It was another week.
- UNDERSTAND/FIX THE WORLD
- Dare I say, get smart? http://smart.fm/
- SOME FUN
Have a great weekend.
This week I had a chance to talk with Scott Zeitz who is a SEO consultant based in the L.A. about the latest trends in the business. This post is a summary of that conversation and is intended to be a primer on SEO for marketers managing projects that have an optimization component.
What is SEO?
SEO is the process of improving the ranking of a particular website within a web search results page. Basically, getting as closeÂ as possible to the top of the first page of results from Google. Search engine optimizers (SEOs) accomplished this by making changes to the site in question (internal), as well as by doing things outside your site such as providing information about your site directly to search engines (external).
How is it different than Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?
You’ll hear SEO and SEM used together in sentences all the time, but they are not the same. SEO is one part of SEM along with other methods including, link development campaigns,Â pay-per-click advertising (PPC), and pay-per-impression advertising (PPI). The latter two involve bidding with other businesses for ad placement typically in the “sponsored pesults” area of the search results page. I’ll talk more about this later. I’ll also do another post on SEM someitme soon.
The Big Take Away
Before reading any further, you should know that SEO is not rocket science and you can get 80% of the way towards excellent SEO simply by following Google’s SEO guidelines closely. I HIGHLY recommend reading these guidelines as they offer a more in depth discussion of much of what I cover here. If you’re trying to decide if you need a SEO, or if you can do SEO internally, I suggest reading this post in it’s entirety because it’s a high level overview. I’ll talk more about selecting an SEO at the end.
Before launching into SEO 1o1, let’s define some key SEO jargon. If you already know this stuff, just jump down to the next section.
- URL – An acronym that basically means “web address”, It stands for uniform resource locator. URL format/structure is important to SEO.
- ORGANIC SEARCH – “Organic” is used to describe the search listings that come up in the main area of the search engine results page (SERP) when you run a search. They are considered â€œorganic” or â€œalgorithmicâ€ because they are based on an algorithm that matches your keywords (search terms) to indexed content from the web. In contrast, paid search describes the listings on the periphery of the page such as Google Adwords, or sponsored links. See an image of Googleâ€™s page layout with organic and paid content highlighted.
- PAGERANK – This is a number that is calculated based on several variable including how many people are linking to a specific page and how relevant they are. For example, if hundreds of well established sites link to a specific page on your site, it is likely to have a very high pagerank. Google owns this term and uses a 0-10 range with 10 being the most relevant. Pageranking is a complex calculation that uses many variables to establish relevance. Google’s pageranking alogrithm is proprietary, one effect of which is that it prevents people from easily gaming it.
- KEYWORD DENSITY- This is the percentage of times a keyword or phrase appears on a web page compared to the total number of words on that page. Search engines use this to determine the relevance of the keyword. This prevents people from placing a keyword on a single page 100 times to improve it’s relevance with respect to a search for that keyword (aka, keyword stuffing).
- CRAWLERS – Also known as web spiders or web robots, these are programs that search the web and index what they find as input to such things as the pagerank algorithms.
- BLACK/WHITE HAT – Black hat uses techniques to game pagerank in ways that conflict with a search engine’s terms of service. Alternatively, white hat uses techniques are consistent with the terms of service. Black Hat techniques include such things as linkfarms, spamdexing, doorways, cloaking, hidden text, and keyword stuffing (note, this is the second time I placed this link/keywork in this post!).
- ROBOT.TXR / NOFOLLOW – This is a file or tag that you put on your website that prevents robots from indexing specific content so that it won’t show up in search results. This is commonly used for pages on your site that don’t have much relevance to outsiders, or for blog comments that you don’t want to effect your relevance or the relevance of others. “Nofollow” is a meta tag that the robots understand to mean “do not index”.
- INBOUND & OUTBOUND LINKS – As the name suggests, inbound links are links, which other websites place on their pages, that link to you. Outbound links are links on your site that point outward. In general, the more incoming links you have from reputable websites the higher your pagerank will be.
- SITEMAP – This is a list of pages within your web site that are accessible to crawlers or users. Providing a sitemap to search engines can help them index your site more accurately.
