Category Archive: Google

Why Edward Snowden Is a Hero

I can’t stand the overused and ridiculous use of the word “hero” in the US media.  With that said, Edward Snowden is a hero that has done the US and the world an incredible service.  Will it matter?  I sure hope so.  If you haven’t seen it, watch this interview he gave the Guardian.

I’ve been a big proponent of freedom and privacy for a long time, and it’s often disappointing to me that many others just don’t seem to care.  But the reason they don’t is understandable.  They don’t get it because they don’t see it.  Although I’ve never worked for the US government, I have seen (better than most) what big organizations with massive spying capability and data collection can and will do.  I’ve watched as Google has wiped out countless businesses without even a shred of caring.  In their fight against “spammers” they actively penalize websites and small businesses for past actions, actions that are beyond the control of the website/business owners.  The businesses that get destroyed are simply “collateral damage”.

(Before anyone objects that there is no other way for them to fight this fight, there is.  The difference between rewarding sites for positive signals and punishing sites for negative signals, particularly when those signals can be provided by less ethical competitors, is the difference between being responsible and careless, if not pathological.  And additionally, business owners who don’t have cutting edge information can inadvertently run afoul of Google, or can get nailed when Google changes their standards for what is and was acceptable.)

Where does this tie in with Edward Snowden and what the US government has been doing?  The US government is similarly (but on a far greater scale and with far more potential for much worse “collateral damage”) collecting comprehensive data on everyone.  As Snowden said, it’s not only what is being done now, but everything you’ve ever done in the past.  What you’ve bought, who you’ve talked to on the phone, who you’ve emailed, what you’ve said.  It’s all being stored.

But you’re not doing anything bad, so you don’t have to worry, right?  Tell that to the small businesses that have been wiped out by Google for going against guidelines or algorithmic mumbo jumbo they’ve never even heard of.  How about the Jews in Europe?  They weren’t doing anything bad until the Nazis decided they were.  What happens if or when Google, Apple, or the US government decides that you or someone you know is connected to someone who is “bad”?  And what happens if they’re just wrong?  You may just be acceptable collateral damage.

Combine that with secret courts, renditions, secret prisons, and unmanned drones blowing people (and anyone that happens to be near them) into minced meat, and you’ve got a pretty nasty picture forming.  In the west we often hear about the surveillance state in countries like China.  Is the US really all that different?  Or, are we just so addicted to the technology, so brainwashed by the propaganda, that we don’t realize that our government is no different?

Hopefully, people will listen to what Edward Snowden has to say, broadcast it to all their friends via their constantly monitored social networks and smart devices, where Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google, and countless others will log and save your communications in case they want to punish you later.  Is this really the world we want to live in?

Edward Snowden is a fucking hero.  Sign the WhiteHouse.gov petition to have him pardoned, here.

The State of SEO: OODA Loop Implications

SEO and the OODA Loop

Understand & Make Money

Can you still make money with SEO?  Have Google’s latest actions driven the final nail in the coffin?  Or is there more opportunity than ever?

Read on, and find out.

Over the last two years, the pace of change in the SEO world has been fast and furious.  Internet marketers are giving up in droves as many of their sites are hit by penalties like Panda, Penguin, and the EMD update.  Cries that SEO is dead, particularly for small business, can be heard more than ever.

But it’s not SEO that’s dead, it’s the old ways of doing it that no longer work.  Things change.  They always have, and they always will.  Being able to adapt is key.  And if you can adapt as the competition gets slaughtered, there are more profits to be had than ever.

Here’s how you can use a concept developed by a military strategist to make sure you stay on top.

The OODA Loop

A colonel in the US Air Force, John Boyd developed the OODA Loop concept to apply to combat.  Make no mistake, there is a war going on between Google and the rest of us.  Naive or ill-informed SEOs may not realize this (at their own peril), but it nevertheless is true.

Webmasters want their sites to rank well in search results, and in the face of global competition for the top 10 spots, doing so requires understanding search engine algorithms and giving them what they want.  “Giving them what they want” is a nice way to say manipulating them.  Google doesn’t want to be manipulated.  They want to manipulate you.  The war is on.  And there is carnage.

Google and its foot soldiers (pandas, penguins, and untold others) are slaughtering websites and webmasters at a pace that’s pure crazy.  High quality sites and small businesses that get in the path of these maniacal beasts are acceptable collateral damage to Google’s war machine, and the government isn’t going to stop them.  We’re on our own, friends.

In the face of constant assaults by Google’s monsters, we must adapt in order to survive and prosper.  The OODA Loop provides a framework for doing so.

