How Your Competitors Can Help You

Jan 27th
posted in

Are you thinking of building a new site?

Before you do, it pays to take a look at your competitors. By choosing the right sites to compete against, you can gain significant advantage.

Firstly, you need to position your offering relative to your competitors.

1. What Problem Do you Solve?

Making money is mostly about solving problems. Write down the problem you're going to solve. Be specific.

For example:

  • Provide auto repair training to amateurs
  • Sell bomb detectors to airlines
  • Sell ice to Eskimos

For this article, we'll use the idea "sell ice to Eskimos". No doubt you've already spotted the problem with this rather lousy business model, but let's have a look at what a bad idea looks like within this evaluation process.

2. Who Is Your Audience?

You may have noticed I included the prospective audience in my examples above. Know what you're selling, and to whom.

Demographics, in other words.

Who are you customers? What do they want? What type of language do they use? Build up a profile.

In our example, our customers are Eskimos. Eskimos live around the North Pole region, mainly in Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Internet access is obviously going to be an issue, not to mention language barriers, which is about the point the idea should die.

Yet, surprisingly, many prospective web businesses never address this simple question. Various Web 2.0 businesses clearly didn't ask questions 1 & 2. Presumably they jumped straight to the "how can we get a few million dollars in VC?" question instead.

3. Where Are Your Customers Hiding?

You need to get in front of your audience.

SEOs know a lot about keyword research, so have a huge advantage over others when it comes to finding out who their competitors are, and where the opportunity lies.

You're probably familiar with keyword research tools and competitive research tools such as:

Find out the keyword terms your potential audience use, conduct searches, and make a note of the big players under those keyword terms. Keep in mind that language people use on search engines is always changing. There are more queries that are longer and more specific. These give you valuable insights into how to position your offering.

What questions are people asking? What problems are they trying to solve? What are the many different ways they describe that problem? What keyword areas are your competitors missing? What value can you provide that they do not? Have your competitors missed lucrative keyword areas?

4. What Is The Nature Of The Market?

You should look for rapidly growing markets. You want to avoid established, declining markets, unless you can provide a new layer of value that is difficult for competitors to emulate.

Take a look at the type of sites you intend to compete against. Are they big companies? Are they hobby blogs and thin affiliate sites? It's going to be much easier for your new site to compete against the thin affiliates and hobby projects than it is to compete against the establishment.

One of the common stumbling blocks at this point is solving a non-problem. The "ice to Eskimos" market is not dominated by established players, or hobby blogs for that matter, but there's a good reason for that - Eskimos don't have a "lack of ice" problem. Beware of the Web 2.0 trap - solving the non-problem.

5. What Related Markets Exist?

If the market you were thinking of entering is competitive, are there any closely related markets you can enter? You can find these areas by looking for patterns in the keyword research results.

Let's try "fitness". Notice any patterns here?

You might notice there are numerous searches for fitness locations i.e. a gym, a center, a club. So, instead of targeting fitness in terms of health, which would see you up against established health organizations and generalist publications, you might want to target the fitness center section of the market e.g. a comparison of gyms and centers. Such a niche could possibly be more lucrative, as there is a clear money making opportunity as people need to pay to join these facilities.

Which brings us onto...

6. Is there Potential To Make Money?

Just because a lot of people are doing something, doesn't mean it is worth doing.

Some areas are difficult to monetarize. Science, for example. And social discussions. Some area's are saturated, making it very difficult to find a new value layer to add. SEO, for example.

How easy would it be for one of the major players to copy your value proposition? Look for areas that have a clear path to monetarization and that aren't dominated by major players, or saturated by sites with little to distinguish them.

Good luck in your hunt for a lucrative niche :)

If you want to see a video presentation on how to evaluate competitors, Aaron has more in the members section.

Five Dreaded SEO Topics We Hope We Never See Again

Jan 26th
posted in

1. Search Engine Spamming Should Be Outlawed

Out in the wild west, moral confusion abounds.

There have been SEOs who have argued - with a straight face - that whilst it's ok for them to game search engine algorithms, it's not ok for others to do so. This is usually because the other guy isn't following "the rules".

What are the rules?

The rules are decided - and vaguely defined - by the search engines, and then interpreted to mean whatever an SEO decides they mean. Far be it for a search engine to create rules that serve their own business interests, which may not align with the interests of the webmaster.

SEO is built on shifting sands. What do you do when what you were doing was "within the guidelines" and no longer is because the rules change? Do you willfully decide to rank lower?

Conclusion: Spam is what the other guy does. Also an acronym for "Sites Positioned Above Mine".

2. How To Create Meta Tags

Hard to believe now, but forum wars were fought over how many times a webmaster could repeat a keyword in a meta keyword tag. Twice was often deemed ok, but any more than that and you were almost certainly an "evil spammer" (see #1).

Meta tag manipulation doesn't count for anything these days. The tags are mainly used to describe the content of pages, that the search engines may display as snippet text.

Conclusion: Deader than AltaVista

3. Is SEO Ethical?

A curious framing of SEO in terms of ethics and morality.

Is it good and proper to try to get a higher rank than the search engine would bestow otherwise? The point of SEO is, of course, to get a higher rank than the search engines would bestow otherwise.

These people were usually in the wrong game. Many went on to join Seminaries.

Conclusion: Welcome to the jungle

4. Should I Buy Links?

Yes.

No.

Depends.

Paranoia runs rampant in SEO, especially when search engines make a example of someone. Like SearchKing.

Almost all SEOs once advocated buying links in, say, Yahoo, as a listing in Yahoo would lead to better rankings in Google. However, Matt Cutts put the cat amongst the pigeons back in 2005 when he declared that "Google does consider buying text links for PageRank purposes to be outside our quality guidelines".

