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Interview: SEO Expert Adam Audette

I had the pleasure of finally meeting and getting to know Adam Audette, Founder and CEO of Audette Media, during 2009. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, Adam is a true thought leader in the field of Search Engine Optimization -- couldn't resist :-) -- who has been at it since the mid 1990s. Our two companies share the same view of client relationships and the importance of integrity and transparency. Adam was kind enough to participate in the following interview on the state of SEO as we enter 2010, and will join us at our Client Summit in Charlottesville this May. George: Adam, you've been in the SEO game as long as anyone in the space. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the industry? Adam: All I can think is, "what happened?" When I started in this industry, Yahoo! ruled the day with its directory (and search as an additional option). Then Google came along with its simple interface, which was alone so innovative and refreshing - the interface was a big part of the Google phenomenon - everyone wanted to use it, everyone talked about it. And now, look what happened: Google took nearly all the marketshare and Yahoo! is giving up in the search space completely. The search marketing industry has grown a lot, and from a glass-half-empty point of view not always for the better. There are a ton of low-quality SEO and PPC services polluting the marketplace. It's getting more difficult than ever to sort the wheat from the chaff. I don't know how someone without experience in the industry could accurately select a partner, except by referral. There is some amazing talent out there, but they're not always the loudest and most vocal. It can be hard to find. Now social media is changing everything again, and real-time search, and Google is getting more aggressive with monetization of its channels. I'm especially interested in how URL shorteners are upsetting what have been signals inherent to SEO: links. Google is also pushing its Product Search and rolling out new interfaces, and even experimenting with taking away the URL, or at least changing it to a breadcrumb trail. That feature, and sitelinks, and anchor text links appearing in search results - there is a convergence happening with what have traditionally been site architecture factors in SEO. This is great for us as a company because we've been trumpeting the importance of site architecture all along. George: There was a great fire-storm at SMX Advanced in 2008 over the distinction between "black hat" and "white hat" SEO practices, with some practitioners arguing that anything that works is okay. They reason: who is Google to define "good" and "bad" behavior? They're not the law, so why let them set the rules? What's your take? Adam: Certainly, but if you don't play by their rules they reserve the right to kick you out of their search. It's their search engine, just like it's "our site" to do with what we choose. I think it's fine to approach SEO from the point of view of a blackhat, provided one accepts the risks and consequences. It's not for me. I've always been white hat. It just makes sense for me, for my company and the clients we work with. George: If there is a distinction above, where is that line? Adam: They're not the law, but they own their search engine. Play according to their rules or you don't get to play at all. Ultimately, they draw the line in the sand and black hats flirt with it, step over it, sometimes get caught and sometimes don't. It's a lot easier to not have to worry about that, which is why I like doing things in a white hat way. However, if there is a gray area it's likely paid links. In some markets, the SEO is so competitive that literally everyone in the top 5 is buying links. And many of them are Fortune 500 companies. George: A few years ago it seemed to me that the classic bag of "dirty" SEO tricks still worked pretty well, even though the engines claimed to be onto them. Do you think the "scammers" will always be one step ahead of the engines, or is the reverse more the case, that the engines change the algorithms and the SEO folks then have to figure out what changed? Adam: There will always be folks at the cutting edge of spam. Sounds ironic, but it's true. Spam is the area that innovates, just like porn innovates on the Web. Today Yahoo! is more vulnerable to link manipulation. Paid links being the best example. You can throw some pretty dirty links at sites and do it aggressively and they normally reward the action with top rankings. It isn't surprising seeing how their web search hasn't really evolved over the last few years - other areas of Yahoo! of course have innovated and evolved. But search just hasn't, so it's probably no surprise they're giving up the ghost to Bing. Otherwise, things have changed dramatically. Google seems to be wanting to get away from its traditional model of dependence on links. It's too easy to manipulate, thus their jihad against paid links about a year ago. You don't hear as much anymore from them on paid links - they've sent the message - now it's time to push their "report spam" feature and you can bet companies and consultants are using it daily. (We're not, by the way. We prefer to focus on building our client's presences than pulling their competitors down.) Bottom line from what we're seeing is that paid links can still work, very well. But the risk quotient is higher, depending on the approach. Above and beyond great content you need great links - you just do - and Google so far hasn't seemed interested in shaking up established brand residents on top results buying lots of links. There is a fuzzy gray area between what are partnerships, paid links, manipulative links, and clean non-manipulative links. I'm sure Google knows where the line is drawn, but I sometimes do not. It's not always as easy as saying 'nofollow' either. XML sitemap adoption just hasn't happened like the engines wanted it to (Google especially). However, with product search becoming more important Base feeds are probably a natural evolution of the same basic idea - give Google a link list with product information instead of solely relying on the crawl. George: There has been an interesting discussion about "page rank sculpting" with some folks saying it's essential and others saying it's totally bogus. What's your view? Adam: I've been on panels with Leslie Rhode and he has some very interesting approaches, so I would never say it's bogus. Leslie has tests that prove pagerank sculpting has helped to push rankings. However Rand Fishkin, a pretty vocal proponent of PR sculpting in the past, says it's actually best for indexation issues. I respect Rand's opinion on SEO and think this is something to pay attention to. For myself, I follow the simple rule of focusing on what makes sense from a user perspective, what products we care about selling, then I feature those prominently on our clients pages. That's about it. Nofollow is still useful. My friend Shari Thurow often laughs about what "patsies" we are as SEOs, because we follow Google around like a dog begging for a treat. Google says to PR sculpt, we freak about it for a year or so, Google says it stopped working a year ago, we freak about that now and say never to use it! What a sad state of affairs. In SEO we need to develop our own creative approaches to things and think for ourselves! We've deployed some pretty aggressive uses of nofollow in cases where, 1) we're doing something that's primarly a short-term tactic, for example while a redesign is being conducted, or 2) there are serious architecture issues that can't be resolved easily. Personally I've always thought nofollowz sucked for PR sculpting, but it's great when I don't want a bot to crawl a link. George: If someone grabbed a copy of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies from 2004 and both understood and followed all the fundamental teachings therein, how far would that get them these days? Adam: Fundamentally it would cover things just fine. The problem someone would have is in taking an existing site and finding out how to maximize SEO from it. There are problems to solve, crawling issues, indexation issues, technical hurdles, and these are the sticky aspects of the work we do. But yes, by and large, SEO hasn't changed: links and content, and a site that's accessible to the bots. Where we're seeing a lot of potential are on the alternative verticals such as Google's blended product listings, maps, bing's video results, etc. These are areas that fundamentals won't take you very far in. And there are tricks. There really are. It's just that accomplishing them requires a great deal of attention, knowledge and resources. You can't just stuff a keyword tag or push some hidden text, you have to innovate in creative, different ways. It's about blending content that's unique, that hasn't been seen before, and finding ways to re-purpose and compare content and products together. And it's also about leveraging the blended results, and the features Google continuously rolls out in the search engine. Suggested searches (these can be manipulated, and are, by the black hat variety), sitelinks, anchor text links, microformats... all kinds of fun stuff. George: True, False or other: Search Engine Spiders have evolved to the point that they're evaluating pages much more like a smart human would than they used to? Adam: False - they are still robots. They are machines. It's all data. However, and here's the wrinkle, they're deploying humans much more than they probably ever expected nor wanted to. The "hand job" is alive and well in SEO and happens every single day (and Google employs thousands of quality evaluators). So while the crawl and discovery phase is primarily a robotic duty (I'm sure with some human involvement, in cases where dials need to be turned for specific situations), indexation and ranking take on some human elements. That's my opinion, anyway. George: Do you see optimizing for Google and optimizing for the other engines to be different activities? Do you have to make choices or can you optimize for all of them simultaneously? Adam: Same all around. Our motto is, what's good for Google is good for the rest. And it pretty much is. As Bing evolves we'll see if that changes. George: What's your take on Caffeine? Adam: This might be a big one, might not, it's just a big question mark to be honest. They say they've rewritten the entire engine, but that it primarily effects indexation not rankings. Well, I doubt that. Expect rankings to change. I think they've been extremely cool about it, releasing Caffeine as an alpha/beta for the web community - that's unprecedented. This kind of thing is really good for SEO - keeps us on our toes. George: What's the most common mistake you see in site design? Adam: Probably when sites try to be too "SEO'y" if that makes sense. Over-optimized sites. The days of putting multiple keyword phrases into title tags are over. Sites need to quit stuffing them with phrases. And those anchor text heavy footers are ugly and probably filtered out anyway, so sites need to quit using that tactic. I'd say in general, people are way too focused on link text. Link text is naturally diverse, yet you see SEOs (on company sites and on external links) using exact match anchor text. It's silly and not only looks spammy, probably doesn't have the impact they think it does. Vary the link text, forget the SEO footer, and make clean, smart title tags. Reinforce other phrases in the copy of the page. Focus the page on a primary theme. And place prominent links to important pages and categories on the home page. Then build links. That's pretty much it! The one thing people seem to miss is the idea of consistency, which is something Shari Thurow really taught me. The more opportunities you have to use consistent links internally, the more hints you give the engines and the more those hints all line up consistently, the better. Internal linkage, XML sitemaps, link canonical tags and redirects, all of this stuff needs to be pointing in the same direction. When it does, you're giving Google and the engines all the information you can about your pages, and they're more likely to use that information as stronger hints. George: Thanks so much for taking the time, Adam! If those of you reading have follow up questions for Adam please post them here!
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