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I Wrote A Book On Conversion Optimization For Software Companies

Long story short: I wrote a book on conversion optimization, SEO, and related topics, for software companies.  You can buy it here (Kindle, iPad, Nook, PDF) or on Amazon (Kindle).

For the last couple of years, folks have been asking for me to write about A/B testing, conversion optimization, and whatnot in book form.  I’ve never done it, simply because the notion of spending months of work with a publisher to write a book that would (all things being equal) likely fail to earn-out a $5,000 advance seemed to be a silly thing to do just to put “published author” on my resume.  I love writing and I like teaching, don’t get me wrong, but writing as a profession always struck me as work, and not even particularly fun work.

The folks at Hyperink convinced me to give it a try, though.  They are basically trying to make Publishing 2.0 work as a business model: provide authors with design/editing/etc using a workflow which was invented by people who grew up on Google Docs rather than manual typewriters, and create books relevant to niche audiences partially by republishing existing essays and partially by supplementing them with new material.  (The upshot for the authors is that royalties are split more equitably than 93-7-but-with-accounting-practices-that-would-make-the-RIAA-proud.)

What It Includes

  • ~ 20 essays that originally appeared on my blog, covering selling software, software pricing, conversion optimization, A/B testing, SEO, and the like, mostly of interest to software companies
  • ~ 4 essays which are totally new, including one on reducing churn rates
  • a follow-up or two on how some experiments worked out after I had written them up… including never-before-seen tales of abysmal failurebecause that sometimes teaches as much as the successes

Who Should Read This

  • Solo entrepreneurs running software businesses.  (I’d suggest actually having a working product — this book doesn’t cover product development, except when it is incidental to optimizing for marketing outcomes.)
  • Marketing / engineering / product folks at SaaS companies looking to synergize get some ideas of things which engineers can build that will make meaningful differences for the business
  • Anybody who has ever thought “Rather than reading through 600 posts in chronological order, could you just distill your blog down into the best twenty posts and categorize them for me?  My time isn’t totally valueless.  And put them on my Kindle/iPad/etc so I can read them on a plane.”)
  • My family.  (“You wrote a book?  I want to read it!  What is it about?”  ”Conversion optimization for software websites.”  ”I’ll pass!”)

Chapter List

  • Preface
    • Preface (new essay)
  • Selling Your Stuff
    • Introduction (new essay)
    • You Should Probably Send More Email Than You Do
    • Does Your Product Logo Actually Matter?
    • Dropbox-style Two-sided Sharing Incentives
    • Two-sided Referral Incentives Revisited! (new essay)
    • Engineering Your Way To Marketing Success
    • Selling Software To People Who Don’t Buy Software
    • Increase Your Software Sales
    • The Black Arts of SaaS Pricing
  • Increasing Conversions
    • Introduction (new essay)
    • Stripe And A/B Testing Made Me A Small Fortune
    • The Most Radical A/B Test I’ve Ever Done
    • Keeping The User Moving Towards Conversion
    • Practical Conversion Tips For Selling Software
    • Minor Usability Errors In Checkout Funnel = You Lose Lots Of Money
    • 10-Minute Tweaks to Boost Your Conversion
  • All About SEO
    • Introduction (new essay)
    • SEO for Software Companies
    • Strategic SEO for Startups
    • The Big Book of Getting People to Link to You
    • Developing Linkbait For a Non-Technical Audience
    • Why You Shouldn’t Pay Any SEO You Can Afford
  • Conclusion
    • Thanks for Reading, Lets Talk Churn Rates  (new essay)

Luckily, Hyperink Was In Charge Of Design, Not Me

If you’ve followed my blog or products for a while, you’re probably aware that I have the design sense of an addlebrained squirrel who fell into the Christmas eggnog and drowned.  Luckily, Hyperink took care of the book design and typesetting, so that it looks better on your e-reader or screen than anything I would have natively produced.  Here’s a sample (click to enlarge):

Formats Available

In Which I Explicitly Ask For The Sale

If you generally enjoy my writing and think a curated collection of twenty essays on the topic of making more money for your software business is of interest to you, please buy the book.  (It is, as far as I know, $9.99 everywhere you can buy it, but vagaries of the publishing industry mean that I can’t guarantee that this is true for you.)  If you don’t want to buy it, don’t worry, I won’t think any less of you — enjoy the blog, come back for more next year.  If you buy the book and enjoy it, I’d encourage you to leave a review on Amazon, as folks are really keen on seeing them.

Note to other potential authors: the folks at Hyperink are Good People and were a pleasure to work with in the discussion and editing process.  If you’ve considered trying your hand at writing a book but, like me, thought the traditional publishing industry is largely toxic and exploitative by construction, I’d encourage you to give them a whirl.

P.S. I traditionally post a Year In Review for my businesses, covering what worked and what didn’t as well as statistics, shortly before Christmas.  See, for example, 2011′s edition.  I will do it again this year, but owing to some bookkeeping hold-ups, it will be shortly after Christmas rather than before.  May you and your families have peace, love, and health this Christmas and always.

