SEO, the agony!

SEO used to be easy. Just throw in a few keywords that Google can magically find and bingo! You’re at the top of the rankings!

Ah, the good ol’ days…

Those days are long gone now. Sure, keywords are still important and probably always will be. Google (and Bing and Yahoo and other search engines) still look for them, but they search them differently now.

But let’s stop here for a second to make sure we all understand what we’re talking about.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. (Most of you probably knew this already, but let’s bring the rest of class up to speed just in case)

The purpose of SEO is to display your site higher on the page when someone searches Google for products or something related to what you do.

For example, if you sell running shoes, some of your keywords might include: running, shoes, cushioned outsoles, cushioning, men’s shoes, women’s shoes, and any trademarked technologies your shoes offer, to name a few. The list could include a ton more, and that’s just for the products themselves.

If your site also includes additional information they would find helpful – and the best sites do – for running-related activities, then a keyword list should be built around terms commonly associated with the running lifestyle and any ancillary activities associated with running.

Most of this extra content is typically housed in CMS and appears as additional pages kind of buried behind the main content pages. The fun part (yes, that was sarcasm) of CMS SEO if you run an e-comm site is the challenge of tying the extra goodies in the CMS content into the products you’re trying to sell.

Why is it a challenge? Why not just use the same keywords in both a product description and an article where the product is mentioned?

Because Google is smarter than that.

Google isn’t fooled by double references to the same keyword. It used to be. In fact, that’s how SEO worked back in the good ol’ days I mentioned at the top. You could dump a whole bunch of keywords onto your page and you appeared to be the authority on that subject.

But not anymore.

What Google realized was that content marketers were getting smarter and trying to bilk the system by randomly inserting keywords in key places just to get Google’s crawlers (the little e-spiders that crawl the web looking for content) to latch onto their site and raise the ranking in search results. In a way, sites were being rigged to fool Google. Needless to say, Google didn’t take too kindly to that.

But it was more than just Google’s ego at play. What the really smart folks at the search giant realized was that the system was hurting truly authoritative sites, such as brand-sponsored sites and officially licensed retailers, and artificially raising the rank of bad sites that really had nothing to offer for consumers.

So they messed around with the algorithm (the mathematical magic behind the search process, although I’m still convinced it’s elves) and added some new rules to make sure the right sites got the right search treatment.

For example, duplicate content (using the same phrase with a keyword more than once) hurts your SEO because Google now views that as more or less trying too hard and therefore dings the site for trying to fool it.

Also, the new algorithm reads sentence structure more like a human, so it judges whether the use of a keyword sounds forced or too much like a computer wrote it.

This is great news for writers. And for consumers.

For writers, it means more liberty in composing copy that will sound more natural and still rank high on the search page.

For consumers, it means they are getting what they ask for: real results for their searches, finding exactly what they ask for faster.

For marketers, it means a mindset change, which can mean trouble for an organization that refuses to budge from the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. The times, they are a changin’!

The new rule changes weren’t driven by Google. They were driven by consumers. Consumers want good search results. And any company that refuses to play by the new rules can kiss their bottom line goodbye.

So how do you optimize your site?

Here are some basic rules, brought to you by Kissmetrics, that every site manager should follow when working through SEO issues.

SEO is critical to any organization’s success. Learn it and succeed!

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Big Content on Little Mobile

Remember the days when “powering up the computer” meant flipping a big red rocker switch on the back of a big white box and going to get coffee while the computer churned and whirled to wake itself up?

ibm-pc

No? Well, that’s how it was when I was a kid, so clearly you’re younger than I am. And clearly you don’t have the level of appreciation my generation enjoys for the true microdevices we have today.

In my day, the computer I described above was a microdevice, mostly because before the invention of the PC, computers took up an entire room. Really.

old-computer-image

And they did far less than your smartphone. Heck, they did less than a dumb phone. In fact, today’s tablets perform far more calculations per second than the most powerful room-sized Cray computers at the headquarters of the CIA!

No, I’m not old enough to have worked on any room-sized computers, but I certainly remember when you couldn’t carry that kind of technology around with you.

Of course, that’s all changed now. Today we carry our lives in our pockets. It’s how we stay connected, not just with our friends but with the world around us. Need something? Click an app.

And if you’re a content marketer, you better understand that or you’ll go the way of the vacuum tube.

In the last few years, social media and content marketing have evolved faster than any other industries.

Facebook and other social media platforms started out as just a desktop or laptop based service. No mobile. Back then, smartphones were still in the development phase. Tablets? Maybe, but most folks couldn’t afford one, and they had very limited online capabilities.

Then along came – the smartphone. Ah, bliss… you held in your hand the power to talk, text, email, Google, photograph, video, and send everything to everyone either directly or through social media.

