Digital Marketing

Is Google Analytics Hurting your Business?

Given that everybody in the conference hall was involved in digital marketing in some way, and how much of website visitor tracking is done through Google Analytics, you might even speculate that was a foolhardy statement and that the only thing that saved the speaker was the cordon of riot police brought in specially for this talk. But then the man on the platform was Ammon Johns – a man with almost 20 years of SEO experience who is recognised by the industry as someone with a huge amount of SEO knowledge and who speaks at some of the largest digital marketing conferences around – so the riot police were little troubled, although many eyebrows were raised.

It turns out that the main aim of the talk wasn’t actually to get everybody in the room to boycott Google, but to make us think. And that’s what I’d like you to do throughout this post – question the common wisdom that Google Analytics is the best thing since hypertext protocols and ask yourself whether it might actually be harming your business.

Why is Google Analytics so great?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Google Analytics is brilliant for four reasons:

  1. It’s very easy to use
  2. Everyone else uses it, so it must be the best
  3. It integrates brilliantly with AdWords
  4. It’s free. Who can argue with free?

The big question is, are these really the right reasons for choosing an analytics tool? Does “easy to use” mean “easy to get actionable insights from” or something else? With Google being a hugely successful corporation, are they really giving me a huge chunk of data for free or am I paying in some other way?

Is Google Analytics actually easy to use?

Google Analytics is definitely easy to set up. It’s also easy to get data out of and it’s easy to get rid of data you don’t want. But spitting out data isn’t the point of a web analytics. The point is to provide insights that let you build testable hypothesis and so improve the performance of your platform.

We’ve all seen the Google Analytics home screen – now the Audience Overview screen – with its visitor graphs and its language breakdowns. But have you really studied it? Head over to Analytics, take a look at that Audience Overview screen and ask yourself “how can I improve my business with these data and these data alone?” I’ll give you a few minutes of thinking time.

Did you manage to find anything? I would be very surprised if you did. Now that’s quite a shocking statement: you went to the first – and so by definition most important – screen of a tool that millions of people use every day and I don’t expect you to have found anything useful. Ouch.

That’s because while Google Analytics is very easy to set up and it’s very easy to see the data it spits out, it’s actually very difficult to get real insight. Almost every valuable analysis requires creating a custom report. You want to use cohort analysis to determine whether you have taken the right approach on a channel? Custom report. You want to see which blog posts drive the most and best engagement? Set up JavaScript events then build a custom report. You want to integrate offline sales data from your CRM? No can do; you will be able to when you get Universal Analytics, but only using (all together now) a custom report.

So there are plenty of things in Analytics that could be easier. But how can we make them easier? The problem here comes not from the data being collected but from the way it’s displayed. One option is to suck the data straight in from the API to your own set of reports that can not only be branded nicely but will only show the graphs you want to see, set up in the way you want. It’s not actually all that difficult for a good developer to do, and if it saves you time each week or month then you can make a good business case for investing in such a solution.

If you can make the business case for building a custom interface for Google Analytics, though, it might be worth asking yourself the question posed at the start of this post: “is Google Analytics really the best solution out there for me or can I justify investing in something else?” Take a couple of hours to explore the web analytics ecosystem and see if you can find a solution that would make it easier to deliver real, actionable insight.

Just because everyone else uses it, is Google Analytics really the best?

I started the last section off with a challenge, so I’ll do the same here. Don’t worry, this will be a simple one with no trips off to Analytics. Ready? Define “the best”. Go!

OK, so that’s actually what a mathematician would define as “complex”: a question that’s easy to ask but difficult to answer. The reason it’s difficult to answer is twofold:

  1. This is probably the first time we’ve ever asked ourselves this question
  2. The answer depends hugely on context: who is asking questions of our data, why they want answers, who is going to do the analysis, and a whole range of other factors

The reason I asked the question is that if we can’t define what “the best” means, how can we say Google Analytics is the best solution?

There are some things it does brilliantly. Tracking visitor flow, aggregating data over multiple pages and channels, letting us look at engagement. But there are some questions it simply cannot answer. For example, what would your reply be if your boss asked:

  • “The average time spent on this landing page is two minutes. Is that because they were reading the copy or because they were comparing our product to our competitors?”
  • “How well are the videos on our site engaging visitors?
  • “People jump from their mobile, to their work PC, back to their mobile on the train home, then onto their home computer. How can we track this happening to get a real picture of cross-device behaviour?”
  • “What happens if people have cookies turned off?”

Hands up all those who said “ermmm”.

There are tools out there that can do these things:

  • Crazy Egg gives you heatmaps showing what proportion of people have scrolled down a page and how many have clicked links on a given page (I personally love Crazy Egg. No affiliation, they just make a great product).
  • Digital Analytix from comScore lets you track individuals across devices. Universal Analytics will bring in this behaviour to some extent, but only for people who sign in to their Google accounts while browsing
  • While you could cobble together a video analysis using time on page, JavaScript events, and a pinch of salt, Digital Analytix gives you data on browser behaviour during video streaming
  • Piwik is an open source (read “free and fully customisable”) analytics tool that doesn’t use cookies, so doesn’t give you the problem of not being able to track people who have turned off cookies

A screenshot from Crazy Egg used on the Optimizely blog. When a CRO tools company starts using a web analytics tool it could be interesting to take a look (Image credit: Crazy Egg)

For a lot of people those are some pretty fundamental questions that can’t be answered. But some people know enough about JavaScript – or employ people who do – that they can set up event listeners to get a portion of this data. And some people are not asking these questions. But think about whether Google Analytics has ever not given you the answer to a question, or even if you haven’t asked a question because you know it can’t be answered; if this has happened a few times then it might be a good time to head off and do that research into other providers.

Anything free is amazing. But is Analytics really free?

Now I imagine that a lot of people reading that heading have straight away thought “of course it’s really free, we don’t give them a penny”. But think about this: in using Analytics you give Google all of the data. That gives them knowledge about you and your customers, and knowledge, as we all know, is power. So you might not be paying Google cash, but you are definitely helping them keep their position as one of the most powerful companies on the planet.

But more than that, if knowledge is power and power is money then surely gaining knowledge about data and its manipulation is a great learning opportunity and one that will make you a fair return one day. As Ammon said in his talk, “Using Google Analytics doesn’t make you good with data, just with Google Analytics”. Because if you just accept what Analytics pukes out at you, are you really asking the difficult questions that will help your business to improve?

One last thought: the data that Google Analytics gets is yours for free anyway. It’s your information about people coming to your website and interacting with your services, not Google’s. Lots of companies are moving towards data warehouses now, keeping all of their information within their own domain instead of giving it to third parties. And if you have any concerns about privacy following the recent revelations about the NSA and GCHQ then you might consider them pretty sensible people.

When is “Good Enough” good enough?

This was actually going to be the title of this post, but I don’t quite have Ammon’s nerve (and it’s a great topic for a project management post so has been filed away for later use).

As we’ve seen, Google Analytics is not the best solution out there. It’s not even the best free solution out there for some people. But what it is is “good enough”. It’s good enough to get some profound insights out of if you work with it, and like Excel, even better if you can build a custom dashboard. It’s good enough if you value those insights over privacy. It’s good enough if you can’t invest the time to learn a new tool that will give you similar insights. It’s good enough if you ask it the right sort of questions.

It might be for him, but is it for you? (Image credit The Meme Wiki)

But – and it’s a big but – for you that might not be enough for you and your company. Do you work for a “data-driven organisation”? Do you want to ask hard questions, make big changes, and get big improvements as a result of the data in your hands? Do you want to stand out from all of the other companies and agencies out there who do analytics in the same way?

If “good enough” suits your needs, dismiss this post with a wave of the hand. But if you think that you might need more than “good enough” in the future, or if you really want to be a properly data-driven decision maker, or if you think that big changes will give you big results I urge you to think about your choices. Explore the options out there; even if you go back to Google Analytics, you’ll come back with more knowledge than you had before. But if you don’t go back, you can look forward to a long, exciting, and rewarding journey.

About BenjaminMorel — Benjamin Morel is an agency-based digital marketeer and project manager working for Obergine in Oxford, UK. He is passionate about inbound marketing, especially building strategies centered around data and communication. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminMorel or on Google +.

Is Buying Domain Names Profitable?

Is Buying Domain Names Profitable?

This is in response to a question a fellow Moz community member once asked in Q&A, and we thought that it deserved its own article. Buying up expired domains, or purchasing keyword-driven domains is becoming more popular amongst the internet “get rich quick” crowd. The big question is: Can you make a profit by buying and selling domain names? If you get the right one, sure. If you plan on repeating the process over and over, probably not.

Something wise my father once told me “Something is only worth how much someone is willing to pay for it.” This small seemingly unimportant statement has guided me in many selling and purchasing decisions in my life. Sometimes, it makes the reality all too apparent. So, is buying a domain with the intention of selling it a good idea? Let’s break down the details, and talk to some people that actively pursue this method. Yeah, we know a guy.

1. Labor-wise, it doesn’t add up

In the grey hat SEO world, the thought is that you can take a domain that is keyword driven, do a quick optimization to get the site ranking, and sell it off at a profit. It could, and does happen daily. How much time is invested in optimizing a site to get to page one, vs how much the site will sell for? (remember that quote at the beginning of this article?). Let’s put it into simple math:

According to, the average cost of a purchased .com domain is around $2100-2300. Depending on how much your time is worth, you may have to take a hit on labor cost to get the domain where it needs to be in order to entice potential buyers. Here is some theoretical math for you number crunchers:

  • Optimize keyword-driven site to rank in Google: approx 30 hours @ $50 hour labor cost (using low $50 rate for sake of example) = $1500
  • Time cold-calling and email blasting potential buyers in industry niche to purchase said domain: approx 8 hours = $400
  • According to the data provided by, likely cost for selling said site: approx $2300 max ($1000-1500 most likely)
  • Gained vs Invested = $2300-1900= $400 profit.

I’m not against making money in any way, but $400 doesn’t really seem worth the effort and coffee expense invested (I like the good stuff). This is a very basic example used to put the costs in perspective. Most SEO providers charge more than $50 per hour, and you get what you pay for. The above example of a final labor estimate is probably much higher, or if the domain is already ranking high and the owner wants to sell, so is the initial purchase price. Since this is often repeated many times over for multiple domains, it could get time consuming, and expensive.

2. You might get someone’s dirty laundry

It’s ranking high today! What could be the problem? NO. JUST STOP. Unless you know the entire history of a domain, you may be setting yourself up for failure before you begin. SEOs (and business owners) use a variety of tactics to get a site ranking high in search results. For some of these methods, we’ll just call them “questionable”. These methods could include everything from buying links, overuse of directory submissions (non-industry related), duplicate listings, poor quality backlinks, and guest blog comments.

