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Google Doesn’t Trust Us

February 25 2011 // Rant + SEO // 10 Comments

Yesterday Google rolled out an algorithm change “designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”

Google’s share of the search market must have been suffering, right? Wrong. comScore puts Google at 63.0% in January 2009, 65.4% in January 2010 and 65.6% in January 2011. People were not defecting.

Not only that but Google is the leader in search engine customer satisfaction according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. So why the change?

Google Means Well

I believe Google thinks they’re making things better. I don’t see a Machiavellian scheme behind every Google action. I like these guys. Meet any of the people at Google and you realize they’ve drunk deep from the search quality kool-aid. They are true believers! On top of that, they’re usually amiable and generous with their time.

Kool Aid

But … the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Google Got Bullied

What’s shocking is how Google got pressured into making this change. Vivek Wadhwa, Paul Kedrosky, Jeff Atwood, Michael Arrington, Rich Skrenta and others played Google. A bunch of upper-class, highly-educated technophiles convinced Google that search quality was in jeopardy. Was search quality really an issue or was this a matter of taste?

lunatic fringe

A reminder, you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The Echo Chamber

A good marketer knows that they are not the target market. If you’re reading this, you are not the primary search user. You might be a power user, but you are in the minority my friend.

Perhaps there is more under the hood, but from where I sit Google chose qualitative feedback over quantitative feedback. The problem? That qualitative feedback was biased. The Silicon Valley echo chamber flexed its muscle and Google acquiesced.

Red Herring

What is disappointing is that Google decided to tackle the subjective (content quality) instead of the objective (link fraud). Do we truly think that JC Penney, Forbes and Overstock are outliers? The answer is an unquestionable no.

What’s a bigger threat to search quality? The blatant and rampant manipulation of trust and authority via link fraud or the creation of content (of varying quality) to meet query intent?

What Changed

A staggering 11.8% of queries were impacted by this algorithm change. I’m curious about how Google effected this change.

Did they re-weight current signals or create new signals? Google acknowledges that data from the Personal Blocklist Chrome extension was not used. That doesn’t mean other new signals or data weren’t used. But even if Google did introduce other new signals, to impact 11.8% of the queries it seems reasonable to believe that current signals were also re-weighted.

That assumption and hours of SERP review lead me to the following conjecture.

  • Trusted TLDs (org, gov, edu) were given more weight
  • Exact Match Keyword Domains were given more weight
  • Forums were given more weight
  • On-Site text was given more weight

The last presents itself in an odd way. Sites that look like they were last touched in 2003 are ranking well. It’s as if Google sought a ‘no style’ version of the web. This also includes a number of long form blogs. Sadly, many of these same sites are bloated with AdSense. Now, AdSense is everywhere so … that’s to be expected. But the position of the ad units on many of these sites is completely against any UX standard.

This is a very simplistic and blunt analysis. I’m sure others will tease out other differences and we’ll never know for sure what changed. But what it tells me is that Google changed quantitative measures to meet a pre-determined qualitative goal.

The Real Story

Google passed judgment on the quality and value of sites in what seems like a very subjective manner. How exactly did these sites and specific pages rank so well in the past? What suddenly changed? Did the pogosticking rate creep up? Did internal satisfaction metrics of the ‘reasonable surfer’ change? I’m not hearing any of that. I’m hearing subjective terms like ‘quality’, ‘value’ and ‘useful’ being thrown around.

Google is setting their own perceived metric of value in conflict with other signals, metrics and feedback. The message? Google doesn’t trust us to know any better. It’s not about what we want. It’s about what Google thinks we should want.

Skeptical Cat

The idea that Google altered current signals to effect a perceived content quality metric should terrify you.

It’s all very well and good when those changes don’t impact you. You guffaw at Mahalo’s demise. But what happens when they come for you? What happens when you’re suddenly the target? How will you feel when your content is called into question?

