The Only Thing Certain In SEO Is Change

Oct 15th
posted in

SEO is subject to frequent change, but in the last year or two, the changes feel both more frequent and significant than changes in the past. Florida hit in 2003. Since then, it’s like we get a Florida every six months.

Whenever Google updates the underlying landscape, the strategies need to change in order to deal with it. No fair warning. That’s not the game.

From Tweaks To Strategy

There used to be a time when SEOs followed a standard prescription. Many of us remember a piece of software called Web Position Gold.

Web Position Gold emerged when SEO could be reduced to a series of repeatable - largely technical - steps. Those steps involved adding keywords to a page, repeating those keywords in sufficient density, checking a few pieces of markup, then scoring against an “ideal” page. Upload to web. Add a few links. Wait a bit. Run a web ranking report. Viola! You’re an SEO. In all but the most competitive areas, this actually worked.

Seems rather quaint these days.

These days, you could do all of the above and get nowhere. Or you might get somewhere, but when so many more factors in play, they can’t be isolated to an individual page score. If the page is published on a site with sufficient authority, it will do well almost immediately. If it appears on a little known site, it may remain invisible for a long time.

Before Google floated in 2004, they released an investor statement signalling SEO - well, “index spammers” - as a business risk. If you ever want to know what Google really feels about people who “manipulate” their results, it’s right here:

We are susceptible to index spammers who could harm the integrity of our web search results.

There is an ongoing and increasing effort by “index spammers” to develop ways to manipulate our web search results. For example, because our web search technology ranks a web page’s relevance based in part on the importance of the web sites that link to it, people have attempted to link a group of web sites together to manipulate web search results. We take this problem very seriously because providing relevant information to users is critical to our success. If our efforts to combat these and other types of index spamming are unsuccessful, our reputation for delivering relevant information could be diminished. This could result in a decline in user traffic, which would damage our business.

SEO competes with the Adwords business model. So, Google “take very seriously” the activities of those who seek to figure out the algorithms, reverse engineer them, and create push-button tools like Web Position Gold. We’ve had Florida, and Panda, and Penguin, and Hummingbird, all aimed at making the search experience better for users, whilst having the pleasant side effect, as far as Google is concerned, of making life more difficult for SEOs.

I think the key part of Google’s statement was “delivering relevant information”.

From Technical Exercise To PR

SEO will always involve technical aspects. You get down into code level and mark it up. The SEO needs to be aware of development and design and how those activities can affect SEO. The SEO needs to know how web servers work, and how spiders can sometimes fail to deal with their quirks.

But in the years since Florida, marketing aspects have become more important. An SEO can perform the technical aspects of SEO and get nowhere. More recent algorithms, such as Panda and Penguin, gauge the behaviour of users, as Google tries to determine information quality of pages. Hummingbird attempts to discover the intent that lays behind keywords.

As a result, Keyword-based SEO is in the process of being killed off. Google withholds keyword referrer data and their various algorithms attempt to deliver pages based on a users intent and activity - both prior and present - in order to deliver relevant information. Understanding the user, having a unique and desirable offering, and a defensible market position is more important than any keyword markup. The keyword match, on which much SEO is based, is not an approach that is likely to endure.

The emphasis has also shifted away from the smaller operators and now appears to favour brands. This occurs not because brands are categorized as “brands”, but due to the side effects of significant PR activities. Bigger companies tend to run multiple advertising and PR campaigns, so produce signals Google finds favorable i.e. search volume on company name, semantic associations with products and services, frequent links from reputable media, and so on. This flows through into rank. And it also earns them leeway when operating in the gray area where manual penalties are handed out to smaller & weaker entities for the same activities.

Rankings

Apparently, Google killed off toolbar PageRank.

We will probably not going to be updating it [PageRank] going forward, at least in the Toolbar PageRank.

A few people noted it, but the news won't raise many eyebrows as toolbar PR has long since become meaningless. Are there any SEOs altering what they do based on toolbar PR? It’s hard to imagine why. The reality is that an external PR value might indicate an approximate popularity level, but this isn’t an indicator of the subsequent ranking a link from such a page will deliver. There are too many other factors involved. If Google are still using an internal PR metric, it’s likely to be a significantly more complicated beast than was revealed in 1997.

A PageRank score is a proxy for authority. I’m quite sure Google kept it going as an inside joke.

A much more useful proxy for authority are the top ten pages in any niche. Google has determined all well-ranking pages have sufficient authority, and no matter what the toolbar, or any other third-party proxy, says, it’s Google’s output that counts. A link from any one of the top ten pages will likely confer a useful degree of authority, all else being equal. It’s good marketing practice to be linked from, and engage with, known leaders in your niche. That’s PR, as in public relations thinking, vs PR (Page rank), technical thinking.

The next to go will likely be keyword-driven SEO. Withholding keyword referral data was the beginning of the end. Hummingbird is hammering in the nails. Keywords are still great for research purposes - to determine if there’s an audience and what the size of that audience may be - but SEO is increasingly driven by semantic associations and site categorizations. It’s not enough to feature a keyword on a page. A page, and site, needs to be about that keyword, and keywords like it, and be externally recognized as such. In the majority of cases, a page needs to match user intent, rather than just a search term. There are many exceptions, of course, but given what we know about Hummingbird, this appears to be the trend.

People will still look at rank, and lust after prize keywords, but really, rankings have been a distraction all along. Reach and specificity is more important i.e. where’s the most value coming from? The more specific the keyword, typically the lower the bounce rate and the higher the conversion rate. The lower the bounce-rate, and higher the conversion rate, the more positive signals the site will generate, which will flow back into a ranking algorithm increasing being tuned for engagement. Ranking for any keyword that isn’t delivering business value makes no sense.

There are always exceptions. But that’s the trend. Google are looking for pages that match user intent, not just pages that match a keyword term. In terms of reach, you want to be everywhere your customers are.

Search Is The Same, But Different

To adapt to change, SEOs should think about search in the widest possible terms. A search is quest for information. It may be an active, self-directed search, in the form of a search engine query. Or a more passive search, delivered via social media subscriptions and the act of following. How will all these activities feed into your search strategy?

Sure, it’s not a traditional definition of SEO, as I'm not limiting it to search engines. Rather, my point is about the wider quest for information. People want to find things. Eric Schmidt recently claimed Amazon is Google's biggest competitor in search. The mechanisms and channels may change, but the quest remains the same. Take, for example, the changing strategy of BuzzFeed:

Soon after Peretti had turned his attention to BuzzFeed full-time in 2011, after leaving the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed took a hit from Google. The site had been trying to focus on building traffic from both social media marketing and through SEO. But the SEO traffic — the free traffic driven from Google’s search results — dried up.

Reach is important. Topicality is important. Freshness, in most cases, is important. Engagement is important. Finding information is not just about a technical match of a keyword, it’s about an intellectual match of an idea. BuzzFeed didn’t take their eye off the ball. They know helping users find information is the point of the game they are in.

And the internet has only just begun.

In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2044 were not invented until after 2014. People in the future will look at their holodecks, and wearable virtual reality contact lenses, and downloadable avatars, and AI interfaces, and say, oh, you didn’t really have the internet (or whatever they’ll call it) back then.

In 30 years time, people will still be on the exact same quest for information. The point of SEO has always been to get your information in front of visitors, and that’s why SEO will endure. SEO was always a bit of a silly name, and it often distracts people from the point, which is to get your stuff seen ahead of the rest.

Some SEOs have given up in despair because it’s not like the old days. It’s becoming more expensive to do effective SEO, and the reward may not be there, especially for smaller sites. However, this might be to miss the point, somewhat.

The audience is still there. Their needs haven’t changed. They still want to find stuff. If SEO is all about helping users find stuff, then that’s the important thing. Remember the “why”. Adapt the “how”

In the next few articles, we’ll look at the specifics of how.

Have We Reached Peak Advertising?

Jun 19th
posted in

The internet runs on advertising. Google is funded almost entirely by advertising. Facebook , likewise. Digital marketing spends continue to rise:

Internet advertising revenues in the United States totaled $12.1 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013, an increase of 14% from the 2013 third-quarter total of $10.6 billion and an increase of 17% from the 2012 fourth-quarter total of $10.3 billion. 2013 full year internet advertising revenues totaled $42.78 billion, up 17% from the $36.57 billion reported in 2012.

Search advertising spend comes out on top, but that’s starting to change:

Search accounted for 41% of Q4 2013 revenues, down from 44% in Q4 2012, as mobile devices have shifted. Search-related revenues away from the desktop computer. Search revenues totaled $5.0 billion in Q4 2013, up 10% from Q4 2012, when Search totaled $4.6 billion

The growth area for digital advertising lays in mobile:

Mobile revenues totaled 19% of Q4 2013 revenues, or $2.3 billion, up 92% from the $1.2 billion (11% of total) reported in Q4 2012

Prominent venture capitalist, Mary Meeker, recently produced an analysis that also highlights this trend.

So, internet advertising is growing, but web internet adoption is slowing down. Meanwhile, mobile and tablet adoption is increasing fast, yet advertising spend on these mediums is comparatively low. Nice opportunity for mobile, however mobile advertising is proving hard to crack. Not many people are clicking on paid links on mobile. And many mobile ad clicks are accidental, driving down advertiser bids.

This is not just a problem for mobile. There may be a problem with advertising in general. It’s about trust, and lack thereof. This situation also presents a great opportunity for selling SEO.

But first, a little background....

People Know More

Advertising’s golden age was in the 50’s and 60’s.

Most consumers were information poor. At least, they were information poor when it came to getting timely information. This information asymmetry played into the hands of the advertising industry. The advertising agency provided the information that helped match the problems people had with a solution. Of course, they were framing the problem in a way that benefited the advertiser. If there wasn’t a problem, they made one up.

