Monday, September 30, 2013

Astroturfing: Giving Yourself Positive Online Reviews May Cost You


Give Yourself 5 Stars?
Online, It Might Cost You

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” wrote Walt Whitman, America’s great bard of self-promotion. As the world goes ever more digital, quite a few businesses are adopting that philosophy — hiring a veritable chorus of touts to sing their nonexistent praises and lure in customers.

Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, called the deceptions “worse than old-fashioned false advertising.”

New York regulators will announce on Monday the most comprehensive crackdown to date on deceptive
reviews on the Internet. Agreements have been reached with 19 companies to cease their misleading practices and pay a total of $350,000 in penalties.

The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that create fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.

A phony review of a restaurant may lead to a bad meal, which is disappointing. But the investigation uncovered a wide range of services buying fake reviews that could do more permanent damage: dentists, lawyers, even an ultrasound clinic.

“What we’ve found is even worse than old-fashioned false advertising,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general. “When you look at a billboard, you can tell it’s a paid advertisement — but on Yelp or Citysearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.”

Investigators working for Mr. Schneiderman began by posing as the owner of a Brooklyn yogurt shop that was the victim of unfair reviews. Could the reputation management firm gin up some good reviews to drown out the naysayers?

All too often the answer was yes. The investigation revealed a web of deceit in which reviewers in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe produced, for as little as a dollar a rave, buckets of praise for places they had never seen in countries where they had never been.

In some cases, the reputation shops bribed their clients’ customers to write more fake reviews, giving them $50 gift certificates for their trouble. They also went on review sites that criticized their own fake-review operations and wrote fake reviews denying they wrote fake reviews.

The investigation was aimed at companies based in New York, but it will have a wider reach. “This shows that fake reviews are a legitimate target of law enforcement,” said Aaron Schur, senior litigation counsel for Yelp, which has taken an aggressive approach in screening out reviews it believes to be false. Yelp recently sued a California law firm for writing fake reviews of itself.

Within recent memory, reviewing was something professionals did. The Internet changed that, letting anyone with a well-reasoned opinion or a half-baked attitude have his say. Web sites loved this content, because it was free. So consumer reviews became ever more ubiquitous — and influential.

Reviews persuade people to try a new resort or shun an old restaurant. They sell books and the devices the books are read on. They influence the choice of garden tools, plumbers, high fashion and, increasingly, doctors. If you provide a service or sell a product and you are not reviewed, you might as well not exist.
In a 2011 Harvard Business School study, a researcher found that restaurants that increased their ranking on Yelp by one star raised their revenues by 5 to 9 percent. A 2012 Gartner study estimated that one in seven recommendations or ratings on social media sites like Facebook would soon be fake. And there have been instances where all the reviews of a product have been secretly bought and paid for by the seller of the product.

Some retailers and other sites that feature many reviews have largely ignored the problem, perhaps not wanting to scare away real customers. Others have been like Yelp and been more forceful in addressing the problem.

But the New York investigation shows that the fakers are constantly increasing in sophistication. “Do not make them sound like an advertisement,” one firm investigated by the attorney general cautioned its writers. Another boasted of using multiple computers to foil suspicions that arose when more than one review came from the same machine. A third talked of outwitting Facebook.

“Sadly, it will take continued policing, both by law enforcement and the review sites themselves, to make sure some businesses stop lying to customers they claim to serve,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

Fake reviews undermine the credibility of the Internet. Olivia Roat, a marketing consultant for Main Street Host, a Buffalo digital marketing agency, discussed her growing realization that fake reviews are omnipresent on the company’s blog last year. “Say it ain’t so!” she wrote. Who, she wondered, could be trusted?

Apparently not Main Street Host, which was one of the 19 companies that signed an agreement to desist. The agreement says Main Street Host “engaged in astroturfing on behalf of over 30 clients,” using a term referring to writing fake reviews. Executives there could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
For the service companies, buying reviews seems a shortcut to the better reputation they are unlikely to achieve on their own.

US Coachways, another company in the investigation, is a charter bus service based in Staten Island. If a prospective customer were to look on Yelp, she might get the sense that this is not an outfit she would want to hire.

“This company basically ruined what was otherwise a great trip,” wrote a typical reviewer in 2012. 

