Podcast 3 – Search Engine Optimisation Tools

Philip:    My guest today is Dixon Jones.  I met Dixon in the U.S. last year.  He’s a bit of a legend in the search marketing industry having started his search marketing agency all of eleven years ago which is a life time in the online marketing world, in 1999.  He’s based in the UK in Bedfordshire which is north of London and Dixon is a moderator of Web Master World, of the forum, one of the moderators.

He’s also an owner of Majestic SEO which is a search engine optimisation tool which we’re going to be speaking a bit about today.  I believe in his spare time he also has a few of his own online businesses. So Dixon, thanks so much for joining us and welcome from what I imagine is a very cold UK.

Dixon:   Thank you very much.  I just got to correct you on the ownership of Majestic SEO.  I think Alex would hit me with a cricket bat if he heard that I was the owner of Majestic.  He’s the main owner of Majestic but I’m the Marketing Director and I have an interest in Majestic.

Philip:    Did I miss anything else?

Dixon:   Well my main, my main business is Receptional – Search Marketing or Internet Marketing Consultancy and I’m the largest share holder of that certainly and that’s the one that’s been going for eleven years and myself and the handler of Receptional, Andy, which is my CTO is also a moderator on Web Master World so there’s two of us there.

Philip:    Right.  So starting your own search marketing agency in 1999, you must have been one of the original agencies in the UK I imagine?

Dixon:   Well I thought I was pretty original when I looked at all this stuff.  I had a business back then or I still do have a business where I write and run murder mystery games which is kind of a sideways on, but I built my first website in 1999 and looked at In To Me and Yahoo and Alta Vista, the search engines that were around then and found that you could change a web page and their algorithms change.  So kind of figured out there was a business model here that was better than banner advertising which was the only thing you could do to market yourself online at the time.  So yeah, pretty early on, yeah.

Philip:    And how did you find that  in those early years, you know, selling those services to clients?  I mean it seems, there’s quite a learning curve, a lot of education involved in selling those services.  What was it like in those days?

Dixon:   Well, there were really only two types of potential clients.  The ones that wanted to chance their own and have a quick buck and they were a dangerous breed.  Then those that were too scared to do anything that they wanted to wait until everybody else made a land grab first.  They were too slow to do anything.  Sorry, there were three types of clients, were both small spenders at the time, from my perspective anyway, in organic search.

Pay Per Click hadn’t already come on the scene at the time.  So we did have some really powerful clients but most of their money was spent in investigating and tracking down what other people were doing as much as it was about learning that if you built your website in the wrong kind of script, no one was going to read it.

Philip:    Maybe you must have seen a lot in the last eleven years.  You have quite a unique position I think at the moment in running your agency, being a moderator on one of the largest, probably the largest web master forum in the world and also involved with Majestic.  What’s your view on the state of the search industry at the moment, 2010 and the trends or anything you see,  changing rapidly this year?

Dixon:   Sure.  I think it’s great really.  I think it’s always been an incredibly fluctuating industry and it moves too fast for people to set down rules and put in things that are going to stand the test of time with the exception of I think Pay Per Click where that has to do the test of time a little bit.  I think that things have changed an awful lot in the last twelve months and I think they are going to change a lot in the next twelve months.

Particularly of course social media has already  come on strong within the industry so to speak but I think that’s going to become even more relevant trying to mark it through social media with an eye on search engines I think is 2010.

And then the other big watch word is Mobile Search but that’s more important in places funny enough like Africa where people use the phone as their main mode of communication as opposed to a PC.  Although obviously with iPhones and androids that’s going to be more important as well.

But social media is really changing things with Google deciding to put live results in Google.  So you got Twitter feed results in Google now and of course they’ve already brought in all their other sorts of databases like local search and things.  So search is not what it used to be.  It’s now a mish mash of different types of search.

Philip:    Yeah and I think that personalized search seems to be – is going to be changing things a fair bit as well.

Dixon:   So I think on personalized search, I suspect that Bing – have you got Bing round down under?

Philip:    Technically it does exit but Google has a 90% market share so you know it’s low probably 2% or 3%.

Dixon:   Yeah okay.  So I think both are going heavily into personalized search.  Google has just announced that they are going to use personalized search whether you are signed into Google or not.  So that’s starting to change the results here and so you’ve got to be, you know, an internet expert to find out the non personalized results.

