(Disclaimer: There is good news here too–but only if you take immediate action. Warning: Some of this is considered “advanced SEO” for my readers).
As part of a recent string of search marketing interviews , I was personally looking forward to this one. Not just because he is an authority and master at the craft of SEO, but for the insights, vision and consistent trusted action he provides in the field of search and more.
Aaron Wall is the author of SEOBOOK a leading blog, community and online training program focused on the search engine marketing space. He also does limited client work with his partner, Scott Smith, through Clientside SEM.
Personally, I must tell you, dear reader of my blog, that SEO (search engine optimization) basics are really dead simple. The steps to get to top rankings and broader search engine visibility are truly straightforward. However, if not followed and not done to ethical SE standards, they can have a serious negative impact on your online efforts. Make note of the final question below and subsequent reference. It could kill your business and–as you’ll see–it actually did!
Get started by establishing your objectives and key results from a business perspective. They should at minimum include keyword strategies, traffic projections, ranking goals and conversion percent metrics. Create your SWOT document (strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and overall marketing approach, or you could face disaster. Time, money and resources wasted–and, potentially, if you are going grey/black hat–even the *dreaded search engine ban from Google.*
Healthy competition can actually be an asset, as you’ll see. It always intends to bring noise to your day (perhaps competitors are even clicking on your own ads and trying to push you down/out with search engine reputation management tactics), but that noise can be turned down in your marketplace. Make sure to study their movements, read this guide and do something a bit more extraordinary in your niche. Don’t be sleazy and copy competitors outright. It’s OK to take ideas and move those to the next level yourself, though.
“Think unique, be different” is what Wall says. On that note, pick up a copy of the Purple Cow from internet marketer idea man Seth Godin. A standout idea can bring about massive change for your business and its subscribers, if done correctly. Aaron’s own SEOBOOK and blog certainly have done that, enjoyed by the SEO/M community and beyond.
Here is the common SEO process outline:
- Keyword map/Strategy
- WebSite Structure/Links
- Onpage Optimization/Pages
- External Profile development: Link-building, baiting and promo
- Metrics, Analytics and Results: Mapping to goals outlined
- Rinse, Refine, Repeat
If it’s so straightforward, how come so many cannot seem to “get” the search engine marketing process and online game? The truth is, there are so many moving parts. Your own business is in flux, plus there are changing marketplaces and varying search engine marketing techniques. You should consider this important advice and search marketing insights for your business. Again, don’t take it lightly, or it could mean poor rankings, low traffic or lack of quality conversions.
How did you get started?
I had an existing site and started taking notes on it. It was mostly about formatting/layout and how to create a cleaner look and feel–a better visitor experience, in essence. This was back in 2003. At that time, I met a guy online, a professional photographer from Greece. He ran into my site and wanted to hire me, right over a chat system, in fact. I was amazed, because my grammar and writing were not that great at the time, and I was still learning SEO (that really never ended). He did headshot photography, and after I started helping him–and within a few months–he started getting very good leads. Things grew quickly from there. When the (Google) Florida update happened, I wrote an article about it and it was very well-received. I got my 15 seconds of fame. Over time, from a few leads to a steady flow of them and people calling me almost every day, it got pretty exciting. However, I realized that to scale, I needed to create a hybrid model of SEO and online marketing education versus a straight consulting model–where I didn’t have to do all the work. SEOBOOK.com was formed.
What is most rewarding about working in this marketplace?
I enjoy working on our own mix of sites. However, SEOBOOK is the flagship, and most of my time is spent there. The other sites are doing pretty [well], but are more under the radar, not as visible. It feels good to be a central guy in the community, but I like to grow things naturally and not always aggressively. I enjoy helping others.
If you have no VC money or serious online budgets, competing in a global marketplace can be hard. However, if you have a great idea, it can help immensely to get good exposure if it’s a good fit for the marketplace, with your product or service. The small guy can compete with the bigger guy. (Jon: Wall prefers to be real, not glossy, and he sees that many people have a short attention span: checking earnings every day/hours, checking ad spend, checking forums, building new pages/sites, reading news, twittering: ADD is a real problem online).
