Three Ways To Break Down A Market

Sep 11th
posted in

Ford said “give the customer any color they want, so long as it is black”. This strategy worked for a while, because people just wanted a car. However, the market changed when GM decided they would offer a range of cars to suit different “purposes, purses and personalities”.

Between 1920 and 1923, Ford’s market share plummeted from 55 to 12 percent.

These days, auto manufacturers segment the market, rather than treat it as one homogeneous mass. There are cars for the rich, cars for the less well off, cars built for speed, and cars built for shopping.

Manufacturers do this because few manufacturers can cater to very large markets where the consumer has infinite choice. To be all things to all people is impossible, but to be the best for a smaller, well-defined group of people is a viable business strategy. It costs less to target, and therefore has less risk of failure. Search marketing is all about targeting, so let's take a look at various ways to think about targeting in terms of the underlying marketing theory which might give you a few ideas on how to refine and optimize your approach.

While there are many ways to break down a market, here are three main concepts.

Segments

Any market can be broken down into segments. A segment means “a group of people”. We can group people by various means, however the most common forms of segmentation include:

Benefit segmentation: a group of people who seek similar benefits. For example, people who want bright white teeth would seek a toothpaste that includes whitener. People who are more concerned with tooth decay may choose a toothpaste that promises healthy teeth.

Demographic Segmentation: a group of people who share a similar age, gender, income, occupation, education, religion, race and nationality. For example, retired people may be more interested in investment services than a student would, as retired people are more likely to have capital to invest.

Occasion Segmentation: a group of people who buy things at a particular time. Valentines Day is one of the most popular days for restaurant bookings. People may buy orange juice when they think about breakfast time, but not necessarily at dinner. The reverse is true for wine.

Usage Segmentation: a group of people who buy certain volumes, or at specific frequencies. For example, a group of people might dine out regularly, vs those who only do so occasionally. The message to each group would be different.

Lifestyle segmentation: a group of people who may share the same hobbies, or live a certain way. For example, a group of people who collect art, or a group of people who are socialites.

The aim is to find a well-defined market opportunity that is still large enough to be financially viable. If one segment is not big enough, a business may combine segments - say, young people (demographic) who want whiter teeth (benefit). The marketing for this combined segment would be different - and significantly more focused - that the more general “those who want whiter teeth” (benefit) market segment, alone.

How does this apply to search and internet marketing in general?

It’s all about knowing your customer. “Knowing the customer” is an easy thing to say, and something of a cliche, but these marketing concepts can help provide us with a structured framework within which to test our assumptions.

Perhaps that landing page I’ve been working on isn’t really working out. Could it be because I haven’t segmented enough? Have I gone too broad in my appeal? Am I talking the language of benefits when I should really be focusing on usage factors? What happens if I combine “demographics” with “occassion”?

Niches

Niches are similar to segments, but even more tightly defined based on unique needs. For example, “search engine marketing education” is a niche that doesn’t really fit usefully within segments such as demographics, lifestyle or occasion.

The advantage of niche targeting is that you may have few competitors and you may be able to charge high margins, as there is a consumer need, but very few people offer what you do. The downside is that the niche could weaken, move, or disappear. To mitigate this risk, businesses will often target a number of niches - the equivalent of running multiple web sites - reasoning that if one niche moves or disappears, then the other niches will take up the slack.

Search marketing has opened up many niches that didn’t previously exist due to improved marketing efficiency. It doesn’t cost much to talk to people anywhere in the world. Previously, niches that required a global audience in order to be viable were prohibitive due to the cost of reaching people spread over such a wide geographic area.

To function well in a niche, smaller companies typically need to be highly customer focused and service oriented as small niche businesses typically can’t drive price down by ramping volume.

Cells

Cells are micro-opportunities. This type of marketing is often overlooked, but will become a lot more commonplace on the web due to the easy access to data.

For example, if you collect data about your customers buying habits, you might be able to identify patterns within that data that create further marketing opportunities.

If you discover that twenty people bought both an iPhone and a PC, then they may be in the market for software products that makes it easy for the two devices to talk to each other. Instead of targeting the broader iPhone purchaser market, you might tailor the message specifically for the iphone plus PC people, reasoning that they may be having trouble getting the two devices to perform certain functions, and would welcome a simple solution.

Further Reading:

Pitching Search Marketing In Traditional Marketing Terms

Sep 7th
posted in

For those selling search marketing to customers, especially those customers new to the concept of search marketing, it’s often useful to pitch search marketing services in terms the customer already understands.

A lot search marketing theory and practice is borrowed and adapted from direct marketing. Direct marketing concepts have been around since the 60s, and may be more readily understood by some customers than some of the arcane terminology sometimes associated with SEO/SEM.

Here are some ideas on how to link search marketing and direct marketing concepts.

1. Targeting & Segmentation

A central theme of direct marketing is targeting.

On broadcast television, advertisers show the one advertisement to many people, and hope it will be relevant to a small fraction of that audience. Most television advertising messages are wasted on people who aren't interested in those messages. It’s a scattergun, largely untargeted approach.

Search marketing, a form of direct marketing, is targeted. Search marketers target their audience based on the specific keywords the audience use.

Search marketing is concerned with the most likely prospects - a small fraction of the total audience. Further, if we analyse the visitor behavior of people using specific keyword terms post-click, we can find out who are the hottest prospects amongst that narrowly defined group.

The widely accepted 20-80 rule says that 20% of your customers create 80% of your business. An example might be "luxury vacations France", as opposed to "vacations France". If we have higher margins on luxury travel, then segmenting to focus on the frequent luxury travel buyer, as opposed to a less frequent economy buyer whom we still might sell to, but at lower margins, might be more in line with business objectives. Defining, and refining, keyword terms can help us segment the target market.

2. Focus

Once you get a search visitor to your site, what happens next?

They start reading. Such a specific audience requires focused, detailed information, and a *lot* of it, or they will click back.

It is a mistake to pitch to an "average" audience at this point i.e. to lose focus. If we’ve done our job correctly, and segmented our visitors using specific keyword terms, we already know they are interested in what we offer.

To use our travel example above, the visitor who typed in “luxury vacations in France” wants to hear all about luxury vacations in France. They are unlikely to want a pitch about how wonderful France, as a country, is, as the keyword term suggests they’ve already made their mind up about destination. Therefore, a simplistic, generalized message selling French tourism is less likely to work.

Genuine buyers - who will spend thousands on such vacations - will want a lot of detail about luxury travel in France, as this is unlikely to be a trivial purchase they make often. That generally means offering long, detailed articles, not short ones. It means many options, not few. It means focusing on luxury travel, and not general travel.

Simple, but many marketers get this wrong. They go for the click, but don’t focus enough on the level of detail required by hot prospects i.e. someone most likely to buy.

