Interesting times for Digital Marketers

interestingSome weeks very little changes across the platforms we use to reach our customers and prospects. Those are what I think of as good weeks. The only certainty however is change, and this week has seen a whole heap of changes from Google and Facebook. Here’s a little about each and some links where you can read more in depth analysis.

Google Places becomes Google+ Local

Google are beating the Google+ drum hard, despite the weak engagement numbers, and have given their local business product the Plus treatment with this overhaul of features and functionality. TheNextWeb concentrate on what Google+ Local means for users while Google Local expert Mike Blumenthal covers how the Google+ Local changes affect businesses.

Google kills etailers free traffic source, Google Products/Shopping

After a decade in beta, the trouble-prone (setting and letting it run never worked very well, with the constant data format and required field changes) Google Base/Products/Shopping part of Google is going away. When it worked it could be a reasonable source of traffic, but now Google have laid to waste the comparison shopping sites it was intended to compete with, by way of the Panda updates, they’re free to start raking in the cash by making it a purely pay to play deal. If you want your products to appear in the SERPs like they used to it’s time to crank up the Ad budget.

UK Price Comparison Websites traffic trends since 2009

Facebook finally doing something for their real customers

Facebook, reeling from the reality check of their post-IPO stock slump, have rolled out a couple of long overdue new features for the people who ultimately keep the lights on: their advertisers. Page admins now have some shiny new abilities that will make managing a page just a little bit easier. First up is scheduled posts. Sure you’ve been able to do that before with third party services (and these services remain useful still, particularly ones that allow you to post an RSS feed to Facebook, but now you can schedule a post in the future. Mashable have a little bit of a kvetch about the interface  whilst AllFacebook set out how to use it.

Secondly, something that third party tools weren’t ideally placed to provide – you can now assign different levels of admin roles, all the way from ‘Insight Analyst’ – someone who can’t make or comment on posts (other than as their own personal account) all the way up to Manager, with each subsequent level gaining the ability to comment, add posts and finally the ability to assign admin privileges to others. AllFacebook has the details.

2 years with Advanced Web Ranking

Over the space of the two years I’ve been using Advanced Web Ranking it has become an essential part of my digital marketing toolset.

Do rankings really matter?

In this ‘new reality’ of Google Search Plus Your World, personalised and localised results, you’d think that tracking rankings for your keyword phrases wasn’t all that important. To some extent, yes, your search engine position for any particular phrase isn’t static like it used to be – there are lots of variables that come into play. On the other hand there’s been backlash recently about personalised search results and this is something that the engines can’t really ignore.

Yes they do

The reason rankings still matter and why tracking them is important is that:

  1. Not every query is personalised
  2. Not every user is logged in when they search
  3. Tracking rankings can help early diagnosis of other problems

Why use software to do it?

There are a variety of ways to track your rankings – online (subscription based web services, through to the new Google Analytics & Webmaster Tools sharing features) as well as desktop software like Advanced Web Ranking, so why go this route?

Cloud based services – pros and cons

Web based subscription services (cloud based) sound great in principle – no need to remember to run software on your computer (AWR has a scheduler, so that’s not such a big deal) and no large up-front cost. However you’re then tied into paying a monthly fee to access your reports and data. Stop paying? No more access.

Google Analytics new Webmaster Tools ranking data integration

Aside from the obvious fact that this only shows you how you rank on Google (and not any local search engines that are important to you), the data is widely held to be unreliable and doesn’t necessarily track your choice of keywords. There’s also no way to group keywords in order to focus more on how you rank for your most important terms. Google effectively decides what they are for you. You also have to use Google Analytics to get this information.

Advanced Web Ranking’s strengths

Track the evolution of sites keyword rankings over timeBy running software on your own computer you get several advantages:

Control over when ranking checks are performed

You get to decide when the checks are done, manually or to a schedule you define.

The data is yours to keep forever

With Google data it’s never certain how long it will be kept for. With a web-based subscription service, you stop paying and you lose access.

Single up-front cost to buy for 1 year, reasonably priced maintenance plan

You have a one-off cost up-front with a year’s search engine updates included (new search engines added and updates to search engine profiles to ensure that the rank checking software gathers results correctly) and extensions to the maintenance plan are inexpensive compared to monthly subscription services. If you’re out of the maintenance plan the software carries on working (so you can look at your data) and will still run ranking checks, but should search engine specs change, you’ll need to buy a renewal. Renewals are more expensive than extensions but at least you’re not left needing to buy a whole new full license.

