Is SEO an Art or a Science?

I’ve been asked a lot of interview questions in my career, some more creative than others, but few have ever stumped me as much as this one: Is SEO an art or a science?

Think about it for a minute. You may have a strong opinion one way or another; I know people who fall on both sides of the spectrum. If you’re anything like me, you have difficulty deciding one way or the other. Here was the answer I gave to the interviewer.

SEO Begins with Art…

Choosing keywords and planning search strategy are largely intuitive tasks. Experience helps, but in the beginning, all you have to follow is your gut. You take the tools and techniques at your disposal, divine the business objectives at work, feel out the semantics between keywords and user intent, and finally draw up a plan for success.

…and Ends with Science

That’s where measurement and scientific methodology take over. You test, analyze, optimize, and repeat. You observe your work in its natural environment, collect data, and refine the equation until your site is a humming engine of SEO perfection.

What do you think? Are you a firm believer one way or the other, or do you believe SEO is a mix of art and science like I do? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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.

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 Social Media Optimization to the Uninformed

One of the major challenges of online marketing is communicating the value of new techniques such as corporate blogging, SEO, or social media optimization. Uninformed superiors are often wary of marketing tactics they don’t understand.

If you think you’re ready to ride the wild wave of social media optimization but your boss is still skeptical, here are a few points that can help increase his or her familiarity and, hopefully, willingness to give it a try.

It’s just another channel. List out the ways you market your website to your customers. You might use PPC, SEO, banner ads, email, online press releases, and the like to drive your message online. Offline, you might use radio, television, yellow page listings, newspaper ads, fliers, billboards, etc. These are all examples of marketing channels. Each has its own unique advantages, disadvantages, best practices, and success metrics. Social media optimization is no different.

It has its own rules. Even though it’s just another channel, social media optimization can’t be treated in the same way. Much like blogging, SMO is collaborative in nature. Branding messages and hard sales pitches are not well-received. The best approach could be described as mingling. Go out and talk to your customers on neutral ground. Get personal. Share something with them that is genuinely exciting, entertaining, or useful outside the context of commercial interest. Praise and reward those who bring attention to you. You may not get conversions (at least, not directly), but your brand as a whole will benefit.

It’s a lot of work. On the flip side of those who doubt SMO are those who think it’s a magic pill to ease all of their online marketing woes. It’s not. Social media optimization requires painstaking content creation and networking to pay off. It’s a lot of work with uncertain returns. Care should always be taken when determining what marketing strategy is best for the goals you have in mind.

It’s volatile. Traffic from traditional online marketing comes in steady streams; traffic from SMO comes in tsunamis or droughts. You may submit a piece of Diggbait only to have it languish and die in Upcoming, or it may hit the front page and bring in tens of thousands of visitors that overwhelm your server. It’s boom or bust; there is no in-between.

Much of its value is indirect. Social media traffic is notorious for low conversion rates. However, it’s important to consider the many indirect benefits of an SMO surge. For starters, it gets thousands of eyes on your brand. If they liked what they saw, that good impression may result in conversions at a later date. These visitors may also link back to your content, improving your search rankings. It’s true that this makes total value hard to measure. Whatever the real value is, though, you can be sure that it’s higher than the conversions generated off of the initial flood of traffic.

The Purple Cow Level: An MMORPG Lesson in Remarkable Marketing

Case: LF1M healer for norm BM

Unless you’re a seasoned World of Warcraft player, the string of acronyms listed above probably doesn’t mean much to you. To translate, it stands for, “We are looking for one more party member to fill the role of healer for a normal-difficulty run of the Black Morass dungeon.” Yes, it means all of that. What can I say? We gamers love our shorthand.

The other night, my wife and I wrote little else into the game’s various chat channels for the better part of an hour without response. No healers were interested in joining us on our excursion.

Undeterred, I decided to mix things up with a little marketing. Instead of “LF1M healer for norm BM,” I took the time to write the following:

“Lo, there do I see my father. Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers. Lo, do I see the line of my people back to beginning. Lo, do they call to me. They say, looking for a healer for Black Morass!”

The cinema-savvy among you may recognize this as a quote from the movie, “13th Warrior.” Naturally, it elicited more than a few chat responses from curious and/or amused players. Seeing my tactic paying off, I followed up with two more:

“*singing* If you like my body and you think I’m sexy, come on heal for Black Morass!”

“*in echoing monster truck rally voice* TUESDAY, TUESDAY, TUESDAY… IN BLACK MORASS, MORASS, MORASS… LOOKING FOR HEALER, HEALER, HEALER…”

After more than a little laughter from my audience, my tactic managed to convince several players to log on as their healing characters and help us. We went on to a successful run of the dungeon.

Point: Remarkable Marketing

Is your marketing drawing your audience’s attention? I could have continued to produce the same monotonous, “LF1M healer for norm BM,” proclamation ad infinitum in the hopes that it would eventually pay off. Instead, I decided to do something that stood out, and it paid off.

Naturally, what draws attention will depend on the medium. Television commercials, for example, are always pushing the envelope and getting little response because users are desensitized to it. In simple text-based chat, however, I proved how a little innovation can go a long way.