Why I Don’t Host My Own Blog Anymore

I moved my blog over to WPEngine recently. Why? Read on.

I started blogging about 375,000 words ago (about three full-length novels… crikey). At first, I was on a subdomain of WordPress.com, mostly because a) it was free and b) I had no intention of ever writing anything more significant than a few observations I made while developing a summer project.  My posts about making and marketing software turned out to be rather more popular than I anticipated, and I eventually made them my main professional presence and moved them to their own domain name.

Eventually, I decided that I had to be in control of my site rather than being locked into only the themes and functionality that WordPress.com supported, so I started hosting the blog myself.  I installed WordPress on a modest 512 MB VPS from Slicehost, with the standard Apache 2 / PHP / MySQL stack, and thought that would be the end of my hosting decisions.  Sadly, it was only the beginning.

WordPress, PHP, and Apache: The Trifecta Of Finnicky Software

I’m a web developer by trade, so I’m very skeptical of unevidenced comments like “lol, PHP can’t scale.”  It’s transparently obvious that PHP can scale — one look at who uses it (Facebook is really all you need to know) proves that.  Sadly, my system crashed frequently under load, even after upgrading the 512 MB slice to a 1,024 MB slice, and after tweaking Apache and PHP’s memory-usage settings for hours.  I read practically everything written about caching plugins for WordPress and it availed me not.  The loads at issue weren’t generally that impressive, either: 10,000 pageviews here,  100,000 pageviews there, either way a modern server in 2006 ~ 2012 should eat those numbers for breakfast.

In addition to tweaking the heck out of my settings, I was hacking WordPress to lessen the load on the server.  I went so far as to putting all the static resources for this blog (CSS, images, etc) on a server used for my software business, since no level of traffic has ever managed to give Nginx a problem in my experience.  This made the blog much more stable under load, but it still crashed occasionally.

I eventually found the culprit: a setting in Apache named, ironically, KeepAlive.  Since then I have been seized by missionary zeal in trying to convince people that leaving KeepAlive on will probably not be in your best interests.  I turned off KeepAlive and have had a much more stable time since then.

Even with all this work, my blog crashed four times in 2011.  Each time, my monitoring software woke me up, and I learned things like “Oh, Jimmy Wales tweeted about an article of mine” at 4 AM in the morning while trying to restart the server.  I’ve probably lost in excess of 100,000 readers over the years for the blog being down.

I eventually got so fed up with Apache that I spent a day to migrate this (and 15 other sites) from using Apache as a front-end webserver to using Nginx to serve all requests and proxy dynamic requests to a backend Apache instance.  (Why not use Nginx to execute the PHP directly?  Long story — I do that elsewhere, but it isn’t painless.)

Routine Maintenance Sucked, Too

You’ve heard about WordPress’ somewhat spotty security record, right?  I’m aware of it as a practicing engineer and have even reported a few doozies in commonly deployed themes/plugins myself.  So I took some fairly extraordinary measures to secure the blog versus a stock WordPress installation:

  • required all access of the admin to happen through a proxy that I control
  • locking down all files on the WordPress installation such that the webserver could not write to them — this makes plugin installation/maintenance a manual chore and breaks some plugins, but makes it less likely that a vulnerability in a plugin or theme will ruin your day
  • performed some sporadic code audits on things I am inexpert on in a language I detest.  I eventually stopped doing this because reporting vulnerabilities to the WordPress ecosystem could easily be my full time job.

As a result of this, to my knowledge my blog never got compromised.  Whee, great.  It only took me a few billable weeks.  Plus I had all the usual fun of applying patches, making backups, restoring from backups when MySQL decided to eat the wp_posts table (still no clue why that happened), tweaking settings for rotating logs, migrating my hosting provider (Rackspace bought Slicehost so I had to move servers), yadda yadda yadda.

“Do You Enjoy Hosting WordPress?”

Two years ago at a conference I ran into Jason Cohen, a very smart guy who had sold his previous software business.  He told me that his new venture was managed WordPress hosting.  I was outwardly interested and inwardly cringing, because I thought “There are already WordPress hosts available for $4 a month, they all suck, and the software is pretty much irredeemable.  If it weren’t the best blogging software available I’d take a hammer to my backups then burn the shards and bury them on sanctified ground so that they never troubled the world again.”

At some point Jason asked me if I liked hosting WordPress.  I told him “I love hosting WordPress!  I love all the power and tweakability!”  And while I do appreciate control, I still can’t imagine what possessed me to say that.  Hosting WordPress has been a black hole of my time.

Last year I ran into Jason Cohen at another conference. He told me that WPEngine, the WordPress hosting company he’d told me about, was live and doing well.  In my haste to demonstrate that I had learned something from cutting myself on WordPress for the last five years, I mentioned “I guess you guys figured out to turn KeepAlive off, huh?”

