Google’s Secret Sauce Revealed: The Death (and Life!

) of Search Engine Optimization
November 2010 Jeff Yablon The Virtual VIP Group http://answerguy.com
At Virtual VIP Group, we handle a wide range of business support tasks. Our clientele runs the gamut from small technology-oriented companies to mid-sized medical practices to overwhelmed executives at Fortune 500 companies. The things we’re asked to do are varied, but there’s a common thread: in a business world increasingly defined by the way we manage interruptions there are still things that need . . . to . . . get . . . done. Some things we do are complicated (people are buying our expertise) and some are simple and mundane (they’re buying our time). And some things we’re asked to handle have elements of both. Search Engine Optimization is one of those “elements of both” tasks. I like to say that SEO (or sometimes SEM—Search Engine Marketing) isn’t rocket science, and it’s true; anyone with low-tomiddling computer skills, some analytical aptitude, and the ability to write well can do it. But “do it” is taking on a new meaning. Not too long ago, Facebook received United States Patent # 7,669,123 for their Newsfeed feature. Personally, I hate newsfeed; it takes the information that people in my Facebook universe post and changes what I see from a backward-chronological stream of that information to a computer-curated version that’s been edited according to . . . well, I don’t know, and Facebook isn’t saying. But aside from not liking newsfeed personally, I especially didn’t like that Facebook had received a patent on it. I believe that patent, like most software patents, sends us down a dangerous path. So I wrote and posted the article I referenced above. And I made sure that the article was written in a way that made search engines believe I was the world’s most important source of information on the subject. Having a couple of decades of experience with Intellectual Property, and as I consult on the subject, that’s a fair, if far-fetched idea. But my goal was to make search engines think I was important, and to prove how easy it is to become viewed as an “expert” using SEO. And it worked. Four hours after posting the article on Patent 7,669,123, any search you ran on it in Google would point you to Virtual VIP as the #1 source of information on that patent. It didn’t matter whether you wrote 7,669,123, or left out the commas and wrote 7669123. It also didn’t matter if you included reference words, like US Patent 7669123, or just Patent 7669123; we were #1. I could tell you how I made that happen. If you examine the post you might understand it without needing it explained to you. Regardless, my point is that Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing really aren’t that hard. Or at least they weren’t.

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If you searched for 7,669,123 as of the time of this writing, you’d have found this:

With or without the commas, Google sees the piece I wrote to prove how easy SEO is as the 11th most “relevant” item on the subject. This means that what was the most important reference point on the subject eight months ago NOW ISN’T EVEN IN THE FIRST PAGE OF RESULTS. Bing still sees the article as #1. Yahoo thinks it’s important (#4) if the commas are left out, but drops us all the way to the third page (#25) when you include them. Add the word “Patent” in front of the number 7669123, and Google drops the article all the way down to #125. Yahoo, interestingly, raises it to #2, and Bing holds firm: we’re still #1. Thanks, Microsoft! By the way (more on why this matters a bit later): Google ranks all pages on the Internet for “importance” on a scale of 0 to 10. This scale is called “Page Rank”, and the Answer Guy piece on Patent 7,669,123 was once ranked as high as a 4. Right now it’s a 2. Am I happy that Google is less impressed with my work than they used to be? Of course not. But I haven’t done anything to maintain the value of that post; in fact, I was kind of hoping its value would drop over time, because in discussing SEO I want to be able to explain both how it’s done, and the importance of the process of Search Engine Optimization rather than just the task. As mentioned earlier, I could explain what goes into SEO, but I’m going to skip over many of those details in this paper. Cynically, you might believe that I’m looking to keep the “secret sauce” secret. But my point in not spending very much time on the issue is that the rules have changed. Search Engine “Optimization” Is No Longer Possible In Any Meaningful Way. Hello, Search Engine Marketing. Or at least: say hello to an era in which SEO isn’t enough; you now need to add SEM to your SEO efforts.

