Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Posted by willcritchlow
I've been hiding from my natural geekiness recently. My last few blog posts and my most recent presentations have all been about broad marketing ideas, things that play out well in the boardroom, and big picture "futur…

Posted by willcritchlow
I want to tell you a story about one of our favourite sessions – Let’s Get Real – where we have all our speakers on stage at once. In this post, I’m going to:

Highlight some of the incredible tips and tricks ou…

Posted by willcritchlow
This is a post of two halves. The first half runs through my thoughts on what makes for good metrics, while the second half focuses on a specific process for building appropriate reporting metrics for your individual situation….

Posted by willcritchlow

One of the things that excites me most about the development of the web is the growth in learning resources. When I went to college in 1998, it was exciting enough to be able to search journals, get access to thousands of dollars-worth of textbooks, and download open source software. These days, technologies like Khan Academy, iTunesU, Treehouse and Codecademy take that to another level.

I've been particularly excited by the possibilities for interactive learning we see coming out of places like Codecademy. It's obviously most suited to learning things that look like programming languages – where computers are naturally good at interpreting the "answer" – which got me thinking about what bits of online marketing look like that.

The kinds of things that computers are designed to interpret in our marketing world are:

  • Search queries – particularly those that look more like programming constructs than natural language queries such as [site:distilled.net -inurl:www]
  • The on-site part of setting up analytics – setting custom variables and events, adding virtual pageviews, modifying e-commerce tracking, and the like
  • Robots.txt syntax and rules
  • HTML constructs like links, meta page information, alt attributes, etc.
  • Skills like Excel formulae that many of us find a critical part of our day-to-day job

I've been gradually building out codecademy-style interactive learning environments for all of these things for DistilledU, our online training platform, but most of them are only available to paying members. I thought it would make a nice start to 2013 to pull one of these modules out from behind the paywall and give it away to the SEOmoz community. I picked the robots.txt one because our in-app feedback is showing that it's one of the ones from which people learned the most.

Also, despite years of experience, I discovered some things I didn't know as I wrote this module (particularly about precedence of different rules and the interaction of wildcards with explicit rules). I'm hoping that it'll be useful to many of you as well – beginners and experts alike.

Interactive guide to Robots.txt

Robots.txt is a plain-text file found in the root of a domain (e.g. www.example.com/robots.txt). It is a widely-acknowledged standard and allows webmasters to control all kinds of automated consumption of their site, not just by search engines.

In addition to reading about the protocol, robots.txt is one of the more accessible areas of SEO since you can access any site's robots.txt. Once you have completed this module, you will find value in making sure you understand the robots.txt files of some large sites (for example Google and Amazon).

For each of the following sections, modify the text in the textareas and see them go green when you get the right answer.

Basic Exclusion

The most common use-case for robots.txt is to block robots from accessing specific pages. The simplest version applies the rule to all robots with a line saying User-agent: *. Subsequent lines contain specific exclusions that work cumulatively, so the code below blocks robots from accessing /secret.html.

Add another rule to block access to /secret2.html in addition to /secret.html.

Exclude Directories

If you end an exclusion directive with a trailing slash ("/") such as Disallow: /private/ then everything within the directory is blocked.

Modify the exclusion rule below to block the folder called secret instead of the page secret.html.

Allow Specific Paths

In addition to disallowing specific paths, the robots.txt syntax allows for allowing specific paths. Note that allowing robot access is the default state, so if there are no rules in a file, all paths are allowed.

The primary use for the Allow: directive is to over-ride more general Disallow: directives. The precedence rule states that "the most specific rule based on the length of the [path] entry will trump the less specific (shorter) rule. The order of precedence for rules with wildcards is undefined.".

We will demonstrate this by modifying the exclusion of the /secret/ folder below with an Allow: rule allowing /secret/not-secret.html. Since this rule is longer, it will take precedence.

Restrict to Specific User Agents

All the directives we have worked with have applied equally to all robots. This is specified by the User-agent: * that begins our commands. By replacing the *, however, we can design rules that only apply to specific named robots.

Replace the * with googlebot in the example below to create a rule that applies only to Google's robot.

Add Multiple Blocks

It is possible to have multiple blocks of commands targeting different sets of robots. The robots.txt example below will allow googlebot to access all files except those in the /secret/ directory and will block all other robots from the whole site. Note that because there is a set of directives aimed explicitly at googlebot, googlebot will entirely ignore the directives aimed at all robots. This means you can't build up your exclusions from a base of common exclusions. If you want to target named robots, each block must specify all its own rules.

Add a second block of directives targeting all robots (User-agent: *) that blocks the whole site (Disallow: /). This will create a robots.txt file that blocks the whole site from all robots except googlebot which can crawl any page except those in the /secret/ folder.

Use More Specific User Agents

There are occasions when you wish to control the behavior of specific crawlers such as Google's Images crawler differently from the main googlebot. In order to enable this in robots.txt, these crawlers will choose to listen to the most specific user-agent string that applies to them. So, for example, if there is a block of instructions for googlebot and one for googlebot-images then the images crawler will obey the latter set of directives. If there is no specific set of instructions for googlebot-images (or any of the other specialist googlebots) they will obey the regular googlebot directives.

Note that a crawler will only ever obey one set of directives – there is no concept of cumulatively applying directives across groups.

Given the following robots.txt, googlebot-images will obey the googlebot directives (in other words will not crawl the /secret/ folder. Modify this so that the instructions for googlebot (and googlebot-news etc.) remain the same but googlebot-images has a specific set of directives meaning that it will not crawl the /secret/ folder or the /copyright/ folder:

Basic Wildcards

Trailing wildcards (designated with *) are ignored so Disallow: /private* is the same as Disallow: /private. Wildcards are useful however for matching multiple kinds of pages at once. The star character (*) matches 0 or more instances of any valid character (including /, ?, etc.).

For example, Disallow: news*.html blocks:

  • news.html
  • news1.html
  • news1234.html
  • newsy.html
  • news1234.html?id=1

But does not block:

  • newshtml note the lack of a "."
  • News.html matches are case sensitive
  • /directory/news.html

Modify the following pattern to block only pages ending .html in the blog directory instead of the whole blog directory:

Block Certain Parameters

One common use-case of wildcards is to block certain parameters. For example, one way of handling faceted navigation is to block combinations of 4 or more facets. One way to do this is to have your system add a parameter to all combinations of 4+ facets such as ?crawl=no. This would mean for example that the URL for 3 facets might be /facet1/facet2/facet3/ but that when a fourth is added, this becomes /facet1/facet2/facet3/facet4/?crawl=no.

The robots rule that blocks this should look for *crawl=no (not *?crawl=no because a query string of ?sort=asc&crawl=no would be valid).

Add a Disallow: rule to the robots.txt below to prevent any pages that contain crawl=no being crawled.

Match Whole Filenames

As we saw with folder exclusions (where a pattern like /private/ would match paths of files contained within that folder such as /private/privatefile.html), by default the patterns we specify in robots.txt are happy to match only a portion of the filename and allow anything to come afterwards even without explicit wildcards.

There are times when we want to be able to enforce a pattern matching an entire filename (with or without wildcards). For example, the following robots.txt looks like it prevents jpg files from being crawled but in fact would also prevent a file named explanation-of-.jpg.html from being crawled because that also matches the pattern.

If you want a pattern to match to the end of the filename then we should end it with a $ sign which signifies "line end". For example, modifying an exclusion from Disallow: /private.html to Disallow: /private.html$ would stop the pattern matching /private.html?sort=asc and hence allow that page to be crawled.

Modify the pattern below to exclude actual .jpg files (i.e. those that end with .jpg).

Add an XML Sitemap

The last line in many robots.txt files is a directive specifying the location of the site's XML sitemap. There are many good reasons for including a sitemap for your site and also for listing it in your robots.txt file. You can read more about XML sitemaps here.

You specify your sitemap's location using a directive of the form Sitemap: <path>.

Add a sitemap directive to the following robots.txt for a sitemap called my-sitemap.xml that can be found at http://www.distilled.net/my-sitemap.xml.

Add a Video Sitemap

In fact, you can add multiple XML sitemaps (each on their own line) using this syntax. Go ahead and modify the robots.txt below to also include a video sitemap called my-video-sitemap.xml that lives at /my-video-sitemap.xml.

What to do if you are stuck on any of these tests

Firstly, there is every chance that I've made a mistake with my JavaScript tests to fail to grade some correct solutions the right way. Sorry if that's the case – I'll try to fix them up if you let me know.

