Thursday, January 13, 2011

International Ranking Factors: URL Best Practices

One of the best ways to get global SEO started on the right foot is to have a URL structure that engines can easily read and understand.  The URL should not only tell spiders what content is most important on your site but also share what country and language the site is relevant to.

CC TLD Importance: Best Case Scenario

There are a number of signals that indicate a site is relevant for international content, and the top level country code domain is one of the strongest.  Server location is another, as Matt Cutts explains in this recent video[i].   We understand that most companies are moving to a central CMS and the server will reside within the US.  Because of this scenario, the TLD will be very important for ranking within country specific engines.  Follow the internationally accepted list of TLD extensions by checking out the official IANA website.[ii]  See examples below.

The top recommendation for a Brazil URL structure would be:
www.mydomain.com.br or www.mydomain.br

Additional Note: There are some countries that do not allow the registration of country specific designations with .com (i.e. www.mydomain.com.cl is an ‘invalid TLD. Therefore www.mydomain.cl will be used. Check with the official IANA website as well as local internet laws for clarification.  

If both the .com and the .country urls are available for registration, it is recommended to register both urls and 301 one URL to the desired live URL.  SEO does not dictate that .com.county has any extra value over .county.  They both give the same signal to the search engines that the content is centric to the given country.  It is not advised that both URLs are live with the same content. 

Distinguishing between Languages

Setting and displaying the content in its proper language is also a key factor.   This becomes increasingly important when dealing with countries with multiple languages (i.e. Canada).  The primary page should always be set in the official language of the represented country (in the case of Canada, it should default to English.  After that, sub-domains should be used for alternative languages.  See examples below.

Canada’s Primary URL: www.mydomain.com.ca
Canada’s French URL: fr.mydomain.com.ca 

Additional Note: Coding the page with the correct HTML language syntax tag will help engines identify and categorize the language of the site’s content.  This is a simple tag included within the HTML tag at the top of any web page.  See an example for a Portuguese site below.  

<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" lang="pt">
<head>

You can find an official list at the following website: http://webdesign.about.com/od/localization/l/bllanguagecodes.htm [iii]

 

Directory Taxonomy

Organizing and labeling content within a website is of major importance.  Besides increased usability, search engines use the signals of directory name and location to determine relevancy of a particular page.  Hierarchies should follow query intent or should follow a structure that mimics how users search for the website’s content.   For instance, if a directory is talking about “lawn mowers,” then call the directory “lawn-mowers” instead of the more general “products.”  Follow the same mentality for every sub-directory as well (/lawn-mowers/riding-mowers/model-xyz.html)

Also make sure that the website uses the regional word most used.  For example, “lawn mowers” are often just called “mowers” in the US.  Use the Google keyword tool[iv] to research the specific keyword within the desired country to determine how the majority of the population searches for the content in question.  See example below:

US URL: www.mydomain.com/lawn-mowers/
Canada URL: www.mydomain.com.ca/lawn-mowers/
Canada French URL: fr.mydomain.com.ca/ tondeuse-a-gazon / 

Other basic rules to follow when construction URLs (US or International)

  1. Use hyphens instead of underscores
  2. Try to flatten structure to be 3 directories or higher : www.mydomain.con/directory1/directory2/directory3/page.html
  3. No more than 4 words per directory
  4. Have standard code extensions (html, aspx, php, etc.)
  5. Avoid session ID’s when possible
    1. If session ID’s are required, implement the <rel=canonical > tag and include a sessionid wildcard line in the robots.txt file to reduce effects of duplicate content

International SEO Options without CC TLD’s: Second Choice

CC TLD is the best way to ensure that your company’s content is ranked within the countries’ preferred search engines.  However, business needs may not always accommodate this strategy.   Whether it is due to company structure, global CMS systems, or simply just cost savings, it is ok if you cannot implement the CC LTD’s.  There are two other ways to properly SEO your URLs for international search results.

Basics are Still the Basics

Just because a company cannot purchase and manage a plethora of CC TLD’s does not mean that the best practices of language settings and Directory Taxonomy are not still valid.  In fact, the following 2 methods of URL optimization require that a company follows those two rules even closer.   The CC TLD’s are considered an automatic default for certain content (i.e. if you send mail to a Chicago address, then you would assume that the mail is going to the US).  Given that the presence of the CC TLD is not there, a company has to make sure that it is sending the proper singles to the search engines through proper use of the directory taxonomy and language settings.