3. Engagement

One advantage of the web is that we can spend a lot of time getting a message across once a hot prospect has landed on a site. This is not the case on radio. Radio placements only have seconds to get the message across. Likewise, television slots are commonly measured in 15 and 30 second blocks.

On the web, we can engage a visitor for long periods of time. The message becomes as long as the customer is prepared to hear it.

4. Personalized

The keyword tells you a lot about visitor intent. “Luxury travel France” is a highly targeted term that suggests a lot about the visitor i.e. their level of spend and tastes. If we build keyword lists and themes associated with this term, we can personalize the sales message using various landing pages that talk specifically to the needs of the visitor. Examples might include “Five Star Hotels”, “Luxury Car Hire”, “Best Restaurants In Paris”, and so on. Each time they click a link, or reveal a bit more about themselves,we can start to personalize the message. Personalized marketing works well because the message is something the prospect is willing to hear. It’s specifically about them.

We can personalize the journey through the site, configuring customized pathways so we can market one-to-one. We see this at work on Amazon.com. Amazon notes your search and order history and prompts you with suggestions based on that history. One-to-many marketing approaches, as used in newspapers, on radio and on television typically aren’t focused and lack personalization. They may work well for products with broad appeal, but work less well for defined niches.

5. Active Response

We’re not just interested in views, impressions, or reach. We want the visitor to actively respond. We want them to take a desired, measurable action. This may involve filling out a form, using a coupon, giving us an email address, and/or making a purchase.

Active response helps make search marketing spends directly accountable and measurable.

6. Accountable

People either visit via a search term, or they don’t.

Whilst there can be some advantage in brand awareness i.e. a PPC ad that appears high on the page, but is only clicked a fraction of the time, the real value is in the click-thru. This is, of course, measurable, as the activity will show up in the site statistics, and can be traced back to the originating search engine.

Compare this with radio, television or print. It’s difficult to know where the customer came from, as their interaction may be difficult to link back to the advertising campaign.

Search marketing is also immediately measurable.

7. Testable

Some keyword terms work, some do not. Some keyword terms only work when combined with landing page X, but not landing page Y. By “work” we tend to mean “achieves a measurable business outcome”.

Different combinations can be tried and compared against one another. Keywords can be tested using PPC. Once we’ve determined what the most effective keywords are in terms of achieving measurable business outcomes, we can flow these through to our SEO campaign. We can do the reverse, too. Use terms that work in our SEO campaigns to underpin our PPC campaigns.

This process is measureable, repeatable and ongoing. Language has near infinite variety. There are many different ways to describe things, and the landing pages can be configured and written in near infinite ways, too. We track using software tools to help determine patterns of behaviour, so we can keep feeding this back into our strategy in order to refine and optimize. We broaden keyword research in order to capture the significant percentage of search phrases that are unique.

Further Reading:

The Search Power Of Brand

Sep 3rd
posted in

In that past, we’ve talked a lot about Google’s brand bias, but no matter how a brand is defined in technical terms, the reality is that Google cannot leave popular brand sites out of the search results.

If a person searches for, say, AVIS, and doesn’t see AVIS in the top spot, then as far as the searcher is concerned, Google is broken. If a person searches for various car rental terms and does not see AVIS somewhere, then it's also likely they'll expect Google is broken.

Google isn’t perceived as broken, however, if car-rental-cars-online.com is nowhere to be seen. Some might argue Google is doing the searcher a favour by ignoring such a site.

Crowded Planet

There was a time on the web when relevant information was harder to come by. Not so now. Now, we have too much information. We don’t even know how big the internet is. They're guessing two trillion pages. And counting.

So, the real competition is clutter.

The real opportunity is to find clear space amongst the throng.

One way to do that is by developing a clear brand identity.

What Is A Brand

A logo? A set of graphics? A catchy name?

Not really.

Plenty of companies have logos, graphics and a catchy name but they do not have strong brand identities. A brand is largely about how other people define you. They define you based on the experience they have when engaging with you.

For example, take Apple. How would you define their brand? The logo? The shops? The fonts they use in their advertising?

These aspects are not Apple’s brand. Apple’s brand is in the way Apple’s customers feel about Apple. It’s a feeling tied up with concepts such fashion, design, innovation and quality - and unique to Apple.

This feeling creates a clear identity in the mind of the customer.

Having a clear identity makes you memorable. People will remember your site name. People will search for your site name. And when enough people do that, then there is little chance Google can ever drop you below number #1 for brand searches. If you get it right, Google will even rank you against relevant related keywords you aren't targeting.

Because Google would look broken if it didn't feature you.

Tooting our own horn here, but if you typed “seo book” into Google, and didn’t see this site, you’d think Google was broken. There are plenty of books on SEO, but only one “seo book” that owns a clear brand identity in this space. And SEO Book gets plenty of traffic from other search search related terms that it does not target, because Google associates the site so strongly with the "SEO education" niche. The people who search on SEO queries click on this site, and once they arrive, they don’t click back too often.

Own Your Space

Any company, no matter how small, can develop unique brands and build their own brand related search stream, and associated searches, over time.

If you run a small company, do you occupy clear space? By clear space, think focused, unique selling proposition. What is the thing you offer that others do not? If other people offer what you do, then what is the thing you do better? How do people describe you? Can they reduce it to an elevator pitch? Is what you offer focused, or confused?

It’s about more than providing something a bit unique. In a cluttered environment, like the web, it's about creating something genuinely different. Probably radically different, given the high level of noise in the search results.

Once you have your differentiation down you can then advertise it, which creates further brand awareness: "High dwell campaigns are three times more efficient at stimulating branded search."

This makes for a more defensible search marketing strategy, because it's difficult for generic competition to emulate you once you've carved out a clear identity. It’s not about offering more features. Or a lower price. Those things are details. It’s about crafting a unique identity that others will know you by. Focus on the parts of your business that really make the money, and considering orienting your entire identity around that one aspect.

The problem with not having a clear identity and point of difference, when it comes to SEO, is that it is a constant battle to maintain position. Google can easily flush all the me-too sites that chase generic keywords and Google’s users aren’t going to complain. The sites with unique identities don’t have to spend near as much time, energy and money maintaining rank.

But hang on, doesn’t this go against everything SEO is about?

There’s nothing wrong with chasing generic terms. It’s a completely valid strategy. However, if we’re in it for the long haul, we should also make an effort to develop a clear, differentiated brand. It means we can own our space in the search results, no matter how Google changes in future.

