It’s Not Dead, It’s Pining for the Fjords: The State of SEO Today

SEO pros all had to stop on a dime and pivot after Google’s algorithm updates, abandoning all the old SEO tactics, and refocus on new, acceptable practices instead.

They may have acted too hastily.

We heard from a partner recently that a joint client we used to work with is seeing a decrease in their search rankings after we stopped doing the “old-school” SEO tactics for them (since when did 2010 become old school?!).

Their Google rankings have dropped because the posts didn’t properly use keywords in the headline and body copy.Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch

We weren’t doing anything special. No keyword stuffing, no black hat trickery, nothing. We had been using keywords the way we were supposed to all along — mention them once in the headline, a few times in the body copy, once in the tags — but once we stopped doing it, everything headed south.

What this tells us is that old-school SEO is not actually dead. It’s just different.

It’s pining for the fjords.

Google still needs us to tell them what our blog posts are about. It operates just like a library’s catalog service: if the library doesn’t tell the database what a book is called, who wrote it, or what the subject matter is, you’ll never find it in the library.

Imagine walking into a library filled with books without covers and title pages. You have no idea what the books are about, there’s no rhyme or reason to the organization, and the only way you can know what’s what is if a friend tells you where to find the book you want.

That’s Google without basic SEO practices. All you’re doing by following on page SEO is slapping a cover on the book, telling the library who wrote it and what it’s called, and letting them organize it the way they see fit.

Now, compare that to the millions of web pages that never followed the SEO basics, or worse, the companies that no longer follow the SEO basics. If you continue to use the SEO basics, you’re going to outperform these other pages just by taking 30 seconds and filling out three fields on your copy of WordPress SEO by Yoast

So, while a lot of so-called SEO “pros” like to jump on the “SEO is so OVER!” bandwagon and look down their noses at traditional SEO practices as useless, don’t be so quick to abandon them. We’re seeing evidence with several of our clients that these are still helping Google understand what their pages are about.

The tactics aren’t boosting search rankings, and you can’t rank higher because you use SEO “better.” But old-school SEO is still serving a very utilitarian purpose. Don’t give them up just yet.

Co-Citation Will Replace Anchor Text, Make My Life Harder

SEO professionals are about to lose another search signal in their optimization work, only to have it replaced by something that requires more work by content marketers, but will ultimately make Google better.

According to Rand Fishkin in a recent Whiteboard Friday, we’re about to lose anchor text.

Anchor text is a string of text that links a word or phrase to another page. In the previous paragraph, Whiteboard Friday is the anchor text.

Hungarian football match between Videoton FC and FC Basel

I never thought I’d write about how Hungarian football relates to blogging.

It’s long been an SEO practice to backlink to a website by linking a keyword or phrase. For example, Pro Blog Service’s president, Paul Lorinczi, runs a Hungarian football (soccer) website. If he wants to promote the site with anchor text inside a backlink, the html code would look like this:

<a href=”http://www.hungarianfootball.com/”>Hungarian football</a>

This tells Google “this link, HungarianFootball.com, is about ‘Hungarian football.'”

Problem is, all that is dying. Stupid spammers.

Spammers Ruined It For The Rest Of Us

For all good things that SEO did and was, the spammers screwed it up for the rest of us. They’re the ones who created the link farms that had thousands of backlinks on hundreds of pages. Pages completely unrelated to whatever the links pointed to. A link to a site about jewelry from a page about construction equipment.

Fishkin says anchor text will nearly die — it won’t die completely — and instead be replaced by co-citation.

Co-citation is a new method where Google looks at important words on a page, not just official keywords, and draws a relationship between them. Then it determines what the page is talking about — e.g., does it refer to another page or brand? — and makes the association that “these words and these words go together. And they’re referring to the topic of this website over here. So we’re going to assume that the two go together, and we’ll give the website a little boost.”

In other words, instead of backlinking to a page about Hungarian football with Paul’s name, Google now has an entry in its giant massive database where the two have been linked just by being mentioned on the same page.

