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Commitments and online reviews

Micro-Commitment: The Key to Online Reviews

Problems When I Ask for Online Reviews

If you ask customers to post online reviews of your business or product on a review site, you’ll find that almost all of them won’t do it,  Which, from the business’s side of things, seems odd–if they’ve had great service or enjoyed a great product, why not do the purveyor a favor and post a review?

The answer to this question lies in the psychology of your request and the customer’s attitude as a customer.  Once this is understood, that understanding also leads to a method for overcoming the problem and obtaining lots of favorable reviews.

In this issue, the reason why people don’t do reviews when asked are discussed, and then the solution to the problem is shown.  That solution is known to work and is today producing solid results.

“Please Review Us”

Well-meaning businesses who are proud of their product or service will often ask, in one fashion or another, for a review.  There might be a pretty sign in the office asking for a review, or you might be given a card asking customers to post a review.  The business might even be so desperate for reviews that they offer some sort of incentive, perhaps a discount or entry into a drawing for a prize, for people who do reviews.  These incentives are risky–they can incur the wrath of the review sites, who state their rules that they do not want businesses to offer incentives for reviews.  If discovered, the penalty for such incentives can be serious, such as putting a notice on the review site that the company doesn’t follow the rules to obtain fair reviews.  More seriously, the review site might even remove all of the company’s reviews.

The businesses who take all the measures can get a review or two, now and then, as a result.  If they aren’t noticed by the review sites.  If they’re noticed, of course, the net of their efforts can be rather negative.

Why doesn’t this technique work?  If a business delivers great products or service, why don’t customers post reviews?

Why Requests for Reviews Fail

In today’s rich advertising environment, each of us is bombarded with exhortations all the time.  “Buy this!”  “Try that!”  “See this movie!” “Join this rewards program.”  And so on.  There’s a literally endless series of such requests.  Each of us comes to recognize what’s in our own interest and what’s in the company’s interest.  We become skeptical about requests that are perceived to be in the company’s interest.

Put yourself in the customer’s place.  What good will posting a review do for you?  What gain is there for you?  Yes, some people–mostly people you don’t know–will read it, and it may get the business more revenue.  But does it do anything for you personally?  No so much.  So why go to the trouble of finding the page on the review site and writing a review?

The customer is entitled to great service and great products, and the best companies strive to provide them all the time.  The customer is entitled to think that the appropriate benefit to the business has already been conveyed by choosing this business to deal with.  In other words, the customer has already done a favor for the business by doing business with them.  If the business now asks for another favor that has no reward, how likely is the customer to respond favorably?  Not very.  Which is why most such requests fail.

There is one class of customer who responds to this sort of request–the unhappy one.  We know that unhappy customers are somewhat more likely to post reviews than happy ones, which tends to skew online reviews to be somewhat more negative than the true customer experiences.  But if we ask for reviews, then we’re showing unhappy customers a way they can take out their unhappiness on us.  Of course, there are those few chronic unhappy people who will always take advantage of an opportunity to complain, whether or not anything is actually wrong, and these people, too, tend to respond to requests to post reviews.

So how can we get around this problem?  How can we get customers to post reviews, without offering incentives?

Doing a Favor Instead of Asking for One

What if, instead of asking for a review as a favor, we were able to pose this request so that it would be perceived by the customer as a favor?

There are two important trends that have been observed in business:

  1. Customers will do a lot of work previously done by employees and like it, in the name of self-service.  This includes pumping their own gas, checking themselves out at a supermarket, ordering their fast food from a kiosk.
  2. Customers like to be asked their opinion, and will happily provide it.  They won’t provide it all the time, but the response rates will be reasonable.

The first trend is something we can see everywhere, that has revolutionized many businesses.  But that’s not what we’re about here.  However, this second trend is something we can leverage to get reviews!  Customers like to be asked their opinions; it’s evidence that the business respects them.  We can use this affinity to get reviews and, at the same time, we can head off reviews from unhappy and congenitally disgruntled customers.

What if we asked customers how happy they were with the product or service that they received, and then if they were happy, thanked them for their feedback and asked if they would share their opinion with others in the form of a review?  Using this approach, we’ve done the customer a favor by asking for an opinion, and now we ask a favor in return.

We’ve also taken advantage of the psychology of micro-commitments.

The Science of Micro-Commitments

Whenever we are asked to do something, our instincts cause us to test it.  If it’s more than we’re ready to undertake, we can perceive it as a risk, and our “fight or flight” instincts take over, and we don’t honor the request.  The same principles hold when we ask a customer to do something.  If that first ask is too great, then there won’t be many responses.  On the other hand, if the first ask is tiny, or can even be seen as a consideration for the customer, then a bigger ask that comes later might have more success.

The way to apply the science of micro-commitments to asking for online reviews is to ask first for the customer’s opinion.  Most people like to be asked their opinion–it’s a sign that the provider respects the customer and wants to please them.  So asking for an opinion will have a hugely greater response rate than asking for a review!

Once that opinion is obtained, and it’s best to not exhaust the customer by going on and on with the opinion (one click is ideal!), now is the time to take that second step.  If the opinion is favorable, now is the time ask for a review!  After all, you’ve now done a favor for the customer, asking for an opinion, so you’re set to ask a favor in return.  And, once the customer is involved in the process, continuing to do a review is now the easy continuation of a process they’ve already begun.

Of course, if the customer isn’t happy, this isn’t the time to ask them to share that opinion with the world by doing a review!  Instead, this is the time to ask the customer to tell the business what went wrong, what could have been better to make them happy.  In this situation, there will be a high response rate from dissatisfied customers as well, and these responses can be very valuable to the business.

The Bottom Line

If you want to get favorable reviews from your customers, don’t ask them to post reviews!  Instead, use the science of micro-commitment and ask them for their opinion, and then ask the happy ones to post a review.  You can do this with a person calling customers, or through emails, or you can automate the whole process through Dave’s Certified Reviews.

 

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hurry and go to HTTPS now

Google: “HTTPS now. Or else.”

What Is HTTPS

If you look at the address bar at the top of your browser page, you’ll see the URL for this page of the Web.  If you’re using Chrome, the most popular browser today, you’ll see that the URL starts with “https://”, and to its left is a green lock with the word “secure”.  The happy symbol tells you that all the communication between your browser and the server that’s fetching Web pages for you is encrypted.  A third party who intercepts your communication won’t be able to read it, and, also important, won’t be able to change it.

