Exactly a year ago today, you may have spotted the relaunch of HitTail… or you may have totally missed it - like I did. New CEO, Rob Walling's plan was to quietly relaunch his new acquisition with as little fanfare as possible. It was a Facebook ad for HitTail, saying SEO Is Dead, which got my attention at the beginning of this year. And, truthfully, to see the ad was like welcoming back an old friend.
That is because HitTail is one of my favorite keyword tools of all time.
Yes, I'd forgotten its name, but for most of 2012, I regularly thought to myself, "with what's happening with Panda, what people really need now is that longtail keyword tool developed by that PR company." Despite its almost ludicrous simplicity, HitTail has always done the one thing it does really well - namely, identifying the long tail keyword opportunities you should optimize content for.
HitTail was first launched in 2006. It was the brainchild of Connie Connors, the CEO of New York PR company, Connors Communication. Compared to the average SEO keyword research tools, HitTail never looked like anything special - but it always punched above it's weight, winning lots of coverage in mainstream media.
As said before, HitTail is a ludicrously simple tool. Anyone can make use of it with next to no SEO knowledge. As Cnet called it back then, in a time when blogs were still the hot new thing - it's "analytics for the rest of us."
Like many keyword and analytics companies founded at the time, HitTail had to contend with Google Analytics being made freely available to everyone who would have previously bought analytics. But HitTail was always a pretty low cost tool that was remarkably good at maintaining clients.
Around 2009 the software was starting to show it's age, suffering from downtime and bugs were creeping in. In 2010, Rob Walling, a HitTail customer of 5 years, emailed Connors and offered to buy the software. Connors agreed to an undisclosed sum and sold the software and the servers it sat on (remember in 2005 when we all had our own servers?) to Walling.
Walling is an interesting type of web entreprenuer. He has a team of developers and buys old software companies and refurbishes their products. He then runs the new product on as much as it needs to be profitable (This is not too dissimilar to what Jim Boykin is doing with Webmaster World and Threadwatch which relaunched yesterday). Walling calls this micropreneurship.
Setting to work, Walling's team cleared up the 28 or so bugs that had crept into the system, hired a database administrator and moved the entire software as a service (SaaS) to the cloud. All the keywords tracked have been maintained such that some clients now have a 5 year archive of keywords that sit outside of the Googleplex.
Relaunched exactly a year ago, via a quick post on Hacker News, Walling's new HitTail has suffered no downtime and the improved database means current customers have seen their keyword suggestions increase ten fold. Profits have also increased ten fold, meaning more resources can be re-invested to improve the product.
So far, whilst there has been no major functionality change to HitTail, under the new leadership, the software platform now has quick integration with Hubspot, may develop better AdWords integration and a Wordpress plugin will be released next week.
What Does It Do?
All HitTail does is track all your incoming keywords to your site, stack them against each other in a bar graph and then identify which are the best long tail opportunities for you personally. It's magic is in a simple algorithm which identifies the keywords you should write more about based on the keywords that are driving traffic to your site.
For example, if you blog about products for children, HitTail will suggest keywords that are coming to your site that still have room to grow. In the example below, HitTail suggests writing about "Towels for Children."
What You Write About Can Rank
Back then in 2006, for the average SEO, such an analysis could seem like a pursuit of diminishing returns. The labor required to produce the content was most likely not worth the traffic gains. Content production was a chore and most businesses were not open to it - they didn't get why content was important.
SEO was about gaining big traffic wins in a competitive environment, so we would turn to tools like WordTracker which was excellent at comparing traffic volume against competitiveness. But Wordtracker never had a simple solution for understanding the compeitiveness of the keyword phrases you were already attracting - which, in a nutshell, is exactly what HitTail does.
Speaking personally, as a freelance SEO, in a dead heat between the two tools, WordTracker would usually win my money, yet nonetheless, I still found myself paying for HitTail every now and then on their month to month plans for certain new clients.
That's because HitTail's data is eminently actionable. It's as actionable as panhandling for gold and finding a nugget. If you don't find that nugget, you move elsewhere, but if you do, boy oh boy, do you take action. Essentially HitTail automates the process of panhandling for potentially golden keyword phrases from all your incoming search query data.
What it lacks in robust analysis it makes up for in total clarity. The SEO tenet it is based on is so simple, so utterly uncomplex, that it took a PR person (someone who lives and breathes content) to boil it down for the rest of the industry.
Namely, "What you write about can rank." It's true! Regardless of algorithms, links and anchor text, this little fact of the internet elucidates the inalienable right of content creators on the web. Anyone can write about anything, and all of it can rank on search engines.