More and more people feed each other online. The line on what’s bought/sold versus what’s free is becoming thinner. There is an erosion of (quality) copywriting. It’s harder and harder to maintain a good stance, unless you have a good product/service or lots of interactivity, social trust in the network, people recommendations and a strong brand.
Over the next year or two I plan on working hard to keep building the quality of SEOBOOK and our other sites. I just hired Peter Da Vanzo from Search Engine Blog to be an author for SEOBOOK.
(Ok, thanks – let’s start on my SEO “hardcore” list):
1. LSI/LSA: Are search engines using it, and is this an important focus for rankings?
(Keywords: Synonyms, related keywords, ontology, thesaurus, lexfn.com, l3xicon.com, Google sets, keyword relationships, “theme density” versus “keyword density”)
When the Florida update happened, if a page was targeting too aggressively, pages would be stopped and no more ranking. Most commercial sites were gaming the money pages and keywords at that time. Back then, search engines were trying to figure out whether text was natural or not. However, times and SEs (search engines) have changed.
In today’s search engines, (example) if the keyword phrase or term is “computer animated design,” they can tell that the word “CAD” is related to it and will highlight that in the search engines. (Ed note: here are few articles to explain changes and how Google views rankings: 1) Intro to Google Ranking | 2) Technology behind Google Ranking).
SEs are changing from “give me what I said” to “give me what I want.” They are moving to knowing what people are searching for, and it’s an ongoing activity to locate users’ true intent. (“…Google uses a best-in-class spelling suggestion system, an advanced synonyms system and a very strong concept analysis system, a world class localization system. . .”). So is something like latent semantic indexing used? Most certainly! In search queries–you’ll see the “related searches” at top or bottom–in other words, they “know.” Sometimes you can see where they screwed up mathematically. They are testing all the time, and it’s of course all about relevancy.
How about “machine-based learning”? Google’s Peter Norvig talks about “machine learning algos,” but [Google isn’t] using those for a number of reasons. One is that the algo currently in place is better than a machine could do it, and they believe a “black swan event” can be catastrophic on real data versus test/training data, and not worth it.
2. Siloing/Theming: Is it true you can structure a site to rank for top keywords without any incoming links?
(Jon – examples to study: Virtual/Physical Siloing: http://www.cabelas.com (virtual), http://www.allaboutlawns.com/ (physical))
With no external citation or trust, it gets really hard. We know you can rank pages if you have a lot of links with no page content. We also know you can rank pages with relevant structure and quality content with related keywords on the page. Content and links together are important, but many things are not understood. I mean, you can show on/off factors, but there will be things you still won’t get. (Google reserves that privilege.)
In a Rockstar Show 2006–Oilman and Greg Boser were on a show with Matt Cutts. Matt didn’t say why a particular site was not ranking, but there’s no doubt that old links and site trust, matching of keywords in anchor text and related onpage factors are cornerstones of successful ranking.
Aaron, should you even bother with siloing then? Wall: If the site is totally screwed up, it’s not just about siloing. Find out what are the most competitive phrases and build more link equity. If you have the relationships set up–and top keywords–go after the most important pages. You are distributing link equity, and in proportion to what is needed, to rank.
You need to acquire link juice to make it more valuable. Markets change, language online–they change over time. For example, there was no search volume from the term “seo book.” That was turned over time. I created a brand, and both worked to create volume for it. As more time passed, “seo training” got to be more important, for example.
Keywords are important to go after but can be a moving target. It may make more sense to silo if you are writing about”The history of the Civil War”–keywords are not going to change there. Amazon, for example, is different with its subcategories and niches. Keywords and markets are going to change often. So they have to lift inner pages and work on building links to it.
3. Ah, “Pagerank Sculpting”. Should one bother with it? And, will Google penalize you for being an “SEO”? (Others say that “no-follow” use on a site can easily be tracked, but I say so can analysis of a keyword-rich anchor text linking program). Should you worry about being penalized or “sand-boxed”?