The use of HTTPS instead of the earlier protocol HTTP, that doesn’t encrypt traffic, has grown to the point where more than three-quarters of all Web traffic is now encrypted.  Google has been pushing for the use of HTTPS.  Their advocacy is an important reason for this shift, which protects all of us, those who have Web servers and users who are using Web browsers.

Their pressure for HTTPS has helped all of us, but don’t think of them as crusading white knights.  Their revenue comes from user trust in their search engine, and user trust in the use of the Web.  Google’s neverending font of revenue depends on a safe Web, so this advocacy has been strongly in Google’s interest as well as ours.

What’s Changing

Today, if you’re using HTTPS, you’ll see the happy green lock and the word “secure” to the left of the URL.  However, Google has confirmed on May 17 that they believe that users expect the Web to be secure, so instead of showing HTTPS as exceptional, they’re going to assume that HTTPS is the standard, and if your site still uses HTTP, then they’ll display a red warning that your site is not secure.

This won’t take place until the next release of Chrome, so you have over the summer to make the transition to HTTPS.  However, it’s no easier in September than it is today, so the best approach is to get with it and make the change now if you haven’t done it already.

The other reason to use HTTPS is that Google also tells us that they’re considering it as a ranking factor in search engine results, so if you want to have your site show up prominently in Google search results, then you’ll use HTTPS.

The Bottom Line

If you’re not using HTTPS, make the change now!

If you’re using Dave’s Super Hosting Service, this isn’t a problem for you, because HTTPS is provided for all sites that I host.  In addition to backup to the Amazon cloud, the most secure backup server.  And the most advanced Web security protection that’s available.

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Online reviews - internet concepts word cloud illustration. Word collage.

How Many Reviews Do I Need?

Intro

For this post, like many others, I’m indebted to a client for a discussion about this topic.  As you can guess, there’s no single magic number of reviews that you can aim for and then relax once you’ve attained your goal.  Even if there was, you’d still need to keep seeking reviews because anyone reading reviews wants to see a review of the business or product as it is now, not how it was three or six months ago.

The good news is that there is now some reasonably good data around on this topic, so we can get some guidance.

Why Do Reviews Work?

Today there’s a huge buzz in Internet marketing circles around online reviews.  That’s because they’ve been shown to be an excellent way to attract business.  In fact, it’s been reported many times that shoppers trust written online reviews second only to personal recommendations from family and friends.

Why are reviews so effective at attracting business?  This occurs because reviews have become the latest form of what’s called “social proof“–a well-known psychological and social phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior in a given situation, observing what others are doing in order to decide how to behave.  It’s a case where we can do online what we are accustomed to doing in our everyday interactions with each other.

Recency

The recent BrightLocal survey showed that nearly one-fourth of consumers say that in order for reviews to influence their buying decisions, the reviews should be no more than two weeks old.  That’s a strong result showing that recency matters–so you need a continuing flow of reviews.

The Minimum

I’ve heard that there are two answers that consultants give:  either “that depends” or “you’re going to need to give me more money.”  In this case, it’s the first answer–how many you need depends on the purpose you have in mind.

If you ask how many reviews it takes for someone to make a purchase, the real number is likely one–one review that’s credible, that has enough detail, that the reader actually believes.  Of course, for even one review to be credible, it needs to be found in the company of other reviews, so just one isn’t enough after all.

PowerReviews conducted a study with Northwestern Univesity  They found that the number of reviews required depends on the length of the reviews.  When reviews are shorter, more reviews are needed to cause sales to occur; fewer reviews are needed if the reviews themselves are longer.

Brightlocal, in their 2017 survey, got some numbers.  The good news is that only 26% read 11 or more reviews before they believe they can trust a business.  Two or three reviews will do the job for 29% of review readers, 34% need four to six reviews, and 20% need seven to ten reviews.  Looking at this cumulatively, 86% of review readers will trust a business after reading seven to ten or fewer reviews.  And with just two or three reviews, 32% of review readers can trust your business.

That tells us that a relatively small number of reviews can do some good in convincing people to do business.

How many reviews do we need to get a great position in Google My Business?  Let’s look at some examples.  First, “Washington DC restaurants”:Reviews and Google My Business

The leaders all have over a thousand reviews!  Notice that the highest average scorer, Le Diplomate, has the top rank, even though the two restaurants ranked below it have more reviews.

Here’s the result of another search, for “Urbana, Md. dentists”.  The top listing here has 117 reviews and an average score of 4.9.  Note that they’re given top billing even though Urbana Dental Spa has the same star rating, but only 11 reviews.  It appears that Google is comparing the number of reviews for the businesses it retrieves.

Google my business and reviews

Now we know how many reviews we need to get into those top listings on Google My Business–more than the nearby competitors!  So keep an eye on how many reviews your neighboring competitors are getting, and attempt to get ahead of them.

A word of caution here–the number of reviews is not the only factor that Google considers in the Google My Business listings that it presents at the start of page one.  In order to get here, your site must also have quality content, presented in such a way that Google understands that you have what it considers quality content.

How Many Stars Do I Need?

In the examples above, it was clear that the average star rating was a factor in ranking as well.  The BrightLocal study compared purchaser behavior for various star ratings, for three categories of purchases:  hair color, light bulbs, and salon hair color.  For all three, the optimal range for purchase was between 4.2 and 4.5.

That’s right, the rate of purchase actually drops off for a star rating above 4.5.  The research team believes that a score that’s close to perfect may seem to be too good to be true.  Negative reviews can actually have a positive impact because they can help establish authenticity.  An earlier study by PowerReviews showed that consumers view the absence of negative reviews as suspicious.

This is really good news for a business that’s seeking reviews because it tells us that the occasional negative review won’t hurt us; it can actually help us.  As long as it’s merely occasional, and the average star rating stays above 4.2.

For some services, such as medical and dental services, there may be an exception.  Would you want a surgeon who botched only 5% of her surgeries?  Likely not.  Or a dentist who made a real mess of one in 30 fillings?  Probably not.  There are some services that are of great importance, where we may want a result that’s closer to perfection than the range of 4.2 to 4.5.  The only evidence I can offer to support this idea is a few sites of dentists with star ratings about 4.5 that do attract patients.