Jason said “Actually, no.  I mean, sure, in the general case for a VPS, you want it off because otherwise your site gets non-responsive under load.  However, if you’ve got Apache talking to the outside world, something is wrong.  Apache only handles the request after it’s been through a load balancer, a Varnish caching proxy, and then Nginx, because Nginx does static content so well.  If the request gets that far you want KeepAlive on because your Apache will only be talking within your datacenter, only have a handful of connections, and you want those connections to be alive almost indefinitely because setup/teardown is always waste.”

You know how often I talk to software company CEOs and get not just corrected but destroyed and then re-educated about a point of technical fact?  Suffice it to say it made an impression.

So when Jason invited me over to WPEngine to do some marketing work, I leaped at the chance.  I went down to Texas for a week, met the team, and did my thing.  (Sidenote: Want to see a fairly typical week’s work for me?  Take a gander at their speed test tool, which you can point at an arbitrary WordPress site and learn why your page load speed isn’t optimized enough yet.  The punchline is, of course, that if you were with WPEngine they would have already fixed that for you.  I assisted with a redesign of this, wrote the month-long WordPress optimization course that the tool will let you sign up for, and generally improved copy and the like on their marketing site.)

So I Switched

In the course of hearing the sales pitch from them several times so I could write it accurately, I became convinced: WPEngine is absolutely superior in every way to me continuing to host the blog myself.  So I took out my credit card, signed up for their $200 a month plan (prices got reduced recently, see here), and migrated my blog over.  It has been quietly hosting my blog for the last several weeks, including through two of my highest traffic days ever, without a hitch.  For the first time, I can watch a post go to the top of HN and not have to have “top” open to keep an eye on swap consumption.

A few things that particularly impressed me about WPEngine:

  • A few hours after migrating my blog I got an automated email saying that they had found an outdated copy of TimThumb in my WordPress install and had upgraded it for me.  It wasn’t a vulnerability (permissions locked down saved the day for that one), but I’m very, very glad they keep an eye on things so that I don’t have to.
  • Migration was almost painless.  I just dumped the WP database, grabbed my existing files, and copied them over as instructed.  I needed to speak to support to get a setting tweak done for me (the plan I bought has WordPress multi-site not single site like my old blog, and this resulted in a minor issue), but all told I was up and running in about two hours of elapsed time.
  • Just like their speed tool promised, my site did get modestly faster.

I’m a bit of a YSlow fanboy and ever once in a while I go through my sites and make an optimization pass, so I usually have all the low-hanging fruit like gzipping, static content loaded from multiple domains, and the like taken care of.  I wasn’t expecting WPEngine to shave much time from my page loads, given the amount of optimization work I had already done, but I kept the old server around to do a fair test on AOL’s speed tool.  Take a look what happens: here’s a video showing (left) my old 1,024 MB VPS versus (right) WPEngine showing the same page from my blog.

If you didn’t watch the movie, I’ll spoil it: content pops in about half a second earlier (and finishes loading .8 seconds earlier) on WPEngine with no manual tweaking versus my tweaked-to-limit-of-my-ability VPS.

That test uses IE8 on a reasonable residential Internet connection coming from the US. For accessing from Japan or on a mobile device, it is viscerally faster for me, probably due to the CDN which WPEngine uses.

Do You Have A Blog For Business? Use WPEngine

The VPS that I used to run my blog on cost a bit over $100 a month (1 GB Rackspace slice + 160 GB of bandwidth + backups = I am not actually sure). WPEngine runs me $200 a month because I have high anticipated traffic. They have a $29 option for folks who don’t.

$2,500 a year for blog hosting sounds a bit on the high side, but it is honestly nothing against the amount of time that I will no longer have to invest supporting this sucker. I love being out of the hosting business. I never intended on being in it in the first place — it was always just something I needed to do to write for people. Less time poured down that black hole means more time to work on my businesses and share what I learn doing so.

WPEngine has been a total, epic win for me. I suggest that you use them if you are using WordPress for a business: go ahead, make with the clicky clicky. Want to just geek out on how they have their infrastructure setup? See here.

P.S. Long-time readers are aware of this, but just to reiterate: I don’t take money for blog posts, was not asked to write this by WPEngine (who are, again, clients of mine), and would not have written it except that their service really rocks.

Book Recommendation For Budding Bloggers

Almost a year and a half ago, Stephane Grenier approached me about contributing a chapter to a book he was editing, at the time entitled Interview The Pros.  The general gist was collecting the thoughts of several dozen successful bloggers in interview format.  I was honored to be included (it still amazes me that I could credibly be included in a list of names including Seth Godin and Jeff Atwood), dashed out a chapter, and forgot about the project for 18 months.

Then on Tuesday the mailman stopped by my little apartment in central Japan and dropped off a package.  Five promotional copies for me — whee!  It turns out the book has been retitled Blog Blazers, an act I think Stephane owes somebody a beer for.  (The importance of titles is a major recurring theme in the book.)

I promptly updated ye olde resume to include “published author”, gave a copy to a friend of mine who was starting a business, and set about to reading it.

