About Online Matters

Posts Tagged ‘Internet marketing’

PostHeaderIcon The End of The Chasm and the Beginning of The Rapids

I’m back at it after travel to SMX Advanced London, where I had my first speaking opportunity as the CEO of OnlineMatters.  Now that I’m clear from that presentation, it’s time to get back to the topic of my prior post (not) crossing The Chasm.

In my last post, I posited that The Chasm, as far as Internet-based businesses are concerned, is quickly disappearing.  Let me explain why and why The Chasm has now been replaced by what I call The Rapids.

The Chasm exists because of the disconnect between

  • The time/resources needed to evolve both a high-tech product and business model from meeting the needs of early adopters to support the larger market segment – the early majority.
  • The money available to fund this transition, which is limited by the size of the early adopter market.  The available funds are not likely to grow until the early majority purchases the product en masse, for two reasons. First, because sales generate cash.  Second, because sales validate that the business model and product features are now positioned for scale, thus increasing the company valuation and ability to attract new third-party capital needed for growth.

Voila – A Catch 22 and birth of The Chasm.

But today’s Internet-based business startups work differently.  Thanks to new technologies and approaches to IP (open APIs, open source licensing, crowdsourcing, cloud computing, mashups), software products that used to take months and years to conceive and develop using a large number of engineering and marketing resources, can now be brought to market in a few weeks by two-three people in a condo (Sad to say, the garage crowd went upscale in the late 90s in Silicon Valley and have never really returned to their roots in the humble garage).  Without a lot of effort, they use word-of-mouth and viral techniques, as well as search engine optimization and perhaps a little PR, to acquire an initial set of customers who hopefully like the product and tell their friends.  If they are smart, they add a customer feedback tool like getsatisfaction or uservoice to their sites and begin collecting immediate, extensive, and continuous feedback from customers.  They plow this feedback into the product using daily or even hourly code pushes.

The difference in speed of product evolution between traditional high tech startups and Internet-based business startups is like the difference between the gestational period of an elephant and a virus. And that difference is one of two reasons The Chasm is quickly shrinking, and ultimately disappearing, for Internet-based business startups.

While products in both cases evolve in discrete steps, the size of the steps in the case of an Internet-based business are relatively small and from day to day customers do not see huge changes in the product they are already familiar with.  However, they get to use the product even as it is evolving, unlike the case in more traditional hardware or software businesses where customers can only engage with a new set of features when they are released in large, discrete “chunks” and not before.  As a result the early adopters are brought along even as new customers try the product.  Each step involves a group that more and more reflects the larger majority of customers until at some point the product meets the needs of the earliest of what would have been called the early majority –  who also happen to be the latest of the early adopters.  There is no ability in this case to find a demarcation between these two groups.  Customers’ perceptions of the product and their needs from the product change as the product itself changes because they experience those changes in small steps as they occur.  Obviously some early customers will chose to leave the product as it evolves, but that is true of any product at all times as customer attrition is a fact of life.  Rather, the customer need and product feature evolve in tandem in a virtuous cycle, removing any need to leap between one set of customer expectations/needs and another.

So on the one hand, the capital requirements for an Internet-based business startup have declined (and continue to decline) substantially, while the time required to evolve the product and engage customers in its evolution continues to shrink.  As a result, the challenge for Internet businesses is not The Chasm, because it effectively doesn’t exist any longer.

The new strategic challenge for Internet-based startups is sifting through the reams of data available – customer feedback, site analytics, Twitter feeds, Facebook fan pages, competitive data (of which there is much more today than ever) –  in near real-time and clearly identifying the critical strategic requirements for the business and product requirements needed to serve the core customer segments.  Whereas the traditional high tech startup has difficulty getting enough feedback and making enough changes in a short enough time to perfect the product and business model, the Internet-based business startup faces the problem of determining the key insights from a plethora of data (“the rocks”) and making those insights actionable in time frames that are more logical for a supercomputer than a human being.    More importantly, they need to have the discipline to avoid taking on too many strategic imperatives (“oversteering”) and not over-evolving the product because…well…because it is relatively easy to do.    The Internet startup isn’t crossing a chasm.  They are trying to avoid the rocks and not oversteer their course.  They are navigating The Rapids.

