15 years ago

On May 22, 2002, at 2PM Pacific time, Michael Campbell (website no longer active) announced OptiLink to his newsletter subscribers.  This is the first of ground-breaking tools that “put me on the map” in SEO.


I know it seems hard to believe for you new kids, but way back in the old days, no one was talking about link text.  The tools of the day measured keyword density and link popularity (the count of inbound links, but not the text used).  OptiLink was the first tool to provide a means to spider the backlink results for a URL; locate the anchor text used; and report in a manner that led to anctionable decisions to dramatically improve rank – usually in the next “dance”.

Sidebar:  You remember the Google dance?  The batch update that happened every 4-6 weeks?  Yeah, Google was not always realtime.  🙂

I never told the “behind the scenes” story of OptiLink – the person that gave me the idea, the secret that was “hidden in the open” that no one else saw, the crazy 6 months building the first release, the phone call from Google (that’s a priceless story), the affiliates that got banned, the one forum post that got them all restored, why I ultimately stopped selling it, and the two other gems I found along the way.

Maybe it is time for the OptiLink memoir.



The Third Age of Search

In the beginning…

Search engines were born to index and make available “information” and the web was just one really big library – well, not that large at first actually!  But it did grow at an enormous rate and started a transformation in the way we access information, both reference material and current events.  Witness the decline, and almost certain demise, of print newspapers and the much reduced attendance at libraries.  This was the first age of search.

Then along came e-commerce.  Mostly with information products at first and many folks figured that is all it would ever be – sort-of-a library with a little bookstore stuck in the corner – but it did catch on and pretty much everything was available for purchase online.  BTW, the success of online commerce we owe as much or more to efficiencies in overnight shipping as we do payment systems and shopping carts, but that is a post for another day.  Whatever the ultimate causes, this was the second age of search.

And then came local.  As the web matured and our use of it grew, it became not just where we learned and managed information and conducted a large and growing share of commerce, but it has now become the guide to our immediate physical world as well.  Just as most people in metro areas use GPS rather than maps, nearly everyone now uses search instead of phone books.  What we call the “world wide web” is increasingly used to explore our own backyards.  We are now in the third age of search.

The three ages – informational, commercial and local – are marked not just by user behavior, but by dramatic changes in the search engines as well.  Those of you that have been in this field the dozen years that I have already know what I’m talking about, but let me refresh everyone’s mind with some key highlights.

Adwords, Ansense and Google Shopping (originally Froogle, remember?) were clear signposts of the commercial age.  Moreover, as Google went public and online commerce grew even stronger, we saw more and more of the “organic” results chewed up by paid ads.

Maps, Places and the general emphasis on mobile mark where we are now and will be for some time.  Mobile is growing for faster than anything since The Big Bang and shows no signs yet of slowing.

But what does this mean for non-local e-commerce? [as most of my long time follows are involved in]

Answering that in detail is a longer story, but there are a couple principles that have always been true that you can still use in this, and any subsequent, age.

First, don’t fight the tide.  We’ve already learned the hard lesson that clawing our way to #1 with 3 paid ads plus a comparison ad with sitelinks above us is a bad use of time, money and talent – better to focus on those places that are not as clogged with Adwords.  This is still true, plus add local to the mix. 🙁  Sure, this might mean you are driven to use more longer tail searches as that will very often yield better ROI.

Second, don’t be completely reliant on Google organic!  Sure, “free traffic” is great, but having only a single supplier of business is never a good idea, and traffic is what supplies your business.  With the growth in social media and the availability of huge traffic through paid programs, you should NOT have “all your eggs in the organic basket”.

And finally, just get better at SEO!  Sure, it sucks to be at position 1 and to be below the fold – happens in may short tail commercial terms – but just as we have been “pushed down” by paid and local, the volume of searches and the willingness of searchers to spend money online has EXPLODED.

Complain if you want, but making money online is still the most wonderful thing ever invented – even if it is a bit more complex today.

Don’t be Evil? BULL S**T!

Everyone in SEO BrainTrust has already heard me rant about the duplicity and lies from Google (nofollowed as all untrusted links should be!) in regards the so-called “secure search” initiative but this is just too horrible for me to keep bottled up any longer. Hence, this public rant.

This supposed public service initiative is nothing more-nor-less than the arrogance of absolute power and is the most damaging thing to hit webmasters in the history of webmastering. Somehow it is ok for Google to know every last detail of a user’s search behavior – which is unavoidable without proxies and constant cookie dumps – but the inconsequential percentage of that traffic that hits any one website is somehow a huge security problem that searcher’s, if only they knew, would simply freak out about. BULL SHIT!

But why should webmasters care? Here’s an example.


