Cloak and Dagger: The Many Motives for Cloaking… and their Consequences

Cloaking is a touchy subject in SEO circles. Typically falling into the category of “gray hat,” it can be fairly safe or incredibly risky to your site’s search engine rankings, depending on how and why it is done. Unfortunately, the growing literature around cloaking does little to dispel the confusion over acceptable use.

Often times, the method doesn’t matter as much as the motive. Why are you cloaking? Is it for a legitimate reason, such as a better user experience? Or are you trying to pull a fast one on the search engines? Here are some common motives to cloak, as well as the risks associated with each.

I’m cloaking in order to rank better.
I’ll go ahead and start with the obvious. Cloaking has a poor reputation because it can be used to manipulate search results, which of course violates Google’s webmaster guidelines. If you’re using it to rank better, you’ll get in trouble. Even if you’re using it for a legitimate reason, however, cloaking can still be construed as manipulative. Read as, “Cloak at your own risk.”

I’m delivering different versions of the same content to different browsers.
Even with the best intentions, cloaking by user agent can be risky. Right out of Google’s help center, “Serving up different results based on user agent may cause your site to be perceived as deceptive and removed from the Google index.” If you can, try to find other ways (CSS hacks, for instance) to cater to different browsers. If cloaking is the only way to go, stay safe by serving up the same default version of your site to search engine spiders that you serve to most browsers.

I’m serving crawlable content to search engine spiders and dynamic content to users.
Sorry, but Google’s stance is to use alts, noscripts, noembeds, and similar static-within-dynamic HTML elements to serve up crawlable content. Really, you should do this for the sake of all the atypical users who visit your site, not just search engine spiders. To put it simply, cloaking is not the answer to crawlability, especially when search engines are getting smart enough to crawl Flash.

I’m providing restricted content to search engine spiders.
It can be tempting to give Google back-door access to all of your juicy content so it can be ranked, while at the same time password protecting it from unregistered human users. Google condones this, so it’s naturally considered permissible in SEO circles. The problem is, search engines spiders save cached copies of every page they visit. More importantly, they share these caches with users on demand. Thus, if Google can see it, any savvy user can see it. Even cookies will do little good in restricting access. Dan Goodin over at the Register shows how this exploit is being used by less scrupulous users to view restricted forum postings.

I’m delivering different content based on location.
This one has been debated and cleared as acceptable. You can perform geolocation, even to the point of blocking certain geographical regions, so long as you treat search engine spiders the same as you would any user from the same region.

My site is big and important, and I’m cloaking because I feel like it.
It’s a known fact that Google won’t penalize sites that are big and important enough, no matter what black hat tactics those sites use. Apple’s iTunes store was recently outed for cloaking. NYTimes.com, Forbes.com, CareerBuilder.com, CNet.com, Nike.com, and WSJ.com are just a few others known to cloak with impunity. The trick here is to be so big and important that users would stop searching Google if they couldn’t find your site on it. The rest of us need to keep our noses clean.

If you’ve been paying attention, there’s a common theme with cloaking. If you treat search engine spiders the same as human users, it’s probably okay. If you give them special treatment, you place your site’s rankings at risk. When in doubt, remember the first and fourth universal truths of SEO: “Don’t Game the System” and “Users First; Search Engines Second.”

A Surefire Way to Spot Fluff Posts

Consider the topic of this post. What if it was just a collection of links to other sites about fluff posts? What if it was something you’d already heard about fluff posts? Would you be as interested? Would you even be reading this sentence?

Probably not. The fact is, a post that doesn’t offer enough original value probably won’t be read. If they occur too frequently, even loyal subscribers may start looking elsewhere. I call these “fluff posts.” Here are three varieties to watch out for.