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PostHeaderIcon Eich Bin Ein Mobile Netizen

Like many I have an iPhone. Admittedly I still have a 2G because I’ve become more thrifty in my old age (funding a national-level gymnastics career and private school tuition will have that effect) even at the risk of having my Silicon Valley friends call me a technology troglodyte. But I am an avid user of all the main apps (I can bump with the best of them), use it for location-based searches (e.g. AroundMe, Google maps), send images to Facebook, Tweet in real-time at events, Ping when I can, check my blog traffic with Google apps for the iPhone, and know how to plan/execute advertising campaigns specifically on mobile phones. No one who knows me would say I am in any way behind on my use of mobile technology.

But until now, I’ve never felt like mobile has really changed the basic way I have experienced the world. I go to trade shows and listen to all the ideas for the latest mobile services or how mobile concepts should change my daily life, but I have never felt that I had crossed a Rubicon with the real-time nature of mobile in the same way I did when I got my first laptop or sent my first Tweet.

That changed yesterday. I had the pleasure to take my family to a performance of The Smuin Ballet at the Sunset Center in Carmel. I am an admitted ballet snob, and Smuin is a wonderful company with talented, disciplined dancers and creative choreography. So whenever they are in Carmel we go to see them. The second act was a performance of Smuin’s Medea, which was first performed in 1997. It is a dramatic ballet that retells the story of Medea, the wife of Jason, the intrepid explorer of Jason and the Argonauts.

The myth of Jason and Medea is a dark and haunting tale of revenge and self-destruction. But in the dark as the curtain rose on Act 2, despite being a student of mythology, I couldn’t for the life of me remember even the outlines of the tale to tell my wife and eight year old daughter, neither of whom knew the first thing about this particular myth.

So what did I do? I pulled out my handy iPhone and while shielding it so as not to disturb others, I did a web search on Medea and pulled up the Wikipedia entry.

Despite the dark and small print, I was able to glean from Wikipedia the details of the story. Jason met the sorceress Medea, daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis. Medea falls in love with Jason, and he convinces her to help him to acquire the Golden Fleece in return for a pledge of marriage.  After acquiring the Fleece, Jason and Medea flee to Corinth and have children. In Corinth, King Creon offers his daughter Glauce to Jason in marriage, and Jason feels he cannot pass up the opportunity to marry a royal princess. Despite explanations and promises of support from Jason, Medea feels betrayed. She gives Glauce a wedding gown covered in poison that kills the bride. Then to ensure that nothing of Jason’s will outlive him, she kills their two sons.

I quickly related the story to my wife and daughter (who was especially engaged by the dark and intense drama onstage).  I then sat back and enjoyed the performance, knowing that they now could now understand what they were seeing and, as a result, enjoy it with more insight.

Not a big deal, you might say. I say otherwise. Prior to this, I had used my mobile capabilities to get directions or find a resource nearby. I was using the mobile device as a tool for location-based information. It was a parallel use to a GPS, which while practical, was not a fundamental change in my experience over a map. It was easier than a map and had better information, but the experience was just a replacement of one form of information (paper) for another (digital).

In this case, for the first time I used my iPhone to plug into the wisdom of the commons, into the global village, to enhance and extend the quality or content of an experience.   In other words, the phone and the information it provided in real-time became an integral part of the experience, although it was unintentional (from the perspective of the choreographer or the dancers) and because it was unintentional, it was distracting. But this little thing, this one act, was a fundamental change in how I interacted with the world. This was not a substitution of paper-based data with a digital version. Instead it delivered the true promise of the mobile web. It allowed me to access a completely new set of information that was then added to a real-time, real world event to enhance the experience. The equation is real-time event + Internet information = a real-time multimedia experience.

