Social Echo

May 01 2012 // SEO + Social Media // 14 Comments

How many Tweets does it take to impact rank? How important are +1s? Should I care about LinkedIn shares? Are Likes more important than Tweets?

I'm seeing these types of questions again and again and again as people try to understand the impact of social on search. Many seem to think there's a formula. They want to know that if they get 145 Tweets and 62 +1s that their efforts will be rewarded by some specific amount.

Birch tree trunks in forest

These are all interesting studies but do they miss the forest for the trees?

The Social Echo

In truth, it's not about those specific Tweets, Shares, +1s and Likes. It's the echo of those events that is meaningful. It's the fact that someone sees that Tweet, goes and reads your content, finds it valuable and then decides to save, comment, share or link to it.

If a blog post gets 100 Tweets and those Tweets are seen by 100 people each then you've gotten your content in front of 10,000 people. Of those 10,000 people you're hoping that some percentage of them wind up talking about and citing your work.

The strength of the social echo is what translates into search success.

Not Just Links

So the social echo is just about getting more links? No. Mind you, links are important and doubly in this instance because these are the organic links you really want. But the social echo goes beyond links.

Good things happen when your content is shared. More people are exposed to (and will recall) your brand. You'll get more followers and subscribers to your blog or site. People are more likely to talk (in the real world!) about your site or blog. You'll get invited to speak at industry events. (True story.)

It's just good marketing.

A Numbers Game?

Olivia Wilde Thirteen

If you get more Tweets, +1s and Likes, are you more likely to receive that social echo? Yes and no.

Obviously if you have 5,000 Tweets, some of them are going to find there way to people who will take meaningful actions. So the law of numbers does work when you get to scale.

But buying Likes or getting your 'tribe' to Tweet your content will produce a very low social echo. The motivation behind social action matters! The odds that these types of manufactured events spread to others, create conversation and result in downstream links is extremely low.

Artificially increasing those numbers will not do you an ounce of good. Okay, it may provide you with social proof that could encourage a few other sheep people to share your content, but that's about it.

Quality over Quantity

I'm not talking about content (though this turn of phrase fits there too) but about followers or fans. Kevin Kelly's 1000 true fans comes to mind, but isn't a perfect match for the social echo. Why? You need to connect with other creators and curators.

The social echo follows the 90-9-1 rule of contribution. Get the right people talking about your content and your social echo will explode. Yes, having a bunch of people willing to endorse (aka Tweet, Like, +1) your content is great. But other creators need to see value in and use your content.

That's when things get interesting.

How To Increase Your Social Echo

Spinal Tap Volume

There's no formula but there are ways to give your content a better chance of being saved, shared, engaged on and referenced by others.

Be Authentic

Being fake isn't going to get you very far in social. Authenticity doesn't mean you're the smartest or that you're 'right' or even that you're original. It means that you're being real.

Pick Your Platforms

You only have so many hours in the day and to remain authentic you need to choose platforms that work for you and your audience. Your audience may be on Tumblr or HackerNews or Inbound.org. Maybe you just don't like using Facebook (or is that just me?) You want depth, not breadth, so pick judiciously.

Produce Great Content

I know you're sick of hearing this but it's true. Not only that, but great has to be defined by others, not you or your loved ones or your employees. Find someone who can tell you that your baby is ugly.

Make Your Content Portable

Reduce the friction to sharing your content. Make it easy to share on your site and on other sites by implementing better sharing buttons and optimizing your social snippet.

Follow Up

Respond to people who comment on your blog. Thank those who promote your work. Discuss your content with people on various social platforms. You need not be present for every conversation but you can't afford to be J.D. Salinger either.

Curate and Comment

It's not just about being active on your own content. Engage in the content of others. Curate and share the best from your industry. Comment on their blogs in a thoughtful way. ("Excellent post" does not count.) This isn't about stalking influencers, it's about following and joining relevant conversations in your area of expertise.

Rinse and Repeat

It won't happen overnight. When you start it'll feel like nothing is happening. You will look at those numbers and feel like a failure. Get over it. Overnight success happens through years and years of work. (And work is never over.)

TL;DR

Success in social is not measured by the number of Tweets, Shares, Likes and +1s but what happens as a result of those actions.

Author Rank

March 30 2012 // SEO // 206 Comments

AuthorRank could be more disruptive than all of the Panda updates combined.

That's a bold statement but possible once you fully understand AuthorRank and how it could be applied to search results.

What is AuthorRank?

The idea behind AuthorRank is that your reputation as a content creator will influence the ranking of search results. Here's the specific language from Google's Agent Rank patent.

The identity of individual agents responsible for content can be used to influence search ratings.

Assuming that a given agent has a high reputational score, representing an established reputation for authoring valuable content, then additional content authored and signed by that agent will be promoted relative to unsigned content or content from less reputable agents in search results.

Agent? Agent is Google-speak for an author. This excerpt states that verified content by an author will be graded and it is that grade that influences the rank of content in search results.

AuthorRank is Query-Independent

Search algorithm signals can be divided into two broad criteria: query-dependent and query-independent.

Query-dependent criteria measure how closely related the content is to a given query. Query-independent criteria measure the authority of that content. AuthorRank would be a query-independent criterion similar to PageRank.

Google would want to see content with high AuthorRank and high PageRank. That combination would be a strong signal, showing that the authority of that author was accurately reflected in the link graph.

But what about instances where there is low or no AuthorRank and high PageRank? This might actually be an interesting way to discover unnatural link profiles.

The opposite result, content with a high AuthorRank but low PageRank, could indicate new content or relatively undiscovered content. It may, over time, also point to an author that has lost influence and is just mailing it in. Persistent instances of this combination might trigger a reduction in AuthorRank.

AuthorRank Informs PageRank

The Wonder Twins: AuthorRank and PageRank

The implementation of AuthorRank means that the link graph suddenly carries an additional attribute that can be used to adjust the influence of links. Links from content with a high AuthorRank may count and pass more trust and authority. However, links from a blog network, like the defunct Build My Rank, without authorship may pass less (or no) trust and authority.

Intuitively, an agent should have a higher reputational score, regardless of the content signed by the agent, if the content signed by the agent is frequently referenced by other agents or content. Not all references, however, are necessarily of equal significance. For example, a reference by another agent with a high reputational score is of greater significance than a reference by another agent with a low reputational score. Thus, the reputation of a particular agent, and therefore the reputational score assigned to the particular agent, should depend not just on the number of references to the content signed by the particular agent, but on the importance of the referring documents and other agents. This implies a recursive definition: the reputation of a particular agent is a function of the reputation of the content and agents which refer to it.

In this way, even content without authorship could be informed by the AuthorRank of links to that content. AuthorRank won't replace PageRank it'll just make it more accurate. This is one of the more powerful applications of AuthorRank. In essence, Google identifies authors who can help curate the link graph.

AuthorRank by Topic

AuthorRank will not be monolithic. The Agent Rank patent clearly states that an author can have a different rank by topic.

The agent ranks can optionally also be calculated relative to search terms or categories of search terms. For example, search terms (or structured collections of search terms, i.e., queries) can be classified into topics, e.g., sports or medical specialties, and an agent can have a different rank with respect to each topic.

I might have a high AuthorRank for search engine optimization but a low AuthorRank for biology. My personal development posts (something like this) may not be given as much weight as my search related posts.

In addition, links with high AuthorRank on the same topic will carry far more weight. So too will any social gestures (such as shares, comments and endorsements) from those with expertise and authority on that topic. A comment on this post from Bill Slawski would potentially increase my AuthorRank.

AuthorRank and Identity

AuthorRank is closely related to identity. Google needs to be certain that the relationship between author and content is valid. As such, a fair amount of the Agent Rank patent revolves around confirming identity through the use of a digital signature.

Pressed by Danny Sullivan in January 2012 interview, Amit Singhal had this to say about access to Twitter's firehose.

A good product can only be built where we understand who’s who and who is related to whom. Relationships are also important alongside content. To build a good product, we have to do all types of processing. But fundamentally, it’s not just about content. It’s about identity, relationships and content. Anything else trivializes a very hard product.

Can it be any more clear? Confidence in identity is the cornerstone, perhaps even a prerequisite, to using social signals in search. So what did Google do? They launched an identity platform (Google+) and digital signature (rel=author).

Let me repeat that, Google+ is an identity platform and rel=author is a digital signature.

AuthorRank Abuse

Identity also helps ensure that AuthorRank is not abused. In fact, Google has envisioned a system by which gaining AuthorRank is difficult but losing it is quite easy.

A high reputational score need not give an agent the ability to manipulate web search rankings In one implementation, reputational scores are relatively difficult to increase and relatively easy to decrease, creating a disincentive for an agent to place its reputation at risk by endorsing content inappropriately. Since the signatures of reputable agents can be used to promote the ranking of signed content in web search results, agents have a powerful incentive to establish and maintain a good reputational score.

So you're not going to risk your AuthorRank and general reputation for some link scheme.

Why Use AuthorRank?

Digital Kanagawa Wave

Google needs a better way to sift through and determine quality in an age where content can so easily be produced and distributed. Here's a quote from Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, in an October 2011 Eric Enge interview.

Broadly speaking, you can think of the growth of the web and the growth of the computing power needed to instantly index it as a kind of arms race. The web keeps growing. There’s a misperception that the web has become established or matured, but in fact the growth curve is a nice smooth exponential that hasn’t shown signs of slowing down yet. We’re still in the middle of the information explosion.

The result of this information explosion is a huge tidal wave of very noisy content, making it vastly more difficult to find the signal. Jason Calacanis put it bluntly at the December 2011 ReadWriteWeb 2WAY Summit.

There are a lot of stupid people out there ... and stupid people shouldn't write. ... There needs to be a better system for tuning down the stupid people and tuning up the smart people.

Google may not be as blunt in their assessment but they hold a very similar view. Here's the last sentence in the official announcement of authorship.

We know that great content comes from great authors, and we’re looking closely at ways this markup could help us highlight authors and rank search results.

The emphasis is mine. That last piece is important because it shows a clear desire to use AuthorRank to rank search results. It also points to a two-phase approach to the AuthorRank project. We've seen the first phase where authors are highlighted, but have not seen it used to rank search results. Not yet.

Calculating AuthorRank

How would Google determine your AuthorRank? By looking at how your content is received.

Google will be monitoring activity and mining the engagement graph.

Here we turn to a the Ranking User Generated Web Content patent for guidance.

This specification describes techniques for weighting interactions between users in an electronic community and generating user credential scores based on interactions between users. In general, user-generated content items, e.g., comments to a blog or answers posted on a question answering web site, can be analyzed to assign quality factors. The user-generated content items can additionally be analyzed to assess quality of input and identify individual interactions between users (e.g., one or more users uploading responses to a question posed by a first user).

