Google Guest Blogging Smackdown: Lessons Learned

This week, the SEO world was rocked when Google slapped a penalty on MyBlogGuest, a guest blogging network. The news shocked many who felt that MyBlogGuest was running a reputable content marketing and sharing service. I’ve been acquainted with Ann Smarty, the owner of MyBlogGuest, for years, and have followed her in social media. Everything she was doing seemed above-board – until the penalty brought that into question. (I still think she did nothing wrong, but Google begs to differ.)

Then yesterday, Google put the beatdown on Portent, a SEM firm based in Seattle. This news was even more surprising – I’ve been acquainted with Portent’s work for some time, and I count their PPC director, Elizabeth Marsten, as a friend. Their company does much more than SEO, and yet they were penalized. Mind-boggling.

I’m confident that both of these organizations will emerge from the fray stronger than before. Still, it’s a lesson we should all take to heart:

Don’t put all your eggs in the Google basket.

I’ve talked to several business owners over the years who were getting 90% or more of their business from Google, often from organic listings. Then suddenly, a Google update hits, and their business vanishes. Or they were using Adwords and doing fine, and then their sales tanked. While I never enjoy hearing these stories, I always wonder about the soundness of counting on one entity for most of your business leads.

In investing, the rule of thumb is to diversify your portfolio. Smart investment advisors will tell you that it’s never a good idea to invest all your savings in one place (Enron, anyone?).

PPC and SEM are no different. At a minimum, I recommend using both Google and Bing for PPC. Performance often varies widely, and Bing is frequently cheaper than Google. So if your Google results tank, hopefully Bing can keep you going until you figure out what’s wrong.

And that’s why businesses should use an integrated approach to marketing. Advertising in multiple channels, investing in landing page optimization, and measuring success are crucial components to long-term success in online marketing.

What do you think about the recent Google penalties? Too harsh, too soft, just right? What baskets do you put your online marketing dollars in? Share in the comments!

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Google’s SSL Change: A Bad Deal for PPC

Earlier this week, Google announced a sweeping change to the way they pass referrer data to analytics. In a very brief nutshell, users who are logged in to Google will be routed to an https version of the Google search engine, and search queries from these users will not be passed in the referrer string to analytics packages for organic traffic.

This decision has rocked the search community more than anything I can remember in recent years, and the reaction is almost universally negative. Anyone who’s successfully done search for any length of time will tell you that one of the great things about search marketing (and I’m talking PPC and SEO here) is the amount of data you get. And Google just removed a big chunk of that data. (Google claims it’s not a big chunk, but that’s debatable.

The kicker is, this change only affects organic traffic. PPC referrals will still contain the referring query data. And this is what has SEOs really upset and crying “conspiracy:” the implication is that Google is trying to encourage websites to use Adwords, so they can get all their referrer info instead of only part of it.

Why should PPC’ers care about this? After all, we’ll still get our data. So who cares if the SEOs of the world are out of luck?

I care. And here’s why.

PPC and SEO work hand in hand.

I’m a firm believer that no marketing channel should operate in a vacuum – especially search channels. For best results, PPC and SEO should work hand in hand. I often talk about PPC informing SEO, and Google’s change won’t affect that aspect of your integrated marketing strategy.

However, the information flows both ways. SEO can and should inform your PPC efforts, too. Search pros often recommend mining your organic data for new PPC keyphrases. With this change, your organic data is going to be less complete.

Transparency is key.

From day one, search pros have been asking for more transparency from the search engines. We want as much data as possible to inform our decision making process. We want to know what sites are driving traffic to our site, and whether those sites are converting. We want to know what search queries people are using to find us, and whether those queries are converting. We want to know where those searchers are located, what browser they’re using, and anything else we can learn about them.

This is not to say that we want this data down to the individual level, which is the basis for Google’s change. Google is claiming privacy concerns as the driving force behind their decision.

That’s a bunch of BS. Google has never shared individual user data in referrer strings. And even if they did, who cares? Looking at user data on an individual basis is a waste of time – it’s not statistically significant, and isn’t useful. Data is only useful in aggregate. I don’t care if one guy searched on “what is the best ever ppc blog written by some chick in Michigan” to find my site – but I do care if 100 people who were logged in to Google searched on that term to find me.

With this move, Google has decreased transparency, not increased it – thus going backwards in terms of providing useful and informative data.

