In April a web designer who came across our site gave me the following feedback "I don't know how you can advertise your skills in SEO when such a vital part of a good quality site is valid markup. Your homepage has 40 errors when I just checked."
To which I replied "...and yet I rank page 1 in Google for SEO. Who cares about valid code? Not me. And not Google. Oh well."
Imagine the paradox in the mind of a self-important web designer seeing high ranking sites that did not have perfect HTML. All he can do is lash out like a confused injured animal...as though he knew SEO and both I and Google were wrong.
Validation = Who Cares?
But looking at things in practical terms...
Question: What is validation?
Answer: How web designers try to justify over-charging for their work + pat each other on the back.
If you are a web designer (and/or want links from pretentious web designers) then validation is a great idea...it is core to the group circle-jerk amongst cool web designers. But for everyone else, it generally doesn't matter.
One of the best ways to improve search relevancy is to use more data. But a September 2006 test by a Google engineer named Ian Hickson across billions of web pages showed that 93% of the pages did not use valid code. If valid code was rewarded by the algorithms (or invalid code was heavily penalized) then spammers would just use valid code, while search engines returned inferior search results because most quality websites do not validate. Google's Matt Cutts wrote:
Fellow Googler Ian Hickson contacted me with more recent numbers from a September 2006 survey that he did of several billion pages. Ian found the number of pages to be 78% if you ignore the two least critical errors, and 93% if you include those two errors. There isn’t a published report right now, but Ian has given those numbers out in public e-mail, so he said it was fine to mention the percentages.
These numbers pretty much put the nail in the coffin for the “Only return pages that are strictly correct” argument, because there wouldn’t be that many pages to work with. :) That said, if you can design and write your HTML code so that it’s well-formed and validates, it’s always a good habit to do so.
If I am paying a designer to make a custom web design for my site then I will demand clean code (in part so I can use it to score links from designers who care about that), but the truth is most sites do not validate. And few need to. Google doesn't, and they seem to be doing just fine.
When Web Design Has No Value
If a beautiful design gets no exposure then it has no value.
Traffic = opportunity.
No traffic = no opportunity.
When Web Design Has Value
If you have a big public relations driven launch then of course it makes sense to start off with a beautiful design. But most entrepreneurs can start out ugly and invest once capital starts rolling in. It worked for Google. And it worked for me. ;)
Once you have decent exposure great design can be worth a lot of money because it helps build trust, and increases your visitor value...allowing you to pay more for traffic and sell your products + services at a higher price point. But most small business sites can succeed with an average design and still be functional enough to get market feedback, sell stuff, build a customer base, and build a real business from. Eventually it might make sense to get a strong design, but if budget is limited then there are a ton of affordable starter options to bypass the costs of custom web design work.
Bootstrapped Design on the Cheap
The logo at the top of this page cost $99 about 5 years ago. When I color-matched the design to it this site was only moderately ugly. And the original site design we used was unbelievably ugly. Today the market is much more sophisticated with DIY design options.
What ***really*** annoys me about the arrogance of the web designers like the one quoted above is how they can know absolutely nothing about SEO and then claim that valid code is the key to SEO. It is a bogus lie used to promote their own trade at the expense of their clients.
Sure websites can have major issues that prevent a site from ranking. BUT the SEO is not just in the code. The whole reason Google was able to gain marketshare so fast was because they did sophisticated link analysis. If you are in a competitive market you need links to compete. Simple as that.
In 2004 I remember a web design firm quoting a new launching auto insurance firm (which wanted to buy SEO services) a design for $10,000 and then claiming that "the SEO was in the code" ... as though somehow there was no need for a link building/buying budget. The equivalently dishonest marketing angle would be an SEO grabbing a set of free web templates to go along with their SEO services and claim that everyone gets a free original professional custom website design as part of their SEO package.
Sure that was 2004 & that web design company was not as well known as it is today. And the above guy was just 1 random guy, so who cares, right? Well what annoyed me enough to make me write this post was seeing a recent copy of Web Designer magazine that my wife bought.
2009 Web Designer Magazine
In the top left of the magazine they advertise "TOP SEO TECHNIQUES"
And The Magazine Advertises SEO Circa 1998!!!
Their "top five tips for tackling SEO" include
Choose one main keyword per page
Increase the Keyword Density for each page
HTML tags emphasis your keywords
Include meta tags in your website
Submit your website to major search engines
No mention of links. Why? The guy who wrote the article works for a company that has a business model built around offering cheap + useless services that scale - like keyword density analysis and search engine submission. I could do the same thing if I wanted to be a dishonest piece of trash, but I chose not to.
The article mentions some shoddy survey, that you can use their tools, and that "From only £100 a year, a company can implement a solution that will ensure much-improved rankings." They also flat out lied with this gem "Search engines expect the keyword or phrase on each webpage to make up six-to-ten percent of its content."
Equally Bad Website Design Tips
To apply the equivalent sort of advice to web design I would have to write truly useless design tips like
set a large web design budget upwards of £100 a year
spend ~ 100% of that budget by paying a designer to download an open source design they just got free
if the site design fits your business then perfect
if the site design looks ugly then it will stand out even more
customers expect 6 to 10 percent of your text to be in a red marquee with a speed setting of 5
Many Web Designers Kick Ass
A lot of our best customers in our community are former web designers who got started doing design, but care about the success of their customers and began moving themselves up the value chain by offering web designs that come with real SEO services.
