Search Engine Round-up: Subterfuge, Spam & Swings

February 15, 2011 by  
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So we’re only half way through the second month of the year, and already things are heating up in the search engine battle between Bing and Google.

Firstly, Danny Sullivan broke the story that Google was accusing Bing of copying their search results.

For a full, detailed explanation I suggest you read the story here at Search Engine Land, but the basics are this – Google became suspicious that Bing was copying when the top results for some searches were the same even for misspellings and unusual search terms. So they sprang a trap…(!)

Yes, like something out of a Robert Ludlum novel*, Google manipulated their results for nonsense words such as ‘mbzrxpgjys’ and ‘hiybbprqag’, so that a particular honey pot page would show at the top of the search results. When these exact same pages showed up #1 on Bing too, Google had their confirmation.

(*If instead of writing books about kick-ass spies who look like Matt Damon, Ludlum actually wrote about the rather more dull topic of search engine positioning. Which seems unlikely, frankly.)

Once the story broke, Bing explained their side. Yes, the results were the same, they admitted, but because they were watching their users who have the IE toolbar turned on, and that influences the results people see. They were not copying Google.

Instead Bing turned the tables on Google, claiming the whole thing was an attempt to throw up a smokescreen* to avoid the fact that their search results are plagued with spam.

(*See? That’s totally something Jason Bourne would do.)

Which brings us to the second part of this month’s search engine news – Google’s latest attempt to find a way to block spam, particularly from content farms, such as those of Demand Media.

The plan is for a Chrome plugin which will allow users to block certain sites, while sending Google data about those sites so that they can analyze them and use that information to adjust the rankings accordingly.

Will it work? I’m skeptical. The amount of spam out there is tremendous, dwarfing the number of users who will a) use Chrome, b) also have the extension installed and c) use it regularly. However, I couldn’t be happier that at least Google is trying to do something about this mess.

Finally, the latest search engine stats were just released for January and show a 2% point swing from Google to Bing. A blip or a trend? What do you think?

Social Networks and Search – Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

December 14, 2010 by  
Filed under All, seo, social media

As we come to the very cold end of another year, it seems like 2010 could be remembered as the year that the social web and search began to properly work together.
Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land has a great post with authorative answers from both Bing and Google about how they are integrating social signals from Twitter and Facebook in to their search engine ranking factors.
While you really should read the whole thing, highlights inlcude:
  • Both Bing & Google do use retweets and Facebook posts as a ranking factor
  • They both calculate the authority of the tweeter/poster, and give more/less weight depending
  • Publicly available links on Facebook are tracked by both search engines
This is great stuff, and something we have been anticpating/suspecting for a while now, but it does raise some interesting questions.
For instance, how do they calculate ‘authority’? It’s not likely that it’s simply the sheer number of followers/friends, or the system would be overrun with spammers in no time. More likely it will be a more complex algorithm which takes in to account the ratio of followers to following, the number of times you are mentioned, how active you are, length of time on the network, and so on.
We also don’t know to what extent these social signals affect the rankings. Google has over 200 criteria which go in to ranking a site (PageRank, title tags, alt tags, etc), and these social signals are just one of these many, many different aspects. Don’t expect your site to suddenly jump to #1 because you’ve been retweeted a couple of times.
That said, it is good to have official confirmation of what we have thought for a while, that the social web isn’t in competition with the search side of things, but in fact both should all be considered part of your whole online strategy.

Bing & Facebook, Sitting in a Tree…

November 15, 2010 by  
Filed under All, seo, social media

Well it’s all been go, go, go with Facebook recently – the ongoing battle with Google over your contact list, copying Gmail/incorporating email (depending on your bias), opening a new $450 million data center in NC – but for me, one of the most intriguing developments is the Bing search integration.
The announcement, over at the Bing blog, covers all the ins and outs, but the main part that will affect the everyday user are the social features such as enhanced profile searches and sharing your Facebook information while searching Bing.
Firstly, in light of all the privacy criticism, it should be pointed out that these new features are all opt-in. This is what the experts term A Good Thing. Secondly, I think this is a potential first step towards greater personalization of search results and a widening of social search.
Bing is trying to improve search results with information from Facebook ‘likes’. Which makes sense. If I do a search for ‘New York hotels’, for instance, Bing should be able to enhance the standard results with the hotels which any of my Facebook friends have liked. And with no disrespect to Microsoft, I’m much more likely to be influenced by what my friends and family suggest than what Bing does.
Of course Google has been trying to incorporate “results from people in your social circle” for a while now, but with Facebook being far and away the biggest social network (at least in the USA), the potential for Bing is that much greater.
So what do you think? Will Bing be able to steal a march here and claw back some search share? Will you be willing to share your Facebook info with Microsoft? Does the whole thing sounds a bit Big Brother-esque to you? Let us know!

