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Exclusive Interview with SEO & Affiliate Marketing Legend, Rae "SugarRae" Hoffman

Rae (Sugar Rae) Hoffman of PushFire

Rae (Sugar Rae) Hoffman of PushFire

I recently had the privilege of spending some personal time with SEO and Performance Marketing legend, Rae "SugarRae" Hoffman of PushFire.

I wanted to get to know her more, having watched her over the last few years, reading her blog and admiring the woman she is, both as a mother and a business owner.

She was wonderful in answering my very personal questions and I appreciated her genuine answers and heartfelt replies.

Exclusive Interview with Rae "SugerRae" Hoffman: 


Q. You've accomplished an incredible amount in your life and you have much to be proud of. What would you say are your top three most precious accomplishments either personally or professionally?

LOL, thanks. You know, it's funny – I really had to think on this one because looking at individual past accomplishments isn't something I do often – neither on a personal level or a professional one. I think sometimes I'm so busy moving forward I don't have much time to look back. That said… On a personal level it would have to be being a mom. Cliché, yes. Campy, yes. True, yes. I had nothing when my first child was born. My oldest son was severely multiply handicapped – both mentally and physically. By the time I was 27 (which was nine years ago) I was a newly divorced, single mom of 3 until I got remarried about three years ago. Being able to raise them on my own - without any outside financial support and without any financial struggle despite my oldest son's needs – while still being able to be an "active mom" to them is the thing I'm most proud of at the end of the day. I like to think I've shown my kids you can do anything if you work hard and don't see failure as an option.

On a professional level, it is so hard to pinpoint one specific event. I think for me, it's the entire gamut of going from foster kid to CEO and every single step that occurred between. It's very hard to pinpoint one individual thing because it was such a long series of steps, milestones and occurrences that got me from there to here. But, at the end of the day, I like to believe that never losing site of "who I am" through it all is something to be proud of. I've seen success ruin so many personalities over the course of my career. I'd like to think I'm the same personality wise today I was 10+ years ago – with a little more confidence, LOL. And I actually do my best to keep myself surrounded by people who have no problem "checking me" when needed vs. "yes men" so to speak.

Lastly, I think I'm pretty proud of making the decision to partner with Sean and build PushFire. Being able to create a company that is independent of relying on me as an individual is something I'm pretty stoked to be doing. I handle managing the SEO side of things while Sean focuses on the PPC side. We have the same values as far as our number one priority being to deliver ROI to the client. It's not about how much money we can make ourselves – it's about how much money we can make the client.


Q. From someone who specializes in Search Marketing what do you like and dislike most about the performance marketing industry?

The thing I like the most is the independence of it. As an affiliate, I answer to no one except my own bank account. I work when I want to and my revenue potential is directly tied to how hard I'm willing to work for it – but it's done on my own terms.

The thing I dislike to most is the negative opinion on our industry fueled by ignorance and some "bad apples" who will promote anything, in any way, honest or not, to make a buck. I hate that the legitimate, value add, honest affiliates out there are often undervalued and underrated for the benefits they bring to a merchant.


Q. What do you find are the greatest challenges retailers are facing today around SEO and PPC efforts?

Ha. The challenges are plentiful. Google removing the ability to track keyword referrals from organic search is a huge, huge issue in the SEO side of online marketing right now. It makes tracking the success and value of SEO campaigns so much harder – in addition to making it an uphill battle to identify and rectify SEO related issues on the keyword level. Their Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird updates – and the lack of transparency around them – creates a lot of collateral damage that seems to be ignored. Figuring out if any of the above is affecting you is easy. Understanding how to rectify it – not so much if you're not completely immersed in the world of SEO.

PPC isn't my specialty. But, from what I see relating to PushFire PPC clients, I think a lot of people simply aren't utilizing PPC to their fullest advantage. For instance, if merchants are running PPC campaigns but aren't involved in (smart) remarketing – they're missing out. Same goes for merchants who aren't running PLA when their target search results have big emphasis on those listings. Setting PPC and then forgetting it – instead of optimizing the hell out of it on a continual basis.


Q. What three recommendations can you make to retailers preparing for Q4 shopping season right now?

Understand the "SEO ship" has already sailed for Q4. You can't begin working on improving SEO efforts in late Q3 and expect to see any ranking miracles occur in time for Q4. If improving SEO for Q4 is a priority, it's one that needs to be addressed no later than Q2.

