Are You An Innovator, Immitator, or Idiot?

"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 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as books on SEO were beginning to fall out of favor, mainly because by the time they were published, they were already out of date.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

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

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 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 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:

Gain a Competitive Advantage Today

Your top competitors have been investing into their marketing strategy for years.

Now you can know exactly where they rank, pick off their best keywords, and track new opportunities as they emerge.

Explore the ranking profile of your competitors in Google and Bing today using SEMrush.

Enter a competing URL below to quickly gain access to their organic & paid search performance history - for free.

See where they rank & beat them!

  • Comprehensive competitive data: research performance across organic search, AdWords, Bing ads, video, display ads, and more.
  • Compare Across Channels: use someone's AdWords strategy to drive your SEO growth, or use their SEO strategy to invest in paid search.
  • Global footprint: Tracks Google results for 120+ million keywords in many languages across 28 markets
  • Historical data: since 2009, before Panda and Penguin existed, so you can look for historical penalties and other potential ranking issues.
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Your competitors, are researching your site

Find New Opportunities Today

Do You Need To Use URL Rewriting?

Google have just updated their guidelines in regards to rewriting URLs.

Previously, the guideline stated:

"Don't use "&id=" as a parameter in your URLs, as we don't include these pages in our index"

Google have now removed this guideline, saying they can now index URLs that contain that parameter. Google have also posted a blog entry explaining the difference between dynamic URL's and static URL's, and encourage you to let Google handle the problem.

Should You Avoid Rewriting Dynamic URLs?

In most cases, yes. The translation can be messy, and if not handled correctly can lead to indexing problems.

However, for SEO purposes you might want to consider the following points.

Sometimes Static URLs Do Make For Better SEO

  • The URLs look nicer and will likely get clicked on more often
  • The URLs will provide better anchor text if people use the URLs as the link anchor text
  • If you later change CMS programs having core clean URLs associated with content make it easier to mesh that content with the new CMS
    the benefit Google espouses for dynamic URLs (Googlebot being able to stab more random search attempts into a search box) is only beneficial if your site structure is poor and/or you have way more pagerank than content (like a wikipedia or techcrunch)

Link Building: The Future Of Relationships

The Future Of Linking

Link building is hard work.

Have you ever tried to get people to link to your pure commerce/commercial brochure-web site? You know how tough it is out there. The link economy has become so established, we've even got strategies built around the idea of never linking out. Once people perceive something to be valuable, they'll think twice about just handing it over for nothing.

So what is an SEO supposed to do?

The key to linking in an environment where there is high value placed on links is to think of linking less as a process, and more in terms of building relationships.

Here are a few linking ideas designed to reduce the pain and increase the effectiveness of your link building campaign.

Relationship Link Building 101

The first step in your link building strategy occurs before your site hits the web.

If you're thinking of launching a static brochure-ware site, and link building is part of your marketing strategy, think again.


There is less chance for relationship building.

Preferably, you want a site with plenty of potential for on-going community involvement and interaction.


News Sites. Social sites. Blogs. Frequently-updated information sites. Teaching sites. Advice sites. Q&A. Wikipedia-style sites. The static brochure website will still have a place, but those sites with higher levels of user engagement will trump it.

Produce Really, Really Interesting Content

Posting what everyone else is posting is not interesting.

Look at what everyone else is posting and take a new angle on the the topic. Don't just go one better, go ten better. Learn the lessons of The Purple Cow. Be worth remarking upon. People are hungry for unique, quality content.

They'll link to you if you have it.

If your competitors are spending ten minutes on their posts, you spend a day. Spend a whole week. Cover areas no one else is covering. Make your posts game-changing posts. You're going to need not one, but a consistent body of such posts. Think about the sites you link to. You need to aim to be better than those sites.

At very least, you need to offer a point of difference in order to be linkworthy.

Link Out

If you're new, you're going to need friends. You're going to need influential friends.

A link out to sites run by influential people becomes an advertisement for your site in their referral logs. People will follow the links back to see who is talking about them, and if you're got an impressive set of articles/posts, you'll be on their radar in no time.

Give Forward

Most modern marketing is based on the idea of reciprocation. If you do something for others, without requesting something in return, most people feel they should reciprocate.

Give something valuable. Give wide. Give freely. Some of it will eventually come back.

Give nothing, and you're guaranteed that nothing will come back.

