Dealing with SEO Impact of Google Removing Right-side PPC Ads

During about a week starting February 15th, Google removed Adwords PPC ads from the right side of desktop search results (mobile never had them). More importantly for your SEO performance than for your PPC, Google also added a slot to the ads on top, for a total of 4. This pushes down organic listings and subsequent traffic to websites.

Google Chops PPC Ads and Organic Listings

Google Chops PPC Ads and Organic Listings

This change continues a several year trend of ever less screen real estate devoted to organic results. I’ve said for years that investing little or nothing in SEO means, on average, losing 6% to 10% per year in organic traffic. This trend continues. In other words, maintaining traffic is a 6% to 10% improvement.

The four PPC ads appearing in smaller mobile screens will depress organic traffic from smartphones and some tablets more than desktop, and that traffic is close to 50% web-wide.

Stats have yet to emerge on the web-wide impact on organic traffic, and I’ll add updates to this blog post when a good study is published. Reportedly, four PPC ads appear only for competitive commercial searches, but most fields are competitive, and my spot checking all kinds of clients showed 4 ads most of the time. One report shows the number of four PPC ads increasing rapidly now.

The upshot is that you should add a 2/15/16 notation about this in your Google Analytics, and check your results before and after.

What can be done to compensate? In general, keep investing in SEO, like you do in other sales and marketing. More specifically, deploy schema.org markup and do other things to ensure that you have a good Google One Box, which is in the upper right of Google search pages and summarizes entities, like businesses or rockstars or museums or most anything. It’s a good bet that Google will increasingly use the right side of desktop for special content, like medical condition summaries, flight status, definitions, and anything else relevant to a search. This data often comes from schema.org mark-up.

Of course this PPC change impacts Adwords management, but any good AdWords pro will know what to do, and this is just one small part of the PPC dashboard that rivals a fighter pilot cockpit. It’s really business as usual for PPC.

Your SEO Project is Done. Now What?

Two skydivers holding handsIn the early 2000s I raised hackles among my peers at a major conference when I asserted that pushing monthly retainers for SEO was unnecessary and thus ethically suspect. Back then, SEO was much more a one-time job than it is now.

These days SEO, like most marketing, requires at least a few hours per month to prevent losses, if not seize new opportunities. As my blog post on SEO Hell implies, the complexity of SEO rules and their rapid changes require monthly or at least quarterly work to ensure that your ongoing website work doesn’t undo past SEO improvements.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Your SEO agency completed SEO technical audits and repairs, enhanced your CMS-SEO, and refined Google Analytics reporting. This investment will pay off in perpetuity with no further work needed. However, your webmaster decides to move the site to the secure HTTPS protocol. The webmaster, not specializing in SEO, does not know that doing this without proper 301 redirects erases a lot of PageRank. Or the webmaster does know about 301s but neglects to change canonical tags accordingly. Or he does not set up a new Google Search Console, so later you don’t get an alert about a malware infection, bad link neighborhood, or thin duplicate content.

Here’s another example. After a local SEO job brings new business, you notice a sudden decline in local traffic and sales or leads. If you had kept your SEO pro engaged for a few hours per month, she would have alerted you to the recent major change in how Google displays local results, and advised you on what to do about it.

The above scenarios can be multiplied almost exponentially because there are many important levers and dials in SEO these days, and they need periodic tuning to respond to the evolution of your website and SEO rules.

If a company had an SEO firm checking in each month, or if the company gives its qualified in-house pro time to do so, the likes of the following changes that did happen would not have caused losses:

  • In April 2015, Google suppressed websites without mobile responsiveness, and now about 50% of searches are mobile.
  • Recently Google started “seeing” and assessing websites using the website’s JavaScript and CSS, so that the algorithms can decide whether the site is mobile-friendly and has good usability. Many CMSs and websites block that code via the robots.txt file, causing demotion in search ranking.
  • A couple of years ago, Google announced that everyone will soon have to upgrade their Google Analytics tracking code.
  • This list can go on ad nauseam.

The more time since your last professional SEO work, the more likely you are to experience declines.

Regarding SEO opportunities, an SEO firm or an SEO employee given adequate resources can apprise you that Schema.org markup is now a main pillar of successful SEO. Not implementing this, while ever more of your competition does, causes you lost opportunities–and actual losses, as competitors’ enriched search results take clicks from your site.