One thing that finally will go is people thinking, “Oh it’s all about whether I’m on number one for one particular term.”  I don’t think it is and I never did think it was.  I think it’s all about the clicks and the quality of those clicks that come through and that’s usually across a broader range of terms with the exception of brand which is really important for you.

Philip:    So you’ve been a moderator in Web Master World for quite a few years now.

Dixon:   Probably about eight years now.  I went to a conference down in Orlando, one of the first conferences.  Well actually I was at their first conference in London.  They had one in London in 2000 or so and lots of people turned up and then they had this one in Orlando and I thought, this is where it is all happening so fooled my way into the moderator status and I’ve managed to hang on ever since.

Philip:    That must be quite an interesting role.  What’s happening there?  Do you have any views on the bigger  misconceptions that people ever grant search engine optimization or couple of insights into that?

Dixon:   Well I think the most frustrating thing in search engine optimization is when people come in and they think that search engine optimization is an add on.  They think that it’s an add on or it’s a luxury rather than thinking that search engine optimization is more of an iceberg.

I think the vast majority of SEO is under the surface or a lot of it is under the surface and the tip of the iceberg is your titles and your on page optimization.  But of course that’s the bit that people see and they think that’s all there is to it but if you haven’t built your website on reasonably decent site architectures then it’s going to be limping along right from the start.

And also if you don’t tie in your optimization to your offline branding and your whole business message, then it’s going to get diluted because if you decide that your whole business message is “we are going to be the most prestigious and the best”, then you optimize for the word cheap, then these two things are not going to come together very well.

I think the problem is people think search engine optimization is an after thought and still to this day, that’s the problem.

Philip:    And if – I guess there are probably three key components to search engine optimization or SEO.  If you think about it, site architecture which is  your technical issues with the site, the content itself and then the inbound links.  If those were the three pillars of search engine optimization, do you have any views for business owners on what areas deliver the biggest bang for the buck.

Let’s assume you don’t have any massive technical problems.  Which areas do you see as the priorities for that?

Dixon:   Well I think the assumption that you don’t have any major technical problems is a dangerous one to make.  Things like WordPress and Drupal and a lot of content management systems are great out of the box but even out of the box and you build them, the issues, if you tell them by the fault then your WordPress blog will end up or your WordPress site will end up with non essential urls for example or your Drupal system will end up with too little content and people will be amazed at having your website.

So there’s always stuff at the start that if you get it wrong, it’s just going to make life harder.  So I think that’s important but you’re right, there are three pillars.

And then I think the biggest bang for the buck still really is the big PR scoop really.  If you could do something that is going to be good for your offline PR and if you are going to put a picture of a naked lady all over the house of Parliament or something like that, you are going to get into the national press and the national psyche, then you are going to get links as a result of that and I think bang for buck, publicity can be the most powerful thing.

So if you’ve got a good story, tell the right story and it just has leverage in several different ways.  Whether that’s going to make you number one for your favourite search term on the search engines in a certain right, you may have to go some way further to achieve that but in terms of bang for buck, you will make headlines as a result of that.  So viral press releases kind of are good.

Philip:    So it’s viral link building essentially?

Dixon:   Well yeah.  You’re trying to make a noise in an environment where people are going to talk about it online yeah.  So with that noise is and as a result of a post on your blog or Twitter or wherever.  Whether it is done by something that gets you arrested, both of these could have the same effect.  It’s making a noise, not the technology that does it.  Once you got the architecture there, the links can come.

Within that though a good way to make a noise is to build up a good Twitter following.  Certainly in more technical industries where people are using Twitter and also in the celebrity world for that matter where people are using Twitter.  If you can build up a very targeted following, then that could be really, really useful because you just Twitter and as long as you say things that your people, your audience are interested in, then you can get the message directly to them very, very quickly and I think that’s really powerful or can be really powerful.

It’s not very good if you got only four followers and two of them are your mother and father.  I think that’s an issue but if you’ve got – it doesn’t have to be huge numbers but if they are the right kinds of people, your customers, your audience and then you tell them something that they really wanted to hear, and you consistently tell them things that they want to hear, then they will talk about it.

