The Benefits Of Thinking Like Google

Aug 27th
posted in

Shadows are the color of the sky.

It’s one of those truths that is difficult to see, until you look closely at what’s really there.

To see something as it really is, we should try to identify our own bias, and then let it go.

“Unnatural” Links

This article tries to make sense of Google's latest moves regarding links.

It’s a reaction to Google’s update of their Link Schemes policy. Google’s policy states “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines." I wrote on this topic, too.

Those with a vested interest in the link building industry - which is pretty much all of us - might spot the problem.

Google’s negative emphasis, of late, has been about links. Their message is not new, just the emphasis. The new emphasis could pretty much be summarized thus:"any link you build for the purpose of manipulating rank is outside the guidelines." Google have never encouraged activity that could manipulate rankings, which is precisely what those link building, for the purpose of SEO, attempt to do. Building links for the purposes of higher rank AND staying within Google's guidelines will not be easy.

Some SEOs may kid themselves that they are link building “for the traffic”, but if that were the case, they’d have no problem insisting those links were scripted so they could monitor traffic statistics, or at very least, no-followed, so there could be no confusion about intent.

How many do?

Think Like Google

Ralph Tegtmeier: In response to Eric's assertion "I applaud Google for being more and more transparent with their guidelines", Ralph writes- "man, Eric: isn't the whole point of your piece that this is exactly what they're NOT doing, becoming "more transparent"?

Indeed.

In order to understand what Google is doing, it can be useful to downplay any SEO bias i.e. what we may like to see from an SEO standpoint, rather try to look at the world from Google’s point of view.

I ask myself “if I were Google, what would I do?”

Clearly I'm not Google, so these are just my guesses, but if I were Google, I’d see all SEO as a potential competitive threat to my click advertising business. The more effective the SEO, the more of a threat it is. SEOs can’t be eliminated, but they can been corralled and managed in order to reduce the level of competitive threat. Partly, this is achieved by algorithmic means. Partly, this is achieved using public relations. If I were Google, I would think SEOs are potentially useful if they could be encouraged to provide high quality content and make sites easier to crawl, as this suits my business case.

I’d want commercial webmasters paying me for click traffic. I’d want users to be happy with the results they are getting, so they keep using my search engine. I’d consider webmasters to be unpaid content providers.

Do I (Google) need content? Yes, I do. Do I need any content? No, I don’t. If anything, there is too much content, and lot of it is junk. In fact, I’m getting more and more selective about the content I do show. So selective, in fact, that a lot of what I show above the fold content is controlled and “published”, in the broadest sense of the word, by me (Google) in the form of the Knowledge Graph.

It is useful to put ourselves in someone else’s position to understand their truth. If you do, you’ll soon realise that Google aren’t the webmasters friend if your aim, as a webmaster, is to do anything that "artificially" enhances your rank.

So why are so many SEOs listening to Google’s directives?

Rewind

A year or two ago, it would be madness to suggest webmasters would pay to remove links, but that’s exactly what’s happening. Not only that, webmasters are doing Google link quality control. For free. They’re pointing out the links they see as being “bad” - links Google’s algorithms may have missed.

Check out this discussion. One exasperated SEO tells Google that she tries hard to get links removed, but doesn’t hear back from site owners. The few who do respond want money to take the links down.

It is understandable site owners don't spend much time removing links. From a site owners perspective, taking links down involves a time cost, so there is no benefit to the site owner in doing so, especially if they receive numerous requests. Secondly, taking down links may be perceived as being an admission of guilt. Why would a webmaster admit their links are "bad"?

The answer to this problem, from Google's John Mueller is telling.

A shrug of the shoulders.

It’s a non-problem. For Google. If you were Google, would you care if a site you may have relegated for ranking manipulation gets to rank again in future? Plenty more where they came from, as there are thousands more sites just like it, and many of them owned by people who don’t engage in ranking manipulation.

Does anyone really think their rankings are going to return once they’ve been flagged?

Jenny Halasz then hinted at the root of the problem. Why can’t Google simply not count the links they don’t like? Why make webmasters jump through arbitrary hoops? The question was side-stepped.

If you were Google, why would you make webmasters jump through hoops? Is it because you want to make webmasters lives easier? Well, that obviously isn’t the case. Removing links is a tedious, futile process. Google suggest using the disavow links tool, but the twist is you can’t just put up a list of links you want to disavow.

Say what?

No, you need to show you’ve made some effort to remove them.

Why?

If I were Google, I’d see this information supplied by webmasters as being potentially useful. They provide me with a list of links that the algorithm missed, or considered borderline, but the webmaster has reviewed and thinks look bad enough to affect their ranking. If the webmaster simply provided a list of links dumped from a link tool, it’s probably not telling Google much Google doesn’t already know. There’s been no manual link review.

So, what webmasters are doing is helping Google by manually reviewing links and reporting bad links. How does this help webmasters?

It doesn’t.

It just increases the temperature of the water in the pot. Is the SEO frog just going to stay there, or is he going to jump?

A Better Use Of Your Time

Does anyone believe rankings are going to return to their previous positions after such an exercise? A lot of webmasters aren’t seeing changes. Will you?

Maybe.

But I think it’s the wrong question.

It’s the wrong question because it’s just another example of letting Google define the game. What are you going to do when Google define you right out of the game? If your service or strategy involves links right now, then in order to remain snow white, any links you place, for the purposes of achieving higher rank, are going to need to be no-followed in order to be clear about intent. Extreme? What's going to be the emphasis in six months time? Next year? How do you know what you're doing now is not going to be frowned upon, then need to be undone, next year?

A couple of years ago it would be unthinkable that webmasters would report and remove their own links, even paying for them to be removed, but that’s exactly what’s happening. So, what is next year's unthinkable scenario?

You could re-examine the relationship and figure what you do on your site is absolutely none of Google’s business. They can issue as many guidelines as they like, but they do not own your website, or the link graph, and therefore don't have authority over you unless you allow it. Can they ban your site because you’re not compliant with their guidelines? Sure, they can. It’s their index. That is the risk. How do you choose to manage this risk?

It strikes me you can lose your rankings at anytime whether you follow the current guidelines or not, especially when the goal-posts keep moving. So, the risk of not following the guidelines, and following the guidelines but not ranking well is pretty much the same - no traffic. Do you have a plan to address the “no traffic from Google” risk, however that may come about?

Your plan might involve advertising on other sites that do rank well. It might involve, in part, a move to PPC. It might be to run multiple domains, some well within the guidelines, and some way outside them. Test, see what happens. It might involve beefing up other marketing channels. It might be to buy competitor sites. Your plan could be to jump through Google’s hoops if you do receive a penalty, see if your site returns, and if it does - great - until next time, that is.

What's your long term "traffic from Google" strategy?

If all you do is "follow Google's Guidelines", I'd say that's now a high risk SEO strategy.

Google: Press Release Links

Aug 7th
posted in

So, Google have updated their Webmaster Guidelines.

Here are a few common examples of unnatural links that violate our guidelines:....Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.

For example: There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.

In particular, they have focused on links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. Google being Google, these rules are somewhat ambiguous. “Optimized anchor text”? The example they provide includes keywords in the anchor text, so keywords in the anchor text is “optimized” and therefore a violation of Google’s guidelines.

Ambiguously speaking, of course.

To put the press release change in context, Google’s guidelines state:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site

So, links gained, for SEO purposes - intended to manipulate ranking - are against Google Guidelines.

Google vs Webmasters

Here’s a chat...

In this chat, Google’s John Muller says that, if the webmaster initiated it, then it isn't a natural link. If you want to be on the safe side, John suggests to use no-follow on links.

Google are being consistent, but what’s amusing is the complete disconnect on display from a few of the webmasters. Google have no problem with press releases, but if a webmaster wants to be on the safe side in terms of Google’s guidelines, the webmaster should no-follow the link.

Simple, right. If it really is a press release, and not an attempt to link build for SEO purposes, then why would a webmaster have any issue with adding a no-follow to a link?

He/she wouldn't.

But because some webmasters appear to lack self-awareness about what it is they are actually doing, they persist with their line of questioning. I suspect what they really want to hear is “keyword links in press releases are okay." Then, webmasters can continue to issue pretend press releases as a link building exercise.

They're missing the point.

Am I Taking Google’s Side?

Not taking sides.

Just hoping to shine some light on a wider issue.

If webmasters continue to let themselves be defined by Google, they are going to get defined out of the game entirely. It should be an obvious truth - but sadly lacking in much SEO punditry - that Google is not on the webmasters side. Google is on Google’s side. Google often say they are on the users side, and there is certainly some truth in that.

However,when it comes to the webmaster, the webmaster is a dime-a-dozen content supplier who must be managed, weeded out, sorted and categorized. When it comes to the more “aggressive” webmasters, Google’s behaviour could be characterized as “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”.

This is because some webmasters, namely SEOs, don’t just publish content for users, they compete with Google’s revenue stream. SEOs offer a competing service to click based advertising that provides exactly the same benefit as Google's golden goose, namely qualified click traffic.

If SEOs get too good at what they do, then why would people pay Google so much money per click? They wouldn’t - they would pay it to SEOs, instead. So, if I were Google, I would see SEO as a business threat, and manage it - down - accordingly. In practice, I’d be trying to redefine SEO as “quality content provision”.

Why don't Google simply ignore press release links? Easy enough to do. Why go this route of making it public? After all, Google are typically very secret about algorithmic topics, unless the topic is something they want you to hear. And why do they want you to hear this? An obvious guess would be that it is done to undermine link building, and SEOs.

Big missiles heading your way.

Guideline Followers

The problem in letting Google define the rules of engagement is they can define you out of the SEO game, if you let them.

If an SEO is not following the guidelines - guidelines that are always shifting - yet claim they do, then they may be opening themselves up to legal liability. In one recent example, a case is underway alleging lack of performance:

Last week, the legal marketing industry was aTwitter (and aFacebook and even aPlus) with news that law firm Seikaly & Stewart had filed a lawsuit against The Rainmaker Institute seeking a return of their $49,000 in SEO fees and punitive damages under civil RICO

.....but it’s not unreasonable to expect a somewhat easier route for litigants in the future might be “not complying with Google’s guidelines”, unless the SEO agency disclosed it.

SEO is not the easiest career choice, huh.

One group that is likely to be happy about this latest Google push is legitimate PR agencies, media-relations departments, and publicists. As a commenter on WMW pointed out:

I suspect that most legitimate PR agencies, media-relations departments, and publicists will be happy to comply with Google's guidelines. Why? Because, if the term "press release" becomes a synonym for "SEO spam," one of the important tools in their toolboxes will become useless.

Just as real advertisers don't expect their ads to pass PageRank, real PR people don't expect their press releases to pass PageRank. Public relations is about planting a message in the media, not about manipulating search results

However, I’m not sure that will mean press releases are seen as any more credible, as press releases have never enjoyed a stellar reputation pre-SEO, but it may thin the crowd somewhat, which increases an agencies chances of getting their client seen.

Guidelines Honing In On Target

One resource referred to in the video above was this article, written by Amit Singhal, who is head of Google’s core ranking team. Note that it was written in 2011, so it’s nothing new. Here’s how Google say they determine quality:

we aren't disclosing the actual ranking signals used in our algorithms because we don't want folks to game our search results; but if you want to step into Google's mindset, the questions below provide some guidance on how we've been looking at the issue:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?

