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Webmaster tools: Quantcast

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Last week I talked about Alexa rankings and how the value of thosee rankings is questionable at best. Quantcast provides a similar free service but take a different approach which seems to yield more accurate info.

Quantcast gives webmasters a code snippet to place on their site to ensure that every visit is counted, regardless of whether visitors have installed a browser plug-in. Quantcast also estimates traffic for websites without the code snippet but for low traffic sites the accuracy of these estimates is on par with Alexa.

Unlike Alexa, Quantcast gives webmasters and advertisers alike insight into visitor demographics. The screenshot below shows the demographics for our camping and hiking website, TripleBlaze.com. As you can see TripleBlaze attracts a middle aged, middle income, slightly female audience. This is great for advertisers to understand but it’s also helpful for webmasters seeking to tailor design and content to their core audience. I wasn’t able to find any information on where Quantcast gets their demographic data but my guess is either a panel of web surfers (similar to Nielson) or zip-code based demography. If you need to rely on this info for large scale decision making I suggest looking into the methodology further.

Quantcast also provides tools for comparing visits and pageviews between multiple websites. This means you can keep tabs on your competition while understanding the online traffic patterns that affect your industry. Of course you can also see how your site ranks compared to your competitors but we already know this doesn’t mean much – though sometimes it can provide a nice ego boost ;)

If you’re looking for a free internet rating service for research or finding advertisers, Quantcast is a great option. Sign up for your free tracking code to see who your site is reaching and how you stack up against the competition.

Alexa rankings: Do they mean anything?

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

There are several services out there that seek to rank websites based on the number of viewers (traffic) each website receives. Alexa is an Amazon.com service that uses a panel of users who have installed a special browser plug-in to estimate website traffic. The browser plug-in is free and is available to anyone who wishes to use it.

It’s difficult to say how many folks have installed the Alexa browser plug-in but I’m estimating it’s between very few and not many. As such Alexa has a hard time providing useful estimates for low traffic websites since it’s pretty unlikely someone in the tiny Alexa pool will visit a site with very little traffic. When an Alexa user does visit a site, that site’s ranking can quickly jump from 10 million to 500,000 in a short period of time. So don’t stress if your site ranking goes up and down like a roller coaster – it’s normal.

So what is Alexa good for? For starters, it is a pretty good tool for understanding relative traffic patterns among websites. Plug in your site and your competitors’ sites and you can see how your traffic and rankings compare. You can also see which sites link to your site and your competitors’ sites and also get a list of related sites if you’re not sure who your competitors are.

Unlike some website ranking services, Alexa doesn’t give you an estimate of pageviews or visitors. Instead, Alexa displays a cryptic ‘reach percentage’ which is a measure of the percentage of global internet traffic a website receives. So, for example, cnn.com has a global daily reach of around 1.5% meaning 1.5% of global internet users view the site each day. But this begs the question: how many global internet users are there? Alexa isn’t telling us so the measure is largely useless unless we’re comparing relative numbers between sites.

If you already have a website, check out your Alexa ranking today and see how you’re doing compared to your competition!

Webmaster tool recommendation: Google Analytics

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

If you’re serious about building a business online you need a good web analytics package. In the past decent analytics packages were beyond the reach of most small to mid-sized web operators but today you can get professional level reporting from Google Analytics for FREE.

I won’t be able to cover all the things you can do with web analytics in this short post but suffice it to say if there’s anything you want to know about your visitors, Google Analytics can help you figure it out. Here are just a few things we’ve used our analytics to determine:

  • Where should we focus our marketing efforts? Google Analytics helps us understand which traffic sources generate the most pageviews per visitor so we can apply our marketing dollars appropriately. A couple months back we decided to give Facebook ads a try and saw that our Facebook-referred visitors viewed 50% more pages than similar campaigns. Since we saw the ads were more effective we increased Facebook spending while decreasing spending on our other campaigns.
  • Where do our visitors live? With Google Analytics you can drill down to a country / state / city to see how many visitors you site receives from a given location. We use this information to guide our new content creation and tweak ad campaigns to target certain geographic regions.
  • What keywords are visitors using to find our site? This is super important and informs our search engine optimization strategy. Often the results can be surprising and can lead to new insights into your market or industry.
  • How is our site performing in terms of transactions? With Google Analytics you can set up various goals to track such as purchases, new user registrations, etc. We look at these closely and make changes to the site to see how they affect our goal metrics. Not sure if the new checkout page on your site is an improvement? Consult the analytics to see how your conversion rate has changed.

