Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Link Singularity: Why SEO must be allowed to fail

Last week in The Link Singularity: Propensity I wrote about the increasing quality threshold that had to be reached before a link mattered in contrast to the decreasing chance of earning a link from a high quality site.

This week I’d like to address why SEOs must be allowed to fail. The risk of failure is one of the most import factors when it comes to determine whether the link is a good one or not.

In summary; any set of actions you can perform as an SEO that will create a link, without any real risk of failure, will create a link that Google is likely to want to discount.

Let’s dig in. In the very old days SEOs liked directory submissions. They worked as a process. Once you had that process in place you could rinse and repeat and be assured of links. Google initially accepted (and recommended) directories. Once the claim of editorial quality became a nonsense across the directory landscape Google had to step away from them.

The situation would have been different if a successful directory application had remained a rare thing. If directories had been harshly curated then directories would continue to have been counted as a quality signal. Instead we got directories with no chance of failure and therefore too many directories with no merit.

SEOs turned next to articles and article marketing. It was the same story. SEOs liked the approach because it could be turned into a process and once that process was shapely enough there was no risk of failure. As there was no risk of failure, no challenge in getting an article published, Google had to discount those links and warn against the tactic.

We see the same thing on guest posts; the battle again. Will guest posting become a process that, when followed, there is little risk of failure? If there was no editorial challenge, no risk of failure, then will the links produced by tactic be links Google wants to count tomorrow?

There are certainly two factions within guest posting. There are blogs that allow too many of the wrong type of guest posts. These are the blogs with less strict editorial decisions, more likely to appear in SEO process sheets and with a lower risk of failure. These are the blogs most likely to appear in disavow requests tomorrow. There are also the blogs in which guest posts are rare and earned. These are the blogs with very strict editorial decisions, that SEOs rightly assign a high risk of failure to when considering pitching a story too and these are the blogs which are most likely to be able to offer positive links tomorrow.

We see the same struggles emerging in content marketing. SEOs know that the right sort of content could attract links and other signals that matter. Some SEOs cannot win client sign off or dislike content marketing because the risk of failure is too great if links are your only goal. Despite your animated storyboard being very clever there is a chance that no one links to it. Some SEOs are looking to turn content marketing into a safer, process based, approach in which pretty much guarantees links. This is why I have a fear around the word “distribution”.

In contrast, links that have been earned from outside a “building process” are more likely to be links that carry their value up to the day of the The Link Singularity. Afterwards? That’s anyone’s guess.

Let’s go back to the animated storyboard example. You’ve got one on your site and you’ve pitched it to bloggers, editors and curators. This hasn’t been a distribution process and so if any of that audience to write about, share, link to (all signals) the storyboard then the timing, the phrases used and networks will be distinct and natural. If the buzz they generate grows then it’ll grow naturally and it’ll count.

If this collection of bloggers, editors and curators have kept themselves clean of pit traps like link selling, undisclosed advertorials and the rest then their publishing platforms will remain trusted.

Give me actionable insight again, damnit!

Two shifts are needed; one from SEOs and the other from clients.

On the SEO side we must accept that an insistence on clinging to safe, process based, link building is more risky than it is safe. We must reconfigure our approach to earning signals so that we will accept failure.

That said; SEOs can structure their work to allow for the risk of failure but minimise the risk of it. Our animated storyboard, for example, could we design one that might interest tech bloggers (how it was made), and travel bloggers (the story it tells) as well as local press (the mention of the cities).

The ability to engage with audiences is part of the evolution of SEO.

The second change comes from client side. SEO sits more on the earned media tier and less on the paid for media tier. It is scary but SEOs need permission to engage audiences and risk failure. Don’t ask for a processed approach to old school link building. Ask for a modern approach to earning links and other signals. Judge SEOs, whether they are agency or in-house, by their ability to manage risk rather than avoid it.

Picture credit: Blue Square Thing

Friday, July 19, 2013

Trolling the link buyer with the sponsored post scam

This is a naughty thing to do. It's even more naughty to blog about it. Okay, I guess this means I'm naughty. I will, however, redact the name of the guilty and of the brand in question.

Please note; I liked the brand. I would normally have blogged about them elsewhere. This sponsored post request has made me less likely to link to them, not more.