….and so on. Google’s rhetoric is almost always about “producing high quality content”, because this is what Google’s users want, and what Google’s users want, Google’s shareholders want.

It’s not a bad thing to want, of course. Who would want poor quality content? But as most of us know, producing high quality content is no guarantee of anything. Great for Google, great for users, but often not so good for publishers as the publisher carries all the risk.

Take a look at the Boston Globe, sold along with a boatload of content for a 93% decline. Quality content sure, but is it a profitable business? Emphasis on content without adequate marketing is not a sure-fire strategy. Bezos has just bought the Washington Post, of course, and we're pretty sure that isn't a content play, either.

High quality content often has a high upfront production cost attached to it, and given measly web advertising rates, the high possibility of invisibility, getting content scrapped and ripped off, then it is no wonder webmasters also push their high quality content in order to ensure it ranks. What other choice have they got?

To not do so is also risky.

Even eHow, well known for cheap factory line content, is moving toward subscription membership revenues.

The Somewhat Bigger Question

Google can move the goal- posts whenever they like. What you’re doing today might be frowned upon tomorrow. One day, your content may be made invisible, and there will be nothing you can do about it, other than start again.

Do you have a contingency plan for such an eventuality?

Johnon puts it well:

The only thing that matters is how much traffic you are getting from search engines today, and how prepared you are for when some (insert adjective here) Googler shuts off that flow of traffic"

To ask about the minuate of Google’s policies and guidelines is to miss the point. The real question is how prepared are you when Google shuts off you flow of traffic because they’ve reset the goal posts?

Focusing on the minuate of Google's policies is, indeed, to miss the point.

This is a question of risk management. What happens if your main site, or your clients site, runs foul of a Google policy change and gets trashed? Do you run multiple sites? Run one site with no SEO strategy at all, whilst you run other sites that push hard? Do you stay well within the guidelines and trust that will always be good enough? If you stay well within the guidelines, but don’t rank, isn’t that effectively the same as a ban i.e. you’re invisible? Do you treat search traffic as a bonus, rather than the main course?

Be careful about putting Google’s needs before your own. And manage your risk, on your own terms.

What Is Your SEO Strategy?

Jul 31st
posted in

How do you determine your SEO strategy?

Actually, before you answer, let’s step back.

What Is SEO, Anyway?

“Search engine optimization” has always been an odd term as it’s somewhat misleading. After all, we’re not optimizing search engines.

SEO came about when webmasters optimized websites. Specifically, they optimized the source code of pages to appeal to search engines. The intent of SEO was to ensure websites appeared higher in search results than if the site was simply left to site designers and copywriters. Often, designers would inadvertently make sites uncrawlable, and therefore invisible in search engines.

But there was more to it than just enhancing crawlability.

SEOs examined the highest ranking page, looked at the source code, often copied it wholesale, added a few tweaks, then republished the page. In the days of Infoseek, this was all you needed to do to get an instant top ranking.

I know, because I used to do it!

At the time, I thought it was an amusing hacker trick. It also occurred to me that such positioning could be valuable. Of course, this rather obvious truth occurred to many other people, too. A similar game had been going on in the Yahoo Directory where people named sites “AAAA...whatever” because Yahoo listed sites in alphabetical order. People also used to obsessively track spiders, spotting fresh spiders (Hey Scooter!) as they appeared and....cough......guiding them through their websites in a favourable fashion.

When it comes to search engines, there’s always been gaming. The glittering prize awaits.

The new breed of search engines made things a bit more tricky. You couldn’t just focus on optimizing code in order to rank well. There was something else going on.

Backlinks.

So, SEO was no longer just about optimizing the underlying page code, SEO was also about getting links. At that point, SEO jumped from being just a technical coding exercise to a marketing exercise. Webmasters had to reach out to other webmasters and convince them to link up.

A young upstart, Google, placed heavy emphasis on links, making use of a clever algorithm that sorted “good” links from, well, “evil” links. This helped make Google’s result set more relevant than other search engines. Amusingly enough, Google once claimed it wasn’t possible to spam Google.

Webmasters responded by spamming Google.

Or, should I say, Google likely categorized what many webmasters were doing as “spam”, at least internally, and may have regretted their earlier hubris. Webmasters sought links that looked like “good” links. Sometimes, they even earned them.

And Google has been pushing back ever since.

Building links pre-dated SEO, and search engines, but, once backlinks were counted in ranking scores, link building was blended into SEO. These days, most SEO's consider link building a natural part of SEO. But, as we've seen, it wasn’t always this way.

We sometimes get comments on this blog about how marketing is different from SEO. Well, it is, but if you look at the history of SEO, there has always been marketing elements involved. Getting external links could be characterized as PR, or relationship building, or marketing, but I doubt anyone would claim getting links is not SEO.

More recently, we’ve seen a massive change in Google. It’s a change that is likely being rolled out over a number of years. It’s a change that makes a lot of old school SEO a lot less effective in the same way introducing link analysis made meta-tag optimization a lot less effective.

My takeaways from Panda are that this is not an individual change or something with a magic bullet solution. Panda is clearly based on data about the user interacting with the SERP (Bounce, Pogo Sticking), time on site, page views, etc., but it is not something you can easily reduce to 1 number or a short set of recommendations. To address a site that has been Pandalized requires you to isolate the "best content" based on your user engagement and try to improve that.

Google is likely applying different algorithms to different sectors, so the SEO tactics used in on sector don’t work in another. They’re also looking at engagement metrics, so they’re trying to figure out if the user really wanted the result they clicked on. When you consider Google's work on PPC landing pages, this development is obvious. It’s the same measure. If people click back often, too quickly, then the landing page quality score drops. This is likely happening in the SERPs, too.

So, just like link building once got rolled into SEO, engagement will be rolled into SEO. Some may see that as a death of SEO, and in some ways it is, just like when meta-tag optimization, and other code optimizations, were deprecated in favour of other, more useful relevancy metrics. In others ways, it's SEO just changing like it always has done.

The objective remains the same.

Deciding On Strategy

So, how do you construct your SEO strategy? What will be your strategy going forward?

Some read Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. They'll watch every Matt Cutts video. They follow it all to the letter. There’s nothing wrong with this approach.

Others read Google’s Guidelines. They'll watch every Matt Cutts video. They read between the lines and do the complete opposite. Nothing wrong with that approach, either.

It depends on what strategy you've adopted.

One of the problems with letting Google define your game is that they can move the goalposts anytime they like. The linking that used to be acceptable, at least in practice, often no longer is. Thinking of firing off a press release? Well, think carefully before loading it with keywords:

This is one of the big changes that may have not been so clear for many webmasters. Google said, “links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites,” is an example of an unnatural link that violate their guidelines. The key are the examples given and the phrase “distributed on other sites.” If you are publishing a press release or an article on your site and distribute it through a wire or through an article site, you must make sure to nofollow the links if those links are “optimized anchor text.

Do you now have to go back and unwind a lot of link building in order to stay in their good books? Or, perhaps you conclude that links in press releases must work a little too well, else Google wouldn’t be making a point of it. Or conclude that Google is running a cunning double-bluff hoping you’ll spend a lot more time doing things you think Google does or doesn’t like, but really Google doesn’t care about at all, as they’ve found a way to mitigate it.

Bulk guest posting were also included in Google's webmaster guidelines as a no no. Along with keyword rich anchors in article directories. Even how a site monetizes by doing things like blocking the back button can be considered "deceptive" and grounds for banning.

How about the simple strategy of finding the top ranking sites, do what they do, and add a little more? Do you avoid saturated niches, and aim for the low-hanging fruit? Do you try and guess all the metrics and make sure you cover every one? Do you churn and burn? Do you play the long game with one site? Is social media and marketing part of your game, or do you leave these aspects out of the SEO equation? Is your currency persuasion?

Think about your personal influence and the influence you can manage without dollars or gold or permission from Google. Think about how people throughout history have sought karma, invested in social credits, and injected good will into their communities, as a way to “prep” for disaster. Think about it.

We may be “search marketers” and “search engine optimizers” who work within the confines of an economy controlled (manipulated) by Google, but our currency is persuasion. Persuasion within a market niche transcends Google

It would be interesting to hear the strategies you use, and if you plan on using different strategy going forward.

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Pandas And Loyalty

Jul 25th
posted in

SEOs debate ranking metrics over and over, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that Google no longer works the same way it used to.

The fundamental shift in the past couple of years has been more emphasis on what could be characterized as engagement factors.

I became convinced that Panda is really the public face of a much deeper switch towards user engagement. While the Panda score is sitewide the engagement "penalty" or weighting effect on also occurs at the individual page. The pages or content areas that were hurt less by Panda seem to be the ones that were not also being hurt by the engagement issue.

Inbound links to a page still count, as inbound links are engagement factors. How about a keyword in the title tag? On-page text? They are certainly basic requirements, but of low importance when it comes to determining ranking. This is because the web is not short of content, so there will always likely to be on-topic content to serve against a query. Rather, Google refines in order to deliver the most relevant content.

Google does so by checking a range of metrics to see what people really think about the content Google is serving, and the oldest form of this check is an inbound link, which is a form of vote by users. Engagement metrics are just a logical extension of the same idea.

Brands appear to have an advantage, not because they fit into an arbitrary category marked “brand,” but because of signals that define them as being more relevant i.e. a brand keyword search likely results in a high number of click-thrus, and few click-backs. This factor, when combined with other metrics, such as their name in the backlink, helps define relevance.

Social signals are also playing a part, and likely measured in the same way as brands. If enough people talk about something, associate terms with it, and point to it, and users don’t click-back in sufficient number, then it’s plausible that activity results in higher relevance scores.

We don’t know for sure, of course. We can only speculate based on limited blackbox testing which will always be incomplete. However, even if some SEOs don’t accept the ranking boost that comes from engagement metrics, there’s still a sound business reason to pay attention to the main difference between brand and non-brand sites.

Loyalty

Investing In The Return

Typically, internet marketers place a lot of emphasis, and spend, on getting a new visitor to a site. They may also place emphasis on converting the buyer, using conversion optimization and other persuasion techniques.

But how much effort are they investing to ensure the visitor comes back?

Some may say ensuring the visitor comes back isn't SEO, but in a post-Panda environment, SEO is about a lot more than the first click. As you build up brand searches, bookmarking, and word-of-mouth metrics, you’ll likely create the type of signals Google favours.

Focusing on the returning visitor also makes sense from a business point of view. Selling to existing customers - whether you’re selling a physical thing or a point of view - is cheaper than selling to a new customer.

Acquiring new customers is expensive (five to ten times the cost of retaining an existing one), and the average spend of a repeat customer is a whopping 67 percent more than a new one

So, customer loyalty pays off on a number of levels.