When I was sitting in jury selection one potential juror did not feel it was fair that the DA had to prove guilt. She presumed guilt based simply on accusation, without any other facts.
Most people are ignorant to the sausage-like nature of media, the corruption that is core to large centralized governments, and the fraudulent private banking interests that skim off the top of every transaction and enslave society in debt. We are trained to be ignorant consumers who trust authority. How else could you justify virtually nobody caring about bankers & politicians robbing trillions of Dollars from the country while budget constraints are forcing some local sheriffs to call in the national guard for security. The head of the Federal Reserve put in a half-trillion Dollar short on the US Dollar to aid foreign central banks (at our expense) and yet nobody cares! Steal from the semi-rich, middle class, poor, super-poor, unborn, etc. and give to the super rich. Let them have another round of casino capitalism until the country is bankrupt.
If you ever want to sell anything, then people trusting you and seeing you as an authority makes sales far easier. Back when I sold a how to SEO ebook there was a month where Google rolled in a filter that whacked some branded sites from ranking for their brand. Even though our site was selling an SEO how to book ***while not ranking*** our sales that month were still 85% of the record month. Because the site had so much perceived authority it developed distribution channels outside of search strong enough to sell even when the rankings made the site look like it was (at least temporarily) lacking in credibility.
Think of how the vast majority of searchers click on the top few listings in the search results. That is because perceived relevancy and authority. Even if you most the most relevant result down the page, many people will still click the first listing because of the perceived authority of that ranking position.
Many of the quality links that can't be easily replicated and are actually organic only come about after you are established as an authority. I just got referenced on the Network Solutions blog in passing...no way those types of links happen unless you already have lots of established exposure and perceived authority. But how do you develop it?
Recently I saw Barry Ritholtz mentioned that he was selling video recordings of a conference he put on for only $69, and some of the people who commented on his site wrote garbage like this:
These people have enough capital to try to trade the markets, but spending $69 for one of the most in depth and most current pieces of information about their livelihood is completely out of the question. Imagine having the gall to register on someone's site to leave a comment like "where can we steal your work from."
And yet this is normal (and expected) behavior on the web, even in fields directly connected money / finance / investing!!!
Every day I get some non-customers who acts that way as well. The noise does wear you down, and it really does highlight the problems with free. When some people get hooked on free they have no end to the demands, and no respect or appreciation for the work.
I personally handle all customer correspondence, which is why I recently had to increase prices to slow down our rate of growth. I am only 1 person. Customers rarely wait as long as a day for a response. This guy never sent in 3 requests, was rude and demanding and demeaning, is not even a paying customer, and expects free phone support for software worth hundreds of dollars that we give away for free.
Why would I care if that guy used our tools for free? Since he is rude I hope he can't use them, such that any competent competitor interested in SEO has a competitive advantage over him. And that guy's rudeness shows that he probably lacks the social skills to be successful on a large distributed social network.
When you chose your customers you are picking how much you will enjoy your job.
There are a lot of potential bad customers like that, and you don't even want to suggest they become a paying customer. The only ways to handle people that are that rude are to either ignore them or tell them off to let them know they are not welcome in your business. If you play nice with a person that treats you like a doormat then it will only get worse in time.
The person who needs a lot of support BEFORE becoming a paying customer rarely becomes a profitable long-term customer. The person who needs a price break today expects a larger one tomorrow. They keep squeezing margins until you are a commodity and the model no longer works. It is just a path to self destruction because if you cater to such people you do not raise them up to your level, you lower yourself down to their level.
This reminds me of an important business lesson from a Dan Kennedy book called The Ultimate Success Secret that a great friend recommended I read about a year ago.
When I first started in the "success education business," one of the few people in the country who was consistently effective at selling self-improvement audiocassette programs direct, face-to-face to executives and salespeople, gave me what turned out to be very, very good advice - he said: "Don't waste your time trying to sell these materials to the people who need it the most. They won't buy it. You should focus on selling to successful people who want to get even better."
Over the years, I've demonstrated the validity of this to myself a number of different ways. And I've developed an explanation for it. There is what I now call "the self-esteem Catch-22 loop" at work here: in order for a person to invest directly in himself, which is what buying self-improvement materials is, he has to place value on himself, i.e. have high self-esteem, but if he has such high self-esteem, he is probably already doing well and does not have a critical need for this type of information; he will get marginal improvement out of it; but the person who needs it most does not place much value on himself, i.e. has relatively low self-esteem, which prohibits him from buying, believing in or using self-improvement materials.
I used to be all about making everything (or as much as possible) free because I liked helping people, but really most people won't act on advice or respect it much unless they pay for it. Human nature is what it is, and there is no point fighting it. ;)
At some point we may need to test moving from offering any tools for free to making everything paid just to filter out that noise. Such a move would likely cost us exposure, but most of that exposure is not leading to any tangible business anyhow.
