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Free vs. Paid vs. Ridiculous Web Services

Posted on September 16, 2008 by Zach

Recently, one of the SEO tools I use to track SERP's (Search Engines Results Pages) placement has raised its pricing to what, I feel, is an outrageous level. It's quite sad, really; I like the product. I got in on its beta when it was free and truly fell in love with its ease of use and convenience.  When the product went from free to a paid service, I anted up and paid the fee to continue my use of the service.  I am a pretty big fan of free web services, but I paid the fee because I felt the price was reasonable and I really liked the product.  Everything seemed like it was going well, the company was automatically charging me the appropriate amount per month, the service worked great and I continued to enjoy its ease of use and convenience.  I say everything “was” going well because a couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the service with "new pricing" in the title and was horrified with what it contained.  Not only would the service be doing away with its current pricing structure but the cheapest level of service would be four times what I had been paying per month (they were nice enough to offer me a 30% discount but still, the ratio between what I am currently paying per month and what I would be paying per month is ridiculous).  I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Are they serious”?  To my dismay, and what I considered to be an additional slap in the face, they mentioned that they would also be offering a "free" account. I was excited, at first.  I then quickly realized that the free service was of no use to me considering how jank and crippled they made it. 

After reading the e-mail, I downloaded all of the data I could from the account and will most likely discontinue its use and search for a new service.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not against people making money, or charging for web services, (even though, as I mentioned, I am a pretty big fan of free web services) but at some point I have to draw the line.  I consider a 400% price increase ridiculous, especially without a 400% increase in the value of the product.  You would think with the enormous success Google has seen with releasing free products, and their ability to capitalize on them, would make other web services take notes and follow in their footsteps.  Can someone throw me (or them) a bone here?

Below, is the better part of the e-mail, I blurred the name because I don't want to bash them too hard but the service seemed to be working fine!

 

Price update from SERP service

 

I Stand Corrected: Blogging is More Than Random Thoughts and Voyeurs

Posted on September 11, 2008 by Jeff

Several months ago, we, the staff of Gordian Project, set out to author a blog. Not that all of us immediately found the prospect as inviting as others, but we generally engage a team spirit; thus the eCommerce and Entrepreneurship Blog.

I understood the blog’s driving purpose to be sharing our personal experiences within our given area of discipline as it relates to all things eCommerce. After several months of participation, I thought I would review our blog.

Caveat: I’d never read a blog going into this project, nor had I any desire to. The actual thought of sitting around reading peoples random thoughts makes me feel a bit voyeuristic. After reading Wikipedia’s definition of voyeuristic, it certainly isn’t that. Still, to this day, I’ve had no desire to read blogs other than for the purpose of this review.

I’m not sure it counts as “reading” but the one key area I check out on our blog each month is the Authors section of the home page. The key here is to identify how many posts I have in relation to other staff. I’m not sure what about life turns everything into a competition. This post will launch me forward to eight posts, however, I know I’ve written a couple that haven’t yet made it past the cutting room floor so this number isn’t hard and fast. But going with eight puts me in a respectable position.

Vanessa’s an over achiever at 40, but in all fairness she administrates the blog. I doubt any of her posts have hit the cutting room floor. If light reading and interesting tidbits is your thing, Vanessa’s Variety for the Week delivers. She shares what’s going on around other blog spaces, here at the office, and perhaps her life more than any other contributor.

Matt is our Development Manager. We’re among the elders of the office so I’ve truly appreciated our friendship. I don’t read his posts. I don’t understand what he does beyond the fact that I know he can fix or improve just about any internal process. Any time I walk past his desk he has a monitor filled with gibberish. I simply figure I won’t understand his posts either. Nice picture of his son in his most recent post though.

You might also notice Zach has 11 posts as of today. I’d read his if you only have a few minutes each day. Scanning through his titles, (that counts as reading I don’t care what anyone says) I find his posts most on topic: They include Website Improvements: Test Basic Usability Before Advancing, Google Sitelinks: Capturing My Proverbial Moby Dick, and Google Search Engine Results Pages Illustrated.

As a partner of Gordian Project I have to say bang up job Brian! I particularly enjoyed your Soft Economy Priorities? Time to Paint Your Parking Spaces; that’s leadership.