PPC’ers should be very concerned about this move. I for one am wondering what they’ll take away from us next. How does this change affect you? Share in the comments!

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Why PPC and SEO Engagements Fail

Nobody likes to talk about failure. Most times, we’d probably like to pretend there is no such thing. Truth be told, though, you haven’t learned anything in life unless you’ve failed. I’m willing to bet that every PPC and SEO manager who’s been doing this for any length of time has had one campaign or client that they’d consider a failure. While failure is part of life, there are ways to minimize it when it comes to SEM.

The #1 Reason Why SEM Engagements Fail

In my 10 years of experience doing PPC and SEM, the overwhelming #1 reason why engagements fail is due to a lack of goal-setting at the beginning. Sometimes clients (or bosses, if you’re in-house) are so anxious to “start a PPC campaign” that they don’t take the time to figure out what their goals are.

If your client website doesn’t have conversion tracking enabled, lacks a call to action, and doesn’t make it clear what you want visitors to do when they get there; your campaign has no goals, and is doomed. If your client doesn’t have a unique selling proposition (USP), then you’re almost certainly doomed as well.

While it may take a few days or even weeks to establish campaign goals, this is the one step that cannot be skipped when embarking on an SEM engagement. After all, if you have no goal or destination, how do you know when you’ve gotten there?

Other Common Reasons for SEM Failure

The next most common issue I’ve run into that dooms an SEM engagement, especially SEO, is lack of client uptake. While there are a lot of things an SEM can do on their own without any client involvement, implementation of code changes, SEO recommendations, and other technical aspects are often not on that list. SEO simply will not make any impact whatsoever if it’s not implemented.

This can be a tough challenge to overcome – in fact, if it’s not addressed during the sales process, it can be extremely difficult to get the client on board. Setting expectations up front by letting the client know that there will be some effort involved on their part during the engagement will help ensure that projects move forward without frustration on either the part of the SEO or the client.

Tracking code installation falls into the technical bucket too. Even if SEO isn’t part of your service offering, a PPC campaign needs at least one tracking system (and preferably more than one) in order to optimize the campaigns. We strongly prefer to use the free conversion tracking provided by Adwords and adCenter in addition to the client’s web analytics software. While no 2 systems will match exactly, differences of more than 5% to 10% in data usually indicate a problem with one or both systems. And it goes without saying that being able to log in to your PPC account and see conversion data down to the campaign, ad group, keyword, and placement level makes campaign management go much more quickly.

But if you have a client that cannot get conversion tracking installed, be wary of taking on the engagement. Otherwise, you’ll only be able to optimize for click-through rate – and as most of us know, CTR does not necessarily correlate with conversion rate.

Some Campaigns are Just Doomed

Sometimes, despite an SEM’s best efforts, even a well-thought-out and well-executed campaign will fail. Some businesses are just not suited to SEM – for instance, inexpensive, commodity products in a competitive industry will have a hard time making money on PPC – often, more is spent getting a click than the advertiser earns for each sale. And some websites will never rank well organically, due to crawlability issues, technical problems, or other reasons.

Some engagements, especially complicated, expensive B to B lead gen processes, will also have a hard time showing ROI. While some clients understand and accept the amount of time and expense needed to generate that one sale per month, other clients are just not going to be happy with a cost per conversion of $1,000 or more.

When faced with this type of engagement, think long and hard about whether you want to take it on. Sometimes, even the best-laid plans end up, well, failing.

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SEO Never Stops

As most of you know, I consider myself primarily a PPC professional. That said, I’m also responsible for the SEO efforts at Fluency Media, and I firmly believe that SEO and PPC should go hand in hand.

If you’ve worked with websites at all, you know that the time will come when a site needs a redesign. Whether it’s a minor refresh of a few pages or an all-out scrap-and-redo, redesigns are part of any website’s life cycle. One of the issues I’ve run into from time to time is clients wanting to put SEO on hold during the redesign process.

Don’t fall into this trap!

Don’t get me wrong: I do understand the thought behind holding off on SEO during a site redesign. Why put time, effort, and money into site updates that in all likelihood will go away when the redesign launches?

Well, there are a few reasons why it makes sense to keep up at least a basic SEO effort during a redesign.

Redesigns take time.

