John Andrews has a great post about structured data & SEO. My take on the idea (for most businesses anyhow)?
It is an arbitrage play. If you are the first person in a space to do it really well and can parlay that into testimonial links and case studies that is great. But give it 5 years and the search engines will have sucked even more blood out of most businesses.
About marketing a while back I wrote that it is "packaging and the stuff that don't matter" because increasingly packaging is becoming one of the most important ways to create / build / add value.
Standards Based Structure Commoditizes Data
The more you structure your data in standard formats the more value you give away to the intermediary, which will display it all in their search results without giving you much value. Which will also make it easier for well funded competitors to steal your work - without attribution, of course. Rather than giving away tons of raw data it makes sense to put it in a format that is both branded and harder to copy without giving attribution - like an image with your logo on it.
Radical transparency often excites people because of the radical part (it’s new! it’s scary!) than the transparent part. Playing poker with your cards face up on the table might get you some attention at first, but in the long run it’s unlikely to help you win a lot of hands.
Given that, it is far more profitable to appear transparent than it is to actually be transparent.
Transparency as a Marketing Angle
Tim O'Reilly was excited to announce a new government transparency program that claimed "In making this data publicly available, we are providing unfettered access to investment performance to its true owners - the American people," but as I commented on his post
Nice claim in theory. And yet the Treasury and Federal Reserve didn't want to admit how they were spending our money AT ALL. They sat in congress with bogus "I don't recall" statements that would make Alberto Gonzales proud.
Transparency out front while brazen looting is occurring out back is sorta pointless. Its dishonest marketing.
Tim responded with "Applaud their efforts and help them, don't sit on the sidelines and complain. ... These guys aren't accepting the status quo. They are trying to change it." If you looked at the trillions of Dollars that were recently looted by the bankers you wouldn't notice any change, except for the fact that the US Dollar keeps losing value and is now worth change.
Once some of those career criminals in the banking system go to jail then I will start to applaud the government's efforts.
Creating Value vs Building a Business
As search engines continue to consume the web I think that trend of commoditization highlights the increasing importance of social networking & branding & building direct trust in the minds of prospective customers.
If the only way a person adds value is through creating perceived value then they are still miles ahead of the person creating tons of value and giving it all away.
In a world of double-digit unemployment and old-line industries in mid-collapse, here's a sales pitch tailor-made for the times: "Get Paid by Google."
It's a pitch that's compelling millions of people to visit sites such as Kevinlifeblog.com, Scottsmoneyblog.com, Maryslifeblog.com and Googlemoneytree.com, all promising some variation on one theme: Just buy our guide and we'll teach you how to make thousands from Google, right in the privacy of your own home!
Google's 5-Step Easy Money Process
Find a high paying affiliate program which sells a product about how easy it is to make money on Google.
Ideally the program will just charge for shipping to get the credit card details, and make most of the money through back end reverse billing fraud.
Create a fake blog (or fake news site) complete with fake comments about how you lost your job, this program took you from zero to hero. And it makes you 6 figures a year.
Do keyword research to find freshly desperate and unemployed people.
Create ads targeting those people and market them through Google AdWords.
Drug Dealers ***ARE*** Affiliated With Their Drugs
The surprising thing about this process is that Google claims no affiliation to these ads. From the above AdAge article
"As Google is not affiliated with these sites, we can't comment on individual claims," a [Google] spokesman said.
Nice try, but Google ***is*** affiliated with such offers, since they create the distribution channel. Just as a guy who just happens to have a boat load of cocaine he is distributing to clients ***is*** affiliated with the drugs if he is caught in possession.
Businesses Are Responsible for Their Own Business Strategy
Google gives webmasters this guideline "Your site’s reputation can be affected by who you link to." Why shouldn't it apply to Google as well?
As long as Google has 30%+ profit margins they are making a BUSINESS DECISION to run these fraudulent ads. They could spend 1% of revenue on cleaning up this issue (if they wanted to), but they are making a choice not to. Hal Varian has probably done the math, and the offers stay after repeated media exposure of the issue.
Google keeps running the ads because they want the revenue. And they know exactly how much revenue comes from scamming consumers with these ads:
Amoral Ad Networks Constantly Promote Fraud
Is risked mis-priced? Is an asset class overvalued due to fraud? Are consumers unaware of a new type of fraud?
It does not matter where there is a bubble in the economy - amoral ad networks will find it. As Jay Weintraub put it:
The truly complex part of the problem comes from the size of the un-branded continuity program market and just how much it is helping certain companies hit their numbers, along with what happens were it to go away. In so many respects, the current fakevertising trend is the 2008-9 equivalent of the mortgage advertising boom from 2002-2006.
Not surprising that yield based ad systems promote the biggest scams in the marketplace. Mortgage fraud was a multi-trillion dollar industry, and even as the market heads south, there is still yet another way to exploit the public with ads by targeting their dire situation and desperation.
Could Fraudulent Ads Eventually Change the Web?
If the central network operators do not police their networks then eventually web users will stop trusting online advertising. That (plus pending affiliate regulation) could eventually lead to a significant thinning of competition for mindshare online. It might also push many media companies away from ad based business models to creating businesses built through actually taking money from real human customers.
