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HitTail: it’s not SEO, it’s PR. Really.

A PR guy says “this is not SEO. Really. It’s not SEO. Nope.” What does that tell you?

I have been interested in the cross roads of PR (public relations) and SEO for some time, but I have not seen a decent move from the PR guys lately so I wondered if they were capable. I mean, the Ad guys failed at “getting” the web. Oh sure SEO-PR got it long ago (and even got the domain name), but they are really PR guys. Whenever I heard Greg Jarboe speak he was like SEO is really PR…SEO is PR..if you are an SEO, you need to understand PR because SEO is PR. Personally, I’m more thinking that PR today has to include a lot of SEO.

So now I see promotional campaigns from Connors Communications (a PR firm) about a new service called HITTail. Since my audience is mostly SEO folk, I can simply say that Connors has decided to take one piece of SEO and hit the less sophisticated clients over the head with it, over and over and over again until sign up. That piece of SEO is referrer mining.

The more interesting facet of this is how a PR firm is staking a claim in the SEO world. As I have mentioned before, the PR folks seem to have a problem with commitment. On the web site, Connors first goes to great lengths to try and distance itself from SEO. I quote from the web site (and I am not quoting everything.. just enough to make my point):

“HitTailing is Not SEO”
“HitTailing is like search engine optimization without the trouble.”
“HitTailing is NOT Tweaked Out Super-SEO”
“HitTailing Co-Exists Happily with Professional SEO”
“HitTailing is no threat to that special brand of hyper-competitive, popular keyword SEO that thrives on tweaking densities and HTML tags.”

Umm, clue to the HitTail guys: SEO is not really concerned much with densities this millennium.

A little further down the page, they say:

“We are definitely positioning it as SEO for the masses of mainstream marketing departments who have yet to venture into the natural search arena.”

which leaves me more than a bit conflicted. But then, I was not part of the “beta”, which apparently went out to “professional SEO firms”. I suspect that the Professional SEOs that worked with HittTail were more of the boiler room type than the independent metrics-driven consultant type. I guess because of the way Connors dances around the edges of the clear overlap of HitTail and SEO:

“Yet, we are completely disclosing that HitTailing doesn’t solve the greater SEO problems that may plague your site. It only defers the discussion while you get some of the benefit in the short term through blogging, which you should be doing anyway. In short, we are attempting to precondition the marketing departments of the world to be receptive to the greater SEO “fix”, because they will be in a better position to see the value.”

So I guess the message is HitTail is *not* a threat to the SEO industry, but actual helps it by priming the pump! I see. Now for PR guys this “SEO Page” on the HitTail web site is really getting conversational the further down the page I read…more like a blog than a web page. And it ends with further evidence that these PR guys may not be too comfortable stepping into the wild and wacky world of SEO:

“Our original intent was to disclose everything we know about SEO, and have dubbed the “Connors Magic Bullet,” so that the mechanical best practices aspect of the discussion becomes assumed and fades into the background. But we have since thought better of this, because this is the role of the Professional SEO Industry. These factors are in constant, slow “continental drift” and it is not a wise use of our resources to keep the documentation up to date. We’d rather improve the HitTailing process, and let the SEO profession and search-savvy blog software deal with SEO drift.”

Wow. It almost sounds as if they are intimidated. Ooh… did the Black Hats threaten to bomb the HitTrack client sites out of the SERPs? Oh I’m just kidding. They would never do that! But I do suspect they were intimidated by the speed with which the real SEO world adapts. I do suspect that they got solid, factual, and specific advice from those large SEO firms, only to discover that there was sounder, more factual, and conflicting advice from other SEO firms a day later. I know, it makes my head spin sometimes, too.

After watching the demo and reading the web pages I see HitTrack as a user-friendly introduction to referrer mining, with instructions on how to use that with your blogging efforts to get more traffic volume right now. It’s a decent message, and it will increase traffic, but I think it is in over it’s head here. Just as do-it-yourself SEO almost always leads to trouble, this, too can lead a marketer down the wrong path in search of traffic. More traffic does not mean better results.

The key to good SEO is the quality and reliability of the traffic, coupled with organic search penetration and related momentum that can come from carefully-managed organic SEO efforts (including referrer mining). Unless HitTrack can add some serious intelligence to it’s algorithms for highlighting the keywords culled from referrer logs, following their advice may hinder the SEO momentum, and may broaden the traffic such that ROI suffers. I’m not sure the PR guys understand the importance of characterizing traffic. It’s one of the harder concepts to clear with most SEO clients. I guess people are just comfortable with percentages, and playing the odds. Too bad real SEO is not usually about playing the odds (in my opinion, it hasn’t been since the AltaVista days).