Structure 

The basic style of each of the 40 chapters is a question/answer session with the interviewee.  The questions are identical.  Representative sample:

  • What makes a blog successful?
  • How long does it take to be a successful blogger?
  • What is your biggest tip on writing a successful blog post?
  • What are your main methods of marketing your blog?
  • How do you monetize your blog?

The sheer diversity of answers to these is amazing — the book includes everyone from folks whose blogging generates a full-time income from AdSense, software consultants who are looking for professional contacts, an online weightloss diary, some guy with an interesting fascination with shoes (who wrote the funniest chapter, by far), and one computer programmer who should probably listen to his own advice more:

Speaking of timescales in blogging — recognize that you will be blogging until you stop blogging.  That sounds simple, but many peopole start out with a burst of post-every-day fever, which they cannot sustain over the long haul.  Pick a pace which is predictable and sustainable.

In my defense, it sounded a lot more credible when I wrote it.

My chapter focuses mainly on blogging as a small business and practical tips you can use to achieve success that way.  (A few of the other chapters are a bit more inspirational in nature, although most of them have some actionable advice.)

In Which I Disagree With My Marketing Idol

Example from my chapter:

I personally can’t stand the “Top Ten Ways To Write A Blog Post” type articles, as aside from being boring and aesthetically unpleasant they turn your blog into a commodity provider of lists.  Instead, absorb the lessons that style of writing provides which continuing to have unique positioning for your blog.  The important lessons are “titles which promise immediate benefits are a good idea” and “judicious use of formatting such as bullet points, bold text, and pictures can turn a scanning surfer into an engaged, active reader.”

Seth Godin’s take on the issue:

Use lists.

Write short, pithy posts.

That is one of many, many disagreements the authors have with each other, and I find them fascinating.  (A few other points of contention: the importance of monetization, the ideal post length, and the importance of SEO.  You’ll find many well-argued solutions to all of these in several chapters… and the right answer in my chapter, naturally.)

Single Best Advice From Me: 

I recommend… that you get familiar with two groups of websites in your niche: the folks who have achieved something close to what you want to achieve, and the folks who are on the path to success but just a wee bit farther than you are.  The first give you examples to emulate and objectives to strive for, and the second should become your new best friends, because a) they’re not too busy yet that they have millions of admirers and b) their support can really kick start your blog and help you both get closer to your goals.

For the other 200-odd pages of advice, you’ll have to buy the book.  At $16.95 I’d honestly say it was a steal, even if I had no connection to it whatsoever, because the value a blog can drive for a small business is immense.  (See my chapter, and several others, for elaboration.)

You’ve got two options for getting it.  One is to buy it directly from the Blog Blazers‘ site (where there is an e-book option).  I’m going to encourage you to sidestep them and purchase from Amazon instead.  My big reasoning for that is that publishing is a winners-win game, and purchases through Amazon increase the book’s Amazon rank, which results in more prominent placement on the site and also results in indirect marketing opportunities (“buy Blog Blazers, currently #1234 on Amazon”).  (At time of posting they only have two copies left.  Small order to start out with = book languishes in obscurity.  Break the cycle — buy a book today ;) )

As usual, I don’t have any monetary interest in the book or in your purchase of the book.  (i.e. those are not affiliate links)  I contributed to the book because Steph asked me to, and it was a pleasure to contribute a small bit to something which will hopefully provide value to people.  If you’re one of those uISVs scratching your head thinking “So I’ve heard them say 432 times ‘Blogging helps for marketing’ but I don’t consider myself an expert at this yet”, read the book.  I guarantee you you’ll learn something.

P.S.  Seth Godin is one of the world’s best living theorists about marketing.  I am not Seth Godin.  You are not Seth Godin.  Please, for all that is holy, don’t write list posts.

P.P.S. uISVs will recognize more than a few names: Ian Landsman, Bob Walsh, and Andy Brice all contributed chapters.

P.P.P.S Remind me to get the contact details of whomever did the cover design if I ever publish anything.

 

Cover of Blog Blazers book, depicting man with BB on chest standing atop world.

Cover of Blog Blazers book, depicting man with BB on chest standing atop world.

New Blood in the uISV Blogosphere

I don’t link out to uISV bloggers often enough and when I do it is often to the usual suspects.  However, recently, I’ve broadened my reading horizons and discovered that there are a couple of newer uISV bloggers out there who are very worthy of your time.  I thought I would feature a few:

Optimization Blog — Are you an A/B test junkie, or recovering junkie?  Have you ever decided to A/B test whether customers respond better to the #0000FF or #0000FE as a link color?  Then you just might like this blog.  Topics of note include placement above the fold, Big Freaking Download Buttons, and buttons versus textual links (the results will not suprise you if you’ve been reading this site for a while, but I have them in my feedreader on the chance they come up with fun new stuff).

MicroISV Class of 2007 — Tracks a collection of uISVs started in 2007 through their sophomore year.  Good luck to all!  (Some of them are pretty impressive, although I don’t know if I would spend quite so much effort on WebsiteGrader.  There is a point after which optimizing for metrics not measured in dollars or other objective measurements of customer interest ceases to be productive.  But I like pretty charts as much as the next guy, so I keep tuning in.)

