Entries from January 2010 ↓

Build Links, Build Authority, Build Traffic

Long before I even knew what internet marketing was, I was playing around with websites. I built hobby websites, and built websites for friends. When I was building these websites, frames were still considered “cool” and animated .gifs were “the bomb.”  The web was still young, and while I didn’t know what internet marketing was, I knew the importance of getting traffic to my sites (even if I was using on-page counters to track that traffic).

So, what is a kid playing around with websites to do?  It’s not like I had a marketing budget.  So, I did the logical thing: I found other websites that catered to similar audiences, and I e-mailed them and asked them for links.  Then, I found directories that catered to my audience, and submitted my sites to these directories.  Fast forward quite a few years, and after an aborted legal career, I found myself learning about and working in internet marketing.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that the exact things that I had been doing 10+ years ago, simply because they were the only way I knew how to get traffic, were now called SEO, and firms were charging lots of money for those services.

When I was link building, it wasn’t for the purposes of optimizing for search engines.  Hell, Google didn’t even exist at the time, and Yahoo was more of a directory than a search engine.  I was just building links to get the value that was intrinsic to those links.

I think that’s the reason why I’ve always had such a hard time wrapping my head around the SEO industry. On the one hand, it’s all common sense. On the other hand, the way firms go about doing SEO and link-building makes no sense.

The goal behind link-building in SEO is primarily, and in some cases exclusively, to increase search engine ranking.  What happened to the days when I got those links for my websites, and all I was looking for was the traffic that those links provided. Here’s the thing that seems to get lost in a lot of the SEO shuffle: link building has value in and of itself.

As an example, Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog, one of the most popular blogs in the world, and one that has turned Leo into a published author has publicly said on numerous occasions that he doesn’t believe in SEO.  He had his site built with proper architecture, but beyond that, he never did any SEO on Zen Habits.  So, how is it that one of the most popular blogs in the world didn’t do any SEO?  Well, here’s the thing, it did – just not for the sake of doing SEO.

Leo, did plenty of link building, but he never called it link building. He went into the blogosphere and commented on hundreds (thousands?) of blogs.  He wrote one guest post a week for a while.  He wrote article after article after article, and got them published on other websites, and all had a link back to his own site.  He also published tons of really great content on his own site, which encouraged others to link to it on their own.

Is any of this sounding familiar?  That’s right, it’s SEO.  Except it’s not.  Leo didn’t go out with the intent to do SEO. He went out with the intent to spread the world about his blog, to make connections and to build authority.  He got tons of traffic from this process that did not come from Google.  It came from other sites.  It just so happened, that this process of building connections and authority is exactly what search engines like Google are looking for in their rankings, and as such, Zen Habits got a lot of SEO juice out of the practice.

What Leo did was not rocket science, in fact, it’s the same thing that I did over a decade ago as a kid just discovering the web (only on a bigger scale with better content).

Your website can benefit from this same link building and inadvertent SEO practice.  All you have to do is follow a relatively simple recipe.

  1. Create content that other people will want to link to
  2. Create content on other sites that links to your site, such as guest blog posts, ezine article submissions and social media stations
  3. Connect with the connectors and the mavens in your industry, and get them to spread the word about your site
  4. Get featured in a mainstream publication if you can
  5. Feature others on your site – they will at the very least mention the fact that they appeared on your site to their audiences

All of these steps will produce traffic in and of themselves, with the added benefit of also improving your search engine rankings.  What not to do is what a lot of SEO firms have been doing:

  1. Submit links to a directory no one actually visits
  2. Write articles and submit them to sites no one actually reads

Link-building purely for the sake of SEO is like using twenty dollar bills to insulate your walls.  You may end up achieving your goal, but there are more efficient ways to go about it.

Video: The Next Generation of Web Content?

YouTube’s been around for years, and it’s one of the most popular sites on the internet.  Sites like Hulu and Boxee are making American cable companies nervous (in Canada, Hulu’s blocked).  Certainly, the move from broadcasting on the tube, to broadcasting over the web is coming, but we have yet to see any groundbreaking made-for-web content. Last week, Rev3 put out a tongue-in-cheek open letter to Conan O’Brien, encouraging him to move his show to the web.  While the letter was a joke, is that so far off?]

The big question around broadcasting content on the web, however, is what’s the revenue model?  Network television makes its money through advertising – raising the same kind of advertising revenue on the web could prove to be problematic.  Cable networks make money through subscription.  This could be a possibility, but I think we’ll truly see if this is feasible this year if Hulu begins charging for content.

