How To Be An SEO Service Provider

Nov 13th
posted in

When we asked for questions from our readers on topics they'd like to see covered, we received a few requests on how to set up an SEO agency and position the service.

Here's my take on it:

Don't do it!

OK, I'm being facetious :) But before you run out and sell your SEO skills, let's take a look at the issues, ways to get around them, and how to position your service so you get the greatest reward for your efforts.

I'll also explain why selling your SEO services might be selling yourself short.

SEO As A Career

The news is good. According to SEMPO, pay scales for SEOs are looking healthy:

"Of those respondents with up to one year's experience, 60% reported annual salaries in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. Compensation tracks strongly with experience. At the next level, two to three years experience, almost 34% reported salaries in the $50,000 to $80,000 range. At the more seasoned end of the spectrum, of those professionals with nine or more years experience, just under 40% are earning between $90,000 and $140,000 annually."

However, let's take a closer look at those numbers:

" More than 33% of the survey respondents said they managed both pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns and organic search marketing efforts. Another 35% said they worked primarily in PPC; some 20% worked primarily in organic search"

Most activity in the search marketing space is not SEO. It is PPC.

The reason for this is because SEO is a long term strategy, yet a lot of marketing spend is dictated by short budget cycles. In order to land work, you must be able to demonstrate value reasonably quickly. PPC provides a way to do this. Once businesses are sold on search as a channel, then they'll consider planning for the longer term search strategies, such as SEO.

The exception is when the client is already sold on the value of SEO. This type of client, who doesn't have an existing provider, or hasn't already moved the function in house, might be hard to find.

There is no harm learning both. PPC can teach you a lot a lot about SEO - mainly in terms of keyword research - and it increases your options.

Is Running A Business Really What You Want To Do?

There is a big difference between knowing how to do SEO and selling a service to clients.

For starters, there is the level of competition. Try searching for seo providers. As you can see, the world isn't short of SEO providers! And a lot of them are competing on price.

In an industry with such a low barrier to entry, how will you stand out from the rest? You'll need to give prospective clients a good reason why your service is better than the others on offer. How do you intend to match or better the credentials of established operators? How can you differentiate your service?

Secondly, how do you propose to sell your services?

The sales cycle is a significant cost, both in terms of time and resources. You can put a lot of effort into writing proposals, attending conferences, pitching presentations, and networking. None of this is guaranteed to pay off. And if you do land the work, how much time will you have to both do the SEO work and put in the sales effort required to land the next client? Can you scale up and take on qualified people quickly if that happens?

Thirdly, do you have sufficient cash reserves to live on while you're waiting for your first client to pay up? Cash flow can kill a small business, even those businesses which have a a lot of prospective work in the pipeline. The bills wait for no man.

You get my drift. There are many other considerations before deciding to run your own business, but the takeaway point in terms of SEO is this: determine what you like doing best.

If you like doing just SEO work, consider joining an established agency. They will take care of all the other details. If you want to build your own business empire, doing so mostly involves management, sales and administration. And, if you still have some time left over, some SEO.

Pay Models

How will you be remunerated for your efforts?

Most commonly, SEOs bill by the hour, or by the job. They set performance metrics, such as rankings and/or traffic numbers, and the job is completed when those metrics are achieved. The SEO might be able to get ongoing work in the form of reporting, or by extending the scope of the SEO project. The upside is that such a deal is simple. The downside is this needs to be sold over and over again. When you run out of hours to bill, you've hit the ceiling on your earnings potential, unless you raise your rates, or take on new people.

If you are confident of your skills, and can provide real value to a company - and that means boosting their sales and being able to prove it was you who made that happen - then consider partnership deals.

For example, one high profile SEO I know operates exclusively this way. He doesn't sell his services by the hour, he looks for businesses he can partner with, he boosts their earnings by implementing a robust, long term SEO campaign, then takes a share of their profit. This provides a healthy on-going revenue stream, without having to sell the service over and over again.

This type of deal requires a great deal of trust and transparency, but it is worth doing if you are sure you can deliver value, and can find a solid, reliable partner.

Some SEOs work on a Pay On Performance basis. This is a risky strategy, unless you are certain you can deliver the desired results. All the risk lies with you, and, really, you'd need to charge in such a way that accommodates this risk. Unfortunately, the type of clients who ask for pay-on-performance SEO deals are unlikely to be generous payers.

The Future

While search engines deliver value, businesses will pay to be seen on them.

SEO sits awkwardly amongst other marketing channels. The search engines will always try to make PPC attractive, because that's how the search engines make their money.

At the same time, they'll try to negate the value proposition of SEO, because SEO competes with PPC. SEOs are only useful to search engines in that they help spread the word about search engines, and they help sites get crawled. But don't think the search engines are going to do you, or your business model, any favors.

This situation doesn't make the SEOs job impossible, but I'm sure many people would agree that offering SEO as a service is a lot harder than it once was. A few years ago, all you had to do was add a few keywords terms to the copy and titles, point a few links at a site, wait one month, run a ranking report, and voila! You're an SEO provider.

Not any more.

SEO has become a much more holistic strategy. It requires a greater level of buy in from clients, designers, programmers, and all the other people who's toes you might tread on.

But there is plenty of life in the game yet. A lot of SEOs do great business, as can be seen from the huge popularity of the conference circuit. A lot of marketing spend is moving from other channels into search. By selling your services to others, you not only have an occupation, you gain insight into how other businesses work, which is a valuable education in itself.

I'll be going into greater detail on the workings of SEO consultancy in the coming months.

Don't do it :)

Here is why I think some of you might be selling yourself short if you sell your hard won skills to clients.

If you can return real value to clients i.e. not just ranking and traffic, but real tangible, value - then why aren't you keeping all that value for yourself? Why not compete with them instead? How about partnering with people so you get to keep an on-going share of their business? If you can position sites in lucrative keyword areas, that is a very valuable skill. Can clients even afford to pay what you're really worth?

If you're really good at SEO, do you really need clients? ;)

Further Reading:

Is Social Media Marketing A Waste Of Time?

Nov 12th

Social media is the next big thing! No, it's the big thing! It is here, now, and it is big! Let's face it, if you're not aboard the cluetrain to social media marketing city, you're sitting on that station alone!

A pity, then, that social media traffic is so often worthless.

Worthless?

Let's look at the market signals. Why is it that you pay dollars per click on Google Adwords for financial keywords, yet the same keywords on social networks are priced at five cents?

This suggests to me one of two things. Either the social networks are seriously underestimating the value of their own traffic, or most of the people on social networks aren't interested in commercial messages. If they were, then the bid values would closely match those of Google Adwords.

I think the latter is the most likely scenario. Social media traffic isn't priced higher, because it isn't translating into revenue for the advertisers. This isn't happening because the intent of the users when engaged with social media is not conducive to selling stuff.

Of course, social media traffic isn't all bad. We'll look at some ways you can benefit from it. But firstly, let's compare and contrast some aspects of social media marketing and search marketing, in order to help clarify the value proposition.

1. Traffic Is Not An Asset, Traffic Is A Cost

Traffic only becomes an asset when it translates into something else. When it becomes a bookmark, a sign-up, a link, or helps establish a genuine relationship. It must also result in an increase in revenue. If it doesn't, then traffic remains an expense.

What is the value of 10,000 Diggers hitting your site to look at, say, a picture of a monkey riding a bicycle? Zero. The trouble is that a lot of marketers are watching the web scorecard - that spike in the visitor stats that shows the number of visits - and using that as a marketing metric. "Hey, I'm popular!".

Sure, with 10,000 teenagers amused by a picture of a monkey riding a bicycle. But how is that helping boost revenue?

There isn't a lot of meaning to such a relationship. It is low value.

"This is a truth of the Internet: When traffic comes to your site without focused intent, it bounces. 75% of all unfocused visitors leave within three seconds.Any site, anywhere, anytime. 75% bounce rate within three seconds. By unfocused, I mean people who visit via Digg or Stumbleupon or even a typical Google search....."I'm just looking," is no fun for most retailers. Yet they continue to pay high rent for high-traffic locations, and invest time and money in window displays. Very few retailers lament all the traffic that walks by the front door without ever walking in. A long time ago, they realized that the shoppers with focused intent are far more valuable. Smart retailers work hard to get focused people to walk in the door and to keep the riff raff walking on down the sidewalk.".

2. Uncontrolled Message

It is difficult to control the message. Released into the wild of social networks, the message can just as easily result in negative effects as positive ones.

