Fast. Cheap. Right. Pick Two and a Half

Anyone who has gotten within ten feet of a project of any size understands the classic adage:

—Fast

—Cheap

—Right

Pick two.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you go with Fast and Cheap. Fair enough, not every effort demands or allows for the premium package. F & C is also a sign of the times. Budgets are tight and markets are as fluid as ever. However, not picking Right does not mean you should abandon all sense of best practices and PM common sense.

For example, let’s say you decide to refinish a chair. The ultimate solution would be to take it to a professional with the proper experience and equipment and let him/her work their magic. Your next choice might be to get the right equipment yourself (or borrow it from a friend), buy a “Furniture Refinishing for Dummies” book and slot out a weekend to get the job done. But maybe its a chair of not much value and all the top choices would be overkill.

Again, fair enough. You just want to give the old chair some new life. None the less you probably shouldn’t ignore all sense of Right.  At the very least you should sand the chair down a bit, give it a thorough washing and possibly slap on at least one coat of primer before you repaint. Deciding to completely bypass Right and just paint the chair “as is” in most cases would be a mistake. The type of mistake that you will eventually regret. The type of mistake that will just have to be redone again the minimal Right way.

On a more practical level, let’s say you want a website and you want it Fast & Cheap. These things happen sometimes and you have to deal with the cards in front of you. But that doesn’t mean all sense of Right should be abandoned. In fact, in order to keep Fast & Cheap on target there still needs to be a minimum commitment to Right.

Here are a few rules I’ve come up with that will help your Fast & Cheap project shine:

Fast & Cheap Rule #1 – Remove as many unknowns as quickly as possible. This is essential. Looking at the map while you’re flying forward is dangerous. For example, if your core team is familiar with web host X, CMS Y and copy writer Z then stick with those. Unless there is some irrefutable and compelling reason to switch horses then stick with what you know as much as possible. If someone doesn’t have a working understanding of a particular tool or element, get them up to speed ASAP.  Mitigating unnecessary distractions is essential to efficiency. Avoid shiny new objects and any other unknowns as much as possible.

Fast & Cheap Rule #2 – Define the destination as quickly and as tightly as possible. There’s no sense embarking on a high-speed journey if you don’t know where you’re going and what provisions you might need to get there. Running fast for the sake of running fast might be fun in grade school gym class but it’s no way to get a quick & dirty project done on time and within budget. Be smart! Figure out where you’re going before you turn the key and stomp on the gas. One or two wrong turns at high-speed could result in undesirable and costly consequences

Fast & Cheap Rule #3 – Ask Why. Then ask What. Before you ask How. Obviously, closely related to Rule #2. For example, don’t start talking about the website’s design until there’s an agreed upon Why and What. For iproperty development the boilerplate I also recommend using is:

1) Who is the target audience?

2) What are their expectations?

3) What content and functionality is necessary to meet those expectations?

4) How does that correlate to the wants and needs of the brand?

Again, it doesn’t matter how Cheap and Fast you’re moving if you get to the wrong destination. It doesn’t matter if you pick a website design that looks nice if it’s ultimately inappropriate for the Why and What. You could get lucky. But why rely on luck when investing in a bit of time can do the trick? Yes, there is no doubt design is important. But its true value exists within the context of the business needs (i.e., Why and What). If you believe that defining the Why and What is too overwhelming then proceed at your own risk. Some might say, “We can’t afford the time for that.” No actually, the reality is you can’t afford the risk of not filling in these blanks. Ultimately the time invested now will be a bargain to what you pay later if you don’t get lucky.

Fast & Cheap Rule #4 – Listen to your able and trusted resources. Let’s say you take your car to the shop because you’re having a problem. The mechanic takes the car for a short drive and then puts the car up on the lift to have a closer look. Shortly thereafter he/she comes back and says you need services X, Y & Z. Do you say no thanks and then specify he/she replace A and/or B? Or do you ask for an explanation and then more likely than not proceed as recommended? At the risk of repeating myself a slight bit, unless there is some irrefutable and compelling reason not to listen to your able and trusted resources then stick with what they recommend as much as possible. A quality resource is not going to speak just to be heard. If the idea sounds feasible and their explanation reasonable then follow their path.

