If You Don't Rank, Did You Fail?

Apr 1st

There's a great Nike commercial starring Michael Jordan.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed

How many SEO goals are aimed at winning the battle, and not the war?

Rankings vs Profits

One of the big mistakes those new to SEO make is to focus too much attention on rankings. It's easy to see why, as rankings provide such an obvious scorecard. You either rank or you don't.

The trouble is, rankings are seldom an appropriate measure of success, just as Michael Jordan shooting or missing an easy shot doesn't make him a success or a failure.

For example, I recently saw a comment on a leading SEO site whereby the commenter chastised the site owner for not appearing top ten for the phrase "search engine optimization". As far as the commenter was concerned, this meant the SEO was a failure at SEO, because he didn't rank for that industry-defining phrase.

What the commenter failed to grasp, of course, was the big picture.

What is Your Primary Objective?

I would estimate the site in question receives 100s of thousands of visitors, and that their business model delivers significant revenue. The fact they don't rank for the phrase "search engine optimization" is pretty much irrelevant in terms of their primary objective, which is to make money.

Secondly, the term "search engine optimization" isn't the prize some might imagine. The people who use the term "search engine optimization" may well be optimizers, not potential customers. That's fine if your target market is other SEOs, but not if you're selling services to customers.

Thirdly, you would need to put a lot of effort into ranking for such a term, and you'd have to question whether it would ever pay off. Contrast this with the effort required to rank well for a wide range of related keyword terms that, when aggregated, produce more highly targeted traffic than "Search engine optimization" ever would. This site may well have lost the ranking battle for that keyword term, but they're probably winning the war.

Business is About Making Money

The guy who focuses too much on ranking as an end goal will ultimately fail, because ranking is not a business goal. This is not to say rankings aren't important - a number one ranking for a lucrative term is worth a lot of money - but if the ranking isn't tied into your business goals, then how do you really know if you're succeeding or not?

Michael Jordan's is probably the greatest basketball player of all time. The greatest SEO of all time probably doesn't care that much about rankings day to day, s/he probably cares about the overall goal, which is almost always to make money.

What an Online Business Needs to Succeed

There's an interview here with Shoemoney where he talks about the three things an internet business needs to work:

  • Has To Make Money
  • Has To Grow Virally
  • Provides A Needed Service

Note that those goals are all business orientated. He doesn't say rank well, or get the most traffic, or appear in Technorati's Top 100. Those aspects might be part of a strategy, but if those are an SEOs end goals, then they're probably not going to be in the internet game very long.

Creating Engagement

That second point is one often overlooked by SEOs. If you rank well, and get traffic, and that traffic only engages with you once, then does that really support your business goals? Someone who visits once and leaves is not nearly as valuable as the visitor who returns often, or helps spread the word about you. Does you strategy focus on achieving that very valuable outcome?

Consider the value of an average site visitor to this site versus a person who subscribes to the RSS feed, sets up a user account, installs our SEO tools in their browser, and hopefully becomes a premium member. The average visitor comes and goes - thousands of them, every single day. Most of them are worthless to our business objectives, but those who commit to repeated engagement generate word of mouth marketing and are more likely to become customers. We give our visitors about a half dozen ways to engage with us. The increased engagement builds trust. That leads to subscriptions, and anytime we have an important announcement, we know over 100,000 people will see it.

In the book "The Dip", by Seth Godin, Seth offers some practical suggestions on how you can turn failure to your advantage. Just as Michael Jordan probably learned a lot from the shots he missed, so can we by redefining failure as an inevitable part of success.

when you see failure as a learning event, not a destination, it makes you smarter, faster

In this interview, Seth illustrates how big companies can focus on the wrong (expensive) battles, and lose the war:

Here's an easy one—Bud TV. They've spent more than $40 million on it so far, yet if we look at their traffic numbers they do worse than a site on sheet rubber sales. What happened? Budweiser had a top down, we-speak-to-the-public mindset when it comes to commercials. They buy Super Bowl commercials for $2 million or $3 million each because they can. Bud TV was all about "let's send messages straight to consumers." Hold that up next to YouTube, which was built from the ground up around individuals sharing with each other, and Bud TV lost. Wouldn't it have been better if they had just embraced YouTube and used it for what it was good at, rather than trying to build their own channel and invent their own form of new media?

We Have Failed, Just Like Bud

Not every site we launch is profitable. Sometimes we start a site and then realize we lack the passion to go through with it, other times major algorithm shifts and/or competitors shifting strategies have made sites heavily reliant on certain models/ideas/strategies no longer profitable.

The beauty of failure online is that it costs almost nothing to leave a failed website running, and you can always come back to it later, or use it nepotistically to help make it pay for itself. If you lose $10,000 on building a website then it only needs to about 3 years for it to pay for itself if it makes $10 a day - and less time if you are using it nepotistically. How much does it cost to rent a good link from the clean parts of the web?

And that leads to one of the best tips in the SEO space. If you are successful somewhere, try to work related markets such that you can take best practice knowledge to make your future projects much more successful. You are better off dominating a market than being an average to slightly below average playing in a dozen markets.

And we have sites that have worked far better than expected. Tools like SEO for Firefox give you a good idea of roughly how competitive a market is, but it is hard to know what lucky breaks you will get or be 100% certain you will rank a brand new site in a competitive market. Strategy and experience increase your odds of success, but algorithms can and do change. Take what the search engines give you and keep doing what is working. Sometimes that means buying a site they already like. Don't hate Google, simply create (and replicate) what they want.

What Are Your Goals? Why?

Constantly re-evaluate your marketing strategy to see if it is leading you towards winning the battle, but losing the war.

What are you measures of success and failure in terms of SEO? What are you measuring, and how?

Related Reading:

Mike Grehan Interview

Mar 30th

Many thanks for talking with us today, Mike. We've spent a few messy evenings drinking girly Merlots, but for those who don't know you, can you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

Ahhhh… those halcyon Merlot fuelled days… I remember them well… (truth be known, with all that Merlot, I don't remember much at all!).

So for those folks who are new to the industry, I can give a little background.

I first invented the Internet back in the 1960s. I had a young whippersnapper working for me as my assistant at the time. Al Gore was his name. I believe he grew up and took some sort of job with the government. Not sure where he is now.