The upshot is that SEO has grown up, and like all marketing, it requires a part of your ongoing marketing budget.

Posted in SEO

We’re All in SEO Hell for 10 More Years

Ten years from now, old-timer SEO pros will look back to the 2000 to 2020 years–the late infancy of the web–with relief that the labyrinthine complexity of technical SEO is a thing of the past. We will focus more on using persuasive words and designs that pertain to searchers’ wishes.

SEO Hell For Another 10 Years

The vast byzantine hell of SEO dos and don’ts.

In my recent year of teaching a college course in internet marketing, an overarching theme was that the increasing complexity and strictness of SEO rules conspire to make the web a grossly uneven playing field. Economies of scale hugely favor businesses that can afford the minimum ~$30,000 per year for good and complete SEO. Compounding this trend is Freakonomic math that amplifies the impact of competition in a top-10 results world.

Most of the SEO jobs my firm has done over the last few years required skills and insight which, had I only 3 years experience, likely would have resulted in little help and the damage of wasted money. This situation may seem normal to us SEO leaders, but we shouldn’t fault most business people for thinking it’s absurd that one has to know and do so much.

I believe that in about ten years, Google’s Search Console and probably other third-party tools will report all SEO problems and opportunities and their importance relative to profits, while also exactly explaining what to do, if not doing much of it for you. Today such tools aren’t remotely close to that fine day.

Like all seasoned SEO pros, I’ve seen excellent businesses lose over 50% of their business simply because they did not know what to do when launching an improved website. In one case, before a client came to me, they advertised via directory links in a once venerable and still apparently important website that either unwittingly or intentionally used shady SEO tactics, and my client lost 50% of traffic to Google’s Penguin penalty. Subtle “spider traps” and other intricate causes of infinite and/or duplicate content have hit many sites with Panda demotions. If you just stop, step back, and look at the vast field of SEO carnage out there, it seems a byzantine hell of dos and don’ts decreed by invisible demons. 

But that’s how it is.

Most people with the talent and dedication to do SEO well would gladly help businesses in other ways, like more conversion rate optimization, or more persuasive SEO writing (like in the mid to late ‘90s but better), or using analytic tools to find new markets rather than chasing or keeping existing markets. We sell SEO because it’s necessary today, and while we make a living doing this, I for one would equally enjoy doing something else necessary and helpful.

Posted in SEO

Should SEO Firms White-Lie to Clients?


SEO image for "Should SEO Firms White-Lie to Clients" article

In explaining and proposing services, most SEO firms lie by omission—and they probably should.

My firm’s neuro-marketing wizard, Jennifer Williams, has admonished me for including in proposals too many options worth considering in the near future. Long before that advice, I learned the hard way to include in the core part of proposals only the 2 to 4 highest priority SEO tasks, and to move other important tasks to a section called “Maybe Later” or “Further Worthy Options.”

For many prospects and clients, not doing those options tends to leave gaps in their SEO. Yet buyers’ brains may respond to several options by supposing that the thousands of dollars for core work is inadequate because incomplete. Or they may believe that the options are designed to milk excessive cash for services that should be part of one comprehensive treatment with no costs beyond what covers 2 to 4 priority-one tasks. Whatever the psychological cause of the “no, not now” response to a complete SEO proposal, the bottom line is that such proposals often prevent the buyer from doing even the 2 to 4 tasks they really should do first. So telling the whole truth may harm all parties.

This quandary relates to my previous blog post about whether SEO services should be pre-packaged rather than left open to an agreed on number of hours per 6 or 12 months to address SEO tasks gradually. These two blog posts address instances of the general problem that SEO done right, done completely, done so that it actually works, entails ever more complexity, precision and time, such that ever larger small business can’t afford it.

At DISC, I usually compromise by beginning with the 2 to 4 priority-one tasks, then list just a few priority-two options, and I make clear that there’s a ton more one could do, but let’s have the first work earn returns to invest subsequently. Sometimes, depending on the kind of client, I push 4- to 12-month retainers to cherry-pick sub-tasks from both priority one and two items. This is honest and sells, but if the buyer reads a proposal from a less scrupulous firm that simply assures good SEO work for a set fee, without listing details, the buyer may gravitate to that simpler view, and then that not so honest SEO firm simply doesn’t do enough to help the client.