This one is not as easy to read as the Agent Rank patent but still allows us to understand how Google might think about creating credential scores for users. Here are but a few things they might consider.

  • How often is your content shared?
  • How quickly is your content shared?
  • Who shared your content?
  • Did those who shared your content have expertise in that topic?
  • Do the same people always share your content?
  • How many comments did your content generate?
  • Who commented on your content?
  • Did those who commented on your content have expertise in that topic?
  • Were the comments on your content of high-quality?
  • Were the comments on your content of a positive sentiment?
  • How often is your content endorsed? (i.e. - +1, Like)
  • Who endorsed your content?
  • Did those endorsing your content have expertise in that topic?
  • Do the same people always endorse your content?

This doesn't just apply to traditional content you generate (such as blog posts or articles) but also applies to comments, answers, reviews and native Google+ posts. The same questions can be applied to these content types to understand the value of your contributions.

  • Do your comments, answers, reviews etc. receive +1s or upvotes?
  • Who is +1ing your comments?
  • Are those people +1ing or upvoting your comments or answers have expertise in that topic?
  • Are your comments of high-quality?
  • Do your comments create additional interactions?

The rumored launch of a Google Commenting product would allow Google to extend their view of activity and engagement with identity attached. All of this activity and engagement must be attached to an identity.

Sure, Google may use other sources to round out their view of activity and engagement but I sense that these sources have proven difficult to use. Google has long been able to create a social graph and identify potential other profiles. One look at your Social Connections should give you an idea of how much Google knows.

But if you're going to use these activities to alter search results are you going to rely on secondary data where identity might be in question? We're talking about Google's core product! Having a primary source of this data (Google+ and Google Comments) where you are confident in identity and authorship makes sense.

The type of approach outlined in the patent and described above can be seen in the Google+ Activity API.

Google+ Activity API

Ripples is just the tip of the iceberg of what Google can do with this type of information. The real value for Google is in using all of this activity and engagement in combination with authorship to create AuthorRank.

Is AuthorRank for Real?

I've referenced and excerpted a fair amount from patents in this post. So you might be asking yourself whether this is all just theory? Is AuthorRank really going to materialize?

Make no mistake, Google is working on AuthorRank.

Othar Hansson The Authorship Project

Othar Hansson is the Engineering Lead on 'The Authorship Project' at Google. Take a peek at his background and what he's worked on and you'll understand that Othar isn't just any Googler.

That aside, you put together the launch of Google+ (an identity platform) with rel=author (a digital signature) and add in the acquisition of two companies (PostRank and SocialGrapple) who mine activity and engagement and it is clear that Google is anxious to use AuthorRank to help it deal with the digital content avalanche.

AuthorRank vs Panda

Could AuthorRank be bigger than Panda? Absolutely!

Panda is a domain level filter that distinguishes between low-quality and high-quality sites. It essentially uses an aggregate score of documents on a domain to determine quality. Ultimately, Panda treats great content the same way as lousy content. It's a blunt instrument.

AuthorRank goes much further by combining the web of people with the web of links. It's a page level application of authority based on the reputation of the author. Not only that, AuthorRank can be used to make the link graph more accurate, reducing or eliminating the impact of manufactured link building efforts that undermine true trust and authority.

Panda will feel like a speedbump if Google can implement a fully realized version of AuthorRank.

Preparing for AuthorRank

Here are a few steps you can take to future proof your SEO and prepare for AuthorRank.

Claim Authorship

You have to be in it to win it. Implement rel=author and claim your content today. My Google Authorship how-to has additional details.

Engage on Google+ (and elsewhere)

Activity and engagement will be important. You can certainly just be a content creator but authors can also establish additional credibility by engaging in meaningful dialog on Google+ and other platforms. Check out my engagement and best practices section (near the bottom) of my Google Plus SEO guide.

Produce Great Content

AuthorRank places a much heavier emphasis on producing valuable content, not just in the traditional way but in how you interact and engage with others. Don't be the person who responds with 'great post' over and over again.

TL;DR

AuthorRank means that your reputation as a content creator will influence the ranking of search results. Not only that but AuthorRank can be used to make the link graph more accurate.

AuthorRank combines the web of people with the web of links to create a more savvy view of trust and authority that will be used to rank search results.

Is AuthorRank a reality today? No. But it's no longer about if it happens but when.

Single Domain Results

March 23 2012 // SEO + Web Design // 6 Comments

In the last few weeks I've noticed more results appearing from a single domain for a growing number of queries. Not only that but I'm seeing duplicate and less relevant results within those single domain results.

Single Domain Results

Google Single Domain Results

In August 2010 Google began to serve more results from a single domain for certain queries. However, sometime during 2011 I believe Google pulled back and search results were, once again, more diverse. Our collective mania over Panda let things like this slide under the radar.

Today, I'm seeing more and more single domain results and what I'm seeing in them isn't all that valuable.

Duplicate Results

One line sitelinks often create duplicate results. Here's a search result for Oakley Sunglasses.

Oakley Sunglasses Google Results

Oakley owns the first four results for this query. But the one line sitelinks in the first (and most relevant) result are then duplicated with full results. This seems inefficient and potentially confusing.

This is not an isolated instance either. It's easy to find other examples of this type of duplication.

All Clad Cookware Google Search Results

Frankly, I'm not entirely sure why the FAQ is a great result for an All Clad Cookware query anyways.

Root Domains

Another strange thing I'm seeing is that the root domain is returned for these queries. Here's a result for Easton Baseball Bats.

Easton Baseball Bats Google Search Results

The first result is the most relevant but then the root domain is returned which then produces a duplicate sitelink. Here's another example for the query Roofing Shingles.

Roofing Shingles Google Search Results

The deep link results from GAF and Owens Corning are extremely relevant but why does Google think it's a good idea to include the root domain in addition in both instances? If the goal is to get users to the most relevant information in the least amount of clicks why would you present a result which clearly doesn't achieve this goal?

Indents Live On with JavaScript Off

Perhaps you remember the Indent Massacre? In late 2010 Google removed indents, a visual queue for single domain results, from search results. Yet, in looking at search results with JavaScript turned off they're actually alive and well.

Roofing Shingles Google Results JavaScript Off

Easton Baseball Bats Google Results JavaScript Off

You'll notice that the one line sitelinks disappear, the Cached and Similar links are in-line with search results and the URL is back in the 'old' position. This type of progressive enhancement is something other sites may want to emulate as they look for ways to preserve crawl efficiency while improving user experience.

Now, I'd actually argue that the lack of indents or any visual cue that results are from the same domain is a step back in user experience.

I also wonder if loading the one line sitelinks via JavaScript makes it difficult to identify duplicates within single domain results.

Algorithm Debt

Google is clearly trying to figure out how to return and present results when they believe the intent is focused on a specific domain or entity. I know some will say this is about brand bias but the truth is it can be difficult to determine a brand from a generic domain. It's why exact match keyword domains remain a thorn in Google's side.

The last 18 months has seen an incredible amount of change in this area, from the August 2010 announcement that they'd serve more results from a single domain, to compact snippets (which no longer exist as far as I can tell), to supersize sitelinks to the ongoing evolution of one line sitelinks (now with arrows).

However, it looks as if Google has acquired some debt during this process. Because duplicate results and the pervasive presence of the root domain likely erode user experience and relevancy.

Not only that but it creates the wrong type of incentive, a perverted version of host crowding as sites look for ways to rank multiple pages for the same term. What better way to fend off your competition than pushing them farther down the page!

I expect that we'll see additional changes here as Google works through this debt and ensures that single domain results actually add value to search results.

No Such Thing As A Good Scraper

March 14 2012 // Rant + SEO // 24 Comments

I have 155 pending comments right now. The overwhelming majority of them are pingbacks from benign scrapers. Some may see this as a boon but I view these scrapers as arterial plaque that could ultimately give the Internet a heart attack.

Here's my personal diagnosis.

The Illness

My definition of a benign scraper is a site that scrapes content but provides attribution. I've gotten a ton of these recently because of links I received in high profile sites within the search community. Those sites are the target of these scrapers so my link gets carried along as part of the deal.

Benign Scraper Pingbacks

The attitude by most is that the practice won't damage the scraped site and may actually provide a benefit through the additional links. Heck, Jon Cooper at Point Blank SEO even came up with a clever way to track the scrape rate of a site as a way to determine which sites might be the best candidates for guest posts.

Signs and Symptoms

But what do these scraper sites look like? Some of these scrapers might have original content mixed in with the scraped content but in reviewing my pingbacks this seems like the exception and not the rule. Most of these benign scrapers are just pulling in content from a number of feeds and stuffing it onto the page hoping that users show up and click on ads and that the content owners don't take exception.

Benign Scraper Attribution Example

"Hey, I gave you a link, so we're cool, right bro?"

No bro, we're not cool.

This stuff is garbage. It's content pollution. It is the arterial plaque of the Internet.

The Doctor

Google is trying to keep up and often removes this dreck from the index.

Benign Scraper Deindexed

But for every one that Google removes there's another that persists.

Benign Scraper Indexed

How long until the build up of this arterial plaque gives the Internet a heart attack? One day we'll wake up and the garbage will be piled high like a horrifying episode of Hoarders.

Support Groups?

The industry attitude toward these scrapers is essentially a tacit endorsement. It brings to mind the quote attributed to Edmund Burke.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

We turn a blind eye and whistle past the graveyard happily trusting that Google will sort it all out. They'll make sure that the original content is returned instead of the scraped content. That's a lot of faith to put in Google, particularly as they struggle to keep up with the increasing pace of digital content.

Are we really this desperate for links?

Desperate for Links Example

Yet, we whine about how SEO is viewed by those outside of the industry. And we'll whine again when Google gets a search result wrong and shows a scraper above the original content. Indignant blog posts will be written.

Treatment

Even if we wanted to, we have few tools at our disposal to tell Google about these sites. The tools we do have are onerous and inefficient.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Why not build a Chrome extension that lets me flag and report scraper sites? Or a WordPress Plugin that lets me mark and report a site as a scraper directly within the comment interface. Or how about a section in Google Webmaster Tools where I can review links?

Sure, there are reporting issues and biases but those are solvable problems. Thing is, many doctors have a God complex. Google may not think we're able to contribute to the diagnosis. That would be a mistake.

Cure?

Disaster Girl Dares You To Ignore Scrapers

Maybe we don't want to be cured. Perhaps we're all willing to let this junk persist, willing to smile as your mom finds one of these sites when she's looking for that article you wrote. Willing to believe that your brand is totally safe when it appears on these sites. But the rest of the world isn't nearly as savvy as you think.

