SEO Short Stories

May 29 2012 // Humor + SEO // 12 Comments

I've wanted to comment on a number of the debates going on in the SEO community but every time I started to write about it, it felt wrong and boring.

So instead, I wrote a few short stories about SEO that (hopefully) convey my perspective. I'll leave you to decide what I'm talking about and hope you find it as entertaining to read as it was to write.

Law & Order: Silicon Valley

Detective Gorem O Rly?

The room was hot, the two-way mirror smudged with sweaty fingerprints. The pea green paint on the wall was peeling and the battered metal table clanked as the well dressed man fidgeted under interrogation.

The grizzled detective paced back-and-forth rubbing his stubbled jaw.

"We know you did it," he growled.

"I did not kill my wife," the husband said, deliberately stressing the first word.

"You're good with words, I'll give you that," the detective sneered. "Maybe you didn't pull the trigger but you might as well have. You walk into the bank, take out five grand in cash and BANG, next week your wife is dead."

He punctuated the last line by pounding the table with his fist. The husband jerked upright at the sound giving the detective the opening he wanted. Moving around the table the grabbed him by the collar. "Tell me who you paid to do it."

"Fine," the husband said sagging back in his chair. "I'll tell you, but I want a deal."

A commercial break later the detective is staring at the husband from outside the interrogation room. It's oddly dark as he chats with the young Assistant District Attorney who announced herself by clacking into the room in her high heels.

"Guy says the killer's been busy," he tells her.

"You believe him?"

The detective nods. "Yeah, went through some old cases and the MO wasn't hard to spot."

"Okay, pick 'em up. We'll charge them both," she says with curt finality.

The Mountain View Speeding Ticket

So Ya Thank You're A Tough Guy Huh?

You're pulled over on the side of the road watching the cop slowly walk up to your candy apple red Porche in the side view mirror.

Hands on his hips CHiPs style, the cop asks you a simple question. "Do you know how fast you were going?"

What a stupid question you think to yourself. Of course you know how fast you were going. In this instance you'd blown past the normal 10 mph buffer zone of the speed limit. You were in a hurry.

"No officer, I don't," you say laconically.

The cop isn't wearing sunglasses but instead some sort of strange asymmetrical band that makes you think of the Death Star attack sequence from Star Wars.

"Too fast," he says and begins to tap you out a ticket on his Galaxy Nexus. As he does an old maroon Ford Aerostar minivan roars by doing at least 90 mph. The cop doesn't seem to notice and that bugs the shit out of you.

"Didn't you see that guy," you blurt out. "He was going way faster than me!"

The cop glances up from his phone to look at you, to acknowledge that you've spoken, but doesn't reply and continues to tap away. God, what an asshole, you think. Doesn't he know that he wouldn't have a job without my tax dollars!

"There shouldn't be any speed limit, you know," you say as much to yourself as to the cop. "It should be like the autobahn where everyone can just drive as fast or as slow as they want."

Another glance from the cop.

"And, I mean, the speed limit changes. It's flexible. Did you know that they lowered the speed limit to 55 mph during the gas crisis in the 70s? Its' all just arbitrary," you say thinking that you've totally pwned him.

The cop pockets his phone and deliberately leans through the car window. Without cracking a smile he says, "Son, last I looked this isn't Germany and it's 2012."

The Girl in Canada You Went All the Way With

Negative SEO

"You don't know her," Eugene says. "She's from Canada."

It's the first day of High School and everyone is trying to look cool. Eugene has been strutting around telling everyone he knows that he went all the way with a girl over the summer.

"So you got laid by some girl from Canada?" Matt asks incredulously.

"Totally," Eugene nods smugly.

"But you can't tell me her name?" Matt asks.

"No," Eugene says. "I mean, if I tell you her name you're just going to look her up and ask her all sort of questions. She needs her privacy, you know."

"Is she hot?"

