Archive for the ‘Cautionary Tales’ Category

How to Write Meta Tags

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

If you asked me “What is the #1 thing I can do to improve my website’s rankings?” I’d tell you to make sure it has meta tags that use the key phrases you want to rank for AND are compelling to potential customers.  In my last post I explained what meta tags are and how they work. In this post, I’m going to show you how to write them so they help your rankings and get visitors to your website.

Some Things You Need to Know Before You Start Writing

First things first. You’ve done your research, right?
Just because you think you know what key phrases your customers use to find you doesn’t mean you do. Time and again I’ve seen clients who think they know what they want to rank for realize they had missed a whole segment of key phrases or realize people search on one variation much more often than another. Unfortunately, it takes several months to realize the problem is poorly targeted key phrases. Don’t guess. KNOW.

 

Serving 2 Masters
Ranking well in search engines gets you website visitors. Humans pay your bills. That’s why you have 2 masters: search engines and real live people. Unfortunately how you write for each is different. If search engines were your customer, you would just jam your key phrases in wherever you could fit them. That’s called “key word stuffing” and it annoys people. You might get your website to show up higher in the search results but if your listing is just a list of words, people won’t click over to your website.

I often say that search engine optimization is an art and a science. The science is key phrase research. The art is writing meta tags and page copy that appeals to both masters. You need to strive for a balance between using your key phrases and writing in a way that makes sense to humans. Who trumps who? When in doubt write for humans first.

 

Map Key Phrases to Pages
A common mistake made by people new to search engine optimization is to try to get every web page to rank for a whole bunch of key phrases. Realistically, one web page can only rank for 2 – 4 key phrases. So, in order to cover a decent range of key phrases, you need to map key phrases to web pages.

Let’s assume you have 12 web pages and a list of 24 key phrases you want to rank for. Don’t just assign 2 to each page. Assign each key phrase a relevance ranking; I use a scale of 1 – 5 with 5 being the most relevant. Then map your key phrases to pages using the most relevant ones more often than the less relevant ones.

 

Write Unique Tags for Each Page
It might be really important to you to rank #1 for “business coach in Boston, MA” but you’re not going to get there by using that in the title tag for every page of your website. You might think it helps your site overall but keep in mind, search engines rank web pages not websites.  And search engines want to know what this page is about.

 

Tips for Writing Title Tags

How long should a title tag be?
Common wisdom is that a title tag should be 70 – 75 characters with spaces. However, while humans may not see it, search engines will index far past 75 characters.

Should we use our company name in the title tag?
There is debate about whether or not you should start you title tag with your company name. The beginning of a title tag is prime real estate and since the only people searching on your business name already know who you are, I start with key phrases likely to be used by people who don’t know you yet. (Plus, if your website doesn’t rank for your business name, you’ve got bigger problems than meta tags.)

What key phrases should go in the title tag?
My advice for which key phrases to use, falls into 2 categories:

  1. Competition –Since search engines give the words in the title tag a lot of weight, I say put your most competitive key phrases in your title tag. But then there’s…
  2. Relevance – Since the purpose of all this work is to get customers, it’s more important that your web pages rank for key phrases that actually describe what you are selling.

 

Tips for Writing Description Tags

How long should a description tag be?
Because different search engines display different numbers of characters, common wisdom is that a description tag should be between 160 and 175 characters long. However, Jill Whelan of High Rankings Advisor says “Description tags can be as long or as short as you want, because Google will display just the relevant part of it. So even if your meta description is hundreds of words, Google will pull a snippet from it that uses the keyword phrase that the searcher used.”

What goes in the description tag?
I think of the description meta tag as “making the sale” for why the searcher should click on your link as opposed to the other 9 search results. In order to make the sale, you need to know who you’re talking to and what they want. Instead of talking about what you do, talk the problem they are trying to solve or the solution they are looking for.

Do a few searches and you’ll see that most description tags are written like “We provide the best, most reliable baloney at the lowest prices. Blah, blah, blah.” If you can turn it around to say, “All our customer service reps are licensed and bonded and have at least 5 years experience in the field. We also give a money back guarantee.” Your listing WILL get more clicks.

 

Write Meta Tags at the Design Stage

Putting up a website is a huge job and one of the things that tends to get put off is writing meta tags. Usually the web designer puts up place holder meta tags like “XYZ Company Home Page” with the intention of coming back and adding real meta tags later. Later doesn’t come until you start looking into why the website isn’t generating any business.

I know in the rush to finish a website, meta tags is one more thing to add to the To Do list. But! If you do it while writing copy and coding the site it will take a lot less time and get your website working for you sooner than if you do it several months down the road.