Today's email banter started when they sent me a reminder. I had been ignoring them.

I contacted you recently as I was hoping you would be interested in producing a sponsored article for us to host on your site [].

The client I am working with is [redacted brand], A [redacted something I blog about]. We are looking for articles focused around [redacted list of things I blog about (for free)].

The article needs to:
  • Be over 300 words.
  • Contain a single follow link ('no follow' links not permitted)
  • Be of original content.
We are able to pay up to £45 for each article produced. We pay via Paypal within 48 hours of the article going live. The Deadline for this project is Monday 22nd July, ideally we would like the article live as soon as possible. If this is something you would be interested in then let me know asap, and I can provide you with further details on the articles. I look forward to hearing from you, even if it is just to decline the opportunity. Best wishes,


This email came from a YMail account. My first challenge was to see whether or not I could get beyond that. I wrote;
Hiya, I went to a blogger event which told me not to trust any email from a non-branded account! Do you work for a PR agency?


Their response named and shamed themselves;
Hi Andrew, I work on behalf of a UK marketing agency, [redacted Search agency]. Best wishes,


This told me the first bit of gossip but left the issue of the sponsored post open. I thought I'd push my luck.
Thanks for that. My notes from the blogger event also said I'd have to put nofollow on the link otherwise my blog could get in trouble/discounted from Google. Actually [redacted brand] could get in trouble if it's not done that way. Do you still want to pay for the post if the nofollow is not added to the link?


Would they pay for a link with a nofollow in place? Place your bets now;
Hi Andrew, No problem, I'm afraid we were looking for follow links, so I'll have to pass on this occasion. Thanks very much. Best wishes,


At this point you know they've written me off. They're cursing those of us who try and play fair with bloggers. They think I'm worrying too much. I'm wastiing their time. I felt like a little more time waiting, though. I wrote;
Hiya, I'm really confused. I'm happy to link to [redacted brand] because of what they do and who they are. If they're paying blogs to link to them without the nofollow that means blogs who link to them without the nofollow might get in trouble and become "toxic". So I should stop linking to [redacted brand] all together because of the risk?


In all fairness, they did really well. I got a prompt and polite "stop waisting my time" email in response. It said;
Hi Andrew, Sorry for the confusion, don't worry, I'm sure what you are doing on your site is fine. Best wishes,


I'm disappointed in the brand. I've never once had a link removal request to the blog in question. In theory if I did start to link to you that might contribute towards changing the status of my blog. After all, Branded3 are selling their blacklist of 80,000 domains. It's a chunky piece of work. I can see why they would.

As a blogger you don't want to be on that list. If I had agreed to the sponsored post with dofollow link then, in theory, I could have taken a step towards ending up there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Link Singularity: Propensity

The term “the Singularity” is borrowed from maths and science. It’s used to describe that point in time in which computers become superintelligent. The singularity is the moment at which working out what happens next becomes almost impossible to predict. Life will be very different after the singularity and drawing on past experiences to work out what it might be like will not help. You can guess what happens next, sure, but you can’t predict.

In this blog post I want to write about the Link Singularity with a focus on propensity. By propensity I mean the likelihood of a site linking to you. If you run the world’s best cute kitten picture discovery site then Buzzfeed has a high propensity to link to you.

Let’s get some background on links and SEO.

Google used to recommend link directories. Recently, Google stopped mentioning links in its basic guidelines to webmasters. These days the search engine recommends creating sites that users will want to engage with and share.

Links still have great SEO value. They’re probably one of the strongest signals the search engine considers when evaluating sites.

Bad links result in bad SEO. Sites with unnatural links can be punished. These unnatural links could have been built or bought by SEO agencies and in-house teams. These links might also have happened naturally. If Google can’t see other qualifying signals for the link signals then the search engine gets suspicious.

Good links result in good SEO. One of the challenges that SEOs face today is that the threshold for “good link” is creeping higher. Yesterday’s acceptable link is today’s bad link.

Guest posts are a case in point. The concept of directories lasted nearly a decade and article based link building lasted nearly five years. Guest posts were hot just a year and a half ago but now it seems like the heat is very firmly on the tactic.

Guest posting is in danger of being the next article marketing.

