Good Call, Minchala

strasbourg street corner

Take a look at this picture. If I didn’t tell you where this was taken, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a random scene from a nameless street that could exist anywhere. And If I twisted your arm and asked you to pick the intended subject of this photo, you’d be forgiven for shrugging and pointing at a random passerby.

I took this last December while in Strasbourg and was interested in the phone booth you can barely make out in the background. Ten years earlier, on my first trip to Europe, I made the most important call of my life from that phone booth. The person on the other line on that mid-July afternoon in 2002 was my then-girlfriend, Victoria.

The Call

“Hi is Victoria there, please?” Phone Manners Dave always got past the screeners.

“It’s me, David,” she said. Full Name Dave couldn’t tell the difference between Victoria’s phone voice and that of her sister or mother. Victoria could have greeted me with “Really? Still?” without losing the sense, tone, and meaning of what she was putting down. After a shared giggle at how much of a horse’s ass I was, we cue the lovey-doveys:

[redacted] (You’re welcome.)

“Where are you?”

“Strasbourg – it’s right by the border of Germany. I’m headed there next. I could probably walk there from here.” Hyperbole Dave speaks in hyperbole.

“What made you go to Strasbourg?”

“I dunno. Looked really close to Germany on the map and i saw a sweet deal for a hotel nearby on the internet. By the way? I was the only non-dreadlocked, non-Birkenstock-wearing, non-hippy at that internet cafe in Paris. Watching travel hippies sit in front of a computer is kinda like watching a dog use the toilet. It’s fascinating but also off-putting because you know a person has to sit there next.” Joker Dave polished that “gem” the entire train ride in from Paris. Ooph…

She laughed like she always did at my jokes – especially the duds. For what it’s worth, I’m much more positive on my crunchy fellow wanderers these days.

From there, the conversation was a bit labored. All my questions about what she’s been up to since I’ve been gone or “how was [x]?” were answered with, “Okay,” “Good,” or “Nothing.” She finally threw me a bone.

“I have to tell you something. At my MRI yesterday, the doctor said my AVM is starting to hemorrhage. He said I can’t wait for the Fall – I’m going in for surgery in two days.”

Of AVMs and Asses

Victoria had been born with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) on her brain – a tangled clump of blood vessels that formed in her frontal lobe.  The only reason she knew this ahead of her MRI was she had been diagnosed a few months earlier after finally seeing a top-notch neurologist. For years, starting from about adolescence, she’d faint randomly while out and about or would have seizure-like fits in her sleep. These were rare and were usually chalked up to her skipping breakfast or having her father’s sleep pattern.

One morning, it took twenty very tense minutes to wake Victoria from her sleep fit despite the jostling and shouting of her family who tried everything to snap her out of it. Since then, she saw specialists pretty much nonstop until a round of testing with a kick-ass neurologist solved the mystery. Her prognosis was actually pretty good at first. Initially, her doctor said it didn’t look serious and, while it needed treatment, she had time to weigh her options with the doctor. The doc figured if she started treatment in the Fall, she’d actually be ahead of the game. To be safe, she was scheduled for a few intermittent checkups to track the behavior of her AVM.

At the time of her prognosis, I was a total zilch. I lost my scholarships to a good school a year before, decided I was too smart for the local college, and began working full time at a Sam Goody instead. The explicit purpose of which in my mind at the time was to squirrel away as much money as I could for my first solo trip abroad where, surely, I would find my purpose. Today I know the real purpose was to continue to indulge myself in the notion that the badass life I wanted was waiting to be “found” somewhere else. All the circumstances I had created for myself were “signs” the “universe” were putting out there beckoning me to find my fortunes elsewhere. All the while, even after her diagnosis and as she continued to prop me up in ways I can’t begin to enumerate here without spinning off into another story, Victoria was excited for me and encouraging as I planned my trip. Without her.

D-bag Amnesia – It’s a Thing

By the time I got to Strasbourg, I had been away for almost 2 weeks and had been to London and Paris. The plan was to continue into and through Germany stopping only when it was time to head back to London to make my flight home. Though by the time I got to Strasbourg my enthusiasm for it all had tempered. If you’ve had the curious misfortune of letting me make a first impression on you, you know first-hand that I’m usually just not good at them. Consequently, I can come across as withdrawn or intensely in-your-face. This makes me an acquired taste most of the time – not something that lends itself well to meeting lots of new people whose language I’d mangle like a mouth full of beef jerky. I had spent whole days not having any meaningful communication with other people. Loneliness had set in even before I arrived in Strasbourg.

I was strolling the Ponts Couverts in Strasbourg where the bridges were lined with flower boxes. A blue flower caught my eye – I was convinced it was the same type of flower in the same color as the one that made up Victoria’s corsage I got her for prom. I drifted off thinking about how she loved flowers and how every time we passed the honeysuckle vine on the fence 3 doors down from the Breakfast Club (actual name of an actual place at the time) in high school, I’d pick one and put it in her hair. Whenever she was over my house in the spring, it was a virtual guarantee that I wouldn’t let her leave without letting me adorn her with a cherry blossom flower from the tree in our front yard. Everything that mattered (and some things that didn’t) about my times with her, I remembered. It turns out memories have more dimensions to them than just “where” and “when.”

