Want to rank on Google for ‘logo design’ or related keywords? Due to shady tactics of some of the front runners, your odds are long. That doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck. How using a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ philosophy, we can all improve our site rankings.
SEO abuse of the logo design niche in most search engines has been a pet peeve for years now. Alas, Google and other search engines appear to be fighting a losing battle when it comes to enforcing their own webmaster guidelines, something that’s not terribly surprising, especially when we consider what they’re up against. With the cost of launching a website dropping every week, and the competition of all keyword niches heating up everywhere, it’s an overwhelming tide as websites tussel for a bit of the search engine ranking pie. Or, as is the case with some firms, all the search engine ranking pie. With the publication of several recent articles on major design blogs – David Airey‘s The folly of logo design SEO and Duane Kinsey‘s Google doesn’t understand professional logo design – seems a lot of designers are starting to notice that all is not right in search engine land. And they’re right. It isn’t. Probably time we had an in-depth look at what’s what, but I have to warn you that the following is long, grueling and in places, a little dry. It might be worth a read though, if you’re sincere in your desire to market design on the internet. Ready? Let’s get started…
It’s all about the link love
Used to be that a large chunk of any rankings success came from on page optimization. Title, description and keyword Meta tags under the hood. Combined with any way possible to stuff a keyword onto a page. ALT tags, hidden footer text. No longer. Those will get your site penalized by search engines, if not booted out of the index entirely. And while page titles and description tags are still important to ranking any website page, most of the search engines ignore the ‘keywords’ tag entirely. I only add keywords to a page for our site search field, not for any SEO performance. And rather than stuffing the phrase logo design into a post or article with merry abandon, I now edit a lot of instances out. See, even though I try to write naturally, just like the search engines tell me to, I use the phrase a lot because that’s what I’m generally blathering on about. And even though I could have used the phrase logo design about six times in those past couple of sentences, I didn’t. The point of the matter is that most SEO optimization now takes place off page. On other websites that link to your site. That’s viewed by search engines as a ‘vote of confidence‘ and factored highly into where your page shows up for your relevant keyword search. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but outlining that is a book not a blog post).
Anchor text is where it’s at
The other part of that equation is what’s known as ‘anchor text‘ – the text used in the actual link. Concise and to the point is the key. If someone links to an article on your blog about ‘fish ponds’, using the anchor text ‘fish ponds’, then Google will see your page as being pretty relevant to the search phrase ‘fish ponds’. Add to this topical page title and description tags and you’ll probably show up when someone is searching for ‘fish ponds’. Have a lot of people linking to your page using those criteria and you’ll show up pretty high on Google, Yahoo! and Bing. It’s pretty basic, yet completely logical stuff. How important are inbound or back links? Well, according to a 2009 SEO Expert survey, “keyword focused anchor text from external links” is the single most important factor when it comes to search engine rankings.
“I’ve often said that there’s more than enough business for designers to go around. It’s only when folks decide to ‘own’ a certain market, do the SEO shenanigans begin. Anyone that knows about James Bond’s baddie organization SPECTRE will realize that whenever global domination becomes the goal, ethics go out the window.”
‘Do follow’ and ‘No follow’
Should come as no surprise then that this is also where most of the shady SEO tactics are employed, as people find more creative and arguably devious ways to get a whole bunch of links pointing to this site or that. Before blogs came along, it used to be guest books that were the tactic of choice. As blogs increased in popularity, comment sections became the fave target of link spammers, and something which any blog publisher still combats on a daily basis, even though the advent of ‘no follow’ relationship (rel) tags back in 2005 neutered most of the SEO benefits. The ‘no follow‘ tag tells search engine spiders not to follow the link or transfer any page rank to the target page, and while there’s some evidence that its success isn’t 100%, its obvious that a ‘do follow‘ link is far more valuable than a ‘no follow’ one (‘no follow’ and ‘do follow’ links will become more relevant to our discussion in a bit). Google has recently taken a grim view of paid links and reviews, expecting them to be gussied up with ‘no follow’ links, though most folks aren’t bothering (that would negate the benefit of selling links and reviews in the first place). Alas, this is impossible to police, and Google has resorted to paid link snitch forms, though with the volume of one competitor ratting out another, such efforts have remained uneffective. Not just Google either. The FTC, seeing how paid links and reviews end up skewing supposedly unbiased reviews, are now demanding that bloggers reveal that they’re getting paid for such tenuous endorsements. That probably won’t work either. And if anything, such tactics are going to increase, not decline.
