Why You Can’t Use PageRank as a Metric in an SEO Test

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now and I’m sure the title will grab the attention of any remaining PageRank lovers out there.  This post isn’t intended to provoke a reaction from anyone (although I’d love to hear your opinions), this post is meant to save people time on worrying about something that you can’t accurately measure.

I want to slip in a quick caveat before people jump straight to the comments and shoot me down.  I think that PageRank can be a useful metric to keep an eye on, I’ve been the same as everyone else and when talk of a PageRank update surface, I’ll go and check some of my sites.  I’ll also use it sometimes when doing some top level analysis of a sites structure and architecture.  But I certainly do not rely on it as a metric to influence my decisions for SEO campaigns and tactics.  I can probably sum it up by saying the following –

I use PageRank as an indicator of what Google thinks of page, I don’t use it as the truth

The prompt to write this post came about when some of my team at Distilled were discussing running a test on the flow of PageRank.  I love hearing them talk about testing stuff, I’ve done my own PageRank tests in the past.  But I had to voice my opinion which was that any test that involves the use of PageRank as a key metric is ultimately flawed.  Why?

Because you do not know what the PageRank of any given page is at the current (or when the test finishes) point in time

But what about this:

That is NOT the Google PageRank of the page you are looking at.  It is a snapshot of what the Google PageRank was at the time of Google pushing the data out to their Toolbar.  It has also been rounded off – real PageRank is in fact the output of a complex calculation that does not nicely equal a whole number.

Part of me is actually hoping that someone out there can prove me wrong and show me that PageRank can be reliably and accurately measured.   I’d love to see an example.

PageRank is also a fluid metric, it changes constantly and the only people who see this are Google themselves – and probably Matt Cutt’s cat 🙂

Think about it this way.  If, shortly after I publish this post, I get a link from the homepage of the BBC and a link from the homepage of NASA, what will my PageRank be?  According to the Google Toolbar, it will probably be N/A or 0.  But both of these pages are PR9.  But whenever Google next crawl the links to this blog post, they could give it an immediate ranking boost by flowing the PageRank.  But I’d have no idea what my PageRank actually is until the next Toolbar update which could be months away.

So when you cannot reliably measure a metric, you cannot use it as the basis for testing.  Yes you can use it as an indicator, but in my opinion, you can’t use it to backup your claims on certain SEO tactics.

Something you CAN measure which is almost the same and more useful

Crawl stats.  Matt Cutts confirmed that your PageRank can influence how often and how deeply Google crawl your site:

“There is also not a hard limit on our crawl. The best way to think about it is that the number of pages that we crawl is roughly proportional to your PageRank. So if you have a lot of incoming links on your root page, we’ll definitely crawl that. Then your root page may link to other pages, and those will get PageRank and we’ll crawl those as well. As you get deeper and deeper in your site, however, PageRank tends to decline.”

Why not use your own crawl stats as a measure of which pages Google see as most important?  It makes sense that Google crawl more important pages more often because of the sheer links pointing at them.  You can then take this data and cross reference it with the pages that are getting organic traffic from Google.

Even better, you can see which pages Google are NOT crawling as much and see why.  Perhaps they are not linked to well internally, perhaps they have no external links.  Either way, you can take reliable data from a test such as this and be pretty confident in the results and your chosen action.

I’d love to hear everyones opinions on this and if someone can prove they can measure PageRank accurately and reliably enough to make it the basis of an SEO test, please let me know!

 

Use Buzzstream as a Searchable Database of Links

I’m a big fan of Buzzstream. I’ve been using it for a few years now and have seen it improve year on year. I’ve written a more generic Buzzstream review if you want to get an overview of the tool. This post is more focused on the practical uses of Buzzstream, in particular using Buzzstream as a searchable database of link targets for your link building team.

There are two ways to populate Buzzstream with link targets, you can use the Buzzmarker to add links one at a time, or you can import a spreadsheet of link targets in one go. I’ll discuss both methods and share some tips on the best way to use each one. Before that, we need to understand how the Custom Fields section of Buzzstream works, as we will rely upon these later.

