Should you stop advertising on Google?

Google is in trouble. An investigation by The Times newspaper has triggered dozens of brands to abandon advertising on Google. Should you follow suit?

Google Adwords screenshot

Dozens of brands and leading advertisers have pulled their advertising from Google in an argument about how the search engine giant monitors its own systems. The major move away from Google follows an investigation by The Times newspaper which has revealed significant amounts of advertising from major global brands appearing on YouTube videos, amongst other places, which are from a variety of negative, potentially criminal accounts. These include videos from hate preachers.

Companies such as Heinz, HSBC, L’Oreal, Marks and Spencer, Sky, Tesco, Vodafone, Volkswagen, and the UK Government have all stopped spending money on Google. Over 250 others have followed suit. Governments are also leading campaigns against Global, with Vietnam, for instance, calling for all firms to stop advertising on Google.

On top of this, Google has been criticised openly by one of the most significant voices in advertising, Sir Martin Sorrell, who heads the leading company WPP. Plus the matter has been raised in the UK Parliament and in a Commons Select Committee. There is considerable pressure mounting on Google.

Google, for its part, has apologised and set up an immediate reform of some of its advertising. However, much of this is seen as too little too late and not really dealing with the fundamental problem. Indeed, the comments from Google have fuelled more anger at the company.

Don’t rely on algorithms

Part of Google’s problem is the vast amount of content it has to try to monitor. With more than 300 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day, it is a mammoth task to spot problematic content. Even if people notice it and alert Google, the volume of complaints must be hard to cope with inside the 24-hour deadline they have set. In fact, as The Times reports show, videos that have been complained about were still available on YouTube more than 24 hours after the issues were notified to the company behind Google and YouTube, Alphabet Inc.

However, that’s not the real issue. The essential problem behind all of this is that Google vehemently believes in the power of its algorithm. It’s the same problem over at Facebook. To these high-tech giants, the algorithm is everything.

But let’s face facts. The algorithms they use are merely mathematical calculation systems attempting to work things out. But frankly, they are pretty useless.

After all, if Facebook’s algorithm were any good it wouldn’t be annoying certain people in Washington DC with the promotion of “fake news”. One of the reasons that there was so much “fake news” in people’s timelines on Facebook was because the algorithm said, “this piece of news is really popular so it must be of interest to people”. Except, of course, popularity and veracity are not necessarily the same thing. It’s quite popular to believe that aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, but that doesn’t make it true.

Google’s reliance on its algorithm can also be questioned. Its search algorithm is not necessarily as good as we might believe. One in three people who search for something never click on one of the resulting links on a search results page, suggesting that either the person didn’t know what they really wanted to search for, or that the algorithm was not really able to interpret the request correctly. That algorithm issue is emphasised by the fact that many people return to Google within 10 seconds of clicking on a search link, to search again. This indicates that the individual is having to conduct repeated searches because the algorithm is not intelligent enough to work out what we the person really wants.

Humans are better than algorithms

When it comes to advertising, algorithms still reign supreme in the corporate thinking of these giant tech firms. All you need to do is set up your advert, tick a few boxes and the algorithm will make sure that your advert appears in the places you want. Except it doesn’t quite do that, as the examples shown by The Times demonstrate.

In the “olden days” when there were no algorithms to determine your advertising placement, an advertiser would use an advertising buyer to buy the space needed. These ad buyers would get to understand the brand and would know the best places for that brand to appear, whether that was a magazine or a TV slot. True, that still happens today, but 30% of all advertising now is digital, and the ad buyers are doing their job with their hands partly tied behind their backs because the placement of adverts is algorithm led. No longer do advertisers get complete freedom of choice as to where their advert appears.

Yes, you can limit the advertising, and, yes, you can control things – to a degree. But if you advertise digitally you are at the behest of an algorithm. In those “olden days” advertising buyers knew instinctively which places for advertising would best fit with the brand they were promoting. That human instinct was more powerful than an algorithm, which is apparently making errors on behalf of advertisers.

Pay Per Click – Really?

Worse than the reliance on an algorithm, is the poor return on digital advertising. One study has shown that 50% of all advert clicks on a mobile are made by accident. So advertisers are paying for clicks that are completely useless. Furthermore, one study showed that even for younger generations, TV advertising is far more powerful and influential than online adverts. Indeed, the average click-through rates are poor. Around 98% of people ignore digital advertising it appears. So even if the algorithm did manage to get it right, the benefits are pretty small.

So there are three clear reasons why you might want to reconsider any advertising you do:

  1. You are not in complete control over where your advert appears
  2. Half of the clicks are mistakes – and you are paying for them
  3. Most people ignore the adverts anyway

Google and Facebook both depend upon advertising as their principle sources of revenue. With major brands pulling out, governments investigating the companies and advertising agencies refocusing their thinking, this is a watershed moment for those tech firms.

They could solve the issue easily. Just stop being wedded to the algorithm and only to use the tech to supplement human decision-making. But that’s a significant departure in thinking for these businesses who believe fundamentally in the flawlessness of the algorithm model.

There is, as always, another way to solve the problem. Google and Facebook could jointly set up a massive, human-led, media-buying agency. Brands would then go to that firm and be able to use the human knowledge it contains to buy advertising in specific places. If you were worried about what kind of things your advertising would be associated with, you could have the control you used to have in the “olden days”. But if you didn’t mind your brand being on some hate speech video, then go ahead and stick with the algorithm, rather than people.

Pay Per Click concept
Pay Per Click advertising is only as good as the algorithm behind it. Do you trust an algorithm more than a person?

 

How good are you at searching? Not as good as you think…!

New research shows that people can be good at some kinds of searching, but not at others. It turns out that experience counts for a lot.

The word "search" in word game tiles

Every day several billion searches are performed on Google alone, with billions more on all the other search engines combined. And the figures do not count all the billions more that we do within websites. You would think we would all be pretty good at searching. But you’d be wrong.

Even with the vast amount of searching that we do online, we’re not much cop at it.

Search engine experts point to the fact that around 95% of all clicks are on the first page of the results for any given search term. They also emphasise that around half of all those clicks are for the first item on the results listing.

What this misses out, however, is the number of people who click on nothing. There are millions of people right now searching away, who get a results page for the phrase they have typed in, take a quick look and go “well none of that is what I wanted” and so they search again for something else.

Google’s own data show that only 12% of people who search for something click on any of the results. In other words, around 88% of searches are unproductive. What the SEO experts are really talking about is the 95% of the 12%. True, it is still millions and millions of people. But it misses the point; most individuals who search for something do not get what they are expecting in the search results.

Of course, they could, if they tried. The most likely reason why so few people actually click on anything on a search results page is that they were very poor at searching. Either they typed in such a generic phrase that, frankly, all Google could do was to guess. Or these searchers didn’t use the advanced search settings, which bring so much additional power to your searches.

You are bamboozled by search results

When you complete a search, though, you are often faced with millions of potential results. The sheer volume of the selection makes our brains freeze for a moment. All that choice stops us in our tracks. So we quickly scan for something that seems as though it might be the kind of thing we are looking for. It turns out we do this in around 200ms – you are not consciously aware you are doing it. We latch on to a link that seems right and then we focus on it – at the expense of the other search items in the list. We are fooled into thinking this is the right thing to click on.

It gets worse. Studies suggest that we trust those first links we see more than the others. We do not appear to think they may be biased or inaccurate.

So, here’s the problem. We are not very good at searching anyway, because most of what we get, we reject. And even when we find a page of potentially useful results we are attracted to one item at the expense of the others, and we tend to believe it is more likely to be accurate and unbiased. On the Internet, it would seem we dispense with our powers of analysis.