Lose The Ads

The less commercial you appear, the more likely you'll get linked to, especially from .edu and other authority information hubs. Few people want to link to sites plastered with advertising unless that site already has established authority.

You can introduce advertising once you've built up link authority.

Flattery Gets You Everywhere

Make people feel important. Make them look good. If you make them look good, they'll want to point that fact out to others. They'll do your marketing for you.

Look For Companies With "In The News" Pages

This tip flows on from flattery. Write about companies in a good light. To find companies that have "in the news" style pages, do a Google search for [your industry + "in the news"].

Use Meme Trackers

Monitor upcoming news stories. Use Google Hot Trends, subscribe to Google Alerts, and check out Twitter stuff like Twitter Search and Twitscoop.

Write stories about fast-breaking events that have little competition but high interest levels. If the meme gets big enough, news sites will look around for content to quote, and, given a lack of competition, hopefully they'll quote yours.

Get Seen In The Community

Participate in answer sites, forums, article sites, Wikipedia, Squidoo, Amazon et al. Contribute something of real value. You'll get direct links in some cases, but at very least you'll raise awareness, which can translate into links down the line.

The Designer Angle

Get your site re-designed by a high profile designer who has a history of showcasing his/her work.

The cost of the design might be more than covered by the value of the inbound links and attention you receive, especially if the design is mentioned in trade bibles, like Smashing Magazine.


Less about relationships, but good tools to have in the box.

Trade Links

Trade links, ask for links, beg for links. Hey, it still works, although it's probably the least effective method, and most time consuming. Outsource this task, if you can.

List With Local Business Services

List with your Chamber of Commerce, Business Bureau's, Government Advisories, libraries, and other appropriate institutions.


Link baiting is when you write content with the specific aim of attracting links. It works, but you've got to be careful with your pitch. Get the tone wrong for your audience, and you'll put people off.


  • Top Ten Lists
  • Top Myths
  • Top 100
  • How To Do Something Exceptional With (Seemingly) No Effort
  • Courting Controversy
  • Be The First To Do Something
  • Being Outrageous

Press Releases

Almost all press releases end up in the web equivalent of the wastepaper bin, but if you can provide a fresh, newsy angle, there is significant potential for links.

Try combining link bait strategies with press release strategies. A local angle works well for local news services, who are often starved of local news.

Directory Listings

Keep the following criteria in mind when evaluating which web directories are worth your time.

  • They appear in the SERPs
  • Offer direct links - i.e they aren't routed through a script, or no-followed.
  • High crawl frequency - check out the latest crawl date in Google cache. If the directory pages haven't been cached in months, chances are Google may regard them as low quality.
  • Look for quality standards - Matt Cutts outlined Google's view of a good directory. Directories that stay closest to these guidelines are more likely to be around for the long haul.
  • Beware of sitewide linking

For more detail, check out Web Directories...are They Relevant to SEO?

Share One Strategy

If you've reached this far, and thought "I know this stuff!" - great :)

How about sharing your single best link acquisition strategy with the community :)

The Future Of Linking

Links have been so important for so long now, but are things about to change?

In the dark, distant past - 1997 - the web was about publishing.

However, the web ecosystem is evolving into more of an interactive space, based on platforms.

As a result, we're seeing a different kind of website emerge - it is more "place" than "brochure". Think Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogs, et al. We're seeing more applications. We're seeing more cloud computing. The web is becoming a place where we truly interact, as opposed to simply publish.

Google's ranking models have, in the past, been based on publishing models - specifically, an academic citation model in the form of PageRank. This approach will become less effective at determining relevance as people move away from the publishing model and towards interaction and engagement.

Google realize this, of course. This is why I think Google will be adapting their model to monitor and gauge interaction. Interaction will become a new valuable metric as to a sites worth, which will flow into ranking.

In a recent post on The Official Googleblog, Google talked of how interaction will change how systems "think and react":

"As we're already seeing, people will interact with the cloud using a plethora of devices: PCs, mobile phones and PDAs, and games. But we'll also see a rush of new devices customized to particular applications, and more environmental sensors and actuators, all sending and receiving data via the cloud. The increasing number and diversity of interactions will not only direct more information to the cloud, they will also provide valuable information on how people and systems think and react..... As systems are allowed to learn from interactions at an individual level, they can provide results customized to an individuals situational needs: where they are located, what time of day it is, what they are doing. And translation and multi-modal systems will also be feasible, so people speaking one language can seamlessly interact with people and information in other languages."

