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How to Check Which Links Can Harm Your Site’s Rankings

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Posted by Modesto Siotos

This post was originally in YouMoz, and was promoted to the main blog because it provides great value and interest to our community. The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of SEOmoz, Inc.

Matt Cutts’ statement in March 2012 that Google would be rolling out an update against “overoptimised” websites, caused great turmoil within the SEO community. A few days later thousands of blogs were removed from Google’s index and Matt tweeted confirming that Google had started taking action against blog networks.

Even though thousands of low-quality blogs of low or average authority were manually removed from Google’s index, they weren’t the only victims. For instance, www.rachaelwestdesigns.com, a PR7, DA70 domain was also removed, probably due to the very high number of blog roll (site-wide) backlinks.

These actions indicate that the new update on “overoptimised” websites has already begun to roll out but it is uncertain how much of it we have seen so far.

At around the same time Google sent to thousands webmasters the following message via message via Google’s Webmaster Tools:

In the above statement, it is unclear what Google’s further actions will be. In any case, working out the number of “artificial” or “unnatural links” with precision is a laborious, almost impossible task. Some low quality links may not be reported by third party link data providers, or even worse, because Google has started deindexing several low quality domains, the task can end-up being a real nightmare as several domains cannot be found even in Google’s index.

Nevertheless, there are some actions that can help SEOs assess the backlink profile of any website. Because, in theory, any significant number of low quality links could hurt, it would make sense gathering as many data as possible and not just examine the most recent backlinks. Several thousand domains have already been removed from Google’s index, resulting in millions of links being completely devalued according to Distilled’s Tom Anthony (2012 Linklove).

Therefore, the impact on the SERPs has already been significant and as always happens in these occasions there will be new winners and losers once the dust settles. However, at this stage it is be a bit early to make any conclusions because it is unclear what Google’s next actions are going to be. Nevertheless, getting ready for those changes would make perfect sense, and spotting them as soon as they occur would allow for quicker decision making and immediate actions, as far as link building strategies are concerned.

As Pedro Dias, an Ex-Googler from the search quality/web spam team tweetted, “Link building, the way we know it, is not going to last until the end of the year” (translated from Portuguese).

The Right Time For a Backlinks Risk Assessment

Carrying out a backlinks audit in order to identify the percentage of low-quality backlinks would be a good starting point. A manual, thorough assessment would only be possible for relatively small websites as it is much easier to gather and analyse backlinks data – for bigger sites with thousands of backlinks that would be pointless. The following process expands on Richard Baxter’s solution on ‘How to check for low quality links‘, and I hope it makes it more complete.

  1. Identify as many linking root domains as possible using various backlinks data sources.
  2. Check the ToolBar PageRank (TBPR) for all linking root domains and pay attention on the TBPR distribution
  3. Work out the percentage of linking root domains that has been deindexed
  4. Check social metrics distribution (optional)
  5. Repeat steps 2,3 and 4 periodically (e.g. weekly, monthly) and check for the following:
  • A spike towards the low end of the TBPR distribution
  • Increasing number of deindexed linking root domains on a weekly/monthly basis
  • Unchanged numbers of social metrics, remaining in very low levels

A Few Caveats

The above process does come with some caveats but on the whole, it should provide some insight and help making a backlinks’ risk assessment in order to work out a short/long term action plan. Even though the results may not be 100% accurate, it should be fairly straightforward to spot negative trends over a period of time.

Data from backlinks intelligence services have flaws. No matter where you get your data from (e.g. Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, Blekko, Sistrix) there is no way to get the same depth of data Google has. Third party tools are often not up to date, and in some cases the linking root domains are not even linking back anymore. Therefore, it would make sense filtering all identified linking root domains and keep only those still linking to your website. At iCrossing we use a proprietary tool but there are commercial link check services available in the market (e.g. Buzzstream, Raven Tools).

ToolBar PageRank gets updated infrequently (roughly 4-5 times in a year), therefore in most cases the returned TBPR values represent the TBPR the linking root domain gained in the the last TBPR update. Therefore, it would be wise checking out when TBPR was last updated before making any conclusions. Carrying out the above process straight after a TBPR update would probably give more accurate results. However, in some cases Google may instantly drop a site’s TBPR in order to make public that the site violates their quality guidelines and discourage advertisers. Therefore, low TBPR values such as n/a, (greyed out) or 0 can in many cases flag up low quality linking root domains.

