How to Evaluate an Online Marketing Service

If you’ve got a budget for website promotion, I know about a hundred companies that want your business. Be it PPC, banner ads, link placements, paid blogging, search engine optimization, or any of a dozen other industry buzz words, they all have different strategies for driving traffic. With so many choices, it can be hard to know which ones are valuable. Answer the following questions, however, and you’ll have a good idea whether a service deserves your money.

How is the price of the service determined?
There are many different cost metrics thrown around in online marketing: CPC, CPA, CPM, flat rate, etc. Ultimately, the only important metric is how much the service costs versus how much value it delivers (i.e., ROI). However, different cost metrics elicit different quality concerns. With CPA, you have to be more cautious about the quality of conversions, with CPC, the conversion rate, and with CPM, the clickthrough rate. Always be on guard that the provider might be illegitimately inflating your costs.

How likely is the traffic to convert?
The question here is whether the visitors’ demographics and intent match your site’s conversion goal. What is the age range of the visitors? What are their interests? If you’re selling something, how much disposable income do they have and where are they at in the buying cycle? This will require testing to verify, but you can often get a good idea of traffic quality by asking where that traffic is coming from before it reaches your site.

How much volume can the service drive?
It’s possible for a channel to deliver a great ROI, but only at a low volume. If a channel doesn’t produce enough traffic and/or conversions, it may not be worth the trouble to manage in the first place.

How well does the service scale?
Business needs have an tendency to change. The best online marketing services can scale in cost and volume to meet those needs. Often, scalability is the key to retaining a service over the long term.

Does the service use affiliates?
Depending on the nature of your conversions and the cost metric involved, affiliates may be useful. For example, when e-commerce transactions are required, affiliates are generally safe. However, if your conversions are, say, form submissions, fraud becomes a chief concern. In situations like this, affiliate-based services are best used cautiously or avoided all together.

Is the traffic incentivized in any way?
As with affiliates, incentivized traffic may or may not be useful depending on the nature of your conversion and the cost metric involved. Generally speaking, though, you want visitors who are interested in your offer, not visitors who just clicked through to get a flat screen TV.

Does the service offer online utilities?
Speaking from experience, nothing is more frustrating than managing a service that doesn’t offer online reporting and management utilities. Services that lack online utilities are suspect, either because they aren’t willing to give you transparency and control, or because they lack the technical savvy to create them.

Does the service include a campaign manager?
Although management and reporting utilities are the ideal, when large-scale adjustments need to be made, a dedicated human being can help reduce your management overhead. Obviously, you should prefer campaign managers that are good at achieving your goals.

How easily can the service be terminated?
When it comes to online marketing services, a contract is almost always involved. Depending on your faith in the service, you’ll want to be sure that the contract can be terminated to minimize losses if the ROI turns sour.

NumberNeal Responds to Digg Bans: Insights in Community-Based Website Strategy

Earlier this month, popular social news site Digg banned a number of its users, citing script abuse. This sparked an outcry from the Digg community, including the following video letter from power Digg Neal “NumberNeal” Rodriguez (the same Neal to whom I recently offered some SEO career advice):

I only started using Digg recently, so my opinion of the ban is nowhere near as well-qualified as Neal’s. However, I’d like to walk through several of his key points and see what can be learned about running a successful community-based website.

“Your user, period, comes first.”
Neal asserts that Digg is penalizing user scripts in order to boost its impression count and advertising revenue. This, combined with Digg’s failure to provide its users with an efficient alternative to scripts, constitutes an unacceptable conflict of interest in Neal’s mind. As he puts it, “You’re not caring for your user by banning your user.”

My Take: Community-based websites live or die on their user base. There’s no debating whether Digg has the right to enforce its Terms of Use. However, it’s worth questioning whether those terms should evolve to accommodate changing user needs. At the very least, Digg should offer its users a better explanation of why such strict enforcement is in everyone’s best interests. Really, any explanation would have been better than, “…we believe that the larger Digg community is adversely impacted by people who choose to violate the TOU.” By failing to address the issue in a user-centric manner, Digg is only fueling negative user perceptions.

“Know your market.”
Neal points out that marketers and new media enthusiasts are the primary audience on Digg. By penalizing networking and self-promotion, he argues, Digg is alienating its most active promoters. He goes on to propose that Digg, “embrace marketers,” by offering users the tools and information needed to succeed on its platform. He even goes so far as to suggest that Digg pay its most active users instead of banning them.

