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Keyword Not Provided, But it Just Clicks

When SEO Was Easy

When I got started on the web over 15 years ago I created an overly broad & shallow website that had little chance of making money because it was utterly undifferentiated and crappy. In spite of my best (worst?) efforts while being a complete newbie, sometimes I would go to the mailbox and see a check for a couple hundred or a couple thousand dollars come in. My old roommate & I went to Coachella & when the trip was over I returned to a bunch of mail to catch up on & realized I had made way more while not working than what I spent on that trip.

What was the secret to a total newbie making decent income by accident?

Horrible spelling.

Back then search engines were not as sophisticated with their spelling correction features & I was one of 3 or 4 people in the search index that misspelled the name of an online casino the same way many searchers did.

The high minded excuse for why I did not scale that would be claiming I knew it was a temporary trick that was somehow beneath me. The more accurate reason would be thinking in part it was a lucky fluke rather than thinking in systems. If I were clever at the time I would have created the misspeller’s guide to online gambling, though I think I was just so excited to make anything from the web that I perhaps lacked the ambition & foresight to scale things back then.

In the decade that followed I had a number of other lucky breaks like that. One time one of the original internet bubble companies that managed to stay around put up a sitewide footer link targeting the concept that one of my sites made decent money from. This was just before the great recession, before Panda existed. The concept they targeted had 3 or 4 ways to describe it. 2 of them were very profitable & if they targeted either of the most profitable versions with that page the targeting would have sort of carried over to both. They would have outranked me if they targeted the correct version, but they didn’t so their mistargeting was a huge win for me.

Search Gets Complex

Search today is much more complex. In the years since those easy-n-cheesy wins, Google has rolled out many updates which aim to feature sought after destination sites while diminishing the sites which rely one “one simple trick” to rank.

Arguably the quality of the search results has improved significantly as search has become more powerful, more feature rich & has layered in more relevancy signals.

Many quality small web publishers have went away due to some combination of increased competition, algorithmic shifts & uncertainty, and reduced monetization as more ad spend was redirected toward Google & Facebook. But the impact as felt by any given publisher is not the impact as felt by the ecosystem as a whole. Many terrible websites have also went away, while some formerly obscure though higher-quality sites rose to prominence.

There was the Vince update in 2009, which boosted the rankings of many branded websites.

Then in 2011 there was Panda as an extension of Vince, which tanked the rankings of many sites that published hundreds of thousands or millions of thin content pages while boosting the rankings of trusted branded destinations.

Then there was Penguin, which was a penalty that hit many websites which had heavily manipulated or otherwise aggressive appearing link profiles. Google felt there was a lot of noise in the link graph, which was their justification for the Penguin.

There were updates which lowered the rankings of many exact match domains. And then increased ad load in the search results along with the other above ranking shifts further lowered the ability to rank keyword-driven domain names. If your domain is generically descriptive then there is a limit to how differentiated & memorable you can make it if you are targeting the core market the keywords are aligned with.

There is a reason eBay is more popular than auction.com, Google is more popular than search.com, Yahoo is more popular than portal.com & Amazon is more popular than a store.com or a shop.com. When that winner take most impact of many online markets is coupled with the move away from using classic relevancy signals the economics shift to where is makes a lot more sense to carry the heavy overhead of establishing a strong brand.

Branded and navigational search queries could be used in the relevancy algorithm stack to confirm the quality of a site & verify (or dispute) the veracity of other signals.

Historically relevant algo shortcuts become less appealing as they become less relevant to the current ecosystem & even less aligned with the future trends of the market. Add in negative incentives for pushing on a string (penalties on top of wasting the capital outlay) and a more holistic approach certainly makes sense.

Modeling Web Users & Modeling Language

PageRank was an attempt to model the random surfer.

When Google is pervasively monitoring most users across the web they can shift to directly measuring their behaviors instead of using indirect signals.

Years ago Bill Slawski wrote about the long click in which he opened by quoting Steven Levy’s In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives

“On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the “Long Click” — This occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query.”

Of course, there’s a patent for that. In Modifying search result ranking based on implicit user feedback they state:

user reactions to particular search results or search result lists may be gauged, so that results on which users often click will receive a higher ranking. The general assumption under such an approach is that searching users are often the best judges of relevance, so that if they select a particular search result, it is likely to be relevant, or at least more relevant than the presented alternatives.

If you are a known brand you are more likely to get clicked on than a random unknown entity in the same market.

And if you are something people are specifically seeking out, they are likely to stay on your website for an extended period of time.

One aspect of the subject matter described in this specification can be embodied in a computer-implemented method that includes determining a measure of relevance for a document result within a context of a search query for which the document result is returned, the determining being based on a first number in relation to a second number, the first number corresponding to longer views of the document result, and the second number corresponding to at least shorter views of the document result; and outputting the measure of relevance to a ranking engine for ranking of search results, including the document result, for a new search corresponding to the search query. The first number can include a number of the longer views of the document result, the second number can include a total number of views of the document result, and the determining can include dividing the number of longer views by the total number of views.

