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

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We love our customers, but more importantly

Our customers love us!

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:

Seven Ways To Be More Persuasive

Oct 20th
posted in

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to get visitors to our sites, but how much time do we spend thinking about better ways to persuade people once they've arrived?

Such topics are often talked about in terms of conversion and split/run testing. However, I'm like to talk talking about something a little more subtle.

The gentle art of persuasion.

Is Your Web Site Persuasive?

Every site "sells" something. It might be a product, a service, an opinion, or an increased level of engagement. You might wish to sign up members. You might want someone to bookmark your site, and return at a later date. You might want someone comment on your blog post. How can we best achieve these aims?

In "Yes, 50 Secrets From The Science of Persuasion", there is a great example of how to inconvenience your customers in order to make a sale. Colleen Szot, a leading infomercial writer, changed three words in an infomercial line which resulted in a significant increase in the number of people who purchased her product. What is remarkable is she seemingly made ordering more of a hassle.

What were those three words?

Instead of saying "Operators are waiting, please call now", she said "If operators are busy, please call back".

It seems odd that informing the customers they might have to wait would work, After all, the revised line implies the customer might have to redial a few times. However, the change worked because it used the principle of social proof. i.e. if people are uncertain about looking to perform a social action, then they'll look beyond their own judgment for a guide on what action to take.

"Operators are waiting to take your call" conjures up a mental image of rows of bored operators waiting for the phone to ring. Nobody is buying. However, by suggesting the operators might be busy, we imagine that many people are buying the product. If other people are buying it, it must be good. Of course, this isn't logical, but it is how people act. They perceive there to be safety in numbers.

We can take these ideas and apply them to websites, too. Here are seven. These ideas are all documented in "Yes, 50 Secrets From The Science of Persuasion".

I'm not getting any kickbacks for mentioning it. I just really enjoyed the book :)

1. Establish Social Proof

Look at ways in which you can demonstrate other people have taken this course of action.

Typical examples on the web include personal recommendations and endorsements. More subtle indicators include a running total of the number of comments made, indicators as to the size of the community, and the number of people who have visited the site. RSS counters. Social network plug-ins, such as MyBlogLog . All indicators that other people congregate here.

Think of the web as a place.

This is another reason the brochure web site is dying a death compared to interactive sites. There are few social markers on brochure sites, and there is seldom a sense of place. People want to be where are other people are.

No one wants to eat in an empty restaurant.

2. Don't Give People Too Many Options.

In a study of over 800,000 workers, behavioral scientist Sheena Lyengar studied company sponsored retirement programs. The study found that the more choices that were offered, the less likely employees were to enroll in the program. Giving people too many options forces people to differentiate. This can lead to confusion and disengagement from the task at hand.

When you consider that an exit on the web is only one click away, it becomes vitally important that people do not become disengaged. Decide on a limited number of desired actions you want visitors to take, and focus people's attention on those few options.

3. The Middle Option

I've covered this tactic before in Predictable Irrational Marketing Strategies, but it's such a great persuasive technique, it can't hurt to revisit it :)

If you want to people to take a desired action, frame it alongside two less desirable options.

For example, let's say you're offering TVs for sale. If you offer a cheap TV and an expensive TV, you're forcing people to make a choice based on price. People will tend to pick the lowest price option if forced into a decision based solely on price. However, if you offer a third option the decision becomes less focused on price. It becomes a compromise choice based on both price and features.

Given this option, people tend to pick the middle option. Consider that the middle option was the expensive option in the first either/or offer :)

4. Scare 'Em

A persuasive technique favored by politicians. "Terrorists!". "Your Savings Will Be Wiped Out!". "Your Jobs Will Go Offshore!".

These threat messages work because humans are conditioned to look out for threats. It's a survival mechanism. You can incorporate this persuasive technique in a more subtle way, however.

