Aaron Wall is a well known name in the SEO space. In addition to writing one of the more popular SEO Blogs, he also offers a suite of free SEO tools, and more recently opened up an exclusive online SEO training program.
Eric Enge: Let’s start by talking a bit about how ideas spread today.
Aaron Wall: As the web keeps maturing, it’s getting easier and easier for automated ads to look personalized. Spam and low quality information keeps looking more and more sophisticated to some degree.
The result is that people’s BS filters keep getting better. A lot of people who consume media, are becoming more self-aware of marketing tools and such. And so, if you try to buy advertising, sometimes it works, but a lot of times it doesn’t. You can buy ads on high-traffic websites and get thirty thousand page views a day, but only four clicks. And that’s not ideal.
Meanwhile, a blog, for example, could reference you in their content and get 600 more visitors than an ad on a much higher traffic site. It could be just one tiny text link in the post.
The key online is that there are attention streams, and as markets get more competitive there are more people publishing in them. So there are more filters for people to choose from, and the top channels have a lot of attention focused on them. Some sites like TechCrunch have about a half a million people reading them, whereas even in niche fields you can still get hundreds or thousands of subscribers.
So when you really want to spread ideas online, perhaps it works to buy your way in. But I think you still have to develop the social relationships to get the right coverage you want, or have really good ideas that are really worthy of spreading. The key is really getting exposure in context where the attention is focused.
Eric Enge: A couple of things you said there that I just want to comment on. One is the treatment of ads. On search engines people are more likely to click on ads when they really have an intent to buy at that moment. My own impression is that people are okay with that, and they are okay with advertising as long as it’s not deceptive.
So, they are tolerant of it, but it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily going to go there. The other thing that you highlighted is when you have an endorsement, a legitimate endorsement by somebody that the readers trust, that could spark a whole another level of activity.
Aaron Wall: Absolutely. And, when you get that trusted endorsement link, after the page gets archived, it’s only a PageRank three or two. But it’s not necessarily about PageRank. The key is if someone has built trust for years and years in the marketplace, many of those people that have learned to trust them for years might say, “okay, maybe I want to look at that.” So, the key is if your approach to SEO is highly mechanical, then it’s going to be hard to compete today. You need to look at what people are talking about and why they are talking about it.
You could almost learn the biases of people. Back when I was running Threadwatch, I knew if I changed the title slightly and mentioned something about click fraud or something else I could predict which people would link to it.
When you watch the marketplace and you can get to know the biases of the different people in the space and what they are interested in, you can often create content around what’s interesting and what’s in the news. And you can create it in a way that’s likely to get other people to talk about it, especially if you’ve followed them for many months or years.
Eric Enge: What’s the way you might suggest to get to know your audience?
Aaron Wall: Well, I think you are always writing for multiple audiences with any website; you are writing for whoever your customers are (your buyers), and you are writing for professionals in your field (your linkers), because the professional citations from people in your field are important for getting that trust built up amongst your community.
Then, you also have to have some intersection with search so hopefully you can rank for some of the key terms in your space to hopefully bring in more targeted audience that way.
Then, the fourth audience you write for would be determining where your topic intersects with other related topics, and seeing how you can branch your topic over to the related fields. If you have a pretty diverse set of people you talk to and know, that will help you when you really want to spread ideas far and wide, and it also helps you come up with better ideas. Because, a lot of times with publishing online, there are so many choices for people who are talking about what they want to consume.
So many people are fighting for attention that everybody rushes to publish, and it’s just a race. It becomes an echosphere of some sort. And if you follow some people outside of your space, then it also allows you to come up with fresh content ideas and make sure that you are sometimes able to come up with unique stuff, whereas a lot of the publishers in your space aren’t going to do that.
Eric Enge: Right. The intersection between spaces is interesting, because you can get a lot of unique spins by relating to another domain, and then of course pull in potential traffic and links from people in that other domain.