Anytime any of these words are in the name of an informational product or software tool you can be 99%+ certain it is a scam:
plug and play
Social Power Words
if your not sure what it does then its not worth buying.
the quality of the product is often inversely related to the number of products the vendor has on the market.
the quality of the product is often inversely proportional to the number of people who email you about it.
Why write blog posts like this one?
Our Support.seobook.com tickets often get filled up by people who bought some scammy products from some hyped up marketer (who we have nothing to do with) and beg us for refunds. I figure if I write a few more posts on topics like this maybe I will get a few less of those support requests from people who bought garbage from someone else.
Well they got that link because they were the best site out there. That was organic. It is a naive view of marketing to assume that if you are the best people will notice you and people will care. It is not enough to be the best...you need others to say that you are. If anything the web is making most people more driven by self interest - rather than lending a helping hand.
Worse yet, due to the anonymous nature of the web (and other automated technologies), we are bombarded with every type of spam imaginable (auto-dial telemarketing, fakevertising, reverse billing fraud, phishing, bait & switch marketing, etc etc etc) and the people who have distribution are gaining a predisposition that if you contact them out of the blue with anything commercial you are a spammer. Further tools like Twitter pull links off the web graph and make conversations more shallow, limiting the discussion of many complex topics.
Affiliate programs are great for distribution (and whoring fake reviews), but most good affiliates typically target brands that already have their own gravity around them.
Even if you make someone millions of dollars they typically don't want to give a testimonial because they are afraid of creating competition for themselves.
The site has a range of options for letting your company or organization know that you want it to “Go Google,” including things like fliers and pre-populated emails to send out.
And Google is also promising to give away “goodies” each week in August to users who have Gone Google and fill out a Google Doc describing their experience.
Eventually the goal of many forms of marketing is to create something that has enough targeted awareness that it begins to market itself. To become synonymous with a field. Kleenex & Xerox are great examples. But you have to use push marketing, begging, bribery, ass kissing, capital, sweat, blood, luck, and a bit talent to get in that type of position.
You can't be a successful market maker without first being a market manipulator. And even when you get to the top of a market you still have to try to control market perceptions. To get a refund for an Apple iPod that literally blows up you need to sign a confidentiality agreement:
The letter also stated that, in accepting the money, Mr Stanborough was to “agree that you will keep the terms and existence of this settlement agreement completely confidential”, and that any breach of confidentiality “may result in Apple seeking injunctive relief, damages and legal costs against the defaulting persons or parties”.
In spite of their strong market positions, Apple and Google are still heavily focused on manipulating public opinion of their products.
And Google's CEO Eric Schmidt sat on Apple's board to avail himself of key information. He sat on that board as Google attempted to clone the iPhone with Gphone, and stayed on it until his company pushed the FCC to go after Apple for blocking the Google Voice app: "Google brought down the disapproving scrutiny of the FCC onto Apple on Friday night, and on Monday morning Schmidt resigned. It is difficult not to make a connection between these two events."
And while Google paints the media as trustworthy, it rarely is. The news corporations do business deals to engage in cross-censorship in an attempt to increase short term corporate profits:
GE is using its control of NBC and MSNBC to ensure that there is no more reporting by Fox of its business activities in Iran or other embarrassing corporate activities, while News Corp. is ensuring that the lies spewed regularly by its top-rated commodity on Fox News are no longer reported by MSNBC. You don't have to agree with the reader's view of the value of this reporting to be highly disturbed that it is being censored.
One of the biggest flaws with the field of SEO is the presumption some people have that there is only 1 right way to do things, everything should be free, marketing should be entirely organic, you have to keep it all above board or you risk losing everything, and other BS pitched by companies trying to minimize and regulate the field.
The bigger risk for most businesses is being too conservative and thus remaining obscure, unknown, and unprofitable.
Get links from other sites with keywords in the link
These days, this strategy isn't working as well as it used to.
If a site isn't genuinely interesting and isn't worth remarking upon, it can be difficult to get links, attention and rankings.
These are essentially marketing problems.
By basing our SEO strategy on fundamental marketing principles, we stand a much better chance of dominating the rankings, no matter what niche we choose to target.
This document is intended for those who know basic SEO principles, but are new to marketing concepts and theory.
If you're new to SEO, there are helpful tips throughout the document, and links to further instruction on SEOBook.com.
Principles That Form The Foundation Of This Strategy
1. Market Analysis
2. Competitive Review
In the past, marketing was a last-minute ad on.
A company knocked out a product, then it was handed over the wall to marketing, whose job it was to get the product out into the market. Marketing put a colorful picture on the box, commissioned a jingle, and bought up millions of dollars worth of media time.
These days, marketing is more integrated. A product or service is designed with a clear audience in mind, although many SEOs might disagree, especially when asked to bolt an SEO strategy onto a Flash site consisting entirely of animation!
The internet offers us the opportunity to design with a clear audience in mind, but with a lot less risk than brick-n-mortar companies.
We can figure out if there is a market, and what that market demands, test that market, and then build a site to cater to that market. We can do this quickly and cheaply, using the power of search marketing.
Find Clear Space & Consumer Demand
Like SEO, marketing is part art, part science. Even if you cover the technical aspects of SEO, there is no guarantee you will rank well. Likewise, if you follow a marketing strategy, there is no guarantee of making money.