People experience fear on a number of different levels, i.e. they may simply fear that by not having your product, service or blog in their feed reader, they may be missing out. Describe the threats your product or service can alleviate, and provide a clear, concise course of action the visitor must take.

This technique must be used carefully however, as fear can also lead to inaction. Hence the phrase "paralyzed by fear", which can also occur if you offer too many options. People are afraid they'll pick the wrong one.

5. Give Forward

Reciprocity is a strong human driver. We want to give back to those people who give to us as we feel obligated. Curiously, studies show that we don't even have to like the person to feel indebted.

One of the most ridiculous pitches in web marketing is the link swap email. Someone asks you for a link, and once that link is in place, they'll link back to you. Typically they want a prominent link from your site, in return for a link on a page buried deep in their site, alongside thousands of other links.

Not much of an offer, really.

Some people try and twist the idea by giving a link first, but will retract it if you don't reciprocate. Once again, this isn't really giving anything away.

A much better approach is to simply link out to the target site. Webmasters tend to follow links back to see who is linking to them. Your link becomes a subtle form of advertising. If you then praise that website, and offer great content, you're significantly raising your chances of getting a link back.

Ask not the question "who can help me", but "whom can I help?".

6. The Post It Note

Research shows that a post-it note attached to a document tends to increase response rates. Why? Partly it has to do with the bright post-it note acts as a highlighter, and partly it has to do with the fact someone has added a personal touch

You can see the post-it note technique creeping into web design. People use a post-it note graphics, like this one on CopyBlogger. There's also a design trend to add "hand writing" as a form of personalization. Check out a few examples on Smashing Magazine.

The more personalized a request, the more likely people are to agree to it.

7. Labeling

When Luke persuaded Darth Vader to turn against the dark side, he said "I know there is still good in you! There's good in you. I can sense it". This is known as labeling. BTW: That link has little to do with this point, but it is funny :)

I digress...

The technique is to assign a trait, attitude or belief to another person and then make a request of that person consistent with that label.

For example, if you were selling accounting books, you could suggest that people who buy accounting books are also big consumers of your finance titles. Then offer them a finance title. This also works in terms of social proof.

Your Turn

What are your favorite persuasion techniques?

Web Publishing: Strategies To Help You Stand Out From The Crowd

Oct 17th
posted in

Web publishing has a low barrier to entry. This is great, because it enables anyone to be a publisher, and to reach a world wide audience.

The downside is that because there is a low barrier to entry, the web is saturated with content!

So, how do you choose topics to write about that stand out from the crowd? How do you stay ahead of everyone else? How do you stay ahead of those who have more time/money/energy to publish than you do? One way, of course, is to work smarter.

In this article, we'll look at strategies and tools that will help you do just that. But before we do, let's take a look at the state of the web..

The Evolution Of Personal Publishing

Personal publishing is in a constant state of evolution.

Take blogs, for example.

At one time, is was good enough simply to link to topics. The first blog, Robot Wisdom, took this approach. However, with the rise of social media, like Digg & Twitter, this approach - apart from a few, long-established exceptions aside - is a dead duck.

Next came the "rewriting news stories" approach. This approach still works, but in crowded niches, every blog ends up publishing the same thing. If you're a late follower in a niche, it's unlikely you'll make much headway using this technique, because it doesn't offer anything people can't get - and aren't already getting - elsewhere.

Next came providing opinion, analysis and context to news stories. This works well if the opinions on offer are new, insightful, and unique. This is the current state of the blogshere, and chances are the top blogs you read take this approach. They address a need in the market - i.e. a need for depth and analysis . I suspect you're already reading less and less of the blogs that either just point to sources or rewrite news stories.

It's not quite as linear as I'm making out, but the point is wish to make is that as content more plentiful, the bar gets raised on the quality level of content you need to produce in order to stand out.

Plenty of new opportunities lie in synergising information to provide readers with the new angles and editorial depth they crave. If you aggregate from different sources, and can spot trends before others do, you stand a good chance of standing out from the crowd.

