In this edition of the Vertical Measures employee interview series, I speak with SEO strategist Jason Hendricks about his SEO experience, his golden locks and his longest-running engagement.
Michael Schwartz: What are your main responsibilities here at VM?
Jason Hendricks: I handle all technical and onsite SEO work as well as web development for our clients. I also work closely with the team to assist with onsite SEO and web development strategies. In my spare time I help James annoy as many people as possible by flying RC helicopters throughout the office.
Michael: You often like to tell me that you’ve been in this field since I was a little kid with a paper route (Editor’s Note: I never had a paper route). Tell us a little about your prior experience.
Jason: I think I actually say “since you were doing wheelies on your bike,” but yes, I’ve been a SEO since 2001. I started in web development in 1998 after getting bored with my job as a desktop support technician. Shortly after learning HTML, I discovered SEO and other forms of internet marketing including PPC. I worked as an in-house SEO and web developer for a couple of years before starting my own company, Tidal Wave Media. Long story short, I love internet marketing and could never see myself doing anything else.
Michael: On the side you own and operate the ClickToTweet Twitter program. How would you evaluate the success of that venture?
Jason: Well, ClickToTweet is such a simple Twitter tool that it’s tough to really evaluate its success. In terms of traffic and users, the site has been extremely successful. As far as revenue generation, not so much. Right now the site earns revenue solely from advertising, but I have plans to launch a Pro version in the not-so-distant future.
Michael: Around the office, your long golden locks are often admired. How do you get your hair to be so perfectly straight?
Jason: Ha, I think I must be the first guy with long hair that you’ve ever been around, because you seem to have an unnatural obsession with my hair.
Michael: You have lived with your fiancée Courtney for 13 years. Do you ever plan on getting married for real or will this just be the longest running engagement, The Office-style?
Jason: We’ve certainly taken our time with marriage and we’re still in no hurry. We already consider ourselves married after living together for over 13 years now, just without the required paperwork. It took Courtney 10 years to get me to finally pop the question, so it will probably take her another 10 to get me to marry her.
Michael: Tell us about your relationship with Vertical Measures employee Scott Wells.
Jason: There really has to be a better way to phrase that … not that there’s anything wrong with that question, but Scott and I have known each other since junior high school. We grew up fairly close to each other and although we attended different high schools, we had a ton of friends in common. We didn’t keep in touch after high school, so it’s great to reconnect with an old friend (and we’re talking OLD here, that guy is ancient) after so many years.
Michael: You’re a partial owner of the LeBron James unofficial fan site. What are your plans for the site in the future?
Jason: I partnered up with a friend to create a fun site to highlight LeBron James’ total domination of the sport. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that he’s an amazing athlete. We will begin to focus more on quality content and not worry about monetization since it’s just a hobby for us at this point.
Michael: What’s your favorite sport and why?
Jason: My favorite sport is hockey, hands down. Hockey is by far the most physical and, to me, most exciting game to watch. My favorite team is of course the Phoenix Coyotes, although this season isn’t going quite as well as I’d hoped.
As far as sports that I can actually participate in, skateboarding and snowboarding would be my choices. I’ve been skateboarding since I was 8 years old, while on the contrary I just recently picked up snowboarding. If anyone ever tells you that the two sports are very similar, they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Michael: I know you recently bought a couple of condos for dirt cheap. Are you going to become a real estate mogul on the side?
Jason: I’ve always been interested in real estate and currently have a very diverse investment portfolio including domain names, websites, stocks, commodities … even collectibles like guns and comic books. Adding a few rental properties to the mix is, in my opinion, a wise decision considering how far prices have fallen in the Phoenix metro area and the fact that the rental market isn’t as soft as it was a few years ago.
Michael: Like many people at VM, you possess a love of canines. Tell the good people a little bit about your dogs.
Jason: Courtney and I have two rescue dogs and strongly feel that adoption is the only way to go. Peanut (pictured to the right) is a male black and tan dachshund mix while Tinkerbelle (like the sailboat and not the Disney character) is a purebred miniature black and tan dachshund. They’re definitely more than just dogs to us but we try to keep the spoiling to a minimum (I said try, not succeed).
Michael: What do you like about working at Vertical Measures?
Jason: I really like the fact that we have specialists in every discipline of internet marketing, so there are plenty of great minds to learn from. I also enjoy the family vibe and team atmosphere that the office has because it’s completely opposite of some of the stuffy corporate environments I’ve worked in.
With universal search, and new elements being continually added to Google, many business understand the importance of ranking not only in web search, but also the advantages of ranking in Google for images, news and maps in addition. Not only can being listed highly in these areas be beneficial for when they are included on the first page of Google results in universal search, but many users will skip directly to these areas to find what they want (e.g. to easily see the product they wish to buy), and it is another great way to drive traffic to your website.
