Episode 7 – SEO Interview Questions featuring Josh Bachynski

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Title: SEO Interview Questions

Intro:

Hi and thank you listening to SEOFightClub.org. I’m Ted Kubaitis and I have 22 years of web development and SEO experience. I have patented web technologies and started online businesses. I am both an engineer and a marketer. My goal is to help you win your SEO fights.

This episode’s FREEBIE

With every episode I love to give something away of high value. This episode’s SEO freebie is a list of SEO interview questions that will help you screen and understand you SEO candidates. Most SEO interview questions online would barely make sense for for screening an unpaid intern. My list provides interview questions that would be appropriate for screening seasoned professionals. With each question I also give the reason why you would want to ask the question and I give examples of both good and concerning answers. In this episode I will walk through how SEO philosophies can differ and where that may be important to your business when selecting an SEO. This free download will save you hours on figuring out your SEO screening strategy. If you are an SEO then this download will help make sure you are prepared for the interview.

You can download the freebie at: http://seofightclub.org/episode7

SEO Interview Questions

So in today’s episode I have created 8 questions you can use in addition to the ones I provide in the free download. I hand picked these 8 questions because I feel they really reveal the heart of someone’s SEO strategy. To give you a feel for how the philosophies can vary I have prepared my own answers as well as interview another expert SEO Josh Bachynski about his answers to the same questions. We can compare how our answers differ. When hiring an SEO it is important to interview several candidates and compare their strategies. It is all too common that I find businesses just hire the first person they talk to. I like to tell people that they make better decisions when they actually have a choice.

Just for the record. This isn’t a contest. Different businesses need different things from their SEO. Everyone is the right person for some jobs and not so much for others. Its how you differentiate yourself that ultimately gets you to where you want to be. Hopefully this exercise well help you embrace the differences that make your skills uniquely qualified.

Ted: Let me give you a chance to introduce yourself.

Josh Bachynski: Sure. I’m Josh Bachynski. I’ve been doing SEO for over 16 years, digital marketing, branding. I have a master’s degree. I’m in my second year of a PhD in ethics and decision theory. I have been in the second year for many years. I’m technically on sabbatical because I realize I can make much more money doing SEO and it’s a lot more fun than teaching university courses. That’s what I do and I have also got a documentary coming out about Google and I recently did a TED talk in [inaudible 00:00:37] about Google.

Ted: If people wanted to reach you or look into you where could they find you?

Josh Bachynski: They could always email me at my email address at joshbachynski@gmail.com. They can also check out my YouTube channel at youtube.com/jbachyns .

Ted: If they like your interview answers, can people reach you about your services?

Josh Bachynski: Yes, only if they are very, very rich clients.

1. What are the top 2 or 3 KPIs you use to know if your SEO strategy is working or not?

Josh: I think I just answered that one. The top two or three obviously rankings. You can’t ignore rankings, but also quite often in my social campaigns and SEO campaigns, I find that direct traffic will also go up as well. I think this could be from the chrome auto complete in the URL bar, which I’m not sure if it’s relying on Google data there or not. I suspect it most probably is. Anyway, you have to rely on rankings, of course, but I would also look at direct traffic to the site and just making sure that traffic to the site is increasing as well. Then finally conversions. It doesn’t matter if we got page one rankings or even spot number one rankings. It doesn’t matter if we increase traffic to the site if the conversions aren’t there. Those would be the top three. The fourth, I think, would be clock through rate on the Google search results page as well. Again, as I’ve often said, if someone is getting 100 impressions a month, but they have a five percent click through rate, then they’re missing 95 chances to make sale. If you can improve your click through rate, you’re going to get traffic right away. I also believe that click through rate is a ranking signal as well.

Ted: SEO revenue is my #1. Rankings are my #2. Revenue is first because it tells you so much about the health of the whole ecosystem. The health of crawlability, indexing, click through rate, conversions, and more all appear in the revenue signal. Conversions are good too but the needle doesn’t move as much. Rankings are second because they let you quickly triage whether the issues are likely to be on the technical SEO or SEO marketing side of the equation.

2. How long does your SEO typically take to start showing results and what are the milestones to achieving those results?

Josh: That’s a great question. I like that question quite a bit. The answer is, unfortunately, quite variable. For example, like I said, for improving the click through rate, or changing your title tag and things like that, you would see those results right away. If we improve the click through rate and start getting more people to the site, you would see those improvements right away. In terms of the general SEO … To tell you the truth, most of my SEO is more on the strategic level. I find myself, other than tweaking title tags and editing html or building back links or ye oldie back links and stuff like that, other than this ye oldie SEO stuff, which of course I do to the degree that that stuff is still useful or helpful, which I’ll call tactical SEO.
More and more I find myself doing strategic SEO where I’m working with a design team and I’m working with their marketing team and their writing team to improve sales, to improve conversions, to improve the user interface, to the improve the design and things like this. I think Google, or they were indirectly tracking, I think increasingly with the advent of RankBrain and the advent of the Zombie update, release-at least that’s what it’s called by Barry Schwartz. I think it’s becoming increasingly directly measured in terms of the design and where people are clicking and where they’re going. That’s being used as a ranking signal as well.
To answer in a long round about way, it can be both immediate results, but also the results can take a long time because I’m always waiting for the design team to finish their design, the writing team to finish writing. Then, for users to appreciate those changes and for Google to appreciate the fact that the users appreciate the changes. It can take anywhere from six to eighteen months. Also, it depends if whether or not the client is starting off when they start with me from a deficit. Most of my work is actually with clients who are not ranking well either because they just started a website and/or they had a website for years and it was hit by some kind of algorithm demotion, like Panda or a Penguin or some kind of manual penalty or things like that, a natural link notice, things like that.
First off, we have to clean off those problems first and then Google has to notice that. That can take months. It could take over a year for Google to notice something like that. Google being the lovely people they are, moving so fast as they do. That was sarcasm by the way. We have to clear that off first. Then, we have to make any positive improvements. It can take quite some time. Without fail, anyone who bothers who make all the changes I suggest … I usually suggest a lot of changes. Without fail, they all do see improvements over time.

Ted: When I make a change to a webpage I typically expect to see the change reflected in the search results in under 22 days.It could happen in 2 days or it could take 22. 22 days is the longest I’ve seen and that happened when I changed the page the morning after Google updated that page’s cache entry. It was literally a worst case scenario. If the changes have the desired results then additional cycles are needed to role out more pages. Those cycles typically take under 22 days too. The thing to remember is that we have to work on Google’s timeline so even though we want to move faster sometimes Google won’t let us do that. It can be frustrating but it is what it is.

3. How do you generally respond to clients who specifically ask you about ranking for keyword X?

Josh: That’s a great question too. That happens all the time, of course. I have two answers. The shorter answer is, of course, yeah, we’ll get [your ranking 00:10] for that, right? That’s the answer for a number of reasons, one because you’re a consultant so that’s what’s supposed to be the answer. In general, depending on what it is.
The longer answer is, again, I take more of holistic strategic approach. I’m not just going to try to get you ranking for one main keyword. We can’t ignore your major search queries. In some industries, one search query has the line-share of searches and the line-share of traffic. It could have one hundred thousand impressions and all the other long-tail ones have maybe ten or twenty impressions.
I find to try and be laser focused like that, again, that’s kind of 2009 SEO that you have to be very careful doing because of course Google is running more and more algorithms trying to text manipulation of that type of sort. In general, I would try to improve things overall and raise the rankings for all the search queries above the board, and increase the search queries.
By doing that, I would hope that that would also give them increased rankings for that one search queries XYZ that they are interested in, if not, has a fetish about, “it has to be this search query and no other search query.”
Again, that being all said, if at the end of the day I do my general strategic approach … I mean, I have to do that anyway to make sure [inaudible 01:27] have an liabilities or like … there’s site link algorithms like [inaudible 01:32] for example, it’s kind of subdomain now.
We have to make sure that’s being … we have to attack that in a general way, because there’s a general algorithm that generally affects a subdomain. Once that’s all done, if at the end of the day we’re still not ranking for that one query, then we need to ask a bigger question that I would probably ask ahead of time. “Is your site even optimized to be able to rank for that kind of query?” I find that more and more Google is trying to give kind of a one-to-one relation between the search query and this website they provide.
For example, I just did an audit today … I just did an audit today for a customer and they have kind of a site which I think they want to be transactional, but they have a blog on it and all their major internal links goes to the blog and the blog seems to be the most important thing, and consequently the only thing Google is ranking them for. Google thinks that’s they’re more of an informational site.
My point is that if this search query that they want to rank for is a transactional query, or it’s kind of the middle or lower down in the sales funnel, but all they have is blog articles and they’re only ranking for blog-type of stuff, and they have an general EMD … well that’s not going to work anymore, right? They’re not really tailored to rank for that place in the sales funnel as far as Google’s new algorithms can tell. It might require a sub-brand, it might require a complete overhaul of the website. Yeah, in a nutshell. In a very large nutshell, that’d be my answer.