With a domain of this type, it could be very easy to get it to rank quickly, before the powers that be see the domain for what it is, and put it on the blacklist. While that study is being done, you could end up with a domain that has a lot of problems coming down the pipeline that you are completely unaware of.

3. It undermines your quality and reputation

If you know how to get websites to page one, why are you not marketing that fact to potential clients and consumers or would-be domain purchasers? Trying to get a keyword driven domain to rank high and sell it off for a profit isn’t a good investment, either time wise or for the long-term success of your company. Instead, use sites that you have already ranked high as an example of how awesome you are and sign them up for a monthly fee, rather than trying to sell them a “make money now” domain.

  • Demonstrate SEO prowess to potential client using existing sites as proof of results
  • Sign up client for basic SEO services at $600-1000 (depending upon site and competition) per month
  • Invest 30-40 hours in making the client’s site soar in results
  • Client is happy. Refers friends and other business owners your way
  • You get: More clients, better reputation, month recurring income, and gain a positive reputation for being a quality SEO provider.

4. It’s not sustainable income

Remember that guy we said we knew? in the second paragraph? Well, we talked to him to find out if all the bling and glamor behind selling domains was true. This is what he said:

  • US: “Is buying domains with the intent of selling them a sustainable model?”
  • HIM: “Honestly, it depends. Overall, I’d have to say no, because you never know what you are going to get in return. One week I might make $900 off one domain, but the next week I’m stuck with five nobody wants. However if you are a great salesman, you can make it work.”
  • US: “What type of domains do you see being the most sought after?”
  • HIM: “Mainly small-medium sized local businesses looking for a way to increase their ranking. Most already have a branded domain in place, and have heard that using a keyword domain can help. Or they have seen a competitor ranking using that method. The problem I face is that they don’t have a lot of money to spend, so I get lowballed on the asking price. There have been a few that make a ton of profit vs what I purchased it for, but that boils down to luck: what is for sale, when I find it, things like that.”
  • US: “When do you think it makes the most sense to buy or sell a domain?”
  • HIM: “When someone is selling the company, and have a high ranking domain already in place. Those companies stand to make the most money by selling to their competitors, who always seem to be willing to pay. (laughs)”

Selling a domain negates the fact that you can make additional money from this client, unless you start the process over again, with another domain. You could use the domains position as proof of your SEO-prowess, but once it’s already ranking and optimized, what other services can you entice them with?

5. Waiting on and finding buyers can be a pain in the arse

We did a search for GoDaddy and Sedo domain experiences, and many of them came back as negative. In one such example, Online Domain stated that “GoDaddy is destroying domain sales.” The author speaks about having to wait up to 80 days to get his domain sold, the whole time being questioned on his asking price.

But wait, there’s more. So you are looking to sell a premium listing that is not keyword-driven? Be ready to take a hit. On all premium domain sales, GoDaddy takes a 30% commission fee. This process happens before they remit the payment. Yikes. When you are already operating on a slim margin, 30% can be what makes or breaks the bank for that sale.

Author Photos are Gone: Does Google Authorship Still Have Value?

On June 25, 2014, Google’s John Mueller made a shocking announcement: Google would be removing all author photos from Google search results. According to the MozCast Feature Graph, that task was fully accomplished by June 29.

In this post I will:

  • Give a brief overview of how Google Authorship got to where it is today.
  • Cover how Google Authorship now works and appears in search.
  • Offer my take on why Author photos were removed
  • Investigate the oft-repeated claims of higher CTR from author photos
  • Suggest why Google Authorship is still important, and speculate on the future of author authority in Google Search.

A Brief History of Google Authorship

The Google Authorship program has been my wheelhouse (some might say “obsession”) since Google first announced support for Authorship markup in June of 2011. Since I am both an SEO and a content creator, Google certainly got my attention in that announcement when they said, “…we’re looking closely at ways this markup could help us highlight authors and rank search results.”

Of course, in the three years since that blog post, many search-aware marketers and content creators also jumped on the Google Authorship bandwagon. Occasional comments from prominent Google staffers that they might someday use author data as a search ranking factor, along with Bill Slawski’s lucid explanations of the Google Agent Rank patent, fueled the fire of what most came to call “author rank.”

Below is a video from 2011 with Matt Cutts and Othar Hansson explaining the possible significance of Authorship markup for Google at that time:

During the three years since Google announced support for rel=author markup, there have been many changes in how Authorship appeared in search results, but each change only seemed to buttress Google’s continued support for and improvement of the program.

In the early days of Google Authorship, almost anyone could get the coveted face photo in search by correctly setting up Authorship markup on their content and linking to that content from their Google+ profile. As time went on, Google became pickier about showing the rich snippet, and some sort of quality criteria seemed to come into play. Still, it was not too difficult to earn the author snippet.

Then at Pubcon New Orleans in October 2013, Matt Cutts announced that in the near future, Google would start cutting back on the amount of Authorship rich snippets shown in search. He said that in tests they found when they cut out 10% to 15% of the author snippets shown, “overall quality went up.” In December of that year we saw the promise fulfilled as the percentage of queries showing author photos dropped, and many individual authors either started seeing a byline-only snippet for much or all of their content, or losing Authorship snippets completely.

It was clear by then that Authorship as a search feature was a privilege, not a right, and that as much as Google seemed to want people to adopt Authorship markup, they were determined to police the quality of what was shown in search associated with that markup. But none of that prepared us for what has happened now: the complete removal of author photos from global search.

Google Authorship without Photos in Search

Here are the fundamental facts about how Authorship is used in search as of this writing:

1. The only Authorship rich snippet result now available in global search is an author byline. Google has dropped author photos entirely (except for some unique exceptions in personalized search; see below). Also, Google dropped the “in xx Google+ circles” link that showed in some cases and led to the author’s Google+ profile.

authorship without profile photos

2. Author bylines now link to Google+ profiles. Previously, at least in the US, author bylines in search results linked to a unique Google search page that would show just content from that author. This feature is no longer available.

3. Qualification for an Authorship byline now is simply having correct markup. This was a bit of a surprise given Google’s move last December to differentiate and highlight authors with better quality content who publish on trusted sites. But in a Google Webmaster Central Hangout on June 25, 2014, John Mueller indicated that now as long as the two-way verification (rel=author markup on the content site linked to author’s Google+ profile, and a link back to the content site in the author’s Google+ Contributor To links) could be correctly read by Google, a byline would likely be shown.

You can check for correct Authorship verification for any web page by entering its URL in Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool. If Authorship is correctly connected for the page, you should see a result similar to this:

eric enge authorship preview

However, it is well known that this tool isn’t perfect. For example, even though it shows Eric Enge‘s post on Copyblogger as being verified, Google has never shown an Authorship snippet for any of Eric’s posts there, and even now does not show a byline for that content. Eric is a very well-known and trusted author who gets a rich snippet for all his other content on the web, and Copyblogger is certainly a reputable site. Why his content there has never displayed an Authorship snippet remains a mystery.

In the Hangout, John Mueller went on to say that in the future they may have to reevaluate showing bylines for everyone who has correct markup, once they get more experience with the byline only results. He promised that there will be continued experimentation. If they see that people are using the bylines as a gauge of how great or trustworthy an author is, that might be impetus enough to try to re-implement some kind of quality factor into whether or not one gets a byline.

So are there actually more Authorship results in search now? If Mueller is correct that Authorship snippets are now based merely on a technically-correct connection, and there is no longer any quality factor, then wouldn’t we expect now to see more Authorship in search, even if only bylines? Not necessarily.

Moz’s Dr. Pete Meyers shared the following with me:

So, in my data set, Authorship [measured the old way – by thumbnail photos] peaked on June 23rd at 21.2% of SERPs (in our 10K data set). Measured the new way [bylines only], Authorship is showing up around 24.0% of SERPs. That could mean that, in absence of the photos, Google has allowed it to appear more often, or it could mean that there were a handful of SERPs with byline-only Authorship before. I suspect it’s the latter, but I have no data to support that.

I agree with Pete’s latter guess. The fact is that from the December 2013 “purging” of Authorship in search until the recent change, there have been two kinds of Authorship results: Those with a photo and byline, and those with byline only. I called the latter “second class Authorship,” and it looked like when Google ran its quality filter through the Authorship results, most lower-quality authors dropped to second class, byline-only results rather than being dropped altogether from Authorship results.

So it appears that the net result is no overall change in the amount of Authorship in search, just an elimination of a “first class” status for some authors.

4. Author photos may still be shown in personalized search for selected Google+ content. This was an unannounced change in Google search that showed up at the same time author photos were being eliminated from global (logged-out-of-Google) search. Now Google+ posts by people you follow on Google+ may sometimes show an author photo when you search while logged in to your Google+ account (personalized search).

The example below is an actual screen capture from my own logged-in search for “Google Plus for Business.” Joshua Berg is in my Google+ circles, and Google shows his relevant Google+ post both elevated in the results (higher than it would occur in my logged-out results) and with his profile photo.

authorship in google+

In my testing of this, I have seen that these personalized author photos for Google+ posts are most likely to show if the author is high in the “relevancy” sort in your Google+ circles, and is someone with whom you have engaged fairly frequently.

While not Authorship related, it is interesting to note that Google+ brand pages that you circle and have engaged with may now show a brand logo snippet in personalized search for their Google+ posts. While some other parts of the world have had these branded results for a while, this is entirely new for US Google searches.

google authorship for brands

I’ll have more below on what I see as the significance of these new results and what they may say about the future of Authorship and author authority in Google.

So Why Were Author Photos Removed?

So if Google was committed to continued improvement of the Authorship program, why did they drop photo snippets entirely? Was this a complete reversal, a “beginning of the end for Authorship” as some thought? Or were author photos in search simply not producing the results Google was looking for?

Before I give my take on those questions, I highly recommend Cyrus Shepard’s post ” Google Announced the End of Author Photos in Search: What You Should Know.” I agree completely with Cyrus’s take there, and won’t duplicate what he covered. Rather in the rest of this post I will try to bring some added insights and informed speculations based on my intensive observation of Google’s Authorship program over the past three years.

Let’s start with the explanation given by John Mueller in his announcement post, linked at the beginning of this article. John said:

We’ve been doing lots of work to clean up the visual design of our search results, in particular creating a better mobile experience and a more consistent design across devices. As a part of this, we’re simplifying the way Authorship is shown in mobile and desktop search results, removing the profile photo and circle count. (Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.)

It sounds like Mueller is linking this change to Google’s “mobile first” initiative. Mobile first seeks to unify, as much as possible, the user experience between desktop and mobile. It is a response to the rapid increase of mobile usage worldwide. In fact, at SMX West earlier this year Google’s Matt Cutts said that he expects Google searches on mobile to exceed desktop searches before the end of 2014.

In subsequent comments on his Google+ post and elsewhere, Mueller elaborated that images in search results take up lots of bandwidth in mobile search, slowing down delivery of results on many devices. They also take up considerable screen real estate on the smaller screens of mobile devices.

