The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.
You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.
- Is the product popular?
- Will the vendor be around in two years?
- How customer-focused is the vendor?
- Am I missing any comparable products?
Below are the methods I use to differentiate certain vendors, and discover comparable products. It’s worked for email services, WordPress themes and theme clubs, wireframing tools, Google Apps backup tools, social media sharing services, etc.
12 Indicators of Popularity, Stability, and Sentiment
My single favorite tool for approximating user engagement over time with anything. Google Trends charts the volume of search terms.
Let’s compare a few small-business CRM services that launched during the early days of cloud computing.
Roughly comparable. Let’s add in another vendor, Sugar CRM.
The immediate interpretation is that Sugar is much more popular than the others. Fair enough, but it’s been in relative decline for several years, perhaps because of the smaller competitors. That should be a concern.
Adding in Salesforce swamps the others, because of its market share.
Of course, since Salesforce is not a fit for most small companies, you are best off using Trends to compare similar companies. Let’s look at a trio of Content Management Systems.
WordPress emerges as the mindshare “winner” here (if not the revenue-share winner), and Joomla has been bleeding users for a while.
Although we have no hard data to back this up, products appear to have no “second act” in life. Buying products that are on the downslope is a risk.
This “social proof” metric may instead reflect the success of a vendor’s social media outreach program, but it’s still useful.
We compare two services for backing up Google Apps data:
Note that these fake-follower tools aren’t infallible. I know a firm with 5000 mostly-bought followers. They check in as only 13% fake, which would suggest that the fakers are getting more professional.
At this writing, Google hasn’t yet opened up the Google+ API to permit posting by automated services. (By comparison, you can configure your marketing system to automatically upload your newest blog post to Twitter/Facebook/Linkedin.) Google’s rationale is to keep a human feel to the service. So a vendor’s active engagement on Google+, with comments and discussion, is a positive indicator of responsiveness.
Rankings on search engine are another proxy for popularity, although longevity and choice of keywords can muddy this metric.
Let’s use Moz’s Open Site Explorer (free for three searches a day) to compare a few webinar tools, ReadyTalk, AnyMeeting and LogMeIn’s Join.me. Look for the “Root Domain Metrics” at the bottom of the page, in particular “Total External Links.”
In this case, all three services are pretty popular. AnyMeeting has the lead, but we can go back to Google Trends to learn why:
ReadyTalk has been around for longer, which probably explains the larger number of links. No advantage here.
Incidentally, adding Join.me to the Trends search is a mistake as google treats that “join me” as a search term.
The first really successful Q&A site, Quora has a pretty high signal-to noise ratio.
Do a simple keyword search on a product name to see some opinions.
Astroturfing (company-funded recommendations) is occasionally evident, but can be smoked out — see here for some good advice.
Developer-oriented Q&A site StackExchange is also very reliable. Although the questions tend to implementation, and application recommendation threads are now prohibited, you can still get insight about vendor sentiment from the popular answers.
Just search the product name with an prepended @ or #.
Below, a search for references to online form builder Wufoo uncovers some insight.
A few caveats: 1) Tweets are anecdotal evidence, not data like Google Trends. 2) You aren’t likely to get a sense of how a product is trending over time. 3) Cranks and shills can pollute a small sample of mentions.
You will occasionally see astroturf on lively social bookmarking site Reddit, but you’re more likely to get pithy and often helpful opinions.
For instance – I searched on “balsamiq,” the name of a website wireframing tool.
The Reddit search engine gets knocked pretty regularly, but these results are gold. A Q&A post from a Balsamiq employee, 50 comments on best wireframing software, and a giant list in position #4. None of those three posts are older than three months
LinkedIn – Skills
People often list the names of popular apps in their LinkedIn profile. Search on an app or vendor name. You can call the resulting connections for their perspective on the tool.
For example, I search on marketing automation tool “Silverpop” and see my connection Kim Cornwall has experience with Silverpop.
