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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.

Strategic SEO for Startups

One way I’ve found to cut down on support requests is to make sure I write publicly about any issue that keeps coming up for my customers.  Other small companies contact me for advice fairly frequently, and that also tends to retread the same issues, so I’m going to blog it in depth once rather than giving fifteen people 30% of my thoughts on the same issue. One common issue is “How do I improve our SEO?”

Strategy as opposed to tactics: SEO has a lot of opportunities for micro-optimizations in it, from rewriting title tags to dynamically interlinking content pages.  They’re all interesting subjects and I’m not going to talk about them.  If you don’t feel comfortable in your meat & potatoes SEO yet, head on over to SEOBook or SEOMoz.  Both are excellent resources.  I’m going to focus on core decisions you make about your business and marketing approaches rather than page-level optimization.

Why Startup SEO Is Different

Essentially every business on the Internet from multi-billion dollar giants like Bank of America down to a one-man software business is dependent on SEO, because Google has become the primary navigation tool for the Internet.  (I suppose I could write “search engines” but I feel no particular need to maintain the polite fiction that there is more than one search engine in the United States.)

SEO for a small business is very different than it is for Bank of America.

Limited budgets: Startups cannot devote huge amounts to advertising, branding campaigns, or link acquisition.  (Paying for links will theoretically draw the wrath of Google to you.  In practice, once you’re above a certain size, you’re immune.  If you’re reading this article, you do not have immunity.)

Low domain strength / trust: Google tends to trust older domains, domains with lots of links, and domains with lots of older links.  All of these are signals of what one might call trust: the longer you’ve been on the Internet and the more people who asserted your quality by linking to you, the less likely you are to be a useless spammer.  However, if you just registered your domain last Tuesday, Google has a priori no reason to trust you over the other billion pages on the Internet.

Cultural aversion to SEO: There is a pernicious myth among startups that SEO is a black art aimed at perverting the purity of the search results.  This is partially because search engine spam is indeed a problem and partially because Google is very good at influencing the culture of technically adept people, and it is in Google’s best interest to make people think that their algorithms are the authoritative voice of God.  (Google, for all its image as an open company with significant OSS contributions yadda yadda yadda guards their index and algorithms with a ferocity that would do Microsoft credit.)

Algorithms have no moral status.  If your engineering team sorts records using an n^2 sorting algorithm, then tells you that they did it because the sorting has always been n^2 and therefore this is the Morally Correct Way To Sort, you need to whack your engineering team over the head and tell them to do better.  Similarly, your SEO strategy is simply the input you provide Google’s black-box algorithm which sorts search results: just because it is ineffective does not mean it is the Morally Correct Way To Sort.

A related worry is that SEO hurts the user experience.  It certainly doesn’t have to — a good deal of SEO is about creating stuff your users want to use, surfacing content in a way that is understandable to them, and not breaking your site’s usability when seen from the primary Internet navigation method (Google).  I wouldn’t advocate black hat methods: the black hatters are better than you are at them, and if you use them you’re in a constant arms race with Google (who has billions of dollars, thousands of sharp engineers, and the peaceful conflict resolution skills of Darth Vader) when as a startup you’re already biting off more than you can chew.

Why Startup SEO Is Better

On the plus side, you do have some advantages as a startup:

Strong Technical Skills: I’m a moderator in charge of programming topics at SEOBook and we get an awful lot of nuts and bolts questions like “How do I edit a title tag?” or “How do I do a 301 redirect in Apache?”  Thankfully, since you presumably have programmers who know what they’re doing, you’ll never need to ask either of those.  In addition, you can program tools and content to improve your marketing, including SEO.  We’ll discuss specifics in a moment.

Link Richness: SEO is, at competitive levels, mostly about link acquisition.  It is very difficult to get a link without paying for it in many sectors of the information economy.  For example, while there is probably a thriving micro-community of online taxidermists, they probably control relatively few links compared to their numbers.  However, if you’re a startup, you probably hang out on Hacker News or similar where the blogs-to-person ratio is 6.3, a new useful bit of OSS can make news in four continents on the first day, and online interaction forms a substantial portion of the personal and professional identities of your peers.

There are pluses and minuses to this: a lot of people overadapt to the fickle preferences of TechCrunch et al.  That reminds me of dodgeball in fourth grade except there are 100,000 kids and it is mathematically possible for all of them to be picked last.  Appealing to your peers can’t be your only marketing strategy.  However, it is helpful for when you’re making a cold start, to help get the link to rankings snowball running.  One business which did this very well is Balsamiq, which sent letters to blogs big and small to get coverage.  Steal Peldi’s approach to writing them: it is aboveboard and works.

Strategic SEO Objectives

Ideally speaking, well prior to launch you should figure out exactly what you hope to get for from SEO.  “Rankings” is not an acceptable answer.  Neither is “visitors”.  I could get your startup ranked for [fried squirrels with wasabi] by the end of the day, but unless you’re selling a book of very eclectic recipes that probably won’t do you much good.

If you’re selling display advertising, coating every search result under the sun might actually work for you.  (Display advertising is, essentially, search advertising’s less talented brother: it is essentially a second bite at the apple for advertisers to get a click when users avoided the AdWords ads on Google.  I have deep, deep doubts about the sustainability of display advertising as a business model.)

If on the other hand you’re trying to get users or sales for your application, you have to balance the needs of your SEO operation with the need to convert users.  For example, your homepage will almost invariably be the strongest page on your site.  It probably has to be conversion-oriented rather than conversation-oriented.  However, outside of the home page, conversion-oriented pages don’t attract links that frequently.  Almost nobody blogs “Hey guys, I saw an awesome sales letter today, check it out” and if they do you probably don’t want their attention anyhow.

So your SEO strategy is likely going to involve a mix: non-commercial offerings designed purely to solicit links/attention, semi-commercial scalable content generation which we’ll talk about in a minute, and sales funnels supported by the rest of your website.

Aiming at a moving target: The first cut of your SEO strategy will be wrong, just like v1.0 of your product will be non-responsive to the needs of your users.  That is OK: after you start you’ll begin collecting insights and data which let you refine it.  You want to get something out the door as soon as possible so that you can begin collecting links, other indicia of trust, and data on what is working for you.  Many startups wait until launch to put a significant amount of content on their websites.  This is almost always a mistake.  If you can’t show the application yet, no problem, talk about the problem domain.  Talk about the needs of your customers.  The “media launch” where Steve Jobs comes down and presents the iCommandments works very well if you have a built-in base of millions of radical fans and a PR budget which could buy Chile.  If you’re reading this, that probably doesn’t apply to you.  Google is going to hate your bones when your website first debuts onto the world stage: start that clock ticking as soon as possible.

