Every morning I spend half an hour looking at news and commentary from a wide variety of sources. Yet it’s only recently that I’ve become aware of how the quality and creativity of the headlines and titles have improved dramatically over the years.

I think that David Ogilvy may be to blame. And yes there is blame:

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

The quotation is a great one, but I don’t think it applies to the web.

Inspired headline

My newsreader is full of eye-catching headlines. Yet the majority of them fail to deliver when it comes to the article itself.

Today, for example, there were 43 articles whose titles caught my attention, enough to make me drag the link to a new tab in my browser.

Of the 43, 24 fell by the first two sentences. Eleven lasted two paragraphs. Five were briefly skimmed, and I read three of them properly.

56%: Rejected.

25%: Sniffed.

12%: Nibbled.

7%: Digested.

And another inspired headline

Now let’s consider how the writers of these articles gained from my exposure to their content.

Most of them simply didn’t register as being in any way significant, at least not on a positive way. I didn’t notice who the writers were and certainly didn’t go to explore their websites for more information. Crappy content doesn’t entice me to do anything other than move away fast.

The three articles that I did read, however, produced an altogether different experience.

One of the writers was already known to me, and his article reinforced the fact that he is indeed a source of interesting material. I had never come across the other two writers before, so quickly looked at their websites to see who they are and what they sell. I’ll be following both of them now. Interestingly there’s a reasonable chance that I will be buying a product that the second writer sells. I’m taking a look at it in more detail later today.

But what about the signals that we send to Google?

Of the 24 articles that fell at two sentences or less, there were two or three that appeared to be potentially reasonable, but not what I was looking for. The headline was more enticing than the content. Yet other people may have found the article interesting, and so overall the signals sent to Google (at least in terms of time spent) may have been positive.

The remaining 21 or so articles were simply bad. Poorly written, uninspiring, nothing of interest other than an eye-catching headline.

The data sent to Google by those pages was probably that a very short amount of time was spent there (no more than a few seconds), and no-one engaged with the site in any way before leaving. In other words: this content is of no value.

Poor content serves no purpose. It wastes time, puts people off what you sell, damages your reputation and sends poor signals to Google.

Ogilvy’s quotation was typically brilliant, but the web is a different medium. Great headlines should at the very least lead to reasonable content.

Transcript of video – adapting to (not provided):

Note: The video is worth watching as I’ll show you exactly what to look for and where. Plus it’s only 6 minutes long with no sales pitch!

Hi everyone, this is Dave Collins from SoftwarePromotions.

Today I’m going to talk about (not provided) and how you can actually deal with this new reality of search engine optimisation.

Now I’m not going to get into the history of (not provided) and I’m certainly not going to start speculating as to why Google effectively hit the accelerator and made this issue explode over the past few days and weeks. The fact is, that’s neither here nor there. The reality is that (not provided) is now here to stay. Keywords are for all intents and purposes a thing of the past.

Now SEOs and online marketers need to understand how we can deal with this.

New strategy:

What we have here is in effect a need for a completely new strategy. The days of going into Google Analytics and just pulling out all that fantastic, rich, nutritious and phenomenally useful keyword information are gone. Instead lets look at the new reality: search engine optimisation for the end of 2013 and beyond.

My new approach is going to consist of the following four steps.

Step one: Google Webmaster Tools.

Now to all intents and purposes, this is as much solid keyword data as we’re going to get from this point on.

Be aware that the figures and some of the facts in the Google Webmaster Tools are not, by any means, 100 percent reliable. However, they are vastly more useful than the simple not provided that goes into the Google Analytics accounts.

Look at the trends over time and pay attention not only to the search queries but also the top pages. You want to get a feel for the keywords that are sending traffic to your website. Which pages are these visitors actually coming to.

Step two: Google Analytics.

Yes, there’s still something useful in Google Analytics for SEOs.

If we filter out organic traffic using an advanced segment; there’s still some useful information. The main two items that I’m interested in is looking at are how much organic search traffic your website is getting over time and I’m looking for trends as they develop. Additionally we’re really interested in which pages on the website are getting from these organic visitors.

