RankBrain Survival Guide

June 09 2016 // SEO // 32 Comments

This is a guide to surviving RankBrain. I created it, in part, because there’s an amazing amount of misinformation about RankBrain. And the truth is there is nothing you can do to optimize for RankBrain.

I’m not saying RankBrain isn’t interesting or important. I love learning about how search works whether it helps me in my work or not. What I am saying is that there are no tactics to employ based on our understanding of RankBrain.

So if you’re looking for optimization strategies you should beware of the clickbait RankBrain content being pumped out by fly-by-night operators and impression hungry publishers.

You Can’t Optimize For RankBrain

You Can't Optimize For RankBrain

I’m going to start out with this simple statement to ensure as many people as possible read, understand and retain this fact.

You can’t optimize for RankBrain.

You’ll read a lot of posts to the contrary. Sometimes they’re just flat out wrong, sometimes they’re using RankBrain as a vehicle to advocate for SEO best practices and sometimes they’re just connecting dots that aren’t there.

Read on if you want proof that RankBrain optimization is a fool’s errand and you should instead focus on other vastly more effective strategies and tactics.

What Is RankBrain?

RankBrain is a deep learning algorithm developed by Google to help improve search results. Deep learning is a form of machine learning and can be classified somewhere on the Artificial Intelligence (AI) spectrum.

I think of Deep Learning as a form of machine learning where the algorithm can adapt and learn without further human involvement. One of the more interesting demonstrations of deep learning was the identification of cats (among other things) in YouTube thumbnails (pdf).

How Does RankBrain Work?

Knowing how RankBrain works is important because it determines whether you can optimize for it or not. Despite what you might read, there are only a handful of good sources of information about RankBrain.

Greg Corrado

The first is from the October 26 Bloomberg RankBrain announcement that included statements and summaries of a chat with Google Senior Research Scientist, Greg Corrado.

RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities — called vectors — that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.

This makes it pretty clear that RankBrain uses vectors to better understand complex language.

Word2Vec is most often referenced when talking about vectors. And it should be noted that Jeff Dean, Greg Corrado and many others were part of this effort. You’ll see these same names pop up time and again surrounding vectors and deep learning.

I wrote a bit about vectors in my post on Hummingbird. In particular I like the quote from a 2013 Jeff Dean interview.

I think we will have a much better handle on text understanding, as well. You see the very slightest glimmer of that in word vectors, and what we’d like to get to where we have higher level understanding than just words. If we could get to the point where we understand sentences, that will really be quite powerful. So if two sentences mean the same thing but are written very differently, and we are able to tell that, that would be really powerful. Because then you do sort of understand the text at some level because you can paraphrase it.

I was really intrigued by the idea of Google knowing that two different sentences meant the same thing. And they’ve made a fair amount of progress in this regard with research around paragraph vectors (pdf).

Paragraph Vector Paper

It’s difficult to say exactly what type of vector analysis RankBrain employs. I think it’s safe to say it’s a variable-length vector analysis and leave it at that.

So what else did we learn from the Corrado interview? Later in the piece there are statements about how much Google relies on RankBrain.

The system helps Mountain View, California-based Google deal with the 15 percent of queries a day it gets which its systems have never seen before, he said.

That’s pretty clear. RankBrain is primarily used for queries not previously seen by Google, though it seems likely that its reach may have grown based on the initial success.

Unfortunately the next statement has caused a whole bunch of consternation.

RankBrain is one of the “hundreds” of signals that go into an algorithm that determines what results appear on a Google search page and where they are ranked, Corrado said. In the few months it has been deployed, RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query, he said.

This provoked the all-too-typical reactions from the SEO community. #theskyisfalling The fact is we don’t know how Google is measuring ‘importance’ nor do we understand whether it’s for just that 15 percent or for all queries.

Andrey Lipattsev

To underscore the ‘third-most important’ signal boondoggle we have statements by Andrey Lipattsev, Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, in a Q&A with Ammon Johns and others.

In short, RankBrain might have been ‘called upon’ in many queries but may not have materially impacted results.

Or if you’re getting technical, RankBrain might not have caused a reordering of results. So ‘importance’ might have been measured by frequency and not impact.

Later on you’ll find that RankBrain has access to a subset of signals so RankBrain could function more like a meta signal. It kind of feels like comparing apples and oranges.

But more importantly, why does it matter? What will you do differently knowing it’s the third most important signal?

Gary Illyes

Another source of RankBrain information is from statements by Gary Illyes in conversation with Eric Enge. In particular, Gary has been able to provide some examples of RankBrain in action.

I mean, if you think about, for example, a query like, “Can you get a 100 percent score on Super Mario without a walk-through?” This could be an actual query that we receive. And there is a negative term there that is very hard to catch with the regular systems that we had, and in fact our old query parsers actually ignored the “without” part.

And RankBrain did an amazing job catching that and actually instructing our retrieval systems to get the right results.

Gary’s statements lend clear support to the idea that RankBrain helps Google to better understand complex natural language queries.

Paul Haahr

Paul Haahr Speaking at SMX West 2016

Perhaps the most interesting statements about RankBrain were made by Paul Haahr, a Google Ranking Engineer, at SMX West during his How Google Works: An Google Ranking Engineer’s Story presentation and Q&A.

I was lucky enough to see this presentation live and it is perhaps the best and most revealing look at Google search. (Seriously, if you haven’t watched this you should turn in your SEO card now.)

It’s in the Q&A that Haahr discusses RankBrain.

RankBrain gets to see some subset of the signals and it’s a machine learning or deep learning system that has its own ideas about how you combine signals and understand documents.

I think we understand how it works but we don’t understand what it’s doing exactly.

It uses a lot of the stuff that we’ve published on deep learning. There’s some work that goes by Word2Vec or word embeddings that is one layer of what RankBrain is doing. It actually plugs into one of the boxes, one of the late post retrieval boxes that I showed before.

Danny then asks about how RankBrain might work to ascertain document quality or authority.

This is all a function of the training data that it gets. It sees not just web pages but it sees queries and other signals so it can judge based on stuff like that.

These statements are by far the most important because it provides a plethora of information. First and foremost Haahr states that RankBrain plugs in late post-retrieval.

This is an important distinction because it means that RankBrain doesn’t rewrite the query before Google goes looking for results but instead does so afterwards.

So Google retrieves results using the raw query but then RankBrain might rewrite the query or interpret it differently in an effort to select and reorder the results for that query.

In addition, Haahr makes it clear that RankBrain has access to a subset of signals and the query. As I mentioned this makes RankBrain feel more like a meta-signal instead of a stand-alone signal.

What we don’t know are the exact signals that make up that subset. Many will take this statement to theorize that it uses link data or click data or any sundry of signals. The fact is we have no idea which signals RankBrain has access to nor with what weight RankBrain might be using them or if they’re used evenly across all queries.

The inability to know the variables makes any type of regression analysis of RankBrain a non-starter.

Of course there’s also the statement that they don’t know what RankBrain is doing. That’s because RankBrain is a deep learning algorithm performing unsupervised learning. It’s creating its own rules.

More to the point, if a Google Ranking Engineer doesn’t know what RankBrain is doing, do you think that anyone outside of Google suddenly understands it better? The answer is no.

You Can’t Optimize For RankBrain

You can’t optimize for RankBrain based on what we know about what it is and how it works. At its core RankBrain is about better understanding of language, whether that’s within documents or queries.

So what can you do differently based on this knowledge?

Google is looking at the words, sentences and paragraphs and turning them into mathematical vectors. It’s trying to assign meaning to that chunk of text so it can better match it to complex query syntax.

The only thing you can do is to improve your writing so that Google can better understand the meaning of your content. But that’s not really optimizing for RankBrain that’s just doing proper SEO and delivering better user experience (UX).

By improving your writing and making it more clear you’ll wind up earning more links and, over time, be seen as an authority on that topic. So you’ll be covered no matter what other signals RankBrain is using.

The one thing you shouldn’t do is think that RankBrain will figure out your poor writing or that you now have the license to, like, write super conversationally you know. Strong writing matters more now than it ever has before.

TL;DR

RankBrain is a deep learning algorithm that plugs in post-retrieval and relies on variable-length text vectors and other signals to make better sense of complex natural language queries. While fascinating, there is nothing one can do to specifically optimize for RankBrain.

Query Classes

February 09 2016 // SEO // 8 Comments

Identifying query classes is one of the most powerful ways to optimize large sites. Understanding query classes allows you to identify both user syntax and intent.

I’ve talked for years about query classes but never wrote a post dedicated to them. Until now.

Query Classes

Ron Burgundy Stay Classy

What are query classes? A query class is a set of queries that are well defined in construction and repeatable. That sounds confusing but it really isn’t when you break it down.

A query class is most often composed of a root term and a modifier.

vacation homes in tahoe

Here the root term is ‘vacation homes’ and the modifier is ‘in [city]’. The construction of this query is well defined. It’s repeatable because users search for vacation homes in a vast number of cities.

Geography is often a dynamic modifier for a query class. But query classes are not limited to just geography. Here’s another example.

midday moon lyrics

Here the root term is dynamic and represents a song, while the modifier is the term ‘lyrics’. A related query class is ‘[song] video’ expressed as ‘midday moon video’.