HitTail bills itself as “A Practical Alternative to Paying for Search Hits“. It claims to be able to help reduce the costs of buying traffic through PPC, and emphasizes the value of “natural” search engine referral traffic. HitTrack sells itself on the popularity of SEO. Plain and Simple, HitTrack is a PR firm’s initial shot at SEO, covered with layer after layer of disclaimer that appears to me to be classic “PR” intended to defer critique from real SEOs and avoid comparisons to SEO, while capitalizing on the negative image SEO has in certain circles (like skittish corporate marketing departments that hire PR firms). Guys, this is an SEO page. Really. And it needs to be corrected.

I can’t help but want to critique Connor’s “Magic Bullet” SEO when given the chance. Like when they say:

We’ve never measured a keyword density in developing the app, yet regularly score top-10 positions on important keywords that convert. But HitTailing is no threat to that special brand of hyper-competitive, popular keyword SEO that thrives on tweaking densities and HTML tags. HitTailing works best where tweaks matter least.

But I won’t. Instead, I welcome the PR guys to SEO. Watch out for the shovels, and bring your hip boots. It’s gonna get pretty deep in here.

Note: I started this with a link to Mike Levin’s Bio on Connors. He’s an SEO, hired on in 2004 to bring SEO to Connor’s PR business. His bio includes:

Mike Levin has been involved with Search Engine Optimization since the late 90s. Inspired by the notion that Search Engine Optimization and Public Relations are founded on the same underlying principles, Mike joined Connors Communications, a New York based PR firm, in 2004. Since that time he has continuously promoted the merger of traditional public relations with organic SEO, bringing ideas, original tools and industry experience to Connors’ SEO team. By combining his grasp of SEO tactics and his unique blend of information design with Connors Communications’ 20 years of PR experience, Mike has helped build Connors into a leader in joining the two distinct, but inter-related fields.

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7 Responses to “HitTail: it’s not SEO, it’s PR. Really.”

  1. Mike Levin Says:

    Thanks for the review. You should think of Connors Communications really as the parent company or venture capitalists behind HitTail. Technically, it’s CKC Communications, Inc.

    We’re quite clueful, thanks. Whenever we land first page positions on hyper-competitive terms, we find that keyword density often is a factor, especially in Yahoo… and even this millennium.

    No problem with commitment either. We went from zero-to-popular beta in under 2 months. We learn and improve from our testers. There’s no reason to teach people’s today SEO nuances when they’re only going to change. It’s much better to put them on a path that automatically adjusts to that change.

    And quite the contrary from being intimidated, we are enthusiastically expanding our market and HitTailing audience by inviting pro SEO’s to use it as a timesaving method, SEM firms to use it as a uniquely effective keyword source for their campaigns, and mainstream marketing as a way to get their feet wet.

    We are not only comfortable in the wild and wacky world of SEO. We’re so confident in our abilities, that we view ourselves as taming it–much as we did when we helped create the 7 billion dollar PPC industry.

    Of course, we want to learn from you and are curious where you think we got it wrong in our keyword strategy vs. tactics blog post. What needs to be corrected, specifically?

  2. John Andrews Says:

    Hi Mike and thanks for stopping by.

    I guess the “Connors” branding stuck with me, the way the logo was presented, and the way the HitTail website presented itself as being from Connors, the people who brought us Amazon.com etc. Funny how that works.

    As for you noticing that keyword density is a factor when you get top positions for competitive queries, are you sure causality applies? It sure is convenient to have a “metric” that seems to correlate, but is it wise to assume causality? I’ll just ask that question.

    I have no doubt you are confident and expanding. I think that was my main conclusion - you are a PR firm planting your stake in the SEO field, to provide SEO services to your clients (just-like-everybody-else IMHO). As for that commitment thing, well, I still see it that way so maybe there’s more work to do on the PR front. All the “it’s not SEO/ it is SEO” stuff just muddies the waters if you ask me.

    Let me take a wild stab at this… could it be there are too many cooks excited about the launch over at HitTail right now? Perhaps that Connors branding thing and my spidey-senses about lack of commitment are related? YOU sound fully engaged and committed…your comment here seems to be pretty clear about HitTail being HitTail and HitTail being SEO.

    Oh and finally about what should be corrected in that keyword strategy vs. tactics post. I’d be happy to consult for you. My contact details are in the sidebar.

  3. Ben Wilks Says:

    Be fair John.

    AltaVista wasn’t hit and miss at all ;-)

  4. John Andrews Says:

    I want to be fair, really. The AltaVista thought was that back then, you could grab a generic #1 and get tons of traffic, figuring some % of that would convert. More traffic = more conversions even if terribly wasteful. You could just play percentages.

