Archive for February, 2012

Site Optimization for Plumbers

Monday, February 20th, 2012
People call us all the time wanting us to do search engine optimization (SEO) and they believe it is fast, cheap, and easy. The problem is that it is none of these. SEO traffic is often the most expensive, risky, and difficult to manage of the traffic types. While we deal with optimization issues every day we do not provide SEO services because to do it right is incredibly labor intensive and the return from the investment is at best difficult to measure.

Client expectations are also commonly not realistic. I have had way too many meetings where we try to explain the challenges and the person just says I want to be first and hands us a list of 50-100 words.  The problem is that this is a competitive game and while you might want to be first most are unwilling to invest the time and money required to get there.

Organic traffic is great when you can get it but the problem is the lack of dependability and scalability. It is a common event to hear “I used to be first on Google” followed by a story of how the world came crashing down. There is absolutely nothing unusual or unnatural about this because it is just the natural ebb and flow of organic listings.

The Types of Organic Results

To really explore organic traffic you have to divide it down into its parts because they operate independently of each other. In the organic slots you can have Places (Local Map Listings), Optimized Pages, Google Base (Product feed), and social network entries.  When most people talk about SEO what they normally mean is the natural keyword based page listings. In the case of plumber searches this is often behind the Places Listings and in many metros it is on the bottom of the first page.

On & Off Page Elements

There are two parts of optimization; on-page and off-page. The on-page is the one that everyone seems to be fascinated with but is reality it is the smaller of the two and not by a little bit. However the page content is the foundation of the optimization and it is the easiest to understand. Google is ranking the page by what it is about and the term they use for this is relevancy.  The question Google is trying to answer is how relevant is the content of the page to the search query posed by the searcher. So in reality optimization starts with the searcher not the page. In here is the first challenge and the first rule in SEO. The more you optimize for one keyword the more you degrade another. This is a simple rule of density and frequency and it is not going to change just because you will it. Plumbers often want to optimize for the word “Plumber” and a list of city names. The problem is that the more you optimize for Los Angeles the lower your optimization for Long Beach. The more you optimize for the singular of Plumber the less you are about the plural of Plumbers. When this game is played at the highest levels winning and losing is often very small differences.

“The more you are about one word the less you are about the other”

This happens so often it’s almost a classic meeting and it goes like this. You gather your staff and brain storm the keywords you want to optimize your site for. This results in a list of 50-100 keywords and you hand this list to an SEO. If the SEO is honest they will hand the list back and ask you to circle the one you want. You want your home page optimized for all of them but the more you are about one word the less you are about the others. A home page is the most authoritative position within your website and at best you might get good position from two keywords and one of them is probably going to be your business name.  So what you need to do is decide what keyword (single not plural) you want to be found for. Pick carefully because you probably only get one and changing your mind resets the score back to zero.

More is not Better; Better is Better

When it comes to optimization this normally the first mistake and the thinking is that if one more use of the keyword is better then ten more uses must be even more better (bad grammar is to make a point). The problem is that it is keyword density not keyword count that is being scored and the score is based on a sweet-spot not a more-is-better model.  The actual sweet-spot level is a highly guarded secret inside Google but the concept is easy to understand. If the keyword occurs too often then it is a signal that the keyword is being stuffed. As a simple example let’s guess the sweet-spot at 3%. At 3% you get the maximum score for that keyword but at 4% your score is just as low as if it were 2%.  Google is much smarter than this simple example and they are looking at hundreds of other signals including things like inferred references. If they find that every sentence has the keyword in it with no inferred references the document starts to fall out of the model they are looking for.

Position Counts

Where the keyword is placed is extremely important and it follows a simple document hierarchy.  Actual point value at each level is unknown but we know the relative value follows: Site Name, Page Name, Page Position, Title, Headings 1-6, Bold, Linked, and body text. Putting the keyword on the home page gives it more value than a lower level page and putting it in a title is worth more than a heading or body listing. Google looks for keyword support at all the different levels so if the keyword is in the title, headings, and standard text then it knows that word is important.  There are also cross page support and this is typically why you win with your own name.  Most site designs include the business name on every page and it is often in the page title and footer of lots of pages. This creates a higher value for that keyword not from just one page but the entire collection of pages that make up your site. This is referred to as the page theme.

