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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October 31st, 2007 by john andrews

Shopping Ads Debut

Those ads on the right are not amazon or Google ads. They are ShoppingAds, a new cost-per-click program from the folks who bring you ReviewMe and TextLinkAds and AuctionAds.

Click on “Ads by ShoppingAds” at the bottom of the ad strip,  to see what the program is about and consider signing up for your own evaluation.  or you could click here.

Note: I don’t intend to keep ads on this blog, but I was invited to the beta test and so here they are to distract you.

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October 31st, 2007 by john andrews

John Dvorak loves Google but Hates the Side Effects

Hey John D., it’s not so hard to understand really.

First the disclaimer: I haven’t read John Dvorak for many, many years (since the 350 page per issue PC Magazine days). That said, I did come across this article of his and it is relevant to my current observations on Google and the press.

in “Web Site Entropy” Dvorak notes that his favorite websites have “evolved” into complicated messes that don’t serve his needs nearly as well as their former designs. He cites college sports teams switching from home-grown sites to platforms like CSTV, and wonders why colleges don’t make use of their computer science departments to build websites. A sample of his frustration:

…my local university football team’s site, UC Berkeley… At one time it was quite usable, and you could actually find what you were looking for on the site. Now it’s a slick, unnavigable mess. If you want to find player profiles, the scores from last year, or the coach’s bio, you can forget it. You can’t find crap anymore because the site has been outsourced to an operation owned by CBS TV called CSTV.com. Can I put this bluntly? As far as I’m concerned, the Cal CSTV Web site stinks.

When I read this I first thought “wow, Dvorak is getting OLD!” But then I was distracted by this:

Curiously, what I am looking for is often there, as I’ve found it using Google, but it’s usually buried quite deep. Even worse is the fact that I am finding more and more colleges using CSTV for their outsourced “official” site. It’s also apparent to me as a football fan that nobody doing this site actually likes football. At least, they do not like what we call football. And because of the sweet deal someone must have sold to these colleges, ALL of the colleges’ sports are consolidated into one miserable site.

You see, John? It’s not that hard to understand. You just need to read between the lines of your own prose.

The information you wanted is there on the site, but not apparent to the user, so the user (you) goes to Google and find it. Do you think that is sans consequences? Of course their are consequences, and they have been unfolding before our eyes for 5 years as Google has grown into a bijillion dollar monopoly. Bad site design may come out of bad decisions on how to accommodate growth (not everyone’s favorite summary data can appear on the front page of the site).But once bad design takes hold, users jump to Google, and search referrals pile up. If the home grown site isn’t of SEO quality, other web pages from other sites rank for those searches, and that search traffic goes elsewhere. So the business side of the web ownership decides they want a search friendly solution.

See the consequence of your impatience with the user interface of that website? I could hunt, or I could call Google. As for the reason why the site got to be bad in the first place, business is business and education is business. As an SEO, I almost never find SEO awareness among college students. They are all about AJAX and other acronyms unrelated to today’s commerce. They chose to NOT make money right now, but go to school instead. That is why the teams don’t have the college students develop their websites anymore. That is why they outsource to those “specialists” — those specialty platforms are well indexed in search engines, and “ready to be accountable” as publishing platforms.

Yes yes yes you are correct in pointing out that search traffic is not everything. I’m with you there, John. But business people make mistakes all the time, often at the expense of their customers. And competitive web technologists step in (often with SEO solutions) to satisfy those business people with one solution,while selling another to those aliented customers.

Getting back to your bewilderment regarding outsourcing:

The question on my mind is how any large university with a computer science department can let this happen in the first place. Developing a modern Web site should be a function of the student body, and especially the computer science department. At least I think so. How humiliating it is that the athletic department thinks so little of the computer science department at Berkeley as to outsource to CSTV.

As an SEO consultant I can tell you that the sales pitch from those “specialty website” people brings a new carrot that many administrators find irrestible. They note that the web site, which has historically been a cost center, could actually become a profit center when their content-and-ad-serving-platform is utilized. Sponsored ads and placements can actually bring in revenue (imagine that!). So the administrators toss out the fans for the chance to earn money… Again, what’s new there? Of course the dollars aren’t as expected, but the contracted deal allows the platform to optimize as needed to extract their share of the “profits”… ostensibly to recover development costs. Would you call that entropification?

What I do see as interesting about your rant, John, is that you recognized the potential for student involvement but didn’t suggest that the college students (from the marketing department, not CIS) jump on these opportunities and build out unofficial University team fan sites as entrepreneurial adventures. Unimpressed by slick sales pitches and aware of the hidden costs of giving away the farm, the B-school freshmen do indeed recognize the potential of social media and the ease of startup these days. Ten grand would get you a good start… and you won’t have to split those ad dollars with the middleman or pass your traffic logs (business data) through their filters. As for SEO, Google tells us what to do to earn search referrals. I can plainly see a few promising search startegies in the examples you noted, and I haven’t even tried. Of course such endeavors would disrupt the (business) plans of those university administrators… but as you say, they aren’t doing a very good job of it now, are they?

There is beauty in what Google is doing. By playing both sides of the transaction, they can encourage disruption, reward creativity, and simultaneously sympathize with the losers as their business models fall apart, offering them hope with pay per click. It’s ingenious. Smartest guys in the room? Enron had nothing on Google.