 

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Are you Protecting Your Most Important Online Asset?

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Imagine you’re a real estate agent and you have a website where you list your properties for sale and use to get clients. Now imagine one day you come into the office, fire up your computer, go to your website and see this:

It happened to a husband and wife real estate team near where I live in Portland, Oregon. Here’s a local news story about what happened.

So what can the real Bergeron Properties do about this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

How did this happen? They let their domain name expire. When the registration lapsed a guy in Tennessee with an axe to grind scooped it up and put up this website.

You might think this is a rare occurrence but swiping domain names from unsuspecting owners is more common than you think.  Several years ago I had a client who let an old domain name lapse. She’d forgotten she has a website with a shopping cart running on that site. The people in Yugoslavia who swiped the domain name also scraped the website. Then they hosted the website and the shopping cart on their own servers. To customers it looked like the same site and they had no idea my client no longer owned it. Customers would enter their credit card information and next thing they know their identity has been stolen. The only reason why we were able to get it taken down was because the thieves stole the entire site. If they had put up their own site, there would have been nothing we could do.

Your domain name is your most important online asset and there are 3 simple things you can do to protect it.

#1 REGSITER YOUR OWN DOMAIN NAME!

You wouldn’t say “I don’t want to deal with the DMV so I’m going to have my mechanic go down there and register my car in their name.”  That would be nuts! Although you might be driving your car, in the eyes of the law you wouldn’t really own it. But business owners do this all the time when they have their web designer register their domain name for them.

Sometimes web designers try to talk you into letting them do it. This is concerning for a couple of reasons. First of all, unscrupulous web designers will try to strong arm you into letting them do it because they know they’ve got you over a barrel if you try to take your business elsewhere. Secondly, even if you have an ethical web designer, if something happens to them (like they die), you can’t contact the company they registered it with and say “Hey. That’s really my domain name. Can I get that back?” Nope. Even if  the domain is your name and your picture is plastered all over the site, they can’t give it to you.

Registering a domain name is easy and only takes a few minutes. I use www.godaddy.com but I can’t give them a full endorsement because they try to get you to tack on all kinds of stuff to your order that you don’t really need.  There are hundreds of registrars out there. Here’s a list from ICANN which is the governing body of the internet.

#2 Use an email address you check regularly.

The main reason why so many businesses lose their domain name is because they start using a new email address and forget to update their contact information with their registrar. When it comes time to renew, the registrar sends emails to the email address in their records. If that email isn’t up to date, the first sign that you forgot to renew your domain name could be finding another website where you expected yours to be. Burn it into your brain. If you change your email address, update your contact info with your registrar.

#3 Set your domain names to auto-renew.

You might consider registering your domain name for multiple years at a time. If you don’t do that, I suggest setting it to auto-renew. That’s what I do with my important domain names. Of course, when the expiration date on your credit card changes, you need to update your card information. But if you’ve used an email address you check regularly, that won’t be a problem.

Imagine the amount of lost business and reputation damage this simple mistake is causing Bergeron Properties. You domain name is your most valuable online asset. Take some simple steps to protect it.

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Even the Big Guys Screw Up SEO

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

When I first saw the title of this Sunday’s cover story in the Business section of New York Times, my first thought was “Really? This is news?” But I quickly realized that if you don’t spend your life immersed in the world of search, the fact that a major retailer was using black hat techniques to improve their rankings in Google, would be news. I wasn’t surprised because I think it happens way more often than Google lets on.

The article, The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, by David Segal tells the story of how J.C. Penney’s website was coming up #1 for a whole bunch of search terms (aka key phrases). They even outranked manufacturer’s websites for their own product names. I’m not sure how this came to the attention of the  New York Times, but they hired a search engine marketer to figure out why J.C. Penney’s site ranked so well. He was able to reverse engineer the process and discovered that J.C. Penney was up to some pretty shady SEO practices or what we call in the industry “black hat SEO.”

Before I explain what they were doing and why it was a problem, it helps to understand a bit about how rankings work. There are 2 types of search engine optimization; there is onsite optimization and offsite optimization. Onsite SEO is when you do everything you can to make your website appeal to the search engines. Offsite SEO is when you do things around the web to improve your rankings. The majority of offsite SEO consists of getting other websites, blog, etc. to link to your website. This is because Google considers a link to your site as a vote of popularity and in general, the site with the most links to it wins the rankings war.

What was going on in this situation is that J.C. Penney’s SEO company improved their rankings by paying for links to the site. This is a big no-no in Google’s book and when they catch you doing it, your site disappears from the search results.

