Monday, September 29, 2014

SEO vs. SEM: the Real War for Top Placement

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Forget net neutrality, there's a bigger war taking place online today. It's the battle between search engine optimization (SEO) versus search engine marketing (SEM) to get to the top of the search engine result pages (SERP). And the most shocking thing about it is most business leaders don't realize that the two practices are working against each other.

Wait a second? Did he just say SEO and SEM compete against each other? Yep. Most companies erroneously use the terms interchangeably which is at the crux of the problem. So let's first start with an explanation of terms.

SEO is a practice of tailoring or "optimizing" the contents of your websites, landing pages, pdfs, videos, and social media posts so that your brand (product, service, company, or client) comes up at the top (or close to it) when someone performs a search. While SEM is the practice of bidding on placement of your brand in the designated marketing areas of a search engine and/or their partner sites for contextual advertising, and paid inclusion.

But let's simplify that further in a way that makes sense to all businesses. SEO = free. SEM = paid. And the overwhelming percentage of a company's SEM costs is due to the fact that they do their SEO poorly, inconsistently, or were late to the game. True, the on-going costs of an SEO service or company are not free, but they are fixed and you are not in a bidding war against all your competition. And some people prefer the paid searches as they are highlighted and/or appear first.

Search marketing is deployed by many sites not just search engines. LinkedIn lets job applicants appear at the top for a fee when applying to positions, for example. Dating sites let you highlight your profile and your face appear at the top of searches for a price. But these non-search engine sites do not let you optimize your profile like you are able to optimize your web content. 

Search engines (e.g. Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.) actually are giving you a choice of whether you want to pay or not. And they actually reward those who adhere to their search algorithms standards (white hat SEO practices) with top positions.

The irony is that SEM is winning this war simply because SEO practices are so widely ignored. Listen, no one said Google or its search algorithms were easy to understand. Or keep up with. They change it periodically for two reasons: one to improve customer searching satisfaction, and two, to prevent all the tricks (black hat practices) SEO companies and webmasters devise to cheat the system such as bogus or reciprocated back links, replicated sites, irrelevant bloggers, etc.

As I like to tell people, I've literally been doing Google Adwords before Google was. The early keyword bidding companies have been gobbled up (or Googled up as the case may be) since then, but those were simplier days. Now Google Adwords and the Bing/Yahoo Advertising are the one that matter for most businesses.

But SEM has become significantly more customizable (read complicated). Then there's Ad Tech that watches your browsing habits and serves you ads based upon your history. More and more companies are creating SEM manager positions and less towards SEO. I'm not saying SEM doesn't have it's place. Some of it actually aids in ranking because it drives more viewers to your site. But SEM should be the foot soldier not the General leading your marketing efforts.

What about the browsers? Where do they fall in this SEO/SEM war? Each browser calls them something different (add ons, extensions, extras, plugins etc.) and I guarantee that Adblock is at the top of the most downloaded. People have it in their power to block all those ads automatically. More tweaks let you easily block those bots that track your every move. I've been using these so long that I'm often confused when people complain about the ads on their gmail, facebook, news sites, everywhere because I no longer see them.

Once the general public catches onto the ad blocking plugins, the SEO/SEM war will heat up even more. Such things as pop-under ads, and pay-per-view ads (not to be confused with pay-per-click) will become more prevalent. If you're wondering, I am often paid to do both so think of me as Switzerland when it comes to this battle. But for now, those putting all their funds into SEM and not SEO may regret it in the long run.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Filling Open Spaces with Your Marketing Brand

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Maybe it's a sign of age, a growing reliance on technology, or just impatience, but when I'm introduced to someone now I forget their name literally the moment they mention it. But then there are things that people say that I wish I could forget but can't. I'm not talking about disturbing, unsettling, or insulting remarks - my mind does a good job of erasing those memories. No, I'm talking about random thoughts that are seemingly insignificant at the time, not good or bad, but somehow stay with me forever.

For instance, every time I wash a cooking pan, I think of an old co-worker named Chuck. When I was a newlywed, Chuck goadingly quipped to my new bride how he'd bet that I was so lazy that I didn't wash the handle when washing the pan. (It turns out he had been admonished by his wife for the same oversight.) "Yes," my then wife replied in a frustrated voice, "and it drives me crazy!"