I snapped out of it when my stomach grumbled. I remembered I got a really good lunch really cheaply the day before but i couldn’t for the life of me remember where the hell the place was. Or what exactly I ate. Concerned dementia was setting in WAY ahead of schedule, I started to take inventory of all the meals I could remember. In the two weeks I had been there, I remembered the chicken and rice I got at a supermarket in London on my first night, the epic french fries that came with my ??? in Paris and THAT’S IT. As I thought harder, everything else about the trip to that point began to blur – did i have the warm beer in Paris or London? Were the friendly french kids on the train from London to Paris or the one from Paris to Strasbourg?

In my haste to go places and see stuff, I had forgotten to care that I was going places and seeing stuff. I was too busy being lonely and uncomfortable so I thought about how much better the next place I’m going will be instead of really taking stock of where I was. Which, sadly, might have been what motivated me to flee the States for a while to begin with.

Experiences only ever mean anything when they teach you something about yourself or the world around you – since the world around me wasn’t very accessible, I was forced to deal with some uncomfortable truths about myself. Mainly, that I was a cliché having his quarter life crisis a little early, not a misunderstood and precocious fellow who just needs the right setting. Wanting desperately to defer the imminent wave of regret and douche chills now waiting under the blinding light of my consciousness, I paused my moment of clarity to look for a phone booth to call Victoria.

phone booth in strasbourg

Run for Your Life

I don’t remember what I said to Victoria right before I hung up the phone and bolted back to my hotel. I don’t know how long it took me to furiously pack my backpack and begin the marathon home. I do know I left most of the rolls of film from the trip in that hotel room. I don’t know how much the train tickets to London were or how many connections I made getting there. I remember begging the attendant at the Virgin Atlantic counter to find me a spot on the next possible flight and that I had just enough left in my budget to buy the ticket.

I couldn’t tell you what happened between taking off from Heathrow and walking into Victoria’s hospital room, but I do know that the leads on the sensors on her head looked like Certs.  I do know that her heart monitor went way up-tempo when I entered the room and, had I been hooked up to one, we’d have been meeting each other beat for beat. And even though I know now she made it through surgery, I don’t know if she would have embarked on the next chapter of her life with me unless I had closed the book on the trite existence I was leading and opened my eyes to a reality that was already amazing because she was a part of it – now I just needed to do the work to be worthy of it. Any success I’ve enjoyed since then stemmed from this realization.

A busy street corner in…

I hope you’ll keep your eyes open to everyday moments of epic-ness  in your travels. It tickles me to think someone happened to see me shoot like a rocket from that phone booth like I just received instructions from kidnappers who were hiding my family with a bomb set to detonate in an hour. The booth wasn’t really instrumental, per se,  in any part of this story but it’s fun to wonder who else might have went in there one person and came out another. Who went in hopeless and came out hungry for life. Who went in knowing it all and came out utterly clueless. Who went in with a 5 year plan and came out flying by the seat of their pants for the rest of their lives. Who went in trying to reach a comforting voice and connected with the one inside their head.

 

A Perfect Strangers Guide for SEOs on Mozcon Eve

I realize I set you up to hum the theme to Perfect Strangers all day. It’s totally on purpose and I promise you, I’m not trolling.

This is my second time at Mozcon and fourth time at one of SEOMoz’ or Distilled’s conferences. I group them together because they are very similar in demographic in attendance and content. They also both throw sweet parties. At this point, I’m sort of a veteran attendee and I wanted to share some observations on how to pump even more value out of Mozcon 2012 (which btw is already an insane bargain compared to other search marketing conferences). As you prepare for three days of online marketing badassery, I submit the following for your consideration:

Actionable is a Two-way Street

Speakers are tasked with loading their presentations with actionable advice and tips. The assumption is, folks will actually act on it. Having been an attendee sitting in the crowd with my head spinning and mind reeling with all the new shit being thrown at me, I know how hard it can be to maintain focus on the problems I need to solve in my own day to day without letting my mind get carried away with all cool stuff I can do with some of the tools and tips i learned. So I think a worthwhile exercise would be to write down what you’d like to accomplish/solve/learn while at Mozcon. What usually works for me is a question answer format like so (example answers in blue borrowed heavily from things demanded or asked of me by former clients or colleagues):

  • What is my biggest day-to-day challenge?
    Increasing sales volume and lowering CPAs from unpaid search.
  • Why do i think the challenge is so hard right now?
    I can’t get more budget for links or content.
    I rely on Google organic a lot and I seem to have plateaud on traffic volume.

    It’s really hard for me to tie revenue to unpaid search because i don’t have the same advanced-level of reporting as my paid/display colleagues have.
    I spend a ton of time on reporting and managing my team while not spending near as much time as i’d like on strategy.
  • What do i think i need?
    A template report i can use to convince my bosses I’m generating good revenue so I can ask for more budget.
    An automated way to do social.
    PPC-style SEO reporting (does this exist??)
    Project management software or system designed exclusively for online marketing.
    Cheap source of good links.

