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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September 24th, 2010 by john andrews

A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words

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September 22nd, 2010 by john andrews

You’re Free to Go Home

Many years ago, in the days when I thought I was competitive, I played racquetball. Now I realize that I was not actually a competitive person at all. I was a poser. But the racquetball experience is still worthy of re telling as a parable.

Out of college and flush enough to join a private club, I learned to play racquetball. I practiced (a lot). I got pretty good. I joined the league, and earned a reputation for being quick. I won most of my games, even in my first year of playing the game.

The club kept one high-profile glass court reserved at all times for “winner keeps the court” games. If you walked onto that court, you were challenging all comers to a “loser walks” game. Winner was king of that court, and could play as long as he could defend against all challengers. Loser walked off. I was able to keep that court as my own, frequently, despite challenges from all sorts of players.

Unlike some of the other “regulars” at the club, I played a well-rounded game. I was quick on my feet. I was ambidextrous, and enjoyed a wide reach. I executed a hard, accurate swing. I could predict where the ball would be with great certainty, and I had a good court sense (body positioning). I had an awesome right handed kill shot from my younger paddleball days, and my left handed kill shot got more reliable every day. I knew the rules, and could usually highlight the mistakes I had made in any lost game. At one point, I even thought I was “competitive” player. Sometimes I thought that I only lost when I made mistakes, or when the other guy got lucky.

Boy was I wrong.

One day I played this old timer who rarely showed up for any league play. He had a beer belly, and was way old (about 45 years old I think). He beat me handily.

I watched him beat everyone else, too, while I awaited my turn to challenge again. I lost again. And now we get to the “growing up” part of the parable.

This old guy had one move — a killer move. He could return the ball into a corner, with low velocity and low height, nearly every time. No matter what you sent his way, if he could get his racquet onto it, he’d dink it into a corner. If he couldn’t he’d take the miss and wait for the next opportunity. Obviously body positioning was important to him, so he had mastered that as well. He always got into the center court position quickly, and like I noted already, he had quite a girth.

Now any decent competitive racquetball player will tell you how to beat this joker. I discovered I could defeat him by simply returning every shot down the side wall. I’d guess which side corner he might dink into, just like a soccer goalie. When I guessed right, I’d return his dink back along the sidewall.

If I guessed right often enough, I’d beat him. He could never get from his stable center position to the wall fast enough and with enough grace to return my wall-riding return, so it became a game of one-hit points, based on guessing. There were no real volleys, and no real “plays”.

So I learned to beat him, and the loser walked. But it wasn’t fun. It was boring. Slow and stupid. And he came back next chance he got to try again. It’s all he had, and he had as much right to challenge the last winner as anyone else. I never got to know the guy, so I can’t say if  he was simple or perhaps just limited somehow and doing his best with what he had. It didn’t matter. When he was there, racquetball sucked.

Then one night he and I were the only players at the club. Hoo boy. Did I want to spend my night scoring points on single hit plays, all the way to 21, just to do it again, and again? Nope. I made an excuse and conceded the court. He could wait for someone else to play. I opted to be a loser.

I know now I wasn’t really a loser. I simply wasn’t competitive. When it came to the Challenge Court, I didn’t really “get it”. It wasn’t about being the best at playing the game. It clearly wasn’t about being the fittest player. It wasn’t about having the fastest shot or quickest feet, or best court sense or even the most experience. It was about winning. You win, you play. You lose, you go home.

That’s alot like SEO. You win, you get traffic. You don’t win, you don’t get traffic. Simple, really. It doesn’t matter how you play.

I didn’t stay a loser, mind you. I changed my game and my view of competition, and I actually consider myself to be truly competitive these days. Not at racquetball, but at many of the things I do. And that beer-bellied old guy had something to do with my competitive development. I played him many more times after that quitter day, and because of him I learned to be more competitive. I learned to enjoy beating his ass on the court. I watched him and picked apart his weaknesses. I used him as target practice… yes for the occasional bean ball, but mostly for precision ball placement. I learned to enjoy making him stretch a little too far, and move a little too far off balance. I learned to psych him out, to tease him. I got pretty good at grazing his left knee. I learned to predict two positions ahead, not just one, so I could set him up and then knock him down. I learned to win.

I got my racquetball enjoyment while playing every one else, and I learned to get enjoyment out of tiring him out early in the evening. You see, if he could play his way, he could play all night. But if I played him my way, he’d go home early and exhausted. I even remember one night when he left early, someone said “now we can play some real racquetball“.

It was all real racquetball. It was all “legal”, by the rules racquetball. That attitude that it wasn’t “our” form of racquetball is a loser attitude.