But how do you do this?

Tools & Strategies

1. RSS Reader

Chances are you already use one. But if you don't, an RSS reader is possibly the single most important tool for article and information discovery. An RSS reader brings information to you. It brings the information to you soon after it is published. It's like having your own personal newspaper which auto-updates every few minutes.

The main advantage of an RSS reader is that you can scan a huge number of sources in very little time. Aim to monitor a lot of sources, across related industry verticals.

There are plenty of RSS readers to choose from. Here are a few to get you started: Google Reader, Bloglines, and NewsFox.

2. Have A Point Of View About Future Direction

Try to form opinions about the way your market or niche is heading, rather than where it is now, then analyse information through this filter. If asked, could you say where internet marketing is now, and where it will be in five years time? What will it look like? What are the stages it will move through to get there?

If you use such a mental filter, you should be able to spot the nuances in sources more easily. The aim is to weed out the tired, repetitive and redundant. Specifically, try to look for the points where people's behaviors start to deviate from an established norm.

Services like Compete and Google Trends are great for spotting these types of changes. There are a variety of sources data can be pulled from, including government, industry bodies, and free secondary research.

Here's a graphical comparison of various Google services. I'm sure there's an article topic in there somewhere ;)

Of course, you need to watch out for bias. One famous example of the problems of biased data was the 1948 election:

On Election night, the Chicago Tribune printed the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, which turned out to be mistaken. In the morning the grinning President-Elect, Harry S. Truman, was photographed holding a newspaper bearing this headline. The reason the Tribune was mistaken is that their editor trusted the results of a phone survey. Survey research was then in its infancy, and few academics realized that a sample of telephone users was not representative of the general population. Telephones were not yet widespread, and those who had them tended to be prosperous and have stable addresses

This is why cross-checking is often a good idea. One example, in the field of SEO, is keyword data. Some keyword research tools pull data from small, third party search engines, whilst Adwords data might be a more reliable indicator of the numbers of searches on Google for a specified keyword term, if that's what you're aiming to measure.

TrendWatching.com offers a good definition of trends:

A (new trend) is a manifestation of something that has unlocked or newly serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need,* desire, want, or value.

"At the core of this statement is the assumption that human beings, and thus consumers, don't change that much. Their deep needs remain the same, yet can be unlocked or newly serviced. The 'unlockers' can be anything from changes in societal norms and values, to a breakthrough in technology, to a rise in prosperity."

Can you spot anything people have recently started doing differently?

One example was PPC advertising. Before PPC advertising came about, SEOs wouldn't dream of paying for clicks. Why would they when they could get them for free?

So, the established norm was a group of marketers who operated on the principle of getting clicks for free.

PPC emerged because there were a group of advertsiers that were prepared to pay per click, rather than spend time, money and effort in the hit and miss field of SEO. PPC addressed a deep need. PPC, of course, quickly grew into a multi-billion dollar industry.

3. Monitor Cross-Industry

Monitor not just your own vertical, but also look across related industries. What's hot and emerging in one market may not have hit your market yet. See if there is a natural synergy between the two. If there is, and no one is writing about it yet - great - you've just discovered a ground breaking content idea.

4. Aggregators

There are a wide range of aggregators available, with new options popping up all the time. Aggregators are particularly good for finding new sources. Try Techmeme, FriendFeed, StumbleUpon, Popurls, Topix, and, of course, the recently updated Google Blog Search.

5. Set Up A tips@ Email Address

Your readers might be a rich source of ideas. Some may also have some insider information that they might not feel comfortable publishing yourself.

Set up a tips@ email address, and encourage people to email you with information. Make it easy for them to do so.

BTW, if anyone does have some insider information they want to share, or answers you need, or article suggestions, please email us at seobook@gmail.com. :)

6. Cultivate News Stories Using Social Media

Start a Digg-style news community for your niche. Try to create communities of people who enjoy mining for information on a given topic. One search-oriented example of such a community is Sphinn.com.

