12 Hacks for Picking Web Apps

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.

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Gmail changes: Users win, marketers adapt

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.

Cached Images

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… 

Misleading Marketing

I subscribed to a magazine the other day, and the confirmation screen contained this.

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.

The Downside

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.


Competition is Good for Consumers, Email Broadcast Service edition

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.

A Tiny Failure to Sell

If you’re a college graduate, you know the drill when a rep from your alma mater calls you for updated contact information.

“It’s for the alumni directory,” they say.

“You’re here for my money,” you think.

The rep is actually with a firm like Harris Connect, who gathers information in return for the opportunity to sell grads their dead-tree directories. (As little as you look forward to a telesales call, you should actually appreciate this effort. Better data in the hands of the university means better networking for you.)

Harris’s telemarketer did their pitch. Harris’s email let me click straight to a form where I could change my info and save, and the following confirmation page pitched me on the “Deluxe Package Set, with hardcover book and CD-ROM” for $109.99, and four other versions of the directory.

A Tiny Missed Opportunity

But then I got a confirmation email from them. Here it is, in its entirety:



Where is the link to buy the directory? If they had included one, I might have changed my mind later and bought the directory.

One or two things happened when someone wrote this email.

1) The product managers weren’t being thorough, in development of the user experience or when testing it.

2) The marginal effort of adding a better message was too high. I can actually understand this; they probably have a “legacy” email broadcast system which is hard to customize.

But there are partial measures. In decreasing order of preference, this is what they might have included:

  • A link to a Harris shopping cart page that knows who I am and what directory I might want.
  • A link to the Harris shopping cart, where I can search for my college’s name.
  • The email or phone number to buy a directory.

I’d be truly surprised if a Harris person told me that they couldn’t even put a phone number in the confirmation email.

And at scale, the tiny missed opportunities can add up to meaningful differences.

Sending emails to your list? Avoid this pitfall.

When you blast out a pretty email to your customer list, does it come out pretty?

Maybe not.

A clear majority of people now use email programs that block images from displaying, by default. This can affect your layout.

This is how it looks when you don’t take the proper steps. It looks sloppy and interferes with your message.


And here is a better-formatted email. The images are still hidden, but the layout works and the selling copy is presented in the desired hierarchy.



For comparison, here is the email once images are “allowed” by the recipient — either by a one-time clicks of “allow images” or “always display from this sender” i.e. whitelisting.


What You Can Do

  • Create special accounts at Gmail and Yahoo just for testing emails.
  • Ask your marketing people to design emails that lay out properly when you (the sender) is “untrusted” .
  • Use a better email broadcast service, like Campaign Monitor or MailChimp. They have lots of testing tools, advice, and templates for designing good emails.

Research shows: Content development is a winner

La-di-da, the very day I sing the praises of content development, MarketingSherpa shares this chart.

It shows what “highly effective” SEO techniques are being used by B2B companies.


All the large circles on the left (labelled in white) are basically one-time projects, requiring little ongoing maintenance.

Content development is the ongoing marketing project that gives the best SEO benefit. And, as I pointed out yesterday, it helps you convert more search-engine-referred visitors into leads.

Making new content is hard, but pays off.

Better Content for Better SEO and Lead Conversion

Is a search engine optimization program just for lead generation?


On the face of it, you might think that high Google ranking = more site visitors, end of story.

But perhaps you’re stuck at the #3 position, or the #7, or can’t even break into the first page. Or you see a lot of visitors coming into your site, but they don’t raise their hand.

In that case, you might need to upgrade from SEO Program A to SEO Program B.


SEO Program A: Onpage keyword optimization, Links from irrelevant sites.

SEO Program B: Onpage keyword optimization, Better website content, Links from relevant sites



The Difference Between Two Inbound Links

Let’s imagine two realty firms in San Antonio, who have the same website content.

Rae Lynn’s site has inbound links from 100 sites, including a Las Vegas ultrasound clinic, a Phoenix hair extension shop, an acupuncturist in Maryland, and so on. (This from a real-life example, by the way.)

Billy Bob’s firm has links from 100 sites, including the San Antonio newspaper, the local Chamber of Commerce, the local hospital foundation, and so on.

The site with the more relevant links will ALWAYS rank higher (all other things being equal), and thus get more site traffic.

Now, I cannot gainsay a SEO program of type A that gets you high rankings. Some links are better than none, and you may also be in a noncompetitive keyword space. You certainly will pay less for it, since SEO firms usually have a financial relationship with the ultrasound clinic and the acupuncturist. (Those websites are termed “link farms”.) And obtaining valuable links takes time and money.

But the “high road” positions you better for long-term online marketing success, not least because the  value of an irrelevant link usually goes down.

Then there is the matter of visitor conversion… which, after all, is the goal of a website.

Give the People What They Want

The middle item in SEO Program B, “Better website content” is the key since it helps you two ways. It simultaneously leads to 1) greater conversion of visitors into leads; and 2) links from better-respected sites.

Prospects are more likely to “raise their hands” on your site if you begin to help them fix their problem. How can you? By educating them about the problem and the solutions, by establishing your credibility, and by answering their most common questions.

People who run other websites are more likely to link to you if your site provides value for their readers.

Content achieves those things. Basic examples of content are case studies, engaging videos, and commentary and/or curation of relevant news.

So in a fantasy world, you would have all this great customer-friendly content on your site and be #1 on Google.

The tradeoff, of course, is that it takes money and time to create that content (and also to ask people for links).

Is it worth it?

Well, we now arrive at the consultant’s “It Depends” moment.

Factors affecting your decision to create compelling content include:

  1. Your “authority opportunity” – can you credibly establish that you’re an authority on something?
  2. What are your competitors doing?
  3. Are you patient enough to wait months for results, and understand that SEO has uncertain results?
  4. Do you have existing and noncompetitive relationships with other authorities in your industry?
  5. Are your current search engine rankings good enough?
  6. Are search engines going to become a more or less important customer acquisition channel?
  7. Can you reuse content in other marketing programs?
  8. Can customers create that content for you?

As complex as online marketing has become, it still boils down to giving prospects what they need to move to the next stage of the buying process. Content is central to that, and it can help your SEO too.


What’s the top spot worth?

Editor’s Note: Someone must have done this before. My plagiarism, if any, is unintentional.

How much more frequently does the #1 search result get clicked, compared to the ones further down?

This image shows the click frequency of the results on the first page, as illustrated by the relative size of the result itself.



Not breakthrough thought, just a fun infographic.

The data set is here.