Mondays follow weekends and a lot can happen over 48-hours. That makes a Monday morning a bit of a mash-up. As I scan article ideas from first to last, my mind keeps wandering to the middle. There must be a common thread uniting ideas found in the four pieces outlined below. The most obvious connection is that each relates to search marketing but perhaps if read collectively there is something a bit deeper, a signal of where the SEM industry is going.
The most popular story of the day is the Newsweek article about Search Engine Optimization which features Seattle based “white-hat” SEO Rand Fishkin, UK-based “black-hat” SEO Earl Grey, and Matt Cutts, who is known as the Spam Czar at Google in Mountain View, California. The article ranges from SEO success stories to shadowy tactics using the white hat/black hat monikers to describe their techniques. The mainstream media has gotten interested in organic search marketing, leading to its interest in the “white-hat” vs. “black-hat” debates.
Another interesting story comes from a press release Google issued on Friday at 2:45 pm (pacific). The press release stated Google is going to consider the quality of landing pages in its AdWords placement algorithm. A press release that comes out late on a Friday often contains interesting and possibly sensitive information. A professional press release issued so late on a Friday afternoon is intended to slip under the wire imposed by the weekend and put a few days of distance between an action and the reporting of that action.
Next, Gord Hotchkiss from Enquiro has a great piece in Search Engine Guide on ad targeting by demographic profiling, a feature of MSN adCenter demonstrated at the Search Engine Strategies Conference held last week in Chicago.
Lastly, a report,”The Changing Face of Advertising in the Digital Age” issued late last week by Parks Associates, notes online advertising spending will double by the year 2010 to account for over 10% of the general advertising market. The report also found that nearly 21% of Internet users considered Internet advertising as the most relevant ad format, outscoring radio, newspapers and magazines.
Each of the aforementioned articles or ideas has long-term implications that will serve in part to define the parameters of professionalism in the search marketing sector. As this piece is going to run too long to mention all at once, we’ll break them off two at a time, starting with news from Google.
SEO Ethics and the new state of search marketing
Search engine optimization is the basis of a well-rounded search marketing campaign. Generally referring to work done to achieve high placement in organic (free) listings, SEOs might use any number of techniques depending on the type of website they are working on. The characterizations of white-hat and black-hat practitioners is oversimplified with the vast majority of SEOs figuring they fall somewhere in the grey-hued middle.
Unfortunately, the mischievous sense of murkiness that attracted a number of people to the sector does not work well in the mainstream mindset, as demonstrated by the Newsweek piece. Newsweek’s sub-headline, “Inside the shadowy world of SEOs” says it all.
The author, Brad Stone, did research his material before hand. He called Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Watch and Matt Cutts from Google. He also tried to present two sides of SEO with Rand representing the “white-hat” side and Earl Grey (online handle, not real name) representing the “black-hats”. Most who know Rand, or know of him, would consider him an honest, ethical optimizer. His techniques conform to the Google guidelines and in his writing he puts a high standard on following those guidelines when working on client sites. According to the Newsweek piece and his own writing on SEO, Rand places long-term ethics above short-term profits. Nevertheless, Stone was left with the impression that SEO was solely based on the manipulation of results, an impression he shared with millions of mainstream readers.
That might be due to the second SEO introduced in the piece, Earl Grey. Grey asked Newsweek to use his handle or nickname rather than his actual name in order to avoid harassment from “anti-spam vigilantes”. In the article, he shows Stone how he can place a link to a private detective referral site he runs on other peoples’ sites, in this case the Stony Brook University website. The link serves two purposes. First, it might drive one or two visitors to the site. Second, and more importantly, a link from an academic site is thought to be more credible in Google’s eyes than links from other sites. Grey comes off giving the legitimate SEO sector a poor reputation with quotes like, “I’m not very professional,” he said, “I do what I need to do to get where I need to be.” He told Stone that if his private investigator referral site is removed from Google or other search engines, he’d drop it as well and move on to another project. The article goes on to mention that the private detective site ranked well at MSN and Yahoo but not at Google. Grey chalked it up to the “sandbox” but apparently there is another explanation.