Keep this next to you during all sessions and leave space for notes between each question. Now check out the agenda, see if any of the sessions hint at, directly address, or seem to be related to one of your challenges or things you think you need. Put those on your daily calendar so you know not to miss them or schedule phone calls with work for those times. Think of and write down questions for each one of those sessions ahead of time – if you’re also creating the document suggested above, it helps to have this all as part of one main document.

At the end of the conference, the result should be a document that helps form the basis of an action plan you can start on right away. Here’s what the questions part of my example document might look like with notes in red after a particularly awesome conference (all hypothetical):

  • What is my biggest day-to-day challenge?
    Increasing sales volume and lowering CPAs from unpaid search – should have more channels than search, e.g. social. Talk to biz dev, product, and dev teams about adding a freemium service. Reach out to PR dept about relationships with industry news/blogs.
  • Why do i think the challenge is so hard right now?
    I can’t get more budget for links or content.– get reporting squared away to have data ready to justify expense. See your notes on Avinash’s presentation (holy ever living fuck!) and Annie Cushing’s preso (we might be able to set up our own reporting!)

    I rely on Google organic a lot and I seem to have plateaud on traffic volume.
    – see notes on the following presenters: Justin Briggs, Wil Reynolds, Mike King, Cyrus Shephard, Ian Lurie. Prioritize channel diversification for Q3.It’s really hard for me to tie revenue to unpaid search because i don’t have the same advanced-level of reporting as my paid/display colleagues have. – again, Avinash & Annie sessions. Jumpin jeebus on a pony. Potential KPIs to workshop with team: new customers from unpaid channels, share of voice in relevant communities, average order value by source, avg time on site and conversion rate by content type. See notes for more.I spend a ton of time on reporting and managing my team while not spending near as much time as i’d like on strategy. – see notes on these presenters: Tom Critchlow, Justin Briggs, Rob Ousbey, Laura Lippay. Look into RavenTools (that Alison is a good egg!) Prioritize adding outreach process and closer collaboration with PR to team mandate by end Q3.

 

  • What do i think i need?
    A template report i can use to convince my bosses I’m generating good revenue so I can ask for more budget.copy Avinash’s example GA dashboard and tweakAn automated way to do social.this is stupid.PPC-style SEO reporting (does this exist??) – Test Avinash dashboard and Annie’s excel reports

    Project management software or system designed exclusively for online marketing. – Take RavenTools for a spin with senior team members.

    Cheap source of good links. – take some budget from existing link subscriptions and use to purchase 30-day subscriptions for influencers as proof of concept for freemium product. See notes on Mike King, Richard Baxter, and Wil Reynolds for finding influencers. Do real company shit!

Optimizing Face Time

If you follow the #mozcon hashtag or have RSVP’d to the Mozcon Google+ event, you’ll see the different types of folk that’ll be at the conference. If you’re really clever, you’ll find some people who work in the same indsutry, niche, or fulfillment model (in-house, agency etc) who may be dealing with the same issues you are. Add them on Google+. Tweet @ them before and during the conference. Start building a context and a pretext for getting some face time with these folks during the conference so you can share relevant experiences and maybe even help each other solve the problems common to your areas.

In my experience, no one goes to a conference like Mozcon because they suck at their job; they go because they’re in charge of solving really tough online marketing challenges. Few people I know earn that responsibility by being a dummy. Sometimes the answer to your specific question and your specific challenge can be found in the crowd instead of the podium. So seek out colleagues and ask for some time during breaks or meals to network and talk shop.

If you’ve made it a point to write down questions ahead of presentations, you’ve already done some work to optimize your face time with presenters. If you don’t get a chance to ask a question during a presenter’s session, be mindful that there’ll likely be a line snaking down the aisle during the next break full of people in your exact predicament. Consequently, the speaker might not be able to really dive down with you or give you a super-complete answer without screwing other people out of their chance to get their questions answered. If this happens, a workaround I might recommend is tapping into the speakers workforce.

SEER on Google+
The SEER team are incredibly helpful.

 

For example, if you’ve got a follow-up on a tool that Wil Reynolds showed in his preso and he’s already got a line 15-deep with 5 minutes left in the break, tweet at the SEER team or ask your question on Google+ and mention the SEER team. A speakers team is usually highly engaged in the development and testing of new tools and techniques that are being presented so there’s a good chance someone will be willing and able to help. When this isn’t an option and you can’t get in front of the speaker for some reason, use the #mozcon hashtag strategically. Take a snap poll and see if anyone else is wondering the same thing you are. If you get a decent groundswell, make sure Roger and the Moz team see the demand. Maybe the emcee could follow up with the speaker and relay the answer between sessions. Who knows, maybe the speaker could be motivated to blog the answer to your quesiton if it’s complex enough.

Face time doesn’t just happen at the conference, obviously. The parties are a great way to build a stronger, deeper professional network you can rely on well after the conference is over. But I submit (as have others) that these events aren’t always the best time to talk shop or get those unanswered questions addressed. Ever been to a birthday party where you don’t know anyone and the standard opener, no matter who you talk to, is, “So what do you do?” It’s a nightmare. You’ll have the same conversation all night. A hundred times. About work. Instead, try looking at these events as an opportunity to make lasting friendships.