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October 29th, 2007 by john andrews

If I were Google, I’d be just about to….

If I were Google, I would have been working hard for the past 6 months on something new, and it would now be “almost ready”.

In early spring of 2007, if I were Google I would have recognized the strength of search marketing in the world today, (SEM/SEO and especially SEO), and reflected. I would also have recognized the serious weaknesses in the SEM/SEO model right now, and likewise reflected. That activity would have hatched a plan. And the plan would have taken about 6 months to implement. At SMX I would have felt good about how SEM/SEO was getting more user-centric and supportive. I would have marveled at the growth of the search industry from the user side, as less-obnoxious “SEM”, and I would have felt good. My plan, which would have already been generating useful information as a research project by then, would be back-burnered for implementation. But in San Jose at SES in July, where the anti-Google edginess peaked and one-way, inflammatory communications seemed to be welcomed by the audience, I would have gotten pissed and thrown off my hesitations. No more Mr. Nice guy. The plan would go forward.

What sort of plan? Well, what sort of weakness exists in SEO today?

SEO is about optimizing a web business to garner free organic search referrals. It has also become about managing Google, as Google tries to manage commerce. SEO had a reputation as a way to “game the system” but now Google has a reputation for gaming that same system in a much bigger way. SEO is now a response to evil. But therein lies one weakness: SEO still has a bad reputation, and Google still has a good reputation. The plan has to capitalize on that before Google has a worse reputation.

SEO was formerly based on greed. More #1 rankings means more traffic and more profits. But the SEM/SEO industry is now built upon the “see a need, fill a need” philosphy. In the last few years, Google flip-flopped from “don’t be evil” to “don’t be too evil”, and alienated a ton of web publishers. Now there is an almost universally recognized need for search optimization services not for greed, but for survival. Everyone needs SEO today, and most business people know it. It’s not optional, but is required. As long as it is obvious that people need SEO to survive, SEO will prosper. And therein lies a weakness.

And so we have unearthed the clues which define The Plan:

  • Increase the RISK asociated with SEO. Highlight the evil side of SEO in a very prominant way, to win over the audience on the issue of “SEO is gaming the system, bad for everyone, and a dirty, slimy, parasitic endeavor”. Show SEO as evil. Define good SEO (enabling search inclusion, promoting relevant text, effective linking etc) as not SEO but good webmastering, leaving only the ugly stuff to define SEO (“keyword stuffing”, “sneaky redirects”, “off-topic linking”, “paid links”). Use the SEM community to help in that regard, since they are Business Partners (thru PPC) and thus beholden. They will help — they have no other option. Yes I know this has been done, but I’m thinking it now needs to be done much more thoroughly, clearly, and with conviction.
  • Show the world that they don’t need SEO. Leak the existence of high-profile web sites which do well in search, but which do not look “optimized”. Make sure some crazy URL structures are well indexed. Make sure a high-profile selection of pages are parsed perfectly, so core relevance is emphasized and rewarded with search traffic despite overly-templatic page layout or bad information architecture. This might take manual assistance, but nobody cares about that anymore. Show the people that SEO is not necessary, so they can see only the risks. Ignore the fact that SEO is about competition, because people are too distracted to notice that. They want their entitlements, so give them entitlements so they don’t need SEO.
  • Lower the cost of PPC for entry level and small markets. This is more easily done than imagined, as there are simply so many hooks available to Google for “managing” the total costs (thank you QualityScores). Show success stories of small merchants earning profits without the overhead of SEO. Again, the SEM army will be happy to help with this, since they understand how easly the flock can be managed once so engaged. Free targeted traffic is what they want. They will accept low-cost targeted traffic (they did it before). Yes, it’s a lot like the Long Tail carrot, and the “but you can rule the world of rainbow sandals!” approach to search marketing, but it will work if you make them feel relief from the stresses of competing with the BigBoys of eTailing.

I agree most of this is not new, and pre-exists in smaller, uncoordinated doses. But I’m waiting for The Plan to be implemented very soon in a coordinated fashion, at a level not seen before. Maybe after the upcoming disappointing end-November online sales figures are in to the web mechants, and they see just how Google and the BigBoys of eTailing now have it, at their expense. Just before those masses of small businesses can throw their hands up and say “I need a darker hat”, will Google implement The Plan? Was the earlier-than-expected Page Rank demotion part of ThePlan? Will Google say “we nailed a bunch of evil SEO spammers, threw their customers and anyone who looked like them out of the index, and are now rewarding the loyal Flock with a new, lower-cost targeted traffic. Oh, and you need to become a Google Business Partner… ”

If I were Google, that’s what I would do. And I would do it during the next 90 days.

And if I were a merchant/publisher, competing with Google and the Big Boys, I would fully engage smart SEO right now. Let the Flock get scared and sign on with Google. Let the script kiddies trade links and play their SEO tricks, setting themselves up as scapegoats for the Google slaughter. In the end, those who compete will win, and real SEO is about competition for rankings in Google’s pages, playing Google’s game. Pick any analogy you want for SEO, but the bottom line is you must be in the game if you want a chance to win. To be in the Google game, you must engage smart SEO.

*** This article is getting voted up at Sphinn…. if you liked it, add your vote, too.

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