Rich Skrenta has been at the core of search longer than I have been in the SEO market. He is famous for launching sites like DMOZ and Topix. His most recent project is a search engine called blekko, and I recently had a chance to chat with him about blekko, the web, and marketing.
Most start ups fail. And yet you have multiple successes under your belt and are going at it again. If you could boil success down to a few points, what really separates what you have done from the statistics?
Paul Graham said that the most important thing for a startup is to not die each day. If you can keep existing, that's survival for a company. Generally I like to keep costs low and hire carefully. Also, the first idea doesn't always work. We had to pivot Topix several times to find the right model. For blekko, we just want to make a site that a segment of people will find useful. If we can do that we'll be happy.
It seems openness is a great marketing angle to use online. Why do you feel that it is so under-utilized by most companies?
It feels counter-intuitive to take all our your company IP and secrets and just put them all out there. Little companies also tend to be insecure and want to be appear to be larger and more successful. They want to put on a big company face to the world, but being honest and transparent about who they are and letting the public see "behind the curtain" can often win people over better than a facade of success.
From my perspective, it seems your approach to marketing is heavily reliant on organic, viral & word of mouth strategies. What is broken with the old model of marketing? Is its death happening slower or quicker than you expect?
The internet and social media have made word-of-mouth stronger and stronger, and in many ways they eclipse traditional marketing channels now. This started with blogging and has accelerated with Twitter and Facebook. Everybody is media now. You used to fly around and do a 2 week media tour to launch a product. The aperture to get in the trade press was small, there was a handful of reporters you had to go pitch. Now there are thousands of people who have audience for every trade niche, so it's easier to get the word out about something new. But it has to be genuinely interesting, or your message won't get pickup.
A lot of people who are good at programming make ugly designs. Likewise many people are either programmers or marketers. What formal training or experiences have you had that have allowed an engineer to become such a sophisticated marketer? What strengths do you have that allow you to bridge the disciplines so well?
We joke that we have always made ugly web sites. Fortunately I was able to hire a good designer for blekko and he's been doing a great job taking our early ugly versions and making them a lot more attractive and workable.
I read a lot of stuff about marketing and positioning that we're trying to apply at blekko. I'm a big fan of Trout & Ries. I loved Kathy Sierra's stuff when she was writing. There is some fantastic material also in Kellog on Branding. We also worked with some great positioning consultants that tested various ideas on focus groups to see what would resonate with users best as a message. Every product has a bunch of features, but you want to find the one to talk about that's going to stick in people's heads the best.
I noticed you baked many social elements into your marketing strategy (friend us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter) as well as baking many social elements into your product (personal slashtags, allowing people to share their slashtags, etc.). There is some talk on the web of apps or social stuff replacing search as the center of the web, however from a marketing perspective I see much higher traffic value in search traffic. Do you think that one day social and apps will largely replace global search? Or do you feel it will generally continue to play a secondary role to search?
Social media can drive tons of attention, awareness and traffic. But the search box is the best way to navigate to stuff you want. Now what will drive those results - if I type in "pizza", what should I get? The answer can be very different depending on whether the results are coming from the web, Yelp, or Facebook. So I guess my answer is that I still see search being the core way to navigate, but I think what gets searched is going to get a lot more structured and move away from simple keyword matches against unstructured web pages.
A good number of the social sites are doing redirects for security purposes & to some degree are cannibalizing the link graph. Do you feel that links from the social graph represent an important signal, or that most of that signal still gets represented well on the remaining link graph?
There is very definitely signal in social graph links - potentially more than in the web graph. In 2000, a hyperlink was a social vote. Most links were created by humans and represented an editorial vote. That's no longer true - the web today is inundated with bulk-generated links. To the extent that humans can be separated from bots, there's more true signal in social graphs. The challenge is to get enough coverage to rank everything you need to rank. Delicious had great search results for the corpus of links they knew about, but it wasn't nearly big enough to be comprehensive. Facebook and Twitter are certainly a lot bigger, it will be interesting to see if they start to apply their data to ranking and recommending material from outside of their own sites.
When Google was young Sergey Brin at an SEO conference stated that there was no such thing is spam, only bad relevancy algorithms. When I saw some of your talks announcing Blekko you mentioned that you never want to see eHow in your personal search results. Do you feel that spam is largely down to a personal opinion? If you had to draw a line in the sand between spam & not spam, how would you characterize the differences?
Search must serve an editorial function. You can call this editorial position "relevancy", but that's hiding behind the algorithm. Of course someone wrote the algorithm, and tinkered with it to make some sites come up and others not to come up.
The web has grown 100-fold since 2000. There is most definitely spam out there. Let's take a clear-cut example, like phama links being injected via exploits into unpatched WordPress blogs. Then there is gray-area stuff, like eHow.com. Some people like eHow. Some don't. That's why we let users develop their own /spam filters.
Eric Schmidt mentioned that sharing their ranking variables would be disclosing trade secrets that could harm Google. Yet you guys are sharing your web graph publicly. Are you worried about doing this impacting your relevancy in a negative way? Or do you feel the additional usage caused by that level of awareness will give you more inputs into your search relevancy algorithms?
When I first moved to Silicon Valley I worked in computer security. In security there's an idea that "security through obscurity" isn't very good. What this means is that if you have some new encryption algorithm, but don't let anyone see the details of how it works, it probably is full of holes. The only way to get a strong encryption algorithm is to publish all of the details about how it works and have public review. Once the researchers can't punch any more holes in your algorithm, only then is it good enough to trust.
We see search the same way. If this magic 200-variable equation is so sensitive that if it leaked out the results would be completely overrun with spam, well then the algorithm doesn't actually sound that strong to me. We'd rather work towards a place where there can be public review of the mechanisms driving ranking, and where many eyes can make the spam problem shallow.
Certainly the big search engines have hundreds of human raters that help identify spam and train their algorithms. These are contractors that are the knowledge workers behind the scenes. As a little startup, we asked ourselves how we could get many more people helping us to make our results better, and also be a lot more open about the process. Formerly we had experience running a big crowdsourced search site with the Open Directory, where we had 80,000 editors classifying urls. What if we could get 80,000 people to help us curate search verticals, identify spam, and train classifiers? That would be cool.
You had a blog post comparing pornographers to SEOs. Do you feel the SEO game is mostly adversarial? Or do you feel that paying attention to the SEO industry is a great way to quickly improve the quality of a search product? Or both? :)
I think my comparison noted that pornographers have often been early adopters of new technology. :-)
There is aggressive seo, and then there is what I call appropriate discoverability. Aggressive seo can go over the line - if someone hacks your server to add links, that's borderline criminal activity. But if you have great content and it's not showing up, that's a shame. After we sold topix to the newspapers, we spent some time evangelizing seo within their organizations. Think of all of the movie reviews and restaurant reviews the US newspaper sites collectively have. Wonderfully written material by well-paid professional journalists. But you don't see their content anywhere for a restaurant or movie search. That's a shame.
Recently Ask sorta rebranded away from search & towards more of a QnA format, and Yahoo! bowed out of search through a Bing partnership. Are the cost scales that drive such changes just a legitimate piece of the business model, or were those organizations highly inefficient? How were you able to bring a competitive product to market for so much less?
I was a fan of Ask's Teoma technology, and what Jim Lanzone had been doing with the site. And Yahoo was delivering very high quality results, and had interesting initiatives like the BOSS apis and SearchMonkey. This was all great stuff. I'm disappointed that they lost heart. Running a big company that has been around for a long time is not an easy job.
From an SEO perspective I think that Google tends to have a large index, but crawling so deeply likely allows a lot of junk into their index. Bing seems to be a bit more selective with their crawling strategy. How would you compare Blekko against the other major search engines in terms of depth? Do you feel that relevancy boosts offered through vertical search (via your Slashtags) allows you guys to provide a similar or better experience without needing as large of an index?
Our crawler tends to go into highly ranked sites more deeply than poorly ranked sites. We have a 3 billion page crawl, and so we need to choose the best content to include. This starts at crawl time - should we crawl this url or that url? There are a whole set of heuristics which drive what crawl budget an individual site gets.
The web keeps getting deeper and deeper - the challenge is how to return the good stuff and not sink. This is why we believe human curation needs to be brought back to search. Only by curating the best content in every vertical can the most relevant results be returned.
Amongst SEOs the issue of "brand" as a relevancy signal has been a topic of heated debates. How important do you feel brand is as a signal of relevancy & authority?
One of the things we look at is how natural the pattern of mentions of a site looks. Real brands tend to have a natural pattern of mentions on the web.
You had a blog post a few years back titled "PageRank wrecked the web." How do you feel about paid links? What editorial actions do you guys take when you find paid links?
If links have an economic value, they're going to be bought and sold. It's that simple. What happens in our ranker is that we classify different sources of signals, and then let the machine learning figure out what the signal is telling us. Is this a good source of anchortext? Or maybe a certain class of links even has a negative contribution to rank, if what the links are telling us doesn't correlate with the direction we want the ranker to be going.
How hard is it to detect paid links? What has been the most challenging part of launching a world class search engine?
The whole thing has been hard. Search has so many sub-components, and even things that sound trivial like DNS turn into big projects when you need to scale them up to billions of web pages.
Google's US ad revenue is roughly 15 billion & the size of the US Yellow Pages market is roughly 14 billion. Most of that money is still in print, but that shift is only accelerating with Google's push into local.
Further, cell phones are location aware, can incorporate locationinto search suggest, and on the last quarterly conference call Google's Jonathan Rosenberg highlighted that mobile ads were already a billion Dollar market for Google.
Google has been working on localization for years, and as a top priority. When asked "Anything you’ve focused on more recently than freshness?" Amit Singal stated:
Localization. We were not local enough in multiple countries, especially in countries where there are multiple languages or in countries whose language is the same as the majority country.
So in Austria, where they speak German, they were getting many more German results because the German Web is bigger, the German linkage is bigger. Or in the U.K., they were getting American results, or in India or New Zealand. So we built a team around it and we have made great strides in localization. And we have had a lot of success internationally.
Some of the localized results not only appear for things like Chicago pizza but also for single word searches in some cases, like pizza or flowers.
Promoting local businesses via the new formats has many strategic business benefits for Google
assuming they track user interactions, then eventually the relevancy is better for the end users
allows local businesses to begin to see more value from search, so they are more likely to invest into a search strategy
creates a direct relationship with business owners which can later be leveraged (in the past Google has marketed AdWords coupons to Google Analytics users)
if a nationwide brand can't dominate everywhere just because they are the brand, it means that they will have to pony up on the AdWords front if they want to keep 100% exposure
if Google manages to put more diversity into the local results then they can put more weight on domain authority on the global results (for instance, they have: looked at query chains, recommended brands in the search results, shown many results from the lead brand on a branded search query, listed the official site for searches for a brand + a location where that brand has no office, etc.)
it puts eye candy in the right rail that can make searchers more inclined to look over there
it puts in place an infrastructure which can be used in other markets outside of local
Data Data Data
Off the start it is hard to know what to make of this unless one draws historical parallels. At first one might be inclined to say the yellow page directories are screwed, but the transition could be a bit more subtle. The important thing to remember is that now that the results are in place, Google can test and collect data.
There are 2 strong ways to build a competitive advantage on the data front:
make your data better
starve competing business models to make them worse
Off the start yellow page sites might get a fair shake, but ultimately the direction they are headed in is being increasingly squeezed. In a mobile connected world with Google owning 97% search marketshare, while offering localized search auto-complete, ads that map to physical locations, and creating a mobile coupon offers network, the yellow page companies are a man without a country. Or perhaps a country without a plot of land. ;)
Last December I cringed when I read David Swanson, the CEO of R.H. Donnelley, state: "People relate to us as a product company -- the yellow-pages -- but we don't get paid by people who use the yellow-pages, we get paid by small businesses for helping them create ad messages, build websites, and show up in search engine results. ... Most of the time today, you are not even realizing that you are interacting with us."