But were UX and mobile concerns the only reasons for removing author photos? I seriously doubt that. If author photos were providing a significant benefit to searchers, according to Google’s data, then it is likely they would have worked on some compromise that would have made them more compatible with mobile first.

Furthermore, John Mueller himself, in the aforementioned Hangout, hinted that there were other considerations involved. For example, he commented that there may have been too many author photos for some search results, and that too much of any one feature in search is not a good user experience.

My Personal Speculation. I don’t doubt Mueller that demands by Google’s search user experience efforts may have been the main driving force behind the removal of author photos, but as I said above, I do not think it was the only reason.

I believe that after much testing and evaluation Google may have decided that author photos for now send a disproportionate signal to searchers. That is, the photos may have been indicating an implied endorsement of result quality that Google is not yet prepared to back up.

Remember that in December we saw Google reduce the number of author photos shown in search as an attempt, according to Matt Cutts, to increase the quality of those results. However, when questioned about the concept of “author rank” (Google using author trust data to influence search results), Cutts consistently speaks about the great difficulty of evaluating such quality or trust. He elaborates that finding a way to do that remains a strong goal at Google, but he doesn’t expect to see it for years to come. (For example, see my remarks on his comments at SMX Advanced last month.)

Given all that, it may be that Google, realizing that they still have a lot of work to do toward evaluating author trust and quality to a degree where they would allow those factors to influence actual search rankings, decided that even though Authorship does not currently affect rankings, the photos still might imply to searchers a trust and authority for the author of which Google could not be fully confident.

In addition, I believe that three years into the Authorship program, Google realized that they were never going to get the vast majority of authors and sites to implement Authorship markup. If author authority is to succeed as a contributor to better search results in the future, Google has to find ways to identify and verify authors and their connected content that are not tied to either markup or Google+. That also will be a long-term project.

So this may actually be merely a temporary retrenchment as Google knuckles down to the hard work of figuring out how to make author authority something truly worthwhile in search.

What About Ad Competition? When the dropping of author photos was announced, there was immediate speculation by many, including Moz’s own Rand Fishkin on Twitter, that the author photos were seen as too competitive with the AdWords ads displayed in search.

rand fishkin on authorship

It’s impossible to either prove or disprove such speculation, as only Google holds the data. I personally find it a little hard to believe that it came down to a zero sum game between author photos and ads. In other words, is it reasonable to think that was either/or; that author photos were so attractive and got clicked so much that when they appeared too many people totally ignored the ads?

Also, that speculation is based on the assumption that author photos were, in recent history, huge CTR magnets. In the next section I’ll examine those CTR claims.

What About Author Photo CTR?

One of the most oft-repeated alleged benefits of author photos in search was that they dramatically increased click-through rates (CTR), as people were drawn to those results even if they were lower on the page.

I was as guilty as anyone else in confidently proclaiming in my online articles and conference presentations that “studies have shown” this increase in CTR for Authorship results. So it shocked me as much as anyone when John Mueller in his announcement post said, “Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one .”

First, we should note some ambiguities in Mueller’s statement:

  • He does not actually say “click-through rate,” though that’s what most readers assumed he was talking about. He called it “click-through behavior,” which could refer to other things, such as how quickly people bounced back to the search results after clicking an author photo result. In that case, higher CTR would not be a good thing from a search quality viewpoint.
  • He does not explicitly say that the click-through behavior was for the author photo results exclusively. It could be an evaluation of overall click behavior on search pages that included author photos.
  • This could be a reference to click behavior aggregated across all queries showing author photos. If so, then it may be that while CTR was higher for photo results in some queries, overall the effect may have been a wash.

But were we ever really sure there was as huge a CTR increase for author photo results as was frequently claimed? After investigating those claims, I’m not so sure.

  • Google themselves never made a positive claim of increased CTR for author photos. A much-cited paper by Google researchers on social annotations such as face photos in search was based only on eye-tracking studies and user interviews, not actual click behavior. It actually found that image-based social annotations were not necessarily as attractive to searchers as believed, and only were attractive under certain circumstances.
  • I found hundreds of blog posts proclaiming “30-150% increase in CTR!” for Authorship. Those all seemed to trace back to one article two years ago that cited a 30% increase of CTR for rich snippet results in general. That post did not talk about Authorship specifically, nor was it made clear exactly how they determined the 30% raise.
  • Most of the other articles or “studies” purporting to show increased CTR from Authorship are based on one-off, anecdotal evidence. In other words, the authors implemented Authorship, and then saw more organic traffic to their sites. While interesting, such correlative claims at best may demonstrate a one-off accomplishment for that particular author for particular queries, but they do not prove that there was a general, or even universal, CTR boost.
  • Testing for actual CTR boost is probably impossible outside of access to Google’s own data. That’s because CTR is highly volatile by ranking position, and it is impossible to know if you’re comparing apples to apples. For a truly conclusive test, one would have to be able to randomly show the same result for the same query in an A/B split with half the results showing an author photo and half not. I don’t see any way for us to set up such a test.
  • In the Webmaster Central Hangout mentioned previously, John Mueller hinted strongly that whatever CTR boost there may have been, Google has seen it wear away over the past couple years. He mused that it is likely people became more used to seeing author photos in search over time, and so they had less impact and drawing power. If Google sees a feature not having much effect, it is natural that they would remove it.
  • Unfortunately, the Author Stats feature in Google Webmaster Tools is no help in evaluating CTR of author photo results vs. post-author photo results. Before June 28, for me it showed hundreds of pieces of content showing in search as Authorship snippets. Since June 28, only one result shows, and that is for a Search Engine Land article I wrote that made it into Google News results, where author photos can still show. Apparently the Author Stats tool was measuring only results with author photos.

google authorship graph

All that is not to say there was never any rise in CTR for any Authorship posts. But it is to say that we never really knew for sure, and we never knew how much. Most importantly, there was never any proof that any CTR boost was universal. That is, there was no reason to assume that just because your results got an author photo, they were automatically getting a CTR boost.

So Does Google Authorship Still Matter?

In a word, yes. If Google had actually lost its enthusiasm for and commitment to author identity as a future, important aspect of search, then this would have been the time to pull the band aid all the way off, rather than just removing photos. But, in fact, Authorship still works in search.

Let me conclude with some reasons why I think Authorship still has value, and that author authority is still a major priority for Google search.

1. Authors still matter. The bylines are an indication that Google still cares who created a piece of content, and thinks that is significant and useful information for searchers. Every pixel of a search result is very valuable real estate. Google realizes that, and is still willing to give up some of that territory to an author’s name.

2. Bylines are not invisible. Sure no one believes that a byline might capture the eye of someone viewing a search page to the same degree that a face photo probably did, but it does not follow that bylines are without value. More and more SEOs are advising their clients to optimize the meta descriptions for their pages. Why? Not because they are a ranking factor (they are not), but because they can have a significant effect on “selling” the searcher on clicking that result.

We’re used to hearing that the number one result for a given query usually gets the most clicks by far. But it doesn’t get all the clicks, and on some queries the top result may not be as attractive as on others. If we all believed the top result was always the best, wouldn’t we just click that “Feeling lucky?” button on Google’s home page?

The truth is that when the title of the top result doesn’t immediately grab the searcher as a sure thing to fulfill her search need, she will begin looking for other clues in the other results. Among those will be the descriptive text under the results. When an author’s name appears there, it may move the searcher to think the result is more reliable (written by a “real person”). And if that person is someone already known to and trusted by the searcher, the value goes up significantly.

3. Author and brand images now in personalized search. While limited in appearance, the fact that Google now will sometimes show an author photo or a brand image for Google+ content in personalized search indicates that they have not at all abandoned the idea that such image results can have value. It may be that they see that such highly-personalized recommendations have real value to searchers. It makes sense that if I regularly engage with Rand Fishkin on Google+, I will be more likely to value his content when I do a logged-in search with a relevant query.

This may have implications for the future of author authority in search in general. It is conceivable that even if Google does implement it and expand it for content beyond Google+ posts, that it will remain highly personalized. In other words, Google may decide that it is most reliable to boost authors with whom you already have some affinity.

4. Authorship still builds your author rank database with Google. Using Authorship markup on your best content is still the clearest way to let Google see what you create and how people respond to it. You can be sure that Google has been tracking such data all along, and will continue to do so. Even if author authority is still not a ranking factor (outside of personalized search, and some search features such as In-Depth Articles), it likely will be someday. When that day comes, if Google has a clear history of your growth as a trusted author in your field, you may have a competitive advantage.

5. Google remains committed to author authority as a search factor. As recently as SMX Advanced in May, just a few weeks before the announcement of the end of author photos, Google’s Matt Cutts reiterated his enthusiasm for author authority, while noting that it was a difficult and long-term project. For a transcript of his remarks, see my post here. Google understands that people are wired to trust other people long before they trust “brands” or websites.

About MarkTraphagen — Responsible for strategic planning and implementation of the online branding, promotion, and reputation of Stone Temple Consulting, as well as specialized consulting with selected Stone Temple clients.

Does SEO Boil Down to Site Crawlability and Content Quality?

We all know that keywords and links alone no longer cut it as a holistic SEO strategy. But there’s still plenty outside our field who try to “boil SEO down” to a naively simplistic practice – one that isn’t representative of what SEOs need to do to succeed. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand champions the art and science of SEO and offers insight into how very broad the field really is.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video Transcription

Howdy Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to try and tackle a question that, if you’re in the SEO world, you probably have heard many, many times from those outside of the SEO world.

I thought a recent question on Quora phrased it perfectly. This question actually had quite a few people who’d seen it. Does SEO boil down to making a site easily crawlable and consistently creating good, relevant content?

Oh, well, yeah, that’s basically all there is to it. I mean why do we even film hundreds of Whiteboard Fridays?

In all seriousness, this is a fair question, and I can empathize with the people asking it, because when I look at a new practice, I think when all of us do, we try and boil it down to its basic parts. We say, “Well, I suppose that the field of advertising is just about finding the right audience and then finding the ads that you can afford that are going to reach that target audience, and then making ads that people actually pay attention to.”

Well, yes and no. The advertising field is, in fact, incredibly complex. There are dramatic numbers of inputs that go into it.

You could do this with field after field after field. Oh, well, building a car must just mean X. Or being a photographer must just mean Y.

These things are never true. There’s always complexity underneath there. But I understand why this happens.

We have these two things. In fact, more often, I at least hear the addition of keyword research in there, that being a crawl-friendly website, having good, relevant content, and doing your keyword research and targeting, that’s all SEO is. Right? The answer is no.