If you don't have the inclination to set-up a community yourself, find existing communities and monitor them.

Check out:

Pligg.com
Sphinn.com
Mixx.com

7. RSS Remixing

RSS remixing is agrregating different RSS feeds into one feed. You can remix each industry vertical, rather than have multiple feeds, which can make it easier to scan.

Add each feed to your reader, aggregate them into the one big feed, the same folder or view, and viola - you have your own niche news mining engine.
Also check out remixers such as FeedRinse, FeedDigest, and BlastFeed.

8. URL Monitoring On Digg

In the Digg search option, choose "URL only" and "upcoming stories". Type in the domain name of any site you want to watch. You should see an orange RSS button in the right hand corner. Click on it and save the results as an Rss feed.

9. Google Alerts

Why search for news when Google can do it for you? For those who don't know, Google Alerts is an email service that monitors Google result sets for the keyword of your choice.

For example, you can monitor when people talk about you or your site, you can keep track of your competitors or industry, and stay on top of breaking news.

Also check out Track Engine. Similar to Google Alerts, Track Engine can be used to identify when websites update, without you having to visit them. You can also set tracking perameters so customise the information you receive.

10. Google Insights

Insights For Search is a hugely useful tool.

You can use it in a number of ways. For example, you can track seasonal trends. This chart shows when interest is highest in basketball. The pattern of interest is a consistent, shape year after year. You could use this information to dictate the timing of your stories on certain topics.

11. Random Stumbling & Association

Sometimes stumbling about in unknown territory can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Another fun option are Oblique Strategies cards.

Try famous quotes. Quotes contain universal truths, which you might be able to apply to your area of interest, in order to view things in a different way.

Image collections are another. Search on various themes, and see what image comes back. Does the image prompt a fresh way of thinking?

Hold multiple, disconnected ideas in your head and see if you can discover a synergy. For example, a famous example is:

  • A Red Traffic Light
  • A cigarette

This led to the little red mark on cigarettes encouraging smokers to stop smoking when the cigarette burned down to that point, and thereby they could control their habit. More likely, it was a ruse to get smokers to go through a pack faster.

Got any strategies on how to generate story ideas? Add 'em to the comments below.

Further Reading

Tracking the Evolution of Search Spam

Oct 16th
posted in

As part of their 10th birthday celebrations, Google recently released a 2001 index, to show us how much things have changed.

It is fascinating to look into the past, especially from an SEO point of view. Has the nature of spam changed since 2001? How has Google changed in order to nullify the affects of spam?

When Google filed their registration statement prior to IPO, Google identified a number of risk factors.

One of these risks was:

We are susceptible to index spammers who could harm the integrity of our web search results

There is an ongoing and increasing effort by “index spammers” to develop ways to manipulate our web search results. For example, because our web search technology ranks a web page’s relevance based in part on the importance of the web sites that link to it, people have attempted to link a group of web sites together to manipulate web search results. We take this problem very seriously because providing relevant information to users is critical to our success. If our efforts to combat these and other types of index spamming are unsuccessful, our reputation for delivering relevant information could be diminished. This could result in a decline in user traffic, which would damage our business."

Curious how Google conflates spamming with relevance, eh. While it could be true that manipulating rank could lead to lower relevance, that isn't a given. The manipulation could, after all, produce relevant results. "Relevant" being a subjective judgement made by the user.

I digress...

What Google are really getting at is the type of manipulation that leads to less relevant results, commonly referred to as search engine spam. In this respect, what has changed since 2001?

Has Search Spam Been Defeated?

Or, to put another way, what changes have Google made to reduce the business risk of non-relevant search results?

Compare the following examples with the results we see today:

Buy Viagra
Viagra

Now try searching on those two phrases in today's index. How many differences can you spot? How have the result sets changes? Are they less "spammy"?