However, tracking this information and monitoring the results of your efforts in these areas in Google Analytics can be difficult, and it can be increasingly complex trying to understand where your different visitors are coming from, beyond what Analytics is actually saying.
As a starting point, data in Google Analytics from traffic sources can take the form of any of the following;
However, 3 of these 4 forms are able to come from Google alone (excluding only direct traffic):
While ‘organic’ and ‘cpc’ work fine for measuring traffic from web search, and bring with them suitable data such as the keyword that was searched, it is the ‘google.com /referral’ traffic that can be more confusing.
So what exactly is referral traffic from Google? Surely by definition any traffic from Google is search traffic that is either paid or unpaid? Well, no. There are other pages on Google, such as their blogs, where links can occasionally be placed and traffic can come through correctly as referals.
However, if you look in the ‘Referring Sites’ report in analytics and drill down to the google.com domain, you are able to see more precisely where this traffic did come from. This data is likley to look like the below;
As we can see, traffic can come directly from the homepage (‘/’) where users are using iGoogle to personalize their homepage, and a lot of this traffic is likley to also be coming from Google Reader (‘/reader’) from visitors reading either your blog, or someone elses blog linking to you, through RSS.
However, the ‘/imgres’ subdomain is in fact traffic that comes from Google Image searches, and because it is being tracked as a referal and not as search, it does not carry with it any data on keywords. This means that any reports you are running are going to be underestimating traffic from such SEO efforts, and also missing keyword data showing where the most valuable traffic is coming from.
Finally, it also appears that any searchers who click ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ (who does do that by the way?!) will also appear as referral traffic from the homepage, as opposed to being tracked as organic search with a keyword.
Google Images seems to be the odd one out of the Google searches in that it uses a subdirectory and is tracked as a referral, whereas traffic from Maps and News is tracked a search traffic, and does retain the keyword data. However, they do use subdomains (maps.google.com and news.google.com) and due to Google Analytics’ oblivion for these, they are not reported and it is all shown as ‘google / organic’ as opposed to ‘maps.google.com / organic’.
Therefore, you are able to see keywords being sent from news and maps, but you are not able to idenity these as coming from these separate enties. This means that a business or blog cannot work out the value of them being listed regularly in news results separate to their other SEO efforts.
In working on this blog post and researching the area, I have come across various possible solutions, none of which have been able to work (please see posts such as this, this and this to name a few). However, none of these have been able to work, perhaps due to updates in the Analytics code or changes to Google Images and its changing use of subdirectories versus subdomains.
Even if these were able to be implemented quickly and work correcly, I don’t think this is particularly the point, especially for small business owners who likley make up the large majority of Google Analytics users. As an out of the box solution, made by Google, I don’t think it is too much to expect for it to work fully with the other Google properties such as Images, News and Maps and bring in all of the available data.
With the increasing importance of ranking highly in these different areas to drive addiitonal website traffic , it is also important to be able to measure the effectiveness and value of any efforts in this area, and I hope that this is added to any future updates made by Google to Analytics. Until then, all businesses can do it understand that these limiations exist and take this into consideration when making any relevant decisions.
If you know of another possible solutions to either of these issues, please comment below and let me know, I will glady try them out and see if any can work quickly and easily! Similarly, if you have seen any other discrepancies in Analytics around traffic being reported incorrectly, please post it below too.
In order to enhance a website’s exposure, as well as increase traffic and rankings, link building is a necessity. Links from other sites that reach across the web and reference your site are like bridges spanning bodies of water or deep gorges. Just as types of bridges vary in form and function, so do your link building campaigns.
You may be in a rush to garner links, but do you want links that resemble rope bridges (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), or would you prefer Golden Gate type bridges? If you chose rope bridges, then you must enjoy living life on the edge; and they will probably hold up and work for you for a while. Golden Gate bridges (links) on the other hand will stand the test of time and serve you well.
The Golden Gate Bridge took research, planning, design and labor to build it, and so should your link building campaigns. Ken Lyons wrote a helpful post on the step-by-step process to creating amazing backlinks. The post provides great information on finding out what people are linking to, who’s linking and why. Of course, the main reason why a site would link to you is because you have something of value to share.
So, you do your research to see what types of content people in your niche or industry are hungry for. Then you design a plan (blueprint) of the content that you want to publish. Don’t forget to audit your site to see what you already have; there’s no reason to duplicate your efforts.
With link building the old saying really holds true, “It won’t hurt to ask.” Sturdy links can be acquired when you have something to share and leverage. In your research, when you find who’s linking to content similar to what you’ve created, ask them nicely, in a well thought out email, to share your content as they’ve done in the past with others. Ken provided an email example in his post that has worked well for him. Don’t forget to use your social media accounts (you better have these or else) to promote your awesome pieces. Utilize your blog to publish posts about your new content as well.