Check out this sad experience of being dugg, from Kim at Cre8Pc:

"Since I logged off last night around midnight, 12 hours later, over 23,000 people have been to this blog. The reason is that someone dugg about the post I wrote, where I shared a resource I found useful. That post was "dugg" and the incoming traffic this blog is receiving is to that specific blog post I wrote....Diggers complained about everything from the site design of the site I wrote about, to how stupid I was to write about it at all.....Which part of this Digg activity am I supposed to be happy about, now that something I wrote has officially been slaughtered there?"

Kim wasn't trying to get on Digg as part of a marketing strategy, but it shows how unpredictable the "benefits" of social media exposure can be.

Perhaps this might explain why Digg has been left at the altar a few times? It suggests to me that it might be difficult to extract real commercial value from such environments. Part of the problem is structural. Digg is "free" and "open" and "anonymous", which leads to a tragedy of the commons.

At the risk of blowing our own horn, part of the reason our SEO community is valuable is because people have to pay for it. People have provided a signal of interest lacking on most broad social networks. There are no questions from a member named MakeEasyMoneyOnlineTodayRightNow asking how to get his adsense earnings up to $1 a day. The price of admission helps protect the community from the tragedy of the commons.

3. Branding Is Often An Excuse For Failed Marketing Campaigns

"It's a brand spend!". Marketers say that a lot.

What they often mean is "we can find no no measurable return".

Return on brand spend is very difficult to measure, and even more difficult to isolate in a channel such as online social media marketing. Did visitors remember our brand? Did it affect their future buying decisions? Was the brand association positive or negative?

Who knows?

If you're thinking of engaging a social media marketer, and they use brand building as a metric, ask them to explain how they will demonstrate an increased, favorable level of brand awareness. If they mention traffic numbers, ask them how that squares with my first point "Traffic Is Not An Asset, It Is A Cost".

To my mind, any commercial endeavor must ultimately come back to revenue.

4. Level Of Interaction

What are people doing on social networks?

On the likes of Facebook, they are engaged in social activities. They are catching up with their friends. They are playing games. Marketing messages in this context are about as welcome as an Amway salesperson at a bachelor party.

Consider the context of the message. Search marketing works well because the searcher has already signaled their intent, and that intent may well be commercial. It's like walking into a shop, and asking to buy a watch. The relationship and interaction is direct and obvious. The context of social media is more like a cocktail party. People are there to socialize, not enter into commercial interactions. They may do so, but the relationship is fuzzy and indirect.

To overcome this obstacle, look for social networks, or network groups, where the users demonstrate clear, commercial intent. Alternatively, have a clear idea of how you're going to progress "fuzzy indirect" visitors to desired action.

5. Time

Social media marketing is time consuming.

Building your social networks. Responding to "friends". Is there are measurable return for the time spent? What is the opportunity cost of that time?

For example, compare the time you need to get a commercial message on the front page of Digg, with getting a commercial message on the front page of Google. With Adwords, I can do it in seconds.

With Digg, I'd be unlikely to get a marketing message to the top, unless I'd previously developed relationships with all the right people and/or gamed the system, which, in itself, takes a lot of time. Even then, the marketing message, unless heavily disguised, will likely be despised by a community rabidly opposed to any message with an obvious commercial imperative.

Is this time well spent on either channel? Once again, a cost/benefit analysis, where the benefits are clear and measurable, will provide the answer.

6. Rampant Stupidity & Useless Distractions

I guess no-one ever went broke underestimating human stupidity, but one really has to question the marketing value of these types of approaches:

"The Coca-Cola Company will feature its Sprite brand on a new Facebook Page and will invite users to add an application to their account called "Sprite Sips." People will be able to create, configure and interact with an animated Sprite Sips character. For consumers in the United States, the experience can be enhanced by entering a PIN code found under the cap of every 20 oz. bottle of Sprite to unlock special features and accessories. The Sprite Sips character provides a means for interacting with friends on Facebook"

Facebook, which distinguished itself by being the anti-MySpace, is now determined to out-MySpace MySpace. It's a nifty system: First you get your users to entrust their personal data to you, and then you not only sell that data to advertisers but you get the users to be the vector for the ads. And what do the users get in return? An animated Sprite Sips character to interact with.

Are people going to then talk about Sprite in a way that would increase the sales of Sprite? Really?

I can barely imagine this would work for a teen audience. Such an approach has no chance with an adult audience. Keep in mind that most people who are heavily active on generalist social network sites are likely to fit in the 15-25 year old range, although there is evidence to suggest this age range might be changing. Look at it this way - how many stories about hip-replacements ever make it top the top of Reddit?

There are a lot of messages that just aren't going to work on social media. Wrong time, wrong place.

"Media buyers — the agency people who book campaigns — report that the college social network is a truly terrible target. They're mainly students, with low disposable income, of course; but, beyond that, the users appear to be too busy leaving messages for each other to show much interest in advertising. Facebook's members appear indifferent even to movie advertising aimed at their demographic. Clickthrough rates, the percentage of time users click on an ad, average 0.04% — just 400 clicks in every 1m views — according to one report seen by Valleywag."

7. Difficult To Scale

It is easy to scale up a television campaign. Buy more airtime. It is easy to scale up an Adwords campaign. Increase the number of keyword terms and/or bids. How do you scale up a social media campaign? You can't re-create viral. Viral is hit and miss. All word of mouth is hit and miss. How many people can you cost-effectively follow on Twitter?

Social media tends to pay dividends in the long-term. Social media, generally speaking, is hard to influence, but by understanding your field well and creating relationships in your niche, you can learn to create the types of content that influencers will pick up on. Like the mavens in The Tipping Point, they will spread your message for you.

Forging such meaningful relationships won't happen overnight.

Where Social Media Pays Off

Ok, I admit it. This post has been a bit of a rant :)

It's not all bad news.

Whilst not a replacement for a marketing strategy, social media can be a viable component of a wider marketing strategy. It can be used to generate buzz. It can be used to attract links. One well placed article can achieve both these ends. If that buzz, and those links, can then be translated into a valuable relationship, and perhaps better Google rankings for commercial keywords, then the social media approach may well pay dividends.

In order to do this, social media must be back-ended with content geared towards establishing a valuable relationship, rather than one-off visits.

Marketing exists for one purpose: to sell stuff. If it doesn't do that, then it isn't marketing.

The key to evaluating social media marketing, like with with all media spends, lies in tracking and cost/benefit analysis. If traffic provides you with a measurable return on investment, then the marketing spend is justified. The only traffic worth anything is that which ultimately results in revenue producing interaction.

The problem I find with social media traffic is that so little of it ever does.

Your mileage may vary.

Outbound Linking For Fun And Profit

Nov 6th
posted in

Linking out is a valuable marketing strategy on a number of levels.

It increases the utility of your site. People will see you as being helpful. People will see you as non-partisan i.e. not always favoring your own stuff. Webmasters may see your inbound link in their logs and follow them back to you. Links are, at the most fundamental level, a connection between people.

If you've read something about the HITS algorithm (.pdf), you may have noticed that HITS looks for, and evaluates, both authority and hub pages. i.e. pages that contain multiple links out to authority pages. HITS stands for "hypertext induced topic selection", and, like PageRank, is concerned with link graph analysis.

HITS uses two values for each page, the authority value and the hub value.

"Hubs and authorities exhibit what could be called a mutually reinforcing relationship: a good hub is a page that points to many good authorities; a good authority is a page that is pointed to by many good hubs...An authority value is computed as the sum of the scaled hub values that point to that page. A hub value is the sum of the scaled authority values of the pages it points to. Relevance of the linked pages is also considered in some implementations."

How much is HITS being used? Mike Grehan, a noted world authority on search marketing, and girly drinker of Merlot (Hi Mike! - hows NY?), had this to say after interviewing Daniel Dulitz from Google:

Simply for this reason (and these are purely my own thoughts and opinions): I believe that PageRank has always been flawed. I believe that Kleinberg's HITS algorithm (and the variations on it), being closer to subject specific, provides more relevant results. A few years ago when Teoma was launched, there were lots of comparisons made about Jon Kleinberg's HITS algorithm. What many people didn't realise was, Kleinberg's algorithm had suffered its own problems: Namely "topic drift" and "run time analysis" delays. Monica Henzinger, now head of research at Google, played a major role in developing solutions to the "topic drift" problem (curiously enough by introducing a little element of PageRank in the recipe). But the "run time analysis" problem remained. In simple terms, the results from the HITS algorithm were more relevant, but they took an eternity (in web search expectation time) to compute.

