We launched our SEO training program close to a year and a half ago and are still flush with optimization opportunities from a conversion standpoint. Working with Conversion Rate Experts got me much more motivated about fixing a lot of the holes. Over the past 6 months we have probably made an average of about 1 conversion improvement per day.
A lot of stuff does not need to be hard to do...it just takes a bit of time and a bit of creativity, and a willingness to respond to customer feedback and conversion data.
Conversion Oriented Graphics
In the past all of our conversion oriented links were simply text links. Recently I picked up a nice set of buttons and am enjoying using them where it makes sense to. :)
Maybe I should put one here
Maybe that is not the perfect graphic, but it is a conceptual upgrade, and a position we can build from.
Optimizing User Experience
Erm... lets see. Where was I. Oh yes, the homepage of our training section in the past was almost the same if you were logged in or not. That confused some people as to their account status and probably cost us some members who did not like it. And since it was the page we ranked #1 in the organic search results for seo training it did not do us any favors with prospects who discover us via a search on that keyword. We were simply wasting traffic for one of our most valuable keywords. :(
But due to the magic of PHP's wonderful elseif there is a different user experience for each of the following:
logged in subscriber - welcome page and link to modules
logged in free account - upsell to paid account
not logged in - login box in case they are already a subscriber, followed by an upsell to paid account
Each of the above groups of people has a different set of goals. One wants to access what they bought, while the other 2 are more interested in learning more about becoming a customer. This is something we should have done long ago, but I have always been so focused on answering forum threads, keeping up with news, and trying to create new tools that it took till now to get around to it.
When you look at the user interaction on a site there are lots of ways to package and re-package ideas that don't have to be spammy or cheesy, but add legitimate value to the strategy. If you have made hundreds or thousands of blog posts there is probably some value that can be reformatted, recycled, and repackaged.
In the past people could download SEO for Firefox, the SEO Toolbar, and our Rank Checker for free and we got nothing in return (except for thousands of customer support emails on free products). That's not entirely true. We got links & rankings, but we likely got more support emails than links and we were wasting an opportunity to establish a lasting relationship and drive people toward conversion.
People still can download those tools for free, but now we require them to set up a free account and log in to get the download links. This type of strategy helps us by...
giving some people the option to get a free auto-responder with the tools
allows us to remind people of the value of the free tools (which also increases perceived value)
allows us to cross-market the free extensions at the same time to increase the actual value of the user experience (more tools = more value)
puts a barrier to entry between us and the worst freeloaders (no more thousands of support emails from non-customers!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
gives us another chance to sell our premium services (on the download page)
There are lots of ways we could further enhance perceived value. Giving people the option of buying the tools for $100 each would really help a lot more people see the value in installing them for free. So many opportunities and ideas, yet so little time. ;)
Toward Relationship Marketing
As data continues to get commoditized and competition increases many savvy marketers are moving towards relationship marketing. Rather than selling right away people try to pull you into a sales funnel. The guys who only wrote pitchfest hawkish emails now have blogs. A blog is one effective way to help establish a relationship, but why not have 5 or 10 different conversion paths that lead to the desired goal?
The cool thing is that our current user experience (while still being far from perfect) looks and feels much better than it did when using the brute force pop up we tested for a few months. The experience is much more soft-sell and value driven while creating more conversions. Win win.
Often, in our rush to get ahead and do things, we forget to plan.
Do you have a business plan? Do you have a plan, but haven't updated it in a while?
A business plan need not be complicated. A few bullet points on the back of an envelope can constitute a business plan. A business plan is simply a description of what you intend to do, and how you intend to do it. Once you write down a plan, your business becomes a lot easier to visualize, and you have a clear, simple means to measure your performance.
The Importance Of Writing Things Down
We all make lists. Why? Probably because our memories aren't that good. A list also helps to focus attention. There's something about the very act of writing things down that makes a nebulous action concrete.
The same theory applies to business plans. Write down what you plan to do, how you plan to do it, and put some milestones around it.
i.e. I'm going to achieve target x by December. It's also a good idea to have a rough idea of how much that milestone is going to cost you to achieve, and the revenue you expect from it.
For Whom Are You Writing The Business Plan?
Is you aim to attract VC? Get a loan from the bank? For internal staff to be clear about direction? For your own use? Depending on your answer, you business plan will have different requirements in terms of the information provided.
All business plans have the following components:
Design and development plan
Operations and management plan
Business plans aren't just for start-ups, either.
