The Virtuous Cycle of SEO

First published August 9, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Virtuous cycles are anomalies. They fight the universal law of entropy, and for that reason alone, they are worth investigation. Rather than a gradual slide toward dissipation and equilibrium, virtuous cycles build upon themselves, yielding self-sustaining returns cycle after cycle.

In marketing, there are not a lot of virtuous cycles. Most marketing efforts need to be constantly fueled by a steady stream of dollars. The minute the budget tap is closed, so is the marketing program. But there are a few, and SEO is one of them, if done correctly. Let’s take a quick look at the elements required to build a truly virtuous cycle.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is the engine of a virtuous cycle. It’s what drives sustainable growth. Think of it as the compound interest paid on your marketing efforts.

In an SEO program, positive feedback comes in the form of the algorithmic love shown to you by the search engines, dragging in an ever-increasing number of eyeballs. These eyeballs also contribute to the feedback loop, creating new links, new user-generated content, new activity, all of which continue to drive rankings, up, which drives new eyeballs, which… well, you get the idea. And the cycle continues.

Investment Required

Virtuous cycles require an upfront investment, and it’s usually a significant one. You can’t collect compound interest on a zero balance. Cycles don’t start from scratch.

In SEO, the investments required come in the form of content and an engaging user experience. You have to give a user a reason to come, to engage and to evangelize to really leverage the benefits of SEO. You can evaluate if you have the makings of a virtuous cycle by asking yourself the following questions:

–      What are my users coming for?

–      What will they do?

–      How can they engage?

–      Why will they care?

–      Will their expectations be exceeded?

If you have a less than satisfactory answer to any of these questions, you don’t have what it takes to create a virtuous cycle.

Appealing to Human Nature

If your cycle depends on human behavior, as most do, you have to appeal to one of the basic tenets of human nature. As complicated as we can be, we are generally driven by a surprisingly small number of basic needs. Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Paul Lawrence, in their book “Driven,” identified four fundamental human drives: We need to acquire, to learn, to bond and to defend. Examine any virtuous cycle, and you’ll always find at least one of these drives at the heart of it.

Ask yourself how your online presence contributes to these drives. Remember, for a cycle to begin, positive feedback is required. And positive feedback depends on engagement from your visitors.

Universally Beneficial

Finally, a virtuous cycle needs to benefit all parties in order for it to be sustainable. It needs to be a win/win/win. If, somewhere along the line, someone gets screwed, the cycle will ultimately fall apart.

In SEO, this means you must play along with the algorithm rather than try to beat it. Short-term thinking and virtuous cycles never go well together. One algorithmic update to crack down on a SEO loophole will shut down your cycle in a heartbeat. But if you work with a search engine to make a great user experience discoverable, the cycle will begin.

The Great Debate about the Value of Content

Rand Fishkin posted a fascinating email thread that documents an online debate about the value of content for SEO. Participating in the debate were some of the best thinkers in the biz..period – Rand, Stephan Spencer, Thad Kahlow, Eric Enge, Chris Baggott, Richard Zwicky, Lawrence Coburn, Will Critchlow and yours truly. Read through for a illuminating glimpse at the role content might play in search algos….

The SEO industry, like many others, has private forums, chat threads and groups of connected individuals whose interactions happen largely behind closed doors. Today, I’d like to pull back a curtain and share a debate that occurred between a number of CEOs in the search marketing industry over the last few days that I think you’ll find both fascinating, and hopefully, valuable, too. – more

Murdoch and Bing: The Sound of Two Dinosaurs Dancing

This morning in Ad Age:

Why Murdoch Can Afford to Leave Google for Bing

The author, Nat Ives, reasons that Google traffic doesn’t translate into revenue for Murdoch anyway. This is true, but the logical conclusion that you can afford to kiss this traffic goodbye is seriously flawed. I’ll explain why in a minute.

Yesterday in Search Engine Land, Danny offered his thoughts on “The OPEC of News“. He approached it from the flow of information and indexing cycle perspective, and I think he did a good job of hitting the salient points. From the mechanics of the search space, Danny’s right, but what’s more interesting to me is the human behavior that sits behind all this.

The biggest reason why this is a stupid deal is that it’s out of touch with where the market is going. I touched on this in a previous post, but I’ll expand on it this week in a few posts that will tie together Enquiro’s past research and other seminal research :

Today – The Primacy of the Patch – Why Information Foraging is the Key to Behavior

Wednesday – The Mindlessness of Web Search – How We Don’t Think Our Way through Online Interactions

Thursday – Engagement with Online Ads – The Importance of Aligned Intent

Friday – Tying it Together – Why Murdoch and Bing’s Logic is Fatally Flawed

The Usability Acid Test

I slagged eMarketer last week for misleading reporting on Twitter usage, so in the spirit of fair play, I’ll show them some love for an interview they did with Kevin Ertell, Vice President of Retail Strategy for ForeSee Results.