In about 1965 I coined the term “hypertext,” which I was thrilled about. It didn't actually mean anything, but it sounded really cool. I used to drink with a guy called Ted Nelson who thought this was a pretty cool word, too. Ted's an old scientist living here in New York. And we do laugh when we get together about all of those people who have assumed that it was him who coined the term. Boy, must we have been drunk that night.

After messing around in physics (it being the new rock and roll, of course) I moved to Geneva, Switzerland and took a job at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It was a pretty dull job actually – same thing day-in, day-out. Atomic nuclei can get pretty boring to interact with. Plus I didn't like the special suit.

On one occasion, I was working with a complete dunderhead by the name of Tim Berners Lee. He was one of those guys that you just knew was never going to amount to anything in life. I explained to him that, during my morning shower, I had this brilliant idea to apply hypertext to the internet. He was so excited.. Mike, he said, I think you've just invented the… interweb!

Stupid boy!

Anyway, after being knighted by Her Majesty the Queen for my sterling work inventing what we now know as the “World Wide Web,” I thought I'd better do something practical with it. By now there was a lot of stuff out there and it was getting difficult to find anything. I was a visiting lecturer at Stanford University at the time and hooked up with a couple of kids called Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

This was not a good experience for me. These guys came to my dorm one night and stole a paper I had written called, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” I even had a pet name for it. I called it “Google.” I thought that was quite cool and trendy, what with Google being a play on the word goggle, which means to ogle women. Some time later, I read some bullshit from these guys who stole my idea that it had something to do with "googol," which is the Californian pronunciation for a word which also means to ogle women… er… I think.

I'm in the process of suing these Google jokers for almost 600 bucks to cover the amount of time it took me to write the paper. I'm not stupid… I'll get every penny of it, I bet!

Eventually, I moved away from search, mainly because it doesn't work properly and never will. So, I invented my latest toy, which I call Twitter. I called it Twitter because it's full of twits talking bits of shit to each other. Shitter.com had already gone by then, unfortunately.

Oh! Fancy me forgetting to mention Wikipedia! I actually invented that as a joke and people started taking it seriously. What fun!! People are failing exams because it's full of false crap. Some people have been seriously injured for the rest of their lives for taking some of the medical advice… ROFL

I'm on the verge of leaving the internet space to work on my new invention, which is very much a green thing. Imagine this: Reusable toilet paper! Heh! How cool is that. Some people have called it a flannel. In fact, some have called it a face cloth. Dood, I wouldn't want that near my face knowing where it had been before. Eeeuuwww!

Anyway… these are just some of the excellent things I've done in my extremely interesting life. What other brilliant things do you need to know about me? Being as modest as I am, I may not be able to answer all of your questions of course…

Every word Mike says is true :)

In your paper "New Signals To Search Engines", you frame search in a historical context - where it has been, where it is now, and where it might be going. What are the major changes coming up that will have the most impact on current SEO practices and goals?

Grehan now puts serious head on…

I've talked about how search engine optimization evolved in the first instance. It was driven by the limitations of the technology used by search engines. Basically, the World Wide Web was developed to do one thing – but everyone wants it to do another. So, crawling the web using the HTTP protocol was the obvious route to go for search engines back then.

But if Google is saying they now have seen a trillion URLs and have no certainty that they'll ever be able to crawl them in a timely fashion, maybe we've reached the zenith of the crawl. Not only that, the end user is expecting a much richer experience. So if the main job of SEO was to optimize static web pages and make them available to crawlers, it's all becoming a little passé now.

Have we seen the end of HTML and the crawler? Absolutely not. But the level of requirement for SEO work is going to diminish, rather like that of the blacksmith when motorized transport was introduced. Do we still have blacksmiths today? For sure, but they're not as required as they used to be.

The main changes will be in existing SEO shops either moving into other technical/development work or retraining in other online marketing disciplines. It's a very exciting time in search. Most marketers can see that. But those people from a purely technical background and used to just doing geeky code for a crawler don't see it that way.

You mention that user trails - as provided by the toolbar, tagging etc - will become some of the strongest signals. That's pretty much the death knell of traditional SEO, isn't it?

If we take what I said in the answer to the last question, you can see that traditional SEO as we know it has had to evolve anyway. I don't really think of link building as SEO, to be honest. For me, link building is the by-product of good marketing. Whereas fixing pages for a crawler is purely a technical process.

What needs to be taken into account most importantly is not where SEO goes to next, or whether it survives at all. It's about where search goes to next and how the end user evolves with those changes. Making pages for crawlers and getting links for the sole purpose of getting links omits one thing from the equation: the end user experience.

So, now that search engines can follow end users they can see where they started and where they dropped off. That kind of data is so important. It's the wisdom of crowds. It's the people's vote. So how does a marketer get involved there? It's going to be a little clichéd, but create an experience - not a web page.

Last year, Eric Schmidt CEO of Google, said an interesting thing in an interview. He mentioned - and I'm paraphrasing here - "that the Internet is a "cesspool" where false information thrives, and that "brands are the way to rise above the cesspool". Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?

I read that interview too.

He was stating the obvious to be honest. People have long bemoaned the fact that smaller businesses don't get the same shelf space in search as the big brands (the same applies offline, of course). Brand building is all about good marketing. It's all about building trust and reputation. But wait for this… It's not just about the big boys. A local store can build up as much trust and reputation within its community as well as a high street chain.

Social networking sites are all about people building up trust and reputation on a personal level. So, I think the notion of brands as we've known them – such as multi-nationals like Exxon – is going away. I think we're moving more into social search and that's all about tapping into a network of trust.

Addressing your question directly: "Do you think brands might be an important signal of quality?" As long as those brands belong to the end user and not large corporations, and that's certainly what's happening, then yes, a great signal of quality.

Social media, for want of a better term, is a "place" where most content is being generated, and increasingly where many people are spending their time. What are your thoughts on, say, Twitter? What are the implications for Google and other big search engines when people rely on real-time wisdom-of-crowds, and communities, for answers?

So we've already touched on this a little when talking about tapping into a network of trust. Absolutely this is a very important move. The results you get at search engines are hardly verified results and they can be manipulated. That means you have what a mathematical formula (the algorithm) believes are the best ranked documents. And then you have a little re-ranking going on when Ralph Tegtmeir gets to them!