"Oh yeah, she had curves in all the right places," Eugene says with a Bogart accent, which doesn't really tell Matt anything.

"So what exactly did you do?"

"Oh you know how it works, do I really have to explain it to you?" Eugene says condescendingly.

This conversation has played out over and over again throughout the ages. Clearly Matt doesn't believe that some hot girl from Canada took Eugene's virginity. In this case Matt's absolutely correct.

Eugene spent the summer mooning over a girl working at the art house movie theater. "Enjoy the show" is the only thing she's said to him. "Thanks" is the only thing he ever said in response.

That's not to say that the hot girl from Canada doesn't happen. It does from time to time. But sometimes important details are left out. The girl from Canada is sometimes a 'lady of the night'.

The East Comes West

Get Off My Lawn

A long time ago there were a handful of people who saw an amazing opportunity. They moved out West and set-up shop right along a brand new railroad.

They built their business from scratch with their own hands. Not many had the gumption to do this so business was brisk. Not only that but you could get away with almost anything. Heck, the sheriff only rode into town once a month or so. The law just couldn't keep up with the number of towns springing up.

The people riding the railroad were hearty folk. It took some doing to travel out West on the loud contraption. So they were willing to deal with folks they didn't know or had heard of before and were careful not to get rooked. Of course, a few liked it so much they wanted to make it easier to visit.

Roads were built and that brought a lot more people to the town. Business was booming. But along with the visitors came a few others ready to set-up business. The town grew and suddenly you had to work a bit harder for your business. And the sheriff started coming around more often, so you had to be (or at least seem) more respectable.

The rich people back East began to realize that the West was going to make it. They'd thought it might have just been a fad but now they recognized their error. So they packed up their things, put on their Sunday best, and headed out West. The 'old timers' laughed as the newcomers flailed about trying to build like they had back East. They didn't understand the West.

But over time they did figure it out. Once they did, they made sure everyone else back East knew that they were out West. They built huge signs that you could see from nearly anywhere and just couldn't ignore. That's when things really changed. Because suddenly everyone was out West. But these weren't the hearty folks of old who were happy keep their back against the wall and one eye open at all times. They just followed those big signs.

The 'old timers' still knew a thing or two though. They could get things done behind the scenes, grease some wheels. And there were still some places left that were untouched by the taint of the East. Of course, there were others who saw what was coming and rebuilt their business mixing equal parts West and East.

Because it wasn't too much longer until that town was a massive metropolis jam-packed with people. Unfortunately, it was getting increasingly confusing too. A new zoning board sprung into action. Their goal was to make it easier for folks to find what they needed. They built malls.

It was difficult to compete with the malls dotting the cityscape. Everyone and their brother's sister's dog was trying to get a spot next to those big East anchor stores. The 'old timers' walked through the malls shaking their heads, wondering how they'd been shoved aside. Telling themselves they were better than those from the East.

Sometimes they sat around in the park and talked about how unfair it was. They told stories of the crappiest of crappy strip mall they saw over in some suburb. Proof that the system was broken! Other times they turned on each other, brawling in a fit of rage. When they finally tired of the gossip they went back home and tried to recreate that time of yore, doing the same things they always did and expecting them to work.

Hardly anyone noticed.

SEO Remarketing

May 24 2012 // PPC + SEO // 30 Comments

The single easiest way to get more out of your SEO has nothing to do with traditional SEO. That's right, the best way to improve your SEO is a Google Remarketing campaign.

What Is Remarketing?

Stalker LOLcat

Google often botches their description of products but this time they've actually nailed it with a concise description and example.

Remarketing lets you show ads to users who've previously visited your website as they browse the Web.

When you use remarketing, you'll tag pages of your site that correspond to certain categories you want to promote. For example, you could add a “TV” tag on all of the pages where you sell televisions. You can then create an AdWords campaign to show highly relevant messages (such as ads displaying a special offer on TVs) to people who've visted these pages as they browse sites across the Google Display Network.