Attempts to manipulate such data may not work.

safeguards against spammers (users who generate fraudulent clicks in an attempt to boost certain search results) can be taken to help ensure that the user selection data is meaningful, even when very little data is available for a given (rare) query. These safeguards can include employing a user model that describes how a user should behave over time, and if a user doesn’t conform to this model, their click data can be disregarded. The safeguards can be designed to accomplish two main objectives: (1) ensure democracy in the votes (e.g., one single vote per cookie and/or IP for a given query-URL pair), and (2) entirely remove the information coming from cookies or IP addresses that do not look natural in their browsing behavior (e.g., abnormal distribution of click positions, click durations, clicks_per_minute/hour/day, etc.). Suspicious clicks can be removed, and the click signals for queries that appear to be spmed need not be used (e.g., queries for which the clicks feature a distribution of user agents, cookie ages, etc. that do not look normal).

And just like Google can make a matrix of documents & queries, they could also choose to put more weight on search accounts associated with topical expert users based on their historical click patterns.

Moreover, the weighting can be adjusted based on the determined type of the user both in terms of how click duration is translated into good clicks versus not-so-good clicks, and in terms of how much weight to give to the good clicks from a particular user group versus another user group. Some user’s implicit feedback may be more valuable than other users due to the details of a user’s review process. For example, a user that almost always clicks on the highest ranked result can have his good clicks assigned lower weights than a user who more often clicks results lower in the ranking first (since the second user is likely more discriminating in his assessment of what constitutes a good result). In addition, a user can be classified based on his or her query stream. Users that issue many queries on (or related to) a given topic T (e.g., queries related to law) can be presumed to have a high degree of expertise with respect to the given topic T, and their click data can be weighted accordingly for other queries by them on (or related to) the given topic T.

Google was using click data to drive their search rankings as far back as 2009. David Naylor was perhaps the first person who publicly spotted this. Google was ranking Australian websites for [tennis court hire] in the UK & Ireland, in part because that is where most of the click signal came from. That phrase was most widely searched for in Australia. In the years since Google has done a better job of geographically isolating clicks to prevent things like the problem David Naylor noticed, where almost all search results in one geographic region came from a different country.

Whenever SEOs mention using click data to search engineers, the search engineers quickly respond about how they might consider any signal but clicks would be a noisy signal. But if a signal has noise an engineer would work around the noise by finding ways to filter the noise out or combine multiple signals. To this day Google states they are still working to filter noise from the link graph: “We continued to protect the value of authoritative and relevant links as an important ranking signal for Search.”

The site with millions of inbound links, few intentional visits & those who do visit quickly click the back button (due to a heavy ad load, poor user experience, low quality content, shallow content, outdated content, or some other bait-n-switch approach)…that’s an outlier. Preventing those sorts of sites from ranking well would be another way of protecting the value of authoritative & relevant links.

Best Practices Vary Across Time & By Market + Category

Along the way, concurrent with the above sorts of updates, Google also improved their spelling auto-correct features, auto-completed search queries for many years through a featured called Google Instant (though they later undid forced query auto-completion while retaining automated search suggestions), and then they rolled out a few other algorithms that further allowed them to model language & user behavior.

Today it would be much harder to get paid above median wages explicitly for sucking at basic spelling or scaling some other individual shortcut to the moon, like pouring millions of low quality articles into a (formerly!) trusted domain.

Nearly a decade after Panda, eHow’s rankings still haven’t recovered.

Back when I got started with SEO the phrase Indian SEO company was associated with cut-rate work where people were buying exclusively based on price. Sort of like a “I got a $500 budget for link building, but can not under any circumstance invest more than $5 in any individual link.” Part of how my wife met me was she hired a hack SEO from San Diego who outsourced all the work to India and marked the price up about 100-fold while claiming it was all done in the United States. He created reciprocal links pages that got her site penalized & it didn’t rank until after she took her reciprocal links page down.

With that sort of behavior widespread (hack US firm teaching people working in an emerging market poor practices), it likely meant many SEO “best practices” which were learned in an emerging market (particularly where the web was also underdeveloped) would be more inclined to being spammy. Considering how far ahead many Western markets were on the early Internet & how India has so many languages & how most web usage in India is based on mobile devices where it is hard for users to create links, it only makes sense that Google would want to place more weight on end user data in such a market.

If you set your computer location to India Bing’s search box lists 9 different languages to choose from.

The above is not to state anything derogatory about any emerging market, but rather that various signals are stronger in some markets than others. And competition is stronger in some markets than others.

Search engines can only rank what exists.

“In a lot of Eastern European – but not just Eastern European markets – I think it is an issue for the majority of the [bream? muffled] countries, for the Arabic-speaking world, there just isn’t enough content as compared to the percentage of the Internet population that those regions represent. I don’t have up to date data, I know that a couple years ago we looked at Arabic for example and then the disparity was enormous. so if I’m not mistaken the Arabic speaking population of the world is maybe 5 to 6%, maybe more, correct me if I am wrong. But very definitely the amount of Arabic content in our index is several orders below that. So that means we do not have enough Arabic content to give to our Arabic users even if we wanted to. And you can exploit that amazingly easily and if you create a bit of content in Arabic, whatever it looks like we’re gonna go you know we don’t have anything else to serve this and it ends up being horrible. and people will say you know this works. I keyword stuffed the hell out of this page, bought some links, and there it is number one. There is nothing else to show, so yeah you’re number one. the moment somebody actually goes out and creates high quality content that’s there for the long haul, you’ll be out and that there will be one.” – Andrey Lipattsev – Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google Ireland, on Mar 23, 2016

Impacting the Economics of Publishing

Now search engines can certainly influence the economics of various types of media. At one point some otherwise credible media outlets were pitching the Demand Media IPO narrative that Demand Media was the publisher of the future & what other media outlets will look like. Years later, after heavily squeezing on the partner network & promoting programmatic advertising that reduces CPMs by the day Google is funding partnerships with multiple news publishers like McClatchy & Gatehouse to try to revive the news dead zones even Facebook is struggling with.

