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?

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.

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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 :)

Should You Have Multiple Websites?

Jan 28th
posted in

Or just one?

Let's take look at a web strategy that has a number of SEO and benefits: the hub and spoke strategy. A hub and spoke strategy is when you create one authoritative domain (the hub), and then hang various related websites off that domain (the spokes).

If you don't yet have an authority site, it's probably best to focus on that one site. However, once you've built an authority hub, it can be a good idea to specialize in a number of niches using multiple, smaller sites.

Let's look at a few reasons why, in the context of dominating a niche.

Economics

Economic theory holds that division of labor increases profitability.

During the early days of the web, it was easy to make money by being a generalist. However, as the web got deeper and richer, it became difficult to maintain a generalist position unless you had significant resources.

Specialization, by way of niches, allows for greater targeting, and this targeting can increase value. Leads and advertising become more valuable, because the target audience can be reached more efficiently.

The hub and spoke approach is this theory in microcosm. The hub is the generalist authority, whilst the spokes allow for niche specialization.

We'll see how this dove-tails with SEO shortly.

Domain Knowledge

If you were to create a series of sites on different topics, it might take a significant period of time to know each area well. However, if you create niche topics within your own area of expertise, you should be able to create new sites very quickly.

Why would you create new sites? Why not just stick with one?

Let's say your main site is fairly broad in it's appeal. However, you've discovered some lucrative niche keyword areas within that broad topic area. By creating spoke sites, you can focus on these keyword areas, and dig deeper, without compromising the general appeal of your main site.

An example might be a hub site that is aimed at community education, whilst spoke sites might cover private tuition, corporate learning materials, and education facility hire.

This segmentation can be done in a number of ways. You could aggressively target one search engines algorithm and/or audience (MSN) with one spoke, whilst targeting another search engine on another spoke. One site might be aimed at do-it-yourself people, whilst another site is aimed at a person looking to hire a professional. Both sites cover the same topic, but require a different approach in terms of language, structure, offer and tone.

Likewise, you may use spoke sites for brand reasons. When Google bought YouTube they wisely kept the YouTube name, as the brand appealed to users. Google Video - not so much. There is a general perception that YouTube does video, and Google is a search company, and never the twain shall meet.

Google knew better than to force the issue.

Legitimate Links

A hub site on education that links out to pharmaceutical affiliates could easily get hit by Google. The relationship between the two areas is questionable. However, if you link out to your spoke sites, that cover related niches, your link pattern will be much more acceptable.

From an SEO standpoint, it can be difficult to get links to purely commercial sites. If you have a hub site that already has link authority - or is created specifically to attract links - then you can pass this authority to your more specialized spokes. Once the spokes become more popular, you can either pass that authority along to yet more specialized sites (one way), or even promote your hub site (reciprocal). Either way, the link graph makes sense.

Each site doesn't need to be directly profitable. You can use one site to attract links, and pass this authority on to your monetarized domains. One can subsidize the production of the other.

Fame

If you've already built up name recognition in your niche, you'll find it easier to get links and press attention for your new projects.

Status is important because if no one knows who you are, they probably don't care about the content so much. Let's say Danny Sullivan or Matt Cutts writes something, it will instantly get attention because of who they are and the trust relationship they have with their audience. If you're new to the SEO space, no matter how profound your content is, it could easily get over-looked.

This is why it can be more difficult building multiple areas across unrelated niches. You may need to establish yourself in each new area, which can be a lot more difficult than leveraging your name recognition in your existing niche, then going granular.

Enhanced Monetarization Opportunities

We've looked at how you can target the most profitable areas aggressively using a hub and spoke strategy, without affecting the main brand.

Other advantages include economies of scale. As your network grows, you have more ad inventory to sell people. The inventory can be segmented, as opposed to the advertiser having to accept a one-size-fits-all approach of a generalist site. Similarly, you may be able to demand higher affiliate payouts, because you can precisely target offers.

Aaron covers this toipic in greater depth in the video "Why You Should Dominate A Niche".

Where Do New SEOs Go Wrong When They Set Learning Priorities?

Jan 28th
posted in

Another question we received recently from the SEOBook.com community was:

What qualities are common in Aaron Wall, DaveN, Bob Massa, Jason Duke, SugarRae, et al, that new SEOs can adopt, to come closer to people like these in expertise. Where do most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?

I've asked these people to provide their views, which I'll get to shortly.

It's a great question, because the avalanche of SEO information that confronts the beginner can be overwhelming. How do you know what information is important? What aspects do you really need to spend you time on, and what information do you need to reject? What are the qualities that make for a good SEO?

Let's take a look...

Learning SEO

Most people stumble into being an SEO.

An awareness of SEO usually comes about when a person launches a site, only to find that the site doesn't magically appear #1.

Soon after, the webmaster will likely find themselves knee deep in SEO forums and blogs, where everyone has a viewpoint, and often those viewpoints contradict each other. Contradiction is rife in SEO. To understand why, we need to understand the history of search engines.

The first step in setting learning priorities for SEO is to.....

1. Understand The History & Context Of SEO

My own foray into SEO began with Infoseek.

Infoseek was one of the early search engines. Infoseek introduced a feature around 1996 , whereby they would crawl a site and update their index immediately. This feature made it easy for webmasters to game the algorithm.

I had just launched a small, commercial site. I thought all I had to do was publish a site, and the search engine would do it's job, and put me at number one! Unsurprisingly, that didn't happen.