However, if you tap into a network of trust, such as a parenting group, and ask them a about a child's allergy, the information is likely to be much more verified. If 500 parents all agree that a certain method works then that's more trustworthy information than a search engine algorithm can provide.

But there's a whole lot more to it than me Tweeting my followers and asking which is the best Irish pub in New York and wanting an answer now!

Can we talk a little about formats. You make the point that HTML may have served us well up to now, but things are changing. The web is becoming media rich. What does this mean for SEO? Do search marketers become multi-media positioners?

I saw a quote from a senior scientist at Google where he said we’re moving "away from a web of content to a web of applications." So it's more about the end user experience and the method of delivery, as opposed to one protocol over another. I don't think HTTP/HTML is going away anytime soon. But it's not going to be the primary method for internet search going forward.

People are already talking about new platforms. One idea is Flash. I like that. Or maybe pure java. Most certainly social search into networks of trust and live search via apps such as Twitter will further develop in the future.

We spend a lot of time on SEOBook connecting-the-dots between areas such as seo, brand and traditional marketing. You've said "connected marketing" is the future of marketing. Can you talk a little about this? This is the point where big worlds collide, isn't it?

Connected marketing is a kind of generic term for the new audience of always-on, 24-hour-a-day networks. I use the iPhone as a primary example of how to connect with your audience in so many different ways. Sure, it could be the HTTP/HTML route as it comes with a browser. But there are also so many apps you can download. You can get to your audience via email, txt, Twitter. You'll be surprised at this… you can even use it as a telephone!

It is about big worlds colliding. It's not just that technology has changed so we market via different channels to the same people. It's more about how the audience has changed. And so we have to change the way we connect with them.

I don't think that conventional methods such as the 30-second spot are going away anytime soon. But we need to examine all areas of this new marketing mix and get our messaging aligned.

If traditional SEO is at a point of diminishing value, what are the things an SEO can do to adapt to this brave new world?

First of all, stop using just SEO. The job we've been doing to help search engines do a job they should have been doing themselves is not as critical as it was. Crawlers are getting smarter and the communication between search engines and SEOs is much more transparent now. Search engines provide many tools to make the process of letting them know that you have good indexable content available.

But as the end user demands a much richer experience, search engines need to know a lot more about other types of content. Not just the textual HTML pages that SEOs labor over.

It is a brave new world of marketing. It's tremendously exciting. But you do have to start and think more about smart marketing and less about smart HTML coding.

There's a plethora of books and information on social media, optimizing video and perhaps, more importantly, analytics which open up this whole new world of marketing. As the value of providing pure SEO services diminishes, the value of new services increases. This is not a bad time for search marketing: It's the best it has ever been!

Many thanks, Mike.

Mike Grehan is Global KDM Officer with Acronym Media, a leading search marketing company based in New York's landmark Empire State Building. Follow Mike on Twitter here.

Is Your Website Credible?

Mar 25th
posted in

I saw a link-bait article at the top of TechMeme this past weekend entitled ""Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet".

The article outlines how internet advertising will fail because it (apparently) holds people captive and forces them to watch ads (huh?). I'm paraphrasing, but that's the jist of the conclusion reached by the author, Eric Clemons, of the University of Pennsylvania.

I certainly hope a lot of would-be advertisers listen to his view on search advertising, because it will reduce the bid competition for the rest of us:

Misdirection, or sending customers to web locations other than the ones for which they are searching. This is Google’s business model....Misdirection most frequently takes the form of diverting customers to companies that they do not wish to find, simply because the customer’s preferred company underbid"

Bizzare.

For starters, what is the searchers "preferred" company? That statement assumes the searcher already knows what company they are looking for. Perhaps, as is often the case, they are looking to solve a problem, not locate a specific company.

Secondly, anyone who has paid for ads would know that the last thing you want to do as a search advertiser is to "misdirect" visitors to your site i.e. visitors who aren't interested in what you're selling. It costs a fortune, makes no money, and Google will likely demote such ads due to a poor quality score.

Sergey Brin is of the opinion that advertising can add value, so long as it is relevant:

"....it fits with the notion of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page that ads can and should be at least as useful to people as search results and other online content. "We believe there is real value to seeing ads about the things that interest you,"

Of course, he would say that, but I think it is true. Ad content need not be intrusive. Relevant advertising, delivered when the customer wants it, can and does solve problems, and thus adds value. Advertising also facilitates a lot of web content that simply couldn't be offered for free if the advertising didn't support it. Google itself could not exist without advertising.

Anyway, Danny Sullivan does a good fisk of the article. We'll worth a read.

Website Credibility

Danny brought up an interesting aside about credibility, which I thought I'd riff on and hopefully we can share some ideas in the comments.

Here is how Danny decides if a travel website is credible:

I have this “travel guide” test to use to help determine if an expert source knows what they’re talking about. Ever struggle to decide which travel book for some vacation destination might be the best one? Me, if it’s a travel series, I pull the guide for a destination I know well, like my hometown. I know my local area in an expert way — and if the travel guide suggests good stuff for my area, then I feel better about trusting it in other areas.

In this case, because Danny has established the credibility of the source, he is more likely to go to places the guide recommends. He is certainly more likely to keep reading the site, which means more opportunity for advertisers to be seen.

What Makes A Website Credible?

Credibility means the quality of being believable or trustworthy.

The markers we use to determine credibility online have a lot in common with the way we determine credibility offline: are we familiar with this person or business? Have we had previous, beneficial dealings with them? Do they come recommended by someone we trust? Does it look and feel right? This last point might be more important than we've been led to believe. More on this shortly.

Various articles have pointed to prescriptive credibility markers, such as displaying your address, having a privacy policy, showing a photo of the site owner etc, but I'd argue these are pretty much useless unless more fundamental credibility markers have been established first.

