Don't Buy Link Rich Advertorials (Unless You're Google)

Feb 23rd

I understand Google's desire to have a clean editorial signal & not wanting people to manipulate the web graph.

But Google once again isn't following the best practices they dish out for others.

Both of the following are not one-off articles, but are part of a "series" of advertorials for various Google products with direct followed links to AdWords, Google Analytics, Chromebook, & Hangouts.

Check the date on this next one: February 19th, the same day Interflora was penalized by Google. This is something that is an ongoing practice for Google, while they penalize others for doing the same thing.

Is using payment to influence search results unethical unless the check has Google on it?

None of those links in the content use nofollow, in spite of many of them having Google Analytics tracking URLs on them.

And I literally spent less than 10 minutes finding the above examples & writing this article. Surely Google insiders know more about Google's internal marketing campaigns than I do. Which leads one to ask the obvious (but uncomfortable) question: why doesn't Google police themselves when they are policing others? If their algorithmic ideals are true, shouldn't they apply to Google as well?

Clearly Google takes paid links that pass pagerank seriously, as acknowledged by their repeated use of them.

We're Going Google...

Feb 21st

In the search ecosystem Google controls the relevancy algorithms (& the biases baked into those) as well as the display of advertisements and the presentation of content. They also control (or restrict) the flow of marketable data.

For example, a publisher might not get keyword referral data on organic search, but Google passes that data on via advertisements & passes a large amount of data on through their ad network to other ad networks. Consider this:

a DoubleClick tag on the site sent data to two other companies that collect it for various purposes -- Rubicon and Casale Media, representing a "hop." In a subsequent hop, Casale transferred the IMDB data to BlueKai, Optimax and Brandscreen, while Rubicon pushed it to TargusInfo, RocketFuel, Platform 161, Efficient Frontier and the AMP Platform. AMP then sent the data on to AppNexus and back to DoubleClick.

For about a decade being relevant & focused created efficiencies that more than offset any "size = quality" biases that the Google engineers created. However across many verticals that window is closing & it is never a good idea to wait until it is fully closed to adjust. ;)

This shift from relevancy to "size = quality" can be seen in the stock performance of mid-market companies like BankRate & Quinstreet.

Those companies were laser focused on the markets that have significant consumer intent & traffic value, but Google has eroded the affiliate base & ad networks of many of the direct marketing plays for a couple years straight now.

If Google's algorithmic biases are strong enough to literally move the market on companies worth hundreds of millions to billions of Dollars, one is naive to swim against the tide. The market is becoming more bifurcated.

This is why it is so hard to find a great SEO to recommend for small businesses. If that SEO really knows what they are doing & understands the market dynamics, then they probably won't serve the small business end of the market very long, or if they do, they will do so in a way where their continued flow of payments is not tied to performance. It is hard to have a sustainable business operating in a closed ecosystem if you are swimming in the opposite direction of that ecosystem.

In terms of our membership site here, a good slice of our customer base is the expert end of the market.


It is a tiny sliver of the market, but it is a segment that is somewhat well aligned with independent affiliate types & the sort of direct marketing relevancy-minded folks that Google has spent a couple years trying to marginalize as they cater to branded advertisers. We could try to shift our site to make it more mass market, but I prefer to run a site where we both learn & teach, and fear that moving to lower the barrier to entry and push more mass market will destroy what makes the membership site unique & valuable in the first place.

In early Google research they warned about relevancy shifting toward the interest of advertisers.

Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is "The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention", a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Perform that same cellular phone search today & that original cited page is nowhere to be found. Today that same search includes Wal-Mart, T-mobile, Samsung, Amazon.com, Best Buy & other well known brands. Search for the more common phrase cell phones & you get the same brands plus local results and shopping results. Awareness is replacing precision.

I think Gabe Newell described it best:

Closed platforms increase the chunk size of competition & increase the cost of market entry, so people who have good ideas, it is a lot more expensive for their productivity to be monetized. They also don't like standardization ... it looks like rent seeking behaviors on top of friction

As Google makes search more complex & mixes in more signals, it is becoming harder to win at the game if your operation is singularly focused on SEO & it is becoming easier to win if your business already has a strong footprint in many other channels which bleeds into your search profile. The following chart is conceptual, but it aims to get the issue across.

If one company is spending significant capital & effort trying to combat the Panda algorithm & another company automatically sees a ranking boost from Panda, then the company with the boost is typically going to see greater ROI from any further investments in SEO.

Having spilled all the above digital ink, back in 2007 we decided to shift away from an ebook model to run a membership site. On and off over the years we have done a bit of consulting outside of running this site, but haven't put significant emphasis on it over the past couple years as we were pushing hard to keep up with the algorithms & keep this site growing. With all the above shifts in place we recently decided to offer SEO consulting again.

Some FAQs on that front...

  • If we work with you, who will be working on our project? The same people who write on the blog & run the community: Peter Da Vanzo, Eric Covino & Aaron Wall.
  • How many clients will you work with? Just a handful at any given time. We prefer to have a deep integration with a few clients rather than a bulk model.
  • Who are ideal clients? Those who know the value of search traffic & already have some general awareness & momentum in the marketplace. Examples of companies we have worked with in the past include: large ecommerce companies, tier 1 web portals, strong start ups & hedge funds invested in the web. Many of these clients already had an in-house SEO team & some were just actively beginning to leverage search.
  • I have a tiny company with a small budget. Could I still work with you? In some cases there might be a fit, but if you feel our consulting is beyond your budget you can of course still join our membership website. Consulting is for those who want a deeper engagement than we can provide through our current membership site model.
  • Can you name some past clients? For the most part, no. Our consulting projects typically come with nondisclosure agreements.
  • Can you fill out an RFP? Most likely not. If you are still shopping around for an SEO, we are probably not going to be a great fit. But if you have known of us for years & know you want to work with us, do get in touch.

Post-Panda: Data Driven Search Marketing

Feb 20th
posted in

Now is the best and exciting time to be in marketing. The new data-driven approaches and infrastructure to collect customer data are truly changing the marketing game, and there is incredible opportunity for those who act upon the new insights the data provides” - Mark Jeffrey, Kellog School Of Management

I think Jeffries is right - now is one of the best and exciting times to be in marketing!

It is now cheap and easy to measure marketing performance, so we are better able to spot and seize marketing opportunities. If we collect and analyze the right data, we will make better decisions, and increase the likelihood of success.

As Google makes their system harder to game using brute force tactics, the next generation of search marketing will be tightly integrated with traditional marketing metrics such as customer retention, churn, profitability, and customer lifetime value. If each visitor is going to be more expensive to acquire, then we need to make sure those visitors are worthwhile, and the more we engage visitors post-click, the more relevant our sites will appear to Google.

We’ll look at some important metrics to track and act upon.

But first....

Data-Driven Playing Field

There is another good reason why data-driven thinking should be something every search marketer should know about, even if some search marketers choose to take a different approach.

Google is a data-driven company.

If you want to figure out what Google is going to do next, then you need to think like a Googler.
Googlers think about - and act upon - data.

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Douglas Bowman, a designer at Google, left the company because he felt they placed too much reliance on data over intuition when it came to visual design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle

Regardless of whether you think acting on data or intuition is the right idea, if you can relate to the data-driven mindset and the company culture that results, you will better understand Google. Searcher satisfaction metrics are writ-large on Google’s radar and they will only get more refined and granular as time goes on.

Update Panda was all about user engagement issues. If a site does not engage users, it is less likely to rank well.

As Jim Boykin notes, Google are interested in the “long click”:

On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the “long click”. this occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query. But unhappy users were unhappy in their own ways, most telling were the “short clicks” where a user followed a link and immediately returned to try again. “If people type something and then go and change their query, you could tell they aren’t happy,” says (Amit) Patel. “If they go to the next page of results, it’s a sign they’re not happy. You can use those signs that someone’s not happy with what we gave them to go back and study those cases and find places to improve search.

In terms of brand, the more well known you are, the more some of your traffic is going to be pre-qualified. Brand awareness can lower your bounce rate, which leads to better engagement signals.

Any site is going to have some arbitrary brand-related traffic and some generic search traffic. Where a site has good brand-related searches, those searches create positive engagement metrics which lift the whole of the site. The following chart is conceptual, but it drives the point home. As more branded traffic gets folded into the mix, aggregate engagement metrics improve.

If your site and business metrics look good in terms of visitor satisfaction - i.e. people are buying what you offer and/or reading what you have to say, and recommending you to their friends - it’s highly likely your relevancy signals will look positive to Google, too. People aren’t just arriving and clicking back. They are engaging, spending time, talking about you, and returning.

Repeat visits to your site, especially from logged-in Google users with credit cards on file, are yet another signal Google can look at to see that people like, demand and value what you offer.

