Sunday, June 27, 2010

Part 2: Online marketing - How to make sense of Google Adwords, SEO, SEM and all that jargon

Search-Engine-MarketingImage by Danard Vincente via Flickr
Sorry everyone, know I promised to post the rest of the post the next day but was reading my own article after I posted it and I thought that I would change track a bit. I think in Part 1 I was able to explain some of the challenges but not clearly outline some suggestions. As such I'll quickly go through one more challenge and then put down a quick laundry list of stuff that every web entrepreneur must do in order to get results from online marketing.

The last challenge:

7. Directing user behavior in a very distracting environment.  The internet is a very distracting environment. Unlike when you advertise or market on television or else in print or one on one in a meeting, you have no psychological upper hand and the user feels no need to pay you any attention or let you make your case. In a sense it is like he is window shopping but inside the shop and in multiple shops at the same time (does that make sense?) It is also a unique medium (only maybe teleshopping compares) where you can convince someone and make him buy your product immediately. It is also the one medium where you have a storefront for which you may no rent, have no utility cost and where your sales are primarily under your control. Having said that the biggest challenge is to get users to follow a 'sales funnel' where you take them through a typical buying process without them explicitly feeling that they are being taken through the same. The way you do this is to continuously improve your usability as you mine data and figure out the typical buying path that customers are taking. Something easily said but very difficult to do.

So here are some things I feel every online entrepreneur must do:

1. Keep search very broad and implement filters on search results. Techies have a tendency to use advanced search and this is a valuable tool which must be put under an advanced search button. However, in your initial days, you will not have enough variety to satisfy users. Putting a very detailed search is akin to putting up a sign saying restaurant and not having a menu. Customers will come in ask for truffle and cake and other exotic dishes and you will return zero search results. In the initial stages it is much better to offer a broad search and maybe a direct category browse or graphical browse of featured products. Make sure you put the price on the featured products and choose products that are good deals. As you get more information about what customers are searching for work furiously to add to the catalog and feature those products. Make sure that on the search results page you have an ability to further filter these results based on the parameters that you usually would put in the advanced search page.

2. Do an excel sheet SEO exercise as outlined in the previous post. As mentioned take an excel sheet and list out all the keywords and going one by one take each keyword and reword content on your website to ensure it contains these keywords. Obviously, user experience is key and don't do anything that will look or feel stupid and as if you are stuffing garbage into the website but go through the exercise.


3. SEO internal pages. The way to do this is to rename links and ensure content on every page is SEOed and not just your homepage which will be actually the most difficult page to SEO effectively given that it has the most generic content. I'll give you an example if you are a seller of books it is rare that someone will come to your website after typing in 'online book seller india' - Instead it is more likely that there are a larger number of users who will type in particular authors names or the names of particular books e.g. "Selling the wheel" and you want those keywords to not point to your homepage but to an internal page for that particular product. Hence you must use these keywords and the authors names for your detailed page for that book.


4. Contribute to the internet. Create proprietary content which is not present anywhere else on the internet. This is treated favorably by search engines. Try and stay focussed to your business and create a depth of content which your audience will find useful. More importantly, try and syndicate the content to other websites who have higher Page Ranks and ask them to link back to you. This will ensure your page rank moves upwards. 


5. Direct user behavior by keeping the number of pages to the minimum.  Here is what I mean by this. Typically most websites will have a search results page and then on clicking on the search results you go to a product detail page. I would recommend instead of redirecting to a product detail page, try and see if you can replace the same with a HTML5 pop up. This is where there is no new page but a section pop out on the page itself and disables the background page. The popup must have all the information for the user to make his purchase decision and a two action buttons - to either close and go back to search results or else to purchase. This is called providing a strong funnel and I would recommend everyone do this.

6. Build an engaged audience and encourage contribution. This is really the toughest part of internet marketing. Build an engaged audience and get them to contribute to their website. Some of you might have seen on my About Me page that this is something I find very important ("businesses which can get more valuable not by attracting customers but by what customers 'leave behind') - I feel this is because a lot of websites feel that the way to get user generated content is to get user reviews and ratings on the website. This is not gonna help you get customers as it will be something that kicks in only after you have a large number of disgruntled customers :-) - Get inspired by Wikipedia. Is there a way to get other content on the website enhanced by the users?? Spend significant time and energy on this as it is a non trivial problem to solve. However the payoff of doing this is immense - you will build a great and loyal community and search engines and other directories will notice and reward the dynamism as part of their algorithms. 


7. Use alt tags for images. A simple tip but one that not many webmasters do. Remember images cannot be read by bots. The only thing that can be read is the meta data about them i.e. the alt tag. Ensure the alt tag is well formed and has content that is relevant to the particular image. Don't stuff it with crap. 


8. Spend time to figure out your facebook and twitter strategy. I will do detailed posts on using each of these tools and so at the moment I will not say much but to say that these are powerful tools and ones that cannot be ignored in todays internet. However, there is like all things in life a world of difference between the obvious and insight. Don't do stuff without spending some time to understand the implications of your actions and mapping out your goals from these exercises. 


