Of snake oil and SEO…

By Sally Saville Hodge

The client was happy. Very happy. He’d just hired an SEO expert to help boost the search profile of his Web-based business.

“Yeah, the guy’s going to do a blog for us. He’s going to get us in all the directories. He signed us up for a service called INeedHits.com. And he’s doing it really cheap!”

The red flags were being hoisted with the word “blog” and reached the top of the pole when we got to “cheap.” It wasn’t an issue that we were the “experts” (because we’re not) and I was being territorial. It was more that these activities were a) not very strategic; b) time consuming (if done right); and c) more appropriate for a broad-based e-commerce concern than a Web-based business with a very narrow audience.

I’m not sure if it all was being undertaken to boost traffic or to improve search rankings or both. I didn’t think the client understood SEO. I wasn’t sure the “expert” did, either – at least according to my understanding of it.

As Mark O’Brien, president of Newfangled, a Web development firm, says, “There is no element of Web strategy that is more replete with misinformation than SEO. SEO is actually quite basic, but a lot of SEO professionals make it more
complicated than it needs to be to stay in business.”

The goal of an effective SEO program is less one of driving visitors to a website, and more one of creating traffic that actually converts, whether into actual business or as a contact that has given you “permission” to reach out regularly (via newsletters, special offers, etc.).

And these days, that’s tied to two things, according to Ryan Evans, whose Rand Media Group specializes in SEO and Web marketing activities. “One is the content on the page. The second is the number of links to that page. So if you’re not generating content that’s generating interest from relevant websites, then you’re not doing SEO.”

The thing is that Google is smart. “It’s searching for the best content to match the search query,” explains Evans. “It’s all about making the search experience excellent. If your SEO program doesn’t contribute to that, then it’s not working.”

A quick look at the specific strategies that the client was so excited about:

  • Blogs. Yes, blogs are a great SEO tool, but only if “they contain original content based on your expertise, what you know, and what your clients and prospects care about,” says O’Brien. In this instance, the blog was aggregating content – credited reposts from experts in aligned fields. Google understands and only indexes the original source of the content. So an aggregator blog is not likely to boost search rankings or meaningful traffic.
  • Directories. “Getting listed on 10,000 directories was an SEO strategy a few years ago, but it really doesn’t do any good,” says Evans. It goes back to the content issue, and is an obvious ploy that Google recognizes as such. A further concern is relevance – if visitors do click through from all those directories, will they convert or bounce?
  • “Hit” sites. “Ineedhits.com? How about Ineedabrain.com?” O’Brien queries a tad sarcastically. “For most websites, unless they’re making money off ad revenue, visitor count is meaningless if it’s not the right sort of visitor. You measure efficacy not by traffic, but by how you engage visitors once they get on your site.”

As in any business, there are SEO practitioners who don’t stay on top of changing best practices and cling to tactics that worked five years ago, but not so well today. Neither they nor many clients understand that, especially in a highly fragmented media world, effective SEO can’t be done in a silo. It requires forging partnerships with PR and marketing experts who can ensure strategies and tactics are in service to the brand.

In this client’s case, Google Analytics showed exactly how well this SEO strategy wasn’t working. Traffic shot up enormously, but in keeping with the scattershot approach, so did the bounce rate (the number of visitors who clicked through and departed the site immediately because it was irrelevant to their needs). The bounce rate actually jumped from a respectable 30 percent to over 80 percent. At that pace, it’s doubtful that many conversions took place – not that I’m convinced that was a goal to begin with.

Our business is very consultative. We can’t be experts in everything, but we make it our business to learn and stay on top of best practices in fields that are aligned to what we do. That way, we know enough to ask the right questions and to try to guide our clients in their thinking and decisions. When you can’t get together on expectations, though, that’s when you part company, as we did with this client, with a Godspeed and good luck.

July 30, 2010 at 4:29 pm 1 comment

Digital Winds of Change Blowing Publishers Away as Profitable Landfall Remains Uncertain

By Chris Scott

As magazine publishers race to remain relevant to readers and advertisers alike, the jury is still out as to whether the various forays into digital-only waters will prove to be the salvation these publishers seek.

It’s only been nine months since Conde Nast abruptly shut down Gourmet magazine. And now the magazine publishing giant unveiled a slate of apps that revived that brand, among other titles, in pure digital form. The Gourmet Live app, first announced in June 2010, gives users access to the magazine’s voluminous database of articles, but also offers interactive opportunities to access new content, buy premium app-only content and incorporate social sharing technology. Gourmet Live will debut sometime in the fourth quarter, about one year after Conde Nast launched an app for its GQ men’s magazine to go along with its fee-based WIRED magazine app for the iPad, which launched in June.

