Sometimes the SEO industry feels like one huge Groundhog Day. No matter how many times you have discussions with people on the same old topics, these issues seem to pop back into blogs/social media streams with almost regular periodicity. And every time it does, just the authors are new, the arguments and the contra arguments are all the same.
Due to this sad situation, I have decided to make a short list of such issues/discussions and hopefully if one of you is feeling particularly inspired by it and it prevents you from starting/engaging in such a debate, then it was worth writing.
So here are SEO's most annoying discussion topics, in no particular order:
This topic has been chewed over and over again so many times, yet people still jump into it with both their feet, having righteous feeling that their, and no one else's argument is going to change someone's mind. This discussion is becomes particularly tiresome when people start claiming moral high ground because they are using one over the other. Let's face it once and for all times: there are no generally moral (white) and generally immoral (black) SEO tactics.
This is where people usually pull out the argument about harming clients' sites, argument which is usually moot. Firstly, there is a heated debate about what is even considered whitehat and what blackhat. Definition of these two concepts is highly fluid and changes over time. One of the main reasons for this fluidity is Google moving the goal posts all the time. What was once considered purely whitehat technique, highly recommended by all the SEOs (PR submissions, directories, guest posts, etc.) may as of tomorrow become â€śblackhatâ€ť, â€śimmoralâ€ť and what not. Also some people consider â€śblackhatâ€ť anything that dares to not adhere to Google Webmaster Guidelines as if it was carved in on stone tablets by some angry deity.
Just to illustrate how absurd this concept is, imagine some other company, Ebay say, creates a list of rules, one of which is that anyone who wants to sell an item on their site, is prohibited from trying to sell it also on Gumtree or Craigslist. How many of you would practically reduce the number of people your product is effectively reaching because some other commercial entity is trying to prevent competition? If you are not making money off search, Google is and vice versa.
It is not about the morals, it is not about criminal negligence of your clients. It is about taking risks and as long as you are being truthful with your clients and yourself and aware of all the risks involved in undertaking this or some other activity, no one has the right to pontificate about â€śmoralityâ€ť of a competing marketing strategy. If it is not for you, don't do it, but you can't both decide that the risk is too high for you while pseudo-criminalizing those who are willing to take that risk.
The same goes for â€śblackhattersâ€ť pointing and laughing at â€śwhitehattersâ€ť. Some people do not enjoy rebuilding their business every 2 million comment spam links. That is OK. Maybe they will not climb the ranks as fast as your sites do, but maybe when they get there, they will stay there longer? These are two different and completely legitimate strategies. Actually, every ecosystem has representatives of those two strategies, one is called â€śr strategyâ€ť which prefers quantity over quality, while the K strategy puts more investment in a smaller number of offsprings.
You don't see elephants calling mice immoral, do you?
This one has been going around for years and keeps raising its ugly head every once in a while, particularly after Google forces another SaaS provider to give up part of its services because of either checking rankings themselves or buying ranking data from a third party provider. Then we get all the holier-than-thou folks, mounting their soap boxes and preaching fire and brimstone on SEOs who report rankings as the main or even only KPI. So firstly, again, just like with black vs. white hat, horses for courses. If you think your way of reporting to clients is the best, stick with it, preach it positively, as in â€śthis is what I do and the clients like itâ€ť but stop telling other people what to do!
More importantly, vast majority of these arguments are based on a totally imaginary situation in which SEOs use rankings as their only or main KPI. In all of my 12 years in SEO, I have never seen any marketer worth their salt report â€śincrease in rankings for 1000s of keywordsâ€ť. As far back as 2002, I remember people were writing reports to clients which had a separate chapter for keywords which were defined as optimization targets, client's site reached top rankings but no significant increase in traffic/conversions was achieved. Those keywords were then dropped from the marketing plan altogether.
It really isn't a big leap to understand that ranking isn't important if it doesn't result in increased conversions in the end. I am not going to argue here why I do think reporting and monitoring rankings is important. The point is that if you need to make your argument against a straw man, you should probably rethink whether you have a good argument at all.
Another strawman argument. Show me a linkbuilder who today thinks that getting links based solely on toolbar PageRank is going to get them to rank and I will show you a guy who has probably not engaged in active SEO since 2002. And not a small amount of irony can be found in the fact that the same people who decry use of Pagerank, a closest thing to an actual Google ranking factor they can see, are freely using proprietary metrics created by other marketing companies and treating them as a perfectly reliable proxy for esoteric concepts which even Google finds hard to define, such as relevance and authority. Furthermore, all other things equal, show me the SEO who will take a pass on a PR6 link for the sake of a PR3 one.
Matt hasn't turned off his video camera to switch his t-shirt for the next Webmaster Central video and there are already dozens of blog posts discussing to the most intricate of details on how the new algorithm update/penalty/infrastructure change/random- monochromatic-animal will impact everyone's daily routine and how we should all run for the hills.
Best-case scenario, these prolific writers only know the name of the update and they are already suggesting strategies on how to avoid being slapped or, even better, get out of the doghouse. This was painfully obvious in the early days of Panda, when people were writing their â€śexperiencesâ€ť on how to recover from the algorithm update even before the second update was rolled out, making any testimony of recovery, in the worst case, a lie or (given a massive benefit of the doubt) a misinterpretation of ranking changes (rank checking anyone).
Put down your feather and your ink bottle skippy, wait for the dust to settle and unless you have a human source who was involved in development or implementation of the algorithm, just sit tight and observe for the first week or two. After that you can write those observations and it will be considered a legitimate, even interesting reporting on the new algorithm but anything earlier than that will paint you as a clueless, pageview chaser, looking to ride the wave of interest with blog post that are often closed with â€śwe will probably not even know what the XXX update is all about until we give it some time to get implementedâ€ť. Captain Obvious to the rescue.
This one is like a mythological Hydra â€“ you cut one head off, two new one spring out. This question was answered so many times by so many people, both from within search engines and from the SEO community, that if you are addressing this question today, I am suspecting that you are actually trying to refrain from talking about something else and are using this topic as a smoke screen. Yes, I am looking at you Google Webmaster Central videos. Is that *really* the most interesting question you found on your pile? What, no one asked about <not provided> or about social signals or about role authorship plays on non-personalized rankings or on whether it flows through links or million other questions that are much more relevant, interesting and, more importantly, still unanswered?
This is very similar to the blackhat/whitehat argument and it is usually supported by a statement that looks something like â€śwhat do you think that Google with hundreds of PhDs haven't already discounted that in their algorithm?â€ť. This is a typical â€śargument from incredulityâ€ť by a person who glorifies post graduate degrees as a litmus of intelligence and ingenuity. My claim is that these people have neither looked at backlink profiles of many sites in many competitive niches nor do they know a lot of people doing or having a PhD. They highly underrate former and overrate the latter.
A link is a link is a link and the only difference is between link profiles and percentages that each type of link occupies in a specific link profile. Funnily enough, the same people who claim that X type of links don't work are the same people who will ask for link removal from totally legitimate, authoritative sources who gave them a totally organic, earned link. Go figure.
Hello. Did you order â€śnot provided will be maximum 10% of your referral dataâ€ť? Or did you have â€śI would be surprised if there was a PR update this yearâ€ť? How about â€śYou should never use nofollow on-site links that you don't want crawled. But it won't hurt you. Unless something.â€ť?
People keep thinking that people at Google sit around all day long, thinking how they can help SEOs do their job. How can you build your business based on advice given out by an entity who is actively trying to keep visitors from coming to your site? Can you imagine that happening in any other business environment? Can you imagine Nike marketing department going for a one day training session in Adidas HQ, to help them sell their sneakers better?
Repeat after me THEY ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Use your own head. Even better, use your own experience. Test. Believe your own eyes.
This is my absolute favourite. People who were as of yesterday basing their reporting, link building, landing page optimization, ranking reports, conversion rate optimization and about every other aspect of their online campaign on referring keywords, all of a sudden fell the need to tell the world how they never thought keywords were an important metric. That's right buster, we are so much better off flying blind, doing iteration upon iteration of a derivation of data based on past trends, future trends, landing pages, third party data, etc.
It is ok every once in a while to say â€ścrap, Google has really shafted us with this one, this is seriously going to affect the way I track progressâ€ť. Nothing bad will happen if you do. You will not lose face over it. Yes there were other metrics that were ALSO useful for different aspects of SEO but it is not as if when driving a car and your brakes die on you, you say â€śpfffftt stopping is for losers anyway, who wants to stop the car when you can enjoy the ride, I never really used those brakes in the past anyway. What really matters in the car is that your headlights are workingâ€ť.
