Optimizing For Bing

Oct 8th
posted in

How are your referral stats looking? Noticed more traffic from Bing lately?

According to a Nielsen report last month, Bing is growing faster than any other search engine. It was reported Bing had 10.7% of the total search market, up 2% from the month before. Yesterdays report from Hitwise suggests Bing has since dropped to around 8.96 percent.

So, somewhere around 8-10% perhaps.

The new statistics, from internet research firm Hitwise, will make disappointing reading for Mr Ballmer, who has said he is willing to spend as much as $11bn on search. Earlier this week he told The Daily Telegraph: “We’re trying to give Google a little competition in the search business

Microsoft have struggled for along time to make a dent in Google's share of the search market, so it looks like they are beginning to make inroads, albeit slowly. Microsoft have done a ton of marketing to promote Bing. They've introduced cutting edge features like visual search and voice support.

This is not a battle Microsoft can afford to lose, and for search marketers, competition between engines can only be a good thing.

Is Your Site Optimized For Bing?

The thought of adopting different optimization strategies for different engines feels so antiquated now.

Years ago, there used to be a lot of talk about how to optimize for the different engines. Some webmasters would go so far as to serve differently optimized pages to each major engine.

In the past few years, SEO has been about all-Google, all the time, so the rule of thumb is to optimize for Google, and the rest pretty much takes care of itself.

This advice still stands.

Keeping Up With Bing

Google has Google Guy (Matt Cutts). Likewise, the Bing search team regularly reaches out to the SEO community. SEOs should bookmark the Bing Webmaster Centre announcements.

In particular:

NB: You need a Live Id to see those links.

Microsoft released a comprehensive document for Webmasters. Check out page 23 where they address SEO specifically.

Like Google Guy advice, it tends towards the general and is ultimately self serving, but interesting to be aware of, nontheless.

The Bing Difference: Why Bother?

In terms of search engine results pages, the two engines do produce different results. Here's a nifty tool for side-by-side comparisons.

Why should you be interested in Bing at all?

Even though usage is lower, the user demographic for Bing is different to that of Google. Ask search marketers and you'll get anecdotal evidence that Bing/Yahoo users don't tend to be as web savvy as Google users, use the web less often, are more likely to click on ads, and are more likely to be involved in online shopping, whilst Google appeals more to researchers, webheads and geeks. If you're engaged in web commerce, you need to be thinking about Bing.

Bing Ranking Tips

From the Bing Features For Webmasters document:

Because of this new way of thinking about search, some webmasters might initially be concerned that the shortened primary organic listing in the new Bing SERP might render their SEO efforts as less effective. Instead, Bing makes it easier to compete for broad terms because it surfaces more categories automatically, increasing the number of results on the page and generating more relevant content.

In reality, the same SEO strategies you use for Google apply to Bing.

1. Get Your On-Page SEO Right

Nail the basics.

Make sure your content is unique, use H tags for titles, use alt tags for images, use unique page titles and description meta tags, one topic per page and ensure your copy is free from spelling and gramatical errors. Like Google, you can sign up for MS Webmaster Center which will help you spot and troubleshoot problems.

2. Quality Inbound Linking

Bing appears to favour linking from pages that share a similar topic area.

Is Bing a theme-based engine? Think of a theme as a topic pyramind. A themed site would have the topic "cars at the top. The level beneath that would be makes of cars i.e. Ford, Ferrari, Lotus, then below then models, then components, etc. The theory goes that a site should be all on the same topic to rank well, and links should come from sites on the same topic. Themes used to get discussed a lot, but fell out of fashion when people realised Google didn't use themes.

Is Bing using themes? I don't think so. Like Google, the algorithms appear to be largely page based, as opposed to site based. Bing looks at the topic of the page linking to you. If the linking page is on a similar topic, the target page receives a boost. Have a play around with the title tag on the linking page. Try to ensure the title tag keyword on the linking page is the same as the keyword you're targetting on your optimized page.

3. Domain Age

Domain age seems to be an important factor in Bing - the older, the better. Like Google, Bing tries to establish authority, and domain age is one way it does this.

Got any tips for optimizing for Bing? Any patterns you've noticed, particularly in respect to how Bing differs from Google?

The Unexpected Success

Oct 2nd
posted in

Have you ever had an unexpected success?

For example, you may have targeted a keyword term you thought was highly important, yet a few obscure long term keywords brought you more business? Or the site you've put all your effort into lately isn't doing as much business as that throw-away site you've been neglecting?

I'm re-reading a great book called "Innovation & Entrepreneurship" by Peter Drucker. Drucker was a management consultant who wrote a lot about demographics, the importance of marketing and the emergence of the information society, with its necessity of lifelong learning.

Drucker discusses the "unexpected success", that thing that works, usually whilst you are pursuing something else.

Drucker gives the example of Macy's, which had the "problem" that it was selling too many appliances.

Why was this a problem?

Macy's considered themselves to be an upmarket clothing store, and clothing is where they had always put their effort. They took pride in it. Clothing defined who they were. Macy's actually wanted to slash their profitable appliance business because they thought it would affect their clothing business.

When Macy's management changed - management unclouded by the emotional investment of the past - they looked at the data, re-oriented around the unexpected success - the appliances - and Macy's business took off once again.

Why Does This Happen

Why does a carefully laid out plan, a plan you're executing well, and into which you have invested a lot of time and effort, not do so well, whilst some throwaway project is returning more?

It could be due to an underlying change in the market, or a section of the market you hadn't previously noticed is now revealing itself. Many people remain blind to such opportunities, even when, like Macys, it is staring them in the face.

We must always be on the lookout for these unexpected successes on the periphery of what we do.

The original IBM computers were scientific instruments meant for arcane academic research purposes. However, businesses started to buy computers for more mundane, everyday functions, like payroll. IBM reoriented their company around business machines, and the rest is history. Had IBM not tuned into what was working, rather than what their business plan said should be working, they probably wouldn't be here today.