Post-Panda, SEO is about the behavior of visitors post-click. In order to optimize for visitor satisfaction, we need to measure their behavior post-click and adjust our offering. A model that I've found works well in a post-Panda environment is a data-driven approach, often used in PPC. Yes, we still have to do link building and publish relevant pages, but we also have to focus on the behavior of users once they arrive. We collect and analyze behavior data and feed it back into our publication strategy to ensure we're giving visitors exactly what they want.

What Is Data Driven Marketing?

Data driven marketing is, as the name suggests, the collection and analysis of data to provide insights into marketing strategies.

It’s a way to measure how relevant we are to the visitor, as the more relevant we are, the more positive our engagement metrics will be. A site can constantly be adapted, based on the behavior of previous visitors, in order to be made more even more relevant.

Everyone wins.

The process involves three phases. Setting up a framework to measure and analyze visitor behaviour, testing assumptions using visitor data, then optimizing content, channels and offers to maximize return. This process is used a lot in PPC.

Pre-web, this type of data used to be expensive to collect and analyse. Large companies engaged market researchers to run surveys, focus groups, and go out on the street to gather data.

These days, collecting input from consumers and adapting campaigns is as easy as firing up analytics and creating a process to observe behaviour and modify our approach based on the results. High-value data analysis and marketing can be done on small budgets.

Yet many companies still don’t do it.

And many of those that do aren’t measuring the right data. By capturing and analysing the right data, we put ourselves at a considerable advantage to most of our competitors.

In his book Data Driven Marketing, Jeffrey notes that the lower performing companies in the Fortune 500 were spending 4% less than the average on marketing, and the high performers were investing 20% more than average. Low performers focused on demand generation - sales, coupons, events - whereas high performers spend a lot more on brand and marketing infrastructure. Infrastructure includes the processes and software tools needed to capture and analyse marketing data.

So the more successful companies are spending more on tools and process than lower performing companies.

When it comes to the small/medium sized businesses, we have most of the tools we need readily available. Capturing and analyzing the right data is really about process and asking the right questions.

What Are The Right Questions?

We need a set of metrics that help us measure and optimize for visitor satisfaction.

Jeffrey identifies 15 data-analysis areas for marketers. Some of these metrics relate directly to search marketing, and some do not. However, it’s good to at least be aware of them as these are the metrics traditional marketing managers use, so might serve as inspiration get us thinking about where the cross-overs into search marketing lay. I recommend reading his book to anyone who wants a crash course in data-driven marketing and to better understand where how marketing managers think.

  • Brand awareness
  • Test Drive
  • Churn
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Take rate
  • Profit
  • Net Present Value
  • Internal Rate Of Return
  • Payback
  • Customer Lifetime Value
  • Cost Per Click
  • Transaction Conversion Rate
  • Return On Ad Dollars Spent
  • Bounce Rate
  • Word Of Mouth (Social Media Reach)

I’ll re-define this list and focus on a few metrics we could realistically use that help us optimize sites and offers in terms of visitor engagement and satisfaction. As a bonus, we’ll likely create the right relevancy signature Google is looking for which will help us rank well. Most of these metrics come directly from PPC.

First, we need a.....dashboard! Obviously, a dashboard is a place where you can see how you’re progressing, at a glance, measured over time. There are plenty of third party offerings, or you can roll-your-own, but the important thing is to have one and use it. You need a means to measure where you are, and where you’re going in terms of visitor engagement.

1. Traffic Vs Leads

Traffic is a good metric for display and brand purposes. If a site is making money based on how many people see the site, then they will be tracking traffic.

For everyone else, combining the two can provide valuable insights. If traffic has increased, but the site is generating the same number of leads - or whatever your desired engagement action may be, but I'll use the term "leads" to mean any desired action - then is that traffic worthwhile? Track how many leads are closed and this will tell you if the traffic is valuable. If the traffic is high, but engagement is low, then visitors are likely clicking back, and this is not a signal Google deems favorable.

This data is also the basis for adjusting and testing the offer and copy. Does engagement increase or decrease after you’ve adjusted the copy and/or the offer?

2. Search Channel Vs Other Channels

Does search traffic result in more leads than, say, social media traffic? Does it result in more leads vs any other channel? If so, then there is justification to increase spending on search marketing vs other channels.

Separate marketing channels out so you can compare and contrast.

3. Channel Growth

Is the SEM channel growing, staying the same, or declining vs other channels?

Set targets and incremental milestones. Create a process to adjust copy and offers and measure the results. The more conversions to desired action, the better your relevancy signal is likely to be, and the more you’ll be rewarded.

You can get quite granular with this metric. If certain pages are generating more leads than others as the direct result of keyword clicks, then you know which keyword areas to grow and exploit in order to grow the performance of the channel as a whole. It can be difficult to isolate if visitors skip from page to page, but it can give you a good idea which entry pages and keywords kick it all off.

4. Paid Vs Organic

If a search campaign is running both PPC and SEO, then split these two sources out. Perhaps SEO produces more leads. In which case, this will justify creating more blog posts, articles, link strategies, and so on.

If PPC produces more leads, then the money may be better spent on PPC traffic, optimizing offers and landing pages, and running A/B tests. Of course, the information gleaned here can be fed into your organic strategies. If the content works well in PPC, it is likely to work well in SEO, at least in terms of engagement.

5. Call To Action

How do you know if a call to action is working? Could the call to action be worded differently? Which version of the call to action works best? Which position does it work best? Does the color of the link make a difference?

This type of testing is common in PPC, but less so in SEO. If SEO pages are optimized in this manner, then we increase the level of engagement and reduce the click-back.

6. Returning Visitor

If all your visitors are new and never return, then your broader relevance signals aren’t likely to be great.

This doesn’t mean all sites must have a high number of return visitors in order to deemed relevant - one-off sales sites would be unlikely to have return visitors, yet a blog would - however, if your site is in a class of sites where every other site listed is receiving return visits, then your site is likely to suffer by comparison.

Measure the number of return visitors vs new visitors. Think about ways you can keep visitors coming back, especially if you suspect that your competitors have high return visitor rates.

7. Cost Per Click/Transaction Conversion Rate/Return On Ad Dollars Spent

PPC marketers are familiar with these metrics. We pay per click (CPC) and hope the visitor converts to desired action. We get a better idea of the effectiveness of keyword marketing when we combine this metric with transaction conversion rate (TCR) and return on ad dollars spent (ROA). TCR = transaction conversion rate; the percentage of customers who purchase after clicking through to your website. ROA = return on ad dollars spent.

These are good metrics for SEOs to get their heads around, too, especially when justifying SEO spends relative to other channels. For cost per click, use the going rate on Adwords and assign it to the organic keyword if you want to demonstrate value. If you're getting visitors in at a lot lower price per click the SEO channel looks great. The cost-per-click in SEO is also the total cost of the SEO campaign divided by clicks over time.

8. Bounce Rate

Widely speculated to be an important metric post-Panda. Obviously, we want to get this rate down, Panda or not.

If you’re seeing good rankings but high bounce rates for pages it’s because the page content isn’t relevant enough. It might be relevant in terms of content as far as the algorithm sees it, but not relevant in terms of visitor intent. Such a page may drift down the rankings over time as a result, and it certainly doesn’t do other areas of your business any good

9. Word Of Mouth (Social Media Reach/Brand)

Are other people talking about you? Do they repeat your brand name? Do they do so often? If you can convince enough people to search for you based on your name, then you’ll “own” that word. Google must return your site, else they’ll be seen as lacking.

Measuring word-of-mouth used to be difficult but it’s become a lot easier, thanks to social media and the various information mining tools available. Aaron has written a lot on the impact of brand in SEO, so if this area is new to you, I’d recommend reading back through The Rise Of Brand Over Time, Big Brands and Potential Brand Signals For Panda.

10. Profit

It’s all about the bottom line.

If search marketers can demonstrate they add value to the bottom line, then they are much more likely to be retained and have budget increased. This isn't directly related to Panda optimization, other than in the broad sense that the more profitable the business, the more likely they are keeping visitors satisfied.

Profit = revenue - cost. Does the search marketing campaign bring in more revenue that it costs to run? How will you measure and demonstrate this? Is the search marketing campaign focused on the most profitable products, or the least? Do you know which products and services are the most profitable to the business? What value does your client place on a visitor?

There is no one way of tracking this. It’s a case of being aware of the metric, then devising techniques to track it and add it to the dashboard.

11. Customer Lifetime Value

Some customers are more important than others. Some customers convert, buy the least profitable service or product, and we never hear from them again. Some buy the most profitable service or product, and return again and again.

Is the search campaign delivering more of the former, or the latter? Calculating this value can be difficult, and relies on internal systems within the company that the search marketer may not have access to, but if the company already has this information, then it can help validate the cost of search marketing campaigns and to focus campaigns on the keyword areas which offer the most return.

Some of these metrics don't specifically relate to ranking, they're about marketing value, but perhaps an illustration of how some of the traditional marketing metrics and those of search marketers are starting to overlap. The metrics I've outlined are just some of the many metrics we could use and I'd be interested to hear what other metrics you're using, and how you're using them.