Whether you think you've got the answer right (but the box hasn't gone green) or you are stuck and haven't got a clue how to proceed, please just:

  1. Check the comments to see if anyone else has had the same issue; if not:
  2. Leave a comment saying which test you are trying to complete and what your best guess answer is

This will let me help you out as quickly as possible.

Obligatory disclaimers

Please don't use any of the robots.txt snippets above on your own site – they are illustrative only (and some would be a very bad idea). The idea of this post is to teach the general principles about how robots.txt files are interpreted rather than to explain the best ways of using them. For more of the latter, I recommend the following posts:

I hope that you've found something useful in these exercises whether you're a beginner or a pro. I look forward to hearing your feedback in the comments.

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Posted by willcritchlow

Has anyone else noticed that Rand’s presentations are getting better and better recently? Obviously he’s been a great presenter for a long time, but I’ve noticed him upping his game recently particularly in the quality of the decks themselves.

I obviously have a vested interest in watching how Rand does things. I am once again going head to head with him in Boston at our upcoming conference and again in Seattle at Mozcon in July. (Tickets are still available for both and you can read more at the end of this post about why I think you all should join us there!)

When we’re prepping for the conference, we do really detailed prep calls with all our speakers. This time around, I’ve found myself explaining how I want everyone’s decks to be a bit more like Rand’s. It occurred to me that this wasn’t particularly actionable and so I wanted to put together some of the things I’ve been trying to integrate into my own presentation style in the hope that it’ll serve as a good guide for others.

Of course, what’s missing from this list is any of the "behind the scenes" methodologies Rand uses to capture and refine ideas – hopefully he’ll drop some of those in the comments.

I decided to use one of his recent decks (social media marketing for SEO + links) as the example.

Without further ado, these are the things that make Rand’s presentations stand out to me:

1. No bullets. Ever.

This was one of the first things I incorporated into my own presentation style when I started presenting more frequently and needed to up my game. The advice is all over the place, but in the early days you find it incredibly tiring and frustrating to avoid bullet points. The way the software is designed to encourage bullets, coupled with the fact that practically every presentation you have ever seen is full of ‘em leads you to believe that it’s just "how powerpoint is done". Wrong. Ditch ‘em.

However (and this is a mistake I used to make a lot) don’t take this advice to mean that your slides shouldn’t be explanatory. The odd funny photo is great, but you shouldn’t just have a deck of beautiful pictures.

2. Lots of single focus slides

Rather than attempt to replace your complicated bullet-point slide with a single slide that captures the entire zen meaning you were trying to convey in those 200 words, consider using one slide per point. This could even be more than one slide per bullet.

When you come to present this deck, you’ll find it easy to flow with your deck rather than pausing and fighting it, because you’ll want to advance through the slides at talking pace. People read quicker than you can talk (and they can always check back with the deck later), so while you’ll want to slow down for the odd complicated slide, I firmly believe that you should trade fluidity and holding the audience’s attention for letting people read and absorb every detail of every slide.

3. A line of explanatory text

You want your deck to be readable and understandable later, when you aren’t presenting it. There is huge value to having attendees pore over your advice later and share the deck with co-workers and their boss before we even get onto all the peripheral benefits of online sharing. Re-reading some of my old decks, this is another one I’m guilty of ignoring. It’s all well and good making a slide with a massive picture of Matt Cutts (NBED this is my all-time favourite slide from any of my decks). But no-one who wasn’t there will have a clue what that means.

Rand has started partially solving this with a single "tweet-length" explanation of the slide at the bottom. On many screens, this isn’t even particularly obvious to the physical audience (who don’t need it because he’s presenting). But it is great for getting the message across to those returning to the deck later or following along from home. He supplements this with:

4. Call-out bubbles

The latest powerpoint makes it super-easy to add nice looking call-outs and Rand makes great use of this to highlight the interesting point on the slide. By removing the need to use a laser pointer (which doesn’t work for offline reading anyway) he frees himself up to talk naturally around the data or example without needing to call everyone’s attention explicitly to the key points. I think that when I’ve got this right, I’ve created some of my best slides – I strongly encourage you to try it on your next data-heavy slide.

5. Cute robot

Not everything in the deck is written in Rand’s voice. He has mildly schizophrenic conversations with himself and enables Roger to enhance points or say things he wouldn’t necessarily add. Not everyone has an automated mascot to deploy for this purpose, but I actually think it should be part of the plan for more companies. We have noticed how well it works on twitter, for example, to add a human (but non-specific) voice to the @seomoz account. We have felt that Roger enables multiple people to run that account in a much more natural way than we can with @distilled where (because there is no explicit persona) we often feel the need to say who is tweeting at any given time.

If you don’t have a cute mascot, you can always consider just having your deck challenge you. If you are a strong and natural presenter, it can work to have your deck "argue" with you and present the counter-argument to the points as you make them verbally. It takes care, you need to avoid confusion and you definitely need to consider those reading the deck later (see above) but it’s an advanced technique worth experimenting with.

6. Open and transparent

TAGFEE. The first letter stands for "Transparent". I think I can go so far as to say that Rand wouldn’t have reached the heights he’s reached without the transparency. He gives away the farm repeatedly. I don’t know how he can create so many high-quality decks and consistently find new things to share, but one thing’s for sure – I’ve seen exponential benefits to sharing more than I think I should. Every time I push it further, I get better ratings and good things happen as a result of those presentations.

We coach our guys at Distilled that their default position should be to share it. Occasionally we have to redact client data or something we have been told in confidence or under NDA, but generally, we find that we easily benefit more from the sharing than from keeping things under wraps.

7. Great examples

You shouldn’t go looking for examples as you are putting the deck together. I’m sure that, like me, you spend your life on the internet, but when it comes to remembering that one site, you draw a blank. Three tools that I think help (one of which I know Rand uses) are:

  1. Trunk.ly – indexing links you and your followers share on social media sites – this means you can easily go and find "that thing you were talking about the other day"
  2. Diigo – social bookmarking with private groups – lets you have a shared swipe file across an office for example. We are trying to get in the habit at Distilled of tagging cool stuff in our private group so that we can all find that great example of faceted navigation when we need it
  3. Evernote – cross-platform note-taking and clipping tool – my favourite tool for syncronising my search for interesting stuff across my phone and multiple computers. It’s so easy to grab something from any platform including voice and image notes that there is really no excuse…

8. Bright and colourful

Rand is lucky to have a natural eye for design so he can make his slides look both bright and engaging. If you don’t have these skills yourself, make sure that your template is designed by someone who does so that you can work within the constraints of something that looks great. I have found it much easier to create great designs within the context of a beautiful template even with the design skills of a distracted monkey. Modern presentation software has such great defaults and templating ability that if you have someone who knows what they are doing put together the base from which you work, you will find it almost impossible to create something ugly.

This is probably the area where I struggle the most so it’s also the one where I try to make notes of tips I come across. Some recent ones that have helped me a lot:

  • The "remove background" / "choose transparent colour" tool is your friend – particularly if you don’t have a white background on your slides. It means that you can make logos and charts appear properly embedded in your deck
  • The latest powerpoint can grab screenshots straight into your slides so you don’t need to go through the tedious two-step process any more

9. Full of diagrams

Much like great blog posts, great presentations require the creation of some new collateral. You can’t just expect to dump in a few stock images and screenshots – you’re going to have to create some new images. In some cases these may just be charts or graphs, but if you have the design chops, then graphics / illustrations / diagrams speak a thousand words and make it clear just how much effort you have put in for your audience.

10. Presented by a madman

Rand Fishkin presenting

Not strictly (or even slightly) a trick for making a great deck, but a big part of the appeal of a Fishkin presentation is the energy he brings to the stage. All of the tips above come together into a deck that he knows and trusts and so you will see him roaming the stage, gesticulating wildly and getting himself and the audience excited. This is one of the hardest parts to copy – but if you are struggling it’s one area where I would recommend doing something Rand doesn’t do: practice. Actually run through the whole thing a couple of times. When I presented in London last year and did an ignite-style auto-advancing slidedeck for 25 minutes, my first run through was so bad that my staff actually had their heads in their hands. It nearly killed me, but by the time I came to do it on stage I knew exactly when each transition was coming and what the next slide was. Don’t underestimate the power of both these kinds of madness…


Just in case you think this is all too much praise for Rand, I’d just like to remind y’all that I’m currently leading the head-to-head presentation competition 3-1 and so I’m not too deferential in person. One of the big reasons for writing all this was to get to know my enemy better before our big contests. 