Meanwhile, print titles are dipping a toe deeper into the digital pool. New York-based website developer and design specialist The Wonder Factory teamed up with Google and Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated magazine this spring to introduce a prototype digital magazine based on HTML5. (Tech-savvy readers will remember that this is the platform that Steve Jobs claimed makes Adobe Flash obsolete for use in Apple’s line of digital hardware products like the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, sparking a war of words with the software developer.) The demo features video that accompanies specific articles and page navigation that should entertain even the most jaded reader of paper-based magazines.

But the real issue here isn’t the technological advances or the “coolness” of these steps being taken by desperate publishers. With the profit paradigm changing nearly every day, the question is “How can these publishing firms make money as readers (and advertisers) abandon printed products?” And although general magazine readership rose eight percent in the last 10 years, circulation of magazines and newspapers continue to decline as whatever readers are left visit the Web for their access to information that used to come solely from print.

So far, The Wall Street Journal is one of the rare newspapers to make any money from its online version of its flagship product thanks to a subscription model that works for its business-focused audience. It will be interesting to see whether The New York Times, which abandoned its TimesSelect subscription service in 2007, will be able to retain the people who currently read its free content when they’re asked to pay for it sometime next year.

Ironically, a recent Times article pointed out that publishers continue to try and learn how to best present their wares online, especially when it comes to creating the viral buzz through social media. Hearst Publishing, in fact has launched a massive social networking push for its Seventeen magazine that aims to attract girls away from Facebook and other online social networks. Hearst hopes to better compete with other online magazines effort by redesigning Seventeen.com to also offer more gossip and celebrity news along with its print features.

So it looks like there’s still a long way to go from the days of “Take a look at this article” by passing the print version it to your spouse or co-worker to “Just Tweet this Time magazine article through its iPad app.” (It can’t currently be done, Time admits.) But the “test-and-learn” approach may be only way for publishers to ultimately figure out how to win the war for reader and advertiser attention in the digital battlefield.

July 20, 2010 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

Toyota and BP: Surviving the crisis

By Judi Schindler, Principal

As both Toyota and BP wage war to preserve their brands in the face of colossal crises, my money is on Toyota.

Last November, when the story broke about safety issues and mammoth recalls, the Japanese automaker violated every rule in the crisis management book by foot-dragging on safety issues, minimizing problems, distributing misleading statements and showing too little compassion. As a result, it suffered from stinging articles in the media and became the butt of every talk-show comedian.

Then, sometime in February, Toyota seemed to get its communication act together. President Akio Toyoda appeared before Congress and apologized. The company established “Smart Teams” of 200 engineers to investigate individual issues and appointed nine quality officers worldwide who could answer media questions

It created webcasts to respond to critics regarding gas pedal and electronic system issues and launched a website designed to address the issues. One of the most effective sites features video interviews of Toyota owners who have brought their cars in for recall repairs – all of whom express confidence that “if something is wrong, Toyota will fix it.”

Then there’s BP, whose issues are massive and ongoing. Worst of all, top management at the petroleum company seems to compound one misstep (or misspeak) on top of another.

On the other hand, BP hasn’t done everything wrong. The company has a well-executed  website, which includes videos, photos and press releases on the cleanup, where you hear first-hand from the individuals who are out in the Gulf every day working to contain the damage. (One video features actor Kevin  Costner praising BP’s efforts.) There are also state-by-state updates, claims forms and information on how to file a claim.

Both the BP and Toyota websites get high marks. But let’s assess the damage to the two brands.

There is no question that the carmaker’s consumer loyalty has slipped, but in the first quarter of 2010, 57.6% of trade-ins resulted in purchase of new Toyota – higher than any other brand. Sales have also recovered, up 24.4% in April, and in May the company reported net profits were 48% higher than the same period in 2009.

The public is not quite so forgiving of BP, especially since the crisis situation has yet to be abated. On June 21, several dozen demonstrations took place in cities across the country as part of the “Worldwide BP Protest Day,” a Facebook group that claims to have more than 350,000 supporters. Four days later, on June 25, the company’s stock hit an all-time low of $28.56 low, down nearly 53% since April 20.

So what’s the prognosis? In my opinion, the general public is more favorably disposed to Toyota than to BP. Toyota has a long history of building reliable automobiles and providing good service. It has happy car owners. Energy companies, like BP, do not enjoy the same favorable image. While BP had a better reputation than most oil companies, the entire industry has a reputation for price gouging and air pollution.

Toyota simply has a larger storehouse of goodwill, and, frankly, we are more willing to forgive someone we like.

The moral of the story is that crisis management must begin long before a crisis ever occurs – by building a reputation for dealing responsibly with the consumers, by behaving like a good corporate citizen, by providing reliable products and services and by communicating openly and candidly with its many publics. In other words, a company that nurtures and maintains good public relations over a period of years will have a better chance of surviving a crisis than one that doesn’t.

July 12, 2010 at 8:17 pm Leave a comment

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