Blogs are increasingly popular, and can have a dramatic effect on search engine positioning. How can you best take advantage of this new search marketing channel?
A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 2-5, 2004, San Jose, CA.
This session explored how search engines are dealing with blogs and Web feed (RSS/Atom) content, and how providing such syndicated content can drive new search-related traffic.
Blogs and RSS feeds
One of the most exciting aspects of blogging systems is that they have made it possible for many people to easily publish content to the Web without knowing HTML or web design.
"With blogs and RSS feeds, content is updated in real time," said Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo "And people who want to get the updated information can get them. It is changing the way that people get their information from search engines; it is aggregating information. Since feeds are machine readable, there is no guessing game with constructing pages. The machine-readable nature makes this very precise and easy to work with. The technical challenge involved in getting into the RSS feed wasn't anywhere near the challenge that HTML was, and still is in many respects."
Not surprisingly, it is the abundance of this seemingly "trivial" information that makes blogs so compelling. Blogs have become increasingly popular to audiences because they offer a variety of new information sources on a multitude of very specific topics. "There are 4.1 million different blogs. That number is expected to grow to 10.3 million by the end of this year," said Amanda Watlington of Searching for Profit. The majority of blog readers are 25-50 years old, and they visit blogs because they provide news that isn't readily available elsewhere.
In many other mediums, overly apparent writer's biases are seen as a negative, but they tend to a drawing point with blogs. The great diversity of the blogging community is its biggest strength.
"Consumers are interested in tons of data, but they don't want to constantly have to go back to each one and see if they've been updated," said Mark Fletcher, CEO of Bloglines. "The focus is to make it as easy to use and as fully integrated as possible."
Many blogs also feature a talk back feature that allows visitors to add their own comments to the blog posts. Being able to lend their own opinions to the general discussion tends to increase the visitor's feeling of community and loyalty to the blog site.
Simple Syndication of blogs has shifted the choice of visible content over to site visitors. By using RSS feeds, blogs give visitors the ability to use blog aggregators such as Topix.net, Bloglines, Yahoo's blog aggregator or a desktop tool such as FeedDemon to view regular updates of their favorite blogs.
"From the search point of view, you can go to Yahoo and type your search term and find the results there," said Zawodny. "The site represented by those results has an RSS feed which you can subscribe to and read on an ongoing basis. So you're getting a real-time preview of what the information will look like on MyYahoo. It's a very easy process and you don't have to look for it again. You simply subscribe to MyYahoo and you can read the stories."
By removing the need to visit a specific web site regularly, blogs have increased their traffic. Most importantly, unlike email newsletters, the power to subscribe and unsubscribe lies solely with the visitor, rather than a service that may--or may not--unsubscribe you from an email subscription when you request it.
Many online services including Blogger, Bloglines, TypePad, Radio Userland and LiveJournal allow people to create their own content from easily understood content management systems. For the more technically minded who want the blog directly integrated into their site, a multitude of other options exist including coding the blog system from scratch.
Blogs and search engine marketers
The inherent search engine friendly nature of blogs is what gets the attention of search engine marketers. Since blogs are so easy to publish, they tend to contain lots of fresh, keyword rich text. Since many blogs are rendered as static HTML pages in very standards compliant designs, all of this information is readily available to the search engine spiders.
Why should search engine marketers care about blogs? "Because they have a different relationship between the user and the content," said Watlington. "If you think about pages sitting in an index, you are waiting for the search engine to come and query your data. On the other hand, because of the feed's relationship, the user is right there getting the data almost as fast as you create it."
"It is an active relationship (blog) vs. a passive relationship," she continued. "Blogs provide faster access (to data) to an informed and interested audience."
"I don't believe that the search engines like blogs, per se," said Scott Rafer, President and CEO at Feedster. "The guys at Google are driven ape by them; they hate the feeds. Google bought Blogger, and they took off all of the feeds the day they bought. Every single blog has the profile of what a link spammer used to have. There are suddenly a couple million active blogs out there, and Google is completely overwhelmed by it."
"Spiders from the next generation of search engines will only grab machine-readable pages," Rafer continued. "What we do at Feedster is capture pages very precisely. We always now the time of the story, the author, where it was published, the type of software used to produce the blog, etc. Our turnaround is very precise. So if you want to do SEM around a specific week's events, you can do that kind of thing with us."
Feedster takes in 800,000 feeds 1-6 times per day. They plan to add keyword ads in those feeds. "So if you want to target people who care enough to subscribe to that, you can nail those people specifically and get them once an hour," said Rafer.
"RSS changes the way marketers do business," said Chris Tolles of Topix.net. "They can get fresh, relevant data. Feeds seem to be a way of doing better, personalized content management that is machine-readable. For us, it allows an aggregator and categorizer to get things together more easily."
"From the standpoint of an audience, why does this matter?" asked Tolles. "An individual content management system starts to create a market around it. These new platforms to create and read RSS content create news, which create services on top of that (like us). And the service market/component on top of this, we feel is going to be pretty big."
To blog or not to blog
So how does a site owner decide if a blog is a viable marketing tool? At first glance, people see blogs as a great way to increase traffic and get their message out to the masses, but the decision isn't as easy as it appears. Adding a blog to your site as a simple way to add information regularly is perfectly acceptable, but you should be certain that you will continue to update your site regularly before your commit to syndicating it.
Blogs can be an excellent addition to any web site as long as you follow some simple rules:
- Decide on your target audience
- Provide them with information they want and need
- Use SEO friendly HTML
- Commit to keeping the content fresh
"For publishers, it has been difficult to build, sustain and track users through blogs," said Fletcher. "How many people are reading my blog, my feed? It is a very difficult problem."
Fletcher said that another problem is that desktop blog readers or news aggregators send out requests for new content every half hour our so. This can lead to a huge increase of traffic on your web site, even though no new content has been published.
RSS: Your Gateway to News & Blog Content
Loving Each Other More: Search Engines and Blogs
Mike Rende is the Director of Information Systems at Grantastic Designs, a full-service search engine marketing, web and graphic design firm.