This is table stakes. This is what you have to do in order to even attempt to do SEO, in order to attempt to be in the rankings to potentially get search traffic that will drive valuable visits to your website. Table stakes is very different from the art and science of the practice. That comes because good, relevant content is rarely, if ever, good enough to rank competitively, because crawl friendly is necessary, but it’s not going to help you improve any rankings. It’s not going to help you in the competitive sense. You could be extremely crawl friendly and rank on page ten for many, many search terms. That would do nothing for your SEO and drive no traffic whatsoever.

Keyword research and targeting are also required certainly, but so too is ongoing maintenance of these things. This is not a fire and forget strategy in any sense of the word. You need to be tracking those rankings and knowing which search terms and which pages, now that “not provided” exists, are actually driving valuable visits to your site. You’ve got to be identifying new terms as those come out, seeing where your competition is beating you out and what they’ve done. This is an ongoing practice.

It’s the case that you might say, “Okay, all right. So I really need to create remarkable content.” Well, okay, yes, content that’s remarkable helps. It does help you in SEO, but only if that remarkability also yields a high likelihood of engagement and sharing.

If your remarkability is that you’ve produced something wonderful that is incredibly fascinating, but no one particularly cares about, they don’t find it especially more useful, or they do find it more useful, but they’re not interested in sharing it, no one is going to help amplify that content in any way—privately, one to one, through email, or directing people to your website, or linking to you, or sharing socially. There’s no amplification. The media won’t pick it up. Now you’ve kind of lost. You may have remarkable content, but it is not the kind of remarkable that performs well for SEO.

The reason is that links are still a massive, massive input into rankings. So anything—this word is going to be important, I’m going to revisit it—anything that promotes or inhibits link growth helps or hurts SEO. This makes good sense when you think about it.

But SEO, of course, is a competitive practice. You can’t fire and forget as we talked about. Your competition is always going to be seeking to catch up to you or to one up you. If you’re not racing ahead at the right trajectory, someone will catch you. This is the law of SEO, and it’s been seen over and over and over again by thousands and thousands of companies who’ve entered the field.

Okay, I realize this is hard to read. We talked about SEO being anything that impacts potential links. But SEO is really any input that engines use to rank pages. Any input that engines use to rank pages goes into the SEO bucket, and anything that people or technology does to influence those ranking elements is what the practice of SEO is about.

That’s why this field is so huge. That’s why SEO is neuropsychology. SEO is conversion rate optimization. SEO is social media. SEO is user experience and design. SEO is branding. SEO is analytics. SEO is product. SEO is advertising. SEO is public relations. The fill-in-the-blank is SEO if that blank is anything that affects any input directly or indirectly.

This is why this is a huge field. This is why SEO is so complex and so challenging. This is also why, unfortunately, when people try to boil SEO down and put us into a little bucket, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work, and it defeats the practice. It defeats the investments, and it works against all the things that we are working toward in order to help SEO.

When someone says to you on your team or from your client, they say, “Hey, you’re doing SEO. Why are you telling us how to manage our Facebook page?

Why are you telling us who to talk to in the media? Why are you telling us what changes to make to our branding campaigns or our advertising?” This is why. I hope maybe you’ll send them this video, maybe you’ll draw them this diagram, maybe you’ll be able to explain it a little more clearly and quickly.

Everybody Needs Local SEO

If you work in the SEO industry, you need to understand how to do Local SEO. Seriously.. I’m not kidding here… If you’re sitting there thinking “Um, no… not really” – then you’re exactly the person I’m writing this post for.

If you haven’t already, I can pretty much guarantee you that at some point in your SEO career, you’re going to do some SEO for a business that has a physical storefront. BOOM – that means Local SEO. Sure, you’ve still got to do all the traditional SEO things that you do every day for all your clients, but when you’re talking about a physical location, Local SEO is absolutely necessary.

If you’re thinking “But Greg – If I do all the SEO stuff I’m supposed to do, I’ll still get the site to rank organically…” – you still aren’t getting it. If you add some Local SEO to the mix, you can show up in organic results AND the map pack (clients love that, so you should too). Plus, showing up in the map pack or the Local Carousel is incredibly important when a business is trying to pull in customers from the immediate area. Also, the map pack results show up ABOVE the organic results on mobile, and we all know that mobile is blowing up.

So if you’ve never paid any attention to Local SEO, it’s time to start lifting, bro. I’m going to give you a simple workout plan to help you beef up your Local SEO muscles, and with a little practice, you’ll be playing with the big boys in no time.

You should already know how to optimize a website, and if you don’t, there are a ton of awesome posts here on Moz. When you’re working on your optimizations, there are some important elements that you need to concentrate on for Local SEO. These elements are extremely important on your landing pages for your Google Plus Local listings (more commonly known now as “Google My Business Places Plus Local For Business”). If your business has multiple locations, you should have a unique location landing page for each Google Plus Local listing. you’re dealing with a single location, then we’re talking about your home page – but these elements should also be locally optimized on product and services pages. 

  1. City and state in the title tag. Arguably one of the most important places to include city/state information. We’ve seen many small businesses jump up in local rankings from this alone.
  2. City and state in H1 heading. Hold on, don’t interrupt. I know it doesn’t HAVE to be an H1 heading… So whatever heading you’ve got on the page, it’s important to also have your city/state info included.
  3. City and state in URL. Obviously, this can’t happen on your home page, but on other pages, including the city/state info in the URL can be a powerful signal of local relevance.
  4. City and state in content. Clearly, it’s important to include your city/state info in your content.
  5. City and state in alt tags. We see far too many local business sites that don’t even use alt text on their images. Make sure you’ve got alt text on all your images, and make sure that you’re including city/state info in your alt text.
  6. City and state in meta description. Yes, we all know that the meta description doesn’t play into the ranking algorithm… but including city/state info can really boost clickthrough rate for local search results.
  7. Include an embedded Google Map. Including an embedded Google Map is important too, but PLEASE make sure you do it correctly. You don’t want to just embed a map that points to your address… You want to embed a map that points to your actual Google Plus Local listing.

Most of the Local SEOs who really live and breathe local agree that citations aren’t the amazing powerful weapon that they used to be… but that doesn’t mean they’re not still incredibly important. If you don’t know what a citation is, it’s commonly referred to as NAP information in Local SEO circles – Name, Address, and Phone number. Google expects local businesses to have their NAP information on certain other websites (Yelp, social media sites, etc.), so if you don’t have citations on the important sites, or your citation information is incorrect, it can really hurt how your business is ranking.

While they’re not the silver bullet for rankings that they used to be, they’re still an important signal for local relevancy. Here’s may favorite example… We were hired to do the SEO for a car dealership just outside of New Orleans last fall. The dealer spent tons of money on radio and TV ads and was very well known in the local area, but he didn’t understand why he wasn’t showing up in local searches.

Within about 30 seconds of looking at his site, we knew exactly what the problem was. The correct spelling of his dealership name is “Deal’N Doug’s Autoplex” – but he had his own business name misspelled five different ways on his home page alone:

  • Dean’N Dougs Autoplex
  • Deal’ N Doug’s Autoplex
  • Deal’N Doug’s Auto Plex
  • Dealn Dougs Autoplex
  • Deal n Dougs Autoplex

We did a quick citation evaluation, and sure enough, he had all of those misspelled names floating around in different citations. He also had several citations for “Dealin’ Doug’s Autoplex” – which is grammatically how you’d expect it to be spelled.

We figured that we had the perfect opportunity for a citation experiment. All we did during the first month of work was NAP cleanup. We corrected the business name everywhere on his site, and we made sure to manually update all of the citations that were misspelled.

In just a few weeks, he went from not ranking at all to ranking in the top spot in the map pack. When the local algorithm went through the big shakeup last October, he retained the #1 map ranking and also gained a #2 organic spot. Yes, we did a lot more optimization for him after that first month, but cleaning up the name information was enough to get him to rank #1 in his city.

Working on citations can be tedious, but it’s well worth the effort. There are tons of submission services out there, but we prefer to do everything manually, so we know 100% for sure that things are done correctly. Here’s our citation campaign workflow:

  1. Run an initial check with Moz Local. No, I wasn’t paid to say that (but if Moz wants to hook me up with some extra bacon at MozCon to thank me, I wouldn’t turn it down… cough, cough). We start with a quick check on Moz Local to see the current status of a client’s citations. It’s a great way to see a brief overview of how their NAP information is distributed online.
  2. Fix any issues found in Moz Local. It’s got all those handy links, why not use them? If there are missing citations, go get them. If you’ve got incomplete listings, follow the tips to update them.
  3. Run a citation search with Whitespark. Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder is awesome (it’s our favorite citation tool). You need to run two reports: one to check your current citations, and another to find citation opportunities. Whitespark is simply the best around for finding citation opportunities.
  4. Set up a campaign in BrightLocal. Yes, it’s a bit redundant to use BrightLocal and Whitespark at the same time… but we really love their interface. You get 3 tabs of info: active citations, pending citations, and potential citations. On each citation, you can enter specific notes, which really helps you keep track of your efforts over time. When you add in new citations from your Whitespark list, you can add them in to your “pending citations” tab. When you re-run the report later, any pending citations that have become active will move over into the active list.
  5. Keep pumping reps. Over time, you’ll add more citations, but you should always use Whitespark to check for new opportunities AND any incorrect NAP info that might appear. Keep your notes in BrightLocal so you can keep everything straight.

Reviews are an integral part of Local SEO, but they’re also vital for local clickthroughs. Now that Google displays reviews in an isolated popup (instead of taking you to the locations Google Plus Local page), users will read your reviews before they see any other information about your business.

Our process is simple, but it works well. Here’s how to get more positive reviews for any business:

    1. Set up a review page on your site. We always set up a page at for every client. It’s easy for any employees to remember, and it’s a simple URL to tell customers about. You don’t want to ask for reviews and then expect that your customers will be able to search for you on Google, navigate to your Google Plus Local page, and find the right link to click to leave a review.

      Include simple instructions for leaving a review on the page, along with a direct link to the location’s Google Plus Local page. It’s also helpful to let customers know that they’ll need a Google account to leave a review (and instructions for setting up a Google account if they don’t have one). You should always focus on Google reviews until a business gets at least 10 reviews. Once you’ve got 10 reviews on Google, you can offer other options and let customers choose the review site that they’re most comfortable with.

      PRO TIP: For Google reviews, include this string at the end of your Google Plus Local link:  ?hl=en&review=1
      Now, when customers click the link, the review window will automatically pop up when they land on your Google Plus Local page (so they don’t have to find the link!).

  1. Create a review handout. There are several review handout generators out there online, but in our experience, most of them are a bit too complicated. Instead of showing a flowchart on the handout or giving customers several options for review sites, our review handouts simply point customers to the page that we set up. 

    This allows us to create a really nice branded postcard to hand out, and regardless of our review strategy, the card never changes. 