Track results on many more search engines

With 2,000 search engines already included, and requests taken to add others, you can see how your site is doing on many more search engines offered by web-based options.

Unlimited websites

This is a huge deal if you have more than a couple of websites you’re responsible for tracking. Whereas subscription based services often give you tracking for up to 3 sites, there’s usually a heftier price to be paid when you go beyond that.

Be in more than one place at once

With customisable location settings for your Google queries, you can see how you’re doing from different locations very easily. There’s also built-in proxy support so you can both increase the throughput of your rank-checking queries as well as ensure that the results you’re getting are valid for the audience a site is targeting, not just your location.

Go get it

Advanced Web Ranking starts from just $99 for the standard version – enough for a small business to track their own sites and the top-end Server version, which comes with an company-wide license to run the software and connect to a shared database, great for SEO and marketing agencies, is just $599.

Beware False Link Flattery

If you run a blog, you may have noticed a rash of ‘trackbacks’ or ‘pingbacks’ recently. These are articles on other blogs or websites that link to your posts. When you follow the link to the site linking to you, you may find that your link doesn’t appear within the body of the article at all. In fact you can’t even find it on the page.

If you look closely, you may find a ‘Mouse here for Related Links’, as pictured. Your link is hidden under there. A process, likely automated, has found your post, amongst several others, and is linking to it, in the hope that you will Approve the Pingback and in so doing, create a link from your article to theirs. Of course the link on your article is likely to appear visibly on the page to readers and without a rel=nofollow tag (links like this don’t pass ‘google juice’.

It’s a trap!

Venus Fly TrapThese hidden related links are discounted by search engines because of the rel=nofollow and almost certainly ignored by humans, because they’re not easily found on the page. Don’t fall into the trap of approving any trackbacks or pingbacks without first checking out whether you are being linked to in a meaningful way rather than a spammy attempt like this to dupe you into building someone else’s backlink profile for them. Until spam prevention filters designed to weed out spammy comments (such as Akismet) can also detect things like this, keep your eyes open!

Image Credit: Venus Fly Trap image by BotheredByBees, via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Are price comparison sites still relevant?

Whilst researching the relative costs and market share of UK price comparison websites for a client I used Google Trends for Websites (log in to your Google account to get actual numbers on the Y axis) to compare some of the big players.

The graph below tells a sorry tale. Even before March’s first Panda update, squarely aimed at aggregators, scrapers and middlemen, Google clearly had the long knives out for price comparison sites, demoting them in the search results, ousting them in place of their own Google Products/Shopping results.

Price Comparison Sites Google Trends Chart

If these numbers are to be believed, then the traffic to price comparison sites has dropped off a cliff. Whether price comparison websites are relevant or not depends on how much you’re paying per click (the usual way you’re charged for traffic from such site) and what your conversion rate is. If you’re still making money and it’s worth the effort of setting up and managing product feeds, paying the invoices and monitoring whether the traffic you do get is worth it, then yes. If you were looking at being listed on a price comparison site as a way to buy a boatload of traffic, then you may need to look elsewhere. And it’s no surprise that the elsewhere in question is Google’s own Adwords program.

Testing times with Internet Explorer

I’ve had my web developer hat on a little too often of late and been suffering from one of the problems most developers loathe – testing how a site looks in earlier versions of Internet Explorer. (Yes, I know IE6 must die) but when a client’s IT department won’t let them upgrade because they have some proprietary system that only works in IE6, there’s not much I can do about it – they need to see what their site looks like on their own machines (and they’re not allowed to install any other browser so they can’t test that either).

I’m a Mac user too, so I use Parallels Desktop for Mac to run Windows 7, which is great for testing sites in Windows versions of Chrome and Firefox, as well as the version of IE that’s installed on the system (I just upgraded to IE9, it’s really much better than previous ones). The problem comes with testing in earlier versions – you can usually only have one version installed at a time.

For simple needs

If your needs are just seeing a screengrab of how a page renders, then you can use the NetRenderer web service to see how things look in IE all the way back to 5.5.

For total fidelity

You can download various versions of Windows designed for testing web app/web site compatibility with different versions of IE, from 6 to 9 from Microsoft in VHD (Virtual PC Hard Disk) format. Through the use of some command line jiggery pokery, and the Parallels Disk Tool, it’s possible to transform that into a bootable Parallels Disk Image. The downside to this process is that these disk images expire and you need to go through the process every few months.

