Why Bloggers Need To Think About Marketing Strategy

Oct 9th

I started a blog on search engines in 2002.

In those days, the idea of blogging about anything other than politics, or blogging, or what your cat had for breakfast, was new. In fact, the idea of blogs was new. Most people's reaction to the word blog was "huh"?

I quickly built up an audience, and links, mostly because I had first mover advantage, and I threw in a few social media basics. It certainly wasn't rocket science. But, at the time, I was doing something unique and "remarkable", in the Seth Godin sense of the word.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape is very different.

There are thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of blogs on search, and most of those go unread. A blog on search is no longer remarkable.

Unless you have first-class insider information, and can produce it on a regular basis, I wouldn't advise anyone start a generalist search engine blog these days. The low hanging fruit is gone, but there are still easy pickings in other areas, it's simply a matter of finding them, identifying your strengths, and exploiting them.

How Many Blogs Are Out There?

This years "State Of The Blogsphere" report indicates there are around 133 million blogs, and they are only the blogs indexed by Technorati since 2002.

Even if we assume that half of those are spam blogs, or cobweb blogs, that's still a lot of "personal journals". Are there 133 million readers?

ComScore MediaMetrix (August 2008)
Blogs: 77.7 million unique visitors in the US
Facebook: 41.0 million | MySpace 75.1 million
Total internet audience 188.9 million
eMarketer (May 2008)
94.1 million US blog readers in 2007 (50% of Internet users)
22.6 million US bloggers in 2007 (12%)
Universal McCann (March 2008)
184 million WW have started a blog | 26.4 US
346 million WW read blogs | 60.3 US
77% of active Internet users read blogs

Would a generalist blog do well in such a market? It could, but it's highly unlikely. Such deep markets tend to favor a niche approach.

So, instead of a blog on search, one strategy might be simply to go deep on one aspect of that market. How about a blog on the mathematics of search engine algorithms? Or search marketing for a specific region? Or search marketing in one industry vertical, such as travel?

How To Find And Test A Niche

First up, read these posts:

Once you've decided on a niche, you can further test the validity of your idea, and your approach, by asking questions.

One formalized way of doing this is called a SWOT analysis. It's a high-brow marketing term, but the idea is simple in practice. Swot stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

Make a list:

  • Strengths - why do I do well?
  • Weaknesses - What do I do poorly?
  • Opportunities - What upcoming trends fit with my strengths? What am I doing now that could be leveraged?
  • Threats - What internal problems do I face? What external problems do I face?

You then detail how you can use each strength, how you can improve each weakness, how you exploit each opportunity, and how you mitigate each risk.

Simply going through such exercises can open a world of possibilities. It is important to write it down. I find the simple act of writing something down seems to make an idea less abstract and more concrete.

One of the big threats in the blog world is the low barrier to entry. Anyone can start a blog within minutes.

Ask yourself how will you stay ahead of the person who starts in the next hour? The ten people who have started by tomorrow? The hundreds of people who have started by next week, not to mention the big, established names who already have a dedicated share of an audience that isn't really growing.

Tough call. There are no easy answers to such a question, as it really depends on your individual strengths and weaknesses, which is why asking questions like these can provide valuable insight.

Philip Kotler, a renowned marketing guru, suggests asking the following questions of any new business plan or idea:

  • Does this strategy contain exciting new opportunities?
  • Is the plan clear at defining a target market?
  • Will the customer in each target market see our offering as superior?
  • Do the strategies see, coherent? Are the right tools being used?
  • What is the probability that the plan will achieve its stated objectives?
  • What would you eliminate from the plan if you only had 80% of your budget?
  • What would you add to the plan if you only had 120% of your budget?

Those last two might seem a little odd in this context, but they certainly are applicable. What would you do if you had more of a budget to promote your blog? Would you spend it on advertising? If so, where, specifically, would you spend it?

Asking these questions can suggest all manner of options. By pretending you have more of a budget, you might identify great advertising partners, but because, in reality, you might not have this budget, you could instead suggest you write guest articles for them, and thus achieve much the same result.

SEO For Blogs

The latest shift in SEO, as Aaron details in Social Interaction & Advertising Are The Modern Day Search Engine Submission & Link Building, is towards relationship marketing, which is why SEOs are increasingly adopting marketing and PR strategies in order to operate more effectively.

Let's face it - SEO for blogs is a cakewalk. Blog software, such as Wordpress, is already search friendly, right out of the box. If you want to tweak it further, there are a wealth of available tools and instruction. Anyone can do it, and that's a problem.

But it's not really about the tools. It's how you use them. The key part to success in doing SEO on blogs is the way you interact.

Specific Strategies To Consider

Quote And Link To Popular Bloggers

Apart from the obvious potential that a blogger will follow inbound links back to their source (you!), meme aggregators, such as Techmeme and Google Blog News, are becoming more prevalent.

These sites aggregate similar conversations together. Simply by talking about what others are talking about, and adding to the conversation, you might get a link and/or attention.

Leave Valuable Useful Comments On Popular Related Blogs

Go where the crowd already is.

For example, I follow most comments in these blog posts back to the authors, and if they have left a site name, I check it out.

Most are then added to my RSS feed reader.

Write Articles For Other Popular Blogs

Think of this as advertising. Advertising costs, and in this case, that cost is your time. The benefits of contributing editorial can be fantastic, however, as you can reach a large, established market quickly.

Create Community Based Ideas, Ask For Feedback Before Launching

This is cheap and cheerful market research. You also give your audience an opportunity for buy-in on the outcome. If the audience feels they are part of the process, they are more likely to accept it, and even promote it.

