Transcript of Podcast with Eric Ward

Podcast Date: April 5, 2007

Eric Ward

The following is a written transcript of the April 5, 2007 podcast between Eric Enge and Eric Ward:

Eric Enge: Hi, I am Eric Enge, the president of Stone Temple Consulting. You can see our website at www.stonetemple.com. We are here today with Eric Ward aka Link Moses and we plan to talk about some advanced link building topics. You can see Eric's website at www.ericward.com. Good morning, Eric.

Eric Ward: Good morning, Eric. How are you?

Eric Enge: I am doing great. Let's talk about what's going on with the changes in the Google algorithms that are related to personalization. Matt Cutts has been talking a lot about personalization a lot lately. How do you think this is going to effect link building efforts in the future?

Eric Ward: There will be certain types of content where we will have to make some adjustments to strategies for link building. But, there will also be certain types of content where we really won't have to do much at all. I think the biggest danger, or the biggest thing I see at here was from the SEO or SEM community at large is feeling like somehow, this is such a huge change, that there is this fear that suddenly search engine optimization doesn't matter, that suddenly it's obsolete.

How do you optimize a page when every person gets a different page of results? And, I think it's a fair question, but if you take the time to work through the individual aspects of how the engines are going to try to personalize results, you'll find that there is only a certain scenario for which it might make sense to really make a significance change to your strategy. The most obvious thing I look at is, well if Google is going to try to give me personalized results. If Eric Ward and Eric Enge are going to get different sets of results, how is Google going to know, what I wanted versus what you wanted. The first shot across the bow on this topic was back in February. The post on the Google Blog about the personalized search, where Google said they are going to analyze certain things,, such as your own search history. What type of things do you search for versus what I search for? What sites in the results do you click on and spend time on versus clicking on and coming right back to the results and clicking on something else which Google may try to interpret as a signal of what you wanted or didn't want.

They have also mentioned that they are going to analyze other things, such as if you have created a personalized Google homepage, for example. I have a personalized homepage on Google, I log into every morning. And, on that are probably, and I haven't even counted, so many feeds, it's insane, most of which are devoted to search engine optimization and marketing. I also have a couple of feeds that are based about Knoxville, and about the University of Tennessee, my alma mater. So, there is some information, Google could glean if you want to use that term from my personalized homepage. This guy cares about search engine marketing, he cares about Knoxville, Tennessee, and he cares about the University of Tennessee. His weather forecast is for Knoxville and Destin, Florida, so maybe he travels there. He has added the Movie Times, new movie module to his personal homepage, maybe he cares about new movies and entertainment.

So, these are signals I guess you could say Google is looking at from you, from me, from everybody who has got a Google account to try to figure out how to give us a little bit more personalized result. What that means for the link builder, first thing that comes out for me is that the sites that are locally flavored. If you run a local business, it probably is more important than ever that you make sure that you have high trust, or high value links from as many geographically close by venues as possible to help give Google a better feel for, that that's important to your business versus if you do business nationally. Other aspects of it might be, have you, if you are a local business, have you taken the time to make sure that you have registered with Google Local and Google Maps. I mean, it's amazing, the free things you can do within Google. Have you used the process of making sure your content could get bookmarked by those people who have Google bookmarks accounts? Now, this is looking far more forward, but Google has their own private bookmarks, Google Bookmark service now, where you can make your bookmarks available regardless of where you happen to be, your favorite sites, the google.com/bookmarks.

Eric Enge: Right.

Eric Ward: And, so if I have got fifty or a hundred bookmarks, and if half of them are about college football, and that like twenty, quarter of them are about arthritis, and five of them are about pediatric hearing loss, then Google maybe could make some determinations about what I care about. And, when you take all of those signals together, a bookmark, a personalized homepage, a Google search history, then Google could feel confident enough to give me some personalized flavor in my search results. But that said, the other thing about this is, we are not even talking about, like a drastically different search result. I think Marissa Mayer had made a comment that from Google that, never will the site that appears first in the organic results ever be unseeded from position one. In other words, at best they might seed somewhere within the top five, or top ten results, a couple personalized results. And, if you think about that, the only person it has significant impact for their, as whoever got usurped or displaced from say position three, and the personalized result that was inserted there, for those two folks, it mattes a lot, for everybody else nothing at all.