Experience counts in searching

Now, a new study on search behaviour took an interesting look at how we search, comparing different age groups and a variety of topics. The research found that older people were better at searching for healthcare subjects than younger people. This was put down to the greater experience that older people have with medical matters. Conversely, when the subject of the searches was “fantastic movies” it turned out that the younger people were better at searching, again because more young people go to the cinema and are engaged with such kinds of entertainment.

Also, older people tended to be slower. They spent more time looking at the search results page. This could suggest that they were more cautious and used their experience to assess things and, perhaps, be more analytical about what was being offered to them.

We might like to think that we know what we are doing when it comes to search, but the statistics and studies suggest otherwise. Our lack of search skills combined with our subconscious desire to get things done quickly and accept the most obvious result, without much analysis, is a problem. We could be basing all kinds of decisions on that kind of online behaviour. And combine all that with a lack of experience in a sector and it turns out that online search could be more of a hindrance than a help.

Google shows it still has to grow up on its 18th Birthday

Google is 18 years old today, but perhaps it is time for the company to grow up and start thinking like an adult, even accepting it might be wrong.

[su_heading style=”flat-blue” size=”20″]A Birthday Message to Google[/su_heading]

18th Birthday Sign Happy Birthday, Google. You are 18 years old today (perhaps – see Guardian article). Finally an adult – though it’s another three years before you will be allowed any alcohol in the USA.

Like most 18-year-olds you probably think you are grown up and that you know it all. When you are older, like most teenagers, you’ll look back on your 18th and laugh at yourself, wondering how you managed to think you were so smart.

Today, for instance, there is evidence that you are not as clever as you think you are, Mr Google.

Search results can be manipulated

In spite of all your efforts, Google, there are still plenty of “black hat” techniques being used that distort the search engine results.

Meanwhile, you have been working hard to get rid of the poor quality results from your listings, and you have achieved some good work. But this recent debacle involving university websites suggests there is a fundamental weakness in your system.

It appears that several leading university websites have been “hacked” with additional links being randomly added to pages. The site associated with those links also seems to have dramatically risen up the search engine results pages.

That’s because Google’s search algorithm rightly sees university websites as having “authority”. So, anything linked from those sites gets extra “points”. If a site gets a link from a university website it must be good, mustn’t it? Wrong.

As the recent incident shows, there is a weakness in the algorithm. All it appears to be doing is saying “hey, here’s a good site, it is owned by a university, so it must be good and anything it links to must be worthy. Let’s give those sites some extra points.”

Yet, just because it is a university website does not mean it is worthy. There are plenty of forums hosted on university domains which contain potentially dodgy links – discussions by students can include “unusual” links. Yet, they will appear on the university domain and could, therefore, get extra search engine benefits due to the “authority” of that site. Similarly, many universities have content management systems allowing academic staff to upload all kinds of content. Just because you are a professor does not mean you vet everything you link to or only add links that are sound.

The notion that an “authority” site is overwhelmed with “good links” is to misunderstand how content is being created and shared online. And that is a fundamental flaw made by search engines, assuming, that because it is a good site, the links it adds are also good.

Time to grow up Google

Now, Mr Google, I appreciate that when you see a link from an authority site, you rush off around the web to ensure that the link itself is working and that it is relevant. You are taking other factors into account; that’s true. But the sudden rise in search engine rankings by one site which got dodgy links from university websites suggests that the balance in your adding up is wrong.

For the web as a whole, this suggests that many websites could be getting higher rankings than they deserve due to inappropriate scoring by being on “authority” sites.

Just because you have done a great job in your younger years, does not actually mean you are doing a fantastic job now. Time to grow up Google and do what adults do, but teenagers don’t, and accept that you can be wrong.

Online dominance does not mean you are right. As an adult now, perhaps it is time to accept you might be wrong. When it comes to search engine ranking, you are clearly good – but maybe not as good as your teenage brain might think. Otherwise you would have spotted the university hacking incident and not given any kind of benefit to the linked site.

Most effective search marketing technique is one of the hardest

Content creation is thought to be the best SEO technique by marketers, but they say it is one of the hardest methods too

Search Engine OPtimisationThe chances are if you were to get five different Search Engine Optimisation experts in a room together you would end up with six varied opinions as to what the right thing to do might be.  Some would tell you that keyword research is essential. Others might say that link building is fundamental. Whereas another one could suggest that crafting the right URLs is important.

Website owners are faced with this constantly conflicting advice as to the right thing to do. One moment you are told to do keyword research, the next minute you are told that is “old hat” and you should be doing something else entirely.

Thankfully, research from Ascend2 shows what is really working in search marketing. The study found that search engine marketing experts tend to agree on what works best, even though there are plenty of different suggestions. It turns out that over three quarters of the search gurus claim that creating relevant content is the surest way of gaining SEO benefits. Only 16% of them believe that bothering about the URLs on your site is highly important.

So, the study points the way to what you need to do with your website in order to gain search engine benefits. There is only one problem. The Ascend2 study also shows what the experts think is complex. Guess what? They agree that producing relevant content is one of the most difficult things to do. Only link-building is thought to be harder. The marketing experts agree that structuring a website’s URLs is the easiest thing to achieve, yet it is likely to have the least impact.

Graph of SEO difficulty

The most effective method of search engine optimisation is deemed to be one of the hardest to do. Is it any wonder, therefore, that many websites fail to create enough good and relevant content? It is hard, so they seek out easier methods such as social media. That is nice and easy to do, but actually has relatively low impact on search results. Marketers feel as though they are achieving things when they use social media because they can see activity. The problem is that activity is largely ineffective. Some search marketing techniques like social media create an illusion. They can produce some success, but that success is not as effective as writing more relevant content.

Once again, this study shows clearly that if you want your website to be noticed online you have to concentrate on publishing great content. That’s not so strange – the web is a publishing medium, after all. So the more you treat your web activity as a publishing process, the more you will succeed with search marketing. Perhaps creating relevant content is difficult for many websites because the companies do not treat it as a publishing exercise. If you do, then you employ the right kind of people and use publishing techniques that mean content production is no longer seen as difficult.

Are big SEO events any use these days?

Many search engine optimisation events are either so big you can’t talk to the experts or are merely “pitch fests”.

SEO ConferenceYou are never short of events to attend on search engine optimisation. For instance, Eventbrite lists 347 SEO events taking place in the UK in the next six months. Of course, there will be many others which do not use Eventbrite. You are spoiled for choice.

The problem with most events on search engine marketing and optimisation, however, is that they are either training courses or they are conferences. The training courses are run by people who have a good understanding, but who are not usually the leading experts. Indeed, the leading experts are too busy speaking at global conferences to run local training events.

So you could attend a local event to understand more about SEO, or you could attend a conference. But here’s the problem. If you attend a local training course the person you meet is not necessarily an expert. They are probably a great trainer, who makes SEO understandable, but that’s not the same as being an expert.

If, though, you attend a typical SEO conference there is another problem. These events usually attract hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. And that means you can’t get to speak with the expert; you may as well have watched them on YouTube.

Worse than this, some conferences like this are nothing more than “pitch fests”, where the speakers are merely trying to get you to sign up to one of their online programmes, providing all kinds of incentives and inducements to “sign up today”.

And it is not just SEO meetings that are like this. Any number of Internet Marketing or digital events are so big that getting to speak with the people who matter is next to impossible.