Matt Cutts said that internal sculpting can help you. Think of Pagerank as units of dollar. If you want to know how to spend it best, how would you approach your site/pages? You can spend the dollar more wisely and go after a marketplace to get $300 worth of a link. However, it may make sense for legal reasons, but not for ranking. If you are a large corporation, it may be totally fine. The issue is, if you have small site, with aggressive tactics, content recycled, low-quality external links, broken links everywhere: Google will ask: “could this be spam”? Knowing SEO does not make you a bad person. SEO techniques mimic stuff that happens anyway. Deceive or Dupe? Plausible deniability–powerful SEO tools and affiliate marketers? Ask yourself this: “If you don’t have a large brand, and Google deleted you from the index, would anybody else care?” (Jon: see overpenalization elsewhere)
4. Keyword research: How has this changed over the years, and what tools do you recommend for beginners? How to start? Should a business focus on heads or tails?
(Jon: Aaron has a new kick-ass keyword book , which personally is recommended reading ($39), for both new and more advanced alike. Heads=Head/Main keyword, Tail=Long Tail, typically 3 words or more).
Find a word that you can make up to mean something important over time, or find a word that’s already established, like “San Diego Real Estate.” If you are a new SEO, try to rank for “local seo” or “link building” or “web marketing consulting.” Be leader in a niche; don’t start too broad.
The network effects linger on the web. For example, before I was known for SEO, I was known for a guy who wrote the “SEO book.” It’s well known that longer tail terms convert well, but some businesses are head-heavy, others tail-heavy. Other heads are massive in traffic.
Also, I recommend buying a bunch of pay-per-click ads, check for performance, look at the competition and see how their keywords and pages are structured. Use traditional keyword tools (Google Keyword Tool, SEOBOOK Keyword Tool), look at traffic reports (Compete Search Analytics): That’s what the search engines think it’s about. You should also look at keyword difficulty–ad intelligence. Microsoft shares data, and you may want to get the Microsoft 2007 Excel plugin.
Install SEO for Firefox.
You can easily find important site data from SERPS using the tool. Sometimes people are ranking because of a 9-year-old domain, number of links, etc. This tool gives you an ability to look at variances, rather than look at “cold” numbers. Look for a guy that’s “weaker” on the page.
Jon: You can go to page 2 and ask to buy a site or domain and lift it. Wall: Yes, there is no award for starting from scratch, shorten the span, get an edge quickly. (Editor’s note: snapnames.com, droppingdomains.com, pool.com can prove useful to pick up expiring domains or join auctions) Wall: NameJet and TDNam are good, too, but if you are buying for SEO benefit it is better to buy live, active sites rather than expired domains. The first spam domain Google found was a porn site built on an expired domain name, so they don’t like them much.
5. Link building. What are the easiest ways to get links that are “white-hat” for a new website? We know relevancy, quality, trust are important, but how does a newbie figure this out? Also, what is “too fast” (link building). After a backlink report is run, can/should you “fix” the anchor text to be more relevant? What is “too perfect” for link building? Can you be penalized?
Penalization comes from too fast, via automation. If you are new to the web, the odds of getting links too fast is pretty low. If you approach it with one foot in the sand, toe in the water so to speak, you’ll be OK. If you have a big brand and related strategy, they’ll be fine: You’ll probably have more link quality and trust. And if you get tons of links, it will not hurt you. But if you receive 1,000 links for $20 bucks (Jon: you see these bogus linking claims and programs out there; don’t fall for it) then it gets easier to get whacked and removed from Google.
If you are just starting out on the web, if you have friends, business suppliers, in the same industry, etc., ask them for link sources. Then add a couple of general directories, yahoo, business, botw (best of the web), get some more links, and use articles and press releases, too. The key is to look at the SEO Firefox results and get a competitive measure of what people are doing, so you can know what to rank for. Track how the competitors are getting links (Jon: Free backlink tools: Yahoo Site Explorer, Link Diagnosis w/Firefox Plugin, BackLinkAnalyzer). Look at joining industry associations, get links from guys at conferences, review products or think about give-aways of software, tools, something of value to people. If you can take something that is currently for sale, make it better and give it away, then market it aggressively, you’re on your way.