Techniques To Foster Loyalty

Return purchasers, repeat purchasers and repeat visitors can often be missed in analytics, or their importance not well understood. According to the Q2 2012 Adobe analysis, “8% of site visitors, they generated a disproportionately high 41% of site sales. What’s more, return and repeat purchasers had higher average order values and conversion rates than shoppers with no previous purchase history

One obvious technique, if you’re selling products, is to use loyalty programs. Offer points, discounts and other monetary rewards. One drawback of this approach is is that giving rewards and pricing discounts is essentially purchasing loyalty. Customers will only be “loyal” so long as they think they’re getting a bargain, so this approach works best if you’re in a position to be price competitive. Contrast this with the deeper loyalty that can be achieved through an emotional loyalty to a brand, by the likes of Apple, Google and Coke.

Fostering deeper loyalty, then, is about finding out what really matters to people, hopefully something other than price.

Take a look at Zappos. What makes customers loyal to Zappos? Customers may get better prices elsewhere, but Zappos is mostly about service. Zappos is about ease of use. Zappos is about lowering the risk of purchase by offering free returns. Zappos have identified and provided what their market really wants - high service levels and reasonable pricing - so people keep coming back.

Does anyone think the engagement metrics of Zappos would be overlooked by Google? If Zappos were not seen as relevant by Google, then there would be something badly wrong - with Google. Zappos have high brand awareness in the shoe sector, built on solving a genuine problem for visitors. They offer high service levels, which keeps people coming back, and keeps customers talking about them.

Sure, they’re a well-funded, outlier internet success, but the metrics will still apply to all verticals. The brands who engage customers the most, and continue to do so, are, by definition, most relevant.

Another thing to consider, especially if you’re a small operator competing against big players, is closely related to service. Try going over-the-top in you attentiveness to customers. Paul Graham, of Y Combinator, talks about how start-ups should go well beyond what big companies do, and the payback is increased loyalty:

But perhaps the biggest thing preventing founders from realizing how attentive they could be to their users is that they've never experienced such attention themselves. Their standards for customer service have been set by the companies they've been customers of, which are mostly big ones. Tim Cook doesn't send you a hand-written note after you buy a laptop. He can't. But you can. That's one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can

That strategy syncs with Seth Godin’s Purple Cow notion of “being remarkable” i.e do something different - good different - so people remark upon it. These days, and in the context of SEO, that translates into social media mentions and links, and brand searches, all of which will help keep the Google Gods smiling, too.

The feedback loop of high engagement will also help you refine your relevance:

Over-engaging with early users is not just a permissible technique for getting growth rolling. For most successful startups it's a necessary part of the feedback loop that makes the product good. Making a better mousetrap is not an atomic operation. Even if you start the way most successful startups have, by building something you yourself need, the first thing you build is never quite right.....

Gamification

Gamification has got a lot of press in the last few years as a means of fostering higher levels of engagement and return visits.

The concept is called gamification - that is, implementing design concepts from games, loyalty programs, and behavioral economics, to drive user engagement”. M2 research expects that US companies alone will be spending $3b per year on gamification technologies and services before the end of the decade

People have natural desires to be competitive, to achieve, to gain status, closure and feel altruistic. Incorporating game features helps fulfil these desires.

And games aren’t just for kids. According to The Gamification Revolution, by Zichermann and Linder - a great read on gamification strategy, BTW - the average “gamer” in the US is a 43 year old female. Gaming is one of the few channels where levels of attention are increasing. Contrast this with content-based advertising, which is often rendered invisible by repetition.

This is not to say everything must be turned into a game. Rather, pay attention to the desires that games fulfil, and try to incorporate those aspects into your site, where appropriate. Central to the idea of gamification is orienting around the deep desires of a visitor for some form of reward and status.

The user may want to buy product X, but if they can feel a sense of achievement in doing so, they’ll be engaging at a deeper level, which could then lead to brand loyalty.

eBay, a pure web e-commerce play dealing in stuff, have a “chief engagement officer”, someone who’s job it is to tweak eBay so it becomes more-gamelike. This, in turn, drives customer engagement and loyalty. If your selling history becomes a marker of achievement and status, then how likely are you to start anew at the competition?

This is one of the reasons eBay has remained so entrenched.

Gamification has also been used as a tool for customer engagement, and for encouraging desirable website usage behaviour. Additionally, gamification is readily applicable to increasing engagement on sites built on social network services. For example, in August 2010, one site, DevHub, announced that they have increased the number of users who completed their online tasks from 10% to 80% after adding gamification elements. On the programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow users receive points and/or badges for performing a variety of actions, including spreading links to questions and answers via Facebook and Twitter. A large number of different badges are available, and when a user's reputation points exceed various thresholds, he or she gains additional privileges, including at the higher end, the privilege of helping to moderate the site

Gamification, in terms of the web, is relatively new. It didn’t even appear in Google Trends until 2010. But it’s not just some buzzword, it has practical application, and it can help improve ranking by boosting engagement metrics through loyalty and referrals. Loyalty marketing guru Fredrick Reichheld has claimed a strong link between customer loyalty marketing and customer referral.

Obviously, this approach is highly user-centric. Google orient around this principle, too. “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Google has always had the mantra of 'focus on the user and all else will follow,' so the company puts a significant amount of effort into researching its users. In fact, Au estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of her 200-strong worldwide user experience team is compromised of user researchers

Google fosters return visits and loyalty by giving the user what they want, and they use a lot of testing to ensure that happens. Websites that focus on keywords, but don’t give the user what they want, either due to a lack of focus, lack of depth, or by using deliberate bait-and-switch, are going against Google’s defining principles and will likely ultimately lose the SEO game.

The focus on the needs and desires of the user, both before their first click, to their return visits, should be stronger than ever.

Attention

According to Microsoft research, the average new visitor gives your site 10 seconds or less. Personally, I think ten seconds sounds somewhat generous! If a visitor makes it past 30 seconds, you’re lucky to get two minutes of their attention, in total. What does this do to your engagement metrics if Google is counting click backs, and clicks to other pages in the same domain?

And these metrics are even worse for mobile.

There’s been a lot of diversification in terms of platforms, and many users are stuck in gamified silo environments, like Facebook, so it’s getting harder and harder to attract people out of their comfort zone and to your brand.

So it’s no longer just about building brand, we also need to think about more ways to foster ongoing engagement and attention. We’ve seen that people are spending a lot of attention on games. In so doing, they have been conditioned to expect heightened rewards, stimulation and feedback as a reward for that attention.

Do you reward visitors for their attention?

If not, think about ways you can build reward and status for visitors into your site.

Sites like 99 Designs use a game to solicit engagement from suppliers as a point of differentiation for buyers. Challenges, such as “win the design” competition, delivers dozens of solutions at no extra cost to the user. The winners also receive a form of status, which is also a form of “payment” for their efforts. We could argue that this type of gamification is weighed heavily against the supplier, but there’s no doubting the heightened level of engagement and attraction for the buyer. Not only do they get multiple web design ideas for the price of one, they get to be the judge in a design version of the X-Factor.

Summary

Hopefully, this article has provided some food for thought. If we were going to measure success of loyalty and engagement campaigns, we might look at recency i.e. how long ago did the users last visit, frequency i.e. how often do they visit in a period of time, and duration i.e. when do they come, and how long do they stay. We could then map these metrics back against rankings, and look for patterns.

But even if we’re overestimating the effect of engagement on rankings, it still makes good sense from a business point of view. It costs a lot to get the first visit, but a whole lot less to keep happy visitors coming back, particularly on brand searches.

Think about ways to reward visitors for doing so.

Building And Selling An SEO Business

Jul 16th

There’s an in-depth discussion going on in the members area about how to sell an SEO business. There will surely be readers of the blog interested in the topic, too, so I thought I’d look at the more general issues of selling a business - SEO, or otherwise. Specifically, how to structure a business so it can be sold.

Service-Based Businesses

Service based businesses are attractive because they’re easy to establish.

Who can sell a service? The answer is simple--anyone and everyone. Everyone is qualified because each of us has skills, knowledge or experience that other people are willing to pay for in the form of a service; or they're willing to pay you to teach them your specific skill or knowledge. Selling services knows no boundaries--anyone with a need or desire to earn extra money, work from home, or start and operate a full-time business can sell a service, regardless of age, business experience, education or current financial resources

The downside of a service based business is that they’re easy to establish, so any service area that’s worth any money soon gets flooded with competition. The ease with which competitors can enter service-based markets is one of the reasons why service-based business can be more difficult to sell for a reasonable price.

Selling A Consultancy

Some businesses are more difficult to sell than others. Agency business, such as SEO consulting, can be especially problematic if they’re oriented around highly customized services.

In Built To Sell: Creating Business That Can Thrive Without You, John Warrillow outlines the reasons why, and what can be done about it. The book is an allegory about the troubles the founder of a design agency experiences when, after eight years, he is fed up with the demands of the business and decides to sell, only to find it’s essentially worthless. His business creates logos, does SEO, web design, and brochures, so many of his trials and tribulations will sound familiar to readers of SEOBook.com

Smart businesspeople believe that you should build a company to be sold even if you have no intention of cashing out or stepping back anytime soon

There are 23 million businesses in the US, yet only a few hundred thousand sell each year. Is this simply because the owners want to hold onto them? Yes, in some cases. But mainly it’s because a lot of them can’t be sold due to structural issues. They might be worth something to the seller, but they’re not worth much to to anyone else.

If You Were To Buy A Business, Would You Buy Yours?

If you put yourself in the shoes of a buyer, what would you be looking for in an SEO-related business? What are the traps?

We might start by looking at turnover. Let’s say turnover looks good. We may look at the customer list. Let’s say the customer list looks good, too. There are forward contracts. Typically, owners of businesses place a lot of value on goodwill - their established reputation of a business regarded as a quantifiable asset.

Frequently, goodwill is overvalued and here’s why:

It is fleeting.

A company may have happy customers, happy staff, and people may say good things about them, but that might all change next week. Let’s say Update Zebra, or whatever black n white exotic animal is heading our way next, is rolled out next month and trashes all the good SEO work built up over years. Is everyone still happy? Clients still happy? Staff still happy? Were there performance guarantees in place that will no longer be met? The most difficult thing about the SEO business is that critical delivery aspects are beyond the SEOs control.

Goodwill is so subjective and ephemeral that many investors deduct it completely when valuing a company. This is not to say a good name and reputation has no tangible value, but the ephemeral nature perhaps illustrates why buyers may place less value on goodwill than sellers. If you think most of your business value lies in goodwill, then you may have trouble selling for the price you desire.

....the only aspect of goodwill that can unequivocally offer comfort to an investor is the going-concern value of a company. This represents things such as the value of assets in place, institutional knowledge, reputational value not already captured by trade names, and superior location. All these attributes can lead to sources of competitive advantage and sustainable results; and/or they can give an entity the ability to develop hot products, as well as to achieve above-average earnings.

If a buyer discounts most or all of the goodwill, then what is left? There is staff. But staff can leave. There are forward contracts. How long do these contracts last? What are they worth? Will they roll over? Can they be cancelled or exited? A lot of the value of an agency businesses will lay in those forward contracts. What if the customers really like the founder on a personal level, and that is why they do business with him or her? A service business that is dependent on a small group of clients, who demand personal attention of the founder, and where the business competes with a lot of other players offering similar services is, in the words of John Warrillow “virtually worthless”.

But there are changes that can be made to make it valuable.