Aaron Wall: Right. If your competitors are competing just in your space, and you are able to replicate 50% or 60% of what they are doing, then you can still beat them by getting support from related fields. Almost any publisher has some sort of overlaps with their interests with other fields where they can make their stuff seem unique, just by putting some spin on it.
Some of it’s going to be more memorable than others, but at the same time everyone is unique, so there are a lot of options out there.
If someone is new to writing online, it’s really good to get a feed reader and subscribe to half a dozen or dozen leading blogs in your space. I read a blog called The Big Picture, by a guy named Barry Ritholz. He talks about economics and investing. If you look at his site, he’s got all kinds of graphics, all kinds of interesting commentary; predicting some of the financial markets, and providing financial quotes. It’s just a wide array of stuff, and you see all that effort he puts in, and you see how all the different things tie together.
Eric Enge: Right. And then, all of this notion of going into neighboring domains ties into another concept that I am fond of in the general area of SEO, which is always explaining to people not to focus on how many links they get. It’s not about the quantity of links you get, it’s more about the number of different domains that link to you. So, if you have hundred links from one domain, getting another one from that domain really doesn’t help you that much.
Aaron Wall: Yes, you get the anchor text that might help you rank a bit better for that particular phrase, but it doesn’t help your site’s overall trust diversity. The wider your pool of trust is, the more obvious it is that a lot of people trust you, the better you are going to do.
Eric Enge: Right. Because, you are writing articles that integrate what you do with what they do, you are broadening that trust that both users and search engines have in you.
Aaron Wall: Yes.
Eric Enge: So, let’s talk a little bit about the stuff you need to do. If you are attracting attention from people and getting people to react to what you are doing, you are probably not putting up the same stuff that everybody else has put out.
Aaron Wall: Right. A lot of people think they just simply don’t have the time to do that. It’s actually just reading books in related fields and relating them to your own space. Reading a book is not expensive. Some people do conferences, some people blog every day, so to take the time out and read a book that gives you a lot of unique content ideas that really aren’t out in the marketplace, and is well worth it.
A short, three hundred page book might have thirty to fifty really good ideas hidden in there.
Eric Enge: Right. The tough part is you actually need to think, which gets really challenging. I understand that phenomenon well, because I have books that I dive into periodically, but because of how busy I am it does take a little bit of effort to get my mind into it. But, sometimes it’s really, really interesting, but it didn’t end up giving you four new article ideas. And sometimes that’s frustrating. But reading someone’s book that has a unique perspective really does offer a lot of benefit. I think another thing that people can do, that Matt Cutts highlighted in my interview with him, is original research.
Aaron Wall: What I found as far as an ROI basis is that it’s somewhat better to have recycled research. Anything that’s easy to produce is going to already be done by somebody before, who already has the authority. If it’s really hard to produce, it might be complex or at least very expensive.
In many cases I’ve seen some people do really well with aggregating compilations and cross referencing stuff. Rather than doing tons and tons of original research, you highlight a bunch of other research that was done in the marketplace by various entities. And then, you tie it all together.
I did something like that when I needed research about the topic of how much is a number one ranking in Google worth. I mentioned a lot of factors associated with the ranking values, and it doesn’t say what the exact formula is, but it presents a lot of trends and a lot of research that different people did. The thing is, I didn’t have to go out and do research; I just bookmarked a lot of related research. And finally, I was able to put it all together in a way that hopefully made sense for all the people who looked at it.
Eric Enge: Right. So, there are a couple of things there. One is you do a rollup, by which I mean you discover or uncover the five best posts about a particular topic area and roll it up, integrate it, and add in your own opinions. The other is cross referencing data to create new data, which is another way that you can leverage prior work and come up with something that’s interesting. So, in both those cases, there was legitimate added value there, right?
Aaron Wall: Yes. It’s totally up to the publisher to decide how much added value or how much automation they want to do. But, it’s not hard. The way I look at it is, if you really look through the history of man and all the stuff people are publishing, billions and billions of pages, it’s really hard to say something that’s truly unique.