If you don't have your remarketing efforts for PPC integrated into your checkout process, get it done. Example: Someone put an item in their cart, but didn't complete the checkout process. This is obviously someone "warm" to you, but for whatever reason they didn't complete the sale – so maybe you decide to remarket them with an offer for free shipping or a discount code to sweeten the deal.

Get your affiliates updated creatives and create some sales increase incentives for your top affiliates to help them kick ass for you over the holiday season. Also, not specific to Q4 per se, but, if you don't have the ability for affiliates to deep link within your site, I'd heavily suggest considering it. My conversion rates as an affiliate are much higher when I can link to a specific product page versus merely linking to a homepage or category page.


Q. What are three things you'd absolutely love to do in your life that you have yet to accomplish?

You like making me self reflect, LOL!

I'd like to see PushFire on the Inc 5000 list when it's eligible company age wise. I have a side project I'm working on that I unfortunately can't release details on yet (sorry) haha.

Lastly, I'm chomping at the bit to get land and move more into the country. Like… 40+ acres with cows, chickens, horses, hay production and four wheeling in our "backyard" country. I am a redneck girl and suburbia isn't my thing. We wanted to wait until my older children were at or near driving age though before making that move. We're almost there!

An SEO Expert's Commentary on "Affiliate Marketing Strategies for a Post Penguin World"

Affiliate Marketing Strategies for a Post Penguin World

In January 2013 I had the honor of speaking at Affiliate Summit West 2013 with my good friend Kush Addolloev of VMInnovations. Our topic was "Affiliate Marketing Strategies for a Post Penguin World" (YouTube Video will be posted here once live).

In the session we presented tips to affiliates on how to diversify marketing efforts, own audiences to extend the lifetime value of the end user, engage onsite and offsite for social interactions and much more.

At the end we had some great audience questions and although I did my best to answer many of the SEO questions myself, I struggled with some and asked my SEO expert to elaborate on and correct any comments he felt needed clarifying.

Here are the comments, commentary and elaborations from our SEO Expert, Jared Mumford, on how SEO truly affected affiliate marketing activities post penguin.

I said: “Another thing that used to work in the past …before Penguin. People could purchase keyword phrases as the domain name and that would give them a lot of girth in the search engines, they would get pushed to the top.”….”After Penguin updates happened, that is no longer relevant…”

Jared's Comments: It was actually the EMD update (Exact Match Domain) in September 2012 that affected exact match domains. (Note from Kush: which happend post Penguin, the slide about keyword rich exact match domains not being a viable long term strategy was added to the deck.)

Me: I mentioned not to worry about getting keyword combinations and keyword phrases in the domain name, because they didn't have any relevance anymore.

Jared's Comments: Not exactly accurate as the EMD update affected exact match domains with low quality content. Many sites that had excellent content or reworked their content to be unique and insightful (low bounce, high ATOS, all unique) kept their positioning or quickly recouped positioning and traffic.

It’s still risky to buy an exact match domain, however getting some keywords in your domain still seems to help elevate positioning quicker and therefore indicates that keywords in your domain is still relevant for ranking (e.g. www.blueribboneyewear.com). The caveat of course, is that algorithms are constantly being updated, so if you are buying a domain with a keyword for the purpose of getting better (or faster) positioning, you are in essence gaming the search engines, which is exactly what newer updates are meant to combat.

Therefore, in the future, your site may be measured with more stringent criteria than a site that has a brand based domain.  In any event, having a keyword in your domain may well become completely “irrelevant” in the future, at which point brand based domains will probably be the biggest winners. Brand signals play an important role in positioning, so buying a brand based domain paired with high end content marketing and social engagement is probably your best bet for long term positioning.

Additional note from Kush: In the past, it was relatively easy to rank for a particular keyword or phrase if the website had those keywords in its URL – also known as EMD’s or Exact Match Domains, this is no longer a viable strategy. Sites that are specifically looking for shortcuts to rank their pages higher than they deserve to be ranked sooner or later will be penalized.

Audience Question: "I’m still ranking really high on sites that have the exact domain – so what you’re saying about having good content is important but it….still really helps [to have an EMD]."

Jared's Comments: As mentioned above, not all exact match domains were affected and having keywords in your domain does still help. If you had an EMD that had duplicate content, thin content, spun content etc than the EMD might have affected your website.  It’s important to mention that EMD websites that were hit in September / October may not necessarily have been affected by EMD as there were other refreshes at that time.