Buzzstream Custom Fields

By default, you can add lots of attributes to the links targets to add to Buzzstream. Here are some examples of the things you can tag a link with when you add it to Buzzstream –

These are fine to start off with, but for am efficient, searchable database of links, we need to get a bit more detailed with the way we tag links.  This is where custom fields come in.

Buzzstream allows you to add custom fields on three levels – a person, link partner (which is the domain) and the link itself.  Which can be a page on a domain.  In this example, I’m going to use the link partner option as an example.  A link partner could be one of the following –

  • Paid directory
  • Free directory
  • Social media profile
  • Blog Comment
  • Competition site

I can add a custom field for each of these, which then means I can filter the database by “competition site” and instantly get a list of competition sites that I can get links from.

Adding custom fields is really easy and really flexible in Buzzstream so I’d recommend it.  Once you’ve added the custom fields that you want, you need to populate the database with each type of link.  This is where the Buzzmarker and importing spreadsheets come in.

Adding Link Targets Using the Buzzmarker

When you first setup Buzzstream, you should add the Buzzmarker to your browser which allows you to add websites to Buzzstream as you browse the web.

It is important that when you add link targets to Buzzstream using the Buzzmarker, that you tag them with the appropriate custom fields.  If you don’t, then they are not going to be searchable.  This isn’t that difficult for a very small team of link builders to do.  But if you have a large team of people in different offices, you need to make sure that everyone knows the importance of doing this.  So its worth doing some internal training and videos to make sure everyone uses the Buzzmarker and custom fields correctly.

Adding Link Targets Using a Spreadsheet

This is  great option for getting lots of link contacts into Buzzstream quickly.  For example you can import a list of quality paid directories and add a custom field to all of them.  Do this with each of the different custom fields and you’ll soon have a nice selection of link targets, all tagged and searchable by all of your link building team.

Only First Link on a Page Passes Anchor Text? A Small Test

There have been numerous experiments to see whether or not two links on the same page to the same URL, both pass anchor text value to the linked to page.  In the true spirit of an SEO, I wanted to test this myself.

If you work in SEO, I’d highly encourage you to do your own testing. There are loads of great SEO blogs out there that give you great info, but you can’t beat doing your own thing and verifying what people say for yourself.

Before

29th December 2010 this is how the link looked:

As you can see, very simple.  One text link saying “Andy J Davies” which linked to the URL:

http://www.andyjamesdavies.com/experiments/svg/

This page did NOT rank  for this keyword before I put this link live.  It is actually a very new page and doesn’t rank much for anything.

After the link went live, that exact page started ranking 8th in Google.co.uk for “andy j davies”:

What I did next –

I edited the blog post and inserted another link to the same page, but using different anchor text:

So both links are going to the same page.

After

So after a few weeks, the results changed.  Andy’s site stopped ranking for “andy j davies” and started ranking for “a test on SVG images” –

For me, this is pretty conclusive.  I know some may argue that this wasn’t that scientific.  But I’m happy with this outcome.

So I’ve just verified what others have said, but the bottom line is that you should be testing this stuff yourself.

The Perfect Link Building Tool – Is There Such a Thing?

I often get asked what link building tools I use and some people are surprised when I say “not many”.  Whilst I have definitely used a number of tools over the years, I genuinely struggle to think of tools that I use every day on client projects.

I do mention a few link building tools on my blog from time to time, so if you are looking for “real” link building tools, I’d suggest you start there.  If you are looking for the Perfect Link Building Tool, I don’t think it exists – not publicly anyway.

There are so many link building tools out there, many of them are fantastic, but I’d never call any of them perfect.  This isn’t a dig at the tools, its just we are all different, our approach to link building is different, a tool can’t possibly satisfy everyone enough to call it perfect.

What I think is the best link building tool – your mind.

I know that I’ve just disappointed a huge number of people, some won’t read any further than this, but meh, I’m being honest!

