Archive for the ‘Publishing & Speaking’ Category

Honest Search Optimization

Thursday, May 25th, 2006


There are two approaches to promoting websites, one adversarial and one
cooperative. You can either fool search engines into thinking you are
useful, or you can actually become useful, attracting search engines and
users. Both can work. But in the long run, the latter is more effective
with less effort.

My qualifications

I’m not a recognized SEO expert. I don’t consult or sell books. This is
the only thing I’ve written on the subject. Yet in a few years, in my spare
time, with a budget of zero, I have sent several websites to #1 at major
search engines, generating 50,000 to 100,000 page views a month.

Since it cost me nothing to learn this, I will now tell you, for free, how to
do it.

Do this for each site

  1. Choose a domain name that describes the content.
  2. Put interesting and useful content there.
  3. Get listed at
  4. Describe each page clearly and succinctly in the page title and body.
  5. Get links from established, reputable sites with similar content.
  6. Wait several months.

That’s it. You don’t need to hire anyone, nor buy any tools or books.  This method works for nearly every site, nearly every time, for years, with almost no maintenance.

Why it works better

This approach arises from a simple guiding principle:

Understand how search engines work, and what they want to do — and cooperate.

Traditional promoters want to use Google like a megaphone, because that’s how news media works these days. But Google is not a megaphone. It is a listening device.

To really understand that, and to appreciate the cooperative approach to SEO, you need to be in right frame of mind, which by itself can be difficult for the typical person reading an article like this. You very likely work in a frantically competitive job, involving long hours and the threat of layoff or reassignment. This tends to create a short-term, shortcut, screw-you mindset. So first, a brief exercise to distance us from that world.

Preparatory Exercise

As you’re sweating alone over a particularly tedious project at 11pm on a Saturday night, please stand up, look into your bloodshot eyes in the mirror, and read the following:

“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

If, at this point, you still feel highly motivated to tap away like a chimpanzee, then there’s nothing I can do for you. Try clicking some helpful consultant’s ads — they’ll probably sell you cool, colorful charts or something.

On the other hand, if you are now in tears, bemoaning your wasted youth, you are mentally prepared for cooperative SEO.

Choose efforts that will last

It’s not widely recognized that Macbeth was discussing search optimization philosophy. Do things that will still have value in a year or two, and you’ll feel less like a chimpanzee. Even a tiny effect is valuable, if it lasts for years with no further effort.

The goal in search optimization — the true goal — is to gain a position whose value (measured in dollars, readers, or whatever else is important to you) greatly exceeds the effort required to get there and remain there.

This means working with those features of search engines that are utterly stable, and likely to change slowly or never.

Stable features of search engines

Search engines use a huge and ever-increasing array of techniques to measure importance and relevance, and to filter out scams and spam. But the following have been stable for about 10 years.

  1. Your page’s importance is based on the number and importance of links coming in to your page from other pages. 
  2. Importance is calculated iteratively, and must begin from a set of initial conditions provided by a reference directory. For Google, the initial conditions are provided
    primarily by 
  3. Relevance is inferred from the similarity between a user query and the contents of a page and pages linking to it.

The reason this hasn’t changed in 10 years is that it works. It is a powerful set of insights into delivering what people need. So powerful, in fact, that it’s difficult to improve upon. And difficult to change.

Stated another way, the search engines have solved the search problem so well that they’re now beneficially unable to change their basic ranking approach. That inflexibility means that if you can gain high rank according to the above three criteria, you will tend to sustain that rank indefinitely, with no further effort. That’s the promise offered by cooperative search optimization. Now, let’s look at the alternative.

Gaming the system — beyond ethics, it’s a waste of time

Looking at the stable features above, you can see the potential adversarial strategies: link farms, link exchanges and so forth. Some of these probably do work — for a while.

Let’s say you had no ethical qualms about gaming the system. You’re only concerned about return on investment. Is this an effective way to spend your time or money? Probably not, because you are exploiting an unstable set of loopholes.

The search companies have huge teams of smart guys dedicated to prevent cheating. As a result, adversarial strategies are a constant arms race. You would need constantly to invent new strategies as they discover and shut down your old ones. All your old work becomes worthless within a few months. A sound
and fury, signifying nothing.

Spending your time becoming interesting

By contrast, providing end users with something uniquely useful is a great investment of time or money. To see why, look at the two main hurdles you need to jump in gaining a good search rank: DMOZ and inbound links.