So, I tried to figure out why Infoseek didn't think my site was great. I could see that there were sites ranking above mine, so there was clearly something about those sites that Infoseek did like. I looked at the code of the high ranking sites. Did that have something to do with it? To test that idea, I cut and pasted it their code into my own code and republished my site. Viola, I was at number 2!

So far, so good.

But why wasn't I number one? The sites that were ranking highly tended to have long pages on the same topic, so I added more text to my pages. Soon enough, with a little trial and error, I was number one. Predictably, Infoseek soon pulled this feature when they saw what was happening.

I was clearly not alone in my underhanded trickery.

At the time, I thought my cut n paste trick was an amusing hack, but I wasn't earning my bread and butter from the internet. I was working in the computer industry, and unaware of "SEO". I soon forgot about it.

A few years later, a whole cottage industry had sprung up around SEO. The search technology had become a lot more sophisticated. My dubious copy n' paste hack no longer worked, and the search engines were locked in a war against webmasters who were trying to game their ranking criteria.

There is an inherent conflict between the business model of the search engine, and that of the SEO. The SEO wants their site to rank, the search engine wants to rank a page a searcher will find useful.

That isn't necessarily the same thing.

Therefore, the search engines are notoriously secret about their ranking formulas. SEOs try and reverse engineer the formulas, or just guess the factors involved, which is why you'll see so many contradictory viewpoints.

So who do you listen to? What information is relevant?

2. Technical Know-How

Dave Naylor had this to say about doing too much at once:

Common qualities that's simple we notice the little things and understand the larger impact that they will have in long term,

And where do you most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?

From the new SEO's on the block that I chat too, they seem to run at a million miles an hour trying 100 different things at once, they need to slow get a decent data set of information and slowly pick though it and test small things at a time, and work out thing like why is it when I search for The FT in Google it returns Grand Theft Auto ?

Most people new to SEO place a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects. It's natural to seek out the secret recipe of high rankings. Whilst most forums obsess over these issues, much of what you'll read is irrelevant fluff. These days, SEO is more about a holistic process, rather than an end unto itself.

Start with a solid, credible source - like SEOBook's course for example ;) The cost of a well researched course is nothing compared to the time you may spend heading in the wrong direction.

Most people will benefit by applying the 80/20 rule. To rank in Google, you need to be on-topic, you need to be crawlable, and you need to have inbound links.

You could spend a lifetime trying to figure out the other 20%. Unfortunately, the formula is in Google's hands, and even then, only known to a few. It is reasonable to assume Google tweaks the dials often, especially once a common exploit makes the rounds. Take Dave's advice and take it one step at a time. Focus on the key aspects first - relevance, crawlability and linking - then methodically test and evaluate in order to expand your knowledge.

Bob Massa on not sweating the small stuff:

I honestly think the only way anyone can go wrong, new to online promotion or a seasoned veteran, is to not look too hard for tricks and magic beans from those who make their names posting those so-called tricks, in forums.

I believe anyone can be successful at online marketing or even traffic generation and search engine placement specifically, if they just stop looking for ways to trick machines and instead look for ways to connect with humans.

search engines are just computer programs and algorithms written by humans. The engine is only a tool intended to aide humans do things faster and easier that are important to their lives. I think machines can help with connecting humans BUT the humans are the target, the goal, the end that machines can provide the means to.

I think one thing that is common among the list of people you mentioned is that they all realize, understand and accept that concept.

3. Strategy & Goals

The opportunity in SEO lies in the fact that Google must have content, around which it places advertising. If you rank high, you get "free" clicks.

Of course, nothing in this world is free, and SEO is no exception. There is significant time cost involved in getting lucrative rankings. And that cost comes with a reasonable degree of risk. Google has no obligation to show you at position x, and your competitors will always try and eat your lunch.

Strategy is the most important aspect, and one you should spend a lot of your time on. Why are you trying to rank? Are there better things you could be doing i.e. building up a community? Do you have an on-going publishing model? How is your brochure-web site ever going to attract links? Are you building enough link juice to ensure your entire 500K page affiliate site gets indexed?

Check out my post on strategy and goal setting. The key is to take a holistic approach.

I think some of the general principals that apply to most of them are that they are: smart, curious, hard working, blunt, honest, and sharing. They also view SEO as a tool to help them achieve other goals, rather than having SEO be the end goal.

Where a lot of people go wrong with SEO is that they try to think in concrete numbers based on a limited perspective built off a limited set of data. Some things may happen sometimes, but there are very few universal truths to the shifting field of SEO beyond preparing for change. And the certain lasting truths do not provide much competitive advantage...that is built through curiosity, testing, hard work, and creativity - Aaron Wall.

4. Measurement

It's surprising how little time is spent talking about measurement, because without it, SEOs are flying blind.

One common metric is rank. It's not a very good metric, because it doesn't tell you very much, other than you've won the ranking game.

But so what?

What if that rank doesn't help you achieve your goals? What if every person who clicks on your link ends up buying from the guy who is advertising on Adwords instead?

This is why measurement, aligned with your goals, is important. If you track SEO efforts through to a goal, and most of those goals tend to involve making money, then you'll be head and shoulders above most of the forum hacks and pretenders. It doesn't matter what tracking software you use. Become an expert and tracking and metrics.

Summary

  • 1. Understand the history and context of SEO
  • 2. Learn your chops from a reputable source
  • 3. Clearly define your strategy and goals
  • 4. Become a metrics and measurement guru

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