Today, the internet puts real time information about everything in the hands of the consumer. It is easy for people to compare offers, so the basis for advertising - which is essentially biased information provision - is being eroded. Most people see advertising as an intrusion. Just because an advertiser can get in front of a consumer at “the right time” does not necessarily mean people will buy what the advertiser has to offer with great frequency.

Your mobile phone pings. “You’re passing Gordon’s Steak House….come in and enjoy our Mega Feast!” You can compare that offer against a wide range of offers, and they can do so in real time. More than likely, you’ll just resent the intrusion. After all, you may be a happy regular at Susan’s Sushi.

“Knowing things” is not exclusive. Being able to “know things” is a click away. If information is freely available, then people are less likely to opt for whatever is pushed at them by advertisers at that moment. If it’s easy to research, people will do so.

This raises a problem when it comes to the economics of content creation. If advertising becomes less effective for the advertiser, then the advertisers is going to reduce spend, or shift spend elsewhere. If they do, then what becomes of the predominant web content model which is based on advertising?

Free Content Driven By Ads May Be An Unsustainable Model

We’re seeing it in broadcast television, and we’ll see it on the web.

Television is dying and being replaced by the Netflix model. There is a lot of content. There are not enough advertisers paying top dollar as the audience is now highly fragmented. As a result, a lot of broadcast television advertising can be ineffective. However, as we’ve seen with Netflix and Spotify, people are prepared to pay directly for the content they consume in the form of a monthly fee.

The long term trend for advertising engagement on the web is not favourable.

The very first banner advertisement appeared in 1994. The clickthru rate of that banner ad was a staggering 44% It had a novelty value, certainly. The first banner ad also existed in an environment where there wasn’t much information. The web was almost entirely about navigation.

Today, there is no shortage of content. The average Facebook advertisement clickthrough rate is around 0.04%. Advertisers get rather excited if they manage to squeeze 2% or 3% click-thrus rates out of Facebook ads.

Digital advertising is no longer novel, so the click-thru rate has plummeted. Not only do people feel that the advertising isn’t relevant to them, they have learned to ignore advertising even if the ad is talking directly to their needs. 97-98% of the time, people will not click on the ad.

And why should they? Information isn’t hard to come by. So what is the advertiser providing the prospective customer?

Even brand engagement is plummeting on Facebook as the novelty wears off, and Facebook changes policy:

According to a new report from Simply Measured, the total engagement for the top 10 most-followed brands on Facebook has declined 40 percent year-over-year—even as brands have increased the amount of content they’re posting by 20.1 percent.

Is Advertising Already Failing?

Our industry runs on advertising. Much of web publishing runs on advertising.

However, Eric Clemons makes the point that the traditional method of advertising was always bound to fail, mainly because after the novelty wears off, it’s all about interruption, and nobody likes to be interrupted.

But wait! Isn’t the advantage of search that it isn’t interruption advertising? In search, the user requests something. Clemons feels that search results can still be a form of misdirection:

Misdirection, or sending customers to web locations other than the ones for which they are searching. This is Google’s business model. Monetization of misdirection frequently takes the form of charging companies for keywords and threatening to divert their customers to a competitor if they fail to pay adequately for keywords that the customer is likely to use in searches for the companies’ products; that is, misdirection works best when it is threatened rather than actually imposed, and when companies actually do pay the fees demanded for their keywords. Misdirection most frequently takes the form of diverting customers to companies that they do not wish to find, simply because the customer’s preferred company underbid.

He who pays becomes “relevant”:

it is not scalable; it is not possible for every website to earn its revenue from sponsored search and ultimately at least some of them will need to find an alternative revenue model.

The companies that appear high on PPC are the companies who pay. Not every company can be on top, because not every company can pay top dollar. So, what the user sees is not necessarily what the user wants, but the company that has paid the most - along with their quality score - to be there.

But nowadays, the metrics of this channel have changed dramatically, making it impossible or nearly impossible for small and mid-sized business to turn a profit using AdWords. In fact, most small businesses can’t break even using AdWords.This goes for many large businesses as well, but they don’t care. And that is the key difference, and precisely why small brands using AdWords nowadays are being bludgeoned out of existence

Similarly, the organic search results are often dominated by large companies and entities. This is a direct or side-effect of the algorithms. Big entities create a favourable footprint of awareness, engagement and links as a result of PR, existing momentum, brand recognition, and advertising campaigns. It’s a lot harder for small companies to dominate lucrative competitive niches as they can’t create those same footprints.

Certainly when it comes to PPC, the search visitor may be presented with various big player links at the expense of smaller players. Google, like every other advertising driven medium, is beholden to it’s big advertisers. Jacob Nielsen noted in 1998:

Ultimately, those who pay for something control it. Currently, most websites that don't sell things are funded by advertising. Thus, they will be controlled by advertisers and will become less and less useful to the users”

If Interruption Advertising Is Failing, Is Advertising Scalable?

Being informed has changed customer behaviour.

The problem is not the medium, the problem is the message, and the fact that it is not trusted, not wanted, and not needed.

People don’t trust ads. There is a vast literature to support this. Is it all wrong?
People don’t want ads. Again, there is a vast literature to support this. Think about your own behavior, you own channel surfing and fast forwarding and the timing of when you leave the TV to get a snack. Is it during the content or the commercials?
People don’t need ads. There is a vast amount of trusted content on the net. Again, there is literature on this. But think about how you form your opinion of a product, from online ads or online reviews?
There is no shortage of places to put ads. Competition among them will be brutal. Prices will be driven lower and lower, for everyone but Google.

If the advertising is not scaleable, then a lot of content based on advertising will die. Advertising may not be able to support the net:

Now reality is reasserting itself once more, with familiar results. The number of companies that can be sustained by revenues from internet advertising turns out to be much smaller than many people thought, and Silicon Valley seems to be entering another “nuclear winter”

A lot of Adsense publishers are being kicked from the program. Many are terminated, without reason. Google appear to be systematically culling the publisher herd. Why? Shouldn’t web publishing, supported by advertising, be growing?

The continuing plunge in AdSense is in sharp contrast to robust 20% revenue growth in 2012, which outpaced AdWords' growth of 19%.....There are serious issues with online advertising affecting the entire industry. Google has reported declining value from clicks on its ads. And the shift to mobile ads is accelerating the decline, because it produces a fraction of the revenue of desktop ads.
Matt Sanchez, CEO of San Francisco based ad network Say Media, recently warnedthat, "Mobile Is Killing Media."
Digital publishing is headed off a cliff … There's a five fold gap between mobile revenue and desktop revenue… What makes that gap even starker is how quickly it’s happening… On the industry’s current course, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Prices tumble when consumers have near-perfect real time information. Travel. Consumer goods. Anything generic that can be readily compared is experiencing falling prices and shrinking margins. Sales growth in many consumer categories is coming from the premium offerings. For example, beer consumption is falling across the board except in one area: boutique, specialist brews. That market sector is growing as customers become a lot more aware of options that are not just good enough, but great. Boutique breweries offer a more personal relationship, and they offer something the customer perceives as being great, not just “good enough”.

Mass marketing is expensive. Most of the money spent on it is wasted. Products and services that are “just good enough” will be beaten by products and services that are a precise fit for consumers needs. Good enough is no longer good enough, products and services need to be great and precisely targeted unless you've got advertising money to burn.

How Do We Get To These Consumers If They No Longer Trust Paid Advertising?

Consumers will go to information suppliers they trust. There is always demand for a trusted source.

Trip Advisor is a great travel sales channel. It’s a high trust layer over a commodity product. People don’t trust Trip Advisor, per se, they trust the process. Customers talk to each other about the merits, or otherwise, of holiday destinations. It’s transparent. It’s not interruption, misleading or distracting. Consumers seek it out.

Trust models will be one way around the advertising problem. This suits SEOs. If you provide trusted information, especially in a transparent, high-trust form, like Trip Advisor, you will likely win out over those using more direct sales methods. Consumers are getting a lot better at tuning those out.

The trick is to remove the negative experience of advertising by not appearing to be advertising at all. Long term, it’s about developing relationships built on trust, not on interruption and misdirection. It’s a good idea to think about advertising as a relationship process, as opposed to the direct marketing model on which the web is built - which is all about capturing the customer just before point of sale.

Rand Fishkin explained the web purchase process well in this presentation. The process whereby someone becomes a customer, particularly on the web, isn’t all about the late stages of the transaction. We have to think of it in terms of a slow burning relationship developed over time. The consumer comes to us at the end of an information comparison process. Really, it’s an exercise in establishing consumer trust.

Amazon doesn’t rely on advertising. Amazon is a trusted destination. If someone wants to buy something, they often just go direct to Amazon. Amazon’s strategy involves what it calls “the flywheel”, whereby the more things people buy from Amazon, the more they’ll buy from Amazon in future. Amazon builds up a relationship rather than relying on a lot of advertising. Amazon cuts out the middle man and sells direct to customers.

Going viral with content, like Buzzfeed, may be one answer, but it’s likely temporary. It, too, suffers from a trust problem and the novelty will wear off:

Saying “I’m going to make this ad go viral” ignores the fact that the vast majority of viral content is ridiculously stupid. The second strategy, then, is the high-volume approach, same as it ever was. When communications systems wither, more and more of what’s left is the advertising dust. Junk mail at your house, in your email; crappy banner ads on MySpace. Platforms make advertising cheaper and cheaper in a scramble to make up revenue through volume.

It’s not just about supplying content. It could be said newspapers are suffering because bundled news is just another form of interruption and misdirection, mainly because it isn't specifically targeted:

Following The New York Times on Twitter is just like paging through a print newspaper. Each tweet is about something completely unrelated to the tweets before it. And this is the opposite of why people usually follow people and brands online. It's not surprising that The New York Times have a huge problem with engagement. They have nothing that people can connect and engage with

Eventually, the social networks will likely suffer from a trust problem, if they don’t already. Their reliance on advertising makes them spies. There is a growing awareness of data privacy and users are unlikely to tolerate invasions of privacy, especially if they are offered an alternative. Or perhaps the answer is to give users a cut themselves. Lady Gaga might be onto something.