I’m not exactly great at friend-making as I’ve got all the social grace of a room-clearing fart but as I understand it, making connections based on things you’re passionate about is the best way to go. Last year I talked hip-hop with a bunch of people for half an hour. I played Street Fighter with another guy and talked soccer with someone else right after. Still in touch with most of those people; I’m lucky to call a few of them friends today. I think my standard opener this year might be, “Who’s your favorite Simpson’s character – and if you say Homer, i’m gonna belt you.” Still working on it…

Nothing’s Gonna Stop You Now

So what do you get when you put strangers with a single common thread and almost nothing else in common together? If you channel your inner cousin Larry during the conference, your thoughtful and pragmatic approach will help you get the absolute most out of the sessions. If allow yourself to be Balki at the parties and approach getting to know your colleagues in an open-minded, enthusiastic, and genuine way while being comically unaware of just how godamn weird you are, you’ll be in a position to make lasting connections with like-minded people. So stand tall on the wings of your dreams, people. Despite the rain, thunder, wind and hail of Seattle’s Summer weather, we’re all bound for better days. (And yes: this paragraph just happened.)

An Open Letter to the Girls I Wrote Love Letters to in High School

Hello again,

Before this gets creepily familiar, I’ll open by retracting (or at least updating) a few statements previously made to some or all of you:

  • I no longer watch you at your locker, lunch table, bus stop etc. In fact, I have no idea where in the world any of you are anymore.
  • I do not, in fact, “see forever in your eyes.” I don’t know – nor have I ever known – what that means. Note that other, factual observations made about your eyes (e.g. flattering observations on their color) were genuine at the time though I regret the page(s) I dedicated to writing about them. It was probably overboard. I was definitely a horse’s ass.
  • Having never had the courage to actually have a conversation with most of you, I had no basis for claiming that you seemed “really chill and funny.” The fact is that in most cases, I’d have panicked if I had to talk to you. You know that scene in Pulp Fiction where Jules flips out on Brett? Well, interactions with pretty girls used to go something like this:
    You or someone like you would actually say something like the following,

    how not to talk to girls
    Photo credit: http://bit.ly/zi85cQ

    which would register as,
    How it registered
    and therefore elicited a less-than-smooth response from me.
    The result

  • Recognizing that I never knew any of you well enough, similar statements to the one above like “I never thought a girl like you could exist” were equally ridiculous & downright disingenuous. So you know, at the time my concept of what girls were like was heavily influenced by my sisters (whom I didn’t get along with), the TGIF sitcom lineup, and “girls” I’d met in AOL chat rooms. I’m happy to report, by the way, that I’ve retired my robe and wizard hat for good.
  • I don’t actually believe any of you are “the most perfect girl on the planet.” Since my last letter to you, I have actually found and married the girl that fits that description. To date, the drugs I’m slipping her to keep her high enough to stick around remain effective. (Kidding! Kidding!)

All that said, I’d like to take a moment to explain my frame of mind at the time, what I learned from the uniformly freaked out reactions I got from each of you, and what I really meant to convey.

Every Plot to Every Teen Movie Ever

When I got to high school, I arrived as a quiet loner with a hyperactive imagination. It was a 4-year epic battle just to work my way up to “quiet loner,” by the way, on the middle school social ladder. Clearly, socialization was not my strong suit. It didn’t help that my favorite hobbies at the time included reading comic books, watching The Simpsons, and playing video games. I had a few friends but most were even bigger misfits or social cripples.

Now, let me set the stage for you: September 1996, junior high has been over for months and high school is on deck. Exactly 2 other kids from my junior high got into our school – both were friends. The odds of my outcast legacy following me were slim. I had even spent the summer outdoors at the expense of valuable comic book and gaming time. The payoff was a tanned, lean and mean frame. The vitamin D made my skin the best it had ever been. My oldest sister, who previously had little involvement in my day to day, took an interest in my starting high school and took me to her  hair dresser (a gentleman by the name of Didi) to lop off my gawky mushroom hairdon’t and give me a fresh new look. Didi nailed it – I was sexy.

Everything was set for me to make a fresh start. I was no longer encumbered by the label I had earned and the socially inferior role that came with it. I had hope. I had confidence. And with sexy new look and full scholarship in hand, I had all the balls in the world. So much so that I tried out for and got a spot on the JV soccer team. Right away things seemed to be working perfectly: on my way to my second practice, I was the recipient of an unsolicited and giggly salutation from a pair of attractive classmates. That made it official – I needed only to select from my new harem and presto: girlfriend.

The REAL Reason Too Much TV is Bad for You

Such was the utter MADNESS I mistakenly used as logic when I decided to write and send you those letters. I clearly did NOT know how to handle finally being comfortable in my own skin. Worse, my fantasyland lens on life made me utterly incapable of honestly answering the question: “How would I feel if some strange girl wrote this to me?” Because in my mind at the time, the only possibilities were:

You’d find it in your backpack after I had planted it there during lunch while a friend distracted you. As you read it on the bus home, the grin on your face would widen and you’d finish reading in time to look out the window and see me pop a Mentos into my mouth at the next bus stop then hold a piece of looseleaf up that reads “will you go out with me?” You’d be crazy or lesbian to say no.