A blogger’s tale

A few years ago I heard from a blogger who was 19 years old, lived in Yorkshire and had earned $1m from his blog inside a year. It was how he had achieved this success which struck me. He had emailed other successful bloggers, without response. He had attended blogging conferences, without them helping him. It was only when he got on a plane, went to America and met – face-to-face – some of the world’s biggest and most successful Internet marketers that his blog took off. Why? Because of two things. Firstly, he was able to learn directly from the people “in the know” – something he hadn’t been able to do at “pitch fest” conferences. Secondly, they got to know him and they promoted his work to their millions of followers.

What this story tells me is that even in these digital years, face-to-face contact is still at the heart of success.

So, if you want to massively succeed at SEO it is probably better to meet the real experts in small groups, or even if possible, one-to-one, than go to a massive conference or attend a local training event. If you go to a “pitch fest” conference you’ll either spend a lot of money or you’ll be unsuccessful in trying to get to speak in a meaningful way with the experts.

It just makes me think – are big events really worth it?

[box type=”info” size=”large” style=”rounded” border=”full”] I notice that in London in March there is a “Search Bootcamp” where some of the top experts in search marketing will be speaking. But here is the important thing – the audience will be limited to just 40 people. And the event will include small group sessions allowing you to get up close and personal with the experts. If you book before the end of the month you save 27% on the ticket price.[/box]

 

Is SEO a myth?

Jigsaw puzzle with word "evidence"There is an old man in Woking, Surrey, who carefully places a bowl of custard outside his front door every night before he goes to bed. For years, people were curious about this until a couple of school children knocked on his door and asked “why do you put a bowl of custard outside your door each night?”. He smiled and said: “It is because of the elephants.” The children looked at him rather puzzled and said “But there are no elephants in Woking.” “So,” the old man said, “it must be working then.”

Of course, this is not a true story, but it shows that we often have unshakable belief in something. The old man puts his bowl of custard out, no elephants arrive, therefore the bowl of custard must be warding off the animals. At least that’s his belief.

We can see unshakable beliefs all around us – indeed, we often have them ourselves. You may be a Christian with the unshakable belief  that Jesus was the son of God. Or you may be Jewish, regarding Jesus as a kind man, but not the son of God. Alternatively, you may be an Atheist, unmoved by the concept of a deity.

Similarly, you might believe that the medicine you take for your illness provides you with a power of good. Yet many people with the same condition get better without that medicine. At the same time, doctors give people placebos – sugar pills that have no impact on a disease – yet people get better because they believe the “drug” is working.

Beliefs are powerful and are part of our everyday lives, helping us to operate in the world according to our “rules”.

Like it or not, SEO is a belief system. There are many people convinced by its power, whereas other people manage to thrive online without giving it a second thought. It is sometimes like the man with the bowl of custard, if you do lots of SEO and you get results, you prove to yourself that it must have been the SEO that achieved those results. It is impossible to think that your belief might be wrong. After all you have the “evidence” that it works. Equally, there are people with the “evidence” that it does not work.

This whole arena of what we believe in has been brought into focus with new psychological research conducted in Toronto, Canada. This looked at what happens when people get evidence that counters their belief system. What would happen, for instance, if there were evidence that businesses achieved online greatness without paying attention to SEO? What would the devoted fans of SEO say?

This research gives us a clue. When people have their beliefs challenged by the evidence, they start to adopt a viewpoint which presents something that cannot be falsified. For instance, the research showed that when people were presented with factual evidence about the positive life outcomes of children from same sex couples the people opposed to same sex marriage decided that the matter should not be decided by evidence, but by opinion. Similarly, when politically motivated people were presented with facts on an issue, they effectively changed their stance to say that the facts were not as relevant as opinions. Of course, you cannot prove an opinion to be untrue – only facts can be verified.

So, when you think about search engine optimisation, the fans will be likely to adopt a position that whether or not it works is down to experience and opinion, when the facts go against them.

For business owners this is important. There are facts on both sides of SEO. There is considerable evidence that SEO works and brings in business. Equally there is evidence that companies do rather well without SEO. Indeed, Google itself produced its own “report card” showing that its own SEO was, frankly, poor. They are not doing too badly in spite of some pretty shabby search engine optimisation of their own. Perhaps what the Google report card demonstrates is that branding is more important than SEO. It’s a thought.

Of course, SEO fans will be unshakable in their belief – the evidence against them from Google’s own SEO report will make them retreat into a viewpoint that is something no-one can say is true or untrue. They will counter any evidence against SEO with opinion, rather than fact.

And therein lies the problem for business owners. When is an SEO company giving you fact and evidence that will show you how your online business can improve and when will the company be providing mere opinion that you cannot verify?

SEO is not a myth; it works and there is plenty of evidence to support it. But equally some of what we are told is mythical and we have to be careful to sort out the truth from the opinion so that we can be sure we are getting the right advice. Thankfully, Google has some advice to help us. But in the meantime, be careful. Not everything SEO firms tell you will be true. Some of it will be unshakable belief, flying in the face of evidence.

Search engines are about “news”

Search engines are now mainly used for news, showing that if your website takes a news approach it should do well.

Focus on being “up-to-date” for search engine success

The most popular searches on Google in 2014 were almost entirely about major news items. An analysis of search trends for the past 12 months shows that the most requested item was anything to do with Robin Williams – more popular than the football World Cup, which was in second place. Almost all of the items in the Top 10 popularity stakes on Google were major events, or significant product launches, such as the Disney movie, Frozen.

Google Search Trends 2014 Chart

The research demonstrates that when something is “in the news” we tend to go to Google to find out more. That should be a clue to anyone with a website.

The data shows that even though we are now surrounded by digital information, our fundamental behaviour has not changed that much. When something happens in “our world” we want to find out more about it.

So, rather than spending hours and hours on keyword selection and trying to get your website up the search engine rankings you could better if you spent those hours creating “news” which people then search for.

Remember, people did not just suddenly go to Google to find out more about the death of Robin Williams – they heard about it first on TV, Radio, on social media and so on. In other words, those websites covering the story benefited from the sad item being “in the news”.

Get yourself “in the news” and you will get more search engine traffic.

But how do you go about that? What is “news” and how do you create it?

News is “new” – that much is obvious. But new does not mean brand new; it means that it is novel information, something that the recipient has never heard before. So, it is not news to me that I have an Acer laptop. But that is “news” to you because (unless you know me personally) you did not know that. There is tons of information within your business that is new to people – because you already know it, you tend to think it is not news. But it is news if other people do not know it.

However, being told the brand of laptop I own is not really that interesting, even though it is new to you. So, it would hardly cause an international stir with millions of people searching for the details on Google.

News has to be exciting. Not only does it have to be new, but it has to be relevant to the audience you are targeting. The death of Robin Williams would have been of no real relevance to those people who did not like his movies, indeed to the millions of people in the world who had never even heard of him.

Plus news has to be unusual – something out of the ordinary. Knowing I have an Acer laptop is not unusual. But if it were made of cardboard, then that would be unusual and would make “the news”.

So, within your business there are bound to be things which you think are old, but which other people do not know about and would find unusual. Focus on those things and let journalists know about them. Get coverage in trade and professional journals as well as local newspapers. Get people talking about it.

Then people will search for it – and because the news item is specific to you, those searches will inevitably lead to your website.

The biggest boost to your SEO you could do this year is to concentrate on producing more news.

Oh – and one other thing – as any SEO specialist will tell you, Google just loves new and fresh material. So if it is “news” you get added search engine benefits anyway.

If you have a choice of where to spend your search marketing money in 2015, putting a greater slice of the budget into news generation will have a real impact.

You might not be up there in the global trends when we look at the data at the end of the year, but you could well be top in your sector or local area.

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Forget search engines – they are wasting your time

Search engine visitors are the least valuable for websites, being the least engaged you can get.

