In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and co-host Tracy Osborn answer a number of listener questions on topics including funded competition, growing an email newsletter audience, white-labeling and more.
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Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. Each week on the show, we cover topics relating to building and growing startups in an ambitious and repeatable fashion. These are not your typical Silicon Valley startups where fundraising can be a goal in itself and where people build slide decks instead of building businesses. The things we’ve espoused for the past 460 episodes, things like freedom, purpose, and relationships, much of being a founder is making decisions with incomplete information, where the right answer is impossible to find through math or data.
On the show we have several different formats. Oftentimes we have tactics we discuss, we do interviews, founder hot seats, and this week we have listener questions. Questions sent by you, the listeners, over the past couple of months. I’ve been mixing up the formats as you’ve noticed and the feedback I’ve heard is that the tactical interviews and the interviews of the agony of defeat have been really well-received in addition that the listener question episodes tend to be listener favorites.
I want to get back in the groove of doing those and today, I welcome a co-host, Tracy Osborn, to come back and answer questions again. She joined me about six or eight episodes ago answer a few questions. Before we dive into those, there’s been a few comments on startupsfortherestofus.com website. Go to startupsfortherestofus.com, we have a new design, you can check it out.
On episode 456, we had a comment from Karen that said, “Just popping in after listening to this episode to say how much I value your podcast. I’ve been listening for quite a few years. As other shows have come and gone, Startups for the Rest of Us continues to be a staple for me. I’ve really enjoyed the mixing up of the format lately. It’s been good to hear from different people. In saying that and as much as I’ve enjoyed and got something out of each episode, I would not really be keen on having the podcast moved to an interview format every week.” I actually agree with that.
“I always enjoy the listener question episodes and get a lot of value out of those. The episode that really left a lasting impression on me was the one with Mike just before he started his hiatus. The way you skillfully weaved your questions in and around Mike’s comments and your observations were very eye-opening and I’m sure it resonated with a lot of listeners, too. I would love to see more of that format, like a one-off mastermind session with the SaaS founder, where it explores a specific challenge that they are currently experiencing.
No matter the format of this podcast is, it continues to be a cut above the rest and a big thank you from this listener for everything.” Thank you so much, Karen, and another listener chimed in and said, “Plus one on that.” I appreciate the feedback on that. It’s super helpful just to help guide things, to look at doing some more hot seats in the future.
In episode 457, I answered a few questions. One was about starting a market place and TJ wrote in and asked about two-sided marketplaces and how he should start it. Shawn the Wolf chimed in and said, “Great show. For two-sided marketplaces, I would suggest, number one, populate the list with the basics for free to satisfy your consumer funnel. Number two, give all artisans a basic free listing with an option to be removed. Number three, find sweeteners to sell to the artisans, to give the individual listings a competitive edge.” The sweeteners he lists are enhanced listings, ads at the top of a given page in their category, subsites inside of your website, and prospect information volunteered from consumers can go the artist for a fee.
Thank you so much for that Shawn. TJ, thank you in the comments and I appreciate everybody coming in. As a community, we obviously have so much more brain power and experience than just a podcast host or two, sitting on the microphone each week.
Also, if you haven’t got your ticket to MicroConf Europe, it’s in late October this year, head to microconfeurope.com. We still have some tickets left. It’s in Croatia and it looks over the Adriatic Sea. Every hotel room has a view of the Adriatic, it’s very nice. Consider doing that, hanging out with 120 or 130 of your closest founder friends. If you didn’t hear the save the date, MicroConf US next year is in Minneapolis and it’s April 19th through the 23rd. We’re pulling it out of Las Vegas this year.
We’ve actually been trying to do that for the last several years, in the overwhelming feedback from both folks who attended folks who don’t, that they would prefer seeing it in a different city. It happens to be in Minneapolis, this year, April 19th through the 23rd, that’s growth and then starter. Check out microconf.com. Enter your email address to hear about when tickets go on sale. We do expect the conference is to sell out, so you want to get on the email list, if you’re at all interested in joining us. I believe we’re expecting to sell tickets here in September. With that let’s dive into some listener questions.
Tracy, thanks for being a glutton for punishment and joining me on the show again.
Tracy: Happy to be back.
Rob: I’m stoked to answer some listener questions with you again today. Our first question is a voicemail. As always voicemails go to the top of the stack. This question is from a founder who has an idea or is working on a product and a funded startup with the same idea shut down in 2016 and he’s curious how to process that.
Ryan: Okay, question about a strange experience and what you think would be a good way to go forward. I’ve been working on an app for about a year. It’s a search engine your personal computing history, it’s at apse.io. The acronym is short for A Personal Search Engine.
Last week I found out about another company building almost exactly what I’ve been working on. The thing is, it is a $20 million round at 2016 and also shut down later in 2016. If I were reading the press coverage of marketing materials, they might as well be talking about my app. I can’t find any reason for the shutdown, and attempts to contact people who worked on it have been unsuccessful.
I’ve been working on the project solo for about a year. I have no idea they have existed until a few days ago. I’m bootstrapped and never released a working product so I’m not at danger of going under myself. My focus right now is I’m growing the customer base. What do you think I should do now that I know all this? Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks, Ryan Fox.
Rob: Interesting question. What do you think, Tracy? What are your thoughts on this?
Tracy: Super interesting, especially since $20 million is not pocket change and the fact that it shut down within the same year. Then he said he tried to contact the people running it and hasn’t heard back. There’s a lot of very suspicious things going on that lead me to think that the company shutting down was not due to the product, but probably due to something internal. I don’t know if you have the same impression that I do.
Rob: I don’t. It does sound a little weird, but frankly, if you’re going to raise that much money, then you raise it at probably $100 million valuation. It tends to be $80 million or $100 million because you typically sell 15%-25% of your company. If it’s a standard round and they were definitely go big or go home, and go big or go home is basically spend all your money in 18 months.
The fact that they spend it all, they probably hired all the way up and try to do a big marketing push, so I don’t know that it sounds suspicious, but it definitely sounds like a typical Silicon Valley play, I guess.
Tracy: I wish that they were able to contact the founders. I’ve done that for my apps, where like my old WeddingLovely app, I was able to talk to a few other founders who did something very similar, but shut down the company. In those cases, I was lucky that I was able to get a hold of them and they’re excited to tell me all the things that went wrong because there are done and over it and moved on.
He said he only heard about it a few days ago, so maybe there could be some contact. There could be valuable information if he’s able to contact those founders and be like, “Hey, above board, what happened? Is there anything to be worried about?” If that doesn’t happen, in general, I feel like it’s not something that should stop the caller from starting a company.
Rob: No, not at all. I wouldn’t be discouraged in the least. Just because a venture-funded company couldn’t make it, that can almost be a good sign at times. If they were burning through $1 million a month, hired a team of 50 people or whatever it was they were doing, a lot of ideas don’t work that way. A lot of ideas maybe they take years to do or maybe it’ll never make more than $1 million a year, but that’s a great full-time living for an individual. I don’t want to speak to this particular idea. I haven’t looked into personal search engines or really what’s it about, but just the question is really about a venture-funded company went out of business, how should I feel about that? I wouldn’t feel bad about it all.
I would feel the exact same way I do today as I did yesterday before knowing it. The other thing I would say is I wholeheartedly agree with you that getting in contact with someone from that company no matter what, if it’s the founders or if it’s an old salesperson or whatever, I have done this multiple times. Oftentimes you need to send a lot of cold email, LinkedIn outreach, Twitter DM’s, all the things to get a hold of someone, but once you get a hold of one person, they will often refer you to other folks. I would spend more time on that than you probably think, a judicious use of your time.
If they raised that much money, they had to have had, at some point, quite a few employees. I would head to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google and try to figure out, “Hey, who was a former employee of this company,” and reach out as like, “Hey, I’m a founder of this thing, you worked on it, and I wondered if 30 minutes your time just to talk to me about something.” It works pretty well. Again, I wouldn’t stick just to the founders, although that would be ideal, but that conversation could be super valuable.
Tracy: Yeah, very valuable. I’ve used in the past myself. It’s so great because there’s some things that you probably could learn that you didn’t know about just from looking at from the outside. Try to do the internal investigation, try to talk to someone in the company. Also, just investigate everything that’s public, see what they did, see the things that they released and see what you can learn from what they did that apparently didn’t work, to see what you can learn from that.
Rob: Thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful. Our next question is another voicemail. It’s about growing an email newsletter audience.
Ben: Hey Rob and Mike. My name is Ben DeFrancisco and I run a small consultancy here in Philadelphia doing mobile web and increasingly crypto- and Blockchain-related work. I fell down the crypto rabbit hole many years ago, so it’s been awhile for me to watch you enter the mainstream consciousness so much over the last couple of years.
About a year ago, I started running a weekly newsletter covering technical topics in the crypto world. It’s called The Blockchain and you can check it out by going to newsletter.buildblockchain.tech. I post about it on Twitter and sometimes on LinkedIn and it has grown steadily but slowly over the past year. I have excellent open rates at 50% and I often get people writing back to me with a positive feedback. I think generally I’m doing something right in terms of the content. Still, the list size itself is rather modest.
My question is, how do I grow a newsletter audience? I often hear about people talking about building a list, but there’s no viral component to a newsletter and at a certain point, it seems like posting to social media has diminishing returns. Are there some tactics and strategies that I could be employing?
For context, I don’t have anything I’m trying to sell to this list right now, though in the back of my head, I can imagine launching a book, a course, or even a software product down the road. For the moment, I’m just focused on finding and growing my audience. An audience that has interests and aspirations that align with my knowledge and skills. Thanks in advance for any insights you can offer on how to do this.
Rob: What are your thoughts on this Tracy?
Tracy: This is a really good question and it’s funny when watching the last few years as newsletters have become more and more of a thing as compared to blogs. It does have that difficulty in sharing something that’s over email, and after I read this question beforehand, I went through all of my favorite newsletters that I personally subscribe to and be like, “Okay, how do other people do it?”
I feel like number one, the way I’ve found newsletters and the way all the ones I’ve been reading or have been doing it, in the newsletters, they’ll have asks, saying, “Okay, if you want to support this newsletter, please share this newsletter on social media. You can sponsor the newsletter,” and the other ways of helping out. It’s just being really clear in the newsletter, may be at the top and maybe at the bottom. Just give people an opportunity and remind them that, “Hey, if you’re enjoying this content, here’s a way to share it.”
Rob: Yeah, that’s a good approach. There’s a lot you can do with this and it depends a lot on your constraints. Do you have more time or do you have more money? Something that I would think about if you have this newsletter, you’re providing valuable content and with 50% open rates, that tells me that you’re writing engaging content, people are getting value out of it because they’re continuing to open it. What I would look for is opportunities to get your newsletter or your brand out to a broader audience.
You’re right, sharing on social is getting it out to your audience and maybe get lucky and three people will retweet and then you get it out to their audience, but that is not a predictable way to grow a subscriber base. I would think about approaches like this to reach larger audiences or audiences you currently don’t have reach into.
One is you’re already creating content. Is there a way to either repurpose some of that or create new content as guest posts? Whether you approach Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, any of the crypto, there’s tons of crypto sites, take the top five or the top 10 and pitch them on, “Hey, I’m a writer. Here’s the quality of my writing. I want to write for you,” and you get a byline or a mention of your site within the article itself. This is a tried and true tactic. It takes time, but that’s one way to get in front of 100,000 crypto enthusiast, by being on the number one crypto news site.
A second one would be to do a podcast tour. If you’re an expert and you have all this experience and you can say, “I’m an expert because of this,” or, “I’m an expert because I’ve interviewed a bunch of experts,” and going to a podcast tour and of course you mention your brand while you’re doing that, expose it to new people.
Doing interviews. It looks like you might already be doing some interviews. I’m wondering if you are gently asking for the interviewees to social share when the post goes live. That is something I would consider. I wouldn’t do it heavy handed, but if one out of three shares it, that exposes you to a new audience. People say, “Wow, this content was really good. I want to find more like that,” and on and on. It’s the same playbook that I would say for any startup.
You’re building the list to some end, what are the marketing approaches you could go down? SEO is another one if you have a larger footprint on your website, you ought to value it. Is SEO too hard in the crypto space? Do you have the time, the money to do it? Maybe or maybe not, but that’s something I would personally value as it has such a nice fly wheel of traffic if you’re giving something away like an open source library or something else that folks aren’t able to get anywhere else. Everybody links there, then you get the SEO juice and then suddenly you triple your newsletter subscribers.
Another way that I would think about and this comes back to that time versus money thing. If I had more money than time to devote to this, I would have absolutely seen people grow email newsletters with ads. With Facebook ads, Instagram ads, Google ads may be a stretch, but ads in other email newsletters.
That depends. If you’re not monetizing at all, then that’s probably a tough justification, but that would then lead me to think about longer term, “How am I going to monetize this?” whether it’s with affiliate stuff or ads or whatever. That allows you to then know, “Oh, per subscriber, I make X dollars per month or X cents per month, that means I can pay this much for a new subscriber.” That’s where you’re going to get to if you’re going to grow it in a sustainable fashion.
The last thing I’d say is you mentioned that your URL is newsletter.buildblockchain.tech to sign up, I would just move it to the homepage. You actually have it, you have a drip put just there on the homepage, it’s buildblockchain.tech. Go there to sign up and it’s just less for people to remember.
Tracy: Yeah, it all makes sense. It basically comes down to, make it easy for people to sign up, make it easy for people to share, and put yourself out there so that more people will know about you, so they have opportunities to share what you’re doing. If you can, then you can try using ads, that’s the step-by-step process.
Rob: That’s right. Using ads is dangerous to do early on. It’ll help you move faster, but you need some budget to do it and you can churn through money if you don’t have any way to monetize or any idea of how you’re monetizing. Again, if you know the lifetime value of a subscriber, then this becomes a no brainer.