Society bowed its collective head to the Facebook god. (Or was it just because the screen was down there?)

Anyway, we all discovered social media and BOOM the world was e-connected.

How connected is it? Fox Business reported this week that Americans look at their mobile devices over 8 billion times a day.

Go back and read that again. 8 billion — with a B — times a day!

Nearly half (48%) of the survey population check their phones up to 25 times per day. With about 185 million smartphone users in the U.S., this is where the “8 billion” figure comes into play.

If you’re a content marketer, you want a piece of that action!

And you want to do it right, capturing as many likes, followers, customers as possible.

All of this mobile use can be a blessing and curse if you’re not prepared.

Is your site optimized for mobile?

Have you ever pulled up a website on your phone and had a tough time reading the text?

You pinch and scroll ‘til the screen is covered with prints and smears, but you still can see it.

You double tap to make the text larger, but now you have another problem: sideways scroll. Even if you turn your phone 90 degrees, the words still won’t fit. It’s like you’re reading a piece of paper rather than a screen.

Why is that?

It’s because the developers didn’t use responsive design.

Don’t be those developers.

With so much emphasis on mobile devices now, coding your site without responsive design can destroy the interaction with your users and ruin their experience. And drive them away.

Bad move.

How important is responsive design?

Lack of responsive design can destroy your site.

In a follow-up post, I will detail not only how a non-responsive site can drive away existing users but also how it can affect SEO to prevent you from getting new ones. Yes, Google really is that smart.

A History of Social Media – and its Future?

Have you ever wondered how we got Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms? Like so many other phenomena, social media didn’t just spring up overnight.

Certain factors had to be in place for us to accept it.

But who invented it all? And what were those factors? Why was the world so eager to embrace these new techie goodies and share everything they ever do with everyone they know?

Did we really need to see that amazing meal you just ate at the pricy restaurant? Apparently so, because those pics are everywhere!

For Millennials and anyone younger, it’s always been there. My kids – ages 2, 7, and 9 – will never know a day when social media and all its accessories didn’t exist. They constantly ask to use my phone, but not for calling anyone.

Their very first pictures, when they were freshly hatched, popped up on Facebook within minutes of that glorious event. Within an hour, everyone had seen their chubby little pink cheeks, many on their mobile devices.

Like everything else in life, social media has changed over the years. What’s different? And what was it like before you discovered it and signed up?

Content marketing giant NewsCred has put together a brief chronology of how social media came to be. And, of course, as this is December and a new year is fast approaching, they made some predictions of how social media may change in 2016 and beyond. Enjoy!

The Big Battle: Short Form vs. Long Form

Writers are asked to write a lot of different things. Some write books, others write articles, even more write blogs.

For those of us who are lucky enough to write advertising and marketing copy, we get to play in two sandboxes:

  • Short-form content
  • Long-form content

What’s the difference?

Here is a crash course.

Short form content is quick hit content that typically consists of three basic elements:

  1. A headline
  2. Brief body copy, no more than a few sentences, if that long
  3. A call to action (CTA)

Short-form is designed to be down and dirty, a fast read that gets the job done fast so the reader can instantly take action. Examples include:

  • Onsite banners
  • Google ads
  • Paid search ads
  • Email banners

The biggest mistake marketers make with short form content is trying to cram too much into one message, as if they have to tell everything they know in the opening statement.

But that’s not what short form content is designed to do.

Think of short-form copy as the online equivalent of a highway billboard: you have 3-5 seconds to read it and decide whether to take action. Any longer and the message is lost. Gone with the pasture of cows that just whizzed by.

Short form content is not designed to tell the whole story.

Its main purpose is to offer a taste, just enough to whet the whistle and entice the reader to dig deeper.

It is NOT the entire story. And shouldn’t be.

The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say, comes in the long form.

Lessons Learned from Steve Martin (Yes, that Steve Martin)

Comedian Steve Martin is an amazing writer. Did you know that? In addition to his own comedy career, he has written material for other comedians, as well as numerous columns for New Yorker magazine. In my opinion, he’s a better writer than comedian, and I love his movies.

If you get a chance, grab a copy of his book Pure Drivel, a collection of his New Yorker columns.

(By the way, I don’t make a dime off his stuff. I just like him.)

Remember the other day when I mentioned that ad copy needs to sound like dialog? That’s great in theory (and 100% true), but how do you do it?

In his essay “Writing is Easy,” Martin answers the nagging question of how to write dialog, a dilemma that has for centuries vexed writers who want to make verbal exchanges sound convincing, the way people talk in real life.

Martin’s answer? “Simply lower your IQ by fifty and start typing!”

