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How Business Listings Are Made – Whiteboard Friday

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Posted by David Mihm

As a local business owner, it’s important for your business to be listed in Google’s search results. But how do you fix your business listing if the information is incorrect? 

In this week’s edition of Local Whiteboard Friday, David Mihm sheds some light on the complicated process that Google uses to create its business listings.

For reference, here’s a still of David’s whiteboard diagram.



Video Transcription

“Hey everybody. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday and in particular a local edition of Whiteboard Friday. I’m David Mihm, the Director of Local Search Strategy for SEOMoz, and I’m here to answer one of the most common questions that we get asked which is:  “Hey, how come my business information is showing up incorrectly at Google?”

So they type in the name of their business, and there’s either a phone number wrong or their address is wrong or sometimes the marker for where their business is, is in the wrong place. So I want to try to answer how Google generates its business listings.

So the first step that a lot of business owners take, which is a great step to take, is they go directly to Google. Google offers a dashboard for businesses that Google Places as well as Google+, there are kind of two ways into it right now. A business owner goes and he enters his business name, his address, his phone number, some categories, maybe the hours that he operates his business, and he tells that directly to Google. Of course the expectation is, “Oh well, I’m the business owner. I’m telling Google this information. That’s how it should show up when Google spits out a search result.” But in reality that’s not actually how Google assembles a business listing. So I’m going to erase these lines, and I’ll try to walk you guys through how this process actually happens.

So for many of you, if you’re business owners, you go to one of these places, the Google Places dashboard or the Google+ local dashboard, and you tell Google about your business and you find before you even get there Google knows about your business. It can guess at what your address and phone number are for example.

So you might wonder where Google is finding that information. Actually in the United States there are three companies that aggregate business data for United States businesses. Again, this is the United States only, but in this country those guys are Infogroup, Neustar and Axiom. So Google buys or leases information from at least one of these companies and pulls it into its index. But it doesn’t go right into Google’s index. It actually goes into a massive server cluster that takes it into consideration as one data source.

So not only is the business owner one of these data sources, but you would have one data provider, maybe Infogroup is another data source. Neustar might be another data source and so and so forth. So imagine this graphic going quite far to the right, even off of the whiteboard just with some of these data aggregation services.

That all gets assembled at a server cluster, somewhere in Mountain View let’s just say, that compiles kind of all of this information. These however, aren’t even the only places that Google gets data. These guys, these data sources actually also, in addition to sending information to Google, they send data out to a whole bunch of other sites across the web. So Yelp, for example, gets information from one of these sources. Yellowpages.com gets information from one of these sources. Many of you guys have seen my local search ecosystem infographic that kind of details a little bit more about how this process works.

Then Google goes out, and it crawls these sites across the web and again throws that information into this server cluster. So again, imagine this table here going off basically to infinity, kind of off this page.

Additionally, in addition to these data aggregators, in addition to websites, Google looks at government information. So if you’re regional, like your county has a place of businesses that are registered in a particular county or maybe your secretary of state, Google is either probably going to crawl that information. In some cases the government publishes this in PDF format or something like that, and that gets pulled into this cluster again as one of these data points in this huge spreadsheet.

Another place that Google might get information believe it or not is Google Street View. Bill Slawski of SEO by the Sea recently gave a keynote at Local University in Baltimore, and there’s information in Google’s patents that suggest that street view cameras from these cars that they go out and they drive around trying to find driving directions are taking photos of storefronts with business name signage, with the address numbers right there on the storefront, and that information gets pulled into this, what we call the cluster of information.

So there are all these different sources pulling in, and you as the business owner, you are only one of these data sources. So even though you tell Google, “Hey, yes this is my address, this is my phone number, this is where I’m located,” if Google is seeing bad information, at any of these other places from these data aggregators, from websites, from government entities, Google pulls data in from everywhere. So if every other source out, there or a lot of other sources out there that Google trusts, especially major data aggregators or government entities, if they have your information wrong, that could lead to misinformation in the search results.

But there’s one final step actually before Google will publish the information, the authoritative information from this cluster. Google actually has human reviewers that are looking at this information. They are calling businesses to verify things like categories, the buildings that certain businesses are located in, and these reviewers will again call a real business offline. So if you get a call and it says, “Hey, Mountain View is calling you, it might actually be Google.” So pay special attention if your business receives those kind of calls. They might be trying to validate information that they’re finding from across the web.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Google accepts data from other reviewers, from other human reviewers via a website that it operates called Google Map Maker. So if you’re having trouble with your information from one of these sources, you might check Google.com/mapmaker. It’s like a Wikipedia for locations. Anybody in the world can go in there and update data. So it’s really, really important if you’re a business owner and you’re having trouble with Google publishing bad information about your business, you can’t just go into the Google Places dashboard or the Google+ dashboard and fix this information. You really need to go to all of these different sources. So these major data aggregators, they’re different in every country. So if you’re from somewhere else in the world besides the United States, you need to do some research on who these guys are. You need to update your information at Internet yellow pages sites. You definitely need to update your information with government authorities, and you probably want to check your information at least on this Google Map Maker site, because all of these feed into this central data cluster that then feeds into a Google search result for your business.

So I hope that explains a little bit about this very complicated process that Google has to assemble business listings. If you want more information in the text part of the page on which this Whiteboard is published, I’ll reference one of my colleagues at Local University, Mike Blumenthal. Mike has a great sort of text based layout of what I just explained visually, and Mike is actually the inspiration for this idea of the data cluster at Google Local.

So hope you enjoyed that Whiteboard Friday, and again for more information I’ll link to Mike Blumenthal’s blog down near the comments.

Thanks guys.”

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Moz Blog

How to Build an Online Community for Your Business

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Posted by Mackenzie Fogelson

Every day, things are changing in SEO. If you’re not already working on adapting, today’s the day.

It’s time.

It's not that SEO is dead or that links are obsolete, or whatever all that crazy talk is that's been going around. It's that there's a way to integrate all the pieces into the big picture of building a better company by building an online community around it.

There are lots of benefits to building a community around your company, but if I had to choose a few, here are my top five:

  1. It will help you weather Google’s algorithms

    Building an online community is one of the best ways to weather Google’s algorithms. If you're continually chasing the algorithm, you're putting all of your power in what Google's going to do next. If you're building a community around your business, you're putting the focus where it belongs: on your business. Building a strong company and brand isn't something that Google can take away.
     
  2. It will add equity and value to your business

    When you build online community, you have to do a bunch of stuff to better serve your customers like creating quality content and resources, enhancing your product or services, and improving your systems and processes. Doing these things adds equity and value to your business and attracts the right customers to your community.

     
  3. It will help you have purpose

    There’s a lot of effort involved in building a community around your brand, and it’s not just about creating content or being on social media just because everyone else is doing it. When you’re strategic about community building, it forces you to identify goals and put a solid purpose behind your efforts.

     
  4. It will help you stand out

    If you’re committed to the process of building a community, you are going to be doing a great deal of self-discovery (which often times can be pretty uncomfortable). During this process you’ll determine what you’re all about, what you love to do, and what it’s going to take to help you stand out among the competition.

     
  5. It will put the focus on goals, not tools
    
Building an online community isn’t a bunch of fluffy stuff. It’s the seamless integration of tools like SEO, social media, content marketing, email marketing, and all kinds of other important stuff (like hard work and passion). But in order for the tools to be effective, they’ve got to be driven by a strategy that is rooted in the goals of your whole business.

In the last year, Mack Web has been working on building our own community (and helping our clients to build theirs). What we’ve found (through a whole lot of trial and error, joy and pain, sunshine and, well, you get the point) is that building community means building a better business. It’s a necessary online component for growth as it forges and fosters relationships that are essential to building a business online as you would in person. 



A present for you

For the past several months, I have been writing a lot about community. How to build it with value, how to identify it, and how to attract customers to it. And now, lucky for you, I'd like to share our process for how to build an online community for your business. 

What follows is a super awesome infographic and the play-by-play breakdown of each step in the process. I'm thinking it might come in handy (you can even listen to my webinar for the full effect).

Whether you’re building a community from scratch, or you’re working to grow an existing one, you can use this process to get your community rolling or optimize and leverage what you already have.

The order in which you attack this may differ depending on the size of your organization, your goals, and the stage you’re in as a company. I encourage you to take this process and meld it into what works best for you.

Here we go!

 


And, in case you want to steal this, here's the embed code ('cuz we're nice like that).
<p><center><img src="http://www.mackwebsolutions.com/img/mozimages/how-to-build-communities.jpg" width="540"> <br/>An infographic on <a href="http://www.seomoz.org/blog/how-to-build-an-online-community-for-your-business">How to Build an Online Community</a> by the team at <a href="http://mackwebsolutions.com/">Mack Web Solutions</a></center></p>


Let me break that down into stages for you:


[1] Define your business objectives

Define your objectivesLet’s start this entire process out right by thinking about your goals. What you want to focus on here is defining objectives for your entire business, not just for SEO, social media, content, or marketing. Stay focused on the whole picture of what you want to do with your company.