How does a business maximize yield? Externalize costs & internalize profits. Pretty straightforward. To do this effectively, Google wants to cut out as many middle men out of the game as possible. This means Google might decide to feed off your data while driving no traffic to your business, but rather driving you into bankruptcy.
Ultimately, what is being commoditized? Labor. More specifically:
the affiliate who took the risk to connect keywords and products
the labor that went into collecting & verifying local data
the labor that went into creating the editorial content on the web graph and the links which search engines rely on as their backbone.
the labor that went into manually creating local AdWords accounts, tracking their results, & optimizing them (which Google tracks & uses as the basis for their automated campaigns)
the labor that went into structuring content with the likes of micro-formats
the labor that went into policing and formatting user reviews
many other pieces of labor that the above labor ties into
Of course Google squirms out of any complaints by highlighting the seedy ends of the market and/or by highlighting how they only use such data "in aggregate" ... but if you are the one losing your job & having your labor used against you, "the aggregate" still blows as an excuse.
But if Google drives a business they are relying on into bankruptcy, won't that make their own search results worse?
For 2 big reasons:
you are only judged on your *relative* performance against existing competitors
after Google drives some other players out of the marketplace and/or makes their data sets less complete, the end result is Google having the direct relationships with the advertisers and the most complete data set
The reason many Google changes come with limited monetization off the start is so that people won't question their motives.
Basically I think they look at it this way: "We don't care if we kill off a signal of relevancy because we will always be able to create more. If we poison the well for everyone else while giving ourselves a unique competitive advantage it is a double win. It is just like the murky gray area book deal which makes start up innovation prohibitively expensive while locking in a lasting competitive advantage for Google."
You would never hear Google state that sort of stuff publicly, but when you look at their private internal slides you see those sorts of thoughts are part of their strategy.
What is Spam?
The real Google guidelines should read something like this:
After typing a query, the search engine user sees a result page. You can think of the results on the result page as a list. Sometimes, the best results for "queries that ask for a list" are the best individual examples from that list. The page of search results itself is a nice list for the user.
...But This is Only Local...
After reading the above some SEOs might have a sigh of relief thinking "well at least this is only local."
To me that mindset is folly though.
Think back to the unveiling of Universal search. At first it was a limited beta test with some news sites, then Google bought Youtube, and then the search landscape changed...everyone wanted videos and all the other stuff all the time. :D
Anyone who thinks this rich content SERP which promotes Google is only about local is going to be sorely disappointed as it moves to:
travel search (Google doesn't need to sell airline tickets so long as they can show you who is cheapest & then book you on a high margin hotel)
any form of paid media (ebooks, music, magazines, newspapers, videos, anything taking micro-payments)
large lead generation markets (like insurance, mortgage, credit cards, .edu)
perhaps eventually even markets like live ticketing for events
Google does query classification and can shape search traffic in ways that most people do not understand. If enough publishers provide the same sorts of data and use the same types of tags, they are creating new sets of navigation for Google to offer end users.
No need to navigate through a publisher's website until *after* you have passed the click toll booth.
Try #3 at Reviews
Google SearchWiki failed in large part because it confused users. Google launched SideWiki about a year ago, but my guess is it isn't fairing much better. When SideWiki launched Danny Sullivan wrote:
Sidewiki feels like another swing at something Google seems to desperately desires — a community of experts offering high quality comments. Google says that’s something that its cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted more than a system for ranking web pages. They really wanted a system to annotate pages across the web.
The only way they are going to get that critical mass is by putting that stuff right in the search results. It starts with local (& scrape + mash in other areas like ecommerce), but you know what they want & they are nothing if not determined to get what they want! ;)
Ultimately it is webmasters, web designers & web developers who market and promote search engines. If at some point it becomes consensus that Google is capturing more value than they create, or that perhaps Google search results have too much miscellaneous junk in them, they could push a lot more searchers over to search services which are more minimalistic + publisher friendly. Blekko launches Monday, and their approach to search is much like Google's early approach was. :)
Some of you may have been hit by Google's 20 October algorithm change.
And some of you wouldn't have noticed any difference.
On 20 October, a number of sites got trashed. Rankings, and traffic, plummeted through the floor. The webmaster forums lit up. Aaron noticed it. I noticed it. Yet, other webmasters wondered what all the fuss was about.
As many of you know, there is not just one ranking algothimn. There are many algorithms. What affects one site may not affect another. Rather interestingly, Google's John Mudipped into this thread on Google's support forum, offering these words of wisdom (HatTip: Barry)
It looks like the changes you're seeing here may be from an algorithmic change. As part of our recent algorithmic changes (which the outside world sometimes refers to as the "May Day update" because it happened primarily in May), our algorithms are assessing the site differently. This is a ranking change, not any sort of manual spam penalty, and not due to any technical issues with regards to crawling or indexing your content. You can hear more about this change in Matt's video: "
Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times, depending on what our algorithms find. While we initially rolled out this change earlier this year, the web changes, sites change, and with that, our algorithms will continually adapt to the current state on the web, on those sites. While it might be confusing to see these changes at the same time as this issue, they really aren't related, nor is this a general algorithm change (so if other sites have seen changes recently, it probably doesn't apply to them as well).
Matt's video, made four months ago, was talking about the algorithmic MayDay change. John Mu adds: "Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times" In other words, whatever happened in May may not affect your site in May, or June, or July, but might hit you many months later. This implies that your site may trip a threshold, and be judged quite differently than it was the day before.
This still doesn't completely explain why so many sites were hit on the same day, but then Google don't typically explain things in detail.
To complicate matters, there was an acknowledged indexing problem, affecting new content, particularly on blogs. Again, John appears to suggest this was a separate issue.
Forget About Search Engines, Just Publish
Now, all SEOs are used to algorithm changes. Nothing new. But this one has me genuinely perplexed, mainly because of the type of sites that got hit.
Time for some self-searching Q&A about one of my own sites:
Q: So, how many links did you buy?
Q: Are you selling links?
Q: Linking to "bad neighborhoods"?
A: Not that' I'm aware of.....
Q: Did you link-build in an aggressive manner?
A: No. I did no link building, whatsoever.
A: That's not a question.
Q: So you just published content?
Q: And people linked to your site, of their own accord?
A: Yep. I guess they liked it.
Q: Was your content heavily SEO'd?
A: No. In fact, I gave writers specific instructions not to do anything resembling "SEO copywriting". It ruins the flow for readers.
Q: All original content?
A: All original. Hand written. No machines involved anywhere.
Q: So this site conforms to Google's Webmaster Guidelines?
A: I'd say it lies well within them. "Be useful to end users", was the guiding principle.
Yet it got hit hard.
What's also interesting is the nature of the sites that replaced it. I checked keyword after keyword, and found script driven, aggressive black-hat, content-free sites in top positions. Not in all cases - there are certainly useful sites that deserve to be there, and deserve to appear above mine. Fair play. However, there were plenty of sites of - shall we say - dubious merit- occupying high positions.
Be Useful. Perhaps
Now, I believe in publishing useful, unique content, and not paying too much attention to SEO, other than covering the basics. SEO is one strategy amongst many, and sites should, first and foremost, prove useful to people.
Clearly, no site is immune. You can stay within Google's Webmaster guidelines, and get taken out. I knew that anyway, but when the sites that don't follow the guidelines replace you...
....I'll admit - it grates.
Presumably, Google rewards the sites it likes with high rankings, and if we see a lot of aggressive sites filling the top page, should we therefore assume that aggressive sites are what Google actually wants?
I'd like to think not.
Perhaps they are just trying to mess with our heads?
Or they messed up?
Or the changes are still bedding in?
Or they really do want it this way?
I'm still watching, and considering. Perhaps the site will just pop back up in due course. Or perhaps I need to go back to the drawing board. I'll let you know how I get on.
If you've noticed something similar on your sites, chime in on the comments.
If you're considering getting some SEO work done, but working to a tight budget, here's a look at the key issues, and trouble-spots to look out for.
Buying Professional SEO Services
If you're short on time, or SEO skills, or inclination, then you may be looking at getting an eternal supplier to undertake SEO work. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for, and SEO is no exception. There is also a danger you could get a whole lot less, of course.
Like any profession, there are many great operators, and many poor ones.
Set Clear Business Goals
Start by writing down the goals you want to achieve. What business problem are you trying to solve? Do you need more conversions? More traffic? Higher rankings? Only one of those requirements is likely to make you any money.
Traffic and higher rankings can make you money, but can just as likely make no difference to your business, whatsoever, unless they are tied into your website strategy. For example, you may receive more traffic after engaging an SEO, but if this traffic isn't interested in what you offer, they will click back. Likewise, you could gain high rankings for keywords that no one searches on. This will result in no traffic increase, and no new business.
Devise your own metrics for success. Some SEOs will devise metrics for success that are easy for them to achieve, but make no real difference to your business.
Watch Out For Hidden Costs
If you have an existing site, you may need to make changes to your design and layout. Depending on how your site has been built, these changes may be minor or significant in terms of cost to rectify.
The Problem With Cheap
Whilst high cost alone will not guarantee you good results, there's a high probability that low cost will almost guarantee poor results.
SEO is labour intensive and requires skill and knowledge. As a rough ballpark, a small site, that doesn't have design issues, that has had no previous SEO work, could take, at very least, five days of full-time SEO work. This work involves link building, adding keywords and content to the site, and other external promotional activities. Get the SEO to breakdown the work into hours and tasks, and see if the amount charged equates to the work required.
If the SEO is pricing significantly under their competitors, there may be a legitimate reason. They may use cheaper labour, often located in emerging economies. This is fine, however make sure any firm you do use has a good knowledge of the country and culture in which you operate. Marketing, SEO or otherwise, requires an intimate knowledge of language use, culture and location, so ask to see previous work, and check references.
On the other hand, there are agencies that will charge like a wounded bull for essentially the same tasks as everyone else. Obtain a few quotes and compare, as pricing can be all over the place. The industry is not standardized.
Do It Yourself
Anyone can do SEO. However, that doesn't mean that everyone should.
What does SEO involve? It can involve restructuring a site, coding, content creation, marking up content, market research, strategy, link building, and public relations. Do you have the time, or the inclination to do this? The learning curve, for the beginner, is steep. It's also time consuming. How much is your time worth?
However, there are many aspects you can do yourself. Start with a good, solid SEO course ;) Join forums where other SEOs hang out. Look for content management software that is reasonably SEO friendly, out of the box, such as Wordpress (free). Using SEO friendly software means you'll avoid a lot of technical problems that can be expensive to rectify if you use software the search engines find difficult to crawl.
Search engines like content. Generally speaking, the more pages you publish, the more chances you'll have to be seen. If appropriate, adopt a strategy similar to that of magazine publishing. Publish often.
Once your business case and site content are established, you need to build links. A site without links is pretty much invisible. Here are a few link building strategies. In summary, submit your site to directories, get your partners to link to you, issue press releases featuring links back to your site, put links in your online signature. You can never have too many links, so long as they accurately represent the content is on your site, and they appear in places your audience hangs out.
You can go a long way by buying in some help, and doing the rest yourself.
Pay for a few hours of consulting where an SEO evaluates your site and your market niche. It's well worth paying top dollar, for someone good, for this part - as it most likely only takes a few hours. Setting off on the right course can pay high dividends, whilst heading down the wrong path can be difficult, and costly, to recover from. Engage them in an advisory-only role, and ask them to provide you with a strategy. Some SEOs will do this, some won't.