I said: “…guys who would have diversified {their marketing channels], still would have been generating traffic [post Penguin] from each of these different channels, and Google wouldn’t have dropped them…”

Jared's Comments: Somewhat true. If a website has a lot of positive signals coming in such as community engagement, social media signals, content marketing and so on, those signals might dilute key indicators of Google Webmaster Guideline violation that would otherwise be flagged by the updates. For example, if a website SEO channel has been acquiring a high number of backlinks using the same anchor text, those might get diluted with incoming links from other channels and therefore ‘pass’ the algorithm and avoid a manual penalty. However, a website using multiple channels can still be (and many were) affected by Penguin. The result is that they lost their SEO / Organic traffic but maintained traffic from their other channels.

Kush said: "[On Raventools] It basically helps me track search engine rankings and see what else is going on…” like search term tracking, competitor's backlink checking, affiliate site reviews etc."

Jared's Comments: As of January 2, 2013 Raventools officially removed their SERP tracker as part of their tools suite. It is still a very good tool for organizing and tracking outreach and backlinks.


Audience Question: “So let’s just say that you’ve gotten yourself in this position where you have a bunch of keyword backlinks out there by the hundreds….is there a method to actually let Google know that they are there and you just want to disassociate yourself?”

Jared's Comments: Yes, it’s called the Google Disavow Links Tool (https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main), and it was created after many webmasters and SEO’s complained that certain links from bad neighborhoods could not be removed because the website had been virtually abandoned. However, Kush raises a good point: if you have a manual penalty (Did you get an email in Webmaster Tools telling you that you have unnatural backlinks?) then you need to show that you made an effort to get links removed before using the disavow tool. You will not get accepted for reconsideration by just disavowing all bad links and submitting the spreadsheet to Google.

Audience Question: "So when she did that (changed her domain), did she have to do a lot of 301 redirects?”

Me: I replied she did in the beginning, until she could find somebody who could actually correct the URLs to be back at what they were before. The real answer is:

Jared's Comments: 301 redirects are ‘permanent’ redirects, meant to change the URL of a page for good or not ‘temporarily’. What would normally happen here is the person would either try and get the WP site URLs to match the old URLs and for those URLs they can’t ‘match up’, have the old URL point to the new URL. This is just SEO best practices for URL structure changes. As for Penguin involvement it gets much more complicated and depends on a lot of elements including the backlinks to that landing page. [more below]

Audience Question: "Say you have one page on your site, and you know that page has been dinged, so you delete that page and 301 redirect it to another page that’s brand new. That helped in rankings for 2 days but then it fell back in rankings, but overall, I’m wondering if that isn't a good strategy."

Jared's Comments: In relation to Penguin, if Penguin was affecting pages on your website and you decided to 301 redirect those pages to newly created ones, you are not dealing with the core issue. The fact that you temporarily ranked well and then dropped signifies just that. If the issue is related to on page gaming techniques like keyword stuffing, fixing those issues on the original page is a better bet than creating a new one (especially if that page has a good backlink profile). However, if the drop in rank is related to a poor backlink profile, 301 redirects will not hide those backlinks from Google – Google can still see them. And while there is ongoing debate on how much link juice passes through a 301 (and therefore begs the question ‘do penalization signals pass 301’s at full strength?’ as well), the bottom line is that the backlink issue still needs be addressed.

Audience Comment: “They had a website that doing well, ranking well, and they created a subdirectory [sic] and called it new.domainname.com …every page was brand new, and they didn’t suffer at all in Penguin.”

Jared's Comments: She means subdomain, not sub directory.  There is not enough information here – did they create the subdomain and keep their existing domain up?  Were the two sites duplicated or unique? So many elements here are not explained and therefore it’s impossible to suggest a reason they were or were not penalized.

All in all the session got 8/10 for both content and delivery. Here are a few comments from attendees who filled out the surveys at the end of the session:

"Great content, you really engaged the audience!"

"Valuable and important info on Google Panda & Penguin Updates and how to avoid the penalties"

"Very relevant and helpful presenter content"

"Very encouraging! Diversify seem to be the strength for the future instead of just focusing on keywords. I'm new and this helped me re-focus on how and what drives traffic. Thank you!"

So now I turn the question back to you. What have your experiences been since the Penguin Updates? What affiliate marketing strategies have you found to work well despite Google's constant changes? Would love your feedback on what's worked well for you in a post penguin world!

