Framing Your SEO Firm

Jul 27th
posted in

Framing is when you use language to set the agenda.

Framing is short for "frame of reference", meaning "a set of ideas, conditions, or assumptions that determine how something will be approached, perceived, or understood".

This is a very important concept in marketing, and business in general. By using an appropriate frame of reference, you can manage how people perceive you.

Seo Is Spam?

For example, "SEO Is Spam" is a frame. It defines the terms of the debate ie. SEO is either spam or not spam. Would we frame the couriers this way? Couriers are spammers? Why do the terms "SEO" and "spam" necessarily go together?

They don't. That's a deliberate construct.

SEO is spam/not spam is an attempt to frame SEO as undesirable by associating SEO with a pre-existing pejorative term. That frame came from the search engines, and it has stuck with the industry since the days of Infoseek.

Who is ranked as the #1 ethical SEO company in the world?

Some SEOs have contributed, too, of course, but it has served the search engines well. No matter what side of that debate SEOs take, they have already lost. They've been forced to argue within a negative framework.

Getting The Frame Wrong

My personal view if that if you start by framing your SEO service solely in terms of ethics, you're probably losing business.

It's a red-flag.

Potential clients would undoubtedly see such a frame in terms of "where there is smoke, there is fire". Would you trust a car dealer who, upon meeting you, launched into a long explanation of why car dealers have a bad reputation, but he's not like the other dealers, no sir? Why even bring it up? I'd think that he was trying too hard, and really all I'm interested in is buying a car.

Sell me on that instead.

It's the same with potential SEO customers. What are they really looking for? Once you've answered this question, then you can begin to work on your frame.

How To Construct Beneficial Frames

Politicians use frames all the time.

For example, Al Gore framed the environmental issue as “man made global warming.” Bush re-framed it as “climate change.” Those different frames imply different things. One implies "we can do something about an impending disaster by changing our habits", the other frames man in a passive role, because climate change is a natural occurrence.

Both those frames supported the underlying political message.

Same goes with business.

Marketers know that the way a statement is framed influences how customers respond to it. Tell a group of base jumpers that 1% of all base jumpers die horrible deaths, and you'll get few people signing up. However, tell them that 99% live, and it sounds a whole lot more appealing.

A friend of mine told about how he handled an irate customer by carefully framing his response in terms of options. The customer hadn't received his goods - although they had been sent out - and was quite angry about it. My friend listened to the problem, and rather than debate about shipping delays, the offensive language of the customer, and other factors, he replied "I hear you. You'll get one of two things - a complete refund, or a replacement package sent overnight delivery. I just need to find out which option you want".

The customer, given a limited frame, calmed down, opted for the replacement package, and later published an article in, using this story as a great example of customer service. He also became a repeat customer. Using options can be a great way to frame, although care must be taken to present options that are meaningful. Trying to force people to take options they don't actually want, won't work.

SEOBook isn't framed in terms of individuality, ethics, or morality. It is framed as a community-based SEO training site that will help you learn, rank and dominate. There are also mentions of exclusivity, and frequent explanations of value. This is what customers want, and Aaron frames the service in terms of these needs.

So when you're pitching your goods or services, think carefully about the frame of reference.

Make it positive. Make sure it resonates i.e it touches on attributes the customer actually wants. If the customer perceives widespread dodgy practices, then it is a good idea to address them, but be reluctant about framing your service in such a way to everyone. No good comes from starting on the back-foot.

A good way to frame an SEO business is to talk about solving problems and providing benefits i.e. lack of traffic/more traffic, lack of business/more business, lack of exposure/more exposure etc.

Let this flow through into the language you use. And the language you avoid.

SEO Business Planning - Allocating Capital

Jul 22nd
posted in

Following on from our posts on SEO business planning, let's take a look at allocating capital. We'll also take a close look at one of the most important areas for SEO consultancy start-ups: advertising and marketing.

Allocate Budget

Never a truer phrase was said than "you need to spend money to make money". Thankfully, in the SEO game, you don't need to spend a lot, like brick-n-mortar companies need to do in order to get going.

How do you decide where to spend your money? Do you go by gut feel? Do you quantify and measure results? Whatever approach you use, the end result is that any spend you make should ultimately grow revenue.

Common Areas Of Capital Allocation For SEO Companies

Let's take a look at three areas in which a start-up SEO company will likely spend money. Equipment, staff, and sales and marketing.

Equipment

The SEO business isn't capital intensive. Many SEO consultants need little more than a computer with an internet connection. If you hire staff, then obviously you'll need somewhere for them to work, but besides that, capital investment is minimal.

Staff

If you're a sole operator, obviously you have no fixed staffing costs, other than the wage you choose to pay yourself.

You'll likely need to budget spend for outside contractors for doing work you can't do yourself, or work that it isn't worth your time. For example, if you're a sole operator, you'll want to spend as little time as possible on non-core activities. Non-core activities are activities that don't lead to revenue generation, such as administration and accounting.

By the way, a good accountant is worth their weight in gold. By ensuring that you claim all the deductions you're entitled to, you have more money to invest in your business. You can write off a part use of your home, your computers, your internet connection, travel and more. Accountants are relatively cheap, and their fees are more than covered by the tax savings they produce.

If employing people, figure out the total cost of an employee and their likely return in terms of revenue. Costs can include office space, equipment, training, travel, insurance, employment agencies, management overhead, and payroll tax. Employees obviously need to generate more revenue than they cost to employ, but so long as this calculation runs in your favor, you can keep adding employees, which will keep adding to revenue.

Advertising & Marketing

So how do you get new business in through the door? Do you employ sales staff? Rely on word of mouth? Advertise in trade papers? Speak at conferences? Buy PPC? Undertake SEO?