Ted: I’m not opposed to putting keyword X into the mix and we will see how it does, but lets let revenue dollars indicate where to spend our time and effort. Some keywords seem great but don’t produce the same return as other keywords. It is more important to grow the business in the areas we find our best returns. Getting the white whale search term would be fun, but lets keep in mind that there is easier revenue we can reach sooner and I would advise targeting those opportunities first.

4. How do you hold yourself accountable with your SEO methods and what are the milestones to that accountability coming into place?

Josh: That’s another very, very good question. Everything I do is from a risk mitigation standpoint. I have said this before in my other videos on my YouTube channel that I use kind of a three levels of evidence. One, did Google recommend that you do this procedure and or did they directly forbade people to do this procedure? Two, have I ever tested this procedure out personally and do I have any anecdotal kind of SEO experimental knowledge on this particular procedure or tactic we’re looking at? Finally three, is there any kind of correlation data that supports whether or not this particular tactic correlates with stronger rankings or correlates with poor rankings? Of course Ted, you and I have talked a lot about the correlation stuff.

Ted: We sure have.

Josh: That’s the kind of philosophy I take in terms of the tactics that I wanted to go and do in terms of my risk mitigation strategy and that’s one of the ways that I hold myself accountable because the opposite is this, is I see a lot of SEO consultants out there who are recommending doing tactics that may have one of these things in the three levels of evidence but they don’t have all three levels of things in the level of evidence. One is a risk from that standpoint alone but even worse it can be against what will help the website.
The other thing I add into that three levels of evidence is typically I would only recommend something that is not also a direct benefit if I know and I’m very confident that Google said not to do this and it doesn’t correlate with rankings and you shouldn’t do this right? For example like improving your title tags to get a better click-through rate. Whether or not click-through rate is a ranking signal and I believe that it is, I think Rand Fishkin has done experiments to show that it is. Miley from Google told me personally that it is.
I think that it is but whether it is or not also if i can improve your click-through rate I can get you more traffic and more sales right now whether or not it’s a ranking signal or not. In a nutshell, this is the way I hold myself accountable is in my philosophy in the way I approach it. It’s what way, we are in the second, we are all seeing the second is that our only undergo and for the most part I will only recommend tactics that I can be very sure that if they are not a direct benefit to you as well regardless if they are a ranking factor or not, like improving your design, improving user interface, getting you more traffic, getting more conversions, getting you more sales, improving your click-through rate on Google whatever.
If I can’t be absolutely certain that that’s the case the only reason why I would have suggested is if I’m pretty sure that Google has said not to do this and it’s a risk and you shouldn’t try it to begin with anyway. That’s the first way I hold myself accountable and I think that’s the most important way that SEO consultants need to hold themselves accountable, is in their risk mitigation strategy. If their strategy is out to lunch to start then you’re already in trouble.
The other way I hold myself accountable is I stick with the client. If they ever have any problems, if they ever have any questions and this has happened before, they can contact me, they can always email me. I will always answer their questions. As long as they are not getting me to do hours and hours of work after the fact I’m more than happy to dip into their webmaster tools and take a look to see what’s going on and give them more further suggestions and recommendations.
This is happened. Clients have come back to me and they’ve said, “Hey Josh, I didn’t want to do it. I did not want to make all those changes to my design. I was kind of annoyed that you told me my design was ugly but I made the changes and now I’m getting more sales, I’m more getting more conversions and my rankings are getting better.” This is kind of the way that I proceed.

Ted: Revenue reporting. Commissions (part of my income is based on performance tiers). Thats how I know I am delivering value to the business and ensure I always produce more than I cost. You can’t even start this style of SEO until you have e-commerce reporting and SEO revenue attribution really dialed in and trustworthy. All the SEO setup work has to be properly completed before this style of SEO and accountability can start.

5. What forces are working against websites in the Google Search results?

Josh: That’s a good question, too. Of course, Google is the main force working against websites, in terms of they’re working against organic search. Even working against websites, because not only are they trying to put more and more out of their own ads above the fold on their search properties over the years. This is a fact. They’re, also, trying to put [inaudible 00:00:26] pad results, which are copied text, little snippets of answers, from websites that they extract, without permission I might add, and put on the Google search pages as well.
I would say people talk about negative SEO, which is … I don’t know if your listeners will be aware. Negative SEO is trying to use tactics to de-rank sites. They’re trying to use tactics to demote the rankings of, presumably, other sites as opposed to positive SEO, which is trying to do tactics to promote the search presence of your sites. People say negative SEO is a big problem. The biggest company that has negative SEO out there is Google, because they control the entire system. They demote far, far, far, more sites than anybody else could possibly demote, because they control the entire thing.
After Google, you’d have to worry about other people trying to play with your rankings or mess with your rankings. It’s very difficult to do. It happens rarely. It does happen, as you and I well know. It does happen fairly rarely. The biggest thing you have to watch out for is the people who control the game, which is the big sites. In this case, Google, but if we’re talking about socially you have to worry about Facebook, Twitter, and things like that, too.

Ted: Pardon the list but it is the easy way for me to answer this question:
Google is pushing organic results below the fold.
Google is reducing the number of organic results on page 1 to 9 for many search terms.
Google has wrapped organic results on three sides with ads that look more and more like organic results.
Google is posting website content in the results.
Google is inserting other channel results into the web results.
Local block is dominating more and more keywords which is favoring local stores over online stores for many search terms.
Google is punishing the medium quality with “Nothing wrong, nothing special” ratings.
and the list goes on and on…

6. What is the scariest part of SEO for you or your clients?

Josh: The scariest part of SEO by far has to be the risk. The risk, reward involved. You spend all this time. You spend all this money, and you have all these hopes. In fact, in some cases, your entire business plan, your entire business model relies on being able to guarantee a traffic channel that you can’t guarantee, and being able to guarantee that you’re going to have high placement in organic search, which you cannot guarantee. There is no certifications for this. There is no industry standard knowledge for this. People will say there is, but there isn’t.
That is completely under someone else’s control, that you cannot contact. You cannot email. You cannot pay them. You cannot get into any kind of agreement with them. It’s a system. You have no control over them. There’s no accountability over Google. There’s no accountability over the Google SERPs. They can do anything they want. They can demote any site they want. They can change the SERPs any way they wish to get rid of any vertical or even entire business market that they want. Any business type that they deem is shouldn’t, and I quote, “Belong on the internet anymore.”
That clearly is going to be the scariest thing in terms of doing SEO. You can spend all this time. You can spend all this money on tactics, and you can do your best guess to what tactics are going to be the safest, and the most powerful, but at the end of the day, it’s just a guess, no matter who says it. You have to put your faith … It’s very faith-based in a way. You have to put your faith that these tactics are at best going to promote you, and hopefully not demote you.
That’s the scariest thing to do, and that’s precisely why risk mitigation is my primary philosophy. In a lot of ways, I don’t do SEO consulting. I don’t do marketing and branding consulting. I do risk mitigation consulting is what I do. That’s why that has to be the primary tactic that every SEO who works for a general run of clients takes.

Ted: Negative SEO. Hands down. Biggest existential threat to online retailers. Googlebot Interruption Attacks are devastating if you can’t block them. Google punishments are weaponized by black hats. In my opinion Google is playing the role of arms dealer and all the pain and frustration just drives people to other channels like PPC which is probably working out well for Google.