Eric Enge: Right. So, you also need to think about, okay, let's say the Google isn't familiar with the user yet, right? Clearly, it seems to me at least that the algorithm at that point will be not changed by any of this personalization stuff, because they didn't have a reference point. So, getting initial exposure to a user, right, that process probably doesn't change much, right?

Eric Ward: Yeah. I think that's a great point that Google can only try to help you with personalized result if you have signed up for a Google service of some type, and they have some data as a result. Gmail, a Google homepage, bookmarks, whatever it maybe, and then only when you are signed in, and that's the other wild card here, if you ask ten people who do have various Google services that they have subscribed to, or that they use, it's like tell them to look away from their computer screen, and then say are you logged into Google right now or not?

Eric Enge: Well, and the other question I have to ask you is, which one of my ten Google accounts are you asking about?

Eric Ward: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, we've got a computer here in our house that could be used by five different people.

Eric Enge: Right.

Eric Ward: So, if I had forgotten that I had been in Gmail, and then I have moved on to a new page, but I am still technically logged in via cookies. And then, my wife does a search for something that she is looking for. Now, does Google think that was me? So, that I think there is a great challenge here. I like the concept of personalized search, I think it's a brilliant step forward, and it's part of the evolutionary process here. But in terms of it meaning, a change across every single desktop in the world, I don't see that happening for a long time if ever simply because it's going to be so long before there is a next critical mass there to be able to give every single person significantly different results, and you are going to have be a member of that club to even get the results. And, ask a hundred people coming out of any popular restaurant, if they have a Google account, and I'd bet you, ninety out of hundred don't.

I think the forward thinking search engine optimization expert studies it, analyzes it, and then says okay, for which of my clients do I need to consider implementing a personalized link building strategy, because it won't be for everyone.

Eric Enge: Right. So, let's switch gears a little bit, what's your viewpoint on purchasing links?

Eric Ward: I think it's, for me it depends upon your intent of the purchase, everybody knows I am kind of like notoriously conservative about their link building strategies I recommend. And, the reason for that is I have to be, because the content that I am working on behalf of. The last thing I need to do is have to explain to somebody like the Discovery Channel why their sites were banned, because of something I recommended. I have to be extremely vigilant to make sure I am very conservative. But, that doesn't mean that buying links is not something I will consider. I just never buy links, because I am trying to improve rank, I would buy a links and consider them like advertising where I am after quick traffic. I don't care about Google, Yahoo or MSN when I buy a link. I am buying a link, because my content is, say the Discovery Health sites Asthma channel on their website, and, I found content for Asthma sufferers on another site, and in that case I am looking for direct traffic from that site. I found an audience that would be inclined to care about the Discovery Health site's content, so why not?

I don't, I am not after someone at Google that's doing a search on asthma relief or whatever asthma medications. I am after someone who is already on content about that, and I am looking for more of a lateral click mover rather than a searcher.

Eric Enge: Right. And, what do you think about Google stance on purchased links? The whole business of having to use the Nofollow attribute if you purchase a link?

Eric Ward: I have mixed emotions, because since I started doing link building since way before there was a Google, or before there were any engines. And then, I know a lot of these guys, came up through the ranks, and have gotten to know them, and meet them, and talked to them at the conferences. So, part of me is, certainly understands that they want to provide the best results that they feel that help the user. They want to give the user, the best search experience possible. At the same time, the challenge for web marketers and competitive niches is, is that everybody's got to eat. And then, in a hyper competitive market, I can see what people say, I'll be dying if I am going to follow this code of ethics when my competitors aren't. So, there is no incentive for me to Nofollow it, because if I do Nofollow it, I am going out of business.

