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SEO Tools in Review Part One

Posted on May 21, 2009 by Zach

Any person with a little knowledge of SEO has obviously noticed the onslaught of SEO tools hitting the marketplace these days. A variety of free, paid and subscription based tools have become available to the masses and I have been fortunate enough to try most of them. Some are good, others are great and still many are rubbish but I thought it might be nice to create a little collection of the ones I like the best and see as having the most value.

Now I know this is not every SEO tool ever produced but these are the ones that I not only see used most often but have also used myself.

SEOmoz SEO Tools

SEOmoz has some really great tools, but some of the more advanced are tied to their subscription service. I believe that they were one of the first companies to really start making and tailoring complex tools for the SEO and marketer alike. My favorite tool is the Trifecta which used to be called the Page Strength tool. It can grab loads of great information related to a page or domain. Many of their guides and SEOmoz Pro features are also great but those do start at $79.00 a month.

ShoeMoney Internet Marketing Tools

ShoeMoney recently launched ShoeMoney Tools which is a little heavy on the PPC side of things but has some great tools none the less. My favorite tool is the Domain Marketplace which has thousands of unregistered domains and along with any pertinent information tied to them. The rest of the SEO tools are a bit generic but the PPC tools are great and since they are tied to the ShoeMoney name you know they are good. ShoeMoney, much like SEOmoz, has some great premium content and also very interesting and valuable forums. Now, none of these tools are free, its $79.00 a month for access.

SEM Check SEO Tools

SEM Check is a little different, it’s a quick and easy way to analyze a website for common problems and opportunities concerning search engine marketing. It checks things like server status, redirects, error pages, etc. then provides a nice organized actionable report based on the errors found. While it’s also a paid tool it's only $12.00 for one report or they have subscription type memberships that include X number of reports a month packages.

Raven Internet Marketing Tools

I actually used Raven tools for quite a while until they changed their pricing structure. What drew me to this service was their SERP tracking tool which I found to be really valuable. They have some pretty awesome Social Media tools and one thing that I do really like about their service is that they support multiple users/websites and agencies which is pretty cool for those who need it. Customizable reports is another bonus they provide. Again, this service is also paid; it starts at $79.00 a month and there are caps to the SERP tracker (6 cents for every keyword past 1000 keywords).

SEO Book SEO Tools

SEO Book has two of my current favorite SEO tools in the keyword tool and rank checker tool. The SEO Book Keyword suggestion tool is the best free keyword tool that I have found and the rank checker is actually a fantastic SERP tracking tool especially when coupled with the site rank reporter. Now the rank checker is a Firefox plugin and they also have the SEO for Firefox plugin which is a great Firefox addition.

SEO Chat Tools

SEO Chat Tools have been around for a while and show the most age comparisons as opposed to the rest of the tools I’ve discussed, in addition to some very unique tools as well. Some of my favorites being their Domain Typo Generator, Multiple Datacenter Keyword Position Checker, Keyword Difficulty Tool, Check Server Headers and Google Dance Tool. What’s great about all of these tools is that they are free, and even though some are a little old and buggy it’s hard to pass up free.

Webconfs SEO Tools

Webconfs SEO Tools have also been around for a while and like the preceding tools are also free. Some great tools include the Domain Stats Tool, Backlink Builder, and the Website Keyword Suggestion tool. The rest of their tools are pretty generic and they certainly don't have as great of a selection as the other suites.

SEO Tool Set

SEO Tool Set was created by Bruce Clay and is free (but subscribed users seem to get more functionality). Tools like the Check Server, Competition Research, Ranked Page Report and Linked Analytic Report are all pretty good. Two great additions are Bruce Clay’s Search Engine Relationship Chart and the SEMToolBar which is a great add-on for Firefox and IE.

Some honorable mentions that I also use are Firefox add-ons: SearchStatus, Web Developer and Firebug.

