message a number of Googlers asking them to investigate. Don’t get me wrong, I was nice about it. But my approach was to provide examples that I felt sure would expose this bug.

To my chagrin what I got back was a nice but pointed response that explained that I (and my clients) had screwed up. The image URLs in those sitemap files might have been valid but they weren’t the ones currently residing on the location URL provided in the sitemap.

Loosely translated: you’re stupid and wrong.

The Devil Is In The Details

I hate being wrong and I hate wasting the time of Googlers. Talk about tossing any good will I’d earned into a roaring bonfire!

It turned out that in every single instance where the indexation rate for images was low there was a problem with matching the image URL with the location URL.

Image Sitemap Example

More often than not it was that the image had been placed on a subdomain of the cookieless domain serving images and the sitemap file hadn’t been updated to reflect that optimization.

For instance, on example.com the image might have started at exampleimg.com but was now being served from shard3.exampleimg.com instead.

If the latter is what is found by Googlebot Image on that location URL but you’re referencing the former in the sitemap then it won’t show up as an indexed image via Google Webmaster Tools.

Does It Matter?

Disaster Girl

If you’re reading closely you probably realize that this is a reporting error and the image itself is most likely indexed. But the indexation count in Google Webmaster Tools is looking at whether the images you’re passing in relation to that location are indexed.

Some of you might decide it’s not worth paying attention to at that point. But I’d argue that you want those indexation rates to reflect reality so you can measure, optimize and react to any changes that might impact your business.

You can’t improve what you can’t measure.

Not only that, but by doing the due diligence for each client I uncovered issues with how images were being rendered and optimized. Remember, these are smart engineering teams. I’m not blaming them. Images are a bear for sites who are consumed with reducing load times and improving speed.

Do The Work

It’s embarrassing to find that you’ve overlooked something so … obvious. At Share14 I got a chance to sync up with Adam Audette. One of the things we talked about was the benefits of working in the trenches and how it becomes more difficult as you expand and grow.

Yet this is where a good SEO can make such a difference. By digging into the details and figuring out what’s going on you can tease out a problem that might have gone undiagnosed for months on end.

Since making the changes indexation rates are rising for all clients. I can’t tell you that the changes have increased image search traffic by 134.7%. This isn’t a redemption feel good story. This is a reminder to do the work and get it right.

TL;DR

If you’re seeing low image sitemap indexation in Google Webmaster Tools you need to carefully inspect the sitemaps to ensure that the image URL(s) being passed exist on the location URL referenced. Beyond the specific image sitemap issue, this is a reminder to not assume or get sloppy with your due diligence.

The Rich Snippets Algorithm

August 20 2014 // SEO // 62 Comments

There’s been a tremendous amount of chatter recently about rich snippets vanishing from Google search results, whether it’s Amazon losing their review aggregate snippets or a wholesale reduction in video snippets.

What we’re really talking about are changes to the rich snippets algorithm.

Inception Leo Squinting

That’s right, we need to go deeper. There’s an algorithm within the algorithm.

Here’s what I know about the rich snippets algorithm based on observation and conjecture as well as statements from Google representatives. I’ll also sketch out some theories on how Google might be replacing many rich snippets with Knowledge Graph panels and carousels.

Rich Snippets History

Wayback Machine Cartoon

Lets start at the beginning. Rich snippets were first introduced by Google on May 12, 2009. The strange thing is Google was the last search engine to embrace rich snippets.

For a long time Google didn’t want to employ a feature that would be naturally biased toward sites with greater development resources. In short, Google wanted to keep a level playing field. You still see some of this mentality in the Data Highlighter feature in Google Webmaster Tools.

But once they started down the rich snippets road Google all-in, launching Schema.org on June 2, 2011. Sure it’s a joint venture between search engines but lets be real, the main author here is Google.

Not Your Ordinary Result

Rich snippets are fancy results or results on steroids. They usually contain a visual element such as stars or a thumbnail image.

Ferncer Ferst!

Whether they’re stars, additional links,  thumbnail images or video captures, these results stand out from the crowd. As such, they draw both the eye and clicks.

Whitelist Days Of Yore

In the old days (circa 2010) I was working with PowerReviews and, by proxy, a number of eCommerce companies who were chomping at the bit to get the review aggregate snippet on their results.

Those stars were extremely powerful in those early days. Anything shiny and new will have that initial heightened response. The review rich snippet is still valuable but less so now that the novelty has worn off and there are multiple review rich snippets per result.

At the time, it was all about interfacing with the ‘rich snippets team’ and getting them to ‘turn on’ your snippets. As rich snippets grew in popularity and expanded to new types this non-algorithmic approach was untenable and simply … un-Googly.

Rich Snippets Algorithm

It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a rich snippets algorithm. Google states it clearly in their rich snippets guidelines.

Rich Snippets Algorithm

For a long time this algorithm was rather basic and disconnected from other search quality signals. It wasn’t until the release of Panda 4.0 that Google integrated search quality signals with the rich snippets algorithm.

That’s not entirely true. Prior to that they’d done something because the review aggregate snippets for one of my clients just up and vanished one day.

I scratched my head and for months in early 2014 had the team tweak the code and fix every stray microdata error or potential conflict that could be responsible for what I assumed was some markup confusion. But nothing worked. In frustration I gave up, cursed Google, and put it on the back burner.

When Panda 4.0 was released this client’s review aggregate snippets magically returned along with a huge boost in rank. At the same time, I had another client hit by Panda 4.0 who lost their snippets and saw the Panda-typical decline in rank and traffic. So it became crystal clear.

Site quality is now part of the rich snippets algorithm.

From Google’s perspective it makes perfect sense. If the search quality team believes the site isn’t very good then why would Google render a rich snippet that would draw more attention and clicks to results from that site?

What that means is Panda Jail produces a double whammy of rank reduction and rich snippet suppression.

Validating Rich Snippet Suppression

You can validate the rich snippets suppression by using the site: operator for a query that should be showing rich snippets but isn’t. Here is a search for ‘dr waldo frankenstein’.

SERP for Dr Waldo Frankenstein

The vitals.com result does not have a rich snippet. Using my structured data testing tool bookmarklet I can tell the page does have the review aggregate markup in place. So then we just perform the same query with a site:vitals.com prefix.

Vitals Site Query for Dr Waldo Frankenstein

That’s the same page but this time the review aggregate rich snippet shows up. This is a clear case where Google is intentionally suppressing the rich snippet in normal search results.