I know many of these links work, but they shouldn't. The fact that they do worries me. Because, over time, people might not be able to tell the difference and that's not the Internet I want.

Today these scrapers are benign but tomorrow they could turn malignant.

Blog Post Optimization

March 12 2012 // SEO // 21 Comments

One of the things I've learned blogging is that a blog post can have two distinct lives. Upon hitting the publish button a blog post lives in the sparkly social spotlight. But soon the lights fade and the crowd goes home. It's time for that blog post to start working a 9 to 5 job, bringing traffic to your site each and every week.

Voltron

Optimizing your posts for both of these lives is important but takes some foresight. Here's how I do it.

The Social Life

The social life of a blog post is short, lasting between 48 hours and two weeks if you're lucky. Your goal is to generate social proof for that post. You want the post to be the life of the party, the one people are talking about, sharing and discussing.

One of the best ways to do this is to optimize your social snippet with a snappy Title. This is not the Title you'll use long-term but should be the one that you think is going to get some attention in your industry.

For my 'What is SEO?' post I went with 'Are you an SEO Chef or an SEO Burger Flipper?' Actually, this is a slightly modified version that I quickly adopted after seeing a Tweet by Cyrus Shepard. (Thanks again Cyrus.)

Clearly I am not trying to rank for the term SEO Chef! I ultimately want to rank for 'What is SEO?'. But I'd weaved the cooking concept into the post and the Title seemed provocative enough to generate some added buzz.

So how did I do at generating social proof for this post?

Social Proof for What Is SEO?

Not bad. I was hoping for more but I can't really complain about these numbers.

The 9 to 5 Life

Fast forward 10 days and the social life of this post had essentially run its course. It was time to get serious and see if I could rank well for the term 'What is SEO?'. Before I change the Title on the post I check to see where it is ranking for the term.

What Is SEO Google SERP on February 14th 2012

28 isn't that bad.

I change the Title of this post so it's appropriately targeted for 'What is SEO?' and then use Google Webmaster Tools to ask Google to crawl the page again.

Four days later I see that Google has acknowledged the change and the post is now ranking differently for the term 'What is SEO?'.

What Is SEO Google SERP on February 18th 2012

So without doing anything else other than changing the Title of the post I was able to rise 16 spots for a fairly competitive term. If you're not paying attention, let me put it another way, the power of the Title tag should not be underestimated.

It would have been nice if this had landed on the first page but sometimes things don't go exactly as planned. And I've since dropped to 15th for this term because I haven't done any link building, both internal or external, to help it get to the first page. (Should you want to help here please go ahead!)

Life Synergy

It sounds like some sort of new-age cult but I firmly believe that part of the reason the post ranks as well as it does is because of the successful social life of that post. There is a synergy between the social life and the 9 to 5 life. The better social life you have, the better chances that post will have a productive 9 to 5 life.

This isn't even about whether social signals are being used in the algorithm. Social proof creates a social echo that translates into links.

It's not the links on Twitter or any other platform that count. It's the links you get because of that additional exposure. It's the person who sees your post shared on Google+ and then decides they'll link to it in their own blog post.

Title Mechanics

I find that there's often some confusion over what can and should be changed, so I'm going to review the actual mechanics around this type of blog post optimization.

Ensure that your URL is targeted for the 9 to 5 job.

Evergreen URL

You do not want to change this so get it right from the start.

The title of the blog post matches the URL in this instance. It doesn't have to. I could change that to 'The Definition of SEO' and keep the URL the same. WordPress will seek to match these two but you are in control. Click edit and optimize your URL.

The title of the blog post is different than the Title tag for the post. As I've shown, the Title tag is really important.

Title Tag Optimization

This is what will be used in your social snippets and will show up as that big blue link on Google search results. I use All in One SEO but you can do the same type of optimization using Yoast's SEO Plugin or SEO Ultimate. The point is to actually do it!

This type of blog optimization works best when you've got it planned out in advance. If you haven't you can still go back and use SEO Judo to retarget older posts.

TL;DR

The social life of a blog post can have a profound impact on its ability to rank well and drive long-term traffic. Use the Title tag to generate social proof and then change it to match and rank for your long-term keyword goals.

Bing Linked Pages

February 23 2012 // SEO // 8 Comments

Yesterday Bing launched Linked Pages which allows you to "have more control in how you show up on Bing." Is this Bing's answer to rel=author? If it is, it's not a very good one. Here's my experience and analysis.

Bing Linked Pages

Linking Pages on Bing is very easy.

To start you simply go to www.bing.com/linkedpages and click the blue Get started button.

Linked Pages Start Page

That will take you to a Facebook login page.

Facebook Login for Bing Linked Pages

That's right, Bing is using Facebook as their identity platform, much like Google is using Google+ as an identity platform.

Bing Linked Pages Facebook Permissions

One last step to give Bing permission to your first born child and then you can finally get to the Linked Pages interface.

Bing Linked Pages Interface

From here you can see Bing results for your name and select which ones you want linked to you by clicking the Link to me button under that result. Here's where I think things get a little strange.

Bing Link To Me

I can link any of these pages to me. The LinkedIn page actually is me while the Myspace profile is actually my skateboarding doppelgänger.

AJ Kohn Linked Pages Search Result

After linking a few pages I did a search on my name and sure enough the Linked Pages show up. The problem here is that there's no bidirectional link to confirm that I really should be linked to this content. They're trusting users (and their ego I suppose) to link the correct content.

What could go wrong?

Link All The Pages

Not only can you link yourself to any of these results but you can also link them to friends.

Bing Linked Pages to a Friend

I asked my friend Jeremy Post to link something crazy to me just to see how this process works.

Bing Linked Pages Friend Link on Facebook

Sure enough I was told that Jeremy had linked me to Ke$ha. This immediately shows up in my News Feed and on my Timeline. Action must be taken swiftly! So I click on the 'Linked AJ Kohn to' link and it takes me to the Linked Pages interface on Bing.

Unlinking Bad Linked Pages

I never even saw the notification for the Honey Badger which is a bit scary. (Honey Badger don't care!) I can unlink both offending links here but when I return to Facebook I realize that the Timeline entry is still there. It does eventually get removed after a 20 minute+ delay, but that might be too long for some people.

This is simply wrong. I should be able to accept or deny links before they go live.

I understand this is an attempt to let friends curate the pages that link to you but is this really wise? I don't want to play a game of whac-a-mole and continually unlink pages.

Linked Pages seems like the newest way to prank your friends on Facebook.

Profiles versus Pages

One of the interesting things about Linked Pages is that it is linking other profiles and individual content.

Bing Linked Profiles and Pages

If Bing is interested in extending the value of Linked Pages you'd think they'd want to understand which Linked Pages were other profiles versus simple content. A profile would allow Bing to confidently attach authorship to the content under that profile. Perhaps Bing is doing this in the background but the free-for-all nature of the results makes me wonder.

Content versus Mentions

Another oddity if you're thinking about Linked Pages being used for authorship is that I can link pages to content produced by someone else.

Bing Link Pages to Other Content

Maybe I want people to know about these pages when they search for me. I get that. But this is not my content. It's simply content in which I was mentioned and/or linked. Again I have to wonder how this would be extended into a real picture of authorship.

Certainly Bing could look at the graph each person creates, determine intersections (and overlaps) with other people and trace it all back to source material. But that seems incredibly messy, particularly since the data is self-reported meaning there's a limited set to work from and little confidence that it's accurate.

Impact of Linked Pages

Linked Pages doesn't do much right now. People may see my Linked Pages when they search on my name. (This actually isn't happening yet but I'm guessing it takes a little while to propagate. I'll update this post when it does.)

However none of the pages I linked are given any type of additional treatment in normal search results.

Bing Result for Twitter Is Wrong

So the impact of Linked Pages, at least for now, is limited to (at a maximum) vanity searches.

TL;DR

Bing Linked Pages is an attempt to let you control what people see when they perform vanity searches. However, the lack of bidirectional confirmation and inability to easily determine profiles, content and mentions severely limit the impact and application of this feature for authorship and opens the door for a new form of Facebook prank.

 

Rich Snippets Testing Tool Bookmarklet

February 12 2012 // SEO + Technology // 67 Comments

Did you implement your Google Authorship markup correctly? Is your review microformat being recognized by Google? The best way to find out is to run it through Google's Rich Snippets Testing Tool.

Rich Snippets Testing Tool Bookmarklet

I've been using Google's Rich Snippets Testing Tool heavily as I help readers diagnose Authorship markup issues. This morning I was reviewing an interesting post by John Doherty about Google Author Search. In his post he provides a handy bookmarklet.

LOLcat Lightbulb

I realized I should create a Rich Snippets Testing Tool Bookmarklet so I don't have to continually go to the page manually. So I dusted off my limited javascript skills and after about 10 minutes half an hour of trial and error had it figured out.

Rich Snippets Testing Tool

Drag the link above to your bookmarks bar. Then click the bookmark whenever you want to test a specific page. It will create a new tab with the Rich Snippets Testing Tool results.

Sample Rich Snippets Testing Tool Bookmarklet Result

This makes it ultra-easy to validate any page for rich snippets and has already (in my testing of the bookmarklet) revealed some bugs with the Rich Snippets Testing Tool itself.

Please let me know if you find this helpful and report any incompatibility issues or bugs you might find with my bookmarklet code.

What Is SEO?

February 04 2012 // SEO // 30 Comments

What is SEO? The acronym stands for Search Engine Optimization. But the definition of SEO is a more difficult question.

It's not what it once was, that's for sure. The problem is, I see references to outdated definitions of SEO on a fairly regular basis.

If you have arrived here thinking SEO is a sham, snake oil and/or dead then a) you are grossly mistaken and b) let me disabuse you of that notion.

SEO Definition

Here's my definition of SEO in 2012.

Search Engine Optimization is a multidisciplinary activity that seeks to generate productive organic traffic from search engines via technically sound and connected sites by matching query intent with relevance and value.

It's a bit of a mouthful, I know. I've emphasized the areas that I feel are particularly important and deserve a more in-depth explanation.

Productive Traffic

SEOs are Chefs

The goal of SEO is not to increase traffic willy-nilly. You increase traffic by 30% but it makes no difference to the bottom line. Who cares!

Productive can mean different things to different companies. Productive may mean leads or subscribers or revenue or page views. Whatever it is, it's important to define and track productive traffic rather than simply focusing on increasing traffic overall.

I might be able to generate more traffic by adding 'Nude' and 'Free' as keyword modifiers but is that really going to bring productive traffic to a site?

This goes (way) beyond brand versus non-brand traffic, which I find to be the most rudimentary of divisions. This is having a fundamental understanding of the traffic that makes a difference to that business.

