Content Farming - SEOs Get It, Journalists Don't

Jul 13th
posted in

Recently, there have been a series of negative articles about content farms.

Content farms, such as Demand Media's eHow and similar low-cost content publication sites, are now deemed an industry "concern". "Industry" being the traditional publishing idustry, and concern presumably being "competitive threat".

A trade group called the Internet Content Syndication Council (ICSC) has been circulating a document entitled "Council To Counter Web Content Generators Growing Clout". They talk about "job threatened journalists" and "diminishing content standards". Look, see what happens when the proletariat gets their hands on the printing press! :)

The pundits have also weighed in. So many journalists, eh. Looks like an over-supply if you ask me :) Some of them could learn a thing or two from SEOs.

For starters, many seem to be working on the false premise that Google returns "quality" results. Since when has Google ever been about "quality" results? Google's aim is to return links the searcher finds relevant.

"Quality" and relevance may not be the same thing, and thinking in terms of an arbitrary notion such as quality is to misunderstand what Google does.

For example, if a searcher, with a below-average level of reading in English wants a quick answer to a question about the common cold, then who's to say a simple, peer-produced bullet-point explanation is less relevant than a doctoral thesis on the same topic? Everyone benefits when the answer is factually correct, of course, but there's nothing to say the content mill won't offer factually accurate content just because the production process is low cost. If geared towards rankings, the content may also offer the facts in a format the user finds more useful.

Google is mostly about utility. It's about providing value to the end user. "Quality" is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Let's also not forget Google argue that Adwords - advertisements - are content, which are also rewarded by a relevance algorithm. I'm guessing the council won't be arguing that advertisements can be a form of quality content any time soon.

And what does quality mean anyway? And who defines it? I think I can guess what the elitists at the ICSC may argue - they know what it is, and they will define it! Nice work if you can get it, I guess.

Solutions To The Content Crisis

One solution they offer to this perceived "content crisis" is to create a set of public guidelines for internet content, or an accreditation process for syndicated content.

Heh.

Reminds me of the SEO "best practices" debates of years past. The result will be the same, of course - they'll end up talking to an audience that consists entirely of themselves. Everyone else will be getting on with the job of producing content.

What concerns us is that most of these new content syndicators are producing low-quality articles that are link based,” said Tim Duncan, the ICSC’s recently installed executive director.
“They are designed to score high on search. That drives down high quality content.

Wikipedia, and white hat SEOs, might not agree, of course. Content can both be ranked well and be highly relevant. This is, after all, Google's aim.

Some ICSC members have even advocated reaching out to Google to urge the search giant to tweak its algorithm to give more weight to content quality in its search results

Hilarious. I think they mean "any content they think is quality" Perhaps Google can send them a regular cheque each week, too! I suspect money is the true driving force, as opposed to any real concern for editorial standards. Have you seen some of the trash the MSM serves up?

Quality stuff, certainly.

At the end of the day, quality standards arguments are pointless. Besides the confused frame of journalistic news vs Q&A-style content, the end user decides the level of quality they will accept and pay for on the internet. The real problem traditional publishing and the mainstream media is facing is that their business model is screwed. Their content production costs are simply too high, and they are being undercut. If they think that people want higher quality, then the answer is simple - produce it and let the visitor decide.

And get some good SEO advice, so they don't inadvertently bury it.

Google Joining In?

In a further twist, Google might be looking to join the content mills at their own game. An interesting patent, "Identifying Inadequate Search Content" identifies keyword areas where there is search demand, but low levels of relevant content. That's essentially what Demand Media does. Assuming Google don't/can't get into publishing for every vertical in existence, Google would do well to make this information publicly available.

Especially to their hordes of Adsensers ;)

How You Can Create A Successful Content Mill

Ignore mainstream media journalists and whiners who like to form councils.

Understand that Google is looking for relevant content. "Relevance" is, in the end, deemed by the searcher. If there are a lot of searches for "pay levels for doctors" and you publish a page that shows "pay levels for doctors", then you are producing relevant content and Google will reward you.

Google are, no doubt, measuring how relevant visitors think the information is, and there are various signals that could be used to determine this. These signals will not come from a council of elitist, self-interested old media. The signals will be based on user activity and user voting patterns. These signals must be scalable i.e. links, visits, timeliness, recommendations, frequency of appearance, re-quoting, etc.

Increases in "quality" i.e. content depth and accuracy - will come from end-user voting. If users want deeper answers to search questions, either Google will deliver it, or users will abandon Google and go somewhere that provides it. Perhaps that's what ICSC should do - start their own search engine ;)

Having said all that, a lot of samey, lightweight content won't survive in the long run, because Google likes to provide variety in their result sets. Look for ways to differentiate your content. Quality is only one - arbitrary - point of differentiation. You'd be better concentrating on aspects such as ease of access, readability, findability, relevance and freshness.

Keep the end user firmly in mind.

The Inside Line On SEO

Jun 30th
posted in

There are so many blogs on search marketing.

Then there are so many forums.

And Tweets.

So much SEO noise, and so little time.

So how does anyone make sense of it? The deluge can be overwhelming for the experienced SEO, let alone the poor beginner. If you are just starting SEO, here are the ten areas you should spend most of your time on when you're starting up.

1. Stop reading Blogs/Forums/Tweets/Facebook. Too much noise, takin' all your time :)

"SPAM = Site's Positioned Above Mine" - Greg Boser

2. Before you do any SEO, define your niche. What service does your website provide? Who are your readers/customers? What can you provide that your competitors don't? How are you going to deliver your services and make a profit? There's no point ranking well for a business that doesn't work at a fundamental level.