Come and see it all in person: The conference we are running with the support of SEOmoz in Boston is in less than two weeks and is going to be amazing – I finished prep calls with speakers yesterday and every time I get off the phone I’m blown away by the ideas. It’s not too late so you should definitely find out more about why you should come with us to Boston here. Mozcon is a little further away but it sounds like it’s going to sell out, so you should definitely head west too.

Do you like this post? Yes No

Posted by willcritchlow

Has anyone else noticed that Rand’s presentations are getting better and better recently? Obviously he’s been a great presenter for a long time, but I’ve noticed him upping his game recently particularly in the quality of the decks themselves.

I obviously have a vested interest in watching how Rand does things. I am once again going head to head with him in Boston at our upcoming conference and again in Seattle at Mozcon in July. (Tickets are still available for both and you can read more at the end of this post about why I think you all should join us there!)

When we’re prepping for the conference, we do really detailed prep calls with all our speakers. This time around, I’ve found myself explaining how I want everyone’s decks to be a bit more like Rand’s. It occurred to me that this wasn’t particularly actionable and so I wanted to put together some of the things I’ve been trying to integrate into my own presentation style in the hope that it’ll serve as a good guide for others.

Of course, what’s missing from this list is any of the "behind the scenes" methodologies Rand uses to capture and refine ideas – hopefully he’ll drop some of those in the comments.

I decided to use one of his recent decks (social media marketing for SEO + links) as the example.

Without further ado, these are the things that make Rand’s presentations stand out to me:

1. No bullets. Ever.

This was one of the first things I incorporated into my own presentation style when I started presenting more frequently and needed to up my game. The advice is all over the place, but in the early days you find it incredibly tiring and frustrating to avoid bullet points. The way the software is designed to encourage bullets, coupled with the fact that practically every presentation you have ever seen is full of ‘em leads you to believe that it’s just "how powerpoint is done". Wrong. Ditch ‘em.

However (and this is a mistake I used to make a lot) don’t take this advice to mean that your slides shouldn’t be explanatory. The odd funny photo is great, but you shouldn’t just have a deck of beautiful pictures.

2. Lots of single focus slides

Rather than attempt to replace your complicated bullet-point slide with a single slide that captures the entire zen meaning you were trying to convey in those 200 words, consider using one slide per point. This could even be more than one slide per bullet.

When you come to present this deck, you’ll find it easy to flow with your deck rather than pausing and fighting it, because you’ll want to advance through the slides at talking pace. People read quicker than you can talk (and they can always check back with the deck later), so while you’ll want to slow down for the odd complicated slide, I firmly believe that you should trade fluidity and holding the audience’s attention for letting people read and absorb every detail of every slide.

3. A line of explanatory text

You want your deck to be readable and understandable later, when you aren’t presenting it. There is huge value to having attendees pore over your advice later and share the deck with co-workers and their boss before we even get onto all the peripheral benefits of online sharing. Re-reading some of my old decks, this is another one I’m guilty of ignoring. It’s all well and good making a slide with a massive picture of Matt Cutts (NBED this is my all-time favourite slide from any of my decks). But no-one who wasn’t there will have a clue what that means.

Rand has started partially solving this with a single "tweet-length" explanation of the slide at the bottom. On many screens, this isn’t even particularly obvious to the physical audience (who don’t need it because he’s presenting). But it is great for getting the message across to those returning to the deck later or following along from home. He supplements this with:

4. Call-out bubbles

The latest powerpoint makes it super-easy to add nice looking call-outs and Rand makes great use of this to highlight the interesting point on the slide. By removing the need to use a laser pointer (which doesn’t work for offline reading anyway) he frees himself up to talk naturally around the data or example without needing to call everyone’s attention explicitly to the key points. I think that when I’ve got this right, I’ve created some of my best slides – I strongly encourage you to try it on your next data-heavy slide.

5. Cute robot

Not everything in the deck is written in Rand’s voice. He has mildly schizophrenic conversations with himself and enables Roger to enhance points or say things he wouldn’t necessarily add. Not everyone has an automated mascot to deploy for this purpose, but I actually think it should be part of the plan for more companies. We have noticed how well it works on twitter, for example, to add a human (but non-specific) voice to the @seomoz account. We have felt that Roger enables multiple people to run that account in a much more natural way than we can with @distilled where (because there is no explicit persona) we often feel the need to say who is tweeting at any given time.

If you don’t have a cute mascot, you can always consider just having your deck challenge you. If you are a strong and natural presenter, it can work to have your deck "argue" with you and present the counter-argument to the points as you make them verbally. It takes care, you need to avoid confusion and you definitely need to consider those reading the deck later (see above) but it’s an advanced technique worth experimenting with.

6. Open and transparent

TAGFEE. The first letter stands for "Transparent". I think I can go so far as to say that Rand wouldn’t have reached the heights he’s reached without the transparency. He gives away the farm repeatedly. I don’t know how he can create so many high-quality decks and consistently find new things to share, but one thing’s for sure – I’ve seen exponential benefits to sharing more than I think I should. Every time I push it further, I get better ratings and good things happen as a result of those presentations.

We coach our guys at Distilled that their default position should be to share it. Occasionally we have to redact client data or something we have been told in confidence or under NDA, but generally, we find that we easily benefit more from the sharing than from keeping things under wraps.

7. Great examples

You shouldn’t go looking for examples as you are putting the deck together. I’m sure that, like me, you spend your life on the internet, but when it comes to remembering that one site, you draw a blank. Three tools that I think help (one of which I know Rand uses) are:

  1. Trunk.ly – indexing links you and your followers share on social media sites – this means you can easily go and find "that thing you were talking about the other day"
  2. Diigo – social bookmarking with private groups – lets you have a shared swipe file across an office for example. We are trying to get in the habit at Distilled of tagging cool stuff in our private group so that we can all find that great example of faceted navigation when we need it
  3. Evernote – cross-platform note-taking and clipping tool – my favourite tool for syncronising my search for interesting stuff across my phone and multiple computers. It’s so easy to grab something from any platform including voice and image notes that there is really no excuse…

8. Bright and colourful

Rand is lucky to have a natural eye for design so he can make his slides look both bright and engaging. If you don’t have these skills yourself, make sure that your template is designed by someone who does so that you can work within the constraints of something that looks great. I have found it much easier to create great designs within the context of a beautiful template even with the design skills of a distracted monkey. Modern presentation software has such great defaults and templating ability that if you have someone who knows what they are doing put together the base from which you work, you will find it almost impossible to create something ugly.

This is probably the area where I struggle the most so it’s also the one where I try to make notes of tips I come across. Some recent ones that have helped me a lot:

  • The "remove background" / "choose transparent colour" tool is your friend – particularly if you don’t have a white background on your slides. It means that you can make logos and charts appear properly embedded in your deck
  • The latest powerpoint can grab screenshots straight into your slides so you don’t need to go through the tedious two-step process any more

9. Full of diagrams

Much like great blog posts, great presentations require the creation of some new collateral. You can’t just expect to dump in a few stock images and screenshots – you’re going to have to create some new images. In some cases these may just be charts or graphs, but if you have the design chops, then graphics / illustrations / diagrams speak a thousand words and make it clear just how much effort you have put in for your audience.

10. Presented by a madman

Rand Fishkin presenting

Not strictly (or even slightly) a trick for making a great deck, but a big part of the appeal of a Fishkin presentation is the energy he brings to the stage. All of the tips above come together into a deck that he knows and trusts and so you will see him roaming the stage, gesticulating wildly and getting himself and the audience excited. This is one of the hardest parts to copy – but if you are struggling it’s one area where I would recommend doing something Rand doesn’t do: practice. Actually run through the whole thing a couple of times. When I presented in London last year and did an ignite-style auto-advancing slidedeck for 25 minutes, my first run through was so bad that my staff actually had their heads in their hands. It nearly killed me, but by the time I came to do it on stage I knew exactly when each transition was coming and what the next slide was. Don’t underestimate the power of both these kinds of madness…


Just in case you think this is all too much praise for Rand, I’d just like to remind y’all that I’m currently leading the head-to-head presentation competition 3-1 and so I’m not too deferential in person. One of the big reasons for writing all this was to get to know my enemy better before our big contests. 

Come and see it all in person: The conference we are running with the support of SEOmoz in Boston is in less than two weeks and is going to be amazing – I finished prep calls with speakers yesterday and every time I get off the phone I’m blown away by the ideas. It’s not too late so you should definitely find out more about why you should come with us to Boston here. Mozcon is a little further away but it sounds like it’s going to sell out, so you should definitely head west too.

