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April 30, 2009

To SEO or not to SEO, that is the question.

Filed under: General,Internet Rant,Perspective — Tags: , , , , , — Bryan @ 1:12 am

Most people at some point in their lives will hear the advice “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is” or maybe “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. This is generally sound advice, and if nothing else it is good counsel to reduce the chance of becoming a victim of a confidence scam.

This leads me to today’s discussion about SEO companies. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and defines a company as one that will help your business improve how visible your website is in search results on sites like Google, Yahoo, Live Search or any of a dozen Internet search sites online. If you want the best search results for your site, you must optimize it for the search engines.

You don’t know what to do? Who can help?

There are two classifications of SEO companies. The first and best to work with are companies that will audit your website and give you valuable feedback on how to change your HTML page structure. How to present your web content on your site. How to added meta-data to your web pages that helps clue in the search engines as to what can be found on any given page. They will help you understand about all of the extra non-web page files that you can create for your web site that co-operates with the search engines to help them locate your content and best determine how to list it. They may even give you advice on ways to completely rethink exactly what content you should put on your site in order to achieve your online goals. In short an honest SEO company will be there to educate and inform you so that you can make the best decisions on how to engage the online aspect of your business and achieve a sustained level of visibility.

Additionally, they may counsel you on ways to build relationships with other sites to establish cross linking opportunities and how to go about presenting your site to the public in a clean and professional manner that helps you towards getting the traffic you want.

Some of these companies will even help you with this work for an added fee and provide full transparency with their operations, working with you much like a P.R. firm or Ad agency in helping maximize your URL and brand exposure. In fact some of them may work in tandem with your P.R. and/or Ad agency to potentially help take your brand to the next level of visibility. It’s going to be hard work and you better have good, strong content on your site. Why? Because, while you can spend a billion dollars and get a billion people to visit your site, if there isn’t anything there, they are not coming back and they are certainly not going to tell their friends about you (unless it’s to make fun of you).

Now, on the other hand, I suppose if all you want is a billion people coming to your web page and nothing more, then you can always engage with the other kind of SEO company… and unfortunately these guys are the predominant type in the industry.

This second group is the one that tells you “for X amount of dollars I can get you top ranking in Google in 30-days”. All you have to do is just kick back and watch the hit counter on your site climb. This frequently reminds me of the old “lose 30 pounds in 30 days” deal that may work, but by using it you are risking some seriously major health issues and in some rare cases… death.

That got your attention right? You’re sitting there thinking, “OK, now he’s done it, that’s over the top nobody ever died from using an SEO firm.” No… not literally. But many companies have paid a harsh penalty to their brand for some short term traffic gain. Take for instance BMW Germany’s and Ricoh’s brush with Google a couple of years ago.

So just what are these “unscrupulous cads” up to that’s so bad? Well, at their most fundamental level they are assisting your company to behave in a manor contrary to anything you or your peers might have done as a part of normal day to day business. For instance on the more bland but annoying side some of these SEO companies retain ownership of 1,000 or even 100,000 domains that literally contain nothing more than some web pages that point links to their clients in order to try and trick search engines into thinking that your site must be pretty darn popular to have 100,000 other sites linked to it.

At the other end of the spectrum, a tactic currently in use by some of these companies is to pay substandard wages to workers in third world countries to do nothing more than log into every single blog they can find on the Internet and post a comment that contains a link back to your site (be it in the comment directly or the homepage URL provided on the user profile). You’ll almost certainly have seen this on your own blog as a spam comment at some point.

In the BMW example above they were using an old trick of padding out lots of unrelated keywords in the metadata of dozens of web pages on their sites to trick search engines into thinking there was text on the pages that not only didn’t really exist but also redirected you to some other page when you actually got to their site. Effectively, this was gaming the results on words like “used cars” (in BMW’s case) so that BMW always came up on the first page of search results.

There are even companies that do this for other media types as well, such as video. In this case a company might take a video from your site and literally, litter it on every other video portal they can find and upload multiple copies of the video to each of those sites while doing nothing more than changing the length of the video, changing the title or description and having all of these bajillion copies of your video all have a reference link posted someplace that comes back to your web site. This may create the false impression that lots of video sites are linking back to your video site naturally and thus by link volume, artificially inflating the search visibility of your video content. Not only is this behavior discouraged by search engines, it is frequently a Terms of Service violation with sites like YouTube, et all. And, if caught, at best the offending up-loader’s account will get banned (that would likely be one of the dozens of accounts the SEO company has created on their service for doing this). At worst, the video site publicly denounces your use of an SEO firm to spam their portal.

Now that you have some examples of how this works what are the real risks?

Well, the first and foremost risk is for your company’s brand image. In the case referenced much earlier, both companies received a public black eye over their behavior and Google blacklisted BMW’s and Ricoh’s sites from the search index until their sites had been modified to stop their questionable behavior. Alternatively if the SEO companies botch their work badly enough you may be in for ridicule by the public at large or worse your customers. I suppose if you don’t mind the risk of your site getting delisted and having everyone get a laugh at your brands expense (the old “any press is good press” adage right?) then maybe this is just what the doctor ordered.