Planet MicroISV – The world’s best collection of uISV blogs, now with a new and improved interface (from Styleshout, who have a wide variety of free Web 2.0-y themes if you’re looking for one — if you have a blog or linkbait project that needs to look pretty in a hurry I highly recommend them).

If you’ve got another blog the community should be reading, drop a comment.  Feel free to drop a link to your own blog, unless it is PartyPoker-HighestPayouts.co.ru.

Why I Don't Monetize This Blog

Does this blog earn money?  Why doesn’t it have ads on it?*  Why don’t I put affiliate links on all my mentions of products I’ve used successfully?  I get these questions on a fairly regular basis, and thought I’d put up a post to answer them.

Most recently, Sunil Tanna (a pretty smart guy when it comes to Internet marketing, and direct competitor of mine**) asked the following on the Business of Software forums, after I had mentioned that I personally don’t see value in putting affiliate links on my blog.  (An affiliate link is one where, if you the visitor make a purchase after clicking on that link, I am paid money by the person selling the product to you.  They’re also called Cost Per Action, or CPA, advertising.)

Unless the only things that you’re ever going to write about is your own product  – and your own product completely and finally caters to every single visitor’s potential needs, you’re missing easy incremental revenue [by not including affiliate links].

For example, all those, or at least some of those mentions on your blog of Adwords, PayPal, payment processors, SEO tools, domain registrars, hosting, etc., could be earning you extra money in addition to whatever you get from selling your particular niche software product. Since you’ve written the content anyway, why wouldn’t you want to get paid for it?

Now, Sunil (who, I reiterate, is a pretty smart guy) has a very different take on doing business on the Internet than I do.  I don’t aggressively monetize this blog both because I don’t think it would be effective at making me money and it wouldn’t mesh well with my general business philosophy.

What I Get Out Of Blogging

I don’t see blogging as an income generating activity.  I think of it more as an investment — do the work now, reap the benefits later.  All of the benefits flow directly from you.  That’s right, you.  Whether you’re reading this blog for the first time today (rather unlikely, given my typical traffic), have had me in your feed reader for a few months, or are part of the uISV blogging community and we have been reading and commenting on each other’s blog for years (scary thought!), this blog is written for you because, without you, it would be a pretty lonely place around here.

Now, quick show of hands, how many of you would be interested in reading the Make Patrick Five Bucks By Acting On This Post blog?  Yeah, that’s right.  There is no reason for you to read that blog, whatsoever.  If you stumbled upon it the first time, you wouldn’t be coming back.  If you had been reading me for months, I’d be out of your feedreader in a week.  If you were linking to me on a regular basis, you’d be asking yourself “Is there anything for me in this?  Is there anything for my readers in this?  No?  Why am I linking?” 

Intrinsic Value — Writing for writing’s sake.  Despite being an engineer, a field which has a distressing tendency to not talk with people, I consider myself a professional communicator.  I love talking and I love writing, and I like to consider myself fairly decent at both, and above many things in life I crave praise for the two of them.  As fun as it is to write in a paper diary (I have tried — never found the patience) and speak to an empty room, having an audience makes it a much, much more pleasant experience.  Chris Rock’s riff about women needing food, water, and compliments pretty much applies to me as well — when I write something which I know is good that is a happy day for me, but when someone tells me that I have written something good, that is happiness squared.

Opened Doors — They apparently teach you three words in business school — networking, networking, and networking.  Blogging is a great supplement to the professional networking that happens in the ordinary course of my day job.  (For one thing, it is very hard to network with Americans from a rice field in central Japan unless you use the Internet.)  It brings me all sorts of opportunities, both the ones useful in my continuing quest to improve Bingo Card Creator and ones which will be useful in my future endeavors.  For example, having a blog has helped me integrate myself in the uISV community (who are constant source of advice, moral support, and — in distant third place — backlinks for me).  I am extraordinarily fortunate to count other successful businessmen, such as Andy Brice, Nick Hebb, and others too numerous to name as professional colleagues.

Establishing Myself As An Expert — It is sort of scary to contemplate, but at some point in the last year I transitioned from “mediocre programmer with a tiny business” to “mediocre programmer with a tiny business who generally knows what he is talking about”.  That is a sort of useful thing for me, as I contemplate the overall arch of my career.  I suppose I could, theoretically, grind my way up the Japanese corporate ladder, but I don’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life.  (If I did, that would be a short, short life — the hours would grind me to bits.)  When I start the Next Hurrah, I don’t exactly want to be Mediocre Programmer++. 