One of the first places that SEOs look to improve your site’s performance is in the URL structure, so let’s start there. There are two kinds of urls, static and dynamic. Static urls are basically pages on your website where the url never changes. Dynamic urls are different because they are generated on the fly to present information that’s been requested from a database. Every site has static urls and many have dynamic urls.
Here’s why they are important. As web crawlers index the internet they don’t just look at the content on your pages but also look at the urls, meta tags in the code, and other information. Part of what they are looking for is a structure, or format, that they can understand. For example, here are two possible urls for your bio on your site:
As you can see, the second url uses words that a web crawler can recognize and consider for keyword relevance along with a structure that shows where the information is located within a hierarchy. As you come up with the right structure for your site, make sure to pay special attention to your information architecture as this will improve both SEO and user experience. The structure of the second link above shows a clear architecture and is sometimes referred to as a “breadcrumbs” style url because it shows you the path back to where you came from. Many sites also place breadcrumbs within the content area of the page.
Cleaning up your urls is possible for both static and dynamic pages and improves the user experience as well as the SEO. In addition, you can put a system in place to manage truncated urls. Truncated urls are created when users are trying to get back to a page higher in the hierarchy by chopping off some of the url address. Using the address above, a user might truncate a url down to: “www.mysite.com/about/people”, hoping to get to a page where they’ll see info on your entire team.
Finally, you’ll want to avoid duplicate urls and forwards on your site, as well as pages that have very similar content with a similar url. This will reduce the relevance of your site overall.
Registering You Site
TheÂ second thing an SEO will probably do to improve your site’s performance is to make sure that it’s registered with the search engines. When registering your site, they’ll also want to provide a sitemap that tells the web crawler where to look for information. At the very least, you’ll want to register with the top three search engines, at the moment this is Google, Yahoo & Bing. If you’re a bigger company and really want to get every ounce of optimization then you can go after some of the less dominant engines as well. At the end of this post, I’ll put in some link resources for help with sitemaps and registering.
Its About Your Content
Now that you’re registered and you’re urls are cleaned up, the next big win can come from adjusting the content on your site. And remember, web crawlers are reading more than what jumps off the page because they’re reading the code underneath it. Therefore, it’s important to create brief, accurate, and unique page titles.
From there, you’ll also want to make use of the “description” meta tag. This tells the search engine what a particular page is about. Again a brief, accurate, and unique description provides the best results. Google actually offers tips for content analysis in their suite of webmaster tools.
Another thing that can help is to make sure that your link anchor text is descriptive of what it links to. For example, the link anchor I used in the last paragraph reads “tips for content analysis”. This is descriptive of what it links to. It would be wrong to have written: “Google actually offers tips for content analysis in their suite of webmaster tools here.”
As you structure the content on your pages, you’ll also want to use headings correctly. Headings use the following tag “<h1>sample copy</h1>” and stand out visually as bold or larger text depending on what style you assign them. Headings are a visual que to how information is structured, but they also have meaning for web crawlers. The same principle behind anchor text applies here, make your headings relevant with appropriate keywords.
The images on your pages also require optimization, which means sensible and descriptive file names, alternative text if the image doesn’t load, and store them all in their own directory. Finally, make sure that you’re using supported formats (i.e. jpg, .gif, .png, etc)
Should I Hire A SEO?
As I mentioned above you can get at least 80% of the benefit from SEO without being a rocket scientist, but you will need someone to take responsibility for making sure your site complies with SEO best practices. In other words, it’s about compliance not innovation. WIth that in mind, the real question is whether or not you have someone internally who can handle the project for you and who can learn the basics on their own. There are some great guidelines out there, which are published by the search engines, so it’s really just a matter of implementation.
Here are some reasons to hire an SEO:
- You don’t have an internal developer, or one someone who can own SEO on an ongoing basis.
- Your site is massive and old and needs a ton of SEO work done to bring it up to par.
- You want to bring a SEO in to train your team and reduce the slope of the learning curve.
- You’re planning a website redesign and want to make sure that you plan for SEO properly.
IF your site happens to be using one of the more popular open source content management systems, such as WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal, then you’re in luck because they offer some built in optimization functionality. Sitemaps and robot.txt files can be generated automatically as you update the site using free tools from the community. They also offer structured url creation systems and easy access to meta tags, titles, and descriptions. If you’re using one of these frameworks, you’re starting point will be much further along.
