Disinformation: Social Signals are Not Part of the Algorithm

My co-worker Jeff sent me an interesting post by Blind Five Year old that re-opens the debate surrounding social signals and SEO.

In a nutshell, the article says that social signals are NOT part of the (current) algorithm but they ARE important (because they tend to extend the reach of content / create inbound links).

While I don’t disagree with the summary above, I do warn clients not to believe everything they read.

Here’s why.

I don’t optimize for Google today, I optimize for Google 5 years from now. Therefore, social signals ARE part of the algorithm.

Remember, Google used to say links mattered (now it has websites afraid to link).

Why would Google say “the amount of likes and shares you have is an indicator of how relevant your content is to a particular query.”

If they did, they would already be equipped to deal with the avalanche of junk data created by like builders. They may be close, but I don’t think they are there yet.

To me, it is more likely than not that Google is currently observing social sharing activity in its natural, non-like builder environment and writing algorithms to suit. Then, when unnatural activity is detected, the algo can easily compare to natural activity and act accordingly.

Failure to react to the SEO industry (link builders) quickly enough has put Google in the predicament it’s in today – it’s reliant upon a method of ranking websites that’s easily manipulated by those with knowledge and money.

At present, I’m largely reliant upon income generated from my knowledge of the current algorithm, its operation and ways to monetize sites that rank. But I don’t expect the next generation Google algorithm to be as susceptible to exploit.

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Why you shouldn’t 404 out-of-stock product pages

Lately it seems that I only blog about Matt Cutts. I guess that’s partly because he’s the most influential voice in our space. And partly because you have to take what he says with a grain of salt. Unless you are an experienced SEO, it’s easy to give bad advice based on something “Matt Cutts said …”.

In his latest release, Mr. Cutts answers the question:

How would Google recommend handling eCommerce products that are no longer available?

Cutts describes three scenarios in his answer. View the video below.

In the first scenario, a solution for out-of-stock products is provided for small sites with “tens” of page. Cutts gives excellent advice here: don’t 404. Be helpful and provide a link to a related product.

In the second scenario, a solution for out-of-stock products is provided for medium sites with “hundreds” or “thousands”  of pages. Here’s where I think Cutts gives bad advice. He says:

I would probably think about just going ahead and doing a 404.

Why would people using a smaller website want to be treated differently than people using a medium-sized website? Is it not possible that people use both small and medium-sized websites? The answer is yes. It’s better to be helpful than not. To me, 404 pages are not helpful to users (other than for obvious reasons) and certainly not helpful when you consider time-on-site or conversions.

In the third scenario, a solution for out-of-stock products is provided for websites that post ads (such as auction or classified sites). Here Cutts recommends the unavailable_after meta tag. Good, soild advice here.

I acknowledge that Cutts is not a UX or conversion optimization expert, but as someone that lives in that world, I thought it important to comment here.

What’s your opinion? If you’re shopping for a product and it’s out-of-stock, would you prefer to see links to similar products?

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What Matt Cutts really said about social signals

Matt Cutts is Google’s head of web spam. When he speaks, the SEO community loses its mind. Bloggers roll out their jump to conclusions mats and Twitter bursts into flames.

In the video below, Cutts answers the question:

Are Facebook and Twitter signals part of the ranking algorithm? How much do they matter?

This video is sparking discussion as it seems to contradict something Cutts said in 2010 (that social signals do matter).

The confusion seems to stem from this.

In the first (most recent) video, Cutts talks about how Google ranks pages and how Facebook and Twitter pages (in the form of social profiles) are dealt with the same way any other page would be.

He seems to confuse the question with the answer. I don’t believe the question was “Does Google count the number of likes and follows my social profiles have to determine if they’re relevant to user queries” but that is EXACTLY the answer Cutts has provided.

Cutts also talks about the “causation vs. correlation” argument that seems to be so en vogue these days. He says that (paraphrasing) just because your (web) page has a lot of social sharing activity doesn’t mean it will rank well. It’s probably a good page and therefore is getting links.