(Oops, cell phone battery dies, we switch to another five minutes later, we’re on a roll now . . . )
If incoming anchor text keywords match domain, that’s great, but mix up keywords naturally. For example, “seobook,” “aaron’s seo book,” “aaron’s seo site” vary the text. For a few links don’t worry. But as you scale, don’t make them the same, because it could affect rankings. Paid links–well, I don’t get into it too much–and certainly not through known networks. We have tried to get many links and got them naturally, creating quality stuff. It doesn’t make sense to now get them for a paid exchange. Certainly, don’t do it right away.
You should look at incremental cost, versus incremental value.
Directories, however, is a great way to start. They are trusted and help out the sites. Some of the smaller ones have a good value, too, not too costly. Organic links are a marketing and advertising function, so you can buy links indirectly by sponsoring events, be seen at conferences and network everywhere. Paid links are a funny thing–for example, people hire people for public relations. They get paid, and you get links and press mentions. Is that against the guidelines? I doubt it (and a big laugh).
6. The top three fastest ways to traffic generation for a site or blog (different strategies)?
Sure, know your market well enough to solve real problems in it, then solve them (with free content or tools).
Link out to the people whom you want to talk about you (and make sure you click on your link a half dozen times or so such that the link shows up in their analytics data). Many leading publishers are egotistical and self-centered, and love reading about themselves. (Jon: I received a cool project with a large, global financial company using this technique).
Be a contrarian or a brown-nose . . . concentrate on whichever fits your personality better.
7. What trends have you seen in the past three years for both SEO & PPC (myths, rising CPC, etc), and where do you see the next three years advancing? For example, we hear often “SEO is dead” and PPC is too expensive. What’s a search marketer to do?
What if Google didn’t exist and people talked about you anyway? You would probably want that “model!” What if you ranked number one or number two for “SEO” versus the eBay CEO saying “he’s the best.” It’s better to have people talk about you, favorable mentions. Give more value, and get people to talk about you. You need to be headed that way. (Jon: Links can perhaps be thought of in a similar way, too. Imagine having a link with the following anchor texts: A) “I know Jon Rognerud,” or B) “Jon Rognerud is a search engine optimization consultant,” or a link where Bill Gates notes: C) “Jon Rognerud is an authority seo consultant.” What provides the highest, most trusted result? Clearly the last example).
If the edges are kind of flaky anyway, not many people will talk about it. For example, one guy blogs every day, one guy has an affiliate marketing program, another is giving away tools, another propels by doing SEO community interviews. Maybe one guy does all of it. With more distribution channels, the better you can do. Like a social network. It’s easier when a space is new, but it will get harder as it matures, so pick areas of what you know and care about. Be really engaged. It’s hard to take it away from you. For example, it would be hard for Google to remove Entrepreneur.com from its index.
Also, success stories online–the ones that make money–are usually when people only give you half the story. A person may have lost $80,000 in his/her first year, but you only hear about the $100,000 positive yearly trend they captured. The ad networks don’t blab about you, nobody is interested in MLM schemes and short-lived money-making ideas, etc. But if you are in a niche in the passion zone, you have the advantage, and hard to take away from you. For example, you could be “SEO for legal” or “SEO for nonprofits.”
8. What is social media to you? And is it really different from SEO and link building/baiting?
I frequently chat with Brent Csutoras about social media stuff. In my opinion the interview you did with him is far better than anything I can say on the topic.
9. Spying on your competitors: What approach and tools do you recommend?
Instead of looking at software tools directly, view your competitors’ sites themselves as tools. Follow their press mentions; use Google Alerts, Blog Search, Blog Pulse. You should know the conversation in the marketplace. If you know that, you are aware of what people are talking about, what they are interested in. Know your marketplace better than anybody else. That’s the ultimate competitive research tool! Look at layout, structure and how they link to various pages. Compete Search Analytics is expensive at $199/month–but it’s totally worth it. Hitwise is also good, it gives you weighting (percentage of traffic); you can see the words that bring traffic. (Jon: I use keycompete.com. I recommend it). Google traffic estimator, the Microsoft online commercial intent tool, shows perceived value.
Google trends for websites is another useful tool. MSN has the ad intelligence tool–with category-related reports, top keywords in category. Sources are free. Take the results and plug them into the various tools for further analysis and strategy development.
10. What blog platform do you recommend for beginners. And what “must-have” (WordPress) plug-ins for SEO are your “best of choice”?