7. How do you know that your past experiences and current beliefs about SEO still hold true?

Josh: That’s a really good question too. That’s something that I think each SEO has to make sure that they’re dealing with on a daily basis. If you kind of go a couple of years without rechecking your philosophies and your theories about how SEO works, well, it’s going to pass you by. The web’s going to change and Google’s going to change. They do so many experiments, something like over 500 experiments a year on how to change the rankings and how to make enhancements to the rankings not to mention the fact they’ve now released an artificial intelligence called Rank Brain, which has outperformed their senior search engineers in some cases in predicting search results. It’s a computer. It can make whatever decisions it wants. It’s hard enough to figure out what some other person is thinking. What are those engineers at Google thinking? What are they going to do? Now try and guess what a nonliving entity is going to decide. It can get much more difficult.
To answer the question, again it comes back to those three levels of evidence that I talked about. One, you have to pay very close attention to what Google is saying in their hangouts and in their communications. Go to a conference where there is going to be a Googler there if possible if you can afford it. I find that these conferences, they almost always are a little bit more generous in the information that they leak especially if you approach them in a friendly way. I’ve gotten golden tidbits of knowledge from Google by doing that at least back when they liked me and I didn’t call them out on a regular basis. I think I’ve burned those bridged. You have to pay attention to what they say to do but even more importantly you have to pay attention to what they say not to do and you have to kind of measure that against what’s in their best interest for saying that.
Two, then you have to check your own SEO experiments. At the end of the day you try and rank 10 sites in the year. Did you rank them or not? Are they ranking or not? That’s the main criteria. You have to be honest with yourself and you have to look and say, “Okay, these tactics are working and I was doing these tactics on these sites. Oh but these sites are not ranking so I guess these tactics are not ranking or if they’re not ranking, why are they not ranking?”
Finally, three, again you have to do correlation software reports. You can’t just rely on the SEO Moz surveys, which are essentially, if I understand Moz’s surveys correctly, they’re just asking industry experts so that’s just opinion. That’s like going and asking 100 people on the street how they think gravity works. Scientific knowledge that does not make, right? Even search matrix correlation studies they do on hundreds of thousands of SRPs or 10,000 search result pages, that’s just a generalized approach, which is blending in all the different types of search queries, knowledge based searches, transactional searches, and even navigational searches. That’s going to give you too broad a result as well. You have to do correlation software studies. There’s very powerful correlation software out there and there’s also consultants who can provide that information for you.
Ted may be able to help out with some information there at a later time but you have to do the correlation studies to see what’s going on in your verticals and your search result pages and you have to compare those three levels of evidence. You have to get a check mark … Preferably you get a check mark on all three different things. One, Google says to do it or says not to do it, whatever. Two, your anecdotal experimental knowledge seems to suggest that it’s helping or at least not hurting. Three, it correlates with strong rankings on page 1 and does not correlate with rankings on page 19 or something like that. Then you can say with a pretty good … Four, it doesn’t hurt to tell the client to do this. In fact, it will only help them to make their design better or something like that or at least it doesn’t hurt. There’s no risk for the client to do it. Those are the four things that I would need to be able to say that it’s worth doing and that’s how I would proceed to make sure that my knowledge is still accurate and useful for people.

Ted: I don’t rely on past SEO experiences. They have always let me down. Instead I measure what appears to be working today and make educated guesses that are better than most because they are backed by empirical data and methods. I get better results than the others I’ve seen because I don’t rely on unproven advice that keeps reappearing in blog posts year after year. There is a phenomenon where people think that since everybody keeps saying it that it must be true. Experimentation has shown me that is usually not the case.

8. What are some of the SEO experiments you have conducted in the past year?

Josh: Let me see. Which ones can I admit to? Because there’s always a lot of experiments that you’re running that you might not want to publicly admit that you’re doing. No negative SEO, I assure you, because I don’t want to bother with that. Definitely I’m running quite a lot of experiments when it comes to the SERP and click percentages and click rates and things like that. I’m testing fairly extensively in there to see what, if anything, Google is tracking, and how good they are at detecting paid traffic and blocked traffic and things like that.
Quite frankly, every single time I SEO a site, I’m running experiments. You’ve got to do it that way. You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing. Every time we optimize a site, we have to test to see how well things are going also, again, just to make sure that your knowledge base, your picture of how Google ranks, is even remotely accurate or accurate enough to sell this knowledge to clients. We’re also doing experiments into social as well. Social has been for a long time the next big thing, but people have had trouble monopolizing on social, not only in terms of getting it to be some kind of positive ranking signal for Google, but just in terms of developing it as a channel in and of itself. We’re running lots of experiments in social as well. How to make the best, cheapest, but highest quality viral content. How to get more clicks. How to improve traffic and throughput on those kinds of things. Adoption, Likes, and things like that, all those kinds of things.
You always have to be learning. You always have to be doing experiments. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be in this industry.

Ted: Overcoming several kinds of negative SEO attacks. Disproved placing content closer to the top of a page influences rankings. Understanding keyword stuffing has interesting implications. Last year I proved social signals had no effect on rankings. Currently I’d have to say that it looks like that may be changing now. Something interesting keeps popping up with H4 tags… they keep correlating stronger than the other headings in a lot of searches. I’m not sure why that is or what that means.

Question 9: What advice do you have for SEO Interviewers and Interviewees?

Ted:

Josh: The advice for the first people is, hire me. No, I’m just kidding. My advice for the first people is, you have to go on those 3 levels of evidence and then you have to judge based on those 3 levels of evidence, and how careful of a risk mitigator they are. That is the key, because at the end of the day, I have studied different SEO ideas from YouDo. I like to think we’re both intelligent people and we’re both conscientious people and we both look at the data very carefully, but we still come up with different, not very different but slightly different SEO methodologies and pictures. The question is, well why is this? Well it’s very simple, it’s because it’s human nature, and our slightly different experience. My point is, is that you’re going to have that happen no matter how good your intentions and no matter how similar the conditions are.
Then the thing is to keep in mind is that then you have to take a risk mitigation strategy, right. Because at the end of the day nobody knows except for Google, and most people who work at Google don’t even know. Their own artificial intelligence is predicting search 10 percent better than they are, so even they don’t know so much any more what ranking factors are being tracked and to what degree. You have to take a risk mitigation strategy, and so when you’re selecting an SEO, that’s what you need to do. You need to listen to what it is they say and what it is they do and the process they take to make sure that they are going to give you the best solutions that are not also going to risk your rankings and your business plan.
For SEOs who want to answer good questions for SEO interviews I would say the exact same thing, because at the end of the day that’s the most important thing. SEOs are kind of like doctors, we have to take the Hippocratic Oath, right. Our first philosophy should be “do no harm.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come into this where big, big clients, clients who make like half a million dollars a month online, no joke, clients who make half a million dollars a month online or just organic revenue alone, come to me and say, “Well we want to change our design, we want to change this, we want to change that.” My answer is, “Well why? Why? It’s not broken, don’t try and fix it. Why do you want to make these changes? Why do you want to change your URLs, why do you want to switch to HTTPS, why do you want to change your design? You do realize you could mess up the entire thing.”
Risk mitigation, I know I’m sounding like a broken record but quite frankly it’s that important, risk mitigation is the most important thing. You have to take kind of like a doctor’s approach and to not make any changes. I don’t mean like a plastic surgeon approach either. You have to take a doctor’s approach, where you don’t want to make any changes unless it is absolutely necessary. It is not absolutely necessary unless there’s some important things that are going on.
If you’re trying to apply for an SEO job, that’s the kind of approach you should take. You say, “Listen, I go for the 4 levels of … I have the 4 levels of SEO philosophy, right. I listen to everything that Google says, what to do and not to do, and I listen to that with a critical mind and realize what out of that they’re saying that could be self-serving. 2, I have lots of SEO experiments and I read SEO experiments and I try and keep that in mind about what seems to be working and what doesn’t seem to be working. 3, I have correlation software, I know how to use correlation software. I can do massive correlation reports to see in all of our verticals what’s correlating with rankings on page 1 and what’s correlating with ranking on page 19, i.e. where you don’t want to rank. Then finally, 4, out of all that, I do no harm, right. I mean I take … I’m only going to suggest things that are only going to help the website. Even if it’s not a ranking factor at all, at least it’s going to help us convert more so you get more traffic there, it’s going to make things better, it’s going to make things more technically sound, you know, etcetera etcetera.
I mean that is the answer for both questions. That’s what people should be looking for and that’s what people should say I do, because at the end of the day that’s the most important thing. At least in my opinion.

Ted: Now if people wanted to learn more about your style of SEO, is there a good resource for that?

Josh: Yeah, I mean, as I said, I have a YouTube channel where I put up free videos, where I ramble on like this on a regular basis so if you don’t have quite enough rambling or ranting in your life, go to my YouTube channel at YouTube.com/jbachyns. In fact I just put a video out on, every year I put a video out on how to rank for that year, for 2016 and I just put it out. It’s all about rank brain and the clicks they’re tracking and stuff like that so go check it out.

Short – THEORY on how to tune for Rank Brain

THIS IS JUST A HYPOTHESIS!!! NOT PROVEN !!!

THIS IS JUST A HYPOTHESIS!!! NOT PROVEN !!!

Thanks for listening to SEO Fight Club. This isn’t a full episode. This is just a short, but it is a very important and time sensitive topic so I wanted to share it right away.