  1. Link Roundups. Few posts will be skipped as often as the old-fashioned link roundup. The assumption goes that a noteworthy post on another blog would deserve a more detailed response. By offering up a long list of links, each with very little or no response, the perceived value is very low. Remember; the value of the post is not the sum of the value of each link.
  2. Live Blog Posts. Especially in the SEO blogosphere, live blogging at industry conferences is a common practice. Unfortunately, by regurgitating every detail, you leave it to your readers to pick out the important points.
  3. Repeat Coverage. Naturally, when something notable happens within your niche, readers often expect you to weigh in on it. However, if all you do is give the facts of an already well-known issue, your readers will simply move on.

There’s a common element to identifying fluff posts like this. If your readers are left searching for original value, it’s probably a fluff post.

Here’s a revelation, though: Fluff posts are okay. In fact, most of the prominent blogs I read post plenty of fluff. However, they post fluff in addition to plenty of original content.

The point is to offer up more than just fluff. By all means, post a link roundup. Blog at events, or about the news. Just don’t make that the entirety of your blog. The more original value you offer your readers, the more successful your blog will be.

Debugging Syntax Errors in PHP

PHP is unforgiving of syntax errors. Misplaced a semicolon? White screen of death. Mismatched your single and double quotes? White screen of death. Considering a career in Ruby on Rails? White screen of death.

Okay, maybe not the last one, but you get the point. Unless you beg and plead with it to output errors, PHP will give you the computing equivalent of a blank stare. Even if you do get it to report the problem, because of the nature of syntax errors, the line it specifies will rarely be correct.

In my experience, there are two surefire ways to weed out pesky syntax errors in PHP.

Sequential Commenting

Proper programming is supposed to involve a step-by-step process of adding and testing small portions of code in sequence. If you do this properly, any problems can easily be attributed to the most recently added block of code and subsequently fixed.

Of course, any good developer knows that “proper” programming is an anomaly. So what do you do when you’ve written 517 lines of new code and encounter the white screen of death? Simple. Comment it all out, then uncomment and test small portions of it sequentially like you should have from the start. You get pretty much the same effect, albeit at slightly less efficiency.

Execution Counter

PHP will generally cease execution at the first point where it encounters a syntax error. By placing the following line of code at regular intervals throughout a broken program, you can use that fact to your advantage and quickly narrow down the problem.

For example, assume that you placed five counters like this throughout your code, and the final output is, “123.” Because the fourth counter failed to execute, you can safely assume that the problem occurred between it and the third counter.

Of course, you could just use a utility such as Dreamweaver or Eclipse that makes syntax errors much more obvious. Then again, what would be the point of programming in PHP without the challenge of guessing what went wrong? 😉

Don’t Attack Your Critics; Empower Your Advocates

“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.”
– Malcolm X

It’s a fact of life. The more successful your website, the more likely it is to receive criticism. As Malcolm X points out, this can almost be regarded as a good thing. After all, nobody would feel the need to criticize unless your site had some measure of importance. Still, critics often represent a vocal minority that can do serious damage to your website’s reputation. It’s important, then, to know how to deal with them.

Don’t Attack Your Critics

Awhile back, I wrote an article on DailyBlogTips.com about how to deal with flamers and trolls. I talked about remaining calm, accepting valid criticism, avoiding censorship, and never stooping to their level. The common theme among these points is to never attack your critics.

Why? Because, no matter how much damage a critic does to your online reputation, counterattacking will only do more. Consider the following two scenarios:

  1. You attack your critics. Your critics comes right back at you twice as strongly as before. You attack them again. They attack you again. Before you know it, you’re locked into a cycle of negative reciprocity from which there is no escape. After the flame war has passed, your online reputation is little more than a shriveled shadow of its former self.
  2. You attack your critics. Your attack actually manages to stifle their negativity. Because of your approach, however, you are left looking sensitive, juvenile, and/or insecure in the eyes of your audience.

Either outcome results in further damage to your reputation. It’s a lose/lose situation.

Empower Your Advocates

Of course, your audience includes more than just critics. You probably have more than a few advocates as well. These loyal fans will defend your site on its merits and attack critics on your behalf, often without notice or reward.

The only problem with advocates is that they are often the silent majority to the critics’ vocal minority. Advocates are pleased with your site. As such, they rarely feel the need to speak up. It’s just a fact of human nature that dissatisfaction elicits a more outspoken response than satisfaction.

