Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Frank Look at Algorithms: OKCupid, Google, & How You Can Fight Back With Organic SEO

This week the online dating site, OKCupid, published the results of three experiments the dating site conducted on its own users. Without knowledge of the studies, certain users encountered obscured profile pictures,  hidden profile text, and different profile matches (both better or worse) from what the company’s software actually determined.

As The New York Times wrote on Monday, the tests seemingly revealed a few relevant facts:

"The research found that if an OKCupid user was told that another user had a high compatibility score instead of a low one — the numbers are based on a mathematical formula created by the company — the user was slightly more likely to reach out with a message. Those who believed they were corresponding with a good match were almost twice as likely to send at least four messages compared with people who were told they were a low match.

Despite the recent uproar about Facebook testing its users without their knowledge or permission, OKCupid came out with guns blazing, announcing its results without the slightest hint of apology.

As the company's president, Christian Rudder, wrote on the OKCupid blog:

"We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook 'experimented' with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work."

This post, which also detailed the results of the "experiments," was titled "We Experiment on Human Beings!" Beyond writing flagrantly cocky blog posts with obnoxious titles, Mr. Rudder also took to the airwaves to argue his case with the utmost pomposity.

Today, on NPR's The Takeaway, Todd Zwillich (filling in for John Hockenberry) stated the case quite precisely:

 "You didn't do this for any redeeming social value whatsoever. You did this for your own purposes, and to test your own algorithms and your own model."

To this, Rudder, answered, "Yeah, for sure, these particular experiments were kind of part of the normal course of our own business."

Without commenting upon the actual ethics of performing "scientific" tests on people without their knowledge (although, you'll notice, we do feel free to comment upon Chris Rudder's cocky pomposity), this situation still offers some tantalizing discussion for those interested in the world of organic SEO.

After all, these experiments were performed in service of OKCupid's algorithm--the very algorithm that makes OKCupid so appealing in the first place--and SEO is, first and foremost, the study of algorithms.

Generally speaking, an algorithm is simply an equation for solving a problem. For the search engines, though, this equation is at the heart of the company's success (or failure). As we recently wrote from sunny Boston:

"The success of organic SEO depends on complex search engine algorithms—and the world’s largest search engines, like Google, Yahoo, and Bing, change their algorithms about 500-700 times a year. The work of understanding and utilizing these ever-evolving algorithms is time-consuming and tedious. A high-quality SEO company understands how to do this work without wasting time."

The questions raised for the users of OKCupid might reveal ethical concerns about privacy that transcend the need to find a good date, but we doubt OKCupid will lose too many users. Sadly, we find ourselves agreeing with Chris Rudder's cold statement: "If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work."

This might seem like a pitiable situation for the average Internet user. The truth is that most of these "experiments" help websites like OKCupid and Google perfect their service. And frankly, users are not powerless in this equation. By understanding a site's algorithm, a user can use his or her knowledge to his own advantage.

In essence, this is what SEO is about: understanding the search engine's algorithms in order to perform better in rankings.

But here's the crux of the equation: a search engine like Google and the SEO specialist share the exact same goal. Both are trying to connect users with the most relevant information.

Or perhaps we should say: Google and good SEO specialists share the same goal. A bad SEO specialist will promote content (in unethical ways) that really has no relevancy or purpose. A bad SEO specialist will accept any paying client.

A good SEO specialist, on the other hand, will vet all potential clients for relevancy and purpose. Here's what we've learned from Alex Stepman, the Organic SEO Blog's sponsor:

"To be optimized for search engines, a website must first have a purpose. If a website does not have a purpose, it simply cannot be optimized. What is a purpose? A site might be informational; people visit nytimes.com or cnn.com, for example, to specifically acquire knowledge about the world. On the other hand, a site might be interactive, offering visitors an opportunity to utilize various tools, such as BookFresh’s appointment scheduler. Sometimes, the purpose of a site is to merely inspire a visitor to make a phone call. Unfortunately, most company’s newly-developed websites do not specify any purpose, and so the company’s online presence amounts to little more than a high-priced business card."

The lesson for SEO: if you believe you have a valuable contribution, don't waste your time fretting about OKCupid's innocuous tests; instead, fight back with organic SEO. Learn more about algorithms. This very blog is a good place to start.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Facebook, Socialbility, & Organic Reach

Most website owners understand that social media is a mandatory element of any worthwhile online marketing campaign. Sadly, though, a great majority of so called "social media campaigns" misunderstand the basic essence of social media: sociability.

