SEO Truisms: Be Known For Something & Age A Few Well Organized URLs

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 06/18/2012

My field is SEO, a discipline mostly of influencing the biggest kingmaker on the planet right now—Google. But the field itself is an anomaly, with the still-new new interwebs suddenly giving the average joe the ability to do research—an otherwise boring endeavor—onto our desktops, and now onto our phones. And the simple trick of delivering simple text add taught to Google by Bill Gross turned that research into a multibillion dollar revenue stream.

The corollary taking place in social right now is not quite so exciting, revenue-wise. Even though the online equivalent to the grapevine, the rumor-mill, the water cooler—call it what you will—Facebook is more appealing to users than search, draws more eyeballs, is more personal, passive, entertaining and engaging—as attested to by one-seventh of the world’s population. It’s just harder to make money slipping those people a message in their feed than it is a searcher actually performing research.

It’s truly a case of the more boring business and communication model simply being more profitable, because of the research-and-acquisition “mode” that people are in while googling versus facebooking. But the compelling power of social can’t be ignored. The power of a network is the square of its users, an as we see from networks like Amazon and eBay, user opinions (i.e. social) factors heavily into relevancy, and will inevitably become the new important relevancy signals driving research engines—whether or not that continues to be Google.

For Google is a castle built on clouds. It achieved near shut-out momentum—yes, because it was a superior product for its day with a simple stripped-down interface and better results. But that success itself was built on top of the grapevine and water cooler of its day—email and actual word-of-mouth. The gargantuan enterprise of Google is actually a social success story, both in terms of its popularity AND its PageRank system, modeled after the academic citation system, which is itself social. Yep, links are social—only it’s an elite publishing class, which social links like like and tweets are finally changing.

Back to the castle built on clouds. Google’s value proposition to its customers is that they will deliver prospective customers at the uniquely pre-qualified moment they are researching exactly what you have to offer. Brilliant, no? But Google’s customers are advertisers, and advertisers are not loyal, and will go to wherever the eyeballs are. If that were not Google tomorrow, then Google would lose by far its largest revenue stream, AdWords. Despite having its toe in countless businesses, Google’s revenue stream is not very diversified.

So, Google has two missions in life: 1) diversify revenue streams to be less vulnerable to AdWords disruption, and 2) keep the eyeballs. Efforts along both these lines are epic in proportion, such as buying Android and turning it into a free mobile OS, developing ChromeOS and making it the main OS for laptops, and buying Motorola Mobile to kinda sorta approximate the diversification and power of aaaaa, ohhhh, say… Apple. Did I say Apple? Guess who controls half the mobile search boxes and just dropped the seemingly inextricable Google Maps, and developed a new eyes-free search model?

Never forget, Google users are not customers. You are not a customer until you fork over money for product or services rendered. And once you do, you feel committed, and there is a sort of switching cost. Stop paying company-A and start paying company-B. And there are all sort of lock-ins, like losing customer loyalty points. Google tries to achieve that sort of lock-in and instill switching-cost for non-customers in the form of GMail, Google Docs and Voice. And now with Google Drive there is a push to turn users into paying customers with increased storage.

There is a fascinating clash of the titans going on today with each Titan trying to create their own end-to-end ecosystem that both shuts in its users, generates ad revenue, offers digital goods (Amazon is the wildcard), and mixes in a variety of other necessities like a phone and OS, email, app store, office software, calendars, digital storage, and the oddball offerings like cloud infrastructure for your own apps, and video game servers and leader boards. Against this backdrop, there are dozens of sub-wars, like low-power processors and open vs. proprietary systems.

Basically everything is up in the air. It seems like it becomes impossible to navigate such a landscape and to position yourself to the greatest personal advantage. But it is not. The trick is to look through all this input and come out with some underlying truths that seem to have 10 or 20 years of reliable life in them, and align your efforts to those truths.

Above all, you must become known for something in this landscape, and have something fairly unique on this plant to offer your users, customers or audience. If its not unique, there’s probably about a dozen other people out there who can offer the same thing and willing to undercut you.

Your voice is unique. That’s why I’m beginning to talk about personal brand so much. So, if you become truly expert at something, are a talented artist, or have a brilliant or funny personality, you can always sell that—or otherwise convert it into currency. Remember, perfected micro currency payments are coming down the pike, so earning a living a dollar at a time like “being” an app in the App Store—sans app—is probably going to happen.

The next truism to never forget is that Web and Internet addresses shouldn’t change. For the majority of us, our “big wins” are going to be the result of a long and drawn-out process, with us being very little fish in a very big pond during most of that time. We will plan and execute, and be spinning out wheels for a majority of that time, and occasionally gain some traction to move a little bit forward.

So, to get to that end-goal, you have to preserve and defend every little inch you gain. When done correctly, those gained inches give you more momentum and actually helps create the traction. Gain leads to more gain. There is absolutely nothing more devastating than your domain name changing or your URLs all changing, no matter how well you carry out the 301 permanent redirect project. You are putting everything you built up so far at the complete mercy of whatever systems are supposed to compensate for moved resources.

There are a few corollary rules here about never changing URLs. The first is that it is best to obscure and genericize the web server technology you’re using. How many of you had to change your URLs because all your old ones ended in .asp, and you moved to .NET which uses .aspx? Devastating setback! It can be compensated for without redirects, but not without stupid web server tricks that’ll make you look like you’re using vintage tech.

Users of Ruby on Rails or WordPress with search-friendly URLs turned-on will never have that problem. All those URLs end seemingly with extension-less file names or directories ending in a slash. Even if you switch tech, the stupid web tricks required to keep those old URLs working won’t make you look stupid. Instead, you’ll have timeless URLs set up to age with grace.

So combine the truism of a becoming known for something with a valuable unique voice with timeless-looking and long-running URLs under your control, and the last truism you have to sprinkle in is good organization. It’s likely that you will have dozens or hundreds of URLs, and the temptation is to just throw them all into a pot and let Google sort it out, but that’s not the best solution because you can really only drive decade-long promotion into a small subset of them.

So, you actually want to construct an old-fashioned information tree of what you want to be known for. Put the most important, and most difficult-to-achieve, but most worthwhile near the top. The very tippy-top is your homepage of course. The next level down is a small set of 5 or 10 URLs and topics you wish to be known for for the next 10 years or so, and the next level after that could be individual articles whose specific long-tail nature makes them less competitive, and perhaps more time-sensitive, and can be allowed to grow into the large base of the pyramid—perhaps even called your archive.

And this hierarchy helps all your endeavors, no matter how search and social may change. They’re all going to have a bunch of things in common. Until the Web and Net fundamentally change, timeless URLs are a the thing getting promoted, be it PageRank, social counters, or plain old fashioned word-of-mouth. So have something truly worth putting on those URLs, and don’t spread yourself thin with too many URLs. You should be able to rattle them off out of memory, and the topics should each have enough search traffic or social activity to be worth it. And finally, they should be interlinked so as to draw a good picture of what you or your business are all about, with the fewest most competitive things up top, and so on down through the pyramid.