Observe – Orient – Decide – Act

OODA is an acronym for observe, orient, decide, and act.  In the face of change, we first observe the change.  It takes time to orient ourselves to the new reality.  Only after orienting ourselves to the new reality can we make a decision based on it.  And we can’t act until we decide how to do so, based on that new orientation.  The tricky part in this war against Google is that when Google is at the last phase of the OODA Loop, acting, they’ve forced us into the observation phase.  This leaves us 3 steps behind.

Let’s look at an example:

One day you’re walking along, doing just fine.  All of a sudden a panda jumps out and shoots you right in the face.  It’s rather shocking.  Most people do one of three things in such situations:

  • They fall down and die.
  • They freeze (in fear) right where they are, and the panda slaughters them or they bleed to death while frozen.
  • Since they’re not dead yet, their brains have them keep doing what they were doing…a natural survival response…which doesn’t work very well against deranged pandas and penguins.  They get slaughtered to, just a little bit later, as the panda runs behind them and shoots them several times in the back.

The Solution: Default Response

There’s one way to dramatically increase your chance of survival in the face of a vicious assault.  You need to have a default response.  A default response is an action that gets triggered by an aggressive action against you.  So when you get attacked, rather than getting stuck three steps behind and dying one way or another, you instantly act.  This action in the face of an attack forces the attacker into the observation phase, putting you instantly 3 steps ahead.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite so easy with Google, as we rely on our opponent’s monopoly position in search for our income.  And because Google is such a huge monopoly, our action isn’t really going to kick them back to the observation phase, with us instantly on top.  But in order to survive, you still need a default response.  You need to move to a safe fall-back position from which to observe, orient, decide, and act with good and effective strategy.

Fall-Back Position

It may take some time before you figure out why that panda shot you in the face.  You’re going to need medical supplies and a safe place to hide while you orient to this new reality and decide how to proceed.  And, once you decide to act, the game may continue to change in front of you.

This means you either need enough savings to hold you over, or additional income sources.  Those income sources can be other websites not slaughtered by Google, or businesses/jobs that don’t depend on SEO traffic for income.  Having both savings and multiple sources of income is, of course, ideal.  In this day and age, where SEOs are in a full-on war with Google, having only one income generating site and no savings is a recipe for painful death by one of Google’s soldiers.  It doesn’t matter how good your site is, or how many people love you.  Google doesn’t care.

From your safe fall-back position, it’s time to fully observe, orient, decide, and act.

Strategic Pause

Taking a strategic pause from active web development, giving yourself time to observe the new playing field and orient yourself to it, can be of huge benefit.  Look at sites that were hit vs. sites that weren’t hit.  What are the differences?  Look deeply into your analytics.  What date were you hit on?  Does that date correspond to a known/confirmed penalty date?  Were you hit only for certain keywords or pages, or were you hit across the board?  Once you move to your fall-back position, still in good condition due to your savings or additional sources of income, take whatever time you need to observe and orient as best you can.

See What Sticks

If you’ve attempted to observe and orient with little success, you may have to send out spies to get more intelligence.  Don’t risk your best assets.  Every serious SEO should strive to have a number of sites with different types of content (quality, quantity, text, video, static vs. interactive, etc.), different types of link building (quality, quantity, frequency, anchor text variety and distribution, etc.), and different traffic sources (search, paid, social, offline marketing, etc.).  Once you’ve got a network of sites, you can use them to test the waters.  Throw enough at the wall, and something will stick.  When you know what’s sticking, build on it.

A Time to Fight, A Time Not to Fight

Know that there is a time to fight, and a time not to fight.  If you come to the conclusion that a site, page, or method is dead, don’t fight it…move on.  This may require giving up on a site (it may come back in the future as algorithms change and penalties expire), moving content to a new domain and starting over fresh, or deleting pages with “bad” links pointing to them (allowing them to 404 so the bad links are killed off).

OODA Lag

It takes time to observe, orient, decide, and finally act based on that new information.  Many of your competitors will die right after the initial assault, without defaulting to a fall-back position with a plan.  There will be a vacuum, where sites rank with little effort, simply due to active webmasters being taken out.  If you’ve got a number of test sites or back-ups in the ready, you may be able to take advantage of this vacuum.  Due to the time lag, it may seem like nothing works.  But something will.  It just takes time to figure it out.  For those that do, there will be less competitors and more to gain, as web use still continues to grow year after year.