Thinking Of Service Provision In Terms Of Product

Warrillow argues that a business can be made more valuable if they create a standard service offering. Package services into a consistent, repeatable process that staff can follow without depending on you. The service should be something that clients need on a regular basis, so revenue is recurring.

His key point is to think like a product company, rather than a service company.

Good service companies have some unique approaches and talented people. But as long as they customize their approach to solving client problems, there is no scale to the business and it’s operations are contingent on people. When people are the main assets of the business - and they can come and go every night - the business is not worth very much

That’s not to say a service business can’t be sold for good money. However, Warrillow points out that they’re typically purchased on less than ideal terms, often involving earn-outs. An earn-out is when the owner gets some money up front, but to get the full price, they need to hit earnings targets, and that may involve staying on for years. In that time, anything can happen, and the people buying the company may make those targets difficult or impossible to achieve. This doesn’t necessarily happen through malice - although sometimes it does - but can arise out of conflicting incentives.

There are other stories of entrepreneurs going through the change from service to products, although the process may not be quite as straightforward as the character in the book experiences:

So I’m sure there’s a lot of entrepreneurs out there that want to make the switch from consultancy to selling products. Belgian entrepreneur Inge Geerdens did exactly that: she pivoted successfully from providing services to selling a product.......A product is entirely different. You have costs that you can’t cut. In a service company, you can downsize everyone if you want, and run it at basically zero cost. It’s impossible to do that with a product. There’s hosting, development, upgrades, bug fixes, support: those are costs that you can’t flatten in any way. Your developers need new PC’s a lot sooner than consultants!

Nonetheless, the book offers seventeen tips on how to adjust a service based business to make it more saleable, and there are a lot more great ideas in it. Hopefully, outlining these tips will encourage you to buy the book - I’m not on commission, honest, but it’s a great read for anyone starting or running a business with the intention to sell it one day.

Let’s look at these tips in the context of SEO-related businesses.

1. Specialize

It’s difficult for small firms to be generalists.

Large firms can offer many services simply by having many specialists on the payroll. If a small business tries to do likewise, small business end up with staff wearing many hats. Someone who is a generalist is unlikely to be as proficient as a specialist, and this makes it more difficult to establish a point of difference and outperform the competition.

In terms of SEO, it’s already a pretty specialized area. The businesses that might be more difficult to sell in this market sector are the businesses offering multiple service lines including SEO, web design, brochures, etc, unless they have some local advantage that can’t easily be replicated.

However, positioning as a generalist can have it’s advantages, especially if the ecosystem changes:

Despite the corporate world’s insistence on specialization, the workers most likely to come out on top are generalists—but not just because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts. Instead, according to writer Carter Phipps, author of 2012’sEvolutionaries generalists will thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.” Meaning that where you fall on the spectrum of specialist to generalist could be one of the most important aspects of your personality—

This is perhaps more true of individual workers than entities.

2. Make Sure No One Client Makes Up More Than 15% Of Your Revenue

If a business is too reliant on one client, then risk is increased. If the business loses the client, then a big chunk of the business value walks out the door.

Even though we usually land an annual contract, once that runs out, the client can cut us loose without any of the messiness involved in firing employees — that is, no severance pay, no paying unemployment benefits, no risk of being sued for discrimination or harassment or any of the other three million reasons why an ex-employee sues an ex-employer

3. Owning A Process Makes It Easier To Pitch And Puts You In Control

It is more difficult and time consuming to sell highly configured solutions than it is to sell packaged services. Highly configured services are also harder to scale, as this usually involves adding highly skilled and therefore expensive staff.

In SEO, it can be difficult to implement packaged, repeatable processes. Another way of looking at it might be to focus on adaptive processes, as used in Agile:

Reliable processes focus on outputs, not inputs. Using a reliable process, team members figure out ways to consistently achieve a given goal even though the inputs vary dramatically. Because of the input variations, the team may not use the same processes or practices from one project, or even one iteration, to the next. Reliability is results driven. Repeatability is input driven.

4. Don’t Become Synonymous With Your Company

Yahoo lived on without its founders. As will Google and Microsoft. The founders created “machines” that will “go” whether the founders are there or not.

Often, small consulting businesses are built around the founder, and this can make selling the company more difficult than need be. If customers want the founder handling or overseeing their account, then a buyer is going to wonder how much of the customer list will be left after the founder exits. It can even happen to big companies, like Apple, although their worry is perhaps more about the ability of successors to lead innovation.

If you never returned to your business, could it keep running?

Test yourself simply by asking yourself these questions and if you can respond yes to all of them you are well prepared:

  • Do you have a strategy in place should you, or a key staff member, be unable to return to work for a long period, or never?
  • Is this strategy documented and has it been communicated effectively to the business?
  • Do you have a process in place that ensures qualified and appropriately trained people are able to take over competently when the current generation of managers and key people retire or move on?
  • Has this strategy been documented and communicated to the key people involved?
  • Do you have a 'vision' for your business? Does it link easily to the 'values' of the business and the behaviours of the people within the business?
  • Has your 'vision' been well articulated and communicated with the people in the business?
  • Are you able to demonstrate your business plans for a clearly-defined viable future?
  • Have these plans been clearly articulated, documented and communicated to the key people within your organisation?

5. Avoid The Cash Suck

Essentially, try to get payment up-front. This is a lot easier to do for products than services. Alternatively, use progress billing. Either way, you need to be cash-flow positive.

Poor cashflow is the silent killer of many businesses, and poor, lumpy cashflow looks especially bad when a business is being packaged up for sale. It's difficult to make accurate forward revenue predictions when looking at sporadic cashflow.

6. Don’t Be Afraid To Say No To Projects

It can be difficult to turn down work, but if the work doesn’t fit into your existing processes, then you need to find extra resources to do it. Above all else, it’s a distraction from your core function, which will also likely be your competitive advantage.

This point is also highlighted well in The Pumpkin Plan:

Never, ever let distractions - often labelled as new opportunities - take hold. Weed them out fast

7. Take Time To Figure Out How Many Pipeline Prospects Will Likely Lead To Sales

What’s your conversion rate? This helps a buyer determine the market potential. They want to know if they can expect the same rate of sales when they take it over.

8. Two Sales Reps Are Always Better Than One

The reasoning for this is that sales people are naturally competitive, so will compete against each other, which benefits the business.

Most of us would agree that salespeople are competitive by nature. This is obvious and necessary. After all, these are the people we put on the front lines to win the day and bring back revenue-producing opportunities for the company. They are assessed on their sales performance via metrics and measurements, and they’re incentivized with compensation and perks. Many organizations even have annual sales drives or competitions to quantify the level of performance and measure who is the best.

9. Hire People Who Are Good At Selling Products, Not Services

If you’ve gone to the trouble of systematizing your services to turn it into a product, then you don’t want salespeople agreeing to meet a customers demands by bending the product to those demands. Either the product meets their demands, or it doesn’t. I have known some service-oriented salespeople sell solutions that the company doesn’t even offer, reasoning the sale is the important thing, and the “back office” will work it out somehow!

Part of the rationale is that product based salespeople will filter out clients who want something else, and focus on those who are best served by the product, and likely to want more of it in future.

10. Ignore Your Profit And Loss Statement In The Year You Make A Switch To The Standardized Offering

It will likely show losses due to restructuring around a repeatable process or product. In any case, the future buyer is not buying the previous service business, they’re buying the new product business, and it is on these figures alone, going forward, the business will be judged.

11. You Need At Least Two Years Financial Statements Reflecting Your Standardized Model

See above.

12. Build A Management Team And Offer A Long Term Incentive Plan That Rewards Their Loyalty

Just like a buyer doesn’t want to see a business dependent on the founder, a buyer doesn’t want a management team abandoning ship after they’ve bought a company, either, unless the buyer is happy putting their own management in place.

13. Find An Adviser For Whom You Will Be Neither Their Largest Nor Smallest Client. Ensure They Know The Industry

Warrillow advises using a boutique mergers and acquisitions firm, unless you business is worth well under $5 million, in which case a broker is likely to handle the sale.

Between 1995 and 2006 about a quarter of merging firms hired boutique banks as their advisors on mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Boutique advisors, often specialized by industry, are generally smaller and more independent than full-service banks. This paper investigates firms' choice between boutique and full-service advisors and the impact of advisor choice on deal outcomes. We find that both acquirers and targets are more likely to choose boutique advisors in complex deals, suggesting that boutique advisors are chosen for their skill and expertise.

14. Avoid An Advisor Who Offers To Broker A Discussion With A Single Client. You Need To Ensure (Buyer) Competition

Sometimes, advisors are scouts for favoured clients. This can create a conflict of interest as the advisor may be trying to limit the bidding competition as a favor to the buyer, or because they’re earning higher margins from that one client for introducing deals.

15. Think Big. Write A Three-Year Business Plan That Paints A Picture Of What Is Possible For Your Business

Think in terms of what the business could be, not necessarily what it is within your capabilities. For example, if the business is regional, what are the possibilities if it was scaled to every state? Or the world?

The buyer may have resources to leverage that you do not, such as established agencies in different markets. What happens if they sell your product to all their existing customers? Suddenly the scope of the business is increased, and the possible value is highlighted. Imagine what it would be like if you had the networks that were possible, as opposed to those you have at present.

16. If You Want A Sellable, Product Oriented Business, You Need To Use The Language Of One

“Clients” become “customers”, “firm” becomes “business”. It’s not just a change of positioning, it’s also a change of mindset and rhetoric, which in turn helps frame the company in the right light for the buyer.

17. Don’t Issue Stock Options To Retain Key Employees After Acquisition. Instead, Use A Simple Bonus.

Stock options can be complicated, although pretty common in the tech world. Warrillow’s argument against stock options is that they can complicate the sales process, as it’s reasonable all stockholders should get some say in the terms of the sale. This probably isn’t such an issue for larger businesses, as buyers would expect it.

Instead, Warrillow recommends a stay bonus, which is a cash reward for key staff if you sell the company. There should also be bonuses beyond the transition in order to inceentivise them to stay.

Conclusion

There are a lot of good tips and ideas in Warrillow’s book, and I’ve really only scratched the surface with this summary. These tips require context to get the most out of them, but hopefully they've provided a good starting point.

Have you bought or sold an SEO business? It would be great to hear your experience of doing so. Do you agree with some of these tips, or disagree? Please feel free to add to the comments!

Buying A Business

Jul 11th
posted in

As Google makes life more difficult for SEOs, pure-play SEO business models, such as affiliate and Adsense, can start to lose their shine. Google can remove you from Adsense without warning, and the affiliate model has always had hooks.

One of the problems with affiliate and Adsense has always been that it is difficult to lock in and build value using these models. If the customer is “owned” by someone else, then a lot of the value of the affiliate/Adsense middle-man lies in the SERP placement. When it comes time to sell, apart from possible type-in domain value, how much intrinsic value does such a site have? Rankings are by no means assured.

So, if these areas are no longer earning you what they once did, it makes sense to explore other options, including vertical integration. Valuable online marketing skills can be readily bolted onto an existing business, preferably to a business operating in an area that hasn’t taken full advantage of search marketing in the past.