Fast & Cheap Rule #5 – Hit the expectations reboot button. Once you’ve run through the previous steps, do a quick loop back around and share what’s been documented in order to get everyone—resources and stakeholders—on the same page. It’s going to be worth reminding everyone that the meal is closer to fast-food than it is white table cloth fine dining. Even so, someone at some point is going to be tempted to discuss the wine list. Simply put, there is no wine list in this phase. Therefore, start a list for future enhancements. Not only will this list eventually come in handy, but it will also be a polite and positive way to say no not now.

Conclusion – Pardon me if this sounds a bit direct and honest but Fast & Cheap is not an acceptable excuse for being mindless. Sometimes cutting corners is necessary. But doing so with no seat belt on and while wearing a blindfold is foolish at best. Some times it’s necessary to be fast and be cheap but there’s no need to top that off with a stinky pile of hasty.

A Final Note – While this article focused on Fast & Cheap, the truth is many of these concepts apply no matter what two and a half options you pick from the list. And while you can’t have it all, the fact is there are smart ways to get the most from what you do have. All you have to do is look and think before you leap.

Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 3

If you missed either of the two previous installments you can start by catching up here:

Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 1

Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 2

And without further delay here is the conclusion to this three part beginners’ guide to search engine optimization basics.

8) Image File Names

Believe it or not, search engines also index the names of your image files. Therefore, it is wise to  take advantage of this and give your images file names that are relevant and informative. Don’t be cryptic or lazy. We already know that playing hard to get is not going to help the match maker work for you. The rules for naming image files are very similar to page URLs. That is, use keywords, be descriptive and use dashes (-).

For example—

Bad: photo225.jpg

Good: rose.jpg or flower.jpg

Better: flower-red-rose.jpg or red-rose-flower.jpg

If you have keywords that are sometimes misspelled, using the misspelled version within image files names is a good way to get those misspellings indexed and associated with your site. Since 99.99% of all visitors to your site probably aren’t going to view a page’s source code just to see your image file names, the risk of a misspelling reflecting negatively on your site/brand/company is next to none. While it’s unlikely this trick has a major impact on getting traffic to your site, it is none the less worth mentioning.

9) Analytics

In terms of free tools, the industry standard is Google Analytics. It might be free but it is very robust. So much so there are a countless number of books dedicated to Google Analytics, as well as thousands of people who’s profession it is to understand and use it. Don’t let that intimidate you. Start slow, make an effort to pick up the basics, and then expand your understanding of Google Analytics as you feel is necessary. It is also recommended you consider utilizing Google Webmaster Tools.

One of the main things to know about using Google Analytics is that it is very good at telling you what happened. On the other hand, it’s not very good at telling you why. When making decision based on analytics be sure to put some effort into trying to interpret and understand the why. Avoid jumping to conclusions, quite often you’ll find there are at least two sides to every story.

10) The Process – The conclusion is the beginning

Last but not least, always be mindful that SEO is not a set it and forget it project. While your pursuit of SEO has a start, it does not have an end. The possibilities are endless…Search engine indexing algorithms continues to evolve. A competitor launches a new website and/or makes a conscious effort to build in bound links. Or maybe your product mix changes. Whatever the case may be, change and SEO go hand in hand. This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of your love affair with SEO.

Granted, you might not have the resources to obsess over SEO on a daily basis. However, it is recommended you consider scheduling different levels of commitment on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. For example, maybe you review Google Analytics weekly, and revisit your keywords quarterly.

SEO is like any relationship—it takes work to make it successful. Either you’re committed to it or you’re not. And what you get out will be direct function of what you put in. Don’t expect SEO to help you, if you’re not making time to help yourself.

A Classic Case of Sisyphean Marketing Strategy

For starter, I want to acknowledge that this is not “Client-friendly SEO Guidelines – Part 3″. Yes, I had promised that next. However, I decided to push it back a week and slide this one in instead. Call it agile planning, if you will.

As the story goes, I had lunch with a colleague earlier in the week. JK—not his/her real name—is a fairly hardcore SEO aficionado. JK’s motto is:  Tune it. Tweak it. Tighten it. Repeat. JK is also fond of: Mo’ traffic. Mo’ traffic. Mo’ traffic.

