All posts by Adam Stetzer

A forward-looking history of link building

Link building is still one of the most important aspects of SEO.

When other websites link back to your website, Google interprets this positively. Just how positively, nobody is sure.

The fact remains, you need high-quality links if you want to see success in your SEO efforts. But what are high-quality links, and what makes them so important?

To fully understand, we must take a trip back in time to 2005 when SEO professionals had the carpet pulled out from underneath them.

The Jagger update

Before September of 2005, link-building was in its most lawless phase of existence. SEO companies would create dummy websites with no content except hundreds, if not thousands, of links to external client websites.

Google’s algorithm at the time did not penalize this. Rather, this loophole-like tactic was widely exploited, making it simple for SEO firms to power link client sites to top rankings in no time flat. Of course, competition came in the form of other SEO firms vying for the same space, but this did little more than proliferate link spamming.

The tangled mess of backlink spam sites and reciprocal linking was a house of cards waiting obliviously for the first whisper of wind to knock every site down into ranking oblivion. Enter Jagger.

Jagger changed the way links were interpreted in a few ways. First, the anchor text of the inbound link was analyzed. Second, the content on the linking page was analyzed. Third, the speed at which links would come in from the linking page was analyzed.

Additionally, changes were made that would ultimately punish (harshly) any sites engaging in reciprocal link sharing with unrelated sites, purchased links, and sourcing links from farms.

As a result, many websites that were reliant on what would now certainly be considered black hat link building were forced to remove these tainted links from their pages.

Many sites also saw their position in the SERPs crash in a manner akin to the ’08 housing market bubble bursting. Optimizers cursed Google for treachery, and the entire SEO market was in jeopardy.

As with anything, though, SEO professionals who adapted to Jagger quickly were spared their business, and lived to link another day. That is, until Penguin came along.

Talk to SEO firms that were in business during the early Penguin updates and you can tell that they are still scarred from the experience. Some experts say that Penguin affected more than 3% of all English-language search results, penalizing sites for keyword stuffing and other extremely common optimization tricks.

The first Penguin update in 2012 was just the beginning, as is the case with most major Google algo updates. In future Penguin updates, Google would continue to crack down on web spam, over-optimization, and link building, and many SEO firms lived in terror of the next Penguin update.

Link building today

A lot of talk lately has been on the subject of link building losing value. These murmurs, it turns out, might have some validity, but are likely blown a bit out of proportion.

We’ve previously covered Google’s confirmation that the top three ranking factors are its search AI Rankbrain, content, and links. Whichever way you slice it, then, links are still a third of the equation to SEO success. So why are some people preaching doom and gloom for the role of link building?

The link building naysayers aren’t actually saying the strategy is dead, more that it doesn’t work like it used to. Now, instead of using tangentially related and lower quality links by the dozen, one inbound link from a serious player in the field is the better way to go.

This leads to atypical link building strategies like link outreach and cultivating highly linkable content as an asset rather than putting together a slapdash article and paying sites in a vaguely similar field for links.

What, then, does link building involve in 2018?

Creating linkable content

This doesn’t mean 370-word blog blurbs with little revolutionary content. It means getting down and dirty in the muck of your industry. It means sifting for informational gold over the course of a couple thousand words.

In short, it means crafting a piece of content that’s too good not to be linked. If any business wants to be the authority in their field, they need to be the authority in their field.

Helping reporters out

HARO is a platform for journalists searching for sources. Once you create that source, you can peruse HARO’s free website where journalists post the story they are writing, and the sources they are after. This can be seriously advantageous for the SEO guru in need of high quality editorial links on larger newspapers.

Seeking out industry leaders

Link outreach highlights the link building paradigm shift. One of the best ways to get high quality links is by looking for high ranking industry leaders that might be interested in your content.

Once you have a solid foundational understanding of their content topics, what their site might be missing, and what sites they already link to, contact them with a proposal to include your super informational, ultra-polished link in their next post.

This is link building today, and as you can see, it takes a much more public relations-like angle on creating links. You need to interact with other blogs and high ranking sites in a non-transactional way in order to cultivate the same link power you would’ve gotten years ago with paid links.

But before we launch ourselves full-force into the future of link building, let’s take a moment for a descriptive detour into the different types of link building.

The many flavors of link building

Becoming a link building pro is a lot like being a jack of all trades, within one oddly specific trade. There are so many different objectives link building can serve, and just as many different strategies for implementing those links.

Brian Dean at Backlinko provides an in depth look at some little-known backlinking techniques, but this should help you get started.

Links for traffic

What does every ecommerce website want more than anything? Perhaps they ultimately want to be ranked number one for all of their keywords, but the more honest and realistic goal is to get raw, unadulterated traffic.

More people equals more money. Getting links placed in a blog post, the comments section, forum posts, or even banner ads on a high-traffic site can make a huge difference in the number of page visits your website gets.

Links for lifting your SERP

Scaling the mountain to Google’s coveted page one is a huge goal of SEO. To do this, you need really juicy links.

Link juice is the amount of power an inbound link has in conveying to Google that your page should be higher on the results page. Sites like Forbes and The New York Times have a lot of juice, while unpopular blogs about squirrel fur are parched.

The thing is, juice can flow freely, or not at all. The deciding factor is found in do-follow or no-follow links. No-follow links are a way to link a page, but tell Google to ignore it when determining the linked page’s result position.

In order to get juicy links that will propel your site to higher search positions, you need do-follow links.