Google Instant – One Month In

October 12, 2010 by  
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I’m sure by now you’ve seen Google Instant, the latest change to the Google search page, which actually updates results as you type in the query, as it has been live for around a month now.

After the initial announcement came the usual flurry of excitement that accompanies every new Google launch. There were the predictable naysayers (from those not involved in SEO) that it meant the death of SEO. Which, by my calculations means SEO has about 42 times as many lives as a cat. The usual suspects, Matt Cutts (of Google) and Danny Sullivan (of Search Engine Land) explain why this is not the case. SEO is still alive and well, much to the chagrin of many a new media expert.

But for me, the bigger change is not so much in the way the search is delivered – Instant is really just an extention of the Search Suggest function – but the increasingly important role of personalization in results.

What this means is that Google is trying to give you more and more the kind of thing they think you will like to see. For instance, John Smith searches for ‘new york hotels’ and clicks on the websites for the Marriott, the Chelsea Hotel, the Hudson Hotel, etc, while Jane Brown searches for ‘new york hotels’ and clicks on the websites for Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. So Google learns about what each of them prefers, and tries to tailor the results in future to more closely match what John or Jane like.

Similarly, if you search for ‘zoo’ in San Diego, and you may see San Diego zoo as #1, but travel to Jacksonville and you’ll see it change to Jacksonville zoo. Do a lot of gourmet/food searches, and then search for java and you’ll see coffee sites, but if you search for coding and programming things and search for java you’ll see sites about the Java programming language.

We’ve talked before on here about the incredible wealth of data that Google has. And if you think of Google keeping a record of every search you’ve ever made, and multiply that by the billions of other searches done each month, you can see how the picture they build up of the best search results becomes much clearer.

Of course personalization didn’t begin last month, it’s been an ongoing process for a couple of years now, but it is more and more a factor which needs to be taken in to account. There is no longer a top 10 of search results which should really be considered authorative or definititive. Everyone’s search results will be different, and growing more different as Google tweaks and improves, so we can no longer say you are #3 for this phrase or #1 for for that one.

Instead, we suggest measuring the success of the search engine campaigns by looking more closely at the amount and quality of the search engine traffic. How many visitors came from the search engines? How many pages did they look at? How long did they stay on the site? What was the bounce rate? Did they buy/sign up for the newsletter/request more information? And so on, and so on.

One month in, I have to say we’re very happy comparing the results for our clients against the quality of traffic they were receiving this time last year. In almost every case, the important benchmarks have shown an improvement, which is what we would have thought – because of course the flipside of Google improving the relevancy of their search results is better, more qualified people arriving at the websites.

We have always said that in theory SEO should be win-win-win. If you are looking for a Charleston hotel, Google helps you find that hotel and the hotel gets the business. Everyone is happy. Hopefully this latest update to the process proves to be just another step along that same path.

Google Instant – the Bob Dylan version

Back to Basics: The Power of the Blog

September 15, 2010 by  
Filed under seo, social media

When I first became interested in social media, all the focus was on blogs and bloggers, but soon came more fun social media tools like Facebook and Twitter and now Foursquare.

While you still see lots of people blogging, I think as a business social media tool, the focus has shifted away to the jazzier, hipper “new kids on the block” tools. But recently, after watching results for some of our clients and hearing and reading great case studies from others, I’m circling back to the immense power of the basic blog.

But let me clarify, blogging should not mean going to Blogger, setting up a template blog and posting something every month or so. If you want blogging to pay off for you, you need a professional looking blog, set up properly on your website, and, get ready folks, you probably need to blog a minimum of twice a week and maybe even 5, yes 5, times a week.

You see, with blogs, the more you post, the better they work. I promise!

It’s All About the Traffic
Why blog? Today I’m going to skip over all the stuff about how it positions you as an expert, is a place you can expand more in depth on a topic than Twitter and Facebook and gives you something to link to on other social media. I’m going to jump right into the biggie: website traffic.

