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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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.

 

Six Questions to Ask Your Web Developer About Technology

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.

Six Questions

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.

Bonus Issues

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.

Accessibility for viewers with disabilities. This in practice usually means legally blind people with screen-readers. See here and here for more.

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.

Is your firm running uphill?

Have you got that intimidated, guilty feeling? About how much better your competitor ranks for the good search terms, has more Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and has more online “gravity”?

This post is for you:

The Rich Get Richer: True in SEO, Social + All Organic Marketing

The writer is an SEO expert, but his main point touches on why online marketing needs to be thought of holistically.

High search rankings can earn you lots of visitors who might subscribe to an email list. Thousands of Twitter followers can mean direct SEO benefit and second-order effects like more links and branding. A popular LinkedIn group can drive traffic that turn into more RSS subscribers, getting you noticed by industry lists, which then feed into more media attention and links, which delivers higher rankings. It’s a virtuous circle — unless you’re sitting on the sidelines.

Or running uphill. Read the whole thing.

Forget the guilt of “I should have begun all that online marketing earlier.”

Take heart because of these things:

  • Online marketing tools are getting cheaper and work better together. This means a small or midmarket company can have big-company infrastructure for lead generation and development.
  • Customers may slow down their buying during a recession, but search engines don’t. Crank out good content, get people linking to you, and you’ll be better-ranked when spending conditions improve.
  • Competitors make mistakes, even when they are running downhill*. How often have you heard of a company getting more nimble and efficient as they grow?
  • Knowing what will engage customers is critical to marketing, but is always changing. If you find out what your buyers are interested in right now, you’ll have a more accurate perspective than your competitor.

Start Now! You can catch up. Interview customers, come up with a content strategy, integrate your marketing, and measure it all.

*True story: The first cross-country race I ever won was when the guy in front of me took a wrong turn and ran off the course.

Better Content for Better SEO and Lead Conversion

Is a search engine optimization program just for lead generation?

Nope.

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.

visual-display-search-clicks-2010

 

Not breakthrough thought, just a fun infographic.

The data set is here.

SEO gone wrong

I have the dubious pleasure of shopping for a new car. Although I’ve decided on a make and model (Honda CRV), the question of what dealer to patronize is open. So off to the websites I go, looking for specials and the general tone of the various places. Like most people facing a trip to the dealer, I was in a, shall we say, pre-adversarial state of mind.

On one dealer website (UPDATE: dead link now, with awful error message), I see this (formatting in the original):

This 2010 Honda CR-V NJ New Jersey is offered by Open Road Honda of Edison and can be compared to any 2010 Honda CR-V Edison  Why pay full retail for a 2010 Honda CR-V NJ New Jersey when you can have this 2010 Honda CR-V Edison? Paying less for a Honda CR-V NJ New Jersey probably makes sense to most NJ New Jersey Honda CR-V buyers. This Edison Honda CR-V is available at a fraction of the original retail price at Open Road Honda in NJ New Jersey. See for yourself why so many Edison drivers choose a Honda CR-V Edison

What the hell is going on here? Does Honda make a special New Jersey version of the CRV? (Including EZ-Pass holder and remote gas tank door opener.) Wait, is there an Edison version too?

No, Garden Staters, Honda doesn’t love you that much.

What we have here is search engine optimization gone wrong. The dealer’s website agency — or an SEO agency — has intentionally stuffed the page with target keywords, hoping to rise in the rankings for “honda new jersey” or “new jersey cr-v” et cetera.

So far, it’s not working fully. Searching for “honda new jersey” returns Open Road at #9 in the natural results — ironic considering they are allegedly the biggest Honda dealer in NJ. The results page is dominated by the rather useful Google Local results, however. Open Road does make it to the top there, but that’s due in part to Google’s geotargeting to my location. Open Road isn’t in the top ten for “new jersey cr-v“or “new jersey honda cr-v“. They are #1 for “edison honda cr-v” but that is a minor victory; how many additional Edison residents are going to call Open Road because of that search?

But what the heck, they may have just started this SEO program. What’s the downside of this SEO program?

The biggest problem is that regular folks who read that gibberish are going to be confused, at least briefly. Do you want customers trying to decipher your English, when they’re deciding where to spend $25,000?

Good marketing means removing barriers to sale, so they ought to rework the copy.