On October 26, 2015
Jack Clark
At Bloomberg Business
Wrote an article announcing RankBrain to the world.

I’ll put the link in the show notes.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-26/google-turning-its-lucrative-web-search-over-to-ai-machines

Since the announcements I’ve heard dozens of SEO try to explain Rank Brain and fail and none of them were able to tell you how to tune for it. It just so happens that I am an software engineer with some background in AI. I’m going to show you what rank brain does in this short and I will tell you exactly how to tune for it so you can start taking advantage.

In the article Google says

For the past few months, a “very large fraction” of the millions of queries a second that people type into the company’s search engine have been interpreted by an artificial intelligence system, nicknamed RankBrain, said Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist with the company

RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities — called vectors

This is geek speak for Natural Language Processing… this is where software can understand the clauses and parts of speech within a sentence. NLP can identify the subject and predicate in a sentence and which verbs are actions of which nouns and which adjective phrases apply to which noun phrases and so on. They can even map things across different sentences. And of course all the synonyms, equivalent phrasings, and word stemming too.

The article then says:

If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.

Because this is NLP it is no longer basic search term matching… it is mathematically understand what an answer to a question is based on language graphs. Because of this it can handle never-before-seen queries.

The system helps Google deal with the 15 percent of queries a day it gets which its systems have never seen before, he said.

For example, it’s adept at dealing with ambiguous queries, like,
“What’s the title of the consumer at the highest level of a food chain?”

Rank brain is breaking down the clauses in the question to find the criteria for the answer:

What’s the title (that’s the basic query)
of the consumer (criteria on which title)
of a food chain (criteria on which consumer)
at the highest level (criteria on which level of a food chain)

Then rank brain is looking for sentences with clauses that meet those criteria.

Acceptable Answers to the question are:

tertiary consumer
quaternary consumer
apex predators
predators
carnivores

The most common accepted answer appears to be “predators”

If you look at the results for the example they provide one of the page one results is OFF TOPIC… but it demonstrates the value of a high PR page with an exact match of the question in the main content but no answer:

Above that in the #2 spot is a result with the most common answer.

Google knew to make “predators” bold. They know to treat it like a keyword match.

This is likely what rank brain is… on a question query it folds in the likely answer to the question as one of the search term matches to count as a hit.

The pages with the exact match question and no answer ranked lower than the pages with the generally accepted correct answer.

The second result clearly states: “At the top of the levels are predators” with predators put in bold. Google knowing to make predators bold IS the evidence that what I am describing is in fact happening in some fashion behind the scenes.

So if you want to rank well for question and answer format you need both the question and the answer on the page. You probably want to mark them up with shema.org markup.
An optimized sentence answer to the question might perform better than just a simple answer like:

“Apex predators are the consumer at the highest level of a food chain.”

Specificity probably helps your answer score. But I haven’t tested this. I’m just making assumptions about the observations that we now know to be true.

You probably want to make sure that your answer is in agreement with the generally accepted answer.

Google’s AI is probably finding all the variations of the same question and all the variations of the same answer and using the one’s with the most agreement as the “correct” answer.

There is more evidence that what I am describing is happening. Midway down the page Google displays a “People Also Ask” block of similar questions:

Google has to understand what makes questions similar and that takes NLP.

The article goes on to say “In the few months it has been deployed, RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query”

“Google search engineers, who spend their days crafting the algorithms that underpin the search software, were asked to eyeball some pages and guess which they thought Google’s search engine technology would rank on top.”

“While the humans guessed correctly 70 percent of the time, RankBrain had an 80 percent success rate.”

“Typical Google users agree. In experiments, the company found that turning off this feature “would be as damaging to users as forgetting to serve half the pages on Wikipedia,”

This makes sense because pages with the correct answer to your question are typically much more useful than pages without the correct answer.

Episode 4 – Real Negative SEO

Get it on iTunes

Hi and thank you for listening to SEO Fight Club. I’m Ted Kubaitis and I have 22 years of web development and SEO experience. I have patented web technologies and started online businesses. I am both an engineer and a marketer. My goal is to help you win your SEO fights.

This episode’s FREEBIE!

With every episode I love to give something away of high value. This episode’s SEO freebie is my own personal 40 point negative SEO checklist. If you are concerned about negative SEO then this checklist will help you conduct periodic audits for suspicious activity. This free download will save you hours on checking your websites for attacks.

You can download the freebie at: http://seofightclub.org/episode4

Negative SEO refers to the practice of using techniques to ruin a competitor’s rankings in search engines, but really just in Google.

Most people think of Negative SEO as unwanted spammy backlinks. To put it simply, those people have a failure of imagination. To understand the dozens of tactics of negative SEO you first have to understand its numerous motivations and intentions.

Here are some of those intentions:

  • Get a site banned from search results.
  • Get a page demoted in the rankings.
  • Steal a website’s customers.
  • Steal a website’s content.
  • Steal a website’s viewers or contributors.
  • Change the topics a webpage ranks for.
  • To hurt the reputation of the website.
  • To hurt the reputation of the author.
  • To hurt the reputation of a product.
  • To disrupt a website’s ad revenue.
  • To squander a website’s ad spend.
  • To ruin a website’s content or data.
  • To disrupt the operation of the website.
  • To cause financial harm to a website.
  • To cause confusion about products and services or to blur the lines
  • differentiating them.
  • To slander or make false claims about a website, business, or person.
  • To bully, harass, or otherwise intimidate a person, website, or business.

I am certain there are more I’m not thinking of. Very quickly people can start to sense how they or people they know have already been hurt by negative SEO. I’m sure you are already sensing the kind of uneasy ground we all stand on now. When a business gets hit by these it can be crippling. It is absolutely devastating when you are hit by multiple of these at the same time.

There are an estimated 40 kinds of negative SEO tactics that I know of and the list seems to grow every year as Google adds new things to punish that can be weaponized by negative SEO practitioners.

  • spammy links
  • false ratings and reviews (worst product ever)
  • rating and review spam (this is ok but my product over here is better)
  • content spam
  • content theft
  • GoogleBot interruption
  • False canonicalization
  • False authorship
  • toxic domain redirection
  • denial of service
  • crippling the site’s speed
  • fraudulent DMCA takedown
  • Cross site scripting
  • Hacking the site
  • Keyword bombing posts and comments
  • Website or Social Identity Theft
  • Fake complaints
  • Injecting Malware
  • Click-spamming ads
  • CTR and other false signal bots
  • faking Email spam to get competitor publicly blacklisted
  • Fake bots that claim to be competitor and behave badly (again to get publicly
  • blacklisted)
  • Submitting alternative URLs or hosts to exploit missing canonical tags
  • Link building a page into a new keyword context
  • Link building incorrect pages into the keyword context for bad experience
  • Flooding a web database with bogus data
  • Posting adult or damaging content
  • Linking from adult sites or other toxic locations
  • Disavow misuse to declare a competitor as spam to google
  • Misuse of Google’s spam report form
  • Inserting grammar, spelling, and content encoding errors
  • Unwanted bot and directory submission
  • Redirecting many domains bot activity onto a target site all at once.
  • Negative and false Press
  • Inclusion in blog networks, link wheels, other linking schemes
  • Content overflow… keep posting to a one page thread until the page is too big
  • Topic Flooding… flood the forum with so many crappy posts the forum becomes unusable
  • Keep replying to bad or outdated posts so it keeps fresher or better content off the main indexes
  • Pretend to be a competitor and ask for link removals
  • Flooding junk traffic to a site so Google gets the wrong idea about the site’s
  • audience location or demographics
  • Domain squatting and hijacking

I’m not sure how many of these are still effective but I want to tell you about my experience to one of them that was extremely devastating. The GoogleBot interruption attack.

I used to say “negative SEO isn’t real”. My desk is in the engineering bullpen. There are no cubes or offices. This allows everyone to overhear of all of the issues of the day. I heard the network admin complaining about very weak denial of service attacks on our websites.

The specific type of denial of service attack my network administrator was battling is called “slow loris”.

Slow Loris Defined

Slowloris is a piece of software written by Robert “RSnake” Hansen which allows a single machine to take down another machine’s web server with minimal bandwidth and side effects on unrelated services and ports.

Slowloris tries to keep many connections to the target web server open and hold them open as long as possible. It accomplishes this by opening connections to the target web server and sending a partial request. Periodically, it will send subsequent HTTP headers, adding to—but never completing—the request. Affected servers will keep these connections open, filling their maximum concurrent connection pool, eventually denying additional connection attempts from clients.

Source: Wikipedia

The attacks didn’t make much sense. We could detect them and block them within an minutes, and they would keep appearing every two to three weeks. This went on and on months and possibly years. We are not entirely sure when the attacks started.

