The Coming Power Shift In Local SEO

In recent months I have written about how search engine optimization is changing and the costs to perform it well are increasing (here and here).

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more in the SEO world that suggests that consultants are evolving in the way we approach client related work. This is something that I have been thinking about for months (here) but not fully developed my thoughts on.

Some small and medium sized business owners and managers are incredibly smart, we all know that. Many more small and medium sized business owners aren’t quite so smart, we know that too. However, when it comes to local SEO, virtually everyone is out of their depth.

This understandable lack of specialised knowledge leads small businesses to make some predictable and unhelpful decisions when it comes to their own local SEO efforts.

When it comes to delivering high rankings in Google, typically it takes quite a lot of work. Gradually as the results start to come, the workload recedes and the client becomes profitable for the consultant or agency. However, what typically happens is that as soon as the results start to come, the clients fire the consultant or agency to improve their P&L.

In the short-term, this can make some sense. However, in the fast evolving world of the internet it often causes the consultant or agency to take risky short-cuts on client websites to achieve the immediate rankings being demanded at a low enough price to make it worth the effort.

I was contacted a few days ago by someone with an e-commerce site that was on the reverse of that situation. The agency seem to have spammed his store with poor quality links and now he is left holding the penalty. He was hoping that I would work on a performance only basis (free until results arrive) to rebuild his business…

What Is Changing?
I have recently agreed my first partnership deal and I am seeing more and more SEOers doing similar things.

The typical approach is that as a service provider, we have to pitch ourselves to clients and go through the indignity of them haggling over price before we can start. Then, they may or may not be helpful, pay their bills on time (or at all) and as soon as results look nice, we face the risk of being fired.

However, with partnership and lead generation type situations, we work on our own sites in their sectors and pass them the leads to convert or deliver on. This is a kind of local affiliate marketing. The risk in the transaction is suddenly removed because should the client firm not pay their bills or fire the SEOer, they do not own or control the website. Those leads can be sent to a competing company.

In essence, the SEO provider becomes an outsourced lead generation channel. The goose that lays the golden eggs.

Personally, as I begin to develop sites for business sectors that I think I can work in, this looks like it will be much more profitable for me than normal client work. That, of course, means that the clients will pay more for something similar.

Problems For Local Businesses
This sort of approach will certainly be helpful for many small firms. A good percentage simply do not have the competency to do the web work they need. Even basic tasks can take weeks to be completed. In contrast, for guys like me, those basic tasks are the work of a few minutes or hours. We will likely be much more efficient.

However, this lack of competency means that they are giving away power from within their company, mainly because it is “easier”. That works for the SEO providers but is not a great idea for the firm. Still, because it is easier to do, most will happily do so and worry about the consequences later.

Either way, I have recently launched my own offer here.

The Ever Increasing Cost To Perform SEO

Earlier in the year I wrote about the rising cost to perform SEO on a website (here, here and here).

Those posts were partly based on research, partly on a feeling I and some friends were getting in the market and partly on intuition. Well, I am at it again today…

In recent days I have had a couple of conversations with companies that have real SEO needs and a good friend of mine has had several almost identical conversations of his own. These seem to be based partly on the back of the latest round of updates from Google (known as Panda 4.0).

The thing is, I don’t think that the actual cost to perform SEO have increased, it is just that the complexity keeps on growing and as that happens, there are less and less competent people available that are able to solve this pressing business need.

As that happens, those of us still in the game have less and less available time and more and more offers of ways to fill that time. Supply and demand can be a beast in such circumstances. Prices continue to rise.

I’d like to close this post with a quotation from The Craft of Power, by R.G.H Siu, published in 1979:

“The ancient civilization of the Indus valley is a case in point. It was sustained by a complex irrigation system. The flow of water through its canals was regulated by a series of gates. The farmers found it necessary to assure equitable distribution of water among themselves. So a group of gatekeepers was hired and trained to apportion water in accordance with the instructions and requirements of the farmers. According to historical accounts, not too many decades later the keepers of the gates became the rulers of the farmers.”

The existing economic order is changing.

Is Human Nature The Main Impediment To Good SEO?

In recent days another category of website has been hit by a Google update. This time, the update was Panda 4.0 and the category of website seems to be very large e-commerce sites.