Or, kill it altogether! Keyword frequency and formatting are of minimal importance (see here for a good list), compared to some other things they have done right (title tag, H1-formatted text, high position of keywords).

The most important thing that Open Road Honda for their SEO can do is to get links from reputable sites. How many are pointing to Open Road? Only about a hundred; a search returns 379 but most of those are for similarly named firms in North Dakota and Vancouver.

How can a car dealer get links?

Well… I’ll be glad to show them if they cut me a deal. I’m not interested in Toyotas any more.

 

P.S. new jersey honda cr-v.  Throw in some floor mats OK?

 

How SEO can screw up your…

Some Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics can give you a marginal boost in rankings, but hurt you on a net basis.

The main culprit is usually an overweening preoccupation with on-page keyword optimization, but link-building can hurt too.

This article is not about black-hat SEO practices, which are covered in plenty of detail elsewhere. Instead, we’ll look at “good” SEO practices when they’re overdone.

Let’s see what gets hurt.

Muddied Product Positioning
Pretend you sell software to corporate accountants. Corporate accounting software is obviously your #1 target phrase, but you naturally care about capturing related searches. So your SEO advisor says, “hey, let’s target some other key phrases too.” Next thing you know, they’ve added pages on your site titled Corporate Controller Software and Shareholder Accounting Softwareand Corporate Asset Management Software, in part since those are phrases that the keyword suggestion tools returned. And then the SEO advisor includes links to those pages within your left-hand navigation, because that helps the new pages rank higher. Your problem reveals itself when a prospect visits your site, and sees all those links. Prospect then thinks, “well, this company’s product does a whole lot of different things!” And that may not be the market positioning you want.

Underperforming Website Copy
There is an allegedly optimal level of “keyword density” that makes a given page rank well. For example, if you have “organic tea” occurring six times on the page, that’s better than two occurrences. Visitors read differently than search engine spiders, however, and they still respond to effective copy. Stuffing pages with key phrases, then, may reduce the conversion power of a page. So your tradeoff is higher traffic versus page effectiveness. Would you rather have a page that gets 100 natural search referrals and one conversion, or 30 referrals and two conversions? It’s possible to have both, but how are you going to get there? It’s much easier to test and change copy (and design) for improved conversion than to test keyword optimization. We think there is more upside with conversion-building efforts, and other SEO tactics. Landing pages for pay-per-click ads are a great place to test copy and design.

Cluttered Website Navigation
The left nav, footer, and site map page get heavy weight with search algorithms, since they are treated as pointers to a site’s most important pages. SEO advisors often will load the navigation with links to search-engine-friendly pages. This distracts people from your intended sales funnel. Excessive intrasite linking means people go in circles, and get frustrated. Repetition of keywords and phrases in links will lead to guesswork by the prospect: “Is the thing I want behind this link or that one?” Every site visitor has a finite number of clicks they’re willing to spend at your site – don’t make them click more than they have to.

Noise in Measurement
Your SEO scorecard should be visually simple, and focussing on the biggest business drivers. Don’t let it get cluttered with ranks of long-tail search terms in second-tier engines. Doing so obscures the high-value Google terms, which – like it or not – is where the money is. Track infrequent terms on a second worksheet if you must, and present an aggregate performance metric for the lot of them on the scorecard. Also, don’t track search terms which bring unqualified traffic.

Confusing Site Maintenance
This is a minor factor that can be avoided, but we’ll mention it anyway. Regular content changes to web pages is a healthy thing for SEO. For sites not built with a content management system, one byproduct of changing content is an accumulation of defunct and unlinked files on your webserver; the “retired” versions of live pages. You might even have new and old style sheets. Over time this can clutter up your webspace, to the point where it costs your webmaster time. You should have a system for saving old files (in case you need to revert back to them, or audit for troubleshooting purposes) that is clean and organized. Moving them to a hidden directory is one way. Giving them a unique extension like .defunct is another, since sorting by type gives the webmaster a method of visually ignoring the retired files.

Repetitive Blog Entry Titles
If you’ve got a business blog, resist the temptation to consistently pack your entry titles with keywords. Include keywords in the basenames instead, and save the keyphrases for your marquee blog content.

