Tuesday, September 01, 2009

What Great Long-Tail Organic Pages Look Like

I attended tonight's Cambridge SEO Meetup, and left the meeting somewhat frustrated. The speaker, Chris Baggott presented blogging software from his company, Compendium Blogware. Chris was articulate and well-informed, and dealt gracefully and with humor while being challenged by several people who seemed intent on proving that he isn't a Linux sysadmin -- which he's not.

That aside, here's what frustrated me: Chris was presenting a solution that really bothered me. He was recommending that clients use his company's blogging software to build web pages that target long tail keywords. That in-and-of-itself is laudable. It's relatively easy to rank for long-tail keywords, and a lot of high-volume "fat-head" keywords don't convert that well. His software has some proprietary sauce that helps to categorize those posts in several different categories, and post them with keyword-enhanced titles and using keyword-enhanced directory names. So, for example, the page might be:


And the resulting page would have the title "Four Slice Cuisinart Toaster". Aside from these basic SEO optimization techniques, he encourages his clients to write a 100-word blog post on what they're doing that day that relates to four-slice cuisinart toasters. I'm imagining posts that say something like: "My family ate four slices of sourdough toast this morning from our new Cuisinart toaster."

Compendium will then also helpfully categorize that post under:

CrazyToasters.com/four-slice-toaster/ and

The result is made for Google psuedo-spam that takes very little effort by the end user, is easy to update on a regular basis, and probably ranks pretty well for queries involving these keywords. (Indeed, just several weeks after registering a $10 domain and pushing 150 posts live, he claims that they have sold 20 toasters.)

Why does psuedo-spam like this work?

It seems to me that when Google visualizes the web, it sees a vast topographical map. At the center of the map are commercial terms like "mortgage", "gambling", "viagra" and "insurance". And surrounding these keywords are vast mountains of pages that are attempting to optimize for those keywords. The 10 pages that make up the very peak of this mountain are displayed to the end user when they type the query "mortgage". Surrounding that peak are lesser peaks, such as "online mortgage", "second mortgage", "quick mortgage", and foothills such as "san diego mortgage", "interest-only mortgage new york". Within each of those lesser peaks and foothills there are 10 pages that fit the Google algorythm well enough to become local maxima.

Compendium's brand of psuedo-spam works because out beyond the mountains of high-volume, highly-commercial keywords, there are vast plains, with 4 and 5 word keywords that very few people search for. Because so few people search for them, few marketers optimize for them. And because few marketers optimize for them, it takes little work to create the sub-surface geology that gives these pages a moderately higher peak than the plains around them. By choosing a domain name with the "toasters" keyword, highly-targeted sub-directory names and titles, and a bit of text that hasn't been translated from English to Russian and back again, Compendium's clients gain enough altitude to rank for their long-tail keywords.

So, what's wrong with that? I guess nothing. It's certainly better than the true spam that's out there -- stuff scraped from RSS feeds, and then churned through an automated content re-writer and spewed onto the web. Stuff that almost reads as English, until you realized that the last few sentences you processed don't actually make sense. I mean, from one perspective, I'm glad that Compendium's software works. Certainly reading about what toaster people used for their breakfast is better than reading true spam. However, the problem is that it doesn't take that much additional work to create truly useful long-tail organic pages. In fact (in volume), it may even be easier.

Start by asking yourself: When someone types 'Four Slice Cuisinart Toaster' into Google, what are they hoping to find? What are the implicit questions that they're asking?

  1. They probably want to know what models are available, how much they cost, and where they can buy them

  2. They probably want to know what product features they have

  3. They probably want to see pictures

  4. They might want to know where the user manual is, or troubleshooting tips

  5. They might want to see user reviews

Why not create that page for these users? If you're going to create 250 pages (which Chris recommended), it's probably faster to collect the data in a spreadsheet, and then have someone spit out that data into a web page. Include a link to a "Consumer Review" page, and then roll those reviews back into the page. The upside of this approach is that you have a page that genuinely ought to rank #1 in Google. The better it ranks, the more people will come and submit reviews, which creates a virtuous cycle.

Now, over time perhaps Chris's clients will create these higher-value pages that offer more substance to their readers. Or maybe domainers will adopt Compendium (or one of the the other similar CMSs) to monetize their middling domains. And maybe that shouldn't bother me -- I've certainly got one or two projects out there that I'm not really proud of. But my personal bias is that two-or-three years out you'll reap the rewards of building a platform that results in great pages, rather than pseudo-spam.

Update: Here's the danger of writing blog posts at 2:00 am. I slept on this and decided that I was being an idiot. Compendium is a much better solution than just ignoring your long-tail keywords, and clients certainly have the option to make those pages genuinely useful. The "pseudo-spam" aspect of it has nothing to do with Compendium's product -- just what I imagine most people would enter as blog posts.