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Interview with Aaron Wall aka SEOBook

1. You’ve proved seo isn’t dead (repeatedly) – what is the future of it ?

SEOBook - Aaron Wall and Jim BoykinSearch is becoming a big money game & the barrier to entry (particularly of building out your own site rather than riding on a 3rd party platform site) keeps being lifted. Even the venture backed start ups that allegedly make “old models of business” irrelevant are now buying TV ads.

For nearly a decade search was a game where being small and nimble was a huge competitive advantage over big business. In many (most?) cases, that is no longer the case as the algorithms are biased toward promoting big brands. The thinnest page on a large trusted site (say YouTube get rich quick infomercials or Facebook notes spam) is generally trusted far more than a far higher quality new page on a smaller site.

Yesterday while searching I saw an Answers.com page ranking in Google with 4 words of content on the page & 23 ads on the page. One of the 4 words of content was also a hover ad link! That same approach would get a smaller webmaster penalized by Panda, the top heavy ad algorithm, and perhaps a few other penalties including a manual ban. Smaller sites need to be more aggressive with their marketing, more refined with their link building strategy & more conservative with what they are willing to publish. If they create too much content without using aggressive push marketing they are guilty until proven innocent with algorithms like Panda.

Ultimately what we see with Google’s various vertical paid inclusion offerings is they went from supporting an open ecosystem to trying to build their own closed ecosystem. Their strength & their biggest point of differentiation was their openness, offering more diversity in the tail than anyone else was willing to try. Now they have flipped in the other direction, partnering with big media. They are competing against other large online ecosystems like Apple & Amazon.

Where Google pushes too far in some directions they will arbitrarily destroy some companies. But, at the same time, the more the search results become a series of ads & scraped/repurposed facts, the easier it is for people to distinguish the difference between passion driven projects and the factually correct (sometimes?) but soulless flotsam offered in the SERPs. Another way of saying this is that with A.I. Google will be able to easily pass the Turing test long before they will be able to understand emotion & convey the sense of a true & unique experience. Facts are increasingly commodities while the value of experience keeps increasing.

In the past SEO started with keywords & researching markets, then creating relevant content around addressing those demands & opportunities. I think on the way forward (for smaller companies at least) SEO is becoming more about understanding markets THEN using opportunities found in the market (like personal friction points) to build non-search exposure & then using that momentum to establish a strong base (with a mix of old school SEO over the top to give it an extra bump). Larger companies can of course keep on content farming.

Knowing what you are talking about is nowhere near as important as being seen everywhere. If enough people syndicate a message (even one that is not true) then it wins.

Popularity = quality = rank. Popularity is often driven by ad budget.

That works well for society so long as one has never looked at ads for asbestos aprons or watched the movie Idiocracy.

If you lack that sort of scale then you need to have some other persuasive point of differentiation to help carry you. People gravitate toward passion.

I already see a bit of your “jaded marketer” coming through :).  I’ve struggled with this myself at times after nearly 10 years of marketing it’s hard not to get mad at the scumbags, and want to root for the underdogs.  I know you’ve always been a fan of the “little guys” too.  Running a true small business myself this year has forced me to understand what it’s like to be a small business owner with a very limited marketing budget.  Beyond “jaded marketer”, I know you’ve helped hundreds if not thousands of small business owners make that limited budget go much further.

If you could offer advice to the “good little guys” on their own marketing – where do you think they are best served spending those limited budgets?

I think it really comes down to knowing the individual market. If you know your market you can see some of the friction points & opportunities.

Generally speaking, the returns you should be able toe get when you do things that are aligned with knowing your market well & building around the interests of your market should generally be able to outperform more general baseline across the board stuff.

That said, it is worth spending what it takes to know at least a bit about each of the following topics

  • branding
  • publicity
  • domain names
  • link building
  • keyword research
  • information architecture
  • usability
  • web analytics
  • adwords

Businesses that succeed typically don’t do everything great (strengths are often tied to weaknesses). But those who try a variety of things & then keep reinvesting where they see signs of momentum and/or a positive ROI are more likely to succeed than those who do not.