Keep in mind that there’s a lot more to defining business objectives than just writing down a bunch of goals. So before you do that, think about this:

  1. What makes your company unique?

    Especially when you’re a new business (but this happens with old ones, too), it’s easy to feel like you need everyone to be your customer. But the fact is, what you really need are the right customers.



    Take Coke and Pepsi; Hershey and Dove; and Chipotle and Qdoba. All companies who sell similar products, but attract very different customers to their brand and their communities.

 Both are good (and to many people, taste the same). So what’s the difference? Why would someone be attracted to, say, Chipotle over Qdoba?



    Chipotle’s food has integrity. They serve sustainably-raised food. They support local farmers. They respect the environment. Because of these values, Chipotle attracts people who have similar philosophies and approaches to food and life. 



    Qdoba is about quality ingredients. These are very similar things, but the difference is something that people find common ground with, feel strongly about, and want to stand behind. It’s not just about the food. It’s what they believe in. It’s what makes them unique. And people want to be a part of that.



    So, determine what your unique selling proposition (USP) is. Do an analysis of your competition. What do you do differently than them (no matter how small)? How is that remarkable? Why does it make you special? That’s your USP. Own this and make it part of everything you do. On and offline.
     

  2. Why do you care?

    Simon Sinek can probably say this a whole lot better than I can, but here it is: what is it that makes you care about your business? What keeps you pushing forward (especially when you want to quit)? The reason that you care has nothing to do with money, so besides that, what’s important?



    That passion that you feel for your business is not only a significant differentiator, but it’s part of your story and it’s far more motivating than money. Keep this sucker in your back pocket. You’re gonna need it.

     

  3. What do you want to build?

    What’s your vision for your company? Think six months, eighteen months, and three to five years. What is it that you really want to do? Dream some of that stuff up and start making a list. You may even want to write down things that are currently on the horizon. Big changes, events, product launches, stuff like that. This will help you to begin defining the goals you have for your business both short and long term.

     
  4. Who do you want to build it for?

    This is the part where you get really clear about who your customer actually is. What are their fears, concerns, and challenges? What are the problems (big and small) they would like to solve? Talk to them. Survey them. Ask them.



    Organize your audiences into groups. Build some personae around them so that they are real, live, tangible people (find a photo for them and everything). These are your targets.



    It will also help to understand your conversion funnel and how that relates to your audience. What do your customers need during the different stages of the funnel? All of this good stuff is going to help inform your strategy (and eventually you’re going to want to create the content and resources to serve those needs).

    

Just remember that every person on the web is not your customer. Go back to that USP that you’ve just defined. Focus on that and the people who resonate with it, and do whatever it takes to keep the emphasis on them.


The answers to all of these questions will help get to the root of what you’re working so hard for in the first place. From there, you can determine what you really want to do with your company. Then you can identify the goals you’d like to work toward (start with just a few). Once you have those defined, let’s talk about your team.




[2] Elect your team

Elect your teamWe’ve been around the block a time or two on this community building thing, and there are many things that can become roadblocks. Team selection is one of them.

Here’s a few tips for getting the right team in place so that you can start working toward achieving your goals:

  1. Understand the roles

    Building community is no joke. There’s a lot of work to be done and many roles that will need to be filled. If you work with an outside agency, they will bring most of the power, but you play an integral role. Keep in mind that an agency is meant to be your collaborative partner, and not just your mask. It’s your company, after all, so it’s important that you’re present.



    If you’re among the brave souls who are going to tackle all of this hard work internally, here’s a run down on some of the typical roles that your team may need to execute: (Please note that I’m not suggesting that you hire someone to fulfill each of these roles. I’m simply providing an overview of the different roles that are part of the community building process. Within your team, there will be individuals who can take on several of these roles).

    • 
Project management: Someone to keep all of the peeps on schedule and on task

.
    • Community management: Someone who can represent your company on social media, monitor, and manage the rest of your team who’s on there as well (pro tip: read Marty Weintraub's book on community management).
    • Design: Someone who can create any graphic assets that you need and make you look really good.


    • Content: Someone who can write (like the dickens).


    • SEO: Someone who loves research, analysis, keywords, and Google so that they can properly and effectively manage the optimization of all content. Ideally you want this dude to be more than passingly familiar with strategy as well.

    • Email marketing: Someone who can design, develop, and coordinate email marketing campaigns to deliver the value your team is creating in relationship to your strategy.


    • Reading & learning: Several someones who are continually reading and learning about your industry and looking for good stuff to pass around your community (that isn’t about you)

. More on this below, but this reading and learning stuff is incredibly imperative to success.
    • Outreach: Several someones who are developing relationships and helping to keep those people and your community involved in what you’re doing (so that they can partake and benefit, too).
       

    As you can see, this is a lot of weight for one person to carry, so ideally, if you don’t have the resources in-house, or you’re a freelance SEO, piece together a reliable team that can help fill in the gaps. It’s not that one person can’t do all of this work, but in that case both efforts and results will probably be slower to come to fruition.



    Also, because building community is a long-term, ongoing process, I wouldn’t recommend assigning the really integral roles (like community manager) to short-timers or interns. Of course, many companies have limited resources, so do what you can with what you have and just be consistent as possible with your efforts.

     

  2. Elect, don’t just assign

    Thing is, especially if you’re a smaller company, you’ve got to work with what you have. Not every company has the luxury of bringing on an outside agency or hiring additional people to share the load of all of this stuff. But if you want these efforts to be successful, you’ve gotta have a team of people who are passionate and committed to seeing this thing through, even when it’s tough and you want to give up.



    Instead of just assigning tasks and dumping a bunch of (usually un-welcome) work on people, elect people for your implementation team who are committed to the success of the organization and are passionate about things like your company, social media, content, SEO, and communication.

 Oh, and humans. 

You’ve got to have people on this team who want to be there or your efforts will fail. Make it a selection process so that the team feels honored to be part of this whole thing (because it really is a movement).

     

  3. Work together as one, big, happy family
    
Whether you’re working with internal and external teams, a whole bunch of interdepartmental teams, or a mix and match of both, do whatever you can to come together as a unified team (more on this below). Whatever you do, don’t silo. Collaborate and be friends. It will make all of the difference in the end.



Keep in mind that this team you’re putting together isn’t just going to be working on your marketing; they’re going to be playing an integral role in transforming your business. Do what it takes to be sure everyone is on the same page and working together to make things happen.


[3] Develop your strategy


Develop your strategyDeveloping a strategy is what will actually help you to achieve your goals. A good strategy will assist you in breaking those high level goals down into actionable, chewable pieces that you can work towards and even measure.



Think about strategy in three pieces: the what, the when, and the how.

  1. The what: campaigns

    Campaigns are where your goals meet your ideas. What is it that you’re going to need to create in order to actually accomplish your goals? Everything from your tangible assets like blog posts, videos, and infographics; to webinars and events like tradeshows, conferences, speaking engagements, and meetups.

    

If one of your goals is to become a trusted resource in your industry (a thought leader), then you’ve got to figure out what it’s going to take to accomplish it. Maybe it’s a four-part series that involves a mix of instructional videos that are integrated into blog posts, in-person lunch-and-learns or meetups, and maybe a speaking engagement at a conference. Whatever it ends up being, your campaigns need to break down all of the nitty gritty (and creative) detail of what is going to happen to take this bigger picture to fruition.



    But whatever you do, don’t plan the campaigns in your strategy for 12 consecutive months. It really makes it hard for the team to be agile and embrace stuff that comes up. We have found that every few months, it’s time to develop a new strategy (based on the data we’ve collected and the stuff that we’ve observed).

    Figure out what’s working and put your efforts (and your money there). Things are going to happen. Your business will change, you'll have a big victory that you want to explore further, you'll discover an opportunity that you didn't realize existed. So keep the higher level, 12-month plan in mind, but plan campaigns for 2-3 months at a time. 
     

  2. The when: execution calendar

    Once you know exactly what you want to do, you’ve got to figure out how long it’s going to take. Develop a high level execution calendar that illustrates the coordination of all assets and vehicles over a two to three month period (long enough to collect some data, but, again, short enough to be agile and change direction).

 Your calendar may look something like this:

    Sample Execution Calendar - Mack Web

    You’ll also want to take all of those high level ideas and break them down to assign them to actual people with real due dates. We do this in Basecamp and Gcal, but anything that allows you to assign deadlines will do the job.

     

  3. The how: ongoing efforts
    
The how is your plan for everything that needs to happen and continue to happen to make your efforts a success (people, assets, actionables). The biggest thing ongoing is to keep your commitments and stay accountable for the stuff that has to get done. But a really big (and important) part of ongoing efforts is continual analysis of your efforts and goals to make sure you’re always headed in the right direction (more on measurement and analysis below). 