"Search is a "reverse broadcast system." In a broadcast system, advertisers spend lots of money to reach a mass audience, hoping to build desire for a product or service. But most of the audience is not interested in their pitches. Search is the reverse. Each search is an expressed desire, something that someone at a particular time actually wants. Advertisers can tune in to the "desire-cast" that’s going on." - Danny Sullivan

3. Set business-specific goals and include a time frame. "I want to make x in 12 months". "I want 20,000 RSS subscribers in 6 months". It's important to be specific. It's difficult to measure goals that aren't specific i.e. "be popular".

Never let your ads write checks that your website can’t cash. - Avinash Kaushik

4. Create interesting content. If you know your audience, you already know what content they will find interesting. If you don't, revisit #2.

I’m not even sure myself - Matt Cutts

5. Links. You need links Not just the Google-juice, PR-passing kind. Links are the arteries of the web, Traffic travels across links, so all links, crawlable or not, no-followed or otherwise, are valuable. Asking for links from people you don't know is pretty much a waste of time. It's a better idea to create fantastic content, then link out to the popular people who can spread the word. They'll follow their inbound links back to you. Make sure that what they find is remarkable.

The urgent can drown out the important. - Marissa Meyer

6. Do SEO. All that stuff you're no longer reading in #1? It all boils down to this: put keywords in your title tag, write on-topic content, make sure your site is crawlable, get links to that content, get people to talk about you. Repeat.

We're trying hard to find user needs that aren't being met at all- Larry Page

7. After a month, look at your keyword referral logs. Take those terms and plug 'em into keyword research tools. Create a list of 30 keyword terms that your audience would find interesting. Those are your article headings. Write 30 articles. Repeat.

8. Look at your competitors. Your competitors are ranking well for a reason. They're being mentioned elsewhere for a reason. What are they doing that you're not? Reverse engineer their sites i.e. who links to them, find out what articles they publish and find out who is talking about them, and why. Emulate them, then go one better. Either that, or stop competing with them directly i.e. define a slightly different niche.

We are currently not planning on conquering the world - Sergey Brin

9. Get social. Social media is often over-hyped, but the principles, and numbers behind it, are sound. Getting mentioned is the new link building. It's about building connections between people. Google has a problem. Using links as a measure of relevant content doesn't work as well as it used to, so you can be sure Google will be using an ever-more complex set of signals. These signals will involve the connections people make with your site. That's really what Google wants to know - who is most relevant. Consider the many different ways people can connect with you, and enable those connections.

10. Start reading the blogs/forums/twitter. The irony, of course, is that I've linked to some truly great resources and thinkers :)

If you've followed the ten steps above, you're 80% of the way there. The final 20% will take a while longer, and that's where the minutae comes in.

Keep in mind that some of the most lucrative SEO information isn't likely to be published in the public domain. Cultivate personal networks to get this information. This is true of any business endeavor.

Network :)

SEO Flows Through Everything

Jun 18th
posted in

Anyone who has been an SEO consultant knows that SEO is often bolted-on as an after-thought.

Which is, of course, the worst way of doing SEO.

Part of the problem is that SEO is often thought of, by clients, as a fix. It is a fix applied to solve the unforeseen problem of not showing up in search engine result pages.

Whilst some businesses get it, we know most never will. But this fact is to your considerable advantage if you build and run your own sites :)

Relevant Traffic Is Everything

We know that a site without traffic is like a billboard in the desert. If no one sees it, it doesn't matter how pretty it is, it is useless.

A site without relevant traffic is a cost, not a benefit. Traffic that "just passes through" presents a major opportunity cost. What did that traffic really want to see, and why aren't I providing it?

Someone else will be.

We know that search is the ultimate internet marketing research tool. Search is marketing nirvana. Visitors tell us what they want, using a keyword query, and all we need to do is match that query up with our site.

Most people, outside search, still do not get this.

But we do.

Integrating SEO At Every Step

One thing some SEOs may not get is that SEO needs is an integral part of business strategy.

SEO is not just about positioning a site in the search rankings, it's about positioning a site in the market.

For example, it is pointless getting a #1 ranking for "cheap t-shirts" if a site sells designer t-shirts. Whilst this may result in a few rogue purchases, the site will constantly lose out to sites that offer cheap t-shirts.

Because the visitors will reformulate their search queries until they find the service that is most relevant to them. From a business point of view, it may be better to run two sites - one offering cheap t-shirts, and one offering designer shirts.

That's what being relevant really means. Being relevant to a target market.

An SEO strategy should look like this:

  • Identify the target market
  • Conduct a competitive analysis
  • Create a business plan that shows how you will compete in that market
  • Research keywords
  • Create a brand identity related to those keyword terms
  • Create a search-friendly site
  • Get links

SEO flows naturally out of the demands of the target market.

The visitors tell us what they want. We look to see if anyone else is providing it. If they are, could we do better? We create a basic plan showing how we will supply the need, and how much money we'll make, after costs, if we succeed. We develop a strategy, as opposed to tactics. We investigate the many ways people phrase queries. We create a "language" for our site copy, and brand, that includes those queries, and addresses the intent behind them. We build a crawlable, well-ordered site and then we tell the world about it. We hope the world will talk about it, the send some attention our way.

SEO Is Ongoing

Just as business strategy is something we must do each day, so too is SEO. Integrate SEO into all you do. Even sending out a bill is an opportunity to ask someone to engage with your site. And hopefully link to it.

Ask your friends, associates, suppliers and customers to link to you. Do the same for them. Create a personal link network of like-minded people and grow that network wider and wider. Think of it as a circle of trust.