I’d like to thank Josh for his most recent post, The iPhone 3G Saved My Life. It truly inspired me to write this post. All this time I’d banged my head against the desk trying to come up with another post showcasing the thrilling world of Supply Chain, when all I needed was an iPhone post. Below, the desk I bang my head on as taken with my iPhone.


Jeff's Desk Taken with iPhone


Over time, you’ll notice that Elizabeth stopped contributing as often. I have mixed emotions on this one. Elizabeth so desired to be a mother and now she is enjoying that gift with her daughter, Kara, as a stay at home mom. Congratulations Liz! However, Elizabeth also worked in Supply Chain and guess what that means, I’ve had to cover Supply Chain blogging without her. Thanks Liz!

I’ve actually loved reading Ellen’s posts for the first time as I prepared for this post. Ellen has taken the reins of a department that everyone loves to hate, HR. She sifts through all the big issues like food programs and political sensitivity. What a fun department to be in. Blog post ideas just shoot across Ellen’s desk, I’m sure. Ellen also manages Accounts Payable but I’ve yet to see a post with any real hard numbers.

Ryan takes his job seriously. He’s building a career, a future. He’s a smart guy who understands this isn’t just a 9 to 5 but an opportunity for him to build a foundation for his future. He’s always learning and looking for how to add value to the company. His posts are read as a “Where’s Ryan?” I just hope he’s not building his resume based on Ryan’s Randomness for the Week of June 20th, 2008.

Tim, as partner, bang up job! Please don’t break your run on providing an image in every post. No one does it better than you.

Our blog was launched just prior to Simon’s moving on to launch his own business. Nice work getting in a post you can use as a business cardSmile.

Before you jump to any conclusions about why Emily posted her first and, to this day, last post May 19th 2008, I dare you to read it (Dealing with Difficult Customers: Best Practices for Addressing Customer Complaints). She is right now over there fighting the good fight. Without her and her team keeping those customers happy there’s no need for this eCommerce and Entrepreneurship blog.

And finally I’d like to say welcome to Arianna. She brings so much to the table: customer service experience, multilingual, eye for detail and now she’s a vital part of Supply Chain. FYI Arianna…I’m going to need at least one post a monthSmile.

So those are my “collective of experiences, thoughts, processes and updates from people that are not only actively working in ecommerce but are also zealous about the industry.”


Internet Retailing Strategies: Niche Marketing v. Vertical Marketing

Posted on August 14, 2008 by Zach

Recently a fellow coworker sent me a blog about multi channel selling which was basically a "pro niche" piece.

"A highly effective strategy in ecommerce is multiple channel selling. This involves having several niche websites targeting different demographics, displaying specific product ranges. This allows you to create completely focused websites with a high sales conversion rate."

While I understand the niche v. mega site argument (and I also may have my mind set on which I like best both from a customer and retailer perspective) I thought this was an interesting article which highlighted all of the great things about niche websites and none of the bad. I know people say they are great because of the niche SEO value, the ability to really hone in on your marketing campaigns and the ability to focus on a particular product niche. And I agree, those are some great reasons to sell via niche websites. However, I see even more reasons to avoid buying or selling via a niche website. Developing niche SEO campaigns and polishing marketing strategies can be done on a large scale, in a similar fashion to that of niche retailers, by focusing on categories and product types.

I would even go so far as to say that I think that SEO, in particular, can go much further for larger sites.  I say this because a larger site can draw more links, have more authority within an industry and create a community built around an entire market instead of a niche. My next step in the conversation or thought process then usually turns to the ability to cross sell, up sell and convert repeat buyers which is much harder and far less effective on a niche website.  Think about it, how much harder would it be to convince a consumer to buy just one more barstool on a website that only sells barstools, as opposed to a website that sells outdoor furniture who can then up sell on the matching tables, chairs, accessories, and more?

The next thing that goes through my mind, or the next thing I would bring up in a conversation regarding niche v. vertical is operating costs.  Depending on the retailer's level of technological prowess, I also like to bring up the level of overhead with operating several websites v. one. Don't let me convince you, though; several retailers are moving away from niche websites. The Gap recently combined their web properties so that shoppers can simply visit the gap website and shop at all of their stores by means of one shopping cart. There are also several mega sites like, Amazon, QVC, etc. which continue to do well. So, while I lean on the anti-niche selling side of the fence, I believe it can be done in a scalable and profitable fashion. However, both as a buyer and seller, I prefer the larger non-niche sites.