    Thing is, there is no formula. You’ve got to be creative, try things out, and do what works for your business. Throw some stuff out there and see what happens. Make some educated decisions about that data and go from there. After a few campaigns you’ll get to know what works for your community and you’ll start to gain some traction. It’s all part of the process.


[4] Empower your team


Empower your teamOnce that you’ve figured out what, you’re going to do to work toward your goals (with your super awesome strategy). Before you jump into go-mode, take some time to set the team up for success. 


Do not skip this step.



I repeat. This step is important. Don’t skip it.

Depending on the climate (and culture) of your company (or the company you’re working with), there’s going to be some fear, concerns, and even resistance that you’ll get from your team (even if you think everything is A-OK). Rather than ignoring it and pushing through, hit it head on. Talk about it. Get it out in the open. You’ll be glad you did.

You can empower your team for success by addressing a few simple questions:

  1. Why are we doing this?

    Here’s your chance to build confidence and trust. The biggest source of resistance we run into is with teams who are afraid of the online space and of being on social media. 

Help your team understand that building an online community is not just about social media. It’s about working toward the goals that you have for your company. Social media is just one of the vehicles. If you use it effectively, you’re going to learn a ton of stuff, meet some really cool people, and turn up some pretty amazing opportunities. 

     
  2. How much work is involved?
    
When people have a sense of purpose, they are more inclined to put the effort forth. Is there going to be a lot of work involved? Yes. Is it going to be hard? You betcha. 



    That being said, now’s your chance to reassure your team that you’ve taken the time to identify goals for the company and have developed a strategy that’s going to help achieve those goals. You have a purpose.

    Explain how the campaigns that have been developed in the strategy align with your specific goals.

 Also, let your team know that there is a learning curve for all of this and that you don’t expect them to know what they’re doing right off the bat. Integrate training for your team as an ongoing thing. Training that focuses on skills as well as approach. This will motivate them and help them to feel useful and powerful. 

     

  3. When will we see results?
    
Let me be very clear about this. You can measure ROI in community building, but it’s not as simple as measuring a cell phone case purchase in a shopping cart. You’ve got to be creative about what and how you measure and know that it takes time to see results. And sometimes the stuff that brings ROI cannot be easily measured. 



    When discussing expectations about results, be realistic. Don’t sugar coat it. Building (or growing) a community takes time (and a lot of work). And so does accomplishing goals. Especially big ones. It’s important that you have open communication with the team about what can be expected in the long and also the short term. 



    We like to talk about examples of what the little victories look like. Like getting recognized for a good piece of content with a retweet on Twitter. Or a lead that was generated through a good conversation you had with someone on Google+. Again, it’s the same stuff you do when you’re building your business in person. You’re just doing it online.



    For the long term, we focus on realistic timeframes for their goals based on the steps we’re taking with their strategy. If the goal is thought leadership, and depending on the stage the company is currently in (are we starting from scratch?), there will be a whole lot of leg work (and foundational work) that has to be done. Like many goals, this stuff doesn't happen overnight.

    Discuss KPIs (that you all can agree on) that will provide the proof that your efforts are working. Maybe it’s a series of actions like downloading a whitepaper, attending a webinar, or being asked to speak at a conference. If these are the actions, determine how you’re going to track them (in Google Analytics or wherever else you want to collect the data), and then you’ll have the data to report on each month (more on communicating measurement below).



    One last thing on results. Remember that you may not ever reach the goals you set out. But certainly what can happen along that journey can be even more rewarding. Stay present and pushing forward.


The biggest thing to remember with empowering your team is that you have to help them disrupt their routine. Building community is about learning, growing, and pushing your company into new spaces. You can’t do this by tacking all of this new work onto the same routine you’ve been using for the last 5 years. You’ve got to start new. Disrupt your routine and start new. And then get ready for the long haul.



[5] Learn your industry


Learn your industryYou can’t grow a business in a vacuum. If you want to stand out and be successful, you’ve got to be learning and growing.

All. The. Time. 



One of your number one priorities in marketing your business online is providing the best possible customer experience. And you can’t do that if you’re not learning continuously.

You can start by identifying your community and determining the blogs you want to be sure to read, the people you want to get to know, and companies that you will want to keep tabs on.

Embracing the knowledge in your industry is going to push you to be more creative, innovative, and agile. It’s going to open up opportunities that you didn’t even realize existed. But that won’t happen if you don’t dedicate the time to it on a consistent basis.

Learning takes place everywhere. So step away from your computer and meet some people (for Dr. Pete’s sake). Make new friends, find people who have a strength that you need to work on and ask them to mentor you. Build friendships with super cool people and companies. This is really the most important part.

Then go back to your computer and read a lot. More than you ever have in your whole life. Read the good stuff inside of your industry and outside of your industry. You’re going to see some cool stuff that will open up your world (that, my friends, is why it’s called the world wide web).  

All of this stuff is what manifests serendipity and although that’s the hardest stuff to measure, it’s also what ends up making the biggest difference when building a community (and a business).


[6] Create the value

Create the valueOk, now we’re getting to the real good stuff. Value is what your community is built upon, whether that’s “tangible” stuff like blog posts, videos, resources, and tools; or an approach, perspective, or virtue that is the basis for common ground.  Value that focuses on your customer and their experience is what attracts people to your business, your brand, and your community.

In general, there are two types of content that will help build your community: foundational and community building.

Foundational content is the more static stuff on your website (like your about and services sections), like pages that explain who you are and what you do. The problem with most foundational content is, let's be honest, that it kind of sucks. It’s really focused on self-promotion (as it should be; it is, after all, your website) instead of being geared toward the needs of your customer.

The challenge with foundational content is to listen to your customer. Observe their needs, the things in life that they struggle with, and then communicate how your products or services address those things. Use video and resources and case studies and infographics to provide an engaging and value-packed experience and make your foundational content worth reading (and worthy of links).

Community building content is the stuff that’s more dynamic in nature and usually lives on your blog. It’s the content that is less about what you do and more about what you know.

Community building content is the easiest stuff to make all about your customer because the purpose of building it is to help them understand your knowledge and expertise. This type of content indirectly promotes your brand, establishes trust and credibility, and really helps to foster relationships.

Just like your foundational content, this stuff needs to be full of your personality. Show who you are, what you believe in, and how you approach stuff. Balance your content with risky stuff and things that may help you stand out a bit. All in an effort to help your customers (current and potential) learn so that they’ll pass it around to their friends and come back later for more.

Here’s a few more things to remember when you’re generating your content:


  1. It’s not about you

    Make your content about your customer, not about you. Focus on their needs. And don’t just guess, ask them. Do an email survey, or make a phone call, or take them to lunch. Listen and figure out how you can better serve them and then actually apply the feedback to the content and resources you’re creating.

     
  2. Don’t forget about SEO

    SEO is an integral piece when building community and content. Certainly your content will be part of your well-planned strategy, but before you create it, don't forget to find out what’s already out there. Does what you're about to write already exist (in some form)? If so, find a way to do it better so that Google has a reason to index it and present it as the best option when someone conducts a search.



    Don’t forget the importance of covering your SEO bases and doing the basic on-page stuff. Do some keyword research and properly integrate it into your content so that people can actually find your stuff. 

     

  3. Use pre-outreach

    Thanks to this tip from Rob Ousbey, pre-outreach has been one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal. Getting the word out about good stuff you’re doing is a lot harder if you don’t involve your audience in the process. Before you even create your content, think about who you could talk to, interview, survey, engage with online, and get valuable feedback that could help make your content more purposeful and more successful.

[7] Share the valueShare the value

You may have heard me mention this once or twice, but the way in which you share the value that you (and others) create, is one of the most important pieces (and accelerators) when building community and your business.

It works like this: 80% of the time, share other people’s great stuff. But don’t just retweet it or hit the share button and place it on your feed. Read it. Internalize it. And then curate it. Tell people why it’s good. This helps you learn and also keeps the focus where it belongs: on the value that you're providing for the reader.

20% of the time, share your own stuff, but make it remarkable. This is the community building stuff that we just talked about. The stuff that provides a wealth of knowledge that people will thank you for.

And remember that just building something amazing, doesn’t guarantee that people will see it. That’s why there’s outreach (so do it, dude).

Outreach is code for making friends and being an authentic human before you even think about asking for anything. Build relationships with people online as you would in person. Then, when you’ve got good stuff to get out, they’re going to be excited to spread the word.

 Whatever your ratio is: 60/40, 70/30, 90/10, remember that it’s not about you. Stay focused on your customer and test out what works best for your community.


[8] Build and foster growth

Build and foster growthThis is the part that never, ever ends (that's a good thing). Building and fostering community is synonymous with building and growing your company. You’ve got to work at it. All the time.

There are lots of things that you can do to foster and grow your community. Here’s just a few:

  1. Get in there

    Remember that you are a member of your community. You and your entire team. Get in there. Play an active role. Contribute and engage on a genuine level. It’s an extension of your company and your brand and it’s important to the growth of your community.