Another simple one that doesn’t contain geography is ‘reviews’. This modifier can be attached to both products or locations.

Query Class Example for Reviews

Recently Glen Allsopp (aka Viperchill) blogged about a numeric modifier that creates a query class: [year].

best science fiction books 2015

This often happens as part of a query reformulation when people are looking for the most up-to-date information on a topic and this is the easiest way for them to do so.

Sometimes a query class doesn’t have a modifier. LinkedIn and Facebook (among others) compete for a simple [name] query class. Yelp and Foursquare and others compete for the [venue name] query class.

Query Class Example for Venues

Of how about food glorious food.

Query Class Example for Recipe

That’s right, there’s a competitive ‘[dish] recipe’ query class up for grabs. Then there are smaller but important query classes that are further down the purchase funnel for retailers.

Query Class Example for VS

You can create specific comparison pages for the query class of ‘[product x] vs [product y]’ and capture potential buyers during the end of the evaluation phase. Of course you don’t create all of these combinations, you only do so for those that have legitimate comparisons and material query volume.

If it isn’t obvious by now there are loads of query classes out there. But query classes aren’t about generating massive amounts of pages but instead are about matching and optimizing for query syntax and intent.

User Syntax

One reason I rely on query classes is that it provides a window to understanding user syntax. I want to know how they search.

Query classes represent the ways in which users most often search for content. Sure there are variations and people don’t all query the same way but the majority follow these patterns.

Do you want to optimize for the minority or the majority?

Here are just a few of the ‘[dish] recipe’ terms I thought of off the top of my head.

Query Class Query Volume Example

Look at that! And that’s just me naming three dishes off the top of my head. Imagine the hundreds if not thousands of dishes that people are searching for each day. You’re staring at a pile of search traffic based on a simple query class.

It’s super easy when you’re dealing with geography because you can use a list of top cities in the US (or the world) and then with some simple concatenation formulas can generate a list of candidates.

Sometimes you want to know the dominant expression of that query class. Here’s one for bike trails by state.

Query Class User Syntax

Here I have a list of the different variants of this query class. One using ‘[state] bike trails’ and the other ‘bike trails in [state]’. Using Google’s keyword planner I see that the former has twice the query volume than the latter. Yes, it’s exact match but that’s usually directionally valid.

I know there’s some of you who think this level of detail doesn’t matter. You’re wrong. When users parse search results or land on a page they want to see the phrase they typed. It’s human nature and you’ll win more if you’re using the dominant syntax.

Once you identify a query class the next step is to understand the intent of that query class. If you’ve got a good head on your shoulders this is relatively easy.

Query Intent

Bath LOLCat

Not only do we want to know how they search, we want to know why.

The person searching for ‘vacation homes in tahoe’ is looking for a list of vacation rentals in Lake Tahoe. The person searching for ‘midday moon lyrics’ is looking for lyrics to the Astronautalis song. The person looking for ‘samsung xxx’ vs ‘sony xxx’ is looking for information on which TV they should purchase.

Knowing this, you can provide the relevant content to satisfy the user’s active intent. But the sites and pages that wind up winning are those that satisfy both active and passive intent.

The person looking for vacation homes in tahoe might also want to learn about nearby attractions and restaurants. They may want to book airfare. Maybe they’re looking for lift tickets.

The person looking for midday moon lyrics may want more information about Astronautalis or find lyrics to his other songs. Perhaps they want concert dates and tickets. The person looking for a TV may want reviews on both, a guide to HDTVs and a simple way to buy.

Satisfying passive intent increases the value of your page and keeps users engaged.

Sometimes the query class is vague such a [name] or [venue] and you’re forced to provide answers to multiple types of intent. When I’m looking up a restaurant name I might be looking for the phone number, directions, menu, reviews or to make a reservation to name but a few.

Query classes make it easier to aggregate intent.

Templates

On larger sites the beauty of query classes is that you can map them to a page type and then use smart templates to create appropriate titles, descriptions and more.

This isn’t the same as automation but is instead about ensuring that the page type that matches a query class is well optimized. You can then also do A/B testing on your titles to see if a slightly different version of the title helps you perform across the entire query class.

Sometimes you can play with the value proposition in the title.

Vacation Homes in Tahoe vs Vacation Homes in Tahoe – 1,251 Available Now

It goes well beyond just the Title and meta description. You can establish consistent headers, develop appropriate content units that satisfy passive intent and ensure you have the right crosslink units in place for further discovery.

The wrinkle usually comes with term length. Take city names for instance. You’ve got Rancho Santa Margarita clocking in at 22 characters and then Ada with a character length of 3.

So a lot of the time you’re coming up with business logic that delivers the right text, in multiple places, based on the total length of the term. This can get complex, particularly if you’re matching a dynamic root term with a geographic modifier.

Smart templates let you scale without sacrificing quality.

Rank Indices

The other reason why query classes are so amazing, particularly for large sites, is that you can create rank indices based on those query classes and determine how you’re performing as a whole across that query class.

Query Class Rank Indices

Here I’ve graphed four similar but distinct query class rank indices. Obviously something went awry there in November of 2015. But I know exactly how much it impacted each of those query classes and then work on ways to regain lost ground.

Query classes usually represent material portions of traffic that impact bottomline business metrics such as user acquisition and revenue. When you get the right coverage of query classes and create rank indices for each you’re able to hone in on where you can improve and react when the trends start to go in the wrong direction.

I won’t go into the details now but read up if you’re interested in how to create rank indices.

Identifying Query Classes

Hopefully you’ve already figured out how to identify query classes. But if you haven’t here are a few tips to get you started.

First, use your head. Some of this stuff is just … right there in front of you. Use your judgement and then validate it through keyword research.

Second, look at what comes up in Google’s autocomplete suggestions for root terms. You can also use a tool like Ubersuggest to do this at scale and generate more candidates.

Third, look at the traffic coming to your pages via Search Analytics within Google Search Console. You can uncover patterns there and identify the true syntax bringing users to those pages.

Fourth, use paid search, particularly the report that shows the actual terms that triggered the ad, to uncover potential query classes.

Honestly though, you should really only need the first and second to identify and hone in on query classes.

TL;DR

Query classes are an enormously valuable way to optimize larger sites so they meet and satisfy patterns of query syntax and intent. Query classes let you understand how and why people search. Pages targeted at query classes that aggregate intent will consistently win.

Do 404 Errors Hurt SEO?

February 01 2016 // SEO // 19 Comments

Do 404 errors hurt SEO? It’s a simple question. However, the answer is far from simple. Most 404 errors don’t have a direct impact on SEO, but they can eat away at your link equity and user experience over time.

There’s one variety of 404 that might be quietly killing your search rankings and traffic.

404 Response Code

Abandoned Building

What is a 404 exactly? A 404 response code is returned by the server when there is no matching URI. In other words, the server is telling the browser that the content is not found.

404s are a natural part of the web. In fact, link rot studies show that links regularly break. So what’s the big deal? It’s … complicated.

404s and Authority

Evaporation Example

One of the major issues with 404s is that they stop the flow of authority. It just … evaporates. At first, this sort of bothered me. If someone linked to your site but that page or content is no longer there the citation is still valid. At that point in time the site earned that link.

But when you start to think it through, the dangers begin to present themselves. If authority passed through a 404 page I could redirect that authority to pages not expressly ‘endorsed’ by that link. Even worse, I could purchase a domain and simply use those 404 pages to redirect authority elsewhere.

And if you’re a fan of conspiracies then sites could be open to negative SEO, where someone could link toxic domains to malformed URLs on your site.

404s don’t pass authority and that’s probably a good thing. It still makes sense to optimize your 404 page so users can easily search and find content on your site.

Types of 404s

Google is quick to say that 404s are natural and not to obsess about them. On the other hand, they’ve never quite said that 404s don’t matter. The 2011 Google post on 404s is strangely convoluted on the subject.

The last line of the first answer seems to be definitive but why not answer the question simply? I believe it’s because there’s a bit of nuance involved. And most people suck at nuance.

While the status code remains the same there are different varieties of 404s: external, outgoing and internal. These are my own naming conventions so I’ll make it clear in this post what I mean by each.

Because some 404s are harmless and others are downright dangerous.

External 404s

External 404s occur when someone else is linking to a broken page on your site. Even here, there is a small difference since there can be times when the content has legitimately been removed and other times when someone is linking improperly.

External 404 Diagram

Back in the day many SEOs recommended that you 301 all of your 404s so you could reclaim all the link authority. This is a terrible idea. I have to think Google looks for sites that employ 301s but have no 404s. In short, a site with no 404s is a red flag.

A request for domain.com/foobar should return a 404. Of course, if you know someone is linking to a page incorrectly, you can apply a 301 redirect to get them to the right page, which benefits both the user and the site’s authority.

External 404s don’t bother me a great deal. But it’s smart to periodically look to ensure that you’re capturing link equity by turning the appropriate 404s into 301s.

Outgoing 404s

Outgoing 404s occur when a link from your site to another site breaks and returns a 404. Because we know how often links evaporate this isn’t uncommon.

Outgoing 404 Diagram

Google would be crazy to penalize sites that link to 404 pages. Mind you, it’s about scale to a certain degree. If 100% of the external links on a site were going to 404 pages then perhaps Google (and users) would think differently about that site.

