Lance Armstrong, Professional Ethics and SEO

Broken promises from Lance Armstrong represented in this broken bracelet

Image courtesy of Andy Miah from Flickr

As stated in my brief Twitter profile, I have been a TdF fans (that’s Tour de France for those not geeky enough to follow the niche sport of professional bicycle racing) for many years. I’ve been following the 3-week, 2,000+ mile TdF as it unfolds every July since the days Greg LeMond was riding and winning (back in the late 1980s). The race is grueling, extremely competitive, tactically fascinating, and the participants, no matter how good or prepared they might be, are subject to momentary external events beyond their control (flat tires, inclement weather, oblivious spectators & their dogs, road furniture, crazy drivers, crazier sprints, and more), which more often than not determines who will not win the race. The winners typically just go with the flow, are highly consistent, and stay out of trouble, but the secret is that they more often than not simply work harder than anyone else (kind of reminiscent of SEO, isn’t it?).

I remember following past great riders like LeMond, Miguel Indurain, Richard Virenque and Jan Ullrich, as well as superstars of today Mark Cavendish, Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador and Thomas Voeckler. Then, of course, there is Lance Armstrong. Even if you’re not a cycling fan, you probably know of Lance.

I remember in the early 1990s hearing about this up-and-coming American kid named Lance when he rode in the Tour DuPont, a now defunct, 12-day stage race held in the United States. He was young, brash, bold, and on fire as a rider. He was also a bit of a wild man, untamed, undisciplined, and a likely candidate to shine bright but burn out fast. I then remember reading he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain – he was only in his mid-20s. It was horrible news for any young person, when life should be about endless possibilities, not end-of-life mortality. I followed with great interest later news that Lance had miraculously beat back the disease and was even getting back on the bike. He appeared to be a different man at that point. Thinner, more restrained, and much more disciplined. And he had been transformed into one hell of a cyclist. He genuinely trained harder and longer than anyone, sought to leverage every new advance in aerodynamic cycling technology, and brought a new, hardcore discipline to the sport.

I watched with heart-swelling, vicarious pride as he stood on the winner’s podium wearing the famed yellow jersey in his first year back in the TdF at the end of July, 1999. And he then repeated that most incredibly unlikely feat six more times – in a row! I’ll never forget Lance’s iconic TdF moments like “The Look” in 2001, the off-road emergency shortcut down a mountain in 2003, the musette entanglement in 2003, the time trial up the mountain Alpe D’Huez in 2004 – these are just a few of the incredible memories burned forever in the minds of TdF fans. He rode like a man possessed – perhaps even super-human.

Well, not super-human, but certainly not normal, either. Lance Armstrong’s extraordinary performances were the stuff of legend, and rumors of performance-enhancing drugs and blood doping dogged him for years. He vociferously denied them, shrugged them off as sour grapes from jealous competitors, threatened (and sued and won against) people who publicly accused him of such, and defended himself by boasting he had never failed any of the 500+ drug tests he took (while many of his competitors certainly did!).

But did Lance cheat. He lied. He bullied people who knew the truth, and used the weapons of the popular press and aggressive attorneys for endless, expensive legal entanglements to attack his enemies. And lest you accuse me of libel, unless you have not been keeping up with the news, in 2012 the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) produced a report with over 1,000 pages of supporting materials detailing testimony and evidence that showed Lanced cheated. He was subsequently stripped of all of his past professional racing victories starting just after he returned to professional bicycle racing after beating back stage 3 cancer in 1998 and is now banned from competing professionally in any USADA-sanctioned sports events for life. And just recently, he went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and publicly admitted he cheated. And lied. And bullied people.

Up until about a year or two ago, I really wanted to believe Lance when he said he would never do something as foolish as doping to his body after nearly dying of cancer. Because of the many tales of his toughness, his perseverance, and his amazing athleticism (including those I witnessed), Lance had become a hero to me, but no more. Ethics are something I value more than incredible athletic feats, and Lance utterly failed in ethics.

Ethics and SEO

Speaking of ethics, I keep hearing from a specific segment of the SEO population a lot of talk about their peculiar definitions of white hat vs. black hat SEO. I hear accusations made against people who are now known for being white hat but “used to be” black hat. I hear of highly notable people in our industry being attacked as surreptitious black hats. I have no idea if any of that is true. But what I find most interesting is when some of these talkers make such bold pronouncements as “there is no such thing as white hat SEO. All SEO is black hat” or “SEO is SEO and thus it is all white hat”. Right…

How do these folks do it? Are they really unable to understand the difference between right and wrong? Ethical and unethical? Could it be that they are attempting to rationalize some potentially dubious ethical business behavior on their part, or are they just paranoid about being caught?

Lance Armstrong understood the differences between ethical and unethical behavior. He knew the rules, and the rules specified that performance enhancing drugs and blood doping were forbidden. He worked hard to actively cheat while knowing that being caught would ruin his career, but he still cheated anyway. He rationalized it by believing everybody else was cheating.

I believe a penchant toward unethical behavior is a natural human condition among a small segment of humanity. Unfortunately, that behavioral inclination spans across the globe and runs back throughout the course of time. Consider not only modern entities such as organized crime and drug cartels, but ancient ones as well. Tomb robbers were a major concern to ancient Egyptians, and I have seen counterfeit Roman silver coins that were, just after being minted, actually plated with a silver veneer to falsely raise the coin’s value (I own one of those). History is full of tales of thieves, charlatans, usurpers, and scammers.

