SEO: Real Skills That Can Protect Your Traffic

Maybe SEO isn’t rocket science, but the wrong SEO decision (say knowing the difference between a 301 and a 302 redirect) could be costly. That’s illustrated in a Wall Street Journal article today on news search engine Topix and SEO issues in general. A look at that, revisiting Google’s webmaster support efforts plus new confirmation that SEO continues to be more mainstream.

How Search-Engine Rules Cause Sites to Go Missing is the Wall Street Journal article, and it’s free to anyone to read. It leads off looking at Topix having paid $1 million to obtain the Topix.com domain. Topix.net is the domain name the site currently uses. The company wants to change to the new name, but CEO Rich Skrenta worries if that will hurt Google traffic:

Mr. Skrenta intends to switch his site over to the more popular .com Web address from .net soon to help eliminate confusion and increase credibility with consumers. Such a simple change, Mr. Skrenta has discovered, could have disastrous short-term results. About 50% of visits to his news site come through a search engine — and about 90% of the time, that is Google. Some companies say their sites have disappeared from top search results for weeks or months after making address switches, due to quirky rules Google and other search engines have adopted. So the same user who typed "Anna Nicole Smith news" into Google last week and saw Topix.net as a top result might not see it at all after the change to Topix.com.

The first thing that comes to mind is that having a news search business based on getting 50 percent of your traffic from other search engines — all of which run their own competing news search products — is a bad, bad business model. It’s never been good to be heavily dependent on search engine traffic (any search engine, not just Google) given that results have always been subject to change.

It’s even worse to be dependent on search engine traffic if you are a search engine yourself. My article from yesterday, Google Warning Against Letting Your Search Results Get Indexed, illustrated how shopping search engines (among others) might see their search results pages get dropped from Google.

In terms of news search, at some point, I guarantee that Google and probably Yahoo as well will shift over to showing their own news search listings by default when they detect a news search query is happening. You’ll do a regular search, they’ll understand it is news oriented, and they’ll give you news search results by default with a suggestion that you might also want to search the entire web. Heck, Google just started testing this type of "search the web" concept within news search results. What you see there — that will be how things happen in ordinary search in the future, I’m sure of it, when you do a news query.

This shift is the "invisible tabs" concept I’ve been writing about for years, where a search engine automatically pushes the right "tab" or "link" to get you specialized results. It’s a good thing. It’s a better experience for the searcher, to show them news search results when they clearly are searching for news, something that often can be determined with a great deal of accuracy.

So while I love the group at Topix (I do, look I’m there and smiling!), I’m less worried about the domain change shift hurting them than the heavy dependence on Google. But I’ve been meaning to do a Q&A with Rich, so I’ll add that to the list of questions and finally get that rolling along.

But how about that domain shift? Really, Rich and Topix shouldn’t panic. It’s been well discussed over the years that if you’re moving from one domain to another, the way to go is to do a 301 permanent redirect from the old domain to the new one. Google has repeatedly urged and advised people to do this at conferences and in public forums for ages. So when I get to this part in the story:

Further frustrating him is that Google’s response to Topix’s plea for help was an email recommending that, if the switchover were to go badly, the company should post a message on an online user-support forum; a Google engineer might come along to help out. "This can’t be the process," Mr. Skrenta says. "You’re cast into this amusing, Kafkaesque world to run your business."

In reality, Rich is pretty well known and connected. If Topix were to suddenly take a plunge, he’s not having to hit some message board and cross his fingers, hoping for the best. People across the web will start yelling at Google, me included, and the situation would be checked in short order. Of course, he doesn’t have to worry now. You know Google, having seen this article, will be watching out for the site carefully. Plus, a ton of Wall Street Journal readers just learned the new address of Topix.

I also wondered what people in Rich’s position would get from Google, in terms of help, if they asked. The first place you’d go would be the help pages. Lots of help there for both moving a site (a search for changing domains was less helpful). Alternatively, you can read the home page of help, where the My site in the Google index page is clearly listed, which in turn leads to the My URL changed, so how can I get Google to index my new site? answer:

While we can’t manually change your URL in our search results, there are steps you can take to make sure your transition is smooth. First, you can redirect individuals to your new site. If your old URLs redirect to your new site using HTTP 301 (permanent) redirects, our crawler will discover the new URLs. For more information about 301 HTTP redirects, please see

http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2616.txt

FYI, Google also explains elsewhere that there are 302 and 307 redirects but that neither of those should be used:

This code is similar to a 301 in that for a GET or HEAD request, it automatically forwards the requestor to a different location, but you shouldn’t use it to tell the Googlebot that a page or site has moved because Googlebot will continue to crawl and index the original location.

