Why Never to Launch a Site on Friday Afternoon

Imagine sitting in mission control as a rocket is launched into space. The countdown initiates. “10, 9, 8…” The boosters engage. The astronaut comes over the com to confirm final checks. “7, 6, 5…” Everything is a green light. The launch crew sits on the edge of their seats. “4, 3, 2…” The moment is finally upon us, and then… quitting time. Just as the rocket is about to launch, everyone gets up from their desks and heads home for the weekend.

Sounds pretty strange, doesn’t it? Why would anyone do something so reckless? Doesn’t it make more sense to give launch the time and attention it deserves? After all, if everyone walks away right before lift off, they may miss a critical moment that could make or break the whole operation.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what happens when you try to launch a website on a Friday afternoon. You initiate the countdown and walk away, naively trusting that everything will go smoothly. No verification of success. No post-launch QA. You just push the button and go home for the weekend.

You’d think this would be common sense. You’d think any good web development company would know better than to do it like this. Regrettably, you’d be wrong. This has happened at every web shop I’ve worked in, not just once, but often. Clients have been allowed to say the word “Go” at the worst possible moments, thinking it’s as simple as pushing a button and letting everything magically work out.

The thing is, clients don’t know any better. They don’t do this for a living. It’s the job of their web development team to explain that launching a website is a non-trivial process that takes time and attention, that launching without a human being present to fix things when they inevitably go wrong means they’re stuck with a broken website all weekend, that unexpected glitches must be factored in, and that it’s a bad idea for their company and their brand to do otherwise. Anything less is reckless.

The alternative, of course, is a broken website that languishes for days while clients gnash their teeth, pull their hair out, and make angry phone calls at 3:00am because their brand new website isn’t working right. This hurts not only the client’s business, but the web shop’s business, too.

So the next time you’re working with a client who insists on launching late on Friday (or you happen to be that client), do everyone a favor. Stop, breathe, and ask if it can wait until Monday. 99% of the time, it can, and as I’ve said, it really, really should, for everyone’s sake.

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.

Guess Who Owns Information Online

I’ll give you a hint: It’s not you.

The AP is making a big hubbub about fair use of its material.

The music industry is waging war against the Pirate Bay.

What the people behind these headlines fail to realize is that, on the web, information cannot be contained. It flows and propagates, spreading across the globe at the blazing speed of a billion internet connections.

Can you track a lightning bolt with the human eye? Can you catch it in your hand? No? The same goes for information. The second it’s out in the world, it’s gone in a flash.

This isn’t about right and wrong, copyrights, fair use, or anything remotely resembling legalese. Like it or not, the internet is too big for that. Fight it with law suits and legislation all you like; you can’t kill a billion-headed beast by cutting off one or two heads, especially when a million more grow back in their place. It’s futile. You’ll just make it angry.

The way to survive in the information economy of the 21st century is to create free products and services that can be monetized in other ways, to generate information that benefits you as it spreads, to embrace the free flow of information rather than try to strangle it.

Not lucrative enough, you say? People have to pay, you say? Keep embracing your outdated business models and see just how much money you’re making in 10 years. That is, if you’re even around that long. 😉

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.

A Value-Based Approach to Website Strategy

If you examine a website closely enough, you can almost always identify some form of commercial interest behind it. This is often overt, as in e-commerce websites or content sites with advertising. Sometimes, however, the commercial interest is more subtle. Ward on the Web, for instance, is a professional blog devoid of advertising. Because its purpose is to promote my professional standing, however, there is commercial interest in the usefulness and authority of my message. My strategy here is to show off what I know in the hopes that it will help me achieve greater career growth.

The first thing to realize is that a website is a tool for creating value. My very first post on Ward on the Web spoke about defining your site’s purpose, with the objective of building a website to achieve that purpose as well as possible. Does your website generate revenue? Does it attract attention? Does it build a reputation? Does it gather information?

Whatever your website does, it’s important to realize that the ultimate goal is always a resource that’s valuable to you. Money has obvious commercial value, but so does a large audience or a stellar reputation. It may be more difficult to tack on a dollar amount, but there’s no denying that even non-monetary resources have potential monetary value.

Viewed in this context, decisions about website strategy tend to become simpler. Say, for instance, that you’re writing a blog and toying with the idea of adding advertising. You’re afraid that this will turn off your visitors, reducing the size and responsiveness of your audience.