The Bottom Line

First, find out how many reviews you have today on the most important review sites.  You can count them on Google, Yelp, and other sites, or you can get a free report by clicking here.

Then see how your average star rating, recency, and number of reviews line up with the numbers given above.  If you don’t measure up well, then consider a review management service, such as Dave’s Certified Reviews.

Whatever you do, though, even worse than doing nothing is the fraudulent practice of writing or hiring people to write fake reviews.  The reviews will not be as effective as genuine reviews, and if you get caught you’ll pay a heavy penalty.

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We Live April Fool, Every Day

“Nutsy” Isn’t Fiction Any More

Usually I choose an absurd but slightly possible theme for my April Fool’s Day newsletter, such as Google Files Chapter 11 or Walmart Buys Google.  However, as I was casting about for a topic this year, I heard a completely ridiculous news story, and it made me think that we’re living in an April Fool world these days.  The ongoing dumpster fire that is consuming the White House continues to produce new events each week that top last week’s unbelievable errors in judgment and abominable behavior.

So my absurd but slightly believable story this year, sadly, is actually true!  Ronnie Jackson is the Navy doctor who gave the president his physical last year, and then proclaimed loudly that he was in incredible health.  There was a physician in the audience, none other than Sanjay Gupta, who questioned such a rosy health prognostication for a man who was obese, taking cholesterol-lowering medication and who has evidence of heart disease.

It’s quite evident that the president was pleased, since he nominated Ronny Jackson for a promotion after his physical.  Now he’s taken one step further and is nominating him to head the entire VA!

The VA is the second-largest organization in the federal government, smaller than only the Defense Department.  So Dr. Jackson will one day be running the White House medical staff, and then the next day a sprawling organization with a budget of $200 billion a year.  He has no relevant qualifications at all for the job.  None.  At. All.

Does this top the earlier selection of a new chief economic adviser and national security adviser because they look good on television news?

The Bottom Line

We live in April Fool’s every day.  Today we watch a competent manager be replaced by a fawning sycophant of the ruler.  What’s next?  What will top this?  One shudders to imagine.

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don't use kaspersky

Don’t use Kaspersky. Here’s why.

Protecting Your Computer

This post is not really about Web marketing, but lately I’ve seen a dangerous message delivered by computer security professionals about Kaspersky and I want to refute it.

Today the Internet is full of attackers, from many sources.  It’s important for each of us to run security software on our computers.  Which one should you choose?

The choice is an important one.  Anti-virus software must reach deep into the operating system.  If our anti-virus software itself is corrupt, then none of our information on the computer is safe, and we won’t even know when it’s stolen or changed.

There are a number of good choices, but there’s one you absolutely should not choose under any circumstances–Kaspersky Labs’ products.

Russia

The computer security environment in Russia is challenging.  Those of us who see attacks on Web sites know that a large number of them come from Russia.  I routinely block all traffic from Russia from all my clients’ sites, to reduce the number of hacking attempts.

In addition to cyber criminal activity that seems to flourish in Russia, there is also the threat posed by the Russian government.  On the international stage, Russia is an adversary of the United States, and acts to destabilize our system of government, using cyber attacks as part of that effort.  So we know that, in addition to the threat of criminal activity, it’s also possible that the government can be involved in cyber espionage.

In the U.S., a company can’t legally spy on us through anti-virus software, and if they get caught at it, there will be serious penalties.  We’re also protected against the government–they can’t come after our computers secretly without getting a warrant from a senior federal judge.  Russia doesn’t offer such a robust legal system, particularly with regard to protection from the government.

Either from criminal activity or from government espionage, it’s possible that an anti-virus product coming from Russia will have code inserted to assist hackers.

Kaspersky’s Claims

Kaspersky, the owner of the company, claims to have no ties to the Russian government and no relationship with Russian intelligence.

But can we trust this statement?  If he was working with Russian intelligence, would he announce it?  He wouldn’t dare–such a statement would have dire consequences for him.  So we must reject as meaningless any statement by Kaspersky that his company has nothing to do with Russian intelligence services.

Even if Kaspersky himself believes that his software is free from tampering, it’s possible that criminal elements or the government have “persuaded” one or more of his employees to secretly insert code to help hackers, without knowledge of company management.  Again, because Russia lacks our robust system of laws, their legal system offers us little protection.

What This Means

The argument against using Kaspersky security software is purely non-technical, and doesn’t rest on any evidence that their products have been tampered with.  All things being equal, our computers are better protected with anti-virus software that’s developed in the U.S. legal environment.

What I Use

I’ve never had a computer hacked in years of using AVG Free virus protection.  You have to put up with AVG trying to sell you the paid version, but if you’re willing to do that you can have great virus protection for free.

There is some merit to the argument that a very popular anti-virus product, if it’s used on millions and millions of computers, can itself become the target of an attack.  For this reason, there may be some additional safety in using a less popular product, such as AVG.

The Bottom Line

Absolutely don’t use security software from Kaspersky.  If you have it, replace it. Now.

 

 

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Email subject lines

Exclusive Bulletin: Write your subject line so that your emails get read

This past week I had the good experience of dealing with the support staff at SendMail, a mail relay company.  Because their whole business is sending out other peoples’ emails, they know a whole lot about the factors that let emails get through the myriad spam filters used by ISPs who receive email for their customers.

The support person and I were watching a mailing of a newsletter that was going out to some 13,000 subscribers.  All went well, but I received some advice–in the subject line, avoid words that are in all caps, and don’t use multiple special characters such as ! or &, in order to avoid being classified as spam by ISP filters.

This caused me to realize that, while I knew some general guidelines about writing email subject lines, I hadn’t studied it in detail.  So I decided that both you and I could use some guidelines, taken from wisdom offered by industry luminaries, distilled by my experience of years of actually doing it and looking at results.

Hubspot tells us that 33% of email readers decide whether to open or not based on the subject line alone.  That gives us motivation to pay attention to this topic!

Subject lines have two jobs. First, they have to get through ISP spam filters, or no one will see the email.  Then they have to get through the “filter” of the recipient’s mind so that the email gets opened, read, and acted upon.  This newsletter gives you some ideas on how you can accomplish both with your emails.