One of the points where people seem to get confused is that they think it's only for traffic that originally came from paid search. That's not the case. Remarketing can be used for all traffic that comes to your site.

You've spent time and effort to get someone to clickthrough on that search engine result and visit your site, yet comparatively few wind up converting. So why are you just letting them walk into the HTML sunset?

You have the opportunity to continue the dialog with those users, reminding them of their interaction with your site and brand as they visit other web properties. Take advantage of this feature!

Does Remarketing Work?

Relevant LOLcat

People might say don't want these types of ads but their behavior says otherwise. Sure, sometimes it feels a bit creepy stalking people around the Interent, but the numbers are pretty clear. (Later on I'll discuss how you might attempt to make remarketing less creepy, but for now lets focus on why and how well remarketing works.)

The why is pretty straightforward. You're advertising to people who have already shown an interest in your site and product. Talk about fish in a barrel! Instead of spending money advertising to all of creation you advertise to people who already have a fairly strong affinity with your brand.

How well does it work? Well enough that you should try it yourself. Whether it's the Advertise.com study that showed a 400% lift, or the comScore study that showed a 1,046% lift or the AdRoll study that showed a 75% lift the numbers around remarketing are uniformly positive. A natural skeptic, I've run remarketing campaigns and been impressed by the results.

Yes, remarketing works.

Remarketing vs. Retargeting

Remarketing used to mean something a bit different before Google latched onto the term for their own retargeting product. So the definitions of remarketing and retargeting wind up being fuzzy.

In my mind, remarketing is essentially the easier and more straight forward version of retargeting. There are plenty of retargeting companies out there that do far more sophisticated things such as delivering dynamic ads based on other site behavior. It's incredibly interesting and powerful but out of reach for many and, frankly, overkill in many respects.

Crawl before you walk before you run.

Setting Up A Remarketing Campaign

Setting up a remarketing campaign isn't exactly hard but it's not dead simple either. Here's a streamlined guide to creating your own remarketing campaign. (Seriously, I tried to make this quick but there are a lot of steps so hang in there. It's easier than it looks!)

You'll need an AdWords account to run a remarketing campaign, however you don't need to be running any other campaigns. This is an important distinction since you may find that a traditional AdWords campaign is pricey. You're competing with a bunch of others for the same users.

With remarketing the number of competitors usually decreases and you're certain that the user has already had an interaction with your brand, site or product. Fewer competitors and increased relevance is a winning combination.

Google AdWords Shared Library

Click on the Shared library link and then click on Audiences which will bring you to the following interface.

Google Adwords Select Audiences

Click the New audience button and you'll have the option of selecting Remarketing list or Custom combination. For now, select Remarketing list.

Select Remarketing List

This brings up the following interface where you can create a new remarketing list.

Google Adwords Create a Remarketing List

Give your list a name and make it specific. If you're just starting out with remarketing you may simply want to create a list of visitors to your site. I also recommend describing the list. Again, the more detail the better. It helps (a lot) once you start adding more lists.

The membership duration is the number of days that you'll be remarketing to this list. The default is 30 days and the maximum is a whopping 540 days. So if someone visits your site and then leaves before converting, this is the number of days you'll be advertising to them as they surf the web and visit other sites.

A lot of this depends on the length of your sales cycle, but in general I'd keep this at 90 days or less (for visitors). At this point you're done and can hit the Save button.

Google Remarketing List Creation Successs

Here's where it gets a little complicated. Because all you've done is tell Google what type of list you want to create. You've created the definition. Now you have to grab the code so you can start to build that list. So, click the Tag link.

Google Remarketing Code

Here's the code that you'll need to place on all of the pages you'd like to add to this list. The recommendation is to insert this code right before the closing </body> tag. For me, that meant editing my theme and placing this code into my footer.

Once you have this in place you'll start 'drop cookies' on users and build that list.