“Facebook Inc. has been looking to boost its local-news offerings since a 2017 survey showed most of its users were clamoring for more. It has run into a problem: There simply isn’t enough local news in vast swaths of the country. … more than one in five newspapers have closed in the past decade and a half, leaving half the counties in the nation with just one newspaper, and 200 counties with no newspaper at all.”

As mainstream newspapers continue laying off journalists, Facebook’s news efforts are likely to continue failing unless they include direct economic incentives, as Google’s programmatic ad push broke the banner ad:

“Thanks to the convoluted machinery of Internet advertising, the advertising world went from being about content publishers and advertising context—The Times unilaterally declaring, via its ‘rate card’, that ads in the Times Style section cost $30 per thousand impressions—to the users themselves and the data that targets them—Zappo’s saying it wants to show this specific shoe ad to this specific user (or type of user), regardless of publisher context. Flipping the script from a historically publisher-controlled mediascape to an advertiser (and advertiser intermediary) controlled one was really Google’s doing. Facebook merely rode the now-cresting wave, borrowing outside media’s content via its own users’ sharing, while undermining media’s ability to monetize via Facebook’s own user-data-centric advertising machinery. Conventional media lost both distribution and monetization at once, a mortal blow.”

Google is offering news publishers audience development & business development tools.

Heavy Investment in Emerging Markets Quickly Evolves the Markets

As the web grows rapidly in India, they’ll have a thousand flowers bloom. In 5 years the competition in India & other emerging markets will be much tougher as those markets continue to grow rapidly. Media is much cheaper to produce in India than it is in the United States. Labor costs are lower & they never had the economic albatross that is the ACA adversely impact their economy. At some point the level of investment & increased competition will mean early techniques stop having as much efficacy. Chinese companies are aggressively investing in India.

“If you break India into a pyramid, the top 100 million (urban) consumers who think and behave more like Americans are well-served,” says Amit Jangir, who leads India investments at 01VC, a Chinese venture capital firm based in Shanghai. The early stage venture firm has invested in micro-lending firms FlashCash and SmartCoin based in India. The new target is the next 200 million to 600 million consumers, who do not have a go-to entertainment, payment or ecommerce platform yet— and there is gonna be a unicorn in each of these verticals, says Jangir, adding that it will be not be as easy for a player to win this market considering the diversity and low ticket sizes.

RankBrain

RankBrain appears to be based on using user clickpaths on head keywords to help bleed rankings across into related searches which are searched less frequently. A Googler didn’t state this specifically, but it is how they would be able to use models of searcher behavior to refine search results for keywords which are rarely searched for.

In a recent interview in Scientific American a Google engineer stated: “By design, search engines have learned to associate short queries with the targets of those searches by tracking pages that are visited as a result of the query, making the results returned both faster and more accurate than they otherwise would have been.”

Now a person might go out and try to search for something a bunch of times or pay other people to search for a topic and click a specific listing, but some of the related Google patents on using click data (which keep getting updated) mentioned how they can discount or turn off the signal if there is an unnatural spike of traffic on a specific keyword, or if there is an unnatural spike of traffic heading to a particular website or web page.

And, since Google is tracking the behavior of end users on their own website, anomalous behavior is easier to track than it is tracking something across the broader web where signals are more indirect. Google can take advantage of their wide distribution of Chrome & Android where users are regularly logged into Google & pervasively tracked to place more weight on users where they had credit card data, a long account history with regular normal search behavior, heavy Gmail users, etc.

Plus there is a huge gap between the cost of traffic & the ability to monetize it. You might have to pay someone a dime or a quarter to search for something & there is no guarantee it will work on a sustainable basis even if you paid hundreds or thousands of people to do it. Any of those experimental searchers will have no lasting value unless they influence rank, but even if they do influence rankings it might only last temporarily. If you bought a bunch of traffic into something genuine Google searchers didn’t like then even if it started to rank better temporarily the rankings would quickly fall back if the real end user searchers disliked the site relative to other sites which already rank.

This is part of the reason why so many SEO blogs mention brand, brand, brand. If people are specifically looking for you in volume & Google can see that thousands or millions of people specifically want to access your site then that can impact how you rank elsewhere.

Even looking at something inside the search results for a while (dwell time) or quickly skipping over it to have a deeper scroll depth can be a ranking signal. Some Google patents mention how they can use mouse pointer location on desktop or scroll data from the viewport on mobile devices as a quality signal.

Neural Matching

Last year Danny Sullivan mentioned how Google rolled out neural matching to better understand the intent behind a search query.

