Mike Grehan says...

Random musings about search marketing, flying around the planet, networking and people watching.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Mother Russia...

Couldn't go to bed without posting one shot of this wonderful city. St Petersburg has an outstanding regal feel to it.

Bloggin' heck!

I'm in the beautiful Renaissance Hotel in St Petersburg, Russia. And I'm sitting here naked at my machine, except for my Ushanka. I know! It's not a pretty thought. But we are talking about a serious time-zone difference here.

I'm going to bed, whereas, my buddy Todd (AKA Oilman) is wide awake in Vancouver, Canada.

As I sit here, naked, except for my Ushanka and a bottle of Merlot (what else?), Todd asks me if I can stick a grand in for some competition that I shouldn't enter.

No, I'm not sure about it either! However, my other SES team-mate, SEO superstar Greg Boser says we should stick a link to dear Matt Cutts (the non www version), who's already number one for Matt Cutts anyway (actually, number two here in Russia, but... well, it is Russia!). But I guess if he needs to be number one for Mattritude Cuttmarine, I should help?!&*$!?

So, before I mention being naked, except for my Ushanka and a bottle of Merlot one more time.. I'm in. I pledge a grand.

Just tell me who I give the grand to? Is it Matt Cutts, Greg, Todd...?

Whatever... Drop me a note when the fun begins someone.

Bedtime for one of us. And I think it's me!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Caught speeding!

I'm not a cars person. I've had cars of just about every type. However, I haven't yet fallen in love with a car. Not like I've fallen in love with a computer before.

For years now I've been driving various models of Volvo. Not because I love Volvo, but because there is a dealership ten minutes away from where I live.

If the dealership was Mercedes, then be sure, I'd have been driving Mercedes for that period. I like the convenience of the dealership. And the fact that Chris, the guy who sold me the first one, is now a pal. At the end of each year he simply rings me and says: "I'll have your new one ready on Friday." And that's it. I don't have to think about cars at all in my life.

So, you'd think, with that lack of interest in cars, I'd probably have a lack of interest in driving, right?


Spending as much time as I do in cabs and planes, it's sometimes nice just to get behind the wheel and take control yourself.

I'm going somewhere with this, by the way, just hang on in.

The problem I have, is that I always drive too fast. I'm a notorious speeder. I know I do it. I'm always in a hurry to get somewhere, is what I used to believe. So I could counter my frequent guilty conscience about speeding through traffic lights just as they're turning red, or doing 90 miles an hour in the outside lane of the motorway, just by convincing myself it was necessary because "I had to be somewhere."

Up until three years ago, my driving licence looked like my passport. It was completely cluttered with stamps and endorsements for just about every traffic violation, but mainly speeding. Here in the UK a speeding offence means 3 points on your licence and a 60 pound fine (about 100 dollars). But when you hit the 12 point mark - you get banned from driving and lose your licence.

So after three years of either driving more slowly, or not getting caught (or a mixture of both) I finally had a CLEAN driving licence.

Until a speed camera got me on the way into my UK office a few weeks ago. But this time I didn't just shrug my shoulders and go "there you go again" as usual. This time I was furious. I had been caught travelling at 35 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone. And they were going to fine and give me three points for that? If I'd been caught doing 90 on the motorway, as usual, fair enough. But 35 in a 30 zone. This, I thought, was ridiculous.

Then, I received a letter telling me that, if I was prepared to pay 60 pounds to complete a three hour speed awareness course, run by the Association of Chief Police Officers, my licence would remain intact.

Ah, I could feel the clean, untouched crispness of the licence already. So I was in.

Three bloody hours with a bunch of other speeders who should know better. And some police officer waving his finger around and telling us how ashamed of ourselves we should be. Well that's what I thought it would be, anyway.

However, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating insights I've had of myself in as long as I can remember.

The course took place in the computer suite of a very high-tech building. A guy who was not a policeman at all, but an advanced driver, introduced us to the work of Frank McKenna, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Reading University.

Dr McKenna has prepared a number of interactive exercises we all had to go through and get marked on. First there was a detailed questionnaire about our driving habits (this was all strictly confidential) which we had to answer VERY honestly, as we were told.

So I did that. And then it was game-time. Well not really. This is where we had to do a series of driving exercises in our virtual cars. Monitors on and off we go down the high street. There were old ladies stepping into the road, cars zooming out of hidden junctions, everything you encounter on the real roads. And the computer (via our mouse movements) was scoring our observation and timing.