This is a snapshot from a private client’s GA account (revealing nothing sensitive). For the period covered, this is 10% of total organic traffic and the bounce rate at 80% is fully 20% higher than the terms we actually get reported. So here’s the dilemma: How the F**K do I fix this?

For 10% of search traffic I can not begin to diagnose and decrease bounce rate because I have no clue what the visitor was even searching for. Thanks a lot Google – that’s a big help improving the search experience. Clearly it does my client/partner no good to rank where only 2 in 10 visitors stick around and that would pretty much define “poor search experience” too but despite Google’s stated mission to be “all about the searcher” they have intentionally removed – using a complete and outright lie – the one thing that we can use to improve both the search experience and the visitor experience to our site.

Organic search has always been, and will always be, a symbiosis where Google gets OUR!! content for free so they can run a paid traffic division while providing us “free clicks” in exchange. They have continued to “change the deal” over time with more and more non-organic results reducing the value to us while increasing their revenues. OK, so maybe all’s fair in love and war (and business but that’s just another war!) but if deceit and misdirection at our expense is not “doing evil” than I am at a complete loss for what would qualify.

Add the completely ridiculous BS around G+ … a topic for another day … and I’m seeing FTC in big red letters on the horizon.

Dear Google: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With your 80% market share (like who the hell is in the 20%?) you have now reached a level of arrogance that is life threatening – to you!

SEO Mindset Reminder #9

2 x 70% > 1 x 100%

I have to admit, this is my favorite mindset reminder. It involves both math and humor, two of my favorite things — the others are, um, well, nevermind.

About 70% of what it takes to rank is easy. It’s just three factors: title tag, link text and PageRank. The rest of those (supposedly) 200 factors account for the minority of ranking impact, not the majority. If you get really good at the three factors that make the most difference, you can ignore the multitude of factors that contribute much less.

Hence the reminder: twice as good at 70% beats 100%.

We know the three biggest factors do work. Work these as smart and as hard as you can, and you will outwork the parts that we don’t know and matter much less.

That’s one of the reasons “the algorithm” no longer matters as much as it once did. Rather than being highly skilled in the nuance of ranking, top positioning today is more about how hard you work. It’s Mr. Busy that wins, not Mr. Smarty.

Which leads to a corollary for our rule: twice as good at 30% is less than 70%.

This is another reason Mr Smarty loses. There is no money in studying SEO to the point you can figure out what all 200 factors are (if there actually are that many) because no matter how precisely you can measure and control that 30%, you still have to work the 70% that matters most.

Work the parts you know and work them harder than your competition. That’s the secret of ranking. It’s dead simple. It’s just hard work.

SEO Mindset Reminder #8


If it were easy, you would have even more competition. How would you like to have twice as many people competing for your keywords? Even if they aren’t any good at it, some of them are bound to get lucky and still others are likely to get good. Making SEO “easy” is bad for you, so don’t ever complain about how hard it is. Give thanks that it does take some skill and hard work, because the alternative is far worse.

Worse still, reflect for a moment on your alternatives to running a web business. Can’t quite make that picture? Go watch the movie Office Space. Or how ’bout this: watch all your neighbors drive to work one morning and then notice what time they get back home. Does that look fun? Now how do you feel about SEO?

And seriously, just how hard is SEO really? It is far more tedious than it is hard and most of that can be solved by being organized enough to use employees and outsourcers, so when you find yourself (as we all do!) complaining about not getting ranked where you want — just time your morning commute!

SEO Mindset Reminder #7


We are emotional creatures first, and intellectuals second. That’s why our decisions are ultimately emotional. Sales and marketing folks know this. Sure, you do have to provide the knowledge that justifies the feeling, but if you can not get the prospect to believe their decision is right, you will lose the sale, no matter what the facts.

Our own behavior is no different. Moment by moment, we “sell ourselves” on what we should do, and while we will always know the reasons why, it is not the reasons that make us do it. Our beliefs is what drives our behavior, our reasons just allow us to accept it.

That is why knowing what to do is so very different from actually doing it. To be successful, in anything, not just SEO, it is not enough to know what to do. You must also believe in the things that will cause you to take the right action to create success from what you know.

Don’t get me wrong: knowledge is important too. In particular, to be really good at SEO requires knowing a bunch of pretty esoteric stuff. But to get yourself to consistently put your knowledge to use, you have to have an empowering view of SEO — not just an understanding of the technology.

These 10 Mindset Reminders are what I think are the attitudes that are most critical to creating and sustaining correct action. Notice that none of them is about what causes good ranking. That’s not their purpose. These rule are about you, your beliefs about search and your beliefs about your ability to achieve top rankings.