  2. Hand the card to every customer and ASK. You can’t just hand the card over, you have to ask your customers to leave reviews. We encourage our clients to hand over the card at the last possible moment of customer interaction, so the request and the card are fresh on a customer’s mind when they leave. Don’t offer an incentives to leave reviews, just be honest and let your customers know that you’d truly like to hear their honest opinion about their experience

Even if your client has a ton of customers, make sure they understand that they won’t get a lot of reviews. We tell our clients that 1 review a month is a perfectly acceptable pace. A steady stream of reviews over time is much more important than a quick influx.

There you have it! If you follow these simply Local SEO workout tips, you’ll build your Local SEO muscle in no time. You’ll be able to provide better results to your clients, which means they’ll be happier… and happier clients means more long-term business. Everyone wins!

About Greg_Gifford — I read “Internet Marketing for Dummies” (ok, I skimmed it) and thought SEO would be a fun gig… All kidding aside, I’m a Local SEO geek… I work for an automotive software company, and my department provides hyper-local SEO and managed social media to car dealers all over the country. I also do quite a bit of freelancing in my free time for other industries. I’m a giant movie nerd, and probably have an obscure movie quote for just about any situation. I’m also a big foodie, so find me at the next SEO conference and I’ll take you to the most amazeballs restaurants in town.

The Hidden Power of Nofollow Links

A few years ago, while I was still on the client side of things, I received an email from a blogger I was working with. As part of our fledgling link building program, my company had been sending out free products in exchange for a review and link to our site. Oldest trick in the book, right? However, the blogger’s email threw me off: she told me her policy was to nofollow links, and asked if this would be all right.

“Uh, sure,” I eloquently responded, having absolutely no idea what she was talking about, “just as long as there’s a link!” I then scrambled to look up just what in the heck a nofollow link was, and roughly five minutes later started cursing at my monitor. We’d just invested thirty bucks in a completely useless link!

While that may have been my viewpoint back then, my opinion on nofollow links has changed. Obviously, for those of us who are trying to earn links for our clients, receiving a nofollow link can feel like a slap in the face. But these links have hidden powers that make them just as important as followed ones.

Here’s why nofollow links are more powerful than you might think.

Links Build Awareness

A link has a few different connotations these days. It could mean, “this is an article that supports my viewpoint, and you might benefit by reading it, too.” It could mean, “I do a lot of shopping here, and I think you should look at their cute dresses.” Or it could simply mean, “I like cat videos!” But at its very core, a link is designed to create awareness of something on a different page.

When you’re out there trying to make people aware of your business, links are hugely important. SEO companies now offer link building services because businesses realize how important they are. So to that busy CEO who sees his or her website traffic dipping, and believes that links will give them a way to get back on top, a successful link building campaign is going to be really desirable.

That busy CEO is probably going to flip out if you say “well, we got 50 new links this month, and 40 of them were nofollow.” But it’s important that neither you nor the CEO (nor their marketing team) discredit the power of a nofollow link. Links still build awareness, as long as they are seen. They don’t have to be followed. They probably don’t even have to be clicked! They just have to be visible.

How many times a day do you see someone you follow tweet a link to an article with an interesting headline? Let’s say the article is really well written, and is on a site you don’t currently follow. So you add them to your feed reader. A week later, you think “oh, you know, that post I read is really relevant to this blog post I’m working on now!” So you link to it in your post. This accomplishes two things: one, it probably negates that original nofollow link from Twitter (more on that shortly), and two, it has made both you and your followers aware of that site.

Links Lead to Profit

A nofollow link can also directly lead to someone spending money on your company’s products or services. If you consistently create awareness and engage with people, those nofollow links may earn you way more than domain authority. Don’t believe me? Here’s the story of how I became a paying Buffer customer.

A few months ago, I saw a tweet with a link to this case study about how Buffer responded to being hacked. I had no idea what Buffer was, but it gave me an idea for a blog post. After I wrote my post, I followed Buffer on Twitter. I engaged with them a few times (for example, mentioning them after my post went up), and they engaged right back.

Over the next few weeks, I visited the Buffer blog when they tweeted links to new posts, learned about their company, and admired the heck out of their content marketing skills. I’d say it was at about the two month mark that I decided to actually give them a try. A month later, I upgraded to the Awesome plan and began using it daily to manage not only my accounts, but also our agency’s accounts.

To recap, this is how it all went down:

  1. I became aware of Buffer through someone else’s Twitter link
  2. I followed Buffer on Twitter
  3. I engaged with their content
  4. I tried, subscribed, and ended up forking over $10 a month (well worth it!)

This was all because of a single nofollow link. Over the course of three months, my general awareness turned into lifetime value for Buffer. That one nofollow link directly led to profit.

You can make an equation out of this:

a + e = p

Awareness + engagement = profit. By becoming aware of Buffer, and having opportunities to engage regularly with them, I converted into a paying customer. This all happened because of social media, and all those links you see on social media are nofollow. (Who said there’s no ROI in Twitter?!)

Links Lead to More Links

A few years ago, Joshua Unseth wrote a post for YouMoz explaining how a single nofollow link earned him a second link that was followed, increased his traffic, and boosted his article to the top of the SERPs for a specific phrase. His post, titled “The Importance of nofollow Links,” has a really great conclusion that stresses the importance of even a single link:

To put it into context, of the people that came to the article as a direct or indirect result of the nofollow, ~1% made a comment on the article itself, and ~2% blogged about it – actually, if you count this article, then the results were blogged about by 3% of the visitors.

While I don’t think that these numbers would hold on a site with more viewers, I think that they represent the way in which content ends up going viral. In the end, ALL IT TAKES IS ONE LINK, and its follow status doesn’t seem to make a difference.

I couldn’t say it any better! What Joshua wrote still holds true today – and in fact may be even truer, considering how many of us use Twitter to amplify messages and blog posts we enjoy, or rely on a feed reader to provide us with interesting content that we want to share on our websites.

Here’s a real-life example of the potential power of a single nofollow link. Back in March, we published two maps showing the ISP landscape in the United States, and how the potential Comcast buyout of Time-Warner would affect it. The post was picked up by the Amazing_Maps Twitter account, which has more than 160,000 followers.

This was a nofollow link, obviously, as were the retweets that followed.

Two days later, we made it to the front page of the Huffington Post.

After HuffPo picked up the story, the maps spread to several other websites, most of which had followed links back to our blog post or homepage. But even if those links hadn’t been followed, we still would have created new awareness of WebpageFX, our blog, and the work we do.

Like Joshua said: it only takes one. One link can lead to many.

How to Make the Most of Your nofollow Links

“Okay, Nicole,” I can hear you skeptics saying, “I’m on board. nofollow links are powerful. Magical, even. But you don’t see any of my tweets getting picked up by HuffPo.”

Well, food for thought: we’ve published hundreds of blog posts, and only one of them led to a Twitter link (not ours) that led to HuffPo. Success on the Internet is all about being at the right place with the right content at the right time, and with all of the blogs, websites, and companies vying for attention, your chance at getting noticed is lower than low.

Here are some ways that you can make the most of your nofollow links, whether they’re on social media, someone’s blog, or elsewhere.

Motivate viewers to click your link. This might mean testing headlines, trying different tweets, or coming right out and saying, “look, if you click this, this cool thing will happen.” For example, Buffer found that one tweet earned a blog post 100% more clicks than another, just because they changed the language surrounding the link.

Increase your audience. Want more people to see, click, and act on your nofollow link? Get a bigger audience. This may be as simple as following industry figureheads who are likely to follow you back, directly asking for shares, or sharing your post multiple times. Try emailing people of authority and asking (nicely) for them to check out your content. If it’s really good, it may earn you a share.

Another trick: if you write blog posts or product content that references someone else, make sure they know about it. It may seem like you’re just trying to stroke their ego, but it works. If someone wrote a blog post about me, heck yeah I’d tweet the link out to everybody I knew! (Unless it was bad. Then I’d just cry.)

Ensure your link is relevant. This, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of a nofollow link. So many links on social media go unclicked simply because the content isn’t relevant to them. This one is hard to control, because it’s pretty difficult to know when your audience is going to be in the mood for your blog posts vs. photos of puppies, but you can still get ahead by thinking very carefully about what you share, when, and why.

Make sure your content is relevant, too. Okay, so your link got clicked. Great! But your bounce rate is at 99%. Not great. You can write the best headline in the world, but if the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is empty, nobody’s going to stick around. Avoid misleading headlines, unfulfilling content, or just plain marketing to the wrong people.

This is honestly the biggest flaw of the ISP map I linked above. Lots of people checked out the maps, and even visited our blog to see the rest of the study, but then they left. Probably 99% of our visitors to that post have no idea who WebpageFX is and what we do. That doesn’t mean the content was bad, but it just wasn’t relevant to the kind of audience we want to attract (that is, potential clients).

Optimize your landing pages. What do you want someone to do after they visit your link? What’s the next step for this visitor? Keep them around a little longer. Use a related posts plugin to provide some additional reading, or try a service like to suggest relevant content or links.

Don’t complain. If someone gives you a link and it’s nofollow, please don’t storm into their inbox with guns blazing. Maybe they just don’t know you well enough to follow your links yet. If you’re cool about it, the second link they give you may be a followed one. And even if it isn’t, you’re still getting exposure out of it, right?

A nofollow Link Isn’t the End of the World

As SEO professionals, I know we’re all aiming for followed links that pass a lot of “juice” to the websites of our clients. If we all had our way, earning links would be easy, every link would be followed, and Google would never, ever penalize websites for having too many links, or too many links of a certain type. We would all have millions of dollars, and would spend our days on the beach drinking fancy cocktails. Unfortunately… that’s just not the way things are.

Honestly, a nofollow link isn’t the end of the world, either for you or for a client. These links are valuable, and important for anyone trying to build their brand online. As I’ve shown, they hold significant power, and more than you might expect.

Instead of focusing on whether or not a link is followed, we should do our best to get those links in front of the right people at the right time, crafting content beyond the link that motivates conversions. As it is for everything in SEO, obtaining links is all about balance: the balance between followed and not followed, “juicy” links and dry ones.

In my case, that nofollow link I talked about at the beginning of this post went live, the blogger was happy with her product, and the review she wrote was fantastic. It led to a fairly high amount of clicks through to our site… and what do you know, even a few purchases. Seeing was believing for me, and now I’m an advocate of earning links in general – not just the followed ones.


About Author — Nicole Kohler is a passionate, geeky 20-something who loves writing, marketing, and all things yellow. She is the Web Content Strategist for WebpageFX, a certified Pokemon Master, and currently has six pairs of glasses.

How Our Agency Survived Year One

There are some things in life you don’t truly understand until you experience them. I was given plenty of parenting advice when my son was born, but it only took me so far. Nothing prepared me for the first time our baby decided to roll over… right off the bed onto the floor (luckily we had a pile of laundry serving as a cushion). If you’ve never been a parent, you simply don’t have a lot of personal experience to draw from. It’s a complete trial by fire, full of missteps, emotions, and anxiety.