The above Tweets capture what the neural matching technology intends to do. Google also stated:

we’ve now reached the point where neural networks can help us take a major leap forward from understanding words to understanding concepts. Neural embeddings, an approach developed in the field of neural networks, allow us to transform words to fuzzier representations of the underlying concepts, and then match the concepts in the query with the concepts in the document. We call this technique neural matching.

To help people understand the difference between neural matching & RankBrain, Google told SEL: “RankBrain helps Google better relate pages to concepts. Neural matching helps Google better relate words to searches.”

There are a couple research papers on neural matching.

The first one was titled A Deep Relevance Matching Model for Ad-hoc Retrieval. It mentioned using Word2vec & here are a few quotes from the research paper

  • “Successful relevance matching requires proper handling of the exact matching signals, query term importance, and diverse matching requirements.”
  • “the interaction-focused model, which first builds local level interactions (i.e., local matching signals) between two pieces of text, and then uses deep neural networks to learn hierarchical interaction patterns for matching.”
  • “according to the diverse matching requirement, relevance matching is not position related since it could happen in any position in a long document.”
  • “Most NLP tasks concern semantic matching, i.e., identifying the semantic meaning and infer”ring the semantic relations between two pieces of text, while the ad-hoc retrieval task is mainly about relevance matching, i.e., identifying whether a document is relevant to a given query.”
  • “Since the ad-hoc retrieval task is fundamentally a ranking problem, we employ a pairwise ranking loss such as hinge loss to train our deep relevance matching model.”

The paper mentions how semantic matching falls down when compared against relevancy matching because:

  • semantic matching relies on similarity matching signals (some words or phrases with the same meaning might be semantically distant), compositional meanings (matching sentences more than meaning) & a global matching requirement (comparing things in their entirety instead of looking at the best matching part of a longer document); whereas,
  • relevance matching can put significant weight on exact matching signals (weighting an exact match higher than a near match), adjust weighting on query term importance (one word might or phrase in a search query might have a far higher discrimination value & might deserve far more weight than the next) & leverage diverse matching requirements (allowing relevancy matching to happen in any part of a longer document)

Here are a couple images from the above research paper

And then the second research paper is

Deep Relevancy Ranking Using Enhanced Dcoument-Query Interactions
“interaction-based models are less efficient, since one cannot index a document representation independently of the query. This is less important, though, when relevancy ranking methods rerank the top documents returned by a conventional IR engine, which is the scenario we consider here.”

That same sort of re-ranking concept is being better understood across the industry. There are ranking signals that earn some base level ranking, and then results get re-ranked based on other factors like how well a result matches the user intent.

Here are a couple images from the above research paper.

For those who hate the idea of reading research papers or patent applications, Martinibuster also wrote about the technology here. About the only part of his post I would debate is this one:

“Does this mean publishers should use more synonyms? Adding synonyms has always seemed to me to be a variation of keyword spamming. I have always considered it a naive suggestion. The purpose of Google understanding synonyms is simply to understand the context and meaning of a page. Communicating clearly and consistently is, in my opinion, more important than spamming a page with keywords and synonyms.”

I think one should always consider user experience over other factors, however a person could still use variations throughout the copy & pick up a bit more traffic without coming across as spammy. Danny Sullivan mentioned the super synonym concept was impacting 30% of search queries, so there are still a lot which may only be available to those who use a specific phrase on their page.

Martinibuster also wrote another blog post tying more research papers & patents to the above. You could probably spend a month reading all the related patents & research papers.

The above sort of language modeling & end user click feedback compliment links-based ranking signals in a way that makes it much harder to luck one’s way into any form of success by being a terrible speller or just bombing away at link manipulation without much concern toward any other aspect of the user experience or market you operate in.

Pre-penalized Shortcuts

Google was even issued a patent for predicting site quality based upon the N-grams used on the site & comparing those against the N-grams used on other established site where quality has already been scored via other methods: “The phrase model can be used to predict a site quality score for a new site; in particular, this can be done in the absence of other information. The goal is to predict a score that is comparable to the baseline site quality scores of the previously-scored sites.”

Have you considered using a PLR package to generate the shell of your site’s content? Good luck with that as some sites trying that shortcut might be pre-penalized from birth.

Navigating the Maze

When I started in SEO one of my friends had a dad who is vastly smarter than I am. He advised me that Google engineers were smarter, had more capital, had more exposure, had more data, etc etc etc … and thus SEO was ultimately going to be a malinvestment.

Back then he was at least partially wrong because influencing search was so easy.

But in the current market, 16 years later, we are near the infection point where he would finally be right.

At some point the shortcuts stop working & it makes sense to try a different approach.

The flip side of all the above changes is as the algorithms have become more complex they have went from being a headwind to people ignorant about SEO to being a tailwind to those who do not focus excessively on SEO in isolation.

If one is a dominant voice in a particular market, if they break industry news, if they have key exclusives, if they spot & name the industry trends, if their site becomes a must read & is what amounts to a habit … then they perhaps become viewed as an entity. Entity-related signals help them & those signals that are working against the people who might have lucked into a bit of success become a tailwind rather than a headwind.

If your work defines your industry, then any efforts to model entities, user behavior or the language of your industry are going to boost your work on a relative basis.

This requires sites to publish frequently enough to be a habit, or publish highly differentiated content which is strong enough that it is worth the wait.