But, it’s not very hard to take the concept and reframe it in another fashion. Now, I think a lot of the research is that way too; even a lot of topics are just so complex that rather than trying to get people to buy all this research, just citing sources works. Citing sources also adds a lot of credibility to the piece.
Some sources are also egomaniacs, so by citing them sometimes that helps them feel ownership of the topic. So then, when you launch it, you can say you referenced their great work, and you’d love to get their feedback, and if you think it’s valuable, ask them if they could share it with their readers.
If you can get other well-known people associated with the project, just like if you can get a trustworthy citation, then the trust transfers. Just getting the input of other people or even just quoting them sometimes transfers some of that trust in some ways.
Eric Enge: Right. And, you expressed it really well in terms of the approach. The concept you expressed was if you like this, it would be great if you share it your readers. I get the emails all the time, and I am sure you do too, asking me to “please digg this,”. When I write an email like this, I always say “please digg this if you like it.” You need to keep in mind that are asking a favor of them, and not simply placing an order.
Most people don’t like to be being told to do something. Whereas, if you get a good reputation and some level of relationship with them, you put yourself in a different ballpark, don’t you?
Aaron Wall: Yes. I think a lot of people mess that up too, and it happens in all forms of communication. People will send me emails saying so and so doesn’t want to use Paypal, but he says it in a rude way. And, from that I can determine that this guy is probably not a guy I’d want in my community anyway, right?
So I send them back a short accommodating reply to which he replies and tells me how dumb I am, and I need to subscribe to other marketing websites so I can learn how to make money off my site. Then I know my first impression of him was right.
On instant messenger some people just ping me out of the blue. People just say, “hey do this for me;” and I don’t even know them. Just taking the time to actually get established in a marketplace helps a lot, and being active helps a lot. Asking versus telling, especially if it’s from anonymous strangers, is very helpful
Eric Enge: Even if you do get to be well-known, you can come across as a jerk.
Aaron Wall: Right, exactly. If you get a reputation as a jerk it undermines all the past work you did to get well-known, so it’s definitely better to be polite. A lot of times people will also ask you to do small favors for them, and, sometimes you will because you think one day he’ll do something nice for you too. So, the key is to try to do your best to build up a lot of people who owe us favors, to write down nice things for others before you need stuff from them.
You build all that up, and then hopefully some of it comes back when you need it. And then, when you launch an idea, you email some friends, you mention it on your blog. You maybe try to promote it on a couple of social media sites, and you mention it to a few bloggers.
If you can get other people involved earlier than the launch, if you can get their feedback and inputs, or their contribution earlier, that helps too.
Let’s say in the SEO space, you got Danny Sullivan involved in something you are doing. It’s probably not likely if you are brand new and because he is busy; he probably does ten times more work than anyone else in the space does. But, if you got him to buy off on something, then many others in the space will want to get involved because he is. And then, you can leverage that and work with that.
Eric Enge: And, you get indirect referral benefit.
Aaron Wall: Yes. And, a lot of times people think that guy X or girl Y is well-known so they have no time for me. Well, if you think that, it’s probably true. But if you are pretty polite, and you shoot them a kind email that’s thoughtful, personalized, not just blowing smoke, then many people who you think would just say no, a lot of times will just say yes, just because you are polite.
Eric Enge: Yes it is really true. Actually, as you get more exposure, it almost becomes more important in today’s environment to protect it by providing at least some response to people.
Aaron Wall: Yes. If people are really rude to me, I try not to answer those emails just because I get frustrated. But generally, if people are pretty kind, I try to reply to most emails I get. But, one thing I have done recently, which maybe is not as good on that front, is since we have a community forum on our site that’s part of our key training program, I try to answer SEO questions in the member forum.
That means that people would have to pay to have me answer their questions, but at the same time I found that when you give people free personalized advice about SEO stuff, they usually don’t listen to you. They don’t value your opinion, and they just keep digging and digging. And, you are like, gosh, I just gave that person three hours of my time.