Keep in mind that even the paid services will promote their tools by offering trial memberships for dirt cheap; ShoeMoney and SEOmoz have both done this in the last six months.  Watch them closely as they are coming out with new tools and improved reports all the time.  Many have publicized their interest in community feedback and recommendations so if you are looking for a particular tool don’t be shy about sharing your interest with them, you may be surprised at the type of response you may receive.



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Buy, Build, or Leverage? Reassessing the Value of Third Party Relationships

Posted on May 6, 2009 by Zach

Recently, Elastic Path presented a great webinar on the topic of Buy, Build, or Leverage? It was a really great webinar which presented some great information and posed some interesting questions. Now of course Elastic Path is an eCommerce vendor and therefore certainly have some reasons to push their own product, however, overall I thought it was very interesting and that they did a good job of presenting the points and issues from all sides.

Since the Gordian Project uses a custom platform there are many instances where our problems and solutions can get technical in nature and be solved by an array of solutions. While our platform is mostly custom we have certainly assimilated solutions which we would rather buy or leverage than build such as LivePerson, PowerReviews, Google Analytics, Mcafee Secure, etc. All of these solutions we decided not to build, find a partner and then integrate their solution into our platform, each provides value for us in its own unique way. Most of these solutions were relatively easy to come to an agreement on, integrate and begin using. The webinar does a great job addressing this and I applaud them on their great presentation.

This webinar got me thinking about possible issues though and what we have faced in the past. What happens when things do not work out the way you intend or a solution is no longer providing the value you are looking for? Our saga in this regard has been the site search and merchandising elements of our website. When our website was first created it had custom site search functionality which worked well enough, nothing spectacular, no killer bells and whistles. After several years with this solution we decided that something more robust was needed, preferably with better search, marketing and merchandising capabilities. After looking at all of the options we decided to take on a 3rd party vendor who was considered best of breed in this field. After all negotiations were finished, and documents were inked, we were able to begin the task of integrating the solution, which was no small task. 

The solution worked especially well for most of our commitment with our partner, but issues with scalability arose when taking into account multiple websites.  Product upgrades on their part, required further development on our part became frequent and with less and less accurate notice.  Website changes on our part required cooperation on their part.  While there were few there were enough reliability issues and while any downtime is inopportune, two weeks before Christmas can really hurt an internet retailer.  Finally, there was a hefty price tag associated with the service.  In looking at all of these pieces together, the perceived value of the service began to dwindle. 

With all of that in mind, late last year we decided to forgo renewing our contract and instead decided to build something in-house.  While our solution would have fewer bells and whistles the resolution would be more than sufficient for our current needs, and far better than what we had initially. After some intense planning and development, using what we had learned, taking notes from what industry leaders were doing, and utilizing the research available to us, we created, what is in my opinion a pretty great solution.  It’s our own, and we have full control. While we continue to make tweaks it has been a very positive experience, and it turned out to be a financially smart decision as well.



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Google Checkout Transaction Processing Fee Changes

Posted on March 25, 2009 by Zach

No doubt retailers that offer Google Checkout as a payment option are now aware Google is changing their transaction processing fees to a new tiered structure and removing the Adwords processing credits. This is a pretty large change they plan on implementing, and one that will likely be adding much higher processing fees for Google Checkout Merchants.

Old Fee structure V. New Fee Structure

Under the old model if you processed $100,000 in one month through Google Checkout which represented 1,000 orders you would be charged $2400 in processing fees, which include the per transaction fee of $0.20.  Seems legit right? But let’s say you also spent $10,000 on Google Adwords the previous month, you would get that $100,000 processed for free because they will process 10 times whatever your Adwords spend is for free and everything else at the normal rates.  Nice kicker huh, for taking on Google checkout and also using multiple Google services?

Under the new model if you processed $100,000 in one month through Google Checkout which represented 1,000 orders (this pushes merchants into the lowest tier of processing fees at 1.9%) you would be charged $2200 is processing fees, which includes the per transaction fee of $0.30.  The fees are slightly lower than the previous model, that's great right?  Maybe not, let’s say you still spent that same $10,000 on Adwords the previous month, under the new model you now owe the full $2,200 in processing fees! They are removing the Adwords processing credits.  Wha wha wha!