Another Co-Citation Example

Ernest HemingwayI write a lot about Ernest Hemingway and blogging, including one post about whether he would be a good blogger or not. I’ve written about the two topics so much that when I do a Google search on “Ernest Hemingway blogging,” my tag page on Ernest Hemingway shows up (a compilation page of all posts I’ve tagged with Hemingway’s name).

(In fact, it’s ranked 6th on Google, which would be cool if anyone actually ever did a search for that term.)

Next, let’s say I had another website called ErnestHemingwayBloggingTips.com. Google would be able to make the association between my blog posts on “Hemingway and blogging” and this new website. Google would essentially say, “Here’s a blog post about Ernest Hemingway and blogging, and — ooh! — here’s a whole website devoted to that topic! SCORE!

What would further cement the relationship is if my name appeared on both pages, like, say, in an author bio. Then, Google has another link in that chain, and whenever someone did a search for “Ernest Hemingway blogging,” my new website has a better chance of ranking very high because of the co-citation between Ernest and blogs.

Google search results for Ernest Hemingway blogging

This tells us some important things about co-citation:

  • I don’t use Hemingway’s name in every headline, just the one post, but Google still picks up on the keyword “Ernest Hemingway” in all of the posts. It understands, because of the tag and the body copy itself, that Papa is integral to the text. That means while headlines may be useful, your posts aren’t going to be ranked only on headline keywords.
  • The tag page is a dynamic page created by WordPress. If I add another post with “Ernest Hemingway” as the tag, like this one, the page will change. That means tags are important to Google, so use your tags properly. Don’t abuse them. Otherwise, Google’s going to take those away too.
  • Google is indexing synonyms. It’s not only looking for the word “blogging,” it’s also keying in on the word “blogger.” How long will it be before exact keywords are no longer important, because Google will understand what we mean, and not just what we said.
  • Freaking out about keywords and trying to find the exactly-perfect-bestest one is (almost) unnecessary. It used to be you had to limit your headline and topic to a single keyword, and you scoured Google AdWords and WebCEO to find just the right one. Now you’re going to get some Google juice for different keywords and their synonyms, not just the one in your headline.

Like all things Google is doing, co-citation is going to make life both harder and easier for content marketers. It’s going to drastically change our strategy, and make us have to work harder. Because, as you can see in Fishkin’s video below, co-citation doesn’t always help your page, unless it’s on someone else’s page. That’s what anchor text and backlinks did for us; we linked back to our sites using the right anchor text.

And since Google is focusing on quality content — because crappy content farms were decimated by Google Panda, and Penguin foreclosed on the link farms — that means we need people to talk about us and our keywords on their sites.

That leaves us with two strategies, both of which will take a lot of work, but will have a huge SEO payoff.

  1. Blogger outreach. This has been a public relations function. Now PR has to work with SEO in order to boost rankings. This means PR flaks who have already been doing blogger outreach will be at an advantage. They’ll be ahead of the game once co-citation becomes a real thing.
  2. Create extra content in offsite blogs. Can’t get other people to talk about you? Start another blog on another site. But you can’t put up crappy content that’s been run through an article spinner. You have to write real, effective, valuable content that real people are going to read. Google Panda killed the low-value schlock that some black hat SEOs were using, so your offsite blogging has to be just as good as your onsite blogging. And since a lot of people are already struggling with their actual blogging, this extra work is going to be a killer. Advantage: good bloggers and guest bloggers.

I can’t decide if I’m happy or annoyed by co-citation. We were already doing some of this at Pro Blog Service, which means we’re in a position to take advantage of it. But now that it’s going to become a real thing, it means we have to do more of it.

 

“New” SEO Tip: Keep Your Keywords In Your Headline

SEO practitioners are painfully aware of Google’s hatchet job on the tips and tricks they used to get their pages to the top of the search rankings.

And it’s funny to see many of the SEO pros — who were hit hard by Google Panda and Penguin — who look down their noses and wave dismissively at those people who still preach old-school SEO tactics.Penguins

“On page SEO?” they sneer. “What are you, Amish?”

But before you sneer too deeply, keep in mind that a few of those on page tactics still have value.