Search engines – where would we be without them? How would you find anything? Goodness me – how on earth would we cope with business these days if we had to go back to using a library…? It is difficult nowadays to imagine a world without search engines. Most of us spend about an hour of our time each day using a search engine like Google.

For us as websites users, they are fantastic. And for website owners, trying to get traffic and people to know about us, search engines are vital in attracting visitors. Everyone wants to be “number one on Google” for example. The power of search engines in gaining business is demonstrated by the global multi-billion pound “Search Engine Optimization” industry which has gathered pace in recent years. Even though Google’s own data on billions of website visits shows that on average only 27% of people end up on a web page as a result of search engines, most website owners still focus on SEO as their central online tactic.

Now there is new research which shows it really is not the good idea that we might think it is.

The well-respected Pew Research Center has found that for media sites the engagement that people have with a website is much, much lower for search engine derived visitors than for people who come direct. It also showed that visitors arriving from social media such as Facebook were also among the least engaged.

Infographic: Direct Visitors Are the Gold Standard for News Websites | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

On this website, my analytics show that the bounce rate is highest for search engine traffic and the amount of time spent on the website is highest for direct traffic who also read more pages per visit. Looking at several clients’ analytics, I see the same pattern.

Search engine traffic does not engage.

And what do you want – do you want mere traffic, to boost your ego, or do you want engagement to boost your bank balance?

Gaining search engine traffic may be a good thing, of course. It can produce visibility, it can remind people you exist, it can be valuable in getting recognition. But if it is not leading to the engagement levels you need, then you really ought to think again.

The data are clear – search engine visitors are curious, where direct traffic is really interested. And that’s what you need.

So how do you get interested, direct traffic? You focus your main efforts on offline branding, getting your products, brand name or company recognised in the “real world” so well that people type your website name in to the address bar in their browser or “bookmark” you because they love you.

The Pew Research Center study shows that people visit a news website because they already know about it from the real world. If you are a subscriber to The Times, for instance, did you subscribe as a result of a search engine visit or as a result of real world engagement with the newspaper? Do you visit the BBC website because you searched for a news item, or because you know and respect the BBC brand?

We tend to visit our favourite media sites because of pre-existing real world engagement. And it is the same with business. When people engage with a brand in the real world they become more likely to engage with the company online.

So, if you put all your eggs in the search engine basket you may well be attracting more visits than your competitors who do not do such good SEO. But at what cost? You might be getting lots of disengaged visitors. You can produce great statistics which massage your ego and show that you are indeed Number One on Google. But being “number one” doesn’t always pay the bills. What matters is that you engage people. And this research confirms plenty of analytics reports that engagement mostly comes from direct visits. And that means offline branding should be our priority, with SEO being lower down the list.

NOTE: I am not saying that you should not do SEO – I am just asking you to question the level of priority you place on it.

Google+ will help your search engine ranking

Google+ does NOT help you gain higher search engine rankings. We know that because Google themselves say so. Indeed, one of their leading engineers Matt Cutts even went so far as having to debunk the widely held theory in a forum discussion.

Well that just goes to show how much Google knows about its own product.

Here’s proof that Google+ DOES affect your search engine ranking. Take a look at the two searches below:

Search results on Google whilst signed in

Google Search Results when logged out

The same search has been conducted using the same browser on the same computer within 30 seconds of each other. The top one was made when logged in to a Google account, the second was made when logged out.

Apart from the fact that the logged in search has ten million more results than the logged out account, notice the difference in the number one item offered by each results.

In the logged in version the number one result is from “socialmediatoday.com” but that is now the number three result when the same search is completed when logged out. True it is not a stellar difference, but given that something like 20 times as many people click on result number one, compared with number three, it is important.

So why were the results different?

The answer is simple. When I am logged in Google knows I follow socialmediatoday.com and LinkedIn which posted the link, which appeared on my Google+ account because I follow them.

Google is adapting the results of its search page to more closely match individual needs, using data it collects from Google+ accounts. If you follow someone, their pages are going to come higher in the search results compared with someone who you don’t connect with using Google+.

Google, of course, is correct in saying that Google+ does not affect the search engine ranking. But what it doesn’t add to that is the fact that the rankings are adapted to each individual in a bid to provide a personalised search experience.

It means that if you are not using Google+ and your competitors are, they are going to feature more highly in the search results of your customers who also use Google+.

In other words, Google have finally got you; you HAVE TO  use Google+ now if you want to keep yourself in front of your target audiences when they are searching on Google.

Why search results don’t work

People do not see the search results they think they see. They miss seeing important and valuable sites once they have seen one useful link.

Search is most used resource for local business onlineHow many times have you already searched for something online today? Once, twice, half a dozen? Most of us actually search a lot more than we think; Google handles over 5 billion search requests EVERY DAY and 15% of them are for search terms they have never seen before. With an estimated 300m people using Google each day, it means that we are searching around 15 to 20 times each day and that each of us will be typing in a couple of search terms that the search engines have never previously encountered. Is it any wonder that search is not as accurate as we might think it is?

However, there is another problem with search – the way the search engines present the results to us. How many of those results do you actually see? Most search engines will provide you with 10 results per page, unless you have changed the settings to provide a higher number. But your eyes cannot see all 10 results; you take in only a couple at a time.

And what happens when you see a potentially useful result – you click on it. As a result you do not see something on the search results page that may be more helpful or appropriate to you.

Even if you do scroll down, you may not see the other results if you have already seen something useful that you are already thinking of clicking on. This is known as “attentional blindness” – your attention is temporarily switched off because you feel you have already found what you need.

Now, new research, suggests the problem is greater than at first thought. When we see something in a blink of an eye – around 200ms – after we have seen the original thing we are looking for, we don’t notice it. In other words, when you see a search result the looks potentially interesting you are almost never going to see an alternative.

This has two issues. It means we tend to accept the first potentially useful result we see- which may not be the best one, of course. Secondly, it means if you are trying to gain traffic from search engines it suggests that being anything less than number one on those results is almost worthless.

The answer, though is easy: Google should present results one at a time. You will then not suffer from “attentional blink” and if you are trying to gain visitors you could gain more because people will click through more results.

Why you should write very long website articles

Google is highlighting in-depth articles. People love reading long articles. You really should write more…!

Shelf with booksThe notion that people do not want to read anything that is more than a few hundred words is patent nonsense. After all, if that were true why would there be more full-length books being sold each year now than there were ten years ago? Yet the perceived wisdom on the web is that you shouldn’t really write anything longer than 400 words.

Every week I am asked “how long should a blog post be?” And every week my answer is the same – as long as you like.

In spite of this, though, people tell me that only their short blog posts get read. They say that we live in a world surrounded by short form communications such as Tweets and simple messages on Facebook. They tell me that people don’t have the time to read long articles on web pages.

I say bunkum.

And it isn’t just me who says this is a theory borne out of assumption. The good folks at Google have evidence.

When you look at a graph of the ranking of websites you find that the sites that get the highest ranking positions are the ones with the biggest word counts. Now Google would not rank high word count sites at the top of the list if people were not clicking on them. Google knows that what we click on is long form material. Hence, they rank high word count pages above those with low word counts.

There is other data that shows the value of long articles, too. An in-depth analysis of blog posts found that longer articles got more sharing and more links as a result.

So what can we infer from this? Links and sharing are human activities – we have to decide what we want to link to and share with others. It is clear that the decision most frequently taken is to provide links to long articles, not short ones. That suggests we value long articles, more than we value short ones.

