SEO Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Branding

OK, maybe thats a bit hyperbolic, in fact it definitely is, and not totally true. Establishing an effective brand can do wonders for search traffic, but Brian Clark had this to say about SEO:

There?s no doubt that optimization for better search engine rankings will always be a huge part of the online marketing equation. However, it may be that the top SEO players are finding that pigeonholing themselves with that narrow acronym is not in their best interest.

The SEO skill set emerges organically from more general web development. I know I didn’t start off wanting to be an SEO, but rather by I became one by learning a little design, a little coding, a little writing, a little market research and a whole lot of NLP. So perhaps “pigeonholing” isn’t the best word, maybe “specializing” is better.
The web is the nascent information economy right? The key to that would necessarily be information retrieval engines, its simply the most important way people find what they’re looking for and when they’re looking for something you can offer, then its the most important way to connect with potential customers.
Search doesn’t stalk or interrupts its customers, it lets the user beat a path to its door. Its not the “push” of traditional advertising: banner ads shoving messages down your gullet, its the “pull” of answering your customer’s needs. So I’m not sure I want search marketing lumped in with advertising, in fact I prefer to see it as the user-centric antithesis of advertising.
And yeah, conversion analysis and monetization often comes hand in hand with search-based traffic generation, but so does design and programing, its all just part of the larger skill set of web development.

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Cumulative Percentage Curves of Keyword Niches

As promised, here’s 5 cumulative percentage curves generated from real live keyword data.

The top 24.8% of “lyrics” based keywords account for 80% of the total traffic (337154).

The top 29.5% of “dog” based keywords account for 80% of the total traffic (418969).

The top 34.8% of “personals” based keywords account for 80% of the total traffic (30106).

The top 37.4% of “blog” based keywords account for 80% of the total traffic (48092).

The top 49.3% of “buy” based keywords account for 80% of the total traffic (119031).

One important thing to note is that this data is generated only by sampling the top 1000 keywords that contain the base keyword. If all the keywords were sampled the tail would be longer, but the curve’s shape would be about the same.

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Does the 80/20 Rule Apply to Keyword Traffic?

Thats “The Long Tail” to my left. Its called a Pareto distribution. Chris Anderson, and everyone who lusts for long tail economics (of which I’m one), like to talk about the never ending nature of the tail, about how even way out to the right there is always going to be at least one person. And yeah, for the most part thats true, but at least in search traffic distribution a power-law curve like the Pareto presents a calculable point of diminishing returns.
If you took a set of keywords, each with the number of searches for it per day, and graphed them, with the keywords on the x axis listed with the most popular keywords on the left, and the traffic on the y axis you’d get the top graph. The head and the tail.
That second graph there on the bottom is the cumulative percentage of the traffic. One of the key ideas of this type of keyword traffic distribution is the point where that line crosses 80% of traffic on the y axis, in the keyword niches I studied it happened somewhere between 20% and 40% of the keywords on the x axis. Essentially, what percetange of the total number of keywords account for 80% of the total traffic of the set. My research indicates that for most niches between 20% and 40% of the top keywords account for 80% of the total traffic.

Update: the images weren’t working. I’ll show you some real examples derived from specific niches…

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Block-Level Page Analysis, Sponsored Posts and Link Development

Link popularity as a search engine ranking factor is based on the notion that a link from one site to another is an editorial vote for the target site by the linker. Therefore, the idea goes, the more links from trusted websites a site or specific page has the better quality is can be assumed to be. It didn’t long after the introduction of link pop as a ranking factor for SEOs to begin gaming the search engines, by buying links, exchanging reciprocal links or setting up link networks. The key then for the search engines to combat link spam is to formulate intelligent algorithms to determine if a link is indeed an editorial vote. One of the easiest ways to do this is via block level page analysis (figuring out where the link is in the HTML on the page). Purchased and exchanged links are often found away from main page content, in sidebars or footers, so it can be assumed with a reasonable level of accuracy that links embedded in content blocks are not commercial or navigational, but real votes.

This is a key issue for modern link development, and nowhere is it more applicable or obvious that in blogs. Link ads and blogrolls (often large collection of run of site reciprocal links) appear in the sidebar while links to pages being discussed or recommended are found in the body of the page in posts.