Rich Snippets Relevance and Expertise

All of this doesn’t quite explain the big reduction in video snippets though does it? Many of the sites that lost video snippets weren’t Panda victims nor would you think they’d fall into some sort of non-authoritative bucket.

Video Snippets Require Video Expertise

Casey Henry nails it in seeing the pattern. Those sites that are dedicated to video continue to get the video snippet. The algorithm seems to be looking for ‘topical’ expertise when rendering snippets. I don’t think Google wanted any ol’ site ‘hacking’ search results with a video result. (Yes, there was a cottage industry of folks doing this.)

I’ve seen this same ‘expertise’ issue occur on larger general interest sites. They may have received a recipe snippet before, but the new rich snippets algorithm decides not to render it because the site doesn’t have a focus or an expertise in recipes.

This expertise signal is a bit tough to pin down since there are other factors, such as overall site quality, involved. But it seems logical that Google is moving toward rendering snippets only when that site and snippet deliver relevance and expertise.

NASCAR SERPs?

Too Many Logos

The number of rich snippets per query might be a factor as well. Or if it isn’t, I think it will be soon. However, it is super dependent on the query.

For instance, search for ‘funny cat videos‘ and you get 8 video rich snippets, 7 of them from YouTube and one of them from Animal Planet. This makes a bit of sense since the query syntax makes it clear they’re looking for videos.

Sadly, a search for ‘funny cat‘ actually yields 10 video snippets, all from YouTube. I’ll give Google a pass with the query ‘funny cat’ since my guess is the overwhelming modifier is, in fact, ‘videos’.

So lets try the difference between ‘ombre hair’ and ‘ombre hair video’.

Ombre Hair Google Search Result

Ombre Hair Video Google Search Result

Sure enough you get just one video snippet with ‘ombre hair’ and a full 10 video snippets with ‘ombre hair video’. The only problem? They’re all from YouTube. In fact the first 15 are YouTube video snippets.

Look for a tweak to the rich snippets algorithm to dial back the YouTube host crowding issue. Even if YouTube is the most popular video destination it’s a public relations disaster to have it dominate to such an extent.

Similarly when you use ‘recipe’ in the query you get more recipe rich snippets. I’ve noticed that Google regularly removes the universal image result when you append the modifier ‘recipe’ to any ‘dish’ query.

Chicken Saltimbocca Google Search Result

Chicken Saltimbocca Recipe Google Search Result

This makes sense. When you use the term ‘recipe’ in your query you’re looking for, well, recipes.

Query syntax and intent have an increasing influence on search results design and configuration.

But there are times when site quality and relevance aren’t in question and the only reason the rich snippet isn’t rendering seems to be that there are already a number of rich snippets in the results.

The problem is I can’t locate a good example of this signal at the time of writing. I had some examples but now they’re not working as advertised. So am I just reaching here? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Too Many Donuts

The concept makes sense and there are recent precedents to support it. Google tweaked the number of authorship images showing up prior to removing them completely. No one wanted to see face after face in their results and certainly not the same face multiple times.

User experience consistency was the reason given for the elimination of authorship images. There’s a prominent mention about cleaning up ‘the visual design of search results’.

In a Google+ Google Webmaster Central hangout shortly afterwards John Mueller (Webmaster Trends Analyst but really so much more than that) seemed to go a bit further and speak to the user experience decisions Google makes with regards to rich snippets.

So for example, if we were to show the authorship photo for all search results, then maybe that would be too much for the majority of the users, even if we had that information. So that’s something where, in the beginning when only very few sites implemented authorship, maybe it made sense to show them all. Maybe now that a lot of sites are implementing authorship, maybe it makes sense to reduce that, or maybe to switch over to the text-based annotation.

Now John is talking about authorship snippets specifically but it seems like this would apply to any visual element in search results. And this isn’t the first time Google’s dialed back images based on user testing and research. The first social annotations Google applied (those small faces under results) weren’t well received by users (pdf) and quickly disappeared.

When everything screams to be looked at, you look at nothing.

Mark Traphagen does a bang-up job teasing it out in his authorship post on Moz and was extremely helpful in pointing me at specific comments. Prior to full removal Google developed a sort of tiered class system for authorship snippets detailed by Mark in his Great Google Authorship Kidnapping piece on Stone Temple.

The first class received the thumbnail image and the second class only got a byline. This might have simply been about site quality and not about the total number of snippets in a result.

Yet coupled with the comments from John after the fact, it makes me wonder if it also served to test visual snippet density.

Choosing Favorites Is Hard

Tough Choices

I think Google is concerned about making the results too cluttered. From the start Google has maintained a type of less is more approach. Just look at their home page.

So at some point it makes sense to me that only a certain number snippets would render per query result, varying by the topic and query syntax. But which results get the rich snippet would make a humongous difference and become a bone of contention.

Do the rich just get richer? Or does the one site that has more topical expertise get the snippet over a larger national brand?

Google hasn’t had to deal with this problem in large part because the adoption of markup has been slow. But as more sites add structured data, how does Google deal with search results with multiple visual elements?

Maybe they don’t.

Knowledge Panels Eat Snippets

As I investigated this topic and went down the rabbit hole I came across an interesting 2010 paper titled How Google is using Linked Data Today and Vision For Tomorrow (pdf). The focus of the paper was on using linked data in rich snippets.

First they looked at how much structured data was currently being used.

Structured Data Usage 2010

The result was a paltry 4.3% using any type of structured data and only 0.7% being used to generate rich snippets. A 2014 report from Searchmetrics indicates that the adoption hasn’t grown much in the intervening time.

But what’s more intriguing are the proposed ‘extended’ rich snippet examples.

Proposed Extended Event Rich Snippet

Proposed Extended Video Rich Snippet

What I can’t help think looking at these is how closely they map to new Knowledge Graph panels. It’s a bit like that old Reese’s Peanut Butter commercial. But here’s the thing. If this was a video from someone other than YouTube and it included links to another site’s content I think the first site’s head would explode.

“How dare Google put links to other sites in my result!”

You can’t think that someone like, say, Last.fm would be keen to have links to Wikipedia or ticketing sites in their result for an artist query. So moving all of that to a centralized location like the Knowledge Panel is almost a necessity.

Google Killed The Radio Star

I’m using Last.fm as an example because from what I can tell Google has eliminated the music rich snippet. I can’t even get one to render using a site: operator, which leads me to believe its been deprecated. If you can get one to render please let me know.

I’m going to use the music snippet example Google provides on their About rich snippets and structured data page.

Google's Rich Snippets Examples

The music snippet here is for Leonard Cohen and from the bold sections of the result I’m assuming the query used to produce it was ‘Leonard Cohen’.  Here’s what the Last.fm result looks like for that query today.