They could also be looking at the age of the link and making a determination on that as well. Or perhaps it’s fine as long as Google saw that the link was at one time a 200 and is now a 404.

Overall these are the least concerning of 404 errors. It’s still a good idea, from a user experience perspective, to find those outgoing 404s in your content and remove or fix the link.

Internal 404s

The last type of 404 is an internal 404. This occurs when the site itself is linking to another ‘not found’ page on their own site. In my experience, internal 404s are very bad news.

Internal 404 Diagram

Over the past two years I’ve worked on squashing internal 404s for a number of large clients. In each instance I believe that removing these internal 404s had a positive impact on rankings.

Of course, that’s hard to prove given all the other things going on with the site, with competitors and with Google’s algorithm. But all things being equal eliminating internal 404s seems to be a powerful piece of the puzzle.

Why Internal 404s Matter

If I’m Google I might look at the number of internal 404s as a way to determine whether the site is well cared for and has an attention to detail.

Does a high-quality site have a lot of internal 404s? Unlikely.

Taken a step further, could Google determine that the odds of a user encountering a 404 on a site and then use that to demote sites from search? I think it’s plausible. Google doesn’t want their users having a poor experience so they might steer folks away from a site they know has a high probability of ending in a dead end.

That leads me to think about the user experience when encountering one of these internal 404s. When a user hits one of these they blame the site and are far more likely to leave the site and return to the search results to find a better result for their query. This type of pogosticking is clearly a negative signal.

Internal 404s piss off users.

The psychology is different with an outgoing 404. I believe most users don’t blame the site for these but the target of the link instead. There’s likely some shared blame, but the rate of pogosticking shouldn’t be as high.

In my experience internal 404s are generally caused by bugs and absolutely degrade the user experience.

Finding Internal 404s

You can find 404s using Screaming Frog or Google Search Console. I’ll focus on Google Search Console here because I often wind up finding patterns of internal 404s this way.

In Search Console you’ll navigate to Crawl and select Crawl Errors.

404s in Google Search Console

At that point you’ll select the ‘Not found’ tab to find the list of 404s Google has identified. Click on one of these URLs and you get a pop-up where you can select the ‘Linked from’ tab.

Linked from Details on 404 Error

I was actually trying to get Google to recognize another internal 404 but they haven’t found it yet. Thankfully I muffed a link in one of my posts and the result looks like an internal 404.

Malformed Link Causes Internal 404

What you’re looking for are instances where your own site appears in the ‘Linked from’ section. On larger sites it can be easy to spot a bug that produces these types of errors by just checking a handful of these URLs.

In this case I’ll just edit the malformed link and everything will work again. It’s usually not that easy. Most often I’m filing tickets in a client’s project tracking system and making engineers groan.

Correlation vs Causation

Not This Again

Some of you are probably shrieking that internal 404s aren’t the problem and that Google has been clear on this issue and that it’s something else that’s making the difference. #somebodyiswrongontheinternet

You’re right and … I don’t care.

You know why I don’t care? Every time I clean up internal 404s, it produces results. I’m not particularly concerned about exactly why it works. Mind you, from an academic perspective I’m intrigued but from a consulting perspective I’m not.

In addition, if you’re in the new ‘user experience optimization’ camp, then eliminating internal 404s fits very nicely, doesn’t it? So is it the actual internal 404s that matter or the behavior of users once they are eliminated that matters or something else entirely? I don’t know.

Not knowing why eliminating internal 404s works isn’t going to stop me from doing it.

This is particularly true since 404 maintenance is entirely in our control. That doesn’t happen much in this industry. It’s shocking how many people ignore 404s that are staring them right in the face. Whether it’s not looking at Google Search Console or not tracking down the 404s that crop up in weblog reports or deep crawls.

Make it a habit to check and resolve your Not found errors via Search Console or Screaming Frog.

TL;DR

404 errors themselves may not directly hurt SEO, but they can indirectly. In particular, internal 404s can quietly tank your efforts, creating a poor user experience that leads to a low-quality perception and pogosticking behavior.

Acquisition SEO and Business Crowding

January 20 2016 // SEO // 24 Comments

There’s an old saying that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But in search, that saying is often turning into something different.

If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em.

Acquisition search engine optimization is happening more often as companies acquire or merge, effectively taking over shelf space on search results. Why settle for having the top result on an important term when I can have the first and second result?

They Live Movie Scene

Should this trend continue you could find search results where only a handful of companies are represented on the first page. That undermines search diversity, one of the fundamentals of Google’s algorithm.

This type of ‘business crowding’ creates false choice and is vastly more dangerous than the purported dread brought on by a filter bubble.

Acquisition SEO

SEO stands for search engine optimization. Generally, that’s meant to convey the idea that you’re working on getting a site to be visible and rank well in search engines.

However, you might see diminishing returns when you’re near the top of the results in important query classes. Maybe the battle with a competitor for those top slots is so close that the effort to move the needle is essentially ROI negative.

In these instances, more and more often, the way to increase search engine traffic, and continue on a growth trajectory, is through an acquisition.

Example of Acquisition SEO

That’s not to say that Zillow or Trulia is doing anything wrong. But it brings up a lot of thorny questions.

Search Shelf Space

Gary Larson False Choice Cartoon

About seven years ago I had an opportunity to see acquisition SEO up close and personal. Caring.com acquired Gilbert Guide and suddenly we had two results on the first page for an important query class in the senior housing space.

It’s hard not to get Montgomery Burns at that point and look at how you can dominate search results by having two sites. All roads lead to Rome as they say.

I could even rationalize that the inventory provided on each platform was different. A venn diagram would show a substantial overlap but there was plenty of non-shaded areas.

But who wants to maintain two sets of inventory? That’s a lot of operational and technical overhead. Soon you figure out that it’s probably better to have one set of inventory and syndicate it across both sites. Cost reduction and efficiency are powerful business tenets.

At that point the sites are, essentially, the same. They offer the same content (the inventory of senior housing options) but with different wrappers. It idea was awesome but also made my stomach hurt.

(Please note that this is not how these two sites are configured today.)

Host Crowding

Manspreading Example

The funny thing is that if I’d tried to do this with a subdomain on Caring.com I’d have run afoul of something Google calls host crowding.

Matt Cutts wrote about this back in 2007 in a post about subdomains and subdirectories.

For several years Google has used something called “host crowding,” which means that Google will show up to two results from each hostname/subdomain of a domain name. That approach works very well to show 1-2 results from a subdomain, but we did hear complaints that for some types of searches (e.g. esoteric or long-tail searches), Google could return a search page with lots of results all from one domain. In the last few weeks we changed our algorithms to make that less likely to happen.

In essence, you shouldn’t be able to crowd out competitors on a search result through the use of multiple subdomains. Now, host crowding or clustering as it’s sometimes called has seen an ebb and flow over time.

In 2010 Google loosened host crowding constraints when a domain was included in the query.

For queries that indicate a strong user interest in a particular domain, like [exhibitions at amnh], we’ll now show more results from the relevant site.

At the time Google showed 7 from amnh.org. Today they show 9.

In 2012 they tweaked things again to improve diversity but that didn’t make much of a dent and Matt was again talking about changes to host clustering in 2013. I think a good deal of the feedback was around the domination of Yelp.

I know I was complaining. My test Yelp query is [haircut concord ca], which currently returns 6 results from Yelp. (It’s 8 if you add the ‘&filter=0’ parameter on the end of the URL.)

I still maintain that this is not useful and that it would be far better to show fewer results from Yelp and/or place many of those Yelp results as sitelinks under one canonical Yelp result.

But I digress.

Business Crowding

Freedom of Choice by Devo

The problem here is that acquisition SEO doesn’t violate host crowding in the strict sense. The sites are on completely different domains. So a traditional host crowding algorithm wouldn’t group or cluster those sites together.

But make no mistake, the result is essentially the same. Except this time it’s not the same site. It’s the same business.

Business crowding is the advanced form of host crowding.

It can actually be worse since you could be getting the same content delivered from the same company under different domains.

The diversity of that result goes down and users probably don’t realize it.

Doorway Pages

When you think about it, business crowding essentially meets the definition of a doorway page.

Doorways are sites or pages created to rank highly for specific search queries. They are bad for users because they can lead to multiple similar pages in user search results, where each result ends up taking the user to essentially the same destination.

When participating in business crowding you do have similar pages in search results where the user is taken to the same content. It’s not the same destination but the net result is essentially the same. One of the examples cited lends more credence to this idea.

Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page

In business crowding you certainly have multiple domain names but there’s no funnel necessary. The content is effectively the same on those multiple domains.

Business crowding doesn’t meet the letter of the doorway page guidelines but it seems to meet the spirt of them.

Where To Draw The Line?

Fry Not Sure If ...

This isn’t a cut and dry issue. There’s quite a bit of nuance involved if you were to address business crowding. Lets take my example above from Caring.

If the inventory of Caring and Gilbert Guide were never syndicated, would that exempt them from business crowding? If the inventories became very similar over time, would it still be okay?

In essence, if the other company is run independently, then perhaps you can continue to take up search shelf space.

