A product, in and of itself is really only 1/2 of what you are selling to your clients. The other 1/2 of the equation is the "experience".
It sounds a bit "fluffy" but in my career as a service provider and in my purchasing history as a consumer the experience matters. I would even go so far as to say that in some very noticeable cases the experience can outweigh the product itself (to some extent anyways).
These halves, the product and the experience, can cut both ways.
Sometimes a product is so good that the experience can be average or even below average and the provider will still make out and sometimes the experience is so fantastic that an otherwise average or above average product is elevated to what can be priced as a premium product or service.
Let's get a few obvious variables out of the way first. It is understood that:
Experience matters more to some people than others
Experience matters more in certain industries than others
The actual product matters more to some
The actual product matters more in some industries
If we stipulate that the 4 scenarios mentioned above are true, which they are, it still doesn't change the basic premise that you are probably leaving revenue and growth on the table if you settle on one side or the other.
While it's true that you can be successful even if your product to experience ratio is like a seesaw heavily weighted in one direction over the other, it is also true that you would probably be more successful if you made both the best each could be.
Defining Where Product Meets Experience
I'll layout a couple of examples here to help illustrate the point:
The "Big Four" in the link research tools space; Ahrefs, Link Research Tools, Majestic, and Open Site Explorer
The two more well-known "tool/reporting suites" Raven and Moz outside of much more expensive enterprise toolkits
In my experience Ahrefs has been the best combination of product and experience, especially lately. Their dataset continues to grow and recent UI changes have made it even easier to use. Exports are super fast and I’ve had quick and useful interactions with their support staff. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that, from groups of folks I interact with and follow online, Ahrefs continues to pop up more often in conversation than not.
To me, Majestic and Link Research Tools are examples of where the product is really, really strong (copious amounts of data across many segments) but the UI/UX is not quite as good as the others. I realize some of this is subjective but in other comparisons online this seems to be a prevailing theme.
Open Site Explorer has a fantastic UI/UX but the data can be a bit behind the others and getting data out (exporting) is bit more of a chore than point, click, download. It seems like over a period of time OSE has had a rougher road to data and update growth than the other tools I mentioned.
In the case of two of more popular reporting and research suites, Moz and Raven, Raven has really caught up (if not surpassed) Moz in terms of UI/UX. Raven pulls in data from multiple sources, including Moz, and has quite a few more (and easier to get to and cross-reference) features than Moz.
Moz may not be interested in getting into some of the other pieces of the online marketing puzzle that Raven is into but I think it’s still a valid comparison based on the very similar, basic purpose of each tool suite.
Assessing Your Current Position
When assessing or reassessing your products and offerings, a lot of it goes back to targeting the right market.
Is the market big enough to warrant investment into a product?
How many different segments of a given market do you need to appeal to?
Where’s the balance between feature bloat (think Zoho CRM) versus “good enough” functionality with an eye towards an incredible UX (think Highrise CRM)?
If the market isn’t big enough and you have to go outside your initial target, how will that affect the balance between the functionality of your product and the experience for your users, customers, or clients?
If you are providing SEO services your "functionality" might be how easy it is to determine the reports you provide and their relationship(s) to a client's profitability or goals (or both). Your "experience" is likely a combination of things:
The graphical presentation of your documents
The language used in your reports and other interactions with the client
The consistency of your "brand" across the web
The consistency of your brand presentation (website, invoices, reports, etc)
Client ability to access reports and information quickly without having to ask you for it
Consistency of your information delivery (are you always on-time, late, or erratic with due dates, meetings, etc)
When you breakdown what you think is your "product" and "experience" you'll likely find that it is pretty simple to develop a plan to improve both, rather than beating the vague "let's do great things" company line that no one really understands but just nods at.
Example of Experience in Action
In just about every Consumer Reports survey Apple comes out on top for customer satisfaction. Apple, whether you like their products/"culture" or not, creates a fairly reliable, if not expensive, end to end experience. This is doubly true if you live near an Apple store.