Pictures are for People – Text is Shared

When you optimize a site you are balancing the needs of different audiences – including People and Search Engines. These are very different audiences and so you have to find the right compromise between their needs. People understand and enjoy the web experience at a very different level than search engines and the simplest of these to see is humor so here is your first clue – search engines have no sense of humor. People on the other hand respond very well to colorful and creative presentations. Fortunately web pages have the ability to display text and graphics and search engines cannot see graphics. So if you have to use humor or be clever with our audience do it graphically so you do not confuse the search engine.  Search engines only see the text so keep it simple and structured so they can understand what the page is about. Lots of people make the mistake of trying to over optimize and in reality Google is looking for good content. So write with your heart and after your words have the voice that you want then review it for optimization opportunities but never change the soul of your writing.

Quality Content Counts

We have SEOs that have attempted to convince our clients that the optimization of the page was more important than the quality of the content; that is wrong on many levels. Creating margin quality content purely for optimization purposes is a self-defeating strategy. The result is that you attract a prospect only to deliver a poor first impression. Here is a simple rule – Content Quality Counts!  There is no doubt that a good content strategy that creates good quality content over a long period of time works but you need to make this part of your normal business cycle not a onetime project.

Places – Map Listings

We discussed this in more detail last month but it is worth repeating some key items. First is that places for local businesses is a critical listing and it is driven largely by citations and reviews. Citations are simply other sites that point to your site and include your physical address. Google sees this as a vote for your business in the process of scoring your places listing. Reviews are user written evaluations that typically contain a ranking of the customer’s experience with your business. You need a plan within your business to ask for reviews and you need to monitor those for negative responses and deal with those issues. No company is perfect so at some point you will end up with a customer that has a negative experience with your business. The key here is to communicate with and resolve the problem.  Many plumbers are small businesses that do not have a physical location so they use the owners home address. There is nothing wrong with this because in plumbing they are not going to come to your office to fix a leak. Bottom line here is you NEED a real physical location or you do not go on the map.

Product Listing – Google Base

If your Plumbing Business sells, installs, and/or services specific products then you want to make sure you include these in Google Base. Google Base is simply a database that you can submit to your product listings along with some basic product information such as price, picture, etc… Google will pick up this product feed on a regular basis and update the listing. This gives you one more possible way to bring traffic to your site and the listing is organic so the traffic is free. You can also connect your AdWords Account to your Google Base listings resulting in picture based ads like the ones above in the right column. This listing has some disadvantages in that the link from this page goes to a comparative shopping feature in Google, which then connects to your website.  To make all this work you will need a landing page for that product on your site so you have a specific page to connect your Google Base listing to.

As long as we are talking about products we need to point out that as your plumbing business shifts from service (plumbing) to product your keywords will change as well. Searches with things like price and shopping start to be attractive keywords.

Reputation is not what you say about yourself; but what others say about you 

Off-page optimization is more important than on-page optimization. It is largely driven by back-links, which in Internet terms is “What others say about you.”  When a site provides a back-link they are voting for your site and the word they use to do that is the word that gets the juice. The value of the back-link is based on the reputation of the site pointing to you. So a back-link from a highly respected site is worth its weight in gold, while a low authority site is not much. As you can see this process can get real complex but it is the way the world has always operated. If highly trusted people say good things about you then it increases your reputation and this is as true on the Internet as it in the physical world. Back-links are largely a more the merrier type of score assuming the sites have a positive reputation. In the underbelly of the internet are sites that will provide paid back-links and these sites can actually reduce your score. Back-links are difficult to earn but they will go a long way increasing your organic score.

Social Networks

Social Networks are getting to be a big deal and they are a source of citations and reviews so it is best to be aware of these and to start by simply claiming your name and setting up a simple presence on these networks. It is probably too early to be seriously investing in these networks but as they mature you do not want to be late to the party. Social Network signals are starting to have an impact on organic listings but the rules and values of these are still evolving. So our advice today is be aware and engage with the process but do not put too much resource into these yet.

Summary

In closing we want to stress that SEO and your Content Strategy need to be long term and to play this game you have to commit to an on-going investment in unique quality content.

