Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Local Business Marketing Tip: Turn Economic Lemons Into Sales Lemonade For The Holidays

The chain-reaction of foreclosures, mortgage company failures, banking sector woes, and see-sawing stock market are making for a very scary-looking retail season here in the fourth quarter. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently said that business sales have dropped the largest amount in two years, further fueling speculation that the holiday shopping season might not be so rosy this year.

However, all is not dark, and the nervousness that consumers are feeling right now may be tapped to effectively help improve one’s business right now and for the long-term. I’ve got a marketing tactic that can help with search engine optimization while simultaneously bumping up sales and even store visits for local brick-and-mortars. Read on!

My secret local search engine optimization tip du jour is exquisitely simple: coupons!
It’s unsurprising that consumers are searching for coupons more than ever, since they feel the need to cut back on expenses. Google Trends is showing a really sharp increase in searches for [coupons] as we approach the end of this year.

The potential for tapping into this consumer hyper-interest is remarkably clear!

Local businesses should provide a special coupon page on their websites for each of their local outlets. The page should be accessible to search engine spiders, and it should clearly state what the coupon is for, using all the classic SEO signals. You should particularly frame the title of that page with keyword-rich, targeted text. For example, something like:

“Blue Widgets in Anytown, State Coupon - Blue Widgets Discount”

People are going to more effort right now to research deals, discounts, rebates and coupons before they make purchases, so if your business site has content of that sort, you may be able to achieve additional sales.

Even better, the coupon content can be a good magnet for obtaining external links, so having coupon and other discount pages can help with your search engine optimization. Getting good quality links from other sites helps to increase your PageRank and will therefor help improve your pages’ rankings in all search engines.

There are a number of coupon directories sites out there which love to list deals and may link to you. While some of these may only list coupons if you pay them as an advertiser, there are sites out there which may list your coupons for free. Consumer blogs seem to be springing up all over, focusing on reporting best prices and discounts — some of these are even local city or regional blogs, specializing in particular geographic areas. If you put up a coupon page, do some searches in regular web search and blog search to find sites which might list your coupon and link to you, and report your coupon to them.

Don’t be afraid to ask various organizations and blogs which report on deals to link to you. You could even research local clubs and associations which post their newsletters on-line, and you could offer their members a special coupon with a link to a specific info page on your site, outlining the deal.

Even advertising on some of the coupon directories could be useful to you, depending on what your product or service is, although some coupon directories are not accepting further partners at the moment.

Additional coupon optimization tips:

Link to the coupon page from your homepage. Promote it on your homepage, even — display a small thumbnail of the coupon, and have linked text below that reiterates the coupon’s title.

Make the coupon “meaty”! There’s nothing more irritating than coupons for the stuff that no one buys, or coupons that are so insipid that they only bring your price down to what everyone can get at the corner discount store.

It’s hard to tell whether a blog is essentially a “sham blog” made up of all paid article content. So, some blogs which appear to be on the level may come back asking you for money in return for posting your coupon information. Pay-for-blog posts of this sort can be frowned upon by search engines, particularly if they’re not clearly labeled as sponsorships. I’d recommend avoiding these, since the search engines may have discounted the worth of their links anyway, and I think they typically have fewer subscribers/readers.

Always include expiration dates in your online coupons. Just to keep them live through this holiday season, you could have them expire on January 1. Or, have them expire more frequently if you’re planning to put up new promotions — churning your promotions could result in more links.

Ask people to print and bring in the coupon — this will let you get an idea of just how effective this promotion is.

Provide links to the top most popular items you might sell on your site, below the coupon information. The coupon might draw people into your site, but don’t waste the opportunity to show them a few other things they might also buy. Limit to only two or three items, though!

Ask people to rate your business or your product at one of the big ratings sites out there, such as internet yellow pages, in order for them to qualify for the coupon. Positive ratings can help your site to rank in local and regular web search! State outright that the review doesn’t have to be positive, but that you’d appreciate honest feedback in order to represent your business well and to obtain input in how to make improvements. You could ask them to write on the coupon the name of the site where they reviewed your business in order to validate the coupon. It’s not a good idea to reward people for only good ratings, or the host sites might take a dim view of the promotion — but, incenting people to give objective ratings should be acceptable. Also do not require that they write their usernames on the coupons.

Always include your URL on print advertising, including printed coupons.

To further engage holiday sentiment, offer to make a donation to a well-known charity for each coupon purchase, and outline that deal on the coupon webpage as well — and invite people to email the page link to others they know. Consumers will be more supportive of businesses which are supportive of their communities, and this can also help to attract more links as people report on the deal. When doing charitable tie-ins of this sort, it’s also worthwhile to coordinate an optimized press release announcing the program and linking back to the coupon page.

Offer a “serial coupon”, such as if the consumer makes purchases on three successive visits, they qualify for increased savings each time. This could really pump things into overdrive!

Don’t make the fine print of the coupon so extensive that no one can comprehend the exclusions.

People know what “bait and switch” is, and they really hate it. Avoid anything close to that such as luring people in by ambiguous language and stuff. Do this wrong and you can turn people off and lose potential longterm customers.

Be darn sure you have enough product for everyone who might bring the coupon by your store!

There’s nothing worse than getting excited by a coupon only to find the store ran out. The economic crunch has caused many businesses to keep much smaller inventories, but try to be prepared to rapidly reorder product if your coupon promotion appears to be working.