This is how Noah Kagan built the AppSumo less up to three quarters to a million or a million people was by running ads because he knew what the value of a subscriber was. This is one way that Brennan Dunn grew his Double Your Freelancing list, was using ads. It’s doable, it’s just a matter of what are your constraints, do you have the time, do you have the interest, and how big do you want to grow it?
Tracy: Yeah. Try doing step one to three first and see what success you can do for these “free ways” of growing your list and then using that as a cherry on top.
Rob: I hope that was helpful Ben. Thanks for the question.
Tracy: Our next question, by James Barnhartus, says, “Hi Rob and Mike. Thanks for all the great insights you share on the podcast. I came across your podcast about a month ago after starting my own startup journey. I’ve already learned so much from you guys. The knowledge and experience you share is amazing and has really stoked my excitement for entrepreneurship.
My question has to do with the process of transitioning from a consulting-based model to a true SaaS model. My co-founder is a consultant who helps small businesses better manage their operations. One of the tools he uses in his consulting is an app that he put together in Microsoft Access to help his clients find and track their operations. I’ve been brought on as a technical co-founder to turn this Access app into a SaaS product.
The SaaS app would initially continue to be used as a tool for my co-founder’s consulting work with the goal of eventually moving towards offering it as a standalone product. I was wondering, what is your take on this approach? Are there any benefits we should be sure to take advantage of or pitfalls we should try to avoid?
On the one hand, I see a potential advantage in the fact that we already have an initial user base in his current customers, but on the other hand, I am wondering if the fact that our initial users are using the app and a consulting context might lead to unanticipated headaches when we try to scale. Thanks again for the great podcast, James Barnhartus.
Rob: That’s a good question. I’ve seen folks do this well and I’ve seen them do it poorly. The first thing that I would make sure is that you have the IP, that your partner owns the intellectual property to the thing and that the Access app was not built under a contract that if you forked a SaaS app out off of it, that somehow that comes back to bite you in the future. That is just something that you have to clear up and make sure you have. The pitfalls I would avoid or the big one is assuming that because he has had to build this for a number of clients, that everyone needs it, or that there is a market need for this.
I would validate that other people need it, that it is sellable at a purchase price that you want to sell it at, and that you can reach them somehow in some type of scalable fashion. Obviously, there are companies that want to pay for this, but if each sale cycle is 6-12 months long and people are only willing to pay $100 a month for it, it becomes a less viable business. I would be having a lot of conversations before I went off and build a SaaS app with his existing clients.
Also then, where is a list of another hundred clients that are your potential clients that are like these other ones? How do I get in conversation with them? It’s easy, you’re not selling anything. You say, “Hey, we are building this thing,” you just tell the story of what you’re doing, “Would you be willing to have a 30-minute phone call with me?”
If you send 100 emails, maybe get 10 yeses and that will be tremendously educational for you to ask the questions of, “What are you using today? How much would you be willing to pay for this?” You pitch it, “Hey, would you be willing to pay $1000 a month?” or whatever the numbers are. There’s a lot more that I would do before I wrote a line of code on that SaaS app.
I do think that there’s a big benefit to doing this and that your partner or co-founder obviously has a lot of knowledge, institutional knowledge in his head about how this works; that’s good. You guys have built-in testimonials from the start. You could even ask the consulting clients if you can use their logo from day one, even though you don’t technically have product customers, you do have consulting customers or clients and you have logos and testimonials which is a nice thing to have from the start. You can also get their input of course to help shape the direction of the product. That’s my hot take, my initial thoughts on it. What do you think Tracy?
Tracy: I love the fact that there are existing customers that you can ask for help for building this product. I agree with you. This is a place where you can get more information, talk to other customers, and make sure there’s a market before you do any writing of code. As you start building a product, you can go to these existing customers with the MVP and start getting that feedback with people who are already hopefully fans of your co-founder because they’re working with them in that consulting context, and these people can help inform how the standalone product can grow.
Having that little bit of help helps an app grow and help the app launch, especially if you can get to a point where it’s just good enough that then you can start taking that elsewhere. Not building a full-on product, but getting just to that MVP, so then you can start talking with other people outside of this consulting contact. I think it’s going to be a huge help and it’s a really good sign to have those extra customers, but I completely agree with you that there are some pitfalls, as you mentioned, and just to be aware of what you said.
Rob: Yeah, and I was trying to think of the dangers of it being consulting today and how that can impact your mindset. Let’s say you built 10 or 15 existing consulting clients. Is there a danger that they really have a lot of input on shaping the product and they do it in such a way that it makes it less useful to the rest of the industry, or do they want undue influence on it or whatever? These are things you have to navigate. I definitely think this is more of an advantage than a disadvantage for a lot of developers go and built products and then you can’t get anybody to buy and no one will tell you why they want it or won’t pay for it. You’re not going to be in that situation, but they are definitely some things I’d be thinking about as I build this out.
Tracy: This is a process that people have done before. A lot of SaaS apps have come from consultants who realize that there is a need and that they can build something off that need. Of course, there is probably a lot that have failed as well, but this has been done before and some people have had success in it.
Rob: Yeah, and I would consider tweeting out and saying, “Hey, we’re looking to do this. Has anyone done it before so I could ask you some questions?” My guess is typically when we get a question that is this specific, we often the next week get an email from someone saying, “Hey, I did that,” connect me with him.
Rob: Yeah, it’s been cool. It’s like the Startups for the Rest of Us community coming to the aid of one another, which is really, really cool.
Tracy: Yeah, using the community. One of the big secrets for this community is the fact that we can use each other, learn from each other, and help each other out.
All right. We’ll move on to the next one. This has been submitted by Casio. He says, “Hi Mike and Rob. Thanks for providing such a valuable podcast. We have a bootstrap SaaS making low seven figures and ARR. As the founder, I constantly get emails from people interested in white little partnerships. These emails typically come from bigger businesses that are in the industry but don’t offer the feature we are most known for. Other times they come from random people who want to build a similar product but don’t have anything to offer.
Our product is somewhat complex, not rocket science but large like an ERP, HER, et cetera, and we have a brand that is trying to get some recognition in the industry. White labeling on our product would be nontrivial from a technical perspective and I believe it would distract us from building our own brand. I want to know what your general thoughts are about white labeling. These emails are so frequent, I think I’m leaving money on the table. Thank you.”
Rob: This is a good one and it’s common. If you start something that gets traction you will get these emails. My default response to these is very much like the default response to the junior partner in a venture capital firm. You’ll get two or three of those a month as well asking if you want funding and in general the answer is, “Now is not a good time.” These white labeling in general is quite distracting. It is way more technically challenging than most developers or most people think it is. It’s not just tweaking a product and swapping out someone’s logo in the upper left. There’s billing and there is provisioning. I won’t even go into it.
We evaluated that at one point and it is months and months of development work. What’s cool is that if you’re getting these interests, it shows that this industry has interest in this tool. It’s almost like you’re going to get out ahead of these bigger players, they’re trying to hedge their bet, and they’re trying to have the features that you have. To me, white labeling basically devalues your brand and creates a brand for someone else. There are cases in which to do this, but I don’t think that’s a real, kind of MicroConf, Startups for the Rest of Us self-funded move. To me, you are trying to build a brand for the long-term. You’re an ambitious founder. You’re doing low seven figures, huge congrats on that. Most people do not make it that far.
If I were in your shoes, I would not be having these conversations. If you’re curious, maybe respond to one or two of them, and do a call or two, and cap your time at five hours of exploration for two different deals or for two different conversations and see where it goes. I’ve done that, I’ve gone down the road. This is with multiple products, not just Drip and HitTail, but back before there were DotNetInvoice and a couple of others. I would say, for me it was without fail. That doesn’t mean it’s without fail, but it’s going to be a waste of time because you are trying to build a brand that you want to last. To give someone else that brand equity and have to write a bunch of code on top of it, if you already have some figures, you feel like you’re growing, and things are doing relatively well for you, I don’t see why you would entertain this at all.
Tracy: I would agree with you and I’ve done the same thing with WeddingLovely. We had a bunch of white label requests from other companies and I didn’t do that process that you mentioned. I did a few calls with them, with the folks just to see what they wanted, what they are thinking, and what kind of money was involved. Every single time at the end I was like, “That was a waste of time.”
Again, I could be wrong. There’s probably instances out there where this is a good idea, but it’s one of those things, whereas in general, I guess for this audience, it’s going to be more pain than it’s worth, especially if you’re already doing that much in ARR.
Rob, I have a question for you. Is there any situation in which you would think that, that would make it worth it for you? Would it be an upfront contract? What would you think would be the only situation where it would be worth it?
Rob: I was just asking myself the same question in my head. It’s not a blanket “no,” it’s a 99% “no.” What is that 1% or the 5% time you should do it? I’ll go on a little tangent here. There’s a SaaS app that I know of that was in the ESP space. Originally, they were a downloadable software that you installed on your own server. They white labeled for years and no one knew who they were. They grew into the seven figures and then they had to pivot out of that. They decided to pivot out of that and build their own brand. Their software was mature, but they had to build brand equity from scratch. I sat and watched and I thought to myself, how would they have been because their competitors were doing so much better by that time. I thought to myself, how would they have been if they had never done that.
The thing that comes to mind, there was one time that I almost went forth with white labeling. It was in the very early days of Drip and it was with a colleague I knew or a guy I knew who was in a completely separate, very tight vertical. It was a vertical we were not going to sell into. It wasn’t a ton of dev work. It was weeks’ worth of dev work and he was willing to commit to—I don’t remember the numbers—a non-trivial amount of MRR. He had a big email list, it’s a prosumer niche, so it was a really large list and he had a large number of paying customers doing seven figures of ARR with a relatively low-priced product. He was going to email a list and promote it over the course of a year and do webinars.
He was going to really push it in and it seemed like it could add 5K, 10K, or 15K of MRR a few times throughout the year and that was back where that was a substantial amount of money to a company. That was one time where we needed the money. We almost went through with it. I honestly don’t remember. I think it petered off and we were going to do some research.
Eventually, we mutually decided this is not going to work and I don’t regret that. I actually think that would have been a burden. It would have been essentially legacy cruft that we would have had to maintain because within 6-12 months of that, we were growing by 10K MRR a month and it would have been this thing that we had committed to, that we have to maintain, and would have always been like, “What were we thinking?” but at that time, it may have made sense and helped us move faster. That’s the one time I can think of it perhaps working for more of the self-funded indie funded types.
Tracy: The only other thing I can think of—this might not be the self-funded, indie-funded type of people—was when I was evaluating white label partnerships, just one other variable was if that company that wanted me to white label was an acquisition possibility. I have heard stories and some friends where they’ve built a product, they white labeled it for that company, but in the process of white labeling and working with that company, it comes out that it’s just easier if they just get acquired. If you wanted to be acquired, it can be and this can be very risky. This is a very risky way of trying to get an acquisition because things could fall through the white labeling, it could just suck up all your time getting it to work. I have heard instances where people start working the company under a white label product and ended up acquired at the end. If that’s something you might be interested in, that could be a path.
Rob: That’s a good point. It’s with the words that is strategic partnership. You’ll see that with a strategic investment of like, “Hey, big competitor. Number three wants to invest by 10% of the company,” and maybe they’re an acquisition partner long-term. White labeling will be another one, a really tight integration where everything goes back and forth. Before white labeling I would almost vote for a really tight-coupled integration, but you’re right. It’s risky, but I could see that as a play or a reason to do it.
Tracy: All right. Moving on to question from Lee B. Lee says, “Hey Rob and Mike,” had some really nice things to say about you and the podcast. A couple of paragraphs. I’m going to skip that and jump over to the question. Lee, thanks for the wonderful compliments.
Lee says, “Here, to contribute my own question. Is it not uncommon for developers to start at a small company with a reduced salary in exchange for a share of the company? This is what I proposed to two founders of the company where I am now writing software and they’re onboard. They feel reassured I’m in it for the long haul and will feel more confident taking ownership and business decisions along the way. Now, I take it for granted that I will want a lawyer to review any offer before it signed. How does one go about selecting a lawyer who will represent me without being overly aggressive? Googling business lawyers near me is easy enough, but I would like some advice about what questions to ask and what to look for when dealing with a master of the dark arts of law. Thank you again for providing a back catalog of knowledge and advice.”
Rob: Dark arts of law. I like that phrase. That’s a good question and good on you for having a lawyer review it; that’s a good call. The blanket advice I have is upcounsel.com. You start there, you look at the reviews. It’s like Upwork for legal. I have had generally good luck when I try to find someone with an expertise there. The way about it is I don’t want a small-town lawyer who specializes in tax, accounting, to review my startup equity grants, my stock option offer, my employment letter offer. I want someone who is familiar with the startup space so that they know.
Any lawyer can read a document and say, “Yes, legally this is saying this and this means that,” but do they know what the standards are? Do they know how the Silicon Valley treats it? Do they know how people treat it outside of the Silicon Valley? Have they dealt with startups that may have raised funding? Have they dealt with equity grants before, stock options, vesting cliffs? All of this stuff is more than academic.
It’s something that the more experience you have with it, the more you know, “That’s a common clause to be in there,” or “That’s not a common clause and this is unusual where I would push back.” What I found is when you’re dealing with lawyers who are out of their depth or out of their expertise, that’s when they get overly aggressive because they’re uncertain and they’re trying to mitigate risk, but when they’re in their comfort zone of like, “Yeah, I’ve reviewed 10 of these in the past year,” they tend to feel much more comfortable with it.
The last thing I’ll say is I’ve dealt with a lot of lawyers, way too many, actually, just over the years of forming companies and doing all this stuff. It’s only been about 10% or 15% of them that I really enjoyed talking to and having conversations with, that I feel like actually have my business at heart, my well-being, and the company’s well-being at heart rather than just logging time, and that’s super unfortunate. That’s just my experience.
I’m not saying that’s how the whole industry is, but once I found a couple of attorneys with a couple of different areas of focus of expertise, I hold on to them for dear life. I refer people to them and I use them for everything. There’s one guy who doesn’t do anything with tax accounting, but I’ll even ask him tax accounting questions just because even his almost inexperienced answer is often better than the tax accounting attorney who is just stiff and giving me some boilerplate ECYA answer.