Where does this leave the advertisers?  Advertisers have used 30-second television spots with great success for half a century, but what happens when (not if, when) network television dies?  The logical answer is that advertisers will move these dollars to the web.  Some marketers are touting video as the next generation of advertising on the web.  Some marketers go so far as to imply that video will become the dominant content on the web, replacing text and static images.

This is where I get skeptical.

We have seen a number of success stories of people who have used video for business purposes to great success (the name Gary Vaynerchuk comes to mind, for one).  However, a few examples of success doesn’t mean that video is going to replace all content.

4 Reasons Why Video Won’t Replace Text

1. History Tells Us Otherwise

The web’s great value is that it’s a resource in addition to an entertainment source.  People go to the web to find information. That’s where there’s value for advertisers, because they can find consumers who are looking for answers.  Just as documentaries did not replace books as the way we do research, so too, will videos not become the definitive resource for a person searching for information.

2. People’s attention spans are too short

The web has nurtured an environment of people who have an 8-second attention span.  You might think this is an argument in favour of video, but it’s not.  How often can a person be hooked by the first 8 seconds of a video?  Not often.  Video as a medium needs time to develop, and it can’t easily be scanned.  Text on the other hand is inherently scannable.  I scan tens of thousands of words of text on the internet every day.  I do it because scanning text is easy.  I can’t scan hundreds of hours of video every day.

3. Look at usage patterns

When does a huge portion of web traffic occur?  While people are at work.  People will happily read/scan through multiple articles during spare moments at work, but very few people have the kind of job where stopping and watching a full video is acceptable or feasible.

4. The right way to use video hasn’t been discovered yet

The 30-second commercial spot on television worked because of the nature of the medium.  People had to watch it while they waited for their regular programming to come back.  There is a small trend of companies trying to reproduce this same format on the web.  That simply won’t work work on the web, because no one will actively seek out a commercial.  In fact, people watching television are actively looking for ways to avoid commercials.  What makes these companies think that just because you put them on the web now, people will want to watch them?

A Few of the Right Ways to Use Video

As mentioned earlier, there have been some success stories for using video, and as such, there are some lessons we’ve been able to glean from these about how to use video.

1. Promotional tool. Use video content as yet another avenue to guide people back to your web HQ.  This can be accomplished by posting something of interest on YouTube, and pointing people back to the HQ for more info.  This is about creating valuable content, not selling.

2. Do something different. A lot of people, especially in the world of blogging, are experimenting with video.  Unfortunately, most of them are simply taking the blogposts they would have normally written and reciting them into a webcam.  If your video doesn’t add anything, just write it.  Video allows you to demonstrate and visualize things in a way text doesn’t.  Take advantage of that, or risk creating some of the dullest videos on the web.

3. Add personality. The social web has demonstrated to us all that consumers like it when the brands they buy from have personality.  Video allows consumers to see who they’re buying from.  If you can create video that allows your customers to feel like they know you better, you’ve succeeded.

4. Create a viral hit. The holy grail of internet marketing is going viral.  It costs next to nothing, and all of a sudden everyone and their cat has seen your video and passed it along.  The problem with creating a viral hit is that there’s really no way to predict what will go viral.  The first viral hit of 2010 has been the American Idol rendition of “Pants on the Ground.”  Not sure that was intentional…

Experiment with video and add it to your marketing mix, but make no mistake, it is not a replacement, it is a supplement.

While you’re playing with video, you might also want to check out Get Seen, as recommended by Chris Brogan.  I haven’t looked at this yet, but Chris usually gives good recommendations.

Oh, and don’t expect many videos from me in the near future.  I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and I know that for the sake of anyone reading this, I should stick to writing.

7 Ways to Create Your Online HQ

In my previous post, I talked about the importance of having an internet presence, but went on to claim that that presence didn’t need to be a website. Now, I want to explore what some of the options for building that presence are, and discuss them a little more deeply.

To be clear, what I’m talking about here is not just a place where you appear on the web. It’s the hub of your internet presence. You may show up in a number of different places on the web, but what I’m going to be talking is the main place where you want all your traffic to be feeding back towards. It’s what Chris Brogan calls a home base.  I call it a HQ (headquarters).  I’ve also heard it called a hub.  Whatever you call it, it’s the place that all your other online presences should be pointing towards.