Any new SEO business should allocate sufficient resources to advertising and promotion. Without awareness, there are no customers. And without customers, there is no business. On the flip side, spending a lot of money on marketing and advertising that doesn't lead to increased revenue results in no business either.

Methods of Establishing An Advertising Budget

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." - John Wanamaker, US department store merchant

No method is ever perfect. If we knew our spend would always result in profit, business would be very easy. Here's the most common method of determining the appropriate level of advertising spend.

Calculation Based On Percentage of Sales

Advertising is a cost, just like staff and equipment. It's also an investment in your future. How do we know how much to spend on advertising?

Typically, businesses allocate advertising on a percentage of sales basis. They take their total sales figure for a given period, and ear-mark a percentage of those figures for advertising in the next period. Advertising spend should move in tandem with sales.

Here is a more detailed calculation, aimed at retail, but also appropriate for SEO:

Take 10 percent and 12 percent of your projected annual, gross sales and multiply each by the markup made on your average transaction.Deduct your annual cost of occupancy (rent) from the adjusted 10 percent of sales number and the adjusted 12 percent number. The remaining balances represent your minimum and maximum allowable ad budgets for the year.

So what percentage do you use?

This will vary, but as a guide, look at what other SEO companies are spending on advertising. Join trade organizations to get hold of these figures.

Be careful not to duplicate these percentages exactly, because your business situation is unique. There might be times when you spend a lot more on advertising than others, especially if you are aggressively targeting new markets, or looking to out-compete your rivals. There will also be times when you spend a lot less. For example, you might have more work than you can handle, and advertising would just exacerbate the problem! SEO consultancy can be a difficult business to scale up easily due to skill shortages.

The important take-away point is that advertising should move in tandem with sales, most of the time. If advertising spend is not related to sales, then it is easy to spend far too much, and have little to show for it. Spend and measure, spend and measure. Repeat.

What if you have no sales figures?

If you're a new SEO business, you won't have any past sales data to go on. This is why it's important to be aware of what other SEO companies are spending. If you've been going a while, you'll have some past data to work with, but keep in mind that past earnings might not be indicative of future earnings. There will be a fair bit of estimation and forecasting either way.

Always Set Objectives

Set clear, specific objectives when allocating capital.

An objective such as "boost profits" is too broad. Go for something specific, such as "sign up 30% more customers than the month before".

Next, figure out which channel will reach your target market. Conferences? Trade publications? PPC? SEO? Web? TV? Radio? A mix?

Whatever channel you choose, be sure to measure performance against your stated objective.

Unless you're trying to build a significant brand to spin off to someone else, such as YouTube, that objective should be grounded in increased revenue. Few, if any, SEO companies can operate at a loss for long, so base your key objectives, and your spending, around increasing revenue, and ultimately - profits.

SEO Business: Getting The Numbers Right

Jul 17th
posted in

What were the reasons you started your SEO-related business?

Perhaps you're thinking of starting one up.

A survey published in New Business UK found the following:

  • 41% went into business because they were passionate about their idea
  • 39% wanted the freedom that came with being their own boss
  • Only 7% cited money as being the reason

It's interesting to note that the biggest obstacle people faced with starting their own business was a lack of money. 44% cited lack of money as being the biggest obstacle.

Whatever your reason for starting, it's clear that money is important. The one thing that is guaranteed to kill any business dead, no matter how good the idea or how many customers a business signs up, are bad numbers.

How Are You Going To Make Money?

In a previous post, we looked at SEO business planning.

In short, a business plan doesn't need to be complicated, it's just a plan of where you're aiming, and how you intend to get there.

Here are a few further important points to consider.

Obviously, the most important thing to do in business is earn more than you spend. Fail to do so, and the business fails. That means flash offices, expensive chairs, flying business class, etc all must wait until profits allow such expenditure.

So it's a good idea to model oneself on Scrooge McDuck, at least in the early days!

The one thing you'll have the most control over is costs. Keep these as low as possible. Pay yourself the bare minimum you need to live. If you're hiring staff, offer them low salaries and revenue share. You may have noticed there is a start-up culture where fun, hip-ness and enthusiastic participation is emphasized. This is almost always because the owners are trying to keep their costs down. The benefit to the employees is seldom coming from wages, so the job has to be made attractive in other ways.

Keep a look out for hidden costs. What is the true cost of attending that conference? What does it really cost to hire and keep employees? What is the cost of scaling up? Does your office equipment need regular servicing? What are the costs of maintaining a lot of customers? Hidden costs are, of course, hard to spot, and hard to generalize. Be aware that any new variable you introduce to your business will incur costs of some description.

Economic rent, or making a profit over and above the cost of the inputs, is the key target you should aim to be above in your forecasts. If you make $100,000 a year from your business, and take it all in salary, that means that your business makes nothing. Your salary is a cost.

Do your projections allow you to make a profit over and above the salary you pay yourself, after all other expenses are deducted? If so, you've got a business that is likely to thrive, and you you may one day be able to sell.

It's surprising how many business owners don't include their salary as cost.

Break Even Analysis

Here's the meaty bit.

How can you determine, very quickly, if your idea will fail?

You need a break-even analysis. A break-even analysis shows you the amount of revenue you'll need to bring in to cover your expenses, before you make a profit.

Knocking up a break-even analysis is a great way to trial an idea before you put it into practice. After mapping out a simple, back-of-the-envelope business plan, it's the first thing you should do. If you can make these numbers work, then the rest of your detailed business plan can flow from there. If you can't get past a break-even analysis, then the rest of your plan will likely fail.

Here are the components of a break-even analysis:

  • What are your fixed costs? i.e rent, insurance,power and other set expenses and overheads.
  • What is your sales revenue?
  • What is the gross profit on each sale? i.e. the money left over after the selling costs are taken out
  • What is your average gross profit percentage? Divide your average gross profit figure by the average selling price.