Links for your reputation

If your goal is to fill the search results for your company’s name with nothing but positivity, you will want to do a bit of reputation link building. This involves getting do-follow links that have your company’s name, or CEO’s name, in the anchor text.

These links can, and should, direct to your various social media platforms, your landing page, or to any website that you can ensure will present your business in a positive light. This strategy sounds a little like PR, doesn’t it?

Now that you have a more thorough (albeit far from exhaustive) understanding of link building in the past and present, let’s look with dewy eyes into the mysterious orb of the future.

Chasing tomorrow

The job of SEO professionals always seems to be, above all else, playing catch-up. Keeping up to speed with Google algorithm updates is a full time job, and it’s a job that everyone in the industry is working on tirelessly.

Though link building will still remain relevant for some time, the dissenters might be more than simple link building haters. They could, in fact, be a form of early adopters.

One thing all SEO folks should pay attention to, starting right now, is the Google’s new capacity for understanding and integrating linkless mentions into their algorithm.

Linkless mentions

With the death of Google’s once dogmatically-followed tool PageRank in 2016, the SEO world was left in the dark about where a page stood in terms of link juice and overall power. Since then, there has been an implied shift away from the importance of links as an SEO factor.

Rumors soon began circling that both Google and Bing possessed a mechanism to recognize the mere mention of a brand without the little ahref to go along with it. This was all but confirmed in late 2017 by Google’s own Gary Illyes in his keynote speech at Brighton SEO. In Illyes’ own words:

“Basically, if you publish high quality content that is highly cited on the internet – and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that. Then you are doing great.”

This is a bit more than a nod to those conspiracy theorists that suggest Google has the capacity for implied link recognition. But does that threaten link building directly?

Not exactly. Many SEO professionals have a fully implemented link building strategy that works magnificently today. That said, this is a chance for those paying close attention to adopt new and more streamlined techniques.

For example, instead of contacting websites where your business was mentioned, but not linked, you can move on and spend your time elsewhere, knowing that Google has already seen this mention and accounted for it.

This brave new linkless world could mean changes in the way SEO is done on a large scale. Originally, link building was done as a way to quantify reputation, a strategy catalyzed by PageRank. Now that PageRank is gone, and there is no completely accurate way to get inside of Google’s algorithmic brain, it might be time to invite the PR pros into the murky realm of SEO.

If link building was just quantified reputation management, one might infer that linkless mentions (aka inferred links) are a form of unquantifiable reputation management.

All signs point toward adopting a new style of metric tracking and network building that focuses on the following:

  • High quality content. Creating those killer articles for people to reference becomes even more important. Now you aren’t just hustling for a link, but for the reputation of your entire brand.
  • Guest blogs. Not only do they offer great content, these blogs hold a good amount of weight. This is because you can guest post without ever needing to link. As long as your brand is mentioned, you will get Google’s attention.
  • Social media mentions. Having your name pop up on social media is crucial. This has been known for a long time, even outside of SEO, but mentioning a Facebook page that shares your brand’s name can signal Google for both at the same time. This compounds with the positive social engagement you’ll receive.

This is far from a conclusive image of the future, yet it does seem like SEO is trending toward a strategy that involves fewer links.

This might be scary to the deeply entrenched SEO gurus out there, but ultimately it changes very little about the way you’ll build links. Instead of blue underlined text, you will be able to shout out Hubshout without a single ahref to be found.

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The future of visual search and what it means for SEO companies

The human brain has evolved to instantly recognize images.

Visual identification is a natural ability made possible through a wonder of nerves, neurons, and synapses. We can look at a picture, and in 13 milliseconds or less, know exactly what we’re seeing.

But creating technology that can understand images as quickly and effectively as the human mind is a huge undertaking.

Visual search therefore requires machine learning tools that can quickly process images, but these tools must also be able to identify specific objects within the image, then generate visually similar results.

Yet thanks to the vast resources at the disposal of companies like Google, visual search is finally becoming viable. How, then, will SEO evolve as visual search develops?

Here’s a more interesting question: how soon until SEO companies have to master visual search optimization?

Visual search isn’t likely to replace text-based search engines altogether. For now, visual search is most useful in the world of sales and retail. However, the future of visual search could still disrupt the SEO industry as we know it.

What is visual search?

If you have more than partial vision, you’re able to look across a room and identify objects as you see them. For instance, at your desk you can identify your monitor, your keyboard, your pens, and the sandwich you forgot to put in the fridge.

Your mind is able to identify these objects based on visual cues alone. Visual search does the same thing, but with a given image on a computer. However, it’s important to note that visual search is not the same as image search.

Image search is when a user inputs a word into a search engine and the search engine spits out related images. Even then, the search engine isn’t recognizing images, just the structured data associated with the image files.

Visual search uses an image as a query instead of text (reverse image search is a form of visual search). It identifies objects within the image and then searches for images related to those objects. For instance, based on an image of a desk, you’d be able to use visual search to shop for a desk identical or similar to the one in the image.

While this sounds incredible, the technology surrounding visual search is still limited at best. This is because machine learning must recreate the mind’s image processing before it can effectively produce a viable visual search application. It isn’t enough for the machine to identify an image. It must also be able to recognize a variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and patterns the way the human mind does.

The technology surrounding visual search is still limited at best

However, it’s difficult to recreate image processing in a machine when we barely understand our own image processing system. It’s for this reason that visual search programming is progressing so slowly.