In a way, starting Greenlane was a similar experience. Greenlane Search Marketing, LLC is my startup boutique SEO agency. It started in 2005 as a sole proprietorship consulting practice. It was my baby, and I had to let it grow up. Now it’s a partnership between myself and a long-time colleague Keith Urban (not the singer). However, differing from the parenting example, I did have some practical experience to guide me this time. I ran an SEO department in a major digital marketing agency. Regardless, it became very clear we didn’t know a thing about truly running an agency. We were new parents.

What to expect when you’re expecting

We expected to be busy. We knew we’d make mistakes, and we thought we had a solid business plan in place. In the end we were busier than expected, made more mistakes than we care to admit, and our plan fell apart on a weekly basis. But I’m proud (and relieved) to say we’re successful. We have a great staff of smart SEOs and digital marketers. We have happy clients. We have a great network of people to tap into. We’re profitable, targeting half a million in fee revenue by the end of 2014. We survived year one, where 25% of startups crash. We’re on yet another phase of growth, with our legal and taxation items well managed, our employment under control, and the company as a whole being positioned to overcome year two.

For me, that’s an enormous win.

Specifically, what was our secret? Hell if I know. But I think it’s this fuzzy formula: Take what you hear, mixed with what you’ve experienced in life, multiplied by your best guess, and divide by quick, brave decisions. But we also had a motto, one that became our backbone: “Always make it better!”

Making it better for you and your clients

This is a post about some of the more conceptual, “outside the normal” things we implemented to constantly improve our company from the start. These are based on my life experiences and recent business victories. My hope is that this will serve as fodder for your own company, even if you’re not the proprietor. This post is not about tax management, or accounting, or filings—this is about the day-to-day behavioral things that can make your digital marketing company a great place to be, to the benefit of you and your clients.

And to sprinkle in a little fun, since I said life experience fed into many of our first year decisions, I’ll supplement each section with something from my own awkward photo album.

On to the tips…

#1 – Think about your group experiences

For those who played team sports, remember when your parents said, “One day this will make you better at your job!” Go tell them they were right. Working as a team is an invaluable skill, improved only through experience and introspection. We’ve all engaged in group experiences, from grade school to our earliest jobs. Everyone has some kind of group or department participation to draw on. Maybe it’s as simple as cub scouts, a yearbook committee, or in my case, a rock band.

Additionally, we’ve all either seen—or have been—the flunky in the group, doing the least amount to make the group as a whole succeed. There’s also the opposite—a “Johnny-Come-Lately” who shows up with good intentions but sticks a giant crowbar into the gears, grinding progress to a screeching halt. We’ve seen the drama and anger that comes from personalities that just don’t mix. Nothing slows down momentum more than an unfocused crew rowing in different directions. An agency is no different. You will always have bosses, clients, and employees that behave or think differently than you. You simply need to learn how to overcome.

Someone once told me you can’t be a boss and a friend. I’ve never disagreed with something so hard in my life. A friendship presents an amazing bond of trust. At Greenlane we’ve carefully selected co-workers who we enjoy being around. We all have different talents and roles in the company, but you see virtually no instances of “pulling rank” over anyone else. There’s a respect that drives each of us to do a good job for each other. It creates more open and creative dialogue. If you don’t feel like you have anything to prove, you can more easily pause, listen, and learn. We don’t want to let each other down, but we all feel empowered to counter an idea without fear. The best idea wins, and our clients (as well as ourselves) become more educated. We’ve nurtured a really powerful environment. The bigger your group, the harder this is, but certainly not impossible.

We take the same approach with bringing on clients. We call them partners—a term I took from an old gig. Just as we are being paid to help businesses be successful, their actions have a lot of bearing on our success as a vendor—not to mention our own happiness. I’ll often tell a prospective partner, “just as you’re auditioning us, we’re auditioning you too.” That could come off cocky, but any prospects we lost for that statement were probably not going to last in the long run. In fact, I ask all prospective clients to first read our website, where we openly talk about the kind of clients we’re looking for. About two-thirds return super qualified, with the remainder vanishing forever. Those that return often say, “you are exactly what we’re looking for.” It’s a bit like online dating.

I wish we could say we’ve never lost a client due to poor performance. We have. Two of them actually. But in retrospect, this provided good lessons on where we needed to improve. In one case it was due to never being on the right wavelength to begin with, and the other was simply based on poor communicating. We largely (and swiftly) pivoted internally to make sure we never make those mistakes again. As a company, we were all just rowing the wrong way. Catching it early allowed for a very quick adjustment.

By the way, I’m well aware that some internal hierarchies don’t allow you to have a say on the clients that come in. While that is unfortunate, it is also common. But what’s to stop you from climbing the totem pole and pleading your case?

The TL;DR tips:

  • Don’t just act like you’re interested in every word of your clients and employees, truly be interested. This is their time to talk, and your time to pause, listen, and ask valuable questions. Work together!
  • Ask your clients questions. Let them understand it’s your job to pull information out of them. Don’t be a yes man; be a friendly challenger in order to get everyone nodding in the same direction.
  • Work with your team, not against them. If you’re not actively on the account and their day-to-day work, be careful not to break the flow of the meeting throwing out ideas that counter the direction the account managers want to go. Get yourself on the same page, even if you’re the boss.
  • Have a postmortem on every lost employee or client account, and drop your defenses. Try to figure out what could have been improved as a group.
  • You’ve been an SEO for over 15 years? Good for you. Now sit down and listen to everyone else’s ideas. Be an equal.

#2 – The people you meet could become important

I’m often asked how we perform lead generation. Our primarily lead source is our network. Keith and I are very lucky in that regard, both coming from the big agency world. Big agencies seem to organically create seedlings that go off to start new companies or work with other established businesses. From former clients to former co-workers, developing serendipity every chance you get, should be a 24/7 goal.

You never know when someone you’ve met will hit it big. If you leave a good impression, they may invite you to their next party.

Digital marketing is one of those rare industries. There are millions of lawyers and accountants, as well as designers. There are relatively few SEOs, PPC experts or affiliate marketers. Make the right impression and your name will get passed around quickly. If you have a bad reputation, or are generally unliked, the word spreads just as fast. I’ve picked against vendors for my clients (or when I worked in-house) simply based on how phony they came off. I’ll probably have this put on my tombstone because I say it so much, “Perception Is Reality.” Let that one sink in. It doesn’t mean “fake it,” but be genuine and supportive.

I wrote a post that I still think about often. It was called ” Create Your Own SEO Serendipity.” I don’t know how, or where, or why I started doing it, but I’ve been in the “serendipity” game for a long time. “Karma” might be a possible synonym. Building up your network is one part of the puzzle, but building it so you’re memorable is a whole other piece that may require a bit of introspection on your end.

In hindsight, I spent my entire professional career mirroring my personal life—be good and helpful to everyone you meet. Sure you get burned if others take advantage, but when a referral comes in from an old colleague, I’m thrilled. It’s that warm feeling that makes “doing business” pretty damn fun.

The TL;DR tips:

  • Stay in touch with everyone you can by any means necessary. The tiniest little gestures—like endorsing a skill or expertise on LinkedIn, or buying someone a beer at a convention—can sometimes bring you top of mind when you need it most.
  • In my experience job titles don’t necessarily mean everything. Personality and kindness go further. Always be willing to support someone’s little needs. Free advice or work can turn into major opportunities.
  • Answer everyone’s emails, tweets, texts, whatever. Very few of us really can’t find the time.
  • Don’t just wait for people to call you. If you generally feel good about all your encounters, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out and saying, “Thanks for the great talk at the meetup last night. I wanted to see if I could help you solve that problem we were talking about.”
  • Create serendipity every day.
  • Create serendipity every day (worth mentioning twice!!!).


#3 – Hire people smarter than you

Around 2009, I remember the  CEO of GSI Commerce said this at a company meeting I attended (paraphrasing)—”I built this company by hiring people smarter than me.” This off-hand comment was a real wake-up call for me. He’s since sold his company to eBay, and moved on to restart something new. If this tip helped make someone a billionaire, there must be something to it

My partner and I didn’t read many business books. Personally, I tried, but rejected most of them. I stubbornly refused to buy into some of the concepts. However, there were a few where I recognized common threads. Books like Good to Great, How To Think Like A CEO, The Outsiders, and The Corner Office didn’t have a “fake it until you make it,” or “kill or be killed” lesson. Instead, they highlighted leading by example, taking calculated risks, being human, and learning from everyone around you.

We candidly tell our prospects that we hire people with unique experience for the sole purpose of supporting the clients. We reveal that Keith’s background is in data and analytics, Mike’s is in design and development, Jon’s is in PR and outreach, and so on. We’re not all experts at everything. We’re very clear that any of our team may work on an account dependent on a given strategy. It’s honest and realistic, and goes over well with prospects. Meanwhile, in the office, we have a lot of co-mingling, where each teammate may join another to work out a specific problem. I’m the old dog in the group, but I’ll tell you the honest truth—I learn something every day from this team.

The client wins, my company improves, and my own personal development grows. What more could anyone want out of a job?

The TL;DR tips:

  • Let smarter (or more experienced) people help guide you. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
  • Don’t act like you know it all. Your employees and your clients will see right through this.
  • If you don’t know the answer, let your clients know that you may have someone in your fold that might have the answers. When your company is hired, so is your entire organization. There’s nothing wrong with this!
  • Encourage your team to speak their mind, take a chance, and kick your ass. When they do, give them a high-five.

#4 – Don’t be so serious

Last but not least, have fun.

Keith and I don’t need to remind ourselves why we took this risk. It’s fun every day. Business is a game, and we’re enjoying our time on the field. No more toxic relationships, no more loss of control, and no more sitting in the “peanut gallery” watching other people do it wrong.

Be serious enough to hit your deliverables, make your marks count, and help your clients win. But why not do it with a smile? I’ve always heard that working in marketing and advertising is one of the most stressful jobs you could have. It doesn’t have to be.

We didn’t build our company with a textbook or a degree. The more I experience, the more I see most people in our field didn’t follow a rule book either. Great businesses are managed by CEOs who take chances, with varied personality traits and levels of intelligence—something school doesn’t necessarily teach anyway. For years I thought I’d have to be an “American Psycho” type business-genius with an MBA, a big vocabulary, a clean haircut, and a country club membership. I have none of those. In the end, I honestly believe we were guided by our own experience, serendipity, and common sense. It’s been a great ride so far, with a lot more learnings—and laughs—to be had.

Besides, if the business folds tomorrow, at least I achieved the biggest thing on my bucket list. So there’s that.

About AuthorBill.Sebald, I’m the owner of Greenlane Search Marketing in Philadelphia, PA ( I ride a Harley, play in a band called Algorithm and Blues, and write about SEO and digital marketing. One of these statements is false.