Admittedly, the experience was not perfect because it wasn’t intentionally developed by the show’s producers. But what if Smuin developed a mobile video app that during the Intermission allowed audience members with iPhones to see the full story of Medea in an entertaining way that also tied the story to how the ballet attempted to recreate that story in dance. That would be a more intentional, and less invasive, way to provide the same integrated (but completely new) experience.

So yesterday for the first time, I experienced the true power of the mobile web.  I can now say “Eich Bin Ein Mobile Netizen.”

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PostHeaderIcon Why Search Engine Optimization Matters

Yesterday, a reasonably well-known blogger, Derek Powazek, (whose article,  against my strongest desire to give it any further validation in the search engine rankings where this article now ranks #10, gets a link here because at the end of the day the Web is about transparency and the I truly believe that any argument must win out in the realm of ideas) let out a rant against the entire SEO industry.  The article, and the responses both on his website and on SearchEngineLand upset me hugely for a number of reasons:

  1. The tone was so angry and demeaning.  As I get older (and I hope wiser), I want to speak in a way that bridges differences and heals breaches, not stokes the fire of discord.
     
  2. I believe the tone was angry in order to evoke strong responses in order to build links in order to rank high in the search engines.  Linkbuilding is a tried-and-true, legitimate SEO practice and so invalidates the entire argument Derek makes that understanding and implementing a well thought-out SEO program is so much flim-flam. Even more important to me, do we need to communicate in angry rants in order to get attention in this information and message-overwhelmed universe?  Is that what we’ve come to?  I sure hope not.
     
  3. The article’s advice about user experience coming first was right (and has my 100% agreement).  But it’s assumptions about SEO and therefore its conclusions were incorrect.
     
  4. The article’s erroneous conclusions will hurt a number of people who could benefit from good SEO advice.  THAT is probably the thing that saddens me most – it will send people off in a direction that will hurt them and their businesses substantially.  Good SEO is not a game.  It has business implications and by giving bad advice, Derek is potentially costing a lot of good people money that they need to feed their families in these tough times.
     
  5. The number of responses in agreement with his blog was overwhelming relative to the number that did not agree.  That also bothered me – that the perception of our industry is such that so many people feel our work does not serve a legitimate purpose.
     
  6. The comments on Danny Sullivan’s response to Derek were few, but they were also pro-SEO (of course).  Which means that the two communities represented in these articles aren’t talking to each other in any meaningful way.  You agree with Derek, comment to him.  You agree with Danny, comment there.  Like attracts like, but it doesn’t ultimately yield to two communities bridging their difference.

I, too, started to make comments on both sites.  But my comments rambled (another one of those prerogatives I maintain in this 140 character world) , and so it became apparent that I would need to create a blog entry to respond to the article – which I truly do not want to do because, frankly, I really don’t want to "raise the volume" of this disagreement between SEO believers and SEO heretics.  But I have some things to say that no one else is saying, and it goes to the heart of the debate on why SEO IS important and is absolutely not the same thing as a good user experience of web development.

So to Danny, to Derek, and to all the folks who have entered this debate, I  hope you find my comments below useful and, if not, my humble apologies for wasting your valuable time.

Good site design is about the user experience. I started my career in online and software UE design when that term was an oxymoron.  My first consulting company, started in 1992, was inspired by David Kelley, my advisor at Stanford, CEO of IDEO (one of the top design firms in the world),  and now founder and head of the Stanford School of Design.  I was complaining to David about the horrible state of user interfaces in software and that we needed an industry initiative to wake people.  His response was "If it’s that bad, go start a company to fix it."  Which I did.  That company built several products that won awards for their innovative user experience. 

That history, I hope, gives credibility to next next statement: I have always believed, and will always believe, that good site experience trumps anything else you do.  Design the site for your customer first.  Create a "natural" conversation with them as they flow through the site and you will keep loyal customers.