There is no Google sandbox: If you’re well read about SEO you’ve probably heard about the “Google sandbox”, where sites languish for months or years prior to ranking.  There is no Google sandbox per se: a site doesn’t magically jump from zero to hero because it is 180 days old.  Google can find sites within minutes of them appearing on the Internet and rank them inside of an hour if Google has sufficient reason to.  The sandbox is the perceived reality, though, because from a cold start it takes a while to build up symbols of trust, such as links from trustworthy domains.  All the more reason to get started early.

SEO Is A Feedback Loop

Sites tend to built self-reinforcing authority: the site at the top of the rankings for teddy bears (almost certainly Wikipedia, I can tell you without looking) is the first people go for teddy bears and the most likely to collect another citation when someone is writing about teddy bears.  That will help that site rank for teddy bears and everything else in the future.  In this sense, winners win in SEO.

What does that mean for you?  Well, if your startup does designer teddy bears, Wikipedia has a built-in advantage over you for ranking for [teddy bears] and that advantage gets stronger with each passing day.  However, all is not lost: by moving further down the long tail of search terms, you too can benefit from self-reinforcing authority.  If you’re the best place on the Internet to go for [kimono teddy bears], your site will get stronger each passing day just by virtue of that.

If you’ve done much conversion optimization this should not be a big surprise to you, but things at the top of a page get clicked much more than things lower on the page, all else being equal.  This is equally true of search results: when AOL released its data, the top result got over 40% of the clicks, the second result 11.9%, etc.  The entire second page, by comparison, got only 10%.  SEO is a winners take most game: for a given search term, the vast majority of the benefits flow to the handful of sites at the top of the first page.

What does this mean to you?  It means focus on search terms you can win.  You will not prevail against the likes of Microsoft, Google, et al for head keywords in most circumstances, unless your product becomes synonymous with the niche.  (A head search term is at the popular end of the search frequency distribution, as opposed to on the long tail.  This is completely relative: [money] is a head term relative to [bingo cards], and [bingo cards] is a head term in the bingo niche relative to [valentines day bingo].

Incidentally, I can’t recommend The Long Tail enough for anyone interested in SEO.  If you’ve been on the Internet the last few years you’re probably sick to death of it and have read the (accurate) criticisms of conclusions about books and music being overstated.  However, no single book will improve your thinking on SEO as much as The Long Tail will.  (In particular, read up on tails within tails.)

For the amount of effort it would take you to rank #12 for the head term of your choice, which will result in marginal traffic even if the head is huge, you could rank in the top three for a huge basket of tail terms.  Additionally, one of the things you’ll notice is that conversion rates for head terms are terrible.  People searching for the terms on the head are either just beginning their research into a topic or are less sophisticated.  Generally, those are not the searchers you want.  Longer, specific queries are more common among people who have done the research and are nearing a purchasing decision.

Here’s an example for you: for the last several years I’ve ranked on the first page for [bingo cards] most of the time.  At the moment I’m probably, oh, eightish or so.  That was worth about 6,300 visits in 2009.  That resulted in three purchases of my software, for a value per visitor of a bit more than a penny.  Wheeeee.

By comparison, [free bingo cards] gets less than a fifth as much traffic, according to Google’s keyword tool.  However, the 1,200 visitors there also bought 3 copies.  (If that you didn’t expect people explicitly looking for free things to convert at five times the rate of undifferentiated searchers, welcome to the Internet.  Nothing makes sense except the data you collect.  Get something out there so today so you can find which 90% of everything you know is wrong.)

Now if we go waaaay down the tail to [geography bingo], we find that despite it having fairly few searchers (I only got about 300 hits visits year from it), it is quite lucrative ($70 CPM).  I could spend my entire life working in bingo and never be #1 for [bingo cards], but for a non-competitive tail term like [geography bingo], I’m #1 by virtue of showing up.

Sadly, a lot of startups of my acquaintance are so focused on the product that they don’t bother showing up for the topics that matter to their customers.  I won’t pick on anybody in particular (sidenote: write “Its OK to mention this conversation publicly” on an email to me and you might get a backlink when I need an illustrative example, like here), but it is very common for startups to launch with less than 1,000 words of text on their website and all the content behind the sign in screen.  That essentially cedes the long tail to your competitors.

Thus, my generic SEO strategy for a startup is a) be the best on the Internet for b) as many topics as you possibly can be that c) matter to your paying customers.

Making SEO Scale

Everything about a startup has to scale ridiculously disproportionately to the time invested in it, because you have too much to do and not enough people to do it with.

Some people say this is why you have to work 80 ~ 100 hour weeks.  If I worked 100 hour weeks, Scholastic Publishing would still be able to afford to devote a thousand man-hours for every one I can, if they chose to.  Your only hope for rising above the din on the Internet is to work smarter than your competitors.  Happily, your small size, technical skill, and agility let you run rings around the other guys.  One way is through scalable content generation.

Content in SEO is sort of a dirty word.  It can mean anything your users can consume: text, video, whatever.  Sadly, when people talk about content they are mostly talking about commoditized garbage, because the quality levels of content produced at scale are generally terrible, as you’re about to see.

There are about four approaches for creating content at Internet scale:

User-generated content.  Strategies centering around user generated content really devolve into two things: one, you hope people will steal hand-crafted content from elsewhere and put it on your site while you look the other way long enough to build traction (hello, Youtube, Scribd, etc) and two, you generate vast amounts of mostly excruciatingly worthless content which happens to match an equally vast amount of search terms.  Then, you sell display advertising against the visits for those searches.  This is essentially the business model for WordPress — give a blog to anybody who asks for one, display AdSense ads to folks who arrive on old posts via Google.  The ads give them the answers the content could not.

I don’t mean to malign user-generated content too much.  Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is garbage, which implies that 10% is not.  However, it is very difficult to use that 10% that is not garbage to advance your business goals, because it is not conversion-oriented and your advertisers don’t pay premium CPM rates just because the page the user landed on is worthwhile.  (Actually, in practice it tends to work out the other way around: if the page the user lands on is worthwhile, it will likely satisfy their desire, and economic value from that searcher ends.  That means low CTRs to ads and, accordingly, low CPMs.  If on the other hand the page is useless, then they might click on an AdSense link to continue the search.  This is the perverse incentive by which advertisers pay to make the Internet a mass of garbage.)

Mass Semi-Amateur Content Creation: The Demand Media model is capturing quite a bit of attention these days: take an authority domain like eHow, use sophisticated algorithms to generate article ideas for it, pay an army of underemployed freelancers miniscule wages to write uninspired content about the suggested titles, collect hundreds of millions in AdSense revenue.