     
  2. Embrace offline efforts
    
It’s so important to cultivate relationships with people in person. It’s an integral piece to growing your community. When you form a bond in person, it’s even more powerful online. 

So go to events and hold events. Ask people to coffee. Go to meetups and conferences. Embrace the offline, in-person, human stuff as much as you do with your work online. Meet people face-to-face and learn more about them. It will really help to build your community and your business.

     
  3. Acknowledge and show appreciation

    Don’t forget that a community comprises living, breathing people who are supporting you. There are lots of great ways to show your appreciation, so make sure you set the time aside in your routine to acknowledge the humans in your community. 



    Of course you can always give them stuff. Providing free swag at events or sending it out as a thank you or just because is a great way to show appreciation and turn your members into your brand ambassadors.



    Be on the lookout for community members who are doing great things in their own businesses or lives. Recognize their good news and hard work and give them a virtual pat on the back.

 Engage with your community members and ask them if there’s anything you can do to help them. It’s a great way to create the content and resources they need that will also benefit others.


[9] Measure and analyze (and communicate)

Measure and analyzeThis is the juicy part (and just because this is listed as the last piece in the process doesn’t make it any less significant). In fact, you’ll want to make sure that you’re thinking about measurement and analysis all the way through.


Measurement and analysis is an ongoing process when building community. Everything you do will include testing, feedback, measurement, analysis, adjustments, rinsing, and repeating. And then, you’ve got to communicate this data to your team (and/or your client).  

Here’s a few thoughts about measurement & analysis, but also ongoing, old-fashioned communication:

  1. Weekly stand-ups

    When we’re helping clients build their communities, it’s a very collaborative process. There are lots of things that we do on their behalf, but there’s also some integral pieces that we need them to execute consistently and timely.

    We hold stand-ups every day as a team, and they work so well that we thought we’d try them out (once a week) with our clients. We don’t talk metrics at these meetings. Just a quick 10 minute meeting to get on the phone, a G+ hangout, or via Skype so that we can get connected for the week. This has really helped to boost motivation and keep the momentum of the strategy that we’re all working to implement.

     

  2. Bi-weekly pushes
    
In addition to the weekly standups, we also do a little electronic pushing over email every two weeks. This is really just a collective here’s what’s going on reminder to again, keep the momentum.

 We used to do these in a document, but that wasn’t getting the response we needed, so we switched to a straight up email with a little "action required" nudge in the subject line.
     
  3. Monthly reports
    
Monthly reports tend to be the best way to communicate all of the hard work you’ve been doing, but also prove that you’re making some headway on those goals you’ve set forth. In those reports, showcase the data that you’ve collected and then present it in a way that is meaningful to the client so that they can easily see how this is affecting their business.

    

Your goal with monthly reports is to illustrate the value you’re providing and the progress you’re making. But don’t just send these reports via email. Take the time each month to review (face-to-face) what’s been going on, and talk more specifically about how efforts are helping to reach goals (which equates to ROI). 



    Remember that it’s your job to provide the analysis. What does this mean to their business? Are efforts (and dollars) being spent in the right places? If you’re experiencing victories, share them. If the data doesn’t look good, tell them why and then what you’re going to do about it. That’s what the data is for. Analyze it and then use it to make decisions about your efforts moving forward.

     

  4. Quarterly strategy

    At quarter's end, take a higher level look at what’s going on. Can you spot trends in content, social behavior, traffic? How does that affect efforts and what needs to be done with the strategy to adjust?

Just make sure you’re always bringing this stuff back to goals. Assess the journey and then figure out what needs to be done to change course and put a new plan into action.


Now it’s your turn

As you take this process and work to implement it into your company or with your clients, keep these final things in mind:

  1. This is about building a brand

    At the heart of building community is becoming the company you’ve always wanted to be. Stay rooted in your passion for your business and remember that your efforts go far beyond your marketing. You’re working to build a brand and a company that you can be proud of and that people want to be associated with.

     
  2. Stay grounded in your goals

    Whether you’re a one-person band, or a humungo company, there’s a lot to tackle with all of this good stuff. That’s why a strategy is so important. But you won't have a strategy to stand on if you haven't clearly defined your objectives for your business. Make sure you always come back to your goals. These are the foundation for all of the hard work you’re doing. Always put your focus on goals, not tools.

     
  3. Don’t give up

    The number one question in all of this is when are we going to see results? How long does it take before something really great happens? Unfortunately there’s no formula with this stuff so there’s no straight way to answer these questions.

    What I do know is that results come in different forms and different sizes for every company.

    For Mack Web, it took us about a year of working through this process for our company before we started to gain traction, but that was after we’d already been in business for 10 years. If you want to achieve results, you’ve got to be willing to fail for a long time before you start seeing the wins. But if you can stick with it, you won’t be sorry (this is what happened to Mack Web's traffic in just a 10 month period of facilitating this process for our company).Mack Web Traffic

What have I missed? What great things are you doing to build your brand and your community? I would love to hear more in the comments below.

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SEOmoz Daily SEO Blog

Beyond Link Building – Using Links and Content to Hit Business Goals

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Posted by Paddy_Moogan

Few would argue that 2012 changed the SEO industry. In April, we saw the release of Penguin and, for the first time, aggressive penalization of low-quality link building tactics at a huge scale by Google. As an industry, we needed this. We were on borrowed time with these tactics and, let's be honest, they shouldn't have worked in the first place.

I know a lot of SEOs who add huge amounts of value to the businesses they work with through quality, creative online marketing. This is what we should be recognised for rather than using low-quality tactics and tricks that have been labelled by others as a "dark art." Link building certainly fits into this bucket because it is one of the areas where low-quality tactics worked for a long time (some still do) and were far from creative. The 5,000 article syndation links and 10,000 directory submissions you've done was hardly us at our best.

I want to share some thoughts on how we can transition link building from a numbers game into genuine online marketing that adds value to a business, beyond increasing their link counts.

Start with why

Last year, I read a book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. If you haven't read the book, here is a video of a talk he did at Ted:

The basic message is that successful companies know why they exist, and they use this to guide the decisions they make. They also focus on why they exist when marketing themselves and selling to customers. Rather than getting customers to buy into the what, they get them to buy into the why.

The reason I mention this in the context of link building is because I don't think we ask this question enough. The temptation when a client asks for our help is to dive in and start building links as quickly as we can, but why are we doing it? Are they the right types of links? Are they going to make a difference to the business? Is an infographic really going to help bring more customers?

Instead of this approach, I believe we should be a bit smarter and far more strategic with our recommendations. Yes, links help rankings and infographics (as an example) help get links. But is that the best we can come up with? Can't we build links that not only help with rankings, but also drive real customers to the website?

There is already talk of Google reducing the effectiveness of links built via infographics and guest blogging. Wouldn't it be nice to not have to worry about whatever update Google comes out with next?

Why does this business exist?

Whether a client comes to you for link building or not, I think this should be the starting point for an online marketing campaign. To work with a client long-term, you need to really dive into their business and understand it as much as you can. I'm not saying that you necessarily need to become an expert on their products or their market, but getting a deep understanding of how they work and why they do what they do is important.

If you can do this, it will make your job much easier with the following:

  • Understanding their industry and what makes this business different
  • Knowing how to get things done internally by understanding what matters to the company
  • Defining a strategy that is in line with their business goals
  • You can talk the same language and they will trust you because of that – once you have trust, it's a lot harder to fire you, too :)

There is another subtle benefit here, too – if you're pitching to win their business, you're far more likely to win if you show a genuine understanding of their business.

Why do they need SEO?

There are a few answers to this question that I would not be happy with, and would push for a further explanation:

  • More links
  • More traffic
  • More content

These are all good things to have, don't get me wrong. But in isolation, they don't mean much. If you hear this as an answer, you need to ask – why?

  • Why do you need more links?
  • Why do you need more traffic?
  • Why do you need more content?

These will get you closer to the answer you want to hear. Or you can rephrase to be something like this:

  • What matters to your business?
  • How do you make money?
  • What drives your profits every year?

The answer you're looking for is the one that makes the business survive, and the answer will be in line with why the company exists. This is the starting point that we need because from here, every decision we make is driven by it. This is why it is important to start with these questions. Once you've got this clear, you're in a much better position to start defining a strategy that will not only deliver links, but links that will help the business hit its goals.

Don't measure success by links built

Some may not agree, but this is what I feel about link building right now:

The deliverable of a project isn't links; the deliverable is a clear improvement in what matters to the client – revenue.

I'm not keen on working on the basis of building x number of links per month, with little or no thought as to why. Why do you need 50 links each and every month? What type of links are they? If you build them every month, will you improve revenue for your client?

Let's look at a quick example. You're hired by the Head of SEO at a mid-level company and you agree a target of 50 links per month to be built and a three month contract. At the end of three months, you've built 150 links, so you go in for another meeting to discuss the project and declare it a success.