You should now be able to easily calculate your break even point. Divide your annual fixed costs by your gross profit percentage to determine the amount of sales revenue you'll need to bring in to break even.

Is your break-even point higher than expected revenues? You'll need to change your cost structure (make cuts), or increase the profit potential of your sales.

Can you do without employees? Work from home? Sell your product for a higher price? Target a more lucrative market?

If you can make the numbers work at this point, move on and create a fully fleshed-out business plan. If you can't make the numbers work after a few tries, then dump the idea and try another. Pat yourself on the back for being smart enough to run a few numbers, before wasting a lot of time and effort executing a bad idea.

Most people jump straight to the latter.

  • Over 100 training modules, covering topics like: keyword research, link building, site architecture, website monetization, pay per click ads, tracking results, and more.
  • An exclusive interactive community forum
  • Members only videos and tools
  • Additional bonuses - like data spreadsheets, and money saving tips
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Our customers love us!

Business Plans For SEO Businesses

Jul 15th
posted in

Often, in our rush to get ahead and do things, we forget to plan.

Do you have a business plan? Do you have a business plan, but haven't updated it in a while?

A business plan need not be complicated. A few bullet points scribbled on the back of an envelope can constitute a business plan. A business plan is simply a description of what you intend to do, and how you intend to do it. The advantage of having a plan written down is that your business becomes a lot easier to visualize.

There are a lot of resources available on writing business plans, but few address the specifics of SEO-driven businesses.
In this article, we'll cover business plan basics, then delve into the specifics of SEO related plans.

The Importance Of Writing Things Down

We all make lists. Why? Probably because our memories aren't that good. A list also helps to focus attention. There's something about the very act of writing things down that makes a nebulous action concrete.

The same theory applies to business plans.

For Whom Are You Writing The Business Plan?

Is you aim to attract VC? Get a loan from the bank? For internal staff to be clear about direction? For your own use? Depending on your answer, your business plan will have different requirements in terms of the information provided.

Business plans typically consist of the following components:

  1. Executive summary
  2. Products & Services Description
  3. Market Analysis
  4. Competitive Analysis
  5. Strategy & Implementation Plan
  6. Financial Plan

Business plans aren't just for start-ups, either.

As a business transitions through different stages as it grows, the plan needs to change. You might want to figure out the best way to invest or fund expansion. A new financial period may be beginning. What are your plans for the next financial year? Do you need to refinance? Are you taking on more employees? Does your old plan fit your new reality?

The Three Levels Of Business Planning

Short Plan

A plan could be as short as one page. Answer the following questions.

  • What is your concept?
  • How much money will you need to execute your plan?
  • How do you intend to plan to market your business to customers/clients?
  • What will your cash flow look like, and over what time frame?

Simple questions, right. Many business ideas can be adopted or dismissed on those four questions alone, saving you a lot of time, money, and opportunity cost. However, such short plans aren't suitable for seeking investment.

Presentation Plan

The essential difference between a working plan and a presentation plan is style and appearance. The tone is serious, and it usually comes complete with charts, forecasts and diagrams designed to convey to people that you've put a lot of consideration into your venture.

Presentation plans should be free of industry jargon. Investors like a lot of due diligence, especially when it comes to outlining competitive threats and market opportunities.

Working Plan

A working plan is a plan used to operate your business. Like a short plan, it is less formal in terms of style. It is used internally to ensure everyone has enough information to be on the same page.

SEO Business Models

Ready to dive into SEO as a full-time occupation?

Before you make that leap, let's take a look at a few business models you can choose from, and weigh the pros and cons of each.

For SEOBook.com members, I've written two, detailed business models in pdf format. These can be used as guides for planning your own SEO business model, and projecting your finances and revenue.

Client Service Model

This model includes seo agency and independent consultant.

Learn Business Strategies from Clients

There are some great advantages in this model, especially if you're well versed in SEO, but new to business. One advantage is that you get to see how other businesses operate, and get a close look at someone else's marketing strategy. If you're new to SEO, then it can be a good idea to get an agency job first. This way, you can learn the process of SEO, and how to win and negotiate with clients. View this as a training course if your eventual goal is working for yourself.

In terms of working for yourself, there are huge rewards, and huge challenges.

Focus on Business

One challenge is to describe how you're going to get new clients, how you're going to service those clients, and determine if you have enough time to service these clients and still make a profit. Often, SEOs focus on the technical aspect of the job, which is important, but the business aspects are what will make or break you, not your skills.

Billable Hours

The client service model is essentially about billing hours. The more hours you bill, the more money you make. Given that there are only 24 hours in the day, of which around half you could reasonably expect to consistently work (and still have time for sleep!), it is important to plan how much time a diverse range of tasks will take to achieve. These tasks include sales, accounting, billing, administration, purchasing, computer maintenance, and, if you get some time left over, SEO!

In order to scale up the number of billable hours, SEO service providers usually add more people. If your aim is to run as a sole operator, that's fine, just make sure you've got enough hours in the day to do what you need to do and make a profit, and consider outsourcing as much of the drudge work as possible.

SEO Publisher Model

This includes affiliate, Adsense and other content based models.

If you can get a site ranked well, then why aren't you doing it for yourself, rather than someone else?

Cost of Entry

The "cost of entry" to launch a website is almost zero. This is both a pro and a con. It's a pro, because you can easily bootstrap (meaning you can self fund) your venture and once you have rankings, you then sell the traffic to the highest bidder, by way of advertising, or revenue share, or both. There is little downside risk, other than it won't work. You've may have lost some time, but compare this with the loses associated with a failed brick n mortar operation!

The major downside, of course, is that anyone can compete with you.

Increasing Competition

The SEO publisher model used to be a lot easier than it is today. There was a time that SEO was a mystery to most webmasters and site owners. The biggest downside now is the level of competition. As we face more and more competition, this puts downward pressure on revenues, and only the determined will make good money.