Personalization

One topic on which experts disagree is personalization in the subject line.  Some say that placing a first name in the subject line makes the receiver think the email is intended specifically for them and will increase open rates.  Another expert says that the technique is over-used, our friends don’t put our first names into subject lines, and when we see our name in the subject line we’re likely to recognize it as machine-generated.

Personally, if I see my first name in an email subject line there’s little chance that I’ll open it, because I realize that it’s an overworked advertising tool, and there’s likely to be little personal content inside that email.  Understand that the balance of expert opinion doesn’t agree with me on this issue, although some experts I respect such as Nielsen Norman Group do.

I think if the recipients for your email are adults with some computer experience, adding personalization in the subject line is a bad idea.  There are creative ways to use it in the body of the email, though.  For example, if you know how many times a guest has visited your hotel, you can say “You’ve spent a total of 83 nights in our hotels, so we’d like to offer you some special benefits.” This provides the reader with personal information they may not even have known.

Short and Sweet, Emphasis on Short

Our same friends at Hubspot tell us that as many as 40% of emails are opened first on mobile devices, and that fits with measurements that I’ve made with my own and clients’ emails.  Do you want to read something long on your phone?  No, you don’t.  So Hubspot recommends subject lines of no more than 50 characters. Many industry experts agree with that recommendation.

I don’t.  While you might not want to read a long subject line on your phone, if the part of it is interesting it might motivate you to open the email at least to read the rest of the subject line!  A quite extensive study by adestra supports the use of longer subject lines.

With regard to word count, adrestra’s study shows that there are two sweet spots–less than 5  words and more than 15 words.  If you can convey the point of the subject in 5 or fewer words, do so!  But if you need 15 or more, that’s fine too.  The middle ground of 5 words to 15 words is not as good, and is to be avoided.

With regard to the “sweet” part of this guidance, think about the person receiving your email.  Especially, understand that they are not part of your record-keeping system.  They don’t care that “Order number 84756633 has shipped”; they care that “Your order from Smith Co. has shipped”.  You may use an order number or a reservation number to track the transaction internally, but expecting your customer to use that number is to force them to be part of your records for you.

If you’re sending newsletters should you include the word “newsletter” in the subject line?  I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, believing that perhaps if people see it’s my newsletter, and they are subscribers, they’re more likely to open it.  On the other hand, it takes a lot of space out of the subject line, especially when you add whose newsletter it is.

adestra’s study shows that the use of the word “Newsletter” in the subject line lowers the open rate significantly.  Perhaps the term has been overused.  Here is their table on the impact on opens and clicks of certain words.  Notice that we still have some good words to use in the subject line:  Bulleting, Alert, Exclusive, Special.

This table is for the publishing sector:

Effect of subject line word choice on open rateThe B2C sector, below, has some interesting findings.  We need to beware the use of free, half price, and especially coupon!  However, if instead of a coupon we offer a voucher, our open rates will soar.  And, of course, who can resist two for one?  My wife and I have booked several cruises on the strength of two for one offers.  Note the importance of latest; of course, everyone wants the latest, best information.  I’m going to use the word latest in the subject line for this newsletter, and will measure its impact.

B2C word choice in subject linesUse A Familiar Sender Name

Hubspot found that an email from a person’s email address was associated with more opens than an email from an institutional email address.  Everyone would rather communicate with and be addressed by a real person, not a department or function.  And they reflect that in their open rate.  Choose a person in your company to be the official source of these emails, especially for anything that repeats like a newsletter, and be consistent about it.

Never, never, never use noreply@company.com as the source.  First, it tells the reader that you don’t care what they think about this communication, and if they reply you’re so rude you won’t even read their reply.

Be Concise

Many readers are scanning subject lines on their phones, deleting emails that they don’t want to see again.  So be sure to tell them what’s up using as few words as you can.  Make the content as relevant as you can.

If it’s general information, try to say something about the benefit, not just the topic.  For this newsletter, the benefit would be getting the newsletter read, so a subject line might be How to get your newsletter read.  Including the good words from the table, it could be rewritten as Exclusive Bulletin:  How to get your emails read.

As an experiment, I’ve used just that subject line for this newsletter!  If you’re reading this as a newsletter, then it worked.

Don’t use ALL CAPS or overuse exclamation points!!!!!

My helpful support person at SendGrid pointed out that a number of companies who run mail servers that receive email on behalf of their customers use spam filters that use all caps and lots of exclamation points in the subject line as one way to identify spam.  And if they classify your email as spam, then their customers won’t see it.

This works twice, actually.  In addition to the spam filters, customers actually prefer the subject line to be written in sentence case, with the first letter capitalized and then only proper nouns capitalized.

Consider Preview Text

A number of email clients provide the first line or so of your email alongside the title, so make sure your opening sentence in the email encourages recipients to open it.

Use a Deadline

If it’s appropriate, a deadline can motivate the recipient to open and read an email.  If there’s an opportunity that goes away, or a meeting or event on a specific date, put that date in the subject line, to let the recipient know that they need to respond or lose an opportunity.

A deadline can be an important motivator to open an email.

What If It’s Not Opened?

Even if your email isn’t opened, don’t despair!  If the recipient doesn’t unsubscribe, just receving your email with your company name and the piece of your message that’s in the subject line has reminded them that you exist for them to do business with.  If they felt there was no possibility of doing busiiness  with you, they’d unsubscribe.

As long as they don’t unsubscribe, even unopened emails are doing a marketing job for you, and at far lower cost than other forms of advertising.

The Bottom Line

Pay attention to what the recipient sees on your emails–the sender and the subject line–to get your message read and acted on.

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SEO Myths

In 1998 when I started this business, SEO was my goal.  I wanted to learn all about how to make sites rank well in search results, and then focus on that discipline.  As it has turned out, SEO is still the most important thing I do; but the discipline is now much broader, and needs to be dealt with as part of a more general campaign of making a site an effective marketing vehicle.  Which is why the company is now called Web Marketing Advantage!