Silly Marketer, Title Tags Are for Robots!

Like all good marketers, we think carefully about our title tags before publishing new content. Then we just take that carefully crafted title and plop it into the OG tags for social shares, right?

Think again!

In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Jen Lopez explains why we need to put in a little more effort than that.

Video transcription:

Hey, Moz fans, welcome to yet another edition of Whiteboard Friday. I’m Jen Lopez, the Director of the Community here at Moz, and today I’m going to take you on a tale of two marketers.

We have the SEO, right? We focus on making sure that the robots and that the spiders are crawling through our sites and can get to them. Then when we want things to show up in the SERPs, we make sure that our title tags are keyword rich and our meta descriptions are super enticing, right? We make sure that when somebody clicks from the search engine results page, that they see exactly what we want them to see. And that’s smart, right? Those keywords are actually a high ranking factor. All of these things that we focus on, we work very hard to make sure that our keywords are at the beginning of the title and that sort of thing.

But then we have the social media marketer. Yes, I drew that. I’m sorry, all social media marketers. I know you don’t actually look at that. We think about the people, right? How are people going to look at it? How are people going to re-share this? And so as a social media marketer, we’re thinking like, “How can we change the Open Graph tags so that people on Facebook and people on Google+ and people on LinkedIn are seeing these things exactly the way we want to see them?” We want to see big images. Who cares about keywords? That’s what that SEO person does, right?

What about Twitter cards? You want to make sure that when you send something in a tweet or somebody tweets your blog post or your infographic, or whatever it may be, that it’s coming across exactly the way you want to see it. You’re thinking about rich pins, and you salivate when you’re on Pinterest and you see a recipe and it actually shows all of the ingredients in the recipe. That might just be me, but in general that’s often what we do.

What tends to happen is people are getting better about using the Open Graph tags and the Twitter cards and that sort of thing. But what we normally do is we take what we have, put in the title tags and meta description, and we make it the default so that it’s really simple. So we’re doing the basics. We’re being lazy. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

We do it on our own blog. You go to our blog, the title that you see on the page, the title of the post, the title that you see shared on social network, it’s always the same. You’re going to see it across the board, and it is time for us to stop being lazy because think about if you did this.

Now let me give you first an example — Huffington Post. I recently wrote a post for Huffington Post, and being a SEO myself, I worked very hard at making sure that the title tag was something that would come across in the SEO world very nicely so that it would show up in SERPs great and it would do all this stuff. What was interesting was, that without my prompting, that something that the Huffington Post editorial team did, is after I submitted my post with all of my information, they told me it took several days. I get this email that says, “Congratulations, your post is on Huffington Post.” I did a little happy dance because now I can put in Google+ that I contribute to Huffington Post.

Besides that, the first thing I did is I went to share it on Facebook. What’s interesting is when I shared it on Facebook, it was not the image that I’d used. It was not the title that I’d used nor was it the description. It was very specific to social.

So I went back to my page thinking, “What the hell, did they change all of my stuff?” No, my title tag and images and everything are still exactly the same. However, they’ve set the Open Graph and the Twitter cards to be specific to social. I had this like “Oh my gosh moment,” when I realized: Why in the world aren’t we all doing this? Why aren’t we taking one piece of content and making it so that not only do the robots see it and do we care about the keyword rich title and meta description that looks good in the SERPs and getting all the schema just right so that it looks right there? Why don’t we do that plus we make sure that the Open Graph tags are great, that you have an image that’s super shareable, that you have a description and the title that can be somewhat up worthy?

I’m not a huge fan of, “This woman wrote on a Whiteboard, and you’ll never guess what happened next.” I really don’t like those, but people click on that stuff. You put a different image, a different image here than a different image you have here, and you make it something. You put a circle around somebody’s face in the background. We’ve all seen those on Facebook, right? They work really well. It’s brilliant. You take one piece of content, and you make it work really well for the robots, and you find that happy place. You get the people plus robots equals love. That’s because you’re making your content that you’ve worked really hard at, you’ve put time and effort into this, you’re making sure that it’s easily consumable by the people who want to share it and re-share it hopefully and make it viral because you want that virality here. But you also want it to be stable, and you want the robots to see it and you want the spiders to be able to get to it and all of that.

So my quest, you have a quest. I am doing this hopefully internally as something that I’m pushing very hard, and I would like to see you step up your game as well. So rather than just keeping those defaults of, “Here is my title tag and I’m going to use it in all of the places,” that you’re going to take the time to write not only your title tag and meta description for SEO purposes, but that you’re going to work hard at taking these and doing really great things with your social meta tags as well.

Below, I’m going to give you some resources to specific posts that talk about how to do this well and how to do this well and then take those and combine them. When you do that, you are going to find that people are going to love the heck out of your stuff. I will be the first one when we get that set up on our site, I will tell you exactly how it’s working for us. So stop being lazy, do the hard work, and make your stuff super
shareable all over the Web.

That’s it for today. I hope to see you again soon. Have a great weekend.

About Author — Jen Lopez is the Director of Community at Moz and a devotee of the fine arts of Twitter, Facebook and all things social media. She has a background in web development and will always be an SEO at heart. Follow her on Twitter @jennita.

Blurred Lines: How PR and SEO are holding hands

In the past SEO, content marketing and PR have all lived on separate islands fending for themselves, offering different opportunities and solutions. Thanks to Google’s Penguin and Panda algorithm updates, not forgetting the millions of bloggers out there who love to keep telling us, it’s no secret that times have changed and that SEO, content marketing and PR are falling under the same umbrella.

So how does this all work?

In brief, SEO and PR now have almost identical goals. Gaining earned media, as well as creating informative, engaging and relevant content that’s suitable for the target audience. SEO has moved beyond just link building and nasty black hat techniques. The days of SEO footers, link farms and hidden content are well and truly a thing of the past.

Previously I’ve written about creating interesting content including interactive infographics and how they’re great at engaging audiences. Reaching out to relevant journalists to get these placed has been a fascinating experience with some being featured on The Guardian and further afield. Now it’s time to look at how PR and SEO are evolving together.

Times are changing

As a content manager, I’ve seen my particular role move further away from SEO and more into the PR world. Establishing relationships with key influencers and making friends with journalists and editors across the media has become a necessity. The line between PR and SEO is so thin now it’s hard to see the difference.

It’s about much more than just trying to win guest posts and getting articles placed though. The media can provide you with fantastic opportunities for PR stunts that can be done offline, with rewards being brought online.

Let me show you some examples.

Creating opportunities

As I’ve mentioned previously, one of our clients has one of the least glamorous businesses around – car parks. Creating engaging content is a key focus for us to help them achieve their overall objectives. We’re always plotting and planning, creating ideas for articles and cool new interactive content, but it was time to move beyond this. We sat down with the client, spoke about what we’ve achieved so far including rankings and traffic, and decided to put some ideas on the table.

Whilst the existing work we were doing for them was good and the results were great, it was time to try something different.

Bonkers for conkers

Along came the ‘Bonkers for Conkers’ PR stunt. The concept was simple; create a promotion where drivers using various car parks in Manchester and Leeds could pay for their parking using conkers (horse chestnuts). Following the promotion, the conkers would then be donated to a local nature reserve.

This may seem like a pretty crazy idea, but the rewards were incredible. We started out by creating a press release featuring links to the client’s website as well as important keywords, and sending it out to several local media outlets. This was just the start.

Following publication in the Yorkshire Evening Post, online and offline, the story was picked up by the national press. Articles were featured on the websites for the Daily Mail, Manchester Confidential, The Metro and many more. It then gathered even more pace with coverage from the BBC, ITN,, Fox News, and various news outlets across the world. It went truly viral.

The results saw hundreds of new visits and links to the Town Centre Car Parks website, thousands and thousands of Tweets and Facebook comments, and an increased awareness of the brand.

Fight the power

Following the success of the ‘Bonkers for Conkers’ campaign, we ran another PR stunt for the same client. Leeds City Council recently introduced new evening and Sunday parking charges throughout the city (previously free) causing outrage in the local area.

Our response was to cook up a PR stunt that could ride the wave of this news story. Using a hashtag titled #welovefreeparking, we offered drivers the chance to park for free at one of TCCP’s car parks during evenings for a week prior to Christmas as a “Christmas comes early” style idea. Not only that, £1 for every car taking part in the promotion was donated to the Teenage Cancer Trust charity.

Press releases were sent out to local media outlets, blogs and websites, with visitors encouraged to visit the TCCP website where they would pick a date to attend and fill in a simple form to access free parking.

Whilst this promotion was on a much smaller scale than the previous campaign, it still used the media to link to the TCCP website driving additional traffic, increasing authority, increased brand awareness and social media interactions.

What’s the return?
For this particular client, the return was sizeable. For something of minimal cost to the client, they received an incredibly large amount in return. As well as receiving an incredible amount of traffic to the site at the time, year on year visits to the TCCP website have pretty much doubled. This has resulted in higher search engine rankings and an incredible improvement in season ticket sales across all of their car parks, one of their main objectives. Not only that, the brand awareness has grown with a large social presence additionally.


SEO, content marketing and PR are closer than they’ve ever been before. The goals are incredibly similar and the processes are identical. Here are some of my tips if you’re thinking of putting together a new campaign:

  • Use current affairs to your advantage: Current affairs can be ideal to latch on to. Our examples of using the environment and local news as our angle proved to be a success. They may not relate to your business or client, but they can help to meet your objectives.
  • Measure: Keep track of everything you’re doing. If you get an influx of traffic when something is published through a particular media outlet, make a note of it. Use annotations on Google Analytics to note the referral when you see spikes.
  • Make it interesting: Nobody wants to see the same things they’ve seen hundreds of times. Make sure your ideas are original and you’ll see an amazing response.
  • Value: Make sure that what you’re creating or doing is of value to people. Whether emotive or practical, it needs to hook them in. Our solutions were to offer free parking in a city centre – it was a low cost to the client, but fantastic for consumers.
About Author Robin Swire is the Content Manager for Leeds based digital agency Parallax in the UK. He also writes about SEO, digital marketing and branding on the Parallax blog.

How To Be More Creative in your Online Campaigns

The SEO landscape has changed so much in the last few years in the wake of the Penguin and Panda apocalypse that the discipline is now considered in the broader terms of online marketing or digital marketing. The one element that is common is the requirement for new skills such as PR, classic marketing and most importantly: creativity. Agencies and freelance individuals who can’t adapt, evolve and embrace the new mode of thinking/operating are vulnerable with nowhere to hide behind mediocre work and outdated tactics.

Be more creative, is a phrase often used within business and marketing with little consideration given to its meaning. But, what does it mean to be creative?