The trick is to find a place in the market that has two key aspects: clear space and consumer demand.
How do we find these places in the market?
Let's start with a basic marketing analysis.
Perform Market Analysis
Ask yourself three questions:
What does the consumer need?
How many consumer need this product/service?
What is the buying process?
You must fill a genuine need in the market.
Is there demand? It's no good trying to sell something, be it a good, service or opinion, if there is no demand for it. For example, do you know why most blogs don't get read? It is because there is a very limited demand for opinions from unknown writers. Demand is spread very thinly across the opinion/news space, and supply is virtually infinite.
How do you find out if there is a demand for your idea?
The SEO has a valuable tool at his/her disposal for determining demand. Keyword research involves mining databases of previously searched for keyword terms to see if there are existing traffic streams (demand) they can tap into. Any volume of keyword searches indicates demand. Generally speaking, the higher the search volume, the greater the demand, although there are traps, which we'll get to shortly.
The SEO undertakes keyword research and finds there are a lot of searches for Britney Spears pictures.
It turns out that there are approximately 135,000 searches for Britney Spears pictures each month.
Our first two questions - "What does the consumer need? (Britney pictures)" and "How many consumer need this product/service? (lots!)" - appear to be answered. So the SEO licenses a collection of Britney pictures, sets up a site that charges a small membership fee, and ranks well for Britney related keyword terms.
And fails to make any money.
There are various reasons, but the main reason is that the SEO failed to ask "what is the buy process?" Conventional SEO-led strategies often fail to include this step, however it is crucial if your site is to succeed.
The buy process is, as the name suggests, the steps a person takes when they are interested in buying something. Had the SEO examined the buy process, she would have realized people don't pay for Britney pictures online. Granted, this example is a little silly, but this problem occurs often, especially when search traffic is viewed in isolation.
Offline, people may buy gossip and celebrity magazines, but when online, they expect to look at Britney pictures for free. Online, the buy process for Britney Spears images simply doesn't exist, except in a very narrow B2B market between photographers and publishers.
So what happens next?
Choose Niches With A Commercial Imperative
The SEO, discouraged that his first idea didn't work, chooses to run ads instead. Where there is traffic there is money, right?
Again, this approach is likely to meet with limited success, especially when compared to other niches she could have targeted.
People looking for Britney pictures don't tend to be in a buying mode, and so advertising, especially action based advertising such as Adsense, is likely to go unclicked. The activity "looking at Britney pictures" doesn't have a strong commercial imperative, whereas an activity such as "buying toys", does. Such sites need a very high number of page views to make much money.
One way to determine if a commercial imperative exists is to examine the bid prices for Adwords. Almost always, the higher the bid price on the keyword, the more transactional the niche.
Think Of It From The Advertisers Perspective
The SEO also needs to understand the buy process in order to choose the areas which will be most effective for advertisers. The most effective Adsense sites, for example, are sites where visitors are looking to buy something. That's the only reason advertisers use Adwords - they need to sell visitors something*.
In reality, it's a little more complex than this.
Non-commercial searches can and do result in sales, however searches directly related to commercial activity - such as transactional searches - are most likely to result in higher income for your site and make for more profitable niches. See my article on the three types of searches, navigational, informational, and transactional for more information.
What makes someone buy something? Will they buy it online, or offline? Are they even capable of buying something over the internet? If visitors are in a buying mode, then what stage of the buy process are they at? Are they ready to buy right now, or are they looking for information?
Look at demographic details for competing sites and keywords to get inside the mind of the searcher. Don't just look at search volume, but also consider the intent behind the keyword, how you would monetize that demand, and the visitor value.
*The one caveat is to drive brand awareness, but this also has limited effectiveness. When was the last time you clicked on an adwords ad that focused entirely on building brand? And if people don't click, you, as the publisher, don't make money.
I hope I've impressed on you the need to evaluate keyword terms within a marketing and business framework.
Competitive Review - Strengths & Weaknesses
Query the search engine results pages under the keywords you want to rank for
Pick out the top ten sites in your niche. The top ten sites will usually appear under a mix of keyword terms relating to your niche
Determine the strengths and weaknesses of the competition
Determine the strengths and weaknesses of your own site, relative to the competition
Once you've decided on a niche to target, you then need to determine the level of competition within that niche.
A SWOT analysis can help you determine how your site compares to those already in the niche. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. You perform this analysis on your own site, and the sites of your competitors.
You can can go into incredible detail with a SWOT analysis, but it doesn't need to be complicated. You simply need to determine what you're good at relative to the competition. Draw up a chart like this, and complete:
If you can't find any areas where you are better than the competition, either refine the niche, choose another niche altogether, or figure out a plan that will make you better than the competition. Ranking well doesn't really help, because a searcher will not stop at the first site they find.
Keep in mind that it is easier to be successful if you already know a lot about a market. Any experience you have lowers the investment needed to research the market and ensures you can write at a higher and more compelling level than people who do not know the market.
By doing a SWOT exercise, you'll also get a feel for any opportunities your competitors might be missing.