The most important thing is to ensure they establish your site has no technical issues that will prevent it being crawled, and that your content is structured correctly. Once these problems are ironed out, SEO becomes a lot less troublesome.
Only you know your skills, but the following areas are reasonably straightforward for those with a little web knowledge. Keyword research is easy enough to do yourself, using readily available keyword tools, as is content generation.
Simply write on topic and sprinkle keywords through your content and headings, or have your copywriter do so.
Like any complex professional service, you'll still need to monitor and measure, even if you do opt for expensive, comprehensive outsourced options. There's no sitting back with marketing, and that includes SEO.
Whatever path you choose, make sure the SEO work is aligned with your business goals.
Marin software manages about 5% of Google AdWords spend for clients, and they noticed that since Google Instant was unveiled, AdWords ad clicks are up 5%. Since the launch Google's Jonathan Rosenberg has mentioned that the impact on AdWords was "not material."
I found the repeated use of those exact words suspicious and diversionary, and, as it turned out, with good reason! When Google Instant launched I highlighted what Google was doing to screen real estate & predicted this shift.
Turns out that the "tin foil hat wearing SEOs" were right once again.
And that 5% lift in AdWords clicks is on top of the lift Google has seen from
creating a 4th ad slot for comparison ads (in high paying verticals like "credit cards" and "mortgage")
sitelinks, merchant ratings, and other ad extensions, that gave Google another lift. On the last quarterly call Jonathan Rosenberg stated: "These ads appear on more than 10% of the queries where we show ads and people like them. We see this because click-through rates are up for some formats as much as 10% and up more than 30% on some others."
Sure across the entire web exact match domains can rank for a wide variety of keywords, but there are a couple things to think about when stating that...
those rankings are spread across many different domains
the bonus any domain gets is only relevant to their 1 exact match phrase
Many domains are seen as exact match, but the keyword is popular precisely because the keyword is a brand (like eBay, Amazon.com, Monster.com, Google, Yahoo!, or Bing).
Many brand owners (especially small & local ones, where there are few signals of quality) are not heavily engaged in SEO. If Google doesn't show the official site on a brand search they look bad (in 2005 there was a brief period of time when Paypal.com wasn't ranking for "Paypal" due to botched aggressive Google link anchor text filters), whereas if they rank an exact match domain where it is relevant it doesn't really significantly detract from the searcher's experience.
Adam Lewis highlighted how advertisers can get a glimpse into the endless sea of words searchers use & how impractical it is to presume they can know everything in advance:
One of the most impactful new features lies within the keywords tab and is called "see search terms". This option allows advertisers to choose one or more keywords and see the search term users typed in to trigger that keyword. It also shows which ones are being clicked most often and which are not being clicked.
Often the exact keyword it not what users are actually typing in. Guessing all the possible variations that a user might enter to find your product is essentially impossible. "See search terms" gives you the most popular user queries that triggered your ads. Not only does it help people learn about their user, but it can also potentially save money on SEM by exposing highly specific keywords with less competition and better quality scores.
Note the sentence that I bolded...guessing everything that is searched for that is relevant is roughly impossible. In SEO there are a variety of implications associated with that, but one of the most important ones is this: when you pick an exact match domain it is mainly only helping you with that 1 main keyword that you chose.
Yes there are implications in terms of perceived credibility and such, but those impacts can be created through brand building. With an EMD you pay thousands of Dollars (sometimes 10's or 100's of thousands) to target that one keyword. If a person were to buy MyKeywordStore.com (or similar) for $8 & spend that $10,000 on marketing, then in many cases that $10,000 would generally / typically more than make up for any advantage MyKeyword.com gets.
We have built a database of 10 million + keywords & few of them (less than 10,000 of them) have a combined CPC * estimated search volume of $1,000 or more per month (presuming you captured 100% of the search traffic for that keyword & monetized it as well as Google does).
However, those numbers overstate the market ...
many of those valuable keywords *are* brands (seo book wasn't much of a keyword until *after* it was a brand, which is why the domain name was available to me for $8)
brands that are created on keywords can be forced to change due to market conditions (FreeCreditReport.com ---> FreeCreditScore.com, legislation whacked the student loan consolidation market, Google Instant promotes some keywords at the expense of others, the US government has launched names like Cars.gov, StudentLoans.gov, Change.gov, etc. ... who wants to compete directly against the government when they control legislation, can create an EMD on the fly, and can cross-link new sites in their network ... allowing them to outrank you in a couple weeks)
If you are not a brand & rank #1 in the organic search results (with 3 AdWords ads above you) then you might only get about 25% to 40% of the search traffic. Worse yet, in some of the largest markets Google puts a 4th "Google comparison" ad above the organic search results, further driving down the organic search results.
Google's search volume data & suggested bid prices have typically overstated the market (because they want to create bidding wars on core keywords & drive bids upward)
Almost nobody monetizes as well as Google does. In many cases when their number shows $100,000+ per month the actual publisher earnings for that keyword might only be a few thousand Dollars.
There are at most a few hundred exceptionally potent keywords where the single word will build a business for a generalist webmaster. That number would be higher if you combined them with professional training in an area and significant industry knowledge, but if you know your industry well and have access to capital and are investing into a premium domain name then odds are good you are investing heavily elsewhere and doing quality work elsewhere. The idea that there are tons of lucrative exact match domains on the market which anyone can use to build thriving businesses on and are available at a discount is somewhat (perhaps completely?) inaccurate.
Exact match only gives you that bonus on exact match. Not a collection of keywords - just that 1 word. And tying your business to 1 keyword can be risky. Just ask anyone who is on a singular version of a domain name where Google Instant promotes the plural version of that keyword. Some of those folks likely had chunks of cinder block falling out their pants the day that launched.
Whereas brand allows you to keep spreading ... but it can take a lot of work to turn a generic keyword into a brand. And by the time you do, your business model and/or the market may have already moved elsewhere. An exact match domain name can sorta box you in and make your business less flexible. SEO Book is a bit of a weird fit for a private SEO community & training website, and Oakland Pizza will *never* become Dominoes or Pizza Hut.
And (when compared against generic keywords) brands are not only more flexible, but they are more memorable, make it easier for you to differentiate, allow to engage at a deeper emotional level & charge more for your products or services.
I don't regret choosing SeoBook.com in 2003 (it certainly worked out awesome in the short run), however if I had more foresight I would have shifted to a different domain in the 2004 to 2005 timeframe. So often when people join our community they are amazed by the depth and breadth of discussion outside of SEO, but a rebrand at this point would be brutal. ;)
Owning SearchEngine.com doesn't really do much for you when there is a Google or a Bing in your market. Owning Auction.com (or maybe Auctions.com) doesn't do much against eBay. Owning Portal.com (or maybe WebPortal.com) isn't going to compete against Yahoo!. Microblogging.com is no Twitter, SocialNetwork.com is no Facebook, VideoHosting.com is no YouTube.
It is basically a choice of short-term vs long-term goals:
do you want to pick a specific keyword & try to sell something relevant today (with less flexibility going forward)
do you have the assets available to build a brand that will remain flexible under changing market conditions
While exact match domains can box you in, it is a sign of relevancy for that specific keyword: as you have tied your business to it!
Either you got to the market early, or you shelled out thousands of Dollars. OnlineKredit.org just went for $36,400! Whoever bought it is not probably going to be signing guestbooks / comment spamming / auto-generating content /etc. And the guy who paid $1 million for Poker.org wouldn't have paid that unless he planned on building something sustainable there.
The one area of exact match domains where I think Google has been (and will continue to) tighten up is some of the longtail cybersquatting, but...
tightening up can be tricky because the same word can have different meanings in different markets (perhaps continued efforts into localizing results will solve some of these issues)
earlier this year Google did whack some longtail EMDs that had few other signals of quality
more recently, Google has been showing far more results from 1 domain on navigational queries, and has been ranking official sites for related queries even if they didn't have some of the keywords in their content or link anchor text
even for generic search queries (like "cameras") Google sometimes lists suggested related brand navigation in the search results
Some sites have seen pretty drastic drops in Google search traffic recently, related to indexing issues. Google maintains that it is a glitch:
Just to be clear, the issues from this thread, which I have reviewed in detail, are not due to changes in our policies or changes in our algorithms; they is due to a technical issue on our side that will be visibly resolved as soon as possible (it may take up to a few days to be visible for all sites though). You do not need to change anything on your side and we will continue to crawl and index your content (perhaps not as quickly at the moment, but we hope that will be resolved for all sites soon). I would not recommend changing anything significantly at this moment (unless you spot obvious problems on your side), as these may result in other issues once this problem is resolved on our side.
An example of one site's search traffic that was butchered by this glitch, see the below images. Note that in the before, Google traffic is ~ 10x what Yahoo! or Bing drive, and after the bug the traffic is ~ even.
Not that long ago I saw another site with over 500 unique linking domains which simply disappeared from the index for a few days, then came right back 3 days later. Google's push to become faster and more comprehensive has perhaps made them less stable, as digging into social media highlights a lot of false signals & often promotes a copy over the original. Add in any sort of indexing issues and things get really ugly really fast.
Now this may just be a glitch, but as Tedster points out, many such "glitches" often precede or coincide with major index updates. Ever since I have been in the SEO field I think Google has done a major algorithmic change just before the holidays every year except last year.
I think the reasons they do it are likely 3 or 4 fold
they want to make SEO unpredictable & unreliable (which ultimately means less resources are spent on SEO & the results are overall less manipulated)
they want to force businesses (who just stocked up on inventory) to enter the AdWords game in a big way
by making changes to the core relevancy algorithms (and having the market discuss those) they can slide in more self promotion via their vertical search services without it drawing much anti-trust scrutiny
the holidays are when conversion rates are the highest, so if they want to make changes to seek additional yield it is the best time to do it, and the holidays give them an excuse to offer specials or beta tests of various sorts
As an SEO with clients, the unpredictability is a bad thing, because it makes it harder to manage expectations. Sharp drops in rankings from Google "glitches" erode customer trust in the SEO provider. Sometimes Google will admit to major issues happening, and other times they won't until well *after* the fact. Being proven right after the fact still doesn't take back 100% of the uncertainty unleashed into the marketplace weeks later.
Even if half your clients double their business while 1/3 lose half their search traffic, as an SEO business you typically don't generally get to capture much of the additional upside...whereas you certainly capture the complaints from those who just fell behind. Ultimately this is one of the reasons why I think being a diversified web publisher is better than being an SEO consultant... if something takes off & something else drops then you can just pour additional resources into whatever is taking well and capture the lift from those changes.
If you haven't been tracking rankings now would be a great time to get on it. It is worth tracking a variety of keywords (at various levels of competition) daily while there is major flux going on, because that gives you another lens through which to view the relevancy algorithms, and where they might be headed.
An online definition of Shit My Dad Says states, "In 2009, Justin Halpern, an aspiring comedy writer, was dumped by his girlfriend and moved back in with his parents. He began using Twitter as a way of keeping track of the brutally funny, off-color things his father said around the house."
The popularity of Halpern's Twitter feed spread quickly. Soon, he had hundreds of thousands of followers. Today, almost two million people follow this feed to hear the shit Sam Halpern says. But this hardly tells the whole story.
The popularity of Halpern's Twitter feed brought in bigger offers, and helped him to land a book deal in September of 2009. Released in October to universally warm reviews, it quickly became a bestseller. But it still doesn’t stop there.
In November, Halpern signed a deal with Warner Brothers. Halpern and his writing partner, Patrick Schumacker, were paired with the creators of "Will & Grace" to write a pilot episode (“Bleep My Dad Says,” when spoken in polite company). Picked up by CBS, it stars none other than William Shatner. (Shatner!) It's part of the current Fall Line-up, and you can see it now airing on Thursday nights, prime time on CBS.
