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The Long Tail of SEO Theory

There are not many people whom I would regard as ďSEO theoristsĒ: real thinkers who do first-line research, formulate their thoughts, and share their conclusions. A fair number of spammers practice the SEO Method (Experiment. Evaluate. Adjust.) but they are more practitioners of applied SEO science than developmental theorists. A lot of spammers hang tight and share ideas without being very methodical.

Among the real theorists you have a few content-is-king creedists and nearly everyone else is a link apologist. Neither group pays much attention to what the other group says. The spammers are most influenced by the link apologists, who also influence a large portion of the general SEO community. Link apologetics are published on the Web every day. Link apologists rule the field.

I consider myself to be a generalist. I can build the links when I need to. I can evaluate the links when I need to. But I also devote a lot of time and energy to studying the dynamics of content theory. Search engines have to score documents for relevance. Now, I could study Information Retrieval Science and understand the basic principles of scoring documents but that wonít tell me much about why a specific document ranks well in search results.

Like it or not search engines use two ingredients to build their results: links and content. If you want to succeed in manipulating search engine results you need both links and content. You donít need to understand the algorithms in order to use the tools that theorists have provided through the years. In fact, most of todayís leading SEOs really do not understand the algorithms ó but they are leaders because they use the tools and ideas they have inherited successfully.

There really isnít all that much you need to know about links: some links pass value and some links donít. The more value-passing links you get, the more you can manipulate search results. Most people stop there and act like they have discovered the Unified Field Theory.

If you want to understand the dynamics of links you can look at link age, link placement, link anchor text, link data, etc. Links donít just influence search results. They also influence people.

But content is a much more complex ingredient than links. Most link apologists just donít grasp the value of content. You can almost always separate the link apologists from the content apologists in any group of SEOs by asking how many queries they optimize for. Anyone who tells you they go for a small number of queries is almost certainly depending on links. Anyone who tells you they optimize for hundreds or thousands of queries is either lying or works extensively with content.

As of this writing today, the SEO Theory blog targets (and ranks in the top 10 for) over 200 queries. This blog has only existed since December 2006 and we moved it to its own domain in February 2007. I have placed fewer than 20 links on other Web sites to this blog. I have not asked other people to link to it. I have not purchased any links for it. I have not really even made an effort to promote the blog.

And yet despite the fact that SEO Theory ranks highly for over 200 targeted expressions (all of which send traffic to the blog), and despite the fact that I donít actively promote SEO Theory (much), between 70% and 80% of all traffic to SEO Theory arrives from non-search sources. About 51% of you come here directly: you either type the URL in or you click on links in your Favorites menus in your browsers. Most weeks 20-25% of our visitors come from search engines (mostly Google).

I do use internal linkage to reinforce relevance for some keywords. But I make liberal use of the standard tools available to every Web copywriter to build relevance for targeted expressions: repetition, bolding, italics, Hx headings, page titles, and page URLs.

Using only the principles I write about on this blog I have built up a loyal audience of about 800-1000 readers (some of whom only visit once or twice a month, but they generally spend 15-30 minutes catching up with the various posts). More than 1,000 unique visitors come by every month, many of them come by often. And here is the secret to my slow, plodding success: you didnít find me. I found you.

You came when I called you. You found something you wanted to read, but I had to figure out what you wanted to read and put it here where you would stumble across it.

Some of you arrive through the links pointing to this site from other sites. Some of you arrive through the SERPs. Many of you arrive from links embedded in your email (which you can attest I did not send out). I donít know why you are here. I only know that you are drawn to my content because it meets some need you feel.

Thatís Web marketing, but given that hundreds of queries bring visitors from search engines every month I think itís fair to say that SEO Theory does a pretty good job of optimizing for search.

I use three sources of information to determine what I will write and how I will optimize for it: first, I draw upon my own personal experience. Second, I look at popular SEO topics and study the queries they inspire. Third, I look at the search referral statistics this domain records.

My personal SEO experience extends back over 9 years. I have been optimizing Web sites since the summer of 1998, when I realized I was not getting traffic from search engines and I subscribed to the Virtual Promote newsletter. I learned most of what I have needed to know in that first year of interacting with the professional Web marketing community. I have never stopped learning since then. I still occasionally do free Web site reviews and evaluations to help other people, but also to help me learn about what is happening on the Web today.

I get popular SEO topics from forums and blogs. I visit more forums and blogs than I link to from SEO Theory. Most of them are not very interesting, in my opinion, because they deal with the same old stuff that SEO forums blogs have always dealt with. Many of them are now social media forums and blogs and they very rarely have much content about search engine optimization. And most of their search engine optimization content is about links, especially links coming from social media. And thatís just not very interesting to me.

Still, I occasionally see a trend in true SEO topics and Iíll write about that trend. Iíve covered trends such as Supplemental Page optimization, Backlink Theory, and Web spam analysis (to name a few). People are always interested in Web spam either because it clutters up their search results or they believe the Web spammers are making more money than anyone else (if that were true, I would be pushing out MFAs by the thousand). Some Web spammers make a lot of money. Most, by their own admissions in various dark corners of the Web, donít.

Finally, you tell me what youíre looking for by searching for it and coming to SEO Theory. Many of the most interesting query results donít include this site in the top 20 listings. Some of you look several pages deep into your search results to find my posts. If I am particularly amused or intrigued by a query Iíll write something about that expression and optimize for it. In doing so Iíve found a few gems that produce steady traffic.