Some SEOs will disagree with that sentence. There’s no danger, they’ll claim. Google’s just blowing hot air to scare SEOs off. Even if that is true – it’s taken Google a lot less time to talk about the dangers of guest posting than it did to crack down on article submission and directories before that.

To get good links you need to earn successes from increasingly high quality sites. The challenge? The higher the quality the site the harder it is to get the link (indeed; any interaction).

For example, for this post about links and digital marketing, the BBC news site has a low propensity to link to me, Search Engine Land has a mild propensity to link to me and Twitter has a high propensity to link to me. I can count on Twitter because I’ll tweet this myself.

Let’s graph this. With apologies to those who work in analytics; let’s bubble graph this.

The x axis shows units of time. They might be months, quarters, years or Google update cycles. All that matters is that they show time moving forward.

The y axis shows the quality rating of the site. Once again this is an arbitrary rating. If you’re reading this post you’ll have an idea of what is meant by a quality site and a low quality site.

The size of the bubble shows the link propensity and the placement of the bubble shows the quality of site necessary for a link to count.

What the smear-like graph shows is that over time the sites you need to get links (and other signals) from in order to assist with your SEO become higher in quality and less likely to link to you. I’ve charted the linear average and you can see that eventually there are no more easy targets.

What does this mean?

This is a time factor in the link singularity. Once we cross that line then SEOs will need to think about their link strategies in ways we find hard to predict today. We can only guess.

Give me some actionable insight, damnit!

Intentionally this is an “academic” post. I’m using inverted commas there since the word academic seems poorly used to describe any of my thoughts. That said, there is one clear, actionable message.

You may believe there is some truth in the supposition above. You may believe Google became unhappy at guest posting more quickly than it did on article marketing and more quickly than it did on directories. You may believe high quality sites are less likely to link to you than splogs.

If you believe any of these points then I’d suggest you spare some thought for the link singularity. Now is the time to be trying new tactics and testing means to engage with the highest quality sites in order to earn signals (and not just links) for your site or your clients.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Three examples where link building could be illegal

Eric Enge has an insightful interview with Google’s Matt Cutts on the Stone Temple site. It’s called “Link Building Is Not Illegal (or Inherently Bad) with Matt Cutts”.

If you’ve not already read the interview then I recommend you do so.

“Illegal” is an interesting choice of terminology. Google doesn’t make the law so breaking their terms and conditions is unwise but not illegal. It’s actually similar to the ASA’s code of conduct (the CAP) here in the UK; those rules aren’t the law but breaking them is unwise.

Of course, in this sense the word “illegal” is just being used to mean “a breach of Google’s rules”. That said, there are some link building tactics that are illegal because they do break the law.

This post isn’t legal advice, I can’t give that to you. This post also has a completely UK focus. There are all sorts of quirky laws for almost every country and if you’re a professional digital marketer you should know then. In France, for example, it was illegal to use wifi outside, although I believe that rule has now been loosened or better explained. This would mean link building from your garden, on your laptop, in France would be illegal.

I hope this one is common sense. Hacking is illegal, albeit sometimes the laws they use to enforce this are a bit weird.

The UK’s Bribery Act of 2010 (applies to England and Wales, Scotland and North Ireland) carries a maximum of a ten year jail sentence, disqualification for being a company Director and was once described as “ the toughest anti-corruption legislation in the world”. A bribe is a “financial or other advantage” to an individual in exchange for improperly performing a function or activity.

This is where it gets tricky. As a rule of thumb (not a lawyer, remember) this means if you pass someone (a blogger, say) some cash to do you a favour (like write about your client or add a link) when they weren’t going to do otherwise then it is a bribe. It’s a bribe because Section 4 of the act defines “improperly” in conjunction with the expectation of good faith or impartiality.

I know. It’s a horrible shades of grey situation. Rather than suggest I know I how to untangle it I just suggest you need to be aware of it. Yes; there are regulators and groups within the UK who have in the past heard the description of some paid link tactics and described them as bribes.

Equally, if you are handing money over to bloggers, editors and site owners for coverage and links then you need to make sure you record that expense appropriately or you may also be breaking some financial laws. Who knows whether you can claim VAT back on paid links?

The UK Regulations of Unfair Commercial Practises has this to say on content marketing (Page 27, PDF link)

Using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer.

