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 23rd, 2009 by john andrews

Google Sidewiki: A New Marketplace for Trust

Google has launched Sidewiki, an annotation service for web pages. There is already some discussion of how it might be used. I see it as a natural extension of Google’s desire to put trust to work, and that means a new premium marketing opportunity.

Google has invested heavily in identifying individual people. Google requires a Google account for most services, which it ties to an individual using whatever data it can obtain (IP, email address, credit card data, toolbar web activity, etc). The user is the key to trust, and Google is investing heavily in an accountable web (as compared to an anonymous web). Add in cookies and local storage objects (LSO) it obtains from Doubleclick, Adsense, and Google Analytics, and you have to recognize Google can track users.

Just as it seems clear that Google has moved beyond web sites and started to catalog/index brands or companies (based on trust metrics, as is evident from Google local activities over the past year or so), Google wants to know people. Webmasters as well as users. Google’s trust of wikipedia, Google Profiles and Google Knoll add to the picture… who is known, who is known to be known, known to be respected, known to be active, known to be a spammer, etc. Trust is huge for Google.

And now Google, with Sidewiki, can explore the ability to collect opinions from trusted individuals. Opinions may produce additional knowledge to be used in assigning relevance (“I used SiteA to plan my trip to Ecuador”) or ranking (Sidewiki on Orbitz may be full of comparisons to Expedia or Travelocity).

I’m thinking a trusted individual, known to Google, is increasingly eligible to bring hir recommendations to the marketplace for a fee. The more we see Google slap bloggers who take money to push products or make recommendations, the more value we must assume those recommendations carry. The offline world moved to celebrity endorsements¬† successfully, so why not online, too?

Google is trying to play gatekeeper, judge, and jury when it comes to online celebrity. Quick.. name an online celebrity who can’t be found in Google. The only ones you can recall are probably the ones who gaind fame for getting slapped by Google. The rest? Do they even exist? (sarcasm)

Thus far Google has felt free to stifle online celebrities that are known only for their online celebrity (by banning them for related activities, such as pushing products). Lately, that slippery slope has gotten very slippery, with Google broadening its language concerning “sponsorship” and even calling on the FTC to get involved.

The thinkers out there should think through the end game consequences…what makes a brand? What makes an online celebrity? What are the trust factors? And perhaps most importantly, why do we as a society say the consumer is not misled when Tiger Woods says he chooses to drink Cherry Gatorade, but might be misled when a blogger says she uses a new hair product?

Google Sidewiki… another tool for your online marketer’s toolbox.

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September 23rd, 2009 by john andrews

Meta Tags and SEO for Google

Subtitled: The (continued) Importance of Meta Tags

With the recent proclamation by Google that “meta tags don’t matter”, there is a need for some constraint. Meta tags do matter, folks. They are important! Google knows this… they never actually said meta tags don’t matter. They said something about meta tags, which was quite nuanced, and important, and needs to be understood. But they did not say meta tags don’t matter!

Meta tags are important. They are the method of publishing data that is not rendered visibly by the user’s web browser. There is a whole set of meta tags available to webmasters. The recent Google announcement applied to ONE of the meta tags in the set… the meta keywords tag. Nothing else. Just that one. They said that one didn’t matter to Google. Almost.

So let’s cut through some of the hype out there in Internet news land. Google did not say meta tags don’t matter – they simply said they do not use the meta keywords tag for ranking. That’s it.

But even the meta keywords tag is still important folks! There are more search engines than just Google, and hopefully more to come. We have to keep in mind, especially when dealing with Google, that web publishers define the web, not Google. Google (and the others) make use of what we publish, to create search engines. If we publish junk in the meta keywords tag, for example, a search engine is likely to ignore it (as Google says it does). But if we publish good, clean meta information in a meta tag? Search engines would be foolish not to use it. We might not be there today because of spammy marketers trying to exploit ranking factors, but we shouldn’t let that distract us from proper course of web publishing.

Take this announcement as a signal to properly use your meta tags. If you don’t use them properly, search engines will start to ignore them (thus further limiting our options for communicating invisibly with web services like search engines). Put a few highly-relevant and appropriate keywords into your meta keywords tag, as a matter of course. Microsoft says Bing still uses them. Perhaps Bing knows when to trust them, and when to ignore them. Perhaps Bing is better than Google at one or two specific things, but it shouldn’t really matter to webmasters — it’s an option for them to read them or ignore them. But we should publish them. Should we agonize over them? Spend priority resources getting them “perfect”? No.

So why did Google announce this, and why now? Because Google gets involved as a third party to lawsuits involving trademark terms placed into the keywords meta tag (and title, and description, and page content, etc). The courts have struggled to interpret claims that trademarks (brand names) placed in meta data, where they are invisible to the web surfer, represent interference or infringement of rights. If the stuffed brand names are invisible to users, they can’t be considered confusing to the consumer. But if they influence search rankings, then yes, they can help competitors appear in place of the brand names they hide in their meta tags, and meta stuffing can be seen as infringing or interfering. But… and this is a big but…. someone needs to determine (in the courts, as part of discovery, if they impact search and how they impact search. Understand? The lawsuit gets extended to Google, as lawyers subpoena Google for information on how its algorithm works. Ouch. Google hates that.

