Attention: The Most Finite Resource

Attention Span

Attention span may be the most endangered resource of the information age. Increasingly, web users seem unable to focus on any particular thought or task for more than a few short moments before being interrupted by an incoming message or other stimulus.

The Battle for Attention

Think about it. That is, if you can spare a few brain cells for more than a few seconds. We cannot create more attention. We cannot manufacture time. There is more competition than ever for eyeballs. The battles of the future will be fought over the brain cells that control thought and attention.

Thanks to the spread of technology, there are more ways to communicate than ever. There are also more people to communicate with. With social media sites and omnipresent mobile technology, you never have to lose touch with society.

Implications for Your Business

Whether it cost $300 or $3,000,000, your website is designed to attract and retain visitors until a desired action is completed.

Visitors and web users have many more external distractions that can take them away from your site in a split second. Unless you can capture and retain their attention, your website is likely losing a lot of potential business to other, more intrusive interactions.

Engage and Resonate

How do you reach and retain people that are just a click away from a competitor’s site? First, you have to engage your visitors. Give them a reason to stick around and navigate to your “money pages”. A compelling design, a unique interactive element, and valuable resources can go a long way towards keeping people interested.

Second, your message has to resonate with the visitor. This means it has to stand out in their mind amongst the thousands of other ads they’ve seen that day.

Measure and Refine

Website Analytics

Data! Glorious Data!

Check to see if your website analytics package tracks pageviews, time on site, time on page, bounce rate, and other engagement metrics. If so, you’ve already got a lot of information about what people are doing on your site once they get there. Use Google Analytics’ Event Tracking capabilities, Time on Site or PageView goals to assess whether or not visitors are engaging with your content.

Do they stick around long enough to absorb your message? Do they click through past the landing page that brought them in? Pick an engagement metric and think of ways to improve it. For example, try to decrease your landing pages’ bounce rates. Depending on your business model, you may want to try to increase the number of pages viewed by your average visitor or decrease the number of obstacles that prohibit them from accomplishing a task.

Now You Know

What other ways can your website compete in a world with shorter attention spans and consumers with non-stop Oh look, a butterfly…Oh look, a butterfly!

LA2M Analytics Slides

Thanks to all of you who attended my LA2M Advanced Google Analytics presentation! I barely had time to fit everything in and unfortunately we didn’t have enough time for questions at the end. I know, I’ve already been told I talk a lot when I get excited about something. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions that I didn’t cover.

I’ve posted the slides below and a recap of the presentation (and outline with links) on a separate page. If you can’t see the slides in the RSS feed, click here to see the full version.

Google: Ad Position Doesn’t Affect Conversion

Good news for Pay Per Click advertisers, you can rest a little easier knowing that your lower-ranking text ads are likely converting at the same rate as higher-ranking ads.

Google set out to answer the question, “How does conversion rate vary by position?” (Note, “position” in this context refers to Average Position, or where your text ad appears on a search results page)

Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian released these results on the Inside AdWords blog:

We have used a statistical model to account for these effects and found that, on average, there is very little variation in conversion rates by position for the same ad. For example, for pages where 11 ads are shown the conversion rate varies by less than 5% across positions. In other words, an ad that had a 1.0% conversion rate in the best position, would have about a 0.95% conversion rate in the worst position, on average. Ads above the search results have a conversion rate within ±2% of right-hand side positions.

Trust, But Verify: Test It Yourself

If you know me, you know I’m a big fan of testing findings like this. It may work for some but you don’t want to invest money in something that may hold true for your business.

To test Google’s findings, you can isolate your ads’ Average Position by activating the “Position Preference” setting in your Campaign settings:

AdWords Position Preference Setting

AdWords Position Preference Setting

Now you can set the position preference on a keyword-by-keyword basis simply by clicking on the Position Preference column. A small pop-up lets you indicate your desired range of positions:

Keyword Position Preference

Keyword Position Preference

Finally, set up a pre-period where you measure the conversion rates of your ads in the “any position” setting. Once your conversion rates seem to level out, try setting the Preferred Position to different settings and keep an eye on your conversion rates.