Friends “selling” (recommending) to friends is a high trust environment.

A Good Approach To SEO Involves Building Consumer Trust

The serp is low trust. PPC is low trust. Search keyword plus a site that is littered with ads is low trust. So, one good long term future strategy is to move from low to high trust advertising.

A high trust environment doesn’t really look like advertising. It’s could be characterised as a transparent platform. Amazon and Trip Advisor are good examples. They are honest about what they are, and they provide the good along with the bad. It could be something like Wikipedia. Or an advisory site. There are many examples, but it's fair to say we know it when we see it.

A search on a keyword that finds a specific, relevant site that isn’t an obvious advertisement is high trust. The first visit is the start of a relationship. This is not the time to bombard visitors with your needs. Instead, give the visitor something they can trust. Trip Advisor even spells it out: "Find hotels travelers trust".

Telsla understands the trust relationship. Recently, they’ve made their patents open-source, which, apart from anything else, is a great form of reputation marketing. It’s clear Telsa is more interested in long term relationships and goodwill than pushing their latest model on you at a special price. Their transparency is endearing.

First, you earn trust. Then you sell them something later. If you don’t earn their trust, then you’re just like any other advertiser. People will compare you. People will seek out information. You’re one of many options, unless you have formed a prior relationship. SEO is a brilliant channel to develop a relationship based on trust. If you're selling SEO to clients, think about discussing the trust building potential - and value proposition - of SEO with them.

It's a nice side benefit of SEO. And it's a hedge against the problems associated with other forms of advertising.

Keep Visitors Coming Back

Mar 11th
posted in

Facebook. A mobile phone. Email. How often do you check them? Many of us have developed habits around these services.

The triggers that help create these habits can be baked in to the design of websites. The obvious benefit of doing so is that if you create habits in your users, then you’re less reliant on new search visitors for traffic.

How To Build Habit Forming Products

I recently read a book called “Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products” by Nir Eyal. Eyal is an entrepreneur who has built and sold two start ups, including a platform to place advertising within online social games. He also writes for Forbes, TechCrunch,and Psychology Today about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. This latest book is about how technology shapes behaviour.

If usability is about engineering a site to make things easier, then forming habits is engineering user behaviour so they keep coming back. Forming habits in the user base is a marketers dream, yet a lot of search marketing theory is built around targeting the new visitor. As competition rises on the web, traffic becomes more valuable, and the price rises.

Clicks are likely more profitable the less you have to pay for them. If visitors keep returning because the visitor has formed a habit, then that’s a much more lucrative proposition than having to continually find new visitors. Facebook is a habit. Email is a habit. Google is a habit. Amazon is a habit. We keep returning for that fix.

What techniques can we use to help build habits?

Techniques

The book is well worth a read if you’re interested in the psychology of repeat engagement. There’s a lot of familiar topics presented in the book, with cross-over into other marketing territory such as e-mail and social media marketing, but I found it useful to think of engagement in terms of habit formation. Here’s a taste of what Eyal has discovered about habit forming services.

1. Have A Trigger

A trigger is something that grabs your attention and forces you to react to it. A trigger might be a photo of you that appears on a friends Facebook Feed. It might be the ping of an email. It might be someone reacting to a comment that you made on a forum and receive notification. These triggers help condition a user to take an action.

2. Inspire Action

Action is taken when a user anticipates a reward. An example might be clicking on a link for a free copy of a book. There are two conditions needed for a reward to work. It must be easy and there must be a strong motivation. The investment required - the click and attention - is typically a lower “cost” than the reward - the book. On social sites, like Facebook, the reward of the “like” click is the presumption of a social reward.

3. Variable Reward

The reward in response to the action must be variable. Something different should happen as the result of taking an action. The author gives the example of a slot machine. The reward might occur as the result of an action, or it might not. A slot machine would be boring if you got the exact same result each time you pulled the handle and spun the dials. The fact the slot machine only pays out sometimes is what keeps people coming back. All sports and games work on the basis of variable reward.

An online equivalent is Twitter or Facebook feeds. We keep looking at them because they keep changing. Somedays, there isn’t much of interest. Sometimes there is. Looking at that river of news going past can be an addictive habit, in part, because the reward changes.

4. Investment

The user must invest some time and do some work. Each time they invest some time and work, they add something that improves the service. They may add friends in Facebook. They add follows in Twitter. They build up reputation in forums. By adding to it, the service becomes more valuable both to the owner of the service, but also to the user. The bigger and deeper the network grows, the more valuable it becomes. If all your friends are on it, it’s valuable. This builds ever more triggers, makes actions easier and likely more frequent, and the reward more exciting.

The circle is complete. A habit is formed.

Applying Habit Theory To Websites

Habits create unprompted user engagement. The value is pretty obvious. There’s likely a higher lifetime value per customer than a one-off visit, or on-going visits we have to pay per click. We can spend less time acquiring new customers and more time growing the value to those we already have. If we create an easy mechanism by which that occurs, and spreads, then we’re not as vulnerable to search engines.

If this all sounds very function and product oriented, well, it is. So how does this apply to a published website? A product website that aims for a one off sale?

Think In Terms Of Habit Formation

For one off sales, there aren't opportunities for habit formation in the same way as there might be for, say, Facebook.

Someone who sells big, one-off purchases may not see much point in having customers check in every day. However, when we think in terms of users habits, we’d likely better understand why we need to be on Facebook in the first place, or why email marketing is still valuable. If the user is there, that’s where we need to be, too. We need to align ourselves with users existing habits.

Developers often give away free apps, but bill for continued use. Once the user gets in the habit, of doing something, price becomes less of an issue. Price is much more of an issue before they form a habit because they wonder if they will get value. AngryBirds, WhatsApp, et al created a habit first, then cashed in once it was established.

A call-to-action is a trigger. If we think about how calls-to-action in social media and mobile applications, they tend to be big, bold and explicit. If users are in the habit of clicking big, bold buttons in other media, then try testing these such buttons against your current calls-to-action on web pages. Look to mimic habits and routines your visitors might use in other applications.

Habits can be a defensive strategy. It’s hard for a user to leave a company around which they've formed a habit. On the surface, there is a low switching cost between Google and, say, Bing, but how many people really do switch? Google has locked-in users habit by layering on services such as Gmail, or just the simple act of having people used to its interfaces. The habit of users increases their switching cost.

There’s a great line in the book:

Many innovations fail because consumers irrationally overvalue the old while companies irrationally overvalue the new” - John Gourville

Changing user habits is very difficult. Even Google couldn't do it with Google Video vs the established YouTube. If you’re thinking of getting into an established market, think about how you’re going to break existing habits. A few new features probably isn't enough. If breaking established habits seems too difficult, you may decide to pick an entirely new niche and try to get users forming a habit around your offering before other early movers show up.

Eyal also discusses emotional triggers. He uses the example of Instagram where users form a habit for emotional reasons, namely the fear of missing out. The fear of missing out is a more passive, internal trigger.

Make It Easy For The User To Take Action

After the trigger comes action. Usability is all about making it easy for the user to take action. Are you putting unnecessary sign-up stages in the way of a user taking action? Does the user really need to sign up before they take action? If you must have a sign up, how about making that process easier by letting people sign in with Facebook logins, or other shared services, where appropriate? Any barrier to action may lessen the chance of a user forming a habit.

Evan Williams, Blogger & Twitter:

Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time...identify that desire, then take out steps

The technologies and sites that go big tend to mirror something people already do and have done for a long time. They just make the process easier and more efficient. Email is easier than writing and posting a letter. Creating a blog is easier than seeking a publishing deal or landing a journalism job at a newspaper. Sharing photos with Facebook is easier than doing so offline.

Apple worked on similar principles:

The most obvious thing is that Jobs wanted his products to be simple above all else. But Jobs realized early on that for them to be simple and easy to use, they had to be based on things that people already understood. (Design geeks have since given this idea a clunky name: so-called skeuomorphic user interfaces.) What was true of the first Macintosh graphical interface is true of the iPhone and iPad--the range of physical metaphors, and, eventually, the physical gestures that control them, map directly with what we already do in the real world. That’s the true key to creating an intuitive interface, and Jobs realized it before computers could really even render the real world with much fidelity at all.[An example of "imputing" Apples values on the smallest decisions: Jobs spent hours honing the window borders of the first Macintosh GUI. When his designers complained, he pointed out that users would look at those details for hours, so they had to be good.

Reducing things to the essentials fosters engagement by making an action easier to take. If in doubt, take steps out, and see what happens.

Vary The Reward

Look for ways to reward the user when they take action. Forums use social rewards, such as reputation and status titles. Facebook has “Like” Buttons. Inherent is this reward system is the thrill of pursuit. When a visitor purchases from you, or signs up for a newsletter, do you make the visitor feel like they've “won”?

Placing feeds on your site are another example of variable reward. The feed content is unpredictable, but that very unpredictability may be enough to keep people coming back. Same goes for blog posts. Compare this with a static brochure site where the “reward” will always be the same.

Can you break a process down into steps where the user is rewarded for taking each little step towards a goal? The reward should match the desires of the visitor. Perhaps the reward is monetary, perhaps it’s social. Gamification is becoming big business and it’s based around the idea of varying reward, action and triggers in order to foster engagement.