Using an analytics package is crucial if you want to better understand and grow your online business. Just remember, analytics alone won’t get you to your goals – it’s just another tool to help you make decisions.

Google Analytics helps you visualize your online traffic with a simple to use interface.

Incoming site links: hard to fake

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The cool thing about Google’s whole pagerank set-up is that, for the most part, it’s very difficult to game. Roughly speaking, pagerank assigns a value to a website based on the number and quality of outside sites that point to said website. The more links to your website, the higher your pagerank and the higher your site shows up in online search results.

While virtually every other portion of search engine optimization can be gamed to some degree, pagerank is a difficult thing to fake. Of course people have tried all sorts of schemes to increase the number of incoming links to their sites – link farms, paid links, spam links (posted on blogs / forums / etc.) – but in the end, genuine pagerank-enhancing links are made the old fashioned way.

In the early days we used to email folks and ask them to trade links with our sites to build reciprocal traffic (even though there was no such thing as pagerank back then). Today people still try to build links this way but it’s tough work and can come across as spammy to the recipients of link request emails. Even if your emails are genuine and get a good response from webmasters, we’re still talking a 5% hit rate or less – meaning you’ll need to identify and send 100 emails to get 5 new incoming links. Not an effective strategy if you ask me.

Our approach to collecting backlinks is actually pretty simple: we try to create the best content possible. If your site has useful, interesting, and relevant content you won’t need to ask people to link to you – they’ll do it automatically! Focus on making your site useful and not only will you collect backlinks but your users will actually stay on your site longer, generating higher pageviews and perhaps even a little word of mouth marketing for your site.

Now I know, creating great site content is tough but it’s really the only foolproof way I know of building a lasting online brand. A wise man once said “if you build it, they will come” – great advice if you’re considering a creating a baseball field in Iowa. But if you’re launching a new website I like to say “If you create great content, they will visit and link.”

Motivating online reviewers

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

I posted a couple weeks ago about “pay-for-review” programs that some websites are using these days and how this can often provide the wrong incentives for review posters. The ideal online user contribution will come from a person who is genuinely interested in sharing her knowledge or opinion, though we all know ideals are often far from reality. Besides, few of us have the time or patience to watch our consumer review website grow one review at a time. There are, however, ways you can motivate your users to post useful content without resorting to expensive cash payments.

Points and user status rewards

This is one of the first things we implemented on singletracks, mainly because it cost us nothing and our budget was tight. Members receive points for various actions they take, and the point values are weighted to reflect the value of the content to us. For example, reviews are worth 1 point, photos 2, and new listings are worth 3. With contribution points we can rank our users and the competition has proven successful at maximizing participation as members jockey for the top spot.

Along with the contribution points we introduced user badges to signify various point levels and the badges are visible alongside content posted by that user. Earning status badges give users a sense of pride in their contributions and as a side benefit, give new readers an easy way to identify the experience level of each content author. Most modern forum software includes a similar ranking system, mainly because it works!

Lists

With Review App you can create custom lists to allow your members to track and collect listings on their profile page. For example, on a BBQ restaurant review website you might want to allow members to create a list of places they have eaten. Now let’s say a new user starts adding restaurants to his list and notices his favorite BBQ joint doesn’t have a listing yet so he can’t add it to his list. He’ll now be motivated to add a listing for that restaurant to keep his list up to date, giving you the content you desire!

Contests

Generating new content for your website via a contest is perhaps the lowest-tech method you could employ (and the only one mentioned that costs anything) but it’s tough to avoid just because it’s so darn effective. We’ve hosted dozens of contests to see who can add the most new listings in a month, who can post the best photo, etc. and the results are always huge. Oftentimes the prize can be as simple as a t-shirt with your website logo but the bigger the prize, the more new users and new content you’ll attract.

Contribution points, lists, and contests are just a few ways you can motivate your members (and potential members) to give you the content you need – use them wisely and often!