The argument quickly descended into a semantic war i.e. define "paid". Money changing hands? Favors? Nepotism? Erm...Yahoo Directory? One of the more interesting conclusions often got buried: "Hey, perhaps if Google dislike them so much, paid links really do work!"

Conclusion: Yeah, they work

5. Should There Be SEO Standards?

A natural progression of the ethical debate. It was proposed that SEOs should all conform to a common code of practice, as other professions often do.

The problem was that the relationship between search engines and SEOs has always been grey. Only the search engine can really define what the search engine wants, and what the search engine wants might not align with what the SEO, or their client, wants. In any case, the search engine isn't going to publicly define exactly what they want, as they are worried that people, like SEOs, will game their systems.

So, you got a few self-appointed search police officers, who would suggest that everyone followed their particular code of practice, based on their interpretation of the search engines guidelines. The self-appointed cops usually out-numbered those who followed them, and invariably disagreed amongst themselves anyway.

Conclusion: Impossible to get buy-in

The 100+ Ranking Variables Google Uses, And Why You Shouldn't Care

Jan 23rd
posted in

Continuing on with our community questions, here are a few requests for specific ranking information:

"What are the 100+ variables Google considers in their ranking algorithm?"

Cheeky :)

Easy to say, hard to do. Take a job at Google, work your way up the ranks and join the inner circle.

Another question we received is along the same lines:

How do you outrank a super established website in your niche, one where Google is giving site links and their domain is older

Again, easy to say, hard to do. Either forget outranking the domain and buy it, or spend time doing exactly what they have done, and hope they also stop their SEO efforts in order to let you catch up.

These types of questions arise often. "If I could just learn a few quick-fix insider secrets, I can outrank everyone!"

If there was a quick n easy secret formula that would guarantee high rank, why would those who know it, reveal it?

The reality is that quick-fix secret formulas don't exist.

Sure, there are quirks in the algorithms that can be exploited, but they are often trumped by historical factors, like authority metrics, that are difficult to fake. One common blackhat technique is to hack an established domain, and place "money" pages on that domain. That's an admission, if ever there was, that technical trickery on your own domain is either too time consuming, or doesn't work so well.

I know some of the worlds top SEOs, and I can't recall them spending much time talking about secret sauce. What they do talk about is making money and growing empires. They're more focused on the business strategy of SEO.

The effectiveness of many SEO techniques will be dead soon, anyway.

What you need to think about for the future is user interaction.

The Future Of SEO

Have a read of this document, by my good friend and Merlot drinker, Mike Grehan. Mike outlines his view on the future of search, and he makes a number of important points:

  • The web crawler model is nearing the end of its useful life
  • Signals from users, not content creators, will become more important
  • Universal Search changed the ranking game forever
  • Forget rank, think engagement

If you want to future proof your SEO strategy, take heed of Mike's words.

The crawler model is failing because the crawler was designed for structured text, not multimedia. The crawler can't see behind pay-walls. It has trouble navigating databases in which the data isn't interlinked or marked-up. The search engines will need to look for other ways of finding and making sense of data.

Social networks, blogs, Twitter etc indicate a move away from the webmaster as signaler of importance i.e. who you choose to link out to. The search engines will need to mine the social signals form those networks. The user will signal where their attention is focused by their interaction and paths.

Universal search, in may cases, has pushed results listings down below the fold. For example, to get a client seen high up on the results page may involve making sure making sure they are featured on Google Maps. Similarly, if they have video content, it should be placed on YouTube. Google have shown they are increasingly looking to the aggregators for results and featuring their content in prominent positions.

That list of search results is becoming more and more personalized, and this will continue. Who knows, we may not have a list before too long. More and more "search" data - meaning "answers to questions" - might be pushed to us, rather than us having to go hunt for it.

The future of SEO, therefore, will be increasingly about engaging people. The search engines will be measuring the signals users send. In the past, it's all been about the signals webmasters send i.e. links and marked up content.

For now, you still need to cover the obvious bases - create crawlable, on-topic content, backed by quality linking. But you'll also need to think about the users - and the signals they send - in order to future proof your site. Google has long placed the user at the center of the web. Their algorithms are surely heading towards measuring them, too.

What are these signals? Ah, now there's a question.....

  • Over 100 training modules, covering topics like: keyword research, link building, site architecture, website monetization, pay per click ads, tracking results, and more.
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  • 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!

Will SEO Be Dead Within The Next Two Years?

Jan 21st
posted in

Another question we received recently was:

"SEO as we know it will be dead within the next 2 years – true or false? With the wealth of info at their fingertips combined with localized, customized search to name but a few Google will no longer need to do what it does now to determine rankings?"

I'd say "false".

People have been predicting the death of SEO since, well, the beginning of SEO. Here's a debate from 2004, and another from 2006. These arguments probably started around 1995.

So long as search engines display a list of sites, for which payment is not required, SEO will exist.

How SEO is done will change. It has always changed. In the bad old days, SEO was all about getting listed in the Yahoo Directory. If you didn't, you were pretty much invisible. There was a time that listing with Looksmart got you decent rankings in MSN. These days, few of those new to SEO have even heard of Looksmart.

Google will certainly adapt and change, and use a variety of metrics in order to determine relevance. SEOs will adapt and change, trying to work out what these metrics are.

Recently, Eric Schmidt made the following comment:

The internet is fast becoming a "cesspool" where false information thrives, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said yesterday. Speaking with an audience of magazine executives visiting the Google campus here as part of their annual industry conference, he said their brands were increasingly important signals that content can be trusted"

So, having a brand might be a signal of quality, which may, in turn, lead to a higher rank. Or perhaps Schmidt was just playing to the audience of newspaper owners. Difficult to tell ;)

Google collects a wealth of usage data from toolbars, analytics, and their ad systems, so it is conceivable they might fold these metrics into their ranking systems. Marissa Mayer recently suggested that SearchWiki data might be used ranking calculations.