At this meeting is the CEO of the company who hears that you've hit your target. They ask how much extra revenue you've generated as a result of these links. The Head of SEO doesn't know, and neither do you. The CEO then asks how your work has helped improve the brand image of their company. You look at the list of 150 guest posts on unrelated blogs and stay quiet.

See the problem?

If we want to be taken more seriously as an industry, we need to be able to confidently deliver results that the CEOs of large companies will relate to and understand.

The CEO doesn't care if Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO shows an improvement in your backlink profile. They care about paying the salaries of their employees on time, paying the office rent, and making a profit. Links alone, with no thought or strategy behind them, will not do this. They used to work when link building was a commodity and less risky, but no longer can we think like this.

We're hired to make more revenue for the company, if we can do this by building 50 links a month and it happens, that's great. But we start with why we're doing what we're doing – not starting with links as the default answer.

It may not always be as straight forward as though and I know that it isn't simple to get to this point. So here are a few ways to take steps towards it.

Focus on the metrics that matter to your client

If your client doesn't make direct revenue from their website, you need to find an alternative. Imagine you're working with a B2B website who doesn't sell online. In this case, your work should be measured on leads/inquiries which lead to revenue.

The bottom line is that your deliverables should make a difference to the business you're working for. Figure out the key metric, then figure out how to improve it.

Real example: I used to work with a SaaS client in the UK who were B2B. A single sale of their service could give them £100k+ revenue a year, but a conversion would take many months to complete. I could track enquiries from organic search, but I wouldn't necessarily know if they converted into a customer, so I made a point of having face-to-face meetings with the Marketing Manager each month to see how good those leads were. She was able to tell me if they were on the way to converting into real customers or not. This communication let me see that we were adding huge amounts of value to their business through search.

Try not to sell short-term projects

To be able to focus on this as a metric that you're measured by, you need to agree on being given enough time to make it happen. Doing a one-off piece of link bait that lasts four weeks is probably not going to help, whereas agreeing a contract for at least six months of activity is much more likely to lead to you having the chance to improve the bottom line.

The only time I think that a short-term project can work is when you're working on a very specific problem, such as lifting a penalty or training an intenral team. I don't think it is a good idea to take on very short-term link building projects because it encourages short-term thinking.

Choose a strategy that helps you improve the bottom line

This is where it all comes together. By this point, you may decide that to improve revenue for your client, you need to come up with a good link building strategy. You then choose the tactics that fit into this strategy.

You should see the clear difference between this approach and just saying, "We need links," within a few minutes of talking to your client.

When we pick the link building tactics in this way, we're choosing ones that will help us improve revenue for the client – not ones that will just let us deliver 50 links per month. If we're driven by pure number of links, our standards naturally drop, and we will be happy to get any types of links we can just to hit the target we've been set.

Examples of getting it right

Let me give you a direct example of a smarter approach: Turning Link Building into Audience Profiling by Richard Baxter. This is link building, but it is driven by a smart strategy that means the links built will mean much more to the company they point to. They will hit that sweet spot where the potential customers of a business hangout and absorb content online.

What about guest blogging? There has been lots of talk about this as a tactic, and it can be a great tactic. But it is also easy to scale, which naturally reduces the quality of the output. Instead of scaling guest blogging, what about doing something like this. This was a guest post that drove more sales of a book than TV and newspaper coverage.

Infographics that matter

No, they're not dead, but they will become less effective if they're not good quality and worth sharing. Rather than creating a regular tower graphic and visualizing things that should never be made into an image, why not create something relevant and helpful to your customers? Like this:

What about content marketing for consumers?

The new SEO buzzword that has actually been around for years and years. Instead of producing a piece of content where the goal is just to get links, what about producing a piece of content that is useful to your real customers? I have a great example here from Swissotel, hat tip to the guys at SEOgadget for showing me this one: 

 

What about content marketing in B2B markets?

I have two great examples here, starting with American Express who work with a lot of small businesses. They have the Open Forum that publishes content that small businesses will find useful:

Simply Business have done the same with their guides for small business owners:

Both of these companies are creating content that fits with why they exist – to service small businesses. This is smarter than creating an infographic on a random topic just to get a few links that month.

The CEO test

Next time you build a piece of content, ask yourself, "What would the CEO think of this?"

This can be a good way to sense check what you're doing and to make sure that it is in-line with the business and will help them hit their goals. Will the CEO be proud of seeing the content on their website? Will they be proud to see the external websites where they're mentioned?

Conclusion

Yes, links matter – a lot. This isn't changing anytime soon and our clients need links more than ever. But I'd love to see our industry step up and build links that stand the test of time, and not waste time being worried about Google updates.

This isn't easy to do – I'm not 100% there yet myself. It involves quite a big change in thinking for a lot of people. But I firmly believe that if we can alter our approach so that we become focused on the goals of a business rather than purely looking at links, the following will happen:

  • You will win more business because the clients will see that you focus on what matters to them
  • You will be forced to use the tactics that really make a difference to the bottom line
  • You will be able to demonstrate that you've increased a key metric for a business, not just number of links or rankings which most CEOs don't worry about

Overall, SEOs will start to be taken seriously as we're being measured on the right business metrics – not pure rankings or number of links we manage to build.

On a related note, I've just released an eBook focused 100% on building links. At 65,000 words, it covers the whole link building process (including a fair amount of information on this topic) and discusses kicking projects off on the right foot to establish business goals early.

I hope you enjoyed this post – please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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SEOmoz Daily SEO Blog

How To Start You Own Search Marketing Business

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Start your own business

Had enough of the day job?

A common new years resolution is “quit the rat race and be your own boss”. In this article we’ll take a look at what is involved in starting up your own search marketing business, the opportunities you could grab, and the pitfalls you should avoid.

But first , why are people leaving SEO?

Is SEO Dead?

There’s no question Google makes life difficult for SEOs. Between rolling Pandas, Top Heavies, Penquins, Pirates, EMDs and whatever updates and filters they come up with next, the job of the SEO isn’t easy. SEO is a fast moving, challenging environment.

In the face of such challenges, many SEOs have given up and moved on. Here’s a rather eloquent take on some reasons why.

It’s true that SEO isn’t as easy as it once was. You used to be able to follow a script: incorporate this title tag, put this keyword on your page, repeat it a few times, get links with the keyword in the link text, get even more links with keywords in the link text, and when you’ve finished doing that – get a lot more links with keywords in the link text.

A top ten position was likely yours!

Try that script in 2013, and…..your mileage may vary.

There are plenty of examples of sites that follow Google’s exhaustive rules and get absolutely nowhere.

But let’s say you’ve figured out how to rank well. Your skills are valuable, because top ten rankings are valuable. Another bonus, given Google is making life more difficult, is that it creates a barrier to entry. There will be less threat from newcomers who have just bought a book on How To SEO.

For those with the skills, the outlook remains positive.

Many in the industry are reporting skills shortages:

We do struggle to fill some of our positions, with SEO being a particularly tough one to find good people that have relevant experience,” said Chris Johnson, CEO of Terralever in Tempe.
Consultants in SEO and marketing in general have seen a huge uptick in job openings in the past few years. An October study by CNNMoney and PayScale.com place marketing consultants, which include SEO specialists, as the second-best positions in the U.S. based on pay and industry growth. According to the survey, they comprise more than 282,000 jobs with a 41.2 percent growth rate over the past 10 years.

SEMPOs 2012 report projects the search industry to grow to 26.8 billion in 2013, up from 22.9 billion in 2011.

So, the demand is escalating, SEO/SEM is getting more challenging, yet more people than ever seem to be throwing in the towel.

The nature of SEO is changing. Trends for 2013 – which are also highlighted in the SEMPO report – show that whilst lead generation and traffic acquisition are still favoured, areas such as brand awareness and reputation management are on the rise:

Survey responses show a drop in the blunt objective of driving traffic, but it remains a key goal for search engine optimization (SEO). Perhaps more interesting is the doubled number of agencies citing brand/reputation as a goal, up from 5% in 2011 to over 11% in this year’s survey

These might be niche areas worth exploring.

One sad trend is that the small business owner is being squeezed out. SEO used to be a way for small business to out-compete big brands, but that door is being closed.

What can we learn from all this?

SEO for the larger businesses appears to be where the game is moving. The advantages of business scale and brand reputation in the search engine results pages are not to be underestimated.

The SEO approach for smaller businesses needs to be about a lot more than just SEO, it needs to be more about SEM – with strong emphasis on the “M” (arketing) in order to avoid the fate outlined in the link above. Google looks deficient if people can’t find the big brand names, but few will notice if a small, generic operator falls out of the index as another relative unknown will take their place.

Of course, gaps in the algorithms will always exist, and this is the territory of aggressive SEO, but this is getting increasingly difficult to apply to legitimate sites that can’t afford to burn and replace sites.