Undertake keyword research
Look for a niche that is "worth remarking upon" and is new, or doesn't have a lot of existing competition
Select a brand name and domain name the describes the niche ie. SEOBook.com. It is useful to include a keyword term
Build a site that focuses exclusively on this niche, and no others.
Conduct SEO campaign
What do you think of when someone mentions the name "Google"?
How about IBM? Computers. Hewlett Packard? Printers.
If you aim to be the first in the customers mind when they think of a keyword term, you can easily win the ranking game.
Who was the first president of the United state.George Washington. Who was second? Who was the first man on the moon? Neil Armstrong. Who was the fourth. It is important to be first. Being first is memorable.
But wait a minute! Google wasn't the first search engine!
Correct. However, they've overcome this by being first in people's mind when it comes to search. Yahoo was the first search service, and whilst it's star has faded of late, it is still a very wealthy company. It is no good being the tenth anything. Aim to be first. And if you can't be first....
If You Can't Be First, Be First In A New Niche
You'll face the problem of not being first whenever you enter an existing niche. And on the internet, that's "most of the time"
Look at the top sites in your chosen niche. If they got in early enough, chances are they enjoy the linking benefit that comes with being first. Typically, Google's linking algorithm favors long established sites, as opposed to newcomers. To find out why this occurs, check out Mike Grehan's "Filthy Linking Rich". Those who are first to occupy a niche have a much easier job of getting links because they are remarkable, simply by virtue of being unique.
So what to do if you arrive late to a niche?
Invent a new niche, and be first in that.
Say you sell holiday rental accommodation in Palm Springs. Unfortunately, there are a lot of holiday rental accommodation services in Palm Springs. So to differentiate yourself, you might decide to focus on "the cheapest rental accommodation services in Palm Springs". Or "the most upmarket rental accommodation services in Palm Springs". Or "the best rental accommodation guide for solo travelers in Palm Springs".
Focus on a new angle that your competitors aren't targeting. This is called market segmentation.
Make Sure The New Niche Is Worthwhile
One of the traps of market segmentation is that you might segment too finely i.e. there are not enough customers in your newly segmented niche to be worthwhile.
When you do your keyword research, look at the keyword volume for niche keyword terms. Are there any keywords that have good volumes AND cover an angle that you competitors aren't already targeting? Find a suitable keyword term, and make that your niche. Also, look at demographic details for competing sites and keywords to get inside the mind of the searcher. Remember, there needs to be a commercial intent.
Take Your New Niche For A Test Drive
This strategy has been used in PPC for a while, however it's outlined really well in the book The Four Hour WorkWeek by Tim Ferris.
Once you've decided on a new niche that you can be first in, you need to test the niche to see if it delivers enough revenue to make the effort worthwhile. You can test a niche quickly and easily by using PPC, like Google Adwords.
A lot of SEOs don't use PPC, but they're missing out on a tool that can save them a lot of time and effort.
Run a short Adwords campaign targeting the keyword terms that relate to your new niche. You may only need to run it for a week or two, and it shouldn't cost you more that a few hundred dollars. The aim is to answer the question: "do people who search on the keywords want to buy what I'm selling?".
Ensure your site has a clear call to action that will help you measure actual buyer interest. For example, a sign-up form offering more information, a sales inquiry, or an actual purchase. You don't need to have your site finished to do this. A basic three page site will do.
Monitor the campaign and do split/run testing on the ad-copy. This means you compare one set of wording against another. Helpfully, Google Adwords has this functionality built in, and they provide a free product called Google Optimizer if you want to test you page copy. Check out my article "Tested Advertising Strategies Respun For SEO".
Again, this exercise can be as simple or complex as you want to make it.
Start off simple, and change the wording to make the offer sound more appealing, and make a note of the wording that works best. You can use this wording in your title tags during your SEO campaign. The wording that receives a click in Adwords is also likely to receive a click in the organic listings.
If visitors are searching for your keyword, clicking on your ad, and moving to desired action, then you've found a great niche. Remember, most people will click the organic results rather than Adwords listings, so the fact you're getting click-through further demonstrates that there is little competition in your chosen niche in the organic results.
If you aren't getting click thru and/or sign-up/purchase, try the same strategy, but with different keyword terms. Keep going until you find a winner.
It is a lot cheaper in terms of time, effort and money to test keywords at this point, rather than commit to a brand and an SEO strategy that targets the wrong keyword terms, and the wrong niche.
Marketing Within The Niche
Choose a trading name, and domain name, that can be used generically, and, if possible, aligned with your keyword term.
One approach is to take a simple keyword phrase people are familiar with, and will search for, and combine it with something else. For example, SEOBook, AfterMail, FaceBook, HotelFind, etc. This approach works well if you don't have a large budget for brand building.
Non-descriptive brand names, such as Kellogs, or Mooch, don't work so well for SEO, especially for low profile companies, because people need to know your name before they search for you.
Become Synonymous With Your Niche
It's hard for anyone else to sell a book on SEO without people also stumbling across Aaron's site. Aaron has selected a keyword-loaded brand name that is aligned with the niche. He has also worked hard to dominate this tightly defined niche within the broader SEO market. Whenever someone promotes any book on SEO, Aaron is likely to benefit, because he is #1 in that niche.