The quality of Demand Media (et al) content is a cut above Youtube comments, but not by all that much.  I don’t really recommend implementing this model for startups.  First of all, I think Google is going to have to crush it like a bug in the next 12 months, because currently it is a license to print money and is polluting far too much of the search space.  Second, the amount of sophistication it requires is considerable, and while I think that is probably duplicable for a startup (particularly if you used something like TextBroker to automate dealing with the freelancer army) I think you’re better off with your engineering investments in more defensible places.

That being said, study this model and study it well: they’ve got a tight analytics-to-pipeline loop, they’ve got almost everything automated, and their margins are out of this world.  There is no reason you can’t do those things while producing great content by taking advantage of focus and engineering ability that Demand Media cannot devote to every microniche they want to expand into.  DemandMedia can saturate the world in How To questions but will never be able to outpublish me for bingo cards, because they will never detail someone to write a CMS to let their freelance army make those easily.

Talented expert workers: You can have all of your website content created by talented artisans who laboriously polish every bit to perfection.  For example, you could write every page by hand yourself, or hire a team of journalists to do it for you.  Have you seen the financial results for the New York Times recently?  Still want to do this except without the 200 year old megabrand?  Good, moving on.

Scalable Content Creation That Works

So how are you going to create large amounts of content that satisfies needs for your users while still advancing your business needs and not being garbage?  You leverage the unfair advantages that you have because you’re the smallest guy in the room.

Data You Can’t Get Anywhere Else: If you hang out around geeks who can’t get dates, you’ve seen a series of posts by OKCupid on topics such as how your race affects responses in online dating.  This is brilliantly done linkbait: it takes a huge amount of proprietary data (OKCupid response analytics) and exposes it in such a way that it is interesting (“Whoa, the very hottest women really do get hit on less than than you would expect “) , easily consumable (“Whoa, this pretty picture demonstrates that black guys have it hard when dating.”), and easily shareable (“Guys, I found scientific proof of why we need to take our shirts off!”)  If you’re J. Random Dating Affiliate, you can’t possibly duplicate that linkbait.  OKCupid can do it over and over and over again, though: they’ve written the analytics tools, they’ve figured out how to do the research and visualizations, all they need to do is come up with a new hook and bam they’re at the top of the social news sites collecting links again.

If you don’t have interesting data, you should start collecting interesting data.  However, in the meanwhile you can start visualizing or crunching existing data.  This is less defensible — anybody can go to the Census and get a few gigs of various poorly conceived slices to fill their hard drive — but you can add a whole lot of value in less time than you think with some SQL, your graph library of choice, and a well-written executive summary.

One of the few bright points for the New York Times is that they’re capable of doing things like this, for example.  You could have done that.  If you were in the job board industry, you could do something like that every Friday afternoon, by using open source, agile development, and all that jazz.  Pretty soon you’ll be cited as an authority on the subject — because, ahem, someone who publishes repeated analyses of raw data is an authority on the subject (or at least appears to be, which is 90% of what matters on the Internet, for better or worse).

Focus on evergreen content: A lot of people like blogs as content generation engines, and indeed, I think every startup should probably have a blog.  Then people blog on current events.  Bad call!  You see, today’s news is worth reading for about a day — less, in some sectors of the economy.  You’re a hamster on a wheel if you’re trying to keep up with the news — tomorrow, everything you write today is worth markedly less, and a week from now it will be almost totally forgotten.  Instead, pick the concerns of your audience that are roughly static and that will be pretty much the same next week, next month, next decade.  Alternatively, create resources that don’t go stale.

For example, for a bit of extra work that NYT visualization above could use live data, and instead of being a wonderful piece of technology becoming quickly irrelevant to a story from years ago, it could be a hub for the enduring issue of Racial Difference In America.  The NYT is interested in that issue and still will be in 2012.  They don’t have the strategic vision to make that graph with live data, though.  Luckily, your business is not a maladapted dinosaur reacting too little and too late to the changing business landscape.

I like to call this “evergreen content.”  For example, if you have a website selling a service teaching people Japanese, a page on how to make requests in Japanese will be  good for generations.  It is evergreen.  Or エバーグリーン, I suppose.

Agile — Not Just For The Product: Because you have excellent internal analytics (you do, right?) and you track what is working and what isn’t (you do, right?) and you can quickly bring resources to “market” because you’re using highly productive programming environments (you are, right?), you can try ten things, watch eight fail, and then try ten variations on the best two.

For example, suppose you have a mailing list of customers or fans (you do, right?).  Pitch (comparatively) low cost explorations of ideas to them, like blog posts about topics A/B/C/D/E.  Observe which one gets the most play with your existing customers.  Build (more expensive) resources about that topic, like something which requires custom programming.  (Bonus points: credit your customers with the inspiration for building the new thing!  You want a 95% certain way to get a link from Bob Smith’s blog to your new article?  Cite his contribution to it.  Help them help you get the ball rolling with their blogs, Twitter accounts, blah blah.)

Obviously, if one idea works out well for you, going in more depth or breadth on the same theme allows you to possibly re-use code, link sources (“Hey Cindy, this is Patrick from Random Job Startup.  A few months ago you had some great comments  about our unemployment visualization.  We’re putting together something similar and I wanted to ask if you had any more insights…”), marketing tacks that worked, etc.  (A great micro-idea I heard the other day: watch what people tweet about your stuff, use that as the title next time.  This may be the first time I’ve ever heard of an idea to get actual value out of Twitter.)

Pillar Content vs. Bill ‘er Content

As mentioned, you’re going to have to strike a balance between creating content designed to spread and gather links, attention, etc. and content designed to sell your stuff.  They’re not totally disjoint sets, but in practice non-commercial content will form the vast majority of your links.

If you don’t have any great ideas for non-commercial content (“How do we get people talking about our new squeegee brush?  It is a boring subject”), here’s a couple:

Open Source Software: You’re a programmer and you probably use vast amounts of OSS.  It is highly likely that in the process of creating your startup you will write some plumbing which is not your source of competitive advantage, but would solve problems for other people.  Since you already wrote it, why not OSS it?  Spend a few hundred on a nice logo (this is rounding error next to the engineering time you have invested and will greatly increase spread, trust me), write up a decent page on your website with examples and documentation, and send it to folks you think could use it.

I did this for my Rails A/B testing software, which at the time was a sorely underserved niche.  That is probably my best links-to-unit-effort idea ever, and it got links from authoritative sources like the Ruby on Rails official site who may not have been interested to hear about my new and improved Jane Austen bingo cards.  (Some people have no appreciation for the finer things in life — at least according to the rabid Jane Austen fans on the Internet.)

