Just why is “conversion optimization” the “new SEO?”

February 1, 2010

According to this post at Search Engine Land, there’s a new game in town. It’s called conversion optimization, and it’s the next big money maker for the SEO crowd. Apparently the columnist has just discovered that the promise of SEOs — getting lots of people to your site — just isn’t enough anymore. Now visitors actually have to do something, or they just don’t count.

I agree with that, and I’ve said it before. I believe now, and have believed for years, that SEOs can only provide raw numbers, and way too often those numbers are accidental. The question is this: Why are SEOs turning to conversion marketing now?

Up until now, SEOs have been able to prey on frustrated website owners who just know in their hearts they could make a killing online if only they had more traffic. And since the early days of search, SEOs have always had a degree of success in providing raw numbers. But all too often the client is still not happy. Why? Because their 300 percent increase in visitors has equated to a 0 percent increase in sales. The SEO always begs off: “It’s not my fault,” he says. “I brought you traffic. That’s what you paid me for.”

Usually, this is followed up by an offer to tweak the search terms or some other tactic that will cost the client more money.

Clients aren’t having it anymore. And for good reason.

I love and hate the change from SEO to conversion marketing. Here’s why:

I hate it because it allows the same smarmy tricksters to keep stealing your money. Look, if they weren’t honest or capable before, can you believe they’re honest or capable now? I’ve been talking to clients about conversions ever since I got into this game. When a client asks me about their traffic and whether they get enough visitors, I always tell them the same thing: It’s not the number of visitors that’s important; it’s the number of customers.

I’ve always told my clients to save their SEO money and put it toward advertising. Generate desire for your product before the potential customer gets to your website. When they get there, make sure they know how to order and make the order process easy. The only time you need to convince someone to buy after they’ve gotten to your site is if they didn’t mean to be there in the first place. That’s the traffic SEOs have been generating from the beginning.

I love it because it means the tide is finally turning. People are starting to see that there are no accidental customers, and fooling people to come to your site is never the right way to start a healthy buyer-seller relationship. I love it because it will help continue to expose the big lie behind SEO — the idea that all you really need are stats and a high Google rank.

I can’t say enough what a hoax SEO is. (The only SEO you ever need should come from your designer. If your designer doesn’t know best web practices, you’ve got the wrong guy.) It says a lot that in the past couple of years, the SEO crowd first attached itself to social media, promising thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and is only now talking about conversions — way too late in the game. And I’m not just talking one or two. The Search Engine Land column has been tweeted 390 times as of this writing.

Be careful out there. These are the same people, using a different tactic.


Returns on your Facebook investment

January 14, 2010

Throughout 2009, the mantra was that all companies and organizations needed to live in the social media space. Don’t have a Facebook page? A twitter account? You aren’t on LinkedIn or uploading videos to YouTube? In 2009, you were a dinosaur.

At the dawning of this new year, we’re starting to hear something much different. This time it’s noise coming from the other side — a single, damning, awesome question: “What’s my ROI?”

I like this question because it does exactly what needed to be done throughout 2009: It rocks the so-called “social media evangelists” back onto their heels just long enough to expose the enormous heap of BS they’ve been shoveling for the last couple of years. And the best part is when the answer is, well, you’re asking a stupid question.

“Evangelists” don’t like the question because it threatens their business model — which involves taking lots of your money so they can help you, ahem, leverage social media platforms and SEO to maximize your company’s growth capacity. Or something like that. Truth is, social media doesn’t have to cost anything. The only reason it does is that the “experts” are taking advantage of the fear, uncertainty and doubt in corporate culture, where the thought of free anything is highly suspect.

Businesses are terrified of jumping into a space they don’t understand. They don’t want to look stupid on Twitter. They’re afraid of what will be posted to their Facebook page. They’re willing to pay for someone to execute a plan with precision. And for that, they’re gonna pay.

But the dirty secret is that these experts aren’t any smarter than the rest of us. They sure as hell don’t have it “figured out.” And after they’ve sucked up many thousands of your company’s dollars, they don’t want you figuring out what rats they are.