Your keyword referral stats are pure gold. Find the keyword terms people have used to find you. Use them as ideas for new page topics. Integrate their language into your copy. Repeat. Grow organically based on the demands of visitors. It's just a case of "listening" to them. And responding with new pages.

Join related clubs, forums and organisations. Find out the top sites in your niche that accept advertising, and advertise on them. Write articles for them. Contribute to discussions. Go to wherever your potential visitors are.

Every page should link to another page on your site in a strategic, meaningful way. Think of any page you write as the start of a funnel that leads to other areas of your site. You want to subtly direct people to the page or action where they'll engage with you. For this to work, you need to have a clear business directive in mind. What is it you want people to do? Every page is a step leading to that point.

Be newsworthy. And remarkable. What do you do that's really interesting? Social media thrives on, and rewards, the different - the thing that is new. Same-ness - not so much.

Position for both business and rankings :)

  • Over 100 training modules, covering topics like: keyword research, link building, site architecture, website monetization, pay per click ads, tracking results, and more.
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We love our customers, but more importantly

Our customers love us!

SEO Competitive Intelligence Strategy

Jun 18th
posted in

It's bad enough having to compete with Google's engineers.

But to win the search game, you need to out-compete your competition, too!

Back in the dark, distant past - around the turn of the century - there was an "us" vs "them" mentality in search. "Us" being webmasters, and "them" being search engines.

Back then, in those simple times, in-the-know webmasters gathered in dark forums to discuss and share cunning strategies to crack the algorithms. There was a time when the postings of the secretive GoogleGuy were a big deal. Imagine - a search engine rep actually fraternizing with the enemy! How strange was that!

Times have changed.

These days, webmasters are more likely to work with the search engines, in the form of Adwords and Adsense. GoogleGuy is now the non-mysterious Matt Cutts, who helpfully announces indexing changes before they happen, even if he is still rather vague on detail.

Unfortunately, the collective "us" - webmasters - do not share the same level of camaraderie we once did. As search marketing is now above radar, competition levels have become fierce.

It's more dog eat dog.

Winning The Search War Against Your Competitors

Once we've figured out what Google wants, or we think we know what Google wants, we then need to out-compete everyone else who thinks they've figured it out, too.

Typically, webmasters reverse-engineer competing sites. Who is linking to them? What pages are linked? How old are the links? What keyword terms are they targeting? What are their most popular keywords? What Adwords are they running? What meta keyword tags are they using"? ;)

Good questions - apart from the last one, obviously - and a legitimate strategy for emulating high ranking sites. Tools like SEMRush provide a valuable insight into what our competitors are doing. BTW: Not pimping, I've been using SEMRush a lot recently, and I think it's a great tool :)

However, there's more to it. We also need to look at some other, non-technical factors that reveal something much more lucrative and interesting.

Competitive Analysis

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

The goal of a competitor analysis is to develop a profile of the nature of strategy changes each competitor might make, each competitor's possible response to the range of likely strategic moves other firms could make, and each competitor's likely reaction to industry changes and environmental shifts that might take place. Competitive intelligence should have a single-minded objective -- to develop the strategies and tactics necessary to transfer market share profitably and consistently from specific competitors to the company.

The essential question underlying competitive analysis is this: "why do some web businesses do a lot better than others?"

In terms of search, we not only need to look at the technical aspects of the sites positioned above us, but we also need to analyse the markets in which they exist, what our competitors goals are, their pricing and products, and even obscure details, such as who they are hiring and firing, and why.

As you can see, it's not just about getting ranked higher for a certain keyword term. It's about getting ranked higher in terms of overall business performance. It's about seeing what market they capture, and where that market is heading in the future. Once you've figured out that, you might be able to discover new keyword streams that your competitors have missed, and may never think of.

Ok, so how?

How To Undertake Competitive Analysis

It would be nice if you could call up your competitors and ask them exactly what they're doing, and where they are heading. But we all know that's not going to happen.

We have to do a little investigative digging.

The problem is we don't want to do too much digging, as it is time consuming and can be expensive. Thankfully, a lot of the answers we need are sitting right in front of us.

Ask these questions:

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

The nature of the competition is the overall market, and market forces. Take a look at Google Trends, trendwatching sites and other market research tools to figure out where their market is now, and where it heading. Does the market require significant resources? Why are these competitors in these markets? What related markets have they avoided, and why?

A concrete example. A few years ago, many SEOs competed as service agencies. Market trends showed that a lot of SEO was moving in-house, particularly at the top end. As SEO moved in-house, demand rose for training. A lot of SEOs are now engaged in training.

Ask yourself where your market will be in five years time.

Where does the competitor compete?For example, are they limited to a certain geography? Culture? Language? Do they have an offline presence?

Who does the competitor compete against? Make a list of the, say, top ten competitors in a niche. Compare and contrast their approaches and offerings. Compare their use of language and their relative place in the market. Who is entrenched? Who is up-and-coming? Who has the most market share, and why? Can you grab some of this share?

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

Whilst we could go into great depth, the value of even a basic competitive analysis is considerable.

By doing so, we can adjust our own offering, like altering price and service levels or by targeting a specific niche. We may slice a new niche in order to avoid direct competition with a highly resourced, entrenched market leader. We might make a list of all the things we need to do to match and overtake that fast rising new challenger. We then position against keywords aligned with the competitive realities we face.

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

How To Combine Brand & SEO

Jun 16th
posted in

In 2008, Eric Schmidt let slip that Google would use brands as a signal to clean up the "internet cesspool.

SEOs ears twitched.