We didn’t understand the motivation behind these attacks. We could easily counter them. Why was someone working so hard to do this when we could stop it so quickly when it happens?

Several months went by and I was in a meeting trying to explain the unusual volatility in SEO revenue. While in that meeting I got chills down my spine. I had a thought I just couldn’t shake. Later, I put the chart of the slow loris attacks on top of the chart for SEO revenue, and every drop in SEO followed a slow loris attack. From then on I knew negative SEO was very real and very different from what everyone thought negative SEO was. This was a very effective negative SEO attack. It had absolutely nothing to do with backlinks.

I spent the next few weeks learning what I could about this attack. I learned how it worked. Basically, the attacker was waiting for an indication that googlebot was crawling our site, then they would launch the attack so our web server would return 500 errors to Googlebot. Googlebot would remove the pages that returned a 500 error from the search results. Googlebot would not retest the pages for days This is not the case today. Google will retests pages within hours now, but it was the case at the time. To make things even worse, once googlebot found working pages again they would reappear several places lower in the results for about 2 or 3 weeks before recovering to their original positions.

These attacks that we assumed were unsuccessful and weak were totally the opposite. They were both successful and devastating. They had lasting effects and the timing of the attacks was keeping us pinned down in the rankings.

If you were only watching rankings then this would just look like normal everyday Google dance. No one cares that one week a page went down 6 spots and then two weeks later comes back up. We have thousands of pages across 20 websites, and most of those websites are on shared servers. Google Search Console tools doesn’t let you see combined impact across sites. If I wasn’t reporting on SEO revenue, which many SEOs object to, this would have continued undetected.

So now I knew the attack was real, and I knew how it worked. So how do I stop them?

For the interruption attack to be effective the attacker needs to time his attack to coincide with Googlebot’s visit to the website. How can they do this? There are five ways I can think of:

Monitor the google cache and when a cache date is updated you know googlebot is crawling.
Analyze the cache dates and estimate when Googlebot will come back
Cross-site scripting to see visiting User agents
Attack often and hope for the best
Hack the system and access the logs

I believed the attacker was probably doing #1.

I put a NOARCHIVE tag on all of our pages. This prevents Google from showing the Cached link for a page. This would stop the attacker from easily monitoring our cache dates.

The attacks stopped for about 4 months following that change. I thought we had won, but I was wrong.

Late in the third quarter of 2014 we were hit hard by an extremely-precise attack. Our attacker then went dormant. The attacker had his attack capability back and the attacker knew we were on to them. We suspected he was picking his timing more carefully now. It was the second time I got chills down my spine. Like most online stores we do most of our sales in the fourth quarter. My suspicion was that the attacker was lying in wait for Black Friday. One of these attacks the week before Black Friday would cripple our top performing weeks of the year.

We scrambled to figure out how they were timing the attacks with GoogleBot. We failed. The week before Black Friday we were hit harder than we were ever hit before. We lost seventy percent of our SEO revenue for the month. I was devastated.

The company accepted that the attacks were amounting to significant losses. We knew the attacks were going to continue. We invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in security appliances that detect and block hundreds of different attacks.

It took six months to get all the websites protected by the new firewalls and to get all the URLs properly remapped. We had finally stopped the onslaught but at a pretty heavy cost in time and money. This year we have seen high double-digit growth in SEO. It is due to stopping the negative SEO attacks.

The attack I just described I call a “GoogleBot Interruption Attack”. Negative SEO is so new these attacks probably don’t have official names yet.

I have seen a number of other attacks too, but none we as crippling as the GoogleBot interruption attack.

Another attack I have encountered is when a black hat takes a toxic domain name that has been penalized into the ground and then points the DNS to your website. Some of those penalties appear to carry over at least for a short while. The worst is when a lot of these toxic domains are pointed all at once at your website.

Another similar attack to that is when an attacker redirects the URLs from the toxic sites to your URLs. This has the effect of giving your website a surplus of bad backlinks. What is scary about this is the attack can recycle those toxic backlinks and change targets over and over again.

Another attack is the attacker targets a page that is missing a canonical tag by submitting a version of the URL that works but Google has never seen before. This is done by adding things like a bogus URL parameter or anchor text. Then they link build to the bogus URL until it outranks the original. The original will fall out of the results as a lower PR duplicate. Then they pull the backlinks to the bogus URL, and they have effectively taken a page out of the Google index until Google recalculates PR again. Just put a canonical tag on every page and you can protect yourself from this one.

Another attack just requires a lot of domains and they don’t have to be toxic. The requirement is that they are indexed and visited by a LOT of bots. The attacker in many cases will point hundreds of these domains at a single website and use the collective of bot activity as a denial of service against the website.

I’m certain there are more kinds of attacks out there. It is limited to the creativity of the attackers, and the bad guys can be pretty creative. I am constantly afraid of what I might find next having run the gauntlet and paid the price already.

Your only hope is to accurately attribute SEO revenue and monitor it regularly. Conversions are good, but if you’re looking for strong signal on the health of your SEO then revenue is better. Revenue implies good indexation, rankings, traffic, and conversions all in one very sensitive gage. Conversions are good too, but the needle doesn’t move as much, making it harder to see the signals.

Secondly… sit next to your engineers. The issues they encounter are directly relevant to the effectiveness of your SEO. The frantic firefighting of the network administrator is one of the best indicators. Log serious events and plot them with revenue and other KPIs

Third… logs. The crawl error logs in Google Search Console and your web server logs tell you about the issues googlebot encounters and the attempts made on your server.

  • Lots of 500 errors might signal a GoogleBot interruption attack.
  • Lots of 404 errors might be toxic domain redirection.
  • Lots of URLs in errors or duplicate content that make no sense for your website might signal canonical misuse.

Following each and every soul-crushing SEO revenue event I had to pour through the logs and testimony of everything to try and make sense of things. Not every SEO event was an attack. In many cases the events were caused by errors deployed on our websites. Or the marketing team installed a new problematic tracking pixel service. Several times the owners bought domains and pointed them at our sites not knowing that the previous owners had made them permanently toxic. As an SEO, you need to detect and address these as well:Revenue, Logs, and general awareness of daily events was critical to early detection.

when I went to the reader base of many popular SEO forums and blogs, I was ridiculed and called a liar for asking for help with a problem most SEOs had never seen or heard of before. It was all too common that the peanut gallery of SEO professionals would criticize me for not having links and kept saying I had the burden of proof. These were supposedly members of the professional SEO community, but it was just a political flame war. The black hat community actually helped me research the kinds of attacks I was facing, explained how they worked and suggested ideas for countering them. Google and the SEO community in general were very unsupportive. I’m going to remember that for a very long time.

For some reason we are a big target. It is probably because so many of our products compete with similar products that are often affiliate offerings. If you are an online retailer that does a lot of sales seasonally, you need to be on the look out. The big threat is solved for my sites for now, but the vast majority of retail sites are unprotected, and many of them aren’t in a position to solve the issue the way we did.

Over the years I’d say we’ve been attacked hundreds of times but it wasn’t until 2014 that we became aware of it, and there were a lot of random events that helped that happen. There is “security by obscurity” for most websites. You have to be a worthy enough target to get this kind of attention.

Detection is paramount. You can’t mitigate problems if you are unaware of them. For false parameters specifically there are several options… you can use canonical tags on every page, which I highly recommend. You can also use URL rewriting to enforce very strict URL formatting. But if you aren’t looking at the logs and if you aren’t looking at your search result URLs closely then you wont even know about the issue.

Detailed revenue attribution is the big one. Seeing that the losses only come from Google is an important signal. For me, SEO revenue comes from dozens of sources. Search Engines, like Google, Bing, Excite, AOL, Yahoo, etc… Syndicated Search like laptop and ISP start pages and meta search engines, Safe Search AVG, McAfee, etc… and finally my SEO experiments.

Having the revenue attribution lets me know the revenue loss only occurred on Google this time so it can’t be consumer behavior like Spring Break because the drop would have been across the board if consumers just went on holiday.

Also keep an eye on your errors, search results, and logs. Also keep an eye on your network administrator’s “Frustration Meter”.