The question then remains: Now that you know you have that freedom, regardless of whether you will succeed or not, what do you want to rank for?
Every SEO Needs To Return To That One Simple Idea
SEOs can be forgiven for believing that HitTail's analysis is an over simplification - a philosophical stretch too far to be considered a robust SEO tool. It could fairly be dismissed as a better tool for Bloggers. Nonetheless, with boots firmly in the SEO camp, I beg to differ.
HitTail originated from blog land amongst a subset of web users who, from the beginning have been conceptualizing their own web marketing efforts in terms of relationships rather than links, and content rather than keywords. To bloggers, incoming search traffic has just been another channel to grow an audience and develop a more personal relationship with their readers. Bloggers don't write to rank on search engines, they write for people in order to grow their community - whatever search traffic they got was just a bonus.
PR professionals who get SEO are the same. They understand that search traffic is out there, but beyond search, the aim of PR is to make the message land on listening ears. Where SEOs see cumulative traffic stats, PR professionals see tiny niches of influencers that they can target.
That the way in which SEO and PR services are packaged up for clients is completely different, points to core methodological differences in our approaches to online marketing.
Yet, we're not so different as we think. Where SEOs need to be on a monthly retainer to do link development until rankings pay off, PR professionals need to be on a monthly retainer to do story development, until the big placement pays off.
SEO companies aim to get their client on the front page of Google and Bing, whilst PR companies aim to get their client on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
In the wake of Panda and Penguin, Google's message is clear. Links need to be won through a blend of cunning search strategy and equally cunning PR strategy. Google may have a war on links but it is certainly not a war on relationships. Google's radual socialization of search results is simply changing the link building model to one more of earned media (and arguably what is was always meant to be).
Yet that is not to say, SEO is now PR or vice versa. But both can learn from each other. As Ken McGaffin, former marketer for WordTracker so brilliantly states in 10 Reasons Why Public Relations is a ‘Must-do’ for SEO in 2013, there's a tremendous cascade effect on links as a result of good PR.
What PR knows is that one good article with the right placement (normally a publication) is the difference between getting picked up by the journalist community and going nowhere. What SEOs know is that good rankings on a few terms can bring even more good rankings for many more terms in the long run. Todd Malicoat has always put that ranking phenomenon best, "all ships rise with the tide."
So what if the placement of that one good article happens to be at the top of search results? That's the core idea HitTail sells the SEO community and that idea is fundamentally Panda proof.
HitTail enables bloggers, journalists and SEOs to find that one good keyword that has the best chance of getting that one good placement on the front page of Google. The rest flows from there. Hopefully your story will get picked up and linked to by higher order publications and you will have naturally improved your link profile.
Ultimately, We Earn Our Keywords
If you are an SEO, you'll know this better than most: that one top ranking for a long tail keyword is the crack that lets the light in. From the success of one phrase you can divine the current and future success of your entire SEO strategy. But Google's has spent a year taking our keywords away from us and burying it in webmaster tools.
All webmasters should consider that they have earned, fairly and squarely, the keyword data that sent traffic to your website. If Google is going to encrypt data and block tools - that are useful to the functioning of your business and critically important to understanding your customers - then it might be time to start thinking about how you can take that data out of Google as soon as you can.
Ultimately Google can touch and peek into every other apsect of web data, but it still can't touch your own website data or take that away from you. Regardless of the ethics of Google SPYWorld and encrypted referrers, every public piece of keyword data I have ever analyzed was fairly earned by the websites I own, manage, funded or created.
The Bottom Line
There's no doubt that I am gushing with enthusiasm for HitTail. By no means was it perfect back then, and in a Skype conversation, Walling candidly admitted to some imperfections now. For many users it will still be frustrating that related keyword suggestions are still not searchable. It's still an incredibly simplistic piece of software.
However, this refurbishment is a step in the right direction. With new resources and a profitable future ahead of it, Walling plans to develop the product according to what users ask for.
Whilst I already have a list as long as my arm for new feature requests, simply what HitTail's can do for me now is important enough. HitTail can take my keyword data out of the machinations of the Googleplex and put it back into my hands.
Similarly HitTail has preserved the keyword list their clients have earned for over 5 years now, therefore that tool seems like a good insurance plan to me against a keywordless future. From my discussions with Walling it seems clear to me that there could be an opportunity for customers to help formulate the direction of the service - and right now, post-Panda and post Google SPYWorld, the SEO community needs a new keyword tool.
For the record, my dream is that HitTail and Wordtracker team up and make babies.