This buyer behavior is another instance of the Hard Freakonomics of Search Marketing for Small Business.

I prefer to be honest and lose a sale than gain it and later explain that the whole truth is complex and more expensive than the client understood at first.

Should SEO Consulting be Pre-packaged at Set Prices?

When shopping for SEO consulting, you want to know the cost. When search marketing firms sell SEO, they don’t want to spend too much time writing proposals. These two marketplace motivations make set-priced SEO packages convenient and attractive.

SEO Packages and Pricing

Should SEO Consulting be Pre-packaged at Set Prices?

But do such packages mislead both buyers and sellers?

Some of the four main parts of SEO are more predictable than others, but none are as predictable as packages would lead one to believe. 

(1) SEO technical audits have about 15 tests that take about the same amount of time regardless of the website. Yet exceptions are all too common. Here are just a few examples of contingencies that add labor time. Often the Google Webmaster Tools panel is not set-up and verified, and Bing Webmaster Tools rarely is. Websites may have a few or many alternate domain names pointing to the main domain, and some methods of pointing have more risk of duplicate indexing than others do. In general, discoveries often warrant deeper sleuthing of causes and conditions. Search marketing agencies can average the contingencies in the predicted labor cost, or posit a price range. (DISC does a little of both.)

(2) CMS-SEO (content management system SEO) is much less predictable than SEO technical auditing, especially if the package includes implementing enhancements. Automatic or semi-automatic keywording of HTML titles, descriptive tags, header and sub-header text, URLs, folders, image names, alt tags, title tags, anchor text, search and sorting systems, and much more, are so varied among websites, and their solutions so different depending on the CMS, that predicting the optimum amount of time before doing the work is impossible. When the client’s team implements the CMS-SEO recommendations, the webmaster’s competence can mean two hours of guidance and quality control by the search marketing firm, or 20 hours.

(3) The process of keyword research and SEO writing is the most predictable of the four parts of SEO. The main unknown here is the amount of revision by the client, but the search marketing firm can stipulate, for example, one round of revision, and build that into the package.

(4) Most businesses will benefit greatly from several skilled hours tuning ROI reports. Upgrading to Google’s Universal Analytics, tuning goal and ecommerce reports, applying advanced segments, creating a single neat dashboard of salient reports, connecting Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools for better keyword impression and click-through reports, are among the common needs of all businesses. Two or three hours of initial consulting is usually enough to predict the optimum investment in ROI reporting.  

So in SEO there’s an inevitable but manageable disconnect between, on the one hand, ease of quoting and buying, and on the other hand optimum allocation of time. The way to manage this disconnect is to provide packages at set prices or a reasonably tight range of prices, and make clear in the proposal that additional work may be needed. At DISC we give weekly progress reports which summarize work and hours done and remaining, and which apprise clients of additional work needed, so that nobody is surprised and disappointed. Sometimes we are head-down in the work before we can come up for air to tally hours, but we strive for the ideal of advanced notice, and so too should all search marketing firms.

Stop Paying for Keyword Research

Beware Keyword Research Tools

Beware Keyword Research Tools

Good keyword research produces the linguistic DNA by which your business is found, and it should be used in everything from product databases through URLs to social media posts.

So why do I tell you to stop paying for it?

Because almost everyone selling keyword research uses tools that provide unreliable data–including Google’s own tools, which are often the underlying source of many other tools. As of this September, this problem just got worse (for details, see http://moz.com/blog/keyword-research-and-targeting-without-exact-match-whiteboard-friday).

I’ve arrived at a method for integrating the data from a few sources, but this adds so much cost that until I streamlined this process, for about three years I did not sell keyword research to smaller businesses. And even well funded clients had several more cost-effective tasks on the list.

The crux of the matter is that good keyword research is all about the longer, more specific phrases (the “long-tail”) because they contain the shorter, more competitive and searched for phrases. And it’s precisely the long tail data that is unreliable in all sub-$10,000/yr. tools. And no, Google’s Hummingbird update (like its 14 years of predecessors) does not reduce the importance of exact matches in SEO writing.

Bottom line: if your SEO vendor or employee doesn’t explain this situation and how they deal with it, don’t proceed.

Posted in SEO

PageRank and the Pitfalls of DIY SEO Research

The Wrong Information Can Hurt!

Beware misinformation about SEO and all web marketing!