Has Google rolled hub analysis into Google? Who knows. Whilst it is generally agreed that linking out currently doesn't have direct ranking advantages, linking out provides a number of marketing benefits that can, in turn, lead to higher rankings.

Some people fear that by linking out, there is less PageRank available to spread amongst your own internal pages. Whilst this may be the case, link hoarding is unlikely to win you many friends. Unless you're running an established brand, or you buy all your links, you're going to need friends to link to you in the first place.

Let's look at ten linking out marketing strategies.

1. Hey, I'm Here!

By linking out to a site, you you announce your presence to the owner of that site. Webmasters often follow back links to see who is linking to them. Simple enough, right.

Take it a step further.

When you link out, give the person a good reason to link back to you. Think about ways to add value to their site when they link sites to yours. This could be in the form of a great review, or praise, or a quote.

2. Become A Hub

Google is the ultimate hub.

Google has made a fortune by sending people away from Google. It's counter intuitive, but it works because if you provide sufficient utility, people will bookmark you and keep coming back.

No one person has all the answers. If you provide people with answers, even if those answers aren't on your site, people will still see that you provide value. Time spent on your site may actually increase as people bounce back and forth to find more information.

You may also be perceived as an authority, in a wider sense, even if you lack the content, simply by helping people find the answers they seek.

Consistency matters. Blogs that create new posts regularly will more likely be considered hubs, at very least by their readers, whilst dead blogs - not so much.

3. The Contrarian

Is everyone in you niche saying the same thing? Try going against the grain. Stand out.

"SEO sucks! It's useless! It does not work, and everyone who practicies it is clearly an idiot!".

Contrarian, right. At very least, you should create some lively debate!

Being contraian works because, by definition, it stands out. If you link out to individuals whilst being contrarian, you invite them to counter your arguments. Often, they'll do so by commenting and linking back. Google doesn't care if a link is negative or positive. A link is a link.

4. Praise Be

People love being praised.

It's one of those simple human connections. It also invokes a feeling of reciprocation.

Do so using links.

5. Give Forward

Try to give forward well in advance of when/if you need to ask a favor, otherwise reciprocation becomes a straight swap, and may be evaluated purely in terms of relative advantage.

Build up the link karma. One step at a time.

6. Ego

People look for their names. They ego search.

They also may see their names in links if they are evaluating keywords in the link text pointing to their site. Who wouldn't be curious to see that not only is their name being mentioned, but that name is also mentioned in the link?

7. Flame

Nothing sells like controversy, especially when it becomes personal, so it can be worthwhile, in terms of link development, to flame people. Be very careful, though. You risk damaging your reputation and credibility, and you'll certainly burn bridges.

Best to only flame people who truly deserve it :)

8. Deep Research

By linking to deep, academic research, you are more likely to be perceived as an authority by association.

Always be on the lookout for obscure academic research. This type of content isn't often marketed, as commercialization was not a primary consideration. Also, this research might not show up at all, because it exists in the deep web, beyond the reach of spiders. Not only do you increase utility to your visitors, and become a valuable hub, you may also be seen in search results for queries concerning that unreachable document.

Combining multiple deep citations, and/or formatting the information for easier consumption, can help make people want to cite you.

For example, "Hey I saw your great post about x and I made this image to help me better understand the concepts...do you think this is ok?"

9 Non-Typical

If you graphed the web, the link graph does not look like a group of planets, floating isolated in space. It looks like a blur of interlinked sites. Typically, a site will have a number of links pointing to it, and a number of links pointing out.

Sites that don't link out appear "exceptional" on these graphs, and probably not in a good sense. Ideally, you want to be seen as both and authority and a hub, with lots of links flowing in both directions.

10. Temporarily Extend Your Site

Linking out allows you to temporarily extend your site. You could start off with, say, a directory of resources, then look to house similar but better content on your own site later on. This way, you provide utility and start building up karma immediately, with very little effort involved.

The Open Source movement works well because it is easy for people to contribute to - so many people do! Likewise, if you do not link out, you may not become insular and disconnected. You may miss opportunities to leverage off, connect with, and build upon, the work of others.

Not linking out goes against the nature of the web, and ultimately becomes self-defeating.

Further Reading:

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A Spring Clean For SEO, Even Though It's Winter

Nov 5th
posted in

An SEO strategy is an organic process.

Your SEO campaign should change focus as your popularity grows. The SEO approach for an established site can be quite different to that of a new site, mainly because, with an established site, you can leverage the power of your inbound linking.

Google favors the already "rich". The Google algorithm reinforces the establishment. If your site has become "the establishment", you may only need to work with Google, rather than against them, and high rankings should be yours with little comparative effort.

So, how often do you revise your SEO strategy? How often do you tweak and review old content? Has your SEO strategy become a little broken over the years? Try to make an audit part of your SEO process.

A spring clean for SEO :)

Here are a few ideas on what aspects to review in an SEO audit.

1. Aggressive / Non Aggressive

Are there areas on your site where you pushed the boundaries? Did this pay off? Does it still pay off? Have you used SEO strategy that worked well in the past, but the algorithms have since changed? As a site becomes more established, aggressive strategy becomes less necessary. It can also cause credibility problems.

What do I mean by aggressive?

Let's consider SEO copywriting. Sometimes, people go overboard with their copy. They cram their copy with keywords, which can often result in a page which reads poorly. The webmaster was trying to achieve high keyword density scores, and took it a little too far. In light of the weight now given to inbound links in the algorithms, this is pretty much a redundant tactic.

Do you know how much thought we give to on-page keywords in the copy at SEOBook.com?

Very little.

SEOBook.com ranks highly, for thousands of competitive keywords, because of the number and quality of the inbound links. We write on topics that we think will interest our readers. Long term credibility outweighs any limited benefit we'd get from aggressive on-page SEO tactics.

Weigh the need for aggressive tactics vs the benefit.

2. Untrustworthy Design & Format

When someone arrives at your page from a search, does your page look credible? Does it answer the search query? Does it convince people to take a desired action?

Check your pages for the basics. Check grammar, spelling and make sure the call to action is clear.

Is it time for a fresh design?

3. Re-balance Your Linking

Where are all your links coming from? Are they all reciprocal? Are they all coming from a narrow range of sites?

Look to diversify your linking patterns. Are most of the links pointing to your home page? You should have external deep links pointing to internal pages, too.

Stuntdbl has a great post on link balancing:

Examples of Link Equation Balancing:

(or If your site has….You should:)

* 1000 IBL’s from 500 unique IP’s…
…consider buying a run of site text link with your targeted text
* 70% reciprocal link…
…only get one-way links and slowly dispose of your reciprocal links
* 10k IBL’s from 10 unique IP’s…
…get many more one-off links
* 90% deeplinks to the homepage…
…compartmentalize your site and get more deep links
* 80% identical anchor text…
…use synonymous terms and switch your anchor text
"

4. Duplicate Content

Duplicate content can cause you problems, because the Google algorithm disqualifies same or similar content, in order to provide a diverse set of results.

Google provides a useful checklist for reviewing and eliminating duplicate content.

5. Forming & Maintaining Alliances

Is part of your SEO strategy to form alliances? Alliances are important because they extend your marketing reach, and provide you with links. Hook up with suppliers, vendors, partners, the local chamber of commerce, etc. Networking, quite naturally, results in links.

How often are you forming new alliances? Have you neglected any old alliances?

6. You Wrote Something Remarkable, But No One Noticed

If you've got remarkable content, you deserve links and attention. But what if you've been over-looked?

This is a perennial problem, and it is difficult to solve. People are short of time, and there is a lot of content fighting for attention.

One way is to go where the action is. Part of your SEO strategy should be involving yourself in the community, and if that means posting on other peoples sites, particularly the big community sites in your niche, then that's what you do.

Provide genuine value to those sites. Rewrite your article, put a fresh spin on it, and place it on those sites, if possible. So long as you get people's attention, and they follow the links back to you, then all is well.

Sure, you lose a level of control. But the alternative is to remain invisible.

7. Adwords Experiments

Are your title tags and descriptions all they could be? Are they optimized for maximum visitor response? How would you know?

One was is to run an Adwords test. Take the title and description from your high ranking SEO pages, and run an Adwords campaign using slight variations. This way, you can explore more enticing title and description tags, without compromising your rankings. Consider changing you title and descriptions, or write new pages, if the Adwords copy provides equivilent or better results.

