Since the end of last year (when we started working with Conversion Rate Experts) we went from sorta not caring too much about conversion rates to making it a priority. Part of the reason we originally did not worry about it was just because I wanted to keep adding value to the service and make sure that the quality of the site was far better than any competing site. That goal has been achieved, and recognized by our customers and in the marketplace amongst SEO experts. Today I just saw Wiep Knol write this, and it motivated me to write this post.
Small & Tight Knit > Big & Bloated
After improving conversion rates we started growing briskly, and we are getting close to our upper limit of 1,000 subscribers. Since we are a small(ish) company we don't want to grow too quickly, or get bloated to the point it harms the quality of our customer experience.
Many competing services want to act like a Wal-Mart or McDonalds, and have 10,000's of customers that they quick serve. But I like to keep things small and cozy. We want maintain the current atmosphere where we have established a more limited and higher value site where we have the ability to interact directly with our customers every day to create a deeper, richer, and more valuable experience.
Our Customers Love the Site
Last week one of our customers made this video, which helped up realize that our customers are seeing the site the way we hoped.
Originally we under-priced the site to ensure we could get enough people through the door to build a strong and sustainable community. If you fail the launch its hard to get a second try. But given that we have one of the 5 strongest brands in the space and that we work directly with our customers it does not make a lot of sense to be priced as a value play, especially after our membership has been growing so rapidly.
Most SEO firms take $10,000 (or more) and then do virtually nothing with the money. There are some good ones on the market, but very few of them are looking for customers. Almost every week I hear another story about $10K or $15K down the drain and it only further reminds me how little we charge for the value we offer.
Our site educates webmasters and is interactive to ensure returns. When customers participate on the forums the value they get will exceed what most get for $10,000 at the average SEO firm.
Unlike most large SEO firms, we do not have 1 person working the conference scene to generate leads and send them back to interns and fresh college graduates. When you join our site you interact ***directly*** with us. In a little over a year I have made over 10,000 posts in the forums.
"You saved my site, seriously, I don't know if this ever would have been solved otherwise - every SEO company I have been in touch with (50+) over the past six months was unable to identify the problem and you picked it apart in five seconds.
I'll be recommending your site to everyone I know in this business! Thanks so much again Aaron, you saved my site"
- Daniel E. from Toronto
On the value for money scale this site is just the opposite of most SEO firms...we pour our hearts and souls into it and go out of our way to be helpful. And many of our members are amazing SEOs who are gracious & share a lot of great tips & strategies.
"I wanted to learn, so I could see what they were doing, having spent over a grand!! I can now see they have really done very little.
In a couple weeks with your training program I'm actually starting to see results, and I've not even started the link building side. It makes me wonder what on Earth my SEO company have been doing for the last 6months!!! I'm going to go it alone and just use the seobook.
So thanks for producing such a great site to help people like me : ) " - Michelle
Price as a Signal of Value
There are a lot of $1,000 and $2,000 info-products on the market that are watered down re-hashes of what we offer, and most of them come with no customer support and no interactivity. Given that price acts as a signal of value and quality, currently we are way under-priced, particularly for the level of customer service we offer. Inside the forums when asked if we should increase our prices 100% of the responses were yes.
The good thing about increasing price is that the more something costs the more people respect it and act on it since the opportunity cost is higher. And when people listen to our advice they get a strong ROI.
"Everyone knows I love to razzz the black magic snake oil SEO industry but honestly out of the very small handful of guys that give a lot of value Aaron is at the top.
I HIGHLY recommend you check out his SEO training program."
- Jeremy Shoemaker
Aren't You Being Greedy? We Are in the Worst Recession Since the 1930's
Publishing a network of sites is a competitive strength we have over most SEO websites. We have real market data from a number of sites in many competitive markets, keep launching new sites, and have many commercial successes - driven through a wide array of strategies. This makes our understanding of the web far richer than a company which only runs a site about SEO.
Running this site is part of our competitive advantage for our other sites (because SEO is core to many of our marketing ideas), but when you adjust this site's returns for opportunity cost, this site's earnings are far below our other top websites. And sometimes the magnitude of difference is almost unbelievable. Sites we started many years after this site make similar amounts on far less effort with far less maintenance cost. This site is over 90% of my work time, but at most about 1/3 of our profits.
Higher Prices Increase Customer Quality
When I sold the ebook by itself the $79 price point was high enough to filter out pikers while still being accessible to many people. But when the get rich quick and make money online email list spamming internet marketers started hyping SEO it polluted the customer pool and was a big part of why we had to change our business model to deeper relationships with our customers at a higher price-point.
When we shifted our business model from ebook to a membership site our average customer quality increased sharply. We already have great customers, but figure that the best way to slow down & manage growth is to increase price. In August we will increase our prices to $150 a month. Search is a market worth $10's of billions of dollars a year, and SEO can provide amazing returns. But if this site is to keep consuming most of my work time then I need to increase its earnings.
We plan on adding lots of new content features and tools to the site throughout the remainder of the year. Current customers keep their current subscription rates, but subscribers after the August 1st date will have to pay 50% more than our current rate.
As Anderson himself says, “I’ve got a lot of kids and college isn’t getting any cheaper.” His own strategy, one outlined by Dyson way back when, is to charge little or nothing for his writing and use it to generate lucrative speaking gigs. “You can read a copy of this book online (abundant, commodity information) for free,” he writes (not noting that the free offer expires shortly after the printed book’s publication), “but if you want me to fly to your city and prepare a custom talk on Free as it applies to your business, I’ll be happy to, but you’re going to have to pay me for my (scarce) time.”