Visual search as it stands: Where we are

Today’s engineers have been using machine learning technology to jumpstart the neural networks of visual search engines for improved image processing. One of the most recent examples of these developments is Google Lens.

Google Lens is an app that allows your smartphone to work as a visual search engine. Announced at Google’s 2017 I/O conference, the app works by analyzing the pictures that you take and giving you information about that image.

For instance, by taking a photo of an Abbey Road album your phone can tell you more about the Beatles and when the album came out. By taking a photo of an ice cream shop your phone can tell you its name, deliver reviews, and tell you if your friends have been there.

The future of visual search and what it means for SEO companies

All of this information stems from Google’s vast stores of data, algorithms, and knowledge graphs, which are then incorporated into the the neural networks of the Lens product. However, the complexity of visual search involves more than just an understanding of the neural networks.

The mind’s image processing touches on more than just identification. It also draws conclusions that are incredibly complex. And it’s this complexity, known as the “black box problem”, that engineers struggle to recreate in visual search engines.

Rather than waiting explicitly on scientists to understand the human mind, DeepMind — a Google-owned company — has been taking steps toward programming the visual search engine based on cognitive psychology rather than relying solely on neural networks.

However, Google isn’t the only company with developing visual search technology. Pinterest launched its own Lens product in March 2017 to provide features such as Shop the Look and Pincodes. Those using Pinterest can take a photo of a person or place through the app and then have the photo analyzed for clothing or homeware options for shopping. 

The future of visual search and what it means for SEO companies

What makes Pinterest Lens and Google Lens different is that Pinterest offers more versatile options for users. Google is a search engine for users to gather information. Pinterest is a website and app for shopping, recipes, design ideas, and recreational searching.

Unlike Google, which has to operate on multiple fronts, Pinterest is able to focus solely on the development of its visual search engine. As a result, Pinterest could very well become the leading contender in visual search technology.

Nevertheless, other retailers are beginning to catch on and pick up the pace with their own technology. The fashion retailer ASOS also released a visual search tool on its website in August 2017.

The use of visual search in retail helps reduce what’s been called the Discovery Problem. The Discovery Problem is when shoppers have so many options to choose from on a retailer’s website that they simply stop shopping. Visual search reduces the number of choices and helps shoppers find what they want more effectively.

The future of visual search: Where we’ll go from here

It’s safe to assume that the future of visual search engines will be retail-dominated. For now, it’s easier to search for information with words.

Users don’t need to take a photo of an Abbey Road album to learn more about the Beatles when they can use just as many keystrokes to type ‘Abbey Road’ into a search engine. However, users do need to take a photo of a specific pair of sneakers to convey to a search engine exactly what they’re looking to buy.

The future of visual search and what it means for SEO companies

Searching for a pair of red shoes using Pinterest Lens

As a result, visual search engines are convenient, but they’re not ultimately necessary for every industry to succeed. Services, for instance, may be more likely to rely on textual search engines, whereas sales may be more likely to rely on visual search engines.

That being said, with 69% of young consumers showing an interest in making purchases based on visual-oriented searches alone, the future of visual search engines is most likely to be a shopper’s paradise in the right retailer’s hands.

What visual search means for SEO

Search engines are already capable of indexing images and videos and ranking them accordingly. Video SEO and image SEO have been around for years, ever since video and image content became popular with websites like YouTube and Facebook.

Yet despite this surge in video and image content, SEO still meets the needs of those looking to rank higher on search engines. Factors such as creating SEO-friendly alt text, image sitemaps, SEO-friendly image titles, and original image content can put your website’s images a step above the competition.

However, the see-snap-buy behavior of visual search can make image SEO more of a challenge. This is because the user no longer has to type, but can instead take a photo of a product and then search for the product on a retailer’s website.

Currently, SEO has been functioning alongside visual search via alt-tagging, image optimization, schema markup, and metadata. Schema markup and metadata are especially important for SEO in visual search. This is because, with such minimal text used in the future of visual search, this data may be one of the only sources of textual information for search engines to crawl.

Meticulously cataloging images with microdata may be tedious, but the enhanced description that microdata provides when paired with an optimized image should help that image rank higher in visual search.

Metadata is just as important. In both text-based searches and visual-based searches, metadata strengthens the marketer’s ability to drive online traffic to their website and products. Metadata hides in the HTML of both web pages and images, but it’s what search engines use to find relevant information.

The future of visual search and what it means for SEO companies

Marking up your images with relevant metadata is essential for image SEO

For this reason, to optimize for image search, it’s essential to use metadata for your website’s images and not just the website itself.

Both microdata and metadata will continue to play an important role in the SEO industry even as visual search engines develop and revolutionize the online experience. However, additional existing SEO techniques will need to advance and improve to adapt to the future of visual search.

The future of SEO and visual search

To assume visual search engines are unlikely to change the future of the SEO industry is to be short-sighted. Yet it’s just as unlikely that text-based search will be made obsolete and replaced by a world of visual-based technology.

However, just because text-based search engines won’t be going anywhere doesn’t mean they won’t be made to share the spotlight. As visual search engines develop and improve, they’ll likely become just as popular and used as text-based engines. It’s for this reason that existing SEO techniques will need to be fine-tuned for the industry to remain up-to-date and relevant.

But how can SEO stay relevant as see-snap-buy behavior becomes not just something used on retail websites, but in most places online? As mentioned before, SEO companies can still utilize image-based SEO techniques to keep up with visual search engines.