Look at Trip Advisor. Google may be gunning for the travel space with their own content acquisitions, but they’re going to look deficient if they don’t display TripAdvisor. They are going to look deficient if they don't show Trip Advisor when people are looking for just about any travel review queries, whether Trip Advisor is targeting them or not, because Trip Advisor are synonymous with travel reviews. By not featuring Trip Advisor, Google would merely encourage more people to by-pass Google and search Trip Advisor directly.

That's a powerful place to be.

Not everyone can dominate the travel space like Trip Advisor, of course. But it is worth noting that Trip Advisor started small & the principle is the same, no matter what the niche. It’s about becoming the most memorable site in your niche. No matter if it’s poggo sticks for one legged dogs, then be the go-to site for poggo sticks for one legged dogs. Eventually, word gets around, and such a site become synonymous with poggo sticks for one legged dogs, and associated terms, whether they optimize for related terms, or not.

Google will associate keywords with this site in order to deliver a relevant result, and if this site owns the “poggo sticks for one legged dogs” niche, then their SEO workload is greatly reduced.

Are They Talking About You?

Your brand should be something people will talk about. Where are all the links coming from these days? Social networks. Google pays attention to social signals - tweets, Facebook, Google+ and other social links - because that is the way many links occur. They are markers of attention, and Google will always look for markers of attention.

And as their audiences click through to you, Google gets valuable signals about your relevance to entire groups of people. You can be sure Google is grouping these people by interest - creating demographic profiles - and if your site interests a certain group, then this will flow through into searches made by these groups. Google can also tie many of these users back to their identities by using persistent cookies & Google+.

That's the way it's going. SEO, and wider marketing and brand strategy, will all meld together.

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We love our customers, but more importantly

Our customers love us!

Do You Trust Me?

Aug 30th
posted in

Well, you might - if you knew what a trustworthy guy I am :)

But I know that’s nowhere good enough. I know I would need to earn it.

"Do I trust you?" is a question your web visitors are probably asking themselves right now.

Do they trust your title tag description and snippet enough to click the link? If they click the link, and land on your site, do the trust you enough to stay? Do they trust you enough to click deeper into your site? Do they trust you enough to hand over their e-mail address, or their credit card details?

If your site ranks well, but visitors don't trust it, is your search marketing campaign broken? Blowing an opportunity to form a trust relationship, which can be broken in less than a few seconds online, earns nothing but a click-back.

Webmasters need to establish trust quickly in order to get people to take the next step.

I'm Trustworthy!

All webmasters look to establish trust. We intuitively know that in order to convince someone else of something, they first need to trust us. No webmaster would want to project an air of untrustworthiness, although some mistakenly do, by overlooking a few simple steps.

If you have an existing site, or you are planning a new one, consider undertaking an audit of trust factors.

Your visitors will want to know....

1. Who Am I Dealing With?

This is especially important online, because there is little context to our interaction.

If we walk into a doctors office, we may see medical equipment, and nurses, and qualifications on the wall. It provides us with sufficient context to establish a level of trust that this person is likely a qualified doctor who knows what she is doing. The environment gives us a pretty good idea of who we are dealing with.

Not so online.

A web site, especially a website that is previously unknown to us, provides little in the way of context. Anonymity can lend an air of the mysterious, but it doesn't do much to help establish trust.

Let visitors know who they are dealing with. This doesn’t necessarily involve telling them your life story, or showing them a photo of you and the kids, although that can work well for personalized forms of marketing.

If you don’t already have them, consider adding staff photos and position details, detailed company description and history, and ensure address and contact details are prominently displayed. If you have a physical location, show it. Provide a map. The tech-savvy will likely want to see you on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, too.

This point is obvious, I know. Most webmasters do it. Audit your site to see if you provides visitors a clear idea of who they are dealing with.

2. Overcome Fear

There is fear in new engagements.

Not spine tingling fear. Just a low level fear of the new. Your visitors may fear your site is wasting their time. They may fear they might be ripped off. They may fear you won't deliver on the promise made explicit in your title tag and heading.

Look at ways to counter fear of the new.

The familiar carries less fear than the unfamiliar. Obviously, if you've already established a reputation, then you will already be familiar to your visitors, and therefore likely appear more trustworthy that someone a visitor doesn't know.

But search marketing is often focused on attracting the new visitor, so an established reputation may not be something we can rely on. This is why it can be good idea to leverage reputation from elsewhere.

For example, a commonly used tactic is the “As Seen In...” references used by sites such as ForSaleByOwner.com. Whilst also providing credibility by association, it is also a means of leveraging the trust in those brands with which the visitor is already familiar.

3. Will This Work For Me?

There’s more to relevance than matching a keyword. How will your solution work for your visitor? How do you know what is really relevant to them when all you have for a clue is a keyword phrase?

This is easier said than done. You need to get inside their head. You need to know their questions and objections and be able to answer them. If people feel you care about solving their problems, they are more likely to trust you.

But how?

Listening. Being clear about what problem you’re going to solve. Is it a real problem, or an imagined one? Look for opportunities to have your visitor define their problem in their own terms, using surveys, visitor tracking, market research (i.e. the language they use in forums, on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, et al)

The best sites seem to know exactly what you are thinking. They reflect you, back at you.

This can be underlined with your copy. Use “you” as opposed to “I”. Look how many times “you” has been used in this copy. This is a very effective selling technique, because your visitors really don’t care about you, they care about them.

4. Deliver

We've dealt with superficial areas, most of which can just as easily be abused by the manipulative and deceitful as used properly by the honest and trustworthy.

Trust also a process. People will judge you by your actions.

  • Tell them what you'll do.
  • Do it.
  • Tell them you've done it.

Does your website demonstrate this? One good way to show process is by using a case study. You outline the problem. Show how you planned to solve it. Then you show that you solved it. For extra points, show how happy people were with the outcome.

Offer free trials, where possible. Offer free downloads. Look for tangible ways to prove you do what you say you do.

Once a visitor has engaged your services, ensure your process is transparent, communicated and you do what you said you’d do.

5. What Will Everyone Else Think?

This is related to fear.

Will I be ridiculed for choosing your service? Made to feel stupid? There was a saying in the IT industry that “no one got fired for buying IBM”. It wasn’t that IBM was necessarily a better provider, it was that many people used them, so there was perceived strength in numbers of the tried and true.
People tend to go where other people are. Can you provide similar social validation?

Customer references are a great way to provide social validation. If the customers are from companies with which your visitor is already familiar, all the better. Faces. Lot’s of happy faces provide social validation.

Also include the number of people who use, or have used, your service.

In summary:

  • Have you let people know who they are dealing with?
  • Have you made reference to the familiar?
  • Have you addressed their needs in their own terms?
  • Have you included references and case studies?
  • Have you done what you’d said you’d do?