Last.fm Result for Leonard Cohen without a Music Rich Snippet

It’s the same URL but maybe Last.fm just screwed up their markup. I mean, it happens. So let’s run it through the structured data testing tool using my handy bookmarklet. (Seriously, it’ll shave hours of copy and paste work from your life!)

Structured Testing Tool Result for Last.fm

The markup is there. Google just chooses not to render it. Hey, those are the rules. And you can see why if you look at the Knowledge Panel in this search result.

Leonard Cohen Knowledge Panel

The Knowledge Panel has a ‘Songs’ section and a new ad unit to listen to music on multiple platforms. Click on any one of those songs and you get a full blown ‘songs’ carousel result.

Songs Knowledge Carousel

It’s pretty hard not to think this helps line Google’s pockets. It probably does.

The problem here is that sites don’t want competitive links in their Google search results and Google doesn’t want a long line of competing offers like some blinking-neon Las Vegas strip version of search results. Aggregating the various offers into one area of the page is a better user experience.

Knowledge Panels de-dupe, curate and aggregate intent for a better user experience.

The question then is how long until other types of rich snippets go the way of the Knowledge Panel?

Rich Snippets Ticket To Ride

Remember nearly 2,000 words ago when I mentioned Amazon had lost their review aggregate snippet. I took a screengrab of a specific instance of that about a week or so ago for my upcoming presentation on rich snippets.

No Reviews Snippet for Amazon

Instead of focusing on Amazon look at the two other rich snippets on the page from Goodreads and Barnes & Nobel and how they also appear in the Knowledge Panel. Now lets see how this same search looks today (August 19. 2014).

Rich Snippets Gets You Into The Knowledge Panel

Goodreads lost their rich snippet and with it their link in the Knowledge Panel. The Goodreads result changed to one doesn’t have the review aggregate snippets markup. That’s a kick in the pants!

The review aggregate rich snippet gets you access to the Knowledge Panel unit. At least for the book vertical. And if you didn’t realize, that link to Barnes & Nobel is … a link to Barnes & Nobel. External folks!

Google doesn’t play favorites in ordering. The order in the Knowledge Panel is dictated by the order they appear in search results.

Confederacy of Dunes Google Knowledge Panel

Blind Assassin Google Knowledge Panel

Accelerando Google Knowledge Panel Result

I included the last one here to show that other sites do qualify if they get their review aggregate rich snippet on the first page. ManyBooks is 8th on the ‘accelerando’ result.

But looking further down the road might Google simply remove all the rich snippets and aggregate them in the Knowledge Panel unit? Or maybe they’d only do that if the query was more specific and contained the word ‘review’. On a lark I tried ‘blind assassin reviews’.

Blind Assassin Reviews Google Onebox

Will you look at that! Now both Goodreads and Barnes & Nobel have a starred result front and center. The rich snippets still show up in the individual results but it’s almost immaterial given this presentation. How about another?

The Eyre Affair Review Google Knowledge Panel Result

All three sites that have review aggregate rich snippets on page one also get this monstrous book reviews unit. I don’t know about you but it certainly feels like change is coming.

It’s easy with books because there is one representation of this ‘work’. The connection between the entity represented in the snippet and the Knowledge Panel is straight-forward.

But there is not just one funny cat video! However, could you decide that there is one representation for a ‘dish’? Might a new recipe Knowledge Panel include one big image and links to individual recipes from sites using the recipe rich snippet?

It doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me.

Rich Snippets Redux

Pulling myself out of the rabbit hole here’s what I’ve learned.

The Rich Snippets Algorithm Got Smarter

The new rich snippets algorithm clearly draws on site quality signals and may also be looking for topical expertise. Sites impacted by Panda will see both a reduction in rank and a suppression of any rich snippets.

Query Syntax Changes Search UX

Google is adopting new user interfaces for query syntax that indicate specific intent. The number of rich snippets and other visual elements change based on certain modifiers. Knowledge Panels in particular serve to de-dupe, curate and aggregate user intent.

Rich Snippets Are Linked To Knowledge Panels

In some instances rich snippets are being deprecated in lieu of Knowledge Panels (such as music) while other times rich snippets provide access to prime Knowledge Panel real estate.

So while the landscape continues to shift beneath our feet I believe implementing structured data is one of the smartest moves you can make given Google’s clear and continuing efforts around entities, the knowledge graph and Knowledge Panels.

Twitter Analytics

August 11 2014 // Analytics + Social Media // 20 Comments

What if Twitter launched the most awesome analytics dashboard and no one really noticed? Well, that’s pretty much what happened nearly a month ago. I’ve been waiting for the posts that detail how much you can get from the tool and the different types of analysis you can perform.

But … I’m tired of waiting.

Twitter Analytics Dashboard

The dashboard provides a decent overview of activity over the last 28 days.

Twitter Analytics Dashboard Overview

The major statistics it provides are Impressions, Engagements and Engagement Rate for each tweet and the trend for those over time. That’s not too shabby but lets poke at what lurks under Engagements.

Twitter Engagements

Click on a specific Tweet and you get to see how people engaged with that specific Tweet.

Twitter Analytics Tweet Engagements

Now if you’re not quietly swearing under your breath at this point I don’t know what’s wrong with you. There’s so much awesome information here. A sliding scale of engagement for you to pour over.

In particular, you can see which Tweets produced User profile clicks and actual Follows. Not shown here but also tracked are the number of times the Tweet was Shared via email. But wait, we haven’t even gotten to the best part.

Export And Analyze

Twitter Analytics Export Data Button

At the top right hand on the dashboard is an Export data button. This might as well be colored gold and in the shape of a treasure chest. Click and suddenly you have one of the richest sets of data you could wish for on your Tweets.

Twitter Analytics Export Data in Excel

This eyesore of data is a goldmine. You get the actual text of each Tweet along with the timestamp coupled with all of the engagement metrics. So what could you learn from this data?

A bit of data manipulation and I can find out which days I have the most engagement.

Tweets by Day of Week Chart

Monday and Thursday for the small amount of time I have data. But maybe I just want to see the overall engagement rate by day.

Twitter Analytics Engagement Rate by Day of Week Chart

Friday and Saturday suddenly look pretty good from an engagement efficiency standpoint. I could drill down here and get to the hour and come out with one of those popular ‘best time to Tweet’ posts if I wanted. But I won’t.