My Take: To me, this may be an illustration of the difference between an actual audience and an intended one. Digg’s desire seems to be a broader appeal. In fact, it’s quite likely that its attractiveness to marketers is the unintended side effect of its success. Whether this is a smart move or not, it seems clear that Digg is trying to recapture its intended user base by doing exactly alienating marketers just as Neal says its doing. I do agree with Neal, though; marketers go where the traffic is. Digg would be better off in the long run by embracing them in the same healthy way that Google does.

“Digg is not the only platform out there.”
Neal presents statistics to demonstrate the effect of Digg’s actions. Unique visitors on Digg appear to be going down, while unique visitors on other social media websites appear to be going up.

My Take: As above, I doubt this is an unexpected consequence. If Digg is out to alienate marketers and make the site more attractive to casual users, they may be willing to take a calculated hit to their popularity to see it happen. Whether they’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg or patiently giving it a chance to lay again is up for debate. Only time will tell if such heavy-handed tactics add value or spell the downfall of the site.

Bridging the Digital Divide to Combat Poverty

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty

What can a person do to elevate him or herself from poverty? What can the rest of us do to help the less fortunate and combat poverty on the local, national, and even global levels?

Everyone has a different opinion. Certainly, there are many good answers to this question, and you’ll probably hear a lot of them today. That’s because today is Blog Action Day, a day the blogosphere has singled out to discuss an important topic. This year it’s poverty. Since I’m not one to miss out on a good meme, here is my niche-appropriate take on the matter.

The one thing that separates the haves from the have-nots is most often education, not necessarily in the sense of school but in the sense of knowledge acquisition. After all, we’ve all heard of successful individuals who never so much as graduated from high school. Those with access to knowledge can develop and thrive, as individuals and as communities.

Before the modern age, knowledge was a limited resource, available only through books and teachers. Providing knowledge to the less fortunate, then, required considerable resources. That is no longer true. Compared to the significant expense of books and teachers, the cost of providing internet access is almost negligible. For developing countries, the primary expense lies in establishing the electrical and telecommunications infrastructure. Beyond that, decent computers can now be produced en masse and on the cheap.

We have the ability to give the poor access to the greatest information system the world has ever known. Imagine a world without a digital divide, where every person, regardless of their economic background or location in the world, could tap into the same global wealth of knowledge. Everyone could communicate, share, collaborate, and contribute to that knowledge equally. It would be the promise of the internet realized, knowledge leveraged for the good of all.

Granted, I’m biased in this opinion; the internet is my bread and butter. And I’m not deluded enough to think that global internet access would solve the problem of poverty on its own. Especially in developing countries, it wouldn’t be enough. Many people would have to be instructed in basic skills like reading and writing first, and access to information wouldn’t directly solve problems like hunger and healthcare.

Still, I believe it would be a great start. Knowledge is the first step to solving any problem. It’s not about elevating the poor; it’s about empowering them to elevate themselves. To paraphrase the old proverb, give a man information and he learns for a day. Teach a man to use the internet and he learns for a lifetime.

SEO Career Advice for Power Digger Neal Rodriguez

A few weeks ago, my good friend Simon Owens introduced me via email to noted Power Digger Neal Rodriguez. As it turned out, Neal was interested in a career in SEO, and I was more than happy to weigh in with the following advice.

Don’t just be an SEO specialist; be an online marketer.

SEO is a somewhat ambiguous term in the industry, but it’s being regarded more and more as a combination of skills that are independent from SEM (Search Engine Marketing). I’ve got a similar mix of skills that span both categories, and I’ve found the term “online marketer” serves me much better.

Demonstrate past successes with hard numbers.

An important thing to remember is that the focus of any online marketer should always be the bottom line… For example, you achieved page one rankings for ImperialJets.com on competitive terms. That’s all well and good, but how much additional business/revenue did that produce? Remember, we live in a world where black hat SEO companies run rampant and give the industry a bad name by focusing on rankings. It’s often not enough to prove that you’re good at SEO, but that SEO is a valuable marketing tactic. ROI (Return On Investment) should be your bread and butter.

Promote your portfolio.

Whatever your professional skills, in the web industry, it’s becoming more and more useful to have a online portfolio of some kind. It serves the dual purpose of showing off your expertise and demonstrating your ability to create and promote a website on your own. Once you’ve got one, polish it until it shines, then link to it…

Develop a solid understanding of both on- and off-site optimization.