I have one comment on OSS for SEO which may cost me geek cred: does Github pay your salary?  I love them.  They’re wonderful people.  They contribute a lot to OSS.  They are also quite good at marketing their business and do not require your help to do it.  If you’re going to do OSS to get links, get links to your own site.

Blog Your Email: Do you get pre-sales inquiries or support requests?  Take careful note of how your customers ask questions, because they speak a different language than you do.  I describe bingo cards as “unique”, my customers frequently describe them in email as “not the same” or “not alike”, as it “How do I make bingo cards that are not the same?”  Using the same language that your customers use, answer their questions in public.  This can be bill ‘er content, since somebody asking this question likely has a need they’re interested in paying money in to solve (after all, a person just like them has sent you an email about it, knowing that your answer is going to involve “Oh, you do this on our product”).  Thus, while you are answering the question, you can probably work in a plug for your product.

Good SEO Can Make Your Startup

Your startup can succeed at SEO via the sweat of your brow and a bit of focused creativity, without having to spend hundreds of thousands to do so.  In terms of cost efficiency, organic SEO is probably the most efficient distribution method ever created.  Even with very modest amounts of resources, you can have get hundreds of thousands of visits and add thousands of users to your product.  (I do, and I’m certainly not a towering giant conquering the Internet from my local rice field.  You can do better.)

If you take one thing from this article, please, take this: you cannot afford to not have an SEO strategy.  If the idea of being an SEO gets your dander up, get over it drop me a comment and I’ll suggest something you can do that you won’t dislike but will still improve your SEO.

The usual disclaimers: I don’t get compensated for using people as examples.  I do try to write most people who ask for advice (odds are better if you ask good focused questions, let me get a blog post out of it, etc) but I know a few have slipped through the cracks as of late.  I’m by no means the world expert at this — take everything I say with a grain of salt.

The Big Book of Getting People to Link to You

Today, on the Business of Software forums, a newer software developer asked how I managed to get people to link to me.  The motivation in getting links is both to get visitors directly from the websites you are linking to and to influence the search engines into prefering your site over the other fifty zillion on the Internet when they decide “Who is worthy of this searcher?”, on the theory that someone who has convinced unrelated webmasters to link to them must be doing something right.

But getting links can be a little challenging for some small businesses.  For one thing, us software developers don’t typically start with massive amounts of marketing or sales talent, and getting a link is effectively selling someone on the proposition that you’re worthy of them spending their time, attention, and social capital on you.  

As my anonymous questioner points out, “it is quite difficult to get people to link to a website which is selling a product.”  There are a variety of reasons why many people believe that to be so — one is that many people who are otherwise free with links resent the commercialization of the Internet.  Another, I feel, is that folks who make money with websites are not that great at explaining the value of linking to that website to people who will not see money from the link.

Let’s see if we can’t fix that.  I’ve been successfully building links to Bingo Card Creator for going on two years now.  Apparently my ideas on the matter were consistently interesting enough to convince Aaron Wall (a SEO and marketing professional of some note, who writes SEOBook) to give me a free subscription to his service if I kept posting them there.  (So I guess that is one way to get a free link — flatter folks and give them stuff for free.  Guess what, all joking aside, this works great!  But I digress.)  So I want to walk you through some of the things I’ve done which I have found successful and which I think you can adapt to your own businesses.

1)  Make some friends, fans, or fans into friends.  A while ago I had this idea that all anyone really needs to succeed in business on the Internet is to have about 1,000 fans.  I was going to blog about that and then got beaten to the punch by 1,000 True Fans, which is just an excellent article.  The author talks about how 1,000 people buying what you write, be it music or software, is enough to support an independent IP creator.  

I want to approach the idea of how fans can support you in a bit of a larger sense.  One way a fan can support you, without ever spending a dime, is by considering you worthy enough to tell their friends about.  For example, your fan might have a blog with a readership of a handful, a few dozen, or a few hundred people.  If your fan were to develop an emotional attachment to your success, for whatever reason, they might decide to blog about you just to share their passion with people that they care about, because that is often what we do with our friends. 

For example, my participation in the uISV (small software makers) community has gathered me a handful of very good friends and fans.  Vanishingly few of them will ever need what I sell, but they like the advice I give on this blog, they like that I am generally generous with my time for helping other folks trying to start up businesses (even in the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog market of selling bingo cards to elementary school teachers), and hopefully they like my personality.  So many of them will, for example, cheer when I have successes and actively try to bring them about.  One way they can is by spreading my ideas (i.e. linking to me), and they often decide to do that with no special prompting from me.

Truly an amazing phenomenon, that, and this is one absolutely anybody can participate it.  Find your local community, for any value of local you can name, and engage in it.  Use all of that collected wisdom from kindergarten — share, play well with others, don’t pull little Suzy’s ponytails.  Give folks a reason to like you, and the links will follow it.

2)  Blogging for your customers and people like them.

Blogging for your customers is different than what I do on this blog, most of the time.  For example, the typical elementary school teacher will never understand the value of getting their personal page linked at — it just does not advance them towards a goal that they value.  But suppose I got around to fulfilling my many-times-postponed resolution about opening a teaching activities blog on Bingo Card Creator. 

This would immediately make the site more linkable — blogging is quintessentially about having a conversation on the Internet with the basic utterance containing hyperlinks.  Its like they invented a form of communication to line up with what Google thinks is a sign of value.  Since your blog will typically not be commercially focused, but rather focused on providing value to your customers and/or people like them, it avoids much of the difficulty of getting folks to link to your product pages.  There is easily explainable value to linking to a post which is useful (“My readers will find this useful”), emotionally resonant (“Wow, this is emotionally resonant and I want to share this experience with other people”, well-written, funny, etc. 

(Incidentally, the only difference between your customers and “people like them” is that the second group hasn’t given you money.  Yet.  I say have an optimistic point of view about things.)

3)  Create resources your customers/people like them can use.

The very first thing I ever did to get links to my site was to create a list of Dolch sight words.  In brief, that is a piece of information that almost all my customers understand the value of (all you need to do is say those five words, bam, they think “Ooh, I want!”) but that few of them have memorized or written somewhere convenient in their notes.  Generating them was trivial, as they’re in the public domain.  Writing them up nice and pretty took me an hour.  That page has been linked to about 65 times according to Yahoo, probably half of them by people other than me.  These include school districts, libraries, teacher blogs, a government agency or two, and other folks who Google (in its infinite wisdom) decides to value the opinion of highly.