This also brings up a nomenclature issue. I would consider "multi-channel selling" to be either selling through different means (i.e. as a physical store, catalog and online) or through different marketing channels such as shopping engines, marketplaces, and search engine marketing. So the verbiage of the article is also confusing in and of itself. I might consider the means through which products are listed and categorized on a site a "selling channel", but I would probably classify niche websites as a "selling strategy" based upon how the business has decided to sell online.

 

Blogging Live: Shop.org Merchandising Workshop--Test Your Way to Site Conversion Nirvana

Posted on July 17, 2008 by Vanessa

The presenters for this session were Jay Greenberg, Director of eCommerce, Spencer's
George Michie, Co-Founder and VP Client Services, The Rimm-Kaufman Group
Stephanie Pike, Web Strategy, Circuit City Stores, Inc.
(By the time this session rolled around my battery had died on my laptop so I had to take notes the old fashioned way. Needless to say this is going to be a collaboration of my notes, but a lot of great content was shared by these speakers that I thought was important enough to post anyway.)

The purpose of this session was to teach us about effectively testing on our websites.  The speakers brought their personal experiences to the table and shared their successes as well as their failures.  It is funny because to me it seemed like we could learn a lot more from the failures they shared then the successes.

Some of the areas they would be discussing were:

  • Expectation management
  • What to test
  • How to test
  • What to do after the test is completed


Conversion Nirvana refers to the idea that conversion is a cyclical experience.  The reality is that of MVT tests that are performed many are not going to be conclusive.  A merchandising rule that was shared in addition to Bryan's Golden Rule was to: "List 70%, Offer 100%, and Creative for 10%".  Conversion rates depend on the quality of the traffic that comes to the site.  So how do we work toward "Conversion Nirvana"?

  • Improving conversion rates
  • Targeting segments to take this farther
  • Eliminating massive redesign projects
  • Ending subjective arguments about creative
  • Developing confidence
  • Don't test little things
  • Be patient; expect a lot of 0 results between two versions
  • Testing misses lifetime value issues, null results might be a victory
    • To elaborate on what he explained was lifetime value issues he explained that a customer may have a poor experience but because they were able to make it far enough in to the checkout process they may complete the sale.  Having said that the customer that had the poor experience on your website will probably remember their poor experience and not return to the site again.


How do we decide what to test?

  • Scalability of testing:
  • How important is the campaign?
  • What can I learn and can it be used across other departments or areas?
  • How easy can I get the actionable data?
  • Am I empowered to react on the results of the test, if so do I have the resources to take action?


Some key points to remember:

  • Test against what you can control to get improved conversion rate.
  • Define the business objectives ahead of time.


Where to start:

  • Headlines
  • Images, e.g. People v. Product, Solo v. Lifestyle
  • Copy
  • Copy Length


The items I listed above were the key takeaways that I got from the session.  Some of the things that were interesting to see were the actual tests that Spencer's and Circuit City performed.  Each retailer would show the audience their test and then take a poll to see what we thought the winner would be.  The point they were making was the test doesn't always turn out the way you thought it would, and be careful about what you are testing as there may be noise that clouds the consistency of the test.

Vanessa’s Variety for the Week of July 4th, 2008

Posted on July 3, 2008 by Vanessa

This year is flying by.  Happy Independence Day America!  I was talking with one of my fellow eCommerce pals this week and he reminded me that this would be his first 4th of July celebration since he moved here from Canada.  I thought that was interesting.  Kevin I hope you have a very Happy 4th!  Ok let’s get down to business.