8. Balance Content Writing And Link Building

A successful SEO campaign needs both. You need to weigh your time between the two, depending on where you get the best results. Linking is always worthwhile, but if there's not much on your site worth linking to, then you've got a problem.

Have you noticed a pattern of linking? For example, when you produce new articles, certain sites have a habit of linking to you? Look to monitor, cultivate and nurture those relationships.

What topics have typically earned you the most links? Do you need to adjust your focus?

These tools should help:

Link Analysis Tool, BlogStormUK

This tool requires you to install it and set up a MySQL database, but lets you:

  • Uses Yahoo Site Explorer to find all pages on a site
  • Pulls in link data for every page on the site & orders results by pages with the most links
  • Allows you to drill down 2 levels deep into the link data for pages linking to the target site
  • Accepts Google sitemaps imports
  • Accepts single URL imports
  • Lets you check the rankings for any page on any search engine

Also try this one: Majestic SEO/Anchor Index Search

Anchor Index is a very big (350 bln+ unique) web based database of urls from all over the web with identified backlinks, anchor text and some flags from pages (52 bln) that were crawled, analysed, indexed and finally merged into the index that can be queried. Search for a site, and it will give you backlink counts on a per URL basis - free of charge! If you want deeper data they sell per site reports on a per credit basis...giving you the anchor text of 10,000's of backlinks, whereas most other tools limit you to the top 1,000 links.

The Advantages Of Being Small

Nov 3rd

One of the reasons SEO is such a killer marketing strategy is that a small business can compete with, and often outmaneuver, a big business.

Compare the costs of a SEO campaign vs any other marketing channel. Television? Radio? Print? How much would it cost to get worldwide exposure using any of those channels?

We're all sold on search marketing. However, there are other advantages that the small business enjoys. In this post, we'll look at a few of those advantages, are see if there are any natural synergies with search.

First, let's consider boats.

Given a choice between being in a speed boat or being in a supertanker, which would you choose? In a storm, I'd probably rather be on the supertanker, as it can weather the waves better. However, the supertanker has a number of disadvantages. It can take a long time to maneuver, it requires a big crew to sail it, it is sluggish, it is expensive and monolithic.

The speed boat, on the other hand, can zig and zag, change direction at will, only requires one person to operate, uses a lot less fuel, and it's fast.

The small business is like the speed boat. The small business can do things the big business cannot. Speed and agility are the key weapons of the small business.

So that's the shipping metaphor beaten to death. Now let's look at the specific advantages of the small business, and marry these to search marketing strategies.

1. Exploit The Niche

A small business can focus on a very narrow area and make a profit. Big business often cannot do this, as a big business requires larger markets in order to provide enough return to cover overheads. Focus on narrow, well-defined areas in which you perform well. Ignore everything else.

Once you've identified and established your niche, it makes your SEO task a lot easier. Do you really need to rank for those competitive terms? Possibly not. You only need rank for those terms that relate directly to your narrow niche.

But what if your niche is competitive? Try narrowing your niche further, or change the niche.

For example, real estate is a competitive area. Real estate is Los Angeles is a competitive area. But the level of competition in small, well defined geographical areas is much diminished. Sure, there is less traffic, but if you're a small business, with a well-defined geographical market, how much traffic do you really need to turn a buck?

2. Strategic Partnerships

A small business can easily align with other business. Big business can be slow to do this, often due to legal issues and long sign-off procedures.

If a strategic partnership makes sense for your business, also consider the benefits in terms of SEO. If you align with an established company, ask for a write-up and a link. Announce the partnership by issuing a press release. Make it easy for your partner to talk about you, and they'll do your link marketing for you. Outsourcing can achieve much the same thing. If appropriate, have those to whom you outsource link back to you.

3. Reduce Overheads

A small business, especially an internet small business, can run on next to nothing. You need a computer. You need an internet connection. You need some time and effort.

In a down market economy, big companies spend a lot of time and effort slashing costs. The small business usually runs lean anyway, so whilst the big business is pre-occupied with restructuring and layoffs, you can focus on developing new territory.

One of the first cuts companies make in a down market is to cut marketing spend. This is often a mistake, as I outline in Eight Reasons Why Now May Be The Right Time To Invest In Your Site. What you're not spending on maintaining overhead, you can dedicate to the strategies that earn you money. There is some indication that we can expect the price of PPC to come down over the next year as some big companies, who often run PPC strategies aimed more at building brand awareness than return per click, reduce their marketing spend.

4. Bootstrap

Bootstrapping means a self-generating or self-sustaining process.

In terms of business, that means that growth is funded from - and remains in line with - revenue. Possibly one of the most successful recent examples of bootstrapping is the Wikipedia Foundation.

Take a look at Wikipedia's recent financial report.

Wikipedia have few employees. Many of those employees were brought in relatively recently, and only as the project scaled up. The Wikipedia Foundation reports $3.5 million in costs, and has a turnover of over $7 million.

A bootstrapping approach to SEO/SEM might be to focus on revenue. Pay only for those clicks that make you money, and quickly cut the losers. Once you know which keywords make you money, THEN start your SEO campaign, focusing only on these terms. Repeat and scale up.

5. Direct & Personal

A small business can offer expertise, direct to the customer. The customer can talk directly to the person who makes all the decisions. Try doing this with a big business. A customer might get no further than a lowly paid graduate. There can be a lot of value to the client in dealing with a small operation.

Get personal. People are tired of anonymous, faceless companies. The small business can easily make a service more personal. Small means the founder deals with a far greater percentage of the customer interactions. Small means the founder is close to the decisions that matter and can make them quickly. When a visitor arrives via a search, impress upon the visitor they are dealing with a small company. Some small companies like to give the impression they are much bigger than they really are, but this is often a mistake. The customer is going to find out soon enough, so the initial impression will smack of dishonesty.

In your title tag and ad copy, emphasis the advantages of being small. Personal service, direct accountability, and availability. The people who want to deal with a big business will have gone elsewhere, anyway.

Say it once. Say it loud! I'm small, and I'm proud!

Except if you're a guy on a date...

6. Adaptation

A small business, like the speedboat, can change direction in an instant. You could be doing something totally different tomorrow than you do today. A big business cannot do this.

Always be on the lookout for new markets, and the tide of change in existing markets. Make trend-spotting a regular activity. Use keyword tools and other research methods to give you insights into new and developing markets.

7. Make Staying Small A Strategy

Decide which clients make you the most money, and cut the rest. In other words, deliberately stay small.

I've heard of a number of companies doing this, and here's one example:

"Incredible Foods quickly landed one of the biggest accounts of all: Starbucks. "They were opening new stores in northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania in 1998 and wanted me to distribute a single product, a crumb cake," says Christy.But as Starbucks locations multiplied, Christy's workload ballooned. Revenues reached $3.4 million in 2005, but soaring overhead wiped out Christy's profits.

That year, Christy decided to cut the cord. The (Starbucks) account generated 48% of Incredible Foods' annual revenues, but Christy believed that he could run a stronger company without Starbucks. So he shrank the staff from 13 to six, eliminated one of his two offices, and focused his marketing attention on local customers who closed deals with a handshake, generally without resorting to squadrons of lawyers and accountants.It paid off. Last year Incredible Foods posted an 11% increase in profits on revenues of $2.2 million, and Christy expects a 22% revenue increase this year".

Staying small can actually be more profitable. And a lot more fun. Check out Seth Godin's book "Small Is The New Big".

8. Design & Strategic Flexibility

This is a big one.

Anyone who has ever worked on an established corporate site will know the difficulty involved in reorienting the site towards SEO. There are meetings. There are conflicts with various stakeholders. Designers will be reluctant to change their ways. Copywriters will be reluctant to change their ways. Management may fail to grasp the benefits of SEO. In such situations, it is easy to lose focus, and compromise the SEO strategy.

It happens all the time.

Then, there is the small business. If there are few - or only one - of you, then it is much easier for you to incorporate good SEO. Not only can you compete with the big business, you can thrash them.

Use your speedboat to maximum strategic advantage.

Eight Reasons Why Now May Be The Right Time To Invest In Your Site

Oct 31st
posted in

The game changed September 15, 2008.

As world markets came tumbling down, the future of many internet start-ups also turned to dust. The message from the financiers is clear - they will be no more money. Web watchers, such as TechCrunch, feature a deadpool of failed internet start-ups. That list is going to grow exponentially in the new year as company after company runs out of cash.

Not good.

However, history tells us that where there is chaos, there is opportunity.