Like text-based search engines, visual search relies on algorithms to match content for online users. The SEO industry can use this to its advantage and focus on structured data and optimization to make images easier to process for visual applications.

Additional techniques can help impove image indexing by visual search engines. Some of these techniques include:

  • Setting up image badges to run through structured data tests
  • Creating alternative attributes for images with target keywords
  • Submitting images to image sitemaps
  • Optimizing images for mobile use

Visual search engines are bound to revolutionize the retail industry and the way we use technology. However, text-based search engines will continue to have an established place in industries that are better suited to them.

The future of SEO is undoubtedly set for rapid change. The only question is which existing strategies will be reinforced in the visual search revolution and which will be outdated.

How indie publishers can monetize in the shadow of Facebook and Google

With multinational technological companies Google and Facebook conquering the field of online advertising revenue, many smaller companies and indie publishers are left wondering where they’ll end up in the digital world – if they’ll end up anywhere at all.

According to data recently released by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, digital advertising revenue in the U.S. increased by 20% in the past year. This puts the American digital ad revenue at a record of $72.5 billion.

Unfortunately for smaller companies, the vast majority of online advertising revenue is coming from tech giants Google and Facebook.

The duopoly of the digital advertising industry

Because the specific ad-only revenues of Facebook and Google aren’t disclosed, the exact calculations of revenue aren’t available. However, Jason Kint of Digital Content Next, a publishing industry trade group, reported in June 2016 that Google and Facebook accounted for a grand total of 89% of the digital ad growth.

Additional calculations made by Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser indicate that the percentage of digital ad growth consumed by Google and Facebook may very well be closer to 99%.

In either case, Google and Facebook together are proving to be a concern for the U.S. digital ad market. With Google and Facebook out of the picture of beneficial growth, Wieser said, “the average growth rate for every other company in the sector was close to 0.”

“The big point is that if Google and Facebook are the primary interfaces to buyers, over the long-run they own the relationships and the related data. Every partner they work with is subservient.”

The digital advertising industry controls much of what Internet users see online, which is what helped spur what’s been called the fake news crisis. Both Facebook and Google were allegedly used by a propaganda group called Internet Research Agency based in St. Petersburg to place various fake news articles around Facebook news feeds and above YouTube channel videos.

The power these two tech giants have is reflected in the fact that many marketing agencies are still reluctant to pull their advertising from Facebook and Google despite questions of brand safety, credibility, and ad placement.

“The entire advertising world is very anxious,” said Mike Paul, an independent expert, to NBC News. “But few will admit publicly that the negative news is affecting Facebook because it is the 800-pound gorilla globally for ad and media buyers.”

Regardless of the high rates of success in digital ad revenue, Facebook CFO David Wehner has warned that the company’s own ad revenue growth will slow in the second half of this year. This is because, Wehner says, Facebook will eventually run out of places to set digital advertisements in its online feed.

However, any significant decrease in online advertising revenue is unlikely.

Facebook has been investing recently in video content for both Facebook and Instagram. The company has also been working to increase revenue based on its messaging apps, which are currently the most popular messaging platforms internationally with WhatsApp hosting up to 1 billion users every day and Facebook Messenger hosting 1.2 billion users every month.

What’s more is that Facebook’s ad spots have been increasing in price despite the lack of ad placement options. “As Facebook’s ad inventory becomes more constrained,” said Jan Dawson, a principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, “the price of ad slots on Facebook is going up.”

How publishers can survive in the war for online advertising revenue

With Google and Facebook essentially swallowing the vast majority, if not all, of digital ad revenue growth, publishers have to look elsewhere to earn revenue. Fortunately, publishers have a great place to monetize: Organic traffic.

The secret is well known at this point. Many businesses have experienced substantial growth using organic promotion and search engine optimization. Those who wade into this strategy start by creating very high-quality content and onsite optimization. They soon learn that promotion needs major attention. One specific technical aspect of SEO, backlinking, requires extra special effort.  

Getting good backlinks is where many companies hit a brick wall in the SEO process. This is especially true after the Penguin updates of 2013, when many websites saw large drops in rankings as Google “cleaned house” and penalized sites with poor backlink profiles.

The fear of Google’s SEO updates may be valid, and caution is wise, but Google assured us in 2016 that link-devaluing will now be done in “real-time,” guaranteeing that Google won’t build and then destroy a business.

The solution to the “backlinking problem”

The key to growing organic traffic and surviving SEO updates is to promote your website in the most natural way possible. But what does that really mean? Google is notoriously vague on this and issues statements of “intent” in their Webmaster Guidelines. Specifically, your primary intent needs to be providing valuable and informative content to your audience, not manipulating the search engine results.

This means that the quality — and often the quantity — of backlinks are important signals to Google. Google relies on trust. Betraying that trust by taking shortcuts on quality  makes your website appear spammy and unhelpful.

To improve your SEO ranking by earning backlinks, consider Google’s official backlink guidelines. Opt out of tactics like using irrelevant keywords, writing scraped or unoriginal content, and using crafty redirects. Instead, consider making your web page user-friendly with high-quality content and don’t try to trick your users.

Build relationships with high-authority websites that will naturally reference each other when publishing. Position your brand as a go-to resource that people want to share with others. If you do outsource link building, be sure you know what they are doing and they meet your standards.

Conclusion

With Google and Facebook consuming nearly all digital ad revenue in 2016, the pressure being placed on indie publishers to find ways to survive in the digital marketing world is cumbersome. And the idea of using organic strategies to promote a business website in the shadow of Google’s success may seem daunting.