Now, it this attorney is just going to review one document, do you need a long-term relationship with them? Probably not, so you don’t need to take it so far. I bet if you go to UpCounsel and look for folks who are experts in startup loan and equity grants, I bet you’ll be fine with it. Those are my initial thoughts. What do you think Tracy?
Tracy: The best lawyers I’ve ever worked with have been referrals from friends. There’s so many out there. You don’t want to spend the time chatting with a bunch of different lawyers and then seeing if they’re the right one for you. That’s like Googling for random lawyers near you. You can follow this trap or it takes way too long and you’re talking to these lawyers and then you’re not getting your contract reviewed.
If it is at all possible, asking people near me, other startups, other friends, people or anything for a referral to their lawyers and getting their recommendations and their thoughts about how that lawyer works upfront saves a lot of time. I’ve worked with some, like you said, terrible lawyers that never respond, or respond cryptically, or respond with one liner and then charge me a lot of money for that one liner, and I’ve worked with some really amazing lawyers. The amazing lawyers have always come from referrals from other people who used them for the same situation that I did.
Rob: That’s great advice, and asking your personal network. Going to Twitter and asking other startup founders, if you’re in a founder Slack group, if you’re in the MicroConf crowd, if you’re in FounderCafe. There’s all these resources you can go in and say, “Hey, who knows a good lawyer,” and we don’t know the jurisdiction of your law so I don’t know if you’re in the UK or the US. If it is a law, that would be state-dependent. Or you can get a lawyer in any of the 50 states and employment law tends to be state whereas tax law is IRS and on and on. You ought to look at the nuances of that, but I wholeheartedly agree with you that the best attorneys you’re going to find are going to be referrals from other folks.
Tracy: That’s a good point about different states. I wasn’t thinking about that before. Probably about 90% of the lawyers I have worked with, I haven’t met in person. I’ve always just worked with them remotely. You don’t necessarily have to have someone who can go to the office and sit down and show them the contract. If you can find the right person to work with you where you can just send over that the contract over email and get their thoughts and pay without having to meet them.
Rob: For me, I prefer solo attorneys who work out of a home office, use Dropbox and DocuSign, aren’t working for some huge firm with a big office downtown and still using paper documents, that everything needs to be a phone call, and they won’t email. There’s this real dichotomy and the attorneys I enjoy working with the most are more like us. They’re more like startup founders. They’re agile, they use the tech, the cool hip stuff these days, and that’s what I personally would look for. Again, to review one stock option doc, you don’t need to look for all of this, but if you’re going to have an ongoing relationship, that’s what I would be looking for.
Cost is part of it. A solo attorney working out of a home office tend to be less expensive. They’re also not going to delegate a bunch of stuff. That’s what I hate when I work at big firms, you talk to the attorney, great. You charge $700 an hour and your law students, paralegals, and such are charging $350 an hour, but everything is delegated to them, and they don’t tend to know what they’re doing. They tend to have to loop the attorney in to make the hard decisions anyways and you’re the whole time dealing with a junior associate. I guess that’s where I get super frustrated.
It’s like, no. I want to work with someone super knowledgeable and I am willing to pay for it actually. I’m willing to pay the rate, but please answer my questions and don’t funnel me through an intermediary and when I have a solo attorney, they’re answering your questions and you know that they’re the expert in what they do.
Some good questions today. Thanks so much for coming on the show again with me, Tracy.
Tracy: Yeah. Again, super happy to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Rob: Absolutely. As a listener, if you have questions that you’d love to hear right on the show or you want to send us a voicemail, make it to the top of the stack, please email us email@example.com or you can always call our voicemail number if you’re on the road. It’s (888) 801-9690. Tracy, if folks want to keep up with you, they can go to tracyosborn.com or you are @tracymakes on Twitter.
Thanks again to Tracy for joining me on the show. I had a good time answering some listener questions. Seriously, send in your questions. We have bandwidth for even more listener questions over the course of the next few months. If you haven’t subscribed to this podcast, I encourage you to head to iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever greater podcasts are sold and enter Startups for the Rest of Us, subscribe, or head to our website, startupsfortherestofus.com.
We have an email list. We almost never talk about this, it’s a mistake. There are several thousand people on the list, but if you really want to be in the know, you want to hear about inside baseball, and hear about when formats change and new designs, we don’t email very much, but it’s being within the Startups for the Rest of Us community. Go there, enter your email. Again, we don’t have very many emails and you can unsubscribe at any time. Thanks again for listening and we’ll talk to you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about content promotion tactics. Breaking the tactics down in three categories (Social Media, SEO, and E-mail Marketing), the guys share thoughts and expand based on some previously written articles on the topic.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and I talk are going to be talking about content promotion tactics. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us 414.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us. The podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob: I’m Rob. You know, I’ve been thinking about my next act for a while.
Mike: Have you now?
Rob: I have.
Mike: Is this where people start cashing in on the pool?
Rob: Totally, yeah. What is Rob’s next startup going to be, right? This has been a question for a while.
Mike: I think it was my timing, actually. Not just what it was going to be.
Rob: Oh, was it?
Rob: Because Rob said I’m never going to do this again. Who put money on never? I think…
Mike: Probably nobody.
Rob: …no one. My wife definitely did not put money on never. Well, my next act is not a startup. It is an accelerator for bootstrappers. It’s actually a small fund and an accelerator for bootstrappers. It’s called TinySeed. You can check more info at tinyseedfund.com. But it’s really the first startup accelerator designed for bootstrappers, so startup accelerators is something like Y Combinator, TechStars, and as you and I have talked many times, those are geared around people who have these unicorn ideas, who are going to move to a location for three months, work the 80 hours for little pay and little sleep, and that doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of us. I mean, the name of our podcast is Startups For The Rest of Us, right? You did this after Y Combinator came out.
Rob: That’s what this accelerator is. It’s designed for folks like you, me, listeners of the podcast, attendees of MicroConf–kind of the people in our ecosystem and our community where building $1 million SaaS app, $5 million, $10 million annual SaaS app, is actually quite lucrative and there are so few funding sources for folks like us. The idea is, to put more money where my mouth has been for the past several years.
I’ve made a dozen angel investments, half of those have been in these businesses that only want to raise a single round of funding. Often $100,000, $250,000, maybe $400,000, whatever some small-ish amount, and then they want to get to profitability and never do that institutional money. The idea is, we know a lot of founders, I know a lot of founders, who are somewhere between idea and $10k a month MRR–is the sweet spot. Because most of these folks are unable to work full-time on their business and that’s kind of the value prop of TinySeed is it gives you runway for a year.
It basically provides you with a small amount of capital but it’s going to be enough capital to basically live on for a year and keep you from having the nights and weekends stuff, to be able to focus full-time, and you don’t have to relocate so it’s remote. It’s going to be in a cohort model […] maybe it’s 10 in the first cohort, and weekly Zoom calls, and I’m assuming like a Slack or chat group, and then weekly office hours. Basically, all the things you hear about in an accelerator except that it’s designed for us, by us; it is remote and it’s just another option.
I think the other thing is, it’s longer term. You and I both know, I don’t think we could’ve built and launched Drip or Bluetick in three months. It’s just not long enough. The idea is to get longer runway to get more traction and since people are remote, it winds up being easier. Because Y Combinator couldn’t be a one-year thing because you’re not going to relocate to a place for a year. There’re different elements to it but that’s the basic gist.
Mike: We’ll have to talk about it. I almost think that we might want to talk about it for either longer period of time and it’s part of a direct episode on funding. I think there’s different ways that it could work. Obviously, you guys have to talk internally about what you are going to publicly disclose now versus things that you’re just talking about or ruminated on for ideas. But I do think we should definitely revisit it as a part of a longer discussion topic as part of Startups For The Rest Of Us.
Rob: Yeah, that sounds like fun. I would say, at this point, we’re about probably 80% locked down on terms and ideas, and curriculum and thoughts, and all that. But definitely more than happy to talk about it. The wee of it is, myself and Einar Volsett, who has been at MicroConf many times, he’s a YC Y Combinator alum, he’s had a couple of exits, and right now, he’s a Micro-Cap M&A advisor, which I think, he’s like a scout for private equities; he works with private equity companies. But you know him. I think you’ve talked a bunch of times.
Mike: Yeah. I’ve had dinner with him a couple of times at MicroConf. He’s a super sharp guy. He used to teach at Cornell, I think.
Rob: Yeah, he was a CS Professor at Cornell for a couple of years.
Mike: Right. He’s got a Ph.D. in computer science but he also knows a lot about the business side of things. What was the startup that he ran? It was inbox spelled backwards, it’s xobni, something like that?
Rob: It wasn’t xobni, it was something else. There was one called AppAftercare which he exited in 2016.
Mike: Oh, ReMail
Rob: Yep, ReMail, that was it. Y Combinator and it was acquired by Google in 2010. He has some experience and that’s where he has more of the fundraising and the private equity venture capital, more knowledge of that and the terms, so he’s good at figuring out models and running IRR calculations. If you don’t know what those are, you don’t need to unless you’re going to run a fund but that’s one of the reasons that I’ve never wanted to get into this is I didn’t want to do all that side of things.
Mike: Well, like I said, it will definitely be interesting to see how this plays out. I think that you guys are the first ones that are doing this in this particular space. We used to talk about why Y Combinator was aimed at people who are just going straight for funding versus like, “Hey, let me build a product. Let me get a little bit of traction for it and then go out for some funding, but I still want to not have to grow it into his giant thing.”
Rob: That’s right. I, of course, did a bunch of market research on accelerators and incubators and remote accelerators, they’re really–you can find a list of remote accelerators, but almost of them, they’re rather defunct now or it’s like a remote accelerator tied to like a city government launch or a university and it just kind of feels like a ghost town. No one has nailed this model. That of course could be a risk if you have no competition. Are you first or is it not going to work? Are you going down a wrong path? That’s always the question but I personally believe I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think that it was going to work.
Mike: I think every single entrepreneur […] of doing business. If I’m first, it’s like I’m seeing things that other people aren’t seeing. But it’s one of those things that you have to let it play out to find out whether history will remember you for being right or wrong.
Rob: Absolutely. That’s the game of being a founder, I think. If you’re listening to this and you’re just interested in hearing more whether it’s from the founder side, whether you are experienced, interested in being a mentor, somehow being involved, or just wanting to hear more about it, tinyseedfund.com. There, of course, is an email opt-in form in there. We’ll be communicating with that list as more details come out.
Mike: Awesome. On my end, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to schedule a personal retreat in the very near future just to straighten out where my marketing efforts are going to go for Bluetick. Because I’ve had things all over the place for several months now and I haven’t really had a solid thought on what the direction should be and where, strategically, I should be going with the marketing efforts.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to take that time right now just because my wife teaches on Saturdays, and my son has soccer games on Saturdays. For the next three or four weeks, he’s got those games. It’s just like she can’t be in both places at the same time, so I kind of have to wait, push off on that a little bit, but that is on my short-term road map, I’ll say.
Rob: That’s always a good idea. Frankly, since I started doing retreats, there always comes this time where you just don’t know what to do next, you don’t know what to try next, and you need some distance in order to do that. Because if you sit around at your laptop, at your home office, you’re just going to write code, you’re going to respond to fires and support requests and all that stuff and getting away for a couple of days–super valuable.
Do you have Sherry’s retreat guide, The Zen Founder Guide to Founder Retreats?
Mike: I’m not sure. I think I might. I’m not sure if I have it or not.
Rob: It’s just a very good guide to revisit. Every time I go on a retreat, I’d pull it up. If you’re listening to this, haven’t heard of it, go to zenfounder.com. I think there’s a products link in there. It’s $19 or something and it’s 30, 40-page e-book, in essence, but it’s kind of everything. Because Sherry introduced me to Founder Retreats and I talked about it on this podcast and it’s kind of spread from there which I think is a great thing. I’ve always found them so valuable. Sherry put together the guide and had me add as much as fill-in-the-gaps basically on it, and so it’s really, in my opinion, kind of the definitive guide for things you should think about as you go into your retreat.
I hope you’re able to do that soon. It’s a bummer to have schedule be the issue. Is there a way—just to throw out ideas—like he has soccer game on Saturday, could you leave Saturday evening and come back, basically 48 hours, come back Monday evening or Monday afternoon before the kids get home from school?
Mike: Probably. Last week was a holiday so I could not have done it that week. Then this coming week, I can’t leave on Saturday night because we’re basically going out to dinner for our wedding anniversary to celebrate that. Then the following week I leave for MicroConf.
Rob: You just cancel.
Mike: Oh, yeah. Sure. I’ll just cancel that.
Rob: Oh, for Pete’s sake.
Mike: I’ll cancel either our anniversary dinner or MicroConf. One or the other. It’s going to be several weeks no matter what at this point. There’s no way around it, I think.
Rob: I have a great idea. Do your retreat in Croatia. Just extend your trip a couple of extra days. Be like, “Hey, Ally, I’ll be back. Peace out. Have fun with the kids. I’ll be back.”
Mike: If I were leaving early, I can’t though. Just because she teaches during the week […] like Sundays.
Rob: I’m joking.
Mike: I know.
Rob: Yeah, man. It’s hard. I totally get it.
Mike: Oh, well, moving on. I guess we’re going to move on to our actual topic for today. We’re going to talk about content promotion tactics.
Rob: I am digging it. We’re revisiting a topic that we covered in 2010.
Mike: Yes. This is a little bit from episode six. In episode six, it was all about how to get traffic to your website. I went back, and I took a look at that, some of the links that we had in there like seobuilding.com just totally defunct at this point. You can buy that domain if you’re really interested for like $3500. If anyone’s interested…
Rob: You’ll at least be getting graphic from us at this point. No, not some of the links, Mike. I think, 40% of the links that we listed, and the approaches are just completely, they either don’t work anymore, they’re just gone, but this was eight years ago. It’s an eternity.