Optimizing For Visitor Experience

If you test these metrics, then analyse and optimize your content and offers based on your findings, not only will this help the bottom line, but your signature on Google, in terms of visitor relevance, is likely to look positive because of what the visitor does post-click.

When we get this right, people are engaging. They are clicking on the link, they’re staying rather than clicking back, they’re clicking on a link on the page, they’re reading other pages, they’re interacting with our forms, they’re book-marking pages or telling others about our sites on social media. These are all engagement signals, and increased engagement tends to indicate greater relevance.

This is diving deeper than a traditional SEO-led marketing approach, which until quite recently worked, even if you only operated in the search channel and put SEO at the top of the funnel. It’s not just about the new user and the first visit, it’s also about the returning visitor and their level of engagement over time. The search visitor has a value way beyond that first click and browse.

Data-driven content and offer optimization is where SEO is going.

Growing the Search Pie

Feb 19th

Growing search marketshare is hard work. At a recent investor conference Marissa Mayer stated that: "The key pieces are around the underpinnings of the alliance themselves. The point is, we collectively want to grow share, rather than trading share with each other."

Part of the reason Yahoo! & Bing struggle to gain marketshare is Google's default search placement payments to Mozilla and Apple. If the associated browsers have nearly 1/3 the market & Chrome is another 1/3 of the market then it requires Yahoo! or Bing to be vastly better than Google to break the Google habit + default search placement purchases.

Danny reported some interesting comments from Nikesh Arora:

  • half of those billions of queries it handles comes from Google partners, rather than searches at Google directly.
  • Arora also said that he expects about 50% of advertising to move online in the next three to five years.
  • he just said ad team looks at ways to make ads not look like ads. I think he meant that positively, like content you want.

A friend sent me a screenshot where he was surprised how similar the results looked between Bing & Google.

If Bing looks too different it feels out of place, if it looks to similar it doesn't feel memorable. And if Google is optimized for revenue generation then Bing is going to have a fairly similar look & feel to their results if they want to earn enough to bid on partnerships.

Another factor helping Google maintain their dominance in search marketshare is the shift of search query mix to mobile, where Google has a 95.8% marketshare.

Mobile search has a significantly higher CTR than desktop search, due in large part to there being less screen real estate. By the end of this year tablets will likely account for 20% of Google's search ad clicks & drive $5 billion in ad revenues. Add in mobile phones with tablets & mobile search will drive 1/3 of paid search clicks by the end of this year.

With mobile becoming such a huge share of search clicks Google is forcing advertisers into buying all platforms with their ad purchase via their enhanced AdWords campaigns. Google builds off that sort of dominance & Yahoo! is only making about $125 million a year in total revenue from Yahoo!'s mobile traffic.

In spite of losing share on browser defaults & mobile, Yahoo! managed to grow their search ad clicks 11% year over year. How was Yahoo! able to do that? In part by quietly dialing up on search arbitrage. They have long had a "trending now" box on their homepage, but over the past year they have dialed up on ads in their news, finance & sports sections that are linked to search queries. Some of these ad units are in the sidebar & some are inline with the articles.

Yahoo! also buys ads on some smaller ad networks & sends those through to a search result with almost no organic results.

Yahoo! has had a long history of search arbitrage, but they typically did it through a partner network which lowered click value. That was part of what lowered their click prices & made them sign the deal with Microsoft (you couldn't even opt out of Yahoo!'s partner syndication until after they signed the deal with Microsoft).

I recently saw the above ad for Bing which highlighted how they want to work with brands, but Bing still has a number of issues they are dealing with on the monetization front: tighter broad matching, smaller ad ecosystem, regional issues with ad targeting, and no serious effort to develop a contextual ad program open to the long tail of publishers. In spite of those issues, the Yahoo! / Bing ad network was finally starting to build a critical mass & Yahoo! responded by signing a deal to carry Google's contextual AdSense ads.

As Google continues to layer contextual search layers into mobile devices, launch their own physical stores, layer their social network into the search ecosystem, expand their venture investments, inserts themselves at an ISP level, shape the news, control a greater share of ad budget with programmatic bidding, control measurements of success, redefine words, scrape-n-displace publishers with the knowledge graph, de-fund competitors, & hyper-target ads at users, their leverage & market dominance will only grow.

Google is great at growing the search pie.

Yahoo!, not so much. ;)

How Rich Will Listings Get?

Feb 19th

As Google has went from ad platform for illicit content (both ways) to host of illicit content & reseller of legit content, they have cracked down on competitors & are now trying to police the ability of other sites to accept payment:

The web search giant, which is embroiled in a long-running row over the way it deals with pirated material, is considering the radical measure so that it can get rid of the root cause instead of having to change its own search results.

Executives want to stop websites more or less dedicated to offering links to pirated films, music and books from making money out of the illegal material. The plans, still in discussion, would also block funding to websites that do not respond to legal challenges, for example because they are offshore.

While Google is partnering with big media (that has long had a multi-polar approach to copyright) Google continues to gain in a game of inches.

Last month Google announced a new format for their image search results, where they pull the image inline without sending the visitor onto the publisher website. At the same time they referenced some "phantom visitor" complaint from publishers to justify keeping the visitor on Google & highlighted how there were now more links to the image source. If publishers were concerned about the "phantom visitor problem" we wouldn't see so many crappy slideshow pageviews.

Google's leaked remote rater guidelines do mention something about rating an image lower under certain situations like where the author might want attributed for their work that they are routinely disintermediated from.

On Twitter a former Google named Miguel Silvar wrote: "If you do SEO and decide to block Image Search just because it's bringing less traffic, you can stop calling yourself an SEO expert."

Many "experts" would claim that any exposure is good, even if you don't get credit for it. Many clients of said "experts" will end up bankrupt! Experts who suggest it is reasonable for content creators to be stripped of payment, traffic & attribution are at best conflicted.

One of the fears of microformats was that as you add incremental cost to structure your data, the search engines may leverage your extra effort to further displace you. That fear turned out to be valid, as in the background Google was offering vertical review sites the "let us scrape you, or block Googlebot" ultimatum.

Google Shopping has shifted to paid inclusion & Google has made further acquisitions in the space, yet people still recommend that ecommerce sites get ahead by marking up their pages with microformats.

As Google continues to win the game of inches of displacing the original sources, they don't even need you to mark up your content for them to extract their knowledge graph. Bill Slawski shared a video of Google's Andrew Hogue describing their mass data extraction effort: "It's never going to be 100% accurate. We're not even going to claim that it is 100% accurate. We are going to be lucky if we get 70% accuracy ... we are going to provide users with tools to correct the data."

If you as a publisher chose to auto-generate content at a 70% accuracy, pumped it up to first page rankings & then said "if people care they will fix it" Google would rightfully call you a spammer. If they do the same, it is knowledge baby.

Eric Schmidt recently indicated that Google was willing to sacrifice relevancy to collect identity information. Their over-promotion of Google+ has become more refined over time, but it hasn't went way.

Google pays for default placement in Safari & Firefox. Former Google executives head AOL & Yahoo!. Google can thus push for new cultural norms that make Microsoft look like an oddball or outsider if they don't play the same game.

Google isn't the only company playing the scrape-n-displace game.

"The innovation in search is really going to be on the user interface level" - Marissa Mayer



It's worth keeping an eye on Yahoo! (the above types of scraped rich listings, lead generation forms in the organic search results, contextual ad partnership with Google) to see where Google will head next.

Identity vs Irrelevance

Feb 19th

“Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.” - Eric Schmidt

Authoritarian Regimes & Data Mining

One wonders how Mr. Schmidt can balance the above statement along with warning about authoritarian governments.

And the risks from such data mining operations are not just in "those countries over there." The ad networks that hire lobbyists to change foreign privacy laws do so such that they can better track people the globe over and deliver higher paying ads. (No problem so long as they don't catch you on a day you are down and push ads for a mind numbing psychotropic drug with suicidal or homicidal side effects.)

And defense contractors are fast following with mining these social networks. (No problem so long as your name doesn't match someone else's that is on some terrorist list or such.)

Large & Anonymous

What's crazy is when we get to the other end of the spectrum. Want to know if your hamburger has pink slime in it? Best of luck with that.

Then you get the mainstream media sites that get a free pass (size = trust) and it doesn't matter if their content is created through...

  • a syndicated partnership of with eHow-styled content (Demand Media)
  • a syndicated partnership of scraped/compiled date (FindTheBest)
  • auto-generated content from a bot (Narrative Science)
  • scrape + outsourcing + plagiarism + fake bylines (Journatic)
  • top 10 ways to regurgitate top 10 lists from 10 different angles (BuzzFeed)
  • hatchet job that was written before manufacturing the "conforming" experience (example)
  • factually incorrect hate bait irrelevant article with no author name, wrapped in ads for get rich quick scams (example)

... no matter how it is created, it is fine, so long as you have political influence. Not only will it rank, but it will be given a ranking boost based on being part of a large site, even if it is carpet bombed with irrelevant ads.