Again, we’re not going to get the keywords, but we will see which pages are popular.

Step three: rank tracking.

Now, this is interesting because over the past year or two we’ve seen a trend of people moving away from tracking rank by keyword as a meaningful metric.

With this new change of (not provided), this has once again become quite a useful statistic. So even though we’re not going to see the breakdown of keywords within the analytics data; it’s useful to see which of our obvious keywords are we ranking for and positions – in particular what happens over time.

Did these positions go up? Or did they go down? If so we want to try to join the pieces together to work out why so that we can respond accordingly.

Step four: keyword research.

Now obviously keyword research is already a part of our SEO. The fact is that right now we have some data in our Google Analytics account – from the past month, past three months, past six months, and so on. There’s some some useful keyword data there.

Obviously, with time that source of information is going to disappear to nothing – in fact we’re almost there today.

Keywords do change over time, so ongoing keyword research is going to now become more important. In a sense it’s not going to be something that we just carry out at the beginning of the SEO process when we’re optimising existing content or creating new content. It’s something that we’re going to have to keep on doing throughout, so that we can create optimized content for the keywords and of course track the keywords as well.

Wait a minutes – isn’t something missing here?

Now you may have noticed that the one obvious, so called “solution” that I didn’t refer to is Google AdWords.

The reason for that is I don’t believe that Google Adwords data has a role to play in this process. Why? Because there are a massive number of factors going on within the Adwords account that will affect the data that you can get out of it – such as competition, such as bids, such as budget, geographic distribution and so on.

All of these factors have a bearing on the “facts” that will come out, so I just don’t believe the information that you can pull out of our AdWords account is going to be that useful. It also carries a risk of further clouding the situation, possibly even nudging you towards making some bad decisions.

One last tip:

In your Google Analytics account it’s worth looking at data from the past 12 months and possibly even 24 months or longer. There is still some keyword data that is sometimes useful and relevant. I strongly suggest – as horrible and tedious a task as this is – to dump all of that data and export it into Excel so that you’ve got it. From there I believe it’s worth spending some time cleaning up the list and looking at keywords that are relevant, keywords that you’re interested in, keywords that are relevant. This can be the start of your keyword list that from this point on you’re actually going to start tracking and monitoring the rankings.

So good luck. Get out there. I hope you can adapt to the new reality of SEO quickly and relatively painlessly. Be seen, be sold.

Why do we use the analogy of a funnel for our website visitors? Could it be wishful thinking?

A funnel is designed to conduct the flow of liquids or other substances into a container with a small mouth. Rather than pouring the liquid over the mouth and hoping that some of it actually falls in, the funnel channels the flow.

When taken literally, the funnel analogy assumes that all of your website visitors make their way to your ultimate goal before leaving, but there’s a good chance that this is not the case.

This girl’s funnel, however, seems to be more accurate.

Now that's a funnel

“The Octopus” © 2008 Dwight Sipler.

The bottle tops are poured into the funnel, and are then distributed between three exit points, aside from those that fall out of the funnel or get stuck in the piping.

Let’s assume that her ultimate goal is to get as many bottle tops into the third container as possible.

As things stand right now, the middle container seems to get the most tops, not because it’s in any way more appealing, but because this is the route with least resistance.

To get more tops into the third container, the girl has a few options.

She could make the other pipes narrower or less accessible.

She could make more pipes that lead to the third container.

She could adjust the design of the piping so as to ensure a greater chance of flow to the third container.

She could focus on the type of bottle top that is more likely to end up in the third container.

She could adjust the function and position of the other two containers, so as to ensure that some of their tops spill over to the third container.

If she really wanted to maximise her efficiency, she could do all of the above.

She could even close off the other containers completely.

The point is that the number of tops arriving in the third container is not entirely haphazard. While there is an element of random chance, this is vastly outweighed by the design of the pipes.

Little adjustments can make an enormous difference.