Quoted by CNET at the time:

Web crawlers aren't particularly good at making judgments about the truthiness of digital matter, and the wisdom of the crowd can't keep up with the river of data streaming online. Schmidt gave the magazine publishers hope for their future. Brands, he said, are the way to rise above the cesspool...

Schmidt was talking to magazine executives who were concerned about competition they faced from low-cost publishers, like you and me :)

Whilst we can't know exactly what aspects Google's algorithms will reward, it's not difficult to see brand factors becoming increasingly influential in search results, both directly and indirectly. Schmidt may be talking about a level of authority that the brand possesses, so is therefore trusted as an "editor", but there may be something else going on, too.

It might also be a question of clear subject/topic focus.

Establish A Brand

If your site has a very clear focus, in terms of brand identity, a number of search and social media benefits naturally follow. On-topic linking, context, and more. I'll discuss this shortly.

A brand is more than a name, graphic or logo. A brand is everything you do, from the way your position yourself in the market, to how you answer your emails. Brand is the total sum experience you offer. It's also a collection of keyword terms people naturally associate with you and your site.

Whilst it is expensive to create a national or international brand, you can create well-known brands in niches. Consider SEOBook, Webmasterworld.com and SEOMoz. Those brand identities are clear, and I'm sure that a number of unique qualities for each brand springs to mind when those names are mentioned.

Ways To Establish A Brand

Philip Kotler, Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, identified the steps to developing a brand. Amongst those steps were:

  • Develop The Value Proposition
  • Choose A Broad Positioning For The Product

This sounds like marketing guff, but what does it mean in practice?

The Value Proposition

No one can be good at everything - there isn't enough time and resources - so what is the one thing you are really good at? Is this a value people are willing to pay for?

Broad Positioning

Kotler identifies three alternatives:

  • the product differentiator
  • the low cost leader
  • the nicher

Which one are you?

It's possible that a business can be all three, but such generalist businesses tend to be outgunned by businesses that are superior in one way. For example, Versace *could* do cheap items, but it would compromise their focus and confuse their brand identity, which equates to luxury.

Here's how to translate these brand ideas into an SEO advantage.

The value proposition is based on the demand you identity. For example, if a business owner found keyword demand for the phrase "SEO services in Los Angeles", then the value proposition is:

  • A locally focused SEO service provider

The business owner would be suited to providing "SEO services in Los Angeles", presumably by virtue of their location, contacts, focus and experience.

The broad positioning would be "niche". A catchphrase/byline may emphasize regionality, locality and accessibility for clients located in Los Angeles. The terminology used in the copy should reflect this niche approach - again, use words and phrases associated with both the service and the locality. When people link to such a site, they would naturally use terms that reflect locaility, because it's an intrinsic part of the brand identity the owner has established. When people talk about this business on Twitter/Facebook etc, they will hopefully use the terms consistent with the brand identity. Whenever people talk about your site in a certain way, Google will surely follow.

All the ducks are lined up. Business focus, keyword text, link text and the frame of reference in which people can talk about the business. Simple, right? But how many sites lack this type of focus, and thus miss out on keyword associations?

Brand can also be about personality. Danny Sullivan may know a lot about general tech, but to most people, Danny is "the search guy". He gets keyword-rich links, without having to ask. Aaron is "the SEOBook guy". It's hard to not link to Aaron without using the term SEO. Whenever people talk about them, people will naturally use search terminology in the same breath - in their keyword copy, link text and so on, which all flows through into SEO advantages. This benefits flows from having a tight brand identity.

The alternative is to be all things to all people, and this doesn't work so well in 2010, either online or off. There's just too much noise.

Building a brand is about building a a clear and established identity, and in terms of SEO, it's about being associated with a specific list of keyword terms relating to that identity.

Could you sum up your brand identity as a list of keyword terms?

How To Price

Jun 13th
posted in

Ever wondered how to price your SEO services? Your products? Have you set your prices at a point where you can get the best possible returns?

Pricing seems simple, but there's a bit of an art to getting it right.

In this article we'll take a look at different ways to price, a few strategies to use, and why you might want to avoid charging everyone the same price.

Why Pricing Strategy Matters

Obviously, if we get our pricing wrong, we'll miss out on business.

In order to increase profits, we could devise new services and products. However, by adjusting our existing pricing strategy on goods or services we already provide, we can squeeze out extra revenue with little effort.

To get greater returns from pricing, companies typically find ways to charge different prices to different customers.

Cost Plus Pricing

Cost-plus pricing is a common pricing method. Pricing of a good or service is determined by working out the total production cost, then add a profit margin. There's nothing wrong with this method - cost-plus pricing is widely used - however it does present a few problems.

One problem is that cost-plus pricing doesn't take into account the role of competitors. If we offer a SEO service at $15,000, arrived at by the cost-plus method, but our competitors offer the same service for $10,000 then our pricing clearly won't work. We must price in accordance with the market.

Cost-plus pricing doesn't take into account fluctuating demand. If demand for your products/services suddenly goes through the roof - say because you've been interviewed on nationwide television - they become scarce, and price should rise to reflect this scarcity.

Another problem is that it doesn't take value, as perceived by the customer, into account.

Imagine that you've created a widget that enables a machine to work at twice the output it did before. The value to the customer is considerable, as they can now double their output with little extra investment. The total cost of building the widget may be low. Cost-plus pricing would typically underprice such a widget. Value based pricing would charge in line with the total value it creates for the customer i.e. the increased value of their output.

In terms of SEO, are you charging enough for your services if you charge a few thousand dollars, whilst your clients make millions? Thinking of pricing in terms of value provided to your customer is a key to increasing profits.