The history of major Google updates has been one of upsets for different groups of website owners. The pattern is almost always the same, only the names change.

Each time a type of site gets hit, there are webmasters and companies that had SEO “figured out” and life was good. Then they lost a huge chunk of traffic and revenues and everything changes. I have been through it myself, learning a lot of business lessons.

The thing is, when SEO is working well, it really can be a money machine. If your site is going great guns and leads are being generated and sales made, human nature kicks in. It always does.

“Why are we paying for all this advertising and marketing when organic search is delivering the goods, almost for free? Let’s switch some of those lesser channels off…” Then it becomes, “Let’s switch all these extra channels off, it’ll make the P&L look much better.”

Gradually the business gets used to this zero cost marketing and sales to the extent that when the algorithm changes and traffic drops, it puts the entire business in jeopardy.

This is not the fault of Google, they are trying to create a better algorithm. It is the fault of management that come to rely on only one source of lead or sales generation. If and when that one source is interrupted, all hell breaks loose. And it happens without warning.

A few months ago I had a prospect call me from the USA. Her business had ranked at number one for her main keywords for years and she didn’t know how or why. But she accepted those leads and built and grew a twenty person company around them.

However, the company website had not been touched since 2005. It was awful. Meanwhile, the competition had been building nicer websites and trying to figure SEO and pay per click out. When her site dropped from number one, it didn’t go to number two or three. No, it dropped to number SEVENTY.

Without realising or understanding, her company was on a knife edge. When we spoke, she needed her rankings and leads back NOW! The company couldn’t survive long without new leads. She had neither the time nor budget to build a new website or to experiment with new lead sources. She asked me, “In these circumstances, what should I do?” I suggested that she might start thinking about making some staff redundant – better to do it now than in three months time. That did not go down well, but I believe it was the reality of the situation.

The real problem, I believe, is human nature. Over time, we come to believe that our website deserves to be number one, that it really is the best and then we become lazy and just presume that things will stay that way.

The web is evolving. Your competition is evolving. The marketplace is not static. Everything is changing all the time. The lazy approach is just asking for trouble and the longer we benefit from the good times, the more we relax and take it all for granted.

Dan Kennedy often says that in business, “one” is the worst number – “You are just asking to get whacked!” – meaning that if you are overly reliant on something and if and when it ends, you will be in trouble. This is certainly true for marketing channels and especially for SEO.

I’ll leave you with an SEOer joke…

What do you call a business owner that generates all their sales by SEO and doesn’t know how search works and has not hired someone that does?

An idiot.

Don’t be that business owner. Presume things will change and keep constantly working to improve your online presence.

Can Your Site Visitors Contact You?

Over the last few weeks I have been doing a little “cold” emailing of small businesses. There are three different categories of business here in Malta that I would ideally like to find a client in. Not knowing anyone in these sectors personally, I have resorted to sending some emails.

Old fashioned hustle.

During this process I have sent almost 300 emails in total. And of those, some have bounced back, of course.

What is interesting is that the contact email addresses listed on company sites are not all working. In fact, I have found that 7% of them don’t work. That is amazing to me.

Bear in mind that I have not been using contact forms either, so there were bound to be a few of those not working as well.

Really, 7% is huge though. What is the point of doing any sort of promotion if visitors cannot then get in touch by email???

Thus the obvious question: are your contact details all up to date on your own website?


Every now and again you see the kind of odd result in the search engines that beggars belief. Today I would like to present one from sunny Malta and, ironically, the SEO space.

To normal people, especially clients, these types of results cause all sorts of difficult conversations. Mostly unpleasant conversations along the lines of, “How come this is at number three and I am at number five?”

Once you have been around SEO for a while though, you get used to seeing these types of oddity from time to time.

The screenshot below was taken about thirty minutes ago in and is the top of page one for the phrase “SEO Malta”. That is my own site listed as number three.

SEO Malta Screenshot 20 May 2014

The next screenshot is the homepage (the actual ranking page) of the number one ranking website. Screenshot 20 May 2014

That’s right! Outranking all the SEO experts in Malta – including me – is a blank page with no words using a standard WordPress theme.

I have a good idea what has happened and how the site has managed to rank at number one, but these kind of results must be a little embarrassing if you happen to be Google…

The lesson is that sometimes, even in the most complex mathematical structures, weird things “just happen”.