Our wonderful checkout representative plans on calling me this week to review the changes and let us know what they plan on accomplishing with the fee changes, but still that's a pretty steep increase in fees. The fees are especially high when you take into consideration, that we made the upfront investment to take on Google checkout, pay for the development and fully integrate Google checkout. Granted, they have tossed on some awesome promotions since we implemented the feature and have successfully heavily engaged users.  It’s still a hard chunk of change to write a check for (or never see as the case may be). On top of the hard economic times, I hope that this does not affect too many merchants in an extremely negative fashion.  I could see merchants with large Adwords budgets who process a lot of dollars through Google Checkout possibly getting thrown under the bus on this one.



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Policy Updates: Who Reads the Policies Anyways?

Posted on March 24, 2009 by Zach

Recently, we had some interns helping us review our policy pages. Overall both I and the interns thought it was a pretty interesting project and we will certainly be making some necessary changes to our policies. Specific changes include: making our policies more readable, more user friendly, and displaying the most valuable information in an easy to read layout.

Before we set out on this project we knew that our policies had not been updated in a while, and we were interested in how we stacked up against competitors and other Internet retailers.  We focused on what was displayed in others policies, the terms of their policies and how strictly they where enforced. We also paid particular attention to what was enforced and why some policies seemed more flexible than others, and of those policies which ones were clear sticking points for merchants. With that in mind we decided that our onslaught of interns would be perfect for the job of researching website policies and providing us with some recommendations.

Throughout the entire process I had to combat the question, "who reads the policies anyways?” and I had to explain that it’s true, most people do not read the policies, upfront.  What the interns needed to understand was that the policies contain essential pieces of information which need to be made public and available to our users regardless of what point in the buying cycle the customer decides to read or review them. While someone may not care what the returns process is upfront, you know they certainly care if they get the wrong product, a damaged product or simply do not like what they ordered. Clear and concise information regarding how to contact us, answers to common questions, order status, return a product, terms of use, privacy information etc., needs to be available.

Having this information is not only important, legally, but it is also important to keep transparency between our staff and consumers.  When imperative information is made public upfront it ensures that we are properly servicing our customers and in turn giving them the ability to serve themselves.


 

How is the Economy Affecting Your Marketing Budget? Five Tips to Weather the Storm

Posted on February 17, 2009 by Zach

Much of the news and economic issues lately has had me taking a hard look at our marketing budget, performance and department as a whole. One of the interesting things about our marketing department is that we don't have a hard set budget, we drive towards a spend amount that is calculated as a certain percentage of our overall sales by website. Some people call this ERS or effective revenue share but what it means is that we keep our marketing spend appropriate to the amount of dollars we are selling. This can also mean that our budget fluctuates and is never really the same or static. This has seemed to work well for us thus far but not without its issues. With that in mind we have been doing a fair amount of year end reviews and planning for the future. I’ve put together my top five list of things which I think can help companies, especially those like ours, weather the storm.

Review Performance

Review the performance of all of your marketing channels for 2008 and for just the past three to four months. Are there channels not meeting your goals? Perhaps it’s time to either reevaluate the channel or give it the axe.

Review Performance Goals

Now is certainly a good time (if not yesterday) to review your performance goals to make sure they set up both the company and or department for success. If a company’s goal is profitability then its department’s goals need to be able to support that. This goes hand in hand with point one, review performance; if company goals don't trickle down then are they really being supported?

Review Reporting

If you are doing the first two you might as well review how your reporting works. Make sure to include a review of what reports each person or department creates and what the top metrics are for determining success or failure. Even if it’s just a matter of streamlining the reporting process this can provide a lot of value to all in terms of visibility and expectations.