As you create your link building blueprint, it’s important to keep in mind what your link portfolio will look like over time (the search engines are always watching.) Your backlinks should be a well-balanced mix to keep your site nice and healthy. Having a portfolio that appears natural and unmanipulated is what you want.
A successful link building campaign should be part strategy, part content creation, and part promotion. It may seem like such a daunting task that you feel like jumping off a……well, you know. The Golden Gate Bridge employs 17 ironworkers and 38 painters that are constantly working it to keep it sturdy and strong. It’s hard work. Of course, you could settle for the rope bridge that will be quick to build and hold up at first. But then it will start to deteriorate and rot in the rain and sun. Just remember that the greater your efforts are, the more links you will attain.
This installment of Expert Interviews focuses once again on the discipline of link building. This week, I had the opportunity to speak with Wil Reynolds, the founder and CEO of SEER Interactive, a Philadelphia based SEO firm. He has dedicated himself to doing two things well: driving traffic to sites from search engines and analyzing the impact that traffic has on the bottom line of companies. He and his organization are also focused on giving back to the community. SEER Interactive requires that every team member participate in philanthropic activity in order to share their success with others. Wil currently sits on the advisory board of Convenant House, an organization that works with runaway youth in the Philadelphia area. He has also volunteered with Alex’s Lemonade Stand, helping to raise awareness for childhood cancer issues.
Elise Redlin-Cook: How has link building changed since you first got into the industry?
Wil Reynolds: Oh goodness! Link building didn’t even matter when I first started. It wasn’t a factor at all, my first two years in SEO mostly everything I did was based on keyword density and IP delivery of your pages, with Fantomasters tool to make sure your competitors couldn’t figure out what density you used. The other thing I think shocks the heck out of people about the “old days” is that there were legitimately 10 search engines all vying for market share. Sure Yahoo and Altavista were dominant, but they were not so dominant that you could ignore Lycos, Hotbot, Excite, and others. So we used the script to also do IP delivery for each engine, so each one got served a page based on what we thought they liked. It was crazy. Back then we wouldn’t even use a client’s main domain to rank well, that is how little domain history mattered in ’99 through mid 2000.
Not until Google came on the scene did we have to really worry about link building. When Google did come on the scene, we all did the basic big directories, right, Yahoo, Dmoz, etc. And then you mostly did reciprocal linking, and voila you have rankings.
Today you really have to be a creative marketer, as well a technical pro to be a good link builder. For instance, you have to have the wit to see link building opportunities in things others do not. That is a marketing mind, right? But the technical mind needs to understand how to create advanced queries and the like to find opportunities. The people who are too creative are not good for link building, because creativity doesn’t scale without the technical know how to build queries, high level Excel sheets w/ macros, etc etc.
I’ve always been overweighted at SEER on marketing talent over technical talent. I mean no one on our team could code a web page from notepad for our first six years of existence, but we knew how to connect with people, and how to develop resources that people would care about. That is the marketing mind.
Today I’d also say that link building is so complicated that without some kind of tool to help you reverse engineer the link graph, you are going to be a sitting duck, in anything remotely competitive. Google has challenged all of us to actually develop content that people will actually want to talk about, share, etc if you want long-term rankings. Sure some unscrupulous stuff will always work, but if you want to build long-term rankings that can drive a business for the long haul you have to consider balancing aggressive tactics that work today with building links that Google will always value.
Elise: So, Wil what’s your take on paid links?
Wil: My take on paid links is simple, don’t over do it. First, try to actually succeed without them. In so many industries, I watch people buy links, putting themselves or their clients at risk unnecessarily. Don’t start off taking the easy way out, I’d say for any project you should never start off using paid links, you may not need them to be successful, so why take the risk?
Second, you never want to be the most aggressive in your space. I say look at 2-3 sites that are outranking you, look at how they are doing it and make sure you are a lot less aggressive than they are. Let them be the “canary in the mine” so to speak, who catches the Google smackdown first. NEVER be the most aggressive. Also never use a network, create your own relationships.
Third, What I try to do (and it is very hard) is when you see someone paying for links to be successful, look at the crap links they are paying for and find a way to do it white hat. I recently had a link broker call me about buying .edu links (ummmm no thank you!). But as he shared the network with me it got me thinking…why wouldn’t our clients who can speak to different college groups, not be willing to offer discounts, promos, scholarships, etc in exchange for promotion. Which could be a logo, or it could be a text link, either way this is how the world has worked for ages for regular old marketing. Now I have a link that might actually be valuable for the members of a group, which means the traffic alone is worth it, and the extra boost for search engine rankings is gravy.
Today you really have to be a creative marketer, as well a technical pro to be a good link builder. For instance, you have to have the wit to see link building opportunities in things others do not. That is a marketing mind, right?