Country as a Sub-Domain/ Language as Sub-Directory

The first method is to setup each country as a sub-domain. 

Brazil’s Primary URL: br.mydomain.com/pt/

Engines tend to rank the level of importance of content based on how far from the domain directory.  As a best practice, it is recommended that content should not reside more than 3 levels (example: mydomaing.com/level-1/ level-2/ level-3/).   This method allows you to have used one less sub-directory, thus showing a higher level of importance for company’s content.

The downside to this method is that it tends to be a little harder to explain to international counterparts.  It also tends to be more taxing on CMS systems and IT resources (as compared to the last of the two methods). 

 

Country & Language as a Sub-Directory

The second method is to place each country and language in its own sub-directories.  See example below.

Brazil’s Primary URL: www.mydomain.com/br/pt/

This method is simple to understand, explain and implement.  The first directory is always the country and the second URL is always the language.  Each directory thus signals to the engine the content is specific that country and language.  The added bonus is that most engines will consolidate link popularity to the sub-domain.  So, if all directories are on one domain, then it is possible that the PR and adverting that a company does in one country can actually help it rank better in another country. 
The downside of this method is that you place one more directory in front of the most important content.  Again, best practice state that you should not have content more than three levels from the domain (example: mydomaing.com/level-1/ level-2/ level-3/).  This method already forces the most important content to the 3rd level. 

 

Region Settings within Webmaster Tools

For Google specifically it is recommended to set region-specific URLs within a standard .com TLD within Google Webmaster Tools. This provides the engines with another signal of international origin and relevance.

 

Regional Non-Country Specific: Third Option

Business reasons may dictate that a certain country or region has to be lumped into one area.  This presents a problem when it comes to giving the proper signals to the search engines as to the nature of the content.   For instance, a company is starting to enter the Latin American markets and has deemed a small set of countries as top priorities.  However, the company does not want to ignore the other countries because it still has the ability to service those customers.  In this case, the company has dedicated its efforts to those high priority countries and needs a stop gap for the rest of the region. 

 

Region Structure & Taxonomy

All rules apply as laid out in previous options; however, the directories or sub-domains will be broken out into region instead of country.   Because the engines do not recognize regions, it is important to spell out the region by universally accepted names and in the main region’s language (if possible).  For instance, the main language of Latin America is Spanish.  See example below.
www.mydomain.com/america-latina/es/
In the cases where a specific language cannot be specified, such as in the EU, it is critical to include as many of the languages as business resources dictate.  Like Latin America, the EU is comprised of several countries and thus will not have an TLD recognized by search engines.   Each major language should be created in different directories.
EU English: www.mydomain.com/european-union /en/
EU Spanish: www.mydomain.com/european-union /es/
EU French: www.mydomain.com/european-union /fr/
EU German: www.mydomain.com/european-union /de/

Make sure to include the language html setting mentioned above.  The importance of these two steps is critical in making sure that the engines understand that this content is specific to that region and language, making the content seam relevant to the consumer’s query.

Monday, November 29, 2010

MBA in SEO

Now that search is starting to become more of staple in companies marking mix, I’m starting to see people asking about how to earn a degree (or at least take classes) in search marketing.  While many firms offer classes for clients or as part of consulting packages, only a hand full of schools even offer classes on digital marketing; forget about find a legit class on SEO/SEM.   That has recently caused me to ask myself what I would expect from a Search Marketing MBA.  Since I’m a big Purdue fan, I’m going to use their MBA program overview to help build the Dream MBA in Search.  After taking the required classes that every MBA has to take, I would finish my degree with these 7 elective classes:


1.       Digital Marketing Mix:  How Users Interact With Brands Online
2.       Advanced Online Analytical Analysis:  Understanding Users through Data
3.       Online Customer Communication Skills: Building Content People Want
4.       Search IT 501: Servers and Languages
5.       Search IT 601: Understanding Coding Languages
6.       Search IT 701: Advanced Server and Database Creation and Maintenance
7.       Advanced Online Customer Communication Skills: Perfecting Viral

Digital Marketing Mix:  How Users Interact With Brands Online:
There are few people that understand one aspect of digital marketing, regardless of multiple channels.  Being an expert in online display advertising as well search isn’t nearly as important as understanding how they affect each other.  How does blogging about SEO lead to usage of twitter, which leads to people creating fan pages on Facebook, to people idolizing your brand, to people searching on Yahoo for your site, to people purchasing your product? Understanding how to manipulate the different mediums (both Paid and Free mediums) to one’s advantage is clutch. 

