When you’ve spent a great deal of time on a site or managing a site, it’s really easy to be blind to the little things. Competitive research is where you have the opportunity to tighten things UP. There is invaluable information to be gained by researching sites in terms of physicality, i.e. the source, layout, filling out forms, etc. You can see who registered a website, where they’re hosting it or how many site managers they have. Check the hosting and registration information of any website by doing a WhoIs lookup. If a site is using fancier services like Rackspace or Akamai, then they’re probably serious about their performance. Are they cloaking their information? That’s also information to keep under your hat. So they’re cloaking information – are they who they say they are? Is this project a competitor trying to look like someone else? Information gathering is so crucial in research, gather it than tabulate it. The trends will in fact start to appear!
Let’s say you hear about a contest being run by a cool new tech company. The creatives on the website are amazing, but you don’t know much about how it was put together.
Here are a few example steps to break a web page down:
- Maybe an agency put it together soup to nuts? Lookup the Whois registry information. You can actually check that by seeing who registered the domain.
- Check the source for any and all tools used, is there tracking deployed? What pixels or rich snippets are there? Sometimes comments in the source can be telling.
- Click on any interactive elements and then CTL click to see them isolated in a new window. From there you can tell if they’re a gif or a script, etc.
- Enter the contest! Hey, maybe you’ll win, but also you can see what the emails look like. Enter their marketing machine. Trends change, but maybe their emails are on-point an therefore inspire you to revisit your own strategy.
T & T in most cases means dynamite rather the act of building trust and transparency with your website visitors. Conversions come purely from building trust with the people sitting on the other end of the inter-tubes. Why does trust matter so much? Nobody wants to get hoodwinked. Most people have developed a sense for when they might get deceived online, especially in a financial transaction. As search marketers we must first gain trust to get a web form fill or conversion. Conversions happen ONLY when a visitor’s comfort levels with trust and transparency are met.
There are two main philosophical buckets of practices for the practice of SEO, black hat and white hat. The term black hat spans back before search was a thing, it originates with old cowboy western movies. The color of the cowboy’s hat denoted if it was a good or a bad guy riding towards the protagonist. The hero, often in white was painted as the good character, the one who saves the girl off of train tracks, etc. Zorro is the only exception to this, he wore black. He operated as an outlaw and yet wearing black probably made him seem cooler to the audience; an unexpected hero he fought for regular people.
Search engine optimization is not like the movies, but philosophically an SEO always needs to don the white hat. The difference between the two types of methods is deception. I think of black vs. white hat in terms of night versus day. People who embark upon black hat SEO tactics have to operate in the darkness (to some extent). They lurk in the shadows since it’s atypical to see anyone declare their evil machinations to the world. Users do not get what they came for, they fill out information under false pretenses. Further black hat examples could be misleading link bait from ads for poorly targeted news articles, clicking on links spawning extra windows or simply only dealing with the robots (in a shady way).
White hat SEOs operate above board; performing work that will benefit their sites long-term. They also deliver what they promise to the user as they enter the site. Deception is never the basis of a sound business strategy. Black hat methods include knowingly violating the terms of service for any engine, tools or platform. Black hat SEOs spend nights scheming and biding time before getting caught. For example, using bots to take down competition or just generally being kind of evil (you know who you are).
It’s not just the search machines black hat SEOs can deceive, it’s the site visitor. Taking someone’s email and spamming them mercilessly without the appropriate unsubscribe links or re-selling private information to other sites is also black hat. Violating your first implied agreement with someone does not build trust, it builds bad user experiences, which can in extreme cases spill over to social media. This is not good attention.
Only 5% of top websites (or less) are performing at the level where black hat methods reap huge financial rewards; but even then the risks are just as great.
Integrity is the essence of everything successful.
– R. Buckminster Fuller
Black hat SEO tactics sometimes self-characterize as gray hats, but gray does not fundamentally exist without the presence of black. I’ve seen many companies wrestle with their pre-conceived notions of right and wrong, and the ones who use shady tactics seldom win in the end. Doing things to competitors like using advanced knowledge of current search engine penalties from algorithm changes to sink them is an aggressive move bymeanie-hat SEOs. Building trust means advocating for the site visitor to get what they’re promised. Page meta descriptions appear in search results, which means they should always match the page’s content. People often click away from a site if they do not get what is suggested to them, some SEOs call this the scent; the essence of truthy-ness.
Unfortunately, black hat tactics against competitors will sometimes work enough to sink their site temporarily. It’s possible to use knowledge of the search engines to influence another’s ranking negatively. The sinking of others part only works only until the website’s administrator and/or SEO discovers what’s happening. There are remedies that a company can take when they encounter bad traffic or other competitor activity.