SEOs are people, too, and some people are sadly inclined toward cheating behavior rather than ethical behavior. It’s a shame, really, and search engines spend huge amounts of resources to manage and mitigate malicious web spam, but it’s a never-ending war. And worst of all, the SEO industry is getting such a bad name because of these few unethical players that some SEOs have decided to rename their work as Inbound Marketing (talk about an urgent need for online reputation management!). If you can’t fix the broken reputation, just change the name (sort of the same way today’s Altria Group, Inc. used to be known as Philip Morris Tobacco).

Clarifying questions to ask

To help those SEOs who just don’t understand the ethical differences between black hat and white hat SEO (or Inbound Marketing), let’s ask ourselves a few questions. I think it’ll help bring some clarity to the issue.

  • Are you using SEO tactics that you would not admit to publicly because you know they violate the search engines’ webmaster guidelines? If so, you are probably black hat.
  • Are you adding concise, relevant page descriptions in the <title>, <meta> description and <h1> tags where none (or junk text) existed before? This is white hat.
  • Are you doing things that you would not dare tell Matt Cutts or Duane Forrester in a face-to-face meeting? If yes, then I’m guessing you lean toward black hat.
  • Are your pages filled with useful, authoritative, and interesting content to human readers? This is another example of white hat.
  • Are you hiding text in your webpages with HTML tag attributes “display: none”, using CSS to make the text incredibly small, or formatted in the same font color as the background? If so, it’s looking like you wear a black hat.
  • Do you write text that describes the subject matter of a digital image file and add it to the <img> tag’s alt text attribute? This is standard white hat work.
  • Are you sniffing user agent identities and showing the search engine crawlers a different set of content on your pages than you show to common web browser user agents in an attempt to build up artificial keyword relevance? Yes? Then your chapeau is definitely a black hat.
  • Are you adding more text-based content to a page to fully develop a theme, a topic, or demonstrate your authority of knowledge on a subject? This is reputable white hat behavior.
  • Are you creating a network of junk blogs or crummy, low-value websites across the Internet for the primary purposes of link farming to create the artificial impression to search engines that the linked site is more popular than it really is? This sounds like more black hat work.
  • Are you using social media to build a community of people interested in your product/service/content to reach out to them and help them learn more about your site/products/services/content? That’s solid white hat.
  • Is your intention to dupe or deceive the search engines or users of search engine results page data into believing your site is something that it is not? No question – this is black hat.
  • Lastly, do you believe because a certain segment of the human population consists of liars, cheaters, thieves, and charlatans that everybody else has (or at least you have) a right to behave in the same way? If so, you should probably think harder about the nature of ethics.

The truth is that most people are ethical by nature, and we can all be thankful about that. This whole black hat vs. white hat distinction is really not that hard to figure out. The bottom line question is this: are you actively working to deceive some entity, be it either the searcher or the search engine algorithms? If so, you are like Lance. No, not as a former world-class athlete, but as a cheat, a liar – a black hat. And one day the game will be up for you, too. You may see some limited success today with a few of those tactics, but the pressure is on you to continue to achieve the cheater’s success, and that’s only getting harder to do. Search engines continue to crack down on web spam, slowly chipping away at your toolbox, your tactics, and your success. If you’re not convinced this is a losing path, just ask Lance how it all worked out for him.

Posted in ethics, SEO | Leave a comment

Helping Charities with SEO and Google Grants

Quick note from Rick before we begin this post: Sorry I was absent for so long from these pages. As you can see from my Additional posts on SEO page, I have actually been keeping busy with SEO blogging. But recent employment obligations prevented me from being able to focus time and energy on this blog for a while. Circumstances have now changed, and I trust that problem has been put to rest. Now, finally, back to our regularly scheduled programming!

Imagine this: you work (or more likely, volunteer) for a charitable organization. Your charity’s good work benefits the community in which you live, and you love contributing to the organization. But, unfortunately, the organization is always strapped for resources. There’s not enough time in the day, there’s never enough help, and if only there was more money to publicize the cause. You know that if you could only get the word out, the community would rally around you and really help you make a difference. Does that sound familiar? If you work or volunteer for a non-profit group, it certainly should.

Now imagine your organization’s website advertising its mission and its good work within Google AdWords. In fact, imagine that some benefactor has provided your charity with a donated AdWords budget of up to $10,000 per month – that’s $330 per day to promote the charity’s name, improve the community’s awareness of its mission, and stir up community support for your favorite cause. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Ah, but that’s only a pipedream, right? Well, think again.

An SEO role in charity

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post that detailed how I got into the SEO business. I owe big debts of positive karma to many people in this business (including Duane Forrester, Dana Lookadoo, Elisabeth Osmeloski, and Jim Boykin, just to quickly name a few, but there are many others) for the success I’ve had in my career. In that post, I specifically recalled the excellent advice I got from my friend, Rand Fishkin. When I was preparing to transition away from my original role with Bing Webmaster Center and was unsure if I really had what it takes to make it in the SEO field, Rand advised me to further develop my technical SEO skills on my own. “Just do SEO,” he advised. “And when you do it, give back to the community by volunteering part of your SEO work to a charitable group who would surely benefit from (and appreciate) the efforts.”

It was great advice, and I did just what he suggested. I found a local 501c3 non-profit, charitable organization (a small but very talented local performing arts group, Woodinville Repertory Theatre) that would benefit from a little white hat nudge on the web. I figured I would learn a little about theatre at the same time as I learned how to be a better SEO, all the while helping the theatre become better known in our community. Hanging out with some amazing and talented people was just one of the perks!