Aside from the moral and ethical issues surrounding un-disclosed sponsored posts, these “pay for posts” models represent a great way to buy links nearly indistinguishable from purely editorial links.

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Competitor’s Brandnames as Keywords and User Intent

So there’s this trick some website play, most often (and easily) with PPC but it can be done with organic SEO too.

  • Find a direct competitor with more brand awareness than you
  • Get easy and cheap (non-competative) traffic from their brandname keywords
  • Wonder why the traffic doesn’t convert so well

For example, lets say I’m an SEM for Sprite and I’m working on my PPC keywords. I notice I can get 10 cent clicks by bidding on “7-up” keywords, awesome. I buy bucket loads of them, but my analytics tell me visitors spend very little time on my site, don’t few many pages, and rarely (if ever) actually buy anything from me. Why could this be? Clearly 7-up and sprite are almost identical and my product is cheaper or better or better marketed, obviously customers should be buying my soda.
Two words:
User Intent
Search traffic is a marketer’s dream. Users are using 1, 2 and 3 word phrases to tell me exactly what they want. Any SEM worth his salt should make it his first priority to take advantage of this and meet that user intent as closely as possible, otherwise you’re just burning money. So what did those searchers using 7-up keywords tell me about their intent? They said they want 7-up, not sprite. Offering them sprite is insulting and deceptive. I suppose there could be some positioning games the advertiser could play with competative keyword traffic, describing why our product is better or cheaper than theirs, but in a PPC environment you’re toeing legal copywrite lines, and I’m still not concerned its the best way to use ad dollars.

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Task-based Latency Tolerance for Web Browsing and Applications

Some research for client work prompted me to write this up and I wanted to share it.

Modern web browsing incorporates at least two distinct interaction paradigms, information-seeking browsing and navigation, (where the dominant interface element is the text or image link) and interactions where the user is performing a specific action via a web application (where the dominant interface elements resemble desktop applications, buttons, drop-down boxes and the like).
User latency tolerance and quality of service perception based on that latency varies greatly between the two types of functionality. Research indicates user tolerance is based on ?conceptual models of how the system works? and many users expect that merely requesting a possibly cached page or otherwise static content though navigational link-clicking (or using their browser?s back button) will yield sub-second response times. Additional delays in these types of actions will reduce the user?s quality of service perception.
On the other hand, research also indicates that if users ?see a glimpse of what seems like a web-application they make assumptions that make you think they are treating your web-app like a desktop app. This means that more traditional user-interface response guidelines apply. For decades studies have shown that ten seconds is ?about the limit for keeping the user?s attention focused on the dialogue… so they should be given feedback indicating when the computer expects to be done.? This feed back is ideally presented by warning the user before the action is taken, by showing a percent-done indicator during the waiting time and giving the user a way to escape the delay, such as a cancel button. Data also indicates that users are less tolerant of longer latencies later in their interaction sessions.

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Inertia, Friction and Conversion

With a paradigm from this article in my mind, I set to work on a project recently. An old ecommerce site, great domain name, huge natural traffic can’t seem to convert a reasonable percentage of its visitors into customers. They’re currently converting around 0.2% of their readers into customers.
Is User Intent Being Met?
Normally, the first place I look when trying to solve problems like this is at the source of the traffic, in most cases its search keywords. When we’re dealing with paid search traffic (like adwords) I look at what the user was searching for, what the ad said and what page they landed on and I ask if the user’s desire and intent was being met. This is the really low hanging fruit, changing up (or eliminating) keyword spend ussually ends up perventing a lot of money from being wasted. In this case however, the traffic was coming from natural SERP listings, on totally relevant keywords and most vistors are landing on the homepage so that end of the sales funnel seems ok.
Is There Enough Inertia?
The next place to look is if the site is selling to its visitors well. Is the site actively presenting the product benefits? In this case the site was not. Product pages were full of big, unbroken blocks of text, option selection functionality was presented before any persuasive copy, product images were lackluster and the entire site felt amatuerish. Fixing these things will create more excitement, more inertia, in the user to actually overcome some hassle or friction in the buying process.
Is There Too Much Friction?
Now a look at the traditional usability things to grease the sales funnel. Reducing friction is reducing the amount of work or hassle the potential customer has to overcome before a sale is made. Things like excessive information demands, confusing functionality, and mislabeled buttons come into play here. In this case the site is full of these things. Recommendations have been made, so now we wait for them to be implimented to see if that 0.2% conversion rate goes up.