Does this mean we can't do SEO anymore? Of course not. Adaptability is one of the top required traits of an SEO and we will adapt to this situation as we did to all the others in the past. But don't bullshit yourself and everyone else that 100% <not provided> didn't hurt you.
It is crystal clear why the â€śSEO is deadâ€ť stories themselves deserve to die a slow and painful death. I am talking here about hordes of SEOs who rise to the occasion every freeking time some 5th rate journalist decides to poke the SEO industry through the cage bars and convince them, nay, prove to them how SEO is not only not dying but is alive and kicking and bigger than ever. And I am not innocent of this myself, I have also dignified this idiotic topic with a response (albeit a short one) but how many times can we rise to the same occasion and repeat the same points? What original angle can you give to this story after 16 years of responding to the same old claims? And if you can't give an original angle, how in the world are you increasing our collective knowledge by re-warming and serving the same old dish that wasn't very good first time it was served? Don't you have rankings to check instead?
But that's what everyone does, writes a â€śTop 10 waysâ€¦â€ť article, where they will force the examples until they get to a linkbaity number. No one wants to read a â€śTop 13â€¦â€ť or a â€śTop 23â€¦â€ť article. This needs to die too. Write what you have to say. Not what you think will get most traction. Marketing is makeup, but the face needs to be pretty before you apply it. Unless you like putting lipstick on pigs.
Branko Rihtman has been optimizing sites for search engines since 2001 for clients and own web properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, Branko realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at SEO Scientist, with some additional updates at @neyne. He currently consults a number of international clients, helping them improve their organic traffic and conversions while questioning old approaches to SEO and trying some new ones.
One approach to search marketing is to treat the search traffic as a side-effect of a digital marketing strategy. Iâ€™m sure Google would love SEOs to think this way, although possibly not when it comes to PPC! Even if youâ€™re taking a more direct, rankings-driven approach, the engagement and relevancy scores that come from delivering what the customer values should serve you well, too.
In this article, weâ€™ll look at a content strategy based on value based marketing. Many of these concepts may be familiar, but bundled together, they provide an alternative search provider model to one based on technical quick fixes and rank. If you want to broaden the value of your SEO offering beyond that first click, and get a few ideas on talking about value, then this post is for you.
In any case, the days of being able to rank well without providing value beyond the click are numbered. Search is becoming more about providing meaning to visitors and less about providing keyword relevance to search engines.
Value based marketing is customer, as opposed to search engine, centric. In Values Based Marketing For Bottom Line Success, the authors focus on five areas:
Customers compare your offer against those of competitors, and divide the benefits by the cost to arrive at value. Marketing determines and communicates that value.
This is the step beyond keyword matching. When we use keyword matching, weâ€™re trying to determine intent. Weâ€™re doing a little demographic breakdown. This next step is to find out what the customer values. If we give the customer what they value, theyâ€™re more likely to engage and less likely to click back.
A key question of marketing is â€śwhich customers does this business serveâ€ť? Seems like an obvious question, but it can be difficult to answer. Does a gym serve people who want to get fit? Yes, but then all gyms do that, so how would they be differentiated?
Obviously, a gym serves people who live in a certain area. So, if our gym is in Manhattan, our customer becomes â€śsomeone who wants to get fit in Manhattanâ€ť. Perhaps our gym is upmarket and expensive. So, our customer becomes â€śpeople who want to get fit in Manhattan and be pampered and are prepared to pay more for itâ€ť. And so on, and so on. Theyâ€™re really questions and statements about the value proposition as perceived by the customer, and then delivered by the business.
So, value based marketing is about delivering value to a customer. This syncs with Googleâ€™s proclaimed goal in search, which is to put users first by delivering results they deem to have value, and not just pages that match a keyword term. Keywords need to be seen in a wider context, and that context is pretty difficult to establish if youâ€™re standing outside the search engine looking in, so thinking in terms of concepts related to the value proposition might be a good way to go.
The common SEO approach, for many years, has started with keywords. It should start with customers and the business.
The first question is â€śwho is the target marketâ€ť and then ask what they value.
Relate what they value to the business. What is the value proposition of the business? Is it aligned? What would make a customer value this business offering over those of competitors? It might be price. It might be convenience. Itâ€™s probably a mix of various things, but be sure to nail down the specific value propositions.
Then think of some customer questions around these value propositions. What would be the likely customer objections to buying this product? What would be points that need clarifying? How does this offer differ from other similar offers? What is better about this product or service? What are the perceived problems in this industry? What are the perceived problems with this product or service? What is difficult or confusing about it? What could go wrong with it? What risks are involved? What aspects have turned off previous customers? What complaints did they make?
Make a list of such questions. These are your article topics.
You can glean this information by either interviewing customers or the business owner. Each of these questions, and accompanying answer, becomes an article topic on your site, although not necessarily in Q&A format. The idea is to create a list of topics as a basis for articles that address specific points, and objections, relating to the value proposition.
For example, buying SEO services is a risk. Customers want to know if the money they spend is going to give them a return. So, a valuable article might be a case study on how the company provided return on spend in the past, and the process by which it will achieve similar results in future. Another example might be a buyer concerned about the reliability of a make of car. A page dedicated to reliability comparisons, and another page outlining the customer care after-sale plan would provide value. Note how these articles arenâ€™t keyword driven, but value driven.
Ever come across a FAQ that isnâ€™t really a FAQ? Dreamed-up questions? Theyâ€™re frustrating, and of little value if the information doesnâ€™t directly relate to the value we seek. Information should be relevant and specific so when people land on the site, thereâ€™s more chance they will perceive value, at least in terms of addressing the questions already on their mind.
Compare this approach with generic copy around a keyword term. A page talking about â€śSEOâ€ť in response to the keyword term â€śSEOâ€śmight closely match a keyword term, so thatâ€™s a relevance match, but unless itâ€™s tied into providing a customer the value they seek, itâ€™s probably not of much use. Finding relevance matches is no longer a problem for users. Finding value matches often is. Even if youâ€™re keyword focused, added these articles provides you semantic variation that may capture keyword searches that aren't appearing in keyword tools.
Keyword relevance was a strategy devised at a time when information was less readily available and search engines weren't as powerful. Finding something relevant was more hit and miss that it is today. These days, thereâ€™s likely thousands, if not millions, of pages that will meet relevance criteria in terms of keyword matching, so the next step is to meet value criteria. Providing value is less likely to earn a click back and more likely to create engagement than mere on-topic matching.
Deliver value. Once people perceive value, then we have to deliver it. Marketing, and SEO in particular, used to be about getting people over the threshold. Today, businesses have to work harder to differentiate themselves and a sound way of doing this is to deliver on promises made.
So the value is in the experience. Why do we return to Amazon? Itâ€™s likely due to the end-to-end experience in terms of delivering value. Any online e-commerce store can deliver relevance. Where competition is fierce, Google is selective.
In the long term, delivering value should drive down the cost of marketing as the site is more likely to enjoy repeat custom. As Google pushes more and more results beneath the fold, the cost of acquisition is increasing, so we need to treat each click like gold.
Monitor value. Does the firm keep delivering value? To the same level? Because people talk. They talk on Twitter and Facebook and the rest. We want them talking in a good way, but even if they talk in a negative way, it can still useful. Their complaints can be used as topics for articles. They can be used to monitor value, refine the offer and correct problems as they arise. Those social signals, whilst not a guaranteed ranking boost, are still signals. We need to adopt strategies whereby we listen to all the signals, so to better understand our customers, in order to provide more value, and hopefully enjoy a search traffic boost as a welcome side-effect, so long as Google is also trying to determine what users value. .
Not sounding like SEO? Well, itâ€™s not optimizing for search engines, but for people. If Google is to provide value, then it needs to ensure results provide not just relevant, but offer genuine value to end users. Do Google do this? In many cases, not yet, but all their rhetoric and technical changes suggest that providing value is at the ideological heart of what they do. So the search results will most likely, in time, reflect the value people seek, and not just relevance.
In technical terms, this provides some interesting further reading:
Today, signals such as keyword co-occurrence, user behavior, and previous searches do in fact inform context around search queries, which impact the SERP landscape. Note I didnâ€™t say the signals â€śimpact rankings,â€ť even though rank changes can, in some cases, be involved. Thatâ€™s because thereâ€™s a difference. Google can make a change to the SERP landscape to impact 90 percent of queries and not actually cause any noticeable impact on rankings.
The way to get the context right, and get positive user behaviour signals, and align with their previous searches, is to first understand what people value.
In a recent post I talked about the benefits of productizing your business model along with some functional ways to achieve productization.
A product, in and of itself is really only 1/2 of what you are selling to your clients. The other 1/2 of the equation is the "experience".