Pretty straight-forward. It’s not so "Kafkaesque" as it seems. It’s only potentially Kafkaesque if the 301 change doesn’t work as advertised. Honestly, in the years I’ve been covering the space, I’ve rarely heard anyone having problems changing from one domain to the other using 301s. Topix should be fine, and the Wall Street Journal article builds fear up on a particular issue that shouldn’t be that fearful.

OK, on the flipside, anyone making a major change is going to be worried. And the best you’re going to get from Google (or any search engine) is that something "should" make all systems go OK. There’s always a chance for a glitch. And as I said, if a glitch happens, that’s when you might get cast into that Kafkaesque support forum, unless you’re well connected.

Then again, you’re pretty connected in that forum. My Of Disappearing Sex Blogs & Google Updates post from last December covers how you had not one but two Google employees monitoring it last Christmas day — and well connected ones at that. There is a lot of support out there.

The story gets into some other sites, all examples of the worries and fears site owners can have. I’m not taking away from those worries and fears — I know firsthand people have them.

Marchex is cited as finding how they dropped "without warning" for a search on "bay area hotels" a few weeks ago. Yes — and I’m willing to bet at other times, they’ve suddenly started ranking for a term out of the blue, but no one sees a problem with that. Search results can fluctuate. That’s well known, and I know it’s no surprise to the pros at Marchex.

The "blackmail" accusations against Google that Dan Hutcheson has put out there gets some play, over his site not being listed. News.com covered this last month:

In the past, when you launched a website, or Google wasn’t picking up your stuff, you could call the friendly people over there and they’d look at your website to see if you were legit, look at their search results, and adjust their code appropriately. It used to be this all occurred in the same day. Then it was 24 hours. So, imagine our dismay when www.wesrch.com wasn’t even being picked up two weeks after we launched. We had called Google two days into the launch and they apologized, saying their search engines were backlogged with so many sites to monitor. We called after a week and then called again and again, with no better answer. We even tried posting ads with Google and they couldn’t find us. "Clearly, we had tried their patience, as in the end they threatened to BLACKLIST our websites so no one would ever find us again. Now is that power or what? Funny thing is, Yahoo found us faster and more reliably. So, Google is no longer my home page. More importantly, they are showing all the signs of a monopolist trying to forcibly extract revenues for nothing. Whenever this happens, it’s a sign that revenue growth has peaked and they are trying to force it in order to maintain high stock valuations. So watch out if you are an investor," he wrote in the newsletter item earlier this month.

I remember catching wind of this as well before it came out and hearing all the usual alarm bells going off in my head:

  • Since when did Google provide friendly telephone based webmaster support? Never. Never, ever, ever — but the author puts that out as if it’s a fact.
     
  • The new site didn’t show up within two weeks? At all? For some query it thought it should rank for? There’s a big difference between not being listed and not ranking well. They’re often confused. Sites should be listed. They aren’t guaranteed to rank well. And I couldn’t tell from this what the situation was.
     
  • Called Google? Called whom? I know a few people I could call to get that type of information. I don’t know anyone you could call in general, out of the blue, about it. It suggests Hutcheson connected with a clueless receptionist or AdWords representative. Bad on Google, if so, in either case. Those people should have been trained that they can’t answer those types of questions. But without knowing who exactly he talked with, the entire thing seems dubious.
     
  • A blacklist threat? Wow — pretty serious. But again, I go with either a clueless receptionist perhaps feeling harassed or a similarly upset AdWords rep. And I might look into that more if it weren’t for the entire opening statement making me wary of diving in. Someone who believes that Google’s always provided webmaster phone support that fixes problems already generates lots of red flags with me.

If I was perplexed, so was Google. Matt Cutts looked at many of the same issues here, so check it out if you want more of the Google view of this than you’ll find in the short statement they gave the Wall Street Journal (answer — they don’t get it either).