Please Help Google Fix This Issue
Since Google has not put up consumer warnings and lots of consumers are getting ripped off, I believe it is our job as marketers to help warn consumers about this brazen looting and fraud. If you have a blog or website could you please write about this topic? Bonus points if you reference this post using keywords like "Google money" and "make money" as the anchor text such that we can try to rank a warning high up in the Google search results.
And if you write about this topic to help consumers and your site does not carry AdSense ads on it, please list it in the comments below such that anyone who comes to this page can see how big of an issue this has become.
"New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers--as well as the companies that compensate them--for any false claims or failure to disclose conflicts of interest," the article explained.
The rules could be quite strict, even extending to the practice of affiliate links--for example, a music blogger who links to a song on Amazon MP3 or iTunes that earns an affiliate commission in the process.
What is absurd (to me at least) is how inefficient this process is. What needs to happen is better enforcement on ad networks, search engines, and merchants. Follow the money downstream rather than hunting for nickels upstream.
The people who are making fake sites are doing so because they are paid to. And amoral ad networks that syndicate ads based on *maximizing yield efficiency* (like Google AdWords) are designed to syndicate fraud because it is easy for advertisers to pay a lot for ads when their profit margins are nearly 100% because they scam people.
You will never track them down one at a time because many domains are internationally owned, anonymously registered, and some domain names only cost a couple dollars to register. Wordpress.com and Google's Blogspot are free, which leads to automated spam pushing scams:
Three out of every four unique Blogspot.com URLs that appeared in the top 50 results for commercial queries were spam, the study said. Blogspot is the hosting site for Google's blogging service. Blogs created for marketing purposes are sometimes referred to as "splogs."
They need to police the distribution vehicles through which the scams find consumers - ad networks. Any individual blogger can remain fairly anonymous, but ad networks can not scale to efficiency and create publisher and advertiser relationships without being well known.
Each and every one of these ads includes the claim that the specified product is "free." (These claims are expressed in ad titles, bodies, and/or display URLs). However, to the best of my knowledge, that claim is false, as applied to each and every ad shown above: The specified products are available from the specified sites only if the user pays a subscription fee.
These ads are particularly galling because, in each example, the specified program is available for free elsewhere on the web, e.g. directly from its developer's web site. Since these products are free elsewhere, yet cost money at these sites (despite promises to the contrary), these sites offer users a particularly poor value.
Ben continues to the appropriate conclusion
Google's inaction exactly confirms my allegation: That Google's ad policies are inadequate to protect users from outright scams, even when these scams are specifically brought to Google's attention.
Once again, to prove Ben's point, here are some of the government grant ads that the FTC warned about
Most searchers unaware that search results have ads on them, and likely less than 1:10,000 are aware of Yahoo!'s Paid Inclusion program that blends ads directly into the organic search results. Most SEO professionals can not point out which Yahoo! Search Submit results are paid.
Only 38% of users are aware of the distinction between paid or “sponsored” results and unpaid results. And only one in six say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not. This finding is ironic, since nearly half of all users say they would stop using search engines if they thought engines were not being clear about how they presented paid results.
When Google wanted to fight paid text links they penalized the Text Link Ads website to send a message. It is far more efficient to police at the network level. Why can't the government do the exact same thing?
Force ad networks to have editorial integrity. Make small gray text with reverse billing fraud terms of service illegal. Make the networks run a clean show. If they do that there will be little to no incentive for scamming consumers. And it is easier to force self-policing onto 200 ad networks than it is to try to police millions of bloggers.
And Nofollow Has Done so For Over a Year Now
While Matt Cutts only recently announced the change, this change is something that was done over a year ago:
More than a year ago, Google changed how the PageRank flows so that the five links without nofollow would flow one point of PageRank each.
Matt explained why they never disclosed the change back then:
At first, we figured that site owners or people running tests would notice, but they didn’t. In retrospect, we’ve changed other, larger aspects of how we look at links and people didn’t notice that either, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been such a surprise. So we started to provide other guidance that PageRank sculpting isn’t the best use of time.
Why Google Engineers Once Pushed Nofollow PageRank Sculpting
Originally Google created rel=nofollow in what was claimed as an attempt to minimize the effects of blog comment spam on their search results. But the tag never decreased blog spam, it only decreased the ability of bloggers to influence search rankings by leaving back-scratching comments on each other's blogs.
Matt Cutts quickly extended nofollow's purpose to include use on paid text link ads as well. But given that Google AdWords sells links (and often to scammers) some people may have seen trade issues with forcing the new proprietary nofollow tag onto the web. Promoting PageRank sculpting gave Google a way to legitimize a tag which otherwise added no value to anyone except search companies.
After enough time passed and Google saw too much collateral damage popping up from rel=nofollow usage, they pulled the rug out from underneath it. Nofollow already had enough momentum, and was a functional part of the web. After a Google employee slipped nofollow into a working draft of the HTML 5 specifications it was time time to clean up the mess and inform SEOs about the nofollow change that happened over a year ago.
