Using Google SERPs as a Statement of Quality

Way back on May 2, there was an interesting blog post from the "Stuff You Can Trust" blog that demonstrates using SEO success as an offline marketing tool. Check it out.

The shop owner decided that being #1 in Google's SERPs could be perceived as some kind of validation of their store's quality. The funny thing is that I bet it works. I'd expect that customers who see that banner think to themselves "Wow... They're number 1 in Google. That means they're the best."
In reality, being at the top of any search engine's results is not an endorsement of a company's quality. It's simply a measure of the success of their SEO efforts. Or, in the case of this company, it could simply be a result of the company's good fortune in securing a highly relevant URL.
Of course, since search results can change on an almost daily basis, a banner like this one is not the wisest investment. However, if the company is trying to get their customers to associate Google rankings with quality, I'm fairly sure they're not too interested in the accuracy of their statement. It's not likely, after all, that a person who just bought some tartan tights will head right home to verify the store's claim.
Does a website's ranking in Google suggest that the site is high quality or offers a quality product? Is a number 1 ranking an inferred endorsement on the part of that search engine's users?
To answer these questions, I decided to look up some popular items to see what Google thinks is best, according to this rationale.

1. Deodorant:
Typed in the keyword "deodorant."
First result was a Wikipedia entry. Second result was Degree®.

2. Cola
Typed in the keyword "cola."
First result was COLA - Laboratory Accreditation. They don't sell beverages. The Coca-Cola company website was third.

3. Blue jeans
Typed in the keyword "blue jeans"
First result was Blue Jeans Cable - Broadcast Quality Cables at Reasonable Prices. Levi's US website was ranked 4th.

As you can see, being "number 1 in Google" doesn't necessarily mean a damned thing except that your company is easy to find in the world's most popular search engine.


YouTube SEO

How the hell do you optimize a video or video channel to rank highly for desired keywords on YouTube? It seems a lot different than optimizing a site for the traditional search engines. Or is it?

A little backstory, here.
Over a year ago, I recommended that our company post some video content to YouTube. I suggested that we could tailor some specific videos to the YouTube audience... make them fast, funny and useful. My idea was never truly rejected or approved at the time. It just kind of got swept under the rug. There were too many other things going on at the time, and it wasn't seen as something really worth investing time or resources on.

Jump ahead to about 6 months ago. I showed my boss a YouTube video featuring one of our main competitors. The video was light, funny and had garnered a few thousand views in its lifespan. The video spread virally, but at a slow pace. I also tossed out the statistic that YouTube is outpacing Yahoo in search traffic (at least here in the U.S.).
Without further ado, the boss decided that he wanted a piece of that pie. Since that time, I've been posting videos to YouTube like a madman.

The first video I posted was a funny, catchy music video. Straight ad content. Nothing particularly useful. It started doing fairly well... everyone in the company loved it. But, I always felt that it could do better than it was, if only I could optimize the tags, title and description to hit the right market.
I started tinkering with the category first. I took it out of Education, and dropped it into Comedy. That generated a modest improvement. From that point, I began to add and change the tags. These adjustments gave me no real change in popularity.
I stopped messing with the first video, and moved on to post 23 more. Since then, I've been experimenting with the various elements, studying the competition and acheiving little to no success at manipulating the performance of any given video.
Some videos seem to do well, while others in the same category, featuring similar content, titles, tags, etc., seem to do poorly. It all seems so arbitrary.

Of course, there's still a lot of investigation and learning to be done. Unfortunately, standard web research into the topic isn't yielding much information. The conventional wisdom is always "make sure your tags, title and description are relevant."
Yeah. Thanks for that.

To make matters worse, it seems that affiliate marketers have discovered a way to exploit the system. One of our competitors has two YouTube channels with nearly identical names. One of the channels was obviously set up by an affiliate marketer. He's got several subscribers, all of which are also affiliates, hawking diet programs, work from home schemes, and generally unrelated content. There is no reason that any of his subscribers would be honestly interested in the product his channel is advertising.
There's only one video available on this affiliate channel, and it's a cheesy, poorly made slideshow-style video, consisting of no more than 5 screens of text and the competing company's logo. Yet, somehow, this video has had about 600 or so views in 1 week!! WTF?
I'm sure many of the views are coming from the fact that the video is also embedded on every entry in a separate blog. There have been about 6 or 7 entries to this blog, and each one is nearly identical. Only a few words are changed from entry to entry.
To me, this whole setup seems shady.
But, it also seems like this new crappy video is performing better in YouTube search because of its apparent popularity!
After just one week, the crappy little video is ranking 5th in a YouTube search for one of our highest value key phrases. Just one rank beneath our video...
I call shenanigans.