It sounds a bit "fluffy" but in my career as a service provider and in my purchasing history as a consumer the experience matters. I would even go so far as to say that in some very noticeable cases the experience can outweigh the product itself (to some extent anyways).
These halves, the product and the experience, can cut both ways.
Sometimes a product is so good that the experience can be average or even below average and the provider will still make out and sometimes the experience is so fantastic that an otherwise average or above average product is elevated to what can be priced as a premium product or service.
Let's get a few obvious variables out of the way first. It is understood that:
If we stipulate that the 4 scenarios mentioned above are true, which they are, it still doesn't change the basic premise that you are probably leaving revenue and growth on the table if you settle on one side or the other.
While it's true that you can be successful even if your product to experience ratio is like a seesaw heavily weighted in one direction over the other, it is also true that you would probably be more successful if you made both the best each could be.
I'll layout a couple of examples here to help illustrate the point:
In my experience Ahrefs has been the best combination of product and experience, especially lately. Their dataset continues to grow and recent UI changes have made it even easier to use. Exports are super fast and Iâ€™ve had quick and useful interactions with their support staff. Perhaps it isnâ€™t a coincidence that, from groups of folks I interact with and follow online, Ahrefs continues to pop up more often in conversation than not.
To me, Majestic and Link Research Tools are examples of where the product is really, really strong (copious amounts of data across many segments) but the UI/UX is not quite as good as the others. I realize some of this is subjective but in other comparisons online this seems to be a prevailing theme.
Open Site Explorer has a fantastic UI/UX but the data can be a bit behind the others and getting data out (exporting) is bit more of a chore than point, click, download. It seems like over a period of time OSE has had a rougher road to data and update growth than the other tools I mentioned.
In the case of two of more popular reporting and research suites, Moz and Raven, Raven has really caught up (if not surpassed) Moz in terms of UI/UX. Raven pulls in data from multiple sources, including Moz, and has quite a few more (and easier to get to and cross-reference) features than Moz.
Moz may not be interested in getting into some of the other pieces of the online marketing puzzle that Raven is into but I think itâ€™s still a valid comparison based on the very similar, basic purpose of each tool suite.
When assessing or reassessing your products and offerings, a lot of it goes back to targeting the right market.
If the market isnâ€™t big enough and you have to go outside your initial target, how will that affect the balance between the functionality of your product and the experience for your users, customers, or clients?
If you are providing SEO services your "functionality" might be how easy it is to determine the reports you provide and their relationship(s) to a client's profitability or goals (or both). Your "experience" is likely a combination of things:
When you breakdown what you think is your "product" and "experience" you'll likely find that it is pretty simple to develop a plan to improve both, rather than beating the vague "let's do great things" company line that no one really understands but just nods at.
In just about every Consumer Reports survey Apple comes out on top for customer satisfaction. Apple, whether you like their products/"culture" or not, creates a fairly reliable, if not expensive, end to end experience. This is doubly true if you live near an Apple store.
If you look at laptop failure rates Apple is generally in the middle of the pack. There are other things that go into the Apple experience (using the OS and such) but part of the reason people are willing to pay that premium is due to their support options and ability to fix bugs fairly quickly.
To tie this into our industry, I think Moz is a good parallel example here. Their design is generally heralded as being quite pleasant and it's pretty easy to use their tools; there isn't a steep learning curve to using most of their products.
I think their product presentation is top notch, even though I generally prefer some of their competitors products. They are pretty active on social media and their support is generally very good.
So, in the case of Moz it's pretty clear that people are willing to pay for less robust data or at least less features and options partly (or wholly) due to their product experience and product presentation.
You might already have some of these but it's worthwhile to revisit a very basic style guide (excluding audience development):
Here are some visual/text-based resources that I have found helpful during my own redefining process:
These are some of the tools you might want to use to help in this process:
A stopped clock is right two times a day.
Thereâ€™s some amusing historical revisionism going on in SEO punditry world right now, which got me thinking about the history of SEO. Iâ€™d like to talk about some common themes of this historical revision, which goes along the lines of â€śwhat I predicted all those years ago came true - what a visionary I am! ." No naming names, as I don't meant this to be anything personal - as the same theme has popped up in a number of places - just making some observations :)
See if you agreeâ€¦.
The SEO world has never been united. There are no industry standards and qualifications like youâ€™d find in the professions, such as being a doctor, or lawyer or a builder. If you say youâ€™re an SEO, then youâ€™re an SEO.
Part of the reason for the lack of industry standard is that the search engines never came to the party. Sure, they talked at conferences, and still do. They offered webmasters helpful guidelines. They participated in search engine discussion forums. But this was mainly to do with risk management. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
In all these years, you wonâ€™t find one example of a representative from a major search engine saying â€śHey, letâ€™s all get together and form an SEO standard. It will help promote and legitimize the industry!â€ť.
No, it has always been decrees from on high. â€śDonâ€™t do this, donâ€™t do that, and here are some things weâ€™d like you to doâ€ť. Webmasters donâ€™t get a say in it. They either do what the search engines say, or they go against them, but make no mistake, there was never any partnership, and the search engines didnâ€™t seek one.
This didnâ€™t stop some SEOs seeing it as a form of quasi-partnership, however.
Some SEOs chose to align themselves with search engines and do their bidding. If the search engine reps said â€śdo thisâ€ť, they did it. If the search engines said â€śdonâ€™t do thisâ€ť, theyâ€™d wrap themselves up in convoluted rhetorical knots pretending not to do it. This still goes on, of course.
In the early 2000â€™s, it turned, curiously, into a question of morality. There was â€śEthical SEOâ€ť, although quite what it had to do with ethics remains unclear. Really, it was another way of saying â€śsomeone who follows the SEO guidelinesâ€ť, presuming that whatever the search engines decree must be ethical, objectively good and have nothing to do self-interest. Itâ€™s strange how people kid themselves, sometimes.
What was even funnier was the search engine guidelines were kept deliberately vague and open to interpretation, which, of course, led to a lot of heated debate. Some people were â€śgoodâ€ť and some people were â€śbadâ€ť, even though the distinction was never clear. Sometimes it came down to where on the page someone puts a link. Or how many times someone repeats a keyword. And in what color.
It got funnier still when the search engines moved the goal posts, as they are prone to do. What was previously good - using ten keywords per page - suddenly became the height of evil, but using three was â€śgoodâ€ť and so all the arguments about who was good and who wasnâ€™t could start afresh. It was the pot calling the kettle black, and Iâ€™m sure the search engines delighted in having the enemy warring amongst themselves over such trivial concerns. As far as the search engines were concerned, none of them were desirable, unless they became paying customers, or led paying customers to their door. Then there was all that curious Google+ business.
It's hard to keep up, sometimes.
Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with playing by the rules. It would have been nice to think there was a partnership, and so long as you followed the guidelines, high rankings would naturally follow, the bad actors would be relegated, and everyone would be happy.
But this has always been a fiction. A distortion of the environment SEOs were actually operating in.
Jason Calacanis, never one to miss an opportunity for controversy, fired some heat seekers at Google during his WebmasterWorld keynote address recentlyâ€¦..
Calacanis proceeded to describe Cutts and Google in terms like, â€śliar,â€ť â€śevil,â€ť and â€śa bad partner.â€ť He cautioned the PubCon audience to not trust Google, and said they cooperate with partners until they learn the business and find a way to pick off the profits for themselves. The rant lasted a good five minutesâ€¦.
He accused Google of doing many of the things SEOs are familiar with, like making abrupt algorithm changes without warning. They donâ€™t consult, they just do it, and if peopleâ€™s businesses get trashed as a result, then thatâ€™s just too bad. Now, if thatâ€™s a sting for someone who is already reasonably wealthy and successful like Calacanis, just imagine what it feels like for the much smaller web players who are just trying to make a living.
The search business is not a pleasant environment where all players have an input, and then standards, terms and play are generally agreed upon. Itâ€™s war. Itâ€™s characterized by a massive imbalance of power and wealth, and one party will use it to crush those who it determines stands in its way.
Of course, the ever pleasant Matt Cutts informs us itâ€™s all about the users, and thatâ€™s a fair enough spin of the matter, too. There was, and is, a lot of junk in the SERPs, and Mahalo was not a partner of Google, so any expectation theyâ€™d have a say in what Google does is unfounded.
The take-away is that Google will set rules that work for Google, and if they happen to work for the webmaster community too, well thatâ€™s good, but only a fool would rely on it. Google care about their bottom line and their projects, not ours. If someone goes out of business due to Googleâ€™s behaviour, then so be it. Personally, I think the big technology companies do have a responsibility beyond themselves to society, because the amount of power they are now centralising means theyâ€™re not just any old company anymore, but great vortexes that can distort entire markets. For more on this idea, and where itâ€™s all going, check out my review of â€śWho Owns The Futureâ€ť by Jaron Lanier.