WHAT GOES IN, WHAT COMES OUT.
Search Engine Optimization is a tricky subject to explain, because most of what there is to say has more to do with art than with science. In fact, Google itself has acknowledged that it can’t quite crack their own code when it comes to effective SEO. Also, Google has rules that need to be followed when you “do SEO”, and while they’re ultimately pretty simple and come down to doing things that Google considers “white hat” (good guy) and not doing the bad guy stuff (“black hat”) there’s enough wriggle room in the conversation that you can reasonably make an argument that some grey technique you’ve employed in your SEO is legitimate. Except at the end of the day there’s no wriggle room at all. Google is judge, jury, and executioner, and if you employ a technique that you don’t think should be thought of as black hat and Google disagrees, you lose. And while there’s a theoretical appeal process, Google won’t tell you if your

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appeal was “successful” or what you should do to fix things; you’re just broken, until you figure it out for yourself. A couple of months ago, I noticed a dramatic drop in traffic at Answer Guy Central. But it was only traffic from the search process at Google that had dropped. Actually, “dropped” isn’t an adequate way to describe things; traffic had fallen off a cliff. Other search engines continued to find us, and links from the thousands of places all over the Internet pointing to Answer Guy Central still performed. I assumed that we had done something that fell into the grey category, Google had noticed it, and we had been penalized. I even wrote about it in this article about the dangers of black hat SEO. With some time having passed and our Google Search performance having begun to claw its way back, I came to believe that something else entirely had happened. I was right, but only partially; we had been penelized, but in a way that gets very little attention: Google had hit us with a “ninety-day” penalty. For exactly ninety days, even though Google still believed us to be important enough to “rank”, no search results based on our SEO were being allowed by Google. Once the ninety days expired we shot back to where we had been; in fact, because we continued our SEO efforts during the ninety days we were actually in higher positions afterward than we had been before the penalty on phrases that continued to garner traffic during our Google banishment.

GOOGLE KEEPS CHANGING THE RULES.
And that’s OK. Google changes their rules all the time; it’s what makes them Google, and it’s what makes the sometimes amazing results you get when you conduct a search so amazing. But this summer, Google basically re-wrote their entire search algorithm. The release of Caffeine made a lot of the things that had been important in search and SEO way less important. Or more specifically, Caffeine made a couple of things way more important than they had been, and way more important than other things that had once ranked higher in Google’s view of search relevancy. Elements of on-page optimization (word density, keyword and tag declaration, the style and content of your pages’ description and title) were deprecated. In the spirit of crowd sourcing, or the idea that the people who use the Internet know what’s important on the Internet, Caffeine makes two things way more important that anything else: • • Link popularity Frequency and freshness of your content

In other words, just having the right words on your web site’s pages doesn’t work any more. It helps. It matters. You need this kind of SEO in place or you still might not get the traffic you want and perhaps deserve. But with the implementation of Caffeine the only way you can get really high ranking is to have links to your web site get clicked. And more links are better, but they need to be fresh, meaning that if you’re a very big company, or in the business of creating lots of content, or both, you have a big advantage. Don’t you wish you were CNN, or the Wall Street Journal, or C|Net ?

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Companies like that create hundreds or even thousands of pages every day. And thousands or millions of people read that content. And some people click links they find there. This benefits those big media companies, benefits the web sites that get traffic from them, and crushes everybody else. So now we turn the conversation to Search Engine Marketing. Realistically speaking, it isn’t possible to compete with the CNNs of the world on volume of new content, nor on the likelihood that the new things you post on your web site are going to be as popular as the things posted at CNN.com. And if we flip back to the discussion of Google’s rules for web site content there’s something to be added: links from other sites that themselves practice black hat SEO technique will hurt you in Google’s eyes; you need the links that point to you to come from well-regarded places. Remember the reference to PageRank? I told you that the page about Patent 7,669,123 once carried a PageRank of 4, and now is a 2. If I placed a link on that page that pointed to your web site and someone visiting your site clicked that link, Google would have been more impressed before than it is now. And not twice as impressed; WAY more impressed. Google doesn’t reveal the equation that decides how much better a 2 is than a 1, but you may be certain that there’s an exponential thing going on, so if each jump represents merely a doubling of “importance”, a page carrying a PageRank of 5 is sixteen times more important than a pages carrying a 1. If each jump is instead a quadrupling then 5 is 256 times more important than 1. And remember, lots of pages are actually ZERO, not 1; only Google knows how much they need to like you before your impact is even measured on the PageRank scale. By the way: as of this writing, Bing, AOL, and The Wall Street Journal rank 8 in PageRank. Yahoo scores a 9. CNN, Google and Facebook get 10. SEM: HOW THE SMALL GUY FIGHTS BACK This week, I was working on the SEO of a client company. They happen to be in the heavy machinery business, and while we’ve had them right at the top of Google’s rankings for the phrase “forklift parts” for many months they’ve recently dropped to about #10. So the sleuthing began. The entry that currently ranks for Search Engine Optimization as #1 for forklift parts is a link to forkliftparts.com:

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Note that in talking about SEO effectiveness I’m ignoring the information on the right side of the Google search screen as well as the first three, shaded results on the left. Both the shaded results and the text results on the right are the results of companies buying prominence from Google, and not indicative of SEO efforts or organic importance. Search Engine Optimization, the results of what the Internet thinks is “important”, is what gets displayed on the left, after the advertisements that three companies have purchased from Google. Note also that the map at the top of the right column is a local search result for New York City, which is where I was when I searched for “forklift parts”. That map, by the way, is a combination of Google’s SEO-driven results for forklift parts in New York City and the advertisements that Google has sold to companies that want to rank highly for that term in New York City. What does this show? First, it’s important to point out that SEO winner forkliftparts.com isn’t buying prominence on either side of the search results. It makes sense that they aren’t in the local map of New York City, of course, as forkliftparts.com is located in Florida. But forklift parts isn’t a “local” kind of business; if you happen to sell forklift parts you sell them to companies everywhere. This means that the one and only reason forkliftparts.com is ranked #1 in organic “importance” is that their SEO is working. This wouldn’t matter to anyone except forkliftparts.com competitors such as the client I mentioned, except that it shows two things, clearly:


Traditional SEO Techniques Are No Longer Working As Well As They Used To From an SEO perspective forkliftparts.com is a very old, completely non-optimized site.

The second bullet point is proven by looking at the site (1996, anyone?) to support the “old” statement, but more importantly by look at the code behind the page, which is actually presented on three separate web pages:

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Opening Page

Language Selection Working Hom page e

PLEASE NOTE: Depending on a few different factors having to do with file format and security settings in your computer you may not be able to open these objects,, and if you do they’ll open in your web browser and look like nothing until you “View Source”. If you can’t open the objects and wish to see their contents, please contact us here and we’ll get you a file you can use.

In the code, you’ll see keywords (and too many of them according to Google’s standards on the subject!), and no other optimization techniques are employed. None. This site simply shouldn’t rank so high. So what of the first bullet point? Let’s break it down: • • • • Forkliftparts.com hasn’t optimized their web site for SEO Forkliftparts.com isn’t buying advertising from Google on the key phrase “Forklift Parts” Forkliftparts.com doesn’t have lots of pages, nor apparently, are any of their pages new The fact that the site name forkliftparts.com matches the search phrase is useful, but not enough to garner automatic #1 ranking. o As an example of this, answerguy.com currently ranks just #8 for the word answerguy, and two of the sites that are ranking higher have that phrase nowhere in their names:

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How then is it even possible that forkliftparts.com has the #1 ranking for the phrase “forklift parts”?

Their link is so old and has been clicked on so many times over so many years that in a relatively non-technologically-savvy industry, nobody else has done SEO well enough to beat them. NOTHING outranks crowd-sourcing.
This might suggest bad things about the SEO efforts we’ve made on behalf of our client, except for one thing: Caffeine has absolutely changed the rules. The client was ranked higher, but has dropped. And: time-based performance simply cannot be manufactured; it needs to be built over time.