So, it’s also important to setup barriers, especially if you get more well-known. What happens as you get more well-known is you get more demand on you than you can possibly accommodate. You have to try to figure out who and how you want to filter.
Eric Enge: Right, yes. And you have to be reasonably consistent in how you do that.
Aaron Wall: That’s another reason why it’s actually not good to have a lot of email that you have to deal with, because you rush through it. And it’s easy to offend somebody, because over the phone you hear each other’s voice inflections and tones and you know what they are saying. But over email you are thinking well, that guy’s a rude jerk, and you don’t know why he said what he did. It’s very easy to mistake with what people are saying or thinking.
I have actually tried to be extra kind to people sending me emails, and in a number of cases I made them think that I was a jerk any way. So, that’s a very nice thing if you can handle some communications in a social setting like a private forum. It raises the level of trust, because if people see that they are in front of other people, it makes people want to do better.
Plus, it sometimes makes people slightly less demanding and more understanding, because they can see all the other stuff they are doing. So, instead of having thirty thousand invisible emails where everyone just sees their own email, everyone sees that you are trying to help people and people are helping people on the forum.
One solution to such a problem is to have lots of employees. But another way is if you can create a feedback mechanism where people help each other; that helps a lot too for keeping customers happy, and their engagement in the community helps keep retention rates high.
Eric Enge: That all makes sense. The other thing that happens is that once you’ve put some stuff out there, as the market changes and evolves, you almost have an obligation to follow through on the original work that you published. Since you’ve now established this reputation with this area and changes occur, you need to be there with the changes, right?
Aaron Wall: Yes. I think that’s actually one of the fundamental flaws of search and the structure of the web right now, as it yields many incomplete, incorrect, and outdated answers, especially in rapidly changing fields like SEO – with lots of mixed information in them.
You can try to follow-up and do some things, but just the very act of mentioning some things changes the value of it. I was listening to a podcast of an economics professor talking about some of the financial theories that he was using to buy and trade stocks and commodities in the eighties and nineties. Then it became popular, and the main signal they were using to do these sorts of trades on was pretty noticeable.
It was about thirty percent or so, and in the current market it’s less than five percent. To some degree you can actually change the relevancy algorithm or the possibilities of any technique working just by talking about it. That’s another reason why it’s so important to have a broad base of ideas, a broad base of support groups, not to be reliant on any one thing such that if anything drops out, you still have lot of other supports, a lot of other marketing streams and a lot of other things holding up the site.
Eric Enge: Right. You can’t ride one horse.
Aaron Wall: Yes. I agree with the idea that if you build a strong brand, you really want to maintain it and keep it updated. But at the same time, it’s very hard. One of the things I failed on when I first got on the web is I tried making a site and re-updating as I learned more, and every time I did, the market changed.
People generally don’t appreciate the value of reworking stuff and making it better and better. The hard part about updating articles and stuff is most of them aren’t worth updating, because of the economics of it.
However, if you have a couple of features that are doing really well, it’s worth maybe even trying to get them translated into other languages so you keep that market position. If you let it get too stale, someone else could take your idea and recycle it and slightly spin in a different way, and then you lose that position that you put a lot of work into gain.
Eric Enge: Right. Then there is the aspect of damage control when something goes wrong, right?
Aaron Wall: Yes. The big thing there a lot of the damage control stuff can be done ahead of time. For example, if your web site is as www.mybrand.com, you might want to buy www.mybrandsucks.com, and you should certainly by www.mybrand.org and www.mybrand.net.
If possible I would also use at least one sub-domain for major sub-topics such that you help crowd out the search results a bit more with your own listings. Then, if you get positive press, it helps to promote some of the positive press you are getting. Positive press can be quite helpful in converting potential buyers into buyers. If you link to your press that helps build your credibility and helps the press rank better for your brand.