PS: Thanks to Seth Godin for the inspiration, off whos' post I’m riffing :)

Getting Site Architecture Right

Aug 27th

There are many ways to organize pages on a site. Unfortunately, some common techniques of organizing information can also harm your SEO strategy.

Sites organized by a hierarchy determined without reference to SEO might not be ideal because the site architecture is unlikely to emphasize links to information a searcher finds most relevant. An example would be burying high-value keyword pages deep within a sites structure, as opposed to hear the top, simply because those pages don't fit easily within a "home", "about us", contact" hierarchy.

In this article, we’ll look at ways to align your site architecture with search visitor demand.

Start By Building A Lexicon

Optimal site architecture for SEO is architecture based around language visitors use. Begin with keyword research.

Before running a keyword mining tool, make a list of the top ten competitor sites that are currently ranking well in your niche and evaluate them in terms of language. What phrases are common? What questions are posed? What answers are given, and how are the answers phrased? What phrases/topics are given the most weighting? What phrases/topics are given the least weighting?

You’ll start to notice patterns, but for more detailed analysis, dump the phrases and concepts into a spreadsheet, which will help you determine frequency.

Once you’ve discovered key concepts, phrases and themes, run them through a keyword research tool to find synonyms and the related concepts your competitors may have missed.

One useful, free tool that can group keyword concepts is the Google Adwords Editor. User the grouper function - described here in "How To Organize Keywords" to "generate common terms" option to automatically create keyword groupings.

Another is the Google Contextual Targeting Tool.

Look at your own site logs for past search activity. Trawl through related news sites, Facebook groups, industry publications and forums. Build up a lexicon of phrases that your target visitors use.

Then use visitor language as the basis of your site hierarchy.

Site Structure Based On Visitor Language

Group the main concepts and keywords into thematic units.

For example, a site about fruit might be broken down into key thematic units such as “apple”, “pear”, “orange”, “banana” and so on.

Link each thematic unit down to sub themes i.e. for “oranges”, the next theme could include links to pages such as “health benefits of oranges”, “recipes using oranges”, etc, depending on the specific terms you’re targeting. In this way, you integrate keyword terms with your site architecture.

Here’s an example in the wild:

The product listing by category navigation down the left-hand side is likely based on keywords. If we click on, say, the “Medical Liability Insurance” link, we see a group of keyword-loaded navigation links that relate specifically to that category.

Evidence Based Navigation

A site might be about “cape cod real estate”. If I run this term through a keyword research tool, in this case Google Keywords, a few conceptual patterns present themselves i.e people search mainly by either geographic location i.e. Edgartown, Provincetown, Chatham, etc or accommodation type i.e. rentals, commercial, waterfront, etc.

Makes sense, of course.

But notice what isn’t there?

For one thing, real estate searches by price. Yet, some real estate sites give away valuable navigation linkage to a price-based navigation hierarchy.

This is not to say a search function ordered by house value isn’t important, but ordering site information by house value isn’t necessarily a good basis for seo-friendly site architecture. This functionality could be integrated into a search tool, instead.

A good idea, in terms of aligning site architecture with SEO imperatives, would be to organise such a site by geographic location and/or accommodation type as this matches the interests of search visitors. The site is made more relevant to search visitors than would otherwise be the case

Integrate Site Navigation Everywhere

Site navigation typically involves concepts such as “home”, “about”, “contact”, “products” i.e. a few high-level tabs or buttons that separate information by function.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but the navigation concept for SEO purposes can be significantly widened by playing to the webs core strengths. Tim Berners Lee placed links at the heart of the web as links were the means to navigate from one related document to another. Links are still the webs most common navigational tool.

“Navigational” links should appear throughout your copy. If people are reading your copy, and the topic is not quite what they want, they will either click back, or - if you’ve been paying close attention to previous visitor behaviour - will click on a link within your copy to another area of your site.

The body text on every page on your site is an opportunity to integrate specific, keyword-loaded navigation. As a bonus, this may encourage higher levels of click-thru, as opposed to click-back, pass link juice to sub-pages and ensure no page on your site is orphaned.

Using Site Architecture To Defeat Panda & Penguin

These two animals have a world of connotations, many of them unpleasant.

Update Panda was an update partly focused on user-experience. Google is likely using interaction metrics, and if Google isn’t seeing what they deem to be positive visitor interaction, then your pages, or site, will likely take a hit.

What metrics are Google likely to be looking at? Bounce backs, for one. This is why relevance is critical. The more you know about your customers, and the more relevant link options you can give them to click deeper into your site, rather than click-back to the search results, the more likely you are to avoid being Panda-ized.

If you’ve got pages in your hierarchy that users don’t consider to be particularly relevant, either beef them up or remove them.

Update Penguin was largely driven by anchor text. If you use similar anchor text keywords pointing to one page, Penquin is likely to cause you grief. This can even happen if you’re mixing up keywords i.e. “cape cod houses”, “cape cod real estate”, “cape cod accommodation”. That level of keyword diversity may have been acceptable in the past, but it’s not now.

Make links specific, and link it to specific, unique pages. Get rid of duplicate, or near duplicate pages. Each page should be unique, not just in terms of keywords used, but in terms of concept.

In a post-Panda/Penquin world, webmasters must have razor-sharp focus on what information searchers find most relevant. Being close, but not quite what the visitor wanted, is an invitation for Google to sink you.

Build relevance into your information architecture.

Rank Modifying Spammers

Aug 23rd
posted in

My good friend Bill at SEOByTheSea has unearthed a Google patent that will likely raise eyebrows, whilst others will have their suspicions confirmed.

The patent is called Ranking Documents. When webmasters alter a page, or links to a page, the system may not respond immediately to those changes. Rather, the system may change rankings in unexpected ways.

A system determines a first rank associated with a document and determines a second rank associated with the document, where the second rank is different from the first rank. The system also changes, during a transition period that occurs during a transition from the first rank to the second rank, a transition rank associated with the document based on a rank transition function that varies the transition rank over time without any change in ranking factors associated with the document.

Further:

During the transition from the old rank to the target rank, the transition rank might cause:
  • a time-based delay response,
  • a negative response
  • a random response, and/or
  • an unexpected response

So, Google may shift the rankings of your site, in what appears to be a random manner, before Google settles on a target rank.

Let's say that you're building links to a site, and the site moves up in the rankings. You would assume that the link building has had a positive effect. Not so if the patent code is active, as your site may have already been flagged.

Google then toys with you for a while before sending your site plummeting to the target rank. This makes it harder to determine cause and effect.

Just because a patent exists doesn't mean Google is using it, of course. This may be just be another weapon in the war-of-FUD, but it sounds plausible and it’s something to keep in mind, especially if you're seeing this type of movement.