Go adjust your piping.

Moving from inertia to action usually requires some sort of change in circumstances. Too often, status quo appears to be the easiest option – even when it isn’t.

Many online businesses stick with using poor support and tracking systems for their customers. Not because they are so attached to the systems in question, but because the pain of switching to a different solution is almost too much to bear. It’s only when the damage caused becomes impossible to ignore that they are forced to grit their teeth and begin the slow, agonizing process of migration.

Yet software companies also know that they have to keep up with the efforts of their competition, as failure to do so may render their products obsolete.

When someone goes looking for a solution to a problem, they inevitably draw up a basic list of requirements. All other factors being equal, the product that ticks the most boxes is most likely to be chosen; in this case Product C.

Who's your Daddy? Product C.

Over time, this competitive matrix is almost certain to change, as new features are implemented by the different competing companies. Assuming that the experience has been a reasonable one, the user is still unlikely to change products without a tangible and pressing reason for doing so. It’s simply easier to remain with the product that they’re already using, even though Product C is now lagging behind the others in terms of features and innovation.

Product C: could do better.

At some point, however, Product C may really start to fall behind.

Product C: what happened?

Depending on the complexity of moving to a new product, many users will still choose to remain with what they are already using. In fact for many, it won’t be until the point of pain that they will finally decide to switch. The critical point here is that most users switch because of the failings of their current product, and not because of the strengths of the new solution.

In other words products A, B and D don’t necessarily have to be fundamentally better than Product C. They just need to avoid making the same mistake as product C.

So as long as they can avoid breaking what they already have, keeping up with their competition is more important in attracting new customers than retaining existing ones. Up to a point, at least.

So how do you go about compelling users of other competing products to migrate to you? The most effective way is to compete with them in such a manner that you simply can’t be ignored. To the point that the differences between the other products no longer matter – they simply don’t compare.

Not much by the way of comparison then.

Imagine that you’re in the unlikely position of suddenly needing an email solution that you can access from any web browser. Are you really going to weigh up the differences between Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail?

So why then do today’s Hotmail users make the move to Gmail?

It probably isn’t because of the interface:


It’s because of the pain. They’re sick of having their accounts compromised, and they’re tired of wading through the amount of spam that they receive.

Pain forces users out of their inertia and into action. You can’t legally or morally create pain for your competitor’s users, but you can certainly make sure that your product is visible as the antidote for their suffering.

Every page on your website has the potential to impress or repulse, so why has it become acceptable to only optimise the home page, main page and landing pages?

Broadly speaking, every page performs one or more of the following functions:

- To inform.

- To impress.

- To persuade.

- To compel.

Pages that inform.

Passively sharing information is short-sighted in the extreme. Your website isn’t Wikipedia and so shouldn’t in any way be neutral. Put simply, you have an agenda in sharing your information, so for your informative page to be in any way effective, it has to impress, persuade and compel the visitor to act.

Pages that impress.

You might argue that all pages on your website should impress, but this would be a somewhat optimistic goal. There are, however, pages that do need to impress the visitor; pages that demonstrate your expertise and the strength of what you’re selling. The main page, about page and main product pages are obvious example, but these will be more effective by also being informative, persuasive and of course compelling for the visitor.

Pages that persuade.

This is where the sales process has moved from beyond catching attention and demonstrating what’s on offer. It’s now time to convince the visitor that they need what you sell. User testimonials and big, juicy benefits can be powerful and influential, but the pages should also be informative, impressive and of course compelling.

Pages that compel.

It’s all fine and well having great pages that inform the visitor about what you sell, that impress the daylights out of them, and convince them that they do indeed need what they’re looking at. Online sales,however, has little room for extreme subtlety. Your visitors have too much to do and too little time to do it in, and in most cases “this looks good I’ll buy it later” will result in precisely nothing. The visitor needs to be steered, pushed or gently forced into acting on their needs right now. Pages that also manage to be informative, impressive and persuasive will also help this final stage.

I assume you can see the pattern here. Your main pages and all entrance pages need to be treated like landing pages.