The same thing happened with search. Search wasn't working as a business, even after Google was underway, until Google saw the massive opportunity presented by that much maligned, preposterous idea - pay per click - devised by Goto.com. Pay-per-click was working, in a business sense, in that it was a search function that delivered revenue. Google thought they were building a search engine. Remember the search appliance? Google reoriented and built the ultimate marketing machine instead.

How Do You Spot The Unexpected Success?

Sometimes the unexpected success isn't seen at all. Our frame of mind may render the success invisible. If we invest a lot of emotional energy into something, it can cloud our vision to new opportunity.

We need to be attuned to unexpected success. We need to look for those things on the edges. The obscure keywords where the traffic is growing quickly. Try not to second guess the market. Instead, measure what the market is actually doing. The market you were targeting might have moved. Or you may have discovered the edge of a new market no one else has seen.

The shift at Macy's was due to a shift in the underlying market. The market was segmenting. The market was no longer a socio-economic group of shoppers, it was a new, wider group of "lifestyle" shoppers. Had Macy's responded to data, rather than be blinded by their pre-conceptions, they would have exploited this opportunity sooner.

These opportunities lurk in the shadows. And can disappear just as easily.

Have you seen any examples of this happening in your work?

SEO: Where Is It Going?

Sep 27th
posted in

SEO came about soon after the advent of the web crawler. The commercial imperative was obvious - where there was web traffic, there was money to be made. Positioning a page first in the engines was pretty much a licence to print money.

Still is, of course.

Throughout the history of search and SEO, the predominant metaphor of the web has been one borrowed partly from publishing - the page - and partly from computer science - the domain. A domain contains pages. A domain is a silo. A domain has clear borders.

The Search Metaphor

Search forces quite a different metaphor on the web.

Search is a connector between a person and a page. Search subverts the domain structure because the visitor can dive in at the page level. In this respect, all pages become a part of the much bigger silo. In 2009, that silo is Google.

Search also strives to be the ultimate answer engine - the mind of God. Got a question? Google it. Google will provide the answers.

But search is not quite there yet. Search still returns pages - the user still digs through the page to find the answer.

But for how long?

The Slow Unraveling Of The Page Unit

Consider social media. Is a page the basic unit of Twitter? No, it's the sentence. How about Youtube? The video. Social networks? The person. All can be extracted, re-purposed and dis-intermediated without losing meaning.

Consider the semantic web:

Humans are capable of using the Web to carry out tasks such as finding the Finnish word for "monkey", reserving a library book, and searching for a low price for a DVD. However, acomputer cannot accomplish the same tasks without human direction because web pages are designed to be read by people, not machines. The semantic web is a vision of information that is understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing, and combining information on the web

What happens when the machine "understands" the query enough to provide a direct answer to a question, as opposed to returning a list of pages?

Black Clouds On The Content Producer Horizon, Or Opportunity?

In a recent Techcrunch interview, Eric Schmidt said something rather telling:

So I don't know how to characterize the next 10 years except to say that we'll get to the point - the long-term goal is to be able to give you one answer, which is exactly the right answer over time.

Perhaps he was quoted out of context, but that strikes me as an absurd thing to say. As if there is ever one "right" answer. Well, I guess there is if you live in some Orwellian nightmare.

More importantly, if this is where Google intend to be in ten years time, then where does this leave content producers? If Google provides "the answer", why would anyone click-thru and visit a page? Conversely, why would anyone let Google crawl their content if Google's aim is to disintermediate the producer from their content? Johnon had an excellent post on this topic.

Recently, Google released rich snippets, a feature whereby you markup you data to suit Google's display criteria.

Rich Snippets give users convenient summary information about their search results at a glance.

If the answer is "rich" enough, I guess the user doesn't even need to visit your page. Perhaps the user will get distracted by the Adwords listings, instead ;)

If Google aims to extract information and keep the visitor on Google, rather than just acting as a conduit between visitor and page, then this does not bode well for content producers.

This brings up the burning "Newspaper vs Google" argument. "How", the newspapers argue, "can we make money if Google undermines our revenue model? Ultimately, this is a question all content producers must face. Just ask those in the music industry.

Seemingly in response, Google is planning to roll out micropayments in the next year:

Google is planning to roll out a system of micropayments within the next year and hopes that newspapers will use it as they look for new ways to charge users for their content.

The question is, will micropayments and web advertising be enough to pay the bills, especially when it comes to expensive, high-risk media production, such as television and movies:

Grade’s criticisms were echoed in October by C4 chief executive Andy Duncan, who said Google had failed to invest in UK content creation. “Google takes more ad revenue out of the UK than ITV makes and it isn’t regulated. It isn’t fair [that] it’s not reinvesting that back into content and independent film production companies in the UK,” said Duncan.

Content producers are posting losses, whilst Google continues to post massive profits. What happens if content isn't worth producing anymore? What happens when revenue falls below the cost of production? Or perhaps content will still be economic, but only if production quality is sacrificed? Is it really just a case of fat media producers cutting bloated production costs?

What is Google's long term strategy as far as content producers are concerned? Besides PR fluffery, they never really say.

It's Not All Bleak

Of course, if content producers really did get disintermediated to the point where content production wasn't worth doing, Google may well collapse soon after. What would there be left to search? Wikipedia?

Where would the "answers" come from? Who would fund "answer provision"? Sufficient income must flow to the content producers, but the question still remains "how"?

And I don't really think the page is going away. The page has served humans well for thousands of years as a container of information. But if the information on pages can be aggregated in such a way that users don't need to visit the source page, where does this leave content producers? Where does this leave SEOs?

In 2009, SEO plays fall into three distinct categories.

