Thursday, February 27, 2014

SEO Brand Review: Bonobos

A few weeks ago we wrote about the changing nature of brand loyalty. To recap: for decades, brands have "coasted on past performance" (as James Surowiecki's wrote in "The End of Brand Loyalty"), but the Internet changed everything.  Customers, Surowiecki wrote, once toiled in an "information poor environment" and "brands served as proxies for quality," but the Internet
"has given ordinary consumers easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data, in an array of categories."

In this environment, we noted, the goal of organic SEO dovetails perfectly with the aspirations of the best brands: to deliver the best experience for the customer; or, to be more specific: to deliver "a quality customer experience engendered by a blazing fast website with relevant content."

In both cases, the operative word here is "experience." A brand is not simply about its product--or goods. Customer service, the website's ease-of-use, and price-points just might be more important than the brand's goods. An online brand's success, in fact, is often entirely determined by customer experience.

The true "product," then, is not merely the goods, but the experience + the goods.

The recent struggles of the online clothing company, Bonobos, proves this point.

Before we discuss this particular case, though, let's clarify the role of SEO in delivering the best customer experience.

Although the very name implies as much, to say that SEO--search engine optimization--is merely about "search" is a misnomer. Yes, many browsers, and even many SEO companies, operate under this limited view. You've likely received spam-type emails from some of these companies, promising first page placement on Google or any number of odd claims.

For example, we recently received an email from a company called Websquash, promising a "Worry free solution!" To what? We're still not entirely sure. But in atrocious writing that renders the Websquash offering only barely legible, the email continues:

"1000 best hand picked directories on the web. Don't miss! we have a team of experts who will handle your website directory submission to 1000 handpicked directories and provide detailed report on completion."

The first thing we notice about this email is, indeed, the horrid writing. The writing itself makes us highly suspicious of the Websquash "team of experts." Dig a little deeper, though, and you will see that this is essentially a link-building scheme. Despite Google's best attempts to dissuade this sort of behavior, companies continue to try to manipulate search results with link-building.

Now, most people would delete this email outright. So no harm done, right?

Well, for an experienced organic SEO professional the harm is quite tangible! This type of email perpetuates the misnomer that SEO is all about search--and worse, that its practitioners are charlatans slinging poorly-written solutions that make little sense.

This hurts the industry, and it hurts the professionals who fight to practice SEO with integrity.

SEO practiced with integrity is about so much more than search. A true SEO professional understands that connecting customers and companies via search is only part of the job. The real job is creating a web experience that transforms visitors into repeat-customers. In the SEO community, we call this "conversion." In short, the best SEO professionals work as marketing consultants to ensure that a company is offering the best online experience, and this work touches on all aspects of the experience, from a website's good to its customer service and prices.

We've written about the clothing brand, Bonobos, before on this blog, and for good reason. For years they've exemplified the best of a positive online experience. Of course, they've nailed it with their products--the best-fitting pants, and now shirts, suits, and more. But they've really made a name for themselves with their exemplary customer service (as practiced by their famed "ninjas"), their unique referral system, and their groundbreaking FREE shipping, FREE returns policy.

Yes, free shipping and free returns is becoming more common, but Bonobos was an early pioneer of the practice, especially in the #menswear world. This is why the #menswear world went wild recently when Bonobos decided to start charging for shipping.

The change was noted subtly on Bonobos' website, but was then shouted from the rooftops on Reddit's popular "Frugal Male Fashion" thread and on various blogs, most notably the ever-popular Dappered. The comments on both were numerous and thoughtful, and most seemed to echo the sentiments of AirGuitarHero on Dappered:

"Kind of a bummer, I wish they could be profitable without having to cut all the things that make them great."

All the things that make them great.

In its, frankly, bad decision-making, Bonobos apparently neglected the very brand experience that made it so popular in the first place. Free shipping and free returns had always been a cornerstone of the brand. This is how, early on, Bonobos overcame people's apprehension about buying online without first trying on clothes: they made the experience risk-free!