After all, we've been here before.

Take, for example, this memo by Ron Conway, founder and managing partner of the Angel Investors LP funds who backed Google, PayPal, and more.

"....I was an active investor in 2000 when the "bubble burst" and remember it vividly and want to give you the SAME EXACT advice I gave to my portfolio company CEOs back then.I have pasted in the e-mails I sent on April 17th 2000 and May 10th 2000 and every word applies today. Unfortunately history DOES repeat itself but I hope we can learn from history and prevent the turmoil from occurring again. The message is simple. Raising capital will be much more difficult now".

Once of the benefits of market cycles is that history often repeats itself. This allows us to learn the lessons of the past, and apply them to the present.

I'd recommend you watch this presentation by Sequoia Capital, entitled RIP:Good Times.

So the good times are over. Now what? Sequoia recommends managing spending, revising growth and earnings assumptions, to focus on quality. lower risk, and reduce debt.

In 2000, Google was still a struggling start-up. The tech bubble had just burst. One year later, hijacked jets hit the Twin Towers, sending markets, and our collective notion of global security, into a tailspin.

Yet, it was during these seemingly turbulent times that Google rose to become the powerhouse it is today.

Part of that success was due to a focus on quality, careful spending (Google never spent a lot on advertising), network effects, and failure of the competition to grasp opportunities. Everyone else was distracted. Google remained focused on building value.

Research shows that companies that spend money on marketing during a recession tend to benefit the most.

Over the years hundreds of studies have been conducted to prove companies should maintain advertising during a recession. In the 1920’s advertising executive Roland S. Vaile tracked 200 companies through the recession of 1923. He reported in the April 1927 issue of the Harvard Business Review that the biggest sales increases throughout the period were rung up by companies that advertised the most. ....The findings of six more recession studies to date by the group present formidable evidence that cutting advertising in times of economic downturns can result in both immediate and long-term negative effects on sales and profit levels. Meldrum & Fewsmith’s former Senior VP, J. Welsey Rosberg reports “ I have yet to see any study that proves timidity is the route to success. Studies consistently have proven that companies that have the intelligence and guts to maintain or increase their overall marketing and advertising efforts in times of business downturns will get the edge on their timid competitors.

Marketing is an investment, not just an expense. And just like in the stock market, that investment can pay the biggest dividends when assets are under-priced, because everyone else is selling, not buying.

Let's look at a few features of a down market that you can turn to your advantage.

Down Market = Cheaper Ads

Advertising markets are cracking. One of the first casualties in an economic downturn is marketing spend. Not great if you sell advertising, but great if you buy it.

In down markets, you can get a lot more advertising reach for a lot less money than during boom times.If your strategy involves building brand awareness, then now might be a good time focus on this aspect. Being visible creates a sense of familiarity, and that's much easier to do when your competition isn't flooding the channel with noise.

Note: A lot of advertising spend will shift from traditional channels to the internet as people seek value.

We forecast that the Internet advertising market will continue to expand at a strong pace in the immediate future (with a predicted 31.4% increase in expenditure in the UK in 2008), and that it will experience a less steep but steady momentum thereafter, to 2012.

Fight In Short Bursts

One idea, often used by offline marketers on television and radio, is to bombard an advertising channel with short bursts of intensive advertising and then go off the air completely for a few weeks. It is a lot cheaper than maintaining a constant advertising presence, and with fewer advertisers to compete with, you costs should be lower, and your impact higher.

It's a high impact strategy that will fit well with sites looking to build brand.

Follow Warren Buffett

Warren Buffet is the worlds most successful investor. And what is Buffett doing at the moment?

He's buying assets while everyone else is selling.

Might now be a good time to buy up websites, too?

Competitors Cutting Costs And Losing Focus

One of the problems during the 1930s depression was that government cut spending. When government started spending again, the economy picked up. Governments have learned from this mistake, which is why we're seeing government making cash injections.

It's more complex that this, but the takeaway point here is that cutting costs and losing focus on the goal might also ensure you never reach it. Going into hands-off cruise mode could be costly.

If you have the cash, then sowing the seeds of growth now, whilst everyone else is navel gazing and slashing their costs, makes it hard for them to catch up with you again when they do start spending.

Diversify Marketing Spend

Take a strategic approach. Spending aggressively in a down market doesn't mean throwing your money at everything.

In this article, Recession Marketing, Amanda Stock outlines how you can diversify within a search marketing strategy:

It is also important to take a strategic approach when you diversify your marketing budget. For example, if you are currently investing the majority of your marketing efforts in a Pay-Per-Click campaign, you may want to allocated half of that budget to an SEO campaign which, in the long term, can increase the return on investment and decrease dependency on paid search.

Key Tips: Advertisers with a solid PPC track-record have an incredible advantage for venturing into organic search (SEO) because the PPC data such as which keywords converted best and which led to the highest volume of sales or average ticket price can now be a major factor in prioritizing the SEO targets. Since SEO is long term you want to be absolutely sure you’re targeting the right keywords long before you reach the first page for them.

Build Network Effect Advantages Into Your Work

But what if you're cash strapped?

Try to build network effects into your strategy. A network effect is the effect one user of a good or service has on the value of that product to other users. An example is the telephone. The more people who own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner. Similarly, auction and social network sites become more valuable the more people use them.

One marketing advantage of a network effect is good word of mouth. Word of mouth is the cheapest and most effective form of marketing there is. Again, because the channels are quieter during a down market, chances are you'll be heard more easily if you're one of the few outfits making noise.

In this article on Forbes, Roelof Botha, the venture capitalist who backed PayPal & YouTube, advocates taking word of mouth one step further, using viral strategies to boost consumer adoption:

A truly viral business is "like a disease," says Botha. "It needs to be transmitted from one person to another"--and the other person has to catch it. Once the next person catches it, he or she becomes a carrier too. Here are some good examples:

-- PayPal. If Bob sends Mary $25, Mary has to join PayPal in order to claim her money.

-- Evite. John e-mails you an invitation to his bachelor party but in order to read the details such as when and where, and to RSVP, you have to log onto Evite. E-card vendors work the same way.

-- Plaxo. A friend or business associate sends you an e-mail asking you to update your contact information. Once you log onto Plaxo to correct your phone number, you’ve caught the virus. Other services such as Birthday Alarm use the same strategy.

-- Skype. In the beginning, the only way you could make a free phone call over Skype’s Internet voice service was if the person you were calling was also a Skype member.

PayPal & YouTube also made it a strategy to be part of other networks. In so doing, they grabbed those networks audience share, and without the need to go into partnership.

eBay had an open software platform, which meant sellers could insert their own HTML code such as icons and visitor counters onto their auction pages. So PayPal built a tiny piece of code that allowed eBay merchants to include a PayPal payment button. By the time eBay got around to buying its own payment service, PayPal had infiltrated its business so deeply that eBay’s customers wouldn’t hear of using anything else....YouTube similarly benefited by becoming an insidious element on MySpace and other social networks and blogs.

Focus On Quality

Word of mouth comes about when you focus on being remarkable.

Learn the lesson of Google and PayPal, both of whom flourished during economic downturns. Provide a quality service, and people will use it, and talk about it.

Go back to basics. What is your value proposition? It needs to be compelling. When people are short of cash, they focus their spending on the the essentials, not the frivolous. Are you solving a real problem for people? Do you really know your customer? Ask not what they want, ask what do they need.

Focus On Essentials And Value

People who are worried about where their next dollar is coming from are going to be hesitant about signing up for expensive items, or long term deals. If you're selling an essential service or product, as opposed to a desirable product, you're going to find it easier. When the buyer has less discretionary spend, they're unlikely to be talked into non-essential deals.

Instead, focus on building relationships. This can be as simple as communicating well, showing integrity, and being passionate about what you do. When people do have more money to spend in the future, they'll remember you.

Why Web Design Matters

Oct 29th
posted in

You know what would be really cool?

Your whole site redesigned in Flash!

We could really liven it up. We could do animated navigation! Edgy!

We're cutting-edge web designers. We've designed stuff that's won tons of design awards! Let's take your boring site and totally reinvent it! Make it interactive! Your visitors will love it dude!

Erm...uh-huh. Maybe not.

It's little wonder that SEOs often come into conflict with the web designers. Those designers who design-for-designs'-sake can cause serious problems when it comes to internet marketing strategy, and getting seen in search engines.

Thankfully, there are also enough good designers who do understand that web design is a balancing act.