Blekko Censors Search

February 03 2011 // Rant + SEO // 11 Comments

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Blekko Doesn't Grok Spock

Blekko Spam

Just prior to Farsight 2011, Blekko removed twenty sites from its search results.

“These sites are the worst spam publishers on the Web according to our users,” said Rich Skrenta, CEO of Blekko. “They are literally responsible for millions of pages on the Web that our users say are just not helpful and they’d prefer they were banned permanently. So we’re going to do that for them.”

Blekko has some interesting functionality around spam so I can see why they’d want to highlight it based on the recent spam/content farm meme surrounding search. That’s understandable. But censorship is not the answer.

Blekko Users

There is precious little data as part of this announcement. How big is Blekko? Quantcast and Compete show that the monthly unique visitor count is anywhere between 16,000 and 143,000. However, to mark anything as spam you have to be a Blekko user.

The November 2010 public launch of Blekko provided some insight into numbers and usage.

Blekko has been testing its solution to search with roughly 8,000 beta testers who have created more than 3,000 different slashtags. Blekko tells us that 11% of its existing user base come back to the site on a weekly basis.

I was a beta tester. So were a number of my colleagues – innovators, technologists and SEOs. As a search marketer we were eager to try out a competing search engine. I’m not a Google apologist.

Without hard data the math gets fuzzy, but the total number of registered users seems relatively small and is likely still composed of innovators. Do these people represent everyone?

Blekko Searches

The other missing piece of data is the searches related to these spam complaints. We don’t know the types of searches that were performed, nor the result set that was presented to users. Are the spam complaints a measure of the sites or a measure of the quality of results returned by Blekko?

Are spam complaints produced on general search queries or long tail queries? Is the incidence of spam complaints for specific sites different based on query type? (Information vs Transaction vs Navigation.)

The spam interface also leads to another question. How many of the spam complaints were made without visiting the site in question?

Blekko Censorship

Aaron Bradley took the words out of my mouth in his Blekko, Can I Please Have My Spam Back? post.

At the end of the day, I have no respect for a search engine that censors my results based on notions of quality, rather than relevancy.  It ceases to be comprehensive, it smacks of elitist righteousness and – most of all – decisions about the validity of content are being made on my behalf by people I don’t know.

Quality and taste are subjective. The fact that Blekko has chosen to use the feedback from a biased minority to censor results for the majority is unfortunate. Is the message that mainstream users don’t know enough to make their own decisions, the right decisions? If I search for ‘food’, should unhealthy foods be removed from search results?

In all seriousness, would Blekko remove specific books that users had marked as spam? According to the American Library Association, this would mean Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple would vanish from the landscape.

Use spam feedback to reorder results, but let me make up my own mind. I don’t need a nanny search engine.

Disclosure: While I consult for Buzzillions, this post is my personal opinion and does not reflect those of Buzzillions.

Google Bait and Switch

February 02 2011 // Rant + SEO // 5 Comments

Does Google truly understand SEO? One would hope so but in the last few weeks Google took one step forward and two steps back.

What Google Says

Matt Cutts gave SEO a sort of backhanded compliment in a recent post about search neutrality.

I don’t believe all search engine optimization (SEO) is spam. Plenty of SEOs do a great job making their clients’ websites more accessible, relevant, useful, and fast.

I like Matt and I think he does understand and may even appreciate SEO.

And a recent Google Webmaster Help video titled Using Webmaster Tools Like an SEO was also a positive sign. The content is very basic and Maile seems to be talking like Mr. Rogers, but that’s probably to ensure the video helps beginners and those where English is a second language. So, they talk the talk.

What Google Does

Does Google walk the walk? The new Google Engage program recently launched and I’m seeing ads on Google promoting it.

Google SEO Search Ads

The keyword targeting seems focused around any term containing SEO. I got this one to fire when I searched for ‘seo services’.

A different version popped up during my morning Google Reader review.

Are you an SEO?