Although they don’t say so directly in the article, I’m willing to bet J.C. Penney had no idea what their SEO company was doing to improve their rankings. Often, the marketing executives in charge of hiring the SEO company have no idea what it takes to improve rankings so they don’t know the difference between white hat techniques and black hat techniques. All they cared about was the fact that their rankings were going up which drove more traffic to their site and presumably made more sales.

I’m even willing to bet that SearchDex, who J.C. Penney fired when this story came to light, wasn’t even doing the link building themselves. Link building is an incredibly time intensive process and frankly, it’s insanely boring. There are companies that specialize in it and most of them use methods that won’t get you in trouble with Google. What this company did wrong was pay for them and use link farms.

I think it’s important for any business owner to read the full article because it’s a cautionary tale. If it can happen to a major retailer like J.C. Penney, it can happen to you. That’s why it’s important to have a basic understanding of how SEO works and know what your SEO company is doing in your name.  It’s kind of like bookkeeping. If your company fails to pay payroll taxes, the IRS won’t go after your bookkeeper, they’ll come after you. Google is a lot like the IRS in that respect; they don’t have any sympathy for the “I didn’t know” excuse.

 

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The Power of Negative Attention

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

I’ve been writing a lot of “cautionary tale” blog posts recently. This was not my plan at all but I keep coming across stories I think we can learn a lot from. I recently read a horrifying article, A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web, in the Business section of the New York Times that I felt warranted yet another cautionary tale blog post.

The article is long but it’s a good read and definitely worth the time. It’s a story worthy of a John Grisham novel. And although it’s a story still in progress, it looks like the bad guy is going to get his due. Here’s a very brief summary of what happened.

The Horror Story:

A woman wants a good deal on eye glass frames. She does a search for her favorite eye glass designer in Google. The #1 ranking website has the frames she wants at a price she likes so she buys them. The frames show up 2 days later and are obviously fakes. She also realizes she’s been charged an additional $125. She asks for a refund. Not only does the company owner refuse to refund her, he threatens her! When she contests the charge with Citibank, he leaves messages threatening to hurt her and even emails her a picture of her house!

Citibank gives her a provisional refund. Some days later, she received a letter from Citibank acknowledging that she has canceled the claim. She calls Citibank and tells them she has not canceled the claim. She informs them that she has been repeatedly threatened by the person who owns the company she has the claim against. Citibank’s customer service response is “It’s not our problem.”

The woman goes to the police and although they take it seriously, they can’t do anything until they build a case which takes several months.

This Is Where Things Get Weird…

So why would anyone not only rip off customers, but threaten them when they complain? Because it boosts rankings!!! That’s right. This cretin has figured out that customer’s complaints on sites like www.getsatisfaction.com and www.yelp.com don’t hurt his rankings, they help!

How is this possible? If we’ve talked or you’ve read my free ebook, Higher Rankings in Plain English, you know that getting links to your website is an important part of rankings. Google considers links to your site from other sites as a vote of popularity and all other factors being equal, the site with the most links wins the rankings war.

The problem is that Google can’t (or chooses not to) discern between positive attention and negative attention. So when burned customers complain on review sites, Google just knows there’s a link to this website. Unfortunately, we the buying public, assume that high ranking sites must be reputable companies.

What Can You Learn?

I don’t think this woman did anything wrong when she made her initial purchase. The internet is still in its Wild, Wild West Phase and criminals spend a lot more time figuring out how to rip us off than we do defending against them. But, I can see some things she could have done differently. Here’s what you can learn to avoid her horror story.

Lesson #1: High Rankings & Snazzy Graphics Does Not Equal Reputable Company!

If you know how to hire people overseas, a reputable looking site will only cost you a few hundred dollars. And what you have to do to get to the top of the search results is not a mystery. If you know what to do and are willing to spend the time and money, your site can be #1 in Google too.

Lesson #2: Do Your Homework First!

Many of the comments to this article were along the lines of “If it’s too good to be true, then it is.” I think this is blaming the victim. Why? Because we all go to the web to look for better deals. Sometimes it’s not so easy to discern “Too easy to be true” scenarios.

As the article states, Google is better at providing reviews of local companies than it is internet based companies. If it’s not a major company or website you’ve heard of before (i.e. Hewlett Packard, Nordstrom, Amazon), do your home work first. If you do a search in Google for “review sites,” you will see that there are dozens of review sites on specific topics such as restaurants and tech toys. Here are a few of the major review sites:

http://www.getsatisfaction.com/

http://www.yelp.com/

http://www.angieslist.com/angieslist/

Lesson #3: Don’t use your debit card to make online purchases.