Or

One day I’d see you having a heated argument with your boyfriend – probably a senior from public school, probably a meathead. Things get out of hand and he let’s you in on what the five fingers said to the face. That’s when I rush in and go god mode on his ass unleashing (at minimum) a 32-hit combo, mostly on his jock face. Soon as I finish (but just before his limp body hits the ground) I look into your eyes and recite from a letter I’d been too bashful to deliver. The money quote would have been something like, “I didn’t rescue you just now; you rescued me from myself.” Obviously, we would have started making out there and then.

I’ll spare you any more contrived scenarios that played out in my fantastically out-of-touch mind. Suffice it to say I was not prepared for how you all actually reacted to my letters. And the reactions were pretty standard, by the way. Though I’m fairly certain word got around about the harrowingly creepy experience of getting a love note from me, I’ll recap for those who were spared the ordeal:

  1. Find the letter in your locker – probably endure an immediate wave of anxiety at the prospect of having your first stalker.
  2. After reading the letter, have your anxieties confirmed and magnified.
  3. Give no official acknowledgement of having received or even read the letter. Not to me, anyway.
  4. Avoid or cease all contact – casual or incidental – with me thenceforth. Return all accidental eye contact with lightning-fast darting of the eyes in the opposite direction (even if the only thing there is a wall) and a terror-stricken pallor on your face.
  5. If we sit near each other in any class, tell all the girls that sit around us about it so they can proactively shun me to avoid landing in your predicament. This creates an isolation bubble around me – an effective (and ironic) way to return both our lives to normal.

It took a number of failures with a number of you ladies for me to finally understand that what I was doing was not just ineffective, but downright creepy, douchey, and humiliating. I don’t remember who or what was responsible for the moment of clarity but when it hit me, the haircut, the soccer team, the little bottle of CK One – I began to see all of them for what they were: all part of a ham-fisted attempt by a geeky guy to artificially transform himself in order to get a popular/beautiful girl.

Stefan Urquelle
Don't pretend like you don't remember this TV milestone.

Yes, ladies, I had unwittingly LARPed the Stefan Urquelle story line from Family Matters.

Except I was the only player in on it. This crushing realization was enough to chase me back to some old, comfortable habits. I grew my hair out again, ditched organized sports, and hung out with mostly dudes.

He Went on to Become Not a Psychopath

This is definitely not a guilt trip, by the way – I didn’t relapse completely into a loner state, you see. I never forgot how good I felt about myself for those first few (delirious) weeks/months. After the last huge, embarrassing romantic failure I was left with just enough confidence to strike up a conversation with a friendly girl in homeroom who wound up being a huge help in upping my socializing game. Although I thought I had zero shot with her (or any girl) and resigned myself to eternal loneliness, this actually gave me a mental advantage: by eliminating the possibility of ever having a chance with any girl, all my interactions with them from then on were genuine attempts at getting to know them so that future interactions would be smoother and more enjoyable for both of us. By the time sophomore year started, I was a completely different version of freshman me which was actually a more  gregarious version of the loner who left junior high – only this time with a better grasp of who he is, inside and out. Oh, and a MUCH more firm grasp on reality. Things had changed so much for the better that I met a girl that year who would eventually become my wife. The difference a year makes, eh?

So I hope this letter serves as a refreshing palate cleanser for any bad taste left in your mouths from any of my previous letters. In the end, I still regret having written and delivered those crimes against loose leaf paper & common sense but I’m grateful that I was able to learn something from the experience. I wanted to thank you all for handling it (generally) with grace and more discretion than I probably deserved. Even though what you read in those letters was incredibly uncomfortable at best, please know what I really meant was that I noticed you and saw something special and really interesting. As a result, I wanted to get to know you better.

But then no one ever wants to receive an innocuous, matter-of-fact letter, do they? Least of all in high school. So I guess this is what I’m saying, ladies:

You’re welcome.

All the best,
Dave

Keyword Research: We’re ALL Doing It Wrong

Okay folks, if I admit that the headline is just a touch “clickbait-y,” will you concede that you clicked because – in your heart of hearts – you’re just not that comfortable with your keyword research process? Why is that? I mean, if you’re paying attention to fellows like Sam Crocker and Richard Baxter, you should have a serious arsenal of keyword research & keyword selection tools and methodologies. Right?

The problem is they’ve got the same issue anyone using Google data has: we all may be using manipulated search data. And I think a lot of us felt that in our bones for years. It’s time to confront some uncomfortable coincidences, contradictions, and facts about the search field and even our own methods.