Advanced Online Analytical Analysis:  Understanding Users through Data:
Search is 1 part science and 1 part math.  Read one of Lance Neuhauser’s words of wisdom on the topic to see what I mean.  Search is one of, if not the, most data driven forms of media.  We gain real data on what people actually DO, not just think they do.   That is a big difference in thinking, and means that marketers need to know how to slice and dice data to its full extent.  The science behind the Search comes in the way you can segment data and analyze consumer behavior based on a number of factors.

The Advanced Online Analytical Analysis class would be one part Stats (regression analysis, statistical significance, etc.), one part math (evaluating CTR, Bounce Rate, and coming up with math that creates KPI’s that we haven’t thought of yet), one part web analytics training, and finally one part test creation (because that knowing math doesn’t help if you can’t implement the findings).  The better one is at segmenting data, the better they will be at Search. 

Online Customer Communication Skills: Building Content People Want:
Look content is king on the internet.  It doesn’t matter if the desired content is video, audio, or text, without content the internet wouldn’t exists.  Marketers need to understand how to write and produce for the internet.  Taking into account SEO, SEM, User Engagement, and closed-loop-marketing, marketers need to understand the ins and outs of creating content.  This class would include basic PR practices, as well as video editing and directing skills, as well as trainings on how to strategically come up with content that links business objectives to people’s needs. 

Search IT:
Three classes, one would think that this be the longest class description.  In fact, it is one of the shortest.  In order for search marketing to work, computers and humans must all work in harmony.  Users have to be able to early use the digital content at hand, while spiders have to be able to read it.  Because IT is so complicated, 3 classes would be a great start at understanding all of the ins and outs of what a SEO/SEM Guru needs to know. 

Advanced Online Customer Communication Skills: Perfecting Viral:
At some point, online marketers have to stretch out from the class room to the real world.  The last class would be pulling everything together.  The text book would be The Tipping Point by Malcolm GladwellThis class would be all about taking content, developing a plan to distribute it in a way that allows it to go viral, analyze the response by segmenting all available data, and presenting a case as to why the program was a success or failure (depending on the strategy and desired results). 

If you’re reading this and are a professor, feel free to contact me to make the class a reality.  Cheers. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Using SEO Analytics to Forecast SEO ROI

A few weeks ago, Bruce Clay posted a blog post called ROI for SEO.  The basic idea is that you cannot forecast or project SEO ROI.  I have to raise my hand on this post and scream foul.  I respect what Bruce Clay has done and continues to do for the industry, but this isn’t as hard as he thinks.  I have been working forecasting SEO for a while and I have to say, yes you can….with an asterisk.  One of my many Economics professors in College told me once, “anything can be studied and explore if simplified enough.”   So, let’s take some time to look at how one would use SEO Analytics to simplify the process enough to actual forecast ROI of SEO. 

First, a basic forecast takes a couple different variables:

·         Average Search Volume for a term (Given by both Google and MSN on exact queries from the last 12 months). 
  •  Ave CTR per position (there are several studies out there)
  •  Ave Conversion of Website
  •  Ave Order Size or Lifetime Value of a Client/Lead
The VERY basic formula looks like:
  • Average Search Volume * CTR for Position = Possible Traffic to your site
  • Possible Traffic to your Site * Ave Conversion for Site = Possible Transactions
  • Possible Transactions * Ave Order Size = Revenue
  • (Revenue*months at position)/Cost of Service = ROI of SEO

Wow, that was hard.  I know that isn’t the most scientific method given it leaves out a ton of variables, but we are just getting started.   All of the following factors will end up affecting 1, if not all, of those key variables.  By focusing on the Hurtles, you can find ways to account for them within your own forecast. 

The Hurtles of SEO Forecasting:

There are a lot of variables to account for in a forecast, but that doesn’t mean we can’t account for them.  Bruce points this out with the statement:

No, there are no guarantees, at least not until I have stock control of Google, and perhaps not even then. Simply put, a guarantee requires enough control to have some chance of success, and nobody has enough control over the search engines or their own competitors to make that statement without it being fraud. I have no control over your developers who may or may not implement my recommendations. And I have no control over a ranking algorithm that search engines have admitted to altering more than 450 times per year. If you are offered a guarantee, it is simply a manipulation tactic -- when the company offering a guarantee fails they assume you will not sue them, and their sneaky wording precludes it anyhow (similar to an acts of God clause). When dealing with a moving target, the only guarantee we can make is that our effort will be our best.