Happily, the blog is sort of a portfolio of all the things I can do that your average Mediocre Programmer can’t.  This leads to people throwing all sorts of opportunities my way, which I’m always humbled and happy to receive.  I have gotten, at last count, eight job offers from readers (but for the day job and my own business, I would probably have accepted several of them).  My collaborations with Google on the Conversion Optimizer case study and with Steph on his blogging book both flowed pretty much directly from the trust I had built up here.  Neither of those pays money, either, but they enhance my status as an expert and will make it easier to convince the next decisionmaker that I am the right guy for the job/opportunity/investment/whatever.  (The bosses at my day job were also extraordinarily pleased with the Google thing, believing that having an “in” with Google is in their best interests.  They have given me explicit permission to continue my uISV adventure since it keeps increasing my value to them, and that in itself is worth every hour I have spent on this blog and then some.)

What I Would Have To Do To Monetize This Blog

To monetize this blog, I would have to burn my hard-won trust with my readership and contacts to convince them to clicky-clicky on the little blue thingees and then hand over money to whoever was on the other end of the link.  Sunil thinks that is an option I could just tack onto my blog as it exists right now.  I think it would end up replacing a lot of the value that this blogs brings to you, and end up eroding your trust in me.

Let’s look at what I would have to do.  First, the affiliate model is very sensitive to the type of content the links are embedded.  Big theory pieces, which are consistently my best work (you’re reading one of them), cannot be effectively monetized because they are not product-focused.  Tactical suggestions, such as writing SEO tips or why guarantees are successful, are extraordinarily popular with my readers but also don’t bring home the bacon.  Updates on how Bingo Card Creator is doing or what is new in the business, which are some of my favorite ones to write (who doesn’t like bragging?), also don’t include easy opportunities for affiliate links.  I suppose I could put an affiliate link to e-junkie in the “e-junkie: $5″ line item in expense reports, but would you click that?  No, of course not, no reason to.  You’d need to be convinced to, and to do that I would need to pollute my blog with…

Product Reviews

Now, I do occasionally plug products or services that I have found worthwhile or that I think you would find worthwhile.  I almost never review something just to review it — heck, it has been jokingly suggested that I am the local e-junkie sales rep and I am having difficulty remembering whether I ever did a full post about e-junkie as a totality, as opposed to the limited intersection of e-junkie with Bingo Card Creator.  But what if that weren’t a joke?  What if I were the local e-junkie sales rep?

First, I’d have to heavily editing the content of my reviews.  I would have to start consolidating the reviews into single posts (need enough information to make the sale all in one place to maximize conversion rates), start optimizing the link placement (believe me, that isn’t a consideration I want in my mind as I’m writing), and I would have perverse incentives to review the most rewarding products instead of the ones I find most useful.  For example, e-junkie pays $1 a month per referred customer, is useful to only a fraction of my readership, and is the best thing since sliced bread, Random Marketing E-book pays $15 per customer, is theoretically useful to most of my readership, and is likely a great steaming pile of hucksterism.  Higher conversions times higher payouts equals more money, but at what cost to your trust in me, and for that matter my ability to sleep at night?  I don’t want this blog to become one of the Make Money Online blogs, which is… 

… largely a bunch of guys talking about how wealthy they are, leading inexperienced newbies on, pretending like someday they’ll reveal their “big money” secrets, and you’ll be wealthy too. In reality, they just use their blogs as newbie traffic channelers, selling it off to the highest bidder. The newbies take forever to realize that they ARE the “big money” secret the author has.

(Quote from SlightlyShadySEO, whose blog is worth reading for ideas even if the black hat tricks are antithetical to everything I believe in.)

Even if I weren’t to slide all the way down the totem pole to the cesspool that is multi-level ebook marketing, would you really like it if this blog’s priorities were set by affiliate payouts among tools I actually like?  Let’s see, e-junkie is $1, Slicehost is $20, AdSense is potentially a lot — write more AdSense posts!  (If I ever tell you to start using AdSense as a uISV to sell advertising, as opposed to buying advertising using AdWords, I’d be doing you a tremendous disservice.  More on that some other day!)

Quick Mercenary Math

OK, here’s the point where Sunil might actually agree with me: assume, for the sake of argument, that my blog readership does not decline due to monetization initiatives.  The merchant pays out a portion of the sale — how much depends on a lot of factors, but 30% is a decent baseline for many products.  When I typically suggest folks try out a particular product or service, that link gets about 15% click through.  Let’s assume you trust me slightly more than the average bear, so you’d convert at about 5% based on my say-so and the relative utility of the product in question.  These factors are multiplicative, so one view of the post gets about .225% of the purchase price of the item.  For a $50 product, that means the eCPM (revenue earned for 1000 views) is about $112.50.  (In actual fact, I’d probably get $40 to $50 if the post was about as successful as my average posts here, given my readership.)

 $50 is two sales of Bingo Card Creator.  Instead of keeping 30% of the sale price and dealing with unknown conversion rates, I keep about 96% and have a very, very good idea of what will send folks who actually would benefit from using the software.  Rather than spending the time optimizing one of my posts so that Vendor X can make 70% of the results of my labor, I should spend the same amount of time, anywhere in my business, to increase my effectiveness at doing anything by a half a percentage point.  Heck, I could do that by writing a single bingo card — about Valentine’s Day, for example.

So This Blog Doesn’t Make Any Money?