If these things happen to you, it’s unfortunate, however, you can report violations with terms of service easily for either paid or organic issues to the engines themselves.
Sometimes the type of trust issue you’re faced with is related to reputation or branding. Reputation has become a form of currency on the internet. The issues are generally one of two things; a site’s brand is not appearing where it should in the SERPs or unsavory results appear at the top of a branded query. The approach to solving these problems is to handle with care.
Trust must be present between a potential customer and a company for them to then become a customer. Many companies seek to manipulate how they appear, especially if mistakes have been made. Manipulation erodes user trust. Simple things like including the names and picture of the author of a blog or linking to their biography can help establish trust. If you’re trying to build credibility than make the effort to cite the information you’re referencing, link out if it makes sense.
Some growth opportunities will be too good to be true. While it’s tempting to bribe your way into credibility, it’s dangerous. Maybe you hear of a hot new service offering pay for play content placement or easy reviews in the App store. Deception cuts both ways. Sites that seek payment to assist in building trust should be given thorough examination. Ask for references or get a case study to determine if the service is legitimate. If a vendor cannot tell you specific results they’ve gotten for other people, they do not necessarily warrant your trust.
The most important thing with a user trust or brand problem is to never try to squash the truth. The internet gets the most angry when it feels lied to. People will often forgive mistakes made by companies, but they will not forgive insincerity. Nobody can be the internet’s police. We can only try to direct where things go as traffic cops (pun intended).
Clients have often asked me if it’s OK to ask for reviews from customers. My philosophy is to ask the customer two questions. Are you active on Yelp (or review site in question)? Would you feel comfortable giving us a review online? Then it’s good to also suggest why their review is helpful to you, tell them you are a new and need to establish our business online or whatever the real reason is. If the person says no they have not done any reviews then do not push for them to leave one.
It’s super tempting to right (perceived) great wrongs online. Deleting Facebook comments or manipulating your reviews will only make life worse. If the issues in the reviews are real then deal with them. It can take time, but fixing problems at the root level will allow your online reputation to repair must faster. There’s never any call to buy or pay for reviews. It’s far superior for outsiders to leave reviews (even if they’re bad), but never the CEO. Employees should NOT be writing reviews, ever. It’s also fairly easy to spot an online review written by an employee or owner of a company.
HOW TO SPOT A FAKE REVIEW OR COMMENT:
- Stock photos or still uses the service’s default images as avatars
- Use of a company logo or well-known celebrity as the avatar
- Extensively long and overly explanatory, especially containing non sequiturs
- Overly friendly or overly angry
- If it’s a review and it’s overly vague
- Non-sensical praise that nobody would say in real life or natural language
- Redundant text or repeated phrases
- The reviewer has not reviewed anything else, ever
- Many reviews submitted in a small period of time
- What they’re saying simply sounds too good to be true
Consider also that bots can take hold in the form of scripts. Weirdly repeated phrasings are typically the sign of a spam bot.
A Day in the Life
The path to growth is paved with bounteous experimental activities. This section seeks to explore the daily routine in the mindset of a growth marketer. Growth hackers by definition cannot stay still in his or her routine, because ’still’ is not a valid state of being. Ambitions for the growth hacker are endless. Learning is the most important element to having and maintaining a strong growth mindset. Always stay open to learning what informational analysis reveals and what’s happening all around the search ecosphere of the industries you target.
SEOs have to perpetually learn new things. Personally, I read about an hour or two every day and watch news in the morning. I listen to podcasts about all sorts of weird topics from survivalist stuff to pure nerd comedy. I also track senseless internet- holidays like Geek Pride day; Towel day, National Paper Airplane Day, and the always-Twitter-trending National Donut day. My typical reading consists of various social media sites; blogs, search industry journals, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, various assorted nationally prominent technology and business news sites. Then there’s the aggregators, sites like Reddit, where the line between work and gluttony starts to blur.
On social media it’s beneficial to follow many contrasting people; such as your fellow top notch SEOs, online influencers, industry analysts and journalists in discrete categories. Majority of learning can be done online, but some should be done in real life. It’s fairly straight-forward to find local Meetups, seminars and conferences covering the SEO topic areas you will want to start following such as site speed optimization, content marketing or user experience design. Most cities in the US have events or groups getting together on any variety of fun topics and purposes. Fortunately for me I’ve had a few top notch mentors over the years and their benefits cannot be disputed. It’s a winning formula to always have at least one mentor, but also mentor others and pay it forward. It’s extremely invigorating to help someone gain knowledge about something you may take for granted. Learning means excitement for your brain, think of it as a data party.