Coin Operated Ideals

But then the companies that claim this transparency is vital for society pull a George Costanza & "Do The Opposite" with their own approach.

Whenever they manipulate markets to their own benefit they claim the need for secrecy to stop spammers or protect privacy. But then they collect the same data & pass it along without consent to those who pay for the data.

When Google was caught vandalizing OpenStreetMaps or lying to businesses listed in Mocality, those were the acts of anonymous contractors. When Google got caught in a sting operation pushing ads for illegal steroids from Mexico they would claim that behavior didn't reflect their current policies and that we need to move on.

Then of course there are the half dozen (or more) times that Google has violated their own search quality guidelines. So often that is due yet again to "outsourcing" or a partner of some sort. And they do that in spite of the ability to arbitrarily hardcode themselves in the result set.

If we don't exam the faux ideals push to shift cultural norms we will end up with a crappier world to live in. Some Googlers (or Google fanbois) who read this will claim I am a broken record stuck in the past on this stuff. But those same people will be surprised x years down the road when something bizarre surfaces from an old deranged contact or prior life.

Anyone who has done anything meaningful has also done some things that are idiotic.

Is that sort of stuff always forever relevant or does it make sense at some point to move on?

When that person is Eric Schmidt, the people he pontificate to are blackballed for following his ideals.

After all, his ideals don't actually apply to him.

Comparing Desktop vs Mobile Usage

With so much interest and buzz around mobile and its impact on search, this recent study by the Harris Poll was telling and helpful from an SEO and link building standpoint. 

Harris asked smartphone users about their habits and which appliance they used when performing certain online tasks like reading email and researching goods.   They polled 2400 adults, 991 of whom use a smartphone.  Here are a handful of interesting results from the survey with potential to influence SEO:

Uses a computer (desktop/laptop)   %

Uses a smartphone   %

 

 

 

 

Take surveys

86%

Take surveys

24%

Research good or services

81%

Research goods and services

45%

 

 

 

 

Read work emails

59%

Read work emails

38%

Send work emails

60%

Send work emails

32%

 

 

 

 

Read social media on sites/apps such as Facebook & Twitter

62%

Read social media on sites/apps such as Facebook & Twitter

56%

Share social media

51%

Share social media

44%

Research/Surveys

The fact 81% of the people polled use a computer to research or take a survey isn’t surprising, both tasks are easier from a visual and aesthetics view when done on a large screen.   But… 45% mobile users is not a number to dismiss.  Both numbers reinforce a number of SEO points:

  1. Keep your visual and written content separate so anyone using a smartphone can easily click to what they want to find. Good case for building a presence on Pinterest or Flickr if you have a lot of visual products.
  2. Keep producing descriptive, informative and up-to-date content for your website. (Don’t send it away!)  Promote what you write through social media, email distribution lists and on your blogs, forums, etc.  
  3. Use a “social media” type press release when announcing new products and major content additions to your site.
  4. For affiliate marketers:  A growing number of shoppers use bricks and mortar stores as “showrooms” before going back online to make a purchase.   Keep your best promotions and discounts on your site rather than on sites like Coupon Cabin.  Create an app to alert people when new products and discounts are available. 
  5. Add RSS sign up options on all pages especially those with content and discounts.
  6. Promote new content through an app as well!

Read/Send eMail

If you use email in any way to build links, know more people use computers to read and send work email than mobile devices. 

  1.  If you are contacting people for content or link placement and doing it after business hours, know more people will see your message on their smartphones.  Keep the email short and to the point, if you need to use images link out rather than embed.
  2. Keep in mind most people using smartphones do so when they are on the move or after business hours.  Either scenario means you need to hook their attention the second he/she opens the email.  Work hard to make subject lines pop and state your mission in the first sentence or two. 

Social Media

Based on the percentages shown here, people like their social media no matter what device they are on! 
  1. Include social media share elements on everything you publish (even PDF’s)
  2. Create a Google Plus account and establish authorship
  3. Use niche social media sites as well as the big boys
  4. Mix up the type of content you use, create contests for Twitter and polls on Facebook

Final Tip:

Although this wasn’t included in the Harris Poll, the fact people are using their smartphone 45% of the time to research goods and services  warrants a mention:  add a click-to-call option and/or telephone number on all your mobile pages as well as links to your full website and email.

The full version of this post can be found in our SEOBook forum.

No Effort Longtail SEO Revenues, from FindTheBest

In our infographic about the sausage factory that is online journalism, we had a throw away line about how companies were partnering with FindTheBest to auto-generate subdomains full of recycled content. Apparently, a person named Brandon who claims to work for FindTheBest didn't think our information was accurate:

Hi Aaron,
My name is Brandon. I have been with FindTheBest since 2010 (right after our launch), and I am really bummed you posted this Infographic without reaching out to our team. We don't scrape data. We have a 40 person+ product team that works very closely with manufacturers, companies, and professionals to create useful information in a free and fair playing field. We some times use whole government databases, but it takes hundreds-of-thousands of hours to produce this content. We have a product manager that owns up to all the content in their vertical and takes the creation and maintenance very seriously. If you have any questions for them about how a piece of content was created, you should go to our team page and shoot them a email. Users can edit almost any listing, and we spend a ton of time approving or rejecting those edits. We do work with large publishers (something I am really proud of), but we certainly do not publish the same exact content. We allow the publishers to customize and edit the data presentation (look, style, feel) but since the majority of the content we produce is the factual data, it probably does look a little similar. Should we change the data? Should we not share our awesome content with as many users as possible? Not sure I can trust the rest of your "facts", but great graphics!

I thought it was only fair that we aired his view on the main blog.

...but then that got me into doing a bit of research about FindTheBest...

In the past when searching for an issue related to our TV I saw a SERP that looked like this

Those mashed sites were subdomains on trusted sites like VentureBeat & TechCrunch.

Graphically the comparison pages appear appealing, but how strong is the editorial?

How does Find The Best describe their offering?

In a VentureBeat post (a FindTheBest content syndication partner) FTB's CEO Kevin O’Connor was quoted as saying: “‘Human’ is dirty — it’s not scalable.”

Hmm. Is that a counter view to the above claimed 40 person editorial research team? Let's dig in.

Looking at the top listed categories on the homepage of Find The best I counted 497 different verticals. So at 40 people on the editorial team that would mean that each person managed a dozen different verticals (if one doesn't count all the outreach and partnership buildings as part of editorial & one ignores the parallel sites for death records, grave locations, find the coupons, find the company & find the listing).

Google shows that they have indexed 35,000,000 pages from FindTheBest.com, so this would mean each employee has "curated" about 800,000 pages (which is at least 200,000 pages a year over the past 4 years). Assuming they work 200 days a year that means they ensure curation of at least 1,000 "high quality" pages per day (and this is just the stuff in Google's index on the main site...not including the stuff that is yet to be indexed, stuff indexed on 3rd party websites, or stuff indexed on FindTheCompanies.com, FindTheCoupons.com, FindTheListing, FindTheBest.es, FindTheBest.or.kr, or the death records or grave location sites).

Maybe I am still wrong to consider it a bulk scrape job. After all, it is not unreasonable to expect that a single person can edit 5,000 pages of high quality content daily.

Errr....then again...how many pages can you edit in a day?

Where they lost me though was with the "facts" angle. Speaking of not trusting the rest of "facts" ... how crappy is the business information for SEO Book on FindTheBest that mentions that our site launched in 2011, we have $58,000 in sales, and we are a book wholesaler.

I realize I am afforded the opportunity to work for free to fix the errors of the scrape job, but if a page is full of automated incorrect trash then maybe it shouldn't exist in the first place.

I am not saying that all pages on these sites are trash (some may be genuinely helpful), but I know if I automated content to the extent FTB does & then mass email other sites for syndication partnerships on the duplicate content (often full of incorrect information) that Google would have burned it to the ground already. They likely benefit from their CEO having sold DoubleClick to Google in the past & are exempt from the guidelines & editorial discrimination that the independent webmaster must deal with.

One of the ways you can tell if a company really cares about their product is by seeing if they dogfood it themselves.

Out of curiousity, I looked up FindTheBest on their FindTheCompany site.

They double-list themselves and neither profile is filled out.

That is like having 2 sentence of text on your "about us" page surrounded by 3 AdSense blocks. :D

I think they should worry about fixing the grotesque errors before worrying about "sharing with as many people as possible" but maybe I am just old fashioned.

Certainly they took a different approach ... one that I am sure that would get me burned if I tried it. An example sampling of some partner sites...