Using a good coupon strategy this season can allow you to take advantage of the hot consumer interest in discounts. Use this opportunity to get some great inbound links for your longterm SEO benefit, while also pumping up your short-term sales.

Chris “Silver” Smith is a Search Marketing Consultant and writes for the Locals Only column at Search Engine Land.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Google Answers Your Local Questions

Oct 6, 2008 at 1:48pm Eastern by Greg Sterling

In an earlier post, I solicited questions for Google about local search. My intention had been to present them at the What’s New in Local Search panel at SMX East this morning. But I didn’t get my act together to distribute them at the session. Google’s Eric Stein, who was on the panel, coordinated the response to the questions.

Here are the unedited, verbatim questions and answers:

Q: Are there any techniques for tracking clickthroughs from the 10-pack, 3-pack, or authoritative OneBox in Google Analytics (or other tracking programs)? The current URL strings only seem to show them as organic clickthroughs.

Google:: Local Universal results are organic results and there is no plan to separate them.

Q: It is considered a best practice in all of Google’s other properties (Adwords, Organic Results, News, Blogs, Images) to include keywords in titles. Why does Google consider local results to be an outlier in this ecosystem? Does Google have plans to stop bolding keyword matches in Local Business Titles? If not, why not, as there have been plenty of studies that show that a keyword match dramatically increases clickthrough rate?

Google:: On Google Maps, our mission is to show users the proper names and addresses of physical businesses. The Business Title is not the title of a website - it is the title of the actual business. Adding keywords to this field moves away from giving users the proper representation of the businesses they see on the map.
We have no plan to stop bolding keyword matches in titles. Bolding matches in titles and categories for example helps the user understand why we’re showing the result.

Q:: Can you tell us about authoritative sources in Google local? If a user makes a comment or requests a change, vs. a business owner, vs. a competitor, vs. a validated business owner, vs. a third party submission site (yellow pages, Yelp), whose content takes precedence? For us that is the biggest problem because it appears that Google takes that information and somehow creates a listing…not using the business owners listing.

Google:: A business owner’s verified listing trumps all other sources in terms of fields displayed. LBC-verified listing is the most authoritative source. The least authoritative is a single reference on an unverified web page. Everything else is in between those two ends of the spectrum. In terms of creating the listing, we distinguish between the “listing” and the “cluster.” We display the “cluster” which is composed of the union of one or more listings. When the fields in a listing overlap, the listing with the highest authoritativeness trumps the others; but it doesn’t block additional fields (like cuisine, parking, etc.) from being associated with the cluster.

Q:: Are you penalized for submitting your data on a weekly basis? Or should you let your data mature?

Google:: No; however if you’re making changes to your listing that prevent us from recognizing that it’s the same business as the one referenced by other sources in the cluster, then there is a risk that your listing becomes “orphaned” from the cluster and thereby loses the associated content and any positive ranking from that content.

Q:: How do you handle mergers? We purchase/manage many facilities and need to change their name and contact info. But the third party sources make changing the name almost impossible. We were told by one third party submission company that we had to pay them to change the company name and if we stopped paying the monthly fee they would switch back all our data to the old inaccurate data. In the end if we don’t pay the information is not correct and the users get less relevant results.

Google:: You should claim the old listing in Local Business Center, by finding the listing on Maps, clicking More Info, Edit, then Claim Your Business. Then, once you’ve claimed the business, update the name and contact info.
If you can verify neither the old/acquired business’s address nor phone number, then you should create a new listing with the new info, again using LBC. If the old listing continues to show alongside your new one and you can’t claim/verify it, you can click More Info, then Edit, then Remove Place to flag the old listing for deletion.

Q:: Why does the 1-800 number take precedence over the local number even if the local number is listed as the primary number?

Google:: This shouldn’t happen. There is no precedent for an 800 vs. non-800 number. The choice is determined by the sources of the data.

Q:: Do the old category listings have a higher value than the newer user generated categories?

Google:: All categories, including one you create in the LBC or if you edit a listing, get indexed and are searchable. A brand new user generated category may not have as many known synonyms as an existing category. Also, to clarify, the categories in the LBC are not user-generated categories - they are simply an improved set of suggested categories.

Q:: Does Google have any plans for a single corporate validation instead of a site validation? For us we have almost 700 locations and to get all of them validated on Google is a lot of work. On a side note we have done this twice in the last year.

Google:: We don’t have a definitive answer to this question. Rather, we’d like this to be a discussion topic. We would like to hear from business owners what inspired this question and what challenges they’re facing with their local listings.

Q:: How does Google plan on enforcing local spam?

Google: We started by documenting some quality guidelines, which you can find in the LBC help center. Our plan is to identify listings that don’t meet these guidelines and to remove them.
Google has a long history of dealing with spammers - on web search, as well as in Gmail and some other Google products. The Maps team is working closely with these teams to identify what methods work best for Google Maps, and we are even inventing some new spam fighting methods that attack the unique types of spam that plague Maps. There will always be some spam out there, but very recently we’ve made some big strides in catching and blocking spammers. That’s just the beginning.

Q:: How do some listings have more than four phone numbers?

Google:: We use the best data we get from multiple sources. Data provided by the business owner will show at the top of the list.

Q:: If I create an LBC entry for my business, why does other information that I did not provide also show up?