But what prevents a company from doing this multiple times and owning 3, 4 or even 5 sites ranking on the first page for a search result? Even if they’re independently run, over time it will make it more difficult for others to disrupt that space since the incumbents have no real motivation to improve.

With so many properties they’re very happy with the status quo and are likely not too concerned with any one site’s position in search as long as the group of sites continues to squeeze out the competition.

Perhaps you could determine if the functionality and features of the sites was materially different. But that would be pretty darn difficult to do algorithmically.

Or is it simply time based? You get to have multiple domains and participate in business crowding for up to, say, one year after the acquistion. That would be relatively straight-forward but would have a tremendous impact on the mergers and acquisitions space.

If Zillow knew that they could only count on the traffic from Trulia for one year after the acquisition they probably wouldn’t have paid $3.5 billion (yes that’s a ‘b’) for Trulia. In fact, the deal might not have gotten done at all.

So when we start talking about addressing this problem it spills out of search and into finance pretty quickly.

What’s Good For The User?

At the end of the day Google wants to do what is best for the user. Some of this is altruistic. Trust me, if you talk to some of the folks on Google’s search quality team, they’re serious about this. But obviously if the user is happy then they return to Google and perform more searches that wind up padding Google’s profits.

Doing good by the user is doing good for the business.

My guess is that most users don’t realize that business crowding is taking place. They may pogostick from one site to the other and wind up satisfied, even if those sites are owned by the same company. In other words, search results with business crowding may wind up producing good long click and time to long click metrics.

It sounds like an environment ripe for a local maxima.

If business crowding were eliminated then users would see more options. While some of the metrics might deteriorate in the short-term would they improve long-term as new entrants in those verticals provided value and innovation?

There’s only one way to find out.

Vacation Rentals

One area where this is currently happening is within the vacation rentals space.

Business Crowding Example

In this instance two companies (TripAdvisor and HomeAway) own the first six results across five domains. This happens relatively consistently in this vertical. (Please note that I do have a dog in this fight. Airbnb is a client.)

Are these sites materially different? Not really. HomeAway makes the syndication of your listing a selling point.

HomeAway Business Crowding

Not only that but if you look at individual listings on these sites you find that there are rel=canonicals in place.

Rel Canonical to VRBO

Rel Canonical to VRBO

In this instance the property listings on VacationRentals and HomeAway point to the one on VRBO.

The way the inventory is sorted on each of these sites is different but it doesn’t seem like the inventory itself is all that different at the end of the day.

TripAdvisor doesn’t do anything with canonicals but they do promote syndication as a feature.

Syndication Selling Point on Vacation Home Rentals

A venn diagram of inventory between TripAdvisor properties would likely show a material overlap but with good portions unshaded. They seem to have a core set of inventory that is on all properties but aren’t as aggressive with full on syndication.

Let me be clear here. I don’t blame these companies for doing what they’re doing. It’s smart SEO and it’s winning within the confines of Google’s current webmaster guidelines.

My question is whether business crowding is something that should be addressed? What happens if this practice flourishes?

Is the false choice being offered to users ultimately detrimental to users and, by proxy, to Google?

The Mid-Life Crisis of Search Results

Thoughtful Cat is Thoughtful

Search hasn’t been around for that long in the scheme of things. As the Internet evolved we saw empires rise and fall as new sites, companies and business models found success.

Maybe you remember Geocities or Gator or Lycos or AltaVista or Friendster. Now, none of these fall into the inventory based sites I’ve referenced above but I use them as proxies. When it comes to social, whether you’re on Facebook or Instragram or WhatsApp, one company is still in control there.

Successful companies today are able to simply buy competitors and upstarts to solidify their position. Look no further than online travel agencies where Expedia now owns both Travelocity and Orbitz.

The days in which successful sites could rise and fall – and I mean truly fall – seem to be behind us.

The question is whether search results should reflect and reinforce this fact or if it should instead continue to reflect diversity. It seems like search is at a crossroads of sorts as the businesses that populate results have matured.

Can It Be Addressed Algorithmically?

The next question that comes to mind is whether Google could actually do anything about business crowding. We know Google isn’t going to do anything manual in nature. They’d want to implement something that dealt with this from an algorithmic perspective.

I think there’s a fairly straight forward way Google could do this via the Knowledge Graph. Each business is an entity and it would be relatively easy to map the relationship between each site as a parent child relationship.

Some of this can be seen in the remnants of Freebase and their scrape of CrocTail, though the data probably needs more massaging. But it’s certainly possible to create and maintain these relationships within the Knowledge Graph.

Once done, you can attach a parent company to each site and apply the same sort of host crowding algorithm to business crowding. This doesn’t seem that farfetched.

But the reality of implementing this could have serious implications and draw the ire of a number of major corporations. And if users really don’t know that it’s all essentially the same content I’m not sure Google has the impetus to do anything about it.

Too Big To Fail (at Search)

Having made these acquisitions under the current guidelines, could Google effectively reduce business crowding without creating a financial meltdown for large corporate players.

Organic Traffic via Similar Web for Trulia

SimilarWeb shows that Trulia gets a little over half of its traffic from organic search. Any drastic change to that channel would be a material event for the parent company.

Others I’ve mentioned in this post are less dependent on organic search to certain degrees but a business crowding algorithm would certainly be a bitter pill to swallow for most.

Selfishly, I’d like to see business crowding addressed because it would help one of my clients, Airbnb, to some degree. They’d move up a spot or two and gain additional exposure and traffic.

But there’s a bigger picture here. False diversity is creeping into search. If you extrapolate this trend search results become little more than a corporate shell game.

On the other hand, addressing business crowding could dramatically change the way sites deal with competitors and how they approach mergers and acquisitions. I can’t predict how that would play out in the short or long-term.

What do you think? I’m genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic so please jump in with your comments.

That Time I Had Cancer

October 31 2015 // Life // 27 Comments

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

On Friday, October 23 I breathed a sigh of relief as my oncologist told me that my six month PET/CT scan was clear. I am cancer free!

High Noon

High Noon Stand Off

It’s an odd thing to sit on that thin crinkly sheet of sanitary paper in a small bland room staring at your oncologist’s framed diplomas, trying to keep yourself distracted from the news you’re about to receive. You get to thinking about how the vowels and consonants that make up that crucial sentence can change the course of your life.

It’s terrifying.

If you’re new here or want to refresh your memory here’s some background on my cancer diagnosis and journal entries about my treatment.

Happy Birthday

I had a birthday once. It was awful.

On October 3rd my family celebrated my 44th birthday by eating at Fleming’s Steakhouse. My birthday is an important date but not exactly for the traditional reason. It was a year ago on that date that I was diagnosed with Follicular Lymphoma after landing in the emergency room after dinner.

Part of my decision to eat at Fleming’s was to thumb my nose at cancer and what it had done to me. In the year leading up to my diagnosis I’d had ever frequent bouts of stomach pain. Over time I figured out that it was often linked to eating steak.

Since the end of my treatment I’d been feeling great. I could eat and drink anything again. So I was going to go all Genghis Khan on things and get a truly epic steak for my birthday.

But later that night I didn’t feel well. I had pain and other symptoms that felt all too familiar. Over the course of the next few days I was in various levels of discomfort. I was waking up in the middle of night. I even had to dip back into my stash of anti-nausea medicine so I could drive my daughter to school.

I was freaking out. I was certain my Lymphoma was back.

I took walks with my wife around the neighborhood and talked about how we might handle things and what it might mean. It wasn’t so much having to go through the chemotherapy again that scared me. I could handle that. And I knew that the treatment was effective. But the question was for how long? If it came back so quickly, how long would I be able to use that treatment? And would I be consigned to doing three rounds of chemotherapy a year just to … stay alive?

I was psyching myself up to tackle whatever it was that was put in front of me. I refused to lose and knew I had to be in the right frame of mind. I was really more concerned about how it would impact my wife and daughter. Being a spectator to a loved one going through something like this is no picnic. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up with me constantly going through chemotherapy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better that than me not being there but it made me sad and very angry.

I finally sucked it up and bullied my way into getting a blood test at my oncologist’s office and moved my PET/CT scan up by two weeks. I got a copy of the initial blood test results and my white blood cell count was elevated. I feared the worst.

A few days later I was able to go back into the oncologist’s office to review my blood test.

Science

Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad

The nurse practitioner I saw regularly during my treatments (who is awesome) gave me the news. While my white blood cell count was slightly elevated the liver enzyme that was the best indicator of cancer was … normal. It looked like I had some sort of infection but, from where she stood, it wasn’t cancer. She theorized that it might be my gall bladder since it had looked a bit enflamed on one of my early PET/CT scans.

So I wasn’t nearly as terrified as I might have been sitting in that room waiting for the news. Because I’d handicapped things since getting this additional information. There was an alternate theory for my symptoms. And it was based in science and interpreted by experts. Who should I believe? My own passing analysis or hard chemistry and decades of expertise?

I was still crazy worried but my (dominant) logical side was able to talk down the emotional side from going completely apeshit. Sure enough it turned out I had nothing to worry about. I’d kicked cancer’s ass and it had decided not to come back for another beating.

This is a good segue to talking about what it’s like having cancer.