That may mean moving away from high volume terms and generating less traffic overall. Don't get saucer eyes when it comes to keyword volume. It's about the right keywords, not the biggest keywords. (That's what she said!)

Yet, even if you're driving the right traffic there are other factors that contribute to a productive visit. If the focus is leads, you might realize that the call-to-action is weak, doesn't match the query intent or competes with other elements on the page. Perhaps the lead form itself isn't very good either.

If the goal is page views, you may realize that the design is confusing, the text hard to read and the content without a structure that allows for easy navigation.

Because productive traffic is the goal an SEO needs to understand design, user experience, information architecture and conversion rate optimization. Otherwise it's like a chef who creates a menu but then has no input on how the food is cooked, the quality of ingredients, decor of the establishment or the presentation of the meal.

It's okay if you're in the business of driving any old traffic at a website and then shrugging your shoulders when it doesn't really do anything for the business. But that's not SEO. You're just a burger flipper at some fast food joint.

Technically Sound

As an SEO you need to have very strong technical skills. What does this really mean though? At a minimum, it means you need to know how the Internet works and how search engines crawl and index the web.

You should also be comfortable analyzing HTTP headers and know your status codes cold. Get good using Firebug or Chrome's Developer Tools. Mine those weblogs, because there's gold in them there data. (Sorry, I just watched True Grit.) Bonus points if you can code something up yourself to extract it.

Understanding how to diagnose and solve accessibility and crawl efficiency problems is critical.

SEO is about knowing enough about ... everything. HTML, CSS, JQuery, AJAX, Flash, JavaScript, XML, JSON, RSS, PHP, SQL. Experiment with and understand these technologies.

But you're not done yet because you still have to understand the technical side of specific search engine directives including (but certainly not limited to) noindex, nofollow, rel=canonical, rel=author, rel=publisher, rel=standout, hreflang and various competing schemas of microdata.

SEO is about knowing all of this to ensure technical issues aren't obstacles and to create positive relationships with engineers. You must speak their language. You don't have to understand everything and you should never bluff, but you damn well better be able to carry on a coherent conversation.

You should know the difference between a GET and a POST; between server side and client side scripts. An SEO should be able to convey when and why to use a cookieless domain. You shouldn't get a deer-in-the-headlights look when engineers talk about CDNs or minifying code.

I haven't even touched on diving into the details of information retrieval, natural language processing, machine learning and other methods that inform modern search engine algorithms.

The more technical you are the more effective you become. And there's always something more to learn.

Connected

Puzzle Pieces

What do I mean by connected? Today it means links to and from other sites and connecting with and through others on social platforms. In plain language it's about links and social.

I'm not a huge fan of link building and prefer a link gardening approach. Mind you, I understand the value of links but too often link building is done for the wrong reasons and weighted far to0 heavily in the scheme of things.

It works a fair amount of the time. I can't deny that. But I'm never sure at what expense. Too often I see those companies on a treadmill of link building efforts. Frankly, you should reach a point where link building isn't something you're working at.

Oddly, linking out is an overlooked and underrated tactic. Tadeusz Szewczyk was an early and strong proponent of this practice. Linking out is a form of built-in reciprocity. You wind up getting back links from those to whom you link out. It's a way of connecting to and engaging with people in your niche.

That sounds a lot like social doesn't it? Social takes on a number of dimensions. First is producing content that is worthy of sharing and then doing everything you can to make it portable. That includes an interaction design that promotes sharing and ensuring that the shared content is optimized.

Of course there's also really being social and getting out on these platforms and connecting with your users and customers. I don't mean public, glorified customer service but actually socializing with some of your users and customers. This is both extremely tough to do at scale but also valuable for a variety of reasons.

Today it also means understanding how social is being integrated into search (it's not the other way around) and learning Facebook SEO and Google+ SEO.

Intent

Now we finally get to the real heart of SEO and the initial reason I started this blog post. Query intent is perhaps the most critical part of SEO.

You should understand the syntax of your user and the motivations behind their search and queries. At the bare minimum you should understand differences between navigational, informational and transactional queries.

No, this is not about personas. All too often time and money are spent creating personas that create artificial divisions in the long-term, a type of stereotype that others glom onto to as a way to promote their own views. "Remember, that's not what Sally Searcher is about." (Ugh, kill me now.)

Instead this is about doing the hard work of understanding how and why people are searching for your content and products. It's about syntax, psychology and consumer behavior among other things.

Intent is also informed by context. Geography, time of year and platform (i.e. - mobile) can all play an important part of understanding intent. It's never something you can just copy and paste from one site to another.

For instance, here's a real search that wound up coming to this blog.

how to change the blue link title of your website

I find these types of queries fascinating. It forces me to think different. SEO is about knowing how people are thinking and searching, not how that business thinks their users should be searching. SEO is an advocate for the user.

Relevance

Relevant LOLcat

Not too long ago SEO was about matching keywords with relevant content. This is why content farms became so popular and profitable. All you needed to do was take a long-tail keyword and match it with relevant content. It also meant you could shard a keyword concept into a large number of pages.

So you might find a different page for 'how to squeeze orange juice' and 'how to squeeze fresh orange juice'.

Was the content relevant on these pages? For the most part, yes. But it was the content equivalent to empty calories.

That doesn't mean that relevance isn't important. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It's still incredibly important. A fair amount of on-page SEO is about making relevance obvious. Because it doesn't just need to be relevant, it has to be perceived as relevant at a glance.

Relevance must be seen through the lens of intent instead of a simple keyword match. Relevance is the beginning, not the end of SEO.

Value

Relevance is always coupled with value. Is value subjective? Sure. But it gets easier when you trace it back to intent. Does that page truly satisfy the query intent? Not that it's relevant. Not that it matches the keyword. Did the page provide enough value to satisfy intent.

You'll notice that I've used satisfy twice and that's not by accident. Search engines (and SEOs) are increasingly concerned with user satisfaction. An SEO might not talk about 'delighting the user' (eye roll) but we're measuring satisfaction through both qualitative and quantitative measures.

Is it readable? Was the user experience positive? Were they able to find the information? Did it lead them to other related content? Was it easy for them to subscribe or buy? Were they able to print or share the page? How many pages did they view? Did they convert? What is the bounce rate?

We're also there to call your baby ugly and identify gaps in a site's content. That might mean the content produced isn't valuable enough or that there is unsatisfied query intent (i.e - you don't have the right content).

SEO is about producing positive and satisfying interactions that support the brand and flow into other marketing channels.

What About Rank?

Rank

You'll note that I didn't talk at all about rank. Rank can be important but only in the context of driving productive traffic. In many ways rank should take care of itself if you're doing everything else right.

In addition, rank becomes less important when you're working on large sites with more than, say, 100,000 pages. There are ways to measure rank in these situations but I don't often find that of great value except in communicating with clients obsessed with rank.

Rank is also losing it's fidelity with the continuing personalization of search results. If Search+ is here to stay then rank will become increasingly fractured.

SEO vs Inbound Marketing

There are many who probably look at my definition and explanation and believe it better matches 'inbound marketing'. This new umbrella term created by Hubspot works for a lot of people. They find it easier to describe and convey to clients. It's more palatable and allows them to distance themselves from the poor reputation SEO has acquired. I get it. But I don't like it.

I'm an SEO and I'm proud of it.

I use SEO as a client filter. I can skip those who think it's snake oil, find the ones who 'get it' and help educate those who might be on the fence. In many ways these are the clients who are most thoughtful and can contribute and collaborate on SEO efforts. Those are my kind of clients.

If I were trying to sell into the Fortune 100 or have thousands of clients under contract at a time I might decide inbound marketing was a better term. I wouldn't have the time to explain and educate.

That's not Blind Five Year Old. While the company is expanding, I still have the ability to create personal relationships with clients.

In the end, I'm not sure I want to work with a client who would accept my help under the guise of inbound marketing but not as an SEO. Perhaps that's my own type of elitism.

SEO 2012 Example

So lets take my SEO definition and apply it to an example. Suppose you have the query 'eureka lightforce 300 manual'. What do you suppose the intent is behind that query?

Eureka Lightforce 300

Are they really looking for that vacuum's manual? Or are they instead having a problem with their vacuum? If you were able to look at query reformulations you'd see users cycle through modifiers like troubleshooting, repair, problems, information, solutions, manual and parts. In fact, you can use Google's related queries to see how these are linked.

Two years ago you might have been able to get away with creating a page with a highly optimized Title, dynamic boilerplate text, a generic product description and a link to a PDF download of that manual. It would have been relevant but you wouldn't have truly satisfied intent or delivered real value. More to the point, the value that you delivered was a commodity.

What would a SEO page for this term look like?

You'd still have a solid Title, product description (and specs), and a link to the manual. But you'd add a list of common problems with that vacuum along with potential solutions. These might include step-by-step DIY repair guides.

You'd provide links for replacement parts. You might dynamically serve them local vacuum repair shops. You may even have a section dedicated to buying a new vacuum. Maybe you even have a calculator that tells you whether it's worth fixing the old vacuum or buying a new one. Heck you could even provide links to house cleaning services.

A well designed page with these elements would provide relevance and value, thereby satisfying query intent.

TL;DR

SEO is about generating productive organic search traffic by matching query intent with relevance and value. The implication of this definition is that SEO must draw upon an increasing number of disciplines including design, user experience, information architecture and conversation rate optimization.

Google+ SEO

January 20 2012 // SEO + Social Media // 228 Comments

This comprehensive Google+ SEO guide covers every aspect and angle of Google+ and how it impacts search. My normal TL;DR has been replaced with a Google+ SEO Best Practices section located at the bottom of this post.

I will be periodically updating this post (updated January 23, 2012) as things inevitably change. Please don't hesitate to comment or contact me with observations or when certain features change. I also thank the many people (on Google+) who helped in the research phase of this guide.

Google+ Search

Most of the attention is on the integration of Google+ in Google search results. However, internal search on Google+ is a fascinating product and lays the groundwork for search integration.

Google+ Search Facets

Google+ search queries return results with a standard selection of facets.

Google+ Search Facets

Sometimes Google selects these facets for you. Specifically, it will default to People and pages for many queries. These are generally category or head terms like SEO, Photography, Chef, CEO, Gardening etc. But a query for something like 'banana bread' will not return a preselected People and pages facet but just provide an Everything feed of content.

You can select certain types of content using what I call the content facet.

Google+ Search Type Facet

This is all pretty self explanatory. I'm still not certain why Sparks has survived though. Next is what I call the universe facet.

Google+ Search Universe Facet

Here you can select what universe of results you want to search. The 'From you' option is extremely handy in finding your own Google+ content. And finally there is what I call the location facet.