They will retweet it, they will hopefully blog about it and that can send you traffic quite quickly.  By then you also become the authority hopefully in your field.  So it’s rubbed off with you phoning me up and saying, “Can I interview Dixon Jones?”  So I’m..

Philip:    Do you see Twitter developing, everyone is talking specially in  Pub Con last year, everybody wanted to know about return on investment from social media?  They wanted to prove a measurable return from their Twitter account.  Maybe Twitter is more of a medium strategy.

It’s a great strategy, it’s just a necessity in a way that you should run your business in terms so improving communication with your customers and just developing your message as opposed to saying well we spent ‘x’ hours or ‘x’ dollars within Twitter and we’ve got ‘x’ dollars as sales.  Do you actually prove specific returns from your Twitter strategies with your clients?

Dixon:   We’re building up some case studies to try and demonstrate that right now as we speak.  So we’ve got a – I think we’re designing around the World Cup, the football World Cup in South Africa in summer and so we’ve set up a site, worldcupcompanions.com.  We’re trying to build up a Twitter following with that and what we want to do is be able to  track those people  and see how they respond to Twitter posts and try and come up with a case study that shows that you can build a brand primarily around social media.

On a more direct basis, using your own url shortener, I don’t know if your audience know but when you have a link in a Twitter post, it’s all shortened up and bunched up into just a few letters and if you’ve got your own then you can add tracking urls onto that so you’ve got the ability to track that through to see when you’ve done a post on Twitter, how many of those people then buy your product or how many of those people then go and do something after that.

And certainly, that will allow you to measure a return in investment from social media.  Then of course things like Majestic SEO, although we don’t track individual users in any way but Majestic SEO who’s largely been entirely built on social media as a medium for getting out there and it seems to be doing quite well.

Philip:    That’s a great tip on the url shortener.

Dixon:   Well yeah.  My worry with url shorteners is that if you use the industry standards, the bitlys and the short ones, j.mps, the problem there is that you put a link up on Twitter or anywhere else and somebody else owns that link. Ultimately somebody else owns that link so the person that owns the .mps domain name has the ability at some point in the future to thread one redirect which pays, you know, redirect for the benefit of the search engines of course to anywhere else in the world so if you’ve done a really good post talking about how yellow your car is and it’s the most yellow car in the world and you’re just trying to sell yellow cars then somebody else could sit there and sell all those links to Ford and redirect all those links to Ford’s yellow car range.

So if you can use your own shortener then it’s not a difficult thing to do to set up a very short domain name.  You can set your own one up, buy your script for $30 and put it on a server.

Philip:    Great.  That’s a great tip.  Did you have any other quick tips for search optimization for businesses that come to mind.  Maybe two or three quite effective tips that they could carry out?

Dixon:   Well certainly when it comes to content, we try to educate your content writers into writing in a particular type of style rather than getting overly hung up on keywords.  It’s important that you titles are logical.  If you think about your audience sitting on Google and typing something into a search engine and they are looking at your title, I think that’s probably a good place to start.  Will your title for your page have any chance of being seen as relevant when somebody types in whatever they are going to type into Google.

If your results are lucky enough to come back and those results serve the title page clearly and then making sure that you’ve written enough content for Google to really understand what’s on the page.  In terms of getting links, well of course I’m going to say Majestic SEO, go and have a look at what your competitors are doing and have a look at links being built up, but I think PR is a really good way.

The other thing is trying to write content on other people’s networks and content and also using that for people to start writing content on your blog.  If you’ve got a blog, that’s probably the easiest thing you can do to build up traffic and build up a reputation right now is to put a WordPress blog up on your site at yoursite.com/user or something like that and then make sure there is quality content going into that and you know, that’s free to do.

It just needs content so there you need to start talking to your peers and sharing the content around so that you can cover your peer’s talking at some times and you talking a lot of the time hopefully.

Philip:    Those are great tips.  I wanted to get into talking a bit about the Majestic SEO which is a link intelligence tool.  I believe you’ve recently taken on some additional funding so congratulations for that.

Dixon:   Thank you, thank you.

Philip:    And I thought maybe before you gave a bit of an overview of link intelligence and how the tool works, perhaps you could just start at the high level and explain why link building is so critical, and  what makes a quality link?