  • analytics-software.businessknowhow.com "BusinessKnowHow ended the relationship with find the best as soon as we realized how spammy they were." - Janet Attard
  • accountants.entrepreneur.com
  • acronyms.sciencedaily.com
  • alternative-fuel.cleantechnica.com
  • antivirus.betanews.com
  • apps.edudemic.com
  • atvs.agriculture.com
  • autopedia.com/TireSchool/
  • autos.nydailynews.com
  • backup-software.venturebeat.com
  • bags.golfdigest.com
  • beer.womenshealthmag.com
  • best-run-states.247wallst.com
  • bestcolleges.collegenews.com
  • bikes.cxmagazine.com
  • bikes.triathlete.com
  • birds.findthelisting.com
  • birth-control.shape.com
  • brands.goodguide.com
  • breast-pumps.parenting.com
  • broker-dealers.minyanville.com
  • businessschools.college-scholarships.com
  • camcorders.techcrunch.com
  • cars.pricequotes.com
  • cats.petharbor.com
  • catskiing.tetongravity.com
  • chemical-elements.sciencedaily.com
  • comets-astroids.sciencedaily.com
  • companies.findthecompany.com
  • companies.goodguide.com
  • compare-video-editing-software.burnworld.com
  • compare.consumerbell.com
  • compare.guns.com
  • compare.roadcyclinguk.com
  • comparemotorbikes.motorbike-search-engine.co.uk
  • congressional-lookup.nationaljournal.com
  • courses.golfdigest.com
  • crm.venturebeat.com
  • cyclocross-bikes.cyclingdirt.org
  • dealers.gundigest.com
  • death-record.com
  • debt.humanevents.com
  • design-software.underworldmagazines.com
  • destination-finder.fishtrack.com
  • diet-programs.shape.com
  • digital-cameras.techcrunch.com
  • dinosaurs.sciencedaily.com
  • dirt-bikes.cycleworld.com
  • dogbreeds.petmd.com
  • dogs.petharbor.com
  • donors.csmonitor.com
  • e-readers.techcrunch.com
  • earmarks.humanevents.com
  • earthquakes.sciencedaily.com
  • ehr-software.technewsworld.com
  • fallacies.sciencedaily.com
  • fec-candidates.theblaze.com
  • fec-committees.theblaze.com
  • federal-debt.nationaljournal.com
  • fha-condos.realtor.org
  • fha.nuwireinvestor.com
  • financial-advisors.minyanville.com
  • findthebest.com
  • findthebest.motorcycleshows.com
  • findthecoupons.com
  • findthedata.com
  • firms.privateequity.com
  • franchises.fastfood.com
  • ftb.cebotics.com
  • game-consoles.tecca.com
  • game-consoles.venturebeat.com
  • gin.drinkhacker.com
  • golf-courses.bunkershot.com
  • gps-navigation.techcrunch.com
  • gps-navigation.venturebeat.com
  • green-cars.cleantechnica.com
  • guns.dailycaller.com
  • ham-radio.radiotower.com
  • hdtv.techcrunch.com
  • hdtv.venturebeat.com
  • headphones.techcrunch.com
  • headphones.venturebeat.com
  • high-chairs.parenting.com
  • highest-mountains.sciencedaily.com
  • hiv-stats.realclearworld.com
  • horsebreeds.petmd.com
  • hospital-ratings.lifescript.com
  • hr-jobs.findthelistings.com
  • inventors.sciencedaily.com
  • investment-advisors.minyanville.com
  • investment-banks.minyanville.com
  • iv-housing.dailynexus.com
  • laptops.mobiletechreview.com
  • laptops.techcrunch.com
  • laptops.venturebeat.com
  • lawschool.lawschoolexpert.com
  • locategrave.org
  • mammography-screening-centers.lifescript.com
  • mba-programs.dealbreaker.com
  • medigap-policies.findthedata.org
  • military-branches.nationaljournal.com
  • motorcycles.cycleworld.com
  • mountain-bikes.outsideonline.com
  • nannies.com
  • nobel-prize-winners.sciencedaily.com
  • nursing-homes.caregiverlist.com
  • nursing-homes.silvercensus.com
  • onlinecolleges.collegenews.com
  • phones.androidauthority.com
  • pickups.agriculture.com
  • planets.realclearscience.com
  • planets.sciencedaily.com
  • plants.backyardgardener.com
  • presidential-candidates.theblaze.com
  • presidents.nationaljournal.com
  • privateschools.parentinginformed.com
  • processors.betanews.com
  • project-management-software.venturebeat.com
  • projectors.techcrunch.com
  • pushcarts.golfdigest.com
  • recovery-and-reinvestment-act.theblaze.com
  • religions.theblaze.com
  • reviews.creditcardadvice.com
  • saving-accounts.bankingadvice.com
  • sb-marinas.noozhawk.com
  • sb-nonprofits.noozhawk.com
  • scheduling-software.venturebeat.com
  • scholarships.savingforcollege.com
  • schools.nycprivateschoolsblog.com
  • scooters.cycleworld.com
  • smartphones.techcrunch.com
  • smartphones.venturebeat.com
  • solarpanels.motherearthnews.com
  • sports-drinks.flotrack.org
  • stables.thehorse.com
  • state-economic-facts.nationaljournal.com
  • steppers.shape.com
  • strollers.parenting.com
  • supplements.womenshealthmag.com
  • tablets.androidauthority.com
  • tablets.techcrunch.com
  • tablets.venturebeat.com
  • tabletsandstuff.com/tablet-comparison-chart
  • tallest-buildings.sciencedaily.com
  • technology.searchenginewatch.com
  • telescopes.universetoday.com
  • tequila.proof66.com
  • texas-golf-courses.texasoutside.com
  • tires.agriculture.com
  • tractors.agriculture.com
  • tsunamies.sciencedaily.com
  • us-hurricanes.sciencedaily.com
  • video-cameras.venturebeat.com
  • volcanic-eruptions.com
  • waterheaters.motherearthnews.com
  • wetsuits.swellinfo.com
  • whiskey.cocktailenthusiast.com
  • whiskey.drinkoftheweek.com
  • white-house-visitors.theblaze.com
  • wineries.womenshealthmag.com



we have seen search results where a search engine didn't robots.txt something out, or somebody takes a cookie cutter affiliate feed, they just warm it up and slap it out, there is no value add, there is no original content there and they say search results or some comparison shopping sites don't put a lot of work into making it a useful site. They don't add value. - Matt Cutts

That syndication partnership network also explains part of how FTB is able to get so many pages indexed by Google, as each of those syndication sources is linking back at FTB on (what I believe to be) every single page of the subdomains, and many of these subdomains are linked to from sitewide sidebar or footer links on the PR7 & PR8 tech blogs.

And so the PageRank shall flow ;)

Hundreds of thousands of hours (eg 200,000+) for 40 people is 5,000 hours per person. Considering that there are an average of 2,000 hours per work year, this would imply each employee spent 2.5 full years of work on this single aspect of the job. And that is if one ignores the (hundreds of?) millions of content pages on other sites.

How does TechCrunch describe the FTB partnership?

Here’s one reason to be excited: In its own small way, it combats the recent flood of crappy infographics. Most TechCrunch writers hate the infographics that show up in our inboxes— not because infographics have to be terrible, but because they’re often created by firms that are biased, have little expertise in the subject of the infographic, or both, so they pull random data from random sources to make their point.

Get that folks? TechCrunch hosting automated subdomains of syndicated content means less bad infographics. And more cat lives saved. Or something like that.

How does FTB describe this opportunity for publishers?

The gadget comparisons we built for TechCrunch are sticky and interactive resources comprised of thousands of SEO optimized pages. They help over 1 million visitors per month make informed decisions by providing accurate, clear and useful data.

SEO optimized pages? Hmm.

Your comparisons will include thousands of long-tail keywords and question/answer pages to ensure traffic is driven by a number of different search queries. Our proprietary Data Content Platform uses a mesh linking structure that maximizes the amount of pages indexed by search engines. Each month—mainly through organic search—our comparisons add millions of unique visitors to our partner’s websites.

Thousands of long-tail keyord & QnA pages? Mesh linking structure? Hmm.

If we expand the "view more" section at the footer of the page, what do we find?

Holy Batman.

Sorry that font is so small, the text needed reduced multiple sizes in order to fit on my extra large monitor, and then reduced again to fit the width of our blog.

Each listing in a comparison has a number of associated questions created around the data we collect.

For example, we collect data on the battery life of the Apple iPad.

An algorithm creates the question “How long does the Apple iPad tablet battery last?” and answers it

So now we have bots asking themselves questions that they answer themselves & then stuffing that in the index as content?

Yeah, sounds like human-driven editorial.

After all, it's not like there are placeholder tokens on the auto-generated stuff

{parent_field}

Ooops.

Looks like I was wrong on that.

And automated "popular searches" pages? Nice!

As outrageous as the above is, they include undisclosed affiliate links in the content, and provided badge-based "awards" for things like the best casual dating sites, to help build links into their site.

That in turn led to them getting a bunch of porn backlinks.

If you submit an article to an article directory and someone else picks it up & posts it to a sketchy site you are a link spammer responsible for the actions of a third party.

But if you rate the best casual dating sites and get spammy porn links you are wonderful.

Content farming never really goes away. It only becomes more corporate.

