John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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May 5th, 2013 by john andrews

Flying the SEO Helicopter

A very long time ago I was a programmer. Not a “coder”, but a programmer.

In the beautiful stone and walnut offices of a global corporation, I sat at a computer desk. It was special, because it had a slide out keyboard tray, was arranged to accommodate a screen placed in front of me when I sat in the chair. My arms were placed in front of me, with my hands on the keyboard. Except for the girls in secretarial pool and the men in “data processing”, no one else “sat that way”. Within the Engineering unit, my desk was a curiosity and a magnet for geeks. It was cool. It was the future.

My manager (a chemist) was a jovial, caring guy and a company man. I remember he came by one day and remarked “so you know how to fly one of these things?”

We came to refer to it as the Helicopter. I flew the helicopter. We had a team of Engineers, managers, and support people, and now the unit had a helicopter, and I was the pilot. They had big expectations for me.The helicopter was expensive and shiny and futuristic; amazing, even. The helicopter was going to do the “heavy lifting”. It was going to “save the day” on projects we could not otherwise do without computing power. And it was clear from day one that everyone else supported me as pilot partly because they expected that, over time, I would teach them how to fly it themselves (or fly one they would get on their own desk, someday).

Fast forward and we’re all spending our days flying these things. But are we doing any heavy lifting? Are we getting the job done, saving the day, enabling the team? Or are we just “flying around” like one of those toy indoor helicopters, putzing around the room dodging lamps and co-workers’ monitors until we run out of battery power and drop to the floor? And we call it work.

More than ever, we have ways to keep “busy” with SEO. The old stand-byes “keyword research” and “competitive analysis” and “SERP analysis” can keep us busy day after day. With TRILLIONS of links in place on the world wide web, we could link analyze for weeks if left alone to our cockpits. And I suppose every one of you SEOs out there could rationalize and justify the effort and expense (and many of you agency types do just that.. for a living). The helicopter is now cheap, fast, and mobile. The fuel is cheap as well, but it turns out there are two kinds of fuel for SEO helicopters. The kind the machine needs to fly (basic software and electricity), and the kind we need to actually do any work with it (seo data sets, seo tools, and accurate and effective information). The latter fuel is not cheap at all. And it’s been getting more and more expensive.

Knowing how to fly one of these things is not worth much any more. Knowing how to get the work done is.

The next time you find yourself putzing on your computer while allegedly “working”, imagine a pilot buzzing around the landscape in the company helicopter, burning fuel and not accomplishing much besides increasing the basic flying skills of the pilot (a valid endeavor, for sure… but not “heavy lifting” and probably not helping the team save the day. Is that you? Do you deserve to be sitting in that seat? Or is there someone to your left or right who, given some opportunity, would be a much more effective helicopter pilot for your team’s ambitions?

These days I try and have as many helicopters as I can flying around the job site. I’ll put anyone into the pilot seat, and give them fuel, and get them started. Go make a difference. Go figure out a better way to approach our goal lines. Show us a better way. Do some heavy lifting. Save the day. Prove yourself worthy of the pilot seat. Go. For. It.

SEO is not about tools or processes, but people. I suspect that will increasingly become the case, as tools continue to get bigger and more complex, and more and more “pilots” spend their days buzzing around the office with their cool helicopters and fancy fuels.

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April 7th, 2013 by john andrews

Penguin 2.0 Forewarning Propaganda?

Eric Enge recently published an essay entitled “Penguin 2.0 Forewarning: The Google Perspective on Links”. I know about it because Matt Cutts referred to it as a “good article”. It was about links and link building, and Google’s Penguin updates. For those who don’t know, Penguin Updates are updates Google pushes out which penalize web sites that are not big brands and which Google believes have incoming links that influence their rankings (or appear to be intended to influence search rankings).

I would like to step through the article here in this blog post, and show why I believe this is illegitimate pro-Google propaganda. I don’t know Eric personally, so I can’t speak to his character. I hope he recognizes my post for what it is – an objective analysis based on what I see in his article, and have experienced with Google over the years. I’d love to know otherwise.

Note: Eric Enge is not Google

Eric clearly states “I don’t work for Google” but he also states “let’s step back and discuss what Google wants a link to represent” as if he knows what Google wants. He also cites his interview of Matt Cutts, and as I noted, Matt Cutts issued a promotional tweet of Eric’s article. Eric’s professional bio on his consulting website highlights the fact that he interviewed Matt Cutts, and the about page makes ample reference to inferred authority via “access” to “industry leaders” he interviews. I think it’s fair to say Eric trades on the good graces bestowed to him by authority figures in search world, and so it’s fair to review his article here.

I find Eric’s article to be yet another unsettling example of Google’s direct and indirect manipulation of web publishing for its own gain, at the expense of innovation, free speech, and free enterprise.