Notice the frequency with which Google use the terms "interact".

I think this hints at the future direction of search and ranking. Google will increasingly shift from measuring external popularity metrics, such as linking, to measuring the level of interaction, if they are not already doing so.

There have been three recent developments that search marketers should be aware of:

This all points to the increasing role of engagement metrics.

In order to positioned well in the future, you'll need to think as much about the level and type of interaction on your site as you will as you will about link authority. This comes all the way back to my first point above - build a site with plenty of potential for relationship building.

Something to ponder :)

Further Reading:

Is Your Search Result Sexy?

Title Tags As Ads

Do your tags scream "Click Me"?

Following on from my post yesterday, How To Craft Kick-Ass Title Tags & Headlines, lets look at meta tags as an advertisement, and why you need to think carefully about your offer, and the offers of your competition, when you craft your tags.

Why Are Title Tags Important?

Ranking debates aside, the main reason Title tags are important is because they are displayed, in bold, in the SERPs.

A SERP is a list of 20+ links, all clamoring for the visitors click. It is therefore important to entice visitors to click on your listing, rather than everyone else's. Sometimes you achieve this by rank placement alone, but with well-crafted tags, you stand a better chance of receiving that click.

What Is The Optimal Length For A Title Tag?

The W3C recommends the title tag should be less than 64 characters long.

Some SEOs think that long, keyword-loaded tags are the best approach. Some SEOs think short punchy tags are best, as long tags may dilute the weight of the keyword phrase, and there is less risk of Google cutting off you message midstream.

Because other factors play a more significant role in terms of rank, I ignore prescriptive tag lengths. Instead, I look to optimize the message in line with the business goals of a site.

Know Your Enemy

This is a proven Adwords strategy which also dovetails nicely into SEO.

The first step is to evaluate your surrounding competition.

Look at the wording of the most successful adwords ad for your chosen keyword term. Your aim is replicate success. Run an adwords campaign and experiment with the wording to find out the wording combination that receives the most clicks and subsequent desired action. You then craft your title tags and description tags to match. What works for Adwords works in the main SERPs, too.

Another way to approach title tags is to constantly rotate the tags using a script, and monitor the results. The is a split-run approach known as Keyword Spinning. You keep with the winners and cut the losers. This approach is describe in my post "Tested Advertising Strategies Respun For SEO"

What Are The Ideal Lengths For Meta Description Tags?

Common SEO wisdom dictates the description tag should be around 160 characters long.

Again, my approach is take prescriptive lengths with a grain of salt. Instead, focus on marketing and business goals.

The description tag doesn't have any ranking benefit, but it can be used to encourage people to click on your listing. Evaluate the surrounding competition, run tests using phrase variations, and make your description tag enticing. Also keep in mind that Google may match up a page description if the exact search query exists in the description tag.

Examples Of Title And Description Tags

This is how it should be done:

The title and description are clear and descriptive. There is a call to action and an appeal to self-interest.

This is a jumble:

The title and descriptions are confused. It is not clear what the benefit is to the visitor.

Google's Quirks

One problem is that Google sometimes uses a snippet Google may also use a DMOZ description.

Google will use the snippet when it finds no description tag, or determines the description tag that your provided is inappropriate. To improve the chances your meta description tag will be used, see Google's guide: "Improve Snippets With A Meta Description Make Over". Essentially, you need to make you meta description tag descriptive, as opposed to a series of keywords.

You can prevent search engines from using the DMOZ description using the following meta tag:


See Googles Webmaster Guideline: "Changing your site's title and description in search results".

Get Into The Mind Of The Searcher

An important part of positioning an offer is to know what's on the searchers mind.

In some cases, the keyword query will contain this information. For example "Buy X Online Overnight Delivery" is self-evident, however the majority of searches are not transactional.

According to a Penn State research study, the breakdown of searches is as follows:

  • 80% Of Searches Are Informational
  • 10% Of Searches Are Navigational
  • 10% Of Searches Are Transactional


  • Informational queries are meant to obtain data or information in order to address an informational need, desire, or curiosity.
  • Navigational queries are looking for a specific URL.
  • Transactional queries are looking for resources that require another step to be useful.

