SEO is Alive

Over the years it has become a standard task as a professional working in search engine optimization to defend the discipline from those who claim in public or on “the series of tubes” (RIP Ted Stevens) that the service we provide is dead or irrelevant.It's Alive

From what I can tell every time a new innovation in search is introduced individuals rise to proclaim SEO “dead” in order to stir up controversy and make a name for themselves or to be among the first to deliver “prophecy.” Compounding this issue is that these proclaimers typically have an inability or lack of interest in learning what SEO actually is.

Since the beginning of time people have searched for things. (insert story here about early man searching for sticks to rub together and start a fire.)

Nowadays people heavily rely on internet technology to search for what they are looking for and this is not expected to end anytime in the near or distant future.

Over the last 15 years web sites have emerged as leading platforms to deliver information. Search engines followed to give people a way of finding the most relevant websites and pages on the topic they were looking for. Social media then emerged as a way to search for trusted information within their networks and contacts. Location Based Services like Foursquare and Yelp have also started to help people to search and find.

The major search engines all have pay per click search advertising available on their properties that have been enormously profitable, but they also continue devote resources into their natural algorithmic search results as this continues to be a valuable and heavily utilized service by visitors. The last studies I’ve seen still show that 60-70% of all visitors click natural search results first over sponsored or paid listings.

The market leaders Google, Yahoo, and Bing will no doubt continue to more aggressively integrate paid advertising into their search results over the years, but there will remain a strong desire among users to also have access to organic search results where the sites listed haven’t directly paid for their placement. If the major search engines get too aggressive in its display of only paid advertising, this will open up an opportunity for a competitor to emerge who offers better “non-paid” search results.

SEO is not sorcery or a bunch of parlor tricks as many misinformed people think

At its essence SEO can be boiled down to these 4 ongoing activities

  1. Ensuring the delivery of content in a format that can be fully processed by technologies that provide information in response to search requests
  2. Identifying what people are searching for pertaining to an industry or niche and selecting the most valuable keyword segments
  3. The ongoing creation of targeted content focused on meeting the needs of what people are searching for
  4. The marketing and promotion of that targeted content through relevant external resources (Blogs, Forums, Websites, Social Media)

As long as people continue to use internet technology to search for information and natural search results exist where no payment is made to the technology provider, SEO will remain alive and relevant.

Will Google be all paid results in 10 years? Maybe.. But if so, will they still be the market leader in search?

Will SEO still be called SEO in 10 years? Maybe not, but regardless passionate professionals will remain to harness technology to help people find what they are looking for using methods fundamentally different from paid advertising.

Why I picked a .info domain for my site

Many people have asked me, why I selected a “.info” TLD (top level domain) for my site? It’s a good question because it is still an obscure and sometimes awkward domain extension, so I thought I’d address it today.

The simple answer is given the fact that my name is short and somewhat common, the obvious choices like chrisking.com/.net/.org/ have been taken for years..info top level domain car

The more fun answer (depending on your definition) is being a specialist in SEO and having previously worked in the web hosting and domain registration industry I am always interested in how search engines treat some of the newer top level domain extensions (Others you may heard of include .biz.me, .tv.) So that said I decided a couple years ago to use a “non-traditional” domain on my personal blog as an ongoing experiment and challenge.

A lot of SEO consultants would advise you to never to build a site with a domain extension other than the big 5- .com, .net, .org, .gov, or .edu (if targeting the US)

Part of the reason for this recommendation is based on the realities of working with a website that uses a newer domain extension or even a new domain period. Even though people now generally understand that SEO is a long term process rather than something that can immediately generate high volumes of traffic overnight, anyone who is making a significant investment in search engine optimization services is many times not prepared to deal with the notable extra time required to get a website with a obscure domain extension to start ranking. (understandably so)

The .info domain in particular has gone through deep discounting over the years and because of which it has been popular among spammers and other nefarious businesses, but it is also home to sites that clearly rank for competitive terms.

Here is an official quote from Google on the matter:

“This is no preference between TLDs like .com and .info in ranking, Google’s focus is on the content of the site.” Kaspar Szymanski, Search Quality Strategist, Google –  March 15th 2010

While I don’t believe that quote is 100% true since Google clearly focuses on many other factors than just the content of the site and Google/MSN/Yahoo seem to require more time for .info names to build trust and authority; this much is:

People & organizations overcome handicaps everyday in many different ways.

If you find a quality domain name that you want to register that makes sense for your business, hobby, or personal blog then do it. Certainly I would recommend you consider a .com domain before you start looking at other extensions but don’t let that stop you.