Add Value To Ideas So People Reference You When Talking About Them

Besides the obvious link benefit involved, it is also great for your brand. Your name becomes your brand, and the more people mention your name, the further your brand spreads. Seth Godin is a master at this, and if you aren't reading his blog already, you should be.

See! It just happened. Twice, in this post, in fact.

Actively Solicit Comments And Reply To Them

One over-looked value of comments is that people are providing crawlable, unique content. Usually I find the more contentious the post, the more comments you receive. So don't be afraid to stir the hornets nest every one in a while ;)

Encouraging Contribution From Others And Highlighting Their Contribution Builds Community

The best situation is win-win. Are you giving your readers and community members a chance to do so?

This is one of the reasons I think black hole SEO is short-sighted, especially for community sites and blogs. It doesn't allow others to win, too.

Network Offline At Industry Trade Shows

I once worked with a guy who had been a very successful investment banker on Wall Street. He says he ignores the University qualifications and information in the public domain, as the real business world works on inside information and who you know. There's no doubt that the best place to get insider search information, and great contacts, is in the bars between conferences.

Every community has an epicenter - a group of people who most others take a lead from - and that epicenter might be as small as three or four highly influential people. Those are the people you need to talk to.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Controversy

If you gain mindshare and authority, some people will hate you for it.

This is related to my "stir-the-hornets-nest" point above. Once you start getting attention, you also become a target. You have little choice but to go with the flow, and keep in mind you cannot please all the people, all the time. Sometimes, it even pays not to please them. People are more likely to engage if they feel passionate, and especially if they passionately believe you are wrong!

Reminds me of a great quote by Oscar Wilde: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about!"

Further Reading

Relationship Marketing Via Consumer Interaction

Oct 7th
posted in

There was a time when people bought from those people who knew them.

You went to the local butcher or baker, and he knew your name, and your kids names. Personal interaction was a valuable sales and marketing tool.

We can apply this strategy to the web, too.

Interaction Marketing

Interaction marketing, as the name suggests, is about the marketing benefit that can be had from engaging with a visitor in a more personalized way.

It works well in an environment of anonymous, mee-too sameness, because people still crave uniqueness and personal attention. This startegy isn't limited to commerce, either. It applies to all kinds of sites, including blogs.

What Are The Benefits Of Encouraging Interaction?

Encouraging interaction can result in more repeat visits, more sales, more loyalty, and more attention. In many cases, it's quite a simple thing to do, and the pay-offs can be enormous.

A well-known example is: "Do you want fries with that?". McDonald's upsell is an example of interaction marketing. They're asking the right question at just the right time, and they're personalizing the service. And it works, to the tune of billions in extra revenue per year.

The Blogs Squeaky Wheel

One of the problems with blogs, this one included, is that the audience isn't just one audience. There are many audiences.

Some people are experienced SEOs and have been reading here for a long time. Others might have only just learned what the phrase SEO means. Most people are spread across the continuum.

How do you deliver an experience that works well for everyone?

Distinguish Between New And Returning Visitors

Seth Godin advocates distinguishing between new and returning visitors to your site, and targeting them with slightly different messages.

For example, new commentors could be delivered to a special welcome page, informing them about various, important areas of your site. You wouldn't necessarily want to do this for long-time users of the site, because it would slow them down, and might be seen as condesending rather than helpful.


One opportunity that's underused is the idea of using cookies to treat returning visitors differently than newbies. It's more work at first, but it can offer two experiences to two different sorts of people.

Here is a Wordpress plugin that will do just that: Wordpress Commentor PlugIn.

By default, new visitors to your blog will see a small box above each post containing the words "If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!" After 5 visits the message disappears. You can customize this message, its lifespan, and its location."

You could also try this one: Comment Redirect PlugIn

Another way to achieve the same thing is to send an email to new commentors upon registration, outlining the top posts and welcoming them.

You're customizing the experience only slightly, but the payoffs in terms of relationship building could be considerable. The user are more likely to perceive the interaction as helpful and personalized.

Ask For A Link In The Order Confirmation E-mail

That is certainly one of those "why-didn't-I-think-of-that" moments.

You could ask customers, or new sign ups, to link to you. Your customers are prime candidates to approach for links, because they are already familiar with you, presumably like you, and the relationship has already been established.

Amazon-Style Feedback Reminder

Amazon, and their partners, ask for a review a few days after you buy something.

Not only is this a great way to get feedback, customers may also provide you with content. Make it easy for them to do so.

Selective Advertising

Advertising can annoy visitors, and compromise your brand. You can give people added value by removing advertising for those who join up.

Similarly, you could leave advertising off new content. Create a different template, that includes ads, for your archived content. By doing so, you can monetarize most of your content without annoying your regular readers.

Further Reading

Is Buying Links Stupid?

Oct 3rd
posted in

This old chestnut.

There is a post over at Search Engine Land by Danny Sullivan entitled "Conversation With An Idiot Link Broker". To cut a long story short, some guy tries to broker a link deal with Danny, seemingly not knowing who Danny is, and Danny plays him along. Danny reports him to the Google spam team.

For the sake of furthering discussion, I'll play devils advocate :)

Regardless of anyone's views on link buying, it is wrong to mislead people. Danny clearly felt this guy was being misleading, and gave him a number of chances to clarify his position. But is buying and selling links really as "risky" a behavior as is being made out?

It might be considered a risky behavior if you spend a lot of time obsessing about Google, as SEOs tend to do. However, links are the glue that binds the web. Link buying and selling started long before Google existed. It will always happen.

It's called advertising.

But it would be disingenuous not to see what Danny is really talking about here. He's talking about buying links for the sole purpose of gaining link juice. I can understand why Google takes a dim view of this practice. . Paid links compromises Google's business model.