On the flip-side, there are SEOs who underestimate the power of good design. It's one thing to get a visitor to a site, but what happens once they get there? If the visitor finds a design unappealing, confusing or lacking in credibility, they are likely to click back. The cost of not spending a few hundred/thousand dollars on good design could be significant.

If you're thinking of hiring a designer, and SEO and web marketing is important to you, then you need to make sure they follow a few guidelines. Here's a checklist that will help you and your designer come up with the ultimate, well-crafted design that both appeals to your visitors, and complements your marketing efforts.

The point of synergy between SEO and design lies mostly in structure.

1. Purpose/Know Your Audience

The first, and by far the most import aspect of web design, is to clarify the purpose of the site.

Write down these three questions, and answer them in as much detail as you can.

  • Who will use the website?
  • What will people use the website to do?
  • How will people find the website?

Who Will Use The Website?

The "who" question is about meeting expectations.

If your audience are tree-huggers, they aren't going to respond to a slick, corporate site. It's like wearing a suit to an interview for a pool-guy position - the image doesn't fit the purpose.

Put yourself in the users shoes. What are their likes? Dislikes? What type of language do they use? How old are they? What is their demographic? Are they web-savvy? Can they read small fonts? Write down as many characteristics as you can in order to build up a profile of your user base.

When you first visit a competitor site targeting your audience, what attracts to you to it, and what annoys you? Why? What are your expectations?

Your site must reflect the values, needs and desires of your target audience.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples where the designer has got this right:

Smashing Magazine

The audience are web designers. People who are visually-oriented. People who want news about the latest trends and techniques. The design and format reflects these values and desires. It is based around large, bright attractive visuals. Text is kept to minimum. Smashing Magazine uses a blog format to facilitate the dissemination of news. All other functions are relegated.

UseIT

The audience for this site are people interested in usability, in particular, the writings of Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen has strong, and often divisive, views about the role of simplicity in web design. Some may say the site is not designed at all, but they'd be wrong. The site is Nielsen's theories and agenda made form. The design reinforces the idea that structure is more important than gloss.

What Will People Use The Website To Do?

What is the primary function of your site? The function needs to be crystal clear. What do you want users to do? Do you want users to sign up and discuss topics? If so, then you need to orient your design around serving that function. The layout, the graphics, and the text should all encourage a user towards taking that action. Relegate all other design aspects to secondary status. If the design gets in the way of a user completing that function, it isn't good design, no matter how pretty it looks.

How Will People Find The Website?

How the user will find the website is often overlooked be designers.

If visitors are going to use a search engine to find your site, then your site must be oriented around SEO. That means fast, crawlable, and content rich.

If users find your site because they are already aware of your brand, then seo considerations may be less important. The user merely needs to be assured they've arrived at the right site. Such sites usually put heavy emphasis on branding.

Will most of your uses find you via StumbleUpon? Again, there are design features that appeal to this audience.

2. Visual Culture

This is a summary for a course offered by the University Of Wisconsin. It sums up the nature of our visual culture well:

Ours is a visual culture. Our workplaces are visually saturated environments and our dominant pastimes (films, television, video games, and the internet) are visual media. Moreover, we communicate visually when we are trying to cross over cultural boundaries; think, for example, of the graphics devised for international signage. Knowledge is often communicated visually: scientists chart brain activity, economists graph fiscal trends, geographers map territory and detectives photograph evidence. The growth of the web as an information distribution system has made an understanding of visual design factors indispensable in every field of study. The visual also our access to the past. The earliest recorded communications are pictorial and artifacts are central to the reconstruction of history

This is where both the graphical element of web design, and spacial relationships on the page itself, play a significant role.

Graphics convey meaning in different ways to text. The saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is apt here. Ensure your graphics reinforce the values and needs of your audience. Make sure the graphics help people, not hinder them. Too often, graphics are self-consciously used to impress.

Obviously, web design is not just about appropriate and pleasing graphics. It's also about form, and that includes text. What do you feel when you see a huge block of text in tiny print? Most people feel that, hey, this is work!

Spacial considerations are an important way to convey meaning, and also useful for SEO. Split pages up into headlines and short paragraphs. This technique serves two purposes. You can include extra keywords in heading tags, and you can focus attention where it needs to go. When people arrive at your site via a search engine, they will scan your page for their keyword phrase. Make sure they find it quickly and easily.

3. Clarity

Your website doesn't exist in isolation. How often do you glance at a website before clicking back or retyping your search query? Do you spin your scroll wheel immediately after arriving at a site, scanning for the exact information you require? No doubt you do it hundreds of times a day. Chances are, so does everyone else.

Therefore, clarity, both visually, and in terms of conveying meaning, is very important. If you can't convey to a visitor "you've found the right place" quickly, then you run the chance of losing that visitor.

All the linking and SEO in the world won't solve that problem.

4. Crawlability

Obviously, a website that can't be crawled is invisible to the search engines. Include a Google Site Map, and make your navigation text based, where possible. If you must use scripted links, then duplicate the navigation for crawlers. No matter what some designers might say, navigation is not the place to get funky. It's the place to get simple.

Consider cars. If you drive one car, you can drive them all. Why? The controls are all in the same place. Car designers don't get funky with the main control mechanism. The same goes for websites. Where navigation is concerned, stick to convention.

Personally, I'd avoid any designer who tries to get clever with navigation. They don't understand the web.

5. KISS

If faced with a design decision, go for the simple over the complex.

The web favors simplicity.

It's the nature of the beast.

6. Branding Is The Experience

Brand is often thought of purely in terms of identity. But this is an oversimplification.

Take, for example, McDonalds.

If people were asked to think of the brand of McDonalds, they'd think of the big, stylized letter "M". Or Ronald McDonald. But the McDonalds brand is made up of much more. The McDonald's brand is about fast service. It's about cheap food. It's about generic, yet tasty food. It's about the layout of the store. Every aspect of McDonald's store design and process is rolled into the brand. It's the entire experience. The M is really just a badge.

It's the same with websites. The brand isn't the graphical logo. The brand is the speed your pages load at. The clear layout. The ease of navigation. The tone of your writing. The fact you answer queries quickly. The fact it's easy to contact you in the first place. Your web design must not get in the way of these aspects. It must complement and reinforce them.

7. Speed

Your pages must load as fast as your visitors expect pages to load. And these days, that means Google fast! If need be, sacrifice graphics and features for speed. Speed is not just important. Speed is everything. It is too easy for a visitor to click back.

8. Read Point 7 Again

Really important. Really :)

9. Conflicting Agenda

One conflicting agenda between designers and SEOs often has to do with style over substance.

The main point of this post is to reinforce the idea that substance and style are inseparable. Both designers and SEOs must find a middle ground in order to arrive at one goal: a successful site. Avoid designers whose aim is to win awards, unless of course, winning design awards is part of your marketing strategy. The designers agenda should closely match your own.

10. Design Is Mostly About Structure

I was having a chat recently with a web designer who has formal graphic design qualifications, has won Webby Awards, runs his own web design shop employing 50 people, and has worked on multi-million dollar web projects. He's come round to admitting - very reluctantly - that on the web, graphic design doesn't really matter much. The design is mostly about structure. The information flow. Facilitating the interaction.

And he's right.

What we've often come to think of as design is more than just graphics and appearance. That's the icing. Design is about facilitating a process. It's about the way people move around and follow steps. A web site that makes that process complicated will not work, no matter how good the presentation.

A good designer will understand this.

Many do.

Try to avoid those who don't.

Further Reading

Earning Trust One Click At A Time

Oct 28th
posted in

When we talk about "trust" in terms of websites, we often refer to elements such as adding details such as you address and contact details, a privacy policy, and a guarantee. But trust is also a process.Trust is something earned with every interaction.

For example, once a music artist has built up a fan base, their new album is bound to sell more units than a new artist. The fans place a higher level of trust in someone with whom they have positive, prior experience. It's not just about the intrinsic quality of the music, it's also about the conditions that lead to a valued relationship. The same goes for websites.

Thinking of trust as a process can help build momentum, build your name, and build your reputation. In order to get users to engage with your site, they need to first place a level of trust in your site. Thankfully, the bar is reasonably low. You don't have to convince them to hand over their life savings, you only need to convince them that engaging with your site will provide them with value and not waste their time. And in order to keep them over the long term, you must maintain that trust.

Let's look at a few broad principles about trust as a process.