All of this (seemingly) random information we are collecting gives us a broad basis for knowing what’s happening across a variety of industries.
Books like Freakonomics and A Mathematician Reads the Paper make data analysis feel so neat and tidy, almost cool. The truth is that not everything you read will make your brain’s neurons luster like a pearl. The SEOs job often includes needing to make mathematics seem intuitive to their less technical counterparts. Fortunately for us, the information-hungry types, mobile news sites are now highly optimized for glimmering headlines. Mobile Apps like Flipboard or CNN make it easy to consume information broadly and quickly. Even newer kids on the block like Snapchat provide a super fun way to consume news.
Continuous targeted learning can help you gain skills for snatching traffic from many mediums, not just the search engines. If my goal is to rank for the search of a new product or service in any given market then I should also know where the people I’m targeting tend to spend their time online. For example, typically I can predict a fair portion of what will trend on Twitter any given day in any location based on a few things; ongoing trends for the area, the calendar, the sports that are in season, etc. Predicting the advancing social waves happens when you are looking for traffic from a certain subset of people and have been studying personas.
Stock brokers are constantly reading news and finding ways to follow market trends just like growth hackers, they share this in common. Brokers deal in currency and stock while SEOs deal in information and data. They follow the same methodology, staying on top of news on select topics to better spot trends. Listening to industry experts and their predictions allows you to look for patterns, i.e. opportunity.
When you read about similar or overlapping areas every single day you start to spot patterns. The best discoveries I’ve had have come from my own form of pattern recognition, seaming together connective tissues between different information sources. You do not have to become an information or data scientist to keep up on discovering every traffic-gaining source possible. Deriving your income from kiting trends online is not for the faint of heart, commitments must be formed to consume the information surrounding pools of information.
In terms of tracking potential upcoming algorithm updates, it’s best to track industry commentary if you do not have access to managing multiple data sets. Industry leaders spend countless hours of their time tracking trends. I enjoy reading and gleaming industry information from sites like Search Engine Journa, Search Engine Land or Moz’s blog. For user experience, performance and web development trends I really like Smashing Magazine, DZone and Stack Overflow.
Search optimization is not only reading and research, there’s dabbling. The experiments! We borrow from the scientific method in this regard, we form hypotheses and then devise experiments. There’s so many good ideas to try out it’s often hard to define the experiment. It’s prudent to treat your experiments as campaigns, not as open-ended freeform chasing of rainbows (or waterfalls). Campaigns have a defined starting and ending point, they are measured and evaluated afterwards. Failure is always OK, ignoring the results and reasons for it are not.
In San Francisco we’re decidedly social media hogs and super crazy about our sports teams and conferences. Anything the Giants, Sharks, A’s, 49ers or Warriors are doing will trend on social during those seasons. We also tend to see some fun and classic old school Twitter trends pop up weekly, like #MotivationMonday and #WomenCrushWednesday trend (now the leaner #WCW). Tech conferences also seem to trend on Twitter in San Francisco (possibly due to the fact we’re the company’s home town). In the Bay Area we often have giant screens near conference stages specifically to display the Twitter feeds from their hashtag to the audience so that people will join in the online conversation. Online conversation means engagement and therefore guaranteeing eyeballs for the conference sponsors.
Understanding the market you are living in and often targeting gives a keen advantage to also gain social traction here. It’s simply going to be different in rural areas or for cities like New York, Austin or Los Angeles. Social morays and folkways are going to vary by region, which makes social media difficult to apply unilaterally with live events. People outside of the tech bubble might even feel it’s super rude to be constantly tweeting about everything that’s happening and online marketers should consider that before choosing a campaign like that. Perhaps for different areas it could be Instagram or Facebook, roughly one post per event. In that case getting attention may be better sought out by a limited ‘friend’s of friend’s” dark post running on the company’s Facebook page that’s locked down by location or a Snapchat Geo filter campaign. There’s no all-in-one method to fall back on for a social growth hacker, each audience (and platform) should be attended to properly.
Knowledge of an industry is very useful, but so is knowledge of platforms. For example, there’s social media, but there’s also social bookmarking. Bookmarking is the lesser known form of consuming information and a supportive friend to SEOs, also known as content aggregation. The largest sites on the internet are either content creation sites or those that cultivate the content of others via user generated content (UGC) or aggregation.
