Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Conversation with SEO Specialist, Alex Stepman

Just before Memorial Day this year, Alex Stepman, of Stepmans PC, offered a FREE Organic Website Optimization Audit to ten lucky website owners. The response was so overwhelming that merely a month later, in June, Alex opened the FREE audit to ten more sites.

Alex will be the first to tell you, "SEO is a learning process, even for me," so it's not surprise that his experience auditing a variety of websites this summer has yielded some interesting observations about the nature and purpose of Organic SEO.

Today, as we enter the last weekend of summer vacation (if not summer itself!), we thought we'd share some of Alex's summertime observations.

Of course, Alex's experience taught him a great deal about the evolving challenge of designing and developing an SEO-friendly website. His number one insight? As Alex told the SEO Blog over grilled chicken, roasted potatoes, and red wine this week:

"About ninety percent of the websites I audited were not optimized for the major search engines. Typical problems included design and development flaws that could have easily been avoided when the website was built."

For more information about SEO-friendly website design, please read Building a Website? Read This First! And for more information about SEO-friendly website development read: Website Development: The Perfect Job for Spock.

What might come as a surprise, however, is that nearly 100% of the website's owners assumed that  their websites were optimized for search engines. Many seemed to think that a beautiful website translated to an effective website. In one sense this is true: a beautiful website, if optimized, will likely perform better than an ugly website.

But more to the point, Alex said, "Not all website developers build search engine-friendly sites, and if a site cannot be easily discovered by search engines, it is invisible, a high-priced business card."

The "high-priced business card" is one of Alex's favorite analogies for good reason. "Think about it," he said, "if a search engine cannot discover a site, the only way to find the site is to type the address directly into the URL bar. In this scenario, the site serves no real purpose independent of the owner's own person-to-person marketing efforts."

The advantage of SEO, of course, is that a good campaign can match a quality website with its ideal customer. But first, a website must serve a purpose.

"What is the purpose of your website?" Alex asked, holding his chicken drumstick.  He paused to take a bite, then broke into a spirited oration:

"For most websites, the purpose is simple: to make money! But how will the website make money? Most website owners, when prodded, cannot answer this simplest of questions. So I must help them refine their thinking. I ask them, 'What product or service do you intend to sell? And who do you intend to sell your product or service to?' These are the simplest of questions, of course, but most website owners can only answer the first and not the second question. So that is the challenge: figuring out who you will sell your product to."

Of course, as Alex noted, a great SEO campaign can help you refine your offering. Now wonder one of the most popular posts on the Organic SEO Blog is "How SEO Can Help You Clarify Your Business Offering."

But this summer's website audits weren't all about design and development. Alex's most important insights, as usual, came directly from talking to the website owners themselves.

"Most people do not understand SEO," Alex said. "For many website owners, the mere idea of SEO is mysterious, even confusing. My job as an SEO specialist is to demystify the practice so that each client feels confident about my work. I also strive to teach each client how to think like an SEO specialist. I discuss my strategy in plain terms until my client is comfortable with the lingo."

"And what do people think about SEO?" I asked.

Alex regarded his glass of wine, his second, for a moment before answering.  "Well, to be honest," he said, "they think it won't work, that it's too expensive, and that it will take too long."

"Is any of that true?" I asked.

"Of course not!" Alex said, leaning forward. "I'll tackle each one in order. The belief that SEO won't work is nonsense. There are many, many organic techniques that can improve a website's performance quickly. The key is for the SEO specialist to constantly stay on top of the algorithm."

"Is it expensive?" I asked.

"I will not sit here and tell you that SEO is free," Alex said. "Then I would be out of a job!" At this, Alex laughed heartily, a deep belly laugh that inspired my own laughter.

"Of course," Alex continued, "SEO is an investment. Is it an expensive investment? Well, not when compared to other means of advertising, like PPC. Plus, most people are more likely to click an organic link than a sponsored link. You might pay up to nine bucks per click with Google AdWords, but with organic SEO your cost could be as little as a quarter per click, or even less. In the end, organic SEO offers a sustainable ROI--the best available in website marketing."

For more information on SEO's ROI, please read Forbes' helpful article, "What ROI Can I Expect From SEO?"

"And what about the last concern?" I asked. "Will SEO take a long time?"