The SEO these days needs to think about the fundamental value that SEO has always delivered – qualified prospects, leads, and positioning in the buyers minds. That might mean approaching what was once a technical exercise from a more holistic marketing angle.

Why Work In Search?

Search remains a very interesting business.

John Wanamaker, a merchant in the 1860’s was quoted as saying “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half!”. I think he would have liked the search marketing business, as it allows you to do three very important things: get inside the mind of the customer, only talk to the people who are interested in what you offer and track what they do next.

Using search, you know where 100% of your budget is going. It won’t be wasted so long as you target correctly. Targeting is what search marketing does so well. If you enjoy figuring out what people want, matching them up with a page that allows them to do that thing, and beat your competition at doing so, then search marketing is a good game to be in. Whether you do that using SEO, PPC, social media, or likely a mix of all three, the demand for qualified visitors will always exist.

The next question is whether you want to do it for someone else, or do it for yourself. There are obviously pluses and minuses for both options, so let’s compare them.

Work For Someone Else Or Work For yourself?

Some people feel frustrated working for someone else and not being the master of your own destiny, especially if the boss is an idiot. Then again, some people like the routine and predictability of working for others, and they might be lucky enough to have a great boss who nurtures and respects them.

So, what type of person are you?

If you like a regular routine, regular hours, and task specialization, then looking for a SEM job within an established search marketing firm might be the way to go. If you prefer a high degree of control, variety and the knowledge that all the rewards will flow to you for the successful work you undertake, then starting your own business might be a good way forward.

Only you know for sure, but it pays to spend a bit of time taking a good look at yourself, your existing skills and what you really like doing before you decide if “working for someone else” or “working for yourself” is the right answer.

You should also establish your goals.

Be specific. If your reward is monetary, set a measurable goal i.e. I want to make $ X per month in the first year, $ X per month in the second, and $ X per month in the third. Being specific about measurable goals will help you construct a viable business plan, which I’ll cover shortly.

Your goals need not be monetary. It could be argued the greatest rewards from a job or business aren’t monetary reward, but the satisfaction you derive from the work.

When it comes to working for yourself, it’s hard to underestimate the freedom of picking your own areas of working to your own timetable. These are real benefits. If your goals align more closely with a job i.e. a regular income and a regular time schedule, then you might decide that getting a job with an employer will suit you best. If you value autonomy, then running your own business might suit you better.

Split your goals into short term, medium term and long term. Where do you see yourself in five years time? How about this time next year? In the case of search marketing, who knows if it will be around in five years time, and if so, in what form?

Your one year plan might be focused on SEO, but your five year plan might be to provide the very same things SEO provides today – qualified visitor traffic – no matter what form the source of that traffic will take in five years time. The value proposition to the client, will be much the same. So, your five year plan might include learning about general marketing concepts and studying new digital marketing channels as they arise.

Being clear about what you like doing and your objectives will make your decision about whether to get a job or strike out on your own much easier.

Another way to think about it is to consider doing search marketing part time, at first. It may prove to be a lucrative second income if you already have a job. One of the biggest factors in running your own business is the risk, and having a steady income reduces this risk significantly. It also means you can start slow and build up without the pressure of having to hit regular targets. The disadvantage is that you don’t have as much time to devote to it, and working two jobs might tire you out to the point you’re not doing both well. You’re also unlikely to be available to clients during business hours when they need you.

Of course, be careful not to compete with your existing employer and check out the non-compete clauses in your contract.

Another thing to think about if you’re cash rich but time poor, especially with many people leaving the SEO game, is to buy an existing SEO business. You’re buying existing contracts and/or a client list, and you may be able to pick up some skilled employees, too. Buying a business is a topic in itself and outside the scope of this article, however it’s an avenue to think about especially if you are capital rich and time poor. You may be able to manage such a business part time, as you have less pressure to develop new business from scratch and the existing employees can handle the work at the coal face and deal with clients during the day.

Business Plan

Few business plans ever survive contact with the real world as the real world is constantly moving.

But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write one.

It’s essential to have a plan, just as you need directions to get to a travel destination. You could wing it without a map, and you might arrive in your destination, but chances are you won’t. You’ll most likely get lost. A business plan helps you assess where you are, and remind you where you’re going.

Having said that, a business plan is always subject to change, because as you encounter the real world – the rapidly fluctuating market – you will start to see opportunities and pitfalls you could never see whilst you were creating an abstract plan in your head. The plan needs to change with you, not lock you into a rigid framework. Treat it as a living document subject to change.

Entire books have been written about business plans, but unless you’re chasing bank financing and/or need to present formally to an external agency, it pays to keep business plans brief, clear and simple.

Crafting a business plan also enforces an intellectual rigour that will help test and challenge your ideas. In crafting your business plan, various questions will occur to you. How many clients do you need to get in order to meet your financial goals? How many staff members can you afford based on those goals? If you allocate all your time to existing clients, how will have time to acquire new clients? Do you have a marketing budget to get new clients?

These type of questions are addressed by the business plan.

A typical business plan covers the following:

  • Business Concept – describes what the business will do, discusses the search marketing industry in general, and shows how you’ll make the business work.
  • The Market – identifies your likely customers, and your competitors. Explains how you’ll get these customers, and how you’ll beat the existing competition.
  • Finances – shows how much it will cost to do what you plan to do, and how much money you plan to make from doing it.

Break these sections down as follows:

1. Introduction

What is your current position? What is your background? What is the purpose of your business? What is your competitive advantage? Who are your competitors? How will you exploit their weaknesses, and counter their strengths? How will you increase capability and capacity? How do you plan to grow?

Describe the search marketing industry. If you’re unaware of the trends, refer to industry reports from the likes of SEMPO, Market Research.com and Nielsen.

Identify your target market and show how you will reach them. Describe what your search marketing service will do and highlight any areas where you have a clear advantage over competitors.

2. Business Strategy

Define the market you’re targeting. How big is it? What are the growth prospects? What is the market potential? How does your business fit into this market? What are your sales goals? What is your unique selling proposition?

Be specific about your objectives and goals i.e. make $ x profit in the first year, as opposed to “be profitable”. They must be measurable, so you can see exactly how you’re doing.

Outline your pricing strategy. Here are a few ideas on how to price without engaging in a race to the bottom. Outline how you’re going to sell. What sort of advertising and marketing will you do? Outline your core values. What do you believe? What are your principles? Outline the factors most critical to your success. What are the things you must do in order to succeed?

3. Marketing

Prepare a brief SWOT analysis. It sounds convoluted, but SWOT simply means strengths, Weaknesses,Opportunities, and Threats in terms of marketing.

Include any Market research you have done. Outline your distribution channels. Outline any strategic alliances you have. Outline your promotion plan. Prepare a Marketing budget. How will you appear credible in the eyes of your target market?

4. Management Structure

Who is involved and what are their skills? Do you plan to hire more staff? At what milestones? What plans do you have for training and retention? You need not solve this problem in house, of course. Your plan could involve using contractors as and when required.

Who are your advisors? i.e. your accountant, lawyer, mentor and financial planner, if applicable. This section is especially important if you’re seeking financing as banks will want to see that you’re operating with professional guidance.

Describe any staff management systems you plan to implement.

5. Financial Budgets And Forecasts

Ideally, you should include:


These can be hard to estimate, so calculate a best case scenario, a worst case scenario, and something in the middle. This gives you a range to think about, and how you might deal with various outcomes should they arise.

Cashflow is by far the most important consideration. You can have customers lined up, they are buying what you have, they are placing more orders, but if you can’t meet your bills, then your business will crash. Consider what line of credit you may need in order to maintain cashflow.

6. Summary

Restate the main aspects of your plan, highlighting where you are now and where you’re going to take the business. As business plans are always up for review, make a note of when you’ll review it next.

You might think a business plan is tedious and not worth the effort. However, it can save you a lot of time, effort and money if it shows you that your business won’t fly. It’s great to model a business on paper before you sink real money into it as there is no risk at this point, yet it will be clear from the business plan if the business has a chance of making money and growing. If the numbers don’t add up on the plan, they won’t do so in real life, either.

Branding

Your good name.

It’s worth spending time and possibly money investing in a great name as you’ll likely live and breathe it for the lifetime of the business

What do you want people to think of when they think of your company? Your name must create an immediate impression.

One of the problems with a crowded industry, like search marketing, is that generic, descriptive names won’t stand out. “Search Marketing Agency” may describe what you do, but such a name makes it difficult to differentiate yourself. A quirky name, like “RedFrog”, make be memorable, but may do little to convey what you’re about.

You’ll also need a name that doesn’t stomp on anyone else’s registered trademark, else you’ll likely get into legal trouble. It also helps if the exact match domain name is available. If you get stuck, there are plenty of branding experts who can help you out, although they do tend to be expensive.

Keep in mind that is easy to rank for a unique brand name. If it’s unique, it tends to be memorable. So my two cents for anyone in a crowded industry is to go for the unique over the generic and descriptive. You can also tack on a byline to the end of your name to remove any uncertainty.