What’s the problem? Google Engage has pretty much NOTHING to do with SEO. Here’s the landing page.

Google Engage Landing Page

The highlighting is my own, but is there to underscore the fact that they’re equating search engine optimization with AdWords services. I find this disturbing.

I would give most people outside of the industry a pass on distinguishing between SEO, SEM and PPC. Google is no outsider. I think it’s pretty clear that SEO is about optimizing a site and pages for natural search. SEO is not about paid search.

Yet here they are advertising against SEO keywords, using an SEO focused display URL to encourage AdWords business. I’m left to believe that those behind Google Engage don’t understand what SEO really is or that they know what SEO is and seek to convince people to spend on paid search traffic instead of optimizing for free search traffic.

Bait and Switch

So which is it? When I search for ‘sem services’ I get a different ad.

SEM Services Adwords Ad

That ad takes me to an interesting page.

Google Defines SEO and SEM

Huh. Looks like Google’s got the definitions down pat. So I’m left to assume Google Engage is purposefully muddying the waters.

Am I blowing this out of proportion or are you disturbed by this bait and switch technique?

You Don’t Count Friends

January 18 2011 // Rant + Social Media // 3 Comments

When was the last time you counted your friends … in real life.

You Don’t Count Friends

My guess is that you have never actually sat down and counted your friends. Maybe when you were 6 you counted your best friends on one hand but you didn’t wake up every morning and recount. Yet online we’re constantly reminded of and trained to tally our friends.

The Prisoner

We’ve become prisoners to social numbers. The numbers on Facebook and Twitter; on Feedburner and Quora. Not only are we held hostage by those numbers, we become them too. We’re number 212 on someone’s list, number 83 on another.

I am not a number! I am a free man!

I love numbers and could literally lose myself in an Excel spreadsheet for a day. But the numbers attached to friends and followers simply seem unnatural and don’t map to any offline behavior.

People are generally not alerted when someone ‘unfriends’ them in real life. What does that even mean? It probably means you grew apart and just don’t talk anymore. No biggie.

But online the drop in friend count is right there in your face. Suddenly you have to explain and account for it. WTF!

Lose The Social Numbers

Lose The Numbers

What it we lost the numbers. Maybe you still need some sort of tally? But could we come up with a word to describe a range of numbers? Something that would be more real?

  • A Handful
  • Several
  • Some
  • Many
  • A Lot
  • Tons

I know, I know, people will probably still want to get from Several to Some or from A Lot to Tons. But maybe it helps a little? Or maybe we just remove the numbers all together. Poof.

Is there an app for that? Like an ad blocker but for social media numbers? Contact me if you want to help build one.

Google is not a Field of Dreams

January 02 2011 // Rant + SEO // 1 Comment

There is a rising tide of advice lately extolling the virtues of creating a valuable site focused on the user and that the rest … will simply come.

If you build it they will come

If you think this happens online (or anywhere outside of the movies), you’ll be waiting a long time for Ray Liotta to saunter out of that digital cornfield. And you won’t have traffic beating a path to your door like the closing shot of Field of Dreams.

Field of Dreams SEO

The story sounds great, doesn’t it? Write scintillating content and you’ll get search traffic. Build a useful, interesting site and the Google gods will smile upon you. Maybe this is how it works in some magical Utopian world where it rains marshmallows.

Field of Dreams

It would be great if the sites that were most useful were always ranked appropriately. But spend any time doing SEO (the kind where you’re in the trenches) and you know this is patently not true, nor (sadly) does it seem to be getting much better.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t build a great site focused on users that delivers tremendous value. That just isn’t enough. You still need SEO to ensure the great site you’ve built gets in front of the right people.

Trash and Treasure

Here’s the hard truth, you may not be appealing to as many people as you think. Your definition of value might not be the definition others use, particularly not the definition Google uses. This is why I find the pollyanna around Field of Dreams SEO to be so dangerous. Because there is a nugget of truth to the notion.