Gamification has also been used as a tool for customer engagement, and for encouraging desirable website usage behaviour. Additionally, gamification is readily applicable to increasing engagement on sites built on social network services. For example, in August 2010, one site, DevHub, announced that they have increased the number of users who completed their online tasks from 10% to 80% after adding gamification elements. On the programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow users receive points and/or badges for performing a variety of actions, including spreading links to questions and answers via Facebook and Twitter. A large number of different badges are available, and when a user's reputation points exceed various thresholds, he or she gains additional privileges, including at the higher end, the privilege of helping to moderate the site

Summary

This is “checking” behaviour. We check for something new. We get a variable reward for checking something new. If we help create this behaviour in our visitors, we get higher engagement signals, and we’re less reliant on new visitors from search engines.

Checking habits may change in the near future as more and more informational "rewards" are added to smartphones. The paper argues that novel informational rewards can lead to habitual behaviors if they are very quickly accessible. In a field experiment, when the phone's contact book application was augmented with real-time information about contacts' whereabouts and doings, users started regularly checking the application. The researchers also observed that habit-formation for one application may increase habit-formation for related applications.

Optimizing Against Competitors

Feb 11th
posted in

You’ve got to feel a little sorry for anyone new to the search marketing field.

On one side, they’ve got to deal with the cryptic black box that is Google. Often inconsistent, always vague, and can be unfair in their dealings with webmasters. On the other side, webmasters must operate in competitive landscapes that often favour incumbent sites, especially if those incumbents are household names.

Sadly, much of the low hanging search fruit is gone. However, there are a number of approaches to optimization that don’t involve link placement and keyword targeting.

Competitive Advantage

Like any highly active and lucrative market sector, the web business can be challenging, but complaining about the nature of the environment will do little good. The only real option is to grab some boxing gloves, jump in the ring and compete.

In the last post, we talked about measurement. We need to make sure we’re measuring the right things in order to win. This post is about measuring our competitors to see if we enjoy a competitive advantage. If not, we need to rethink our approach.

Underlying Advantages

One of the problems with counting links, and other popular SEO metrics, is that they can be reductive. High link counts and pumped-up Google juice do not guarantee success, more traffic, or business success. For example, we might determine our competitor has X links from sites A, B and C, so we should do likewise. If we do likewise, plus a little more, then we win.

But often we don’t.

We often don’t win because there are multiple factors in play. Our competitor’s site might rank for reasons that are difficult to determine, and even more difficult to emulate. They may have brand, engagement metrics or historical advantages. But most challenging of all, they could have some underlying competitive advantage that no amount of link building or ranking for keyword X by a new site will counter. They may just have a better offer.

Winning The Search War Against Your Competitors

There’s an old joke about a two guys out walking in the African Savannah. They come across a hungry lion. The lion eyes them up, then charges them. One man turns and runs. The other man yells at him “you fool, you can’t outrun a lion!” The other man yells back “that’s true, but I don’t have to outrun the lion. I only have to outrun you!”

Once we figure out what Google wants, we then need to outrun other sites in our niche in order to win. Those sites have to deal with Google’s whims, just like we do.

Typically, webmasters will reverse engineer competitor sites, using web metrics as scores to target and beat. Who is linking to this page? How old are the links? What are their most popular keywords? Where are they getting traffic from? That’s part of the puzzle. However, we also need to evaluate non-technical factors that may be underpinning their business.

Competitive Analysis

Competitive intelligence is an ongoing, systematic analysis of our competitors.

The goal of a competitor analysis is to develop a profile of the nature of strategy changes each competitor might make, each competitor's possible response to the range of likely strategic moves other firms could make, and each competitor's likely reaction to industry changes and environmental shifts that might take place. Competitive intelligence should have a single-minded objective -- to develop the strategies and tactics necessary to transfer market share profitably and consistently from specific competitors to the company. We should look at the sites positioned around and above us and analyse what they do in terms of business.

Do they understand the target market a little better than we do? Are their goals different from ours? If so, how are they different, and why? How are they pricing their products and services? How do their services differ from our own? In other words, do they know something we don’t?

We can optimize for competitive advantage. It's about identifying what market your competitors capture, and where that market is heading in the future. Once you've figured that out, you might be able to discover opportunities your competitors have missed.

How To Undertake Competitive Analysis

It would be great if we could call up our competitors and ask them exactly what they're doing, how they’re doing it, and where they are heading - and they’d tell us. But we all know that's not going to happen.

So we have to dig. We don't want to do too much digging, as it is time consuming, expensive and, truth be told, somewhat tedious. Thankfully, a lot of the answers we need are sitting right in front of us and readily available.

To undertake a competitive analysis, try asking these questions:

  • What is the nature of competition?
  • Where does the competitor compete?
  • Who does the competitor compete against?
  • How does the competitor compete?

1. The Nature Of The Competition

The little guy used to prosper in search just by being clever. If you knew the tricks, and the big companies didn’t - and typically, they didn’t - you could beat them easily. This is now harder to do. These days, traditional power structures play a greater role in search results, so it is often the case that big brands can dominate SERPs by virtue of their offline market position. Their market position is creating the signals Google tends to look for, such as regular major press mentions, resulting links and direct search volume, often with little direct SEO effort on the part of the brand.

So, if you’re the little guy coming up against big, entrenched competition, that’s going to be a hard road.

We saw what happened with Adwords, and now the same thing is happening in the main search results. Those with the deepest pockets could run Adwords campaigns that appear to make absolutely no fiscal sense, either because they’re getting their revenue from elsewhere to subsidise the Adwords spend, or, as is often the case, they’re prepared to wage a defensive war of attrition to prevent new competitors entering or dominating their space.

I think these long-term trends are mostly due to increasing competition. As more and more companies bid on Adwords for a finite number of clicks, it inevitably drives up the cost of clicks (simple supply and demand). It also doesn’t help that a lot of Adwords users are not actively managing their campaigns or measuring their ROI, and are consequently bidding at unprofitably high levels. Google also does its best to drive up CPC values in various ways (suggesting ridiculously high default bids, goading you to bid more to get on page 1, not showing your ad at all if you bid too low – even if no other ads appear etc).

Of course, this is just my data for one product in one small market. But the law of shitty clickthrus predicts that all advertising mediums become less and less profitable over time. So I would be surprised if it isn’t a general trend

In the main search results, a large companies position will be influenced by spend they make elsewhere. Big PR media campaigns, and the resulting press, links, and mentions in other channels, all result in a big data footprint of attention and interest that Google is unlikely to miss.

However, the little guy still has one advantage that the big businesses seldom have. The little guy is like the speedboat compared to an ocean liner. They may be small, they may be easily swamped in a storm, but they can change direction very quickly. The ocean liner takes a long time to turn around.

The little guy can change direction and get into new markets quickly - “pivot” in Silicon Valley parlance. The little guy can twist new markets slightly and invent entire new markets, whilst the bigger business tend to sail pre-set courses along known routes. This is how the once nimble Google trounced their search competitors. They didn’t take the competitors head on, they took a different tack (focused on the user, not advertisers), made strategic alignments (Yahoo), a few twists and turns (Overture) , and eventually worked themselves in the center of the search market. Had they just built another Yahoo, they wouldn’t have got very far.

If you’re a small business or new to a market, then it’s not a great idea to take on a big, entrenched business directly. Rather, look for ways you can outmanoeuvre them. Are there changes in the market they aren’t responding to? Are the markets about to change due to innovations coming over the horizon that you can spot, but they can’t? Look for areas of abrupt change. The little guy is typically well placed to take advantage of rapid change in markets. And new, fast developing markets.

Choose your market space carefully.

So, how do you become the next Picasso? The same way you build a powerful brand. Create a new category you can be first in.
...
The best way to become a world-famous artist is to create paintings that are recognized as a new category of art. - Al Ries

2. Where Does The Competitor Compete?

For example, are they limited to a certain geography? Culture? Language? Do they have an offline presence?

You could take their business model to a geographic location they don’t serve. Is there something that succeeds in the US, but has yet to reach Australia? Or Europe? Are your competitors targeting nationally, when you could target locally?

3. Who Do You Compete Against?

Make a list of the top ten competitors in a niche. Compare and contrast their approaches and offerings. Compare their use of language and their relative place in the market. Who is entrenched? Who is up-and-coming?

The up-and-coming sites are interesting. If they’re new, but making headway, it pays to ask why that’s happening. Is it just because they’re getting more links, or is it because they’re doing something new that the market likes? Bit of both?

I think the most interesting opportunities in search are found by watching the sites that aren't doing much in the way of SEO, but they are rising fast. If they’re not playing hard at “rigging the search vote” in their favour, then their positioning is likely due to genuine interest out in the market.

4. How Does The Competitor Compete

What are the specifics of the products and services they are offering. Lower prices? High service levels? Do they provide information that can't be obtained elsewhere? Do they have longevity? Money, staff and resources? Are they building brand? What are they doing besides search?

What prevents you doing likewise?

5. Are They More Engaging?

Google talk about engagement a lot, and we saw engagement metrics become important after updates Penquin/Panda.

Panda is really the public face of a much deeper switch towards user engagement. While the Panda score is sitewide the engagement "penalty" or weighting effect on also occurs at the individual page. The pages or content areas that were hurt less by Panda seem to be the ones that were not also being hurt by the engagement issue.

Engagement is a measure of how interesting visitors find a site. Do people search for your competitors by name, do they click through rather than back to the SERPs, and do they talk about that site to others?

The click-back, or lack-thereof, is a hard one to spot if you don’t have access to a websites data. Take a look at your competitors usability. Is it easy to navigate? It is obvious where visitors need to click? Are they easy to order from? Is their offer clear? Do they have fast site response times? Of course, we view these things as fundamental, however many sites still overlook the basics. If you can optimize in these areas, do so. If your competitors ranking above you have good engagement design and content, then you need to do it, too.

One baseline to look at is branded search volumes. If people are specifically & repeatedly looking for something that typically means they are satisfied with it.

Matt Cutts has recently mentioned that incumbent sites may not enjoy the previous “aged” advantages they’ve had in the past.

