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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January 24th, 2007 by john andrews

Dear Googler: You’re likely Millions Richer, but any Smarter?

Okay so this post is really about Matt Cutts, but to be fair, it’s not personal. As an SEO/Compettive Webmaster, I’ve been working with Google for at least as long as Matt has, and we are all growed up now. Matt’s likely millions richer than he was when we started. But is he any smarter? I just read this post on Matt Cutt’s bog.

Years ago I got an email from Google letting me know, curtly and directly, that my corporation was banned from using Google.com. Not just me, but anyone on my NAT’ted network was blocked. And it wasn’t simply consequential - the Googler knew that it was a network block for us, and upon my inquiry, admitted that yes, he knew that and it was to be so. You see, someone had run WebPosition a few times more than Google liked, and he banned us from using Google because of that. Eventually he stated (very directly, as a neighborhood bully would) that if we wanted to be allowed to use Google.com again, we would have to promise never to use that webposition or similar programs again. We did, of course. A few days later (without Google.com) and we were unblocked. A few days more and we had our proxies in place for WebPosition to continue it’s work undetected.

Matt knows this story of mine, and once commented that Google is less obnoxious than it was back then. Back then Google was young and obviously bold. Too bold in my opinion. Based solely on the in-your-face authoritarian statements made by the Googler at the time, we pursued a proxy strategy. Looking back, it could have been very different.

Today, Matt’s post was again in-your-face authoritarian. Matt is likely millions richer than he was when he started way back when I tussled with Google for the first time,  but I’m not seeing as much “smarts” as I would expect to see. In Matt’s post, he speaks of V7N’s advertising system, and says things like :

Suffice it to say, if “undetectable to search engines” is listed as one of the major selling points of a particular link scheme, it probably violates our quality guidelines and the guidelines of other major search engines.

Now that might be okay for street talk, but in traditional business, them’s fightin’ words. Matt Cutts, through inference, just slammed V7N’s commercial product. Where is the evidence? Where is the factual basis for this statement? Oprah got into trouble for her “irresponsible” statements about beef, and was saved really by some very expensive legal maneuvers and a PR effort that wisely raised the cost of pursuit for the meat industry. In the real world, you simply can’t exercise your political might for commercial gain, irresponsibly, or you may have to pay a price.

Matt also says things like this:

The “undetectable” claim brought up fond memories of another time someone claimed to me that their spam was undetectable.

Again, through what appears to be irresponsible inference, Matt just called V7N’s contextual advertising network “spam”. Read it again… he suggests that this (V7N) is “another time” dealing with spam.

As I recall, Claria/Gator/180Whatever successfully used the legal system to defend against libelous references to Spyware and Malware. And they had such a right, based on commercial law. If it’s not true, and you say it is, it’s potentially slanderous. Matt Cutt’s is still bolder than I suspect he should be. But hey, I am not a lawyer.

Now just in case the reader of Matt’s bog was unclear about Matt’s authoritarian demeanor, he relates a story from the past that he says is similar to this V7N incident. In that story, Matt relates his communications back then on the topic of overly zealous SEO efforts:

Pages like *** appear to have garbage doorways with text about random SCSI things. Visiting those pages in Internet Explorer just redirects to your homepage. Using doorways + sneaky redirects is a serious violation of Google’s spam guidelines. In order to relist you (and it will take about 7-8 weeks), we need to have clear evidence that all these pages are gone, and that we won’t see these sort of tricks on your domain again.

Note Matt’s use of the undefinable word “sneaky” which imparts intent upon the webmaster (sans any evidence to support such a claim). Also note the final statement “we need to have clear evidence…that we won’t see these sort of tricks on your domain again“. In other words, “beg me.” Again, them’s fightin’ words, Mr. Cutts. Are you sure you wants to treat the pubic this way?

I think the accusatory tone is a problem. Matt re-emphasizes by summarizing the way it works according to Google:

“remove the spam and find a way to assure us it won’t happen again”

After this IMHO too-casual post, Matt added some of his opinion about how much “fun” he has dealing with the people he calls spammers. He relates:

I laughed so hard, I nearly bust a gut. His old system was undetectable, but he was worried he might be caught, so he was working on a spiffy new scheme which was really *really* undetectable. But only 99% bulletproof. :) As you might be able to guess, I was easily able to find all of the fellow’s “undetectable” doorway pages and all of his clients with a single Google query — I didn’t even have to use any of my internal tools. I still chuckle when I hear the word “undetectable.” One thing I do like about working on webspam at Google is that you collect really good stories. I don’t always tell the funny ones, but I share this one to make a point. The moral of this story is that “undetectable” spam sometimes stands out a lot more than you’d think.