How To Write A Marketing Plan

Feb 7th
posted in

A marketing plan is a document that outlines a set of actions necessary in order to meet specific objectives.

It’s one of those things many of us, especially those who have been doing search marketing for a while, probably keep largely in our heads. We know roughly where we’re going, the strategies needed to get there, and the objective is to get great rankings and increased traffic. So who needs to write it down?

Here’s a couple of good reasons.

Writing forces an analytic approach. The act of writing something down often brings about new ideas because it gets us out of the routine of “just doing”. Secondly, writing plans helps us write better proposals. A marketing plan is about both an analysis and a form of communication. It’s a means to get across your ideas to clients and other partners and convince them of the merits of what we’re doing.

If your clients are anything above small business level, then they likely already have formal marketing plans, of which search marketing is a part, so doing this sort of planning makes us better able to talk their language.

This post looks at the steps involved in writing a marketing plan, and how to optimize it so it will be most effective.

What Is A Marketing Plan?

A marketing plan:

  • provides an analysis of the current situation
  • lists goals
  • outlines strategies, tactics and recommendations to achieve those goals

Above all, a marketing plan is a recommendation for a course of action.

How To Write A Marketing Plan

A marketing plan should cover the following topics:

  • Summary & Recommendations
  • Situation analysis
  • Objectives
  • Budget
  • Strategy
  • Execution
  • Evaluation

The summary and recommendations outline the state of the market and your recommendations for achieving goals. The rest of your document supports these recommendations.

A situation analysis covers what is happening both inside and outside the company - the internal and external conditions. There are various methods of defining these conditions including SWOT analysis, Five Forces, and 5Cs. Whatever method you choose, they will include these three areas:

  • The Customer
  • The Competitors
  • The Company

Customer: A company must serve the interests of the customer. What does the customer need?

Competitor: What do competitors offer? What are the points of difference between their company and yours? Do they serve the needs to the customer well? In what areas don’t they serve the needs of customers?

The Company - what makes sense in terms of existing resources? Could the company restructure to meet marketing goals? Could some product and service lines be switched?

A situation analysis is typically detailed and draws a picture of the state of play right now. It’s a list of known facts about internal and external forces.

The situation analysis is where you are now, the objectives are where you want to be and when. Objectives, as far as a business is concerned, are typically about the bottom line and increasing profitability.

Search marketers often think of micro-objectives in terms of rankings and positioning, but a question a client is much more interested in is how this ranking or positioning effort supports the macro-objective: greater profitability?

A high ranking might lead to more inquiries, and inquiries convert at X%, which are worth, on average, $X to the business. Once you link search marketing objectives to business objectives it’s a lot easier to sell search marketing and convince people of your strategies, particularly to decision makers.

Objectives such as convert x % more customers, get x more customers to landing page y, get x% more signups are all valid marketing goals as they are quantitative and therefore concrete. “Getting higher rankings” may be measurable, but it doesn't, in itself, align with a business goal. If we can marry those two things together - rankings and higher profits - then search becomes an easy sell.

Traffic is another measurement we could use, or break it down further into types of traffic i.e. tightly targeted vs loosely targeted traffic. Whilst these facts may be difficult to pin down, this type of analysis helps people think about exactly how much each visitor is worth to them, and why. If each visitor has measurable value, then the value of search marketing plans are easy to prove, so long as the total search marketing spend is lower than the added value the visitors represent. One way to illustrate this potential is by using Google Adwords search volume data, or for a more accurate barometer - a trial PPC campaign run against desired keywords.

Budget: How much will the plan cost to execute? Once you can demonstrate the value of search traffic, then it becomes easier for a company to allocate budget.

Strategy: the nuts and bolts of how you will achieve your goals. In search marketing, this is typically split into two areas, PPC and SEO. A marketing plan typically doesn't go into exact detail in terms of ranking and positioning technique. Keep it high level, else it’s likely to confuse, or people are likely to get bogged down in unnecessary detail.

Execution: Define who is responsible for what and when. Include milestones.

Evaluation: Evaluation is critical in that you need to establish if the plan is on target to meet goals, or has met goals. If not, then you may need to revise goals and strategy in order to get the plan back on track.

Planning often seems dry, but the very act of putting together a marketing plan will help give you fresh ideas, help clarify your approach, and makes it all easier to communicate with stakeholders.

One problem at this stage is that the marketing plan is likely to be a dull read. I’ve seen chunky marketing plans that never get read - a lot of managers appear to just read the summary on such documents - because they are too dense. In the next section, we’ll look at ways to optimize marketing plans so that people will read them, remember them, and get enthusiastic about them.

It's useful to split out the phases and a different type of thinking is required for each. Phase one is an analysis - a list of what is happening now. Phase two is all about strategy and tactics. It’s all about “how”. Phase three is about communication and getting people on side. It’s about making specific recommendations backed by analysis and strategy.

Optimizing Your Marketing Plan

Think of your audience. What would you want to see if you were reading a marketing plan?

You’d want to know what needs to be done, and even more importantly, why this is the best course of action. Recommendations need to be anchored by solid analysis and presentation of facts. If you assert something as a recommendation, ask yourself what questions such a recommendation invites, then have the facts to back them up. Always answer the “why are we doing this?” question.

A good way of engaging people is to use a story format. Stories pull people in as they have internal consistency whereby one sentence logically leads to another. A story is simply this: something that moves from status quo (your analysis), to a problem that must be resolved (the customers needs), to a new status quo. Show how you resolve that problem (target the customer and deliver what they need).

Example Marketing Plan

Some marketing plans are long and detailed, but that doesn’t need to be the case, especially on small, contained projects. Here’s an example of a brief marketing plan incorporating each of the steps outlined above.

Example:

Many people want to travel by private plane, but can’t afford it.

Many private planes sit idle, or make return journeys with no one on them. PrivateJet Inc has adapted their existing booking system to provide a service whereby people can book a seat on a private plane just like they can on a regular airline. When carriers have spare capacity, they post it to the system, and pre-approved customers who want to book a seat can easily do so.

Currently, private plane operators don’t have an easy way of making their spare capacity available, except as charters. There are no direct competitors in the private “book a seat” market. People who wish to travel on private aircraft don’t have an easy way of accessing this type of travel. There is space in the market for a nationwide booking system that pre-screens appropriate passengers and matches them up with available planes, much like a conventional aircraft booking system. PrivateJet Inc has this system, and this plan outlines a plan to reach our identified market segment of prospective cash-rich but time poor business customers who can’t afford to own or charter a private plane but would benefit from the convenience of being able to book a seat on one. Private Jet Inc already have a number of private aircraft operators lined up to provide the service.

The goal is to sign-up 2,000 interested members of the public to the prospects database by July 20th. We plan to achieve this goal by using pay per click advertising on Google. The budget for this activity is is $15,000. We’ve noted that there is significant search volume for “private plane charter” and various related keywords, so feel confident on achieving this goal given we an estimated conversion rate of 5%. We intend to set-up specific landing pages for each group of related keyword terms explaining the offer and requesting interested users sign up to our mailing list.

Search Inc will implement the plan immediately and report progress to PrivateJet Inc on a weekly basis. By July, PrivateJet will have 2,000 interested members signed up to their prospect database.

That’s a very simple plan for the purposes of illustration. Marketing plans are typically significantly longer and more detailed, but they will follow that same basic structure. It’s clear what the problem is, how it will be addressed, by whom, and when things will happen.

Further Reading:

How To Analyze An Industry

Feb 4th
posted in

Are you planning on starting a new website but want to gauge how profitable the industry sector is before you do? Are you optimizing a site for a client but want to gain a better understanding of the industry in which they operate? Conducting an industry analysis will help identify advantages and any weaknesses a business may have in that industry, and clarify the forces that shape that industry. The better we understand the industry, the more likely we are to grasp the opportunities others may miss.

If a business has a weak position relative to their competitors then optimization efforts might be ineffective as customers will simply click a few different search results and compare offerings.

Then again, a business may enjoy advantages in areas that aren't currently being exploited. Focusing your optimization and positioning efforts in these areas will likely pay higher dividends than optimizing in areas where competitors are strongest. Understanding the forces at work in the industry will help reveal these areas.

I like to analyze industries prior to the optimization process as I find I get a lot of ideas just by breaking the industry down into component parts. Where is the profit in this industry? Is this industry growing quickly? If so, should the emphasis be on acquiring new customers? Or is it stagnant, in which case should the emphasis be on taking market share from competitors? What areas do competitors focus on? What areas do they miss? Where are competitors most vulnerable?

There are various frameworks for conducting an industry analysis. You may have heard of a SWOT analysis, but today we’ll take a look at Porter’s Five Forces analysis.

Why Industry Analysis Is Useful

If you were examining the web design industry, you’d soon come across crowdsourcing sites, such as 99designs.

The existence of these types of sites signal a power imbalance in the design industry. The customer has significant power in that they can request that professional designers submit near-finished work in order to compete for their business.