Much like Seth Godin’s famous purple cow, is your marketing remarkable? Does it stand out and demand attention or fade into the noise? Are you still looking for a healer, or have you already gotten one and finished the dungeon?

P.S. Kudos if you’ve got enough marketing and gaming savvy to understand, “The Purple Cow Level,” without reference. 😉

How to Pass the Google Advertising Professional (GAP) Exam

Last year, I managed millions of dollars worth of online advertising, well over a million of which was through Google AdWords. Adding up those numbers for my yearly review brought me to the sobering conclusion that I was long overdue for completing my Google Advertising Professional (GAP) certification.

For those who don’t know, the Google Advertising Professional program is a certification awarded by Google to ad managers who meet certain qualifications. If you manage AdWords frequently, it’s a great way to improve your knowledge, boost your confidence, and add a nice bullet point to your resume. Here’s how I did it.

I read up on the requirements. In order to become a Qualified Individual, you have to manage an AdWords account through My Client Center and maintain a total spend of at least $1,000 for all of the accounts that you manage for a 90-day period. You also have to pass the GAP exam. Obviously, I already met the first two requirements, so all I needed to do was pass the exam.

I read through the training materials. In truth, all of the answers to the GAP exam can be found somewhere in the AdWords Learning Center. Much of it is useful, although some will come across as elementary if you’re an experienced marketer. I took a few days to study it thoroughly, paying particular attention to the videos and practice quizzes. Remember, of course, that you don’t have to memorize the lessons; just familiarize yourself with them well enough that you can find an answer quickly when you’re taking the exam.

I tried out unused features. New features are added to Google AdWords often enough that even the most experienced users lose track. For example, before I read the training materials, I had never known that you could geo-target a defined radius around a specific point on the globe (a useful feature for, say, a pizza delivery business). Whenever I came across a feature I’d never used before, I logged into my account and gave it a try.

I registered for the exam. The GAP exam is administered by Prometric and costs $50 to take. Except for the charge, registration is painless.

I opened a few reference sites. Take advantage of the fact that the GAP exam is administered online and open some valuable references ahead of time. I made sure to open the AdWords Learning Center, a standard Google search page, and my AdWords account page for the questions pertaining to menus and dashboards.

I saved the hard questions for last. You only have 90 minutes to take the test. At 117 questions, that means you can only devote an average of 46 seconds to each. Others who have taken the exam will tell you the same: Answer what you can from memory and skip the rest your first time through. Only when you’ve answered all of the easy questions should you go back and hit the hard ones.

I used every minute. Assuming you have time left after you answer all of the questions, don’t stop. Take any remaining time to review your answers. I had enough time to review about three quarters of the questions after I had answered them all, and I’m confident that I scored a few more points as a result.

I basked in the result. The exam was tough, but not impossible. If you review all of the training materials and know your stuff, you’re sure to score well above the 75% passing grade. I managed 91.5% following these steps. Good luck!

Show Results, Win a Free Lunch

Case: Marketing Contest

Earlier this month, my supervisor challenged our team to produce our own original marketing campaign proposals. The rules of this little game/performance evaluation were simple. We were to create our own lead generation campaigns using any renewable audience, in any medium, targeted toward any of our company’s products. A week later, we were to deliver our proposals to the CEO, COO, and our supervisor in a five-minute presentation. Limited collaboration was allowed, and scoring was determined by a variety of factors, including the campaign’s viability, measurability, and materials provided. The winner would be rewarded with a free lunch.

It didn’t take me long to flesh out a worthy idea. Online marketing is my specialty, so I developed a keyword-targeted PPC campaign, complete with ad text and landing page. I didn’t stop there, though. Everyone in the competition had their own particular advantages. As the online marketing manager, mine was the ability to launch and test my campaign quickly. By the time we were to present, my campaign had already been running for several days. Instead of attempting to convince my superiors of the campaign’s merits, I devoted half of my presentation to results, conclusions, and plans for refinement.

Of course, my coworkers put on a great showing as well. The graphic artists of the bunch came up with some very compelling advertisements. Our direct mail marketing specialist prepared a letter that was practically fit to be mailed out that day. Our copywriter had some detailed ideas for video advertising with free gas cards and a Jimmy Buffet song thrown into the mix. Overall, it was some stiff competition.

In the end, though, what impressed everyone the most were results. With a hat-tip to our direct mail marketer in a close second, I took first place.

Point: Results Speak for Themselves

In the same vein that actions speak louder than words, proof is more convincing than conjecture. To put it another way, say something works and others might believe you. Prove that something works and everyone will believe you. I wouldn’t say my campaign was particularly exciting or original. Because I had results to prove its value, though, I won out over other seasoned professionals with more compelling pitches.

This is a widely-applicable lesson for any web professional. When you’re out to make a convincing argument, don’t just assert your point with eloquence; demonstrate it with facts. There’s nothing better than verifiable results when it comes to spicing up a resume, impressing a client, adding punch to a performance evaluation, or winning a free lunch. 😉

Launching a Successful Website, Step Seven: Growth

You’ve come a long way since you first envisioned your website. Ever since it launched, it’s been fulfilling its intended purpose beautifully thanks to solid construction, an enticing brand, and diligent maintenance by a team of experts. Congratulations; you’ve come farther than most ever do.

