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 28th, 2007 by john andrews

Client SEO is Harder Than Ever

There has always been debate about professional search engine optimizers’ motivations. Why would someone who could rank web pages at the top of Google offer to work as a consultant to others? A good SEO could make more money working for herself than for others, right?

Not exactly. Just as in any other line of work, we humans thrive on satisfaction. We seek it out, work hard for it, and feel really, really good when we get it. Thing is, people are all different, and different things satisfy different people. Some SEOs are satisfied with money… true. But others seek the praise of others. Some seek the thrill of dominating a fierce competitor. Some get high off the underdog thing: David beating Goliath. Still others get satisfaction out of finding and exploiting a little known secret or undiscovered market opportunity, kind of like playing a game of spy v. spy or Clue or working through a complex puzzle. For some, the money isn’t the goal. The win is the goal. For some, it’s the journey that matters.

I have held several of those perspectives at different times in my life, and I believe I understand them. I also expect there are many more perspectives out there driving SEOs to do their magic. For me, there is no need to debate “Why would an SEO work for others” because the answer is simple: because she wants to. A better question might be, is it cost-effective to SEO for clients?

Lately SEO for Clients has gotten much harder than it used to be. And there is one reason: CHANGE.

I believe the only barrier to SEO is change. Anyone can learn to optimize websites. The basics parallel webmastering – proper code, proper design, complete details. The SEO part comes from paying atention to the details of search engines. The competitive aspects of SEO come from the fact that SEO is always changing, and SEO practitioners need to adapt and keep up to remain competitive in the SERPs. There is a TON of free SEO information on the web. Most of it is junk. Much of the junk is outdated, but most of the junk is assumption based on minimal experimental evidence or simply anecdotal evidence. With so much changing, novice SEO detectives cannot deduce anything meaningful. Still, they deduct. So much well-cited published information is outdated by change, that SEO self-study isn’t easy or inexpensive. Lately, there is more change than ever before.

Client work is expectation management with a little SEO sprinkled on the top. That can be easy money for a smoozer (think Ad Agency) provided the SEO part is easy enough. But as things change rapidly (as they are now), client expectations become harder to manage. SEO is harder to manage, but the client expectation side is even harder. It’s much easier to fire your low-level SEO and pay 5 times more for a short stint with a top-tier SEO than it is to explain to your client why you were 100% incorrect with your last SEO strategy document. Why your judgement was bad. With rapid change, even the best clients get anxious. The worst clients become nightmares.

When you work for yourself you can turn on a dime. You see opportunity in change. When you work for a client, change is a P.I.T.A. that creates more work for everyone. If that work is 80% client expectation management, you better like client expectation management.

It’s simple, really. There are two kinds of SEOs. Those who work for clients, and those who work for themselves. Two sets of objectives, two skill sets to match, and two perspectives on the changing world of search engine optimization. Many of us wear both hats at different times, but that just means we are able to function from differing perspectives, and perhaps are good communicators. In the end, the best SEOs will outperform everyone else provided there is adequate change. If the change slows down, the client expectaton management people will do well. If change picks up, the independents are likely to enjoy more satisfaction than the client-serving SEOs.

Of course there is one exception: the snake oil salesmen SEOs. They do well with very high levels of change, and they are exposed by periods of minimal change. It looks to me like we can once again expect to see high-pressure snake oil SEO making a comeback.

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May 21st, 2007 by john andrews

More on New York Times and Good SEO

When I commented on the New York Times doing a good job optimizing content (see The New York Times Flexes its SEO Muscle“, I didn’t expect the bashing that followed in the so-called “SEO world”. Some said the New York Times was cheating, some said spamming, and there were many nagative comments. I think one needs to view the source when reading such commentary… it seems odd to me that a competitive search optimizer would view the NYT successful efforts at search inclusion and indexing as cheating or spamming. Personally, I think it speaks more about the quality of the SEOs making such comments than anything else.

That said, this johnon.com blog is a simple, one-off personal blog. I don’t do much research for this bog, and I don’t edit posts beyond the quick draft -> review -> publish. I hardly ever hold a post in edit mode for more than an hour. It’s a personal blog. Mostly opinion, based on experience and personal observation. What you read here is not portrayed as fact; it’s JOHN writing ON topics that come up in my own practice of competitive webmastering and SEO.

I say this because there are so many others writing well on the same topics, sometimes influenced by opinion writers like me. I think Scott Karp did a great job over at Publishing 2.0, where he framed the issue with quotes from the New York Times’ financial statements. Scott discussed the publishing industry’s approach to Google, but inside he noted how the NYT was openly proud of their SEO efforts:

Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times’ Q1 2007 earnings call:

As of March, the Times Company was the 12th most visited parent company on the web in the United States with 43.5 million unique visitors, up 12% from March of 2006, according to Nielsen NetRatings. Traffic growth has been accelerating as we optimize our website for search.