This may well be the next big Google shift. It makes sense that Google would reward sites that have higher user utility scores, all other factors being equal. Older sites may have built up a lot of links and positive SEO signals over time, but if their information is outdated and their site cumbersome, the site will likely have low utility. Given the rise of social media, which is all about immediacy and relevance (high utility as perceived by the user), Google would be foolish to reward incumbency at the expense of utility. It’s an area we’re watching closely as it may swing back some advantage to the smaller, nimble players.

6. Do They Have A Good Defensive Position?

Is it hard to enter their market? Competitors may have a lot of revenue to throw around, and a considerable historical advantages. Taking on the likes of Trip Advisor would be difficult and expensive, no matter how good the SEO.

If they have a strong defensible position, and you have limited resources, trying creating your own, unique space. For example, in SEO, you could compete with other SEOs for clients (crowded), or your could become a local trainer who trains existing SEOs inhouse (less crowded). You could move from selling widgets to hiring out widgets to people. You could repackage your widgets with other widgets to create a new product. An example might be selling individual kitchen utensils, but packaged together, they become a picnic kit.

Look for ways to create slightly different markets that you can make your own.

7. What’s In Their Marketing?

What does their advertising look like? Scanning competitor's ads can reveal much about what that competitor believes about marketing and their target market.

Are they changing their message? Offering new products? Rebranding? Positioning differently? This is not absolute, of course, but it could offer up some valuable clues. There’s even a Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals devoted to this very task.

Big Topic

Whilst competitive analysis is huge topic, the value of even a basic competitive analysis can be considerable.

By doing so, we can adjust our own offering to compete better, or decide that competing directly is not a great idea, and that we would be better off entering a closely-related market, instead . We may create a whole new niche and have no competition. At least, not for a while. We might make a list of all the things we need to do to match and overtake a fast rising new challenger who isn’t doing much in the way of SEO.

There's much more to search competition that algo watching, keywords and links. And many ways to compete and optimize.

Value Based SEO Strategy

Dec 1st
posted in

One approach to search marketing is to treat the search traffic as a side-effect of a digital marketing strategy. I’m sure Google would love SEOs to think this way, although possibly not when it comes to PPC! Even if you’re taking a more direct, rankings-driven approach, the engagement and relevancy scores that come from delivering what the customer values should serve you well, too.

In this article, we’ll look at a content strategy based on value based marketing. Many of these concepts may be familiar, but bundled together, they provide an alternative search provider model to one based on technical quick fixes and rank. If you want to broaden the value of your SEO offering beyond that first click, and get a few ideas on talking about value, then this post is for you.

In any case, the days of being able to rank well without providing value beyond the click are numbered. Search is becoming more about providing meaning to visitors and less about providing keyword relevance to search engines.

What Is Value Based Marketing?

Value based marketing is customer, as opposed to search engine, centric. In Values Based Marketing For Bottom Line Success, the authors focus on five areas:

  • Discover and quantify your customers' wants and needs
  • Commit to the most important things that will impact your customers
  • Create customer value that is meaningful and understandable
  • Assess how you did at creating true customer value
  • Improve your value package to keep your customers coming back

Customers compare your offer against those of competitors, and divide the benefits by the cost to arrive at value. Marketing determines and communicates that value.

This is the step beyond keyword matching. When we use keyword matching, we’re trying to determine intent. We’re doing a little demographic breakdown. This next step is to find out what the customer values. If we give the customer what they value, they’re more likely to engage and less likely to click back.

What Does The Customer Value?

A key question of marketing is “which customers does this business serve”? Seems like an obvious question, but it can be difficult to answer. Does a gym serve people who want to get fit? Yes, but then all gyms do that, so how would they be differentiated?

Obviously, a gym serves people who live in a certain area. So, if our gym is in Manhattan, our customer becomes “someone who wants to get fit in Manhattan”. Perhaps our gym is upmarket and expensive. So, our customer becomes “people who want to get fit in Manhattan and be pampered and are prepared to pay more for it”. And so on, and so on. They’re really questions and statements about the value proposition as perceived by the customer, and then delivered by the business.

So, value based marketing is about delivering value to a customer. This syncs with Google’s proclaimed goal in search, which is to put users first by delivering results they deem to have value, and not just pages that match a keyword term. Keywords need to be seen in a wider context, and that context is pretty difficult to establish if you’re standing outside the search engine looking in, so thinking in terms of concepts related to the value proposition might be a good way to go.

Value Based SEO Strategy

The common SEO approach, for many years, has started with keywords. It should start with customers and the business.

The first question is “who is the target market” and then ask what they value.

Relate what they value to the business. What is the value proposition of the business? Is it aligned? What would make a customer value this business offering over those of competitors? It might be price. It might be convenience. It’s probably a mix of various things, but be sure to nail down the specific value propositions.

Then think of some customer questions around these value propositions. What would be the likely customer objections to buying this product? What would be points that need clarifying? How does this offer differ from other similar offers? What is better about this product or service? What are the perceived problems in this industry? What are the perceived problems with this product or service? What is difficult or confusing about it? What could go wrong with it? What risks are involved? What aspects have turned off previous customers? What complaints did they make?

Make a list of such questions. These are your article topics.

You can glean this information by either interviewing customers or the business owner. Each of these questions, and accompanying answer, becomes an article topic on your site, although not necessarily in Q&A format. The idea is to create a list of topics as a basis for articles that address specific points, and objections, relating to the value proposition.

For example, buying SEO services is a risk. Customers want to know if the money they spend is going to give them a return. So, a valuable article might be a case study on how the company provided return on spend in the past, and the process by which it will achieve similar results in future. Another example might be a buyer concerned about the reliability of a make of car. A page dedicated to reliability comparisons, and another page outlining the customer care after-sale plan would provide value. Note how these articles aren’t keyword driven, but value driven.

Ever come across a FAQ that isn’t really a FAQ? Dreamed-up questions? They’re frustrating, and of little value if the information doesn’t directly relate to the value we seek. Information should be relevant and specific so when people land on the site, there’s more chance they will perceive value, at least in terms of addressing the questions already on their mind.

Compare this approach with generic copy around a keyword term. A page talking about “SEO” in response to the keyword term “SEO“might closely match a keyword term, so that’s a relevance match, but unless it’s tied into providing a customer the value they seek, it’s probably not of much use. Finding relevance matches is no longer a problem for users. Finding value matches often is. Even if you’re keyword focused, added these articles provides you semantic variation that may capture keyword searches that aren't appearing in keyword tools.

Keyword relevance was a strategy devised at a time when information was less readily available and search engines weren't as powerful. Finding something relevant was more hit and miss that it is today. These days, there’s likely thousands, if not millions, of pages that will meet relevance criteria in terms of keyword matching, so the next step is to meet value criteria. Providing value is less likely to earn a click back and more likely to create engagement than mere on-topic matching.

The Value Chain

Deliver value. Once people perceive value, then we have to deliver it. Marketing, and SEO in particular, used to be about getting people over the threshold. Today, businesses have to work harder to differentiate themselves and a sound way of doing this is to deliver on promises made.

So the value is in the experience. Why do we return to Amazon? It’s likely due to the end-to-end experience in terms of delivering value. Any online e-commerce store can deliver relevance. Where competition is fierce, Google is selective.

In the long term, delivering value should drive down the cost of marketing as the site is more likely to enjoy repeat custom. As Google pushes more and more results beneath the fold, the cost of acquisition is increasing, so we need to treat each click like gold.

Monitor value. Does the firm keep delivering value? To the same level? Because people talk. They talk on Twitter and Facebook and the rest. We want them talking in a good way, but even if they talk in a negative way, it can still useful. Their complaints can be used as topics for articles. They can be used to monitor value, refine the offer and correct problems as they arise. Those social signals, whilst not a guaranteed ranking boost, are still signals. We need to adopt strategies whereby we listen to all the signals, so to better understand our customers, in order to provide more value, and hopefully enjoy a search traffic boost as a welcome side-effect, so long as Google is also trying to determine what users value. .

Not sounding like SEO? Well, it’s not optimizing for search engines, but for people. If Google is to provide value, then it needs to ensure results provide not just relevant, but offer genuine value to end users. Do Google do this? In many cases, not yet, but all their rhetoric and technical changes suggest that providing value is at the ideological heart of what they do. So the search results will most likely, in time, reflect the value people seek, and not just relevance.

In technical terms, this provides some interesting further reading:

Today, signals such as keyword co-occurrence, user behavior, and previous searches do in fact inform context around search queries, which impact the SERP landscape. Note I didn’t say the signals “impact rankings,” even though rank changes can, in some cases, be involved. That’s because there’s a difference. Google can make a change to the SERP landscape to impact 90 percent of queries and not actually cause any noticeable impact on rankings.

The way to get the context right, and get positive user behaviour signals, and align with their previous searches, is to first understand what people value.

Creating an Experience for Your Product

Nov 18th

In a recent post I talked about the benefits of productizing your business model along with some functional ways to achieve productization.

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:

  1. Experience matters more to some people than others
  2. Experience matters more in certain industries than others
  3. The actual product matters more to some
  4. 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
  • Fonts
  • 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:

These are some of the tools you might want to use to help in this process:

  • Running copy through Word for readability Scores- Office 2013
  • A Windows tool that can help improve your writing- Stylewriter
  • A Mac tool to help with graphics and charts- Omnigraffle
  • A Windows tool to help with charts and graphics- SmartDraw
  • A cloud-based presentation tool that helps the less artistically inclined (like me)- Prezi
  • Online proposal software- Proposable
  • A text expander for Mac, comes in handy with consistent "messaging"- TextExpander
  • Windows alternative that syncs with TextExpander- Breevy

Optimizing The SEO Model

Oct 29th
posted in

SEO has always been focused on acquisition.

The marketing strategy, based on high rankings against keyword terms, is about gaining a steady flow of new visitors. If a site ranks better than competing sites, this steady stream of new visitors will advantage the top sites to the disadvantage of those sites beneath it.