Ranking well in natural search results is based on many different factors, but nothing is more important than being passionate about the topic of your website and developing quality content over a sustained period of time.

We are likely going to see new domain extensions being introduced at an accelerated pace over the next few years, as all variations of .com continue to be snapped up and I anticipate this question will continue to come up even more often as it pertains to SEO. Delivering on the core SEO tenets of content, site architecture, and link popularity will continue to be far more important and effective than what domain extension you have.

Free Shipping Day – Another Made Up but Valuable E-commerce Holiday

As online shopping over the holidays becomes more and more common a crucial day from a marketing standpoint is the last day your store can ship a customer’s order and still get it them by Christmas Eve to give to that someone special in their life (or someone they downright loathe, depending on their situation).

Enter “Free Shipping Day.” Anyone running a successful E-commerce business selling gifts should know the last day customers can order from their store and use it as a marketing tactic. According to Google searches for queries including “free shipping” increased 35% from the same time last year and I believe it is only poised for continued growth in the coming years.

Whether the economics of your business allow for you to offer free shipping or not, informing customers of the last day they can order from you will only continue to grow in importance as a crucial holiday marketing tactic. Include that day as part of your holiday search, email, display, and social media strategy and you will be able to better capture additional revenue from last minute online shoppers.

How Selling Newspapers and Writing Title Tags for SEO are related

Nearly every weekday morning I walk from the train station to my office in downtown Chicago. When taking my usual route I nearly always encounter at least a couple people selling the Chicago Tribune.  Some newspaper salespeople are better than others but everyone I see typically uses a similar variation of the same sales pitch. They shout things like “Get today’s Chicago Tribune only 50 cents” or “Brand new, easy to read Chicago Tribune get yours today for only 50 cents.”

A couple months ago a new Tribune salesmen started on one of the corners and his first few weeks sales seemed to be off to a slow start. He too used the same familiar pitch “Get yer 50 cent Chicago tribune.” The other day though I noticed he started using a different approach. He scanned the front page of the newspaper, found the most interesting story of the day and shouted its headline as part of his pitch. I noticed an immediate change in people’s attentiveness as they walked by, engaging with the salesman and yes, larger problems with the newspaper industry aside, seemingly purchasing more papers.

The funny thing is this is not some new groundbreaking idea. This is how it used to be. The local newspaper boy or the “town crier” used to be the first person you’d hear the latest news from.

That said I thought this was also very applicable when thinking in terms of SEO

Think of the <title> tags on every page of your website as a newspaper salesmen shouting to anyone who will listen why they should click through to your website and read your content. Write a relevant title that is applicable to the content you are providing and both search engines and visitors will reward you.

For those of you new to SEO and web design in general the <title> element is an html tag that should be added to the source code of every page on your site because it is what search engines use as the titles in natural search listings. It is also what ultimately entices the user to click on your listing over another site.  In the screenshot below the title of the natural listing in Google is “How to sell more newspapers.” which can be found in the source code of the document as <title>How to sell more newspapers</title>.

The <title> tag has been and continues to be one of the most important on-page SEO ranking factors and it is essential that you put a lot of thought, research, and testing into what is the going to entice users to click through, while also being targeted at keywords that will drive the most targeted visitors to your site in the highest volumes.

selling-newspapers

Long Tail SEO Revisited

The keywords people search for the most on search engines in your niche or industry are not always the most profitable keywords to focus on for your business. This is at the heart of Chris Anderson’s concept of ”the Long Tail” from his groundbreaking 2004 Wired article and his book of the same title released in 2006.

The Long Tail was originally meant to discuss an emerging trend where online retailers like Amazon, Netflix & Rhapsody found success increasing the depth of their inventory and selling less of more in an internet driven environment but it has had implications far beyond its initial insight. Nowhere was this more apparent than with Search Engine Marketing.long-tail-seo

Understanding “the long tail” and applying strategies to leverage it for SEO has proven time and again over the last few years to be one of the highest value activities in search marketing. To many this is not something new, but it is surely worth revisiting.

In most industries; while it is still valuable to rank for a highly competitive keyword like “Digital Camera” for instance, a lot of times these top level generic terms are what visitors type in when they are very early in the buying cycle.

