RA: With us today for some SEO tips is Gary Marshall, of www.glmarshall.com, who has been in SEO so long he saw sites busted by Yahoo before Google was even born.
GM: Great to be with you. And as any SEO person will tell you, thanks for the link.
RA: But your work goes well beyond links, right?
GM: That’s right. I specialize in what’s on the page. Links are, of course, crucial, and in simple terms, the most anchor text wins. But having lived through Google’s great Florida Algo earthquake back in 03, you gotta be careful with overly repetitive anchor text.
RA: So that’s your first tip, pay attention to anchor text.
GM: Not only are the keywords in the link important, but they really need to match the title of the page to which they are linking. Lots of people look at pages as a thing all unto themselves. You get more juice if you’re always thinking how your own pages can link to each other. It’s actually kind of thrilling when you have a site with just a few links and a pretty low page rank, and it ranks higher in the SERPs than big, established sites. You see this all the time, and it shows than even with all the other factors in SEO, you can still get a big lift just from how you craft the page.
RA: So how do you craft the page?
GM: It starts by thinking about how search engine robots work. It’s impossible for them to find the best or most deserving. All they can do is find the most relevant. So if your title says the page is “About our widgets,” then the spider is going to look for the term widgets in certain places. It’s a negative, an exclusionary process — was it here? Yes. Was it here? No. Get more yeses than nos and you’ll be okay.
I’ll give you an example. The very first iteration of Live.com was put together exactly the way I’d have built a search engine. My pages were everywhere, all over the top results. It was like I had guessed their checklist and hit it in place after place, site after site. Now, of course, if an algorithm is that simple, it’ll be changed, and now I’m like everybody else and just scratch my head trying to figure out how Yahoo and Bing rank things.
RA: It really is like an arms race, optimizers coming up with a technique and the search engines working to
GM: Absolutely, and that’s my first rule. Don’t cheat. It was, I don’t know, 97 or 98, and some programmers had come up with a way to generate hundreds of robo pages to get our company site ranking well in Yahoo and AltaVista and all the others from back in the day. And they all ended up getting, uh, adjusted. (laughs) Busted is probably a better word.
It was a powerful lesson for me and I never forgot it. I was at an SEO conference once where one of the guys on a panel had just had 14,000 real estate SERPs punted by Google, which had finally figured out that it made no sense for a realtor in Honolulu to be linking to a realtor in Birmingham, and to have them, coincidentally of course, never have a reciprocal link out of hundreds of thousands of links. I gave the guy a lot of credit. In front of the entire conference, he took it like a man. Like those Texas oil guys who constantly go boom and bust. He was supremely confident he’d just move on and find something else that would work.
RA: I wish I’d seen that. To follow up, what would you think would be that something else that might work?
GM: To me, the clues don’t come from the big sites but the little sites that elbow their way into the SERPs. It’s no surprise, if you search for a car loan, that you’ll see Bankrate or Capital One, Lending Tree or Chase. But how does a low-PR, low-link site like carloan.com get in there? Now, for full disclosure, I used to do that site, so it’s kind of a personal example. It’s going to be redesigned real soon and I expect it to drop, but I’m getting off track. My point is that SERPS are kind of a three-legged stool, with links and Page Rank being one leg, authority status being one leg, and actual on-page attributes being the third. Never underestimate the power of on-page attributes.
I’ll give you another example. My girlfriend had a long-running medical problem stemming from a surgical implant. Got to the point where serious experts, top hospitals like Duke or Mayo, were needed. I wrote a plea for information on the product on my personal website, and that page wound up ranking right above the product manufacturer in the SERPS. That company must have hated me, seeing “Looking for information on TOT tape removal” ranked right above their page touting the product. I don’t think it had any inbound links at all. It was just, as Matt Cutts always preaches, timely, quality, relevant content with no trickery. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t try to outsmart search engines because you will lose. Just give them what they want, and have confidence quality will be rewarded in the end.
RA: You consistently stress on-page attributes.
GM: Because it’s the only answer for little sites, little pages getting big results.
RA: So people aren’t paying enough attention to their pages? Seems like there are lots of packages out there, like, for WordPress, for instance, designed to help people with SEO.
GM: I believe people just get distracted. Counting links, charting Page Rank in spreadsheets, all these things are measurable. When you are in super-competitive keyword categories, the level of detail required for on-page success is ridiculously intense, and success doesn’t come with a bang, it comes from a slow steady progression. It can be tedious work, and it takes patience, and lots of companies don’t have the patience because they want to see results now.
RA: Good point. Lots of good points, really. I need to thank you for your time and I need to wrap things up, so let me do it with one more question. If there’s one more bit of advice to help people with their SEO, what would it be?
GM: Well, first Ricky, I have to thank you for the opportunity to be here. And I’d like to ask, as you talk to experts in the field, for you to ask them what they think about this notion. I have always thought that Google keeps track of people who click to a link and then immediately hit the back button to return to the SERP page. I don’t follow SEO discussions like I used to, and I don’t know how much literature there is on this point, but I’ve always had a gut-level suspicion that that would be the best way to have a self-imposed quality control on your own results. So if you see something on that, let me know.
So, one piece of advice above all? I’d say that it’s not this tag or that but it’s the interplay between all the tags, all the content, and all the site linking structures that moves the needle. There’s this notion that you can build a site and then add SEO later and I respectfully suggest SEO has to be built into the DNA. You have to start by, one, Â learning what keyword phrases are being used in your field; two, crafting content relevant to those keywords; and three, build a link and file structure that reinforces the relevance of their keywords.
The final point is to do all this in a way that’s kind of a shell around your message, so then you can constantly test and tweak your message for improved conversion. So, yeah, I guess I’m actually finishing with two pieces of advice.
Websites aren’t something that’s posted and forgotten about. They are living, breathing things, and you can test and tweak everything, and I mean everything, in a measurable, testable manner. You will never be able to say what’s perfect for your customer. Your customer will be telling you what’s perfect for them, and you need to learn how to listen to them and adapt to their expectations. It’s not about what you want to say. It’s about what your prospective customer wants to do.
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