Let’s look for a minute at Twitter. It’s a cesspool of social media experts and SEOs. They amass a few thousand followers and claim to be “thought leaders.” They’ll tell you the more followers you have, the more influence you’ll have. And being part of the conversation is the important part, right? Well…read this and this. Anil Dash has done some of the most interesting reporting on follower counts on Twitter. One of his most interesting observations? He’s not replied to or retweeted more now (he has 300,000 followers) than he was when he had 15,000. And that’s because the vast majority of those following him are, as he puts it:

Some of them are inactive users, some are spammers, some just ignore the noise of the accounts that don’t interest them, like spam in an email inbox. But they can’t count as “followers” in any meaningful sense.

Here’s the thing: I’m not against social media for companies. In fact, I think social media can be a very good thing. I think it’s important for most businesses to play in the same spaces their customers play in. And it makes sense to give people a place where they can connect with you, talk to you, complain to you.

The problems, however, start when when you pay someone to make your company sound authentic on Twitter. Don’t sound authentic. Be authentic. Are you a nerd? A dork? Are you shy? Are you worried people will pick on you? Are you worried that you, as CEO of your company, are going to ruin your brand by speaking on behalf of your company?

What did your mother always tell you? Just be yourself. The people who are going to like you will like you no matter what. Don’t worry about the people who don’t. If the CEO doesn’t want to use Twitter, pick a person or two in the office you’re comfortable with. Allow them to be the eyes and ears and voices of the organization online. Set a few rules, but let people get to know them. Let them grow into the role.

In that way, social media costs next to nothing. A few minutes of time each day to send out a few lines, reply to the chatter, and monitor the conversation. Keep your investment and your expectations low. If you do that, you won’t be asking about ROI anymore. And you won’t want to kick yourself when you get a bill from an “expert.”


Snake Oil: Losing your money on SEO

October 12, 2009

As a web developer, nothing has been more frustrating over the years than talking to clients who’ve spent big bucks on SEO firms in hopes of raising their Google search rankings. The one that really sticks out in my mind is a client who spent several thousand dollars with an SEO firm for a report and recommendations for increasing her traffic; my job was to take several thousand dollars more of her money to implement those suggestions.

To be fair, many of the suggestions were solid: include meta-tags, use the right title tag, use alt-tags on your images, make sure your text includes your search terms. But added to those suggestions were several that just blew my mind. I won’t go into them, because it’s too tangential, but suffice to say they would have made the site unreadable for most visitors, and the text would clearly have been written for search engines instead of people.

For any business running a website, it’s heartbreaking to have a great product or service, only to find your traffic nonexistent and your search rank at the bottom of the pile. SEOs prey on that feeling of helplessness and, for a steep price, offer you hope. Unfortunately, if you read the fine print, they’ll admit they can’t promise you more traffic or — more importantly — conversions. And they shouldn’t.

Generally speaking, the companies with the best search rank are exactly who you’d expect them to be. They’re established businesses that already boast lots of traffic. In that way, the Internet as an ecosystem is no different than the actual business world. If I want to buy a computer, odds are the first places that will spring to mind are Best Buy or Dell or HP — not Chuck’s Computer Warehouse in Great Bend. Chuck’s been in business now for six months. He builds the machines in his basement, but uses substantially the same parts as the big boys. If Chuck wants to compete with the big boys, how does he do that? If he’s running a primarily Internet-based business, the temptation is to hire an SEO firm and get his site on the first page of Google search results for, say “buy a computer.” Right?

HP, Dell and Best Buy didn’t get where they are by SEO alone. They got there using tried-and-true advertising — print, television, radio, online. As power players, they’ve held quite a bit of authority over the computer sales market for a considerable amount of time. But if you search “buy a computer” on Google right now, HP and Best Buy don’t even show up on page 1. Instead, you get newegg.com, tigerdirect.com and a few others. Some of which I’ve never heard of, and would never send my money to. But that’s the company Chuck would be in with the help of an SEO. He may see a dramatic spike in traffic, but will it translate into sales?