Will the bar get raised? Will SEO become more difficult? Of course. But a raised bar works two ways. If you can reach it, there's a new barrier between you and those who follow you. That gives you some level of defensibility.

So how do you do SEO going forward?

I've written a lot about the importance of holistic strategy. Your aim should be to sell something to people - be it an opinion, a product, a service. All your endeavors should support this goal, and most of the time, that means doing the basics well - make your site crawlable, well linked, and solve a genuine problem for people. If your SEO efforts are not resulting in an improvement in the bottom line , then there is little point doing SEO.

Bob Massa put it well:

"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".

What Aspect Of SEO Should You Be Spending Most Of Your Time On?

Jan 19th
posted in

There are so many SEO tasks demanding your attention. How do you prioritize them?

Seems to be a common issue, as when we asked for questions a while back, we received this one:

"What aspect of SEO should you be spending most of your time on? Optimizing the title tag, getting links, creating quality content? "

So which area of SEO will give you the most bang for your buck? Link building? On-page? Social media? Ask ten different SEOs, and you'll likely get ten different answers.

Let's take a step back and start with strategy.

1. Define Your Goals

Without clear goals, it's difficult to know how to spend your time. Start by listing your goals.

Do you want to sell services or product? Do you want to increase traffic levels? Do you want to increase brand awareness? Knowing which SEO dial to twist depends very much on what goal you're trying to achieve.

Once you have your list, create a set of KPIs. KPI stands for Key Performance Indicator. KPIs will give you a set of metrics to help you decide if you're meeting, or missing, your goals.

Here are a few examples:

  • Rank top ten for keyword term x in Google
  • Increase traffic from search engines by *x* percent by *date*
  • Get 1,000 new sign ups from search visitors in March
  • Sell ten widgets per day to search visitors by next week

The most useful KPIs are specific. You either hit the target or you miss.

Your strategy will be defined by your goals. For example, if your goal is to sell ten widgets by next week using a new site, then your strategy might be to forget SEO for the meantime, and focus on PPC instead. If your goal is to get 1000 new subscribers by the end of the year, then you might spend a lot of time analyzing your demographic, determining where they hang out, and getting your name and content in front of them at every available opportunity. If your goal is to get #1 for term X, then you'll be focusing a lot on link building, using keyword term X in the link.

And so on. Your goals define your tactics.

Once you have a list of clear objectives, and a clear list of KPIs, the next step is to consider the age of your site.

2. What Type Of Site Do You Have?

New Site

One of the most important task for new sites is link building. The sites with the highest quality linkage tend to trump sites with lower quality linkage when it comes to rank.

Until you build links, then tweaking on-page aspects of SEO on a new site won't make a lot of difference in terms of rank. Get the basics right - keywords in the title tags, keyword focused content, strong internal linking, a shallow structure and good crawlability - but focus your efforts on attaining links. If that means establishing a large body of quality content first, then so be it. Others may choose to buy their way up the chain, or aggressively pursue social media opportunities.

Established Site

The opposite is true for an established site. Whilst links are always important, an established site can leverage on-page factors to a greater degree.

Once your site has built up sufficient link authority, then you may only need add a new page of content, and link it internally, in order to rank well. People running established sites may wish to focus more on producing quality, focused content, and let the linking look after itself.

3. The Five Most Important Areas Of SEO On Which To Spend Your Time

These are highly debatable, but here's my ranking:

1. Produce Remarkable, Attention Grabbing Content

Everything starts with remarkable content i.e. content worth remarking on and linking to. Do you have unique, timely content? Does you content solve a problem? Does you content provide a new insight? Does you content spark controversy? Does you content start - or contribute to - a conversation?

2. Crawlability

If your content can't be crawled, you won't rank. Ensure your site is easily accessible to both humans and search engine spiders.

3. Build Links

Google's algorithm is heavily weighted towards links. Beg, buy, or earn links, and rankings follow. Get your keywords into the link text. Building links also means building relationships with people. Spend a lot of time doing this, especially in the early stages.

4. Title Tag

It is debatable how much ranking value the title tag has, both it definitely has click-thru value. Your listing fights for attention with all the other links on page. What will make people click your link?
Learn the lessons of Adwords. Match your title tag to the keyword query. Solve a users problem. Arouse curiosity.

5. On-Page Content

Forget endless on-page tweaking. Largely a waste of time. Instead, keep a few keyword phrases in mind when writing. Use semantic variations of your terms in order to help catch long tail terms. Link your page to related pages, using keyword terms in the link.

Bonus: Watch Your Competition. Do What They Do

Download the toolbar. And keep a very close eye on your competition. Whatever they do, you need to do more of it :)

Summary

SEO used to be a technical exercise involving the isolation of specific factors that, when tweaked, lead to higher rank. It still is, to a certain extent, but much less so than it used to be. Therefore, there is little point looking at each factor in isolation.

SEO has become a lot more holistic and strategic, so by far the most important aspect is clearly outlining your goals, and defining a strategy to achieve those goals.

Good luck out there :)

Fresh Start For A New Year: Reduce Clutter

Jan 19th

“Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.” - Lao Tzu

Did you take a vacation?

If you took a break, I hope you had a good one! I've just returned from a relaxing holiday - it is summer where I am, the weather is great, and life is lazy and fine.