Here are a few aspects I noticed:

  1. The search results are much tighter and much more well policed. You wouldn't find the penis-envy.com site's link exchange page ranking in Google's 2008 search results for Paxil search queries.
  2. Google used to match keyword strings a lot more than it does today. This is the reason why a lot of on-page optimization techniques have become redundant, and the reason why effective on page optimization in 2008 is more about diversity than repeating words.
  3. Blogs have came from an obscure force to category leaders in many markets.
  4. If you happen to be searching outside the US, Google now incorporates, and boosts, regional results.
  5. Google now incorporates YouTube, news, and other related informational sources, thus forcing results from smaller sites further down the page
  6. There used to be a lot more hyphenated domain names showing up top ten. Not so much these days.
  7. Wikipedia, then called Nupedia, had only just started in 2001, so wasn't yet appearing in every single search result ;)

When Google first emerged, algorithmic search was in real danger of becoming unusable. Engines like Alta Vista were losing the war against spammers, and result sets were becoming increasingly irrelevant. Sergey Brin once declared that it wasn't possible to spam Google. When Google came along, they had defeated spam forever using a clever link analysis algorithm. No more spam!

Well, not really.

Spam hasn't gone away. But it is fair to say that Google is doing a pretty good job of maintaining relevance, and in many cases, eliminating the worst forms of spam. For example, it is now uncommon to see the type of deceptive redirects that were common in 1997, whereby if you clicked on a link, you were led you to a site that was unrelated to the link text.

We've seen the rise of the authoritative domain, and the relegation of the influence of many smaller sites. Pages hosted on authoritative domains are more likely to rank higher than pages on sites that haven't established authority. This has, in turn, led to a different type of spam. People hack into authoritative sites in order to place their links, or entire pages, on these domains. Wikipedia has an ongoing battle to keep their pages free from "commercial imperatives".

The target has, in many ways, shifted down a level.

Big Changes

Since 2001, Google has incorporated verticals.

In this article, Danny Sullivan outlined the use of "invisible tags" in the delivery of search results.

"The solution I see coming is something I call "invisible tabs." Quietly, behind the scenes, search engines will automatically push the correct tab for your query and retrieve specialized search results. This should ultimately prove an improvement over the situation now, where you're handed 10 or 20 matching web pages."

Result sets have increasingly become query dependent, as if you'd pre-selected a topic tab. For example, if your query is determined to have an informational intent, you're unlikely to receive a commercially oriented result set. It is has become a lot more difficult to get off-topic listings - which in this specific case would be commercial pages - into such result sets.

We've also seen the structure of search results pages change markedly. We see images, videos, news, related searches, sub pages, onebox results boxes, personalized results, desktop results, and Adwords. This leaves less and less room for other types of pages, as the search results orient more heavily around a wider variety of data types.

However, in the end, the SERP is still just a list, that looks much like the old list. What will search, and search spam, look like in another tens years?

The Future

Over $10 billion dollars are chasing paid search each year, and that figure will surely grow as media spend increasingly shifts online. There is still a strong incentive to use all means necessary to get to the top of the list.

Google will, of course, continue to try and counter this threat to their business model. The PageRank has likely been changed considerably to when it was first published. Google is likely to continue to incorporate usage metrics, making it more and more difficult for less relevant pages to gain a foothold.

On the flip side, will search be important as it is now? There appears to be a trend for more information to be pushed our way, rather than going out and finding it ourselves. RSS, recommendation engines (Amazon, YouTube, et al), community models (Facebook), and more. Will our surfing habits be (voluntarily) monitored, and answers provided before we we're even aware of the question? We're already seeing the early stages of this with contextual Adwords in Gmail. These changes will, in turn, give rise to a new breed of spam. While the commercial incentive remains, there will always be a level of spam.

The game of cat and mouse continues...