Not only did Chuck's off-the-cuff remark land me a place on the couch that evening, it lodged in my memory forever. I can think of other instances when acquaintances and friends made random comments and observations that replay in my head like a bad infomercial. Not all of them were sarcastic, or critical. Sometimes they were funny and even sweet. They all had one thing in common. They all occurred when I was in the midst of performing menial tasks that I do everyday that do not require thought nor ones that I associate with any person or brand.

As a marketer, that stickiness is what we shoot for every time. If I was somehow able to do this cognitively and in a positive way, I'd be onto something. The challenge of course is finding these open spaces. And not just tasks, but sights and sounds: the windshield wipers on your car, your laser printer spitting out another page, etc. These open spaces are golden opportunities to associate products and services with targeted customers.

Who or what do you think of when you are washing a pan? I'm willing to bet no one and nothing. Who do your customers think of when they are using the products and services you market? Now we are zoning in the essence of branding. We are always striving to have our company/product top of mind. But unless it's new technology, there are a lot of competitors trying to do the same thing. Digital marketing has allowed us to better pinpoint more of those open spaces while social media provides a way to punctuate those points.

Open spaces should not be confused with the practice of selling benefits over features. I'm not talking about marketing the sizzle over the steak. I'm saying that these open spaces may have nothing at all to do with your product. What do polar bears really have to do with drinking Coca-Cola? So there's no reason why I can't think of your software went hiding my shoelaces, or remember your breakfast cereal when I hear the beep of my car alarm. Rather than shoot for the low hanging fruit of marketing and compete with an army of others, we should be searching out that Achilles' heel. So rather than the pan, look to the handle.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Face Palm: Monetizing Facebook and Other Websites Made Easy

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Facebook revealed this week that it will be tagging news items from "The Onion" as satire as it has received many complaints from members confused the style of humor. This announcement comes just days after Facebook's decision to begin charging a $9.99 monthly subscription fee for  membership beginning in September for its satire-challenged members. OK. The part about the social networking king charging was satire about satire. But Facebook, like many free websites are not joking about looking for innovative ways to monetize. And it's been a tough road to hoe and the road just installed toll booths. But I always know a short cut.
I make a large majority of purchases online, so I don't begrudge any website trying to monetize its efforts. But when you start off as free, it's difficult not to mention risky to start charging for your intangible services. Their remuneration is paid in data. Our information currency. But security issues and privacy acts have been catapulted to the forefront. Now though I commend Facebook on the wise decision of keeping membership free, I actually feel bad for its marketing team as any move it makes is highly criticized and often unfairly attacked. To the online community, what begins free must always remain free.  At least that's what they believe.

This is not to say that charging for something that was once free is doomed for failure. I can think of many sites, that offered it services for free initially and then began charging. But these sites most of them web apps and software services from the outset let it's free users know that the free ride was either limited by time or by functionality.

Many e-mail marketing web-based software services handle this quite well. They either limit the number of e-mails you can send for the contacts you can send to, but you know when you sign-up that if you like it you will pay for. Sort of like the free sample station at Trader Joe's. 

I'm a heavy Facebook user. I use it to correspond often with close friends and relatives, occasionally with old school chums and business associates, but most of my correspondence are with my Facebook-only Friends. These are people whom I never have and likely never will meet or even chat with over the phone. Losing contact with them to be a great loss but one I would accept begrudgingly if Facebook was to start charging. And most of the people I know on Facebook would follow suit. It comes down to perceive value. For example, many Netflix customers who rarely rent a movie, spend hours on Facebook each day. But if they could only justify paying for one, which one do you think it would be?
Actually, Facebook has started to charge its members in a roundabout way by limiting who sees your posts and status updates. Now for a fee, you can "promote" your post for everyone to see. Nice innovation, poor execution. There are better ways - like monetizing its brand and partner interfaces - to increase its profits.  They tried a phone that didn't fare well. I'm not saying it's easy with such a huge infrastructure but it's possible. My solution involves a hybrid between an AOL redux and a plug and play, build-your-own Interface similar to WordPress modules. I'm sure there are many others.

Google was in a similar situation several years back and reinvented advertising with keyword sponsorship and its AdWords. And after an initial struggle Facebook seems to be doing better with it sponsored ads but in a future article I will discuss how that world is about to see it's bubble burst.