Writing great content and building a valuable site is a critical part of SEO. But this means different things to different people. Put another way, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and vice versa. As an example, I may find William Faulkner unreadable, but others may adore his novels.

Waterworld

SEO winds up being director, editor and agent – helping to shape your content and site so it is appealing to the major studios. Sure, maybe you can go the ‘Indie’ route, bucking the establishment and releasing it in small art house movie theaters. But how many times does that really work?

don't ignore seo

Ignore SEO and you’ll wind up with Waterworld instead of Field of Dreams.

Kill Infographic Spam

December 11 2010 // Rant + SEO // 3 Comments

Infographics can be a great way to generate backlinks. But the prevalence of infographic spam threatens this link building technique.

Infographic Spam

You’ve undoubtedly seen infographic spam. The hallmarks of infographic spam are a mediocre graphic from multiple data sources with a link back to a tenuously related website.

Infographic Spam

This TSA infographic is linked to a criminal justice degree site. Related? Barely. Of note, nice going keeping the utm parameters in your source link.

Infographic Spam

Here’s one about the sexual revolution that’s linked by to a site offering online counseling degrees. Related? No.

Pay per Infographic

Oh, did I mention that they pay sites to post infographics? Earlier this year Aaron Wall wrote about link buyers outing themselves. Well here’s a similar example.

Infographic Spam

This is an actual post where the site owner admits to posting infographics for money and asking if readers mind. The verdict? Readers are fine with it. But I’m not, and neither should you.

The sites that generate this garbage are usually making a lot of money – most often coming from the lucrative education vertical. But what about this guy? What about the individual site owner? He’s making just $130. I don’t blame the guy really. He’s just trying to break even on this site and maybe make a little bit in the bargain.

Paid Links vs Paid Infographics

In my mind, there is a big difference between paid links and paid infographics. Paid links are essentially static. You’re renting the trust and authority of that site and probably getting a bit of traffic as well. There’s no expectation of amplification. Said another way, paid links aren’t viral.

Paid infographics are problematic because they are engineered to create additional installations through social distribution and embeds.

Viral Infographic Spam

The sole purpose of infographic spam is to drive keyword specific anchor text from multiple domains. Domain diversity anyone?

In addition, when buying links you’re usually looking for links from sites that are similar in topic. You’re seeking to build your profile in a certain neighborhood.

As an aside, this is exactly what you’re doing if you buy a directory listing. You’re buying the trust and authority from a relevant section of that directory. I’m still not sure why one is verboten and the other is okay, but that’s a topic for another post. While I don’t actually recommend buying links, I don’t find the transaction to be that disturbing.

Nevertheless, there’s no such targeting involved in paid infographics. It’s the Sherman’s March of link building.

Algorithm Blues

Google Blues

It doesn’t seem like the algorithm is currently capable of finding infographic spam. I can completely understand why it might be difficult.

The link graph may not be that different for paid and non-paid infographics. Because once an infographic gets out in the wild, the viral component takes over. Users don’t care about the little bit of HTML at the bottom of the infographic, they just think it’s interesting. As the poll above showed, even when told, users aren’t running to Google to file a spam report.

You can’t use anchor text bombing as a signal since any good SEO is going to use proper anchor text in an infographic.

Now, perhaps you could work to determine whether the source sites (where it first appeared) between infographics differed. Yet, the example I provided mentions that ‘many’ of the infographics posted of late were paid. So, he might be mixing in ones found and enjoyed with ones where he’s getting paid. So is his site a poison source site or not?

In the end, maybe we need a little human intervention and outreach. A couple of emails, a bit of sleuthing and some Law & Order type of immunity deals and I think you’d locate the sites and intermediaries who were polluting the infographic space. I’m not advocating going after the posting sites or contract designers but instead the sponsors of this content.

