October 2007

Small Businesses Skip PageRank Roller Coaster Ride

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

Well, this has been a crazy week in our industry. Andy Beard’s Chart nicely sums up the major fluctuation in PageRank that some of the web’s major SEO/marketing sites and blogs have seen over the past week. After taking hits as many as 4 points deep, these businesses began blogging about their alarm and disgust, and many came to the conclusion that Google was sending them all a warning because they are engaging in Google’s least favorite practice – link buying/selling. As Andy’s chart also shows, most of these sites are now seeing the little green bar rise again to normal or almost normal levels. My bet would be that nearly every one of these folks has, at some point, advised clients not to pay much attention to Toolbar PageRank (TBPR) because it is inaccurate, and whenever there is a TBPR update, fluctuations are reported by panicked site owners across the Internet. As has historically happened during a TBPR update, the green bar does crazy things and then settles down and we return to business as usual.

Some Crazy Things About This Most Recent Update

– The majority of the sites I learned about being hit by this update were Marketing/SEO related or simply very popular blogs. The other big group was business/news sites like Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. These are all big entities with big voices.

– One of my favorite sites, Copyblogger.com, was hit hard, despite the fact that Brian Clark says the advertising on his site does not pass PageRank.

– Despite some oddities like what happened to Copyblogger, most of the sites affected quickly agreed they were being punished by Google for link buying/selling

– Strangest of all, it appears that Google penalized their own site, YouTube, which is currently registering a lowly PR3!

– The overall response to the PR hit was that it didn’t make a bit of difference. Search Engine Guide (disclosure: I write for Search Engine Guide) has over 10,000 subscribers to their RSS Feed, and because the PR change hasn’t appeared to affect actual search engine rankings or traffic of sites like this, the owners have been able to laugh it off, more or less, calling Google a bunch of clowns. None of the site owners seemed to indicate they would be altering their business model to avoid loss of green pixels in a toolbar icon that apparently has no effect on the success of their business.

The Dark View

If this was simply a PR update, and numbers are now settling back to normal, this has all been about a few days of panic over wonky numbers and Google was not sending a message at all. They were simply adjusting Toolbar PageRank as they have done in the past.

However, I am encountering other views on this subject that are worth noting here. Some siteowners who are selling/buying links in order to increase site rankings believed that Google punished them by lowering TBPR so that:

a) The lower PR would make them a less valuable site for other businesses to buy links on. Obviously, a link from a site with PR9 is going to be more valuable than one from a site with PR3, right?

b) People will be inclined to use Google’s own advertising business, Adwords, rather than engaging in purchasing advertising from other businesses because those businesses may be penalized by Google.

The dark view is that Google is manipulating the market so that business owners will be more or less forced to use Google’s service rather than anyone else’s. ‘Conflict of interest’ is the term folks are applying to this, and it is certainly worth thinking over.

And, though the numbers now seem to be settling down, indicating that this was simply an update rather than a penalty, some business owners may still be nervous, viewing that temporary drop in PR as Google’s calling card, reading,

“We know what you are doing. You have now been warned. You have X number of days to put nofollow tags on the links you sell and stop buying links before we return to your site and cream you for good.”

Could this happen? I simply don’t know. Preceding this recent TBPR fluctuation, it was obvious that a number of well-known marketers consider Google to be a manipulative (or some say ‘evil’) entity, willing to stop at nothing to create a monopoly that leaves the business world dependent on their services. I have even read some marketers claiming that Google has penalized them simply for publishing anti-Google sentiments…in other words, a type of censorship. Every week, stories go popular on marketing-related sites like Sphinn.com portraying Google as a bad guy. Suffice it to say that for many people, the once-upon-a-time honeymoon with Google is over.

A penalty that does nothing to reduce rankings or traffic is hardly worth calling a penalty. A penalty that results in a site being de-ranked for its major keywords is another matter. Time will tell the truth on this one. Everyone has been left wondering what Google’s next move will be.