Google+ Search Location Facet

At present you can search for Google Check-ins in certain cities. This facet does not get trigged when you use a location modifier. This isn't super useful right now but it does point to future local search opportunities.

Google+ Search Results

The actual results are a live stream of Google+ content.

Google+ Search Time Facet

Most recent is just what it sounds like. So the real-time search everyone thought was going to transform the world is a small feature in Google+ search.

You can switch to Best of which delivers results based on a combination of who is in your Circles and engagement (+1s, comments and shares) on those items with some Sparks content thrown in for good measure. There's some sort of time component at work here as well that skews results to more recent content.

I see this in action when I search for 'I did not wake up in' which returns a number of posts from my personal travel meme, the first few of which are from this week. (Please note that your results may look vastly different than mine.)

Google+ People and Pages Results

The content results are, therefore, pretty straightforward from and SEO perspective. It's the People and pages that are far more interesting and potentially valuable. The question is how these People and pages are selected.

Google+ Search Results

Google+ search results are personalized but through some crowdsourcing I've been able to determine the search signals.

The most important signal is whether the query term appears in the Introduction, Employment, Education or Places lived section of your profile. Danny Sullivan rarely shows up in a search for SEO because he doesn't have the term in any of those fields. He does in his tagline but that's not used in the internal search algorithm. Or if it is, it's not heavily weighted.

Google+ Danny Sullivan Profile

After the query match it's all about who you have in your Circles. If you have more than six people in your Circles who also match the query then it comes down to a mixture of Circle count (heavily weighted), name verification (moderately weighted) and engagement (lightly weighted).

Occupation is not used. How do I know this? I've had Purple Jellyfish Farmer as my occupation for months. A search on this phrase returns no results.

Google+ Purple Jellyfish Farmer Results

Bragging Rights is also not used for People and pages search.

At present results also seem to favor People over Pages. But if you don't have enough People to fill out these results Google backfills with Pages that have that query term in the name and a high Circle count.

Circle count is clearly important but some sort of engagement metric might be at play when the set of people returned is low. It's difficult to say if or to what degree engagement plays a part right now.

Using a new Google+ account I was able to see 'unbiased' results.

Google+ Search Results for New User

While Jonathon has SEO in both Introduction and Employment (having it both places seems to help a lot) and enjoys a solid Circle count I find his inclusion here over others to be curious. These results point to a slight added weight on those who are verified. How you get verified is still a mystery to me. I'm hoping to figure this out in the very near future.

Google+ search results can change quickly. Here's my search for SEO the day after my initial research.

Google+ Search Results for SEO

Danny Sullivan is now appearing instead of Bill Slawski. Why?

Google+ Danny Sullivan Profile Updated

Yup. Including SEO in his Introduction now ensures that Danny will be returned for internal Google+ queries on SEO.

The Places lived section is also used for internal search purposes.

Google+ Search City Modifier Results

The problem here is that I haven't lived in Elkins Park in the last two decades. And if users are looking for people and pages using Google+ then there will be a lot of false positives.

Google+ Search Spam

Clearly there's also an invitation to spam the Places lived section. If I wanted to show up for searches in numerous cities I could just say I lived in all those places. In fact, there are a lot of areas ripe for spam right now.

Google+ Spam for SEO

Arpeet is ranked well up in a search for SEO. I don't know Arpeet. He might be a fine SEO but I found it curious that he was ranked among some of the better known folks in the industry.

Google+ Other Name Spam

Clearly Arpeet is dropping every SEO related keyword in his Introduction but he's also spammed Google+ by claiming his Other name is SEO.

Education can also be spammed.

Google+ Education Spam

The Google+ spam cop (who is not Matt Cutts) will need to keep an eye on these and other methods of spam and over-optimization. Right now it seems way too easy.

Search+

Sorry but I am not going to use that silly name or acronym and instead will refer to the new integration of Google+ into search as Search+. While I will speak to the controversy  surrounding this integration my focus will be on the implementation and what it means for SEO.

In a nutshell Search+ transforms your search results based on the connections, interactions and activity you have on Google+. It is the largest search personalization effort ever attempted by Google.

Search+ can be turned on and off using icons near the top right of the page.

Search+ Icons

This helps to address critics of the filter bubble phenomenon. You can set the default view by clicking the gear icon and selecting search settings.

Search+ Settings

Among other things on the page you can set your Personal results preference. This doesn't mean that you won't be able to access one or the other, it simply sets one as the default view for your search.

People and Pages

One of the bigger features of Search+ is the promotion of People and pages for certain topics.

Search+ People and Pages Example

A search on SEO returns the profiles for Rand and Danny. The screen capture above is in a logged out session. If I were logged in I'd see whether these individuals were in my Circles. If they weren't I'd be given the opportunity to add them right from the search result. Powerful stuff.

So, as it stands the rich seem poised to get richer.

Because Circle count is a primary factor in how these People and Pages are selected. It's not the only thing as I'll soon show you but it's a large part of the equation.

But first, how useful is it to see People and Pages that are already in my Circles? Might it be more interesting to show People and Pages I don't have in my Circles?

Danny and Rand might be the most relevant results but are they relevant if I've already 'found' them. If search is about discovery, then you'd think that the default should be to present people you don't already know. This would actually make this feature interesting for a wider audience.

The assumption here is that all search is about discovery. But it's not. Prior attempts at personalization provided Google with insight into how we use search to re-find content. This can be as simple as navigational search or as detailed as searching for a phrase in hopes of it returning 'lost' content.

While I believe that Search+ tries to address this intent I'm not sure the People and Pages section should be applied to that task. But I digress.

How are People and Pages selected?

First you can click the See more link and look at the list of people.

Search+ See More Results

This is the same personalized list you get when doing an internal G+ search. But the order doesn't map to the selections for People and Pages. In fact, we know that Danny wasn't even optimized for SEO until just recently. Yet, during that time he was being presented in People and Pages for SEO.

So is it just flat out Circle count? No. Here are the People and Pages for Social Media.

Search+ Social Media People and Pages

Makes sense right? But if I click See more I find that Robert Scoble is returned.

Search+ Social Media See More Results

And we all know that more people have Robert in a Circle than Brian or Chris. In fact, he has more than them combined. So it's not just about Circle count. Instead they feel like curated lists. Yet, that flies in the face of Google's steadfast reliance on algorithms.

But it's pretty clear that there is a list of people for each of these terms. Some lists are longer than others. For 'blogger' you can refresh and get a few different people.

Search+ People and Pages BloggerSearch+ People and Pages BloggerSearch+ People and Pages Blogger

But try as I might, no matter how many times I refresh, only Rand and Danny are returned for SEO and Brian and Chris for Social Media. I'm left to conclude that People and Pages are defined, curated lists of people by topic. That means there's nothing you can really do to optimize for these slots. Cue the torches and pitchforks.

[Update 1/25/12] The lists for both 'seo' and 'social media' have been expanded to include a handful of other people. Hit refresh a few times and you'll see them cycle through the list for that topic.

Google+ Posts

Of course what we're paying the most attention to is the actual Search+ results.

Search+ Personalized Results Example

My search for great science fiction returns two personalized results in the 2nd and 5th position. Each of these posts contains a link to a site outside of Google+, as well as a those that lead directly to Google+. While a lot of attention is focused on the latter (Google is biased they scream!), I'm more interested in the former. Because here's what the non-personalized version of this query returns.

Search+ Unpersonalized Results Example

The two sites in my personalized results do not appear in these results. In fact, a site I've already visited (NPR) appear below these personalized results. To optimize for Search+ it is vital that sites produce relevant content that is easily shared. Of course the other element is the reach of those sharing that content. Those who are in more Circles and get more engagement will provide greater exposure for that content.

And if it tips and turns up in What's hot, the reach for that item could be quite substantial. As an experiment, do a Google search for OCD and see if I am one of your personalized results.

This is where Ripples provides some insight. How is your content transmitted through the system? Which users helped to provide your content more reach? Identifying those people and engaging with them could help give your content more search visibility.

Search+ Algorithm

The current Search+ algorithm seems fairly rudimentary and is composed of only a few factors which can sometimes produce results that are less than desirable.

Search+ Algorithm Issues

This humorous post by Steven Hodson won't help me if I'm looking to purchase a mirror.

One of the over-riding factors in the Search+ algorithm is a simple text match on the query. There is no real determination of context or intent which can often produce these types of irrelevant results. This is a real achilles heel in the current implementation from my perspective.

This text match only occurs on those who you have in a Circle. This does limit the potential for spam since you'd hope you haven't Circled a spammer. This also means that your Search+ results will, in large part, be a product of the number and type of people you Circle.

I have a fair amount of people Circled so my Search+ results can often look chaotic. Someone using Google+ just for family might have fewer personal results. Will they be more relevant? Well, think about posts on Google+ (or Facebook) from your own family and decide for yourself.

Where those results rank within Search+ results is another matter. It's clear that engagement, both with that person and on that specific piece of content, is important. Content from people you engage with more often or content that is more popular overall will rank better. 

When content was shared on Google+ also seems to be an influence with Google placing a moderate to heavy weight on recent content. We're still in the beginning phase of the integration so I'm not sure exactly how much weight is being put here yet.

Anecdotally, I've also noticed that non-Public content seems to be given a lesser weight. I'll look to validate this moving forward since this, in some ways, seems backward.

Looking forward I would think that Search+ would need to better understand context and intent to deliver the type of relevance most users are seeking. Don't get me wrong, it works well sometimes but the signal to noise ratio can go sideways quickly, particularly if users are increasing their Google+ Circles and usage.

One way Google may think about solving these issues is by using and automatically filtering by Circle, particularly if they start to provide self-organizing Circle suggestions based on their acquisition of Katango. So instead of searching all your Circles Google may identify the query as being about photography and personalize those results based on your 'Photographers' Circle.

But we're a long way off from that. For now it's all pretty much spaghetti against the wall.

Google +1 Button

The prevalence of explicit social annotations has diminished since the introduction of Search+. The +1 button on search results is now only shown when you hover or rollover that result. The implication here is that the primary use of +1s is to deliver content into the G+ environment where it can then be used for Search+ personalization.

So instead of getting a bunch of visual cruft about how many people +1 this result and that result, they've decided to leverage all that data to deliver personalized results.

That doesn't mean the +1 button isn't important. It is. You want people to +1 your content so that it shows up on Google+ where it can drive traffic and engagement. The total number of +1s may be a social signal, but I'm unsure to what degree.

Google+ +1 Button

The +1 button number only reflects +1s from that URL. It does not take into account the +1s that occur on Google+ as a result of that initial +1. I sense that the latter metric might be more important to Google than the former.

