Are You Linked In?

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the June 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

The Web has opened up a whole new world for individuals and businesses alike. Today, anyone can have a Web presence, can access information, can make purchases, and can interact with others online. This last bit is particularly exciting though.

Who would have ever guessed that the Web, a tool that allows us to do all these things without ever having to leave our homes or offices or come face to face with another individual, would become a major social arena? Yet the “social media” sector is growing in leaps and bounds, connecting people of all ages and interests.

Social media stretches across many different areas and is nearly endless, with new venues appearing every day. For now, let’s focus on one that could be very important for strengthening and furthering your career or business. There isn’t enough space here to do much more than scratch the surface, so let’s just touch on three key aspects anyone can use to take advantage of LinkedIn.com, a free online networking site for professionals.

Connect & Reconnect

LinkedIn is all about relationships. The foundation that LinkedIn is built upon is in connecting with people you know and meet, and reconnecting with others from your past work and educational experiences. Once signed up, you can search for names of people you know, search by employer, college or university, groups and associations, or even upload your contacts to cross-reference against LinkedIn’s member database.

If you are the type that has a hard time networking, even though you know you should, this could be just what you are looking for. What’s powerful is that once you are connected with someone, you can see who else they are connected with. LinkedIn provides an unprecedented view into the direct and indirect connections we have with others. Whether you are looking for someone to connect with for a new job or a company to partner with, LinkedIn can help illuminate a path that might be more powerful and easier than trying to get through the front door.

Be Seen

LinkedIn gives members’ a lot of control over their information. Members can elect what information to provide, and determine whether that information is public or just visible to those they have connected with. While everyone needs to determine this for themselves, the more information provided and made public, the more valuable LinkedIn will be as a tool. The more public information there is, the greater the chances that your profile may show up in searches, increasing the chances of making a valuable connection with someone else.

Reach Out

Like all social media venues, participating and interacting with others is an important element to LinkedIn. The easiest way is through the Answers section, which allows members to ask and answer questions. This interaction may lead to new connections and also serve as a way to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise.

If you are just getting your feet wet in the social media arena, then LinkedIn is an excellent place to begin. Its professional focus makes it beneficial to individuals and companies alike. There is so much more to LinkedIn that just couldn’t even be touched on here, so I encourage everyone to visit the site to learn more. Once you start using LinkedIn, you may find it so useful and important that you’ll want to add the URL to your page to your business card! See you on LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com/in/brianrbrown.

Maximize your LinkedIn experience

  • Add as much of your work history and education as you feel comfortable.
  • Make as much of your information publicly available as you feel comfortable.
  • Participate in the different areas of LinkedIn and be sure to revisit the site at least once a week to see what is happening within your network.
  • Be sure to add links back to your own website and blog if you have them. And select “Other” when adding them which will allow you to change the default “My website/company/blog” text to the name of your company or whatever you would like.
  • Be sure to customize your “public page” URL with your name or other text that others may search for you with. Not only does it make it easier to tell to others, it may further help your page to show up in search results.
  • Checkout the “Profile Views” to get an idea on who may have been checking out your profile.

Web Analytics: Measuring Success By the Click

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the December 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

Is your Web site successful? Was this year more successful than last year; this month more or less successful than last month? These are important questions to try to answer. If you sell online, success might be based on selling more. This may be a start, but it may not be the entire picture. If you don’t sell online, this may seem even more daunting.

The beauty of the Web is that you can gather and measure more information to answer these and many other questions much easier than you can in the offline world. For those who feature both a brick-and-mortar location and an online presence, there are even powerful ways to connect the dots between the two.

Why Measure?

Measuring site performance is important because it helps understand what works and what doesn’t. It helps determine where to focus efforts and resources. What days of the week or month does the site get the most visitors, and perhaps more importantly, sales? And are the two correlated in any way? What other sites send traffic? Are people finding what they are looking for on the site?

The right tools, approach, and a little planning can even turn your Web site into a tool for measuring the effectiveness of your offline marketing. For instance, which papers or magazines send the most traffic? Is the Sunday paper more effective than any other day?

How to Measure?

There is a myriad of performance tools you can tap into. At the most basic level is log file analyzers and basic Web stats programs. These provide a basic glimpse into various metrics, but for more useful information, you need to step up to a Web analytics package.

Web analytics packages run the gamut from highly complex to rather simple tools, and from several thousand dollars to free. In fact, one of the most popular and fairly powerful tools on the market is offered for free from Google.

The complexities of implementing Google Analytics on a Web site may vary. Most sites though can probably get by with simply copying and pasting in a bit of code into each page (for static sites) or into the page templates (for dynamic sites).

What to Measure?

As you’ve gathered, there is an endless supply of metrics and data points that can be examined. What these are and which ones should be monitored vary from site to site and may depend on whether it is a large site or a small one, ecommerce or otherwise, and so on.