Now, beyond charging for shipping, Bonobos seemed to alienate its very customer base--the casual browsers whom they had long ago worked so hard convert to dedicated customers.

We actually added to the comments on the Dappered thread, wondering, aloud, "Remember when a Bonobos ninja actually used to show up on comment-threads like this to offer the Bonobos perspective? Seems telling that we don't see anything like that anymore."

We were surprised, then, to receive a reply from a Bonobos Ninja two days later:

"Hey Seth," Adam, a Senior Ninja, wrote:

"Thanks for speaking up. Crucial as we roll this type of policy out.

This thread has had the serious attention of not only the Ninjas, but of the entire company. Cannot even begin to tell you how valuable this feedback is. Any lack of speaking up from a Ninja side only is a result of us really wanting to digest the scope of the opinions being shared here and in our personal email queue. Two days of digesting these really well thought out comments/emails has been enormously helpful, and beyond anything has reinstated the fact that we have a pretty boss customer base.

Just for the sake of emphasis, we really are appreciative of these comments, and will continue to listen intently and update customers if need be. Transparency continues to be the name of the game, but we don't want to offer it haphazardly!"

Now Bonobos must've heard a lot of feedback over those two days, and we're pretty sure that a lot of that feedback spoke to brand loyalty and brand experience. Many loyal customers, including yours truly, considered a brand boycott.

In the end, the deluge of comments led Bonobos to reconsider its policy. This week the brand announced, on the website and in personal emails to customers, that it would once again offer free shipping.

Reddit and Dappered announced the news quite quickly, and the very first comment on the Dappered post, from a certain Marc, echoed the new sentiments of the crowd: "Blame it on the Dappered effect."

The lessons here are plentiful, and all brands would do well to heed them. Do not alienate your customers! Maintain the integrity of your brand. More importantly, maintain the integrity of your customer's brand experience.

A less apparent lesson, but one that seems quite obvious to any observer of the SEO world, is this: do not assume you control the conversation about your brand.

In today's world, the customer has all the power. In terms of popularity, Reddit and Dappered could easily enter the first page results for a simple search on "Bonobos." A true SEO professional is attentive to these results, but he/she is also attentive to the conversation that inspires these results. You want to make sure that your brand is inspiring positive conversations and stellar reviews. SEO is not merely about search results. It's about creating the best possible experience.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Google & Organic SEO: Dynamic Partners

The good people at HubSpot have teamed up with Moz to create a "Visual History of Google Algorithm Changes" graphic. The value of this graphic is not merely the unique presentation of  information. The image itself presents a persuasive case for the necessity of organic SEO--a case Google supports.

One of the great myths of SEO is that SEO specialists and Google are somehow at odds. This is patently false. It's helpful to remember that Google endorses ethical SEO:

"Deciding to hire an SEO is a big decision that can potentially improve your site and save time, but you can also risk damage to your site and reputation. Make sure to research the potential advantages as well as the damage that an irresponsible SEO can do to your site."

The key for Google, and for you, is simple: SEO must be practiced with integrity.

This is the core message of The Organic SEO Blog's founder, Alex Stepman. From day one, he has emphasized the importance of drawing a distinction between organic SEO and irresponsible SEO.  

For a sampling of our view on SEO practiced with integrity, please read "What Makes SEO Organic" or "Google's Algorithm: Why Only Organic Website Optimization Works." In the latter blog, we wrote:

"To a search engine like Google, the only acceptable form of SEO is organic or natural website optimization--or White Hat SEO. An experienced organic SEO specialist studies Google's algorithms to learn exactly what the search engine prefers, and optimizes websites to meet Google's exact requirements."

In this way, you can view organic SEO as Google's true partner. Both work to deliver the most relevant and high-quality results to browsers. Algorithm updates are not meant to stymie SEO, per say. The algorithm changes attempt to dissuade Black Hat SEO and encourage organic SEO. This is why, with each new algorithm update, organic SEO professionals rejoice.