If you dominate your niche, and the niche is relatively new, then any promotion of that niche will also benefit you. If you're a leader in your niche, and become synonymous with that niche, then latecomers and generic copycats will have a very difficult time competing with you. Any promotion of the beverage "Cola" benefits the market leader Coke, because they dominate their niche. Likewise, promotion of PCs will benefit Dell, promotion of smartphones will benefit Apple, and so on.
Position Against The Leader
Let's assume you're competing against an entrenched leader. What can you do?
Position yourself against the leader. For example, if the leader is offering "cheap SEO services", you might position by offering "valuable SEO services". You could warn people against using cheap SEO services by highlighting the problems and risks, and showing how your price is linked to achieving better value. Figure out what they're doing, and define yourself against them.
Avis did this against Hertz. They acknowledged they weren't the top of the rental car niche, but made a virtue out of it. They adopted the phrase "we try harder". The market dominance of Hertz became a weakness.
Barriers To Entry Are Your Friend
On the web, there are few barriers to entry. Anyone can start a website and copy your idea.
However, not everyone can start a Google. Or an Amazon. Or a Facebook. Those companies have barriers to entry in their markets, mostly to do with the scale of operations. It's very expensive to do what they do.
Look for areas where there is some difficulty in starting up. Does your idea require capital? Do you have valuable information that no-one else has? Do you have a pre-established reputation or brand? Does you idea require specialist software? Is the service or product unique, or difficult to obtain elsewhere? Such barriers will dissuade a lot of people from entering the niche, which means you'll face less competitive threat.
The lowest barrier to entry is the affiliate site where the supplier provides a template site. They might even set it up for their affiliates. For free!
See the problem?
If it's that easy, then there is no barrier to entry, meaning anyone can do it. Even with the best SEO in the world, it would be very difficult to defend such a site from the hundreds of webmasters who arrive tomorrow, the day after that, and so on.
So when you evaluate the competitors in your niche, also consider how difficult it will be for followers to compete with you.
Build content. Get a list of 50 keywords and write a page on each. Include how-to's, generalist information, news (use Blog software), video, photos and maps. Tag all graphical content with keyword terms
Write naturally, stay on a single topic per page. Forget keyword density, it is overrated
Layout site. Place most important (money) pages at the top of the hierarchy, one step away from the home page
They're only free if you value your time at zero dollars.
Of course, you time is worth money, and this must be factored in. One of the great things about SEO is that unlike conventional adverting, your visitors don't stop arriving when you stop paying. The downside is that you must spend a lot of time up front, and with no guarantee of success. The search engines could also drop your site, at any time, and without reason.
So it's a good idea to ask yourself the following questions:
What are my costs?
What is the break even point?
How long before I get payback?
A lot of SEOs will persist with sites that enjoy high rankings, even when the economics of the site don't make any sense. If this happens to you, bite the bullet and drop these sites, or convert them to another use. There is no value in ranking highly if the visitors aren't doing what you want them to, and/or they aren't spending money.
Once your put a value on your SEO efforts, you'll clearly be able to see how much your site is actually making you.
If the site is making money, that's great. If not, then try to determine if the problem is to do with marketing. Have you identified the niche correctly? Are you dominate within that niche? Is there sufficient demand?
SEO works best when it is integrated into your business and marketing strategy. There is no point ranking well for terms that don't advance your business goals. Find a profitable niche you can make your own, and dominate it.
Follow this strategy and lucrative search traffic will flow you way.
Today is the last day to lock in our current price, as tomorrow we increase our prices 50%. It looks like we decided to do the price increase just in time too, as we have added 378 new members this month and we are rapidly approaching our 1,000 member limit.
If you are already a subscriber, thanks a bunch...you make this site possible! If you are not yet a subscriber and were thinking of joining here is the link.
And that image recently appeared in a copyright HitWise "advanced SEO" presentation
Whenever we share their data / research / charts on our site we try to attribute them. Not only did they offer no attribution, but they also cleansed our logo from our branded image. In the above image you can see
they just happened to use the same scale and title and colors AND
how the logo was removed AND
how the line at 700 (where our logo was) is darker than the other lines AND
how the line at the 600 level is broken slightly toward the right side slightly (like we accidentally did on the original image when we took the screenshot)
This sort of activity is from a marketing company that thinks our site is important enough to pitch new releases to.
Who is the guy working for a multi-billion dollar company that markets stolen content from recent blog posts from blogs with 30,000+ subscribers without expecting to get caught? I hope they get fired.
And if this sort of corner cutting speaks for any of Hitwise's other business practices you are best off avoiding them.
Since the end of last year (when we started working with Conversion Rate Experts) we went from sorta not caring too much about conversion rates to making it a priority. Part of the reason we originally did not worry about it was just because I wanted to keep adding value to the service and make sure that the quality of the site was far better than any competing site. That goal has been achieved, and recognized by our customers and in the marketplace amongst SEO experts. Today I just saw Wiep Knol write this, and it motivated me to write this post.
Small & Tight Knit > Big & Bloated
After improving conversion rates we started growing briskly, and we are getting close to our upper limit of 1,000 subscribers. Since we are a small(ish) company we don't want to grow too quickly, or get bloated to the point it harms the quality of our customer experience.