But if indie publishers promote their websites using high-quality strategies as well as by following Google’s guidelines, they will have little fear that Google will bring the hammer down.

Digital ad revenue may not be as high for indie publishers as it is for Google and Facebook, but the chance of survival in the digital world for these publishers isn’t completely lost as long as they heed Google’s guidelines.

What will Google’s expanded policy on harmful content mean for SEO companies?

Google recently announced that it will be expanding its hate-speech policy for publishers that use the company’s ad network.

It’s an effort to address concerns about ads funding inappropriate content online. While Google is constantly updating its policies, this particular update could have a significant impact on the way digital marketers select clients.

It also raises an important question for SEO companies: do we have a role to play in combating harmful content online? And how should we go about navigating Google’s new policies if so?

Google’s new harmful content guidelines

Google made the decision to change its policies for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being the early 2017 Youtube controversy. In an effort to guard against “explicit” content with its restricted mode, the company mistakenly targeted multiple LGBTQ+ creators.

In its original response to the issue, YouTube said the mode was only applied to LGBTQ+ issues that also addressed mature subjects such as sexuality and politics. But as more creators, including musical duo Tegan and Sara, Tyler Oakley, and others began to speak out, it became clear that innocent creators were getting swept up into the “explicit” content list.

And, of course, the spread of “fake news” in search results and social media forced Silicon Valley titans to confront some thorny issues. In the months since these two big issues, The Hill reported that Google banned more than 200 publishers from its search results.

According to Rick Summers, who oversees the development and implementation of Google policies impacting publishers, the new policy additions are geared toward creating a safer, more positive Internet.

Specifically, Google’s new policies will “address a more divisive and toxic online environment, where an increasing amount of content is frankly right at the edge of what we consider traditionally to be hate speech,” Summers told Recode in April.

In addition, these changes will effectively broaden Google’s definition of hate speech. Now, it will include populations such as immigrants and refugees under its discriminatory language guidelines. It will also address more directly those pages that, for example, deny the Holocaust or advocate for the exclusion of select groups of people. Previously, the policy was more selective (in the United States, at least).

According to Recode, the previous policy addressed “speech that was threatening or harassing against defined groups, including ethnic and religious groups, and LGBT groups and individuals.”

A Google spokesperson said that while the changes will be global, they will also take time to implement on such a large scale. Google’s top business executive, Philipp Schindler, penned a blog post in late March in an effort to better outline Google’s up-and-coming policy changes.

In his blog, Schindler tells readers that Google “[has] a responsibility to protect this vibrant, creative world—from emerging creators to established publishers—even when we don’t always agree with the views being expressed.”

The post goes on to discuss the controversies mentioned earlier, as well as a list of upcoming policy changes and their goals. These policies, Schindler says, will both respect the values of Google and the creators who depend on it, and help advertisers reach the audiences they need to.

But what does that mean for SEO companies?

Ultimately, it means some digital marketers may choose to be more selective when accepting new clients. It’s hard to help someone rank if they’re being excluded from Google search results.

But that also begs the question, how do SEO companies decide what defines a “good” client? Should companies even be applying ethical judgments like this to clients? If so, is the decision dependent on each company’s individual code of ethics, or is it up to Google to decide?

You know you’ve stepped into a minefield when you have to use this many rhetorical questions in a row.

The resources out there for clients seeking SEO services are practically limitless, but the same isn’t necessarily true for SEO companies seeking clients. Google has even released official guidelines for companies searching for the right SEO company:

Clients looking for reputable SEO services are often told to follow Google’s guidelines if they want to find a reputable company. Fortunately, SEO companies can also utilize that practice to vet potential clients.

Take HubShout, for instance. Here, following Google’s AdWords guidelines essentially takes the decision out of our hands. While we have values as a company, following these policies to the letter allows us to select only what Google deems “good” clients. This also ensures that no personal or political biases influence our decision making. In short, as long as a potential client meets our policy — not in violation of Google AdWords, not unethical, small business — we will take them on.

Prohibited content, according to Google, includes content that markets counterfeit products, dangerous products or services such as recreational drugs or firearms, and content that enables dishonest behavior.

In addition, content including “bullying or intimidation of an individual or group, racial discrimination, hate group paraphernalia, graphic crime scene or accident images, cruelty to animals, murder, self-harm, extortion or blackmail, sale or trade of endangered species, [or] ads using profane language,” is considered inappropriate by Google’s standards.

But as we discussed earlier, those policies may be updated in the near future, providing SEO companies with an even more extensive resource for determining which clients to take on. In the end, Google and other search engines often serve as the standard by which the vast majority of digital marketing companies must operate.

Finally, we have one last rhetorical question, and it’s a big one: Will Google’s new and improved policies actually create a safer, more accepting internet, or will they simply tuck away the dark corners of the web we don’t want to see?

Fortunately, digital marketers aren’t philosophers; it’s not our job to answer these big questions. It’s our job to help clients get onto those crucial Search Engine Results Pages.

And if there’s less hate speech and inappropriate content along the way, then hopefully the internet will become a better place to work.

How a new AI powered search engine is changing how neuroscientists do research

When you think of artificial intelligence, images of futuristic robots or memories of bad sci-fi films might come to mind. However, the reality of AI is actually a lot more tame: a friendly search engine, for instance.

But while we type our queries into Google and usually get fairly useful results, the same has not always been true for the information gleaned by scientific researchers.

