A History Lesson of Black Hat SEO

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The other night, I had the pleasure of catching up with a friend that acts more as an uncle. He’s a true pedal-to-the-metal business man that typically can be found planning his next venture before the rest of the city wakes. The majority of the conversation he was flipping through his iPhone showing me old photos of his three daughters and advising me on my next vacation destination. Towards the end of the conversation, I got an unexpected history lesson.

Somehow we got on the topic of when he purchased an olive oil company as an investment back in 1988. After he acquired the company, he made the wise decision of hiring someone to build a website in the 90s (wise then, and critically essential now). The guy that built the website had some thrifty black hat SEO techniques up his sleeve that shot the rankings of the website to page one for branded terms of his competitors.

“Oh yeah… I hired this guy and he did some pretty cool stuff” he explained further, “People coming to the site saw one thing, and then on the back end this guy had all my competitors listed and olive oil this… olive oil that. Oh yeah, I was showing up for everything. I was all over the place!”

Well well…. Looks like we have a case of some black hat cloaking on our hands. Or I should say, just plain old cloaking as Matt Cutts explained last month, “There is no such thing as white hat cloaking.” As such, all cloaking is simply black hat practice.

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Now before we start pointing fingers and shaming my friend, I have to say that this all made too much sense from a business perspective in the 90s. My friend wasn’t alone – there were countless sites that implemented these black hat SEO tactics. After all, Google still allows companies to bid on their competitor’s branded terms in PPC campaigns.

AdWords-Competitor-Bidding-Free-For-All

So, where do we draw the line?

My friend’s company did very well and was sold in 2001. While there are no analytics available to back up this theory, it is safe to say that his online visibility most likely drove a substantial amount of customers to his brand.

This “history lesson” reminded me of how much our industry has changed over the past two decades and how much more it will change. Even as a younger “SEO” I have seen drastic changes to search engines throughout my career: social integration, Panda and Penguin updates, The Knowledge Graph, Google Authorship, etc. There are updates in our industry every day that are constantly changing the search landscape.

The history of our industry shouldn’t be overlooked as all of these updates are trying to determine two crucial things: Are you relevant? Are you valuable? While many are questioning what our industry will become in 10 years, 1 year, next month… it’s important to know where we’ve been to know where we are going.

What do you think? What do you think the past reveals about the future of SEO?

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Keeping Up with Campaigns After Check-out

The start of a new year can be a rocky time for paid search advertisers. Contracts come to a close or a new start and everyone has checked out from their holiday shopping carts. Whether you’re starting fresh with a new account or maintaining others, it’s important to keep a keen eye while consumers return to their desktops.

1.)    Poise yourself for traffic changes.

The end of the holiday season can be a slow time for most brands and services. Consumers are focused on the presents they’ve just opened and typically aren’t looking beyond the returns counter for new purchases. The same patterns can be seen in recruitment, B2B, and general service industries. After all, who’s thinking about hiring a new PPC agency when they’re skiing with the family in Aspen or jet-skiing in the Caribbean? About the same amount of people applying for jobs when it’s unlikely they’ll see a response until January.

But low traffic (if you are using the right paid search agency!) shouldn’t last forever. People return from their families and plant themselves in front of their office computers. Once again consumers are logging into Facebook and going about their daily routines with the help of Google.

As you can see below, impressions rise sharply in at least three major industries after their dip at the end of the year. Think clearly and try to predict if your campaigns would be affected by seasonal search. Are your services resolution-worthy like exercise or organization equipment? Brace yourself for a traffic spike. Do you sell Menorahs? Your time will come again next year.

 

 

2.)    Budget is everything.

Now that we’ve established whether or not you should expect increases in web-traffic, you should re-visit your bidding. You don’t want your budgets to stay down and miss out on relevant traffic, but you don’t want your high-budget accounts to inflate too quickly either. Sure, it seems like common sense, but after a month or so of bidding steadily it can be easy to overlook or be unprepared for these changes.

3.)    Prepare for the next spike

Superbowl season can cause unprecedented spikes for brands on local and national levels. Ensure that you have clear communication with clients about their plans for other media this time of year. If they are vying for ad time during the big game, adjust your bids accordingly. You may want to increase your overall budget for the month as well to get extra eyeballs on your brand before game-day. The more awareness you have, the better chance you have to capture a sale.

4.)    Ad scheduling and delivery

As search habits change, so should your ad placements. Low search volume may lend its self well to accelerated ads, but as people return to their workday routines a more even approach might be more desirable. There is no point in burning your budget quickly when more qualified traffic can be captured later in the day. Similarly, you should adjust your flighting to conform to your consumers’  daily routine. If your product requires a lot of research, showing ads throughout the work day may no longer be profitable as consumers have less time during working hours. It’s all about knowing your products and services.

Hopefully these tips can help you navigate your accounts throughout the start of the New Year and prepare for the unexpected.

 

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Are You Sending Out the Right PPC Reports?