Small Business Owners Are Left Wondering What The Fuss Is All About

In your small business, you are aware of market trends long before your customers are. For example, if you are an interior designer, you found out that brown was the new black before this ever hit the magazine racks. SEO/marketing is like this, too. My guess is that outside of our industry, most folks couldn’t care less that PageRank was invented by Larry Page, couldn’t care less what Google is doing right this minute, today, now! Website owners stand in the middle ground, spending what time they have to learn about all of this industry stuff and many of them become as savvy as SEOs because of their study of search engines. However, if people don’t even own a website, they have absolutely no reason to care about metrics like TBPR, who Matt Cutts is, or whether Google is evil. Most of what people in our industry worry about is insular, and either won’t be common knowledge for years to come, or won’t ever affect the general public at all, in any way they’ll really notice.

The link buying/link selling debate is a classic example of this. As a small business owner, I turn down offers to sell links to companies approaching me because I don’t endorse services I’ve never heard of before. The contents of this website have 2 purposes: to educate small business owners and to win contracts for ME. When I endorse something, it’s because I believe it will actually be of use to potential clients…not because someone is paying me to pretend I believe this. Sorry, my reputation as an honest business owner is more important than the $50/month I could receive for claiming to support SupersonicawesomeexcellentSEOcompany.

Do I think paid advertising is evil? Absolutely not. But, I do think endorsing products or services you have never tried on your main business site is unethical and misleading. Trust is something money can’t buy. I want to keep it that way.

In regards to buying links…well, for once, it feels good to be poor. Like most of you, I couldn’t afford to buy links if I wanted to. This is the position most small business owners are in, thus rendering this whole links debate meaningless for them. You may feel sorry for the big guys who are being constrained, hit, penalized, or you may feel vindictive about it and think they are only getting what they deserve. Either way, it’s a game you’re not playing because you simply don’t have the funds.

All The Same, Google Needs To Be Upfront About This

The basic premise of this whole conundrum is that SEOs were told, through the grapevine of blogs like Matt Cutts’ (not an official Google entity) or major marketing sites like Search Engine Land (not related to Google at all), that if we want to profit from advertising other businesses on our websites, we need to make sure that the links contain the rel=”nofollow” tag in them so that Google will not pass PageRank to those sites. We heard, in an offhand way, that Google is fine with us sending traffic to others, but it is forbidden to pass PageRank because it messes up Google’s links-based algorithm wherein each link acts as a vote for the quality of the page it’s pointing to.

This Search Marketing Gurus article perfectly sums up the sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly that Google has never made an official statement about buying/selling links. It is not in their Official Webmaster Guidelines. Necessarily, this means a website owner could be engaging in buying or selling non-no-followed links, having never read that Google doesn’t want this, and that site could be penalized by Google without the owner having the least idea why. I see the point of this argument.

However, as an SEO who works with small businesses, I find it difficult to believe that the above would be a common case. If someone has advanced enough in their web practices to be trading links, chances are, they know all about Google. I’d be skeptical of any business owner who is engaged in link trading saying they’ve never heard of this nofollow business. People trading links are doing big business. So, while I get the hypothesis that someone could trade links and get penalized without any official documentation from Google about passing PR for money being forbidden, I find it hard to believe this accurately represents the activities of the small business owner. If you know of cases to the contrary, I’d like to hear about them.

The other part of this argument that isn’t quite holding up for me is that Google has no public, written policy on this practice. In fact, they do have a page about this: HERE IT IS. This page clearly states that non-no-followed paid links violate Google’s guidelines. So, there it is. But, folks at Google, you need to put this information on the main Webmaster Guidelines page. If this is a policy you truly stand behind, for whatever reasons, you need to bring it upfront into the shop window. Don’t bury it on an obscure part of your website. It makes you guys look like you are purposely being unclear.