If you're marketing your business online, you would do well to consider this basic fact. Social media is not about talking to your customers. Social media is about sociability, connection, and interactivity--in other words, talking with your customers.

On a deeper level, social media marketing shares a similar goal with organic SEO: connecting customers with the precise products and/or services they're looking for. Most successful social media campaigns manage this connection by gracefully adding a personal dynamic to the conversation.

Many large companies employ professional tweeters, for example, to quickly respond to customer's tweets. The sad inverse of this dynamic is the small business owner who has set up a Facebook or Twitter account only to let it lie dormant for months or years.

This latter situation is similar to a website that has not been optimized for search engines. As Alex Stepman, the owner of Stepmans PC says, "You might be surprised to hear that many websites are merely high-priced business cards."

Why? Not all website developers build search engine-friendly sites—and if your site cannot be easily discovered by search engines, it is essentially invisible.

If you do have a search engine friendly-site, though, you should take the effort to create a successful social media campaign. If not, you might be missing a significant portion of your potential traffic.

Just yesterday, Danny Wong of Shareaholic reported some staggering numbers about Facebook:

"Easily the largest social network, Facebook commands the most clout among marketers and publishers hungry for referrals. Well-positioned for world domination, Facebook now drives nearly a quarter (23.39%) of overall traffic to sites and has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Over the last year, its “share of traffic” has skyrocketed, up 150.49% (14.05 percentage points) from 9.34% in June 2013."

The equation is simple: if you're not connecting on Facebook you might be missing up to a quarter of all your possible traffic!

So what does successful connection look like?

Well, in the past year the dynamics of the Facebook algorithm have changed dramatically. Late last year, Facebook made the bold move of taking away the organic reach of page posts--meaning, simply, that brands could no longer simply post to their own page and expect a significant amount of traffic.
Instead, Facebook expected brands to pay for increased exposure.

In this case, again, the situation is analogous to organic SEO. For organic SEO, a true "organic" visitor is the result of a natural search: a browser typing a word or phrase into Google, say, and finding a certain website among the listed results. On Facebook, this scenario was a bit different, but still "organic": a brand's posts simply showed up on its follower's time-lines. 

On Google, the higher your website appears on the rankings the more visibility you will have, and this is why certain websites pay for visibility with ads or banners or Pay-Per-Click (PPC) campaigns. But a paid result is the opposite of organic, and it is often not what a browser is looking for--even though it appears on the first page of a search engine's results.

Unfortunately, Facebook has decided to follow Google's lead with paid advertising: to get real exposure on Facebook now, a brand must pay.

But that is not the only option! If you embrace the essence of social media, you might not have to pay a dime for a successful social media campaign. The key, of course, is sociability.

As Chris Crum of WebProNews wrote just yesterday:

"You may not get very far in the New Feed with the things you post on your own Facebook Page (at least without paying for it), but it would seem that you should still be doing everything you can to encourage users to share your content on the social network from your website and any other means possible."

Your best bet for encouraging others to share your content is to reciprocate. Share other's content. Converse with your followers. Be a part of the conversation! After all, as we wrote before, "SEO is About Creating Connections."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Google, Free Speech, and the Complexity of Search

Part of our goal in writing the Organic SEO Blog is to help people understand the elegant simplicity  at the heart of SEO. By demystifying the practice, we hope to persuade website owners that SEO is the most efficient and effective online marketing strategy. However, we also readily acknowledge that the intricacies of SEO are best left to a professional SEO specialist.

SEO is a specialized talent. As we've written before:

"The success of organic SEO depends on complex search engine algorithms—and the world’s largest search engines, like Google, Yahoo, and Bing, change their algorithms about 500-700 times a year. The work of understanding and utilizing these ever-evolving algorithms is time-consuming and tedious. A high-quality SEO company understands how to do this work without wasting time."

To understand the complexity of search, then, is to understand the complexity of the work organic SEO. This complexity is befuddling even to Google itself, and it certainly explains the overwhelming challenge that now faces Google as the company tries to respond to a recent European Union Court ruling.

In May, the EU Court of of Justice ruled that Google (and other search engines like Yahoo and Bing) must receive requests from individuals who feel that a specific search result is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive" in relation to the person. Google opposed this potential ruling as a form of censorship, but now it must comply with the law.

