It’s human nature to try to appear bigger and stronger than we really are. It’s served us well for thousands of years. In ancient times we would thump our chests, wear huge plates of armor, and give the appearance of size and strength. It intimidated our enemies, kept fights and battles from starting in the first place, and ultimately, kept us alive. Today, many small businesses take that same chest-puffing approach to gaining clients and growning their business.

I’m here to tell you it’s a big mistake.

It’s the wrong thing to do for a number of reasons. However, for the purpose of this post I’m going to relate it to the Local Search side of Sears in a case study about Tine Reese Graphic Design.

Tell your prospective clients exactly what you offer.

Tine (pronounced “Teen,” short for Christine) only wants to work 2-3 days/week at the moment. The rest of her time is dedicated primarily to her family (son, dog, cat, and husband, plus prepping kiddo 2.0 that’s due in early March). She doesn’t want to pretend she’s a big design agency and quite honestly doesn’t want the stress of one. She’s a part-time freelance graphic designer with a passion for arts organizations and non-profits. Talk about a niche market! By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m the husband in question listed just after the cat and dog (hey, at least I’m in the top 5).

So why does she need search engine optimization, anyway?

Too many small businesses think they need huge leaps in search traffic. While this may be important to some businesses, most small businesses should really focus on getting the right traffic. In Tine’s case, because her desired niche has such a small search volume in the Spokane area, she needs to have a laser focus to ensure that any local arts organizations or non-profits can find her online and view her portfolio.

The importance of relevance.

From a local search standpoint I made sure that her descriptions and categories were consistant, descriptive, and accurate in her Google Local Business Center (GLBC) as well as the many web citations I created. Many small businesses don’t take the time to add a complete description in the GLBC and local directories. And even if they do, many are listed under inaccurate or non-relevant categories. Don’t let this happen to you!

Tell it like it is – SEO

Her web site is very graphics driven with little text, so my options were a bit limited in terms of on-page optimization possibilities. I chose to focus on the term “freelance graphic designer.” While it has a much lower keyword search volume than “graphic design,” or “web site design” it much more accurately describes the search for an individual graphic designer. I also focused on the type of work she wants; web design, print, logo design, and invitations. Again, relevance was given much higher priority than search volume.

Tell it like it is – About/Description

She wanted her web site to primarily serve as an online home for her portfolio. However, I think she did a great job with the about page that really connects with her desired audience (I had nothing to do with this).

“Tine Reese is an experienced and passionate graphic designer who understands the communication challenges faced by nonprofits, foundations, arts organizations and small businesses. With a knack for simplifying complex ideas and conveying messages clearly and elegantly, she creates targeted communications that consider a client’s organizational objectives and, most importantly, budget.

Over the last 14 years Tine has worked at design studios in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco and co-founded a highly successful marketing communications firm whose clients include many of the most outstanding nonprofit organizations in California.”

I’m pretty confident that if a local non-profit, small business on a budget, or arts organization found her web site online that she’s going to get some serious consideration. Conversely, a big corporate entity would easily know that hiring her is probably not the right fit.

So what are the results?

Her web site hasn’t even been live a month yet and I’m already quite pleased with the search results. Here’s a list of Local Search results for her in the Spokane area:

freelance graphic design spokane
freelance design spokane

freelance print designer

But a couple of things just blew me away. The first was gaining an authoritative one box for the term “freelance graphic designer Spokane.”

I seriously doubt this will stay there very long (especially after this post). Another big surprise this early in the game was ranking 2nd overall in Google Maps for the term “freelance logo designer.” These results are certainly nice from an SEO standpoint (especially this early in a project) but the real results come from gaining new accounts. On that front, I’m happy to report that she has three new clients since her web site has launched and is really excited about the work. I honestly can’t take much of the credit, though. Her portfolio is awesome! That’s what really gets the work. Some people think that SEO’s have some secret sauce (I heard this from a client in a meeting last week) for success. We don’t. But we can expose your business to as many of the right people searching for your product or service as possible. The rest is up to you.