Useful SEO Links
Here are some links to sites where you can learn more, test your current performance, and plan for optimization:
- Learn More
- Performance Compare
- Compete.com – compare how you’re doing to others.
- URLmetrix – type in your url and get an aggregated page of page poularity results.
- Grader.com – A family of tools that helps measure SEO related stuff.
- Find an SEO
What Is A Complex Sale?
On the one hand you’ve got the simple sale, in which the customer knows exactly what they want, understands the market value, and is willing to pay it. In this scenario, the sales process is really about making buying quick and easy (i.e. order taking). On the other hand you’ve got the complex sale, in which the customer does not know exactly what they want and they may not understand the market value, which mean’s that they may not be willing to pay it.
The complex sale is often characterized by a combination of the following:
- A product or service that has many moving parts and/or broad implications for the buyer.
- A product or service that is difficult to compare to competitors in an apples to apples context because it does not offer standard dimensions of comparison (i.e. selling custom solutions NOT generic products and services)
- An involved buyer with multiple internal stakeholders who are interested in different aspects of the purchase and who must be in alignment to complete the sale.
- A phased process that may include a request for information and/or a request for proposals.
As would be expected, the more complex a sale is the longer it usually takes to complete.
A Selling Philosophy
I’ve got a pretty straight forward philosophy when it comes to selling, which is that the seller and the buyer should be on equal terms. Neither is doing the other a favor by choosing to work together, it’s a mutually beneficial agreement. Of course, the value of work is constantly changing as markets fluctuate, which can cause some friction. But, the bigger concern is businesses that take advantage of uninformed or unprepared buyers. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to assume you’re not one of those businesses. If you’re in it for the long run, honesty and credibility offer much greater benefit, especially when it comes to the complex sale.
The concept of mutual benefit and transparency in the relationship is important because they support the development of trust. In the end, humans are emotional beings that rely on trust to make decisions much more than hard facts. Therefore, my philosophy supports the idea that communicating that you understand the problem is less important than communicating that you understand the client. In the end, problems can be solved but people rarely change.
Think of it as “consultative selling“, when it comes to selling complex solutions, telling prospective clients about your products and services isn’t as effective as listening to them. Talking about “you” gives the impression that you’re just interested in selling something whether they benefit or not; not a great way to start building trust. That fact is that you’re starting from the reality that most people don’t trust sales people. So, don’t start by talking like one, try listening.
Listening is something that you’ll need to do throughout the sales process, not just during the initial phase. Here are some general rules that are worth having in front of you:
- Have questions ready, and organized, before starting the conversation.
- Take notes on what you’ve heard.
- Summarize what you’ve heard as a confirmation before asking additional questions.
- Empathize and make eye contact if possible to show that you understand the challenge/problem.
- Enjoy the process. Be willing to laugh and smile when appropriate.
- Listen beyond just what you can hear by noticing posture and body language.
- Wait for it …. don’t be afraid of a little silence, this often leads to deeper explanations.
- Be balanced. Be prepared but don’t act like you know it all.
- Let them talk more than half the time.
The Art Of The Start
Starting the conversation right is important for several reasons, including the fact that your first impression has a lasting impact on your relationship. You can start a conversation in many ways, from an informal conversation to a qualified lead call. If it’s informal you might use your short elevator pitch to introduce yourself and what you do. If you’re pursuing a qualified lead you’ll probably start with who you are and ask a question. Either way, there can be some innate tension when starting any business conversation because people are afraid of being pressured into something.
One way to immediately relieve this pressure, and earn some trust right out of the gate, is simply to say:
I’m interested in learning about your business and if there might be an opportunity to work together, but if not perhaps I may be able to introduce you to someone who can help you.
Now that the pressure is released, let them know that:
I can quickly determine what makes the most sense based on a few questions.
And then, ask permission to as ask your first general question about what kinds of challenges they are facing in your area of expertise:
May I ask a question about such and such ….
Going back to the underlying philosophy, don’t forget that being on equal footing means that you are selecting them as much as they are selecting you. As you get better at starting the conversation you’ll get faster at identifying the characteristics of a buyer that’s a good fit for your product or service, which will save everyone time and energy. Next let’s take a look at the kinds of questions you might ask.