Clearly, he’s kidding, but what Martin means in his obviously tongue-buried-deep-inside-his-cheek proposal is: don’t overthink it.

Dialogue that sounds natural comes naturally.

While there is an art and a science to wordplay, one that I have studied for decades and have still not mastered because I don’t think it’s possible, there is a beautiful simplicity to words that seem to spew out on their own, like a casual conversation between friends. Nobody thinks too hard over exact word choices.

Short-form content needs to be down and dirty, but long-form copy rules are different. And the same. Let me explain.

Long-form content is things like this blog. Or CMS copy that is sometimes buried below product content on ecomm sites.

Long-form content is often used to support sales pages, either as more supporting evidence to convince you to buy the product or as an endorsement, often by a celebrity or other well-known, to show you how amazing you’ll be when if you own it.

Obviously, the name “long-form” tells you there will be more words. Duh. But what it doesn’t tell you is how to write them.

Go back for a minute to Freshmen Comp. Yeah, remember that class? Fun times. Remember how it was drilled into your head to break up your essays into the basic five paragraph layout? Intro, three supporting points with the most important coming first, followed by a conclusion to wrap it all up? It was a formula that applied to any topic.

The same basic outline applies to long-form copy.

But wait, there’s more!

Because today’s readers don’t have the patience to read long paragraphs, and because mobile devices often don’t display heavy text very well, it is best to break up long-form content into what appears to be short-form.

Like this.

By making those two words into a separate line, you read them and moved effortlessly onto the next paragraph.

Just like a script.

Or a scene from your favorite TV show.

Even though long copy is not the same as two characters talking, one idea is expressed, and then the next beat is a new thought, which makes it a new paragraph.

So whether you’re writing a short-form email or banner or billboard, or you are elaborating in long-form content, keep it simple and easy to read.

Whichever you write, be sure it’s the right length for what you’re trying to accomplish.

Your readers will thank you. And be more likely to buy what you’re selling.

7 Tools of the Trade

Content writers don’t all work for the companies for which they write. Some work for themselves.

Freelancers make up a significant portion of content contributors.

Typically, freelancers get very little support from their clients. Not that the clients don’t care; they just expect freelancers to work autonomously and do their jobs as the experts they purport to be.

But sometimes freelancers do need help. Not because they don’t know that they are doing. They usually do. But because we don’t know everything (shocker!) and might need some help organizing our work.

Finding resources in general is easy, thanks to the omniscient Google machine. Finding the specific resources you need in particular might be a bit more daunting.

Staying organized can be a challenge, especially remembering where you put all that excellent research you just did on the article that is due Friday.

Fortunately, there are plenty of companies dying to help you!

Here is a great list from my friends at The Write Life to help keep you organized and put the research you need right at your fingertips.

Enjoy! And happy freelancing!

Soothsaying the UX

Content marketing has tons of moving pieces. Words, images, CTA’s, links to other excellent content.

The list goes on.

Coordinating those pieces is tough work. Not just from the logistical side – that’s a back-end function that falls mostly near the project’s end – but from the beginning, the planning phase.

What will your next campaign entail? What are you trying to accomplish? How will you measure success?

What moving pieces do you need?

A lot of thought goes into choosing deliverables:

  • Email
  • Banners
  • Paid search
  • Social

What assets do you have? Will you need to schedule a photo shoot? Do you have a photographer – you or someone else – qualified to take good pictures that best showcase your product?

You have all that nailed down and you’re ready to go. But you’re not done.

How will it all look onsite? What about on mobile? With today’s mobile-first design emphasis, have you checked your smartphone to see how your art will appear?

Most importantly, how will your users interact with it?

The face of interface has changed dramatically multiple times since the invention of the “inter-web thingy” – and that was before smartphones. Now that most web content is viewed on portable devices, even more emphasis has been placed on simplifying the user experience so content customers can meet with as little resistance as possible as they scour their phone or tablet for the info they seek.

Some of the changes have been cosmetic, such as flat icons vs. 3D, while many of the upgrades have involved process – moving from one function to the next. Think about how much checkout carts have changed! If you want to feel old, check out Wayback Machine. Put in your domain, pick a date in the past, and prepare to cringe at how horrible your UX used to be.

Content consumers are picky. Give them a reason to stop and they will. Make the UX hard to navigate and they’ll move on to your competitors.

But how do you know what will capture your customers vs. turning them away?

  1. Learn from best practices through researching tons of online success stories
  2. Try it out for yourself – a step too often foolishly overlooked either in haste or poor planning
  3. Pull out your crystal ball

Okay, the last one is a stretch, about as effective as crossing your fingers. Or if you’d prefer, you can grab an old Magic 8 Ball, but the options are more limited.

Or your can learn from folks who do UX for a living.