Here are a few specific things to check when looking for negative SEO attacks:In

Google Search Console:

  • Check GSC Messages for penalties.
  • Check GSC Messages for outages.
  • Check GSC Messages for crawl errors.
  • Check Server Errors Tab for Desktop and Mobile
  • Check Not Found Errors for Desktop and Mobile
  • If errors look suspicious then Download and archive them.
  • If errors look minor and are no longer reproducible then mark them as fixed so you only see new errors next time.
  • Check the Index Status page and make sure your total number of pages looks correct.
  • Check your content keywords and make sure nothing looks spammy or out of place there.
  • Check Who Links to your site the most under search traffic
  • Make sure your link count hasn’t abnormally grown since last check. Update your link count spreadsheet
  • Check your Manual Actions
  • In search analytics check countries and make sure your not suddenly popular in Russia
  • In search analytics check CTR and Position and make sure the chart looks ok… no drastic events
  • In Search Appearance investigate your duplicate title and meta description pages. Check the URLs to make sure they aren’t bogus
  • Check Security Issues

In your web server logs:

  • Check Server Logs: SQL injection
  • Check Server Logs: Vulnerability Testing
  • Check Server Logs: 500-503 Errors
  • Check Server Logs: Outrageous requests per second
  • Check Server Logs: Bad Bots
  • Check Server Logs: Large volume 404 errors from 1 referring domain

In the Google Search Results:

  • Check For Bizarre URLs
  • Check For Domains matching your content
  • Check For Unusual Sub-domains
  • Check For Odd URL parameters and URL anchors
  • Check For Negative mentions of domain or products

On your website and servers:

  • Check Ratings and Reviews
  • Check For Comment or Post Spam
  • Check Content Indexes For Over-abundance of old or bad topics
  • Check for profile spam
  • Actively run anti-virus on server
  • Routinely back up server
  • Periodically run vulnerability testing on your site to close security vulnerabilities
  • Patch your server regularly
  • Update your web platform and plugins regularly
  • Double check your WordPress Security plugin for any loose ends if applicable.
  • Periodically change your admin passwords and account names
  • Use strong passwords
  • Don’t share accounts or email credentials
  • Use a version control system and check the update status of deployed code for
  • changes regularly.
  • Check your domain name expiration date

There is a lot to consider in this episode. Please download the FREEBIE which is my own personal 40 point negative SEO checklist. If you are concerned about negative SEO then this checklist will help you conduct periodic audits for suspicious activity. This free download will save you hours on checking your websites for attacks.

Episode 4 – Real Negative SEO

Please subscribe and come back for our next episode where we will be “Setting SEO Guidelines For A Single Page” and I will continue the lesson by teaching my most powerful methods and secrets to content tuning a single page that targets a single keyword.

Thanks again, see you next time and always remember the first rule of SEO Fight Club: Subscribe to SEO Fight Club!

Episode 3 – The Truth About Keyword Stuffing

Get it on iTunes

Hi and thank you listening to SEOFightClub.org. I’m Ted Kubaitis and I have 22 years of web development and SEO experience. I have patented web technologies and started online businesses. I am both an engineer and a marketer. My goal is to help you win your SEO fights.

Maybe you are new to SEO or maybe you have been doing SEO for as long as I have. This SEO primer will reboot your effectiveness and point you in a direction for achieving positive results that continue to build on new learning. Most SEOs fail in the “O” part of SEO. The optimization part of SEO demands iterative learning based on empirical measurements. In this and future episodes I’m going to show you how fight the good SEO fight.

This episode’s FREEBIE

With every episode I love to give something away of high value. This episode’s SEO freebie is the all the data I collected on DUI lawyers in 10 major US cities to present my case. Its not just the keyword stuffing data but over 300 factors for every page 1 result for each search in the sample. Additionally, I include the aggregate analysis across the whole sample set. If you are an SEO data junkie like me then hang on. This data is GOLD!

You can download the freebie at: http://seofightclub.org/episode3/

First my disclaimer. I have discussed the ethics of talking about the truth of keyword stuffing at length with SEO Expert and Search Ethicist Josh Bachynski. I understand the reasons why he would never share such information with a client. The risks are simply too great. The temptation for beginners or desperate people might be too great to resist. I come from a different background and my opinion is that to be good at SEO you have to at least understand the forces that are working for and against you. I am not recommending you use keyword stuffing. I am explaining the controversy and my understanding of this particular search engine exploit. I believe that you can both know about bad behavior and still choose to do the right thing.

When you google “keyword stuffing” wikipedia is the #1 result. This is some of what wikipedia has to say about keyword stuffing:

“Keyword stuffing is a search engine optimization (SEO) technique, in which a web page is loaded with keywords in the meta tags or in content of a web page. Keyword stuffing may lead to a website being banned or penalized in search ranking on major search engines either temporarily or permanently.”

Wikipedia goes on to say “This method is outdated and adds no value to rankings today. In particular, Google no longer gives good rankings to pages employing this technique.”

Citation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyword_stuffing

I wonder if that’s true? Was it ever true?

Google’s webmaster guidelines defines keyword stuffing as “the practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results.”

Google goes on to say keyword stuffing “can harm your site’s ranking.“

Matt Cutts said in a video that there was diminishing returns and at some point the more you stuff the worse you rank.

If this is true then how is it that when I search for DUI lawyers in 10 different US cities the average page 1 result has more than 500 keyword matches in the HTML source and the maximum has 2550 matches in a single page!

To understand this issue I think we need to look at the core of what google is doing. At a basic level Google is performing a full text search.

“In a full-text search, a search engine examines all of the words in every stored document as it tries to match search criteria.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full_text_search

“In information science and information retrieval, relevance denotes how well a retrieved document or set of documents meets the information need of the user.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relevance_(information_retrieval)

“Nowadays, commercial
web-page search engines combine hundreds of features
to estimate relevance. The specific features and their
mode of combination are kept secret to fight spammers
and competitors. Nevertheless, the main types of
features at use, as well as the methods for their
combination, are publicly known and are the subject of
scientific investigation. “

http://research.microsoft.com/pubs/102937/eds-websearchrelevanceranking.pdf

“ Although web search engines do not disclose
details about their textual relevance features, it is
known that they use a wide variety of them, ranging
from simple word counts to complex nonlinear
functions of the match frequencies“

That’s right folks… at the most basic and fundamental core search relevance is influenced by simple word counts and match frequencies. Obviously there is a lot more going on in the rankings but at some basic level when all else is equal whoever says it more wins.

The best evidence that is is the case is that Google openly threatens to punish you if you exploit this. I’m not a great poker player but even I can read that tell. But does this happen?

In fact Matt Cutts talks about the keyword stuffing manual action in a youtube video. Link in the show notes.

http://marketingland.com/10-big-brands-that-were-penalized-by-google-69646
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_penalty

I have found a few short lists of sites that have been publicly penalized but literally none of them were penalized for keyword stuffing. I’ll put some links in the show notes. I searched for stories of people being penalized by google for keyword stuffing and I found the opposite… I found people trying experimentally to be penalized by google for keyword stuffing and failing to get any result. See links in the show notes.

https://moz.com/blog/google-refuses-to-penalize-me-for-keyword-stuffing

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the penalties for keyword stuffing might only be manual penalties but if that is the case then there is no way google can police this effectively which explains why in high competition niches where the cost per click can reach hundreds of dollars the keyword stuffing is running rampant.

In another video Matt Cutts says there is a point of diminishing returns and at that point having more matches starts to hurt you. But since the amount of keyword stuffing increases with the competition for the keyword and we are seeing today page 1 results having 2500+ matches per page we have to question if this is even true or possible. Ok the point of diminishing returns might be 3000 matches per page. Does that make sense to you?

Google could easily make a rule that if you have more than 500 matches per page then you are over-optimized but a rule like that would strip the first couple pages of results for every high traffic search term there is. Removing all the most relevant results would be a very bad user experience. So while they technically can auto-enforce a hard rule, it appears they are choosing to not do so.

Ok… so we know how it works, we have an idea why google isn’t automatically punishing it. How well does it work? Well. Now we are at my favorite part of the episode. Lets look at some measured data!

I used my software to measure over 300 SEO factors for every page 1 results for DUI lawyers in 10 different cities. The CPC for some of these searches is over $150 per click. These websites could not be more motivated to win free clicks.

The overall number of matches in the HTML source has NO CORRELATION with ranking position. It appears that the Google algorithm has accounted for keyword stuffing in a general kind of way. But but but but but… There is strong correlation for keyword stuffing in certain parts of the page.

Strong Correlation:
“Number of exact matches in web page H4 to H6 tags”
“Number of exact matches in web page H4 tags”
“Has leading matches in web page H2 tags”
“Number of leading matches in web page H1 to H3 tags”
“Number of exact matches in web page li tags”
“Number of matches in web page label tags”

Weak Correlation:
“Number of exact matches in web page option tags”
“Number of matches in Google result URL path”
“Has leading matches in web page H3 tags”
“Has leading matches in web page H1 to H6 tags”
“Number of matches in web page H1-H2 tags”

So it would seem that keyword stuffing in headings, lists, labels, form options, and URLs does correlate with rankings. So the secret to the keyword stuffing exploit is knowing where and how how much to stuff.