Last year everyone was talking about ďoptimizing for the long tail of searchĒ. But that euphoria seems to have died down now ó as it always does (because this topic has been popular before). Now weíre back to reading news blogs and ďSEOĒ blogs that focus on Web 2.0, 3-D Web (which I would prefer to call ThirdGen Web), and social media links. And most of the news about social media links seems to be that the social media sites donít want SEOs using them to build links.

Gee. Where have I heard that complaint before?

Every time I see someone complain in an SEO forum about their inability to rank and draw traffic from the search engines, I am tempted to ask them, ďHow much copy did you create today?Ē How many new pages of content ó real, wordy content that someone has to spend time to read ó did you write today? All you need is a blog. A lot of SEOs dispense that advice but when you look at their blogs basically all they do is link out to other blogs. Sorry, but that link wonít pass enough value for me.

Back in 1998 I was rejecting 2 out of 3 site submissions for my Xena: Warrior Princess directory because those new sites usually just grabbed a logo for the television show and linked to the top 5-10 listings from search engines. Yawn. I finally put up a notice on the dircetoryís front page saying, ďHey, if you want to be included in this directory, write something!Ē

Youíll never find a long blogroll here at SEO Theory because most people donít actually write anything on their blogs. They just post lists of links. Theyíre not optimizing. They may be practicing what they preach (linking) but they are trapped in the ďI need links from my buddiesĒ zone. When I look at the backlinks for SEO Theory, most of them seem to come from blogs and people Iíve never heard of before. Iím not counting on my SEO friends to link to my every post and tell their jaded, bleary-eyed readers that ďMichael Martinez has done it again! Go and check out SEO Theory because he has the greatest list of links to other blogs today!Ē

If you all you can think of is to slap down a cheap list of links for your hard-earned blog readers, then maybe itís time for you to shut down your blog. We donít need any stinkiní links.

If someone takes the time to type a query into a search engine, they are looking for real content. If they click through to one of your blog posts and that post doesnít really address their concern, what does that tell you? It tells you that they cannot find what they are looking for and that they are hoping youíll give it to them. So what if you come in a day or two late? Major search engines tell us that about 20-30% of their queries have never been seen before. The chances that someone else will use the query you just optimized for are in your favor. And if you hit the top 5 listings for that query the odds are better that the query provides steady traffic for you.

Ranking 1st in 1,000 queries that produce 1 visitor per day is preferable to fighting for 1st position in 1 or 2 queries that produce 200-300 visitors a day. If you can satisfy 1,000 needs a day, youíre doing pretty good, arenít you?

The average visitor clicks on 1.8 pages per visit here at SEO Theory. What does that tell you? It tells you that after reading whatever page they landed on, new arrivals click through to the main blog URL to see what else I have written.

The average visitor started out spending about 1.5 minutes per visit to SEO Theory in December. Now they spend about 3 minutes per visit. What does that tell you? It tells you that people are staying around to read the site. It tells you that people like what they find here.

Now maybe Iím a little more polished at blathering out thoughts than some people. I get lucky every now and then. But there is only one way to become a good writer or even a great writer. You have to write.

If your 100,000-page ecommerce site isnít drawing in thousands of referrals every day, donít panic. Your blog might and you can write about thousands of articles without having to name prices. Just link to the appropriate page in the inventory section. So it will take you a little time to build search visibility. Thatís no reason not to take on the big task. It is very easy to achieve rankings for nearly 100 SEO questions because most people never optimize for them. The same is true of your inventory.

You donít have to limit yourself to optimizing for one query in each post. If I can nail a few dozen at a time, you can nail a few dozen at a time. If you miss a few with each post, donít panic. You have plenty of opportunity to try it agani.

Long tail optimization has always been part of search engine optimization. In the old days we just didnít know what to call it but this advice goes way back before the days when everyone started screaming and hollaring about links. Content is not a means toward the end of accumulating links. In fact, some people have openly acknowledged that DIGG traffic doesnít convert well. DIGG and Adsense donít share the Web very well.

Link spammers promoting their cheap ďby-the-bookĒ SEO services helped inundate Ickipedia with trashy links and the Ickicommunity responded by appending ďrel=ínofollowíĒ to most outbound links. Many Web forums have now turned off signatures, links in profiles, and other so-called ďSEO friendlyĒ features to discourage link drops in their discussions. Parasitical link building really only irritates people and has no lasting effect. Once you become dependent upon cheap spam links you commit yourself to a neverending cycle of desperate cloying actions.

With content, you can write it once, write it a hundred times, and it never goes away. If a page goes Supplemental all you have to do is link to it. In most cases pages will come back from the Supplemental depths thanks to a few good links from sibling pages. You may write some golden pages that bring in lots of unexpected traffic. And youíll build out your foundation for link building considerably, if you want to take on more competitive queries.

Remember, real SEO works with both content and links and it doesnít treat either ingredient as being more important than the other. You have to have both, but if you build the content first, youíll find that the links come more easily ó especially the links you embed for yourself in your own growing inventory of content. Content isnít king. Links arenít king. They are both your vassals in your ever-expanding empire of Web and search visibility.
Source: Michael Martinez
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