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… 

Poisoning Your Well: Two precautions against malicious SEO by your competitors

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.


Four Great Remote Training Tools

As more companies use web-based apps to power their sales and marketing campaigns, we have become acutely aware of the need for good user training.

This winter we have rolled out installations of Solve360 (a CRM), SugarSync, Expensify, QuickBooks and various Google products.

The canned help for these services is generally good, but usually not enough to fully engage everyone. Personalized handholding and troubleshooting goes a long way towards full user adoption — which is the key to a project’s success.

If we’re not on-site, these are the four tools we use most often to help coach individual users along the learning curve.

chrome-remote-desktopChrome Remote Desktop

This is a free add-on app for the Google Chrome browser, which allows someone to give total control of their computer to another person in a remote location.

This is most useful for a “tech support” situation, e.g. if someone is having trouble understanding where to click in a new app, or has gotten lost in a web-based app.

Making a connection is pretty simple. The user opens Chrome, goes to the Remote Desktop page, and initiates a sharing session. Chrome provides a unique twelve-digit code, and they repeat it to me over the phone. I punch that code into Chrome on my computer, and the connection is made through Google’s servers. I can now “see” the user’s desktop in my version of Chrome, control their mouse, and make keyboard entries.

The above startup sequence takes about ten seconds. Screen lag is very minimal. Security is good: the code expires after a few minutes, and an inactivity timeout closes a connection automatically.

Webinar tools like GotoMeeting and WebEx have a similar function to “give desktop control” to a remote person, but Remote Desktop is vastly easier for ad-hoc use.

meetingburner1Skype and MeetingBurner

On the other hand, I may want to show my screen to someone else.

Skype allows 1:1 screen-sharing, and doing so is pretty convenient if you’ve already established a Skype voice connection with the remote party. Also, the Skype IM window permits you to share chunks of text like URL’s or a set of bullet points. However, if Skype gives you a dodgy connection, the display lag can be significant.

MeetingBurner, at this writing, is the freshest entrant in the webinar world. I use this app when broadcasting my onscreen actions to more than one person, or to a non-Skype user. Startup of MeetingBurner consumes about a minute of the broadcaster’s time.

MeetingBurner has a free tier of service, and a paid tier that enables the recording of webinars.

The latest beta of the Skype program for Windows allows 1:many screen-sharing. Yet the more attendees you have, the more likely it is that someone doesn’t have Skype. Better to use MeetingBurner.


So far, we’ve covered how to train people remotely in real-time. To convey basic usage of a web app to a group of users, we use Screenr to build canned tutorials.
screenr_logoScreenr records a portion of my screen, plus a voiceover. The resulting video is available for viewing online by the user, and even plays well on iPhone/iPad. Private sceencasts (which might show proprietary information) are possbile with Screenr’s paid tier of service.

We find Screenr most useful for demos that introduce a new app, or brief “skills” videos that coach someone through a particular feature.

Since these screencasts are recorded live and can’t be edited, they should be brief and introduced as informal tools.


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.

Fake Google Ads

Today brings an amusing online marketing twist to a New Jersey Congressional election.

In NJ’s Third Congressional District, a candidate has appeared to run under the Tea Party line — only he was recruited by the Democrats to siphon votes away from their Republican opponent. (Welcome to New Jersey politics!)

faketeapartyadThe Asbury Park Press, who broke the original story, now reports that an unknown party is running AdWords pay-per-click ads for the Google search terms “Destefano” and “Peter Destefano” (the name of the candidate). Moreover, clicking them leads to a Tea Party website. It seems a piece with fake-candidate effort, and the Tea Party group denies running the ads.

The Tea Party group did the right thing and immediately updated their website home page with a disclaimer. They may turn the episode to their benefit, if there is anyone not completely fatigued by the shrill tone of the NJ-3 race.

The Lesson for Your Business

What if someone runs ads of a competitive nature against your firm? The likelihood of a situation like this is slim, but brings up a handful of useful points.

  • Updating your home page with a response may not suit you; it could confuse customers and distract other site visitors. But is there a technical workaround, wherein you configure the website to distinguish traffic coming from one site and serve up a special page? Normally, yes you can. Clicks from a website carry along with them some “referrer” data, and a savvy webmaster can show an alternate page to visitors from Site X. Alas, you can’t do that with Adwords ads that someone else controls; the referrer data is unreliable. Of course, if you run your own AdWords ads, you can tag them to track conversions.
  • If a competitor is running ads against you, why not click them repeatedly so their advertising budget is burnt out? Advertisers pay Google per click, after all. This practice, however, is known as “click fraud“ and Google has automated measures in place to detect it. Your competitor won’t be charged for clicks determined to be insincere.
  • This is yet another small reason why your website should be built with a content management system (like Drupal) that permits you to make changes quickly.
  • In some circumstances, you can push back right on Google. Two hours after the story broke, the Republican candidate began placing counterattack ads of their own on searches for “peter destefano” and “destefano”. Good for them, although they should have bid more for the top spot.

Update 10:30am: I could not help joining the circus, and am now running ads for this blog post. Incidentally, the “New Jersey” phrase below my ad indicates that I’m targeting my ads only to people in New Jersey. Although I do my consulting work for companies outside the Garden State.


Droll as it is, this episode is getting rather meta so I’ll stop there. Thank you for reading, and enjoy your weekend.

Got Google Wave – Now What?

Thanks to Kipp Watson, I’m part of the google Wave beta.


Now to figure out what to do with it…

This Mashable post seems to be a decent place to start.

UPDATE November 24: 

I have some invites if anyone wants them.

Update 2010: 

I was so indecisive about using Wave, they killed it! I was not alone.