Those which publish frequently without being particularly differentiated are almost guaranteed to eventually walk into a penalty of some sort. And each additional person who reads marginal, undifferentiated content (particularly if it has an ad-heavy layout) is one additional visitor that site is closer to eventually getting whacked. Success becomes self regulating. Any short-term success becomes self defeating if one has a highly opportunistic short-term focus.

Those who write content that only they could write are more likely to have sustained success.

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Low-budget branding for small businesses

Over the years, we’ve written quite a few articles about branding. Branding is about getting people to relate to your company and products. It’s also about trying to make your brand synonymous with a certain product or service. This can be a lengthy and hard project. It can potentially cost you all of your revenue. It’s no wonder that branding is often associated with investing lots of money in marketing and promotion. However, for a lot of small business owners, the investment in branding will have to be made with a relatively small budget. 

You might be a local bakery with 10 employees, or a local industrial company employing up to 500 people. These all can be qualified as ‘small business’. All have the same main goal when they start: the need to establish a name in their field of expertise. There are multiple ways to do this, without a huge budget. In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on how to go about your own low-budget branding.

Define and communicate brand values

Branding with a limited budget starts with defining your company’s and your brand’s values. You need to think about what you, as a brand, want to communicate to the world. Doing this yourself won’t cost you, provided you are capable of doing this yourself. In fact, it’s a pretty hard task, when you think of it. It’s about your mission, the things that make your brand into your brand. Brand values relate to Cialdini’s seventh principle, Unity.

My favorite example illustrating unity: outdoor brands like Patagonia and The North Face, which make you feel included in their business ‘family’. “We are all alike, share the same values.” By being able to relate to these brands and their values, we are more enticed to buy their products. It’s a brand for us, outdoor people.

Take some time to define your brand values. That way, you’re able to communicate your main message in a clear and consistent way. It makes your marketing all the easier. You’ll be able to create brand ambassadors, even on a budget.

Come up with a proper tagline

Once you have defined your brand values, it’s time to summarize them all into one single tagline. For example, WordPress’ mission is to “democratize publishing“. In your tagline, you formulate your values and make sure your added value for the customer, user or visitor is also reflected. Again, be consistent. If you set a tagline, your actions and products should relate to that tagline, actually, even be based upon it. It summarizes your business.

Rethink your logo

Having a great logo is essential. When designing that logo, you’ll have to keep in mind that it’s probably something you’ll have for years. It’s the main thing – besides yourself – that will trigger (brand) recognition. It’s not that you can never change your logo, but don’t ‘just’ add a logo. Think about how it stands out from other logos, for instance on a local sponsor board.

Design that logo, print it, stick it on your fridge for a week or so, and see if there’s anything about it that starts to annoy you. If so, it’s back to the drawing board. Feel like you don’t relate to it in terms of business values or even personality? Back to the drawing board. When talking about low-budget branding, designing a great logo is probably your most expensive task.

Online low-budget branding

The online world is a great place to work on your low-budget branding. You need to establish a name in your field of expertise, and the surplus of social media can facilitate that by giving you a free platform.

Social media

I do a lot of local networking, because I really like the city we live in, and the huge variety of entrepreneurs that work in our hometown Wijchen. During network meetings, one of the phrases I often hear is: “Social media just takes me too much time”. To be honest, it might be wise to change your mindset about the costs and start seeing the revenue social media can bring you. It really is the easiest and probably one of the cheapest ways to promote your brand. Basically, the only cost is time investment (depending on how aggressively you want to use the medium). It may take a while before you find a strategy and/or platform that works, so give it some time and don’t just throw in the towel!

Read more: Social media for small business owners »

Share your expertise

You can use Twitter to stay in touch with like-minded business owners. Discover the huge number of Facebook groups in your area, and/or in your field of expertise. Bond with people that share the same values. Feel free to answer questions in your field of business and do this with confidence. Position yourself as the go-to company for these questions. Help people that way and create brand ambassadors. You really have to put some effort into establishing your position. It won’t happen overnight.

A bit of an extreme example: before Yoast became a business, Joost was already sharing content/expertise and our open source software. He engaged actively in forum and social media discussions about WordPress and SEO. Commenting on other people’s blogs. Time before revenue: 8 years. I’m not saying you need to wait eight years before making money with your passion. But I do think that you should be able to write, comment and take a stand in topics that matter to you from the start.

Make yourself visible

Eventually, it all comes back to business values. Everything you communicate should reflect these values. It’ll give you guidelines and will make sure your message is delivered in the same way, always. Low-budget branding is about just that: making yourself visible, in a consistent way.

Keep reading: The ultimate guide to small business SEO »

The post Low-budget branding for small businesses appeared first on Yoast.

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AMP'd Up for Recaptcha

Beyond search Google controls the leading distributed ad network, the leading mobile OS, the leading web browser, the leading email client, the leading web analytics platform, the leading mapping platform, the leading free video hosting site.

They win a lot.

And they take winnings from one market & leverage them into manipulating adjacent markets.

Embrace. Extend. Extinguish.

AMP is an utterly unnecessary invention designed to further shift power to Google while disenfranchising publishers. From the very start it had many issues with basic things like supporting JavaScript, double counting unique users (no reason to fix broken stats if they drive adoption!), not supporting third party ad networks, not showing publisher domain names, and just generally being a useless layer of sunk cost technical overhead that provides literally no real value.