Though if Google wanted to boost the adoption of +1 they could match Facebook and base this number on the +1s of that content from that URL and on Google+ as well as the total number of shares and comments. A higher number presented on the +1 button creates stronger social proof and may actually create additional +1s.

Either way, having the +1 button prominently available is vital for Google+ SEO optimization.

Google+ Social Snippets

I mentioned above that making content that is easily shared is vital. This means that you should make your +1 (and other) buttons easy to find and use. I've had great success with the floating share bar on this blog and on client installations.

Making them available is only half of the battle. How those snippets look is the next part of the optimization process. I have a detailed guide on how to optimize social snippets but will provide a few examples of why it's important to get this right.

+1 Button Optimization Gone Wrong

Google is actually one of the worst offenders when it comes to snippet optimization. They can get away with this but you can't.

+1 Button Optimization Problems

eConsultancy might not be getting as much social engagement on this item because of the poor snippet. The description here is clearly not related and the image, while branded, does nothing to tell me anything more about the story.

Optimizing your social snippets leads to more clicks, more comments and more shares. This is your content on the go and presented in an environment where people are scanning very quickly. Forget the 5 second test, this is the 2 second test.

This isn't even that bad of a snippet since they do have their brand image. Worse is when you see a big RSS or Facebook icon. It happens. It happened to me before I decided I no longer wanted to shoot myself in the foot. So if it's happening to you, get up and do something about it.

Google+ Content

It's not just about content being shared on Google+. Content created on Google+ can also rank well under certain circumstances. This was true well before Search+ was launched. I innocently asked if people would know what I meant if I said 'half measure and full measure'.

Search+ Native Google+ Nonpersonalized Search Results

Sure enough, there I am as the 7th result for this query with an Authorship treatment that is likely to get me a fair amount more clicks than a normal 7th place result. This Google+ post has been as high as 4th. Now, it's a long-tail query but make no mistake, you can create content on Google+ and get it to rank without personalization.

But now we'll look at this same query with Search+ personalization turned on.

Search+ Native Google+ Personalized Results

That post ranks 9th in personalized results but only because of the research I did recently for this very post which now ranks 2nd.

Search+ Personalized Results for Half Measure and Full Measure

In fact, the speed in which Google+ posts are indexed is incredible, sometimes showing up within minutes of being published.

Google+ Formatting

Also notice that the Titles for Google+ posts are optimized in the personalized environment.

Search+ Personalized Title

Compare that to what it looks like without personalization.

Search+ Unpersonalized Title

That prefix is pretty ugly from my point of view and reduces the chances that someone will click on that result. But let's think about this for a moment.

Most users really just scan Titles to decide which result is most relevant or will satisfy their query intent. What would happen if users clicked on a Google+ result without knowing it was going to Google+?

That prefix is a very big and loud sign that tells users that the content is different. Sure, the result is in a SERP leading to Google+ and it has a fancy Authorship treatment but Google is also making it very clear where that click leads.

You should also format your Google+ posts to optimize for this presentation. That means creating a title for each post using bold formatting. You do this by placing a * at the beginning and end of what you want in bold (i.e - *This is the title*). When you share that post the * will disappear and the text between will be in bold (i.e. - This is the title).

Make your Google+ posts as readable as possible.

Google+ Brand Pages

You want to grab one of these and use it for, at a minimum, reputation management. The issue here is how much interaction and time you'll need to dedicate to this social media outpost.

Managing a Facebook page (the right way) is actually a lot of work. A Google+ page would be just as much work, if not more. The major difference between the two is that Search+ can deliver a lot more people to your Google+ brand page.

Search+ Brand Page Result

A branded search for AT&T brings up the AT&T Google+ page. This only occurs for a very small select group of brands right now. The question brands have to ask is whether they want that much exposure? Conversations are right there on the search results. A lot of negative sentiment could then be just one click away. So if you're not prepared to really be social, I'd be wary about this type of implementation.

Of course, brands can also show up as People and Pages suggestions.

Search+ People and Pages for Cars

The actual conversations aren't visible which is less scary in my view. I should note that Ferrari and BMW are the only two that show up for this query, further supporting the idea that these are curated lists.

I see this as a war of attention or perhaps a war of resources. How much time is a business willing to spend maintaining a social presence on both Facebook and Google? Surfacing the brand pages in search forces that issue.

Google+ Page Optimization

Optimizing your Page is far more difficult than your personal Profile. There are fewer fields to fill out, the current algorithm relies heavily on the Page Name and verification via rel="publisher" is rather confusing.

The first thing to understand is that Pages do seem to be second class citizens from a search standpoint.

Google+ SEO Consulting Results

Here you can see that I don't get a full set of People and pages results even though there are others that could qualify here (both People and Pages.) But in nearly every instance Pages are trumped by People.

That might not always be the case though so we'll explore the current ordering by clicking View all.

Google+ View All Link Building Results

I've switched to a 'link building' query and am showing the second page of results after a host of people such as Eric Ward, Julie Joyce, Ivan Dimitrijević, Jim Boykin and other notables. These folks are all doing a bang-up job of optimizing for this term by having the keyword in their Introduction and often in their Employment as well.

But once I get past those in my Circles it really becomes about the Name field, even more so if it's a Page. That's not surprising since the only relevant fields for a Page are Name, Tagline and Introduction. While all of these fields do seem to be used the Name is given an enormous weight for Pages.

That doesn't mean you should change your Page name to rank. That's short-sighted and won't help your brand. But you should be cognizant of this current limitation and ensure you fill out the Tag Line and Introduction thoroughly to boost your chances of being returned as this algorithm evolves.

The other reason not to change your name willy-nilly is that you will break your Page verification.

Rel="Publisher"

A Google+ Page can and should be verified.

Verification badges helps users to confirm the authenticity of a profile or page. This way when you find a profile or page about a celebrity or popular business, you can be sure that the profile or page actually belongs to them.

Jon Ray got me pointed in the right direction about the mechanics and requirements of getting verified. The first step is linking your Page to your website. This is actually pretty straight-forward.

Google+ Page Verification Link to Website Instructions

So far so good. But now you have to link back from your website to your Google+ Page.

Google+ Page Rel=Publisher Verification

Two things to understand here. First, the rel="publisher" link must use the canonical version of your Google+ Page. The problem is that the canonical URL is never actually presented to users. Here's what my Page URL looks like.

https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/105091680524136911230/105091680524136911230/about

But here's what the link must look like.

https://plus.google.com/105091680524136911230

This isn't a big deal for me but it certainly introduces a substantial area for user error.

More importantly, you should only place the rel="publisher" link on your site's home page. Yet, there are instructions on the Google+ Pages help page and within the badge generation code that tell you to place the rel="publisher" link in the <head> section of your page. That essentially places the rel="publisher" link on every page of your site.

If you implement it in this way and are also using rel="author" (which you should be) then the Rich Snippets Testing Tool will give you this error and warning.

Google+ Rich Snippets Testing Tool Error

So instead you need to find a way to place the rel="publisher" link only on your home page. Thankfully my sidebar is dynamic and I'm able to present a link just after my Blog Roll list that contains the appropriate mark-up.

Google+ Rel="Publisher" Mark-Up

To confirm that you've set this up correctly you then drop your home page into the Rich Snippets Testing Tool.

Google+ Rel Publisher Success

This is what you want to see. You'll want to test both your home page and a post page to make sure that you are verified appropriately from a publisher and author perspective.

Done right? Wrong.

The last step is to submit a Google+ Page verification request. But before you do make sure you meet all of the requirements.

Google+ Page Verification Requirements

1,000 people must Circle your Page to be eligible for verification. Not a trifling amount for a small business. While I still recommend implementing the rel="publisher" mark-up, you'll have to decide whether it's worth the time and investment to get to that 1,000 mark.

Google+ Authorship

Google+ is an identity platform. One of the primary benefits is the ability to confirm authorship of your content.

Google+ Authorship

Authorship delivers a rich presentation that increases the click-through rate on that result. The image immediately draws the eye, just as other rich snippets do on search results, while the Circle count delivers additional confidence via social proof.

There is a clear short-term SEO benefit. But it's the long-term benefit that might be more important. I'll get to that a little later on.

If you're interested in Authorship (and you should be) I have a Google Authorship guide to help you set it up.

Authorship Links

The Authorship presentation also has links to that author and a link to More by that author.

Search+ Authorship Presentation

The author link just goes to the profile page but the More by link does something different.

Search+ More by Author

The More by link produces a compound search of sorts with your name and the keyword term. In this instance it does a nice job of pulling up some contextually relevant posts from my blog, a random Tweet that was archived by Buzz and my own post on Google+ that contains a link to the Bounce Rate vs Exit Rate post. Overall, I'm pretty pleased and it's mildly compelling for users.

But it doesn't always work that way.

Search+ More by Author Bad Example

If you were to find my post on Tom Wilkinson and then click More by AJ Kohn the compound search would provide the above results.

The two other posts referenced from my blog are not related except for the fact that they were the previous and next post. The remaining results match on some or portions of the compound search but are not at all related. And more to the point, they are not authored by me.

This seems like a bug that should be fixed since the intent of that click is to see more by that author. More by author links do not deliver on the implied promise or fulfill query intent.

I'm doing all of this without Search+. Turn it on and in some ways this gets even worse.

Search+ More by Author Personalized

The photo with Billy Idol and the Beastie Boys is on another post and makes it here because of the previous and next text attached to that image. That's not relevant but it is authored by me. But down below is a result from Matt Cutts. I like Matt and it's not a bad thing to be associated with him but that post is not authored by me. Nor is the one below it (not pictured) which comes from Quora.

I am participating in conversations on these other sites, but that's just not the same. I'm not thrilled with this but from a personal brand standpoint it might not be terrible. I stand behind the dialogs and conversations I have on other sites.

If I'm a publisher I'm probably freaking out because you could potentially be sending users to other destinations. But before we freak out lets think a bit more about intent.

Authorship and Intent

If I'm searching for 'bounce rate vs exit rate' my intent is to learn about the difference between these two metrics. The idea that a substantial number of users would click on the author name or More by link instead of the link that fulfills their query intent is, well, ludicrous.

Some users might click those links by accident. But what do you think happens then? If they click the author link and wind up on a profile, that doesn't fulfill the query intent. The majority will likely return to the search result and click the correct link.

Click the More by link and the odds are that they'll wind up at the same end destination link because it's at the top and it's the most relevant to your initial query intent.

The number of clicks that are lost to Google+, other sites or abandoned searches as a result of the Authorship implementation is extremely low when you layer on query intent. That tiny loss is more than made up for by the increase in visibility and click-through rate.