Remember, though, that your website is a tool for creating value. In this case, you’re examining the prospect of trading one type of value (audience size and engagement) for another (advertising revenue). Obviously, how much of one you’ll end up trading for the other is a complex question, but the basic proposition is simple. Do you stand to derive more value with advertising or without?

Even small website strategy decisions are best when advised by a value-based approach. For example, say you’re testing a landing page on a lead generation website. You want to know which of two calls to action are more effective. Generally, you’d do a simple split test (or multivariate analysis if you have other variables in mind). Let’s say your testing reveals that the first call to action converts 10% of visitors and the second converts 12%. Which do you use?

Of course you choose the second. But why? Because it makes your website a more effective lead generation tool. Because it adds more value. Thanks to analysis, this example is cut and dry; you simply take the greater of two values.

The important thing to realize, however, is that all website strategy decisions are value-based comparisons. Which provides more value, option A or option B? If you can answer this question with confidence, your choice should be obvious every time.

Don’t Attack Your Critics; Empower Your Advocates

“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.”
– Malcolm X

It’s a fact of life. The more successful your website, the more likely it is to receive criticism. As Malcolm X points out, this can almost be regarded as a good thing. After all, nobody would feel the need to criticize unless your site had some measure of importance. Still, critics often represent a vocal minority that can do serious damage to your website’s reputation. It’s important, then, to know how to deal with them.

Don’t Attack Your Critics

Awhile back, I wrote an article on DailyBlogTips.com about how to deal with flamers and trolls. I talked about remaining calm, accepting valid criticism, avoiding censorship, and never stooping to their level. The common theme among these points is to never attack your critics.

Why? Because, no matter how much damage a critic does to your online reputation, counterattacking will only do more. Consider the following two scenarios:

  1. You attack your critics. Your critics comes right back at you twice as strongly as before. You attack them again. They attack you again. Before you know it, you’re locked into a cycle of negative reciprocity from which there is no escape. After the flame war has passed, your online reputation is little more than a shriveled shadow of its former self.
  2. You attack your critics. Your attack actually manages to stifle their negativity. Because of your approach, however, you are left looking sensitive, juvenile, and/or insecure in the eyes of your audience.

Either outcome results in further damage to your reputation. It’s a lose/lose situation.

Empower Your Advocates

Of course, your audience includes more than just critics. You probably have more than a few advocates as well. These loyal fans will defend your site on its merits and attack critics on your behalf, often without notice or reward.

The only problem with advocates is that they are often the silent majority to the critics’ vocal minority. Advocates are pleased with your site. As such, they rarely feel the need to speak up. It’s just a fact of human nature that dissatisfaction elicits a more outspoken response than satisfaction.

The trick to online reputation management, then, is to engage and empower your advocates. Get them to speak out, either by singing your site’s praises, denouncing its detractors, or both. Don’t force it, of course; you’ll only be seen as less genuine by soliciting positive reviews. By inviting advocates to weigh in on the discussion, however, you can turn the reputation battle in your favor. Here are some ways you can “rally the troops.”

  • Converse Outside Your Site – Your advocates are talking about your site elsewhere on the internet. Seek out these hot spots of positivity and add to the conversation.
  • Facilitate Sharing – Add social media sharing utilities (e.g., Digg, StumbleUpon, del.icio.us, etc.) to your website so advocates can attract like-minded friends.
  • Feature Testimonials – Solicit testimonials and success stories from advocates, then feature them prominently on your website.
  • Get Social – Give your website a face by creating profiles on Facebook, MySpace, and similar websites and befriending your advocates.
  • Send Thank You Emails – Advocates often praise your site without expecting to be rewarded. By letting them know that their positive feedback was noticed and appreciated, you encourage them to repeat it.
  • Sponsor Competitions – Offer a prize for a competition related to your website (e.g., best fan video).

What do you think? How else can website owners encourage and empower their advocates?

7 Essential Tips for Corporate Blogging

According to JupiterResearch (via Search Engine Watch), 34% of large companies and 15% of Fortune 500 companies blog. That’s quite a bandwagon. Before you jump on board, though, you should know what you’re getting into. Here are seven essential tips to keep in mind as your company enters the corporate blogging arena.