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How Social Media Affects SEO

Guest speakers at #OMSummit - CatFish of BusinessSol.com. Part 2 of How Social Media Affects SEO.


Blogging Recommendations

  • Blog posts are new pages of content that can be focused on new keyword opportunities or reinforce existing targtes
  • Blog posts topics are not constrained by current site architechture
  • Blog posts provide excellent internal link opportunities
  • New blog posts create new pages that slightly increase Page Rank
  • Too many blogs are under-utilized for internal linking purposes. This should be leveraged more (ie: If you mention dog food, link back to your dog food page on your site)
  • Make sure you include your main navigation template on all your pages - if you have 1000 - 2000 blog posts of pages of content and you don't have your global navigation in place, you could be missing out on TONS of SEO opportunity.


YouTube - Direct Impact

  • YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world.
  • Include the essential keywords in the title of your video and link back to them from your main site
  • Top listings in YouTube can drive considerable traffic
  • YouTube thumbnails also appear in regular Google / Bing search results
  • Number of views you have, number of embeds you have will impact how well they rank


Facebook Open Graph - Direct Impact

  • Facebook Open Graph Search is the new searching functionality that allows you to search Facebook profiles / pages.
  • Currently focused on people and places
  • Facebook Meta Tags for Open Graph can be implemented.
  • How usage varies from regular Google / Bing search remains to be seen
  • Facebook Open Graph search is still in Beta.
  • Incorporate these into your search strategy.


Links  - Effect on Social Media

  • Most links found in social networks are rel=nofollw and o not boost regular search rankings
  • Occasionally profile links will be counted
  • Social media networks attract links by marketing good content to target audiences
  • The more friends and followers you have that share an interest in the content you are producing, the more potential links your content will receive when it's shared through those channels.
  • It's not about the quantity, it's about the QUALITY of these links and posts that count.
  • Focus on the people and opening communications, building relationships with individuals - this will have more impact than anything else.
  • The more relationships you have with people in your space, the better. Take an avid interest in what people in your space are doing. Offer thoughtful feedback and responses on their blog posts. Give them something of value to them.
  • The value of the bloggers is not just based on the content they write, it's in the relationships and networks of people they influence in the space.


Links - How Blogs Attract Links

  • Bloggers have a high propensity to link to 3rd party sites - web masters do not
  • Blog posts are typically more timely in nature and are focused on current events
  • Bloggers typically have personal relationships with other bloggers which increase the propensity to receive a link
  • The more personal relationships a blogger has with authoritative authors in their industry, the greater chance of receiving a meaningful link for any piece of content
  • Blog post are most effective from an SEO perspective when they have keyword focused internal links to relevant pages that taget high priority keywords
  • Guest blogging is one of the most effective link building exercises that also benefits your brand and authority.


Final Blog Recommendations

1. Ensure Blogging teams understand what pages target high priority keywords
2. Consistently imbed relvant preferred landing pages for your site into blog posts
3. Use your standard site navigation template for all blog pages
4. Ensure that blogs post are optimized for SEO, especially page titles
5. Make sure you have a link to your blog in your global navigation template
6. Train bloggers on SEO best practices so they can optimize content as it is created
7. Make back links a metric that bloggers are rewarded for
8. Add compelling info- graphics to important blog posts
9. Ensure that bloggers spend some time each week reading and commenting on target blogs to establish relationships
10. Ensure your bloggers spend time each week cultivating relationships with prominent bloggers
11. Create blog posts that offer an opinion or point of view on popular blog posts from other authors.

Is Affiliate Marketing Dead?

Is Affiliate Marketing Dead?I had a question asked of me last week that kind of stunned me. An affiliate friend of mine who used to be one of my top performing affiliates a few years ago asked me "Sarah, be honest with me, is affiliate marketing dead?"

What? I was shocked!

I've watched millions of dollars being made through affiliate marketing programs over the last few years and have seen constant growth year over year. I've seen the level of awareness and interest in the affiliate space boom with no signs of it slowing anytime soon. There are new records of affiliate and merchants joining the space and new tools, resources, networks and solutions popping up to accommodate their needs.

So how could this affiliate, one who's performed so well for so long, think the industry is dead?

Google's Panda and Penguin updates KILLED their business model, that's how. They spent years creating beautiful websites on particular subjects poring hours, weeks, days and years into great content and self taught SEO, only to get hit hard with Panda then killed completely by Penguin. How are affiliates to stand a chance? How can anyone still make any money?

