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6 Things We Heard Again from the Search Engineers at SMX East




By Brent D. Payne

[Update: When you’re done reading this post, be sure to read Rand Fishkin’s response in the comments.]

Rand generated a post on Sunday titled, 6 Lessons from the Search Engineers at SMX East, where Rand stated  the session was ‘if not the best … very close to it’ that he has ever attended. I was quite shocked by the bold statement as I didn’t find the session to be anything earth shattering. Personally, I thought it was a regurgitation of the same things we have known for quite some time now.

I’ll go through each of Rand’s takeaways and provide my feedback:

  1. Using Session IDs – Rand mentioned that the search engines have de-duping capabilities for session IDs in URLs. But how PageRank is assigned is still unknown. Rand was smart to mention ‘smart SEOs should, if possible, not use the IDs in the URL and, if they are employed, use 301 redirects to insure proper flow of link equity’.
    Why this isn’t earth-shattering – We know this already. It’s even in the Google Webmaster Guidelines (see http://zi.ma/Session-IDs-bad). Google even uses the word ‘may’ which, to me, means they try but don’t have it down decent enough to state it’s okay to include session IDs.
  2. Affiliate Links – Rand mentions that the search engines ‘shockingly’ stated ‘that if affiliate links came from valuable, relevant, trust-worthy sources – bloggers endorsing a product, affiliates of high quality, etc. – they would be counted in link algorithms. … [Nor was it] necessary to mark these [links] with a nofollow or other method of blocking link value.’
    Why this isn’t earth-shattering – Again we know this already. This goes back to good quality content is paramount to everything else. It also leads back to trusted domains and how trusted domains are treated. Furthermore it leads to the search engines’ overall goals of providing quality, relevant information to their users. There was even a panel I attended that underscored the benefit of having an in-house affiliate program for this exact reason—the ability to utilize your affiliate network for inbound, anchor text rich, inbound links. I’ve written previously (sorry no link as I killed that consulting site because I am starting a new consulting company) that one of the largest wins at OneCall was the utilization of their affiliate program properly to generate anchor text rich inbounds from sites such as DealNews.com which has a PR6 and provides a real value to its users. THE BIG QUESTION though is what does Google consider trust-worthy sources versus spammy affiliate sites? I argue we have no clue and that every webmaster is going to assume their site isn’t spammy and thus won’t include a nofollow. Again, net gain from this question and subsequent answer was very little, if any.
  3. False Positives in Spam – Rand mentioned that search engines agree that false positives with spam does occur (thought the percentages are low) and when it does to contact the search engines to get it fixed.
    Why this isn’t earth-shattering – Ummm. Because it doesn’t say anything that’s not very, very obvious? The search engines make mistakes (really?? I thought they were perfect). When they make a mistake regarding your site tell them (holy cow! Let them know if they made a mistake – no way!!!). I am tossing out some jabs on this one because I think Rand can handle it and I feel we have a decent relationship. I just don’t think this one should have been included in the list of six things. ;-) I still love ya Rand . . . LOL
  4. Links are Still Huge – Rand states, “When asked if links are the primary signal for search engine rankings, the engineers generally agreed that, yes, it probably is.”
    Why this isn’t earth-shattering – If the search engineers would have been less dodgy in their response then I would agree with Rand on this one completely. Even so, I do feel this one has some value but not noteworthy enough to still yet be earth-shattering. Just read how Rand even worded the response from the search engineers. He included ‘generally agreed’ and ‘probably is’. Later Rand even mentions the search engineers use escape clauses like ‘may not be the most important signal’. Rand does note worthily mention that Yahoo! stated that links are more important than even title tags. I wasn’t shocked by this as title tags are an on-page factor and links are an off-page factor. It’s generally understood that off-page factors are weighted more heavily than on-page factors. I believe this is because webmasters have less control of off-page factors than on-page factors and thus the trust of off-page factors is higher with search engine algorithms. The call out from Yahoo! though that links are more important than title tags is at least a definitive statement and definitive statements are noteworthy.
  5. Sitemaps Shouldn’t Be Ignored – Rand underscores what the search engines said about sitemaps. He also mentions some new information from the search engines that there is a gain in traffic by using sitemaps. However, I think Rand is a bit too much in Linkscape land of late thinking that the search engines are giving you a boost just because you have a sitemap. Rand states, “after building just a small portion of a search engine with Linkscape, we can certainly feel how and why engines would appreciate and bestow benefits upon those who properly incorporated sitemaps.” I don’t think you get a boost for having a sitemap because the search engines appreciate it and bestow a benefit directly but rather indirectly.
    Why this isn’t earth-shattering – The search engines have been telling us for eons to build a sitemap. They have mentioned that it helps with canonicalization (I think that was Matt Cutts), they have mentioned that it helps discoverability (I think John Mueller or even perhaps Vanessa Fox, the Googler not Exoogler), and that it helps to trim unneeded URL parameters from the indexed versions of a piece of content. Again though I say we already know all this stuff. Nothing new.
  6. PageRank Sculpting Should Be Tested – I make it well known that I am a fan of PageRank sculpting. In fact I have even instituted a dynamic nofollow/PageRank attribution system at Tribune (see SEO Level 5, SEO Level 4, SEO Level 3, SEO Level 2, SEO Level 1 and note that strikethrough text is also nofollowed not just the red highlights). I am confident that it makes a noticeable difference on high PageRank sites that have oodles of links on particular pages. When you wipe out 200 links on a PR8 page and funnel those down to a handful of links . . . it makes a difference.
    Why this isn’t earth-shattering – Now . . . granted I believe that Fishkin, Clay, and Payne are the only major proponents of PageRank Sculpting and Siloing (and yes siloing is slightly different than funneling in my opinion) and I appreciate any plug that Rand can provide to prove that it’s something a webmaster should take a look at, but in this case, the search engines didn’t say anything more than they normally do. They said it’s a factor. They’ve said that before. They also spent several minutes making the point that it’s ‘just one factor’, it’s ‘not something a webmaster should spend a lot of time on’, it’s ‘one of hundreds of factors’, blah blah blah. They always downplay it and for good reason. What was earth-shattering was what some of the search engines said at some of the networking events about the way in which they handle nofollows—which I am not sharing. Sorry, there are times when it is best to STFU. ;-)

