Some free advice about working on the Web

I received an email from an intern asking for SEO advice specific to backlinking. Obviously, I didn't give away the farm (I charge for this stuff, after all), but I did have one piece of advice anyone trying to figure out why a competitor is doing better than you are in search.

The best thing about SEO is that when you see a site doing it well, there aren't any secrets, ask any SEO specialist. Look at the pages, and look at the source code. See what they're doing, and see what you could be doing better.

That's it. You want to know what someone's doing? Look. In some cases, you may have to dig deeper (Yahoo! Site Explorer, Google Webmaster Tools), but nothing on the Web is a mystery. If you see someone doing something well, you don't have to ask how they're doing it, just use your eyes.

Can we talk about Google’s new look for a minute?

OK, so everybody and her second cousin's oldest daughter has already written about the new Google. But I'm a fan of this new design, at least as far as the logo and SERPs go.

Google logo

Admit it, you didn't even realize it was a new logo. But it's a bit bigger, and they got rid of the drop shadow. It really pops off the page.

And then there are the SERPs (that's Search Engine Results Pages if you're new here).

All that stuff on the left? A lot of people in the search industry say it looks really cluttered. But we (those of us in search) already knew that stuff was buried up at the top and bottom in various menus. Most people didn't. Now it's obvious that it's there to everyone.

So yeah, I'm diggin' the new look. Now if only they could make Wave or Buzz useful. At this point, I'd settle for one of them.

SEO 099: What you need to know before SEO 101

So you've got a business and you've got a website. You've heard about SEO. You've seen a zillion things called SEO 101 (OK, so more like 10.9 million – close enough to a zillion for me). But before actually undertaking the SEO 101 campaign of your choice, there are some things you need to know, and some things you want to ask.

Huh?

SEO means Search Engine Optimization (or, alternately, a Search Engine Optimizer, as in someone who does the optimization). If someone goes to Google and searches for something related to your business. There are thousands or millions of results for their search. To get to be one of the first results returned, you'll probably have to do some sort of SEO campaign.

But someone I think is really smart and who has a website told me that SEO is snake oil.

One of a few things is happening. (a) SEO comes naturally to that person, possibly thanks to the way their website was built, and they don't realize it. (b) They're not trying to sell anything on their website. (c) They have different competition from you. (d) They're not as smart as you think they are.

OK, but what would make them say that?

There are some pretty slimy people out there who call themselves SEO experts (or gurus or ninjas; you get the picture). Some of them are very successful just long enough to collect some money and disappear before your site visitors disappear and Google realizes that your site is trying to trick it and punishes you for it. We'll get to this in a minute, but there are what we call "white hat" and "black hat" techniques – white hat being honest, hard work, and black hat being quick and dirty techniques.

I get the feeling you're one of those "SEO gurus" who's going to try to sell me something with this post.

I do SEO for a small publisher, and I do some freelance design with SEO services. I understand that SEO is an evolving process, and you're not an expert, or a guru, or a ninja, unless someone else considers you to be one. I have a lot to learn in the field, and there's a good chance I don't have time to do an SEO audit for you. I'm just trying to give you some tools for your own use here.

If it's an evolving field, are there any experts?

There are people and companies I would consider experts in SEO. I'll let you know who they are when you ask me about some reading you should be doing.

What was that white hat and black hat stuff you were talking about?

White hat SEO is a long process with delayed rewards. It can take months to implement, and then you might not see results for another few months after it's implemented. And you have to keep evolving with the search engines. Black hat SEO is a quicker process with a fast payoff that can get you kicked off search engines down the road (source: Caseo, a Burlington SEO company).

What kind of things go into each, and if I could get kicked off a search engine, why would I even consider a black hat campaign?

Some of the white hat processes involve research into how people are searching for your products, writing about your products frequently and well, making some code updates to your pages, and in general providing value. Black hat processes could involve buying links from other sites to your own site, scraping/stealing content from other sites, and making your site look different to search engines than it does to humans. You might undertake a black hat campaign if you had a lot of domains that you intend to make you some quick cash but then you'd just abandon after a few months. Also, you might be the sort of person who punches babies and kicks puppies.

Do I need to hire somebody?

Not necessarily. SEO should be built into the initial design, and if your designer did his or her job, you're already on your way. You should have a blog up and running, and if not, you'll need one. If your site is large and no one did anything from an SEO perspective, you'll need to hire someone to get you on track, and depending on how much time you have on your hands, you could do it yourself or pay someone to implement the campaign.

Who are these experts and what should I read?

If you want to be really smart about this, you should be familiar with what the following people are saying. You can learn enough from them to do your own campaign. In alphabetical order, they are:

» Bruce Clay Inc
» Outspoken Media
» Search Engine Journal
» Search Engine Land
» SEO Book
» SEOmoz

Link exchange? How about better SEO?

I won't lecture you on link exchanges and search engine optimization. Instead, I'll tell you one way to fish for more work (and possibly end the link exchange requests).

I received this email the other day:

Dear Webmaster,

We sell health products at [a vitamin site] and are interested in exchanging links with your website.

Regards,

[person's name]

This email is NOT sp/\m. It only ever gets sent to each website once. If this is not the case please let me know.

Rather than deleting it, I decided to write back.

Hi [Name],

The new social web is adamantly against link exchanges, so much so that search engines like Google and Bing recognize link swaps that don't appear to make sense (e.g., I don't write about vitamins, supplements, or even health with the rare exception, so why would we link to each other?) – and worse, they penalize sites for such exchanges, sometimes even de-listing them entirely.

I am available to help better optimize your site for search engines and improve the usability on your site, if you are in need of such services. Please see this page for a description of what I do and a current portfolio.

Best,
Josh

I'll let you know if they take me up on the offer. Cuz that'd actually be pretty cool.

A bleak future for search?

Microsoft's Bing is reportedly considering paying for the ability to search paywalled content on the Wall Street Journal's website. With exclusivity.

Rupert Murdoch, who runs News Corp. (which is the Fox network and its cable spin-offs in the U.S., along with newspapers and TV stations in the U.S., UK and Australia), the Journal's owner, has made no secret that he is considering blocking Google from searching paid content on the Journal's site. Google isn't exactly fighting back – the search engine figures that they make that option available to everyone, and if the Journal doesn't want the Internet's most popular search engine finding its content, that's no skin off Google's teeth.

But let's say Bing pays for the privilege of being the only major search engine that can search the Journal for news (the idea being that people will want Journal content included in their searches and as such will turn to Bing instead of Google). Then let's say a whole chain follows suit – maybe Bing signs up Hearst, or Belo, or both. At some point, Google has to counter.

When that happens, we come to a point where, if you want to include certain news outlets in your searches, you have to know which search engine carries what content. And maybe by now that extends to musical artists – perhaps Bing has paid one studio and Google another for access to search their artists' pages.

This is where the two search engines cease to be money-making platforms for their respective companies. Why? Because now I'd just go to Bingle, which searches them both. And then Bingle gets lots of competitors, all who search both Bing and Google. And all those search engines make money.

OR:

This exclusivity fight leads someone to develop an entirely new way to search the web. And it becomes the next Google. And then the next Bing follows. And then we do this whole thing again. Vicious cycle, anyone?

(Hat tip to James Bedell for the story link.)