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" :)

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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.

SEO Consulting: How To Construct Great Proposals

Mar 1st

Like in any consulting field, SEO is rife with competition. There is only one way to win in such an environment, and that is to set yourself apart from the crowd.

Not in a bad way, of course :)

Here are some ideas on how to construct winning proposals.

Size Isn't Everything, But It Does Count

Large proposals take a long time to do. On the upside, large proposals can look impressive, simply by virtue of their size. Clients often like to see large proposals, but they don't tend to read them.

Proposals can be a tricky balance to get right. No matter how brilliant your solution, most clients will think twice about you if you present it on a single sheet, especially if they have no prior connection with you, or aren't meeting you face-to-face. A proposal of a certain size can appear more authoritative.

What is the ideal size?

One good way of presenting a proposal is to break it into three parts. The first part is a summary, including your client-specific solution and costs. Length can vary of course, but keep it succinct. No fat.

The second part is a case study or two. Again, keep them succinct. It's highly likely that the client won't actually read beyond this point.

Finally, add background information about you, your company, your history and the SEO business, all of which should be aimed at supporting the summary page and case studies. This final part can be generic and doesn't need to be re-written for each client. Clients may only flip through this section, but tend to find it reassuring that it exists.

Contrast this approach with a proposal that is threadbare. It may be irrational, but thin proposals can feel incomplete.

Give Something Of Value Away

In your summary pages, share real information.

Share the type of information that is valuable and the sort of you'd usually charge for providing. Clients are likely to assume that if the SEO is giving a few morsels of valuable information away in the proposal, then even more valuable information will be forthcoming if they sign you. Demonstrate your mastery. If all you do is provide generic information at this point, then your proposal is less likely to stand out.

Some potential clients, of course, may pick your brain and then implement your solutions themselves. Whilst this can happen, it's unlikely. The client already knows they want SEO by the time they're at the proposal stage, and if they could have done this work themselves, they probably would have done so already.

Secondly, you can outline solutions that involve time cost to achieve. Imply that this work must be undertaken by someone who knows what they are doing. Outline the risks of not doing this work properly. The more real work, and risk, there is invlolved in implementation, the less likely a client will be willing to go the do-it-yourself route.

As we all know, there is a lot of real work involved in SEO. Make sure the client is left in no doubt on that aspect.

It's Not About You

Focus on the clients needs.

Nothing loses a potential client faster than an SEO who talks entirely about themselves and their industry. Clients don't care. Clients care about their problems and their industry. In the summary pages, restate the clients problem and propose your specific solutions. Outline time frame and costs.

This exercise is useful for a number of reasons, the main one being that you, or the client, may not know what the actual problem is!

What a client says may not be what they mean. For example, the client may say they want SEO because they're heard that's a great way to get traffic quickly. They may not say it in these words, of course. They may say they want SEO, and they want it asap.

However, if the SEO has asked enough questions, aimed at identifying the problem, the SEO may unearth unstated problems. In this case, a client wants to increase traffic quickly. A solution to such a problem might be a combination of SEO and PCC. The PPC delivers immediate traffic while the SEO strategy might take some time.

Formulate questions aimed at identifying the clients actual, as opposed to stated, problem. They may be quite different. The result is that your solution will be a good fit, which will lead to less frustration, on both sides, further down the line.

You also might discover at this point that the clients expectations are ridiculous, and you'd be better off looking for a more reasonable client. For example, I was once pitching to a large advertising company. Their clients had been asking for SEO, so all they knew is they "needed some SEO".

Great.

Problem was, as I discovered in the meeting, was that they knew nothing about the need to alter sites or web publishing approach. They had told clients they could deliver SEO as a bolt-on-service, a wave of the magic wand that miraculously delivered rankings and free traffic for life to brochure sites.

I didn't go any further with them.

Offer Guarantees (Assurance)

Guarantees are a contentious issue in SEO circles.

Many SEOs - quite rightly - point out that no one can guarantee a ranking position, which is true, but such technical nuances may unsettle a client.

Clients tend to like assurance, and a guarantee can help provide this. So rather than dismissing guarantees, look at aspects you can guarantee.