Fair enough. If I worked for Google, I'd take the same stance.

For Danny Sullivan, given the level of exposure of his site in the search world, the risks presented by link trading would be significant. Regardless of Danny's personal opinion on such practices, such a deal would clearly be a non-starter. The link seller is a fool for, above all else, failing to identify his customer.

However, for most sites, the reality is that the risk of link buying and selling is probably negligible.

Google taking out the occasional site amidst a storm of publicity doesn't mean much when there are tens of thousands of sites that clearly do not receive the exact same treatment. If one site in two got hammered, it would be a different story, but it is likely the figures run into one site in thousands. It then becomes a matter of weighing one's chances of being detected and punished by Google against the potential rewards on offer.

For example, there are credible, Fortune 500 companies engaged in buying and selling links. The risk of big names being taken out for any longer than a day or two is near zero. If you run the sort of big name site searchers expect to see in the results, Google probably aren't going to leave you out on a technicality. This would compromise their business model, because Google must deliver relevant results.

Is it up to the link seller to outline all the potential risks involved? Apart from the comical farce of a link seller failing to identify Danny Sullivan, how big a moral crime has the guy really committed? Do Google outline all the risks associated with using their products and services? Or is Danny cunningly implying that Google's algorithm cannot determine which links are paid, and in fact relies on people filing reports? ;)

A moral tone runs through such discussions, and I'm not sure it is entirely consistent.

Google are a business and their pronouncements must be considered in this context. They will act in their own interest, and those interest may or may not align with your own. Are we at risk of ceding the assumption of moral superiority to Google when they may not deserve it? Google, like you, are trying to earn a crust, and any organization may not be entirely transparent and morally consistent in all they do. Who do you call out, and who gets a free pass?

Google certainly holds the power, and if being in the SERPs matters a lot to you, then you should stay within Google's guidelines. It's also fair to say that, these days, even this approach offers no guarantees.

Tread wisely :)

Further Reading

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How To Choose Domain Names For SEO

Oct 1st

Domaining.

It has been a hot topic for a while now, yet many domineers aren't overly active in the SEO space. Yet.

Domaining is when you register a domain, or buy a domain on the seondary market, with the intention of deriving traffic, and turning that traffic into revenue. Traffic comes from type in traffic. i.e. people type a keyword into the address bar and add .com on the end. Domains can be valuable internet real estate, because, unlike a search engine, there is no middleman between you and the visitor. A lucrative pursuit, if you choose the right names.

Let's take a look at how domineering strategy can be applied to SEO.

Background

Aaron has a great interview with Frank Schilling. Frank is one of the biggest domaineers on the planet, and an articulate advocate of this strategy.

Add this lot to your feed reader:

http://www.sevenmile.com/
http://rickschwartz.typepad.com/
http://www.whizzbangsblog.com/
http://www.domainnews.com/

If anyone has other suggestions for great domaining blogs, please add them to the comments.

How To Select A Domain Name

Google tends to give weight to keywords in the domain name. This increases the importance of selecting a good name.

When choosing a domain name for SEO purposes, there are three main factors to consider:

  • Brand
  • Rankability
  • Linkability

Brand

Should you use hyphenated, multi-term domain like search-engine-marketing-services.com?

I'd avoid such names like the plague.

Why?

They have no branding value. They have limited SEO value. Even if you do manage to get such a domain top ten, you're probably going to need to sell on the first visit, as few people are going to remember it once they leave. It is too generic, and it lacks credibility.

In a crowded market, brand offers a point of distinction.

It is easier to build links to branded domain names. People take these name more seriously that keyword-keyword-keyword-keyword.com, which looks spammy and isn't fooling anyone. Would you link to such a name? By doing so, it devalues your own content .

It can even difficult to get such domain names linked to when you pay for the privilege! Directory editors often reject these names on sight, because such names are often associated with low-quality content. Imagine how many free links you might be losing by choosing such a name.

Is there a downside to using branded names?

Yes.

Unless you have a huge marketing budget, no one is going to search for perseefgxcbtrfy.com, which is a new killer, brand I just made up ;)

Thankfully, there is a happy medium between brand and SEO strategy.

Rankability

SEOs release the value of keywords. When naming your site, and deciding on a domain name, try combining the lessons of SEO, branding and domaining.

Genric + term is a good approach to use. Take your chosen keyword, and simply add another word on the end. SeoBook, Travelocity, FlightsCity, CarHub, etc. These words have SEO value built into them, because people are forced to use your keywords in the link. Also, Google (currently) values a keyword within the domain name for ranking purposes. Finally, such a name retains an element of unique branding.

These types of domain names score high on the rank-ability and link-ability meter. They are generic enough to rank well for the keyword term, yet contain just enough branding difference to be memorable.

The SEO Advantage

There is another advantage for SEOs in the domain space.

Dot com's can sell for 5-20 times as much as a .org or .net. Keyword + .com can sell for millions of dollars, depending on the domain name.

Expensive, huh.

But...

By registering or buying the cheaper .net or .org equivilent, building out the site, and ranking well for the keyword + net, or +org, you increase the value of the domain name markedly. Sure, you're one step away from pure domaineering and you still have Google to contend with, but you'll be head and shoulders above those who are undervaluing these names.

A lot of domaineers aren't operating in this space.

Yet.

Other Tips And Ideas

Leave The Keyword Out Entirely

Used the related search function on Google ~ + keyword and see if any of the related keyword terms fit. This can be a good strategy to use if all the good generic keyword names are gone. It might get you close enough to the action, without the enormous price tag. Might be more memorable, too.