Long tail keywords are those 3-6 word keyword phrases that are very, very specific to whatever you are selling like “canon powershot sx10 IS digital camera.” They are the keywords people type when they know exactly what they are looking for and getting ready to make a purchase, visit a physical store location, or reach out and contact a business directly. If you run a catering business, sure it would be great to rank for “Catering,” but you are much more likely to generate business with a locally targeted long tail term like “Catering service in Glenview, IL”

This is an especially important lesson for websites that are just starting out and established brands just beginning to look to SEO as an important channel to drive traffic and revenue. When you launch a new site or even a new section it is important to first focus on developing and structuring content to attack long tail targets as this will be your most accessible source of traffic in the short term. Over the long term your focus should be on continually building quality content and working to become a true authority in your niche. This will help you win for long tail keywords as you go through the process and over time can help you become better positioned to win for the most competitive keywords in your industry. But regardless never stop pursuing a long tail strategy because thousands of multi-phrase keywords combined will nearly always drive more traffic than one or two highly competitive high search volume terms.

Tips for Leveraging the Long Tail of SEO

  • Do a deep drive into your Web Analytics package and revisit the multi-phase keywords that drove traffic to your site and converted looking at the very least 3-6 months of data. Are you performing as well as you can be for these keywords?
  • Use external keyword research tools to find long tail keywords that your site currently doesn’t have content optimized to address

  • Leverage unique data sets and use them to inform the development of targeted content. Do you have thousands of product SKUs? Make sure you are including all unique product identifiers in product detail pages and make sure they are optimized and visible to search engines
  • If your organization operates in multiple local markets make sure to develop individual pages targeted at each local market i.e. Insurance firm in Atlanta, GA

  • Launch a blog so you can develop specific posts targeted on long tail terms that you aren’t able to directly address on your main product and service pages
  • Leverage User Generated Content to take advantage of the countless variations that visitors use to describe and discuss your products and services

According to Google roughly 20-25% of searches today are new queries that have never been searched for before. Many of these people are looking for detailed information on your products and services that you don’t currently have content to address. May the long tail be with you.

Third Party URL Shorteners Leave Businesses Vulnerable

Everyone is trying to “keep it short” these days as more companies and their social media consultants have rushed to microblogging/social networking services like Twitter to get involved in the conversation and share ideas in the form of short status messages and links.urlshorteners

The problem is that in the frenzy to experiment with all of the latest social media apps and tools coming from darling startups that launched yesterday, we cannot forget we also need to look at things from a long term perspective and not just at the latest new shiny thing that received a rave review from the tech blogger set. Nowhere is this more important than when talking about URL Shortening Services.

URL Shorteners have been around for years but recently have seen a significant increase in use with the rise of Twitter and the necessity to send messages that contain links but also meet their 140 character limit.

How URL shortening services work is simple. Many enterprise and ecommerce sites have unnecessarily long URLs due to the nature of their CMS platforms such as: http://www.example.com/default/products/index.jsp?country=US&lang_locale=en_US&id=5462

These services take these bloated URLs and shorten them to something like http://bit.ly/P2XRi so they use fewer characters and can be easily shared in Twitter and other likeminded social spaces. Once clicked on these URLs then redirect on to the full URL.

As Twitter and similar services have grown in popularity third party URL shortening services have sprouted up rapidly; started by nimble startups searching for a viable business model to make URL shortening services a profitable venture. On the surface these services are free, but in reality the potential damage done to your organization and brand could end up being costly.

While many companies have thrown caution to the wind and have started using services like http://bit.ly and http://www.tinyurl.com extensively in their social media efforts, companies like Coca Cola, AMD, and Zappos have built their own branded URL Shortening services to ensure they have full control over their traffic.

It’s About Ownership

When a post is published on your corporate blog or your public relations team posts a news release on your web properties both the information and the actual URL that takes visitors to that content is the property of your organization.

But when you use third party URL shortening services to create a link to that release and post it on Twitter, in forums or anywhere on the web you are taking the ownership of those links and giving it to a third party with no warranty or guarantee they will continue sending people that click on the shortened URL directly to your website or at all.

In the short term you can be certain that visitors will get properly redirected to your site, but not years down the line when your company has posted 1,000+ updates with shortened links on Twitter and the service goes out of business leaving all the links to your website dead or the similarly bad scenario that they start serving interstitial ads before they get to your site so they can monetize the traffic.

Andrew Cohen, general manager of bit.ly one of the leading shortening services was quoted in a recent CNN article saying “Early on, we made a decision never to frame content, and never to run interstitial advertising,” he said. “Everything we do has to go with the grain of the product and community.”

That can be a reassuring comment in the short term, but bit.ly still has not defined its business model and at some point companies need to generate revenue to sustain themselves. (update 12.14.09 Bit.ly just announced their own “white label url shortening service.”) YouTube got its start in 2005 and differentiated itself by offering fast loading video without the annoyance of pre-roll advertising. Anyone who has been on YouTube recently knows things have definitely changed.

