OSEO Boot Camp, pt. 1: What is Organic SEO?

This week, I’ll be doing a six part series on Organic SEO, and how to apply best practices to your web content. Read part 1part 2part 3,  part 4part 5 and part 6.

Google the term “SEO” (search engine optimization) and you’ll get a billion results, many of them from companies who provide nothing but SEO services. For fees ranging from fifty bucks to thousands a month, they promise to get your site listed first in Google for your key words. I get tons of forwarded emails from clients who’ve received some such pitch, all asking the same question: “Is it worth it?”

Well, probably not.

Frustrated Business Guy is frustrated.To answer that question, it’s best to back up to the why. To help me flesh out the why, today’s special guest interviewee is Frustrated Business Guy.

TWG: Frustrated Business Guy, thanks for spending some time with us today.

FBG: Well, to tell the truth, I’ve got a lot better things to be doing right now, so I’d appreciate if you’d keep this short.

TWG: Ah…okay. Well then, on to our first question. Why do people want to be listed in first place on Google?

FBG: What, are you stupid? Because being listed first means that you’ll get tons of traffic.

TWG: Right! And why’s that important?

FBG: *sigh* Because more traffic equals more sales.

TWG: Wrong! Meeting a need at the right time is the key to more sales. Being listed at the top of Google is only going to help your sales if the search result that brought the visitor in was really a solution to their need, and if it brought  them directly to that solution on your site. Simply driving your domain to the top of various keyword combinations is not going to return the sales benefit you might think it will.

FBG: You know, I really don’t appreciate being used as a literary device in your little rant. It’s hard enough being a one dimensional archetype.

TWG: And that’s all the time we have with Frustrated Business Guy! Thanks for being here.

The fact is, you can get a million visits a day, but if those visits aren’t truly interested in exactly what you have to offer, and land in a place on your site where they can quickly see what they’re interested in, they’re not going to do a thing to increase your revenue. This is where Organic SEO comes in.

OSEO in its technical form means achieving your search engine rankings without paying for that as a service. In practice, it’s letting the principles that Google uses to formulate its own search results drive your content development and marketing: Relevance, Comprehensiveness, Freshness, and Speed.

FBG: Why am I still here?

TWG: Sorry, I needed you again. Say the line.

FBG: Fine. “Why is that a better approach than just paying someone to get your site to the top of all the possible searches?”

TWG: Did you have to say it with quotes? It’s a better approach because the visits that you get are going to be both actually looking for what you’re offering, and land in a place on your site where they are immediately presented with what they were looking for.

FBG: Sorry, I’m just kind of frustrated right now. You’ll have to ask my creator about that. I’m a metaphor, remember?

The single biggest benefit of using Organic SEO to drive your traffic as opposed to paid SEO services is that it’s win/win: you’re getting good search engine placement, AND providing a good user experience that meets the searching visitor’s need, good enough to inspire that visitor to go out and share it with others.

Join us this week as we explore how best to put OSEO principles into action. We’ll cover what each principle means, how social media ties in, and hear from other pertinent visual metaphors on how they hypothetically achieved the results they were looking for, and overcame potential obstacles. We’ll close the six part series on Friday with a Q&A pulled from questions posted in the comments, so ask away!

Are you shopping for a $500 Mercedes Benz?

If you are, then you probably have some idea of what to expect from it: in poor condition, both mechanically and aesthetically, and needing a ton of work to be running in any sort of reliable fashion. Everyone knows, you get what you pay for. For some reason, however, that concept seems to go right out the window when some people shop for design and development services, which are every bit as nuanced and complex as an automobile. They wouldn’t act offended when the Mercedes dealership tells them the S class they’re looking for is $75,000, yet DO act offended when they realize you won’t work for minimum wage to create a Mercedes Benz quality web presence. This concept is explored to hilarious effect in this video:

It’s clear when contrasted to EVERY other industry that this attitude makes no sense at all, and yet no one would have made that video if it didn’t happen all the time. So, why do people feel that it’s OK to treat designer/developers as if their work has little value?

Antoine Reid writes in his blog that he thinks the reason is that no one really gets what we do:

“As I look at all the ridiculous Craigslist job postings in the art/media/design section something’s become very clear to me: most people have no respect for designers or the creative types anymore. That’s the only way I can rationalize why a professional would think a designer or creative, especially one with a degree, is deserving of $9 or $10 an hour with no benefits, no vacation time and yet a ton of responsibilities and duties.

I came to another realization recently: perhaps designers and creative types are at the bottom of the totem pole because no one really gets what we do. People equate design and art with fun and leisure while a job dealing with accounting, finances or working heavy machinery is “real” work. Really, while it’d be ideal to design a PR campaign educating the general masses what a graphic designer does and why a designer or creative type shouldn’t be treated like a fast food service, face it, that’d take more time and patience than any of us have to offer.”