Bruce laid out a great deal of hurtles that face us in forecasting.  Thank you for that, but now we get into the nuts and bolts and start making headway in SEO Forecasting. 

No Guarantees:
unless you are working under a pay-for-performance contract, no forecast should come with a 100% guarantee.  Executives know this.  They understand that things change.  Despite their best efforts, even they can’t forecast quarterly numbers perfectly.  That being said, they have to have an idea what they will get out of what they spend.  That becomes even truer in this economy. 

Client’s development Time:
No, you cannot determine what the development time will be for a client’s IT department.  That being said, you CAN ask.   A proper plan will take into account how much of the company’s resources you will/won’t have available.  If you know what you have to work with then you can prioritize and forecast for it.  If you aren’t talking to your client’s IT department, then you have bigger problems than forecasting ROI.  Clients need a reason to push a project through; you can give them a goal that is more than just a position. 

Competition’s SEO/Marketing Efforts:
Client’s know better than anyone that they cannot stop the competition from pushing SEO and/or Marketing efforts through. The nature of competition states that nothing is going to stay the same.  A CFO/CMO wants a forecast?  You just opened up a conversation about what their competitors are doing both online and offline.  Marketing efforts, online and offline, drive SEO movements.  You can’t account for things you don’t know.   If you know what the competition is doing, then you should be able to factor it into the forecast.  If you don’t, leave it out with a statement that we don’t know what is happening in competition’s boardroom. 

Un-Know Ever Changing Algorithm:
No, no one knows what the search algorithms are.  Yes, everyone knows what factors are taken into account (at least the most important ones).  The engines have stated time and time again that they are trying to favor white hat sites that deliver the best and most relevant content to a query.  You can’t control the algorithm, but you can be white hat…and not have to worry about it (assuming you’re a client that is looking for long term SEO gain).  It doesn’t matter what algorithmic change they make.  If you building content people want, in a way that is accessible by everyone, from a place that has a great reputation, and actively promotes, you will win on the SERP.  See, taking into account a algorithm that changes 450 times a year isn’t that hard. 

Seasonality:
Playing the seasonality game is hard, but doable if you plan it out.  You can forecast it out if you take the time to understand what happens and why.  People don’t write about Christmas gifts in June, but you can plan and build the relationships needed to promote your site in June (and smart marketer will).  You can then take into account lifts and bumps into seasonality…if you take the time to understand what happens and why. 

Reputation is NOT a reason to NOT Forecast:
This statement really gets me fired up…and probably the reason I wrote this post.  Being the “best” isn’t reason enough to be lazy and not attempt to give your clients a reason to take your recommendations. 
Despite all the uncertainty, you've come to the right place. You are hiring the best company because the probability of success increases significantly…

My friend has a question she likes to ask, mainly in jest, when she hears an answer that wasn’t as thoughtful as she would like: “Do you think that answer is acceptable?”    If I was a CFO or CMO and someone told me that hiring them, the best, was just as good as any forecast I would have to object with, “Do you think that answer is acceptable?”  Reputation is not a reason to not attach a problem; it’s the reason why you should be the one to find a solution.  Peyton Manning doesn’t get paid what he does because he just happens to be the best.  He is paid more because he finds a way to do what others cannot.  The more people look up to you, the more you should be the one pushing the issue…not running away from it. 

So, What Makes My Forecasting Methodology Different?
No, I’m not going to give away my secret sauce (if you want it, buy it from RM), but it comes down to true thought leadership in SEO Analytics and understanding of Business.  I make the statements upfront that I use these forecast directionally.  I state I cannot guarantee anything because I cannot control everything.  I also state that the efforts we push through are designed to give us a certain improvement in rankings and, more importantly, drive revenue.   I take into account the objectives of the forecast before I even begin the forecast:  Is this to show potential at a high level or give support to an individual project. 
After that, my forecasts take into account:
  • Competitiveness of the SERP
  • Competitiveness from Paid Search (CTR differs if there are 1 paid add or 10 paid adds).
  • Can take into account up to 5 digital assets
  • What can we push through from a technical stand point and how important is it to the ranking algorithm (this becomes harder when you are working about the keywords within the H1 header, but works really well if you are converting all Flash sites to something more crawlable). 
  • And Current Position of keywords (going from position 5 to 4 can be doable but not so much from 80 to 3)
  • And this is only version 2.0…I’m working on 3.0 as you read (a science I still see as being in its infancy). 