For one thing, Google didn’t eliminate their importance. They just devalued these tactics so they have almost no effect on the overall SEO. Instead, Google is putting its focus on the quality of content on a website, whether it’s the writing, photos, or you’re using videos, blah blah blah. Typical content marketing stuff.

But one old SEO tactic is new again, for a different reason: your readers.

What Readers Have to Do With SEO

You remember your readers, don’t you? Those are the people who actually visit your website and, you know, read it. They’re not visitors, they’re not clicks, they’re not eyeballs.

They’re real, actual people. And they’re who Google is focusing on.

Google wants to make sure you’re providing high-quality, interesting content to the people using the search engine. To determine whether you are, one of the things they measure is the click-through rate on their search results. If someone clicked your link, it may be good. If they didn’t, it wasn’t compelling enough. If they don’t click it enough times, you get dinged.

So how do you get readers to click the link to your blog post?

By having a descriptive headline that contains the keywords.

That’s it. Nothing fancy. No formulas, no putting the keywords within the first few words of the headline, no cramming it into the body copy a set number of times. That’s not to say that these things don’t work or will get you dropped from Google. They’re still useful, but they’re like looking for pennies when you’re dealing with thousands of dollars.

Your readers want to know what your blog post is about, so you need an informative, useful, and direct headline.

For example, a post I wrote back in May called “What Malcolm Gladwell Really Said About the 10,000 Hour Rule” has been one of the most visited pages on our own blog. And I attribute part of that to the headline I wrote. (I attribute the other part of that to the fact that it’s 5th on Google for the search term “10,000 hour rule,” but that’s not important at the moment.)

Search result about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule

This particular post ranks 5th on Google right now. Note my photo next to the result. That’s a result of Google’s rel=”author” tag and AuthorRank.

In this case, it’s the headline that’s important: For one thing, I used the keyword in the headline, so that when anyone searches for it, they immediately know what the post is about. In fact, when you do the search, they will even bold-face the key phrase so it stands out for you a little more.

Don’t Be Clever, Be Descriptive

But the other thing that I did was write a headline that told you exactly what that post was about. We didn’t try to be clever and say something like “Experts vs. Outliers: Who’s Right?” or “Are You An Outlier?” or even “A Rumination on the Meaning of Expertise in a Post-Malcolm Gladwell World.”

None of those headlines would have generated any interest. But by describing what the post is about — what Malcolm Gladwell really said — we were able to grab the interest of people who might have otherwise skipped over the post in search of something else.

Don’t Believe Me? Ask the Expert

We’re big fans of Wil Wheaton Rand Fishkin at SEOMoz, and seize as much of his knowledge as we can. This little tidbit came from his latest Whiteboard Friday video where he talks about the new on page SEO, and what still works, and what doesn’t (hint: everything you were doing in 2010).

Get Ready For AuthorRank: Set Up Your Google Author Identity

Google AuthorRank is going to become a deciding factor in search engine optimization, as well as personal branding. As we’ve discussed recently, Google seems to be setting itself up to use AuthorRank as a ranking factor, although no one is sure when that will happen. (A couple people I’ve talked to think they already have).

Erik Deckers' AuthorRank

This is the Google Author rich snippet. It tells Google that this collection of letters is “an author,” so it can act accordingly

How do you set up for AuthorRank? Do you have to do anything special? Or is it all done for you?

First, you don’t actually need to do anything for AuthorRank. That’s the name of the signal Google is using, like PageRank. It’s their assessment for your page, or your name. And they’ll most likely keep the actual ranking number a secret.

While you can’t set up your AuthorRank, what you can do is start using the rel=”author” tag in your blog posts so when they launch the algorithm, you’ll be ready.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Set Up Your Google+ Account

Go to plus.google.com, and log in with your Gmail account. If you’re not using Gmail, you should be.

(If you’re setting up your Gmail for the first time, just remember this is going to be your identity and your legacy email that goes with you wherever you go, even if you move across the country and change cable systems (i.e. and lose your cable-provided email address). So don’t pick something stupid like HotCougar68 as your Gmail address. You’ll kick yourself if you ever have to use your Gmail in a professional manner.)