The trick to online reputation management, then, is to engage and empower your advocates. Get them to speak out, either by singing your site’s praises, denouncing its detractors, or both. Don’t force it, of course; you’ll only be seen as less genuine by soliciting positive reviews. By inviting advocates to weigh in on the discussion, however, you can turn the reputation battle in your favor. Here are some ways you can “rally the troops.”

  • Converse Outside Your Site – Your advocates are talking about your site elsewhere on the internet. Seek out these hot spots of positivity and add to the conversation.
  • Facilitate Sharing – Add social media sharing utilities (e.g., Digg, StumbleUpon, del.icio.us, etc.) to your website so advocates can attract like-minded friends.
  • Feature Testimonials – Solicit testimonials and success stories from advocates, then feature them prominently on your website.
  • Get Social – Give your website a face by creating profiles on Facebook, MySpace, and similar websites and befriending your advocates.
  • Send Thank You Emails – Advocates often praise your site without expecting to be rewarded. By letting them know that their positive feedback was noticed and appreciated, you encourage them to repeat it.
  • Sponsor Competitions – Offer a prize for a competition related to your website (e.g., best fan video).

What do you think? How else can website owners encourage and empower their advocates?

The Purple Cow Level: An MMORPG Lesson in Remarkable Marketing

Case: LF1M healer for norm BM

Unless you’re a seasoned World of Warcraft player, the string of acronyms listed above probably doesn’t mean much to you. To translate, it stands for, “We are looking for one more party member to fill the role of healer for a normal-difficulty run of the Black Morass dungeon.” Yes, it means all of that. What can I say? We gamers love our shorthand.

The other night, my wife and I wrote little else into the game’s various chat channels for the better part of an hour without response. No healers were interested in joining us on our excursion.

Undeterred, I decided to mix things up with a little marketing. Instead of “LF1M healer for norm BM,” I took the time to write the following:

“Lo, there do I see my father. Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers. Lo, do I see the line of my people back to beginning. Lo, do they call to me. They say, looking for a healer for Black Morass!”

The cinema-savvy among you may recognize this as a quote from the movie, “13th Warrior.” Naturally, it elicited more than a few chat responses from curious and/or amused players. Seeing my tactic paying off, I followed up with two more:

“*singing* If you like my body and you think I’m sexy, come on heal for Black Morass!”

“*in echoing monster truck rally voice* TUESDAY, TUESDAY, TUESDAY… IN BLACK MORASS, MORASS, MORASS… LOOKING FOR HEALER, HEALER, HEALER…”

After more than a little laughter from my audience, my tactic managed to convince several players to log on as their healing characters and help us. We went on to a successful run of the dungeon.

Point: Remarkable Marketing

Is your marketing drawing your audience’s attention? I could have continued to produce the same monotonous, “LF1M healer for norm BM,” proclamation ad infinitum in the hopes that it would eventually pay off. Instead, I decided to do something that stood out, and it paid off.

Naturally, what draws attention will depend on the medium. Television commercials, for example, are always pushing the envelope and getting little response because users are desensitized to it. In simple text-based chat, however, I proved how a little innovation can go a long way.

Much like Seth Godin’s famous purple cow, is your marketing remarkable? Does it stand out and demand attention or fade into the noise? Are you still looking for a healer, or have you already gotten one and finished the dungeon?

P.S. Kudos if you’ve got enough marketing and gaming savvy to understand, “The Purple Cow Level,” without reference. 😉

Why NYTimes.com Gets a Majuscule “A” for Usability

Case: “Majuscule”

Whenever I’m presented with something I don’t know, I have an almost instinctive habit of looking it up.  It’s not necessarily a bad habit; in fact, several of my coworkers seem to rely upon it.  And I could argue that it’s foolish not to do so with the wealth of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, but admittedly, it’s just a compulsion of mine.