To say Justin Halpern has made the most of moving back in with his folks is a bit of an understatement.
No longer living at home these days, we were able to recently reach Justin for a few quick questions about his success.
When you chose Twitter, did you trim your dad's statements to fit the medium? Do you ever paraphrase him, or are his quotes always literal?
Sometimes I'll tweak a word here or there to get it to fit in to the 140. Other times I'll take the first sentence and the last sentence of a paragraph's worth of stuff and put them together to make the thought more concise, but honestly, it's basically just exactly what he says. I wish I could say I had more to do with it.
How long after you started posting did you start getting any feedback?
I would say about three weeks, after Rob Corddry tweeted it. Then it sort of went viral.
What made your Twitter stream so different?
Well, I wasn't giving updates about what I was doing, because I know I'm not interesting. And I wasn't linking to anything, or trying to sell anyone anything. It was just simply a voyeuristic look into my life with my dad.
When I found your twitter feed, I referred to it as the best use of Twitter I had seen. Do you think that it would have been as effective in any other medium? How responsible is the vehicle for the spread of your work here?
Oh, I think the vehicle was unbelievably vital to the success of this. Could it have existed somewhere else on the web? Maybe. Would it have achieved the same success? Probably not. Can I ask myself more questions and then answer them in a paragraph? Yes, but I won't.
It's been widely reported that Rob Couddry's interest is what catapulted the Twitter popularity. Can you talk a little bit about what happened?
Well, I actually ran in to Rob months after he had sent my site viral, and I asked him how he found it and he couldn’t remember. He was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, especially since I was just this spaz coming up to him in a best buy being like "Hey, I'm the shit my dad says kid!" I would have punched myself in the face if I were him, but he sat there and had a fifteen minute conversation with me. Basically he said he saw it, thought it was hilarious, and just tweeted it and then everyone started retweeting and that’s what did it. Essentially, I owe Rob Corddry shitpiles of money.
Reports of your work status (at the time you began in 2009) vary pretty widely on the web. Were you still writing for Maxim.com at the time? How much time did the feed take?
I was still working at Maxim.com at the time, yes. The feed took up eleven seconds of my day. The time it takes to hear my dad say something, then type 140 characters on a computer.
How did you view the extra attention being paid to the feed? Did you feel any obligation in what you posted, or how regularly? Do you now?
I don't really feel an obligation. I post less now because I see my dad less. It's funny, the feed is the same now as it always was, but when stuff gets popular, people are like ""e sold out,” but the funny thing to me is that I'm just writing down what my father says and he doesn't care, just like he didn't care a year ago.
What was the first request received that made you realize there might be something really special here?
An agent Direct messaged me and said "there might be a book here." That blew my mind.
How does your dad seem to like William Shatner playing a character based on him?
He seems to enjoy it. He and Mr. Shatner don't really care to have anything to do with one another, but he really seems to enjoy Mr. Shatner's performance.
You've found success in writing for a mainstream website, a microblog, on a regular blog, in a book, and on a television show. Is time to revisit screenwriting now, or what future plans are you developing?
I plan to write another book in the next two years, and although I'm focused entirely on the show right now, I had been developing a show with Comedy Central before all this happens and I liked the idea and someday I’d like to go back and revisit it. But not as long as this show is on the air.
When success in one medium happens, it is rare to have an ability to leverage it across a variety of mediums and not diminish the quality while crossing them. To what do you attribute the ability of your work to move across media channels and find a welcomed place in all of them?
Well, before the project went in to a different medium, I tried to think of a)why should it even be in this medium, and b)If it should, how will it need to change. With the book, I had stories I wanted to tell, and thought I could give people a more thorough detailing of who my dad is, but at the same time, do it in a way that was concise so that it wasn’t this monumental leap from 140 character sayings to this dense book. As my dad says, "You’re not Hemingway. Just write something fun." I felt as though with the book, I had given the raw, uncensored version of my relationship with my dad, and that if this transferred to television, any attempt at trying to accurately depict that would seem really strange to me. So instead, we looked at TV as a chance to use the tone of my father, but in a way that would speak to more people. The book sold well, but if a show got the books numbers, an executive would put a gun to his head and end his life. Therefore we tried to appeal to a greater number of people by easing them in to a character and a relationship that had a similar tone, but was relatable.
It has been a fast ride, and it certainly is creating great opportunities for you. How have you balanced taking full advantage of the possibilities being offered, and yet not jumping into too much, too soon?
To be honest, I have no idea. I haven’t really had time to sit back and think about that.
You've done phenomenally well with something that didn't start as anything pre-calculated. Yet, at the same time, you had projects where you were definitely investing more time and care into developing something that weren't finding the same levels of success. How does this experience now affect your approach as an artist, or does it?
Well, the one thing I think I've learned is that you have to keep doing stuff you think is funny, or interesting, and hopefully it sticks.
Do you have a favorite quote from your dad?
Yes. One time he came home from the dog park with our dog and he steps inside the house, and takes a deep breath and goes "Well, we're banned from the dog park. I guess it’s okay to bark, and it's okay to hump, but doing both at the same time freaks people out." I think I'm the only one who likes that one, but the image of my dog humping and barking other dogs and my dad being told he was banned made me laugh harder than anything.
Thanks for your time, Justin – and here’s to your continued success!
Lisa Barone wrote an interesting piece entitled "Are SEOs Responsible For Rankings Or Money?". At a recent SMX conference, Matt McGee posed the SEO myth "SEO is about rankings”. Lisa was relieved when the panel concluded that SEO was really all about the money.
I agree, but then all business activity is ultimately about money. We could say car racing is all about money, but it's also about engineering. It's about skill, excitement, and winning the game.
So what is SEO these days, anyway?
A Very Brief History Of SEO
Back when SEO started, SEO wasn't called SEO. It was probably best described by those who did it as a form of hacking.
The first search engines weren't particularly clever, so it was relatively easy to figure out their sorting algorithms. There was a time when Infoseek's algorithm was almost entirely based on keyword density and keyword position.
Whilst this hacking was still ultimately about money, it was as much a game as anything else. I'm sure many old school SEOs remember those days with a sense of nostalgia. It was more of a pure technical pursuit back then.
As search engines got more sophisticated, and more money flowed online, the nature of the game changed. SEO moved beyond technical hacking to an exercise in making connections.
In Googles early days, you could buy a few high PR links - or beg for them - and that was enough to get you ranking top ten in most keyword areas. Buy a few more if you really wanted to go hard. Saturate the long tail with auto-gen, just like your competitors were doing, and it was game on. Some may say we haven't completely left this phase, but the sun is setting on this approach.
These days, a more holistic approach is required. The search engines, Google in particular, have become more and more oblique, which means systematic technical approaches are less effective than they once were. This begs the question - what is a client hiring an SEO to do, exactly?
Ever had trouble explaining to people what you do?
I've worked out a succinct answer that is easy for non-technical people to understand. When people ask me what I do, I tell them "I'm a drug dealer".
It isn't true, of course, but I just figure it's easier for people to grasp. If pushed, I'll launch into a detailed explanation of SEO, internet advertising and web publishing models - an explanation which is universally guaranteed to be met with the response "huh"?.
Often, they'll conclude: "so you rank web sites in Google, then?".
To which my reply is "well, that's part of it". As I explain further, I'm still not sure I'm making any headway, so figure it's time everyone had another drink and talk about something else.
The SMX panel is right. SEO is not about just about ranking websites, it's about so much more. Some SEOs, myself included, use SEO as part of a business strategy, a strategy that is just as much about publishing, domain names, brand building, marketing and traffic acquisition. It involves metrics, tracking, conversions, split/run testing, adwords, adsense, writing, researching, managing and changing the light-bulb in the office when it blows. The commonality is that it is oriented around the search ecosystem. Except for the light-bulb.
Some SEOs focus on very specific areas. It is their job to take a site from nowhere in the search engines to achieving desirable rankings. Their job ends there. I suspect such a role is becoming less common as search companies like Google extend their tentacles into every corner of the web, and search consultants invariably follow.
Ask ten different SEOs what they do, and you'll probably get ten different answers. None of which the lay person will likely understand, unfortunately.
Learning SEO Today
If you're starting out in SEO now, I don't envy your challenge. If you're reading this, and you're an SEO veteran, please feel free to add your comments below. What is your advice to those starting out?
It helps to understand the big picture first. The reason people engage in SEO is ultimately about making money. Even a non-profit may make money from SEO by saving money they would have spent on some other marketing channel.
They want people to find their web site. They want people to connect with them, rather than their competitors. They want people to do this so they can convert these people to buyers, of their goods, their services, or their ideas. If a site were only to rank - say, on keyword terms no-one searched for, or that weren't directly applicable to the objectives of the business, then the SEO work is largely useless. It matters not if a site appears in Google's index. If no one visits via a search in Google, then all that's happened is the bandwidth costs have increased i.e. Google's spider visits and digests pages, and the ROI for the SEO spend looks dire.
So SEO isn't about rankings.
The rankings must translate to something tangible. In most cases, this means gaining qualified visitor traffic. To get this traffic, a site must do more than rank, a site must appeal to visitors. A visitor who clicks back isn't really a visitor. To appeal to visitors, the SEO must first understand them. What do they want? What problem do they have?
Once the SEO understands visitor intent - and they can do this by getting clues from the search query itself, and testing pages against alternatives - they then direct that visitor around the site in order to turn the visitor into something else i.e. a buyer, a subscriber, a reader. Some might say this goes beyond the job description of an SEO, however whether an SEO works on this part or not, they do need to understand it. If the client doesn't see a positive benefit from an SEOs work, they are unlikely to keep paying for the services.
So, yes, SEO is about money. But it is also about the long process by which money is made.
So the conversation in tech media of late is that Facebook is set to become a bigger cash cow than Google.
People spend more time on Facebook. Facebook has users locked-in (kinda). Facebook "owns" the social map. Facebook is popular. Facebook is everywhere. Facebook is big.
Facebook may be all those things, but when it comes to translating "viewers" into revenue, Google currently wins hands down.
Google wins because Google's advertising is closely aligned with the users primary activity, which is to seek topics and click links. The primary activity of a user on Facebook is to socialize. Translating this activity to a commercial imperative, in a way advertisers find profitable, is the challenge Facebook faces.
The primary user activity on Facebook isn't yet as conducive to effective advertising as the topic-matching system used by Google. This shows up in the revenue data.
Google's revenue, with supposedly fewer users than Facebook, is $23.531 billion - and rising. Facebook, with more users, who reportedly spend more time on the site, has estimated revenues around $1b. Admittedly a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison, but useful to get the two entities in perspective. Facebook is nowhere near Google in terms of advertiser revenue.
In short, being popular doesn't necessarily translate into revenue, or marketing value. Ask any popular blogger who is blogging on a non-commercial topic. It can be difficult to convert some audiences, and some activities, into revenue and advertiser value.
As a commenter, Chris Norstrom, on the TechCrunch page I linked to above pointed out:
500 Millions users does not mean those users want to accomplish EVERYTHING on your site. Facebook already tried their own version of "yahoo.Answers" and it failed. People come to facebook to lol with friends and waste time, nothing more. Not to check inboxes, not to ask questions, not to participate in groups, not to rate stores or check into places, not to send or receive money, not to edit documents.
Is he right, do you think?
Like Button Replacing The Link
Some commentators have suggested that the "like" button on Facebook will replace the link
Enter the Like button, the social solution to search, and the replacement of the link as a voting mechanism. The people as a whole are more effective at determining what content is relevant and most of those people are unfortunately not effective at creating links
A "thumbs up" system doesn't say much. It may help people find out what is most popular amongst the heard on any given day, but as anyone can see from Digg, exploding pancakes doesn't mean much, popular as the topic may be. I suspect Facebook users will use the Like button even less when they come to realise it's a form of permission marketing.