Holidays provide a great opportunity to reflect and take a new perspective, so one thing I tried to do was to step away from the internet. I didn't take a laptop with me on holiday. Needless to say, I really missed it. After all these years, I suspect I may as well be hard-wired into the interweb.

However, out there amongst the isolated dunes, I was reminded that....

Most Stuff Doesn't Matter

Most blog posts don't matter. Most news doesn't matter. Most Tweets don't matter. Social networks don't matter. These things can quickly become a meaningless distraction.

What's worse, is that we often miss the important things going on, because there is too much irrelevant clutter fighting for our attention. When I returned, there was so much stuff l hadn't read.

But was I any worse off?

Not really. I quickly came up to speed again by selecting a few important sources, and reading those.

It didn't take me long.

With this in mind, it was time to do some weeding and make a fresh start. My feed reader had become ridiculously cluttered.

Hard To See The Wood For The Trees

How many feeds to you subscribe to? Do you have a lot of unread items?

I certainly did.

Using my RSS reader had become a chore, mainly because I'd subscribed to so many feeds over the years that I was never, in reality, going to read. All those unread items were just made me feel guilty. I needed to reduce the clutter.

So I took a chainsaw to it.

I asked myself - what are the one or two sites in any given vertical that provide me with genuine value? Could I name them without looking at them?

It was actually surprising easy, especially given the rather useful historical usage data. Once I answered this question, I kept the truly useful feeds, and deleted everything else.

My feed collection now feels very Zen. No more news re-writers or trivia about who is doing what to whom. It's simple, elegant and best of all, a lot more useful than it was before.

What Is Your Desert Island List?

Your list will probably differ significantly from mine, but I thought I'd share a few sites, and try to see if there was any pattern to my choices.

One pattern was a fondness of good aggregation. By subscribing to one good aggregation site, I pretty much know what is going on in the generalist tech world, but without the need to subscribe to numerous individual blogs. One such site is Techmeme. Techmeme does a good job of harnessing the wisdom of crowds, by being selective about who is a member of that crowd.

The other thing I noticed was that I chose blogs with a distinctive personality behind them, coupled with an established reputation. For example, I read pretty much everything Danny Sullivan writes, because what he writes about is important.

Finally, there are the "official" blogs from the big companies in search - those blogs that form the horses mouth. Most of Google's blogs appear in this folder.

Do you notice any patterns to your RSS selections?

Getting Noticed In Crowded Markets

One problem with my approach is that it tends to be elitist. I'm concerned I'm going to miss upcoming writers who don't yet appear on the establishment radar.

Were you planning to start a blog this year? Have you done so, but are having problems getting noticed?

This article is a good reminder on the essential factors you need when you plan to enter a crowded market:

You can choose to sell to different people, such as small businesses; you can find new distribution channels; you can stratify the industry's price points by introducing a luxury class; or, you can redefine your selling proposition," he says, noting how Starbucks (SBUX) revolutionized the coffee shop by selling an experience rather than just a beverage.....However you choose to be different, you must be great at the basics and exceptional at your defining factor

That last part is killer. If I look at my RSS choices, they all have those defining features.

Recommended Search Reading

By no means conclusive, but I guess that's the point :)

Please share your killer sources with the SEOBook community in the comments.

  • Search Engine Land - Great editorial. Also features some of the top search writers as columnists and feature contributors
  • SEOBook - How could this not be on anyone's list! ;) Aaron writes some of the most useful SEO instruction in this vertical.
  • Google Blogoscoped - Keeping an eye on Google, so you don't have to!
  • Matt Cutts - Google's resident (Anti) Spam Engineer. Be sure to read between the lines.
  • Official Google Blog - All Google's announcements come through here.
  • Sphinn - One good way to spot new search writers, although it can tend towards industry navel gazing. Numerous gems, especially under the Greatest Hits section
  • SEO By The Sea - Bill digs out obscure search patent filings and analyzes them. Don't let the tight niche fool you - this site can provide valuable insights into the future direction of search.
  • Search Engine Journal - Always on top of all things search.
  • Top Rank Big List - When you've just gotta have it all! Top Rank Online Marketing Blog is also a great read.

Credibility Experience Audit

Dec 19th
posted in

Do you search visitors bounce?

As we approach the end of the year, and people start to wind down, it might be a good time to take stock of our web strategy beyond SEO. How can we make more of that traffic we're already getting?

Here are some things you can do to optimize your sites credibility.

1. Reduce Wait Time

Streamline your visitors experience.

We all know server response time is important, but so is any wait time you impose on the user. Do you make visitors fill out forms? Do your competitors? If you do, but your competitors don't, you might find your visitors go elsewhere.

Are your processes more cumbersome than they need to be? Is it difficult for a visitor to find things on your site? Could you organize your structure in a better way? Can you think of sites that were a pleasure to use? Compare these sites with your own.

2. Unique Brand

Brand is more than a logo or identity.

Brand is the entire experience, from the moment someone sees your listing in the search engine, until the time they recall your site from memory a few weeks later. If you had one message you wanted to leave your visitors with, what would it be? Do all your pages reinforce this message? Does your design? Your copy? Your layout? Look at ways in which you can empathize with people and the problems they are having. People need to believe you feel and understand their problems in order to read and take your advice.

In the good old days, brand wasn't much of a consideration in SEO. Relevance to the keyword query was all that mattered. However, Google has pretty much solved the relevance problem.

These days, Google wants to find the one right answer.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said:

"Brands are the solution, not the problem... Brands are how you sort out the cesspool."

Google's challenge is to weed out false information. Schmidt sees brands as a way to do this.

Brand is going to become increasingly important in terms of rank. What do brands have that unbranded sites do not have?