In general, the evolution of SEO has been from a series of tricks to fool search engines about the content of a site, into working with search engines to provide what search engines want to see, in a form so that they will recognize that what they want is actually on the site.  Myths remain about SEO, that are commonly the residue of the old “tricks” approach.  Today, there aren’t single tricks as much as there are a lot of techniques to help search engines recognize what’s actually on the site.

Today, my form of “evolved SEO” could include advice about site design; I would recommend that you have your site built with WordPress because there are so many good tools to promote a WordPress site; I’ll recommend that you start a blog and help you promote the blog.  So today’s SEO isn’t just tricking the search engines any more.

Like all of my discussions about Web marketing, I talk about Google as though it’s the only one that matters.  In a recent survey, Google had 67 percent of the search market in the US, and above 90 percent in Europe.  For mobile search, Google’s share is even higher, at 83%.  You could work just for share of Google traffic because of its market dominance; but in addition, because of its market dominance, other search engines tend to follow Google’s lead, so they mostly work the way Google does.  For both reasons, then, if you rank well in Google search results you’ll likely rank well in most other search engines’ results as well.

Here are some popular myths:

Content is King

Bill Gates originally said that content is king, back in 1996.  He expected that the rise of the Internet and social networks would provide great opportunities to people and institutions who provided valuable content.  Indeed, we see this happening today, where Web site content is an important business asset.

However, content alone isn’t king.  If your site has a lot of great content, and Google doesn’t find it, then it won’t help your ranking in search results.  The Googlebot that scans your site is just a computer program, and it has a lot of sites to scan, so it can’t do a lot when it’s scanning your site.  It’s going to react to some fairly simple cues to content, and it’s important to provide those cues.  And to avoid warning signals that the Googlebot might use to identify attempts to fool it.

This, of course, is good news for people who do SEO, because it provides a reason for them to be employed.  By understanding how Google (and its ilk) consider your site, they (and I!) can ensure that the valuable content you provide will give you the search engine results you deserve.  And draws customers as it should.

Keyword Optimization is the Focus of SEO

We used to work to find out the most important keyword or two in a business area, and then go all out to rank well for that keyword.  Google understood just individual words, so we had to deal with them that way too.  We’d put an important word in the first paragraph, in a few other paragraphs, and again in the last paragraph.

Today, Google understands more than single words.  Using techniques like latent semantic indexing, it has learned about synonyms that tie together in a concept.  What this lets you do is now is to write for readers and less for search engines, seeking to use common synonyms instead of slavishly repeating one keyword throughout a page that you want to rank well.

Images and Videos Have No Impact on SEO

Of course, you want videos and images on your site because it provides your visitors a better experience, so they’re more likely to do business with you.

However, as you provide that better experience, you reduce the bounce rate (that is, the portion of visitors who see only one page, then leave) and increase the time spent on each page.  Both of these are factors that Google uses in search engine rankings.  This means that you make your site more effective and you improve your search engine results with the same measures.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to put in all the tags that images like to have–it’s a great opportunity to promote your favorite keywords.  Google pays attention to tags on videos and images.

Meta Descriptions are Important for Search Results Position

Google has told us that they don’t use meta descriptions in their ranking search results–so ignore advice to use specific keywords in your meta description tags.  Does this mean that you don’t need to provide a meta description with every page?  No, it doesn’t.

Search engines often (although, maddeningly, not always) use the meta description as the summary of the page that they provide in their search results.  Because you know the search engne won’t use the meta description keyword content in your ranking in results, now you are free to write an interesting description that will prompt a searcher who sees it to click your listing and come to your site.  You don’t have to worry about using any particular words.

Remember that search engines just hate duplicate content.  They want to present their customers, the searchers who use their search engine,  list of sites that have different content.  If you have description meta tags that duplicate each other, this is a cue to search engines that there isn’t much differentiation in the content on each page.  Be sure that each page on your site has a unique meta description tag.

There are other meta tags as well.  If you’re interested in their importance, I’ve written about title tags and other meta tags.

 

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New Result–Impact of Reviews on Search Traffic

Reviews and Search Traffic

We’ve all seen the familiar arguments about how on-line reviews affect position in search results–hence, resulting search traffic.  In my opinion, it’s worth seeking on-line reviews just for that purpose.  However, recently I came across some hard data about another way that on-line reviews can affect traffic directed to your site from search engines.  And the impact is significant enough that I’m now recommending an active review campaign for every client.

The Client

The client is a health practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., far enough away from the city that no city dwellers are likely to be prospective patients.

I routinely study the Web marketing efforts of my clients’ competitors, both to use as a benchmark of our success and to learn what strategies are working in this particular market.  For my client, I had been carrying out a more or less conventional SEO campaign, working on tags, page titles and the like.  Things were going well, and my client was steadily gaining in search engine positions for the terms that I was working on.

However, there was one competitor’s site that was getting as much traffic as we were, although we were beating them like crazy in position in search results!  Then they had one day when they passed us in traffic.  I’d been watching them for some time–they have a nice site, but they are clearly not doing any SEO work.  And they’re trailing our search results positions for dozens of keywords!  Why are they getting so much traffic?  What is there to learn from what they’re doing?

The Data

A study of their site and positions showed that more than 75% of their search traffic came from the name of their practice, which was different from their URL.  An easy explanation would be that they had great position on the practice name because it’s in the URL, but it isn’t.  However, they did have position #1 for the practice name.

Further study of the traffic data showed that there were 2400 searches per month on the competitor’s practice name, but only 40 per month on my client’s practice name!  My client had a more generic practice name, that I’d expect to be used in search more than the competitor’s.  So what’s happening?  Why are there so many searches on the competitor’s practice name?

Reviews

I ran a summary report of the competitor’s on-line reviews in a sampling of review sites, and a similar report for my client’s reviews.  This report shows reviews on just six important sites, not all the 40+ that are of interest; but for many businesses, these are the most important review sites.  Incidentally, you can run that same report, for any site you want to check out–try it for your own site and a competitor!–by clicking here.

This report showed that the competitor, in just this sample of review sites, had 240 reviews.  The report for my client’s site showed just 24 reviews for this same sample of review sites.

Conclusions

So what’s going on here?  What we’ve heard is true–prospective patients are searching review sites for a local practitioner with good reviews.  Then they do a Google search on the name of the practice that they decide to patronize.  That’s why my competitor’s practice name is being searched for 60 times more than my client’s.