Google, on the other hand, is oriented around topical queries. Relevance is decided by alorithms that measure over a hundred different factors. It's fair to say that if a simple "Like" button worked as a means to determine relevance, Google would have implemented it years ago. They pretty much have one, but who really uses it?
In short, user voting is fraught with problems. It won't replace sophisticated algorithms. The link, the basis of the web, isn't going away.
Fit The Message To The Medium
Which, in a rather long-winded way, brings me around to my point.
The Google vs Facebook contest doesn't really matter as far as marketing is concerned. Both environments are valuable to marketers. Both need to be approached in different ways.
As we discussed in Google Keyword Research Tool: Not Popular, search is suited to concepts and services of which the searcher is already aware. Facebook is better suited to distraction media, viral campaigns, and marketing targeted at specific demographic groups.
Facebook may be useful at introducing people to new concepts - especially if those concepts fit into an existing social activity, as defined by members of a specific demographic i.e. the group "Porsche Owners Club" may be interested in new Porsche merchandise, whether they're actively seeking it or not.
Keep in mind the core function of Facebook. The Facebook user isn't likely to be actively hunting for something. They are killing time, or socializing. As a result, Facebook is less suited to direct sales, as it is difficult to determine which phase the buyer is at in the sales funnel. Facebook is more suited to brand building and awareness campaigns. It is suited to relationship building. Adjust your marketing approach accordingly.
Only on very rare occasions can you say that someone "wrote the book" on a topic of relevance and it jumps from metaphor to accuracy. Tamar Weinberg, a social media strategist and author of 2009's O'Reilly published text: The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web, makes a wonderful exception to the rule. An expert trusted worldwide for her experience, opinions and guidance in all things social, Tamar's book on the subject remains a vital, comprehensive and important work on understanding how to consider social media in marketing efforts.
We recently caught up with Tamar. The following interview shares her thoughts on social media, privacy protection and other topics of interest for webmasters, SEOs, and business owners trying to make more of their social media and holistic marketing efforts.
What types of limits make the most sense when attempting to be active socially, yet still protect your privacy? What kinds of personal information are most commonly offered, in your opinion, erroneously?
Most people would say the following: don't post anything to a social network that you wouldn't want your mother or grandmother to see. I think this rule is especially applicable in the social space. Even if you have no friends or followers, someone might be watching.
Think twice before you post something. Would you want to remove it in the future? Some sites won't let you, and worse, your message may have already been shared with the rest of the world.
How do you, as a media-recognized individual, view privacy with respect to adequately protecting and distancing your family members? Is it sometimes better to be anonymous? Are you currently surfing invisibly very often, or do you trend to identifying yourself most often?
This is a good question. My parents are definitely a lot more traditional than I, but I suspect that my 16 month old son is going to be living a pretty public life. I think that being more open is simply a way of the future, whether many of us like it or not. We're seeing the gradual push in that direction.
I present myself as Tamar Weinberg almost 100% of the time. There are very rare instances where I will come across as someone else, and those are mostly under accounts I created more than 5 years ago when anonymity was the norm in the social media space. Slowly, the online world evolved and so did my behaviors and habits. I know I'm not alone.
What are the simplest things a business owner can do to protect their privacy when increasing their social media presence and activity?
It comes down to really using your best judgment and thinking twice before you do anything you might regret. It also comes down to common sense. Use a different password for your email account that isn't the same as your Twitter or Facebook account, especially if those are very frequently used. You'd think this isn't an issue but it becomes increasingly more important as social media interactions come trusted, so accounts are really in heavy demand. I can't tell you how many tech savvy friends in the SEM space have told me that they were stranded in England and needed a wire transfer or just scored a free iPad and that I could get one too.
I don't think any of this is specific to business owners versus the average Joe. If you really are a public face of your company, though, or if you're looking to get a job in the near future, you should either avoid associating yourself with images of your drunken nights out and/or you should learn and master privacy controls of the various social news sites. You should keep your tweets and blog posts purely professional or at least not convey anything that would raise red flags either among your customers or your prospective employers.
How strictly should you maintain the lines between personal and professional when investing in your social media presence? How is this distance likely to impact your effectiveness?
Thankfully, there's no "one-size-fits-all" answer for this. My @tamar Twitter account actually is a mix of personal and professional tweets. I share social media and small business information, and I also talk about my son. Heck, I even announced the birth of my son on Twitter less than an hour after he popped out. :)
The answer is determined by who you want to be and what your followers expect of you. If you're blogging about technology and your entire blog is focused on tech - we're talking 50 posts a day here - and all of a sudden you blogged about how you were going through a divorce, it probably won't resonate with your readers. Then again, if that's all you blog about and built a community on that, taking on an unrelated theme may not really work for you either.
On Twitter, I actually think that having a healthy mix of personal and professional tweets is encouraged. If you're strictly professional, you're seen as a corporate drone. If you humanize your business approach, people will be enamored by what you have to say or do. A "blog" that is purely corporate speak isn't going to warm any of your prospects to you. Adding humor, avatars of the real people behind the posts, and giving more of a genuine human touch gives your customers a reason for doing business with you: because they want to do business with a person. They like dealing with people like them.
Social media has really fostered this shift of bringing people back in the picture. The last era that preceded this was devoid of emotion and it's about time that has come back.
Since it is such a young and emergent field of marketing, what are some of the criteria you use to decide to try a new socially-focused service or software? How does it earn trust and staying power?
There are now a zillion tools on the market. I'd love to try everything out but it's hard to really know them all and/or assess whether it would address my personal needs. I often represent the small business or startup and find that budget is a huge issue. Many people love social media because while it has a huge time commitment, most of the tools are free. For the smaller companies I work with, free does still take precedence. Of course, costly applications might be considered too if they boast great functionality, offer features that are not seen in the free solutions, and have an easy to use interface.
In this day and age, though, there are just so many people offering paid services for products that are already free. There better be a real unique selling proposition because trying to usurp the market leader isn't always going to be easy.
Sure, I pay for apps too, and usually I do so because the tool rocks. I love what it does, I love what functionality, and more importantly, I love the people behind the product.
How has early adoption paid-off or hurt you?
There's definitely a benefit to exploring the space before it gains momentum. You can get deep insights into the community before it gets saturated by spammers and those looking to make a quick buck. Plus, there's simply the competitive edge you get out of it. Having knowledge of a new community and knowing how to benefit from it gives you the opportunity to boost your own visibility. There will need to be some effort made on your part, though, to study the landscape and make some assessments on how to proceed. As an early adopter, you're probably going to be learning as you go along. You won't be able to wait for someone to spell it out to you in a blog post.
In the meantime, though, being first helps you build your own presence and become a leader in the space. That's what made Twitter beat-out Pownce. That's what helped some of the Twitter rockstars you'd have never heard of outside Twitter.com become so visible. That's what helped the folks in the Apple iTunes store build applications that actually earn the developers money, especially in a sea of hundreds of thousands of applications all vying for some attention. Being first really does have its benefits, but being first usually entails extra effort and attention to detail. If you're willing to go for it, I strongly encourage it.
What do you see as the long-term impact of mobile on social media? Is it happening already? How can you be more proactive in mobile social media?
It's funny you ask this on the day I finally bought a mobile phone that is finally catching up with the times. :) (I had a 3 year old Palm Treo with PalmOS. Yes, PalmOS was decommissioned last year. It's a long story.) While I held onto the phone, it wasn't because I love old gadgets; it's quite the contrary, actually! Today, with such widespread adoption of social networks, it proves that there's a much more compelling reason to go mobile. We love interacting online, but it's hugely powerful to put two and two together and meet an online friend face to face.
Mobile social media is all about doing more outside the convenience of your home computer or office PC. It's about networking face to face, which ultimately translates to greater successes as people who love you share all the great reasons why they do.
Mobile social media is also really in its infancy, but taking advantage of meeting persons of interest on sites like Gowalla, Foursqaure, and even Facebook Places can help build those strong relationships that are critical of social media. Plus, it's the early adopter mentality. You have an edge if you start now.
What are some of the warning signs that it is time to rethink or restructure a social media effort? What makes a clear point-of-no-return?
A lot of different factors could be the cause of a social media effort that isn't yielding favorable results. It depends on the goals you've set. If you're looking for followers and aren't getting any, you might need to reassess how you're going about it. If you're looking for traffic but none is coming, you may be using the wrong approach or targeting the wrong communities. If you're trying to get sales and are working at a social media strategy but see no movement after several months of effort (this isn't an overnight process), there's something to be said about the approach you're taking and it's time to try again.
Make sure you have some strong goals in place. Take a look at the landscape and see if there are untapped communities or influencers you have not been able to reach. See if your messaging is solid. Speak to other people in your community to see how receptive they are to your content. Just try again and keep working hard. Every business is social - but you might not be doing the right things to get what you're looking to achieve.
Sometimes it helps to fish where the big fish already are. Yes, it's great to be an early adopter, but it's even better to go where you know your customers are and where you're already hearing of success. You'll still need to work at it and revise your tactics if there's not much coming out of it.
But don't give up if you're at least getting some traction. Nobody said it will be easy. It is a process, and it will take lots of time.
You have a bit of a background in programming - so how much do you attribute this basis for your obvious agility through multiple social media platforms? Do you need to be a semi-programmer today to be able to stay in-tune with gadgetry, software and effectively balance all of the leading programs of social media?
LOL, my computer science programming background was...well, it ended after my very first class in college. I actually did graduate with a major in computer science, but I can't say I understand a thing about programming!
Therefore, while I programmed in a few classes in school, my background isn't reflective of where I am today. I've been living in the social media space since I got my first Internet-connected computer in 1992. I was using AOL when it was called Promenade and cost $9.95 for 5 hours (plus $5.95 for each additional hour). I thrived on local message boards. I actually went into computer science because I fell in love with the social media space before it was called social media, and I figured that computer science was going to get me closer to whatever it was that I wanted to do with myself! The schooling didn't, but I found myself where I knew I belonged after connecting with some great folks who introduced me to SEM right around the time that social media marketing started building momentum. The rest is history.
Agility might be a characteristic of programmers, but I think that once you really get involved in this space, it's a byproduct of your activities. Five years ago, I definitely wasn't multitasking as much as I do today. Now, I can't envision my life any differently. I can't see myself working at an office again because I do my best work at crazy hours with "breaks" that let me focus on other projects. I'm writing this at midnight. It's what I do and I flourish in this kind of environment. It can be learned and has nothing to do with a computer science degree. :)
I think a big reason for success in this space for me is that every action I take online is out of a passion for social media and being as effective and productive as I can possibly be. I wake-up every day with the goal to accomplish big things, and I try to explore the space as deeply as I can.
If you come into it with a passion for what you do, everything will come easy to you. If not, fortunately, there are so many people who are comfortable enough who can walk you through the tools and teach you how to get the most out of it all.
You've said that at a minimum, businesses need to be proactive and listening to social media. Do you believe that brands not yet established are able to sustain momentum simply by listening and reacting in an "appropriate" manner - or will they get lost in the shuffle without the aid of something more colorful and (occasionally) dramatic? Has social media become necessary for smaller business success?
Social media is absolutely necessary. I work with extremely small businesses in addition to companies in the Fortune 500. Sure, small businesses may not necessarily have much drama to act upon, but there are a ton of insights you can glean from the social media space. You can see what your larger competitors are doing and figure out how to run with your own campaign or see how to do it better. You can monitor your industry and find out what is happening that you should act upon in the social space.
The big concern comes to businesses who are so small who realize that they're not seeing much traction or conversion in a week's time. That's not abnormal. Social media takes time. Build the relationships first and then they will come when they need you.