When forecasting, show what you can and can’t account for up front.  State you don’t give a guarantee.  Given the philosophies of modern business, executives will take that over a reputation any day of the week.  If nothing else, you opened up the conversation to become a partner, not a vendor, in their business.  I might be reading too much into the issue, but it feel like strait SEO’s may not want to forecast SEO ROI because it takes away from the importance of rankings.   Great SEO’s, the ones that are paid the most, will find a way to make revenue the highest priority.  I preach SEO Analytics because I’m not a true SEO.  I work with SEO, SEM, and Web Analytics on a daily basis, and focus on gaining revenue over rankings.  Forecasting isn’t something that our industry should run away from; we should be attaching it at full speed.  It isn’t as hard as everyone thinks…just take the time to think it through. 

Practice What You Preach: OK, Stat a Wine Blog?!?!

Malcolm Gladwell’s Book Outliers, states that you should have 10,000 hours of practice before you should consider yourself an expert (OK, I REALLY paraphrased that and there is SO much more behind that statement).    In the spirit of that, and to combine a couple of hobbies, I started an Inexpensive Wine Reviews and Tasting Notes Blog called Nate’s Wine Reviews (See, my blog so I can control the Anchor text all I want…as the inner third-grader comes out). 

While writing and practicing SEO and SEM is one thing (not that I don’t do this for this blog as well as a dozen other clients on a daily bases), also taking that same discipline and applying it to a hobby is another thing.  I have been into wine since my dad started to teach me when I was a kid (mainly be allowing me to help him pick out wines for dinner and events).  To help add to the number of website I can “practice” on, I have included Nate’s Wine Reviews into my growing list of hobbies and growing active SEO client lists.    I will be taking a slight break from Intellect Interactive until I can get that blog humming along.  That should only be a couple of weeks, given that I have a tone of old notes from some old wines that I can add to the scheduled content list.   Check out the blog if you’re into wine.  I have at enough content to launch a post every day between now and the 1st of the month.  I’m hoping to get enough backlogged content to get me through February. 

Multivariate Test in SEO is a Trick, but a Must

As tricky as it is, natural search optimization needs to take some notes from paid search and become better at using web analytics to assist in optimizations. The whys are simple to answer, but the hows are much harder.

At the beginning of the year, Lily Chiu over at Omniture blogged about her 2009 Optimization Wish List. Her first wish on the list is “Agencies getting on board” with multivariate testing. Last year I blogged about Optimizing Paid Search with Web Analytics. While more basic than multivariate testing, it was a start in the process of making that wish a reality. Quickly after that post went live, Bryson commented that the post could work with all forms of search (something that Omniture has been preaching for years). A few months ago, I switched my primary responsibility to focus more on the SEO and Web Analytics side of search.

While fairly easy in paid search, implanting web analytics based optimizations including multivariate testing, in SEO tends to be a little trickier. And it comes back to 2 simple problems: 1) a user segmentation dilemma 2) slightly conflicting goals.

When optimizing a page for natural search, we optimizers have to worry about two users: a spider and a real person. In a perfect world, the needs of search spiders would be perfectly in line with that of the actual end user. In reality, spiders interact with content for a completely different reason than end users…yet both are equally as important.

A search spider’s job is to look at content and data about a site and then determine a level of relevancy to a specific query. At the end of the day, it lives to help someone determine what site is the most qualified. It has a simple, but important job. Because of the importance of its job, we as optimizers try to do everything in our power to cater to the spiders needs (i.e. turn flash sites into html). But on our best day, we will never be able to convince the spider to buy anything on our site.

Thus leading us to the end users….the person we are hoping buys something. Once we get to that coveted 1st position ranking, we then have to worry about making sure that the page is still appealing to our potential customer. Again, in a perfect world those would be the same. And again, what “should” happen and what “does” happen are rarely the exact same.

So, how do we test for user experience (different calls to action, content presented in different ways, etc...) while still catering to the needs of a spider? The quick answer is progressive enhancements with a twist.

