Sunday 01 Mar 2009
Greg Sterling has been giving extensive coverage on his blog of late to the disappearance of local newspapers across the US and the necessity of creating new, competitive business models for presenting news to the public. I have found it very interesting to follow Greg’s excellent (shall I say sterling?) reportage on this subject, because I feel that his blog encapsulates some of the factors that could be seen as contributing to the fact that more and more Americans are relying on the web, not print, for their daily news.
I am speaking of the fact that reading Greg’s blog is not only free to the public, but that it is a model of accuracy and thoroughness. I’m sure Greg makes mistakes now and again, but overall, readers have learned that they can depend on him for a clear and correct presentation of industry news. The ability of a blogger to devote daily time to understanding and writing about his particular subject is what begins to create an expert, and it is an experience I’ve had this week that has caused me to wonder if the expertise of online news sources may be contributing to the serious troubles print media are facing today.
A few days ago, I gave a phone interview to Nathan Halverson of The Press Democrat – a local subsidiary of the New York Times. This is the second time I’ve been interviewed by Nathan, and I consider him to be a very pleasant and hard-working professional. He was doing a piece on the dangers of domain registrar scams and he wanted to talk to me about legitimate SEO practices. It’s always such an honor to be interviewed and I take such opportunities as a serious chance to educate segments of the public who may really benefit from some straight talk about issues that are affecting their businesses.
I spoke with Nathan for more than an hour, and did my best to provide clear, accurate definitions, answers and advice. I think it’s terrific when traditional media give coverage to issues like SEO and I applaud the Press Democrat for realizing that Internet issues ought to form a major part of their Business Section news. Unfortunately, I was not happy with the finished article which was published today: Search Engine Scams. Like so many SEOs, I found my words inaccurately quoted and my explanations incorrectly conveyed by this mainstream media source.
My honored friend, John Mueller of Google suggested I write a followup piece here on the blog to set the record straight, and I think that’s very good advice. Small business owner education is so important to me, and it really bothers me to think that local business people may read the Press Democrat article and come away from it with misinformation. So, let’s do a quick rundown of errors in the article that I would like to rectify here on the SEOigloo Blog.
1. The Press Democrat article states:
“You don’t have to submit your Web site to search engines. Search engines crawl sites,” Ellis said. “If they say otherwise, it’s a deal breaker. Walk away.”
To be clear, someone can submit a newly registered Web site so Google will crawl it sooner, but it would happen shortly anyway. And Google doesn’t charge a fee either way.
Having quoted me as saying it’s not necessary to submit your website to search engines, the article turns around and basically tells you to do it in order to get crawled faster. This is incorrect advice. It is NEVER necessary to submit your website to search engines. Do not bother to do it. Google’s job is to crawl your website. Work on your website and its promotion and let Google’s bots do their job of finding and indexing your pages.
2. The Press Democrat article states:
Older domain names rank higher.
Sites rank higher when other sites link to them, especially if the other sites also rank high. This is called “Google juice.”
Sites that have lots of text with keywords will rank higher for those words.
I’m eager to clarify all three of these points. First of all, older domain names can have a ranking advantage, but this is shouldn’t be made as a flat statement of fact. Brand new domain names are quite capable of outranking older ones with the correct efforts, in most cases.
Secondly, there is no such thing as “Google Juice”. I’ve heard “link juice”, “link love,” and the like, but “Google Juice” is not a phrase used by our industry, nor, to my knowledge, by Google.
Thirdly, the article’s explanation of putting “lots of text with keywords” is dangerously over-simplistic and almost reads as a suggestion to begin stuffing a lot of meaningless words into your website. Your business’ website copy needs to be expertly planned to engage your visitors and provide solutions to their needs. It also needs to reflect the way in which human beings are searching for the goods and services you offer. Your site’s copy should speak the language of your users so that when those users type their queries into search engines, your pages match the language of their queries. There is so much more to this than putting lots of text and keywords on your website that the above quote simply does no justice to. This is a huge subject, deserved of intensive study on the part of every small business owner.