Do you like this post? Yes No

Posted by willcritchlow

Has anyone else noticed that Rand’s presentations are getting better and better recently? Obviously he’s been a great presenter for a long time, but I’ve noticed him upping his game recently particularly in the quality of the decks themselves.

I obviously have a vested interest in watching how Rand does things. I am once again going head to head with him in Boston at our upcoming conference and again in Seattle at Mozcon in July. (Tickets are still available for both and you can read more at the end of this post about why I think you all should join us there!)

When we’re prepping for the conference, we do really detailed prep calls with all our speakers. This time around, I’ve found myself explaining how I want everyone’s decks to be a bit more like Rand’s. It occurred to me that this wasn’t particularly actionable and so I wanted to put together some of the things I’ve been trying to integrate into my own presentation style in the hope that it’ll serve as a good guide for others.

Of course, what’s missing from this list is any of the "behind the scenes" methodologies Rand uses to capture and refine ideas – hopefully he’ll drop some of those in the comments.

I decided to use one of his recent decks (social media marketing for SEO + links) as the example.

Without further ado, these are the things that make Rand’s presentations stand out to me:

1. No bullets. Ever.

This was one of the first things I incorporated into my own presentation style when I started presenting more frequently and needed to up my game. The advice is all over the place, but in the early days you find it incredibly tiring and frustrating to avoid bullet points. The way the software is designed to encourage bullets, coupled with the fact that practically every presentation you have ever seen is full of ‘em leads you to believe that it’s just "how powerpoint is done". Wrong. Ditch ‘em.

However (and this is a mistake I used to make a lot) don’t take this advice to mean that your slides shouldn’t be explanatory. The odd funny photo is great, but you shouldn’t just have a deck of beautiful pictures.

2. Lots of single focus slides

Rather than attempt to replace your complicated bullet-point slide with a single slide that captures the entire zen meaning you were trying to convey in those 200 words, consider using one slide per point. This could even be more than one slide per bullet.

When you come to present this deck, you’ll find it easy to flow with your deck rather than pausing and fighting it, because you’ll want to advance through the slides at talking pace. People read quicker than you can talk (and they can always check back with the deck later), so while you’ll want to slow down for the odd complicated slide, I firmly believe that you should trade fluidity and holding the audience’s attention for letting people read and absorb every detail of every slide.

3. A line of explanatory text

You want your deck to be readable and understandable later, when you aren’t presenting it. There is huge value to having attendees pore over your advice later and share the deck with co-workers and their boss before we even get onto all the peripheral benefits of online sharing. Re-reading some of my old decks, this is another one I’m guilty of ignoring. It’s all well and good making a slide with a massive picture of Matt Cutts (NBED this is my all-time favourite slide from any of my decks). But no-one who wasn’t there will have a clue what that means.

Rand has started partially solving this with a single "tweet-length" explanation of the slide at the bottom. On many screens, this isn’t even particularly obvious to the physical audience (who don’t need it because he’s presenting). But it is great for getting the message across to those returning to the deck later or following along from home. He supplements this with:

4. Call-out bubbles

The latest powerpoint makes it super-easy to add nice looking call-outs and Rand makes great use of this to highlight the interesting point on the slide. By removing the need to use a laser pointer (which doesn’t work for offline reading anyway) he frees himself up to talk naturally around the data or example without needing to call everyone’s attention explicitly to the key points. I think that when I’ve got this right, I’ve created some of my best slides – I strongly encourage you to try it on your next data-heavy slide.

5. Cute robot

Not everything in the deck is written in Rand’s voice. He has mildly schizophrenic conversations with himself and enables Roger to enhance points or say things he wouldn’t necessarily add. Not everyone has an automated mascot to deploy for this purpose, but I actually think it should be part of the plan for more companies. We have noticed how well it works on twitter, for example, to add a human (but non-specific) voice to the @seomoz account. We have felt that Roger enables multiple people to run that account in a much more natural way than we can with @distilled where (because there is no explicit persona) we often feel the need to say who is tweeting at any given time.

If you don’t have a cute mascot, you can always consider just having your deck challenge you. If you are a strong and natural presenter, it can work to have your deck "argue" with you and present the counter-argument to the points as you make them verbally. It takes care, you need to avoid confusion and you definitely need to consider those reading the deck later (see above) but it’s an advanced technique worth experimenting with.

6. Open and transparent

TAGFEE. The first letter stands for "Transparent". I think I can go so far as to say that Rand wouldn’t have reached the heights he’s reached without the transparency. He gives away the farm repeatedly. I don’t know how he can create so many high-quality decks and consistently find new things to share, but one thing’s for sure – I’ve seen exponential benefits to sharing more than I think I should. Every time I push it further, I get better ratings and good things happen as a result of those presentations.

We coach our guys at Distilled that their default position should be to share it. Occasionally we have to redact client data or something we have been told in confidence or under NDA, but generally, we find that we easily benefit more from the sharing than from keeping things under wraps.

7. Great examples

You shouldn’t go looking for examples as you are putting the deck together. I’m sure that, like me, you spend your life on the internet, but when it comes to remembering that one site, you draw a blank. Three tools that I think help (one of which I know Rand uses) are:

  1. Trunk.ly – indexing links you and your followers share on social media sites – this means you can easily go and find "that thing you were talking about the other day"
  2. Diigo – social bookmarking with private groups – lets you have a shared swipe file across an office for example. We are trying to get in the habit at Distilled of tagging cool stuff in our private group so that we can all find that great example of faceted navigation when we need it
  3. Evernote – cross-platform note-taking and clipping tool – my favourite tool for syncronising my search for interesting stuff across my phone and multiple computers. It’s so easy to grab something from any platform including voice and image notes that there is really no excuse…

8. Bright and colourful

Rand is lucky to have a natural eye for design so he can make his slides look both bright and engaging. If you don’t have these skills yourself, make sure that your template is designed by someone who does so that you can work within the constraints of something that looks great. I have found it much easier to create great designs within the context of a beautiful template even with the design skills of a distracted monkey. Modern presentation software has such great defaults and templating ability that if you have someone who knows what they are doing put together the base from which you work, you will find it almost impossible to create something ugly.

This is probably the area where I struggle the most so it’s also the one where I try to make notes of tips I come across. Some recent ones that have helped me a lot:

  • The "remove background" / "choose transparent colour" tool is your friend – particularly if you don’t have a white background on your slides. It means that you can make logos and charts appear properly embedded in your deck
  • The latest powerpoint can grab screenshots straight into your slides so you don’t need to go through the tedious two-step process any more

9. Full of diagrams

Much like great blog posts, great presentations require the creation of some new collateral. You can’t just expect to dump in a few stock images and screenshots – you’re going to have to create some new images. In some cases these may just be charts or graphs, but if you have the design chops, then graphics / illustrations / diagrams speak a thousand words and make it clear just how much effort you have put in for your audience.

10. Presented by a madman

Rand Fishkin presenting

Not strictly (or even slightly) a trick for making a great deck, but a big part of the appeal of a Fishkin presentation is the energy he brings to the stage. All of the tips above come together into a deck that he knows and trusts and so you will see him roaming the stage, gesticulating wildly and getting himself and the audience excited. This is one of the hardest parts to copy – but if you are struggling it’s one area where I would recommend doing something Rand doesn’t do: practice. Actually run through the whole thing a couple of times. When I presented in London last year and did an ignite-style auto-advancing slidedeck for 25 minutes, my first run through was so bad that my staff actually had their heads in their hands. It nearly killed me, but by the time I came to do it on stage I knew exactly when each transition was coming and what the next slide was. Don’t underestimate the power of both these kinds of madness…


Just in case you think this is all too much praise for Rand, I’d just like to remind y’all that I’m currently leading the head-to-head presentation competition 3-1 and so I’m not too deferential in person. One of the big reasons for writing all this was to get to know my enemy better before our big contests. 

Come and see it all in person: The conference we are running with the support of SEOmoz in Boston is in less than two weeks and is going to be amazing – I finished prep calls with speakers yesterday and every time I get off the phone I’m blown away by the ideas. It’s not too late so you should definitely find out more about why you should come with us to Boston here. Mozcon is a little further away but it sounds like it’s going to sell out, so you should definitely head west too.