As a business transitions through different stages as it grows, the plan needs to change. You might want to figure out the best way to invest or fund expansion. A new financial period may be beginning. What are your plans for the next financial year? Do you need to refinance? Are you taking on more employees? Does your old plan fit your new reality?
The Three Types Of Business Plans
Complete business plans often contain all these elements. However, if you haven't got the time to construct a detailed plan, you can break it down based on intended audience.
Could be as short as one page.
Answer the following questions.
What is your concept?
How much money will you need to execute your plan?
How do you intend to plan to market your business to customers/clients?
What will your cash flow look like, and over what time frame?
Simple questions, right. Many business ideas can be adopted or discounted on those four questions alone, saving you a lot of time, money, and more importantly - opportunity cost.
However, these plans aren't detailed enough if you're seeking investment.
The essential difference between a working plan and a presentation plan is style and appearance. It's tone is serious, and it usually comes complete with charts, forecasts and diagrams designed to convey to people that you've put a lot of consideration into your venture. Presentation plans should be free of industry jargon. Investors like to see a lot of due diligence, especially when it comes to competitive threats.
A working plan is a plan used to operate your business. Like a short plan, it is less formal in terms of style. It is used internally to ensure everyone has enough information to be on the same page.
The SEO Business Plan
We've drawn up a complete business plan that provides an out-of-the-box SEO model for those thinking of starting up their own SEO service. This includes charts and detailed financial breakdowns, as well as SEO industry information and a ready-to-use strategy for 2009-2013.
You can use this plan as it is, or use it as a template to adapt it for your own needs.
In the coming weeks, we'll also provide detailed business plans for an SEO publisher model and SEO product seller.
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.
Once you've decided on a niche to target, you then need to determine the level of competition within that niche. No matter how good the SEO, if your competitors offer a better service, you're unlikely to see the payoff for all your hard work getting high rankings.
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 those of your competitors.
SEO SWOT Method:
Query the serps for the keywords you want to rank for
Pick out the top few sites in your niche. The top 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
This exercise need not take long. Whilst you can can go into incredible detail with a swot analysis, the key points are to identify what you are good at, and what the competition is good at. You're not looking at the SEO elements, you're looking at the service or product offering. If your site is informational, then look at the quality and quantity of information they offer.
Are there areas where you are better than the competition? If you can't find an area where you are better than the competition, either refine the niche you're targeting, choose another niche, or figure out a way to be *markedly* better than the other guys. Out-ranking them won't really help in the long run, because searchers seldom stop at the first site they find. They compare sites against each other.
This is why you don't necessarily need to outrank a site that offers a poorer service than you do, early in your campaign. You simply need to position against it. For example, your TITLE tag could be worded to show how your offer is better than theirs.
By going through this exercise, you'll also get a good feel for opportunities, and the level of competitive threat.
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 is very expensive to do what they do, and they're also entrenched as long-time crowd favorites. This barrier to entry plays to their advantage, and make s it very difficult to unseat them. Also, being the biggest, they also tend to grab the lion-share of revenue in their space.
Try to look for barriers to entry than are you can get over, but others can't. Is there something that will make it difficult for new entrants to follow you? Can you spend more money, or partner with someone to make your offer difficult top emulate? Can you leverage your personal reputation?
If so, you stand a good chance of fending off competitive threats from latecomers.
Beware Of Well Resourced Competitors
Can your competitors outspend you? Do they have more people working for them? Do they have waves of writers producing content and spreading the word?
It is difficult, although not impossible, to compete with such sites. You can work smarter. You can be more efficient. But your task will be harder than if your competitors have a similar level of resources to you.
In SEO terms, check out Mike Grehan's "Filthy Linking Rich" (PDF) for reasons why the rich get richer, especially in terms of SEO.
Perceptual mapping is a graphical technique that attempts to visually display the perceptions of potential customers. Typically the position of a product, product line, brand, or company is displayed relative to their competition.
Perceptual maps are very useful for finding unserved markets.
Cars that are positioned close to each other are seen as similar on the relevant dimensions by the consumer. For example consumers see Buick, Chrysler, and Oldsmobile as similar. They are close competitors and form a competitive grouping. A company considering the introduction of a new model will look for an area on the map free from competitors. Some perceptual maps use different size circles to indicate the sales volume or market share of the various competing products.
Do likewise for your niche, and look for areas of clear space. That's where the opportunity lies
Given SEO is a recent phenomenon, many SEOs stumble into SEO from some other discipline or career.
Attend any SEO gathering, and you'll find ex-coders, designers, sales people, lawyers, entrepreneurs, techies and people from all manner of backgrounds. SEO talk often centers around the arcane technical aspects of the craft, such as tagging, linking, keywords, density and ranking.
