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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July 17th, 2006 by john andrews

Cuttlets are for Sissies

Here come the Cutlets, where are the nuggets?

Matt Cutts is a Google employee. He tried to be a leader among SEOs interested in Google, but has failed at that. Instead, he has gathered (some say created) a flock of hyper-aggressive, almost righteous “Cutlets” who listen to his gospel and fill his blog with oddly naive observations and “evidence” of sites that are breaking the Google rules.

They have become known as The Cutlets.

History repeats itself. A long time ago someone discovered that chicken tasted bad. It was a pinkish meat that basically smelled bad. A plucked chicken always looked dirty, because the farmer could never get all of the quills, and those left behind made the chicken look like it had a 5 o’clock shadow.

One day a farmer decided that if he could sell chickens, he could make a good profit because chickens were easy to raise. So he changed the feed to improve the smell and lighten the color, and started selectively breeding only the lightest colored chickens. Chickens breed quickly, and over a reasonable amount of time this farmer bred himself a flock of white chickens. When plucked, you couldn’t see the left-behind quills because they had no pigment. He started selling it as a replacement for beef, and it took off. Chicken was cheap protein. Cheap cheep cheep.

Chicken became synonymous with white meat. Go figure. It’s not white meat. Most of the chicken is dark meat. That’s simply how nature intended the chicken to be. In fact, the dark meat is where the action is — virtually all of the flavor and nutrients that chicken offers is in the dark meat.

Anyway over time the propaganda that created the white chicken led to chicken breast meat sold separate from the chicken (for a premium). Yes, people are always willing to pay more for breasts. These became known as chicken cutlets. Just the select breasts, chosen to represent the chicken which actually is a dark meat bird.

Now you may recognize that chicken cutlet farming is not a sustainable business. You can’t grow a cutlet. Putting that aside as an exercise for the reader (what happens to the rest of the chicken if your gospel praises only the cutlet), how does a cutlet promoter maintain his business? Enter the “tender”.

Chicken Tenders are basically chicken cutlets cut into strips. Initially, the “tender” was created as a marketing vehicle to sell that portion of the cutlet that contained an unsavory white, stringy tendon. Most people cut it off and threw it away. A propagandist re-named that piece the “chicken tender” and sold it separately, at a premium. Any Engineer (the real kind – the ones who went to Engineering school) can show you that surface area increases “exponentially” as a cutlet is sliced into pieces. Since each piece gets breaded all the way around, the amount of actual chicken decreases as breading is added to cover the increased surface area. And bread is far cheaper than chicken. So nowadays every restaurant in America sells these strips of chicken cutlet, usually breaded and deep fried, at an incredible profit.

But of course there is more to the evolution of the chicken people are eating today. The cutlet didn’t only spawn the “tender” (or “chicken finger”, oddly enough). Not satisfied with 6 ounces of small white strips of meat representing a 2.5 pound mostly-dark meat bird (reminder: what happened to the rest of the chicken?), they created the “chicken nugget“.

Chicken Nuggets are probably the most prolific form of chicken in the modern commercial food markets. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s.. they sell far more chicken nuggets than hamburgers. The chicken nugget was marketed as the prime white portion of the chicken, at first, hence the reference to gold nuggets. Of course, we know it is really a mash up of all of those parts of that dark-meat bird that do not qualify to be chicken tenders or chicken cutlets. That’s right, the bones, beaks, wings and what not. The chicken nugget is the hot dog of the chicken world. Did you ever really look up close at what’s behind the secret recipe bread covering of your favorite chicken nugget? Yuck.
Of course no one with a taste bud would eat those things, unless you coated them with sugar. So now chicken nuggets are sold with.. “barbeque sauce“. Did you ever watch a chicken nugget lover pack his take out order with a few napkins, a straw for his coke, and a huge handful of “sauce”? Ounce for ounce, he’s eating more sauce and bread than chicken. Certainly more sauce than white meat chicken. But he’s paying a premium for that breaded crap. What a moron.

So Matt Cutts has begun breeding SEO Cutlets. History suggests the real profits are in the dark meat, where all of the volume and flavor is found. History suggests that those white meat advocates have an agenda, and the consumers of white meat harbor a secret insatiable appetite for dark meat covered in sugary goo.