Here is the breakdown; you have to show the spider the content in one way while being able to test the presentation of the SAME content (or extremely close to it) without cloaking your site (no black hat tactics here). Start by developing a page that is html based and has plenty of optimized text and other features. The idea is when a mobile browser, text browser, or spider hits the page the browser/spider can interact with the content perfectly.

Next, find a multivariate testing tool that uses JavaScript to overlay itself on the base content (not replace the base content). Again, this is the same principle of progressive enhancement. With the proper tools, you can optimize the content (body text, titles, descriptions, etc.) separately from the way it’s presented to the potential customer (Do we need a video? Does the button belong on the left or the right? More color or less? Etc…).

The downside is that this will require even more coding to the page, which could be a resource drain. Also, the implementation of the JavaScript isn’t spider friendly (one of the reasons why this method works). If you don’t take the time to minimize the code of the multivariate program on the website, you run the chance of slowing the crawl of the spider.

Once it is set-up, the same KPI’s matter. Optimize away from high bounce rates and toward high conversion rates. Try to segment users for further testing.

Here is a slight kicker. In paid search, you can take two keywords that are very similar and send them to completely different pages. While you can in SEO, it is very difficult to have two pages rank for something like “page” vs. “pages.” So, while in paid you have the ability to keep keywords online longer and finally cut ones that don’t work; SEO is a little harder to manage at that level. Unfortunately, you will have to live with some keywords just performing poorly.

Also, take a look at the testing strategies for each user (spider included). You don’t want to get hit with a cloaking penalty, so make sure to sync up the content for each user after each test. If you find that using a verb a certain way helps sell a product better, distribute it to the rest of your users. Again, the idea is NOT to generate 2 different forms of content, but to test how each user engages with HOW the content is presented. And again, if you push the envelope and become too liberal in the separation of the two users, you will get hammered by the engines…and your testing will be for not. Like I said, this isn’t the easiest integration.

Integrating multivariate testing with natural search isn’t as easy as it is with direct traffic, paid search, or even display. But like everything, if you take the time to implement it right, you will be able to increase position within the engines while still improving site performance.

Natural search moves at a slower pace than any other online medium, so take the time to set up your plan correctly. Implanting correctly will give you a big jump over your competitors; shortcutting your plan could cause you to drop in the rankings. Happy hunting!!

Mistakes Client's Make in Agency Relationships

Sean Cheyney wrote an article called 6 Reason Agencies Get Canned sometime in January.  Unfortunately, this article is just now getting around to me (sometime you are on top of things and sometime you aren’t).  I love this article! It gives 6 REALLY good reasons why agencies get canned, with 6 tips to follow ALWAYS if you are an agency.  I especially loved Sinkhole number 1, 2, 4, and 6.  The information was so helpful that I instantly quite working on a SOW (Scope of Work), and I made sure that I clarified anything I once took for granted as just “common language.”   In full disclosure, I have worked with and met Sean at AccuQuote via a search agency for about a minute.  I was brought on the team for some SEO Analytics consulting; I doubt I made a lasting impression.  He is a great guy who has his digital marketing act together.

However, his article also got me thinking about the mistakes clients often make in the relationship with their Agency.  While I admit that Agencies do stupid things to get fired (like sinkhole 1 through 6), a relationship takes 2.  Often a relationship ends not because the agency did something wrong as much as it didn’t help a client fully do something right.  Since I only worked with Sean for a minute and he does have his digital marketing act together, I’m going to say up front that he probably DID NOT make these mistakes.   However, not every marketer is Sean.  Relationships take 2 and it’s up to the agency to make sure that a client doesn’t make these mistakes. 

Nothing but the fact…but please give us ALL the facts
It doesn’t matter if it is dealing with contracts, meeting times, or what’s for lunch, communication is important.  In some form, Sean mentions it in 5 of his 6 sinkholes.  Often clients tell agencies what they think is important.  They often include thoughts that aren’t supported by data, goals with no explanation of why, or opinions of work that are based out of niceness or political gain.  

Agencies work better if they know EVERYTHING about your business.  We don’t care about what you think you know, but we want to know everything you know.  Data trumps intuition, and our job is to prove your theories right or wrong.   Basically, we can both think the sky is blue, but if data says that a purple sky converts better then the sky needs to start looking a little purpler.  So the more data you through at us the better we can server you.  