I’ve talked before about what I call the SEO gut feeling.  I believe that the same principles apply to link building.  You just can’t beat that instinct you have when you can look at a webpage and know the answers to two questions within a few seconds –

  • Is this site worth getting a link from?
  • Do I stand a chance of actually getting a link from this site?

If you can answer these two questions, you’ve just done something that a link building tool can’t.  Sure, there are tools out there that can kind of answer the first question.  I’m not aware of one that can answer the second question.

But think about it, these are the only two questions a link builder has to ask themselves right?  What else is there?  Yes you can get into more detail about anchor text, deep link possibilities, link metrics, but really, do you need to make it so complicated?

Some link building tools will be able to measure how strong a page is and filter out ones that you may not want a link from.  This is a great time saver, however you still have to make a judgement call on the sites that are not filtered out.  I’d be very wary of doing outreach to a bunch of sites that a tool finds which I don’t then look at manually.

When looking at link targets manually, there is a key problem – it takes time.  Prospecting link targets manually is a big job and can take a lot of time.  This is why having that gut instinct is so important, if you can answer my two questions within a minute or two, then you can actually get through quite a few in an hour.

This kind of gut instinct takes time, I’ve been doing SEO full time for over three years now and I’m still learning.  However, I’m pretty confident in my ability to quickly answer the two questions above.  You only get this by experience and working day in, day out in SEO.

The problem with this, is that many SEOs are still looking for that magic bullet, the quick fix or the secret to link building.  One of my end points at Link Love was that there is no secret, its just a case of getting your hands dirty and getting shit done.

If you are one of these SEOs, spend a few days or however long you want doing the following –

  • Choose one site and get 10 links to them
  • Don’t use any link building tools
  • Use your personal email address and name
  • Make a judgement call as to whether the site you want a link from is a quality one

Developing your Skills and Gut Instinct

I still consider myself to be a bit old school when it comes to learning stuff.  For example, I still believe that every SEO should go through the task of boring directory submissions and copywriting before being allowed anywhere near a tool or outsourcing service that can do these!  I think its essential to do tasks manually so that you understand the fundamentals of what makes that task work.  I also recommend that anyone in SEO builds a site using only Notepad and an FTP tool – trust me, you’ll learn more than you can imagine about the correct way to build a website.

In light of this, I wanted to give some actionable tips for anyone who is just starting out in SEO, or is just looking to improve their current skillset in link building.

1. Choose a site to get links for – don’t change a thing on it

It is absolutely vital to learn to link build without the ability to change a clients site.  Yes it is hard, yes its not as effective, but if you can do this, you can link build to any site.  Take a look around the site you have, see what you have to work with.  There may be very little or nothing, so you may need to get creative with what sites you’re going to target to get links from.

2. Use the phone to link build

I hate using the phone, I’ve got better in recent years but deep down, I don’t like it.  But it can be very effective when link building and much more efficient.  In terms of building relationships, you really stand a better chance if you chat on the phone or meet in person.

Give it a try.  Yes its hard but you can learn a lot by doing this.

3. Don’t obsess over anchor text

Whilst I still think anchor text rules, I think that over time, Google are dampening its effect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they are moving the needle more towards raw trust of a link rather than anchor text.  I’m probably wrong, but anyway, the point here is not to obsess over it.

Don’t ruin your chances of getting a good quality link by being too cheeky and asking a link target to give you exact match anchor text.  Just concentrate on getting good quality links.

If you are looking for more info on getting started in link building, then I’d also recommend taking a look at Wil Reynolds and Wiep.

Buzzstream Review

Buzzstream is best described as a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool for link building.  It has the backing of Eric Ward who is well known as one of the most respected link builders in the world.  The key thing to point out about Buzzstream is that it doesn’t build links for you.  It is designed to help you be more efficient with your outreach.

I first started using Buzzstream a few years ago when I was working for Pin Digital.  I came across the software by chance really and got in touch with Paul May who is the CEO.  He struck me immediately as a really nice guy and if anyone is considering giving Buzzstream a go, get in touch with Paul as he is a really nice guy and not a pushy salesman!