Given the level of education I generally need to provide my clients when creating a dynamic, SEO friendly, social media integrated web presence, I think he’s probably right. Towards that end, let me provide a break down of what exactly goes into just one web development package (averages, based on the last five years of development clients):

Interface design – 40 hours:
Although in some of my projects, I have full design control, and can get this phase of development completed faster, as a rule, I’ll have about 24-25 hours in on the design before you see it the first time. Then, depending on the number of revisions or additions you want, I’ll generally spend another 15-18 hours implementing them, longer if it’s something out of scope of your original design concept (i.e. “I want the home page to be a flash movie that then transitions into the main site.” Oh, by the way, please don’t ask for this. The average user on the web hates it).

Writing the code – 40 hours:
Now that we’ve nailed down how it looks, I have to make that concept live. No matter what underlying CMS or code library I may be using, I can assure you they don’t come out of the box with the functions and layout you’ve asked for. I’ll be writing custom CSS (styling code), XHTML (layout code), and PHP (function and data code) to actually bring your design concept to life, and make sure that it works in all modern web browsers, mobile devices, and Internet Explorer.

SEO – 20 hours:
Yeah, you hear that phrase all the time, and depending on your level of web savvy, you may think it means making sure you have keywords, or creating backlinks, but my SEO services include making sure you have ALL of the necessary meta tags (did you know that your meta description field is what sets the paragraph that appears when someone shares your link on Facebook?), editing your copy to be keyword heavy while remaining organic, and drilling you on the core qualities Google is looking for when determining placement: Relevance, Comprehensiveness, and Freshness.

Training – 10 hours:
Unlike the $500 specials on Craigslist, I don’t just slap up a prepackaged system and leave you to fend for yourself. I want every one of my clients to be success stories in my portfolio. Because of that, I spend a healthy amount of time training you on how to run your system, whether it’s an eCommerce front requiring product management, or a CMS requiring content management. You’re going to be well trained in all the aspects of updating your content or products, and best practices in using social media to spread your message.

Support – 20 hours:
I speak with every confidence that my clients will back me up when I say that before we ever even get into support agreements, I’m already eminently accessible to them via email or IM, and that I’m quick to jump on any bugs, security issues, or fixing the content that didn’t come out quite right when updating the site. While the amount of time that an IM session or phone call with a client may be something they take for granted, that’s time that I’m concentrating on their issues as opposed to working on new development. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no complaint to my observation; this is WHY I’m their web guy! However, you wouldn’t call your lawyer without expecting to be charged for the time, and you wouldn’t call your mechanic expecting an explanation of how to fix the issue yourself without incurring billable time, so discounting the support time I spend with my clients doesn’t make sense.

There you have it: a rough breakdown of my hours on a single project client. So, when someone suggests I build them a $500 website, they’re asking me to either work for $3.85 an hour, or to give them what you might expect from a $500 Mercedes Benz. Neither is something I’m willing to do, which is why I don’t take those clients.

If you’ve been bargain shopping for a web developer, I hope you now have a better feel for why they looked at you like that when they heard your budget. If you’re just now beginning your search for web services, and have had some sticker shock, hopefully this will help make clear what all exactly is included in the proposals you’re getting. Oh, and might I recommend this guy?

Why so serious? Liven up your web presence with a little humor.

Our ultimate goal...

Too often, when I’m reviewing marketing copy from new clients, I’m struck by how dry and boring it is. Granted, for some products (I’m looking at you, hydraulic pump gaskets), no amount of humor is going to make them entertaining. Frequently, though, it seems that in the rush to sound “professional”, the natural cadence of conversation is replaced in website text by buzzword filled ExecutiveSpeak:

“Our advanced filing system will synergize your workforce by leveraging unique opportunities in process refinement to maximize workflow while reducing inefficiencies in your production line. Call TODAY to find out how you can save 75% off retail!”

While this may be entirely (and pedantically) accurate, it has a yawn factor of 12, and glazed my eyes over just typing it. Consider instead the tone of this Groupon pitch for discounted home furniture:

“A comfortable chair is like a good friend: it’s always there when you need it and it doesn’t mind if you drool on it after the late local news. Find fashionable new friends with today’s Groupon: for $75, you get $300 worth of modern home furnishings at DoMA Home Furnishings, with locations in Tampa and St. Petersburg.”

Although it closes with a traditional sales call to action, the injection of light humor at the beginning softens the impact of the marketing spiel. In hiring writers, Groupon includes these directives on writing style:

“Avoid marketing clichés such as:

  • Got X problem? This deal is your answer!
  • Exclamation points
  • Broad, unsubstantiated claims (superlatives, etc.)