2. How would you conduct competitive research in a new industry?

If it is something I am really passionate about I would read about a half-dozen to dozen books on the topic while also setting up RSS subscriptions to a number of blogs, a Google News alert, join a few niche online communities, and perhaps even attend offline events. One could consider this a full immersion sort of approach, but as Google keeps lifting the barrier to entry to markets, if you don’t have the ad budget to compete on that front you need to be better in numerous other aspects to win on a sustainable basis.

If it is more opportunistic of a play then I would look for a market entry option (old site, strong domain, area where a weak site is ranking, etc.). But on this sort of stuff you are also testing performance of minor investments & reinvesting where there is a good response in building momentum.

And either of these categories can become the other too…

  • a well trusted site can bolt on some opportunistic bits to enhance monetization
  • an opportunistic play that is well received can be rebuilt & aggressively invested into in order turn it into something more serious

Lastly I would say one also needs to get their head out of the spreadsheets and competitive research tools & look at the actual search results too. A keyword that isn’t too competitive (inside a market research tool) might not be too valuable when you look at the search results and see that extended AdWords ads & various vertical search offerings essentially displace the organic search result set.

 What do you prefer for a blog reader and why?  Have you tried others?

Over the years I have tried a number of blog readers. Currently I sometimes look at iGoogle on the weekend, but I do must of my day to day scanning via looking at TechMeme + SEL daily email + Twitter.
More recently I have been reading more about finance, economics & investing. I wouldn’t describe myself as an active investor, but I find the parallels to search somewhat interesting. Just like marketing techniques rise & fall in efficacy so do prices of commodities, companies & even entire categories. I tend to read iTulip & Market-ticker.org a lot, while also sometimes reading Ritholtz.com too.

3. What are the best ways to build links in 2013?

Have a strong non-search distribution channel to leverage that magnifies the efficacy of all your other SEO-based & link building marketing efforts.

The problem with not having that sort of distribution channel is that the mainstream media is dying & already was pretty sleazy before their revenues collapsed. Quite often they will shag your story, not link to the source, & become the canonical source for your story. Google’s “size = quality” bias only feeds into that sort of garbage.

Google talks about the importance of adding value, but when they pay the mainstream media to pull a glorified Demand Media strategy on your expensive featured content, they end up destroying the economic incentive to invest for the creators while working with larger publishing entities to ensure the work gets aggressively monetized by others. This approach is not a surprise to anyone who has seen…

  • how they quickly worked with book publishers on the illegal book scanning, but have refused to work directly with authors & want the author class action thrown out of court
  • how  their YouTube contracts that prohibit you from publicly stating your revenue share & Google invests in some of the larger video “publishers” that put some dirty crap in their contracts
  • how Google’s CPA product ads were available to big merchants for a long time without being available to smaller advertisers
  • how affiliates are often seen as unneeded duplication in the ecosystem, but Google will allow them to participate on product listing ads in Google Shopping until they can strike a direct deal with Amazon
  • how AdSense publishers can get penalized for following Google’s case studies, yet even after rolling out such penalities Google created a 300×600 “brand friendly” AdSense ad unit size
  • how Google couldn’t stop piracy in any way until they wanted to sign deals with big media for Google Play & then copyright became a big issue overnight, with Google promising to penalize sites like YouTube (excluding YouTube) for their overt support of piracy
  • etc.

For nearly a decade Google was against the establishment. Now they are firmly aligned with it.

In most cases, among the people reading this, Google would prefer you to work at Wal-Mart rather than to run a small business.

If the company you work for is worth under a billion Dollars, you are likely unneeded duplication in the search ecosystem.

A huge portion of Wal Mart’s profits (and thus market capitalization) come from food stamps & other subsidies. If you don’t have those subsidies as a tailwind & compete against those that do, they are your headwind. Brand bias in the “relevancy” algorithms is just another familiar headwind.

The brand bias will remain a headwind for smaller businesses until Google realizes they are over-subsidizing direct competitors, at which point in time they will use some faux altruistic justification for dialing the algorithms back in the other direction.

For nearly a decade Google was against the establishment. Now they are firmly aligned with it.”

Whoa.  Pretty serious allegations there, but I have to agree to an extent that there is definitely some big brand bias going on.