Granted, Citibank could have been a lot more helpful when the woman called to say she hadn’t canceled the complaint. But, if she’d used a debit card instead of a credit card, the burden of proof would have been on her, thus making contesting the charge a lot harder.

Lesson #4: It’s Virtually Impossible to Shut Down the Bad Guys.

Criminals can move quickly on the web. Shutting them down is a game of Whack-a-mole. The article states that when the reporter contacted the criminal’s hosting company, they shut down his website. He’s back up and running again on another hosting company which probably only took a few hours to do. The only way this guy is really going to get shut down is to go to jail.

It’s important to know how quickly criminals can move online for 2 reasons. First, it speaks to the importance of doing your homework. Second, keep in mind that it makes it look like there are more bad apples out there than there really are. The vast majority of online business owners are honest people who want happy customers.

Don’t Let This Scare You

I wrote this blog post because it never occurred to me that you could boost your rankings by ripping off customers. But, knowing how Google works, it makes sense. A link is a link. But I’m willing to bet that based on the negative attention Google has received from this fiasco and article, they will be doing something about this.

Sure. It is the Wild Wild West out there but this guy is probably going to jail thanks to the persistence of people like Clarabelle Rodriguez. I tip my hat to her and David Segal who wrote the article. I think Google, MasterCard and law enforcement agencies will change their policies as a result of this article.

If you’d like to learn more about how to ethically get reviews from clients, check out this recent post, The Decor My Eyes Fiasco & Local Reviews Tactics on SearchEngineland.com.

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How to Kill Your Business with One Email

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

First let me start by saying the following story was brought to my attention by my buddy Kimberly LeRiche owner of JKVirtual Office and Fan Page Marketing Magic. Why it’s important to give credit where credit is due will quickly become obvious.

The following is a story about a woman who screwed up. Bad. She thought she was right but was wrong, blew off the injured party and create a firestorm of bad publicity for her business. I don’t take pleasure in seeing someone decimate years of hard work but we can all learn a lot from what this woman’s multiple mistakes. So, let’s get started.

Kimberly posted a link to this story on Facebook, The Day The Internet Threw A Righteous Hissyfit About Copyright And Pie. You should read the whole article. It’s short and will only take a few minutes. For those who don’t, I’ll summarize. The editor/publisher of a small cooking magazine swiped a story about apple pie from the author’s website. Although the editor credited the author, she published the story without permission. When the author confronted the editor and asked for an apology and a donation of $130 to a journalism school, the editor replied with the following:

“…Honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”

 

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

I really try not to assume other people are jerks, especially when I haven’t talked with them about the situation in question, but this editor makes it very difficult to give her the benefit of the doubt. It’s as if she’s saying, “Sure I stole your car! Everybody steals cars! At least I returned it. I even put gas in it. You should pay me back.”

I know I’m not perfect. Frankly, I screw up on a regular basis. But, I’ve promised myself to learn as much as possible from my mistakes. I also try to learn from the mistakes of others. So, let’s play Monday Morning Quarterback. The following are 5 lessons I think we can learn from what this editor did to destroy her business with one “lifted” article and one email.

Lesson #1:The internet IS NOT public domain!

Just because the internet is considered a “public place”, it does not mean anything you find on the internet is up for grabs. Copyright laws still apply! Granted, those of us who aren’t copyright attorneys are fuzzy on:

  1. what is copyrighted versus public domain,
  2. when you can use copyrighted material and when you can’t and
  3. how you get permission to use copyrighted material.

This webpage gives you the basics of what is copyrighted material versus public domain. It also provides links other resources if you want to learn more about the finer points.

This sentence sums up the copyright ownership on the web:

“There’s a pretty simple rule when it comes to the net. If you didn’t write it, and you want to reproduce it, ask the creator, or ascertain that it meets the complex public domain rules if it’s pretty old. Most people don’t really need to know much more than this. If you do, check the other documents*.”

*By “other documents,” Mr. Templeton means the resources cited on the webpage above.

Lesson #2: The web is smaller than you think and it’s easy to find out who’s using your stuff!

Just because stealing online content happens all the time, doesn’t make it right. (Can’t you hear your mother right now? “If your friends jumped off a bridge…”) So why do people steal content? Because they don’t think they’ll get caught. Most of the time they don’t get caught, but it’s not because they are talented thieves. It’s because the content owners aren’t looking.
3 things you can do to figure out who’s using your stuff:

  1. Do a simple web search – Take a sentence or clause from your article and do a web search with quotes around your search term. There’s a decent chance that if someone else is using it, it will show up in the search results.
  2. Use Google Alerts – Google Alerts sends you an email with search results. Learn how to use Google Alerts here.
  3. Use the Copyscape plagiarism checker. http://www.copyscape.com/

Lesson #3: Just because you say you’re an expert, it doesn’t mean you’re an expert.