Deindexation may be natural. Even though Google these days is deindexing thousands of low quality blogs, coming across a website with no indexed pages in Google’s SERPs doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been penalised. It may be an expired domain that no longer exists, an accidental deindexation (e.g. a meta robots noindex on every page of the site), or some other technical glitch. However, deindexed domains that still have a positive TBPR value could flag websites that Google has recently removed from its index due to guidelines violations (e.g. link exchanges, PageRank manipulation).

Required Tools

For large data sets NetPeak Checker performs faster than SEO Tools, where large data sets can make Excel freeze for a while. NetPeak checker is a standalone free application which provides very useful information for a given list of URLs such as domain PageRank, page PageRank, Majestic SEO data, OSE data (PA, DA, mozRank, mozTrust etc), server responses (e.g. 404, 200, 301) , number of indexed pages in Google and a lot more. All results can then be exported and processed further in Excel.

1. Collect linking root domains

Identifying as many linking root domains as possible is fundamental and relying in just one data provided isn’t ideal. Combining data from Web master tools, Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer may be enough but the more data, the better especially if the examined domain has been around for a long time and has received a large number of backlinks over time. Backlinks from the same linking root domain should be removed so we end up with a long list of unique linking root domains. Also, not found (404) linking root domains should also be removed.

2. Check PageRank distribution

Once a good number of unique linking root domains has been identified, the next step is scrapping the ToolBar PageRank for each one of them. Ideally, this step should be applied only on those root domains that are still linking to our website. The ones that don’t should be discarded if not too complicated. Then, using a pivot chart in Excel, we can conclude whether the current PageRank distribution should be a concern or not. A spike towards the lower end values (such as 0s and n/a) should be treated as a rather negative indication as in the graph below.

3. Check for deindexed root domains

Working out the percentage of linking root domains which are not indexed is essential. If deindexed linking root domains still have a positive TBPR value, most likely they have been recently deindexed by Google.

4. Check social metrics distribution (optional)

Adding in the mix the social metrics (e.g. Facebook Likes, Tweets and +1s) of all identified linking root domains may be useful in some cases. The basic idea here is that low quality websites would have a very low number of social mentions as users wouldn’t find them useful. Linking root domains with low or no social mentions at all could possibly point towards low quality domains.

5. Check periodically

Repeating the steps 2, 3 and 4 on a weekly or monthly basis, could help identifying whether there is a negative trend due to an increasing number of linking root domains being of removed. If both the PageRank distribution and deindexation rates are deteriorating, sooner or later the website will experience rankings drops that will result in traffic loss. A weekly deindexation rate graph like the following one could give an indication of the degree of link equity loss:

Note: For more details on how to set-up NetPeak and apply the above process using Excel please refer to my post on Connect.icrossing.co.uk.

Remedies & Actions

So far, several websites have seen ranking drops as a result of some of their linking root domains being removed from Google’s index. Those with very low PageRank values and low social shares over a period of time should be manually/editorially reviewed in order to assess their quality. Such links are likely to be devalued sooner or later, therefore a new link building strategy should be devised. Working towards a more balanced PageRank distribution should be the main objective, links from low quality websites will keep naturally coming up to some extent.

In general, the more authoritative & trusted a website is, the more low quality linking root domains could be linking to it without causing any issues. Big brands’ websites are less likely to be impacted because they are more trusted domains. That means that low authority/trust websites are more at risk, especially if most of their backlinks come from low quality domains, have a high number of site-wide links, or if their backlink profile consists of unnatural anchor text distribution.

Therefore, if any of the above issues have been identified, increasing the website’s trust, reducing the number of unnatural site-wide links and making the anchor text distribution look more natural should be the primary remedies.

About the author

Modesto Siotos (@macmodi) works as a Senior Natural Search Analyst for iCrossing UK, where he focuses on technical SEO issues, link tactics and content strategy. Modesto is happy to share his experiences with others and posts regularly on Connect, a UK digital marketing blog.

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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Are You Getting The Most Out Of Yelp?

Don’t think there’s a Web savvy small business owner that doesn’t know about Yelp. It’s one of the most powerful and authoritative review sites on the Web. However, I was curious to know if SMB owners were really taking full advantage of the site or if there were avenues they were missing out on. To find out, I decided to give Luther Lowe, the manager of Local Business Outreach, a call to see if there were any hidden Yelp gems he could tell me about. What he did was highlight the extremely powerful Yelp for Business Owners and three things SMB owners should be doing to maximize their Yelp payout.