Hard Work

However, there is still a lot of money on the table if you execute well, are determined, and prepared to put the work in. It's a cliche, but those who tend to work the hardest and smartest, benefit the most. A neuroscientist who worked with seven-time Formula One Drivers Champion Michael Schumacher said that he had never met anyone who worked so hard. The guy had natural talent, but it was the sheer hard work that put him above the other talented competition.

Same goes with SEO. When there is a lot of competition, you need to be more determined than your competition in order to succeed. If you've got a good work ethic, and thrive on competition, then an SEO publisher model might be a good fit for you.

Rather than asking "is this good enough to rank #1" you have to be willing to put in the extra effort to build a moat if you want to play where the big boys play. Aaron outlined his competitive strategy here.

New Markets

The obvious way around saturated markets is to look for new markets. If there are a lot of SEOs doing affiliate for any particular company or niche, then you're exposing yourself to a lot of competition. If it is easy for you to sign up and start as an affiliate, then it is easy for everyone else, too.

Instead, consider looking in keyword areas where there are few, if any, affiliates operating. If there is sufficient traffic in the niche, then approach companies directly and negotiate pay-per-lead or private affiliate deals. It can take a bit of effort up front, but the payoff is that you might have a keyword area all to yourself. Most people attracted to the affiliate area will be too lazy to do this.

Scalability

The SEO publisher model can be scaled more easily than the SEO consultant model, because scaling is as easy as publishing a new site. Once that site is revenue positive, you can further increase its rankings, start another, and so on. Many of the requirements are easily outsourced and do not require extensive , time consuming client interaction. But again, there are only 24 hours in the day, so once you're up and rolling, try to outsource as much as possible.

Get The Business Plans

If you are a subscriber you can download the business plans here, and for SEO professionals there is a secret confidential bonus worth over $500 located here.

How To Spot Keyword Trends

Jun 25th

When we launch SEO projects, we've often got one eye on the future.

We start with a site that ranks nowhere, then we build links and optimize with the expectation that a few months from now, we'll start getting rankings, and traffic. Are the keyword terms we rank for going to be worthwhile over time? Will search volumes in our niche increase? Will they decrease? Are there more lucrative niches we could target instead? What will our market be interested in this time next year? Where is our market moving?

Given that search engine ranking has a long lead time, it pays to think about keyword trends well ahead of time.

The problem with the future is that it is difficult to predict. However, spotting trends is somewhat easier, and gives us an insight into how our niche is likely to develop. Trends typically follow a gradual, predictable pattern.

Let's take a look at a few tools you can use to help spot long term keyword trends.

Trend Spotting Tools

Google Trends is a useful tool for predicting rising interest in keyword areas. Search on your keyword terms, and see if interest in your niche is rising or falling. Ideally, you want to find keyword areas that show an increasing level of interest, or areas where there is significant, steady interest over time.

Likewise, Google Insights For Search allows you to drill down into the data in a variety of ways, including by date, by region, by category and by source. The related terms section is particularly useful for getting new keyword ideas, and analyzing trends. Click the RSS icon at the bottom, and you can keep up to date with this information in your RSS Reader. I use Google's Reader.

Twitter Search is a good tool for trend spotting. Possibly the most useful aspect of Twitter, as far as the SEO is concerned, is the ease of which you can spot keyword trends in terms of everyday usage. Search for your keyword term and make a note of the words people use in conjunction with your keyword terms. In what context does your keyword appear? Integrate these words into your copy.

Also check out Twist which shows keyword trends in Twitter over time, although it is limited to the last 30 days.

Both Microsoft Ad Intelligence and Google Adwords provide seasonal trends, which is especially useful for looking at interest patterns linked to the time of year, an obvious example being gift buying at Christmas.

Paid research tools, such as Keyword Discovery, provide historical data. Also check out Compete.com and WikiRank. WikiRank shows you what people are reading on Wikipedia. It’s based on the actual usage data from the Wikipedia servers, and provides trending data.

Microsoft Bing (I can't type that name without thinking of "Friends") provides XRank, a service that gathers related trend information and presents it on the same page, although the keyword terms it shows any results for seem to be rather limited.

So the takeaway point is to look at both keyword usage volumes and keyword trends over time.

Determine your bread-and-butter terms i.e. the terms that show constant levels of traffic and construct your link building strategy around these terms. Also look at the the emerging terms in your niche i.e. the terms with a rapidly climbing trend graph. Use this trend information as a suggestion list for new article topics. Watch your stats and look for rising areas of interest. Also try looking at keyword research from the opposite direction. Spot a rising trend, then make a list of keywords suggested by that trend.

All grist for the mill :)

Related Resources

What Would Google Do? - Book Review

Jun 24th

If Google is so successful, shouldn't you be doing what they do? If you follow their philosophy, then you can be successful, too.

This book, by blogger Jeff Jarvis, is a collection of Google fanboy thoughts on how to do business in the internet age, using Google, and other high tech companies, as a model. The rules have changed. The old way of doing things no longer applies. We're entering a brave new world where the internet will bring about a tech-led utopia.

Haven't we heard all this before?

Indeed, we have. We heard this before the last 2.0 tech crash. And the tech crash before that. When you look at the burn rate of internet start-ups, it doesn't look like a tech utopia, so much as a train wreck. The landscape is littered with bodies, wasted venture capital, and broken dreams. Many of these companies followed the "new rules of engagement", demonstrating that following new models, like the Google model, is far from a guarantee of success.

I'm not quite sure where to start with this book. Someone who is new to internet culture should find it illuminating, as Jarvis pontificates on state of the internet, circa 2009. Unfortunately, the book is a rambling, curricular collection of thoughts, some of which I find highly dubious. For example, Jarvis pontificates that "Free is a business model".