If you have multiple presences on the web, I highly recommend picking one of them to be your HQ, and putting your best content there, while the purpose of everything else you do should be to drive traffic to the HQ.  That being said, let’s look at a few different ways to build your HQ.

1. Build a website

Yes, I did predict that websites are going to begin to fall out of favour among SMBs, but for the moment, they’re probably still the most popular choice for SMBs looking to get online.  A good business website is not about having the coolest design on the planet, or having the best flash intro.  It’s about being accessible, clear and leading to conversion.  You can easily spend twenty thousand dollars on a site that will never make a single sale.  That’s why I think that the most important thing about a web design team is not how skilled the graphic designer, but how smart the person who optimizes for conversion is (and if no one’s doing that, then you might as well be throwing away your money).

Design and flash are cool, and can help make a good impression on a new visitor, but unless your site is optimized for conversion, don’t bother.

It’s also worth noting that while the skills necessary to build a mainstream website from scratch are slightly more intricate than when I learned HTML ten years ago, building a professional looking site has never been easier thanks to a variety of do-it-yourself platform based tools.  These are often good cost-effective solutions for an early site, and you can always upgrade later. One example, I’ve heard good things about is Squarespace.  There are many others.

2. Take advantage of a social media presence

Social media is a great way to connect with people, and can also be used to drive traffic to your HQ, but what about using social media as your HQ?  More and more businesses are setting up Facebook fan pages for just that reason.  Facebook now has 350 million users around the world, so setting up a Facebook fan page and thinking you’ll reach almost everyone isn’t as crazy as it sounds, especially if your target demographic is a Facebook crowd (if you don’t know if your audience is a Facebook crowd, you might want to do some market research before diving into a web HQ).

While Facebook is the biggest, and most common place to set up a HQ for small business, certain niche businesses might find that other social networks can work for them as well.  If you’re in the music industry, it might not be a bad idea to take a walk over to MySpace (remember MySpace?  That thing was all the rage until Facebook came around). MySpace has done a good job of rebuilding itself as a place for music-lovers to congregate, and you could very well find your customers there.

Similarly, if you offer professional services, you might be able to business on the web directly through your LinkedIn profile.  You just need to get creative about it.

Finally, there’s the darling of social media: Twitter. While I don’t think Twitter is the ideal place to set up a HQ (it’s difficult to tell your customers all there is to know about you in 140 characters), a few businesses have had great success with this tactic, such as Kogi BBQ, a moving food truck that tweets its location to its followers and meets them at the appointed time and place.

3. Use directory profile pages

Directory profile pages have come a long way in the past few years.  What used to just be some basic contact info, and little more than what was available in a print directory has now evolved into a content-rich experience.  Most directories will give you the ability to add images, video, driving directions and much more to your profile page, as well as give you the ability to track the traffic on that page.  As a bonus, these directory pages, often have good SEO ranking, so you don’t need to worry about SEOing your own site.  (Disclaimer: I work for the Yellow Pages Group, the publisher of YellowPages.ca, the biggest online business directory in Canada).

4. Use Google Local Business Centre

Google Local Business Centre is Google’s big push to get into the local business market.  Traditionally, Google’s been great for national advertisers, but has had a hard time attracting smaller, local advertisers into its fold.  The Local Business Centre might be the answer that Google’s looking for.  Essentially, Google aggregates information from a bunch of different sources and creates listings and pages for every Local Business.  If you never do anything about this, Google will still create this page for you, and will populate it with whatever content its search robots find on the the internet that’s related to you.

Admittedly, that’s slightly alarming in some respects, because you don’t have complete control over your internet presence, and for that reason alone, I don’t think I would rely on Google Local as my business HQ.  However, being aware of it is a good idea, because it can be a powerful tool, and could potentially deliver a lot of traffic.  John Jantsch at Duct Tape Marketing recently posted this article about Google Local, that’s worth a look if you want to know how to get more out of it.

5. Build a Squidoo Lens

Squidoo is a site started by Seth Godin, one of the leading thinkers on internet marketing.  That fact alone should make you want to consider it.  If, however, you’re not convinced by my endorsement alone, I’ll do my best to describe Squidoo.  On Squidoo, you create a “lens.”  A lens is a kind of page that captures all sorts of different pieces of content and presents it in a chronological, but otherwise, unorganized fashion.  I played around with a Squidoo lens for a little bit, but ended up getting distracted by something shiny.  My aborted attempt, however, shouldn’t discourage you from seeing what the site has to offer.