There are some metrics that are universally important though. If you are just getting started with analytics, then these are the best ones to start looking at first. Start by looking at the visitor patterns — what days are high days for traffic versus low days? Then look to see the makeup of how visitors get to your site — what percentage of traffic is direct versus search engines versus other sites (referral traffic)? Then look at which pages get viewed the most? Then look at the keywords that send search engine users to your site.

That should keep you plenty busy for awhile. As you become more comfortable with your analytics package, you can start to drill down into each of these areas (and others) in more detail. You can even find out what keywords drove traffic from the Yahoo search engine on the second Tuesday to a specific page if you’d like.

Web analytics can be extremely powerful and is a tool that every site owner should tap into. Like any tool though, wielded improperly, it can do more harm than good. It’s easy to draw correlations in data that aren’t there. Web analytics tools are less about providing answers, and more about providing information to help answer questions, and often, identify new questions to ask.

Maximizing Measurements

  • Double check any assumptions made from the data collected.
  • Don’t make correlations or connections between data that isn’t there.
  • Use the analytics package and your site to test theories.
  • Pick a metric to track over time, identify the direction you want it to move, then work to make it happen.
  • Always look at the data from different angles and perspectives, looking for patterns and trends.

Are You Accessible? – Accessible Web Design

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the October 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

What has always fascinated me about the Web isn’t all the graphics, images, sounds, and videos; it’s the ability to access all kinds of information. Just about anything you could ever want to know is often just a few clicks away. That’s pretty incredible. All that other stuff is just icing on the cake.Yet for some people, the access that many of us now take for granted, still seems like a distant dream. Believe it or not, I’m not talking about people in far away countries who don’t have the technology to access the Web or who may be prohibited from or limited in their access. I’m talking about people right here who may even be your neighbors.

What Is Accessibility?

In regard to the Web, accessibility refers to uninhibited access to information and in interacting with and navigating a Web site. Confused? Under a narrow definition, this typically refers to users who have some form of disability. This might be blindness or vision impairment, but also deafness or hearing impairment, or motor skills impairments.

But a broader definition that some of us in the community like to adhere to include everyone and anyone. While this might still be based on a person’s physical abilities or limitations, it might also include someone without any of these challenges, but who may be challenged in other ways – perhaps by a small laptop screen or Web-enabled mobile phone.

In either case, accessibility is something that every Web site owner needs to become aware of. Target just settled a class action lawsuit regarding the accessibility of Target.com in relation to visually impaired users – to the tune of $6 million. It’s time accessibility became a priority.

Why Is Accessibility Important?

Let’s set aside the notion of, “because it’s the right thing to do.” The real question is, “why would you turn away any customer?” When you think about it, the Web could serve as a great asset to those who experience any of these challenges. I know how challenging it is just trying to pick out cold medicine even when I can see all the boxes and read all the labels.

Now imagine if you were blind. How challenging must it be to go shopping even for everyday items? Imagine being able to go online to shop and have your purchases delivered to you. Just having that as a viable option must be rather empowering.

There are assistive technologies, such as screen readers that vocalize the content of a Web page, that help those with various impairments to use computers and the Web. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Web sites present far too many barriers even for these tools. So while the technology is there, many sites are way behind.

Understand that many of these challenges are also prohibitive to mobile browsers, which is a large and quickly growing market. Or realize there is a very large, aging population that will be facing increasing vision and dexterity issues simply due to age. And last time I introduced you to search engine optimization, or SEO. You might like to know that search engine spiders often face the same accessibility challenges, so the more accessible your site, the more SEO friendly your site.

If I was Target, I’d go out of my way to develop the best, most accessible Web site around. I’d become the go-to site when it comes to ease of use, tapping into this under-served market while every other site tries to catch up.

Everything that is done to improve accessibility is beneficial to all users. It’s a no-brainer.

Tips Toward Developing Accessible Web Sites

  • Use alt attributes on significant, non-purely-decorative images.
  • Use HTML elements properly (headings, lists, etc.).
  • Use CSS and table-less design to structure Web pages.
  • Use textual links instead of images and be sure the anchor text is descriptive, rather than “click here.”
  • Provide no-script alternatives to script-based functioning, Flash and AJAX.
  • Provide alternative navigation to jump to key content areas on Web pages.

Do You Know SEO?

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the September 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

While I’ve mentioned SEO, or search engine optimization, a number of times, I realize that it is probably a rather foreign concept to some. Actually, if my recent 20 year high school reunion has taught me anything, it’s more likely that the concept is quite foreign to most readers. Let’s change that.

Why SEO Matters

We’ll start with why it matters. Think about how you use search engines to find what you’re looking for. You type in a couple keywords and see what the engines come back with. Maybe you refine your initial search by removing or adding a word or two. But how many pages of results do you look through — 10, 5, 3, 2, 1? If you’re like most, maybe just one or two pages. In fact, maybe you only look at the first few results on the first page.