Needless to say, when I sat in the break and read my results, I was ashamed. Not only was my speed always "above average" my "distraction level" was above average and my "emotional" level was also "above average. In short, in the real world, I became aware of the facts that: I drive to fast; I mess around with my iPod and the sound system in the car far too much; I'm almost constantly on the phone and I sometimes let my mood determine how I'm driving (i.e. too fast if I'm stressed and annoyed with myself for being late).

At the end of the three hour session we were shown some video evidence to compound the reason we had been offered the course. All of us in the room still thinking that 35 in a 30 zone was a bit trivial to be penalized so harshly for.

The preceding statistics were horrifying. Only 20% of all collisions and fatalities actually take place on the motorways of the UK. But 80% take place in 30 mile per hour zones, such as town streets, suburbs and the like.

Then the video we were shown brought it all home. An advanced police driver placed two cones a short distance form a cardboard cut-out of a child. He drove the car until it was level with the cones either side of the road and performed an emergency stop.

At 30 miles per hour he stopped right in front of the child.

He then did the same thing again, but this time at 32 miles per hour. The breaking distance was too short and he tapped the cardboard cut-out and knocked it over. This could badly injure a child.

Finally he did the same thing again, but this time at 35 miles per hour. The breaking distance was so short he hit the cardboard cut-out and sent it flying into the air. Most certainly a collision that would be fatal.

And that's when everyone in the room realised why we were sitting there.

The final thought we were left with was straight to the point. If it had been one of us who had killed the child and the mother asked us "why were you speeding" would the answer: "I was running late for a meeting" be of any consolation to her?

Today, I drove at 30 miles per hour in all those zones. Not 32 and certainly not 35. It's hard because you feel like you could get out and walk quicker. It's frustrating because people overtake you with that "jeez asshole, get a move on" look on their face. But I'm determined to use what I learned as a new year's resolution to drive more carefully in built up areas, from now on.

Don't you just love blogs? A place to come and bare your soul, repent and move on to something else about search engines.

And I will do. But in between, I'll be heading to my wife's treasured "Mother Russia" for New Year, St Petersburg style.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Not the sandbox, again!

I don't usually bother much with search engine forums. I don't have the time. And so frequently it's the same old issues being regurgitated over and over again, as "newbies" enter our emerging community.

One thing I find, which is remarkably noticeable in these forums, is the lack of content relating to actual marketing. It's as if all the contributors believe the only way to rank at a search engine depends on some technical issues which need to be addressed. It's like, we'll do the SEO and then we'll have a look at your marketing!

In particular, I find this whole non issue of the so called sandbox so irksome. Yet, I found myself being drawn into a thread at SEW forums (prompted by an email someone sent me) about the non-existent-for-many sandbox , yet again.

I thought I'd address some of the points, for the final time (I wish!!!) over at my own pad. I really don't want to get into any further debate in a forum thread where you only seem to have a valid contribution if you're wearing marketing blinkers.

The gist of most of this whole badly conceived analogy of a sandbox is that new sites get ignored for a period of time by Google.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Sorry guys.

But if you work with no hopers from the start you'll get nowhere fast. You can call it the sandbox if you want. But I'll tell it like it is.

Awareness campaigns for new brands/sites, using niche marketing into verticals, especially for b2b sites works a treat. If you are a genuine marketer, there are dozens of methods of promoting a web site other than just sitting on your ass in the so called sandbox, waiting around for Google to do YOUR job.

The minute you start creating awareness, driving traffic and increasing demand for a product or service, the faster a search engine notices. And for a good product/service that's where the snowball effect begins.

In said thread, my "award winning" buddy and on the spot conference reporter Barry Schwarz, apologizes a tad for disagreeing with me on the subject. My dear friend Jill Whalen (the Grande Dame of SEO) thinks I'm "plain wrong." And my "we'll get that lunch one day" pal, Robert Charlton thinks I may have erred on the side of "wrong" too.

Do I never see the so called sandbox effect when launching a new site? Barry asks. And the answer is... These days, no!

Is that because I have some special SEO power to hurtle my clients beyond the sandbox into the Google pleasure dome?

No. It's because I've learned to say no. And I learned it from some of the greats in this industry. You don't get sandboxed if you don't take on no hopers.

How could anyone in this business take on a client, tell them not to expect any results for a possible nine months AND expect to be paid?