We all want more people to come to our website, and of late, it seems to me blogging is one of the best ways to do it. On blogs we manage for clients, the blog pages are some of the top entrance pages for the entire website. Posting frequent content full of key words related to your industry is going to make Google happy and bring you up in their placement, thus, sending more traffic your way. Plus, listing your blog on social bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon, Digg and Kirtsy can also send lots of visitors.

Case in Point
I recently heard the marketing manager at email marketing firm Delivra speak about a 5-day-a-week blogging program they set up within their company. Their blog has now become the hub of their website and main entrance point, even beyond the home page, with the rest of the site as spokes off that hub. Oh, and they moved from page 30 to 7 in Google search results for “email marketing.” It was an inexpensive way to put them more on a level playing field with the big boys like iContact and ExactTarget.

Have I convinced you? If yes, but you’re thinking, how in the WORLD are we going to blog 5 days a week, don’t worry, I’ll tackle that in a future post. It’s not as hard as you might think.

Google Takes on Yelp

January 11, 2010 by  
Filed under All, seo, social media

Google has never shied away from taking on other companies. Since inception, when Google supplied the search results for Yahoo, and then turned around and beat Yahoo at its own game, through the ‘email wars‘ with Yahoo and Microsoft, to taking on Apple with its own phone(s).

And I think we can now add Yelp to the list.

It was widely reported that last month Yelp wallked away from a Google buy out, an almost done deal worth $550+million. Google seems to have responsed to this snub by stepping up the quality of its own local Place Pages.

I’ve mentioned Google Local pages on here before, but as with all things Google, they never stay still for very long. Besides the existing features, such as photos, maps, coupons and hours, Google has introduced their own ranking system, with rankings based on aggregating comments on sites such as TripAdvisor, Kudzu and Igougo.

For instance, here’s the page for one of our clients in Charleston, Circa 1886 restaurant. Under the heading ‘What people are saying about’ you can read the comments, divided up into categories,  service, meal, staff, atmosphere and wine list, alongside a colored bar similar to the PageRank bar:

(click to enlarge)

and selecting one of the topics will show you more details and comments about that aspect.

More worryingly for Yelp, NextStop and others, Google has also released an iPhone/Android app (with good reviews), Near Me Now, which allows users to see what is nearby, and pulls inthe Place Pages data too.

Of course, Google has had its own notable failures too – Paypal is still a lot more popular than Google Checkout, Orkut has quiet some way to go to dethrone Facebook as King of the Internet, and Craigslist/Ebay are still casting a snooty eye over the upstart that is Google Base.

So what do you think? Has Google made a useful product? Is this it for Yelp? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Twitter to Challenge Google for Search (no, really!)

May 11, 2009 by  
Filed under All, seo, social media

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twitterFinally, some big news about Twitter which doesn’t involve the company being bought by Google Microsoft Yahoo Apple whoever this week. Instead, at a Cnet panel last week Santosh Jayaram, Vice President, Business Operations, mentioned that Twitter will begin crawling the links in tweets, and then indexing those pages.

As Techcrunch rightly points out, this isn’t a matter of Twitter trying to beat Google at their main strength, traditional search, it is instead a brand new paradigm, with the promise of human-influenced, real-time search results.

Little is known about the details but there were comments made about weighting links based on influence (a la Google’s Page Rank system), but no word on how that would be done yet.

One thing is certain though, this finally offers Twitter the chance to prove its real worth. All those big companies sniffing around for the past few weeks weren’t doing so as a result of the buzz around Twitter (despite Oprah‘s growing disinterest after an initial flurry of tweets, the number of new users continues to climb), but for the oodles of data Twitter has unprecedented access to. As with Google’s purchase of Urchin a few years ago, seeing how real people behave online is inherently valuable.

How Will It Work?

Short answer: we’ll have to wait and see. Longer answer: I’m not sure, but I’d like to see something like this. A real-time search engine,which would compliment Google rather than replace it, where real people invisibly influence the search results.

For example, a current Twitter search for ‘obama‘ has thousands upon thousands of results with dozens more each few seconds. Great if you want to know what people are saying, not so useful if you want to discover what exactly they are reacting to, as you have to wade through page after page to see all the links.

Or ‘manny ramirez‘ – you’ll see lots of comments about his drug violation, and many of them also have links. The trouble is that with URL shortening, you can see what looks like 10 different links all going to the same article.

