internet marketing

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Brag Modestly:
Polite Conversation Starters

Here are two scenarios. You tell me which is better: A writer you know goes to your weekly breakfast networking meeting — you know, those excruciating card-swapping exercises that usually include stale bagels and crappy coffee. She walks around, shaking hands with people, intruding into conversations and stating that she’s the best writer in town, and they’d be stupid not to hire her.

OK, now it’s the same breakfast meeting, same stale bagels, same writer friend, but change the scenario a bit. This time she sticks with you as you move from conversation to conversation, and you introduce her to a few people you know as “That writer I told you about — you could really use her services.”

The first scenario won’t really benefit her, right? In fact, her behavior reflects poorly on you. In the second scenario, though, she looks much better, and it’s likely that someone there will want to start working with her.

What’s the difference? In the second case, she let someone else brag for her — you could say that she bragged modestly, by letting you recommend her.

The same method works well on the internet. The breakfast networking meeting is typically going to be a search engine, and you brag modestly by achieving a high natural ranking or by creating a well-composed pay-per-click ad. You can start a lot of conversations through search engines.

Why Search Engines?

There are, of course, other ways to get people to visit your web site: banners, e-mail marketing, and word of mouth all work. But well over 80 percent of internet users visit a search engine

I’m not saying ignore stuff like banner ads. But given a limited budget, you have to pick your venues. A search engine is clearly the place to start.

to find what they want online. Eighty percent is probably a pretty modest estimate, actually. When’s the last time you found anything online without visiting Google, or Yahoo, or MSN?

Love ’em, hate ’em, search engines are a marketing fact of life if you’re trying to grow your business using the internet.

There are vast, bubbling vats of snake oil out there, and salesmen trying to convince you that theirs is the One True Way to achieve a high natural ranking in the search engines. The trick is avoiding the hooey and using a strategy that works. For me, that’s always been a balance of pay-per-click advertising and natural rankings.

A Quick Search-Engine Anatomy Lesson: PPC and Natural Rankings

Everyone knows, I think, what a search engine does: You type in a keyword or phrase, like “chocolate candy,” and you get a list of results, ranked by relevance. Click on a result and you land on that web site.

What you may not know is that search engines typically deliver two sets of results: free, or natural, results and sponsored, or pay-per-click (PPC), results.

On Google, for example, the natural search results are displayed in the big column on the left. The PPC results are at the very top and in the small column on the right:

On Google, PPC results are on right-hand side of the page, and sometimes on top. There’s no known rules for when ads are placed in each location.

What’s the difference? Search engines determine natural results by applying formulae that they develop — the results can’t be influenced through payments or sponsorship.

PPC results are paid for by the advertisers, who bid for the best ranking on a keyword-by-keyword basis. The highest bidder gets the #1 spot, the second highest the #2 spot, and so on. Some engines, like Google, tweak these sponsored results a bit according to keyword relevance of the ad and click-through performance. I won’t go into that here. If you want to learn the finer points of PPC algorithms, well, maybe wait for my next book.

Natural search results are where the long-term money is. The vast majority of users (75 percent or more) look at the top 5 to 10 natural results, and that’s it. But getting a high natural ranking takes time, and a lot of effort, and sometimes a lot of writers. Imagine trying to get the #1 spot for a phrase like “Alaska hotels” — type it into Google and see how many results there are. Right now, I see over 11 million. Get a top-5 spot, and you’re set. Get on the second page, and your work’s for nothing.

PPC results only grab about 15 percent of the audience, but you can get a top rank in a few minutes — it’s all about how much you want to bid.

Which Words and Phrases?

Keywords are the crux of a search engine campaign — pick the right ones and you can set up PPC ads and pursue natural rankings that will select and deliver useful traffic. Pick the wrong ones and end up accumulating, instead — even a #1 rank may not generate useful results for you. In other words, keywords ensure you enter into the right conversations, with the right people.

Put careful thought into the phrases you pick. In Google Ad-Words and Yahoo Sponsored Search, you can use their keyword suggestion tools to find the best phrases. Tools like WordTracker can help, as well. Just use common sense.

A balanced campaign, then, will combine smart PPC with a long-term focus on natural results. The PPC ads quickly generate income. The natural rankings may eventually do a lot more, if you can achieve a high enough position.

Say you pick a phrase like “SSH client” — trust me, it’s a big one. Folks typing in this term might be searching for a free SSH client, like OpenSSH. Or they might be looking for a purchased product, like F-Secure. Bidding for the top rank for this term may mean you have to compete for ranking across a very broad subject area. It’s inefficient and may lead to a very poor return on investment.

It’s like driving for an hour to go to a realtor networking event when you build kites. Sure, you might find a realtor who happens to be looking for a kite, but chances are you’re entering the wrong conversation.

PPC Guidelines

Three simple rules for PPC campaigns:

Don’t bid too much. Keep your bids under control. (See “The Cost of Conversion: Return on Investment,” page 77.) If you spend $3 per click, $3,000 a month, for five sales that only generate $1,500 in income, you’re probably killing yourself.