Huh?

Perhaps it's a case of semantics, but "Free" is not a business model. Free is a loss leader tactic. Free gets people hooked in so the ticket can be clicked somewhere else, just like Google does with Adwords. The obvious irony is that Jarvis isn't giving his book away for free. He's not publishing it online. He defaults to a traditional, old world, fee-based business model facilitated by middlemen - the book.

Funny, that.

Jarvis outlines the "Google Rules" you should follow in this brave new world, which include:

  • The customer is always right
  • Be a platform others can build upon
  • Middlemen Are Doomed
  • Be Transparent (Google are transparent?!?)
  • Small is the new big
  • The middleman is dead
  • Don't sell things, stuff sucks (Kinda hard to drive a non-car, though)

You get the idea. I doubt the audience of this blog will find anything particularly new in this book as it is a mishmash of various ideas that have been floating around for years. I found myself skipping through it. Whilst yawning.

Curiously, SEO is discussed. I'm pleased to note Jarvis doesn't pour scorn SEO, rather he shows how newspapers, and About.com, used SEO to make themselves more useful. He even outlines a basic SEO strategy. So pat yourselves on the back, SEOs. It looks like after all these years, commentators outside the SEO industry are starting to appreciate the value you provide.

It doesn't look like Google had anything whatsoever to do with this book. In fact, this book isn't really about Google. It's more about Jarvis and his personal observations of the state of the internet. The book's major downfall, besides being unnecessarily pompous and condescending, is that it misses the mark. The Google model can't be applied elsewhere and get the same results. It is a model that suits Google, but Google is a product of its own unique environment.

I also disagree with some of his predictions. He thinks the salesperson's days are numbered. Uh-huh. So we're all going to order from the internet, just like we didn't order our stuff from mail order catalogs? Salespeople will persist while people like to do business with people.

He also thinks middlemen won't last. Middlemen often create efficiency, aggregation and add value. Isn't Google a massive middleman, getting in between users and content, and adding value by making finding content a more efficient process?

Really, the rules of business online are very similar to the rules of business 100 years ago. We still need to give people what they want, at a price they can afford, and we need to deliver it at a lower cost than we sell it for. Free is an ideology, it's not a business.

I'm guessing the next big thing on the internet won't model itself after Google. It will do things quite differently, and few people will see it coming, based on their experience of the existing "rules". Did anyone see Google coming? Facebook? Yahoo? EBay? By the time people saw those companies coming, those companies were already entrenched.

They did so by doing things differently than what had been done before. The question isn't so much "What would Google do?". The question is "What Is Everyone Else - including Javis - Missing"?

The Search Taxonomy: Getting Inside the Mind of the Searcher

May 27th
posted in

Bill from SEO By The Sea published a good article entitled "Writing Content for Small Businesses Online", in which he talks about search taxonomies.

For those new to the topic, I thought I'd go over it, and show it applies to SEO strategy.

I'm basing this article on the study "A Taxonomy Of Web Search"(PDF), by Andrei Broder. Andrei is VP of Search Advertising at Yahoo, although he wrote this report while he was with AltaVista.

What Is A Search Taxonomy?

In summary, a taxonomy is the practice and science of classification.

In terms of search, we focus on classifying keywords into three distinct classes - navigational, informational and transactional.

If you can determine user intent behind keyword queries, you can better target your keyword strategies. For example, if your aim is to sell goods online, you may choose to focus on transactional queries e.g. "where can I buy an LCD monitor....", as opposed to informational queries e.g. "power requirements of an LCD monitor......".

There is, of course, a lot of cross-over between these three types of queries, which I'll address shortly.

The Three Types Of Searches

In the study, keyword queries are divided into three groups.

Navigational

A navigational query indicates the searcher wants to find a specific site.

For example, a search for "BMW" most likely indicates the the user wants to find BMW.com. Navigational queries usually only have one "right" answer. The user either finds the site they are after, or they do not.

Informational

An informational query indicates the searcher is looking for specific information.

For example, "symptoms of cancer", "San Francisco" or "Scoville heat units". Informational queries tend to be broad. The informational query doesn't tend to be site specific.

Transactional

A transactional query indicates the searcher wants to perform a web-mediated activity. For example, "buy LCD TV online".

If your aim is to sell goods and services online, you might focus more on transactional queries than informational queries. The problem with such classification, of course, is that it is narrow. We can't really determine user intent from just looking at the keyword, however this classification gives us a useful way of thinking about which keyword terms might be the most useful in achieving our goals.

Results Of The Survey

There are some really interesting results in this report.

24.53% of people want to get to a specific website they already have in mind. This is a navigational query

This is why brand, and making your brand memorable, is so important. Searchers often type a site name into a search engine, rather than type http://www....etc into the address bar. Optimizing for the name of your site is imperative if you want to catch navigational queries.

68.41% of people want to find a good site on a particular topic. They don't have a specific site in mind. This is an informational query

A lot of SEO is focused on this type of query.

Why did people conduct their searches?

  • 8.16% were shopping for something to buy on the internet
  • 5.46% of people were shopping to buy an item, but not on the internet
  • 22.55% of people wanted to download a file (i.e. image, music, software, etc)
  • 57.19% None of these reasons

What were people looking for?

  • 14.83% were looking for a collection of links to other sites regarding a particular topic
  • 76.62% The best site regarding this topic

Interesting, huh. Site's like About.com and Mahalo capture both these types of queries.

Eye Tracking Studies

Now, with these figures in mind, check out this eye tracking study.

Although the test data is limited, it is interesting to note that sites targeting a transactional query can be further down the search result set than the informational query and still receive attention, if not a click.

When conducting an informational query, if searchers don't see the information they want in the first search result, they will refine their search. The same goes for navigational queries.

