OSEO Boot Camp, pt. 4: Freshness

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.

Now that we’re beginning the second half of our boot camp, let’s review what we’ve learned so far:

  • Organic SEO means achieving your search engine placement by providing relevant content instead of paying for sponsored links or third party SEO services.
  • Keywords are not as important as search contexts, and you should incorporate as many of those contexts as possible in your site.
  • Greater relevance is achieved by having a growth plan for your site based on dynamic content, and slowly building your site to include thousands of possible search contexts.

See that “slowly” in the third point up there? There’s a reason for that. Today we talk about the importance of Freshness in your site, and how it can literally mean the difference between life or death for your online presence.

Bakery bread. See, cuz it's "fresh" baked, get it? "Fresh". OK, sorry, you got it, right.The single greatest appeal of online content is not the vast collections of cataloged data, although many appreciate those resources.  It’s one word: “New“. New email, new tweets, new Facebook posts, new blog posts, new NEWS! The more the medium matures, the more it is organizing into a system by which new data is created, filtered and delivered based on the user interest, as opposed to simply a library of virtual books. Web users don’t open a browser everyday and begin re-reading your clever marketing copy; they open social networking and social news sites, and peruse aggregated lists of linked information sorted by either friend network (Facebook), or topic and popularity (Reddit, StumbleUpon).

Given how people actually use the internet, it’s difficult at BEST to achieve online relevance with a static catalog or reference book gathering dust in that virtual library. Your content is not going to be continually linked and spread if it’s already been seen, which leads to a peak of traffic, and then stagnation. Except for compulsive hoarders, not many people are going to keep flipping through that 1952 Sears and Roebuck catalog.

So, we understand now that Freshness is key when building a robust online presence. How, then do we come up with “fresh” content all the time, to  keep our relevance high? Fortunately for you, you built a Comprehensiveness plan in the last section.

Pictured: Fresh dance moves. Also pictured: NOT fresh clothing.Remember when I said having that plan would help you maintain Freshness? Now is when that comes into play. You should have a large list of search contexts that you need to incorporate in your site. Your freshness goal is to update a minimum of 2-3 times per week, so pace yourself as you work through your list. That update doesn’t have to be anything more than a new photo, a new product, a blog post, a new topic in your forum, or the addition of any kind of informational page.  Each time you do, recompile your XML sitemap, and notify Google.

What? You don’t have an XML sitemap, and don’t know how to notify Google? Read this immediately. All of your efforts to create fresh content are for naught if the search engines aren’t getting notified every time you update.

Divide your context list into items which are date sensitive (promotional events, scheduled product releases or revisions, company announcements) with items that are not (general informational content, how to guides, history, etc.). At any point in time, you can create large chunks of the non-date sensitive content, and break it up into reasonable pieces to be published over time. Remember: Division is NOT Addition. Don’t turn what should be a single post on a topic into ten pages of one paragraph each. No one likes excessive pagination. (No one likes excessive perspiration either, which coincidentally, is not fresh).

Now you have filler content, which can be disseminated over time (according to your freshness goals) on the days or weeks you don’t have date sensitive content. You consistently have fresh fodder for the social media platforms, and your sitemap freshness rating (“changefreq“) is legitimately high (e.g. “hourly”, “daily”, or “weekly”). All of these factors will contribute to an overall Freshness which will be reflected in your search engine positioning.

In summary:

  • Use your Comprehensiveness plan to figure out content that can be created in bulk, and disseminated over time.
  • Aim for 2-3 site updates per week, minimum.
  • Use Google’s Webmaster Tools and an XML sitemap to report those updates every time you publish.

Remember, Google places a lot of weight in measuring relevance on third parties linking to your site content. By making site freshness a priority, you create frequent opportunities for that to happen in a consistent way over time, resulting in a naturally stronger PageRank. You also feed your users’ insatiable hunger for “New”.

OSEO Boot Camp, pt. 3: Comprehensiveness

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.

Today’s topic is a short one (I know, I can hear the sighs of relief already). Comprehensiveness is one of Google’s four key product values, and your site comprehensiveness will affect your overall organic SEO results. Whether you have a product, service, message or idea, you want your site to be a comprehensive resource which generates good search engine placement on hundreds of possible search queries, to pages which match that exact user need.

Predict their questions. Provide the answers.Yesterday, we learned to think not just in keyword usage, but search context. You plan for site comprehensiveness by listing all of those possible contexts, and considering how you can incorporate related content or function which delivers that context. Your goal, quite simply, is to have hundreds of site pages which will exactly match one or more visitor needs, generating thousands of possible entry points to your site.

Now, if you’ve been considering or are currently working with a 4-5 page site, that number may seem daunting, but it’s not as challenging as you might think. In creating your context comprehensiveness plan, you have many web technologies at your disposal to make the process of dynamic site updating simple and straight forward, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your site begins to grow. Consider:

  • A blog updated twice weekly generates 104 total pages a year.
  • One new gallery of 10 images a month generates 132 pages a year.
  • An active user forum can generate hundreds of new pages a day.

Each of those pages represents an opportunity for one or more search contexts in page content, image titles, descriptions, and tags. Additionally, it engages your site’s repeat visitors by giving them new content and additional value. As your site grows more comprehensive, your PageRank follows suit as visitors share specific links to a precise context with others.

Engaging with your site visitors with site interaction is critical for this growth. Not only do user contributions increase your site comprehensiveness by adding questions, opinions, technical reviews and support, they can create new content at a far faster rate than you can, potentially turning growth of several hundred pages to several thousand.