Mike: Yes. But I went back, and I looked at it. I was kind of inspired by, I was reading the SaaS mag article that’s put out by FE International. They launched it at MicroConf. You can go to saasmag.com, we’ll link that up in the show notes, and sign-up, and start getting issues of that. It’s aimed at SaaS founders. It talks about various things that are related to the industry and they interview experts from different fields on what they’re doing and kind of what the future looks like, and how they got to where they are, etc.
Most recent one I saw has interviews from Patrick Campbell from Price Intelligently, Brennan Dunn from Double Your Freelancing and RightMessage, also David Cancel from Drip. There’s a bunch of different people they’ve interviewed. But on one of the pages they had, it was kind of a poll that they have taken inside of a Facebook group called SaaS Growth Hacks. They asked the question, “What are the best marketing channels for SaaS companies?” and people voted on different things. Content, by far, was the highest voted thing. Below that you have forums, and Quora posts–answering questions there, and then cold email, and paid ads ranks about the same. Then below that was partnerships, word-of-mouth. Below that, free tools, and then the last couple of ones on the list were Twitter, conferences, and LinkedIn messaging.
The way that that shook out does not necessarily surprise me, but the fact the content was still so far up above, I felt like that was a little surprising.
Rob: I find that really interesting too, actually. I think, as you mentioned, it’s from basically marketers, so whether it’s founders or growth marketers or whatever, it’s what they are doing these days. I wonder if they’re doing these because they’re measuring, and it works or they’re doing it because this is kind of the current wave. The current mindset is, content is king, and it’s the thing that you should start with.
I don’t know that that’s worth even diving into, going down that rabbit trail. But it is something that comes to mind is, is there a group thing going on and zigging when everyone else is zagging, is the best way to go or is this really right now with social and the fact email marketing is so powerful in with the SEO benefits of content that content really is where it’s at and that’s why everyone’s there.
Mike: I think it’s partially because of the fact that with content, you can create an article through your website and it’s going to continue drawing traffic in versus if you do cold calling or a joint venture with somebody, I call them one-off activities even though you can do them repeatedly, but you don’t continue to reap rewards if you’re not picking-up the phone and cold calling, for example. You have to keep doing it versus if you go through the effort to creating an article, put it on your site, and you do well enough with the SEO, you will continue to get traffic much further down the road. You can also promote that piece of content multiple times.
It’s not about that content is king so much as this that content is reusable and it allows you to put it in front of people, not just multiple times, but put it in front of new people because you’re creating this asset of some kind that other people could find useful. You can’t really point somebody to an empty page on your website and expect that it’s going to continue to drive clicks.
Rob: Right. That’s the thing. We’ve talked in the past about how if you’re in super early stage, you’ve pre-product market fit or pre-product then content’s probably not the right play for you because content is a long game. But once you’ve found your audience, your product is something people want, and you’re scaling, that’s when I think, in general, content is going to be a really good play for you to get you that 5K or 10K MRR that you’ve just scratched and clawed and manually done maybe cold email, whatever it is to get your first 100 customers. But once you want to go from there, I think you need more scalable things and content is one of those avenues, and that’s why we’re talking about it today.
Mike: I think what we’re going to focus on is, we have a couple of resources that we’ll link to in the show notes. One if from orbitmedia.com and the other one is from neilpattel.com. one of the things that this really points to is the fact that when you are promoting content there are three essential pieces or channels you can look at. There’s SEO, then there’s sending out emails to drive people on your mailing list back to your site, and there’s social sharing. Where those intersect is you can promote your content into each of those places but depending on what your needs are, you’re going to put more effort into one versus the other.
The whole idea of this is, if you do it through social media, you’re going to try and get additional shares or followers. If you’re trying to get additional subscriptions to your mailing list, it’s going to help you grow your list for email marketing. If a visitor comes in and they link to your content from someplace else, you’re going to rank higher in search engines. The idea is to create this feedback loop, of you doing all of those three things in order to amplify your traffic and from that, you essentially end up with leads on the other side of it. It’s really just an engine that you’re creating.
If you have a ton of people on your mailing list, you can start asking them in trying to help promote on other things. You can say, “Hey, can you promote this on social media?” You can leverage them back and forth between each other to amplify the entire system.
Rob: Content does have this unique advantage which is one of the reasons that marketers like it so much is, it really has this trifecta of value that it brings, these three uses. I’ll step to another example; let’s say I’m running Facebook ads and I’m getting that to work. Facebook ads send typically cold traffic to a page, you might get trial sign-ups, you might have to retarget them, you might have to get them on an email list, but those ads you’re paying for—and they really have one purpose—and it’s to drive some traffic one time.
Content on the other hand has three uses, maybe it has more, but the three main ones that I’ve seen, and I’ve used, and it worked really well. The first one is social media. It’s getting that buzz because you put out a new article or essay or e-book or video or whatever, but you get people to talk about you on Twitter and LinkedIn, Facebook or wherever else your folks reside, and you can get that quick social media bump of, “Hey, everyone’s talking about this cool new thing that came out.” Then it dies down and that would be one use.
But another use for this exact same content is you email your whole list. That can help with the social media aspect. It helps if more people know about it then more people talk about. But it gives you an excuse to contact your email list. Every time you contact your email list, you’re probably going to get more trials, more interests in your product.
The third use is this long play of SEO. If you put out good content and it hits the right keywords, and you do have links back or you have social shares that are pointing back, it rises in the ranks. Long-term, people searching for these terms in Google, come back to it.
I haven’t given it a ton of thought, but I don’t know, off hand, of another marketing approach that has that many solid benefits, this super short-term bump, the email list bump, and then the long-term paly of SEO. I believe it’s pretty unique in that respect.
Mike: Let’s dive into the first section which is social media. What we’re going to do is we’re going to throw in, just very briefly, highlight some of the different tactics that are listed on a couple of these reference articles that we pointed to earlier.
The first one is to mention people who are going to like your article, they liked the content of it or directly reference people who are quoted in the article. One example of how well this would work is if you’ve interviewed somebody and they are relatively high-profile in the industry that you serve, for example. If you’ve mentioned them in the social media posts, they are more likely to share it than if you were to email them directly and then say, “Hey, can you tweet this out for me?” Because then you’re asking them, “Hey, can you create a tweet and then post this?” versus they see it in their social media feed and they can just literally hit retweet and they don’t have to do any work. It’s just a matter of what your ask is of them.
If I see something where it has referenced me for example and I’ve commented on an article or was on a podcast, I’m almost certain to retweet that and like it just to give it more of a visibility.
Rob: That’s a nice tactic. I’ve definitely seen that. At a minimum, I’m going to like something if I click through and it’s like, “Oh, yeah. That was that quote I gave you two months ago.” Then like you said, if it’s a legit post, because sometimes you’ll get asked for a quote or a comment on, what’s the hardest thing about validating product or what are the market approaches that are working today or whatever, and they’re doing an expert roundup and I’m just cool to participate in those. Some of them are really, really good and really well put together and others are kind of someone doing a halfway job or maybe they’re new or whatever. But the best ones, when I get a mention like that, it’s pretty certain I’m going to click through and then based on the quality of it, decent likelihood that I will retweet that.
Mike: Another one is to tweet quotes from the content. The nice things about this is you can create multiple tweets and schedule them using Buffer, a variety of other tools, and get them out there in such a way that you’re not repeating yourself. Different quotes are going to attract different types of people. There’s a quote about, I don’t know, a search engine marketing for example, you could put that in there, and then there could be something else which is optimizing search engine marketing. One is very broad and then the other one is a little bit more specific, depending on the person who sees it, if they’re more interested in one or the other, they’re going to click on it.
Rob: Another approach is you’re not just going to tweet this once especially if it’s a big piece of content because the longer form, frankly, more expensive, whether it’s time-expense or actual cost in paying someone to build it. The longer form more expensive pieces of content are the ones that are winning today and the ones that are getting the tweets. You’re not just going to tweet this once and be done. A good strategy is to tweet it once and then schedule some near future and distant future tweets because, if you think about it, in three months, the buzz from this e-book or audio piece or whatever, blog post, will have died off but it’s probably still relevant and valuable. It’s something not to bother people with but to bring back up and remind them, “Hey, this is still is valuable and legitimate.” Obviously, even within the first week, I forgot what the number is, but isn’t it like 5% of your followers see any of your individual tweets?
Mike: That’s not a per day basis, I think.
Rob: Yeah. One approach is to, as we’ve said in the past, kind of have a once a day tweet this out for the first three, four, five days, so that people more people see it especially if it’s a really big piece of content. It can be worth it. You can also irritate people and they’ll unfollow you if you’re just spamming them with the same links over and over. You have to use your head here, like any other strategy, but this is definitely something I’ve seen marketers are doing.
Mike: It’s offshoot is that is to share a short video on Twitter, Facebook, whether it’s Facebook groups or one of your Facebook page or inside of LinkedIn. The idea of the short video is to more or less give a very quick overview or summary of what the piece of content you have is not to talk about the entire content. It’s not that you’re trying to drive people to watch the video. What you’re really just trying to do is help get those people who prefer a different medium. Some people like to skim things and read it, and then there’s people out there who like to watch a video. But you also don’t want to overwhelm them with, “Oh, I just popped on to Twitter and I’m expecting to be here for a couple of minutes.” They’re not going to have time for a 30-minute video. But they may sit down and watch a 30-second video or a 15-second video that just talks about like, “Hey, if you’re interested in this, come over and check it out.” You just want to be sensitive to the fact that some people like to consume that information in different formats. The other nice benefit of sharing it like that is that you tend to get the videos will be shared on Twitter, on Facebook, and LinkedIn as your face and there’s a very different type of algorithms that those companies use in order to highlight those types of posts.
Rob: Another approach is to syndicate your content on LinkedIn, Medium, and other avenues. Syndication is just a fancy word for either reposted there or taking excerpt from it and repost there. You can imagine if you’ve written this 100-page e-book, the definitive guide to social media marketing or email marketing or whatever, you don’t post that whole thing on LinkedIn. But maybe you take, because you can put LinkedIn kind of blog post-ish, you take a really great 1000-words from that, and you post it on LinkedIn and then you link out the book.
You can do same with Medium although you can go longer form there. You can post an entire chapter from that book, so maybe you do 5000, 3000, 5000-words on Medium. Again, say, “This is an excerpt from this book.” Or if it’s a video, maybe you’d do a transcript part of.
These are ways that if you have built a following, or if you think that those networks with be intrigued by the title and the content and stuff, then reusing this content is a nice way to reuse that effort because if you spent a month or two writing this e-book or making this amazing tutorial video or whatever, you want to get it out in as many forms as possible. That’s what syndication is.
Mike: The next section we’re going to talk about is email marketing. Many of these, I think, are probably going to be pretty familiar to most people listening to this, but we’re going to go through them anyway because this is kind of a major section of the, as Rob talked about the trifecta here of content marketing.
The first one is sending out the links to it through your email list. One thing you definitely want to make sure that you’re doing here is you’re putting calls to action in there. I have mixed feeling on whether or not you should post the entire piece of content in the email versus having it on your website. Because there’s advantages and disadvantages to both. I think you just need to make a judgement call about whether you want it on your website where people can go to it versus, you’re just trying to make sure that you get it in front of people on your email list. If it’s something that you want exclusively for people on your mailing list, obviously, you’d put it in there. But people also have a somewhat limited attention span if it comes to something in their email. I do think it’s worth being cautious and making some measurements around, “Are people actually reading that and then taking action on it?” But again, that’s a judgement call.
Rob: Yeah. My default rule of thumb for this is if you’re doing personal brand stuff, if it’s Patrick Mackenzie or Brennan Dunn or Rob Walling blogging, and then sending it to their list, it’s probably fine if you post the entire article in the email. Because people are engaged with you and the content is really gripping and they tend to want to—or hopefully, it’s really gripping—and they tend to want to read the whole thing and they could read it on their phone or whatever. That’s my general rule.
If you’re doing it as a business, when Dripping was sending it out or if Bluetick were sending out a post, I would probably do a teaser and a really snazzy excerpt with an image, and then say, “Click through to read the full thing.” Some people will click, and some people won’t, but it will get you traffic. The end goal there is to get traffic to your site. Hopefully, get people to share it from there, and sign-up for a trial or whatever.
Again, that’s my general rule, how I link. But I think you can certainly break those rules if you know your audience better or as you said, if you look at the numbers, it’s telling you that that’s not the best way to do it.
Mike: If you had an email course for example, a lot of times you’re going to put the course directly in the email, and you may not want that course directly on your website. You may want to reserve it just for people on your mailing list, and maybe that’s because they don’t get to the mailing list until there’s certain amount of trust gained, or maybe the purpose of that email sequence is to establish trust, and then you send them shorter emails later on with the links back to the articles. But again, as you said, there’s lots of different ways to do it.
Rob: Right. This particular point, of whether to include all the content in an email, is really only relevant for probably blog posts because if you’re putting out an e-book it’s going to be too long. If you’re putting out a video course or one video, you can’t embed that in email, you can certainly embed an image that links out somewhere. If you create any kind of downloadable content, you’re not going to be able to put that in email anyways. It’s only if you’re doing kind of the blog content engine or short essays.
Mike: As kind of an addendum to this, you can send out, “In case you missed it,” follow-up emails. Obviously, you can put those directly into the email campaigns and it works really well because I’ve seen Drip actually put this in their directive and specifically for that reason. But you get anywhere from 20%-40% lift in opens just by resending an email with a different subject line for the exact same emails. If somebody didn’t open it, you basically resend them that email.
Rob: We did that. It’s quite successful. Another tactic you can do is, let’s say you’ve put out three blog posts a week, you can recap either at the end of the week or at the end of the month, and just have a separate email that you pull up, “Hey, in case you missed it, here are all the posts from the past week or the month,” or, “Here are our top picks or the most popular five from the past month.” and it’s just one more way to reach out to the audience, provide them with additional content, and you didn’t have to produce that content. It’s just linking back to stuff that they’ve probably missed because they probably didn’t read every article.