The Bottom Line

An active campaign to obtain and manage reviews is one of the most important Web marketing efforts that you should undertake.

Of course, Dave’s Certified Reviews is a great way to conduct your review campaign, with all the hard work done for you so that you can focus on your business.

 

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Search Keywords in Your Domain Name

A Good Idea or Over-Marketing?

The question comes up time and again–is there any value to including terms where you want to rank well in your domain name?

Will this help you get better position in search results?   What are other aspects of using this approach?  And if it is used, what’s the best approach?

The Benefits

For most any Web site, take a look at the terms in the domain name and do a Google search for those terms.  You’ll see that the site is likely to rank high on those terms.  Of course, often the terms are often the company brand, that’s central to the site and is mentioned over and over in every page.  So the domain name wasn’t Google’s only cue that this site is highly relevant to this term.

I’ve been doing SEO for fifteen years, and one of the only aspects of SEO that’s stayed the same is that Google uses the terms in the domain name as an important indicator of the content of the site.  Again and again, I’ve seen that one of the best ways to get good position in search results is to use keywords in the domain name.  There’s no guarantee, but with some promotion, it’s a good way to help get good positions in search results.

The Issue

There’s one huge issue, though, and it’s the same issue that runs through all SEO.  Do you want to write the content of the site, choose the domain name , all of this, for Google, or for the people you’d like to have as customers?  If you build the site for people and not for Google, then it might be great at attracting customers, but no customers who are searching for you will find the site!  On the other hand, if you write just for search engines, then you’ll be found but your site may not bring you customers.domain-name.  There’s a balance to be struck, and what’s the correct balance depends on your particular situation.

You’d like your domain name to be easy to remember for your customers.  The logical choice for the URL, then, is your brand.  Your customers use your product or service, and if they remember the brand, they can find you on the Internet easily by searching for the brand.  If you’re a professional and do  business in your own name, then you hope they remember your name, and you’d want to use that in your domain name.  You’d rather be “Bill Smith, Attorney at Law” than “Gaithersburg Lawyer”.

On the other hand, if you’re an attorney just starting out, with no name recognition and no traffic to your site, using gaithersburglawyer.com as a domain name will help you get position in search results for people looking from a Gaithersburg lawyer.  Particularly if you have a new Web site, you’ll have no position in search results, and it’ll take you time to get that position, so this legitimate short-cut to position in search results could be a good idea for you.

The Answer

What to do?  It’s a matter of balance.  For many small businesses, you may not have a lot of brand recognition, so you can use a domain name with keywords.  Find something your customers can remember easily, and go with it.  If you’re a professional, the same idea can work for you.  You’ll promote your own name again and again on the site, so you’ll show up high in searches on your name.  You can safely use a domain name based on keywords.

If you’re just getting established, then the keyword approach can be particularly useful for you.

What About Hyphens?

There’s an active dialogue about whether hyphens hurt search results position.  But Google themselves ends this disagreement.  Their Webmaster Guidelines say

“The URL http://www.example.com/green-dress.html is much more useful to us than http://www.example.com/greendress.html. We recommend that you use hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) in your URLs.”

So Google actually recommends the use of hyphens.  That’s good news, because hyphens also make domain names more readable.  A hyphenated domain name also avoids misinterpretations that could occur with domain names such as these, that are all real domain names:

Should You Change Your domain name ?

If you’ve decided that you’d like to change your domain name , you can do it without losing all of the search results positions that you’ve achieved over the years.  Just get your Webmaster to establish 301 redirect commands for all the pages of your site, so that anyone who references an old URL will be taken to the new one.  Google recognizes a 301 redirect as a notice that the content of a page has been moved to a new address; you won’t lose your position in search results.

The Bottom Line

Choose your domain name as part of your overall marketing strategy.  Are you trying to establish your business or is your site taking advantage of an established brand?  And should you decide to change your domain name , you can do it without giving up your positions in search results.

 

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Your Site Needs an FAQ. Here’s Why

Why Your Site Needs an FAQ

When we visit a Web site, often we see a page called FAQ.  That stands for “Frequently Asked Questions.”  You might ask whether your site needs an FAQ page–what good are they, anyway?  It turns out that there are important good things that an FAQ can do for your site.

Emphasize Your Strengths

The FAQ page is a good place to give some emphasis to what you think are the  particular strengths for your product or service.  One way to do this is to simply pose a question such as “what are the greatest strengths of your product?” Another approach is to ask a question about the feature that you want to emphasize, by asking a question such as “why is it important for accounting software to produce year-end summaries?”

Answer the Skeptic

The FAQ page is a chance to pose questions that a skeptical visitor might pose, and answer them. For example, for a Hong Kong custom tailor I once put “a question on the FAQ page “what if my clothes don’t come?”  The answer to this question was intended to deal with a visitors worry that perhaps delivery might never take place. It’s hard to deal with a issue like that on another part of the site.

Better Search Engine Results

Search engines love FAQ pages.  Search engines love content that has a lot of keywords. Your FAQ page can easily be written so that it is keyword–dense.  Search engines also like links within the site. In your FAQ, you can pose questions that cover topics that are in many different parts of the site, and include links to those parts of the site in your answers to the questions that you pose.

Savings on customer support

Your FAQ page can save you money on customer support. Ask your customer support people to write down simple questions that they are asked frequently, and then put those questions and the answers on your FAQ page. Future customers will be able to answer some of their simpler questions right on the FAQ page. At the same time, you’ll have added more keyword – rich content to your site.

Don’t stop with just one or two questions. Keep collecting frequently asked simple questions from your support people, and add one or two a week. Search engines love fresh content, and this is a way to keep continuously adding new content that’s relevant.

Start a dialogue

Put a form on your FAQ page so that a visitor who doesn’t find an answer to their own question can use the form to submit it to you. This will allow you to learn about questions that visitors have, while also making contact with potential customers.

The Bottom Line

If you don’t have an FAQ page, now’s the time to start one. If you do have one already, good for you! Perhaps one or more of these ideas will help you make it even more profitable for you.

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Important Newsletter Don’ts

Your Newsletter–What Not to Do

Newsletters are easy–just write a note and send it out!  But, like everything else, if you want your newsletter to be effective, there’s more to it than that.  Here is a quick summary of what to do with the newsletter, followed by what not to do.