Let’s be effective out there.

An eye-catching headline can make the difference between a glance and engagement. This is beyond obvious, right? So why aren’t you doing it?

You probably spend a fair amount of time writing and testing your website’s headlines.

And if you’re running AdWords ads, you certainly understand the importance of a good title.

adsGood ads - as beautifully demonstrated by Amazon and eBay

Yet many companies fail to capitalise on the advantages of an SEO title that’s optimised for human beings, as well as Google’s spiders.

This is an enormous mistake, as when people search for whatever you’re selling, it’s the page titles that will jump out at them in the results.

When I searched for London law firm in the UK, the first ten results show as much imagination as you might expect from a law firm:

London law firms

Wikipedia take the first spot not only because of their authority and relevance, but also partly because their page title is the only one that in any way compels a click.

A search for order beautiful flowers hampshire produces the following:

Order beautiful flowers

If you were looking for beautiful flowers, which would you be most likely to click?

This is where so many companies get it wrong.

They choose between an eye-catching headline or one that has been crafted for Google.

Why not go for both?

Suppose, for example, that you’ve written an article on effective keyword research.

Let’s consider a number of different approaches you may choose to take for the title.

Factual: Effective keyword research.

Eye-candy: How keyword research can improve your sex-life (and income).

SEO: Advanced keyword research.

Really bad SEO: Advanced keyword research. Advanced keyword research. Advanced keyword research. Advanced keyword research.

Combination: Advanced keyword techniques as used by the pros – these really work!

Never overlook the headline or title as something to be dealt with at the last moment before publishing an article or page.

Click-through-rates are as valid for organic SEO as PPC. The better the headline, the more likely the link to be clicked, and assuming that the visitor finds what they are looking for, this can only be beneficial to your rankings in the long run.

Be greedy. Optimise for both people and spiders. In that order.

No-one questions the wisdom of creating good content.

It reinforces authority and expertise. It acts as a catalyst for creativity. It’s good for search engine traffic, marketing, sales, and (shudder) social media.

So why is there so little good content?

There’s a seemingly infinite amount of content, but almost all of it is sorely lacking when it comes to quality.

Every day we’re bombarded by countless articles and web pages. All vying for our attention.

Can you imagine how many you’ve read so far this week?

What’s lacking, however, is quality.

How many articles have you read today that you even remember?

How many from yesterday?

For years we’ve been subject to high level of exposure to low quality content.

Irrespective of when you read this, you’ve probably already read or skimmed many variations of inane and pointless ramblings that have one thing in common. They serve no useful purpose.

Worryingly, we seem to have accepted this as the norm.

I believe that we’ve become desensitised to poor quality, badly written content.

With time, this has had the terrible effect of lowering our own standards and expectations, both in terms of the content that we read and the content that we create.

Content isn’t just a strategy for SEO, conversion optimisation, incoming links or sales.

Content isn’t about eye-catching headlines for insubstantial and pointless articles.

Content is the base for everything.

Good content is a great opportunity.

I don’t believe for one moment that Google are evil; it’s a baseless idea that most intelligent people reject as sensationalist.

The embodiment of good, however, has to be more than just the absence of wickedness. And a motto of simply not being evil does little to reassure me of a company’s intentions.

Imagine, for example, a person described as “not evil“. This wouldn’t exactly be a reassuring endorsement, yet this is the line that Google have chosen to draw in the sand.

If Google used my data for their own purposes, this would never be described as evil.

If they sold my private data to a third-party, this wouldn’t be evil either.

In fact on the scale that goes from good to evil, there’s a tremendous amount of awfulness that you can get away with and still not get close to the end of the axis.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of what Google does, and my business is largely based on their products and services.

But I find it incredible that few choose to question the wisdom of trusting a company who merely commit to refrain from wickedness.

In the scale of aspirations that’s remarkably low.

A few months ago I was discussing SEO strategy with a person who wouldn’t want to be named, but hopefully doesn’t mind being quoted. He asked:

If we had to choose between creating content or getting links, which would you prioritise?