Now, if you don't want to spend time and money advertising to people who've already converted you need to create another list. You'll go back in and repeat the same steps but this time name your list something like 'Converted'. Once again, you need to place the tag for this list on the 'success' or 'thank you' page for that conversion event.

This isn't always easy, so you can either commit to some frustrating but rewarding hours figuring out how to make this happen or get someone else who knows the code inside and out to do it in about 10 minutes.

So now you've got two lists, Visitors and Converted. It's time to go and build a new Custom combination list.

Google Custom Combination Remarketing List

This gives you what will look similar to an Advanced Segment interface in Google Analytics.

Google Build a New Customer Combination List

You want to build a list of Prospects which means you want all of those people from Visitors but none of those from Converted. Click 'select audiences' and then use the drop down to select from your Remarketing lists. The UI here is pretty janky so try not to get frustrated.

Google Prospects Remarketing List

At the end this is how your Prospects list should look. Click Save and you've now got the list you want to use for your remarketing campaign.

Google Remarketing Audiences Lists

A big word of caution here. Your campaign will not begin to serve ads until your Audience reaches 500 users.

Now we're finally ready to create a remarketing campaign. Google has done a better job on the UI here.

Create a Google Remarketing Campaign

Simply select Display Network only (remarketing) under the Campaign type drop down to get started.

Google Remarketing Campaign Settings

Fill out the basic settings and then you can decide whether you want to play around with ad scheduling and frequency capping. The latter is probably the easiest way to reduce the creepy factor of your remarketing campaign. So instead of showing your ad to a user 14 times in a day you may decide 3 a day is enough.

However, I'd leave this alone for now since you're never quite sure if a user has truly seen that ad. It may not have been in view or they simply may have had banner blindness.

You could also decide not to show ads during certain times, thinking that those surfing between midnight at 6am might not be in the market for your product. Again, I'd leave this as is and not make any assumptions about what might trigger the user to re-engage.

Google Image Ads for Remarketing

You can choose to run a number of different ad types through a remarketing campaign. I prefer image ads that have a compelling and simple offer. But test it out for yourself and see what works for you.

Google Display Targeting Options

There are even greater levels of targeting available should you choose to only target people visiting certain topic areas. And Google does a good job with a simple venn diagram to show you what happens when you make these selections.

Again, I don't see a compelling reason to do this until you're running a super sophisticated remarketing campaign (i.e. - you might create different creative to serve to users as they visit different types of sites.)

Once your campaign is up and running you can start to look at how it performs.

Google Remarketing Results

Hopefully you've also implemented conversion tracking so you can see both 1-click conversions and view-through conversions. I know there's a lot of debate about the value of view-through conversions. I tend to believe they are valuable. I'm not saying I'd attribute all of that conversion to the view, but the combined synergy of marketing channels is important.

Also, while the example above is highly redacted I can tell you that the remarketing campaign has the lowest CPA (on a 1-click basis) of all other campaigns except for branded search. Add in the view-through conversions (even discounting it by 50%) and remarketing is a monster winner.

Remarketing Isn't SEO

If you've made it down here you might be muttering that this is all well and good but it's not SEO. But it is if you think of SEO as generating productive traffic. My job as an SEO is to help clients get the most out of their marketing efforts.

In most of my initial conversations with clients, I ask if they're running a remarketing campaign. Nearly all respond with 'What's that?' or 'No'. This makes me sad. Whether I wind up working with them or not, they can get so much more out of their efforts by implementing a remarketing campaign.

If I do wind up working with them, I'm going to want to drive the right visitors to the site, convert more of them in that first visit (CRO) but also give myself a chance to convert even more after that first visit.

SEO isn't a one session proposition.

TL;DR

Get the most out of your SEO efforts by implementing a Google Remarketing campaign. Don't let search engine visitors just leave your site. Extend the life and improve the effectiveness of your SEO by reminding visitors of their interaction with your site and brand as they visit other web properties.

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 // 68 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.