Review Partnerships

Work with your partners or vendors for mutually beneficial compromises. Many companies are having a hard time right now and it can be a good time to reevaluate partnerships, tools and vendors for those which may not be worth the money, especially right now. Sometimes it’s as simple as being honest with your expectations and honest about what’s happening in reality in terms of rates, contracts, sales, spend, etc.

Be Who You Are

Sometimes companies get caught up in who they want to be and end up setting themselves up for failure. Now is a good time to be realistic about who you and your company is and plan for the future. This can be a great rally point for an entire company, department, etc. It can also be a great point to figure out, define or redefine what your competitive edge is and what the priorities should be in a down economy.

Many of these items may seem like common sense, but until someone really steps back and does it they aren't being fully utilized. I recommend reviewing these periodically to make sure everything is still in line.

eBay's Imminent Collapse

Posted on February 5, 2009 by Zach

Recently, I've been trying to use eBay to sell some old electronics and other items I no longer have a need for (my new year's resolution this year).  However, I continue to ask myself why it seems like every facet of eBay has gone downhill?

Now, you have to understand, in my latter high school and early college days I was nursing an eBay addiction. The buying, the selling, finding great deals, and sniping were gripping.  It wasn't just me though, good times were had by all.  I got to sell items I didn't need and never had a problem finding buyers. Now however, I can barely sell an item on eBay, with most of my auctions being for used, in great condition electronics and accessories, I only seem to get a handful of bids. Not only that but it seems like the entire process has become more expensive and more complicated especially in terms of listing and selling items. No wonder it seems like people aren't buying from eBay, the process is an expensive convoluted one for sellers which directly affects potential customers. The purchasing process is cyclical. Sellers do better when they have more images, better quality data, a clean and user friendly interface, etc. eBay instead discourages sellers from implementing the above, if the seller wants to add an extra image, it's an additional charge, a cleaner template for listing is also an additional charge and so on.  A "good deal" only gets the purchaser interested, if you're lucky you will convert, but consumers are used to seeing high quality images from multiple angles, multiple checkout options, related products, product reviews, the list goes on and on. The lack of incentive for sellers to provide this information for consumers only furthers the lack of interest in purchasing through eBay.

The Gordian Project also has an eBay store which provides a different perspective (this one likely more negative). We used to have a very profitable eBay store, listing thousands of items in both auction format and buy it now. This however did not continue due to eBay's fee structure changes, store list changes, feedback changes and ranking algorithm changes. It's been a sad fact but we have watched our eBay store dwindle to a fraction of what it once was, where we list a handful of our products and constantly seem thwarted by the changes mentioned above. Even though we have tried our hardest to turn around our store performance, despite the changes, it seems as though we are swimming against a current which will not let up.

Having an intimate knowledge in both situations has caused me to not only think about but expect the imminent demise of eBay. Especially now when you think a site like eBay would thrive on these economic conditions, yet I still have a hard time buying and selling on eBay.

 

 

Three things Google Apps is Missing: What to Add to Make it a Real Cloud Computing Contender

Posted on December 30, 2008 by Zach

Recently we began moving our users to a full roll out of Google Apps, email, calendar, docs, sites, and the whole shebang. Needless to say, from the user perspective, it's been quite an interesting experience. Along the way I found a few items which I think would really improve the overall usability and experience of Google Apps for its users.

One of the largest gaping holes in Google Apps is any kind of task or project management solution to increase collaboration between their products. They have e-mail, calendaring, docs, chat, web pages and sites, though there is really no service to tie that all together to gain extra value from collaboration and management. I can see overwhelming opportunity here; the user’s ability to manage and share documents, calendar items, resources, web pages, sites, with the ease of one collective tool could help streamline department activities as well as interdepartmental activities throughout the organization.  By adding this function it would, in my opinion, take the product that extra mile and make it much more valuable to the small, medium and large businesses or groups of people collectively using Google Apps. But all hope is not lost, I have recently heard from a trusted source that Google is looking to break into this arena and round out their Google Apps offering.  Hopefully that solution will be pushed out soon so that we are able to reap the benefits of a more well rounded office and collaboration application.