SEOs may wince, smile or raise their “good question” eyebrows, but many non-SEOs (aka normal people) might consider this to be a reasonable question.

It’s not, but some historical perspective may help explain why.

In the time before SEO, it was all about content. There wasn’t that much of it around, and it was quite easy to make some noise. Big fish in a small pond.

In hindsight this was the first age of content.

As the quantity of content grew, the search engines needed a way to gauge quality. They chose links.

SEO was born, links became paramount, and the number of incoming links was considered to be indicative of the value of the content.

Google factored this into their algorithm, and an entire industry came into existence. Literally hundreds of thousands of websites that did nothing more than link to hundreds of thousands of other websites.

I remember link sites that pointed to other link sites, and for a brief time, the possibility of the index being bigger than the content started to look plausible.

Others jumped onto the opportunity and soon there were services and applications that would submit your website to many thousands of these utterly pointless sites.

Content is king became distorted into something resembling “if people don’t know, it effectively doesn’t exist”, and there were many, many websites referring to unseen trees falling in forests.

It didn’t take people long to realise that pointless links were pointless, and that it was easier to get real incoming links if the content was actually worth linking to.

Instead of relying on thousands of links from pointless websites that no-one ever visited, people could have links from genuine websites whose visitors might actually be interested in what they were being directed towards.

And so began the second age of online content. Online businesses and other websites started to create good content that pulled targeted visitors in naturally.

And the signals being sent to the search engines were good.

People clicked on relevant links, spent time reading the content and clicked more links because they were interested in what they found.

In a parallel world where intelligence ruled, the obvious means of capitalising on this trend would be to create more content. High quality and lots of it.

In our world, sadly, the obvious means of capitalising on the trend was “if people don’t know, it effectively doesn’t exist”, and there were again many, many websites referring to unseen trees falling in forests.

This time, however, instead of only having links from pointless websites that no-one ever visited, the masses decided to be smarter and also spew their content across as many social media networks as possible.

Yet all too soon this in turn wasn’t enough, and again they needed a means of standing out from the crowd.

I know – we need more eyeballs, and I know just how to get them.

Instead of creating lots of long pointless texts broken up by occasional images, let’s have long pointless images broken up by occasional text.

Thus began the third age of content – the infographic.

the age of the pointless infographic

One problem with infographics is that most don’t have a valid reason for existing.

A typical usage pattern is for someone to click the link, look at the infographic for a few seconds, then go back to Twitter, Facebook or whatever black-hole they were engaged in, and most likely retweet or repost it.

In this scenario, the signals being sent to Google are that most people are not interested in this content and website. It’s an interesting strategy (aka: way to go).

I’m personally amazed by the resilience of infographics, but their time will inevitably pass, and they will in turn be replaced by the next big thing: the fourth age of content.

There is, however, an easy to overlook common theme here:

A strategy that has worked in every age of content, irrespective of medium or trend. One that always generated the right signals.

High-quality relevant content.

The rules are simple:

Authentic and quality content results in authentic and quality links.

Authentic links generate relevant traffic.

SEOs and others with too much time on their hands can debate the current and future importance of links ad nauseam, but I am yet to hear any argument against the current or future significance of content.

Quality content has always worked and always will. Creating lots of it is good.

content - as defined by Dictionary.com

This week we’re interviewing Rob Walling.

Rob owns long tail SEO keyword tool HitTail and soon-to-launch email marketing application Drip, along with co-hosting the popular startup podcast, Startups for the Rest of Us.

Rob is also the co-founder of the incredible MicroConf Conference, and I personally rate this as one of the best software conferences of all of them.

Rob Walling

Dave:  What makes you tick? [Interpret this as you wish]

Rob:  I thrive on setting and achieving goals. With my family, I decided I wanted to teach my son how to program and now I love teaching him to code. At work, I set goals at the start of each year and as I check big picture items off during the year I get a rush. Competition (even friendly) is another thing that drives me. But first and foremost I’d say it’s about goals.