A fiend of mine, in a different industry, offers a guarantee that goes along the lines of "if you don't feel satisfied after our strategy meetings with you, even after you sign the contract, you can walk away, no questions asked, and no charge.".

That sounds like something substantial, but actually he is just restating consumer law in the country where he lives. The law is that a service must be fit for the purpose the client intended, and if it isn't, the client has a case against the provider for non-suitability of service.

My friend realized he could never afford to contest such cases, and would likely lose, as the consumer law favored the buyer. All an aggrieved client really had to do to win such a case was say the service wasn't fit for their purposes.

He was dealing with firms with deep pockets, and legal action defending against such firms would come at high cost, even if he was in the right, so he decided to restate a consumer right the client actually already had, combined with an economic reality - his inability to engage in costly legal battles - into a form of a reassuring guarantee for sales purposes.

Case Studies Are Powerful

There is no sales tool quite so powerful as a good case study. A case study is a story. People love stories. A case study is also proof of your ability.

Outline the problem. Tell your audience what the problem looked like before you started - very useful if this problem is similar to the problem the prospective client also faces - what you did to solve the problem, and the positive results of your solution.

Stories are very powerful sales tools, and a case study is a great opportunity to tell a few.

Package It Up

Consider printing and binding your proposal, and delivering it.

We receive so many emails these days that they don't make us feel very special. It doesn't feel like there is much effort gone into them. A binded proposal, on the other hand, feels substantial.

In the interests of speed, you can still send an email copy, but try doing both and seeing if you land more deals.

Charging

Don't undercharge. You'll regret it :)

How To Start A Web Business And Survive

Feb 15th
posted in

An SEOBook reader, Josephbm91, outlined a problem many of us have faced: when you're starting out, it's easy for clients to walk all over you.

So let's take a look at strategies for those starting out, be it in SEO, web design, or other small, web-based businesses. Those of you who have established web businesses, it would be great if you could share your experiences and strategies in the comments :)

Making The Start

How do you make the start? You've got a computer, an internet connection, and a few ideas. How do you get from that point to a thriving business, when you have no customer base, no money and no experience?

Yeah, it's hard.

But you'll literally work through it :)

Society Is Testing You To See If You're Serious

Ask anyone in business, sports, music or any other competitive human endeavor how they got recognized in their given field. They'll most likely tell you it didn't happen overnight. Whilst talent, luck and having the right connections play a part, the one trait common to those who succeed is persistent hard work.

In Outliers, a book about how people achieve extraordinary things, Malcolm Gladwell found that to achieve mastery in anything - be it golf, webdesign, programming, music, fashion - takes roughly the same amount of time: 10,000 hours.

Thankfully, we don't need to be masters at running a small business before we start one, else no one would ever do so. But the underlying idea is sound - persistent hard work is the key to success.

Being persistent sends a message to those around you, including potential customers, that you're serious about what your doing. If they see you often enough, doing the thing you say you do, then you'll eventually be recognized for it.

So if you feel you need to prove yourself, you're right. Society actually demands you do.

What Is Worth Getting Serious About?

Many people start businesses because they enjoying doing something. Someone who plays sport may have the desire to be paid a good living wage for playing the game she loves. Someone is good at art, so he wants to be a designer.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with this approach - having a genuine passion for something will help you get through the rough times - I'm sure you can spot the potential problem. There might be a LOT of people who have a passion for the same thing. The more people who want to do something, the more effort you need to put in in order to stand out.

In terms of sport, it's relatively straighforward. The sprinter with the fastest times gets recognized and progresses. Those sprinters with slower times either get better, or go find something else to do. In business, its a little more complicated, but the principle remains the same.

You need to stand out.

Supply And Demand

Think carefully about supply and demand. Ask yourself: is there sufficient demand for what I want to do?

Let's say you want to do web design. Is there demand? Why, yes, the demand for web design services is almost infinite. New companies start every minute, and most of them will need a web presence. Established companies who already have a web presence change their design from time to time, thus creating even more demand.

All good.

Now let's look at the supply side.

How many people want to be web designers. The answer is: quite a few. In fact, it would appear that web design demand is more than met by the supply of web designers. What happens in such situations is there is a downward pressure on prices, because those who create demand have a lot of supply to choose from.