One of the problems on the internet in terms of establishing credibility, is that the internet is largely unregulated and anonymous:

the Internet has no government or ethical regulations controlling the majority of its available content. This unregulated flow of information presents a new problem to those seeking information, as more credible sources become harder to distinguish from less credible sources (Andie, 1997). Moreover, without knowing the exact URL of a given site, the amount of information offered through keyword searches can make finding a predetermined site difficult as well as increase the likelihood of encountering sites containing false information

The task of deciding the level of credibility lies mostly with the individual, rather than an external agency. A research report by Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab found:

The data showed that the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.This reliance on a site's overall visual appeal to gauge its credibility occurred more often with some categories of sites then others. Consumer credibility-related comments about visual design issues occurred with more frequency with finance (54.6%), search engines (52.6%), travel (50.5%), and e-commerce sites (46.2%), and with less frequency when assessing health (41.8%), news (39.6%), and nonprofit (39.4%) sites. In comparison, the parallel Sliced Bread Design study revealed that health and finance experts were far less concerned about the surface aspects of these industry-specific types of sites and more concerned about the breadth, depth, and quality of a site's information.

The emphasis people place on a sites visual design when trying to determine credibility is interesting. This is not to say having a blinged-up site will make you appear more credible, as it very much depends what market you're in. A slick site is likely be credible if you're selling lipstick to teenagers, but not if you're providing weather data to climatologists. Wikipedia and Google appear credible as information resources partly because they look staid and academic.

So the first step to making your site credible is to know your audience, and meet their expectations in terms of look and feel.

Accuracy Of Information

The studies also point to the accuracy of information as a credibility marker.

It stands to reason that a site that contains obvious lies or inaccuracies, as perceived by the reader, isn't going to be credible. Having said that, there are plenty of scam artists on the internet, and people pedaling incorrect information, but the difference is that their readers aren't aware they are being lied to or being given incorrect information.

This is why it can often pay to cite known authorities to add credibility to your content. Besides the value of citation in terms of establishing accuracy, naming a credible resource can make you appear more credible by association. Go to Yahoo Answers are notice how most answers lack credibility. Those answer that are credible tend to cite external known authorities.

A Way With Words

Closely related to visual presentation is format and the way you use words.

In a study by Indianna University, Matthew Eastin looked at the credibility markers for online health information:

More recently, Rieh & Belkin (1998) identified criteria used when evaluating online information......they found that: (1) institutional sites were seen as more credible than individual sites, and (2) accuracy of content was used to assess online information. Respondents used knowledge of citations within the content and the functionality of hyperlinks as cues to evaluate the information. ....in addition to source and link accuracy, they also recommend that users consider peer evaluation, navigability, and feedback options (i.e., email, chat room, etc.)

Academic essays sound authoritative, even if what they say is nonsense, because they are long winded and use big words. Even the length of an essay can lend credibility. For example, long Wikipedia pages appear more credible that short pages, simply by virtue of their length. Various studies in the direct marketing field appear to back this up, which is why you'll often see those long, single page sales letters. Short letters don't sell so well. "Thoroughness" either reduces anxiety in the buyer, or ehances the credibility of the seller, or most likely both.

Again, the way you use words depends on your audience. An academic approach isn't much use if people can't comprehend what you're saying. Likewise, if a an article is lightweight and flippant, it isn't going to appear to an academic community.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book that looks at communication within markets in the internet age, the authors assert that markets are conversations. And that conversation is conducted in the human voice, not the cliche ridden hype language of the marketing brochure. The use of colloquial "voice" often carries a lot of credibility on the web, presumably because it signifies a human presence.

The Reef Fish Effect

People like to go where other people are.

There is perceived to be less risk in crowds. This is why Amazon's customer reviews are so powerful. People's choices are affirmed by the wisdom of the crowd. It just feels safer.

Include as many human touches as you can. Reviews from known authorities, signs of activity, signs that other people have visited your site before, and their experience has been positive. Being a known quantity makes you appear more credible.

What do you look for when trying to determine credibility?

  • 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
We love our customers, but more importantly

Our customers love us!

How The Small Guy Can Use Trust To Win The SEO Game

Feb 17th
posted in

If only Google would sit still for one moment!

The job of the SEO would be so much easier :)

As we all know, the last thing Google wants to do is make life easy for SEOs, so we'll just have to live with the constant change. One of the biggest changes SEOs have had to adapt to in recent times has been algorithm shifts that reward big players.

For example, Google results heavily feature YouTube (owned by Google, of course) and Wikipedia pages in against almost every search we make.

Let's look at some of the advantages of big business, and ways the small guy can counter them.

Advantages Of The Big Players

Unlike the small business, large businesses have access to significant amounts of capital. They can use this capital, indirectly, to buy position.

They can run large ongoing media campaigns that ensure visitors, links and attention, and all the resulting ranking advantages that provides. Big business can cross promote their properties, which makes it easier to launch new sites. They can buy out competitors (Google - YouTube) and trounce the competition, even though they enter late. They have many employees they can throw at problems, and waves of lawyers to throw problems at others.

What does the little guy have?

An internet connection.

Google Has Devalued Easy Tricks

The low hanging fruit is gone.

Google will always be a moving target. As the structure of the web changes, Google changes with it.

In the last few years, Google have devalued on page factors, they've made link building a lot more difficult, and the playing field is far from level. When the big guys get caught out using aggressive SEO, they're often given a free pass back into the index, because to not have them showing would devalue Google. The little guy is likely to be excluded for some time.

What Can The Little Guy Do?

The big companies have one major problem.

They're big.

Because they are big, they can often only operate in tried and tested ways. For example, there's a Telecoms company that have just wasted tens of millions of dollars on a website that most bedroom SEOs could have beaten in their sleep. The site has recently been shut down.

The site was uneconomic because the only way this big Telecoms company knew how to operate was by using the biggest and "best" suppliers. So that meant hiring in consultants from the big consultancy firms. That meant employing large vendors to do their programming. It meant above-the-line advertising at prime time, and saturation advertising across newspapers and radio. It meant hiring teams of people and organizing them in the tried and tested organization structure.

Because that's how they've always released products and services.

Also consider that a lot of Web 2.0 operations, lauded in the media for the past few years as "the bright young things to watch", are now crashing to earth as their big-money funding dries up. Turns out that was the only thing keeping them going. Meanwhile, a lot of SEO-aware webmasters are enjoying a growing income because they're always had the revenue equation right.

In both cases, the access to big capital was a disadvantage. It meant these companies didn't need to be smart.

So what, specifically, can the smart, little, SEO-aware guy do?

Big Bets?

You can take big bets.