The other aspect is how you treat the customers, and having people participate in the community. What happens if you don’t treat the customers well, or you don’t respond well, or you don’t watch your marketplace at all? Someone could basically just create a post thrashing you. But, if you can build a site that has brand evangelists, a lot of times you don’t even have to hunt for the damage, because the brand evangelists will go out, defend your brand for you and help you out.
When I used to sell an e-Book, a lot of people would post pirated versions up on RapidShare. I didn’t really have to hunt for that stuff, because a lot of my people who bought my book or people who subscribed to my blog would just tell me. If you have thousands of customers or thousands of readers who like you, then it helps you defend yourself from many potential risks, especially if you treat your customers pretty fairly.
Eric Enge: Right. In fact you can take someone who is a complainer and turn them into an evangelist, because they don’t actually expect you to be responsive to whatever issue they may have raised, that can be very powerful.
Aaron Wall: Right, yes. I think I have done that a few times as well. Sometimes you just can’t make everybody happy, so a lot of times you have to just let things blow over. So, you just focus on the people who care.
If someone just seems like a really delusional nutcase after launch, you almost validate them by directly addressing whatever they are doing.
Eric Enge: Right. Well the audience out there will deal with the nutcases anyway. People on the web are smart, and they can tell when the complainer themselves are being unreasonable.
Aaron Wall: Yes. So there is another tip hidden inside there too. A lot of times if you can let other people speak for you rather than speaking directly for yourself, especially if it’s a minor issue, that’s good. However, if you are truly negligent on something, it’s definitely worth getting your voice in there to show that you care and you are actively involved in the market place.
Eric Enge: Right, cool. Let’s take a few minutes and shift gears and talk a little bit about domaining.
Aaron Wall: Sure. Businesses that are new to the web have to sell who they are, what they do, and why you should buy from them. The nice thing is if you have descriptive domains, it already says what you do. So, you don’t really have to sell yourself as much. So, if your site is bookstore.com, people instantly know oh, they sell books. And, there are also benefits beyond that.
If you are bookstore.com and someone searches for bookstore and you show up either in the paid listings or the other search results, because you match the keywords people are going to be more likely to click on your listing in general.
And, on the paid search ads, if you get clicked on more often, then you get a higher quality score and lower click prices. So, that helps pay for itself. Even with organic, you get that added click through rate in the search results.
Plus, you get the benefits of anchor text. If you own creditcards.com, it it’s far more likely that you will get the anchor text “credit cards”, because that’s who you are. But, if you are affiliatecreditcardguide.com, and all these links to you have “credit card” as the anchor text, it looks a bit spammier.
Eric Enge: Right. Are ways to apply that? Such as, creditcardguide.com or comparecreditcards.com. These seem less spammy because they are more descriptive.
Aaron Wall: Yes. If your brand aligns with keywords, then it’s natural for you to get good anchor text, which will help you rank better for it. Some search engines, particularly Google and Microsoft, put a bit of bonus if your domain name exactly matches the keywords and you have one of the top domain extensions like .com, .net, .org, .co.uk, or .org.uk. You have to be one of the more trusted extensions for that to count that way, but that can provide a good lift.
In addition, the other names that I like are ones where I could have a clear marketing strategy. If you have a site and it’s maybe not the most profitable field, but it’s a topic that’s easy to like, and there are related high value topics, you can bridge this site over in that direction with the authority it has established.
I am a really big fan of taking a high value vertical, finding an easy entry point that should be easy to market, and then, as you gain authority, start sliding the site over a bit to broaden its focus to cover the more high-value related areas.
Eric Enge: Right. So, the idea is that what you start with is a little bit less competitive, so you can get in easier?
Aaron Wall: Yes. Sometimes it’s less competitive so you can get in easier. Let’s say you have a website about stopping world hunger, right? Now, I don’t want to be a sleazy marketer, and say to use it in some bad way. But, if you have a topic that’s easy to love like that, it’s okay. People should be able to eat, who could not like that idea? Who is going to go “oh, this guy is sleazy?”