In the interview, Kevin nailed the top thing that every single business should have on the top of their to do list:

“We’re seeing at many, many retailers that the amount of people that say they came to make a purchase today is 20% or higher. Yet, those people’s conversion rates are nowhere near 20%. So, there’s a massive gap there, and a lot of that gap can be attributed to usability issues. ”

Kevin is talking retailers, but developing a core usability practice should be a no brainer for any type of business, no matter what their online objectives are. It just doesn’t make sense to spend all that time, money and effort driving leads to a website that then lets those leads slip through hundreds of cracks. I’m a big believer in picking one thing and doing it really, really well. For online marketers, that one thing should always be delivering a great user experience. If you have to make a sacrifice to do it, do it. Nothing is more important than this.

This is one of those things that falls into the common sense category, but very very few companies do usability well. There are a lot of really horrible user experiences out there. Here are 5 usability acid tests to hold yourself to:

Have you crawled inside your customer’s minds? The percentage of companies I know that have done robust research into understanding how their prospect’s brains tick is almost nil. This is the first place you have to start. Why are they coming to your site? What do they want to do? Like I always say, a good place to start is just to stand over a prospect’s shoulder when they’re on your site and start asking why. Sure, it’s not sophisticated usability testing, but it’s a beginning. The important thing is just to start doing something!

Can they find what they’re looking for? Prospects are coming to your site because they’re looking for something. Everybody is looking for something. And the vast majority of your visitors will be looking for a handful of common things. Make sure they find them. Make sure the cues and paths are easy to find, clearly lit and simple to follow. Provide site wide assistance in the form of clear sitemaps and internal search tools that don’t suck.

Can they do what they want to do? Again, prospects come to your site with an objective – something they want to do. The better you understand that objective, the more successful you can be in helping them meet it. Your job – your only job as the site designer – is to understand the paths your visitors want to take and remove any possible friction on those paths. You’ll have business objectives (i.e. capturing lead information) but these should never take priority over your visitor objectives.

Do You Make Your Visitors Do Too Much Thinking? (thanks Steve Krug!) – We do very little thinking when we navigate websites. Most of our online wayfinding is done subsconsciously. The minute you make a prospect stop and think, you’ve introduced friction and reduced their site experience. You should be able to get to where you’re going on the site quickly and intuitively. It’s not a puzzle to be solved. It’s a tool to be put in the hands of your prospects to help them do the things they want to do.

Do you have a servant based site philosophy? – This final point sums up all the previous ones. You don’t own your website..your customers do. Your goal is to meet their needs. Call it a servant based site design philosophy. Never make them sacrifice their objectives to meet yours (as in collecting lead information in a long form before they can get to where they need to get). If you provide enough value, they’ll meet you half way, but never force the issue.

This acid test for usability, if answered honestly, will help you understand how far you are away from a robust usability discipline. Assess and then make it a priority for 2010. There is no better place to spend your time!

Pete Blackshaw: 10 Reasons Why You Should Keep Blogging

Earlier this week Pete Blackshaw wrote a column in the entitled 10 reasons why he should stop blogging.

So, should I stop blogging?

Seriously, I’m starting to feel really anxious about keeping up with my main blog.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my blog and its topic, but frankly, I’m struggling to keep up. I’m just not cranking out content like I used to, and feel as if I’m contributing “too little too late.” I’m starting to freak about folks potentially sending unsubscribe pings my way, and I just can’t handle the thought of such rejection.

Pete’s not the only one going through this dilemma.  After a year of blogging I found that my blogging output has its highs and lows.  It is hard work keeping a steady stream going and they’re not always going to be pearls.  But I really believe it is worth it. I still get a charge when I’m at a show and somebody walks up to me and says, “I love your blog”.  I can’t help but checking to see if a new post generated some buzz and is getting picked up around the Web.  And I profess to check my Technorati ranking more often than I should.

Adding to the aggregate doubt about blogging was a video appeal by blogger Michael Gray asking bloggers to step away from the keyboard.  If you don’t have anything useful to contribute, don’t regurgitate, just give up.