Let's look at a method to accurately calculate a price for your goods or services.

Pricing Calculator

In the The Art Of Pricing, you can find the following method for setting prices.

Step One: Price & Availability Of Substitutes

Are there any substitutes for your product?
If so, how are they priced?

Step 2: Characteristics Relative to Competitors

What features do you offer that your competitors do not, and vice versa?
Do you customers value these features enough to pay extra for them?
Do customers value other characteristics, such as brand, established service levels, reputation, locality etc?

Step 3: Income

Can your customers afford your prices?
Are they less able to afford your prices than they once were?
Are there times of the year they can afford it, and other times where their purchasing power is constrained?

Step 4. Price/Strength Of Demand For Related Products

What are the associated overheads of owning your product? For example, if you sold cars, there are other costs involved that make up the total cost of ownership, including running costs, insurance and maintenance.

Step 5 - Market Environment

Has your product suddenly become high profile?
Has demand increased/decreased considerably in a short period of time?

This type of approach takes into account a number of variables when setting price, namely affordability, value, market conditions, and competition.

Some Issues With Value Pricing

Pricing, without taking into account overall business strategy, is a mistake.

For example, say there is a natural disaster where people lose their homes. A hotel may jack up the rates to ridiculous levels because it knows demand will surge, however the long-term value of the brand may be damaged if the hotel gets a reputation for price gouging.

Some companies may want to price at a level that gains them clients, but not revenue. For example, in order to build a reputation in the market, new SEO agencies sometimes provide services at a discount, or free, in order to get a few big name clients on their books.

Pricing Tricks

Let's take a look at a few common pricing methods in practical terms.

The Law Of Three: If you go into a shop to buy a washing machine, you'll likely be faced with a range of models. Nothing odd about this, of course. The shop is trying to cover all bases.

However, there is often something more subtle going on. Most people will buy middle of the range. The middle of the range feels "safest". So, a shop will often have a ludicrously expensive model, and a very cheap model. The actual model they want to sell you is the priced in the middle of those two extremes. If the shop didn't offer a ridiculously expensive model as a basis for comparison, the middle option becomes the expensive option, and you're more likely to set your sights lower.

When you offer SEO services, try doing the same. Offer a bells and whilstles version that is highly priced, a mid option, and a cheap option. Typically, your customers will select the middle option. If you only offer two options, people typically choose the cheapest.

Auctions: Perhaps not applicable to SEO, but if you're selling products, the auction system can be a great way to achieve better prices. Entire books have been written about the psychological effects of auctions, but it all boils down to the fact that people place different values on products based on their own needs. Those who want the product the most, pay the most.

Versioning - Offer slightly different versions of the same thing. See Apple and their iPad pricing. The cost of production of each model is probably near identical across the range, but by offering different versions, they can figure out who is prepared to pay more.

Versioning can often be more extreme when setting a wide price range. Conferences tend to offer coupons off retail price for early attendees, but so long as the full price has been seen publicly by some folks, this lends a perception of value that can be used in subsequent marketing & packaging. Some companies might run an in-person conference which charges thousands of dollars, and then afterwards, sell you a download version of it for a few hundred dollars, all the while anchoring on the "fact" that you just saved $1,000+ with your purchase. The "crucial" networking & intimacy benefits which were used to promote the in-person event soon disappear and the concepts of value and convenience (instant download, no travel required, etc.) are brought to the fore.

Segmented Pricing - Perhaps your buyers can't pay the entire cost up front, but they can buy using other arrangements, like a monthly fee. Some clients might prefer bundle offers where everything is done for them, whilst others want to mix and match parts of your service. Offer different options so your client can fit their budget to your offering.

Differential Pricing - Offering coupons can grab those buyers who are very price sensitive, or looking to buy only if they perceive a genuine bargain. Your other customers won't bother with coupons, so you can successfully run two different pricing strategies, one discount and one full price, by using coupons.

Markdowns - Obvious, but powerful. You advertise the usual price, but a line through it, and offer it at a reduced price. What's not so obvious is when markdowns should be used. Markdowns don't work so well on luxury items, as this can compromise their exclusivity value. Not much point owning a high-end garment is everyone has one.

Notice that luxury items either don't display their price, or, if they do, it's typically stated in rounded figures i.e. $1500. Budget items price in dollars and cents i.e. $39.95 or slightly under the next increment i.e. $99 as opposed to $100. The format of the price signals exclusivity, or lack thereof.

But Is This Fair?

Offering one price to one group, and another price to others may seem unfair. This is something you'll need to weigh up for yourself.

However, keep in mind that if the differing price points reflect different levels of value, then the customer is deciding what they value most. If they want the full service, they should expect to pay full-service prices. If they want the lowest price, they may be prepared to wait or sacrifice some features. The customer decides what they value, and votes with their cash.

And they can always say "no" :)

Are Content Mills the Future of Online Publishing? What Comes Next?

Apr 7th

Aaron's discussed content mills in his interview with Tedster yesterday.

What is a content mill?

A content mill is a site that publishes cheap content. The content is either user-contributed, paid, or a mix of the two. The term content mill is obviously pejorative, the implication being that the content is only published to pump content into search engines, and is typically of low value in terms of quality.

The problem is that some sites that publish cheap content may well provide value, but it depends who is reading it. For example, a forum might be considered a content mill, as it contains cheap, user-generated content of little value to a disinterested visitor, or a forum might be a valuable, regularly updated resource provided by a community of enthusiasts!

Depends who you ask.

As Aaron says, content mills are all the rage in 2010. Let's take a closer look.