The selling point of SEO is a strong one. The client gets a constant flow of new visitors and enjoys competitive advantage, just so long as they maintain rank.

A close partner of SEO is PPC. Like SEO, PPC delivers a stream of new visitors, and if you bid well, and have relevant advertisements, then you enjoy a competitive advantage. Unlike PPC, SEO does not cost per click, or, to be more accurate, it should cost a lot less per click once the SEOs fees are taken into account, so SEO has enjoyed a stronger selling point. Also, the organic search results typically have a higher level of trust from search engine users.

91% prefer using natural search results when looking to buy a product or service online".[Source: Tamar Search Attitudes Report, Tamar, July 2010]

Rain On The Parade

Either by coincidence or design, Google’s algorithm shifts have made SEO less of a sure proposition.

If you rank well, the upside is still there, but because the result is less certain than it used to be, and the work more involved than ever, the risk, and costs in general, have increased. The more risky SEO becomes in terms of getting results, the more Adwords looks attractive, as at least results are assured, so long as spend is sufficient.

Adwords is a brilliant system. For Google. It’s also a brilliant system for those advertisers who can find a niche that doesn’t suffer high levels of competition. The trouble is competition levels are typically high.

Because competition is high, and Adwords is an auction model, bid prices must rise. As bid prices rise, only those companies that can achieve ROI at high costs per click will be left bidding. The higher their ROI, the higher the bid prices can conceivably go. Their competitors, if they are to keep up, will do likewise.

So, the PPC advertiser focused on customer acquisition as a means of growing the company will be passing more and more of their profits to Google in the form of higher and higher click prices. If a company wants to grow by customer acquisition, via the search channel, then they’ll face higher and higher costs. It can be difficult to maintain ROI via PCC over time, which is why SEO is appealing. It’s little wonder Google has their guns pointed at SEO.

A fundamental problem with Adwords, and SEO in general, is that basing marketing success around customer acquisition alone is a poor long term strategy.

More on that point soon….

White-Hat SEO Is Dead

It’s surprising a term such as “white hat SEO” was ever taken seriously.

Any attempt to game a search engine’s algorithm, as far as the search engine is concerned, is going to be frowned upon by the search engine. What is gaming if it’s not reverse engineering the search engines ranking criteria and looking to gain a higher rank than a site would otherwise merit? Acquiring links, writing keyword-focused articles, for the purpose of gaining a higher rank in a search engine is an attempt at rank manipulation. The only thing that varies is the degree.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as far as marketers are concerned.

The search marketing industry line has been that so long as you avoided “bad behaviour”, your site stood a high chance of ranking well. Ask people for links. Find keywords with traffic. Publish pages focused on those topics. There used to more certainty of outcome.

If the outcome is not assured, then so long as a site is crawlable, why would you need an SEO? You just need to publish and see where Google ranks you. Unless the SEO is manipulating rank, then where is the value proposition over and above simply publishing crawlable content? Really, SEO is a polite way of saying “gaming the system”.

Those who let themselves be defined by Google can now be seen scrambling to redefine themselves. “Inbound marketers” is one term being used a lot. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, although you’d be hard pressed to call it Search Engine Optimization. It’s PR. It’s marketing. It’s content production. The side effect of such activity might be a high ranking in the search engines (wink, wink). It’s like Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is…...

A few years back, we predicted that the last SEOs standing would be blackhat, and that’s turned out to be true. The term SEO has been successfully co-opted and marginalized. You can still successfully game the system with disposable domains, by aggressively targeting keywords, and buying lot of links and/or building link networks, but there’s no way that’s compliant with Google’s definitions of acceptable use. It would be very difficult to sell that to a client without full disclosure. Even with full disclosure, I’m sure it’s a hard sell.

But I digress….

Optimization In The New Environment

The blackhats will continue on as usual. They never took direction from search engines, anyway.

Many SEOs are looking to blend a number of initiatives together to take the emphasis off search. Some call it inbound. In practice, it blends marketing, content production and PR. It's a lot less about algo hacking.

For it to work well, and to get great results in search, the SEO model needs to be turned on its head. It’s still about getting people to a site, but because the cost of getting people to a site has increased, every visitor must count. For this channel to maintain value, then more focus will go on what happens after the click.

If the offer is not right, and the path to that offer isn’t right, then it’s like having people turn up for a concert when the band hasn’t rehearsed. At the point the audience turns up, they must deliver what the audience wants, or the audience isn’t coming back. The bands popularity will quickly fade.

This didn’t really matter too much in the past when it was relatively cheap to position in the SERPs. If you received a lot of slightly off-topic traffic, big deal, it’s not like it cost anything. Or much. These days, because it’s growing ever more costly to position, we’re increasingly challenged by the “growth by acquisition” problem.

Consider optimizing in two areas, if you haven’t already.

1. Offer Optimization

We know that if searchers don’t find what they what, they click back. The click back presents two problems. One, you just wasted time and money getting that visitor to your site. Secondly, it’s likely that Google is measuring click-backs in order to help determine relevancy.

How do you know if your offer is relevant to users?

The time-tested way is to examine a couple of the 4ps. Product, price, position, and place. Place doesn’t matter so much, as we’re talking about the internet, although if you’ve got some local-centric product or service, then it’s a good idea to focus on it. Promotion is what SEOs do. They get people over the threshold.

However, two areas worth paying attention to are product and price. In order to optimize product, we need to ask some fundamental questions:

  • Does the customer want this product or service?
  • What needs does it satisfy? Is this obvious within a few seconds of viewing the page?
  • What features does it have to meet these needs? Are these explained?
  • Are there any features you've missed out? Have you explained all the features that meet the need?
  • Are you including costly features that the customer won't actually use?
  • How and where will the customer use it?
  • What does it look like? How will customers experience it?
  • What size(s), color(s) should it be?
  • What is it to be called?
  • How is it branded?
  • How is it differentiated versus your competitors?
  • What is the most it can cost to provide, and still be sold sufficiently profitably?

SEOs are only going to have so much control over these aspects, especially if they’re working for a client. However, it still pays to ask these questions, regardless. If the client can’t answer them, then you may be dealing with a client who has no strategic advantage over competitors. They are likely running a me-too site. Such sites are difficult to position from scratch.

Even older sites that were at one point highly differentiated have slid into an unprofitable me too status as large sites like Amazon & eBay offer a catalog which grows deeper by the day.

Unless you're pretty aggressive, taking on me-too sites will make your life difficult in terms of SEO, so thinking about strategic advantage can be a good way to screen clients. If they have no underlying business advantage, ask yourself if you really want to be doing SEO for these people?

In terms of price:

  • What is the value of the product or service to the buyer?
  • Are there established price points for products or services in this area?
  • Is the customer price sensitive? Will a small decrease in price gain you extra market share? Or will a small increase be indiscernible, and so gain you extra profit margin?
  • What discounts should be offered to trade customers, or to other specific segments of your market?
  • How will your price compare with your competitors?

Again, even if you have little or no control over these aspects, then it still pays to ask the questions. You're looking for underlying business advantage that you can leverage.

Once we’ve optimized the offer, we then look at conversion.

2. Conversion Optimization

There’s the obvious conversion most search marketers know about. People arrive at a landing page. Some people buy what’s on offer, and some leave. So, total conversions/number of views x 100 equals the conversion rate.

However, when it comes to SEO, it’s not just about the conversion rate of a landing page. Unlike PPC, you don’t have precise control over the entry page. So, optimizing for conversion is about looking at every single page on which people enter your site, and optimizing each page as if it were an entry point.

What do you want people to do when they land on your page?

Have a desired action in mind for every page. It might be a sign-up. It might be to encourage a bookmark. It might be to buy something. It might be to tweet. Whatever it is, we need to make the terms of engagement, for the visitor, clear for each page - with a big, yellow highlight on the term “engagement”! Remember, Google are likely looking at bounce-back rates. So, there is a conversion rate for every single page on your site, and they’re likely all different.

Think about the shopping cart process. Is a buyer, particularly a mobile buyer, going to wade through multiple forms? Or could the sale be made in as few clicks as possible? Would integrating Paypal or Amazon payments lift your conversion rates? What’s your site speed like? The faster, the better, obviously. A lot of conversion is about streamlining things - from processes, to navigation to site speed.

At this point, a lot of people will be wondering how to measure and quantify all this. How to track track conversion funnels across a big site. It’s true, it’s difficult. It many cases, it’s pretty much impossible to get adequate sample sizes.

However, that’s not a good reason to avoid conversion optimization. You can measure it in broad terms, and get more incremental as time goes on. A change across pages, a change in paths, can lead to small changes on those pages and paths, even changes that are difficult to spot, but there is sufficient evidence that companies who employ conversion optimization can enjoy significant gains, especially if they haven't focused on these areas in the past.

While you could quantify every step of the way, and some companies certainly do, there’s probably a lot of easy wins that can be gained merely by following these two general concepts - optimizing the offer and then optimizing (streamlining) the pages and paths that lead to that offer. If something is obscure, make it obvious. If you want the visitor to do something, make sure the desired action is writ-large. If something is slow, make it faster.

Do it across every offer, page and path in your site and watch the results.

Time For A Content Audit

Oct 2nd
posted in

"Content is king" is one of those “truthy” things some marketers preach. However, in most businesses the bottom line is king, attention is queen, and content can be used as a means to get both, but it depends.

The problem is that content is easy to produce. Machines can produce content. They can tirelessly churn out screeds of content every second. Even if they didn’t, billions of people on the internet are perfectly capable of adding to the monolithic content pile at similar rates.

Low barriers to content production and distribution mean the internet has turned a lot of content into near worthless commodity. Getting and maintaining attention is the tricky part, and once a business has that, then the benefits can flow through to the bottom line.