Mike: Next on the list is you can also send those notifications directly to some of your high-value contacts. You can either do this as personal emails instead of broadcast emails or you can find people that are on your list, who may not necessarily be subscribed to a particular campaign or they’re tagged in a certain way or segmented somehow and you say, “Hey, I think that these people would be really great candidate to receive this particular piece of content.” Maybe it they opted-in to a particular lead magnet, then you would send the content to them. But it’s really about being a lot more targeted about who you’re sending it to.
Again, this is where personal emails to people can really shine just because if they do see an email coming in and it’s from your company versus from you personally, they’re probably a little less likely to treat it as, “Hey, this person took the time to really reach out to me, so I’m going to pay a little bit more attention to it.” But sometimes the emails that are coming in from a general newsletter email address, sometimes people have rules or filters set-up so that they go into a certain place. By sending it directly, a lot of times, it will bypass those defaults because they just didn’t think to set them up.
Rob: There are 50 content promotion ideas in the Orbit Media post alone, but another one that you pulled out is to notify your source of a new post. I think this is similar to doing it on social media but emailing people directly, “Hey, do you remember the article where I interviewed you for? That’s live. If you’d like to share it, it’d be great. Here’s a link.” Or, if there’s 10 people because it’s a roundup, you do the same thing. You notify them all and certainly a few people will likely help promote that for you.
Mike: If you give them a short snippet or a summary, you can also ask them to promote it to their own email list, and then you’re essentially amplifying the efforts there.
Rob: Let’s dive into SEO.
Mike: When you’re looking at SEO, obviously, what you want to do is you want to align the content of those posts with key phrases that you have pulled out after doing some keyword research. There’s a lot of different tools that you can use for that. We’ve talked about them in the past. But the other thing that you can do is when you take that phrase and you plug it into Google, scroll all the way to the bottom, and there’s a place where it says, “Related phrases.” Those are things that Google also recognizes that people are searching for. It doesn’t tell you numbers or how many people are searching for them but there’s a good chance that if you were to take those and put them into the article and sprinkle them around, you’re also going to pick up additional SEO benefit and additional traffic by using those phrases and it’s going to end up in front of more people.
Rob: SEO is such a–it’s a large and ever more complex subject than eight years ago, we could probably give you the five things you have to do to rank. These days, the list is just longer and longer and it’s more complicated. I don’t think we can do a full treatment of, “How to SEO your blog post or your e-books.” It’s probably, not only an entire podcast, but at this point, probably an entire e-book or book. You need a way to get it down.
But another tactic is to crosslink from other posts you have or other resources or other websites you have because obviously, while links are slightly less valuable than they used to be, you could just build links in the old days and rank for everything, links are still very valuable especially from authority sites. If you have control of an authority site or authority sites, you can crosslink from relevant posts or relevant sites and help that new content rank higher in Google.
Mike: Previously, you had mentioned that you can create a short video and post it on various social media sites, you can also use the video there to embed into the website itself just to give people the top of a brief intro to what they’re going to be reading about. The nice benefit is that when people are doing searches inside of Google, they have a tendency to show videos very, very high up in the list because most people aren’t creating videos that they’re using directly for content. They’re really trying to push people in that direction. I do see a lot of videos get posted or show up in the search results even though I’m not personally looking specifically for videos, but there is a significant benefit that I’ve seen for posts that included video in them.
Rob: Of course, they’re submitting to the–there are social platforms, there is Reddit, Hacker News, Product Hunt, even Digg, although I’m not sure that’s worth doing at this point. You and I were just looking at it before this episode, but those are the things and that whole list shifts based on what your content is and who your content is. You can also do paid promotion on StumbleUpon, Outbrain, LinkWithin, Tabula, they’re often lower quality and they’re more consumer-oriented and its people just kind of skipping from one thing to the next, so if you’re a true B2B enterprise SaaS, it’s probably not worth doing any of these. I would look more at LinkedIn paid promotion or something like that. But there’s this whole world of both these social new platform, social discovery platforms, and these kinds of paid ways to get in front of them. Getting on those, if you can get a backlink, if you can get voted up, it will help in the short-term with the social media bump because more people know about it, but then in the longer term, it’s going to link back to you.
With that, I think we’re wrapped up for the day.
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In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about how to rank number one for a high-volume organic keyword in under 3 months. Based on a case study posted by Moz.com, the guys give their opinions on the eight steps listed in the blog post.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I discuss how to rank number 1 for a high volume organic key word in under 3 months. This is Startups for the Rest of Us, episode 338. Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products, whether you’ve built your 1st product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: And we’re going to share our experience to help you avoid the same mistakes we made. What’s the word this week, sir?
Mike: Well, I’m spending most of my time these days working on support issues and as I on board people more often, what I’m finding more often is that there’s certain usability issues that keep coming up and I have to keep going back and either help people get through them and then go see what it takes to fix them or just kind of implement the work arounds for them. Then on the other side of it is fixing some outright bugs that I found, which were not obvious. Most of them are just little things like
Mike: sorting issues or stuff like that that’s just affecting the UI, but it’s going pretty well so far. Kind of exciting I guess.
Rob: Yeah. There’s 2 sides to this, right? It’s like, on the 1 hand, you don’t want to be spending time working on this stuff and trying to work out kinks and improving usability and all that stuff because you just wish it was done. But on the flip side, you know that these are problems that, at scale, are going to be even worse, right? At 50, 100 or 1,000 users, you need to fix them now. There’s that needing to invest the time, but also it feeling really productive, you know? I don’t know. Like you’re ironing out the rough burs, the rough edges of the product and just smoothing it out over time. I think that this is where you want to be, right? You don’t want to be where you were whatever, 6 months ago and you have 0 customers and is there people using it? It’s like, you don’t know what you should be working on technically. You know? You’re kind of flailing around and it’s like, now there’s people using it and it’s probably pretty obvious what you should be fixing at what point in time.
Mike: Yeah. As you quoted, like the rough edges. That’s kind of what I’m spending part of my time on and then figuring out how to fix it. It’s 1 thing to know what is busted and where you need to spend your time, but it’s another to figure out how to do it, so that it’s clearer. Obviously, you wouldn’t design a product that you thought was confusing, but at the same time, when other people get in there and use it, they weren’t inside your head when you designed it. They don’t have the same perspective.
Rob: On my end, this actually is a pretty good week for us. We turned the corner on some scaling challenges that we’d been working on for well, I mean we’ve been working on them for years. You know? They just come back every 6 months. You get just enough ahead of them that you scale up again and then they rear their ugly head. Every time we, I don’t know. Maybe it’s 2 to 3 X, the user base, we see stuff again. In the early days like, well just add an index to the database or add more hardware. But you hit a point where you kind of start exceeding the physical bounds of a single database. You know? You’ll
Rob: get a quarter or a half terabyte of RAM and disc IOPS through the roof and it’s expensive. You still just, it isn’t making enough of a difference. We’ve had to circle back and we attack it from a bunch of different directions. We’ve re architected some things. We’ve actually piped some new relic stuff that allows us to really see some detailed traces and we’re seeing, you know? There are some query issues, but there’s also code issues that creep in as you write more stuff where you’re doing N plus 1 queries, in essence. So, we’ve just started to see those creep in and as we’ve been pulling them out, we’re seeing these incremental bumps. We’ve pushed like, 3 or 4 developers pushed 7 different performance improvements over the past maybe, there was a week where we did 7. Then this week, we’ve probably done 3 or 4. It just little by little, it is just making the throughput so much higher, so much faster. We’re sending between 2 and 4 times the volume of email right now than we were even 3 or 4 weeks ago. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it that way. It was
Rob: a bit of work to get there, but once this stuff started rolling, it really made a big difference.
Mike: Yeah, it’s funny you mention performance improvements and that. I just rolled one out this week where people can go through and they can identify who has sent them emails and who they’ve received emails from and how many of those in each direction. There was a performance issue earlier where it was just a little bit slower than it should have been and it wasn’t returning all results because there were so many. Just pushed out a fix this week where it’s lightning fast now. It’s amazing how much better the experience of the app is just from those little improvements.
Rob: Yeah. It’s super cool. Sometimes it’s noticeable by users and other times it’s not, but you know that even if users aren’t noticing yet that it’s eventually going to catch up with you. It’s nice to get that done. I remember the days where we’d have a customer with 3 or 400,000 emails in their account. They’d do a big send and we’d be like, man we can totally handle this, but as long as another big sender doesn’t send at the same time. Now it’s just common place. I mean, for 3 lists of 3 to
Rob: 500,000 to send within minutes of each other. We’ve gotten to the point now where it’s like, we can hammer through that stuff. It really is just like climbing that mountain and doing things that you never think you’re going to have to do. Denormalizing databases, starting to shard things. Right now considering stripping a table out and literally putting it into a different kind of data store. I mean, just crazy stuff you would never architect from the start when you’re building an app. It would be gold plating when you don’t have any users, but when you do hit scale and you have tens of thousands of people using your app, it is necessary.
Mike: Yeah. I was talking to somebody. I think it was Help Scout at Micro Conf and he was asking me about how some of the back end stuff of Blue Tick was done and I didn’t tell him because it just didn’t occur to me, but the back end data store for the mail, I rewrote it 4 times over the course of 8 months just because it needed to go bigger and faster and it just wasn’t doing it at the time.
Rob: Yeah. It’s crazy how the stuff that you need to do in order to make it work from an engineering prospective, you wouldn’t ever want to do because you’re like, I want to have referential integrity on these things. At some point, you realize that
Rob: speed trumps that.
Mike: Yeah. We interviewed a [UNKNOWN] architect this week. We have an open position for that right now to just help handle this because we’re trying to build the product and it just really is a completely separate discipline of being able to scale things to this level. One thing he brought up, which I hadn’t heard of, but as soon as he said it, it made sense. He brought up CAP theorem. C A P. C is consistency. A is availability and P is performance and you get to pick 2. He said, in most databases or most apps, you go for C and P and your availability is 99 point whatever percent and it’s fine because if you were to go down for like, an hour, it’s not catastrophic. But if you pick the other 2, it’s just trade offs, but he said at a certain point, once you scale, there’s a bunch of big companies in town, like Target and Best Buy who run these massive e commerce sites and he was saying once you scale one of those sites, you have to give up some consistency. You have to have availability because it’s millions of dollars per hour and you have to have performance because obviously being slow is costing money.
Mike: So, you give up consistency and you have to dealing with that. You have to start writing code and you have to start thinking about what happens when it all doesn’t sync up? There isn’t referential integrity in this certain instance and data consistency in the reports are just not going to be exactly matched across everything. It’s pretty fascinating. Today we’re going to talk about how to rank number 1 for high volume organic key word under 3 months and this is based on an article on moz.com, actually on their blog. It’s a case study that Pipe Drive co wrote with Moz and it was the former Director of Content Marketing at Pipe Drive is where the case study took place. This article is detailed. It’s very long. We actually won’t be able to cover in depth every step, but there are 8 steps that they talk about and we, at a minimum will cover the 8 steps and then go into as much detail as we can, given the time constraints. Then you, of course can come to the show notes at startupsfortherestofus.com. This is episode 338 and click on the link if you want to read the entire article. This thing,
Mike: I didn’t do a word count, but it’s got to be like 4 or 5,000 words. Pretty cool. The article starts by outlining the 8 steps and we’ll go through those 1 at a time. They talk about how much more difficult SEO has gotten and that SEO these days is much more about content and content marketing, whereas it used to be more about just straight up link building and it was a lot easier to game and Google has done a really good job of essentially closing those loopholes, much to the chagrin of a lot of marketers I know. Let’s dive right in with these 8 steps. They basically said they got a top search engine ranking position, which is a SERP spot. It was a focus of a 3 person team for a better part of 3 months to get this. It’s pretty crazy. They invested a lot of energy in it. Step 1 is to find a good topic, one that has significant key word volume and he goes right into the Google key word planner where he said when they ran the search, they picked a key word with 9,900 searches per month and we’ll go into why that’s enough later on. Now, the key word planner doesn’t even get you that close. It gives
Mike: you like, 1 to 10 K range, which is like, horrendously helpful. He said the same key word, how to search volume of 1 point 7 to 2 point 9 K in the Moz key word explorer in case you have a Moz account. They give you tools to help do this kind of stuff to help rank for key words. He looked at a chart that Moz had published and they said that if you ranked 1st for a term, you’re likely to get, it was like 30 or 32 percent of the clicks. If you rank 2nd, it’s about 14 percent and if you’re a 3rd, it’s about 10 percent. They figured that if they can rank 1st for this 9,900 search term, they would get around 3,000 visitors a month for a top position. If they could convert 5 percent into leads, which I’m assuming they are trying to email capture. I’m assuming they’re thinking about that. That would net them 1,800 leads a year, which they said it would justify the time. That’s kind of the 1st part of the 1st step of finding a good topic, is to make sure there’s enough volume that if you rank 1st,
Mike: given whatever it is you’re email capturing or trial rate or whatever it is you think you can do that it’s going to be justified time wise and financially.
Rob: I think the thing I take away from this, in selecting the right topic is more about doing the back of the envelope calculations to figure out what you should be going after based on what your return on that is going to be and it’s not so much about a specific raw number that you’re going for in terms of the search volume. It’s more about how many of those people you can convert to leads because if you’re conversion rate is higher than other peoples based on your content, then target search terms that have lower search volume because they’re going to be worth just as much or more to you than they would be to somebody else, assuming that you can convert them better. I kind of like that idea of starting from this side of it and not focus in solely on, what should we focus on for content or what should our ad line be or anything like that? It’s really about what your ROI is going to be on that.