Nobody knows how it will evolve, but one thing is for sure. When I decide to serve chicken at my table, it is an organic whole bird, roasted to perfection so the dark meat is properly juicy, the white meat is not all dried out (and is delicately spiced), and the only sauce available is the natural gravy one gets by serving only the best organic efforts. Nuggets are for fools, and cutlets are for sissies.

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July 6th, 2006 by john andrews

Business.com gets competitive with nofollow attribute

Today the SEO world noticed that Business.com has added “no follow” attributes to many of their listings. Since Business.com is a major player in the “important back links” game, this is significant. A nofollow attribute is read by Google as a signal that the link is not to be trusted as a recommendation for the site. Practically, it means that hyperlinks with a nofollow attribute are worthless as back links if you need back links to improve your Google relevance.

While today’s discussions are certainly colorful, they demonstrate a bigger issue in the web marketing world than Business.com adding nofollow attributes to hyperlinks in its directory. The discussions demonstrate how little webmasters seem to understand about competitive webmastering, and how little effort many of those so-called webmasters/bloggers actually put into their writing. Many of them got it wrong, and many completely missed the significance. If you are a business owner of a webmaster trying to understand today’s competitive web environment, you will likely be misled by the discussions. While I won’t go into great detail here about nofollow and it’s use, I will try and explain what is important and why it is important. I’ll stick to the places where I felt the discussion was accurate or meaningful: highrankings and threadwatch.

Business.com is a business directory and has been recommended for years as a good place to buy a listing, because it has such high PageRank (PR). Google distributes that PR outward to the destination pages of any outbound hyperlinks on the Business.com page. So if you are the only outbound link from a high PR page on Business.com you will get a nice boost of PR from Google, and that will help you outrank other web pages in the Google SERPs. Multiple outbound links share that PR distribution by some algorithm. Page Rank is not the only benefit of a link on Business.com, however. Because it is a natural type-in domain name, and because it is an active business which itself has high PR pages and many incoming links, it directs a good deal of traffic around the Internet. Even if you don’t benefit from a PR distribution, you may get quite a bit of value out of a back link from Business.com.

And that is why a back link costs $199 per year. To put it into perspective, that’s about $17 per month for the back link. From the Business.com sales page:

Our users work for small, medium and large companies from a wide range of industries. Many are senior-level executives who hold the decision making power to make business-related purchases on behalf of their organization. Almost 70% of Business.com’s users are full-time workers, 60% are college graduates and approximately 70% earn over $100,000 a year. Business.com reaches more than 38 million business users through the Business.com Network.

Of course like most directories, Business.com includes many non-paid listings. They need to do that in order to present a useful product to viewers. If they limited the directory to paid listings, it might not be comprehensive enough in every category to be useful. Before the nofollow attribute was introduced by Google in 2005, there was no way to know for sure which entries were paid and which were free. An optional “extra four mini-links” was available to paid subscribers, and many made use of it, but otherwise there was no way to tell a paid listing from a free listing. There was also no way to selectively share the benefits of the listings (such as page rank distribution). That was all part of the game.

Today’s discussion started with Jill over at the High Rankings Forum. As usual, there is a quality discussion over there with some detailed observations, but the level of discussion on High Rankings is fairly centered around search marketing and “textbook SEO”, and at a level not always easily understood by novices. Jill notes that adding the nofollow attribute to paid links would be in line with Google’s stated purpose for the nofollow attribute. Yet it seems that Business.com has only added the nofollow attribute to the free listings. This appears to be directly contrary to Google’s intent. It rewards paying customers with Page Rank distribution, and limits the benefits of a free inclusion. Interesting observations.

Let’s consider the Business.com business model. They sell placement in a directory, and they present an information resource to the public via the Business.com web site. To achieve a quality (competitive) directory, they have to offer a quality listings at a value price. In order to present a meaningful product to the web visitor, they have to present a comprehensive and easy to use resource. Telephone directories have juggled those two competing priorities for a hundred years. The winning solution is to create an arena where “you have to be in it” in order to compete in your business market. Can the local accountant afford to NOT appear in the local Yellow Page directory?