Dixon:   Yeah sure.  Well I heard in a conference somewhere in California last year.  I was having dinner with someone who’s not in the search industry but it seems that everybody in the bay area of California is into computers in a big way.  So they were sitting there and I was at the conference and meeting these friends and she said, “The way I see it, Google is not so much a search engine, it’s more of a popularity contest.”  Which I thought for a non technical person was a brilliant way to describe Google, and it is absolutely that.

Google is more of a popularity contest than a search engine in that the way that it is built up and the way that its algorithms work, one of the major factors and the one that made it stand out from Alta Vista and Infoseek and Search 7 and all the other kind of search engines around was that the way it built up its algorithm was that it said this particular web page, choose any web page, how important is it, how can I find out how important it is.

Well I’m going to use the links that are coming in to that web page and the context in which those links are coming in.  So when I say context I mean anchor text and anchor text for your listeners is the words that are usually in that  written in blue that you click on, on somebody else’s web page and use that as an anchor to understand the importance and the context of the page.  What that did for search engines and for Google is it gave an independent vote about what your web page was about.

So every page on the internet therefore was ranked in terms of context and in terms of importance by Google and then when they overlayed that with the on page content and with other factors as well, the domain and that  thing, they got a really good map of the web and that’s how their results became so good.  So it all goes back to the number of links that you’ve got and the quality of those links that come into your website.  So link building is one of the most difficult and most important part of building up your online brand and even if search engines didn’t exist, it would still be the biggest part of building up your online brand.

One of the first people that I met in the industry or came across in the industry was Eric Ward and I think him and I were talking about links before Google was even on the scene really and certainly in the UK – when I started Google didn’t exist in the UK.  Again we were still talking about links and why this was going to be important.  Why this was important, because people have to come to your website in one or two ways.  They either type in a web address or they click on a link and if the only way that they come to your web address is clicking on a link, then links are important to this game.  So that’s why links are important.

Philip:    So following on from there, maybe you can give us a bit of an overview of  Majestic.

Dixon:   Sure.  Majestic. So that of course gives us a real challenge because for many years, the only people that had this information about links and how people were linking were the big search engines because it was part of Google’s unique selling point.  They certainly didn’t want to give you too much information about links so you can’t go into Google and get really good information about how everybody links to each other on the internet.

Yahoo on the other hand did give some information about back links and I think they kind of set it up on Site Explorer, Yahoo’s site explorer primarily to – so you can found Google really.  So they gave everybody just enough information to help them start their quest on link development.  But there wasn’t any real third party systems out there that could do a good job of showing you how everything was linking on the web.

There was a war out there, we’re having to use Yahoo’s data or having to use that  data anyway which was limited so it’s free which means it’s unsupported.  So over the last few years, people have been building up ways in which they can their own independent map of the web.  There’s a couple out there.  There’s in Germany a system called Systrix.  In the States, there’s Linkscape building up and then I think I would say by far the largest map at the moment is Majestic.

Majestic built its stuff up a different way.  What we did was used distributed crawlers.  So we have hundreds of people around the world who have some software on their PC.  They downloaded it, they are part of the game, part of the business and they crawl the web whenever they are not doing anything else.  So it’s all the information back to the central servers and as a result of that we got 1.3/1.4 trillion urls or links analyzed on the internet now.

It’s a huge number over several years and then last year we launched a web based product that allowed people to interrogate those links, look to those links, look at the architecture of those links, look at the quality of the pages they are linking from and really that’s opened up a new and exciting avenue for understanding the internet and Majestic SEO is kind of one use of that link database, not to say that it’s the only use but it’s the one that’s on their cutting edge I suppose of search engine optimization right now.

Philip:    So how do you actually quantify the quality of a link?

Dixon:   Okay, that’s a really good question.  That’s a really good question.  The way that we – the only information we give you about the link is we count, sorry, the quality-metric that we’ve got is a thing called AC rank and the brains behind the outfit, clearly not me.  He’s Alex Chudnovsky so you can guess where AC came from.