The big guys tend to be conservative, but we don't need to be. We can have a crazy idea one morning, and make it a reality by that afternoon. We can ask ourselves "Is this idea crazy enough!".

The big company finds it very hard to do that.

Big company people often fret about their jobs and reputation, they have to convince a lot of stakeholders, and there's always someone waiting to stab them in the back.

So they play it safe.

Read why Seth thinks "safe" is bad idea.

Small Niche

The big company might not be able to make money out a small niche.

In the Telecoms company example I used above, their bloated structure and operating methodology drove costs way above the potential return. However, a smaller company with lower overheads could have made a success of it.

There are thousands and thousands of small niches the big companies can never compete in.

But you can.

Personal Trust Networks

Big companies have problems personalizing their services and relationships.

The web is about to change again. And when the web changes Google changes, too. The big change is a social one.

Twitter, social media, bookmarking sites are all about "the personal". They're hard for a big company to centrally control. That suits the small guy.

Look to build up a high degree of trust with small, tightly linked networks of people. Use a blog to keep in contact. Not just any old blog - really work it. Make it unique and own your ideas. Have an opinion and shout it loud.

Try to talk to those one hundred people in your little niche who make a difference. Talk to those 100 people who think the same way you do. If they know you and trust you, they'll do a lot of your marketing for you. There remains no more effective marketing than word of mouth.

Ask your friends to help out. Cross promote their stuff. Go into joint ventures. Really work the personal, trusted relationship side, because that's the way the web is going. Trust is being decentralized.

This is one area in which the big guys are going to have a lot of problems competing.

Friendgine - Friend Search Engine

Aaron has a great idea called "Friendgine".

Set up your own, personal Google or Yahoo search engine that includes the sites of all your friends and personal network colleagues. If you ever need to link to an external article, search your friendgine first, and link to your friends if they have relevant content.

This is a subtle way to keep in contact. They'll also likely reciprocate the favor. By creating these mini trust webs you'll make it difficult for other people who haven't established such relationships, to follow. You'll have your own nepotistic closed circle :)

If you want to see a presentation on this topic, check out Aaron's Beating The Big Guy

Dear Friend

Feb 16th

Don't you hate sales letters than begin with "Dear Friend"? :)

Sleazy sales letters peddling get rich quick scams will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time on the internet. Seemingly written by some self-aggrandizing, ex-timeshare salesman, they attempt to press every conceivable button in order to make a quick sale. The downside is that they can make your product or service look low-rent.

However, whilst the execution of these letters is often mangled, the underlying psychology works. Most copywriters use these very same psychological techniques.

Let's discuss a few common sales writing techniques, the underlying psychology, and how these techniques can be used in different ways.

1. Avoid Cliches

Some sales letters start with outdated phrases such as "From The Desk Of: [name]", and "Dear Friend".

Perhaps an updated version would be "From The Computer Of:". Still sounds hokey :)

The problem with this approach is that consumers in the 2000s are cynical, jaded and media savvy. Bombarded with commercial messages, they've learned to filter commercial messages out. By using jaded, outdated phrases associated with sales copy, you increase the likelihood your message will be filtered out.

A more contemporary approach is to make your copy direct, honest and colloquial. For example, take a look at Copyblogger. The writing on CopyBlogger uses a lot of the classic, direct marketing techniques, yet it doesn't sound jaded, because the writer is using an informal, self-aware style of writing.

One qualification: this does depend on your audience. The older your audience are, the less likely dated phrases will turn them off.

2. Appeal To Self Interest

It's still all about them, not you.

Sales letters are big on outlining the benefits for the consumer, and this is one area that hasn't changed. However, to be most effective, you need to know your audience well. Depending on your audience, this might mean using no words at all.

Take a look at the Gucci site. Luxury brands seldom resort to explicitly listing benefits, because as far as the manufacturer and consumer are concerned, the benefits should be self-evident. If they need explaining, then they've got a problem, so very much a case of show, don't tell. Could you imagine using a long-winded, cliche ridden sales letter to sell Gucci? It would undermine, rather than enhance the brand.

Listing benefits can be very powerful. Take a look at how SEOBook does it. Aaron tells me the conversion rate jumped after he moved to spelling out benefits in this focused, punchy way. Notice that page also integrates a strong call-to-action, and examples of social proof.

More on these aspects shortly.

3. Engagement

If your audience feels engaged, they're more likely to buy.

Forrester Research conducted a study(PDF) of over 200 companies, and found that companies expected to benefit in terms of more sales, increased loyalty, and peer recommendations by engaging their customers on a deeper level. Customers often want more than a transaction, they want to feel part of something.

A clumsy way to invoke engagement is to use over-familiar phrases like "Dear Friend". It's a little dishonest, given the anonymous nature of the relationship. A better way is to relate genuine shared experiences. Shared stories and experiences create a feeling of empathy, which leads to a greater degree of engagement.

There are many ways to do this, of course.

Take a look at the way Apple markets to their customers. You're very much buying into an familiar and shared identity - a style conscious one - when you buy Apple, as opposed to simply buying a computer or an MP3 player.

Telling stories about how you solved a problem is a good approach, and one that sales letters often do well.

Another approach is to let the customers tell their own stories. Amazon does this with the user feedback facility. Think of ways you can combine interaction, engagement and brand identity.

4. Social Proof

If other people have done something, it feels safer.

Buying carries risk - risk that you'll lose money. In the traditional sales letter, you'll see testimonials from seemingly delighted users. These testimonials often appear alongside stock photos - erm, genuine photos of the letter writer ;) - and often feature a scanned signature.

The underlying truth is that humans are like reef-fish. We think, sometimes unwisely, that there is safety in numbers. So if we see other people buying a product, then it is safe for us to buy it as well.

There are a number of ways to provide social proof. Testimonials are very powerful, but people are likely to be suspicious of testimonials from people they don't know. Try and get testimonials from people your audience are already familiar with. Link to the sites of people who provided the testimonials. Give people a means to check credibility.

One method used a lot in the SEO world is to have your photo taken at a search conference, usually alongside some guru. The implication is that the person has been sharing secret SEO techniques all evening, when in all likelihood the person pictured has just asked "hey, can I get a photo with you?".