The Search Engine As Black Box

In ancient times (1990s), SEO thrived because search engines were stupid black boxes. If you added some keywords here, added a few links there, the black box would respond in a somewhat predictable, prescribed, fashion. Your rankings would rise if you guessed what the black box liked to "see", and you plummeted if you did too much of what the black box liked to see!

Ah, the good old days.

These days, the black box isn’t quite so stupid. It’s certainly a lot more cryptic. What hasn’t changed, however, is the battle line drawn between webmasters and search engines as they compete for search visitor attention.

If there are any webmasters still under the illusion that Google is the SEOs friend, that must be a very small club, indeed. Google used to maintain a - somewhat unconvincing - line that if you just followed their ambiguous guidelines (read: behaved yourself) then they would reward you. It was you and Google on the good side, and the evil spammers on the other.

Of late, Google appear to have gotten bored of maintaining any pretense, and the battle lines have been informally redrawn. If you’re a webmaster doing anything at all that might be considered an effort to improve rank, then you're a "spammer". Google would no doubt argue this has always been the case, even if you had to read between the lines to grasp it. And they’d be right.

Unconvinced?

Look at the language on the patent:

The systems and methods may also observe spammers’ reactions to rank changes caused by the rank transition function to identify documents that are actively being manipulated. This assists in the identification of rank-modifying spammers.

“Manipulated”? “Rank modifying spammers”? So, a spammer is someone who attempts to modify their rank?

I’ve yet to meet a webmaster who didn’t wish to modify their rank.

Google As A Competitor

Google’s business model relies on people clicking ads. In their initial IPO filing, Google identified rank manipulation as a business risk.

We are susceptible to index spammers who could harm the integrity of our web search results. There is an ongoing and increasing effort by “index spammers” to develop ways to manipulate our web search results

It’s a business risk partly because the result sets need to be relevant for people to return to Google. The largely unspoken point is Google wants webmasters to pay to run advertising, not get it for “free”, or hand their search advertising budget to an SEO shop.

Why would Google make life easy for competitors?

The counter argument has been that webmasters provide free content, which the search engines need in order to attract visitors in the first place. However, now relevant content is plentiful, that argument has been weakened. Essentially, if you don't want to be in Google, then block Google. They won't lose any sleep over it.

What has happened, however, is that the incentive to produce quality content, with search engines in mind, has been significantly reduced. If content can be scraped, ripped-off, demoted and merely used as a means to distract the search engine user enough to maybe click a few search engine ads, then where is the money going to come from to produce quality content? Google may be able to find relevant content, but "relevant" (on-topic) and "quality" (worth consuming) are seldom the same thing

One content model that works in such as environment is content that is cheap to produce. Cheap content can be quality content, but like all things in life, quality tends to come with a higher price tag. Another model that works is loss-leader content, but then the really good stuff is still hidden from view, and it's still hard to do this well, unless you've established considerable credibility - which is still expensive to do.

This is the same argument the newspaper publishers have been making. The advertising doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of production and make a profit - so naturally the winner in this game cuts production cost until the numbers do add up. What tends to be sacrificed in this process - is quality.

NFSW Corp, a new startup by ex-TechCrunch and Guardian columnist writer Paul Carr has taken the next step. They have put everything behind a paywall. There is no free content. No loss-leaders. All you see is a login screen.

Is this the future for web publishing? If so, the most valuable content will not be in Google. And if more and more valuable content lies beyond Google's reach, then will fewer people bother going to Google in the first place?

The Happy Middle

Google argue that they focus on the user. They run experiments to determine search quality, quality as determined by users.

Here’s how it works. Our engineers come up with some insight or technique and implement a change to the search ranking algorithm . They hope this will improve search results, but at this point it’s just a hypothesis. So how do we know if it’s a good change? First we have a panel of real users spread around the world try out the change, comparing it side by side against our unchanged algorithm. This is a blind test — they don’t know which is which. They rate the results, and from that we get a rough sense of whether the change is better than the original. If it isn’t, we go back to the drawing board. But if it looks good, we might next take it into our usability lab — a physical room where we can invite people in to try it out in person and give us more detailed feedback. Or we might run it live for a small percentage of actual Google users, and see whether the change is improving things for them. If all those experiments have positive results, we eventually roll out the change for everyone"

Customer focus is, of course, admirable, but you’ve got to wonder about a metric that doesn’t involve the needs of publishers. If publishing on the web is not financially worthwhile, then, over time, the serps will surely degrade in terms of quality as a whole, and users will likely go elsewhere.

There is evidence this is already happening. Brett at Webmasterworld pointed out that there is a growing trend amongst consumers to skip Google altogether and just head for the Amazon, and other sites, directly. Amazon queries are up 73 percent in the last year.

There may well be a lot of very clever people at Google, but they do not appear to be clever enough to come up with a model that encourages webmasters to compete with each other in terms of information quality.

If Google doesn’t want the highest quality information increasingly locked up behind paywalls, then it needs to think of a way to nurture and incentivise the production of quality content, not just relevant content. Tell publishers exactly what content Google wants to see rank well and tell them how to achieve it. There should be enough money left on the table for publishers i.e. less competition from ads - so that everyone can win.

I’m not going to hold my breath for this publisher nirvana, however. I suspect Google's current model just needs content to be "good enough."

Get Valuable Work Done

Aug 21st
posted in

I run my own business, but I've just completed a short stint working on-site at another company.

And after a few months working for another company, I realized that, at my own company, I had fallen into routines and work habits not all of which could be considered productive.

Procrastination, which some argue can be beneficial, can also be a problem when we really need to get things done. So, it was refreshing to see how other people organize their work, and an opportunity to reflect upon, and improve, my own work approach.

In short, I really needed a way of getting more valuable stuff done each day.

How Often Do We Produce Business Value?

Do you sometimes find that you’ve been working all day, but end with a sneaking suspicion you didn’t create a lot of actual value? Are you sometimes busy for the sake of being busy?

That was true in my case.

But now I organize my work to ensure I deliver something of real value - every day.

I discovered a method of working that has been around for a while, called Agile. Agile is a software development process incorporating a number of elegant concepts that can help skyrocket personal productivity. It is used by companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo and Salesforce.

Agile is a huge topic, and there are many flavors of Agile, but I’ve picked out the one key feature that can be very effective for individuals and small companies working in areas beyond software development.

But first, let’s talk about how a bunch of amateurs built a supercar in under three months.

Really?

Really.

Wikispeed are a group of part-time volunteers. They built a 0-60mph-in-under-five-seconds supercar, that can do 100mpg, and they did so in under three months. What is more astonishing is that the people building the car often weren’t in the same room, city or even country.

But with very little money, no factories, and little formal car-building experience they built something astonishing in a very short space of time. Currently, they’re building a full production car suitable for the mass market, and if you want to help build it, well, you can!