Some SEO Professionals Claimed Huge Benefits From PageRank Sculpting
Over the last year many SEOs have claimed that nofollow tests worked amazingly well which show up directly in the bottom line. And ironically, sharing/hyping this incorrect information worked well from a marketing perspective because...
it makes them look cutting edge and allows them to sell additional services
writing about things which are new, uncertain, and untested yields links (because for every person who is an SEO expert there are 1,000 ditto-heads linking to whatever sounds new or important)
What the SEOs were testing on their high profile public SEO websites was more a reflection of branding and marketing efforts. As they made noise in the marketplace their brand spread and that made more sales. We recently (maybe a month ago?) added nofollow to some links on our site, and we failed to see the lift that other SEOs claimed. And the SEOs that claimed to see the obvious huge amazing lift failed to report the drop off when Google changed how they handled nofollow, which sorta shows the error in the testing method.
Why Fake SEO Experts Recommended Using Nofollow Everywhere
It is no surprising that many self-proclaimed experts aim to misinform novices, as beginners are typically the biggest piece of a market and their topical ignorance makes them the easiest to monetize.
This is precisely why get-rich-quick email list internet marketers make so much money. There is always a new, desperate, and gullible crop to feed off of - an Eternal September. And until they get burned a few times and hardened by the market (and/or go bankrupt) they convert at rates well above what other market segments convert at. Greed makes it easy to make poor financial decisions, especially when matched against seasoned marketers and promises of automated wealth generation.
A More Holistic SEO Strategy
Part of my SEO philosophy has been to try to get the easy wins that you can figure out, but not to know the relevancy algorithms in intimate detail because it gets hard to isolate testing variables as sites get more established, and when you are competing for core keywords in big, competitive markets the SEO game comes down to industrial strength link building, public relations, social networking, branding, advertising, and other aspects of classical marketing.
Most of the SEO Market Misses Big Changes
Think of how many SEO blogs there are (literally thousands), and...
nobody said anything when Google changed how they treat nofollow (we didn't notice the change because we have not used it much on many of our sites because we were afraid it would be taken as an SEO flag, given how Google profiles SEO professionals)
Lots of alleged testing in the SEO industry, but most of the stuff shared publicly is nonsense or misguided junk worth less than nothing.
What About "Experts" Who "Test" Everything?
About 6 months ago I talked to a person who claimed to be an expert at fine-tuned testing, and I was surprised as to how clueless they were about the influence of domain names on SEO. Even after I told them and showed examples they still didn't get it. They were clueless even after seeing the evidence. Domains are one of the few variables that are exceptionally easy to test, and it really validated my opinion that excessive testing can be a waste of time, as that the well known self-labeled "expert tester" was so ignorant about something that is so easy to test. Another self-promotional expert recently claimed that hyphenated domains were the way to go because he has data on 40,000 customers who are all using his misinformation. (Of course he didn't word it that way, but a sampling error he made, and 40,000+ people are losing money because of that advice).
Some People Know The Algorithms, but do Not Share
The one disclaimer I would on this front is that there are some SEOs who likely know the relevancy algorithms better than many Google engineers do. Guys like David Naylor, Greg Boser, Fantomaster, and Eli can do a lot of deep-algo testing based on how many sites they operate and how good they are at doing it. But those guys spend a lot of time and money doing their testing, and don't share their advanced research publicly until they feel it makes sense to from a strategic standpoint, as noted in our recent interview of Eli:
Isn't the value of many aggressive SEO ideas inversely proportional to the number of people using them? What makes you decide what ideas to share and when to share them?
In many cases that's absolutely correct. I've shared several techniques that have died within days of posting them. Just to list a few examples, my Abandoned Wordpress series, Wikipedia Series, and Amazon.com exploits. In all these cases I know before I ever post it that it'll die moments after I do. So most of the time I'll post it out of greed. They are usually techniques I've been using for several years and have since retired them out and quit using them. Naturally with any technique others are bound to figure it out. When I start seeing them popup underground and are being used against me in increasing numbers when I'm no longer using them myself I might as well wreck it.
If you only have a few sites testing many variables is much harder than many people try to make it seem, and it takes a serious investment and skill level to be at the level of the above mentioned names.
SEO "Experts" Jumping from 1 Bad Recommendation to an Over-Reactive Increasingly Worse Strategy
Based on the current Google information on nofollow, some SEOs are already recommending that you strip the ability of commenters to add any outbound links to comments so you can hoard more PageRank. And some are suggesting putting comments in an iframe. But in most cases, such advice is at best misguided. Why?
Comments offer free relevant textual content that helps your pages rank for a wider array of related keywords.
Allowing some relevant outbound linking makes the page more useful, and makes some people slightly more likely to want to comment.
When you are competing for core keywords in big, competitive markets the SEO game comes down to industrial strength link building, public relations, social networking, branding, advertising, and other aspects of classical marketing.
Anything that makes your site more of an island (especially for new sites that need to buy market-share and momentum any way they can) makes it harder to compete against more open sites and well established competitors. If you close off a marketing channel then you are simply ceding a marketing advantage to a newer (or a more savvy) competitor.
CircuitCity.com is back after Systemax purchased the brand and domain at bankruptcy auction for $14 million. Systemax also owns TigerDirect.com and acquired CompUSA last year. CircuitCity.com was quickly relaunched last week to capitalize on the remaining brand strength and traffic to the website.
Not to mention the link equity, eh?
Not a bad strategy there Systemax. That traffic is cheaper than AdWords, will pay for itself in less than a year, and since they are a corporation the Google rankings + traffic will stick. This is probably even a better buy than CompUSA was.