Alex stared contemplatively at the wine bottle, now overflowing with air. "In one sense, this is an unfair question. Any quality marketing campaign will take some time to truly produce results. Marketing is like radioactivity in the soil--its effects are felt in the long term. Well, maybe that's a bad analogy, because SEO's effects are so beneficial." Alex paused for a moment to smile. "In another sense, though, SEO can produce positive results quite quickly. I have bumped recently-developed website to the first page of Google in a month or less."

And with this, Alex turned away, saying, "Excuse me, I have a call." It just so happened to be a recent client who had called to thank Alex for his work.

"And that's what makes me feel happy," Alex said, after he'd placed his cell back in his pocket. "Helping people find their customers. That way everyone is happy, right?"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Algorithms Have Consequences: #Ferguson, Facebook, and Algorithm Bias

If you're a frequent user of both Facebook and Twitter you've probably noticed that each platform prefers a specific type of content. The 140 character tweet necessitates a preference for quick and frequent updates--the type of content that is well-suited to breaking world or national news. Facebook prefers a local sensibility--content that deals specifically with people's immediate lives, like the birth of a child or a wedding anniversary. 

Of course, both platforms share these preferences--to an extent. Users frequently post about childbirth and wedding anniversaries on Twitter and Facebook users sees a fair share of national and world news update. However, the difference between the platforms are often more evident than the similarities. Recent news events have highlighted these differences. And guess what, SEO aficionados? It all comes to down to the algorithms.

When Robin Williams, the beloved comedian, died of an apparent suicide on August 11, both Twitter and Facebook were flooded with remembrances and condolences. We particularly enjoyed this quote from Robin William's performance in The Fisher King:

"There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer." 

However, two days before, on a Saturday evening, when an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown had been fatally shot in Ferguson, MO, only Twitter seemed to be talking about it. This made sense, at the time. After all, Twitter is the space for breaking news. However, two days later, at the time of Robin William's death, Facebook had yet to spark a conversation about the hashtag that had seemingly dominated Twitter: #Ferguson. 

Writing today, eleven days after the death of Michael Brown, the disparity is all the more apparent: Twitter is consumed with #Ferguson, yet Facebook is focused on ice buckets. This photo from Anup Kaphle, posted in The Washington Post, is essentially true:

"Above: , on Twitter
Below: Rest of America, on Facebook"
~Anup Kaphle


In its article about the varying ways Twitter and Facebook have responded to #Ferguson, The Washington Post reveals the importance of Facebook's algorithm in guiding the conversation:

"Your Twitter feed isn’t controlled by an algorithm. You see the tweets of people you follow in real time. But Facebook uses a complicated algorithm to determine what ends up in your news feed. They won’t reveal exactly how it works, but the company has said it ranks the content based in part on what you’ve liked, clicked or shared in the past."

Some believe that this amounts to algorithmic censorship, and that this censorship poses a threat to human rights.

After all, I share the same mix of friends on Twitter and Facebook, yet my recent post about Ferguson garnered far less attention, say, than a recent post about my wedding anniversary. Ferguson is almost completely absent on my Facebook timeline. Why?

In an eloquent post about the subject, Zeynep Tufekci writes:

"But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure. Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?"

The point Tufekci makes strikes to the heart of the human element of algorithms. As we noted before, in our post "On Algorithm Bias and the Important Work of Organic SEO":

"We end to think about algorithms as neutral, but really, although engineers base algorithms on mathematical principles, most of the judgements about those principles are exactly that--judgements, made by biased humans."

Tufekci believes this is a human rights issue because Facebook, and other social media platforms, have the power to squash these conversations before they reach the "bubbling" point. As Tufekci writes, "Algorithms have consequences."

As we noted in our prior post about algorithm bias, this is precisely why we believe that the work of an SEO specialist is noble. As the organic SEO specialist works to understand the algorithm, he or she is working like a journalist, trying to make the Internet a more democratic place--a place where your Facebook feed is not necessarily dominated by the news Facebook prefers to highlight, but by the news that its users prefer to highlight.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

HTTPS: Google's New "Ranking Signal"

Last week Google introduced a new ranking signal: HTTPS. If you're not a webmaster, you can be forgiven for not knowing what HTTPS means--or, for that matter, what "ranking signal" means. However, a little bit of knowledge about both can offer the casual SEO reader (the majority of this blog's audience) an intriguing view into the complexities of the SEO world.