Unlock your Listing

The business owner side of Yelp is more than a year old, but it’s startling to see how many SMB owners still don’t know that it exists. If you haven’t unlocked your business listing yet, do it. All it takes is a simple phone verification and, once it’s done, gives you access to a whole new side of Yelp. Once unlocked, business owners will be able to:

  1. Send private communications with users.
  2. Create their About This Business section to provide more information to users and the search engines to spider.
  3. Place coupons, specials and announcements directly on your listing.
  4. Add photos.
  5. Get a badge to put Yelp reviews on your site to serve as both a testimonial and encouragement for other customers to leave review.
  6. Recommend other businesses in your area to build relationships.
  7. A comprehensive business dashboard.

Combined, these features become very, very powerful. For example, the added About the Business section gives you the opportunity to fill in all sorts of info about your business that will allow users to find out more about you, while also serving as important citations to help the search engines rank you for local searches. You can also use coupons to boost sales and determine how much in store traffic you’re receiving from Yelp.

The more information you can give users and the search engines about your business, the better. As Luther joked during our chat, if someone is looking for “movers” near “Chicago”, they’re not doing that search for kicks. They really do need someone to move their stuff. The ability to fill out a rich profile that gets index makes you more discoverable on Yelp and on the Internet. It’s a very powerful way for biz owners to get engage

The Yelp Dashboard

The Yelp dashboard gives business owners a way to quantify the amount of traffic their listing is receiving. To access this, click on the Summary tab to view your Business Trends. You’ll see a graph that looks something like this:

This type of analytical data is always very powerful because it helps you to identify which days are most popular for your business, what seasonal patterns exist, what days you should hold contests or promotions to get people into the store, and other sales patterns. You’ll also be able to see whether traffic for you page is increasing or decreasing.

Learn how to respond to reviews

One of the big things I chatted with Luther about was the feature released in April that allows business owners to publically respond to reviews left about them on the site. He noted that most business owners realize that coming in and being diplomatic really is in their best interest. Flame wars and fights benefit no one.

Business owners should use their chance to publicly respond to:

  • Do right by customers: If someone left a review with less than three stars, get in there and engage. Apologize for their bad experience, thank them for stopping by and tell them you’re working hard to change it. Often, you can get someone to change their 1-2 star review to at least a 4 just by speaking up and empathizing with their bad experience.
  • Update them: If someone was disappointed you didn’t carry a certain type of beer and you know do, comment publicly and let them (and everyone else) know that you’ve responded to their feedback and added the new beer type to the menu. Then, invite them in to have a taste.

If you haven’t investigated the business owner side of Yelp, I’d really encourage you to do so. It transforms the site into an incredible portal for SMB owners to really use the traffic they’re getting, to engage, and to build customer relationships that will result in increased conversions.

From Small Business Trends

Are You Getting The Most Out Of Yelp?

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Video in Email Creates Higher Clicks and Conversions

Video in Email Creates Higher Clicks and Conversions

This content from: Duct Tape Marketing

Adding video to email is a powerful way to double and triple the click your call to action in an email campaign might receive. Obviously, this will vary with other elements, but it’s a pretty accepted and tested tactic.

Of course the trick you can’t simply slap a YouTube video in an email and send it out. To date, none of the traditional ways of creating and viewing video are compatible with email sending. A host of services are cropping up to try to create turn-key platforms that make using video in email much easier, but there are two methods today that many small business folks can take advantage of without too much technical expertise. (I believe you should be testing this right now)

1) Click to view – this isn’t really video in email but it creates the allusion of it and the video call to action is a very strong incentive for people to click through. (Who knows this may lose it’s effectiveness as many things do, but for now it’s more effective than a text link.) All you need to do to create a click to view call to action is capture an image of your video in what looks like a video player, complete with play button. When people click on the image it takes them online to the URL embedded in the image.

Video in email

You can host your video on YouTube, Vimeo or Viddler and send people directly to one of these sites to view, but I would take the extra step of embedding the video on your site or in a blog post. It’s terribly easy to do and that way you keep the brand experience going and can offer additional information and offers on the page.

2) Animated gifs – Animated gif files are pre 2000, you remember the days of the spinning chicken on your website, right? They have become much more sophisticated and can be used to deliver a richer, animated experience in an email. One downside is there is no audio, just motion. They also currently have issues in Outlook 2007 and show only as an image. You can create animated gifs in Photoshop and most email service providers allow you to embed them in your HTML templates like you would any other image.

Both of these approaches can only be delivered via an HTML email and the precipitant must enable images to view.