Some content is valuable, of course. Producing valuable content can earn attention. The content that gets the most attention is typically something for which an audience has a strong need, yet can’t easily get elsewhere, and is published in a place they're likely to see. Or someone they know is likely to see. An article on title tags will likely get buried. An article on the secret code to cracking Google's Hummingbird algorithms will likely crash your server.

Up until the point everyone else has worked out how to crack them, too, of course.

What Content Does The User Want?

Content can become King if the audience bestows favor upon it. Content producers need to figure out what content the audience wants. Perversely, Google have chosen to make this task even more difficult than it was before by withholding keyword data. Between Google’s supposed “privacy” drive, Hummingbird supposedly using semantic analysis, and Penguin/Panda supposedly using engagement metrics, page level and path level optimization are worth focusing upon going forward.

If you haven’t done one for a while, now is probably a good time to take stock and undertake a content audit.

You Have Valuable Historical Information

If you’ve got historical keyword data, archive it now. It will give you an advantage over those who follow you from this point on. Going forward, it will be much more expensive to acquire this data.

Run an audit on your existing content. What content works best? What type of content is it? Video? Text? What’s the content about? What keywords did people use to find it previously? Match content against your historical keyword data.

Here’s a useful list of site and content audit tools and resources.

If keywords can no longer suggest content demand, then how do we know what the visitor wants in terms of content? We must seek to understand the audience at a deeper level. Take a more fuzzy approach.

Watch Activity Signals

Analytics can get pretty addictive and many tools let you watch what visitors do in real time. Monitor engagement levels on your pages. What is a user doing on that page? Are they reading? Contributing? Clicking back and forward looking for something else?

Ensure pages with high engagement are featured prominently in your information architecture. Relegate or fix low-engagement pages. Segment out your content so you know which is the most popular, in terms of landings, and link that information back to ranking reports. This way, you can approximate keywords and stay focused on the content users find most relevant and engaging. Segment out your audience, too. Different visitors respond to different things. Do you know which group favours what? What do older people go for? What do younger people go for? Here are a few ideas on how to segment users.

User behavior is getting increasingly complex. It takes multiple visits to purchase, from multiple channels/influences. Hence the addition of user segmentation allows us to focus on people. (For these exact reasons multi-channel funnels analysis and attribution modeling are so important!)
At the moment in web analytics solutions, people are defined by the first party cookie stored on their browser. Less than ideal, but 100x better then what we had previously. Over-time as we all expand to Universal Analytics perhaps we will have more options to track the same person, after explicitly asking for permission, across browsers, channels and devices

In-Site Search

If Google won’t give you keywords, build your own keyword database. Think about ways you can encourage people to use your in-site search. Watch the content they search for and consume the most. Another way of looking at site search is to provide navigation links that emphasize different keywords terms. For example, you could place these high up on your page, with each offering a different option relating to related keyword terms. Take a note of which keyword terms visitors favour over others.

In the good old days, people dutifully used site navigation at the left, right, or top of a website. But, two websites have fundamentally altered how we navigate the web: Amazon, because the site is so big, sells so many things, and is so complicated that many of us go directly to the site search box on arrival. And Google, which has trained us to show up, type what we want, and hit the search button. Now when people show up at a website, many of them ignore our lovingly crafted navigational elements and jump to the site search box. The increased use of site search as a core navigation method makes it very important to understand the data that site search generates

Distribution

Where does attention flow from? Social media? A mention is great, but if no attention flows over that link to your content, then it might be a misleading metric. Are people sharing your content? What topics and content gets shared the most?

Again, this comes back to understanding the audience, both what they’re talking about and what actions they take as a result. In “Digital Marketing Analytics: Making Sense Of Consumer Data”the authors recommend creating a “learning agenda”. Rather than just looking for mentions and volume of mentions, focus on specific brand or service attributes. Think about the specific questions you want answered by visitors as if they those visitors were sitting in front of you.

For example, how are consumers reacting to prices in your niche? What are their complaints? What do they wish would happen? Are people talking negatively about something? Are they talking positively about something? Who are the new competitors in this space?

Those are pretty rich signals. We can then link this back to content by addressing those issues within our content.

How To Think About Your Next SEO Project

Sep 23rd

The independent webmaster has taken a beating over the last couple of years. Risk has become harder to spread, labor costs have gone up, outreach has become more difficult and more expensive as Google's webspam team and the growing ranks of the Search Police spread the FUD far and wide.

The web is still a great place to be and still offers incredible opportunity that is largely unavailable, without much more capital intensive risk, in the offline world.

There's still plenty of success to be had in the web-based business model but like any strategy we have to refine it from time to time. I thought I'd share the core processes I go through when starting a new site.

Look for Signal, Look Past the Noise

Online marketers, celebrities, and brands pretty much power the Twittersphere and the 140 character limit invariably leads to statements full of bluster (and shallowness) like:

  • Links are dead
  • Forget links get social likes, +1's, RT's, and so on
  • Guest posting is dead
  • Infographics are dead
  • SEO is dead

None of that is true but when folks try to become prognosticators they will just keep saying the same thing over and over, with some slight re-framing, until they finally get it right.

All you have to do is look at the really ridiculous statements over the years about how ranking "doesn't matter". These statements have gone back to at least 2006-ish, craziness.

Or look at the past couple years where we get "social shares are the new link" shoved down our throats despite the data that flies in the face of that statement, at least as it pertains to organic search growth.

pinnochio

Yet, years later both of these "industry trends" would have cost you significant amounts of revenue and search share. We don't have to debate the spam links vs non-spam links here either. No one here is advocating for you to build crappy links and you don't need to.

Establishing Your Portfolio

It's quite likely, as an independent webmaster, that you will have sites that serve different purposes. I have sites that:

  • are actively being built into online brands (or trying at least :D )
  • exist as pure, longer-standing SEO plays that are cash cows used to fund more sustainable long-term projects
  • are built to initially live off of paid traffic, direct outreach, and/or social campaigns with organic search as a tertiary method of traffic acquisition
  • exist solely to test new ideas or new products before building an actual site/brand

I also work a select type of client. One thing I found helpful was to set up a spreadsheet with some very basic information to help me keep track of things at a 10,000 foot view.

So I have a column for:

  • Domain
  • Purpose Tag (one of the areas I described above)
  • Net Monthly Revenue (multiple columns)
  • Rolling 12 month Net Revenue
  • Same monthly/rolling numbers for costs

From there, I do a quick chart to show what areas most of the revenue is coming from and where the investment is going. Over time, I try to make sure the online brand area (where we are getting traffic and revenue from a healthly mix of multiple sources) is outpacing the pure SEO plays in both areas and we try to shy away from making too many expensive pure SEO plays where no mid-long term "brandability" exists.

We also like to see growth in client areas as well, but only for the right kind of client. The wrong kind of client can have a really destructive effect on a small team.

Staying small, lean, and profitable are also big keys to this strategy. If you are up against it on debt and overhead you will probably be less likely to make the proper decisions for your long-term viability on the 'net.

Considerations When Starting a New Site

I think most small teams or individual publishers can probably handle 2-3 branded sites at a time (stipulating that a branded site is one where there are just about all elements of online marketing involved). The first step I take is to determine what bucket the site will go in.

A testing site is easy enough to decide on. I might have an idea for a new product so I'll just throw up a small Wordpress site, a landing page, and test it out via PPC. Part of the initial research here is to determine whether there is any existing "search" demand or if you'll be tasked with creating demand on your own.

You can certainly build an online product that will be driven, initially, mostly by offline demand if you have the right networking in place. For the most part we try to stick to stuff where there is some initial demand online as the offline networking component tends to involve, in my experience, a lot more initial work, more stakeholders, etc.

When we look at a "product" we consider the following as "stuff" we could sell:

  • knowledge
  • physical product
  • digital products

Certainly a site can have any combination of those elements but generally those are the three basic types of things we'd consider selling. From there we would want to figure out:

  • brand name and domain (I prefer one or two word domains here, keyword not required)
  • search volume estimates and the length of the tail for each core keyword
  • if conversations are taking place across the web for the broader topic or lateral topics where we can insert ourselves/product
  • if our product can be a niche of an already successful, broader product offering
  • does the product have a reasonable chance of success in the social media realm
  • if we can make it better than what exists now

Example of a Product Idea

So one example, as I also dabble in real estate a bit, that I'll give is a CRM/PM solution for real estate investors. Most of the products out there aren't what I would consider "good". Many of the solutions are either just not very good or require some hook into a complex solution like Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

There's demand for the product on the web and there's a lot that could be done, more elegantly, with technologies that are available today to help connect all the things that go into an investment decision and investment management.

This is something I'm kicking around and it's a good example of our strategy of trying to find a successful, broad market where opportunity exists for niches to be served in a more direct, elegant manner.

We could do 2 of 3 product types here, but would likely start with just the online product itself and maybe hang training or courses off of it later.

You Need a Product

product

If you want to stick around online I believe you need at least 1 product and brand that can sustain the up and down nature of search cycles. You could argue that client work is your product and I'd buy that.

However, I think client work is still an area where you are more beholden to the decisions of others, in a more abrupt fashion (internal client spend decisions, taking things in-house, etc), than you are if you have your own product or service especially at the price points charged to clients.

I could also make the case that if you are selling direct to consumers you are beholden to them as well. Yet, I think the risk is better spread out over an SaaS model, subscription model, or direct product model than it is selling to either a handful of large clients or handfuls of large clients that require a large team of people and all that goes into the management of a team like that.

Opportunity Abounds

There still is a ton of opportunity on the web, there is no doubt about that. The practice of finding a broad market and picking a niche in there has worked out well for us in the last year or so.

In some areas we start off with no connections at all. So in areas where we are behind the 8 ball on relationships we will often hire writers from boards like ProBlogger.Net where will we specifically ask for folks who are in that industry with an existing site and active social following to write for us.