Dave:  What do you think is the single most useful skill for the solo entrepreneur?

Rob:  As cliche as it sounds, it’s Perseverance. You have to be able and willing to fail over and over again. The only people I’ve known who have had success have gotten up, dusted themselves off, and eventually found victory. But the journey is littered with mistakes, failures and times when you want to quit.

Dave:  Some businesses believe that they have good ideas and everything is lined up, but they have a problem reaching actual customers. Assuming that the market exists, how do you do this?

Rob:  That’s a big question. If it’s online, I like to think about it in terms of concentric circles.

The innermost circle are people you know or who know you. So your friends, colleagues, Twitter followers, blog readers, podcast listeners, email subscribers, etc… Basically, anyone you can reach without spending much time or money. You “have their ear” to so speak. Those are the first people you should spread the word to in a non-sales-y way, that you have just launched something.

The circle around that are people who know people you know. So contacting the bloggers you know who have an audience that could use your product, and guest posting. Emailing the podcast hosts you know and pitching a good story that somehow involves your product. Now you’re moving beyond your immediate sphere of influence and into the sphere of your friends/colleagues.

Finally, you move to the outermost circle which includes finding new people. That’s where SEO, content marketing, integration marketing (meaning integrating with more popular apps so they will promote you to their audience), and paid acquisition come into play. Each of those deserve a book…but any one of them can become a flywheel marketing approach that can singlehandedly grow a business.

Dave:  Why the obsession with going solo? Doesn’t this limit you in some way?

Rob:  It does limit the potential of my business. I’m just now hitting the ceiling of what 1-person can do, even using contractors extensively. The nice part is that the limit is pretty high up, meaning you can grow the revenue of a software company pretty high and remain solo.

For me, the solo decision was about family and lifestyle. I have young kids, and I spend a lot of time with them (I work around 30 hours/week). I’ve never wanted employees around who would make things complicated. I’ve chosen a less stressful work environment for slower growth…that’s the big trade-off.

For the record, I did hire my first employee a few months ago. The funny part is he had been working full-time as a contractor for a while but needed to buy a house so I made him W2. It’s just a tax designation more than anything, you know? He still has all the autonomy and skills he did when he was contracting for me.

Dave:  If you could start over again, from scratch, what would you do differently?

Rob:  I would ignore the big VC ideas, not try to seek funding, go after subscription revenue from B2B customers…and I would outsource more at the start. That sentence pretty much summarizes every mistake I made (some of them multiple times) from 2000-2005, before I had my first taste of moderate success.

Dave:  How do you divide your work time?

Rob:  I typically focus on a project for 6-18 months, meaning 80% of my time is devoted to it. Then I find people to run it, and automate it as much as possible, and move on to the next.

So I just finished a stint working on a web app called HitTail (a long tail SEO keyword tool) for about 18 months. I grew it to a natural peak and then shifted to a new web app called Drip (email marketing). That will be my focus for the next 18-24 months.

And, of course, a lot of my work time is never worked by me. I have multiple virtual assistants who handle all kinds of tasks I used to handle myself. That’s been a huge win for me, and one of the reasons I’m able to choose what I want to work on, for the most part.

Dave:  Many people know you for your role in the Micropreneur Academy, MicroConf and of course your “Start small, stay small” book. When your last day finally comes, how would you want to be remembered by non-family members?

Rob:  I want to be remembered as someone who gave back to the startup community; as someone who never hesitated to share the things he learned in order to help others achieve their entrepreneurial goals.

Dave:  What do you consider your greatest work-related accomplishment so far?

Rob:  By far, the thing I am most proud of are the dozens of people who are now running software companies instead of working unhappily at a salaried gig. To know that people would not have made it at all, or would have had a much harder time without the things I teach…that’s huge.

I’ve been told by many people that my book changed the way they thought about work, software startups, and their life. Yep…that’s definitely my greatest work-related accomplishment.

Dave:  Thank-you very much for sharing Rob.

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