Even if you plan on building a business as opposed to buying, looking at businesses for sale in the market you intend to build can supply you with great information. You can gauge potential income, level of competition, and undertaking a thorough business analysis can help you discover the hidden traps before you experience them yourself. If there are a lot of businesses for sale in the market you’re looking to enter, and their figures aren’t that flash, then that’s obviously a warning sign.

Such analysis can also help you formulate your own exit strategy. What would make the business you’re building look attractive to a buyer further down the track? It can be useful to envision the criteria for a business you’d like to buy, and then analyse backwards to give you ideas on how to get there.

In this article, we’ll take the 3,000 ft view and look at the main considerations and the type of advice you’ll need. We’ll also take a look at the specifics of buying an existing SEO business.

Build Or Buy?

There are a number of pros and cons for either option and a lot depends on your current circumstances.

You might be an existing owner-operator who wants to scale up, or perhaps add another revenue stream. Can you get there faster and more profitably by taking over a competitor, rather than scaling up your own business?

If you’re an employee thinking of striking out on your own and becoming your own boss, can you afford the time it takes to build revenue from scratch, or would you prefer instant cashflow?

The Advantages Of Building From Scratch

Starting your own business is low cost. Many online businesses cost next to nothing to start. Register the business. Open a bank account. Fill out a few forms and get a business card. You’re in business.

You don’t need to pay for existing assets or a customer base, and you won’t get stuck with any of the negatives an existing business may have built up, like poor contracts, bad debts and a tainted reputation. You can design the business specifically for the market opportunity you’ve spotted. You won’t have legacy issues. It’s yours. It will reflect you and no one else, at least to start with. The decisions are yours. You don’t have to honor existing contracts, deal with clients or suppliers you had no part in being contractually obliged to in the first place.

In short, you don’t have legacy issues.

What’s not to like?

There is more risk. You don’t yet know if your business will work, so it’s going to require time and money to find out. There are no guarantees. It can be difficult to get funding, as banks like to see a trading history before they’ll lend. It can be very difficult to get the right employees, especially early on, as highly skilled employees don’t tend to favor uncertain startups, unless they’re getting equity share. You have to start a structure from scratch. Is the structure appropriate? How will you know? You need to make a myriad of decisions, from advertising, to accommodation, to wages, to pricing, and with little to go on, apart from well-meaning advice and a series of hunches and experiments. Getting the numbers right is typically arrived at via a lot of trial and error, usually error. You have no cashflow. You have no customers. No systems. No location.

Not that the downsides should stop anyone from starting their own business. If it was easy, everyone would do it, but ask anyone who has started a business, and they’ll likely tell you that sure, it’s hard, but also fun, and they wouldn’t go back to being an employee.

There is another option.

Buy It

On the plus side, you have cash flow from day one. The killer of any business is cash flow. You can have customers signed up. People may be saying great things about you. You may have a great idea, and other people see that it is, indeed, a great idea.

But if the cash flow doesn’t turn up on time, the lights go out.

If you buy an existing business with sound cashflow, you not only keep the lights on, you’re more likely to raise finance. In many cases, the seller can finance you. If that’s the case, then for a small deposit you get the cashflow you need, based on the total business value, from day one.

You’ve got a structure in place. If the business is profitable and running well, then you don’t need to experiment to find out what works. You know your costs, how much you need to spend, and how much to allocate to which areas. You can then optimize it. You have customers, likely assistance from the vendor, and the knowledge from existing suppliers and employees. There is a reduced risk of failure. Of course, you pay a price for such benefits.

To buy a business, you need money. Whatsmore, you’re betting that money on someone elses idea, not your own, and it can be difficult to spot the traps. You can, of course, reshape and respin the business in your own image. You can get stuck with a structure that wasn’t built to your specifications. You might not like some of the legacy issues, including suppliers, existing contracts or employees.

If you decide buying a business is the right thing for you, then you’ll need good advice.

Advice

According to a survey conducted by businessforsale.com, businesses can take an average of nine months to sell:

  • 28% of brokers said within 6 months
  • 31% of brokers said within 9 months
  • 21% of brokers said within 12 months
  • 10.5% of brokers said that more than 12 months was required to sell a business

Buying a business is more complicated than buying an asset, such as a website. You could buy only the assets of a business - more on that shortly - but often the businesses are sold as a going concern, which means you may take on all the potential liabilities of that business, too.

Hence the need for sound advice in three main areas. Assemble a team to cover legal, accounting and business advisory.

Legal

Buying is a business, like buying a house, is a legal transaction, consisting of a number of legal issues. They key issues are you want to know exactly what you’re buying and won’t be left with any unexpected liabilities. You also want to make sure the seller won’t compete with you by re-entering the market after you buy.

One of the first things I do with clients is make sure they understand what they are buying,....They need to be able to tell me if they are buying assets, such as customer list and equipment, or the business, with the warts and ugliness that come with it.

There are a number of potential traps:

Among the things to worry about when you buy an existing business: undisclosed debts, overstated earnings, poor employee relations, overvalued inventory and pending lawsuits, to name a few. Hidden liabilities can exist in all sorts of areas - from land contaminated with toxic chemicals, to accounts receivable that look solid but prove to be uncollectible, to inventory that's defective or dated

There’s an important distinction between buying the assets of a business and buying a business. Buyers typically want to buy the assets, such as a customer list, supply contracts, or plant. Sellers typically want to sell the entire business entity.

If you buy only a corporation's assets, you don't assume its liabilities, including taxes.
If you buy a corporation's shares of stock, however, you end up with both its assets and liabilities - including known and unknown taxes. An example of an unknown tax debt would be one that resulted from an IRS audit that has not yet begun. The seller of the corporate shares is released from all corporate debts unless he personally guarantees them or agrees to be liable for them after the transfer

Which is an important distinction. However, most smaller business sales are likely to be asset sales, as they are often sole proprietorships or partnerships.

There are also financial implications in terms of tax writeoffs.

Accountant

There are two main areas accountants look at when evaluating a business. The financial history, and the tax ramifications.

Advisors often recommend looking at more than just the last years books:

In order to know whether or not the asking price for the business is fair, it is very important that you look through the books of the company over a number of financial periods. Don't make the mistake of asking for just last year's accounts. You should have at least three and preferably five years of records for the business. If it is half way through the financial year, ask for an interim set of accounts for this year. You need to be assured that trading conditions have not deteriorated from the last financial year. If you are looking to put your hard-earned money (and other's equally hard-earned money) into a business, you want to make sure that the business is not going backwards. You need to look for evidence of year on year growth at acceptable margins. Remember, any company can show regular growth but it must be profitable. Fire sales can increase revenue with little or no impact on margin or worse, the revenue can be unprofitable

The other main area is tax.

Again, this is where the difference between assets and equity is important. There are tax advantages in buying assets, as you can depreciate based on the purchase price:

Property acquired by purchase. The depreciable basis is equal to the asset's purchase price, minus any discounts, and plus any sales taxes, delivery charges, and installation fees. For real estate, you can also include costs of legal and accounting fees, revenue stamps, recording fees, title abstracts/insurance, surveys, and real estate taxes assumed for the seller

We’ve barely scratched the surface, and your financial advice will be considerably more detailed, taking into account multipliers, profit and revenue, and more. Business valuation is a specialist area, and if you want to read more on this topic, I found The Small Business Valuation Book a good resource.

Business Advisor

After lawyers and accountants, the third member of your evaluation team should be a qualified business adviser who is familiar with businesses in your area of interest.

A thorough competitive analysis should be a first step. Where does this business sit in relation to existing competition? How easy is it for new competitors to enter the market? How much risk is involved?

Whenever you buy an existing business and look at its records, you're looking at the past. There's no guarantee things won't change going forward. If you're negotiating to buy a business and you think the seller is giving you a great deal, be very suspicious--there's probably something heading down the road at 90 miles an hour that will blow this business apart when it hits

That’s the same if you plan to build a business from scratch, the difference being you probably won’t have to risk as much up front.

It can also pay to go through a broker acting on your behalf, as opposed to the seller. ">Brokers can:

Prescreen businesses for you. Good brokers turn down many of the businesses they are asked to sell, whether because the seller won't provide full financial disclosures or because the business is overpriced. Going through a broker helps you avoid these bad risks.
Help you pinpoint your interest. A good broker starts by finding out about your skills and interests, then helps you select the right business for you. With the help of a broker, you may discover that an industry you had never considered is the ideal one for you.
NegotiateThe negotiating process is really when brokers earn their keep. They help both parties stay focused on the ultimate goal and smooth over any problems that may arise.
Assist with paperwork. Brokers know the latest laws and regulations affecting everything from licenses and permits to financing and escrow. They also know the most efficient ways to cut through red tape, which can slash months off the purchase process. Working with a broker reduces the risk that you'll neglect some crucial form, fee or step in the process.

Buy An Existing SEO Business

If you want to build an SEO business, here’s a good idea of what’s involved in building one up to scale:

When you are building your agency, you need to focus on getting clients that pay you 6 figures a year. It’s hard to build a profitable agency and provide great results when someone only pays you a few grand a month.

There’s a lot of competition in this market because there are no real barriers to entry. Anyone can call themselves an SEO and anyone can advertise such services. The result is that it can be pretty difficult to differentiate yourself.

The advantages of buying an SEO business are the same for buying any other type of business i.e. you get instant cashflow, a client list, and reputation. The standard analysis, as outlined in this article, applies. Evaluate financials, legal issues and position in the market, the same as any other business.

If you’re considering buying an SEO business you need to pay particular attention to reputation. It’s a market where, I think it’s fair to say, there is a significant level of hype. Customers are often oversold on benefits that don’t eventuate i.e. a focus on rankings that don’t result in leads or customers.

Reputable SEO businesses are unlikely to have a high level of customer churn. Look for customer lists where the customers has been with the agency for a good length of time, and are ordering more services. Look for locked in forward contracts. It’s pretty easy for other SEOs to poach other customers by offering them lower prices. Again, this is why reputation and evidence of high service levels are important.

One valuable aspect, as Neil alludes to in his article, is relationships:

In the short run you will lose money from business development, but in the long run you’ll be able to make it up. The quickest way for you to increase your revenue is to be the outsourced arm of bigger agencies. As an SEO company, look for ad agencies to partner with, as there are way bigger ad agencies than seo agencies. Feel free and cold call them, offer to help them for free with their own website, and if you do well they’ll drive a lot of clients to you

Look at how the agency gets work. If it comes from established, larger advertising agencies, then these relationships are valuable. They typically result in a steady flow of new work without the need for new advertising spend. Look at the promises that have been made to clients. For example, ongoing payment may rely on performance metrics, such as ongoing rankings.

Further Resources:

Hopefully this has article has given you some food for thought. If you're capital rich and time poor, then buying an established business can be an attractive proposition. Here are some of the sources used in this article, and further reading:

Keyword Research Plus

Jul 3rd
posted in

If we’re targeting keywords, getting good traffic as a result, but not converting as much traffic as we’d like, then it might be due to a market validation problem.

Basic keyword research typically involves looking at the nature of the web site, creating a list of terms that describe the offers being made, expanding the keyword list out using keyword research tools, and then targeting those keyword terms.

However, if that’s all a search marketer does, and fails to get conversions and engagement as a result, then they might be asking the wrong questions.

Asking The Right Questions

Consider Coca-Cola.