Currently, the company has 14 reviews averaging one star. It is not possible to get much lower than this.
Edward Telmany, US Coachways’s chief executive, was upset about the low ratings, according to the formal Assurance of Discontinuance he signed with the attorney general’s office.

“We get bashed online,” Mr. Telmany wrote, accurately, to his employees on Nov. 20, 2011. “We are loosing [sic] money from this.”

His response was not to fix the problems that customers were citing, like buses never showing up, but to begin a full-fledged effort to get fake reviews. Mr. Telmany hired freelance writers, mandated that his employees write favorable reviews and even pitched in himself. He posted a five-star review on Yelp that began, “US Coachways does a great job!”

Neither Mr. Telmany nor a spokesman for US Coachways could be reached for comment on Sunday. The company agreed to pay $75,000 in fines and stop writing fake reviews.

Faking reviews often begins with faked reviews of the company faking the reviews. In October 2010, a review appeared on Yahoo that said the writer was “thrilled” by the services provided by Main Street Host. He added that he just didn’t understand “why this company gets all the negative reviews.” He also said, “for the record, I am not a employee, don’t know anyone who is, and have no knowledge of anyone else’s experience but my own.”

The review was, of course, by a Main Street Host employee. The company agreed to a $43,000 fine.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Google Changes Search Algorithm Again


26 September 2013

Google unveils major upgrade to search algorithm
By Richard Taylor
North America Technology Correspondent

Google has unveiled an upgrade to the way it interprets users' search requests.
The new algorithm, codenamed Hummingbird, is the first major upgrade for three years.
It has already been in use for about a month, and affects about 90% of Google searches.
At a presentation on Thursday, the search giant was short on specifics but said Hummingbird is especially useful for longer and more complex queries.
Google stressed that a new algorithm is important as users expect more natural and conversational interactions with a search engine - for example, using their voice to speak requests into mobile phones, smart watches and other wearable technology.
Hummingbird is focused more on ranking information based on a more intelligent understanding of search requests, unlike its predecessor, Caffeine, which was targeted at better indexing of websites.
It is more capable of understanding concepts and the relationships between them rather than simply words, which leads to more fluid interactions. In that sense, it is an extension of Google's "Knowledge Graph" concept introduced last year aimed at making interactions more human.
In one example, shown at the presentation, a Google executive showed off a voice search through her mobile phone, asking for pictures of the Eiffel Tower. After the pictures appeared, she then asked how tall it was. After Google correctly spoke back the correct answer, she then asked "show me pictures of the construction" - at which point a list of images appeared.
Big payoffs?

However, one search expert cautioned that it was too early to determine Hummingbird's impact. "For me this is more of a coming out party, rather than making me think 'wow', said Danny Sullivan, founder of Search Engine Land.
"If you've been watching this space, you'd have already seen how they've integrated it into the [predictive search app] Google Now and conversational search.
"To know that they've put this technology further into their index may have some big payoffs but we'll just have to see how it plays out," Mr Sullivan said.
The news was announced at an intimate press event at the Silicon Valley garage where founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page worked on the launch of the search engine, which is fifteen years old on Friday.
At the event, the search behemoth also announced an updated search app on Apple's iOS, as well as a more visible presence for voice search on its home page.

Monday, September 23, 2013

10 Easy Facts About Social Media ROI

10 Easy Facts About Social Media ROI

  1. Social media produces almost double the marketing leads of trade shows, telemarketing, direct mail, or PPC. *
  2. Social media lead conversion rates are 13% higher than the average lead conversion rate. *
  3. 21% of marketers say that social media has become more important to their company over the past six months. *
  4. 43% of all marketers have found a customer via LinkedIn in 2013. *
  5. 23% of marketers are investing in blogging and social media this year, a 9% increase from 2012. *
  6. Approximately 46% of online users count on social media when making a purchase decision. **
  7. Linkedin has over 238 million business members world-wide. ***
  8. 78.6% of salespeople using social media out-perform those who aren’t. ****
  9. 40% of salespeople have closed deals via social media. ****
  10. Salespeople using social media to sell, spend less than 10% of their time prospecting. ****

      * (Source: HubSpot) 
    ** (Source: Nielsen) 
  *** (Source:
**** (Source Forbes)

Friday, September 20, 2013

The SEO Secret of Local Links


How to Build Links With Location Relevance

by Peter van der Graaf,

Searcher locality is starting to influence regular search results for almost every query. Because this location is auto-detected you can't omit it from a search. You can only change is to another location within your country.