If paid non-no-followed links incur the risk of a major penalty, please list this on your main page, just as you do with cloaking, hidden text, etc. All it takes is adding one more link to that section of your Webmaster Guidelines. Not much to ask. And, hopefully, this will remove nearly all potential for someone to violate your policy without being aware they are doing so. Most web business owners are going to end up at your Webmaster Guidelines page at some point, right? If paid links are so awful, make this clear on page 1…please?

As I see it, when a new web business owner takes the do-it-yourself route, it is his responsibility to work towards a professional level of knowledge about all things related to running his website. This begins with don’t program your website in Flash and goes right up to Google doesn’t like non-no-followed paid links so if you want to please Google, don’t engage in this. Not one of the sites apparently penalized this week claimed they didn’t know they were violating Google’s guidelines. Their very reasonable aggravation hinges on the fact that they perceive Google as trying to create a monopoly. And it’s important for you, the small business owner, to know what it going on, especially if you aren’t working with a professional SEO/marketer. With Google controlling over 60% of search activity, what Google says and does is absolutely relevant to your business, whatever its size, and claiming ignorance will not fix anything down the road that may affect your rankings and traffic.

All of us who want to play in Google’s backyard are obliged to know Google’s rules, so that we can decide whether to obey or disregard them. If Google wants to behave ethically, they will make those official rules abundantly clear, visible and accessible to all. It is our content that makes their business model possible, and they should be eager to implement reasonable requests and to participate in dialogue with the very people who have made search the success it is. Lack of corporate transparency is rapidly breeding serious ill-will for this entity which was once so well thought of. The signs are everywhere. And, just as technical specifics filter down from marketers to the man on the street, sentiments about corporate ethics do the same.

For the small business owner, our lack of funding has lead to us skipping this ride on the recent PR roller coaster. We are busy trying to get those coveted one-way links on the merit of our content, not the contents of our wallet. But pay attention. Follow this story. In your study of search, what is happening in the big business world today may well be happening in our playground tomorrow.

Obtain vs. Pertain – A Grammar Minute

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

Today, I am instituting a new feature in our copywriting category: A Grammar Minute. This will be my place to jot down notes about English language usage as they occur to me. I believe that today’s most popular forms of media are making correct usage of our idiom ever more unclear. The words we hear on TV, the writing we read in newspapers, blogs and most modern works of fiction are obscuring grammar basics and are constantly narrowing people’s vocabularies rather than expanding them. I have a lifelong love of languages, etymology and philology, but am frequently guilty of lazy writing, simply because it has become customary for Americans to express an easy disposition by using sloppy English. In this series of posts, which will be random, I intend to present subjects of grammar and disappearing words. I hope my readers may find these little notes interesting.

Obtain vs. Pertain

Both of these useful words arrived in Modern English by way of Middle English, by way of Old French, by way of Latin. In both cases, there is one familiar definition and one that may be less commonly understood. Let’s take a look.

Obtain
Old French: Obtenir Old Latin: Obtinere

Definition:
1) To acquire or secure
example: I will obtain a WordPress blog tomorrow.

2) To be prevalent, customary or established
example: On the Internet, good manners should still obtain.

It is the second usage that I believe is almost gone from common speech. I encountered it just last night in a book about the Civil War, published in the 1940s. Are we forgetting that this sense of this word exists?

Pertain
Old French: Partenir Old Latin: Pertinere

Definition:
1) to be appropriate to, applicable to, related to
example: Your blog comment pertains the the post I wrote last January.

2) to be in effect or existence during a specified time
example: Back in the 1990s, the practice of keyword stuffing meta tags pertained because search engine algorithms were more easily exploited.

Again, I’ve noticed that the first definition is still in fairly current usage, but that the second one is encountered less often.

We have so many wonderful words in our idiom, with so many fine shades of meaning. Let’s use them!