That’s Not Helping

Lemur With Hand Up

Almost all of the messages I received were positive and helpful. But just like when you’re expecting a child you wind up seeing more pregnant women I noticed a lot more posts about cancer.

One of the things that irked me the most were posts that claimed traditional treatment (chemotherapy) is just a big pharmaceutical profit center. The idea being that they don’t want to cure cancer, they just want to treat it.

Screw you.

I’m not joking. If you’ve shared something like that you’ve hurt people. Full stop. No wiggle room. Because what you’re saying is that I’m stupid for trusting my oncologist. You’re also throwing shade on a group of doctors who truly do care about the people who are unlucky enough to get cancer. And yes, it’s just luck.

I don’t want to hear about anti-cancer diets. Again, when you post about that you’re basically telling people they ate their way to their cancer. Think about that. That’s a pretty shitty thing to do to someone. “Hey, you probably got cancer because you ate wrong.”

You smoke two packs of cigarettes a day or eat five pounds of bacon every week you’re certainly upping your odds. But most people don’t fall into these categories. I certainly don’t. I never smoked. I haven’t had fast food in twelve years and gave up soda five years ago. I got cancer. It wasn’t my fault.

I researched my ass off when I got my diagnosis. See, I’m pretty good at digging things up on Google. Hell, I knew so much that I had a decent conversation with my oncologist about the potential treatment regimens I had available. Yeah, she was impressed I referenced the BRIGHT study comparing the two treatment protocols.

Yet, look what happened? I had myself tied up in knots thinking my cancer was back. But all it took was looking at one liver enzyme level and knowing that my other readings were “always all over the place” (i.e. – noise) to know that it wasn’t.

You don’t know better.

I’m not saying you should blindly accept everything as fact. But the tin foil hat conspiracy theory stuff is not helping anyone. You should not be messing around with the mental state of someone with cancer.

Positive Work

Staying Positive Is Hard Work

Staying positive while you’re going through cancer is … work. I know I lectured you about how science is what truly matters but it’s not always that black and white. I believe that staying positive and believing that you’re going to beat cancer helps. When sick I often visualize my white blood cells attacking and destroying whatever is trying to take me down.

I would often chant ‘I’m going to be okay’ over and over again for long periods of time. It was just something I would do reflexively to convince myself. To give myself strength. To give whatever my body was doing extra momentum to kill what was trying to kill me.

But you’d have to be certifiably insane (or on some seriously good meds) to not think about the alternative from time to time. I’m an introspective guy too so I could go deep down that rabbit hole if I let myself. So it was an effort to stay positive. It was … a persona I had to create to ensure I survived.

Silence

Enjoy Music Bar

After my sixth and final round of chemotherapy and the resulting clean PET/CT scan I stopped updating my CaringBridge page and essentially stopped talking about cancer. I didn’t even return emails from a few friends and family congratulating me on the great news. #sorry

The thing is, I was tired. I’d been thinking about cancer every day for the last seven months. Sure, my day to day life hadn’t changed that much but it really had … consumed me. No matter what you were doing it was always lurking there in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. Even though it was a good result I just wanted to move forward and have things go back to normal.

It’s also strange for me to process. I’m proud to be a cancer survivor but I also don’t want to wave that around like some sort of ‘card’ I can play. Many of you also heaped praise on me for how I wrote about and approached my cancer. While I sincerely appreciate those kind words it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. What I did and my writing about it helped me. So in many ways I feel like I’m being complemented on being selfish.

But I’m glad that others have taken something positive from my journey. I sincerely wish all of those going through cancer (or any hardship) the very best.

Friends

Right in the Feels

I was also overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from friends and colleagues. That was … very special. Of course I expected some responses. I’m not a complete social pariah. But what I got was so much more than what I expected. I hope I can give some of that back to you (in a less dire way) in the future.

I can’t thank all of you enough for the kind words, unexpected Tweets, random IMs and emails. I hope you know just how important that out of the blue message can mean to someone. It certainly made me think about reaching out to folks, even if I’d lost touch, which is something I’m apt to do.

One special thank you to Leeza Rodriguez who provided some incredible insight and recommendations, particularly on dealing with nausea. Because of her help I was able to find the right mix of drugs in a shorter amount of time. It made the last three cycles of chemotherapy far more manageable.

Overall I’m just humbled by your collective kindness.

Winning

Stephen Curry Winning

I will still periodically hoot or shout or grin like a maniac thinking about how I did it. I beat cancer! Doing so was both very difficult but also not so bad either. I try to downplay it sometimes but why should I really?

I had the idea for the title of this post for a few months. I was sort of scared of it. Because it treats cancer in an almost flippant way. Then I had my little rollercoaster ride and I thought my fear was warranted. I’d taken things too lightly. Karma.

But as you can see I wound up using the title. I won and cancer doesn’t deserve my respect. It may come back at some point but I’m not going to let myself think that’s going to happen anytime soon. And if it does come back I’ll kick it’s ass again.

Future

You always hear how having cancer or having a brush with death changes you. Suddenly every day is supposed to be more precious. Priorities are supposed to change and you’ll do those things that you were putting off for some future date.

Maybe that’s how it is for some people. But not me. Part of this is because I’m already living like that. I’m my own boss and make a very good living. I work from a great home and get to spend my days with my gorgeous wife. I am really there as my daughter grows up. My parents live 45 minutes away and I see them at least a couple times a month.

I’ve lived in places ranging from Washington, DC to San Diego. I’ve traveled abroad and can afford vacations to Hawaii or anywhere else I want to really. I get to sit and binge watch Dark Matter. My daughter and I rush out to the back yard to stare up together and watch the International Space Station pass overhead.

A life full of small moments is my reward.

Is Click Through Rate A Ranking Signal?

June 24 2015 // SEO // 55 Comments

Signs Point To Yes!

Are click through rates on search results a ranking signal? The idea is that if the third result on a page is clicked more often than the first that it will, over time, rise to the second or first result.

I remember this question being asked numerous times when I was just starting out in the industry. Google representatives employed a potent combination of tap dancing and hand waving when asked directly. They were so good at doing this that we stopped hounding them and over the last few years I rarely hear people talking about, let alone asking, this question.

Perhaps it’s because more and more people aren’t focused on the algorithm itself and are instead focused on developing sites, content and experiences that will be rewarded by the algorithm. That’s actually the right strategy. Yet I still believe it’s important to understand the algorithm and how it might impact your search efforts.

Following is an exploration of why I believe click-through rate is a ranking signal.

Occam’s Razor

Pile of Pennies

Though the original principle wasn’t as clear cut, today’s interpretation of Occam’s Razor is that the simplest answer is usually the correct one. So what’s more plausible? That Google uses click-through rate as a signal or that the most data driven company in the world would ignore direct measurement from their own product?

It just seems like common sense, doesn’t it? Of course, we humans are often wired to make poor assumptions. And don’t get me started on jumping to conclusions based on correlations.

The argument against is that even Google would have a devil of a time using click-through rate as a signal across the millions of results for a wide variety of queries. Their resources are finite and perhaps it’s just too hard to harness this valuable but noisy data.

The Horse’s Mouth

It gets more difficult to make the case against Google using click-through rate as a signal when you get confirmation right from the horse’s mouth.

That seems pretty close to a smoking gun doesn’t it?

Now, perhaps Google wants to play a game of semantics. Click-through rate isn’t a ranking signal. It’s a feedback signal. It just happens to be a feedback signal that influences rank!

Call it what you want, at the end of the day it sure sounds like click-through rate can impact rank.

[Updated 7/22/15]

Want more? I couldn’t find this quote the first time around but here’s Marissa Mayer in the FTC staff report (pdf) on antitrust allegations.

According to Marissa Mayer, Google did not use click-through rates to determine the position of the Universal Search properties because it would take too long to move up on the SERP on the basis of user click-through rate.

In other words, they ignored click data to ensure Google properties were slotted in the first position.

Then there’s former Google engineer Edmond Lau in an answer on Quora.

It’s pretty clear that any reasonable search engine would use click data on their own results to feed back into ranking to improve the quality of search results. Infrequently clicked results should drop toward the bottom because they’re less relevant, and frequently clicked results bubble toward the top. Building a feedback loop is a fairly obvious step forward in quality for both search and recommendations systems, and a smart search engine would incorporate the data.

So is Google a reasonable and smart search engine?    

The Old Days

Steampunk Google Logo

There are other indications that Google has the ability to monitor click activity on a query by query basis, and that they’ve had that capability for dog years.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 interview with Marissa Mayer, then VP of Search Products, on the implementation of the OneBox.

We hold them to a very high click through rate expectation and if they don’t meet that click through rate, the OneBox gets turned off on that particular query. We have an automated system that looks at click through rates per OneBox presentation per query. So it might be that news is performing really well on Bush today but it’s not performing very well on another term, it ultimately gets turned off due to lack of click through rates. We are authorizing it in a way that’s scalable and does a pretty good job enforcing relevance.

So way back in 2007 (eight years ago folks!) Google was able to create a scalable solution to using click-through rate per query to determine the display of a OneBox.

That seems to poke holes in the idea that Google doesn’t have the horsepower to use click-through rate as a signal.

The Bing Argument

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better

Others might argue that if Bing is using click-through rate as a signal that Google surely must be as well. Here’s what Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager for Bing Webmaster Outreach (or something like that) said to Eric Enge in 2011.