 

I’m pretty sure I know how this cooking magazine got started because one of the business models internet marketing gurus espouse is, “Start a website, build an audience, and make money on advertising and membership.” This business model appeals to people who hate their day job, have a hobby they enjoy, want to work from home, and believe they can get rich working online. That describes a lot of people. Many of whom don’t have the slightest idea of how to run a business.
I know there are thousands of people running online businesses this way. That’s why I’m dismayed, but not surprised, that a self-proclaimed “professional editor” doesn’t know the basics of copyright law. If this “editor” had editing experience with an established magazine or newspaper—she would know the copyright laws.

If you’re going to start a business, you need more than a passing interest in a topic. You need all the departments any “real” business would have such as human resources, accounting, sales and marketing, or last but not least, legal. You don’t get to decide that the way you think things work is how they work. You need to hire people who actually know how things work.

Lesson #4: The old axiom “Any publicity is good publicity.” does not apply to the web.

If you’ve put any time into getting your website to rank well, you know how hard it is. From what I can tell, it doesn’t look like Cooks Source put a lot of effort into rankings but any website should rank #1 for their own business name. But! The Cook’s Source website now ranks #45 (the middle of the 4th page) for their own business name. Search results 1 – 44 are about how Cook’s Source screwed an author. That’s not going to do good things for getting author submissions or advertisers.

Need more evidence of the power of negative publicity? The Cooks Source Facebook Fan Page has garnered thousands of negative comments (and downright threats!) in the few days since this story broke. They’ve become an internet joke. There are even spin off pages such as “Cooks Source is so honest LOL, JK, they’re thieving b*stards.

 

Concluding Thoughts…

If Cook’s Source were published by Condé Nast, they might be able to weather this storm (but then Condé Nast editors would know the rules about acquiring content). However, this is a small cooking magazine and it’s quite possible this one awful email will kill their business. Frankly, it should.

This editor behaved badly and clearly doesn’t understand that the rule of karma apply to doing business online. What goes around, comes around. Despite all the spammers and identity thieves, the internet is still a space that expects fair behavior. Not knowing the rules is one thing. Being a jerk about not knowing the rules is another. Be nice. The internet is smaller than you think.

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How to Alienate Potential Customers on Facebook: A Cautionary Tale

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

The following post is a cautionary tale about the importance of knowing how to use a social network. It includes lessons you need to learn to build your business via Facebook.

I like jewelry. I’m not a big fan of diamonds and gem stones but I love Venetian glass jewelry. Kind of like the dahlias I grow in my garden, Venetian beads come in an amazing array of colors and complexities. Each bead is its own little world you can get lost in. That’s why when an ad for Marco Polo Designs*, popped up in Facebook, I checked out their page and became a Fan. For those of you not well versed in Facebook, this means I clicked on the “Like” button on their Facebook Fan page. Now their updates show up on my Facebook home page.

MPD’s Facebook updates have largely consisted of promos for a series of contests where you can win a piece of jewelry. Cool! I’d love to win a piece of their beautiful jewelry so I was ready to enter the contest. Keep in mind, I rarely enter contests. I closely guard my privacy online and it’s more important to me to stay off of mailing lists than get free stuff but this sounded good. All I had to do to enter the contest was…

1. Have a profile as a person not a business…  Check
2. Be a Fan… Check
3. Friend Marco Polo Designs… Whaaaat?

Problem #1: Understand the Privacy Difference Between Friend & Fan

You’re probably wondering what the big deal is about “Friending” MPD in order to enter the contest. The issue comes down to privacy. Depending on how you format your privacy settings, you give Friends access to a lot more information about you than you do the owners of pages you Like. For example, Friends typically have access to your Friend list, your birth date and other sensitive information that could be used to steal your identity. But when you “Like” a page, the owner of that page only has access to information you make available to anyone on Facebook. Long story short, owners of Fan pages have a lot less access to your information than your Friends do.

I take my online privacy very seriously. So I only Friend people on Facebook I am friends with in real life. I doubt the owners of MPD understood what they were asking when they required contest entrants to Friend their business which is why I did the following.

Problem #2: How NOT to Handle Customer Inquiries

I really wanted to enter this contest so I posted a question on MPD’s Wall asking, “Why do you require people to Friend your business in order to enter the contest?” Here’s the reply I got.