The other day I was monitoring Reddit, as I have been apt to do since I began my experiment in social media, and I came across a curious NYTimes.com article about the capital “I”. For some linguistic reason that I don’t fully understand, however, they didn’t use the word, “capital.” Instead, they called it, “majuscule.” If you already knew what this word meant without reference, I tip my hat to your vocabulary, because I had no a clue.

As I went to double-click this word to copy it for a dictionary search, something magical happened. Without having to open a separate window, type in a domain name, wait for it to load, paste the word, hit submit, and wait again, a window popped up with the definition of majuscule.

I was awestruck. Had I inadvertently done something clever? No, the page that popped up was still on NYTimes.com. After a bit of searching, I discovered that this was a standard feature of the site. Every time a user double-clicks a word on NYTimes.com, a window pops up with the definition. From the NYTimes.com website:

Point: Intuitive Usability

To say that this is a brilliant example of usability would be a massive understatement. Without being aware that the site offered this functionality, I nonetheless availed myself of it without doing anything out of the ordinary. The site designers saved me precious seconds and left me with a very positive impression by giving me exactly what I wanted, almost before I knew I wanted it.

The take-home lesson is that usability is about making something easier to use. The more intuitive the feature, the more readily and happily users will adopt it. In this case, I didn’t even have to know the feature existed for it to improve my experience. I wanted something, went about my normal routine of getting it, and got it much faster than expected. If this had been a restaurant, I would’ve exclaimed, “Now that’s service!”

The question to ask yourself is, what is my website doing to make my users’ lives easier? Where can I cut out needless steps? What features could stand to be more intuitive?

7 Questions to Ask Your Marketing Analyst

“You don’t know what works until you test it, so test everything.”
Adam Schultz

Over the years, my marketing mentors have instilled in me the understanding that marketing is 10% creativity and 90% testing. Examined through this paradigm, marketing takes on an almost scientific nature, where every piece of data is scrutinized until the truth becomes undeniable from the weight of empirical evidence.

As you can probably guess, this involves more than a little knowledge of statistics, which may or may not be your specialty. Of course, analysis is pointless if you can’t understand it. Ask your marketing analyst these seven questions, though, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of your test results, regardless of their complexity.

  1. What do the results indicate?
    Here, you’re asking for the objective findings. The results might indicate, for example, that the first ad variation did significantly better than the second. The answer to this question should include cold, hard facts supported by statistical measurements.
  2. What conclusions would you draw?
    In contrast to the first question, here you are asking for subjective results. Over time, many marketing analysts develop a sense of what a data trend looks like. Thus, while there might be no empirically provable findings, your analyst will likely be able to offer his or her gut instinct as to what can be learned.
  3. Did the results meet with your expectations?
    Results that fall in line with expectations probably don’t require any additional scrutiny. After all, you just confirmed what you already suspected to be true. Results that fly in the face of expectations, however, often demand further questioning, especially if they go against the expectations of an experienced marketing analyst.
  4. How were these results produced?
    Assuming there is any real knowledge to glean from all the data, it’s worthwhile to question that data’s integrity. What sampling method was used? How large was the sample size? What sort of statistical comparison was performed? By asking your marketing analyst about the methods used to obtain the data, you can often get a sense of its reliability.
  5. How much do you trust the results?
    Much like the first two questions, it’s always worthwhile to switch back and forth from hard facts to gut instinct. After all, the research methods and results may sound reasonable even while your marketing analyst has shortcomings about them. Always be sure to ask his or her opinion on the data’s legitimacy.
  6. What next actions would you recommend?
    Based on the conclusions and how much trust you place on them, you probably have some ideas of how to move forward. Then again, your marketing analyst probably has some good ideas, too, especially if further testing is called for.
  7. What do you predict will happen if we take these actions?
    As the scientific method dictates, research is cyclical. Now that you’ve figured out what the data indicates, how much you trust the findings, and what you want to do with that knowledge, it’s worthwhile to speculate what those actions might produce. This feeds back into question three when you’re going over the next round of results.

My Social Media Frankenstein Monster

Social media!!! Rrrraaarrrr!!!