Paid, to sit around and hope that some technical process might make your website popular with end users?

No, I certainly don't see the sandbox factor with businesses which are prepared to invest in a fully integrated marketing strategy. Those businesses which have more sense of reality than to believe that they can throw up a website and expect Google to rain down cash on them.

Google is driven by the end users and their demands for information. Whether that's research or commerce. And if you are a good marketer (as an organisation or an individual) you'll manage to get your product/service in front of your potential customers and begin to create that demand. And once there is a demand Google will sit up and notice.

When trying to penetrate a new market place, or increase market share in an existing market place, classically trained marketers use a variation of strategies. They can "push" the product into the market place. They can "pull" the product into the market place. Or they can do the ultimate combo of "push and pull".

It's more commonly known as marketing muscle. And if you take on a client new to a market sector and don't perform a marketing audit to discover just how much muscle the competitors have, and by that I mean cross channel, then you do your client a disservice.

If your client has developed a new cola and is now going up against Coke and Pepsi, will pure SEO help him up the charts at Google? Or will he need marketing parity in order to compete? The latter, obviously.

At the future of search session in Chicago, a few weeks ago, Fredrick Marckini made reference to incidents when his clients' TV campaigns still cause a huge spike in their search performance (unfortunately, the clients seem to forget to inform their search vendor about this other marketing activity.)

This only goes to prove how a pull strategy can work in search. People see product/service on TV, want more information, go to Google. That demand in terms of numbers of queries puts Google on red alert. They simply have to give their end users the information they're looking for. For fear of the end user going to yahoo! or elsewhere to find it .

Assume that a brand new player has entered a certain market place and they're on a brand building mission across all channels. Does anyone really think that Google would impose a penalty on them such as a "sandbox" when the end user is screaming for information?

Search engines are not a panacea for marketing. They're simply in the mix.

Without performing a marketing audit of behalf of your new client to discover the amount of marketing muscle you need to have parity in the market place with all competitors, you could be on a hiding to nothing to begin with.

In the thread that sparked this post, regular forum poster and moderator at SEW forums, Marcia, questions an example I gave about the pulling power of TV into search.

Winner of the UK talent show X Factor, Shayne Ward is about to become Shayne Ward Inc. His new song is set to be a record beater and his fan base is in the hundreds of thousands.

He came from nowhere to national superstardom overnight. Marcia asks what competitive keywords will his web site be found on? The fact is, his name is the competitive term. As the money machine swings into action and he gains more exposure, the more queries there will be for information about him at search engines.

As the record company and the dozens of merchandise sites and the concert ticket sales sites and the fan sites compete for the top spots at Google, the harder it will become to crack.

Up until very recently, Shayne Ward as a search term was of zero interest to a search engine. Now, specifically in the UK, because of the sheer volume of queries, they know who he is and have lots of information about him.

No sandbox for Shayne sites. Just think how many disappointed teenagers Google would have if they had to sandbox their new idol because his web site wasn't old enough to be noticed.

The thread was started by Dave Naylor, a leading expert in SEO tactics (and my closest SES neighbour!).

Both in the conference session that sparked the thread and the thread itself, Dave has meticulously explained a way of using a technology approach to getting out of the so called sandbox. And I couldn't disagree at all with what he says. It certainly seems like a "quick fix".

But there are more ways to skin a cat, as they say.

I simply prefer my own method of a good old fashioned, long lasting integrated marketing strategy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

It beats having someone cut your finger off...

Travelling as I do, in particular when visiting clients, security is of the essence.

My laptop must have been plugged into umpteen corporate networks at one time or another. And the network administrator almost always wants to take my machine and run a quick test on it, to see how clean and up to date it is with virus definitions etc.

This means, either I give them my password to access the machine, or I have to do it for them. But it's not that easy for someone to access your machine when you have biometric fingerprint identification.

Looks like that problem has been solved now though.

Playdoh 1 - Biometrics 0

Monday, December 12, 2005

I should be shot!

I almost forgot to mention a comment my buddy, Jill Whalen, made about the black hat - white hat analogy we use in SEO.

It was during the future of SEM session and she said that whoever it was who coined that phrase "should be shot."

I contemplated sticking my hand up to say "I believe that was me" and decided - better not!

I used the analogy as a complete throwaway in an interview I did with
Peter Da Vanzo way back when.

I'm certainly not aware of the terminology being used prior to that in our industry.