Do you like this post? Yes No

Posted by willcritchlow

You might have seen some of the buzz about the recent #linklove events we ran with SEOmoz in London and New Orleans. These were single-day events focused purely on link building. In a little over a month’s time, we are running our first 2-day deep-dive expert conference stateside. I’ve spoken at a bunch of the mozcon events in Seattle, and we thought it was about time we brought the show to the east coast. Without further ado, I present Pro SEO Boston:

  • Where: Boston, MA – Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School
  • When: 16th / 17th May 2011
  • What: advanced SEO, actionable tips and new stuff you’ve never seen before
  • Who: the best speakers we could find, including Rand, Dharmesh, Seth Besmertnik, and many more
  • How much: only $799 with the SEOmoz PRO discount (grab a free trial if you aren’t a PRO member)
    • [Non-PRO member price: $949]

Tickets are available now – you can:

book here

Rand Fishkin

Yes, that is the appropriate response

We pour our heart and soul into these events and recent feedback suggests we’re going in the right direction. 92% of attendees of our recent London #linklove event said they’d attend again! Typical criticism of advanced events is that it’s really tough to get the level right – when we ran #linklove in New Orleans, 94% of attendees said the level was "just right" (vs. too advanced or too basic).

Since this is our first event on the East Coast, many potential attendees won’t have attended a Distilled / SEOmoz event before. If you need more convincing than I can give, I suggest you read a recap of our last event (#linklove in NOLA) from Tom Harari who said:

“The SES New York conference was being held at the same time as the Distilled seminar and I almost went to SES instead – man, am I glad I didn’t”


Sneak Preview

The first thing you should know is that Rand and I will once again be battling head to head. Previous battles have been quite "big picture" – so this time we’re taking it to the trenches to put together two competing SEO plans for specific sites. We’ll present them, you’ll decide whose is best, there will be only one victor. (Place your bets now – I’m currently ahead 3-1, but I’ve never won in the US and I believe Rand has been cheating by taking presentation classes…). We’ll also be presenting a regular session each:

  • Live data analysis: it may well be that in the long run, the only thing that separates search marketers from "traditional" marketers is our obsession with data. I will be presenting a session where I will show you in real time some of the skills you need to become the master of that data – from new sources, APIs and Excel wizardry up to hacking programs together to get you the information you need. I am increasingly of the opinion that every SEO should be comfortable with at least one scripting language / method. If you’re not automating, you’ll find it harder to be effective.
  • Blended and verticals: fewer and fewer searches are returning 10 regular blue links these days. Rand will be showing you how to win in a multi-vertical search world. Some sites live in areas where everything is vertical, others have upside opportunities from (for example) news or video. Whichever applies to you, Rand’ll be showing you how to rank.

Rand, Will and Tom

I’m a little scared of Rand’s presentation training

When programming our 2-day events, I focus on the things that I know advanced SEOs want to know; what would I be quizzing these guys about if I saw them in the bar? What does Tom need to learn about? What doesn’t Rand already know?

Out of all this brainstorming came a schedule that looks a little bit like the following:

  • Taming the panda: Google didn’t just change an algorithm – they changed the web:
    • How has the world changed with the recent Google updates?
    • How is it going to continue to change?
    • What should you be doing right now to win over the medium term?
    • Possibly the hardest question: if you’ve been negatively impacted, what can you do to recover? How permanent are the impacts likely to be?
    • Laura Lippay has had a unique perspective on the evolving landscape of search over the last few years as she’s moved from working in SEO at a search engine to consulting alongside ex-Googler Vanessa Fox to running her own show. If she can’t help work out the answers to this, no-one can.
  • Engineering links: how the geek shall inherit the earth:
    • A large proportion of the web’s links go to functionality that people find useful – engineers are the new link builders
    • How can developers create link worthy applications?
    • How do you build link-worthiness into your core product?
    • Is this really a good use of your time? How do you make sure that you get the right kind of business benefit from building popular products?
    • Dharmesh Shah is the only person I want to present this session – who else do you know who has those engineering chops alongside the ability to build businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars?
  • How not to fail at link bait: not everything works – learn from it:
    • How should you coordinate research, writing and design?
    • What tools and sources create the most link-worthy content?
    • What link bait fails and why?
    • Chris Bennett and his company are behind some of the most shared content on the web. It’s inspiring to hear his stories of success, but what about the stuff that went wrong? I’m going to be pushing Chris to share both details of his process (from brainstorm, to data, to wireframes, to finished designs) as well as notable failures along the way.
  • Social media: an engineer’s perspective: the new social skills:
    • Whether as a ranking factor or simply as a traffic / business driver, social media is becoming ever more important.
    • How do you architect your site to get liked, shared, clicked?
    • How do you measure social interactions through closed ecosystems?
    • Mat Clayton recently blew me away over coffee with some of the stories he shared about the growth he has driven for mixcloud.com . Is it possible the true social media guru is an engineer?
  • Effective link building: still necessary, still hard:
    • Tips and tricks from an effective link builder
    • What really makes a difference?
    • Channelling your “creativity” – everyone has evil ideas; how do you use them for awesome?
    • Justin Briggs has had remarkable success building links for his clients out of the Seattle Distilled office – I want to see his presentation to help carry some of the knowledge back across the pond to London HQ.
  • Information Architecture 2.0: if it can’t be crawled, it can’t be found:
    • How can you decentralise IA decisions to cope with rapid publishing and / or UGC?
    • What can smaller sites learn from enterprise?
    • How should you change your decisions as crawling gets ever faster?
    • What should be your top priorities when presented with a brand new site? What about when you are struggling to get change implemented?
    • Marshall Simmonds is behind some of the biggest site architectures on the web and has thought long and hard about the different difficulties facing legacy sites with inflexible CMS constraints and start-ups without the authority to support immense architectures
  • Forecasting, presenting and explaining SEO to management: you have to get the budget from somewhere:
    • What’s the right balance between detail and story?
    • How do you reconcile the things you need to say to win budget with describing progress month on month?
    • What metrics do management understand that actually correspond to real success?
    • Seth Besmertnik blew me away with his presentation in Seattle last year on taking SEO to the next level in the enterprise. Out of everyone I know, he has done more thinking on "managing managers" into understanding, investing in and rewarding SEO than anyone. Bring your notebooks to this one.
  • Keyword culture: whatever else changes, we’re still typing words into boxes:
    • What has changed in the world of keywords while you weren’t watching?
    • What are the best sources of data?
    • What’s the latest thinking on targeting keywords and implementing a keyword strategy?
    • Kate Morris has helped implement keyword cultures with in-house teams at some of the biggest brands in the world. With backing from Distilled’s resident data junkies, she’s going to change the way you think about keywords.
  • Moving the needle: if there’s no return, there’s no point:
    • How do you manage your investment across multiple channels?
    • How does the new GA functionality impact multi-channel marketers?
    • What lessons can this teach us for SEO? How should we allocate our time between activities?
    • How do you forecast in a world of uncertain results and outcomes? What does this mean for your planning?
    • If you’re working with big sites, manually tweaking every page might not be possible. What marketing activities have genuinely moved the needle for SEOmoz over the past 12-18 months?
    • Joanna Lord is not only one of the best and most energetic speakers I know, she’s also got a unique insight into cross-channel challenges in a hyper-competitive industry. She’s going to share key formulae and tools they use to manage this process at SEOmoz.
  • New technologies: the future has to be useful for something:
    • How can you create crawlable AJAX?
    • What does HTML5 mean for SEO?
    • What do you need to know about PUSH?
    • Rob Ousbey loves the future and he’s going to show us a bit of what it looks like. As one of our most experienced SEOs, Rob’s combination engineering / management degree sums him up perfectly – technology for business purposes. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Tom presenting

Tom’s presentations got better when he started wearing nice shirts

Bonus sessions:

  • Live site review / link building – it’s not a normal presentation, but it’s perennially popular. Watch the sparks fly as experts battle to be the first to find issues and opportunities live on stage.
  • Getting $hit done – the section of Tom’s presentation at #linklove NOLA on how to cause change and actually get things done was a surprise hit. Causing change is becoming one of the most powerful internal memes at Distilled and Tom’s going to share some of the lessons we’ve learnt and implemented in a short energiser session.
  • Give it up – best thing on the internet – we love the energy you get when you put all the speakers on stage at once. In Boston, we’re trying a new tack: aiming to inspire us all towards awesome. What are the ideas and implementations that these great minds have been most impressed by? I personally can’t wait to hear what they all come up with.