Then the Cutts disinformation machine kicks in. Cutts says:

…I think over 10 years, we’re more likely to understand identity and to understand the social connections between people, but at least for the time being, we have to deal with the web as it is and what we are allowed to crawl and what we can easily extract from that and count on being able to access that in the future

I don’t think for a minute that Google will take 10 years to figure out the relationships between social shares, even if Facebook never lets them in.

So, if you want to be relevant now, get links. If you want to stay relevant, get shares.

Should SEOs price their services à la carte like freelancers do?

In my travels around the Interweb, I’ve seen some agencies and service providers post SEO price sheets.

So for this post, I tried to find some good examples. But I quickly became bored with the idea of comparing prices and services and became interested in the more philosophical question of should SEOs provide a price sheet?

I Googled SEO price sheet and found this Moz.com discussion around prices http://moz.com/community/q/seo-price-list-to-have-a-price-list-or-not-that-is-the-question where many of the commenters don’t believe in posting set prices.

The second result for the query above is Bruce Clay (who charges between $20 and $50k for a site audit), roughly five times what I would charge for a similar 60 page document.

The biggest problem with advertising SEO prices is that it has and always will be a buyers market.

As a client in need of SEO services, you can name your price anywhere and you’ll have dozens clamoring for your business. So, you won’t find me or anyone else advertising SEO for $125/hr (and making money) as a freelancer. If we did, no one would ever call. But you will find people advertising for far less.

So, how do I (as an SEO professional) compete with them (freelancers)?

I think the best strategy is to stress the drawbacks of a lower price point. Here are some ideas of how:

  • It is rare that you find “the right” freelancer at first. It is typical that you hire many before finding “the right” match. This increases the cost to perform the assigned duty and delays production.
  • Freelancers often don’t have the benefit of immediate peer review. SEO professionals tend to be connected and make themselves available to review each others’ documents and add stuff like “Did you think about this?” or “They might not know what [X] is, better explain [X] here”.
  • Freelancers require external management vs. internal management. SEO professionals are used to managing themselves.
  • Freelancers (or new hires) sometimes can’t afford access to the $350/mo in subscribed tools I use to perfom audits and monitor for linking opportunities.
  • Freelancers manage portfolios of income, not clients (I learn the businesses of my clients and put that into everything I do vs. dumb hands and feet).

Pricing your SEO services à la carte isn’t bright move since deliverables, services, experience and talent do vary. However, that’s not going to stop clients from asking for one.

My best advice here is to make client-specific price lists and keep those private.

I think you’ll quickly discover that clients actually appreciate your consideration of their internal resources (or lack thereof) and adjust your pricing to fit. Be transparent with them about your pricing decisions and be clear what they are paying for in most cases – your expertise.

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Attention National Brands: Think Locally

A recent Search Engine Watch article by Brad Miller features six takeaways from a conversation with Moz.com CEO Rand Fishkin.

I’ve chosen to provide commentary on these six points below, as I think some are extremely relevant to SEO now and others are relevant to SEO’s future. I also believe that each has an important local element that doesn’t get discussed enough in SEO. It is my hope that I can add value to the conversation and spark further thought and debate on these important issues.

All search is local

The first takeaway, called Local Search for National Brands states:

Google’s contextual search results put a major emphasis on local listings. This can be a disadvantage to national brands who are trying to compete at the local level.

Because more and more queries are carrying local intent these days, plus the Google 7 pack, plus personalization, plus difference in keyphrase use (and importance) by metro area, brands need to segment their content creation strategies into regions. I found this to be a big shift in how internal (client side) SEO teams think.

Big content

The second takeaway, called Content Marketing: How to Stand Out quotes Rand as he refers to a post by Dr. Pete on Moz.com:

huge content … tends to outperform even the hundred little pieces of content you would have made with the same time, money, and energy

To me, this relates back to the previous point. Rather than create dozens of little pieces with wide appeal, use the same time, money and resources to create big pieces with focused appeal.