Buzzstream Features I Like –

Collaboration on Projects

When multiple people are building links for the same site, it can sometimes be a bit tricky to keep a track of who has done what and who has spoken to who.  Buzzstream allows for users to login with their own account and immediately see if another team member has looked at the same link target.  There is a nifty little toolbar plugin too which allows you to save a link target to the project, if you try to save a link target that is already in the database, you will be told so.  You can then see if outreach has already been done, what stage it is at and if you need to do any work.

Related to this, you can even see the email that a team member has sent to a link target and the replies.  You get an email address that you can BCC into an outreach email which will add a copy of the email to the link target.  This is very useful, not just for collaboration, but also just for an individual who is contacting lots of link targets at the same time.

Doing Outreach

A great feature of Buzzstream is the ability to send outreach emails from within the tool itself.  This saves the hassle of copying and pasting emails and contact details over to your email program.  The way that Buzzstream allows you to do it as well is a totally white hat method.  You’re not sending tons of emails in one go.  You send one at a time but you can use a template if you want.  However its highly advised (by Buzzstream too in their demo) that you add some unique elements to the email so that you increase your chances of success.

The interface you can use is very slick too and you can choose a set of targets, then very quickly send emails out to all of them one after the other.

Working on Multiple Projects

If you are an SEO agency, this feature is invaluable.  You will have many clients who you are doing link building for and keeping track of outreach on all of them can be tricky.  Usually it involves multiple spreadsheets!  In Buzzstream, you can add multiple projects very easily and work on them from the same interface.  So you no longer have different copies of spreadsheets floating around, you can manage all clients from the same place.

Sharing Link Contacts

From what I can tell, this isn’t a feature that is talked about very much on the Buzzstream website.  But it is certainly something that I think is valuable to agencies.  One of the features of Buzzstream is the ability to “tag” link targets with keywords.  For example you could tag my blog with “SEO” or “link building”.  What we do is tag link targets with a broad industry, such as “tech blog” or “finance” or “insurance”.  This means that we can sometimes use the same link target for multiple projects.  If a colleague has built a relationship with a tech blogger, I can easily search Buzzstream to find them.  Once I’ve found them, I already have a warm lead to go after for another project that may be in a similar industry.

Buzzstream Review

Why Knowing Everything About SEO Doesn’t Mean Shit

Bit of a disclaimer before you read too far and get angry with the lack of “real” SEO tips –

This post is more about getting SEO done rather than pure SEO.  The point being (as the title of this post implies) that even if you are an SEO rockstar, it doesn’t mean you are good at getting shit done.

This probably applies even more if your job title has the word “consultant” in it.  Yep, mine has it!  I bet that loads of SEO Consultants read loads of great SEO blogs, follow loads of great SEO people on Twitter, go to loads of great conferences.  Does it mean they can do SEO?  Nope.

Does the client care that you do all this stuff?  Nope.

Does the client care about the work you do for them and what their ROI is?  Yes!

Relating this back to real life

Back in May this year I joined Distilled.  I was super excited about going to a company that not only specialised in SEO, but were one of the leading UK companies.  I was super excited about how much more I could learn about SEO.  I couldn’t wait to get inside Distilled and learn all the “secrets”, oh and before you ask, I can’t tell you!

Looking back over the last seven months, I have learnt LOADS.  But to be honest, although I’ve learnt loads of SEO stuff, the more valuable stuff I’ve learnt has been more focused on getting shit done.

Before I joined Distilled, I worked for Pin Digital where I was in the enviable position of being in total control of client websites.  If I wanted some development changes (within reason) I could usually get them done.  It was just a case of walking next door to the developers and asking nicely.

I didn’t appreciate how valuable this was.  We were also in the fortunate position of working with companies who were big enough to understand the value of SEO, but not so big that they did their own SEO.  So we took pretty much 100% control over work and it was our job to get stuff done.  This isn’t that difficult in SME companies where you have control of the development side of the site too.