But don’t kid yourself. At best this second type of SEO operation is deceptive behavior and in the circles I run in, companies that perform this kind of work are considered unethical at best. Period.

Finally, back to the opening title for this post “To SEO or not to SEO, that is the question.” The answer is yes, search engine optimize your site, but mind who’s helping you do the work.

January 15, 2009

Persona = Brand

Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , , — Bryan @ 12:24 am

So now that I’ve introduced you to thinking about Brand You or as we’ve been calling it, your persona, let’s think about what I’ve said and consider how this applies to a businesses.

Haven’t you noticed? Companies have personalities. Companies go to great lengths through advertising and marketing to establish a brand identity (persona) knowing that more often than not you’re going to buy something from either someone you identify with, someone you know or someone you trust. When companies inundate you with messaging they are trying to establish this relationship on a pseudo subconscious level so that you’ll gravitate to their product when presented with a comparable set of options.

Here is an easy thought exercise for you the next time the TV is on. Actually watch the commercials. Based on time of day, day of week and commercial content you can almost always identify who that company thinks is watching the show that you are watching. In theory the persona they are attempting to identify with is supposed to ultimately be you. So that either you or someone you influence will buy the item (eg, kids and toys).

Now a more challenging one. Go to your cupboard or refrigerator and look at what you have in there. Ask your self “why did I first buy this <fill in the blank>?”. Inevitably for alot of people there will be something that falls under the “that’s what my mom bought me as a kid and it’s my favorite” category. Think about that…

Companies have two ways to bring you in as a customer. Positive referral from someone you have an relationship with or by creating a relationship via marketing so that, as I said above, when confronted between product A or B you go with what you know. All they have to do is get you to buy once and if you have a satisfying experience on your first try you may never try the other products. That’s one battle down in the war for your brand loyalty.

One extension of building brand loyalty is through lifestyle associations. Take for example the soft drink/soda business: Mountain Dew = extreme sports, Sprite = hip hop, Pepsi = young and young at heart, Coca-Cola = happy people, or Fresca = dieters. Companies play this card as one more relationship angle based on your personal identity with the hope that if you want to identify with your crowd you’ll buy their product. Sprite used this masterfully several years ago when they went after the Urban/Hip-Hop crowd or Mountain Dew with the extreme sports crowd.

Now maybe you can understand why companies go to great lengths to protect and promote their identity/persona/brand image. Or why when a company’s image is so badly damaged they change their name and logo and try to reinvent themselves. Good or bad, sometimes it works.

Worldcom -> MCI -> Verizon

THQ -> Atari

Enron -> CrossCountry

Philip Morris -> Altria

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January 7, 2009


Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , — Bryan @ 9:49 pm

This all brings us to my last point…

Don’t ever assume that anything you express on the Internet is private. Be it e-mail, web forums, IP based phone calls, anything. As the world becomes more connected and employers, governments and others feel the need to monitor you as a risk (warranted or not), you will have less privacy in your life. In fact you have less privacy now than you could ever possibly suspect. Consider the little intrusions such as how banks now monitor your Debit/Credit card activity with automated systems that do predictive analysis of your spending behavior and if something goes outside the prediction curve your card will be blocked or you will get a phone call from a CSR (phone rep) to verify that it really is you buying a new high-end TV on your debit card mid pay cycle. This is all done in order to reduce fraud and protect your money… but none-the-less, we are all subject to it already.

And worse yet, if there is money to made from that data, it is often already being sold to other companies who cross reference it with other data to figure out the optimal time to send you promotional offers in the mail. You may think I’m being cynical but this type activity is old news. Here is a good resource site to start you off on the subject, specifically this document “Customer Acquisition and Data Mining“. Here’s a quote:

“More complicated overlays are also possible. Customers can be matched against purchase, response, and other detailed data that the data vendors collect and refine. This data comes from a variety of sources including retailers, state and local governments, and the customers themselves. If you are mailing out a car accessories catalog, it might be useful to overlay information (make, model, year) about any known cars that people on the prospect list might have registered with their department of motor vehicles.”

Also, as I mentioned previously MySpace, LinkedIn, FaceBook and others allow third parties to review your account data and private, protected pages all the time without any kind of legal overview. You agreed to it when you (often carelessly) pressed the “I agree” button when you created your account. In fact just about every online service you’ve ever signed up with probably has a clause in the EULA/Terms & Conditions about sharing your personal information which you agreed to when you checked that box and hit submit.

Beyond that, you should always remember that everything you do on the Internet or an Intranet is recorded in some manner. Take for instance the simple (and default) behavior of a web server recording a log of every file it delivers and the IP address of every computer that the file was delivered to. It is how the owner of that log file handles the data that they store that ultimately impacts your privacy, hence some of the rules that have been fiercely debated across Europe regarding this very subject. Just this last October (2008) yet another ruling occurred in Germany indicating that an IP address is not personal data. I’m sure next month it will change again.