What do you think were the biggest shifts in company culture?  Do you think they can ever revert to catering to “little guys”

When the US home mortgage fraud bubble imploded Google’s revenue growth rates slowed. With that, they likely felt like they were coming closer to the peak of direct marketing (at least in the intermediate term, though longer term you see them sucking in data from the offline world using Android & Google Wallet & so on) & that if they were to keep growing they would likely need to target those branded ad Dollars. And as their philosophy toward ads changed, some of that bled into the organic results as well. They will of course maintain that there is a strict wall, but you don’t have to be very smart to tie together some of the details. As a particularly absurd example, even after Google rolled out the top heavy ad algorithm (which penalizes sites that have too many ads above the fold) they later launched what they described as a “brand friendly” 300 by 600 AdSense ad unit size.

Can Google cater to the little guys? In many ways they still do (in terms of offering free(ish) utilities like Gmail & web analytics). They also make video hosting cheap, offer free blog hosting & so on. However, over time we see them pull back in areas where they find pulling back convenient … like keyword (not provided).

Their Android ecosystem will likely work out great for a number of independent developers too, especially as long as Google has competition from Amazon and Apple and Microsoft.

That said, if Google deems themselves to have monopoly control of a market we can expect them to extract larger rents. Google overplayed maps when they tried to juice their API rates & were later forced to drop them after others called them out on it. Those same maps sometimes include an ad for directly competing businesses inside the business location information area…that is a signal that they care every bit as much (maybe moreso?) to redirect users as deliver a useful product.

Back onto the broader topic of publishing…if you look at the economics of publishing & how publishing business models work, we see Google striking deals with many large, powerful players while leaving smaller folks in the cold. Some examples…

Google will often support smaller independent operations only so that they may use that as a point of leverage in negotiating a deal with big business, but when those deals are in place the roll of small business is largely/primarily to exist in the background as part of Google’s “credible threat” option as a point of leverage for negotiating better contract terms with big media companies.

“Vertical creep” has been an ongoing issue with google and commercial intent queries for those trying to compete in organic search.  Which verticals do you think they are MOST crossing the line?

Without a doubt it is hotels.

  • adwords ads with sitelinks
  • maps (where if you click into it you get ads)
  • hotel finder ads with prices (though if you click on a price you go to that star category & are not sorted by price…you need to sort again in order to find said prices…this is a paid inclusion offering with another layer of ppc ads over the top)
  • local listings in the SERPs also have a price on them which opens up a drop down with ads in it

In addition to the above “monetize everything” approach, the leaked Google remote rater documents stated that HELPFUL hotel affiliate sites should be labeled as spam for no reason other than being affiliate sites.

4. Your competitive research tool is probably my favorite seo tool in recent memory.

What are your favorite seo tools (other than your own of course)?

Hate to plug our own tools, especially as many of them are lightweight extensions for Firefox, but if I go to use a new computer & it doesn’t have them installed I feel like I am swimming naked or such :D

SEM Rush was the clear cut leader in the competitive research area, but Ahrefs has come a long way in a short time (on both the link data & competitive research fronts). SearchMetrics Essentials has some nice historical data when trying to find any animal-based issues with a particular website.

There are so many great SEO tools out there now that it is hard to highlight them all though. This is part of the reason why we finally decided to launch SEOTools.net. Currently that site is a work in progress, but we intend to dive deeper into that space soon.

5. What do you think are the most important social signals to SEO currently?

Having enough scale that Google may fear you have the ear of regulators if they torch your site.

That sounds like a ridiculous or cynical take, but SERoundtable recently mentioned a person disavowed all their links & Google stated that wasn’t enough because they didn’t show they put in enough effort (other ways of viewing that statement are that they didn’t waste enough of their lives or go through enough pain yet).

What makes that “you must eat a crap sandwich to play in our park” game so outrageous is not only the monopolistic bundlings & purchasing of default search placement in browsers and computers and so on, but also the fact that someone else might buy links for your site to try to harm you. One of Google’s past posts about link spam cited an example that was rather egregiously bad. What Google didn’t realize when they posted that example publicly was that they were highlighting competitive sabotage rather than the efforts of the person who owned that website. Such details are uninteresting footnotes when pushing polarized righteous views (along with ads for Mexican druglord steroids).

