Do your competitive research via social tagging
At the most recent Search Engine Strategies conference in San José, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel that took any and all questions about organic search techniques.
One of the most interesting questions that came up was, "How do you see SEO changing over the next few years?"
Dave Naylor from Bronco Ltd. piped up. Dave said the fundamentals of SEO and the basic algorithms likely won't change drastically, but there is certainly great potential for search engines to change the rules of the game. He pointed to Yahoo Site Explorer as an example. Yahoo has launched a toolset that allows SEOs and Webmasters to research sites. Dave postulated that authentication would be the next step for such a toolset; that is, you would research your site by placing an authentication file on your server à la Google Sitemaps, with the end result being that you can see your data, but no data from other sites or competitors.
A move like this, which would block our ability to do competitive research at that level, would be a setback, if not a crushing blow, to SEO as we know it. That got me thinking. Where would that leave all of us search engine optimizers? What research avenues would be left?
Typically, when it comes to social tagging and link-bait, we're always angling to acquire links and effectively tag content in order to invite links. However, if we do start losing transparency at the search engines, social networks and link-bait campaigns will become as important a tool for research as they are for promotion.
Assuming competitors now hide link data behind a curtain at the search engine level, where else could that data, or comparably useful data, be found? The first stop on the research path now shifts from the search engines to the top social tagging engines.
I'll touch on Yahoo-owned del.icio.us (which I have yet to type correctly on the first try). Del.icio.us, a social site, lets users share bookmark lists. The bookmarks are searchable, and links in del.icio.us count as inbound links to the sites listed there. So what information can be gleaned about competitors from this system?
>Step One: Enter the competitor's name as the initial search query. This results in a listing of all bookmarks to pages containing information about the competitor.
Simply scanning this list often reveals extremely popular sites that have mentioned one or more competitors. I, of course, want to be mentioned alongside my or my client's competitors, so I will visit these sites and see if there is an opportunity for a mention.
The sweetest part of del.icio.us (wow - typed it correctly that time) is that it shares "saved by 'x' other people" data. The higher the number, the more reputable the source and the more valuable the link.
The type of data available from del.icio.us, digg.com, Furl.net, Technorati.com, Flickr.com, StumbleUpon.com, and a host of other players can be very revealing, but it does require some dedication and time to unearth and interpret.
>Step Two: Mimic the competitor and go after some of those same viral links. These are great links because they are free and social. Users share them and pass them around, ultimately causing a spike in traffic. While the spike dies down quickly, traffic usually settles at a higher level than it was prior to the spike.
Link-buying is great and can work well in the short term, but social linking is the real deal. It's exactly what search engines want: It's real, it's natural, it's long-lasting, and it's authoritative. Just because it conforms to what search engines think is natural doesn't mean you can't own the system. It just takes a bit more thought and a few "friends."
Todd Friesen is director, search engine optimization, Range Online Media. (firstname.lastname@example.org)