Why Are SEOers Still Spam Commenting?

Who in their right mind still uses spam commenting as a way of promoting a website and “helping” it’s SEO?

I don’t know the answer to that question. To me, and virtually everyone I know that works in search engine optimisation, Google’s Penguin update killed off most of the use of spammy comment tools.

And yet, I just took the following screenshot from the dashboard of this blog:

Spam comments to

And this screenshot is from another (much smaller) blog:

Spam comments screenshot

Both of these sites run on WordPress as you can see. Those comments have come through despite both blogs using both Akismet and Bad Behavior plugins. I am moving up a notch now and using the Disable Comments plugin across many of my pages and urls.

The amazing thing for me is that neither blog is really very strong, they are not obvious targets for mountains of automated spam commenting.

It suggests to me that there are still a great many people working in and around internet marketing that have not learned the lessons that Google was trying to teach with the Panda and Penguin updates. I think the best that we can hope for is that they do not build these links to our own sites and they avoid client sites as well.

Risk Mitigation In SEO

Over the last couple of weeks I have been working on a presentation that I will be giving in early May at the University of Malta about the risks involved in SEO. I am actually going to show some horror stories for businesses when things go wrong, but that is kinda the same thing… 😉

On that topic, a friend of mine, Paul Reilly from Media Skunk Works, has just been interviewed and he mentions risk mitigation in SEO as the biggest mistake that affiliates make in the gaming sector. His firm specialises in link building, so that is the area Paul talks about.

What you might find interesting is the budget he discusses that people might spend to conquer a phrase. Let’s just say, it isn’t small. This, for me, is a huge problem that companies have – they want to do everything for free – when in both organic and paid search traffic, a bigger budget is a business advantage.

It isn’t a long video, but if you are competitive at SEO, you will find this interesting:

The Problem With Domain Name Valuations

A little over one year ago I accidentally found a slight wrinkle in the way the domain name system works. It has enabled me to buy more than one hundred premium names in 2013. More to the point, it has enabled me to buy each one for the registration fee only. As might be imagined, 2013 was a very good year for my net worth!

For obvious reasons, I do not plan to reveal the method, and actually, there isn’t much point. What I have noticed in the last two months is that whatever this wrinkle was, does not seem to be working. I have not found a new name in many weeks.

At some point in the process, an owner of premium names needs to work out what they are worth. If the process of domain deletion and drops is opaque (it really is) then domain name valuations are comparatively open.

Still, there is much confusion about what a good name is really worth – even to the owner.

As an owner, I naturally think that all my names are worth US$1 million each. The reality though is that most are worth between $1,500 and $4,000 with a select few worth much more. This is the same in most portfolios. All domain name investors have some poor names and they hopefully have a few crackers. This is the 80/20 rule at work.

I don’t think that the domain name valuation tools that exist are all that good. One of the leading tools is estibot. Having used it quite a lot, I have found it’s results to be all over the map. The majority of my own portfolio it values at $0. While I know they aren’t all amazing names, they are worth more than zero each – I am confident of that much.

Therefore, I was interested to see that flippa has launched a new crowd sourced system. Users of are able to make an appraisal of a domain without access to seeing other users guesses. Other appraisals only become visible after your own has been submitted.

I tried it this morning and found a domain name with 30 existing user valuations: That’s a nice name, right? Anyone can tell that. BCG and McKinsey are massive businesses that work in this field and everyone knows that they charge high rates. There is money in this space and the name is what is known as a “category killer”, in other words, it is the best name there is in the sector.

Therefore, it is with some disappointment that I show you this: Valuation

My guesstimate was US$70,000. The highest valuation was US$146,000. The lowest? US$150. There were several guesses below US$500.

It seems as though the web now has another system for domain name valuations that doesn’t work. The “crowd” clearly doesn’t know.

Testimonial From Tracy Lange

Of all the wonderful and unusual places in the world, I first met Tracy Lange and her husband Norbert while on a boat trip in the Crystal Bay off the island of Comino. That was back in the summer of 2012.

Tracy is Managing Director of Salt Partners Limited (which has since changed name to MJM Europe), a corporate services firm based in Naxxar here in Malta. Their market is quite crowded with lots of law firms and consultancies competing for business. I began helping them with the SEO for their website in January.