Even very generic searches are influenced in extreme ways. That is why local links are getting more important, also for your important keywords.

The example below shows how a very generic search for "www" (which I use to get generic authorities from Google) returns "dortmund" specific authorities first, just because my proxy is located there.


You can try your own examples in English on ( only works for US readers, while UK allows locality for everyone). Set your "Search tools" -> "Search near …" to any UK city to see how that influences the results. Non-UK visitors need to set it manually, but UK visitors aren't able to get results without their locality as a personalization factor.

How Does This Change SEO

To dominate a search theme for every visitor from any location, adding city-specific pages and texts to your website increases your chances. City-specific links also seem to increase your chance, even when you leave out any textual reference to the city on your site.

So what is local link building and how do you acquire locality relevant links? For years I've been active in local link building for websites like job portals, business listings, and other sites that cover multiple locations.

Link Building for Location Relevance

Location relevance needs to be addressed city-by-city. Some cities will have a positive effect on their boroughs and neighboring cities, so it is logical to focus on larger cities first.
When you Google for just a city name you get results like:
  • Local government and public services (e.g. town hall, fire department, and local transport).
  • Universities and schools.
  • Tourist information.
  • Sport clubs and associations (e.g. football club, hobby clubs, and churches).
  • Local news (e.g. papers, radio, TV).
  • Recurring local events (e.g., marathon or conference).
These websites are the most important link partners for a city name. A strategy focused on a service in one city can probably be copied to the same service in each individual city. Here are a few examples:
  • Sponsor the local fire department: For a job portal I created information about hiring volunteer and on-call firemen that can be summoned at any time for emergencies and need to train often and hard. This requires a lot of flexibility from employers, so we created a list of attractive employers that would hire on-call people. Many fire department websites added our information and links to their "join the brigade" sections.
  • Sponsor a couple of smaller local events: Bigger events might bring you more link value, but their sponsorship can also become very expensive. If link value is the thing you are after you can probably sponsor smaller material things that the organization needs and still get a link in return (just not on the main sponsor page). Smaller events are often much happier with your sponsorship and they don't realize that they can bring you some hard to grasp concept like local link value. You can ask for almost anything on their website.
  • Buy old campaign websites: Local government often links to information campaigns that are no longer active and local elections also involve domains with no future use. Contact the current owner and take control over all that link value.

Be Local

Even if you offer your services nationwide, Google has hereby declared being local an important ranking factor. Do whatever you can to cover the most important cities before some smaller local player takes your place. Prepare for the increasing role of local!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Botox Everywhere

Many consider one of the most effective and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures today to be the use of Botox. After many years on the market, widespread use attests to its appeal for everyday people. Application is simple and relatively pain-free.

Perhaps its popularity and ease of use explains why Botox use for cosmetic
purposes is expanding into places you might not expect, such as the office of your dentist or other medical specialist. While it must be used by a trained and licensed professional, the list of authorized locations is continually growing.

The questions you might ask are:

  • Is Botox safe?
  • Where can I find Botox in my area?
  • What is Botox?

To find out these answers and more, consult your local Botox clinic.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

3 Statistics in Ten Seconds About Online Marketing

89% of customers now use search engines to find products and services.
The average value of a single Facebook fan is now $174 per year.
Customers who get emails from a business spend 83% more than those who don’t.

Vocus: Webinar Confirmation

Sunday, September 1, 2013

How To Recover From The Ravages Of Google Penguin And Panda (SEO)


How to Recover From the Ravages of Google Penguin and Panda

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People are freaking out about the new Google Search. Online marketplaces that have historically been very profitable in the past have dropped off a cliff for many companies, be it direct sales eCommerce or public relations campaigns. Everyone wants to know both why this has happened and how to make it right. What’s changed, post-Penguin and post-Panda, is that organic SEO isn’t free, cheap, and easy anymore. First, everyone’s piled on to organic SEO; secondly, all the tricks that have worked — guest blogging, link-marketing (Viglink, Skimlinks, etc), directory farms, site aggregators, pay-per-posting, etc — are not a lock anymore; thirdly, organic SEO demands a profound commitment to social media, and not just Google+; finally, since Google now owns the Internet, it can now monitor the web like a spider: it feels every single vibration and now knows exactly what everything on its web is: it is a fat, juicy bug full of blood (a legitimately interesting, useful, and germane-to-the-search site) or is it just an empty, hollow exoskeletal husk blown into the web, empty and devoid of nutritious content).