A happy medium

The best solution I’ve found is IETester from DebugBar, makers of a code debugging solution for IE. It’s in alpha, but apart from the occasional quirk and crash (check their known problems list to see if there’s anything there that affects you), I’ve found it to be by far the best way to run side-by-side comparisons in multiple versions of Internet Explorer on my Mac, from IE 5.5 right through to IE 10 Preview. It’s free too – though you can make a donation for their efforts.

Tell it like it is

spinning topCall it corporate-speak or spin but whatever you call it, its days are numbered.

When I’m reading copy on a website, my BS filter is set to high. And I’m not alone. People are getting increasingly cynical, their trust betrayed so many times. We made fun of the estate agents when they did it, finding the best possible way to say ‘dark and gloomy’ (ideal for vampires?), but now more and more people are exposed directly to more company-penned copy on brochure-ware websites than ever before.

Back in the dark ages (up until the mid 90s) when the web was in its infancy, most people got their information from newspapers and magazines, and the occasional advert. Adverts were expected to be full of hyperbole but at least it was professionally written hyperbole. very few people, by comparison, would actually read printed brochures for products or services.

The first wave of the web was largely company websites. Copy-writing wasn’t given much thought – the web designer designed the website, the client wrote the copy and very few companies figured that they should get a pro in to write it (more expense? what if this internet thing is just a fad?)

As a result the style of writing we still see on many websites drips with spin and jargon. You can picture the author sitting at his keyboard thinking ‘what’s the best way we can word this to make it sound as impressive as possible?’ when we should be thinking ‘how can I communicate clearly what we offer in a way that makes sense to my intended audience?’

A real life example:

I have an O2 UK Pay-as-you-go SIM I use in my iPhone when I visit the UK. I would like the ability to use the iPhone’s Personal Hotspot feature, just like O2 CZ let me do on my Pay-as-you-go SIM I use in Prague (at no extra cost). If I had a contract with O2 UK I could add the ‘tethering bolt-on’ at an additional cost and I’d be good to go. But I don’t have, need or want a contract. Here’s O2’s explanation of this:

Unfortunately internet tethering is not available for Pay & Go customers.

OK, I guess it is unfortunate, but this doesn’t tell me why and it makes it sound like internet tethering has decided not to make itself available. Or there are some technical reasons why not. The truth could be written like this:

We don’t offer tethering to Pay & Go customers, you need to upgrade to a Pay Monthly tariff.

What’s the downside? People calling to complain about the unfairness of the arbitrary decision to not offer something to one group of customers? [I’m not bitter, honest] The facts of the situation are the same, but this way O2 are owning up to the decision not to offer tethering and explaining the only way the customer can fix it.

We owe it to our customers, clients and audiences to hose down our copy, wash away the BS and tell it like it is.

What are some of the worst examples of corporate-speak you’ve come across lately? Share in the comments.

Image credit: spinning top by luisillusion via Creative Commons on Flickr

Why the Case Study needs to die

princess and the frogThe case study as an element of marketing communications has outlived its usefulness. It’s one of those things that exists as a short-hand for ‘how xyz company benefited from using our product/service’. We’re used to case studies from text books we read at school or university. We’re drawn, to like moths to a flame, to use the term on websites because it has (fake) intellectual weight. It sounds impartial; ‘case’ as in ‘legal case’, ‘study’ as in ‘serious examination’.

Who are we kidding?
A case study on a company’s website is never going to be impartial and it probably isn’t even that exhaustive a study either.

So what do we call them?
How about ‘customer stories’ or ‘customer success stories’? Let’s face it, we’re never going to write about failures of our product or service to meet a need.

What makes a story?
The 5 Elements of a Story are well known, pick your explanation. I’m rather partial to the version that uses the medium of hiphop.

In short: Setting, Plot, Characters, Conflict, Theme

Instead of writing a bland case study these elements, and the fact that we’re calling it a story not a study obliges us to make it interesting and readable.

Who does this already?
Smart companies like MailChimp present their customer successes like this and you can find plenty of examples in business books. You know those business books that are hard to put down? Books like Guy Kawasaki‘s How to Drive the Competition Crazy, Seth Godin‘s Free Prize Inside, David Meerman Scott‘s New Rules of Marketing & PR and others (feel free to add your favourites in the comments below). In these books we hear about how a person overcame a problem, presented in a way that illustrates the writer’s point. These aren’t dry ‘case studies’, though they’re often referred to as such in reviews, perhaps because to call them stories might seem childish.

Further reading
For some detailed learning of why thinking in terms of storytelling, pick up a copy of Ann Handley and CC Chapman’s Content Rules. My Kindle app tells me the word story appears 100 times in the book, that’s how serious those guys are about storytelling.