So, I feel that they play on both sides, my personal opinion is simply that, if you are going to approach a tactic that Google has said hey, we really would appreciate it, if you would Nofollow anything that's paid, or anything that in anyway was negotiated or engineered about your links, help us understand that. If you choose not to, just recognize that it's within Google's rights to basically do whatever they feel is right, to provide the best searcher experience. And, if you get busted for a tactic that you go into with your eyes open, if Google decides to panelize content because it's something they have warned us about then we don't really, don't have a right to cry over it. Every tactic is worth trying, so, long as you understand, when you go into it, the risks versus the rewards.

Eric Enge: Right.

Eric Ward: A classic example is client that comes to me with a eight-year-old website, which has never really focused that much on link building. But, because I had great content, they are, they have some nice organic rankings. They have a great collection of inbound links. Well, my foremost proposal or recommendation to them is, don't do anything stupid. I mean, maintain the great brand, and the trust that you have already acquired with the engines. Now, if a client comes to me, and I'd say that it's like brand new site, we just launched this year. We have no links, branded domain, first time launch and we are struggling. They might have to pursue a little bit more aggressive approach to link building, than would the eight-year-old site already in the, what I call the secret circle of trust.

Eric Enge: Right. Yeah, the way I look at it is, it's important for people to understand just how strategic it is for the search engines from a perspective that, having what they consider the highest quality search results, equates directly to market share. And, their stance is, that their algorithms aren't built from a logic that says okay, we'll figure out who is purchasing links, and who isn't, an we will weigh them differently. They are based on observing web link behavior in a world where the search engines aren't something that people are thinking about. It's like the rat in the maze who has figured that he is being observed in his behavior changes. So, it's confusing for people, but at the end of the day, it's important to understand that it's a, when you buy a link for purposes of ranking you are at odds with the strategic objectives of the search engine, and that's the risk you are taking.

Eric Ward: Yes. That's the risk you are taking. I am not going to take an ethical stance on it, because I don't think that's fair. And, I see examples of sites who are in predicaments, where they are almost forced to do things they don't even want to do. Because, there is no other way to compete, because they've analyzed the links of their top ten competitors, and the reason they can't make it to the first page of Google resultx is because all ten of their competitors are ranking well, and being unfortunately rewarded for tactics that Google had said don't do. And, it's frustrating to sit here and think okay, I am going to behave myself, but when are, Google when are you going to bust everybody, that's not.

Eric Enge: Right. That's the other side of the coin. Alright, just give me a level playing field, if you are going to give me all these rules.

Eric Ward: Yes. If I am willing to Nofollow purchased links, and I am willing to do this, this and this. But if all that does is keep me locked on the position thirty in the results, the heck with it.

Eric Enge: Right. Yeah, you can certainly see that happening. Alright, let's change gears a little bit again. Stephanie from Google, Dublin recently posted about Spam Reporting, and one of the thing that was very interesting about that is, first of all that Google is actively encouraging it. And then, this particular post that I am referring to included essentially a guarantee that if you are logged into Webmaster Central, when you made the spam report that, they considered that an authenticated report, and if these are guaranteed to be looked at by Google. So, this is quite interesting for me, because people can use this to report links purchased by their competitors.

Eric Ward: Sure. I think they will. I think Google's made a good move here. And, what they are saying is we don't know for sure we can trust the unnamed source who is saying this site's cheating, this site's cheating. But, if you want to tell us that this site is cheating, then do so but at least login so that we can know who you are, and feel more confident that you are not doing this, just to hose a competitor. I can remember the old episodes of 20-20 or Sixty Minutes where the witness would be behind the screen or in blacked out where you couldn't tell who they were, it's a witness protection program kind of thing. But, so I understand what Google's saying. At the same time though, there is no guarantee that because you have reported someone is cheating that that site is going to be penalized. I think what this does is, it maybe gives Google a way of triaging what is probably a massive flow of spam reports, so that they are saying is well, we got a figure out some way to deal with these, let's go first to the ones that have been authenticated, not authenticated as definite spam reports but someone who is willing to at least say who they are, when making the report, and then we will go, take a look and see if we can maybe figure out if the report is true.