So, if you see SEO as a matter of playing by their rules, then fine, but keep in mind "those who can give you everything can also take everything away". Those rules weren't designed for your benefit.
There was a massive opportunity cost by following so called ethical SEO during the 2000s.
For a long time, it was relatively easily to get high rankings by being grey. And if you got torched, you probably had many other sites with different link patterns good to go. This was against the webmaster guidelines, but given marketing could be characterized as war, one does not let the enemy define ones tactics. Some SEOs made millions doing it. Meanwhile, a lot of content-driven sites disappeared. That was, perhaps, my own "a stopped clock is right two times a day" moment. It's not like I'm going to point you to all the stuff I've been wrong about, now is it :)
These days, a lot of SEO is about content and how that content is marketed, but more specifically itâ€™s about the stature of the site on which that content appears. Thatâ€™s the bit some pundits tend to gloss over. You can have great content, but thatâ€™s no guarantee of anything. You will likely remain invisible. However, put that exact same content on a Fortune 500 site, and that content will likely prosper. Ah, the rich get richer.
So, we can say SEO is about content, but thatâ€™s only half the picture. If youâ€™re a small player, the content needs to appear in the right place, be very tightly targeted to your audiences needs so they donâ€™t click back, and it should be pushed through various media channels.
Content, even from many of these "ethical SEOs", used to be created for search engines in the hope of netting as many visitors as possible. These days, itâ€™s probably a better strategy to get inside the audience's heads and target it to their specific needs, as opposed to a keyword, then get that content out to wherever your audience happens to be. Unless, of course, youâ€™re Fortune 500 or otherwise well connected, in which case you can just publish whatever you like and it will probably do well.
Fair? Not really, but no one ever said this game was fair.
Do I know whatâ€™s going to happen next? In ten years time? Nope. I could make a few guesses, and like many other pundits, some guesses will prove right, and some will be wrong, but thatâ€™s the nature of the future. It will soon make fools of us all.
Having said that, will you take a punt and tell us what you think will be the future of SEO? Does it have one? What will look like? If youâ€™re right, then you can point back here in a few years time and say â€śLook, I told you so!â€ť.
If youâ€™re wrong, well, thereâ€™s always historical revisionism :)
SEO has always been focused on acquisition.
The marketing strategy, based on high rankings against keyword terms, is about gaining a steady flow of new visitors. If a site ranks better than competing sites, this steady stream of new visitors will advantage the top sites to the disadvantage of those sites beneath it.
The selling point of SEO is a strong one. The client gets a constant flow of new visitors and enjoys competitive advantage, just so long as they maintain rank.
A close partner of SEO is PPC. Like SEO, PPC delivers a stream of new visitors, and if you bid well, and have relevant advertisements, then you enjoy a competitive advantage. Unlike PPC, SEO does not cost per click, or, to be more accurate, it should cost a lot less per click once the SEOs fees are taken into account, so SEO has enjoyed a stronger selling point. Also, the organic search results typically have a higher level of trust from search engine users.
91% prefer using natural search results when looking to buy a product or service online".[Source: Tamar Search Attitudes Report, Tamar, July 2010]
Either by coincidence or design, Googleâ€™s algorithm shifts have made SEO less of a sure proposition.
If you rank well, the upside is still there, but because the result is less certain than it used to be, and the work more involved than ever, the risk, and costs in general, have increased. The more risky SEO becomes in terms of getting results, the more Adwords looks attractive, as at least results are assured, so long as spend is sufficient.
Adwords is a brilliant system. For Google. Itâ€™s also a brilliant system for those advertisers who can find a niche that doesnâ€™t suffer high levels of competition. The trouble is competition levels are typically high.
Because competition is high, and Adwords is an auction model, bid prices must rise. As bid prices rise, only those companies that can achieve ROI at high costs per click will be left bidding. The higher their ROI, the higher the bid prices can conceivably go. Their competitors, if they are to keep up, will do likewise.
So, the PPC advertiser focused on customer acquisition as a means of growing the company will be passing more and more of their profits to Google in the form of higher and higher click prices. If a company wants to grow by customer acquisition, via the search channel, then theyâ€™ll face higher and higher costs. It can be difficult to maintain ROI via PCC over time, which is why SEO is appealing. Itâ€™s little wonder Google has their guns pointed at SEO.
A fundamental problem with Adwords, and SEO in general, is that basing marketing success around customer acquisition alone is a poor long term strategy.
More on that point soonâ€¦.
Itâ€™s surprising a term such as â€śwhite hat SEOâ€ť was ever taken seriously.
Any attempt to game a search engineâ€™s algorithm, as far as the search engine is concerned, is going to be frowned upon by the search engine. What is gaming if itâ€™s not reverse engineering the search engines ranking criteria and looking to gain a higher rank than a site would otherwise merit? Acquiring links, writing keyword-focused articles, for the purpose of gaining a higher rank in a search engine is an attempt at rank manipulation. The only thing that varies is the degree.
Not that thereâ€™s anything wrong with that, as far as marketers are concerned.
The search marketing industry line has been that so long as you avoided â€śbad behaviourâ€ť, your site stood a high chance of ranking well. Ask people for links. Find keywords with traffic. Publish pages focused on those topics. There used to more certainty of outcome.
If the outcome is not assured, then so long as a site is crawlable, why would you need an SEO? You just need to publish and see where Google ranks you. Unless the SEO is manipulating rank, then where is the value proposition over and above simply publishing crawlable content? Really, SEO is a polite way of saying â€śgaming the systemâ€ť.
Those who let themselves be defined by Google can now be seen scrambling to redefine themselves. â€śInbound marketersâ€ť is one term being used a lot. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with this, of course, although youâ€™d be hard pressed to call it Search Engine Optimization. Itâ€™s PR. Itâ€™s marketing. Itâ€™s content production. The side effect of such activity might be a high ranking in the search engines (wink, wink). Itâ€™s like Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club isâ€¦...
A few years back, we predicted that the last SEOs standing would be blackhat, and thatâ€™s turned out to be true. The term SEO has been successfully co-opted and marginalized. You can still successfully game the system with disposable domains, by aggressively targeting keywords, and buying lot of links and/or building link networks, but thereâ€™s no way thatâ€™s compliant with Googleâ€™s definitions of acceptable use. It would be very difficult to sell that to a client without full disclosure. Even with full disclosure, Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s a hard sell.
But I digressâ€¦.
The blackhats will continue on as usual. They never took direction from search engines, anyway.
Many SEOs are looking to blend a number of initiatives together to take the emphasis off search. Some call it inbound. In practice, it blends marketing, content production and PR. It's a lot less about algo hacking.
For it to work well, and to get great results in search, the SEO model needs to be turned on its head. Itâ€™s still about getting people to a site, but because the cost of getting people to a site has increased, every visitor must count. For this channel to maintain value, then more focus will go on what happens after the click.
If the offer is not right, and the path to that offer isnâ€™t right, then itâ€™s like having people turn up for a concert when the band hasnâ€™t rehearsed. At the point the audience turns up, they must deliver what the audience wants, or the audience isnâ€™t coming back. The bands popularity will quickly fade.
This didnâ€™t really matter too much in the past when it was relatively cheap to position in the SERPs. If you received a lot of slightly off-topic traffic, big deal, itâ€™s not like it cost anything. Or much. These days, because itâ€™s growing ever more costly to position, weâ€™re increasingly challenged by the â€śgrowth by acquisitionâ€ť problem.
Consider optimizing in two areas, if you havenâ€™t already.
1. Offer Optimization
We know that if searchers donâ€™t find what they what, they click back. The click back presents two problems. One, you just wasted time and money getting that visitor to your site. Secondly, itâ€™s likely that Google is measuring click-backs in order to help determine relevancy.
How do you know if your offer is relevant to users?
The time-tested way is to examine a couple of the 4ps. Product, price, position, and place. Place doesnâ€™t matter so much, as weâ€™re talking about the internet, although if youâ€™ve got some local-centric product or service, then itâ€™s a good idea to focus on it. Promotion is what SEOs do. They get people over the threshold.
However, two areas worth paying attention to are product and price. In order to optimize product, we need to ask some fundamental questions:
SEOs are only going to have so much control over these aspects, especially if theyâ€™re working for a client. However, it still pays to ask these questions, regardless. If the client canâ€™t answer them, then you may be dealing with a client who has no strategic advantage over competitors. They are likely running a me-too site. Such sites are difficult to position from scratch.
Even older sites that were at one point highly differentiated have slid into an unprofitable me too status as large sites like Amazon & eBay offer a catalog which grows deeper by the day.