Our speakers

A bit more about the people who are coming to share their knowledge – I’m really exciting to be speaking alongside a bunch of old friends as well as some people I’ve been wanting to meet for a long time. I hope you’ll join us to learn from all these people used their skills to create success and awesomeness all around themselves:

  • Dharmesh Shah from Hubspot - I am in awe of Dharmesh’s ability to pilot an amazing growth story of a company, geek out and write code and have a family life all at the same time. I will definitely be picking his brains for tips. I can’t believe that after speaking online so frequently and with both Duncan and Tom having met Dharmesh, that Boston will be our first real life encounter. I, for one, can’t wait.
  • Seth Besmertnik from Conductor - another great East Coast entrepreneur. I first met Seth in Seattle back in 2007 and he has repeatedly inspired us to set the bar higher. No-one knows more about what steers big companies through the SEO maze than Seth. Whether you’re in-house or a consultant, Seth will help you bring the data that will convince management and clients of what you need.
  • Marshall Simmonds of Define Media Group - when we made the list of people who could talk authoritatively on the topic of large sites and complex architectures, Marshall’s name was right at the top. Our decision was absolutely not influenced by our shared love of whisky. Not even a little bit.
  • Laura Lippay of How’s Your Pony? (I know, really?) – I first saw Laura speak on her SEO forecasting process. I was blown away by both the effectiveness of her model and (probably more importantly) the explanation of the underlying assumptions in management-friendly terminology. It was immediately clear why she has been successful working with some of the biggest websites in the world. You might also have read her 8 step SEO strategy (if you haven’t, you should go read it now, I’ll wait….)
  • Chris Bennett of 97th Floor - I asked Chris to speak at #linklove in NOLA because I knew just how much of the internet was created by him and his company. If you haven’t seen him present, you are missing a serious trick. This time around, we’re asking him to reveal even more of the actual process behind the success. Last time he spoke, I immediately started sending notes back to our team. This time, we’re going to see even more of the magic.
  • Mat Clayton of Mixcloud - right now, you might not have heard of Mat, but I’ve heard some of what he has to say, and it’s quite possible that his is the session I’m looking forward to most. One of a team of 4 University of Cambridge graduates behind Mixcloud, Mat has been more successful than anyone I’ve come across at baking social sharing and mechanics into the core of his business. He has a self-deprecating way of saying he isn’t an SEO and doesn’t know much about it. But don’t believe his British reserve – he has the data to prove exactly how well his approach works and I think he might just add more value to some websites in the audience than the rest of us put together.

and… of course, from Distilled and SEOmoz:

  • Rand Fishkin and me going head to head in a competition to see who can bring a better, more actionable, more powerful strategy for some lucky sites in unloved niches
  • My brother, Tom Critchlow, who’s been appearing in Whiteboard Fridays and webinars all over the place recently. He’s been in-house at SEOmoz for a little bit now and so he’ll be combining his agency and client-side lessons into advanced tips
  • Others from the Distilled Seattle office: Kate Morris whose ability to combine marketing and technology is second-to-none, Justin Briggs who, in the short time he’s been with Distilled has been tearing it up with great blog posts and speaking engagements and Rob Ousbey who has done such a phenomenal job of running our West Coast outpost over the past year.
  • The bundle of energy that is Joanna Lord (from SEOmoz) is going to kick your ass if you don’t bring it. I’m already feeling pumped.

Rand at question time

Who let that guy ask questions?


The reminder information:

  • Where: Boston, MA – Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School (it’s at Harvard Medical School – how could you fail to learn?)
  • When: 16th / 17th May 2011
  • What: advanced SEO, actionable tips and new stuff you’ve never seen before
  • Who: the best speakers we could find, including Rand, Dharmesh, Seth Besmertnik, and many more
  • How much: only $799 with the SEOmoz PRO discount (grab a free trial if you aren’t a PRO member)
    • [Non-PRO member price: $949]
  • There is also a VIP dinner on the Sunday night before the conference. You’ll get 1-1 access to the speakers and a handful of other delegates – this costs $299 / person and is extremely limited - it will sell out quickly so don’t hesitate if you’d like to join us

book here

We have negotiated a discounted hotel rate for our delegates at The Holiday Inn Boston Brookline, just a short cab ride from the conference venue. The rate is $189 per night. In order to qualify for the discounted rate please call the reservation department directly on 617-277-1200 and quote ‘Distilled Delegates’

If you’re really lucky, you’ll even get to sing karaoke with the Distilled crew (or maybe that’s if you’re unlucky):

Distilled singing karaoke

No caption could do this justice

Pictures from #linklove London. Thanks to foliovision – you can see the full photoset here.

Do you like this post? Yes No

Posted by willcritchlow

You might have seen some of the buzz about the recent #linklove events we ran with SEOmoz in London and New Orleans. These were single-day events focused purely on link building. In a little over a month’s time, we are running our first 2-day deep-dive expert conference stateside. I’ve spoken at a bunch of the MozCon events in Seattle, and we thought it was about time we brought the show to the east coast. Without further ado, I present Pro SEO Boston:

  • Where: Boston, MA – Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School
  • When: 16th / 17th May 2011
  • What: advanced SEO, actionable tips and new stuff you’ve never seen before
  • Who: the best speakers we could find, including Rand, Dharmesh, Seth Besmertnik, and many more
  • How much: only $799 with the SEOmoz PRO discount (grab a free trial if you aren’t a PRO member)
    • [Non-PRO member price: $949]

Tickets are available now – you can:

book here

Rand Fishkin

Yes, that is the appropriate response

We pour our heart and soul into these events and recent feedback suggests we’re going in the right direction. 92% of attendees of our recent London #linklove event said they’d attend again! Typical criticism of advanced events is that it’s really tough to get the level right – when we ran #linklove in New Orleans, 94% of attendees said the level was "just right" (vs. too advanced or too basic).

Since this is our first event on the East Coast, many potential attendees won’t have attended a Distilled / SEOmoz event before. If you need more convincing than I can give, I suggest you read a recap of our last event (#linklove in NOLA) from Tom Harari who said:

“The SES New York conference was being held at the same time as the Distilled seminar and I almost went to SES instead – man, am I glad I didn’t”


Sneak Preview

The first thing you should know is that Rand and I will once again be battling head to head. Previous battles have been quite "big picture" – so this time we’re taking it to the trenches to put together two competing SEO plans for specific sites. We’ll present them, you’ll decide whose is best, there will be only one victor. (Place your bets now – I’m currently ahead 3-1, but I’ve never won in the US and I believe Rand has been cheating by taking presentation classes…). We’ll also be presenting a regular session each:

  • Live data analysis: it may well be that in the long run, the only thing that separates search marketers from "traditional" marketers is our obsession with data. I will be presenting a session where I will show you in real time some of the skills you need to become the master of that data – from new sources, APIs and Excel wizardry up to hacking programs together to get you the information you need. I am increasingly of the opinion that every SEO should be comfortable with at least one scripting language / method. If you’re not automating, you’ll find it harder to be effective.
  • Blended and verticals: fewer and fewer searches are returning 10 regular blue links these days. Rand will be showing you how to win in a multi-vertical search world. Some sites live in areas where everything is vertical, others have upside opportunities from (for example) news or video. Whichever applies to you, Rand’ll be showing you how to rank.

Rand, Will and Tom

I’m a little scared of Rand’s presentation training

When programming our 2-day events, I focus on the things that I know advanced SEOs want to know; what would I be quizzing these guys about if I saw them in the bar? What does Tom need to learn about? What doesn’t Rand already know?

Out of all this brainstorming came a schedule that looks a little bit like the following:

  • Taming the panda: Google didn’t just change an algorithm – they changed the web:
    • How has the world changed with the recent Google updates?
    • How is it going to continue to change?
    • What should you be doing right now to win over the medium term?
    • Possibly the hardest question: if you’ve been negatively impacted, what can you do to recover? How permanent are the impacts likely to be?
    • Laura Lippay has had a unique perspective on the evolving landscape of search over the last few years as she’s moved from working in SEO at a search engine to consulting alongside ex-Googler Vanessa Fox to running her own show. If she can’t help work out the answers to this, no-one can.
  • A Geek’s Guide To Crafting Code To Lure In Links: how the geek shall inherit the earth:
    • A large proportion of the web’s links go to functionality that people find useful – engineers are the new link builders
    • How can developers create link worthy applications?
    • How do you build link-worthiness into your core product?
    • Is this really a good use of your time? How do you make sure that you get the right kind of business benefit from building popular products?
    • Dharmesh Shah is the only person I want to present this session – who else do you know who has those engineering chops alongside the ability to build businesses worth hundreds of millions of dollars?
  • How not to fail at link bait: not everything works – learn from it:
    • How should you coordinate research, writing and design?
    • What tools and sources create the most link-worthy content?
    • What link bait fails and why?
    • Chris Bennett and his company are behind some of the most shared content on the web. It’s inspiring to hear his stories of success, but what about the stuff that went wrong? I’m going to be pushing Chris to share both details of his process (from brainstorm, to data, to wireframes, to finished designs) as well as notable failures along the way.
  • Social media: an engineer’s perspective: the new social skills:
    • Whether as a ranking factor or simply as a traffic / business driver, social media is becoming ever more important.
    • How do you architect your site to get liked, shared, clicked?
    • How do you measure social interactions through closed ecosystems?
    • Mat Clayton recently blew me away over coffee with some of the stories he shared about the growth he has driven for mixcloud.com . Is it possible the true social media guru is an engineer?
  • Effective link building: still necessary, still hard:
    • Tips and tricks from an effective link builder
    • What really makes a difference?
    • Channelling your “creativity” – everyone has evil ideas; how do you use them for awesome?
    • Justin Briggs has had remarkable success building links for his clients out of the Seattle Distilled office – I want to see his presentation to help carry some of the knowledge back across the pond to London HQ.
  • Information Architecture 2.0: if it can’t be crawled, it can’t be found:
    • How can you decentralise IA decisions to cope with rapid publishing and / or UGC?
    • What can smaller sites learn from enterprise?
    • How should you change your decisions as crawling gets ever faster?
    • What should be your top priorities when presented with a brand new site? What about when you are struggling to get change implemented?
    • Marshall Simmonds is behind some of the biggest site architectures on the web and has thought long and hard about the different difficulties facing legacy sites with inflexible CMS constraints and start-ups without the authority to support immense architectures
  • Forecasting, presenting and explaining SEO to management: you have to get the budget from somewhere:
    • What’s the right balance between detail and story?
    • How do you reconcile the things you need to say to win budget with describing progress month on month?
    • What metrics do management understand that actually correspond to real success?
    • Seth Besmertnik blew me away with his presentation in Seattle last year on taking SEO to the next level in the enterprise. Out of everyone I know, he has done more thinking on "managing managers" into understanding, investing in and rewarding SEO than anyone. Bring your notebooks to this one.
  • Keyword culture: whatever else changes, we’re still typing words into boxes:
    • What has changed in the world of keywords while you weren’t watching?
    • What are the best sources of data?
    • What’s the latest thinking on targeting keywords and implementing a keyword strategy?
    • Kate Morris has helped implement keyword cultures with in-house teams at some of the biggest brands in the world. With backing from Distilled’s resident data junkies, she’s going to change the way you think about keywords.
  • Moving the needle: if there’s no return, there’s no point:
    • How do you manage your investment across multiple channels?
    • How does the new GA functionality impact multi-channel marketers?
    • What lessons can this teach us for SEO? How should we allocate our time between activities?
    • How do you forecast in a world of uncertain results and outcomes? What does this mean for your planning?
    • If you’re working with big sites, manually tweaking every page might not be possible. What marketing activities have genuinely moved the needle for SEOmoz over the past 12-18 months?
    • Joanna Lord is not only one of the best and most energetic speakers I know, she’s also got a unique insight into cross-channel challenges in a hyper-competitive industry. She’s going to share key formulae and tools they use to manage this process at SEOmoz.
  • New technologies: the future has to be useful for something:
    • How can you create crawlable AJAX?
    • What does HTML5 mean for SEO?
    • What do you need to know about PUSH?
    • Rob Ousbey loves the future and he’s going to show us a bit of what it looks like. As one of our most experienced SEOs, Rob’s combination engineering / management degree sums him up perfectly – technology for business purposes. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Tom presenting

Tom’s presentations got better when he started wearing nice shirts

Bonus sessions:

  • Live site review / link building – it’s not a normal presentation, but it’s perennially popular. Watch the sparks fly as experts battle to be the first to find issues and opportunities live on stage.
  • Getting $hit done – the section of Tom’s presentation at #linklove NOLA on how to cause change and actually get things done was a surprise hit. Causing change is becoming one of the most powerful internal memes at Distilled and Tom’s going to share some of the lessons we’ve learnt and implemented in a short energiser session.
  • Give it up – best thing on the internet – we love the energy you get when you put all the speakers on stage at once. In Boston, we’re trying a new tack: aiming to inspire us all towards awesome. What are the ideas and implementations that these great minds have been most impressed by? I personally can’t wait to hear what they all come up with.

Our speakers

A bit more about the people who are coming to share their knowledge – I’m really exciting to be speaking alongside a bunch of old friends as well as some people I’ve been wanting to meet for a long time. I hope you’ll join us to learn from all these people used their skills to create success and awesomeness all around themselves:

  • Dharmesh Shah from Hubspot - I am in awe of Dharmesh’s ability to pilot an amazing growth story of a company, geek out and write code and have a family life all at the same time. I will definitely be picking his brains for tips. I can’t believe that after speaking online so frequently and with both Duncan and Tom having met Dharmesh, that Boston will be our first real life encounter. I, for one, can’t wait.
  • Seth Besmertnik from Conductor - another great East Coast entrepreneur. I first met Seth in Seattle back in 2007 and he has repeatedly inspired us to set the bar higher. No-one knows more about what steers big companies through the SEO maze than Seth. Whether you’re in-house or a consultant, Seth will help you bring the data that will convince management and clients of what you need.
  • Marshall Simmonds of Define Media Group - when we made the list of people who could talk authoritatively on the topic of large sites and complex architectures, Marshall’s name was right at the top. Our decision was absolutely not influenced by our shared love of whisky. Not even a little bit.
  • Laura Lippay of How’s Your Pony? (I know, really?) – I first saw Laura speak on her SEO forecasting process. I was blown away by both the effectiveness of her model and (probably more importantly) the explanation of the underlying assumptions in management-friendly terminology. It was immediately clear why she has been successful working with some of the biggest websites in the world. You might also have read her 8 step SEO strategy (if you haven’t, you should go read it now, I’ll wait….)
  • Chris Bennett of 97th Floor - I asked Chris to speak at #linklove in NOLA because I knew just how much of the internet was created by him and his company. If you haven’t seen him present, you are missing a serious trick. This time around, we’re asking him to reveal even more of the actual process behind the success. Last time he spoke, I immediately started sending notes back to our team. This time, we’re going to see even more of the magic.
  • Mat Clayton of Mixcloud - right now, you might not have heard of Mat, but I’ve heard some of what he has to say, and it’s quite possible that his is the session I’m looking forward to most. One of a team of 4 University of Cambridge graduates behind Mixcloud, Mat has been more successful than anyone I’ve come across at baking social sharing and mechanics into the core of his business. He has a self-deprecating way of saying he isn’t an SEO and doesn’t know much about it. But don’t believe his British reserve – he has the data to prove exactly how well his approach works and I think he might just add more value to some websites in the audience than the rest of us put together.

and… of course, from Distilled and SEOmoz:

  • Rand Fishkin and me going head to head in a competition to see who can bring a better, more actionable, more powerful strategy for some lucky sites in unloved niches
  • My brother, Tom Critchlow, who’s been appearing in Whiteboard Fridays and webinars all over the place recently. He’s been in-house at SEOmoz for a little bit now and so he’ll be combining his agency and client-side lessons into advanced tips
  • Others from the Distilled Seattle office: Kate Morris whose ability to combine marketing and technology is second-to-none, Justin Briggs who, in the short time he’s been with Distilled has been tearing it up with great blog posts and speaking engagements and Rob Ousbey who has done such a phenomenal job of running our West Coast outpost over the past year.
  • The bundle of energy that is Joanna Lord (from SEOmoz) is going to kick your ass if you don’t bring it. I’m already feeling pumped.

Rand at question time

Who let that guy ask questions?


The reminder information:

  • Where: Boston, MA – Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School (it’s at Harvard Medical School – how could you fail to learn?)
  • When: 16th / 17th May 2011
  • What: advanced SEO, actionable tips and new stuff you’ve never seen before
  • Who: the best speakers we could find, including Rand, Dharmesh, Seth Besmertnik, and many more
  • How much: only $799 with the SEOmoz PRO discount (grab a free trial if you aren’t a PRO member)
    • [Non-PRO member price: $949]
  • There is also a VIP dinner on the Sunday night before the conference. You’ll get 1-1 access to the speakers and a handful of other delegates – this costs $299 / person and is extremely limited - it will sell out quickly so don’t hesitate if you’d like to join us

book here

We have negotiated a discounted hotel rate for our delegates at The Holiday Inn Boston Brookline, just a short cab ride from the conference venue. The rate is $189 per night. In order to qualify for the discounted rate please call the reservation department directly on 617-277-1200 and quote ‘Distilled Delegates’

If you’re really lucky, you’ll even get to sing karaoke with the Distilled crew (or maybe that’s if you’re unlucky):

Distilled singing karaoke

No caption could do this justice

Pictures from #linklove London. Thanks to foliovision – you can see the full photoset here.

