Monthly Archives: December 2012

Don’t Try to Beat Search Algorithms

There was a time, quite a few years ago, when SEOs could reliably trick search engine algorithms into listing their websites at the top of the results. Those days are long gone. In fact, the whole idea of gaining top rankings doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.

The truth is that search engine algorithms have become so complex, accounting for so many different variables, that no one can keep track of them all. Stoney deGeyter discussed this in almost excruciating detail. So if you think you or your SEO can game the system, think again.

Let’s start with the fact that Google was already analyzing something like 200 different ranking signals back in 2009. That’s three or four years ago; today, they’re almost certainly analyzing more. And even if they aren’t, it’s a fair bet that they’re not analyzing the same 200 signals that they used then. Search engine developers at Google constantly look for ways they can make their algorithms work better. So while we can make a fair guess at some of the signals Google uses, nobody in the SEO community knows all of them.

Next, consider that not all of these signals carry the same weight. How important is it that your domain name features your target keyword? Your title tag? Anchor text? Only Google knows the answer, and they’re not talking. Worse, that answer keeps changing, because it’s only a matter of changing some code to change the importance the search engine grants to any particular signal.

Now you may have noticed my use of the term “algorithms,” plural, when talking about Google. That’s because the search giant doesn’t use a single algorithm. Do you suppose it uses the same algorithm for the medical industry that it uses for the construction industry? More than likely, it doesn’t. That’s because those 200-odd signals I mentioned earlier actually carry different weight and significance in different industries. How far does this granularity go? Well, deGeyter notes that Google might have anywhere between 50 to 200 different algorithms running at any one time. “These different algorithms might be in play for different industries, different types of searches or testing the effects of various algorithm changes before a full push,” he explained.

And it’s just gotten more complicated over time, as Google has added personalization, geo-location, and social signals as factors and filters involved in search. So any particular search can be affected by the searcher’s zip code,  search history, previously visited sites, and even the websites his or her friends on Google+ have visited and liked – oh, excuse me, +1ed.

Naturally, Panda and Penguin also make “gaming” Google’s algorithms more complicated. (You were wondering when I’d get to those, right?). These black-and-white critters are no ordinary updates; they’re filters through which the search giant runs its huge index from time to time. As deGeyter explains, “If your site got hit with these updates, fixing the problem that caused it won’t bring immediate results. You have to wait until the next time Google runs the filter.”

So what’s a site owner trying to get top rankings in Google supposed to do? Well, you may have to give up the idea of “top rankings” as such. If you look at your site in Google and you have the top ranking for your targeted keywords, turn off everything that tells Google who and where you are. If you’re still at the top, guess what? You may not be the top result for many other searchers, who have all of their customizations turned on. It’s a catch-22.

Fortunately, there is a way to resolve it. Keep an eye on algorithm changes, but don’t try to chase them. And remember what you’re really trying to do! I admit deGeyter says it better than I can: “It’s not about trying to get just the right amount of words on a page, your keywords in just the right spot or even about the perfect backlink graph. It’s about building a site that visitors love, focusing on the keywords they search and doing it better than your competitors.” Good luck!

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Instagram Policy Changes: Backtracks, Lesson Learned

Popular photo-sharing service Instagram recently announced changes to its privacy policy – changes that could have allowed it to sell users’ photos to third parties without the users’ consent. The company backtracked amid the resulting uproar. What can be learned from this fracas?

The sentence that freaked out most people, as reported by PC World, fell under “Rights” and went like this: “To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.” If you’ve seen advertising on Facebook that shows one of your friends liking a certain product, well, this is more or less the same thing. And it’s not too surprising, considering that Facebook purchased Instagram.

This change, and certain others, to Instagram’s privacy policy, sparked outrage among its users, and many people chose to quit the service rather than submit to the policies. Before the new rules could go into effect on January 16, however, Instagram backtracked, at least a little. In a new blog post this week, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said that “we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.” He insisted that “it is not our intention to sell your photos,” though they will be probably be used in “innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram.” Furthermore, he emphasized that “Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos.”

But just how well is Instagram really listening to what people are saying about how they handled this? Ian Paul , writing for PC World, pointed out a number of things the photo-sharing social site could learn from the debacle.

First, Instagram should try to remember that, though it has been purchased by Facebook, it is not Facebook, and it would behoove them not to act like their new parent company. This privacy policy move, according to Paul, smacks of Facebook all over: “revise your policies or services, wait for the backlash, and then backtrack a little,” he explained. “The result is that while many people use Facebook because of its popularity, very few people seem to trust the company’s motives.” Instagram has built up a ton of goodwill with its service, and it would be a shame if it squandered it in this way.