So what’s in store for 2016? What trends in UX are going to captivate and woo people to embrace your content?

Check out this helpful guide from the folks at UX Design as they take you through their ideas of the next big trends.

Writing at the Speed of Life: Why Word Pacing is Super Critical

As writers, we agonize, sometimes for hours, over the exact words to use, whether it’s finding just the right turn of phrase to perfectly describe a setting or arranging a conversation between characters to make it not only fit who they are but also believable. This is true not just in books but in every form of writing.

In my day job, the words and phrases I piece together become money-making emails and online banners for several major corporations and smaller companies. I’ve also published a spy novel, a non-fiction book on real estate (now out of print), and a second non-fiction book, this one on baseball umpires.

When I wrote the novel, I had to pay rapt attention not only to the words each character spoke and the adjectives and adverbs in the action scenes (there are many) but also the pacing. Draggy dialog and bogged down action are fatal to the reader’s experience. For characters to be relatable, they should sound like human beings, not robots, with all their foibles, grammatical miscues, and incomplete sentences.

Dialog should sound like dialog.

And so should advertising copy.

“Wait, what?” you say. “Ad copy should sound like dialog?”

Yes. Here’s why.

Advertising is really just a not-so-subtle instruction to take action. The advertiser wants you to get up and buy this product! Jump in the car! Hop online! Call the 1-800 number! Do something! Don’t just sit there!

Just do it!

Which brings me to why pacing matters.

Imagine if athletic shoe giant Nike (no, I don’t work for them, so this is not a shameless plug) changed their world famous slogan to something less catchy.

Maybe “Just Implement It” or “Consider Moving Along.”

While both of those phrases technically say the same thing as “Just Do It,” how motivated are you by either of the alternatives?

See, by whittling down the slogan to three monosyllabic words, Nike accomplished three things really simply:

  1. They made the slogan ridiculously easy to remember. Think about the next time you try to talk yourself into doing something you really don’t want to do, such as taking out that tree stump or cleaning out the garage. You finally tell yourself “just do it” and voila! Nike comes to mind. And you weren’t even thinking about shoes. But you are now.
  2. They keyed in on the core value that all Nike customers want: achievement. Whether it’s an Ironman Triathlon, finishing your first 5K, improving your golf game, or just fitting into The In Crowd with the latest athletic footwear or a swoosh on their hat.
  3. They transformed Nike from a shoe company into a marketing/communications company that happens to sell shoes, much the same way marketing giant Apple sells computers and other electronic goods: by tapping first into the customer’s perceived emotional need.

What Nike understands better than anyone else is how to push their customers’ buttons.

And they do it by being simple and quick.

“Just Do It” was just the start.

Pacing is all about using not just the right number of words in a sentence but the right number of syllables in the right cadence.

Go back to the Nike alternatives. Neither of them works because they are too long and require readers to think too hard to get the point. And we know from experience that they won’t. If customers don’t get it instantly, they’ll simply quit.

Mission failed. Customer lost. Revenue lost. Time and effort wasted.

Notice how I paced that last short paragraph. I could have used complete sentences to make it grammatically correct, but you would have been bored and subconsciously edited it as you read, distracting you from the message.

But by breaking it up into tinier bites, you ate it quickly and moved on. Plus, by using clipped phrases in a fast sequence, they became punchier, more impactful. (See how I did it again?)

With all this talk about quick hit copy, it is important to recognize that it’s not just about being quick. It’s about finding the right pace for the moment.

Sometimes slowing down is better.

For instance, say you’re advertising a day spa designed for total relaxation, with soothing steam rooms, soft terrycloth robes, and relaxed couples massage. Paint that picture using long, drawn out phrases and sentences, with adjective-laced lists, each one building upon the last, floating the reader gently along with you as you describing in soothing details all the relaxing amenities she will enjoy as she lets the world go by around her while she pampers herself in pure luxury.

You just sighed. And your shoulders dropped a bit as tension exited your body. It’s amazing what a mental picture can do.

You also began to read more slowly around the time you reached “soothing steam rooms, soft terrycloth robes, and relaxed couples massage.”

Words have a physical effect on the human body just as much as watching a movie or television show. Study someone’s facial expressions when they read a book. While their reactions will not be as dramatic as the instant feedback of a TV viewer, readers still react to what they are reading with the same emotional cues of sadness, glee, or fright.

Whatever you write – be it books, articles, blog posts, or ad copy – be mindful not just of the accuracy of the words you choose but of the pacing of how they string together.

Does the rate fit the goal? Does it need to speed up or slow down?

Read it aloud. Does it sound like you intend it? Does it sound like a conversation, even if it’s one-sided? If so, success!

If not, rewrite until it does.