We will also ask them to promote what they write for us on their social channels and site while hooking their authorship profile into the posts they do for us. This helps us, in certain industries anyway, really grow an audience for short money and establish relationships with established, trusted people in the space.

Sell Something

Finding that balance between passion and monetary potential is difficult and there's often some level of tradeoff. If you use the items I listed earlier as a guide to determine how to move forward with an idea, or if moving forward even makes sense for the idea, then I think you'll be starting off in a solid position.

The last couple of years have been really turbulent but that also has created more opportunities in different areas and while it's nice to throw out the word "diversify" it's also good to take a more boots on the ground approach than a theoretical one.

The core hallmarks of a traditional SEO campaign are still largely the same but there's no reason why you can't stick around and take advantage of these opportunities, especially with all the experience you have in multiple areas of online marketing from being an independent webmaster in the golden age of SEO.

Design Thinking

Sep 16th
posted in

One of the problems with analysing data is the potential to get trapped in the past, when we could be imagining the future. Past performance can be no indication of future success, especially when it comes to Google’s shifting whims.

We see problems, we devise a solution. But projecting forward by measuring the past, and coming up with “the best solution” may lead to missing some obvious opportunities.

Design Thinking

In 1972, psychologist, architect and design researcher Bryan Lawson created an empirical study to understand the difference between problem-based solvers and solution-based solvers. He took two groups of students – final year students in architecture and post-graduate science students – and asked them to create one-story structures from a set of colored blocks. The perimeter of the building was to optimize either the red or the blue color, however, there were unspecified rules governing the placement and relationship of some of the blocks.
Lawson found that:

The scientists adopted a technique of trying out a series of designs which used as many different blocks and combinations of blocks as possible as quickly as possible. Thus they tried to maximize the information available to them about the allowed combinations. If they could discover the rule governing which combinations of blocks were allowed they could then search for an arrangement which would optimize the required color around the design. By contrast, the architects selected their blocks in order to achieve the appropriately colored perimeter. If this proved not to be an acceptable combination, then the next most favorably colored block combination would be substituted and so on until an acceptable solution was discovered.

Nigel Cross concludes from Lawson's studies that "scientific problem solving is done by analysis, while designers problem solve through synthesis”

Design thinking tends to start with the solution, rather than the problem. A lot of problem based-thinking focuses on finding the one correct solution to a problem, whereas design thinking tends to offer a variety of solutions around a common theme. It’s a different mindset.

One of the criticisms of Google, made by Google’s former design leader Douglas Bowman, was that Google were too data centric in their decision making:

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data...that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions…

There’s nothing wrong with being data-driven, of course. It’s essential. However, if companies only think in those terms, then they may be missing opportunities. If we imagine “what could be”, rather than looking at “what was”, opportunities present themselves. Google realise this, too, which is why they have Google X, a division devoted to imagining the future.

What search terms might people use that don’t necessarily show up on keyword mining tools? What search terms will people use six months from now in our vertical? Will customers contact us more often if we target them this way, rather than that way? Does our copy connect with our customers, of just search engines? Given Google is withholding more search referral data, which is making it harder to target keywords, adding some design thinking to the mix, if you don’t already, might prove useful.

Tools For Design Thinking

In the book, Designing For Growth, authors Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie outline some tools for thinking about opportunities and business in ways that aren’t data-driven. One famous proponent of the intuitive, design-led approach was, of course, Steve Jobs.

It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them

The iphone or iPad couldn’t have been designed by looking solely at the past. They mostly came about because Jobs had an innate understanding of what people wanted. He was proven right by the resulting sales volume.

Design starts with empathy. It forces you to put yourself in the customers shoes. It means identifying real people with real problems.

In order to do this, we need to put past data aside and watch people, listen to people, and talk with people. The simple act of doing this is a rich source of keyword and business ideas because people often frame a problem in ways you may not expect.

For example, a lot of people see stopping smoking as a goal-setting issue, like a fitness regime, rather than a medical issue. Advertising copy based around medical terminology and keywords might not work as well as copy oriented around goal setting and achieving physical fitness. This shift in the frame of reference certainly conjures up an entirely different world of ad copy, and possibly keywords, too. That different frame might be difficult to determine from analytics and keyword trends alone, but might be relatively easy to spot simply by talking to potential customers.

Four Questions

Designing For Growth is worth a read if you’re feeling bogged down in data and looking for new ways to tackle problems and develop new opportunities. I don’t think there’s anything particularly new in it, and it can come across as "the shiny new buzzword" at times, but the fundamental ideas are strong. I think there is value in applying some of these ideas directly to current SEO issues.

Designing For Growth recommends asking the following questions.

What is?

What is the current reality? What is the problem your customers are trying to solve? Xerox solved a problem customers didn’t even know that had when Xerox invented the fax machine. Same goes for the Polaroid camera. And the microwave oven. Customers probably couldn’t describe those things until they saw and understood them, but the problem would have been evident had someone looked closely at the problems they faced i.e. people really wanted faster, easier ways of completing common tasks.

What do your customers most dislike about the current state of affairs? About your industry? How often do you ask them?

One way of representing this information is with a flowchart. Map the current user experience from when they have a problem, to imagining keywords, to searching, to seeing the results, to clicking on one of those results, to finding your site, interacting to your site, to taking desired action. Could any of the results or steps be better?

Usability tests use the same method. It’s good to watch actual customers as they do this, if possible. Conduct a few interviews. Ask questions. Listen to the language people use. We can glean some of this information from data mining, but there’s a lot more we can get by direct observation, especially when people don’t click on something, as non-activity seldom registers in a meaningful way in analytics.

What if?

What would “something better” look like?

Rather than think in terms of what is practical and the constraints that might prevent you from doing something, imagine what an ideal solution would look like if it weren’t for those practicalities and constraints.

Perhaps draw pictures. Make mock-ups. Tell a story. Anything that fires the imagination. Use emotion. Intuition. Feeling. Just going through such a process will lead to making connections that are difficult to make by staring at a spreadsheet.

A lot of usability testers create personas. These are fictional characters based on real or potential customers and are used try to gain an understanding of what they might search for, what problems they are trying to solve, and what they expect to see on our site. Is this persona a busy person? Well educated? Do they use the internet a lot? Are they buying for themselves, or on behalf of others? Do they tend to react emotionally, or are they logical? What incentives would this persona respond to?

Personas tend to work best when they’re based on actual people. Watch and observe. Read up on relevant case studies. Trawl back through your emails from customers. Make use of story-boards to capture their potential actions and thoughts. Stories are great ways to understand motivations and thoughts.

What are those things your competition does, and how could they be better? What would those things look like in the best possible world, a world free of constraints?

What wows?

“What wows” is especially important for social media and SEO going forward.

Consider Matt Cutts statement about frogs:

Those other sites are not bringing additional value. While they’re not duplicates they bring nothing new to the table. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what these people have done, but they should not expect this type of content to rank.
Google would seek to detect that there is no real differentiation between these results and show only one of them so we could offer users different types of sites in the other search results

Cutts talks about the creation of new value. If one site is saying pretty much the same as another site, then those sites may not be duplicates, but one is not adding much in the way of value, either. The new site may be relegated simply for being “too samey”.

It's the opposite of the Zygna path:

"I don't fucking want innovation," an anonymous ex-employee recalls Pincus saying in 2010, according to the SF Weekly. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

Generally speaking, up-and-coming sites should focus on wowing their audience with added depth and/or a new perspective. This, in turn, means having something worth remarking upon, which then attracts mentions across social media, and generates more links.

Is this certain to happen? Nothing is certain as far as Google is concerned. They could still bury you on a whim, but wowing an audience is a better bet than simply imitating long-established players using similar content and link structures. At some point, those long-established players had to wow their audience to get the attention and rankings they enjoy today. They did something remarkably different at some point. Instead of digging the same hole deeper, dig a new hole.

In SEO, change tends to be experimental. It’s iterative. We’re not quite sure what works ahead of time, and no amount of measuring the past tells us all we want to know, but we try a few things and see what works. If a site is not ranking well, we try something else, until it does.

Which leads us to….

What works?

Do searchers go for it? Do they do that thing we want them to do, which is click on an ad, or sign up, or buy something?

SEOs are pretty accomplished at this step. Experimentation in areas that are difficult to quantify - the algorithms - have been an intrinsic part of SEO.

The tricky part is not all things work the same everywhere & much like modern health pathologies, Google has clever delays in their algorithms:

Many modern public health pathologies – obesity, substance abuse, smoking – share a common trait: the people affected by them are failing to manage something whose cause and effect are separated by a huge amount of time and space. If every drag on a cigarette brought up a tumour, it would be much harder to start smoking and much easier to quit.

One site's rankings are more stable because another person can't get around the sandbox or their links get them penalized. The same strategy and those same links might work great for another site.

Changes in user behavior are more directly & immediately measurable than SEO.

Consider using change experiments as an opportunity to open up a conversation with potential users. “Do you like our changes? Tell us”. Perhaps use a prompt asking people to initiate a chat, or participate on a poll. Engagement that has many benefits. It will likely prevent a fast click back, you get to see the words people use and how they frame their problems, and you learn more about them. You become more responsive and empathetic sympathetic to their needs.

Beyond Design Thinking

There’s more detail to design thinking, but, really, it’s mostly just common sense. Another framework to add, especially if you feel you’re getting stuck in faceless data.

Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern enterprise. The quest for efficiency hasn't gone away and in fact, in our economically straitened times, it's sensible to search for ever more rigorous savings anywhere you can

What's best about it, I feel, is this type of thinking helps break strategy and data problems down and give it a human face.

In this world, designers can continue to create extraordinary value. They are the people who have, or could have, the laterality needed to solve problems, the sensing skills needed to hear what the world wants, and the databases required to build for the long haul and the big trajectories. Designers can be definers, making the world more intelligible, more habitable

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