We are looking to see if we show your result in a #1, does it get a click and does the user come back to us within a reasonable timeframe or do they come back almost instantly?

Do they come back and click on #2, and what’s their action with #2? Did they seem to be more pleased with #2 based on a number of factors or was it the same scenario as #1? Then, did they click on anything else?

We are watching the user’s behavior to understand which result we showed them seemed to be the most relevant in their opinion, and their opinion is voiced by their actions.

This and other conversations I’ve had make me confident that click-through rate is used as a ranking signal by Bing. The argument against is that Google is so far ahead of Bing that they may have tested and discarded click-through rate as a signal.

Yet as other evidence piles up, perhaps Google didn’t discard click-through rate but simply uses it more effectively.

Pogosticking and Long Clicks

Duane’s remarks also tease out a little bit more about how click-through rate would be used and applied. It’s not a metric used in isolation but measured in terms of time spent on that clicked result, whether they returned to the SERP and if they then refined their search or clicked on another result.

When you really think about it, if pogosticking and long clicks are real measures then click-through rate must be part of the equation. You can’t calculate the former metrics without having the click-through rate data.

And when you dig deeper Google does talk about ‘click data’ and ‘click signals’ quite a bit. So once again perhaps it’s all a game of semantics and the equivalent to Bill Clinton clarifying the meaning of ‘is’.

Seeing Is Believing

A handful of prominent SEOs have tested whether click-through rate influences rank. Rand Fishkin has been leading that charge for a number of years.

Back in May of 2014 he performed a test with some interesting results. But it was a long-tail term and other factors might have explained the behavior.

But just the other day he ran another version of the same test.

However, critics will point out that the result in question is once again at #4, indicating that click-through rate isn’t a ranking signal.

But clearly the burst of searches and clicks had some sort of effect, even if it was temporary, right? So might Google have developed mechanisms to combat this type of ‘bombing’ of click-through rate? Or perhaps the system identifies bursts in query and clicks and reacts to meet a real time or ‘fresh’ need?

Either way it shows that the click-through behavior is monitored. Combined with the admission from Udi Manber it seems like the click-through rate distribution has to be consistently off of the baseline for a material amount of time to impact rank.

In other words, all the testing in the world by a small band of SEOs is a drop in the ocean of the total click stream. So even if we can move the needle for a small time, the data self-corrects.

But Rand isn’t the only one testing this stuff. Darren Shaw has also experimented with this within the local SEO landscape.

User Behavior and Local Search – State of Search 2014

Darren’s results aren’t fool proof either. You could argue that Google representatives within local might not be the most knowledgable about these things. But it certainly adds to a drumbeat of evidence that clicks matter.

But wait, there’s more. Much more.

Show Me The Patents

She Blinded Me With Science

For quite a while I was conflicted about this topic because of one major stumbling block. You wouldn’t be able to develop a click-through rate model based on all the various types of displays on a result.

The result that had a review rich snippet gets a higher click-through rate because the eye gravitates to it. Google wouldn’t want to reward that result from a click-through rate perspective just because of the display.

Or what happens when the result has an image result or a answer box or video result or any number of different elements? There seemed to be too many variations to create a workable model.

But then I got hold of two Google patents titled Modifying search result ranking based on implicit user feedback and Modifying search result ranking based on implicit user feedback and a model of presentation bias.

The second patent seems to build from the first with the inventor in common being Hyung-Jin Kim.

Hyung-Jin Kim

Both of these are rather dense patents and it reminds me that we should all thank Bill Slawski for his tireless work in reading and rendering patents more accessible to the community.

I’ll be quoting from both patents (there’s a tremendous amount of overlap) but here’s the initial bit that encouraged me to put the headphones on and focus on decoding the patent syntax.

The basic rationale embodied by this approach is that, if a result is expected to have a higher click rate due to presentation bias, this result’s click evidence should be discounted; and if the result is expected to have a lower click rate due to presentation bias, this result’s click evidence should be over-counted.

Very soon after this the patent goes on to detail the number of different types of presentation bias. So this essentially means that Google saw the same problem but figured out how to deal with presentation bias so that it could rely on ‘click evidence’.

Then there’s this rather nicely summarized 10,000 foot view of the issue.

In general, a wide range of information can be collected and used to modify or tune the click signal from the user to make the signal, and the future search results provided, a better fit for the user’s needs. Thus, user interactions with the rankings presented to the users of the information retrieval system can be used to improve future rankings.

Again, no one is saying that click-through rate can be used in isolation. But it clearly seems to be one way that Google has thought about re-ranking results.

But it gets better as you go further into these patents.

The information gathered for each click can include: (1) the query (Q) the user entered, (2) the document result (D) the user clicked on, (3) the time (T) on the document, (4) the interface language (L) (which can be given by the user), (5) the country (C) of the user (which can be identified by the host that they use, such as www-google-co-uk to indicate the United Kingdom), and (6) additional aspects of the user and session. The time (T) can be measured as the time between the initial click through to the document result until the time the user comes back to the main page and clicks on another document result. Moreover, an assessment can be made about the time (T) regarding whether this time indicates a longer view of the document result or a shorter view of the document result, since longer views are generally indicative of quality for the clicked through result. This assessment about the time (T) can further be made in conjunction with various weighting techniques.

Here we see clear references to how to measure long clicks and later on they even begin to use the ‘long clicks’ terminology. (In fact, there’s mention of long, medium and short clicks.)

But does it take into account different classes of queries? Sure does.

Traditional clustering techniques can also be used to identify the query categories. This can involve using generalized clustering algorithms to analyze historic queries based on features such as the broad nature of the query (e.g., informational or navigational), length of the query, and mean document staytime for the query. These types of features can be measured for historical queries, and the threshold(s) can be adjusted accordingly. For example, K means clustering can be performed on the average duration times for the observed queries, and the threshold(s) can be adjusted based on the resulting clusters.

This shows that Google may adjust what they view as a good click based on the type of query.

But what about types of users. That’s when it all goes to hell in a hand basket right? Nope. Google figured that out.

Moreover, the weighting can be adjusted based on the determined type of the user both in terms of how click duration is translated into good clicks versus not-so-good clicks, and in terms of how much weight to give to the good clicks from a particular user group versus another user group. Some user’s implicit feedback may be more valuable than other users due to the details of a user’s review process. For example, a user that almost always clicks on the highest ranked result can have his good clicks assigned lower weights than a user who more often clicks results lower in the ranking first (since the second user is likely more discriminating in his assessment of what constitutes a good result).

Users are not created equal and Google may weight the click data it receives accordingly.

But they’re missing the boat on topical expertise, right? Not so fast!

In addition, a user can be classified based on his or her query stream. Users that issue many queries on (or related to) a given topic (e.g., queries related to law) can be presumed to have a high degree of expertise with respect to the given topic, and their click data can be weighted accordingly for other queries by them on (or related to) the given topic.

Google may identify topical experts based on queries and weight their click data more heavily.

Frankly, it’s pretty amazing to read this stuff and see just how far Google has teased this out. In fact, they built in safeguards for the type of tests the industry conducts.

Note that safeguards against spammers (users who generate fraudulent clicks in an attempt to boost certain search results) can be taken to help ensure that the user selection data is meaningful, even when very little data is available for a given (rare) query. These safeguards can include employing a user model that describes how a user should behave over time, and if a user doesn’t conform to this model, their click data can be disregarded. The safeguards can be designed to accomplish two main objectives: (1) ensure democracy in the votes (e.g., one single vote per cookie and/or IP for a given query-URL pair), and (2) entirely remove the information coming from cookies or IP addresses that do not look natural in their browsing behavior (e.g., abnormal distribution of click positions, click durations, clicks_per_minute/hour/day, etc.). Suspicious clicks can be removed, and the click signals for queries that appear to be spammed need not be used (e.g., queries for which the clicks feature a distribution of user agents, cookie ages, etc. that do not look normal).

As I mentioned, I’m guessing the short-lived results of our tests are indicative of Google identifying and then ‘disregarding’ that click data. Not only that, they might decide that the cohort of users who engage in this behavior won’t be used (or their impact will be weighted less) in the future.

What this all leads up to is a rank modifier engine that uses implicit feedback (click data) to change search results.

How Google Uses Click Data To Modify Rank

Here’s a fairly clear description from the patent.

A ranking sub-system can include a rank modifier engine that uses implicit user feedback to cause re-ranking of search results in order to improve the final ranking presented to a user of an information retrieval system.

It tracks and logs … everything and uses that to build a rank modifier engine that is then fed back into the ranking engine proper.

But, But, But

Castle Is Speechless

Of course this type of system would get tougher as more of the results were personalized. Yet, the way the data is collected seems to indicate that they could overcome this problem.

Google seems to know the inherent quality and relevance of a document, in fact of all documents returned on a SERP. As such they can apply and mitigate the individual user and presentation bias inherent in personalization.

And it’s personalization where Google admits click data is used. But they still deny that it’s used as a ranking signal.

Perhaps it’s a semantics game and if we asked if some combination of ‘click data’ was used to modify results they’d say yes. Or maybe the patent work never made it into production. That’s a possibility.