Twitter Analysis Smorgasbord

Instead I’ll look for better insights. I happen to use hashtags as a way to classify my Tweets. Two of the more popular ones I use are #seo and #ux. Now with a bit more data manipulation I can look at how these two different themes of Tweets perform.

Twitter Analytics Engagement by Hashtag

I get a lot more impressions and engagements overall with the #seo hashtag but my engagement rate on #ux is twice as high. I could dig even deeper and do a pivot table to see what type of engagement I’m getting on each.

Twitter Analytics Types of Engagement by Hashtag

It’s hard to see, I know, but here I can tell that I get more retweets per Tweet on #seo but that many of the other metrics skew towards #ux in terms of engagement efficiency. This makes sense to me since I’m more of an authority in SEO than in UX. But it shows that with the right type of Tweets I am moving the needle in the latter. (Engagement efficiency – that has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?)

The analytic opportunities here are nearly endless. Particularly if you’ve adhered to some sort of pattern in your Tweets (thank you latent OCD).

Twitter Analytics Engagement by Prefix Graph

So here I can see that my particular Tweet pattern of using a prefix gives me some interesting results. Do people pay more attention and interact with my Tweets when I say I’m saving the piece of content I’m referencing? Maybe. But there’s also a huge bias involved in the value of that content. Either way it’s something I can track over time.

So what are you waiting for?

How To Get Twitter Analytics

I think part of the problem is that the analytics feature is buried under the Ads interface. Maybe folks think you need to be running ads to get all of the organic Tweet data. That’s not true. I haven’t been running ads on my account. Never have. All I did was click the Get Started link and jump through a few hoops. Free!

If you’re having trouble check out Dan Shure’s post about how to set up Twitter Analytics on Evolving SEO.

Flabbergasted LOLcat

Hopefully you’re ready to jump in with both feet and try this out. I know i’d appreciate others providing some insight and potentially some macros to make the analysis even easier. Step to it Excel gurus!

[Updated August 22nd, 2014] Dan Shure at Evolving SEO also has some tips on using Favorited Rate to predict content success.

[Updated September 24th, 2014] Paul Shapiro at Search Wilderness also pointed me at Twitter Analytics for Websites. I implemented this a month ago and have had it in a Chrome tab ever since. What’s cool is that it gives you information about everyone Tweeting about your website.

Twitter Analytics for Websites

So implement both to gain insight into how both you and your site is performing.

TL;DR

Twitter is giving you an amazing dashboard and data on your organic Tweets that allows you to perform an insane amount of powerful social analysis.

StumbleUpon Remarketing

July 21 2014 // Marketing // 7 Comments

For years I’ve used a combination of StumbleUpon and Google Remarketing to cheaply and efficiently open the top of the funnel for start-ups.

I don’t hear much about this tactic (though perhaps I’m not looking in the right places) so here’s a little explanation on this handy growth hack.

StumbleUpon

StumbleUpon Logo

You remember StumbleUpon right? A darling of the Web 1.0 world, it was purchased by eBay in 2007 where it was largely ignored until it was bought back in 2009. It doesn’t get a lot of press but it’s still a well-trafficked property and product.

I’m not saying it’s in some sort of renaissance or anything. But it delivers traffic and has benefits many overlook.

Paid Discovery

You can buy ‘Stumbles’. That shouldn’t be news to you since you’ve been able to do that for ages. But … StumbleUpon has been overshadowed by other platforms so I often get a furrowed brow and a ‘you learn something new everyday’ response when I tell people this.

The paid StumbleUpon product is called Paid Discovery. Like nearly any paid ad product today you can target StumbleUpon users by geography, age, gender and interest. This is important since you only want to find people who are interested in your site or product.

StumbleUpon Ad Targeting and Costs

The news gets even better because you can buy these targeted visits on the cheap from anywhere from $0.10 to $0.20 a click. It used to be cheaper but it’s still a bargain for guaranteed targeted visits.

Now, there is often some discrepancy between paid Stumbles and what shows up in Google Analytics due to various issues. You can obsess about this or simply shrug your shoulders and move on. I recommend the latter.

I figure I’ll make up the difference based on earned Stumbles, those StumbleUpon visits you get for free because your content has been well received.

Low Engagement

If you’re familiar with StumbleUpon you know that the product itself encourages low engagement. You ‘Stumble’ from one site to the next in a Tumblr for websites like fashion. It’s sort of like channel surfing on TV when you’re bored and looking for something interesting, yet not really having the time to watch for long anyway.

Marketers complain that StumbleUpon traffic has a 90%+ bounce rate and 1.1 page views per visit. And they’re not wrong. Here’s a look at the metrics for the campaign I launched to show how this works.

StumbleUpon Low Engagement Numbers

This is why most marketers write off StumbleUpon as a viable channel. Yet, if you’re creative, you can use the limitations of StumbleUpon to your advantage.

And I have, time and time again.

Forced Brand Exposure

Clockwork Orange Eye Scene

The first thing to recognize is that StumbleUpon essentially forces visits to your site. This means you don’t have to deal with ad blindness or click-through rate issues to get exposure.

The problem with many StumbleUpon campaigns is that they don’t create a page that will work at a glance. Because it’s not about engaging on that visit. Don’t try to encourage an activity that is antithetical to the product. User engagement metrics should be largely ignored when using StumbleUpon.

The job of a StumbleUpon visit is to ensure that the user leaves remembering your site and what you’re offering. So the page has to be designed with five foot web design in mind and should be laser focused, passing any five second test with flying colors.

StumbleUpon is about getting brand and marketing message exposure.

You’re hoping that they’ll return later via another channel. I’ve seen strong correlations between an increase in direct traffic in the weeks after a StumbleUpon campaign. This would indicate that some people do remember that exposure and come back directly as a result.

But it’s awful hard to prove with all the mitigating factors.

Stumble Remarketing

Cat Looking Through Blinds

The good news is that there is a better way to get those brand exposures to come back to your site. Remarketing!

All you need to do is set a remarketing tag on that specific StumbleUpon page and you suddenly have the ability to market to a specific and relevant group of people who already have a nascent idea of your site or product.

I like having a dedicated StumbleUpon campaign page so you can isolate this group from other groups when you’re doing more complicated remarketing campaigns. It’s just far simpler to manage and measure.

Easy To Set Up

It’s a snap to set this up now that you can create Google remarketing lists (aka Audience) using Google Analytics.

Setting Up Remarketing Lists in Google Analytics

Here I’m simply targeting those users who visit my new search volume trend page. You do have to tweak your Google Analytics code to enable remarketing, which isn’t that hard if you’re willing to tinker. It’s even easier if you’re using Google Tag Manager.