With social media, ongoing communication is critical. Furthermore, small businesses especially have more flexibility to do it because they aren't restricted by their legal departments. The key, though, is to work at it. Social media isn't called social media for no reason.
In your book, you offer the study of how a Comcast rep used Twitter to find and recruit a Verizon customer. Is this type of scenario happening or even likely on other platforms, or is it the real-time response that has made Twitter such an effective customer outreach tool?
I actually once blogged about an online service I was disappointed with. The founder of a competing service wrote a comment on my blog post and I actually checked out the site. If they didn't reach out, I probably wouldn't have bothered.
Real-time response, though, is golden. If you reply immediately when someone is angry with your competitor, they may be more compelled to check you out while they're angry and thinking about how much they hate the competitor. Plus, what if this prospective customer doesn't know who you are? That's a good opportunity to build brand awareness.
What is the main thing people misunderstand or overlook about Twitter?
I think people still don't get it. Twitter's mission is to get people to answer the question of "what's happening?" or "what are you doing?," but at the end of the day, most people don't understand that Twitter is a social network. They hear that it's all about people sharing what they ate for dinner and don't realize that they can connect with people they know or admire and even engage with them.
What are 5 social media tools that you simply won't live without anymore? How does this list differ from the one you had one year ago?
As much as I love new tools, I also am pretty steadfast in my ways especially when something really works. My top 5 tools are:
Google Reader, which I have been using for about 2 years (I was a Bloglines addict before that, though)
Skype and Digsby, because basic communication is still at the core of social media interactions. I used to hate Skype, but now I tolerate it mostly for video chat. J Digsby is a great all-in-one IM client. It just doesn't have Skype support. Before Skype and Digsby, I was using AOL Instant Messenger with the DeadAIM logging program (the last DeadAIM-supported version of AIM stopped working last month, so I'm bummed) and Pidgin. Yeah, I am a PC. :)
WordPress. Yes, I did use MovableType once upon a time, but years ago, I moved to WordPress because it was easier to install (the cgi-bin requirement of MT always threw me off!). WordPress has tens of thousands of plugins that help enhance the blog and make it feel like a real site.
Rapportive: This is an amazingly useful social CRM that integrates with Gmail (I run my dozen email addresses through Gmail's interface, so this really works for me) and gives me information about the people I am corresponding with. I can get their LinkedIn bios, locations, avatars, social networks, and more without having to manually look them up. As for what I used a year ago, well, there's nothing else quite like it!
Being active socially on the web is, or can be a full-time occupation. How does a lone, small business owner's participation differ from that of the lone, successful multi-site webmaster? How does one effectively scale social media efforts?
Don't spread yourself too thin. Try to build your presence where you know you can really make a difference, and branch out slowly if you want to experiment. Hopefully your marketing tactics will pay off to the tune of more business, more money, and the ability to hire more people who can help further your marketing message in the world wide open. ;)
Teething problems? New policy? Bit of both? Regardless, it's fair to say there has been a backlash against the changes made to the keyword tool.
For example, Marty Weintraub points out:
“Facebook” Must Not Be “Commercial” Do Google users really only articulate 12 semantic permutations of “Facebook” at phrase, broad and exact match? Eeesh… Obviously that’s a laughable proposition. These 12 keywords are what Google wants to sell as they productize Facebook related queries into AdWords inventory"
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Google is only showing webmasters what it wants webmasters to see. Google will show data that works to Google's advantage.
There's no advantage to Google in revealing all their keyword data - a valuable asset - especially the data that Google thinks can't be monetized as profitably via Adwords. Adwords research is, after all, what the Keyword Tool is for, at least as far as Google is concerned. As much as SEOs like keyword data, Google isn't there to make SEOs lives easier.
Adwords advertisers might argue that we know which terms provide value, but that's a slightly different issue. Google may prefer to force more bid competition on keyword terms Google deems work best - in terms of searcher relevance, clickability, and for Google's bottom line. There's some merit in this, given their number crunching ability, although they don't have end revenue data for sites using Adwords. Well, not unless you give it to them.
There may well be bugs Google are working out, or we're seeing a a change in the PPC game - i.e. encourage advertisers towards the most profitable terms. At SES San Jose last year Google's Nicholas Fox highlighted that Google had about 30 million words in their ad auction. For advertising purposes, Google figures they do not need to give you a deep set of data, just the core relevant keywords and the ability to taste them via a broad match or phrase match AdWords campaign and refine with negative keywords.
However, there is still a big keyword tail, and the Google keyword tool is but one keyword resource. ;)
Other Ways To Research Keywords
There are many ways to discover keywords. But first, let's back up and focus on the user.
In a user-driven environment, like search, everything centers on typical user behavior, or, more specifically, what's in their head. Those who don't understand this seemingly innocuous piece of information often go wrong in SEO.
For a user to conduct search, they must already be aware of a concept. In this respect, search is reactive. It is difficult - although not impossible - to break a new idea or brand using the search channel, as the searcher isn't already aware of the new concept, therefore is unlikely to search on it. These type of "awareness generation" campaigns are generally better suited to interruption media, such as banners, videos and such.
Is your product/service/concept already known? Is it a brand? If so, it's a good candidate for search marketing. Listen to the way your customers talk. What phrases do they use? What questions do they ask? What problems do they have? Read the sites/magazines/publications they read and look for common terminology and reference points. Keep an eye on social networks and see what news they discuss. Feed all this information - the phrases, questions and terminology - back into your keyword list. Chances are, many of these terms will not appear on keyword research tools.
This means that there are many more keywords permutations than a keyword tool will ever give you.
If you focus on multiple low traffic terms, this can result in more traffic than can be gained from a single high traffic term. You can often achieve this simply by knowing the topics your audience are interested in, and writing about them. Is this SEO? Of course. Your language matches that of your intended audience.
So publish often. Each page you publish is a keyword net.
Look deep into your web analytics / log file. Use keyword terms found in your logs as topic/titles/starter ideas for new pages. Repeat indefinitely. You'll eventually build your unique own body of keyword data that people using keyword research tools are unlikely to find.
Always listen and adapt to your audience. Always listen and adapt to your site's analytics, as it is the purest (and most relevant) data you will ever get to use in your search marketing campaigns.
At a recent SEO conference there was a question asked about getting a geo-local page to rank better for their own specific brand + the location (where they were competing against resellers & aggregators in that vertical). I was a bit tired at the end of the day, so I am not sure if I got my point across well enough there...so I figured it would make sense to follow up here. :)
When the above question was sussed out more fully it turns out that the core issue was not that of rank, but rather one of demand. Even with them + all the aggregators that particular branch was simply not profitable, especially when compared against other branches in neighboring towns.
The core issue here is this: SEO fulfills demand, but SEO doesn't create demand.*
* There are some exceptions to that, like in complex long B2B purchase cycles & people selling abstract products & services like art, but generally its true for most businesses.
Where SEO is Exceptionally Valuable
If you are selling a commodity product that is similar to other commodity products (or you are 1 of 1,000 similar reviews on the web - like an affiliate) then ranking a bit better for the brand you are targeting will lead to more conversions for you the affiliate.
But all of that opportunity is built on the back of arbitraging existing brand equity & consumer demand, it doesn't really create new demand in and of itself. Sure some sorts of reviews can make certain products seem more compelling than others, but the sort of demand creation needed by the above organization has to come from broader generic search queries and/or arbitraging competing brands.
How to Create Demand
If someone ranked just below us in the search results for "seo book tools" with reviews of our exclusive domain finder tool, our competitive research tool, and a few other tools we offer then they might make a limited number of incremental sales for us, but if we wanted to create significant incremental sales we have 3 options
build our brand
try to gain exposure on broader related generic keywords
There are many ways to build brand, from public relations to offering additional products and features to interacting at more events to writing more frequently on our blog to advertising, etc. etc. etc. The good thing about building brand exposure is that branded keywords tend to be the keywords with the highest conversion rates...so when you build your brand you create a surge in traffic and a surge in conversion rates.
When I lived in State College, Pennsylvania the guy who owned StateCollege.com mentioned that at one point he put a huge blimp up in the parking lot of the football stadium advertising his domain name. He was fined for doing it, but it was just a cost of doing marketing...a cheap source of exposure.
As a regional office you might not be able to do that much with brand though: you may lack the budget for branded advertising & there might be some types of restrictions on the types of things you can do to gain awareness.
This is an area where the people asking the question at the conference could have done well. They could have done more aggressive cross marketing within their organization and with other organizations.
Part of what created demand for this whole region / area was a huge theme park of sorts. So in theory they could have also ran special promotions with that theme park offering discounts to frequent visitors. Perhaps they could have found out who went to that theme park and sent them mailers with seasonal discount offers.
If neighboring branches were frequently sold out and this branch was not then what they could have done is find out who amongst there customers are frequent customers and who amongst those people are budget conscious...promote the concept of saving a lot by being a bit further away amongst those who value money more than time.
Further segmentation could be done separating out business functions from tourists. Offer businesses that are holding meetings a discount on meeting room rentals at the cheaper spot that is further away & try to load most of the tourists into the venue with higher demand. Beyond that, demographic targeting can be a strong option. Some areas hold yearly festivals for certain alternative lifestyles.
In the online sense of cross-marketing, both SEOmoz and Raven have been aggressive at running conference discounts and/or offering free conference passes when you set up at one of their higher tiered account levels.
Coupons and loyalty programs can also help on this front. One could also petition the local chamber of commerce to create some sort of seasonal celebration or promotional hook for the town, which would help almost all the local businesses. Is your town the home of the cranberry? There has to be some type of hook or angle.
The world is full of unique places & there is something interesting in your back yard if you look close enough.
Exposure on Broader Related Keywords
The above company which thought they needed to rank better for "their brand name" + "their location" could have driven some additional incremental volume by ranking better for the related query stream, like:
"their product category" + "their location" (putting themselves in front of more of the generic related traffic stream ... they can also run direct ads on other sites that rank well and have relevant traffic streams)
creating a page focused on "their product category" + "near popular local attraction" (coming up with alternate ways people search with the same intent ... there are boatloads of options on this front for those who create content focused on solving specific business problems)
running ads on competing local brands stating things like "free ___ feature" or "up to _% cheaper than brand x" (arbitraging competing brands ... this can be effective, but can easily be misplayed & lead to blood + tears)
Marketers often rely on a facade. If marketing and advertising were truly transparent few marketers would ever be seen as heroes ;)
When information didn't spread as widely it was easy for one public relations hero to scam one country into bombing and destroying another for the benefit of their client.
Distortions and misinformation can work in the short run, but with the web people are connected all the time and the memory is deep.
What is risky about the gap in the narratives is that it gets harder to cover over as time passes. And if you are aggressive + swim with sharks eventually one of them will get mad at you...so yourinsidevoicegoespublic.
This sort of parallel is almost everywhere in business. Google's Eric Schmidt highlighted how amazed he was at how lobbyists write legislation. In the same way, Google writes their guidelines for webmasters to follow. Follow them or accept great risks.
How do you know a person is a big link buyer? If they tell you not to buy links and that they don't buy links then they are probably lying. It is a lie you are *expected* to spread to minimize the risks of Google coming down and crushing you.
Some of the most profitable businesses rely on having multiple business models and multiple brands that monetize markets in different ways. To the person who is afraid of risk you sell the fear - don't buy links. To the person who wants the juice you sell the juice. Then you use the data from their link purchases to figure out what keywords you should be targeting and what domain names you should be buying.
When DIY SEO launched one of their "advanced" tips was to ensure you were not buying or selling any links. And that is from a person who sold a text link network for north of $30 million & is rumored to be associated with yet another text link network. If a person tells you that the links they are selling you are giving them the information needed to figure out what domains to buy then they lose the data source.