Many competing services want to act like a Wal-Mart or McDonalds, and have 10,000's of customers that they quick serve. But I like to keep things small and cozy. We want maintain the current atmosphere where we have established a more limited and higher value site where we have the ability to interact directly with our customers every day to create a deeper, richer, and more valuable experience.
Our Customers Love the Site
Last week one of our customers made this video, which helped up realize that our customers are seeing the site the way we hoped.
Originally we under-priced the site to ensure we could get enough people through the door to build a strong and sustainable community. If you fail the launch its hard to get a second try. But given that we have one of the 5 strongest brands in the space and that we work directly with our customers it does not make a lot of sense to be priced as a value play, especially after our membership has been growing so rapidly.
Most SEO firms take $10,000 (or more) and then do virtually nothing with the money. There are some good ones on the market, but very few of them are looking for customers. Almost every week I hear another story about $10K or $15K down the drain and it only further reminds me how little we charge for the value we offer.
Our site educates webmasters and is interactive to ensure returns. When customers participate on the forums the value they get will exceed what most get for $10,000 at the average SEO firm.
Unlike most large SEO firms, we do not have 1 person working the conference scene to generate leads and send them back to interns and fresh college graduates. When you join our site you interact ***directly*** with us. In a little over a year I have made over 10,000 posts in the forums.
"You saved my site, seriously, I don't know if this ever would have been solved otherwise - every SEO company I have been in touch with (50+) over the past six months was unable to identify the problem and you picked it apart in five seconds.
I'll be recommending your site to everyone I know in this business! Thanks so much again Aaron, you saved my site"
- Daniel E. from Toronto
On the value for money scale this site is just the opposite of most SEO firms...we pour our hearts and souls into it and go out of our way to be helpful. And many of our members are amazing SEOs who are gracious & share a lot of great tips & strategies.
"I wanted to learn, so I could see what they were doing, having spent over a grand!! I can now see they have really done very little.
In a couple weeks with your training program I'm actually starting to see results, and I've not even started the link building side. It makes me wonder what on Earth my SEO company have been doing for the last 6months!!! I'm going to go it alone and just use the seobook.
So thanks for producing such a great site to help people like me : ) " - Michelle
Price as a Signal of Value
There are a lot of $1,000 and $2,000 info-products on the market that are watered down re-hashes of what we offer, and most of them come with no customer support and no interactivity. Given that price acts as a signal of value and quality, currently we are way under-priced, particularly for the level of customer service we offer. Inside the forums when asked if we should increase our prices 100% of the responses were yes.
The good thing about increasing price is that the more something costs the more people respect it and act on it since the opportunity cost is higher. And when people listen to our advice they get a strong ROI.
"Everyone knows I love to razzz the black magic snake oil SEO industry but honestly out of the very small handful of guys that give a lot of value Aaron is at the top.
I HIGHLY recommend you check out his SEO training program."
- Jeremy Shoemaker
Aren't You Being Greedy? We Are in the Worst Recession Since the 1930's
Publishing a network of sites is a competitive strength we have over most SEO websites. We have real market data from a number of sites in many competitive markets, keep launching new sites, and have many commercial successes - driven through a wide array of strategies. This makes our understanding of the web far richer than a company which only runs a site about SEO.
Running this site is part of our competitive advantage for our other sites (because SEO is core to many of our marketing ideas), but when you adjust this site's returns for opportunity cost, this site's earnings are far below our other top websites. And sometimes the magnitude of difference is almost unbelievable. Sites we started many years after this site make similar amounts on far less effort with far less maintenance cost. This site is over 90% of my work time, but at most about 1/3 of our profits.
Higher Prices Increase Customer Quality
When I sold the ebook by itself the $79 price point was high enough to filter out pikers while still being accessible to many people. But when the get rich quick and make money online email list spamming internet marketers started hyping SEO it polluted the customer pool and was a big part of why we had to change our business model to deeper relationships with our customers at a higher price-point.
When we shifted our business model from ebook to a membership site our average customer quality increased sharply. We already have great customers, but figure that the best way to slow down & manage growth is to increase price. In August we will increase our prices to $150 a month. Search is a market worth $10's of billions of dollars a year, and SEO can provide amazing returns. But if this site is to keep consuming most of my work time then I need to increase its earnings.
We plan on adding lots of new content features and tools to the site throughout the remainder of the year. Current customers keep their current subscription rates, but subscribers after the August 1st date will have to pay 50% more than our current rate.
As Anderson himself says, “I’ve got a lot of kids and college isn’t getting any cheaper.” His own strategy, one outlined by Dyson way back when, is to charge little or nothing for his writing and use it to generate lucrative speaking gigs. “You can read a copy of this book online (abundant, commodity information) for free,” he writes (not noting that the free offer expires shortly after the printed book’s publication), “but if you want me to fly to your city and prepare a custom talk on Free as it applies to your business, I’ll be happy to, but you’re going to have to pay me for my (scarce) time.”
But much of the debate is only on a philosophical level by career journalists trying to make extreme claims to get enough publicity to justify overpriced corporate speech fees. Hey, it worked for Tim!
The problem is that even when you look at the canonical examples for the argument for free, they don't always follow suit.