There are signs on the horizon that a true video in email experience is not far away – Google Gmail now allows a setting that will show YouTube video preview in Gmail. (You have to enable this setting in the Labs tab) Other 3rd party systems like GoodMail are trying to push for a certification system that would allow you to send video in formats such as flash as long as you were a certified sender in good standing.

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11 Highly Useful Presentation Tools for Sales and Marketing

Computer slide presentations are one of the ways we sell in person. We create the slides, show them to a prospect and then leave them on our machines for the next time we need them.

Why let them go to waste? By hosting them online, we can repurpose them as marketing and soft sales pieces.

Aside from repurposing existing presentations by loading them online, what if you want to create new presentations from scratch that do more — that contain a mix of slides, browser screen shots, product images, and even short video clips?  Today you can easily do that and often for free.  Jing and some of the tools below make it possible to create a more dynamic presentation, complete with audio, animation, and video that you can position on the Web for customers to review at their convenience.

So here are 11 presentation tools for creating outstanding presentations or just repurposing already-existing presentations, for your sales and marketing:

1. Slideshare is a well known presentation hosting site. It has great web applications to let you distribute  your presentations to LinkedIn, Facebook, and many other social networks. It is becoming its own social network, in essence. They do not let you build a presentation as many of these others do; you only can host it there. It is simply a presentation portal where your ideas and thoughts can garner traffic and links.

Slideshare

2. Google Presentations - It sometimes feels to me that Google does everything that I need online. It isn’t true, of course, but Google Docs does offer Google Presentations. You can create a presentation from scratch or upload a Powerpoint file to Google and then share it with others. A basic tour is found here.

3. Zoho Show does a lot more than presentation hosting.  Zoho’s tool in this category is excellent and collaborative. If you need to have a chat going while you’re presenting, this is one to look at.

4. Prezi is one of the hottest startups in the presentation world. Takes a new look at presentations, gives you a large canvas to place images, videos, text and then lets you zoom in and out on various parts of your “presentation.” You have to host your presentation at Prezi, but you can embed it into your site or blog once you’ve done that. Their technology appears to be too robust to package up in any current file format. I liked this phrase from their site: “Prezi is zooming sketches on a digital napkin.”

5. authorStream allows you to convert your Powerpoint into video, which then lets you tap into all of the other video type hosting services like Vimeo, YouTube, Viddler, and others. This YouTube Marketing post by Travis Campbell inspired me to investigate the different options you are reading now.  I wondered if I could put my presentations on high traffic video sites without having to do a video.

6. Jing is a screen capture program that lets you capture whatever you have on your desktop (slides, webpage, image) and add audio as you click through. You can then save it to their slide presentation hosting site, Screencast or download it for email, chat or the web.

In the past I have frequently used GoToMeeting.com.  The only problem?  I was unable to save some of the audio from my presentations.  So I used Jing to re-create my presentation, added browser screens in a tour-like fashion, and audio. I was then able to email it to the people who could not join the presentation. The feedback was always terrific.

Jing

7. KinetiCast is a presentation hosting service that’s great for the analytical types who just have to know what happens when a prospect views the presentation. You upload your presentation, then send your prospect a download link which KinetiCast then tracks if the prospect actually visits and what they look at as well as how long they spend. They also let you download your presentation as a video.

8. Empressr has been widely written about and it is one of the market leaders. You can create your presentation, add video, audio, photos, then host it there for free and share it with others. They call it the world’s first free online storytelling tool.

9. 280Slides is a browser-based tool that requires no download. If you do not have presentation software, this is one of the most intuitive tools I’ve seen for free. You simply work right from your browser to create slides, insert video, photos, and audio and save in different formats. It also lets you publish it direct to Slideshare, which I found pretty neat.

280Slides

10. Myplick lets you upload your presentation and then add audio to it. It is a slide hosting service, smaller and less well known than Slideshare, but because it helps you place audio into the presentation, I include it here. They give you various options for including your audio into a presentation allowing you to upload a video with the sound you want.

11. vcasmo allows you to put video and presentations together, which is pretty interesting. Your video goes on the left side and slides on the right. As you talk through your presentation, you are demonstrating your service or product by video. It looks and feels like an in-person presentation with their format.

* * * * *

These tools can help you create presentations from scratch or enliven existing presentations with audio and screenshots. If you’ve ever given a presentation via PowerPoint or some other software tool, you can give that work a new life and post your presentations online.  Or just create a new whiz-bang presentation with all the bells and whistles.

Give some of these a try and let us know which ones work for you. Tell us about others you may like.