Am I entirely comfortable with Google using their nuclear option (the dreaded penalty) in this type of subjective manner? No. But lately I’m seeing way too much getting through the algorithm (both infographic and otherwise) and relying on users to report spam doesn’t seem like enough.

Do you care about infographic spam? If so, what would you do to stop it?

Dynamic Keyword Insertion and Quality Score

December 04 2010 // PPC + Rant // 1 Comment

I recently fired up a new AdWords campaign for a client that was perfect for Dynamic Keyword Insertion. But it didn’t seem to be working, so I emailed AdWords support and got this answer.

No Dynamic Keyword Insertion

Dynamic Keyword Quality Score

First off, my name isn’t John. This isn’t the first time I’ve been addressed like this though. Since I go by AJ many customer service folks seem to transpose the J onto my last name (Kohn) and come up with John. Now, at one point in my youth I told my parents I wanted to be called Tom after the cat in Tom and Jerry, but I’ve never used John as a pseudonym.

What was more surprising was the fact that Dynamic Keyword Insertion as a feature is gated by Quality Score. Was I supposed to know this? Nowhere does it mention that you must achieve a certain Quality Score to use Dynamic Keyword Insertion. But more to the point, does it make any real sense?

AdWords (il)Logic

The advice they have is to create static text ads (for the nearly 10,000 keywords I have) until such time as they grant me the ability to use Dynamic Keyword Insertion. You tell me to make it more relevant. I can do that … by using Dynamic Keyword Insertion. But I can’t use that until I make the ads relevant. It’s a Catch-22.

I wrote back explaining that it seemed like an onerous amount of work. You really want me to create static ads until the Quality Score increases to a point where you turn on Dynamic Keyword Insertion?

AdWords WTF

Yeah, still not John. But here’s the kicker. This is a new campaign! Yet users are not finding my ad very relevant to click on? So – how did you figure that out before it was launched? (Okay, I actually know they’re probably using an account or domain Quality Score. But tell me if that’s the case.)

And lets talk about relevancy. While I can’t divulge the exact keyword set, it is very specific. This ad is relevant if you’re searching for any of these keywords.

Making Relevance Difficult to Achieve

I’m still trying to figure out why Google would decide to gate this feature. Dynamic Keyword Insertion is a fairly advanced strategy. You’re not going to get a lot of small businesses using it, particularly if you’re playing these types of games.

Using the keyword in the ad is a pretty good way to make the ad more relevant. That seems to be one of Google’s goals. The advice is essentially to make a static ad that would be the same as the dynamic ad. So … Google wants the ad to look that way and include that keyword, they just don’t want me to use the feature that makes that easy to do.

It makes about as much sense as a smiling Spock.

Illogical

Can anyone give me a good reason for this policy?

My Name is Miami Attorneys (and now SEO must die)

December 03 2010 // Humor + Rant + SEO // 5 Comments

The other day I followed a ping back to Elsewhere. There I found a fantastic blog commenting policy.

I’ve turned “nofollow” back on for links in comments. If I can find a good WordPress plugin that allows me to disable this on a per-comment basis, I will manually remove that on comments I think deserve it.

Use your name, nickname, pseudonym, handle, or other personally-relevant identifier in the “Name” field. Your name is not “Miami Attorneys” or “Solar Panels” or “Bingo Games”. If you use a product or site name as your own name and it makes it through the spam filters, I will manually delete it. This applies to obvious keyword linking, too. The keyword you’re trying to boost is not your name. If you use it as your name, I will remove your comment. Use your own name, or something reasonably name-like.

Linking to the site you’re promoting is fine, as long as it’s relevant to the post or other comments in the thread. If I feel it is spammy, I may delete the link or the whole comment, depending on my mood. Your link will have rel=”nofollow” applied, unless I think it deserves otherwise.

If you are not a spammer or SEO practitioner, you probably don’t know what any of that meant. Don’t worry about it; it doesn’t apply to you.