Marketing is like a Water Heater

Monday, February 20th, 2012

When it comes to explaining complex topics it is often useful to use a well understood object with common functionality as metaphor. In this article we will compare the functioning of your marketing to a conventional water heater. Not the same you say? Then read on and let’s see.

The Goal is

The goal of a water heater is to provide a steady source of hot water to the home. The goal of your marketing is to provide a steady stream of new business. Like the water heater, you need a full system to get to this goal.

Bringing it Online

When you install a conventional water heater and turn it on the water is not instantly hot in the house, and the same is true of your marketing. When you first launch your marketing campaigns a lot of the energy goes into warming up the market. This is why short term blasts of marketing almost never work and why marketing campaigns improve with age. One time ads are the equivalent of turning the flame on in the water heater and deciding it does not work because the water is not instantly hot throughout the house. It takes several hours for a water heater to be up to temperature and ready to serve the home and it takes months for marketing to do the same.

Bleeding the System  

As every plumber knows, when you open the hot water in the house after an install what you get is a lot of air venting through the system and marketing acts in a very similar way.  Sometimes sales come out and sometimes not. It is very inconsistent until the system has been bleed out and stabilized. Trying to take the very early results and predict the future is fraught with risk. Marketing tends to start the same way with fits, seizures, and blasts of air.

Stabilizing the settings

A new water heater runs until the water reaches the target temperature and then it cycles on and off as needed to maintain that level based on energy loss and demand.  Your marketing you can do the same thing or you can warm it up at a slow consistent pace. Going full speed brings some risks that you can avoid with a slow consistent strategy but in the long run you will get to the same place where it takes less energy to maintain the system. What you never get to is a stage where it becomes a perpetual motion machine. There is always a requirement to continue to fill the tank and heat the water.

Trying to Go Too Fast

No matter how hot you make the flame water is only going to absorb the heat at its pace. Many businesses make the mistake of trying too hard and it almost never works. The market has to warm up to your business and this takes time. You cannot make a conventional water heat get up to temp in 1 minute and you cannot make a market suddenly treat your business like a long established major brand. Once the market is up to temperature it is much easier to keep it there. Not running marketing long enough is the classic beginner’s mistake. The market is very much like water in this situation in that it will only come up to temperature at its pace.  Push it faster and it will just lose the heat through the chimney.

There is no 100% Efficient Water Heater

No water heater is 100% efficient and heat escapes in a number of ways and the same is true of your marketing.  Just like wrapping the water heater and hot water pipes can reduce heat loss your marketing can increase its efficiency as well but it never reaches 100%. Water heaters are different in that they can reach levels of efficiency that marketers can only dream of. In marketing the most common efficiency level is about 2% and water heaters are much better than that.

Maintenance Needed

Water heaters need maintenance and no matter what you do they will ultimately fail. In the case of the water heater this is 12-15 years depending on local conditions but ultimately it will fail. This is true of your marketing as well. There will come times where you need to maintain your marketing and points you will need to replace it. You need to make sure you understand the difference between these points so you do not replace what you can repair.

Hot Water is not the Final Goal – It’s a nice warm shower

Hot water unregulated by the final shower faucet can burn your skin off and the system needs a final fine adjustment.   In a single-handle cartridge-style faucet this final mix adjustment can go from burning to freezing cold in just a few degrees of rotation and neither of these results is the goal. In marketing it can be the same way. If you run too hot your ability to service the business can suffer but if you run too cold the business can quickly lose money. This very delicate mix of hot and cold can be destroyed by other events like the flushing of a toilet within the system. Your marketing is impacted by local events, sales, economy, competitors, and changes in technology, just to name a few. Your budget is one of the tools for that final adjustment to get your marketing just right.

Closing Thoughts

In summary water heaters and marketing operate in very similar ways because markets are fluid and so is water.  You cannot instantly get a mechanical action out of a water heater or a market and that is because of their fluid nature. Both have to operate in balance for optimal performance. The pressure, heat, mix, and flow adjustments have to be just right. You need to react to system conditions, but not over-react.  Try too hard and you will find yourself just splashing around with no real results; try too little and your business will disappear before your very eyes.

Disclaimer: I am not a plumber and I am not pretending to be one. Our goal is simply to help you better understand the marketing of your plumbing business so you can better control the system.  After all; the goal is a steady flow of nice warm leads to make the business fell just right.