But looking at it all together and applying Occam’s Razor I tend to think the click-through rate is used as a ranking signal. I don’t think it’s a strong signal but it’s a signal none the less.

Why Does It Matter?

You might be asking, so freaking what? Even if you believe click-through rate is a ranking signal, I’ve demonstrated that manipulating it may be a fool’s errand.

The reason click-through rate matters is that you can influence it with changes to your title tag and meta description. Maybe it’s not enough to tip the scales but trying is better than not isn’t it?

Those ‘old school’ SEO fundamentals are still important.

Or you could go the opposite direction and build your brand equity through other channels to the point where users would seek out your brand in search results irrespective of position.

Over time, that type of behavior could lead to better search rankings.

TL;DR

The evidence suggests that Google does use click-through rate as a ranking signal. Or, more specifically, Google uses click data as an implicit form of feedback to re-rank and improve search results.

Despite their denials, common sense, Google testimony and interviews, industry testing and patents all lend credence to this conclusion.

Do You Even Algorithm, Google?

June 19 2015 // SEO // 18 Comments

It has been 267 days since the last Panda update. That’s 8 months and 25 days.

Adventure Time Lemongrab Unacceptable

Where’s My Panda Update?

Obviously I’m a bit annoyed that there hasn’t been a Panda update in so long because I have a handful of clients who might (fingers crossed) benefit from having it deployed. They were hit and they’ve done a great deal of work cleaning up their sites so that they might get back into Google’s good graces.

I’m not whining about it (much). That’s the way the cookie crumbles and that’s what you get when you rely on Google for a material amount of your traffic.

Google shouldn’t be concerned about specific sites caught in limbo based on their updates. The truth, hard as it is to admit, is that very few sites are irreplaceable.

You could argue that Panda is punitive and that not providing an avenue to recovery is cruel and unusual punishment. But if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

Do You Even Algorithm, Google?

Why haven’t we seen a Panda update in so long? It seemed to be one of Google’s critical components in ensuring quality search results, launched in reaction to a rising tide of complaints from high-profile (though often biased) individuals.

Nine months is a long time. I’m certain there are sites in Panda jail right now that shouldn’t be and other sites that may be completely new or have risen dramatically in that time that deserve to be Pandalized.

In an age of agile development and the two week sprint cycle, nine months is an eternity. Heck, we’ve minted brand new spanking humans in that span of time!

Fewer Panda updates equal lower quality search results.

Google should want to roll out Panda updates because without them search results get worse. Bad actors creep into the results and reformed sites that could improve results continue to be demoted.

The Panda Problem

Does the lack of Panda updates point to a problem with Panda itself? Yes and no.

My impression is that Panda continues to be a very resource intensive update. I have always maintained that Panda aggregates individual document scores on a site.

panda document scores

The aggregate score determines whether you are below or above the Panda cut line.

As Panda evolved I believe the cut line has become dynamic based on the vertical and authority of a site. This would ensure that sites that might look thin to Google but are actually liked by users avoid Panda jail. This is akin to ensuring the content equivalent of McDonald’s is still represented in search results.

But think about what that implies. Google would need to crawl, score and compute every site across the entire web index. That’s no small task. In May John Mueller related that Google was working to make these updates faster. But he said something very similar about Penguin back in September of 2014.

I get that it’s a big task. But this is Google we’re talking about.

Search Quality Priorities

I don’t doubt that Google is working on making Panda and Penguin faster. But it’s clearly not a priority. If it was, well … we’d have seen an update by now.

Because we’ve seen other updates. There’s been Mobilegeddon (the Y2K of updates) a Doorway Page Update, The Quality Update and the Colossus Update just the other day. And there’s a drum beat of advancements and work to leverage entities for both algorithmic ranking and search display.

The funny thing is, the one person who might have helped boost Panda as a priority is no longer there. That’s right, Matt Cutts no longer attends the weekly search quality meeting.

Google Search Quality Meeting Screencap

As the industry’s punching bag, Matt was able to bring our collective ire and pain to the Googleplex.

Now, I’m certain John Mueller and Gary Illyes both get an earful and are excellent ambassadors. But do they have the pull that Matt had internally? No way.

Eating Cake

Cat Eating Cake

We keep hearing that these updates are coming soon. That they’ll be here in a month or a few weeks. There are only so many times you can hear this before you start to roll your eyes and silently say ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’

What’s more, if Panda still improves search quality then the lack of an update means search quality is declining. Other updates may have helped stem the tide but search quality isn’t optimized.

You can quickly find a SERP that has a thin content site ranking well. (In fact, I encourage you to find and post links to those results in the comments.)

Perhaps Google wants to move away from Panda and instead develop other search quality signals that better handle this type of content. That would be fine, yet it’s obvious that Panda is still in effect. So logically that means other signals aren’t strong enough yet.

At the end of the day it’s not about my own personal angst or yours. It’s not about personal stories of Panda woe as heartbreaking as some of them may be. This is about search quality and putting your money (resources) where your mouth is.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

TL;DR

It’s been nearly nine months since the last Panda update. If Panda improves search quality then the prolonged delay means search quality is declining.

Why Growth Hacking Works

April 12 2015 // Marketing // 3 Comments

The reason growth hacking works has nothing to do with growth hacking and everything to do with blowing up organizational silos.

What Is Growth Hacking?

M.C. Escher Drawing Hands

Marketers love to market. We’re forever repackaging and rebranding, even when it comes to our own profession. Can you blame us really? We’re frequently the last ones to get the credit and the first ones to get the blame and corresponding pink slip.

Nevertheless these redefinitions often induce a sigh and eye-roll from yours truly. Do we really have to go through all this again? Perhaps I’m just cranky and getting old.

Sean Ellis was the first to bring the term growth hacking to the mainstream in his 2010 post.

A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.  Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth.

They must have the creativity to figure out unique ways of driving growth in addition to testing/evolving the techniques proven by other companies.

An effective growth hacker also needs to be disciplined to follow a process of prioritizing ideas (their own and others in the company), testing the ideas, and being analytical enough to know which tested growth drivers to keep and which ones to cut.

His piece compares this to a rather bloated and generic job description for a marketing hire. Perhaps those descriptions exist but this would point toward a larger problem of simply not understanding online marketing.

Andrew Chen followed up with a post that emphasized this division between a ‘traditional marketer’ and a growth hacker.

Let’s be honest, a traditional marketer would not even be close to imagining the integration above – there’s too many technical details needed for it to happen. As a result, it could only have come out of the mind of an engineer tasked with the problem of acquiring more users from Craigslist.

Who is this traditional marketer? I worked as a marketer through both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, hustling for ‘growth’ wherever I could find it.

Maybe I had an advantage because I came from a direct marketing background. I believe in data. And I love digging into technology.

No OLAP tool? Teach myself SQL. Want to change something on my blog? Learn PHP, HTML and CSS. Need a handy bookmarklet? Learn a bit of JavaScript.

I was (and still am) looking at emerging platforms and tactics to get eyeballs on a brand and productive clicks to a site. And you better be measuring the right way. Get the measurement wrong and you might not achieve real growth.

There are plenty of marketers figuring this stuff out. And plenty of marketers who aren’t.

The Lazy Marketer

Lazy Marketers

I’m frequently hard on marketers as a group because there are a number of them who seem more consumed by expensing dinner and covering their asses while being able to point at the well-regarded vendors they hired to do the work than actually understanding and doing the work themselves.

Lazy marketers piss me off because they give all marketers a bad reputation. So I understand why folks like Sean and Andrew might want to create an artificial construct that excludes lazy marketers.

But the truth is that marketers have been growth hacking for decades. You don’t think sophisticated RFM campaigns aren’t a form of growth hacking? I could tell you a thing or two about the strange value of the R dimension.

Brand marketers use data to understand aided and unaided recall. And I remember being shocked as a young account coordinator at an advertising agency at the calculations used to determine the value of sponsorships based on the seconds of TV exposure it generated.

Growth hacking is really just a rejection of lazy marketing.

Because … Growth

Moar LOLcat

I see little distinction between talented online marketers who use technology and data to secure gains and the newly minted growth hackers. They’re drawing on the same skills and mindset.

I’ve been lucky to get a peek into a decent number of organizations over the last few years. What I’ve come to realize is growth hacking works or … can work. But it has everything to do with how an organization integrates growth.

The secret to growth hacking success is the ability to go anywhere in the organization to achieve growth.

A good growth hacker can push for traditional SEO changes, then hop over to the email team and tweak life cycle campaigns, then go to design and push for conversion rate optimization tests, then engage engineering and demand that the site get faster and then approach product with ideas to improve gradual engagement.

When that growth hacker gets pushback from any of these teams they can simply fallback on the central mantra. Why should we do X, Y and Z? Because … growth!

Organize For Growth

Road Painted With Many Lanes

As much as I hate to admit it, the term growth hacker often provides a once constrained marketer with greater opportunity to effect change in an organization. A growth hacker with the same skills but a marketing title would be rebuffed or seen as over-stepping their responsibilities.

“Stay in your lane.”

That’s what many talented marketers are told. You’re in marketing so don’t go mucking around in things you don’t understand. It can be wickedly frustrating, particularly when many of the other teams aren’t relying as heavily on data to guide their decisions.