How To Test A Domain Name For Penalties Before Buying It

  • Verify the site is not blocking GoogleBot in their robots.txt file
  • Point a link at the domain from a trusted site and see if Google indexes it
  • Within a couple weeks (at most a month) Google should list the site when you search for it in Google using site:domainname.com

Further Reading:

Align Your SEO Strategy With Site Structure

Sep 30th
posted in

I'd like to take a look at an area often overlooked in SEO.

Site architecture.

Site architecture is important for SEO for three main reasons:

  • To focus on the most important keyword terms
  • Control the flow of link equity around the site
  • Ensure spiders can crawl the site

Simple, eh. Yet many webmasters get it wrong.

Let's take a look at how to do it properly.

Evaluate The Competition

One you've decided on your message, and your plan, the next step is to layout your site structure.

Start by evaluating your competition. Grab your list of keyword terms, and search for the most popular sites listed under those terms. Take a look at their navigation. What topic areas do they use for their main navigation scheme? Do they use secondary navigation? Are there similarities in topic areas across competitor sites?

Open a spreadsheet, and list their categories, and title tags, and look for keyword patterns. You'll soon see similarities. By evaluating the navigation used by your competition, you'll get a good feel for the tried-n-true "money" topics.

You can then run these sites through metrics sites like Compete.com.

Use the most common, heavily trafficked areas as your core navigation sections.

The Home Page Advantage

Those who know how Page Rank functions can skip this section.

Your home page will almost certainly have the highest level of authority.

While there are a lot of debates about the merits of PageRank when it comes to ranking, it is fair to say that PageRank is rough indicator of a pages' level of authority. Pages with more authority are spidered more frequently and enjoy higher ranking than pages with lower authority. The home page is often the page with the most links pointing to it, so the home page typically has the highest level of authority. Authority passes from one page to the next.

For each link off a page, the authority level will be split.

For example - and I'm simplifying* greatly for the purposes of illustration - if you have a home page with a ten units of link juice, two links to two sub-pages would see each sub-page receive 5 points of link juice. If the sub-page has two links, each sub-sub would receive two units of link juice, and so on.

The important point to understand is that the further your pages are away from the home page, generally the less link juice those pages will have, unless they are linked from external pages. This is why you need to think carefully about site structure.

For SEO purposes, try to keep your money areas close to the home page.

*Note: Those who know how Page Rank functions will realise my explaination above is not technically correct. The way Page Rank splits is more sophisticated than that given in my illustration. For those who want a more technical breakdown of the Page Rank calculations, check out Phils post at WebWorkshop.

How Deep Do I Go?

Keeping your site structure shallow is a good rule of thumb. So long as you main page is linked well, all your internal pages will have sufficient authority to be crawled regularly. You also achieve clarity and focus.

A shallow site structure is not just about facilitating crawling. After all, you could just create a Google Site Map and achieve the same goal. Site structure is also about selectively passing authority to your money pages, and not wasting it on pages less deserving. This is straightforward with a small site, but the problem gets more challenging as you site grows.

One way to mange scale is by grouping your keyword terms into primary and secondary navigation.

Main & Secondary Navigation

Main navigation is where you place your core topics i.e. the most common, highly trafficked topics you found when you performed your competitive analysis. Typically, people use tabs across the top, or a list down the left hand side of the screen. Main navigation appears on all other pages.

Secondary navigation consists of all other links, such as latest post, related articles, etc. Secondary navigation does not appear on every page, but is related to the core page upon which it appears.

One way to split navigation is to organize your core areas into the main navigation tabs across the top, and provide secondary navigation down the side.

For example, let's say you main navigation layout looked like this:

Each time I click a main navigation term, the secondary navigation down the left hand side changes. The secondary navigation are keywords related to the core area.

For those of you who are members, Aaron has an indepth video demonstration on Site Architecture And Internal Linking, as well as instruction on how to integrate and mange keywords.

Make Navigation Usable

Various studies indicate that humans are easily confused when presented with more than seven choices. Keep this in mind when creating your core navigation areas.

If you offer more than seven choices, find ways to break things down further. For example, by year, manufacturer, model, classification, etc.

You can also break these areas down with an "eye break" between each. Here's a good example of this technique on Chocolate.com:

Search spiders, on the other hand, aren't confused by multiple choices. Secondary navigation, which includes links within the body copy, provides plenty of opportunity to place keywords in links. Good for usability, too.

As your site grows, new content is linked to by secondary navigation. The key is to continually monitor what content produces the most money/visitor response. Elevate successful topics higher up you navigation tree, and relegate loss-making topics.

Use your analytics package to do this. In most packages, you can get breakdowns of the most popular, and least popular, pages. Organise this list by "most popular". Your most popular pages should be at the top of your navigation tree. You also need to consider your business objectives. Your money pages might not be the same pages as your most popular pages, so it's also a good idea to set up funnel tracking to ensure the pages you're elevating also align with your business goals.

If a page is ranking well for a term, and that page is getting good results, you might want to consider adding a second page targeting the same term. Google may then group the pages together, effectively giving you listings #1 and #2.

Subject Themeing

A variant on Main & Secondary Navigation is subject themeing.

Themeing is a controversial topic in SEO. The assumption is that the search engines will try and determine the general theme of your site, therefore you should keep all your pages based around a central theme.

The theory goes that you can find out what words Google places in the same "theme" by using the tilde ~ command in Google. For example, if you search on ~ cars, you'll see "automobile", "auto", "bmw" and other related terms highlighted in the SERP results. You use these terms as headings for pages in your site.

However, many people feel that themes do not work, because search engines return individual pages, not sites. Therefore, it follows that the topic of other pages on the site aren't directly attributable to the ranking of an individual page.

