With so much confusion, speculation and overall discussion about recent Google algorithm updates, we turned to one of the sharpest minds in SEO for his seasoned take on things…
Aaron Wall, the founder of SEO Book, brings a perspective unique to (and often ahead of) our industry. Although Aaron has made his way as a teacher of search (SEO Book is one of the oldest continually updated search blogs out there), what we find refreshing is his dedication to remaining a student as well. The result is a keen eye for decoding the why behind Google’s updates and how these changes will affect the direction of search.
In this interview you’ll find Aaron’s thorough take on negative SEO, the future of Google, what many SEOs aren’t ‘getting’ and much more…
Interview with Aaron Wall
In all your years doing SEO, what’s the biggest upheaval you’ve seen? Is it Panda? Penguin?
In terms of a single-step change and its general impact on the market, I would say the Florida update of 2003. Before that update, literally any idiot could rank and almost for nothing. Like I was new to SEO, only got online in 2003, and was ranking for keywords like “search engine marketing” without even having a marketing budget or knowing many people in the market.
After Florida, SEO sort of started to progress from “just do this” to “just do this, but…” which has been a theme extended numerous times over the years.
In part I think that is a big part of what built the SEO industry, because it turned SEO from something anyone and everyone could do quickly for almost nothing into something that started to require more time-tested knowledge (and knowledge that was often gained through years of pain and experience). It shifted from lasting SEO success requiring knowledge to requiring wisdom.
Panda was also big because it changed the search dynamic from “every page in the search game is another lotto ticket” to “some lotto tickets have a ‘bankrupt all’ option under the scratch off.” Penguin, the link warnings, and all the dialing up of anchor text filters this year were also a big deal. However, I view all these changes as being a subset of the general brand bias trend that has been in place for nearly a half decade. Google wanted to find ways to add cost structure and risk to small and efficient businesses to discourage investment in SEO-only plays. One of the ways to do that is to add additional layers of filters and penalties for those who are too aggressive. Another way to do it is to place additional weight on signals that might be associated with brand. Over the past 5 years, Google has pushed hard to do both.
What is the single most important fact or reality that SEO’s should realize but haven’t yet?
Google’s business interests are often aligned with (and well reflected in) “relevancy” signals.
And I don’t mean that “every site with AdSense ads will rank better for having ads” (and I certainly don’t believe that bit in quotes to be true), but rather that Google’s business interests are reinforced by editorial policies. Some examples:
1. When AdWords was primarily dominated by affiliates (because brands were asleep at the wheel) Google was more receptive toward affiliates in both AdWords and organic search results. However, after brands aggressively entered the ad auction, Google began to view many affiliates as unneeded duplication in the marketplace. In fact, one of Google’s recently leaked remote rater guidelines stated that HELPFUL hotel sites should be marked as spam if they are affiliate sites, based on no criteria other than the business model. That is pretty flagrant.
2. As brands entered the AdWords ad market more aggressively some “relevancy” signals associated with general awareness started to seep into impacting the organic search results:
- increasing weight on domain authority
- folding the second search query landing page into the first search
- lowering the impact of anchor text and putting more filters on link anchor text
3. In 2004, Ask had an embarrassing issue with serving up porn to school children. When Google rolled out auto-complete they were recommending things like some porn star names, warez, serials, cracks, etc.
The potential public relations nightmare driven by recommending pornstar names was fixed almost immediately. However the warez, serials and cracks stuff lasted for years.
- It took many years and a half-billion Dollar settlement related to some illegal drug ads for Google. By the time Google started to go after AdWords advertisers pushing counterfeit products Google claimed there were at least 30,000 of them active in the AdWords ad auction.
- I don’t think Google wanted to promote illegal activity, but the fact is that recommending it to searchers sort of forced a lot of brands to buy the broad match version of their own brands in order to stop it. To a lesser extent, some of the warez sites were also monetized by AdSense, but the bigger goal in allowing those auto-complete recommendations was to force brands to buy their pre-existing brand equity.
4. Google is currently in the process of monetizing the organic search results by displacing them/moving them below the fold through search verticalization.
- As a pre-text for this, at first a lot of affiliate and small business sites were penalized or filtered for being too thin or unneeded duplication.
- However, I think Google under-appreciates how far they consolidated some markets. They are perhaps getting some taste of this with the failure of Google+.
- Over time Google will have to back off the brand bias, because as Google enters more verticals and finds it hard to compete in them, someone at the top of the food chain inside Google will ask “why are we subsidizing our direct competitiors?” And then things will move in another direction.
What does the future of online business building look like for small businesses with limited budgets? Is the Internet still a place for little guys to do big things?
Google is already destroying the relevancy of their search results in certain categories and as they push toward promoting authority websites and monetizing their own results with pay-to-play stuff, some of the magic of search is lost as the results remind you of Wal-Mart.
Even if Google becomes a non-opportunity due to their Wal-Martization of the search results, there are still a number of other options to get exposure
- Bing (which seems to be more inclined to partner into the ecosystem, than to try to own the entire ecosystem the way Google does)
- authoritative vertical marketplace sites like Etsy
- selling your products on the broad sites Google has promoted (like Amazon and eBay)
- social media sites
- niche community sites and forums
- network with people locally
The thing to remember is they can’t discount everything. And if they become an index of Google-only content, they kill their own biggest competitive advantage and drive people off to greener pastures.