Ethics in the Internet Workplace

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,

There are currently a number of discussions taking place on the subjects of ethics and professionalism in the places I visit as part of my daily work life; the forums, blogs and social media sites I frequent to keep up with industry best practices, get news and share tips with my Internet colleagues. If you are reading this blog, chances are, the Internet plays an important part of your career, either as a web services provider, web business owner or a professional who networks with peers on the web. Though it is not normally my policy to express strong personal views on touchy subjects on the SEOigloo blog, I don’t believe it will be seen as veering off topic too much here if I spend some time writing about the place in which all of this work activity takes place for all of us – the Internet sites where we are interacting with others as a part of our job. If the Internet has become an integral part of how you support yourself and your family, I would ask you to consider the following:

Let’s imagine: a Jewish American boy whose family escaped to America, land of religious freedom, in the 1940s. He is bright, sweet and beloved by his parents. At school, he has his first encounters with anti-semitic sentiments in the mouths of his classmates who are repeating jokes and slurs they learned at home. In his own home, his parents are weeping over lost loved ones. The boy does his best to rise above these things, and goes on to become a doctor. He lives his life serving the community, and as retirement is approaching, someone tips him off about an Internet forum where he can go to share counsel with colleagues about difficulties in the medical practice. The doctor is thrilled to discover this great resource and becomes an active participant. One day, in a thread about the difficulties of getting insurance companies to reimburse doctors properly, one of his forum friends advises him, “Don’t let those Insurance guys ‘j*w you down’.” The doctor thinks about his old hurts, the heartbreak of his parents, and he wishes he could react to this slur, but he doesn’t want to make a scene. Instead, he goes to his Rabbi who tells him,

“We know that, before we were sent to the gas chambers, we were herded into ghettos. Before we were herded into ghettos, we were made second-class citizens. Before we were made second-class citizens, we were branded with yellow stars. Before we were branded with yellow stars, we were the targets of hateful propaganda. And before we were targeted with propaganda, we were the butt of cruel anti-Semitic jokes: jokes that degraded us, jokes that suggested we were different from our fellow human beings, jokes that separated us from society and ultimately made us ready prey for destruction.”

Let’s imagine: a South African girl, growing up during Apartheid. All of the adults in her life are living in a state of constant humiliation and silent outrage under the rule of their Caucasian overlords. Her father, mother, uncles, aunts are the victims of severe objectification and oppression. One of these uncles is addicted to pornography, finding in it an outlet where he is master, where his whims are served, and where someone is finally at his command. One day, when the uncle is alone with the six year old girl, he shows her his pornography in order to tell her what he plans to do to her. She is assaulted repeatedly, with the images being used as a manual for her assault. She tries to tell her mother, but is given a slap and told never to speak of such things again.

Many years later, the family moves to America, land of freedom. It is a time of hope, and the girl begins college at a prestigious school where she can pursue her love of technology. Academically, she does well, but in her private life, she is plagued with anxiety attacks and a secret eating disorder. One night, she breaks down and tells a small group of her new female friends about the trauma in her childhood. Two of these friends get a bitter, distant look in their eyes as they confess that this is also the story of their childhood. They remember that strange uncle, father, brother, and his pornography, and what they suffered.

In college classes, the young woman is shocked to be taught that in America, land of equality, a sexual assault occurs every 90 seconds, that 64% of woman and child victims are attacked by husbands, relatives, boyfriends or co-workers. She reads the studies of convicted sex offenders and the role of pornography in their crimes. She seeks therapy and tries to make positive strides in her life. She grows up to be a top Internet Marketer, active and respected in her field, in an industry dominated by men. And yet, every week, in the industry forums and social media sites she visits as part of her job, she sees her male on-line colleagues snickering amongst themselves about their pornography use. She considers speaking up, expressing her discomfort, but remembers being punished in childhood for telling the truth. In the end, perhaps it is simply easier to pretend to be ‘one of the guys’.

Let’s imagine: a Muslim boy. His family escapes from their war-torn homeland to America, land of tolerance. His parents throw themselves into running a neighborhood grocery store that the whole family lives above, and are dedicated to making sure all of their children get an education. They are devout people who pass on to their children a deep respect for their faith. In public school, the boy is popular. He is friendly, a great athlete, head of his class. He graduates in the 1990s and begins his career as a real estate agent. On the side, he volunteers his time as a counselor for low income housing opportunities. His dream for the country he loves is that everyone will have the chance to afford a dignified home for their family. He marries, has three wonderful children. Life is good.