Over time they have corrected some of these catastrophic deficiencies, but if it provided real value, they wouldn’t have needed to force adoption with preferential placement in their search results. They force the bundling because AMP sucks.

Absurdity knows no bounds. Googlers suggest: “AMP isn’t another “channel” or “format” that’s somehow not the web. It’s not a SEO thing. It’s not a replacement for HTML. It’s a web component framework that can power your whole site. … We, the AMP team, want AMP to become a natural choice for modern web development of content websites, and for you to choose AMP as framework because it genuinely makes you more productive.”

Meanwhile some newspapers have about a dozen employees who work on re-formatting content for AMP:

The AMP development team now keeps track of whether AMP traffic drops suddenly, which might indicate pages are invalid, and it can react quickly.

All this adds expense, though. There are setup, development and maintenance costs associated with AMP, mostly in the form of time. After implementing AMP, the Guardian realized the project needed dedicated staff, so it created an 11-person team that works on AMP and other aspects of the site, drawing mostly from existing staff.

Feeeeeel the productivity!

Some content types (particularly user generated content) can be unpredictable & circuitous. For many years forums websites would use keywords embedded in the search referral to highlight relevant parts of the page. Keyword (not provided) largely destroyed that & then it became a competitive feature for AMP: “If the Featured Snippet links to an AMP article, Google will sometimes automatically scroll users to that section and highlight the answer in orange.”

That would perhaps be a single area where AMP was more efficient than the alternative. But it is only so because Google destroyed the alternative by stripping keyword referrers from search queries.

The power dynamics of AMP are ugly:

“I see them as part of the effort to normalise the use of the AMP Carousel, which is an anti-competitive land-grab for the web by an organisation that seems to have an insatiable appetite for consuming the web, probably ultimately to it’s own detriment. … This enables Google to continue to exist after the destination site (eg the New York Times) has been navigated to. Essentially it flips the parent-child relationship to be the other way around. … As soon as a publisher blesses a piece of content by packaging it (they have to opt in to this, but see coercion below), they totally lose control of its distribution. … I’m not that smart, so it’s surely possible to figure out other ways of making a preload possible without cutting off the content creator from the people consuming their content. … The web is open and decentralised. We spend a lot of time valuing the first of these concepts, but almost none trying to defend the second. Google knows, perhaps better than anyone, how being in control of the user is the most monetisable position, and having the deepest pockets and the most powerful platform to do so, they have very successfully inserted themselves into my relationship with millions of other websites. … In AMP, the support for paywalls is based on a recommendation that the premium content be included in the source of the page regardless of the user’s authorisation state. … These policies demonstrate contempt for others’ right to freely operate their businesses.

After enough publishers adopted AMP Google was able to turn their mobile app’s homepage into an interactive news feed below the search box. And inside that news feed Google gets to distribute MOAR ads while 0% of the revenue from those ads find its way to the publishers whose content is used to make up the feed.

Appropriate appropriation. 😀

Thank you for your content!!!

The mainstream media is waking up to AMP being a trap, but their neck is already in it:

European and American tech, media and publishing companies, including some that originally embraced AMP, are complaining that the Google-backed technology, which loads article pages in the blink of an eye on smartphones, is cementing the search giant’s dominance on the mobile web.

Each additional layer of technical cruft is another cost center. Things that sound appealing at first blush may not be:

The way you verify your identity to Let’s Encrypt is the same as with other certificate authorities: you don’t really. You place a file somewhere on your website, and they access that file over plain HTTP to verify that you own the website. The one attack that signed certificates are meant to prevent is a man-in-the-middle attack. But if someone is able to perform a man-in-the-middle attack against your website, then he can intercept the certificate verification, too. In other words, Let’s Encrypt certificates don’t stop the one thing they’re supposed to stop. And, as always with the certificate authorities, a thousand murderous theocracies, advertising companies, and international spy organizations are allowed to impersonate you by design.

Anything that is easy to implement & widely marketed often has costs added to it in the future as the entity moves to monetize the service.

This is a private equity firm buying up multiple hosting control panels & then adjusting prices.

This is Google Maps drastically changing their API terms.

This is Facebook charging you for likes to build an audience, giving your competitors access to those likes as an addressable audience to advertise against, and then charging you once more to boost the reach of your posts.

This is Grubhub creating shadow websites on your behalf and charging you for every transaction created by the gravity of your brand.

Shivane believes GrubHub purchased her restaurant’s web domain to prevent her from building her own online presence. She also believes the company may have had a special interest in owning her name because she processes a high volume of orders. … it appears GrubHub has set up several generic, templated pages that look like real restaurant websites but in fact link only to GrubHub. These pages also display phone numbers that GrubHub controls. The calls are forwarded to the restaurant, but the platform records each one and charges the restaurant a commission fee for every order

Settling for the easiest option drives a lack of differentiation, embeds additional risk & once the dominant player has enough marketshare they’ll change the terms on you.

Small gains in short term margins for massive increases in fragility.

“Closed platforms increase the chunk size of competition & increase the cost of market entry, so people who have good ideas, it is a lot more expensive for their productivity to be monetized. They also don’t like standardization … it looks like rent seeking behaviors on top of friction” – Gabe Newell

The other big issue is platforms that run out of growth space in their core market may break integrations with adjacent service providers as each want to grow by eating the other’s market.