SEO can’t sell a computer. Maybe it will drive traffic, but those numbers are false comfort; they’re often inflated and many of the “visits” you track are accidental or worse. You don’t want someone stumbling on your website; you want them heading there on purpose with the intent to buy.

I’d venture to guess that almost nobody visits the Dell website just to hang out. You visit when you’re ready to buy a computer. The same thing applies to Chuck. If he’s got a great search rank and lots of traffic but isn’t selling anything, the immediate reaction is that his deals aren’t good, right?

Not really. Chuck’s problem may be that his website looks unprofessional, and thus his business seems untrustworthy. Or it could just be that he isn’t getting the traffic he really needs: direct traffic from people who are ready to buy. There is only one way to get that traffic: Advertising.

Save the money you’d spend on SEO and put it into advertising. Carefully identify your target demographic and try different ways of reaching them. Create a real ad campaign that creates top-of-mind awareness for your company or product. Make sure it can’t be ignored (remember Head On? Yeah, apply directly to the forehead), and advertise in places you know your target demographic visits. Chuck needn’t worry about advertising in the local newspaper, but if he can afford an ad with C-NET, he might actually see some results. But if Chuck is only interested in selling to the local market, national ads are the exact wrong way to go. And Chuck must make sure to tell his story: What makes Chuck’s computers different or better than his competitors?

The bottom line is this: You want your site to be a destination. If customers aren’t thinking of you before they type in their search terms, seeing your name in their search results will not change their mind. Rather than focusing on visits from those who stumble across your site, focus on getting visitors who went there on purpose — with money in hand, ready to buy.


R.I.P., press releases? Not quite.

August 3, 2009

Yesterday, Jeff Jarvis used Twitter to declare the death of the press release. To quote Mr. Jarvis: “How can I tell flacks that I don’t open ANY of their press releases. The press release is dead, folks.”

In subsequent posts, Jarvis says “I love PR people asking what replaces the press release as if it is a needed element in the universe” and “PR is meaningless. Customer service is the real PR.”

All of this goes to show, once again, how deeply engaged Jarvis is in the workings of his own mind, and how out of tune he is with the way the world actually works. I don’t disagree with Jarvis that customer service is PR. But there’s a whole lot more to the story.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I’ve worked on both sides of Jarvis’s argument. I’m a former journalist and I now work in public relations, as a consultant and designer.

First of all, public relations is not meaningless. In fact, PR can and should be customer service on a grand scale. The challenge is to do it respectfully and effectively. In my consulting work, the challenge is always to help clients find their unique story–the one worth telling the world about. Despite what Jeff thinks, good customer service is not enough. Consider:

In college, I worked for a new restaurant, owned by a very nice, smart couple. Their plan was to offer a dining experience that would rival the chain eateries on the same strip. The food was remarkable. The service was excellent…these two had 40 years of restaurant experience between them, and challenged the wait staff to exceed expectations. If anyone had an issue with their meal, they’d get a personal visit from the owner, Tom, at their table. And Tom made sure everyone left happy. The food, the service, the atmosphere were all impeccable. And yet the restaurant was out of business in six months.

Why?

Public relations.

There was never really enough money to pour into a media blitz. A fairly small radio ad campaign kicked off the grand opening, but we couldn’t compete against TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Red Lobsters for television spots. We had satisfied customers who returned week after week. But bringing in new customers proved too difficult and too expensive.

Had I known then what I know now (and had the owners known as well), we could have gotten a boost by contacting news departments as well as advertising departments. We could have asked to be reviewed in the local restaurant guide. And even the story of this experienced couple striking out on their own to start a business would have made good fodder for the business page. Would it have saved the restaurant? I don’t know. But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

All organizations need to learn how to effectively and efficiently reach out. And while Jarvis may be annoyed by the press releases he just throws out, many journalists can be grateful for well-written releases — those that are pitches for coverage of an event, a product or more — because a journalist shouldn’t have to dig to find every nugget you read in the paper.

An innovative software release? Shoot me an e-mail. New product launch? Absolutely! New hire? Definitely.

