Google’s *Brand* New Ranking Algorithm

There’s been a flurry of discussion on Twitter and various SEO blogs over the past 48 hours regarding what appears to be a new ranking algorithm for popular search queries on Google.

I could go spend an hour or two to go into great detail here, but Aaron Wall stayed up all night to write this incredibly insightful post about the issue so I recommend you read his take on it.

In a nutshell, it looks as though Google is now giving ranking preference to the sites of large or well known brands in the search results for certain queries, even when those sites aren’t particularly well optimized for search engine compatibility and were not ranking well with the previous algorithm. There’s been no official word from Google on the matter one way or the other, but plenty of people are voicing their concerns about the change so it probably won’t be long.

I have to admit that if this truly is what it appears to be, it scares me. Part of the appeal for me of optimizing web sites was the fact that Google SERPS were a relatively level playing field. Even with Universal Search thrown into the mix, you could still optimize the site of Joe’s coffee house in Halitosis, Missouri and have it outranking Starbucks and Gloria Jeans for target keywords if you knew what you were doing.

Perhaps this algorithm change (if that’s what it is) is an attempt to clear up the spammy scum out of the Top 20 SERPS, but it may also handicap the authentic underdogs from being able to compete with the big brands.

What do you think? If Google really is giving more weight to brands, is that a positive or negative? Please comment below.

Q and A: How do I get a job as a Search Engine Optimizer?

QuestionDear Kalena

I have just turned 40 & am looking for a new career having previously been in sales management. I am interested in finding out how I would go about getting a position within a company as a S.E.O. and what qualifications are currently internationally recognized within the industry. Any advice would be appreciated.

Second question: is a blog type website such as a WordPress site better for optimization than the typical site a web designer would build?

Mark

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Dear Mark

1) There’s no reason why you can’t start a new career as a Search Engine Optimizer, heck I’ve written an article called 11 Reasons Why You Should Consider a Job in Search Engine Marketing. BUT, (and this is a big BUT), it takes more than theoretical knowledge and qualifications to be a good SEO.

There are plenty of online and offline training options for learning Search Engine Optimization, including the SEO courses we offer at Search Engine College. But they need to be paired with practical, in the trenches experience before you really understand how to optimize a web site successfully.

I attended a powerful presentation by Nat Torkington at Webstock last week about how to have successful failures and I would say that failures are a MUST for anyone in SEO. It’s only when you fail to get a page ranked highly in search engines and then tweak it to out-rank your competitors that you really grok SEO.

Regarding SEO qualifications, you should be aware that the search industry does not have an official accreditation body and therefore no standardized certification levels. At Search Engine College, we consistently check our lesson methodologies against the guidelines set down by the search engines themselves and I believe many of the other training institutions do the same.  We also set quite strict performance benchmarks for tutor-graded assignments and assessment items before allowing our students to gain certification.

As a result, we believe SEO / SEM certification has become increasingly recognized by employers in the search industry and we’ve had students tell us that having our specific certification has given them an edge over other applicants when applying for jobs.

2) In answer to your second question, any web site can be designed and optimized well enough to be search engine friendly, but yes WordPress blogs do seem to be indexed by Google very quickly and ranked well so you can feel comfortable building and optimizing a site using WordPress. It’s so much more than a blogging platform! Just make sure you download WordPress to your own domain and don’t build your site as a hosted blog on WordPress.com

Webstock 09 : Russ Weakley

Live blogging Open Web, Open Data, Open Panic? presentation at Webstock 09 by Author of “Teach Yourself CSS in 10 Minutes”, Russ Weakley.

Russ works at the Australian Museum. He had an idea for the museum web site about four years ago and it has taken this long to get to the pre-launch stage.

The public services world is about analysing, justifying and strategizing. The commercial sector is fast but the public service process is incredibly slow. This has had one unexpected benefit: Having to defnd every aspect has meant that we had to carefully think about many issues before launch.

The museum’s site was launched in 1994. It grew enormously and now has 43,000 pages plus 16 sites. Sounds good? Nope, trouble in paradise. It’s hard to maintain, users can’t find content, so there’s lost relevance. The site provided a one way contact stream but this is no longer relevant in a Web 2.0 world.