In 2001, everything changes. The smiles around town turn into suspicious glares. His wife is afraid to leave the house. He is afraid to send his children to school. His neighborhood place of worship receives a bomb threat. He begins losing contracts. He turns to the online real estate forum he has been a loyal member of, hoping to hear some good news, maybe even get some support. But, everyone on this forum is discussing whether it will be best to round up all the Muslims and put them in camps to protect public safety. He steps away from his computer in fear and shock. His name and his avatar brand him as a terrorist in everyone’s eyes, because of the actions of people he never met. No one knows the love of America he has in his heart. No one asks him. He wonders if these attitudes are permanent now, in the place he has always called home.

When we come to the Internet as a part of our work life, we are standing shoulder to shoulder with the beliefs, backgrounds and psyches of the whole world. We are not sitting in some back room with a few of our like-minded friends. We are working amongst tremendous variety. The man you just sent an email to about a Photoshop technique is a Christian who doesn’t understand why being one makes him fair game for attacks from all sides. The woman you just asked for help in Google’s forum is a Native American who lives with the humiliation of being under a government that celebrates Columbus Day, in honor of a man who murdered and enslaved thousands of innocent people in order to fund his world cruise. The guy running your favorite blog has dyslexia and mild birth defects, and cringes every time someone uses the word ‘retarded’ as a joke, because he remembers all too well the tauntings of childhood.

I have frequently encountered the sentiment that people are too sensitive; that if we watched everything we say, we’d never speak at all. My response to this is that, when in public, thinking before you speak is simply courtesy. It makes the rough road of life smoother for everyone, and certainly more civil.

In the traditional workplace, there are both modes of accepted conduct and actual legislation that govern behavior. The point of these conventions are to protect workers from being humiliated while they are attempting to support themselves and their families. The basic concept is that no one should have to wade through hate speech in order to earn money. Unfortunately, I do not see these ethics being carried over into the new Internet workplace. Perhaps it is the vagueness about whether one is working or socializing when visiting an industry site that is causing this grey area, but there is no question about the fact that one is in public when using public websites. My hope is that people would realize this, and conduct themselves accordingly, rather than wrongly assuming that they are amongst ‘friends’, if that word has come to mean expressing hatred without restraint.

Last July, I wrote a post entitled The Isms of SM, recording my shock at the abundant bigotry and sexism I was witnessing in the most popular Social Media-oriented websites. At present, there are several discussions going on that I believe tie into this subject, and I will list some links here to:

Cre8asite

Digital Point

Sphinn

My vision of the Internet workplace is a simple one: an atmosphere in which the world’s people can relate professionally to one another without fear of being wounded over issues of genetics, creed, political affiliation or sex. The success that hateful people enjoy when they gain notoriety by sensationalizing their own hatred on Digg, on Reddit, or on any other public website is an unfortunate endorsement of unacceptable and wounding behavior. I would like to urge the owners and moderators of such sites to listen when individuals or groups attest that they are being targeted or dishonored and to take appropriate actions to forbid hate speech within that entity. I would urge anyone for whom the Internet is a workplace to understand the necessity of professional public conduct in order to create a humane working environment for everyone.

I think many of us experience an urge to be silent when we encounter discrimination or hatred when ‘others’ are targeted, or perhaps even more so, when we are the target. Very often, the price of speaking up can be to bring down an avalanche of criticism on one’s own head. Two of modern times’ most heroic humanitarian reformers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi, were assassinated for quietly insisting that people have an inherent right to live lives free of hatred. It is no wonder if anyone is concerned about the consequences of calling hateful things hateful. Yet, what if these men had kept silent?

I hope this article has given Internet workers something to think about. We are talking about old bad habits in a brave new world. I would value hearing your opinions on this subject of ethics in the Internet workplace.