Now, in point of fact, there are a couple of posts on this blog that consistently make me money.  One is Free Bingo Cards, which is the most popular post on this blog by a factor of “lots”, and which probably generates about $100 to $200 in sales a month.  It is written to provide something of substantial interest to my target customer, and does it admirably.  That isn’t the only reason it was successful — many of my uISV friends took it upon themselves to link to it (after Ian Landsman did likewise).  This is goes right back to what I was saying earlier about trust — if most of my big successes are because my readers or my customers trust me, why should I sell them down the river for short-term financial advantage?

A Word Of Thanks

As I mentioned earlier, one of the primary reasons I continue to stay up to, hmm, 1:50 AM writing updates to this thing is by the Non-Financial Support of People Like You.  (Note to non-American readers: you are more fortunate for not getting the joke than the folks who got it.  They had to sit through some really excruciating television.)  Thanks for your emails, comments, words of praise, and criticisms over the last year and change.  And thanks, most of all, for reading.  It means more to me than the money ever could.

* WordPress does, occasionally, put Google AdSense ads on this site.  I really wish they wouldn’t, but wasn’t too careful when reading the contract I clicked through when I signed up.  The main consumer of that advertising spot is… me.  One more reason for you to host your own blog when you are starting out!

** Some folks might be suprised with me linking to a direct competitor. If you intuitively understand why this prospect does not worry for me, I have a funny feeling we’re going to get along great together. If you don’t, explaining would take more space than the rest of this post together, but it boils down to that I wouldn’t have a business worth competing with if I was routinely small-minded about such things. The trust and authenticity this philosophy engenders are much harder to duplicate than my program.

Exploiting New Niches

I’m currently the #1 result on Google for the [conversion optimizer] search which is not actually controlled by Google, as a result of a pair of posts on the subject.

That is largely the result of a combination of a niche which was new, my early adoption of it, and radical transparency.  There are, approximately, a billion Internet marketing and search engine watching blogs out there.  Many of them are much, much higher profile than this blog.  Many of these covered the launch of Conversion Optimizer, but I was (to my knowledge) the only person who backed up the first impressions with numbers, and as a result I attracted just a few more links than the next guy and, wham, the search engines think I’m the expert on the topic.

I mention this for two reasons: One, it is quite useful to know how to convince the search engines you are the expert on a particular topic.  For niches which are brand spanking new (say, hmm, Blackberry spam filters after the introduction of the Blackberry), the combination of there being zero pre-existing links, less than a full Internet of competition, and massive first-mover’s advantage means that you can snag the top spots quite easily if you move reasonably quickly with something compelling.  It’s not just enough to be there first, you have to be there “firstest with the mostest” — I think my first post on Conversion Optimizer was weeks after launch but the “real numbers” hook is extraordinarily more compelling than the “news you already read from Google’s blog” hook.

After you’re already on top, you’ll probably stay on top, because the guy on top becomes the canonical result to refer to the subject when anyone else just needs to introduce it.  (This phenomenon is described in Filthy Linking Rich, probably the most worthwhile article from 2004 for a business owner in 2008.)

Aside from it being a useful business skill to learn how to position yourself as the expert on an emerging topic (and, for what it’s worth, I’m hardly the expert on this subject, just expert in the eyes of the computer algorithm that people trust to identify experts these days), this opened up a nice opportunity for my business.  I hate to be coy, but it will be another week or so before I can say exactly what it was.  For now, I just wanted to get this post timestamped so that I can refer to it for a before-after comparison in the wake of the announcement I expect to be making.

What the Duplicate Content Penalty Looks Like

Someone on the BoS board asked a question today about how to execute linkbait well.  I have an article on this blog about that, and wanted to paste a link, so I used my usual link repository — Google.  I have a photographic memory for titles and can’t remember URLs to save my life, for some reason.  Anyhow, the exact query was [developing linkbait for a non-technical audience], which as an exact match for the title Developing Linkbait for a Non-Technical Audience should be a cinch for Google.

And, indeed, it was.  Every one of the first ten results was about the article.  The problem?  Well, take a look: (photo slightly edited — I moved the query over from the right side to the left side so it would fit in my wordpress theme)

 Duplicate Content Penalty 

Yep, that is right — all ten results on the first page are about the article, but the article itself doesn’t appear at all.  Welcome to the Duplicate Content penalty — Google thinks I am plagiarizing one of those results and, as a result, assumes my blog is not a relevant result for the query.  Oofdah.

What can I do about it?  Not much.  This post may well cause that query to rerank.  Luckily, it isn’t a commercially significant query for me.  I’m mostly pointing it out to demonstrate what it looks like to get your site penalized by Google — any time you can punch in a title verbatim and have folks who linked to it appear before the article itself, you can be positive you’ve been penalized.  Luckily, the penalty does not appear to be applied to my site at large, as I still rank for the title of my blog, and obvious strings for which I’m the canonical result that don’t appear on the page itself.  (Patrick McKenzie blog, Bingo Card Creator blog, etc)  Those are the tests you’d want to perform if you suddenly see yourself de-rank for something you should rank for, by the way.