The organization already had an established volunteer webmaster, so I came in to the group as a volunteer online marketing advisor. I advised the webmaster on SEO strategies and gently recommended improvements to the site, but mainly I handled off-page tasks, such as delving into capturing and creating local search profiles, starting targeted social media networking, and personally sponsored limited-run, paid search ad campaigns during runs of shows. As volunteer work goes, that PPC work was somewhat expensive, but the funds I spent on ad campaigns were given as donations to the charity. I also got genuine, first-hand experience in designing and managing real-world Google AdWords campaigns.

In the past year or so of steady SEO improvements, developing consistent local search profiles, working in social media, and funding occasional PPC campaigns, the theatre’s presence on the web, and its authoritative standing with the search engines, has grown significantly. Now the theatre’s SERP listing even includes Site Links in Google SERPs! Sweet!

Unfortunately, despite the great brand-building and awareness opportunities afforded by the PPC ad campaigns, they were just too expensive for me to run in perpetuity. The theatre itself had no money to pay for such advertising, so what was I to do?

Google Grants to the rescue

That’s when I learned about Google Grants. Google offers officially recognized IRS 501c3 charities the opportunity to apply for numerous benefits. I applied in behalf of the Woodinville Rep and we were approved in relatively short order.

Google offers several significant benefits for eligible non-profits under the umbrella of the Google for Nonprofits program, including:

To be honest, Woodinville Rep really hasn’t had an opportunity yet to do anything more than work with the AdWords benefits, but as that was our primary intent when applying to the program, we’re satisfied with that (for now!). As such, I’m going to focus on our Google Grants experience to date.

The Google Grants program offers non-profits access to a brand-building and mission-promoting online search ads campaign worth up to $10,000 per month in Google AdWords spending. Now before any of our friends on the black hat side of the aisle start salivating, the program does have many strict rules and limitations that must be obeyed to receive the benefits. The rules are not overly onerous, but they do limit the program from being a easy-money, free-for-all romp into a reasonable, charity-support program. Let’s walk through them so you can see for yourself:

  • The charity must be a federally-registered United States 501c3 non-profit with an Employer Identification Number (EIN).
  • The charity must have a website, and Google Grants AdWords ads must link to a page on that site.
  • The charity website cannot display revenue-generating ads, such as Google AdSense or any other affiliate links.
  • Campaigns can only be keyword-targeted. You can’t use placements to target ads.
  • The keywords used must be relevant to the charity’s work and mission.
  • The Google Grants AdWords links cannot go to pages that are primarily links to other sites.
  • You can only use text-based ads, not image ads or other ad formats.
  • The ads can only be shown on the Google Search results pages, not the Google Display Network.
  • Commercial advertising is not allowed.
  • The maximum spend per day is $330.00.
  • The maximum ad bid is limited to $1.00. (This limitation is the only real disappointment here, as this restriction means many desirable and locally competitive keywords are unavailable to us, so we’ll never come close to burning through the maximum daily spend for the Seattle/Tacoma area.)
  • Conversion tracking is permitted, but you can only use the manually set bids for clicks option, not automatic bidding, conversion optimizer, or bid ideas on the Opportunities tab of AdWords.
  • You can only use cost-per-click (CPC) bidding, not cost-per-impression (CPM) bidding.
  • The Google Grants AdWords account has to be actively managed during the entire campaign or the account may be suspended.
  • The grant is an open-ended, ongoing donation, but can be rescinded by Google at any time for any reason, especially if you violate their usage guidelines (above rules) or do not actively manage the account.

The benefit of using such a generous AdWords budget at no cost is a boon for any charity struggling to be found, heard, or seen online. We are just getting our branding campaign underway, and a show promotion campaign for our next production will also run. The best thing for us is that the brand building effort is perpetual. It won’t stop as long as we take care to follow the simple rules above. I personally look forward to filling theatre seats, entertaining patrons, and helping the performing arts flourish in my little neck of the woods near Seattle.

Helpful lessons learned

I learned a few things along the way in setting up the Google Grants account for Woodinville Repertory Theatre. The process is not necessarily intuitive, especially for those unaccustomed to administering PPC campaigns. Take these following lessons and learn from some of my mistakes. You and your charity will benefit with a more streamlined process.

  • Create a new Google account for use with Google Grants. You can’t use an existing account that was previously used to purchase AdWords services. (I know this all too well – this problem delayed my implementation for quite a while, causing my initial application to be denied.)
  • When setting up the initial AdWords settings, be sure to click into the Networks and devices section > Networks settings, and then select Let me choose. Click Google Search, but be sure the Search partners and Display Network checkboxes are clear. Otherwise the system will not allow you to proceed with the account setup phase, insisting you correct the error, but the erroneous setting is not identified and is likely hidden from view! This one hung me up for a quite a while.
  • In the Bidding and budget section, under Bidding option, select Focus on clicks, then select I’ll manually set my bids for clicks. Make sure the Use my conversion tracking data and bids to optimize for conversions checkbox is clear.
  • Also in the Bidding and budget section, under Budget, set the figure for 330.00 per day.
  • In Advanced settings, in the Ad delivery: Ad rotation, frequency capping section, select Optimize for clicks.
  • Don’t set the Demographic, Social settings and Automatic campaign optimization options with Google Grants (they are used with the Google Display Network, which Google Grants doesn’t support).
  • Log in to your Google Grants AdWords account at least once per month to ensure your account is considered actively managed. If you’re an SEO volunteering to help the charity run the campaign, you’ll want to see how the ads are doing and possibly tweak them to optimize for click-through rate, anyway. Just be regular about doing this.

The rest of the settings are either intuitive or custom to your situation. But the above tips should help you paddle through the muddy waters that temporarily held me back.

Bing and Facebook, Take Note!

