What does a drunken SEO bet look like? In the case of my buddy Keith Greene and I, the wager that wafted forth from the alcoholic haze concerned who would prevail in the SERPs on Google.ca for one query:
hottest toronto band
At the time I was living in Montreal, Keith in Vancouver. Keith (an accomplished musician) had been in bands, but at the time (when he performed at all) was playing solo. The closest I've ever come to being in a band is in my imagination, as I possess no musical talent whatsoever.
More specifically the bet, made on May 6th 2009, was for who would achieve the highest ranking for hottest toronto band on Google.ca after twelve weeks. The only restriction on how to achieve this winning ranking was that no money could be spent on the venture (preventing a race to register hottestttorontoband.com).
Keith and I tackled the challenge in different ways – he with links, me with content. I loved seeing the results Keith was able get on the basis of links, and his ability to drive a site to number one without a helpful domain, and with virtually no content keyword optimization, is very impressive. Check out his insightful, amusing and aptly-named post (on his blog, I Win At Internet – another great name):
My strategy was to build a interlinked content network based around a band called OES (read the acronym backwards – get it?). Led by band manager Serge Page (think of the Google founders – get it?), the whole raison d'être of OES was that its members never performed together. So while OES is fictitious, this allowed me to create a musical group without being dishonest about its existence: OES is not a fake band, it's a real fake band.
(Each band member name is a play on the name of a readily recognizable member of the search marketing community. A shout-out here to the first person that can correctly match each OES band member to their SEO alter ego – use the comments or contact form.)
Today Serge Page announced his retirement from OES. I haven't done any work on the OES sites for a long time, so I wanted to wrap things up and blog about the experience before the relevant SERPs evaporated entirely.
By the way, Keith and I ended up calling it a draw, as we kept exchanging places in the number one position. Whether or not OES was number one or two in Google, at the time the challenged ended page one consisted of Keith's site, and nine OES URLs. That's the power of a content network.
The Hot OES Content Network
I started out by building sites and social media profiles in support of the dreaded target keyword phrase hottest toronto band.
- OES on wordpress.com. The anchor of the content network. Everything you ever wanted to know about OES but were afraid to ask: profiles of band members, press releases, photographs, interviews (Serge Page even ends up interviewing himself).
- OES on MySpace. Every musical act needs a MySpace page, right? Chiefly used for publishing links to blog posts, and for using the calendar to announce when and where OES wouldn't be playing. OES had a number of (Toronto-centric) MySpace friends that evaporated with a MySpace redesign. I never did get around to uploading an MP3 of the band not performing The Sound of Silence.
- OES on Flickr. The main repository for band logos, and pictures of OES not performing.
- OES on Twitter. OES manager Serge Page punching out the hottest Toronto tweets.
- OES on blogspot.com. A secondary blog linking up the to wordpress.com site, chiefly featuring pathetic posts where Serge would whine about the trials and tribulations of being the OES band manager.
I didn't do a lot of external link work (the main site only boasts a PR1). Aside from registering the blogs with the main blog directories and aggregators, I mostly just linked one OES site to another. Despite it's basically lackluster presence, I was surprised to see that hottestorontoband.wordpress.com had been the lifetime recipient of 681 search queries from 388 keywords (60 of them containing "hot"), with 58 searches for "hottest toronto band" leading the pack.
Hottest Toronto Web SERPs
I'm the first to admit that "hottest toronto band" is as unlikely a keyword optimization target as you can find, so its not surprising that Keith and I were able to be successful in relatively short order. It may say something about exact match subdomains being a pretty good poor relation exact match top level domains, but it doesn't account (except by association) for the MySpace and Flickr results. (I guess it also goes to prove that raw page count is not often useful in determining keyword difficulty. The query hottest toronto band currently returns 31,200,000 results.)
What's been more surprising is the longevity of the results. Except for one post in June 2010, I haven't added any fresh fire to the OES inferno since August 2009 – some 20 months ago – yet four of the sites remain on page one in Google.ca. What's disappeared more-or-less altogether has been blog or band directory sites that listed OES.