Although existing resources like Google Scholar and PubMed provide scientists with resources much faster than the methods of old, they don’t always cover the nitty-gritty details that are needed.

Now, a new, free search engine called Semantic Scholar is using AI technology to help these scientists find relevant information much more quickly.

Semantic Scholar has been labeled a game-changer for these professionals, who previously had no way of effectively combing through mountains of dense research. While Google Scholar has a huge database – it has indexed more than 200 million articles to date – it’s lacking in terms of providing access to metadata.

It can help scientists find studies, but it won’t tell them how often a paper or author has been cited. Essentially, it can make a scientist’s job even more difficult because the research tool they’re using isn’t comprehensive.

But Semantic Scholar is different. Developed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in conjunction with his non-profit organization, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Semantic Scholar first launched last November. Known as AI2, the non-profit built the engine in collaboration with Allen’s other research organization, the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Originally launched as a research tool for computer science, Semantic Scholar’s real appeal is its AI-based design.

Instead of simply listing a study’s abstract and bibliographic data, this new search engine is actually able to think and analyze a study’s worth. GeekWire notes that, “Semantic Scholar uses data mining, natural language processing, and computer vision to identify and present key elements from research papers.”

The engine is able to understand when a paper is referencing its own study or results from another source. Semantic Scholar can then identify important details, pull figures, and compare one study to thousands of other articles within one field.

So why is Semantic Scholar a better option?

“Medical breakthroughs should not be hindered by the cumbersome process of searching the scientific literature,” Allen stated in a press release. “My vision for Semantic Scholar is to give researchers more powerful tools to comb through millions to academic papers online, to help them keep up with the explosive growth of science.”

As it stands now, scientists can use other search engine databases as a jumping-off point, but what they find often requires additional research.

The results don’t give the full picture of a study, its variables, or the overall impact. The CEO of AI2, Oren Etzioni, notes that the current options can result in too much information with no real ranking method.

“If you’re dealing with information overload, you want these things to help you cut through the clutter, [and] slice and dice the results.”

Because the search engine uses natural language, it’s able to think and make judgments about which studies are most relevant to a given search.

TechCrunch notes that “it can make intelligent judgements on … which related or cited papers are most relevant, or what other work the current paper has helped lead to… Results are fast, relevant, and easily sorted or drilled down into. For a scientist who frequently consults such articles, this is a huge advance.”

What does this mean for Google Scholar?

AI2 doesn’t want to compete with Google; that would be a fool’s errand, says Etzioni. They just want to provide a better option. “Our goal is to raise the bar” by providing scientists with more effective options to conduct their research, he says.

In fact, many scientists are planning to use both engines to conduct their research, in part because the current state of Semantic Scholar is somewhat limited in comparison to more established engines.

In addition to computer science, Semantic Scholar now covers the neuroscience field and is able to search 10 million published papers. While that sounds impressive, it pales in comparison to Google Scholar’s current database.

The future of Semantic Scholar

Despite its shortcomings, industry professionals see huge potential in Semantic Scholar. Not only is the engine free of charge, but due to its design, it’s more powerful and thorough than other available options.

Developers have already expanded its territory to the biomedical and neuroscience fields, and they intend to keep growing.

Etzioni says that the engine could eventually become a hypothesis engine, guiding scientists to look at the bigger picture or to view a problem from a different angle.

In so doing, it could act like a department head who points out when a method was previously effective, or an area that has remained untested. It could help give scientists direction and result in better quality research.

And even though the engine is still being developed, it’s already been quite successful. Since Semantic Scholar was first launched, 2.5 million people have used the service and have performed millions of searches.

It may still have a long way to go as far as indexing, but the institute hopes to fully expand the engine’s biomedical research library by the end of 2017. By putting AI at the service of the scientific community, Semantic Scholar ensures that only the best and most relevant studies are used. This will, in turn, lead to higher quality and more advanced research — a concept that stands to benefit everyone.

The Rise of Emoji and Google’s Mobile-First Movement

We’re constantly tuned in to the Internet as well as the new technologies and amenities that spawn from it.

Emoji — those little smiley faces and symbols used in your mobile device’s messaging keyboard — used to be used exclusively for text messaging. Their meanings are simple. Unlike shorthand acronyms like LOL, emoji have the ability to convey universal messages, like laughter and joy.

Emoji are now integral in the digital vocabularies of people of all ages and backgrounds and are used not only between individuals, but by companies, too.

A Brief History

Before emoji were introduced in the U.S., they originated in Japan. Created by Shigetaka Kurita, who worked for the mobile communication company DoCoMo, Emoji were intended to be a means of communication through pictures that didn’t use much data. Meanwhile in the U.S., emoticons, pictorial representations created using punctuation marks, were more widely used, as few devices could recognize emoji.

The success of the emoji did not go unnoticed, and Apple launched an emoji keyboard in 2010. Soon after, emoji were standardized by Unicode, which allowed the images to be recognized on all devices.

Unlike emoticons, emoji faces are far more detailed and represent a wider range of emotions. Additionally, emoji keyboards include objects, like food, plants, flags, buildings, etc.. They are able to modify sentences and answer questions without text. In fact, in 2015, “emoji” was named the fastest growing language as well as named the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.