Coca Cola undertook extensive market testing and research before they introduced “New Coke”, yet New Coke failed miserably. Their competitors, Pepsi, used a blind taste test, asking people if they preferred Coke or Pepsi. Coca Cola ran their own testing, and the results were not good. The majority preferred Pepsi.

However, the problem in asking people to take just one sip and compare was to ask the wrong question. People may have preferred the first sip of Pepsi, but they preferred the less sweet Coke when they consumed an entire glass. In “Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO's Life Story of Building the World's Most Popular Brand”, Neville Isdell also postulates that new coke failed because original coke was about the iconic. It was linked to history. It wasn’t just about the taste of the first sip, it was also about the place of Coke in culture. There was a lot more to it than the first, sugary hit.

Coca Cola asked the wrong questions. Getting the context right was important if they were to understand the answers.

If you’ve designed relevant landing pages but not getting the conversion rate you desire, no matter how much split/run testing you do, or if you’ve managed to rank #1 for your chosen term, and you’ve written some great copy, but the traffic just keeps bouncing away, then it might be a problem with positioning in the market.

These market validation ideas apply mostly to search marketers who build their own sites, but it’s also applicable to marketers working on client sites if those client sites have poor targeting. Bolting on search marketing won’t do much good if a site is making substandard, or redundant offers.

Market Validation

“Market Validation” was a concept defined by Rob Adams in his book “If You Build It They Will Come”. It’s the process of figuring out if a market exists before you go to the expense and time of filling that market. Market validation is typically used by entrepreneurs in order to determine if they should enter a market, however the more general aspects can also be applied to search marketing.

Two aspects that are particularly useful for search marketers, especially those marketers who care what happens after the click, is a market analysis - to determine what stage in the market the business is at - and a competitive analysis. Armed with this information, they’ll know how to best pitch the offer, which, when combined with effective copywriting and calls to action should increase engagement and conversion.

Market Stage

Entrepreneurs are concerned with the growth rate of a market sector.

Typically, entrepreneurs want to get into fast rising, new markets, as opposed to mature or sunset markets. It’s difficult for new entrants to compete with incumbents, as doing so involves high costs. It is estimated that the cost of taking a customer off a competitor is typically three to ten times the cost of acquiring a new customer.

Try to figure out the stage of growth of the market. If the site operates in a mature market, with multiple competitors, then aspects such as price and features are important. In a mature market, the site you’re working with should be competitive on these aspects, else a top ranking position and compelling copy won’t help much, as the buyer will likely be comparing offers.

Similarly, if the client is competitive in these areas, then it pays to push these aspects hard in your copy and calls to action. For example, if a mobile phone site focused, first and foremost, on buyer education, it probably won’t do as well as a site that focuses on price and features. Generally speaking, buyers in this mature market sector don’t need to be educated on the merits of a mobile phone. They’re probably mainly interested in looks, availability, price and features.

If your client is in a fast growing new market, then there’s typically a lot more buyer education involved. People need to be convinced of new offers, so consider making your copy more education focused in these niches.

For example, when the iPhone came out, it didn’t have any direct competition. Apple didn’t need to push hard on price or features - there were cheaper phones, and there were phones that could do some things better, but there was nothing directly comparable in the smartphone market. Only recently, now that the market has matured, are Apple focusing on price with the introduction of lower priced entry level phones. This is a characteristic of more mature markets with high levels of competition and price pressure.

Here’s an example of mobile phone makers targeting a submarket of a mature market, differentiated by age:

Since mobile phone penetration has reached almost saturation levels in Europe and the United Kingdom, mobile service providers are focusing attention on the 55–65 and 65-plus segment to improve usage and penetration. Their high disposable incomes and their ability to devote time to new habits are seen as a lucrative market opportunity. 5 At the other end of the demographic scale, Red Bull has built a following among youth worldwide.

Identify what stage the business is at, and adjust your approach based on the strengths or weaknesses of that market.

Market Segment

The more specific the keyword, the more the keyword is likely to identify subcategories within broader markets. For example, a travel agent could target a general term like “hotels in Spain”, or the more specific “luxury hotels in Marbella”.

Look for competitive strengths a business may have in a submarket and consider focusing search marketing efforts in these areas first. An easy-win builds confidence. Is this submarket fast-growing? Even better. Build both confidence and revenue. It may lead to more of the business being refocused around these submarkets.

Are there some submarkets that have decent keyword volume, but they’re mature? Ensure that you have some competitive advantage in terms of pricing and features before devoting too much time targeting them.

Even if the traffic isn't particularly high in some submarkets, at very least you’ll have earned the engagement metrics Google likes to see, and likely built some brand reputation in these submarkets that can then be leveraged into other submarkets.

Lifecycles

Determine the audience in term of product lifecycle.

Are you targeting keyword areas relating to new products? If so, you’re most likely talking to early adopters. Therefore, the pitch is likely to involve aspects such as education, being first, desirability, being forward-thinking, and standing out from the crowd. The pitch is less likely to focus on negating buyer risk.

If you’re dealing with a business later in the lifecycle, then you’ll likely be talking more about price and comparing and differentiating features.

Competitive Analysis

Competitive analysis is perhaps the most important, yet often overlooked, aspect of SEO/PPC.

Top rankings can be a waste of time if direct competitors are more competitive on features, price, service and brand recognition. Buyers will compare these aspects clicking from link to link, or will use third-party comparison sites, a sure signal of a mature market.

Find out what competitors are doing. And what they’re not doing. Try creating a competitive matrix:

A competitive matrix is an analysis tool that helps you establish your company's competitive advantage. It provides an easy-to-read portrait of your competitive landscape and your position in the marketplace. The matrix can be just a simple chart. In the left column, you list the main features and benefits of your product or service. On the top row, you list your company and the names of your competitors. Then fill in the chart with the appropriate information for each company. For example, if you own a dry cleaning service, you might list the different services you offer or the quick turnaround you provide on items (24 hours), and then note how your competitors fail at these features.

If there are competitors, then obviously a market exists. Compare your competitors against as many keyword terms as possible, and see how well they’re doing in each keyword area. Not just in terms of ranking, but in terms of their offer and the maturity of the market. If there are numerous competitors gunning for the same keyword terms, then determine if your offer is strong enough that should you beat their rankings, you can still stand up to a side-by-side feature, service and price comparison. Is there a submarket in which they are weak? Would you be better off devoting your time and energy to this submarket?

Examine their pitch. In any competitive niche, the pitch made by those occupying the top three spots in Adwords over time is likely to be the most relevant to the audience. If their pitch wasn’t relevant, it’s unlikely they could remain in those positions, due to quality score metrics, and the financial strength to keep outbidding competitors. There are exceptions i.e. competitors running losses for some reason, but generally, it’s safe to assume they’re doing something right.

Are they talking price? Features? Are they using video? Are they using long copy? Are they using people in their photographs? How big is their text? What’s the path to ordering? Do they highlight a phone number, or do they bury it? Pull their offer, and presentation of that offer, apart.

Make a note of everything the top three or four sites Adwords sites are doing and then emulate the commonalities. This gives you a strong baseline for further experimentation, testing and positioning on the SEO side. Keep in mind it’s not good enough to beat these competitors by a small margin. Incumbents often have brand awareness and customer bases (high trust levels), so to counter that, your should be considerably better. A “better offer” can mean superior price or features, but it can also be better service levels, a more specific solution, or a fresh new angle on an existing solution.

Also consider substitutions.

If a buyer can substitute a product or service, then this offers a potential opportunity. For example, lets say a buyer has a transportation problem. They could buy a car to solve that problem. Or, they could lease a car on a pay-per-drive model. The pay-per-drive model is a substitution threat for car sellers. If you take a step back and determine what problem the visitor trying to solve, as opposed to leaping to conclusions about the obvious keyword that describes that solution, then you might find rich, unmined substitution keywords. Perhaps your offer can be repackaged slightly differently in order to mine a substitution keyword stream.

Of course, people don’t always buy on price and features, even if the market is mature, but they still need a compelling value proposition. One example is organic produce. It’s typically more expensive, and the “features” are the same, but the context is different. The produce is sold on environmental values.

So look for value propositions that customers might respond to, but competitors aren’t taking advantage of. Or you can extend the ones they use. Now that Google is coming from behind with their own Motorola phones they are extending Apple's designed in California with made in America.

Summary

There are many links on the page a searcher can click. The more mature the market, the more relevant search results they’re likely to encounter, and those results, both PPC and natural search are likely to match their intent. At that point, getting the offer right is important. If you can’t compete in terms of offer, try looking for submarkets and position there, instead.

I hope this article has given you some new angles to explore. A good reference book on the topic of market validation, and the inspiration for this article, is “If You Build It They Will Come”, by Rob Adams.

Why Webmasters Pass Their Margins Onto the Googleplex

Jun 19th
posted in

In previous articles, we’ve looked at the one-sided deal that has emerged when it comes to search engines and publishers. Whilst there is no question that search engines provide value to end users, it’s clear that the search engines are taking the lionshare of the value when it comes to web publishing.

That isn’t sustainable.

The more value stripped from publishing, the less money will be spent on publishing in future. In this respect, the search engines current business model undermines their own long-term value to end users.

In this ecosystem, the incentive is to publish content that is cheap to produce. Content might also be loss-leader content that serves as a funnel leading to a transaction. Some of the content might be advertorial, the result of direct sponsorship, and may well include paid links. Curiously, it has been suggested by a Google rep that "....you blur the lines between advertising and content. That’s really what we’ve been advocating our advertisers to do". Some of it might be "the right kind of native", courtesy of Google Doubleclick. Some of the higher value content tends to be a by-product of the education sector, however the education sector may be the next in line to suffer a commodification of value.

There is little return to be had in producing high value content and making it publicly available for free, with no strings attached, so naturally such content is disappearing behind paywalls and taking other forms.

YouTube

Some YouTube producers are rebelling.

In a recent post, Jason Calacanis outlines the problem for video content producers. He maintains that Google’s cut of the rewards amounts to 45%, and that this cut simply isn’t sustainable for video producers as their margins aren’t that high.

Successful media businesses today have margins in the 20% to 50% range--if they hit profitability. That means if you give a partner 45% off the top, you have no chance of breaking even (emphasis mine). In fact, this absurd revenue is so bad that people have made amazingly clever strategies to skirt them, like VICE producing the Snoop Lion documentary and Grace Helbig becoming the face of Lowe’s Hardware. A full 100% of that money goes to the content creator -- boxing out YouTube. More on this later.

Sure, it can *feel* like you’re making money, but when you look across the landscape of YouTube businesses -- and I won’t call anyone out here -- it’s very, very clear they are losing millions and millions of dollars a year.

YouTube doesn’t have to worry because they simply lop off 45% of the revenue from the top for providing video hosting. Hosting for them is, essentially, free since they have a huge -- and growing -- network of fiber (see ‘Google's Fiber Takeover Plan Expands: Will Kill Cable & Carriers’).

Since YouTube doesn’t have to create any content, just aggregate it, they don’t need to worry about the individual profitability of any one brand......With YouTube, as with their AdSense product, Google is trying to insert itself between publishers and advertisers and extract a massive tax. In the case of YouTube, it’s a 45% tax

In a subsequent post, Calacanis laments that whilst a lot of publishers got back to him in support of his views, he received no contact from YouTube, even though he is supposedly a high value “partner”.