Inside Man

I spent some years doing SEO for law firm websites at a company that specialized in services for the legal vertical. The nice thing about that was we had really good market intelligence about what the most valuable areas of practice were for our clients. The marketing team was also smart enough to create variable pricing that harmonized reasonably well with how competitive each market (city) would be online. A lot of carefully collected data and research went into marketing and product planning. When it got to us fulfillment people, I probably shouldn’t say much more than it was interesting to see what was on an official keyword list and ranking well versus what was actually driving traffic and conversions. You should know that marching orders were to optimize against what drove leads in addition to what was on the official keyword list. I say this because we were successful enough to grow the business from a couple dozen clients when i started out to 1,000+ in a year or so. Throughout that time, one of the dashboard metrics that HAD to be reported to clients were the rankings for the official campaign keywords. At first we scraped, but quickly decided we couldn’t scale it (cheaply) so we found a vendor to take over rank reporting. Most (if not all) specialists would still scrape and check rankings manually every day based on client requests or if they were just anxious to see if the links they built recently were having any impact. Keep this in mind.

Something Fishy In the State of Minnesota…

One day while looking for a way to integrate more data points into a keyword selection project, I noticed something very strange. Among the most in-demand legal services are:

  • Divorce law
  • Personal injury law
  • Bankruptcy law

While working with Google Insights for Search, I put these together with the seed term “lawyer” and the output really surprised me.

keyword research tool data is bullshit

Minnesota? The nation’s capital for broke and negligent divorcees? All at once? Something wasn’t right. I zeroed in on divorce and looked up divorce statistics by state figuring I would learn something. As it turns out, Minnesota is not leading the nation in divorce; it’s not even top ten! Curious about the state of Google’s own data collection infrastructure, I decided to pit Google against itself and see what Trends had to say (there’s a thought-provoking article that I recommend by Wil Reynolds citing some discrepancies within Google’s own tools for the same keyword ).

Sure enough, Google Trends saw more interest coming out of Minnesota – specifically, the area of St. Paul.

Thinking hard about what could create such high search demand where, ostensibly, there shouldn’t be as much relative to other states, I remembered how we used to collect ranking data: querying the FUCK out of Google. On a hunch, I looked up our primary competitor to see where they were based. Sure enough, competitor HQ is a suburb of St. Paul, MN. Did they find a way to scale their rank scraping better than we could? And hang on, surely this would be something Google would check for and filter anyway, right??

Well…

Here’s the thing. Remember that folks were still running queries on Google daily from our IP which was primarily located in a different state from where we were located. This could amount to hundreds of queries per day from our IP – perhaps thousands per month. Take a look at that screen grab again – our IP’s location is definitely on there. And it, too, should not be so high up on the list according to real census data.

Take a Look Around

Just last week I had a look around the weight loss vertical. I noticed a few states pretty well dominating – some of them having more regional search interest than more populace states. Comparing this map to this map, once again things failed to add up. That is until i discovered there’s a chain of weight loss centers that operate out of Texas, Georgia and Florida.

Plug the following into AdWords and have a look at the suggestions and search volumes on exact match basis:

  • Weight loss Houston
  • Weight loss Atlanta
keyword research tools
Doesn’t the output look and smell like a keyword list put together by lazy or production-line keyword list development as opposed to true market behavior? Is it too far of a stretch to believe the output is being affected by furious and constant querying (for rank checking purposes) from the aforementioned regional business who has locally targeted web presences? Don’t think for a second it’s impossible to manufacture search volume even if it is unintentional. As an aside, none of my research outside of Google yielded the same types of keyword suggestions.

Finding Refuge from the Noisy Crowd(sourcing)

I haven’t even touched on the well-known (but little talked about) way many search providers prospect for leads but suffice to say it’s only adding to the problem. I submit that what many of us have suspected to be true for a while is more demonstrably so now. That rank-checking and competitive activity are skewing keyword suggestions, keyword volumes, and even regional interest. If your keyword research process does not explore the world beyond Google, I truly worry about the shape of things to come.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting Google’s data is complete garbage. But for SEO, I tend to use it as directional and a source of inspiration. My PPC colleagues may find Googles data to be much more spot on – I hear few complaints from them but then they have a traffic estimator. Must be nice!

So what can you do to avoid creating a keyword list that is little more than a misleading pile of crap? I offer the following suggestions:

  1. Go beyond Google – Use other tools, other data providers, and read up on keyword research methodologies from the folks that do it seriously (*cough* *cough*).
  2. Know your space – Who are your competitors? What do you know about them? What are the relevant OFFLINE data points you can use to make sense of what you’re seeing come back from your keyword intelligence data providers? Census data worked gangbusters for me on a couple of occasions, by the way. The more information you have, the better you’ll be at spotting bullshit.
  3. Understand your target consumer – Follow them around the web. Go where they like to hang out on the web and just eavesdrop a bit. What you find there usually yields better starting points for keyword ideas.
  4. Use existing performance data – I get giddy when a client has existing Analytics data that goes back at least a year. Especially if they’ve enjoyed some visibility AND had some conversion mechanism on the website. Picking winners is almost academic at that point – take the ones that are contributing to the bottom line and blow those out first. Simplistic, i know, but if I attempted to do a better a job as Nick Eubanks at explaining competitive keyword analysis, I’d likely go mad. Just go read that.
  5. Remember that no one person or entity knows it all – So don’t bank on one data provider, one tool or one loudmouth SEO (yours truly included) to guide you all the way through. Learn from lots of folks and try a bunch of things yourself and develop your own instinct. Once you’ve got the instinct, always keep your eyes open because you’re never done learning. But at least you’ll be able to filter out the nonsense.

