Talking to an Aaron Wall
I’m sure most of you are as bored of my feud with Aaron Wall as I am so I’ll try to keep this relatively short. As with any of my opinions on this personal blog, my standard disclaimer applies.
For those of you who are new to the issue, yellow journalist, salesman of SEO training materials and apparently non-practicing SEO Aaron Wall and I have been arguing for over two years about his claim that brand “Dominate[s] Google’s Relevancy Algorithm”. It started during the Vince change, when Wall proposed this conspiracy theory, and unfortunately continued years after Matt Cutts publicly denied on YouTube that brand was any part of Google’s relevancy algorithm. In spite of this he continued wasting our time with this myth, releasing this wholly misguided infographic around Thanksgiving of last year.
I forgot how unreasonably and stubbornly he defends his theories even when they’re obviously inaccurate, so I made the mistake of gently disagreeing with him on the infographic. That led to me spending way too much time arguing with him on his blog/echo chamber about the many faults in his argument. When it truly seemed that I was talking to a Wall I offered to discuss it in a more impartial forum, or SMX West in San Jose. Danny Sullivan accepted my proposal, Aaron agreed to speak, and we both got ready for the show.
At the show Aaron presented the same old nonsense with the same quotes taken out of context and no clear evidence of Google’s alleged favoritism toward brands (let alone how brand dominates Google’s relevancy algorithm). I followed him and presented a lot of what I had already discussed with Aaron prior to the show, and what I had discussed in the session prep call that everyone attended but him. But additionally I did research on the top 100 brands and top organic traffic generating sites to see if I could detect a clear algorithmic bias. In fact, no such bias exists.
That’s also what most of the SMX audience concluded when they saw the presentations. After the panel, Danny Sullivan took a show of hands for audience members who believed there was a Google algorithmic brand bias and clearly more hands were raised who didn’t believe a brand bias exists.
This pissed off Aaron Wall, who is now grasping for credibility in his echo chamber, and doing his best to discredit me and my research with name-calling, red herrings and other juvenile stunts. Fortunately someone passed the link on to me, as I don’t subscribe to his SEO gossip rag.
I’m done talking with Aaron Wall. In my encounters with him he has shown himself to be either completely inept or intellectually dishonest, as he clings to his theories in spite of the evidence to the contrary. And the evidence is great. Though I’m no longer that interested in the issue and believe that small businesses would be better served by implementing rather than wasting their time complaining about an alleged Google brand bias, if you are still listening to the argument from authority over reason and taking Wall seriously on this issue here are my responses to his most recent claims. I doubt any amount of evidence will be enough to satisfy Wall or his most fanatical followers, but I try to teach my two young children to stand up for themselves if they’re bullied by someone, even if that person is louder and bigger than they are. I think I learned that lesson from Charlie Chaplin movies, Martin Luther King, and maybe to some extent ironically from an unknown Aaron Wall defending himself in court against a defamation suit from Traffic Power.
By the way, I addressed most of these issues on Twitter already, but he was apparently more interested in listening to himself.
- Wall is obsessed with telling people that I classified Wikipedia as a small business, trying to claim that my lack of judgment here is reason to suspect the truth of my conclusion. In fact, I used three classifiers of big brands and big business in my study. One was the definition of a small business according to the Small Business Administration. According to this definition, in general businesses with less than 500 employees are considered small businesses in the United States. So with 80 employees, Wikimedia Foundation, who owns Wikipedia, meets the Small Business Administration’s definition of a small business. They’re also not a big brand in terms of revenue, as the #500 company on the Fortune 500 had revenues 177x larger than them in 2011. At the end of the study I had classified the top Google organic traffic generating sites according to the Small Business Administration’s definition of a small business, and this gave me a percentage of large and small businesses by this definition. If you do not agree that large and small brands should be classified according to employee size, and/or do not agree with the Small Business Administration’s definition of a small business, I also classified the sites by revenue, using the Fortune 500 to see which percentage of the sites in the top 100 SEMRush list were in the F500. 61% are not. And finally I classified the sites according to what a brand equity firm determined were the top 100 global brands for 2011. If you consider yourself more of an authority on small businesses than the small business administration, and more of an authority on big business than the Fortune 500, I don’t know what to tell you.
- Wall is taking issue with the brands included in Interbrand’s top 100 global brands list, saying it’s suspect because it doesn’t include nonprofits like Wikimedia and questioning their methodology. What he’s never really argued against is that all of the brands listed in Interbrand’s research are top global brands. They may not be the only top global brands, and you can argue that they’re in the wrong order, but you can’t argue that Coca Cola, IBM, Microsoft, Google, GE, McDonald’s, Intel, Apple, Disney, HP, and the other 90 brands on the list are huge global brands. If, as Wall boldly stated, brands “dominate Google’s relevancy algorithm,” all of these obviously huge brands should be doing a lot better than they are right now in Google’s search results. For those of you paying attention, Conductor came to a similar conclusion back in 2009 after the Vince change, when they uncovered that the Fortune 500 is paying for keywords that they have no natural visibility on. The fact that he’s attacking a straw man with this methodology question rather than addressing the issue of how one of the biggest brands in the world, Coca Cola, does not rank first for terms that are obviously relevant to who they are, in spite of the fact that brands “dominate Google’s relevancy algorithm” is evidence that he can’t argue the issue at hand.
- Wall claims that Danny made the Ron Paul comment to demonstrate how obnoxious I was, but to me it seemed like a joke to lighten the mood of the conference, which a great emcee like Danny Sullivan is a master at doing. He also set up the session to be point-counterpoint for the first two presentations, which Wall would have known had he bothered to attend the session call or read the session emails from Danny. He also had access to my presentation on Basecamp weeks in advance, so if he wanted to review it prior to the session he would have been able to do so easily. If he was blindsided he has only his own lack of preparation to blame.