And here’s what New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger had to say about the importance of search at the recent New York Times shareholders meeting:

Moreover, About is having a powerful effect on our Company by providing NYT.com, Boston.com, IHT.com and our regional sites with critical, digital expertise. This includes optimizing content so that it is more visible to search engines, which leads to significant increases in traffic and thereby makes our online pages more profitable.

Thanks for the research, Scott, and the work put into to publishing such a good web site. We now see that being “the 12th most visited parent company on the web in the United States” is an claim to fame for the publisher of the New York Times. Raw traffic counts in that context. We also know that they are 12% up from a year ago, largely due to SEO efforts. And we know that increased exposure for archives leads to higher profits on the home page. All good to know. SEO works.

But Scott was the exception, as so many wrote that the NYT was “cheating” and “spamming”. Some even said that if you don’t do extra steps to comply with Google’s recommendations for web publishers, you are technically a spammer. I think that’s just plain wrong, and encourages Google’s bad-boy behavior. Such chatter casts an ugly shadow on the so-called SEO world.

Here’s an idea: maybe someday the world will recognize SEO as a competitive sport. Then whining about not winning will be branded as unsportsmanlike behavior, and maybe even worthy of a technical foul and penalty. The real SEOs will get a league of their own so they don’t have to suffer the wannabees so much, and the armchair quarterbacks can pay $130/month for a DigitalCable version of the SERPs, marked up with highlights of rankings, performance stats, and disabled lists. Split SEO into two parts: participants and spectators. For spectator sports, the entertainment side of competition belongs to the fans. The way we’re going, it seems that SEO is destined to become more like the WWF than the NBA. BUT, and here’s the dirty little secret… SEO is not about blogs and SEO websites. The real SEOs are already separate from the crowd of wannabees, the talking heads, and the high-profile spam reports. The real SEOs are already performance based and in a separate league. It’s the clients that need to catch up.

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May 16th, 2007 by john andrews

Google Universal Search

Google took a bold step today and announced a commitment to “universal search”. We’ve seen the vertical search “beta” programs for years.. Google local, Google maps, Google Financial, Google Video, Google Base, etc. Truth is, nobody uses them because everyone takes for granted that Google has already integrated everything they have into “google”. Don’t believe me? Turn to the non-SEO in the cubicle next to yours and ask her “If I told you Google had access to the entire pubic database of the stock exchange, and had indexed and categorized it, would you expect that data to be included inthe results sets when you searched Google for information about stocks?” Of course she thinks they incorporate that data.

But they don’t. They only present stuff they found on the web, in web pages.

Google says it will now integrate all that “other stuff” with web search results, *and* rank it all for relevancy. Of course the key word there is “will”.

What does this mean for Google? One, Google is clearly threatened by “vertical search”, those non-Google search engines that limit their focus to specific industries like financials or local commerce (like an online yellow pages). Everybody knows Yahoo! is kills Google when it comes to Finance, for example. In case you were wondering just how Google was going to keep user loyalty as specialized vertical search engines deliver better, more highly-focused results, this announcement says “we’re working on it”. I suppose Universal Search also takes the wind out of the sails of some upstarts looking for venture money to challenge Google in a vertical… who wants to fund something Microsoft Google is already working on?

What does it mean for search marketers and SEO’s? More business, of course. More specialization, as well. For the current Google search engine, SEO is all about the web pages. How they are crafted, what is on them, and how they relate to each other and the web as a whole. But for many publishers, the web has been about data. How to present it so it is consumed by users and search engines. SEOs work all of that, although many focus on database-driven dynamic websites publishing massive amounts of data, while others work on creative content, where a single web page can”go viral” and earn assive market attention (and rank well in Google). Same story, but perhaps with a renewed energy because more data means more confusion (more need for signals of relevancy, and therefore more need for optimization on those signals). It also could me more use of Google, as (potentially) a wider audience is satisfied by Google’s results. And that is a double-edged sword. Google is loved in large part because it is simple and easy to use. How many consumers actually want to know all of the options? Most probably just want “a good answer” followed by 9 obviously lesser answers, not “here are the best 10 good answers, sort them out for yourself”.

I think Google’s personalization efforts are the real answer to Google’s future, if it’s possible to actually achieve it (I have serious doubts). But “Universal Search” is a sexier concept to sell and easier to implement. So, everything’s changed now; expect more of the same.

John Andrews is an independent search engine optimization consultant out of Seattle.

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