6. Be a Virtual Shopkeep with an Ebay Store

If you sell goods over the internet, setting up an Ebay storefront might be the only HQ that you need.  The auction super site provides a trusted mechanism by which you can sell your products without going through the trouble of building your own e-commerce site.  It also has built-in traffic generation since people searching for products on Ebay are likely to come across your storefront, or if not, at the very least your products.  If your sole purpose in being online is to sell directly to people through the internet, and not have them ever come into your brick & mortar store, there are worse options.

7. Join the Blogosphere

I was talking to a prominent blogger and marketing consultant a couple of weeks ago, and I asked him about his blog.  It is a bare bones, standard templated blog, and it’s not attached to any “real” website.  As it turns out, this person had had a website built for him, had invested the money in it, but once it was ready, he found that he didn’t like the outcome. It was not adding any value, and it was just burying the one thing people came to him for in the first place: information. So, he scrapped the website, and continued using his blog as his sole internet presence. This tactic seems to work well for professionals in an information industry.  it’s easy to communicate the information through a blog, and you don’t need to worry about listing inventory or hosting galleries of your stock.  A simple blog with an “About” page and a “Contact” page has worked well for many consultants, designers, writers, artists, and could also work well for lawyers, accountants, and other knowledge workers.

Those are just a few of the various possibilities for buildling your internet HQ.  Do you have any to add to the list?  Add to the conversation in the comments.

Does a Small Business Need a Website?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post asking whether a small business needs a blog, but I realized while writing it that I had jumped ahead of myself. The question I should have first posed was whether a small business needs a website. The answer to that question is no.

Small businesses don’t necessarily need a website, but they do need a web presence. A web presence is simply a foothold on the web that a business can direct its customers to. It serves the function of providing basic information, whether that be about products and services, hours of operation, or even simply contact information.

Ten years ago, the only way to have this kind of presence on the web was to have a website, and that probably meant learning a bit of HTML and getting yourself a Geocities account. A website was a collection of linked together static web pages. When was the last time you heard someone use the term web page? The term has fallen out of use because a page is only a useful term when it is static. Today’s websites have evolved where they’re no longer a collection of individual pages, but a single interactive platform.

Web site design has come a long way since the days of basic HTML and Geocities. You could still create a site using basic HTML and a free web host, but if you expect that to stand side by side with a professionally designed site, you may be kidding yourself. It’s the equivalent of erecting a lemonade stand next to a Starbucks.

As website design capabilities have evolved, though, a curious thing has happened. Websites have become more than what most small businesses need. Most small business don’t need fully interactive sites with integrated CMS, AJAX capabilities, check-out carts, and user review functionality. More importantly, most small businesses can’t afford all those bells and whistles.

That’s why I predict that after several years of consecutive growth, the percentage of SMBs that have a website will now begin to fall. The reason for this is not that SMBs are going to turn away from the web – that would be a huge mistake – but rather because they now have other options for crafting their web presence without investing in a whole website. So, you’ll actually see the percentage of SMBs with a presence on the web continue to rise, all while you see the percentage with websites falling.

There are three reasons why we will soon start to see this trend towards a web presence that is not a website. The first is because SMBs now have alternatives to websites for creating their web presences. Things such as internet directory profile pages (internet yellow pages, yelp, etc.), Google local business center, Facebook fan pages, other social media profiles, blogging platforms, and many other standardized options offer the ability to present the necessary information without all the bells and whistles that SMBs don’t need for the right price: free or just about. The standardized pages look very similar, and offer similar content, to the websites of a few years ago. The difference is they’ve now been commoditized.

The second reason we’ll see a move away from websites is that the web design industry will actually push SMBs away from websites. Web design for SMBs is a high-touch, low-margin business. Because of the availability of cheaper alternatives, the only way for web design firms to justify charging enough to be profitable is to offer customization. However, customization means that the work isn’t scalable, and if it’s not scalable, it isn’t very profitable. Instead, web design firms will prefer to work with bigger customers, who will have deep enough pockets to pay for a truly customized experience, and remove the need for these firms to worry about scalability. As the web design firms focus on the high end, SMBs will naturally look at other forms of web presence.