(Speaking of which, a particular competitor of mine had an interesting twist when he copied this idea: he bought an available domain just for that one resource, which makes it look like the official place to find the information and gives a pretty sweet bonus for ranking for the exact query [dolch sight words] in Google.  I think that tactic is worthy of the most sincere form of flattery, particularly if you know a resource is going to be very popular.  Domains are cheap, bordering on free when you consider how many thousands of people you’ll be showing your software to every year if you own the right ones.)

4)  Creating resources that other people like to use.

This next one is a bit of a mind-bender for many folks: while topical links are the best kind of link, in general, links which are not topical are still worth something, too.  Potentially a lot of something.  Thus, particularly when you are in an industry which is naturally link-poor (say, something in which the typical customer doesn’t own a blog and where most websites are 5 pages large, hosted on Geocities, and have Under Construction signs on them), you can get a lot of value out of expanding the reach of your offerings to include folks who are link-rich.

There are any number of folks who are link-rich.  Most readers of my blog are programmers, and we tend to be near the bleeding edge of the tech adoption curve.  If you find folks who are near the bleeding edge of the tech adoption curve for programmers, the odds that they give out links on a regular basis approaches 1.  (Heck, they probably have already gotten bored of some Web 3.0 ways to do so which I haven’t even heard of yet.  Maybe you can telepathically insert links directly into the eyeballs of anyone who has ever used Twitter to access Facebook through an iPhone these days.)

On group which I happen to belong to is Rails programmers, and when I write useful information on how to solve business problems in Rails (such as how to make Rails even more friendly to search engines than it is out of the box), they flood me with links.  (I think that page has gotten about 100.)  Granted, it doesn’t go direct to my product pages, but it increases my domain’s overall trust and I can control the links on the page to channel some link juice wherever I want it.

5)  Do it with style.

Always remember that there are, according to rigorous scientific studies, approximately 53,234,324,658,342,190 web pages out there that people could be looking at rather than your site… and those are just the ones that include pictures of cute kittens. 

Visually engaging your readers works.  The Internet, I swear, it sucks the literacy straight out of people, but arresting photography, stunning site design, cute icons, and the like make it much easier to rise above the Don’t Care threshold and get folks to recommend you to other people.  You subconsciously trust almost anything more if it is presented in an attractive fashion, and in some cases you might decide to share something just because it is pretty.  (It certainly worked for Clicky getting a link from me earlier this week.  Looks like it has now worked twice!  Just a pretty, solid site design there.)

Speaking of sharing things for the sheer beauty of it, it is sakura season here in Japan.

Photo of Sakura in bloom (mankai) taken in Gifu City, Japan

(I took that one two years ago in a park in Gifu City.)  We now interrupt your photo viewing enjoyment to continue with an important message from the article proper.

6)  Do it to scale

Imagine you have one really good idea for a resource to attract links.  Maybe it is one beautiful picture of sakura.  Now imagine that you could expand that to pictures of a hundred sakura, all beautiful, organized in some effective manner which both shows folks the ones that are most beautiful and hints at the richness which is only a mouseclick or two away.  Do you think you would get linear returns to the extra photos, i.e. 100 times the worth of one photo?  No.  I think this strategy is super-scalar — if you are good with information architecture, and site design, and in quickly communicating the value of what you have to the reader, I think that doing things in larger numbers turns you into something qualitatively different instead of just quantitatively different.  When you need a picture of beautiful sakura (and who doesn’t?), you don’t go to the guy who has one picture.  You go to the guy who has a hundred pictures, because he has established himself as the Authoritative Source on Pretty Cherry Blossom Photos.  (That title may be copyright and trademark of this lady I found on Flickr earlier.  Simply stunning.  More broadly, the whole “we aggregate a few million pictures, most of them are stunning” thing has certainly paid off for Flickr, since when I wanted to find someone with pretty flower pictures I went straight to Flickr to search because even artistically-disinclined me knows that Flickr is the place to go when you want pretty pictures.) 

Its not just pictures.  One resource which, oddly enough, helps you sell a Bingo Card Creator is having a large collection of printable bingo cards.  Accordingly, I have a few hundred on my site and am adding more all the time.  I can, and have, elaborated on how specific choices of my site design work to convey the richness of the offering to prospective visitors and linkers.  More on that on another day.  It is working out fairly well for me, and as you can see from this handy graph my visitors love it and it is getting more popular all the time.  (I don’t have a graph of inlinks as a result of that resource but if I did its shape would be similar.)

7)  Make your content easy to share

You might not have noticed, but that kitten photo above was built with the Lolcat Builder, because I am a lazy bum and do not want to get out Paint.NET just to make myself a one-liner.  My sloth is their gain, because the straight-line path to getting that joke onto your screen is to link to the image hosted at Lolcat Builder. 

Most of you are programmers.  With just a little bit of ingenuity, you can make your content easy for your customers to embed on their sites.  This could range from anything from programatically composing linking directions (see, for example, the instructions I give to folks for share these cards on my site) to making a widget that lets people get even more goodness out of your content.  (Heck, the widget itself could be the content.) 

For example, Delicious (I hear there are periods in there somewhere — and, darn it, I refuse to use them) makes it really easy for you to embed Delicious links in your site.  Something like, say, this one, which if you click on it will let you bookmark this article. 

Whoopsie, has decided to protect me against Javascript injection by not letting me post this widget here. Grr. See here for instructions on how to do it on your site, or you can take a look at my site where I have examples running.

You might find that useful — if you do, please, go right ahead.  If not, marvel on the fact that without any coding whatsoever I was able to add functionality to my blog post by doing Delicious a favor, and do some thinking on how you can get this dynamic to work for you.  (One of Aaron Walls suggestions to me was that I make widgets to distribute my most popular bingo cards to teachers with blogs and the like.  That is definately on the list of things to do after I achieve any level of expertise with Javascript.)

8)  Write like an Authority

In any field where the cost of replicating a success is zero there is going to be one far-and-away winner and then there is going to be a massive cliff separating them from second place.  Content creation on the Internet typically fits the bill pretty well — winners win, because why would you go to the second best place to get something you need when the first best is, well, better at the same price (free). 

(This does not mean first place is necessarily actually better than second place.  Wikipedia is quite rarely the best single resource on the Internet for something you want to know about, but it is often the first that springs to mind, and thus it is the best at being Just Good Enough For Right now, which is apparently a market segment worth owning.)

This is the basis for the Filthy Linking Rich phenomenon — the page which achieves authoritative status for a particular concept, query, or idea will typically tend to achieve self-reinforcing authority for it.  I am linking to Filthy Linking Rich because I was explained the concept by someone (who I have forgotten!) who used Filthy Linking Rich to explain the concept that someone else (who I don’t know!) used Filthy Linking Rich to…  etc etc, the rabbit hole goes pretty deep, and that article will continue getting backlinks until the end of time.  (October 2004 — that is practically antediluvian in Internet years.  Yikes, back in 2004, we didn’t even have Youtube, did we?  And yet there is that article from Internet prehistory still merrily humming along.)