The Google 2001 Search Index is a Great SEO Tool

Having a glimpse of the past reminds us of how things changes, which might help us think of why they changed and how they may change going forward.

The 2001 index provides for a great tool to show past popular SEO techniques that have become irrelevant, which is useful when the boss uncovers an old spammy strategy that they feel you must follow to succeed. It not only helps us inform employers, but also allows us to talk about and highlight overt forms of spam without the worry of "outing" a page that is currently ranking.

URL Canonicalization: The Missing Manual

Oct 13th
posted in

Canonicalization can be a confusing area for webmasters, so let's take a look at what it is, and ways to avoid it causing problems.

What Is Canonicalization?

Canonicalization is the process by which URLs are standardized. For example, www.acme.com and www.acme.com/ are treated as the same page, even though the syntax of the URL is different.

Why Is Canonicalization An Issue For SEO?

Problems can occur when the search engine doesn't normalize URLs properly.

For example, a search engine might see http://www.acme.com and http://acme.com as different pages. In this instance, the search engine has the host names confused.

Why Is This a Problem?

If the search engines sees a page as being published at many separate URLs, the search engine may rank your pages lower than they would otherwise, or not rank them at all.

Canonicalization issues can split link juice between pages if people link to variants of the URL. Not only does this affect rank (less PageRank = lower rank), but it can also affect crawl depth (if PageRank is spent on duplicate content it is not being spent getting other unique content indexed).

To appreciate what a dramatic effect canonicalization issues can have on search traffic look at the following example, and notice that for the given example proper canonicalization increased traffic for that keyword by 300%

  Link Equity Google Ranking Position % of Search Traffic Daily Traffic Volume Traffic Increase
split 1 60% 8 3% 50 -
split 2 40% 15, filtered = 0 0% 0 -
canonical 100% 2 12% 200 300%

What Conditions Can Cause This Problem?

There are various conditions, but the following are amongst the most common:

  • Different host names i.e. www.acme.com vs acme.com
  • Redirects pointing to different URLs i.e. 302 used inappropriately
  • Forwarding multiple URLs to the same content, and/or publishing the same content on multiple domains
  • Improperly configured dynamic URLs i.e. any url rewriting based on changing conditions
  • Two index pages appearing in the same location i.e. Index.htm vs Index.html
  • Different protocols i.e. https://www vs http://www
  • Multiple slashes in the filepath i.e. www.acme.com/ vs www.acme.com//
  • Scripts that generate alternate URLs for the same content i.e. some blogging and forum software, ecommerce software that adds tracking URLs
  • Port numbers in the domain name i.e. acme.com/4430 : can sometimes be seen in virtual hosting environments.
  • Capitalization - i.e. www.acme.com/Index.html vs www.acme.com/index.html
  • URLs "built" from the path you take to reach a page i.e. tracking software may incorporate the click path in the URL for statistical purposes.
  • Trailing questions marks, with or without parameters i.e. www.acme.com/? or www.acme.com/?source=cnn (a common tagging strategy amongst ad buys)

How Can I Tell If Canonicalization Issues Are Affecting My Site?

Besides working through the checklist performing a manual check, you can also use Google's cache date.

Previously, you would have been able to use Google's supplemental index marker, although Google have recently done away with this feature.

The supplemental index is a secondary index, seperate from Google's main index. It is a graveyard, of sorts, containing outdated pages, pages with low trust scores, duplicate content, and other erroneous pages. As duplicate pages often reside in the supplemental index, appearing in the supplemental index can be an indicator you may have canonicalization issues, all else being equal.

Before Google removed the supplemental index label, many SEOs noticed that supplemental pages had an old cache date and that cache date is a good proxy for trust. If your page is not indexed frequently, and you think it should be, chances are the page is residing in the supplemental index.

Michael Gray at Wolf-Howl" outlines a method to easily check for this data. In summary, you add a date and unique field to each page, wait a couple of months, then search on this term.