The final reason we’ll see a shift away from websites is that the new forms of web presence come with a pre-existing method for generating traffic. One of the biggest issues SMBs have with standalone websites is that they pay good money for them, but then once they’re built they need to spend more money to get people to visit the them. The standardized web presences often come pre-packaged with at least one method to be found. Registering with Google Local Business Centre makes you eligible to appear in Google’s local search results. Creating a Facebook fan page allows you to easily attract word of mouth traffic by spreading word through your Facebook friends. Creating a profile with an internet directory means that anyone using that directory will be able to find you.

In my next post, I’ll look a closer look at some of the options for setting up a SMBs web presence.

Goals, resolutions & flexibility

“What’s the point of making resolutions if you know you’re just going to break them anyway?” – Everyone and their dog

I closed out 2009 with a post about my various failures and successes for the year that just ended. You can only succeed or fail at something if you deliberately undertook doing it. No one can ever accuse me of failing to swim across the Atlantic because I never said I would attempt it (and because there are sharks). Similarly, if I one day break the world record for pacing, I will not have succeeded at anything because I never undertook the challenge of breaking a world record for pacing (I just pace a lot).

To succeed or fail, a person needs goals. If you never set yourself goals, you will never fail, but you will also never succeed. I like setting goals even if it means I fail sometimes. There are a lot of arguments for why people should have goals, but for my purposes, I’ll simply say that I need them, otherwise I’m unhappy. As a result, I’m constantly setting goals for myself. Short-term, mid-term, long-term, etc. It’s borderline obsessive behaviour.

My habit of creating goals is the reason why I haven’t had an official New Year’s resolution for a couple of years. A New Year’s resolution is just a name for a goal that you set for yourself for a given year on January 1st of that year. By that token, you could say that writing 52 short stories in a single year was my New Year’s resolution for 2009. I didn’t think of it that way, but it fits.

Around now, there are a lot of numbers being crunched about how many people make resolutions, and how many stick to them. The numbers aren’t pretty. But, the biggest reason that more people don’t stick to their resolutions is because they’re not used to goal setting. Goal setting’s been distilled to a science by some, but it’s at the very least an art, with those who practice it most getting better at it than those who don’t.

Today I asked a handful of people if they made New Year’s resolutions, all of them told me they don’t make resolutions anymore because they never stick to them anyway. I really don’t think a history of failing to meet goals means that you should stop setting them. Instead, I think it’s an excellent opportunity to set goals differently. General goals are important, but they should be refined with smaller milestones, that can be measured, and that have shorter deadlines.

If your goal for 2010 is to exercise more, that’s great, but break it down. By the end of March, maybe you want to be averaging 2 hours of exercise a week. By the end of June, maybe you want that up to 4 hours a week. By the end of September, you’re up to 8. By the end of the year, you’re averaging 12 hours a week of exercise. Now you’ve got milestones. If three month chunks are still too big to swallow, you can break it down to monthly or weekly. This is how I’m breaking down my goals for 2010.

Another thing that I can’t really understand is why people seem to think that they have to have their goals laid out by January 1. If you’re not sure what your goal is, don’t arbitrarily rush it just to say that you have a resolution.

Flexibility is underrated in goal setting. My writing goals for 2010 are mapped out, and I know what I want to accomplish, but I also have about 4 or 5 non-writing goals for 2010. Rather than take them all on and fail at all of them, I’d rather focus on 1 or 2, and actually stand a chance at success. Unfortunately, I can’t decide what to cut, so I’m going to give myself some extra time to decide what’s most important.

That being said, this is my writing blog, so here are my 2010 writing goals:

  • 30 short stories
  • 20 blog posts on 52SS
  • 45 blog posts on AdamDiStefano.com
  • 12 articles for TheNextGreatGeneration.com
  • 20 articles for sites that I don’t currently write for
  • 2 Top Secret projects (both of which are writing intensive)

You’ll notice that whereas last year I tried to focus my goal on a single area of writing (short fiction), this year I’m branching out significantly. The reason for this is that it’s the more organic way for me to work. I can’t write fiction non-stop for a whole year. For my own sanity, I need diversity.

The other notable difference between this year and last is that I’m planning to do a lot more outside work. Last year, just about all my writing was done for myself and for my blogs. This year, I’ll be writing for others, and collaborating with others. This is something that I did more of in years past, and came to realize over the course of the past year that I missed it, so I will be doing more of it.

And what about you? What are your goals for 2010, or even just for this month? Writing or otherwise? What do you do to make sure you stick to your goals?