Why Are SEOs Interested In Content Mills?

This idea is nothing new. It's actually white-hat SEO strategy, and has been used for years.

  • Research keywords
  • Write content about those keywords
  • Publish content and attempt to rank that content in search engine results
  • Repeat

If you can publish a page at a lower cost than your advertising return, then you simply repeat the process over and over, and you're golden. Think Adsense, affiliate, and similar means to monetize pages. Take a look at Demand Media.

The Problem With Content Mills

One of the problems with content mills is that in an attempt to drive the production cost of content below the predicted return, some site owners are producing garbage content, usually by facilitating free contributions from users.

At the low end, Q&A sites proliferate wherein people ask questions and a community of people with opinions, informed or otherwise, provide their two cents worth. Unfortunately, many of the answers are worth somewhat less than two cents, resulting in pages of little or no value to an end reader. I'm sure you've seen such pages, as such pages often rank well in search engines if they are published on a domain with sufficient authority.

Some sites, like Mahalo, not only automate their page creation, but the use that automated page to generate automate related question pages as well. The rabbit hole has no bottom!

At the other end of the spectrum, we have sites that publish higher-cost, well researched content sourced from paid writers. A traditional publishing model, in other words. Generally speaking, such pages are of higher value to end user, but the problem is that the search engines can't appear to tell the difference between these pages and the junk opinion pages. If the content mill has sufficient authority, then the junk gets promoted.

And there are many examples in between, of course.

As Tedster mentioned, "the problem here is that every provider of freelance content is NOT providing junk - though some are. As far as I know, there is no current semantic processing that can sort out the two. It's tough to see how this could be quickly and effectively reined in, at least not by algorithm. I assume that this kind of empty filler content is not very useful for visitors — it certainly isn't for me. So I also assume it must be on Google's radar.".

The Future Of Content Mills

I think Tedster is right - such sites will surely appear on Google's radar, because junk, low value content doesn't help their end users.

It must be a difficult problem to solve, else Google would have done so by now, but I think it's reasonable to assume Google will try to relegate the lowest of the low-value content sites at some point. If you are following a content mill strategy, or considering starting one, it's reasonable to prepare for such an eventuality.

The future, I suspect, is not to be a content mill, in the pejorative sense of the word. Aim for quality.

Arbitrary definitions of quality are difficult enough, as we've discussed above. Objective measurement is impossible, because what is relevant to one person may be irrelevant to the next. The field of IQ (information quality) may provide us some clues regarding Google's approach. IQ is a form of research in systems information management that deals specifically with information quality.

Here are some of the metrics they use:

  • Authority- Authority refers to the expertise or recognized official status of a source. Consider the reputation of the author and publisher. When working with legal or government information, consider whether the source is the official provider of the information.
  • Scope of coverage - Scope of coverage refers to the extent to which a source explores a topic. Consider time periods, geography or jurisdiction and coverage of related or narrower topics.
  • Composition and Organization- Composition and Organization has to do with the ability of the information source to present it’s particular message in a coherent, logically sequential manner.
  • Objectivity - Objectivity is the bias or opinion expressed when a writer interprets or analyze facts. Consider the use of persuasive language, the source’s presentation of other viewpoints, it’s reason for providing the information and advertising.
  • Validity - Validity of some information has to do with the degree of obvious truthfulness which the information carries
  • Uniqueness - As much as ‘uniqueness’ of a given piece of information is intuitive in meaning, it also significantly implies not only the originating point of the information but also the manner in which it is presented and thus the perception which it conjures. The essence of any piece of information we process consists to a large extent of those two elements.
  • Timeliness - Timeliness refers to information that is current at the time of publication. Consider publication, creation and revision dates.
  • Reproducibility

Any of this sound familiar? It should, as the search landscape is rife with this terminology. This is not to say Google look at all these aspects, but they have used similar concepts, starting with PageRank.

As conventional SEO wisdom goes, Google may have tried to solve the relevancy problem partly by focusing on authority, on the premise that a trusted authority must publish trusted content, so the pages of a domain with a high degree of authority receive a boost over those with lower authority levels. But this situation may not last, as some trusted sources, in terms of having authority, do, at times, publish auto-gen garbage content. Google may well start looking at composition metrics, if they aren't doing so already.

This is speculation, of course.

I think a good rule of thumb, for the time being, should be "will this page pass human inspection?". If it looks like junk to a human reviewer in terms of organization, and reads like junk in terms of composition, it probably is junk, and Google will likely feed such information back into their algorithms. Check out Google's Quality Rater Document from 2007 which should give you a feel for Google's editorial policy.

Facebook More Popular Than Google: So?

Mar 22nd

According to Hitwise, Facebook just became more popular than Google Search.

become the most visited website for the week. Facebook.com recently reached the #1 ranking on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day as well as the weekend of March 6th and 7th. The market share of visits to Facebook.com increased 185% last week as compared to the same week in 2009, while visits to Google.com increased 9% during the same time frame. Together Facebook.com and Google.com accounted for 14% of all US Internet visits last week

Not sure of HitWises methodology - why aren't they comparing all Google's web functions, including Maps and Mail? - but good on Facebook! For a site that didn't exist in 2003, that is quite some achievement.

What does this mean for the future of search marketing?

Not much.

Given the lock-in for return visits, it's unsurprising that Facebook might receive more visits than a search engine. However, the most important aspect of different channels, as far as a web marketer is concerned, is: does the traffic convert to cash at some point?