Then you create your StumbleUpon campaign and watch as users ‘Stumble’ to your page and fill up your new Audience. At that point you can then go to AdWords and build a remarketing campaign using that Audience.

I won’t give the step-by-step instructions here unless there’s an outcry of folks for this level of detail.

StumbleUpon+Remarketing=Win

Funnel Cake

Even at $0.20 a visit I can take $5,000 and turn it into a list of 25,000 targeted users that I can target via remarketing for a loooong time.

Yes, the remarketing will also cost you some money but those clicks will be qualified clicks and will convert at a high rate. Not only that but if you’re smart you can use remarketing to gain extra brand exposures that produce additional view-through visits and conversions.

Stumble remarketing opens and fills your funnel with relevant users.

All you have to do is combine a remarketing tag with this targeted traffic source!

First This, Then That

Green and White Dominos Set in Spiral

My idea was to demonstrate this with a new page on my site dedicated to monthly updates to US desktop search query volume. I’ve tracked this metric for a long time and figured I would create a dedicated page for it and use StumbleUpon to announce and launch it. Then I’d use remarketing when the next month’s data was live and the graph was updated.

I screwed a few things up though so the test didn’t work quite as I’d planned. (User error!) And I haven’t seen new June numbers from comScore yet and was getting itchy to post this. But the idea was solid.

Have a defined plan behind the two exposures.

In my case I was looking to get people’s attention with one interesting graph and commentary. Then I’d bring them back with a remarketing ad when the graph was updated with a new month’s data. The ad could be the graph with a ‘see updated search trend’ call-to-action or any number of creative treatments. In a best case scenario I would also have created a subscribe option for the page itself once users got there again.

If you have a product you’re trying to sell you might have the first ‘Stumble’ exposure introduce the product and brand. The second ‘remarketing’ exposure could be a benefit message, a free white paper download or a coupon for a product trial. In some ways the first exposure is advertising and the second is marketing.

You’re a marketing boxer hitting users with a combination one-two punch.

TL;DR

By combining StumbleUpon Paid Discovery with Google Remarketing you can quickly and efficiently open and fill the top of the sales funnel. Use StumbleUpon’s low-engagement context to your advantage and deliver a memorable first impression that you then build on through additional remarketing exposures.

You Won’t Remember That Infographic

June 25 2014 // Marketing + SEO // 43 Comments

Infographics are (still) popular. Clients ask me about them all the time. I ask them to tell me about the last three infographics they remembered.

The response is generally full of stammering as they grope for an answer. Rarely do I get specifics. Even when I do they say things like ‘that infographic about craft beer’. When I ask where the infographic came from? Crickets.

Can you name the brands associated with infographics? The brands that come up most often are Mint and OK Cupid. Everyone else is an also ran. And that’s the thing. For all of their popularity, you won’t remember that infographic.

Or, at least, you won’t remember it the right way.

Triangle Of Memory

To understand why infographics are so problematic we need to look at how we remember content.

Triangle of Memory

The triangle of memory is a variant of the project management triangle that includes better, faster and cheaper attributes, of which you can only have two at any given time. You can have a project fast and cheap but it won’t be better. You can have a project fast and better but it will cost you an arm and a leg.

In terms of memory, we don’t have a massive tag based annotation system in our brains. (That’s what Delicious is for.) Instead, we remember content at a very basic level: site, author and topic. This is why I tell clients to make their content cocktail party ready.

Because you remember ‘that post on Moz about Hummingbird‘ or ‘Danny Sullivan’s analysis of New York Times subscription costs‘.

It’s site and topic, but not the author. It’s author and topic but not site. Rarely it is author and site but not topic. Examples of this might be ‘the latest column by Krugman in the New York Times’ or ‘last week’s episode of John Oliver on HBO’.

I’m not saying you never get all three. You hit the three cherries jackpot once in a while. But it’s rare. Counting on it is like counting on winning at the casino.

The Infographics Monster

Infographics Monster

The problem with infographics is that they destroy the triangle of memory. They gobble up one of those three memory attributes leaving you with only one left to use. It’s always ‘that infographic’. And like it or not the attribute most people select is the topic, resulting in the phrase ‘that infographic about …’.

That means your site or brand disappears! And no. No one remembers (and may not even see) your logo that you’ve slapping on there.

‘That infographic about AdWords conversion rates’ is done by who exactly? Where do I find it again? Ah, never mind. Or worse yet they search for it and they find something or someone else instead.

If users don’t remember that it’s your brand or site, have you really succeeded?

Wasted Attention

Chocolate Covered Donut

Not only are infographics often costly (both in time and money) but you’ve wasted that sliver of attention you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Here you’ve got the eyeballs of a user and they leave without remembering who you are or where they saw it. Heck they might even attribute it to the platform where they discovered it such as Facebook, Pinterest or Google+.

Winning the attention auction isn’t easy and when you do win it you better ensure you’re using that attention wisely. I’d argue an infographic is wasted attention. It’s attention without any lasting value. It’s empty (branding) calories.

When Infographics Work

LOL Cat vs OMG Cat

By and large I steer clients away from infographics and prefer to have them work on other content initiatives where they’ll build brand equity. But that’s not to say that infographics can’t work. They can. But it takes a serious commitment and attention to execution.

Doing one or two infographics is like flushing a fist full of hundred dollar bills down the toilet. If you’re going to do infographics, do infographics. Commit to producing one every month for 18 months.

Consistent engaging infographics is what makes your brand stick. It’s why Mint and OK Cupid succeeded where so many others failed.

I’d also argue that infographics must make users LOL or OMG. If they don’t provoke one of those two reactions then you’re not going to gain traction or attention.

The other way to go is to leverage the infographic into other channels and make it repeatable. Search Engine Land’s Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors (a bit of a mouthful) was printed and handed out at SMX Advanced and has been updated three (?) times now.

It’s an iconic piece pushed through multiple marketing channels to reinforce the site and brand. That’s how you do it.

Don’t Talk To Me About Links

I know some of you are about flexing your fingers about to type out a comment about how your infographic obtained 12 links with an average DA of 49.

Velma Says You Stop That!

Links aren’t the goal of your infographic campaign. Your customers don’t care if you’re on some cheesoid infographic aggregator site. Instead I want to know if that infographic won the brand more true fans. Did it increase the brand’s visibility? Because those things will lead to long-term authority and, by the way, downstream links.

If you’re in such desperate need of links there are far better and cheaper ways to earn them than the branding black hole known as the infographic.