During a sales conversation there should be a clear order to the questions you ask, moving from more general background questions to a focus on the foreground opportunity. Balancing this transition is important so that prospective clients don’t get the impression that you haven’t done your homework (too many background questions) or that you’re in rush to find a solution (too many foreground questions). In the latter case, it’s also important to remember that your foreground questions are not about identifying solutions at this point, but only about defining the problem.
There are three kinds of foreground questions that generally work in the following order:
- Challenge Questions – These questions are used to identify the challenges or problems that have caused the prospective client to have a conversation with you. (i.e. what’s the problem you’re having?)
- Impact Questions – These questions are used to define the consequences of the challenge (i.e. how does this challenge affect your business?)
- Value Questions – These questions are about defining the value that is lost in relation to the consequences (i.e. how much revenue does this cost you?)
As you move from one conversation to another, make sure to review what you’ve covered so far to insure you’re on the same page. When starting a new conversation, make sure to state the purpose of the meeting after reviewing what you’ve already covered. There are a finite number of barriers to making a sale, so make sure you know what they are, how many you’ve overcome, and how many more you have to overcome when you set the meeting agenda.
It’s also worth mentioning here that you should keep track of how much time it takes to get through the questioning process. Your ability to move through the process is a key indicator of how likely you are to make the sale and what the post-sale relationship will be like. Sometimes creating some time constraints can benefit the process by creating a sense of urgency. Here are some red flags to keep an eye out for:
- Abnormally slow progress compared to your normal experience.
- Buyers who are using the sales process to educate themselves enough to attempt the project on their own.
- Barriers that prevent you from interacting all the relevant stakeholders (I’ll talk about them next).
There are four buyer roles involved in the complex sale; sometimes one person plays more than one role. When you’re going through the sales process you’ll want to know who plays each role and how they fit into the organizational structure of the prospective client (i.e. you’ll want to create s simple organization chart).
- The User Buyer – This is the role that will be using the product or service that results from your engagement.
- The Financial Buyer – The role that has the financial authority to pay for your product or services.
- The Detail Buyer – The role that will be focused on the details of how your product, service, or the result of your engagement, will work.
- The Sponsor Buyer – This role may have introduced you to the prospective client from the inside or outside of the company. They have no direct relationship to the work, but will benefit from goodwill if your engagement goes well.
At some point in the sales process you may have the opportunity to create a presentation on your solution for the buyers. This often takes the form of a proposal in response to an RFP. I’ve written about creating proposals in detail in an earlier post so I won’t cover that here. I think the one message to emphasize is that your presentation must respond directly to the buyer’s stated needs and the value associated with those needs.
Your presentation may stimulate additional conversations about specific concerns (or objections) the buyer may have about your solution. This is a sign that the buyer is engaged and that the process is moving forward. If they’re asking questions about your proposal, it’s likely that you’re seriously in the running.
Thanks for reading and please comment on this post to share your experience managing the complex sale.
This was the week. FYI, I’ve put the links in as short URL …. not sure if this is better, but it is easier.
- UNDERSTAND/FIX THE WORLD
- SOME FUN
Have a great weekend.
I recently wrote about how to manage the request for information (RFI) process in the interest of identifying potential service providers for marketing related projects; this post is a followupÂ in which I’ll talk about the request for proposals (RFP) process. It is based on my experience working with a variety of companies and is intended to share some of what I’ve learned about the RFP process along the way.
I’ll discuss the RFP process in relation to a recent project I did with a Bay Area scientific device company, Wafergen Biosciences, for the development of their new SmartChip system. In my role, I worked closely with the project lead to select a service provider who could take on an industrial and user-interface design challenge associated with the project.
Why do an RFP?
The RFP allows you to obtain detailed information about how a service provider plans to conduct your project, what methodologies they’ll use, how long it will take, and what it will cost. Once you choose a service provider, the RFP can also serve as the basis for a statement of work contract and help transition to getting started working together.
The RFP process is ultimately about obtaining the information you’ll need to select a service provider for your project. It’s not usually just a matter of cost, but also includes factors such as past experience, work samples, process, timing, and references. If you’ve managed the RFI process correctly, all of the firms participating should be able to fulfill your project needs, the question is which one can best satisfy them.