“Hello, Eldge! As a business, Marco Polo Designs has a studio in Portland, Oregon, over 100 retail and gallery outlets, and a solid website.  We’ve recently begun to establish our presence in the social networking arena. The giveaway sweeps is our fun and friendly way of building a friend and fan base of folks who might have an interest in our beautiful designs. We have been so excited to put our creations into the hands of our sweepstakes winners! A camera can only do so much … the play of light through our beads is constantly changing – colors morph, sparkle  and play before the eyes but not through the lens! It is our pleasure to put “live” jewels into the hands of people who have an interest and desire to truly appreciate them! We hope that you’ll consider joining us. With warm regards ~ Penny and Claude”

I don’t really care that MPD misspelled my name. That happens all the time. But, they didn’t even answer my question! To make matters worse, when I went back to ask for clarification, MPD had deleted my question from their Wall! Maybe the didn’t realize the automated email I got from Facebook with their reply included a link to reply back. So, when I clicked on the reply link, it took me to a post that no longer existed. A post that I’d created and had obviously been deleted by someone else!

I can only guess MPD deleted my Wall post because they didn’t want other people to see my question. Part of why I draw this conclusion is because prior to writing this blog post, I searched out the rules for the contest and the rules have changed. MPD no longer requires people to Friend them. That’s a smart decision.  Having more Friends won’t help them sell jewelry. Having more Fans won’t help them sell jewelry. Promoting a quality product to interested buyers will help them sell more jewelry.

Personally, I’m a lifelong fan of learning from other people’s mistakes. I hope you are too and will keep the following lessons in mind in you adventures on Facebook. I can only infer what the owners of MPD were thinking but I think they did 3 things wrong.

Lessons to Learn from MPD’s Mistakes:

1. Friends + Fans DON’T = Sales. – I’m pretty sure the owners of MPD were just trying to run up their numbers. They figured “The more Friends and Fans we have, the better we’re doing!” Wrong.
Your lesson: Making money via social networking is not about how many Friends and Fans you have. Making money via social networking is about the quality of your Friends and Fans. 100 rabid Fans will lead to more sales than 5000 disengaged Friends.

2. Treat Fans as People. Because they are! – Instead of answering my question, Marco Polo Designs sent me PR copy. That’s annoying.
Your lesson: When you do social networking, you connect with real people not anonymous masses. Handle inquires as if you are talking to A PERSON because you are.

3. Feedback Is an Opportunity. – Instead of taking the opportunity to send Fans an update about how their contest rules have changed, Marco Polo Designs swept my question under the carpet, changed their rules and acted like it never happened.
Your lesson: There’s an old marketing axiom, “Turn liabilities into features.” I know it sounds cynical but it’s more helpful than you think. With a little re-framing What MPD could have done, was change their rules and tell people that the rules just got easier. Then they could have responded to my question thanking me for pointing out this problem and describing what they did based on my feedback.

*In this post, I will refer to Mar Polo Designs as MPD so this post does not show up in search results for their business name. I don’t want to negatively impact their business. They seem like nice people and I’m still a Fan.

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Who’s Tracking You Online?

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Many people don’t realize that when they use the internet, they leave a trail of bread crumbs behind them in the form of their search history. Figuring out how to sell you stuff online is big business and there are hundreds of companies gathering information about you so they can do just that.

The Thursday, August 19th edition of Fresh Air on NPR had Julia Angwin, a senior technology editor at the Wall Street Journal, talking about the companies that track you online. Angwin explains how consumer surveillance works, how users can disable the tracking software — and how advertisers are continually evolving to keep up with the data they receive.

The staff at the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) did a series of articles where they took a look at the 50 most popular websites and what kind of tracking software these websites installed on visitor’s computers. WSJ’s research identified more than 100 tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks collecting data — which are then sold on a stock market-like exchange to online advertisers.

Important Points from the Show and the Series:

If you don’t have time to listen to the 40 minute show, here’s a rundown of the important points. For some of the points, I have included the minute of the show you can queue up more information.

There are 2 types of tracking software: Cookies and Beacons.

A cookie is small text file a website puts on your computer which gives you an ID number unique to that website. Cookies only know what page you’re on. They don’t monitor what you’re doing on that page. One website can install multiple cookies on your computer.

Beacons are bits of software code that track your movements across a website. Unlike cookies, beacons are not installed on your computer. Beacons are very rare and can do a variety of things including keystroke monitoring. Keystroke monitoring means they can capture what you type into a field. Cookies can’t do that. Websites that are doing keystroke monitoring know they’re doing it and don’t do it for sensitive information like passwords.

It is legal for websites to put Cookies and Beacons on your computer.

Who’s Tracking You and Why?