By contrast, we've been marketing our YouTube content organically. We rely on the quality of the content and honest, non-spammy marketing efforts to generate views, which, in turn, we hope will generate some increased traffic to blog, and, ultimately, our primary website. Our best video has been up for 6 months and has just about 1700 views... We have featured it in our blog, but, we haven't repeated it in spammy ways. We put it up on our Facebook page, we submitted it to Digg, posted it to our Squidoo lenses... etc., etc. etc.

Now, I am the first to admit that I'm no expert when it comes to SEO. I'm even less of an expert when it comes to SEO for YouTube. But, what gives? Am I doing something dramatically wrong? What am I missing?


Ghostblogging: It's Our Little Secret

We're Blogging For You.

I'm going to reveal a dirty little secret here. Are you ready?
A recent "guest" post on a well known blog was credited to my boss, when, in actuality, he probably hasn't even read it. He may not even know it exists (though I hope he does). The owner of the blog suggests that the post is a response to a question she asked my boss. In reality, I don't even think that my boss has ever met or spoken to the blog owner.
In short, there's an awful lot of fiction surrounding this incredibly non-fiction blog post.

While this may seem unethical, consider that few members of the post's target audience would respect the professional opinion of the actual writer -- a marketer/seo/sem/graphic designer/copywriter/ghostwriter (me) -- when it comes to matters of finance and accounting career advice. Having the weight of my boss' name behind the post adds credibility and authority to it. The actual content of the post is well researched and accurate; no misinformation is being delivered. Any opinions in the post are inoffensive and non-threatening to my boss' reputation. In short, no one would ever know unless they know my boss' writing style. Even then, they might not guess. So, where's the harm?

There's still a fierce debate over the practice of ghostblogging. Is it bad practice? When does the white lie turn black? What are the potential pitfalls? Would my grandmother approve?

Ghostwriting has a long history, mainly grounded in traditional (offline) marketing. For centuries, public figures have purchased the services of anonymous mercenary wordsmiths to draft their supposed autobiographies. Sometimes, this is because the subject is too busy to actually write for themselves. Other times, it's because the subject is illiterate, annoying or otherwise incapable of painting themselves in a good light.
For books, marketing collateral, corporate letters, etc., this was fine. There really was no debate because nobody cared. Secretaries around the world made their bosses look erudite at best and at least literate. Politicians, rock stars, actors and artists had memoirs and autobiographies that were well paced, entertaining, grammatically correct and perfectly punctuated.

But, then, we went online. Supposedly, all the rules changed.

In part because the web affords more anonymity, web surfers expect greater transparency. Since everyone can pretend to be anyone, users need to know who they can trust. If you blog or tweet or whatever, it's expected that you're a person and not a corporate shill. People are put off if you come across as impersonal, salesy or dishonest. Imagine that!

So, understanding why people expect full honesty when blogging, is it ever ok to ghostwrite online?

Here's my stance.
If my boss doesn't have the time or ability to write a blog post, that's what I'm here for. I'm effectively his spokesperson online. As long as I can convey the letter of his intent, there is nothing wrong with it. Ghostblogging is just another form of public relations or marketing.

I think that net denizens who push for total transparency in blogging and microblogging are being a bit naive. Ghostblogging is happening. It's here to stay, and we'd all better get used to it. It's an economic reality that CEO's usually can't spend the time to blog about their business. Time is money, and they're too busy actively engaging themselves with the day to day tasks of a CEO.

Corporate and business blogging is for us marketing and PR types. The same goes for tweeting, posting to Facebook, etc. In a perfect world, CEOs would blog, tweet and engage their customers directly. In the same perfect world, there would never be a need for anyone to write under another person's name. We don't live in that perfect world.

Particularly in a highly specialized niche market, I think customers want to feel like they're in touch with an expert. If a company is structured around the expertise of its CEO (as mine is), this makes it almost a necessity to write in the CEO's voice. To do otherwise would undermine the perceived validity of whatever content was being written.

For example, you don't want to learn about widgets from a marketer. You want to learn from the guy who makes the widgets. Or, at least, you want to think you are learning from the widget maker.

But, in this circumstance, it seems even more critical that the CEO is aware of what he/she is supposedly writing. Unfortunately, this also doesn't happen as often as it should. Not only do our bosses not have the time or capacity to write blogs, they often don't have the time or capacity to read them.

As long as this dynamic exists, there will be ghostblogging fiascoes. Inevitably, a writer will get something wrong, and the readers will call him or her to task. Readers will discover that the CEO wasn't really writing all (or any) of his or her posts. They're bound to feel a little betrayed.
Once again, the PR machine rolls out... this time in damage control mode.

But, you know what? That's what they do. That's why they're getting paid. And, whether you admit it or not, you like it that way. Sometimes, the truth just doesn't sell widgets very well.