Mike: Continuing with step 1, which was finding a good topic, the 2nd thing they looked at was to pick a winnable topic. This is actually where Moz is really handy. They said for example, if you’re trying for content marketing,
Mike: the 1st page is dominated by the Content Marketing Institute and they have a domain authority of 84 and that is very high. It’s a scale of 1 to 100. What they did is they looked at Moz Bar, which is just like a Chrome plug in and you can check domain authority and page authority on the fly. It overlays them in Google. There’s a screen shot of it here in the post. They looked at a bunch of different key words that had search volumes between, I think it was like, at least 3 to 10,000. That’s kind of where they were thinking. They were searching for like, sales management. They were using page authorities in the 30’s and 40’s. Domain authorities, there was 40’s, 70’s, 30’s and 20’s. Given that some of these 20’s and 30’s, they knew that they could kind of get in and then they used Moz key word explorer to look at the actual difficulty versus the potential scores. Then they kind of outlined some loose ranges. You want your opportunity to be above 50 and your potential to be above a certain amount. There’s obviously a bunch of different ways to do this. I have always used Moz for
Mike: this kind of stuff. I know there are other tools that do it, but their data is solid and they’ve been around a long time. At this point, they wound up with 4 key words. Sales techniques, sales process, sales management and sales forecast. One of them has 4,400 searches and then it goes up to in the 8’s and 9,000’s and they said any of the above would work for them, but for added impact, they added a 3rd and final filter to help them pick the key word and that is strategic relevance. If you’re going to turn your visitors into leads, they say it’s important to focus on key words that are strategically relevant to your conversion goals, and in their case, sales management is the optimal key word because Pipe Drive is a sales management tool. It described them perfectly. In contrast, sales techniques and sales forecast are key words a salesperson would search for, not a sales leader or a small business owner who would be a decision maker to decide to buy Pipe Drive. It’s pretty in depth here, but it’s something to think about, right? If you see a key word with low difficulty and high search throughput you think you can rank for, it may not actually
Mike: be that helpful, right? If it’s not strategically relevant to your business.
Rob: I like the fact that they point out in the article that you’re looking for a competitive score of under 50 and a potential or opportunity score of above 50. I don’t know if that side of it is so important to me or at least it wasn’t when I started out, but knowing that under a score of 50 for difficulty is a lot easier to rank for and it is possible to get it than going over that. I mean, even trying for things that are in the 50’s or 60’s, those can be very, very difficult to get, especially if you’re going against certain types of companies, trying to rank against them for those terms can be really, really hard, but anything below 50 is not actually all that difficult to do, especially if you are kind of limited in the amount of time that you can spend on it in your budget, those things are definitely attainable for the average person.
Mike: Step 2 is to write a bad ass piece of content. That’s the words they use in the article. Theirs is broken up into multiple parts. The 1st is extremely thorough research of the
Mike: existing ones that rank in the top and they kind of look through them and figured out what works, what doesn’t, what are they like both from a reader’s perspective and with an SEO eye in mind? When the pages had way too many headlines, it was over key word stuffed, basically. Then they looked for anomalies and 1 thing that caught their eye was 2 of the top 10 results were dedicated to the key word sales manager, so they realized all right, we know that we’re going to want to talk about at least sales managers in our article. Then this was 1 I hadn’t seen before. I went all the way down to the bottom of the SERPs and there’s a related searches thing that Google puts there. They looked through for those terms and they realized we probably want to include some of these in there. Part 2 of this, of writing the piece of content is the actual content creation. They say you don’t need to be a subject matter expert, but if you do a lot of research, you can put something together and they go through some steps on how to write, I don’t think it’s super relevant here, but it’s like, don’t multitask and work alone and put on some play lists and such.
Mike: Personally, I like Spotify’s Deep Focus. They have a different one. Then they talk about going through and adding images and adding headers, subsections and all that. That really caps out step 2. As I said, they go into more detail, but it’s almost like its own little article on just how to write a decent piece of content.
Rob: Yeah. The 1 piece that I took away from this is paying attention to the part at the bottom where it says, searches related to, in this case, it was sales management and you can use those for kind of off shoots. If you want to create dedicated pages for each of those. In this case, they’ve got objectives of sales management and sales management PDFs. Those are the types of things you could target as a secondary page with a different article and trying to drive related traffic to those pages as well. I think that’s a perfectly vital strategy, especially when it comes to things like where people are searching for PDFs and you can give them a PDF of, like a template or something like that. Lots of people have used that strategy where it’s like they drive people to that page
Rob: using SEO because they’re specifically looking for something that they can download. You give it to them in exchange for an email address and that’s one way to drive up the level of your email list.
Mike: Step 3 is to optimize on page SEO and engagement metrics. This is the steps they took to optimize the on page SEO. Number 1 is to fix the title. They wanted traffic from people searching for words related to sales management, such as sales management definition, sales management process, sales management strategies, sales management resources and so, their headline, their title and their H1 tag is Sales Management Definition, Process, Strategies and Resources. So, they covered them all right there in the headline. It says Google is now smart enough to know that a single article can cover multiple related key words. The common [UNKNOWN] to the list, they said should work for them.
Rob: I wonder how long it is before Google realizes that people are key word stuffing into headlines now.
Mike: I know. Well, it’s interesting because if that’s all you’re doing, it’s not going to work. You know? It’s all this other stuff they did that then propels that to work. You know?
Mike: It’s writing this massive piece of content, spending months doing all this optimization. So, part 2 of that is to fix section headings. One example is instead of writing Sales Management Definition as a header, they actually wrote the header as, it’s a sub heading, but it is, So, What is Sales Management, question mark. It’s an actual question a reader might ask. 1, it makes the article easier and better to read, but 2, it’s a natural question, which makes it more likely to rank for voice searches and for Google’s answer. This is good stuff. They also peppered related key words in the headers throughout the article. Later on, they realize they key word stuffed, basically. They actually go back and roll this back a bit. Then the 3rd step was to improve content engagement, like they have colons and line breaks and internal links and outgoing links. They just make things kind of easier to skim and easier to read. The 4th thing, I had heard this as kind of a rumor that this might exist in the Google algorithm, is to shorten the URL. There’s this graph they include where the longer your URL,
Mike: the less likely you are to rank for number 1. It’s fascinating. They have these really long blog URLs. They just shorten this way down. They essentially just have sales dash management, aside from the date in the URL. Then they improve the key word density. Obviously including the key word in the 1st hundred words of your content is kind of a well known thing, but then they talk about going through it and adding a glossary at the bottom, so they can include a few more key words. They do point out how important it is to make these as organic as possible because otherwise, it looks and feels like key word stuffing and Google and users are pretty smart about this stuff. They said, as a result of the on page key word optimization that their traffic went up and they have a screen shot of 19,000 page views. As they say, we over optimize key word density in the beginning, which slightly hurt rankings, but once we stopped this, we changed things around and saw an immediate improvement. We’ll get to that in a step or 2 later. They don’t show that 19,000 page views, they don’t show what the time frame is on that, but they did indicate
Mike: that this definitely had a positive impact on the post.
Rob: You know, I do wonder if adding, what is blank and adding in the key word is something that Google specifically looks for. The reason I think that is, or at least I kind of have an inkling of that is when I was doing Audit Shark, I had a bunch of pages that said, what is blank. So, for example, what is compliance management and if you would look around for compliance just in general, then that’s a very difficult thing to rank for just because there is all these different compliance institutions and it’s government regulations and it’s really difficult to rank against those, but if you go out and search for, what is compliance management, Audit Shark’s website actually ranks higher than the fdic.gov website for, what is compliance management system.
Mike: That’s crazy. Should you sell that? You should sell it to the FDIC. Hey guys. I have this site that ranks above you.
Rob: Right. But I wonder if that is something that specifically Google looks for. What is blank and whatever that key word is.
Mike: Yep. Totally. I would totally imagine that’s part of it, I think. More and more of these voice searches are happening in the Google answer stuff. I think it’s become more common for people to search like that as it has worked better. So, step 4 is to build internal links to the article and that means linking to this article from other articles that you have. It talks about how Google bot discovers your content by crawling your links and it also tells Google that this page is important if a lot of your pages link to it. You don’t want to just put a link in a header or footer. You actually want to link from individual pages in your site and kind of pick the right key words to link through. You look for high traffic. You look for high page authority and then they have a kind of site colon search you can do on your own website to find these key words that you want to use that appear in your other posts. You can link them out. This gives you just that basis of page authority on this new article.
Mike: Step 5 is stepping out and finding external link targets, meaning external links that will target you.
Rob: So, just to kind of clarify what Robert said, this is a little bit different than putting a footer on your website and having pages that you basically put a site map in place. This is specifically looking through your site where you refer to these terms whether it’s in your blog posts or in different articles or white paper pages, point those back to the page that you’re trying to rank for. It’s very slightly different, but it kind of achieves the same thing. It gets those internal links back and forth inside of your website.
Mike: And as I said, step 5 is finding external websites to link to this new article and they outline using open site explorer, which is a Moz thing, I think. They allow you to crawl the top 10 search results for this term and look at those back links. They dug through a few pages of that, built up a list of a few hundred prospect websites they thought might link to it and it’s a very raw list. Then they
Mike: only look at domain authority above 30. They eliminated sites that are free hosts, like BlogSpot and wordpress.com and put it in an Excel file. Then they go through finding the email addresses for people on these sites. They used Email Hunter, which is at hunter.io and they did their outreach. They don’t go through specifically what text they use or whatever. This is kind of a slog, right? It’s called outreach and I’m sure that most people, because I get these emails and I just delete them. But I think if you have a compelling case, apparently whether it’s the Pipe Drive name or whether it’s their approach, they said they just outreached like crazy. They used tools like, you could use one of these tools like Mix Max or Lead IQ or Tout, Perspectify. I suppose you could use Blue Tick as well. DO you allow outreach like this?
Rob: Yeah, it is because it’s going out through your own email server, so you could use that. I was actually going to recommend Links Spy, which is linksspy.com from Christoph Engelhard, who has [UNKNOWN] several times and been our scribe on a number of occasions and taken copious notes.
Rob: So, I would probably point to that instead.
Mike: Instead of open site explorer, right? Because Links Spy views your competitor’s back links.
Rob: Yes, it does. You could use it in conjunction with it as well, but Link Spy also has the built in capabilities to reach out to people who have those other sites, so you could use it to do that outreach step.
Mike: Yep. I’m glad you pointed that out. I remember him building that in. I think he has like, boiler plate templates and everything to make it super simple.
Rob: Yep. All the templates and stuff are there already.
Mike: Awesome. This whole outreach step, I’m actually going to skip. I’m going to say you can look at it if you like or you should just go use linksspy.com. That’s links with an S at the end, and then another S for spy. Step 7 of 8 is, they say be prepared to guest post. Guest posting and then when you guest post, you can link back to, within the content of your guest post you can link back to this article. I was doing a ton of guest posting with the aid of the growth marketer, Zack that I’d hired at Drip and it was doing stuff for us. It was sending traffic.
Mike: Traffic that converted. It was also building up some SEO juice in our blog and guest posting is most certainly not dead. I know at one point, Google said they were going to start penalizing guest posters, but high quality posts on high quality domains, we have never seen any negative repercussions from all of that.
Rob: Yeah. I’m not sure how they would really find out, other than a manual review that it was done by somebody else. It just seems kind of crazy. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Google has got some really smart people that are way smarter than I am.
Rob: Yeah. I don’t know how you would do that at scale.
Mike: I think it’s like byline stuff, right? You can say, this post was written by blah or this was a guest article, this was a guest post. There tends to be certain phrases that are used. They use machine learning. They’re like, translating languages to hundreds of crazy, exotic other languages. I feel like this is a pretty solvable problem using technology like that.
Rob: All right. Well, let’s leave our idiocy in the dust and go on to step 8.
Mike: Totally. The 8th and final step is something I’d never heard of. They say fine tuning content with TF IDF. TF dash IDF, and it is Term Frequency dash Inverse Document Frequency. I won’t really go into what that means here, but basically it’s a way to analyze a document to figure out, what are the important terms based on how many times they’re used and in what context. They just simply counted up the number of times that sales management occurred in their article. They said it occurred 48 times and their article was 2,500 words and they thought that was just way too much. They hypothesized that they were actually being, not penalized, but they weren’t ranking as high as they should because they looked like they were key word stuffing. They backed it off to 20 and they replaced it with terms that have high lexical relevance to sales management, but were not the exact phrase, sales management. They said that it
Mike: bumped them up. Their organic page views went from 0 when they started, to over 5,000 in just over 8 months. So, they ranked number 1 for the term in 3, I guess based on the headline of the article and then got these 5,000 recurring page views in 8 months.
Rob: I think if you’re trying to be objective about this, it’s a little difficult to take every single piece of this at face value when it walks through and says this is what we did and this is exactly what happened because there’s so many factors that come into play. Over the course of 8 months, there’s a lot of different things that can happen. Even though they backed off the number of times that sales management came in to the article at a certain time and yes, the search volume went up after that, but it is hard to say that’s exactly why because if you look at the graph that they show, it went up for 2 months and then it went down. Then it kind of meandered a little bit and then it went back up. You know? Over that time period, lots of different things can happen and a lot of them are just
Rob: completely out of your control. You don’t have any control over the rest of the internet. It’s hard to say definitively like, hey we did X and Y happened, but there’s certainly correlations that you can make between them to say this is the general direction that we wanted things to go. These are the things we did and yes, it went that way. But you can’t put a velocity on those things or a hard metric on every single one of these things.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, that’s SEO. That’s been organic SEO since it became a thing. It’s gotten a lot harder over time. It used to be easier to gain, but you’re right. There is no way to know that this specific change actually did this or was it just coincidentally just something else? You know? So much of it is correlation and if you do it enough times and you can say I’m confident that it’s causation until Google does their next update. But yeah, you’re never going to know for sure, which is tough. That said, there are these best practices. I mean, there’s a lot of things in this article as I read through that I thought yes, that’s what I would do. That’s what I would do. Then there were a bunch of things that were, I kind of called them out. I was like,
Mike: I hadn’t heard this, but this must be kind of a newer thing. I haven’t been knee deep in SEO for, I mean it was 2 or 3 years ago. I was doing it for Drip. It was a couple years before that, I did it for Hit Tail and I tend to do it in little bursts of, I get up to speed and do it, make a bunch of decisions and then kind of move away and work on the product, but people like this who are literally doing it full time, they’re going to always have, doing so many experiments that they’re going to be kind of at the bleeding edge of these tactics. I think there’s something to be said here, like yeah. You could game Google and you could try to get a piece of crap article up to the top of the results, but it’s like, I’ve always felt like we should all be trying to make the internet a better place. Even when I have used SEO and I’ve optimized to get there, I always thought my content was amazing. Like, it was really high quality content. I would either write it myself or pay a lot of money to have a good writer do it. I feel like if you’re trying to push crap to the top of the results, don’t bother. Don’t do it. It actually makes us all, it makes the results crappy, right?