So you’re managing a paid search marketing account for a client and things are going well. Does your client know this? Unless every sale or lead generated can be attributed to paid search, your results are more likely proven in your regular reporting. This is where you can show how many sales your efforts resulted in, how much revenue was generated, how many leads were passed to the sales team, and what the return on advertising spend (ROAS) was. This is what you report on every week or month, right?

Unfortunately for many clients, this is not what they receive from someone managing a paid search marketing account. Too often a table of data, sometimes a report directly from Google AdWords or Bing Ads or a third party bid management tool, is what gets sent out. Keeping reports automated saves a lot of time, but it doesn’t provide data in the proper hierarchy, an analysis of why things happened, actionable insights as to what next steps will be taken to further improve the account, or ultimately how paid search is helping the client’s business.

Too many reports are Excel files with tabs that summarize how many clicks and impressions occurred, how much money was spent, how many conversions occurred (if conversion tracking is set up), and other metrics such as click-through rates, average click costs, average ad position, and so on. But does this really tell a client how his or her business grew as a result of online advertising?

A summary of what happened is always necessary, especially to show how much was spent and what that spend generated (visitors, sales, leads, etc.). But showing this data in the right hierarchy is important. Mixing all the numbers together doesn’t provide the high-level snapshot that the senior management at your client’s company needs to know. Do they really care about CTRs and CPCs? They care about leads or sales and how much revenue that translates into. So separate this data from the rest, show how it’s changed over time based on the work you’ve done, and write a detailed analysis about why these numbers have changed. And if you don’t know why they changed, that may be why you’ve been sending out those automated reports and tap dancing through client calls hoping they don’t ask.

The next piece of your report can now summarize the amount of traffic generated and what that cost. Increasing site visitors and doing so for less are things worthy of bragging about, as is increasing CTRs or expanding the reach of your client’s advertising. But these are very much secondary metrics that don’t directly impact the client’s bottom line. They show that optimizations have occurred and can provide other insights such as which ad messaging is resonating with searchers. Given the amount data available in a paid search account, it’s too tempting to latch onto these second-tier numbers, highlight them to a client and expect praise, but most people who hire someone to manage a paid search account for them don’t understand what these numbers really mean anyway. It can be good to include highlights of these numbers in your analysis, but don’t try to replace the high-level results with this particular information.

Whether you provide these second-tier metrics at the account level, campaign level, ad group level, or some combination of these should really be up to the client. Data overload is intimidating and can look like an attempt to gloss over what really happened. Too little detail, especially with clients that have some paid search understanding, can look like an attempt to hide data from them. There’s no perfect solution to this. It really comes down to working with your client to determine what is needed versus what is available, and shouldn’t even be an issue at all if the high-level results are positive.

So what are the top-level metrics that should be highlighted? What are the other metrics that should be included? Are top keywords and ad copy needed in the report as well? Customizing your reporting for each client and doing so based on your recommendations and not just asking what they each want is one way to truly differentiate yourself from the competition. It requires that you get to know the client’s objectives and goals, how they operate, what they hope to accomplish in the long- and short-term, and can make you an invaluable partner to his or her company.

To determine if your reporting is as good as it should be, ask yourself, if you were running a business, would you be happy letting someone else spend your hard-earned money to generate sales or leads via paid search marketing and then reading the reports you’re currently sending out?

Which of these better show the impact of your work?

 

 

Does Your Site Need SEO Help?

 

When you hire an online marketing or SEO agency, the agency will “audit” your site and look for errors and opportunities to increase your rankings. But how do you know whether or not you need an agency? Pick a few pages from your website and perform your own mini-audit with this checklist:

Headers & Titles

Every page on your site should include a title, a strategically-written meta description, and an H1 header. You could view the source code for the page and search for each of these elements, or you could use a free, convenient tool that does it for you. Here’s how:

  1. Drag this [SEO] bookmarklet to your toolbar.
  2. Navigate to the desired page on your website and click on the “SEO” bookmark that’s now in your toolbar.
  3. You’ll get a pop-up like this:

SEO Bookmarklet

This was pulled from a post about using keywords. The title is relevant and the description makes sense. There’s also only one H1. Yay!

First, look to see that the title and description are relevant to the content on your page. Next, confirm that there is only one H1 present. Without an H1, you’re missing a big opportunity to give information to search engines and readers. With too many H1s, you can create confusion.

Image Alt Text

Alt text is a behind-the-scenes opportunity for you to provide information about your images and your website to the search engine crawler.

How does it work? Even though your website shows something like this:

 New York Skyline

The search engine robots see something like this:

<img src=”new-york-skyline.gif” alt=”New York Skyline”>

If you name your files well and use descriptive alt text, your pictures might start to appear in search results, which could, in turn, drive traffic to your website.

How can you tell if your images have alt text?

  1. Easy: Hover your mouse over the image. If there’s alt text, it will appear.
  2. Intermediate: Use that same search bookmarklet to check whether any images on your page have alt text.

SEO Alt Text     3. Advanced:

        a. Press Ctrl+U to view the source code for the page you’re on

        b. Press Ctrl+F to open the search dialogue

        c. Search for .jpg, .gif, or .png to locate images. Then look for a nearby alt=”some phrase” to see if there is alt text present. You can also look to see whether the filename is descriptive, because a good file name never hurts.