Word of mouth marketing for your online business

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Many internet entrepreneurs make the mistake of counting on word of mouth as their primary means of marketing their new business. Heck, even offline entrepreneurs make the same mistake; I was involved in a small clothing company start-up recently and we assumed (incorrectly) that our clothes would advertise themselves as folks wore our shirts around town. We’re still waiting for the word of mouth to catch on…

The internet space is full of stories of the latest ‘viral’ phenomenon catching on like wildfire and it’s true, word of mouth marketing can be very powerful for some businesses. But even those who have seen word of mouth marketing work for their internet businesses know it’s a tough phenomenon to replicate. Word of mouth is a tough lion to tame and it’s a lot like trying to plan the weather. Sometimes it pours but more often than not you’ll see drought conditions.

Our mountain biking website is quickly approaching the magic 1M pageview / month mark and truthfully it’s taken some time to get there. We’re constantly pinging our members to find out more about them and one of the things we ask is “How did you first find out about our website.” It turns out that about 12% of our members claim to have found the site through pure word of mouth marketing – usually through friends or promotional items (t-shirts, stickers, etc.). We also get a decent amount of new visits through our Facebook marketing campaigns but I’m not sure if I’m ready to lump this in with word of mouth since this new from of ‘social marketing’ is different in many ways.

Word of mouth will certainly accelerate at some point with your site, hence the use of the term ‘viral’ to describe the virtuous cycle of increasing visits. The more people who visit (and love!) your site, the more friends they will tell, and the more new visits you’ll receive. Of course Amway is supposed to work this way too but we’re not all selling cleaning supplies from our homes (yet!) despite its start decades ago. Remember that ‘accelerate’ doesn’t mean fast – it just means getting faster. To go from a single word of mouth visit to two word of mouth visits is a 100% increase – good acceleration but not really a meaningful impact on your site traffic.

Word of mouth is the holy grail of internet marketing but don’t make the mistake of relying on it to grow your site into a viable business – concentrate on making your product (your website) great while growing traffic in other ways and word of mouth will follow!

Tips for marketing your online business offline

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

I’ve been involved in building and marketing new websites for at least 10 years now and one of the most frustrating things about promoting a new site is converting offline impressions into online visits. In this post I want to talk about some of the things that have worked for me but more importantly I want to tell you about some things that DIDN’T work.

My partner and I launched Safarium.com, an online vacation rental by owner website, in 2003 to compete in a fairly new market. Of course we purchased online ads, launched an affiliate program, and even posted online classified ads for some of our property owners and saw a decent amount of traffic – but we wanted to reach vacation owners who might not be aware that a service like ours existed online. In the fall of 2003 we posted a $75 ad in the Denver Post Vacation Rental classified section about our website and waited. And waited. Not a single property owner in Colorado joined in the month that followed.

In 2006 I was working on an e-commerce website, messengerapparel.com, and my partner and I decided to try a direct mail campaign to increase awareness of our online store. We chose Birmingham, AL as our test region (so we could monitor the success of the campaign via our web analytics) and sent out more than 200 letters to leaders in our target market. The result? Nothing, not even a single hit to the website from Birmingham for almost 2 weeks.

When we first launched singletracks.com in 1998 we sent homemade flyers to bicycle shops in the southeast announcing our site and asking the shops to help promote our trail database. Though we didn’t have sophisticated analytics in those days I’m pretty sure the flyers had little to no effect. However, in the spring of this year we revisited the idea of marketing our site in local bicycle shops and so far things look promising. We’ve received several emails from shop owners in response to our mailing and friends have reported seeing our promotional material prominently posted in shops around town. So far so good, though it is still difficult to tie any increase in site traffic to this particular campaign.

Singletracks also sells t-shirts and we even give away free stickers to just about anyone who asks (and some to folks who don’t ask!). Our internal market research shows that out of 1,500 responses only 12 people say they first heard about our site when they saw a sticker or t-shirt. That’s less than 1% for those keeping track.