If you are a competitor, you play all comers. You might not feel comfortable against some challenges, and you might not want to play the way it takes to win, but if you are a competitor, you will. You need to win. And if you’ve got game, you’ve got a chance. Otherwise, you really should consider going home. Play on your own court, with your own rules, and have your own fun being great at your version of the game.

Now let me address the “hot point” I mentioned above, since I know some readers are probably stuck on it. I said:

That’s alot like SEO. You win, you get traffic. You don’t win, you don’t get traffic. Simple, really. It doesn’t matter how you play.

So it doesn’t matter how you play? That’s right. If you spam your way to #1, you played legitimate SEO just like anybody else. And you’ve assumed the associated risks of ban and penalty and social shun. Grab the cash while the vault door’s open.

You didn’t break any “rules of SEO”… you simply played a different way that led you to win the top spots. Google’s “guidelines” are not laws. They are a set of guidelines that enable Google to manage the eco system of Google search in a way that makes Google money. The guidelines are intended to help keep enough peace that Google doesn’t have to spend alot more money managing that aspect of the Google business.

Of course you should  never gamble what you can’t afford to lose. If you want or need to stay in the game, don’t get yourself banned or penalized.

If you elect to believe in the Almighty Google and subscribe to a “White Hat SEO” philosophy, that’s your choice. You choose to believe what you are told, and follow the guidelines. But you should be prepared to eat White Hat SEO meals at White Hat SEO restaurants. Don’t complain when the menu is limited to stale bread and off-color water.

Don’t point at your more successful (and probably spammier) peers dining at Nobu and suggest life isn’t fair, they aren’t “real SEOs” or lament the fact that Google hasn’t caught them yet.

You can trust me on this.. Google has been very busy. It takes a lot to push billions of dollars in profits all the way to the bank. Just like the old joke that Bill Gate’s would lose money if he stopped to pick up $10,000 on the sidewalk, Google is not anxious to spend its time blocking the sites that are spammier than yours. Google would much prefer you stuck with the “make good content” approach to SEO, so there was less work to do on the spam-fighting front.

By the way, what is “legitimate SEO” anyway? I think there are two primary aspects to that concept: legal and lifestyle.

Legally, if you’re not breaking laws, you’re within the law, and therefore legal. Plain and simple. Of course some countries (like the US) have corrupt legal systems so you need to be careful. It is possible for the innocent to be convicted around here. An indictment for a jury trial is a perfect example of the risks of looking too much like you’re a lawbreaker even if you’re technically not breaking the law. So you do need to be smart about more than just the legal technicalities, in order to stay “legal”. Beware that you may also win so much that they make laws after the fact and go after you for breaking them before they existed. I’ll leave the research on that for homework, but it does happen too often, and it’s not pretty when it does.

As for lifestyle, you make your bed and you lie in it. If your legal spam pollutes the Internet or causes Google to get even more patriarchal than it is, we all lose and even you have to live in the uglier world you helped create. So think about your actions.

If I know you’re behind that spammy network that keeps getting in the way of my legitimate searches, or you’re the guy that makes it impossible for me to “follow my passion” because you’ve turned my niche into a spamfest, I will definitely not want to have a beer with you at the next search conference. And if that’s not bad enough of a social consequence for you, consider that most of the SEO meetings, conferences, and communities are moderated by opinionated, experienced community members who commonly impose their SEO religions upon their communities.

Aside from the token “Black Hat SEO” invited to speak as somewhat of a sideshow act at search conferences, the respect follows those who adhere to the principles of the moderators and organizers. Disagree with the key players behind SMX or SES or Pubcon, and you probably won’t be wearing a speaker badge often if at all.

But, and I say this knowing full well a whole helluvalot of people will be pissed at the suggestion, not everyone’s eyes see the same colors. An eco-conscious father unable to feed his kids will choose to pollute for a paycheck every time he gets an opportunity. You should be aware of that, and not be surprised when it happens. In fact, I’d be disappointed in the Dad who chose to remain “ethical” and poor while his kids starved, and I think you should be too. We live in a real world, and real world guidelines take priority over Google’s guidelines.

Lucky for Google, these days Google makes the real world rules. So if Google wanted to, Google could make the world a better (less spammy) place. That’s a great seat of power to enjoy.

If the Google guidelines mattered, they’d be enforced. You wouldn’t find the spam ranking, and you wouldn’t see Google partners sharing junk content (e.g. MFA) profits with Google. Unless you think Google actually can’t do it — which I say is absurd. Google’s got the money, the power, the talent, and the drive. It’s ludicrous to think poor old Google is suffering at the will of spammers. Convenient, maybe, but ridiculous.

Chew on that a bit, and you may achieve some enlightenment about SEO. Google drives commerce. Google apportions the profits from that commerce. If you want to know the real Google SEO guidelines, follow the money. Look at who makes money with Google, and what they do. That’s the game, and it’s Google’s game.