We may not like to think so, but, the whole marketing and advertising industry is here to sell us fantasies. They're here to lie to us. They're here to catch the blame and clean up the mess when things go badly. Ultimately, they're here because we need them.

So, if you think ghostblogging is unethical, dishonest and wrong... well, you're right. But, let's keep it our little secret, eh?


Confused by the SERPs

It's days like this that really remind me how little I know about this whole SEO/SEM business.

I'm a good employee.
I want my company's site to kick ass in the SERPs for our most valuable keywords. I'm not shooting for the front page... I'm shooting for the top 3. And, this is certainly not unrealistic, despite the discouraging tone I've gotten from some folks in the search marketing industry.

In the good old days, back before the Florida update, the site performed fairly well for our best terms. Even as late as 2005, our website was still holding onto the #2 spot in Google for our most highly competitive term. Three or four site revisions later, our position for our two highest value search terms had fallen from 1st or 2nd to 10th or even 15th. That's really the main reason that SEO became a focus for my company.

My boss was shocked and concerned at our site's poor performance. We were still getting sales, but, we could have been getting so many more if our position in the SERPs hadn't fallen. So began my unending and often confusing quest to understand the way that search engines work.

I've heard over and over again that performance for a given key phrase is less important than the overall goal of generating traffic, converting that traffic to leads, and converting those leads to sales. I've heard that we shouldn't bother with highly competitive search terms, and should instead focus on long tail terms. That we should target specific people or markets with laser focus. Broaden the scope of our audience... narrow the focus of our efforts... blah blah blah.

My company sells a very specific product, and our market has fewer than 10 key players. Our audience uses only a few highly competitive search terms. The search volume is in the low thousands for our top 3 most competitive terms and sharply drops after that. That tells me that we have no choice but to compete for dominance in those top terms. Sure, we can mop up the rest as we go along by creating long tail optimized content, but we're not at a point where we should make this our primary focus. We can still compete for those high value terms.

We've done everything right. We've got a blog that's doing well, increasing subscribers every month. We're all over Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. We submit content to Digg, Delicious, reddit, etc. Our content is being updated on a regular basis, and generating more links for us every day. Granted, most of those links are fairly low authority, but, that seems to be par for the course.

So, on Monday, I saw some interesting results coming through in our various analytics. We were showing up at #2 for one of our most highly valued and competitive search terms. I checked it out, and, sure enough. There we were. #2. Not bad. But, I was skeptical.
I waited, knowing that SERPs can be fickle. Two days passed, and then three. We were still holding steady at #2. This made me pretty hopeful.

I called around and asked some people to verify the results for me from their locations. My goal was to see if I was just getting localized SERPs. In Southern California, we showed up at #2. In New York, we showed up at #2. Time and time again, I verified that we showed up at #2. Checked it out using various rank checking tools... and this is where things started getting weird. I started getting mixed results. Of course, by this time, I had already pointed the good news out to my boss...

Turns out that the various data centers aren't in agreement about where our site should be ranking. According to some reports elsewhere across the country, we're still showing low in the SERPs. What's more, it doesn't even seem to be an issue with localization. I just received a report from someone checking the same results from their office less than 10 miles from mine and they're telling me that we're still showing up low.

Just to be sure, I've instructed anyone checking SERPs on our behalf to sign out of webmail clients and clear their browser cache. I'm still getting mixed results.

I'm pretty sure that Google is just trying to remind me that I don't know jack.


Nobody Actually Cares About Your Facebook Content

So, there's a lot of upset floating around the interwebz regarding famed social media juggernaut, Facebook. Apparently, they updated their terms of service to include verbiage that suggested any content posted to Facebook becomes the property of Facebook FOREVER, and, as such they can do whatever they want with it.
I just have to ask: So what?
I mean, if Facebook wants to use my blog posts as toilet paper, they can have fun.
If they want to make my drunken vacation photos into advertisements, they can go right ahead.
If they think that my answers to the "Which Superhero Are You?" quiz would make great reading material, I'm fine with that.
What the hell is the big deal?
I mean, ultimately, the extreme circumstances that everyone's afraid of will never come to pass. Playboy won't be purchasing your old Facebook pictures of your 6 year old daughter running around topless on a public beach. And, if they did, no court in the U.S. would stop you from suing the living shit out of them, terms of service or not.
Let's try living in the real world, here.
What this really comes down to is personal arrogance and paranoia.
Your crap is not that important. I'm sorry, but it isn't.
If anything you wrote, photographed, or otherwise somehow plucked from the ether was so earth-shatteringly critical, why did you post it on Facebook anyway?
I really do understand the basic privacy and ownership issues at hand. Ultimately, many websites have terms of service agreements that would make Kim Jong Il cry out for freedom. And, sure, I can agree that a bit more prudence on the part of the companies at fault would be in order before things really get out of hand.
But, does this really warrant a mass exodus from an otherwise perfectly valid social avenue? I, for one, don't think so.
Here, then, are some basic things you can do to maintain your ownership over whatever content you post to the web.
  • Decide before you post how important it is that you own your content. Don't be a greedy, content hoarding bastard. The web is a place for the free, easy and rapid sharing of information. Not everything needs to be seen as property or assets.
  • Once you've decided that you really don't want to share "ownership" of your content, get it copyrighted and don't publish it on social media avenues. You're just asking to have that crap stolen, disseminated and shared indiscriminately... FOREVER.
  • Read the terms of service for websites, forums, software or whatever other digital media you use that has the potential to violate or challenge the ownership of your property, idea, or other super-important crap you're hanging out there.
  • Post your own terms of service at the bottom of every piece of content you publish. Sure, nobody will read that crap. But, at least you can say you warned them.
  • Preemptively sue the living hell out of everyone. Cover your bases.
There. Now that I've put everything into perspective for you, you can continue going about your business without worrying that someone is just waiting to make a million dollars off of your old love poems, top ten lists, and Porn Start Name results.
Feel good!