It wasn’t long before corporations began hopping on the emoji bandwagon. With social media and email marketing, companies could use emoji to convey messages to their customers. Coca-Cola, one of the world’s most valuable and recognized brands, was one of the first companies to use emoji as an effective marketing tool when they launched the #ShareaCoke campaign on Twitter. To set a world record for “World’s Largest Cheers,” Coca-Cola used a branded emoji, exclusive to Twitter. When users would use #ShareaCoke, two clinking coke bottles would appear in the tweet automatically. This campaign actively engaged audiences worldwide, garnering the media’s attention. It is considered one of the best uses of emoji marketing to date.

Other forms of emoji marketing tactics include branded emoji, like Kim Kardashian’s “Kimoji” keyboard, Ikea’s keyboard, which includes a plate of Swedish meatballs speared with a Swedish flag, and even Domino’s emoji-order text service, which allows hungry customers to simply text the pizza emoji to open an order.

Emoji Domain Registration

Domain registration continues to be a hot market. It’s clear that some domain names are more effective than others, causing a lot of competition over certain domains.

Since the introduction of the emoji in the U.S., emoji are able to be registered in domain names, but the process is difficult. Through a method called punycoding, emoji are translated to text, allowing search engines to recognize the images as standard text and route a user to a web page.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Coca-Cola was one of the first corporate giants to launch an emoji domain name.  

“One has to have a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of punycode and whatnot to even look to see whether domains are available,” according to GoDaddy, a domain registrar and web hosting company. “From there, the setup is a bit of a pain.”

That’s why GoDaddy has launched an emoji domain registration page on its own. https://❤❤❤.ws/ is the company’s official, chosen domain, which is translated to ASCII in the browser, because computers are only able to recognize numerical text.

“Driven by the rise of mobile Internet usage, which now accounts for over 60% of traffic, consumers are integrating emojis into their conversations on social media, messaging and beyond,” said Theresa McGinness Geraghty, the GoDaddy senior director of product marketing.

The Future of Digital Marketing

Years ago, the marketing departments in many companies made the shift to digital-first. We’ve seen the disintegration of a number of newspapers in lieu of online news sites, as well as the shift from mail coupons and deals to email-first. Now, as digital media consumption patterns among Internet users continues to evolve, more companies have put emphasis on mobile marketing tactics.

According to Nielson, 92% of consumers are more influenced by peer recommendations and word of mouth marketing — otherwise known as earned media — than all other forms of advertising. Consumers like conversational patterns, the study finds. Many potential buyers look for consumer reviews instead of checking out the most recent ad, or are more apt to search in-store to find out if a product is worth it. Emoji, which is primarily used in messaging format between friends, family, and colleagues, is highly conversational, which leads many to believe why it is so effective for marketers.

Google has even taken action to keep up with the shift. On Nov. 4, 2016, Google announced its plan to move forward with mobile-first indexing. Previously, the search engine giant would index desktop content. As users continue to search using a smartphone or tablet, they continuously run into sites ranked highly in the SERPs, but do not have nearly as much content as their desktop counterparts.

For some companies, this isn’t worrisome. Responsive websites allow the same robust content to be published across all media and will not count against the site’s Google rankings. Responsive sites are extremely important for SEO. For mobile sites that are more empty, this is a wake-up call to make the shift to mobile-first marketing, or else the rankings will plummet.

As mobile Internet usage continues to rise and an optimized mobile site is of much higher stakes than before, it’s a curious question to ask, how will emoji come into play?

Emoji are recognizable on desktop computers, but much harder to access. With the exception of Apple’s newest MacBook Pro, which has a touch pad in place of a function bar, keyboard shortcuts or click-in keyboards are needed to access emoji on a desktop or laptop computer.

Among a number of other uses, the new MacBook Pro touchpad is able to access an emoji keyboard which can be swiped and searched, much like it is on an iPhone. This method is highly user-friendly, especially for those familiar with emoji via mobile devices.

Though GoDaddy’s emoji domain registration is expected to be successful — many have already registered a number of emoji combinations, if only for the resale value — we still haven’t seen a huge amount of these domain names in the mainstream. Since most desktop keyboards do not support emoji typing, it’s far more difficult to search an emoji domain organically.

Emoji domains are fully Google-compatible, and have been for some time now. In May 2015, Google’s John Mueller said that they would be removed and hopefully filtered out of the titles of search results, as they started to look spammy.

“I thought that looked really cool when I saw the first pages that were using [emoji],” said Mueller, “But I think it’s really easy to over do that, so I think it’s something we’ll take action on it at some point.”

Eventually, Google did filter out the emoji titles. These sites were not penalized in their rankings, but it is interesting now, considering the probable hike in emoji domains, how the SERPs will look going forward. With a mobile-first index, it is likely that emoji URLs will appear higher in the SERPs than they would on desktop, but it’s too soon to tell whether Google will adjust the appearance of these results based on how they look.

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Is Amazon the go-to search engine this holiday season?

Almost everyone knows that the overwhelming majority (93%) of online experiences begin with a search engine, but when you’re looking to finish off your holiday shopping list, what search engine do you go to? Amazon or Google?

In 2012, a Forrester report found that 30% of all online shoppers start research products at Amazon. Wordtracker even went so far as to say that “Amazon has not only topped Google as the number one shopping search engine, but has attracted droves of individual and corporate sellers to its marketplace.”

Apparently, not much has changed since that time.

A recent study at the start of peak season for ecommerce has revealed that online retailer Amazon has taken a huge lead and become the first place consumers go to find products.

The study, run by personalization platform company BloomReach and Survata found that approximately 55% of customers use Amazon before any other site when searching for products online. This was the second annual “State of Amazon” study.