3. Regarding Local Search Marketing, the Press Democrat article states:
“The more you have on these other sites, the better impression it will give Google as to where it should rank you,” she said.
Again, this is overly simplistic. I’m afraid I may have talked Nathan Halverson’s ear off about Local Search (I have a habit of doing that) and he only had a short article space in which to cover this topic. I would suggest that all business owner’s whose companies offer goods and services to their local communities become thoroughly educated about the nuances and complexities of Local Search Marketing. This blog is a good place to start, and I highly recommend the following articles for a clear overview of local search ranking factors:
Cracking The Code by Mike Blumenthal and colleagues
Local Search Ranking Factors by David Mihm and colleagues
There are a couple of other points being made in the Press Democrat article which I believe may cause readers to come away with an incorrect impression.
1. The article is giving an example of a domain registrar scam. Everyone had received one of these letters in the mail at some point, threatening loss of the domain unless the client pays up. The article seems to confuse this unsavory practice with SEO scams. Registering your domain name and engaging SEO services are two different things. Your domain name is your URL, your www.whatever.com that you purchase to be the address of your website and scammers may send you letters telling you that they own your domain name, rather than you owning it. You can always phone your actual domain registrar to make sure such letters did not originate with them.
By contrast, SEO scams might involve people phoning or emailing you and offering to get you guaranteed top rankings, hook you into a linking partnership with 1000s of other businesses, submit your website to search engines or other foolish practices. The article does mention some of these examples, but I felt it was confusing the basic concepts of registering a domain name and securing SEO services. And, I do want to stress, legitimate SEO should never be confused with criminal or immoral scams. Remember, there are real doctors and then there are quacks. The existence of quacks should not be seen as a reflection on the usefulness or legitimacy of the medical profession. The existence of con men should not be seen as a reflection on the incredible power of genuine SEO.
2. Finally, I was troubled by the conclusion of the article, which paraphrased a local lamp shop owner as saying,
…he had no plans to spend money on SEO — and for good reason. The site, which he launched in 1997, already ranks No. 1 on Google when using the keywords “Santa Rosa lamps.”
“The man who built my Web site, he did a good job,” Theile said.
The lamp shop industry may not be very competitive in this area of the world, but putting up a website in 1997 and assuming you can leave it at that (as this article is suggesting) is not what I would call a proactive plan for continued success. Please consider this:
– It’s great that the website ranks for ‘santa rosa lamps’. Wouldn’t it be even better if it ranked well for “tiffany lamps santa rosa”, “lamp repair santa rosa,” “decorative lamps sonoma county,” “lamp shop santa rosa, ca”, too? It’s hard to know exactly what the business owner said that was paraphrased this way in the article, but the basic message being given is that ranking for a single phrase is all you need. By taking that route, one would pass up all of the valuable, high-conversion traffic that could be coming from dozens of other search phrases with a properly optimized website and ongoing SEO efforts.
– Having a set-it-and-forget-it attitude about your company’s website risks two serious unwanted outcomes. The first is that your website will slowly grow to look more and more outdated and neglected. A stagnant website gives a stagnant impression of the business. Secondly, if you are happy to leave your website as-is for years, you stand the risk of a more proactive competitor outranking you because he is willing to spend money on SEO and marketing while your website gathers moss. Again, I don’t know exactly what the situation is with the lamp shop in question, but the sentiment being conveyed is that you can build a website and forget about it. Not a good idea.
I think the real issue here is that the focus of the article simply isn’t as clear as it could have been. It begins by talking about domain registry scams and ends by saying that a business owner isn’t going to spend money on SEO because he’s already ranking for a keyword phrase with an apparently neglected website. I finished reading the piece asking myself, “what has this taught the reader?” And, I’m afraid I’ve had to conclude that it hasn’t taught the reader the things that would empower him most. I’m afraid it may have further confused him.