The world is oversupplied with web designers. At least, it's oversupplied by people who call themselves web designers. There's a difference, of course, between someone who owns the tools of production and those who use those tools well to solve business problems. Owning a camera does not make someone a commercial photographer. Likewise, those with the most artistic design skills may make lousy web designers if they aren't focused on business aspects.

Recognizing the reality of the situation might may you reconsider your choice of career, and opt for an area where there is heavy demand and short supply instead.

Another way to face this problem is to differentiate. Can you do something better than other designers? You may be highly skilled in contemporary graphic design, in which case you may choose to place strong emphasis on displaying your portfolio, and target the type of clients who appreciate - and will pay for - this expertise.

You may have, or can acquire, detailed market knowledge in one particular niche - i.e. travel sites, real estate sites, etc. Clients, generally speaking, are a lot more comfortable with providers who understand their area of business. You have an advantage if you can speak their language, rather than just the self-absorbed language of design forums.

Can you focus on a geographic area? i.e. the immediate area where you live. Sometimes, people want to deal with someone local.

What is the thing you can do for which there is a market? If there are too many competitors in that market, then slice that market up until you can find a niche. Aim to be top of that niche. Then put in persistent effort working that niche in order to build reputation.

Chris Pearson gave away a number of popular free Wordpress themes on his site, created designs for popular sites (including Copyblogger & SEO Book), and then created the Thesis theme for web developers, which has since done 7 figures in sales volume. Yes Wordpress themes have become commoditized, but due to his strong marketing and continual increase in product value he was able to differentiate & build a solid business model. In his own words on starting out, Chris wrote:

Before I launched Thesis, I created a few free WordPress themes that became extremely popular. Although these themes defined the early stages of my career, they are really nothing more than visible markers of a learning process that continues today with Thesis.

Establishing Yourself

Once you've decided on an angle, you then need to establish yourself. Society wants to see how serious you are.

It is very difficult to market a business without some form of track record. But every business needs to start somewhere, and they don't start with a track record. So, the most important task for someone starting out - in any occupation - is to get one.

One way to get a track record is to treat your first few jobs as a marketing cost. This is the cost of establishing a reputation, and if you make any money at all from these first few jobs, it's a bonus. The aim is to get referrals and a portfolio of work.

Approach charities or small local business who need a web presence and offer your services for a deeply discounted rate, or for free. It's a win-win for both parties, because they may not be able to afford web design, and you need their testimonials and experience.

Be sure to make it clear that the job is being done at a discounted rate, and let them know what your usual rate it. This way, they'll perceive value, and won't be in for a shock when you ramp your prices up for any future work. Focus on building a positive relationship with these clients. If they are happy with your work, they may well refer you to others.

Once you have a track record, the risk to a future customer of hiring you is diminished. You become a known quantity, which puts you above the wanna-bes.

Is this working for free? Some might consider it that way, but it could also be seen as just another marketing expense, like advertising. Many businesses, including big, established businesses, give away products and services - in the form of loss leaders - in order to help get their foot in the door. People who train for careers pay to learn, whilst as a freelancer, you can potentially learn on the job for free. Clients can teach you a lot about your own business , especially where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

Pricing

It's important not to stay cheap or free, however.

Some think the easiest way to get business is to undercut competitors on price. This can be a self defeating strategy, especially for the sole operator, for a number of reasons:

You get cheap clients - people who seek the lowest price probably aren't placing much value on what you do. These type of clients, ironically, can also be the most demanding. They want the most for the least, and will often push you on the amount of work you deliver.

Someone else can always undercut you. There will always be a competitor who has a cost base lower than you do. From there, you're locked in a no-win race to the bottom.

If it looks cheap, it is cheap. It's human nature not to value something that is cheap, and place a lot of value on something that is expensive. In the book How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer, the author describes an experiment conducted with wine. Participants were told one bottle was cheap and one was expensive. The expensive bottle got rave reviews from tasters, and the cheap one - not so good. However, the labels were switched. The expensive wine was actually the cheap wine.

Perception counts for a lot.