While the company’s gains are impressive, it’s nothing short of what consumers and researchers have come to expect from the retail giant.

In 2015, Amazon surpassed Wal-Mart as the most valuable retailer in the US, and its numbers only continue to grow. In the past, many more people would first turn to a search engine such as Google, but the number of services that Amazon offers puts the company at a distinct advantage for the coming holiday season.

The study

BloomReach’s second annual “State of Amazon” study surveyed 2,000 U.S. consumers over the 2016 Labor Day weekend and revealed surprising results. While 55% of consumers reported going to Amazon before any other retailer, search engines and other retailers lost equal ground, pulling in only 28% and 16% of consumers, respectively.

The company’s lead has only increased since BloomReach’s inaugural “State of Amazon” study, conducted in 2015. BloomReach conducted a similar study in April, which revealed that Amazon already possessed 53% of consumers’ first product search.

As it turns out, Amazon is involved in nearly all online shopping experiences. In fact, approximately 90% of consumers will conduct a search on Amazon even if the product they want is on another retailer’s site.

Is Amazon the go-to search engine this holiday season?

“Amazon continues to be the first destination when consumers want to find a product, driven largely by a perceived superior end-to-end experience,” said Jason Seeba, BloomReach head of marketing. “Online shopping is all about relevance and convenience, and comparison shopping has never been easier – especially with mobile growth.”

The retailers

Amazon’s grip on the public doesn’t stop at general shopping, either. With the holiday season creeping upon us, the online retailer is expected to be the first destination for almost all online holiday shopping. Approximately 94% of consumers reported plans to complete their holiday shopping on Amazon, as well.

While retailers are feeling the pinch of Amazon’s incredibly high consumer numbers, that doesn’t mean they’re entirely knocked out of the game. In fact, a majority of survey respondents said that other retailers were better at tailoring their websites and product recommendations.

Roughly one in five respondents reported that quality was their biggest concern while shopping at Amazon. It’s relatively easy to buy some objects, but others face a high rate of counterfeit complaints.

In fact, the biggest complaints came from customers who used Amazon’s relatively new “marketplace” feature. In an effort to compete with Etsy, another online retailer, Amazon created a third-party space for consumers to interact in much the same way they do on Etsy.

However, the growing artisan community came into Q3 2016 with a strong lead over Amazon’s Marketplace.

Wal-Mart

Amazon may have some fierce competition online from the Etsy artisan community, but other retailers are struggling with their ecommerce for the holiday season.

Wal-Mart in particular is making a big push to expand their online presence as holiday season creeps ever closer.

However, investors are still looking for proof that the payoff will be worth all of the time and money in the end. The company stated that it plans to spend approximately $11 billion in its next fiscal year on ecommerce initiatives while still focusing on remodeling its stores.

Is Amazon the go-to search engine this holiday season?

Wal-Mart, while its ecommerce spending might be alarming, isn’t new to this type of investment. In fact, its US online sales are second only to Amazon, the company it’s currently attempting to surpass.

As one of the most successful brick-and-mortar franchises in the nation, Wal-Mart certainly doesn’t have anything to fear as far as holiday sales go. The biggest issue for the company is whether its investors will see the current ecommerce spending necessary to compete with Amazon.

The shoppers

Whether it’s brick-and-mortar retail shopping or it begins on a search engine, holiday creep has arrived. In fact, by the time Labor Day rolled around this year, nearly half of American parents had already started their holiday shopping.

Retailers like Macy’s and Best Buy have already started their holiday advertising campaigns, even going so far as to deck out their stores in red and white holiday garb.

According to data from last year’s Rubicon survey, only 42% of parents had started their holiday shopping by September. This year marks a significant increase in their data, although other studies reveal that Rubicon’s numbers may run a bit high.

According to a CreditCards.com report from 2015, only about 14% of American consumers had started thier holiday shopping by September. However, their most recent survey showed the same upward trend in those consumers choosing to shop earlier in the year.

American parents are expected to spend approximately $1,711 during the 2016 holidays, according to Rubicon. And as the BloomReach survey suggests, most of them will be headed to search engines and Amazon for their initial searches.

According to the BloomReach “State of Amazon” study, when holiday shoppers have an idea of what they want, 59% will start on Amazon and 24% will start on a search engine. However, even a Google search is likely to direct consumers to Amazon before any other retailer.

Amazon’s presence in the e-commerce community hasn’t gone unnoticed by consumers, either. In fact, one in five consumers revealed they were concerned about the company’s dominance relative to other retail outlets.

In conclusion

Amazon, while a powerhouse in the ecommerce community, still has a few issues of its own to work out. For one, its artisan-only Marketplace doesn’t offer the kind of authenticity and service that sites like Etsy do. Consumers are not only concerned with counterfeit products, but with the company’s dominance over the online community.

Nevertheless, the company hasn’t pushed search engines or other retailers completely out of the holiday shopping game. A good chunk of consumers still turn to search engines before they conduct an Amazon search, although most search engines direct them to Amazon before other retailers.

Holiday shopping season has arrived, and although Amazon has its faults, 53% of consumers still report having left another website in favor of Amazon. This year’s holiday shopping trends just may mark a huge milestone for the company.

The power of nothing: three lessons from Cards Against Humanity and the killing of Black Friday

One business took a pretty interesting approach to this year’s Black Friday shopping extravaganza, and it might just signal a big shift in the way that businesses interact with and market to their customers.