For humor, use absurd, unexpected imagery that reacts to actual details.

Shoot for 80% informative content and 20% creative content.”

Groupon’s formula for humorous copy has been so successful that it led the New York Times to say: “If good advertising is supposed to be memorable, this is very good.” Laughter may be the best medicine, but it’s also the best pitch.

I know, I know, you’re thinking “But Web Guy, I’m not a comedian! How am I supposed to make my sales copy funny?” Well, you’re not a copywriter either, and yet there you sit with a dictionary and a dog eared copy of some Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar book trying to “incorporate action words” and “create urgency”. You’re telling me it wouldn’t be easier to just be a little irreverent? While you may not be destined to get your own HBO Comedy Special anytime soon, you certainly have the ability to brain storm with friends and colleagues about ways to add a chuckle to your product or service descriptions. What’s more, a bad joke will always be more memorable than the most polished stuff shirt sales pitch.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that the point?

The Social Contract: Deliver value or die.

Pardon the hyperbole of my title, but it will quickly become apparent to anyone marketing on the web that the flat catalog of services or products approach is simply not enough to build an audience interested in what you do. In the modern web world, sites that don’t deliver value to their visitors, regardless of purchase, will be ignored in favor of sites that do. woot.com built a small empire on delivering their products via hilariously written blog posts, with a strong community interaction component. Google delivers fast, efficient search, with a vast offering of tiered services unintrusively available. Accenture proves their technical consulting expertise by delivering “thought leadership” on a variety of technical and social issues. All of these companies directly engage their target market by delivering value long before any purchase is made.

woot delivers value via humorous blog posts with heavy community interaction.When I’m coaching new clients starting out on the web, I try to encourage this same interactive approach. One of the simplest methods to add value to your user experience is to blog, and to allow comment feedback. Those of you who are experienced with effective social marketing might be having a “Duh” moment right now, but a lot of companies are still resistant to the thought of both personally engaging with their audience in a written form, and providing a place on their site where dissatisfied customers can publicly voice their complaints.  Alexis Ohanian brilliantly addressed this topic in his TED Talk on “How to make a splash in social media”:

“And if you do (put your content online), be genuine about it. Be honest. Be up front. And one of the great lessons is…it’s okay to lose control. It’s okay to take yourself a little less seriously, given that, even though it’s a very serious cause, you could ultimately achieve your final goal. And that’s the final message that I want to share with all of you — that you can do well online. But no longer is the message going to be coming from just the top down. If you want to succeed you’ve got to be okay to just lose control.”

It is more of a personal commitment to put your thoughts, beliefs, and ideas out there directly to the world at large, but the end result is, you’re providing value to your visitors, something which makes their likelihood of purchasing your products or services that much higher.

Craig Atkinson, a criminal defense attorney in Boise, Idaho (and a client), puts this practice to good use in his blog The Idaho Defender. By sharing his educated opinion on various legal questions and concerns, he builds an audience that both respects his legal opinion and competence, but also feels like they personally know him, a seriously beneficial side effect given the apprehension involved in seeking a good defense lawyer. Additionally, because his pieces are genuinely informative, they are able to be spread organically through venues like Facebook and Reddit.

I’m sure it won’t come as a shocker to anyone that I hope my posts here help generate interest in my web services, but I genuinely try to provide information that will be beneficial no matter what. It’s that intent which will come through to your audience, and generate both more sales, and greater social media impact over the long run.

So, uh…what’s my hit counter say?

Web traffic analysis.Someone recently asked me if I’d install a hit counter on their web page, the old school kind, that shows a visible pageview count. Despite the anachronistic nature of the request, it demonstrated that even those with the least amount of web savvy understand that having some idea of your traffic numbers is important.

After I pointed him towards more robust traffic reporting options that don’t make your website look like you never migrated off Geocities, I spent some time thinking about how much traffic analysis has changed in the last ten years, and how it reflects on the evolving nature of web communication.

Back in 2000, a hit counter really was a reasonable reporting tool for your average home page. Google Analytics had yet to really revolutionize simple deep traffic analysis for the low rent website, and the prevailing philosophy was that getting a million hits automatically translated into huge piles of cash. This led to marketing efforts online best described as “splatter your link across a million pages regardless of quality or audience”, and hundreds of services offering to “put YOUR website in 655,000 directories for FREE!”.

In 2011, we have a much better understanding of the importance of having the right kind of traffic, and the need for more robust reporting methods. However, if you’re new to web traffic analysis, it can be difficult to know what all those numbers mean, and which ones you should be paying attention to when adjusting your marketing strategy. If you’re launching a new project online, here are some core questions you can ask yourself to help establish what kind of traffic is right for your brand, and what information in those analytics reports to focus on.