Classic data aggregation site services are Metafilter and Digg, which are not as popular as more modern services like Scoop.it. People can use a site like Scoop.it to aggregate their own pages of links on certain topics. Done in volume the index of recommendations start to get some juice. New aggregators and bookmarking sites pop up all the time, they even take new forms like with Pinterest. Pinterest has a steady stream of quality UGC, beautiful UI and click-bait. When content population starts rolling so does sharing, then the traffic is sure to follow.
Platforms or sites that generate quality traffic inexpensively to your site should always get your attention. Even if it is a site for lumberjacks and even if it’s run by people wearing cat covered pants. A Growth Hacker is constantly searching for new ways to grow and collaborate with others in the field. There are some top influencers on the internet that have networks sizable enough to gain mass interest, the Robert Scoble’s and Guy Kawasaki’s of the world.
Many products have been launched by endorsements. Influencer marketing is on the rise dramatically. Instagram stars can demand thousands of dollars for quick videos featuring a product. The endorsement is most likely to go viral when it is unexpected by the public, like Susan Boyle, a random Presidential mention or the Chewbacca Mom. Live video could soon play a major part in retail endorsements, with the popularity of services like Periscope, Facebook live or YouTube.
How to spot trends
Trend spotters are habitual line steppers; it’s almost not a choice, it’s a way of thinking. The thrill of the hunt is real! You’re going to always have outliers, observations that don’t fit into the puzzle. The challenge is to discern the difference between signals and just noise. Seemingly random things become less so within the right context. Do not put on your tinfoil hats on yet, because Ello and Peach aren’t coming back. Just ask Myspace…
Having a cool website or product is generally not enough to get discovered. Competition for user attention is stiff. Mobile users are spending more and more of their time on fewer platforms. Predicting future viral success online is a craft possessed by a select few and sometimes their success is also based on luck. Finding online growth means unearthing low cost ways to grow by exploiting an opening somewhere. A less buzzword-y way to describe the practice of trend spotting- identifying opportunities.
Monitoring a wide variety of data sets helps an SEO to spot trends and potential algorithm changes. If you’re only managing one site there’s another way to spot trends; by measuring specific pages vs. rankings via spreadsheet. When changes are made to the pages be sure to annotate them in analytics. It takes a few weeks at a minimum to measure the page-level way, however, with careful monitoring you can determine any patterns that emerge. If any campaigns, emails or paid search is used in conjunction with your specific page monitoring tests, it will throw data off slightly. Depending on the length of time you’re monitoring specific page rankings, there could be insights gained from mixed strategies if tracked and also annotated properly.
For me to say keep learning sounds like something your high school principal or guidance counselor might have said once, but it is far more serious than some motivational speech. How do soldiers and generals alike prepare for battle? They go the distance, they train, they research their enemies capabilities, they properly estimate their OWN capabilities and deploy all the weapons in their arsenal: from lasers to tanks.
The fact remains that knowledge of ones domain and the tools out there is vital to success. A growth marketer is the most effective when armed with knowledge of emerging information, whether it is about traffic opportunities or the industry or both. Below is a cross-section example of what trends we might need to know if we’re optimizing in a hyper-competitive local search space for a high-end luxury service that goes door to door.
- Who are the major players in local directory listings?
- Where is the site hosted? NGINX or ELBs? When are updates rolled out?
- When are the next hackathons?
- How are the new Instagram ads converting into traffic?
- Do the new Google publishing rules make it harder to enact Project AMP for large sites?
Monitoring information should include, but is not limited to:
- What is the price of fair trade coffee beans?
- What is our biggest competitor doing with their content on Pinterest?
- Who is most likely to buy Twitter?
Trends can take shape in peculiar ways. The questions above might seem random, but when forming a picture of a search landscape the more information used in making decisions, the stronger the program becomes. If the information gathered above is going to be useful, you have to think through what competition is doing, but also what’s happening with budget.
Let’s take the example of the growing trend of “wearable computing.” Everyone is cuckoo over IoT trends lately, but the levels of knowledge are different. If you want to get ahead for “wearable computing” you’ve got your work cut out for you! That particular query the competition is increasingly steep.
There’s no real reason to go after this query for a product unless you were running a gigantic e-commerce site selling wearables (like Amazon or Best Buy) or a publication that covers the category (Wikipedia and Wearable). The issue in targeting something too generic is that your competition is higher for no good reason. Success is harder to reach when targets are too broad. If you’re doing SEO in the wearable family of technology like smart rings or bracelets, why would the above SERP matter to you? That could be a query to consider for paid search, but only the search category of “wearable technology” matters, not page one’s results.
Watching the trends of the category surrounding wearable computing is helpful because they are the search umbrella (bucket) jewelry falls under. Sweeping changes in terminology or social interest in the wearable computing category will trickle down to wearables that are jewelry.