2. Fill Out Your Google+ Profile

This means filling out everything — past workplaces, education. Everything. Anything that Google could find and associate you with elsewhere.

Your photo needs to be a real photo, not you with a friend, your dog, your kid, or even you as a kid. Remember, this is the photo that will be shown when your name appears in a Google search. So a backlit photo of you standing on the beach at sunset from 200 yards away is not a good idea.

Add your other social network profiles too. Keep in mind that these are public, and anyone who’s looking at them can find you through your Google+ profile. So if you have a secret personal account you don’t want anyone to know about, don’t include it. Otherwise, include as much as you can.

Google+ Contributor Screenshot

The “Contributor To” box: List every place you provide content for, even if you only do it once in a while.

3. Fill Out the “Contributor To” Section With All Blogs

This is where you tell Google where your work can be found. Your blog(s), your website, anywhere your written content appears. Even if you wrote a guest post for a blog a year or two ago, include it.

4. Include Any Email Addresses Associated With Your “Contributor To” Links

This will help Google+ verify that you really are the author of the pieces you listed on the actual blog. For example, this particular blog post is published on the problogservice.com blog. In order to get Google to recognize that I’m the author, I had to include my problogservice.com email address.

5. Update Your Blog’s Bio With Your rel=”author” Tag

First, copy the URL of your Google+ profile. It may include the word “posts” or “about” at the end. I recommend leaving the word “about,” because that takes people directly to your Google+ profile. The “posts” at the end takes them to your timeline.

You’ll end up with something like this:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/105373352538863833629/about

You can go to Bitly.com to shorten your Google+ URL. That way, you can track whether it got clicked on. And you can even customize it so you know it, and can type it from memory (mine is bit.ly/erik-plus, because I’m a bit of an egotist).

Next, go into your blog’s bio and add the following code:

<a href=”Your Google+ URL” rel=”author”>Your Name</a>

When you’re done, it will look like this:

You just told Google, “I wrote this! And to prove it, I can be found at this Google+ profile.”

Google will then go check, see that you listed this particular blog in your “Contributor To” section, and say “VOILA! We have an Author!” And the circle will be complete.

Then when that particular post shows up in a Google search, it will have your name and smiling face right next to it, so everyone knows it’s yours.

Erik Deckers' WordPress Bio Screenshot

This is my bio from this very blog. Note the rel=”author” tag. We had to use the AuthorSure plugin to get that to stick.

6. WordPress Users Get the AuthorSure Plugin

One thing I don’t like about the self-hosted WordPress platform is that it strips out the rel=”author” tags from the user bios. It doesn’t matter how many times you try, they remove it every time. So download the AuthorSure plugin to your WordPress blog. This will keep the rel=”author”, rel=”me”, and rel=publisher tags intact, and working properly.

7. What Do Those Other rel Tags Mean?

You should use rel=”me” when your name appears in a blog post or article, but you’re not the author. This is especially useful for speaker bios on someone else’s page. When you submit a bio to be published elsewhere, hyperlink your name to your Google+ profile, and use the rel=”me” tag, so Google recognizes that it’s you, but doesn’t think you wrote that particular page.

The rel=”publisher”, according to Google’s Webmaster Help, “. . . tells Google that the Google+ page represents the publisher of the site, and makes your site eligible for Google Direct Connect.” In other words, it’s useful for companies and brands that are publishing their website. Link the company name to its Google+ page.

Summary

Setting up your Google Author profile does two very important things for you:

1) It tells Google who you are, so if you’ve written something that shows up in a search, your name and picture will be highlighted, and will appear next to the entry. That’s great for personal branding.

2) When people do a search, Google assumes your Google+ friends will want to read your stuff. That means, the bigger your Google+ network, the more people Google can/will show your content to.

Google AuthorRank: A Conundrum for Content Marketers Who Don’t Do Bylines

AuthorRank, Google’s possible new search signal, can have some serious implications for a brand’s content marketing efforts.