Final thoughts

Please note that I’m not leaving out some specific info about the companies and other pertinent details to be deceptive. If you’re clever at all you can figure most of it out. I’m being extra careful to not be interpreted as giving away anything sensitive. On a related note, please note my investigations were my own and NOT sanctioned or otherwise supported by any employer past or present. Now go put a skeptical eye on your keyword portfolio!

Anyone Can Do SEO

terrified graduate is terrified
Photo credit: http://www.eduinreview.com/resources/how-to-transition-from-college-to-the-real-world/

Graduation season is upon us and for many that means the hunt is on for a sweet job. For some recent undergrads, though, this means it’s time for a full-on panic attack followed by an existential funk that leads to job-hopping which segues nicely into a quarter life crisis by which point you completely forget what (if anything) you ever cared about or were interested in doing with your life.

Heavy, huh?

With a shiny new degree in hand, the conventional wisdom is you can get a job and life is going to be alright from then on. But that’s not exactly true, is it? What if, even after years of studying, you just don’t care about the field you find yourself in? Or what if you’ve landed a good job thanks to your stellar grades and internship work but it’s just now dawning on you that if you had to do what you’re doing every day for the rest of your life, you will absolutely be “News at 11” one day and the report would conclude with something like “… neighbors are stunned” or “…before turning the gun on himself.”

I want to talk to the folks who find themselves in this predicament. I want to offer you an alternative career path that is in high demand and gives many the opportunity to turn the thing they’re good at (but maybe not in love with) into a paying gig they might actaully enjoy. There’s no technical certification required – you’ve just got to love to hustle.

The fact of the matter is, so many hard-working people out there already possess one or more of the core skills all SEOs need to be great at their job. If you’ve got a degree or certification, half the battle is already won because that specialization can likely be parlayed into search marketing win. And I’ve thought about this for a while – almost any graduate/professional has probably learned some really valuable SEO lessons in the course of just studying for or even plying a professional trade.

I feel like my theory will hold true almost universally so perhaps I’ll make this a more extensive list over time. For now, let’s examine just a few examples:

Lawyers

It’s all about understanding precedence and how the laws apply (or don’t) to your client’s case. No matter what area of law you practice, you wouldn’t get by unless you read A LOT of case law and decisions. But that’s only half the battle: taking what you read and knowing what to apply in a courtroom to get the judgment you want is the hard part. Even if a case doesn’t go to court, screwing up procedure will still result in the kind of failure that’ll make clients leave in droves and tell their friends who to stay away from when they need the service that you provide.

A good lawyer and a good SEO ALWAYS applies what they learned after reading and over time that practice will separate them from newbies, hacks, and pretenders. There’s a wisdom and instinct earned from voraciously reading and selecting tactics from previous cases that can’t be bought, borrowed, or faked. A good lawyer and a good SEO also pays strict attention to detail and procedure because they understand those things matter. A lot. Good lawyers and good SEOs also understand that without happy clients, they won’t be in business as lawyers or SEOs for very long so they do what they do to get their clients results, not to get invited to the best networking mixers nor to get some face time with the honorable Judge Cutts.

Activities pre-law grads and recent JDs are most well-suited for:

  • Interpreting Google patent applications and their impact on the algorithm
  • Combining official search engine communiqués and observed results and distilling them into best practices
  • Negotiating contract terms with clients
  • Participating in client interface
  • Client prospecting and qualification

Doctors

You talented pre-med grads have the potential to be fountainheads of SEO knowledge. Much like a stricken patient, the Dr. SEOs take a sick website and run batteries of tests and take a multitude of measurements to try and understand what’s ailing it. Your knowledge of the vascular and nervous system is not unlike a good SEO’s knowledge of link graphs and social graphs. The questions you would ask about your patients’ diet and exercise habits are reminiscent of the types of questions a good SEO asks his client about past and current online marketing efforts. And when you suspect a patient is lying about his love of all things salty and greasy, much like a good SEO you find a way to expose their embarrassing spam habit because you care enough to save them from themselves. In your day to day, these things are actually a matter of life and death. For a good SEO, It just feels that way.

Activities pre-med grads and recent medical school grads are most well-suited for:

  • Site diagnostics
  • Link audits
  • Site technology assessment and future planning
  • Competitive analysis – diagnosing why competitors are winning

Real Estate Agents

Granted, there’s no real estate college. But in my lifetime I’ve come across many people who graduated college with something like a history or contemporary women’s studies degree and had no clue on what to do with it (easy now – I’m not picking on either area of study). So they got into real estate because it was potentially lucrative and relatively easy to get into. Some wound up loving it; many others found themselves at square one. If the latter sounds like you, worry not. Online marketing might be a gig you’d enjoy and SEO is likely a sure-fire entrée to that arena since you actually know a lot more about SEO than you realize.

If you’ve ever “staged” a house or apartment then you already get the premise of on-site SEO. You took a look at the property from a distance and recommended superficial tweaks to get an enticing photo printed in the local real estate listings and to get people to want to set foot inside for a closer look. You probably also went through the property room by room to identify any other details that might cost you your desired listing price or, even worse, a potential buyer. The ideas of “room flow” and intelligent use of space are important and you know why – this will come in handy when someone starts talking to you about “UX,” by the way.