However, in terms of function, SEO is most closely related to marketing.
Like marketing, SEO is about getting your message, product or service in front of people, and having them visit your site, and taking action. If that doesn't happen, an SEO campaign is near worthless.
By grounding an SEO campaign in proven marketing strategy, you can not only out-rank others, but also lead visitors to do exactly what you want them to do.
Such a strategy may be common knowledge to experienced SEOs, but those new to SEO will save a lot of time and effort by spending some time absorbing and understanding these fundamental principles. Experienced SEOs, it would be great if you could share your experiences and knowledge of the intersection between SEO & marketing in the comments :)
The Six Fundamental Principles Of Marketing
Like SEO, marketing is part art, part science.
Even if you cover all the technical aspects of SEO, that is no guarantee of ranking well. Ranking well has a lot to do with being interesting enough to link to, and influential and visible enough to attract attention in the first place. Likewise, there isn't a set of marketing specific marketing rules to follow. They will vary, depending on the niche you target. This is why it is important to understand the ideas behind them.
There are six fundamental principles of marketing that relate to SEO:
The Four Ps: Product, Price, Place & Promotion
Development Of A Marketing Strategy
Revision and Refinement
Step One: Perform Market Analysis
Ask "what does the consumer need?"
How many consumers need this product/service?
What is their buying process?
You must fulfill a need. If there is no need for a product or service, the SEO strategy will fail. You might get rankings, but rankings without traffic that can be converted into desired action - i.e. a sale, a click, a sign-up - are worthless.
How do you find out if there is a need? Undertake market research.
Market research falls into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary research is conducted from scratch. Typically, this means interviewing people and gathering information and collating that data. Secondary research is where the data has been collected for other purposes. You can obtain surveys and reports, and adapt them to your needs i.e. government census data.
SEOs use a mix of primary and secondary research, typically in the form of keyword research. They look for keyword terms related to their niche. By the way, if you're unsure about what niche to target, look for a niche that is growing quickly. You want to avoid saturated areas that are declining in popularity. How do you do this? A variety of ways, perhaps including...
Build where you have proprietary knowledge
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
you can use your current experience, momentum, exposure, and market data to build out successful parallel projects
Go beyond the keyword
Look at demographic details for competing sites and keywords to get inside the mind of the searcher
Humans have been irrational as long as there have been humans. Have plenty of spare capital? Be a contrarian investor. Think out a couple cycles and try to buy assets that are currently undervalued and unappreciated by the market.
Keyword research is a rough indicator of need. For example, approximately 130K queries per month indicates there is a reasonable need for "Britney Spears pics".
But this is the point where a lot of those new to SEO slip up.
Basic Market Analysis Applied
The SEO wants to create a site that will sell Britney Spears pictures - no doubt you've already spotted the flaw in this plan, which we'll discuss shortly.
The SEO has conducted some basic research, in the form of keyword research, using the Google Keyword Research tool, or any number of keyword research tools.
The SEO discovered this:
There is a lot of "need" for Britney pics. The first two steps of the strategy - what is the need, and how many people have this need - appears to be fulfilled. The SEO acquires a lot of Britney pictures, sets up a site, and ranks well for Briney pics related keyword terms.
And fails to make any money.
There are various reasons, but fundamentally the SEO failed to ask "what is the buy process?"
The Missing Link: The Buy Process
Had the SEO considered this aspect, he would have realized people don't actually buy Britney pictures. People just look at them for free, because there are a lot of places to get Britney pictures for free. A buy process simply doesn't exist, except in the b2b market between paparazzi and gossip magazine publishers.
That's obvious, right. But it applies to any SEO niche research. Seek to understand the buy process of those with the need, which will help you decide if a market is worth ranking highly for in the first place. What makes someone buy something? Will they buy it online? Are they capable of buying something over the internet?
In this example, the webmaster may choose to run ads instead. Again, this will likely meet with limited success, because people looking for Britney Spears pics aren't likely to be in a buying process, and so advertising, such as Adsense, will be priced accordingly.
Such traffic is near worthless.
Such a site might attempt to sell a closely related service, such as a subscription to gossip magazines, or music, or clothing. This is probably where this idea would end up. The one caveat is using this approach to drive brand awareness. Again, the SEO still needs to consider the buy process. What is the visitor really buying? An idea? A solution to a problem? Information? Awareness? We'll get into the economics of such questions over the next few days.
This is why SEO, like marketing, is a mix of science and art. There is science involved in ranking well, and there is art in knowing which terms are worth ranking for, and why.
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.