  1. Don’t be afraid. If a blog can benefit your company, you’ll do more harm by never trying than you will by messing up. The technology won’t stop gaining acceptance just because you don’t have the familiarity or willingness to use it. The important thing is to get out there. If you do mess up, learn from your mistakes and keep going.
  2. Establish goals. Just as bad as starting a corporate blog for the wrong reasons is starting one without clear goals. Do you want to have a voice in your industry? Develop your brand? Enhance your public relations efforts? Your blog should have a clear purpose that coincides with your company’s values.
  3. Don’t market; converse. To be successful, a corporate blog must be a conversational tool, not a propaganda engine. This means ditching the advertising and press releases in favor of engaging content. Imagine walking into a car dealership. Who would you rather talk to, an amicable salesman with a genuine interest in your wants and needs, or a pushy salesman whose only interest is selling you the biggest, most expensive car on the lot? Who would you recommend to your friends when they go car shopping?
  4. Provide value. Nobody will engage or subscribe to a blog that doesn’t provide valuable content. Know your readers. What are their interests? How do those interests relate to your products and services? What do they want to know about your company? Determine the topics that will offer the greatest value and structure your blog around them.
  5. Build relationships. The purpose of engaging your audience is to build relationships. This means being a part of the conversation. Listen to feedback through comments, trackbacks, and emails. Address customer concerns through open dialogue. Reach out to other bloggers in your niche through links and comments. By developing relationships with your customers, you help build their trust in your brand.
  6. Be human. Customers don’t want to talk to faceless corporations; they want to talk to people. Don’t just write; tell stories from your unique perspective from within the company. Share opinions, not sales pitches. When you mess up, admit your mistakes. Never forget that you represent the company, but censor posts with care to preserve their personal voice. Your company’s culture must be flexible enough to accommodate this level of personality if the blog is to succeed.
  7. Be positive. It is often said that the greatest bloggers have thick skin, and with good reason. The blogosphere is an open forum for criticism and outright negativity. Despite this, your corporate bloggers should take it in stride, respond constructively, and attempt to turn every conversation in a positive direction. Nothing good can come of giving into the temptation to respond to your critics with negativity.

Additional Resources

Most of this list was collected from the following articles:

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 Six: Maintenance

“Good decisions are not made; they are managed.”
– John Maxwell

Maxwell’s point is that just making a good decision is easy. However, most people fail to live up to their good decisions. Only those who stick to their goals with consistency can ever achieve them. That is to say, the decisions that bear fruit are those that are managed well day in and day out.

The same logic applies to websites. You can follow all of my other steps for launching a successful website. As a result, your launch may be a resounding success. Without regular maintenance, however, that success can only be temporary. Anyone can build a website, but the most successful websites are those that are managed well after launch. Thus, in many ways, step six is the most important step of all.

First and foremost, you have to deliver on your promises. If you’re a blogger, post regularly, engage your commenters, and converse openly with others in your niche. If you’re an ecommerce site owner, maintain proper product listings, ecommerce gateways, and distribution systems. Whatever your site is supposed to do, put in the work to make sure it keeps doing it and doing it well.

Toward this end, you must enforce accountability. People are more diligent when they are held responsible. Identify which of your experts is tasked with each aspect of site maintenance, then develop metrics to track their performance and monitor them on a regular basis. Ideally, good performance should be rewarded to keep everyone’s interests aligned with the site’s success.

It’s also important to address user concerns. Only the simplest sites can hope to persist after launch without problems cropping up. If your visitors or your experts are complaining, attempt to resolve the issue. Give any feedback you receive its due consideration; even the belligerent ravings of a disgruntled user can reveal a genuine problem that deserves attention.

In a similar vein, it’s important to know your market. If you run a gadget site, but you don’t know about the latest and greatest gadgets available, your site will fall behind its competitors. Likewise, if you run a news blog, but you don’t keep an eye on the top headlines, nobody will give your posts the time of day. Know what’s happening in your market and how those changes affect your website. Otherwise, it will fail no matter how well it is maintained.

Lastly, and most importantly, remain vigilant. Your site may be buzzing along fine one day and experiencing serious problems the next. It doesn’t pay to become complacent and assume that everything is fine. Regular review and quality assurance will go a long way toward rooting out problems that don’t crop up elsewhere.

With all the work you’ve already done to plan, build, and launch the site, what matters now is that you know what needs to be done to maintain the its momentum and ensure that those things are done with consistency.

In my next post, I’ll address the final aspect of launching a successful website: Growth.

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.