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.


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.


Sometimes the customer is wrong.

July 23, 2009

Up until a couple of hours ago, I respected Jeff Jarvis. I follow him on Twitter and read his buzzmachine.com posts. Like me, Jeff recognizes we all have the tools to be publishers. He’s a frequent critiic of those old dinosaurs in the print industry who fail to build value in their products but look for handouts to stay afloat.

Earlier this week, however, Jarvis started pumping out diatribes against his cable provider, Cablevision. I didn’t care, quite honestly, because I’m a Time Warner customer. I know little to nothing about Cablevision. Probably will never have to. Today, however, I became interested after hearing the story of therocco and ComcastBonnie…a disgruntled Comcast subscriber and the Comcast tech who tried to help him. I thought maybe I’d blog a bit about how badly therocco misinterpreted the situation (you can read therocco’s take at nerdofsteel.com) and decided to read up on Jarvis’s experience.

What I found was truly disheartening.

I’ll save you all the details (you can read them for yourself at buzzmachine.com). At first, I really felt for the guy. He says his Internet was out, and the cable company told him it would be three days before they’d get a tech to his house. Ouch, right?

So, Jarvis did what any reasonable person would do: mentions that he’s buddies with the head of the company (he is not). When the name-dropping doesn’t work (the Comcast employee called Jarvis’s bluff), Jarvis took to Twitter to bash Cablevision. And then he blogged about it.

Know what Jarvis did to everyone who stood up for the cable company? He checked their IP addresses. And berated them in his comments section. Because he’s Jeff Jarvis, and he can’t be wrong. Except he was wrong. Not only was he wrong, but he was lying.

In his blog, Jarvis states “they offer to send someone out … in three days.”

The ellipses hides a very important fact Jarvis left out: He was offered service the next day, and he turned it down (this according to a comment left by someone Jarvis identified as a Cablevision employee). They did not screw him by telling him to wait three days, as he led his readers to believe; the next day wasn’t good enough for Jeff Jarvis, who thought he was entitled to service NOW, dammit, because he has a blog!

So, when the powerful Jeff Jarvis turned down the next-day service, he was offered the next best thing: an appointment in three days.

Jarvis’s post is dishonest, and disrespectful to people who offered him help.

It also puts an enormous dent in Jarvis’s credibility when he lauds the truthfulness of online journalism; if the evangelists are liars, is the religion a sham?

Jeff, you owe your readers an apology. Anything less is demanding less of yourself than you do of your targets in the news industry.

The bigger point this leads to is the fallacy that the customer is always right. Because, sometimes, the customer is wrong. And sometimes (as in the cases of therocco and Mr. Jarvis) the customer is so hell-bent on getting things their way, that they completely lose sight of the idea that we should treat each other with at least a degree of respect. When that happens, you become a bad customer. And bad customers are bad for business.

Many companies keep lists of bad customers — people who call with unreasonable demands or become irate or insulting when things don’t go their way. And make no mistake: Those customers are treated differently. And not in a good way. That’s because they help destroy employee morale and take up valuable time and resources. They will mostly likely never be satisfied. In that case, it’s better to not do business with them at all.

I do believe companies should bend over backward to serve customers. But the fact that a person pays for a service — any service — does not entitle them to treat employees without dignity.

For more on this, check out this very well-done piece on why “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has a new, much more reasoned post on his blog, which you can find here. I give Jeff credit for listening, and for admitting there was more to the story.