The wars rage on
Marketing design services, particularly anything specializing in logos, has become an increasingly cut-throat business. There’s not much the people behind logo design sites won’t do to increase their position in search engines through gaming this link love formula. Nothing. We’ve seen the rise of splogs (that’s worth a read for the update). There isn’t a day goes by when some designer sees their latest work lifted and placed on another site, either by blog content scraping or logo raiding, both practices whose sole function is to artificially inflate a target site’s ranking in search results. Our blog went into exhaustive detail how some top performing logo sites are doing it, referring to logo wars almost two years ago. If anything, these search engine wars have heated up. Unfortunately, many designers think that it’s a matter of setting up a pretty WordPress blog, writing some great copy around some great logo examples and the world will be beating a path to your virtual door. Alas, it’s not that easy. Used to be. But it ain’t any more. There’s one hundred and seventy eight million reasons why.
Logo designers on Google
Take a look at the top ten results of Google when you type in the words logo and design into a search bar. Three are owned by HP and their design division Logo Works. Two are owned by Guru Corporation, the company behind Logo Design Guru (#3) and Logoblog.org (#7). Just ten spots and half of them are owned by two companies. Let’s go to page two. Two of those spots are owned by the same company (who also own dozens of the top 100 spots, disguising them as USA based sites, while the actual company can be found in Karachi, Pakistan). One is owned by the same company who owns two on the first page. And so on. Getting the picture? There ain’t much room in the top 50 spots for your new logo design site, let alone on the first page. Running a similar exercise for the main related keywords – corporate logos, business logos, et al – will yield similar results and will often serve up companies that dominate a multitude of keyword combinations. All good for them, I suppose. Big business. The trouble is there’s no way to dominate search engine categories without employing grey and black hat techniques. That, unfortunately, is how it is.
How ‘they’ do it
Many of the top ten sites ranking for ‘logo design’ on Google do so by setting up massive numbers of inbound links to their sites, through tactics that range from White Hat (cool in Google’s eye), Grey Hat (so-so) to completely and utterly Black Hat (not so much). I know pretty well how many of the top sites rank well. I know exactly how one does. The first thing is that their website URL contains the relevant words. That’s a big help because every single page of their website contains the desired keyword combination. They also own a mess of other sites, the ownership of which is hidden to various degrees, often to sock-puppet company levels, which are optimized for relevant, related, and high demand keyword combinations. Business logos. Corporate logos. Company logos. You get the idea. At various locations throughout those sites, there are links, usually with the appropriate anchor text, pointing at the target site. That’s the beginning of a network that Google’s algorithm interprets as a series of ‘votes‘ appearing like a lot of related websites are vouching for one particular website. For each of these sites, there’s a set of support splogs and websites, often hosted on sites like WordPress or Blogger. Those sites toss inbound links at both the secondary level of the network as well as the target site. For what it’s worth, and other than content scraping and logo raiding for content, we’re still probably in Grey Hat territory.
As an added ‘lift’ this company also parks dozens and dozens of themed articles, optimized with keywords, on free article sites, social media sites and just about anywhere else they can drop a link (though some free article sites are now using ‘no follow’ tags to get around being flagged by Google as a spam haven). Most of content for those articles has been scraped and re-purposed from other blogs, but in SEO tactics, still basic stuff. Where this company really shines in the Black Hat territory is through a free stats counter, offered through their parent company, that features a hidden, embedded link in either the counter image or as a text link underneath. That represents thousands of one-way inbound links, pointing at various sites in the network, upping their PR, which is then passed downwards towards the main site. While it’s probably Black Hat as hell, the target site is a regular feature of the top ten results for logo design on Google, and has moved up several spots in the last few weeks. Unfortunately, and despite Google’s protestations to the contrary, this stuff works.
If it works, can’t we do it too?