Knowledge doesn’t stop at data.  No, it also needs to include your organization as a whole.  The more we know about your profitably the more we are able to push the envelope.  A $60 Cost per Lead is just a number if we don’t understand the reason behind why that is the target…even if it is just because you want to see if we can hit it.  The more we know about your internal politics the quicker we can find a way to arm you with reasons to promote a project…or at least an alternative solution that will work within your business culture.  And of course, the more transparent you and your organization are about how view us and our work, the quicker we can make changes to improve it.    

Give us everything even if you think it is to remedial or not relevant.  So many problems can be resolved by simply just letting us, the agency, in to understand. 

Setting the Right Goals is Key:
Setting accomplishable goals is a skill few people develop an expertise.  Yet, it is one of the most important skills in business.  Every business wants to make money.  That is given, so that is not a goal.  Growing Revenue by 30% Year over Year is a goal.  Acquiring new customers at a cheaper rate is not a goal, but acquiring 90 new customers by reducing our cost by 10% is a goal.  Do you see where I’m going with this?  Often the first comment out of a client’s mouth is, “Our main goal is to acquire more customers, increase lifetime value of a customer, and reduce cost.”  Well, I believe that is the goal of every company.  Not many business say, “I don’t want more customers nor do I want more money out of the ones I have.  Oh, and I would actually like to spend more money in the process.”  

Lance once told me that we can get whatever goal a client wants, as long as they don’t care about volume.  You want to sell a Ferrari at a $1.00 per lead?  We can get it…if you don’t mind 1 lead in 3 years. Your business has goals.  You know what profitability level you need to be to survive.  You know how much you want to cut from your operating expense.  Oh, and I’m sure you have people planning on up selling present customers on something.  Set goals for your business, and be as transparent with those goals as possible.  Once people are on the same page, you will be surprised how quickly goals are reached. 

Buying the Cow Doesn’t Mean Much if You Don’t Use The Milk:
My father-in-law always says that the 2 pieces of advice your should always take is from your lawyer and your doctor.  You paid a lot to get advice from someone who spent a lot to give advice; it’s not smart to ignore it.  It’s kind of the same way when consulting a search agency.  No, not every recommendation is going to be feasible.  We get that.  However, often there are small recommendations with big impact that just go by the waste side.  Reports aren’t worth anything, no matter how much you paid, if you don’t take action. 
  
Ok, so you just received a tech audit saying that your very pretty and interactive site is completely wrong for search.  You know you can’t tell your higher ups that you have to spend another couple hundred grand and countless IT resources to design a new site.  Ok, tell the agency that.  Better yet, invite the agency to sit down with your web development team as have a 2 hour talk about why things are that way and why things can’t change.  It’s up to the agency to help you find the ways around certain hurtles; it’s up to them to help YOU implement.  Most good search agencies will help you find a work around.  

On the flip side, doctors sometimes suggest open heart surgery.  As much as it sucks, sometimes you have to follow the recommendation if you want to survive.   Agencies are the same way with recommendations.  We will take into account as much as we can, but sometimes we really do mean that if you want your digital marketing strategy to survive then you have to update that website which was built in 1995.  Sometimes open heart surgery is the only way to go. 

Agencies are Not Kids, Thieves, or Slaves:
Agencies are not kids, thieves, or slaves…so don’t treat them as such.  A good client will understand that a good agency can take some abuse.  If you don’t like the work or the strategy, speak up.  A good agency will alter paths or change what it’s doing if you say, “I don’t like this.”   Don’t be afraid to hurt our feelings.  We will be more devastated if you tell us you are firing us than if you don’t like the way a project turned out.  If you don’t tell us what you are feeling, we can’t help.

Good agencies are not thieves and will give money back if we don’t use it…or feel we can’t use it effectively.  Please look over the billing to make sure everything is correct.  By all means, make sure the contract is legit.   After that, have some faith in the plans we present.  If they are not on strategy then speak up (see paragraph above).  However, a good agency will put together a plan to grow your business…not spate you from your money.  When looking at a plan, look at it in that way.  This is the best plan they came up with, acceptable or not?  If it is, then go forward and prosper.  If not, tell them to go back to the drawing board and do it again.   Not every plan will be a home run, and agencies know that.  But give them the guidance under the assumption that what they push forward is what they feel is the best for you.  It wasn’t some snake oil to get more money out of you.  Resolution Media will happily go back to the drawing board because it always tries to put the best plan forward given YOUR goals… and they are not afraid to go back to a drawing board if they didn’t get something right (yes, that was a plug for my parent agency…but also a truthful fact about the ethics of RM). 