The quantity and price of freelance consultants and developers can be useful data.
For example, searching on oDesk for developers who 1) charge $50-$100/hour and 2) have competencies in WordPress, Joomla and Drupal reveals:
- 1,669 WordPress developers
- 506 Drupal developers
- 565 Joomla developers
Like a Twitter search, this doesn’t take time into account: Joomla could be on the way up or the way down. Yet it does help measure market share, and the cost of developers affects the maintenance cost of a given service.
There are loads of ways that a basic keyword search can uncover sentiment and relevant anecdotes. As you might expect, the negative comments are easier to find than the positive ones. These will get you started.
I left this at the bottom, since it’s both long and obvious.
The app directory space has grown along with the number of apps themselves. Most directories have voting data, the significance of which is naturally dependent on the directory’s own traffic level.
I’m ranking these in rough order of utility.
- TrustRadius. The Comparison Ring is cute, and the ensuing comparison function is quite useful. I like how they feature “Most Negative Review.”
- BestVendor. Loads of ratings and reviews, but their “Best for” bullet points are not insightful. Just bought by Docstoc.
- g2crowd. Worth a look for their interesting 2×2 matrix idea. Nice layout.
- ExpertCircle. Big directory, but light on reviews. LinkedIn integration means you can see which of your LI connections use a particular product. Also owned by Docstoc.
- BuiltWith. Crawls websites for the technology each uses. Hard data, yay! Very good tool for measuring popularity.
- Small Business Web. Pretty thorough app directory, targeted at SMB’s. Few reviews, however, and the comparison function isn’t that helpful. The site used to keep track of integrations, but that must have been impossible to keep current.
- SocialCompare. Crowdsourced comparison tables, which surely will save you some time during the requirements gathering and shortlisting phases. The tables can be totally unwieldy, though.
- SoftwareAdvice. Editor-centric directory, with “call for free advice” feature.
- Credii. New kid on the block, available only with a LinkedIn account. Filtering driven by Q&A. Minimalist interface.
- IT Central Station. Enterprise software directory. Not too many reviews at this writing.
- GetApp. Another app directory with some reviews. Meh.
- AlternativeTo. Focussed on installed personal productivity software.
- Serchen. Ignore the torrent of fake reviews, and maybe visit Serchen to fill out your short list.
These techniques are designed to extract either popularity over time, or credible firsthand opinions.
If you can add anything on the topic, kindly do so in the comments!
Google made two significant changes to Gmail this year.
Marketers got into a tizzy.
More importantly… users yawned and gratefully accepted the changes.
Gmail Inbox Tabs
First off, incoming mail is now sorted (by an algorithm) into tabbed areas (Primary, Social, Promotions). This is pretty handy if you’re not a control freak. The worry for marketers was that their email blasts would get stuck into the Promotions “Purgatory” ghetto and never get opened.
Email diagnostic service Litmus was one of the first credible sources to report that clicks were down, in a characteristically candid post in August.
Well, someone at MailChimp dove into six months of data (29 billion emails, which I suppose is statistically significant) and came to a few conclusions:
- Gmail open rates are down 1.5%, a bit more than average
- Gmail clicks are down 1%, about average
- Gmail unsubscribes are flat, better than average.
- While we don’t know about the impact of conversions to sale (since that data is known only* to site owners) we can fairly assume that the effect is minimal.
So balance the decreased click engagement with the healthier unsubscribe measurement, and IT’S A WASH. As Matthew at MailChimp says, “If the data tells us a story, it’s that Gmail tabs are working as intended and helping people manage their inboxes.”
Marketers got off the ledge.
And then they got back on!
(Or, more likely, we’re just seeing pageview-driven headline bait. Move along now…)
So this week Google rolled a change which means Gmail users will see images by default.
Previously, you had to “Click to display images” or whitelist a sender.
Google’s stated motivations were for the user experience, and it is a nontrivial improvement. Fewer clicks is better! Like the tabbed inbox, most Gmail users will appreciate the change.