So Google came out and stated publicly that meta keywords do not influence rankings. Period. That’s all they said.

My advice? Same as last week and last year. Keep using as many meta tags as is important to your web publishing, including the keywords meta tag. Don’t spend a lot of time crafting seo-optimized keywords meta tags…. just use a few highly relevant, meaningful keywords that might support a classification of your page content according to its intent (a diatribe on why I hate Google should be tagged Google, for example, and maybe john andrews, but not “digital marketing firms in Seattle Washington“).

Don’t be fooled…. if meta information carries value, Google will use it. Today, Google says they don’t use the keywords meta tag for ranking. Do they use it for trust? Do they use it for quality scores? Do they use it for other purposes that may influence indexing or relevance, not directly related to ranking? We don’t know. No one asked those questions. No one asked if they look at the keywords meta tag to see if it keyword stuffed, as a measure of webmaster spammy-ness or quality. All we know is, today, Google says they don’t use them for ranking.

Matt Cutts, in a follow-up video statement, said they don’t use the keywords meta tag for “anything”, but the language was not carefully-crafted and casual, so I don’t accept that as a clarifying statement. It still needs follow-up. After all, if Bing actually was using them safely, but Google found them too spammy to trust, wouldn’t it be helpful to Google (e.g. harmful to Bing) if everyone stopped using the keywords meta tag? I know a few search industry figure heads will latch on to that as a sign of “conspiracy thinking” but we can ignore those hyperbolic talking heads… it’s not a conspiracy, it’s competitive webmastering. There is no reason to make linear assumptions if we can play safely while minimizing risk of things changing over time.

I hope that helps clarify some of the hype around keywords meta tag and SEO. This post was prompted by questions from my audience, this concise opinion that almost hit the mark, and an article from Search Engine Land that, for me, exemplifies much of what is wrong with the search marketing media (inaccurate inflammatory title, overly-casual treatment of the topic, wandering back and forth between conclusions “it’s useful” vs. “it’s not useful”, and over-reliance on anecdotal evidence obtained with limited tests. Webmaster world has a more rational discussion, touching on several possibilities while considering past and current experiences… of course still including the typical absolutisms expected from old timers. Scan that thread to get a good feel for webmaster sentiment, and make your own judgment.

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September 14th, 2009 by john andrews

Proctor and Gamble Eats Values for Lunch

In my twitter stream this morning was a quip about Proctor and Gamble having a new strategy. I clicked through.

I landed on an old-school designed page with a 66 year old woman’s face smiling at me. She was Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the author of the article. It was a Harvard web site. Her bio was monstrous: named professorship at Harvard¬† Business School, 25 years of experience in strategy consulting to Big Brands, former editor of Harvard Business Review. Listed by a British newspaper as one of the “50 most powerful women in the world”. And she wrote some books.

If you know me, you probably know I was less than impressed. Old school credentials mean little to me. Oh sure 30 years ago you had to be great to be great. But somewhere around 30 or so years ago, you only had to be better than someone else to be great. More recently, you merely had to know someone great, to be great. Lately, it seems you simply have to say how great you are, to be great. And anyone can write a book… even people who don’t write their own books are book authors. Best sellers? You can pre-sell your way to the best seller list today. There’s even a search marketing book selling for twenty something dollars that is practically famous for including a $200 advertising credit for Microsoft’s AdCenter system. What profit-minded web marketer would not buy a $20 book that includes a $200 rebate? I expect that author to publish claims of his “best selling book author” status any day now.

Ms. Kanter’s article says Proctor and Gamble is revamping business strategy around values. Reaching out to the consumers, to understand their modern value systems, and speaking to those values with innovative new products. Making their world a better place. Sound familiar?

We saw this generations ago (or last week on Mad Men for you young ‘uns), and almost every day since. Corporations telling us how their products improve our world. Unfortunately, those corporations exploited every available opportunity along the way. They would improve one aspect of life with a consumer product, and exploit every other aspect of life that was not being monitored.If the people were ignorant of some other aspects of their miserable or soon to be miserable lives, the corporation would exploit that in the profit equation. They sell one product that makes life better, while making life much worse (in the long run) through the manufacturing and selling that same product.
If a community used drinking glasses in the school cafeteria, that could be spun as expensive, dangerous, and unsanitary. Glasses can break. Unsanitary meant germ-fostering. Germs are a problem, so getting rid of germs would improve quality of life. Viola.. a values-driven business strategy to sell disposable cups to school systems. It would not require a hard sell, just some marketing. Any responsible parent would choose germ-free over unsanitary. As long as the community didn’t know that bleaching process used to make white paper cups would destroy their rivers and streams, or that the foam used in foam cups would require the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and never degrade once “disposed” of, the corporation would profit from the matching of product to values. No one counted carbon molecules, and to this day no one measures the local water consumed to produce products shipped outside of the local community. Exploitation. It’s profitable. No one considered how glass was sanitary itself, glass could be recycled locally, and no one did a factual risk analysis for broken glasses. None of that was profitable.