Measure Success

Social Media Marketing, like SEO, is a tatic. However, if the tactic don't translate into more business, then it's a waste of time. Whatever channel you use, it is important to establish KPIs - key performance indicators - that measure the effectiveness of your tactics, and directly relate to the success of you business.

For example, one of the KPIs often mentioned in SMM is volume metrics, such as number of followers, subscribers etc. If we were to relate this metric back to our business objectives, we'd ask how does having a higher number of followers, or people claiming to be followers, result in more business? How many of those followers are really engaging with you? Or are they, literally, just making up the numbers?

I've seen social media companies fudge this aspect. Some play around with the term ROI, changing the "I" from "investment" to "influence", or to "interest", and use the number of followers as evidence of the level of interest in a clients services or brand.

The bottom line is the golden KPI. It can become blurred in bigger organizations, but for the little guy, it is crucial.

Volume Metrics Can Be Deceiving

Search marketers know that the volume game can be an illusion when it comes to making money.

"Jokes" may be a very popular keyword term, but it's not making people any money because there is no commercial intent. "Second mortgages" is not a particularly popular term in terms of volume, but is lucrative as it has clear commercial intent. A high position for second mortgages in search rankings will make you money.

Conversely, how difficult would it be to get buzz around the term "second mortgages" via social media? Sure, with some inventive twisting and disguising of the true message it could be done, but really, it's pushing water uphill. The social environment isn't really suited to such a message.

Choose The Right Environment

The two channels are like apples and oranges.

Different environments work for different messages. Social media is great for generating awareness, getting people talking, and when integrated with an SEO strategy can be a great way of getting links. Primarily, it's a brand strategy. However, because it is a social environment, there is less tolerance of overt commercial activity that in direct channels.

Typical social media measurements include:

  • Business outcomes - can you link the campaign to specific interactions, such as sales?
  • Influencer Reach - how many influencers picked up on your message and spread it?
  • Audience Reach - how many visitors saw your message? Link this metric to...
  • Engagement - how many of those people who saw you message contacted you, or took a desired action?

Conversely, SEO isn't much use for building brand awareness or encouraging people to talk about your message. The environment is similar to direct marketing. It is well suited to direct response and commercial activity, as the intent of the user can be determined, and if that intent is commercial, then people welcome commercial messages.

What Is Your Business

Hanging out and being cool on Facebook isn't a business :)

Business on the web typically falls into one of nine groups. Which is yours?

  • Brokerage - bringing buyers and sellers together
  • Advertising - displaying/selling advertising
  • Infomediary - run programs such as ad networks
  • Merchant - sell stuff
  • Manufacturer (Direct) - make and sell stuff
  • Affiliate - sell other peoples stuff and take a commission
  • Community - leverage your community to sell something else
  • Subscription - sell content/training on an on-going basis
  • Utility - pay as you go usage

Decide which business you are in. When deciding on marketing and advertising tactics, ask yourself which environment is best suited to developing your business, then develop KPIs that support that business. You key KPI should be the bottom line - either this activity returns more money than you spend, or it doesn't.

Crafting SEO Landing Pages

Mar 12th
posted in

The landing page, in terms of SEO, went out of fashion.

Landing pages, which tended to be mass-generated, near identical pages pointing to one money page, became a target for the search engine spam filters.

However, the type of landing page we should take a closer look at is the type of landing page used in PPC - a page carefully crafted to lead a visitor to desired action. SEOs can benefit from applying the same techniques used for creating effective PPC landing pages to their organic pages. After all, we all want visitors to arrive at our pages, and take a desired action.

All Search Is About Connecting With People

Our pages may rank well, but if the visitor doesn't do something that ultimately leads to more money in our pockets, our sites won't last long.

In the past, ranking well has led to a pre-occupation with factors like keyword density i.e. repeating keyword phrases often.

However, the search engine algorithm's are no longer quite so stupid. The need to slavishly repeat keyword phrases in order to rank pales in comparison to other factors. It's no longer necessary to forsake good copy writing in order to please machine algorithms.

To make our rankings work for us, we must connect with people. This means our pages must talk their language and focus on solving their problems.

A fail in SEO is not missing out on the #1 ranking. A fail in SEO is a visitor clicking back. Do everything to avoid the back click.

Talking People's Language

People couldn't care less about you or your company.

People care about themselves.

Take a look at your pages. Do they talk about you, or do they talk about your audience? For a page to work well, it must connect with your audience, and the easiest way to do this is to talk about their wants and desires. If a page doesn't grab a visitors attention, they won't persevere, they will click back. What's a #1 ranking worth if visitors click back?

Here are a few guidelines on how to grab a visitors attention:

Title Tag Text Should Match Your First Headline Or if not matching the phrase exactly, it should be close to it in terms of topic. This reassures to the searcher they are in the right place.

A Search Is Invariably A Question Keyword terms often aren't phrased as questions, but they are all questions. When people type "buy DVD online", they're really saying "where can I buy a DVD online". Try to determine searcher intent. Decide what the visitors question is, repeat it, then answer it.

Create A Clear Call To Action - what is it you want the searcher to do next? Sign-up? Buy something? Click on Adsense? Make that action clear and obvious.

People Scan - Use big headings. Often. If you're vague about visitor intent, you can use a number of different headlines, or images, that grab people's attention in case your lead hook fails.

Use The Word "You" A Lot - it's all about them. Their problems, their sense of self, their language, their wants and needs. Relegate all the stuff about you, unless they specifically ask for it, or you're using testimonials.

Every Page On Your Site Is A Landing Page

Every page on your site has potential to pull in visitors.

Even if a page only receives one visit a month, it's still a landing page. Given that SEO strategy involves building a lot of content, it's easy to think of "junk" pages low down in your domain structure as unimportant.