As WebProNews recently reported:

"The whole 'right to be forgotten' thing is an absolute mess, and Google knows it...The company is still being vocal in its opposition, while also trying to make people understand the difficult job it’s faced with, and why it’s going to make mistakes. From the sound of it, Google seems to be acknowledging that mistakes will continue to be made as it struggles with figuring out what it should be censoring from search results and what it should not."

Regardless of your opinions on the ruling and whether or not it infringes upon free speech, most people can easily agree that that task before Google is daunting. The search engine is tasked with deciding if any number (they've already received 70,000 "take-down requests") of search result are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive."

The WebProNews article linked above extensively quotes David Drummond, Google's Chief Legal Officer and Senior Vice President of Corporate Development.

“When it comes to determining what’s in the public interest, we’re taking into account a number of factors,” Drummond says. “These include whether the information relates to a politician, celebrity or other public figure; if the material comes from a reputable news source, and how recent it is; whether it involves political speech; questions of professional conduct that might be relevant to consumers; the involvement of criminal convictions that are not yet ‘spent’; and if the information is being published by a government. But these will always be difficult and debatable judgments.”

The challenge of decoding what is and what is not "free speech" might seem foreign to a search engine, but the work itself seems eerily similar to the work Google performs each and every day in perfecting its algorithm. In reality, Google has been deciding what people should and should not read since its inception. It's the nature of search: perfecting the results for relevancy and efficiency, yes, but also for other nebulous factors that few seem to know.

Only a few SEO specialists understand these nebulous factors and the complexity that they reveal; only a few SEO specialists have scrutinized the algorithm over a period of years and developed a system for success; only a few SEO specialists understand the complexity of search.

On the one hand, SEO is about quality content, design, development. On the other hand, it is about understanding the algorithm. The latter might reliably be practiced by any number of internet marketing firms (with varying success). But to truly succeed you need an SEO specialist who understands a basic truth. As Alex Stepman, of Stepmans PC, has written elsewhere on this blog:

"A website can never be fully optimized because Google constantly changes their algorithm for ranking sites. But I have learned the most crucial aspects of website optimization. Today, I am proud to say that all of my clients are visible on the first page of Google at most times. SEO has become my prime talent, and I love helping clients optimize their websites. Unlike computer repair and maintenance, the world of SEO is dynamic and constantly evolving. The desire to confront the SEO challenge has transformed me into a true SEO professional. Each day, I wake inspired to develop new marketing strategies for my clients."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Note From Scotland: SEO & Self-Marketing

This week, the Organic SEO blog is traveling in Scotland, the birthplace of golf and Scotch whiskey. Of course, Scotland is much more than golf and Scotch, but this simple distinction is relevant for a blog about SEO, which is all about making simple distinctions. For an online business, for example, the work of SEO often begins by answering a few simple questions:

Who are you?

What do you sell?

Who is your customer?

The answers to these questions might seem simple--deceptively simple--but you do not want to take them granted. After all, you might think you know your business and product, but can you express both in a way that will appeal to online customers?

Try this simple exercise now: tell me about your business.

Well, obviously, don't tell me--I'm in Scotland! But turn to your husband or wife or friend--anyone--and tell them about your business. If you're alone, tell yourself about your business.

OK, we'll take a short break while you explain your business. While we wait, here's the view from our cottage in Scotland:



Are you still talking? If so, you might want to re-think your marketing strategy.

If you want to succeed online, you should be able to explain your business and your product in one or two sentences.

SEO is often about refining your marketing. In fact, a successful SEO campaign will help you express a crystal clear view of your online business.

This is an aspect of SEO that most neophytes do not understand. SEO isn't simply about getting the technical details right. SEO is also about marketing. This is why we promote SEO specialists who understand website design and marketing.

Finding this sort of SEO specialist is not so easy. The work of website development and marketing just might require opposite sides of the brains. Website development just might be the perfect job for Spock. But marketing might be better suited to that relentless self-marketer, Rembrandt.

In a 2006 article for Smithsonian Magazine celebrating Rembrandt's 400th birthday, Stephanie Dickey wrote:

"Rembrandt painted, etched, and drew some 70 self-portraits, more than any other well-known artist of his time. By making his face the centerpiece of his art, he engaged in a uniquely personal means of self-marketing. Rembrandt was certainly not unique in this way. Self-portraiture has been a viable means of “self-marketing” at least since the Renaissance. Giotto included himself in a cycle of “eminent men” in the Castle of Naples. Botticelli made himself the hero of the Adoration of the Magi."