In my college Internet Marketing class, I teach students to understand the huge forces of bias in articles about web marketing. Public relations campaigns, the need to scream controversial headlines (like the dunderheaded “SEO is Dead”) to get social buzz, poor pay for journalists, fear or complexity, and just plain lack of knowledge are among the causes of damaging untruths you will find, especially in SEO.

A case in point is this Hubspot article, “Why Google Page Rank Is Now Irrelevant.” This article is from 2010 but still quite findable. Hubspot is excellent for content marketing and lead nurturance; has lots of good articles, and though their system doesn’t handle many crucial SEO technical issues; it’s got a lot to offer small and medium-sized business. But that article on PageRank is highly misleading and is contradicted by later Hubspot articles.

Blatantly wrong is the article’s statement; “Page Rank has nothing to do with SEO rankings or results.” False statement, but it works: here I am referencing the article–and I almost linked to it, which would have increased Hubspot’s PageRank! Just listen to Google’s SEO rep on PageRank in 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Daz_ptUY-RA. Matt says “PageRank” remains “one of the more important” ranking signals. How many people have been misled by this Hubspot declaration?

Yes, PageRank has changed tremendously over the years, but even if we heed some SEO pros’ suggestions of new names for it, PageRank essentially remains a quotient of Google’s valuation of your website, and how that quotient circulates throughout your site.

Google wanted to stop people from obsessing over this one complex ranking factor among hundreds, to prevent link selling based on PageRank numbers, and may have wanted to stop tons of software from taxing its PageRank reporting servers; so Google stopped reporting it. Yet PageRank remains vital.

If you could not measure your health, would you stop healthy activities? Yes, you would stop; is the twisted innuendo in that Hubspot article, when it states, “Metrics are useless unless you can track them, and you can’t track Page Rank.” True, it is no longer publicly reported, but PageRank (or pagerank, not “Page Rank”) is important, and good SEO pros know what determines PageRank regardless of whether we can measure it.

The Hubspot article references one Google employee stressing that PageRank is not the most important metric to track (true), but in the article’s context the quote misleads one into thinking PageRank is, as the title says, “irrelevant.” More pay for journalists and article writers likely would have lead to researching other things Google has said about PageRank in order to create a balanced–and perhaps too complicated for easy reading–thesis.

Finally, the article does what I’ve seen even the best SEO pros do: saying one thing is not important because other things are. Of course conversions and revenue are more important than PageRank.

How often does this kind of damaging misinformation happen in SEO and web marketing? Very often, every day. Sadly, many half-baked SEO pros are often misled too, and they go on to mislead many others in their barely paid zeal for content marketing.

Posted in SEO

Restore Inbound Links For Rapid Boost in SEO Performance

Restore BackLinks for PageRank Increase

Restore BackLinks for PageRank Increase

Inlinks (or backlinks or inbound links), which are links to your website from other websites, comprise roughly 50% of what determines your website’s ranking in the search engines. Most websites have inlinks to pages that no longer exist on your website. Discovering these inlinks and reconnecting them to pages in your website is usually your most cost-effective link marketing task, especially if you’ve made major changes to your website in the past few years.

This task entails using specialized software to identify all valuable incoming links to your website, and the subset of them that point to web pages that no longer exist in your site. MajesticSEO is best, though its power comes with a long learning curve. Google’s Webmaster Tools shows inlinks, but doesn’t assess the quality of them well. Once you identify these orphaned inlinks, you produce a 301 redirect map to reconnect (via the .htaccess file or Microsoft servers’ equivalent) the inlinks to appropriate pages of your website.

Labor time required varies greatly by website, but expect between 7 and 15 hours for a good first round.

Posted in SEO

Yes, Most SEO Firms are Untrustworthy

SEO Scams

Avoid SEO Scams and Find a Good SEO Firm

Two or three years ago there was big news that many of the sleazy sales people who sold the bad mortgages that led to the financial crisis are now selling SEO for firms with great looking websites. These sales people are very convincing–way better than the many obvious scammers out there–and the firms they represent make money on the deposit alone and on the very few clients who actually benefit and continue monthly payments.

PPC hucksters are less prevalent, because results are easier for clients to see and understand, but there’s plenty of poor, if not despicable, work in PPC too.

These days SEO requires as much training as lawyers need, yet there are no degrees or bar exams or other reliable certifications. It’s like I can advertise knee surgery!