Take it away Tracy…

“We began working with Stuart in January this year. At the time, we couldn’t find our site in the top 100 in Google for the phrases that we are interested in. By the start of February we had the elements Stuart recommended in place and we were ranking in the 70s. Some tweaks and some magic later and by early April we were ranking at number 2 for these phrases. The progress has been very impressive.”

Would You Rather Pay For SEO Tasks Or For SEO Results?

As a client, what do you want from an SEO provider?

A couple of days ago I was sent a proposal by a friend. Her organisation is looking for SEO help, has spoken to another firm and she very kindly wanted to know how I compared.

In many ways it was a standard proposal document from the competitor. It contained a list of tasks that would be performed once and another list of tasks that would be performed monthly, all for a set monthly fee and a twelve month commitment.

What was missing from the proposal document was any mention of whether the tasks being described result in consistently high search engine rankings. This is the issue though, isn’t it…?

Businesses seek out professional help because they have a problem and they would like it solved. In this instance, the problem could be stated as, “Our company website does not rank on page one of Google, we believe it is important that it does, but we do not know how to generate those SEO results and we need help”.

In contrast, the underlying message being provided by the firm’s proposal is something like this, “We will perform some tasks each month that relate to your website. The tasks we will perform may or may not help your website to rank more highly. We will find out together during the coming twelve months”.

Unfortunately for this particular company, the tasks they list could best be described as 2009 SEO, or pre-Panda-and-Penguin SEO. This means that actually, the tasks they list are not all that helpful to most websites and may actually result in more harm than good. Still, we’ll all find out in the coming twelve months!

This whole approach is one of the major problems with the SEO sector. There are just too many people selling services with little to no idea if they will actually generate any rankings. This particular firm is a great example.

By luck, they are also based here in Malta and in their presentation they mention the good rankings they have. As someone that checks the rankings for “SEO Malta” and related phrases several times per week (I like seeing my own sites ranking highly – it is shameless ego!) I have never heard of them. (Actually, I just checked and I can’t find them in the top 100 for any of the phrases in their homepage title tag – this is not a good sign.)

One size does not fit all
As much as I like the concept of productised service offerings, one size does not usually fit all – especially in SEO.

Figuring out what actions will work to rank a website includes understanding the relative strength and competitiveness of the site in question compared to the sites that are already ranking in the top ten for the target keywords. Just quoting companies with an attitude of “we do these tasks” leaves the buyers to understand and assess whether there is any value in the work being done themselves. This is clearly unfair on the purchasers since they are looking for advice and a solution. What they are being offered is avoidance from advice.

Comically, firms like this typically justify the situation by saying something like, “most of our clients choose this option”, which is another way of saying, “this is the thing we sell and our clients don’t know what they are buying”.

SEO is situational
In reality, there are many occasions where a search phrase is dominated by powerful and authoritative websites. These sites might be commercial, news or information based. If the client site is relatively weak in comparison, then what? Should you still sell the same package because, “this is what everybody else buys”? Of course not – the client will need to put in a lot more work and probably needs to spend a lot more money to see the rankings they want. This approach is – in my mind – in denial of reality.

A one size fits all approach only really works if the clients understand the topic well enough to already know that what you sell is what they need. In the world of SEO, if they know that, they probably don’t need to buy from you.

What is the solution to this? Personally, I think that SEOs should mostly be paid on results. That seems fair to me. There are many ways that this could be arranged, such as a low upfront fee and then a bonus on delivery of rankings or a monthly service tailored to the client where they pay an ongoing fee for rankings provided. I personally like the incentivised options that I have structured with some of my clients.

Clearly, only being paid on results has its limits. If your site is brand new and the competition is well established and tough, it might take twelve months or more of regular effort to achieve any sort of rankings, in which case, as a client you will not be offered a performance only deal. Additionally, for those new and weak sites, they will need a budget to be spent on all sorts of things as well – no consultant could be expected to take that on, unless the payoff for success was very, very significant.

What is clear to me is that since the Panda and Penguin updates by Google, most web design agencies have stopped offering SEO services because they realise that they no longer know how to generate the SEO results and rankings their clients are hoping for. These guys, it seems, haven’t figured that out yet either…