Without getting into a debate about the the existence or non-existence of theme evaluation in the algorithm, themeing is a great way to conceptually organize your site and research keywords.

Establish a central theme, then create a list of sub-topics made up of related (~) terms. Make sub-topics of sub-topics. Eventually, your site resembles a pyramid structure. Each sub-topic is organized into a directory folder, which naturally "loads" keywords into URL strings, breadcrumb trails, etc. The entire site is made up of of keywords related to the main theme.

Bruce Clay provides a good overview of Subject Themeing.

Bleeding Page Rank?

You might also wish to balance the number of outgoing links with the number of internal links. Some people are concerned about this aspect, i.e. so-called "bleeding page rank". A page doesn't lose page rank because you link out, but linking does effect the level of page rank available to pass to other pages. This is also known as link equity.

It is good to be aware of this, but not let it dictate your course of action too much. Remember, outbound linking is a potential advertisement for your site, in the form of referral data in someone else logs. A good rule of thumb is to balance the number of internal links with the the number of external links. Personally, I ignore this aspect of SEO site construction and instead focus on providing visitor value.

Link Equity & No Follow

Another way to control the link equity that flows around your site is to use the no-follow tag. For example, check out the navigational links at the bottom of the page:

As these target pages aren't important in terms of ranking, you could no-follow these pages ensure your main links have more link equity to pass to other pages.

Re-Focus On The Most Important Content

This might sound like sacrilege, but it can often pay not to let search engines display all the pages in your site.

Let's say you have twenty pages, all titled "Acme". Links containing the keyword term "Acme" point to various pages. What does the algorithm do when faced with these pages? It doesn't display all of them for the keyword term "Acme". It choses the one page it considers most worthy, and displays that.

Rather than leave it all to the algorithm, it often pays to pick the single most relevant page you want to rank, and 301 all the other similarly-themed pages to point to it. Here's some instructions on how to 301 pages.

By doing this, you focus link equity on the most important page, rather than splitting it across multiple pages.

Create Cross Referenced Navigational Structures

Aaron has a good tip regarding cross-referencing within the secondary page body text. I'll repeat it here for good measure:

This idea may sound a bit complex until you visualize it as a keyword chart with an x and y axis.

Imagine that a, b, c, ... z are all good keywords.
Imagine that 1, 2, 3, ... 10 are all good keywords.

If you have a page on each subject consider placing the navigation for a through z in the sidebar while using links and brief descriptions for 1 through 10 as the content of the page. If people search for d7, or b9, that cross referencing page will be relevant for it, and if it is done well it does not look too spammy. Since these types of pages can spread link equity across so many pages of different categories make sure they are linked to well high up in the site's structure. These pages works especially well for categorized content cross referenced by locations.

Related Reading:

Where Are You Placed On The Quality Curve?

Sep 28th
posted in

Techcrunch is publishing a rumour that Yahoo might be looking to sell off Yahoo Answers.

"Yahoo Answers, which was launched in late 2005, is a staggeringly huge site. Recent Comscore stats say the service attracts nearly 150 million monthly visitors worldwide and generates 1.3 billion monthly page views. That's 67% unique visitor growth in the last year. Yahoo as a whole, though, has nearly 100 billion monthly page views, so it isn't a material percentage of total Yahoo traffic"

Nice traffic, however Yahoo Answers is full of junk content. There are now numerous competitors in the Q&A space.

If you're first mover, as Yahoo was, you can get away with low quality content, but as competition increases, the quality must also increase in order to keep people hooked. Whilst hugely successful in terms of traffic numbers, Yahoo Answers now must to respond to increasing competition. With rumours of a sale, it looks like Yahoo may instead be refocusing their efforts on their core business.

This is an example of the "curve to quality" pattern. First movers can get away with junk content for a while, but eventually competitors will up the quality and gain audience share as a result. This reinforces the need to adapt business models in light of competition, and the need to avoid commodity status.

We can see the same curve to quality pattern in the blog world.

Jackob Neilsen was advising a world leader in his field on what to do about his website. The guy wanted to know if he should start a blog.

Neilsens answer was no, and here's why:

"Blog postings will always be commodity content: there's a limit to the value you can provide with a short comment on somebody else's work. Such postings are good for generating controversy and short-term traffic, and they're definitely easy to write. But they don't build sustainable value. Think of how disappointing it feels when you're searching for something and get directed to short postings in the middle of a debate that occurred years before, and is thus irrelevant."

Also check out the graph "variability of posting quality" in Nielsen's post.

I suspect Nielsen is on the right track. Blog traffic is reportedly at an all time high, but they still only accounts for 0.73% of US traffic. Perhaps as the quality of the average blog increases, so to will the audience share.

Due to the pressure of competition, low quality content eventually becomes commodity.

Do you read mee-too search blogs? Not many people do. Most people gravitate towards the blogs that offer the highest perceived level of quality, as opposed to those that repeat the same news found elsewhere. Mee-too content is no longer an effective strategy in the blog world, or the newspaper world, as syndicated news services are finding out. There is simply too much competition.

There are other reasons why you might want to focus on quality as a strategy.

Google will always try to filter out low quality, commodity content in order to heighten user experience. Google approaches this problem in a number of ways.

In the remote quality rater document, Google lists a range of categories raters can attribute to web content. One category is "Not Relevant". This category applies to "news items that appear outdated" and "lower quality pages about the topic". Obviously, "lower quality" is a relative term and the comparison would be made between competing SERP results. Pages categorised as "Not Relevant" will receive lower SERP placement.

Also consider the notion of poison words. Posion words are words the search engines equate with content of low quality. If, just for example, forum content is found to frequently be of low quality, then it is reasonable to assume Google will look for markers that the site is a forum and mark this content down as a result. Markers might include a link back to a popular forum software script, for example.

