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?  Competitive Web & SEO
September 9th, 2007 by john andrews

SEOS : The Card Counters of the Internet

I was reading Aaron Wall’s description of his Google experiences (“Google Lies“), and I thought wow, Aaron is becoming enlightened. You see, Aaron has been around SEO for a few years now but has always had this “here is how it works” perspective on SEO. “You do this, and that happens, because Google works this way“. The only problem is, that’s not how competition works.If Google is busy or distracted, you can get away with stuff. But if Google is paying attention, you can’t. Before you take that wrong, allow me to explain. When I say “get away with stuff” I don’t mean pull dirty SEO tricks. I mean make profit. Google doesn’t want you to make profit, except as it allows. So when you do something that makes profits beyond where Google wants to allow, you are at risk of being managed by Google. Aaron is learning this first hand. Before, Google was very busy and not very good at policing the profits earned on the web. Today, Google has far greater resources, less competition, and is very, very knowledgeable about what profit levels should be for various businesses on the web. If you don’t like that, too bad. It’s the nature of competition. Google is no different than any other aggressive, competitive organization. But it can be managed, and that is the goal of the modern-day SEO or web publisher.

A while ago something new showed up on the web. It was “free” and “good”. It was called Wikipedia. As I perused the wikipedia notes for editors back then, I came across a discussion about linking out. When is it proper to link out from a wikipedia article to a web page on the Internet? The answer was scary to me at the time. Wikipedia editors were told to look at the web page and consider if the information it held could be taken and rewritten as part of the wikipedia article. If it could, do that and don’t link out because that web page would have become redundant: it’s information would now be part of wikipedia. If it could not be so hijacked (my word), then yes, consider linking out to it.That early observation set my course for competing with wikipedia. I knew where they stood, and that they had a plan to disintermediate me as a web publisher. If they could, whenever possible, they would hijack my content, republish it on wikipedia, and leave me irrelevant. Nice, huh. No, not nice. Competitive. They may not have been after money at that time, but content. Traffic and mind share were even more important than money to them. Let’s just call it “profit” and leave the units undefined.Google has an agenda, and if you publish on the web then that agenda involves you. To make it easy to visualize, I like to use an analogy. Google is a casino, and you are a visitor.The casino sets the house rules in it’s own favor. The gaming odds are predetermined to guarantee a profit for the casino, no matter what happens. The game is rigged before you play. That is the only way a business like a casino can invest over a billion dollars in construction costs for a single hotel/casino. But the casino is up front about this. Las Vegas is about entertainment, not gambling, right? Your reward for gambling is not winning, but the excitement of playing, right? The free drinks. The pretty girls. Access to world class stage acts, performers, and shopping. The game is rigged to pull profits off the table and deliver them to the casino, and the system is built to make you feel good as you give them those profits. You hear it all the time from your friends upon returning from Las Vegas: “I lost a ton of money, but I had a great time“.

Google is the casino. Google gives us free stuff, and provides the entertaining environment – the web as Las Vegas. YouTube, Picassa, Google News.. they are the pirate ship, the fountain show, the fake Paris streets of Las Vegas. Ever notice how airfare to Las Vegas from nearby cities like Sacramento goes on sale for as low as $20? That’s like Blogger… subsidized transportation that brings in more players. Google is the casino taking it’s house cut and more whenever it can, and you are the player.

Now take that analogy a bit further and you start to see Aaron’s predicament. If Google is the casino, and we are the players, are SEOs the card counters of the Internet? Riddle me this: who has the most sophisticated real-time security systems in the entire world? No, it’s not Homeland Security. The most sophisticated security systems are owned by Las Vegas casinos. They watch everything on camera. They have photos of known card counters, and they investigate anything that looks remotely suspicious. Remind you of Google?

I said earlier that Google wants to control the profits you make on the web. Ever win in a casino? Even if you win purely by chance, you will be scrutinized. If you win against all odds, you may find yourself interrogated in a back room, against your will. It happens more often than anyone would like to admit. The casinos know the odds, and have set a trust threshold for accepting chance’s delivery on those odds. If you fit a profile (shifty eyes, ethnic background, whatever it is) you will be suspect. Do you have rights? Of course not. The casino is private property. They can deny anyone access, and ban anyone from returning. The interrogation is done before you can collect your winnings, so of course it’s not detention but rather “voluntary participation“.