Unless you're pretty aggressive, taking on me-too sites will make your life difficult in terms of SEO, so thinking about strategic advantage can be a good way to screen clients. If they have no underlying business advantage, ask yourself if you really want to be doing SEO for these people?
In terms of price:
Again, even if you have little or no control over these aspects, then it still pays to ask the questions. You're looking for underlying business advantage that you can leverage.
Once weâ€™ve optimized the offer, we then look at conversion.
2. Conversion Optimization
Thereâ€™s the obvious conversion most search marketers know about. People arrive at a landing page. Some people buy whatâ€™s on offer, and some leave. So, total conversions/number of views x 100 equals the conversion rate.
However, when it comes to SEO, itâ€™s not just about the conversion rate of a landing page. Unlike PPC, you donâ€™t have precise control over the entry page. So, optimizing for conversion is about looking at every single page on which people enter your site, and optimizing each page as if it were an entry point.
What do you want people to do when they land on your page?
Have a desired action in mind for every page. It might be a sign-up. It might be to encourage a bookmark. It might be to buy something. It might be to tweet. Whatever it is, we need to make the terms of engagement, for the visitor, clear for each page - with a big, yellow highlight on the term â€śengagementâ€ť! Remember, Google are likely looking at bounce-back rates. So, there is a conversion rate for every single page on your site, and theyâ€™re likely all different.
Think about the shopping cart process. Is a buyer, particularly a mobile buyer, going to wade through multiple forms? Or could the sale be made in as few clicks as possible? Would integrating Paypal or Amazon payments lift your conversion rates? Whatâ€™s your site speed like? The faster, the better, obviously. A lot of conversion is about streamlining things - from processes, to navigation to site speed.
At this point, a lot of people will be wondering how to measure and quantify all this. How to track track conversion funnels across a big site. Itâ€™s true, itâ€™s difficult. It many cases, itâ€™s pretty much impossible to get adequate sample sizes.
However, thatâ€™s not a good reason to avoid conversion optimization. You can measure it in broad terms, and get more incremental as time goes on. A change across pages, a change in paths, can lead to small changes on those pages and paths, even changes that are difficult to spot, but there is sufficient evidence that companies who employ conversion optimization can enjoy significant gains, especially if they haven't focused on these areas in the past.
While you could quantify every step of the way, and some companies certainly do, thereâ€™s probably a lot of easy wins that can be gained merely by following these two general concepts - optimizing the offer and then optimizing (streamlining) the pages and paths that lead to that offer. If something is obscure, make it obvious. If you want the visitor to do something, make sure the desired action is writ-large. If something is slow, make it faster.
Do it across every offer, page and path in your site and watch the results.
Once a training ground for novice SEOs, local search has evolved into a complex, unpredictableÂ ecosystem dominated by Google. Corporations and mom-and-pops shops alike are fighting for their place under the Sun. It's everybody's job to make best out of local Internet marketing because its importance will continue to grow.
This guide is geared towards helping you deepen your understanding of the local search ecosystem, as well as local Internet marketing in general.
I hope that, after you finish reading this guide, you will be able to make sense of local Internet marketing, use it to grow your business or help your clients do the same.
Websites exist to accomplish objectives. Regardless of company size, business models and market, your website needs to bring you closer to accomplishing one or more business objectives. These could be:
Although not exciting, this is a crucial step in building a local Internet strategy. It will determine the way you set your goals, largely shape the functionality of your website, guide you in deciding what your budget should be and so on.
Objectives are too broad to work with. They exist on a higher level and are something company executives/leadership need to set.
This is why we need specific goals, KPIs and targets. Without getting into too many details, goals could be defined as specific strategies geared towards accomplishing an objective.
For example, if your objective is to â€śgrow your law firm,â€ť a good goal derived from that would be to â€śgenerate client inquiriesâ€ť. Another one would be to use the website to get client referrals.
When you have all this defined, you need to set KPIs. They are simply metrics that help you understand how are you doing against your objectives.Â For this imaginary law firm, a good KPI would be the number of potential client leads. After you set targets for your KPIs, you have completed your measurement framework. To learn more about measurement models, you can read this post by Avinash Kaushik.
These will be the numbers that you or your client should care about on a day to day basis.
Regardless of size, every local business needs to know what is their average lifetime customer value and the cost of customer acquisition.
You need to know these numbers so you can set your marketing budget and be aware if you are on the path of going out of business despite acquiring lots of customers.
Lifetime customer value (LTV) is revenue you expect from a single customer during the lifetime of your business. If you are having trouble calculating this number for your or client's business, use this neat calculator made by Harvard Business School.
Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) is the amount of money you spent to acquire a single customer. The formula is simple. Divide the sum of total costs of sales, marketing, your overhead, with the number of customers you acquired in any given period.
LTV & CAC are the magic numbers.
You can use them to sell Internet marketing services, as well as to demonstrate the value of investing heavily in Internet marketing.
Understanding and using these metrics will put you and your clients ahead of most competitors.
Now when you have your business objectives, customer acquisition costs and other KPIs defined, and their targets set, it's time to talk budgets. Budgets will determine what kind of local Internet marketing campaign you can run and how far it can essentially go.
Most companies don't have a separate Internet marketing budget. It's usually just a part of their marketing budget which can be anywhere from 2% to 20% of sales depending on a lot of factors including, but not limited to:
What does this mean to you?
If you are selling services, you will need to have as much of this data as possible.
Now when you know what business objectives your local Internet marketing campaign has to accomplish, your targets, and your budget - you can start developing a campaign. It's easiest to think of this process if we break our campaign planning into small, but meaningful phases:
Local search is about data. It's about aggregation and distribution of data across different platforms and technologies. It's also about accuracy and consistency.
This is the reason why you need to start with a NAP audit.
NAP stands for name, address and phone number. It's the anchor business data and should remain accurate, consistent and up to date everywhere. In order to make it consistent, you first need to identify inaccurate data.
This is easier than it sounds.
Start With Data Aggregators
Data aggregators or compilers are companies that build and maintain large databases of business data. In the US, the ones you should keep an eye on are Neustar/Localeze , Infogroup (former InfoUSA) and Axciom.
Why are data aggregators important?
They are upstream data providers. This means that they provide baseline and sometimes enhanced data to search engines (including Google), local and industry directories. If your data is wrong in one of their databases, it will be wrong all over the place.
Usually, your business data goes bad for one or more of these reasons:
If you or your client have a data inconsistency problem, the fix will start with the aggregators:
Before you embark on a data correction campaign, have in mind that data aggregators take their data seriously. You will need to have access to the phone number on the listing you are trying to claim and verify, an email on the domain of the site associated with the business, and sometimes even scans of official documents.
Remember - after you fix your data inaccuracies with the aggregators, it's still a smart idea to claim and verify listings in major IYPs as data moves slowly from upstream data providers to
numerous local search platforms your business is listed in.
Simply put, citations are mentions of your business's name, address and phone number (full citation) or name and phone or address (partial citation).
Just like links in â€śgeneralâ€ť organic search, citations are used to determine the relative importance or prominence of your business listing. If Google notices an abundance of consistent citations, it makes them think that your business is legitimate and important and you get rewarded with higher search visibility.
The more citations your business has, the more important it will be in Google's eyes. Oh, there is also a little matter of citation quality as not all citations are created equal. There are also different types of citations besides full and partial.
Depending on the source, citations can come from:
We could group citations by how structured they are. This means that a citation on YellowBook.com is structured, but a mention on your uncle's blog is not. Google prefers the first type. The bulk of your citation building will be covered by simply making sure that your data in major data aggregators is accurate and up-to-date. However, there's more to citations than that.
Conventional wisdom tells us that citation strength depends mostly on the algorithmic trust that Google has in the source of the your citation. For example, if you are a manufacturer of industrial coatings, a mention on ThomasNet.com would help you significantly more than a mention on a blog from some guy that has visited your facility once.
You also want your citations to be structured, relevant and to have a link to your website for maximum benefit.
You already started by claiming and verifying your listings with major data aggregators. Since you are very serious about local search, you will make sure to claim and verify listings with major IYPs, too.
Start with the most important ones:
You shouldn't forget business and industry associations such as bbb.org or your local chamber of commerce. Here's where you can find your local chamber of commerce.
Industry directories such as Avvo.com for lawyers or ThomasNet.com for manufacturers are not just an excelent source of citations, but are great for your organic search visibility in the Penguin Apocalipse.
How do you find those ?
You can use a couple of tools:
Then pay attention to daily deal and event sites. Don't forget charity websites either. If you are one of those people that are obsessed with how everything about citations works, I recommend this (the one and only) book/guide about citations by Nyagoslav Zhekov.