Visibility

Zero Visibility

Another argument for infographics is that they provide you with more visibility. If I see an infographic and then I see a Slideshare deck and then I search and I find a blog post over the course of weeks or months, then perhaps the brand or site begins to sink in.

In principle, I agree. But that only works if I associate that infographic with the other pieces of content and that I have those other pieces of content, which all support my site or brand.

In other words, you better have a comprehensive content strategy (including promotion) that doesn’t rely on just one tactic or medium. I like Jason Miller’s idea around Big Rock Content, though I think the missing ingredient is being memorable.

TL;DR

Infographics are a poor way to build your brand and earn true fans because they destroy the triangle of memory. A successful infographic campaign must be part of a larger content strategy, focusing on repeatable efforts that make people LOL or OMG and can be pushed through multiple marketing channels to reinforce the site or brand.

Social Signals and SEO

April 07 2014 // SEO + Social Media // 107 Comments

Do social signals (Tweets, Likes and Pluses) impact search rankings? The answer to this question is yes, but not in the traditional sense. That’s why so much misinformation exists on the topic.

So before you run off and get all your friends to Tweet your post (or worse yet buy Likes etc.), read on to understand the math and real reason why social works.

Social Signals Are Not Part Of The Algorithm

Cat On A Leash

No matter how much we want it, or how many times we think it would make sense, it’s just not happening.

Social is not currently part of Google’s search algorithm.

At SMX West 2014 Amit Singhal stated that Google+ doesn’t have an impact on the relevance of non-personalized search results. (I was there and heard those words come out of his mouth.)

That’s the head of Google’s search effort telling you that they’re not even using their own social signals to improve search. So they sure as heck aren’t using Twitter or Facebook, sources in which they have less visibility and trust.

Using social signals in the algorithm is wicked hard for a number of reasons. While I’m sure smart people at Google and Bing are working on ways to use them, they aren’t currently being used. Period. End of story.

But … Correlation!

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

Of course you’ve seen all the correlation studies that seem to show that social improves rankings. Now, the thing is, social is correlated with improved rankings, just as ice cream consumption and amount of clothing worn are correlated.

The key is to find the confound or confounding variable, that thing that explains why those two things are correlated. In the case of ice cream and clothing the confound is (of course) temperature. This is what is generally missing in the conversation around social signals and SEO.

Finding The Confound

It’s not the actual social activity that matters, but what happens as a result of that activity. 

One of the best things that can happen is if your content is seen by creators, the 1% of users who create all the content floating around the Internet.

Before we continue, you might want to acquaint yourself with the concept of participation inequality, something I talk about frequently, most recently as it relates to blog commenting. Because I’m going to mash-up social, participation inequality and the link graph to make my point.

Creators power the link graph and that’s why social can be so important if you follow the math.

Social SEO Math

How Social Signals Impact SEO

Say I get 100 Tweets on a blog post. Those 100 Tweets are seen by 10,000 people. I’m using round numbers here to make the math easier. But the idea is to understand the reach of those social shares.

If we use the standard distribution of participation inequality we determine that 1% of those 10,000 people are creators who might decide to include your brand or site in a future piece of content.

So, if 10,000 people see your content and (on average) 1% of those are creators then you’ve reached the eyeballs of 100 creators (10,000 x 1%), the folks who power the link graph.

Some of those creators will follow through and include you (links and mentions) in their content. It’s something I’ve referred to as the ‘Social Echo‘ in the past. But how do we measure and steer our efforts with this math in mind?

All Social Shares Are Not Equal

Does the share from your buddy with 10 followers (half of which are actually accounts for his pets) mean as much as a share from an industry leader with 20,000 followers? Of course not.

This is one of the reasons why buying Tweets or Likes just for the sake of pumping up that number is a waste of money. Shares that fail to find an audience with the appropriate creator mix will do nothing for SEO … or your marketing efforts in general.

Even the size of the following might not help you. It all depends on the creator mix.

Creator Mix of Followers Matters

For instance, 50,000 followers with a creator mix of .1 (a tenth of a percent) would only give you the opportunity to get in front of 50 creators. On the other hand, 10,000 followers with a 3% creator mix would give you the opportunity to get in front of 300 creators. (Note to self. Someone should come up with a way to quantify the creator mix of someone’s followers.)

The caveat here is that some of those 50,000 followers might re-share that content and they might have a better creator mix and get you to more creator eyeballs. You can see how this can quickly get complicated.

Long story short, the number of creators following someone who shares your content is important.

Did They See It?

Polar Bear Covering Eyes

You’ll notice that I say that you have the opportunity to reach a certain number of creators with those social shares. But there’s no guarantee that those creators actually see that one specific share amid all the other content passing through their social feeds. And there’s an argument here that creators might be more difficult to reach based on their time constraints.

So while I’m not in love with the idea of timing your social shares, it actually make a bit of sense. Because you want to maximize the potential for creators to see your content. Be warned, this is highly dependent on your vertical and will change over time so don’t get lazy and rely on cookie-cutter data.

You must win the attention auction. That means optimizing your social snippets, using paid organic amplification to get things off the ground and sharing your content more than once (second chance Tweets etc.) among other things. At the end of the day you want to do everything you can to ensure creators are seeing your stuff.

Optimize and maximize creator impressions.

Creator Conversion Rate

Red Neon Yes No Maybe So

The last variable in the equation might be the most important one of all – the percentage of creators who wind up linking to you as a result of a social impression.

So lets go back to my initial math: 100 shares produce 10,000 impressions of which 1% or 100 are creators. How many of them are going to do something with your content that will impact the link graph?

I don’t have any hard data on this and, frankly, it is super dependent on the content. Really awesome content that’s relevant, timely and memorable might have a high conversion rate. Content that makes creators roll their eyes and curse themselves for clicking through in the first place may not get a single link.

I tend to use a 1% conversion rate when discussing this with clients. So in my example, those initial 100 shares would net 1 link.

That’s it folks. Links are the confound in the correlation between social shares and rankings.

Content that hits that sweet spot, getting a high number of shares that creates downstream links from creators (particularly in a short period of time), produces wildly successful results. Those additional references by creators often creates a tailwind of sharing on the original content, reinforcing the correlation we all recognize exists.

Fuzzy Math

Evil Distribution Plushies

Now, I’ve provided math on why I believe social is a valuable part of SEO. Downstream links matter. No doubt about it.

But it’s more than just a mathematical equation of links. Social drives more people to your site who might convert and become a reader or customer. Those people might wind up sharing in the future and the traditional math above kicks in again.