Some may argue that this is a marketing cost for designers - a way to advertise and get in front of people, but however we look at it, it soon becomes clear the profitability of the web design industry is constrained by two forces: the power of buyers and the low barrier to entry to new competitors. Just about anyone can set-up shop as a web designer. Since suppliers are plentiful, the buyers can easily play the suppliers off against one another - quite literally, in the case of 99designs!

Once we understand these industry forces, we could alter our plan of attack if we were marketing a web design agency. One possible approach would be to focus on geographical advantages. If you’re a web designer based in New York, you’re probably going to get more work out of New York based firms than if you lived in Oklahoma. A marketing campaign that emphasizes the unique selling point of physical location might work well in that it mitigates a force that is strong and operates against them i.e. the number of competitors. If they focus on local, they’ll be competing with local designers, not designers from all over the country, or around the world. Such a business might make a big deal of the fact they’ll come and see their clients face-to-face, their centrally located offices, their geographic location, and the fact they have local knowledge and contacts.

That unique selling point is determined once we’ve made an effort to understand the forces at work in the industry.

The Five Forces

The five forces are:

  • The Power Of Suppliers
  • The Power Of Buyers
  • Barriers To Entry
  • Competitive Rivalry
  • The Availability Of Substitutes

If there are unfavourable power imbalances in a few of those forces, then the industry as a whole is likely to have profitability problems that need to be countered. Here is a further breakdown of these areas, as well as a five forces worksheet.

Let’s compare our web design agency against those five forces.

Power Of Suppliers? Suppliers being people who supply the web businesses with anything they need to produce their output. Suppliers, such as graphics software vendors, have virtually no power in the web design industry. A web designer needs a computer, office space and software, all of which are commodity items. Supply risk is therefore not a significant threat to the profitability of web designer businesses.

The Power Of Buyers? High. Buyers have a lot of choice as the industry is saturated with suppliers.

Barriers To Entry? Low. Anyone with a computer, design skills, and an internet connection can compete.

Competitive Rivalry? Medium/High. There are a lot of agencies chasing prestige work and may take a loss to land work from name companies. This gives them bragging rights and the association may help future marketing efforts.

The Availability Of Substitutes? Medium. A website is a marketing channel. A company could decide to spend money on other channels. They could substitute web design spend for some other marketing spend.

This industry clearly has profitability challenges. By emphasizing local, and a high touch service, a design firm could counter the competitive rivalry force and the barrier to entry force to some degree, and thus limit the power of buyers by focusing on buyers who place high value on face-to-face meetings. That’s just one idea, I’m sure you can think of a few more, but notice how easily these ideas spring to mind once you have a good idea of the forces at work in the industry.

How To Make A Five Forces Analysis

Define The Industry:

  • What are the geographic boundaries of this industry?
  • What products and/or services are in this industry?

Define The Players:

  • Who are the buyers?
  • Who are the suppliers?
  • Who are the competitors?
  • What are the substitutes?
  • Who are the potential entrants?

What are the drivers of each competitive force? Grade them on relative weakness vs strength. Make a note of why they are either weak or strong.

Determine Industry Structure

  • Why is this industry profitable?
  • What forces make it profitable?
  • Are some competitors better positioned in terms of the five forces than others?

Analyze Changes

  • Which forces are changing now, or likely to change in future? Can your business bring about any of these changes? Can your competitors?

Digging Deeper

A common mistake when undertaking this analysis is to define competition too narrowly. Competition is often deemed to be “the other guy who offers the same service”, and that’s the end of it.

By examining each force, we gain a more thorough understanding of how competition works in the industry. This can be useful when constructing an seo/sem campaign, as you may be able to find weak forces in one or more areas that you can exploit. For example, one opportunity might be substitute products. What is your clients product or service a substitute for? You could then target the existing customers of another substitute product or service and encourage them to switch.

Why Five?

The five forces help determine the potential of an industry as they keep us from focusing on any one element. We need to consider all elements in order to get a better idea of industry profitability.

For example, we may note that an industry is growing quickly, but if we disregard the fact there is no barrier to entry, we might overestimate the profit potential. The search marketing industry has been growing quickly, but there are no barriers to entry, so this shifts a lot of power to the buyer and away from suppliers. It’s also an industry where numerous substitution options exist i.e. there are numerous internet marketing channels, and it’s possible some customers will get more bang for their buck using other channels.

The five factors strategy helps us see how much profit is bargained away to customers and suppliers. We focus on structural considerations as a whole, as opposed to isolated factors.

Defining The Industry

It can often be difficult to determine the industry boundaries.

An industry can be defined too broadly or too narrowly. For example, an analysis of the web marketing industry may determine it is global, however marketing is often highly dependent on cultural aspects. A more narrow industry definition, including regionality and geographical factors, might be more applicable when it comes to quantifying the level of competition. The marketing industry in the USA is a different “industry” from the marketing industry in France as most marketing activity undertaken in the US is conducted by US based marketing companies, and very little by suppliers from France. Therefore, the supplier in France and the supplier in the US are in "different" industries from a competitive standpoint. One does not compete directly with the other as their focus is likely to be on their own geographic markets.

There are two main factors in deciding industry boundaries:

  • Scope of the products or services
  • Geographical boundaries. Does competition take place globally, or is it regional?

You can use the five forces to help determine the industry boundaries. If the industry structure is the same i.e. same buyers, same suppliers, barriers to entry, and so on, then treat it as the same industry. If the industry forces are different, then treat it as a separate industry for the purposes of this analysis.

Are soft drinks for the home and soft drinks for corporate buyers - such as McDonalds - the same industry for the purposes of analysis? Possibly not. Soft drinks to consumers are heavily marketed on b2c channels and packaged in small, individual containers. Distribution needs to be very wide to get each of these small containers physically close to the consumers. Into vending machines, for example. Sales of soft drinks to corporate buyers, however, are likely to occur via b2b channels, where purchasing is done strategically and delivery is in the form of bulk syrup. The forces are quite different, even though product is exactly the same.

Barrier To Entry

When the barrier to entry is low, incumbents must hold down their prices or boost investment to deter new entrants. The way to counter a low barrier to entry force is attempt to raise it.

Anyone can make a burger, and anyone can get into the burger making business, but few could compete with McDonalds. McDonalds counter the low barrier to entry force by buying up well-positioned locations, operating at significant scale to keep prices low, and investing heavily in brand awareness. This raises the barrier to entry for anyone trying to offer something similar to McDonalds.

Many SEO companies spend a lot of time at conferences and keeping their names “out there”, which goes some way to counter the low barrier to entry in a business where just about anyone can call themselves an SEO. Software companies will likely invest heavily in features, R&D or service levels to ensure new entrants have a steep hill to climb in order to compete.

If the barriers to entry are low, then the threat of entry is high, which in turn limits profitability unless demand in the industry is growing faster than supply. Some businesses, like McDonalds, will counter this force with sheer scale, driving down the cost per unit. You can only compete with McDonalds pricing and convenience advantages if you do so at scale, and that scale is expensive. New entrant competitors in the burger business often position in areas where McDonalds are weakest i.e. offering gourmet burgers that that might cost more, but aren’t generic. Competitors could make a big deal about being small.

The advantages of economies of scale can be found throughout the value chain and the reason why companies tend to get bigger - they have to - else they put themselves at ongoing risk from new entrants.

The downside risk for these companies is that they can’t change and adapt quickly. It’s like trying to maneuver a container ship, whilst the small business can change direction on a whim. The small business is like the speedboat, the big business is like a container ship. This is the reason small companies tend to focus on new, innovative areas of the market. The big companies may not be able to make money out of these areas (yet) due to company cost structures and/or they can’t adapt quickly enough to seize these opportunities.

Another benefit of scale that we see often on the web is demand-side economies of scale, otherwise known as network effects. Anyone can start a social network, but few can compete with Facebook. Their competitive advantage is largely due to network effects - the more people on a social network, the more value it has, and the more people will be willing to join. These demand side economies of scale erect a barrier to entry, thus retaining and increasing profitability, because customers are unwilling to sign up to smaller networks. This demand side barrier has been so effective for Facebook that even the likes of Google have trouble countering it.

We could even apply this type of analysis to the search results. If some serps are “easy” to get, then you may experience profitability issues. If they are easy for you to get, they are easy for some new entrant to get, too. As Google raises the bar, and makes it more expensive to compete, the threat from new entrants and/or those with less funding diminishes. Those who have more to spend, and/or are bigger businesses will likely find the serps more profitable than in the past as they no longer suffer the structural problem of a low barrier to entry. If you have the funds, then Google making it harder to optimize actually works in your favour.

Switching Costs

Almost everything has a switching cost whereby it costs a customer to change services. The more entrenched a product or service, the higher the switching cost, and therefore the higher the barrier to competitors. Microsoft Office has hung around in the enterprise, despite being less than ideal, because the switching cost - involving staff training and industry document standards - is high.

Capital Requirements

If you want to run a search engine to rival Google, then the capital requirements are significant.
However, if the return is there, capital is typically available, especially if the capital can be turned back into cash if the business doesn’t work out.