Ease Of Interaction

Make it easy for people to interact with the site. Learn the self-evident lessons of usability. Go beyond usability. Offer easy ways for people to interact. Why is interaction important? The most important trends in the web space in recent times have been about community and shared space. Think Facebook, blogging, Wikipedia, feed readers, and cloud computing. They're all about interaction, as opposed to the mid 90's web, which was mostly about top-down publishing.

Interaction will become an increasingly important factor over the coming few years, especially as the global recession bites deeper. Here's an exert from Jason Calacanis' latest email letter:

"The good news in all of this is that folks are going to be spending a lot of time online, playing video games and consuming things that are not expensive. They're going to be looking for "experiences over expenses. ...Why will there be a boom in traffic, engagement and participation?

Well, people will have time on their hands and the desire to socialize. Group behavior makes people feel better. One of the best cures for the blues is sharing a meal with friends.

Blogging became a phenomenon not because of some technological advance, but because between 2002 and 2005 there were a lot of unemployed--and underemployed--individuals with a lot to say and a lot of freetime. Bloggers like Peter Rojas, Michael Arrington, Nick Denton, Rafat Ali, Xeni Jardin and Om Malik broke out in the down market--not the upmarket."

Awards

People like to feel important. Offer them an award or an elevated status level. You see this technique used in forums. Members are given classifications, from Newbie through to Moderator. Bestowing moderator status not only assigns an administrative role in itself a form of hierarchy - but it also elevates their status within the community. Similarly, the granting of stars, boosting posts to sticky status, or boosting posts to the front page has a similar effect.

So long as an award process is transparent and consistent, people will come to trust in it, which, in turn, leads to greater levels of engagement.

Voting

People like to feel their opinion matters. Give people an opportunity to vote. Voting helps make people feel included, and that they are influencing outcomes. An obvious example of such a system is Digg. Digg is a community built around voting and a forum for expressing personal opinion. It could be argued that the downside of Digg is that some people's votes appear to matter more than those of others. The lack of transparency is, to my mind, Diggs biggest flaw. If people feel that voting is skewed, they are less inclined to trust the system.

Meet Expectations

Deliver what your users expect.

Google had a problem. They wanted to index subscription-only material, but clearly publishers did not want to give this material away. This led to a situation where Google users would click on a result, but not get the article they expected, based on their previous experience of using Google i.e. clicking on a result leads directly to the indexed content. This situation leads to a decrease in trust. So Google came with First Click Free. First Click Free allows users to skip over the subscription page on their first visit.

The lesson is to try and maintain consistency. If users get something other than they've come to expect, they'll leave.

A Sense Of Belonging

People like to feel they belong. Cultivate a sense of belonging, and look to include people, wherever possible. Be accessible. Talk in terms of the group, rather than the individual. Examine the language you use. Does your language speak of a sense of community, involvement, and shared values? Of course, this won't apply to every type of site, but if you've got a strategy based around user interaction, then look for ways to make people feel as if they belong. It might be something as simple as responding to people's comments in timely fashion, or providing a personalized welcome message, or using inclusive language.

Social Proof Of Value

People like to go where other people are. Think about ways in which you can demonstrate that other people use, and place a high value upon, your site.

Methods include visitor counters, positive mentions you've received in the popular press, recent comments on your site, feed reader subscription stats (like those offered by FeedBurner), third party traffic stats (from sites like Alexa and Compete.com) and quotes from known influencers. Make sure that people who are new to your site see these social proofs as soon as possible. Don't bury them deep - put them up front, loud and proud. Don't be afraid to blow your own horn.

Social proof is an increasingly important aspect of internet marketing. Some things gain currency for no other reason than everyone else likes it. No one wants to eat at an empty restaurant, even if the food is just as good as the heaving restaurant next door. People like to be where other people hang out.

To get there, you need to establish momentum. But how on earth do you build that momentum from scratch? The answer isn't pretty - it's hard - but there three concepts you are helpful.

Have a read of this article, Filthy Linking Rich & Getting Richer by Mike Grehan, if you haven't read it already:

"The great twentieth century sociologist Robert Merton dubbed it the "Mathew effect" as a reference to a passage in the Bible, in which Mathew observes, "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." The Mathew effect, when applied to networks, basically equates to well connected nodes being more likely to attract new links, while poorly connected nodes are disproportionately likely to remain poor.....It has been proposed that "the rich get richer" effect drives the evolution of real networks. If one node has twice as many links as another node, then it is precisely twice as likely to receive a new link."

This is also known as cumulative advantage.

Also take a look at this article in the New York Times, entitled "Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?". To summarize, the article talks about how social influence plays a large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality.

"The long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictability is inherent to the nature of the market.....If one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors. "

So, popularity is an impossible process to replicate and systematize. Popularity is due to a combination of factors, which could include take-up by a few influencers, being in the right place at the right time, gaining the momentum affect as others get on board, and a large dose of luck.

However, there are, I think, three main lessons here.

One is the role of influencers. Influencers is a fairly broad term, which can include people who hold sway over large communities, to those who are merely inclined to pass on a good find to another person. You need to make it easy for those people to engage with your site. To trust you. It's old fashioned word-of-mouth, and it's still the most powerful marketing method there is.

In practical terms, try linking out to the inflencers and saying good things about them. Or bait them. Give them things. Make it easy for them to talk about you.

Secondly, identify the hubs with a sphere of influence. All communities have a few, central authorities around which the entire community orbits. Try to get seen on those sites, whether it's by buying advertising, posting articles, or participating in discussion.

Thirdly, leverage off a trust process.

SEO is an example of leveraging off a trust process. The user trusts Google to find the best results. The searcher searches on a phrase, and chooses a result from the left hand side of the page. The user will often choose one of the top three listings.

The key to achieving these things is tenacity. And to build and maintain trust.

The Art of Pitching - What's Wrong With Link Building Email Requests?

Oct 23rd

We've all, at some point, received the "request-for-a-link" email.

Such emails are useless, on a number of levels, the main reason being that the offer is lousy. However, such emails also tend to get the pitch wrong, so further limit the chances of getting the link. Getting the pitch right - the way the offer is described - is a bit of an art.

I've been looking back through the emails I've received and there are common characteristics displayed in those I ignored, and those I responded to.

There are two aspects common to all such emails, the offer and the pitch.

The Offer

The offer must be compelling. No matter how good the pitch, if the offer doesn't advantage the recipient in some way, then the sender is unlikely to receive a response.

Take, for example, the PR offer.

I receive a lot of these. They don't get read. Why? There's no advantage for me in doing so. There is advantage for the company that wants free coverage, of course, but not me. Unless the information is ground-breaking, and hasn't been circulated widely in the public domain, then the typical PR email "offer" is very poor. The offer is essentially this: "give us your time and effort for nothing so we can advance our cause"

Well, no. No I won't :)

But lets say the offer is to my advantage. Either I'm receiving some genuinely useful information, a good opportunity, or a good incentive. It can still be let down by the quality of the pitch.

The Pitch

Here is an email Aaron received recently:

Subject: About an Advertisement on Your Blog

Hellow.
I've recently created a software for automated social bookmarking.

Just wanted to ask, if it is possible to order a post about our tool on your blog, written by you ?
You don't even need to install and actually test the software if you don't want to, just mention that there is something out there that is worth using for seo purposes.
Here is a website: (removed)

Thanks.

There are a few obvious problems in terms of both the offer and the pitch.

  • "Hellow". The very first word is misspelled. This is unprofessional.
  • Does not include the recipients name. It's not personal.
  • Asks about advertising, then demands coverage, with no transition. What's in it for me? Where's the incentive?
  • Asks us to post about the software without trying it. Again, why would we do that? Our credibility would be at stake, for starters.
  • Domain misspelled. You'll have to take my word on that one, but it was :)
  • Does not have the senders name in the email. Again, unprofessional.
  • Their domain is a scrolling sales letter with no other content. Why would we recommend our readers, who tend to be very web-savvy, to such a site? We'd lose credibility.

Not only is the offer a poor one, but we can't take the pitch seriously either. It could have worked if they'd thought a little bit more about the offer, and pitched correctly.

How To Pitch An Email

1. Make It Personal

Imagine a telephone call where the caller launched straight into their message, but with time spent on social niceties. Even telemarketers make some effort to establish rapport.

The same goes with email. You need to know who you're writing to and address that person by name. Read their About Us page, read their site, Google them, get to know them. It can be a good idea to make contact with them, and build a rapport, some time before making your request for a favor. Try to pay it forward. Give them something first.