Their technical modus operandi, serving the images directly from their own servers (aka image proxying), however, has an impact on marketers.
Here’s why. Email senders track email opens by serving up a tiny image, uniquely coded for the recipient. Since Google is now the intermediary for that image, marketers lose a number of things. Geolocation of opens, multiple opens, forwards, and so on.
Bright minds are still figuring out the impact. The more fevered commentators are raising questions about anitcompetitive practices and pointing to how this helps Google’s display ad business.
Netting it Out
Large-volume marketers are understandably interested in the particulars of the changes, since marginal changes in a send of 50,000 emails can mean a difference in dollars down the line. Smart marketers will adapt to technical changes, as they always have.
But if your company sends out a modest amount of email, don’t worry.
For example, “Company C” sends out a weekly newsletter to 5500 people in the B2B space. Gmail represents a paltry 2% of their user base. Inbox Tabs mean their weekly open rate will drop 0.01%. Their aggregate data on geography and multiple opens will be 2% less reliable.
Another sober view came from Campaign Monitor who correctly point out that the impact of these changes is dwarfed by other factors well within your control: creative, offer, design, send timing, and landing pages.
Oh, and how good your email looks on a smartphone, which is now where MORE THAN HALF of emails are opened.
That’s where you should spend extra effort to raise your email conversion to sale. Don’t worry about marginal Google decisions.
*and, um, Google Analytics…
Working with Jason Moore at Arbor Web Development and designer Edwin Koudijzer, HBI’s new site is striking and shows off the product effectively.
Mobile-Friendly Responsive Design
The website knows when users are looking at the site on their smartphone or tablet, and render the site appropriately.
Below is how the site looks to someone on an iPhone.
Note the menu link to the right of the logo, which makes site navigation easy for someone on working on a small touchscreen.
The site also has a photo gallery, and loads very quickly for a site with lots of large photography.
Can you spot the problem? (The default state for the checkboxes is unchecked.)
The first five checkboxes are “opt-out” i.e. you must initiate an action to stop something.
Checkbox number six is “opt-in” i.e. you must initiate an action to start something.
This is bad interface design.
Most people will not read the explanatory copy closely, and leave the boxes unchecked.
People who take the time to read the copy will begin checking the boxes, and might tick the sixth box on the assumption that the logic is the same.
Is the magazine publisher trying to trick you into subscribing to their email blast?
Probably not, according to Hanlon’s Razor: “ Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Yes in this case we suspect the publisher is limited not by their brains, but by their systems. Their postal and telesales system probably assumes “opt-in” and the email system probably assumes “opt-out”. Combine the two little form widgets onto one page and you get dissonance.
Is it worth fixing? The worst case is that hundreds of people, annoyed at receiving unwanted offers in their inbox, begin marking those emails as spam. Email providers like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo eventually learn from this aggregated customer behavior and preemptively treat all of these offers as spam. Delivery rates thus decline and the promotional channel is tainted.
Is that likely? It depends on the volume of subscriptions through this page, and we can only guess at this point.
Naturally, the best course of action would have been to build the forms with consistent logic from the start.
Solve360 is a web-based CRM, built by a small self-funded Calgary company called Norada. It’s a terrific tool for managing your customer list and nurturing prospects. It’s similar to Salesforce.com, except much less painful to use and without the features that only big companies need.
Xero is a web-based accounting system, built by a much bigger New Zealand company. Generally, Xero does what QuickBooks does but in a more web-native fashion.
Xero has added a lot of US bank connections since then — and none too soon, since so many firms are transitioning to a cloud-based business systems infrastructure.
Anyhow, last week Norada announced that Solve360 users could pull Xero-based customer invoice data into the Solve360 contact profile views.
This gives your sales and support teams a fuller context when communicating with customers. Read about the feature here — page 3 shows the payoff.
Strategically, this makes it easier to include the two apps as part of a full “recipe”. We think they are solid tools for most small businesses.