When there was but one Yellow Pages, with every accountant in town listed, he simply had to pay to play. Of course the cost of a display ad in that case can be very high. The directory enjoyed a virtual monopoly, and could price the ad just shy of the value it brought to the local business. I have worked with small businesses that paid $6k per year for a single display ad in a city telephone directory, and they considered it a good value. Did telephone directories keep an edge by including free listings? Sure they did. They knew every phone number assigned by the (monopoly) telephone company. In fact, that is how the directory business started. BECAUSE the phone company knew in advance every new business opening up in a town (since those businesses ordered phone service prior to opening), the telephone company had a competitive advantage over any else looking to produce a local business directory.

Now back to Business.com, the standard for business to business online directories. What happens when the directory becomes adequately populatd, so it is really comprehensive? Just about every meaningful business entity has a listing, either free or paid, or at least enough to make the directory comprehensive. In order to grow the market, Business.com has to either expand it’s service offerings or convert free listings to paid listings. Let’s consider each of those options.

In order to expand service offerings, Business.com will have to innovate. Maybe contextual ads within the directory, with premium placements? Well, Google already does a great job of that via the Google AdSense program. Is Business.com in the program? Sure. They would certainly qualify for the Premium program at Google, which provides contextual ads without an obvious Google branding. A look at a Business.com page shows “sponsored links” that could be Google AdSense. An examination of the http headers when one of those ads is clicked reveals the Google servers are behind the scenes, serving up the ads. Of course that makes sense. A premium business choosing a platinum partner for contextual ads. It also means Business.com has already exhausted that extra service offering model. The market opportunity is already being exploited.

Are there other avenues? Sure, but they may take some work and some research. For example, how about charging more for more competitive ads in certain competitive markets? It worked for the Yellow Pages, but on the Internet there is a good chance it would create opportunity for niche directories to steal customers away from Business.com. So then how about converting the free listings to paid listings?

Bingo. Business.com has access to those potential customers, and can now incentivize them to pay to play. The typical online directory model suggests dropping those who don’t play, because quite frankly how else can you motivate them? Well, Google has provided the tool – the nofollow attribute. A directory can now incentivize the free listing to convert, without bluffing about dropping them (and potentially hurting the directory’s comprehensiveness). Is this a smart play? Sure it is. And it will only get better over time.

First, Business.com is a premium AdSense partner. Google is getting paid big bucks to send traffic to Business.com, where Google ads get clicked and Google publishers pay Google for those clicks. Will Google penalize Business.com for using the nofollow attribute in a way that clearly supports the Business.com competitive directory business model, which ensures their continued success, while at the same time providing Google with a revenue stream from contextual advertising? I doubt it. It would be silly to do things any other way.

Does the business owner see the value in the Business.com paid listing? Maybe not today, but I think we can rest assured that down the road Business.com will be increasingly showing businesses how well the paid listings are doing. Web site owners will learn more and more about the value of direct links, not less. Maybe Business.com will have to tread carefully when suggesting that paid listings pass page rank, or add value for search ranking, but I suspect that would not be much of a challenge for the marketing department. And as long as business keeps growing, and Google keeps getting paid, and there is no other reasonable option, Business.com has found a clever use of the nofollow attribute. Yesterday the price of a direct link from Business.com that boosts your page rank was $199 or free if you were already in it. Today, the price of a direct link from Business.com that boosts your page rank is $199, no matter how you get in. Sounds like a smart move to me.
The remaining question is how Google will handle the publicity this brings to the use of the nofollow attribute. I think the folks at Threadwatch.org concluded correctly on this one. Aaron (seobook) looks at from a Google search engineer perspective, and sees that the only live links in Business.com now are paid links, and so Google can can safely devalue those en-masse with respect to passing page rank. Todd (Stuntdbl) notes that this is another case of one business’ decision causing potentially disruptive changes across the whole Internet marketplace (and I infer that to suggest Google has too much market influence). If I infer corectly, I agree.

Update 7/7/2006 – Lane Soelberg, the Vice President of Marketing for Business.com, has responded and clarified the use of nofollow.
And so I conclude it is more important than ever, competitively speaking, to stay close to seo events if you expect to remain competitive on the Internet.
Images:(click on an image to see a larger version)

Business.com listing pageBusiness.com directory page showing listings, some with optional “mini links” which suggests they are cleary paid listings.business.com directory with nofollow attributeSame directory page with the nofollowed links highlighted in red. Not all paid listings, but most, are not nofollowed.
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