Then there’s marketing the property. You know the listing for which you took the photo might work but if you want to make lots of bread fast, you’ve got to hustle. You hop on every real estate site ever conceived and add your property with great photos to boot. You email/text past clients and prospects that you’ve given great service to letting them know you have a great property to show in case any of them, their friends, or family are looking. You know the demographics of local neighborhoods and have a sense of where lots of newlyweds and young couples, for example, tend to settle down. In those neighborhoods you’ll do mailers, church bulletin sponsorships (great for targeting newlyweds), and perhaps even a deal or two with local eateries to display your business cards and latest featured property right at their counters. You do all this because, at the end of the day, you want the RIGHT type of foot traffic coming to your properties – the kind that wants what you’re showing AND can afford it. You and the banks would call them “qualified buyers.”

If you’ve ever gone through the above, you’re equipped to be one helluva an SEO. Understanding that your client’s web property has to close the deal will help you focus your linkbuilding efforts in such a way as to effectively attract qualified traffic – the visitors who will, in some form or fashion, contribute to your client’s bottom line. It’ll also serve as a constant reminder that on-site SEO isn’t a one-and-done affair. When you price a property, stage it, and don’t receive the right type of foot traffic and/or level of interest, what would you do? Examine pricing and the market (CRO and competitive analysis), re-stage the house based on feedback received from those that previously viewed (analytics-driven on-site re-optimization) and re-examine where and how to market based on how those that viewed previously were referred.

Activities real estate professional are most well-suited for:

  • On-site optimization (UX and site architecture in particular)
  • Conversion optimization
  • Linkbuilding (primarily content marketing)

The List Goes On…

Like I said, these are just a few examples. Anyone from a consternated construction worker to an angst-ridden astrophysicist should feel confident they have a solid foundation of skills to make a successful go at SEO so long as they want to work.  In our field, you can work with myriad businesses in areas ranging from non-profit to Fortune 500. You can specialize in content development, linkbuilding, social media strategy or something more technical like developing tools. By taking up SEO, there’s a good possibility you’ll find the thing you’re both good at AND can enjoy doing for a living. And if nothing else, if it turns out after all that effort you decided that you’d really rather just travel the world or somehow make money off the funny doodles you like to draw, hopefully at least SEO will have given you the insight, tools and experience to help make something like that happen.

An Open Letter to My Pants

Dear Pants,

This letter is to formally advise you that your status as an active member of my wardrobe has been suspended indefinitely. Your heretofore faithful service is being taken into consideration which is why I have not decided to simply terminate your employment.

This decision was not an easy one. When you applied for the position, I was sure you were a good fit. It is not normally my policy to hire on the basis of color but in your case, this was the strongest deciding factor. Though no one can dispute your dynamism, It has become apparent that you’re not the fit I was looking for at all. You’ve been quietly under review for some time and your observers take issue with you in 3 distinct areas:

  • Sexual misconduct
  • Antiquated methodologies
  • Inability to work with others.

In the first place, it has been observed that you seem to be constantly displaying an erection. While I realize that nature does what it will, I cannot reconcile being in that condition at literally any and every point in time at our office. Please understand that this makes it difficult for colleagues to interface with us. Complaints have been filed and we are forced to listen and react.

It has also been noted that you are still using pleats and cuffs – methodologies that have been phased out by current industry standards. In this organization, innovation is integral to our success; if you are not on the leading/cutting/bleeding edge, we will NOT continue to thrive.

Another area of concern is your inability work with others. While our complaint system is designed to be anonymous, Blue Shirt and Black Shoes have both asked to be named in this matter. They claim to have repeatedly offered you help in developing your skills and are now claiming that your inability to adapt reflects poorly on them. We cannot afford to have liabilities on our team.

Please note that your case may be formally reviewed by the Director of Wifely Resources at her discretion. Until that time, please remain on your hanger in the closet until further notice.

Respectfully,

Dave

====================================================================

Larry David knows my pain…

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No time. Like the present?

Yes, this post title? That just happened. I kinda want to punch me, too, but I’m going to try and bring this full circle to make it mean something. I want you to come back read the rest of my stuff, after all. In that spirit, I’ll make this as brief and compelling as I can:

I’m an SEO. I love my job and want to get as good as I can at it. The way I’m going to try and do that is to walk the walk more publicly and show you guys as much as I can about what I do at work and even what goes on in my head.

That second bit is only marginally useful to helping anyone understand why and how I do what I do. I’ll be honest and say I also kinda just want an outlet for my nerdy proclivities. Think about if Bill Gates, Stan Lee and James Burke had a kid. Right, now stop vomiting because that’s a)gross b)impossible and c) not what I meant. You ever see Three Men and a Baby? Right, start there (then consider therapy, you weirdo).

So think of this site as that kid’s baby bib: it’s definitely useful but its also covered in nerdy dribble.
Fair warning: Many posts’ll be hastily slapped together and it might be pretty obvious at times. Yet i’ll still seek your affirmation that you liked what I published just for you. Get the title now?

Enjoy!