But all that is, is an account of the number of links that are going into the page that is linking to you.  So it’s an algorithm scale so it goes from 0 to 15, we didn’t want to get told that it was page rank copying or anything so it’s a different scale but I think if you’ve got a – if a page or a link comes from an AC zero page, pretty much there’s no links going into that page.  It’s just sitting there in isolation.  If it’s AC ranked 10 or 11 or 12, then there’s probably thousands of links going into that page and so it’s a much more important page.

What we don’t do is at the moment make any assumptions as to the quality of all those links individually, we give you the data and we’ve got so much data that different people will have a different opinion of quality.  So AC rank is our barometer but you need to go and check for yourself.

Philip:    Right, so you can’t – you touched on it.  It’s something you can’t actually look at, the accumulation of page rank coming from all those other links to that page, is there an issue there on trademark or something?

Dixon:   Trade mark is certainly a fact.  We would be able to go through I suppose technically we could go through and use the original Stanford algorithm that Google had for page rank and we could find out the page rank of every single page if we really  put our minds to it.  The fact that we don’t do that is partly a fact for a page rank.  But also the fact that we want – is partly a factor of trademark but it’s also a factor that at the moment we are trying to provide the information, the data and then we expect and we are seeing other people developing applications in a little bit of time, hopefully not too much time, that will take this data and take it to the next level.  So if you take our data and then you overlaid it with hit-wise data for example, the power of link information and traffic information.  So people are going to start doing other things like that.

At the moment, the AC rank is a pretty good barometer but yeah, if you are a clever guy, you could do more with that information.  It’s all there to be seen.  So you could go for example yourselves or and despite that the pages that are coming in and have a look at the anchor texts, all the page ranks for those pages and make your own decision about the quality of those links.

What we are doing is providing the links to the architects and the map for people to go and make their own decisions.  Does that make sense?

Philip:    Okay, so I see, yes that makes a lot of sense.  If a listener was to go to Majestic SEO right now – I know there’s a couple of tools you actually have on the site, various different metrics and reports and that  thing.  You offer a free plan but you also offer a very cheap paid plan which obviously gives you more functionality and probably check out more links, etc.  If somebody was to – if we talked about one of the pay plans, what would be the most useful tool and a rough overview of the step by step process that a business owner could do?

Dixon:   Okay. Well I think the first thing a paid owner can do is – it doesn’t cost any money at all.  If you go to Majesticseo.com and just sign up with your email address which is literally, you’ve got to confirm your email address and then from the home page, there is a link to what we call a  back link history checker.  If you do it without registering, that’s fine but you only get to compare one or two sites.  If you register then you get to compare several sites.  So just sign up there free.

Click on from the home page the compare back link history chart, then you can put in up to five web domains and what it goes and does, it shows you how those links are built up over time.  So that takes seconds to do and you really start seeing how far away you are or how far ahead you are of your competition in terms of search because if you want to be number one for credit cards, and you go to the site and say, “Right I’m going to put in my domain, then I’m going to go and see what happens when I put in American Express or whoever is at the top of the search engine for credit cards.”  And you can compare them all, you see just how far you would have to go to be able to achieve that.Then you can, with two clicks improve that graph very quickly.

The first thing is that you want to count with the number of referring domains, not the number of links so that’s important and also if you click on the cumulative chart as opposed to the monthly chart, then you got this beautiful little chart that, if you are a search engine optimization agency, it’s very, very useful because as soon as somebody phones up and says, I want to be here in this space, you can within a couple of seconds, just go in there and produce a chart that shows just how easy or difficult it potentially will be.

Now these links aren’t all in context because all the links may be covering a huge array of keywords but at least it gives you some barometer of the competition you are up against in any one industry.  So yeah, that’s a very useful thing to do and then if you do want to pay, it’s starts at ₤10 a month.  What’s ₤10 in Aussie Dollars?

Philip:    I think it’s about two to one at the moment, so about 20 bucks.

Dixon:   So about $20 bucks a month.  So it’s not out of this world, it’s a subscription.  If you want to stop it, you stop it.  You don’t have to  sign up for two years or anything and it’s only at the high levels if you need APR and that  thing.  That’s going way beyond the normal  usage.  I’d say the silver level is really where people start using it seriously but for an end customer the bronze starter package at $20 a month one is going to be perfectly good for you.

Philip:    I see there’s another tool on your site which is the bad neighborhood checker which sounds a bit mysterious.  What’s that?