The stack is much the same in Google.com from an US IP as it is in Google.ca, not only for OES sites but for others. Not so, however, for Bing. If you query hottest toronto band on Bing from Canada with a clean browser (no cookies, no cache, no logins) it returns the stack shown on the left. If you change your location to the US, Bing then claims you're searching from your actual locale (in my case, Vancouver), and then delivers the stack you see one the right.
Interestingly, nothing happens if you toggle "pages from Canada," so seemingly Bing is returning only "Canadian" results unless you tell it not to. Why is the blogspot.com feed showing up high in the SERPs? Why does Bing not consider the wordpress.com or myspace.com sites worthy of inclusion in Canadian results (they're excluded on subsequent pages too), but ranks them highly for all other locations? The mysteries abound.
Hottest Toronto Image Results
This is my favorite search result of all time, and in itself made the entire exercise worthwhile (that wall is the picture of the band not performing together for the first time). Officiandos of image search optimization may want to mull over the various factors that provided the strong image results, such as the image container and its associated meta data, and the linking to images on Flickr from external locations.
And, of course, one might point out that search engines still have to rely on textual clues in order to make sense of images. Google may have come far in being able to recognize faces, but it still can't tell a rock band from a brick wall.
The result above is from January and the results have changed since then, though OES is still well-represented in Google image search, as you can see at left. Why is that album cover from The Toronto Drug Bust considered an OES site? That's actually on the wordpress.com main site: it was posted there in celebration of the fact that OES had just acquired its first MySpace friend – The Toronto Drug Bust. It looks like the band is still a going concern, so Serge has asked them to be friends again.
Bing froze OES out of image search altogether. One could say that this is because OES is not actually the hottest Toronto band (one would be wrong, though:), but it appears to be more the case that Bing hasn't indexed the OES multimedia universe as deeply as Google has. This is evidenced by any number of branded queries that should bring up some OES image. This may not be a function of image indexing, however, but of general indexing. According to site: searches, Google has indexed 71 pages of hottesttorontoband.wordpress.com, but Bing only 2.
Hottest Toronto Stemming
Single-minded optimization for the phrase "hottest toronto band" also carried up with it in the SERPs other "hottest toronto" and "hot toronto" queries. While this may be expected, the breadth of association was somewhat surprising. In it's heyday in the search engines, there was hardly any word for which OES had decent coverage that didn't result in a top ranking when appended to a "hottest toronto" query. Even now, OES retains top spot for things like:
- hottest toronto guitarist
- hottest toronto band manager
- hottest toronto bass player
- hottest toronto keyboard player
- hottest toronto roadie
- hottest toronto press releases
The "hottest toronto" effect was even more apparent in image search. While there may be a large number of sites out there that textually support "hottest toronto" queries, actual directed and deliberate image optimization is both rare and effective. In general terms this might not have that much of an impact in driving traffic to a site, but certainly becomes a consideration worth keeping in mind when image verticals are brought into the mix.
OES sites gained some traction from both the focus on the superlative "hottest" and from it's root "hot." For example, as a result of one wordpress.com post interlinked with photos on Flickr, OES sites gained a foothold in the "hottest chicago" family of keywords ("Randy Pirhana" and I were in Chicago on business, and – not wanting the opportunity to go waste – took a couple of photos to point out that OES was perfectly capable of not performing internationally).
Google has always done a pretty good job of stemming, and certainly seems to understand that "hot" is in some ways related to "hottest." The wordpress.com site is still number one in Google.ca for "hot toronto band," with the MySpace site also appearing above the fold. And in general the page one entries for all websites (not just OES sites) in Google for "hot toronto band" and "hottest toronto band" are pretty similar. Bing, not so much. In fact, for Canada (English) results not one URL currently appears on page one for "hot toronto band" that appears on page one for "hottest toronto band." For US results only one site appears on page one for both terms: hottesttorontoband.wordpress.com (being number seven for "hot toronto band).
So what does all this prove? Not a whole hell of a lot, although personally I did learn a considerable amount about effective content leveraging, the relative value of external links, indexing, the relationship between head and tail terms and image optimization techniques. And that SEO can and should be a lot of fun. One of the constants in organic search marketing is that the SERPs are there for all to see, and as much as this can be a curse when an important site you're working on isn't appearing on page one, there's a smile or two to be had when a less important site is given its moment of glory.