It’s all blog content good?  No.  Is there a lot of it that’s redundant?  Yes.  Do I waste a lot of my day sorting through crap content?  Yes.  Does that mean people should stop blogging?  No, and I’ll tell you why.  In fact, I’ll give Pete and the rest of you out there who are wondering if this is worth it 10 reasons to keep blogging:

  1. New ideas have to be expressed frequently and in different ways to be heard

    The thing I like most about blogging is its immediacy.  As an idea pops into your head, it’s really not that hard to post to your blog.  That means that blogs are often the seed beds for new ideas.  It’s where we first express them, seeing if they resonate with anyone else out there in our readership.  If they do resonate, other bloggers start picking up the thread and embellishing on the original idea.  Ideas can spread very quickly this way.  And that’s tremendously exciting.  Let’s face it, it takes a while for new ideas to gain traction.  So when new ideas are expressed in different ways in different places around the Web they’re given a better chance to grow and survive.  Blogs are like incubators for new ideas.

  2. Everyone has a voice

    Freedom of speech is enshrined in the Bill of Rights.  We all have voices.  Blogs allow us to express those voices.  It’s not for you or me or Michael Gray to say what is important and what is not important, which voice deserves to be heard and which voice should be silenced.  None of them should be silenced.  It’s your choice whether you choose to listen or not.

  3. You can’t find your voice unless you use it

    The first time you speak up, you usually do so timidly.  The first time I spoke in public, my words barely came out as a squeak.  The more often you choose to express yourself though, the more confident your voice becomes.  When I first started blogging , somebody told me it would take a while for me to find my voice.  To be honest, I’m still not sure if I’ve found it.  My voice seems to vary from post to post.  But the fact is, the more I post the easier it gets to express myself.  Eventually you find your voice, your viewpoint and, more importantly, your audience finds you.  The best bloggers out there have the consistency of message and voice that attracts huge numbers of readers.  But unless you push to keep blogging, you may never find the voice or the confidence to speak out.

  4. Generating dialogue is a good thing

    Blogs are forums for online conversation.  Sometimes the conversations can be affirmative in nature and sometimes they can evolve into debates.  Either way conversations are a good thing.  Ideological debate is a good thing.  Blogs fuel online conversation and that is one of the most positive aspects that the Internet brings to our society.

  5. The Web is a big place

    We have all defined our favorite paths online.  We’ve all identified the blogs and sites that we like to frequent.  Repeating important stories and news isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  You may be reaching an audience who just wouldn’t have heard it anywhere else.

  6. There’s News and then there’s Views

    Most often, when I am passing along a news story ,I try to add my own viewpoint and analysis.  I believe this adds value to the original story and colors it, giving it dimension and perspective.  The best bloggers try to do the same.  It’s one thing to just regurgitate news.  It’s another thing to digest it and come back with thoughtful analysis.

  7. Communication is essential to community

    No doubt about it.  The Internet is a global community and the fundamental glue of community is communication.  Blogs represent the most vibrant form of communication online right now.  It represents the free flow of ideas back and forth between the citizens of this community.  If you shut down blogs, you shut down a substantial portion of communication that makes the Internet the largest, most vibrant, most engaging community that has ever existed in history.

  8. One post can make a difference

    You just never know what the post is that could make the difference.  The idea may seem like a throwaway to you, but once posted it may find it takes a life on of its own and you’ll be amazed by how far and wide it can travel.  Sometimes just expressing your viewpoint about one simple idea can make a difference for someone else out there who reads it. It can open their eyes to a reality they hadn’t seen before.  Paradigm shifting can be a tremendously powerful thing and it can be initiated by a single blog post.

  9. Ideas shouldn’t die alone

    There’s nothing worse than having an idea and never giving it life.  Nothing kills an idea faster than locking it in a dark cupboard.  Ideas need air to breathe and light to grow.  Most of all, ideas need support.  They need to find others who get it and grow it.  Like I said before, blogs are a place where this can happen. By the way Pete, one of your articles did this for me, and I posted on it on my blog.

  10. Not everyone can do this

    This is hard work, and perhaps that’s the best reason to keep doing it. There will be many who try and give up. There will be more than never try in the first place. The latest numbers indicate that there is about 80 million blogs out there.  Pete’s blog has a rank of 21,503 right now on Technorati. That means he’s in an elite group, amongst the top .02 % of all blogs on the web.

Don’t give up Pete..I’m reading!

Lee Odden’s Feed n Read List

In a brilliant example of win/win, Lee Odden has shared his OPML file for the 250 Must Read Blogs in the SEM space. Thanks for including me on the list Lee! As you may have noticed, I’m trying to be more diligent about posting this year (New Year’s Resolutions and all) so hopefully I can persuade you to remove the comment “posts about search marketing from time to time”.

But consider the win/win aspects of this:

  • Lee helps the community by sharing a great resource.
  • Those included on the list share the love by posting a link on their own blogs back to Lee’s post
  • Lee suddenly gets hundreds of links from the best blogs in the business
  • Lee’s authority goes up
  • Everybody wins!

For anyone looking at blog promotion, link baiting or just in how to align the online planets in your favor in general, this is a textbook example!