While it's possible to achieve some success using just Google Places and other platforms to market a local business, it's not possible to capture all the Web has to offer.
Your website is the only web property you will fully control. You have the freedom to track and measure anything you want, and the freedom to use your website to accomplish any business objective.
There's nothing more tragic nor costly than targeting the wrong keywords and trying to appeal to demographics that don't need your services/products.
To run a successful local Internet marketing campaign, you cannot just rely on quantitative data (keywords), you need to conduct qualitative market research. This is very important as it will reduce your risks, as well as acquisition costs if done right.
Let's start with keyword research.
Getting local keyword data has always been a challenge. Google's recent decision to withhold organic keyword data hasn't made it any easier. However, Google itself has provided us with tools to get relatively reliable keyword data for any local search campaign.
Coupled with data from SEOBook Keyword Tool, Ubersuggest, and Bing's Keyword Tool, you will have plenty of data to work with.
Of course, you shouldn't forsake the market research of the equation.
You and/or your client can survey their customers to discover how exactly they describe your business, your services/products or your geographic area. For example, you'll learn if there are any geographical nuances that you should be aware of, such as:
Use this data against keyword research tools. If you're running AdWords, you can get an accurate idea of search volumes. To do that, click the Campaign tab, followed by the Keywords tab, then Details and then Search Terms. This data can be downloaded. The video below shows how you can get accurate search volume data if running AdWords.
Keep in mind that the quality of data using this method depends on your use of keyword matching options. This practically means that if you want to get exact match search volumes for a certain number of keywords, you have to make sure to have those keywords set as exact match.
If you're not running AdWords, Google gives you a chance to get a good representation of your local search market using the Keyword Planning Tool as described in this post.
Largely, your content will depend on your business objectives, brand and the results of your keyword research. The time of local brochure type sites has long passed, at least for businesses that are serious about local Internet marketing.
Local websites are no different from corporate websites when it comes to technical aspects of SEO. Performance and crawlability are very important, as well as proper optimization of titles, headings, body text etc.
However, unlike corporate websites, local sites will have more benefit from:
Links are still important. They are still a foundation of high organic search visibility. They still demand your resources.
But a lot has changed - since Penguin. Building links has become a delicate endeavor even for local websites. But there is a way to triumph, all you need to do is change how you view local link building.
See link building as marketing campaigns that have links as a by-product.
What does that mean? It means that your are promoting your business as if Google doesn't exist. Link and citation building overlap to a certain extent. They do so in a way that makes good links great citations, especially if they're structured.
BBB.org has an enormus amount of algorithmic trust. It's also an excellent citation. As a bonus - displaying the BBB badge prominently on your website you will likely receive a boost in conversion rates. Similar is true with your local chamber of commerce. Would you join those if Google was not around?
You probably would.
Every industry has associations you or your client can join. You will get similar benefits to ones one can expect from BBB. However, being a member ofÂ trade associations will add an additional layer of value to your business in form of education or certifications.
Every business should give back.Â Sometimes you will get a link sometimes you will not but you will always benefit from this type of community involvement.
There are plenty of industry websites and and directories inÂ almost every industry. Sometimes these websites can refer significant traffic to you but they almost always make for a good link and a solid citation.
Events are good for business. If you organize them you should make sure that it's reflected on the web. There are plenty of websites you can submit your event to. Google is not likelyÂ to start considering organizing offline events spam any time soon.
Every state has a few good ones. It' likely that your town has anÂ online business directory you can join. These types of links can make good citations too. They are usually easy to acquire.
It pays to a friend of your â€ślocal blogosphereâ€ť.Â Try to include local bloggers in your community involvement, offer to contribute content or offer giveaways.
Whenever possible, make sure your vendors link to you:
In local search, customer reviews are bigger than life. Consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations while majority (52%) says that positive online reviews make them more likely to choose a local business. Influence reviews have on your local business go well beyond social proof. Good reviews can boost your local search visibility, while bad reviews can destroy your business.
Every organization that strives to get better at what it does should use consumer reviews to improve its business operations. Customer reviews should be treated as one of the most valuable pieces of qualitative data. You should be surveying your customers daily and use their feedback to improve your services, products, customer service etc..
This holds true for corporations, as well as mom and pops shops. It's not complicated to ask your customers about specific aspects of their experience with your business and record their answers. It's not expensive, either.
The benefits of taking reviews seriously are enormous:
Â What can you do to win at review management?
Since you need to get high rating positive reviews on different websites in a way that doesn't break any guidelines and keeps you out of jail, your best bet would be to use reviews as a customer service survey tools.
This means that you should seek customer feedback systematically in order to improve your or your client's business. You can ask your most ecstatic customers to share their experiences with your services/products on major local search platforms. Remember that you cannot provide any type of incentive for this behavior.
To save time, you can use a tool such as GetfiveStarts.com. This tool will do everything described above.
Internet marketers tend to be blindly focused on organic search. It's understandable - organic traffic is relatively cheap (in most markets) and seemingly unlimited.
It's also a mistake.
Organic search channel is getting increasingly more unstable. And with that, more expensive to acquire. Since you're aware of your customer acquisition cost and have a measurement framework, it's easy to know how affordable traffic from other sources is for your business.
Paid search advertising works, especially if you did a good job gearing your site for conversion. You shouldn't leave your PPC budget to Google, though. Bing/Yahoo! are a more affordable source of paid traffic with similar conversion rates.
If you're planning to run a local paid campaign, don't forget to:
You can also read this post by PPC Hero on what you should keep in mind when running local search advertising campaigns. You can also check out this post on Search Engine Land about managing and measuring local PPC campaigns.
Sites like YellowPages.com or SuperPages.com don't have the traffic Google or even Bing get, but they do have a significant amount of traffic. They also have traffic that's at the very end of the buying cycle. This is the reason one should be serious about IYPs.
What does that mean?
It means that you should have most of the big IYP listings claimed, verified and optimized to the best of your ability. So use every element of your listing to sell your products/services. In a lot of markets, it's wise to explore advertising opportunities, as well.
If you want to take an extra step, or simply lack the time, you can sign up with a service such as Yext.com and control the major IYP listings from a single dashboard.
Keep in mind, though, that Yext.com doesn't come for free, and you will have to pay a few hundreds dollars for a year of service.
Another avenue to take would be to outsource this process. In this scenario, you will most likely pay a one-time fee for verification and optimization of a predetermined number of listings. However, if you would like to change some of your business information somewhere down the road (such as name and phone number), you will have to go through this process from the beginning.
These days, social media means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Local businesses should use social media platforms to connect with customers that love them. Empowering these customers and giving them an incentive to recommend you to their family and friends.
Always try to add value in your interactions and never spam your follower base.
It's amazing how many businesses miss to build their presence on classified sites like Craigslist.org. Even though Craigslist audience the type of audience that is always on the lookout for a great deal, the buying intent is very strong.
If you'd like to get the most out of Craigslist and other classified sites, remember to make your ads count. You need:
Other sources of non-search traffic you should explore are local newspaper advertising, ads on big industry websites, local blogs and others.
If there's only one thing local businesses should care about, it's tracking. As we established in the beginning of this guide, everyone needs to know how much they can afford to spend in order to acquire a customer.
Proper tracking ensures that you don't make a mistake of spending too much on customer acquisition or spending anything on acquiring a wrong type of customer.
If you're like most people and don't care if Google has access to your data, you can use Google Analytics. Take advantage of custom reporting and advanced segmentation.
In order to make the most out the traffic you get, and to get more of the traffic that is right for your business, you should create custom reports. They will enable you to know how you're doing against your targets.
To create a custom report, click the â€śCustomizationâ€ť tab in Analytics and then click the â€śNew Custom Reportâ€ť tab.
Pick your metrics first (I recommend a Unique Visitors and Conversion Rates and couple that with the geographic dimension)
This step is crucial for local businesses that want to measure performance. Fortunately, this is not as complicated as it sounds. Depending on the type of your campaign, you can use tracking phone numbers, web-only discount codes as well as campaign-specific URLs.
Avinash Kaushik has written extensively on best ways to track offline conversions. I highly recommend this post.
Focus on improving the quality of products you sell and/or services you provide. Remember that every Internet marketing campaign works better if you're able to provide a remarkable experience for your customers.
Build your brand and make your customers fall in love with your business. That would make every aspect of your marketing, especially Internet marketing, work better.
Vedran Tomic is a member of SEOBook and founder of Local Ants LLC, a local internet marketing agency.
If you service clients, itâ€™s quite likely that youâ€™ve faced some of the same pain points I have when trying to design a â€śproductâ€ť out of your â€śserviceâ€ť. The words product and service in our industry tend to be interchangeable as our products are digital products.