How to Recover From the Ravages of Google Penguin and Panda image companions adelie penguins 300x225
In the past, too, Google was a little desperate. To be honest, beggars couldn’t be choosers. Google really needed to allow a very nascent industry to mature. Everyone was making stupid mistakes, including mainstream media, newspapers, major aggregators, and everyone else. Whenever Google administers too much stick, it always eventually “softens” its algorithm in response to very vocal and influential clients (who probably also coincidentally spend a lot of money on Google AdWord ads). That said, you could very well lose your shirt in the time it takes Google to soften its algorithm enough to return your site back to the first page from being excommunicated to the 5th page of Google.

While Google will smite sinners viciously, sending you into the wilderness of search, Google’s also very compassionate. That said, whenever it smites search sinners, it never reverts its algorithm completely: it hardens once and only softens a fraction — it’s more real-world fine-tuning than ceding ground.

With Panda and Penguin, Google can now tell whether online content has gravitas: mass, momentum It understands what true organic content looks like, feels like, sounds like, if you will, on the web. How it moves through cyberspace. It’s algorithm is quickly becoming a de facto web content Turing test. It checks things such as how the content accelerates, how it is adopted by others, whether there’s a warm pulse over time (or, it is a web zombie?) — no longer can you just turf your entire online brand to some turn-key “panacea” solution like you could before.
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And here’s an under-reported Google secret: there are lots and lots of humans who make their living from using their human eyes and Google training (and probably a very cool Google Search QA dashboard) to scrutinize sites that set off Google’s automated site Bozo Filter. Google wants you to believe that the algorithm is all robots, spiders, bots, and math, but, with the advent of Panda and Penguin, Google Search is people! Google Search is people!

What can you do, then?

Google SEO is the new Google AdWords

How to Recover From the Ravages of Google Penguin and Panda image Penguins hd wallpapers 300x187Back in the day, Google AdWords could be had cheap. Not anymore. Everyone’s online, and globally, too. More recently, it wasn’t too tough, with a little creativity, to own your unique vertical on search — or at least be able to make it to the first page. Not anymore, you can’t. Now, you’ll have to invest time, talent, and treasure to the endeavor; luckily, if you’re making a majority of your income and referrals from the Internet, you’ll already know how valuable it is to you; otherwise, it really won’t matter — you probably only use your web site as a reputation direct destination for when people up you and your brand via direct URL or from a personal- or company name-specific search. However, if you’ve made serious revenue in the past and all that’s dropped off suddenly, open your wallet and spend, though not on yet another SEO link-peddler. Let me explain.

Back to Hearts and Minds

Digital PR and social media marketing may well be the new SEO. If popularity, pickup, sharing, and social are the newest and most-preferred method for tracking which sites are useful, valuable, popular, or successful, then you will surely need to…

Earn, Don’t Buy, Your Friends

How to Recover From the Ravages of Google Penguin and Panda image ap99121501386 custom feedbb6efa738efee47e7828e805758dc427fa60 s6 c30 300x305
While it’s so easy to buy Twitter followers — and sometimes practically useful for kickstarting a new Twitter account or for impressing people and clients who are impressed by raw numbers or high-ratio of followers to followed — if Fake Follower Check can sort out which followers are fake, which are inactive, and which are Good (for my @chrisabraham account on Twitter, it’s 1% fake, 5% inactive, and 95% good out of 44,381 followers), so can Google. So, another example of Google vaccinating against just throwing money at the problem. Instead, you’ll probably need to spend money on Twitter and Facebook advertising if you want to earn easy Likes and followers; otherwise, you can cross-promote your social media properties across all aspects of your company, making sure that your multiple social media profiles are fully-integrated into the rest of your brand. You’ll probably want to hire someone — a community manager or an outside social media consultant — either for a short-term bootcamp to get your started or someone you can just work with over the long term, be it internally or outsourced.