We got past the usual formalities, as well as rejoicing over the USA Women’s soccer victory over Brazil and then shifted into talking shop. JK had just started with a new client/project a few weeks back. It was for an e-commerce outfit. I had seen the site and it appeared then that it was going to be quite a challenge. I was curious and asked how it was going.

JK’s quick and boastfully proud reply was:

“Great. Traffic is increasing. Alexa ranking is improving. We’re adding pages to farm in more traffic. And thus far the impact of Google’s Panda update seems to be minimal.”

I wasn’t surprised. JK does good work. We talk SEO all the time. But then again we both knew there are a handful of standard tricks to grab the low hanging fruit. Not that there is anything wrong with that. You’ll understand my positioning here in a moment.

I toasted JK’s accomplishments, paused and then queried, “Mind if I ask some Guest-centric and business fundamentals questions?” JK smiled and firmly nodded affirmative. Here are some of the things that were discussed over the rest of the meal. Mind you for some of these it might be too early to tell. That is, there’s not enough data yet. Also, admittedly not all are JK’s area and/or role. None the less, we needed to discuss  something and JK’s project was this afternoon’s feature.

  • Churn rate: Up? Down? No change? What are the top reasons for churn? Are there particular keywords, PCC campaigns, etc. that are more prone to churn?
  • The marketing sweet spot: Is price the sole driver? Might emphasizing value be a better play? Would value attract a less churn-ful buyer?
  • Conversions: Was increasing traffic also increasing sales? Was the average size of sale increasing? Why? Why not?
  • Cross-selling and up-selling? Does influencing the buyer’s profile of purchases reduce churn and/or increase a Guest’s value over time?
  • The Guest Experience: What was being done to improve the UI, UX, design, service, etc.?
  • Building the brand: Does more traffic, more customers and more sales equate to establishing and building an actual brand?
  • Guest expectations: Were they being addressed? Can you have a brand in 2011 and not address Guest expectations?
  • SE Old: Is the nature of SEO changing? Are not social networks becoming the “search” tool of choice? Then that?
  • Exit Strategy: The ultimate question is, is anyone else willing to pay to acquire this business as it is currently modeled? Is the strategy sustainable?

After numerous volleys the conclusion was simple. It is a classic case of what I’m going to call a Sisyphean marketing strategy. In other words, X amount of traffic is going to convert; Y number are going to churn out; in order to meet growth goals Z, there is a simple minded (if not one dimensional) objective to just keep increasing traffic. The fact that there are quite a few other vectors that all intertwine didn’t matter. The best practices of great brands’ seemed to be nowhere in sight. Or should I said, in site?

Truth be told, JK said the client was comfortable with the Sisyphean marketing strategy. Said formula was what established them and they were convinced the formula was the key to future growth. The fact that just about every other parameter on the pitch had changed in that time frame didn’t seem to be a concern. In terms of doing their best, yes within the narrow context they defined they seemed to be doing their best. While I certainly do appreciate simplicity and focus I would think that those in similar historical circumstances probably have other lessons to teach. JK just mumbled something about mo’ traffic, mo’ traffic, mo’ traffic. The cheque came, we ponied up our credit cards and went back to working.

But there seems to be an alt-moral to this story. Sometimes doing your best isn’t good enough—that is, eventually it can become less and less appropriate. Sometimes doing what’s right, what needs to be done is what’s in order. Granted, that can be difficult because it means letting go of a “sure thing.” I also means taking up a new cause, a new learning curve and that too can be a bit frightening. Or in JK’s case it might actually mean less billable hours.

Being focused is great. However,  it’s not always as simple as running full speed ahead with blinders on in the same direction. This type of determination can be dangerous for a business. Hopefully you’re thinking of the same VW car commercial that I’m thinking of right now. If not, pop over to YouTube and watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-Vdb9yON-E.

Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 2

Welcome back to the middle portion of the Client-friendly SEO Guidelines show. If you missed Part 1 you can catch up here:

http://www.alchemyunited.com/2011/06/29/client-friendly-seo-guidelines-part-1

The one caveat I’d like to repeat from Part 1 is that the intention of this series is to build understanding and confidence—not paralyze a novice with perfectionist expert level details. If you feel there’s a flaw that’s too flawed given the context, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Just please keep in mind the intention here is SEO 101 for the time constrained SMB and NPO.