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Posted by willcritchlow

Over the next two weeks, I’m speaking at our Advanced Link Building conference in London (18th March) and New Orleans (25th March). We are down to the last few tickets for London but there is definitely still time to book tickets for New Orleans to see this amazing line up of speakers give it up. Remember that the free trial of SEOmoz PRO means that anyone can get tickets at the discounted price of $450 (down from $600).

The topic of my presentation is scaling white hat link building.

Although SEO is one of the "free" organic marketing channels, there is no doubt that competing with the biggest brands and most aggressive web marketers is not going to be free. In fact, it could be very expensive. I won’t be sharing ways to compete with the link buyers for free with no effort, but I will be sharing real strategies brands can use when they need to step it up a gear.

Today, I wanted to write about just one element of that presentation – partly to get my thoughts in order and partly to give something away to those who can’t make it in person. The bit I have chosen is an element that has been front of my mind at Distilled for a few months now – namely scalable content.

Journalism comparison

Scalable Content

If you haven’t already read the article Wired wrote about how Demand Media operates, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even (or perhaps especially) in light of the recent Panda / Farmer update, I think it is important to think about how you would operate if you had to do it at this scale. Even more importantly, we should all look for the lessons we can learn that will make us better.

Demand media wired article

It strikes me that there are three particularly notable aspects to the Demand process:

1. Cost

"it’s fast, cheap, and good enough(*)"

(*) Obviously, this was written before the recent Google update and was, in any case, debatable, but nonetheless, it’s clear that there are major efficiencies to be had versus the process many of us use to create content

2. Scale

"Demand will be publishing 1 million items a month, the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year."

This is interesting regardless of what you think of the quality – it’s an amazing feat and there has to be something we can learn.

3. Quality(**)

(**) for some definition of "quality"

"every algorithm-generated piece of content produced 4.9 times the revenue of the human-created ideas"

There are clearly things computers are better at than humans. One of these is mining data for patterns to see what is successful.

One of my long-running wishlist ideas is a database of great headlines – based largely on offline media categorised by their likely effectiveness. Have you ever stopped to look at the headlines on consumer magazines and compared them month over month? I feel like I should give credit for that tip – but I can’t remember where it came from – perhaps Todd’s suggestion of a headline "swipe file". Anyway, in a similar fashion to I’d love to be able to run something like:

select * from headlines where subject like "<topic>" and keyword like "<keyword>" and successful = 1

What’s this all got to do with link building?

While "links" are pretty easy to understand, "link building" is a phrase that actually covers many dozens of potential approaches and tactics. Across all these myriad different kinds of link building, the consistent themes are:

  • [WHAT] – a piece of content receives the link
  • [WHO] – someone places the link
  • [WHERE] – a piece of content contains the link

I would argue that there is not a single white hat link building technique that would not benefit from better content either in the what or the where. And for every link that is not the result of a very close relationship or exceptional piece of evergreen content / functionality, scaling will come from either creating greater volume of content on your own site or creating greater volumes of content to appear elsewhere.

I will leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to think about the various forms of "good" links that you could get more of if only you had a stream of great content.

Great content?

Well, while we are trying to learn from Demand Media, I’m not necessarily talking about emulating them. Especially if we are creating content for link building, the bar is a little higher.

My research shows that on average, a piece of Demand Media content gathers links at less than 10% of the rate of a piece of BBC or New York Times content. I’ll be sharing more of this research at the conference.

BBC news Neanderthal story

This story, for example has links from almost 4,000 unique domains…

So, we know we need to raise the bar, but the question is "how"?

I think this looks something like:

  • Using only great writers
  • Applying quality control at multiple stages of the process
  • Automating what you can
  • Filling the hopper intelligently based on what the linkerati really wants
  • Not being afraid to scale

I have been thinking about this not only to write my presentation, but also because we have been building out processes, systems and a network of writers to be able to scale this kind of service. The following breakdown is my opinion on some of the detail areas involved:

Using only great writers

We have some great writers on our team (in my opinion) but when we start talking about increasing scale, it doesn’t always come with full time employees. My mantra for this is that we want to be a model agency for writers when we are doing this kind of work. Whereas many of the writing services I’ve come across seem to be more like marketplaces, we want to behave more like a model agency. Model agencies don’t just take on anyone – there is a selection process to make sure they have the looks, attitude and skills to succeed. We don’t just want people who can string a sentence together; we want people who can make words sing.

This does affect the cost part of the equation. You simply can’t achieve this at the rates Demand are paying. By paying many times as much (as much as freelance journalist rates in many cases) we can create the selectivity and environment we are seeking. (Incidentally, if you think that sounds like you, of course we’d love to hear from you).

Quality control

A benefit of the "model agency" approach is that you can apply much of the quality control early in the process to the writer instead of the writing. Once you are confident in the skills of the writer, the quality control can become much more light touch. As high-profile journalists have proven, however, you can never give up quality control entirely. We think about three kinds of quality control

  1. Automated (see below)
  2. "Second opinion" from another writer
  3. Editorial review from dedicated editor or consultant (or occasionally, client)

Automation

Much of the automation we have layered onto this process is driven from third party APIs that make it easy to do relatively complex things. We already have a workflow, plagiarism checking and a degree of automation in Google Doc creation. We are planning:

  • The ability of qualified writers to select jobs they want
  • Google Doc sharing based off the workflow / approval process

And future automation might include:

  • Additional quality checks (spelling, reading level, etc.)
  • Headline suggestion / refinement tools for consultants
  • Resource suggestion for writers (useful links, a la Zemanta, images, videos etc.)
  • Better notification and alerting around the process and deadlines
  • Additional services such as transcription

Filling the hopper

At the moment, this is probably the least-thought-out part of our system. In contrast to the apparently almost-fully-automated Demand system, we are still at the stage of having our consultants (in conjunction with clients and writers) suggest and decide upon the specific content to be written.

I’d love to hear some creative ideas (and any tools that already exist) that could help speed us up or make us better here.

Scaling

As I started thinking about how you scale content, one of my first thoughts was to emulate the industries that have been scaling content for decades. News organisations have been refining the systems and processes needed to:

  • gather ideas from a diverse set of sources
  • write copy using both staff writers and freelancers
  • apply quality control
  • write compelling headlines

Particular lessons that I think we can learn from the masters include the following (my wife is a journalist and these are some of the things I’ve been most impressed by through her team):

  • It turns out that the people who are good at quality control are often good at writing headlines (they’re called copy editors or sub editors)
  • A small core team can manage a large volume of high quality output with a team of trusted freelance writers
  • The person writing the copy isn’t necessarily the same person that decides the topic or the same person who writes the headline (and nor are these two necessarily the same person either)

However, I do think there are some things that I think many journalists could learn from the geeks among us – mainly web apps:

  • Version control - one of the first things I built into our spec was the ability to see who had made which change to a draft and when. I was amazed to learn that this simple feature (present in such ubiquitous software as Word and Google Docs) is not standard on news desks. I’m sure some have it, but it’s common for plain text or untracked Word to be received from external writers and passed through the system until it hits the flatplan. At this point, many organisations take everything offline to work only in hardcopy.
  • Project management apps – for similar reasons, there is often no end-to-end system managing the process of where everything is in the system. One of the things I wanted our system to have was a simple way for all the interested parties to see the status of everything – to my mind, this includes:
    • Editor / owners being able to see all outstanding jobs
    • Writers having their own dashboard to see what they are working on
    • Consultants having project dashboards
    • Finance having reports on spend across the board and on specific projects

Do you have all this stuff?

The short answer is "no". My role is largely R&D these days and a lot of what I described above is still at either the R or D stages in Distilled, but it’s pretty much all in the pipeline and the early signs are that it is beneficial to our projects and our consultants. We’re putting $10k / month+ through the system so far and it’s holding up pretty well with relatively minimal management. Next step is to pare down the internal management requirement still further, but I’m pleased with how it’s going so far.


If you like exploring this kind of idea, there is more of this as well as plenty of tips and tricks to come at the link building conferences over the next couple of weeks. As I said above, London is pretty much sold out (so grab one of the last few tickets if you’d been planning to come) but there are some tickets remaining for New Orleans. We’re going to have a great time and I hope that if you can make it to the fun-filled South, we’ll see you there.

get your ticket now

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