The latest algorithm, for example, ensures, more then ever before, that Black Hat SEO will not be a viable option for any website. With each successive Google algorithm update, we continue to see that the only effective way to achieve a high ranking is organic SEO.

And this is what we see when we look at the graphic below. The sheer dynamism of Google is beautiful to behold--and over the years this dynamism has been matched by the best SEO specialists.

If you want to talk to a true SEO specialist who practices the craft with integrity, we urge you to call Alex Stepman, of Stepmans PC: 215-900-9398. Google has as a set of questions for those seeking a high-quality SEO specialist. These questions include:

Can you show me examples of your previous work and share some success stories?

Do you offer any online marketing services or advice to complement your organic search business? 

 How long have you been in business? 

We urge you to call Alex and ask him these questions--ask him all of Google's questions. In this way, you will discover a true partner for Google's algorithm.

Without further ado, here's the HubSpot graphic:





Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brand Loyalty & Organic SEO

Since beginning this blog last year, we've tried to make a simple case for organic SEO. Again and again, we've argued that the true practice of SEO is founded on the integrity of a website's brand. We believe SEO only works when a website is focused on quality: the best product and customer service and the best website and content to match.

Our blog's sponsor, Alex Stepman, often refuses to work with companies who do not have a clear offering. If a company does not have a good product to promote, organic SEO will not be nearly as effective. In these cases, Alex often makes suggestions for improving the company's offering before commencing an organic SEO campaign. In the end, SEO is all about the customer's experience, and his or her relationship with the brand.

For a website owner, then, the best way to think about the potential effectiveness of an SEO campaign is to first ask, "Who is my customer?"

Most SEO specialists optimize websites with Google in mind, but the purpose of SEO is to make your website, and by extension your brand, appealing to potential customers. Search engines themselves compete for customers, and the best way for Google, for example, to attract traffic is to deliver relevant search results. By delivering appealing websites, search engines cultivate repeat customers. This is why Google is so popular--its algorithm strives to  deliver only quality websites with quality products on the first page search results.

For more on Google's evolving changes, read "Google's New Algorithm: A New Crucial Question."

***

The idea of a "brand" has become so prevalent as to seem like a cliche. Everyone from Apple, the world's most famous brand, to your next-door neighbor, Jim, is a brand. The expectation is that we're all branding ourselves at all times. Last year when I posted a picture of my daughter on Facebook, a close friend commented: "I love how you've incorporated your daughter so seamlessly with your personal brand."

Does a baby embellish your brand?

Taking my friend's bait for a moment, and admitting that my baby is a crucial part of my brand, I wonder: what about my presentation of my daughter inspired this comment? And how can I do more of it?

I actually asked my friend these questions in an email, and his reply feels relevant to today's discussion.

"It's how you present her," he wrote, "with well-composed pictures and thoughtful stories. Most people just throw any old picture on Facebook without any background. You create a story."

Regardless of the actual veracity of my friend's flattery--my brand is a doubtful product at best--his comments speak again to the purpose of organic SEO: the thoughtful presentation of a quality product. If you own an online business with a quality product and you truly believe that you deserve customers, well, then, you are a perfect match for SEO.

***

But what if you're not selling a quality product?

Can SEO help you improve your offering?

Perhaps.

First, it's important to understand exactly how to inspire brand loyalty. And let's just say, nothing can be taken for granted.

James Surowiecki's recent article, "The End of Brand Loyalty" strikes an ominous tone for brands that have tried to "coast on past performance." In the past, when customers toiled in an "information poor environment...brands served as proxies for quality." But the Internet, Suroweicki notes, has changed everything:

"What’s really weakened the power of brands is the Internet, which has given ordinary consumers easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data, in an array of categories...The rise of social media has accelerated the trend to an astonishing degree: a dud product can become a laughingstock in a matter of hours. In the old days, you might buy a Sony television set because you’d owned one before, or because you trusted the brand. Today, such considerations matter much less than reviews on Amazon and Engadget and CNET."