Matt Cutts, the Quality Control engineer at the Googleplex chimed in with his thoughts on the piece in an entry at his blog today. Cutts knows the search marketing industry inside and out. Having worked at the National Security Agency until Google hired him in 2000, Cutts understands the value of intelligence. He has been gathering it for several years, first under the pseudonym GoogleGuy and now in his role as search engine superstar. Swarmed at search related conferences and one of the most read bloggers on the Internet, Cutts seems to have taken up the challenge posed by the part of the SEO community bent on using tactics even they describe as spam.
Cutts’ research has not been too difficult. Earl Grey, is the moderator of a black-hat forum at which he and others brag about their exploits and exchange information. Cutts is known to participate in a few SEO forums and lurk around several. It seems Cutts had already zeroed in on Earl Grey’s series of sites and was using them to train Google staff how to trace one spam domain to other spam domains. Cutts claims that Grey’s detective page, while ranking well at MSN and Yahoo was caught-out as spam both algorithmically and manually by Google spam fighters.
The Newsweek article and the incidents surrounding it are important for two reasons. First, the mainstream advertisers are cooling towards paid-search as the ONLY search solution possible and starting to warm again to the more powerful free listings. Interest and money is moving back towards the organic side of the search marketing sector. As it does, advertisers will be looking to establish trusting relationships with search optimization firms. If the small SEO operator is a perceived risk, advertisers will move towards the larger ad-agency operators thus making the environment unsustainable for smaller SEO firms.
Secondly, the incident confirms Google is getting far more serious about the state of its search engine results pages. Since the introduction of the Jagger algorithm in October, Google’s search results have looked markedly different from those at Yahoo and MSN. Google has applied much stronger anti-spam filters and seems much better at weeding out sites that have used overtly manipulative tactics to rank well.
This is in part due to the prevalence of the dark art of promoting one’s own reference or AdWords laden sites in order to make commission on sales. The majority of black-hat SEO practitioners are secretly working to push their own websites to the top of search rankings in order to attain more viewers for advertisements or reference links found on those sites. As Earl Grey stated in the Newsweek piece, sites that get banned or otherwise dropped from search results are abandoned for other websites employing similar spammy tactics. Google runs the most used and lucrative ad-distribution model on the Internet, known as AdSense. They are therefore concerned with how webmasters use their advertising program and appear to be cracking down on abusers.
The press release issued on Friday afternoon was meant to take AdWord/AdSense cheats by surprise this morning. That’s the most likely reason Google delayed releasing it until it was too late to run with on Friday, thus giving them a 72-hour jump on AdWords/AdSense abusers. The press release, which is posted on Google’s Inside AdWords blog states that Google is adding an evaluation of the quality of a landing page to its AdWords placement algorithm.
This is an important step forward for Google as it is designed to catch people using cheap, computer generated landing pages and is obviously targeted at single or small operators running massive numbers of keyword buys. A passage from the entry reads, “Advertisers who are providing robust and relevant content will see little change. However, for those who are providing a less positive user experience, the Quality Score may decrease and in turn increase the minimum bid required for the keyword to run.”
By chasing after SEOs who use spammy tactics to try to drive their websites higher in Google rankings, and working to clean up the messes created by AdWords/AdSense cheats, Google is trying to bury some of the most difficult issues it faces with the search engine optimization industry. Unfortunately for the small business end of the industry, the mainstream media remains focused on the manipulative aspects of SEO, forgoing or forgetting to mention that “white-hat” SEO is more about marketing, good site architecture and ease-of-use for live-visitors and search spiders.
We are moving into what appears to be a major growth period in the search marketing industry. Advertisers, while convinced of the need for our services, remain unconvinced about the essentials in long-distance business relationships, honesty and integrity. That’s a problem, especially considering the next two items in our look at the emerging search marketing sector. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the ability to target search ad impressions by demographic profiling and, eventually, personal behaviour profiles as recorded and compiled by the major search engines. If that wasn’t interesting enough, the depth and reach of our marketing abilities will be buoyed by the virtual tsunami of money that is about to wash into the online ad spending arena from traditional media such as radio, newsprint and television.