  • Agency model: people offer services to others for a fee.
  • Affiliate model: people gather traffic and funnel it somewhere else for a performance fee.
  • Content model: people generate content and make money off advertising.

The last model is, I'm guessing, is one a lot of SEOs will pursue. Many do so now.

Check this out:

Demand Media operates based on a simple formula for success on the Web: create a ton of niche, mostly uninspired content targeted to search engines, then make it viral through social software. Demand Media has been heavily funded to carry out that mission, to the tune of $355 million. So yes, brute force - quantity of content + money/power - works more often than we'd like to think on the Web.

The aggregator wields most of the power in this relationship, unless the publisher can lock in an audience who will by-pass the aggregator.

Is Dis-intermediation Over-Rated?

On the flip-side, John Battelle argued a few years back that search dis-intermediation is overrated.

Those who fear disintermediation should in fact be afraid of irrelevance -- disintermediation is just another way of saying that you've become irrelevant to your customers. It doesn't mean there isn't a customer, or middlemen of some sort who service that customer, or that the core proposition of your business has disappeared. It just means you're in a bit of a rut, and as much as you might pine for the past, it's probably time to rethink things before it's too late.

He reasons that writers can go outside the traditional silos:

And what of the role of publisher or content creator? Increasingly, those who have the ability to create great media can get pretty far without attaching themselves to the traditional indentured servitude of a publisher, label or network. Writers, for example, are finding their own voices outside the strictures of magazines and newspaper publishers. Blogs like Boing Boing, Daily Kos and Cool Tools are drawing millions of readers each month, and their overhead is the cost of a high-speed Internet line.

However, what they're actually doing is jumping out of one silo and into another. Google is the master silo in this scenario.

So, what do you think? what is the role of SEO in the future? Will it be more about making connections, and a less about making pages? Will the page itself be subverted? Have Google gone moved beyond the idea of "organizing the world's information"?

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Micropayments: Could Google Make It Happen?

Sep 15th
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Remember how the news media wanted Google to come riding to the rescue and save them, and their failing business model?

Well, Google might have found a way.

This should be of huge interest to anyone who produces content on the web.

IF

...it comes off.

Micropayments

Google is planning to roll out a system of micropayments within the next year. Micropayments, as the name implies, are small payments - a cent or even a fraction of a cent - and the idea is that micropayments can be used to pay for accessing web content.

Google sent a paid content proposal to the Newspaper Association of America outlining their ideas. Micropayments will be an extension of Google Checkout, Google's PayPal competitor.

While currently in the early planning stages, micropayments will be a payment vehicle available to both Google and non-Google properties within the next year,” Google wrote. “The idea is to allow viable payments of a penny to several dollars by aggregating purchases across merchants and over time.”

Micropayments are not a new idea, of course. People have been suggesting micropayments will be the next big thing for quite a while now. Jakob Neilsen got it rather wrong in 1998:

I predict that most sites that are not financed through traditional product sales will move to micropayments in less than two years. Users should be willing to pay, say, one cent per Web page in return for getting quality content and an optimal user experience with less intrusive ads. Once users pay for the pages, then they get to be the site's customers, and the site will design to satisfy the users' needs and not the advertisers' needs."

Will Google be the first company to make micropayments work? It remains to be seen, but if they do, this will be the biggest game-changer on the web since PPC.

The Decline Of News

The news industry have been howling as their outdated business model falls apart. Their days of running regional oligopolies are fast coming to end, eroded by the ubiquitous web and the low cost of online publishing. The media is fueled by advertising, and as their readership fragments, the value to advertisers drops.

But what happens if 100% of a newspapers revenue came directly their readership? Micropayments may make this possible.

The big question is: who would pay for the garbage the media serves up? Why should we pay for regurgitated press releases and stories about celebrities shopping expeditions?

Micropayments could help increase the quality of news. Paid news outlets, like STRATFOR charge $349 for annual membership. How can they do this? By providing a level of analysis and research you don't get from mainstream media. Clearly some people are prepared to pay for news that isn't driven by advertisers and the lowest common denominator.

However, the subscription price is still a barrier for most. But what if micropayments, by introducing economies of scale, made it possible to get quality news, analysis and content for a few cents a week? What happens when the price is so low you barely even notice you are paying it?

The scale of the web, plus the tiny charging increments, could be a game changer. And not just for news. This opportunity applies to anyone in the web content business.

How Would This Work?

Nielsen may have got the timing wrong, but he had some good ideas about how a micro-payment system should work:

A true micropayment system would operate invisibly and simply accumulate charges on the user's monthly bill without an explicit confirmation for every click. That's exactly how electricity bills and long-distance telephone bills work. True, people wouldn't make many long-distance calls if they first had to discuss the fee with an operator (though we certainly made calls back when we had to talk to a long-distance operator and acknowledge charges for each call). In any case, telephone companies now simply add up the calls and put them all on a single bill. Intellectually, you know that it costs money to use the phone and turn on a light, but if you want to talk to somebody, you pick up the phone. And if the room is too dark, you switch on the light. You don't go out to the meter every few minutes to check on your electricity bill.

A micro-payment system should be quite different from existing payment systems. You won't be asked to fill out your details each time. Rather, it would be as simple as a click of a button, and tracking and billing would happen in the background.

Google Extends Their Reach

With Adsense, Google cleverly figured out a way to click the ticket on content it didn't own or produce.

The problem with Adsense is that it works best when placed on content heavily geared towards commerce. Micropayments opens up a business model for other types of content, content that is not easily aligned with a commercial imperative.

Imagine the potential for high quality, non-commercial content. Imagine the potential for channels like YouTube. On demand television and movies for a few cents. With micropayments, the volume of content Google could click the ticket on gets much, much bigger.

But the big question remains....

Will users pay the price?

What do you think?