Well, affiliate marketing is not dead. On the contrary, it's absolutely booming. It's just changed. And we need to change with it. As affiliate managers its our responsibility to help affiliates out. This affiliate didn't have the budget or experience to complete in paid search, nor did they have the time or budget (at this point) to compete against the retailers themselves for those coveted first page placements in organic search. It would take several months to recover from what's already happened to this affiliate should they start their SEO work again, let alone risk something else happen out of their control.

My affiliate friend asked many good questions. "Is Google trying to rid affiliates for good?" "Are they trying to make more money by forcing affiliates to use paid search instead of organic?", "If I change my business model and try something different will I get hit again?" "Will another model even work?".

I wish I had the answers to these questions. I let my friend know where the trends are right now: coupon / daily deal sites, mobile, social (including blogging), video and any new technology or traditional offline model that's going online on a performance base.

My friend wanted to know which I thought was her best chance of recovery and longer term success.

My first suggestion? Don't start a coupon site. Affiliate managers are sick to death of reviewing affiliate applications where 80% of the new applications are pop-up coupon sites that are trying to get into the market. If you're coming in now, you're way too late. Merchants do not need 100+ coupon sites. They only need a handful of selected ones to get the job done.

The more advanced affiliate managers hand select a few coupon sites to work with, then decline the rest. They are also starting to value different types of affiliates more than others, giving higher commissions or more credit to affiliates who drive long term loyal customers versus the "whoever has the best deal today and I don't care what brand it is nor am I going to buy from them again if it's not 60% off" type of buyers. Because of this coupon sites do not generally fall into the "high value incremental sale" column.

Affiliate managers also consider the amount of effort needed to find and convert that customer for the merchant. For example did they have a huge following they actively reached out to? Did they create an app that had an affiliate tracking link inside? Did a lot of programming or design need to be put into the effort? Is the sales strategy legitimate and fair? Or did they take five minutes to slap a code together and have results show up for trademark plus terms in the search engines? These are all things a good affiliate manager needs to consider.

From the affiliate side, not only is the coupon market already saturated, it's almost impossible to compete against super coupon affiliates such as retailmenot.com in organic search. If you don't have paid placement budget, then how are you going to get found? Facebook? Maybe. But I doubt you'll get the volume you need in order to drive enough sales through performance marketing to earn a living relying strictly on Facebook as a coupon affiliate.

Blogging on the other hand is a completely different story. People go online to find solutions to problems they have, and generally they need to find information about something so they can make a decision for themselves. This is where bloggers have so much success in affiliate marketing. There are incredibly successful bloggers out there making an insane amount of money through performance marketing because they have found their voice, their niche and a loyal following of people who are learning and buying through their recommendations because they are considered experts on their topic. That, and they have earned the trust of their readers. You can blog about anything and everything under the sun and the cool thing is you can be as creative as you like.

Bloggers use different channels outside of (but not excluding SEO) to drive new traffic and business to their websites and build solid relationships with their readers through shared opinions that are either original, said with conviction or as a proven expert in their field. They rely on building a following through social channels, newsletters or RSS feeds, search, conferences, online and offline PR and even good old word of mouth. All in all, they don't put all their eggs in one basket.

There are lots of tools out there to help bloggers better monetize their websites (future blog post to come), produce content more easily, marketing their sites more effectively and grow their fan base faster.

So what's my point? Affiliate marketing is not dead. Not in the least. It's simply evolved. It's fluid and ever changing  so both affiliates and merchants need to be prepared to adjust to those changes and be ready to adapt.  You as the affiliate manager need to be ready to support affiliates in their quest for earning opportunities and changes to strategy. That's why it's important for you to stay on top of important topics in the space.

How can you do this? Be clear on what is working in the industry and not. Be clear on what strategies both merchants and affiliates are using so you can offer fair, honest and useful feedback to your affiliate partners. Be ready to offer helpful tools and tips affiliates can learn more about. The PMA blogs about all kinds of important issues - things that can help prepare both affiliates and merchants for those changes. That's usually a good place to start.

As their leader, be their main resource for performance options. Know the stakes, know the issues, know the best practices. By being knowledgable about things like Google Panda and Penguin, you can help affiliates adjust to change more easily.

Sometimes it's hard to turn away from a business model you've been using for years, especially one you've had previous success with and have stuck to for so long. But this industry changes rapidly and we need to be prepared to change with it.

We don't need to be the rock in the water. We need to be the water itself.

How do you help your affiliates adapt to change?



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