The beauty of the term ‘growth hacker’ is that it doesn’t really fit anywhere in a traditional sense. They’re automatically orbiting the hairball. But the organization must support ventures into all areas of the company for that individual (or team) to succeed.

Simply hiring a growth hacker to work in marketing won’t have the desired impact. I see many companies doing this. They want the results growth hacking can deliver but they aren’t willing to make the organizational change to allow it to happen.

Growth Hackers

Don't Be A Dick Batman

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that organizations need to change for growth hacking to be successful. But what about the growth hackers themselves?

The job requires a solid rooting in data and technology with an equal amount of curiosity and creativity to boot. Where the rubber really hits the road is in communication and entrepreneurial backbone.

A good growth hacker needs a fair amount of soft skills so they can effectively communicate and work with other teams. Because even if the organization supports cross-functional growth, those teams aren’t always pooping rainbows when the growth hacker knocks on their proverbial door.

Amid these grumbles, growth hackers are often under a bit of a microscope. As the cliche goes, with great power comes great responsibility. So the growth hacker better be ready to show results.

That doesn’t always mean that what they try works. Failure or ‘accelerated data-informed learning’ is a valuable part of growth hacking. You just better be able to manage the ebb and flow of wins and not lose the confidence of teams when you hit a losing streak.

Frankly, good growth hackers are very hard to find.

TL;DR

Growth hacking skills are nothing new but simply a rebranding exercise for tech-savvy marketers sick of being marginalized. But growth hacking only works when an organization blows up functional silos and allows these individuals to seek growth anywhere in the company.

My Favorite SEO Tool

March 24 2015 // SEO // 34 Comments

My favorite SEO tool isn’t an SEO tool at all. Don’t get me wrong, I use and like plenty of great SEO tools. But I realized that I was using this one tool all the time.

Chrome Developer Tools how I love thee, let me count the ways.

Chrome Developer Tools

The one tool I use countless times each day is Chrome Developer Tools. You can find this handy tool under the View -> Developer menu in Chrome.

chrome-developer-tools

Or you can simply right click and select Inspect Element. (I suppose the latter is actually easier.) Here’s what it looks like (on this site) when you open Chrome Developer Tools.

Chrome Developer Tools In Action

There is just an incredible amount of functionality packed into Chrome Developer Tools. Some of it is super technical and I certainly don’t use all of the features. I’m only going to scratch the surface with this post.

But hopefully you’re not overwhelmed by it all because there are some simple features that are really helpful on a day-to-day basis.

Check Status Codes

One of the simplest things to do is to use the Network tab to check on the status code of a page. For instance, how does a site handle domain level canonicalization.

Chrome Developer Tools Network Tab

With the Network tab open I go directly to the non-www version of this site and I can see how it redirects to the www version. In this case it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

If I want more information I can click on any of these line items and see the headers information.

Chrome Developer Tools Network Detail

You can catch some pretty interesting things by looking at what comes through the Network tab. For instance, soon after a client transitioned from http to https I noted the following response code chain.

An https request for a non-www URL returned a 301 to the www http version (domain level canonicalization) and then did another 301 to the www https version of that URL.

The double 301 and routing from https to http and back again can (and should) be avoided by doing the domain level canonicalization and https redirect at the same time. So that’s what we did … in the span of an hour!

I won’t get into the specifics of what you can tease out of the headers here because it would get way too dense. But suffice to say it can be a treasure of information.

Of course there are times I fire up something more detailed like Charles or Live HTTP Headers, but I’m doing so less frequently given the advancements in Chrome Developer Tools.

Check Mobile

There was a time when checking to see how a site would look on mobile was a real pain in the ass. But not with Chrome Developer Tools!

Chrome Developer Tools Viewport Rendering

The little icon that looks like mobile phone is … awesome. Click it!

Chrome Developer Tools Select Mobile Device

Now you can select a Device and reload the page to see how it looks on that device. Here’s what this site looks like on mobile.

Chrome Developer Tools Mobile Test

The cool thing is you can even click around and navigate on mobile in this interface to get a sense of what the experience is really like for mobile users without firing up your own phone.

A little bonus tip here is that you can clear the device by clicking the icon to the left and then use the UA field to do specific User Agent (UA) testing.

Chrome Developer Tools Override

For instance, without a Device selected what happens when Googlebot Smartphone hits my site. All I have to do is use the UA override and put in the Googlebot Smartphone User Agent.

Chrome Developer Tools UA Override Example

Sure enough it looks like Googlebot Smartphone will see the page correctly. This is increasingly important as we get closer to the 4/21/15 mopocalypse.

You can copy and paste from the Google Crawlers list or use one of a number of User Agent extensions (like this one) to do this. However, if you use one of the User Agent extensions you won’t see the UA show up in the UA field. But you can confirm it’s working via the headers in the Network tab.

Show Don’t Tell

The last thing I’ll share is how I use Chrome Developer Tools to show instead of tell clients about design and readability issues.

If you go back to some of my older posts you’ll find that they’re not as readable. I had to figure this stuff out as I went along.

Show Don't Tell Irony

This is a rather good post about Five Foot Web Design, which pretty much violates a number of the principles described in the piece. I often see design and readability issues and it can be difficult for a client to get that feedback, particularly if I’m just pointing out the flaws and bitching about it.

So instead I give them a type of side-by-side comparison by editing the HTML in Chrome Developer Tools and then taking a screen capture of the optimized version I’ve created.

You do this by using the Elements tab (1) and then using the Inspect tool (2) to find the area of the code you want to edit.

Chrome Developer Tools Elements Tab

The inspect tool is the magnifying glass if you’re confused and it just lets you sort of zero in on the area of that page. It will highlight the section on the page and then show where that section resides in the code below.

Now, the next step can be a bit scary because you’re just wading into the HTML to tweak what the page looks like.

Chrome Developer Tools Edit HTML

A few things to remember here. You’re not actually changing the code on that site or page. You can’t hurt that site by playing with the code here. Trust me, I screw this up all the time because I know just enough HTML and CSS to be dangerous.

In addition, if you reload this page after you’ve edited it using Chrome Developer Tools all of your changes will vanish. It’s sort of like an Etch-A-Sketch. You doodle on it and then you shake it and it disappears.

So the more HTML you know the more you can do in this interface. I generally just play with stuff until I get it to look how I want it to look.

Chrome Developer Tools HTML Edit Result

Here I’ve added a header of sorts and changed the font size and line height. I do this sort of thing for a number of clients so I can show them what I’m talking about. A concrete example helps them understand and also gives them something to pass on to designers and developers.

TL;DR

Chrome Developer Tools is a powerful suite of tools that any SEO should be using to make their lives easier and more productive.

Non-Linking URLs Seen As Links

March 20 2015 // SEO // 27 Comments

(This post has been updated so make sure you read all the way to the bottom.)

Are non-linking URLs (pasted URLs) seen as links by Google? There’s long been chatter and rumor that they do among various members of the SEO community. I found something the other day that seems to confirm this.

Google Webmaster Tools Crawl Errors

I keep a close eye on the Crawl Errors report in Google Webmaster Tools with a particular focus on ‘Not found’ errors. I look to see if they’re legitimate and whether they’re linked internally (which is very bad) or externally.

The place to look for this information is in the ‘Linked from’ tab of a specific error.

Linked From Tab on 404 Error

Now, all too often the internal links presented here are woefully out-of-date (and that’s being generous.) You click through, search for the link in the code and don’t find it. Again and again and again. Such was the case here. This is extremely annoying but is a topic for another blog post.

Instead let’s focus on that one external link. Because I figured this was the reason Google continued to return the page as an error even though 1stdibs had stopped linking to it ages ago.

Pasted URL Seen As Link?

That’s not a link! It’s a pasted URL but it’s not a link. (Ignore the retargeted ad.) Looking at the code there’s no <a> tag. Maybe it was there and then removed but that … doesn’t seem likely. In addition, I’ve seen a few more examples of this behavior but didn’t capture them at the time and have since marked those errors as fixed. #kickingmyself

Google (or a tool Google provides) is telling me that the page in question links to this 404 page.

Non-Linking URLs Treated As Links?

This Is Not A Link

It’s not a stretch to think that Google would be able to recognize the pattern of a URL in text and, thus, treat it as a link. And there are good reasons why they might want to since many unsophisticated users botch the HTML.

By treating pasted URLs as links Google can recover those citations, acknowledge the real intent and pass authority appropriately. (Though it doesn’t look like they’re doing that but instead using it solely for discovery.)

All of this is interesting from an academic perspective but doesn’t really change a whole lot in the scheme of things. Hopefully you’re not suddenly thinking that you should go out and try to secure non-linking URLs. (Seriously, don’t!)

What’s your take? Is this the smoking gun proof that Google treats non-linking URLs as links?

[Update]

Apparently John Mueller confirmed this in a Google+ Hangout back in September of 2013. So while seeing it in Google Webmaster Tools might be new(ish), Google clearly acknowledges and crawls non-linked URLs. Thanks to Glenn Gabe for pointing me to this information.

In addition, Dan Petrovic did a study to determine if non-linking URLs influenced rankings and found it likely that they did not. This makes a bit of sense since you wouldn’t be able to nofollow these pasted URLs, opening the door to abuse via blog comments.