Pricing for SEO, or any type of digital marketing service, has been written about quite a few times and thereâ€™s never been a real clear answer as to what the sweet spot is for pricing.
I actually do not believe there is a clear or semi-clear answer to pricing but what I do believe is that there is a clear path you can set for your company which makes many aspects of your business easier to automate and easier to manage. I refer to it here as â€śproductizingâ€ť the business.
Some products can be priced more easily than others. If you are selling just your time (consulting) then you can do it by hour, obviously. I think the â€śfutureâ€ť of the SEO consultant has been here for awhile anyways. Many have already evolved into the broader areas of digital marketing like:
There are other areas like paid search, email marketing, and so on but the above covers a good chunk of what many of us having been doing on our own properties for awhile and client sites as well. As more and more of us service clients and perhaps start agencies itâ€™s important to start from the beginning.
This will differ in analysis if you have a much larger agency, but here we are focusing on the more common freelancer and small agency. The steps I would recommend are as follows (this is in relation to pricing/products only, Iâ€™m assuming youâ€™ve already identified your market, brand messaging, etc):
I do it this way because net margin is very important to me. I donâ€™t want to become the Walmart of digital marketing where our margins become paper thin as volume goes up.
Here is an example of what I mean. Consider the following scenario:
Iâ€™m leaving my job as a dairy farmer here in rural Rhode Island and I want to make $1,500,000 per year.
So, youâ€™re going to pay a little bit more assuming you are a single member LLC versus a traditional W-2 "employee" (again, keeping it very simple) because of the self-employment tax. Your CPA can go over the different options based on your business set up and such but the base calculations are the same as far as determining the core numbers go.
If you just look at just â€śearningsâ€ť you are missing the bigger picture. What you should want to achieve for short, mid, and long term viability are healthy margins. Hereâ€™s an example:
Jackâ€™s SEO Shop had a net income of $1,000,000 dollars in 2011. Their overall sales were $5,000,000. In 2012 they had $1,500,000 in net income with $10,000,000 in sales.
Jillâ€™s SEO Shop had net income of $500,000 dollars in 2011. Their overall sales were $2,000,000. In 2012 they had $1,500,000 in net income with $4,000,000 in sales.
In this case we look at a basic calculation of profit margin (net income/gross sales) and see that:
Certainly 15% on 10 million isnâ€™t something to necessarily sneeze at but Iâ€™d much rather be Jill in the current state of web marketing. A 38% profit margin does so much more for your overall viability as a company when you take into account being able to respond to competition, algorithmic changes, increased cost of quality labor, and so on.
In this example a conversation about simply â€śmakingâ€ť 1.5 million per year is quite misleading. Once we have these numbers figured out we can begin to â€śdesignâ€ť our â€śproducts and/or servicesâ€ť to somewhat fit a pricing model by backdooring it via preferred margins.
Many folks in the industry have had exposure and direct experience with a number of disciplines. At the very least, a lot of us know enough about â€śhowâ€ť to execute a particular type of service without maybe the specific knowledge of how to go in and â€śpush the buttonsâ€ť.
Thereâ€™s a tendency to do all types of service but a good way to start is to look at your core competencies and determine what makes the most sense to offer as a product. If you are just starting out you can start this from a blank slate, thereâ€™s not a big difference either way.
You will run across a couple different types of costs, direct and indirect. Letâ€™s assume for the sake of simplicity you are a freelancer or just a solo operation. In terms of selling a service you will have 2 core types of cost:
Thereâ€™s some debate as to whether you should include the estimated cost of your marketing as part of a per project cost to accurately determine your margins. I say why not, using it only makes it more accurate in terms of hard numbers.
Perhaps you whittled down your offerings to:
We can assume that you might have the following tools in your toolbelt:
There are more tools we could add but at a baseline level you would be able to produce quality products with these tools. Total cost is $4,658 per year or $389 (rounded up, per month).
The same formula (annual and monthly amounts) would be used for any other overhead you deem necessary but for the sake of simplicity letâ€™s say you are spending $389 per month on â€śstuffâ€ť.
Tools are only 1 part of a 2 part equation. Tools without knowledge are useless. There are a variety of costs one could associate with knowledge acquisition:
The costs for knowledge acquisition can vary from person to person. You might be at a point where all three make sense or at a level where only 1 or 2 make sense. I would recommend looking at these options relative to your skill set and determining the cost, annually, of what makes sense for you. Take that number and just add it to the example cost I gave for tools I recommended earlier.
The next step would be to look at each type of service you are offering and productize it. The first 2 areas are more likely to be your time only versus your time + outside contractor help. Conversion Optimization and Content Marketing will probably incur additional costs outside of your time for things like:
When setting up products I use this:
In that example I used $150 as my hourly rate and assumed 40 hours for an audit. Now I can play around with the direct cost and price to arrive at the margins I am looking for.
One thing to keep in mind with indirect cost is usually itâ€™s something that can be divided amongst your current projects.
So I might revisit my pricing table from time to time to revamp the indirect cost based on my current client list. In this example I assume no clients are currently onboard and no income for my own properties so this audit eats up all the indirect cost against its margins.
You can design your products however it works for you but I usually try to find some type of baseline that works for me. In the areas I assumed earlier I would try to make sub-products out of each section:
There are so many variables to each service that it is impossible to list them here but the general ideas remain the same. Start with a market and break them out into â€śthingsâ€ť that can be sold which cover â€śmostâ€ť of your target market.
One of the reasons I mentioned direct cost as being your hourly rate is so you can set a baseline of how many hours you want to work per month to achieve the amount you'd like to earn. Combining what you want to earn with the hours you want to work will help you work out a minimum hourly rate which you can adjust up or down, along with desired revenue, to hit your pricing sweet spot.
Using your hourly rate in conjunction with designing specific products makes it pretty easy to assign hours required to a specific product. When you assign hours to each product you can do a few things that will help in managing your workload:
Assigning your required hours to each product you sell will help you manage your workload better and give you more fluidity during peak times. Inevitably there will be periods of peaks and valleys in the demand for your service so if you are able to manage the peaks in a less stressful and more profitable manner the valleys might not be as deep for your financially.
Custom quoting everything that comes through the door is a pain point for me.
Post-quoting you have things like contracts that have to get signed, billing that has to get set up, and task processes that have to get accomplished.
When you have specific products you are selling, it becomes much easier to automate:
It can be a pretty lengthy process but making your services into products really helps your business in a number of areas
"Content is king" is one of those â€śtruthyâ€ť things some marketers preach. However, in most businesses the bottom line is king, attention is queen, and content can be used as a means to get both, but it depends.
The problem is that content is easy to produce. Machines can produce content. They can tirelessly churn out screeds of content every second. Even if they didnâ€™t, billions of people on the internet are perfectly capable of adding to the monolithic content pile at similar rates.
Low barriers to content production and distribution mean the internet has turned a lot of content into near worthless commodity. Getting and maintaining attention is the tricky part, and once a business has that, then the benefits can flow through to the bottom line.
Some content is valuable, of course. Producing valuable content can earn attention. The content that gets the most attention is typically something for which an audience has a strong need, yet canâ€™t easily get elsewhere, and is published in a place they're likely to see. Or someone they know is likely to see. An article on title tags will likely get buried. An article on the secret code to cracking Google's Hummingbird algorithms will likely crash your server.
Up until the point everyone else has worked out how to crack them, too, of course.
Content can become King if the audience bestows favor upon it. Content producers need to figure out what content the audience wants. Perversely, Google have chosen to make this task even more difficult than it was before by withholding keyword data. Between Googleâ€™s supposed â€śprivacyâ€ť drive, Hummingbird supposedly using semantic analysis, and Penguin/Panda supposedly using engagement metrics, page level and path level optimization are worth focusing upon going forward.
If you havenâ€™t done one for a while, now is probably a good time to take stock and undertake a content audit.
If youâ€™ve got historical keyword data, archive it now. It will give you an advantage over those who follow you from this point on. Going forward, it will be much more expensive to acquire this data.
Run an audit on your existing content. What content works best? What type of content is it? Video? Text? Whatâ€™s the content about? What keywords did people use to find it previously? Match content against your historical keyword data.
If keywords can no longer suggest content demand, then how do we know what the visitor wants in terms of content? We must seek to understand the audience at a deeper level. Take a more fuzzy approach.
Analytics can get pretty addictive and many tools let you watch what visitors do in real time. Monitor engagement levels on your pages. What is a user doing on that page? Are they reading? Contributing? Clicking back and forward looking for something else?
Ensure pages with high engagement are featured prominently in your information architecture. Relegate or fix low-engagement pages. Segment out your content so you know which is the most popular, in terms of landings, and link that information back to ranking reports. This way, you can approximate keywords and stay focused on the content users find most relevant and engaging. Segment out your audience, too. Different visitors respond to different things. Do you know which group favours what? What do older people go for? What do younger people go for? Here are a few ideas on how to segment users.
