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.


Chris Baggott said...

Thanks for the post Chris. I liked almost everything about your comments except for the concern that this is Spam.

What's great about web marketing is that there is no ambiguity. If I'm spamming in email it's obvious because I have metrics like bounce rates, clicks, and complaints/unsubscirbes that quickly let me know that what I'm mailing has no value.

The same metrics apply in search. Any marketer need to pay close attention to their metrics to guide them on what the searcher thinks of the result.

The toaster blogs for example have a bounce rate of around 50% (for comparison the average website bounces around 80%), the read times average 1.47 minutes and has a 15% click through rate vs a web average of 1.6%

All of these metrics say clearly that the searcher likes the result. The thing we all have to be careful of is letting our personal feelings guide whats right or wrong (obvously a moral compass is a good place to start lol)

It's the data that should guide web marketing. If your content sucks it will show up in your metrics. If you spam and offer junk that will be clear right away.

If you are writing content that people like....and you can rank on keywords...and you can sell lots of whatever .....

Well that's called a win win right? the business is happy, the customer is happy and the search engine is happy.

Thanks again for coming last night and asking some really insightful questions.


Chris Baggott

Chris Brooks said...

Thanks for the comment Chris. Ironically I published an update to the post 6 minutes before I received your comment basically retracting my characterization of Compendium as "pseudo-spam".

I think the aspect of Compendium that we discussed last night -- targeting long-tail keywords though a combination of keywords in the domain name, keywords in the directory name and title, and short frequently-updated on-keyword posts -- works. In areas where there's little competition, Google would much rather serve a link to your page than serve a link to complete spam.

However, I think the temptation is for the bloggers in this case to publish posts that don't actually do much to help the end user. And I wouldn't say that that's just moralizing -- Google very clearly prefers content that people find helpful, so I think long-term, you're better off developing content that's genuinely useful.

But, it's a pretty high bar to say "only publish stuff that helps". So, (as someone who has occasionally published some stuff that's pretty clearly psuedo-spam -- Take a look at Cross-Country-Skis.com sometime when you're bored) I'd like to officially climb down off my high horse and say: Yeah, I bet Compendium genuinely helps its clients to rank for these long-tail keywords.

Chris Baggott said...

Thanks Chris.

Keep in mind the searcher. They are the only ones that matter.

I love the cross country ski example with a different execution. You can easily identify about 200 terms to target that equal about 2 million monthly searchers.

If you were a person who was passionate about the topic you could easily post a few fun and relevant items every day.

Instead of Ads, I'd do affiliate sales of actual products.

And then watch your data. You will find that people like finding pages where the content matches their query and solves their problem. :-)

Chris Brooks said...

Hi Chris, I think it's interesting that we are both arguing for giving the user better information -- but we seem to be disagreeing on how to do it. I agree that if people write genuinely useful blog posts about long-tail topics, those posts will likely both rank well and be useful to the visitors.

I'm unconvinced that text similar to my made-up example ("My family ate four slices of sourdough toast this morning from our new Cuisinart toaster.") is useful to visitors.

I'm iffy on how Google interprets bounce rates. There seem to be thoughtful SEOs on both sides of the issue, but I tend to think Google is unlikely to use the information in its algorithm. This seems to be the most careful article on the topic of bounce rates as a quality metric.

Chris Baggott said...

They key is that Bounce Rates are a guide. Nobody is going to question that everyone's metrics are going to be different, but it's about direction.

If you had a bounce rate of 80% and were able to move that to 40% something good is happening.

Often it's the Call to action that impacts bounce rate the most.

As I tell our clients all the time...if you don't give me a path to move forward then the only choice you leave me is to go backwards.