But much of the debate is only on a philosophical level by career journalists trying to make extreme claims to get enough publicity to justify overpriced corporate speech fees. Hey, it worked for Tim!
The problem is that even when you look at the canonical examples for the argument for free, they don't always follow suit.
During an upgrade test of their Google Apps landing page (attempting to improve conversion rates on the PAID version) Google "accidentally" lost the link to the free version. After that issue got exposure the link came back, but it still shows the limits of free. The free option becomes more obtuse/confusing/obscure to make the paid option more appealing.
McAfee analyzed the first five search results pages of 2,600 popular keywords across five search engines: Google, Yahoo, Live, AOL, and Ask. They analyzed both organic and paid listings and counted the number of links that led to pages that McAfee’s SiteAdvisor tool flagged as dangerous. The study ultimately reviewed more than 413,000 unique URLs.
McAfee’s study also found that certain categories of keywords were more riskier than others. Searches related to “lyrics” and “free” had both the highest average risk and highest maximum risk.
Tragedy of the Commons
Free is good at gaining awareness & distribution and in commoditizing competing products & services. Free also works if you are creating a platform you want others to build off. But it also sets the barrier to entry really low. Either you want to have meaningful value added relationships with paying customers or you don't. When you mix free and paid too closely the free people provide so much pollution that they destroy value.
look at the blog comments on any dofollow internet marketing blogs that do not require registration
look at the free SEO forums that have been polluted to bits, some of which where people sell stuff they don't have permission to sell
consider how Google ended supporting their free search API in flavor of promoting a useless one.
It is basic hedonistic economics 101: everything should be free except whatever pays ***my*** income. ;)
The Next Big Thing
Free quickly escalates a business up the user adoption curve, but it also leaves the business vulnerable because it is hard to build deep relationships, continue to add value, remove marketplace friction, stop spam, and do it all for free. As a free company gets bloated it creates opportunity for the next big thing:
There will always be a company that replaces you. At some point your BlackSwan competitor will appear and they will kick your ass. Their product will be better or more interesting or just better marketed than yours, and it also will be free. They will be Facebook to your Myspace, or Myspace to your Friendster or Google to your Yahoo. You get the point. Someone out there with a better idea will raise a bunch of money, give it away for free, build scale and charge less to reach the audience. Or will be differentiated enough, and important enough to the audience to maybe even charge more. Who knows. But they will kick your ass and you will be in trouble.
Most People are Short Term Focused & Greedy
Not only does free suck as a sustainable business strategy, but donation based systems rarely work well because most people feel entitled and ignore reality until it smacks them in the face. In the grocery store a few weeks ago I gave $5 for colon cancer research and the cashier was floored and wanted to announce it. Something that a huge portion of people will have problems with is not worth giving $5 for unless we can see the immediate return. Meanwhile the crooked US healthcare system charges you 10x normal rates if you don't have health insurance. Pay up, now or later!
Activate the mindset on the free pricepoint and entitlement comes about. And the perception of value is lower.
I remember an email I got about 6 months ago about a blog post I offered 18 months or so ago where I gave people free personalized SEO tips. The person commented in the email that most of the people who got the advice never implemented any of it. And why would they respect it? They got it free so they assumed it was worthless. Basic economics I guess.
If it is free people assume it lacks value and that you owe them free support.
At some point after you have enough exposure it makes sense to erect barriers to entry to cleanse the bottom 10% to 20% from your pool of potential customers. Will some of them complain? Absolutely. But in many cases they were not going to have a positive business or social value anyhow. Better to cleanse them out early than waste hours of your life dealing with those types of people.
What is a "User"?
Last week 1 person wrote a blog post about how I lost them as a free user when I required logging in to download our Firefox extensions. This person already had a free user account but did not remember their password and was too lazy to do a password reset. They wrote about "that’s where you lost me as a user" to which Sugarrae responded "And who cares. You’re a USER. Customers are who make him money. Considering you’re too lazy to reset a password and you believe you deserve this free tool as much as you deserve to breathe, you’ll never be worth keeping around from a business standpoint. People like you don’t go places." Harsh, but true.
Media businesses based on "free" typically build a brand by offering unique high value content, charge premium ad rates, bloat out their content & water it down to try to goose the ad revenue & appeal to a bigger user-base, and eventually end up creating something that has no lasting value.
Maybe some forms of structured knowledge like college textbooks and science publishing are due for some type of major disruption. But sifting through the garbage online is not getting easier (unless you are quite sophisticated). Especially when you consider that the tools to do so are aligned with advertisinginterests. Trusting machines that are set up to exploit your personal flaws is a non-trivial cost which you will likely never be able to understand fully or calculate.
There are plenty of people out of work with plenty of attention but not enough income to live on. What is holding back many of them is thinking that they have to do everything for free. The web rewards free stuff with recognition, comments, links, emails begging for free personalized consulting, and lots of other noise...but then what?
Maybe rather than debating free there should be a few more articles on how to build small work at home businesses using the web. And maybe a few more on how to transition "free" attention into real profits. That part is just assumed by the career journalists/speakers, but what do they ever sell beyond articles, books, and speeches? Not everyone is going to be able to give $50,000 corporate speaking gigs.
There are lots of legitimate ways to make money using the web, and they rarely get any coverage unless they are hyped or mischaracterized. Tell us how we can make a living shooting videos of our "mean kitty" and debate the philosophy of free. But then again what else should we expect from FREE media?
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.
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?