And get a great logo! Check out 99designs. Keep in mind that a logo should work for both on-screen color display and print, which might be in black and white.

Search Business Models

There are a few different search marketing models on which to base a business.

The Consultant

Perhaps the most obvious search marketing model is that of the consultant whereby you help other businesses with their search marketing efforts. Think about the demand for external consultants and where that demand may come from.

Large companies tend to want to deal with large agencies. Large companies may have their own internal search team. There comes a point where it is cheaper to hire someone full time that hire an external consultant, and that point is the average full time salary plus employment costs.

Larger companies will hire one-man bands or small consultancies if they need what you have and what you have is difficult for them to get elsewhere. A lot of search marketing consultants won’t fill this brief, although some are brought in to help train and mentor their internal search teams.

A lot of the demand for external consultants comes from smaller businesses who don’t have the expertise in house and their low level usage of search marketing wouldn’t make it financially viable.

One of the great upsides of the consultancy model is you get to see how other people run their businesses.

Affiliate/Display Advertiser

The affiliate positions a site in the top ten results, gathers leads and traffic, and then sells them to someone else. The display advertiser publishes content in order to provide space for advertising, and typically makes money on the click-thrus.

Keep in mind that the competition can be fierce as any lucrative niche will likely already have many competitors. Also keep in mind that Google is likely gunning for you, as there have been clampdowns on thin-affiliates in recent years i.e. affiliates who don’t provide a great deal of unique and useful content.

The downside is that unless you’re diversified, your income could dry up overnight if Google decides to flick their tail in your direction. And to be truly diversified, you need diversification across markets AND strategies. Without that, there is a good chance you’ll then have to start from scratch at some point. Algorithm shifts tend to be great for consultants with deeper levels of client engagement, as the change can create new demand for their consultancy services. For consultants who sell low margin consulting across a large number of clients, the algorithmic updates can actually be worse than they are for affiliates, because you may suddenly have a lot of angry customers all at once & unlike an affiliate who prioritizes a couple key projects while ignoring many others, it is not practical to ignore most clients when things go astray. To each & every client their project is the most important thing you are working on, & rightfully so.

Some search marketers mix up their affiliate with consulting to even out the risk, provide greater variety, and deal with the inevitable slack that comes with many consulting-based business models.

Tools Vendor

There is a huge community of search professionals. They need software tools, data, advice and other services. Obviously, SEOBook follows a hybrid of this model. We provide premium tools, while also engaging in consulting through our community forums. Those who don’t value their time are not a good fit. But those who do value their time can get a lot out of the community in short order, without the noise that dominates so many other forums. The barrier to entry is a feature which guarantees that the members are either a) already successful, or b) deeply understand the value of SEO, which in turn increases the level of discourse.

Think about areas that are a pain for you in your current search marketing work. These areas are likely a pain for other people, too. If you can make these pain points easier, then that is worth money. The search community tends to be generous about getting the word out when truly useful tools and services spring up. The hard part is when more service providers enter a niche it becomes harder to maintain a sustained advantage in your feature set. As that happens, you need to focus on points of differentiation in your marketing strategy.

Integrated Model

A lot of SEOs/SEMs do a mix of work.

PPC and SEO fit quite nicely together. It’s all search traffic. The skills are pretty similar in terms of choosing keywords and tracking performance. They differ in terms of technical execution.

Affiliate and display advertising can balance out client work, providing income from a variety of different sources, which lowers risk.

The main benefit of an integrated model is you get to see a lot of different areas. Many people in the search industry talk the talk, but if their primary purpose is to sell, they’re less likely to have the chops. If you’ve got your own sites, and you win/lose based on how well they do, then you’ll likely have an understanding of algorithms that a lot of sales-oriented talking heads will never have. The downside is that you might spread yourself too thin over a number of projects, and thus become a master of none.

Clearly Defined Niche

The trick with any of these approaches is to find a niche, preferably one that is growing quickly. Okay, the SEO consultant market is swamped due to low barriers to entry, but perhaps the SEO provider market in your home town isn’t.

Perhaps there are web design companies who can’t afford a full time SEO, but would like to offer the service to their clients. Get three or four of these agencies as “clients” and you’ll likely create one full time job for yourself. This is a particularly good model if you don’t like sales, or don’t have time to do a lot of sales work. The design agency will do the selling for you, and they already have a customer base to whom they can sell.

Design agencies often like such arrangements because they get to add an additional service without having the overhead of another staff member. They also get to click the ticket on your services. Your billing is also more streamlined, as you’re likely be billing the agency itself.

Be very specific when choosing a niche. Who would you really like to work for? What, specifically, would you really like to do? “Search marketing” is perhaps a too wide of a niche these days, but how about exclusive search marketing for tourism businesses?

It doesn’t pay to try and be all things to all people, especially when you’re a small operation. In fact, the advantage of being small is that you can target very specific areas that aren’t viable for bigger marketing companies who run high overheads. Consider your own interests and hobbies and see if there’s a fit. Do companies in your area of interest do their search marketing well? If not, you’ve got a huge advantage pitching to them as you already speak their language.

Keep the customer firmly in mind. What problem do they have that they desperately need solving? Perhaps the restaurant doesn’t really need their website ranking well, but they do need more people phoning up and making a reservation. So how about running a restaurant reservation site in your town, using SEO and PPC to drive leads, providing customers copies of each restaurant’s menu? Charge the restaurant for placement and/or on leads delivered basis.

Trip Advisor started with a similar idea.

Doing The Deals

One of the biggest transitions from a regular job to running your own business, if you’re not used to working in sales, is that you will need to negotiate deals. Those working 9-5, especially in technical roles, don’t tend to negotiate directly, at least not with prospective clients and suppliers.

Negotiation is a game. The buyer is trying to get the best price out of you, and you’re trying to land more business.

Possibly the single most important thing to understand about negotiating is that negotiations should be win-win ie. both sides need to get something out of it and not feel cheated. This is especially important in search marketing consulting as you’ll be working with your clients over a period of time and you need them on your side in order to make the changes necessary.

It’s easy to assume the buyer has all the power, but this isn’t true. If they’re talking to you, they have already indicated they want what you have. You are offering something that grows their business.

However, you need to understand your relative positions in order to negotiate well. If you’re offering a generic search marketing service and there are ten other similar providers bidding for the job, then your position is likely very weak unless you’re the preferred supplier. Personally, I’d avoid any bidding situation where I’m not the preferred supplier.

This is where niche identification is important. If you have clearly identified a niche in which there isn’t a great deal of competition, you have a clearly articulated unique selling point and you know what buyers want, then your position in negotiation is stronger. This is why it’s important to have addressed these aspects in your business plan. Failure to do so means you’re very vulnerable on price, because if you’re up against very similar competitors, then your last resort is to undercut them.

Price cutting is not the way to run a sustainable business, unless you’re operating a WalMart style model at scale.

You need to set a clear bottom line and walk away if you don’t get it. This can be very difficult to do, especially if you’re just starting out. The exception is if you’re simply trying to get a few names and references on your books, and don’t care so much about the price at this point. In this case, you should always price high but say you’re offering a special discount at this point in time. Failure to do so means they’ll just perceive you as being cheap all the time.

Start any negotiation by letting the customer state what they want. then you state what you want. If you both agree, great! Win-win. Chances are, however, you’ll agree on some points, and disagree on others. Fine. Those points you agree on are put off to one side, and you’re focus on trying to find win-win positions on the points you disagree with. Keep going until you find a package that both meets you needs.

Summary

Starting your own business is a thrill. It’s liberating. However, in order for it to work, you must approach it with the same rigor and planning you do with your search marketing campaigns. Keep in mind you’re swapping one boss for many bosses.

Perhaps the best piece of advice is to dive in. A lot about running your own business isn’t knowable until you do it. so if one of your new years resolutions was to quit the day job and strike out on your own, then go for it!

Best of luck, and I hope this article has given you a few useful ideas:)

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Business Lessons From Pumpkin Hackers

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Working nine to five can suck.

You might be working for a boss who is an idiot. You know he makes stupid decisions. When he’s off making yet another stupid decision, it’s you left doing all the work. As for job security – that’s a joke these days. He can fire you on a whim.

So why not cut out the weak link? Why not go into business for yourself?

The reality, of course, is that starting a business isn’t as easy as saying it. You’ll likely work longer hours, for less money, and there are no guarantees. While your friends are looking forward to the weekend, you might not see a weekend for a while. Most small businesses fail in their first five years, taking dreams and savings along with them.

Everything has a downside.

However, many businesses not only survive, they prosper. They make their founders wealthy. Even if they don’t make fortunes, they can provide lifestyle benefits that are near impossible to achieve with a regular job. There’s a lot to be said for being the master of your own destiny.

To achieve that, it’s best to start with some good advice.