Actually, re-reading the interview had me chuckling again. Ahhh, the comedic power of Merlot ;-)

Friday, December 09, 2005

SEO baloney.

I took the redeye from Chicago back to the UK. I had to come through Amsterdam (where there's always a gate change and a delay!).

I really wanted to head straight to my bed at home (which I don't seem to have seen much of again, recently) when I realized that my ClickZ article was due *yesterday* - aaarrrggghhh!

Fortunately, I'd been thinking about some of the stuff I picked up from talking to various people at SES. In particular, those who are interested in a new vendor.

Most of them have picked up some of the jargon and terminology. But it did make me think that we do have our own twist on the way we use certain words and phrases.

In particular, a lot of people ask about "reverse-engineering" a ranking algorithm. Yes, many people do believe that some SEOs have tools and methods to do that.

But for the main part, it's not possible to reverse-engineer an algorithm and recreate it, or something like it, if you don't have all of the components.

One such example I gave in the article is one that I use frequently at conferences. Just a couple of graphics which show a bit more about the underlying principles of hyperlink based ranking algorithms.

The first instance, you can see below shows the assumptions made by a "directed edge" or what we would also refer to as a non reciprocal link.

It's not too difficult to get some data on the amount of in-degree (directed edges or inbound links) you have by doing a basic back-link check.

At Google you would simply type into the search box link:www.yourdomainname.com and you'll get back a list of links which point to your site. You can also do this with your competitor's site to see who's linking to him also.

Now, take a look at this graphic below. It looks similar, but what's happening here is that a and b do not link to each other. However, if many other sites link to both a and b, i.e. a pattern emerges where many pages seem to place the two links to those specific pages closely together, even thought a and b don't link together, there's obviously a relationship.

Now the only way to get that information would be to have access to Google's entire database.

So, if SEO reverse engineering misses such vital data as co-citation and user behaviour data, then they'll hardly be able to recreate it.

So, what you've got is a list of traces, elements, components and clues to throw around a bit of anecdotal evidence.

Hardly enough to say I've reverse engineered it and I know exactly how it works.

Thank heavens bomb disposal experts understand the full and total requirement of all components to reverse-engineer a detonator. Or there wouldn't be many of them around!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Homeward bound...

That's it - last day of the show and I'm outta here!

It was great working with Todd, Dave and Bruce again, on the organic session. Here's a nice pic of Todd really get some stick (yes, that's me strangling him with it!).

And from the future of search session, here's one with my old buddy Fredrick Marckini, in the middle, and Martin Laetsch from Intel to the left with Greg Boser to the right.

I think I can safely say that my next blog update will come directly from an airport lounge as I make my way to wife and family in the UK.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

SES Chicago 2005

Another busy show. I'm so pleased that the show has been moved from McCormick Place. One of the problems with McCormick place is that the hotel is so far from the conference rooms. You can get lost just trying to find a session.

Having said that, I went to a wonderful Japanese restaurant with a crowd the other night (even though it wasn't the Japanese restaurant I was supposed to be meeting at) and ended up having a late drink in the Hilton bar when we got back.

When I left the bar, something appeared to happen to my internal navigation system (can't think what would be the cause of that ;-) and managed to get completely lost trying to find my room. At one point, I found myself standing in the dark in a huge ballroom tripping over chair after chair!

The next thing I knew, I was in the hotel's service area wandering around tripping over buckets and piles of towels. After about 20 minutes of discovering parts of the hotel which only the staff gets to see, I ended up right back at the side door of the bar I'd come out of.

It was such a harrowing experience, I had to go back in and have another glass of Merlot to give some serious thought as to how my internal sat-nav seemed to let me down so badly.

Here's a nice picture of Bill Hunt's lovely wife Motoko who was with us in the Japanese restaurant. And another of Joe Morin, taking a picture of me taking a picture of him!

Yesterday's link-basics session was a lot of fun, as usual. It involved a sketch about safety procedures on airlines, a wooden stick and a yellow sticky. For those of you who have seen me do that one, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about... As for the rest - well you'd best just come along and see it next time SES in down your way.

I got a little help from the audience for this particular blog entry, by taking a picture of them and asking them to give me a little wave.

The best attended session I've seen is one which was just called "lunch". It was so popular it's being repeated at the same time every day for the rest of the show!

I'm attending the future of search session in a few minutes as my old buddy Fredrick Marckini, is on the panel. I've not seen Fredrick (apart from a quick bump into in New York, a few weeks back).