This is why so many people hate SEO and you really can’t blame them either. The sad truth is that most people lump SEO in with this obnoxious form of blog commenting spam. This is what they see, despite the reality. Which got me thinking.

Dread Pirate SEO

Most people probably think of SEO as the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Dread Pirate SEO

If you’re familiar with The Princess Bride (and you should!) then you know that the Dread Pirate Roberts was thought to be an incredible villain. What they didn’t know (among other things) was that the Dread Pirate Roberts wasn’t just one person.

So you can think of the Dread Pirate SEO declaring that his name is Miami Attorneys on blog after blog, taking no prisoners in his quest for keyword anchor text.

SEO Must Die

Of course this provokes a rather normal reaction.

SEO Must Die

Yes, a phalanx of Inigo Montoyas rise up to call for the head of the Dread Pirate SEO. They seek to battle him at every turn, not knowing the truth behind the mask.

Inconceivable!

The problem is what most people see looks like (and often is) trickery. Yes, many in our profession are true Dread Pirate SEO. Compounding this is the fact that every good SEO does know some tricks. Not only that, but many like to poke and prod the algorithm in an effort to understand what will really work.

SEO Trickery

SEOs enjoy this battle of wits. And we like to win. However, it may give many the wrong impression of our true purpose.

We’re Westley

Dread Pirate SEO is actually … a good guy!

SEO Good Guy

Good SEO is simply ensuring that your content finds the right audience. It would be nice if a good site or great content would immediately rank for the right queries. But that’s not what happens, despite the Google dogma. Instead, SEO is there to storm the castle and ensure that your time and effort is rewarded with the right traffic. That your site and content are seen by the right people.

Will most people ever think of SEO as their ally? Probably not. That just happens in the movies.

Don’t Average CTR

November 08 2010 // Analytics + PPC + Rant + SEO // 2 Comments

One of the biggest errors I see (consistently) in SEO and PPC analysis is using Excel’s AVERAGE function on Click Through Rate (CTR). As I mentioned in my SEO Pivot Tables post, do not do this. Here’s why averaging CTR is dangerous.

Take the following set of 10 data points.

Don't Average Click Through Rate

If you SUM all of the Impressions and Clicks and then do the CTR calculation you arrive at 10.05%. If you AVERAGE the 10 CTR percentages you arrive at 6.14%.

If I change the Clicks for these 10 data points I can produce the opposite effect.

Don't Average CTR

And will you look at that, the average CTR is the same in both instances. Can you see how misleading average can be here?

Don’t Average Click Through Rate

For years, I’ve used a structured Excel quiz in my hiring process that tests just this issue. In my experience upwards of 50% of applicants fail the quiz. If you’re pulling down data into Excel for PPC or SEO, make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

Unlink at your own risk

June 01 2010 // Rant + SEO + Web Design // 3 Comments

unlinking text

There’s a new unlinking meme going around that contextual links are a bad thing for web content. That they’re a distraction and take away from the prose of the journalist or blogger. It’s amazing that so many smart people actually believe the myth that people are reading their content word for word.

They’re not.

People Scan Text

Jakob Nielsen found that 79% of users scanned content and further research has supported this finding. But there are ways to increase the readability of web content.

highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)

That’s right. Links actually help the usability and readability of your content.

Writing for the Web

Putting all the links at the end may encourage users to skip your content. People aren’t patient and while it would be nice if they were, I don’t think that’s going to change. Fighting against this instinct doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy, nor is it entirely bad.

Different mediums dictate different writing styles. A novel versus haiku versus grant writing. They’re all very different in style, syntax and structure. Contextual links are simply a part of the style, syntax and structure of web content.

Links and SEO

Don’t forget that links are still an important part of SEO and recent research indicates that links within the text likely carry more trust and authority. And while backlinks are far more important, establishing a hub of authority and your presence within a ‘neighborhood’ is going to help your content get read by the right people.

So, get over the anecdotal stories and past the vanity. Links within text are valuable in web communication. Period.