There’s another way in which Instagram is not Facebook: it has a lot of competition which is just as good, depending on what you want to accomplish. Remember Flickr? How about Photo Shack? Picasa? And then of course there’s Pinterest. For heaven’s sake, Wikipedia lists nearly 40 “major” photo sharing sites, and admits that its list is non-exhaustive. “Unlike Facebook, which dominates the social networking world, Instagram is a popular choice among many for adding filters and sharing photos online.”

Since Instagram is NOT Facebook, it needs to remember that it shouldn’t ACT like Facebook. In other words, don’t get uppity or condescend to your customers. Paul called on the company to “drop the hubris,” and fixated on one sentence from Systrom’s blog post: “Legal documents are easy to misinterpret.” According to Paul, “The subtext of that statement is: ‘you’ve totally got it all wrong, but we’re changing the parts you didn’t like anyway.’” Again, Instagram seems to be imitating Facebook “by apologizing for how things were perceived instead of for the issues themselves,” according to Paul.

That action, taken by Instagram, is patronizing, almost to the point of willful ignorance. Come on, guys; Facebook, at least, has been down this road before, and you can’t claim you haven’t seen it happen before. You MUST have known what would happen!

This very fact – that Instagram should have known what kind of reaction their new privacy policy would get – means that they should be able to do better next time. Heck, Instagram should have done better THIS time. Instead of coming out with a short blog post saying its terms of service had changed, followed a much longer, more explicit blog post when the tide of reaction on the Internet got too loud to ignore, Instagram should have done it right the first time. “Next time, Instagram should skip the outrage phase by clearly explaining its plans the first time.” That’s exactly what you do if you want to build a business that’s more respected than Facebook – you respect your customers enough to not act like you’re trying to sneak something past them. Here’s hoping that having Facebook for a parent won’t prevent Instagram from learning that valuable lesson.

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Link Building Outside Your Niche

I know what you’re going to say: in the face of Penguin, link building outside of your own niche isn’t exactly safe anymore. That may or may not be true. It all depends on how you go about it, and exactly where outside of your niche you’re going.

You might want to start by defining what your niche is. Say you’re a plant nursery or gardening store. You focus on the home gardener. These are people who enjoy gardening and making things grow as their hobby. If they have a good season, maybe they like to give away the proceeds of their garden as gifts to friends. Some of them might even be ambitious enough to make a little money on the side from the fruits (and vegetables and other plants) of their labors.

So you can link to other nurseries. But where else can you look for links? Nick Stamoulis at Search Engine Guide offers up a number of useful suggestions. First, consider what other products your customers shop for. You specialize in plants; what else do people who garden need? Gardening tools? Bricks to build borders? Outdoor water fountains and statuary?

You probably don’t carry some of the things that your customers want need for their gardens, but that doesn’t mean that you’re losing business if someone buys that item from someone else. A customer who buys a wheel barrow from someone else isn’t going to NOT buy plants from you. “A great link building opportunity is to partner with relevant companies and pool your combined resources to help both companies succeed,” Stamoulis points out. So you can talk with a company in a related business about both of you being listed on each other’s websites as preferred partners. Or maybe you can take out ads in each other’s newsletters, or contribute to each other’s blogs. Get creative and think beyond a simple link.

Another place you can look to for building links is within your own community – and in this case, I’m not talking about the online community. Maybe you can help the local school raise money with a plant sale, donating plants for the sale and sharing your expertise with free gardening advice. You could give away a coupon for 15 percent off the buyer’s next purchase at your nursery. And that’s just the beginning of your networking and customer-building opportunities. But wait, this was about links, right? “Not only are local events a great way to introduce  your brand to local customers (which is especially important if you have a physical store location you’re trying to drive traffic to), you can also get listed as a sponsor on the organization’s site, as well as a mention in any press coverage of the event in local, online newspapers,” Stamoulis explained. In other words, this kind of activity brings with it fresh, relevant, useful links, if you take advantage of it appropriately.

I’ve saved one of the potentially coolest ideas for link building for last. You might need to build up a little courage to do this right – or if you’ve been in the industry for a long time and know a lot of people, it might not even occur to you, since all of these people are just your friends. What I’m talking about is doing interviews with leading people in the industry, and then posting them on your website.

You don’t need to go for the celebrities who are so popular they need a social secretary to manage their time; in this case, it’s the expertise your readers will want to bask in. Of course, if you can get someone who is well-known, by all means go for it! Just make sure, as you’re thinking about who you might interview, that they fit into a niche that connects with yours.

So what kind of industry voice would work here? A local landscape designer might work. Or you could dream big and try for someone like Mel Bartholomew, the originator of square foot gardening. Is there a botanical garden in your area? Perhaps you can get an interview with someone there.