If you're targeting the transactional query, however, the wording of your title tag could give you an advantage over those who rank higher than you. When conducting a transactional query, searchers often hunt further down the result page, or across to the Adwords, to see which listing sounds most interesting to them.

How To Integrate This Knowledge Into Your Strategy

So how do you apply this information?

If you choose to focus on one type of query.....

Know Your Users

There are many cues of relevancy left by the market. All you have to do is look for them.

Look at the ads

Google typically only shows AdWords ads above the organic search results *if* they generate a high clickthrough rate (CTR). And since advertisers using AdWords are paying for every click, you can presume that for expensive keywords many of those ads are matched up with strong user intent.

Tools like SpyFu ad history and KeywordSpy can help show you who has been advertising on those keywords for the longest period of time. Those who have been doing it a long time are typically either optimizing their ad copy OR losing a lot of money.

Where Are They Searching From?

Google's keyword tools, Insights for Search, and Google Trends show where a particular search query is popular (and if there is any interesting news that is driving search queries). In addition to seeing the query breakdown by country (or state, or city), you can view ads from different locations by using the Google ad preview tool and/or the Google Global plug in.

Understanding Search Demographics

Google's Insights for Search categorizes user searches for the broad match version of a particular keyword

Microsoft offers a tool to categorize content.


Google's Ad Planner lets you select pre-defined audiences, websites, and keywords to analyze.

Both Microsoft and Quantcast offer similar functionality on a per website or per keyword basis.

What Did They Recently Search For?

Microsoft offers a search funnels tool which allows you to research keywords they recently searched for prior to searching for a keyword, OR keywords they searched for after they searched for a keyword.

Microsoft also has an entity association tool which can be used to find keywords that were co-occuring in the search or searched for in the same session.

Commercial Intent?

Microsoft's Online Commercial Intent tool estimates if search queries or web pages have a high probability of being informational or commercial in nature.

Who is Getting The Click?

Since Google AdWords factors ad clickthrough rate into their calculations, you can presume that the top advertisers are either getting a decent CTR, or are paying through the nose for clicks.

Compete.com's keyword destination data lets you know the relative click volume sites receive for a particular search query.

Further Analysis

Beyond data from the above tools, you can also infer a lot of data just by putting yourself in the mind of the consumer

  • Determine which type of search you're targeting - informational, transactional, navigational - and segment the audience accordingly
  • Align your site to the intent of the user. For example, a searcher who is after information is going to want to see an authoritative looking site. What is an authoritative looking site? It will differ depending on the market you are in, but it is highly unlikely the searcher will react well to a site plastered with advertising. The site will have markers of authority, such as recommendations, perhaps a display of qualifications, and information laid out in an "academic" way (Wikipedia), as opposed to a blatant sales pitch (Multi-Level Marketing). The transaction searcher will want confirmation (e.g. a big logo) s/he has arrived in the right place.
  • Look for emotional angles and user intent targeting strategies that competing businesses are missing. Is free shipping a big deal? Is everyone trying to sell to a person that is looking to research and compare? Find a compelling way to stand out and differentiate yourself from the competition. Even if you are only targeting 30% of searchers you can still get more traffic being the only person doing that rather than the 8th consecutive similar offer.
  • Track user behavior to confirm intent. Get people to sign up for more detailed information, note which pages people spend the most time on, which keyword terms lead to conversion, etc. Feed this information back into your strategy

The transactional user is more likely to forgive ads. In fact, they may even welcome them, so long as the advertising is relevant.

Conversely....

Integrate All Three Search Types

One of the problems with the study, as noted in the study, is that it is very difficult to determine intent just by looking at the keyword.

For example, an informational search could end up being a transactional search once the user is satisfied that with the answer to the information they were seeking. For example, "symptoms of flu" might turn into a purchase for a flu remedy.

That's why it can be a good idea to target all types of query, in an integrated way.

Carefully consider how you word your title tags. Integrate brand aspects for the navigational query i.e. "SEOBook.com - SEO Training Made Easy". Convey the information you provide "i.e. SEO Training" and transactional information i.e. the implication is that people can buy "SEO training". This information is also repeated in the snippet, although webmasters often have less control over this aspect.

Keep in mind that transactional doesn't just mean e-commerce. It can relate to any desired action, such as a sign-up to a newsletter, or a request for more information.

One aspect of web marketing that is getting more important is building communities and tribes. People who will return, in other words. You're unlikely to engage a community of people if all you ever offer is transactions. This is why Amazon integrates reviews and other social aspects in order to hook people in on a number of levels, even though the primary aim is to sell goods. Also check out Bill's excellent "Bills Blues" example.

What approach do you take? Do you narrow in on one type of query? Go wide and try to catch all three? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Is Trust The New Competitive Advantage?

May 21st

There is an interview on Open Forum in which Seth Godin interviews Richard Branson. The question is: Why is small business is better than big business?

Branson explains how he structures Virgin so that it is a series of small companies. People know each other by first name. People need to know each others strengths and weakness, and collaborate, and be responsible for the work they do. Branson believes this open small company results in a better service to clients.

Check out this article on Harvard Business:

In the worst economy we've seen in decades, Passlogix, a privately owned 100-person software development company, just received over a million dollars in prepaid commitments for the next three to five years of service....Now, how do you explain that? The bigger companies aren't getting similar deals.....I think it's a trend. And understanding it might just be the difference between failing and thriving in this economy.

The difference, the article goes on to suggest, is the trust factor.

People need to be able to trust companies to deliver. And in the current climate, where big companies are just as likely to go to the wall as small ones, big companies no longer have the advantage of being trusted to deliver by virtue of their size.

Small companies can build trust quickly in ways that big companies cannot.

How To Establish Trust

SEOs and marketers spend a lot of time trying to get traffic to sites. This is a difficult task, but it's a task that only solves half the problem.
The problem is how do you get traffic to you site and get it to do what you want.