Are you good at "self-marketing"?

Since website marketing is about the way you present your website, the best marketers are often right-brained--like Rembrandt.

Those with a dominant left-brain are more logical. Since website development is about the technical aspects of the website, left-brained people are often the best developers.

Did you have trouble explaining your business offering? If so, don't be too harsh on yourself. Perhaps your expertise lies elsewhere: in product development, for example. The key, of course, is to understand your strengths and weaknesses. You might've developed a tremendous product, but that doesn't mean you have the talent to market that product.

Instead, leave that work to someone who understands the nature of online marketing--an SEO specialist like Alex Stepman, the sponsor of The Organic SEO Blog.You might notice Alex's picture on the right side of the blog. Like Rembrandt, Alex understands the value of self-marketing; yet he also understands his own strengths and weaknesses.

Alex is the rare mind who can accomplish the work of both development and marketing, but he is not the best writer. That is why he outsources his writing work to professional copywriters. And that's why I'm lucky enough to be writing a blog for Alex while traveling in Scotland--the land of gold and Scotch.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

SEO News Round-Up: Maximize Your Site's SEO Potential, Helpful Links, and the Importance of Quality Content

The SEO Blog has been vacationing this weekend in preparation for a two-week trip to Scotland and Iceland (where we'll be blogging about how SEO is perceived around the world). For now, however, we're in vacation mode!

In favor of brevity, then, we offer some of our favorite recent SEO reads from around the Internet:

1. Forbes: "How to Create a Website with Maximum SEO Potential"

This helpful article details 8 factors for optimizing your website from the get-go. Among his many salient points, Jayson DeMers notes a few simple SEO website design practices as well as the crucial importance of researching keywords-- practice even Google advocates:

"Performing keyword research at the outset of your web design project not only means increased SEO benefits, but an overall better user experience," DeMers writes. "Even doing some basic keyword research using the Google Keyword Planner can make a big difference; by researching words and phrases related to the main topic or theme of your site, you can not only find out which terms your target market is actually using to find your products or services, but you can drill down to find popular and relevant sub-categories as well."

For more information on website design read our article "Building a Website? Read This First!"

Or visit our blog's sponsor, Stepmans PC: "Web Design for SEO."

And for more information about how you can use keywords to increase your SEO benefits read "How SEO Can Help You Clarify Your Business Offering."


2. Search Engine Land: "Head of Google's Web Spam Team Matt Cutts is Going on Leave"

This article might only be interesting to true SEO aficionados. Matt Cutts has a lot to say about SEO--and what he says can transform the SEO specialist's practice.

Still, the main value of the article might be the collection of helpful Google links for webmasters and SEO specialists alike. If you're interested in the information about Cutts, read the article. If not, Cutts himself advises using these resources in his absence:

3. From the SEO Blog archives: "A Crucial SEO Question: Quality or Quantity"

In this, one of our most popular posts, we discuss the value of quality content--and why quality always trumps quantity.


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And if own your own online business, do not forget to take advantage of Stepman PCs' summertime offering:

FREE Organic Website Optimization Audit

If your website is under-performing, Stepmans PC’s Organic Website Optimization Audit will clarify the exact elements of your website that require improvement.

As apart of the audit, Stepmans PC will provide a detailed report showing you how many people have visited your website for a specific period of time, how many of those visitors are unique, the time visitors spent on your website, and other information that will help you convert visitors into potential customers.

With this information and more, you learn your website visitors in depth. Stepmans PC will monitor visitor’s activity on your website for a period of days and present as much information as possible about their engagement with your website.

In addition to knowing all about your customers, you will discover the most popular pages on your website. Stepmans PC can help you place special promotions on these particular pages—a great tactic for transforming visitors into customers.

Stepmans PC will also determine what device is being used to interact with your website and will optimize your website for those devices to insure no one is limited from viewing your website.

To take advantage of this limited time offer, call Stepmans PC now: 215-900-9398 or complete the form on Stepmans PC's website.

But hurry, Alex and his team are very busy. Stepmans PC can only offer a FREE audit to ten websites. If you want to knock out your competition this summer, we suggest calling now!