You’ll gain additional followers and true fans who help to distribute your future content. Guess what? You’re just optimizing the top of the Social SEO funnel. More shares lead to more impressions lead to more creator impressions and more opportunities for gaining authoritative references (i.e. – links).

You also might get more direct traffic as a result, as the mere exposure effect takes hold and they begin to associate you with specific topics and visit your site as needed. Even this could probably be reduced to math if you really wanted to go down the rabbit hole.

Good things happen when your brand is seen by more people.

TL;DR

Social has an indirect but powerful impact on search rankings. It’s not the actual social activity that matters, but what happens as a result of that activity. Optimizing and maximizing creator impressions increases the chance of obtaining links from the group of people who power the link graph.

The Ridiculous Power of Blog Commenting

March 25 2014 // Marketing + SEO // 139 Comments

Blog commenting is the not-so-secret weapon to building your brand and authority. I’m not talking about comment spam or finding do follow blogs and littering them with links. No, the blog commenting I’m talking about lets you cut through the clutter and tap into the attention of creators.

Participation Inequality

To understand why blog commenting is so powerful you first need to grasp the concept of participation inequality.

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

You might also hear this concept referred to as the 90:9:1 Principle or The 1% Rule. You could even stretch a bit and mention the Pareto Principle in this discussion. The idea here is that the vast majority of people lurk and never participate. They are consumers of content.

A small minority, the 9%, may comment, share or participate in other ways. But it’s the 1% left that actually create the content that is consumed. When I explain it to people I refer to these groups as lurkers, reactors and creators respectively.

Participation Inequality Pyramid

What’s surprising (to me at least) is that many people still haven’t caught on to this idea. They remain shocked and appalled that 90%+ of Yelp reviews come from 1% of users. They use low activity (defined as contributing) on services like Twitter and Google+ to argue that they’re not viable.

Twopcharts Twitter Activity by Year

Now what type of person do you think was more likely to sign up and use Twitter back in 2008?  Lurker, reactor or creator? Give yourself a gold star if you answered creator. And that’s why the percentage still Tweeting from those years is higher. As the service became more mainstream, more lurkers joined the service.

And that’s okay!

Trying to ‘fix’ participation inequality is a losing battle against human nature. Most people simply aren’t going to create content for a wide variety of reasons. Sure, technology may slide the percentages a small amount but material changes to this dynamic won’t happen.

Creators

Hand Painted Saucer

If creators are responsible for nearly all of the content we consume, that makes them … pretty powerful. I dare say, you might call them influencers. Now, I don’t particularly like that term but there’s a certain amount of truth in it.

The sad thing is that most of the ‘influencer outreach’ content I’ve seen talks about how to identify (zzzzzz) and email these people or ways to interact with them on Twitter. I suppose that can work once in a while but the odds of securing their attention in these ways is limited and inefficient.

People continue to do this type of outreach because of the huge upside in gaining the attention of a creator. Creators often have a large audience so a mention or link in the content they create can provide a real boost to your brand and authority.

If you didn’t put the pieces together already, creators power the link graph.

Attention

Hangout Cat

Attention is at a premium and it’s your job to win the attention auction as many times as you can. It’s even more important to win the attention of creators. Yet, creators may have a more limited amount of attention to give. Why? They’re busy creating content! Seriously, it takes time (and lots of it) if you’re doing it right.

Not only that but if they’re a successful creator, the demands on their time increase. They get more email, more requests, more clients.

So how do you get the attention of a creator? Funny thing, there’s actually a really easy way to hack the attention of a creator. That’s right. Blog commenting.

You know that creators are going to be paying attention to the comments on their content. They worked hard to produce it and they’re looking to see how it’s received. Make no mistake, creators thrive on feedback and validation.

Creators hang out in the comments section. So take advantage of the implicit focus creators have on comments.

Blog Commenting

Blog Commenting

The problem with blog commenting is that most people suck at it. I’m not even talking about the cesspool of comments that often overwhelms YouTube videos or the comment spam with their ever present and overly complimentary prose clogging up moderation queues.

Commenting is your chance to get the undivided attention of that creator, if only for a few seconds as they determine whether the comment is interesting.

“Nice post. Very helpful.”

Is that comment interesting? Nope. Is it memorable? Nope. Comments like this do absolutely nothing for you. In fact, if a creator associates you with these types of moronic bland comments, you reduce your chances of securing their attention in the future.

Remember, attention is a habit. You figure out which people are worthy of your attention and which are not. The more times I choose not to pay attention to you, the more likely I am to do that in the future.

When you comment, your job is to add value to that content. That means you come with an opinion and point of view. You come with other related content that you’ll link to in your comment. Those links should not always be to your own site. No one likes the person who always talks about me, me, me.

Most creators want a reaction. They want a debate. They want a conversation. They want to learn. They want to be challenged. They want to be mentally stimulated.

Who Is This Person?

Thought Bubble

If you’ve done your job right and provided a comment that engages the creator, a thought bubble should appear over their head reading ‘who is this person?’

At that point they’re clicking on the links in your comment or on the ‘site’ link you provided in the comment meta that’s on nearly every comment platform.

A good comment gets a creator curious about that person.

They click around and do some research. Maybe you have a blog yourself and they read your latest post (or more). Maybe they like it enough they add it to their RSS reader or they find your Twitter handle and follow you there.

Of course this means you need those exploratory clicks to land somewhere that showcases your brand. Don’t make the mistake of leaving a great comment and then have the creator come through to a site that hasn’t been updated in over a year or a half-ass product page with a broken image.

If you’ve engaged the creator enough to garner more attention, don’t squander it with poor content assets.

Putting It All Together

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a few months but it wasn’t until I bumped into Larry Kim (who is a great guy) at SMX West that everything fell into place. I was chatting with Larry about this topic and he gave me a perfect example of the power of blog commenting in practice.

On February 25th the talented Elisa Gabbert compiled the opinions of SEO experts on the ‘dwindling value of links‘ (bollocks, but that’s another story.)

Wordstream PageRank Post

The post was popular and garnered 37 comments, many from other notable creators. One of those was a very comprehensive comment by Russ Jones from Virante.

Comment by Russ Jones on Wordstream PageRank post

On February 28th (three days later) the indomitable Rand Fishkin released a Whiteboard Friday video that not only linked to the Wordstream post but referenced comments by Russ Jones.

Whiteboard Friday on Link Value

And if you watch the video or read the transcript it’s crystal clear that Rand has read the comments. Heck, he uses them as the basis for a material amount of this video! It might have been nice if Moz had also linked to Virante but c’est la vie.