Been There, Done That
Some of my friends and colleagues perused the Press Democrat article and responded with empathy to my concerns that my intent hadn’t been properly conveyed. I suppose I’ve seen dozens of articles over the years written by SEOs whose words have been incorrectly presented by major media, contributing to a sense of public confusion about the realities of search engine optimization. SEOs are left wondering why mainstream reporters don’t simply quote statements from experts verbatim, or why they don’t take more time researching subjects they are going to write about. There is real frustration surrounding this issue. I’m sure you’ve encountered this, too.
And that brings me back to Greg Sterling, whom I consider to be a fine example of a good reporter in the Internet business sphere. Because Greg specializes in his topic of choice, his blog’s information is thorough and accurate. By contrast, a traditional journalist has to write about many different topics, and the end result is too often simplistic or improperly nuanced to the point where industry experts can see almost nothing but flaws in the finished writing.
I am currently in a stew about this problem but regarding a subject that has nothing to do with SEO. The Ag Department is planning to spend millions of impoverished California’s dollars in order to attempt to kill a tiny moth which has done literally no damage to any crop or plant in the state despite the fact that the moth has been here for at least 50 years, and they intend to conduct this phony-baloney campaign with pesticides that caused hundreds of families to fall dangerously ill in Central California in 2007. Little kids nearly died of heart and lung failure after being exposed to the toxic chemical pheromone-pesticides the Ag Department used and I have been frustrated beyond words by the local news coverage of this.
Rather than actually researching the truly life-threatening specifics of the pesticides being used by Big Ag in our community, local journalists have been satisfied to reprint the totally false statements of the ‘officials’ and I consider this to be a tremendous disservice to my neighbors who may wind up in a hospital, unable to breathe, being treated by doctors who have no idea of the dangers of exposure, because no major media source has published public warnings about the pesticides being used, despite abundant citizen documentation of the health disaster experienced in 2007. To my mind, this case illustrates why a lack of research is not satisfactory and how it can, in fact, create an atmosphere where the public feels no loyalty to traditional news sources that do not get to the bottom of issues and get the facts straight for the benefit of the community.
Health hazards and SEO protocols are a world apart, but both of these factors are in my mind today as I think about the concern I felt over how my interview turned out and the phenomenon of business failure we are all witnessing in the traditional local media sphere.
Does Matt McGee have the answer? Will Hyperlocal Blogging, the new trend of business people blogging about local news and views, replace print? Matt and his wife recently became local heroes in their town because they filmed and blogged about a flood that wasn’t getting thorough enough coverage in the local news, despite the fact that it had thrown the community into real disorder. Is this the future?
Or, will entities like the Press Democrat take it all online and succeed in keeping the presses going minus the ink? If they do, they must realize that they will be in competition with a whole new set of peers: the bloggers and journalists who have made it their business to deliver relevant news with a mouse click instead of a paper toss. Monetization, distribution, loyalty…these are all challenges facing the traditional news industry. It’s going to be a tough road, and I know that experts are turning all of their thoughts to these things right now. The only helpful advice I feel I could add to such a conversation would be for print journalists to look very closely at the history of blogging. Look at the way in which the straight-talker and consistent deliverer of deep, clear data wins the praise and readership, while pieces that are only half-researched or shakily presented are either attacked or ignored. I think these are important things to consider as newspapers work to make transitions.
In conclusion, I was truly honored to be interviewed by the Press Democrat this week. We’re a small business, and it is still a thrill for us to see our company’s name in print. That’s the truth. But the years I have spent observing my own industry have left me with a watchful eye when it comes to accurate reporting. I’ve watched the forum and social media battles over a few poorly chosen words or a nuance that hit the reader wrong. I guess you could say that following the very best writers in my own industry has set my expectations high when it comes to writing for the purpose of public education, and this is what I want to see equaled and surpassed by the trained, professional journalists communities are depending on for knowledge. All of us benefit from research and accuracy. All of us wind up smarter.