You can learn a lot from Google’s steroid ads: get big or die trying. They … cough … Livestrong ;) 

Okay – I’m gonna pull you back off your google rant here.

Which social networks and signals that we DO have some influence over should search marketers be trying to use for distribution?

I think anything that provides strong distribution invariably creates some of the other relevancy signals: links, strong user engagement, brand-related searches, repeat visitors, etc. And as Google collects more data over time (see Chrome, Android, Gmail, search user experience, user account history, their Kansas City broadband & their potential deal with Dish on creating a wireless service next year) they will increasingly be able to move away from the random surfer more toward actively monitoring the specific surfer.

6. Define Quality, value, authority, and relevance as they apply to search.

I think one can almost do a double definition for each of these.

Quality:

(historical/theoretical): how much effort & investment was put into the content + how original the information is + how well it satisfies the user’s goals

(current/practical): the market capitalization, brand awareness & ad budget of the company creating the content

Value

(historical/theoretical): how much friction the content removes from the marketplace & how much it helps people & how it helps them achieve the desired result with minimal risk and/or cost

(current/practical):  the market capitalization, brand awareness & ad budget of the company creating the content

Authority

(historical/theoretical): the expertise of the author on the specific topic & peer recomendations from other acknowledged experts and trusted sources

(current/practical): the market capitalization, brand awareness & ad budget of the company creating the content

Relevancy

(historical/theoretical): how well the content is aligned with the goals of the user & how much it helps them achieve said goals relevancy

(current/practical): the market capitalization, brand awareness & ad budget of the company creating the content

I think this is the philosophical question that drives search marketers bonkers.  We’re looking into a crystal ball trying to predict the mathematical and algorithmic concepts of “relevant” from a black box.  This box defines our strategies which are also built on shifting sands. How about trying to define these concepts based on criteria that influence them?

What can the AVERAGE (or any) webmaster do to improve their site in regards to these criteria?

1, page quality
2, offsite value
3, site authority, and
4, keyword relevancy

page quality: the effort & investment that was put into the content & formatting of said content
what they can do:

  • share original insights not offered elsewhere
  • spend greater time creating fewer pages
  • read Don’t Make Me Think & implement some of the usability best practices

offsite value: the link authority & link repuation of a site
what they can do:

  • engage in a wide variety of marketing efforts & keep reinvesting in whatever ones seem to be working best
  • look at their analytics data in order to find areas where they have more momentum than they would expect & reinvest in those areas

site authority: same as above, but also includes things like brand awareness and user engagement metrics
what they can do:

  • the above sorts of link building & focused content efforts
  • advertise (especially with Google) & use retargeted ads
  • various other brand related marketing strategies

keyword relevancy: how well the page fits the intent of the search.
what they can do:

  • include a variety of related modifiers to help the page be seen as relevant for a broader basket of keywords
  • include multiple information formats in the page (like video & images) so that they may show up in a variety of search verticals
  • create significantly deeper content than what a scrape-n-mash bot or a human-powered scraper site could do
  • use numerous subheadings and other structural elements throughout the page in order to help make it easier to scan

Finally, what do you love most about SEO, and what keeps you doing it?

First of all, one should never aim to be average in business. Those who are below average but aggressive & exploitative have a cost structure advantage, while those who are way above average have strong distribution advantages. Therefore, in many cases one shouldn’t try to be average unless there are some other obvious market barriers (eg: location).

page quality: the effort & investment that was put into the content & formatting of said content

what they can do:

  • share original insights not offered elsewhere
  • spend greater time creating fewer pages
  • read Don’t Make Me Think & implement some of the usability best practices

offsite value: the link authority & link repuation of a site
what they can do:

  • engage in a wide variety of marketing efforts & keep reinvesting in whatever ones seem to be working best
  • look at their analytics data in order to find areas where they have more momentum than they would expect & reinvest in those areas

site authority: same as above, but also includes things like brand awareness and user engagement metrics
what they can do:

  • the above sorts of link building & focused content efforts
  • advertise (especially with Google) & use retargeted ads
  • various other brand related marketing strategies

keyword relevancy: how well the page fits the intent of the search.
what they can do:

  • include a variety of related modifiers to help the page be seen as relevant for a broader basket of keywords
  • include multiple information formats in the page (like video & images) so that they may show up in a variety of search verticals
  • create significantly deeper content than what a scrape-n-mash bot or a human-powered scraper site could do
  • use numerous subheadings and other structural elements throughout the page in order to help make it easier to scan

I think a lot of my current interest in SEO is in watching the collision between various models & markets. Marc Andreessen wrote an article about how software is eating the world. In many ways search is a baseline operating system for that.

Not to use the sort of faux transparency some that some advocate, but I am not sure if “love” is the right word for my current state of being with SEO. Some of it comes down to momentum I guess…the do what you know bit. Ironically, I don’t think I have made a blog post in a month or so right as you are about to relaunch your site.

Certainly if you went back 5 or 10 years there was a load of love for the ability to help anyone no matter how small spread their thoughts. That the barrier to entry has risen isn’t surprising (it is the direction of markets generally that when they are new small players can win but then later they get gobbled up/consolidated). It has come pretty swiftly over the past few years though. I think the sad part is that the shifts haven’t largely been about increasing quality, but rather about increasing cashflow & displacing a higher quality page/site with a lower quality bit of scraped junk monetized by the home team. Again, that shouldn’t be particularly surprising, but it is more common than many optimists had hoped for out of Google.

What I am saying could be seen as negative, however I don’t think things are particularly bad right now, but rather things are now more like a typical self-serving market. We had it amazingly well in the recent past & you don’t know what you got (till it’s gone).

Thanks Aaron!

Having literally written the book on search engine optimization Aaron knows the industry inside out.

SEOBook has been used as course text for MBA classes and he has spoken around the world at industry conferences and schools about search engine optimization and internet marketing.

Alexa ranks SEO Book.com as being one of the top 10,000 most popular websites.

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  • Adeel Zahoor

    intresting content have in your blog.but i really hurt to read this content.,its very painful to read with black background..

    • Social Blogsite

      Adeel: i’m the designer of this website. I’m sorry to hear it’s been hard for you to read this article. Note that there is a style switcher at the top, which will save your setting for next time.
      I strongly recommend to switch it back to night mode if your room
      Is not directly lit by sunlight (there’s 1 person with the “good” office for each 5-20 other people in the center offices of a building), since reading pain is just caused by the difference between screen/room lighting and glare (which is lost in a fully lit screen but damages your sight if your screen is not adjusted to the room as follow:)
      Point and focus your sight to a point between your screen and watever is behind. Try not to concentrate in anything specific, but to grasp the whole scene (I’m sure theres a word for that way to look, but I cant find it, sorry) and then adjust your screen brightness until both screen’s and room’s are even and your eyes stop hurting when going from one to the other.
      If you are transcribing something on paper or alternating between anything else and the screen, make sure the screen brightness matches that other thing (if you haven’t been able to fix your desk lights with the same criteria instead).
      The most common cause of eye fatigue is that contrast, and just a few have the amazing light we have in our office :)
      Good luck!

  • http://twitter.com/imnotadoctor imnotadoctor

    Good to see some high quality post again … welcome back

  • Rank Watch

    Good to see that pic again. And a very great post. Loved the deep insights.

  • PortraitsByRod

    Aaron has great information to share. Thanks

  • Spook SEO

    Good to read some words from gurus like them. So much sense. Thanks. I really really love it. I admit that Iearn something and you reminded me that I am a marketer, not a spammer. Thanks Aaron for truely shedding some light on Seo.

  • تور چین

    Excellent interview, Todd. For sure everybody can learn much more from professionals that are longer in the business.
    کارشناسی ارشد بدون کنکورکرکره برقیدوربین مدار بسته

  • sadra

    Nice post. you should read salty droid.
    درب اتوماتیکköpek mamasıköpek cinsleri

  • stuntdubl

    From about a year ago actually – we all just age well ;)

  • http://www.irishwonder.com IrishWonder

    amazing! I honestly thought it was one of those from at least 5 years ago

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