By building a URL shortening service that is hosted at a domain name that your organization owns you will be enabled to easily share links in social media spaces while still retaining full ownership of the links you are posting and the associated traffic.

It’s About Branding

Another significant downside of using third party URL Shortening Services is that it provides a poor user and brand experience. While short and convenient users are not able to know with certainty that they are going to a page on your web properties. What does http://bit.ly/P2XRi say about your brand? By having the URL shortener at a branded domain you are posting links that social media users can trust and know with certainty that they are being sent to the right place.

It’s Also About SEO

Search Engine Optimization is also an important topic to discuss while on the topic of the URL Shortening services.

For SEO it is actually best that you don’t use shortening services at all. If you can architect your site and URL structure so that your site naturally has short URLs from the start the links you post will carry more weight over the long term. Unfortunately for most organizations that simply isn’t a possibility or isn’t a strategy that makes sense. When SEO and URL shorteners are mentioned most consultants will tell you that as long as the URL shortening service you use, uses a particular kind of redirect (301) that it is inherently SEO friendly.

This is true, but it is also important to understand that a 301 redirect does dilute a portion of the weight a link carries and potentially carries even less value when it is on a different domain. Also if 5 years down the line all the links you’ve shortened suddenly go dead because the URL Shortener goes out of business, then likely so do any rankings that have been built up, in part by the links that have been generated.

It’s important to say that services like bit.ly and tinyurl.com do provide a valuable service and as their offerings evolve they are developing advanced analytics solutions and may allow companies to host their service on their own domain in the future.  For the everyday user, using a free third party service is likely not going to be an issue. But for corporations that have a lot at stake; the costs and resources needed to develop a service are small when looking at the potential gains and security gained.

Another important point is whether you have a branded URL shortening service or not, there is still the likelihood that social media users will go to your site and shorten urls using third party services on their own. It is important to integrate the service tightly with your site to make the shortened URL for each page easily visible to visitors and integrate it in with any sharing widgets active on your site.

URL Shortening services will likely continue to be an important weapon in any organization’s social media arsenal, but it is important that you use them wisely and have a strong strategy in place that protects your interests over the long term.

Chicago SEO Meetup

Having worked in SEO in the Chicagoland area for a number of years now in agency and in-house positions, I have long felt there was a need for a local SEO organization in Chicago.

Last November, I had the good fortune  of stumbling across the Chicago SEO Meetup started by Bryson Meunier that focuses exclusively on Search Engine Optimization.

It’s a great group of people who meets on a monthly basis that I highly recommend for anyone interested in learning more about how to market websites to generate organic traffic from search engines.

It’s not just a group of SEO veterans spouting off war stories but it is a platform for discussion among beginners, hobbyists, and professionals to share ideas and search engine optimization tips in an open environment.

It’s also not a sales presentation with watered down content.

There are some of the best minds in SEO in Chicago at these meetings sharing ideas and talking about the latest topics and trends in the industry.

The interesting thing is the members of the Chicago SEO Meetup are not all what you would traditionally call an “SEO.”  These are people from all different disciplines such as design, programming & usability as well as both client-side and agency-side SEO’s which gives you a broad range of skills and experience with which to fuel discussion.

Regular SEO Meetup Chicago Attendees

To learn more and sign up for the Chicago SEO Meetup check out the official site at Meetup.com. It’s also worth noting that currently these meetings only cost $1 to attend.

Why 140 Characters

Wondering why Twitter only allows 140 characters in status updates?

As it turns out, the reason the folks at Twitter picked 140 characters actually dates back to 1985. It all started with a decision made by Friedhelm Hillebrand, also known as “The Father of the Text Message.”

According to the LA Times, one day Friedhelm sat at his typerwriter at his home in Bonn, Germany and started writing a list of random sentences. When he went back through those sentences he noticed that they all clocked in under 160 characters and ran on for a line or two.

Why does Twitter have a 140 character limit on tweets?

This initial, rather unscientific observation guided what would become more detailed studies that he oversaw while serving as chairman of the nonvoice services committee within the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). While in this position Hillebrand was influential in the early development of SMS technology standards for cell phone communications and from there the 160 character limit on text messages was born.

Twitter was built from the start to work via SMS in addition to the web, so because of this they built their service to meet this 160 character standard. The only difference was they kept an extra 20 characters open
to display user’s Twitter usernames. Any that’s why Twitter has a 140 character limit.

From the Twitter FAQ

We like to keep it short and sweet! It also just so happens that 140 characters is the perfect length for sending status updates via text message. The standard text message length in most places is 160 characters per message. We reserve 20 characters for people’s names, and the other 140 are all yours!