The photos are another example of social proof - the person pictured is "in the know", and seems to be best friends with some guru the audience already knows, and thus becomes a reliable source of advice on search.

We've all done it :)

5. Call To Action

Give people a clear indication of what they should do next.

This is an important aspect of all direct marketing, and you'll see calls to action peppered throughout sales letters. Calls to action work well because they help close the sales deal. They move the prospect from thinking to action.

The call to action in the sales letter usually involves jumping straight to the close - BUY NOW!! - but it needn't be. Calls to action take many forms, including a request for the prospect to join a mailing list, call the company, remember a piece of information, or send an email.

Keep in mind what you want your audience to do, and spell it out. Don't leave it up in the air.

LinkBait Launch Cycle

Feb 9th
posted in

Most people don't care about you.

You could have just written the greatest article on SEO. You might be giving away a killer new tool. For free. And what happens?

Nothing.

Unfortunately, people are just too busy. Everybody is competing for attention, and sometimes it's just easier for others to Twitter about something, than to write a blog post and link to you. That's if they even bother to do that much!

Here's are a few ideas on how to get around this problem, and get noticed.

1. If It's Free, Make It Look Like It Isn't

People often value things based on the price they pay for it. So if you aren't charging for something, some people will assume it is worthless.

Dress the product up as though you are charging for it. That is, create a brand, make the graphics and site layout look good. Try to create a perception of value by using the same tools as if you were selling a product.

2. Don't Publish Your Article/Idea As A Blog Post

Blog posts are perceived as low value.

Create a dedicated branded site, or dedicated branded page for your product, service or idea. By all means create a blog post to link to your branded site or page, but try to make the presentation of your idea different that what you normally do.

For example, Aaron recently released the SEO Toolbar. This toolbar is free, but Aaron treated it the same as if he was charging for it. It has it's own dedicated page and dedicated brand.

3. Brand It

People take brands seriously. And they remember them. What is more memorable - a regular blog post in which you bestow awards, or a branded SEO awards site.

If you create a logo, people may use the logo when talking about you. This helps spread your idea, and your identity. $100 spent on a logo is nothing if it helps get you a few high profile links.

4. Save The Advertising For Later

Do you link to pages with Adsense all over them?

If a page is plastered with ads, it can look low value, and people may be reluctant to link to it. The exception is if you have already established a high level of trust with your audience. Even so, it's probably better to strip out the ads, at least initially, as your primary aim is to get attention and links.

You can always put the ads back in later.

5. Establish Social Proof Of Value

You need to prepare your market.

A few weeks or months out, start approaching people in your niche. Try to get the attention of people who have influence in the space. Comment on their blogs. Get your name known. Then, when it comes to your launch, you're already a familiar name.

Once you've launched, ask for feed-back, and be sure to quote any mentions you've had in the press. If people see that big name sites they are already familiar with have covered your stuff, they are more likely to be receptive to your ideas.

6. Learn PR

PR emails can be tedious, but they can work if done well.

Send out some well-targeted, personalized emails to a hand-picked group of industry commentators. Try to offer them something for covering you i.e. offer them a free service, or product, or links, etc. Many people will just be happy to spread the word if you're offering something truly unique and interesting.

7. Be Everywhere

Try to get seen in as many channels as possible.

Vertical search provides a number of opportunities if you can repeat your idea in different mediums. For example, you could create a video and put it on YouTube. Release your post as an audio track, or a presentation.

Twitter your stuff and remind people to check out your blog post. On your blog post, incorporate buttons that enable people to bookmark your page, or vote it up on Digg, or other aggregation services.

Video Presentation

Aaron covers these topics, and more, in the LinkBait Launch Sequence presentation.

How To Buy SEO/Search Marketing Services

Feb 5th
posted in

This is the first of a two-part article to help those looking to buy SEO and other search marketing services.

Overview

Unlike traditional media buying, where placement is guaranteed, SEO can appear to be hit and miss.

This is because SEO is a strategic process, whereby the SEO will align your site with the often cryptic requirements of the search engines, with the intent of gaining higher visibility for your site in search listings.

The SEO doesn't purchase placement, rather, s/he will try to earn you that placement. The closer your site is aligned with the search engines unwritten criteria, usually the more successful the SEO campaign will be.

All search marketing services should increase the level of exposure you receive on search engines. The trick lies in measuring the level of that exposure, and measuring the value it provides.

Your Goals

What exactly are people buying when they buy an SEO service? Why are SEO offerings so different? What is the difference between a service that costs a few hundred and a service costing tens of thousands?

Before you consider buying SEO services, step back and assess your goals for your site.

What problem are you trying to solve? Do you want to drive traffic from search engines? Do you want to reduce your PPC spend? Do you want to increase conversion rates? Depending on how you answer such questions, the level of SEO service you require will vary considerably.

Search marketing is most effective when it increases the level of visitor traffic to your site, that visitor traffic arrives at an acceptable cost, and the visitor traffic engages in desired action. If you keep these metrics in mind, you'll should avoid falling victim to some of the scams prevalent in the darker corners of the industry.

Done well, however, SEO is a very powerful, cost effective channel. A steady flow of new visitors will arrive for years after your initial investment is made.

You Get What you Pay For

Some SEO services deliver a greater level of exposure in the search listings. Other services take a more holistic, marketing-driven approach, which can include conversion metrics and visitor behavior evaluation. Most services lie somewhere in between.

Your selection of vendor will depend very much on your requirements and budget. SEO vendors who include conversion metrics tend to be more expensive, as this type of service requires diverse skill sets, and is more time intensive.

One Time Fee

Generally speaking, the more competitive your keyword area, the more work involved.

One good way to measure how competitive your keyword area is, is to look at the PPC bid prices. PPC bid prices can range from a few cents per click, to hundreds of dollars. The higher the figure, the more competitive the keyword area. The exception is if you have an established, reputable brand. Established sites can often dominate competitive areas with little additional work.

If you're operating in a area that isn't competitive, a one off SEO service might be all you need.

The SEO should ensure your site is able to be crawled and indexed by the search engines, contains appropriate content that aligns with keyword terms, and should build a few links pointing to your site from outside sources. If an SEO does their job correctly, you should see an uptick of visitor traffic from the search engines in your log files. If you are happy with this level of traffic, that is where the service ends.

