Search Power Plays, And How To Avoid Getting Crushed


The little guy often loses.

As market niches get saturated, the winners are typically those with the deepest pockets.

Up until the last few years, the little guy has been able to prosper with SEO. The little guy didn’t face much competition from big companies, because the big companies didn’t get SEO. However, Google’s current algorithmns and corporate strategy often have the side effect of benefiting large companies.

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the Internet is a “cesspool” where false information thrives….Brands, he said, are the way to rise above the cesspool

There is a danger in reading too much into Schmidt’s words, however this statement mirrors a lot of what happens in the search results. A big company or brand, with a crawlable site, will find it easy to dominate the search results. A big company will be linked to, discussed in the media, and have established keyword query volume – all factors which Google rewards. All these factors are becoming increasingly difficult for the small guy to emulate.

Factor in Google’s ongoing moves to “own” verticals, and many more little guys will be crushed underfoot. It doesn’t matter if your site is white hat, grey or black, if your site competes directly with a big company, or with Google – who are now a big company themselves – you’ll almost surely lose.

This isn’t just true in the SERPs, of course. It’s also true in Adwords, which essentially rewards those with deep pockets. It’s true in print. It’s true across all media. It’s true in politics, in money markets, and in life.

Power is like that.

Even if you don’t face competition from big operators, you’ll face competition from a million other little guys, especially if there is no barrier to entry. This is often the case on the web. Check out this article by Tim O Shea, founder of the short lived UK group buying site Snippa. Snippa was similar to Groupon.

Due to the number of players, commission levels are being eroded far from the 40-50% that Groupon achieves down to 0% just to get the deal (at Snippa our deals averaged around 10-20%). Merchants are getting numerous phone calls from prospective group buying companies and the conversation with many is more about the commission level charged rather than how they could offer a great discount for a group of new customers. This will continue until a clear leader emerges that can demonstrate a large customer base allowing them to negotiate better deals and commission levels. Many companies chasing the same deal is counter productive for the end customer.

Too many competitors errode margins to zero. Eventually, the biggest operator wins.

How To Protect Yourself And Win

When you’re looking for a niche to get into, how do you evaluate it?

Do you look at the search volumes and look to position a site top ten for that search volume? An ok strategy, and one used by many in the SEO business.

However, lets take it a step further.

If you’re thinking long term, you need to consider other factors, especially competitive threats. Ask: is this niche likely to be so lucrative that it will attract big companies? If so, then you may need a strategy to become one, or be bought out by one. You may win such a fight for a while, but the big company will invariably win in the end through greater reach and purchasing power.

Are you the cheapest, or are you the best?

Pick one.

The little guy is almost always better off aiming to be the best at what they do. Being the cheapest requires volume, and is very difficult to sustain. Many companies, both big and small, get locked in a downward spiral of price cutting. Again, you’ll last being the cheapest until a bigger company turns up. Bigger companies can get price advantage through volume. If the internet equivalent of Wal Mart is your competition, you’re in trouble if you compete on price.

Zappos was a small company, that eventually became a big company, not by competing on price, but by competing on service. They aimed to be the best at service. Had they competed on price, they wouldn’t have got anywhere. The big shoe and clothing chains would have crushed them.

Is SEO your only strategy to dominate a niche? If so, then you’re vulnerable to the whims of Google. Instead, think about ways you can develop a brand. I use the term brand in the widest possible sense. Being the best guy in the world to talk to about, say, the eating preferences of neon tetra fish – is a brand. Whatever it is you do, if you’re not competing on price, aim to be the very best. If you have to carve a niche even finer, do it, at least until the costs outweigh the benefits.

Think about ways you can lock in customers/visitors and keep them coming back. If you only ever have search volume, then you rely on people who haven’t seen you before. Encourage visitors to bookmark you, or sign up for a newsletter. Hook them in some way. Above all, be memorable. Being memorable will create search volume out of nothing (how many people searched for Zappos years ago? Or SEOBook? ). Building an audience may not be enough to fend off big companies, but it will help you fend off other small companies and new entrants, especially if they only rely on SEO.