Four years ago we went to management with an idea: To build a rich, interactive web site concentrating on 4 objectives:

1) Communication. Interaction, not static. Allow users to communicate with museum and each other.

2) Allow users to share their own content

3) Provide new and easier navigation pathways

4) Allow all staff to publish easily

Management reaction? Initial shock! Than 1 year of silecne, 1 year of discussion, 1 year of planning, 1 year to build.

The overall concept:

– site has 3 levels, categories, sections and assets

– every piece of content will be an asset, no more web pages

– there will be a range of different types of assets

– wanted assets and sections to exist in multiple locations

Traditional model of site design doesn’t work because things are boxed together in a static location. We wanted it to have a dynamic, multiplicet model.

– every asset will have five different navigation methods. New asset pages show “other sections”,

– in new model, users can comment on any asset

– users and staff can add tags any asset

– author and user tags will provide new methods of navigation and richer search

– allow users to collect favourites and sets and share them with others

– upload their own images, movies, audios, comments, stories

– allow people to apply for expert status

– Wanted the system to be seamless. Allow users to move seamlessly through any type of content

What about staff? Every staff member will become an author

– allow staff to publish assets directly (after training). Initial management concern but now overcome with approvals in place.

– allow staff to own their assets

– allow users to create their own focused, passionate and personal blogs

– allow microblog to create instant news

Russ talks about how his bosses’ first day at the museum involved taking a chain saw to a dead whale in the museum carpark. Also mentions the discovery of Mr Blobby in the deep sea off New Zealand. This type of stuff makes priceless social media juice. Why waste it? Let’s give staff the ability to share such stories with the public.

– the system will allow authors to publish all content via one simple system

Questions asked by management about the new system:

1) When we go live, can we all sit back and relax? (no, we will need to work very hard to build the site and grow communities)

2) Will we moderate comments and tags? (no, we will use a simple login and allow all comments, tags, uploads)

3) Will a forced login alienate some users? (Yes, however we will review process after a 6 month process)

4) What if the information in comments is wrong? (Deal with it. Let the comment trail educate. Mistakes benefit everyone). Therefore clearly identified author comments are important.  Allow the community to self-moderate.

5) What about tags that are irrelevant? (Misspellings are useful because it allows more people to find information, no matter if they can spell or not. Long-tail keywords add to searchability of site. Just because they’re not relevant to you, doesn’t mean they’re not relevant to someone else.

6) Who is going to take responsibility for the comments? (Authors are responsible for comments associated with blogs.)

7) What if we are inundated with comments? (Nah, won’t happen)

8 ) Should we allow staff to publish? (Yes)

9) Should we have a single voice? (What? No answer to this. Can’t provide a single voice. Have different voices for each different asset)

10) How will we encourage tags and comments? (answer comments, encourage commenting, reward good behaviour, promote outside the site, eventually – let it go)

The new site strategy for the Australian Museum has been a long, painful journey. Despite the frustration, it’s also been a lot of fun.

Enjoy your own journey!

Webstock 09 : Joshua Porter

Live blogging Designing Sign Up Screens and Flows presentation at Webstock 09 by Author of “Designing for the Social Web” Joshua Porter.

Josh got started in this biz because every client he ever had came to him with problems relating to web site sign ups.

Joshua wrote a book called The Usage Lifecycle. First up: Sign up is hard. If you have 8% of first time visitors signing up for a *free* account, you’re doing well.

When we think about the hurdle of sign up, we generally think about the friction of interface. So how do you remove friction? The Tumblr sign up is a great example of this. The URL box shows you what your URL will be. No need to understand sub-domains or anything else. The action button says “sign up and start posting” – it’s clear what will happen when you sign up.