If you look at laptop failure rates Apple is generally in the middle of the pack. There are other things that go into the Apple experience (using the OS and such) but part of the reason people are willing to pay that premium is due to their support options and ability to fix bugs fairly quickly.
To tie this into our industry, I think Moz is a good parallel example here. Their design is generally heralded as being quite pleasant and it's pretty easy to use their tools; there isn't a steep learning curve to using most of their products.
I think their product presentation is top notch, even though I generally prefer some of their competitors products. They are pretty active on social media and their support is generally very good.
So, in the case of Moz it's pretty clear that people are willing to pay for less robust data or at least less features and options partly (or wholly) due to their product experience and product presentation.
Redesigning Your Experience
You might already have some of these but it's worthwhile to revisit a very basic style guide (excluding audience development):
Consistent logo and colors
Vocabulary and Language Style (the tone of your brand, is it My Brand or MyBrand or myBrand, etc)
Some Additional Resources
Here are some visual/text-based resources that I have found helpful during my own redefining process:
There’s some amusing historical revisionism going on in SEO punditry world right now, which got me thinking about the history of SEO. I’d like to talk about some common themes of this historical revision, which goes along the lines of “what I predicted all those years ago came true - what a visionary I am! ." No naming names, as I don't meant this to be anything personal - as the same theme has popped up in a number of places - just making some observations :)
See if you agree….
Divided We Fall
The SEO world has never been united. There are no industry standards and qualifications like you’d find in the professions, such as being a doctor, or lawyer or a builder. If you say you’re an SEO, then you’re an SEO.
Part of the reason for the lack of industry standard is that the search engines never came to the party. Sure, they talked at conferences, and still do. They offered webmasters helpful guidelines. They participated in search engine discussion forums. But this was mainly to do with risk management. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
In all these years, you won’t find one example of a representative from a major search engine saying “Hey, let’s all get together and form an SEO standard. It will help promote and legitimize the industry!”.
No, it has always been decrees from on high. “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and here are some things we’d like you to do”. Webmasters don’t get a say in it. They either do what the search engines say, or they go against them, but make no mistake, there was never any partnership, and the search engines didn’t seek one.
This didn’t stop some SEOs seeing it as a form of quasi-partnership, however.
Some SEOs chose to align themselves with search engines and do their bidding. If the search engine reps said “do this”, they did it. If the search engines said “don’t do this”, they’d wrap themselves up in convoluted rhetorical knots pretending not to do it. This still goes on, of course.
In the early 2000’s, it turned, curiously, into a question of morality. There was “Ethical SEO”, although quite what it had to do with ethics remains unclear. Really, it was another way of saying “someone who follows the SEO guidelines”, presuming that whatever the search engines decree must be ethical, objectively good and have nothing to do self-interest. It’s strange how people kid themselves, sometimes.
What was even funnier was the search engine guidelines were kept deliberately vague and open to interpretation, which, of course, led to a lot of heated debate. Some people were “good” and some people were “bad”, even though the distinction was never clear. Sometimes it came down to where on the page someone puts a link. Or how many times someone repeats a keyword. And in what color.
It got funnier still when the search engines moved the goal posts, as they are prone to do. What was previously good - using ten keywords per page - suddenly became the height of evil, but using three was “good” and so all the arguments about who was good and who wasn’t could start afresh. It was the pot calling the kettle black, and I’m sure the search engines delighted in having the enemy warring amongst themselves over such trivial concerns. As far as the search engines were concerned, none of them were desirable, unless they became paying customers, or led paying customers to their door. Then there was all that curious Google+business.
It's hard to keep up, sometimes.
Playing By The Rules
There’s nothing wrong with playing by the rules. It would have been nice to think there was a partnership, and so long as you followed the guidelines, high rankings would naturally follow, the bad actors would be relegated, and everyone would be happy.