    These days (since Jan ‘03 by my notice) you have to know what you want and go after it. I’m really tired of the bloggers talking about “more traffic” as if that mattered.

  5. Mike Levin Says:

    So, Google has over 100 criteria that go into weighing their results, and each engine has their own weighing of factors. I used density and HTML tags as examples of the types of criteria SEOs pay attention to. We think it matters in some engines, and the point is that SEOs pour over more criteria than HitTail asks you to pay attention to. Here’s a recent example by an SEO giving MSN advice. Point is, we’re not asking HitTailers to get hung up on those details, and as such, it’s not a suitable tool for hyper-competitive SEO. Fair?

    As far as whether HitTail is or isn’t SEO, that’s really just semantics. The term SEO refers to a particular industry now, and has certain connotations whether we like it or not. Getting involved with SEO implies that wild, wacky world that you yourself characterize. That doesn’t make many people comfortable, and limits the size of the potential market. The HitTail concept, whether it is SEO or not, simply lets people get into the natural search game who would otherwise waited. So, we’re really making what may be called a sub-set of SEO (using blogging software combined with supercharged writing topics) to achieve similar results.

    And happily, due to the nature of the suggestions usually being uniquely keyed to your site, it’s not a generic traffic grab ala the days of AltaVista. It’s a traffic grab with what we hope is scalpel-like precision. You increase your slice of the pie with very tiny, incremental slivers that are right on-topic.

    And on the PR front, yep, it’s a PR firm planting its flag in the SEO space. I admit it. But we’re also a programming group that can spin out entire alternative HTML websites using multiple XSL transforms. We program DLLs and Apache mod’s. We’ve write our own content management systems and proprietary tracking software. In other words, we’re not your father’s PR firm.

  6. john andrews Says:

    Thanks again Mike I really appreciate your words here. I’m glad you decided to be forthright, and it is obvious you know what you are doing with that PR firm. I hope the “not your father’s PR firm” works out better than it did for Oldsmobile - doh!

    Today I posted a brief note on Googles overly-targeted semantic analysis, using the Christine Dolce Video caps thing as an example. Of course now I am mucking it up with anchor text and such, but the example stands: Google grabs words (out of context) and assigns semantic relevance based on overlapping sets from some corpus (plus other factors), and then constructs the snippet to match. The result is comical, but tragic. The traffic is highly targeted - but it’s the wrong target.

    I’m now going to look at HitTail more closely. As an SEO I use many tools to locate and refine my own corpus of knowledge, from which I produce my own semantic analysis. I use that (via content) to influence the search engines to acknowledge the extremely high relevance of my site on the topic of my choosing :-) That process usually requires a good deal of work. The site has to be “convincing”. Honestly a good job will create a site that can influence an entire niche (semantically speaking). I have had fun and success this way for several years. But when Google acts this way, the process becomes trivial. Any spammer (or blogger) can rank with this “algorithm”. So it can’t last.

    Bloggers think this is SEO because Google responds and sends them traffic. Does HitTail reinforce that by encouraging them to puruse the fruitful “long tail terms” with more related content? Sounds like it, but as I said I will look more closely. I haven’t studied it, by I believe when the Long Tail idea was first floated, Google was doing a much better job at producing relevant results. It just may be that the Long Tail book took too long to be published.

  7. Mike Levin Says:

    Fascinating reply, John. The underlying premise is that no matter the details of Google, Yahoo, MSN or Ask’s implementation, there is always that slice of activity that’s “almost working for you”. Ever play those arcade quarter-drop games where quarters are hanging over the edge and just a little shake will send them over? It’s a lot like that. Each time you write, it’s like dropping more quarters in. And yes, Google’s taking words from all over the page and combining them out of context does help HitTailing, but is not necessary. Google only does that when it can’t find words near each other on any site. Grabbing a word from the top and combining it with a word from the bottom of a page happens after it has spent all other near-word possibilities.

    Interestingly, this process seems to work well with just about any search engine that uses automated crawler / automated ranking criteria. Where it breaks down are the social network search or human-edited engines, like Eurekster Swicki, and to a lesser degree, Ask. But we think based on the massive popularity of Google, HitTailing has a lot of life in it. When the rules start to change, it will show in the HitTail data (the patterns change), and we’re in a pretty good position to evolve the HitTailing process as search itself evolves.

    And to answer your question more directly, yes, HitTail encourages you to go pick those long tail fruits. But it points out to you which fruits are most ripe. And in the end, that’s what makes it into a writing suggestion tool instead of the enormous fray of analytics software that’s out there.

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