Since the dawn of search, SEO professionals have dreamed of controlling brand-related search results. Through the power of social media, I intend to do just that. I will wrest my name from the whims of the algorithms and take control of my own destiny.

The Hypothesis

By linking them together, social media profiles can be leveraged to gain a high degree of control over the search listings for a brand with low to moderate competition.

The Experiment

In order to prove my hypothesis, I will create an assortment of active social media and bookmarking profiles that are relevant for the term “Stephen Ward.” I will then link them together in such a way as to provide maximum ranking benefit for this term. If my hypothesis is correct, I should be able to achieve first-page rankings on Google for some or all of my profiles.

The Parts

For some parts of my social media Frankenstein monster, I’ve dug up old profiles that have gone unused for differing lengths of time. For others, I’ve harvested fresh profiles from unsuspecting websites. In every case, stimulation through organic participation and networking will ensure that they remain viable to the experiment’s conclusion. Here are the various parts that I’ve managed to piece together.

The Stitches

Links will be the stitches that hold my monster together. Unfortunately, linking between them in a way that is visible to search engines is a complex process. Some profiles allow you to place any number of links to other profiles in a way that search engines can easily index. Others allow only a certain number of links, or links that are not counted by search engines. Still others do not allow outbound linking at all. Taking all of these factors into account, here is how I pieced them together.

  • Delicious – As a bookmarking profile, adding links is really the point. I made sure that links to my blog and all of my profiles were the first to make it into my bookmarks.
  • Digg – Unlike Reddit, Digg allows any number of personal, customizable links in the About section of your profile.
  • DZone – Despite its nature as a niche social news site for developers, DZone is one of the few profiles that have been active prior to the experiment. It allows a single link back to your blog in the Information section of your profile. Additionally, many of my articles are relevant as submissions, so it serves my purposes nicely.
  • Facebook – It’s a shame that the most prominent social media network doesn’t allow external links that are visible to search engines. Still, no social media strategy would be complete without it.
  • LinkedIn – Like DZone, I’ve been active in LinkedIn for a long time now. Outbound linking here is a bit of a mix. You are allowed no more than three links in the Websites section of your profile. For practical reasons, two of these link to my blog and one to a company website. If one of my profiles begins to perform well, I might change one of these links to point to it instead.
  • MySpace – I’ve had a dormant profile on the much decried MySpace for some time. The good news is that it allows any amount of external linking. The bad news is that those links are sent through a redirection service. Still, they might provide some indirect juice.
  • Reddit – Short of egotistically voting up your own articles (which I don’t recommend), there’s no way to generate outbound links on a Reddit profile.
  • SEOmoz – Like DZone, SEOmoz serves as a strictly niche profile for my industry. It allows a single, no-followed external link in the About section. Fortunately, through community participation, it is possible to remove the nofollow. I will be working toward that goal in my activity on the site.
  • StumbleUpon – Like Delicious, linking is the whole point of StumbleUpon. However, because it can directly influence another user’s browsing experience, purely egotistical linking can be detrimental. I will be adding articles from my blog to StumbleUpon slowly and only as they become relevant so as not to draw the ire of the stumble brigades. For similar reasons, I won’t be adding my profiles at all.

The Lightning

This website already ranks well for the term “Stephen Ward” in Google. By instituting site-wide links out to all of my social media profiles in my side bar, I hope to generate enough juice to bring my monster to life. Since I have complete control over the coding on the site, I’ve made sure to add my name to the title attribute of each of these links to increase their relevancy.

It’s Alive…?

The parts have been assembled. The lightning has struck. Now we wait in the dark with rapt anticipation to see if my monster stirs to life. Will this hodgepodge of social media profiles suddenly lurch up in the search rankings? Or will they lie still and dormant, no more than the overhyped, underperforming dreams of a mad SEO specialist? Stay tuned for the conclusion to our grotesque tale.

Update 8/5/08: At the recommendation of my friend Adam Schultz, I’ve added Naymz to my social media roster and submitted Ward on the Web to BlogCatalog.