FINALLY, THE SEM ANGLE
Buying clicks from Google is “advertising”. Simple, right? But it’s also much more. When you make an offer on a word or phrase through Google Adwords, you tell Google what you are willing to pay for traffic to your web site. It doesn’t matter how many times Google runs your advertisement; you pay nothing unless someone who has searched on a phrase you’ve bid on clicks on your Google-presented advertisement. The more you bid, the greater chance you have of getting displayed higher on a search results page. And the statistics say that 95% of all Google users never go past the second page of search results. Also, they are looking (predominantly) on the left side in the SEO results. Think about that for a moment. Rank #21 on either side of the equation and you have only a 5% chance of your advertisement being displayed on a Google user’s screen. And honestly if you have any hope of being noticed you pretty much have to be on the first screen . . . even in the first three results . . . on the SEO rankings, and on the first screen on the SEM/clicks (right hand) side. And now it gets scary. Remember those shaded results on the left side that come above the SEO rankings? It doesn’t matter how much you bid for search results; unless you have a high rank for the word you are buying advertising for at the page you are pointing that advertising, you will never end up in those listings. Right. If you want the prime (and most expensive) advertising slot on a Google search results page the only way to get it is to spend money on SEO to optimize the content you point at so you can then spend more . . . and more . . . and more money on SEM. And spend it you must, because now that Google has—short of being CNN—made traffic/popularity the only way to ever garner enough clicks to outrank a bad web site like forkliftparts.com, you have no choice: •

• •

You have to buy Adwords. So people will click to you. So you’ll be “popular” and getting your traffic from a site with high PageRank (Google! 10!)

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CONCLUSION
Once again, this isn’t rocket science. You can write your own pages, and you can manage your own SEM Adwords campaign. Also, you don’t have to buy your clicks from Google; there are any number of sites that will be glad to sell you advertising. But remember that almost nobody else is a 10 in Google’s PageRank, and so almost no advertising will have the same long-term impact on SEO that buying your advertising from Google will get you. Or, you can engage a Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization expert to run all of this for you. Yes, that’s self-serving conclusion; I’d like for you to engage the Answer Guy by clicking on this link or visiting us at http://answerguy.com . But there are many companies that will tell you they know how to play this game. The questions are whether you bother to do SEO at all, whether you believe that SEM has now become all but a mandatory part of your SEO efforts, and whether you believe that having so conclusively demonstrated what the secret sauce is in Google’s search rankings that Virtual VIP is also the right company to help steer you through it. By the way: The first question doesn’t count. You must do SEO. It’s the new Yellow Pages

And you thought you just needed to buy clicks.

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ABOUT JEFF YABLON Jeff Yablon is a computer geek. Actually, Jeff isn't a geek at all. Over a long and varied career, though, he's exhibited a talent for translating geek to business, and speaking business with geeks. PC-VIP is the culmination of nearly twenty years of work making computers work better for people. And Virtual VIP takes it a step further, giving growing businesses everything they need to reach their goals. A renowned educational speaker and broadcaster, software author, and business development expert, Jeff has worked in concert with senior management of companies large and small to craft and deploy strategies for implementing technology and business processes for employees and customers. At the turn of the millennium, Jeff sold his equity positions in Denver-based Planet Computer Inc. and San Francisco’s PlusMedia Broadcasting, both of which operated using business models designed by him and implemented under his direct supervision. Doing business as PlanetUplink, Planet Computer was one of the first Application Service Providers, while PlusMedia produced and distributed news and entertainment programming via the internet, broadcast radio, and television. An internationally recognized expert in computer implementation, Jeff has written for International Data Group’s PC World Magazine and performed as an on-air analyst for CBS Television News’ Up To The Minute. In 1989 he founded the world’s first electronic publication, and built IYM Software Review’s reader base to 300,000 through distribution agreements negotiated with CompuServe, America Online, and others. In 1995, Jeff created The Computer Answer Guy™ for delivery via broadcast radio and internet-based audio. In that persona, he pioneered techniques for delivering advertising to listeners via streaming media, and maximizing its impact. Jeff is also the author of Uninstall for Windows™. Upon its introduction in 1992, UN4WIN gained worldwide acceptance as the best tool for safely and completely removing unwanted software from computers running Microsoft’s Windows® operating system. During his two elected terms as President of the Computer Press Association, Jeff helped author ethics standards for the journalism community, and created guidelines for accrediting electronic journalists that were implemented by virtually the entire technology tradeshow industry. Jeff studied Economics and Marketing at Dickinson College and Rutgers University. Prior to jumping into technology, Jeff was an independent financial consultant. As a NASD-licensed securities broker, he designed the pension plans of small and medium-sized businesses, and advised their executive staffs on maximization of personal investment and insurance portfolios.

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