Poscript by Aaron: Clay Shirky published an article in 2003 about fame vs fortune & micropayments. And, while I have generally been skeptical about micropayments, we recently had an interesting thread about this topic in the forums that changed my perspectives of the topic.

Design Agency SEO Model

Sep 11th
posted in

Following on from my post "What To Consider When Starting An SEO Agency", we had a few questions about how to approach the design agency model. This is a model whereby you partner with web design companies. I used to run this model, so here are my ideas on how you can approach it.

What Is The Design Agency Model?

This is when you partner with one or more design agencies who do not have a SEO skillset in-house. This can be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps SEO has never occurred to them, they might not have enough full-time SEO work for a new hire, or SEO just seems like too much hassle.

Forming design agency partnerships can be quite lucrative for the SEO. The design agency typically has a stable of existing clients, and if they're big enough, a salesforce who bring in new clients on a regular basis. The design agency bills hours. In essence, they are a consulting business. The more hours they bill, the more money they make. To scale a design agency, they simply add more bodies.

This is where the opportunity lies for a win-win

How To Approach It

When a design agency is pitching to a client, their incentive is to pile feature upon feature, which of course, takes time to build. The more time they can bill for a build, the more money they make.

SEO is an add-on feature.

Some agencies will be happy just to have an extra service option available to clients so the client doesn't go elsewhere, but most agencies will want a cut. I used to work on 10-15%. Because the clients tend to be corporates, you could charge quite high prices, and they wouldn't blink.

Chances are, the design agencies clients are already asking about SEO. Typically, this happens after the site is actually built, and the client can't find themselves on Google. When you find such an agency, it's not difficult to put a mutually beneficial deal together. The demand already exists, and they can't service it.

Identify agencies that are not so big as to have an SEO capability in house, but big enough to attract a steady flow of clients. It's good if they are in your town. Having the ability to go and see them, and work alongside their sales people and designers if need be, is a big plus.

Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting. SEO has a fly-by-night reputation, so it's much easier to establish credibility if you're sitting in front of the people making the decisions, rather than being a detached voice on the phone. They'll also want to see that you're presentable to their clients if you need to attend meetings.

The pitch is you offer white-label search marketing services. You can sweeten the deal by offering to do the first project at cost. The aim is to prove concept and prove that you can fit in with their way of working. It's no different than a job interview and trial period in this respect.

The seamless white label SEO service you provide has little or no overhead cost to the agency. They don't need to hire you and provide you with staff benefits. They'll want to know how and where you fit into the design process, so be prepared to answer such questions. The subtext of this question is they want to know if there are hidden costs i.e. is your work is going to slow the designers down, or make life difficult for them. You could approach this question by saying that if you're in the projects at an early stage, you can make painless recommendations in terms of site build. Emphasize how your work will fit in smoothly, yet provide their clients with added benefit.

Also provide them with marketing collateral. This is the text they include in sales proposals. State the benfits of search engine marketing from a business perspective. You'll get a feel for the type of infoirmation you need to include by looking at their existing proposals. Typically, sales proposals aren't technical in nature. Give an overview of what you do, the benefits you provide, and the cost.

I found that including a PPC option is a good way to go, especially for clients, or agencies, who don't have much awareness of SEO. Even if the designers ignore all your recommendations - believe me, this happens - you can rescue the situation by ensuring traffic still arrives via PPC. You can then demonstrate that traffic is arriving via the search engines, and if you have more input in future, those traffic levels will increase.

Once you've got the first job under your belt, you can negotiate long term arrangements with the agency. You can then go to other agencies - careful that the agencies don't compete directly - and offer the same service, using the first agency as a reference. Repeat until you have as many agencies as you can handle. 4-5 reasonably sized agencies can create a flood of work for an SEO, so much so you'll soon find yourself employing extra staff. That's a great return for 4-5 hour long meetings.

Billing can be by the hour or project based.Try to fit in with however the agency bills. I found most like a project based pricing scheme unless there is significant level of ongoing work.

Benefits

There are significant benefits to this model for the small SEO provider.

Firstly, you outsource the sales function. Sales can be very time consuming and expensive, and have long lead times. The agencies sales force has an incentive to work hard for you because they can sell higher billing projects, upon which their commissions are likely based. Get onside with the sales people as early as you can. Emphasize benefits such as how many people are looking for SEO services, how valuable an add on it is, and how much agency level SEO can charge. The sales people are your friends, as you earn them more money.

If you've selected your agencies carefully, you get to work with bigger clients than you might otherwise land yourself. Besides being more lucrative, you get to work up more and more contacts at high levels. These people often job hop from corporation to corporation, which opens further opportunities for you down the line.

You don't have to build up your own brand, which can take a lot of time and effort. You leverage off the pre-existing brand and reputation established by the agency.

Downsides

Loss of control. It can be harder to pick and choose clients if the sales person is keen to sell every client on SEO. This is why it is important to plan for contingencies i.e. if you get a client hell bent on an all flash, brand heavy site, then be prepared to become Mr PPC. You'll also have less control over projects, as projects are typically managed by dedicated project managers.

Hostility form designers. Designers typically don't like people dictating design standards to them, especially people from outside the agency.

Look for areas where there is cross-over and articulate SEO in their terms. For example, if an agency is focused on usability, then talk that aspect up - usability imperatives and SEO often go hand in hand. Have alternative, low impact SEO strategies ready if you can't get your first choice on strategy. For example, add a site map to facilitate crawling, focus on off-site strategies like link building, build a site-within-a-site consisting of pages that aren't part of the main design, and suggest alternative navigation for those with disabilities.

Some designers are fine, of course, but expect the most push-back in this area. If you get too much push-back because you are imposing what they perceive as draconian conditions, then they will likely complain about you to management. As the designers are the bread and butter of the agency, and you are merely providing an add on, you may soon find yourself out of a contract.