There is much confusion about what creativity is and a general misconception of mistaking style for creativity. Most designers are stylists: they make things look good. Creativity is about concepts, ideas and innovation. In art school, I was always taught that being able to justify the concept was the most important element of creativity. You had to argue your reason for why the design piece was a solution to the problem. I can still recall how nervous I used to get before a group critique session (the phrase blood bath comes to mind) even though it was over 20 years ago. It’s not about how good it looks – it’s how well it answers the questions.

Creativity is a skill we can all access. Everyone has the capacity to generate ideas. Admittedly, some people are more inclined towards creative thinking, just as some are able to figure large maths calculations in their head or swim like Michael Phelps. But anyone can increase his or her level of creativity by learning the skills of thinking and exercising their idea muscle.

I recently published a free ebook called ‘What is Creativity?’ and the following are six ideas extracted and expanded from the book to increase your creative thinking and improve your online campaigns:

Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating. John Cleese

Learning to switch into open mode
Ex Monty Python, John Cleese understands and defines the creative process as learning to switch between two states or modes: open and closed. When we are under pressure and stress to deliver, such as in our everyday working lives, we are in closed mode. When we are relaxed, detached from problems and playful, we are in the open mode. Open can be considered playful (lateral thinking) and closed logical (vertical thinking). Just as we need both lateral thinking and vertical thinking, we need open and closed states to solve a problem: the open state allows us to develop creative ideas and then the closed state to plan and implement the idea. These are similarly aligned to vertical and lateral thinking processes.




1: How to achieve an Open state
Schedule time to avoid being distracted and remove the pressure to instantly generate ideas; your brain needs time to open up. The optimum amount of time is 90 minutes, it takes a minimum of 60 minutes for the brain to focus on a task and after 90 minutes will be prone to distraction and need a break.

Place of work is essential for creatives to get into state – most writers and artists will follow a routine and often have isolated spaces such as garden offices to minimize distraction. Some artists need to be surrounded by ephemera such as the collection of memorabilia that Paul Smith surrounds himself with for inspiration. Others, like Maya Angelou, prefer minimalism and, like myself, need an uncluttered desk and space for an uncluttered mind to be able to think.

Agatha Christie preferred to work in a large Victorian bath whilst eating apples. Benjamin Franklin would work naked for an hour every morning. Maya Angelou preferred the isolation of a hotel room and requested everything removed from the walls; she would bring her own sherry and ashtray. The eccentric poet Dame Edith Sitwell would lie down in a coffin finding inspiration in the claustrophobic and restrictive space.

You don’t need to go to the extremes of a coffin but find a space which is conducive to relaxation and without distraction, anywhere that removes you from association with work or pressure (preferably not home). Try a coffee shop (JK Rowling famously wrote Harry Potter in her local coffee shop), the library, a hotel or even a camper van (Breaking Bad style). Removing yourself from the usual place of work will remove yourself from distraction, help the brain to break pattern which in turn will switch into a more receptive state for ideas.

To access open mode if you are in a group:
The open state thrives in humor and play so try the dinner party technique: create the dream dinner party guest list, such as Einstein, Da Vinci, Churchill, Kennedy or even fictional characters such as Don Corleone, Jack Sparrow and Luke Skywalker. Each person should take a persona and become their character – they must answer questions and think like they would imagine that character to think. The perfect warm up exercise; it is huge fun, encourages humor, it breaks awkwardness and forces the brain to break pattern from your normal style of thinking. Keep this game going for a minimum of 20 minutes before your brainstorm.

To access open mode if you are alone:
Research has shown a correlation between increased dopamine and creativity. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical which the brain releases to signal success but this chemical is not as straight forward and predictable as a reliable tool. The increase of endorphins will elevate our mood and help us achieve our open state: physical exercise is one of the easiest ways to access a rush of endorphins although, spicy food, sexual activity and pain can also trigger release – so whatever gets you going!

Try a walk, swim or bike ride to stimulate feel good. You want to ensure a careful balance of feeling exhilarated but also avoiding energy depletion. Opt for a route that you haven’t been on before to break any automatic behavior patterns. Walking in a new part of town and observing the unfamiliar territory or running backwards will stimulate new thought and movement patterns thus putting you into a more creative and receptive state.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, the just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.Steve Jobs


2: Make connections with an ideas wall
The ability to make connections and see relationships between seemingly random elements is the secret to creativity. Combining old elements to create something new.

Idea walls solve crimes
It’s no coincidence that you see examples of ideas walls on TV dramas and movies such as: Homelands, Sherlock Holmes, A Beautiful Mind and Three and a Half Days Later. Detectives have long used this technique to assist solving crimes. Placing photographs of the known or suspected perpetrators, victims, crime scenes and evidence on a wall enables items of evidence to be repositioned and grouped; string can link items together for visual affect. A detective can then stand back and mentally take in a great deal of information at once. The brain begins to process and use its natural ability to seek the connections between the items, find the clues and answers to the case.

images from Crazy Walls

When the BBC conducted a site redesign in 2010 they printed out the entire site and mounted on a wall affectionately known as ‘the wall of shame’. To enable them to better visualize what they had and to unify the visual and interaction design of the desktop and mobile sites.

How to create a content strategy ideas wall
Tools needed: paper, colored pens, highlighter pens, print outs of all reference material, colored string and push-pins, post it notes, blu tack or tape, and a large wall space, pin board or sheets of foam board.

  • Organize your reference material into themes or groups and pin/stick to the wall.
  • Devise a color code system for your different groups with the pen color you have and use the colored pens and highlighter and mark and highlight relevant pages and sections of information. (Homelands style, see above)
  • For example, if you are working on content strategy for your site group into:
    • Influencers – list influencers who could help to broadcast your content and sub group in different social media channels, newsletters and authority sites (eg Guardian, Huffington Post, Fast Company)
    • Audit – audit current site content
    • Idea sources – places to mine ideas from such as offline periodicals, online Q&A sites like Quora, social media channels and Google trends
    • Host Locations – potential sites to target for exposure, shares and links: authority hub sites, bloggers, online magazines/publishers, email newsletters and social media sites

  • By grouping related themes we start to see patterns. If you have a piece that doesn’t fit into a group this ‘outlier’ could in itself give ideas.
  • Stand back from the wall and look for potential relationships or connections between the information. Using push pins and colored string make a visual link between the two. (See photos above)
  • The key here is flexibility: move pieces of paper round, create new string links, devise new groups – by repositioning, regrouping and relinking this is where your ideas will start to form and generate as you begin to make the connections.

If wall space is an issue or you prefer a digital version, is an online alternative to creating an ideas wall; describing itself as “an online whiteboard designed to visually organize ideas and collaborate in a playful way.” allows collaboration of team members and you can drag and drop your reference material onto the white board and reposition items and make notes. I have only just begun to play with this tool and it has huge depth and potential to assist in creative projects.

image from
Pinterest is one of my favourite scrapbook tools for collecting visual information as an alternative. I use Evernote extensively for collecting information and research material. Quora is my favourite site for finding ideas for content.



4: How to brainstorm the right way:

Generating ideas for content, marketing strategies or even creative use of data can all be more productive if tackled in a group – the synergy from more than one person will bring fresh perspective, new ideas and energy. But, brainstorming is such a common term that most people don’t consider how to undertake a session effectively.

One of the most important elements within team idea generation is trust and harmony. The group must be able to work well together through respect for each others’ opinions and ability and a general air of amiability. Any disagreeable personalities, critical individuals or large egos are not conducive to successful creative brainstorming and should be excluded from the group.

image from Atomic Spin

The following rules should be set to deter any fear or negativity that can squash creativity so that you can encourage a safe space to open up:

  • A diverse range of skills present in the group works well in bringing alternative approaches, as does varying levels of experience, age, gender and personality.
  • Allocate enough time to warm up and to focus. Between an hour and 90 minutes is preferable – after this the brain loses focus and needs a break. I recommend the ‘dinner party’ game above or another icebreaker to create an open state.
  • Allow the most junior person in the room to speak first and in turn to most senior. This removes any pressure from a junior member who may be intimidated to follow an experienced authority.
  • Stay focused on the topic. It is natural in group discussion to lose focus and drift into other subjects. The moderator must be vigilant in this area.
  • An experienced moderator is essential to the process and should be able to direct and manage the group without obstructing and keep the group on track and focused and ensure everyone follows the rules (such as not being negative or overbearing). The moderator will take notes (on a white board) and assist as an objective opinion to draw connections between ideas.
  • Above all else no judging, criticism or rejection of any idea – anything is valid and can be considered.

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.Sir Ken Robinson

5: Change your thinking, change your life
If your natural disposition is not creative a creative thinker you can become more creative through repeated action, discipline and learning new ways to think.

Repetition and discipline
The more the brain processes a routine or skill, such as a new language or driving a car, the deeper the synapses physically carve a channel in the brain. Which explains to some degree why when we first learn a skill we have to concentrate intensely; it takes a great deal of energy, but through applied discipline it eventually becomes almost automatic and we don’t appear to think about what we are doing, the subconscious takes over.

Ten ideas lists
One of my favorite exercises to train your brain and develop your idea muscle is to generate lists of ideas everyday. I have to credit James Altucher and I recommend his article on how to become an idea machine here:

The concept is simple but challenging: think of ten new ideas. These can be for anything such as ten new business ideas, ten new ways to obtain quality earned links, ten new ways to improve conversion on a page or ten new ways to save energy, ten new ways to make a better cup of coffee or ten new ways to travel to work.For example:
Ten new ways to travel to work for free:

  1. Walk
  2. Push bike
  3. Run
  4. Roller blades
  5. Hitchhike
  6. Horse
  7. Skate board tied to a car (do I need to explain why this is a bad idea?)
  8. Get a job next to a canal and kayak to work
  9. Move to the Caribbean, live in a beach hut and swim to work
  10. Move to the top of a hill and go kart – makes the home journey a challenge (next list?)

The purpose is not to create ideas you will act on or even sensible, rational or reasonable ideas. This is gym training for the mind only so don’t get precious with your lists. Your first few lists may appear deceptively easy but as you begin to run out of obvious ideas you have to work hard just to think of list ideas and ten new ideas for my ten new ideas list is going to make your brain work for it. Don’t make the mistake of underrating this exercise; everything improves and becomes easier with practice and repetition.

6: Garbage in: Garbage out
My advice above all else is to read as widely as possible as I believe this feeds a creative mind more than any other activity. Just as athletes can only achieve their personal best if they eat a highly optimized diet, creatives need quality brain food and mental stimulation on a regular basis to operate at their creative best. You get out what you put in.
This article is an extract from ‘What is Creativity?’ a 76 page free ebook which offers an introduction to creativity with actionable tips to improve your thinking skills. The second part of the book is dedicated to thought leaders interviews who were posed the question: “what does creativity meant to you?”. Contributors include: Rand Fishkin, Bas Van Den Beld, Paddy Moogan, Neil Patel, Dave Trott, Lee Odden and Chris Brogan. You can download a free copy at creativity101 here…