Furthermore, Google understands a great deal about our website behaviour and therefore knows we prefer longer items of text to shorter postings, otherwise its algorithm would prefer short items over long ones. It doesn’t do this; it does the reverse showing that people prefer long articles.

However, there is also evidence that people do not read everything. They skim web pages and many do not even scroll down if they can’t see the whole thing. Others leave halfway through. Some do not go beyond the headline. So why on earth would anyone advocate long articles? What is the point of writing material people will not read?

If your business monitors where people click or scroll through your web pages, such as the “In-Page Analytics” section of Google Analytics or by using a system like ClickTale, you can often see that the interest in your web pages drops off, the longer the page is. So, there is clear evidence that people do not like long content.

Conflict. Some evidence from analytics, heat maps and the like, show us that people prefer short content. But evidence from Google and sharing show us that people prefer long content. Which evidence do you believe?

Pause. Deep breath. I have a shock for you.

It has ALWAYS been this way, even before the Internet. The Sunday Times newspaper will clatter through your letterbox making a real thump on the doormat. In its myriad of sections there are several hundred thousands of words making a couple of novels’ worth of text. Yet most of it is not read, even by the subscribers. Reading analysis of any national print newspaper shows that people often give up reading articles before they are even half-way through. So why do the newspapers persist in producing such vast amounts of text that few people read? After all, that’s a cost to their business.

The answer is simple: the “thud factor”. If a business report lands on your desk with a thud, you reckon it is more worthwhile than a flimsy two-pager.

Long copy is about trust and credibility, not about reading. People will read long blog posts, if they are gripping and interesting or provide solid, practical solutions to their issues.

However, people do not trust or believe to be credible websites where the articles are short. In essence, human beings “weigh things by the pound” – the bigger or heavier it is the better it is. True, there are exceptions, but on the whole we value bigger over smaller. We are prepared to pay more for hardback books than paperback equivalents. We pay more for big houses, compared with identical functioning smaller ones. Big engines in cars attract greater attention than a puny 1-litre, yet both cars still get us from A to B. There is an in-built assumption that mostly big is good.

That means, when we see a website with lots of text we instinctively trust it. Even if we don’t read all of it, we trust what we have read and find the web page credible.

So important is this element of web pages that Google are now highlighting “in-depth articles” on its search results. Sometimes, when you search for something you will find a panel at the top of the search results showing the in-depth text that is available. So important is long copy that Google is emphasising it.

Long articles are vital to your website success. They engender greater trust in your human readers but they also lead to search engine and linking benefits, bringing you more traffic.

Don’t believe the people who tell you that your articles and blog posts need to be short. Write long articles, but just accept that not everything you write will be read.

Could you be wasting your time with Google?

Google wastes your time. You spend several unproductive hours each week using Google.

Search logoGoogle could be wasting your time. Indeed, Google could be one of the biggest negative influences on workplace productivity in recent years. Gosh.

There is little doubt we would be in a worse place if we did not have Google. Can you imagine how long it would take to conduct simple business tasks without it? Certainly, Google has helped improve business considerably.

That is true. But our use of Google leaves a lot to be desired.

For instance, in the UK, where Google has over half of the search engine usage, over 90% of our search queries are three words or less. Yet, accuracy of search results goes up significantly the more words you use in your search phrase. In fact, truly accurate results do not start appearing, it seems, until your search phrase is seven words or more.

This is reflected in our ability to actually achieve anything useful in search. According to the latest data, Google – on average – only provides us with a worthwhile result (something we click on) 12.7% of the time – and most of that accuracy is in the adverts, not the organic links.  In other words, the failure rate of Google is 87.3%. Would your business cope with a failure rate at that level? Goodness me, what if you ran an airline and only 12.7% of your flights landed without crashing…! Or what if you ran a bank and only 12.7% of your accounts accurately reflected what had been paid in?

Yet, Google “gets away” with a massive rate of failure. Of course, it is not solely Google’s fault – a lot of the blame is ours for doing poor searches. But poor searches we do – time and time and time again.

The result is we spend about an hour each day going back and forth between searching for things and not finding what we wanted. But because we are engaged in an activity we feel as though we are working. And because we flit from website to website, discovering things we did not previously know about, we think that Google is useful, when in fact all it is doing is wasting our time.

This is a perceptual “trick”; we engage in an activity that is not that intellectually demanding and which rewards us with interesting things. We then feel as though that activity was worthwhile. Hence we do not notice that most of the time we use Google we are not actually getting what we want and that for the vast majority of our searches it is a complete dunce.

But we don’t appear to have learned that we can improve things by searching in better ways. Four years ago, when I first wrote about this issue, Google’s accuracy was 48.55%, some four time better than it is today. Far from search improving since 2009, it has got worse.

Yet, we love it because it brings us new and interesting things – even if they are irrelevant and waste our time, reducing our workplace productivity in the bargain.

Search is for old people

Younger people are increasingly turning to social media as a means of finding things online, whereas older people prefer search engines

Chart showing search dataSearch engines are dying. Get used to it – in a few years time search will be an “also ran” on the Internet.

When you think about it, search engines are rather cumbersome and time-wasting. Their accuracy is not that great either. Your daily web activity – if it is typical – includes one hour each day which is completely non-productive. That’s because you go to Google, search for something, go through the results, choose a page and then click on it only to find it wasn’t quite what you wanted. So you go back to the search results, choose an alternative and try again. If that isn’t quite what you wanted, you try another search phrase and start the process again. Every day, this to-ing and fro-ing between search engines and possible results takes up 60 minutes. You would be more productive WITHOUT search engines.

Well, you would be more productive without search engines if you could find what you were looking for…! In spite of their failings, the educated guesswork that the likes of Google provides is the best we have got. Or is it?

Think back to before the Internet; how did you find things then? The most frequent ways of finding things were either to look in a directory, such as Yellow Pages, or to ask someone who would “know” what you wanted. Indeed, this was our preferred method of “search” for aeons before the web.

Since the arrival of online social networks, people have increasingly realised they can ask questions on those services to find things. If you want to know the best restaurant for a romantic meal for two in a town you have never visited, just ask on Facebook or Twitter and you’ll get several answers together with links. You’ll soon see the most popular restaurant, saving you what could be many minutes of searching on Google. A few years ago I needed a meeting room in Guildford and had spent 30 minutes searching on Google without finding what I needed. So I asked one question on Twitter and within three minutes I had replies and had made a booking. If I had done that in the first place, I’d have saved half an hour of my time.

More and more people are realising that “social search” is faster AND more accurate. That’s because human beings know what you mean by your questions, whereas search engines can only make a connection between what you type and what appears on a web page. For instance, ask Google for “what is the best restaurant for a romantic meal for two in Newbury” and your top result is TripAdvisor where you then have to trawl through the listings. After that, you get a listing for “Thousand Oaks, California” which is nowhere near the location and the third result is the Newbury Manor Hotel wedding service. The fourth entry is about Boston and the fifth one is about lighthouses. Clearly, searching on Google for something like this is between useless and time-wasting. But by asking the question on Twitter I got a message back ten minutes later with the precise location I needed.

Human beings are better at interpreting search questions than mathematical algorithms.

As social networks become more popular, more and more people are realising this and new research shows that the younger you are, the more likely it is that you will turn to social FIRST to find things online. Indeed, in the under-24 age group 43% of individuals go  to a social network FIRST to find things online. As this demographic groups gets older, they are going to help push search engine popularity lower.

The study found that the older you are, the more likely it is that you will choose search engines before social networks to find information. That suggests this is a “habit” formed out of almost 20 years of Internet search engine usage. And remember, not all habits are good.