Now Ms. Kanter tells us Proctor and Gamble is at it again. She cites an example from colorful far away India. She tells us “In India, about half of men’s shaves are done in barbershops where barbers break double-sided blades in two and use them repeatedly. (Ouch! Unsanitary and bloody inconvenient.)”

Contrary to Ms. Kanter’s apparent assumptions, I read that example as rather sustainable. According to my values (based here in the US, like the “Himalaya Team” at Proctor and Gamble, which is based in Boston), I’d rather see a metal razor blade re-used than see a disposable, plastic-handled Gillette razor thrown into the trash to be dumped in a landfill next to a (former) trout stream. Ms. Kanter reports that Gillette has innovated a new razor product to match the Indian community’s values. She tells us “The team’s razor-and-blade innovation, they report, involves simplification to the essential features to do the job, an affordable cost through manufacturing innovations, and new way to reach lower-income shavers. They preach health as well as grooming benefits.”

India is a country fraught with water problems and economic growth issues. Is it wise for them to adopt some new Gillette disposable razor system, no matter how much better it is than it used to be? Do we know anything about actual sanitation risks of barber-wielded razors? I would think a shaky-handed barber would go out of business pretty quickly. Think about this…. if half of the shaves in India are done by barbers, that’s local money going through local commerce. A self-employed tradesman could actually live without working for a corporation at minimum wage. If they buy Gillette disposables, the money goes through channels to overseas companies, and the garbage stays local. So does the packaging garbage. The barbers will have to take jobs at Wal-Mart (stocking the shelves with Gillette razors?). Haven’t we already learned the pitfalls of this type of global commerce? Aren’t today’s value systems already aware of the evil of this sort of “making lives better through consumer products” approach? And Ms. Kaner calls this new and innovative?

I have no doubt Proctor and Gamble will succeed. It’s “too big to fail”. There will always be a community ignorant of the exploits and willing to adopt the products, believing the marketing and hoping for a better life. There will always be corrupt or selfish government officials willing to trade away their people’s well being for incentives (While advising corporations, Ms. Kanter notes the importance of earning “favorable treatment from government”).

But I also believe that today, more than ever, the consumer is in a position to tell these corporations how they need to make their products. Those Indian men are already saying “it is good to visit the local barber for a shave. It is good to have strong community, and to reduce waste and support local commerce.” Ms. Kanter says P&G is listening and innovating. I disagree. It seems to me P&G is listening and maneuvering, trying to work around the changing value systems because profits are down and they need to sustain global growth in order to continue to please shareholders and support executive at P&G and on Wall Street. I suspect that if P&G had done research to show there were real sanitation concerns associated with the use of re-usable razors in barber shops in India, those barbers would address the root problems of cleanliness. They would have to, in order to keep their customers. But I doubt P&G could sustain profitability selling such minimal solutions into that market. After all, the real reason those barbers are not using disposable razors now is probably cost, not environmental awareness.

We, you and I, not corporations, need to lead the front on values. The Internet and Social Media, especially, helps educate everyone and eliminate the pockets of exploitable communities. It helps get the word out in both directions… what works, and what does not. Where there is no Internet, there can be people carrying knowledge of how the rest of the world works.You and I need to discuss openly, in public, what works and what does not. The conversation needs to take place in the open, not behind closed doors in some research and development department of a consumer products corporation.

Our world has gotten smaller. Do you have any idea where your garbage goes today? We won’t always have overseas garbage dumps for our toxic waste. We won’t always have ignorant communities with corrupt politicians willing to trade the health and welfare of their people for American dollars. It was practically yesterday that some were suggesting we dig holes in the arctic ice and bury our waste, yet already that ice is melting and the ice caps are breaking up. Where would that buried waste be now? The ocean has already begun to regurgitate the trash we’ve been dumping into it for the past 70 years. Where will it go now? Who will clean it up?¬† I guarantee it won’t be Proctor and Gamble or Gillette. is old school, and Ms. Kanter is old school, and as a former editor at Harvard and current consultant to big brands, she will get her stuff published. But that doesn’t mean it’s good or worthy even. And you don’t have to buy it, or read it. And most of all, you don’t need to put it into my Twitter stream. Instead, tweet something valuable. I’ll retweet it if you do. Together, we can lead on values, and perhaps keep one step ahead of the “innovators” at places like Proctor and Gamble as they seek new exploits to drive their profits. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the idea that maybe, if not today then someday soon, there will be better odds of a barber in India reading Twitter than an executive at Proctor and Gamble reading Twitter. Wouldn’t that be great? That would lead to innovation, for sure.

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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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