No. As much as it may irk anyone who’s either been squeezed out of the rankings, or can’t get any in the first place, nobody can really blame the sites ranking well. Nothing illustrates success better than success itself and as these sites are succeeding in gaming the SEO system, or coming pretty close, then it certainly behooves them to do so. If there’s a way to exploit a system, any system, many will take it once you factor in human nature, free market and basic greed. So, why shouldn’t you employ similar tactic? The first reason, a pragmatic one, is that you probably can’t afford the time. Or the money. Most of these sites employ people outside North America – many are actually located in South East Asia – and the cost of hiring a bunch of copy writers, bloggers and Twitter sock puppets is a fraction of what it would be in Europe and North America. It also explains why a lot of the articles on these sites don’t make a lot of sense, as they’ve been edited from one language to another, using content scraped from other sources. The second involves the sheer number of sites. Most Black Hat SEO for the organizations we’ve been discussing takes place far away from their main, flagship sites, which are kept as ‘pristine’ as possible. The other domains in their network are ‘throwaway’. Ever wonder why some of these companies created a multitude of similar websites, all with identical offerings and functions, but with different branding and skins? Now you know. This is also one of the reasons that many of these sock puppet sites can make outrageous promises and sales pitches that they never intend to keep. They don’t give a shit about the online reputation of their sock puppet business names, caring only about the rep of their flagship sites. And even then, some resort to bogus logo design review sites to carefully control that reputation too.
Google webmaster guidelines
Here’s the main hitch though. These sites aren’t supposed to be engaging in such tactics. That’s not me on a holier that thou soapbox either. It’s what services like Google tell us are against their webmaster guidelines. Supposedly, if one engages in such tactics there are severe consequences – penalties and even delisting for more egregious Black Hat efforts. Is it worth the risk? If you’ve got dozens, or hundreds of sites, perhaps. If you’ve got one or two, not so much. Here’s been my personal rule of thumb regarding our websites. As a bit of a Bad Luck Schleprock, I have a hunch that the minute I delved into the black hat bag of tricks, my domain would be nuked instantly. I’d be held up by big ‘G’ as the poster boy for Black Hat SEO in the logo design niche. I’m not willing to risk having our site removed from the search engine indexes, a death knell for any online logo design studio like mine. Alas, these other outfits seem to be able to get away with it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on our chances. If that weren’t enough to deter me, I’m also am stuck with a ‘fairness’ switch that I can’t seem to turn off. A bit naive perhaps, but I’m stuck with it. Like you, I’ve been waiting for things to level up a bit, and I’ve been waiting a long time. I don’t think that wait’s going to end anytime soon either. Not all is lost though. I used the phrase in the subtitle upstairs, but I’ll use it again here. “A rising tide lifts all boats“. We’ll discuss that in more depth in a bit. You should also know that getting to be top ten for ‘logo design’ isn’t as big deal as you might think.
Is getting a top 10 Google spot the only way?
No. It’s not. There’s only ten top spots on a Google front page for ANY keyword search. That’s it. If you’re #1 cool (though most searchers also click on spots two & three). After that, the number of clicks and visitors starts to drop off dramatically. Logically, if the top three spots on Google were the only positions that were worthwhile, there would only be three companies, in any category, doing any business on the internet. Or if it’s the top ten, it would stand to reason that there’d only be ten healthy corporations in any given internet niche. Obviously, that’s not the case. Take a look at this chart grabbed from Alexa, a site traffic monitoring site, yesterday. Our site, The Logo Factory, is the blue squiggly line.
Our site positively sucks when it comes to ranking for an exact “logo + design” keyword search. Last time I looked (and I don’t look often), we were hovering around the top of page six, bottom of page five. If getting on the first page of Google for that set of keywords was the key to our existence, we’d have closed our doors a long time ago, shortly after we slid off the front page around 2005. But take a look at our traffic, at least as judged by Alexa (above). We manage to hold our own, and often beat the traffic levels of some of the sites on page one. Having a site in the high, to mid 30,000 range is a pretty decent achievement for a small shop like ours, and we did it while languishing in the depths of a logo design keyword search. How? Long tail keyword searches. See, a lot of people do search for logo design. But a helluva lot search for related phrases too. Logo design studio is one example, and we’re number 6 for that. A lot of niche searches too, restaurant logos, is one. Logo design tips is another. I write a lot of content, on our blog and our site proper, about a wide variety of topics, some specific to design, others not so much. All of the traffic from those pages adds up to more overall traffic than we’d get if we did rank on the first page of Google. I gave up keyword stuffing and SEO focused writing years ago (I got tired of the same blather as everyone else in the game) and found that (hopefully) quality, original content ranked much better than keyword soaked nonsense that nobody wanted to read. I was happier. I’m sure readers were happier. And at the end of the day (hopefully) it makes for a better experience for everybody. Oh sure, I still optimize our pages for the topic at hand, but usually it has something to do with more than the two keywords that everyone else is battling for. Have it at hoss. It’s a waste of my time, and yours, angsting over a front page placement for two keywords, when there’s thousands of combinations that are much easier to obtain rankings for. Should point out that even long tailed searches involve inbound link love using the concept we discussed earlier. With social media replacing a lot of blog activity and natural inter-site linking, where can we get links to our site? Twitter and Facebook, right? Not really.