The storage of other files and document types is my next issue. Since I already use Google for my e-mail, calendar, documents, web pages, sites and homepage, it would make sense to have the ability to store files that I may need (especially for work), which are not documents or formats Google apps uses or other items which I deem important. Having access to an online storage application that is built into the solutions I already use would be great.  If this was the case, I then care little about the computer I am using or location, everything I need is online in one location, ready for me to use. I understand the email and Google sites can, to a certain degree, handle this functionality; however, let's face it, it's no Amazon S3.

A transition from Microsoft Office is still not as smooth as it could be. I transferred my mail, calendar, contacts and many docs to Google Apps, I had issues with all of them except my documents. With email I had issues importing my folders and creating labels (I am still not happy with how that is working for me, I had hundreds of folders in Outlook).  I was also unable to get my contacts imported with all information and in the groups I had in Outlook. My entire calendar appointments were imported but all information regarding reoccurring appointments and attendees was not present. Those are just a few of the issues I had so, needless to say, I have had much smoother transitions to and from other platforms.

Finally, while these are not main features I would like to see or think would complete the product; these are some minor issues that continue to bug me that I think should be looked into.

Pasting into a Google doc without formatting: Nothing aggravates me more than trying to copy text or information from a website and have the formatting such as text size, color and spacing carried over into my Google Doc with no easy way to remove it. Typically I end up opening note pad, pasting the text there and then copying and pasting the text into a Google Doc.

Calendar notifications are not turned on by default. When rolling this out in my department we had a heck of a time trying to figure out why no one was getting notifications for new calendar appointments, we finally realized that notifications at least for us were turned off by default so appointments were being created and no one realized it! More than once, I ended up in a conference room by myself!

The Google Chat App sucks (even the online version is not much better).  Again, don't get me wrong I like Google Chat, but their chat client is just not up to snuff. I know that the online Google gadget has been upgraded but in all reality why isn't chatting with multiple people available in the client and why does the gadget pop out functionality duplicate my instant message conversations?

If you can answer any of these questions or have found ways to work around these issues your comments are welcomed and appreciated.  For now I think there are quite a few improvements that could be made to round out my cloud computing experience.

 

Google's Search Customization Details, Logged In or Not

Posted on December 4, 2008 by Zach

I keep tabs on many of our organic results rankings for certain keywords and the amount of traffic we receive from organic search. I know that customized results have been coming down the pipe in varying forms for a long time now, but was surprised to see them while logged out of my Google account.  The images below show that a search for "faucets" and then "moen", that a "Customized based on recent search activity. More details" is displayed.

Google then goes on to explain, "When possible, Google will customize your search results based on location and/or recent search activity. Additionally, when you're signed in to your Google Account, you may see even more relevant, useful results based on your web history. The following information was used to improve your search results for faucets: Recent Searches You or someone else recently searched for moen using this browser. Learn more"

Customized Search Result Set for the term Moen
 

I found this to be very interesting and proceeded to perform a variety of searches on varying topics to see what triggered the customization. After performing several searches I was able to duplicate it a few times.  I also figured out that by capitalizing my search terms, while the results sets were very similar, they did not receive the same customization as the searches that I left in a lower case. Needless to say I am extremely interested in how they are changing the result sets and how it will affect our organic ranked terms as well as the traffic we receive from that.  Has anyone else seen any interesting customization results from Google or seen noticeable changes in organic placement and traffic?

Google's Seach Customization Details



The User Experience: Do Current Shoppers Take Precedence Over New Visitors?