We’re starting to see cool ways to make forms easier to use. Things like:

– Password strength

– Check username availability

– Inline help

– refilling fields upon error

– sending username in confirmation email

– Show/hide password

Joshua is currently working on a Facebook app. Facebook applications are great to work on because of all the different metrics. He’s been trying to improve the ease of use of typical Facebook forms:

Original Flow looks like:

1) Confirm personal info

2) Add your friends

3) Invite others

4) Getting started

Original Conversion Funnel:

Of the 100% of people who started the sign up process using the original flow, only 14% made it to the getting started screen. So at every level of the app sign up, we lost users.

What would happen if we took down some of the steps? He started by removing steps 1 and 3. The new flow was:

2) Add your friends

4) Getting started

The new conversion funnel resulted in 86% of users making it to the *getting started* screen.  Always ask clients why they want their user sign up forms changed. Focus tends to be on the form. But the form is not the problem of sign up. There’s a lot of good info on the web about form design. That’s not the issue. The issue is motivation.

“If ease of use were the only requirement, we would all be riding tricycles” – Douglas Engelbart

You need to change people’s minds about your software. Sign up is in the mind, not the web. People will find a way to sign up if they are motivated enough.

What are we asking?

1) A change in behaviour – old habits die hard

2) Give up accepted shared practices

3) Jump into the unknown

4) Shift from potential to kinectic energy – psychology behind wanting to change

The Psychology of Sign up = 9 x Effect by John T. Gourville. People tend to overvalue the software they currently use by about a factor of 3. Software makers tend to overvalue the software they offer by about a factor of 3. This creates the 9 x Effect. That’s why entrepreneurs tend to think they’re going to set the world on fire.

What we imagine people are thinking: confident, decisive, passionate

What they’re actually thinking: unsure, scared, non-commital

The Preconditions of Sign up:

– product research

– considering an alternative

– learning about the product

– comparison with other options

– reconnaissance

The form goes where the moment of readiness to sign up comes along. Therefore, pre-conditions are very important.

Design for 3 distinct visitor types:

1) I know I want to sign up

2) I want to make sure this is for me

3) I’m skeptical

Ways to tackle sign up:

1) Immediate Engagement

Geni’s family tree image where user can picture their *place* in the tree. NetVibes sign up reminds people it’s free, provides unobtrusive help comment window. Most importantly, you are allowed to create a personalized page via various fields etc BUT you have to sign up in order to be able to save that page. Slide widget that is on many social media sites uses similar thing. If you click on other people’s slide-shows, you can add and customize a photo BEFORE you sign up. Tripit use a helpful signup graphic and allows you to send travel data such as flight confirmations etc and then Tripit creates the account for you based on your return address. You’ve never even filled out a form, just sent an email. Posterous also has an email generated sign-up process and has “sign up” crossed through to remind people how easy it is

2) Write to Reduce Commitment

Copywriting is the easiest, fastest way to improve your sign-up process.

Highrise did A/B testing using Google Web Site Optimizer. They tested copy at top of sign-up form. Most conversions resulted from:

“30 day Free Trial on All Accounts. Sign-up takes less thann 60 seconds. Pick a plan to get started”.

Another example was PearBudget which started as an Excel spreadsheet and was converted to a web app. It allows you to create an online budget. The sign up is simply a pop up field “Save Your Budget” with an email and password field.

3) Levels of Description

First level is your elevator pitch – one line description of service, logo, screenshot

Second level includes more detail – features, benefits, how to join

Third is In-depth level – more complicated, details, links to deeper levels of information

The NetFlix sign up is a great example of the 3 levels in action. They also add their phone number for persons still needing help during the sign up process.

Bill My Clients recently changed their sign up which was not successful. Freshbooks has a great user interface (yay team!).

Webstock 09 : Annalee Newitz

Live blogging Your Business Plan is Science Fiction presentation at Webstock 09 by American journalist Annalee Newitz:

Science Fiction is a public arena, where we talk about how science and technology will impact our lives. It can impact business in an inspiring way. It inspires people in the laboratory in terms of new creations online and offline.

Science Fiction is a public discussion and then they go into the lab with the idea – the area of innovation – so that is no longer public. This feedback loop can be represented as follows:

Sci Fi – public space

Laboratory – innovation, private space

Business – commerce space

Science Fiction is a kind of cultural baggage.  It’s heavy but you need it if you want to change your underwear.