Why SEO Will Never Die

I keep hearing about "the death of SEO."
I think it's a bunch of garbage. As I understand the topic, SEO is pretty simple. Search Engine Optimization. Optimizing content for better performance in a search engine. Taking a site, blog, video, social profile, or whatever and making sure that the people who want it can find it easily.
I can see that the web is changing, and, consequently, how we find things on the web must change. But, search will always be a part of the web in some form or another. As long as there are users searching for information in any form, there will be a search engine of some type to help them do it. As long as there are search engines, there will be SEO. End of story.
Sure, the Semantic Web will trim down the need for many searches on the user level. But, on an application level, search will continue, albeit at incredible speed. There will still be ways to goose the systems so that computers interpreting your intention will choose one result over another equal result. The value of links, keywords and on page tricks as an indication of authority will lessen as audio, video and images become searchable via voice commands or context sensitive suggestions.
Maybe, when pundits speak of the impending "death of SEO," they're talking about the professional death of the self-aggrandizing SEO and social media "experts" out there who clog the market with their "Make Money Now" e-books and their "How Twitter Can Make You Rich, Famous and Beautiful" blog posts.
God, I hope so.
I hope they make some room for those of us with an interest in learning about search, marketing and the interplay between the two. This industry is saturated to the point where it's dripping with failure, making it hard for anyone with an honest curiosity to find an authoritative voice to trust. For my part, I'll trust the guys who aren't worried about the "death of SEO", but are, instead, leading the charge toward innovation and reinvigorating the discipline.

UPDATE: Speaking of innovation... I just finished my post, when I read this piece on the "canonical tag". SEO, dead? HA!


Click Here To Learn About Anchor Text

Anchor text optimization isn't really rocket science.
I send an email to someone which reads "Read my anchor text post, or I'll hunt you like an elk." I link the words "anchor text" to my anchor text post. Voila! Anchor text accomplished.
It seems like it should be a no-brainer.
So, why then, in 2009 are there still 1, 290, 000, 000 pages apparently devoted to the subject?
Why are some of the biggest, most advanced companies in the world ranking for "click here?"
I've read so many entries that tout the value of optimized anchor text... Hell, I've recently gone on a crusade with my company to ensure that our marketers are using anchor text properly, wherever possible. What gives?
As it turns out, thousands upon thousands of nincompoops out there are still using "click here" or "this site" or some other equally lame anchor text. And, those nincompoops have a good reason. Other nincompoops respond to simple, direct calls to action.
Tell them what to do, and they'll do it.
But, why not say "Visit my Anchor Text Post" instead? I mean, isn't that simple enough? Isn't that a call to action? Am I doing myself a disservice by using the phrase "click here?" And, if "click here" is the best way to get people to consume your content, then isn't the value of anchor text diminished?
In short, are there any hard and fast rules for this?
The research I've done shows me that there's a debate going on about the use of "click here" or "next" or "Continue". Most SEO professionals seem to hate it, even going as far as claiming that it insults the reader. Marketing professionals seem to love "click here" for its simple ability to control the minds and fingers of readers.
I feel like there has to be a middle ground.
I imagine what the Buddha would say if he were an SEM.

"The Middle Path of Anchor Text is to be Flexible.
Use Properly Optmized Anchor Text to Rank for your Keywords.
Click Here for Better Conversions."

Customize your anchor text based around exactly what you want your reader to do. If you are trying to provide extra information to your reader, or you're offering your reader an option to explore your content on a deeper level, you should be using keyword rich anchor text. If you're submitting your site to a search engine or directory, you should be using keyword rich anchor text. If your main goal is to rank highly for a given keyphrase, you should be using keyword rich anchor text.
But, if you want somebody to click here...