That's quite some feat in terms of both organisation and personal productivity.

Some people would be forgiven for assuming that the process must have been meticulously planned in advance, laying out precise complex technical and procedural detail, but that wasn’t the case. The project was broken down into very simple concepts even a child could understand

The work was broken down into stories

What Is A Story?

In Agile, a “story” is short, simple description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who will use the capability being created. It also defines the business value.

Here's a template for a story:

As a (type of user), I want (some goal) so that (some reason).

An example might be:

As a marketer, I want a report that shows the number of links coming to my site from Twitter so that I can measure if my Twitter experiment resulted in over 1000 links

We then create a list of tasks needed to accomplish the story.

For example:

  • Investigate software solutions for Twitter link measurement
  • Implement software solution
  • Run report

We then create success criteria to measure if the story has been completed i.e. what output of business value is created?

I can see a report that shows how many links are coming into my site from Twitter

Simple.

Ensure You’re Focused On Delivering Value

On a Monday, I write a set of stories about what I’m going to do that week. I estimate how long each story will take, and then I arrange them in a hierarchy. The order of the hierarchy is determined by which stories produce the most business value.

Next, I count up the hours involved, and if the hours involved exceed the number of hours I have available, the story gets put on the backburner for consideration next week.

I define tasks for each story, and then systematically work through them. It’s like a to-do list, but richer and more valuable because each story forces me to think in terms of delivering something of measurable, business value relative to each other unit of work I need to do. Needless to say, engaging with Facebook doesn't appear often in my stories.

Big projects, such as entire search marketing campaigns, can be broken down into multiple stories, spread over multiple weeks, chunked into tasks, and then timeboxed as a means of project management. In plain, simple language, everyone can see what needs to be done.

If you have trouble determining the business value of a chunk of work you’re doing, chances are it isn’t producing much value, so you should ditch it and find something that does. In this way, you fill your day with the things that matter most.

Satisfaction In a Job Well Done

There are, of course, many ways to manage projects, and many different ways to use Agile. Most companies adopt different flavours of Agile, or use only bits and pieces as it suits.

Personally, I have little use in my own business for the numerous meetings and the often tedious ritualistic activity Agile can involve. I’m also wary of over-hyped--latest-greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread work systems, but I do find stories a great way of deciding what work is most valuable to do at any given time.

I use this chart tool, called LeanKit, to align the story tasks into pre-set columns of “defined” (meaning I've written the story and estimated how long it will take), “in-progress” (meaning "I'm working on it") and “done” (yay!). You can also use sticky notes on a board if you prefer a more tactile approach

I work on one story at a time (the most important first), see it through to "done" status before I start the next one. If I underestimated how long the stories would take, then at least I can be assured I've done the most important work first. If time runs out, the low priority stories simply drop off the end for reconsideration next week.

Click the image for slideshow:

The chart, called a Kanban, is a nice visual representation of how work is progressing, and if other people need to see what I'm working on, and where I'm up to, they can do so at a glance.

As a bonus, it feels very satisfying to move each task across into the done “column”.

Do you use any systems to help ensure you get valuable work done? Please tell us about them in the comments!

PS: I’ve barely touched on Agile, and its many, many variants - a lot of it is more applicable to production processes rather than marketing - but if you want to read more, see the links below.

Further reading:

Niche Hunting

Jun 30th
posted in

If you're the type of SEO who builds and markets a variety of sites, there's something very satisfying about spotting an area that few people occupy, and making it your own!

There are various software programs available that help you find niches, often based on finding keyword terms with high traffic and low, or no, PPC bids. These tools can be very useful for keyword list building, however finding great niches requires a little more analysis to establish viability.

Let's take a look at a few ideas on how to weed out the most lucrative possibilities.

1. Choose An Area Of Interest

It's not necessary to pick an area you're interested in, but there are strong reasons to do so.

If you're passionate about something, you're more likely to go the extra mile, especially when the going gets tough. Any endevour involves a period of struggle where it's difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and often the only thing that keeps us going is sheer force of will. If you're interested in what you're doing, it's easier to ride out this period.

This doesn't mean you must pick an area you already know. You could pick an entirely new area that you'd like to learn more about. Make a list of areas that appeal to you. Think about business transactions and purchases you have been involved with, and see if any hold appeal in terms of interest, as if your aim is take make money, it's important that any niche you choose has a commercial imperative.

2. Solve A Problem

Make a list of areas you're interested in, or would be interested in learning about. Next to each topic or keyword term, outline a burning problem that needs to be solved associated with that topic. For example, the term "fishing" may be associated with the problem "how can I compare fishing vacations easily?".

It is more likely you will find a lucrative niche if you attempt to solve a real problem for people. Be careful to avoid imagined problems. For example, we might find that there are no rasberry-flavored beer available, which may well be an untapped niche, but a lack of raspberry-flavored beer isn't a real problem for people.

Then again...

3. How Much Do you Know?

Once you have a list of topics you're interested in, along with associated problems that need solving, ask yourself how much you know about each area.

Obviously, you'll save time if you already know a lot about an area, and it's unlikely you'll be able to exploit a niche if you don't know much about it. It's never a great position to be in where the customers know a lot more about a product or service than you do!

4. What Type Of Operation Suits You?

You'll likely make your money in one of five ways: advertising (i.e. adsense), affiliate, selling services, selling information, or selling product.

You may combine them, too, of course. Each has pros and cons, in terms of what suits your circumstances. Do you have room to hold stock? Do you enjoy direct contact with customers? Do you want full control, or are you happy to hand over fulfillment to a third-party?

Does the niche have appropriate suppliers that match the type of operation your wish to run?

5. Does The Niche Have Online Potential?

It may sound obvious, but not everything is suited for selling over the internet. Gas, for example.

There may be a good reason the niche you've spotted hasn't been tapped. Perhaps it just doesn't work on the internet. This is why it's important to test market before you dive in deep. Try setting up PPC campaigns that lead to a site designed to collect, say, e-mail sign-ups. This will help you gauge the level of interest, to a degree, without the cost of gearing up the back end.

Cut the losers early, run with the winners.

6. Who Are Your Customers?

Demographic reports, market reports and data can make for interesting reading. Check out free reports from research companies, such as Nielsen.

When it comes to online commerce, one important aspect to consider is the access your demographic has to credit or debit cards. The children's/youth market, for example. Or people with poor/no credit.

In some international markets, credit card use isn't as widespread as in the US.

7. Do Visitors Have Commercial Intent?

As you probably know, there are three types of searches: navigational, informational, and transational.

Unless you're looking for a hobby niche, and whilst there is some cross-over between the search types, you'll likely focus on areas where the intent is to transact - to perform a web-mediated activity, and that that activity has commercial intent.