The problem with stating how much is that the degree of keyword stuffing is relative. In high competition keywords achieving competitive parity is going to be quite difficult and ranges from hundreds to potentially thousands of matches per page. In low competition keyword niches we might hit competitive parity with a dozen matches. The only way to know is to pull the competitive numbers for our niche.

The other thing we need to do is to really investigate the outliers. The page that had 2550 matches had a long thread of comments on the topic. Very understandable for a hot topic. Putting 2550 matches on our product page will scare away our customers. We have to understand the nature of the stuffing which is probably why Google has to police this exploit manually. This is also why I could see there being a point where more stuffing doesn’t benefit more, but I doubt there is a point where more stuffing starts automatically hurting our rankings. There would likely be too much collateral damage.

Until the data tells a different story thats how I see it. Don’t keyword stuff. Do understand how the technology works and sculpt your content to communicate effectively to both your audience of humans as well as search engines. There is a difference and it is often found in the intentions behind making the page. Have good intentions and apply integrity to everything you do.

There is a lot to consider in this episode. Please download the FREEBIE which is the all the data I collected on DUI lawyers to present my case. Its not just the keyword stuffing data but over 300 factors for every page 1 result for each search in the sample plus the aggregate analysis across the whole sample set. If you are an SEO data junkie like me then hang on. This data is GOLD!

Please subscribe and come back for our next episode where I will tell my story of “Real Negative SEO”. I will warn you now that it is not for the feint of heart. It was a brutal gauntlet for me that took hundreds of thousands of dollars and almost a year to solve.

Thanks again, see you next time and always remember the first rule of SEO Fight Club: Subscribe to SEO Fight Club

Episode 1 – Where to begin with SEO

Season 1, Episode 1 of SEO Fight Club with Ted Kubaitis.

Get it on iTunes

http://seofightclub.org/episode1

The episode begins with the hair pulling and fight starting topic of defining what SEO is and what it should fundamentally encompass. Get ready to get your SEO fight on with this first episode in a new SEO podcast series.

Podcast Transcription:

Hi and thank you for listening to SEOFightClub.org. I’m Ted Kubaitis and I have 22 years of web development and SEO experience. I have patented web technologies and started online businesses. I am both an engineer and a marketer. My goal is to help you win your SEO fights.

Maybe you are new to SEO or maybe you have been doing SEO for as long as I have. This SEO primer will reboot your effectiveness and point you in a direction for achieving positive results that continue to build on new learning. Most SEOs fail in the “O” part of SEO. The optimization part of SEO demands iterative learning based on measurements. In this and future episodes I’m going to show you how fight the good SEO fight.

This episode’s FREEBIE: http://seofightclub.org/episode1

With every episode I love to give something away of high value. This episode’s SEO freebie is my own personal excel template I use for tracking monthly SEO revenue. In this episode I will walk through why collecting this data is vital to SEO success. This free download will save you hours on setting up and archiving the data. The download also shows great examples and demonstrates why the advice in this episode is so important.

You can download the freebie at: 

SEO Freebie season 1 episode 1
SEO Freebie, season 1 episode 1, SEO Revenue Reporting Template

What is SEO?

Stay with me here. I know you just groaned at the question but this definition is so fundamental to how each of us conducts SEO that we can’t possibly compare one approach to another without considering how our definitions differ.

My definition is radical compared to most mainstream SEOs, but I want you to really consider it from all sides especially from the viewpoint of establishing good business principles and doing “the right thing” for your business. The right thing for your business doesn’t always agree with what the right thing is for Google or what the right thing is in your own best interest. We have a word for when you can isolate those areas and talk about them openly and act on them independently. It’s called integrity and its what will make a business invest in you for the long haul through all the ups and downs.

Here is my definition of SEO: Search engine optimization is the optimization of revenue from search engine sources.

I define optimization as iterative cycles of tuning and learning from the last period’s data to influence next period’s outcomes.

I know. I really went out on a limb with that, but you will be amazed with how many career SEOs are out there that are absolutely against revenue reporting in SEO. Some of them are “so-called experts” who openly advise people not to do it.

Let me explain my position and hopefully I can convince some SEO revenue haters to see the advantages revenue attribution has.

Firstly, SEO Revenue measures the health of your crawlability, indexing, keyword choices,content tuning, backlinks, rankings, relevance, and conversions all from one very sensitive gage. No other measurement in SEO tells you so much in a single measurement. I know many SEOs will argue conversion counts are just as good. Conversions are great and they signal the same things, but with Revenue the needle moves more and the signals you are looking for will be easier to read.

Secondly, every large corporation has SEO or organic revenue as a line item on their gross sales reporting. Like it or not SEO is a marketing channel that produces measurable revenue for large businesses and smaller businesses are hoping to attain that. What is the business’s goal in optimizing that SEO? To make that revenue go up! That’s what is best for the business. For SEO to be viable in a business perspective its revenue needs to be meaningful. Otherwise, why should the business care about SEO? If it doesn’t yield a better business outcome then it would be a waste of time and money… if it doesn’t help then the time and money should be spent on some other channel like social marketing or pay per click. Spending time and money for no benefit is very bad in business.

Thirdly, every bad SEO and a lot of the good ones refuse revenue accountability. They just won’t do it. By wanting the business to achieve a good financial outcome you are demonstrating a willingness to do what is in the best interest for the business even if it comes to the detriment of your own personal best interests. That’s integrity. A great SEO always puts the needs of the business first. To be a great SEO these days it takes integrity and it takes a lot of it.

I have told small businesses before that it will cost them too much to succeed in SEO in their niche. I’ve turned down their business because the margins were too thin and there was much easier revenue to be had in Pay Per Click or other channels.

Many people believe SEO is the “easy money” or “low hanging fruit”. This is simply not true. SEO is the bright shiny apple at the very top of the tree and it takes a very special and rare talent to collect those apples. Most SEOs use tactics that amount to getting a bucket and standing under their tree waiting for the apples to fall. When you use my definitions and my methods I am not only showing you how to reach out to grab the apples, but how to do it with integrity. I want you to focus on the best interests of the company. If you do this right then even the cases where you and a company part ways it still results in the business endorsing you and praising your integrity and wanting to work with you in the future if the situation changes.

Many SEOs don’t want to report on SEO revenue because it will point out that the revenue doesn’t justify the cost of SEO. All businesses start here. You need to get used to this. This is where personal interests conflict with what is best for the business. Hiding it will only last so long. Unless you sole purpose is to collect lots of retainers you will be far better off discussing the value of direction setting so that one day your revenue can justify your cost.

Let me geek out for a moment here. SEO is a vector. That means it has both magnitude and direction. As far as tomorrow is concerned direction always matters more. A smart business understands the need to invest in the future. By tracking revenue despite your personal interests you are demonstrating integrity and implementing a process that can possibly achieve the business’s goals of growing revenue. If you don’t measure the revenue then you won’t know what is or isn’t working. You won’t know if today was any better than yesterday for the business. Get out of that situation! It will ultimately hit your where it hurts most, in your integrity. SEO has ups and downs and the downs can last months. Integrity can last a lifetime and it is your best chance to weather the downs in SEO.

Please please please make direction setting, investing in the future, accountability and integrity your hallmarks. Make them the cornerstone of everything you do.

If you are new to SEO you may be asking what are the arguments against my definition?

I have gotten countless rants on why I am wrong. I read and consider them all. So far all of them have failed to convince me and I’m going to explain why.

“SEO Set Up” versus “Actually Conducting SEO”

Most of the complaints against my definition are because my definition doesn’t include the vast amounts of work that go into setting up a website and configuring it to appear in the search results. Yes this work is critical, but I view all that work as the “SEO set up”.

You can’t actually conduct the “iterative optimization” work until that set up work has been properly done. Some SEOs are good at the set up work and others are good at the iterative optimization. The set up work tends to be a lot more technical and involved with server configuration and web development. The iterative optimization tends to be more about applying marketing and business principles, tracking progress towards goals, crafting content and executing marketing plans.

It makes total sense that the technical SEO setup people would want to define SEO a different way that highlights there talents in a way that isn’t dependent on the revenue outcome which they may not understand or have control over.

It makes total sense that the marketing optimization people would want to define SEO a different way that highlights the optimization process and progress towards goal.