Having said that, universal search engines do not "think" like human beings.  They are neither as fast or as capable of understanding loosely organized data.  They work according to algorithms that attempt to mimic how we think, but they are a long way from actually achieving it.  These algorithms, as well as the underlying structures used to make them effective, also must run in an environment of limited processing power (even with all of Google’s server farms) relative to the volume of information, so they have also made trade-offs between accuracy and speed.  Examples of these structures are biword indices and positional indices.  I could go into the whole theory of Information architecture, but leave it to say that a universal search engine needs help in interpreting content in order to determine relevance. 

Meta data is one area that has evolved to help the engines do this.  So, first and foremost, by expecting this information, the search engines expect and need us to include data especially for them that has nothing to do with the end user experience and everything with being found relevant and precise.  This is the simplest form of SEO.  There are two points here:

  1. Who is going to decide what content goes into these tags? Those responsible for the user experience?  I think not.  The web developers? Absolutely positively not.  It is marketing and those who position the business who make these decisions.
     
  2. But how does marketing know how a search engine thinks?  Most do not.  And there are real questions of expertise here, albeit for this simple example, small ones that marketers can (and are) learning.  What words should I use for the search engines to consider a page relevant that then go into the meta data?  For each meta data field, what is the best structure for the information?  How many marketers, for example, know that a title tag should only be 65 characters long, or that a description tag needs to be limited to 150 characters, that the words in anchor text are a critical signaling factor to the search engines, or that alt-text on an image can help a search engine understand the relevance of a page to a specific keyword/search?  How many know the data from the SEOMoz Survey of SEO Ranking Factors showing that the best place to put that keyword in a title tag for search engine relevance is in first position, and that the relevance drops off in an exponential manner the further back in the title the keyword sits?  On this last point, there isn’t one client who hasn’t asked me for advice.  They don’t and can’t track the industry and changes in the algorithms closely enough to follow this.  They need SEO experts to help them – a member of the trained and experienced professionals in the SEO industry, and this is just the simplest of SEO issues.

How about navigation?  If you do not build good navigational elements into deeper areas of the site (especially large sites) that are specifically for search engines and/or you build it in a way that a search engine can’t follow (e.g. by the use of Javascript in the headers or flash in a single navigation mechanism throughout the site), then the content won’t get indexed and the searcher won’t find it.  Why are good search-specific navigational elements so important?  It comes back to limited processing power and time.  Each search engine has only so much time and power to crawl the billions of pages on the web, numbers that grow every day and where existing pages can change not just every day but every minute.  These engines set rules about how much time they will spend crawling a site and if your site is too hard to crawl or too slow, many pages will not make it into the indices and the searcher, once again, will never find what could be hugely relevant content.

Do UE designers or web developers understand these rules at a high level?  Many now know not to use Javascript in the headers, to be careful how they use flash and, if they do use it in the navigation, to have alternate navigational elements that help the bots crawl the site quickly.  Is this about user experience?  Only indirectly.  It is absolutely positively about search engine optimization, however, and it is absolutely valid in terms of assuring that relevant content gets put in front of a searcher.

Do UE designers or web developers understand the gotchas with these rules?  Unlikely.  Most work in one organization with one site (or a limited number of sites).  They haven’t seen the actual results of good and bad navigation across 20 or 50 or 100 sites and learned from hard experience what is a best practice.  They need an SEO expert, someone from the SEO  industry, to help guide them.  

Now let’s talk about algorithms.  Algorithms, as previously mentioned, are an attempt (and a crude one based on our current understanding of search) at mimicking how searchers (or with personalization a single searcher) think so that searches return relevant results to that searcher.  If you write just for people, and structure your pages just for readers, you are doing your customers a disservice because what a human can understand as relevant and what a search engine can grasp of meaning and relevance are not the same.  You might write great content for people on the site, but if a search engine can’t understand its relevance, a searcher who cares about that content will never find it. 

Does that mean you sacrifice the user experience to poor writing?  Absolutely, positively, without qualification not.  But within the structure of good writing and a good user experience, you can design a page that helps/signals the search engines, with their limited time and ability to understand content, what keywords are relevant to that page. 