Online Engagement and Blogger Outreach

How to Recover From the Ravages of Google Penguin and Panda image Six Emperor Penguins 300x196
The sad and pathetic thing about running your linking campaign through robots and zombie sites and over the artifice of guest blogs, link advertising, pay-per-post, comment-spamming*, trackback spamming*, and link-farming* (*people are still doing this so it must work, right?) is that is doesn’t give the true online community enough credit. Or, maybe it gives the online community too much credit. I recently spoke to a bona fide, traditional, PR executive (for the most traditional PR industry, pharma) and he told me that everyone’s still deeply afraid of the unpredictable nature of the organic blogosphere. That said, an online engagement campaign is powerful mojo. If you’re able to find a way to identify and engage your most natural (and plentiful) allies online, through finding them online, where they already live, and engage them; or, discover who they are — their names and emails — and reach out to them as if they were mainstream media (broadcast, TV, radio, print) with your message, your news, your vision, your announcement and either encourage them to blog about you or prospect them to become your long-term ally.

How to Recover From the Ravages of Google Penguin and Panda image Pandas the most Endagered animals of Asia 300x225
Unlike the structured, predictable, low-fidelity, zombie hoards that make up the robot armies of paid-for content, earned media tends to be more durable and happily leverages the trust networks associated with each and every online influencer who picks up, experiences, resonates with, and reports your message on their platforms, starting with their blog but then cascading through their Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Tumbler, and then deeper via their RSS news feeds across digg news, Feedly, Flipboard, reddit, StumbleUpon, digg, Delicious, and any number of other aggregator platforms — this is the real, varied, ripple-effect that is hard for AI-zombie-robot-armies to emulate. Thus, the Turing test. Real organic content pickup — earned media — is real. And real always passes all of Google’s tests — even all Turing test as administered by Google human army of Turing testers! Google’s BS-detectors are not only humans but probably unemployed English Majors, Graduate Students, and PhD candidates.

A Faster Website

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All things being equal, Google rewards site speed and quickness. Latency is punished, all things being equal; however in a world where everyone uses the same version of WordPress, the same plugins, and often the same template, choosing a good tech who can make sure you’re able to extract the best performance possible from your web site, avoid plug-in performance pitfalls, and eliminate site duplicate content and other redundancies and loops that might lead Google to mistake your honest mom-and-pop site for spam. If you’re running a super-sophisticated and complex e-commerce site you probably already have a good tech on retainer; however, look into finding someone like me who can help you sort out words like “acceptable ping times” and “site latency” — someone who’s familiar with things such as Google PageSpeed. At the end of the day, Google really wants to “make the web faster” — if you help them, they will reward you. Remember, the more popular your site, the slower it’ll probably be. The better you’re doing, the harder your server will work. Add to that the sort of attention spike that a successful online engagement campaign can result in — a true network effect — and you’ll need to make sure that your site either has durability built in or offers the ability to burst its performance in real-time response to site popularity — what happens when and if your content “goes viral?” What happens if and when your site is mentioned on the radio, TV, or print? Will it crash or slow to a crawl? If you’re going to spend time and energy doing all the work I am recommending here, you’d better make sure you don’t wilt under all the new attention.

Better Domain Name

Google is still painfully literal. If you want to own a specific keyword phrase, maybe your domain name should reflect that phrase; Or, if you’re known for your full name instead of your acronym — or if your acronym includes valuable keywords that your acronym does not, then maybe you should just use your fancy acronym-based URL for your emails and for reference over the phone but use your company name spelled-out for everything else.

Better Site Architecture

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If you’re using a proprietary Content Management System (CMS) you might want to consider choosing another platform — something that Google understands. Also, in order to make your site content as easy-as-possible for Google, implement an XML-based Sitemap for both your site content and for your images. There are sitemap plugins for WordPress and modules for Drupal that are super-easy to use and work directly with Bing and Google through both of their webmaster tools. What’s more, there are very simple plugins and modules that you can easily install into WordPress and Drupal sites that will optimize and standardize your site’s architecture to comply completely to Google’s search specifications.

So, can’t afford all this? It may be time to sell your Summer cottage (the season’s almost over) or mortgage your family home. No matter what, you’ll surely need to come up with some quick budget if you want to start competing again. Do it. In the words of Terry, played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”
So, what about you? Will you be a contender or are you going to choose bum?