  • Gordian Project, our parent company, got its name from the idiom “cut the Gordian knot”.  To “cut the Gordian knot” means to get to the heart of the problem and solve it efficiently.  Similar to us is another entrepreneurial company called the Rubicon Project; their name comes from the etymology of the idiom to “cross the Rubicon”, which means to make an unchangeable decision.  The founder wrote a post this week about The Fear of Success.  I enjoyed it because in some ways it reminded me about the founders of our company; not just because they have had a lot of successes at a young age, or because of other reasons mentioned in the post, instead our fearless leaders seem to balance a lot of the equation that it takes to be successful, between one another. 
  • I hope you aren’t viewing anything on YouTube that you wouldn’t want your Mom to know about, or Viacom for that matter.  Andy Beal reports on the news that a New York Court Orders Google to Hand Over Your YouTube Personal Data. 
  • UK based SEOer, Richard Baxter, wrote a post this week on paginated links and the ability to use Google to find duplicate content.  He used one of our websites, OutdoorPros.com as the example for explaining his thoughts.  The post has actually sparked a discussion around here, so watch for a follow up post on the subject. 
  • Last week I mentioned that marketers were embarking on strategies that may earn us a term equivalent to that of ambulance chasing attorneys.  Apparently I am not alone; Seth Godin wrote a post this week in which he remarks “Marketing culture has become a culture of lawyers.”  Check out the post though, as there is still time to save our reputation. 
  • Marketers know how powerful word of mouth (WOM) can be to a campaign, company, product, etc. and with the social networking revolution of the LinkedIns, Twitters, blogs and more, viral marketing is growing by leaps and bounds.  Jennifer Laycock of Search Engine Guide analyzes a recent study about WOM and if it is more effective and done more often online or offline. 

 

PayPal Error on PayPal.com's Home Page: Page Not Found

Posted on June 16, 2008 by Tim

On the heels of Google Docs giving me a 404 Error that doesn't follow Google's own guidelines and Amazon going down to the tune of a $2.3 million, the largest alternative payment method provider couldn't just sit on the sidelines.  PayPal, not to be outdone by Google and Amazon, has now joined the ranks of mega sites dealing with recent errors and outages.

This last Wednesday, I went to PayPal's homepage, paypal.com, by typing the URL directly into my browser.  The page only partially loaded, showing lots of empty whitespace, noticeably absent formatting, and little navigation.  A big, almost empty, rectangle included two links in the lower left.  The first link read "Click here to retry".  The second link ironically read "Return to the homepage".  The title of the page read "Page Not Found - PayPal".  Several refreshes didn't clear up the issue.  Neither did clearing my cookies, cache and temporary files, restarting my browser, and retyping the URL.  Several minutes later, PayPal.com loaded fine.

Here is a screen shot of PayPal's home page give me the Page Not Found error.

 

Man, what's in the internet water and who will drink it next?

Google's 404 Error Page: Not Good, Not Effective, and Not Google Friendly (According to Google's Guidelines)

Posted on June 3, 2008 by Tim

Sometimes Google creates guidelines for webmasters that Google doesn't follow itself.  Let me elaborate.  Last night, I went to Google Docs and was pleasantly surprised with a 404 error.  It was only pleasant because it's nice to know that even Google can't always satisfy Google standards, so I'm in good company.

For our non-nerds, in general, a 404 error is what users receive when they attempt to access a non existent page on a website.  This can happen for several reasons: the user may have incorrectly typed a URL, the page may no longer exist because it has been deleted, the page may have been moved to another location, the page may have been renamed, the link they followed may be broken or outdated, or a URL redirect, such as a 301 or 302, may have problems.

Google's 404 Error Page

I triggered the error by typing in the URL www.google.com/docs which redirected to http://docs.google.com/.  By the way, don't worry mankind, one browser refresh lead me to a working Google Docs home page.  Earth's productivity as we know it will have to halt another day.

Here is a screen shot of Google's 404 error, as presented to me:


Now, although I was surprised to have seen a 404 error from Google at all, this isn't what really surprised me.  Even Google's army of data centers can't get it right all of the time.  Also, I don't know of any uptime guarantees that come with Google Docs or any of Google's free services for that matter.  Some of Google's paid products or services do offer uptime guarantees, such as Google Apps Premier Edition, which includes a 99.9% uptime guarantee for Gmail.

What really surprised me, what really "pleasantly" surprised me, was the 404 error's presentation.

The text on the error page was extraordinarily simple, stating "Not Found Error 404".  The text was black on a white background.  Similarly, the title tag read "Not Found".  Also, the Google Docs favicon appeared in the FireFox browser tab.