Now, this might seem like bad news for stodgy (and rapidly failing brands) like Sears or J.C. Penney, but it's a boon for small business owners. As Suroweicki writes, "...upstarts now find it easier to compete with the big boys. If you build a better mousetrap, people will soon know about it."

Even more telling, however, especially for brands that do not currently offer the best product experience, is Suroweicki's comment at the end of his piece about Lululemon, a perennial brand favorite that has seen better times: "For brands like Lululemon, there’s only one consolation: make something really great and your past sins will be forgotten."

The lesson? Quality trumps all. And as we've said, this is the true goal of organic SEO: a quality customer experience engendered by a blazing fast website with relevant content. In short, the best everything. If a brand is founded and developed on the guiding principle of quality, and if quality is followed as a matter of integrity, success is inevitable. It's all about the customer experience. And SEO is all about making sure your website connects to your intended audience in a way that inspires a mutually beneficial relationship.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Death of SEO?

It is certainly not hard to find online publications predicting, or downright announcing, the death of SEO, or search engine optimization. Even Forbes.com has "marginalized" SEO "to just one aspect of the all-inclusive Search Engine Marketing (SEM)." In his article, "The aftermath of SEO's Death This Summer," Eris Poringer writes:

"That means if you want to see your company’s website on PAGE 1, you’re going to have to consider a comprehensive online marketing campaign, rather then rely on an SEO company to stuff meta tags with keywords."

Stuff meta tags with keywords? Poringer seems to have a limited view of SEO companies. Unfortunately, his view is not uncommon. In his article, "The End of SEO As We Know It," on Success.com, Allen Dibb describes SEO as a process of "trying to game search engine results."

To be fair, both Poringer does not necessarily speak about the definitive death of SEO; instead, he speaks articulately about the need for SEO to evolve to meet the demands of the changing online marketplace and Google's new algorithm.

Our problem with both articles is the assumption that good SEO was ever only about keyword stuffing and gaming the system. To truly understand SEO, you need to understand its history. Since the beginning of search, many companies have, indeed, tried to game the system, and even today, much of the negative sentiment surrounding SEO stems from these nefarious tactics of Black Hat SEO specialists.

Thankfully, this practice is increasingly irrelevant, but Black Hat SEO has proved effective in the past. Techniques such as keyword stuffing, link schemes, and the creation of duplicate content continue to haunt the Internet, compromising businesses and personal users alike.

Unfortunately, too many writers have condemned the definition of all SEO to these very practices. Now, if you define SEO as a tricky tactic for manipulating search engines to rank content that is not relevant or engaging--well, then, of course SEO is dead.

And we say, "Good riddance."

In reality, true SEO--organic SEO--has never been about these tactics.

Of course, the best SEO specialists employ the use of keywords and links to inspire traffic, but never in a way that "games" the system. Just take a look at Twitter to see the way keywords (hashtags) are alive and well--and inspiring relevant results. In any case, Google has become too advanced for tricky tactics to enjoy any real success. The days of Black Hat SEO are dead--and the penalties for even trying are much, much higher.

Really, there is nothing to game. If you're an SEO specialist, you must provide your client with relevant and engaging content. If not, you and your client are totally hosed.

Speaking of, we think a quote from one of our favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, is relevant to this matter. In his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, Foster Wallace spoke articulately about "learning how to think" in a way that opens possibilities:

"Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

We realize that it's a bit of a stretch to use David Foster Wallace to make a case for SEO, but the sentiment seems spot-on: you have a choice to seek the truth ("with a capital 'T'," as Foster Wallace would say) by speaking to experts (like Alex Stepman of Stepmans PC), by reading widely, and by reading past the sensationalist headlines and trendy memes.

In terms of SEO, what you might discover is that the practice will never die. True SEO is always changing to match the demands of browsers and search engines. And that's the key: evolution. The very definition of SEO is in flux because the practice evolves.