Query classifications can be broken down further into the following sub-categories:

  • Directed: Specific question. i.e "Registering a domain name".
  • Undirected: Tell me everything about a topic. i.e. "Singers in the 80s".
  • List Of Candidates: List Of Candidates i.e. "Things to do in Hollywood".
  • Find: Locate where some real world service or productcan be obtained i.e."PVC suit"
  • Advice: Advice, ideas, suggestions, instructions. i.e. "What to serve with roast pork tenderloin".
  • Navigation to transactional: The URL the user wants is a transactional site i.e ""
  • Navigation to informational: The URL the user wants is information i.e. ""
  • Obtain: Obtain a specific resource or object i.e. "Music lyrics"
  • Download: Find a file to download ie. "mp3 downloads"
  • Results page: Obtain a resource that one can printed,save, or read from the search engine results page i.e. (The user enters a query with the expectation that 'answer' willbe on the search engine results page and not require browsing toanother Website)
  • Interact: Interact with program/resource on another Website. i.e "buy table clock"

And further by sub-category type:

  • Closed: Deals with one topic; question with one, unam-biguous answer. i.e "Nine supreme court justices ".
  • Open: Deals with two or more topics . i.e. "excretory system of arachnids".
  • Online: The resource will be obtained online i.e. "Things to do in Hollywood".
  • Off-line: The resource will be obtained off-line and may require additional actions by the user i.e."Airline seat map"
  • Free: The downloadable file is free i.e. "Full metal alchemist wallpapers Free".
  • Not free: The downloadable file is not necessarily free i.e. "family guy episode"
  • Links: The resources appears in the title, summary, or URL of one or more of the results on the search engine results pages
  • Other: The resources does not appear one of theresults but somewhere else on the search engine results page

Source: "Determining the informational, navigational,and transactional intent of Web queries" Bernard J. Jansen, Danielle L. Booth, Amanda Spink; Pennsylvania State University

Google have teams devoted to this very function, and this type of classification will feed through into their algorithms.

When crafting your tags, think about what classification of query the searcher is undertaking. How would they structure it? What terms would they use? Would they phrase their query as a question? What words would they include? What words would they omit? Dig deep into your keyword research tools and web logs to find this data.

Think about their mindset. Using words like research and compare help you tap into people in the research mode, whereas words like buy, save, coupons, and free shipping attract people ready to buy.

A Call To Action

The title tag and description provides opportunities to include calls to action. A call to action is a phrase that provides the opportunity for a visitor to take a step along the sales process.

The keyword term you've selected might give you a clue as to what point of the sales process the visitor is at. Obviously, "Buy X Online Overnight Delivery" tends to indicate a visitor is about to hand over the cash, so you draft your title tag and description accordingly in order to help close the deal.

However, most keyword terms aren't this overt. This is where you need to think about the type of offer you present.

How To Decide Between A Hard Offer And A Soft Offer

Some of the most effective offers are seldom "reasons to buy", but rather "reasons to respond." This is the difference between a hard and soft offer.

The vast majority of searchers are not ready to buy, so by using a soft offer, you stand to capture a greater number of leads than you would if you just made a hard "buy right now!" offer. If all you've got is a hard offer, then visitors who aren't ready to buy will click back, or won't select your SERP result at all.

Opportunity lost.

Instead, encourage the visitor to take a relatively painless action, such as joining a mailing list, or downloading a free case study.

You can take this a step further my using the case study title to find out more about your visitors. For example, a case study entitled "Real Estate" won't tell you much about the problem your visitor is trying to solve, but a descriptive title, such as "Seven Ways To Sell Your Own Home" will. If they download the latter, and your service solves this problem for people, you're one step closer to making the sale.

Benefits Of The Soft Offer

  • You'll generate more leads
  • You have the opportunity to enter a dialogue with the visitor, thus moving them through the process

Only you'll know if a hard offer or a soft offer is most appropriate. But think carefully about the nature of your offer when crafting your titles and descriptions. Is your offer exactly the same as every other offer in the SERP? Or could you tweak you offer to make it stand out from the rest? Your offer should be more enticing than every other offer on the page. Try to get this across in your title and description.

Related Reading & Tools

How To Craft Kick-Ass Title Tags & Headlines


One old-skool marketing technique that will always hold true is the value of the catchy headline.

The headline, given its power to convey meaning quickly, is more important than ever. Attention spans are limited. Media messages flood the channels. We're busy. The function of the headline is to grab our attention and pull us deeper into the message.

Many books have been written on how to craft great headlines. I'm going to quote from the advertisers bible on the topic, Tested Adverting Methods by John Caples. Caples identifies three main classes of successful headlines.

