Like many kids born in the early eighties, I grew up watching Bruce Lee movies. As a kid, I loved him for his fancy moves and general “badassery”. Growing up, I started to realize that the man was way more than “one-inch punches” and “two-finger pushups”. He was a philosopher and he taught us a way of thinking that can be applied to all aspects of our lives, including the way we do online marketing!
In this article, I’ll try to apply some of Bruce Lee’s teachings to the ever-changing world of online marketing and SEO in particular. The last two years have been rough for a lot of small businesses that relied on organic search traffic to generate revenue. The fact is, the game has changed and will likely continue to change. The websites that will survive and thrive are the ones that learn to adapt… Let’s go over a few of Bruce Lee’s most famous quotes and give them an ‘online marketing twist’: (pardon the quality of the videos, they were shot in the early 70ies!)
The Art of SEO’ing… without SEO’ing!
Bruce Lee’s famous quote, “The Art of Fighting Without Fighting“, totally represents what SEO has become since 2012. I often hear clients tell me: “I never did any SEO for this keyword and I’m ranking #3 for it, yet I spent so much time optimizing and building links for this other keyword and I’m nowhere to be found for it. Why is that?” I usually respond by saying “Congratulations! You successfully practised the art of SEO without SEO!” 🙂
Since the Penguin update, Google wants to make a strong point that it does not want to feel like you’re actively trying to influence its judgment, even a little bit. Repeating your keyword all over the place and having many external sites link to your page using that same keyword is a sure-fire way to get slapped with an over-optimization penalty and never rank for that keyword.
“The art of SEO without SEO” is a more subtle and less aggressive approach to search engine optimization. This way of approaching SEO helps you rank while staying under any potential over-optimization radar. Here are a few tips if you want to practice this form of kung fu on your website:
The obvious tip: write great content that provides value, covers your keyword and effectively answers your visitors’ query. You do not want your visitors to hit the infamous Back button! By great content I also mean a catchy title tag and meta description. High CTR and low bounce rates is what we want to achieve here!
Incorporate your keyword (or set of keywords) seamlessly within your content in the most natural way possible. Think human before robot, and don’t blatantly out your keywords to search engines! Sadly, I still see a lot of websites that have all their money keywords separated by commas or dashes in the title tag (Hello 2001!). Do not make this rookie mistake. Your title tag should be a short and clean phrase that integrates all of your targeted keywords while still making sense to the human reader. (e.g. instead of a title tag like “DUI Lawyer Houston, DUI Attorney Houston, DUI Law Firm Houston” which will certainly raise a red flag, you could go with a title like “John Smith Law Firm, Experienced DUI Lawyer & Attorney in Houston Texas“… the latter version not only looks clean and sounds better, but it will also generate a higher CTR in the SERPs.)
If you’re into high quality guest posting, make sure you ‘nofollow’ the links in some of your posts, especially those in the bio part. Excessive guest posting can be dangerous if done wrong. A nofollow link doesn’t pass link juice or PageRank, but it still has some value. After all, you should be aiming for traffic, not link juice.
Use branded anchor text almost exclusively when link building. You can use the occasional money keyword combined with the brand name if you really want to include your keywords. (e.g. “Joe’s blue widgets” instead of just “blue widgets”)
If you want to give the bot a nudge in the right direction, use smart internal linking. It is much safer to use keyword-rich anchor texts when internal linking than when external linking.
Build a strong social presence, especially on Google+. Take full advantage of G+ Authorship. Join and be active on relevant communities. Launch contests. Share useful content and focus on building a personal relationship with your fans/followers/friends. Search engines are watching you!
Honestly Expressing Yourself
As Bruce Lee says in the above video, it is very easy to “put on a show”, be cocky and do phony things, but to truly and honestly express yourself without lying to yourself… that is the real challenge! In another video, he reiterates the importance of honest self-expression and advises us to not go out there and simply duplicate a successful model.
Now, is your website and brand truly unique? Are you bringing something new and fresh to the industry? The Internet is full of duplicate business models and ‘me too’ type of businesses that compete in a very crowded space without adding any unique value. As we all know, quality content also gets duplicated quite often. If you have a successful and aged website, run it through Copyscape and you’ll most likely find a few content thieves.
As a business owner, your mission is to build a brand that stands out from the competition. In the long term, you want to achieve top-of-mind-awareness (TOMA) in your industry, which means that you come up first in your customers’ minds when they think of your industry. It’s hard to build brand awareness and achieve TOMA if you are just copying what others are doing. You need to add your own touch and bring an added value!
Honestly expressing yourself on the web also requires a unique and branded domain name. I still see many business owners choose their domain name based on what they think would work best for SEO. Back to my attorney example from earlier, it is a much strategy to go with a domain like “johnsmithlawfirm.com” than “dui-attorney-houston.com“. The latter not only looks spammy and lacks branding potential, but it will most likely perform very poorly in the SERPs now that Google has turned down the knobs on EMDs. Always choose the branded path!
“We Need Emotional Content”
When you wrote your website’s content, did you give it your best shot? Or did you just throw something together without any real venom behind it?
Ask yourself this: what type of content usually goes viral on the web? What type of content encourages the reader to take immediate action (read conversion)? Jonah A. Berger and Katherine A. Milkman, professors at the University of Pennsylvania, co-authored a research paper entitled “What Makes Content Go Viral“. You can download the paper from the Social Science Research Network. The takeaway from this study is that there is a strong relationship between emotion and virality. According to a deep study of the NY Times articles over, positive content is more likely to be shared that negative content. However, content that induces anger or anxiety is also very likely to be shared. I strongly encourage you to read the full study.