Elise: Fantastic advice! Well, I’ve often heard that a great link mixes high PR/domain strength with relevance. If you could only choose high PR or relevance, which would it be?
Wil: For now I’d choose neither one of them, I’d choose anchor text. One of the things I have been preaching at conferences I am attending is a lesson I learned the hard way. We had a client targeting one of the most competitive words I have ever targeted, it is definitely more competitive than trying to get ringtones on the first page of Google was two years ago (yeah we went after ringtones for a client two years ago, and they are still on page 1 for the singular even though we haven’t worked with them in two years – that’s long-term quality link building.).
Anyway, what I learned with this competitive space for this client was that the links they got from the New York Times, Shape magazine, Cosmo, Oprah magazine, Men’s Health, and every other major magazine about health in about a six month period did nothing to lift their rankings. It was a gut punch to me and my team. We followed all the rules and did not get rewarded. So we started building relationships with bloggers, running contests, one of our team members even went as far as creating a national day for the client. The national day was picked up on several radio stations and many relevant sites in their space…today they rank between 5-7, back when they got all these links from these major magazines they did not improve, they stayed in the low 20′s.
It was disappointing to see that in a space littered with spam on page 1 that getting into highly reputable magazines did not serve as signal to Google that we were a legit site doing things right, instead they continued to reward the spammers. Very often sites with very high PR archive horribly, so what ends up happening is that no real juice flows down to the link you have, rendering it not very valuable – that is my take at least on print publications with online sites. They are notorious ball hogs, who don’t link out too.
We probably went over budget by about 2x the hours for that project, but it was one of our biggest successes as a company. And we learned a lot about what really works in the search engines.
Elise: Wow! That’s a great point. So, can you tell us a story of a time you acquired a link in a creative manner.
Wil: I think throughout this interview I have been giving examples of how we acquire links in a creative manner, but one of the things that totally changed the way we did link building happened while visiting a client in San Francisco. They have two dogs in the office, and in passing someone mentioned that the dogs are on Twitter and sometimes tweet on the company’s behalf.
Hearing that (this is where the creative side helps) I googled dogs who tweet, cats who tweet, etc. Found tons of lists, and even a USA Today article, that linked to the accounts of animals who tweet, which led me to look for sites that talked about dogs in the office and how it is managed, which created opportunities for interviews for the client, along with ending up in lists.
Elise: Hmmm. So how do you see link building changing?
Wil: Ummmm, well with Matt Cutts announcing that Google is going to be working hard on spam this year I expect it to be a very fun year for link building. I would expect that this is the year that Google gets it right and realizes that getting anchor text is difficult, so hopefully the days of begging people to link to you with anchor text ends this year. I’m not holding my breath, but I am hopeful. Then I can build on topic links, and let the relevancy count as my “anchor text”. Right now 80-90% of the anchor text links people get don’t include anchor text naturally, but if you go build a bunch of relevant links without anchor text you will lose in the short term, your clients will leave you, and your reputation as an SEO will be tarnished. Even though you are doing what is right and following Google’s rules, you know?
I really am looking forward to that day.
I think most link builders would second Wil’s sentiment and are long awaiting the day that relevance beats out anchor text in the game of value in Google’s eyes. Aren’t you?
The understandably dreaded 404 or “Not Found” error message is the kiss of death to visitors and search engines alike. When a visitor or search engine crawler can’t find a page that they’re looking for on your website, it’s game over…or is it? It doesn’t have to be if you create a custom 404 error page that doesn’t suck.
A 404 is a standard response code from a web server that indicates that the client (web browser) was able to communicate with the server, but the server could not find what was requested due to any number of reasons including:
A 404 “Not Found” error indicates that the requested resource may be available again in the future, as opposed to a 301 (permanent) redirect or a 410 “Gone” error. If you’ve somehow never seen a 404 error page before (very unlikely), I’ve included an example at the top of this post.
Some hosting companies actually supply you with their own 404 error pages so that it’s not left up to your web browser. These can often confuse visitors since they’re created using your hosting company’s website layout and not your own. They’re also no more useful than the default 404 shown by web browsers, so I definitely don’t recommend leaving these in place.
Instead of just serving up the default browser error or using a page supplied by your web host, it’s considered a best practice to create your own custom 404 error page. For detailed instructions on configuring your website to display custom 404 pages, check your server or web hosting company’s documentation. You should still make sure that your web server returns a 404 status code to visitors and crawlers so that search engines don’t accidentally index your custom 404 page.
Since a 404 error page can be a standard HTML page (or whatever language the rest of your pages use), you can customize it just about any way you want. Some suggestions for creating a great 404 error page that keeps visitors on your site by helping them find the page(s) they’re looking for:
Check out these sites for unique examples:
A few of my favorites (although not necessarily the most effective):
Feel free to share your favorite examples of well-designed 404 pages in the comments below!