  1. Analytics Territory DetailIs your product virtual or physical? If you’re developing a virtual product such as a web service or application, news or information site, or online community, then you’re capable of capitalizing on the global reach of the internet, and the Visits/Pageviews totals will likely be your top traffic metric. However,  if you’re selling a retail product or physical service (even design and development), your regional reach may be limited, and the total number of visits is far less important than where those visits came from. The top level view of your web traffic will be less important to your business objective than the geographical detail views, which will illustrate how well your regional targeting is working.
  2. Does your brand cater to a niche, or does it have mass appeal? While office supplies may have a potential customer pool of several billion on the planet, fermented Jabanero beer likely has far less. Research both your competitors and general market demographics, and try to get a good feel for the true size of your potential audience. The regional limitations of question 1 will also factor into this. The reason it’s important to assign an actual number value to your audience is so you have a rough idea of how much of the audience you’re reaching. While 15,000 unique visits may sound like a lot,  if your audience size is three million, you’re only reaching half of one percent of your potential customers. Inversely, 1000 unique visits is five percent of your 20,000 Jabanero beer fans. The formula (x/y)100 gives you your percent of audience saturation, where x is the number of unique visits, and y is the total audience size.
  3. Does your project rely on user interaction? If a prominent function or feature of your site is user interaction, whether it be through reading content, participating in a forum, playing a game, etc., site stickiness is more important than if you’re simply offering a retail product for sale. One of the metrics used to measure that is “Average time on Page”. Go to your favorite user driven website, and use a stopwatch to measure how long you spend on a single page view, such as a forum thread or article. Do all the normal things you would on that page, such as posting comments or replies, or submitting information on a form. Repeat that process across ten different pages, and average your results. This will give you a baseline number to compare your site’s results with.

Now that you’ve identified your key data points, you will know where to focus when those reports start coming in, and hopefully have some baselines to compare them to. When you’re able to accurately interpret your traffic analysis, adjusting your marketing strategy to match the needs of your audience becomes much simpler, which is far more important than what number’s on your hit counter.

I don't miss Geocities at all.

That post-redesign glow…

The finished front page for ImTheirWebGuy.comThe one good thing about redesigning your own web site is that it keeps it fresh in your mind the challenges your clients face when they contract you to create a web presence for them. Do you have graphics? If not, what graphics do you need, and how should they be created? Do you have marketing copy? Are you a good enough copywriter to write your own, or should you seek outside help? What pages should I include? What new technologies are available? Does this really do a good job of telling my story to people who may be interested in my services?

It’s often said that the child in town with the worst haircut is the barber’s son, and so it is that often, web guys like myself leave our sites unmaintained while working on client projects, and can go years without updating our own web presence. It really pays to make time to go through the challenge fairly frequently, in order to keep yourself in the mind set of your clients.

Here are some reflections now that I’m through with this particular version of the site:

  • Typography, typography, typography. During review of the initial stages of the redesign, one thing I got dinged on was my text handling on the page. Keep your line-heights tall enough to make clear delineations; if you’re using dynamic font sizing, 150% works really well (that’s what I have all through this site). Keep your body text in a common, easily readable sans-serif font, but use a little serif here and there in your headers to add pizazz. Also, slight variations in color tone can create subconscious focus on important segments of text, so set a base font color, but create lighter, dark, darker, and even darkest classes in your CSS in order to quickly highlight the good stuff.
  • Prairie dog. Sometimes, when we’re down in the trenches for long periods of time, we miss changes in design trend, new technologies available for rich media, and shifting prevailing thoughts in best practices. Before you commit yourself to a design path, stick your head up and look around at what other designers are doing. Spend a good couple of afternoons doing nothing but reviewing OPP (other people’s portfolios), and draw inspiration from what you like.
  • Suck it up, and ask for professional review. Not everyone is going to like your design. That’s just a fact of life. However, if you can take professional criticism, you’ll be a better designer for it. As I was testing out the design concept I had in mind, I posted the first stage to /r/Design on Reddit. Those folks are brutal, but if you’re thick skinned enough to take the heat, you WILL come out with good advice, just about every time. At least half of the revisions and improvements I made to the design came from that review. If you’re not capable of taking the good criticism with the bad criticism (and knowing the difference!), you aren’t ever going to improve.

Now, I’m going to have a celebratory glass of wine or two while celebrating not having to do this for another year or so. Excelsior!

The Web Guy speaks…

Yeah, presumptuous of me, I know. However, I don’t claim to be the only web guy, and I hope to be a platform for those of you who experience the same epiphanies and complications while providing comprehensive web management services to your clients.

It’s not an easy gig we’re in.

What will I feature here? Well, currently I’m planning on technical articles, tips, funny stories, Q&A, and hopefully, some guest blogging from other “web guys”, gender indiscriminate. What actually will end up here? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.