Based on these experiences and combined with some things I learned in business school, I’ve shifted my focus from building direct traffic on offline campaigns to simply working to increase brand impressions. You see, it often takes several “impressions” before consumers decide to take action with regards to a product or service. For example, a mountain biker may see our promotional map in a bike shop and tells himself “I’m going to check out that website when I get home.” Of course, he forgets but then one day a couple weeks later he sees a Google Ad for singletracks and it sounds familiar somehow – so he clicks. Once on the site, the logo is familiar and the customer is much more comfortable signing up for an account because the brand was first validated outside the online space. The promo in the bike shop didn’t directly drive the traffic but it prepped the customer to be more receptive to our message once they saw it a second time.

If you’ve tried offline campaigns in the past and haven’t seen the results you expected, consider that your message may not drive direct traffic to your site but may simply prepare consumers to hear your message a second or third time. Offline campaigns can help you build your online brand in a way that online ads and links cannot and should be a part of any internet marketer’s site promotion plan.

Facebook marketing

Friday, May 30th, 2008

There’s certainly been alot of hype surrounding Facebook over the past year, what with the implied $15B valuation and entire venture capital funds being set up just to invest in Facebook apps. Anecdotally I can tell you my wife can spend hours on the site uploading photos, chatting with friends, and the like and both my brothers (age 18 and 27) are huge fans as well. So what does this mean to web publishers in terms of marketing potential? I’ll share my experience in two areas of Facebook marketing: advertisements and applications.

Advertisements are the most straightforward form of Facebook marketing since most internet marketers will already be familiar with the procedure of setting budgets, CPCs, etc. Facebook isn’t much different in terms of the mechanics of starting a campaign and we were up and running quickly with the $5 daily budget minimum for a mountain bike ad campaign. The ads themselves are a combination image and text ad which is different from what you’ll see on sites like Google and Yahoo. However, Facebook ads aren’t necessarily keyword based like search engine ads. For example, our ad set-up says “You are targeting men between 16 and 34 years old in the United States who like Mountain Biking.”

The biggest difference we’ve seen in our Facebook leads vs. leads generated on Google Adwords and other paid campaigns is that the Facebook users typically view more pages on our site and are more likely to create an account. We’re paying roughly the same CPC as on other ad networks and getting more pageviews – so far so good! The higher pageviews could be because Facebookers are familiar with the Review App model – sharing photos, reviews, etc. – so they are more likely to contribute and become involved on our site than typical search engine users strictly seeking information.

(The Facebook ad manager)

The other, sexier, form of Facebook marketing revolves around applications. Facebook applications are widgets that users can add to their profiles and provide interactive features like quizzes, photo uploads, and the like. Users can then share their applications and (hopefully) your application will go ‘viral’ as it is passed among friends. Creating a Facebook application is much more involved than running an ad campaign but a programmer can generally have a simple application up and running within a couple days. There is no cost to developing and deploying your application on the Facebook platform.

We’ve created two of our own Facebook applications and we’re very happy with the marketing results. Our first application, Mountain Biker, has been installed by more than 500 mountain bikers and lets users keep track of the mountain bike trails they’ve ridden. The application includes a competitive feature as well to see who has ridden the most trails which (ideally) keeps users engaged and incentivized to pass the app on to their friends. Mountain Biker has sent considerable traffic to our own website and has provided a tremendous branding opportunity to users who might not already know about us. The best thing is we spent nothing (other than a little time) creating the app yet it continues to be passed around among our most likely customers.

(Mountain Biker application users on Facebook)

There is some evidence that long-time Facebook users are suffering from application burnout as they install more and more applications that are just subtle variations on old themes. It’s important to make sure your application concept is fresh but also keep in mind that now is the time to launch your app before interest wanes and the spammers take over. If you’re looking for a new way to reach 18-34 year olds, Facebook is certainly a great option – get it while it’s hot!

Blog as marketing tool

Monday, May 19th, 2008

I recently spoke with a friend of a friend who was working on launching a new website and he asked me for some tips on getting the word out about his site. Based on our experience with singletracks I came up with a list of 4-5 things we’ve found to work pretty consistently and I thought I’d share the list with you here, starting with our #1 recommendation: create a relevant blog.

Of course blogs didn’t exist when we launched singletracks 10 years ago but if we were starting all over again my first marketing task would be to build a blog. Blogs are quick and easy to create and there is some pretty incredible software available for free from Word Press and others to get you started.