Those who look at SaaS business models through the eyes of a seasoned investor will better understand how markets are likely to change:

“I’d argue that many of today’s anointed tech “disruptors” are doing little in the way of true disruption. … When investors used to get excited about a SAAS company, they typically would be describing a hosted multi-tenant subscription-billed piece of software that was replacing a ‘legacy’ on-premise perpetual license solution in the same target market (i.e. ERP, HCM, CRM, etc.). Today, the terms SAAS and Cloud essentially describe the business models of every single public software company.

Most platform companies are initially required to operate at low margins in order to buy growth of their category & own their category. Then when they are valued on that, they quickly need to jump across to adjacent markets to grow into the valuation:

Twilio has no choice but to climb up the application stack. This is a company whose ‘disruption’ is essentially great API documentation and gangbuster SEO spend built on top of a highly commoditized telephony aggregation API. They have won by marketing to DevOps engineers. With all the hype around them, you’d think Twilio invented the telephony API, when in reality what they did was turn it into a product company. Nobody had thought of doing this let alone that this could turn into a $17 billion company because simply put the economics don’t work. And to be clear they still don’t. But Twilio’s genius CEO clearly gets this. If the market is going to value robocalls, emergency sms notifications, on-call pages, and carrier fee passed through related revenue growth in the same way it does ‘subscription’ revenue from Atlassian or ServiceNow, then take advantage of it while it lasts.

Large platforms offering temporary subsidies to ensure they dominate their categories & companies like SoftBank spraying capital across the markets is causing massive shifts in valuations:

I also think if you look closely at what is celebrated today as innovation you often find models built on hidden subsidies. … I’d argue the very distributed nature of microservices architecture and API-first product companies means addressable market sizes and unit economics assumptions should be even more carefully scrutinized. … How hard would it be to create an Alibaba today if someone like SoftBank was raining money into such a greenfield space? Excess capital would lead to destruction and likely subpar returns. If capital was the solution, the 1.5 trillion that went into telcos in late ’90s wouldn’t have led to a massive bust. Would a Netflix be what it is today if a SoftBank was pouring billions into streaming content startups right as the experiment was starting? Obviously not. Scarcity of capital is another often underappreciated part of the disruption equation. Knowing resources are finite leads to more robust models. … This convergence is starting to manifest itself in performance. Disney is up 30% over the last 12 months while Netflix is basically flat. This may not feel like a bubble sign to most investors, but from my standpoint, it’s a clear evidence of the fact that we are approaching a something has got to give moment for the way certain businesses are valued.”

Circling back to Google’s AMP, it has a cousin called Recaptcha.

Recaptcha is another AMP-like trojan horse:

According to tech statistics website Built With, more than 650,000 websites are already using reCaptcha v3; overall, there are at least 4.5 million websites use reCaptcha, including 25% of the top 10,000 sites. Google is also now testing an enterprise version of reCaptcha v3, where Google creates a customized reCaptcha for enterprises that are looking for more granular data about users’ risk levels to protect their site algorithms from malicious users and bots. … According to two security researchers who’ve studied reCaptcha, one of the ways that Google determines whether you’re a malicious user or not is whether you already have a Google cookie installed on your browser. … To make this risk-score system work accurately, website administrators are supposed to embed reCaptcha v3 code on all of the pages of their website, not just on forms or log-in pages.

About a month ago when logging into Bing Ads I saw recaptcha on the login page & couldn’t believe they’d give Google control at that access point. I think they got rid of that, but lots of companies are perhaps shooting themselves in the foot through a combination of over-reliance on Google infrastructure AND sloppy implementation

Today when making a purchase on Fiverr, after converting, I got some of this action

Hmm. Maybe I will enable JavaScript and try again.

Oooops.

That is called snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

My account is many years old. My payment type on record has been used for years. I have ordered from the particular seller about a dozen times over the years. And suddenly because my web browser had JavaScript turned off I was deemed a security risk of some sort for making an utterly ordinary transaction I have already completed about a dozen times.

On AMP JavaScript was the devil. And on desktop not JavaScript was the devil.

Pro tip: Ecommerce websites that see substandard conversion rates from using Recaptcha can boost their overall ecommerce revenue by buying more Google AdWords ads.

As more of the infrastructure stack is driven by AI software there is going to be a very real opportunity for many people to become deplatformed across the web on an utterly arbitrary basis. That tech companies like Facebook also want to create digital currencies on top of the leverage they already have only makes the proposition that much scarier.

If the tech platforms host copies of our sites, process the transactions & even create their own currencies, how will we know what level of value they are adding versus what they are extracting?

Who measures the measurer?

And when the economics turn negative, what will we do if we are hooked into an ecosystem we can’t spend additional capital to get out of when things head south?

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How to Learn SEO in 2019 (According to 130 Experts)

What’s the fastest way to learn SEO?

I asked 130 real SEO experts to find out.

Here is the question we asked 130 different experts:

“If you had to start over, what steps would you take to learn SEO?”

Out of the 130 answers, there were many common recommendations for learning SEO.