Whereas compare that with the other end if you have like a site that’s about pornography, or poker, or something like that, it’s much harder for people to like. So, I try to build stuff that’s easy for people to like. Hopefully it will be easy for it to spread if I do well marketing it.
Eric Enge: Right, exactly. So, let’s say you purchase a domain that has a really good key phrase in it. You basically use that then as a platform to build related content. Let’s just take your example and imagine a site such as feedthepoor.com. You can build the content around that, and because it’s easy to like, because it has a great domain name, you can build up a site easier than if you took a domain called AcmeFoodSolutions.com. People are going to link to that, and you don’t need any help ranking for that.
Aaron Wall: Right, yes. So that’s a way I look at the web, the more you could position your brand as being friendly and likeable, the better you’ll do. Some of that will come down to brand positioning, and then some of it will come down to whether the core idea is good.
Eric Enge: How do you go about identifying a good domain target?
Aaron Wall: I look at Microsoft Ad Intelligence or Compete.com search analytics stuff. I look through some of the categories and look for some of the phrases that look really good. And then, what I do for confirming the value of it is use Google Traffic Estimator, because that will tell you what Google thinks it will get in ad clicks a day if you were bidding on AdWords.
They show exact match, phrase match, and broad match; you can use all three versions. If you are buying it primarily for the exact keyword phrase you really want to look at exact match, but if you think you can build something great and plan on making a large broad site, then you can start putting a bit more emphasis on the phrase or broad match. So, I look at those, and then I generally try to buy .com, .net, .org. domains.
.info domains are probably not seen as well, particularly by some of the people inside Google. They probably spend a lot of time trying to kill .info spam sites. For example, on the 23rd of last month, I believe a lot of .info’s just disappeared out of Google for a day.
Eric Enge: Right. So, when you look at your strategy overall, do you think about getting a bunch of domains and having a bunch of things running and dialing them up, or do you focus on a smaller number and try to drive them really high?
Aaron Wall: In most spaces, I probably wouldn’t have more than a couple of websites unless I could feel that they are separate brands that have a unique reason and strategy separate from each other.
You wouldn’t want five sites competing all on the exact same keywords. But, if you could create five little, mini sites or one mother site that’s really strong, and then maybe a related news blog and a couple of niche micro sites, I think that can work. I think that the newer you are to doing web stuff, the more you really should focus on doing one or two sites really well. But, as you get more experienced, you have a broader experience the work from.
I think branching out and owning multiple sites is a good strategy for increasing revenues from the marketplace. You don’t want to have a ton of sites to look spammy and start adding risks, but if you have all of your investment on one site and something happens to it, it’s not so good.
I like to have a nice diverse income profile, some AdSense stuff, some affiliate stuff, some direct fields. Then you are able to be more aggressive with how you are investing and what you do.
Eric Enge: There is strength in diversity.
Aaron Wall: Yes. So, I mean you don’t have to have tons of it, but the idea is have at least some diversity is good. Otherwise, you are not going to take some of the big risks that might have big, big rewards. You might not be willing to invest $20,000 when you could be creating a really cool tool that could be worth millions. A lot of times it just backfires, or does nothing, or doesn’t pay for itself. But, if one in five are a home run, then you are still doing really well. You don’t need every feature to really be taken well on the web. You just need a couple of them to really stand strong, give you good support to work from, and then go from there.
Eric Enge: Right. So, you could put ten solid ideas out there and maybe one on them is a home run, and maybe two or three others do OK to well, you are in good shape.
Aaron Wall: Marketing is honestly just a game of rejection; good conversion rate on some websites might be 3%, or 5%, or 10%, and that means 90% of people are rejecting you. It’s the same thing with some of the link stuff. You just have to keep pounding it out and eventually they will stick.
Eric Enge: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Aaron!
Aaron Wall: Thanks for having me, Eric!