This post is about keyword benchmarking for search optimization. After a recent update to the Google search results, nicknamed “Jagger” last November, my personal domain dropped off the first page of results for my name, “Mike Levin”. The photographer of the same name maintained his position #1. My site went four pages in, but a bunch of other pages that also referred to me moved onto the first page of results, including my Blogger profile, the profile on my employer’s site, and my SearchEngineForum staff profile. In other words, I went from holding position #2 with my personal domain that has been around for a very long time, to holding 3 lower positions on the main homepage, but loosing my personal one.
Admittedly, I haven’t kept my personal site very updated and the sites linking to it might be someone dubious, since I’ve been in the SEO circles since day-one. SearchEngineForums is not only one of the oldest search-oriented forums on the Web, but it’s one of the oldest Web forums, period. It was started by Jim Wilson, who has since passed. Webmaster World has mostly taken its place in spirit. Over the years, I’ve worked as something of an intrapreneur (rather than an entrepreneur) at companies like Prophet 21 (now bought by Activant), and Scala Multimedia. There have been certain benchmarks over the years that have helped me gauge what was going on with search.
Searching on my own name was, of course, one of them. And the Google Jagger update was significant in that newer sites, but not too new, suddenly had an edge over long-standing sites, which you might call stale. But another benchmark I occasionally monitor is the term “distribution software”. It was relatively easy to conquer across all the engines of the time, and has sustained itself remarkably over time. So, it was with great interest that I watched when the new purchasers of Prophet 21, and the awesome 3-letter domain p21.com, forwarded the Prophet site to an Activant third-level domain. I don’t think the third-level domain had been around for very long, but the Activant site had. So, would it incur the sandbox penalty? Would it maintain its across-the-board top positions? Was Activant unwittingly walking away from one of its potentially most valuable acquisitions and assets?
The answer is that the Google juice transferred over from www.p21.com to distribution.activant.com very smoothly, at least for the benchmark keyword that I still monitor. The sandbox penalty had been evaded by using a sub-domain of a long-standing second-level domain. If you search on distribution software on Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves, you will find Activant as the VERY TOP result in 3 of the 4 sites, and #3 in Ask Jeeves (which still shows the old domain).
This tells us several lessons. Across-the-board fortified results of the sort I achieved (with help from a fellow named Steve Elsner) are transferable. The transfer can occur in a relatively short period of time (a matter of months). A sub-domain can quickly acquire a great deal of clout—probably more quickly than a newly registered domain, given the new Jagger reality. And when I left P21 back in 1999, I left the Web pieces in some very good hands, and someone at Activant took a gamble that paid off and gave me some important SEO lessons for the SEO landscape as it exists at this particular instant.
Over time, a great deal of evidence mounts up that such-and-such a site is relevant on such-and-such a topic. These breadcrumb trails (mostly link topology) point back to hardwired domain names. So, changing a domain name is serious business.
I have another situation similar to the above one, but the transfer of considerable existing-site clout was to a brand-new domain name. This was December of 2004, before anyone knew newly registered domains were about to have the wind taken out of their sales. Their site appeared in the top results in the Google on their keywords within four months of site-launch, right on schedule and in line with our time estimate to the client. But then it dropped out and didn’t come back.
The client cringed. We cringed. We applied about as much “upward pressure” as we possibly could without crossing ethical boundaries. I was convinced we were worse than stuck in the sandbox, because we had the positions for quite some time and lost them. Then, news broke of the Jagger update. I totally understood the reasoning, and did what I always do when that happens. I metaphorically climbed into the head of the Google Engineers and rummaged around in there for awhile and discovered that if a domain was registered specifically for spamming, they would only be registering it for a year. If a site survived over that 1-year boundary, then bam! You’re out.
So, I gave the client the time estimate based on the new domain launch. I laid out their options, and the risks of sticking it out or bailing to the old domain name too soon. They took our advice and stuck it out to get past that 1-year point, and it paid off. I nailed the time estimate of when the sandbox/Jagger penalty would lift down to the week. It was 1 year and 3 weeks after they launched the new site.
One of my claims to fame in the SEO circles in the early years was my mission to conquer a 2-word keyword combo that landed squarely in the crosshairs of Macromedia, Apple, and a number of other companies: “multimedia software”. I achieved similar fortified results on this 2-keyword combo as I did with “distribution software”, and over the years, it has continued to hover around position #5. And although the term multimedia is so “80’s”, it is also highly competitive—maybe not in bidding, but certainly in how many products I had to push down. So, after I nailed the 2-word combo, I moved onto just the single term “multimedia”. I drove that sucker almost up to page one before I moved onto my next ventures. Also here, I worked the term “digital signage”, which was MUCH easier, since it was a bit more off the beaten track. It has still remained one of my benchmark keywords for taking the pluse of the search landscape.
At Connors Communications, my job is really cut out for me. It’s a PR firm, and doesn’t have the ace up its sleeve that both P21 and Scala had—a product and a user base. Yes, a product and user base are two of the most valuable tools for SEO. Because with a product, you can offer a free downloadable version, which triggers of the viral marketing thing like little else. Everyone adds you to the download sites, and you suddenly have both inbound links AND buzz. But you also have a user base who, for better or for worse, are going to talk about you in forums, and blog about you, and link to you on their websites (sometimes other corporate sites if your product is corporate). It’s even better if you have a network of dealers, distributors and legacy users, which Scala did. It was mostly a matter of directing momentum—or as Sun Tzu would say—throwing rocks on eggs. SEO for Scala was quite easy.
But Connors is a PR firm, which is a service. By nature, it can only serve a small number of clients at any one time. And no matter how talented the Connors crew is (and they are VERY talented, having launched Amazon, Priceline, and most recently, Vonage), it is still just a PR company without the advantages of a product or installed user base. So what is the hook I can hang my hat on from an SEO perspective? What will my benchmark keywords be for Connors? And how do I leverage all the zillions of search hits I’ll be generating for them with SEO if we can’t take everyone onboard simultaneously as clients?
The answer to “what keywords” is “pr firm”, for which we’ve risen to page one in MSN, page 2 in Google and page 2 in Yahoo. This serves as a beachhead for other keyword combos (more on the beachhead concept in later posts), and shows that the methodologies I developed not only are fortified across time (P21 and Scala), but they work across industries. So, the next step is to product-tize an aspect of the PR industry that is exciting to everyone, and can seem in many ways like a downloadable product. Once again, enter HitTail.