However, Google's 404 page was not customized to provide help to Google's users.  Now, a non helpful 404 page is no epiphany.  Plenty of sites have 404 error pages as unwelcoming and unhelpful as Google's and plenty of great, free custom 404 error page recommendations are out there just waiting to be implemented.

Based on Google's definition of a "good custom 404 page", Google does not have a good custom 404 page

The irony in this example is that Google Webmaster Help Center provides Guidelines for creating useful custom 404 pages which recommends that webmasters create a custom 404 page.  The guidelines state "If you have access to your server, we recommend that you create a custom 404 page. A good custom 404 page will help people find the information they're looking for, as well as providing other helpful content and encouraging them to explore your site further."
Google's 404 page didn't do any of these things.  It didn't help people find the information they were looking for (Google Docs), was not customized to provide other helpful content (no other content was provided) and did not encourage them to explore their site further (no exploration opportunities existed).

So, based on Google's definition of a "good custom 404 page", Google does not have a good custom 404 page.

Based on Google's definition of an "effective 404 page", Google does not have an effective 404 page

Google's guidelines go on to describe how to create an "effective 404 page".  The guidelines state:

"Because a 404 page can also be a standard HTML page, you can customize it any way you want. Here are some suggestions for creating an effective 404 page that can help keep visitors on your site and help them find the information they're looking for:"

Then, the guidelines provide a bulleted list of suggestions.  Let's see how well Google does, in implementing their suggestions:

  • Tell visitors clearly that the page they're looking for can't be found. Use language that is friendly and inviting.

Well, although the text doesn't say "what" isn't found, the page certainly presents the text "Not Found" loud and clear.  Obviously, the text "Not Found Error 404" is neither friendly nor inviting.

  • Make sure your 404 page uses the same look and feel (including navigation) as the rest of your site.

Google's 404 page doesn't use any look and feel, or navigation, let alone a look and feel that is the same as the rest of Google.

  • Consider adding links to your most popular articles or posts, as well as a link to your site's home page.

Google's 404 page doesn't contain any links to anywhere.

  • Think about providing a way for users to report a broken link.

Google's 404 page doesn't provide a way for users to report anything.

  • No matter how beautiful and useful your custom 404 page, you probably don't want it to appear in Google search results. In order to prevent 404 pages from being indexed by Google and other search engines, make sure that your webserver returns an actual 404 HTTP status code when a missing page is requested."

I didn't check the HTTP status code on Google's 404 page to see if Google's webserver returned an actual 404 or not.  Currently, it doesn't look like the 404 page appears in Google search results.

So, based on Google's definition of an "effective 404 page", Google does not have an effective 404 page.

Is Google a Google-friendly site?

What's really funny, is that Google's "Guidelines for creating useful custom 404 pages" are found under Googles' "Creating a Google-friendly site", which naturally begs the (very long) question:

If Google does not have a "good custom 404" page based on Google's definition of a good custom 404 page, and if Google does not have an "effective 404 page" based on Google's definition of an effective 404 page, which means that Google does not have a "useful custom 404 page" based on Google's "Guidelines for creating useful custom 404 page", and these guidelines are an element of "Creating a Google-friendly site" then...

Is Google a Google-friendly site?

 

 


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Vanessa’s Variety for the Week of May 30th, 2008

Posted on May 30, 2008 by Vanessa

Do you remember the bet I had with fellow blogger Matt?  I mentioned it right when the playoffs were starting and the gist of it is, he owes me sushi if I win and I owe him if I lose.  Well I am happy to say that the Lakers clenched the Western Conference Championship last night and will be on there way to the finals, where they will face either Boston or Detroit.  Needless to say Matt is starting to feel like I just might win!  That was my favorite event of the week but there were some interesting happenings in the world of eCommerce as well, so here’s my update.