If you are ever worried about creating a second site focused on a high margin portion of your business, just remember that this company owns at least 3 electronics retail brands targeting the exact same keywords. And Google loves it.
This sort of domain name + brands + links transaction highlights multiple fallacies in Google's broken view of the web...
Brands don't make the web less of a cesspool. They often create the cesspool. They simply find something that works, wrap it in brand, and look for ways to scale it. They love.com to scale and automate. Any intelligent SEO that has many Fortune 500 clients will tell you that some of their clients are far spammier than they could be on their own websites, largely because of brand.
As corporations grow more web savvy, they will create more of the same "nasty" no-value-add duplication that Google complains about when passing judgement against the affiliate industry.
Which reminds me...I really should create a fake perceived large corporation (founded by lawyers, perhaps) to buy assets, which would mitigate Google engineer interference and profiling as we try to grow our humble web business.
The anonymous nature of the web acts as a tax on anyone who is an honest merchant. Sales are driven by perceived value, and many marketers spend 90%+ of their time & effort on front end marketing and optimizing their sales channels, while providing little to no substance to anyone who buys from them. By the time those customers get to people like us, they are already more distrusting, cynical, and jaded due to having been scammed - in many cases multiple times.
To someone new to a field, scams often look more legitimate than the real thing. Just ask anyone who has spent their share of the 100's of millions of dollars on acai diet reverse billing fraud promoted through fake blogs advertised on the Google content network.
Quality vs Perceived Quality
In terms of sales, the quality of the product or service is typically nowhere near as important as how much mindshare you have. That last sentence sorta reveals one of the major weaknesses of most non-salespeople. You can't just focus on having the best product and think that will be enough. You have to use push marketing until you build enough momentum that it starts becoming a force of its own. And it needs to be periodically refreshed through advertising, public interaction, and viral marketing.
Word of mouth marketing is great, but you have to encourage it, and promote it.
Scaling a Website
The good news is you do not need a lot of employees to look large, so long as you are good at structuring your customer interactions. Through the above strategies (and being super-efficient), our site (which has 2.5 employees and has its highest value portions locked up as member's only content) gets more traffic than competing businesses with 20 employees and some of the largest public forum websites (with 10x as many pages in Google & no barrier to entry).
The Alexa blog recently referenced the success of our site's current model:
seobook.com gets more traffic than seochat.com and seomoz.org. But how do they do it? Loyalty. Despite getting less traffic from search engines, and despite having fewer links than seomoz, and despite scaring away potential customers with aggressive marketing [editorial note: the quoted article was published while we were testing a pop up that we are no longer testing], seobook is doing quite well. They are converting visitors to customers, and turning those customers into regular visitors.
The take-away lesson is that good SEO is important, but it can't compete with a loyal and engaged user-base. Seobook.com is a perfect case in point.
Such loyalty does not come easy though. This quote represents the barrier you have to overcome if you want to build a lasting online community that matters:
In effect, this guy who has twenty thousand friends is completely alone in the real world.
In this age of great digital connectedness, we increasingly find ourselves clinging to illusions of intimacy, adrift in a sea of anonymity, surrounded by the great faceless, nameless masses from which no commonality can be extracted.
What barriers are preventing people from getting the most out of your community? What can you do to make your interactions more life-like? How open should your community be? What pieces should you focus on building most aggressively? How can you make it grow larger without damaging the quality of the community? How many customers can you have before you need to hire more people? Who should you hire? What should they work on? Where can you add value to your customer's experience? How can you leverage your knowledge most efficiently?
Growing a community is a quite tricky process because every type of marketing causes expected and unexpected consequences. Our ebook, when priced at $79, was coupled with a brand that was seen far and wide. The price-point was so low that it was an impulse purchase that reached virtually every piece of the market - entrepreneurs, small businesses, b2b, retailers, Fortune 500's, hedge funds, etc. Direct interaction with 10,000+ customers made us quite good at knowing what questions are commonly asked, and how to answer them accurately and efficiently. The most common questions got worked into the content.
Death of Ubiquity
The growing complexity of search (particularly the subjective nature of Google hand edits), the general low perceived value of ebooks (largely destroyed by scammers), and Google teaching people to steal our ebook (via suggested "torrent" searches) killed our old business model. Luckily we saw those market changes coming, and shifted our business model in time to more than double our revenues while focusing on higher quality customers.
The minute a profitable business model appears on the web, many forces work to commoditize and disintermediate it. The only ways to stop that are to build a platform that other people build on, or to build deeper relationships with customers.
One of the most important points of Seth's Tribes is that to build a community you have to have outsiders.
Growing a Community
Growth of a community beyond a certain point gets tricky though. Any membership site has some level of decay rate and some level of growth. If you push into markets where you don't fit well then you (temporarily) increase your revenues while lowering your lifetime customer value, lowering average customer quality, polluting your community with people that do not fit, and increasing your maintenance cost of advertising to less receptive markets and supporting transient short-term members.
Rather than trying to get more members, it often makes sense to increase what you get from current members, and look for ways to increase the value delivered to members to increase member stay time.