For starters, brand names are typed into search boxes as a keyword term in their own right. Brand names are readily associated with a product or service. When Aaron started SEOBook.com, nobody searched on "SEO Book". Now, plenty of people do, and Aaron "owns" that keyword term in organic search.

Think about ways you can own a keyword term so the association between it and your brand becomes synonymous.

3. Copy Writing

Aim for clarity.

Are there opportunities to edit your copy writing in order to make the purpose of your site clearer? Are the benefits you provide crystal clear? Sometimes, when we spend a lot of our time focusing on search engines and incorporating keyword terms, we can lose sight of the people who actually read the copy.

On-page SEO and writing for search engines has never been less important. It's mostly about links and, going forward, the level of visitor engagement.

For each page on your site, ask yourself what you want the visitor to do next. Does your copy make this next action clear? Provide external citations and recommendations from third parties.

4. Site Design And Usability

Keep it simple.

Can you reduce complexity and clutter? It's not that your visitors are stupid, it's that people won't invest time learning your interface unless there is clear benefit in doing so.

What is the message conveyed by your site? Does you design support that message? If your site is difficult to use, what does that say to your visitor? People quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. Your visual design should match the sites purpose.

5. Human-ness

One of the reasons social sites are popular because information is linked to a personality. The same goes for blogs. People like to get a sense of the people who produced the information.

It helps build trust.

Do you include signals of human involvement? It can be as subtle as the way your write e.g personal viewpoint, or as overt as using a photo. People like to see contact details, personal details and other markers of the human presence. Highlight your expertise. Update your content often.

How To Start Writing

Dec 18th

"Be Remarkable"

"Write great content"

Everyone says that the secret to achieving great search rankings is to produce great content. People link to great content. So you sit down to write some great content.

....but the screen remains blank.....

.....the cursor blinks.....

Nothing.

Typing is easy. Rewriting news is easy. But putting together a unique killer post that attracts attention - that's difficult!

How do you get past writers block? How do you give your ideas form? How do write with a unique voice so your articles stand out from the crowd?

Here are a few ideas.

1. Write Often

There is only one way to learn how to write well and that is to write often.

People often talk about the traffic benefits of writing a blog, but they often overlook the personal benefits. A blog gives you the opportunity to write for an audience of one. Yourself. A blog gives you the opportunity to practice the craft of writing.

Start a blog on a topic you're interested in, and set a goal of writing one post a day for the next three months. At the end of three months, you'll be a lot better writer than when you started.

2. Write Like Crazy

The obvious way of getting around the blank page problem is to simply start writing.

Write as fast as you can, even if it's gibberish. Get your half formed thoughts down on the page. Write questions. Then write the answers to those questions. Make lists. Once you start, don't stop writing for five minutes. You aim is to shut off your internal editor, because your internal editor isn't the guy who gets writing onto the page.

At the end of five minutes, you don't have a blank page anymore.

You can then flesh out the good ideas, eliminate the bad ideas, and re-order your content. This is much easier than trying to write (invent) and edit (analyze) at the same time.

3. Use Software

  • The Google Toolbar and many content management systems have spell checkers built into them.
  • Paid software programs like StyleWriter take it to the next level - offering tips on tense usage/unity (which is discussed further in #6).
  • Using keyword research tools and looking at other related content (like Wikipedia pages and for Dummies books) can help you figure out how to best structure your content, and help you find some important keyword modifiers to add to your copy.

4. Keep It Simple

Ever read an insurance brochure? Or a police incident report? They are cluttered with unnecessary verbiage, because the writer uses ten words when one will do.

"The feather covered creature is currently proceeding in a westerly direction ambulating at a regular pace to the arforementioned side of the concourse"

The chicken crossed the road, in other words.

Good writing conveys meaning. Great writing does the same, but uses fewer words.

There's a great Mark Twain quote about simplicity: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead".

Anyone can be verbose.

Great writing is also about about rewriting. It's about honing down to the essentials. Use short words. Use short sentences. Use active verbs.

5. The Hook

If you've read this far, you've already passed the most important sentence in this article.

The most important sentence is the first sentence. If you don't hook people in the first sentence, then they won't read the second. The second most important sentence is the second sentence. That sentence gets people to the third sentence. And so on.

How long does the hook need to be?

Sometimes, it can be one sentence. Sometimes a paragraph. Sometimes the entire first page. Entice the reader. Make the first sentence a bit mysterious. Invoke an emotion. Appeal to their curiosity. Pose a question. Give the reader a concrete reason to keep reading. What benefit is there to the reader in reading through to the end?

6. Maintain Unity

Lack of unity can confuse readers. Decide on one unity, and stick to it.

For example, you might choose to write in the past tense. "We went to the beach last week". Or you might choose to wrote in the present. "I'm sitting in the car looking out over the bay". But don't mix the two tenses.

The type of unity you use will depend on the type of article you're writing. You've probably seen those long sales letters that convey a personal story about how the writer overcame some problem, and you can too if you buy their e-book? Those sales letters wouldn't work nearly as well if the writer switches mode, from the personal to the impersonal, half way through.

7. The Audience

In "On Writing Well", William Zinsser advises:

"....a question will occur to you: "Who am I writing for?" It's a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don't try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience. Every reader is a different person".

This is not to say that you shouldn't consider the audience. In terms of the craft of writing, you need to provide structure and be interesting enough so people keep reading. But don't worry about whether your readers agree with you, or like what you say, or like how you're saying it.

Each reader is an individual, and they're going to respond to different things. Don't compromise your writing for the imagined, singular "audience".

8. Your Written Voice

Only you sound like you. No one writes like you. That is your in-built, unique point of difference.