How many site owners do you know that were able to complete even a small refresh in less than a month? Yeah, I don’t know many either. The fact of the matter is that these things take time – sometimes as long as a year – to complete. Web design teams are frequently understaffed and over-committed, and Murphy’s Law usually applies to a redesign as well.

In the meantime, the existing site is still live, crawled by search engine spiders every day. Theoretically, the site’s purpose still exists during a redesign: whether it be generating sales, leads, or whatever. The world doesn’t stop during a redesign – and neither should SEO efforts.

Optimized content is design-neutral.

Unless you’re changing your entire business model, it’s a good bet that the actual content of your website will remain relatively unchanged. While things might look different on the page, and locations of some information may change, the content itself likely will stay the same. And it’s likely that the keywords people use to find your business won’t change much either.

That’s another reason why it’s a good idea to continue SEO efforts during a redesign. Really astute clients will even provide new site access, or at least content, to their SEO professional to optimize before the site launches. This way, it’ll take the spiders less time to find your new content and realize that you haven’t gone away. A good SEO can also help you set up the proper redirects for any pages that may be moving on the new site, which also helps the spiders find their way on your new site’s roadmap.

SEO is a long-term investment.

Anybody with a 401K or retirement account has probably been advised to keep investing no matter what is happening in the market. Even if your account is losing money in the short term, you need to keep putting money in! And even if you’ve fallen on hard economic times, it’s really best to put even a small amount of money away for the future.

SEO is no different. Even if your website is as volatile as the market, you need to keep investing in optimization. Like a retirement account, SEO is a long-term investment – and you need to invest in it continually for best results.

And like a retirement account, a small investment is better than no investment at all. It’s not a horrible thing to temporarily reduce your SEO investment while you’re in the middle of a redesign, so you can focus your time and resources on the redesign itself. Keeping a minimum level of SEO going, though, will make things much smoother when the new site launches and prevent ranking & traffic setbacks.

In short, putting SEO on hold not only loses visitors while the redesign is happening, it makes it take longer for you to get found once the new site launches. Smart site owners will keep investing in SEO, because they know it pays off in the long run.

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More Google Trademark Insanity

This has to be one of the nuttiest things I’ve ever seen. Via Marketing Pilgrim, it appears that a firm called Ascentive is suing Google for not showing them in the organic results. They claim that “consumers expect to see the trademark owner in organic search results for the trademark and therefore consumers will be actionably confused if the trademark owner doesn’t appear there.” Apparently Ascentive claims that this is a violation of a legal statute called the Lanham Act.

Are they kidding?!? Since when does a search engine have a legal obligation to list your website in their free organic results? And since when does the absence of said listing lead to consumer confusion?

I agree there is plenty of consumer confusion when it comes to the SERPs. But that has nothing to do with obligation on Google’s part.

What about your obligation as a website owner to make sure your site is optimized? Hmm….

Additional coverage is at TechDirt, where I agree with the first commenter who says, “Google is not a RIGHT. They OFFER a service, they are not OBLIGATED to include you in it.” Indeed.

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DM News Essential Guide to Search Marketing 2009

DM News, the powerhouse publication of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), has released their 2009 Essential Guide to Search Marketing, a 32-page publication covering a myriad of SEM topics. You can read the guide online here – although be forewarned, the screen reader is kind of odd. Still, there are lots of great articles by some of the biggest movers and shakers in search: Wister Wolcott, Joshua Stylman, David Berkowitz – and me! I am honored to be included in such prestigiuos company.

Give the Guide a look – it’s definitely worth a read.

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Website Grader

I found out about Website Grader via a post on Sphinn yesterday. It’s a cool free tool that looks at elements of any web site, making suggestions for improvement. You’ll get a report on Google Page Rank, page structure, domain info, headings and tags, indexed pages, RSS feeds, inbound links, and search rankings. Based on these factors, you’ll get an overall score on a 100-point scale. Stats are also available for competitors’ sites, which is great for benchmarking and sleuthing.

I ran this blog through the tool, and was glad to see there are a lot of things I’m doing right! I’m not a programmer or a web designer, so it’s nice to know that even a hack like me can figure out this blogging thing. There is lots of room for improvement, though, and the tool gave me a good list of things to work on.

I also ran our MagazineLine site through the tool. We scored 90 out of 100 – pretty darn good, but like most sites, there are a couple of quick-hit items that will make things even better.

How does your site or blog stack up?

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