Posted on December 3, 2008 by Zach

While performing a little research I came across something which both amazed and shocked me. Apparently there is at least one internet retailer out there who can afford to turn away customers in an effort to provide a better user experience for those already on their website. It’s very red carpet. Like a bouncer in front of a gated entrance, with clipboard in hand referencing a list that you may or may not have gotten on.  I am talking about Macy's site governor (pictured below).  The feature keeps new visitors to the website at a temporary holding page until current users finish what they are doing and leave the website. Apparently they have some kind of user or performance based cap that kicks into effect to control the traffic and/or load time on their other pages. I am not sure if they simply don't have the capacity to handle all of the traffic they would normally receive or if there are other reasons to throttle users on their website but I found the solution both annoying and frustrating. If I was a “normal user” I would simply go to another website to find what I was looking for (who has time to wait around?). Since I was interested in this practice I held on to see when I would be let in. After waiting more than 10 minutes I was finally let in and forwarded to the normal Macy's homepage and was able to continue with normal use of the website.

While I am not sure what the reasons or results of such a feature on an eCommerce website might be, I also can't imagine what it might do for their bottom line and conversion rate. I started thinking about it, but was unable to test if the feature restricts visitors to non homepage pages, users from paid marketing channels, organic traffic or just direct traffic like myself? Regardless, it’s hard for me to grasp why an eCommerce website would enable a feature which deliberately turns away shoppers?  Comments are welcomed and encouraged, I would love to hear what others have to say about the subject.

Macy's Site Governor

 

 

Who is "The Company" to You?

Posted on November 6, 2008 by Zach

Vanessa wrote a great blog recently entitled "Ask Not What Your Company can do for You – Ask What You can do for Your Company" I thought this was a great blog and it prompted me to put together some similar thoughts I had recently while dealing with some employee issues. As a department head I constantly get bombarded for every request and issue imaginable, everything from why a certain food item is not in the kitchen, to schedules and work quality, interdepartmental communication, even the dreaded last roll of toilet paper panic attack. To top that all off, it also comes from employees that aren’t even in my department. Honestly I don't really mind dealing with most of these issues because I enjoy helping people and want to see both them and the business succeed. The terms "the business" or "the company" can be real stumbling blocks for people depending on the size of the company and the organization structure, because I don’t think that some understand that they are a part of what makes “the company”. I think sayings like "Is this Good for the Company?" from the movie Office Space are both funny, cliché and, for small businesses, oh so true.

At the Gordian Project we only have a handful of departments and just enough employees to support each department, except for the 3 managing partners, no one else has ownership of the company; but, because of our company's small size, relationship and organization everyone is "the company". Let me explain, we are not some gigantic company, with hundreds of offices, thousands of employees and an endless management structure. If that were the case "the company" would mean something entirely different (depending on your position I suppose) and that's something that personally I did not want in a career. At the Gordian Project I can honestly say that I am part of and have ownership in "the company". I and every other employee play a huge role, regardless of title, in how the company operates and or how successful or unsuccessful it is. As much as I believe in our managing partners, they can't do everything and the success of the company is not hinged upon their every decision. Success will only come with all of us working together, following our goals and objectives and caring about "the company". I know that my decisions, success and compensation as an individual are closely tied to that of the company. While I may not technically own part of the company, because of how the owners have set things up and decided to run their business I feel as though I do.  I know that they fairly and realistically divvy out compensation, and their overall goals are for both all of their employees and the company to succeed. What this also means is that most of my decisions also effect more than just me or my department, they affect "the company" which at this point is everyone. Like I mentioned above, I think this is a hard concept for some people to grasp. They continue their attitude from past jobs of not liking to work for "the man", or that we are some huge faceless corporation which does not care, and should meet some unrealistic expectations. Having employees with those attitudes in a small business can be both unproductive and destructive.

Office Space Banner- Is This Good for the COMPANY


This is where I have to side with Vanessa wholeheartedly (and be excited that she is part of my department).  At some point depending on what "the company" means to you, many of those entitlements could melt away and or have another level of meaningfulness so that, hopefully, the larger company objectives and goals can be focused on. If you truly care, at least about your own well being and/or that of your coworkers, then perhaps it's time to understand what "the company" means to you, and act accordingly.