Google:: When we get data from multiple sources, we want to show the best data we get. The business owner’s data will show first, and for fields where we show only one piece of data, the business owner’s data will trump other data.

Q:: Is Google still using the Base feed?

Google:: Yes. LBC bulk upload uses Base. There was an older Base feed that does still submit data to Local, but it is not the preferred method.

Q:: When will Europe receive the upgrades/updates to the Local Business Center as they were launched earlier this year in the US/Canada/etc. (or is this considered a future product?)

Google:: The most up-to-date version of LBC has been launched in all European countries where LBC is available: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.

Q:: When will we be able to distinguish local traffic from the 1box/3pack/10pack in our Google Analytics. Now it still accounts as “organic” and unless you are using parameters there is no way to tell if the path was taken from a universal search result Onebox. (Asking, because the LBC still provides very poor and basic information: views/impressions).

Google:: Local Universal results are organic results and there is no plan to separate them.

Q:: What would you say to the many florists whose listings were hijacked in mid September by affiliate mapspamers?

Google:: We won’t always be ahead of the spammers - that’s a tough race to run. But we wil be increasingly effective at putting an end to situations like the one you mentioned as soon as they pop up. And we don’t just blacklist the bad guys - we put systems in place to block the next guy who tries to do what the last guy did, so we’re making it increasingly hard for spammers to hurt the legitimate business owners.

Q:: What % of US businesses have claimed their record in the Local Business Center?

Google:: We don’t have a number we can release, in large part because we don’t have a definitive answer to how many local businesses exist in the US.

Q:: Why are the results of the 10 Pack sometimes different than the results from Maps?

Google:: Sometimes the data and scoring differ slightly on Google.com and on Google Maps.

Q:: When the stars were removed from the Local 10 Pack in August did you see much change in user behavior? Did it generate more visits to Maps from the main results page?

Google:: The stars were removed as part of the overall redesign that resulted in the current 10 listings view (from the prior 3 listings), so we don’t have any data about whether the stars specifically influence click through rates. The star ratings are still visible once you click through to Maps.

Q:: Should businesses take a proactive role of encouraging their customers to write reviews or should they take a more passive, wait until they are reviewed policy?

Google:: That’s a personal style decision for the business owner. As long as the reviews are legitimate and useful, it doesn’t matter how you gather them.

Q:: What is your opinion to the ethical questions surrounding a business incenting customers in some way to write a review? What would you see as best practice in this area?

Google:: We don’t have a stance on this.

Google’s Eric Stein also pointed people during the session to a relatively new site within Google: submit your content, which has guidelines and links for a range of content types including local.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Raise Your Local Business Listing Rank in Google LOCAL

It appears Google has recently changed its algorithm for Local Business Listings by only giving the top spots to those feeding the search engine’s ever increasing need for content. Keep reading to learn what are Google Local Business Listings, what’s changed recently, as well as how to optimize so your local business is on top of the map.

Google Local Business Listings are different than organic or pay-per-click listings. They typically only show up when the user types a service oriented business followed by the city for their search. A large map from Google Maps appears alongside up to ten URLs with a phone number by each. If you need more than ten listings you can click in “More Results from ‘Insert City’ “ and you’ll be taken to a map with alphabetically lettered red pegs for each register business on Google Maps.

It seems over the last year being listed on Google Maps and/or Google’s Local Business Listings is becoming even more important since they are being displayed more often in search with up to ten listings before organic listings even start.

Changes in Google Local Business Listings’ AlgorithmOne client of ours was listed and is still listed under a Local Business Listing for their service, but it seems the listing fell in a short period of time; they went from #2 to #44 out of 3,656. Since many local business owners are seeing the value in these listings and Google makes the submission process much easier to understand than the general ins and outs of SEO, competition is on the rise.

With this recent surprise in dropping, I have decided Google Local Business Listings has its own algorithm. After noticing what the patterns were and what the top listings did, I made some adjustments using the modeling method. Soon after I noticed a huge rise in ranking.

Based on researching and observation, the pattern that presents itself for those that are high on the listings is they have:

1. Photos - They only recently they allowed this. Add as many photos as you can and a company logo.

2. Multiple Reviews - It’s important that these be from real customers. You can not have too many. Don’t fake them either, it’s easy to see. Just as with Amazon, people trust products with lots reviews that have kept above three stars.

3. Use Keywords in Company Description - They offer an area where the business representative can describe what the company offers.

4. Use Keyword s in Company Name - Don’t be deceptive by changing your company name, but if your keywords are in the extended business name or LLC, make sure this is the name in which you register.

5. Add a Coupon – Google allows printable coupons to be added by your listing.
Add these elements to your Google Local Business Listing and you are sure to be in the top ten.

6. Create links to the listing – Add a link from your homepage to the listing and encourage current customers or website visitors to review your company.

7. Add Videos- If your company already has vides on YouTube you can place them right there on the page.

Authored by Neil on Thu, 08/07/2008 - 22:07.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Small Business Marketing Success Story

Being small is hard enough. But being small and in retail? That's like having two strikes against you before the game even begins. From setting up relationships with banks, to finding trustworthy suppliers, to building a loyal customer base, being a small retailer is a challenge many businesses can't meet. And if you're an online-only small retailer? Well, that adds a whole new set of pros and cons into the mix.