A blog is a great marketing tool for any website because it keeps users engaged and coming back for the latest news and content – but you need to commit to keeping things fresh. With singletracks we started our blog just after the New Year in 2007 and have been posting one article each weekday morning ever since. Ok, so maybe we miss a day here or there but the point is to give people a consistent reason to come back to your website day after day. Many blogs make the mistake of updating whenever they get a chance which is frustrating to readers who want to read your blog when THEY get a chance and they’ll move on if they don’t know when (or if) you’ll ever have any new articles.

Search engines love new content as well and the more often you post, the more often the crawlers will visit and index your site. On the singletracks blog we’ve noticed that our articles get picked up by Google within an hour or so of posting, making the blog almost as effective as our email campaigns. In fact, when we post articles on particular mountain bike trails we’ll see an almost immediate uptick in new user registrations from the surrounding area.

Blogs are also great at building a solid link base for your site. As you probably already know search engines like Google place a high weight on the number of sites that link to yours in search engine rankings. Interesting new content gives other bloggers and webmasters a reason to link to your site but you can also use links TO other blogs to drive traffic BACK to your site. Most blog software includes a feature called “trackbacks” that places reciprocal links between blog discussions. For example: I find an interesting blog post on another site about helmets and I place a link to that site in my post about kids bike safety. My blog software automatically notifies the helmet blog and places a link back to my post about kids bike safety. Nifty, huh? And by strategically titling your blog you can have an even greater impact: We titled our blog the “Mountain Bike Blog” and after less than a year we became the #1 Google search result for ‘mountain bike blog.’ It was that easy.

Finally, I want to share a couple tips that many folks just don’t seem to get right with marketing blogs these days. First, make sure your blog is a ‘marketing’ blog rather than a ‘sales’ blog. To some this may seem like splitting hairs but it’s important to get this nailed down. A ‘sales’ blog will be all about your product, your company, etc. without reaching outside to get customers interested in what you have to say and how you fit into the broader market. If you haven’t figured it out yet this blog is itself a marketing blog but instead of just talking about Review App (which we do) we want to talk about a broad range of interesting and useful subjects from consumer reviews to SEO to internet marketing.

It is also important to place your blog on the same domain as your REAL website to keep all the traffic in one place. I’ve seen so many examples of companies creating blogs on domains separate from their corporate sites which is simply counterproductive. Take advantage of those trackbacks and build up the pagerank on your site while making it easier for your readers to move from the blog to your main site. Subdomains are fine but separate domains are confusing to readers and search engines alike.

If you’re launching a new website, no matter what the subject, consider making a blog your #1 marketing tool – it’s an easy and effective way to quickly grow your audience!

The marketing power of top 10 lists

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Although the “top 10″ list may have been developed by David Letterman many years ago, the concept has been embraced on the web in recent years to become an important marketing tool for many sites. Just look at some of the most popular articles on digg.com (itself, a sort of top 10 list): The Best 10 All Purpose Laptops, The 7 Greatest Home Shopping Network Screw-ups of All Time, etc. The Internet is a vast and complex information resource and as humans we need a way to categorize and rank the most important (or most bizarre, most ridiculous, most expensive, etc.) to make sense of it all.

We’ve certainly seen the power of top 10 lists on Review App sites and have benefited from the associated search traffic those lists have generated. On TripleBlaze.com, our outdoor information site, by far the most popular page on the site is the “Top 100 Campgrounds in the US.” Of course the list is automatically ranked based mostly on the number and quality of campground reviews but our users take the list pretty seriously. Just today I received an email from one reader who felt like the list was somehow biased and unfair but the truth is the algorithm decides which campgrounds make the cut, not the webmaster ;) Oftentimes controversy can be even more beneficial to generating online traffic.

On Fresh Bible we have a list of the most popular verses in the Bible; on singletracks we have lists to see who has ridden the most mountain bike trails and which trails are most popular. Of course we’re also seeing the power of top 10 lists on sites like Facebook where it seems like every other application is some type of competition to see who (or what) is #1. It’s all in good fun but a dynamic list that changes often keeps users coming back to see what is on top.

Most internet searchers want to find the best of what they’re looking for and adding a top 10 list to your site can give them exactly what they’re looking for!