Artificial constraint, you say? How is that different than the constraints I have when trying to get my message across with a good user experience in a data sheet?  How is that different when I have 15 minutes to get a story across in a presentation to my executive staff in a way that is user friendly and clear in its messaging?  Every format, every channel for marketing has constraints.  The marketer’s (not the UE designer’s and not the web developer’s) job is to communicate effectively within those constraints. 

Does a UE designer or the web developer understand how content is weighted to create a ranking score for a specific keyword within a specific search engine?  Do they know how position on the page relates to how the engines consider relevance? Do they understand how page length effects the weighting?  Take this example.  If I have two pages, one of which contains two exact copies of the content on the first page, which is more relevant?  From a search engine’s perspective they are equally relevant, but if a search engine just counted all the words on the second page, it would rank higher.  A fix is needed.

One way that many search engines compensate for page length differences is through something called pivoted document length normalization (write me if you want a further explanation).  How do I know this?  Because I am a search engine professional who spends time every day learning his trade, reading on information architecture and studying the patents filed by the major search engines to understand how the technology of search can or may be evolving.  Because – since I can’t know exactly what algorithms are currently being used –  I run tests on real sites to see the impact of various content elements on ranking.  Because I do competitive analysis on other industry sites to see what legitimate, white hat techniques they have used and content they have created (e.g. videos on a youtube channel that then point to their main site) to signal the relevance of their content to the search engines. 

And to Derek’s point, what happens when the algorithms change?  Who is there watching the landscape for any change, like an Indian scout in a hunting party looking for the herd of buffalo?  Who can help interpret the change and provide guidance on how to adapt content to maintain the best signals of relevance for a keyword to the search engines?  Derek makes this sound like an impossible task and a lot of hocus-pocus.  It isn’t and it’s not.  Professional SEO consultants do this for their clients all the time, by providing good maintenance services.  They help their clients content remain relevant, and hopefully ranking high in the SERPs, in the face of constant change.

So to ask again, do UE designers or product managers understand these issues around content?  At some high level they may (a lot don’t).  Do web developers? Maybe, but most don’t because they don’t deal in content – it is just filler that the code has to deal with (it could be lorem ipsum for their purposes).  Do any of these folks in their day-to-day struggles to do their jobs under tight time constraints have the time to spend, as I do, learning and understanding these subtleties or running tests? Absolutely, positively not.  They need an SEO professional to counsel them so that they make the right design, content and development choices.

I’ll stop here.  I pray I’ve made my point calmly and with a reasoned argument.  Please let me know.  I’m not Danny Sullivan, Vanessa Fox, Rand Fishkin, or Stephan Spencer, to name a few of our industry’s leading lights.  I’m just a humble SEO professional who adores his job and wants to help his clients rank well with their relevant business information.  My clients seem to like me and respect what I do, and that gives me an incredible amount of satisfaction and joy. 

I’m sorry Derek, but I respect your viewpoint and I know that you truly believe what you are saying.  But as an honest, hard-working SEO professional, I couldn’t disagree with you more.

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PostHeaderIcon Social Media Channel Architectures – Part 2

We left off last time having defined a conceptual approach to channel architecture with an example of a new type of soap – “Greensoap” which has three unique advantages: it sends fewer harmful chemicals into the water supply, it doesn’t get mushy when stored, and it is 50% cheaper than other leading brands.  How do we leverage a social media channel architecture for this product launch?