First, let's tackle HTTPS. You might already be familiar with HTTP, which has been a part of web addresses since the beginning of the world wide web. HTTP stands "Hyper Text Transfer Protocol", and it is the primary web technology that allows users to link and browse websites. In a way, HTTP is the "web" in the word wide web.

HTTPS stands for "Hyper Text Transfer Protocol", which is HTTP with an added element of security--Secure Sockets Layers (SSL) for you tech junkies. Netscape invented HTTPS in 1994 in response to the burgeoning e-commerce market. Before this time (and well after), consumers were hesitant to offer credit card numbers online for fear of security breaches. As eHow writes:

"The Hypertext Transfer Protocol carries most of the traffic for the World Wide Web. However, it is a plain text format protocol and third parties can read details of HTTP transmissions through wire tapping. This knowledge discouraged consumers from giving their credit card details over the Internet. The HTTP Secure protocol, or HTTPS, was invented to address the security shortfall of HTTP."

If you're old enough, you might remember a time--well after 1994--when most consumers were hesitant to shop online. Ebay and Amazon didn't come around until 1995, and PayPal didn't enter the marketplace until 1998. (Google arrived in 1998). But it wasn't until the mid-2000s that e-commerce really exploded.

The fact that Google is now revealing its preference for HTTPS means, of course, that the search giant is focused on security. In their blog post on the subject, Google writes:

"Security is a top priority for Google. We invest a lot in making sure that our services use industry-leading security, like strong HTTPS encryption by default. That means that people using Search, Gmail and Google Drive, for example, automatically have a secure connection to Google.

 Beyond our own stuff, we’re also working to make the Internet safer more broadly. A big part of that is making sure that websites people access from Google are secure. For instance, we have created resources to help webmasters prevent and fix security breaches on their sites."

However, the preference for HTTPS also signals a more commerce-centered view of the Internet. Remember, HTTPS was invented for the purpose of securing transactions. By citing its preference for HTTPS, Google might also be acknowledging that the most relevant sites in the future will be transactional in nature.

Which brings us to "ranking signal," the term Google uses in its blog post:

"For now it’s only a very lightweight signal — affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content..."

In its article about the new ranking signal, WebProNews, offers a succinct view of its meaning:

"As you may know, Google’s algorithm uses over 200 ranking signals to determine what search results to show users."

So what does this mean for you? More than ever, the Internet is becoming a place for transactions. If you have a product to sell, however, it's not so simple as building a website. You need a well-developed website, with quality, relevant content, and a secure connection.

And those 200 ranking signals? Knowing and utilizing these signals is the work of the SEO specialist. However, only a few SEO specialists understand the complexity of SEO. On the one hand, SEO is about quality content, design, development. On the other hand, it is about understanding the Google's "ranking signals." The latter is be practiced by any number of internet marketing firms (with varying success). But to truly succeed you need an SEO specialist who understands the signals.

Of course, we're partial to the work of our blog's sponsor, Stepmans PC, a professional website marketing agency that focuses on natural website optimization and organic marketing. If you wish to talk to a trained professional about the latest news from Google and how it might effect your business, do not hesitate to call Alex and his staff today: (215) 900-9398.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Spring Lake Beach: An SEO Lesson

The Organic SEO Blog experienced an epiphany this week while searching for vacation homes in Stone Harbor, NJ. A reviewer of a nice cottage in Stone Harbor happened to mention another beach town: Spring Lake, a small resort town in Monmouth County.

The reviewer mentioned that Spring Lake is what Stone Harbor used to be: an undiscovered gem. My interest piqued, we Googled Spring Lake--and discovered more than a few similarly promising reviews.

On Yelp, Jeff B. from Princeton, NJ wrote just a month ago: "Hands down nicest beach in Monmouth County -- quiet, family friendly, and very clean." Max S., from New York, wrote an especially convincing review, which he summed up with characteristic NYC bravado: "That's my Spring Lake. If what I described does not seem like your ideal beach experience - fantastic. Keep your ass off my beach."

Convinced by the reviews, I decided to take the day off on Tuesday to travel to Spring Lake.

Here's my review:

Spring Lake is a wonderful place. The beach is clean and wide and the water is clear with five foot waves that break about 50 yards from the beach and carry you bodysurfing all the way to the sand.