Really, the most compelling part of the story to me was Andrew Goodman talking about changing his site from HomeDirection.ca to HomeStars.ca and watching traffic drop. If that was a 301 redirect, it really shouldn’t have happened. But in this discussion, I can see Andrew talking about both sites seeming to run independently at the beginning of 2006:

Today, this site [we were talking about homestars.ca by the way, but it started life as homedirection.ca] appears #1 & #3 on a designer’s name, "hildi weiman," etc. In this case you can see that the #1 listing is of the old site, so both sites are ranking on the phrase… which makes this whole site a bad example to use, because it’ll be awhile before Google figures out that homestars and not homedirection is the real site. I agree that’s not a popular phrase, but…

That makes me wonder if both sites were allowed to operate, rather than the old site being redirected to the new one. If so, that could have caused some traffic loss. Andrew’s seen the WSJ article out now, and he does comment here on Search Engine Land — so Andrew, c’mon over and add more about what happened.

All this leads back to the rocket science debate. If you missed that, check out:

The debate was over just how much value there is from SEOs. After all, the argument from the anti-SEO side goes that you can get all you need from Google help files — or you just launch a site, have good content and watch the traffic flow in. The Wall Street Journal article illustrates otherwise. There are problems and concerns people have that SEO professionals can help with. The WSJ also writes:

That has fueled the emergence of an industry of search-engine "optimization" specialists who help businesses try to find ways for their sites to rise in the rankings, such as using more-explanatory page titles.

"Emergence" is sort of dated. This is an industry that’s now over 10 years old. It grew up alongside the search engines themselves and didn’t just spring into being. Nor is this the first type of mainstream press attention SEO has received. We’ve had similar stories like this for several years, which each time has someone pointing to coverage as proof that SEO has finally arrived.

Still, I’m with Aaron Wall and his The Tipping Point for SEO post from last week, where he talked about a college course at Rice University being another sign that SEO is no longer seen as some "cottage industry" done by individuals working at home or in some boiler room operation. There are scammers; there are bad folks, but there are also professionals that help as well.

As for Google, I’ve continued to write about how much things have improved and changed to give site owners support over the years. I still think something like MattPasses, priority support as I wrote about in December, would be a great next step, if they can be made workable.

At the very least, it would ease the accusations that support is somehow a random thing you’ll be lucky to get if you know the right person or have your post somehow seen in a support forum. I think things are much better than that, but perceptions are often stronger than reality.

Postscript: Kafka-esque! from Rich at Topix has him addressing some of the issues above. Check it out!

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: General | Google: Marketing | Google: SEO | Google: Webmaster Central | SEM Industry: General | SEO: General

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.theonlinemarketingguy.com sportsguy

    Amen to that!

    A recent change at my work place has allowed 302s to be suddenly included as part of our user login process.

    Bad news is it’s affecting us. Good news is my programmers are working on a fix.

    The really good news is we’ve identified an obvious space to improve communications and define who’s vocabulary we’re working from when we discuss projects.

    Two of us sat down, said the exact same thing and agreed a certain item should be avoided.

    Because search folks and programmers speak different languages with overlapping words, these 302s ended up live.

    Now we fix, tomorrow we educate en-masse.

    It goes back to the topic of the article – having the skills can save some big hassles. Transferring the skills to other individuals in an organization can also save hundreds of hours of misplaced development time.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I took the line about “Further frustrating him is that Google’s response to Topix’s plea for help …”
    not to mean that Topix was having trouble now and needed help, but rather than Topix send a through-official-channels rquest about what to do if something went wrong, and got back an official answer that was one step above “Cross your fingers and pray”. And hence the reaction of Kafkaesque.

    Of course Rich Skrenta is connected. But it’s still true that the official line that Google sends back is a bit underwhelming.

  • http://hauntingthunder.wordpress.com/ Neuro

    “Further frustrating him is that Google’s response to Topix’s plea for help …”

    Well if I was a share holder id be a bit concerned that my CEO is spending a Million Dollars and insn’t sure if its worth it.