If my traffic dropped by 50% tomorrow, I couldn't care less, so long as conversions stayed the same or increased. Traffic, like ranking, is is not a good metric of success, unless you're selling advertising by the page view, and even then it can be seriously misleading. i.e. how many people acted on the ads?

What makes people engage? Underlying all transactions, is that the buyer trusts the seller to deliver.

In order to help establish trust, consider these factors, especially if you're operating in an area where you're looking to sell an ongoing relationship:

Familiarity & Personality

It's never been easier to build a personal, trusted brand. Twitter, social networks, e-mail lists, blogs and other personal communication channels all make it easy for people to see how you think and act before they engage with you.

If you're seen often enough, in the right places, doing good things, people will come to you, because the known feels safe. The unknown is risky.

This is why PR and networking are critical. They help establish familiarity, which leads to trust, especially if the same person customers see writing articles/Twittering/networking is the same person who answers the phone.

Let customers to know you before you know them.

Reputation

Do you have markers on your site that show you have earned a good reputation? Credible media mentions? Recommendations from satisfied customers? Proof you've got customers?

Again, a quick search is likely to reveal the state of your reputation.

Stability

With companies going to the wall left right and center, stability is a major factor for any long term engagement.

Ever worked with a colleague who is inconsistent and unpredictable? Is that trustworthy? Consistency and predictability build trust.

Respond to emails and inquiries promptly. Say what you'll do, do it, and then tell people you've done it. If you've been operating for a while, make a point of saying it - anything that screams "consistency and predictability".

Immediacy

Do you trust that web site with (c) 2004 at the bottom? Is it still going? Google is chock full of outdated search results from companies, that, on face value, show no sign of life. That's not a good look in the current economic climate.

Staying up to date and engaged is important, especially if the real time web becomes more established, which I strongly suspect it will. Customers will expect companies to communicate using the same method and channels they do, and these channels increasingly favor the immediate and frequent over the slow and infrequent.

Transparency

Big companies have long indulged in being secretive, unapproachable and oblique. It isn't very appealing.

Why on earth would a small company follow this model? Plenty of them do, presumably to create the illusion they're just like a big company. But big no longer means better like it used to.

Open people and companies build trust. If a company is transparent in it's operations, people are more likely to trust them. Show people who you are, what you're about, and what problems you can solve for them. It's often a good idea to say if you can't solve someone's problem, you'll tell them, and recommend to them someone who can. By doing so, you'll even build trust with non-customers, and you never know who they'll talk to. Every engagement is an opportunity.

There is nothing worse, from a trust point of view, in a company saying they'll do something, and then not do it.

Big companies often fall into this trap because their sales force are separated from their operations divisions, and the sales people are working on commission. Sales people can promise the world in order to get the signature, knowing they're not the ones who have to deliver. That's some other faceless divisions problem.

Small companies seldom have this problem, a problem Branson also tries to counter by organizing small.

Got any ideas on how to build trust? How have you built trust with your customers?

The Next Big Shift In Web Marketing

May 20th

There was an article on TechCrunch entitled "Jump Into The Stream"

In short, the article is about how the internet appears to be going through its next big shift. It is moving towards becoming a stream of immediate information. The web is being organized by "nowness"

This real-time stream has been building for a while. It began with RSS, but is now so much stronger and swifter, encompassing not just periodic news and musings but constant communication, status updates, instantly shared thoughts, photos, and videos.

I thought the article gives us a compelling way to think about this shift:

First and foremost what emerges out of this is a new metaphor — think streams vs. pages. In the initial design of the web reading and writing (editing) were given equal consideration - yet for fifteen years the primary metaphor of the web has been pages and reading. The metaphors we used to circumscribe this possibility set were mostly drawn from books and architecture (pages, browser, sites etc.). Most of these metaphors were static and one way. The steam metaphor is fundamentally different. It’s dynamic, it doesn’t live very well within a page and still very much evolving. A stream. A real time, flowing, dynamic stream of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of and whether we participate in them or simply observe we are a part of this flow.

But isn't this just social media marketing? We've known about that for a long time now. Yes. But the concept of "nowness" and immediacy give us a great way to make sense of it, and a better understanding of how to make it work for us.

One of the criticisms we often hear about search engines is that a lot of the information is dated. Google has tried to address this problem by focusing on sources such as Wikipedia, that have a community of updaters, or pointing you towards news content, if your search is time dependent, or allowing you to sort by date. Search is also rather anonymous, as opposed to personal.

The appeal of Facebook/Twitter is that they provide an immediacy of information. There is a constant flow, updated often. They also provide this information in the context of a trusted filter i.e. your friend network. That's a big shift in how information will be accessed, especially as more and more people come to view the web from this perspective.

If the web is indeed a place, it is starting to look less like a library, and more like a river.

What Does This All Mean For The SEO?

It means SEOs will need to think more about what traffic is, where it comes from, and how to hook it.

Look at where people are spending their time. Increasingly, it isn't on web pages or sites. It's within a trusted channel that provides a flow of information. So a site owner needs to think about how to direct these streams towards a site, and make sure people hang around long enough to buy what the site owner is selling before they move on.

Obviously, search engines aren't going to disappear. Nor are people going to stop publishing web pages. Nor are they going to stop visiting web pages. But what are the characteristics of social media activity, and how does it differ from search visitor activity?

I think the main characteristics of this channel are immediacy, the fleeting visit, trust, relevancy, and remarkable-ness.