9. Use Search Engine Marketing to get immediate results. SEO can never give you results in the same way. SEO is a gradual process. Search Engine Marketing or Online Advertising guarantee you immediate results at a price. In a sense it is like paying to get to the top of the queue. Use them effectively and you will be able to grow your business quickly and effectively. However, very few people understand how to use Online Advertising effectively. My view is that you need to prepare a business plan and ensure that you start with traffic that is coming vritually entirely from Online Advertising and gradually trending to where it is 40-50% of your total traffic. I say 40-50% of your traffic should come from online advertising as I feel you must grow your revenues by 100% every year. If you are able to get a base traffic from regular customers and SEO, then online advertising should be able to get you to this figure. However, remember with SEO that you must set a goal and dollar values and probability figures for every step of the selling process. Here you are spending real money and you need to get tangible results i.e. money in the bank. I like to think of SEM as pushing the gas on the accelerator because you don't have a lifetime to waste. Personally, I strongly advocate Search Advertising as opposed to Facebook, Display and other forms of Advertising. I have found it to be value for money.


10. Research creating an affiliate program. An affiliate program is where you partner with other websites, bloggers and online communities to promote your program in return for a success fee. Think of it as similar to online advertising but in a different format. A great affiliate program is the one from Amazon where once I sign up as an amazon affiliate - I get an affiliate code and then whenever I like a book, I can blog about it and my readers can click a link to view details of the book on amazon.com - If they purchase the book, I get a commission from Amazon - as simple as that. I have used a simplistic example of a blogger as an affiliate but there are many managers of large passionate online communities whose primary income stream is affiliate programs they participate in. Have a focused approach to creating a win-win affiliate program and reaching out to the right affiliates and recruiting them to your cause. 


Hope this was useful and I will write posts dedicated to facebook and twitter in the near future. Welcome comments and other feedback from others!! 




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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Part 1: How to make sense of Google Adwords, SEO, SEM and all that jargon

dotcom.comImage by hober via Flickr

So everyone knows I have for a very long time been a product creator and innovator in the Telecom and Payments space. I have been very comfortable with the technology and business side of GSM, CDMA, USSD, GGSN, MSC, PCI, ISO and what not. I have never run or managed a dotcom and so running homestaysDOS.com has been a new and learning experience for me. I started the website on a lark without major commercial expectations and then being ambitious decided to try and run it as a business. Along the way, I've been learning how to run a pure online business and it has been one hell of an experience. I've just started and so I am sure there is a lot more to learn but I thought I must record some of my learnings as a means of sharing the same with others who embark on similar emarketing initiatives in the future. I will not cover the use of facebook and twitter in this post but I intend to do future posts to cover those in the near future.

So here are some of my learnings:-

Firstly, Overall my major learning is that selling a product online requires a very different mindset from selling an enterprise product or producing a physical product and marketing it. In other cases, you essentially are able to run the company in different silos albeit interconnected at the top but for the most part operating in silos. So typically in other cases, you conceptualize the product, you build it and once you have the product it is turned over to the sales team who then 'sells' the same. The sales team gathers feedback which is communicated back to the product team which then starts work on the new version of the product. There is clear distinction between engineering and the website which is essentially marketing. Now with an online offering there is no such distinction - the product is the marketing and the sales channel and so essentially there is no sense in having multiple departments and hence every individual working in the company has to work closely with each other and their individual functions need to be looked at in a holistic manner. Easier said than done. I am battling daily with having to change this mindset and will try below to share how I have tried to do it.

1. You Should Do It Yourself first: This is the first thing I wanted to emphasize. Today there are a large number of companies who specialize in emarketing and while many of them are very good, it is important that you start off on your own to understand what it takes to run this department and arrive at some key metrics so that you can keep an eye on these providers. The tools and ecosystem were built by many of the bigger players - google, yahoo, facebook etc. to provide a level playing field and enable a small business to reach out directly to customers without the need to hire expensive consultants and agencies. They add tremendous value but beyond a certain scale and I would never recommend hiring them when you know absolutely nothing about emarketing and metrics. Once you have done it yourself for a while, it may be worthwhile to save time and outsource the same to a professional.

2. Google Analytics is very simple yet powerful. Spend significant time playing with it and getting to use all its features. Without doubt, my search has shown me multiple analytics providers but none can compare with Google Analytics. It has its flaws but it is still the best tool there is and I would highly recommend that you use it to track visitors to your website. Some of the points below will emphasize the importance of certain statistics that are shown in google analytics.

3. SEO - how to go about it? SEO is the first real time when you will notice clearly the need for Product Development and Marketing to work together. Search Engine Optimization as the full form suggests is ensuring that your website ranks highly on the results page when someone searches for specific terms on google. I want to emphasize that only someone who knows nothing about SEO will be able to promise you that you will get ranked highly no matter what is typed into google. The best way I have found to improve your SEO ranking is to take an excel sheet and type out all the keywords users who you want to show up on your website may type. Ensure that these are keywords that demonstrate 'intent' and not just that the user is in your target Audience. Now the best way I have found is to go one by one and going over all content on the website ensure that you are using these keywords or are renaming link names and content text to include these terms instead of other words which may convey the same meaning but are not so commonly used. Repeat this process for every keyword and ensure that all dynamically generated pages have the same keywords autogenerated. Also make sure you autogenerate Alt tags for images which make sense. I would caution here against keyword stuffing -i.e. putting really large number of keywords into the meta tags and alt images - these will be ignored and will be penalized by many search engines so avoid the same. Think creative and think from the perspective of an user.