You don't own the clients. The clients belong to the design agency, and they might not want you to use the names of their clients in your promotional material. Also, if you ever want to sell you business, you don't have a client list to sell, which is typically the only thing of value. Essentially, you are not building a business you can likely sell, you're operating as an independent contractor.

When it comes to billing, make sure this is not dependent on the agency getting the money out of the client. Bill the agency directly and let them worry about credit risk. It can be difficult to chase their clients for money due to the indirect nature of the contract.

Any questions? Add 'em below. It would also be good to hear from SEOs who run this model.

What To Consider When Starting An SEO Agency

Sep 9th
posted in

Starting your own SEO business can be a challenge. In DMOZ, a directory often hostile to SEO listings, there are still over 1,018 SEO service companies listed. Do a Google search on SEO companies, are you'll see.....quite a few more!

Ok, it's a big planet, and there is room for many operators, but it's true to say that in the SEO game in 2009, no one is short of competition.

There is a lot of competion because there is a low barrier to entry. In order to enter the SEO market, someone only need put out an open for business sign, in the form of a website, and they are as much an SEO Agency as the next guy.

Maintaining a profitable business is another matter, of course.

If you're thinking of starting an SEO agency, here are some aspects you should consider, and some recommendations on how to position in today's marketplace. If you're an SEO who has started their own business, and made a success of it, it would be great if you could share your experiences in the comments below. What are the things you know now, that you wished people had told you when you started?

Essential Considerations

1. You

The first part of your plan should be all about you.

What are your strengths and weaknesses? Are you a self starter, or do you prefer being given work to do? Take a long look in the mirror and be honest with yourself: is running a business really something you want to do, or is this a means to avoid looking for employment? How suited are you to running a business?

No doubt you can see where I'm going with this. There are personality traits people have that make them suited to running a business, including a desire for independence, being a self-starter, and having the ability to take financial risk. One such risk is the lack of steady salary. Do you have a means of financial support? Savings? If you do, it will make life a lot easier. If you don't, consider building up that safety net before you start.

Once you've decided that this is definitely for you, great! Working for yourself can be an immensely rewarding thing to do.

2. Strategy

Where are you going and how will you get there?

Map out a business plan.It need not be complicated. In short, what can you offer that your competition can't? How much will you have to sell in order to cover your expenses and make a profit? How, exactly, are you going to sell your services and execute delivery?

Once you get a feel for the figures, it will make it easier to see if your ideas are achievable.

3. Finances

How much money will you need in order to get out and sell, and then to provide the services? How much money will you pay yourself? Do you need staff? Do you have an accountant? Do you know your break-even figure? How will you manage bad debts or late payments?

All business ultimately comes down to maths. You need to bring in more than you pay out. Failure to do that means the business fails.

Two important areas are cashflow and value of a good accountant.

Business lives or dies on cashflow. A business can be selling well, but if it doesn't have enough money in the bank to meet payroll or rent at the end of the month, it is finished. Try to arrange sufficient overdraft or investment to ensure you can survive between bill payments. Clients often pay later than you want them to.

Secondly, an accountant is worth their weight in gold. Not only do they take on tedious business of tax filing, they make sure you are claiming all the deductions you're entitled to. For example, your computer equipment, your use of home, your broadband, your electricity use can all be charged to your business. This reduces your costs and tax obligation.

4. Your Idea

Does your business serve a customer need or want? Can competitors easily copy what you do?

These are two critical areas. Many people go into business because they want to do something they like doing. That's ok, so long as there is enough consumer demand. However, think about the number of actors and musicians out there. Most aren't making much, if any money. This is because they are pusrsuing a job they enjoy, and largely ignoring supply and demand considerations. Ignoring supply and demand is ok for actors, but it's poor way to run a business. What can you supply that there is a ready demand for? Can you create new demand?

Secondly, the barrier to entry. Because it is so easy to start an SEO business, you'll need something else to differentiate yourself, other than just having a website. A website is the base level entry point. What have you got that others can't copy? Are you able to service a geographic locality better than other providers? Do you know a particular market vertical well i.e travel/fashion/finance/auto? Do you have a name/brand people know? Can you leverage reputation and contacts from your previous career?

5. Marketing and Sales Strategy

This is part of your business plan, but it is an area that requires special attention. Without a marketing strategy, how are people going to know who you are? How are you going to sell to them? If your answer is SEO or PPC, you'll be up against a lot of competition. Those channels are saturated, and in most cases, there is little to distinguish one service provider from the next.

How do you intend to implement your strategy? What channels will you use? Have you allocated time and money to that strategy? For example, if you intend to speak at conferences, you need to budget for the travel and attendance. You also need a plan for who is going to do the work while you're away marketing and selling.

The sales cycle can be long and tedious. The bigger the client, the longer sign-offs can take. Typically what happens is that many prosposects will all sign off at once, after months of indecision! Can you scale up quickly if a lot of work comes in? Will you turn down work?

The Challenge In 2009

The specific challenge to SEO services providers in 2009 is differntiation. There are many people offering services, so how do you stand out from the rest?

One way is to zig when other zag. Is everyone heading off to the same SEO conferences, saying much the same thing? Instead, how about going to the conferences no one else goes to? Travel industry conferences. Dental conferences. People in those industries need SEO, and you might be the first person who has ever talked to them about it! With careful selection and a little luck, you might corner a lucrative, untapped market.

Do companies really need SEO services? Perhaps they just need their own people trained. Can you offer in-house training courses? How about providing a number for them to call whenever they have an SEO question? Be the go-to guy for a number of small firms who may not be able to afford a full seo service, but might be able to afford an hour of advice or coaching each month.

Partner with design/devlopement companies. Perhaps they can't afford to hire a full time SEO on staff, but if you sign up 4-5 design companies, and offer your SEO service as an add on, you should enjoy a steady stream of work. They do all the sales work for you, you just do your part, and bill the agency. They take a cut.