Doing this kind of interview not only builds content for your site and teaches you more about your own field, but “Chances are the expert is going to help you promote that piece of content because it helps with their own personal branding and link-building,” Stamoulis noted. “But every time they share your interview it’s your site that gets a link and the social signals!” And the better-known the expert you get to interview, the stronger their social network is likely to be. Imagine the reach of the links you’d get from this!

Let me leave you with one more thought from Stamoulis which is the entire key to building links outside your niche: make sure the people and organizations to which you’re reaching out are relevant. In other words, “there needs to be a clear and reasonable relationship between your site and theirs. Look for sites that target the same audience as you and help solve similar problems,” Stamoulis explained. Both your business and your link partner’s business will grow when you work together to fulfill your customers’ needs. Good luck!

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Yahoo Acquires OnTheAir, Betting Big on Mobile

Ever since former Googler Marissa Mayer took the reins at Yahoo, observers have been speculating about the venerable but beleaguered search engine’s new direction. A look at the company’s first two purchases since the new CEO came aboard seems to indicate a big bet on mobile apps.

Let’s take a quick step back in time to late October of this year. That’s when Mayer made her first acquisition since arriving at Yahoo. The purchased company, named Stamped, produced a recommendations app by the same name. James Niccolai, reporting on the story for CFO World, noted that the app was developed by former Google employees and had even received financial support from Google Ventures. Mayer visited Stamped shortly after the purchase and tweeted that she was “happy to be reunited with Robby and his team.”

Stamped was an iPhone app that I like to think of as an “external memory.” It let users keep track of restaurants, books, movies, and other things they like, and let their friends know about them. I say “was” because at the time of the purchase, Stamped reported that it would be discontinuing the product at the end of the  year. Users can download a PDF copy of their data. Niccolai noted in his article that they were planning to build a “big, mobile, and new” app for Yahoo, but didn’t supply details.

Yesterday, Yahoo made its second acquisition since Mayer became CEO: a video chat start-up named OnTheAir. John Ribeiro, reporting the story for the IDG News service, noted that “Yahoo sources said the acquisition was for talent, and that the OnTheAir product will not be continued.” Four of OnTheAir’s five-member team hold degrees from Stanford, the same college from which Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (and Marissa Mayer, for that matter) graduated. The remaining member of the team, according to his bio, held an interesting job before joining OnTheAir: he worked at Google on infrastructure that supports Gmail and Google+.

Perhaps it’s too soon to call it a pattern, but the similarities between these two purchases can’t be ignored. Mayer acquired two companies that included former Google employees; both firms worked on creating useful mobile applications; and both acquisitions focused on gaining the talent as opposed to the company’s actual products. Clearly, Mayer thinks Yahoo’s future involves making mobile apps.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who was paying attention when Mayer participated in her first earnings conference call since accepting the position of Yahoo CEO. Juan Carlos Perez, reporting on the call for Computerworld, highlighted her interest in the mobile field, and her desire for Yahoo to do more, and better, in this area. “We’ve made progress, but Yahoo hasn’t capitalized on the mobile opportunity,” she said; Perez noted that she felt “it has ‘underinvested’ in its mobile front-end development.”

Furthermore, according to Perez, Mayer believed that Yahoo’s “mobile product lineup is too fragmented, with more than 76 different iOS and Android applications. ‘Our top priority is a focused, coherent mobile strategy,’ Mayer said. This will involve a significant beefing up of the company’s mobile staff.” Clearly, Yahoo took two steps in that direction by purchasing Stamped and OnTheAir.

So what are the next steps? It’s possible that Mayer will acquire one more company that fits the pattern before the end of this year, but I don’t rank that as a high probability. Rather, I expect this month to be devoted to the new guys settling in and brainstorming, with Mayer dropping some hints (to them, not us, alas) as to where she’d like to see Yahoo’s mobile apps going.

Where, exactly, is that? Count on it not being games, at least not right away (if ever). My guess is that she wants to see these mobile apps fit together in a coherent package, but continue to be useful as standalone applications. I wouldn’t be surprised if Yahoo comes up with something reminiscent of the iPad’s or Windows 8′s approach – done much better.

On the other hand, I don’t see Yahoo getting into its own hardware. I could see them creating custom mobile app packages for specific devices, and working with the manufacturers to install them on smartphones and tablets. It’s also entirely possible that this time next year, we’ll see at least three versions of some impressive Yahoo mobile apps: one for Android, one for Apple’s App Store, and one for Microsoft’s app store. It’s worth noting, at this point, that Yahoo has almost all the pieces it needs among its various products and purchases to build its own full-service computer software package; about the only thing missing is its own web browser. Or it could easily bring all these services together to build a better social site than Facebook (though the less said about Yahoo Groups, the better). We’ll just have to wait and see what Mayer and company cooks up at Yahoo, now that there are some more veteran chefs in the kitchen.

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