On-Going

If you operate in a competitive space, the SEO will need to spend a lot of time building - and in some cases buying - links. If you're measuring visitor behavior, and adjusting the site in response, the SEO will need to make regular changes.

Such services are typically ongoing, whereby the SEO charges a monthly fee. The monthly fee also covers reporting and evaluation, with the aim of maintaining your position, or increasing your reach.

Whether you choose a one -off service or ongoing very much depends on your goals.

Common Traps

Metrics Not Aligned With Business Goals

One common metric used in search marketing is ranking. The problem with this metric is that ranking for keyword x may not result in any increase in visitor traffic, because few people search for keyword term x.

If you examine your current log files, you might find you already rank for some keyword terms. So long as the search engine has indexed your site, you'll invariably rank for obscure terms by virtue of having words on your pages.

Less-reputable SEO firms will include obscure terms on your pages, show you a subsequent ranking for these terms, and thus justify their fee. Unfortunately, this is the offline equivalent of putting billboard in the middle of a desert, miles from the road. Few people will ever see it.

Instead, look for an up-tick in search visitor numbers. You may want to go one step further, and measure what those visitors do once they arrive at your site. Do they buy? Do they fill out your inquiry form?

Guaranteed Placement

Some firms offer guaranteed placement, but the reality is that no one, outside the search engine, controls their results. The SEO will attempt to meet pre-agreed performance criteria, and if they do, then the contract is fulfilled.

Sounds low risk?

Guarantees are only worth the backing they receive. Will the firm still be around in a few months? Will they honor your request? Are they located in a legal jurisdiction where you can chase them? Will the cost of doing so exceed the return?

If buying into such a guarantee, be wary of letting the SEO firm establish the metric of achievement. Instead, define the metric yourself, in line with your business goals. The less reputable operators will likely shy away from such an arrangement. They rely on setting easily achievable ranking goals, which, like the billboard in the middle of a desert, seldom offers any real benefit.

Risky Techniques

The relationship between SEOs and the search engines is gray. There are a number of techniques the search engines frown upon, which may result in your site being penalized, or delisted.

If you are risk adverse, ask the SEO company if they work within the search engines guidelines. You can find the Google's guidelines here.

A more aggressive approach, especially in highly competitive keyword areas, might be required, however a good SEO firm should be upfront about the level of risk their techniques involved. Having said that, the risks of getting banned, even with techniques outside the guidelines are relatively low.

The Magic Wand

Another risk might be your own preconceptions.

One of the expectations clients often have is that the SEO will be able to wave a wand and work miracles. Keep in mind that SEO generally requires changes to your site, which might be significant. Designers, developers and copywriters often need to buy into the process. SEO results can also take time to show, as search engines don't reflect changes over-night.

Ask the SEO company to provide time frames, and outline the specific work that will be involved.

Part Two to follow....

Webmaster Utilities We Dig

Feb 4th
posted in

Here's a review of tools we use every day at SEOBook.

No affiliate stuff - we use and recommend these tools because, well, they rock!

Camtasia - Screen Recording Software

What it does: records on-screen demonstrations.

What we use it for: we use it for our training videos

Why we like it: creates high quality demonstrations, yet the file size remains small. Intuitive recorder function. You don't need to read the manual in order to start being productive with it.

Where you can get it: Here's the blurb. Here's the free demo. Here's the full version.

SmartDraw - Business Diagram Software

What it does: helps you create flowcharts, org charts, timelines, graphs etc

What we use it for: we draw a lot of flow charts

Why we like it: point and click simplicity. Once you get the hang of it, which doesn't take long, you can create professional flowcharts very quickly. Saves a lot of time.

Where can I get it: Here's the blurb. Here's the free demo. Here's the full version.

RoboForm

What it does: stores all your passwords securely, fills out forms, auto login to websites

What we use it for: password stuff

Why we like it: secure, allows fast logins to sites

Where can I get it: Here's the blurb. Here's the free trial. Here's the full version.

Carbonite

What it does: backs up your data, cheaply and securely, over the net

What we use it for: Backing stuff up

Why we like it: you install it, then forget about it. It's also pretty cheap.

Where can I get it: Here's the blurb. Here's the free trial. Here's the full version.

Fastone

What it does: screen capture.

What we use it for: manipulating the graphics at the top of the blog posts.

Why we like it: simple, elegant utility that is easy to use.

Where can I get it: Here's the blurb. Here's the free trial. Here's the full version.

Ad Networks - "Partners" Hoarding Publisher Data For Profit

Feb 3rd
posted in

Are the big networks trying to lock up their data?

It would appear that some big players are trying to muscle in between the user and the webmaster by limiting the webmasters access is to valuable statistical data.

The excellent SmackDown blog has a post about Google reportedly testing Ajax results in the main SERPs.

Sounds innocuous enough, right?

Trouble is, what happens to existing tools? Plugins? Rank checkers? Stats and other referral tracking packages? All tools that rely on Google passing data in order to work.

Many tool vendors would likely adapt, but as Michael points out, what happens if all the referral data shows as coming from Google.com i.e. no keyword data is passed?

Browsers do not include that data in the referrer string, and it is never sent to the server. Therefore, all referrals from a Google AJAX driven search currently make it look as if you are getting traffic from Google’s homepage itself. Now, while this kind of information showing up in your tracking programs might be quite a boost to the ego if you don’t know any better, and will work wonders for picking up women in bars (”guess who links to me from their homepage, baby!”), for actual keyword tracking it is of course utterly useless.

Perhaps the only place you'll be able to get this data is Google Analytics? Is this the next step - a lock-in?

It has happened before.

Remember the changes to Adsense? Google introduced a new form of tracking code that can't be tracked by third party tools. However, that data is available within Google Analytics.

This obviously puts other tracking vendors at a competitive disadvantage, and signals to the webmaster community just where the ownership of that data lies.

Data Lock In

There appears to be an emerging trend, of late, whereby networks are leveraging their power against the interests of individual webmasters in terms of data ownership. Having been locked out themselves for a few years, the middle men are trying to squeeze their way back in again.