K9cuisine.com is one such business that's so far been able to meet all the challenges of being a small, internet-only retailer. The nine-employee company sells premium pet foods and accessories from a warehouse in the remote town of Paris, Illinois -- about 100 miles west of Indianapolis and 200 miles south of Chicago. Owner Anthony Holloway launched the company in May, 2007, because he was frustrated with trying to find quality dog food locally and online.

After opening K9cuisine.com, he learned there were a lot of other pet owners sharing his frustrations. "Our business took off quickly and has grown at the rate of 50% each month for the last year," Anthony says. The web site, he says, currently gets close to 5,000 unique visitors per day, and has generated about $2.5 million in sales in the last 12 months.

K9cuisine.com is using customer ratings and reviews to add credibility to its online store; it's not unusual to see dozens of ratings on the store's products, and one brand of dog food has an astonishing 300-plus ratings. They also talk about all-things-canine on the K9 Chronicles blog, which includes a helpful section called Ask the Experts where readers can get free tips and advice from pet care experts.

They've also started experimenting with a Facebook page. Put it all together, and you have an interesting small business that offers plenty of lessons for other small, online retailers.
As with the previous small business success stories I've featured, I have no relationship with Anthony Holloway (or anyone at K9cuisine.com) and have never met him. Here's our interview.

Matt McGee: How does a small retailer compete today against the Big Box stores and the Amazon.coms?

Anthony Holloway: Customer service, customer service, customer service! Know your customers, provide for their needs, maintain a dialogue with those customers, and continue to find ways to exceed their expectations. Box stores and many Amazon.coms have done very little to "nurture" their customers. They rely on price alone. That formula has worked to a certain extent, but there is a niche market out there [of people] who demand more from their buying experience. Those customers are our market.

In my experience working with small retail clients, it really takes a lot of upfront spending -- on inventory, storage, staffing, etc. Does that fit your experience? How did you get "over the hump," as they say?

I was lucky. I did not depend on the business for an income. Funding was not an issue. We were well funded but we started small. The initial goal was to solve my own problem of getting quality food for my dog. We started with a handful of super high quality core products. We did not have to stock a store full of product. We stocked one or two bags of each item and added items one at a time to the site as we went. In the beginning, we were buying by the bag, with a warehouse of less than 1000 square feet. We currently buy by the truckload and maintain a warehouse of 26,000 square feet.

In the beginning, our largest expense was web development. That was a challenge. But we had a specific model and had a good idea of what we wanted. We have a great development team. They can do virtually anything I ask with the site. We continue to add features and tweak the site to make it more user-friendly. With creative and skilled technicians, so much is possible. We are fortunate to have such a great team in place.

But by far our toughest hurdle was in establishing consistent supply of the highest quality products by gaining credibility with suppliers. There are literally millions of web sites that sell dog food. Not many are successful. Suppliers are very leary of online merchants. It takes time to establish positive vendor relationships which are key to securing consistent supplies of the highest quality, most sought after products. It took us awhile, but I am pleased with the strong relationships we have developed. In addition the suppliers are pursuing us. They now see us as legitimate.

You mentioned your web development team. Are they in-house, or did you hire a design/development company?

We outsourced the development. I have worked with this group for the last 10 years on various projects. We bid out the graphics.

What advice would you share with small business owners who are trying to hire a design team right now?

The most important thing is to have a clear idea of what you want the end product to be. The vision needs to be clear and you need to be able to articulate that to designers. The biggest mistakes I have ever made in development was when I started and tried to figure it out along the way. Communication is also critical. A good design team has to be able to communicate the pros, cons and alternatives.

My group never says something can not be done. They may scratch their heads and give me a cost but they never say it can not be done. They are also extremely good at articulating alternatives. I am very careful not to micro manage them or tell them how to do their jobs. I communicate a concept they bring it to life. You also have to work with people that you feel comfortable going back to them multiple times when things do not fit your idea of the concept.

Whether you're big or small, retail has its own set of challenges. One of them is content. I see a lot of customer reviews on your product pages. Are you getting those direct from your customers, or from a review provider?

We want to keep it real. We never pay for reviews. I would never risk the loss of credibility with customers by paying for reviews. All of the reviews are customer generated. This is one of the coolest parts of the site. Our customers are passionate about their dogs and cats. We survey new and existing customers about their purchases. These reviews are not moderated. Our customers are actually very eager to share their experience. I really believe in transparency and providing information that has long term meaning to our customers. If you fake it, you may get a sale but not a repeat customer.

What methods do you use to encourage customers to leave reviews?

Whenever a customer purchases something for the first time we survey them on the item. We try to keep it simple and quick.

How exactly do you do that? Do you wait a couple weeks so they've had time to feed their pet, and then send an email? Or some other method?

We survey them 20-30 days after the purchase. It is an email with a link to a survey. The survey asks the customer to rate the new item on a one-to-five star scale. There is also an opportunity to include comments. The system knows what items are newly purchased. If they have completed a survey for an item they will not be asked to complete another one for the same item. We are careful not to annoy or bother customers. The way we do it is very respectful of their time.

What's your policy on handling negative reviews?

In general we do not moderate the reviews. They are added automatically to the site when a customer reviews a product. Unless the comments are completely off-topic, we do not touch them. For example, we had someone complain about a damaged shipment or they have not tried the product yet -- because these comments are not relevant to the product itself, we would then remove this type of comment. However, if they say my dog peed on the food bowl after trying the food -- that comment would stay. I see this as a survival of the fittest. The best products win.