Google+ Influence

I've written a number of times about Google creating an influence metric that will impact how content is ranked within search. Google+ and Authorship are at the center of this effort. The long-term potential for AuthorRank is not a fantasy. We're not talking about some Klout number that is essentially a reflection of activity. No, this would be a far more nuanced metric that would never be made public.

Not only will Google be looking at the quality of the content you produce, they'll look at how it is received. Google+ allows Google to mine the engagement graph. Who shared your content? How many +1s did it receive? How many comments? How many shares? What was the sentiment of those comments? Were those comments valuable? Who made those comments? Were those comments from people influential on that topic?

Remember that Authorship is attached to content created on Google+ as well, both posts and comments. So your +1s and shares and comments are all being analyzed. The push for more engagement on Google+ is, in part, to expand the engagement graph and acquire more data so it can implement an AuthorRank algorithm with confidence.

Panda separated low-quality and high-quality sites. AuthorRank would do the same for people and their associated content. As the tidal wave of digital content roars in Google's ears finding ways to sort the good from the bad quickly will be of increasing importance.

Content without Authorship could become a second-class citizen.

Circle Count

What can you do, aside from Authorship and creating great content, to increase your Google+ influence. First and foremost is to have a large following or Circle count.

Circle count isn't as easily gamed on Google+ because of identity. While the pseudonym debate has gone silent I wouldn't be surprised if Google didn't assign a confidence score to each account. If you have a large following from accounts that Google doesn't fully trust, your large Circle count will be less meaningful.

Obtaining a high Circle count means sharing and creating a lot of great material. One personal tip I can share is that your content doesn't need to be on just one topic. If you look at my Google+ stream I'm all over the map. It's essentially a look at what I come across and am thinking about from day to day.

That means you'll get what I feel are the best articles on SEO, UX and other professional disciplines as well as inspirational images and a healthy does of LOLcats.

What that really comes down to is sharing more of yourself. Be human.

Engagement

I am sure that some people will say they do all that but no one engages with them. The truth is, this isn't easy and it takes a lot of work on your part to make it happen. You can't just post and think the world will engage with you. I see far too many experts claiming that Google+ is a ghost town because of this phenomenon. I don't often say this but, those people are doing it wrong.

If you're in the 1% of Internet celebrity then engagement will follow you from platform to platform. Robert Scoble, Ben Parr, MG Siegler, Danny Sullivan, Thomas Hawk are established and will see engagement no matter where they go. They've put in an enormous amount of time and effort to get there.

The 99% of us left have to do the same and earn engagement. So how do you do that? There's no real formula but here are my personal observations and tips.

Post to Public. By not doing so you limit yourself and the ability for others to find you and your content. This means you should be aware of what you're posting. You can be personal but you should have boundaries.

Respond to engagement. If someone +1s your post go and Circle them if you haven't already. If they comment, reply to that comment using their @name. If someone shares your content go and +1 that share and add a thank you comment if appropriate.

Flag people down. Use the @name function wisely to reference people who might have a view on that content or to which you want a response. Do not over do this or you will piss people off. But done right you can actually bring the right people into a great debate.

Create conversation. Comments meant to engage should not be of the 'great post' variety but should be valuable. Thoughtful comments that bring up issues and add value are more likely to get a response.

Cultivate engagement. Keep track of the people who engage with your content most frequently. Put them in a Circle and you can share directly with them, kick-starting engagement on your post and increasing the probability of more engagement.

Circle people. Circle people in your area(s) of expertise. You're not looking for them to follow you back (though some will) but instead you're looking to interact with the content they produce. It's that engagement that will translate into more people Circling you.

Monitor real time searches. You can quickly find, monitor and engage with specific content by searching by keyword and jumping into the real time stream of results. Yes, real time can be useful in this instance.

Google+ Real Time Results

Find some searches that work for you and save them so you can access them again and again. This is the way I was able to monitor and respond to those who were sharing this guide.

Google+ SEO Best Practices

Here's a quick checklist of 9 items critical to your Google+ SEO success.

Optimize your Google+ Profile

Fill out your Introduction, Employment, Education and Places lived understanding that the text in these sections is used for Google+ search. If you want to be returned for the term 'SEO' you need to have that term in one of these fields.

Placing the term in two or more fields seems to deliver some added benefit. Do it if it makes sense but don't go overboard.

Get Verified

A verified name with that small checkmark icon seems to have some influence on Google+ search. When I figure out exactly how to make this happen I'll let you know.

Confirm Authorship

Google+ is an identity platform that allows you to claim Authorship of your content. Doing so delivers a type of rich snippet in search results that will increase the visibility and click-through rate on your content today and may put you in the catbird's seat when Google implements AuthorRank.

Use the +1 Button

Put the +1 button on your site prominently so users can deliver your content to Google+. Not only will this result in traffic to your site, it allows Google to understand how people are engaging with your content.

Optimize Social Snippets

It's not enough to just create content and have the +1 button on your site. Optimize your social snippet to ensure you're getting the most engagement out of your content.

Create Great Content

Put this in the 'no duh' category, but really, create great content. It's not enough on its own but everything gets easier if you do this.

Share Great Content

Great content takes time so you won't always be sharing your content. Instead, share the great content of others. Make your Google+ feed valuable and interesting and you'll be rewarded.

Format Google+ Posts

Just putting a URL as your Google+ post won't cut it. Create a bold title for each of your (longer) posts. Not only is this easier to read it's what Google will use as the browser Title on Search+.

You should also start to use hashtags, sparingly, to ensure your posts are aggregated appropriately.

Use Google+

Really use Google+. Using it for the express purpose of SEO won't be successful. Do or do not. There is no try.

What I Learned in 2011

December 30 2011 // Career + Life // 17 Comments

Way back in 2007 I decided to strike out on my own and begin consulting. I had a number of clients and things were going well. The snag? I wanted to buy a house and banks were simply not loaning money to folks who didn't have W-2 income. Well, they might but not to those who didn't have 20% to put down and Bay Area housing prices made that difficult.

At the time one of my clients was anxious to get me more involved and by early 2008 we agreed on an arrangement where I'd work three days a week as an employee, giving me the ability to pursue consulting the other two days. It was a great arrangement that provided stability and flexibility for the next three years. I know this isn't a typical arrangement and I was (and still am) sincerely grateful for the opportunity.

But in 2010 I was turning down more business than I was taking on and I lost a few prospective clients because they weren't sure I had enough bandwidth. I also, finally, bought a house and no longer had a pressing need for W-2 income. So I decided it was time to return to my initial goal - to consult full-time and run my own business.

Strangely, it was a bit more nerve-wracking this time around. I'd grown comfortable and now had a mortgage looming over my head. But those just weren't good reasons not to move forward. I'm a big believer in taking risks, particularly when I'm betting on myself.

So how'd it turn out?

Well, all in all, 2011 was a great year. I filled up my list of clients, was nearly always busy, made good money and got to spend amazing time with my wife and daughter. But it wasn't all roses. I learned a lot this year - about myself and about running a business.

The Power of Gratitude

Thank You Painted on Street

never needed to drum up work. The work came to me. Referrals remain the lifeblood of my business. This might be atypical. Remember, I was able to take on clients part-time for a number of years. I was building a track record and securing endorsements that would pay off in the future. As soon as I began to wonder if things had finally dried up I received at least one but usually more inbound inquiries. I do not take this for granted.

But there are important lessons to be learned when I think about the amount of business I get through referrals. First, you must deliver great work. The referrals won't come otherwise. When you're working for a client, you're not just working for them, you're working for all the clients they might refer to you in the future. Let your client down and you cut off a valuable part of your sales funnel.

This also means keeping up with clients both past, present and future. This isn't easy for me. I'm not a social animal and while I think about a lot of these people, I don't often reach out to say hello and touch base. Nor do I like to pursue prospects to see if they're ready to engage. But I made an effort this year to do so and it paid off. I slacked off on this in the last few months. I'll change that going into 2012.

In the past I thought this type of outreach was intrusive but I find that most people enjoy a quick email. It usually leads to interesting discussions and, yes, the occasional referral. Sometimes just being top-of-mind is what gets you in the door.

Another thing. When someone helps you out with a referral, say thank you. Even if that referral doesn't pan out, thank them for thinking of you. Never forget the power of gratitude.

Respond ASAP

Stopwatch

As the year wore on I got more and more inbound emails and inquiries. They competed with emails from current clients and outstanding proposals. Not to mention the comments people were kind enough to leave on this blog or those who paid me a kind word on Twitter.

I've read, again and again, that responding quickly is critical. Yet, I didn't do a great job of this. In part, I was hobbled by the desire to craft the perfect response. Was it important just to respond or to respond with something of substance? What I've learned is that it's better to lean toward the former, in part because my idea of substance was often far more than was expected.

I'm not saying you should be glib but the adage that a little bit goes a long way fits in this scenario. I still fight this battle though and often let days and days go by before I respond. This is bad. Don't do it. I'm hoping to turn this around in 2012 and respond quickly and see where those conversations go and not hold myself up to some ultimate standard of communication.

So if I ignored you this year, I apologize. It's not that I didn't care. In fact, I still remember nearly every email I didn't return and every Tweet I didn't acknowledge. Hopefully I won't paint myself into this guilty corner in 2012.

Build The Brand

Fingerprint

I decided to spend a decent amount of time building my personal brand. I took to heart some advice from Rand Fishkin about blogging. I did more of it and made it easier for people to share my content. I also spent more time promoting myself, through Twitter, via comments on other blogs, on Quora, LinkedIn and on Google+. I'm still better at promoting other people than myself but I came a long way this year.

I also became a Sphinn editor which then morphed into being a Marketing Land curator. It was one of the best things I did this year. I got to know and learned from folks like Matt McGee, Michelle Robbins, Danny Sullivan, Hugo Guzman, James Svoboda, Todd Mintz, Jill Whalen and many more. It also ensured that my information consumption was being put to good use.

You see, I consume a vast amount of information. On a typical day I'm dedicating approximately two hours to reading articles, analysis, responses and posts on a wide range of topics. To be honest, I think being able to make sense of all that information, connecting the dots and finding trends that I can pass on to my clients is valuable. Some of that also shows up on Twitter and Google+.

Building the brand also meant being more social. I did a fairly good job of this online. I thought my Valentine's Day post was a good start and from there I upped my interactions on my blog and via Twitter. I also embraced Google+ and used it as I had FriendFeed, posting a diverse amount of content that let people get to know the 'real' me.

I also took advantage of an opportunity and went to see Amit Singhal, Ben Gomes and Matt Cutts at the Churchill Club. Not only did I get to see them, I had a chance to chat with each of them as well. It reminded me that I need to get out there more often, even if I'm a bit socially uncomfortable. Again, my thanks to Rick Bucich who was my wing man. We could be social awkward together and that makes a huge difference.