Clues regarding search type are hinted at in the keyword phrase, such as "buy x", "where can I order y", are transactional, whereas "Microsoft" is likely navigational. There are many less overt permeations, too of course, however the point is to hone in on keywords that hint at commercial endevour.

8. Estimate How Much The Niche Is Worth

Get a rough guide of how much a niche might be worth. This will give you a feel for how much you can spend carving it out, or whether your time may be better spent on a more lucrative niche instead.

It's a good idea to look up the Adwords bids and traffic volumes. The higher the bids, the more lucrative an area tends to be, however if your niche is genuinely undiscovered, then it's likely to have traffic volume, but little bidder competition, as few other advertisers have spotted it.

Again, you can test market a niche using PPC and a basic website, where the aim is to see how many people click through from an advertisement, and perhaps show a level of buying interest. Once you have some idea of traffic, you can guess at a likely conversion rate - common industry guesstimates are around 3-8% - and then run your numbers. Conversion rates can be a lot higher if what you offer is in high demand, and in short supply, of course.

Sometimes, the figure you end up with might be too low for you to make any money, but it's good to know that now, rather than commit a lot of time and resources to an unworkable niche.

9. Market Trends

Is the market you plan to enter rising or falling? You can make money in either market, of course, but people tend to want to enter either fast rising new markets, or markets where demand is fairly steady, as opposed to diminishing.

Check out trend tools, such as Google Trends, Trendistic, and Microsoft Ad Intelligence.

Also,resources such as Trendspotting and TrendHuter.

10. What Are Your Competitors Doing?

If you're lucky enough to have found a niche with no competitors, well done. However, it is likely you'll have at least some competitors. It pays to know what they're doing, so you can emulate them, and go one better, or blow them out of the water by offering something they are not.

Look to see who is advertising via PPC, and who is doing SEO in your niche. How agressive are they? What approach are they taking? Can you make better offers that they make? Can you modify the niche slightly so you've not competing directly with them? Your customers will compare offers, so make sure your offer is competitive.

Check out competitive intelligence tools, such as Spy Fu, KeywordSpy and SEMRush

Turning Traffic Into Customers

Jun 24th
posted in

Why do we try to rank sites high in the search results?

Obviously, SEO is a traffic acquisition strategy. We seek to direct audiences who are interested in our products, services or ideas to our sites, rather than those of our competitors.

We expend time and energy getting a site to rank a few places higher, or for a wider range of keywords, but it also pays to focus our attention on what happens after visitors arrive. If visitors arrive, but click-back because a site isn't what they expected to see, then the effort we've put into ranking is wasted.

PPC marketers tend to focus a lot of their energy on what happens after the click. Because they are paying per click, there is significant jeopardy involved if visitors do click back, but it's also a discipline that can prove lucrative for SEOs. Many SEOs do this already, of course, however if you're new to the field, then it is easy to get bogged down in ranking methodology without giving much thought to what happens next.

Let's look at ways of making better use of the traffic we already have.

The State Of The Internet

In times past, producers could dictate to markets. You may recall Henry Ford's maxim when he talked about the Model T Ford: "You can have any color, so long as it is black!"

Producers were able to dictate to consumers when there wasn't much in the way of consumer choice. Markets weren't deep with competition. This was also sometimes a result of market sectors enjoying regulatory protection against new competitors.

The internet is the opposite.

The internet is a deep amalgamation of markets. Anyone, anywhere, can set up a "store front" - web presence - in a few days, or even a few minutes. There are few barriers to entry, and there are many new sites launching each second. This environment shifts the power from producer to consumer, as the consumer can exercise choice. On the internet, exercising that choice is often little more than a click of a mouse.

In such an environment, user-centric marketing is primary. If we don't satisfy visitors, it's very easy for them to go elsewhere. There is little point positioning #1 if the visitor is dissatisfied with what she sees, clicks back, and clicks on your competitors result further down the search result page instead. It could also be argued Google are using user behavior as a metric, so if enough users don't find what they were looking for on your site, this could, in turn, affect your ranking.

So what makes a visitor decide to leave or stay?

Typically, visitors will judge quickly. User testing has shown that visitors will first scan your page to see if it answers their query. If not, they go elsewhere. If you look at your stats, you might find this is the behavior of high proportion of your visitors. Visitors are also unlikely to wrestle with a site they don't intuitively understand, unless they really want what you've got, and you don't have any competitors.

Keep these points in mind:

  • users have choice
  • users will be quick to judge
  • users don't want to think

Three aspects need to work in tandem in order to get visitors to engage - design, usability and utility

Visual Design

First impressions count, hence the reason for appropriate graphic design.

What is "appropriate"? Naturally, it will differ for every site and audience, and largely comes down to how well you understand your visitors. A high-end fashion designer, who focuses on desirability and image is going to use a different visual design approach to a webmaster running a site for the academic community. The latter site design is more likely to focus on function as opposed to glossy form as commercial gloss can be perceived by an academic audience as being frivolous.

What both approaches have in common is that the visitor will be shown something they expect to see. This underscores the need to understand visitors. We'll look at ways you can approach this in the steps section below.

The next concept is.....

Usability

Once the visitor decides they are in the right place, the next step they need to take should be patently obvious. Usability is a practice that involves making sites easy to use. In terms of operation, sites should be made as simple as possible, and not indulge in complex navigation schemes.

Because users can easily go to another site, there is little incentive for them to wrestle with your site, so if you make it difficult for people to engage with you, many will not bother.

Utility

So, if we've got the visitor this far, they like the look of our site, and the visitor can find their way around easily.

But that isn't enough.

The visitor also needs a good reason to engage with us. What are you offering them? What do you offer them that is better than what the other guy offers? This is where your business strategy is important, especially your unique selling proposition. Do you offer something they really want? If not, rethink your offer.

Not only does the visitor need to be provided with a good reason to engage with you, this reason must be stated clearly. It must be self-evident. If the user has to go hunting for it, because it is buried in dense text on page three, then the visitor is likely to click back. Make sure your offer is writ large.

So, those are the three areas that need to tie together if we are to keep users: visual design, usability and utility.

Let's look at the practicalities.

Practical Tips

1. Create An Appropriate Design

Evaluate your competitors, especially your most successful competitors. Are there similarities in approach in terms of visual design? "Steal" ideas from the best, and twist them into something fresh, yet familiar.

Know your visitors. Who are they? What do they expect to see? You can often get demographic research reports from marketing companies that will help you profile your visitors. Surveys, polls and enabling comments are some other ways to get feedback.