And here's the most important determinant of success: the quality of your product. Frankly, if you sell a junk product, and you try SEO, than you deserve to be penalized by Google. If you have a wonderful product, though,  than you deserve the business that can be inspired by true organic SEO. In his article, Allan Dib ends his death knell for SEO by saying, "My advice is that you build an extraordinary business." And we couldn't agree more.

True SEO is, and always has been, about quality.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Page Title and Page Description: Essential SEO Tools

On the Organic SEO Blog, we talk a lot about great content--the hallmark of an organically optimized website. Of course, SEO is not merely about great content. To achieve high placement on search engines, a website must follow the key principles of SEO.

A top Organic SEO specialist (like Stepmans PC) understands how to employ these key principles to attract the attention of customers and search engines alike. Partnering with clients, the best SEO specialists design eye-catching and easy-to-navigate websites that load with blazing speed. Beyond the design and navigability, though, it's often up to a website owner to create great content.

Unfortunately, some websites seemingly cover all the SEO bases, and still fail. A website might look beautiful, load easily, and offer page after page of well-written content and still not attract the audience it deserves. In the experience of Alex Stepman, the owner of Stepmans PC (and the sponsor of The Organic SEO Blog), many websites suffer from a simple but essential problem: poor page titles and page descriptions.

It's elementary, my dear Watson. Each page of a website, each article, needs a well-optimized title and page description--as well as a few carefully-selected keywords.

Note that we write "well-optimized" and not "well-written."

Google's new algorithm is changing the way browsers discover content, and the search engine is evolving to preference well-written content above all content. And yet, a page's title and page description are still governed by the logic of SEO.

With this in mind, it's important to understand the difference between the page title and page description, and to write well-optimized content for each.

Page Title

A title, page title, or title tag is the most important element of a webpage. An optimized title will notify the search engines--and browsers--what your page is all about. Not to be confused with an article or blog title, the title tag is its own distinctive presence (although the page title and article title can often be the same).

The journalist Steve Lohr famously wrote "This Boring Headline is Written for Google," nearly eight years ago, and his point is still the same: the best page titles (and article titles) are simple and straightforward, almost dull, and written not necessarily for humans but for search engines like Google.

The difference between the page title and article title is simple: the page title is for search engines and browsers and the article tile is for readers. For a graphic presentation of the difference between a page title and article title, read Kristine Schachinger's article: "How to Write Title Tags for Search Engines."

Remember this: A page title, and not the article title, is the title Google uses for your search engine result, so it's crucially important for you to create a descriptive page title that attracts both Google's web crawlers and browsers. To optimize your page title:

1. Be very descriptive, with the appropriate keyword or phrase at the beginning of the page title. If your page is about raw denim jeans your page title should read, "Raw Denim Jeans - The Best Blue Jeans" and not "The Best Blue Jeans - Raw Denim Jeans." It's a subtle difference, but the proper placement of your keyword or phrase can significantly improve your ranking.

2.  Be concise: As Schachinger notes, a page title should be 70 characters max--half the size of Twitter's character limit.

3. Write different titles for each specific page of your website.

Page Description

So, the page title is the title Google uses for your search engine result, and the page description is the snippet of text offered below the page title.

In the image below, the page title is "The New York Times - Breaking News, World News, & Multimedia." The description is below the address: "Find breaking news..."


Simple, right?

Although adding a page description to each page seems self-evident, many websites fail to do so, and so Google fills in the blanks. No matter your business, though, it is always best if you write your own page description. After all, nobody knows your business like you. 

As we noted above, to write a great page title you should be descriptive and concise, and vary each title by page. The same optimization rules apply to page descriptions.

***

Unless you're familiar with coding, you might not easily see how to add a page title and page description to each page of your website. Many D.I.Y website-builders give you the tools to add these elements. If you're working with a web developer, however, make sure he or she is adding a good page title and page description to each and every page on your website.

Your best option. Work with a web developer who also knows SEO.