Got any other ideas on differentiation, or war stories about running your own business? Please feel free to comment :)

The Virtual SEO Office

Sep 7th
posted in

Credit: HardForums

Do you work in an office?

From home?

If you're thinking of starting SEO business, one of the key decisions you'll need to make is where to setup. One of the advantages of the internet is that distance doesn't become the obstacle it once was. An office can exist virtually, with the workforce spread out across the country, or around the globe, with employees working from home.

Let's take a look at the many advantages and disadvantages of the virtual business. It would be great if those who have already established their own SEO businesses could share their experiences in the comments :)

1. Financial Concerns

One of the biggest problems for any start-up is lack of finance. Keeping overheads low in order to maximize cashflow is therefore a good idea, and one of the biggest overheads a business faces in the early stages, besides wages, is setting up an office. The rent must be paid and equipment must be hired or purchased.

A virtual company uses existing premises i.e. the home and, in many cases, existing equipment.

2. Opportunity Cost

Small companies can out-maneuver bigger companies by being more efficient and more productive.

Say employees in a traditional company must commute an hour round trip each day. Then add the time they take to get ready for work. Perhaps that all adds up to an hour and half each day. In a year, this dead time adds up to months! Whilst employees can get work done on the commute if using public transport, it's not an ideal space for concentrating.

The lost time for the virtual office is essentially zero. No commute. No getting ready. Well, maybe putting some pants on might be a good idea :)

3. Less Meetings/Water Cooler Activity

How much meeting time is actually useful? How many hours of the day do we spend chatting with work mates?

Having worked both in traditional environments and virtual environments, I've found I get a lot more done in virtual environments. The social element of traditional workplaces, whilst beneficial in terms of morale, can result in less productivity. The virtual office, on the other hand, tends to be a lot more task focused. "Meetings" (Skype) are a lot shorter, organising them is a lot easier (no room bookings), and because you're not face-to-face with people all the time, there are fewer minute-by-minute distractions.

4. Virtual Office Employees Can Work Longer Hours

I don't know why this is, but I suspect it's because virtual office employees make less of distinction between working time and personal time. It was actually one of the "downsides" I found when I first worked from home - it was near impossible to leave work! Each time I passed the office, I was tempted to do a little more.

When you commute to an office, it's easier to walk out the door and leave it all behind.

5. Employees Really Like It

Some people will work for less wages for the privilege of working from home. They gain in other ways i.e. more flexible arrangements, time spent near family, reduced costs of lunch, enjoying their own surroundings, not having to communte, etc. A happy employee typically produces more work, and stays at the company longer, thus increasing productivity and reducing expenses.

Downsides?

Of course, the virtual office has downsides. One of the big downsides is the reduced social interaction. Some people thrive on the social interaction of the work place, and are not suited to the virtual office. The key is to screen employees carefully. Some virtual offices also setup in coffee shops to help counter the social isolation.

Home can also be a distracting place. Employees need an area away from other people.

Clients may perceive your company as less serious if it operates out of a home address. The way to get around this is to rent a mail forwarding address and the occasional meeting room in the center of town. There are companies that offer these facilities, and you can use meeting rooms and secretarial services on an hourly basis. I've also found that big clients don't go to small suppliers anyway. They demand you to come to them!

Some people need to be micro-managed. Again, careful selection is the key. Also try to make delivery task-based as opposed to based on hours worked.

What have been you experiences - positives and negatives - of your office setup?

What Do SEOs Know?

Sep 3rd
posted in

IIf you could tell the web 2.0/read-write/blogging/crowd-sourcing crowd one thing about search marketing, what would it be?

In a recent talk, given to bloggers, by Google Engineer Matt Cutts, Matt posed the question:

"What Do SEOs know that bloggers might not know?"

Matt goes on to talk about the merits of keyword research in terms of topic selection, and how understanding this concept can bring you a great deal of traffic. In summary, if you find out what keywords people search on, then add these to your page, you stand a good change of having those searchers land on your page. As SEOs know, there's more to it than that, but that's the quick version :)

Let's look a bit deeper into keywords.

Search Is A Reverse Broadcast System

I think Danny Sullivan first described search as a "reverse broadcast system". It's a great way to describe the value of search, and how to approach search in terms of marketing.

I liken search engines to being a 'reverse broadcast network.' People pay tons to be on television because you can get your message out in front of millions of people: broadcasting. With search engines, millions of people are telling you *their* messages: what they want to buy, purchase or get information about. You don't broadcast to them; instead, it's the reverse, they broadcast to you. There's very little if anything as a marketing or information medium that I can think of that compares to this. It's golden and still today amazingly unrecognized

In search marketing, you prosper when you let your visitors determine your content. They broadcast their intent to you, by phrasing a search query, so you should listen to that intent, and respond by providing appropriate content. Google does the match-making.

For example, if you learn that 5,400 people a month search for "antivirus software comparison", you could research and create this information, thus matching that demand with your supply of information.

How do we determine visitor intent?

The Search Phrase As A Means To Measure User Intent

If you're not an SEO and encountering this blog for the first time, you now now the most important thing about search marketing, and that is you need to match the content of your site to the intent of the search visitor. In a blog post recently, Seth Godin talked about the problem with advertising:

"(The internet) has created a surplus of attention. Ads go unsold. People are spending hours on YouTube or Twitter or Facebook or other sites and not spending their attention on ads, because the ads are either absent or not worth watching"

Seth was talking about the differences between old media advertising and new media advertising, but this is a problem related primarily to to a mismatch of user intent. The intent of users on Facebook is primarily social. Search, however, provides a more specific - and ultimately more lucrative - eco-system for the online marketer.