When I first jumped into the water and felt the crush of the waves, I had to stop and look around, just to make sure I hadn't been fooled, or worse, had died. The scene just seemed that impossibly pleasurable. Perhaps I'd somehow landed in heaven.

I spent about two hours on the relatively uncrowded beach, reading Love in the Time of Cholera with quite intensity, and without the distractions of my phone. I punctuated my reading with dips into the warm water.

The place is perfect for a day trip. There's a pavilion with park benches for eating, easily accessible bathrooms, and showers on the boardwalk. At the pavilion, there's a snack stand the smells of french fries. From the beach, you can easily see the majestic spires of the stately Essex and Sussex Hotel--a landmark from ages past.

The Essex and Sussex Hotel [Source]

On the way out of town, I noticed with a heavy heart that they were playing JAWS on a different evening at the local baseball field. I also noticed Lake Como, which I had somehow missed on the drive into town. It's a stunningly lovely lake with clear water spotted with white ducks. The lake is bordered by a trail and beautiful white houses.

What stunned me most of all about Spring Lake, however, was that I'd never even heard of it.

A lifelong beach enthusiast, I've made plenty of day, weekend, and week-long trips to the Jersey Shore--drives of two hours or more to Ocean City, or Stone Harbor, or Sea Isle City. My father, Ira, lives in Brigantine, and we try to visit him as much as possible. The drive to Brigantine always felt especially speedy at one hour and forty minutes. But Spring Lake? From our front door in Ambler to Spring Lake Beach, the drive is a mere hour and ten minutes. 

It struck me while driving home that my experience with Spring Lake might illustrate a crucial SEO lesson: even if you have a wonderful product, you will not succeed unless you connect to your true customer.

Do you sell a high-quality product at the right price? Well, then, you deserve customers. But how, and where, do you sell your product? How do you find customers? For years, businesses have relied upon physical locations to some customers, but a specific location is clearly no longer the only (or best) way to attract specific customers.

And specificity is key. I feel like Spring Lake Beach is perfect for me--so why didn't I find it earlier?

Perhaps I did not find it because, in an obscure way, the citizens and enthusiasts of Spring Lake are performing anti-SEO: they are keeping the place a secret! On Google, this might simply represent a lack of good content about the place. Is this intentional? Perhaps!

Now, whether or not this is true, we do know that many Spring Lake Beach enthusiasts want to keep their beach a secret (Just take a look at the Yelp reviews). If you own a website, your goal is likely the exact opposite.

So how do you find your specific customer?

An online business presents new opportunities—opportunities not available to a business with a  physical location. Without a website, in fact, you might miss your specific customer entirely. On the other hand, if you design a website that is optimized for search engines, you will not have to look for  customers—your customers will look for you.

You can create this opportunity for yourself by designing and developing a website that states your purpose with crystal-clear clarity, and by adding informative and relevant content to attract the right customers. Finally, you can keep these customers around, growing your business exponentially, by striving to convert each website visit into an actual sale. Fore more info on this process, please read our popular tutorials:

1. Website Design
2. Website Development
3. Content Creation
4. Conversion

At the very least, if you've spent the time reading this blog, remember the lesson of Spring Lake: you must find your true customer! And if own your own online business, do not forget to take advantage of Stepman PCs' summertime offering:

FREE Organic Website Optimization Audit

If your website is under-performing, Stepmans PC’s Organic Website Optimization Audit will clarify the exact elements of your website that require improvement.

As apart of the audit, Stepmans PC will provide a detailed report showing you how many people have visited your website for a specific period of time, how many of those visitors are unique, the time visitors spent on your website, and other information that will help you convert visitors into potential customers.

With this information and more, you learn your website visitors in depth. Stepmans PC will monitor visitor’s activity on your website for a period of days and present as much information as possible about their engagement with your website.

In addition to knowing all about your customers, you will discover the most popular pages on your website. Stepmans PC can help you place special promotions on these particular pages—a great tactic for transforming visitors into customers.

Stepmans PC will also determine what device is being used to interact with your website and will optimize your website for those devices to insure no one is limited from viewing your website.

To take advantage of this limited time offer, call Stepmans PC now: 215-900-9398 or complete the form on Stepmans PC's website.

But hurry, Alex and his team are very busy. Stepmans PC can only offer a FREE audit to ten websites. If you want to knock out your competition this summer, we suggest calling now!