Aside from the fact that I feel compelled to inform Matt that the expression is really “bust a nut” and not “bust a gut”, Matt seems to be making fun of this person behind his back. He is exposing an unpublished email which was sent to Matt in error, and mocking it. Matt adds his own editorial color to help it better support his mission of writing a fun, spammer-mocking post, where he says “I like to imagine that they said something like… “ (which, according to my understanding of the law, falls once again into the area of irresponsible behavior and perhaps, negligence). Matt also removes the so-called spammer SEOs name, saying “name trimmed so as not to reveal the identity of the SEO” but which also means the SEO can’t defend himself or clarify what Matt may have mis-represented here.

Is that gutsy, or cowardly? I suggest it is more foolish than either of the former.

Now in Las Vegas Matt assured me that “they” don’t take actions against web sites that disparage Google or Matt Cutts. Really? Human behavior is an interesting thing. I know more than a few professional counselors whom I am pretty sure would side with me in thinking that the bully behavior exhibited here in one context is likely to carry over to other contexts.

It is my opinion that V7N’s commercial product was irreparably harmed by Matt Cutt’s blog post. It is also my opinion that high-profile SEOs should not put their names on non-SEO endeavors, because Google acts like a Bully, and appears poised to act irresponsibly. Why provoke the bully if you are not prepared to pull a Ralphie and settle the score for good?

Some people retire because they get bored;things got stale. Some retire in order to exit at the top of their game. Some retire because they cannot continue to work. Some retire to explore other aspects of life. All good reasons to retire.

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January 23rd, 2007 by john andrews

Who needs SEO? Who needs a Competitive Advantage? Zen Cart users.

I just emerged from 3 hours of Zen Cart optimization. Zen Cart is a popular, open-source shopping cart. It’s truly amazing in capability, but like many Open Source projects it is heavily “technical”. I have to give credit to the Zen cart community, however, because the template system is coming along nicely, such that Zen Cart is capable of creating a decent-looking, functioning on line store (in the right hands).

By the way, it’s a lot of work. After my three hours working with the developer, we have the solutions but there still remains a decent amount of work to make sure our deployment is safe from upgrade, relatively portable, and adaptable.

As we went through the analysis I traversed the Zen Cart forums and sites. In my travels I came across many discussions about SEO and Zen cart. Some of those were quite heated. “Who needs SEO?” “Google spiders Zen cart just fine“. “Google has not trouble indexing Zen cart“. Blah blah blah.

I requote my mantra… it’s not SEO, but Competitive Webmastering. To whatever extent you deploy Zen Cart into your commercial market, so can someone else. Selling Vasque Sundowner boots in your Zen Cart? Well, so is someone else. Who will rank higher for a Google search for Vasque Sundowner? That discussion limps along, following a thought path that basically mirrors the belief systems of the arguers…. eventually, if you have the patience, they will settle into some agreement about “other factors” determining who wins the SERP spots, and those other factors (like back links) are recognized as part of SEO, blah blah blah. Eventually, they acknowledge that SEO brings a competitive advantage. So why so much trouble admitting that Zen Cart needs optimization?

Zen cart’s URLs are ugly as sin itself. Clean them up. Use them for competitive advantage (think:: keywords). Manage your search engine spider exposure..use that product-category symbolic link feature to your competitive advantage. It’s search engine optimization involving Zen Cart, plain and simple.

How many Zen cart implementors have the patience to rewrite Zen cart’s URLs? Few indeed. A common approach to SEO for Zencart is to build showcase pages from the product database, existing static and optimized, separate from the shopping cart application. That’s fine, and better than simply optimizing the Zen-Cart application, but why shy away from doing both? The first (creating additional, optimized product showcase pages) is a wonderful addition to your e-commerce site (with a per-page cost, a template design cost, an SEO cost, a management utiity development cost, a maintenance cost). The second (search engine optimization of the Zen-cart portion of the e-commerce site) also brings considerable added value for the zen-cart product pages, for an initial SEO development cost and a minor maintenance cost.
How many shop owners implement Zen cart for their shopping cart? I don’t know, but unless you can afford a custom shopping cart implementation (optimized, of course) you won’t be able to compete with other merchants doing a more optimal job. So first you need to know your market, and if the players in your market are using open source shopping carts (like OSCommerce or Zen cart) then you can, too. And when you do, you will need to optimize because they can, too. And the winner is? Well, it’s not going to be the guys with the Flash shopping carts. but after that the question is really, who will be the most competitive player in the market?

Place your bets.