This metric would not be taken in isolation as there are various other quality markers Google use. However, if the content is low quality and appears in a low quality format, you stand less chance of ranking for competitive queries.

The same might apply to commercial content, especially such content that appears in non-commercial query results.

Google's business model involves advertisers paying for clicks in the form of Adwords. The main SERPs are essentially a loss leader that facilitate people clicking on text advertisements. The main SERPs are the reason people use Google.

Such a business model would be supported by an algorithm that rewarded quality, informative content in the main SERPs. It could operate by downgrading any content deemed as purely commercial, and this would involve looking for commercially-oriented poison words. Posion words in this context might include "Buy Now", "Business Address", and other variants unique to commercial content. This would "encourage" those with commercial messages to list with Adwords because they would have trouble appearing in the main SERPs. It is unlikely such an algorithmn would apply to commercial queries, however.

Google filters in this way because there is much competition for keyword queries. Google looks to find the best answer. The answer of highest quality, both in terms of relevance and searcher satisfaction. As competition increases, the answers will get better, which is why you must aim to stay high on the quality curve.

The Art Of The Start - Stay On Message

Sep 26th
posted in

So, you've decided on a new project. What next?

This post follows on from my posts Are You An Innovator, Immitator, or Idiot?, and Market Research Using Google Adwords. If you're starting out on a new project, have a read of those posts before we move on.

Planning

"He who fails to plan, plans to fail" - Proverb

"A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow" - Proverb

Contrary to what many business books will tell you, unless you're looking to raise capital, you don't need an extensive business plan before you start. However, having no plan at all is often a recipe for disaster. When writing your plan, aim for a concise, one page explanation that clearly states where you're going and how you'll get there.

When I write my plans, the plan also includes the message - more on the message soon - and then, at the very bottom of the page, I leave myself a reminder: "Change Everything!". I write "Change Everything" because I know my plan will change and adapt as I go along. The best business plans are fluid, because the tides of the market will forever change beneath you. Rigid planning can easily put you off-course when the winds inevitably change.

Developing The Message

The message is a simple outline of who you are and what you do. It is also referred to as the elevator pitch. It is used to communicate, quickly and concisely, what you're about, and to help you make a myriad of decisions on design, to SEO, to marketing.

It can be difficult to reduce your message to a clear simple paragraph, so here are a few tips on how to do it. One useful technique is to think of it in terms of questions and answers.

Ask, and answer, the following questions:

  • What value do you add for your customers?
  • What problem do I solve?
  • What outcome will resolves this problem?
  • What do I do differently from my competitors?
  • What adjectives and nouns best illustrate the above points?

Then blend the answers into a tight, focused two paragraph explanation of what you do and the benefit your product or service provides someone else.

For example:

"We are Acme.com. We provide online human resources programs for small companies that lack a dedicated human resources division . Our products and services help companies meet their human resources objectives at low cost, and the service is available to our customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week via our easy-to-use web site. Some of our clients have reduced staff-turnover by up to 50% after using our services".

Needs, work, but that's a start.

Next, test your message out on friends and colleagues. Are they crystal clear about what you do and benefits your provide? Your message flows through everything you do, from domain name selection, to site design, to marketing.

Domain Name

Domain names are easy to register. The hard part is finding the right name.

As I'm sure you're aware, the domain name market is fiercely competitive, so finding the ideal name can be difficult, not to mention expensive if you need to go to the resale market.

When selecting a name, which will likely also be the name of your product or service, consider the search value of names. Google places a lot of emphasis on keywords within the domain name, and the link text pointing to a site. This may change in the future, but it has held true for the past few years.

Try combining your main search keyword term bolted to another descriptive term. "SeoBook", "CarWarehouse, "RealEstateGold" etc. The plus side is that you'll get keywords in the links pointing to your site. Directories, link partners, and most forms of text advertising, tend to place your domain/company name in the link text by default. If your domain/company name doesn't include keyword, you may find it more difficult to get keyword terms in the links.

The downside of this approach is that the brand tends towards the generic, and can therefore be less memorable. Another approach is to ignore the search aspect, and make up a completely unique name. This is the traditional approach to branding. One advantage of such an approach is that you'll "own" any keyword searches for this term.

Web Design

Your web design needs to be consistent with your message.

While anyone can knock up a web design, I'd advise you not to take this approach unless you're an accomplished designer. Hire a professional instead. First impressions count, and when an exit is only a click away, you must make a good one, else all your other marketing efforts could be wasted.

I use the message as a key part of the the design brief. Web designers appreciate this detail, and will be able to design a look and feel that incorporates your message into the design. For example, if your brand is a luxury brand, then the website should look glossy in order to stay consistent with your message. The same glossy design will not work for a more accessible, utilitarian brand like, say, Google. The message would be mixed, which could lead to visitor confusion. The story you're telling wouldn't ring true.

Your message helps govern design questions.

I'll post more indepth about site construction and architecture, but for the meantime, keep it simple, functional, fast-loading, and ensure your design supports and reinforces your message. As I mentioned in my post on Brand Building Tips On A Budget, everything you do on your site must tell a consistent story. Everything you do is your brand - your message. Great design is of little use if the copy writing is sub-standard, and vice-versa. Get all those little, but important, details right. Broken links, 404s, slow load times, confusing navigation, unexpected surprises - they all part of your brand experience.

Promotion Ideas

As you're reading this site, you already know the value of internet marketing, specifically search marketing. So, I won't go over that aspect. I'm sure you've read the book ;)

But what other cheap promotional options are open to you?