If you run a business, let this study be a warning – putting all your eggs in the search marketing basket could prove a problem for your future business. Search engines will not disappear – but their importance will gradually diminish over the coming years. Search marketing will need to be part of a mix of online activity and not the sole focus – as it appears to be for many businesses these days.

Make it really hard for people to get links

Links on websites could be more dangerous than you think. They could be harming your search engine ranking, rather than helping it.

A person draws a series of links connecting in a network of referrals, representing a well search engine optimized website or an organization of connected peopleLinks. Love them or loathe them, they are the lifeblood of the Internet. Indeed, we expect them to be there so that we can connect to new information, additional services and exciting websites. In fact, linking was the very basis of the invention of the web when they were initially called “hyperlinks” and gave birth to “hypertext markup language” – HTML.

However, links have an insidious side to them; they can bring harm as well as benefit to your website.

For human beings, if we click on a link and it leads to nowhere or to something that is clearly wrong or disconnected we blame the website containing the link. It means that if your website contains out-of-date links, or links to old information, your visitors could well think less of you because you are not leading them to that new information that you were purporting to provide. Ultimately, poor links lead to reputational damage for your business.

But there is another problem with links too – Google. Google loves links. But Google also hates them as well. What you need are the “right” links in order to impress Google and make them want to rank your pages more highly in the search engine results.

Here’s the conundrum we all face. Google uses links as part of its ranking system. The more people that link to you in appropriate ways, the better. Equally, the more interconnected your website is to other useful and relevant material, the more you are demonstrating that you are indeed part of a “web” – the very ethos of the Internet.

So Google encourages links. So much so it is something that is easy to do. You can just get links anywhere you like. Indeed, in the past that’s what happened with “link farms” charging money to swap links from site to site so that people built up a wide array of links, thereby helping you theoretically gain ranking.

But Google is not so daft. It knows that links are only really valuable if people click on them. So they have to be relevant to real people reading the pages on which the links appear. So Google checks the quality of links too, resulting in the disappearance of those “link farms”.

Nowadays, many website owners use “content curation” to make their website appear interconnected. It is easy to do, as I explained in this article. Essentially, you publish extracts of other articles on your own website in order to provide links to useful information. It gives your website the benefit of showing you are linked to relevant information, thereby helping your search position – so the theory goes.

Hence, all kinds of software and plugins are now available to allow you to automate the process. But all that does is replace the “link farming” technique.

What Google wants is for you to do what people want. And that is for your website to act as an editor. Instead of automatically adding content to your website using content curation, you need to pick and choose only the best information. There is nothing wrong with using content curation software, providing you have acted in an editorial capacity, choosing the most relevant and useful material for your visitors.

Indeed, that’s what newspaper and magazine editors have been doing for centuries. They have always had the opportunity to carry more articles than they have space available. So they pick and choose. The magazines that are tough for PR people to get into, the ones that reject potential advertisers are the ones that usually gain the most respect. However, those “rags” that accept anything don’t really win readers at all.

Websites need to be the same. They need to only provide links to the very best, the most relevant and the most useful to their particular visitors. Not only does that win the respect of the reader, but – hey presto – it wins the respect of Google, as explained in the video below.

The great big SEO test

The Search Engine Optimisation challenge reveals errors in this website that can easily be fixed. Can you fix yours too?

The Word SEO in an upturned palm depicting SEO is in your handsWhatever we might think about Google, the algorithm the company has developed is quite a clever little beast. True, the company has been in the headlines because of its tax affairs and the EU has taken it to task several times over its invasion of privacy. But in spite of these issues it remains the Number One search engine. And that means it remains the Number One focus for website owners.

However, over the years I have been critical of such focus. Google’s own statistics show that only 27% of people who end up on a web page do so because of a search engine. In other words, when businesses focus all their energies on “search engine optimisation” they are putting all their eggs in a very small basket, ignoring 73% of their potential marketplace.

You will find on my website several articles critical of “SEO” and the so-called “gurus” who seemingly spout all sorts of nonsense, much of which has to be dispelled by Google themselves, such as on the excellent YouTube channel run by Google’s Matt Cutts.

When I write about SEO I am often taken to task by someone who specialises in search engine optimisation who likes to be known simply as “G”. Recently, I wrote something that really got to him – so much so he made me an offer I could not refuse.

He said: “I ‘do’ websites in much the same way as some people do cryptic crosswords and if it fits in with your plans and ethos I’d like to provide a good SEO offer to all your readers. If you or they send me the URL of their website I’ll give them 10 things to think about that I think would help them and their site. If they like the report they can give £10 to a charity and if I cannot find 10 useful things I will give £10 to a charity of their choice.”

[box type=”tick” style=”rounded” border=”full”]GET YOUR FREE WEBSITE EVALUATION – FILL IN THE FORM BELOW[/box]

I gave “G” two websites to tackle, to see if he had anything to really offer you. Firstly I suggested he look at this site and then I asked him to find another ten things to improve www.usingflipcharts.co.uk.

Checking this site for errors

For this site “G” came up with 10 things – some of which I was aware of, such as the fact that the code was not compliant. However, he alerted me to several things which made me think. For instance. I had an “archive” of monthly blog posts stretching back several years. But, as “G” said, “do you ever use these to search for other peoples content… I suspect not. Either have a useful Archive by tag or category or lose it and let people just use site search”. Good point. The archive was just adding unnecessary code to the page, weighing it down and making it slower.

Indeed, the slowness of the site was something else he picked up pointing out the results obtained at the testing site GTMetrix. This is a very useful site if you want to check how well your site is doing in terms of speed and gives you excellent tips and advice on changing things to make the site faster. When “G” pointed out the speed problems with my site, I checked what GTMetrix was saying and took the two measures upwards from scores of 94% and 76% to 98% and 87%. That’s important because the speed of your site affects not only what Google thinks about you, but what people reckon.

And that’s another area that “G” picked up on my site too. He pointed out there were several “accessibility” issues such as the descriptions given to images – known as the “ALT” tags. These are what screen readers interpret for people with visual difficulties, yet mine made little sense. “G” has made me think again about how I tag my pictures and images.

There were several other points which would no doubt help my site – though I have to admit some were likely to only have a minor impact, such as whether or not I should have a link asking people to rate my site.

Using Flip Charts

When I asked “G” to look at my Using Flip Charts site he came up with two suggestions. His first, was simply to close the site down. [Editor’s note: This site has indeed now been closed down..!] Here’s what he said.

 

I like old websites; I have a feeling Google tends to like old websites, but, it is 11 years and it’s only got a PageRank of 1. Google isn’t trusting this puppy.

If you want to keep running this website you need to regain Google’s trust. Here’s how.

1) Lose 80% of the mentions of flip chart. Google: Stop Repeating The Same Keyword Over & Over Again – see: http://www.seroundtable.com/google-keywords-duplicate-16716.html

2) Lose or improve your other sites – the ones with a PageRank of 0.

www.effective-email.co.uk  – PageRank 0

www.thecredibilitypyramid.co.uk  – PageRank 0

www.whiteboardadvice.co.uk  – PageRank 0

But www.whyhowproveit.co.uk has a PageRank of 5.This is more like it for a 10+ year old website if the PageRank 0s are taken away it enables this site to be useful.

3) Remove the first photo of bloke with flip chart.

4) Take a photo of you with a flip chart and put it on the site instead

5) Remove the http://www.usingflipcharts.co.uk/#axzz2S4d5tsmb – it looks dodgy.

6) By this stage you’ll want to check the size of UK market for Flip Charts i.e. check this is worth doing in the first place…!