People know DMOZ is critical to a good search ranking, so this creaky all-volunteer Web directory is utterly overwhelmed by requests from websites to get listed. Yes, there are probably ways to sneak in, but the most straightforward solution is to offer something unique, useful and authoritative. The DMOZ reviewer will immediately recognize this in your site, if you have chosen the right category and are truly providing unique utility.

Inbound links are easier to obtain than a DMOZ listing. But authoritative, closely related inbound links are not. You need to create something sufficiently distinguished to warrant attention from people with no vested interest in your success.

Your content is not automatically unique or useful

Note the previous section is not saying, “Spend all your time creating content.” If that were all you needed, every high school student’s blog would get more traffic than the Toyota home page. No, the previous section says to spend effort creating not just content, but useful content. And not just useful content, but uniquely useful content.

My blog (I do write one) is unique, but not useful. As a result, no one links to it, and so it’s mostly invisible on the Web.  Similarly, if you create a website full of recipes, it is likely useful, but absolutely not unique, and thus unlikely to gain a good rank.

You need to think about what people need, what you can provide, how you are unique, and how that uniqueness might be valuable. This is a completely different type of challenge from frantic chimpanzee tapping. It involves talking to people, asking questions, and just sitting in a quiet room, thinking.

Knowing the difference between adversarial and cooperative

Now you know the answer to success on the Web. In the abstract. But in practice, for someone not accustomed to thinking in this way, it may not be obvious which activities are adversarial and which are cooperative. Here are a few examples.

Adversarial (basic intent is to fool a search engine)

Link exchanges offered by mass email.

Buy a domain with existing high rank, intending to change the content.

Cooperative (basic intent is to deliver value to site visitor)

Buy a domain with existing high rank, slowly adding similar content.

Get a legitimate online newspaper to link to your site.

How would you rather spend your time?

In conclusion, your mom was right that cheaters never prosper. But beyond that, why would you want to live like that? Always looking over your shoulder, trying to stay a step ahead of the anti-spam cops. Anyone smart enough to do that successfully for a while is more than smart enough to generate actual content, of actual unique value, to benefit a lot of people.  

Why would you want to do it any differently?

Note: If you find this article useful, please link to it, thereby helping to prove its thesis. :-)


Professors vs Students

Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

An irony of business school finance departments is the conflict of interest between
professors and students. Nearly all business school students attend for the
purpose of becoming wealthy. As a result, their interest in finance, apart
from getting jobs in finance departments, is to
find and exploit market inefficiencies.

Professors, by contrast, are rewarded for explaining how the
overall competitive structure works, and publishing their findings widely.
Thus, every time they discover a market inefficiency, they broadcast it, and
the inefficiency disappears. For example, the January Effect was attenuated
greatly by widespread awareness.

Professors are also rewarded socially for teaching that markets are too
efficient to permit individuals to make consistently supernormal returns through
portfolio selection. This despite the fact that certain types of
portfolios, which would be considered off the efficient frontier by Modern
Portfolio Theory, have long been shown to
consistently outperform the market as a whole. An example of this is to
hold a portfolio of only the cheapest two quintiles of listed stocks, as
measured by PE or price to book value.

As a result, few professors are teaching students what they really want to
know: how to think about the process of identifying and exploiting market

“Professors vs students” essentially recapitulates the difference between economic policy and business policy. The goal of business policy is to seek competitive
inefficiency with no upper limit, as a way of maximizing return on equity.

By contrast, the goal of economic policy is generally to maximize growth of GDP per capita by maximizing competitive efficiency, including by preventing permanent large-scale competitive advantages in business. All non-extremists appreciate the value of compromise between these two positions, and all economic policy debate is simply about where to draw the line between the two.

The “business policy vs economic policy” conflict is sensible and understandable. Less so is the professor vs student conflict, because the student is actually paying the professor for advice he can’t use. At Harvard and Stanford, for example, the student pays on the order of $100 per lecture hour, fully loaded.

This is not to say business school isn’t useful or valuable. But it’s
important for the student to understand what he’s buying.

Handheld Game Software Business Strategy

Monday, September 1st, 2003

by Bill Mitchell

Originally published in Mobility magazine, September 2003.

When Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Golf for
was released in
1999, the deck was stacked heavily toward success.  Palm hardware sales were
doubling every 10 months, Tiger was the first major gaming brand on the Palm platform,
and there was almost no commercial-grade competition.  Best of all, for several
months, Tiger Palm was the only software cartridge available at the Handspring

How times have changed.  Today, with industry growth at zero
and more than a thousand games available, even brand names and commercial polish
are not a guarantee of success.  Most new titles simply vanish without a trace,
and neither great design nor promotion alone will change that.  If you are
serious about winning in this business, then what you need, more than anything
else, is a strategy.