Price as a Filter
Even though our training program has a similar price-point as the ebook did, it is perceived as being far more expensive because it is recurring. That increases the perceived risk to some of the potential customers who are less committed to learning SEO. This higher perceived cost shaped our community to filter out some of the worst pieces of the market (like the people who buy lots of internet marketing junk on Clickbank and reverse charge most of it) and attract many high quality customers (many of our members have 20x more the business experience and know-how than I do). But it makes it harder for the brand the site to be as relevant to as wide of a group as the old business model was.
Our price-point and the stuff we write about on the blog likely makes many people think that we aim for high end experienced web professionals who have a lot of SEO experience. While that perception keeps our forum levels above the level of quality anywhere else on the web, it also causes us to miss 90%+ of the market.
The approach of simply having hands down the best customers, the best customer service, and delivering the highest level of value (which causes people to stay subscribed for a long time) was the best approach to take when running this site as a 2.5 person business, because churn is expensive when you do marketing, public relations, advertising, quality assurance, content creation, customer support, and customer interaction (all while keeping up with changes in the market). We still want to keep our core customers, but might try expanding.
Appealing to More Beginners
You are not your own customer. I am not my own customer. Designing for yourself gives you a good chance of creating something of value, but most of the buying market for how to information are people new to the field.
Put another way, beginners are the largest market segment, and everyone was a beginner at one point in time.
This is precisely why email list internet marketers make so much money. There is always a new, desperate, and gullible crop to feed off of - an Eternal September. And until they get burned a few times and hardened by the market (and/or go bankrupt) they convert at rates well above what other market segments convert at. Greed makes it easy to make poor financial decisions, especially when matched against seasoned marketers and promises of automated wealth generation.
If we are to expand, we will likely need to reach some of the market that thought our site was too advanced for them. Our offers won't be as hyped as the email guys, but we do have a lot of channels we could use much more effectively. Our training program is certainly easy enough for most beginners to get it, but we need to make our marketing reflect that. My wife used to do offline tech sales stuff, and she is going to help try to do some of the online stuff for this site too. Given that she is up for helping out, I think we can grow the site again...there are lots of things we could make better (like re-doing the intro video, making more video content, and building a few more tools) that I had not got around to because the community was about as big as it made sense to be without more labor.
There is an interview on Open Forum in which Seth Godin interviews Richard Branson. The question is: Why is small business is better than big business?
Branson explains how he structures Virgin so that it is a series of small companies. People know each other by first name. People need to know each others strengths and weakness, and collaborate, and be responsible for the work they do. Branson believes this open small company results in a better service to clients.
In the worst economy we've seen in decades, Passlogix, a privately owned 100-person software development company, just received over a million dollars in prepaid commitments for the next three to five years of service....Now, how do you explain that? The bigger companies aren't getting similar deals.....I think it's a trend. And understanding it might just be the difference between failing and thriving in this economy.
The difference, the article goes on to suggest, is the trust factor.
People need to be able to trust companies to deliver. And in the current climate, where big companies are just as likely to go to the wall as small ones, big companies no longer have the advantage of being trusted to deliver by virtue of their size.
Small companies can build trust quickly in ways that big companies cannot.
How To Establish Trust
SEOs and marketers spend a lot of time trying to get traffic to sites. This is a difficult task, but it's a task that only solves half the problem.
The problem is how do you get traffic to you site and get it to do what you want.
If my traffic dropped by 50% tomorrow, I couldn't care less, so long as conversions stayed the same or increased. Traffic, like ranking, is is not a good metric of success, unless you're selling advertising by the page view, and even then it can be seriously misleading. i.e. how many people acted on the ads?
What makes people engage? Underlying all transactions, is that the buyer trusts the seller to deliver.
In order to help establish trust, consider these factors, especially if you're operating in an area where you're looking to sell an ongoing relationship:
Familiarity & Personality
It's never been easier to build a personal, trusted brand. Twitter, social networks, e-mail lists, blogs and other personal communication channels all make it easy for people to see how you think and act before they engage with you.
If you're seen often enough, in the right places, doing good things, people will come to you, because the known feels safe. The unknown is risky.
This is why PR and networking are critical. They help establish familiarity, which leads to trust, especially if the same person customers see writing articles/Twittering/networking is the same person who answers the phone.
Let customers to know you before you know them.
Do you have markers on your site that show you have earned a good reputation? Credible media mentions? Recommendations from satisfied customers? Proof you've got customers?
Again, a quick search is likely to reveal the state of your reputation.
With companies going to the wall left right and center, stability is a major factor for any long term engagement.
Ever worked with a colleague who is inconsistent and unpredictable? Is that trustworthy? Consistency and predictability build trust.
Respond to emails and inquiries promptly. Say what you'll do, do it, and then tell people you've done it. If you've been operating for a while, make a point of saying it - anything that screams "consistency and predictability".
Do you trust that web site with (c) 2004 at the bottom? Is it still going? Google is chock full of outdated search results from companies, that, on face value, show no sign of life. That's not a good look in the current economic climate.
Staying up to date and engaged is important, especially if the real time web becomes more established, which I strongly suspect it will. Customers will expect companies to communicate using the same method and channels they do, and these channels increasingly favor the immediate and frequent over the slow and infrequent.
Big companies have long indulged in being secretive, unapproachable and oblique. It isn't very appealing.