Following the model (and in fact basic marketing 101), we first need to know what audiences we are targeting.  In this case there are three which can be defined based on attitudes and behaviors:

  • Green Consumers.  Green consumers most important attitude is that they believe the environment must be protected, that current economics doesn’t measure the “true cost” of products, and that if the true cost were available we would see that dumping chemicals into the environment (and later having to remediate) is more expensive than just selling a green product in the first place.   They are split evenly between men and women, predominantly 18 – 35, and average income of $45,000/year.  Their behaviors: they tend to shop at smaller stores with a focus on environmental sensitivity, they are relatively price insensitive up to a 20% price increase over non-green products, and they tend to be vocal in online communities around green issues.
  • Vacation Travelers.  These folks tend to bring soap rather than use what is in the hotel room because their stays are longer and they travel with their families of 2.2 kids (whereas business travelers stay short periods, want to travel as light as possible, and so use in-room soap provided by the hotel).  This audience is mainly women 30 – 50 and is concerned with minimizing the burdens of “household  care” – meaning keeping a clean house, clean kids, and organized environment.  75% have a job, are incredibly time constrained and stressed.  They tend to shop at one store, usually a major grocery chain outlet between work and home.  If a product makes their life one iota easier, they will consider it.  They are highly swayed by friends and family validation that a product meets its promises.  Once they try a product, they are incredibly loyal up to a price premium of 25% over their current brand.
  • The Thrifty Shopper.   This buyer always worries about money and saving it is their first priority.  Split equally between men and women, the demographic is flat across all age groups, with a slight peak within 60+ years groups due to their fixed incomes (+ life experience during Depression and WWII).  This buyer shops in big box stores and low-cost chain grocery stores like Safeway and Savemart.  No product loyalty whatsoever – they’ll switch brands for as little as a 5 cent savings. 

The next step in the model is to figure out what kinds of media these audiences use and where they are likely to be on the web.  Figure 1 shows the mapping of audience to media, platform, and social media sites.  The sites listed are intended to be category “examples” – meaning that they are only one potential site that could be used.  For example, in column 2, cafemom indicates women-focused social media networks. 

 Figure 1
Mapping Prospective Audiences to Social Media Channel Categories

Mapping Example Audiences to Social Media Channels

The third step is to define our messages to each audience (if we haven’t already done so).  For purposes of this example, we’re going to keep this to one message per consumer segment:

  • Green Consumers: Greensoap leaves you AND the world a cleaner place.
  • Vacation Travelers: Greensoap keeps your family clean and your life simple.
  • The Thrifty Shopper: Greensoap keeps you clean and green at 50% of the cost of other soap.

In the next post we’ll put together the campaigns and then show how we apply them to the various media channels.  Stay tuned.

 

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PostHeaderIcon From the Trenches: Overview of SEO Project Implementation

If you look on the About page of my blog, you’ll see that one of the key audiences I am concerned with are search marketers who for one reason or another came late to the game. While I have been doing online products and marketing since 1992 (think about that one for a second…), I did come late to the search marketing party because at the time that these markets evolved I hired people to sweat the details of day-to-day implementation. I was actually pretty knowledgeable and could do many things myself that most CMOs couldn’t do – e.g. develop extensive keyword lists and upload them into the Adwords Editor, write VB scripts – but I was still a long way away from all the intricacies of the practice.

And let’s start with that as my first statement on the science of online marketing: developing online strategies is relatively easy. It is in the details/intricacies of implementation that great search marketers make their bones. Details come in many forms and, in the interest of time, I will not go into categorizing these. We’ll do that at the end of the series on “From the Trenches.” In the meantime, we’ll just work through them for each area that I’ll cover.

The initial portion of this series will focus on Search Engine Optimization, since this is a very hot topic in the current economy.  The approach – given this is a blog – will be to do relatively short modules on one subject within each major topic.  Each module will begin with the name of the section  and then the topic at hand (e.g. Keyword Analysis – Building the Initial Keyword Universe).  I am going to add presentation material in the form of audio powerpoints whuch will provide a bit more extensive coverage of each topic.  How long will the presentations be – not sure yet.  We’ll have to try it out and see – after all, I’m learning how to present in blog mode just as you are learning how to learn in blog mode. 

The sections for basic SEO will run as follows:

  • Introduction to SEO
  • Keyword Analysis
  • Site Architecture Issues
  • On-Page Content and Meta Data
  • Link Building
  • Combining the Basics into an SEO Program

Looking forward to these sessions.  I expect to start them shortly – once I get the presentation technology set up. 

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