In closing, I’d like to mention that I found the session interesting. It was worth the time spent in the session and the part where Nathan Buggia of Live Search Webmaster Central telling a site owner that the webmaster should post videos of tazing cats was hilarious. I personally pictured Nathan tazing Matt’s cats and posting it up on YouTube in a ‘cat’napping style video demanding a ransom from Matt to deliver 20% of Google’s market share to Microsoft. (Yeah, I have issues…yeah, I pictured it all in a matter of milliseconds…again, I have issues.)

However, I don’t feel it would rate as one of my best sessions I ever attended. Hearing Rand state such as his opinion made me take pause and reflect upon the session once again and, as stated above, it made me feel even more strongly that the session wasn’t anything earth-shattering. I respect Rand’s opinion of the session and openly state that I feel he is one of the brightest minds in Search. Furthermore, no disrespect to Danny Sullivan and the session or conference as a whole—it was well worth attending, not only for networking opportunities but for material as well.

About Brent D. Payne

Brent D. Payne is the person leading the charge for SEO within Tribune Interactive where he recently doubled the number of unique visitors from search engines (year over year) for the Tribune Interactive properties such as Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times. He works closely with both editorial leads and technical leads within Tribune as well as working with external companies such as search engines, outside consultants, or other enterprise sites. When Brent isn’t doing SEO, he is . . . well, doing SEO. Yeah, it pretty much consumes his life . . . at least when he doesn’t have his 5-year old son.

  • http://www.seomoz.org randfish

    Brent – maybe you misunderstood my post. To me, none of these (other than maybe the affiliate links) were “earth-shattering” either. I don’t think we disagree. I just loved this session because the engineers were so forthright, honest and used very few of the overly political answers we usually see from them at events like this. That’s why I loved it so much – the post content itself was just coverage of takeaways, and targeted to a blog audience that, unlike you and I, probably doesn’t follow all of this extremely closely, and so much of it might be news to them.

  • http://www.tribuneinteractive.com/network Brent D. Payne

    @randfish – Your point about targetting to a blog audience is a fair point. I respect that and your opinion overall. I more clearly understand why you felt it was a one of the best sessions you have attended. It was more because they were forthright and less about what they stated. Though I did find them still rather dodgey than perhaps you did, it makes more sense now that I see it in that context.