Additionally, new ways are always being invented to index and parse the web. It’s only a matter of time before either archive.org or some other company working with them develops a way to perform web searches across their database. Then that long gone web site where you thoroughly embarrassed yourself may come back to life and become discoverable again some day in the future.

In regards to modern technology, the idea of Privacy is nothing more than a quaint religion at this point in history and to bring this all full circle to the persona issue (now that I’ve completely scared you to death in the process) remember this… if your doing something online that you don’t want the whole world to know about, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

…sounds like advice from Grandma…

[read the other parts of this series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

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December 31, 2008

You can’t take it back…

Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , — Bryan @ 7:00 am

This isn’t meant to scare you. Posting things on the Internet isn’t really a big deal as long as you’re not a dork about it. Just use some common sense and be civil with people. The Golden Rule is always good way to go when in doubt.

Granted the things you say on a corporate Intranet aren’t likely to linger in cyberspace forever, but even there you should always adhere to your companies Code of Conduct or you’re like to find yourself under disciplinary action at best, out of a job or worse.

A scary thing though (and this is where persona plays into things) is that some companies now evaluate potential new hires based on the results of what can be found about someone in an Internet search. And just because you marked your MySpace or Facebook profile as private is really not relevant because there are agencies that have contract agreements with these sites that allow your prospective university or employer to access all of your content. As companies get more savvy to this (unless something happens to the contrary) expect even more privacy violations, and more digging. In reality, all it takes is a credit card number and your first and last name to dig up more information on you than you could ever think possible.

But Web pages aside, you should always be aware that whatever you write in a public space is likely to resurface at some point in time. Whether or not people care is a whole other matter. Just because you posted some comment to some forum or other that might be embarrassing ten years ago, don’t think it can’t come back to haunt you.

Personally, I’ve always tried to be reasonable when I’m online. I’m sure there are a couple of places where you can find me engaged in some argument about something or other (I think there is one out there where I have an argument over some 3-D gaming technology). But, I think the best surprise example from my own life has to be this item which is now recorded for all posterity on Google Groups.

It’s nothing embarrassing, but here’s the history. In 1993 when UUCP (News groups), IRC (internet chat), FTP repositories (file sharing) and Gopher (pre-WWW hypertext) where still the predominant communication systems on the Internet, I was contributing to some of the early video game related newsgroups through a local Columbus, Ohio based BBS system called BlueMoon BBS. This BBS was a UUCP node which means that it was connected to the Internet newsgroups. I only posted a dozen or so times through this site and had completely forgotten about it until one day when Google announced that they had located backup tapes of all Internet Newsgroup posts going back to 1981 and were now going to put them online in a searchable format.

That was pretty cool. From there, me and several thousand people immediately started searching for our old posts to see how far back we could locate ourselves. I had never in my wildest dreames imagined this stuff would end up on the web, but there it was. Good thing I wasn’t a newsgroup troll.

[read the other parts of this series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

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December 24, 2008

Sharp dressed man

Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , — Bryan @ 9:46 am

In the on-line world something amazing happened. Anonymity.

In actuality, true anonymity on the Internet is a rare commodity. Just because you created a MySpace page with the username PuppyHunter342 and posted a photo of your neighbor’s cat on your profile, doesn’t mean someone can’t figure out who you are with enough resources. But just like the plastic lock on a file cabinet, it’s enough to keep the passing acquaintance from finding out.

In practice though many researchers have found that the key problem this has created (in part) is that people feel more liberated to show their at home self in public, or in many cases project their internal voice out into their communications much like a free writing exercise. You don’t know me, I don’t know you and in fact I may not even exist beyond the words you’re reading on this page, so the sense of social repercussions never even comes into play if you decide to write a rant in the comments. At worst, in some peoples minds, they’re simply writing a comment to someone. Not generating yet one more piece of electronic documentation for forming their online identity.

Beyond that, I personally think this may happen because most people interact on the Internet from home on in the privacy of their office space where they are conversing or thinking with their family/internal tone and then using that same voice as they type. This probably wasn’t the best thing to happen.

People like to categorize things as I mentioned at the start of this series. You’re going to be categorized, like it not, so why handicap yourself out of the gate. This is a hard lesson that most people only understand much too late when it comes to living an on-line life (oh nooes, that Facebook photo of you puking from a drunken stupor at that party may come back to haunt you some day).

When you think about it, while this perceived anonymity is a double edged sword it also presents humanity with an amazing gift. The ability to transcend preconceived stereotypes… Well… as long as you’re thoughtful of what you write and where you write it. But even then other people will still try to stereotype you (from casual observation, to academic review).

The perfect example of this self definition would be the growing realm of Virtual Worlds. You can be tall, short, male, female, black, white, green or purple. You can be an extremely unpopular person in the real world, but in a virtual world you can be that Sharp Dressed Man who is eloquent and has all the right connections. Nobody ever has to know unless you tell them.

Most people don’t think about all of this when the venture out to the wide world of the Internet but it’s even more important now than ever to be aware of this issue because of my next point…


[read the other parts of this series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

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