So let’s say that you have a Web site about thimbles. Hopefully you already have people who know about and visit your site already. But what about all those people who, sadly, don’t even know you exist? Don’t even know that your site is the ultimate site for thimbles. Will you have to wait until they hear about you from someone who already knows about you? How long will that take? And while thimbles may be pretty cool in your world, they aren’t exactly a hot topic to everyone else. They probably aren’t coming up during conversations at work, out to dinner, or at home.

For many Web sites, the exposure, traffic, and hopefully sales, if that is their goal, that comes from search engines is considerable. The vast majority of that traffic comes from being found on the first page, and especially the top, of results. That’s the goal of SEO.

So What is Search Engine Optimization?

Each search engine has their own “formula,” their algorithm, for doing what and how they gather and return information. How the search results are determined is based on how relevant the search engine feels each possible result could be. This is based on all of the information they’ve previously retrieved from the Web and indexed within their databases, along with hundreds of signals they use to determine the quality and authority of each Web page and site they’ve uncovered.

Optimization, as you can probably guess, consists of a number of techniques that improve a site or page’s ability and opportunity to be returned by search engines for relevant searches. Ideally, as close to the top of those results as possible. SEO isn’t just about the keywords used on a site though, that’s only part of it. SEO is also about the technical architecture and functioning of a Web site. Many sites are prohibitive to the search engine spiders, so the words used on a page don’t even matter since the spiders can’t get to the page to begin with.

So for our thimble site, you could be the greatest around with the best information, highest quality thimbles, lowest prices, you name it, but if the search engines can’t find you or you aren’t returned high within the search results, you could be missing out on a lot of business and site visitors. Google currently claims to have a little over 1 million results for thimbles. That’s a fair amount of competition for the first page of results.

You might be lucky though if you are only competing for thimbles. If your site is all about shoes, the competition just got even greater — Google claims over 380 million results for shoes.

Essence of SEO

  • Monitoring and staying on top of how the search engines work and the constant changes they make to their algorithms. And understanding which SEO techniques are considered acceptable by search engines and which ones are not.
  • Improving a site’s structure to improve search engine indexation.
  • Improving usage and positioning of relevant content within the pages of a site.
  • Building external links to a site (note that some may consider link building to be part of SEO, while others see it related but separate).

It’s That Time Again – Christmas in July

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the July 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

Thoughts are turning to that exciting time of the year again – no, I don’t mean evenings outdoors, barbecuing, or networking on the golf course – I mean Christmas. Seems like just yesterday the last bit of snow finally melted away – come to think, it practically was yesterday.

It’s the other Christmas in July. While the online world gives the impression of instantaneous-ness, the reality isn’t always so. Sure, you can often make changes or updates to your Web site faster and with less effort than anything comparable in the offline world, but most from a marketing point of view, the online world isn’t that much different than the offline one.

Online retailers understand this fact, but the principles apply to anyone with a Web presence. Even if your key time of year isn’t the holiday shopping season, forethought and preplanning out from key dates should be a part of your Web marketing calendar. Let’s take a look at some of the key drivers to plan into your calendar.

Code Freeze

Most online retailers know this one well. It is that point when all changes and anything beyond basic content updating stops. This may be 30, 60, or even more days out from your peak online period. The reasons for a code freeze are hard to argue with, since whether your make or break period is during the height of holiday shopping or summer vacation planning, the last thing you want is a site that isn’t functioning properly, or goes down entirely due to a major site update.

Organic Search Traffic

While I haven’t gone into depth regarding Search Engine Optimization (SEO) yet, anyone can appreciate the wonderful benefits of coming up in the top spots of the major search engines for highly relevant searches. Understand though that these positions rarely come without cost. While these natural search listings don’t carry a per-click cost, they do carry other costs – the cost of hiring and training staff or the cost of hiring a search marketing firm, not to mention the cost of time.

The financial costs are the easiest to reconcile. Compared to other forms of marketing, they quite often pay for themselves many times over, or at least cover enough to justify. Time however, as in anything we do, is the hardest challenge. The problem is when there isn’t enough time left; at that point, it’s still a sunk cost even after the fact.

Unfortunately, this is a reality that still catches far too many unexpectedly. While you may get lucky once in awhile – your site was already strong for a particular search phrase, some of your key search phrases aren’t overly competitive or are very brand focused (your brand that is) – this is a rarity that is becoming rarer every day. Ideally, you should plan three to six months out for top positioning for natural search results, and possibly more for highly competitive phrases. This of course is just the planning … how you get there is another article.

Planning for the future

  • Start planning major site changes such as redesigns, script or structural changes 6-12 months out from your code freeze.
  • Create an event calendar around your peak sales and traffic times, and then back out at least 3 months for your deadline date for any SEO related tasks.
  • Keep and maintain permanent landing page URLs for any seasonal or regularly recurring events, rather than creating new URLs. Continuing using your “Christmas” page for year-round for extra holiday clearance items or start a prediction list or pre-buy opportunity for the coming season’s predicted hits. This URL will gain age and authority over time and may rank better than creating new URLs each time.