7) Product pages – i.e. http://www.usingflipcharts.co.uk/easel-pads/#axzz2S4d5tsmb – initially I thought it was a coding issue and was going to suggest pulling in or manually updating the Reviews to show stars…but then I found a few products with review stars. Double check the figures you found in answer to #6. Look for a few flip charts with 5 star reviews – list them. Move the Buy button to below the description.

8) Update the Videos page with more popular content or rearrange and put more popular content at top http://www.usingflipcharts.co.uk/category/flip-chart-video/#axzz2S4d5tsmb the current #1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=z_vDz-SjKQI#!  only has 283 views.

9) Write more content for http://www.usingflipcharts.co.uk/category/flip-chart-articles/#axzz2S4d5tsmb a few ideas:

  • How to Sell Through a Power Cut
  • Ditch PowerPoint and Grab a Sharpie
  • Why the Sharpie is The #1 Weapon of Choice for Leaders
  • Master the Flip Chart; Master Your Destiny
  • Never Flip Out on a Flipping Flip Chart with These Five Flipping Fantastic Tips
  • The Famous Flymo Flip Chart Presentation… it Flew!
  • A Flip Chart is Much, Much More than Just Retro Chic

10) Replace the theme with a more modern look – preferably a bought theme rather than a free one.

 

Wow. That’s pretty scathing advice. But it is ALL highly sensible, to the point and required.

I set up the Using Flip Charts site to show people how you can set up and run a site based on selling affiliate products without too much effort. However, there’s a world of difference between “little effort” and “no effort”. I had fallen in to the trap of doing nothing with that website and it shows.

Having said that, it does produce an income. What “G” has shown me is that if I get my act together and make the simple changes he suggests, I can certainly increase that income.

Sensible SEO

What “G” also proved as that sensible SEO experts are not really that focused on the search engine, but on the website itself – exactly as it should be. By getting the website right, the search engine benefits will follow.

Many of us, however, have not got our websites right. Even those of us who purport to know a lot about the Internet clearly need to do that.

Take up the SEO offer

So, how can you improve your website? Remember the offer from “G”? All you need to do is let him know the URL you want tested and he’ll find 10 improvements for which you will give £10 to charity. If he cannot find 10 things that could be improved, he’ll pay £10 to charity.

To get him to test your URL just fill in the form below.

[gravityform id=”32″ name=”SEO Test” title=”false” description=”false”]

 

Google confirmation: forget SEO

Google confirms the most important aspects of getting yourself noticed is concentrating on people. Focus on human activity, not search engine activity they say.

If you are a search engine optimisation specialist, brace yourself, this will be a tough read. If you are a business owner, you too should sit back and wait for it; you are most likely not immune from the criticism coming, either. The fact of the matter is we’re all doing badly online. We are pretty much rubbish at making it work for our businesses.

First, some background. Considerable numbers of businesses have yet to get a website. Yes, I know it sounds unrealistic and daft, but according to the US Census Bureau, for instance, in 2012 only 25% of American businesses had their own website. In other words the majority of American businesses do NOT have a website; three quarters of them…! The lasts statistics I saw about the UK were from a study conducted a year or two ago, which said that only 48% of businesses here had a website. But whichever study you look at, here we are 20 years on from the first website being launched and most businesses still have not got one.

The head of search spam avoidance at Google, Matt Cutts, makes this astounding point in his recent video (see below) where he is answering questions on how businesses can do well online. “Get a website…!” he says.

Of course, having a website is one thing. Making it successful is what’s more important. And herein lies the problem. The vast majority of websites are just not successful. Take a look at this graph.

Share of Online Audience

The graph shows the percentage share of the web audience for the Top 60 websites in the world. That’s out of 400million websites. Even the BBC is getting a paltry figure compared with Google. Facebook is number two, by the way. The traffic on the web follows this typical “long tail” curve. In other words, the vast majority of traffic on the web is concentrated on just a handful of websites. So even if a business does have a website, it doesn’t tend to do very well in the grand scheme of things.

So, the video from Matt Cutts of Google should make required viewing for any business wanting to do well online. In it he reveals that concentrating on building links – a favourite of SEO “experts” – puts you in the wrong mindset. Instead, he says the best thing to do is to create compelling and interesting content that people want to share. He also, as an almost throw-away line, says that this means newspaper reporters will be interested in your material. Goodness me, he is recommending good, old fashioned public relations….! Er, hang on a minute, Google and Facebook do a lot of that, a massive, stonking great pile of a lot.

Admittedly, the video does make some rather basic “SEO” suggestions as to ensuring you use the right words in the page title or getting the meta description right. But as he points out this is principally about making people interested in your content.

Indeed, what he is really saying is what I have been saying for a decade or more; good of him to catch up.

What you need to succeed online is to focus on what people want and then write good quality compelling content that they will want to recommend to others. “SEO” it isn’t. Common sense it is.

Google is helping you make poor decisions

Faced with too many options people search more and then find rare events and items making them think these are real possibilities for themselves.

Could you win the Euromillions?What are the chances of you winning the Lottery, do you reckon?  In the UK Lottery, for instance, the winning numbers are just one possible set of 13,983,816 combinations. For the EuroMillions Lottery which takes place across 13 countries each Friday, the winning line is just one out of 116,531,800 possible combinations. That means if you lived for just over two million years you’d have one chance of winning if you played every week. Some hope…!

Yet people clearly do play in their millions, otherwise there wouldn’t be a “roll-over” jackpot prize fund of £94m available this week. Neither would there be an endless array of websites advising you on “hot and cold numbers” or providing statistics to help you decide what time of day to buy a winning ticket – as well as a host of other dubious “methods” to help you make sure you win. There also wouldn’t be plenty of people around advising you on how to spend your millions once you have them.

You may scoff at the people who play a lottery hoping they’ll be millionaires, but the behaviour of the financial hopefuls is akin to everyone’s behaviour in some way. For instance, there are millions of people around the world desperately trying to make money online. They have set up websites and shops, they have established “squeeze pages” with mailing lists and done all the “right things” to make money, but still they are floundering in the financial doldrums.

There are also people doing all the “right things” to get a big Twitter following or thousands of “likes” on Facebook – yet they still couldn’t hold a party in a cupboard with their entire group of online friends.

Now you might look at these individuals, haplessly trying to get more followers or more people on their email list or more people who visit their web pages and mutter to yourself that they are just being daft; what they need to do is get on with some real work, you might think.

The problem is, these people are convinced they are NOT being silly. Indeed they can PROVE IT to you because they have evidence that they are doing the right things to make millions online, or to gain more Twitter followers or to get more web traffic.

Here’s what happens – people with an issue that needs resolving, such as getting more website visitors, will search for information on that very topic on Google. There are plenty of options to choose from and loads of advice. Loads and loads of advice. In fact, it is all too confusing. Just like choosing the winning lottery numbers, deciding on which websites offer the right advice to help you improve your web traffic is a tough choice.

So, we then make what we think are “rational” decisions. When it comes to lottery numbers, we know that the chances of winning are small, so we rationalise our numbers by choosing our “lucky numbers” or our birthday and so on. And when it comes to making decisions about what information to choose from the 123 million sites that Google gives us for “how to increase web traffic”, we do the same as for the lottery – we pretend to ourselves we are being rational, when the only real rational thing to do is to analyse the content of all those 123 million web pages.

New research on the rationalisation of choices shows that when people are faced with too many options they search for more information. And when they do that, the nature of probability shows that they will then see more instances of rare things. So, when you don’t know how to get more Twitter followers, you search for yet more information and then you see more instances of the rather wacky ways of improving things. And because you see more instances of these rare things it “proves” that it is possible.