Be the big guy in the little niche🙂

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The Yahoo! Story


Worth a click, and full of cautionary reminders😀

The Yahoo! Story.

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Now All Blogger Outreach Campaigns Will Be Considered Spam Too :)


Not that long ago I highlighted how infographics were largely being destroyed as a link building tool by some unscrupulous folks who were offering to pay people to host the infographics to their sites – in a sense making the word infographic seem & feel like spam, just like paid links.😀

After killing that source of links, the folks behind that work are proudly moving on to fake non-profits and awards for bloggers, launching multiple fake charity sites in the last couple months, and then mass emailing bloggers with fake awards and link buying offers, along with a touch of comment spamming. I mean, its not that many comments.🙂

Any website with only 4 pages of content, that claims to be a non-profit, yet has no contact information available, while claiming to be 3 or 4 years old (even the domain name was only registered 2 months ago) is probably somewhat sketchy.

Hello,
I’d love to purchase a text link ad on one of your pages such as ____

The link would be going to a finance or MBA site.

My budget is $100 and can pay via PayPal. I can give you a call about the
details or email you more information, let me know.

Maggie Sands

As a marketer, you want anything you do to pass the sniff test. So if your stuff looks anything like this fake scammy crap garbage then you are not going to have much success with it. Largely because the folks who are sending out millions of emails are going to sterilize the market and turn the web cynical toward even more marketing techniques. So you need to make your marketing efforts that much more personalized, and it also helps to have a real presence in the field, that way bloggers won’t dismiss you as just another scam, like they might those folks promoting the fake charity angle.

This is another reason why it also helps to create things in entirely unique formats. The gamers exploiting stuff burn out one opportunity after another, but most of their new & creative slants are simply extensions of things that worked for others. Getting out in front of the scammers on a new trend & format is far more profitable than following in their footsteps. But be aware that marketing ideas have a curve to them. An idea which starts off pure and is successful & profitable will end up coming under the eye of scammers at some point. And most forms of fraud are based around trying to look like the real thing, so eventually a format that was once profitable eventually loses its potency and you must move on.

The best forms of marketing which help you differentiate yourself from the scammers are those which build trust over time: branding, awareness, social interaction, etc. The person holding up a puppet might be able to compete with you here and there from time to time, but if you build something with depth and substance they will have a hard time competing on a sustainable basis.

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A Warning Shot or an Accident? Does it Matter?


On the 22nd of October Google had an indexing issue and a separate algorithmic change. Some of the sites associated with the indexing glitch quickly came back, whereas others seemed like they were hosed for weeks and headed toward the path of perpetual obscurity.

To give a visual of how dire this situation was for some webmasters, consider the following graphic.

The blue line is Google search traffic and the gray is total unique visitors. And since search visitors tend to monetize better than most other website visitors, the actual impact on revenues was greater than the impact on visitors. And, if you figure that sites have fixed costs (hosting, maintenance, new content creation, data licensing, marketing, etc.) then the impact on profits is even more extreme than the impact on revenues.

Hence in the search game you can go from hero to zero fast!

Search is one of the highest leverage business functions around today.

But it is also volatile. And it is a winner take most market.

When stuff heads south like that, what do you do? Do you consider it game over and try to lower costs further?

My approach to such events is to take it as a warning shot. To take it as a challenge. In the above example the traffic came back…

…but algorithms sometimes get rolled in using phases. Sometimes stuff that gets tripped up and later restored is being set up for a second fall when they refine their relevancy algorithms again. Sites that get caught in snags are sites which are fairly weak. So if you take any set back as motivation to create something better and work hard then you at least know that if you failed you tried and it just didn’t work. Most likely, if you try hard, you will be able to make the site much better and not only reach your old traffic levels, but exceed them.