As marketers, the content we create competes with the hundreds of social media updates each member of our audience may be receiving daily. Only outstanding (big) content stands a chance of cutting through the noise.

Don’t give it away

The third takeaway, called Where Should Content Live states/asks:

There are now so many different places that you can publish content online. You have the choice of industry blogs, guest posts, social platforms, online publications, magazines, and even newspapers. How do you decide which outlet is best?

This is a no brainer. Publish (and market) great content on your website or blog. For brands, only in certain instances and as part of much larger, planned efforts is it OK to giveaway great content as a guest post.

Brands: where can you publish local content? Do you have local sections of your national site? Do you have regional advertisements? Why not have regional content?

Be likable

The fourth takeaway, called Getting Picked Up asks:

What if you have interest in your content reaching a broader audience? How can you help give your content more visibility or get content picked up through more popular publications and outlets?

Brad quotes Rand as answering “Number one is having a preexisting relationship …”.

Rand then goes on to mention blog commenting, social media following and conference mingling as good ways to start relationships. I don’t disagree, but I can say that all of this “I want to be your friend because you can do something for me” stuff is where influencer marketing breaks down.

My advice is start small – who do you know (as in, really know) that will help you because they like you. Then, build from there based on genuine relationships. If you don’t have those within your client’s niche, then provide consulting that can help your clients vouch for you personally (don’t expect your clients to ask for guest posts … that’s what they’ve hired you to do … simply go for the referral).

And, think locally! National brands like Walmart have a huge local presence in their headquartered town of Bentonville. If I was hired to do content marketing / building buzz for Walmart, I’d start in Bentonville where many influential people who have an interest in bettering the Walmart name live and, more likely than not, have influential contacts.

Social signals will become as important if not more important than links

The fifth takeaway, called Link Building vs. Social Signals asks:

It’s been long speculated that social signals are treated in a similar fashion to links, meaning they have an impact on rankings. There are studies abound that validate this correlation and even more controversy surrounding it. Will social signals ever become more important than links?

Rand answers “Probably no, but I think that social, branding, press and PR, and things like content marketing will all replace a lot of the purely link-fueled and link-focused outreach and link acquisition”.

While I agree with Rand’s opinion of why social (and branding, press and PR) is important, I predict we’ll see a paradigm shift as to how search engines rank and display content. This shift will move away from link metrics and towards social scoring.

And yes, I disagree with Rand’s take that social signals will (probably) not be as important as links.

It’s hard to argue this: people used to share content with links because that’s all they had – now people have a myriad of ways to share content and are more likely to choose the method that’s most relevant to their audience (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.) and less likely to choose the method that’s relevant to Google (links).

I predict that who likes your content will become just as important as who links to it.

Are you ignoring regional markets with your content because you are a national brand? Chances are, you are missing an opportunity to create a strong local signal that search engines will soon be able to read and make local ranking decisions based upon.

Don’t forget about email marketing

The final takeaway, called Email Marketing and SEO states:

As a search marketing expert, have you given much thought to email? Probably not, but you should, according to Fishkin.

I’ve always told clients that the best traffic they’ll ever have is the traffic they have today. Brands tend to obsess over the amount of traffic they’re not getting from the keyphrases they are not ranking for rather than obsess over better ways to convert the traffic they already have.

Email marketing extends that reach to past customers who may not be on the site (or even searching for anything you sell) but have expressed real interest in your products and services. This is a crazy good referral source for both repeat business and the generation of social signals, as emails can be easily forwarded to friends and family and social links can easily be embedded in the email.

Additionally, email marketing is perfect for working the local angle. You probably know a good deal of your recipient’s IP addresses (at time of sign up) and zip code (at time of purchase). What are you doing to regionalize  your email blasts?

Get local or die trying

In my opinion, brands should be thinking locally (and socially) now or run the risk of thinking they should have thought this way 5 years from now.

Search is only going to get more personalized, not less.

Shifting your national focus to local focus now could be a major competitive advantage in your space.

Read the full article that this article comments on here.

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