Wouldn’t it be great to have this page split into two columns, one with comments and another with the most popular linked-to articles/websites?

Of course, it will also become subject to the scourge of the internet – spammers – but that is where the relative influence of the writer comes in.

It’s easy to forget now, but before Google search engines were filled with spam. Yes, it still appears throughout the search results now,even on Google, but nothing like it was back in 1997/8, and that is largely because of Google’s PageRank system. For a detailed mathematical explanation see here, but basically Google used links to a webpage as a way of measuring its popularity,but with the very important caveat that not all links are equal.

If I run a golf course for example, a link from PGA.com would be far more valuable than a link from your old Geocities page – PGA.com is a popular site, and in a related field. A similar thing could be done for Twitter search, a link from ESPN columnist and professional RedSox fan Bill Simmons to a Manny Ramirez article would be worth more than one from Oprah, even though she has more followers.

And of course, Twitter search wouldn’t have to be limited to websites either. As with Google’s move towards universal search, it could easily incorporate videos, mp3s, photos, and anything else that people are discussing or linking to.

Something like this could be hugely useful, if implemented correctly. Despite Google’s success, the missing piece in their search has always been a human element. In fact they incorporate the Open Directory Project listings into their search algorithm as a way of helping to inject some personal judgment.

A search engine that shows exactly what is happening around the world right now, as discussed by real people? I can’t wait!

So what do you think? Am I missing the point? Is this another potential ‘Google-killer’ that will die on the vine? Please share your thoughts or comments.

Learn about yourself with Google

April 6, 2009 by  
Filed under All, seo, social media

googleThere was a meme on Facebook a while back, encouraging people to Google their name plus is, to see the funny results. For instance, Googling “Simon is” (with quotes) brings up:

Simon is an Intergalactic Hardware Visionary (cool!)
Simon is not a metal or a fuel or a food or water (true, I guess)
Simon is a cheese/hamburger worker (um…)
and so on.

So, kind of funny I suppose, but it got me thinking about what Google can *really* tell you about yourself.

Hopefully everyone reading this is aware of reputation management (if not, please contact us ASAP for a consult!). I have Google alerts set up for my name, just to make sure there’s nothing said about me I wouldn’t want my mom to read. A quick search for my name brings up my website, LinkedIn page, Facebook, plus the darned Hacker thing (it’s not real. And if it was, it’s not me, I swear!).

All well and good there.

But there’s plenty more that Google knows about you, from your searching habits.

If you have a Google account, and it’s getting hard to do much on the Internet these days without one, and providing you didn’t opt-out, then Google can show you a *lot* you may not be aware of.

Go to Google.com right now. In the top right corner, click on My Account > Web History. You’ll have to sign in – Google does like to create the illusion of privacy at least – but you’ll find a treasure trove of info.

The first thing to notice is the breakdown of all your searches, dating back years. You can view all together, or break it down into the different components – Web, Images, News, etc.

Once you get over the initial shock of just how much Google has been recording quietly in the background, it’s quite interesting to flick through. Almost like reading your old diary – Burns Night 2007 for instance I was searching Yahoo Answers for ‘how do I cook a turnip’. On May 21, 2007 I googled:

‘the name hannah is far too common’

Why? I have absolutely no idea! I am intrigued though. Lots of fun stuff to look back on.

You can also see your trends, and figure out just how much of your life you owe to Google. My searches are fairly consistent during weekdays, but I search a lot more in March (average of 2098 searches) than November (1091 searches). And considering that I would never call myself a morning person, it’s odd that my most active hours are between 8 and 10am.

These trends also show you the phrases you most often search for, the sites you usually click on (Wikipedia, Youtube, IMDB and Amazon, if you’re interested) and lots more.

If you ever had any doubt about why Google is the number one search engine, this should put those to rest. Just thinking about how much they know about me, and multiplying that by the billions of searches they handle every month, well, I’m more surprised they can’t just send me what I need each day in an email, without my having to bother with all the searching at all.

Anyway, check it out. Let me know if you learn anything interesting or unexpected.

Are You Making the Most of Google Local?

February 23, 2009 by  
Filed under All, seo

google-local-business-center-2It has been almost 4 years since Google launched the Google Local Business Center, but it still amazes me that many businesses, small business in particular, and not taking any steps to boost their profile here.