Let’s remember why we’re doing this
We put content on our websites to be read, not to tick off an item on a to-do list and fill a hole in a sitemap. We owe it to our readers to be interesting, in return for their attention.


image credit: Frog King by freno via Creative Commons on Flickr

Where to get photos for your website

Image credit: {link url=""}caesol{/link} via Creative Commons on Flickr

I am often asked by clients who are creating their first website or improving or replacing an existing one: “where can I find images for my site?”

What you definitely don’t do is fire up your browser, head over to Google Images, find something you like, and use that.

The most important advice I can give to this is not to steal or misappropriate. Just because you can doesn’t mean you’ll get away with it. Photographers need to eat too! If you think taking something someone else has created and using it for free, without their permission, is perfectly fine then I suggest you check with your conscience, your religion or whatever use as a moral compass. As a general rule “I wonder if I can get away with…” is not a particularly encouraging question.

Here are your options for doing it the right way:

Take them yourself

If you’re handy with a digital camera (or train up, there are plenty of courses, in the real world or online) then you could take your own. You get exactly the shot you want, you own the image rights and you don’t need to pay anyone.

Too much work you say? You don’t have the time or opportunity? Don’t have a camera? Then you’ll need images that someone else has taken. That usually means you’ll have to part with something of value (money or a link) but sometimes you don’t.

Lean on your friends

Does someone owe you a favour and has the time, equipment and opportunity to take the picture for you? Or maybe they’ve already taken it and shared it on Facebook, Flickr or Picasa. Well great, you don’t have to pay. But you do still need to keep a record of that person’s permission to use their image. What if you used that as the main image on your website’s homepage and you hit it big someday. A verbal ‘yeah, sure you can use it’ isn’t going to help when your friend wants a piece of your success.

Ask your suppliers or customers

If you’re selling something produced by someone else or you’re an agent for another company you can usually use their images on your website. Check with them for permission first though. Your customers are another potential source of imagery. Run a competition and make it clear that by submitting their images, entrants allow you permission to use them on your website.

Use images taken by other people

If you’re looking for an image to be used on a commercial (for a business, earns money) website, you need to either find a Creative Commons (CC) attribution licensed image that’s Attribution Only (and make the attribution clear) and that doesn’t specifically state that it can’t be used for commercial purposes. You can search specifically for CC licensed images on Flickr (see the checkboxes at the bottom of the form) or Picasa (do a search then select the license type to filter by, from the section on the left). Many of the images on Wikipedia are licensed under a CC license; though with a smaller selection there the chances are more people are using the same image (one of the side benefits of CC licensed images is that the sheer quantity means there’s more variety).

For images to illustrate blog posts, you can go for a slightly more restrictive CC license, blogs are seen as not so much of a commercial space, providing you’re not ‘monetising’ that blog with ads. See this guide to finding Creative Commons licensed images on Flickr for more thorough advice.

Remember to check what kind of attribution someone expects. Take a look at their Flickr profile for more info. In most cases they don’t specify, so it’s enough to link to the either or both of the image detail page or their profile page on Flickr but sometimes they request a link to their own website. If that’s the case check the site is something you’re ok with linking to (not Not Suitable For Work if that’s a problem for you) and link away.

Buy images sold by other people

If you’d rather not provide attribution to the creator of the work, because you feel it might make you look cheap, don’t use a Creative Commons licensed image, instead head over to iStockPhoto or any number of other stock photography library sites and fork out the cash (decent web resolution images cost from $5 to $15 with iStockPhoto). If it happens that you can’t find the right image on a stock site and are really set on using a particular CC licensed image without giving attribution, or an image with no CC licensed use allowed, try contacting the photographer and asking how much she wants for a single use license that doesn’t require you to attribute.

See what’s available for free

There are some free image libraries online, again check the license terms, you may be required to give attribution, and the selection will usually be much smaller than you have to choose from on Flickr. Certain uses might also be excluded, such as use in print (maybe you can pay for the highest resolution). stock.xchng, now owned by Getty (owners of iStockPhoto) is the largest, and most of the time doesn’t require attribution. Getty are using it as an additional venue to display their iStockPhoto inventory, with paid-for images appearing alongside the free images so pay attention to the section of the page you’re looking at.

Keeping things ship-shape

To keep things in order it’s a good idea to keep a record, for each image you use on your site that isn’t explicitly attributed, of where it came from and the license under which it was used. An Excel, Numbers or Google Docs Spreadsheet should be sufficient.

Image credit: caesol via Creative Commons on Flickr