So:

  • Encourage user registration on your site to help lock people in
  • Offer time-limited membership deals
  • Offer forums, tools, multiple content formats, and other interactive elements that mimic the appealing aspects of social media
  • Be unique, memorable and remarkable so people talk about you to their friends
  • Go niche. Me-too and generalist is unremarkable
  • When going broad, leverage existing networks to facilitate faster growth
  • Focus on establishing trust

The Twitter/Facebook/Social Media streams are like the rest of the web in that most of it is junk. So how do people filter the noise and focus on the good bits? Trust is one aspect.

Do people say "Hey, look at this great secured loans site?". They don't. We'll, not unless they're pimping for said secured loans site. The stream is not going to favor the mee-too approach, either. It's going to favor the remarkable approach. Do people on social media sites point out the mundane?

So re-read Seth Godin, and think about "being remarkable", and how to apply it to your strategy.

Incidentally, when asked about Twitter today, Larry Page had this to say:

I have always thought we needed to index the web every second to allow real time search. At first, my team laughed and did not believe me. With Twitter, now they know they have to do it. Not everybody needs sub-second indexing but people are getting pretty excited about realtime

Google aren't asleep on this issue.

Site Testing That Isn't Tedious

May 19th
posted in

Do you know what attracts your readers? What headlines they respond to most? Do they respond to pictures? Do they know what your offer is?

No doubt we all agree that testing is a good thing to do. We can see clearly if our ideas are working or not. But a lot of testing is, quite frankly, tedious.

Measuring user behavior patterns and visitor paths is, in most cases, worthwhile, but there is always a trade-off in terms of the time it takes to setup and run such testing verses the reward for doing so.

Here are a few cheap and cheerful testing ideas that don't take a lot of time, but can improve your site performance significantly.

1. Write Your Copy, Then Leave It Alone For A Day

One of the best ways to test the effectiveness of your copy is to simply leave it until tomorrow before you hit publish.

It can be very hard to read your own copy objectively, especially as you're writing it. It is often laced with emotion, and the impulsive desire to just finish the damn thing and get it out there.

By leaving it until the next day before you hit publish, you force yourself to re-read your copy in a more objective light. You allow yourself a mental separation between your writer and editor brain function.

When editing, replace long words with short words. Break up long sentences into short ones. Minimize. Eliminate duplication. All copy benefits from rewriting.

Leaving copy aside for a day is the cheapest way to get the objective help of an "editor", without actually having to hire one.

2. Get Someone Else To Read Your Page Aloud

It's a good idea to read your copy out loud. It helps you spot weaknesses more easily.

It's an even better idea to get someone else to read it aloud.

You'll experience your copy how other people will hear it in their heads. Does it get your message across when it is read by someone who doesn't know the point you are eventually going to make? Does it sound like they want to read what is coming next, or do they sound confused or bored? Are the most important points emphasized? Is it obvious what the desired action is?

It can be difficult to spot these factors when reading copy in your head, but blindingly obvious when someone else reads it back to you.

3. Basic Split Run Test Using Adwords

Even if you're focusing on SEO, Adwords is a great way to test the effectiveness of your your chosen keyword terms and site copy.

Once you have a keyword list for SEO, run a short adwords campaign against those keywords. Test the titles and descriptions you plan to use. Test the performance of your landing pages by swapping out one page for another on different days. You can then feed this information through to your SEO campaign. Run with the winners, and cut the losers.

Keep in mind the Adwords won't perform just like a SERP listing, because a lot of people ignore advertising. However, this method is likely to give you a rough idea on what people who search on your chosen keywords are really interested in. Chances are if it works in Adwords, it will work even better in the main SERPs.

Quite often, the keywords you imagine are the most important don't work so well in practice. Or perhaps the title tag you were planning on using might not be enticing enough. For a small sum, you can test keyword effectiveness before embarking on the long and involved process of SEO, link building and ranking, which you'll have to live with for years.

4. Are You Selling The Solution To The Problem

Say you want to build a mailing list by giving away a free e-book.

These days, that's a boring offer.

Unfairly, e-books have a bad reputation because they are often perceived as low value and are frequently associated with scams. "Free" on the internet is essentially meaningless, given that most things on the internet are free.

Instead, sell the solution. i.e "Do you want to know how to find the top five investment funds in any market? Do you want to find the funds that have consistently returned over 10% p/a for the last ten years? Sign up for our free e-book download that answers these questions, and more"

Much more enticing than "free e-book give-away". The form (e-book) is not the important bit, the benefit (finding the right investment funds) is the important bit.

The internet has a lot in common with direct marketing. Proven and tested direct marketing methods dictate we should "sell the sizzle", wherever appropriate. The idea is that people don't buy products and services, they buy the benefits of those products and services. They ask "what's in it for them?"

Does your copy always move towards answering this question? Read your copy aloud. If it doesn't, then rewrite until it does.

5. Does The Picture Sync With The Message?

Pictures are powerful attention grabbers.

But do you have the right image? The right image is the image that helps you sell. Grabbing attention doesn't necessarily translate into sales. Flickr is full of attention grabbing images that will never sell themselves, or anything else.

In terms of doing business, a picture, like words, should relate to the product or service. A picture's function is to increase sales. If it doesn't, it shouldn't be there.

The most obvious relationship is direct i.e a picture of the product or service. Modern advertising tends to focus on indirect relationships, such as implied association with people who use the product. i.e. a group of cool skater kids hanging out may advertise Vans footwear, even if you don't actually see the shoes in shot. The benefit for the audience is to become part of this cool tribe. More indirect methods tend to be used in brand building advertising.

The closer you are to direct marketing, the more direct the imagery tends to be. If you want to sell an Apple iPod Touch, you show a big picture of one. Basic stuff, right? But it's surprising how many sites use vague imagery that might look cool, but gives the viewer no idea what the site is about, or doesn't lead them to identify with your product or service.

Don't ask "Is this picture worth a thousand words? ", ask "Does this picture tell the customer a thousand words about my product or service?"

Got any more cheap and cheerful testing methods? Add them to the comments.

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