  • Websites owners don’t necessarily know that their website is installing cookies on their visitor’s computers. (Angwin discusses how this works at about the 7 minute mark.) For example Dictionary.com installed the most at 234 but only 11 were installed by Dictionary.com. The other 223 were installed by 3rd party advertisers.
  • At minute 11:30 Angwin describes how this information is sold in a stock market like situation and how it’s used.
  • Although most information gathering is designed to determine buying preferences, there are concerns about the types of info being gathered. Angwin discusses some of these concerns at about minute 22:00.
  • Google is the biggest tracker with Microsoft coming in 2nd.
  • Wikipedia is the only of the top 50 sites that doesn’t allow any tracking on its site. (Yay Wikipedia!)
  • On average, the top 50 sites installed 64 pieces of tracking software.
  • Internet Explorer is the by far the most used browser. Microsoft had an internal debate about whether you had to opt out or opt in to it. (Opt out means you are tracked by default and you have to figure out how to tell it not to track you. Opt in means you have to tell them you want to be tracked.) The Advertising Department won that battle so if you use Internet Explorer, you have to opt out of tracking which is not easy to do. (I use Google Chrome. With Chrome you choose whether or not to allow tracking when you install the browser software.)
  • At 33:45 she discusses what you can do to block it. See Resources below.
  • While you can see what tracking devices are on your computer you can’t see what tracking devices are on your mobile phone.
  • Apple Safari by default blocks 3rd party tracking.

The Points I Think You ought to Know

It’s been my experience that when people first learn that they are being tracked online, they immediately go to worst case scenario and assume the only purpose is to gather personal information that can be used to steal their identity or make charges to their credit card. The vast majority of the time that is not the intent at all. Big companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo aren’t out to get sensitive data such as credit card or social security numbers. They are interested in tracking you online so they can make more money by targeting ads better. They assume that if they know your interests and they target ads to your interests, it will increase the chance that you will buy something.

Virtually any media or shopping site is going to put a cookie on your computer. Cookies aren’t all bad, they make it possible for a website to recognize you when you come back so you don’t have to login every time or re-enter some data. Your computer probably has thousands of them on it right now. If you do a search for “cookies.txt” in your computer’s search function, you can find the folder. To go through them and delete them one at a time would take dozens of hours. You can empty the folder with a few clicks but if you do that, you’re going to spend a lot of time re-logging into various websites.

You Probably Use Cookies Too!

Your website is probably installing them too. At least is should be! Why? If you use Google Analytics (and you should be), you’re installing a cookie to track what pages visitors click on, how long they stay on that page, what browser they used to find you and other statistics. When you look at your Google Analytics data, you don’t know who visited your site but you do get valuable information that in aggregate helps you fine tune your website and hopefully increase sales.

So before you decide to have a no tolerance policy toward cookies, keep in mind that they really are helpful and not necessarily a bad thing.

Links from the Show:

Listen to the show here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129298003

Read the WSJ series here:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703940904575395073512989404.html

http://www.getabine.com/ is the software they recommend for blocking tracking.

Learn more about how Google Analytics uses cookies:
http://code.google.com/apis/analytics/docs/concepts/gaConceptsCookies.html

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Watch out for This Sales Newsletter Scam

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

fraud_2Talk about a crappy way to start a Monday! I checked my messages this morning and had one from a collections agency looking to collect on a past due invoice for $94.50 assessed against my business. At first I figured the phone call was a scam to get me to call her back so she could give me a sales pitch because I KNOW I don’t owe anybody anything. The vast majority of my expenses I pay via credit card and the only things I pay by check are sub-contractor invoices.

So when the collections agent explained that I signed up for a sales newsletter and it was in collections because I hadn’t paid any of the 5 invoices this company sent. I vaguely remembered getting a call some months ago from a sales guy trying to get me to sign up for a sales newsletter. I remember him because he was kind of obnoxious and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I think at some point I sad “You can send the free one if you want but I’m signing up for it.”  Apparently he took that as authorization.

I’d be less inclined to think it’s a scam versus a miscommunication if I’d ever received a newsletter or any of the supposed 5 invoices they sent. Although the collections agent was polite, she was rather dismissive and kept claiming I probably just threw away the invoices or I didn’t understand that I had to cancel the newsletter.

Finally she said, “Well they always confirm acceptance by getting a birth date.” To which I replied, “Oh really. And what birth date did they give you?” She told me the date she had in her records to which I replied “That’s not even close to my birthday.” That changed her attitude and she closed out the account and assured me I wouldn’t be hearing from them again.  She wouldn’t send me a letter saying the matter was closed so in a few months, I’m going to run my credit report to make sure.