Reputation Management has become an increasingly large portion of most SEO’s business. By reputation management, I mean keeping bad news, comments, reviews, and other negative stories about their clients off the first few pages of the search engines. A good example of a bad online reputation management is Countrywide Home Loans. When the fifth listing on page one of Google is “Countrywide Home Loans Sucks” and the 9th listing on page one is titled “The Worst Company in America,” I’d say there’s a problem. But I’ll cut them some slack. There’s a lot of bad news in the financial sector these days. Let’s take a look at a company that should be squeaky clean: Whole Foods. About half way down page one of Google there’s an article titled “The Dark Secrets of Whole Foods.” Uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good. There’s also an odd little website on page one called Stuff White People Like featuring Whole Foods. Do white people like Whole Foods? Well, judging by the amount of basil infused organic tofu I’ve seen in the refrigerators of white people’s homes, I’d that yes, white people do in fact like Whole Foods. However, I’m pretty sure this isn’t how the executives at the Whole Foods corporate office would like to be viewed.

So what’s a business owner to do?

1) Search online for your own name, your business name, and products/services you provide. No need to become obsessed with it. Once a month or so is fine for most companies. More than once a month if you think there is a need for it.

2) Create more online content. It’s generally going to be much easier for your web pages to rank online for your own name than it will be for someone else.

3) Contact your online nemesis and make peace. A lot of the times an upset customer just needs to vent. Let them. Make peace with them.

4) Don’t engage them in the first place. Try to play nice in your online sandbox. I’ve seen many companies come to blows with each other in little online wars. This typically hurts the business of both companies.

5) Think of your customers. They don’t care about the inner workings of your company or ongoing battle with a competitor. They want information about your company, products, and services.

They’re probably Google-ing you right now. What will they find?

I’ve been in a lot of meeting where executives want to go “viral.” They want a video so popular that it’s forwarded all around the world and their brand becomes recognized overnight. There’s one little bitty problem with this boardroom request:

It’s really hard to do.

Why? Well, the content can’t just be good, it’s gotta be freakin’ great! People have to want to forward it to all of their friends and colleagues. That requires amazing content. What constitutes great content? It could be funny, unique, surprising, or any number of attributes that warrant telling people about. In my example above, it’s a streetballer completely dominating a current NBA point guard in a game of 1 on 1 while wearing jeans, a sweater, and loafers. OK, so there’s a bit of background on the guy. He happens to be a semi-retired hustler from the UK, but it’s still a great video that I have forwarded to several of my friends. It’s authentic, funny, and in this case something that many amatuer athletes have dreamed about doing just once: schooling a pro on the playground.

In the SEO world it’s called LinkBait. Is your content good enough for someone else to link to? Does it answer their questions, provide good resources, or just make them laugh? While generally easier to accomplish than creating viral media, it still requires someone to believe that your content is worth recommending. An inbound link is an endorsements of content. Is yours worthy?

For quite a while now I’ve held the belief that affiliate links were viewed no differently than paid links in the eyes of the search engines. Sure, there are countless affiliate links that pass link juice (just like many paid links). It’s just that I assumed this was a little loophole that would be closed any minute now and considered risky behavior. I mean,… affiliate links are paid endorsements by default. Sure, plenty of niche paid links fly under the radar, but a free pass for all affiliate links? Really? During SMX East last week search engineers from Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft all answered questions posed by the audience and filtered by moderator, Danny Sullivan. Their response to how the search engines viewed affiliate links blew me away:

“Shockingly, when asked point blank if affiliate programs that employed juice-passing links (those not using nofollow) were against guidelines or if they would be discounted, the engineers all agreed with the position taken by Sean Suchter of Yahoo!. He said, in no uncertain terms, 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. Aaron from Google and Nathan from Microsoft both agreed that good affiliate links would be counted by their engines and that it was not necessary to mark these with a nofollow or other method of blocking link value.”

This is going to radically change how the SEO community views paid… er, I mean affiliate links. I do see their point, however. There are plenty of affiliate sites that provide great value. It will be interesting how “high quality” will be defined by the search engines. Here’s a recap of the top six takeaways from this session courtesy of SEOmoz. It’s worth checking out.

Hotbed’s Marketing Objective: Get found on the search engines and still be cool.