And what do YouTube do for this 45% cut? Hosting? They’ve pretty much outsourced support and liability to the MCNs for no money down. I imagine running a video network is pretty expensive, although I wonder about the true costs for Google. Calacanis obviously doesn’t think they’re great enough to justify the cut.

PPC Not Immune

Paid search also extracts a high tax.

Let’s run the numbers. A site has an average order price of $100. The site converts at 1% i.e. a site makes a sale to one in every hundred visitors. Sales are $1 per visitor. If the total cost of providing the order is $50, then the profit is 50 cents per visitor. The site can pay the search engine up to 49 cents per click and make a profit.

Let’s say the site invested heavily in conversion optimization to raise the conversion rate. They redesign their site, they refine their offer to give users exactly what they want, they optimize the sales funnel, and they manage to double their conversion rate to 2%. Now, for every 100 visitors, they make $2 per visitor. They can now bid up to $1.99 and still make a profit.

Great, right.

But along comes the competition. They also invest heavily in conversion optimization, and copy, and process, and they double their conversion rates, too. These sites must then keep upping their bids to stay on top in the auction process. Who benefits?

The search engine does.

The search engine benefits from this content improvement in the form of higher bid prices. The producer improves the value of their sites to users, but whilst the competition is doing the same thing, the real winner is the search engine.

This is one reason the search engine spokespeople will advise you to focus on delivering value to customers. The more value you create, the more value you’re going to end up passing to a search engine. As publishing becomes easier, the more gets published, yet the amount of attention remains relatively static. The competition increases, and it is likely that those with the deepest pockets eventually win high value and/or mature verticals.

How To Deal With It

Whilst we’re waiting for a new paradigm to come along that swings the pendulum back in favor of publishers - and we may be waiting some time - we need to think about how to extract more value from each visitor. This is not meant as a beat-up on the search engines - I’m glad they exist and enjoy most of what they do - rather this is about trying to get a handle on the ecosystem as it stands and how to thrive in it, rather than be crushed by it. In long tail markets - and web content is a l-o-n-g tail market - most of the value flows to the person organizing the market.

The key to prospering in this environment - if you don’t have the deepest pockets and you don’t organize the market - is to build relationships.

SEO is built largely on the premise that a relationship doesn’t exist between searcher and publisher. If a relationship already existed, the searcher would go direct to the publisher site, or conduct a brand search. I’m sure that’s how most people reading this article arrived on SEOBook.

So, try to make the most of every search visitor by turning them into non-search visitors. The search engine gets to extract a lot of value on first visit, especially if they arrive via PPC, but if you can then establish an on-going relationship with that visitor, then you get to retain value.

1. Encourage Subscriptions

Subscriptions can be in the form of bookmarking, signing up to Twitter, on Facebook, email subscriptions, RSS, and forum subscriptions. Encourage users to find you, in future, via channels over which you have more control. If you’ve buried these subscription calls to action, make them overt.

2. Form Alliances

Share exit traffic with like-minded but non-competitive sites. Swap advertising. Make guest posts and allow others to do likewise. Interview each other. If appropriate, instigate affiliate programs. Invest in and grow your personal networks.

3. Invest In Brand

Define a unique brand. Push your URL and brand everywhere. Take it offline. Even down to the basics like business cards, pens, whatever, emblazoned with your logo and URL. If you don’t have a definitive brand in your space, pivot and build one. Own your brand search, at very least.

4. Widen Distribution Channels

Publish ebooks. Build apps. Publish white papers. Make videos. Think of every medium and channel in which you can replicate your web publishing efforts.

Once you establish a relationship, give people reasons to come back. Think of what you do in terms of a platform, destination or place. How would this change your current approach? Ensure your business is positioned correctly so that people perceive a unique value.

You can then treat search engine traffic as a bonus, as opposed to the be all and end all of your business.

Specialization Strategy

Jun 12th
posted in

Last week, I reviewed “Who Owns The Future?” by Jaron Lanier. It’s a book about the impact of technology on the middle class.

I think the reality Janier describes in that book is self-evident - that the middle class is being gouged out by large data aggregators - but it’s hard, having read it and accepted his thesis, not to feel the future of the web might be a little bleak. Laniers solution of distributing value back into the chain via reverse linking is elegant, but is probably unlikely to happen, and even if it does, unlikely to happen in a time frame that is of benefit to people in business now.

So, let’s take a look at what can be done.

There are two options open to someone who has recognized the problem. Either figure out how to jump ahead of it, or stay still and get flattened by it.

Getting Ahead Of The SEO Pack

If your business model relies on the whims of a large data aggregator - and I hope you realize it really, really shouldn't if at all humanly possible - then, you need to get a few steps ahead of it, or out of its path.

There's a lot of good advice in Matt Cutt's latest video:

It could be argued that video has a subtext of the taste of things to come, but even at face value, Cutts advice is sound. You should make something compelling, provide utility, and provide a good user experience. Make design a fundamental piece of your approach. In so doing, you’ll keep people coming back to your site. Too much focus on isolated SEO tactics, such as link building, may lead to a loss of focus on the bigger picture.

In the emerging environment, the big picture partly means “avoid getting crushed by a siren server”, although that's my characterization, and unlikely to be Cutts'! Remember, creating quality, relevant content didn’t prevent people from being stomped by Panda and Penguin. All the link building you’re doing today won’t help you when a search engine makes a significant change to the way they count and value links.

And that day is coming.

Are You Flying A Helicopter?

Johnon articulately poses part of the problem:

Fast forward and we’re all spending our days flying these things (computers). But are we doing any heavy lifting? Are we getting the job done, saving the day, enabling the team? Or are we just “flying around” like one of those toy indoor helicopters, putzing around the room dodging lamps and co-workers’ monitors until we run out of battery power and drop to the floor? And we call it work.”...More than ever, we have ways to keep “busy” with SEO. The old stand-byes “keyword research” and “competitive analysis” and “SERP analysis” can keep us busy day after day. With TRILLIONS of links in place on the world wide web, we could link analyze for weeks if left alone to our cockpits. And I suppose every one of you SEOs out there could rationalize and justify the effort and expense (and many of you agency types do just that.. for a living). The helicopter is now cheap, fast, and mobile. The fuel is cheap as well, but it turns out there are two kinds of fuel for SEO helicopters. The kind the machine needs to fly (basic software and electricity), and the kind we need to actually do any work with it (seo data sets, seo tools, and accurate and effective information). The latter fuel is not cheap at all. And it’s been getting more and more expensive. Knowing how to fly one of these things is not worth much any more. Knowing how to get the work done is

A lot of SEO work falls into this category.

There is a lot of busy-ness. A lot of people do things that appear to make a difference. Some people spend entire days appearing to make a difference. Then they appear to make a difference again tomorrow.

But the question should always be asked “are they achieving anything in business terms?”

It doesn't matter if we call it SEO, inbound marketing, social media marketing, or whatever the new name for it is next week, it is the business results that count. Is this activity growing a business and positioning it well for the future?

If it’s an activity that isn't getting results, then it’s a waste of time. In fact, it’s worse than a waste of time. It presents an opportunity cost. Those people could have been doing something productive. They could have helped solve real problems. They could have been building something that endures. All the linking building, content creation, keyword research and tweets with the sole intention of manipulating a search engine to produce higher rankings isn't going to mean much when the search engine shifts their algorithms significantly.

And that day is coming.

Pivot

To avoid getting crushed by a search engine, you could take one of two paths.

You could spread the risk. Reverse-engineer the shifting algorithms, with multiple sites, and hope to stay ahead of them that way. Become the gang of moles - actually, a "labour" of moles, in proppa Enlush - they can’t whack. Or, at least, a labour of moles they can't whack all at the same time! This is a war of attrition approach and it is best suited to aggressive, pure-play search marketing where the domains are disposable.

However, if you are building a web presence that must endure, and aggressive tactics don’t suit your model, then SEO, or inbound, or whatever it is called next week, should only ever be one tactic within a much wider business strategy. To rely on SEO means being vulnerable to the whims of a search engine, a provider over which you have no control. When a marketing tactic gets diminished, or no longer works, it pays to have a model that allows you to shrug it off as an inconvenience, not a major disaster.

The key is to foster durable and valuable relationships, as opposed to providing information that can be commodified.

There are a number of ways to achieve this, but one good way is to offer something unique, as opposed to being one provider among many very similar providers. Beyond very basic SEO, the value proposition of SEO is to rank higher than similar competitors, and thereby gain more visibility. This value proposition is highly dependent on a supplier over which we have no control. Another way of looking at it is to reduce the competition to none by focusing on specialization.

Specialize, Not Generalize

Specialization involves working in a singular, narrowly defined niche. It is sustainable because it involves maintaining a superior, unique position relative to competitors.

Specialization is a great strategy for the web, because the web has made markets global. Doing something highly niche can be done at scale by extending the market globally, a strategy that can be difficult to achieve at a local market level. Previously, generalists could prosper by virtue of geographic limits. Department stores, for example. These days, those departments stores need to belong to massive chains, and enjoy significant economies of scale, in order to prosper.

Specialization is also defensive. The more specialized you are, they less likely the large data aggregators will be interested in screwing you. Niche markets are too small for them to be bother with. If your niche is defined too widely, like travel, or education, or photography, for example, you may face threats from large aggregators, but this can be countered, in part, by design, which we’ll look at over the coming week.

If you don’t have a high degree of specialization, and your business relies solely on beating similar business by doing more/better SEO, then you’re vulnerable to the upstream traffic provider - the search engine. By solving a niche problem in a unique way, you change the supply/demand equation. The number of competing suppliers becomes “one” or “a few”. If you build up sufficient demand for your unique service, then the search engines must show you, else they look deficient.

Of course, it’s difficult to find a unique niche. If it’s profitable, then you can be sure you’ll soon have competition. However, consider than many big companies started out as niche offerings. Dell, for example. They were unique because they sold cheap PCs, built from components, and were made to order. Dell started in a campus dormitory room.

What’s the alternative? Entering a crowded market of me-too offerings? A lot of SEO falls into this category and it can be a flawed approach in terms of strategy if the underlying business isn't positioned correctly. When the search engines have shifted their algorithms in the past, many of these businesses have gone up in smoke as a direct result because the only thing differentiating them was their SERP position.

By taking a step back, focusing on relationships and specific, unique value propositions, business can avoid this problem.

Advantages Of Specialization

Specialization makes it easier to know and deeply understand a customers needs. The data you collect by doing so would be data a large data aggregator would have difficulty obtaining, as it is nuanced and specific. It’s less likely to be part of an easily identified big-data pattern, so the information is less likely to be commodified. This also helps foster a durable relationship.

Once you start finely segmenting markets, especially new and rising markets, you’ll gain unique insights and acquire unique data. You gain a high degree of focus. Check out “Business Lessons From Pumpkin Hackers”. You may be capable of doing a lot of different things, and many opportunities will come up that fall slightly outside your specialization, but there are considerable benefits in ignoring them and focusing on growing the one, significant opportunity.