During an upgrade test of their Google Apps landing page (attempting to improve conversion rates on the PAID version) Google "accidentally" lost the link to the free version. After that issue got exposure the link came back, but it still shows the limits of free. The free option becomes more obtuse/confusing/obscure to make the paid option more appealing.
McAfee analyzed the first five search results pages of 2,600 popular keywords across five search engines: Google, Yahoo, Live, AOL, and Ask. They analyzed both organic and paid listings and counted the number of links that led to pages that McAfee’s SiteAdvisor tool flagged as dangerous. The study ultimately reviewed more than 413,000 unique URLs.
McAfee’s study also found that certain categories of keywords were more riskier than others. Searches related to “lyrics” and “free” had both the highest average risk and highest maximum risk.
Tragedy of the Commons
Free is good at gaining awareness & distribution and in commoditizing competing products & services. Free also works if you are creating a platform you want others to build off. But it also sets the barrier to entry really low. Either you want to have meaningful value added relationships with paying customers or you don't. When you mix free and paid too closely the free people provide so much pollution that they destroy value.
look at the blog comments on any dofollow internet marketing blogs that do not require registration
look at the free SEO forums that have been polluted to bits, some of which where people sell stuff they don't have permission to sell
consider how Google ended supporting their free search API in flavor of promoting a useless one.
It is basic hedonistic economics 101: everything should be free except whatever pays ***my*** income. ;)
The Next Big Thing
Free quickly escalates a business up the user adoption curve, but it also leaves the business vulnerable because it is hard to build deep relationships, continue to add value, remove marketplace friction, stop spam, and do it all for free. As a free company gets bloated it creates opportunity for the next big thing:
There will always be a company that replaces you. At some point your BlackSwan competitor will appear and they will kick your ass. Their product will be better or more interesting or just better marketed than yours, and it also will be free. They will be Facebook to your Myspace, or Myspace to your Friendster or Google to your Yahoo. You get the point. Someone out there with a better idea will raise a bunch of money, give it away for free, build scale and charge less to reach the audience. Or will be differentiated enough, and important enough to the audience to maybe even charge more. Who knows. But they will kick your ass and you will be in trouble.
Most People are Short Term Focused & Greedy
Not only does free suck as a sustainable business strategy, but donation based systems rarely work well because most people feel entitled and ignore reality until it smacks them in the face. In the grocery store a few weeks ago I gave $5 for colon cancer research and the cashier was floored and wanted to announce it. Something that a huge portion of people will have problems with is not worth giving $5 for unless we can see the immediate return. Meanwhile the crooked US healthcare system charges you 10x normal rates if you don't have health insurance. Pay up, now or later!
Activate the mindset on the free pricepoint and entitlement comes about. And the perception of value is lower.
I remember an email I got about 6 months ago about a blog post I offered 18 months or so ago where I gave people free personalized SEO tips. The person commented in the email that most of the people who got the advice never implemented any of it. And why would they respect it? They got it free so they assumed it was worthless. Basic economics I guess.
If it is free people assume it lacks value and that you owe them free support.
At some point after you have enough exposure it makes sense to erect barriers to entry to cleanse the bottom 10% to 20% from your pool of potential customers. Will some of them complain? Absolutely. But in many cases they were not going to have a positive business or social value anyhow. Better to cleanse them out early than waste hours of your life dealing with those types of people.
What is a "User"?
Last week 1 person wrote a blog post about how I lost them as a free user when I required logging in to download our Firefox extensions. This person already had a free user account but did not remember their password and was too lazy to do a password reset. They wrote about "that’s where you lost me as a user" to which Sugarrae responded "And who cares. You’re a USER. Customers are who make him money. Considering you’re too lazy to reset a password and you believe you deserve this free tool as much as you deserve to breathe, you’ll never be worth keeping around from a business standpoint. People like you don’t go places." Harsh, but true.
Media businesses based on "free" typically build a brand by offering unique high value content, charge premium ad rates, bloat out their content & water it down to try to goose the ad revenue & appeal to a bigger user-base, and eventually end up creating something that has no lasting value.
Maybe some forms of structured knowledge like college textbooks and science publishing are due for some type of major disruption. But sifting through the garbage online is not getting easier (unless you are quite sophisticated). Especially when you consider that the tools to do so are aligned with advertisinginterests. Trusting machines that are set up to exploit your personal flaws is a non-trivial cost which you will likely never be able to understand fully or calculate.
There are plenty of people out of work with plenty of attention but not enough income to live on. What is holding back many of them is thinking that they have to do everything for free. The web rewards free stuff with recognition, comments, links, emails begging for free personalized consulting, and lots of other noise...but then what?
Maybe rather than debating free there should be a few more articles on how to build small work at home businesses using the web. And maybe a few more on how to transition "free" attention into real profits. That part is just assumed by the career journalists/speakers, but what do they ever sell beyond articles, books, and speeches? Not everyone is going to be able to give $50,000 corporate speaking gigs.
There are lots of legitimate ways to make money using the web, and they rarely get any coverage unless they are hyped or mischaracterized. Tell us how we can make a living shooting videos of our "mean kitty" and debate the philosophy of free. But then again what else should we expect from FREE media?