But if the person comes out and tells you that you should buy links then that puts all their other publishing enterprises at risk. For me to even write about this weird dichotomy would make some people think "well that person is black hat" when in reality simply observing and stating truth is as white hat as you can possibly be. So as an SEO you either have to lie, or absorb additional business risks for being stupid or naive enough to be honest in a market dictated by a monopoly which preaches the value of openness.
It is hard to beat someone by following their lead. As a new business with limited leverage & capital you must create your own value systems if you want to find opportunity & create a lasting business. This is especially true because many value systems are arbitrary.
Early Google research highlighted how they hated ad based business models and how they felt that having a pure search service was crucial. After they gained market leverage they also gained amnesia. Now on some searches half of web users see nothing but paid ads above the fold. :D
Once you are more established the risk/reward ratio is significantly different. Which is precisely why you rarely read a blog post like this one. By the time a site is as wide read as this one is there should either be a bit of common sense or an investor who has me on a short leash. :)
I should be telling you to not buy links and stay away from the types of folks who have ever even considered thinking about it. :D
The point of this post isn't really about link buying, but rather that you need to consider risk and reward with anything, and do so using your own value systems if you want to compete. Most media has some fibs in it, as concision requires reductionism & it is rarely profitable to give away the farm.
We promote how fair society is and how important meritocracy is. But the conclusion I have come to is that the concepts are largely a farce. Your job as an entrepreneur is to succeed *in spite of* the lack of meritocracy, the extreme corruption, and the debt slavery that are core to modern living. And the first few years are the hardest part!
The latest video from Matt Cutts talks about the value of SEO to Google.
The questioner asks:
"Why does Google support SEO specialists with advice? Google's business is to sell text ads..."?
Matt explains that Google sees SEO helping, rather than hindering, their business model long term.
SEOs create - and encourage site-owners to create - the very sites that Google's technology demands i.e. context accessible by an automated crawler, largely text based, and clearly marked up.
By having sites that jive well with Google's technology, this lowers Google's costs, and helps make Google results more relevant in the eyes of the end user. The larger their index, the more chances Google has to answer the query. SEOs love creating crawlable content!
This means the end user keeps coming back, which in turn translates to Google's bottom line.
It's also a good idea to give webmasters something, else Google risks an more adversarial relationship, which again can cause Google problems.
So SEO is good for Google's business - the "good" type of SEO, as defined by Google, of course.
Matt, as always, is giving the side of the story Google wants you to hear.
His position sounds reasonable, generous, and inclusive, and it is - in many respects. But make no mistake - Google aren't there for webmasters. Google will do what is good for Google. If SEO was bad for Google, Google would not be reaching out to the SEO community, in much the same way they don't reach out to, say, the malware writer community. They just stamp it out.
Matt is a master of public relations. Webmasters can learn a lot from Matt in terms of how to handle their own public relations challenges.
Here are a few pointers, based on Matt Cutts approach:
Public Relations Is Relations With The Public
Matt doesn't talk from on high. He doesn't talk at his audience. He talks with them. He attends events where his audience congregate, and he encourages interaction and questions. This activity serves to build a personal relationship, which helps make his messages easier to convey and sell.
Look for ways in which you can go *to* your audience/customers. Where do they hang out? Address them on their own terms, and in their own environment. Regularly encourage questions, criticism and feedback. When it comes time to announce new products and services, your audience is likely to be more receptive than if your communications are anonymous and sporadic.
Ok, this might be all very well for Matt Cutts. Everyone pays attention to Google, because Google are important. However, no matter how big or small your audience, you still must find a way to relate to them.
These days, it's not so much what people say, it's often who is saying it. Modern media is driven by personalities. The content of the message is seldom good enough to stick, unless it is truly remarkable.
People listen to Matt in ways they don't listen to an anonymous Google press release because of the personal relationship he has worked hard to establish. This works just as well for small businesses. In fact, this is one of the big advantages of a small business - the personal touch. Google is a big company, but they work hard to appear like a small one, at least in terms of their personal relations approach with webmasters.
Matt also gets out in front of issues. If there's something going on in the web community relating to his area, he's almost certainly quick to comment on it. By doing so, he can control and frame the conversation in terms that suit Google. If there are industry issues that relate to your work or company, use them as an opportunity to grab the spotlight. Try to become the media go-to person in your local community for issues by building relationships with media and news outlets.
PR consultants aren't quite as necessary as they used to be. They aren't redundant, but the most important lesson to learn from Matt Cutts is that PR is something you need to embody. It's not just a function that you slap on, or hire in, when it suits, and still be as effective. Make PR flow through all you do.
Matt's greatest skill is not making it look like PR at all.
Since 2003, Anita Campbell is perhaps best known as the Founder and Executive Editor of Small Business Trends, a website bringing over 1 Million readers annually a clear focus on small business news, trends, advice and everything small business. A multi-award-winning site (including a 2010 SEMMY Award), Small Business Trends has remained a dependable and provocative resource of relevant, small business-related content where expert opinions fuse into passionate, intelligent user discussions.
Anita's journey includes a variety of senior executive positions in the corporate world, as well as being an executive and associate counsel for a regional bank working on lending, credit cards, bankruptcy, real estate, large contracts and financial transactions. Her move into several successful years online could easily be seen in many ways as a model of entrepreneurial success. An outspoken, passionate advocate of all things small business, Anita Campbell has an opinion that has been widely recognized and celebrated by her peers, colleagues and the various pillars supporting the small business community.
We were recently lucky enough recently to get Anita's thoughts on a few things surrounding her success, the current state of small business, and what it takes to make a website meaningful and effective...a powerful force that commands attention.
Daily, you are having one-to-one communications with business owners around the world. This allows you a uniquely intimate perspective. Kindly share your general thoughts regarding:
How do you see prime-time media's perspective differ from the way conversations trend on your web sites? On which topics do they tend to be more in-synch? The media tends to portray the economy and the condition of small businesses as more negative than they are. If you only watched TV news, you might get the sorry impression that the typical small business owner is some sort of loser who couldn't possibly succeed in business without government "help. " We portray business owners as being in control of their own destinies. The people who participate at Small Business Trends are for the most part optimistic (entrepreneurs are the world's biggest optimists!). They're much more self-sufficient and "can do" in attitude. We give them advice and tips they can use to solve their own problems.
How do you see the general confidence level of business owners today, compared to five years ago? What are the short-term factors that offer sway? It's hard to tell, because the media colors our perceptions so much. And the media tends to focus so much on the negative - they emphasize 7 out of 6 problems. How much is truth? How much perception? I would say that throughout this recession the small biz experience has been mixed. I've heard everything from "this is the worst we've seen it in 30 years" to "business is booming. " Why such vastly different confidence levels in this recession? In part it depends on how strong the business was before entering the recession - the strong were better equipped to ride it out and even grow...no surprise there. It also varies by industry. For instance, online businesses and service providers to online business are doing well, or have experienced only a small drop in results from 2008-2009 and are bouncing back already in 2010. That's largely due to the growth of the Web as a business channel. Example: online advertising and publishing are growing in 2010, even as their print counterparts are declining rapidly. So ask a print publisher how business is doing and you hear a tale of woe. Ask an online publisher and you hear a different story.
What, if any, is the common cry among business owners regarding:
Finance: There's a lot of lawmaker blather about the "credit crunch" being a huge problem for small businesses. Some give the impression that there's nothing ailing small businesses that a loan wouldn't cure (whether we need a loan or not!). Here's the reality: only a minority of small businesses need or want loans. Sure, for those who do need loans, conditions are tight and some businesses will fail if they don't get desperately-needed credit. But loans are hardly a silver bullet. Take, for instance, SBA loans. I'll be the first to say SBA loan programs have been good for the small business community. But remember that they touch a small percentage of businesses - last year there were fewer than 100,000 new SBA loans made (and 27 Million small businesses). What would help the majority of small businesses far more is for consumers and B2B customers to have the confidence in the economy to buy from small businesses and pay them promptly. But it's much harder for lawmakers to convey leadership and inspire confidence than to simply spend the people's money on another banking bill.
Opportunity: Capitalizing on opportunities has a lot to do with your attitude. Even in difficult economies enterprising entrepreneurs spot and seize opportunities. Some quick examples: recently we saw TechCrunch, a 5-year old blog-based business, being acquired by AOL for anywhere from $25 to $40 Million, depending on which report you believe. In other words, an entrepreneur created 8-figure value in 5 years, part of which was during a recession. It was during the recession that Zappos, a 10-year old company, cracked $1 Billion in sales. So far in 2010, Google has made 24 acquisitions of small companies - meaning 24 startups have created enough value to get a big payday at the tail-end of a recession. Success stories are all around us - especially in the online space.
Government relief programs: Being of a free-market capitalist bent, I am not a fan of most government programs, for 2 reasons: (1) Someone has to pay for them in the form of taxes, and the tax burden usually hits successful business owners hardest. (2) Government programs are contrary to the entrepreneurial mindset. Successful small business owners aren't looking for government help. They just want the government out of their way.
Small businesses generally tend to be the most limited in terms of resources. What made you decide to focus on helping that market?
I have always kept my ear to the ground, and could tell that large companies were increasingly interested in the small business market, so I took a risk that would be great advertiser support - and it has paid off. Plus, I myself am proud of being a self-sufficient, responsible business owner. We Americans dream of being entrepreneurs. It's a high calling - who better for me to serve?
You have had years of success with your business-related podcasts and audio downloads, but the market is continually changing as computers can handle larger bits of information, faster. There is now a veritable cornucopia of loosely related, potentially strategic media buys. What would be your general advice for someone looking to invest in broadcasting business information in 2010, and perhaps having it go beyond? What type of format has been the most cost-efficient, and/or scaled the best for you so far, when measured over time? Any new ones you are trying?
Text-based information forms the bulk of our published content, and in the future will constitute 80% of our content. I think that's true for most B2B sites. Text is easy to consume quickly. It's easy to quote and cull statistics or other biz info from, and is capable of getting readily indexed and ranked in the search engines.
We do podcasts but find that only about 10% of our audience who read information will listen. Not everybody has the time to listen - it's faster to read. And some people simply don't absorb information in an auditory fashion - they have to SEE it. However, people who listen to podcasts download them to their iPods and take them with them while working-out, on trains and planes, while driving in the car - in short, away from their computers. So you are reaching people well beyond their computers, and you get more of their mindshare during those times. For that reason, some of our most rabidly loyal audience are our podcast listeners. With podcasts you exchange breadth of audience for depth of attention.
We haven't done as much with video up to now. We plan to do more. It takes more technical know-how to create quality videos, than write an article. And there's a bit of a learning curve we haven't made time for, to figure out how to optimize online video for YouTube and search engines. But video certainly deserves attention by entrepreneurs in their content strategies.
You have a variety of guest authors, and it keeps the content on SmallBizTrends and your other sites fresh, unique, and diverse - and perhaps most importantly, relevant. How would a smaller player attract any level of talent or look to fill a website without resorting to a "content-mill" approach of adding semi-legible filler to try to compete? To avoid staffing, how have you found it effective to generate unique, user-generated content? Is it volume, depth of expertise, or unique style that seems to be the biggest and most consistent draw?
To attract contributors you have to first create a credible site people want to be seen on. If you fill it with "content-mill" type content, what person would risk their good reputation by guest posting on your site? Webmasters and site owners may not want to hear this, but it takes time and a bit of money to create a credible site. To jump start the guest posting, try recruiting paid authors who already are known in their fields - find some good ones, especially those who also amplify their own articles on social media - and make them an offer they can't refuse. Emphasize quality over quantity.