UPDATED October 17, 2012. Read below.
Search engine optimization has a dark side, which takes two forms:
1) Companies who perform “black hat” SEO for their own benefit. Most commonly, this means creating lots of links pointing to their website to fool Google into believing that the destination site is important and should thus rank higher. (It works, but carries business risk.)
2) Companies who perform “black hat” SEO to push your site down in the rankings. In this case, a rival would create links to your site, but so egregiously fake that Google would notice and penalize the destination site. This is known as Negative SEO or Google Bowling.
Negative SEO is quite uncommon, but its lurid and malicious nature make it an interesting topic.
Two Simple Precautions
A few days ago, SEOMoz posted a “whiteboard video” about Negative SEO. I think very highly of the SEOMoz blog and service, but some topics don’t benefit from the whiteboard treatment. This one in particular could use some editing, or stay in a text format… which is one reason why they thoughtfully provide a transcription.
Thus, my distillation of their 18-minute, 3,291-word opus:
- Don’t let your website get compromised. Have strong passwords and mature security policies.
- Task someone to monitor newly created links coming into your site. There are free and paid tools to accomplish this. If you see comment spam linking into your site, you can go to Google and avoid a possible negative penalty.
The good news is that these precautions shouldn’t represent any incremental effort. You should be doing the first for business continuity reasons, and the second as part of your online marketing effort.
UPDATE (October 17, 2012): Google solves the problem
Google released a tool yesterday called Disavow Links, which is part of their Webmaster Tools suite and should be operated carefully.
Their announcement is here. It is all very carefully worded and makes no hard promises, which should be expected regarding SEO.
In sum, you can now tell Google directly what links coming into your site are unwanted. After doing so, they won’t count the (presumably) negative effect those links have on your site’s ranking.
As the announcement says, “[the] vast majority of sites do not need to use this tool in any way.” All the same, site owners should be pleased to gain a further measure of control over search engine rankings.
Cloud storage services are a terrific tool for small business. They address 90% of your backup needs, make collaboration easy, and are pretty cheap.
Using one goes basically like this: create and pay for your account, install their software on your computer, choose which folders on your hard disk to sync, and then the program begins silently copying your files to their servers. If you make a change to a document on your computer, the system automatically pulls the newer version into the cloud.
Your files can also be pushed down from the cloud into a second computer. This makes the two-computer lifestyle a whole lot easier, and nearly eliminates the need for USB flash drives.
Even if you’re at a public computer, you can still access all your documents, by logging in to your account online. Each of these services also has apps for smartphones and tablets, and using them is typically a lot faster than opening your laptop.
Our three favorite cloud storage services are Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box.com.
Each are about $15/user/month, and each makes sense for a certain type of situation. Let’s review the critical differences.
- Very simple setup and operation. Best choice for your parent’s computer.
- Cheap. They have a free usage tier and charge for extra storage.
- Most likely to stick around. Dropbox raised $250MM in late 2011, and they are winning the “hearts and minds” battle.
On the downside, the service was built for individual users, and the corporate sharing features do not compare well with Sugarsync or Box.com.
- The best sharing and permissioning tools. You can give someone different permissions for different folders, and allow them to upload-only or read-only etc.
- Pleasing web interface for user and file administration.
However, their sync software for Macs is fluky and occasionally needs a restart to trigger a sync. Box has promised an April 2012 fix.
At this writing, Sugarsync is the service which gives you the most control over where to keep your synced files. Dropbox and Box.com both make you bless a single special folder on your computer. There are two reasons for that. It is intuitively easier to understand: “Look, this folder is the one that gets synced.” Second, most people in the Windows and Mac worlds will use the default “Documents” folder for their files.
But this single-blessed-folder approach breaks down if you don’t use the default “Documents” folder, or have a second hard disk with shareable material. Perhaps you don’t want to sync everything in your “Documents” folder. This single-blessed-folder approach also leads to having two copies of a file on your computer, which means sharing an important spreadsheet requires an extra step.