Why on earth would a small company follow this model? Plenty of them do, presumably to create the illusion they're just like a big company. But big no longer means better like it used to.
Open people and companies build trust. If a company is transparent in it's operations, people are more likely to trust them. Show people who you are, what you're about, and what problems you can solve for them. It's often a good idea to say if you can't solve someone's problem, you'll tell them, and recommend to them someone who can. By doing so, you'll even build trust with non-customers, and you never know who they'll talk to. Every engagement is an opportunity.
There is nothing worse, from a trust point of view, in a company saying they'll do something, and then not do it.
Big companies often fall into this trap because their sales force are separated from their operations divisions, and the sales people are working on commission. Sales people can promise the world in order to get the signature, knowing they're not the ones who have to deliver. That's some other faceless divisions problem.
Small companies seldom have this problem, a problem Branson also tries to counter by organizing small.
Got any ideas on how to build trust? How have you built trust with your customers?
In short, the article is about how the internet appears to be going through its next big shift. It is moving towards becoming a stream of immediate information. The web is being organized by "nowness"
This real-time stream has been building for a while. It began with RSS, but is now so much stronger and swifter, encompassing not just periodic news and musings but constant communication, status updates, instantly shared thoughts, photos, and videos.
I thought the article gives us a compelling way to think about this shift:
First and foremost what emerges out of this is a new metaphor — think streams vs. pages. In the initial design of the web reading and writing (editing) were given equal consideration - yet for fifteen years the primary metaphor of the web has been pages and reading. The metaphors we used to circumscribe this possibility set were mostly drawn from books and architecture (pages, browser, sites etc.). Most of these metaphors were static and one way. The steam metaphor is fundamentally different. It’s dynamic, it doesn’t live very well within a page and still very much evolving. A stream. A real time, flowing, dynamic stream of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of and whether we participate in them or simply observe we are a part of this flow.
But isn't this just social media marketing? We've known about that for a long time now. Yes. But the concept of "nowness" and immediacy give us a great way to make sense of it, and a better understanding of how to make it work for us.
One of the criticisms we often hear about search engines is that a lot of the information is dated. Google has tried to address this problem by focusing on sources such as Wikipedia, that have a community of updaters, or pointing you towards news content, if your search is time dependent, or allowing you to sort by date. Search is also rather anonymous, as opposed to personal.
The appeal of Facebook/Twitter is that they provide an immediacy of information. There is a constant flow, updated often. They also provide this information in the context of a trusted filter i.e. your friend network. That's a big shift in how information will be accessed, especially as more and more people come to view the web from this perspective.
If the web is indeed a place, it is starting to look less like a library, and more like a river.
What Does This All Mean For The SEO?
It means SEOs will need to think more about what traffic is, where it comes from, and how to hook it.
Look at where people are spending their time. Increasingly, it isn't on web pages or sites. It's within a trusted channel that provides a flow of information. So a site owner needs to think about how to direct these streams towards a site, and make sure people hang around long enough to buy what the site owner is selling before they move on.
Obviously, search engines aren't going to disappear. Nor are people going to stop publishing web pages. Nor are they going to stop visiting web pages. But what are the characteristics of social media activity, and how does it differ from search visitor activity?
I think the main characteristics of this channel are immediacy, the fleeting visit, trust, relevancy, and remarkable-ness.
Encourage user registration on your site to help lock people in
Offer time-limited membership deals
Offer forums, tools, multiple content formats, and other interactive elements that mimic the appealing aspects of social media
Be unique, memorable and remarkable so people talk about you to their friends
The Twitter/Facebook/Social Media streams are like the rest of the web in that most of it is junk. So how do people filter the noise and focus on the good bits? Trust is one aspect.
Do people say "Hey, look at this great secured loans site?". They don't. We'll, not unless they're pimping for said secured loans site. The stream is not going to favor the mee-too approach, either. It's going to favor the remarkable approach. Do people on social media sites point out the mundane?
So re-read Seth Godin, and think about "being remarkable", and how to apply it to your strategy.
Incidentally, when asked about Twitter today, Larry Page had this to say:
I have always thought we needed to index the web every second to allow real time search. At first, my team laughed and did not believe me. With Twitter, now they know they have to do it. Not everybody needs sub-second indexing but people are getting pretty excited about realtime
Do you know what attracts your readers? What headlines they respond to most? Do they respond to pictures? Do they know what your offer is?
No doubt we all agree that testing is a good thing to do. We can see clearly if our ideas are working or not. But a lot of testing is, quite frankly, tedious.
Measuring user behavior patterns and visitor paths is, in most cases, worthwhile, but there is always a trade-off in terms of the time it takes to setup and run such testing verses the reward for doing so.
Here are a few cheap and cheerful testing ideas that don't take a lot of time, but can improve your site performance significantly.
1. Write Your Copy, Then Leave It Alone For A Day
One of the best ways to test the effectiveness of your copy is to simply leave it until tomorrow before you hit publish.
It can be very hard to read your own copy objectively, especially as you're writing it. It is often laced with emotion, and the impulsive desire to just finish the damn thing and get it out there.
By leaving it until the next day before you hit publish, you force yourself to re-read your copy in a more objective light. You allow yourself a mental separation between your writer and editor brain function.