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January 23rd, 2007 by john andrews

Cloaking Google like a Lemming

And then a trap door opened, and one after the other the lemmings fell down the hole. So fascinated were they with the idea of following the lemming in front of them, they were unable to recognize their impending doom until it was too late.

I don’t advocate cloaking Google. But I was asked by a competitive webmaster about cloaking today. The question was (re-phrased):

“I understand cloaking and the risks and rewards. I have successfully tested my set up and it works. But I feel uncomfortable simply because I am not able to see how the competitive webmaster cloaker can be better than the typical cloaker. Everything I have set up anyone else could also set up. I know from your blog that I should know more before I take the risk. What am I missing?”

What would you say? Not knowing the cloaking scripts or setup, I can immediately say the weakness is at the trust points. Where does he trust someone or something for the success of his cloaking? At those points, he is vulnerable. At those points, he needs to place some risk management.

Some ideas:

You trust that Google will do what it has done, and not suddenly vary from it’s normal behavior.

Google follows robotx.txt; Google bots show user-agents; Google comes from a Google IP; Google doesn’t process sophosticated javascript. Google sends a bot to check your landing pages. If you trust these to be true, then the moment Google breaks from this defined behavior, the trap door opens and the cloaking lemmings fall into the trap one after the other. What will happen to your site if Google changes? Make sure what what happens is benign. Some of you know my favorite book of all time is “Systemantics” which looks not at how things work, but How Things Fail. How does your thing fail?

You trust you IP list as accurate and comprehensive, up to date.

If I were Google (or a Dirty Bastard anti-cloak detective), I’d send out a stealth bot to hit suspected cloaking sites. What would happen if Google arrived from an IP not on your list? What if your list was corrupted, or worse, co-opted? As soon as you start on a path to updating your cloaking based on an available IP list, you become a lemming. An IP is added to the list, and you start cloaking for that IP, just like everyone else. It seems pretty easy for Google to just launch a spider at known Black Hat sites from a new IP, wait a day, and then hit the sites on the suspect list to see if they cloak the new IP. That’s not anti-cloaking F.U.D. but scenario planning. It’s possible, so why not prepare for it? If you can’t think of or implement ways to protect yourself from this sort of thing, in my opinion you should not be cloaking Google. And if you’re cloaking AdWords landing pages, are you sure you can recognize Google editors by IP? What about part-time, telecommuting editors from all over the world?

You trust your web host environment

Are you sure the only way to your content (cloaked content as well as cloaking content) is through your cloaking script? Really sure? If you use one technology for cloaking, and another for protecting your non-public content, you really need to be very sure you are secure (I’ve seen cgi-based cloaking scripts used with .htaccess auth control and a sprinkling of PHP scripting, all mixed together). It’s not easy to be expert enough in all of the platform technologies to make sure they are collaborating soundly.  If you know what I mean and want to see how much of a problem this is, go and Google to find cloaking content that isn’t supposed to be exposed. Skip the first one because that’s one of my test sites, but look at all the rest. Page after page. Wow. That much. Geez. And ironic how we can simply use Google to find it, eh? In the index?

You trust your privacy, with respect to your other domains

Are you trusting that Google doesn’t know about your association with DomainB, or DomainC, when you start cloaking on DomainA? I’d advise making some changes in advance, just to insert an arms length or so before starting. Are you sure that your cloaking script doesn’t leave a foot print? Even one uniquely-named file on the public portion of your web server can give it away (see that reference above to using Google to find cloaking sites).

One of the most interesting aspects of computer simulation and modeling is the amazing power of large N. The more data you have, the easier it is to see “outliers”, those data points which differ from the rest by an unexplainable amount (unexplainable according to the model). Google has TONS of data about web site linking and the performance of AdWords/AdSense landing pages. If you base your cloaking on your model of how Google sees things, will it still stand out as an outlier when Google compares your site to a test collection of 200,000 similar websites? How do you even know?
I am sure everyone can add some items to this list, provide a corresponding risk-management tactic, and assign a priority for effort based on probability estimates (of it happening), cost estimates (for adjusting afterwards or monitoring), and estimates of risk (a ban, a penalty, etc). What I’m not sure is if everyone is paying attention to the important details, and the importance of the important details. To remain competitive, you must adapt. To adapt, you must first sense your environment. Sometimes that is simply not possible unless you are Google.
Friendly Reminder: If you want to post a comment that says I’m a cheater or scammer or whatever because I am discussing cloaking, move along and find yourself a hate site to frequent. I don’t have time to debate the nature of competition with you, and this is not your forum for proselytizing. Okay?

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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: ★ 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 ★ Search is a Task; Discovery is Fun ★ Why “dot everything” is a Good Idea (and ahead of its time) 

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