Top 8 Ways to Learn SEO

  1. Take Action
  2. Learn the Fundamentals
  3. Get a Mentor
  4. Focus on Your Strengths
  5. Invest in an SEO Course
  6. Work at an SEO Agency
  7. Don’t Chase Algorithms
  8. Go to Conferences

1. Take Action

Getting your “hands dirty” and getting more real life experience is the best way to learn SEO (and any skill).

2. Learn the Fundamentals

Follow top SEO blogs, SEO news websites, join SEO communities, and go to SEO conferences to get exposure to all facets of the industry.

3. Get a Mentor

Having an experienced mentor/SEO expert guide you through the process can save you years of trial and error.

4. Focus on Your Strengths

For example, if you are a good writer, then focus on the content-side of SEO. Or, if you are a social butterfly, then focus on the relationship building and PR-side of SEO/link acquisition.

5. Invest in an SEO Course

Quality courses are structured and easy to follow. This is important when you’re starting out because there is an unlimited amount of SEO information online. That makes it challenging to put all the moving parts together.

A proven course trusted by over 700 students can help (hint, hint… Gotch SEO Academy)

6. Work at an SEO Agency

Working at an agency will help you grow as a professional at an accelerated rate. Not only will you be forced to learn SEO quickly, but you will also get exposure into how agencies operate.

7. Don’t Chase Algorithms

Focus on developing timeless skills such relationship building, persuasion, sales, SEO content creation, copywriting, and marketing in general.

8. Go to Conferences

SEO and marketing conferences are the single best way to network with other likeminded individuals. Also, you get to be around people who are more accomplished than you are. This forces you to elevate your gain and to learn.

Start Learning Now With These SEO Resources

You can start learning SEO right now by diving into these resources.

General SEO

What is SEO? – You probably already know that SEO is an acronym for “Search Engine Optimization”. That’s important, but there’s a lot more to know how this industry than you think. This guide is a good place to start.

SEO Strategy – Every successful SEO campaigns starts with a well-designed strategy. This guide will show you a simple 4-step strategy that has worked across nearly every vertical.

SEO Audit – The best way to start an SEO campaign is with a detailed audit. Properly performing an SEO audit will help you identify what to focus on. This is critical because not all SEO actions are created equally.

SEO Mistakes – I’ve made many mistakes throughout my SEO career, but you can avoid all of them by reading this guide.

Best CMS for SEO – Believe it or not, WordPress isn’t the #1 CMS for SEO. Read our data-driven case study to find out which one is.

On-Site SEO

On-Page SEO – Most people think on-page SEO is just placing keywords on a page. Wrong! There’s so much more you need to do to achieve perfect on-page SEO. This guide will show you our 80-point checklist.

Title Tags – Understanding how to optimize title tags is fundamental SEO skill. Real SEO pros know that it’s much more than just jamming keywords into the title. Use this guide to learn the nuances of optimizing title tags.

301 Redirects – 301 redirects can be used to exponentially grow your site’s authority. They can also destroy your website at the same time. Read this guide to learn how to use them to your advantage.

404 Errors – Not all 404 errors are “bad”. You just need to know how to handle them. This guide will show you the right way to design 404 pages. Then, I’ll show you how to find and fix them.

HTTP vs. HTTPS – Your website should be using an SSL certificate. This guide explains why.

Redirect Chains – Redirect chains can rob your page’s of precious link equity. The good news is that you can avoid it by reading this guide.

Content

How to Write a Blog Post – Your blog can be used a catalyst to grow your company. Don’t take it lightly!

Link Building

Backlinks – It’s nearly impossible to rank and achieve long-term SEO performance without quality links. This epic guide will give you the baseline knowledge you need to succeed with link building.

Expired Domains for SEO – Most people use expired domains to do shady, grey hat SEO. This guide teaches you how to leverage them in a safer way.

Anchor Text – Understanding how to optimize anchor text is fundamental link building skill. This guide will show you how to do it the right way, so you get killer results and avoid getting penalized.

Link Building Services – Finding quality link vendors is a tough. That’s why I teamed up with Chris Dreyer and analyzed over $1,000,000 worth of link orders from the most popular vendors. Our goal was simple: to find out what vendors produce the highest quality work. The #1 vendor might surprise you.

PBNs – Every experienced SEO has used or been tempted to use PBNs in their career. The question is: are they worth it? Find out when you read this article.

SEO Tools

Ahrefs – Ahrefs is the best SEO tool on the market. This guide will show you how to use it the right way to drive more organic search traffic to your website.

Google Search Console – There aren’t many free SEO tools that can compete with Google Search Console. It’s extremely powerful and can be used to explode your organic search traffic.

Making Money

How to Make Money Online – Client SEO is the single fastest way to grow your income online. This is the only guide you’ll ever need to get your first or more clients.

How to Build a Niche Website – Building niche website is the single best way to learn SEO and to build a new income stream. This is literally the only guide you’ll ever need.

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

Squeeze Pages – Getting more organic search traffic is great, but converting that traffic is even more important. Did you know that ~98% of your website visitors are not ready to buy? That’s why it’s critical that you get them on your email list so you can nurture them. The first step is to build high-converting lead capture pages (also known as squeeze pages).

What’s Possible When You Learn SEO

I know it’s super internet marketer-like for me to say this, but learning SEO literally changed my life.

Here’s my story.

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