Hotbed didn’t want to sacrifice look and feel for the sake of SEO. Do you really want your website found if it looks bad? In the agency world, that’s the kiss of death. I knew it had to retain the vibe of their old website. In addition to being found via the search engines, Hotbed wanted to keep viewers on their website longer, so they could view more videos. They had a lot of great content and just waiting to be discovered. My goals were to generate a massive increase in traffic and keep them there.

The Process: Switch from Flash to HTML and write logical, strategic, edgy copy.

A big reason Hotbed didn’t rank well was due to Flash. Their Flash websight was designed in 2002 with no emphasis on search engine optimization. This is pretty common in creative fields. While there are work-arounds available for Flash websites, Stokes opted for a re-design in straight HTML. This allowed us the flexibility to examine each milestone to make sure that it captured the Hotbed vibe, worked well for users, and ranked well with the search engines. We performed extensive keyword research to discover the words and phrases Hotbed wanted to rank well for within their industry. Stokes has a very creative, cutting edge writing style that I didn’t want to dilute. So I didn’t. I made keyword suggestions, but let his writing roam free. We then optimized keyword phrases for titles, descriptions, sub-page titles, images, and videos based on our research. We also optimized their videos for video search.

The Results: Hot, Hotter, Hottest.

Hotbed’s first job as a direct result of search engine optimization came just weeks after the new website was launched. A producer at an advertising agency in Phoenix typed “commercial film production” in a Google search, saw Hotbed listed second on page one of Google, asked for a reel, and hired them two weeks later to produce a six figure commercial project. Not a bad return on investment. That’s what it’s all about; getting found by potential customers, connecting with them, and generating revenue. But, it’s also important to look at the data. Especially when it’s this smokin’ hot. Here’s a quick glance at their Google organic results. I started the project on August 10th. The number of organic searches that led to Hotbed in July of 2007 was 75. By February it was over 500.

Keyword + Location Rankings
San Francisco CA Film Production
Film Production Company San Francisco
Film Companies San Francisco CA
Production Company San Francisco

It’s important to note that not only did the number of relevant keywords used to find increased dramatically, but a number of other metrics improved as well. Relevant traffic, because it generates the right traffic (read: your target audience), also increased time on site, page views and lowered the bounce rate. It’s important to look beyond the general traffic increases, however, to determine if your audience is being reached. By cross referencing your organic keyword traffic with your existng relevant keyword list (which should be a fluid and ever growing list based on your audience search terms) you can determine your relevant keyword search data. Here is the increase May 2008 vs. May 2007

Time on site increase: 385%
Pages per visit increase: 250%
Organic search increase: 685%
Relevant keyword search increase: 1,248%

I originally posted this article to Mihmorandum: The Small Business Web Design + Local SEO Blog by Local Search Guru David Mihm. I met David at SMX Advanced this Summer and talked with him briefly about some very curious data that I believed was being driven by status changes in my SuperPages account. I saw him again at The SEOmoz Expert Seminar in Seattle and talked about it in detail. He thought my data was interesting enough to warrant an article and gave it a platform on his blog. This is a re-post of that article. David wrote a reaction to my analysis the following week.

Fluctuating SERPs: The Reason for My Curiosity

In late 2007/early 2008 I noticed something very interesting. When I upgraded our free Superpages listing to a featured listing, our organic traffic immediately increased for nearly all of our desired keywords + location. We ranked on page one in organic search as well as in the blended, 10-pack results for our desired keywords + location. Then I stopped the featured listing to see what would happen (though I kept the free listing intact). Sure enough, the rankings, as well as traffic, dropped. After seeing low traffic for a while I upgraded again and the SERP’s jumped back to life.

Initial Investigations

I brought this up at the Q&A session at SMX in Santa Clara. It seemed that my featured Superpages listing was getting priority and I asked the Local Search Panel if that was the case. The consensus of the panel was that it didn’t have much effect, and that it was likely other factors causing the spikes in rank.

The person sitting next to me happened to be a reporter from Wired. The next day she published a quick blog post about my observations. Had I taken some time to think about it a bit more that day rather than rant, I might not have looked like such an idiot. However, it did start amplify the discussion. A very good take on her article can be found on Greg Sterling’s Screenwerk blog. It includes some great comments from Chris Silver Smith, Mike Blumenthal, and others. While many of the original comments to the article were negative in tone (can’t say I blame them), a few people emailed directly to say they had experienced similar results.