One way to find your voice is to read your writing aloud. What bits sound wrong? What bits sound pretentious or condescending? What bits just don't sound like you. Eliminate them. Readers want to "hear" a distinctive voice that rings true.

A lot of blogs are starting to sound like mainstream media reporting, and that is a shame. The writers have forgotten what made blogs an attractive alternative in the first place - the use of the personalized voice.

9. Make One Point

Your article should have one overall point. Not two points, or five points, but one point. What do you want to convince people of? What is the one thing you want them to take away?

You don't need to have the last word on a given topic. It's not possible. You've probably seen examples of link bait entitled "The Ultimate Guide To...."

But they never are the ultimate. It isn't possible.

Instead, decide on the one point you want people to take away, and write towards that point. Once you've made that point, stop writing.

The point of this article is to encourage people to get writing :)

Further Reading:

Small Business Link Building Ideas

Dec 15th

It's easy for the big guys.

They have big advertising budgets. They have brand awareness. Every time they twitch, some business journalist will be writing up a story.

But what if you operate a small business? You have a limited budget, you've got a pile of other things that need doing, and very little time to devote to any one aspect of your marketing strategy. How do you build links without breaking the bank?

Let's take a look at how the small business can generate quality links, and do so without a great deal of time and money.

1. Use Your Agility

The small business has one huge advantage over the big business when it comes to SEO: agility.

For a big business to change, it takes time. There is layer upon layer of sign offs. There are meetings. There are lawyers, managers and shareholders. This is a difficult environment in which to undertake SEO.

The small business, on the other hand, can move very quickly.

Chances are, there are only one or two people making decisions, so use this to your advantage. Are there aspects of your industry where speed is essential? Can you react to fast breaking news before the big guys can? Can you spot fast emerging consumer trends, and publish information on them before anyone else does? To help you monitor breaking news and trends in your area of interest, sign up to trend sites, such as Google Trends, and monitor news feeds using Google Alerts.

Big business finds it very difficult to be controversial, yet controversy can be a great marketing tool. The Sex Pistols built a career, not by copying the establishment, but by butting heads with it. Everyone knows about "Will it blend?". That viral campaign was edgy, risky and out-there. If Blendtech hadn't taken that risk, they wouldn't have been worth remarking on. A blender is not a new invention, and there are a lot of big competitors making blenders, but Blentech made their name by being a bit wild and crazy.

Are there opportunities for you to go against the grain and stand out? If you do, you'll be link worthy. Can you borrow controversial ideas form other market sectors and apply them to your own?

2. Publishing Strategy

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get people to voluntarily link to purely commercial sites.

Consider adopting a publishing strategy that has a non-commercial angle. If need be, create a second site. It is much easier to get links for sites that have utility beyond selling a product or service. Create glossaries, unbiased buyer information, review sites, blogs, wikis, or industry news sites. Once the site has built up some link equity, and is ranking well, you can add your own advertising, or link it to your commercial site.

Try to create niche information sites that cover areas no one else is covering. Think small. If you're one of the few sources for a particular type of information, you stand to get more links than sites that compete in saturated areas. Try not to compete directly with the bigger operators. Redefine your niche until you can make your offering unique.

Take a step back from your site. Is it remarkable? Would you link to it? Be honest. Think about what it takes for you to link out. Why would someone link to you? Can you make the people linking to you look good? Consider writing favorable reviews about indirect competitors. Does your site provide genuine utility when compared to your competitors? Think about what problems you can solve for people that no-one else is solving. PlentyOfFish.com made millions by providing a free dating service when every other dating site was using a paid subscriber model. Provide information that solves a problem.

Links should follow.

3. Nail The Basics

Cover the basics of link building.

Get listed in relevant directories, local business organizations, and industry verticals. To find these sites, search on industry name + add url

Issue press releases whenever you have relevant information to share. Make a list of the top sites in your industry sector, and try to get a link from them. Can you offer to do something for them, like writing an article, in return for a link? Look at who links to your competitors. Use tools, such as Yahoo Site Explorer, to find these links

Make a list of those sites and see what your competitors did to get these links. Copy what they did. Put most of your efforts into getting quality links, rather than getting low quantity junk. It's surprising how few links you need in order to rank well, especially in niche areas.

4. Give Something Valuable Away

Web designers often give away templates. They create a template, and place their link in the footer.

Think about what you can create and give away. Compare the cost of developing these widgets and freebies with the cost of buying or chasing links. If you're providing something genuinely valuable for nothing, people are certain to remark on it, especially if your competitors charge for the same thing. You can also submit your offering to sites that feature freebies, such as TheFreeSite.com. While every other guy is "giving" the opportunity for a link trade - which isn't of much value - you're going one step further.

Offer coupons. Simply by offering coupons, you can get included in coupon and bargain hunting sites.

5. Local News Interest

Local newspapers and news sites are always on the lookout for local content. Unlike major newspapers, the barrier to entry is often low, but the link equity can be just as valuable.

Is there a local aspect to your business? Are there ways you can get involved in the community that would lead to reporters writing a story about you? Issue press releases with a local angle, and try and build up a relationship with local reporters. Offer to be a spokesperson for your topic of interest if they have future stories for which they need an expert opinion.

6. Sponsor Charities

Charity sites are often amenable to linking out to those who support them. The cost of the donation might be nothing compared to the value of a lifetime link from a well-placed charities.

Offer to do work of genuine value for the charity. Could you help them market their website? Design a new website for them? Can you write an article for them, or find a way of featuring in their news stories? These links are pure gold,and because it takes some effort, it is difficult for your lazy competitors to follow.

Search on terms such as donor, sponsors, and donations to find these sites.

7. Request A Link In All Communications

Whenever you mail someone, include a link request in the footer. The communication could be an order confirmation, an email newsletter, or an invoice. Here's an example on SEOmoz.