It's also a good idea to clearly outline a connection you have with the recipient, if such a fact isn't already established. For example, "I read your article "SEOmoz's Linkscape: Why the Backlash is Overblown" and wanted to ask you a question...." or "I was talking to a friend of yours, Aaron Wall, and he suggested I....."

2. Keep It Professional

Hi Arren,

I waas wanting too no if you would link to my site?

Spelling and grammar matter. No one expects William Shakespeare, but poor spelling and grammar screams "unprofessional". An obvious exception is when you know someone well. The better you know someone, the less the technical aspects of communication tend to matter.

3. Tone

If you don't know someone well, it is best to use a professional tone. Too conversational can come over as "not serious", especially in email correspondence. Remember, it's not like dealing face-to-face, where nuance, inflection, expression and gestures become important signifiers of meaning.

So keep it clean, clear, precise and professional. Be particularly careful with humor. What sounds like a joke to you may get lost in translation, especially if the person you're emailing is from a different country.

If in doubt, play it straight.

4. Message Title

So much depends on the title.

Put yourself in the recipients shoes. Like you, they're probably busy. They're focused on their own stuff. They might have an inbox that is full to bursting, and they're feeling a little guilty about not clearing it out. One more message is just one more problem they must deal with.

Then your message arrives.

In this context, how do you make sure your message desirable?

The trick with email is to make the title personal. Relate it directly to the recipient in some way. Arouse curiosity, praise people, describe a benefit, or pose a direct question. But put a personal spin on it.

A lot of email marketing strategy gets this wrong, particularly in relation to benefits. Titles loaded with benefits, such as ""Do You Hate Your Job? Discover Seven Secrets..." will be viewed as spam. Titles like that may work if you are in the spam business, but they are highly unlikely to work anywhere else. If you do use benefit statements, then try to personalize them.

5. What's In It For The Recipient

This is possibly the most important aspect in getting the recipient to act.

Outline the benefit to the recipient, and do so before they switch off.

Be concise.

Too lengthy, and it's unlikely the recipient will read to the end. A big block of text can be very off-putting. The first contact should be brief. You can go into detail latter. Think of the first email contact as a covering letter.

Try to offer them something of value. A discount code, a free trial, a free product. It should be something of real value.

Ok, so let's try and rewrite the email, using the guidelines. Note: the intent of the original email was a little ambiguous. It sounded as if the person who wrote it wanted a pay-per-post deal. However, SEOBook doesn't do those types of deals, so I've refocused on how it should be pitched, if the writer had bothered to first research SEOBook.com's editorial policy :)

New SEO Software Your Readers Might Like

Hi Aaron,

I'm a loyal reader of SEOBook.com, and I've written a piece of software that you and your readers might be interested in.

The software automates social bookmarking.

You can use the software to help build links and increase traffic to your site. If you'd like to try it out, here is a link to a free copy. I've included a recent case study showing how we took a site from 1,000 visitors to 4,000 visitors in less than a week.

I'd be very interested in hearing any feedback you may have.

Kind regards,

Joe Emailer

acme.com

Not perfect, but it only took one minute to write. I'm sure we can all agree that it is an improvement on the first one.

Aaron might even have answered it....

Website Checklist: Getting To The Close

Oct 22nd
posted in

Sales people talk a lot about about "closing the deal", the final stage in the sales process needed to get people to sign on the dotted line.

Typically, the stages leading up to the "close" are affordability, no perceived need, no hurry, or no trust. Sales people are trained on how to spot and deal with this issues, and ways in which to overcome a customers objections. Sales training is partly systematic, and part art. After all, everyone is different.

It's the same on the web, however unlike the salesperson, you can't engage a person, one-on-one. But there are things you can do to increase the chances of making the sale.

Checklist

I thought I'd put together a simple checklist for beginners on ways in which you can get a visitor to take a desired action. I've included links to some great resources for those who want to dig deeper and see practical examples.

But what if you don't sell things?

Really, every web site "sells" something, be it a good, a service, or an opinion. This checklist can be used, and adapted for any site. Sometimes, a simple change or two is all that is required to go from good to great.

For example, Amazon, a company that builds conversion techniques into their powerful sales platform, made one simple change that made them millions of dollars in extra revenue. Rather than phrase match search results, they displayed products most people purchased after searching on any given query. By doing this, they increased relevance. The result? A revenue increase of 3%, which amounted to millions of dollars in extra sales each year.

You can read more about what Amazon did in this free report "Controlled Experiments On The Web: Survey And Practical Guide"

1. Never Make It Difficult For People To Pay You

Once someone has said "yes" to an idea, you need to get them to sign on the dotted line as quickly as possible. Leave too much time, and people may reflect, have second thoughts, get distracted, or otherwise lose momentum. Think about bricks 'n mortar stores. It's always immediately obvious where, and how, to make payment. If the store is smart, they don't make you wait to pay.

One exception to this rule is if you have a good chance of upselling. However, overplay this strategy, and you might lose the customer altogether. A certain, large domain name registrar springs to mind.....

Further Reading:

2. Be Relevant

Learn the lesson of Amazon. What do you your visitors really want from you?

If you're not what the visitor wants, then all the SEO, testing and tweaks in the world won't help. Monitor what people do on your site after they arrive. Do you know how many visitors click the back button after arriving? If too many visitors click the back button, you've clearly got a relevancy problem.

Obvious, right? What's not so obvious is what to do about it. Which brings me on to point 3....

3. Measure & Iterate

Good analytics are important. What's even more important is acting on the data.

Look at your website as a constant work in progress. It should be always "under construction". Watch what your visitors do, and what they don't do. Make changes, measure the results, then make further changes in response to those results. Repeat.

Converting visitors to action is part science, part art. There is no one way of doing it. What works for you may not work for others.

Further Reading:

4. Reassure People

The web is often nebulous. Unlike a physical store, or face-to-face dealings, it can be hard for the visitor to gauge credibility. Therefore, you need to go the extra mile to reassue people your site is legitimate. You need to include as many credibility markers as possible.

Examples of credibility markers include your contact details, testimonials, money-back guarantees where appropriate, a physical address and phone number, credit-card security measures, and privacy and data collecting policies. Tell people what to do when/if the process goes wrong.

Further Reading:

5. Make Your Call To Action Crystal Clear

A call to action is a description of the activity you want your visitor to take.

Do you know where your visitors look and click? Using tools such as CrazyEgg, amongst others, you can approximate eye patterns, and see where visitors click most often. This is where your call to action should be located, if practical.

Eye paths are are also important. What visual or textual elements grab people's attention the most? Try changing the size of the headline. Try changing the separation between the headline and other page elements. Place the headline next to a picture.

Take a look at this before and after:

Before:

http://meclabs.com/resources/hyp1.jpg

After:

http://meclabs.com/resources/hyp2.jpg

The "after" page, with enhanced credibility markers and clearer eye paths and call to action, increased the conversion rate by 40.7%

Further Reading:

6. Provide Clear Signposts

Because the web is non-linear, it can be difficult for people to determine where in the process they are, and what happens next. Try to make this explicit by using signposts.

For example, you could outline in the first step of a sales process that the process will take five steps. Then, at each step, clearly show what step people are at. Signposts can be both visual and text.

7. Encourage People

Sometimes, the visitor might be unsure if they are following the process correctly. Encourage people at each step, reinforcing that what they are doing is correct. Create thank you pages and send responder emails. Tell the visitor who to contact if they have any concerns.

8. Give Visitors A Reason To Return

Most visitors aren't ready to buy or commit to action. They're tyre-kicking, they're researching, they're browsing. Try and "capture" these people, and hopefully they'll convert to desired action next time they visit.

Encourage them to do something painless, like bookmarking the site. Offer them a something free in return for their email address. Think about what you can give people in order to make them feel indebted to you. Clearly outline the benefits they'll get if they do return. What's in it for them?

9. Create A Sense Of Urgency

As a seller, you might have a sense of urgency, but the buyer may not. One way to help close the deal is to create a sense of urgency in the buyers mind. Methods such as the time sensitive offer work well i.e. if a visitor orders today, the visitor receives a special discount.

Further Reading:

10. Personalize Your Communication

The very existence of a blog or newsletter on your site reinforces the idea that there is a real person behind the site. If appropriate, sharing your views and experiences is a powerful way to engage visitors on a personal level. Careful, though. Over-familiarity can also be annoying. It may also be inappropriate in some environments i.e. old-school corporate.

Amazon features authors statements, reviews, and personal feedback. You really get the feeling the website is a place, in which real people reside and communicate with one another.

Further Reading:

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