Twitter & Facebook are groovy. But not for SEO
Whenever we finish writing a blog post or article, we’re in a rush to announce it via our Twitter accounts. We’ve got some auto-ack plugin that shoots out a message to our account shortly after a new blog is published (though I’ve never been able to figure out the seemingly random times it does so). That’s a pretty cool way to get ‘fast traffic’ and your Twitter followers will follow the link, read the piece, and then Re-Tweet it to their followers. That’s what it’s all about. But how good is Twitter for SEO? Not very I’m afraid. Firstly, most of us use URL shortening services like Bit.ly and TinyUrl.com. And that’s where the link love would be headed. If our Twitter pages were passing any link love, which they ain’t. All the external links from your Twitter account are tagged as ‘no follow’ links. Other than direct traffic, a link from Twitter won’t improve your search engine rankings at all. In the big picture stuff, this is a good thing, as sites that have ‘do follow’ links are abused without mercy by spammers and Twitter wouldn’t be half as cool as it is now. In the ‘how do I get rankings for my site‘ small picture stuff, and while Google occasionally publishes related feeds as part of their search results, any long-term SEO benefits from Twitter and Facebook are minimal.
Blog commenting is for conversation
Used to be that comments (and guest books before blogs) were great for SEO link love. Like most things that can be abused by spammers, they were, and most modern blog comments feature ‘no follow’ tags on name and comment fields (though by the number of automated comment spams and keyword soaked ‘name’ fields that are still submitted to any blog, you wouldn’t know it). See, comment fields were never meant to be an SEO tool, they were designed for, well, commenting. Taking part in whatever discussion, debate or full-fledged flame war that the post above them managed to generate. That’s not to say you shouldn’t comment on your favorite blog’s latest entry. You should. It’s what makes blogs fun and relevant. Any SEO benefits are marginal, but you will get traffic to your site if you offer up engaging opinions, and people click on your website link to find out more about you. Which is why automated comment spam like “I like your site. I have book marked if for future reference” and a link to a pharmaceutical site are completely and utterly pointless. If they got past the Akismet filters in the first place. With the ‘no follow’ tag, no SEO benefit. With the dopey vagueness of the comment, no-one’s likely to want more information. No clicky on the linky. There are some blogs around that advertise that their comment section features ‘do follow’ links, but these are few and far between. We experimented with ‘do follow’ comments on our blog for a bit, but shut it down el pronto when comment spammers found out. And told all their friends. Sadly, there are people who’ll ruin everything for everybody, and when it comes to SEO, that’s the rule, rather than the exception.
Sharing is where it’s at
Someone recently asked me this “why do you link to your competition on your blog?” And it’s true, I’ve never been shy about linking to any site using (in most circumstances) ‘do follow’ links. My answer is simple and threefold. One, I don’t give a crap about sharing a little link love with anyone, even people who are my competitors. If I’m mentioning them, often in critical ways, I feel I ‘owe’ them the link. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter to me, and if I can use a link to prove a point, or to give credit, I will do so. Second, and more importantly, it makes the internet what it is. The triple Ws at the beginning of any web address stand for ‘World Wide Web‘. Think of a spider’s web, and how the infrastructure is built. My site is part of that web and so, by the way, is yours. Thirdly, I don’t want to write every day how wonderful The Logo Factory studio is. Or how great our work is. That’s boring for readers. It also happens to be boring for me. If I find something that’s on another site that I find interesting, regardless of how tangentially it relates to logo design, there’s a very good chance I’ll write about it. Quote it. And link to it. Lest you think I’m being completely altruistic, or singing some internet version of Kumbaya, let me assure you I’m not. See, if I happen to crank out something you dig, I’d hope you’d do the same for me. Which helps us both. From an SEO point of view, we’re doing the same things as the guys we mentioned above, organically, with different related sites, and enjoying the same SEO benefits as they do on their network. Without all the subterfuge and shadiness. Isolating your blog or site, in order to capture any business that might stumble in is ultimately penny wise, and pound foolish. Is promoting your competition, and they promoting you, a wise idea? Why, yes it is.