4) Headline Tags

Sometimes referred to as “H tags” since they begin with an H and are then numbered 1 to 6. If you view a web page’s source code and see: <h1>some text here</h1> or <h2>some other text here</h2>, etc. those are headline tags. These tags are part of the page’s design and are applied to the content on a page to tell the search engine what’s most important (h1), a bit less so (h2), and so on. Contrary to popular belief, headline tags need not be used to set type display characteristics (e.g., font size, font color, etc.) Typically they are styled but that’s not their true intention.

Be aware that not everything can be equally uber important. If you get carried away with the Headline tags the search engines’ algorithm might just decide to ignore your headlines all together. Therefore, headline tags should be used with some discretion. It is always best to be objective and honest when tuning your site to be “search engine friendly.”

While h1 is typically applied to the visible (and often generic) page title, h1 might instead be better used if you also have a sub-headline that describes the page’s content in more objective detail that makes better use of your keywords. For example, the headline might be creative and somewhat subjective so it catches a reader’s eye. While the sub-headline would be more objective and thus more “search engine friendly.”

If the design of your site doesn’t include a sub-headline or short page description, then you probably want to consider it. You might not feel you need it, but if it’s written and tagged properly Google will appreciate it. Headline tags are a tool to help make your content friendlier to your match makers. And again, keep in mind that there need not be any correlation between what you define for search engines as h1 and how that h1 is styled for the human reader. Regardless, your site’s first priority is to be user friendly. SEO friendly is second.

Although they can be applied more broadly, there should also be correlation and consistency between page URL, page title and the headline tags. These parameters don’t have to line up perfectly but they should be reasonably close. On the other hand, you do want to have a sense that you’re creating a general impression, a cloud if you will. That cloud is made up of various keywords and content that accurately reflects your site/brand/company as well as the content of a particular page. Hopefully, you’re starting to get a feel for how search engines “think” and how you can use that awareness to tip things in your favor. Be precise. Be specific. But also keep in mind that sometimes “long tail” keywords are effective too.

5) Page Description

The page meta description does not appear on your site. When you do a search, it does however appear in the list of search engine results pages results (SERPs) that are returned for the searcher to read. The page meta description should be honest and objective but none the less a bit enticing. If you have something the searcher is interested in, you want them to read your description and click through to your site. Don’t over promise, but don’t be too understated either. For example, if price is a critical decision point then be sure to address that in your page description.

The standard recommendation is to keep the page description to less than 160 character. This is going to be read by real humans so do use proper English. You can exceed 160 characters, however most SERPs will only display the first 160 characters. Evidently, matchmakers prefer brevity, as do most searchers.

6) Page Content

Rule number one is that your content should be written to be read by real people. Writing copy that is search engine friendly but user unfriendly is a no-no. In fact the latest release of Google’s indexing algorithm (code named: Panda) will penalize context it believes is unnatural.

When writing your content, refer back to your keyword list and be sure to also use the lower priority keywords. Search engines are not going to match you to searches unless your site contains those words too. Feel free to repeat keywords you have used in the previous steps but don’t over do it. In 2011, “stuffing” your content with keywords is also a no-no. If you’re interested in more depth in this area do a search for: “SEO keyword density.”

7) Link Anchor Test

Link anchor text are the words within a link that are clickable. Yes Virginia, these words matter to search engines. The search engines assume that if the words are part of a link to a page, then they are important and also descriptive of the page receiving that link.

Whether linking within your site or out to other sites try to avoid things such as “To do ‘blank’ click here” where “here” is the only anchor text in the link. Try to use wording that is descriptive of the site/page being linked to, and be sure that wording is part of the link anchor text.

And while we’re on the subject of links, it’s worth mentioning that the best way to improve your SEO impact is building in-bound links. That is, links from other sites to your site. Since that’s not always something you can have a direct and immediate impact on, it is considered to be outside the scope of these guidelines. None the less, building in-bound links is something to be aware of as you add tools to your SEO tool box.

Alright then, that’s it for Part 2. Hopefully you’ll share this with your friends and colleagues. Part 3 should be published some time next week.