  • http://thisismyurl.com Christopher Ross

    Great to hear! I’m a big believer in the concept of links being important so it’s great to read this.

    Christopher Ross’s last blog post..Increase Your Web Traffic for Free

  • http://www.360sell.com Sean Maguire

    Nice post Brent. I thought Rand’s was good too. Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that any time someone that is a sponsor of an event and very good friend of the host, you need to take their words with a grain of salt.

  • http://www.seomoz.org randfish

    Ouch Sean. You really think that I would write nice things about a session dishonestly due to the corrupting influence of our sponsorship of the event or my friendship with Danny? That hurts. After all the years I’ve been doing this, and all the hundreds of times I’ve praised and criticized (there’s plenty of both), I’m really surprised to see that sentiment. Wow.

  • http://www.marketingpilgrim.com Andy Beal

    @Sean – does that mean that if I say nice things about you, they should be disregarded? ;-)

    @Rand – knowing you as well as I do, I really don’t see you as being biased about this kind of stuff. Besides, you’ve got about 30,000 mozzers that would keep you honest. ;-)

  • http://www.jaankanellis.com Jaan Kanellis

    @Brent nice post. I see that the Chi Tribune home page uses a hybrid of “SEO Level 2″ and “SEO Level 3″ from your images. Care to define these 5 levels and when to use them?

    Jaan Kanellis’s last blog post..Don’t Update AdWords Editor When It Asks You To!

  • http://www.vanessafoxnude.com Vanessa Fox

    Indeed, I did say it helps with discoverability when I was a Googler. For instance, here:
    http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2007/03/blogher-2007-building-your-audience.html

    “The first step in the indexing process is discovery. A search engine has to know the pages exist. Search engines generally learn about pages from following links, and this process works great. If you have new pages, ensure relevant sites link to them, and provide links to them from within your site… You can also let search engines know about the pages of your site by submitting a Sitemap file.”

    And Sitemaps as a signal for canonical URLs was discussed on the webmaster central blog here:
    http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2007/09/google-duplicate-content-caused-by-url.html

    “Submitting a Sitemap with the canonical (i.e. representative) version of each URL. While we can’t guarantee that our algorithms will display the Sitemap’s URL in search results, it’s helpful to indicate the canonical preference.”

    Vanessa Fox’s last blog post..Increasing Search Indexing Coverage With an XML Sitemap

  • http://www.netage.co.za Goran Web Design

    The one point I think most people overlook is “using session IDs“.

    Great post ;-)

  • http://www.360sell.com Sean Maguire

    @Rand,

    I think you took misunderstood my comment. I enjoyed your post and I wasn’t suggesting that you were being dishonest at all.

    Rather, I was implying that in general, when a writer is in a position of significant bias, the potential exists for them to respond more favorably than they might otherwise; and that is something that a reader should take into consideration. I think that’s a fair statement.

    That said, I’ve always felt that you’ve been pretty well balanced when providing commentary on events such as this.

    @Andy – Did you say something nice about me? Did I miss it? ;)

  • http://www.greatpriceshere.com Nicole Price

    Wow! What a discussion!! This is very entertaining.

    Nicole Price’s last blog post..Mobile Accessories

  • http://www.speak-tome.com Ted Murphy

    “If you have new pages, ensure relevant sites link to them” — that is the basic task, I guess. Is it possible to buy links that Google feels are legitimate? How would you recommend doing that?

    I find your articles fascinating, btw. I noticed in an earlier article that 7 out of 10 of Tribune’s top search-generated visits were branded queries. Its interesting reading about the activities of an SEO wearing the white hat, trying to protect their company’s copyrights here on the ‘net.

  • http://www.jordankasteler.com/utah-seo-pro-blog/ Utah SEO Pro

    Surprised to hear that the engines didn’t disapprove of aff links.

    Utah SEO Pro’s last blog post..Link Metrics for SEO

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  • http://www.downloadic.com Downloadic

    I’m a big believer in the concept of links being important, too.

  • http://www.dealgiant.co.uk Saz

    This discussion in fact endorses some of the old practices still being effective for search

    Saz’s last blog post..World’s Lightest Blue-ray Laptop – Sony Launches Sony Vaio TT Series

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