Bottomline is, if you know how to appeal to your readers’ emotions while effectively answering their search queries, you get:
Higher Conversions (Sales, Leads, Signups, etc…)
More Social Love (Likes, Shares, Tweets, +1s, etc…)
More Natural Inbound Links (Blogs, Forums, etc…)
What more can you ask for?
As Bruce Lee says: a style is a crystallization that is difficult to change. Being styleless is the true way of continuing growth. Bruce Lee was also quoted for this incredible quote that directly applies to the online marketing industry: “Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.”.
Since the SEO industry was born, it has been divided into styles: black hat, white hat, grey hat, blue hat, etc… and even within those styles, we have micro-styles… for instance, some white hatters swear by on-site optimization, others swear by link building. Some white hat link builders swear by guest posting, others swear by social media marketing. Everyone likes to believe that they have their own style of doing SEO. The problem is, no one knows how the algorithms really work. Google didn’t release a ‘SEO Handbook’ telling us a link from a PR5 guest post was worth 500 link juice points while a Google +1 was worth 100 points. What we know for sure is:
Providing great content is paramount. Quality content generates natural backlinks & social love.
Having an active social media presence is beneficial both in terms of generating additional web traffic and improving rankings.
Going against search engine guidelines (whether it’s on-site or off-site) is not an effective long-term strategy and will get you penalized one day or another, one way or another.
Based on the above points, many would say that white hat is the obvious way to go, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that anymore. Like many SEOs, I feel like the definition of white hat became very blurry throughout the years, especially when it comes to link building. For instance, is adding a branded footer link on all your clients’ websites (e.g. “designed by company-name”) linking back to your agency considered white hat? (After all, you’re just signing your creation just like a painter or sculptor would sign his). Is buying your keyword’s real estate on hundreds of Web 2.0 sites using a service like KnowEm white hat? Many legit brands and well-known agencies have been using these tactics, while others feel that it’s precisely this type of link building that will get you “penguined”. There are many other link building techniques out there that are hard to categorize because they are not exactly spam, but not a natural vote either.
I agree with Dr. Pete when he says that instead of defining your SEO strategy by whether it’s white hat, black hat or any other hat, define it in terms of value, risk and short term vs long term objective. (c.f. what value are you bringing? How much risk are you willing to take? Are you building for the long-term or are you the short-term churn-and-burn kind of guy?)
Dealing With Failure
This is probably my favorite quote from Bruce. Many of us (including some big brands) have been hit by one Google update or another at one point in the course our online marketing careers. The sad thing is, many website owners still don’t know how to deal with failure. Getting penalized scares people so much that they don’t even want to think about the “What if” scenario. Let’s get one thing clear, even if your SEO strategy is squeaky clean, there’s always a chance that one of your evil competitors might try a negative SEO attempt, so you should always have a plan in mind if that ever happens.
Not being prepared generally leads to poor decisions… from what I’ve seen by being active on various online marketing forums, many who got hit ended up giving up on their business, others have rebranded and started new sites without even trying to recover! (and without learning from their mistakes) What should happen if your website gets slapped with a penalty? Here is, in my opinion, the proper process of dealing with it:
Diagnosis: Why did I get hit? Is it an Algorithmic or manual penalty? (You can now view manual penalties on GWT)
Cleanup: Once the nature & cause of the penalty have been determined, proceed with strategic cleanup. Consider using Google’s Disavow tool. If done properly, it can help.
Review & Closing: double-check everything, make sure your website is squeaky clean and file a reconsideration request.
It will probably take a few weeks for your request to be reviewed. In the meantime, keep running your website as usual. Continue creating great content and being socially active, as if nothing ever happened.
There’s one big lesson to learn for all those that got hit by Penguin: if you are building a real business, you should NOT rely entirely on Google for traffic (that is a sign of a flawed business model if you ask me). Never put all your eggs in the same basket. After you file your re-consideration request, focus on getting traffic from other sources. Do some paid traffic, offline marketing, start a newsletter, get active in the social sphere. There are many sources of traffic out there you can leverage. Do some research to see where your audience is hanging out! Again, do NOT give Google the power of life or death over your business!
Your Strategy Should be ‘Like Water’
If you want to compete in the ever-changing world of online marketing, you need a strategy that is flexible at its core. “Nothing is softer or more flexible than water” said Lao Tzu.
What is a flexible web marketing strategy in 2013?
A strategy that lets you optimize your site for a large pool of keywords (think hundreds or even thousands!) instead of a specific set of 10, 20 or 30 keywords. (I worked with many clients that obsess over a handful of keywords, without realizing that many of their top clients are coming from complex long-tail variations that they never even even thought about!)
A strategy that doesn’t entirely depend on Google’s organic results. (Again, this is a tough one for many online businesses to swallow, but you have to diversify your traffic! Think social networking, email marketing, paid traffic, offline marketing, incentives, leveraging existing client base, banners, etc…)
A strategy that lets you easily incorporate new search engine components as they come in. (Shocking to see how many businesses have still not set up G+ Authorship and are therefore missing out on the increased “real estate” in the SERPs higher CTR potential)
A strategy that lets you easily adopt new social networks as they come in. (I see many photo-based businesses that are still ignoring Pinterest and Instagram, or simply unaware of their existence?)
A strategy that fully embraces mobile. (Alarming is the amount of websites with a non mobile-friendly or non-responsive website)
Also, remember that a flexible web marketing strategy requires a flexible website. Your website’s layout and structure shouldn’t be set in stone! If you have hired a programmer to develop a custom website, make sure you keep that programmer’s phone number, because you will definitely need him/her again! If you used a CMS like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal, make sure you have access to a developer that knows how to edit your site’s back-end and add/edit/update plugins and themes.
That’s it folks! There are many other quotes from Bruce that could apply to the world of internet marketing but I felt like the ones I brought up in this article were the best fit. Have any questions or feedback? Comment below!