And it’s going to create a problem for content managers who don’t believe in publishing author bylines in their websites. Or the ones who don’t want to publish the entire bio at the bottom of a blog post. Those “we succeed or fail as a team; no one is more special than the other” types who learned everything about management from Little League baseball.

If you stick to your guns of never granting bylines, your website’s rankings may suffer. But if you let writers have their credit, you could see big improvements to the posts written by your best writers, because their own AuthorRank will give you a boost.

We’re not sure exactly how AuthorRank will be evaluated, or even when it will be implemented. But according to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, there are people who do really, really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out.

Conversely, what Schmidt didn’t say, is that if you can weed out the really, really evil and wrong people, you’ll also need to identify which people are as far away from “evil and wrong” as you can get. The farther those people are, the better their content.

And assuming you’ve hired people who way down on the other end of the “evil and wrong” spectrum, your site should get credit for it.

That’s not to say that if you don’t give them credit, your site is evil and wrong. Rather, it’s just one more positive tool that you should be able to take advantage of and use to your benefit.

It means you should let your writers have a byline and link it to their Google+ profile. It means you should encourage them to write about their own not-evil-and-wrong hobbies as much as they want. Let them improve their AuthorRank as much as they can.

It Also Means You Shouldn’t Delete the Work of People Who Leave

There are companies that will delete the blog posts and work of people who have left their company, as if they don’t want to admit those people ever darkened their door.

This may end up being a big mistake for the the former employer.

Think of it this way: At one point, you thought enough of this person to hire them. At one point, you thought they did some excellent work and were really smart, and you wanted to show them off to your clients and visitors, and to gain all kinds of competitive advantages by harnessing their intelligence.

So you published their blog posts under their name, with their bio proudly displayed for everyone to see.

And, if you were forward thinking, you even used the rel=author tag in their bio to help your own SEO efforts.

So why would you undo that once they left the company?

Presumably, they’re going to work for someone else who thinks they’re smart and do excellent work. And they’re going to want to publish that employee’s work on their own site too.

In fact, the more they write and publish, the higher their AuthorRank could rise. And everything they wrote will get some positive Google juice.

Including the stuff on your own website.

Except you deleted it all.

Who knows, this may all lead to a more interesting problem: a wildly popular employee with a stratospheric AuthorRank who decides they don’t want to be associated with your company at all, and demands you remove all of their work.

Don’t laugh, it could happen.

Google AuthorRank: When Personal Branding and Content Marketing Collide

The new AuthorRank search signal from Google (which has not been implemented yet), is an interesting collision between personal branding and content marketing.

As I noted in an article last week, SEOMoz writer, Mike Arnesen, said:

People want to read content written by credible and knowledgeable people and using AuthorRank as a major part of their search algorithm just makes sense.

It’s like Klout for writers.

Erik Deckers AuthorRankAuthorRank is an interesting combination of personal branding and content marketing. Where Klout measures your social media influence, AuthorRank will measure your ability to generate a lot of effective and trustworthy content.

As content marketers, we already create that kind of content. It’s good for our clients and our own businesses. Good content marketing gets our companies noticed, which helps them make money.

But now, the writers of those pieces are going to be tied to the quality of that content as well. It means we have to write good copy, and those who don’t, will rank poorly. It means you can’t lend your name and your website to outside paid links. It means you can’t slack off on the writing, but that you have to feed the Google Beast on a regular basis.

In Branding Yourself, Kyle Lacy and I talked about the importance of blogging as it relates to growing your personal brand. This new move by Google represents a merging of personal branding and content marketing.

AuthorRank = AuthorReputation

It means that being a good writer, or at least a passable one, affects more than just your personal brand. In some ways, you can be a good writer and be totally anonymous. But now Google can figure out that you’re a good writer, and you’re someone whose work should appear in their search results.

The best way to improve your AuthorRank? First, make sure you write good stuff, and don’t do any keyword stuffing. Also, don’t put a bunch of ads on your blog or website. That chips away at your page’s TrustRank, which will in turn affect your AuthorRank.

It also means that you need to protect your AuthorReputation (I just made that up). You wouldn’t publish photos of you doing keg stands on Facebook for every hiring manager to see. You also shouldn’t publish articles on low-trust article sites or sites that have run afoul of Google Penguin’s algorithm updates.