And a quick word to Bing and Facebook: Please take note – emulating this sort of program for genuine charities on your own platforms would be a very good thing for both your customers and you. If you had also offered such programs, I’d be talking about you as well!

As a professional SEO, you know what it takes to help websites be successful in search. You know how to structure and conduct PPC campaigns for building brand awareness. Yes, your professional knowledge and experience is quite valuable, but that’s all the more reason to pick a non-profit whose work is near and dear to your heart and volunteer your valuable time and efforts. Most charities will not have heard of Google Grants, and even if told about it, they wouldn’t know what to do with the benefits it offers, even if they did get accepted.

So find a little bit of extra time in your month, pick an eligible, needy charity, do a quick site review for a light SEO tune-up, help them with local search profiles, determine if they might benefit from a Facebook or Google+ page or a Twitter account, and most important of all, get them signed up and running with Google Grants. For the minimal cost of performing a monthly log in to check on the status of the account, they can receive up to $10,000 per month in free search advertising in the Google SERPs. Talk about making a difference in your community! red diamond logo

Posted in charity, PPC, SEO | Leave a comment

Road Warriors Have New Weapon of Choice

I just got back from four days in Las Vegas. However, I wasn’t there for vacation – I was definitely there for work (looking for new work opportunities, to be accurate). I attended my first-ever PubCon Conference, and I was pretty impressed. I had three days and nights to attend valuable, technical sessions presented by leading search industry experts (and meet them afterwards). I got a chance to catch up with old friends as well as meet new ones. I was impressed by the convenience of the Las Vegas Monorail (I stayed in the official PubCon hotel, the MGM Grand, which anchors the south end of the monorail, while the Las Vegas Convention Center, which hosted the conference, was only four station stops away). As for the food, it was a mixed bag. The conference meals were so-so, but as Vegas is a restaurant lover’s paradise, dinners were fine. The highlight of my visit, with grateful thanks to my friend Alan Bleiweiss, was participating in his infamous “Epic Dinner Vegas” event. Imagine 120 SEOs, delicious (and plentiful) food & drink, and it only cost a mere $5. Alan is a genius marketer.

Fledgling Road Warrior

I haven’t had the occasion to travel all that much in my career (so far), so some business travel lessons are perhaps coming late for me. But I already recognized that lugging around a heavy, power-hungry, and slow-booting laptop is a huge drag. Attending three conferences this year (besides PubCon, I also attended the Seattle-based SMX Advanced and MozCon events) helped me realize that my old laptop was not the mobile business computing solution I wanted.

This past spring, the fledgling road warrior in me got a new crush with my first ever tablet computer, the Apple iPad2. I love the size-to-weight ratio of this device. It’s all screen! Now as I am a Microsoft guy from way, WAY back, this was a big move for me. And if Microsoft had created a product that was even close to comparable in value, functionality, and design quality to the iPad, I’d probably still be an Apple virgin to this day. Alas, while I may have leaned toward Microsoft products in the past (hell, I still use a Zune!), I have finally seen the light – at least with IOS.

I do see the utility of the iPad and tablet computing very clearly. From a mobility point of view, I am sold. The iPad handles basic email access and web browsing very well. It offers a plethora of custom apps for a ton of custom tasks (although I’ll never use the vast, vast majority of them. Seriously, how many farting apps does a guy need?).

However, I don’t see the iPad as a desktop replacement device, and that opinion has not changed after using it for several months. For one, I love my PC’s multiple wide screen monitor setup. Second, I love working with the precision of a high-quality mouse. But as much as anything, as a writer, I like a big, comfortable keyboard. The iPad’s on-screen keyboard is a barely usable tool for writing short messages in email or typing out URLs in the Safari search bar. But as a real, honest-to-goodness device on which to do serious writing, the iPad by itself just doesn’t cut it (at least not for me).

Add a Bluetooth Keyboard

When I bought my iPad, I knew the on-screen keyboard would not be a viable solution for writing (and as you can see from my blog writing history, I write a LOT!). To remedy that shortcoming, I also bought the Apple Bluetooth keyboard. It was a better solution than the on-screen keyboard, but it was also a bit bulky as road warrior equipment. To be honest, I’ve really never used it beyond getting it initially paired in Bluetooth with my iPad.

The July MozCon conference was my first opportunity to really use the iPad as a road warrior device. Just before the conference began, I ran across a web article in which the author stated he used an old Think Outside Bluetooth Stowaway Keyboard with their iPad. As I was a Pocket PC nerd before it was cool (I’m still waiting for that to be cool, actually), I have several of these amazing fold-up keyboards socked away in my pile of outdated hardware. I found the newest one (which is at least seven years old, and I have a have a couple of older models, too!), installed new batteries, and was shocked at how easy it was to pair this ancient hardware with the new iPad. It seemed to work well.

I took this pair of devices with me to MozCon and used them extensively to take notes, check email, browse the web, etc. While the pairing worked well enough, I found the keyboard’s ingenious design for folding up small to be lacking when used unfolded as a keyboard. It needs to lay on a sturdy, flat surface (luckily MozCon supplied tables for all session seating!), it had no means of supporting the iPad (luckily the foldable iPad Smart Cover resolved that issue), but the biggest liability was the basic wobbliness of the Stowaway keyboard as you typed on it. It felt unstable when I typed on any key placed outside of the perimeter of its small, bottom base plate.

ZAGG to the Rescue

As PubCon approached, I was prepared to abandon the Stowaway keyboard and instead take the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, despite its bulk. My girlfriend then offered to lend me her newest toy: her new ZAGGfolio Bluetooth keyboard. This turns out to be a game-changer, at least for me. At once the iPad went from being a sub-optimal but adequate mobile business computing platform to a perfect road warrior solution.