In the history of capitalism, a big new technology, like railroads or radio, has many incompetents and scammers in the early years, and we are still in the early years of search marketing.

There are plenty of good SEO firms; it’s just that few of them market aggressively–you don’t have to when you get great results and thus word of mouth referrals.

Here are some ways to ascertain the trustworthiness of an SEO firm:

  • Get references, but this alone is not sufficient, for the scammers almost always have a few good references they use to dupe everyone else.
  • Get the qualification of and speak with the employees who will actually work on your job.
  • Confirm a Google Partners membership if the firm also does PPC (at www.google.com/partners).
  • Look at the publishing history of the firm and of the people who will do the work on your website.
  • Check the whois listing at Networksolutions.com for the history of the firm’s website–scammers often change their domain name to evade bad reviews and replace a domain that got demoted or banned for using black-hat tactics to rank well.
  • Look at results reports for past clients. True, even bad firms have some good results, but the format of the report can tell you a lot about the firm’s commitment to accountability.
  • Some SEO firms, like DISC, offer to begin with a small job doing one of the most important SEO items (usually an SEO Technical Audit and Repairs), so you can get a feel for the firm.

Another option is to hire a reputable SEO firm that recuses itself from doing the work, and then serves to vet other SEO firms (DISC offers this service).

It just takes a little due diligence to find the good SEO firms.

Posted in SEO

Resisting the Decline in Search Marketing ROI for Small Businesses

Sunrise or Sunset for Small Business ROI in Search Marketing

Hope Shining through Dark Clouds for Small Business ROI in Search Marketing

This post summarizes and reflects further on Rob Laporte’s “The Hard Freakonomics of Search Marketing for Small Business,” published in the Winter 2012-13 edition of Visibility Magazine.

Hard Freakonomic consequences follow from the fact that display systems and the brain deal with only a few search results per search. The “top ten” means that if 1% of 1000 websites with similar keywords/topics/offerings invest sufficiently in SEO, then competition for any one website increases 100%. That is, 1% of 1000 is 10, which is a 100% increase in competition for the top 10 positions.

Yes, this is simplified logic; in reality 50 competitors would do, say, 20% of all SEO they could do, rather than 10 doing 100%. But the principle remains essentially the same.

The same logic applies to PPC more obviously because of the bidding for ads. This logic applies less to conversion rate optimization because one is not constrained to the top ten positions to boost results. However, the usability grand master Jacob Neilsen argues that a mere 10% better usability in one site vs. another will soon result in something like 90% of the business going to the better site.

Coupled to this freakonomic consequence of top ten positions is that:

  • Profit from search marketing demands increasingly more time or money to deploy essential tactics and tools.
  • The losses coming from not doing the relentlessly mounting minimum in SEO grow because search engines increasingly demand that websites do more merely to be OK.

To counter this trend, the search engines and many search marketing firms have been working hard to offer economical solutions for small businesses. For example, Google Places and now Google+ for Business offer relatively simple and inexpensive ways to get local coverage. AdWords Express greatly simplifies PPC for small businesses. Search marketing firms and software providers offer relatively low-cost monthly payments for turnkey solutions.

However, putting on the Freakonomic goggles shows that these less expensive channels follow the rule that you get what you pay for. My article in Visibility Magazine substantiates the above points, and concludes that the best mitigation, but not elimination, of this set of problems entails expert prioritization of all web marketing options.

Another Ray of Hope

DISC’s social media maven, Jennifer Williams, counters this dark view of the future of small business marketing by pointing out that:

(1) The rise of non-search venues for small business, like Pinterest, Etsy.com, and social sites, transcend the “top ten” search results via a rich web of relevant connections.
(2) An emergent cultural rejection of “too big to fail” businesses will continue to give rise to searches for smaller and/or local businesses outside of and perhaps soon within the major search engines.

I bend to this argument, but I don’t break to it. Top mind share produces more mindshare in all search and social venues, just as Walmart has destroyed countless small businesses. Yes, driving distance does not matter much on the web, but top brands wielding top tools and minds have long been investing in local and social search. As much as Etsy has grown, the big etailers have grown much more.

Still, I’ve learned not to invest much hope in my disagreements with Jennifer, and she may prove right once again.

I’d be delighted to hear your comments below on this question of the future ROI of web marketing for small businesses.