Are product reviews good for business? What's the impact on your sales from having customers review what you sell?

This is very difficult to measure on the site level. To be honest, I am not sure. I know there is a lot of data out there that suggests user created content is more credible. I do know it provides transparency and honesty, key values of K9Cuisine. We do have customers tell us they read the reviews and they appreciate them being there. While we have not heard from those who it may have turned away, I believe for the most part the reviews are beneficial.

You're also creating content via a blog that you launched a little over a year ago. What made you give that a try?

Our goal was to personalize the experience and convey the values of the company. I also did not want to clutter the store. Not that the blog is clutter but we try and keep the store focused on products, sales, and conversion. We have reached out to a number of experts that contribute training, nutrition, and general pet info. The blog is the space where we have fun. It really has a nice following. It is something I am really proud of.

Was it difficult when you were starting, in terms of figuring out what to write about, how often to post, and things like that?

The most difficult thing as we grow is finding the time. We try and make it a priority. We do not have a ridgid schedule on how often. Having multiple contributors helps.
We just experimented. We felt pretty comfortable taking risks in this space. You can see a growth or maturity to the blog. We started out way too serious. We wanted to provide great content and we did. The problem was it was boring.

Do you have a company blogging policy in place? If so, can you share some of the guidelines you have for your employee bloggers?

We do not have a set policy. There are broad guidelines. Again, I do not micro-manage creativity. We want to keep it fun, on-topic, and PG. I want my kids to be able to read the blog. We engage like-minded bloggers and experts on their blogs and sites.

Tell me about that "Ask the Experts" feature on your blog.

This was obtained as a result of our reaching out to like-minded professionals. They have recognized our offerings as an opportunity to make a positive difference. We share similar values and a common goal to provide healthy alternatives for pets and their owners. These are not local vets. They are professionals that are passionate about pets and helping people. Further, they do not always suggest items we sell and I do not always agree with them. They are independent to suggest whatever they want. I think that is one of the attractions to them.

How did you go about marketing the blog and getting the word out to customers, other bloggers, etc.?

I really do not see what we are doing as marketing. I am an accountant by training. Marketing has always been a mystery to me. We are just passionate about what we are doing and that passion is contagious. The vast majority of our growth has been word of mouth or more precisely electronic word of mouth. It has been customer driven.

We generally do not do much paid advertising. We have a small adwords budget. We have tried to get some conventional press but there has been very little interest in online dog food. We truly live our mission statement. Every day we try to meet or exceed our customers' expectations of value, service, and delivery. These are not just words on a business plan. It is a culture, a way of doing business, that is honest, transparent, and truly customer focused. Many of our customers recognize this and respond by telling others of their experience. That is worth more than any paid advertising we could buy.

What benefits are you seeing from the blog? Do you consider it a success?

Again, this is hard to measure. I enjoy it. The blog is fun. It feels right and it conveys the values of the company. I know this is probably not the most useful answer, but I do not have an objective, numbers-type answer on this.

Why did you create a page for your business on Facebook?

Similar to the blog. We use Facebook to convey the values of the company. Again, we are trying to personalize the experience for our customers. We are trying in all of our efforts to narrow the divide between the impersonal process of completing an online transaction and truly connecting with customers. I believe that internet businesses who are able to secure this connection will be the ultimate winners in the online market.

Have you seen any benefits from it?

Not really. At least not to my satisfaction. We are still working at it. Our page on Facebook is growing and developing. Again it feels right, it conveys our values, and I believe it will pay off in the long run.

Do you do any PPC, or are you focused on organic and social traffic?

We do very little PPC. I believe most PPC lends itself to transactional price shoppers. We use PPC to supplement our organic traffic. We do quite well in organic traffic. I have been very successful at generating organic traffic. The social media space is still developing for us. We are exploring social marketing because I believe this is where the net is headed. We want to be positioned to be out front as it happens. This is truly a work-in-progress.

How important is SEO to you? Have you done any linkbuilding efforts, for example?

SEO is huge for us. Everything on the page is there for a reason. The challenge here is satisfying the search engines while maintaining a page that is attractive and usable for customers. We do not do any conventional link-begging. We get a substantial number of links pointing to our site but this is really a result of the way we run the business. People talk about our site. We do not have a links page. We have a few links on the blog but that is it.

Do you have time to stay on top of SEO best practices, or is that the responsibility of the web development team?

I do not trust anyone with this. It is just too important. I do it myself. I obsess about SEO. The design team has a pretty good idea of SEO after working with me over the years but they are not SEO experts. Much of SEO is in the nuances. I drive them crazy at times with tiny changes.

What marketing ideas do you want to try in the future?

I would like to try video, viral, contest, and go deeper into social media.

Last question: When it comes to online marketing, are you more of a "try everything and see what works" guy, or do you prefer a more careful and studied approach?

This is an interesting question for me. I think I am personally careful and studied in general. However, this business allows me the opportunity to take risks and explore. I have learned to do much more by feel and intuition. You have heard me say more than once, "it just feels right". So with this business, I would say I am more of a try it, measure it, and refine it. The nature of this business requires that the model remain fluid. This will forever be a work-in-progress.

Thanks so much, Anthony. Best of luck in all you do in the future.