Both sides aren’t wrong, but the way a large successful company will see it is that the “SEO setup” is part of engineering. It is part of the “proper web development” and system configuration that is a cost of doing business anyway. So for the business’s perspective SEO is and should be defined by the “O” in SEO. Its the marketing optimization of the SEO channel that will make the channel succeed or fail in the eye’s of he business. It is about the content development, traffic and revenue growth, understanding seasonality and year over year growth and progress towards goals. Its about defining and adjusting those goals as our evolving understanding of the landscape changes. It’s about using that understanding to make a plan to invest in a better tomorrow. If all you do is the SEO setup and nothing else then you have abandoned the whole marketing channel and its revenue which is the sole reason a business would invest in SEO.

I’m going to guess that right now you feel like you are on one side or the other. Might I suggest the crazy thought that you can be and should be on both sides at the same time. I am fortunate that I am both an engineer and a marketer. You should learn both sides at least to a point of basic understanding. Both sides need to exist, but recognize that the ultimate goal for the business is improving SEO revenue.

I know there are some SEOs saying “Ah ha!” right now. They are thinking that they caught the flaw in my argument. They are saying things like “Conversion optimization is different than SEO. Don’t mix the two.” This is a ridiculous argument. If you went to the doctor for you check up and the doctor just skipped taking your blood pressure and pulse wouldn’t you ask about it? What if the doctor said “I don’t do hearts. Cardiologists do hearts”? Just because there are specialties in a discipline that doesn’t mean you get to skip those things completely as a generalist. Just because there are conversion specialists doesn’t mean you get to write off that part of SEO. Just like the doctor who doesn’t do hearts… If you don’t see SEO all the way through to revenue then you are only doing the set up part of the job. You are just the webmaster taking care of the website configuration. Your not an SEO if you aren’t doing the whole job of achieving the business’s goal in investing in SEO.

I’m speaking in general here. I know there are other cases like Dell Computers who use SEO to reduce costs for their customer service call centers. When their SEO does poorly they pay more in call center resources and support staffing. But cost reductions are practically the same thing to a business as revenue growth. The business likes them both for the same reasons. The principles are still the same. We are still putting what the business needs first and foremost.

Hopefully I have planted the seed of integrity in your brain and if you aren’t already that you seriously consider attributing and reporting on SEO revenue. I know in many cases it can be very difficult like when you sell a product or service where a large number of your customers will ultimately convert on the phone or walk into a brick and mortar store. Revenue attribution can be hard in many cases. Your goal should be to establish proper SEO revenue reporting. By achieving that goal you have also completed all of the necessary SEO setup. It is only when all that work is properly completed that “O” in SEO can really begin. The good news is that my definition makes it easy to justify and explain the real and often significant time and investment required to do SEO properly and it sets the expectations of the milestones for accountability. By showing the true path to reach the business’s goal you are setting yourself up for success and building integrity. Best of all you are building the foundation for an iterative approach to improvement and reproducible results.

Lets talk about how to do revenue attribution:

My sites use custom logging and google analytics. This is great because when the two don’t agree I can see what is missing in either reporting system and track it down and fix whatever is wrong. It is very uncomfortable when you don’t have a way to test if you are capturing all your data correctly. Usually a website will have a system of record like their payment gateway or a database that you can compare to your google analytics. When you set up your revenue attribution keep this in mind. How do you know you are collecting ALL of the data? How much are you missing? It is OK if your analytics is a little lossy. All pixel tracking systems are. Just be in a position to be able to calculate how lossy the data is when compared with the actuals from something like your payment processor.

Google analytics has an integration point for backfilling the missing data. There are APIs and apps that can do this like.

Analytics Importer

Google has documentation on setting up commerce tracking for your website:

This is all part of that SEO setup that is a critical prerequisite to conducting the optimization. SEO doesn’t really begin until all this work is complete and you can actually measure the lay of the land. By setting up the revenue tracking you will know if your SEO methods are helping or hurting the business. You have to measure to know you are making good choices. With detailed revenue reporting you will be able to see exactly where your problems and opportunities are.

Make sure you are logging your order IDs (transaction IDs in GA) and revenue, shipping costs, item counts. You ultimately want to know things like Bing converts better and with a larger average cart. If you can report costs or landed costs then you will have an ideal scenario to report on costs and profits. But at a minimum you want to achieve gross revenue reporting.

I know I am understating how much work is involved here. Many business will hire a consulting company to set up just there analytics. If you can afford to do this then I highly recommend it. I have setup analytics myself before and its never easy. Expect it to take a few months before it is all properly dialed in. If it is your first time then expect longer because there are a number of learning curves you will have along the way. Your time and budget constraints should steer you toward the right path for your business.

Once your ecommerce reporting is set up you will want to make a couple custom reports in Google Analytics.
TODO: SHOW NOTES DETAIL and audio describing the two reports… for details on how to create them see the blog post.

### MORE DETAILS ABOUT MY CUSTOM REPORTS IN GOOGLE ANALYTICS ###

To create these custom reports you need to use some basic regular expressions. Regular expressions are a way of doing wildcard matches on text.

Remember to come back and read this tutorial on regular expressions.

In a nutshell regular expressions are a way to templatize patterns in text.

Regular Expressions Cheat Sheet

^ = start of the field
$ = end of the field
| = OR
() = match this group
.* = match any number of characters
.*? = match any number of characters until

This will make more sense later… just move on for now.

The first custom report is your SEO Revenue Report. For the selected website and specified date range this report logs order count, item count, shipping totals, and revenue totals by source and medium.

This report lets you see and export your data by site.

SEO_revenue_report_FULL

SEO Revenue report config

SEO Revenue Report Filters

Include Source / Medium
^(google / organic)$|^(bing / organic)$|^(yahoo / organic)$

These are the source mediums that are recognized as SEO sources

The medium is like “organic”, “referral”, “pay per click”. The source is usually the referring host name or tracking code. The default reporting in Google Analytics isn’t exactly what you’ll need. You can build exactly what you need in the customization tab.

google analytics samplingIf you see text saying that your report is based on a percentage of sessions then sampling may be coming into play. Usually waiting a few day after the date range you are trying to look at will resolve the sampling issue. Sometimes Google needs extra time to finish processing all the data. If the option is available you can also export an unsampled report. This option might only be available to analytics premium customers.

unsampled_report

The second report you need is the SEO Finder Report. This report makes it easier to find sources of SEO revenue.

SEO_finder_report_FULL

SEO_finder_config_FULL

SEO Finder Report Filters

Exclude Source / Medium
^(google / organic)$|^(bing / organic)$|^(yahoo / organic)$

These are the source mediums that are SEO sources. We exclude them so we dont keep finding them.

Include Medium
^organic$|^referral$

These are the mediums we want to search for SEO sources within.

Exclude Source
^(.*?mail.*)$|^(.*?inbox.*)$|^(.*?facebook.*)$

These are just sources that aren’t SEO that we don’t want to keep searching through

### END Report DETAILS ###

The first custom report is your SEO Revenue Report. For the selected website and specified date range this report logs order count, item count, shipping totals, and revenue totals by source and medium. This report lets you see and export your SEO revenue data by website.

The second report you need is the SEO Finder Report. This report makes it easier to find sources of SEO revenue. In a nutshell the SEO finder report filters out all the known SEO,email, and social sources from the organic and referral mediums so you have a short list of sources to watch for new SEO sources.

A side benefit of setting this up for SEO means it will be easy to set up the same reports for email, social, and paid media. They are all the same report but filter for different sources and mediums.

The blog post in the show notes has screenshots and instructions on creating these reports in Google analytics (this assumes you have successfully set up ecom tracking in GA already).

When you find new SEO sources you add them to the SEO Revenue Report and filter them from the SEO Finder Report so you don’t keep finding them.

Some companies may want to build an Email revenue report at the same time because the SEO Finder report usually finds untracked email revenue as well.

Then at the end of each month you create a view of the SEO revenue for each site by source and medium. You total the rows to see SEO revenue by source and medium across all sites and you total the columns to see SEO revenue by site across all sources. It is a total view of the health of your entire SEO landscape. It is literally the best SEO resource you will ever have.

Summary:

There is a lot to consider in this episode. Please download the FREEBIE which is the excel template I use for tracking SEO revenue on my sites.

Download FREEBIE at: http://seofightclub.org/episode1

Please subscribe and come back for our next episode where we will be “Debunking Content Placement in SEO” and I will continue the lesson by debunking an SEO myth about placing keywords near the top of your source and demonstrating how dangerous even expert SEO advice can be when it isn’t backed by hard data.

Thanks again, see you next time and always remember the first rule of SEO Fight Club: Subscribe to SEO Fight Club