Card Counting is the practice of paying close attention to which cards have already been played at the game table, so you can estimate the odds of future cards showing up. Since it is hard to remember every card played, card counters count face cards so they can estimate the odds of a face card coming next. The better you pay attention and remember what has already been played, the better you can predict whether or not a face card is coming next. If you count cards you have beter odds of winning, of course. Along with the Casino Gaming Commission, the casino has already set the game rules in its favor, aside from chance, to ensure it takes decent profits from every game played regardless. But a good card counter can trim those profits. A good card counter can even the odds, over ruling the built-in casino advantage.

Let me ask you this: is card counting illegal? Is it immoral? Unethical? Is it against the casino rules? Will they ban you from the casino if they suspect you are counting cards? Yes, they will ban you from playing in the casino if they suspect that you are paying as close attention as possible to the cards you see played, counting them as best as you can to improve your odds at the game. Does that seem fair? It’s like this: play, but if you pay too much attention, and play better than most people, you’re banned.

Google is the casino, and we can expect Google to continue to increase it’s proportion of the profits, increase the sophistication of it’s security systems, and continue to try to completely control the environment. Card counting is not illegal, so casinos shuffle as many as 8 decks together for a single game. They prohibit players from entering a game already underway, to make card counting less convenient. The only reason they can ban you for counting cards is because the casino is private property, and private property owners can discriminate against you as much as they like as long as it doesn’t violate civil rights (the Constitution doesn’t guarantee you rights to gamble in private casinos). But unlike the casinos who own their properties, Google doesn’t own the web. That’s a big difference. One could argue that the Las Vegas casinos “own” Las Vegas. Everyone knows Google has been spending heavily on lobbying for the past two years. Will Google own the web one day?

I think Aaron has learned he’s now considered a card counter, and unwelcome in GoogleVegas. I think we are all seeing Google introduce it’s own version of the 8 deck shuffle, the “no mid-shoe entry” rules, and the high-tech security systems. It is not likely to change direction, but all eyes need to be on who owns the web, and how that political game is played.

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September 6th, 2007 by john andrews

“There Are No Secrets” and other SEO Myths

One of the Great Myths of SEO is not that “there are no secrets”, but that “there are no secrets” articles are hogwash. Anyone in search marketing who says “there are no secrets” either has not been in search marketing for very long, or has an alternative agenda for that propaganda. I’ve been in SEO for a long time. I discover new “secrets” every day, and sadly, I routinely learn of secrets my colleagues have been using well after they started using them. More often than I care to stomach, newly discovered “secrets” cause me to revamp SEO strategies in a hurry. I’m not the most connected SEO in the world, so I don’t know all the secrets, but of course I know there are secrets!

SEO is about competitive advantage, not process. Those agency-types who would like you to believe that a fat agency fee will keep you competitive have a conflict of interest. They need SEO to have a sustainable business model in order for them to build an agency. They need to be able to plan in advance. They need to be able to accurately predict revenue, so they can use other people’s money to fund tomorrow’s profits. And so they need YOU to believe that “there are no secrets”. They need you to fund TheProgram according to a predetermined plan, because they need to use your funds to pay for the prospective they have to do as the seek more clients. Every time you get pitched by the whiz SEO guru from TheAgency, do you have any doubt your account will end up with a green newbie marketer as soon as you sign the yearly contract? Of course it will. That SEO guru is booked solid on the meeting circuit hooking new clients. He won’t have time for your account. Even if he did, how could they afford to pay him worthy rates as an SEO for your work?

It is actually worse, though. Not only are there plenty of secrets, which are GREAT to have, but there are exploits which are even better. For every secret, there can be a whole collection of exploits, which make use of that secret to win in the SERPs. In fact, exploits are where the fun is: the exploits are what get optimized. If not for the diversity of exploits in SEO, we would probably never share our secrets because the playing field would be too even. Let out a secret that doesn’t need an exploit, and even the agency people will be able to compete. But without a working exploit, your typical SEO secret is of little value.

I have to wonder, if a search marketer publicly states that there are no SEO secrets, what does that say about the search marketer? Does she have no friends?

A secret is something no one else knows. An exploit is a way of using that secret knowledge to win in the SERPs. That “secret” might be market knowledge, consumer trend data, or anything else that gives an edge. Those of you reading this and thinking “on page technical SEO factors” are blinded by your bias. SEO is and always has been about gaining referrals from search engines, whatever that means. It’s all the marketers now coming after search engine referrals that are the clueless newbies of SEM, not the old skool SEOs.