How many firms participate in the process will depend on the nature of your project. In Wafergen’s case, the RFP was extended to four firms out of ten that participated in the RFI process. I’d say this is a fairly typical scale for medium sized companies. Going through the process is a significant investment for both participants and the company running the process, thus it’s best to limit the group size as much as possible while still covering your core range of selection criteria.
Selecting The Participants
Selecting the firms that will move from the RFI process into the RFP process can be a hard choice, but there are some exercises you can do that will help. These are all essentially ways of pulling apart the threads that form the fabric of your selection criteria:
- SERVICE DIMENSIONS- Identify the dimensions that distinguish how each firm is positioned. For example, you might have small and large participants in the RFI group which would be expressed as “firm size”. Perhaps some firms are full-service while others include partnerships. Or, some firms might have a more traditional approach while others employ agile principles.
- GROUPS – With your service dimensions defined, you can start comparing firms against each other and through the lens of each dimension. Based on the RFI information each firm provided, prioritize your choices for each dimension. A clear group may rise to the surface at this point.
- DIVERSITY – Ideally you’ll want a range of firms included in your RFP process so there will be a real distinction between your options. In other words, you’llÂ want diversity with respect to at least one of your service dimensions. For example, you may have determined, through the RFI process, that the bigger firms are better suited to your project but within that group you’ll want to include a range of full-service to partnership oriented firms.
Even with a well written RFI you may need to go back to the participants to ask for additional information. After sorting though your analysis,Â you should be able to clearly articulate your overall selection criteria. This will also be helpful later as you communicate with the firms that may not have been selected. Keep in mind, these firms have invested in this process so you own them feedback as to why they were not included. Plus, you never know when you’ll have another project that they might be a great fit for.
A Basic RFP Outline
The structure of an RFP will vary a bit depending on the application, but here’s a general structure to get you started:
- COVER SHEET
- Project name & date
- Confidentiality statement
- Contact information
- TABLE OF CONTENTS
- INTRODUCTION & BACKGROUND
- About your company – this is simply an expanded version of what you shared in the RFI
- Purpose of the RFP – again, a more detailed version of the RFI purpose
- Technical contact – list as many relevant contacts as you need for your project
- Contractual contact – the business contact for the project
- Due date – A written confirmation of the service providerâ€™s intent to respond to this RFP is required by [date] with letter of intent form (below)
- Schedule of events – include key dates for your process
- RFP to candidates [date]
- Confirmation of participation [date]
- Set capabilities presentation [date]
- Capabilities presentation date [date]
- Proposal due date [date]
- Target date to review proposals [date]
- Consultations [date]
- Anticipated decision [date]
- Notification to other parties [date]
- Anticipated commencement of work [date]
- GUIDELINES FOR PROPOSALS
- Proposal submission – sample copy: Award of the contract resulting from this RFP will be based upon the most responsive service provider whose offer will be the most advantageous to Company X in terms of cost, functionality, and other factors as specified elsewhere in this RFP.
- Restrictions – get your lawyer to approve something like this sample copy: Company X reserves the right to:
- Reject any or all offers and discontinue this RFP process without obligation or liability to any potential service provider,
- Accept other than the lowest priced offer,
- Award a contract on the basis of initial offers received, without discussions or requests for best and final offers, and
- Award more than one contract.
- Additional information – sample copy: There is no set format for the project proposal; however, the service provider’s proposal must cover all of the information requested below. In order to address the needs of this procurement, Company X understands that service providers may work cooperatively in presenting integrated solutions. Company X will recognize the integrity and validity of service provider team arrangements provided that: The arrangements are identified and relationships are fully disclosed, and a primary service provider is designated that will be fully responsible for all contract performance. The service providerâ€™s proposal in response to this RFP will be incorporated into the final agreement between Company X and the selected Service provider(s). The submitted proposals are suggested to include each of the following sections:
- Executive Summary
- Approach and Methodology
- Project Deliverables
- Project Management Approach
- Project Schedule
- Detailed and Itemized Pricing
- Method of Payment
- Project Team Staffing
- Company Overview
- DETAILED RESPONSE REQUIREMENTS
- Executive summary – sample copy: Present a high-level synopsis of the service providerâ€™s responses to the RFP. The Executive Summary should be a brief overview of the engagement, and should identify the main features and benefits of the proposed work.