Now, the thing that I notice about this type of thing is, how many sites mistakenly pursue a marketing tactic, paid links, reciprocal links, swapped links, any type of, so many different tactics, without any intent to do wrong. They didn't, they just didn't realize that it's like a speed trap. But, maybe that's not a great analogy, but it's like when you, sometimes when you travel on country roads, you go suddenly from a speed limit of fifty to a speed limit of twenty. And, if you are still going fifty, you didn't do it on purpose, you just didn't notice the sign.

Maybe you are dependent on someone else who told you, gave you bad advice, and I see that happening where people would inadvertently do something that might have violated a search engine's terms of service or requirements. I think it's good, it's also clever, and what a brilliant way to get more people than ever to log into and sign up for Webmaster Tools that maybe before wouldn't have.

Eric Enge: Yeah. So, does this hurt the link purchasing business some?

Eric Ward: I think it can, and it certainly could cause a shakeout where, the link sellers and the link buyers will have to move more toward buying links for the sake of audience relevance rather than search rank. I don't think it means the death or the end of purchased links. But, if you are the person buying the links, you better be extra careful now that the site that you've purchased them from is selling them in such a way that they are not going to end-up inadvertently triggering Google. I mean, then there will be other things that will happen, people will report a spam or paid link or whatever, that is Nofollowed, they just didn't notice that, so there will be some other mechanism in place that helped Google know that that was not a violation. But the submitter, or the reporter of that will not even have noticed that. It's like I am amazed that some very savvy people that have been running websites for a long time who have never heard of the Nofollow rule. That's a great example of a situation where someone could easily engage in a tactic without even realizing, I have just done something Google said don't do.

Eric Enge: Especially with something like this where you can clearly see that it's a little bit non intuitive that this idea that you can't spend marketing dollars on getting traffic for your site, or that there are special rules for doing it.

Eric Ward: Especially when the site, I hate to say it, but I will see paid ads at the search engines that say links for sale, improve your search rank. And, its like wait a minute, if this is showing up on the search engines pay per click listings that must mean it's OK. I mean it's very confusing to someone who doesn't spend their entire day, looking at this stuff and studying it, and keeping up with it. It is very easy to think you are pursuing a tactic that some people call white hat, when actually it's the opposite.

Eric Enge: Right. So, do you use any automation when you do link building?

Eric Ward: The only aspects of link building that I will automate are, when I am doing some research to analyze linking patterns, linking habits or tendencies across certain topics. I am doing a project right now on some content for PBS related to its educational content, related to the Curious George. And, I will go out and do a Google search and find twenty sites or thirty sites that are devoted to fans of Curious George, and within about an hour of doing regular searches, I will have a collection of content that I think represents the best of the best Curious George's sites. I can intake that collection of sites and run some link analyses, and see who is linking to those sites.

If these are the best twenty-eight sites devoted to the Curious George on the web, and which of these are showing the tendencies to link to each other? And, see who else is linking to them, is it school websites, or is it librarian websites? By doing link analysis to the best of class sites that I have identified, I can then start to find linking targets for my client. With this I can find hundred and seventy-seven sites that are linking to thirteen different Curious George sites, but not to my client site. And, that kind of points you in direction where to go, that said, that's to me with where the, in my opinion that's where the automation stops.

When it comes time to actually making contact with a site, to try to request or bring their attention to content that you would like them to link to, to me that's a very personal thing that has to take place from human to human. At the end of the day, all of link building boils down to, there is a person that you are trying to get to do something for you, who you have probably never met. Therefore it all becomes a very personal thing at that moment.

Eric Enge: Right. And, becomes incredibly important to remember that when you make that first contact that, that person isn't expecting your e-mail, they didn't wake up this morning dreaming about, how they could link to your site. And, that we view this part of the processes as a relationship building process here. And, sometimes, especially when we are talking at very high-end domains, we use an approach where the first four contacts or five contacts we do not even say anything about having the person link to us. The first contact might be hey, I saw that you, we are looking for such and such a resource, I found it for you, it's over here. That's relationship building, right?