  • For those of you haven’t heard, there is a guy in our tight little industry who is trying to trademark the term SEO.  This guy is a real gem.  He claims that his reasons are for the betterment of the field, but his reasoning is filled with fallacy.  SEO’ers are in an uproar over this guy as you can see from the number of comments Sarah Bird, Esquire and Mozzer, have received on her recent post: “Gambert Strikes Back!! The Confidential Official Response to SEOmoz's Opposition Proceeding”.  Linkbait scheme or not, the name Jason Gambert is leaving a foul taste in the mouths of eCommercers. 
  • A friend of Matt's contacted him, knowing he's in the ecommerce and seo world, and asked about what he would do to rank higher in search results for searches related to TV’s.  His friend just started his own website selling them.  We were not surprised to find out that the market is quite saturated for these products.  So the joke was that Matt told his friend “Sure no problem our Search Manager Zach will have you at the top of Google SERPs in no time.”  Anyhow right after this I came across an article written by Jessica Bowman at Search Engine Land called Why You Need To Know SEO Basics, Even If You Outsource.  I thought it would be useful to those who have been in eCommerce for a while as well as newcomers like Matt’s friend. 
  • I thought this blog was great and packed with information for entrepreneurs.  It is a collection of articles about entrepreneurship.  The articles range from saving money to the business mindset. 
  • eCommerce retail sites have less to fear when it comes to economic slowdown, according to eMarketer’s report: Slower But Still Steady Growth! 
  • I am skeptical about the “Green” initiative and I think a lot of it is hype to make more “green”.  So when I saw the cover of the latest WIRED Magazine, I felt a sense of relief, because someone else said it and not me.  The cover says “Attention Environmentalists: Keep your SUV. Forget organics. Go nuclear. Screw the spotted owl.”  Really though, in all seriousness, this article takes a different approach, and I for one appreciated it.


Wired Magazine Issue 16.06

Using Blog Search Engines

Posted on May 29, 2008 by Zach

Keeping a handle on who is talking about your business or linking to your website can be an awfully large task. Blog search engines are available to help in some big ways though.  Blog search engines aggregate blogs and web pages with rss feeds to index and make their content searchable in an organized fashion. For instance if I am looking for for information on search engine marketing, I can use Google as a resource to find my information or I can turn to a blog search engine to focus my search on only blogs.  I can use their refinements such as the time frame the information was published in.  I can also look for a particular post or an entire website about a certain topic. This can help the marketer or search engine optimizer keep tabs on what people are saying about a website.  This can also help them keep up on who might be linking to a particular website by using blog search engines to search for that company, or other information. Blog search engines have become more and more sophisticated, and nowadays you can do a blog search on a variety of topics.

My favorite blog search engines are Technorati, Bloglines and Google Blog Search; each of these blog search engines let me search for a website name or use a refinement to track what people are saying and who is linking to our websites. All of them also let me bookmark those searches making it easy to check out the latest buzz on each of our websites or a particular topic I am interested in.

For example you can go to Technorati, type PlumberSurplus.com into their search box and see what posts or blogs have the word PlumberSurplus.com in them. This gives me quick, up to date information on what is going on in the blogosphere for whatever I might be searching for. More blog search engines are available in this list of blog search engines.

 

Vanessa’s Variety for the Week of May 16th, 2008

Posted on May 15, 2008 by Vanessa

Welcome to this week in eCommerce and Entrepreneurship.  Take a look cause the world of eCommerce is getting more interesting by the week.

  • Brainstorming for keywords can be tough especially if you or your search marketer has hit their own form of writers block.  Search Engine Journal put out a list of tools to help with keyword generation. 
  • “The Churchill Club of Silicon Valley just wrapped up one of its most anticipated events: the Annual Top Ten Tech Trends Debate. Five well-known and opinionated venture capitalists weighed in on what trends will take flight and what trends will fizzle out in the months ahead.” …more 
  • I am not a fan of the Dallas Mavericks nor am I really a fan of Mark Cuban, not for any particular reason other than the fact that I am a Laker fan.  As a fan of the competition, one tends to feel a little sour towards the Mavericks owner.  As you may know though, he is one of us, an ecommerce nerd.  This week he pondered about how to beat Google, and what he came up with may interest you. 
  • It is no secret that companies have discovered that employee health and well being cuts out on the amount of sick days used which cuts costs and increases productivity.  What about the employees that just plain play hooky?  Well a new technology has surfaced that can detect when an employee is lying over the phone.  From the article: “The technology means someone phoning in for a sickie will speak not to a sympathetic secretary but to a computer set up to check whether their voice is steady and reliable.” 
  • In response to New York tax laws, Overstock.com has cancelled all relationships with affiliates in New York.