It’s important to remember that the goal here is not to just generate hundreds of pages. The pages need to be relevant to one or more specific contexts, and answer the question or meet the need. Additionally, creating a comprehensive resource is not a project for a weekend, or a month. In fact, planning gradual but consistent site growth over an extended period of time is a great way to achieve tomorrow’s point, which is Freshness.

In summary:

  • Plan for your site to be a growing resource with potentially hundreds or thousands of entry points as opposed to a handful of static informational pages.
  • Engage your audience with interactive content to drive that growth, using content management platforms.
  • Make sure that you are balancing quantity with quality; each entry point should deliver value to the visitor.

If you’re the answer to every question, all roads lead to you.

OSEO Boot Camp, pt. 2: Relevance

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.

I know, I know, “C’mon, Web Guy, everyone has written about relevance in searches.” You’re absolutely right. A million people have already talked about being relevant to your keywords, about including meta tags on your pages to identify that relevance to the search engines, and to make sure you’re using your keywords frequently in your content. Got it. However, I’m going to write today not about being relevant to the keywords in the search, but being relevant to the actual question being asked.

The problem with strictly aiming for keyword results is that humans don’t speak in keywords. There are many sentences which may use the same keywords, but have entirely different meaning, along with many different contexts that the asker may be referencing. A mechanic and a 17 year old with her first car may both be searching for “carburetor intake manifold”, but their desired results are much different, and you may only be the solution for one of them. Your job, as the creator of content on your site, is to identify to the searcher that you have the correct context they are seeking. So, how do you do that?

Happy Senior Citizen is happy.To help us answer that question, we have today’s guest interviewee, Happy Senior Citizen.

TWG: Happy Senior Citizen, thanks for joining us today.

HSC: Oh, thank you, dear! You’re so polite. I bet your Mother’s really proud of you.

TWG: You’re welcome, and she is! Hi Mom, and Happy Valentine’s Day! Now HSC, how do you go about searching for something on the internet?

HSC: Well, I click on the blue ‘E’ on my desktop, and it brings up the Google page. My daughter set that up for me. Then, I type what I’m looking for into the search bar. I look at the first few sites it brings up into the list and guess which one sounds right. There are always lots of links to choose from, and sometimes, I’ll click through a few of them before I find exactly what I’m looking for.

TWG: So in that list that comes up, how do you know if a link is what you are looking for?

HSC: I used to just click through each one in order until I found it, but now the search results have so much information, I can usually tell if it’s what I need or not. Just looking at the title and the paragraph underneath it tells me pretty much what that web page is about.

Makin doilies...

Here are the top three results from our sample search. Now remember, our Happy Senior Citizen is looking for a method to make lace doilies. The top result has a generic title that matches some of the keywords, with descriptive text that sounds like you’re going to have to buy something. The second result seems to be some sort of generic answer portal, with paragraph text that is mostly irrelevant to the search. The third result has a title that, although phrased slightly differently, is precisely correct, with paragraph text that jumps the searcher right in to their desired information. Bingo!

Except, not.

Despite the fact that to the searcher, this link in the top three seems to indicate best context, clicking through reveals it’s just a blog post where Anna Swanson describes how difficult and tedious making a lace doilie is. This isn’t what Happy Senior Citizen was looking for at all. The best result, an actual tutorial on making lace doilies, didn’t show up until fifth place. Why? Because a blogger providing almost exactly the OPPOSITE of the desired result did a better job at matching the context to the search in the title and opening paragraph than these How To sites did. The message to take away here is two-part: Create Content that relates to specific searches relevant to your context, and put descriptive titles and opening paragraphs on that page (mirrored in that page’s meta tags). Now, let’s talk about those two things.

First, creating relevant content means more than just having a product or service description page; it means having one or more product or service usage pages. These pages can be informational pages or blog posts, but they should have examples of your product or service in action. This may come in the form of an ongoing how to guide, or testimonials and client success stories, but the important part is to be sure you’re providing greater context, capable of matching human readable search strings (phrases and sentences, as opposed to simple keywords).

Next, the title and description (both on the page, and in the meta tags) should contain some of those phrases. Francis Hunt learned about the power of a good title on his blog “Attempted Essays“:

“What I had forgotten on choosing the title was that the essay is also a form of writing with which millions of students have to struggle daily and that most young people nowadays have access to the internet. So, when I look at the ‘search key words’ which blogger.com helpfully supplies as part of the statistics, I regularly find phrases like ‘essays about the American dream,’ or ‘essay on early risers.’ “

The choice of title, blended with relevant content, brought an entirely unexpected source of traffic into his blog, helping to propel him to a higher PageRank than he had expected.

CraigAtkinsonLaw.com posting on Facebook.The description, either as a meta tag, or as the first paragraph of text on the page, is equally important. This information is what is shown on Google under the link result, and also what is used to populate shared links on social media. Law Blogger Craig Atkinson provides a great example of both, using a meta description which gives social media viewers a good idea of what’s behind the link, while writing a strong opening paragraph on the blog post itself which immediately provides a robust context to the content.

The end result is that your link is more likely to be listed early, more likely to be clicked on, and more likely to provide the correct contextual answer to the searcher’s need, which makes it more likely to be linked to as a resource for that need. Hellooo, PageRank!

To summarize:

  • Create specific content that gives an overall context to your product or service in action.
  • Give your page a robust title that accurately describes the purpose of the page content.
  • Include a strong meta description and opening paragraph that leads the reader right into the desired information.

Happy Senior Citizen will thank you.

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.