You’re obviously interested in SEO, and your viral marketing and social networking skills are definitely impressive. However, what do you know about on-site optimization? How much do you know about things like keyword research, copywriting, visibility analysis, site architecture, XML sitemaps, link building, etc.? The best results are often achieved by those with both on-site and off-site optimization ability, so if these aren’t things you know much about, they’re skills worth shoring up to further your career potential.

Develop your expertise with web programming.

…do you have any web design or development expertise? (…) In the SEO company where I got my start in the industry, there were about eight analysts who did the heavy lifting in terms of actual optimization (as opposed to copywriters and client managers). All eight of us were also experienced web developers. Granted, many of us got our start as developers and segued into SEO later, but development skills are nonetheless very valuable to the practice.

(Update 11/7/2008: A recent poll on Search Engine Roundtable confirms that programming is second only to marketing as the degree of choice for SEO professionals.)

Broaden your skill set.

Over the years, I have found that my greatest career advances came as the result of a broad skill set. In most jobs, I pull multiple duty as a copywriter, web developer, PPC manager, blogger, and SEO specialist. If you’re serious about a career in online marketing, I’d strongly recommend developing your expertise in related skill sets. Seek out breadth and embrace opportunities to learn something new. It’s worked very well for me.

Pay attention to offline opportunities.

Strangely, during my last few job searches, I managed to land a job out of the newspaper rather than online listings, so I strongly recommend that traditional listing services play a role in your job search. Also, and I know this may sound like the student instructing the professor, but networking does wonders. I have a planned job change in the next few weeks, all thanks to a friendly connection. Given that you found me through Simon, you’re obviously already doing this, so keep up the good work.

Know the demographic of your prospective employer.

…any business can benefit from online marketing, but I find only mid- to large-size businesses have the resources and interest to have their own in-house specialist. Smaller companies have a tendency to outsource such a specialized role.

A Note about Neal Rodriguez

I haven’t known Neal very long, but my advice to prospective employers is this: Power Diggers don’t come along ever day, so don’t wait; he won’t be on the market long. The fact that he wrote a guest post for Marketing Pilgrim should give you a hint that he knows what he’s doing. If you’re interested, you can email him at notifyneal at gmail.com.

Explaining Blogs to the Uninformed

When I first mentioned the word “blog” to my wife back in 2005, she swore I’d made it up. It wasn’t until she started hearing it in mainstream media that she conceded blogs were real. (To this day, she still harbors suspicions that the whole thing might be some massive conspiracy I cooked up to fool her. Shhh, just play along… 😉 )

Much like social media optimization, it can be difficult to convey the value of blogging to the uninformed. I’ve had to convince a few technophobes clinging to old media traditional media enthusiasts in my career, and I’ve found the following points useful for getting them up-to-date.

A blog is a publishing platform. Much like a newspaper or magazine, a blog is a form of composition that is written, distributed, and consumed. The only real difference is the electronic medium, which drastically reduces the production overhead and allows even independent publishers to achieve a global reach.

Not all blogs are personal. One of the first objections you often hear is how blogs are nothing more than personal drivel masquerading as valuable content. This is certainly true of some blogs, but it couldn’t be further from the truth with others. Many blogs are written by well-respected experts on useful niche topics (e.g., Ward on the Web). In fact, the most popular blogs now have more readership and authority than many traditional print publications.

A blog is a conversational tool. Interactivity is what distinguishes new media from traditional media. By default, blog posts allow readers to comment and discuss the topic at hand. This can be useful for developing rapport with customers, colleagues, clients, or whomever else might be reading your blog.

Blogs are great for SEO. Done correctly, a blog adds relevant content, expands a site’s long-tail keyword profile, generates inbound links, and demonstrates that a site is regularly updated, all of which help to improve its overall search engine rankings.

Blogging isn’t as easy as it seems. While anyone can start a blog, few people have the creativity, diligence, and savvy needed to make a blog truly successful. If you don’t have what it takes (and if you’re not sure, assume you don’t), take the time to educate yourself and do it right from the start.

Float vs Position in Layout: My Gripe with Andy Clarke

In his book, Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design, author Andy Clarke argues in favor of content-out markup. This approach centers around defining the content on the page in a semantic way that makes sense to those using browsers without style information. The base XHTML should be as free of layout coding as possible, even to the point of following a different flow. Then, CSS should be used to create the layout on top of it, using absolute positioning to break the XHTML elements from their flow as necessary.