Sugarsync lets you choose which folders get synced. It means a more complicated setup, but one better suited to the power user or someone picky about where they put their files.
No Bad Choices
I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these services. Perhaps the best thing about cloud storage services is that the switching costs are so low: you can just uninstall one service and install another. In a multi-user company, that will require some individual handholding, but there is no need to change file formats and no risk of losing data.
Final word: The elephant in the next room is Google. Today there was another leak about Google Drive, which will probably compete directly with Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box.com. I wonder how well the first iteration of Drive will integrate with the Google Apps platform. UPDATE 17APR2012: Yep, here it comes.
My morning’s reading started with a brief discussion on Reddit about the relative capabilities of two website content management systems, WordPress and Drupal.
There is no definite conclusion to that battle, but the prevailing sentiment is that WordPress is easier to learn and cheaper to build, and Drupal is more powerful. Excuse this oversimplification, since my topic today is a bit higher-level.
If you’re a business owner intending to build a new website, what should you first ask potential web developers about the choice of system that would power your website?
I’m only listing questions about the choice of technology package — not about the web developers’ business track record, design chops, cost, and familiarity with comparable clients.
The obvious first question, of course, is “Can the CMS do what we need it to do, now?”
Asking these additional questions about the technology will give you a better picture of the total lifecycle cost of your website, and the tradeoffs associated with each.
1. How extensibile is it? After you launch the new website with a given feature set, how easy will it be to add features later on? Examples would be discussion groups, a non-English language, user commenting, a blog, more social media integration, and photo slideshows. Most popular CMS’s have plugin code modules for these features which make future upgrades easy. But ask your developer to investigate how their choice of system will support of your future needs. This discussion would be most productive if you have a rough 24-month roadmap for your site.
2. How well does it support mobile users? Your website needs to look good on iPhones and iPads and Android devices. Does the CMS have a good reputation for supporting this kind of alternative display?
3. How much trouble will it be to migrate my data out of the system? Website CMS’s have a lifespan. What was cutting edge five years ago (e.g. Movable Type, PHPNuke, ColdFusion) is now functionally obsolete. At some point you will need to rebuild your site using a new system, and the portability of the data on your web pages has a nontrivial impact on the upgrade cost. The good news is that most of today’s popular CMS’s store website content in a database, which fundamentally supports data portability. “Flat” websites built by the likes of Dreamweaver are not as futureproof.
4. Will my marketing manager find it easy to make changes to the website? A well-designed editorial interface reduces the risk of mistakes, and reduces the incidence of support calls to your developer. Make a list of the content that you might need to modify on the website before asking this question. Note that if you intend to outsource all your website changes to the developer (or his delegate) then the editorial UI shouldn’t impact your decision much.
5. How big is the development community for a given CMS? Put another way, how many people are available to work on a given system? Your web developer may eventually disappoint you or get out of the business altogether, leaving you with a temporarily unmaintained system. If you have a popular CMS, then it’s more likely that you will find a solid replacement person to work on it. Success is a virtuous circle for software. WordPress is the leader on this score, since it built a broad developer base during its early years as a solid tool for basic blog sites. See this Google Trends chart for one measure of the relative popularity of CMS’s.
6. Does this CMS have a good reputation for security? No web developer will admit to offering an insecure CMS which allows your website to be compromised, but there is a question of degree. Generally speaking, the inherent security risk of a CMS decreases with its developer base. Linus’s Law says that, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” (Another benefit of success.) On the other hand, the most popular CMS’s are bigger targets and thus more inviting to the hacker community.
These topics are less critical to the choice of technology, but perhaps worth covering with your developer.
Cleanliness of code. The issue here is whether your CMS builds its pages with tidy code to save bandwidth and display quickly to the user. Drupal, as much as I like it, can produce giant hairballs of HTML & CSS on each page unless the developer is rigorous when building templates. On the other hand, throwing a little extra money per month at the problem (as I mentioned here) can alleviate the problem. I should add that rendering pages for mobile devices is an exception: you want those pages to be lightweight. A good modern CMS should be able to build mobile-ready pages with a more limited set of markup.