What I Learnt (sometimes the hard way) at Distilled –

SEO means nothing unless it gets done

A few months after starting, I was fortunate enough to take part in some in-house training sessions.  Will blogged about one of them here, the other was with a super smart person on the subject of influencing change and basically getting shit done.  The latter was probably the single most important thing I’ve learnt since starting at Distilled.

It changed just about everything about the way I did stuff.

I realised that being able to look at a client’s website and make SEO recommendations wasn’t enough to make a difference to their business.  Providing reports and strategy documents wasn’t enough to make a difference to their business.  Swapping emails with clients wasn’t enough to make a difference to their business.

Influencing Change and Getting Shit Done makes a difference to their business

To do this is not easy.  I’m by no means perfect at it.  It essentially comes down to a few key things –

1 – Know your client – you can’t do this over email

We’re all geeks, we don’t like using the phone.  But it is by far the best way (short of meeting in person) of getting to know your clients.  I was far too used to just swapping emails with clients and feeling like that was enough.  Instead of this, I tried to concentrate on proper contact with clients over the phone and even working from their offices or sitting in on their internal meetings.

I was naive as to the power of just being around in a clients office.  I was amazed when a client told me that just me being present at one of their planning meetings was enough to help the SEO tasks get done.  I hadn’t even said anything!

Just working at a clients office – even if you’re doing other client work – is incredibly valuable because you are there for the client if they need you.  You also overhear their regular day-to-day workings and get to know their methology and how they work.  Again, very valuable information that will help you when it comes to getting shit done.

2 – Know who matters at your client company – who makes decisions and who pays your invoice

I don’t mean just know who the CFO is!  You’ll usually have a person who is your main point of contact, but in some cases they’ll always have someone to report to.  It could be their manager, the board of directors or the owner of the company.    Either way, find out who it is and what you need to do in order to get them on board with your SEO efforts.

If you have a point of contact who does report to someone else – make them look good in front of their boss.  Take them out for lunch, get to know them and what makes them tick.

3 – Take ownership of the problems

This is paramount to any project.  Its easy to take ownership of the solutions, thats the fun bit right?  Coming up with creative solutions and implementing them.  But what happens when you hit a problem?  I’m yet to work on any SEO project that hasn’t hit problems along the way in some form or another.  When problems arise, take ownership of them and solve them.  Don’t file the email away or leave it for someone else to deal with.  Do it yourself.

4 – Don’t think that delivering a document is the job done

As consultants, many of us are used to delivering strategy documents which are essentially reports.  It probably contains problems that need to be solved and may include some solutions to these problems.

This isn’t doing your job.

Sorry, sounds harsh but its true.  Most good SEOs can deliver a document that is a comprehensive technical site audit – how many of them make sure it gets done?   How many deliver it in a format that can be given straight to a developer to be implemented?

Not as many.

I’ll be honest – I’ve learnt this the hard way.  It was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt so far and it is now always in the back of my mind when I deliver anything to a client.

When you deliver something to a client, its your job to deliver change which gets done and gets them results.  Thats it.

Seriously, thats it.

If you don’t influence change or make stuff happen, you’ve failed.

As I said, I’m by no means perfect and I’m learning all the time.  Part of the reason for writing this post was to give a reminder to myself how important this stuff is so I can refer back to it.  I also wanted to share some insight into why I think just being good at SEO isn’t enough and you shouldn’t rest on your laurels thinking thats it.

a4uexpo Bavarian Beer and Sausage on stand 50

Ecommerce Link Building – Shopping Centre Websites

Very quick post today on link building, this one is for ecommerce websites who have offline shops as well.

I’ve noticed that some shopping centres throughout the UK have their own websites, they often list the shops inside the shopping centre with details of opening times, location etc.  Some of them also provide a link to the official shop website too.

I’ve found an example using the website for the Bullring Shopping Centre in Birmingham, Ann Summers.  Honestly it was the first one I came to that had got a link to their website!  Well, maybe not the first but the first that caught my eye 🙂

So if you have a client with offline stores, draw up a list of all of their stores across the UK and see if any of them are within a shopping centre.  If they are, you know what to do!