Even though the traffic came back for the above site, it has been getting a lot more effort. And it will continue to for months and months. The fear of loss is a great motivator to push people to create something better. Sometimes I think Google should mix up the results a bit more often just to drive people to create better stuff.🙂

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Google – Now With More Google in Your Google TM


Ben Edelman did it again🙂

This time he highlighted how Google hard codes their search results:

[When] we roll[ed] out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair right, we do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first… That has actually been our policy, since then, because of Finance. So for Google Maps again, it’s the first link. – Marissa Mayer

If they gain certain privileges in the marketplace by claiming to not abuse their power and that their algorithmic results are neutral, but those algorithmic results may be pushed below the fold, then is it “only fair” for them to put themselves in a default market leading position in any category they feel they can make money from by selling ads in? Or is that an abuse of power?

As Google adds features, collects more data, puts ads everywhere, and pushes into being a publisher on more fronts, at some point there will be a straw that breaks the camel’s back. Big money is paying attention and the list of “evidence” grows weekly. Sometimes they still think like a start up. And that will lead to their demise.

It might not be anytime soon, but eventually they will hit a whammy.

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SEOs Should Focus On Where Google Is Heading


Interesting little snippet from Mr Cutts:

“Matt recommends SEOs do not “chase the algorithm” and instead try to predict where Google will be going in the future”. Matt was addressing PubCon.

Good advice, methinks.

Trying to predict where Google is going is something we do a lot of at SEOBook.com. Whilst no one has a crystal ball, it’s good practice to keep one eye on the search horizon.

So, where do we think Google might be heading?

Google Will Continue To Dominate Search

Easy one, huh.

Their biggest competitors appear clueless when it comes to search. Bing may make some inroads. Maybe. It’s hard to imagine anyone eating Google’s lunch when it comes to search, for many years to come.

Is Facebook a threat? I doubt it. Search is difficult, and I can see no reason why Facebook – which has a media focus – could own the search channel any more than Yahoo could.

Search is, after all, an infrastructure problem. Google’s infrastructure would be very difficult to replicate.

Google Won’t Be Doing All That Much About Blackhat Sites

A search result set only really contains spam if the Google users think it contains spam i.e. they don’t see the answer they were expecting.

The fact a website may fall outside Google’s guidelines might get competing webmasters’ knickers in a knot, but it probably doesn’t matter that much to Google, or anyone else.

Even though Matt Cutts says Google will devote more resources to this, I suspect Google’s efforts will largely remain focused on outright deception i.e. misrepresentation, hijacking and malware.

The Web Reflects Power Structures

We can forget the San Fran techno-hippy ethos of the web. It will not be a free-for-all democracy, if it ever was. History shows us that power tries to centralize control in order to maintain it.

Google may try to keep users on Google for longer. They do this by owning more and more verticals, and extracting data and reformatting it. When they send visitors away from Google, they’ll try to do so more and more on their own terms. Watch very carefully what type of sites Google rewards, as opposed to what they may say they reward.

Expect less competition in the market as a result. Some people are already getting angry about it.

Be Where Your Users Are

Google follows users. So does Facebook. Anywhere your users are, you’ve got to be there, too. On Google Maps. On YouTube. Wherever and whenever. Think beyond your website. Think in terms of getting your data out there.

As Rich Skrenta pointed out in a recent interview:

Social media can drive tons of attention, awareness and traffic. But the search box is the best way to navigate to stuff you want. Now what will drive those results – if I type in “pizza”, what should I get? The answer can be very different depending on whether the results are coming from the web, Yelp, or Facebook. So I guess my answer is that I still see search being the core way to navigate, but I think what gets searched is going to get a lot more structured and move away from simple keyword matches against unstructured web pages

A Shift To Localization

Microsoft Research found that people tend to organize their memories in geographic terms i.e. where they were when something happened.