- Scope, approach & methodology- sample copy: Include detailed testing procedures and technical expertise by phase. This section should include a description of each major type of work being requested of the vendor. All information that is provided will be held in strict confidence.
- Deliverables – sample copy: Include a list of deliverables associated with the development process through the final deliverable at the end of the engagement.
- Project management approach – sample copy: Include the method, software, and approach used to manage the overall project and client correspondence. Briefly describe how the engagement proceeds from beginning to end.
- Project schedule – sample copy: Include information about the anticipated project schedule, the number of required meetings, time between deliverables, etc.
- Pricing structure – sample copy: Include a fee breakdown by project phase, showing itemized costs. Estimates for travel expenses, or other miscellaneous expenses should be included as well.
- Method of payment – sample copy: Include information about payment amounts and times to secure services, and as relates to deliverables and/or other project phases.
- References – sample copy: Provide three current corporate references for which you have performed similar work. If possible provide a brief summary of the project and how it relates to this RFP.
- Project team – sample copy: Include brief biographies and relevant experience of key staff and management personnel. Describe the qualifications and relevant experience of the types of staff that would be assigned to this project by providing biographies for those staff members.
- Company overview – sample copy: Provide the following for your company:
- Key contact name, title, address (if different from above address), direct telephone and fax numbers.
- Person authorized to contractually bind the organization for any proposal against this RFP.
- Brief history, including year established and number of years your company has been offering services.
- CAPABILITIES PRESENTATION – sample copy: In addition to the above material, Company X expects service providers to visit Company X to present their capabilities and discuss the project in detail.
- EVALUATION FACTORS FOR SELECTION
- PROJECT BRIEF
- Summary – the summary of your project background, opportunities/challenges, and goals
- Product/service advantages – explain the unique value propositions of your business
- SCOPE OF WORK- clearly define the scope of work so the service provider will understand what areas are out of bounds
- Deliverables – define what you’re getting at the end of the project
- Requirements – set clear requirement for the deliverables
- Customer & environment profile – who will be using the product or service and in what context
- Use pattern – define the typical or proposed use pattern
- Production volume – how many will you need and in what time frame
- Service profile – how often will it need to be updated or changed?
- Competitive landscape – who are you up against and how are they differentiated?
- Other specifications – technical or other specification information
- Existing product service information – this is where you might share inspirations, work-flow documentation, product/service eco-systems, or other relevant information
- LETTER OF INTENT TO RESPOND TO THE RFP – sample copy: This letter indicates [service providerâ€™s company name]‘s intention to respond to the Company X’s RFP according to the specifications of the RFP by time am/pm onÂ [date]. My role at the above mentioned company is: [role]. I [print name] am an authorized agent of the above company. Signed by [signature] [date] Please fax or deliver to: [contact info]
With proposals in hand, you’ll want to go back into analysis mode. In my experience, it’s worth bringing the stakeholders in the selection process together to discuss the participants only after they have individually reviewed the proposals. Ideally the team will also participate in the capabilities presentations (if that’s part of your process).
How the final selection is made will depend on your organization. Usually, there needs to be some consensus between the person who will be writing the check, the person that will be benefiting, and the person who will be dealing with the day to day implications of working with the service provider. Once a decision has been made, don’t look back! Often times, assimilating outside service provider work into your organization can be a challenge, so get the momentum going by sharing your selection with anyone that might be affected by the choice.
3 Project Management Tips
As with the RFI process:
- Start a spreadsheet with all the candidates listed as you’re working your way through the process. It’s too easy to confuse candidates, contacts, and assets otherwise. For the Wafergen project, I used Google Docs to manage the process because I wanted the project team to be able to watch the process unfold, review candidates, and provide feedback.
- The way you handle the RFP process also sends a message to the candidate, so be professional, courteous, and respectful of the fact that they’re investing in the process at this point without getting paid. At the end of the process this means following up with the candidates that won’t be getting the project.
- Start writing your statement of work as you go through the RFP process. This will save you time by expediting the contract process once you select your service provider.
Good lcuk, and I hope this information is useful!