User behavior is getting increasingly complex. It takes multiple visits to purchase, from multiple channels/influences. Hence the addition of user segmentation allows us to focus on people. (For these exact reasons multi-channel funnels analysis and attribution modeling are so important!)
At the moment in web analytics solutions, people are defined by the first party cookie stored on their browser. Less than ideal, but 100x better then what we had previously. Over-time as we all expand to Universal Analytics perhaps we will have more options to track the same person, after explicitly asking for permission, across browsers, channels and devices
If Google wonâ€™t give you keywords, build your own keyword database. Think about ways you can encourage people to use your in-site search. Watch the content they search for and consume the most. Another way of looking at site search is to provide navigation links that emphasize different keywords terms. For example, you could place these high up on your page, with each offering a different option relating to related keyword terms. Take a note of which keyword terms visitors favour over others.
In the good old days, people dutifully used site navigation at the left, right, or top of a website. But, two websites have fundamentally altered how we navigate the web: Amazon, because the site is so big, sells so many things, and is so complicated that many of us go directly to the site search box on arrival. And Google, which has trained us to show up, type what we want, and hit the search button. Now when people show up at a website, many of them ignore our lovingly crafted navigational elements and jump to the site search box. The increased use of site search as a core navigation method makes it very important to understand the data that site search generates
Where does attention flow from? Social media? A mention is great, but if no attention flows over that link to your content, then it might be a misleading metric. Are people sharing your content? What topics and content gets shared the most?
Again, this comes back to understanding the audience, both what theyâ€™re talking about and what actions they take as a result. In â€śDigital Marketing Analytics: Making Sense Of Consumer Dataâ€ťthe authors recommend creating a â€ślearning agendaâ€ť. Rather than just looking for mentions and volume of mentions, focus on specific brand or service attributes. Think about the specific questions you want answered by visitors as if they those visitors were sitting in front of you.
For example, how are consumers reacting to prices in your niche? What are their complaints? What do they wish would happen? Are people talking negatively about something? Are they talking positively about something? Who are the new competitors in this space?
Those are pretty rich signals. We can then link this back to content by addressing those issues within our content.
The above video references the following:
Matt Cutts when secured search first rolled out:
Google software engineer Matt Cutts, whoâ€™s been involved with the privacy changes, wouldnâ€™t give an exact figure but told me he estimated even at full roll-out, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers on Google.com.
This Week in Google (TWIG) show 211, where Matt mentioned the inspiration for encrypted search:
we actually started doing encrypted.google.com in 2008 and one of the guys who did a lot of heavy lifting on that, his name is Evan, and he actually reports to me. And we started that after I read Little Brother, and we said "we've got to encrypt the web."
The integration of organic search performance data inside AdWords.
The esteemed AdWords advertiser David Whitaker.
When asked about the recent increase in (not provided), a Google representative stated the following:
We want to provide SSL protection to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can â€” we added non-signed-in Chrome omnibox searches earlier this year, and more recently other users who arenâ€™t signed in. Weâ€™re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe itâ€™s a good thing for usersâ€¦.
The motivation here is not to drive the ads side â€” itâ€™s for our search users.
What an excellent time for Google to block paid search referrals as well.
If the move is important for user safety then it should apply to the ads as well.
The independent webmaster has taken a beating over the last couple of years. Risk has become harder to spread, labor costs have gone up, outreach has become more difficult and more expensive as Google's webspam team and the growing ranks of the Search Police spread the FUD far and wide.
The web is still a great place to be and still offers incredible opportunity that is largely unavailable, without much more capital intensive risk, in the offline world.
There's still plenty of success to be had in the web-based business model but like any strategy we have to refine it from time to time. I thought I'd share the core processes I go through when starting a new site.
Online marketers, celebrities, and brands pretty much power the Twittersphere and the 140 character limit invariably leads to statements full of bluster (and shallowness) like:
None of that is true but when folks try to become prognosticators they will just keep saying the same thing over and over, with some slight re-framing, until they finally get it right.
All you have to do is look at the really ridiculous statements over the years about how ranking "doesn't matter". These statements have gone back to at least 2006-ish, craziness.
Or look at the past couple years where we get "social shares are the new link" shoved down our throats despite the data that flies in the face of that statement, at least as it pertains to organic search growth.
Yet, years later both of these "industry trends" would have cost you significant amounts of revenue and search share. We don't have to debate the spam links vs non-spam links here either. No one here is advocating for you to build crappy links and you don't need to.
It's quite likely, as an independent webmaster, that you will have sites that serve different purposes. I have sites that:
I also work a select type of client. One thing I found helpful was to set up a spreadsheet with some very basic information to help me keep track of things at a 10,000 foot view.
So I have a column for:
From there, I do a quick chart to show what areas most of the revenue is coming from and where the investment is going. Over time, I try to make sure the online brand area (where we are getting traffic and revenue from a healthly mix of multiple sources) is outpacing the pure SEO plays in both areas and we try to shy away from making too many expensive pure SEO plays where no mid-long term "brandability" exists.
We also like to see growth in client areas as well, but only for the right kind of client. The wrong kind of client can have a really destructive effect on a small team.
Staying small, lean, and profitable are also big keys to this strategy. If you are up against it on debt and overhead you will probably be less likely to make the proper decisions for your long-term viability on the 'net.
I think most small teams or individual publishers can probably handle 2-3 branded sites at a time (stipulating that a branded site is one where there are just about all elements of online marketing involved). The first step I take is to determine what bucket the site will go in.
A testing site is easy enough to decide on. I might have an idea for a new product so I'll just throw up a small Wordpress site, a landing page, and test it out via PPC. Part of the initial research here is to determine whether there is any existing "search" demand or if you'll be tasked with creating demand on your own.
You can certainly build an online product that will be driven, initially, mostly by offline demand if you have the right networking in place. For the most part we try to stick to stuff where there is some initial demand online as the offline networking component tends to involve, in my experience, a lot more initial work, more stakeholders, etc.
When we look at a "product" we consider the following as "stuff" we could sell:
Certainly a site can have any combination of those elements but generally those are the three basic types of things we'd consider selling. From there we would want to figure out:
So one example, as I also dabble in real estate a bit, that I'll give is a CRM/PM solution for real estate investors. Most of the products out there aren't what I would consider "good". Many of the solutions are either just not very good or require some hook into a complex solution like Microsoft Dynamics CRM.
There's demand for the product on the web and there's a lot that could be done, more elegantly, with technologies that are available today to help connect all the things that go into an investment decision and investment management.
This is something I'm kicking around and it's a good example of our strategy of trying to find a successful, broad market where opportunity exists for niches to be served in a more direct, elegant manner.
We could do 2 of 3 product types here, but would likely start with just the online product itself and maybe hang training or courses off of it later.
If you want to stick around online I believe you need at least 1 product and brand that can sustain the up and down nature of search cycles. You could argue that client work is your product and I'd buy that.
However, I think client work is still an area where you are more beholden to the decisions of others, in a more abrupt fashion (internal client spend decisions, taking things in-house, etc), than you are if you have your own product or service especially at the price points charged to clients.
I could also make the case that if you are selling direct to consumers you are beholden to them as well. Yet, I think the risk is better spread out over an SaaS model, subscription model, or direct product model than it is selling to either a handful of large clients or handfuls of large clients that require a large team of people and all that goes into the management of a team like that.
There still is a ton of opportunity on the web, there is no doubt about that. The practice of finding a broad market and picking a niche in there has worked out well for us in the last year or so.
In some areas we start off with no connections at all. So in areas where we are behind the 8 ball on relationships we will often hire writers from boards like ProBlogger.Net where will we specifically ask for folks who are in that industry with an existing site and active social following to write for us.
We will also ask them to promote what they write for us on their social channels and site while hooking their authorship profile into the posts they do for us. This helps us, in certain industries anyway, really grow an audience for short money and establish relationships with established, trusted people in the space.
Finding that balance between passion and monetary potential is difficult and there's often some level of tradeoff. If you use the items I listed earlier as a guide to determine how to move forward with an idea, or if moving forward even makes sense for the idea, then I think you'll be starting off in a solid position.
The last couple of years have been really turbulent but that also has created more opportunities in different areas and while it's nice to throw out the word "diversify" it's also good to take a more boots on the ground approach than a theoretical one.
The core hallmarks of a traditional SEO campaign are still largely the same but there's no reason why you can't stick around and take advantage of these opportunities, especially with all the experience you have in multiple areas of online marketing from being an independent webmaster in the golden age of SEO.
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