I like to call content which tends to stand the test of time evergreen content.  While there is some merit in producing things which will be almost useless in a week (like many of my holiday bingo cards — nobody wants St. Patrick’s Day bingo cards 50 weeks out of the year), particularly if you can be the first or best or both at it, most of the longterm value is in the evergreen content.  (Or being the authority for breaking news, because the authority status you earned is evergreen itself, as long as you keep writing — I think I’ve been visiting Instapundit for 7 years now because Glenn Reynolds is to me what newspapers were to my grandfather’s generation.)

I’ll write an article on writing like an authority later, hopefully sometime this week when I have a bit of time to spare.  If you’ve got any particular questions about it, or any of the other points here, please feel free to drop a comment.

Steph Grenier On Generating Traffic For Your Website

I think I mentioned that I don’t really like ebooks the last time I reviewed one.  Please incorporate that total hatred by reference here.  Nonetheless, I gave that ebook, which was written by a professional colleague, an unreservedly positive review, because I sincerely think it will help many of my readers sell software.

Now I’m in sort of a conundrum — I received a copy of another e-book to review.  I respect the author greatly.  The other author who I already gave a positive review to praised the e-book lavishly.  So what’s my problem?

Well, frankly, I can’t imagine the book being all that useful to you, with the exception of three pages that are absolutely dynamite.  (It very well might be useful to some folks who don’t read this blog.  Why write a review for them, though?)

The story in 60 seconds: Steph Grenier of LandLordMax  wrote an e-book on How To Generate Traffic To Your Website.  (I also contributed a chapter to a real on-dead-tree book that Steph is getting published later this year.  The project is unrelated.)  The e-book includes 136 pages, with quite a few full-page annoted screen captures of Google.  We’ll call it about 120 pages of content, in which he covers 11 chapters, from SEO to Blogging to AdWords.

If you do the math there, that is about 11 pages per subject.  Now, supposing you were trying to explain blogging in 11 pages or less to someone who had never heard of the concept before, what do you think you could write before running out of space?

Well, maybe a good introduction to blogging for someone who is never heard of it.

And that is, in a nutshell, what about 95% of the e-book is.  A good introduction to SEO, AdWords, or blogging, for someone who has never heard of the topic.  At all.  If you have done any significant reading on the topics, this e-book will not teach you much that you don’t know.

Example excerpt from the chapter on Blogging:

[One reason why to blog is that it] can personalize your business. Instead of being just another faceless website it can give your website a second personality. It can give it that personal touch that people like. A lot of sales are through emotions, and people like to connect with people they like and trust. If you’re honest and real on your blog, and not just writing what you think people want to hear, you’ll create a personal bond with your customers. This will create long term traffic.

That paragraph is true.  It is fairly well-written.  It just doesn’t teach you anything you don’t already know if you habitually read blogs.  If you have ever read a blog post about why to blog, which are legion, you know it already.  If you already have a blog, you know this in your bones.  This section is also representative of the depth this book goes into on almost all subjects.  If you’re a non-technical small business owner who reads email but isn’t quite hip on this whole Internet thing yet, you might well learn quite a bit from this chapter.  If you’re running an ISV, this is almost certainly going to be akin to having a computer programmer sit through a middle school Algebra I lecture (“OK, class, I’m going to introduce a deep concept — sometimes, instead of a number, you can do math using a letter!  We call this a variable.”)

Topic Selection

I’m somewhat interested in SEO and linkbait, as long time readers of this blog know.  I really can’t recommend the chapter on SEO that much — if you have read almost anything on the subject you already know everything written here, and the topic selection leaves much to be desired.  For example, it covers Keyword Density (a metric which is, frankly, useless because it leads to no actionable insights on how to write your pages) at multi-page length.  Meanwhile, it almost ignores methods of getting links.  (Which is a shame, because this would have been a great time to mention the next section.) 

Three Pages I Really Loved

Pages 52-54 are, far and away, the best part of the book.  It provides a case study (incredibly rare in this book — most of it is basic techniques unconnected with any real examples) of how Steph used a free calculator on his website to double his traffic.  If this had been written elsewhere in the book, the level of detail would have been something like:

Freebies do attract traffic. Unfortunately it’s not always good traffic, some people will only come for the freebies and leave, but many will also stay and re-visit your website in the future (and possibly tell others about it). If you’re a blogger, they may read your other blog posts, buy your services, etc. If you’re a company they may look through your website for other interesting pages, they may tell others about what they found, etc. Freebies have always been a great way to attract attention and traffic. The key is how well you can convert the traffic coming from the freebies.

(Actually, the chapter on Freebies does start out like that.  Nothing you didn’t know already.)  But when grounded in the case study, the chapter suddenly becomes much more useful.  It examines the calculator from multiple points of view — promoting the freebie (which I’d call linkbait, incidentally, and mention REPEATEDLY in the SEO chapter because I will *guarantee* you this did more good for Steph than all his metatags could ever hope for) with a press release, for example.  If the entire book was like these three pages I’d be telling everybody I knew to go out and buy it today, but sadly they are an anomaly.

A Trend I’m Not That Fond Of

One of the reasons I hate e-books is they have a distressing tendency to turn into MLM schemes, with folks writing e-books to promote e-books to…  you get the general idea.  So when I see affiliate links in an e-book, that generally sends my spidersense tingling.  It means that the reader is paying for the privilege of reading an advertisement.  Moreover, unlike say an advertisement in your favorite magazine, rather than being adjacent to the content and clearly marked as not influencing the editorial judgement, these these affiliate ads are built into the content.  Example:

Today what we’ll attempt to do is give you an overview of the most effective SEO techniques at your disposal. I can’t hope to cover everything SEO related, there’s too much material. Indeed, I’d recommend the SEO Bookby Aaron Wall as further reading. I bought his EBook about 2 years ago and I still continue to personally reference it as a great resource. And as new SEO techniques surface and others expire, Aaron continues to update his EBook.

I broke that link intentionally.  Now, SEOBook is a great resource, I’ll agree.  I joined Aaron Wall’s (the author’s) training program for $100 a month, and feel I have gotten enough out of it to justify my first month (ask me about the second in another month).  But if you had found the chapter on SEO a little lacking in the useful detail department, and clicked on that link to go from the beginners’ class to the intermediate one, you’d have caused Steph to pretty much double his money on selling the book to you. 

This troubles me — not because making money on the Internet is a bad thing or anything, but once you start down this road, it becomes difficult for the reader to differentiate between the advice that you’re giving because it is solid advice and the advice you are giving because it offers a solid commission.