- I did not say that because brands are inefficient and slow moving that it makes sense for search engines to compensate for that. What I said was that even if there was an algorithmic brand bias at Google, it wouldn’t matter to large brands for whom natural search and SEO are not always a priority and who suffer as a result. It’s a shame that Wall feels that he has to put words in my mouth in order to win an argument.
- Wall said “He also put out a painfully fluffy “white paper” / sales letter which stated that since Wal-Mart has a page about SEO they should outrank seobook on “SEO” related queries if my theories of brand bias are correct. That misses the point entirely. I never stated that garbage content on branded sites always outperforms quality content on niche sites, but rather that a lot of smaller websites were intentionally being squeezed out of the ecosystem. Sure some small sites manage to compete, but the odds of them succeeding today are much lower than they were 3 or 4 years ago.” Actually what he said was brands “dominate Google’s relevancy algorithm,” as the subtitle of his infographic with evil sounding quotes from Google leadership taken out of context to make it seem as though brand is more important to Google than relevance. If this were the case, Wal-mart’s garbage content would rank because brand is the biggest factor in determining relevance to Google. But this isn’t the case at all. It’s not just some small sites that manage to compete. A lot of them do. Furthermore he’s coming to that conclusion about change in the market without producing a shred of non-anecdotal evidence that there has been any kind of change. Look, everyone knows that Panda hit a lot of mom and pops, but that doesn’t mean that Google is squeezing out small businesses for big brands. Big brands were also hit by Panda (About.com, eHow.com, etc.), and as I’ve demonstrated plenty of small businesses, non-F500s and brands other than those 100 named by Interbrand as being top global brands of 2011 are outranking and getting more organic traffic than huge global corporations with well-known, trusted brands. This can only mean that brand does not dominate Google’s relevancy algorithm, and that something else is helping these smaller sites and smaller brands to outrank their well-funded behemoth competitors.
- Wall seems to believe that I’m doing this not to get at the truth of the matter, but to get new clients. While we do love new clients and I think that many of Wall’s clients could do better, we’re also a top search agency having a record year and turning away clients who don’t meet our monthly minimums. This role of me as a salesman was invented by Wall to discredit me. In fact, I’m just tired of listening to him go on and on about this nonsense when he’s obviously wrong, and since no one else was calling him out for this lunatic theory that’s not based in reality I took the lead. Honestly many of our large brand clients come in through our Omnicom sister agencies and not through conferences. If we gain new business as a result of the conference I obviously won’t complain, but the idea was not to speak for business development, but to uncover the truth that no one at that point was brave enough to say.
- Wall has painted me as the corporate shill brand advocate SEO consultant, which works for his position. However, it doesn’t jive with reality. Those who know me and have worked with me understand that in my ten year SEO career and 12 years in online marketing I’ve worked with large brands, small brands and no-name mom and pops to help them make their content visible and relevant to search engines. In the presentation I didn’t act as an apologist for brands, as Wall wants to believe, but as an advocate for relevance, in spite of brand. His characterization of me as a brand shill and lies about my alleged claims that Google should compensate for large brands’ inefficiencies in search results, suggests that he really wasn’t listening to what I was saying because he had made up his mind about me prior to the show.
- Wall is fond of pissing contests and has called me out for not being a real SEO. Not sure what this means exactly as I’ve been a full-time SEO longer than Wall has and have seen success for clients large and small, including no name brands and Fortune 10s alike. I lead a team of 25 SEOs in three offices in the US and collaborate with Resolution Media offices globally. Historically I’ve been too focused on doing SEO work to promote myself as much as Wall does, but surely not being as well known in the SEO community doesn’t make me any less authentic. I’ve lived and breathed SEO every day of my life for the past ten plus years, which is more than even Rand Fishkin or Aaron Wall can say. Wall took issue with a case study I presented to demonstrate that small businesses can generate traffic from organic search, saying that the amount of traffic was ultimately negligible; but I presented the case study to show rapid growth over six months for a small business without a known brand, not to demonstrate the volume that I can bring as an SEO. Furthermore, my one case study used to demonstrate a lack of Google bias against small brands, even if the volume was unimpressive to some, was more than Wall produced. The man is a blogger who writes about Google conspiracies and spammy tactics, and the only site he seems to optimize is his own.
- Wall closes with an uninspired rant about brand SEOs, and how he “like(s) to share the trends in the ecosystem as they are, rather than as a hack warping [his] view to try to pick up consulting clients.” This may be because he tried SEO consulting for mid-size and large businesses back in 2006 and apparently failed. Might explain some of his ire toward big brands.
- I know when you’re an SEO it can help to be inspired by SEOs, and that’s why many in our industry rely on argument from authority in choosing who to believe. But as I said at the show, sometimes you need to look beyond someone’s reputation and think critically about what they’re saying. This is one of those cases. Aaron Wall may have said some intelligent things at some point in the past to get him the following that he enjoys today, but as SEOs we should demand that he keep saying intelligent things in order to retain his reputation as a trusted source. In this case, he’s clearly wrong, and someone has to stand up and say it.
But now that I have I’m afraid I’ve wasted enough of my time. Good luck to Aaron Wall and those of his followers who believe on faith that brand dominates Google’s relevancy algorithm, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. For those of you who have seen the light, make sure to read the white paper (PDF) and view the presentation for tips on what this lack of a Google brand bias means for your business.