Take a look at the new contracts of GroupM, the worlds largest buyer of online media, as detailed in GroupM Revises Terms For All Online Ad Buys, Claims Data Is 'Confidential' on MediaPost:

The wording in GroupM's new T&Cs, which are attached to all the insertion orders and contracts it submits to online publishers beginning this year, amends the current industry standard by adding, the following: "Notwithstanding the foregoing or any other provision herein to the contrary, it is expressly agreed that all data generated or collected by Media Company in performing under this Agreement shall be deemed 'Confidential Information' of Agency/Advertiser......Experts familiar with online advertising contracts say the term is a smoking gun, because it raises a broader industry debate over who actually owns the data generated when an advertiser serves an ad on a publisher's page. Is it the advertiser's data? Is it the agency's data? Is it the publisher's data? Under the current industry standard, the data is considered "co-owned" by all sides of the process, but some believe the new GroupM wording seeks to shift the rights over data ownership exclusively to the advertiser and the agency.

The article also suggests that other ad providers may follow suit. What this may mean is that your can't leverage data in other ways. You might not even be able to collect it.

Whilst this issue has popped up again of late, it is nothing new. There has long been a battle for consumer data because it is so valuable. The ad networks can create a lot of valuable data as a by-product of their advertising placement, because they can leverage network effects and scale in the way the individual webmaster cannot. Naturally the next step is to lock it up and protect it.

The cost of protecting that data may come at the webmasters expense. As the MediaPost article says, who does the data belong to? The publisher or the ad network? Both?

Traditionally, it's been both. But that might be about to change, if the above contract is anything to go by.

Forced Partnerships

Incidentally, other contracts really push the boat out when it comes depriving webmasters of control. Techcrunch reported that the Glam Network, a large ad provider made up of advertising affiliates, includes this little clause in their contract:

10. Right of First Refusal
a. Notice. If at any time Affiliate proposes to sell, license, lease or otherwise transfer all or any portion of its interest in any of the Affiliate Websites, then Affiliate shall promptly give Glam written notice of Affiliate’s intention to sell....

Essentially, if you want to sell your website, and you've agreed to these terms, then Glam have first right of refusal on the sale! Nice.

What this all might lead to is less ownership, less control, and less flexibility for the individual webmaster when dealing with big networks.

Or perhaps, in the case of Google, they're going to find other ways to pass data and just haven't outlined how yet.

One to keep a close eye on, methinks...

"Borrowing" Content: How The Little Guy Can Fight Back

Feb 2nd
posted in

The problem: big publishers "borrowing" stories from smaller publishers, redrafting them, and republishing them. Because the bigger publisher has greater domain authority, "their" story achieves higher rank.

Can you pick "who made who" in the following examples?

Of course, the publishers of these specific examples may not of been aware of each others existence. Great minds can think alike. But there are so many examples of coincidence out there, one suspects it isn't all purely a matter of chance.

Whilst borrowing of ideas is nothing new, if you're a publisher, content borrowing can wreak havoc with your seo strategies. The big and powerful sites dominate, and the little guy often gets relegated. Google's linking algorithms reward the already rich, and make them richer.

The sad reality is that whilst the web started out with the intention of being a democracy of information, it now closely resembles the power structures of the offline world. By the time you read this article, it has very likely been reproduced without attribution.

Here are a few ideas on how the little guy can fight back.

1. The Power Of Relationships/Distribution

It is said that business can be boiled down to two essential elements: to sell something for more than it costs to produce, and the ability to nurture relationships.

If you're a publisher, you can leverage the relationship you have with your readers in order to protect you from "the borrowers". Once you readers, and indirect competitors, are aware of your work, it becomes harder for your competitors to talk to that same market, using your ideas.

Think about what you can do for your readers to instill a sense of loyalty. Give them something of value. Make them feel indebted to you. Give people a stake in your success.

Consider allowing people to republish your content under certain conditions. i.e. when you have sufficient page rank, allow others to copy parts of your work, so long as they link back to the original. Such a policy might turn those who would ordinarily steal from you into allies who supply free link juice.

2. Branding

Try to make your content an identifiable part of your brand.

For example, part of your brand might be your a stylistic approach to writing. It would be very difficult to directly rip off Dave Barry, because he writes himself into his articles.

Typically, the more generic a piece is, the easier it is to borrow, so try to weave something unique to you, or your site, into the article. Perhaps use arguments and points that rely on a link to one of your previous articles, in order that they make sense.

3. Launch Hard

When you create a new site, or a new piece of content, shout loud about it.

Use all the channels. Twitter about it. Email your subscribers. Submit your article to aggregation networks. Pitch your article to other publishers with whom you've built a strong relationship, and who you know will link back and credit you.

In tight communities, like the SEO world, it will be harder to rip you off if you've made yourself visible in all the channels the community uses.

4. Create A Publicity Storm

If you're very sure of your ground i.e. someone has blatantly copied and republished your content without permission, you could create a lot of media mileage by outing them. If they won't acknowledge you, then their direct competitors might be very open to highlighting the borrowers contemptible practices. Use the same approach you do when you launch hard.

Say it often, and spread the (negative) message wide. Done correctly, a publicity storm might generate more back-links links than the original article. In any case, they'll certainly think twice about taking your stuff in future.

5. Fire Fight

Another approach is the cavalry charge.

Contact the publisher, contact the people linking to them, have your friends write about the culprit. Do it each and every time someone steals your work. Do it on Twitter. Do it on their site. You could even hire an army of cheap Mechanical Turks to do the job for you.

You can find links using Yahoo's Site Explorer, duplicate posts using Google Blog Search, and Technorati.

6. Become Big

The problem with the above approaches is that they can take a lot of your time.

Where you really want to be is so big that your direct competitors wouldn't dare take your stuff. The smaller upstarts who take your stuff won't be able to rank against you anyway.

This last point is where I'd put most of my efforts. As frustrating as it is, the web is a very difficult environment in which to enforce copyright. Spending a lot of time fighting that fact won't make the interweb leopard change it's spots.

It's like the spam reporting approach. Do you spend all your time dobbing in spammers above you in the vain hope they'll all disappear, or do you beat them by building an authoritative, trusted domain?

Nurture those relationships to help you get there :)

Pages






    Email Address
    Pick a Username
    Yes, please send me "7 Days to SEO Success" mini-course (a $57 value) for free.

    Learn More

    We value your privacy. We will not rent or sell your email address.