It means you need to add one more social network, Google+, to your arsenal and learn how to use it effectively. It means you need to continue to be a good sharer of other people’s work on all of your social networks, so they’re more willing to share yours (remember, Google is also looking at social signals as part of search, which means they’ll probably be looking at your social signals as part of your AuthorRank).

Google’s AuthorRank to be a Major Factor in SEO

Content is no longer king, the author is the king (or queen).

Google is starting to pay attention to their new SEO factor, AuthorRank. According to an article by Mike Arnesen, How to Prepare for AuthorRank and Get the Jump on Google, AuthorRank is the latest in Google’s algorithm change, and it may be bigger than Panda and Penguin in terms of its impact.

In 2011, says Arnesen, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said they still wanted to identify agents in order to improve search quality. Schmidt said “it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed (spammers) out.”

But how much of a factor can AuthorRank be?

I’m certain that Google is going to begin incorporating AuthorRank into their ranking algorithm in the not-too-distant future. I’d put good money on it. All the signs point to it: Google’s emphasis on social, Google Authorship, their ongoing efforts to measure site trust, and their progressive devaluation of raw links as a ranking factor. People want to read content written by credible and knowledgeable people and using AuthorRank as a major part of their search algorithm just makes sense.

I won’t go into too many of the details. Read Arnesen’s article instead for that. Instead, this is what the new AuthorRank is going to mean for bloggers and content marketers:

  • The admonition to write good shit is more important than ever. While Google hasn’t said what will go into AuthorRank (and never will), I’m guessing there may be some regular SEO indicators as well — time on site, bounce rate, click-through rate.
  • Don’t spam. Don’t even give the hint of spamming. The whole point of AuthorRank is to find people
  • Want to make sure your page is trustworthy? Go read Evan Baily’s book “Outsmarting Google,” and read about TrustRank. If your page/blog/website is trustworthy, you will be. If you clutter your page up with ads, you won’t be. The book may be outdated now, but TrustRank seems to be the basis that Panda and Penguin are based on. Understand it, and you understand the new SEO.
  • You have to be prolific. You can’t just write one post on occasion and hope that’s enough. To be sure, the once-in-a-while writer will outperform the constant spammer. But if you write once a week, and your competition is writing three, four, or even seven times a week, you’ll lose. Don’t get into an article arms race, but don’t slack off on this either.
  • Using the rel=author or rel=me tag is going to be crucial. If you’re not sure how to use it, read this article. If you don’t have one yet, set up your Google+ profile, and then point all articles you write back to it. Put the code — <a href=”http://bit.ly/xyLk6s” rel=”author”>Erik Deckers</a> — in all your bios and include it in all articles you write. If you have a blog, you can include it in your author profile.
  • Note: If you’re a WordPress user, rel=author doesn’t work, because WordPress keeps stripping it out. Get the AuthorSure plugin and it will work for you.
  • You need to start today. No one knows when AuthorRank is coming yet, which gives you two options: 1) Wait for it to hit, then fight like hell to recover. Or 2) start now and barely notice a blip in your rankings when it hits. In fact, you could end up improving your pages’ rankings if you start now. A lot of people got hit and hurt by Panda and Penguin — I saw an awful lot of “how we recovered from Panda and Penguin” blog posts; on the other hand, we never needed to — the smart ones, the ones who weren’t spamming actually saw their rankings improve the days both algorithms were released. Those rankings increased because they had always been doing the right thing, while a lot of people had to start doing the right thing.
  • Guest posting will increase your AuthorRank. The more you write, the better. But have your writing appear in several different places? That’s like adding bacon to an already awesome sandwich. Guest posts, regular contributions to other websites, and even owning more than one blog on more than one platform will all go a long way in telling Google how to find you.

Personally, I love the idea of AuthorRank. It’s probably one of the best ways to block out spammers and reward the people who are actually trying to make a positive impact with their content. Anyone in the content marketing business needs to focus on their online reputation even more now, and make sure they’re not doing what Google considers spammy behavior.