Right Knowledge + Right Mindset ==> Right Action

SEO Mindset Reminder #5


One of the huge benefits we have on the web is we can measure so much about user engagement that we can make very well informed decisions about what works, and what doesn’t. But there is a risk.

If we’re not careful, we can end up measuring so many things that what we end up in is the measurement business instead of the one we started out in. Don’t do that. Remember that your purpose is to actually make money!

Eighty percent of the stuff you can measure on the web is a complete waste of time. Most measurements are from really bad data to start with and they don’t actually measure anything that’s going to affect change in your business.

So whenever you go to measure something ask yourself this: “Does this measurement really, honestly change what I do?” If it does not have the power to inform a decision, then is it really something you should be doing at all?

The closely related question is precision. Even the measurements that are important are, again, important only to the extent they support decision making and almost no decision needs “perfect” numbers. For example, are you ranking at #5 or #7 for that keyword? Just how many data centers and how many times a day should you check that?

The difference between ranking at #5 or #7 does not matter. All you need to recognize is that it is below the fold on page 1. Any more accuracy than that is simply measurement for measurement’s sake and not one that drives business results.

It is the money that counts. Everything else counts only to the extent that it makes counting the money more fun! On the other hand, don’t get too attached to that either, because counting the money does not make it grow — work is what makes it grow.

SEO Mindset Reminder #4


Don’t get wrapped up in your rankings. Rankings don’t actually matter. Making money is what maters. Focus on the rankings only to the extent that they are the right ones – the ones that make you money.

How do you tell? Analytics. If you are not driving your SEO strategy from site analytics, then you are simply not doing the right thing. If you happen to be successful that way, good for you, but it was luck…not skill.

How many times have you heard someone brag that they have five top ten rankings? That’s great, and are you making any money with that site? Everybody has five top ten rankings for some off the wall keywords. In fact, almost everyone one has a dozen number one rankings! Wohoo. But do they make any money?

One top 10 ranking that makes money is worth more than a hundred that don’t. Quit bragging about rankings. Count the money.

SEO Mindset Reminder #3


You don’t get to decide what’s right. Your job is to admit what is and accept it. The rankings define whatever the search engine considers right and it is not up to us to change it. To be successful requires that you accept it and adapt to it.

In many cases the top ranked pages are not much to look at. It’s not a beauty contest. You don’t get a vote. Your opinion doesn’t matter, and there’s no court at all, higher or otherwise, so whatever sense of “justice” you may be bringing with you … leave it at home.

Second guessing what should be so and complaining about results quality are thoughts that do not belong in your search marketing mentality. Thinking this way is an exercise in futility and keeps you from focusing on your own site and your goals.

When you look at search results, realize those results define right and they got there by simple math. If you want to replace them, one way to do it is just do what they did.

Nightclub SEO

SEO for your website is a thoroughly mathematical proposition, but there are intriguing – and humorous – parallels between SEO and the social interactions at a nightclub. This analysis is necessarily written from a male perspective, but it should be pretty clear how to draw the analogy from a female view as well. So let’s party!

The first comparison is one of difference. Unlike the online world where search is commanded by a very small number of search engines, the nightclub environment is frequented by dozens or even hundreds of “search engines” – Gender Inter-Relationship Leader (GIRL) units – each presenting a different mix of attractive benefits for the Mass of Attenuated Neurology (MAN) that achieves top ranking.

On the other hand, just like search engines, GIRL ranking algorithms are undisclosed and thereby subject to rampant speculation. The unavoidable result is the creation of an entire subculture devoted to this study – code named PUA – that enjoys a following every bit as intense as the SEO community.

But despite all the mystery, there are some things that we do know.

First, “content is king”. It is clear the GIRLs rate MANs based on social interaction, both verbal and non-verbal. The first “spidering event”, termed an “opener”, appears particularly critical – much like a title tag. Be aware however that reusing previously successful openers can result in a well documented “duplicate content penalty” that results in nearly permanent loss of rank.

Numerous other penalties are possible, all generally delivered without any warning, and there are no credible reports of a successful “reinclusion request”, so penalty avoidance is critical. In particular, “spamming” will almost always result in a complete “ban” and in the worst case will be accompanied by a “GIRL-slap”.

But returning to observed ranking factors … in addition to content, linking also appears to be vital to successful top ranking with many GIRLs. Such linking can take several forms, but all are directed at enhancing “social proof” as computed by the ClubRank algorithm.

Methods for manipulation of ClubRank are widely taught in PUA. The most widely used technique appears to be the “mini-net” of interlinked MANs. In the simplest case, this is reduced to the “wing MAN” linking structure and this is the most common method observed in field tests.

There are a multitude of other factors GIRLs use to rank MANs – a commonly reported number is 200 – but the two covered here are widely reported as the most critical.