Earlier in the year I had botched SMX West. I'd received some shocking personal news that really rocked me. I won't go into here but suffice to say I didn't attend many sessions and even when I did I wasn't really there. Yes, there are other conferences and perhaps I should have gone but ... I didn't.

This year I'm looking to attend at least two conferences and speak at one. While there I'll remind myself to be more social and meet all of the people I've been talking to throughout the year. Putting myself out there and letting people put a person to the words is important.

One of the results of my brand building efforts was the opportunity to participate in the SEOmoz Search Engine Ranking Factors and Google News Ranking Factors panels. There's a bit of virtuous cycle here. Your brand gets a boost by being on these panels which amplifies your brand moving forward and helps you secure more business which in turn increases your brand, if you're continuing to do good work.

I remain dedicated to doing great work for my clients.

Better, Faster, Cheaper

Daft Punk

The old better, faster, cheaper adage is that you can only do two of the three at any given time. I wasn't going to be cheap. I'd already learned that being cheap diminished my contribution and often attracted the wrong type of client.

So I settled on better and faster. The problem? Everything took longer than I expected. Part of this is my stubbornness around being better. When I do something, I want to do it really well. It wasn't about meeting the client's expectations, it was about blowing those expectations away. It was about pulling on every little thread in a site audit to make sure I didn't miss something.

All of this made being faster, while maintaining my level of quality, a challenge. At times I thought about doing things 'good enough' or finding ways to simply deliver what the client expected. Why was I knocking myself out? But being thorough and thoughtful was part of my DNA. Not only that it was a point of differentiation. It's what I stood for. And as I've already discussed, delivering great work doubled as my sales funnel.

It's also one of the reasons I turned down a number of guest blogging and speaking opportunities. My own blog posts take between two and five hours each. (This one is well above that.) I don't think that's going to change. I'm methodical and I'll do an extraordinary amount of due diligence before I'm comfortable putting something out there.

Building vs Doing

Jenga Game Balancing Act

Obviously, I'm a big believer in building your brand and business. That takes work. Blog posts. Quora. Google+. Twitter. Commenting. Seriously, there's a lot of work involved in building and promoting your business. Balancing the time you spend building the brand versus doing the work can be difficult. Doubly so if you take into account my personal expectations of quality.

I fought this see-saw battle all year and expect to do so again in 2012. There's just no way around it.

Fill Your Pipeline

 

Eggs

Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. There were times when I thought I had a slew of business lined up waiting to go. But I'd already learned to keep piling on prospective work. Because suddenly a few of those potential clients go silent, there's a change in management or you simply don't get that business.

And what's the worst thing that happens if you book too much business? Seriously, that's a good problem to have. That's when you buy a bunch of Red Bull, work with clients on timelines and deliverables and bring on a few trusted colleagues to help out.

Send Me ...

Tuxedo

Cranking out proposals and contracts isn't as easy as it sounds. You figure out quickly that different clients want different types of things and that, in turn, demands a different type of approach and response. I took time to build proposals for a variety of types of projects and even came up with a menu of services.

Having been the recipient of a lot of proposals and contracts over the years (even from others in my industry) so I had a general idea of what was expected and how they were presented. Honestly, the amount of diversity here is incredible. I've seen cookie-cutter PowerPoint decks, simple one page word documents or a novella worth of FAQs being used as proposals.

In my eyes, the level of professionalism just isn't that high. So of course I wanted to do better. I spent time and energy getting a standard look and feel to my materials. The same fonts. The same formatting. The same iconography. I wanted to put my best foot forward every time.

That took time but by the end of the year I had a lot of collateral squared away and ready to go which made the proposal process a lot less time consuming.

Cross the Ts, Dot the Is

Magnifying Fine Print

Then there are contracts. You need to have your own but you also need to be prepared to review and sign those provided by clients. Don't just glance at this stuff. Read the contract and make sure that you are okay with the terms. If you're not, make suggested revisions. Now, I didn't get tangled up in a bad contract this year, but that's partly because I changed terms prior to entering that agreement. Don't be afraid to do this.

I might also add that twice I had clients correct errors (minor legalese errors) in my own contract template. While this is embarrassing I am thankful that they took the time to review the contract and provide that feedback. I'm better for it.

Going Steady?

 

Ring

So you land a new client and you're doing a site audit. Some of these are one-time engagements but most of the time you (and the client) are hoping that it turns into a long-term relationship. The question is how to structure those engagements. I've avoided retainer based engagements because there are times when I'll feel like I'm not delivering enough value and other times when I feel like that client is soaking up way too much of my time. Honestly, I was more concerned about the former.

While I might be able to drive a few clients into a retainer based relationship and have a set amount of money coming in, I just didn't want that added pressure and the question in the back of my mind - am I doing enough? That said, I had enough clients asking for this that I decided to give it a try. So far, so good.

I structured my retainers so I had some protection from being ridiculously overworked. That helped put my mind at ease on that side of the equation. But what about that feeling that I'm not contributing enough? What I've found is that it's about trust and reliability. Clients need to trust that you're looking out for their interests and that you are there with advice and recommendations that they can trust and believe in. Having that resource, on call, is valuable. This is even more important in a field where things change frequently and there is a slew of conflicting (and bad) advice.

I haven't figured out the best way to seamlessly move from audit into a long-term engagement but the majority of my clients do take this path. It's usually not the same and that makes it strange and bumpy at times. I'm not sure this is a problem I can or should solve.

For Love and Money

Love Greater Than Money

Invoicing and keeping track of accounts receivables wasn't that big of a problem. I have a nice invoice template I've used for years and diligently track unpaid invoices. In 2011 I only had one client who I had to chase down for payment.

You do begin to learn who pays quickly and who is cutting your net 30 arrangement to the very last day. Sometimes cash flow became an issue, particularly when I had to pay subcontractors or vendors. That's certainly something I'll work on in 2012.

Outside of that I didn't actually like doing the invoicing. Crazy isn't it? The thing that gets me paid always felt like pulling teeth. Reviewing everything I'd done and tallying up the hours and deliverables was just not fun for me. Getting those checks in the mail certainly did!

I just really like what I do and am able to make a good living at it. For that I am very lucky.

The Right Clients

Astronauts

You need to get good, quickly, at figuring out which clients are right for you. For me, this means they're already knowledgeable about SEO and Internet marketing. I want smart teams that I can partner with and engage in meaningful dialog that moves the site and my knowledge forward. Because make no mistake, you are constantly learning in this business. Every new engagement brings a new set of challenges and reveals a new wrinkle that you might not have seen previously.

I don't want clients who are constantly questioning the validity of SEO. I avoid those who can't bring resources to bear on recommendations because I want to see results. I'm not a big fan of politics so I avoid large organizations. Discount hunters are also usually bad news. I've also experimented with small business and local clients but my services just don't scale for most of these folks.

There are plenty of posts out there about  bad clients but it's really on you to find the good clients. Don't be afraid to turn away clients who you know are going to be a time suck. Another way to handle this is to bake it into your proposal. Pricing yourself out of potentially bad relationships is a very valuable technique.

In the end, I want clients who understand that I'm going to tell them the truth, whether it's popular or not.

How Much!?

Cat Covering Ears

Medical coverage costs a metric-fuck-ton. I'm using foul language here because it really is that bad. The amount I pay for medical coverage is obscene. I'm looking to lower this cost in 2012 but there's also a huge amount of complexity and fear in switching plans. I've been through this rodeo just in switching plans when I went from job to job. But it's even more difficult when you're self-employed and worried about making sure your family has health coverage.

In addition, the quarterly tax payments can be a drag. I don't mind paying taxes. I'm quite happy to pay my share. But the chunks you pay are sizable so you really have to plan ahead. Get yourself a CPA if you're going to start a business or even just do a fair amount of consulting. The $500 I pay mine is well worth it and has saved me money and countless hours of my time.

Stay Active

Me on Mount Diablo

I let my health slip a bit this year. I didn't eat well and didn't exercise as much either. This is odd since I'm spending so much time at home. I've already begun to change this and will be a healthier person in 2012. This is important because being active can help you work through problems and simply think better. Diet can also have a profound impact on your mood.

All of this is wrapped up in making sure you keep motivated. Like or not, sometimes that motivation leaves you. You get stressed and get jammed up. You feel like you're juggling too much and that you'll never catch up. You wake up and you just don't want to tackle what's in front of you. It feels enormous and endless. That's where being active can change things. Get out on the bike and ride for a few hours and you clear your head and come back energized.

More or Less

Dali Clock Painting

I am a huge believer in life/work balance. That said, now that I'm running my own business I am working a lot more. Part of this is the fact that I work at home. I'm upstairs in my office, wearing an old Google fleece and some sweatpants. I'm up at 6am every day looking through my RSS feeds and soaking up as much information as I can instead of spending an unproductive hour or more commuting.

The days begin to blend together. Weekdays and weekends aren't so different so you wind up putting in hours on the weekend too. But it's all on your own terms! That's the great thing.

So if I want to stop and go for a bike ride with my daughter. I can do that. If I want to watch Breaking Bad on Netflix in the middle of the day. I can do that. The flexibility is amazing. So even though I might be working more hours I'm also spending more quality time with my family and doing the things I really want to do.

Leverage

Pick a Direction

It got to the point where I was essentially booked solid. If you're charging an hourly rate, you can only make so much. There are only so many hours in the day. Sure, you can use fixed pricing on audits but most of the time you're not making much more there. You figure out the hours you need and price the audit accordingly. Honestly, I probably short-changed myself more often than not. As I mentioned, everything takes longer than you think.

So you begin to think about how you could get to the next level. Did I want to build an 'agency'? Maybe but I'm a better leader than manager. So you begin to think about other ways to leverage the expertise you have. This is where I'm looking in 2012. Once again, I'll be balancing initiatives to build and expand the business versus doing the work. So, while I may not be an agency per se, I think there's a strong possibility that I'll want to bring some other people in next year.

This might give me just enough time to explore new ways to serve clients. Maybe I should write an ebook or a real book? I did a number of SEO training sessions this year, maybe that's something to pursue.

I have a great but complex idea for a WordPress Plugin. I actually did a substantial amount of research here, wrote a solid product document and contacted a developer but it just never got off the ground. I could restart that project.

And then there are other ideas outside of this industry, one of which would provide bloggers with a new revenue stream.

I don't lack in ideas. I lack in time. And with that time constraint I vacillate. I want to pick the 'right' one. But I know that's not the right way to approach things. Pick one. Try it. If it works, awesome. If it doesn't. Learn from the failure and move on to the next idea. It's easier said than done but I'm committed to this philosophy in 2012.