    WTF is his CTO/CIO doing for teh money

  • http://www.traffick.com AndrewGoodman

    Hi Danny, it is actually a bit hard to reconstruct what happened with HomeStars. :) It’s a blur in part because a number of consultants, including me, were orbiting around offering only piecemeal advice but no consistent process for working together with the site developer (yes I’m sure many of you have heard this one before!). “Arms length” definitely does not work as a content or search strategy… Much more recently I took on a more consistent role with HomeStars, but not to worry I’ll still be running Page Zero and speaking at shows. :)

    Certainly, the 301 redirect strategy was undertaken as far as I know (a bit before my time working with the site), but all was not hunky-dory for a certain time for a number of reasons, not just the domain name change. Remember this is a site that was still sandboxed, and with very few quality inbound links and then a few new ones solicited that I felt were crummy or off topic, I think it sunk a bit further into the quicksand until the quality of the user experience clawed things back.

    There were a number of other negative developments causing a large number of pages to go into supplemental. There was also a full URL rewrite that was good long term (recommended by me, again somewhat at arms-length) but caused some hiccups. This is certainly a far different case from Topix in that it was a very new site with a low trust score etc. So it lacked stability in its search referrals.

    The frustrating thing about working with a startup like HomeStars has been the slow progress on v 2.0 of the site (rollout to many more cities with a contemporary platform and design – so far all the investment in the project is coming from founder Nancy plus sweat equity). The current site is ugly and doesn’t work as well as we’d like – it is “OK” but nothing I’d undertake an aggressive PR campaign for yet – so the lack of promo (chicken and egg) thus far is part of the frustration. When we finally close our funding round *and* finally roll out the new site, we get to spread the word more. Though thanks to the WSJ article a few more people know about us. :) (Got $1-2 million? Our current VC partner is looking to syndicate. Limited time offer.)

    I’m a firm believer that good indexing and ranking stem from proper site architecture and contemporary user-focused navigation plus quality content, so I went out and recruited accordingly. The early-days HomeStars site definitely did its job but so many things were suboptimal (including a slow process for adding reviews, you name it), I think of it all as pre-history :) If we don’t launch the new version by May 1 you have permission to link-bomb the site so we rank on a phrase like “turned into a pumpkin”.

    I think some of you guys will laugh at the idea of me paper prototyping and site-architecting right alongside the real developers and designers. Well, why not. It’s fun. Reminds me of one of those web 2.0 blogs… “we break stuff.”

    We certainly do.

  • http://www.resourceshelf.com gary price

    A quick note to point out that Ask.com was the first of the major engines to look at the context of a query when it suggests that a searcher might be looking for images and provide inline image results. This feature began on April 21, 2003.
    http://www.resourceshelf.com/2003/04/21/new-look-at-tools-from-jeeves/

    Example:
    http://www.ask.com/web?qsrc=146&o=0&q=pics%20of%20golden%20gate%20bridge

    More image search triggers are in the works.

    Of course, other Smart Answers offer inline results.

    For example, last Summer Ask.com began the Smart RSS program. Inline results from blogs and other RSS feeds on web results pages.

    Examples:

    FDA Recalls
    http://www.ask.com/web?qsrc=146&o=0&q=fda%20recalls

    Barry Schwartz
    http://www.ask.com/web?q=barry+schwartz&qsrc=1&o=0&l=dir

    Search Engine Land
    http://www.ask.com/web?q=search+engine+land&qsrc=1&o=0&l=dir

    A few other (of many) Ask.com Smart Answers and inline results:
    + Market Cap CSCO
    http://www.ask.com/web?qsrc=146&o=0&q=market%20cap%20csco

    + Zip Code Springfield
    http://www.ask.com/web?q=zip+code+springfield&qsrc=1&o=0&l=dir
    NOTE the disamibugation options

    + iPod
    Shopping and News
    http://www.ask.com/web?q=ipod&qsrc=1&o=0&l=dir

  • http://www.craigmclaughlan.com/ loki

    a problem for our fledgling seo industry is that so much information available is incorrect. with blogs the latest seo de jour, anyone can add their 2 cents. unfortunately some people’s 2 cents is worth a lot less than others.

    it should be common knowledge (and common sense) that information off the internet needs to be passed through a BS filter. often it’s disinformation, plain wrong, or was-once-correct but is now out of date.

    for this i suggest that all posts, articles, etc. be accompanied by a date-stamp. this would in some way help us all to evaluate whether information was up to date.

    my 2 cents.

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