Things are a bit difficult for him at the moment, as I understand he's down to his last 30 million dollars. I'll pay for his drinks a little later in the bar and see if that cheers him up a bit.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The sandbox: About as real as PageRank is vital.

I've been looking through some posts on this whole sandbox issue, because I know that it will get yet another mention in the organic listings session at SES Chicago.

I find it to be mind numbing just reading around the forum threads what people are saying about this non issue. By that, I mean a non issue to those brands, products and services that are loved and cherished by both their audience and search engines alike

I wrote a piece over at ClickZ some time ago trying to explain in simple terms what is usually confused as "the sandbox - and that's the fact that your website is crap and nobody is interested in it.

Because, you see, if you do have anything that any search engine end user wants to see or know about - the search engine better damn well make it available, or the end user will simply go somewhere else and look for it.

Now before anyone takes umbrage at what I'm saying, let's a have a sweet moment of honesty. Take a look at your web site. Yes, I know that you're all proud of it because you had something to do with it, or you built it, or whatever. But try and remove yourself from these emotional feelings about your work, or the product of your own management and see if you can come up with answers to these short questions:

What makes this offering any different to anything else online?

What is it on this site which would literally, compel people to talk about it and link to it?

Why do I honestly believe this site deserves to be in the top ten rankings at search engines?

Now. Go the competitor's web site which is ranking in the top ten (in the case of where you're not) and ask the same questions. Now compare the answers (providing you've been honest) and you may find the answer to what you believe to be the "sandbox".

And I guarantee it's a business solution you need and nothing at all to do with any magic code or indexing issues.

Let me pose another question here. Go around the forums as I did, (if you can endure a lot of pap with the frequent little gem of intelligence - the usual constitution of forum posts) and tell me this: How many of the posts said something like "I'm the webmaster of the [place hard worked for, well marketed and recognised brand name here] and I'm in something called the sandbox at Google."

Couldn't find one, huh?

No neither can I. But I can sure find a lot of people whinging about this whole (non) issue who think that because they have a web site - repeat, web site, not good business model - that it should automatically do well because the pages have the keywords on, and everything.

Here's a thing, linkmaster Ken McGaffin, discovered a while back when he was doing some research that, the Financial Times had hidden links on its home page.

Now, according to webmaster guidelines, that's a bit of a no-no at Google. But, hey, guess what... No ban, no problem, no big deal.


Because if I do a search for just those two important letters "ft", if I don't find the Financial Times right up there - I'll go to Yahoo! to find it.

Let's assume for a moment that, the Financial Times launches a brand new mini site to promote its free pocket guide to the fastest growing European companies. Yes, they bought the domain two months ago and the site is coming straight out of the blue sky... Do you think that they'll even notice this so called "sandbox" thingy, whatever...

Let me have a quick stab at what I believe, is the only slow-down process for a new site. In particular, a site which is attached to an already successful brand, i.e. it's a site which, like a new calf, is born with legs to stand on in minutes anyway.

Let's talk about how search engines use cache to reduce overheads. Let's think about how much easier it would be if, instead of interrogating the inverted index for every single query (even the inverted index method can use a lot of overhead if it's used for every single query), what if answers to certain popular queries were cached, and in fact, what if a search engine could use a predictive method of prefetching query results according to the time of day and user behaviour analysis?

To do that you'd need a tiered index. And you'd need a lot of user behaviour analysis. I've written about this before. And I'm about to embark on a white paper (as I still struggle with this damned third edition of my book) on methods of reducing the overhead and quickening response time for queries by having different tiers of indexing and different levels of caching at search engines.

How long would it take to get into the "tried and tested results for a popular query" cache?

I'd like to tell more right now. But as I'm still an amateur blogger and there's an Italian restaurant beckoning...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The secret's out!

Okay, that's it. I've officially been outed!

There I was thinking I could secretly pass my blogging test, before I exposed myself to the blogging world.

But thanks to super blogger Andy Beal and those "miss nowt" people at Threadwatch, I'm exposed as a learner blogger still sporting my L plates.

Bugger! That means I'll have to start and think of some meaningful content to put on here.

And that, in turn, means I need to find time for it.

And time, is a commodity that I seem to have so little of.

Okay, Andy Pilgrim and Nick Threadwatch, start and send some blogging tips please. Like, where's the tutorial for setting up an RSS feed so that my editor and other important press people can find out what little I have to say in my own time ;-)