What is “strategy?”  Most people think it’s synonymous with “plan.” 
But a great strategy means much more than just a plan.  At its heart, strategy
means this:  doing what customers value highly, but competitors can’t copy.

That’s a simple statement with a lot of meaning behind it. 
Let’s consider a couple of examples.

Say you intend to write the first PalmOS bicycle racing
game.  You are certain you can build a quality product;  moreover, since it’s a
popular genre not yet available on Palm, you figure you can probably get some
free publicity.

This constitutes a good plan, but not a strategy.  Why? 
Because anyone could copy you — and probably will, especially if your game is
initially successful.  A bad omen for the long run.

By contrast, a strategy, to use a whimsical example, would
be to publish your game while living in Nicaragua.  Rock-bottom living costs
would mean a decent return on your invested time and money, yet you could price
the game so low that no one in an industrialized country could ever compete. 
In general, developing a permanent cost advantage is a strategy, because it
increases your value to the customer in a way (lower price) that most
competitors cannot easily imitate.

Another strategy might be to obtain long-term rights to use
a branded theme, such as the Tour de France or Greg LeMonde.  The familiarity
of a known brand has great influence — it’s considered one of the few sure
things in the videogame industry.  But note the weakness in this strategy:  all
of your advantage results from something you are renting from another company. 
What the licensor giveth, he may eventually taketh away, or at least reprice to
your disadvantage.

To use a more subtle example, strategy could rely upon a permanent
distribution advantage.  For example, if you could obtain exclusive PalmOS
rights to the mailing list for a popular Macintosh-based cycling game, you
could simply contact every Mac user and ask them to download your new PalmOS
product.  Your product would instantly vault to the top of its category at
PalmGear and Handango, in a way that a competitor would then have great
difficulty copying.  Since most new visitors to PalmGear and Handango simply
download whatever is already popular, as shown by downloads, you gain a persistent
advantage on the basis of just a few plaintive emails.

Still more subtle is to “design” a distribution niche around
yourself, such that no one at all competes with you.  For example, if you set
up a table selling CD-ROMs to spectators at the finish line of the Tour de
France, you would have no competition at all.  Of course, you might not sell
many copies, either.  It’s quite difficult to come up with a distribution niche
that is both strategic and cost-effective, but if you can do it, the payoff is
great.  There’s more on this in the real-life examples below.


So how do you go out and develop your own strategy?  Coming
up with an answer to this puzzle is very hard, and rightly so:  it practically
guarantees success in any industry.  Start by thinking about unusual long-term
experience you may have, or unusual personal contacts, which might be of value
in developing or promoting your application.  If that doesn’t work, try
brainstorming unusual ways to develop or distribute;  ways to attract or
enforce customer loyalty;  or ways to gain benefit from the existing success of
someone else.  Crafting good strategy is a creative puzzle to match the best
problems in game design.  The key is to remember that it’s not enough just to
have something no one else has.  You must have something of value to customers
that no one else has today, and that no one else can easily copy,
even if they tried.

If you look closely at the sustained success stories in the
Palm software industry, you will see solid applied strategy over and over again
– whether on purpose or by sheer luck.  Here are just a few examples, all drawn
from the Palm economy, based on my observations of public information since

  • Astraware appears to use the mailing list from its initial
    megahit, Bejeweled, to promote its growing stable of products.  In effect, this
    list provides a permanent cost advantage in advertising any other product.

  • There are over two dozen golf
    scoring applications available, yet IntelliGolf consistently
    outsells most or all of them.  They did this in part by niche distribution:  airline
    magazines.  This was no doubt expensive, but it guaranteed that they had no
    competitors in their sales channel.  Since travelers are also often Palm owners
    and golfers, the tactic is a logical one.  It’s also a pretty good strategy,
    since it would now be very difficult for a second golf scorer to enter through
    the same channel alongside IntelliGolf.

  • PalmAid from Emcon Emsys
    makes money by virtue of a low-cost operation:  the company is based in India.  As
    long as the product they offer is of high quality, any Western competitor might
    as well just give up on direct competition.  To beat PalmAid, a new entrant
    would require some other advantage, such as cheaper access to advertising.

This is not to say product design doesn’t matter.  But the
Palm games business is so competitive that great design is simply a starting
point.  Many Palm games are released with adequate attention to design — and
sometimes promotion, too — but very few have a well-thought-out strategy.  By
taking that extra step, you can gain a jump not just on today’s competitors,
but on tomorrow’s as well.