How Can I Avoid Canonicalization Issues?

Good Site Planning

Using good site planning and architecture, from the start, can save you a lot of problems later on. Pick a convention for linking, and stick with it.

Maintain Consistent Linking Conventions

It's an important point, so I'll repeat it ;) Always link to www.acme.com, rather than sometimes linking to acme.com/index.htm, and sometimes linking to www.acme.com.

301 Redirect Non-www to www , Or Vice Versa

You can force resolution to one URL only. To do this, you create a 301 redirect.

Here's a typical 301 redirect script:

RewriteEngine On RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^seobook.com [NC] RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.seobook.com/$1 [L,R=301]

For a more detailed analysis on how to use redirects, see .htaccess, 301 Redirects & SEO.

Use The Website Health Check Tool

This tool, and accompanying video, shows you how to spot a number of site architecture problems, including canonicalization issues.

Download the tool, check the www vs non-www option box, and hit the Analyze button.

If you have a large site you may not be able to surface all the canonicalization issues using the default tool settings. You may need to use the date based filter options to get a deep view of recently indexed pages...many canonicalization issues occur sitewide, so looking deeply at new pages should help you detect problems.

Another free, but far more time consuming option, is to use the date based filters on Google's advanced search page.

Workaround For Https://

Sometimes Google will index both the http:// and the https:// versions of a site.

One way around this is to tell the bots not to index the https:// version.

Tony Spencer outlines two ways to do this in .htaccess, 301 Redirects & SEO. One is to cloak the robots.txt file, the other is to create a conditional php script.

Use Absolute, As Opposed To Relative Links

An absolute link specifies the exact location of a file on a webserver. For example, http://www.acme.com/filename.html

A relative link is, as the name suggests, relative to a pages' location on the server.

A relative link looks like this:
"/directory/filename.htm"

There are various issues to consider, not related to canonicalization issues, when deciding to using either format. These issues include page download speed, server access times, and design conventions. The point to remember is to remain consistent. Absolute links tend to make doing so easier, as there is only ever one URL format for a file, regardless of context.

Don't Link To Multiple Versions Of The Page

In some cases, you may intend to have duplicate content on your site.

For example, some software, such as blog and forum software, aggregates posts into archives. Always link to the original version of the post, as opposed to the archive, or any other, location i.e. www.acme.com/todays-post.htm , not www.acme.com/archive/december/todays-post.htm.

If your software program links to a duplicate version of the content (like an individual post from a forum thread) consider adding rel=nofollow to those links.

Use 301s, not 302s On Internal Affiliate Redirects

A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect, which indicates a page has been moved permanently. 301s typically pass PageRank, and do not cause canonicalization issues.

A 302 redirect is a temporary redirect. If you use 302s the wrong page may rank. Google's Matt Cutts claims they are trying to fix the problem:

we’ve changed our heuristics to make showing the source url for 302 redirects much more rare. We are moving to a framework for handling redirects in which we will almost always show the destination url. Yahoo handles 302 redirects by usually showing the destination url, and we are in the middle of transitioning to a similar set of heuristics. Note that Yahoo reserves the right to have exceptions on redirect handling, and Google does too. Based on our analysis, we will show the source url for a 302 redirect less than half a percent of the time (basically, when we have strong reason to think the source url is correct)

but if you use 302s on affiliate links the affiliate page may rank in the search results, as shown in the below SnapNames search. This, in turn, would credit the affiliate with a commission anytime someone buys through that link in the search results...effectively cutting the margins of the end merchant.

Specify preferred urls in Google Webmaster Tools

Google Webmaster Tools provides an area where you can specify which version of URL i.e. http://www.acme or http//acme Google should use.

Note: It is important not to use the remove URL tool to try and fix these domain issues. Doing so may result in your entire domain, as opposed to one page, being removed from the index.

Further Reading

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