Write good copy. Pay attention to your ad copy. There’s an art form to writing a truly effective PPC ad. It may not be as important as the bid management, but it matters. Have a clear call to action, and make sure your ad clearly states what you offer.

Deep link. Don’t just link to your home page — each PPC ad should link directly to the product or service or subject most relevant to the ad. It should link to the page that’ll generate a conversion (a sale, a sign-up, a registration, etc.) for you.

Treat every page on your site as a home page. If folks are going to be deep-linking into your site, the page they land on has to make sense, offer a clear call to action, and help move them along in the conversation. It’s as if someone walks up in the middle of your chat with another person. If he understands what you’re saying, he may join in. If it makes no sense to him, he walks away.

Maybe most important of all: Know what a click's worth. I have a little worksheet you can use to do just that:

Natural Search Guidelines

Getting a good natural-search ranking is like having a major newspaper write about you. The next time you show up at a networking event, everyone will want to converse. Online, a top ranking can deliver an endless supply of potential customers, which supplies any Conversation Marketing campaign with an ongoing, interested audience.

However, effective natural-search marketing can be very, very tricky. To stay sane, think about what a search engine’s job is: deliver the most relevant content to users. Make it easy for search engines to measure your relevance. Focus on good architecture, good content, and good code. And follow a few basics:

Update your site. Add new stuff to your site, all the time. Search engines award higher relevance to sites that are more active and have fresher content. You should keep your site up-to-date, anyway, as you observe and adjust — this is just one more reason. People won’t talk to you more than twice if you say the exact same thing both times, right?

Keep the important stuff on top. Search engines respect structure, so put the most important stuff as few clicks as possible from your home page. That’ll ensure that the search engines rate you by what you feel is most valuable. Good structure is good for visitors, too. See chapter 5, “Sound Smart: Avoiding Conversation Stoppers.”

Tag everything. Make sure every page has a relevant title, description, and keyword tag. And make sure every image and link has proper ALT and TITLE attributes, too. If you don’t know what this means, hire someone who does.

Remember, though, this is a long-term strategy — it takes some sellers up to a year to see positive changes in their search results. So always seek a balance between PPC and natural search results.

There are dozens of little things you can do to maximize natural search results. What you really need to do is hire a professional. Ahem.

Search-Marketing Firms: Three Signs You Shouldn’t Hire Someone

There are lots of reputable search-marketers out there. Heck, I’m one of them. But there are a lot of folks who are either totally ignorant or outright swindlers. If you hear these phrases, run, get in your car, lock the doors, and find another firm:

“We guarantee a top-10 listing!” My blood boils every time I hear that. No one can guarantee a top-10 natural ranking for a specific term. Search engines change their rules all the time, and you’re generally competing with thousands or millions of other pages. No one has a special relationship with the search engines either.

“We’ll submit you to 10,000 search engines!” Uh, great, but there aren’t 10,000 search engines. Whoever tells you this can’t even do math. There are maybe twenty search engines that matter, and of those, three to five really control the market: Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves, and Dogpile, in that order.

“We’ll get you 500 links right away.” Gaaaah! Run! This firm will engage in a practice called “link farming.” I won’t go into details, but trust me — the results are not good.

Generally trust your instincts. If marketers seem smarmy, they probably are. If you feel dirty every time you leave their office, you probably don’t want them working on your search marketing campaign, either.

Bad search-marketing will deliver a lot of long, uncomfortable silences to the conversation. Good search-marketing will keep a vibrant chat going for as long as you want it.

Other Modest Brags

There are a lot of other ways to brag modestly.

You can supplement any campaign using these methods. Just remember, though, that the search engine is still king on the internet — any effective marketing strategy must take that into account.

Regardless of how you do it, understand that bragging modestly is not an option. It’s a requirement. The internet is packed with people shouting and waving their wares to every passerby. If you can take a moderate tone and pick the right audience, you’ll stand out.

Morgan’s Bikes: Morgan Gets Modest

Morgan’s new site is skillfully coded and structured. She starts adding her newsletters to the site, too, so there’s steady content growth. But her marketing team told her it’d be at least a few months before she starts showing up in natural search, so she starts a pay-per-click campaign.

She uses AdWords and Yahoo Search Marketing (formerly Overture), and bids on the terms “custom road bicycles” and “custom bikes.” Results aren’t bad, but she finds she’s spending a lot of money on the “custom bikes” advertisement, and doesn’t seem to be getting results. After a little research, her marketing team figures out why — “bikes” can mean a motorcycle or a bicycle. She’s in a very unfocused search area when she bids on that term. She changes her phrase to “custom bicycles” and gets higher clickthru and conversion rates.

Encouraged, Morgan has her team write a press release about a new Road Special she’s introducing. They send it out using PRWeb (, which is inexpensive and highly optimized for web visibility. As a result, she shows up #1 in Google and Yahoo news searches for the terms “bicycles” and “custom bicycles” for a day or two, and anyone who subscribes to news alerts for those terms learns about her company. traffic jumps, and a few magazines even call her for a brief statement so they can mention her in their next issues.

Modest bragging worked well: she generated direct traffic through PPC and got some attention in both online and offline media.

Now it’s time to figure out if any of this is leading to better sales, by observing and adjusting.

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