Here are a few ideas that work well, and corresponding links telling you the hows and the whys:

Iteration

The most important aspect of site marketing is to measure performance. You want to run with the winners and cut the losers.

Repeat.

Are you getting sales from the search terms you rank for? If not, why not? Is your message inconsistent with the search terms you are targeting? Refine your message, or target different keyword terms. This is why it is important to test drive your SEO keyword terms using Adwords before you engage in SEO. You can test to see if your keyword terms and your message sync-up to create the desired result.

You need good analytics to track the value of each channel you use. The important point is to be able to identify where the traffic is coming from and, most importantly, what this traffic does when it gets to your site. There is no point ranking for the high traffic terms if none of that traffic converts to desired action.

You've probably heard the term content is king?

It isn't.

Conversion is king.

Content might help you get a visitor to convert to desired action, or it might lead them astray. Once again, ask yourself if your content is on-message. Is your content consistent with your business goals? Is your content helping you achieve your business goals?

Are You An Innovator, Immitator, or Idiot?

Sep 25th
posted in

"Buffett once told me there are three 'I's in every cycle. The 'innovator,' that's the first 'I.' After the innovator comes the 'imitator.' And after the imitator in the cycle comes the idiot."

-Theodore Forstmann, quoting Warren Buffett

Great quote, huh.

It applies everywhere, including online. Who wants to start a blog network in 2008? How about becoming a ring- tone affiliate? Or start a web 2.0 news blog?

The problem with those ideas is that they are well past the first and second "I" stage, and probably sit deep in the "idiot" zone. These markets are heavily saturated, so it would take serious investment of time and resources in order for a newcomer to compete with the established operators. It is questionable whether such an investment would be worthwhile, unless someone can put a new spin on the existing model in order to put it back in the innovator zone.

In my working life, I've spent plenty of time in all three zones.

Real World Examples

When SEOBook.com started, it was a little late to the table.

The "Book-On-SEO" market was not new. Not innovative. However, the market wasn't heavily saturated, as books on SEO were beginning to fall out of favor, mainly because by the time they were published, they were already out of date. This probably placed "books on seo" in the imitator zone. However, SEOBook was combined with a blog and regular updates - a new page a day -which was Aaron's way of re-spinning the idea back into the innovator zone.

Could someone release an SEO book today? Sure they could, but without a new angle, they're facing a lot of entrenched competition. A me-too product at this point won't get much traction, because it isn't remarkable, and the market is mature. In any case, training on SEO has morphed into a service.

The often-copied Weblogs Inc, which was one of the first blog networks, sold to AOL for $25M.

It came out at a time when only uber-geeks knew about blogs. There was no money in it. There were no directly-applicable proven revenue models. But this is exactly what new emerging markets look like. It is only easy to see them in hindsight. Fast forward to 2008, and the dead pool features numerous well-funded blog networks that simply arrived too late. The ship had sailed. In 2008, the blog network is in the idiot zone.

An example of a fast rising market is the environmental market.

In August 2007, TreeHugger, which was a blog about environmental news, sold to Discovery for $10 million. There are now a raft of imitators, but it is questionable if many will make any real money. The real money in the environmental space will likely come through innovation and change. Got any innovative ideas for that space?

There is a ton of - excuse the pun - blue sky in that market.

How To Stay Out Of The Idiot Zone

I'm going to start by qualifying this notion a little.

People can, and do, make money in the idiot zone. They come late to the table, yet still manage to prosper. But anyone who has done this will tell you that the work level, time and money investment, and smarts required are significant.

Contrast this with getting in at the innovator level or imitator level in new, rising markets. It is relatively easy, and cheap, to make a big spash in new markets due to lack of entrenched competition.

Is It Better To Be An Innovator Or Imitator?

Microsoft was a fast-follower. As was Google.

Whilst the innovator gets the fame, they can often fail to sustain the pace. The fast-follower is often the guy that makes the most money. It can be a bit simplistic to frame success in this way, but this frame of reference can help to clarify potentially confusing business problems. I think we all agree that being in the idiot zone is a problem, and best avoided.

If you suspect your business might be in this zone, think about how you can re-spin it to put it back in the innovator or imitator zone. Can you get a better business model? Google built a better business model by extending and refining the auction advertising model. Is there a way to out-manage your competitors? Are they heading off in the wrong direction? Are they neglecting the very audience that made them successful?

So How Do You Identify Rising Markets?

If you're starting out, how do you ensure you don't dive straight into the idiot zone?

You need to try and establish at which point that market is at: innovator, imitator or idiot. Measurement is more an art than science, but with some market research you should be able to get a good feel for it.

1. Trend Tools

Check out my post "Market Research Using Google Adwords". You'll need to focus mostly on identifying rising trends. If you find a graph shaped like this, chances are you've found one.

2. Learn To Recognize A Consolidated Market - And Avoid It

A consolidated market occurs when the business cycle peaks in a crowded field. A few mega players swallow up the minions.

An example of this is the PC market, which started off with a huge number of brands, and has now been largely consolidated by Dell & Gateway. The rest of the market is commodity no-name brands. Would you try and launch a PC brand in this market? You'd need to have something truly remarkable, and it would take a lot of effort.

3. Don't Listen To Bloggers

Ever heard popular bloggers sharing a little "secret" with tens of thousands of anonymous readers? "I made my money easily - just get into X".

By the time anyone is sharing that sort of information, the market has peaked. The horse has bolted, run across the field, got on a plane, and sent back the picture postcard.

Why would someone create more competition for themselves? They wouldn't.

In most cases, they recognize there is a lot of competition in their market niche, and the only way to maintain their revenue it is to get scale - you guessed it - by signing up an army of sub-affiliates.

The same goes for the "make money quick" brigade.