An Open Letter to Google’s Matt Cutts: On Penalties & the New Link Disavow Tool

Dear Matt,

Thank you for launching the new Link Disavow Tool. Hopefully it will allow a number of high quality sites and businesses that were hit by penalties like Penguin to recover. My concern however is that it will create more confusion than already exists, as impossible as that may be. I doubt you’ll be keen to remove this tool just after launching it, but either way I’d like to propose a much simpler alternative.

First, The Problem:

Many high quality sites and businesses have been hit by massive penalties since Panda. I’ll refrain from talking about Panda from here on out since it’s not primarily related to links, but it was around that time that you guys (Google) seemed to shift from smaller, more targeted penalties and algo adjustments to massive penalties and devaluations with a great deal of ‘collateral damage’. I realize there have always been changes, but I’ve been working online full time since 2005 and have never seen anything like what’s been going on since February 2011.

I’m sure you know the SEO game a lot better than I do. Since I started out on the web, you needed links in order to rank in competitive niches. In my primary business niche, if you didn’t get links, you didn’t rank. All of us bought links, because we needed to in order to rank. I know this. You know this. Aside from buying links to rank among our real competitors, we also needed them to rank above spammers with low quality affiliate and made-for-Adsense sites. We did have a choice, but as a real business there was only one good one at the time. Buy links and rank, or don’t buy links and be outranked by competitors and spammers. Surely you already know that.

I understand you want to get rid of low quality sites in your search results. I’m all for that. I want to see quality results as much as the next guy. I’m a searcher too. But when you guys started applying negative factors to spammers and low quality sites that bought links, you also wiped out scores of high quality sites that were forced to buy links in order to outrank the spammers for the last several years. It’s not only spammers that buy links. I’m sure you know that, too.

So why are you decimating these high quality sites and businesses? For a while, I thought you were just evil people acting in your own self interest with no concern for others. But I had a conversation with a programer the other day who had another theory: It’s not that you guys are evil, careless people. You’re just so focused on fighting spam that you don’t even see the ‘collateral damage’. You see the low quality, spam sites that get taken out, and you see the big brands that continue to rank no matter what they do, and all looks ok. You don’t see the diversity that your updates are wiping out, the specialty sites that offer a better user experience than the big brands…the sites that previously needed to buy links in order to rank. In fact, regardless how good your intentions are, these small sites likely still have to buy links in order to beat the slew of big brands who are now able to rank blank pages with keywords in their title tags due to their massive authority and head start in the race.

The Link Disavow Tool

Enter the new Link Disavow Tool. Now, quality sites have a way to remove those links they used to need in order to rank…those links that you guys attached a negative ranking factor to, or used to trigger a site wide devaluation like Penguin. So if a business owner is lucky enough to have heard about Google Webmaster Tools and read about this new tool, they might have a chance at ranking their penalized site again.

But Which Links Are Problematic?

I’ve got a blog that I unfortunately haven’t posted on in over a year. It’s a real blog with no ads or affiliate links. A couple of years ago someone contacted me about doing a guest post, a completely legitimate guest post that was on topic and written by a topical expert. A few months ago I received an email from an SEO company requesting I remove the link to help their client recover from a Google penalty. How many people will use your new tool in such a way, to remove legitimate links that are helping them rank? How many sites will look to you like ‘bad’ sites, because people mistakenly request that links on them be disavowed?

I know you offer some guidance on that subject. But you and I both know that many people won’t even know your tool exists, others won’t read your guidance, and plenty people who do read it still won’t know which links to disavow.

A Much Simpler, More Ethical Solution

The current penalties are applied according to a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach. That might be ok if we were discussing hobby sites. But I talked to a guy two days ago with an awesome, incredibly useful site that fulfills an important need, especially in today’s economy. He’s about to sell his house, move his family, and begin looking for a new job due to his business being decimated by these penalties. He’s been labeled as guilty for doing what it took to compete. There are thousands of similar cases. I can only hope you guys aren’t thinking about them because you’re so focused on the spammers.

So rather than applying a negative value to links you don’t want to count, how about simply not counting them? At least you wouldn’t be penalizing high quality sites and businesses. If they were ranking solely on the basis of those paid or otherwise low quality links, then they’re going to have some work to do. But that’s unlikely. If they are a high quality site, they’ll have some high quality links too. The spammers will have less. So by simply discounting the spammy or low quality links, you’ll be ensuring that the quality sites rank above the spam sites.

Spammers will keep trying to game your algorithm. They’re going to do that anyway. They’re going to keep sending me loads of junk mail, bombard my blog with stupid comments, and even hack my sites with links cloaked for only Googlebot to see. None of that is going to change. Adding a negative factor to paid and spammy links might cut down on attempted manipulation. But it’s also decimating high quality sites and businesses.