Similarly, when you want to make millions online you search for more information on it and lo-and-behold you can find several examples of people who have made a million dollars in a morning with a single-page website and that involved no real work…! And that “proves” it can be done. Yes, it can be done, but the probability is low – probably lower than winning the Lottery. But our brains get fooled. Because we see several examples of quick ways of gaining Facebook likes, or rapid results for Twitter or mad methods of making millions, we think they are commonplace when they are not.

As the recent research shows, the increase in choice and our desire to search for more information on those choices leads to riskier behaviour on our part. In other words, if you don’t know how to get more web traffic starting to find out about that via Google or any other search engine, could lead you in the wrong direction.

The more information we seek, the poorer our decision-making because we find what seems to be a higher proportion of “proof” for things. But because we are poor at analysing probability we don’t realise that large numbers of examples does not mean high probability we can achieve the same.

In other words, searching for answers to your business problems on Google might be bad for your business because it could increase your risky behaviour by exposing you to examples of things which may work – but much less frequently than you might think they do.

Google does bad by doing good

Google is proposing a new system for ranking online merchants and stores. But will the new system favour Google’s own shopping network?

Google is constantly changing how it ranks sites – and rightfully so; it still presents us with some right rubbish..! Don’t get me wrong, the company has made significant strides in eliminating dross and garbage from the search results, but as fast as it changes things, the spammers fight back with another sneaky method of getting their stuff to the front page.

Most people who search actually search again for roughly the same phrase within 30 seconds of their original search. Either we are rubbish at searching or Google is rubbish at finding results. It’s probably a mix of the two. After all, few people actually use the advanced search tools Google provides to help us find more precisely what we want. But equally, Google still provides nonsense sites for many search terms. The company is not daft, they know this and they are doing all they can to improve and change their search system so we get better results and the spammers and rubbish sites are consigned to the SEO dustbin.

So, you would think their latest announcement made in this conference session last week would be a good move. Google’s chief spam avoidance engineer, Matt Cutts, said that the company is planning a system to get rid of “bad merchants” from search results. These are the online shops which, frankly, are not very business-like. We have all seen them – shops which do not have any kind of returns policy or address, shops where you can’t find out any information about delivery costs or times and shops which are poorly designed with inadequate shopping cart systems.

Google is planning to get rid of those sites from the results. Great.

Or is it…?

Google Shopping

The signals of a “good” online store are being programmed into the Google algorithm. And which online store do you think already has those good signals. Ah yes, Google’s own online shop.

Google is already rumoured to be trying to launch a service like Amazon Prime, indicating the company wants to further increase its presence in the burgeoning online retail sector.

So you have to ask the question – should the company policing the sector’s online presence be the same one running a massive shop? That’s a bit like Tesco or Walmart deciding what other shops on the High Street can sell and how they can do it.

You can be sure that before too long there will be anti-competitive legal cases taking place.

It’s a great idea Google, to eliminate rubbish stores from the listings. But if you are going to do that, then you really should give up your own shop.

Interflora proves SEO can be harmful

Interflora has been hit hard by Google because of seemingly dodgy SEO techniques. It is a lesson to take care

interflora seoInterflora is the world’s best-known brand for sending flowers; indeed, you have probably used it to send flowers to a loved one, or as a gift. So you would expect that if you searched for the word “interflora” on Google it would come up as number one on the list. And that was indeed true for years – until last week. Now if you search for the word “interflora” it is 13th on the search results – not even on the first page.

Interflora also held the number one spot for the word “flowers”; now the company has dropped, overnight, to 49th position for that word.

So what has happened? Why has the Interflora brand been hit by the powers-that-be at Google?

Simple. Interflora wasn’t playing the game by Google’s “rules” – rules, of course, which Google doesn’t actually tell us because they are part of their intellectual capital and therefore if we knew them they’d lose their competitive edge.

There are all sorts of speculative rumours on SEO websites and forums as to what Interflora did wrong. But what is commonly accepted is that Google penalised Interflora for some misdemeanour, probably to do with the way it was getting links.

But whatever the issue, it is a reminder that “techniques” and “methods” of getting noticed by Google can sometimes cause us problems. What Google wants is our websites to be “natural”; indeed that’s what human beings also want.

It means that the best SEO “technique” is simply to produce quality content and then let people link to that naturally, recommending it on social networking sites for instance.

True, there are other “techniques” which SEO experts can prove to work.

But what those SEO experts don’t know is just when Google will decide “enough is enough” and pull the plug on your search engine positioning. For Interflora, they are big enough to pay their way out of the situation using Google AdWords more, until their organic search position is restored.

But if you are a smaller brand than Interflora could you afford to lose search engine ranking places, dropping from number one to the fourth page? And could you afford to buy advertising to get you out of that hole?

You can avoid both of these issues by doing what Google tells us to do:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings
  • Create a useful, information-rich site

In other words, just add engaging content….!

If you to decide to play SEO tricks someone may have to send you some flowers from Interflora to cheer you up when your site is demoted by Google.

Can you be addicted to SEO?

Is it possible to suffer from SEO addiction? Can you actually be too focused on search engine optimisation?

AddictionAddiction is a strong word. Some psychologists believe you cannot be addicted to something unless you have withdrawal symptoms if the item to which you are addicted is removed. Hence people addicted to alcohol start to shake if they cannot get another drink. Similarly, gambling addicts can suffer insomnia or headaches. And people addicted to cocaine can become very sleepy or deeply anxious if they cannot get another fix.

Other psychologists disagree with this strict definition of addiction, suggesting that anything which you use regularly and which disturbs your normal life or affects your relationships with other people is an addictive substance.

That means you can be “addicted” to almost anything. Indeed, you will hear people say they are addicted to their favourite games machine, or they are addicted to a particular social network. What they probably mean is they are obsessed by it, rather than actually addicted. Few people are using social networks so much that they interfere with their normal day-to-day activities and examples of people getting physical symptoms because their games machine has been withdrawn are hard to find.

So when it comes to something like search engine optimisation is it at all likely that people could be come addicted to it? Or is it that some people are merely obsessed with it?

SEO shares a common feature which is present in most addicted substances – obvious, positive stimulation leading to a sense of reward. People who are prone to addiction get a sense of elation and feel rewarded by the substance to which they have become addicted. This is why we can get addictions to non-physical things, like gambling or looking at pornographic images.

For some people SEO has properties which make it stimulating. You track down the keywords you want to be found for, then you fiddle with your web page wording and settings and submit your page to the web. Then you check and use analytics software to see how well you are doing. You track the graph and get stimulated by seeing your web page rise from nowhere to within the Top 10 and then to the Holy Grail of the Top 3. Every day you check your results, you search for more advice on tweaking your web pages and you make more changes to get right to the top of the search engines. Some might say you are already addicted.

It is this reward cycle which dominates SEO which could be a problem – not that you are ever likely to need therapy for SEO addiction…! But what it does is take our mind off the real goal.

The real aim of business web activity is NOT being top of the search engines – but financial profit. And there are plenty of businesses making stonking great profits who are not top of the rankings.

Search Engine Optimisation is just ONE way in which you can derive those profits – but it is not the only way. So, yes, it is an activity which may well be worthwhile for your business, but it needs to be less “addictive”. Forget the “reward” of those tracking graphs and your detailed analytics. Instead, focus on the reward of the extra cash in your bank account – that’s a much better graph to track for a business.

The fact that SEO can be so diversionary is highlighted by the case of the recruitment firm KAS Placement where the boss focused so much on SEO he ignored many of the other aspects of running his business which were equally, if not more, important.

Ultimately, the chances are you cannot be addicted to SEO – but like KAS Placement you can easily get drawn in by its charms, which are substantial.