How Shareable is Your Site?

There are two parts to shareability. First, do you have buttons on your website that make it easy for your visitors to tweet about you, post your site to Facebook, or even pin one of your images to Pinterest? If not, you could be missing out on great social sharing opportunities.

Second, figure out if each page is worth sharing. Would customers find it useful? Do you provide relevant information? Not every page needs to be a content-rich resource, but all of your pages should meet a customer need and be worthy of being passed along.

How Does Your Website Look to Other People?

Open your website in other browsers. Resize the window. Visit your site from an iPad or Android device. Check to make sure that your website looks good on every platform that your customers are using. If your website adjusts to different sizes and forms, then you’re in great shape. If it doesn’t, you might want to consider a more responsive design.

Analyze your Competitors

How does your web traffic compare to your competitors? One easy way to figure out is to use a browser toolbar built for SEO. SEOBook’s is free and easy to install. There is a ton of data available on the toolbar, and it can get overwhelming. I recommend just paying attention to the Compete Uniques and SEMrush Traffic Value numbers (the blue/green circle and the red sun.) There are no hard and fast rules here; everything is relative. If your numbers are similar to your competitors’, then you’re probably on par with your industry in terms of web traffic. If your numbers are lower, you can assume that you have room to grow your web presence

 

Here’s a traffic comparison of two of Boston’s major newspaper sites

If your site falls short in any of these areas, it might be time to get help from the experts. Remember, this was just a mini-audit. Professional site audits check every page of your site and include a number of other vital SEO factors.

 

Written by Stephanie Beadell, Master of Science in Mass Communications major at Boston University Dec 2012.

How to Use Keywords to Optimize your Website

How do you want new customers to find you on the web? What words are people likely to use when they search for your company or for the products you offer? Your answers to these questions are your “keywords,” and they are integral to building an effective online presence. Here’s how to generate a keyword list and optimize your site in 5 easy steps:

 

Step 1: Think like a Customer

Brainstorm a list of terms that people might use to look for you or companies like you. Put yourself in the mind of a potential customer and get creative. Include short terms, long phrases, location-based queries, and questions.

 

It’s important that you make your list first, before turning to the internet’s keyword tools. Why? Because no tool can ever know your business better than you do. You know what products your customers care about. You know your region and its nicknames. You know which of your products or services are the most important to your business’ growth.

 

For best results, have a coworker or friend make a list, too. They may think of things that you forgot. Brainstorm until you have a very long list, group similar terms and phrases together into categories, then prioritize the categories.

 

Step 2: Use the Power of the Internet

Use GooglesKeywordTool to see how your keyword list compares to the keywords that people actually search for. Focus on one keyword category at a time. Look at the top box to see how many searches each of your keywords get, and use the bottom box to find related keyword ideas. Add to, subtract from, and re-prioritize your list to incorporate your Keyword Tool findings.

 

Step 3: Revamp Your Website

Look at your website to see how well you make use of keywords. Do you use them in your headlines and in the body of the page? Does the purpose of your page match what customers are searching for? Update your titles, headlines, and body copy so that they include your high-priority keywords. Make sure to write in a customer-friendly style; your goal is to make your site morerelevantandusefulforthem.

 

Of course, including keywords in your headlines and enhancing body copy will also help the Google robot know what your page is about, but you should never write for Google. Writing for Google often ends up in “keyword-stuffing,” the activity of cramming keywords into your page to a point that it doesn’t make sense and looks spammy. Google punishes keyword-stuffed pages. Writing for customers is a much better, strategically-sound approach. After all, the people at Google are striving to make their algorithms think more like people do, so it makes sense for you to focus on people, too. (Not to mention that Google has told us again and again to think about user experience when we optimize our sites.)

 

Step 4: Update Your Ads

Look at your advertising. Optimize your PPC ads to include your new keyword list. We’ve already written5 TipstoWriteBetterGooglePPCAdCopy, so I won’t repeat all of the rules here. Just remember to use keywords in your headlines and be mindful that your customers want the ad they click on to match the page they land on. Now that you’ve gone through all of these steps, you should have that covered. You’ll be reaching the most customers with the most relevant pages. It’s a win for them and a win for you.

 

Step 5: Track Your Changes

Monitor your results. Use Google Analytics to see if your changes and updates are working. Here are a few easy metrics to check:

 

  • Unique Visitors: You want this number to increase. In this case, it likely means that more people are finding your site in searches and clicking through to it.
  • Time on Site or Pages / Visit: More is usually better. Sometimes, though, a high Pages per Visit number could mean that customers are clicking around, unable to find what they’re looking for. Use your best judgment here.
  • Bounce Rate: Bounce Rate is the percentage of people who click to your website and leave. Generally, bounce rates should be low (but there are always exceptions.)

 

Use this keyword exercise to better understand how your customers are using Google so that you can update your site to better meet their needs. Your customer-centric, long-term business strategy will be rewarded with better rankings and more visitors!

 

Written by 451 Marketing intern, Stephanie Beadell,  Master of Science in Mass Communications major at Boston University Dec 2012.