The intent of the visitor may be determined by analyzing the search phrase itself.

Three Types Of Search Queries

The study "Query Type Classifcation For Web Documents" (PDF) identifies three types of search query and how to quantify them:

  • Informational
  • Navigational
  • Transactional

An informational search is when people want to find out about something. i.e. What is the capital of Finland?. A navigational query is when users want to find a certain site i.e. Dell Computers A transactional query is when users want to aquire, although not necessary buy, something. For example, "where can I get guitar schematics"

There is a fair degree of guesswork involved in determining user intent. The keyword itself may provide clues. For example, "buy LCD monitor overnight delivery" tells you a great deal about user intent. "LCD monitor", less so.

When evaluating keyword terms, and deciding what content to provide, it pays to examine the keyword query in terms of query type. For example, the query "Buy LCD monitor overnight delivery" is clearly transactional. A visitor would expect to see an e-commerce page that facilitates a purchase, as opposed to a Wikipedia entry explaining the history of LCD monitors.

Generally speaking, transactional queries are good to target if you monetraize by providing something, either a good or service based upon a transaction or call-to-action. Navigational queries are good to target if you provide "where to" information - like a directory or a list of links - or you provide information closely aligned to a web destination. Informational queries are self-explanatory.

Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, and numerous points of cross-over i.e. a query might be informational, navigational and transactional.

The takeaway point is it is to seek to understand the main visitor intent. It will effect what information you present and how you present it. A page based around achieving a transaction will look very different to a page that provides information. If you're ranking well for a transactional query, but you only provide information, you'll lose an opportunity to engage visitors.

On-Page Keyword Integration

Once you've figured out user intent, and chosen your keyword phrases, you then need to integrate these terms into your content. A page should reflect and confirm the intent of the searcher. If the searcher is expecting to undertake a transaction, then the page should be organised in a way to facilitate the transaction.

Amazon provides a good example:

The "Buy Now" function is never far away from the users mouse click. The title is clear and prominent. Informational aspects are relegated to the bottom of the page.

You should provide confirmation the visitor has arrived in the right place. A good way to do this is to feature the search phrase high up on the page, preferably as a headline. This serves two purposes - it tells the search engine what the page is about, and confirms to your visitor that what they searched for and what they got are the same thing. If the visitor has to wade through too much information in order before getting a signal of confirmation, they're more likely to click back.

PPC marketing strategy also supports this theory. Common PPC practice is to include the keyword in the ad title, which can lead to higher click-thru rates than if you leave the keyword out. It stands to reason that a searcher expects to see the same keyword term they searched on echoed back at them.

The Long Tail

Did you know that 20-25% of search phases at Google are unique? 1/4 of all keyword searches have never been searched before! This is why it is important to include related phrases and synonyms on your page. The addition of related phrases and concepts allows you to pick up additional search visitor traffic from obscure combinations of keyword phrases.

The term "The Long Tail" was coined by Chris Andersen, and applied to online retailers, such as Amazon:

"A frequency distribution with a long tail has been studied by statisticians since at least 1946.[2] The distribution and inventory costs of these businesses allow them to realize significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. The group comprised of a large number of "non-hit" items is called the Long Tail."

The Long Tail also applies to search. Whilst millions of people search for "used cars", a few hundred search for "used cars east texas". If you sell used cars in east Texas, then it makes sense to target these specific, long tail terms. What these terms may lack in sheer traffic numbers, they make up for in broadcasting specific intent.

Match that intent with your service provision, and you're laughing.

How To Put It All Together

  • Visitor search streams determine your content. Use the SEOBook Keyword Research Tool to find keyword terms relating to your business/topic. You can approximate the highest value terms using SEM Rush
  • Having assembled a keyword list, find related keywords and synonyms of those terms. You can use the SEOBook Keyword Research Tool. Or Google's Keyword Tool
  • Split the obvious terms into transactional, navigational, and informational. This will dictate how you prioritize the content on the page. i.e. a transactional query needs a clear call to action featured prominently
  • Create pages. Place the keyword term in a proment place on the page, preferably in a heading. This will help confirm to the visitor they have arrived at the right palce
  • Watch visitor traffic and interaction. If you're seeing high frequency - or strong conversions - for obscure terms, consider writing a page dedicated to this term.
  • Rinse and repat

So long as your site is being crawled by Google, and you've got a few inbound links, traffic will soon flow to your door. What you do with all that new found traffic is up to you :)

For an indepth look at keyword strategies, check out Aaron's tutorial in the members area.

How To Overcome Writers Block

Sep 1st
posted in

Anyone who writes a regular blog knows about writers block. But no matter how much time you spend staring at that blank page, the article just never writes itself.

Pity.

So how do you overcome writers block?

Here are a few tips.

Topic Selection

It's not that there aren't plenty of topics to write about, the problem is we often feel we need to say something new. The reality is that not much is genuinely new. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

Instead, try and find new angles on old ideas.

One good way of doing this is to combine two topics. For example, if you know a lot about SEO, apply this knowledge to a more conventional topic, like, say "How To Innovate" The article then becomes "How To Innovate In The SEO Business". Not rocket science - or a particularly new angle for that matter - but combining two tried-n-true topics can create something new.

2. Just Write

Often called free-writing, there's a lot to be said for just making a start.

Think of a question - any question at all - and start writing about it. Don't worry if your produce gibberish, the aim is to get rid of that blank page.

Introduce an SEO twist by going through your keyword logs. Find any keywords phrased as a question, and free- write about that keyword. Put the keyword phrases into Google's Keyword Research Tool, and see what word associations, and other questions, come up.

I'm getting self-reflexive and post-modern here, but that's how this article started. I'm rewriting this article from a page of utter gibberish. Hopefully I'm making slightly more sense now.