Sometimes people claim to want to “legitimize” SEO and they proclaim that SEO is not cloak and dagger stuff but good solid hard work. Those same people LOVE pay per click. PPC represents the stable, client supported model. I think it should be called PPP instead of PPC, to represent “pay pay pay”. Pay on a regular basis so everybody can plan how they will be spending your money.

Let’s set the record straight. Competitive SEO is about exploitation of “secrets”. You look at the target search results page, examine who ranks and figure out why they do, and take a look at the web materials you have to work with yourself. What secrets do you know, that the current ranking web sites don’t seem to know? What exploits can you execute, that will overtake those players at the top of the SERP? If you come up dry on any of that due diligence, which I don’t expect from any competent SEO today in all but the most competitive SERPs, then you re-think your content strategy. It’s search marketing, optimized. And to those who suggest that SEO types want to keep things “edgy” and don’t want to “get along” you’re just crayoning over the problem. That “edgy” SEO you don’t enjoy on your marketing team reflects your inability to manage the team.
There are no secrets? When i see that, I look for the “Certified AdWords Professional logo” because I translate that to mean “let’s set up a nice big fat Pay Per Click account”. Of course there are secrets. This is business.

The serious issue is really that problem about planning and sustainable business practices. We all need to be able to predict, or perhaps estimate revenues. But the problem is not SEO. The problem is Google, which finds itself in a tough situation as both buyer and seller of advertising and advertising supported traffic. I would like to suggest that all the talking heads out there proclaiming “there are no secrets” and referring to SEOs as pimply-headed geeks reconsider their approach to the problem. instead of bashing SEO, why not work on helping to make organic search traffic procurement sustainable? Why not develop ways to predict market share from available data? Why not lobby Google to put more Ph.D. brain cells onto the problem of webmaster communication and problem resolution? I’d support that effort.

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September 3rd, 2007 by john andrews

Ad Blocking: the real issue

If you visited this blog with Firefox you probably saw a harsh redirect to the anti-firefox rant over at That was my intention.

If you said to yourself “what is John smoking?” then good. That, too, was my intention. If you linked to me for any reason, then thanks, that was a hoped-for bonus. But this was not so much link bait as discussion bait. I’d like to move the discussion along past the superficial rant stage. I’d like to focus the discussion on the current over dependence on Google and “ad revenue”.

I assume most of my readership is sophisticated enough about the web to recognize that anti-firefox site as an extremist rant. So FireFox enables plugins, and people are making an promoting great ad-blocking plug ins. I personally have used several of them. If Firefox didn’t open up to fabulous extensions like that, someone else would. The web will evolve. If that threatens you, then maybe you should spend your rant energies diversifying offline?

I use Greasemonkey quite a bit. It’s a system that enables me to inject javascript and inline HTML into the browser’s page rendering, in real time. I can of course block ads, but I can also number search listings, display page level meta data of my own design, swap design aspects. The web was built on the http protocol, and the web page is built on the document object model, and of course I should be able to manage that on the client side. It’s my computer and my view port. Of course corporations like Microsoft would like to lock me out of that, just as they would like to lock me out of the rest of my computer’s operating system if they could. Greasemonkey gives me some access. Firefox has no choice but support Greasemonkey – it’s built to fit in with Firefox’s open source code.

But to rant about ad blockers is to give them more attention, which will spur increased adoption of the ad blockers because they work really well. It will also cause more people to discover they can set their user agent to anything they like (you can! Really!), and that they can install all sorts of cool DOM-modifying plug-ins to their hearts’ content. Some may even finally install Opera.

I just read they are now planning to put ads on the backs of seats on airplanes. I’ve already experienced that quite a bit with Delta’s Song airline. It sucked. They left a screen brightness control so I could turn it off, but the current proposals are for ads you cannot turn off. Who wants that? I know a few psychologists who could make a legal case for a fatigue-related health concern if airlines keep you captive under FAA regulations, but force you to suffer constant visual distractions like that, with no option to turn them off. Who wants that? When ads become annoying, people will turn them off.

The issue is not ad blockers. The issue is fear. The fear that induced that anti-Firefox rant campaign. The fear of losing ad revenue (and control of ad revenue) when ad blockers are ubiquitous.

Just as we survived the destruction of pop-ups (hooray) and the throttling of email spam (sort of), we will survive the avoidance of javascript ads. A better question is, will the web survive the current over reliance on advertising?

I’ll remove the UA cloaking in a few days; thanks for switching to IE or whatever and coming in anyway.

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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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