Yes, I would recommend starting out with WordPress because it is easy to use and has a large developer community. I use the SEO Title Tag plug-in, and edit my permalink structure to have the posts appear right under the root without a category name or the date in the URL.
11. Keyword to page ratio–let’s end the discussion–what is the “rule”? One to two keywords per page? three to six?
(Wall doesn’t think of it as that specific). Instead, see what people are doing in search results. If it’s really competitive, then perhaps you only use one keyword (to a page). If your competition is niching out a page for each term, it will be hard to beat them, but at least you know what you are up against. But sure, you can get more than one phrase on a page. For example, you may say: “here are my core keywords, and here’s a list of modifiers.” Combine those into the page and focus on building it out. Use Quintura, and hover over the keywords to see more. For example, you could have “dancing shoes” chosen as your target keyword, but it looks like people are searching more for “cheap dancing shoes.” You could build out a term for “discount comfortable dancing shoes on sale” and use sales, discount in H1 tags and related terms sprinkled throughout on your page. You can get a lot of modifiers in there and get a page that will rank for a wide array of terms that are related. Probably 200 words on a page are good for an e-commerce page. For an informational page you would generally want more, but it depends on the topic.
Content also has different purposes. Some content helps with conversion, others a public relations vehicle, and some content is backfill to monetize ads. Depending on your keyword/content strategy, it may take 10 minutes to write one article/page, or 12 articles/pages to support another. The best ideas should get the most of the time. It’s good to link off to trusted, authority sites and don’t try to be everything to everybody. Stuff to make things really special will just mean more time.
12. Do SEs really consider “over-optimization”? Can you be penalized for that?
Many pages end up getting filtered out of the search results if the backlinks, page title and page content are too precisely aligned against a particular keyword. Variation is key.
13. Restructuring an existing site that is “messy”: What is your approach? mod_rewrites, 301s or “start over”?
When possible, I like to keep the URLs where they are. But if I have to move some around, I make sure I keep the link equity flowing where it needs to by 301 redirecting the old URLs to their equivalent new locations.
14. When you see a new website for the first time, what are your criteria for determining if the site even has a “chance” to make it and–even more so–“survive” in the long term?
SEO for Firefox gives you baseline for links, popularity. Look at anchor text; it’s a website health checker. Check to see how rounded the site is. If the competing sites or other site has more links, balance it out, go after similar links.
15. What mix of links and content should a site have? For example, some sites go heavily after links both natural and paid, and have ranking success. What percentage blend do you prefer? For example, Starbucks ranks for first page for “coffee,” but no keywords on that (landing) page. Also, if you had a 100 incoming links, what should be the percentage of “keyword rich anchor text” (term you want to rank for) versus “brand name” or “alternate phrase”? Is index (page) penetration more important than more links?
It depends. One person could have many links already; another person is doing tools for linkbait, etc. It comes down to what are your strengths? It’s weighted to what you are really good at. You could be really visible online and doing socializing and getting links. You could be ranking for everything or ranked on page two for things. You could then write a really interesting report that people will link to, and you could be on page one for 5 percent for certain queries or page two and three for everything else. Look at results, look at strengths and balance out weaknesses. Yes, you could go out and ask people to change external anchor text, but webmasters will not likely change. I would not typically do it–perhaps it even was an accident that they added you–and they might even remove a link. When you feel there might be a risk, build new ones instead.
16. Ranking, traffic, conversion: Which area do you like to focus on first, and which provides the best long term strategic value?
If you get something that converts really well, then you can afford to buy PPC, for example. Conversion to me is an important thing to focus on, but in some competitive saturated industries you need “brand” and people talking about you to convert. Make sure to have community participation, and differentiate. Conversion is key, more than simply ranking.
17. On-page factors: In your recent Wordtracker “Kick Ass” Keyword Book you show the example of:
<title>Free Online Poker Room Reviews</title>
<meta description=”Play free video poker online. We have rated the 10 best live poker websites offering you over $1,000 in free bonus credits.”/>
<h1>Best Poker Websites Ratings</h1>
<h2>Poker Sites With the Biggest Sign-up Credit Bonuses</h2> (related phrases site and website, singular/plural use of “credit,” mixed up order of keywords)
What is the optimum way to position and concentrate keywords on the page (metas + copy)?
