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How to Act Like an SEO Expert: Four mistakes to avoid when performing SEO experiments

In yesterday’s post I explained my creative process for uncovering new and interesting search marketing ideas. In this post I want to focus on the other critical element toward becoming an expert: endless experimentation. Of course testing must be done carefully to avoid arriving at the wrong conclusions, which will bring us to another of my favorite topics: human error.

As I like to do, let me explain my process with an actual example.

Last month there was an interesting post on SEOmoz about session IDs and HTTP cookies. In the post, Rand asserted that search engines don’t support cookies, and it’s therefore another alternative to controlling robot access to a site. Very clever; I don’t know how I didn’t think about that first! :-)

Well, in the comments, King questioned the validity of the original assumption that search engines don’t accept cookies. Here is what he had to say:

I’m not sure its [sic] really true that search engines (Google at least) don’t accept cookies. I recently (well 6 months ago) created a site that checks for cookies before allowing customers access to the shopping cart. If cookies are disabled it sends the user to a[n] info page on the topic Google indexed the actual shopping cart page perfectly well, they totally bypassed the “cookie info” page, and never indexed that at all. Cookie checking was done entirely via PHP code.

For a while I have assumed that Google does not support cookies, but the truth is that search engines are constantly being improved and have evolved over the years. For instance, years ago search engine crawlers did not follow links embedded in JavaScript, but recent experiments have proven that at least Google does follow the less intricate ones.

So, this was a perfect candidate for a simple experiment. Let’s confirm whether search engines accept cookies or not. As best I can, I like to follow the scientific method. Read more

Lessons from Childhood: How to search for things that are hard to find

tennisball.jpgIn my teen years in the Dominican Republic, I used to play a game my friends called playball. The game followed more or less the same rules of baseball; we setup bases, hit the ball and ran to score. The main difference was that we played in the middle of the street and we used no bats or pitchers. We threw the ball up into the air ourselves and hit it with our bare hands.

Obviously we didn't use real baseballs, which would have been incredibly painful, but rather bright green tennis balls. It wasn’t uncommon to hit the ball hard enough that it will land in a monte—the scrubby woodland areas nearby. In no time at all the ball would grow dirty enough from our monte homeruns that it would turn a dark green color. You always had to pay close attention to the trajectory in order to find where it landed. We lost many balls over the years.

Why was it so difficult? The dark green balls blended in with the bushes so well that it was very hard for us to tell them apart. The balls had no distinctive features to make them stand out. Later, we used bright orange balls and those were really hard to miss. Search engines face a similar challenge… Read more

Adolescent Search Engines: They are growing up so fast!

teens.jpgSearch engines are just like teenagers. Don’t believe me? Consider this analogy.

Let's say you have a teenage kid with a handful of friends. He knows them very well and even remembers their phone numbers by heart. He’s bright and it doesn’t take him long to become very popular at school. Now, he has dozens of friends. While extremely intelligent, he doesn’t have the memory to recall all his new friends’ contact info. Now he uses a paper address book to keep track of them, looking them up by their initials.

Later, he discovers social media sites on the Internet and gets addicted. He gains hundreds of friends all around the world. He genuinely wants to stay in touch with them but his paper address book is no good and he upgrades to a web-based electronic one. Now he can find any friend by simply typing in the first or last name. After joining several social networks and starting his own blog, he has several thousand friends. Suddenly he is faced with another unforeseen challenge: many friends have the same name! He needs to use a differentiating piece of information, their country or city for example, to tell them apart. But in several cases even this fails; he has three friends in Korea named John Kim, and two of them in Seoul! He has to tell them apart by age.

Now imagine that this kid is a search engine and his friends are our web pages. Instead of a few thousand listings, search engines have to sort through billions to find what is being searched for. This is when things get really interesting. :-) Read more

Our Digital Footprints: Google's (and Microsoft’s) most valuable asset

searchengine_footprints.jpgAfter reading this intriguing article in the LA Times, I came to the conclusion that Google has far more ambitious plans than I originally thought. In their effort to build the perfect search engine — an oracle that can answer all of our questions, even answers that we didn't know about ourselves — Google is collecting every single digital footprint we leave online. They can afford to provide all their services for free. After all, our digital footprints are far more valuable.

What exactly are digital footprints, and how does Google get them? Imagine each one of Google’s offerings as a surveillance unit. Each service has a double purpose. First, to provide a useful service for “free,” and second to collect as much information about us as possible. Consider these few examples: Read more

Protecting your privacy from Google with Squid and FoxyProxy

There is no doubt about it; this has definitely been Google’s Privacy Week. Relevant news:

The infamous Privacy International’s report (it basically says that Google sucks in privacy, far more than Microsoft)

Privacy International’s open letter to Google

Danny Sullivan defending Google

Matt Cutts defending his employer

Google’s official response (PDF letter)

Google Video flaw exposes user credentials

It’s only human nature to defend ourselves (and those close to us) when we are under public scrutiny. I am not surprised to see Matt or Danny stand behind Google on this matter. I do think it is far more wise and beneficial to look into criticism and determine for ourselves what we can do to remedy it. I am glad to see that Google took this approach on their official response:

After considering the Working Party’s concerns, we are announcing a new policy: to anonymize our search server logs after 18 months, rather than the previously-established period of 18 to 24 months. We believe that we can still address our legitimate interests in security, innovation and anti-fraud efforts with this shorter period … We are considering the Working Party’s concerns regarding cookie expiration periods, and we are exploring ways to redesign cookies and to reduce their expiration without artificially forcing users to re-enter basic preferences such as language preference. We plan to make an announcement about privacy improvements for our cookies in the coming months.

You can take any side you want. But, I feel that none of the people covering this topic has addressed two critical issues:

1) How do you opt-out of data collection by Google or other search engines at will?

2) And, do you want to wait 18 months for your data to be anonymized? Read more

Robots.txt 101

First let me thank my beloved reader SEO blog.

Thanks to him I got a really nice bump in traffic and several new RSS subscribers.

It is really funny how people that don’t know you, start questioning your knowledge, calling you names, etc. I am glad that I don’t take things personal. For me it was a great opportunity to get my new blog some exposure.

I did not try intentionally, to be controversial. I did ran a back link check on John’s site and found those interesting results I reported. I am still more inclined to believe that my theory has more grounds than SEO Blog’s. Please keep reading to learn why.

His theory is that John fixed the problem, by making some substantial changes to his robots.txt file. I am really glad that he finally decided to dig for evidence. This is far more professional than calling people, you don’t know, names.

I thoughtfully checked both robots.txt files and here is what John removed in the new version: Read more