Test. Use a/b testing to see how visitors react to different designs. There are free tools you can use, such as Google's Optimizer

Intuition and experience. Design often comes down to intuition, and what has worked in the past. If you're not a designer, employ someone who understands user-centric design and usability. Many web projects are blown by designers who focus on bells and whistles, as opposed to what is most appropriate.

2. Ensure Your Site Is Easy To Use

Read up on usability. Recommended resources include UseIt, Don't Make Me Think, and A List Apart (Usability Section)

Test. Track your logs to monitor user behavior. If you can, stand behind test users as they navigate your site. Look for any common impediments to their progress, and redesign as necessary.

3. Have you Articulated A Convincing Reason For People To Engage

Go back to your business case. Do you have a competitive offer? What is special about your pitch that will appeal to visitors?

Once you have identified the key points that differentiate you, ensure that these points are obvious to visitor. One good way to test this is with a spoken elevator pitch. Make an elevator pitch to your friends, and see if they are clear about what your offer is. What parts of the offer are they most responsive to, and why? Once you have honed a compelling pitch, translate this into the written word - or video - or sound file - on your website.

Address their objections. Not only do you need to appeal to what visitors want, you must also anticipate any objections they may have. Spell these out, then answer them.

Want to see an example of how this stuff comes together? Check out the front page of SEO Book.

Test :) As any PPC-er will tell you - always test.

The True Value Of Links

Jun 16th
posted in

Do you know anyone who got their rankings back after Update Panda trashed their site?

There may be some, and there may be some people who get their rankings back eventually, but the problem is a fundamental one:

If the Google dragon flicks her tail in your direction, and all you rely on is rankings, you're screwed

That's life in SEO. Google flicks her tail, and some webmasters may never be heard from again. The solution to this problem isn't to hope and pray the dragon won't target you. The solution is to acknowledge that the dragon has the power to make your life miserable, and figure out ways to avoid that pain in future.

Develop Real Networks, Not Just Link Networks

Links are the arteries of the web. Traffic flows via links, be they PPC, hyperlinks, or Facebook friend requests.

Of course, SEO's worked out some time ago that hyperlinks have another value. Google uses links to "keep score". To paraphrase, if you have a lot of "good quality" links pointing to your page, Google gives you a high score, and rewards you with a high ranking.

This way of thinking can cause problems.

If our link building strategies only relate to ranking, and not link traffic, then we're vulnerable to changes in the way Google keeps score. If, however, we look at link building in terms of traffic, arriving via those links, then we're less vulnerable to Google's whims. If, for whatever reason, we are no longer ranked well, we'd still have traffic flows via the links.

This is not to say link building for the purposes of ranking is redundant. Google's not that clever. Yet. However, if we're overly focused on ranking, which is one form of traffic acquisition, and not spreading our traffic acquisition methods, then it leaves us vulnerable to Gogole's ranking methodology, over which we have no control.

What Is A Link?

A link is a connection between people.

Remember the six degrees of separation? The idea that everyone is approximately six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of, "a friend of a friend" statements can be made, on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.

The connection on the web is more like one-to-one, especially when you can "friend" the President Of The United States on Facebook. Well, one of his staffers, but you get my drift :)

We're not that far away from other people.

The ability to connect with anyone on the web, in one step, is profound and powerful. Once connections are made between people, stuff happens. The stronger the connection, the more great stuff can happen. But this doesn't happen if we just view a link as a means to get a high ranking. We miss the opportunity to build something with greater staying power:

Real relationships.

And if you believe the pundits, Google will be looking more carefully at real relationships, as opposed to the...cough..."manufactured" kind, in future.

Techniques & Strategy

Here a few ideas on how to add another layer to your link building activities.

1. Identify The Top People In Your Niche

Who writes about what you do? Think reporters, bloggers, forums, industry leaders, pundits and conference organizers.

These people are also highly likely to link to you, if you give them a good enough reason. A good enough reason is unlikely to be "I've linked to you, so please link back". Remember, our aim is not just to get links, it is to get links that produce traffic, too.

A good enough reason is that you interest them. In order to do that, you need to learn a bit about them, such as what they've linked to in the past, and why. What are the current hot topics? Industry talking points? Where is the industry heading? Make a list of the top ten ranking sites, trace their back-links back, and see who is talking about those sites, and why.

2. Give Forward

Link out to them.

Linking to someone is a great way to get on their radar. Do you follow your inbound links to see who is linking to your site, and why? Chances are, they do, too.

Don't use any old link. Link to them from a well-considered, thoughtful, in-depth piece about a current industry talking point. Because when they follow the link back, they're more likely to engage with you if you've given them something to interesting to engage with. They also may feel they owe you something, as you have done something for them.

Consider what might make this person engage. Perhaps you stroke their ego a little. If you make them look good, chances are they'll want to highlight this fact to others. You could challenge their point of view, so they engage in a debate with you by responding back to you on their own site.

3. Start A Conversation

You could view #2 as one-off tactic, but it's more lucrative if you see it as part of an on-going process.

The world of SEO could be likened to a conversation that's been going on since 1995. The conversation now has many participants, many of whom cover exactly the same ground, however it's the unique, authoritative voices that stand out.

Chances are, their "voice" didn't just happen overnight. They participate constantly, and have done so for years. They get in-front of the industry, regularly, wherever the industry happens to be looking.

They also tend to lead it. If you want a lot of links that you never have to ask for, then it's a good idea to first give people something really worth linking to, and talking about, on a regular basis.

4. Get A Story

But what happens to the people who run a sales catalog? A brochure website? No one links to such sites anymore!

The strategy I'm outlining is about networks of people, as opposed to link networks that have little value, besides ranking factors. Consider Zappos. Consider the founder, Nick Swinmurn. People talk about the company - and link to it. People talk about the founder and CEO - and link up.

Few people link to the shoes, and even if they did, that's not a make or break for Zappos. The story is the interesting thing, and that resonates through different media, and results in links. Real links - the kind of links people travel down and end up customers.

Ok, so Zappos were very successful. Silicon Valley loves talking about successful tech companies. But this can happen in small, local niches, too. So long as you have a memorable, compelling story, that you hussle, links - real links - will follow. Do you give to local charities? Have you created interesting processes that small business sites may like to profile? It might not relate directly to what you're trying to sell, but it does result in building up real networks of people.

5. Carry On The Conversation

Link building is a tactic. We can buy links. We can automate links. We can spam it up!

But when Google changes the game, as they often do, you're not left with much if your entire strategy is based on technical hacks. Perhaps the richer, more secure long-term approach is to seek another level of value from your links. Go back to the original idea of a link, which was a connection between two people. Someone saying "hey this is interesting!". Once someone does that, we can engage in a conversation, and it can build from there.

Google can't kill that.

If you're interesting, and other people find you interesting, then ranking is no longer a make or break position.

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