This means if you pay for a post that makes the public (ie, the blog readers) aware of a product or service and it is not disclosed as a paid for post then there’s an issue. Of course, you can have an image that discloses the relationship and not have nofollow on the links. That would have you in breach of Google’s guidelines but not the UK’s.

Based on my personal experiences as a blogger it is this last law that has a nasty twist. I’ve had emails from agencies that specifically requested that I did not mention any relationship. This isn’t always SEO agencies; equally as often PR and Social agencies trying to create a “natural buzz”.

There you go; three examples in which Link Building might be illegal. This is not legal advice, I can’t give that, and is intended only as an interest piece and point of discussion.

Image credits: Hacking, Bribes and Disclosure.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

How to share and archive your Vines or Instagram vidos to Flickr and YouTube

Now that Vine has come to Android and Instagram video has launched I’m filming more videos. I’ve nothing, clearly, against Vine and Instagram as platforms but neither a great for embeds and or shares outside their parent platform.

Fortunately there is a solution.

I use an HTC One. I assume that most Androids are similar and predict the iPhone and WP8 is different. Whenever I film anything in Vine or Instagram then I also get an MP4 of the video saved in my local gallery. This means Android users can tap their menu button and access the gallery "app". On my HTC One all Instagram stuff is saved in a "Instagram" album.

For a Vine video the re-share is easy. Just access the video, hit the menu button and then share. If you’ve YouTube or Flickr apps installed on your phone then you’ll be able to share to that platform.

(A 4 second Ouya unboxing, unlike Vine, Flickr does not loop)

The catch is with Instagram videos and Flickr. Instagram saves in the .mkv format and will rarely be larger than Flickr’s various size limits. However, mobile upload attempts fail complaining about size and desktop attempts dislike the file format.

Sharing the Instagram .mkv to YouTube is easy though.

(Sample Ouya game play, with live internet radio streaming provided by the same device)

Monday, July 01, 2013

Digital marketing myths: T-shaped people

The phrase T-shape people was coined with good intentions, used with good intentions and those same good intentions have been responsible for agency designs, blog posts, consultancy white papers and insight.

The problem with good intentions, though, is where they take you.

The premise of T-shaped people is that brands need the help of cross digital experts. It’s awkward and less effective to have a whole gang of people trying to coordinate a brand’s digital marketing efforts. The SEO needs to be run to assist PPC. PPC needs to be coordinated with Display. Display needs to be used in conjunction with Performance Marketing. All of this is social. T-shaped people are those who have mastered not one digital service but many and can now run point for that coordination.

I-shaped people make sense. The bottom of the “I” represents new starts, rookies and people with basic skills. The better the digital marketer gets in their service then the higher up the “I” they climb until they master the service and reside at the top.

The myth of T-shaped people begin with the strange assumption that by giving someone who has mastered one digital service a new job title or added responsibilities that they’re somehow at expert level at adjacent digital services.

How does this happen? Just because someone’s mastered SEO does not mean they’ve any talent for PPC.

In fact, if you’re running a team and you’ve an expert SEO and some PPC staff too it makes no sense to put that SEO on the PPC account for them to pick up experience while the PPC trained staff take a stab at the SEO. No sense, dangerous, silly.

So how is the expert going to become T-shaped? The only way up to the expert layers is through the I-shape. You can’t skip the bottom layers.

There is an argument, I’ll admit, that there is room for some osmosis. That’s to say that an SEO expert who goes to all the PPC meetings, listens in, joins in and discusses will pick up plenty of PPC skills. You do learn from experts.

However, in order to even hope for skill osmosis you need to have digital service experts to learn from in the first place. The danger with chasing T-shaped people is that employees never reach the top of the “I” before they need to worry about other channels. You could end up with underscore-shaped people instead.

I don’t believe in T-shaped people. I don’t think it’s possible to skip the bottom of the learning curve.

I do believe in people who can effect change in more than one digital service. I spend as much time reading and engaging in performance marketing as I do in search engine optimisation, after all. I make the effort to learn from every PPC or display campaign I can get a look at whether that’s an enterprise level one or a pet project. I don’t consider myself T-shaped.

Do you agree? Do you chase the T-shaped vision?