Whether you're a small retailer or not, Anthony's final words probably rings true: "This will forever be a work-in-progress." That's the nature of running a modern small business, and I think it applies to all of the small businesses who've shared their success stories in this space.

If you are (or know of) a small business owner with a great story to tell about how you're using the Internet to grow your business, please contact me at Small Business SEM.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Process of website indexing by Google & other Search Engines

There is a lot of speculation about how search engines index websites. The topic is shrouded in mystery about exact working of search engine indexing process since most search engines offer limited information about how they architect the indexing process. Webmasters get some clues by checking their log reports about the crawler visits but are unaware of how the indexing happens or which pages of their website were really crawled.

While the speculation about search engine indexing process may continue, here is a theory, based on experience, research and clues, about how they may be going about indexing 8 to 10 billion web pages even so often or the reason why there is a delay in showing up newly added pages in their index. This discussion is centered around Google, but we believe that most popular search engines like Yahoo and MSN follow a similar pattern.

Google runs from about 10 Internet Data Centers (IDCs), each having 1000 to 2000 Pentium-3 or Pentium-4 servers running Linux OS.

Google has over 200 (some think 'over 1000') crawlers / bots scanning the web each day. These do not necessarily follow an exclusive pattern, which means different crawlers may visit the same site on the same day, not knowing other crawlers have been there before. This is what probably gives a 'daily visit' record in your traffic log reports, keeping web masters very happy about their frequent visits.

Some crawlers' jobs are only to grab new URLs (lets call them 'URL Grabbers' for convenience) - The URL grabbers grab links & URLs they detects on various websites (including links pointing to your site) and old/new URL's it detects on your site. They also capture the 'date stamp' of files when they visit your website, so that they can identify 'new content' or 'updated content' pages.

The URL grabbers respect your robots.txt file & Robots Meta Tags so that they can include / exclude URLs you want / do not want indexed. (Note: same URL with different session IDs are recorded as different 'unique' URLs. For this reason, session ID’s are best avoided, otherwise they can be misled as duplicate content. The URL grabbers spend very little time & bandwidth on your website, since their job is rather simple. However, just so you know, they need to scan 8 to 10 Billion URLs on the web each month. Not a petty job in itself, even for 1000 crawlers.

The URL grabbers write the captured URL's with their date stamps and other status in a 'Master URL List' so that these can be deep-indexed by other special crawlers.
The master list is then processed and classified somewhat like -
a) New URLs detected
b) Old URLs with new date stamp
c) 301 & 302 redirected URLs
d) Old URLs with old date stamp
e) 404 error URLs
f) Other URLs

The real indexing is done by (what we're calling) 'Deep Crawlers'. A deep crawler’s job is to pick up URLs from the master list and deep crawl each URL and capture all the content - text, HTML, images, flash etc.

Priority is given to ‘Old URLs with new date stamp’ as they relate to already indexed but updated content. ‘301 & 302 redirected URLs’ come next in priority followed by ‘New URLs detected’.

High priority is given to URLs whose links appear on several other sites. These are classified as 'important' URLs. Sites and URL's whose date stamp and content changes on a daily or hourly basis are 'stamped' as 'News' sites which are indexed hourly or even on minute-by-minute basis.
Indexing of ‘Old URLs with old date stamp’ and ‘404 error URLs’ are altogether ignored. There is no point wasting resources indexing ‘Old URLs with old date stamp’, since the search engine already has the content indexed, which is not yet updated. ‘404 error URLs’ are URLs collected from various sites but are broken links or error pages. These URLs do not show any content on them.

The 'Other URLs' may contain URLs which are dynamic URLs, have session IDs, PDF documents, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Multimedia files etc. Google needs to further process these and assess which ones are worth indexing and to what depth. It perhaps allocates indexing task of these to 'Special Crawlers'.

When Google 'schedules' the 'Deep Crawlers' to index 'New URLs' and '301 & 302 redirected URLs', just the URLs (not the descriptions) start appearing in search engines result pages when you run the search "site:www.domain.com" in Google.

Since Deep Crawlers need to crawl 'Billions' of web pages each month, they take as many as 4 to 8 weeks to index even updated content. New URL’s may take longer to index.

Once the Deep Crawlers index the content, it goes into their originating IDCs. Content is then processed, sorted and replicated (synchronized) to the rest of the IDCs. A few years back, when the data size was manageable, this data synchronization used to happen once a month, lasting for 5 days, called 'Google Dance'. Nowadays, the data synchronization happens constantly, which some people call 'Everflux'

When you hit www.google.com from your browser, you can land at any of their 10 IDCs depending upon their speed and availability. Since the data at any given time is slightly different at each IDC, you may get different results at different times or on repeated searches of the same term (Google Dance).

Bottom line is that one needs to wait for as long as 8 to 12 weeks, to see full indexing in Google. One should consider this as 'cooking time' in 'Google's kitchen'. Unless you can increase the 'importance' of your web pages by getting several incoming links from good sites, there is no way to speed up the indexing process, unless you personally know Sergey Brin & Larry Page, and have a significant influence over them.

Dynamic URLs may take longer to index (sometimes they do not get indexed at all) since even a small data can create unlimited URLs, which can clutter Google index with duplicate content.
Summary & Advise:

Ensure that you have cleared all roadblocks for crawlers and they can freely visit your site and capture all URLs. Help crawlers by creating good interlinking and sitemaps on your website.