What’s next for Google? What big updates do you see on the horizon?
I think there is a lot of cell phone data that is not being used as much as it could be. That is a huge opportunity, but it might be another year or two out.
Between now and then, I mostly see Google’s biggest updates being more interface changes where they keep pushing the organic results below the fold in more and more categories.
For as much as the SEO industry discusses filters, penalties, and algorithm changes, you would think that the search interface would get discussed more often then it does, but I guess part of the reason it does not is because it isn’t something that can be changed externally and is something everyone can see. Thus, isn’t something up for debate the way the latest algorithm change is.
Will Google begin to rely on social signals to a much greater degree? Will this create a new market for faking social signals?
After Google buys Twitter, they will start counting tweets as a relevancy signal, but so long as the social relevancy signals are owned by third party ad networks and are sold as ad units (Twitter sells followers and retweets, Facebook sells likes), I wouldn’t see Google putting too much weight on them.
YouTube is an instructive example on this front.
When Google was fighting YouTube…
- they bought exclusive licenses to viral content that was blocked from streaming on YouTube
- they partnered with Viacom (look at some of their war docs that got leaked in court here. I highlighted one of the slides here )
After Google bought YouTube…
- they rolled out universal search and integrated videos more aggressively in the search results
- they spent over $100 million fighting Viacom in the court system
- since Panda happened, the downstream traffic from Google.com to YouTube more than doubled. Content partners like Demand Media that had their own content hit by the Panda algorithm were awarded “premium status” inside YouTube
- Google uses their internal metrics to inform investments into content sources that provide content that streams on YouTube. They bought Next New Networks and recently invested in Machinima.
- YouTube also counts some of their video ad views as organic views for relevancy scoring, literally allowing people to buy the relevancy signals
This same sort of pattern of “embrace openness publicly, while forming biz deals privately that do the opposite” is repeated over and over again…
- there is some data (like keyword “not provided” keywords) you can get in Google Analytics that you simply can’t get elsewhere (or at least not as tied together as you can in Google Analytics)
- on Android they mentioned that partners were becoming aware that they were using compatibility “as a club”
- after Google failed to acquire Groupon they partnered with over a dozen players in the category, offered a free on-demand offers coupon service, advertise these ads for everyone but Groupon and LivingSocial in the search results, and on and on
Inline with the above sort of stuff, after Google buys Twitter then it will become a core relevancy signal.
How big of an issue do you see negative SEO being in the future? Are people glossing over the true threat of negative SEO?
I think the less broadly memorable you are, the more you are at risk. It is largely glossed over as an issue because…
- those who work for big companies likely have little direct experience with it and further want to make it sound like the growth is due to their own execution rather than Google tilting the algorithm toward their clients
- people doing client work want to seem as safe bets
If we admit to clients that stuff can be blown away like the wind, then the clients would likely pull back on investments.
What issues or benefits do you see arising from Google allowing webmasters to disavow links?
SEO is like a chess match and Google is usually thinking 2 or 3 steps ahead (at a minimum).
Part of the reason Google likes things as they currently are is they know that spending time contacting people asking them to remove links and so on is very painful and costly in terms of time. Thus, even if/when they roll out their disavow feature, they will still likely require some level of removals external to their internal tool in many cases, just to ensure that SEO (and stepping over the bounds in SEO) has a lot of painful opportunity cost to it.
But there are reasons for Google to promote the use of a disavow tool
- it gives them an out for those who could turn negative SEO into a public relations issue
- it is yet another way for them to force webmaster registrations and collect wembaster information
- it can act as a source of data to feed into a list of what links shouldn’t count. For example, if dozens of different webmasters flag a particular site, then that site can be flagged for internal review at Google and/or be fed as a signal into training filters and relevancy algorithms.
If you were starting a brand new site, what formula would you follow that would give you the best chance of escaping the negative impact of future algorithm updates? How would this change if you had a small budget? (say under 1k per month)
I think part of the key is to not be driven by a formula. :)
And by that I mean that if what you are doing sort of feels like it is pre-packed “color inside the line”s or “do steps 1 through x,” then the sustainability of it is questionable. Whereas, if you consider that stuff as just a foundation that you add to, you are much safer.
If you know a lot about your market, you know some of the pain points in it and can try to help solve some of those. If you know what people love, hate, and care about, then many marketing ideas stem from that and from your experience in the market. With that sort of approach to content and marketing, budget does not have to be something that blocks you out, since it is ideas based and your competitors with more money who operate in broader markets but just glancingly touch your market won’t be able to come up with those ideas.
Of course, if you have no money then you need to be really aggressive with trying to connect with people. Someone putting out something that is a bit above average and then pushing it aggressively will likely outperform someone who creates something much better but is afraid to market it. When you have modest means, you really have to be a bit of a shameless self promoter if you want to use the online channel to create a sustainable long-term advantage.
Thanks again Aaron for taking the time to share your thoughts and answer our questions!