It’s like I mentioned before: If something is “too good,” “too fast” or “too perfect,” it’s not preferred. So make it really good and natural. Think users, then search engines. Even if you make sales-oriented pages, make them really high quality. Average and below average are not recommended.
19. What are recommended books for online business, the “must reads” and “what you are reading now”?
Favorite books: “Clay Shirky,” “Here comes everybody,” “Purple Cow.” The “Cluetrain Manifesto” is something to read also. The web is becoming more like a “people talking medium,” in a social way.
20. What about Flash and recent announcements of Google spidering/indexing Flash content. What to do?
I still think most publishers using Flash should embed Flash into pages and have plenty of text in the raw HTML code of those pages.
21. Purchasing old domains with keywords in domain? Bother or no bother? Where is the best place to find used/expiring domains?
NameJet, SnapNames, and TDNam are the best spots to buy expired names. As far as keyword rich domains, I am a big fan of them for the time being. And so are a couple of the search engines–Google and Microsoft Live Search.
22. Google’s “secret ranking algo”: How has it changed over the years? We know that links are key, onpage content with keywords, but how about “traffic, behavior, clickstreams”? Google is followed closely in the press for privacy issues. What thoughts do you have? Clearly Cuil.com didn’t win the masses just because of touting its differentiators: size of index and the “privacy” issue.
You are right. And on the privacy issue, if government was using data for their own purposes, or if competition’s business models were dying off because of Google, that’s not cool–but I don’t think it’s becoming a big deal. Uh, most people don’t care much.
23. Universal search? Very few are embracing opportunities to be listed multiple times on the home page of Google. I see this all the time in my internet marketing firm.
I think it depends on the vertical, but most people selling stuff can do well with sales videos and tutorials on sites like YouTube. Some of my videos ( like this one ) have more than 50,000 views, with most of the views coming from YouTube Search and Google Search. That is a lot of exposure for something that took me a half an hour to make.
24. How important is usability (navigation, interaction), accessibility (special needs, mobile browsers, etc.)?
For every guru there are a hundred or a thousand people new to the field. And the people who are most likely to buy information (from you, from affiliate ads, from contextual ads and from traditional ads) are people new to the field.
Being accessible and having good usability is important for turning many new visitors into repeat visitors.
25. Black Hat, white hat–where do you draw the line? Paid links? Scrapers, ranking tools?
I think stealing someone else’s content and/or intentionally causing harm to someone else’s website is pretty crappy. I am not against tracking rankings or renting a few links if they are needed to get the job done.
26. Can you tell us what SEOBOOK provides, what you are doing next and how readers can benefit? What are some other great resources on SEO? What other tools outside of Firefox SEO, Rankchecker, Backlink Analyzer do you have in store?
Some of my favorite SEO blogs are Johnon.com, SEOBlackHat.com, Shoemoney, Sugarrae, SEOmoz, Wolf Howl, Stuntdubl, SERoundtable, and Search Engine Land.
I don’t use Google Reader much, but I do use iGoogle.
I have a few more tool ideas (some will probably be bad while others are good), but it doesn’t make sense to mention them or launch them until we are well along the way of making them.
27. Do supplemental results still exist? How do know if you are in the “2nd index”?
Haven’t tested recently; it’s been a while. One way to find out is to look at how many pages are on your site. Then look at analytics, and find out how many pages are driving traffic. Example, if 150 of these 200 are good, and these other 1,400 pages do nothing, you have a problem to fix.
28th and final question: What is the most frequently asked question about SEO that you get on a daily basis? Or the most ignorant question about SEO?
Simple. It is this: “Is Black Hat SEO ethical?”
OK, cool exit point. We’ve captured a lot! (Wall’s dog starts to bark more now, perhaps somehow knowing where this conversation is going; the phones are ringing; and his wife is in a nearby room. I realize that after the good hour or so on this hot August day, it is time to bid adieu).
On the question of “is black hat ethical” above, see this reference on Google’s Matt Cutts blog: CEO in Jail. (This is really bad news, and you should make up your own mind on which side of the fence you want to live.)
Either way …
…Make it an optimal experience!