What We’re Trying To Do

The newsletter is intended to nurture prospects into being customers.  When someone just encounters your business or your site, and learns about you, they may not yet be ready to do business.  But by reading your newsletter, they learn more about you and your business, and get comfortable with the idea of doing business.  There’s an old marketing rule that we need seven credible exposures of our brand before a prospect will seriously consider doing business.  So get that first exposure with the site, and the next six with the newsletter.  So we’re trying to build credibility and comfort through this communication.

Change the Outline Each Time

You’re trying to make prospects comfortable with you, so keep the same general outline for each newsletter.  If you provide a recipe as the second item in one newsletter, then provide a recipe as the second item in every edition.  Your readers will get to know the organization of your newsletter and they’ll be able to go right to what they like.  And if they like one, then they’ll like the next one, because it’ll have similar organization.

Constantly Offer Discounts

The newsletter is not a place to offer discounts!  Why not?  Because it goes to all (or nearly all) of your prospects and customers, and discounts in the newsletter tell them that you’re willing to sell for less than asking price.  It undermines their confidence in your pricing, encouraging them to believe that they can get what they want from you for less than you usually charge.  So stay away from discounts as a major feature of your newsletter.

You can occasionally offer a price deal in the newsletter, but specialize it to some particular circumstance and then be ready to do it again if that circumstance arises again!  For example, if you offer a discount on the third anniversary of being in business, then plan to do it every year.  And also avoid the temptation to find lots and lots of similar excuses!

Poor Quality Content

Your prospects judge your newsletter by the usefulness of the content.  So be sure that you provide information that’s useful to them in some way.  If you’re an attorney, how to handle some situation that could have legal consequences.  If you’re a physician, health advice is an obvious choice.  If you’re a Web marketer, a newsletter on how to write newsletters.

Sell Too Much

A rule I’ve seen for newsletters is 75% non-selling content and 25% selling content is a rule that’s often given.  I’d modify that by advising no more than 25% selling.  If the purpose of your newsletter is to attract long-term clients, not just, say, selling merchandise, then you might even have almost no selling content, and simply seek to convince your readers that you’re an authority in your discipline so that when they need help they’ll come to you.

Not Often Enough

In the days when newsletters went out in the mail, they were expensive to print and even more expensive to mail.  But those days are gone.  Today, our prospects subscribe to and pay for email service that delivers our newsletters to them.  If they want to print them, they pay for the printing!  And it’s easier to open and look at a newsletter–or not to look at it.

Take advantage of the ease and convenience of automation, and realize that your readers are accustomed to getting most newsletters on a weekly or even daily basis.  If you send weekly instead of monthly, your readers will be reminded of you more often, and they’ll be more likely to do business with you or recommend you to someone who needs your product or service.

Forgetting about Headings

Many readers will scan the headings in a newsletter before they decide to actually read it.  So provide those headings!  In addition, busy readers may read some sections and not others–make it easy for these readers to make this choice, or else they’ll not read your newsletter at all.

Forgetting about Branding

Be sure that your newsletter looks like your Web site and carries your logo.  If prospects see inconsistent graphics from you, they’ll not remember you as well, and your communications wit them will seem disjointed.  One way to achieve consistency between your site and newsletters is to send blog posts from your site as your newsletters–as I do.

Don’t Send a Welcome Newsletter

In any social interaction, saying hello is important.  Similarly, a new subscriber deserves to get a special welcome edition of your newsletter.  Most newsletter software can send this for you; all you have to do is write it and give instructions to the software one time.  The open rate of the intro newsletter is much higher than the open rates of subsequent newsletters–this is a great opportunity to communicate.  It’s also a good time to offer a discount–make it a new subscriber discount, and the subscriber will know not to expect it again.  Offer a discount on the next meal, an ebook on how to deal with a personal injury situation, an ebook on the insurance coverage a small business should have, for example.

The Bottom Line

Keep in mind that the purpose of your newsletter is to nurture prospects, not sell them.  Take the long term approach, and you’ll see the results.

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Create Evergreen Content for Your Site

Evergeen Content

Content that’s “evergreen” has continued value over time.  For example, it’s not an announcement that an important deadline is looming and you better take action; rather, it’s general advice on how to do something.  Evergreen content can deliver visitors over a long period, and it helps in search engine rankings because visitors who click on it will tend to stay on the page for a while, and over a long period of time.  It’s just the sort of content that you’d want to put on page one of search results if you were Google!

As a practical matter, evergreen content doesn’t have to be replaced as quickly on your site, so it also reduces the workload for busy people who work in small businesses.  But that’s not an excuse to put content on your site, decide that it’s evergreen, and then leave the site alone–Google, not to mention your visitors, want fresh content.  Supply your site with a continuing flow of new content.

The Ingredients

For evergreen content to have impact on your search position, and be most effective, here’s what it needs to have:

  1. Continued value–As in the example above, write copy that will have value over time, that isn’t tied to some specific event.  Luck plays a role here.  It’s possible to recommend some specific SEO technique that ceases to be useful the next week.  However, if you try to provide good advice to your readers, that’s not tied to specific events, in general that will have some staying power.
  2. Hold the user–provide enough information so that the reader spends some time on the page.  Google measures how long until the reader goes on to the next page, and long times help your search results position.
  3. Write for SEO–Use important keywords early in the text, in the middle of the text, and at the end of the text.  Also put important terms in the heading and in internal links to the page.
  4. Sell the content in the heading–Have a descriptive heading that draws the reader in
  5. address a need–Address a real need that your audience has, so that they’ll be interested in the content.

The Bottom Line

Write durable, quality content for your site.  And keep adding to it on a regular basis.  Over time, you can develop an authoritative site that will rank well in search results.

 

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Structuring a Multi-Language Web Site

Multi-Language Sites

Suppose you’re a physician in practice in a major city.  You want to serve both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking patients.  So, naturally, you have two Web sites built, one for English and one for Spanish.  Or do you?  What’s the right way to structure your Web presence if you want to present a multi-lingual face to the people you serve?

Note that here we’re talking only about the problem of multiple languages in a single location.  If you’re a multinational organization, and want to serve people in different countries who speak different languages, then you will most likely want to have distinct Web sites, each tailored to its own country, not just by language but by content and by incoming and outgoing links.