Just like that old timer with the beer belly and the dink shot. What will you do? Quit? Go home? Play his game and lose? Complain that it’s not fair? Or decide to compete. It’s your life.

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September 3rd, 2010 by john andrews

Response to A Fanboy’s Defense of Google

Self-admitted Google “fan boy” Ryan Singel wrote a “In Defense of Google” article on Wired.com today, calling out consumer watchdog group Consumer Watchdog. Consumer Watchdog has been very effectively lampooning Google on privacy issues lately. It must be starting to hurt, to draw such articles on Wired. Consumer Watchdog’s stuff is smart, just odd enough, sadly comical, and painfully insightful.

The latest was downright creepy… a very creative animation of Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt as the “Ice Cream Man”, that drive-around ice cream guy you don’t know but let talk to (and feed goodies to) your kids. Singel describes the artwork as “caricaturing its [Google’s] CEO Eric Schmidt as a creepy, high-tech ice cream vendor who profiles children”. Since I’m a search guy, I am very familiar with Google. I’m not a “fan” of Google’s business practices, but I am a fan of much of their work. So I “get” many of the little allusions embedded within the video that “civilians” might not get, including the FACT that Eric Schmidt has, indeed said many of the very things that this comic suggests he might say (which I assume make the caricature “creepy” to Mr. Singel).

I assert to you, Mr. Singel, that the reason this animated video is so poignant is because it parallels reality so well. The guy IS creepy to us, because of what he says, how he behaves, and how much power he has with Google.

As I skimmed through the article, I found myself contesting and discounting Mr. Singel’s statements about how unfair this characterization of Google and Schmidt is, time and again (and out loud… sorry Starbuck’s neighbors). Seriously… I work with marketers, issue framers, market shapers, and propagandists. This article is not good enough by current standards, but certainly seems to try to sway public opinion. When I got to the end of the article the kid in me sarcastically muttered “FAIL“, while the more grown-up part of me decided to comment in a blog post (this one).

A few notes… before I tire and move on to more important things.

“In the simplest terms possible, Consumer Watchdog is just wrong”

Nice try. Actually, in simplest terms, Consumer Watchdog is simply “right”. The parody is based in reality. Real factual accounts of things Eric Schmidt has said, ways he has behaved, things Google has done, and access it has to our (and our children’s) information. If it is exaggerated, skewed, biased, or even wrong on many points, it is still not “just wrong”. Next time try and use a more appropriate adjective. You can save yourself from simply being wrong.

“Have you ever actually seen ads on third-party web sites or Google’s own sites that are derived from assumptions Google has made about you based on your search history or what you have written about in e-mails? No, you haven’t. Google doesn’t do that.”

Fanboy Singel asserts this point very clearly and very early in his piece - a claim that Google just doesn’t do the sort of evil tracking the video suggests Eric Schmidt would do. As if to show Consumer Watchdog is lying. “Every search ad and every ad in Gmail or Google Images is essentially blind to who you are and is keyed off only the search term you just entered or the e-mail you just opened. That’s because Google’s ad tracking system and your Google account system are separated by design” Singel asserts.

I’ve been an SEO for a long time, and I have never, ever been able to state with certainty anything about Google’s internal practices like that. But then, Google never spoon-fed me inside information. Did this information come to Mr. Singel direct from Google? I wonder.

But no matter, because Mr. Singel authoritatively states that Google could do the evil tracking thing, and that others are doing it, and that it would be “easy” and “highly profitable” for Google to do it. Then he slips up and reminds us that Google owns a company that is doing it. Huh?

That’s right. He asserts that Google is way above the evilness of actually doing something it could easily do, is highly profitable, and easy to accomplish, and then reveals that Google owns a company that in fact does the evil deed for them.

“It does have a third-party ad service - AdSense (augmented by the Google buying DoubleClick) - that tracks what you do on the web sites that use its ad delivery technology. But those sites (with the exception of YouTube) aren’t Google owned, and that tracking isn’t anything different from what a dozen other firms, including Yahoo and Microsoft do”

That was one of the many times I muttered “FAIL”. If you’re trying to defend Google, best leave out the actual, factual, evil stuff like that.

Here’s my perspective. Google has, since it’s inception, told us how “not evil” it is.

It has repeatedly pointed to things others have done, suggested they were “worse” than whatever Google actually admitted doing at that same time, and claimed the high moral ground in public. Later, Google would change direction and execute on those same opportunities (often in a  big, powerful way). Just like that reference to Double Click not being Google (even though Google owns it) and Mr. Singel’s observation that AdSense sites doing Double-Click’s bidding aren’t owned by Google :

“those sites (with the exception of YouTube) aren’t Google owned”

They may not be Google owned, but they are paid by Google to do the tracking. It’s part of Google’s AdSense terms. Did you not know that?