That CSS should be the predominant source for layout and other style information is undeniable; I agree with Clarke wholeheartedly. Where I think he errs is his abandonment of floats for absolute positioning. While acknowledging that floats are, “almost a de facto standard method for creating column layouts using CSS,” he argues that they are too fragile. He’s right, of course; floats can unintentionally clear when they’re not supposed to because they happen to be one pixel too wide. “Whereas float-dependent layouts can easily fall apart at the slightest nudge,” Clarke asserts, “positioned layouts can support supersized images or gigantic text without failing.”

Up to the point I read that, I was convinced. However, Clarke’s example later in the book demonstrates a failing in his logic. In his “Cookr!” design, he uses a technique called Inman position clearing to place a footer beneath the primary content. For those unfamiliar with it, the important thing to note is that Inman position clearing uses JavaScript to clear the footer.

I’m not debating the effectiveness of Inman position clearing; I’ve honestly never used it. For all I know, it could be compatible in every browser on the market and widely accepted as standard by the design community at large. My gripe is that we’re trying to promote the division of content, design, and interaction. Clarke’s method separates content from design, only to go back and mix design with interaction. It’s self-defeating. A simple “clear:both” would accomplish the same task in a float-based layout. No JavaScript, just CSS, the way layout code should be.

This dependency alone makes me question the original argument. Float-based layouts are prone to falling apart when their content exceeds width limitations, while position-based layouts are not. Furthermore, float-based layouts must conform to a source order resembling the layout order, while position-based layouts have no such requirement.

It’s clearly a trade-off. If we stick to floats for layout, we must be cautious to restrict content width accordingly. This requires added diligence, but, given the proliferation of float-based layouts on the internet, I think people have readily accepted the challenge. Besides, if we have “supersized images or gigantic text” on our pages, the fact that they are breaking our design only adds insult to injury; we’re going to want to correct the problem whether the design fails gracefully or not.

Likewise, is there much harm in requiring the order of content and layout to be the same? I’d argue that, nine times out of ten, the order of layout is the most logical order anyway, so there’s rarely a need for content order to be any different. Point in fact, Clarke’s example does just that, and would have worked just fine as a float-based layout (arguably better, in fact, because it wouldn’t have to use JavaScript for layout purposes).

I’m not trying to be pretentious; I know I’m not half the designer Clarke is. However, much as I’ve learned from his book, I don’t think I’m ready to abandon float-based layouts just yet. Every approach to web design has its strengths and weaknesses. In this case, however, I don’t find Clarke’s arguments in favor of position-based layouts all that convincing.

WYSIWYR: What You See is What You Regret

Once upon a time much earlier in my career, a coworker observed me composing code in a basic text editor and described the approach as, “Spartan.” I argued that my argument was cleaner, leaner, and all together better. My coworker argued that WYSIWYG code was more convenient and efficient.

In the time since, I’ve progressed in my choice of web editors; nowadays, I usually stick to Adobe Dreamweaver to get the job done. Despite Dreamweaver’s code-generating capabilities, however, I generally stick to code view and never allow it to do more than fill in some end tags. With all the modern amenities at my disposal, I still practice Spartan coding.

Why? Because I recognize that the convenience of WYSIWYG comes at a high price. Don’t believe me? Consider a few of the following points and see if you feel the same about your beloved WYSIWYG editors afterward.

  • WYSIWYG editors makes you lazy. Web professionals may not be athletes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to practice to stay on top of our game. Coding by hand might seem more difficult, but, much like PHP’s white screen of death, it helps keep you sharp. With WYSIWYG, you’re actually wasting time and effort to increase your expertise with a program rather than the code that’s your livelihood.
  • WYSIWYG code is bloated. Try to export a Word document as a web page some time and see what the code looks like. It’s ripe with repetitive font tags and arbitrary classes that add unnecessary size to the document. Don’t think size is important in the age of high-speed internet? Tell that to visitor using a cell phone.
  • WYSIWYG code is hard to maintain. As far as the browser and the user are concerned, things like indentation and tag casing aren’t a big deal. However, it’s hardly a courteous way to code. Somebody will have to come along and maintain your code at some point in the future. Hand-crafted code will make the job easier; auto-generated code will make it harder.
  • WYSIWYG code isn’t up to design standards. Nowadays, using tables for layout is a cardinal sin, but that’s exactly what you’ll get when you use the Adobe Photoshop slice tool. The bottom line is, if you want to produce rich, standards-compliant code, WYSIWYG is not the way to do it.
  • WYSIWYG code isn’t necessarily more efficient. As Andy Clark points out in his book, Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design, taking the time to develop meaningful, well-structured code makes it highly reusable, which can drastically increase your long-term efficiency.