If you want to know where Google is heading, then watch Marissa Mayer. Marissa has been responsible for much of what you see in Google in terms of how it is organized. Marissa has just moved to head of Geographic and Location Services.

Google Earth. Google Maps. Google Local. Google Street View. Mobile location data and targeting. Expect more data to be organized around locality.

Everything Changes, But Not That Fast

Aaron talked about TechCrunch’s tendancy to over-hype new developments:

“…but this changes everything…”

SEO hasn’t changed all that much in years. We still find an audience (keyword research), we publish content, we build links to the content, and then we repeat it all over again.

The changes come around the edges, especially for big companies like Google. There is a lot of risk to Google in making radical changes. Shareholders don’t like it. Why risk breaking something that makes so much money, and is so popular?

The biggest changes in the way we do things on the web are probably going to come from the upstarts. They’re probably hard at work in their garage right now.

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Should You Buy An Exact Match Domain Name?


According to Matt Cutts, speaking at a recent PubCon, Google will be looking at why exact domain matches rank so well. For example, if you have a site at blue-widgets.com it may rank a bit too well for the keyword phrase [blue widgets].

Curious.

Don’t Google know?😉

More likely, Matt would not make a concrete statement, one way or the other. “Yes, exact Match domains rank better!”, is not something Matt is likely to say.

Secondly, the implication is that exact match domains are a problem.

Why Use Exact Match Domain Names

Exact match domains names, as the name suggests, are domain names that match the search keyword term. i.e. Hotels.com, shoes.net, planetickets.org etc.

Is it a good idea to adopt this strategy for SEO? Ask ten different SEOs and you’ll likely get ten different answers.

On the plus side, an exact match may help you target one, specific keyword phrase. Your link text and domain name match up naturally. The domain name will likely be highlighted in Google’s search results, thus giving the listing more visibility. There may be ranking advantages, depending on who you ask.

On the negative side, an exact match only “helps” you target one keyword. It may be too generic for wider applications, such as brand building. Exact match domains may be over-hyped, and not worth a premium. There are, after all, many domains ranking #1 that aren’t exact match, so it is debatable how much SEO advantage they actually provide, particularly as Google keeps pushing brand.

Is There A Problem With Exact Match Domains?

So why would Matt imply exact match domain names might be a problem?

It is understandable that some in the SEO community – perhaps an SEO working on client sites, or those who don’t own any exact match domains and see others ranking above them – would have a vested interest in making a noise about the competition. If webmasters make enough noise about it, then Matt Cutts may feel a need to respond.

The supposed ranking power of exact match is probably a red herring. The problem Google may be hinting at is that exact match may be more likely to be involved with spam, thin affiliate, or other low value content than other types of domains. In other words, it becomes a quality signal.

If that is the case – and I’m not saying it is – then that may be the reason Google would look closer at exact match domains, not the fact that a domain matching a keyword is somehow evil.

Because it isn’t.

There is nothing wrong with owning an exact match domain.

Should You Buy Exact Match Domain Names?

Aaron covered this question in an earlier post, Why Exact Match Domains Aren’t As Important As Many SEO’s Believe.

In summary, it depends.

It comes down to business fundamentals. If you’re trying to build a unique brand, and resulting keyword stream, then an exact match domain name will be a hindrance rather than a help. You’ll forever be competing with generic search traffic. Keyword domains names aren’t particularly memorable.

The premium that an exact-match domain name commands, when sold on the after-market, may not be worth it. You don’t need an exact-match domain name to rank well, so the money may be better spent getting a new $10 domain name to rank. Or, alternatively, you could buy an existing site that already ranks well for your keyword, and others, for similar money as an inflated exact match domain.

Finally, if you’re competing with a clear market leader, then generic isn’t going to help you much. i.e. owning searchengine.com isn’t going to make Google lose any sleep. You may also be over-looking an opportunity to differentiate your offering against the market leader in terms of brand. Think Blekko vs searchengine.com.

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