Mike: Then it makes the internet a worse place to be. I guess that’s kind of my recommendation. There’s certain people that say you shouldn’t do SEO at all because it just pollutes the internet and I believe that you can do SEO, but in an ethical and high quality way.
Rob: Yeah. That’s not really any different than how some people view marketing. I don’t want to do marketing because it feels sleazy or I don’t want to do sales because it feels scummy and SEO is exactly the same way. I mean, you kind of have to do some level of marketing in order to get your product out there. There’s wrong ways to do it and there’s right ways to do it. This article outlines a mechanism that works so long as you have content that is appropriate to be promoted. That’s it. I think we’ll wrap it up today. If you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number at 1 888 801 9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt of We’re out of Control, by Moot used under creative comments. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike interviews Dave Collins, SEO and internet marketing expert about Google’s new search results. They discuss how these recent changes will affect small business owners and what you should be doing to stay up to date.
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Mike [00:000]: In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, I’m going to be talking to Dave Collins about how Google’s new search results will affect you. This is Startups For The Rest Of Us episode 279.
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products. Whether you built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Dave [00:25]: I’m Dave.
Mike [00:26]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How’re you doing this week, Dave?
Dave [00:30]: Hi. I’m fantastic. Thank you, Mike. How are you?
Mike [00:33]: I’m good, good. So I want to give you a quick introduction everybody. If you’re not familiar with who Dave Collins is, Dave is a SEO and Internet Marketing expert from Software Promotions, and he’s a frequent MicroCom speaker. He’s been doing this since 1997 or so?
Dave [00:48]: Yeah.
Mike [00:48]: Which is a really long time. I think I was still in college, and probably many of our listeners had not even gotten to college yet. So just to make you feel old there.
Dave [00:56]: Thanks very much.
Mike [00:57]: So I guess to get started with, let’s take a little bit of a step back and talk about some of the recent changes that have come up that Google has pushed out. First of all, why does it feel like everything is always changing in the world of SEO?
Dave [1:09]: So really it depends on who you ask. Every SEO question, that’s how the answers always start, so we can’t be proven wrong. But everything’s changed. It’s very, very fluid. Google has to keep moving and redefining the goal post.
It depends how cynical you are. Personally, I believe that Google keep changing everything, basically to provide their users with the best experience. But this isn’t with their interest in mind. It’s perverse. It’s with their interest in mind. As in, if every time we go to Google we don’t find what we’re looking for, there’s a limited number of searches that we can carry out before we start thinking about looking at Yahoo or Bing or DuckDuckGo or wherever. So there’s this constant cat and mouse game, in a way, between the people who are trying to trick Google, and the people who’re trying to manipulate the results, and Google who absolutely don’t want to be manipulated.
Mike [02:05]: I can’t imagine anybody trying to manipulate the Google search engine results.
Dave [02:09]: No, must be some sort of, I don’t know, science fiction type of thing, but there’s nothing to gain. Why on earth would someone want to do that?
Mike [02:16]: Right. So let’s talk about a little bit of recent history. What’s happened over the past couple of years? Obviously there’s been various updates. Most of them have been named like Panda, and things like that, that have come out, and for the most part, it seemed like these changes were good. It seemed like what they were trying to do was they were trying to identify the people who were trying to game the results, and modify things such that they would get rid of those people, or at least remove those people from the search engine results by identifying them in certain ways. Clearly they mishandled some of that, and there were certain people who got dropped completely, and then got added back in after some complaints and everything. But they at least had some basic ideas of what it is that they were trying to accomplish. What else has gone on recently that we need to be looking at?
Dave [02:58]: The trend. It all goes back, in a sense, is cat and mouse. That in a sense, days gone by, Google more or less came up publicly and said, “One of the ranking factors that we take into consideration might, for example, be how many websites link to you.” So all these scammy SEOs all over the world got very excited. A whole industry was born, and up to a point it’s still running, of products and services that will simply get you links.
So then Google changed the rules a little bit and said, “Well, actually, it’s not all links. It’s more about the quality of links.” But people didn’t listen. So then, they effectively said, “Okay, if you have too many really horrific links pointing to you, we’re going to penalize you. We’re going to slap you. And it hurts.”
So this game is constant and ongoing. People have a theory, “This makes a difference. Doing X results in an increase in traffic.” Everyone does it. Google stamped down on it. So they’ve stamped down on links. They’ve stamped down perversely on over-optimization. So depending on how you look at SEO, I looked at it as helping Google understand the content of your website. So if you do too much of helping Google to understand your content, you get penalized for it. And yeah, it’s ongoing. But the most recent of all is what we’ve seen in the last week or so with the total change with what’s happened to the ads on the right-hand side of the search results.
Mike [04:27]: So really, what we’re talking about is this giant cat and mouse game between people who are trying to game the system, and Google, and the rest of us who are caught in the middle of it, where there’s a lot of us who aren’t necessarily trying to game those search results, but because we’re caught in the middle we’re affected by them. So it seems to me that that’s part of the reason why Google is doing this. It’s not to directly hurt us or help us. It’s because they want to make the search results better, and they’re trying to basically fight these types of people who’re doing these gray hat or black hat strategies that they are not comfortable with and they don’t like. Are there any other reasons that they’re doing it?
Dave [05:03]: Well, all things lead back to profit when it comes to Google, which will surprise absolutely no one. So there are two things they’re trying to do. They’re trying to give us better results, which in turn feeds that profit. And they’re also trying to make more money out of people who are clicking on the ads, which is obviously where most of their revenue comes from.
But you touched on a really, really important point. That this whole idea of collateral damage, that you today don’t need to have done anything horrible black hat to get hit by one of these penalties. Like I said, Google redefined the rules of what’s good and bad. They don’t just move the goal post. They completely, sometimes, make them invisible and put them in different ends of this stadium. But you don’t need to have done anything wrong to get slapped. It’s just that, a, you might have inadvertently done something that Google have now decided, after the fact, is not a good thing. Or you might actually just be collateral damage. You’re caught up in it, and you’ve not actually done anything wrong, but Google have decided for whatever reason, you fall foul of their invisible unknown rules, and you take a hit, and it can be devastating.
Mike [06:10]: There’s a term that gets thrown around a little bit called, “The Google Slap,” which is essentially, somebody looks at your site and says, “We’re going to basically ban you from Google search results.” Is that different than this type of collateral damage that we’re talking about, where they’ve just changed the rules and you happen to be affected by them, versus they went in and they said, “We’re taking you out”?
Dave [06:30]: Yeah, there’s very much a difference. What they both have in common is when you see that your Google organic traffic has fallen from 120, 150 a day to 1 or 2 a day, irrespective which rule you’ve broken, or which type of penalty you’re experiencing, it feels the same. But they are very different. So in your Google Search Console – what used to be Google Webmaster Tools – you can see a “manual penalty”. And that’s exactly as the name implies. If Google have decided, for whatever reason, for instance, you have far too many horrible links of low quality this or that purely to manipulate them, they’ll apply a manual penalty, which is more or less someone in Google typing it into the Google PC – if they use a PC – and basically saying, “We don’t’ like this site. Let’s remove it from the listings.”
The other type is they change the rules, they roll out a new filter or a new algorithm, and you just fall. It’s not that they’re penalizing you, it’s just that they may have decided that your website isn’t as relevant for the people searching for these terms. So instead of, let’s say, having an average position of three or four, you’re suddenly on page two. So you’re going to plummet. But you’ve not actually been hit by a penalty, but you are very much a victim of these changes.
Mike [07:49]: So how much of this is based on their own self-interest, versus them wanting to help people be recognized for providing good content and providing great links out to the community?
Dave [08:01]: So, in a way, it all goes back to the same place. If Google provide you with a good user experience that means you’re going to continue using Google, which means that you’re going to click on some of these ads and they’re going to make more money. So they’re all very much interchangeable. But nowhere have I ever heard anyone from a senior position in Google saying that in some way they’re motivated, or driven, by the desire or the wish to make the world a better place. I’m not sure. I think Reddit used to have some sort of goal about making the world a better place, or making the world less sucky – something like that.
So Google’s great aspirational goal was – in days gone by – “Don’t be evil.”, or “Do no evil.” I can’t remember the exact wording.
Mike [08:45]: It was, “Don’t be evil.”
Dave [08:46]: “Don’t be evil.”
Mike [08:46]: They don’t still subscribe to that is what you’re saying?
Dave [08:48]: Well, it seems to have vanished. It’s a big company. There’s a lot of data, and it’s quite tricky to find references nowadays. But I’ve always thought of all the goals to set yourself, I have all sorts of personal and professional goals. And actually a little bit of me wants to make the world a very slightly better place by raising my children to be nice, good people with good values. But having a goal to do no evil, don’t be evil, what is that? They’ve drawn a line between bad, very bad, and evil. So they can do something bad, or they can even do something very, very, very bad. But they’re not going to quite cross that line into pure evil. So as we discussed earlier, does that mean murder, an act of just killing one person? That’s very bad, but not necessarily evil.
So if that’s what you’re about, if you were at least in the early days driven by not being evil, surely they could’ve set the bar a little bit higher?
Mike [0:09:47]: You would think. You would think.
Dave [09:48]: There’s room there, isn’t there?
Mike [09:50]: I suppose yeah, you’re right. There is definitely a little bit of room there. I don’t know how much.
So with all these changes that are going on, as I said before, it seems like the people are trying to do the right things, and trying to at least pay attention and help Google and provide them some guidance around what your website is doing and how it’s laid out and things like that, but not be overly helpful, because quite frankly, most of us just don’t have that kind of time on our hands. How is it that we’re supposed to keep up with changes like this? Are there resources that we can use? I know that Mark Cutts puts a bunch of stuff out, but it’s hard to stay up on top of all of that stuff. And there’s obviously tons of different websites that you can go to that are doing nothing but constantly talking about different tactics that you can use, and different strategies. But is there any resources out there that you can use – newsletters for example – that just, kind of, distill things down a little bit for you?
Dave [10:42]: So, again, you’ve touched on a really good point that – for want for better phrase – “normal people” don’t have time for this sort of thing. And even if you do — let’s say next week as an example, you carve out three hours and you’re going to do SEO. So Monday morning 9:00 till 12:00, you’re going to do SEO. It’s written in the diary, in the calendar. Well, once you get there, the very first thing you’re going to think, most likely, is, “Where on earth do I start?” And if you go searching for what people are saying, the SEO industry has no shortage of; let’s say, “opinionated people with questionable values”. Let’s put it that way. So a lot of people are going to say a lot of things, but the signal to noise ratio is absolutely horrific.
So Google have a whole load of amazing resources. I already mentioned Google Search Console. This is free. You just set it up. It takes a minute to set up, and it’s way better than a whole lot of SEO tools that actually a lot of people pay for. Then they also have no shortage of their information and resources for webmasters. Only a month or so ago, I think, they issued their latest webmaster guidelines. Trust me, this is not a document that you want to be reading. It doesn’t help.
But there is again – I’m going to be off Google’s Christmas card list forever by the end of this – but there’s a certain level of hypocrisy, because I always feel that up to a point, Google are kind of saying, “Don’t optimize. Don’t do SEO. We’re brilliant. Our spiders and robots and our coders, developers, we are brilliant at figuring out what’s on your site.” But then they also give you some information, and it’s like every time someone from Google opens their mouth and says something -=- you mentioned Mark Cutts who’s been out of that side of Google for quite a while – but they had the Mark Cutts version too. Every time he says something everyone quotes and it goes back to that cat and mouse. People go frantically to change this, or add this add-on, or put this in their agenda, or look into the latest thing, and it doesn’t really end.
There’s some really good information out there. There’s SearchEngineLand.com, which I think they do daily email summaries. But there too, to be honest, there’s so much speculation in the world of SEO, so much, that it’s really hard to find a trusted source.
We got a newsletter called Google Demistifier. It goes out every Tuesday, only covers one topic, and we try to be completely biased, because we’re looking at a lot of data, a lot of people’s accounts, so we get a good idea for what’s out there.
But doing SEO is incredibly difficult today. It’s become a lot more complicated. It’s become more time consuming. And I think probably a fair number of people who listen to this podcast will relate to the fact it’s pretty scary doing SEO, because we have this fear of, “If we do this and Google don’t like it, what’s going to happen?” And I think that’s part of the problem for the industry, or for the area of SEO that we all face. But I do believe that nowadays we’ve got to the point where you can’t sit there and do nothing anymore. You actually have to more or less proactively start doing this, even if it’s scary.
Mike [13:57]: Now one of the things you mentioned there was the Google Search Console, which is not the same as the Webmaster Tools.
Dave [14:03]: It is the same. They just renamed it, just to confuse people a little bit.
Mike [14:08]: Because it looks completely different than the Webmaster Tool.
Dave [14:11]: They’ve done it up. You see if you log in to Webmaster Tool, it just redirects you now to Search Console.
Mike [14:18]: Oh, I see.
Dave [14:18]: They’ve done it up. It’s a seriously useful resource. It’s quite incredible the information they give you.
Mike [14:22]: Got it. Got it. Okay, because yeah, that makes a little bit more sense. Because when you do log in – I have come across that page before, and it obviously lists out a bunch of different web properties that you have, but it’s not necessarily showing you things that you have not verified through your DNS records, for example.