ZAGGfolio-openThe ZAGGfolio is a Bluetooth keyboard and a protective folio case all-in-one. The keyboard offers the full array of standard alphanumeric keys as well as a top row of iPad2-specific keys that enable cut, copy & paste functions, music control, volume control, device search, home, screen lock, and more. Behind the top row of keys is a slot that allows the iPad to stand securely as you type. The keyboard pairs easily in Bluetooth with the iPad, and its built-in battery supposedly only needs to be charged a few times a year (a video on the ZAGGfolio page clarifies this as once a month).

The folio case is well-engineered as well. Both the keyboard and iPad fit securely within the light-weight case, although the case is not required to use the keyboard (which means you can also position the iPad to stand in portrait mode instead of the case’s default landscape mode). The case has cut-outs so you can easily access the iPad’s external control buttons, toggle switches, rear camera and the power cable slot while mounted in the folio. And as a nice touch, the case has a built-in magnet that puts the iPad in sleep mode when the cover is closed, just like the Smart Cover.

I only have a couple of minor gripes about the ZAGGfolio. The folio case covers the micro-USB port used for charging the keyboard (cable included in the kit). As a result, you need to at least partially remove the keyboard to charge it (although that won’t be a frequent issue given its long battery life). You also can’t tell how much battery life there is left in the keyboard (there ought to be an app for that). Also, unlike the Smart Cover, which has a microfiber lining to help clean the iPad screen of smudges and fingerprints when closed, you need to carry an eyeglasses cleaning cloth with you in your road warrior kit. The continuous build-up of oily fingerprints from all-day use can get surprisingly bad (ZAGG should consider bundling such a cloth in the kit). There is a microfiber lining to the folio case, but that only touches the rear of the iPad, not the screen. Also note that if you have an original iPad, you’re out of luck. The ZAGGfolio is designed only for the iPad2.

The ZAGGfolio enabled me to leave the clunky Apple Bluetooth keyboard accessory at home (the old laptop PC option was long gone) while putting the iPad in the useful form factor of a small, very light-weight laptop (but with a bigger, better display than a cheap netbook). The ZAGG Bluetooth keyboard pairs easily, and its broad bottom base serves as a stable platform stand (so you can work effectively while holding it in your lap) as the case holds the iPad screen, preventing it from falling to the floor (you’ll still want a level surface, however). When you’re done working, it folds up into a nice, compact kit that is easily toted around all day.

ZAGGfolio-closedBest of all, the iPad2/ZAGGfolio combo modestly sips battery power. After a full day of using the iPad with WiFi and Bluetooth enabled, taking notes in conference sessions, checking emails, reading Twitter feeds, and browsing the web, I never got below 58% power, despite never having connected to a power source all day long. No more panicky searches for AC power when the laptop batteries die early.

Will this dynamic duo replace a desktop PC for me? Nope. But it changes the game for mobile business computing. I will no longer carry a heavy, slow-to-boot laptop. And as a writer, I can easily work on this keyboard. Now my initial crush on the iPad has blossomed into a full-blown love affair, thanks to ZAGG!

And one last thing: I envy Scott Cowley, whom I met at PubCon. When we met, I was raving about how great the ZAGGfolio was in making the iPad the ultimate road warrior kit. He smiled and listened, then revealed he is the in-house SEO for ZAGG! No wonder he was smiling so much. I’d do the same if it was my job to promote such a cool product! Hey, Scott, I know of a good, passionate SEO who just happens to be looking for work right now. Call me. red diamond logo

Posted in conferences, equipment | Leave a comment

Use rel=author to claim credit for your writing in Google

If you are like me, an author of web-based content, you care about your work. You get upset when someone plagiarizes parts of your content (or worse yet, simply screen scrapes your work and republishes it without attribution on another site). And frankly, you’d like to be recognized for the good work you do. Well, now there is something you can do about all of this.

At the SMX Advanced conference in June, Google announced it was supporting the use of the rel=author attribute in anchor tags as a means of identifying who wrote a piece of content. This is good news, as identifying the original source of valuable content has always been troublesome for search engines. Better yet, Google hopes to use the data collected by this feature to begin building author authority similar to the way valuable websites build site authority.

Unfortunately, the implementation process is a little complicated, and it requires a detailed explanation on what needs to be done to ensure that you and no one else earns authorship credit for your own work. Luckily, I’ve got that covered for you.

New blogger for Search Engine Land

I recently was invited to join Search Engine Land as a blogger (whoodathunkit?), and I used my first post, titled , to discuss in detail the process of implementing the rel=author feature. As such, instead of reinventing the wheel by writing another in-depth post on this topic here (or worse yet, creating duplicate content by reposting it!), I just invite instead you to visit Search Engine Land’s Link Week section or look at my biography page for a list of posts I’ve published there.

In case you’re interested, I’ll also be sure to keep my page on this site updated with links to my new SEL posts as they are published so you can always find my work around the web.

Now get out there and claim credit for what is yours! Later… red diamond logo

Posted in rel=author, Search Engine Land, SEO, writing | Leave a comment

Optimize to reap the fruits of your labor

Conventional wisdom is wrong – AGAIN. They said it couldn’t be done. But I’ve done it. Maybe I’m lucky, but I think there’s more to it than that. Allow me to elaborate.

I live in Washington State, west of the Cascade mountains, not too far from the shores of Puget Sound. My neighbors and I reside in the one of the very few regions of the US that have not been scorched by the insane summer heat of 2011. Indeed, our official temperatures have hovered in the 60s and 70s all summer long. We’ve barely touched the 80s, and nothing hotter than that. Lucky us!