Let’s say someone famous on a daytime TV talk show renames wearables jewelry as smart jewelry. The social media explosion that follows is sure to affect search.
What scares me the most is that both the poker bot and Dropbox started out as distractions. That little voice in my head was telling me where to go, and the whole time I was telling it to shut up so I could get back to work. Sometimes that little voice knows best.
–Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox
It’s sometimes hardest to do organic search optimization projects in brand new category spaces, because the search interest is not there yet. In these cases you’ll see very few competitors to benchmark against. So what do you do? You research to the best of your ability what is related to the new space and place some bets based on trends and search volume. Trust your gut where you see the signs of growth.
One rather self-centric example of how I track my own reputation is via a search of my online moniker, Annebot. As an internet marketing enthusiast I constantly register for new social sites and professional profiles when I find them. By tracking a singular query over time it starts to become clearer which services are on the rise. For many years CNet was in the top 5 results for a search of my handle, now it’s nowhere to be seen.
Be Data Agnostic
The struggle is real: it’s difficult to avoid bias when reviewing results of a campaign you’ve worked hard on. Maybe this campaign was your baby? Maybe your baby is a little less attractive than the others? Perceptions and folklore of a campaign’s results within an organization often become part of the results; i.e. the executives loved it, so it’s a good campaign. Then everyone starts thinking “we are great, let’s reverse engineer this data and show just how great we did.” It’s natural to be influenced by feedback, however, growth marketers have many, many ideas and a decent portion of them will fail. That’s OK! Failure is fine, but denial is not. Denial of failure equates denial of learning. Quick acceptance of failure is what keeps a web marketing program profitable.
Constant experimentation requires objectivity when reporting results to keep moving towards growth. Be willing to be wrong (if you are). Refusal to accept failure is where expensive mistakes happen, mainly because they are unnecessarily prolonged. For example, someone launches a campaign and forgets to test the landing page URL they placed in an email sent out to thousands of people. Maybe the URL is broken in the email itself, but a simple server redirect could fix it- with quick action.
SEOs must work to fix their mistakes instead of hide them. Data can be massaged to show certain results by selectively plucking dates and random pieces of more flattering data in reports. It’s an unhealthy practice todecide for yourself what the data should be telling you. The better approach is to form a hypothesis about what you’d like to know and then let the data tell you the answer in the most objective light.
For example, did an email drip campaign bring in more leads than the social media campaign last month? If you’ve deployed campaign tracking URLs then measuring the effectiveness is as simple as comparing the two URLs in Analytics. If you forgot to use tracking URLs you’ll have to check the referral traffic or overall traffic (to links) used in the campaigns, then the lead sources in analytics.
Understanding how to spot opportunities for growth takes a keen eye and a taste for adventure. Recognizing quickly what’s working and what’s not is the most basic tenet of the growth hacker.
Aaron Ginn defines a growth hacker as:
One who’s passion and focus is pushing a metric through use of a testable and scalable methodology. A growth hacker finds a strategy within the parameters of a scalable and repeatable method for growth, driven by product and inspired by data. The essential characteristic of a growth hacker is creativity. His or her mind is the best tool in their war chest.
A very wise woman once told me that fear holds us back (and she was right). Have the guts to do what other people don’t even fully understand, get creative or as immersed in the product you’re marketing as you have to. Some of the best growth hacks have involved a tie-in to product experience. Growth hackers who are empowered can see whitecaps on their growth mountains instead of just hockey sticks.
I GOT A GUY
Beware of people that proclaim “I’ve got a buddy who works at Google” or claim inside knowledge of any search engine by knowing a current or former employee. The whole notion that one person is key to unlocking the ’secret’ to SEO is flawed. There isn’t one guy or gal who controls or completely understands all of the facets to an entire search algorithm.
Don’t go there. Do not listen to these insider people or give them money or favors for stolen information. Taking random tips from people who are violating their company’s NDAs is not a solid strategy. Performing competitive research or composing hilarious promotional tweets for your product is more useful than chasing individuals.
Also, the people I’ve met who are closest to the most fun-sounding secrets (or have worked with Matt Cutts) actually loathe us SEOs. They hate us because we are creating constant headaches for them. We’re actually kind of a cool and clever crew, so it’s a Road Runner v. Coyote situation. There is no logical reason in industry insider would want to make our lives easier.
Now that we’ve discussed the pie in the sky, it’s time to get back to reality… We’re pretty much all in business to make money, but the handling of it is where many organizations screw up. Care must always be given to your handling of information, money and the power it comes with.