If they don’t change (or stay within a 5% deviation), you have just proven Google’s findings. If your conversion rates do fluctuate, you might try adjusting your ad text or landing page offers. Chances are you haven’t maximized the conversion potential of your site.

(hat tip Marketing Pilgrim)

4 Website Spring Cleaning Tips

Spring Cleaning

It’s that time of year again. Daffodils are sprouting, trees are budding, and crickets are chirping. Tax day is over. You did remember to pay your taxes, right?

Most people take advantage of the nicer weather to do some spring cleaning around the house. Your website is no different. Chances are after a hectic holiday season and the excitement of a new year, your site has developed a few cobwebs of its own. It’s time to air it out and get it ready for prime selling season.

Here are five simple ways to clean up your website to get it ready for spring.

Prune Dead Links

Prune Dead LinksScan your website for “dead links”. These are links to pages that no longer exist on your site and generally result in a visitor seeing an error page (a “404” in web-speak). This can cause momentary confusion and a poor user experience.

You can find dead links on your site by looking at the “URL Not Found” report in Google Webmaster Tools. If you haven’t signed up for this service yet, you should do so immediately. Additionally, you (or your webmaster) can check your server logs to see which pages and files on your site are returning 404’s. Eric Lander has a great tutorial on log file analysis. Start there.

Sweep Away Outdated Content

Review all of the content on your website and ask yourself this question on every page:

Does this page help my visitors accomplish their task?

Many websites have old or outdated content that no longer serves the intended purpose. Perhaps it was part of a seasonal promotion or a landing page for a marketing event. Maybe some content been replaced or made obsolete by new pages.

Whatever the reason, take this chance to redirect those old pages to more relevant or timely pages on your site. Use a 301 “permanent” redirect so that search engines transfer the link equity of Page A to Page B. Or, simply freshen up the older content by re-writing or updating the references.

Analytics Check-Up

Abacus

Is your site analytics package configured to track and report on conversions? Check to make sure that your tracking code is properly installed on all of your pages and that your goals are configured correctly to provide the right information in the right format. If you are using Google Analytics, start with the Help Section. If you have a paid analytics provider, look through their documentation for conversion tracking and reporting. Lastly, if you are still relying on basic log file analyzers, consider upgrading to a reporting suite that can at least track conversions.

How about your conversion rates themselves? Is there room for improvement over last year? Are you getting the info you need to make informed decisions? Think through how you want to measure your success this year and in this economy. Do you have all the right pieces in place to get the information you need?

Evaluate Processes and Personnel

Do you have the right people on your SEO team? Is SEO represented during the appropriate touch points in your strategic, creative, development, and launch processes? Check to make sure that your website team is including your optimization plan during their work cycles.

It’s too easy to prioritize SEO out of the tactical implementation of website updates, so use this spring cleaning as an opportunity to re-incorporate the SEO strategy into your daily operations. If you are planning a site redesign or transition to a new domain, a little pre-planning will insure that your transition goes smoothly.

Using Web Analytics? You Don’t Count

Abacus

Analytics 0.1

One of the most common web analytics mistakes I see people make is self-counting. This means that their analytics package counts visits and pageviews from their own internal traffic. This oversight can result in serious flaws in your metrics. Luckily for you, it can easily be fixed.

If your business relies on accurate measurement of website traffic and conversion metrics, internal traffic could be muddying the waters and making it harder to determine your site’s true performance. How? Consider the following scenarios. How many of these have you done in the past month?

  • Your staff directs customers to your website by visiting the site themselves to copy a page’s URL or piece of content.
  • You regularly visit your own website just to make sure it’s still working.
  • You load your website while talking to customers on the phone so you can look at the same screen they are.

Excluding Internal Traffic in Google Analytics

If you run Google Analytics on your site, you’ll want to set up a filter to exclude traffic from your company’s IP address (or series of IP addresses, known as an “IP Range”). Follow the steps listed on these pages to create a filter and exclude internal traffic data based on your IP range. There is even a handy regular expression builder if you are among the 99.9% of the population that is intimidated by them (myself included!)

Excluding Internal Traffic in Omniture Site Catalyst

If you use a high-end analytics suite such as Omniture Site Catalyst, you might find this blog entry on building segments useful. You can use this feature to create a custom segment for visitors from your IP range and exclude them from your reports.