3. Go For A Walk

One daily habit I've got into recently - and I can't recommend it enough - is to go for a walk. There's something about exercise, and being away from a computer, that clears your thinking processes. Try it for a few days and see if you notice the difference.

I'd be really interested to hear if your experience has been the same as mine.

4. Steal!

Well, not really.

Creatively borrow :)

There isn't much that is genuinely new in this world, and there is even less new in the field of marketing theory. I loved the book "The Purple Cow", but really, it's a new spin on an old topic - having a unique selling point.

A lot of the books I've been reading recently have a "sameness" about them. That's because a lot of marketing books rehash old theory using new terminology.

But hey - why not join them! What's old to you might be new to someone else. And if you can put your ideas in a contemporary setting, then that will bring something new to the table. Grab some old books or magazines and rewrite articles. Bring them up to date. Put them in a new context. Redefine terms. Add a new spin. Do some keyword research on the key themes and integrate.

The good thing about writing from existing pieces is that you get over the blank page effect. You're already starting from a finished piece. Your job is to rewrite, expand, take it into new territories, respin and create something new.

5. Chunk It

Chunking is a method of writing where you split concepts into small pieces.

  • Create bullet-point lists of things you want to say - write the conclusion first
  • Create headings
  • Write a paragraph of one sentence under each heading

Can you scan the document and understand it?

Although sparse, the article is complete in terms of structure. You then dress up the bare bones by expanding the sentences under the headings, thus turning them into fully formed paragraphs.

6. Write Something Unrelated

Ever get the feeling that everything that can be said about SEO has been said already?

It's not true, of course, but it feels that way sometimes.

Try researching and writing about a completely different topic area. You might not publish the piece, but by immersing yourself in new areas and concepts, you might gain new insights on your chosen field.

Unfortunately, the SEO niche has become an echo chamber, so try to read outside the area of SEO as much as you can. How about looking at areas such as future gazing, trends, history, economics, business, politics or personal development? Can you relate any of these fields back to SEO and marketing?

7. Don't Write At All

A lot of people feel the need to publish, even when they have nothing to say.

You often see this on blogs. Some arbitrary decision has been made that the writer must make one post a day, or must Twitter five times a day, or else, or else....

....or else what?

People will leave and never come back?

No one is that important.

I think it's more likely that readers will appreciate something that is worth their time reading. Time is a scarce thing, so I don't think writers do readers any favours by churning out, well, typing. Sure, the golden rule of blogging is to keep a blog regularly updated. A good thing, if you can manage it. But this can create a pressure to churn something - anything - out. The reality is that few people can write killer pieces each and everyday.

So rather than write something substandard because you're not really feeling like it, why not just do something else instead.

I'd be interested to hear your strategies for beating writers block.

There Is More To Optimization Than SEO

Aug 25th

What is the purpose of that new page you're adding to your site?

Is it to rank highly for a keyword term? That's half the battle won, of course :)

After the visitor has arrived on your page, what do you want the visitor to do next?

According to Seth Godin, you probably want a visitor to do one of five things:

  • Click to go to another page on your site
  • Buy something
  • Register for something
  • Click on/view advertising
  • Pass your message on to a friend

So, if you build a landing page, and you're going to invest time and money to get people to visit it, it makes sense to optimize that page to accomplish just one of the things above. Perhaps two, but no more.

Keep that desired action firmly in mind when you design and optimize your pages. The first rule of optimization is to optimize for humans. Ranking a page, only to have visitors click away, is a waste of time and effort.

Optimize For Focus

In the SEOBook Forums, we offer site reviews as a service to members.

We often see sites where it isn't clear what they visitor needs to do. This is usually caused by too many options presented on one page. By trying to please all audiences, we often end up pleasing nobody.

Decide the key action you want people to take, and relegate all other options. Either move some options to a different page, or reduce the visual weight of other options relative to the main action you want a visitor to take.

Here's a great example of a site where the one key action is in clear focus: DailyBurn.com

An exception to this rule is when the user is very familiar with the site. A lack of options often means too many clicks to get things done. However, if your page is focused on the first time searcher, then simplicity and clarity is the way to go.

Visual Focus

Do you know where people's eyes focus when they land on your site?

Check out this tool at FenGui. The tool tries to work out how people will visually scan your site. Some web statistics packages, such as Google Analytics and ClickTracks, provide visual click tracking based on user activity.

Before deciding on a template for your site, it is a good idea to test out your ideas using PPC. Knock up a few different designs, run a short campaign and use split/run testing to determine which page layout result in the user taking the desired action most often. Armed with this information, you're less likely to waste time in your SEO campaign.

Design Considerations

There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to web design, because each element you add will affect what is already there. Or not there.

However, a few factors remain constant:

  • The eye will be attracted to color blocks
  • The eye will be attracted to human faces or forms
  • Whitespace promotes readability - keep paragraphs short, use headings and bulletpoints

Make sure all visual elements underscore the desired action.

Where Web Design/ SEO Often Goes Wrong

The success of a page should be measured by one criteria:

Does the visitor do what you want them to do?

Often, other criteria will blur this vision. For example, a designer who is more interested in winning awards than ensuring your pages do what they should, may make a page pretty, but sometimes pretty doesn't result in a desired action. An SEO can sometimes be overzealous in terms of keyword usage, which can result in dense text and odd-phrasing, which has the potential to put visitors off.

There is little point putting a lot of effort into attracting visitors if they don't do what you want them to do.

A Word About Adsense

Positioning of adsense can be the difference between making pocketmoney and making a living. Look at Adsense as a visual element, as opposed to a block of text. Typography and text layout are design elements, every bit as much as graphics.

Are your eyes drawn to Adsense as you scan the page? If not, you may need to tone down other visual display elements, including color, to make Adsense Ads stand out. If Adsense is the way you monetize, the desired user action is the click. Are other elements on your page, be they links or graphics, competing for that click?

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