Get lots of good incoming links to your pages from other websites to improve the 'importance' of your web pages. There is no special need to submit your website to search engines. Links to your website on other websites are sufficient.

Patiently wait for 4 to 12 weeks for the indexing to happen.

Disclaimer: The actual functioning and exact architecture of the search engines may vary but in essence, this is what we believe they do.

About the Author:
Atul Gupta is the founder & CEO of
RedAlkemi a leading Internet Marketing, eCommerce, Graphic Design, Web & Software Development services company. He has about 20 years of experience in the field of Graphic Design, Visual Communication, Web Development and Search Engine Marketing Services. He has spent last 9 years of his career devoted solely in pursuing Search Engine Marketing and Web Development activities.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Introduction to Google Ranking

7/09/2008 08:50:00 AM Posted by Amit Singhal, Google Fellow

In May, Udi Manber introduced our search quality group, the group responsible for the ranking of search results. He introduced various teams within "Quality" (as we like to call the group) including Core Ranking, International Search, User Interfaces, Evaluation, Webspam, and other teams. In this post, I want to tell you more about one of these: the Core Ranking team.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Amit Singhal. I'm a Google Fellow in charge of the ranking team at Google. I've worked in the field of search for the past eighteen years, having been introduced to search in 1990 as a graduate student in computer science. In the academic world, the field of search is known as Information Retrieval (or IR). After spending a decade as an IR researcher, I came to Google in 2000, and have worked on Google ranking ever since.

Google ranking is a collection of algorithms used to find the most relevant documents for a user query.

We do this for hundreds of millions of queries a day, from a collection of billions and billions of pages. These algorithms are run for every query entered into most of Google's search services. While our web search is the most used Google search service and the most widely known, the same ranking algorithms are also used - with some modifications - for other Google search services, including Images, News, YouTube, Maps, Product Search, Book Search, and more.

The most common question I get asked about Google's ranking is "how do you do it?" Of course, there is a lot that goes into building a state-of-the-art ranking system like ours, and I will delve deeper into the technology behind it in a later post. Today, I would like to briefly share the philosophies behind Google ranking:

1) Best locally relevant results served globally.
2) Keep it simple.
3) No manual intervention.

The first one is obvious.
Given our passion for search, we absolutely want to make sure that every user query gets the most relevant results. We often call this the "no query left behind" principle. Whenever we return less than ideal results for any query in any language in any country - and we do (search is by no means a solved problem) - we use that as an inspiration for future improvements.

The second principle seems obvious. Isn't it the desire of all system architects to keep their systems simple? Well, as search systems go, given the wide variety of user queries we have to respond to in multiple languages, it is easy to go down the path where more and more complexity creeps into the system to serve the next incremental fraction of the queries. We work very hard to keep our system simple without compromising on the quality of results. This is an ongoing effort, and a worthy one. We make about ten ranking changes every week and simplicity is a big consideration in launching every change. Our engineers understand exactly why a page was ranked the way it was for a given query. This simple understandable system has allowed us innovate quickly, and it shows. The "keep it simple" philosophy has served us well.

No discussion of Google's ranking would be complete without asking the common - but misguided! :) - question: "Does Google manually edit its results?"

Let me just answer that with our third philosophy: no manual intervention. In our view, the web is built by people. You are the ones creating pages and linking to pages. We are using all this human contribution through our algorithms. The final ordering of the results is decided by our algorithms using the contributions of the greater Internet community, not manually by us. We believe that the subjective judgment of any individual is, well ... subjective, and information distilled by our algorithms from the vast amount of human knowledge encoded in the web pages and their links is better than individual subjectivity.

The second reason we have a principle against manually adjusting our results is that often a broken query is just a symptom of a potential improvement to be made to our ranking algorithm.

Improving the underlying algorithm not only improves that one query, it improves an entire class of queries, and often for all languages. I should add, however, that there are clear written policies for websites recommended by Google, and we do take action on sites that are in violation of our policies or for a small number of other reasons (e.g. legal requirements, child porn, viruses/malware, etc).

Stay tuned for my followup post, where I will discuss in detail the technologies behind our ranking and show examples of several state-of-the-art ranking techniques in action. Let me just conclude this post by saying, our passion for search is stronger than ever - and as a search researcher, I have the best job in the world :-).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How to Manage Your PageRank Flow Using the “Nofollow” Tag

The official Google blog announced recognition of the the ”nofollow tag” in January of 2005. This tag did not reach awareness on a wide scale until Matt Cutts, Google’s mouthpiece to the SEO world, further clarified in his blog the many uses of this controversial link tag.

This post explains one excellent alternative use for the “nofollow” tag — helping divert “link juice” to the most important pages and give stronger link flow to improve your SEO results.What is the “Nofollow” tag?The nofollow tag tells Google spiders not to pass second generation internal or external link popularity value to the page which is being linked.

This is best applied to certain internal pages, outbound links, paid links, or pages with duplicated content. The “nofollow tag” is not to be confused with the “noindex” tag, which keeps a page out of the search engines.

An Alternative Use of the “Nofollow” TagIn a 2007 Q&A with Matt Cutts, Rand Fiskin (SEOMOZ) summarized what Cutts conveyed when asked if using the “nofollow” tag was a good tool for stopping wasted PageRank.

“Yes – webmasters can feel free to use nofollow internally to help tell Googlebot which pages they want to receive link juice from other pages.”