Eric is a professional link builder, and sells his services throughout the article. That Matt endorsed the article troubles me, because the idea of select professional link builders getting endorsements from the head of Google’s team to judge websites seems very, very dangerous in a conflict of interest way.

I do acknowledge that maybe Eric doesn’t know he’s “working for Google” in the way I alluded to long ago in my tongue-in-cheek “I’m Going to Work for Google” post. With a self-proclaimed “30 years” in the industry, I think he should.

I’ll address the essay topic by topic:

1. About “Links Must Be Citations”

Eric draws parallels between a “research paper” with citations in the footnotes or reference section, and web links. He suggests

“The professor only lists (links) to the other papers most relevant to and most important to to their paper. You can’t buy that, and never occurred to researchers to try and do that with each other. This system was pure at its heart.”

Now I will accept that Eric may never have engaged in formal “research”, but I know Matt Cutts worked in a University library and knows better than to accept this simple assertion as real. Not only CAN you actually “buy” professors (and citations), the concept of citation as a measure of merit didn’t last very long in the research world when it was used as an objective measure of merit. To this day, that system has to be carefully “managed” by people, because it is not very “objective”.

Oh sure the top scientists won’t risk their reputations citing unworthy works (other than their own and those of their colleagues – which they do routinely), but nearly every other researcher routinely does chase citations (and trade them with sympathetic colleagues). When the Citations Index is used as part of review for Promotion and Tenure in an academic setting, gaming does indeed take place. Academic concepts like the “Least Publishable Unit” – that smallest amount of unique information that will justify a stand-alone “paper”, arose out of the need for more publications (and more citations) to pad the CV for career advancement. This “gaming” started precisely because publications and citations were listed as “objective criteria” for promotion and tenure.

The argument that links should be like fictional “pure” citations is part of the Google myth. Super-successful pure SEO plays like FindTheBest (which Google has promoted as a model of the future) would never survive without gaming the Google algorithm, including “unnatural” linking/cross-linking.

Eric notes that the original Page Rank algorithm was based on the idea of citation, as if that helped support his claim that “Links must be citations”. In fact, I’d suggest that the reason the original Page Rank algorithm didn’t work was because links are NOT citations.

2. About “Infographics”

I don’t see Eric saying anything meaningful about infographics in this section, but I do know that including “infographics” in a list of things to worry about is 100% in line with Matt Cutts’ (Google’s) current agenda. I do see that when he says this:

“many infographics are inaccurate or unrelated topically to the page receiving the link. Even without these problems it is likely that the great majority of people republishing infographics aren’t thoughtfully endorsing the page they end up linking too.”

it is basically a regurgitation of Google’s standard line about infographics. However, perhaps most disturbing, this assertion promotes bias.

Google is too smart to actually say that people who republish (link to) “sexy infographics” don’t actually know if the graphics are in fact accurate or not. That highlights censorship and bias. Eric’s hint at Google’s censorship of free speech and publishing is troubling. If Google can diminish the value of linking because it doesn’t believe the people actually fully-endorsed the material they linked to, consider the chilling effect on free speech and promotion/marketing. As a marketer you effectively influence the marketplace to “move them” towards your desired action (to distribute your message), but Google doesn’t believe those people actually fully understand your message, so your efforts can be blocked. Wow. That’s like a tyrant over-riding a democratic election because he feels the people didn’t really know what they were doing electing that guy. When did that become “ok”?

3. About “Including rich anchor text links inside a guest post”

Eric starts this section with a note about “The New York Times”:

“If the New York Times accepted a guest post from you, what are the chances that they would let you load rich anchor text links inside your post back to the blatant money-making page on your site? Not a chance.”

I don’t argue about blatant “make money fast” links embedded in content, but I do have an issue with claims that the New York Times linking policies are models of editorial purity. I could go back in time and pick apart the ways that institution has succeeded in influencing public opinion (for profit and / or power) and rewriting history throughout its lifetime, but we don’t have time for that and I’m not the right expert to undertake the task. I could also point to the concept of the “linking black hole” (promoted by the NYTimes) and how that has hurt the world wide web, or how the newspaper industry in general has done almost everything wrong when it comes to Internet publishing (especially serving users).

Before Google got involved, users (the ones who are supposed to be served by web publishing) looked at anchor text as a signal of what was behind the link. It was a bright and bold, royal blue, and underlined, and the text used communicated what prize awaited the clicker. There was no doubt what this meant (to the user).

This “hypertext” concept was very effective. If the New York Times followed the model of hypertext it could very easily link to “how she made $5000 in one day using her laptop” right in the middle of an essay. As long as that link produced an answer to “how did she make all that money working from home on her laptop” then everything would be fine. Merchants would make money, some readers would be served, and publishers would get a cut for disseminating the message.

We can’t do that today for no other reason than : when we do that, Google has a hard time ranking websites the way it wants to.