4. Market Research

Entire books have been devoted to market research, but one cheap and cheerful method is outlined in my post "Market Research Using Google Adwords".

SEOs have an advantage. They understand the importance of monitoring keywords. Watch for emerging popular keyword terms that don't yet have a lot of Adwords competition.

Part Two: "How To Start On A Budget" coming up soon....

Related Reading:

The Future Of Search

Sep 25th

Interesting news item about the future of search.

Analyst Sue Feldman presented her views to the Enterprise Search Summit West.

Key points:

  • A convergence of tools in search.
  • Move away from today's transaction based platform towards a knowledge platform.
  • Improved capibilities in terms of concepts, relationships, and modes of communication, including speech
  • One problem that needs solving is selection: which information do you trust?
  • Getting the right information to the right people at the right time.
  • Move from transactional computing to user-centric interaction models. See my early post about relationships.
  • More automation of knowledge work across multiple devices.
  • Search will eventually be embedded in the platforms and applications, as opposed to a separate function.
  • Search will be at the center of interactive computing as search is language based - the human mode of communication.
  • Full post here.

Market Research Using Google Adwords

Sep 23rd
posted in

Earn $100,000 per day!

Only two minutes work a year!

I'm a complete idiot, and if I can do it, anyone can!

If you've ever researched making money online, no doubt you've heard the above pitch. We all know the pitch is nonsense, of course. If these guys really were hitting the numbers they claim, then you've got to wonder why they are selling their "secrets" for $97?

Perhaps it is true.

Perhaps they really are idiots :)

However, the reality is that making money online is the same as making money offline. You need to find a market opportunity and fill it.

And that takes work.

I'd like to share a few ideas on research potential markets, and how you can use search engines to help you.

Definition Of Market Research

Market research is the study of groups of people in order to determine if there is a market for your product or service.

One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs often make is to attempt to solve a non-problem. The TechCrunch dead-pool is littered with examples of solutions to non-problems. An idea might sound good. Your family and friends might agree it is good. But is it really? How can you really know?

By spending a little time finding out if your idea solves a real problem, as opposed to an imaginary one, you can save yourself a lot of time, effort, pain and money later on.

But how do you undertake market research on a limted budget?

Use Search As A Market Research Tool

Search marketers have an ace up their sleeves that most people just don't see. One of the valuable most valuable market research tools available costs very little: Google Adwords.

Google Adwords provides you with a wealth of data. You can measure actual visitor interest - real search numbers, not just estimates - and you can quickly and easily test your ideas in the live marketplace. You can test your product or service offer, even before you're ready to provide it!.

Once you've gathered this valuable data, and found that your idea works, you can then design your time-consuming SEO strategy.

Sounds easy, right?

Well, it is. But there is a little work involved.

What we need to do is take a few important measurements.

1. Keyword Research

You can use the Adwords KeyWord Tool, or other keyword research tools. Here's a free keyword research tool from SEOBook. Include every keyword term in your Adwords campaign that you expect to rank for in your organic campaign.

2. Construct a small site consisting of landing pages.

You can test the effectiveness of each landing page using a/b testing, but this would probably over-complicate matters at this stage. What you want to know are three key pieces of information: actual search volume, response to offer, and competition levels.

  • Search volume is the number of people who search on a certain term. The actual search volume, as opposed to estimates.
  • Response to offer is the number of people who take a desired action, not those who click back.
  • Competition level is the level of advertisers competition.

If the search volume is sufficient to achieve your goals, then you're part way there. If not, you might to to rework your idea, but at least you haven't undertaken a time consuming SEO campaign only to find this out there is no real traffic.

Once a visitor lands on your page, you want to measure their level of interest in your offer. How many buyers are you likely to get vs tire kickers? Prompt the visitor to take an action that would indicate that they would buy your service or product. For example, you could send them to an affiliate program offering a similar service or product, and measure your success rates, or collect the visitors email address as an expression of interest. Those who click back are telling you your offer is quite right.

3. Evaluate Competition Levels

You can gain an understanding of the competition levels by looking at the bid price. Obviously, the higher the bid prices, the higher the level of competition. If you're failing to get on the front page with reasonable relevancy and bids, you're in a fairly competitive area, and the SERPs will be likewise.

Let's say you've got all three ducks lined up. Great. You now have some fantastic market research data that you can build into your site and into your SEO campaign. Most offline market researchers would kill to be able to get this lucrative data so easily and cheaply.

Other Useful Market Research Tools

Google Trends

Google Trends shows trends in searches over time. You want to find terms that are becoming increasingly popular. You can then optimize for these terms, and enjoy the rising traffic levels.

Google Traffic Estimator

Google Traffic Estimator helps you see how often your ads would appear for keywords, and gives you approximate prices. It works for various match types, including broad match, phrase match and exact match. Here's some information on why understanding match types is important.

Microsoft Ad Intelligence

Various metrics tools, including a cool Excel Plug in. To see a demonstration of how to use this, check out Aaron's video: Top Paying AdSense Keyword Lists Video. Ad Intelligence gives you actual search data, not rough estimates.

Google Insights For Search

Google Insights will show you where search activity is taking place at different periods of time. This is especially useful for honing local and regional offers. It is also useful for time-based research, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving and other vacation periods.

TwitScoop

Twitscoop monitors the hottest topics on Twitter. It also monitors hot trends across the network. Try contrasting this information with Digg.

DiggLabs DigSpy

I use Digg BigSpy as my screensaver. It's mesmerising to watch the river of news drift past, and helps keep you current on trends and news.

Compete

Compete helps you estimate the traffic of your competition. You can compare your competition against each other to see who is getting the real traffic.

Further Reading:

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