What caused this?  Well, if I’d have to guess, it was either the Sphinn (a social network for SEOs) post (a decent bet, since that is the #1 result) or perhaps one of the verbatim copy/paste jobs from those .info spamblogs.  Really freaking irksome, either way.  Since you can’t control people scraping or linking to you, I recommend not worrying about it, but should this happen to you on a page you care about, an inbound link or three from a trusted site will generally cure it.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody. 

Putting the Green in Evergreen

If you have a post which ranks very highly for a particular query of high value to you, you can use it to springboard additional products in conceptually related spaces. 

Most blogs which add value are eventually going to have a few evergreen posts.  An “evergreen” puts the lie to blogs being a medium which only covers breaking news and the controversies of the day — they keep producing value forever, typically by ranking highly for search terms of consequence.  However, as evergreens age you can find that, while they still provide value to your business, they tend to gradually fall in the search engine rankings and become less and less useful at achieving your business objectives.

You can get a lot of value out of a nice, aged evergreen post.  My best example of this is Free Bingo Cards, which ranks extraordinarily highly for, uh, [free bingo cards].  It is #2 on Yahoo and in the top 10 on Google, and gets about 2.5k hits a month.  Not shabby.  That is about 1/4 of the hits my Bingo Card Creator site gets, and I promote that relentlessly whereas the hits just roll on in for that post.  (This is largely thanks to several of my blogging buddies who, without me asking for it, linked it when it came out.  It collects links on an ongoing basis too from my users — in the Internet and in most economic activity, winners win.)

Left alone, Free Bingo Cards would gradually slip from 2.5k hits a month to 1.5k hits a month or so, and while that would still be a hundred dollars or so in marginal revenue there are higher and better uses.  For example, I recently launched Daily Bingo Cards and have been desperately seeking a method to get it a core group of early users to spread the word for me.  Hard to get visitors without ranking, hard to get ranking without links, hard to get links without visitors — it’s a vicious cycle. 

I learned around Halloween that if I edited Free Bingo Cards to include both topical information in addition to the material that has been on it forever, it would both be refreshed in the SERPs (extending shelf-life — new info must mean relevance, right?) and give me a stream of traffic to strategically redirect to my new project, to get it off of the ground.  I did this for Halloween and got several hundred visitors, including about five folks who most be as hardcore about bingo as any raider is about WoW, to judge by their usage patterns.  (Now if only more of them blogged about it, too.)  I’m doing it for Thanksgiving as well, and it has been working out well so far.

Here is a hint which I’ve learned through CrazyEgg’ing every page I have access to: the first link in any long bit of content gets the lion’s share of the clicks.  The search engines are biased towards content earlier on the page, too, but not nearly as much as searchers.  Thus, if you want to deck out an evergreen without worrying about losing its wonderful aroma, I’d suggest adding a simple paragraph at the top with a link in it.  Presto-changeo, you now have a steady stream of traffic for any related project you currently have on your plate.

Obviously, you will not want to use this to send traffic to an unrelated page.  Non-motivated traffic is worthless to you, and you’re not developing the sort of repeat users that you want for your site(s).

Long Overdue, But…

… Bingo Card Creator is finally getting its own blog.  I have only had ninety minutes to work on porting the site’s template over to WordPress, so it isn’t quite ready for primetime yet.  You can see what I have got if you go over to www.bingocardcreator.com and append “wordpress” as the directory name (I am not putting a direct link to that because that is not going to be the final name and I’m not quite ready for it to be seen by Google, and hence customers, yet). 

Not a bad ninety minutes, actually, especially for someone who doesn’t really know PHP or CSS.  My remaining tasks are

  • get the blogroll and categories to look consistent with the rest of the sidebar (requires some diving into WordPress internals)
  • fix the sitewide CSS so that the top navigation bar includes a nicely bolded Blog entry on the right hand side
  • set Apache to redirect the blog’s URL to the wordpress directory (the real URL thus stays portable and can have a more SEO-friendly name than “wordpress”)
  • pick a title.  I’m leaning towards “Teaching Resources” for raw SEO punch or “Teacher’s Pet” for something which has a bit of style.  The title tag will naturally incorporate the words Bingo Card Creator as well.
  • get comments working so that they are properly skinned throughout the site.
  • oh, yeah, write some content.

I’ll post when the blog is ready for prime-time.  At that point, if any exceptionally generous folks out there wanted to put it on Google’s radar, I’d be oh-so-greatful.  Granted, it will be indexed almost instantly after it goes into the sitewide navigational layout but links directly at it from “disinterested third parties” will really help my SEO efforts.

65,000 spams on the wall, 65,000 spams…

… take one down, pass it around, 65,000 spams on the wall…

Akismet, the anti-comment-spam WordPress plugin, has just caught spam number 65,000.  That compares to 701 legitimate comments on 250ish posts.  Thank goodness for Bayes filters or I would never get any work done.

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