Pleasant summer weather in the Pacific Northwest is one of the many charms of living here. There’s no real humidity to speak of, no swarming gnats or black flies (like there is where I grew up in the Washington, DC area!), and only very infrequent heat waves that may reach into the 90s. As a result of this wonderful weather, conventional wisdom says that you cannot grow tomatoes and hot peppers here. It is said there’s not enough sun and not enough heat. Pshaw.

My own nano-climate

The back patio of my condo has a great southwest exposure. The patio’s concrete slab heats up during the day and slowly radiates that heat during the cool evening hours. My condo patio container garden thrives back there. And no wonder my plants grow so well: an outdoor thermometer installed last year shows that my sun-drenched patio temperatures are regularly 15-20 degrees warmer than the official numbers from the local weather reports. I call this my personal nano-climate. My next-door neighbors to the south do not get the same sun exposure I get, and their stunted tomato plants must surely look at their gargantuan brethren on my patio with green-eyed envy.

For the last three years, I’ve taken what used to be my gardening black thumb and transformed it to a deep green. My first year I successfully grew sugary-sweet cherry tomatoes, then last year I added heirloom tomatoes and a variety of fiery hot chili peppers. Each year was mostly successful, and lessons were learned about which plants grow best in my hot patio container garden. However, this year promises to take the cake.

Take a look at this:

Several nine-foot-tall tomato plants on Rick's back patio prove the impossible can be done - growing tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest.

Welcome to the land of Rick’s nine-foot-tall tomato plants! This year I have two Sun Gold cherry tomato and two Brandywine heirloom tomato plants. In front of them, I have four chili pepper plants: one Cayenne, two Jalapeno, and one Serrano. I also added a pot of Rosemary to the mix this year.

The sweet, orange-colored Sun Golds are appearing in huge numbers this year (I’ll need a ladder to pick the top ones). The Brandywines are also coming along nicely, as you can see below.

Growing Brandywine tomatoes near Seattle is comparable to growing a new site's page rank. It takes a lot of work.

But what really gets me excited is the surprise of the chilies. Despite this region never hitting New Mexico-like temperatures, my nano-climate’s heat produces beautiful, capsaicin-laden peppers, such as the Serranos below.

Growing hot peppers in the Seattle area can be done, just like earning a top rank for a new website. But it requires careful, diligent work.

Bringing it back to SEO

So what’s the point of all this gardening talk in an SEO blog? Well, the success of my garden is analogous to the success I’ve had with this SEO blog, . Both started out brand new in the spring of 2011 (the site in March, and the garden in May). Both are already doing very well for their niche. Indeed, my site now ranks #1 in both Google and Bing for the query phrase SEO ACE (using no search operator modifiers). It ranks ahead of all the other relevant SEO sites and blogs that have been around much longer than my site. So who says you can’t get a new site to rank well in just a few months? Pshaw.

Helping your garden grow

The process of growing a good garden is like growing a new site. To reap the fruits I wanted (be it a delicious vegetable or good page rank), I followed these steps:

1. Find a good, fertile spot in which to grow. In the case of a tomato garden, I needed a spot with lots of sun and warmth, easy access to water, and good air circulation to keep the leaves dry, all of which is relevant to the needs of the plant to prosper.

Websites need relevancy to prosper as well. Lots of it! To make that happen for me, I created a domain name that has relevant keywords for my site’s theme (theseoace for SEO—I can’t believe it was available!). I also used the most appropriate top-level domain (TLD) for my intended audience (I used .COM as I am ostensibly a US-based commercial venture, but had I been outside the US writing for a non-US-based audience, I would have used an international TLD for ).

Once I had my domain name set, I that became the basis of my site’s content plan, and then I broke that master list down into the most relevant subsets for each content page I planned to create. Those lists of keywords will help define the relevance of each page of my site in search.

2. Create a strong supporting architecture to build upon. For tomatoes, I needed tall cages and sturdy planters (I even added a bolted-on trellis this year!) to offer the plants the support they need to bear fruit. Anything less and the plants could potentially topple over just as they began to actively grow.

For my site, I needed to create a supportive site architecture that helped the site get indexed in search. This includes building a (as much as WordPress allowed me to control), using keywords for directory and file names (called custom Permalinks in WordPress parlance), my domain root (via a script in the .htaccess file), and providing both well-formed and files. I also know to always of pages relocated or removed from my site.

3. Setup cross-linking for added support. While using tall tomato cages was OK, I wanted more support since I was doing container gardening. In my first year of gardening, I grew tomatoes in large, individual pots with tall cages. As the plants grew and bore green fruit, they became very top-heavy. Unfortunately, a blustery summer storm came through that summer and blew over the top-heavy pots, thereby damaging some of the plants. Last year I linked the pots’ cages together with strings and then tied them to fixtures on my house, where they supported one another (awkwardly, but it worked). This year, instead of individual pots, I am using large 75-gallon planters, heavy with drainage stone, with strong trellises mounted, where I can link the cages to the trellis and to each other with string. I’ve had no troubles with plants falling over at all this year (so far!).

My site has also benefitted from supportive cross-linking. I added the URL of my blog site in the public profiles of my Twitter, LinkedIn, and my new Google Profile accounts. I also made sure my site linked back to those sites.

I also added the rel=author tag to my page on my site as the definitive biography of me, and I link content pages of my site to that bio page hub. I also link my Google Profile page to the bio page, and link that bio page back to my Google Profile. All of this is designed to further reinforce my brand as an author of technical SEO content, at least within Google.