When editing, replace long words with short words. Break up long sentences into short ones. Minimize. Eliminate duplication. All copy benefits from rewriting.
Leaving copy aside for a day is the cheapest way to get the objective help of an "editor", without actually having to hire one.
2. Get Someone Else To Read Your Page Aloud
It's a good idea to read your copy out loud. It helps you spot weaknesses more easily.
It's an even better idea to get someone else to read it aloud.
You'll experience your copy how other people will hear it in their heads. Does it get your message across when it is read by someone who doesn't know the point you are eventually going to make? Does it sound like they want to read what is coming next, or do they sound confused or bored? Are the most important points emphasized? Is it obvious what the desired action is?
It can be difficult to spot these factors when reading copy in your head, but blindingly obvious when someone else reads it back to you.
3. Basic Split Run Test Using Adwords
Even if you're focusing on SEO, Adwords is a great way to test the effectiveness of your your chosen keyword terms and site copy.
Once you have a keyword list for SEO, run a short adwords campaign against those keywords. Test the titles and descriptions you plan to use. Test the performance of your landing pages by swapping out one page for another on different days. You can then feed this information through to your SEO campaign. Run with the winners, and cut the losers.
Keep in mind the Adwords won't perform just like a SERP listing, because a lot of people ignore advertising. However, this method is likely to give you a rough idea on what people who search on your chosen keywords are really interested in. Chances are if it works in Adwords, it will work even better in the main SERPs.
Quite often, the keywords you imagine are the most important don't work so well in practice. Or perhaps the title tag you were planning on using might not be enticing enough. For a small sum, you can test keyword effectiveness before embarking on the long and involved process of SEO, link building and ranking, which you'll have to live with for years.
4. Are You Selling The Solution To The Problem
Say you want to build a mailing list by giving away a free e-book.
These days, that's a boring offer.
Unfairly, e-books have a bad reputation because they are often perceived as low value and are frequently associated with scams. "Free" on the internet is essentially meaningless, given that most things on the internet are free.
Instead, sell the solution. i.e "Do you want to know how to find the top five investment funds in any market? Do you want to find the funds that have consistently returned over 10% p/a for the last ten years? Sign up for our free e-book download that answers these questions, and more"
Much more enticing than "free e-book give-away". The form (e-book) is not the important bit, the benefit (finding the right investment funds) is the important bit.
The internet has a lot in common with direct marketing. Proven and tested direct marketing methods dictate we should "sell the sizzle", wherever appropriate. The idea is that people don't buy products and services, they buy the benefits of those products and services. They ask "what's in it for them?"
Does your copy always move towards answering this question? Read your copy aloud. If it doesn't, then rewrite until it does.
5. Does The Picture Sync With The Message?
Pictures are powerful attention grabbers.
But do you have the right image? The right image is the image that helps you sell. Grabbing attention doesn't necessarily translate into sales. Flickr is full of attention grabbing images that will never sell themselves, or anything else.
In terms of doing business, a picture, like words, should relate to the product or service. A picture's function is to increase sales. If it doesn't, it shouldn't be there.
The most obvious relationship is direct i.e a picture of the product or service. Modern advertising tends to focus on indirect relationships, such as implied association with people who use the product. i.e. a group of cool skater kids hanging out may advertise Vans footwear, even if you don't actually see the shoes in shot. The benefit for the audience is to become part of this cool tribe. More indirect methods tend to be used in brand building advertising.
The closer you are to direct marketing, the more direct the imagery tends to be. If you want to sell an Apple iPod Touch, you show a big picture of one. Basic stuff, right? But it's surprising how many sites use vague imagery that might look cool, but gives the viewer no idea what the site is about, or doesn't lead them to identify with your product or service.
Don't ask "Is this picture worth a thousand words? ", ask "Does this picture tell the customer a thousand words about my product or service?"
Got any more cheap and cheerful testing methods? Add them to the comments.
Is it a cultural thing? For example, does hard sell work in some cultures, but not others?
Personally, when I experience the hard-sell, I immediately become suspicious that the product is worthless. After all, shouldn't the product or service, if useful, pretty much sell itself?
Having said that, I have, on occasion, bought from people using the hard sell. Curiosity sometimes gets the better of us all :)
The fact that aggressive sales strategies are used so often tends to indicate such approaches do work. Let's take a look at some of these tactics, and if you can think of more examples, please add them in the comments. Also, if you've had success using such tactics yourself, please share your experiences.
The Time Sensitive Offer
A time sensitive offer, as the name suggests, is an offer that has a specific time limit.
Typically, the more time people have to think about something, especially impulse buyers, the less likely they are to take action. So the time sensitive offer will always create a sense of urgency - combined with jeopardy. People feel they might miss out if they don't act immediately. Like many hard sell tactics, it is based on fear. In this case - the fear of missing out.
Limited places available: "Only ten places left!"
Limited stock available: "STOCK CLEARANCE!! WE ONLY HAVE A FEW OF THESE LEFT!! GET IN QUICK BEFORE THEY SELL OUT!"
Deadlines: "This offer will end at midnight, tonight! After then, we close the program" (Of course, they re-open it again at regular intervals)
The hype level of the hard sell is usually off the scale compared to most legitimate business offers.
I recall an offer last year where the hype level for a vaguely SEO-related service was getting quite ridiculous. Like many other people, I was getting bombarded with emails at every step of the sales process.
