Today I interviewed Aaron Wall from SEO Book. I have been following his blog for years. I still remember the old look of his blog when he was just starting out. When Aaron writes something he always tells you like it is and is not afraid to stand up for the little guys. If you are a business that depends on search traffic you should definitely add Aaron’s blog to your RSS feed and follow him on Twitter.
Since I wanted to start doing interviews here on Affhelper for quite some time I figured I would ask Aaron if he would be opened for my first interview. So I emailed him some questions I thought people would like to get answers to and he agreed to answer them.
Here we go…
1. Do you think updates like Panda and Penguin are just small steps towards a much bigger change in the future? Or are they nothing else than desperate efforts by Google to fight spam in the serps?
Surely there is a gap between small steps and desperation. I think as much as the algorithms are about changing the search results, they were also about sending a message & giving a perception of lower ecosystem stability. This in turn adds friction to both publishing and selling consulting. To Google, greater friction in the SEO process is a virtue unto itself, as shown by their keyword (not provided) stuff.
2. If you were an affiliate what would you do differently than what everyone else is doing currently to gain search traffic…Or maybe it’s time to stop being an affiliate all together?
There’s nothing wrong with being an affiliate. The biggest problem is that so many people want to focus on the most commercial keywords that are the most potent without building around them. If you go down the well worn paths you have lots more competition, that in turn means that you might also need to be far more aggressive to do well enough to compete, and being far more aggressive means you are more likely to get tripped up by the algorithms or receive a manual penalty. Certainly there is a problem for affiliates in terms of Google biasing their algorithms toward promoting larger sites and adding features to Google & then considering similar sites as being spam (eg: hotel pricing ads in the organic SERPs & them stating hotel affiliates should be labeled as spam even if they are helpful) but likely an even bigger issue most affiliates face is continually deciding to swim in shark infested waters.
3. Why SEOs continue to question whether Negative SEO works or not? If you can get penalized for something you did to your site, common sense suggests that it’s possible that you can do it to others, right?
I think this question could be addressed a couple different ways:
• Some folks who like to view themselves as being “white hat SEOs” (whatever that means) feel that anyone who got penalized is likely a spammer and/or has spam somewhere in their profile & thus deserves to be penalized. Further, there is a pile on “analysis” effect where whenever a big penalty happens there is a lot of follow up by marketers who want to use the pain of others to promote themselves.
• Negative SEO efforts are plentiful in some markets & rare in others. This lumpy distribution means that some people see loads (dozens? hundreds?) of examples while others don’t see any. And, if you do what is required in order to rank in these markets, in many cases there would be some gray area spam in the profile somewhere (after all, in many of these same markets people are hacking websites & similar to get an advantage … it’s hard to compete against people buying thousands of links & hacking thousands of sites if you don’t ever buy a single link … but this sort of goes back to my above point with shark infested waters).
4. Matt Cutts announced that there is a big Penguin update coming this year. What do you think is going to happen? Do you think small businesses will end up on the losing side again?
There are certainly general trends where certain classes of sites generally win and certain classes of sites generally lose. On average Google is absolutely trying to drive under smaller businesses, particularly ones that are not tied to a location. The localization of search is the bone Google is throwing small businesses which sort of offsets a lot of the costs that are being added elsewhere in search.
The above stated, there are always some counter examples to the general trends. If we know what is coming and have a pretty good idea of what might drive it then we should be able to hedge that a bit better than some big change out of the blue. A lot of the general trends are reflected in the general direction of the search results, such that when the big changes happen we might have some ideas on how things might change.
5. With Google being so determined to fight spam and ready to accept collateral damage, would you say it’s risky to focus only on one web property?
Of course it is risky to have only 1 project. But then many “diversified” approaches use the same techniques and share many of the exact same footprints, while making the overall effort more likely to get penalized. True diversification would include having things like…
• some non-search traffic in your mix
• sites of different sizes
• sites across market verticals (eg: fishing vs jewelry)
• sites with different functionalities (eg: ecommerce vs local vs information)
• sites with somewhat significantly different link sources
• possibly even sites across different languages and geographic markets
I think the best way to be diversified is to have significant savings & at least 1 site that covers your baseline living & business expenses without receiving a bit of Google traffic. From there, if other things get penalized it might still suck really bad, but it isn’t likely to make you homeless. 😉
The virtue of thrift is vastly under-stated in our consumer society, but when I got started online I moved to where my costs were under $10 a day. Right now I live in California where it is stupid expensive, but if things went seriously south I would have no problem with rationally lowering living costs in quick order.
6. How do you think search results will look like in let’s say 5 years from now? Will Google know the answer to every question by then?
Google can’t answer every question that way. If they completely gut the organic results they lose out on one of their biggest competitive advantages & make it far easier for others to compete against them.