Highlight featured content in your email footer. Update the links in your email footer regularly, so people are more likely to look at them. Think of your communications as a call to action. How can you get people to engage further with you?

Start a Twitter account and post your articles. Do the same with Facebook and any other social media channels you use.

8. Participate

Go where your audience are.

It's not just about getting links that pass PR. It's about creating meaningful relationships. If your potential audience hangs out on forums, then post to those forums. Become a trusted member and advisor. People link to SEOBook.com not just because of the great information ;) but because of the quality of the relationship has been established in the past.

This approach will serve you well for the future. Google will be placing more and more emphasis on engagement metrics in order to determine rank. Why?

The problem Google was created to solve - finding relevant information - is morphing into a problem of locating quality information. There might be a lot of crawlable information on a given topic, so finding it isn't an issue any more. Finding the information people find most useful is the new challenge.

How people engage with your site is going to become increasingly important.Look to establish meaningful relationships, wherever possible.

Further Reading:

SEO as a Change Process

Dec 5th
posted in

In a previous article, Baking SEO Into The Workflow, we took a look at the problems faced by in-house SEOs. Most of those problems occur because SEO forces a change in work process. Change - any change - is often met with resistance.

We received a lot of great feedback on that post, so we thought we'd delve a little deeper into this topic.

The Change Process

Change managers highlight three crucial factors in any change process:

  • Start at the top
  • Address the human side
  • Approach change systematically

"Any significant transformation creates “people issues.” New leaders will be asked to step up, jobs will be changed, new skills and capabilities must be developed, and employees will be uncertain and resistant. Dealing with these issues on a reactive, case-by-case basis puts speed, morale, and results at risk. A formal approach for managing change — beginning with the leadership team and then engaging key stakeholders and leaders — should be developed early, and adapted often as change moves through the organization. This demands as much data collection and analysis, planning, and implementation discipline as does a redesign of strategy, systems, or processes.".

Let's take these ideas and apply them to the world of professional SEO.

Management Strategy

Start at the top.

Management buy in is also the most crucial element. Without their support, it's unlikely you'll get anything else done at the lower levels. That's why change processes start at the top. So, how specifically does one approach getting management on-side?

Analysis

First, do a complete audit of the existing website and web strategy, and make a list of the problem areas that need changing. Order this list in terms of importance. i.e. crucial changes, nice to have, phase one, phase two, etc. Also make a note of how easy, or how difficult, each item is to implement. Think of it as a proposal, which is really what it is. This type of analysis will show that you're serious, organized and thorough.

Management are going to be looking for you to deliver more benefit than it costs to provide that benefit. If you can show you'll achieve this, you're half way there.

Sell It

Use factors such as competitive advantage and disadvantage. Show them where their competitors - specifically their SEO savvy competitors - rank. Estimate the level of search engine traffic their competitors receive.

Create value propositions. Try to get management to place a value on each visitor. What is the opportunity to get in-front of a customer worth to them? How much does it cost to get that same attention via existing channels, such as direct marketing, print, radio or television advertising? Compare this with the cost of implementing your strategy. Show them how they can both save money, and get more return.

Managers also want to get some idea of the following factors:

  • What is the cost?
  • What is the time to delivery?
  • What should your performance metrics/kpi be?

Be prepared to answer such questions.

Use case studies. Show before and after situations where seo has made a remarkable difference. Something that has been tried and proven carries less risk than the new and different. Remember, SEO is probably going to sound new and different to all but the most web savvy organizations.

Get management to commit to your strategy on a point by point basis. Insist that you'll only be able to deliver outcomes if this strategy is followed. Outline the risks of removing any element.

This achieves two things: it gets them to commit to your course of action. They'll back you if you receive push back from designers, developers and writers. Secondly, it provides a get out of jail free card. If you miss KPIs because you couldn't achieve all of the strategy i.e. the other areas pushed back, you can show them why you couldn't deliver.

The Human Side

You go into a meeting.

There is one of you, there is a small team of designers, and there's a manager who thinks he needs SEO, but doesn't have an understanding of what is actually involved. So how do you tell them that their strategy is all wrong, to stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to your exact specifications?

You could use the direct approach: "Listen up! Your strategy is all wrong, stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to my exact specifications!" A tough road, but if your daddy owns the company - certainly worth a shot :)

More likely, however, the design team has more authority than the SEO, especially if you're new to the job.

Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey

There's an apt British phrase: "Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey".

It means play it gently and carefully in order to achieve the outcome you seek.

If you lack sufficient authority to get your way on all decisions, as is the case with most SEOs who work within large organizations, then the softly, softly approach might be more likely to produce results than the my-way-or-the-highway approach.

Consider how people react to change. How did you feel when you were forced to adapt to change? Empathy goes a long way.

For example, try putting yourself in the designers shoes.

She may have graduated from a graphic design course. During her years of study, SEO wasn't mentioned once. She has been working as a web designer for a few years, and she's acutely aware that web design is a very poor second cousin to print design. In print, the designer has free reign, and can specify everything to their exact requirements. The colors, the size, the fonts, the look and feel.

On the web, however, she has to think about how her design is going to display on different screen sizes, how the colors are going to look on various monitors, and how different browsers are going to render the layout. She has to incorporate widgets and forms from the developers. She's got to present to management in a few weeks time. The top manager, who controls her bonus, likes to be wowed by cool, cutting edge designs. She jumping through all these crazy hoops that get in the way of her graphic vision.

Then in walks this new SEO guy and demands she retool the site so a search engine spider can see it.

If there's a fan in the office, it will soon be covered in something unpleasant.

How To Make SEO Fit In

One way is to not do anything.