Dave [14:41]: Exactly. It’s not a be all and end all. But there is something so useful in there, which there’s a section in the Search Console called HTML Improvements. And ultimately, what HTML Improvements is, is Google pointing at your website and saying, “This is what we would suggest you fix on your website.” So there’s a lot of hype and there’s a lot of misleading information, but when Google basically say, “Fix these five issues on your website, because this can only help your SEO,” in my opinion, that’s worth paying attention to.
Mike [15:15]: Got it. So we’ve got things like some of the different Webmaster Tools, the Google Search Console, the newsletter that you guys have, but a couple of other resources that we just talked about – we’ll link some of those up in the show notes. So those are some of the places where a small business owner can go to at least learn some of these things. Now let’s talk about one of the main things that we really came onto the show to talk about, which was, what are some of the recent changes that they have done? What are the biggest changes that Google has made recently that is probably going to affect most of the listeners here?
Dave [15:46]: So this is something that’s happened just in the last week – very, very recent. And basically what they’ve done is they’ve taken away all the ads, all the text ads that are on the right-hand side, that were on the right-hand side. They’re gone. This is obviously on the desktop; mobile is a completely different ballgame. But on desktop, there are no longer ads on the right-hand side. Before, they were up to three ads on top, while now they have up to four ads on top. Usually it is four ads on top. And up to three at the bottom. So what this means is when you carry out search on Google, instead of seeing the standard couple of ads at the top, organic listings, and all down the side the actual paid ads, it’s totally, totally different. It looks different; it feels different. I’m actually pretty amazed, in a sense, by how little fuss has been about this. This is, in my opinion, the biggest change that I’ve seen Google roll out, ever, since possibly – maybe since introduction of AdWords. Maybe it’s even bigger than that. And it’s going to affect, not everyone, but almost everyone.
Mike [16:49]: So we’ve talked a little bit before about why Google has made some of the previous changes. Are there any specific reasons why they made this particular change?
Dave [16:57]: Well, obviously, it’s all speculation, but the only possible incentive that I can see for Google displaying four ads at the top instead of potentially no ads at the top is revenue. I can’t see any other reason whatsoever. It’s certainly not about quality of the results that are shown, because as we all know, we’ve all experienced searching something in the ads that we click on aren’t necessarily relevant to what we’re looking for. So this is not a quality update. This has to be driven, in my opinion, solely by revenue.
Mike [17:31]: So we talked a little bit before about a lot of us being collateral damage. What are the downsides to this particular change that they’ve made?
Dave [17:38]: To be honest, I don’t want to be all “doom and gloom”, but there are a lot of negatives. So what we’re now seeing is potentially 11 ads on the first page’s search results is now at best it’s 7. That’s going to have a major impact; more than half of them at the top. And it’s safe to say that, with time, those top four slots are going to start costing a lot more. But ultimately, if have an ad with an average position of eight, that’s on page two. And you can probably – it’s safe to assume most people don’t even get to page two when they’re looking for something. They refine the actual search. So that’s one thing.
The actual organic results – the SEO results, if you like – they really got pushed down. So the typical format, if you carry out search at Google, you now see four ads, you see the knowledge graph, which is effectively Google scraping websites and just pasting that information in, that can still be on the right-hand side. But quite often it’s below the ads that you have, ads knowledge graph.
And on a recent blog post that I wrote I took a screenshot of the search results for things to do in London. And you had four ads, a load of knowledge graph information, and right at the bottom – this is at pretty high resolution on my monitor – at the bottom there was one single organic listing being shown. And sure I can scroll down the page, but if I’m going to find what I’m looking for, why would I? There’s all sorts of theories out there, but ultimately no one knows what’s going to happen. But this is definitely going to have an enormous impact on SEO, and I don’t think it’s going to be positive.
I think the biggest ramification that we’re going to see is some AdWords account holders – if they’re especially with let’s say low margin products or high competition, or both – they’re going to be squeezed out. They’re going to be squeezed out by companies with budgets that actually can justify, make sense, or perhaps they’re just oblivious to how much they need to spend for these top four. And I think that’s going to hurt them quite badly.
And the other negative I can think of is I can’t see how this is actually going to be positive for the user, for the person going to Google and searching. I just can’t really see that happening.
Mike [19:55]: So it doesn’t sound like there’s any reasons for Google doing this other than basically making money. It’s not really because it was for the end user experience. It was basically because they want to make more money from this. And obviously, us as website owners, we are in an unfortunate position where Google has such power over the traffic on the Internet that there’s really just not anything that we can do about it, except just deal with the aftermath of it. We’ve talked about a lot of the downsides for us. Are there any upsides to this change that they’ve made?
Dave [20:24]: Yeah, there definitely are some positives, definitely. I think one, I think when you advertise on AdWords, you’re going to see hopefully some more meaningful and accurate average positions. So the days before these changes where you could get three ads at the top and let’s say seven or eight ads on the side, adding fourth position could be the very top at the right-hand side and that could actually sometimes be more effective than being in position one, two, or three, because you appear to be the top. So number four could most likely do better than positions two and three. So that gets a whole lot simpler, because now we know top four means exactly that. There is no right-hand side. There’s going to be better clarity there.
I also think – potentially, it’s all theory – there may be more consistency in ads as well; that they’re starting to look more familiar. Things like the side links aren’t jumping out, so that sort of evens things out a little bit.
Definitely, if your ad in position four for the most part, you’re going to be happy. Then there’s also – I should’ve mentioned this already — the other thing that could be on the right-hand side, as well as the knowledge graph – in other words the Google scrape – Google shopping ads are showing up on the right-hand side still as well. So if you’re using Google shopping ads, you’re probably going to see quite a significant increase, and you’re probably going to see that working quite well for you. But I have my own issues and reservations with Google shopping. But yeah, it’s not all bad.
Mike [21:56]: Right. But again, most of these push people down the path of spending money with Google in order to get to some of those top rankings, with the exception of those situations where you end up in the long-tail search results, and you happen to be at the top. But you’re still going to be below paid listings at that point.
Dave [22:14]: Exactly. So irrespective which viewpoint you take, and which stance you take, it seems every direction you look it’s all about an increase in revenue.
Mike [22:24]: Right, right. So based on that, where is this headed? Is this the only change that you can see them making in the near future, or are there other things that they’ve, kind of, announced that they’re going to be rolling out in the near future that are things that we need to pay attention to, and take a look at, or at least be aware of?
Dave [22:41]: So all of this is very new. So right now, there’s some noise about this on, for instance, the WebmasterWorld Forums. And some people are seeing an increasing click-through-rate, for instance. Some people are seeing a decrease in cost per conversion, which is all very well and good, but it’s all new. So it doesn’t mean anything. New behavior isn’t the same as what you’re going to expect to see in four, five weeks, six weeks down the line. So Google are in no way putting their feet up on the desk now and saying, “We are now done. Our goal to not be evil, and to maximize our ad revenue is complete. We’re finished. Everything’s done here. Now we’ll just let the internet run itself.”
There are some predictions being made already, which is beyond insane, but no one knows what’s going to be ahead. But one thing that’s guaranteed, Google are not going to – first of all, they’re not going to finish to try and maximize their ad revenue – which I don’t have any problem with. They’re certainly not going to finish trying to provide better organic results, so that we find what we’re looking for, so that we keep coming back to Google.
And you see that touches on the aspect of this that I, personally, find most interesting. This is the first update that I’ve seen by Google that’s actually left me scratching my head wondering, “Aside from revenue, why would they do this?” I wrote this in this blog post that they wrote about it. This is the very first time that I actually started to do the unthinkable, which was look at options like Bing. I actually went to Bing and DuckDuckGo, because there’s already – for some searches – it looks like the results are very ad-heavy. And they are. I can’t even imagine what it’s like at a low resolution, where really you are only going to see ads on your screen without scrolling the mouse. And we’re all lazy. We only scroll the mouse if we have to.
So as we touched on when we were discussing this, I have to wonder how many people are going to want to go to a search engine when the results that they see are primarily dominated by ads. If they keep going in this direction and become mainly, if not solely, ads that are on display, I can’t see people wanting that experience. I mean, would you?
Mike [24:59]: No, probably would not.
Dave [25:00]: No. It’s a strange, sort of, future that they’re potentially carving out for themselves. But I do have faith in Google that they’re smart people; they will have thought about this. I’d love to hear Google’s response. But, yeah, I’m completely baffled and I’m pretty much certain that what’s ahead of us is more change. I can’t overstress it. It won’t even be the first move in something. It’s not even really starting. It’s all rolling out. It’s all new.
I think another interesting aspect of this brings it more in line with the mobile experience. So for a while now, you could have four ads at the top of the mobile result. You know, search on your mobile phone. And I think, again speculation, but I think it’s very much about this convergence of devices that there are blurred, more blurrier maybe, blurrier lines between desktop, PC, smart phone, tablet, laptop, and so on. And I think Google want to give this consistent experience across all devices. So I suspect, I do think that’s probably part of it. But, again, it all goes back to profit.
Mike [26:08]: So, I guess we’ve talked a lot about what they are currently doing, what they have done, what it means for us, but we haven’t really talked about the one issue that I think is probably most important to the people listening to this is, what is it that we should be doing? Because obviously what we don’t want to do is sit in the middle of that game of cat and mouse between Google and people who are doing black hat SEO tricks, and end up – we don’t want to spin our wheels, we don’t want to do things that don’t matter – but we want to maximize our time and the return on the investment in that time. So what do we do?
Dave [26:40]: So the first thing to do, I think, is if there’s ever been a good time to put SEO and Google on your – let’s say, take it off your “to-do” list and put it on your actual radar – so this is something you start to pay attention to. Now is a really good time. I’ve heard a few people express this, sort of, helplessness along lines of, “Well, if organic is going down there’s nothing we can do about it.” But I’m a big fan – a big believer – in staying informed. And I think more than ever we have to stop paying more attention. We need – especially if you’re spending on AdWords – you really need to pay very close attention to, for instance, average position. Which I think a week or so ago, before this change, your average position was an indicator, but not as important as a lot of people thought. Whereas now it’s vital. If you’re consistently getting your ads in average position five, it’s very, very safe to say you’re going to see a huge drop in performance, and you’re going to have to market his informed decision whether it’s worth doing what you can to either try and get the ad higher by, in a way, gaming the system, getting a better quality score, or if you’re actually going to simply pay for it to get in that top four.
So, more than ever, you’re going to have to know your numbers with your AdWords accounts. And same with SEO. I can’t even begin to guess right now what effect we’re all going to see in our organic data, other than, say, it’s going to be very big. But the one thing I definitely want to know is I’d want to know what’s happening. I’d want to know if my organic traffic is dropping, by how much – if that’s a really vital channel for me.
If I’m a business and, let’s say, I don’t know, organic traffic accounts for 60% of our traffic and let’s say 50% of our sales, it could be time to diversify into other channels, and start spending a bit of time – maybe money – in some of the other options. But it’s really about being informed. And I think one strategy that will actually work for both – for AdWords and organic – is long-tail keywords. I think these are a potential – I won’t say a life-raft, but let’s say a lifebelt – in that, AdWords for instance, you’re not going to have as much competition with the long-tail keywords. So these are the keywords that aren’t so obvious, that aren’t getting quite as many searches as the big obvious ones, but add them together and they can be very sizeable. So I think in AdWords, long-tail keywords could be a very good strategy right now, because you’re going to have less competition meaning, you can make sure that you’re in that top four throughout.
And long-tail keywords’ always have been a good SEO strategy, but bearing in mind that the SEO results are getting squeezed down right to the bottom of the page, I think more than ever this has to become a more or less a standard SEO strategy from now. Well, I won’t say forever, but from now until the next major update.
Mike [29:36]: And just to be clear, one of the things that you’ve alluded to, but didn’t directly call out, is that there’s a very big difference between what your ad placement ranking is – whether you’re third or fourth position – versus your search engine result ranking. Those are two entirely different things, and you would monitor them entirely differently using different tools.
Dave [29:53]: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a huge – it’s almost impossible to pin down the differences, they’re so many – but it’s most simple obviously for AdWords you get to decide if you want to go up, either tweak the system or spend more. With SEO, sadly, it’s never quite that simple.
Mike [30:11]: So essentially, all the things that you’ve talked to boil down to what amounts to four different things that we need to be doing. First one is to monitor the placement of your ads and keywords. Are you number one, number four for ads – or in terms of your keywords – are you on the first page or are you on the fifteenth page? So that’s the first recommendation that we can take out of this.
The second one is monitoring your traffic levels, and making sure that you know where they’re headed based on other things that you’re doing. The third one is using the Google Search Console to identify things that you need to do on your website to either fix usability issues, or improving your search presence. Because Google will tell you directly what it is that you have to do. And then the last one is to really just stay, at least peripherally, informed about what’s going on, either using your newsletter, or the WebmasterWorld Forums or a variety of the different things that Google has provided. Is there anything else that you want to add to that list?
Dave [31:06]: Yeah, I’d say and the other thing is hidden number five is most businesses have SEO on their to-do list. In other words, we all mean to get round to it at some point, but there are always more pressing things to be done. And I think we’re now are at that time where it’s become, I’d say, pretty close to mission critical. It doesn’t mean you need to invest ten hours a week. We don’t have ten hours a week. But if you can be keeping an eye on this, and if you can just schedule 30 minutes a week – just to keep an eye on these things – and at least respond to the most pressing issues, in my opinion, that’s seriously time well-spent.
Mike [31:41]: And that could be something incorporated into “Marketing Monday” of all days.
Dave [31:44]: Absolutely. Exactly. Or Mocking Wednesday.
Mike [31:48]: Well, thanks for coming on, Dave. I really appreciate you taking the time to step in and help our listeners understand a little bit better some of the changes that they’re going to be seeing from Google, or what Google has already rolled out.
Dave [31:58]: Thank you very much. I love the show and I’m delighted to be here again.
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