Similarly, Bob’s review also uses affiliate links for both Steph’s book and the inline reference to SEOBook.  And we’re off to the Internet Marketing races.  Instead of focusing on selling products of value to customers, we start down the merry path of cannibalizing members of our community for revenue by selling them on the dream of being a successful uISV.  They, in turn, then get to make money by selling the same products to other folks dreaming of being successful uISVs.  Who get to sell the same products to others hoping to be uISVs.  Instead of being an involved community of software entrepeneurs, it would be a community of MLM hucksterism, which does not bring value to anyone and doesn’t generate any revenue from outside the pyramid.

This concern is why I don’t put affiliate links on my site.  Keep in mind that I have the utmost respect for both Steph and Bob, I just think this trend is not in the long-term best interests of this community.

Review In Ten Seconds

Steph Grangier: great guy, successful uISV.  This book: not so hot for most uISVs.  If you buy it: save time, read and implement pages 52 to 54.

Why You Shouldn't Pay Any SEO You Can Afford

Recently, there was a question on the Business of Software forums, asking whether someone could recommend a good SEO firm which was not booked solid.  Someone jokingly suggested that the best SEO firms are so busy no one hires them anymore.  That answer, which might have been intended as the equivalent of a Slashdot +5 Funny, gets really close to fingering the actual problem.

The problem is: if you can afford to hire a particular SEO firm, they probably aren’t competent enough for your needs.  This is pretty much a result of how the incentives line up for being a really good SEO who works for clients versus being a really good SEO who also happens to run a business themselves.  (Shoemoney, a noted and successful Internet marketer, recently had a bit of a tizzy with the SEO community, suggesting that 95% of it is worthless for a variety of reasons.  I think he is more right than wrong, but could have used some dispassionate analysis to make the case better.)

This should be obvious to most people reading this already, but SEO is a flowing river of cash if you’re good at it.  Both parts of this equation are important.  I have an unhealthy fascination with bingo cards, seeing as I run a small business focused on them, so let us look at that exact query.  First, observe:

  • it isn’t awash in cash  (not mortgages, pills, adult, etc)
  • it doesn’t have an obvious monetization strategy (4+ different takes in the top 10 results)
  • it isn’t hyper-competitive (at least 2 sites up there have been up less than 2 years)
  • it doesn’t get hundreds of thousands of searches every month

Every day, while you’re eating your breakfast or putting the baby to bed, that query doles out money to about 6 small businesses.

SEO: Winner Take Most

For your reference, the #5 spot on the query is worth about 6k unique visitors a month.  (I bounced around between 5 and 10 on it, so I have a fairly decent idea of what each position is worth.)  We have a rough approximation at what multiple the #1 spot gets of that, thanks to the leaked AOL search data: it is in the ballpark of a factor of 8.5.  We can thus approximate the traffic from the #1 spot as about 50k uniques per month, giving a little bit of a fudge factor.  Now, my effective profit per 1k search visitors is on the order of $40, so if I were in the #1 spot, I would presumably be making something on the order of $20,000 a month.  (I’d probably discount that by 50%, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this post, but $10,000 isn’t much to sneeze at, either.)

So here we have a baseline, using real numbers, for what topping off a search engines result page is worth.  In a wee, little niche, in a wee little section of the Internet, one single, insignificant query can quite handsomely support a small businessman and his family.

Now, pretend you’re the head consultant at Magic Fairies SEO, and you are so good at your job that you have but to flick your SEO wand and Bingo Card Creator will sail to its rightful position at the head of the Internet.  How much should you charge me for the use of your wand? 

Option #1: Charge me $X an hour

No sane person will charge me $X an hour when I stand to gain $20,000 a month from your services.  This is, however, the prevailing billing model for SEO firms.  They take a generous billing rate, oh, call it $100 an hour, spend 10 hours on the project… and then I become crazily profitable in under 48 hours.  Oh, crikey, how silly that is.  (I also think you’re silly to charge on a per-hour basis as a contract engineer if you’re writing things that are going to scale stupidly for the client.  It is a quirky world where you get paid less as you get better at doing your job, but that is what hourly billing amounts to.)

Option #2: Charge me $X0,000 up front

Very few sane clients will accept this arrangement from most unproven SEO firms, because the Internet doesn’t believe in fairies.  Even if I were largely not sensitive to risk ($10,000 a month!!! has a certain intoxicating flavor to it), there is the capitalization problem.  Put simply, I am not in the financial position to pay $5,000 or $10,000 in a lump sum (my business only profited $6,500 last year).  Most small businesses are similarly undercapitalized.

Option #3: Equity Participation

Let’s say the SEO Fairies and I strike up a deal — they get me to #1, I pay them a portion of the money I make from being #1.  This puts a gratuitous amount of risk on the poor fairies — I could fail to monetize #1 successfully, I could conveniently forget about our contractual relationship, I could skim sales off the top, I could screw them in any of a hundred ways.  To the extent that I’m honest about my dealings with them, it is a terrible deal for me, too: after the work is done, I rationally want to terminate their participation in my business as fast as possible.  I’d be constantly on the lookout for ways to terminate our relationship and save me what would surely be my largest business expense.  For example, I’d study what techniques they were using, and show them the door as soon as I was reasonably certain I could copy them.  Thus, the Fairies would be constantly worried that they were going to get their big fat bingo check from me every month.

#4 Cut me out of the picture

We all know what the Fairies contribute to the business: a #1 search rating.  What do I contribute?  Well, a program that can be written in a week, some support, and my own marketing efforts — which are demonstrably worth, oh, about $6,500 a year on the open market.  Being a crafy profit-maximizing Fairy, if you know your wand is going to get you to the top of [bingo cards]… what did you need me for, again?  You can either write your own website/program or outsource somebody to do it for you, rank that, and then start printing money hats.  And then you aren’t dependent on me in the slightest.  You get all of the gain and none of the risk relative to the other options.

Most of the best SEOs in the world have long since done this math for themselves.  Keep in mind that [bingo cards] is sort of the blue collar of the Internet search space.  If you move to the upper middle class sections, like (picking an example at random) student credit cards, and you were good enough to prosper in a Winner Take Most environment, you would laugh in the general direction of $10,000 a month.  And this is, fundamentally, why you can’t find many good SEO consultants for hire: if they’re as good as you need, they don’t need you.

What can you find?

Well, just like in any labor market, there is a wide spectrum of ability.  You can’t afford to hire somebody who can rank for [student credit cards], or even conceive of ever ranking for that term, but maybe you can fall down the curve a little bit.  Maybe the B student in the class is good enough.  The B student probably has designs of being a B+ student, since Winner Takes Most means skill and effort superscale: if you are 1% better than the next guy you get many times the revenues.  Thus, again, why is the B student wasting his time with you, when he could be working on his own projects.