Search Engine Optimization. While SEO is obviously important for most websites, the differences between the major CMS’s in their SEO-friendliness are either marginal or overshadowed by factors like your domain name, the quality of your content, the number of inbound links, and site speed.
Don’t Get In the Weeds
Addressing all these issues will help you make a better choice of back-end system for your website, which reduces your total cost of ownership and makes customer acquisition more efficient. These technical questions may also sharpen your online marketing plan itself.
Yet the technology choice shouldn’t outweigh the business issues, as pointed out by the fellows at this web agency. Choose a web developer mostly based on trust, track record and cost.
Out of all the email broadcast services that serve the SMB market, MailChimp is #1. Here’s one unscientific measure from new web app directory Best Vendor, and something more reliable from Google Trends.
Generally, MailChimp’s stature is deserved. One of my clients uses them for a regular newsletter, and we’re all happy.
But any market leader needs antagonists at their heels, or they become fat and unresponsive to customers.
Which is why I was glad to see Campaign Monitor add an RSS-to-email feature last week. MailChimp has had this feature for a long time, and Feedburner for even longer. This new feature is a bit hobbled with the absence of dynamic subject lines, but we should expcet that to come soon.
I have long admired the Campaign Monitor user interface — which IMHO is still preferable to MailChimp’s — and it’s reassuring to see them continue to develop their product.
MailChimp will probably never look like Ma Bell, but healthy competition means that outcome is even more unlikely.
Expensify is a very slick and lightweight service for handling business expense reports.
QuickBooks Online is the cloud/Saas version of QuickBooks. It’s not pretty, but rather is a safe choice with a large ecosystem of bookeepers who understand the QB way.
Expensify and QuickBooksOnline have for some time been able to talk to each other via an API. QuickBooksOnline sends customer and account data to Expensify, and Expensify sends individual expenses to QuickBooks Online (hereinafter QBO).
Yet that connection only covers situations where your company recognizes an expense on the Expense side of QBO’s general ledger.
What if your company needs to bill customers for its expenses? You can do this with regular installed-software QB (as detailed here) but not with QBO. The basic Expensify-QBO connection puts expenses into a liability account, and it should ideally go into an AR account.
The good people at Expensify tells me that they’re working on a solution.
Here’s the workaround, in abridged form. I am skipping some steps.
You’ll need to purchase a $20/month middleware app called Transaction Pro Importer, obtained from Intuit’s QBO app store. Plus, you will of course need to establish the data connection between Expensify and QBO.
1. In Expensify, prepare a CSV export format that resembles the following. You are mapping Expensify data to Transaction Pro Importer’s “Credit Card Charges” schema.
2. Still in Expensify, export your completed expense report to your customized CSV. It will look like this:
TxnDate,Payee,ExpenseAmount,ExpenseAccount,ExpenseClass, ExpenseDescription,CreditCard,Msg,RefNumber,LineBillableStatus 02/14/2012,"Small World Coffee (princeton)",21.00, "Reimbursable Expenses:Meals-Reimb","zzz Test Customer", "Crucial Meeting.","Credit Card","Princeton Meeting 14Feb2012",660287,1
3. Now in Transaction Pro Importer, upload the CSV file you created.
4. Still in Transaction Pro Importer, confirm your field mappings and select records for importing (shown below).
5. Go to QBO to see your expense transaction. Note that Billable is not checked, even though we tried to force that with “LineBillableStatus” set to 1. That’s an annoyance we’re working on fixing.
Note that this post is just an outline, not an exhaustive help document. If you’re clever enough to connect Expensify and QBO, then you can bash your way through the entire process with Transaction Pro Importer. Their detailed help is here.
Hat tip to Angela Yeager for her help.