For example, the bank might be happy to lend on a hotel as they can still convert their capital back into cash by selling the asset. If a business relies on a large advertising spend, however, then capital may be more difficult to come by as it can’t be converted back into cash if things go badly. Capital alone is not a significant barrier to entry.

Incumbency

Incumbency can counter low barriers to entry. It’s easy to start a search blog, but difficult to draw attention away from the incumbents in this space. The established sites have built up loyal audiences over time. To beat incumbents, you’ve usually got to do something remarkably superior, complementary, or be prepared for a long battle.

Application Of Five Forces Theory

Start by evaluating your position against the five main criteria and identify where forces are strong and where they are weak.

If the buyer is in a powerful position, and switching costs are low, then sending them to a landing page where your prices are high but your features are the same as the competition is unlikely to work. The buyer will likely click back and compare. In order for a conversion to take place in this scenario, the business would need to justify the higher prices by, say, focusing on the additional value offered.

If your prospective customers do face switching costs, then perhaps the copy could focus on how the business will help the customer absorb this cost. For example, a landing page could highlight trial offers and special deals if the buyer is switching from a competitors product.

Keep in mind that buyers are less price sensitive if your pricing represents a fraction of their total spend, but very price sensitive if you supply them with something that makes up a lot of their operating cost. If you offer an SEO service and you target small companies or individuals, then obviously the price structure needs to reflect this. Likewise, if you’re pitching to a company that spends millions on marketing a month, you’re more likely to focus on the value proposition as they are unlikely to care about a few thousand here and there as search marketing isn’t a large part of their operating cost.

Could your service make a major difference to your buyers costs? Can you lower the cost of their supply chain? If so, then the buyer will be less sensitive to price and more interested in value. If all your competitors are focusing their efforts at one step in the supply chain, could your advertising be directed a different step in the chain?

Drug companies now advertise their product to the end consumer when previously the advertising has been directed at the decision maker - their doctor. “Ask your doctor if (product) is right for you!”. Pressure is then put on the doctor to prescribe that brand over others because the patient is specifically requesting it.

Rivalry

Rivalry will likely be strongest when there isn’t one clear market leader, competitors are similar in size, and they make similar offers. It’s also likely to be strong if the industry is low growth as one competitor will likely try and grab another competitors share, whereas if the industry is growing quickly, this isn’t so much of a problem.

Try to ascertain the character of the rivalry. Is ego and empire building a major factor? Consider the flagship Apple stores. It’s possible these shops run at a loss in terms of their retail offering, but are valuable in terms of brand awareness and recognition. This can be difficult to determine, of course. Any industry where there is intense rivalry bound up with ego will face profitability issues, at least in the short term, as one competitor might be trying to run another out of business as they are engaged in a loss making war of attrition.

One of the easiest comparisons to make is price. Price wars often happen when there is low switching cost and sellers are offering generic product. Rental cars fall into this category. Any industry battling fiercely on price will have structural limits to profitability as margins are cut to the bone and passed onto customers in the form of low prices.

If a product is perishable, it will be vulnerable to price cutting. We often think of perishability in terms of food use-by dates, but many industries suffer perishability problems. Mobile phones can become obsolete, information can become outdated and hotel rooms can’t be sold once the clock ticks over to a new day. Products and services will be vulnerable on price if they are ending their useful life. Brand, image, service levels, and features are a lot less vulnerable to price as they aren’t perishable.

Dull established industries with high barriers to entry and high switching costs, such as big business software systems like SAP are likely to be profitable compared to most Silicon Valley internet startups where the dead body count is high. Are these two really in the same industry? It doesn’t help that we only tend to hear about the outliers, such as Instagram, that make the high-tech industry sound like a certified gold mine. The internet industry has significant structural problems affecting profitability, typically in terms of the level of competition, low barriers to entry and access to capital.

Also consider the role of complements. Complements are products used to help provide a service. For example, Adwords is a complement to a PPC marketing campaign. Without Google, a PPC campaign is significantly diminished in terms of reach. So, Google has considerable clout in this space as they have few competitors. There is supplier risk because Google may stop campaigns and/or suspend accounts.

Another way of looking at complements is the sum value is greater than the parts. For example, a smartphone is near useless without software, but with software, it transforms from being a phone to being a computer in your pocket. Complements may affect demand for your product or service. If you produce iphone apps, then your future is linked to that of Apple and their market penetration. Apple also owns the supply chain. Apple, therefore, can exert a lot of control and this has an impact of potential profitability for vendors. It’s best for mobile apps publishers, from a profitability point of view, when there are multiple providers of smartphones and market share is split between them. The likes of Apple would have less power to demand high fees from software vendors and would more likely incentivise production by passing on more profit to the application developer.

Shifts Over Time

This analysis is done at a fixed point in time, but as we all know, industry is fluid.

In the case of the online industry, significant changes can occur quickly. Take, for example, the rise of mobile computing. More tablets and mobile phones are being sold than laptops and desktop computers, therefore the entire paradigm is changing.

Makers of hardware are on notice. Anyone who depends on that hardware is on notice. Software vendors who don’t adapt to mobile computing risk competitors jumping into that market and eating their market share.

As far as search marketing goes, just what is the optimal marketing channel on mobile? Do people really sift through large lists of search results on their tiny screens? Perhaps other forms of pay-per-click will rise and SEO will diminish?

Buyer and supplier power can also change. At present, the power of internet content suppliers is rock bottom. Technology in general, and the search engines in particular, have played a part in devaluing content and shifting revenue to themselves. One consequence is that a lot of quality content is disappearing behind paywalls and into Amazon publishing. As Amazon makes it easier to publish and monetarize written content, and as more people take up tablets and mobile computing, then the utility of search engines may start to dwindle as content producers focus on other channels.

Being aware of the five forces helps us size up profitability and potential for opportunity. It is particularly valuable if the industry is on the verge of strategic change in one or more areas as this presents new opportunity to gain strategic advantage against incumbents.

Using Strategy Analysis For Positioning

Look for areas in an industry where forces are weakest and position accordingly.

In Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors by Micheal Porter, outlines a great example of positioning in the trucking industry.

Using the Five Forces analysis framework, he determined the trucking industry is characterized by operators who run large fleets. They have an incentive to drive down the price of trucks as trucks are a major part of their costs.

Most truck suppliers built near identical trucks to a set of industry standards, so pricing is fierce. This is a very capital intensive business. So how has one supplier managed to charge a 10% premium for their trucks and maintain 20% market share for decades?

Paccar, a truck manufacturer based in Washington, focus on one group of customers: owner-operators. Owner-operators buy their own trucks and contract directly with suppliers. Because these buyers aren’t buying fleets, they don’t have much leverage when it comes to price, and as it turns out, aren’t as price sensitive as we’d expect.

These buyers take a lot of pride in their trucks, so choose to spend money on customization. The trucks are made-to-order and include sleek exteriors, plush seating, noise insulation, high end stereo systems, and other enhancements. They’re aerodynamic, which reduces fuel consumption, they maintain re-sale value, they have a roadside assistance program, a high-tech spare parts system - all key considerations for lone owner-operators.

By focusing on one sector of the market where price forces are weakest (lone operators), Paccar have side-stepped a sector where price forces are strongest (fleet buyers). Their entire value chain is aligned with the owner-operator sector of the market.

Companies can influence competitive forces. They can address supplier power by making generic parts and inputs, thus making it easy for them to switch suppliers and thus negate the power of unique suppliers. To counter price cutting rivals, companies can offer more unique and valuable services. To limit new competitors, companies can heavily invest in R&D and sophisticated systems.

Industry Analysis Is Always Changing

I hope this article has given you food for thought. I find this type of analysis useful for search marketing indirectly. It gets me thinking - broadly - about where the untapped opportunities in an industry might lay, and where the competition is likely to be strong and difficult to counter.

This article makes a good point that industry analysis is getting even more challenging as industries fracture and fragment:

Among the paradoxes they observe is that market segments in many industries are fragmenting, even as global firms require increasingly large markets to drive growth and profitability. Combining those "profit pools" is like trying to combine the water in thousands of bathtubs — there are profits to be had, but how do you combine them so that they become material?

But as they also point out, the most important competition for many organizations today comes from firms who aren't even technically competing in the same business. Netflix going into the production of its own proprietary TV programs? Best Buy doing sophisticated analysis for health care providers to see how well their cardiac treatment projects are going? Who would have predicted those shifts?”

Great opportunities are discovered using “out of the box” thinking :)

Further Reading & References:

In conducting research for this article, I have used three main sources: Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, by Michael E Porter, Business and Competitive Analysis: Effective Application of New and Classic Methods, by Craig S Fleisher and Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley. Also, here's a presentation that provides a good overview:

Introduction Thread #6

Feb 1st
posted in

Welcome to our sixth welcome thread (prior ones here, here, here, here & here).

If you are new to the site, please say hi and introduce yourself. :)






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