Sound lazy? It can be. But real journalists don’t do what Jarvis accuses them of — which is simply retyping the release (seriously, Jeff, that’s what copy and paste is for!). Real journalists use press releases as jumping-off points, and determine whether there’s a story to be written. Maybe there really is news in the press release. Maybe the release just leads a journalist to a bigger, better story.

Journalists should not have to dig to find positive news. And let’s face it: Bad news rarely comes in press releases. If you force journalists to dig for good news, you will never read any of it. Not ever. We aren’t wired that way. Journalists are programmed to dig for whatever it is you’re hiding. By sending us what they want us to know, companies give us more time to dig around into what they might not want reported.

And what of community announcements? Must a community journalist scour every church, hospital and funeral home to uncover the marriage announcements, birth announcements, obituaries? Should they send Freedom of Information requests to all colleges and universities to determine who graduated? All of these things are handled by press releases. And, I believe, these things are important to communities.

Jeff can declare press releases dead, but he’s got it the wrong way. To the PR world, Jeff Jarvis is worthless. He isn’t going to read your releases because he isn’t reporting on anything but his own thoughts.  His goal is not to inform but to opine.  And for him, it’s a lot easier to declare PR’s death, post about it on Twitter and grandstand about it than it is to just hit “delete.”

For more on this, see Bing’s blog, which includes a response from Jarvis.


Sorry. I can’t resist.

July 21, 2009

I have to start this off with a disclosure: I believe Apple products are good. I do not hate Apple.

With that out of the way, I’m going to point out, probably for that eight billionth time, that I hate the smug, self-righteous, unquestioning, unflinching and undying loyalty fanboys have for Apple products — attitude so well epitomized in the company’s “I’m a Mac” ads (you know, the ones where Macs are for the cool, hip people who zip through worry-free lives while PCs are for dorks and dweebs who either don’t know better or enjoy having useless machines).

Didn’t those ads at least seem effective? Did you ever fire up your PC — even once — and wonder why you hadn’t switched to Apple yet? I did. And the answer turned out to be really simple: I don’t want to be one of those people. The ones from that commercial. No thanks.

Microsoft has finally come back with a series of ads that hit Apple where it lives. They show people (actors) on budgets, challenged to find a computer with particular specs on a budget. Invariably, Apple machines don’t fit the bill. But there’s a PC that will — and the lucky actor usually has money to spare.

Apple is not happy about these ads. Not happy at all.

In fact, Apple dislikes the ads so much, its lawyers have demanded Microsoft pull them immediately.

It’s hard for Apple to make a case that the commercials are untrue — especially when their “I’m a Mac” ads are laden with exaggeration and tall tales. But it certainly appears that the ads are working. BrandIndex says Microsoft’s so-called value perception has risen steadily since the campaign began in March, while Apple’s has fallen.

Some of this value perception may have nothing at all to do with these ads. A year ago, carrying a cup of Starbucks (like owning a MacBook) was a status symbol. Today, it’s just seen as frivolity. If you don’t need to spend the money, don’t do it…

And sales figures aren’t looking any better.

Apple just fell from fourth place to fifth place in US computer sales, overtaken by Toshiba. That’s right, folks: Toshiba.

One would expect HP and Dell to lead that pack. And Acer (No. 3) has made a strong showing in the past couple of years — especially the second quarter of 2009, when its shipments increased 51 percent. Toshiba’s shipments were up nearly 34 percent. Apple’s shipments, by contrast, dropped 12.4 percent. And Apple’s market share? About 7.6 percent in the US. Under 5 percent worldwide.

This is a pretty clear case of Apple getting  exactly wha t it deserves. Its spin machine has created this whole idea that Apple products “just work” (ask me about my iPod Touch someday), that PCs just aren’t capable of artistic work and can’t be fun (uhhh…any Mac users doing much gaming these days?). As I’ve said before, the Apple team sells products based on claimed difficiencies of PCs, instead of on its own strengths. And now, finally, Microsoft has found a way to put forth the value question. And the answer, really, is quite simple.