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Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

SE changes blur lines between myth and reality

 

Much has changed since last year in the world of search engine marketing. These changes have widened the knowledge gaps between the SEM sector, our clients and the general public. A knowledge gap separating professional experience and general interest is natural in any industry as a quick peak under any newer model car hood will demonstrate.

In a field as user-dependent and re-evolutionary as the search industry, knowledge gaps can lead to expensive chaos for consumers, advertisers and webmasters. Many common assumptions about search engine marketing have been made obsolete or require a different way of thinking. Many erroneous assumptions continue to be proliferated in hundreds of forum posts, emails and marketing articles.

Search is the most important facet of the Web and the fastest growing part of the tech world. In an almost fully globalized world, search provides the unifying medium. In other words, search is the starting point of everything in accessible mass-communication. There are a number of myths surrounding the search marketing industry. On one hand, recent changes at the major search engines have made a number of long-held truths into newly minted myths. On the other hand, some long-held but mistaken beliefs simply refuse to go away.

Due to the rapidity of change and the proliferation of information, the knowledge gaps inherent to the search sector are exceptionally fluid. For example, last week the Big3 agreed on a new link-attribute called the NOFOLLOW tag. Answers I would give to questions about this tag if asked today are very different than the ones I would have volunteered last week. Over the past five days, a number of unique exploits have been devised, shared and posted to SEO themed forums and for good or for ill, some SEOs have a new tool at their fingertips.

Most online business owners think about search engines frequently. Similarly, many web site designers and hosting firms have studied SEO techniques in order to incorporate them into site design and hosting packages. Judging by the emails I receive, many tech-firms offering SEM as a side-service simply don’t have the time to absorb the volumes of information necessary to fully understand the environment as it evolves.

These gaps exist within the full-time SEM industry as well. Aside from the fly-by-night operations that have refined every type of spam describable, there are some shops that are practicing SEO like it was still 1999. It’s not that they all intend to be malicious. Few humans have the ability to run a business, read everything ever written, experiment with different techniques and service client concerns, all at the same time. The necessity to share a growing number of tasks is the biggest reason most older SEO firms are hiring more staff each year.

Here are some of the recent myths I’d like to see slain:

Myth #1

Some SEOs and SEMs can make special agreements with Google, Yahoo, or MSN.

This is a marketing myth that simply is not true.

One can gain accreditation from Google. One can manage massive accounts and receive a personal support agent who can answer questions. One can even take full advantage of every offer a search firm makes but one can not make a sweetheart deal with the paid-advertising arms of the search engines. The SEM sector brings advertisers to the table but there are no special deals offered to individual SEMs aside from the occasional round of free drinks at conventions.

As for SEO firms who claim a special relationship, no one who manipulates search engine rankings for a living is going to be offered a welcome mat by the search engines. The SEO sector is tolerated as long as it doesn’t egregiously make a mess. The closest it gets to “special” is personal relationships that develop between people who work together.

The only folks who can make special agreements with a reputable search engine are those offering the search engine something they don’t already have, like new technologies or expertise. If an SEO or SEM firm tells you they have a special arrangement with search engines, ask for proof and follow up on it before spending.

Myth #2

Organic Optimization is always cheap.

I guess this myth is subject to what any individual feels is expensive. Organic placements must rank among the least costly ways to advertise however costs in the sector are rising fairly rapidly, especially among established SEO firms. The amount of work necessary to optimize a site has increased as has the time commitment in fostering and monitoring placements. Search engines are one of the primary information sources for consumers both at work and at home. As search becomes more important to society, search engine optimization services become more important for advertisers thus driving up demand and in turn, costs. The growth in demand continues to outstrip the number of SEO practitioners thus driving costs even further. Even with increased costs, for the size of the audience available, SEO is still cheaper than a printed directory listing and much cheaper than any other form of electronic media.

Myth #3

Submission services are a necessary part of search engine marketing.

I hate to blow anyone’s business bubble but, submission services gasped their last useful breaths last year when every major search engine moved away from paid-submission indexing and moved to automated spidering. The one sure way to get into the databases of the major search engines is to get a link from an established site or a search directory like DMOZ, Joe Ant or Web Atlas. Once these links are established, the spiders will come. There are still a lot of businesses drawing supplemental income from search engine submissions and unfortunately, those businesses are not doing their clients a great service. A wise solution for businesses who can’t give up the income from submission services is to market SEO services to their clients by learning the techniques or by reselling the services of an established firm.

Myth #4

My rankings dropped. Google must be penalizing me.

Search engine rankings will fluctuate. It is very rare an unmonitored placement will remain in the Top10 forever. Even sites with Top10 placements that are monitored and maintained by SEO firms will lose ranking from time to time. More often than not, the problem can be quickly traced back to one of three areas; on-site issues, hosting issues or link-issues. The search engines are in the promotion business, not in the penalization business. You really have to work hard at being bad (or pay someone to be bad for you) to get an actual penalty applied against your site. Historically, when Google decides enough is enough, the punishment is harsh, wide-spread and very apparent. 800 lb gorillas are not known for subtly.

Myth #5

Doorway pages are necessary to get placements on all search engines under multiple keyword phrases.

Speaking of stuff that will get Google to penalize placements, doorway pages appear to be making a comeback. A doorway page is a replica of an existing page designed to rank under a unique phrase at a specific search engine. By creating doorway pages, what started as a 10-page site turns into a 100 page site bulked up by 90 pages of relatively duplicate content. Titles, meta tags, word densities and keyword targets may vary from doorway page to doorway page but the content is basically the same.

Back in the 90′s, doorway pages were very common as there was a much wider variety of search options using wildly different ranking algorithms. When Google became the only major dominant search engine in early 2001, the days of doorway pages were numbered. When Google stated that duplicate content would get penalized, the technique should have died. Google however, neglected to dole out effective sanctions and the practice persisted.

Today, two factors are driving the return of the doorway page. The first is that ecommerce sites have grown much larger and with the development of shared product databases, much more competitive. The second factor is the return of a multi-engine search universe with both Yahoo and MSN maintaining their own databases. This is a long-term favorite trick of the affiliate marketing sector and is making a comeback under the new marketing tool name, Landing Pages.

In reality, the Big 3 search engines all work pretty much the same way. It is possible to optimize for all three at the same time without risking placements. You can also optimize a full site for multiple keyword phrases however, expectations of 2500+ unique product placements are somewhat unrealistic. A wise guideline is, if you think you need to make a series of doorway pages, chances are your website is trying to represent too many different topics and should be redesigned into several different websites each focused on a unique topic or similar topics.

If these five myths die this year, the sector will be a cleaner place to work in. Advertisers will be less likely to be scammed into believing their SEO has a special relationship with the search firms. They will also have a more realistic view of the long-term commitment it takes to run a successful organic placement campaign and will be able to better budget for services. People would stop obsessing over submissions, penalizations, and other irrelevancies and get on with the business of producing great websites. Lastly, if the final myth about the value of doorway pages is undone, consumers would see stronger SERPs and some advertisers would save a lot money and the eventual heartache of displaced rankings.


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