Meta Descriptions
Inside the top of your web page, there is usually a field for a description of the page. It looks like this:
<meta name=”description” content=”The leading purveyor of premium tea”>
Google often uses the copy after content= as the blurb under your listing in a search engine results page. This is a marketing opportunity, a chance to help position your product effectively before the click. Enthusiastic SEO advisors may instead see the META description field as a chance to further pack your page with more keywords. Yet doing so may mean a less-well-performing blurb, which means poorer conversion from the search results page.

Blackened Wikipedia Reputation
Even though a link from Wikipedia to your site hasn’t counted in the search algorithms since 2005, it’s still a potential source of inbound traffic. Don’t go adding links to your site within Wikipedia content, however, unless your content has the right patina of independence. Wikipedia editors are quite mindful of commercially motivated edits, and squash them with a Puritan zeal.

Nine Reasons to Interview Your Customers

Any marketer responsible for strategy should be talking to customers regularly. See our article on interviewing customers for the primary reasons why you should. We can think of nine “secondary reasons” why customer interviews are useful. These are in no particular order, since their net benefit depends on your own situation.

Let’s call one of your customers Joe.

  1. Makes the Customer Feel Good. This has three parts. Joe speaks his mind (which is therapeutic on its own); Joe thinks complaints will get addressed and praise passed along (which appeals to his sense of fairness); Joe thinks your product is more likely to meet his future needs. Of course, you have to follow up on the last two things, but if you’re not committed to that anyhow you should have a long think about your business.
  2. It’s Cheaper Than You Think. If you delegate it to someone in-house, the incremental financial cost per interview is about $35, for a transcriber’s time. There are some fixed time costs associated with an interview program: generating the list itself, reviewing it for outliers, giving your callers some basic background about each account, and the phone tag typically involved with arranging a 30-minute conversation. If you outsource it to a freelancer or consultant, expect to pay $150 per interview, including transcription. This might be part of a larger package of interviews.
  3. Discover Hidden Opinions. (I’m cheating a little here, since this is usually possible only if you outsource the interviews.) With interviewee anonymity, you’ll learn things your customers won’t ordinarily tell you or your sales rep. Why? Under a promise of anonymity, people will open up to third parties (providing the interviewers know enough about your company and your products to sound credible). Joe is more likely to comment on personal interactions, e.g. the support staff didn’t want me on the phone any longer, the sales rep didn’t tell me when the maintenance fee kicks in. The point of gathering this kind of information isn’t to find tattletales and bust your employee for a single event, but to uncover consistent breakdowns. Joe is also more likely to comment truthfully on price to a third party interviewee, since he’s mentally out of the cat-and-mouse pricing game with your sales rep.
  4. Seeds for Case Studies. An interview with a happy Joe can be converted into a case study rather easily.
  5. Testimonials. Once you have a nice quote actually leave Joe’s lips (instead of your writing it for them, which is the way it usually goes), it’s easier to get customer approval. Even if the customer’s CorpComm department refuses permission to publish the testimonial, you can anonymize it. Anonymized testimonials are worthwhile only if the quote is specific to a product feature.
  6. Helps Your SEO Program. If you can take Joe’s interview (anonymous or not) and put it online, you’ll get a marginal boost with the search engines. While it’s unlikely that you’ll get a good inbound link into an interview, the addition of fresh content containing good keywords will help.
  7. Internal Use. Share all or part of the interview with colleagues. This is especially useful in big companies with an intranet.
  8. Counterbalance Salesperson Anecdotes. This may not seem as “nice” as the above reasons, but marketers can’t ignore this. In the B2B world, the salesperson is often the only one talking with customers. They pass customer comments up the ladder, especially when those comments relate to lost sales or a greater chance at account growth and retention. All good so far! However, the aggregate of all those sales “touches” gives Sales disproportionate authority on What The Customer Wants. A marketing team that aims to go beyond simple product marketing and marcomms — into marketing strategy — has to be an equal or better authority on What The Customer Wants, in the CEO’s eyes. Customer interviews give you some of that authority.
  9. Get New Ideas. Interviews “get your head out of the building” and make you think of new promotional/selling/content ideas. Although there are always more ideas than time or money, you’re always better off with a greater pool of ideas. So put your free thinkers on the interview team. Make them stick to the basic script, but encourage them to follow the flow of the talk and ask their own followup questions. Make them do calls offsite.