The Three Main Classes Of Successful Headlines

  • Self-Interest: The best headlines are those that appeal to self interest. They offer the reader benefits that they want, and they can get from you. For example, RETIRE AT 30
  • News - Humans are pre-disposed to seek out what is new and different in their environment. For example, NEW, CHEAPER IPHONE CALL PLANS RELEASED
  • Curiosity Appeal to our curious nature. LOST: $1 BILLION DOLLARS

Of the three, by far the most effective headline in advertising is the self interest headline. Our self interest usually trumps our curiosity, and news, especially when time is short.

Compare these two headlines:



The first says nothing that appeals to our self interest. We don't even know what it is about. But you'd be hard pressed not to click on the second headline. The self-interest is just too strong. This is why the second form is used so often in link-baiting and social media. It screams for attention, and then makes a strong appeal to self-interest.

There is a downside to such headlines, however. Modern audiences have become jaded and cynical, especially where marketing messages are concerned. Overplay the benefit, and you'll come off as a shark. Link-baiting, a useful SEO tactic, has developed a bad reputation through overuse of this approach.

Eventually, people tune out.

Get Your Tone Right

We can twist the overused appeal-to-self interest headline strategy slightly to make it work for us. The key to getting the appeal to self-interest right is to get the tone right. Understand both the audiences' desires and the tone of "voice" they respond to.

For example, look at Digg. A cynic might argue that a surefire way to get top page on Digg is to write a headline that includes the following subject matter, and do so using an irreverent tone:

  • Criticism of Bush
  • Anything about Digg itself
  • Pumping Linux
  • Dumping DRM
  • Some crazy-weird activity from a country no-one has ever heard of :)

By the way, if anyone can come up with a headline that includes one of those elements, feel free to add it to the comments :)

The headline needs to be crafted in such a way as to appeal to Diggs demographic, which is mostly young, tech-savvy males. This demographic tends to respond to a tone that is cynical, flippant and irreverent. Get that tone wrong - i.e. play it too straight, or too advertorial - and it doesn't matter how strong the self-interest angle, it's unlikely to work.

How To Use Headline Strategy In SEO.

SEO has an additional challenge.

For SEO to work well, the headline, which is often also used as the title tag, should include a keyword term. Many studies have shown that a SERP or Adword that includes the keyword term results in more clicks. In order to get the headline strategy to work for SEO, try amalgamating the keyword term with one of the three formats.

For example, where the keyword term is "high speed routers", try:

  • High Speed Routers- How To Get Routers At Half Price (appeal to self interest)
  • High Speed Routers- Latest Features To Insist On (news, with a hint of self interest)
  • High Speed Routers- How We Blew Our Budget (Curiosity)

Even if you're not #1 in the serps for that term, you're more likely to attract a click than the guy who simply uses "High Speed Routers", by itself.

Your headline (i.e. the title tag) competes with at least ten other SERPs on the page, along with a various Adwords listings along the top and down the side. The top three SERP poitions are gold, but if you can add a touch of appeal-to-self-interest, or news, or curiosity, you'll up your chances of getting the click.

If you want to go one step further with this tactic, use it as a way to segment visitors. The first example I gave is likely to attract those people who are ready to buy, and who are buying on price.

You then need to include your title as a heading on the page, which confirms to they visitor their click has got them where they wanted to be. They're now far more likely to read beyond the headline.

Further Reading:

The Value Of Linking Out: $56m Per Year


Further to my post the other day about SEO Blackholes, here's an interesting study regarding the value of linking out.

The common wisdom is that linking out will result in the following:

  • People will not link back to your site
  • A page that sends people away has low engagement
  • It boosts the completion at your expense

However, it appears that top news site in terms of session use, two months running, is DrudgeReport, a site that does nothing but send people away. I believe Google got rather popular for doing much the same thing :)

And look at the numbers:

"Page view statistics
500 million page views monthly
1.95 billion ad impressions monthly
12 million unique visitors monthly
1.75 million daily unique visitors (weekday)
1 million daily unique visitors (weekend day)

Assuming 60% sell-through at $4 CPM… that’s $56 million annual revenue.

One guy. Linking."

If you provide something people really want, they'll keep coming back.

Can Google Be Trusted?


They are a world-leading enterprise, employing over 22,000 people. Fortune named them "America's Most Innovative Company". They also run various online marketplace services, through which a vast amount of money flows. They are a trusted name in households across the country. It is the year 2000, and that company is Enron.