Adsense Bad For Green Blogs

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

I’ve been looking forward to October 15th for weeks now. Today is Blog Action Day, and as I posted some weeks back, we joined up and promised to post something helpful about protecting the environment on our green blog Tangergreen.com about the toxicity of the world’s most widely used herbicide, Roundup. Tangergreen is our place to share our hopes and cares about our planet, and having it is the preventative measure my husband decided we should take so I don’t come to the SEOigloo blog raving about Global Warming!

Our business plan behind this hobby blog was to share what we know about green living, organic farming and other environmental concerns while monetizing our efforts with Google Adsense. For beginners, Adsense is an advertising program in which you agree to have other businesses’ advertisements appear on your blog or website. It is a nice way to earn a little extra income if you love to write.

However, having launched this blog several months ago, we’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that Adsense really stinks for green blogs. I write about dangerous cleaning products and get served up ads for the dangerous cleaning product companies. I write about toxic toothpaste and get toxic toothpaste ads. And, as you can see if you click on my Tangergreen link above, I write about a dangerous herbicide, and get tons of ads selling toxic herbicides! This is, to put it mildly, lame.

Within your Google Adsense account, there is a place for you to block specific URLs. The main object of this is to enable companies to block their competitors’ advertisements from appearing on the site. We have attempted to use this feature to block unwanted ads from environmental enemies’ websites, but it’s a bit of a hopeless effort. I’ll block 10 URLs, refresh my screen, and see 10 more undesirable ads appear. I could spend all day doing this and not get rid of the offenders. The result is that the efforts I’m making to publish helpful reading materials for green folks are looking like hypocritical hogwash. It’s sending an absurd message when I say “Don’t buy from Arm & Hammer; they test on animals” and my article is covered with ads for Arm & Hammer.

I am not an Adsense expert. I appreciate the little stream of income my Adsense sites bring in, and I enjoy using my skills as a copywriter to create articles I feel are of genuine use to people. My other hobby sites serve up great ads which are normally quite relevant to the subject, but this situation with the green blog is leaving me scratching my little green head.

Should I:

1) Forget about earning money and publish the content without ads? The humanitarian in me would like to say yes. The overworked business person in me says, “are you nuts, Miriam?”

2) Structure my posts in some other way so that when I am trying to do an expose on a harmful product or company, I hardly mention the product? Somehow, I feel that my post titles and content will lack snap and clarity if instead of writing “Arm & Hammer Tests on Animals”, I say, “Some companies which produce white products in small orange boxes do animal testing”. That seems like bending over backward in an attempt to avoid triggering unwanted ads.

3) Is there some other way for me to get relevant, subject appropriate ads going? Again, I just play around with Adsense. I’m not an expert. Is there any chance I’ve missed some type of channel specific option in Adsense that would enable me to get a certain category of ads showing on my blog…such as Environmental Ads, as opposed to anything goes?

Are green companies not spending enough on advertising to make running a green blog profitable for the blogger? Are green companies spending their advertising dollars someplace other than Adsense, so that my hope would have to be to get ‘real’ ads on Tangergreen.com, rather than Adsense program ads? Is there something bright I can do to continue to publish this blog and make a bit of money for my efforts? As you can imagine, I’m not earning a penny on it the way things are, and I would be most interested in my readers’ suggestions, particularly if you have had an experience like this with Google Adsense.

In the meantime, Happy Blog Action Day!

Changing the way the SEOigloo blog accepts comments

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

This is just a quick note to my valued readers to alert you to the fact that we’ve changed the way comments are being handled here on the blog. Since launch, we’ve had this set up so that you, the reader, would need to be logged in to comment. This meant you needed to remember your password, and the last thing I want to do here is make you have to remember yet another password! So, now, you should find the comments field working in a friendlier way with no login required. Hopefully I will not know be inundated with spam and we are crossing our fingers that our Akismet plugin does its job…at least, most of the time! Please, let me know if you experience any difficulties with the new way the comments are being structured or if it works well for you.

Thanks!
Miriam

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