4. Figure out the whole Page Rank thingy:-  Page Rank is at the core of Google's technology and the single most important thing that affects the placement of your page on search results. Simply put, google assigns every page on the internet a PageRank. The more influential your page is the higher your page rank. The more number of people who link to you the higher your page rank. The more influential the person who links to you the higher your page rank. As such, focus on improving your page rank. The ways you can do this:- Be aware what your page rank is. There are nice toolbars which you can install on your browser which will show you the page rank of every page you visit. A good way to increase your page rank is to create original content and give it to other high page rank blogs or websites with the understanding that they will link back to you. The other option is to participate in a link exchange program or submit your website to directories etc. However, I have low confidence in such mechanisms.

5. Assign Dollar Values to Customers and segment the buying funnel into milestones with probabilities but no dollar value. This is another very important aspect to keep in mind with Running an online company. You must be able to say that if a customer gets to a particular point, it is equivalent to making x USD. As clear as that. You have to be clear that the metric must be well defined so that you can go to a crowded marketplace and yell - go to my website do so and so and I will be willing to pay you  75% of x USD. I like to make sure the metric is one which puts money into my wallet and I recommend you do so too but many web 2,0 companies will assign a dollar value to a user and so on and so forth. (I don't agree with this but thats the subject of another blog post). Now that you have defined your metrics, you can assign intermediate steps which tell you the probability of getting the x USD. Remember here you are assigning a probability to the steps but no dollar value. The value of a customer who gets to the final stage and drops off is still zero.

6. Keep tweaking your website to improve the drop off and bounce rate at every step. The bounce rate is the %age of visitors who come to your website and then decide that this was not what they were looking for and move on. The Drop off rate is the %age of visitors who drop off at every probability linked stage of your buying funnel. You need to measure each of these percentages using google analytics and make changes in the website usability to improve steadily and stabilize these percentages. This is an amazing exercise and something that should be done daily and on an ongoing basis.

Since this is a detailed subject, I have decided to break it up into two parts. Watch for the next part tomm.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Focus: The great entrepreneur virtue

As readers of my blog might know, I recently started a website called www.homestaysDOS.com which quickly took off and became India's largest Holiday Home rental website. The sudden growth has taken me by surprise and as I'm building the business, I'm simultaneously building deeper relationships with mentors / advisors. Had a meeting with one of them today - I'll refrain from naming him as we've not officially announced our advisors but he's one of the founders of arguably India's most successful and loved travel company and someone whose inputs and advice I have grown to respect.

I'll set some context to our discussion: I'm grappling with the fact that Holiday Homes are owned by only a small minority in India. This is slowly changing with quite a few people having bought second homes in the past few years and over the next 5 years, a significant number of Indian families will get possession of their Holiday Homes. This is a big thing for us as it will significantly expand the number of Holiday Homes available to list on our website while also ensuring they are in clusters and so easier to manage as opposed to the stand alone farm houses and villas that presently populate our website. We have a series of challenges to navigate between when an upper Middle Class family decides to buy a second home to when they can list their property on our website and we can start displaying the same to travelers who can then book the same and go and vacation in them. It's tough being patient and esp given my character, I felt we as a company should ensure we do something and encourage or participate in the scaling of some of these challenges so that we could take control of our destiny (or hasten the arrival of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow).

Mr. Mentor gave me some good advice which I felt I must share (with some summarizing and some of my own narration thrown in):
1. Figure out what would be core to your business when the business is in steady state. Only focus on that aspect even now and ensure that the 'business works' - this means transactions are happening, the customers are happy, the suppliers are happy and you can measure, monetize and analyze things easily. 
2. Focus on the existing low hanging fruit and the existing market no matter how tiny it is. You will be surprised as to how large even the existing market is. Focus on dominating the same.
3. Ensure you are building a community with the existing users and existing stakeholders while the market grows - when you are the de facto leader, the new stakeholders who come in will also gravitate towards you. 
4. Doing things to get to the mirage at the end of the road does not change the facts - there is no mirage. It's an optical illusion.
5. Studiously choose product and stakeholders that will position you in the light you want to be positioned and though of. Avoid products that will cause any friction or a bad experience for any set of stakeholders. 
6. Be patient. You cannot grow a market faster than it will grow. 
7. Position yourself as the leader. Ensure you are respected for your views, insight and business practices by all stakeholders. 

I am happy to have been able to attract some of the advisors we have and will continue to share some advice for the benefit of the larger universe. Please feel free to comment and give me your own advice!!

First Column for Times Property

Image via Wikipedia Hi Everyone, I'm happy to post the first of my articles that will be appearing in the Times Property - a supplement ...