Makin’ Mistakes

I’ve been running my own small business for a decade now. Whilst it’s been rewarding, and I achieved the goals I set for myself, there has also been a fair few missed opportunities and inevitable wrong turns. I jumped in blind, and like many in the search marketing industry, pretty much made it up as I went along.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But I wished I had understood a few fundamental truths first. I wished someone had imparted some profound wisdom, and I wished I had been smart enough to listen. Come to think of it – they did, and I wasn’t.

Such is life.

I’m in the process of setting new goals for the next few years. I’m restructuring. So I decided to reflect on the past, examine the good and the bad, and try to do more of the former, and less of the latter.

One of the problems I identified was that I was spreading myself way too thin over many projects. I have a *lot* of sites. I have domains I’d even forgotten I owned. I have domain names I keep renewing, vowing to do something with one day, yet never getting around to it.

In short, I was growing an awful lot of small pumpkins.

Getting The Fundamentals Right

I’ve decided to ditch almost all of what I have been doing in the past, and focus on a very narrow range of activities, one of which is working with Aaron on SEOBook.

One book I really wish I’d read when I was starting out – had it been available, which it wasn’t – is called “The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy To Grow A Remarkable Business“. I’d like to share the central theme of the book with you, because I think it’s a great lesson if you’re thinking of starting a business, or, like me, optimizing an existing one.

It’s the lesson I wished I’d understood when I started. I certainly hope it’s of help to someone else :)

If You Want To Prosper, Learn To Grow Pumpkins

There are geek farmers who obsess about growing huge pumpkins. They are the hackers of the vegetable world. In order to grow a huge pumpkin – weighing half a ton or more – you can’t just throw seeds on the ground. You can’t grow a whole lot of pumpkins and hope one of them turns out to be huge.

You’ve got to follow a process.

And here it is:

  • Step One: Plant promising seeds
  • Step Two: Water, water, water
  • Step Three: As they grow, routinely remove all of the diseased or damaged pumpkins
  • Step Four: Weed like a mad dog. Not a single green leaf or root permitted if it isn’t a pumpkin plant
  • Step Five: When they grow larger, identify the stronger faster growing pumpkins. Then, remove all the less promising pumpkins. Repeat until you have one pumpkin on each vine.
  • Step Six: Focus all of your attention on the big pumpkin. Nurture it around the clock like a baby and guard it like you would your first Mustang convertible
  • Step Seven: Watch it grow. In the last days of the season this will happen so fast you can actually see it happen

What’s this got to do with business? It’s a process for growing not just pumpkins, but businesses. Let’s apply it:

  • Step One: Identify and leverage your biggest natural strengths
  • Step Two: Sell, Sell, Sell
  • Step Three: As your business grows, fire all your small time, rotten clients
  • Step Four: Never, ever let distractions – often labelled as new opportunities – take hold. Weed them out fast.
  • Step Five: Identify your top clients and remove the rest of the less promising clients
  • Step Six: Focus all your attention on your top clients. Nurture and protect them. Find out what they want more than anything and if its in alignment with what you do best, give it to them. Then, replicate the same service or product for as many of the same types of top client as possible
  • Step Seven: Watch your company grow to a giant size

In essence, it’s about focusing on those things you do best. It’s about focusing on your very best customers, and ditching the rest. It’s about creating your own niche by identifying and solving the problems that no one else does.

None of this is new, of course. There are plenty of business advice books that say similar things. However, this is one of those great little stories I wish I had internalized earlier. Rather than grow a lot of small pumpkins, focus on growing those that matter.

Given recent changes at Google, I dare say a lot of SEOs – particularly those who run their own small sites – may be rethinking their approach. Unfortunately, the small guy is being squeezed and the rewards, like in most endevours, are increasingly flowing to large operations. Search conferences, which used to be the domain of the lone-wolf affiliate guy and mom and pop businesses are now jammed full of corporates and their staff. The entire landscape is shifting. New approaches are required, not just in terms of tactics, but in the underlying fundamentals.

It would be interesting to hear your lessons in business. What are the things you know now that you wished someone had told you when you started? Please share them in the comments.

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Why Does Business Talk That Way?

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It goes like this.

Our Mission is to provide the best SEO services in the world. We nurture win-win scenarios to create enduring value for our customers. We were voted top SEO agency in Texas and voted the best place to work. We value our staff – we want people to be the best we can be, so as we can maintain our preeminent position in the search industry

Place gun to my head. Pull trigger.

How many times have you come across corporate-speak and thought “who are these people trying to kid”? Yet, when many business people sit down to write, that is the sort of thing they invariably come up with.

Why?

Because they are business people. They are talking about business. That is how business sounds.

Well, it’s how they think business should sound, because that’s the way it has always sounded – a monotone drone of description, chest puffed out. These people are stuck in the business-speak echo chamber.

No one sounds like business-speak in real life. If you ask someone how their job is going, a lot of them will invariably say “it sucks”, “too busy”, “it’s okay”. These same people might work for the firm that has says they were nominated “best place to work”. The image and the reality don’t match. At best, people will ignore business-speak. No one really believes it.

There are better ways to communicate.

Truth

A lot of business-speak fails to communicate because it isn’t rooted in truth.

I once worked at a Telecommunications Company. The marketing team was having a meeting about a new brochure and came up with the slogan – I am not making this up – “(Company Name) – first in service!”. Once I stopped wondering how any of these people ever managed to land a job in Marketing, I asked how we knew we were “first in service”? It seemed a reasonable question, but I may as well have asked the Pope if he really believed in God.

Apparently, it was self-evident we were first in service! There was no basis of truth in it, of course. Just an empty slogan, meaning nothing. No measurement. It was a phrase that “sounded positive!”

I doubt any customers believed it, especially those waiting in call queues.

Do you notice how some small companies try to appear large? They list multiple offices, when in, reality they consist of two guys who have a call forwarding service. I’m not quite sure why a company would pretend to be any bigger than it actually is, because as soon as they get a customer, they are going to get found out. The feeling they’ll likely leave with that customer is that they are fundamentally dishonest.

Which is a strange approach to take.

Many customers consider small to be an advantage. Small can mean you are more connected with your customers as there is no barrier between you and the customer. They can talk directly to you. They can email you. They can see you Twittering. Many customers love that. Big companies have “policies”. They have call centers. They have barriers to entry. It’s no wonder they talk in business-speak. It’s just another means to keep people at a distance.

Small companies sometimes try to appear big because they think they need to be big in order to attract big companies as clients. This is sometimes true, but mostly false. It is true that big companies often like to deal with other big companies, mostly so they can successfully sue them if they stuff up. It is false because smart big companies will know a great idea when they hear one, and size simply won’t be a consideration so long as the small company has got something the big company wants.

For example, I mentioned I’d been reading “The Pumpkin Plan” recently. There is a story about a tiny two person company. They came up with a new way of marketing pharmaceuticals.

One major problem many pharmaceutical companies face is that they need to change their marketing approach in different regions, even though they are marketing the exact same product.

In some areas, they have to market based on price (Los Angeles). In other markets they need to influence the cardiologists (Boston). In other areas they must talk directly to African-American patients (Atlanta). Exact same product, different marketing strategy for each city. Get the strategy wrong, and they waste a lot of money and lose market share.

Two guys came up with a way to crunch the numbers that tell pharmaceutical companies exactly what the biggest driver of performance is in each territory.

Through a network of colleagues, they managed to land a meeting with a pharmaceutical company. Not just any meeting – they go straight to the top floor, and talk to the Chairman Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals. They barely get five slides into their presentation when the Chairman stops them to call in his VP of marketing. They both love the idea! This solves a big problem for Johnson and Johnson. The result is that this two person company lands 500K worth of business on the spot, $ 4m worth of business in the first two years, and $ 14.2m by year four. They expand, of course.

So, they were two guys pitching to one the biggest pharmaceutical businesses in the world. They landed millions of dollars worth of business because Johnson and Johnson like their idea. They didn’t need to convince Johnson and Johnson they were anything more than two guys with a good idea. It didn’t require any business-speak about mission statements, just a focus on finding and solving a real problem.

Tell A True Story About You (And Them)

If you’re ever tempted to write business-speak, try telling a story instead. Turn your pitches into stories. Turn your proposal into stories. Turn your presentations into stories. Make them true stories. Tell them in your authentic voice. People love to be told a story as stories are both familiar and revealing. A string of facts is never going to have the same impact. Business-speak will invariably leave an audience focused on their smartphones.

A story can be about how you solved a problem in the past. A problem just like the one your prospective clients are having. What was the problem? Why was it painful? What did you do to solve it? What was the result?

Easy and memorable. You can structure almost anything as a story. Stories move from the status quo, straight into a crisis (business problem), then the crisis is resolved, and a new status quo is reached. Start with a problem. Explain why it is painful. Bring in the hero – you – and tell them what you did to solve the problem. Then tell them the result – the new status quo.

Are you more likely to recall the text of my opening paragraph, or the story about the two guys pitching to Johnson and Johnson?

Stories can be so much more effective than business-speak.

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