Although more complex, in my experience this functionality is similar (but superior to) Google Analytics’ custom segments feature.

Now What?

The changes are not retroactive. Only traffic from that moment forward will be filtered. If you just set up your analytics filters to block your internal traffic, you can expect to see your overall web traffic decrease slightly. This may concern some people that focus solely on visit and pageview data.

If so, gently remind them that web analytics are most useful when tracking conversion events, whether that’s a sale, download, newsletter signup, lead, or any other trackable event. Because there’s less overall traffic but presumably the same number of conversions, your conversion rates may even go up!

Rationale for Prioritizing SEO in a Site Redesign

A prospective client asked me for a few bullet points to show their VP of Sales why they should spend incremental money on an SEO consultant during their already expensive site redesign. I get that kind of question a lot, but had never formally created or documented a response.

My usual answer is to talk about their search engine referral analytics and compare their traffic volume and conversion data to actual search volume for the keywords that potential customers actually type in to search engines. Demonstrating this opportunity cost and potential ROI is typically enough to convince even the toughest marketer that SEO is a great investment and needs to be included in the site redesign.

However, in this case the client doesn’t have any analytics data so I promised I would follow up with a few high-level thoughts. Here’s what I came up with in just a few short minutes this morning. I’m sure this list could go on for many more pages, but I wanted to keep it simple. What would you add?

  • Opportunity – A new website will generally be “Search Engine Friendly”, meaning the content will be accessible to search engines. A truly “Search Engine Optimized” website will be accessible and highly relevant to the keywords and phrases that customers are actually searching for when looking for the types of products offered on the site.
  • Timing – Incorporating SEO into the site redesign process allows for greater collaboration and faster iterations with the content producers, designers, and developers.
  • Efficiency – The site content and structure can be reviewed at the time it is being developed and reduce or eliminate the need to retroactively update the new site after launch at an incremental cost.
  • Maintaining Equity – The current site has attained a certain level of “credibility” and “authority” with search engines, as measured by the quantity and quality of links pointing to it and the relevance of the content. A new site, when properly transitioned, can build off of the existing site equity. Without a seamless transition, the new site may have to start over with almost no foundation.
  • Scalability – Unlike other marketing channels, SEO is a relatively fixed cost with almost no limit on the potential return on investment because there is no cost per click or cost per impression associated with organic search traffic.
  • Qualified Audience – SEO is intended to capture the audience that has already stated they are looking for your products or services by typing those keywords into a search engine. Unlike traditional advertising models, there is no wasted spend to reach an uninterested audience.

What would you add to this list?

Would You Rather #1

The ThinkerSituation: Would you rather have 10 of your targeted keywords rank at position #10 or 1 keyword ranked at position #1? Leave a comment with your answer. I’ve posted mine below.

Assumptions: All of the keywords in question receive the same search volume and have the same level of competition from other sites.

Via my @RichmondWiki account, I had an interesting twitter conversation with another wiki owner (@purplepopple) about this topic. She posited that the 10 keywords at position #10 weren’t as valuable as the single #1 ranked keyword and questioned why people would spend the time to optimize for higher rankings on keywords other than branded terms.  This was before she knew that I am an SEO consultant by day, RichmondWiki owner on the side.

My Answer: The single #1 ranking is tempting, but I would choose the ten keywords ranked at position #10. Obviously it would depend on the keywords in question, but based on our assumptions I think the 10 rankings are a better bet for these reasons:

  • More diversity: Your eggs are distributed in more than one basket. If you lose your rankings for one of the ten keywords you will still have the other nine to fall back on.
  • Easier to Improve: It’s relatively easy to improve from position #10 to a top 5 ranking. If you could move all ten of your keywords to position #5 or better, all of a sudden your site will be primed to receive more traffic than a single #1 ranking could generate.

So, would you rather have 10 of your targeted keywords rank at position #10 or 1 keyword ranked at position #1?