Not every battle is worth winning. For example, lets say you're working in house at an agency, and the work is for an external client. The client wants a spectacular site, because he wants to impress his colleges and boss. The designer is happy to design it, because she might win an award. The client hasn't specified seo as a delivery requirement, as the clients customers usually find them by word of mouth, not via search engines. Is SEO really important here?

No, it's not.

The best approach, when SEO comes late in the piece, might be to inform the manager in charge of delivery that this site is unlikely to receive much in the way of traffic from search engines in it's existing form. You could specify changes, but is that really in the best interests of everyone? Does the cost/benefit stack up at this late stage?

Insist the person with the authority makes that call. If the client comes back latter and wants to know why their site isn't showing up in search engines, you can refer back to the meeting. Most intelligent people will come to their own conclusions that their process needs to change.

But lets say SEO is something the client wants, but is not knowledgeable enough to know that their web strategy won't deliver it.

If you're experiencing a lot of resistance, try splitting the work into phases. Make phase one low impact. If it's a Flash site, or some other major SEO headache, how about suggesting they add a print -friendly version of the site, with a link from the home page?

The designer will probably go for it, because in her head, the only people likely to see a print version are those who have already seen her flash version. They are simply choosing to print it out. You know better, of course. This is the version search visitors will see. Once these pages start drawing traffic, you then have some leverage for Phase Two. You've demonstrated the power of SEO, and if only they did more of what you request, then they'll get more search visitors.

Their call.

Once you can demonstrate proof of concept, you're on track to winning the war.

Natural Synergies

In my earlier article, I recommended that you keep a look out for natural synergies. Thankfully, not all designers are flash loving design heads. Web design trends have, thankfully, moved away from graphic-heavy approaches, and have moved towards providing ease of use and utility.

Suggest incorporating SEO-friendly elements that are also design elements. Examples include breadcrumb navigation, site organization and hierarchy, most important pages closest to the front, duplicate navigation schemes if the main navigation scheme is uncrawlable, and using Google site maps. None of these elements interfere with look and feel too much.

Attend the meetings where they map out site structure. If the structure is designed with SEO in mind, a lot of other elements fall naturally into place. Emphasize the fact you need to be brought in early, not late, on site design decisions.

Content Writers

In the web industry, content writers are most likely to slot into one of two schools of thought.

One is journalism. Journalism often consists of a top down approach, or inverted pyramid.

"The "pyramid" can also be drawn as a triangle. The triangle's broad base at the top of the figure represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer means to convey. The triangle's orientation is meant to illustrate that this kind of material should head the article, while the tapered lower portion illustrates that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance"

The second is copy writing. Copy writing differs from journalistic styles in that the writing is crafted to elicit a specific response from the reader, rather than to simply inform. There is often a specific objective the copywriter needs to fulfill, and every word is likely to be carefully deliberated over.

Legal

A side complication is legal. Lawyers, as a profession, tend to be risk adverse. Their job, in this context, is to prevent libelous, defamatory, or untruthful copy from being published, which could expose the the company to financial risk.

There's no simple advice I can give on how to get around legal. They carry a lot of weight. Just be aware of the legal requirement, and keep in mind that the "aggressive link baiting technique" you had planned might not be an appropriate strategy for this particular company ;)

Will It Blend?

The easiest road is with the journalists. They are trying to answer the questions Who,' 'when', 'where', 'what' and 'how' . Try to frame your SEO requests in this language.

For example., say if your keyword term is "buy house in San Francisco". A reporter could work this into his copy by asking the "what" question, s in "what is happening?" e.g. "Recently, people looking to buy a house in San Francisco have had to contend with...." etc etc.

This is very much an on-going education process, but it helps if you're already talking their language. Provide them a list of keywords, and specific examples of how they can be incorporated into the article formats they already use. Writers might actually like you feeding them article and story topics. It makes their task a little easier. Try to think of ways you can frame your keyword research as article topic suggestions, or article research.

In terms of structure, try and devise templates that encourage SEO friendly formats i.e. short paragraphs with big headings to break up the copy. You could also argue this increases readability and usability.

Have designers and developers code the templates so related articles are suggested automatically. Include a related articles section. Build the SEO right into the article structure, so that a lot of the SEO happens without the writer having to think about it.

Guidelines For Developers

Developers are used to working to guidelines and specifications, so try and work SEO requirements into these documents.

Here's a sample guideline. There is some overlap here with design, so split them up accordingly:

  1. Use descriptive file names. i.e. dog.jpg, as opposed to image568765.jpg.
  2. Include title and meta description tag in all templates. Auto - populate fields from teh templates i.e. document title - where no over-ride exists.
  3. Use CSS to control font sizes, particularly header tags.
  4. Links should, wherever possible, include keywords
  5. Titles should use text, as opposed to graphics.
  6. Specify an alt tag for images
  7. Create a Google Site Map
  8. Use the following URL format: domain/page-title-name
  9. Avoid frames. If using frames, use the the noframes tag
  10. Create a custom 404 page that links to the site's main pages, or sitemap.

I'm sure there are plenty of other rules you can think of, and depending on how co-operative the developer is, there is a lot more detail you could go into. I find that the shorter the checklist, the more likely developers are to incorporate the changes required. Long lists just create headaches, so often go ignored.

Make sure they do the important things, and don't sweat the small stuff. At least, not in your first week!

Real Life

In real life, things are never this simple.

Humans are messy and complicated creatures, so there are few hard and fast rules, nor is there a prescription you can follow. Be flexible. Be aware. Communicate. A lot. Hopefully, the ideas above will help you formulate your own approach.

You're not alone. Most professional SEOs know exactly what you're going through :)

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