But this has always been a fiction. A distortion of the environment SEOs were actually operating in.
Jason Calacanis, never one to miss an opportunity for controversy, fired some heat seekers at Google during his WebmasterWorld keynote address recently…..
Calacanis proceeded to describe Cutts and Google in terms like, “liar,” “evil,” and “a bad partner.” He cautioned the PubCon audience to not trust Google, and said they cooperate with partners until they learn the business and find a way to pick off the profits for themselves. The rant lasted a good five minutes….
He accused Google of doing many of the things SEOs are familiar with, like making abrupt algorithm changes without warning. They don’t consult, they just do it, and if people’s businesses get trashed as a result, then that’s just too bad. Now, if that’s a sting for someone who is already reasonably wealthy and successful like Calacanis, just imagine what it feels like for the much smaller web players who are just trying to make a living.
The search business is not a pleasant environment where all players have an input, and then standards, terms and play are generally agreed upon. It’s war. It’s characterized by a massive imbalance of power and wealth, and one party will use it to crush those who it determines stands in its way.
Of course, the ever pleasant Matt Cutts informs us it’s all about the users, and that’s a fair enough spin of the matter, too. There was, and is, a lot of junk in the SERPs, and Mahalo was not a partner of Google, so any expectation they’d have a say in what Google does is unfounded.
The take-away is that Google will set rules that work for Google, and if they happen to work for the webmaster community too, well that’s good, but only a fool would rely on it. Google care about their bottom line and their projects, not ours. If someone goes out of business due to Google’s behaviour, then so be it. Personally, I think the big technology companies do have a responsibility beyond themselves to society, because the amount of power they are now centralising means they’re not just any old company anymore, but great vortexes that can distort entire markets. For more on this idea, and where it’s all going, check out my review of “Who Owns The Future” by Jaron Lanier.
So, if you see SEO as a matter of playing by their rules, then fine, but keep in mind "those who can give you everything can also take everything away". Those rules weren't designed for your benefit.
There was a massive opportunity cost by following so called ethical SEO during the 2000s.
For a long time, it was relatively easily to get high rankings by being grey. And if you got torched, you probably had many other sites with different link patterns good to go. This was against the webmaster guidelines, but given marketing could be characterized as war, one does not let the enemy define ones tactics. Some SEOs made millions doing it. Meanwhile, a lot of content-driven sites disappeared. That was, perhaps, my own "a stopped clock is right two times a day" moment. It's not like I'm going to point you to all the stuff I've been wrong about, now is it :)
These days, a lot of SEO is about content and how that content is marketed, but more specifically it’s about the stature of the site on which that content appears. That’s the bit some pundits tend to gloss over. You can have great content, but that’s no guarantee of anything. You will likely remain invisible. However, put that exact same content on a Fortune 500 site, and that content will likely prosper. Ah, the rich get richer.
So, we can say SEO is about content, but that’s only half the picture. If you’re a small player, the content needs to appear in the right place, be very tightly targeted to your audiences needs so they don’t click back, and it should be pushed through various media channels.
Content, even from many of these "ethical SEOs", used to be created for search engines in the hope of netting as many visitors as possible. These days, it’s probably a better strategy to get inside the audience's heads and target it to their specific needs, as opposed to a keyword, then get that content out to wherever your audience happens to be. Unless, of course, you’re Fortune 500 or otherwise well connected, in which case you can just publish whatever you like and it will probably do well.
Fair? Not really, but no one ever said this game was fair.
Do I know what’s going to happen next? In ten years time? Nope. I could make a few guesses, and like many other pundits, some guesses will prove right, and some will be wrong, but that’s the nature of the future. It will soon make fools of us all.
Having said that, will you take a punt and tell us what you think will be the future of SEO? Does it have one? What will look like? If you’re right, then you can point back here in a few years time and say “Look, I told you so!”.
If you’re wrong, well, there’s always historical revisionism :)