Adobe Flash SEO Now Possible

As reported on TechCrunch and ZDNet, Adobe has created a standardized format for its Flash development suite that will allow search engines to index dynamically generated content, which was not previously possible. What does this mean for the industry? Frankly, it means that “existing and future” Flash sites will be more accessible to search engine crawlers which will result in many previously invisible websites being indexed and ranked in search results. Google is already incorporating the new capabilities into their search platform, and Yahoo! reportedly still “has some work to do.”

This is good news for designers that prefer Flash for its flexibility and animation capabilities. However, it also opens up a whole new series of questions that will have to be explored and tested by the SEO community:

  • Will this newly indexable content start out with zero site history? As we know, the age of a domain plays a role in calculating its authority and credibility. If a Flash site has been around for years but is just now becoming “visible” to a crawler, can its age be accurately determined?
  • Without a hierarchical markup system, how will crawlers treat text and images of varying importance? For example, in HTML we can use the <h1> and <strong> tags to emphasize particular pieces of content. What is the Flash equivalent, and will those tactics be more or less impactful than their HTML counterparts?
  • How will crawlers treat Flash sites that have a properly optimized HTML framework? As an SEO, I know how to create a crawler-friendly HTML version of Flash content to aid with crawler accessibility. Will Google and Yahoo treat sites with both formats differently or prefer one over the other?
  • Will sites built entire of Flash be treated differently than HTML sites with Flash components? Good SEO and user experience (accessibility) dictate that Flash should not be used to create an entire site, but rather certain interactive elements within it. Will two sites with similar content be treated differently if one is built entirely in Flash and the other is a Flash element wrapped in standard HTML?
  • How will the use of Flash adjust to incorporate deep links? Most purely Flash sites have no unique URLs for each “page” because all of the content exists within one .swf file. Therefore, most inbound links would have to point to the top-level URL, regardless of where the desired content resides within the rich media application. This will help the domain-level rankings but not individual pages.
  • Will Flash designers adapt their use of analytics to properly measure the traffic and conversions from newfound organic search traffic? There is a little extra work required to properly track Flash site usage statistics using traditional site analytics packages. I’m guessing relatively few Flash sites have this capability built in, and even fewer are going to retrofit their sites with action tags.
  • How will non-text digital assets (images, video, audio, etc) be optimized within Flash? Will the same rules apply, and if so, will digital assets embedded in Flash be more, less, or equally weighted compared to their HTML counterparts?

I’m sure this list of questions will grow over time and many smart, talented SEOs and Flash designers will figure out the answers. It’s certainly a game changer for the industry because it expands the playing field significantly. We are now competing against millions of “new” sites that were once thought of as unfortunate victims of emerging SEO best practices.

The Future of Analytical Marketing, According to Google

Golden RectangleAll marketers know that their jobs are part art, part science. Some companies lean more towards the analytical science of quantifiable marketing, and others are more comfortable with producing beautiful works of art. Is one necessarily better than the other? Not necessarily, depending on your target audience and your business objectives.

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the marketing industry is heading down the path of producing and analyzing quantifiable metrics for as many aspects of a campaign as possible, similar to the financial industry’s transition in the 1970’s:

“There is every reason to believe marketing will go through a similar transition, but the principles of marketing–which are around storytelling, entertainment, targeting and selling–will be augmented by analytical tools,” Schmidt said.

This sounds good on paper. There are very few marketers who want to know less about how well their campaigns are working. But it is easy to fall victim to the hype and start thinking that all of our analytical problems will be solved by throwing more CPU cycles and clever code at the problem.

From my days as a Media Planner at a very analytical advertising agency and a Web Marketing Manager a very analytical automotive retailer, I can tell you that the current crop of advertising metrics and analytics packages are nowhere near where they need to be to replace a human being’s experience and strategic capabilities. As Schmidt said, analytical tools will only augment the principles of marketing, not replace them.

The Holy Grail of Marketing Analytics (doesn’t exist)

To really satisfy all the needs of all marketers, a full-fledged analytical marketing program would have to satisfy my newly-created (and partly tongue-in-cheek) tenets of the “Golden Rectangle“; balance the aesthetically pleasing with mathematical accountability.