Do you see what just happened here!? Have I convinced you how powerful blog commenting can be in getting the attention of creators? That those creators can then provide your brand, site or product exposure by including them in their content.

But … Reasons Excuses

Cheese

I know some of you are going to complain that blog commenting like this is too time consuming. Oh? Can I offer you some cheese for that whine?

Seriously! There are few better ways to interact with creators. Not every one will result in a mention or link in three days time but done right you’re going to build your expertise and authority with the ‘right’ people.

Would you rather send out a bunch of email pitches to influencers which are essentially interruptions and attacks on their attention or instead build lasting content assets (comments my friend) while gaining exposure with said influencers? Choose wisely.

Others are rightly frustrated with comment censorship, both human and algorithmic (i.e. – spam filters). But the answer is not to remove comments (and chase away creators) but to figure out a better way to have these discussions.

TL;DR

A small amount of creators are responsible for the vast majority of the content we consume. They have a limited amount of attention yet wield a lot of influence through their ability to reference sites, products, brands or content in the content they produce.

Creators hangout in (aka devote their attention to) the comments section of their content and that of others. Thus, memorable blog comments that provoke creator curiosity (and clicks) build your authority and improve your chances of gaining a mention or link in their content in the future.

SEO Is Stone Soup

March 17 2014 // SEO // 25 Comments

Each year my wife and I take our daughter to the Chevron Family Theatre Festival at the Lesher Center for the Arts. It’s a great local tradition where kids sit on stage during fairy tale plays, get their face painted and eat ice cream among other things.

Last year we also saw The Pushcart Players, a smaller touring group, put on Stone Soup and Other Stories. They were excellent. Not only that but the Stone Soup fable they performed was new to me and, oddly, fit my view of SEO.

Stone Soup

Stone Soup

The Stone Soup story is “an old folk story in which hungry strangers persuade local people of a town to give them food.” The scene opens with a traveller going through a Russian town way back when. In this instance the traveler is acquainted with the townspeople but it’s been a hard year. Everyone is hungry and they’re in no mood to share.

The traveller sets up his pot, puts water and a stone in it and gets a fire going, telling the passing townspeople that he’s making delicious Stone Soup. The townspeople are super curious (and hungry) so he promises to share the recipe if they help him make it.

He’s got them hooked! So as he’s stirring the traveller says “Well, you know what makes Stone Soup even better? Carrots.” And a townsperson runs off to fetch a carrot which is added to the soup.

Then the traveller says, “But, you know what else makes Stone Soup great? Onions.” And so another townsperson runs off to fetch an onion. The pattern continues with the traveller asking for a potato and finally a chicken until the Stone Soup is truly a delicious and hearty soup.

SEO is the stone.

SEO is Stone Soup

Unopened Geode

Watching and listening to the story I was struck that the way I approach SEO is just like Stone Soup.

A client might come to me for what many might think of as traditional SEO, including technical issues, keyword research, on-page optimization and (the dreaded) link building. But as I work with a client I take on the role of the traveller.

You know what would make your SEO even better? Some conversion rate optimization. Even more so? Focusing on user experience. Oh, and do you have an email marketing program? No? Oh, well that’s critical. You’re doing social right? How about remarketing? No! Well that’s a no-brainer. Have you looked at these business development opportunities? Can we talk about your product? And lets start promoting benefits instead of features, okay?

The list is pretty long and at the end of the day SEO is simply digital marketing.

Why Sell SEO?

If SEO is just digital marketing why do I continue to sell SEO? That’s how my clients talk about this problem! I’ve done my intent and user syntax research.

Google Trends for SEO, Inbound Marketing and Growth Hacking

Honestly, I don’t really care what we call ourselves. All of the above terms are just fine and you might have found a way to use other terms to sell your services. Awesome! More power to you.

But in my experience, when people are looking for help with their business (aka more traffic) they often use the term ‘SEO’ as a proxy. So I want to be there when those clients come knocking.

In the end it doesn’t matter what was said about SEO on The Good Wife. It only matters how prospective clients talk about and express this intent. Because the intent behind those looking for SEO matches what I offer, whether they realize it or not.

Baggage

Baggage

There’s a tremendous amount of angst around the ‘baggage’ that comes with the term SEO. People say that the mainstream thinks of us as spammers. That the term SEO is toxic.

Every objection is an opportunity.

That’s what I used to tell my employees when I ran telemarketing programs at George Washington University, American University and UCSD. One of my jobs was to arm my callers with answers to predictable objections.

Objection: “The university doesn’t need any more money. They get plenty from the state of California.”

Response: “Actually, the amount the university gets from the state has dropped from 80% to 20% in the last 10 years. We need your help more than ever.”

I’m not sure I have the facts right here but it’s something like this and you get the gist of it, right? When someone raises an objection it’s actually an opportunity to have a dialog.

Why not use that to your advantage?

Predictability

Cats Sitting in Boxes

One of the other reasons I still use the term SEO is that the questions (or objections) I’m going to get are predictable. I can anticipate the questions and can have great answers to them ready to roll off my tongue or fingertips.

I’ve used this technique in many places. For instance, what do you think one of the most frequent questions is about Blind Five Year Old? The name! So I get to tell them about my philosophy of SEO right away. #winning

Back in the day, I left a gap in employment on my resume knowing that a good interviewer would ask me about that gap. I had a great answer lined up. And I’d rather talk about what I want to talk about rather than leave everything up to chance.

Same thing when you’re creating a pitch deck. Engineer the presentation so that you can anticipate the questions! I’m not saying look like an idiot. Just be smart and you’ll increase your odds of getting the questions you want to answer.

So with the term SEO I know a lot of the questions are going to be about spam, links and other dated techniques. I have my answers. Not only that but I can qualify clients by how they respond to my answers.

Marketing

I Love Marketing

In the end I approach things as a marketer. I’m using what is sometimes referred to as a bowling pin strategy. I’m following the user syntax of my clients and matching their intent.

I know the funnel is going to be dirty, chock full of the misinformed working off of 2007 rank-fast SEO tactics. But it’s a ginormous funnel that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So my job is to quickly find the diamonds in the rough.

Mind you, I no longer have to do a lot of this since nearly 100% of my business comes via referrals. But I got to this point using the strategy outlined here and hope I’d do it again (nearly) the same way if I were starting from scratch.

TL;DR

SEO as a profession is much larger than the specific acronym indicates. Yet, SEO remains a powerful term because of user behavior and intent, providing an opportunity to deliver other important digital marketing techniques to a larger audience. So I sell SEO as if I’m making Stone Soup.