4. Feed it! This year I chose to use a 50/50 mix of high quality organic garden soil and peat humus as my gardening medium. This was a good start, but I still wanted a little extra fertilizer to feed the tomatoes and peppers when they were in both the green growth and fruit-setting stages.

My site also needs a regular diet of fresh new content to help it thrive in organic search rankings. Search engines use hundreds of criteria to evaluate the rank of related sites for a keyword query. All other criteria being equal, the site that continues to develop new, high-quality content, especially in these days of Google’s Panda algorithm, will see more success than a site that has gone dormant. Fresh, high-quality content will feed a site’s page rank (because it offers more opportunities for search customers to browse).

I always keep in mind that the content I provide should be useful to my audience. I maintain a page that serves as my online link to my favorite SEO tools and sites. I hope others find as useful as I do (it is the page I visit most often).

5. Provide regular, nurturing care. My tomatoes and peppers will only thrive with my regular intervention to eliminate competing weeds, apply supporting ties to shore up heavy, fruit-laden branches, and provide water when needed (tall, fruit-laden tomato plants can consume a lot of water on a hot day!). I also need to watch out for and remove slugs and other pests as they appear.

My site benefits from my regular attention as well. WordPress and the plug-ins I use all get periodically updated, and as these can often be security updates, it is imperative that I apply them ASAP. I also regularly update my pages as new content or relevant technologies become available. For example, I recently applied the Google +1 button to each of my site’s pages. Along with the rel=author work mentioned above, I figure as I am a professional content developer with a long history of published content, I should take advantage of this emerging trend of creating relevance between published content and its author (me!). This kind of regular maintenance will help keep the site vital.

6. Enable the power of disinfecting sunlight. My tomato and pepper plants need long exposure to sunlight to keep them healthy and vibrant.

In terms of a website, transparency in how it operates is a very good thing. Some webmasters will try malicious attempts to manipulate the search engine results through ill-advised techniques such as or . This is pure web spam, which is toxic to the health of a site’s page rank in search. Maybe I’m old school, but my domain name is valuable to me. I’m not going to risk having it purged from the indexes of the search engines because I foolishly tried to earn page rank via malicious manipulation.

7. Lastly, optimize its ability to thrive. My garden needs good drainage, high quality soil, room for roots to spread out, support to grow tall, and time. I could have used small buckets as planters, sterile potting soil, and nothing else, but my results would have not been worth the effort made.

To help my site thrive, I needed to optimize it as well. I applied relevant keywords used in its metadata and on-page. I made sure every post and page I wanted indexed had descriptive and relevant <title> and <meta> description tags, <img> alt text, and <h1> tags using my targeted keywords. I worked to get authoritative inbound links (which is a never-ending process!). I developed high-quality, text-based content so search crawlers could easily read it. I also gave the process time to work. And so far, I have to say I like the results.

For more site optimization tips, I offer the following:

You’re on your own for more garden optimization tips! Until next time… red diamond logo

Posted in gardening, SEO | Leave a comment

Funnel that link juice with canonicalization

In an earlier post titled, “,” I talked about how you can canonicalize your domain name in terms of sorting out potential user confusion between homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently).

Note: Remember that to canonicalize a URL is to select one primary version and divert all traffic from the other various versions to the canonical version.

That earlier advice was cool, but it’s not the end of your canonicalization considerations. Not even close! There are many other URL variation issues to resolve through URL canonicalization. And given that search engine indexes are so literal as to make Dr. Sheldon Cooper look like an artistic free thinker, we need to actively address this issue for SEO.

The problem is that the search engines regard each version of a URL as a separate entity, even when the target page of multiple URLs point to the same source code content. As such, each URL variation to a given page earns its own search engine index ranking value, thereby diluting the potential rank of the target page.

Multiple URLs pointing to the same page?

At first it seems odd. You’d think there were discrete addresses for each page on the web! But the web is more flexible than you might think, and for search engines, that is the rub. This is especially troublesome for domain home pages. Below is an example of just a few URL variations that would likely point to the same hypothetical domain home page:

  • www.<ExternalHostProvider>.com/~mysite

Believe it or not, this is an abbreviated list! The list of all possible permutations is even larger. Not all of these apply in every circumstance, but I’ve seen each of these pull up the home page of a non-canonicalized site, and that’s a problem.

Testing your site for canonicalization problems

So how many variations of your domain home page are indexed and earning their own rank, taking SEO value away from your preferred (canonical) home page URL? Let’s find out. Start your favorite browser and open three session tabs, all pointing to (you can run this with as well). In the three browser tabs, type the following lines of text respectively in the Google search text boxes:

  1. site:<mysite>.com
  2. site:www.<mysite>.com
  3. site:<mysite>.com -site:www.<mysite>.com

Replace <mysite> with just your root domain name and its associated top-level domain (it doesn’t have to be .COM) exactly as shown.

Note: This test is intended for domain root sites. If your site is a blog subdomain under a host, such as, the test as described won’t provide useful results. Also note that the number results you see are not necessarily a complete listing of all indexed pages in Google. It’s common that the results from “site:” queries are merely subset sample listings, especially with larger sites, regardless of which search engine is queried.

This first test query searches for all pages in the index from the entire domain (including all subdomains). The second test query specifically looks for indexed pages associated with the “www.” subdomain. Finally, the third test reruns the first query while using the second query as an exclusion filter. This filter removes all indexed results that include the “www.” subdomain in the URL.

If the last test produces results (which may include URLs in subdomains other than “www.”), examine the search results in detail for both the “www.” and non-“www.” variations of your site’s URLs. If found, you need to canonicalize your site to consolidate the URL variations in the search engine so your pages can earn the highest possible rank for the canonical URL form.