Tenets of the Golden Rectangle of Marketing

  1. Analytical marketers must be able to correlate sales to marketing initiatives. Every sale must be attributed to one or more marketing channels for a period of time. This includes online-to-offline conversions and purchase decisions that involve multiple decision makers and/or long periods of time.
  2. Analytical marketers must take all known (and unknown) variables into account when drawing conclusions. This includes macroeconomic factors, competitive strategies, seasonality, media mix, creative execution, brand recognition, solar flares, word of mouth, personal beliefs, and customer’s internal thought processes among other things.
  3. Analytical marketers must drive real-time decisions about optimizing across every marketing campaign a client is running, regardless of medium. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it doesn’t tell advertisers what to do with their next marketing dollar when the variables change.
  4. Analytical marketers need to understand that some of the success of an advertising campaign will always depend on the human input, whether it is creative or strategic. Machines won’t be able to replicate those traits for a long time to come.

So while it’s great to think that one day all marketing will be entirely analytical and based on some algorithm somewhere in the computing cloud, we have to remember that we live and work in the real world of human wants, needs, desires, psychology, sociology and physiology. If Google can learn to manipulate those variables, they may very well create the next golden rectangle. Until then, people can still serve as the cogs in the marketing wheel.

Advice for Google Challenge Teams

Google Online Marketing ChallengeThe Google Online Marketing Challenge is shaping up to be one of the season’s most anticipated spectator sports for the internet marketing community. Not only is it a great educational opportunity for the next generation of online marketing professionals, but it will help small and medium sized businesses learn more about utilizing Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising as part of their regular marketing mix. Google will undoubtedly come out ahead in the long run as a result of increased awareness and trials of its primary revenue generating operation. It’s a classic win-win-win.

I have already been approached by some friends and relatives in business school that are new to Adwords and PPC consulting that are looking for advice on how to pick the best small-to-medium sized business to partner with. This may be one of the more important decisions they will make, since their level of interaction with their “clients” will largely determine how successful the student “consultants” can be.

That being said, I would consider the following when choosing a business to partner with:

  • Flexibility: Choose a company that is open to making changes to their website quickly. Some small-to-medium companies don’t have the resources in-house to make rapid changes. This will be important when you have to ask them to add tracking code to the site and/or update various components of their landing pages and conversion pages to improve performance.
  • Short Purchase Cycle: You will want a company that has a quick turnaround time for conversion events. Think spontaneous purchases or conversions. Don’t go after car dealers, mortgage companies, real estate brokers or insurance companies since those types of transactions can take weeks or months to complete and you will only have 3 weeks. Find something easy. Look for sites that have a lot of opportunities for visitors to turn into customers (e-commerce sites, sites that offer free downloads, sites that try to generate leads for the company). This will give you a lot of conversion data from which you can quickly make decisions about how to optimize your campaign for better-performing keywords, ad text and CPC bids.
  • Online and Offline Metrics: If you want to go after the holy grail of internet marketing, take the conversion tracking one step farther and try to find a business where you can track customers that go offline to make a purchase. The majority of businesses sell their products or services offline. They don’t have shopping carts on their websites that allow them to easily track conversions automatically. The challenge for many businesses is to determine which part(s) of their marketing programs are actually generating a positive return on investment (ROI). Paid search is a very quantifiable marketing tool but if you can’t measure its contribution to an actual sale, you can’t determine if it is more or less effective than any other marketing channel.
  • Low-to-Moderate Competition: Certain industries are more exposed to internet marketing than others. For example, your local small business might be competing against much larger, more sophisticated national or international organizations with dedicated search engine marketing teams. Choose wisely. Look for companies that operate within a less competitive environment where you can stand out a little more. Travel, insurance, automotive and healthcare are good examples of highly competitive industries. Not to mention that industries (and keywords) with more competition will generally have higher minimum Cost-Per-Clicks, meaning you won’t be able to afford large enough quantities of clicks to make any statistically significant findings.
  • Strong Demand: Choose a company or industry that receives enough searches to allow you to collect a significant data sample within the allotted time frame. “Llama farmers in Ann Arbor, MI” might not generate enough impressions and clicks to give you any clear insights about whether your strategies and tactics are working or not.

You may have some trouble finding a willing company that meets all of these criteria, but the more of them you can satisfy, the better chance you will have of generating some valid results within the 3-week contest window.

Good luck