Less than a year later, Enron would collapse under the weight of institutionalized fraud. And hubris.

The lessons learned from the Enron collapse were the dangers of monopolistic power and lack of transparency.

Google In 2008

Google is the darling of the tech world. In fact, they're pretty much the darling of every world, given their massive market reach and the usefulness of their services. Google occupy a position of enormous power. It is fair to say Google has nothing in common with Enron, other than the fact they are a big company, and for the most part, Google has done a good job in terms of gaining and maintaining trust with a wide range of stakeholders.

But for any company the size of Google, especially one that has grown in such a short period of time, questions of trust - and anti-trust - will eventually surface.

Should We Trust The Machine?

Take for example the recent case of United Airlines stock. An old story about the airline's bankruptcy was published online, resulting in $1B being wiped off the value off the value of the stocks within minutes. The finger pointing started soon after, with Google blaming the originator of the piece, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, whilst the Tribune Company, who publishes The Sun-Sentinel, pointed the finger right back.

To be fair, the mistake was largely due to a chain of human errors, and most of the mistakes made were outside of the control of Google. Questions of blame aside, this issue comes down to a matter of trust. Clearly, people trusted the information they saw on an automated news service, and acted accordingly. The lesson learned is that we should not be so quick to place trust in the machine.

From Trust To Anti-Trust

There is another trust - actually, anti-trust - issue of late, and this issue goes to the heart of Google's business model - online advertising.

Google's proposed Yahoo partnership is raising fresh antitrust woes. Regulators are starting to look more closely at Google's role in the world of online advertising. Will this deal give Google too much control of the online advertising space? Yahoo claims this partnership will create more market access, and provide better ROI, to advertisers. Advertisers fear that Google could use market dominance to set higher prices for search ads.

Forward-thinking SEOs may be licking their lips at that prospect, but I doubt many small website owners who rely on PPC will be too happy.

Smoke & Mirrors

In a related example, Aaron reported on a feature in The New York Times about how Google refused to tell the owner of a directory why his bid prices had skyrocketed.

"When I pressed Mr. Fox about Sourcetool, he refused to tell me why the algorithm had problems with the site. When I asked him why the site was in the algorithm’s good graces but Sourcetool’s wasn’t, he wouldn’t tell me that, either. All I got were platitudes about the user experience. It wasn’t long before I was almost as exasperated as Mr. Savage. How can you adapt your business model to Google’s specs if Google won’t tell you what the specs are?"

A similar dual-tier system appears in to be in operation in the organic search results. Greg Boser has a great post about this entitled "Why Big Brands Should Spam Search Engines".

"I wouldn’t hesitate because I understand that if a search engine happens to stumble upon what it considers improper SEO techniques all on their own, they will more than likely contact us directly to discuss the matter. Getting kicked out of the database won’t even be a consideration. If our improper SEO tactics happens to get outed publicly by some gung-ho blogger, or one of the many competitors competing for our terms, I know that all we’ll get is a tiny slap on the wrist to show the world that the particular search engine is serious about web spam. And once our public scolding is completed, we will instantly be allowed to cut to the front of the confessional line".

We all remember the BMW incident.

Google may well enjoy a significant trust level, but they couldn't exactly be described as transparent, or consistent. The Adwords and Adsense systems have become a hall of smoke and mirrors, where some players get a free ride, whilst others get hammered. There is often little or no explanation given as to why. With transparency comes trust, and the often secretive Google could do a lot more to provide clarity.

Cases of this nature are always complicated and it is unlikely much will change in the short term. Many of us simply wish that Google would be a lot more transparent about how webmasters can use, and build upon, their platform.

I suspect that, going forward, saying "Trust Us!" won't be good enough.

Tested Advertising Strategies Respun For SEO

Testing Strategies For SEO

"I have seen one advertisment sell 19-1/2 times as much goods as another" - John Caples

I've been browsing through a pile of my old marketing books looking for tried-n-true techniques that could be applied to SEO in 2008. Here are some examples of ads that worked last century:

"They laughed when I sat down at the piano - but when I started to play!". And "When thin film covers teeth, smiles lose fascination" . A personal favorite "How a strange accident saved me from baldness".

Trouble is, in 2008, these ads come across as hokey.