The Alternatives

There are three alternatives to consider:

  1. Two distinct sites, one for each language, with the same or very similar structure, each with its own domain name.  So your URLs will look like example-en.com and example-es.com.
  2. A single domain name, with different subdomain names.  You’ll have two sites, but the same domain name will work for both.  Your URLs will have the form en.example.com and es.example.com.
  3. A single domain name and a single site, with separate subfolders for each language.  Your URLs will have the form example.com/en/  and example.com/es/

Two Sites, Two Domain Names

For search engine position, this is the poorest approach.  First, Google awards more authority to sites with more content–and this divides your content between two sites.  In addition, your incoming links will be split between the two sites.  Finally, from a visitor experience perspective, could this give a visitor the impression that you are less than completely open about how you serve people who use different languages, since the same business is using two different domain names?  For all these reasons, this is not an attractive alternative.

One Domain Name, Two Subdomains

When you have two subdomains you have two different sites.  Each subdomain will be indexed separately by Google, so you still have the SEO disadvantages of the first approach.  You will have two separate sites to maintain and promote, so there’s extra work compared with a single site.

One Domain Name, Separate Subfolders

This is the most attractive approach from an SEO perspective, because all of the credit for incoming links in any language will all accrue to the single site, as will all authority for the content you put on the site.  And all the of the new content in any language will benefit the overall site for all languages.  You can provide flags on each page that link to the content in that language–in this case, for example, a U.S. flag and a Spanish flag.  A visitor can easily toggle back and forth between the two languages, so that an English speaker can find content for a Spanish speaker and then just click to show the Spanish-language version to the Spanish speaker.  With this approach, the bilingual nature of the site is featured rather than hidden.

The Bottom Line

For a site that serves multiple languages but for a business that operates in a single location, use a single domain with subfolders for each language.

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As we enjoy our Thanksgiving repast, it’s interesting to see what recipes interest our countrymen.  The New York Times asked Google to identify unusual recipes that are searched for around Thanksgiving by region.  Here’s a map of the result.  Note that they asked for unusual recipes; of course, turkey is probably the most frequently search for recipe everywhere.  But that wouldn’t show all the wonderful regional variation of our nation.  Here’s the map.  I’m eager to know what Mirliton Casserole is!  Not to mention frog eye salad.

Regonal Thanksgiving Recipes

Regional Thanksgiving Recipes

The Bottom Line

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Google’s Warning on Article Directories

Article Directories

There are many article directories.  The way they work is that you write something that’s, say, 300 to 500 words in length and you post it on the directory, including a link back to your site.  Your article is then available for others to download and post on their own sites, either for free or by paying a fee.  Users agree that if they post your article, they’ll include the link to your site.

Article directories are promoted as a good way to get additional links to your site.  Indeed, at one time this was a good way to get links to your site and boost your position in search engine results.

Google’s Warning

Matt Cutts of Google’s search engine team has recently posted a video about article directories.  He says that increasingly, Google is finding that a lot of the material in article directories is of low quality, and replicating to other Web sites results in low quality in lots of places.

He adds that Google has “algorithmic features” so that this practice would not be recommended as a way to improve your position in search engine results.

The Bottom Line

It’s simple:  do not use article directories to promote your site!

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Your Title Tag is Important!

The Title Tag

The most important meta tag on each page, in my experience, is the title tag.  Changing the title tag alone can influence your position in search engine results.  This issue gives some pointers on how to choose the text for your title tag.

Search Keywords First

Usually the title will have search keywords and the name of your brand.  Put the search keywords first; Google will figure out what’s your brand, because it’ll be mentioned everywhere on your site, and you’ll have good position on that.  So put the keywords first; Google gives emphasis to the first terms on the title.

Keep It Short

All that will be displayed is about 70 characters, so keep the length of the title to that.

Make It Relevant

Start with a couple of keywords that are important to the subject matter of the page, that appear on the page several times.

Show a Couple of Products and Services and then the Brand

You can separate the products or services with a vertical bar.  For example iIf you have a couple of kinds of apartments, for example, your tag might look like this

One-Bedroom Tucson Apartment | Two-Bedroom Tucson Apartment | EZ Apartments Inc.

The Bottom Line

Pay attention to your title tags.  It matters more than any other single content change you can make on your site.

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Semantic Search Comes to Google and Bing

emantic Search and Web Marketing

Semantic search has come to Google and Bing.  What’s semantic search?  The search engine itself attempts to provide the information that’s sought by the query, instead of providing links to sites that may have the information.   This issue explores semantic search and its meaning for Web marketing.

How It Works

Google provides relevant results from Wikipedia; Bing has an arrangement with Encyclopedia Britannica.  Because Wikipedia is so much larger than Britannica, you’ll see semantic search results for many more topics on Google than Bing.  Studies have shown Britannica to be somewhat more authoritative than Wikipedia, so Bing semantic results will similarly be somewhat more authoritative.  Here’s an example of a Google search for “washington monument” and the result.  You can see the semantic results on the right side of the page.

Why Search Engines Do This

Remember that Google and Bing are businesses.  They make money by selling advertising.  The longer they can keep visitors on the search engine site, the more paid advertising they can sell.  Providing an answer to a query, with more reading as part of search engine results, is a great way to increase the time visitors spend on the search engine site.

What This Means for Web Marketing

This new content on the page reduces the space for organic search results, and you can see that it has displaced paid search results.  However, there is still room to put a few paid search results at the top of the page on the left side.   For another term that has paid advertising, here’s how Google works in the paid ad.
Of course, this change wasn’t made with hard-working Web marketers who seek organic search positions in mind.  It was made according to the search engines’ assessment of their own business interests.  We can still compete for position in organic search results; when a semantic result is returned, our high position won’t do as much for it as it did previously.

The Bottom Line

Search engines are essential for business acquisition if the Web is an important source of business for you.  However, the search engine companies, while they may be happy to take a lot of your money for paid advertising, are not your friends.  Expect them to make business decisions in their interest, not yours.  Pay attention to the constant change in Web marketing, and adapt your strategy as things change.

If you like this newsletter, please check out Web Marketing 101 , our guide to Web marketing.

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