There is also the problem that SEO is a high-skill occupation and you, as the customer, have to worry about the high floor every bit as much as the limitless ceiling.  Any SEO worth his salt is probably employable as a generic web programmer, for example.  $55,000 salary straight out of college, very little risk, relatively unstressful.  Similarly, the more creative ends of the field can be used in classical marketing or copyrighting for, again, not insignificant amounts of money.  You have to be able to beat the SEO’s next best offer, and their worst, risk-free, in-case-of-financial-emergency-break-glass offer, is pretty expensive from the point of view of a cash-strapped small businessman.

So you’re left with the dregs

This shouldn’t be a fairly controversial claim: most people who are interested in making money online, using whatever method (running a software company, being an SEO, filling out surveys), have no particular skill at what they do.  The overwhelming majority will not be financial successes, relative to a very conservative definition of financial success such as “Makes as much online per hour as they would flipping hamburgers or cleaning toilets”. 

(It is entirely possible that they’re externally motivated and wouldn’t mind continuing what they’re doing because, after all, the Internet is more fun than cleaning toilets.  I’m very sympathetic to this and yet, as a fellow businessman, I would want my partners to be successful first and emotionally fulfilled second, because success transfers fairly easily but emotional fulfillment probably does not.)

You can see this same dynamic in the software business, where the overwhelming majority of proprietors make close to nothing.

If you look at any random collection of folks who sell SEO services for money, the overwhelming majority are going to be in the dregs.  It is sort of like a perverse anti-Darwin evolution: successful specimens are the first to die  (i.e. move to greener pastures, in every sense of the word green).  The more successful they are, the quicker they die.  What you’re left with is a mix of both newbies, and folks who just do not have the chops you need.  I suppose theoretically you could hope to scoop up a newbie who is both a) skilled and b) doesn’t know the value of their own skill yet.  However, most newbies are too busy being scammed out of $49.95 so that they can buy e-books to learn how to make $200,000 a month!!! selling e-books and if you act now get our copy of Magic Long Copy Letters, a $79.95 value, for absolutely free… to work for you.  And the ones who aren’t busy are probably, well, untrained and terrible at what they do.  So you’re buying lottery tickets and, as we all know, lottery tickets are just a tax on people who can’t do math.

So is there a way out?

All of the above is specific to SEO services.  SEO products could very well have a different incentive structure — they are also a Winner Take Most economy, so if you can be SEOMoz or Aaron Wall you might actually stand a decent change of making money, and thus it almost makes sense for you to be offering your expertise as a product.  I have my doubts in the generic case, though.

I sometimes shake my head in wonder at both of them, actually.  I won’t tell anyone else how to run their life or business interests — if they’re happy, I’m happy for them.  Nonetheless, Rand Fishkin and the team are clearly near the top of their field, with skillsets that are worth conservatively millions, and yet they do client work for peanuts, relatively speaking.  Rand Fishkin, after years of having a deserved reputation for being insanely good at what he does, makes far under the SEO floor salary.  (Or at least he did before the VC injection — maybe one of the board members will have a facts of life talk with him.)  They could just as easily have sewn up a niche, or a half dozen of them, hire folks to keep it sewn up for them, and do SEO education as a hobby to pass the time between celebratory cash bonfires.  Or, heck, they could find one guy who could open doors to the world of big business and say “Hiya, Bank of America.  Give us a 10 man team and a year, and we’ll increase revenue driven by your website by 3%.  You know that is worth millions, and believe me, you will pay millions for it, or Citibank will.”  (I am reminded of the classic sieve to separate rich lawyers from poor lawyers: look for the ones who work for rich clients.  There is a lot to be said for that maxim.)

I incidentally haven’t purchased either of the above services, but I’m making an educated judgement about their quality on the basis of the information they write for free in their blogs.  Both are likely excellent resources for folks getting past the newbie hump in a hurry.  However, because you can’t really teach what gets folks from a solid foundation in the basics to the B+ region where they are making decently large sums of money, I wouldn’t expect these resources to get you there.  After all, if they could, why would you sell them for $80?  They’d be worth more in future income than a college education at my alma mater, and would be priced to match.  But if you are feeling totally clueless about SEO, and think your time is valuable, I’d suggest buying one or both of the above and, more importantly, start learning by doing.  (As usual, I have no financial relationship with either of the above two products.) 

So that is the cynical economist’s take on the SEO market.  I fully acknowledge that I am, at best, a B or B- SEO, so it is entirely possible I don’t know what I’m talking about.  And I also know that, as a software developer/marketer/CEO/whatever, I’m also a little itty bitty fish in a huge ocean of the Internet.  Here’s the thing, though: being a minorly successful little bitty fish is worth somewhere in the $80+ range an hour.  If I’m absolutely clueless about this field, this implies that someone who has a clue will be dreadfully expensive.

If you have squared the circle and figured out why someone with SEO chops would choose to be a for-hire consultant instead of a business owner themselves, I’d love to hear your arguments in the comments.

Fantastic Article on SEO For Bloggers

This article on SEO for bloggers is just amazing.  I highly recommend anyone with a blog who doesn’t already consider them past the intermediate stage on SEO read it.  I recommend absolutely everyone read the followup on how the original article was designed and marketed as a stunningly effective piece of linkbait.  (Some might say that this makes the original article cynical.  I disagree — it was and is very useful to many people, and there is no reason you shouldn’t promote things which are useful to your audience for your mutual benefit.  Rails is another project which has proven that just because you’re professionally marketed and designed to go viral doesn’t mean you have to suck.)

If you’re interested in SEO for bloggers, the author of that piece and I will both be contributing chapters to Steph’s book on blogging.  You might find them of interest.  If Steph lets me I’ll post an early excerpt from my chapter as an early Christmas present to you all.

P.S. Speaking of Christmas, I know you want to play Christmas bingo with your family, right? 

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. 

Rails SEO Tips 90% Completed

Too many projects, too little time.  I got most of my Rails SEO hints page completed tonight, after finally implementing more of the suggestions I was making in Daily Bingo Cards itself.

The Table of Contents

The page is still a bit of a work in progress, of course.  I intend to keep it updated and continue gradually expanding the content.  Plus it is 2 AM and I really have no effort to do make the code samples more pretty (what can you expect — I built them by hand in notepad — lots and lots of ampersands, let me tell you). 

If you have any comments about the article, feel free to leave them here.  If you know any Rails developers who might be interested in the resource, please feel free to pass it on to them.

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).