So I understand you’re waging a war on spammers. I’m glad you are, as I don’t want to find spam when I search, and I don’t want to see spam sites outranking high quality, informative, useful sites. But the way you’re doing this now…penalizing sites that only did what they needed to do in order to compete under the system you built, using a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach, and then requiring them to use your link removal tool…is both unlikely to work well and unethical.

With all due respect, for the the sake of all humanity, please simply don’t count links you don’t like!

Google EMD Update: The Real Story

On Sept. 28th Google’s Matt Cutts tweeted to announce a “minor weather report” designed to reduce rank for low quality exact match domains (EMDs), later claiming it would only effect .6% of English US queries.  As has been typical recently, there’s a lot more to this story.

In April of this year, Google launched a Panda update on the 19th, a Penguin update on the 24th, and another Panda update on the 27th (timeline here).  In addition, other dials were turned during this period to increase rank for authority sites and tighten filters for anchor text over-optimization.  Previously, Google had been updating Panda on a monthly basis.  But more recently, updates and algorithm changes have been packed together, often with misleading announcements.  This so-called EMD Update was no exception.

Update Codename: Misdirection

On most popular SEO blogs and forums, people tend to attach themselves to whatever Matt Cutts announces, making it easy for Google to point right, throw a cookie in that direction, but then run left…while everyone is still looking the wrong way and missing the real story.  Look a bit deeper into the comments or follow up posts, and you’ll find a few people yelling…but that’s not what happened to my site.  These comments are usually followed by others who have taken Google’s bait, continuing the misdirection.

While there may have been an update that targeted “low quality” EMDs, there definitely was a massive across-the-board penalty that hit non-EMDs.  Here’s proof:

Google EMD Update

EMD Update Hitting Non-EMD Sites

Both of the above sites were long time small businesses in an e-commerce niche I follow, neither with EMDs.  (The screenshot is from Advanced Web Ranking.  The numbers on the left side of the columns are current rank.  The numbers on the right side are the positions lost or gained.  The change shown is between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1.)  Here’s another screenshot from an entirely different, non-commercial niche:

EMD Update

Codename: Misdirection

Again, neither of the above sites was an EMD and both have been around for nearly a decade.  I could post screenshot after screenshot, but they’d all look the same.

Speculation

This update, or something released around the same time, looks more like a Panda or Penguin style devaluation, and it clearly affected far more than .6% of queries.  Every query I track, and I track a lot of them, had sites that range from slightly devalued to decimated across-the-board.  It’s impossible to come to any definitive conclusions at this point in time, but to me this looks slightly more content related than link related.

Do you have a non-EMD site that was hit by the EMD update?  If so, let me know in the comments, along with any thoughts on the cause of the hit.  I’ll update this post or post again as soon as I have more information.

The Brave New World of SEO

Bill Slawski recently posted on a newly granted Google patent designed to “modify” rank for sites Google thinks are “spamming”.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in SEO.  In short, the patent describes Google applying time delays, negative responses, random responses, and unexpected responses to the placement of pages in the search results when the algorithm determines there is a possibility of attempted manipulation.  If the “spammer” reacts to these responses in an observable way, the page or site can then be designated as spam.

Leaving aside the fact that all SEO is an attempt at manipulating or increasing the rank of a website/page in the search results, and that entirely legit businesses following Google’s guidelines will be wrongly labeled as spammers, this patent points toward a very important ramification of micro vs. macro SEO.

Micro SEO Is Dead

Many years ago, SEO was simple.  You added keywords to all the right places, got your links with the right keyword anchor text, monitored your rank, and adjusted your keywords and links accordingly.  Sometimes you’d cross a threshold and hit a filter by having your keyword repeated too many times either on your site or in your external links.  No big deal.  Remove a few instances or switch them to synonyms, add some new links to diversify the anchor text in your portfolio, and BAM, you’d be back in the game in no time.

Spending hours and hours drilling down into Advanced Link Manager data and analyzing exact-match-anchors-from-unique-linking-domains…worked.  It worked well.

Nothing Lasts Forever

But a few years ago this started to change.  Google began ranking pages based on the authority of a site rather than a particular page for example.  So you might find a page ranking well, analyze it, and find very few traditional ranking signals.  It was ranking based on site factors instead of page factors.  This complicated analysis a bit, but not THAT much.  If you understood it, you could still figure out what was going on.