If you think of your website as a grapevine growing, and your PageRank as the available nutrients, you can do what grape growers do –prune the dominant vines in order for the already thriving clusters to flourish.

Once you have established what vines (pages) are producing the most fruit (SERP listings, traffic, conversions) use the “nofollow” tag to prune any pages not necessary for keyword searches. You can also “nofollow” tag to divert less relevant pages that may be competing with each other.

Some of the most common pages that are useful for your visitor and search engine trust factors, but not necessarily useful for coming up under qualified searches may include your: Privacy Policy, Terms of Service, Links page, Login pages, and others.

If you are linking to these pages from your homepage, you may be leaking some value that would be better flowed to service description areas, a blog, How To articles, and other valuable content-rich pages.

Although I have known about the tag for awhile, I plan on using it a lot more in the next few months as I do my best to sculpt stronger link flow for our client websites. For many of our marketing clients we have used the most powerful SEO techniques that we know and now is the time when all the little things count.

Can you think of any other common pages that might be a candidate for the “nofollow” tag?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Google Geo Targeting Tools

Learn how Google geo-targets web sites in their search results locally, regionally, nationally and internationally - how it can help your website.

This is a great webmaster tool to help you geographically define your website(s) and interior website pages. Whether you have one website serving customers regionally/ locally or you have one or more websites serving customers throughout the US/ Internationally this tool can help you define your online marketing goals.

What this video doesn't say... Don't forget that first and foremost Google reads textual content!This is especially important for text content located in your website footer. This includes your address, city, state and the all important zip code!

Also don't forget. Google reads meta-data too!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Guidelines for Web Credibility

How can you boost your web site's credibility?

Standford has compiled 10 guidelines for building the credibility of a web site. These guidelines are based on three years of research that included over 4,500 people.

1. Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site.
You can build web site credibility by providing third-party support (citations, references, source material) for information you present, especially if you link to this evidence. Even if people don't follow these links, you've shown confidence in your material.

2. Show that there's a real organization behind your site.
Showing that your web site is for a legitimate organization will boost the site's credibility. The easiest way to do this is by listing a physical address. Other features can also help, such as posting a photo of your offices or listing a membership with the chamber of commerce.

3. Highlight the expertise in your organization and in the content and services you provide.
Do you have experts on your team? Are your contributors or service providers authorities? Be sure to give their credentials. Are you affiliated with a respected organization? Make that clear. Conversely, don't link to outside sites that are not credible. Your site becomes less credible by association.

4. Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site.
The first part of this guideline is to show there are real people behind the site and in the organization. Next, find a way to convey their trustworthiness through images or text. For example, some sites post employee bios that tell about family or hobbies.

5. Make it easy to contact you.
A simple way to boost your site's credibility is by making your contact information clear: phone number, physical address, and email address.

6. Design your site so it looks professional (or is appropriate for your purpose).
We find that people quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more. Of course, not all sites gain credibility by looking like IBM.com. The visual design should match the site's purpose.

7. Make your site easy to use -- and useful.
We're squeezing two guidelines into one here. Our research shows that sites win credibility points by being both easy to use and useful. Some site operators forget about users when they cater to their own company's ego or try to show the dazzling things they can do with web technology.

8. Update your site's content often (at least show it's been reviewed recently). People assign more credibility to sites that show they have been recently updated or reviewed.

9. Use restraint with any promotional content (e.g., ads, offers).
If possible, avoid having ads on your site. If you must have ads, clearly distinguish the sponsored content from your own. Avoid pop-up ads, unless you don't mind annoying users and losing credibility. As for writing style, try to be clear, direct, and sincere.

10. Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem.
Typographical errors and broken links hurt a site's credibility more than most people imagine. It's also important to keep your site up and running.

Suggested CitationFogg, B.J. (May 2002). "Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility." A Research Summary from the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Stanford University. www.webcredibility.org/guidelines

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Google Webmaster Help(ing) Googlers


Today I’ve been inundated with “Best of 2007” SEO, SEM, and Search blogs and sites lists. Amazingly the only mention Google got was for their Webmaster Central Blog, a quality one at that, but there is so much more information out there that Google offers us lowly webmasters.

One of the best kept secrets in the webmastering and SEO community is the Google Webmaster Help Group which is part of Google’s thriving and growing Google Webmaster Center. Unlike some much lesser but more popular forums site specific help is available and almost required to get the most information. The discussion on the group is not a matter of theoretical discussion but actual practical application. Almost daily (sometimes more, sometimes less) you will see input from actual Google employees and not mere speculation on all aspects of webmasters’ concerns and Google. Google employees can be easily spotted in the discussion by the little blue by their name.

With that being said, most people don’t have enough time to religiously follow the discussion group for the most important nuggets of knowledge and I could not find a central location that catalogued their contributions. The following is a list of the Googlers that regularly post on the help group, a link to their profile so you can find their latest posts. I’m sorry if I missed anyone,

If I did please let me know.

Adam Lasnik
Amanda Camp
Andrey Stroilov
Berghausen “Bergy”
Evan T
Google Employee
Jessica W.
John Mueller
Jonathan Simon
Maile Ohye
Matt Cutts
Matt D
Nathan Johns
Riona MacNamara
Susan Moskwa
Thu Tu
Vanessa Fox

If you liked this post please John a beer.