The lesson in this? DO NOT GIVE OUT YOUR BIRTH DATE! I don’t think you should even put it on your Facebook or social network profiles. Most people think they’re safe because they their birth date is “only” visible to their Facebook Friends. That’s not true. All you need is for one of your Friends to take the wrong Facebook quiz and the programmers of that quiz have access to the personal data of the quiz-takers Friends. The collections agent only gave me the month and day so leaving off the year of your birth won’t help either.

I’ve heard of similar scams where they use the last 4 digits of your social security number so don’t give that out either. Legitimate businesses don’t need that kind of “authorization.”

I think another part of the scam was to make the claim for just under $100. Many companies, especially ones with a separate accounting department, will just pay the invoice to make it go away.

I wish I had the name of the scamming company. I would bury them online in negative press. The collections agent wouldn’t give it to me and since they call their product “sales newsletter” I’ve got virtually no chance of finding them. More than likely another deliberate decision in the scamming process.

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My Two Cents: Even if you think a client is pissed, COMMUNICATE!

Monday, March 15th, 2010

At the end of November, I hired my lil-bro to burn all my CD’s to a hard drive. He’s really good at this kind of stuff and needed the bucks so it seemed like a good idea. Burning all my CD’s to a hard drive has two benefits: 1) I can make a few bucks selling them after the fact and 2) I won’t have to look at them collecting dust in my living room.

It is now March and lil-bro has been incommunicado for over 2 months. I’ve emailed him twice and all I got back was the sound of crickets.(1) Considering he has over 5k worth of my music collection, I felt it necessary to bring in the big guns – aka his Mom.

Fortunately for me, lil-bro lives with his mother who is easily the most responsible person on the planet. Normally I would eschew parental involvement but like I said, he’s been incommunicado and has over 5k worth of my music.

Yay Mom. She put a fire under his butt and as of today assures me lil-bro is burning CD’s like crazy. (3) The whole kit-and-caboodle should be in the mail within a few days.  But, I still haven’t heard from lil-bro and I’m kind of bummed.  If only to tell him I’m not mad; I just wanted a status update.

 

TAKE AWAY: Even if you think a client is pissed, COMMUNICATE!

How hard is it to send an email that essentially says “I’m working on it”?  Chances are your customer isn’t as mad as you imagine. And for sure they’re less pissed off today than they will be next week.

Granted “my dog ate my homework” only works once and if you’re a terminal excuse maker you will fail at being a business owner but if I’ve learned anything from working with clients virtually, email updates go a LONG way to making customers happy; especially when projects take longer than you think. A little information goes a long way to preventing clients from filling in the blanks with the worst case scenario.

So. When you screw up and blow a deadline, admit it. Admit it as soon as possible, as accurately as possible and tell them how you will make it right. In the long run you could quite possibly wind up with a happy client.

 

Foot Notes:

(1) I didn’t call him because I don’t have his cell # and no one ever answers the house line. Why they keep it? I don’t know.

(2) I’m no newbie to project management. I offered him a bonus to complete the job by the end of January.

(3) Sorry Dude. Really didn’t want to bring your Mom into it but hey, you’ve got all my tunes!

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When Good Marketers Go Bad: Another Segment in an Ongoing Series

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

I just listened to one of the worst teleclasses I’ve ever heard.  What was particularly shocking was that it was done by someone well known in the PR field. (No. I’m not going to name names for reasons soon to be obvious but if you email me I’ll tell you.)

People expect that in a 60 minute teleclass you’re going to talk for 45 – 50 minutes then take questions.  This is important for two reasons.

Problem #1: Asking Questions Throughout the Teleclass vs. Questions at the End

When people are in listening mode, they aren’t thinking of questions to ask you in the next 30 – 90 seconds. Asking if there are any questions every 3 – 5 minutes is annoying and leave a lot of uncomfortable dead air.   Solution: If you’re going to ask questions through out have some plants (people on the call ready to ask pre-determined questions). Also, in your promotional copy tell people you’re going to take questions throughout the call so they have time to think of stuff.

Problem #2: Listening Mode vs. Discussion Mode

Taking questions throughout a teleclass requires Discussion Mode which means we all get to hear what’s going on in the background of each attendees life. It’s surprising how noisy many people’s lives are. One is bad. Imagine how much worse it is when there are 6 attendees with serious background noise.  Unfortunately, they are usually the last to realize they’re the problem so it pretty much ruins the call for everyone.  Solution: Don’t do discussion mode unless people know up front that it will be discussion mode and people will need to mute themselves. Also, tell them how to mute themselves in the call in directions.

P.S. If you’re going to charge $67 A MONTH for a press release template, be sure to communicate the value other than it shows you where to put your business name, address, website and email.  I can get that info for free with a simple web search.

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