So you discover you have canonicalization problems. Welcome to the club! Now let’s fix them.

Canonicalize external inbound links with 301 redirects

URLs are found through crawled links. And with the notable exception of nefarious link spammers (you know who you are!), links coming to you from external sites are typically out of your control. So what do you do when external sites link to your home page using a non-canonicalized URL? Use redirects! More specifically, use permanent redirects – aka the 301 redirect.

For the list of URL variations shown above, most webmasters choose the first variant as their canonical URL. This URL form includes the “www.“ prefix as well as a trailing slash (but feel free to buck the system and choose your own style — just be consistent about it!). Once you’ve selected your canonical URL, you need to set up 301 redirects for all the other, non-canonical URLs.

The key here is the use of the 301 or permanent redirect rather than the 302 or temporary redirect (which is often the default type offered by web servers). Search engines react differently to 301s than they do to 302s. When they encounter a 302, they assume the redirect will eventually be removed (such as when an online store redirects a URL for an out-of-stock inventory item to a “Temporarily Sold Out” page). As the 302 is temporary, the original URL is assumed to be coming back online soon, so the search engines make no change to their indexes. However, a 301 tells the search engines that the original URL is permanently gone, which enables them to safely transfer all of the search index ranking value from the old URL to the new URL! This is how you consolidate all of those diluted index ranking values from the URL variants to your new canonical URL.

How do you set up a 301 redirect?

Excellent question, Grasshopper. The answer depends upon your web server environment. Users of Apache HTTP Server can modify the .htaccess file at the root of their website by inserting a bit of script. I’ve used variants of the following script in my work:

# Redirects non www. URLs to the full URL
Options +FollowSymLinks
RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^mysite\.com [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$$1 [L,R=301]

# Redirects URLs specifying default page file name references to the full URL
RewriteCond %{THE_REQUEST} ^[A-Z]{3,9}\ /([^/]+/)*(default|index)\.(html|php|htm)\ HTTP/
RewriteRule ^(([^/]+/)*)(default|index)\.(html|php|htm)$$1 [L,R=301]

This script permanently redirects all variants of the home page URL that omit the “www.” domain name prefix, omit the trailing slash, or add file name references, to refer to a canonicalized URL. So even if you get a great authoritative link from but they use a non-canonical URL and can’t be bothered to change it, who cares? You’ve just fixed the problem from your side.

If your web site runs on Internet Information Services (IIS) for Windows Server, you will likely use the IIS graphical user interface to set up your redirects. To save a ton of space in this post, I refer you to your IIS documentation for task-specific information. You can also run a web search on how to set up a 301 redirect on IIS!

Canonicalize your internal linking with consistent, absolute URLs

So now that you’ve got your external, inbound links canonicalized, you need to look inside. Inside your own site, I mean. Considering that internal links are theoretically controlled by one person (or organization), it’s a bit surprising how often intra-site links use inconsistent URLs. And all links offer SEO value (at least to some degree, with standard caveats, of course), even if they are from and to pages in the same domain, such as a link from your home page to your About Us page. You gotta do your own links right!

You need to scan your site (or use your CMS) to search your source code for all intra-site links (both inline and navigational) to other pages on your site. Ensure the following rules are followed:

  • All links use absolute (aka full) URLs rather than relative URLs
  • All references to default pages in a folder consistently follow the same form (such as a trailing slash, but no file name)

The consistent use of the same canonical URL for each webpage on your site will reinforce your site-wide canonicalization policy, which is simply a good SEO best practice.

Canonicalize the URLs in your Sitemap file

While you’re ensuring that your intra-site links on your webpages are consistent and use canonical, absolute URLs, check your XML Sitemap files, too. Consistency counts here, and you don’t want to list file names for directory default pages in your Sitemap when your new canonical policy is to not list them!

Use the <link> rel=”canonical” tag to define the canonical URL for a given page

Lastly, as reinforcement insurance for your new canonicalization policy, add the <link> rel=canonical tag to the <head> section of every webpage. For example, for an About Us page on my fictional website, I’d add the following code:

<link rel=”canonical” href=” />

The rel=canonical tag is really a hint from a webmaster to the search engine indicating the desired canonical URL for the given page’s content. I wouldn’t depend on this tag alone to handle your canonicalization efforts, but using it is definitely part of a sound, overall canonicalization strategy.

Don’t forget about the search engines’ webmaster tools

If your site employs URL parameters for passing user tracking codes, authentication, or other data from the client to the server, these codes can get embedded in inbound links and thus indexed by the search engines. That does not help your canonicalization efforts.

A smart way to address this situation is to logon to your search engine webmaster tools account — you are signed up, right? — and set up URL parameters to be ignored when indexing URLs from your site. To set this up, go to both Google (under Site configuration > Settings > Parameter handling) and Bing (under the Index tab > URL Normalization) and add your settings.

Given that this technique requires that you create an account with the search engine and that you actively take the time to change these settings in their tools, this effort likely carries more weight with search engines than just the rel=canonical tag (at a minimum, it certainly won’t hurt!). This URL parameter handling work also contributes to canonicalizing the URLs of your site in search.

The goal of your canonicalization strategy is one URL per one webpage. By funneling all of the search engine’s attention to one URL per page, you will earn the highest possible ranking value for that page. There’s a lot more to do in SEO than canonicalization, but this is an important success factor. We’ll continue this conversation in the days and weeks to come. Stay tuned! red diamond logo

Posted in canonicalization, SEO | 9 Responses
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