So if your angle is cheap, make sure your margins are still high enough to sustain you. Only you know how much you need to survive at any given time.

Alternatively, target ruthlessly, either by offering a superior, needed product, more niche know-how, or find some other angle where there is untapped demand. Be prepared to prove your worth by providing case studies describing how you've solved people's business problems in the past.

Got any other tips for those starting out? It would be great if you can share what you know :)

Why Be Fair

Feb 10th
posted in

We've discussed in the past about how our brand is "everything we do".

As an SEO provider, business owner, or service provider, your brand is more than your logo, website and advertising. It's also what you say, what you do, how you act, and how you treat people.

Today, let's look at the benefits of using fairness as a way to add value to your brand.

The Importance Of Reciprocation

We all know about "win-win" deals.

The best deals leave enough on both sides of the deal so both parties can prosper. A deal where one party takes all and the other party gets very little isn't desirable for many reasons, one being it just isn't fair.

Rational business theory often overlooks this point. If a client "wins" by screwing you down to the very last cent, and concludes the deal, then supposedly everything should now proceed through to delivery and conclusion. But humans are emotional. The aggrieved SEO is hardly going to act like a true partner. More likely, they'll look to reciprocate the treatment they've received.

What is the cost of negative reciprocation?

We are social animals. If someone treats us well, and is fair, we feel we should treat them likewise. If someone screws us over - well - they can't expect us to give 110%. What they can likely expect is negative reciprocation, which can manifest itself in many different ways. It's not quite "revenge", but such ill-feeling can end up costing a lot more than any savings the customer made on the deal.

The same is true of your customers.

The Process Of Fairness

It is important that your dealings with customers be:

  • Fair
  • Transparent
  • Honest

If you commit to being fair, and be seen to be fair, you can still get more out of the deal than the other party - win-win deals don't need to be, and most often aren't, 50/50 - but the other party is unlikely to resent you for it if they feel the process by which the deal was arrived at was a fair one. Psychological studies have shown people often care more about how a decision was arrived at, rather than what the final decision actually was.

Fairness of the process colors people's perception of the outcome.

What Does It Mean To "Be Fair"?

Be seen to be fair in the eyes of the person you're dealing with. This can be difficult to make concrete, but if you don't have a genuine intention to be be fair, you almost certainly won't achieve it.

In practice, it means not making arbitrary decisions, listening to all parties and considering their view. It also means making making the rules transparent. A game where only one party knows the rules breeds resentment.

An outcome should be reached where each party can see each step taken, and why it was taken. People may not even like the outcome, but they are much less likely to reciprocate in a negative manner if they feel they have been treated fairly, in a fair process. A sense of fairness runs very deep in our psyche- it's tied up with ego, self-respect, status and recognition.

This attitude of fairness can run across all aspects of business, not just in deal making and sales. It also applies to customer service. If a customer highlights a problem, how do you react? Do you see it as an opportunity to build brand? Do you seek an outcome that will advantage only you, or do you aim to arrive at a fair outcome for all? I'd wager aiming for the fair outcome is the better long-term bet.

But what happens if a customer is being unfair to you?

Of course, this can and does happen. Some people will take advantage. Again, seek to make the process fair and transparent, even though they might not like the outcome you seek.

Hard But Fair

Yes, yes - this all sounds very nice, but it's a shark-fest out there! That may be so, but you can still play hard whilst also using fair process. You've heard the phrase "hard but fair". The fairness makes the "hardness" acceptable. "Hard and unfair" tends to result in lawyers. In this respect, a fair process itself can add value, rather than destroying it by incurring extra costs.

Brand And Fairness

Proctor & Gamble have an internal set of "Ten Commandments" and the very first commandment is "Do The Right Thing". Their employees must demonstrate" rectitude, integrity and fairness". Sure, all companies say that, but the companies that actually do it build stronger on-going relationships, and strong brands. Do you return to companies who you felt treat you unfairly?

Your brand incorporates relationships with all those who you deal with, and may of those people you'll deal with over and over again. Great brands aren't just about the outcomes they achieve. They are also about how the process by which they achieve those outcomes, and if that process adds emotional value, as opposed to destroying it - by being seen to be fair - then your brand becomes stronger.

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