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Trend Spotting With Search

Trend watching, cool hunting, call it whatever you want, but the point is to develop a crystal ball which will let you look into the future of a market or culture and divine emergent motions. What’s cool and what’s going to be cool.
It’s pretty trendy right now, everyone’s talking about it, you can hire trendscouts, websites are sprouting up everywhere, and Google just released a trend tracking tool, so you can track and compare historical search volume of specific keywords. But how do you find new things, stuff you don’t even know about yet?
Here’s one way:
When you’re first intrigued about something where do you go to find more? Yes, just like everyone else these days, you Google it, or Yahoo it, or whatever your search engine of choice happens to be. So emergent but popular trends often appear in search traffic data well before they’re on everyone’s radar, and the best way to find these fast growing new search terms is WordTracker’s Short Term Top 1000. I’ve been using this a lot recently to find stuff, and it’s worked very well. It skews towards the myspace/teeny bopper demo a bit, but isn’t that where the cool is anyways? Its easy to find just-about-to-blow musicians and entertainment trends, and playing with the rest of the WordTracker tools can reveal up-and-comming coolness in other markets with a little finagling.
There are plenty of other ways to keep your finger on trends in specific niches and I’ll give away some of the tricks I’ve picked up, most of which are common sense, in the next few days.

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What Makes an Idea Viral Part 4

ILoveBees (ILB) was an alternate reality game (ARG) commissioned by Microsoft (produced by 4orty2 entertainment to increase buzz and awareness of their upcoming Halo 2 game. Like other ARG?s ILB?s Hook was its immersive online experience and the novelty of the imposition of alternate reality on actual reality. ILB players were drawn in by a sense of curiosity to solve a series of mysteries in the game?s plot, but ILB distanced itself from traditional games by blurring the lines between real life and game life (sort of like the Lost, but more aggresive). Because of this juxtaposition the game pervaded its player?s lives and created a social experience. Not only did passer?s by witness the player?s odd behavior in public as they completed various tasks often surrounding pay phones (which are almost always in high traffic areas), but the players were driven by the urge of storytelling. Stories are powerful things and the desire to share them is what gives them their power, ILB created a rich and ever-deepening story that screamed to be passed along. The Payload in the ILB campaign was the brand awareness created by the fact that characters and situations presented in the ARG were from Halo 2 and at the end of ILB (which culminated on the same day as Halo 2?s release date) players were directed to the store to buy a copy of the game. As in the Hotmail example, the payload was enacted by the contagion, which was part of the hook.

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What Makes an Idea Viral Part 3

The spread of Microsoft?s Hotmail is one of the most oft-cited examples of intentional, commercial viral marketing. New internet users needed a free and easy way to use email, with very little commitment, Hotmail provided exactly that. And as people used Hotmail to send emails, a little signature line was attached with a link to join Hotmail.
I believe there are four major characteristics of successful viral efforts:

  1. Niche targeting
  2. Immediate user benefit or Hook
  3. Creator benefit/goal or Payload
  4. Element that ensures or promotes the spreading of the creative or Contagion

Hotmail chose a niche, new users, and found a foothold of need they could fill, this allowed them to present potential users with a desired and understood value proposition. This Hook is the mechanism that caused the users to spend their time getting into and setup with Hotmail, and building a user base is the goal of most any free web application project. Contagions can take many forms, but they very often possess two characteristics:

  1. Contagions are built into or are inherently part of either the Hook or Payload
  2. Contagions often take the form of some social functionality built into the creative?s interface

In this case the act of using Hotmail (the Payload) cause the user to spread the message to their friends, so Hotmail?s contagion has fit both of our assertions.

More case studies comin? at ya soon.

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