However, much of the underlying psychology of these time-tested techniques is pure gold, and can be directly applied to search marketing and social media. Over the next few days, I'll look at strategies that can help you grab and hold visitor attention. Some of this will be old-hat to SEO pros, but hopefully it will help those new to the game :)

First up - the value of testing.

The Key To Success Lies In Perpetual Testing Of All Variables

John Caples, author of "Tested Advertising Strategies", outlined two classes of advertising:

1. The Testers
2. The Non-Testers

The idea is simple: decide on a desired action you wish the user to take i.e. making a purchase; then link this action back to the advertising spend/keyword term. You also test the wording of one page against another. Run with the winners, and cut the losers. Repeat.

This is known as split-run testing. This process was developed by direct marketers, and has a natural fit with search marketing. An ocean of material has been written about how to do this, so I won't reinvent the wheel by repeating it.

Here are three great resources regarding split-run, and more accurate, but complex, multivariate testing:

There are problems with this type of testing, however. You've got to watch out for small sample sizes and statistically small variations. Sometimes measuring the exact same page against itself produces different data!

The payoff in split/run testing is in the big swings in user action. If you're not seeing big improvements, then you've probably got your landing pages about right, and split run testing will offer incremental value, at best.

SEO: What Data Do I Test?

We're spolit for data.

The speed at which we can test and obtain data regarding visitor behaviour patterns is unprecidented. Before the internet, direct marketers used to run a series of trial campaigns in print. Can you imagine how difficult it was to measure response? And how much time it all took? These days, we've got detailed, automated analytics in the form of server stats, and we can build, test and analyse campaings, often within hours.

One trap those new to SEO often fall into is using the wrong data and metrics. One terrible, but often-cited metric, is ranking, as ranking doesn't tell you anything about utility. For example, how much traffic will the ranking generate? If the ranking does result in traffic, is it the type of traffic I need to fulfill my objectives?

We can find this information out by running a few simple tests.

How Can Testing Be Applied To SEO?

Keyword Testing With PPC

How do you know if the keyword you intend targeting is really worth targeting? A keyword term may have considerable volume and little competition, but if those searchers are intent on research, and you are trying to sell something, then your effort is wasted.

One way you can test user intent is with a short PPC campaign.

PPC offers you some valuable data points. Firstly, you can test actual search volume, as opposed to estimated volume, simply by running an ad. The Google data provides these numbers.

Secondly, you can measure the intent of the query by measuring click activity.

Determining searcher intent is important. If you aim is to sell via your site, then you want to target people who buy. Often, this information is contained within the keyword query itself. For example, the intent behind "buy x online" is clear. However, the intent behind "San Francisco Houses", less so. How do you measure intent if it is unclear from the search phrase?

You can do this by crafting different adwords ads - i.e. some commercial in nature, some informational - and testing them against one other. You can further test visitor intent by crafting landing pages that demand the visitor commits to an action that causes them some level of "pain". i.e. filling out a form. If they aren't prepared to engage after clicking a PPC ad, they're unlikely to do so just because they found your pages in the organic listings, either. If you find a PPC term with a high level of user engagement, chances are that keyword term is gold on the organic side, too, and therefore a great keyword to target.

After you've validated keyword phrases in this way, you can then set off on your SEO campaign, armed with the knowledge that your keyword terms should underpin your business objectives.

One flaw in this approach is that the searcher has clicked on a PPC ad vs an organic listing. This very action tends to indicate a commercial intent as people who do not have a commercial intent tend to ignore search advertising altogether. However, it will give you a ballpark idea and could save valuable time and effort, especially if you're targeting generic, non-specific keyword terms that don't clearly convey intent.

Keyword Spinning

I spotted this technique a while back on BlueHatSEO. It is a fantastic technique for testing and refining SEO on big sites.

It can be difficult to know what keyword variant attracts the most visitors. For example, does "Myspace Pimps" get all the traffic, or does the variant "Pimps On Myspace"? Keyword tools often aren't sensitive enough to reveal this data, and it can be time consuming to monitor, test, and change thousands of individual web pages.

Instead, try adding a counter to each page and decide on a delimiter. Say, 5 visits per page per month. If the page views are less than this figure, use an automated script to scramble the title tag and the headings to produce a different keyword order. Reset the delimiter, and see if the new keyword order receives more page views than the previous order. Your site will self-optimise, based on the results of each test.

This is an excellent application of an established advertising method - it's an automated split/run test - and applying it to SEO.

Useful Tools & Resources


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