Considering that for many searches now, there are 10 Google Local results listed before the rest of the results, see here for example,  it seems that far too many people are ignoring this huge potential source of traffic. Free traffic, no less!

So, if you’re one and you don’t know where to begin, here’s a few tips to get you started:

Find or Add Your Site.
Head over to http://www.google.com/local/add and sign in with your Google Account info. Click Add New Business, and start completing the info – name, address, etc.
Once you click Next, you may well find that your business is already listed. Just click Claim Listing. If it’s not there, select Add New Listing instead.

Take Control.
Obviously you don’t want just anyone to be able to change your listing information, so Google has a couple of ways to verify that you have the right to edit this account. By far the easiest is the phone method. If you are sitting by the work phone, Google will give you a PIN on the screen, and then call you at the phone number they have. Enter the PIN and you’re all set.
If that’s not possible the alternative is to have them mail you a postcard with the PIN. This can take a couple of weeks.
It is worth telling everyone in the office to keep an eye out for this card. It’s easily mistaken for junk mail and tossed, which will require you to start again.

Build Out Your Listing.
This isn’t the Yellow Pages. It doesn’t cost you any extra to make your listing an all-singing, all dancing ad that shows off how great your company is. You can add up to 10 photos, so do so – not just a logo, but anything else that you think may help. Put in your office hours, types of payments accepted, even add in up to 5 Youtube videos. Really take some time and add in all the bells and whistles that you can.

Monitor the Results.
As well as seeing the traffic on your website analytics reports, Google also provides rolling stats of the last 30 days, with the number of impressions and clicks that your listing generated. You might very well be amazed at just how much traffic is now coming your way. As an added bonus they even offer the ability to show coupons. These are branded with the Google logo and a bar code so when your customer requests their free cup of coffee with any sandwich/car wax with any full service wash/website evaluation/whatever, you’ll know just where they came from.

Have you had any success with Google Local? Please let us know.

Hubspot Study Suggests Blogs Best Social Media for Leads

February 2, 2009 by  
Filed under All, ppc, PR, seo, social media

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statsA new study from Hubspot, who canvessed 167 small to medium sized business owners and executives,  is both encouraging and confusing.

The percentage of leads from each source was broken down as:

Other (including public relations and print and online display advertising) 25%
SEO 16%
Email Marketing 14%
Pay Per Click 13%
Telemarketing 9%
Blogs+Social Media 8%
Trade Shows 8%
Direct Mail 7%

I find this very encouraging – particularly as we offer services for PR, SEO, email, PPC and Social Media, that’s 76% of the leads right there! – it’s certainly good to know that more and more businesses are trying a variety of methods to generate leads, rather than sticking to whatever they have done in the past. That has certainly been my feeling from talking to clients in all kinds of businesses lately.

However, I’m also slightly skeptical of the accuracy, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you’re in are a small or medium sized business yourself, you know the difficulty in pinning down exactly how a lead found you.

If they remember you from a trade show, but Google* you to find your contact info, does that count as SEO or a trade show?

If you send offers via both email and direct mail, as many of our clients do, which one gets the credit for the sale?

And Mike Volpe, Hubspot’s VP of marketing, even goes on to say that there are additional benefits to blogging,

“Not only are you creating a community around blog articles, but all those articles get indexed by search engines, so blogging has elements of search engine optimization (SEO) as well”

So how can we accurately claim that SEO is 16% vs Blogging’s 8%?  I don’t feel that we can. But I also don’t see that as a problem.

One thing we try to stress here at Step Ahead is that your marketing efforts, particularly onlne, will help each other. Being active on Twitter can drive traffic to your blog, which can help with your SEO, which can get people to sign up for your email marketing, which can inform people about your trade show appearances, which, well, you get the idea.

One final thing which jumped out at me from this was this statistic:

Companies with less than 50 employees earmarked more than three times as much of spending on blogging and social media than larger ones, and 36% more on SEO.

On the Internet, there is no reason the small companies can’t compete with the Big Boys. In fact, the lack of barriers to getting things accomplished, which plague many a large corporation, can be to your advantage. If you aren’t already blogging, tweeting, facebook-ing, etc, you can start right now. You don’t need to organize all the different departments, have a bunch of strategy meetings, get the lawyers to overlook things, and waste months of everybody’s time. Just sign up for an account and jump in.

So, what are you waiting for?

*I really don’t like using Google as a verb, but everyone else does it!

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