That’s correct. The ONLY reason is to enable Google search, as it is designed today.Don’t forget that — this entire conversation about links and publishing “requirements” is to enable Google to find and rank websites to create Google.com. Profitably. There is no other reason.

Aside from the ways that Google wants to make money for itself, or the ways that such legitimate in-line links make Google’s job of making easy profits harder, I don’t see Eric’s point about the New York Times and in-line links. That is a reason I think it might be pro-Google propaganda piece, more than thoughtful SEO article.

4. About “Guest posts that are only loosely related to the topic of the page receiving the link”

In discussing “guest posts” Eric comments on links with descriptive anchor text and says “A link like this smells more like ‘payment’ than a legitimate endorsement.

Really this is the same Google myth described previously.. that there is some pure non-commercial “endorsement” action we should all be limiting ourselves to publishing in our articles. There isn’t, and there never will be. We are all humans, so there will always be information asymmetry and varying levels of awareness and education among readers, and society (including economies) will always be driven be people and their politics. Google knows this, and Google plays the game with its own Washington lobbyists, collaborates with world governments and organizations like the Federal Trade Commission, and engages in PR and propaganda efforts disguised as “personal blogs” and endorsements of others’ essays.

And as long as there can never be a “black and white” definition of what is “legitimate”, Great Institutions like the New York Times and Google are able to make boat loads of cash riding the undefined edges while imposing their myths upon the rest of us as suits their operational goals. I believe this “article” endorses and supports that abuse of power.

5. About award badges

Since I’m not reproducing Eric’s article here, you really should read it (go to searchenginewatch on the dot com TLD and request resource assigned URL /article/2259674/Penguin-2.0-Forewarning-The-Google-Perspective-on-Links.

The topic of “Awards badges” isn’t really addressed, but again by including it in the list, Eric has aided Google’s PR mission. We all know that citing a few extreme examples of “bad apples” is never a valid argument, but that’s what he does to suggest “award badges” are not a good idea. But, and here’s some nuance… he suggests that the award badges are easy targets for penalties “when the award badges seem to appear only on the lesser authoritative sites of a market segment“. Does that make them less legitimate?

This is a perfect example of Google’s brand bias, and another example of Google thinking it’s ok to stifle innovation (since innovations do not usually show up in the major leagues first, innovations will get stifled under this approach to defining links as legitimate).

When markets are controlled such that efforts to serve them are not rewarded until the big established brands accept and endorse them, those markets are not free. In fact, they are doomed to fail.

That’s More Than Enough

Whew. That’s all that was covered in the article, except for a final section addressing how to qualify links you’ve built to make sure they’re acceptable. I don’t really get that part, because if all of the above is true about Google, why would anyone still hire a link builder and bother to apply qualification tests to the links that were built?

Oh… I get it. Because it’s a game! I think I get it now.

The rules say only honest editorial links count, and everything else is ripe for Penguin penalties. BUT, we all know (wink wink nudge nudge) that this isn’t REALLY true. So then we need experts to tell us how to build links that look legitimate, even though they aren’t. And it behooves us to pick the experts that are endorsed by Google, since they have the best information on how the game is REALLY played. And even if we can’t be sure if they are right or not, Googlers will chime in here and there to (wink wink nudge nudge) “let us know” who we can trust.

The only part that still confuses is me is why we should ever consider trusting these experts when they publish SEO articles. How could it not be pro-Google propaganda?

If you want to discuss, please discuss on social media.

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March 22nd, 2013 by john andrews

New Domain Extensions (gTLDs) Could Change Everything

A slew of now top level domains are coming, thanks to a bold move by ICANN originally intended to spur innovation on the web. “What would you do if you could register any top level domain“, they asked the world’s entrepreneurs. Free of constraints of name availability on the standard dot com and other top level domains, how could you advance the Internet?

Despite such noble intentions, the new gTLD program turned into basically just another commercial push for more domain registrations, driven by businesses hoping to sell virtual products (registrations) to speculators and trademark defenders.

Usually speed of innovation is a key factor for progress on technical platforms like the Internet. Act fast and innovate, to build market share before competitors can muster the courage to follow along on what is likely a risky ride. Conversely, a sluggish pace  of implementation, combined with what seems to be controlling efforts stopped this dog from racing in my opinion.

Nobody can “innovate” if they have to invest cash up front in advance, broadcast their intentions, and wait YEARS while others develop copycat, competing, or parasitic business plans.

Rather than an exercise promising rewards for innovation, the new gTLD program is just more “big business” promising rewards for old-school registrars and those who follow on those established practices. Unless.

Unless Google decides to play along.

Should you pay to reserve YourTown.pizza when it becomes available? Not unless you think it will be useful. And with basically everyone using Google to find local pizza, won’t that success depend on how your web site does in Google? We’ve already seen Google manhandle Yelp in the search results… so no doubt Google’s the real player in pizza (when it wants to be).