It’s one example of micro-managing SEO getting more complex.  These days though, micro-managing SEO is more than complex.  It’s a recipe for failure.

Although Google may have recently been granted the rank-modifying spammers patent, these random fluctuations have been at play for a long time.  They were commonly known among SEOs with experience as growing pains.  Especially with new sites, attempts to move up in rank would cause random result placement for a while, which would eventually settle.  These time-based delays have been common for years, and if you didn’t know about them you could inadvertently screw yourself.  Inexperienced SEOs would get a handful of links and see a small upward movement or a small downward movement, not realizing the unexpected/inappropriate movement was influenced by a time delay, and push harder or make drastic changes.  This caused them to pass filter/penalty thresholds without realizing they had done so, and ended up causing their sites to drop into never-never land for a very long time, with little chance of redemption.

It also created situations where it was easy to spend more than you needed (in time or money) for link building.  For smart SEOs, knowing there was a sandbox or time delay allowed them to play the slow-and-steady game instead of moving too fast, crashing, and burning sites.

Historical/Temporal Data In Play

In addition to the above evolution of the algorithm, new penalties have been appearing for unnatural activity over time.  Link velocity matters.  Link spikes that appear unnatural (potentially because they lack other signals of natural spikes: mentions, traffic, etc.) can also cause penalties.  And link loss can be as bad as link spikes.

It hasn’t been in effect as long as the sandbox, newer time delays, and random ranking fluctuations, but more recently, attempts to fix losses began leading to even further losses.  This may be the result of the above patent being applied before being granted.  Here’s how it works:  A webmaster gets a bunch of links and his site moves down instead of up.  He freaks out and removes the links, thinking they were the cause of the drop.  They were the cause of the drop.  But removing them looks even more unnatural than getting them, especially if the removal can be tied to the rank loss in time.  If the webmaster would have tried to create additional signals or simply slowed down, he may have come back.  But by undoing what caused the drop, he confirms Google’s suspicion…and is now labeled a spammer with greater certainty.

Unreliability of Micro SEO

Google’s algorithm is a complex, constantly changing mix of numerous interrelated factors with variable thresholds and multiple layers.  It’s no longer possible to look at isolated data and arrive at actionable conclusions.  One site with 3,567 links may rank #1, while another site with 3,567 links may be completely removed from the results.  The distribution of links to an entire site can and does influence the rank of a single page on that site.  The anchor text profile (keyword vs. generic vs. brand vs. URL, etc.) matters.  The quality of the linking sites matters.  The diversity of linking sites matters.  The placement of a link on a page matters.  The rate of link acquisition and loss over time matters.  And all of these factors are interrelated, changing regularly, and different for different sites.  And there are many more factors!

If all of the above isn’t complex enough, add in purposely randomized results over randomized periods.

SEO is not deadBut micro SEO died a long time ago.  (Unfortunately there are still many people selling it.  But I’ll save that for another post.)  Due to the complexity of the algorithm, analyzing results on a micro level is a waste of time at best.  And at worst (ever more likely), it will create obvious patterns that Google will notice and penalize.

Macro SEO: The Way Forward

Each time Google rolls out a significant change or massive penalty, there are cries around the interwebs that SEO is dead.  The cries come from individuals whose current methodologies have died.  They don’t realize it’s not SEO that’s dead, but their particular micro tactics and strategies.  Macro SEO has always worked, and it will as long as there are search engines ranking sites without requiring payment for placement.

What Is Macro SEO?

Macro SEO is about understanding the big picture.  What types of sites are ranking?  How big or small are they?  Are they brands?  What does their link profile look like, overall?  What does their anchor text profile look like overall?  Are the search results for a given phrase or niche dominated by big brands?  Are they dominated by Google verticals?

Macro SEO requires you to look at the details only in order to understand the big picture.  When micro SEO worked, ranking reports could be run weekly and micro changes could be made as a result of ranking fluctuations.  With macro SEO, ranking reports are still extremely useful.  But instead of using them to make immediate adjustments, they’re used to notice when significant changes have occurred and in what direction those changes are pointing.

Applying macro SEO means using tactics that go with the current rather than against it, and not freaking out or reacting to unexpected ranking “modifications”.  But you need to feel the direction of the current first, along with understanding the general causes of major penalties, and that does take a combination of experience and analysis.  But it’s not micro analysis.

Knowing that Google is going to mess with you along the way, that you’re going to see random fluctuations and ranking drops, will help you stay on the macro path to success.  Expect a bumpy ride.  Otherwise, you’re going to be outing yourself as the “spammer” you’ve become in Google’s eyes.