Dixon:   Yeah, that’s a bit more techy I suppose.  That’s more import for people that are working in very competitive areas. You and I are in the industry.  What we say “ppc” we’re not always talking about pay per click.  The competitive areas are also porn, pills and casinos.

So when people are in those areas, especially – when you go and have a look at the domain and you are thinking about getting a link from a particular domain, you can use that tool to go and find out just how dangerous that domain is because what that tool does is it shows how many other websites are sitting on web pages, are sitting on that same ip number and if you’ve got hundreds of thousands of web pages all on the same ip number and all of the pages are the same sorts of link directories, then the chances are, you’ve just got one great big link farm and google is just going to, any search engine is going to say, this is just done for some dubious benefit.

So you can get an idea of the quality of the domain in the great world.  So it spots spamming links from that point of view.

Philip:    Okay.

Dixon:   Again, that’s a free tool.

Philip:    Sorry.

Dixon:   I was going to say, that’s a free tool.  You don’t even have to sign up to use it.

Philip:    Okay, great.  So it all leads into the end result where businesses need to build up their links.  We are ‘x’ hundred links behind or whatever and link building is obviously a critical part, one of the co-pillars of search optimization.  Perhaps we can close on your tips or what strategies you see that are working at the moment for building more links.  You touched on some PR things.  Do you have any other tips around link building?

Dixon:   Well some of the things that we are using through my agency are widgets.  We build widgets, some of them are different kind of attitudes to widgets but we like to build interesting things that make it very easy for website owners to add value to their own customers.

So if we can build a system that at a couple of clicks allows them to have some code that gives them some very targeted news which they wouldn’t otherwise have, then they put a bit of code and it can make it blue or red or change the fonts or change the content of the news and then they put the code on their website.  The thank you at the bottom of that includes a link to our client as it’s their news.  That kind of thing.

We kind of like – it’s sometimes hard to get somebody to put code on their website but it’s a valuable thing to do because you are transcending the search engine at that point and you are talking to website the owner’s customers and the website owner’s readers so we like that as a methodology.  Probably the prime use of Majestic SEO is analyzing what your competitors are linking.  You can get all your own links from Majestic with a tool but really it’s seeing where your competitors are making headway can be incredibly powerful.

The other really cool thing that we do and you can do.  You need something like Majestic to start it is the vast majority of websites are now on iteration 2, 3, 4, 5 and no one really thought about SEO and probably iteration 2 was thinking about SEO but they didn’t think about what had happened to anything on iteration 1.

So what’s happened over time for the vast majority of websites is that there are times in the company’s history where somebody has linked to a web page and then the website has been rebuilt and that web page no longer exists.  So now that means there is a link on the internet which goes to a page that doesn’t exist on your site even though you may have got a really cool new page that’s even better for your audience or for that audience.

So one of the things we do do is we go and analyze all the links that are coming into your website from everywhere else in the world and I suggest you go through this too, anyone in the audience.  And then, go and have a look at all of those links, the ones that are all working fine, that’s great.  But all the ones that aren’t working fine, you need to then 301 those dead urls to the most appropriate new page on the website and that immediately can prove yourself a bit of a jump because Google’s going to pick up on it but also, you’ve got people out there who were clicking on other people’s web pages and they were going to dead pages on your site and getting a bad experience immediately, they are going to be jumping onto your site and getting a better experience.

Philip:    Great, I think that’s great tip to end on Dixon.  Thank you very much for your time.

Dixon:   Yeah well thank you very much for inviting me to speak Philip.

Philip:    Dixon, where can people find you on the net?

Dixon:   Probably the best place to go is well, receptional.com.  If you are into Twitter, then my handle is Dixon_Jones and if you also want to get my personal blog, that’s dixonjones.com, all one word.

Philip:    And then majesticseo.com.

Dixon:   And of course majesticseo.com

Philip:    How could we forget?

Dixon:   Well it’s not going to go away.  Specially now that somebody has given its funding but we were profitable before then anyways.  So we think that 2010 has a bright future.

Philip:    Well thanks so much for your time Dixon.  Have a fantastic day.

Dixon:   Thanks a lot Philip.  Cheers.

Philip:    Bye

Dixon:   Bye.

By Philip Shaw

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