Eric Ward: Sure.

Eric Enge: You'll not do this for random sites, you do this for more authoritative sites, and it's a way of building that relationship to the point where you get the authoritative link, which is what works far more than your average garden variety link out there. Does that make sense to you in terms of an approach?

Eric Ward: Oh absolutely. I think that for each type of content, you have to be willing to recognize that you could need a different approach.

There will be some sites, some target sites that you would like to get a link from, that if you have done your research well to identify them, and if you are representing good content, a link would just come as a natural course of contacting them. Sticking with the example I used about Curious George, if I find a website and its run by an English teacher, and it is the ultimate collection of English tools to teach toddlers to talk, or whatever, or to teach reading. And, within that she has popular, well known characters. And, she has a list of Curious George links, and she has seven or eight links there to just some very high quality content related to Curious George, and reading skills. And, if I have got a new content about that topic, that's a logical natural match for her section, and I introduced that to her via applied one to one email, since that was her intent or goal anyway was to create this list of resources.

Often, all that's needed is that one individual email, and the link happens, often it will happen as quickly as they receive the email, read the email, and respond. However, the farther away you move from that sort of venue or target site, the more you move into where it becomes really important to have that relationship. You can't just basically expect one quick email, and you are done.

Eric Enge: You are absolutely right. There is a spectrum and the ideal scenario, if you find that list as you say if the nine Curious George sites, and yours is missing in, they are really trying to point at all the best content, and you have the perfect match. And, you are just putting the two pieces together, and, so that's a situation where suggesting your resource is helping them.

Eric Ward: Absolutely.

Eric Enge: But, ultimately it all got back to helping them, one way or another, and it fits in the context though, viewing the whole thing as a relationship.

Eric Ward: Yeah. The relationship in that, it's exactly like you said about the relationship, the difference in that scenario is the relationship comes from the content, and her focus on her site, and the content and the focus of the site that I am representing. So, the relationship in that sense is both sides, our providing content related to helping children read.

So, if I was representing really terrible content, no amount of personalized link request letters, phone calls, voicemails, FedEx packages will matter. People would ask me in the preliminary fact finding part of this process, Eric how many links can you get us? And, I will say none, I can't get you any links, your content will inspire some links from a certain collection of sites out there, if we can bring it to the attention of the people that run those sites in the right manner. But, I don't get content links, your content gets you the links.

Eric Enge: Right. You are the facilitator though, and your value add is that you know how to do that part of the process.

But, it is a subtle distinction, and it's really good to get a client focused on quality of content being the driver, because then they are going to approach the process the right way.

So, we are almost out of time, but I did want to ask you, if you've ever had the experience of having to cleanup after an SEO, who did some really bad link building things.

Eric Ward: Oh gosh, sadly more often than I wish I had to. But, in fact, you and I should go out after this interview and register SEOcleanup.com. Because, every week, and it seems like it's much more frequently now than a year ago, I get an email that basically says the same thing. "Hi, we hired somebody to do our link building, and have discovered that they went about it the wrong way, and we were ranking well at Google, and now we have disappeared". Now, that's the worst case scenario, others are "hi, we have just found out that we have been going about our link building in a bad way. We didn't know, we thought that the company knew what they were doing, and they didn't, and fortunately it hasn't hurt our rankings yet, but now we are all nervous. Can you help us"? I don't know that the companies that are selling these link building services, that are useless or dangerous, themselves maybe even fully realize what they are doing. I mean I come across services everyday, that it's obvious to me that they don't even understand, that what they are selling is no good. And, their web design, their design looks great, their service offering looks great, their pricing looks great, and I know as I read through it, it's absolutely worthless. I have seen this for years.