Whether or not you stop here is really up to you. Your site is already a success if you’ve come this far, and it will continue to be if it is properly maintained. Still, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. You can forge on to even loftier goals. Forget being satisfied with what your site is; you can grow it into something greater than it was ever envisioned to be. Here are a few ways to go about doing it.

Increase Traffic / Improve Traffic Quality
Promotional experts are at their best when it comes to producing tons of quality traffic, and there’s no end of ways to do it. You can split test different advertising, experiment with social media (e.g., Diggbaiting), optimize for search engine placement, or even launch forays into previously unexplored promotional venues (e.g., real-world print advertising).

Optimize Conversions
However your site measures success, it’s always possible to improve the rate at which it succeeds. Traffic plays a role in this, but on-site elements are equally important. Landing pages are one area of potential improvement; by giving the right first impression, you can improve the chances that your visitors perform the desired action. Form processes/goal funnels are also important; a little analysis goes a long way toward keeping your visitors on track to converting. You can even focus on following up with visitors to keep them coming back.

Add New Conversion Methods
Short of developing new goals for the site, you can think up new ways to realize its original goals. For example, if you run an e-commerce site, you can add on new products. If you run a blog, you can add features to draw in readers or monetize traffic. The trick is to review your site’s goals, learn from what you’ve already done to realize them, and explore new angles of approach.

Expand Goals
As in personal growth, goals must be reassessed from time to time. As your site grows, it may achieve its original goals in a conclusive way, or previously unconsidered goals may crop up. Blogs may expand into new topics, for example. As these arise, it’s important to consider whether the new goal makes sense. Does it expand upon the site’s original goals? Does it make sense from a user’s perspective? If it seems like a natural fit, go with it. If not, you might want to start a new website instead.

Start a New Website
In many ways, starting over is a way of bringing the whole process full-circle. You may have reached a point where improving your existing website is no longer worth the effort. Or, you may want to go in a new direction that doesn’t seem to be a natural fit for the existing website. Whatever the reason, you’ve gained valuable insights along the way. Feed those considerations back into the process as you set about defining your new site’s purpose.

Launching a Successful Website, Step Five: 3, 2, 1… Lift Off!

Every step so far has led up to this: Launching your website. Of course, the technical bits should already be taken care of, leaving only the launch itself. If your site is small, this can be as simple as turning the key and hoping for the best. More than likely, though, you’ll need to spread the word to get any attention. As with everything that came before, here are some best practices to keep in mind.

Set a date. Much like a shuttle takeoff, there’s often a lot of coordination involved in launching a website. Pick a reasonable date in the near future to schedule it all. Your promotional experts may be able to advise the most strategic time based on your market (e.g., launching a football paraphernalia website just before the play-offs), or you may aim to launch as soon as possible. In any event, setting a date and sticking to it will help ensure the launch goes off without a hitch.

Submit the site to search engines. This used to mean manual submissions. Nowadays, though, it means compiling an XML sitemap and submitting it to Google Webmaster Tools, Yahoo Site Explorer, and MSN Live Search Webmaster Center, as well as adding it to your robots.txt file for smaller search engines. This should get the spiders indexing all of your content as quickly as possible.

Publish a press release. With today’s technology, you might think that the old-fashioned press release would have gone the way of the dodo, but it can still be a useful method for promoting a website.

Contact reviewers. Nothing can bring a new site up to speed like an endorsement from a respected professional. Just be sure your site deserves praise before soliciting reviews. Remember your manners, too; unless they’re paid, reviewers are doing you a favor, and attempting to forcibly coerce a good review could easily backfire.

Tap social media. One well-placed Digg, Twitter, or Stumble could easily get a new site off the ground. Where appropriate, spread the news of your site’s launch out in these and other social networks. As with reviewers, though, don’t force it; social networkers have a notorious hatred for overzealous self-promotion. Tread with care or you risk provoking a very damaging backlash.

Establish advertising. You might use pay-per-click services like Google AdWords, banner ad placement services like Tribal Fusion, or seek out independent advertising agreements with individual website owners. The key is to know your prospective audience and the kinds of sites they’re likely to visit.

Build inbound links. Listings in relevant directories can provide some modest traffic and the initial link juice needed for your site to rank in search engine results. Even more valuable, though, are links from websites with significant authority in your market.

Launching Ward on the Web

Most of the concept and planning work for Ward on the Web occurred early in May 2008. Thus, I decided to set June 1st, 2008 as my firm launch date. I installed the Google XML Sitemaps plugin for WordPress, submitted my sitemap to the big three search engines, and added it to my robots.txt file. I then hit up some of my blogging contacts, including Adam Schultz, Daniel Scocco, and Simon Owens, with notice of the launch. Lastly, I added social media bookmarking links to my WordPress template and submitted the site to Dmoz. As for press releases and advertising, I intentionally left them out because I don’t have the budget for them.

In my next post, I’ll address how to maintain your site’s upward momentum after launch.