Also, agencies are not your personal slave.  While we don’t mind doing you a couple favors, we have work to do for you.  We try to maximize our hours that we spend on you to your advantage…by executing a strategically built plan that is agreed upon by both parties.  Trying to boss your agency around so you think you have them under control actually works in your detriment.  We are trying to grow your business (our business grows only if yours grows).   You don’t have to crack the whip to get great work out of a good agency…all you have to do is communicate. 

Analytics Strategies for Retailers

In our industry, there is a constant battle of how to collect and report on data; there’s very little conversation about the strategy behind it.  Retailers spend countless hours looking at reports because we had an endless drive to answer the questions “why” and “why not.”  Even at RM, there is a never ending debate on how to look at data…as there should be in any agency that prides itself on understanding digital behavior.  
Before we talk about the types of reports one should we look at, shouldn’t we have a conversation about “why?”  Why are we reporting this way vs. that way?  Why are we reporting at all?  Smart retailers jump ahead of their competition when they develop a strategy on why and how to ask and answer questions.   Before you build a report for your client and/or boss, keep in mind the following thoughts.

Why report at all?
The quick answer is to show results…but quick vary rarely solves anything.  You are reporting to drive success.  Showing results takes a yes or no answer and even less time to analyze.  Driving success gives you a structure that allows you to ask why, develop a theory, and then test that theory.  Continue to wash, rinse, and repeat afterword.  It doesn’t matter if you are reporting on PPC traffic or building a forecast predicting the sales impact of your marketing plan, report with the purpose to help you drive closer to your organization unique strategic objectives.

How Well Do You Know Your Visitor? 
People interact with search queries differently.  If they know exactly what they want, they search for it.  If they don’t, they search for it in a completely different fashion.  Know your industry and your consumer.   The perfect example comes with 2 reports we as a staff have been reviewing.  One of our content reports deals with understanding rankings and the revenue that those ranking goals drive.  The other content report is geared to a product level page that focuses more on driving revenue from the long tail (no rankings, just revenue by content type).  The first report is geared toward a customer base that focuses it attention by searching on either high volume terms or product names (not product types, but actual names).  The other report is geared to people that are less focused on the actual product and more needs focused.  Both reports drive a great deal of value to their respected clients…but wouldn’t work nearly as well if they clients switched report styles.  Your customer is going to have a unique way they shop, so look at the data so it gives insight into YOUR customer. 
More Traffic or More Revenue?
Which comes first, the traffic or the conversions?  Simple logic would say that traffic, but we often jump right to the conversion to measure our success.   A new product might not have the exposure to drive a tone of traffic.  No traffic then no revenue.  On the flipside, if you have tones of traffic but no sales then you’re left with no revenue.  Identify priorities within your unique marketing strategy and let the data dictate where you head.  The simple rule of thumb is to get traffic, optimize for what isn’t working, and try to do more of what is working.  If you have a ton of traffic then you probably should be focusing on converting more of that traffic.  If you are a little light in the traffic department, then focusing on pure rankings or increasing advertising budgets might be where you need to focus first.  Let the data and your goals dictate which path you go down. 

What KPIs Lead to Revenue?
Yes revenue is the ultimate goal. All businesses want more sales, higher average sale, and lower costs.  Reports should highlight but rarely be built around those key factors.  Take the time to focus on the path of conversion.  This is both onsite and offsite factors.  If your product is a dishwasher, then the research phase is probably a whole lot longer than the process of buying the latest hit song.  What factors lead to your revenue growth?   Do you have enough traffic to convert? What parts of your website are not converting?  Are they other checkpoints in your site that are signs that a conversion could be coming soon?  Are there signs that you have some great prospects, but need a little bit more of a push?  Understanding what KPIs lead to your ultimate goal gives you the ability to drive more actual sales. 

How long have you been reporting this way?
The only constant in life is that things change.  Strategies changes.  Test succeed and fail. Objectives come and go.  A reporting methodology that worked for you last year may not be the best thing for you this year.  It’s ok to switch it up.  In fact that is probably a good sign that things are working.  Don’t be afraid to change up your report from time to time.  In fact, like your marketing strategy, it should be refreshed every year or even every quarter.  Just because it always was done that way doesn’t mean anything if the old way wasn’t delivering value.  Reporting and analytics should drive success.