The web marketing game remains one of “remarkable website functioning as part of a remarkable business” while “exploiting loopholes” and “avoiding penalties and filters”, whether those are artificially imposed or market natural. If you do something Google doesn’t approve of, you lose. If you piss off your customers, you lose. But most of all, far out of proportion to all other factors involved, if Google decides to give your business a boost (for any reason), you win.

That’s right.. if Google decides (unilaterally, without any obligation to notify anyone, nor any obligation to maintain anything for any reason) to boost .pizza to the top of the local rankings for “pizza in your town” searches, your .pizza website will make you a fortune. And there will be only one YourTown.pizza available for registration. Will Google do that?

Or will Google ban townname.pizza domains, again unilaterally without consequence, for any reason? It would not be unusual, since townname.pizza competes with Google as a directory of local pizza, and doesn’t otherwise reflect any unique character of the pizza business publishing on it. What will Google do?

I attended a conference the other day where the SEOs on the SEO panel noted how select SEOs were “really good friends” with Matt Cutts of Google’s “search quality team”. Wow. Which SEO would you hire… the one over there or this other one that’s “great friends” with Google? No one call them them out on it… and the web marketing game continues.

A big marketing firm recently published on it’s website that it had inside connections at Google. It claimed to be such an important customer of Google, that Google reps “often called” them with advice on how to deal with algorithm changes. Wow. What a great firm to hire, right? Of course they scrambled to take that down when it was highlighted (partly because it’s not true; mostly because of risk of fallout from being outed as manipulating the market by Google name dropping).

The truth is that Google can make or break any web strategy. Will it boost any of these new gTLDs into success? What about .pizza or .movie?

Hard to imagine it won’t take efforts to secretly “manage” some gTLDs. Google has been caught “managing” other TLDs in the past (.info for sure, probably .biz). Google has also damaged many business by ignoring some extensions while favoring others. Despite having promised to reward proper use of local gTLDs by local businesses, Google’s refusal to acknowledge .US hurt any that published on .US hoping to compete in their markets while following the “rules”. I have never seen any evidence of .US domains achieving any of the status Google granted to .com. .org, and .net, for example.

So which of the new gTLDs will be winners, and why? We’re back to speculating on domain names, just-like-before. And the big winners are the domain name registrars and re-sellers. The big losers are you.. the consumer of web domains, now forced to speculate or defend your trademarks by spending more money on domain registrations that will likely never be utilized on the web.

And then of course there’s the complication that Google also submitted applications for a set of the new gTLDs. I won’t go there.

One thing is certain: the new gTLDs could change everything, but only if Google wants things to change. What can we do?

My recommendation is to cozy up to Matt Cutts because clearly, being friends with Matt makes you a rare breed of SEO consultant. There is no doubt that the SEO on that conference panel — the one that was good friends with Matt Cutts — had a huge advantage over every other seo in the room (at least when it came to closing new business).

Similarly if you can find out what other Google employees are compromised,¬† get into that game as well (like that Marketing Agency claims it has done with its Google reps). That’s where the winning opportunity lies — insider knowledge of how the algorithms work is gold for SEO.

Inside knowledge of which gTLDs Google will boost is the key to winning with new gTLDs for sure.

Want to Comment? Don’t comment here.. post your comment to social media (twitter, Facebook, your own blog) to be heard. Link back to this if you want.. I’ll leave it up for a while. This is an important issue so please do speak your opinion somewhere.

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John Andrews is a mobile web professional and competitive search engine optimzer (SEO). He's been quietly earning top rank for websites since 1997. About John

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Recent Posts: ★ Do you want to WIN, or just “Be the Winner”? ★ 503: GONE ★ Cloud Storage ★ Identity Poetry for Marketers ★ PR is where the Money Is ★ Google is an Addict ★ When there are no Jobs ★ Google Stifles Innovation, starts Strangling Itself ★ Flying the SEO Helicopter ★ Penguin 2.0 Forewarning Propaganda? ★ Dedicated Class “C” IP addresses for SEO ★ New Domain Extensions (gTLDs) Could Change Everything ★ Kapost Review ★ Aaron Von Frankenstein ★ 2013 is The Year of the Proxy ★ Preparing for the Google Apocalypse ★ Rank #1 in Google for Your Name (for a fee) ★ Pseudo-Random Thoughts on Search ★ Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, or a Blog ★ The BlueGlass Conference Opportunity ★ Google Execs Take a Break from Marissa Mayer, Lend Her to Yahoo! ★ Google SEO Guidelines ★ Reasons your Post-Penguin Link Building Sucks ★ Painful Example of Google’s Capricious Do Not Care Attitude ★ Seeing the Trees, but Missing the Forest 

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