Competition is nothing to be afraid of
I’ve often said that there’s more than enough business for designers to go around. And I stick to that basic premise. It’s only when folks decide to ‘own’ a certain market, do the SEO shenanigans begin. Anyone that knows about James Bond‘s baddie organization SPECTRE will realize that whenever global domination becomes the goal, ethics go out the window. This isn’t isolated to logo and design categories. Take a look at other niches – travel, legal, gambling and yes, even porn – and you’ll see the same kind of stuff. When dealing with a largely unregulated marketplace, which the Internet HAS to be, we have to deal with the lowest common denominators. It’s one of those sad, but true, facts of life. What people can do, as opposed to what they should do. So what should designers do? Link up our bloody sites, that’s what. But what about linking to your supposed ‘competition’ and losing clients? That, my friend, is a load of bollocks. See, I’ve always been of the opinion that if I lose a client, or some business, simply by featuring a link to another site on mine, then I haven’t made a very good pitch about our design services in the first place. Not only that, and in practical terms, most blog roll links, indeed most links throughout a blog, don’t really send a lot of people away from your site. I monitored my offsite clicks for about a month before realizing that. And if you’re still scared about losing a gig, open the window in a new tab. See, here’s the thing. Having the option to leave to a related site offers a whole lot more credibility than trying to trap site visitors like rats. In any case, say you do lose the occasional client (and that’s highly unlikely), you’ll probably make it up with someone hitting your site via a link from another site. Ebb and flow. Yin and Yang. I like how Graham Smith, a UK based freelance logo designer, explained his linking to The Logo Factory site:
“Some have said to me why would I send traffic, potential clients Steve’s’ way. Surely I am encouraging potential clients to go elsewhere. There may be an element of truth to this, but it’s all about choice at the end of the day. We all have our own styles, our own unique selling points, our own way of doing business. We are much more unique then just being lumped into the ‘logo design’ tag. My style is far different to Logo Factory, our prices are different, our approach is different. I have confidence in my own work to not worry about the odd client finding another designer. If they are happier working with someone else, for whatever reason, then so be it. What goes round comes round.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Shouldn’t have to point out that this page illustrates this concept very nicely. Now, I may lose some clients who click on the link to Graham’s I’m Just Creatve web site, but ditto on the “so be it“. As the chap says “what goes around, comes around” and let’s leave global domination to outfits like Logoworks, Logo Design Guru and SPECTRE.
A little bit of cooperation goes a long way
Not that this simple concept pans out in execution. Over the years I’ve had an open invitation for designers, companies and yes, even our competitors to send us their press releases. And over those years, I can count the number of people who’ve done so on my right hand. No idea why, other than the ‘competitor’ factor we talked about last paragraph. Here’s the thing to keep in mind. I have a logo design blog, one of the sections is industry news. I need content. When it comes to scouring the internet for content, I have to invest hours of time that I’d prefer not to spend. If you’ve got a worthy blog post that I might dig, or some news about your work, it saves me time if you send it in. If it’s newsworthy, I’ll publish it. With a link to your site. If you’ve written a great blog post that you feel all designers should read, hit me up with a link. I’d love to give it a mention. I’m only a a contact form or Twitter DM away. Naturally, I’d like the same from you. Not that I’ve been terribly persistent in my own sharing activities. I haven’t. I took a look at our blog roll the other day. Pathetic. Only features five links, when it should feature dozens. Or more. Over all the years I’ve been curating this blog, I’ve only had two people ask to be included. Despite telling people on numerous occasions that we’re open to exchanging some traffic. Funny thing is, I’ve never asked anyone either. Bad Steve. No donut. Seems I forget the rising tides concept myself. Anyway, here’s the takeaway for you and me both, of this 4,827 word diatribe. Designers shouldn’t be afraid to link to each other, creating an organic ‘network’ of sharing and caring sites. Because as we discussed earlier, that’s how many of the top 50 cats are doing it.
Except for the organic bit.
Here’s a little something to keep in mind. There’s some evidence that Google is suspicious of site-wide links to other sites, that is, your link on every single page of a website. If you run a WordPress installation there’s a plug-in that allows you to keep Blog Roll links as ‘do follow’ on your home page, while turning the subsequent page blog rolls into the ‘no follow’ variety. Only one link is active, so you’re sending link love, but there’s no suggestion that your blog is a link farm, while the majority of your blog pages aren’t leaking PR all over the place. We use it here. Also, this article has ruffled a few feathers with another logo design company who decided to ‘strike back’ against it. You can read about that little skirmish here.