Also, make sure you have the infrastructure and staff to support guest authors - they need a lot of care asnd feeding. You won't notice this with just a couple of guest authors, but as your site scales up, it will eat up more and more time.
It's a misperception that guest posts are a free source of content for your site - nothing is truly free in business, and you pay one way or another. I am not blowing my own horn when I say we could have 50 times the number of guest authors as we do - after 7 years on the Web with a laser focus on the small business space, it's the truth. But we don't have the internal capacity to answer their questions, get them set up in the CMS system, review and copy-edit their submissions, find and add images to their posts, etc. All of that takes time, and you have to have staff to handle that. Some sites let almost anyone post - as in "if you have something to say, say it on HuffPo." But few sites have the wherewithal of a Huffington Post to pull that strategy off. For most sites, quality will inevitably slip and it becomes a race to the bottom. Your most loyal audience fades away, your best guest authors get disgruntled because quality is going down, and advertisers don't want to pay premium rates to be seen on a low quality site.
We deal with this issue via a multi-tier strategy to include as much of the community as possible to share their content, yet still maintaining quality control. We have different levels/types of sites. On Small Business Trends, we accept a (relatively) small number of guest authors - right now around 100. There, we focus on original articles of roughly 500 words. Then we have a smaller blog that takes guest posts from those who we don't know as well. If they get a good response, we invite them to post on the larger site. We also run a social bookmarking site, BizSugar.com, that anyone can share their small-business related blog posts on - that site is tightly moderated by a global team of moderators 24/7, but as long as your content is relevant and informational in nature, anyone can post there. Finally, we do a hand-curated (by our editors) recap of 10 small biz news articles and high-quality blog posts, daily M-F, from around the Web. This way, we keep control over quality, but highlight as many voices of the small business community as we can. Our motto is: be INclusive, rather than EXclusive - but still maintain quality.
How much is visibility worth? At some point, the traffic and credibility of your site increased, and likewise I assume, did your negotiating power with both content producers and advertisers. Was there a specific point when you recognized your traffic stream and potential as a meaningful bargaining chip and realigned your thinking and negotiations?
Visibility is priceless for marketing - you just have to remember that it's not a business model. Visibility (brand recognition, followers, traffic) is much more critical to actively go out and seek when you're first starting out. A lot of entrepreneurs barter services in exchange for visibility. But at some point you should start scaling back on the bartering as your visibility grows, and make sure you're not spending all your time trying to get visibility, but rather are making money. So think of your efforts in two stages:(1)early on, do guest posts, appear at events, etc. in exchange for visibility, without expecting to be paid. (2) Later, as your brand gets its legs, scale back on the barter activities, and start reaping the benefits. This is when you can command money for speaking engagements and require payment for your writing.
How much of the success you've measured fits into any original plan you had for it? What is the best thing that happened to you (in this regard only) that you never saw coming?
I knew the small business market was hot. What pleasantly surprised me was the level of advertiser interest, which has only grown during the recession. The single best thing that happened was getting recruited by Federated Media, which brings blue-chip advertisers and sponsors. It's been a strong partnership that I value. That partnership has funded the hiring of staff and numerous independent small businesses as service providers. Looking back it seems like a no-brainer to have signed with FM, but at the time FM was an untested startup and I agonized for two months before signing a contract.
According to Alexa.com regarding SmallBizTrends.com, "Search engines refer approximately 17% of visits to the site." Given your knowledge of SEO and the contextual depth of the site, this number seems rather small. Care to comment on its relevancy? How do most people find the site?
The Alexa number is off - the search traffic is higher than that. But I can tell you that search accounts for less than 50% of our traffic. Much of our traffic comes from:
direct referral (people typing in the URL or coming from bookmarks);
third-party newsletters and syndication (we're in a traditional B2B space where a lot of information is distributed via email newsletters and private intranets);
and other sites including other business blogs.
While search traffic is important, having multiple sources of traffic de-risks your business - you won't be driven out of business if some Google change cuts your search traffic.
You are an outspoken advocate and user of social media, and were recently recognized for your Twitter influence. Which 4 tools do you now find essential for managing an active social media presence? Has this changed much over time?
I must be different from most, because I prefer the experience of actually visiting the Twitter site. Tools like TweetDeck to access Twitter have a lot going for them, but I find they immerse you too deeply into the stream of your tweets, and isolate you with tunnel vision. I tend to graze sporadically during the day, on Twitter - jump in, jump out. Plus, I like to click through links that people share on Twitter, so it brings me back to the Web anyway. That said, I do recommend some tools:
SocialOomph.com to schedule tweets in advance - sometimes if I come across something I'd like to share on Twitter, but it's 10 pm, I will just compose a quick tweet and schedule it for the next morning so I don't forget. Or when I know I'll be tied up in meetings or traveling, I will schedule some tweets in advance. SocialOomph does a lot more, but I use it mainly for scheduling. Hootsuite is a similar tool.
Postling.com is a tool I am playing around with right now. It sends a daily email roundup of social mentions.
Twitter search - use the Twitter search function to find like-minded people and information relevant to your business. This is the tool I use most often.
Bit.ly - I have the Bit.y URL shortener button on my browser so I can quickly shorten a URL in one click, to share on Twitter or another social site.
How much SEO infuses into your strategies today when compared to two or three years ago?
For one thing, I appreciate the power of SEO much more today - and it's all because I know more. I still use an outside SEO consultant and an SEO copywriter (both are members of the SEOBook Forums). But together we get more done as a team, because we speak the same language, without too wide a knowledge gap. And I just feel more confident with more knowledge. Confidence is such a huge part of success. Lack of confidence makes you slower to jump on opportunities and hesitant to take calculated risks. As far as our publishing business, we do some things differently today as a result of understanding SEO better:
create better titles for articles, with better use of keywords
target niche content so we can leverage long-tail searches
use more text along with individual podcast recordings to help them get found better by people searching in Google or Bing
Even writers and editors now need to know a little about keywords and how they affect traffic. Bloggers tend to be savvier about the how social media and search can bring a bigger audience for their writings. Professional journalists, on the other hand, tend to think their job is done when they submit their article for publishing, and tend not to think about how a publisher gets traffic (although they should).
In your experience, is content truly king, or can algorithm knowledge routinely trump quality?
There's a glut of content on the Web today. It's much much harder today to attract attention to good content than it was just 2 or 3 years ago. I've heard other small publishers say they are publishing more content than ever before, yet their traffic has barely increased. I just think the competition is greater - so you have to work harder just not to lose ground. What that means, I think, is that if you want to grow a website and keep competing strongly and attract more clients/customers, you can't just "create it and they will come. "
Bloggers especially got a little spoiled thinking SEO was easy. Many got used to thinking that if they just put up a routine blog post they'd attract traffic. That strategy worked better when there weren't as many blogs - but as the number of blogs and content sites exploded, more than content is necessary.
When competition is tough as it is today, you have to have more arrows in your quiver. What's the answer? Today it's 2 things. Search is one. I'd add social media as the other. If you don't at least know the basics of SEO and social media, you'll have a harder time growing your website and your business, especially if you have the itty-bitty marketing budget most startups have.
I see a lot of ads around the web where fortune 500 brands are paying to market you. How did you build into those types of relationships?
These are relationships built on mutual respect and benefit. The advertiser, quite honestly, is leveraging off of my name and site's recognition and our following in the small biz space, as much as we are leveraging off of their sponsor support (which is what pays our many talented service providers who do a great job keeping the sites going).
We (and in particular, I) had to first build-up visibility and a reputation in the small business space before we could even think of those kinds of relationships. That was not an overnight thing. First, I'm a bit older than some Web entrepreneurs and bring a lot of business experience to the table, having been a senior executive in a publicly-traded company. Second, I've also owned businesses with my husband, so I experienced business ownership before I started the site and could speak with authority. And third, Small Business Trends has been around for 7 years, with me working 12 hours a day on it most of that time (I admit to being a workaholic). The first few years I toiled in blissful obscurity. It wasn't until 2005 that things started to pick up, and then they ratcheted-up another notch in roughly 2008, and they are now ratcheting-up yet another notch, here in 2010. I am glad I stuck with it - persistence is vastly underestimated as a success driver!
I recently came across an interesting stream of search traffic.
The demographic using this search stream was one I had no direct experience of previously. I was amazed at the high level of site interaction this group engaged in. It was related to the wedding of two people I'd never previously heard of - Ti & Tiny. From the names of the people who responded, I determined the traffic was mostly African-American. Pretty obvious given the topic, right.
What was interesting was this group engaged and responded at a much higher level than other groups I was targeting on similar campaigns. It was a reminder of the different ways some demographics choose to participate online, especially when the marketing pitch reflects them.
Target marketing, otherwise known as market segmentation, is marketing focusing on specific groups of people.
Marketers use demographic profiles to break down groups into a series of traits, such as gender, race, age, income, disabilities, mobility, educational attainment, home ownership, employment status, and location. This helps marketers determine the correct pitch, language and approach to use when trying to appeal to a given audience.
When we use search keyword lists, it's often easy to lump people who use the same keywords together. However, if we add demographic information into the mix, our marketing can become more focused, which can translate to higher conversions, and higher returns.
For example, according to a recent demographic study, the African-American market makes up 13 percent of the U.S. population and spends more than $600 billion every year. African-American buying power is expected to reach $1 trillion this year. 26 percent of African-American households had incomes of $50,000 per year. 64 percent of African Americans—versus 51 percent of Caucasians—spend more on products they perceive as being “the best”. That last piece of information is very useful if you were designing a page to appeal directly to this market.
How about the gay market. This market tends to be affluent. The average annual income for a gay household is $61,000, 20.4 percent higher than in a heterosexual household. This group tends to have a high level of education. Some 83 percent of gays and lesbians have either attended or graduated from college. This market is also brand-loyal. Approximately 89 percent of gays and lesbians are brand-affiliated and are highly likely to seek out brands that advertise to them - i.e. advertising that depicts gay lifestyles and models, for example.
How about women. Women make up 51 percent of the US population and influence at least 80 percent of all spending on consumer goods in the United States. By 2010, women are expected to control $1 trillion, or approximately 60 percent of the nation’s wealth. Retail stores are designed around women, and it would be interesting to note how women and men may respond differently to the online retail equivalent.
General marketing one-size-fits-all messages may miss such groups. How much advertising language is geared towards white, middle class family groups, for example? That's fine if a white, middle class family group is the target market, but it pays to be aware of groups we may be missing.
Relevance is more than matching a search keyword to page topic.
"Know they customer" and reflect your audience in your site design, language and pitch. Do your pages reflect your world view, or the world view of your customers? Is there a difference? Can you use keyword terms to identify and segment specific demographic groups? Are there keywords that women are more likely to use than men? Keywords that Hispanics are more likely to use than African Americans? Think about the ways different groups in our society use language.
Your website should hold up a mirror to your target audience, using their language, depicting their lifestyles, and speaking directly to their wants and needs.
In my Ti & Tiny example, the demographic was pretty obvious. It was easy to picture the fanbase, and adjust the language, and pitch, accordingly.
BOTW emailed a coupon out good for July of 2011 for 15% off.
Promo Code: SAVE15
Valid through July 31
BOTW emailed a coupon out good for all of April 2011 which saves you 25% off your listing fees. If you do the one-time submission the price is $399, but this coupon will save you $100, making it a $299 one-time submission fee. If you prefer to spend less upfront, they also offer an annually recurring listing for only $112.
BOTW doesn't hand out promotional codes as often as some other directories do, so if you were considering listing your site there I recommend taking advantage of this promotion. BOTW is one of the top directories and I try to submit almost all of our websites there because it is a great source of a highly-trusted link. Their editorial review process tends to be a bit stricter than directories like the Yahoo! Directory, but once you are in you only have to pay the one-time fee.