The Importance of Categories

I was advised to delete my Google Local Business Center categories, instead relying on Google to index and incorporate the more detailed Superpages categories and sub-categories. Within six weeks of this change, my search results for all relevant keywords + location (San Francisco) increased 40%.

My first assumption was that this was mostly category-based, as Superpages (and other IYP’s) category list is much more robust than Google’s. While I’m not sure if this is the case for all industries, only a few of GLBC’s categories are related to our industry (film and video production). In the Google Local Business Center category list, only three make sense. Meanwhile, for Superpages, the related category list is extensive.

Sharing, Caring, and Matt Cutts

A few months later I shared this tip at SMX Advanced in Seattle during the final Q&A session. I talked with several SEO’s after the show (including David Mihm) that had ideas as to why this might be happening.

On my way out the door, Matt Cutts stopped me and mentioned that Google took a look at the site after they read the article in Wired. He mentioned that it was possible my recent results were as much due to the work of their engineers as my category change. I thought it was pretty cool of him to let me know they had been working on the relevancy for Local Search. It isn’t every day that you hear that you helped influence a search algorithm (at least not for me).

(n.b. from David, Google undertook a massive adjustment in their determination of category around the time of SMX Santa Clara. Mike Blumenthal has a great write-up on this, including a quote from a Superpages resource saying, “Perhaps they only accept categorizations from partners which have taxonomic processes which they believe to be of higher quality.”)

My Experiment

I decided to test the two variables that I hypothesized were affecting Hotbed’s search results. I dropped my Superpages listing from featured to free and added my categories back to my GLBC.

My keyword + location results in both organic and blended search dropped almost immediately. My organic traffic dropped 70% in one month!

Thank God for SMX Local. Armed with this data I was determined to find out why this was happening. My citation with Superpages was still there (though no longer a featured listing). I was trying to wrap my head around the drop in rankings. Do featured listings in the IYP’s receive more link juice? Are they somehow circulated through a wider network of distribution partners? Are they somehow perceived as more relevant?

The content and discussions at SMX Local in San Francisco got me back on track. Definitely check out David Mihm’s great SMX Local recap for a summary of content.

During one of the breaks I had an opportunity to talk with a group of ten local SEO’s to figure out why I was receiving these dramatic results. What follows is are the assumptions of that group as well as continued discussions with David for this post.

  1. While Superpages is a strong, relevant, and authoritative site, it shouldn’t have that much power in determining rank.
  2. An authoritative citation shouldn’t have any more or less power at the search engines whether it’s a featured listing/citation or not.
  3. As business for Hotbed is mostly local/regional traffic, keyword + location specific searches will dominate both local and organic search traffic.

Delving Deeper

David and I took a close look at my Superpages listing. No matter how we searched for Hotbed, it always came up on page four or five of the results within Superpages. It’s a good possibility that the citation is not being indexed by Google that deep in the Superpages results.

As a featured listing, the citation is guaranteed page one visibility. The default results are generally listed in alphabetical order. So, if you happened to be Abe’s House of Video Production you’d be just fine. Hotbed Media less than fine, and Zeekâ’s Zany Film Studio would be absolutely screwed.

The Answer

I just checked the results again on Superpages and noticed that default is no longer alphabetical but standard search results. This could explain my recent increase in rank. However, many other factors are now in play that I believe are having a very positive impact on the web site ranking and overall exposure. There were many great take-a-ways from SMX Local that I have since implemented.

  1. Addition of a citation and video on eLocal Listing. Steve Espinosa from eLocalListing had a great presentation and I really wanted to try their services.
  2. Addition of BOTW local listing per David Mihm’s suggestion.
  3. Addition of MetaCafe citation and video as another authoritative citation/video source
  4. Created an account on Universal Business Listing to ease submission process.


I was relying too heavily on a single featured listing for local authority. Per Mike Blumenthal and others at the conference, addition of many authoritative citations is very important in local search. A featured listing in the IYP’s is probably a good way to kick-start your local listing. However, the same effect can be accomplished for less money with a little bit of effort. I have still not re-activated my Superpages featured listing and have seen great gains in the past several weeks.