I do think the search results will have more vertical slices in them in the biggest sectors of the economy. There will be a continual gradual shift downward of the organic search results due to more ads & so on. The search results will also get rich media ads as Google increasingly works with larger brands. Features like “buy now” will be available directly in the search results.
But the 1 correct answer stuff…it has lots of issues. What about alternative interpretations of a keyword where there is a primary interpretation? Google talks about showing the 1 true answer or such as an ideal perfect search engine that knows what you want. And some people also believe that voice search will replace a result set, but I think there are some side issues that are rarely mentioned…
• How does Google force brands to buy ads on their own branded keyword if the result set would list only their main site anyhow?
• If there are a series of results, Google can display unsavory stuff (eg: piracy and so on) to increase the cost of running publishing businesses not partnered with Google, in order to try to push those businesses into a formal Google partnership on terms favorable to Google
• If there was only 1 result that Google offered & you had a bad experience from it then you would blame Google for it, but if there is a listing of 10 results and 1 of them is a dud then you blame yourself for selecting it.
• On the search results a huge portion of users have no idea where the ads are located (many think there are none & many think that they are only in the right rail). Bing mentioned that 85% of ad clicks on Bing were in the mainline / inline section of the search results. Search engines can claim that these ads are clearly labeled while knowing that they confuse users, but how would Google do the same thing over voice?
7. At the scale that we are at now acquiring links is getting more expensive each year. How can small businesses compete in this environment?
I think John Andrews stated this pretty well here & I also aimed to address it here, but generally I think we have to move at least some portion of our efforts and understanding beyond links and keywords to influence in the marketplace.
8. What would it take, in your opinion, for the average search engine user to make a switch from Google to Bing?
Many people just use whatever the default search engine is, thus for those types of people you can get them through sponsoring default search placement deals. Outside of that piece of the market, I think the market is largely Google’s to lose. If Google has a major privacy issue that users care about they could shift users over to competing services. Beyond that, it is rather hard to defeat a competitor’s brand & monopoly marketshare lead based on superior quality and innovation.
• When Bing tried to differentiate on travel, Google responded by buying the underlying plumbing in ITA Software
• When Bing tried to differentiate with FreeBase integration, Google responded by buying MetaWebs, the owner of FreeBase
• When Bing’s result quality significantly improved Google funded a sting operation to smear them & claim they were copying their results
Now that Google owns an operating system with significant marketshare (Android) and a second OS (in Chrome) Microsoft might be able to better get away with integrating search in their OS. They have hinted that they want to integrate search more effectively directly into the next version of Windows, named Blue.
9. Do you think that SEOs will eventually move away from trying to rank a site in Google search, and instead focus on clients who are already there but need help keeping their position?
Many SEOs have already moved away from being independent publishers into consulting roles. Some of the bigger names in the space significantly pushed into this direction about 5 years ago & it has only increased since then. The only issue with the consulting model is that it is far harder to scale than many people appreciate. A few reasons why …
• There is friction in getting anything implemented until trust is built – this adds significant costs. further if you have a number of your own sites & one gets penalized and another takes off then you can easily shift resource allocation. but if you are doing client work you can’t really double down on winners and quickly curb a project just because there is a rough patch. if anything you would likely need to spend more on the project that is failing without capturing the additional incremental upside in the project that is wildly succeeding.
• The consultant is generally getting a far smaller piece of the pie – some companies with market valuations in the 9 or 10 or 11 figure range that view SEO as their primary customer acquisition channel want to spend less than 5 figures on SEO, even though they know it is worth literally millions to their business
• Consulting requests come in waves & it can be hard to build a smooth operation that offsets that wavelike demand curve. further, if you build a large team & some feel they are not getting their fair share then talented team members can leave to other consultancies (there was a recent high-profile issue with this sort of stuff in the SEO niche)
• Last but not least, as the web is moving from a wide array of independent efforts into more of a smaller number of closed silos, there is going to be fewer decent paying gigs available in the marketplace, as many of the independent SEOs who jump into the consulting or in-house space end up bloating supply in a way that is outstripping the demand. this shift issue will only be compounded by Google launching more vertical search types & larger ad units which push the search results further down the page
All the above said, another option for offsetting weighting on platforms is to ride on top of some of them. If Amazon.com or Facebook or similar have a huge ranking advantage then perhaps it makes sense to try to rank on those in addition to building your own independent websites.
Thank you Aaron for taking the time to answer these questions for us. I appreciate it. On the side note I like the answer to question #8:
“If Google has a major privacy issue that users care about they could shift users over to competing services. Beyond that, it is rather hard to defeat a competitor’s brand & monopoly marketshare lead based on superior quality and innovation.”