It's sad because, the bigger the company, the are more likely to have a staff and an online marketing department. And, they have a Senior Vice President or VP of online marketing. They have a budget, they have got pressure on them to get something done, they have heard that link building matters, or online publicity, or whatever. And so, but maybe they haven't spent all of their life in the online world, maybe they have come from an offline background. So, they are at the mercy of trusting services, and it's not like they really knew any better. Neither did the company they bought it from.

Now, there are cases where people are just blatantly selling junk. So, I do see it, and I do try to do everything I can to help cleanup the mess, so to speak. And, there are things you can do, there are things you can do yourself without having to spend $5,000 to outsource your link building to a company in another country, and then having to cleanup the mess. I would do some analysis, and sometimes it will clean itself up on its own, sometimes it's one of those things where the mess is not as bad as you might think. It's like we bought a bunch of university, school newspaper links, we bought a bunch of news, regular news paper links. And, some of those, it's going to be pretty obvious that they were not Nofollowed, or there is an algorithmic footprint to those links that the engines can understand anyway, and you are not going to get penalized.

Other times I come across links that I just shake my head and I think oh, man that's a ticking time bomb over there. That's just a question of when the engines stumble across that one, because there will be a link out there that sends a signal of that kind of intent. When you start noticing URLs struck within, well, if you want to get into really, into various topics, the old URL link injection technique, where you can find an unprotected form at an .EDU site, and inject the link, and the person then on the site doesn't even know it just happened. Believe or not, it's possible.

Eric Enge: Oh yeah. And then, Rand Fishkin point posted recently about getting on authority domains like Forbes.com and getting to put up advertising pages for you and using that as a vehicle, essentially spamming trusted domains, but the trusted domain is just treating it like you are selling an ad. But, the problem is that it's just a little bit shady, the whole thing.

Eric Ward: Yeah. It has a certain, it's like it has a certain smell to it. You can almost compare it to pornography. Some people will say, everybody's definition of pornography is different, but it's usually the same, I know it when I see it. And, for me from a linking standpoint, there is something about it as I come across various links. It has a certain sense like okay, I know it, when I see it, and the intent of that link was at least to some extent, even if it's to a small degree to fool an engine, or to get credit for, or improve rank for something that the content creator didn't even know about. Forbes better understand that there are ramifications there for them. It's really clear what the whole intent there was, somebody wanted link off of Forbes.com/whatever, that the engines might then give credit for.

Eric Ward: So, and it gets pretty deep there, it gets to the point where, I don't know if they are perfect answers for all of these. That's why I think the best thing to do is to take a look at each approach and say okay, here's the pros and cons of this approach, it looks white hat, but here's where you might get in trouble, or this looks black hat, but actually it's not. Because, it's a paid link on a site that uses JavaScript and the engines will never see them, and that's good, that the engines like it that way. It's like buying links from AdBrite, for example.. I just liked their business model, the way their links are rendered on a page, it's never going to, I just can't see it ever getting in hot water with the engines, because the engines can easily detect it.

You are not going to fool the engines there. But then, there are other link sellers who don't do it that way, and who could fool the engines, meaning you are on thin ice. So, anyway I guess the answer to your question is, I do cleanup messes as best as I can. I think the thing that I do more than anything is do a damage assessment to say, okay, your link building efforts for X number of years were great, and then mistakenly you did stopped them for a year, that you shouldn't have. And, sometimes it's just simple as kill off that links page, you ditch those reciprocal links, ask these sites to remove these links, tell Google you are sorry and move on. In fact, or at some degrees it might be, load up your entire company on a plane, and head out to Google's offices.

Eric Enge: And, beg for mercy.

Eric Ward: And, beg for mercy.

Eric Enge: Absolutely. Well, it's been great, Eric. Thanks so much for talking with me today.

Eric Ward: No, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this topic. I am still out here in the middle of nowhere in Knoxville, Tennessee, so it's not that, I don't have that many people stopping by the offices here to talk sharp. So, it's always nice to get to talk with somebody else, who was into it, like I am.

About the Author

Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: https://www.stonetemple.com.

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