Respin

Are you having trouble competing against other consultants? Consider respinning so you serve a specific niche. To specialize, an SEO might build a site all about dentistry and then offer leads and advertising to dentists, dental suppliers, dental schools, and so on. Such a site would build up a lot of unique and actionable data about the traffic in this niche. They might then use this platform as a springboard to offering SEO services to pre-qualified dentists in different regions, given dentistry is a location dependent activity, and therefore it is easy for the SEO to get around potential conflicts of interest. By specializing in this way, the SEO will likely understand their customer better than the generalist. By understanding the customer better, and gaining a track record with a specific type of customer, it gives the SEO an advantage when competing with other SEO firms for dentists SEO work. If you were a dentist wanting SEO services, who's pitch stands out? The generalist SEO agency, or the SEO who specializes in web marketing for dentists?

Similarly, you could be a generalist web developer, or you could be the guy who specializes in payment gateways for mobile. Instead of being a web designer, how about being someone who specializes in themes for Oxwall? And so on. Think about ways you can re-spin a general thing you do into a specific thing for which there is demand, but little supply.

One way of getting a feel for areas to specialize in is to use Adwords as a research tool. For example, “oxwall themes” has almost no Adwords competition and around 1,300 searches per month. Let’s say 10% of that figure are willing to pay for themes. That’s 130 potential customers. Let’s say a specialist designer converts 10% of those, that’s 13 projects per month. Let’s say those numbers are only half right. That’s still 6-7 projects per month.

Having decided to specialize in a clearly defined, narrow market segment, and having good product or service knowledge and clear focus, you are much more likely to be able to spot the emerging pain points of your customers. Having this information will help you stand out from the crowd. Your pitches, your website copy, and your problem identification and solutions will make it harder for more generalist competitors to sound like they don’t know what they are talking about. This is the unique selling proposition (USP), of course. It’s based on the notion of quality. Reputation then spreads. It’s difficult for a siren server to insert itself between word of mouth gained from good reputation.

Differentiation is the aim of all businesses, no matter what the size. So, if one of your problems is being too reliant on search results, take a step back and determine if your offer is specialized enough. If you’re offering the same as your competitors, then you’re highly vulnerable to algorithm shifts. It’s hard to “own” generalist keyword terms, and a weak strategic position if your entire business success is reliant upon doing so.

Specialization lowers the cost of doing business. An obvious example can be seen in PPC/SEO. If you target a general term, it can be expensive to maintain position. In some cases, it’s simply impossible unless you’re already a major player. If you specialize, your marketing focus can be narrower, which means your marketing cost is lower. You also gain supply-side advantages, as you don’t need to source a wide range of goods, or hire as many people with different skillsets, as the generalist must do.

Once you’re delivering clear and unique value, you can justify higher prices. It’s difficult for buyers to make direct comparisons, because, if you have a high degree of specialization, there should be few available to them. If you are delivering that much more value, you deserve to be paid for it. The less direct competition you have, the less price sensitive your offering. If you offer the same price as other offerings, and your only advantage is SERP positioning, then that’s a vulnerable business positioning strategy.

If you properly execute a specialization strategy, you tend to become more lean and agile. You may be able to compete with larger competitors as you can react quicker than they can. Chances are, your processes are more streamlined as they are geared towards doing one specific thing. The small, specialized business is unlikely to have the chain of command and management structure that can slow decision making down in organizations that have a broader focus.

Specialized businesses tend to be more productive than their generalist counterparts as their detailed knowledge of a narrow range of processes and markets mean they can produce more with less. The more bases you cover, the more organisational aspects come into play, and the slower the process becomes.

In Summary

There are benefits in being a generalist, of course, however, if you’re a small operator and find yourself highly vulnerable to the whims of search engines, then it can pay to take a step back, tighten your focus, and try to dominate more specialist niches. The more general you go, the more competition you tend to encounter. The more competition you encounter in the SERPs, the harder you have to fight, and the more vulnerable you are to big data aggregators. The highly specialized are far more likely to fly under the radar, and are less vulnerable to big-brand bias in major verticals. The key to not being overly dependent on search engines is to develop enduring relationships, and specialization based on a strong, unique value proposition is one way of doing so.

Next article, we’ll look at differentiation by UX design and user experience.

SEO: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Jun 12th

SEO is a dirty word.

PPC isn’t a dirty word.

Actually, they’re not words they’re acronyms, but you get my drift, I’m sure :)

It must be difficult for SEO providers to stay on the “good and pure” side of SEO when the definitions are constantly shifting. Recently we’ve seen one prominent SEO tool provider rebrand as an “inbound marketing” tools provider and it’s not difficult to appreciate the reasons why.

SEO, to a lot of people, means spam. The term SEO is lumbered, rightly or wrongly, with negative connotations.

Email Optimization

Consider email marketing.

Is all email marketing spam? Many would consider it annoying, but obviously not all email marketing is spam.

There is legitimate email marketing, whereby people opt-in to receive email messages they consider valuable. It is an industry worth around $2.468 billion. There are legitimate agencies providing campaign services, reputable tools vendors providing tools, and it can achieve measurable marketing results where everyone wins.

Yet, most email marketing is spam. Most of it is annoying. Most of it is irrelevant. According to a Microsoft security report, 97% of all email circulating is spam.

So, only around 3% of all email is legitimate. 3% of email is wanted. Relevant. Requested.

One wonders how much SEO is legitimate? I guess it depends what we mean by legitimate, but if we accept the definition I’ve used - “something relevant wanted by the user” - then, at a guess, I’d say most SEO these days is legitimate, simply because being off-topic is not rewarded. Most SEOs provide on-topic content, and encourage businesses to publish it - free - on the web. If anything, SEOs could be accused of being too on-topic.

The proof can be found in the SERPs. A site is requested by the user. If a site is listed matches their query, then the user probably deems it to be relevant. They might find that degree of relevance, personally, to be somewhat lacking, in which case they’ll click-back, but we don’t have a situation where search results are rendered irrelevant by the presence of SEO.

Generally speaking, search appears to work well in terms of delivering relevance. SEO could be considered cleaner than email marketing in that SEOs are obsessed with being relevant to a user. The majority of email marketers, on the other hand, couldn't seem to care less about what is relevant, just so long as they get something, anything, in front of you. In search, if a site matches the search query, and the visitor likes it enough to register positive quality metrics, then what does it matter how it got there?

It probably depends on whos’ business case we’re talking about.

Advertorials

Matt Cutts has released a new video on Advertorials and Native Advertising.

Matt makes a good case. He reminds us of the idea on which Google was founded, namely citation. If people think a document is important, or interesting, they link to it.

This idea came from academia. The more an academic document is cited, and cited by those with authority, the more relevant that document is likely to be. Nothing wrong with that idea, however some of the time, it doesn’t work. In academic circles, citation is prone to corruption. One example is self-citation.

But really, excessive self-citation is for amateurs: the real thing is forming a “citation cartel” as Phil David from The Scholarly Kitchen puts it. In April this year, after receiving a “tip from a concerned scientist” Davis did some detective work using the JCR data and found that several journals published reviews citing an unusually high number of articles fitting the JIF window from other journals. In one case, theMedical Science Monitor published a 2010 review citing 490 articles, 445 of them were published in 2008-09 in the journal Cell Transplantation (44 of the other 45 were for articles from Medical Science Journal published in 2008-09 as well). Three of the authors were Cell Transplantation editors

So, even in academia, self-serving linking gets pumped and manipulated. When this idea is applied to the unregulated web where there is vast sums of money at stake, you can see how citation very quickly changes into something else.

There is no way linking is going to stay “pure” in such an environment.

The debate around “paid links” and “paid placement” has been done over and over again, but in summary, the definition of “paid” is inherently problematic. For example, some sites invite guest posting, pay the writers nothing in monetary terms, but the payment is a link back to the writers site. The article is a form of paid placement, it’s just that no money changes hands. Is the article truly editorial?

It’s a bit grey.

A lot of the time, such articles pump the writers business interests. Is that paid content, and does it need to be disclosed? Does it need to be disclosed to both readers and search engines? I think Matt's video suggests it isn't a problem, as utility is provided, but a link from said article may need to be no-followed in order to stay within Google's guidelines.

Matt wants to see clear and conspicuous disclosure of advertorial content. Paid links, likewise. The disclosure should be made both to search engines and readers.

Which is interesting.

Why would a disclosure need to be made to a search engine spider? Granted, it makes Google’s job easier, but I’m not sure why publishers would want to make Google’s job easier, especially if there’s nothing in it for the publishers.

But here comes the stick, and not just from the web spam team.

Google News have stated they may remove a publication if a publication is taking money for paid content and not adequately disclosing that fact - in Google’s view - to both readers and search engines, then that publication may be kicked from Google News. In so doing, Google increase the risk to the publisher, and therefore the cost, in accepting paid links or paid placement.

So, that’s why a publisher will want to make Google’s job easier. If they don’t, they run the risk of invisibility.

Now, on one level, this sounds fair and reasonable. The most “merit worthy” content should be at the top. A ranking should not depend on how deep your pockets are i.e. the more links you can buy, the more merit you have.

However, one of the problems is that the search results already work this way. Big brands often do well in the SERPs due to reputation gained, in no small part, from massive advertising spend that has the side effect, or sometimes direct effect, of inbound links. Do these large brands therefore have “more merit” by virtue of their deeper pockets?

Google might also want to consider why a news organization would blur advertorial lines when they never used to. Could it be because their advertising is no longer paying them enough to survive?

SEO Rebalances The Game

SEO has helped level the playing field for small businesses, in particular. The little guy didn’t have deep pockets, but he could play the game smarter by figuring out what the search engines wanted, algorithmicly speaking, and giving it to them.

I can understand Google’s point of view. If I were Google, I’d probably think the same way. I’d love a situation where editorial was editorial, and business was PPC. SEO, to me, would mean making a site crawlable and understandable to both visitors and bots, but that’s the end of it. Anything outside that would be search engine spam. It’s neat. It’s got nice rounded edges. It would fit my business plan.

But real life is messier.

If a publisher doesn’t have the promotion budget of a major brand, and they don’t have enough money to outbid big brands on PPC, then they risk being invisible on search engines. Google search is pervasive, and if you’re not visible in Google search, then it’s a lot harder to make a living on the web. The risk of being banned for not following the guidelines is the same as the risk of playing the game within the guidelines, but not ranking. That risk is invisibility.

Is the fact a small business plays a game that is already stacked against them, by using SEO, “bad”? If they have to pay harder than the big brands just to compete, and perhaps become a big brand themselves one day, then who can really blame them? Can a result that is relevant, as far as the user is concerned, still really be labelled “spam”? Is that more to do with the search engines business case than actual end user dissatisfaction?

Publishers and SEOs should think carefully before buying into the construct that SEO, beyond Google’s narrow definition, is spam. Also consider that the more people who can be convinced to switch to PPC and/or stick to just making sites more crawlable, then the more spoils for those who couldn’t care less how SEO is labelled.

It would be great if quality content succeeded in the SERPs on merit, alone. This would encourage people to create quality content. But when other aspects are rewarded, then those aspects will be played.

Perhaps if the search engines could be explicit about what they want, and reward it when they’re delivered it, then everyone’s happy.

I guess the algorithms just aren’t that clever yet.

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