They were going to launch in a few weeks. They were just about to launch. They launched. They had launched, but there was still time to sign up!
The aim is to create an event.
The advertiser also needs to make some fairly outrageous claims. Trouble is, when everyone is making outrageous claims, then s/he needs to make even bigger ones in order to get noticed.
It sometimes helps if you print a lot of zeros on an over-sized check to really ram the point home.
How do you avoid getting sucked in?
Hard work was intoxicating.
But sitting in the ‘counting house’ counting money was frankly even more appealing. I frankly don’t know how much money and time I spent before I got wise. Or should I say wiser.
The moment of wisdom came when I started recognising the red flags.
I started avoiding anything ‘instant.’
I started avoiding anything that offered ‘tsunamis of customers’
I started avoiding anything that had fancy cars, surfboards, planes, jets, boats.
I started avoid anything with graphics of cheque books and bank balances.
Secret Or Unfair Advantage
Everyone loves to know something the next guy does not. Or gain an advantage. Anything that creates a shortcut to effort. And creating an air of mystery or invitation to a select club is very enticing.
Of course, if the secret or unfair advantage was significant, you've really got to wonder why anyone would sell it for $89.95 to faceless unknowns.
Social Proof Of Value
Social proof involves making the assumption that other people are better informed that you. People like to go where other people have gone, as it feels less risky that way, unless they all happen to be buying tickets for the Titanic, of course.
Social proof takes the form of case studies, personal recommendations, and, as often happens on the internet, shilling. Ever tried to look for a review of a product that has been sold hard? Chances are the only reviews of the new $2,000 course that ***will change the world forever*** you'll find are from affiliates.
Example (combined with time sensitive offer): Server Issue: "Our server crashed (yeah, right) due to the number of responses. We're so sorry to all those who missed out! So we've extended the offer for one more day!"
Some merchants warm up an email list by giving away prizes in exchange for testimonials as you get closer to the launch date. They even let you know that the more outlandish the testimonial is the greater the chance of being featured and winning a prize. Such false endorsements are meant to fool the rest of the list into thinking they are missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. And anyone who contacts them during the sales pitch gets a special link ***only for them*** to place their order the night before the general public.
Any Idiot Can do it, Fast, Easy, & Nearly Automatically
A friend recently got this via email, which captures the essence of the 'anyone can do it' pitch.
We gave you solid PROOF. Proof of how 37 people walked in our office on a Monday morning in May with:
NO technical experience
And they ALL walked out Friday at 4 p.m. with their very own Internet business. Amazing, isn't it?
Now, listen to this very carefully:
If you are remotely interested in attracting more wealth into your life at a faster speed, our elite Internet marketing team can transform your life forever. It sounds clichéd, but it's true.
In some cases during the sales process you will see testimonials from teenagers, senior citizens, AND people with severe disabilities. They are showcased and exploited to remind you that if they can do it then surely you can too.
My friend also had a call with one such group about their 'mentorship program' where it was a tiered list of interviews that were made to look like qualification interviews, but were actually more like boiler room sales sessions, where certain people's times were limited and they just happened to open up right now if you have $5,000 of space on your credit card.
One group asked Aaron banal SEO questions via email one month, and was then selling a how to SEO course less than a month later. They went from completely ignorant to masters in record time. So long as they sell to desperate, inexperienced, and/or stupid people it is a strategy that works. For that target market they only need to be confident and know slightly more than your prospective customer to pry a few dollars out of their wallet.
Cross selling involves selling an additional product or service to an existing customer.
This is not just a method used to hard sell, it's a highly efficient way to market. It is cheapest to market to those whom you already have built up a relationship.
Intimacy & Relationship Building
Guerrilla Marketing is an approach to marketing that has become very popular on the internet, mostly to get over the barrier of anonymity.
One aspect central to Guerrilla marketing is the importance of building up a personal relationship, so the sales pitch will often be personality driven. It involves telling personal stories about familiar situations and problems that have been overcome. It is the polar opposite of the anonymous, depersonalized copy of the sales brochure.
Some "business opportunity" merchants create fake "application forms" which accept everyone with a credit card and a pulse.
Hard Selling is Not All Bad
There are many potential bad customers who take take take and have no intent of doing any real work. Get rich quick ponzi schemers offer a more compelling offer to them than you or I ever would, and so they filter them out of the marketplace *
I was getting better clients thanks to the get-rich-quick merchants.
They were weeding out the people who simply wanted it easy. They were weeding out those who got impatient because they tried something for 10 minutes and weren't getting results.
They were weeding out all those for whom hard work is like a disease.
* If your price-point is one of the lowest in your market and you do not charge recurring fees and the get rich quick folks enter your market then you will likely need to increase your prices and/or change your business model to filter out that bottom tier of customer and restore your faith in humanity. Even having 1 in 10 customer interactions be unpleasant can become unbearable.
Many hard sell techniques cross over into softer-sell conventional marketing and sales. We recently added a pop up to this site offering a free SEO course via email, and it did increase our conversion rates. The proof of any marketing technique can be found in the bottom line: did it make more money than other techniques?
I'd be interested to hear your experiences. Do you use these techniques? Have you bought from people using these techniques?