However, if people land on those pages, then that's half the battle won. Those pages will be winners if they lead people to the pages you want them to see. Therefore, every page on your site should contain a clear call to action - leading visitors to the one thing you want people to do.

The Difference Between SEO Landing Pages & PPC Landing Pages

In PPC, the page must be tightly controlled, stay on message and lead a visitor to desired action. Failure to do so means blowing through money.

With SEO, we have more leeway. We can include a variety of text content on pages, as it increases the likelihood of catching long tail phrases. This casts a wider net, and at negligible cost. However, we still need to structure the page well enough so people a) won't click back and b) will take the desired action.

It's a good idea to structure a page so - rather obviously - the most important stuff comes first. Make the call to action, wherever it is placed, clear. Relegate superfluous text, which targets long tail variations, below the fold and/or into side links.

Most likely, a few pages on your domain will be doing the gruntwork. Most of your visitors will come in on your home page, or a small collection of well linked pages on your site. Pay careful attention to these pages. They should be as crafted as tightly as a PPC landing page in terms of language and call to action.

Test these pages. Are they converting? What is the abandonment rate? Whilst it can take a while to test and alter SEO pages, it's worth doing, as incremental gains on a few pages can lead to huge changes when rolled out over an entire site.

What happens if you make a heading bigger? Paragraphs shorter? Reposition page elements? Change the language and pitch? You can also test these variables using a short PPC campaign, of course, and then roll your findings into your SEO strategy. Once you've got a winning formula, you can roll it out to every page (landing) page you create.

Learning SEO: It Can Get Noisy

Mar 5th
posted in

There is obviously no shortage of information on SEO.

But thanks for turning up here :)

The sheer avalanche of SEO information can be overwhelming, for beginners and experts alike. Who do you know who to listen to? What information do you need to know, and what information is filler?

Why should you even listen to SEOBook?

1. Most Information Published On SEO Is Filler

You can learn 80% of what you need to know about SEO pretty quickly. You don't need the additional 20% in order to achieve, unless you're a masochist - otherwise known as an SEO professional :)

Most of the information you'll come across on the topic of SEO is written by, and for, a professional/enthusiast crowd. There is a massive echo chamber of opinion, constantly replenished, produced using publishing tools based on the notion of communicating something, often.

It can result in a lot of noise, and not much in the way of signal, especially when you're learning. If you're starting out, and want to focus on learning SEO, it's a good idea to tune the industry chatter out. It's more likely to confuse than help in the early stages.

2. Understand The Business Of Search

Search engines aren't your friend. At best, they tolerate SEO, but only when it aligns with company goals.

The search engines have a business to run, and their goals aren't the same as yours. Whilst search engine reps often come across as helpful and friendly, because they typically are helpful and friendly people, keep in mind that what they are saying serves their company first and foremost. Any advice they give you is, quite rightly, designed to further company goals.

That's their job.

Chances are, your goals and the search engines goals will be aligned in many areas, but take their advice with a grain of salt. They don't care if your site succeeds or not, as there are plenty of other sites to index.

Google KidSense

3. Define Goals

Before you undertake SEO, define your website goals. Do you want to make more money? Get more attention? Get more leads?

The purpose of SEO is to get your site seen in the search engines. Your aim is to attract the visitors that help you achieve your goals. A high ranking for a certain keyword won't necessarily help you achieve your goals unless your site matches visitor intent.

Think about the web from a visitors point of view. What do they want to find? What content will they engage with? What will they spend their money on?

There's little point ranking well if the content you provide doesn't make you money and/or gain audience. It's getting increasingly difficult to rank pages that aren't closely aligned with the searchers intent. So, the more you understand your audience, and the more content that matches their intent, the more you'll get out of SEO.

4. Get A Credible, Well Organized Course

Like SEOBook's course for example ;)

This isn't a sales pitch. There are a number of great courses out there. Choose one or two that suit your budget and objectives, and dive in. Chances are, you will need to shell out some money, but the cost of a decent, well structured course is nothing compared to the wasted effort spent heading in the wrong direction.

In a nutshell, SEO is about about publishing content people want to engage with, and linking. You need to create content that matches visitor intent, you need to be crawlable, and you need to have inbound links. Good SEO courses will have this message at their core.

Did I mention links enough?

5. Connect With People

It's natural to want the secret sauce - those secret dark techniques that result in number one rankings.

Whilst this was characteristic of SEO years ago, it's less true now. These days, SEO is more a holistic, strategic process aimed at connecting with people, as opposed to a dark, technical art aimed at tricking machines.

Focus on making connections with people. That means understanding what people want. You can do this by undertaking basic market research, using the search engines themselves!

6. Test

Don't listen to me. Well, maybe just a bit. Don't listen to the repeaters in forums.

Test and measure for yourself. It's one of the best SEO courses you can do. It's ongoing, and it's free.

Start with a simple, focused well constructed site. What is a well constructed site in terms of SEO?

With every change you make, every new SEO strategy you adopt, test the results. Did the change help you achieve your website goals? Did you get more traffic? Better quality traffic? If your rankings improved, did this result in more/better traffic? It can be difficult to isolate variables at the best of times, but there is no chance of doing so if you try too many techniques all at once.

Make changes one step at a time. Test and measure repeat. Become at expert at measuring SEO against your goals.

Build up your own private knowledge base of SEO in your niche. Your niche may require different strategies to other niches, which is why well-meaning advice in forums and on blogs can hinder you. You'll also become a better judge of who is offering you good advice, and who is just repeating something they heard.

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