As an SEO, I’ll even go so far as to say duplicity and deception seem to be in Google’s DNA, at best since Eric Schmidt came on board as CEO.

I know it’s a grand statement to say Google is genetically evil, but that’s how I’ve seen it consistently. I believe people are basically good, but they sometimes do bad things, not the other way around. Google, however, so far seems to have done all of the bad things it might easily get away with, and sometimes after earlier having publicly stated those would be evil things to do. Most of us older than 13 know such claims of “but Billy did worse” do not exempt us from social responsibility for our actions, but both Google and Mr. Singel seem to like that excuse tactic.

By the way, like Wal-Mart, Google is a public company, responsible to US law and its shareholders. If something is known to be easy and highly profitable for Google to do, and is being done by others so is presumably legal, I would be a fool to think Google won’t do them sooner or later, right? It would actually be illegal for Google NOT to do them. The only time a public company can successfully avoid doing profitable but legal evil, is if it can make an internal claim that there is downside risk associated with the profitable act. Risk of a public relations nightmare. Risk of promoting increased regulatory involvement. Risk of hurting partners or distribution channels, or other owned businesses, for example.

Just because it’s not a good time for Google to execute on an evil right now, doesn’t mean Google is above the evil act. Clearly history shows Google is very much capable of acting in its own interests at the expense of.. well.. everyone else.

Much of the details of Google’s duplicity are obscure and somewhat technical, but they are known to just about everyone who works in the Google-dominated search and advertising industry. Trust us, we’ve been there with Mr. Schmidt’s Big G and we know how the story ends.

I’d like the clarify that I’m not all anti-Google. Most of us in search and the web assume Google won’t do the worst things it can do. In fact, many of us risk our careers on that dubious presumption, despite our experiences to the contrary. The truth is, there is simply no other option given Google’s degree of control.

Many of us were very hopeful as Google got involved in things like blog comment spam, image hosting, and free Internet browser marketplace.

We didn’t need a new browser, but if Google Chrome would make the web faster, more secure, more standards-compliant and more “open”, that’d be great. Consumer Watchdog has been highlighting specific areas where Google’s Chrome browser leaks private data, even when Google claims the consumer is “safe” (such as in the Google-named “incognito mode”).

We hate comment spam. A rel attribute on an href is a relatively cumbersome thing to utilize to control comment spam, but if it removed the economic incentive for spamming blogs, that would be great. We are very wary of insider deals between Google (who already owns Blogger) and every major hosted blog provider (e.g. Typepad, Wordpress), but if rel=nofollow is not really a compromise, and is really a cooperative tactic to manage comment spam, that’d be great.

Of course we knew the overwhelming driver of that comment spam was profit sharing paid out by Google through the DoubleClick-supported AdSense program, but we hoped for the better. We now know how much Google has extended this nofollow attribute to serve its own interests, separate from any comment spam hindering, and we all still have tons of comment spam.

We also loved the traffic Google sent us from image search enough to agree with Google that it was not actually hosting our images when it cached them on its servers, but rather giving us exposure (and traffic). Until of course, Google shut off that traffic stream (while continuing to host our images). Fool me once… fool me again?
Ryan Singel does to great lengths to list other presumably good, non-evil things Google does, and I can counter just about every one of them with an SEO insight that kinda shows he’s wrong. I won’t.. but I could. Okay… how about a quickie?

Google voluntarily deletes data after 18 months? Maybe, but wasn’t the public outcry originally against Google intentionally trying to save that data forever? And then for 365 days? Is the 18 month compromise really evidence of Google’s benevolence? And what about those comments from senior Google executives… that we should be glad it’s Google saving that data instead of some government? Seriously? Didn’t we already read (several times) about Google’s insider hookup (a.k.a. contracts) with the same government agencies that buy credit databases from private companies and hire contractors to exploit a loophole in civilian protection laws that makes comprehensive citizen tracking by the government illegal?

Now we have to notice that Ryan Singel isn’t speaking for Google (aside from that awkward question about where he got his insider data from). We have to do that, because statements like:

“that tracking isn’t connected with what you search for, what you do in Google Docs, what you do on your mobile Android phone or in your Gmail account”

These are likely to be flipped around in the future. Surely Google will do this someday. Why isn’t Google currently linking Android activity to tracking? Or using search activity to enhance tracking? It could. It would likely be “highly profitable”. See what I mean?

In this case, Ryan Singel may turn out to be wrong, not Google. It seems fairly obvious to me that Google knows when to hedge risk and hold back from too much aggressive invasion of privacy for huge disruptive innovations like linking every mobile phone to a tracked Internet user. But then again, I’m not a journalist. Nor a Google fanboy.

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