The idea of the tri-corders in Star Trek is appealing to us. Like a smartphone. We are nearly there! So this is an example of how science fiction can impact future business products. William Gibson coined “cyberspace” in his book the Neuromancer. His notion of “cyberspace” is a metaphor, not a prediction. We now live in the vocabulary that Gibson and his contemporaries invented for us. This is crucial to undertanding the way we use the Internet.

The movie Tron from 1982 predicts today’s notion of cyberspace. The hero Tron is a security program that fights for the user in cyberspace. We are still living in that vocabulary. Similarly, The Matrix Movie from 1999 uses almost the same vocabulary as Tron, in that you have a version of yourself in the real world and a mini version in the Matrix and you need to be rescued by the hero. So we are still living in the same sci fi vocabulary as we were in the early 80’s but with better special effects.

A Tale of Two Androids

Cylons from Battlestar Galactica are working against humans.  Early on, the Android platform from Google was designed to replicate a cylon from Battlestar Galactica. The start up screen for Android was even the evil cylon red eye. So why did they abandon that metaphor and change it to the cute friendly droid that we see now for Android? First up, friendly droid is reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars, he is a happy, silly, approachable robot. He’s never an angry bot. You never imagine R2D2 will plot an uprising against humans.

So that’s an example of how a product coming to market was influenced by a sci fi myth.

Wearable computers are also packed inside a sci fi myth. Our language for describing wearable computers far outstrips the products available. E.g. Batman and IronMan movies show humans using wearable computers to give themselves special powers. So we have the notion that wearable computers can make us into super heroes. There are already technologies that are already available. Like the projected phone on hand revealed at TED and exoskeletons, which in a real sense give humans super powers and have military applications. So these type of technologies are already prompting the question: do they make me a superhero or a supervillain?

The Segway personal transporter failed in the marketplace because it wasn’t superpowered enough. It played into the idea of us wanting to be super powered, but it wasn’t very fast, didn’t do anything super exciting so ended up as kind of dorky.

Many wearable bluetooth devices default to protected mode as a safety feature to prevent evil hacking nasties. So it’s the traditional Super Villains vs Super Heroes scenario just like in a recent Dr Who episode. That’s another example of sci fi behind developing technologies.

Dollhouse is a brand new sci fi show on US television. The premise is about a new kind of computer interface – a brain computer interface. A rogue scientist has developed a technology to erase memories and re-program brains with new personalities. Ninjas and sex companions are the most requested personality types. This suggests more interest in neurotechnologies, which are already available e.g. BrainGate and the neuro pacemaker, which are both brain computer interface systems.

There are a lot of anxieties around this storyline and it’s a staple of sci fi stories e.g. Frankenstein. People fear new interfaces because it asks the question ” Can I be programmed like a computer?” We are comfortable with one-way interfaces but not two-way.  We see computers as the happy droid, not the angry cylon. But as long as we can control how the interface works, we are comfortable.

One of the absurd ways that interface designers deal with this fear, is to create a sense of privacy around networks where you provide information. For example, FaceBook takes a LOT of personal information and it tries to reassure you by giving you the ability to add *privacy* levels. You control the flow of data. Apparently.  It’s an illusory sense of control because there are many ways to get to the *private* data via hacks, other entities, etc. Yet another odd connection between sci fi and everyday technologies. You don’t fear that Facebook is going to suck your brain out. But maybe you should. Assumption of control is the key.

So how do you escape from science fiction if you’re designing stuff? [Here she showed an image from a sci fi horror comic instead of the usual cute puppy slide to break up the presentation. ] Here’s how:

1) Work within the narrative – build somethng into the product that people recognize and relate to.

2) Tell new stories that counteract the old ones – build stories that counteract the nasty sci fi stories e.g. the bluetooth default on phones is OFF now.

3) Pay attention to the fears expressed and address them – listen to the consumer trends, hear their fears. Watch, listen, learn and apply. Make sure your users don’t enter a Frankenstein story when trialling your products.