From Small Business Trends

11 Highly Useful Presentation Tools for Sales and Marketing

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Five Ways to Get Paid by Small Business Customers

When it comes to getting paid, all customers are not created equal.  It pays to focus on the high risk customers in your credit policies and in your collections process.

That includes when you have small businesses as customers. Many B2B small businesses count other small businesses as their customers.  And that can bring added risk.

Look at the failure rates of small businesses.  Fewer than 50% of small businesses are still around at the five-year mark.  After the ten-year mark, fewer than 30% are still around. These numbers may seem depressing if your customers are small businesses.  But keep in mind that strong small businesses are remarkably resilient – and tend to stay strong.  It’s the weak ones that get winnowed out.

Between 2007 and 2009, Experian the credit rating agency, tracked 300,000 small businesses.  During that time — most of which was during the recession — delinquencies, bankruptcies, tax liens and other issues increased. But as you look at the data, a trend becomes clear.  The healthy businesses had a much better record than the weak small businesses. According to the Experian report “Understanding the state of small-business risk” from August 2009:

“The general small-business population had a rate of severe account delinquency almost two times greater, a tax lien rate more than three times greater and a judgment rate more than five times greater than small businesses with no derogatory events prior to April 2007. While “clean” businesses were still being affected by the economy, they were proving to be much more resilient to economic conditions.”

In other words, small businesses that were weak to begin with when the recession hit, succumbed in greater numbers.  The businesses that were solid and healthy (Experian calls them “clean” businesses) didn’t have nearly the negative problems and stayed relatively strong throughout.

So, if you sell to small business customers, consider these steps for your credit policies and collections process:

  • Get a business credit report on a new customer before extending terms.
  • If the small business is too new or too small to have a business credit record (pretty typical, actually), then consider requiring payment up front or COD deliveries, until the customer establishes a history of regular payments with you. Or at the very least, require a downpayment of 50%, and/or periodic installment payments at certain milestones. Downpayments and installments work especially well for consultants and service providers, because you can discontinue work if the customer misses a payment. Make sure your contracts and/or invoices clearly state your right to discontinue work, and that the customer does not own the products or your “work product”, until completely paid for.
  • Offer discounts for early payment. Offer a discount for early payment to those customers you’re nervous about. Try this technique to get paid fast: call or email the customer and ask if they can pay that day (or that week) if you give them a discount, and then get the money right away through wire transfer, PayPal or a credit card payment. Even if you have to pay fees on the payments received by these methods, remember: when it comes to getting paid, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
  • Be on the lookout for signs of trouble. If you or your staff have trouble reaching someone by phone or email for a project you are working on, take that as a negative sign. A sudden “radio silence” often signifies distraction and turmoil at the customer’s business. It’s one of the early warning signs of a customer in trouble. If you see trouble, and don’t get a satisfactory explanation, discontinue services or future deliveries, and work fast to get any outstanding invoices paid.
  • Create a watch list for slow payors and take action faster with them - call within 3 to 5 days of a missed due date. If you stay on top of your receivables you will know who has the weakest payment history and can put them on a “watch” list and take action immediately.

Editor’s note: this article was originally published at the American Express OPEN Forum.

From Small Business Trends

Five Ways to Get Paid by Small Business Customers

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Tips for Building a Community on Your Site

Social media has shown us all how important it is to build an engaged community on your site. Having an active community behind you can increase sales, build your brand, and serve as your very own volunteer promotional army to help get your word out. But how do you go about creating one? How do you jump start that feeling of community on your site so that you’re able to leverage it?

Here are some starting points.

Give users something to rally behind

It’s pretty simple, really. Before you can create a community on your site, you need to give users something that’s worth rallying around. Something that will unite them and that is worth the investment. Most often your community is going to form around either the product you’re selling or the content (via a blog, forum, etc) that you’re producing on your site. Whatever that “thing” is, it needs to be strong and compelling enough to bring people together. There’s an endless amount of noise fighting for people’s attention these days. You need to create something that you won’t be able to stop people from congregating around. Think ICanHasCheezBurger. Arguably one of the most ridiculous sites on the Web – and yet, you can’t keep people away.

Promote users, not yourself

You are not what makes your community cool; your users are. So stop promoting yourself and start shining a light on them. Talk about their accomplishments and give them the floor to be a star. Create an environment where they can get in, share and show everyone how smart they are. No one really cares about you (sorry). You’re just hosting the conversation. If you take a look at the thriving communities in your niche, it’s very likely they’ve already adopted this stance. The best communities, on the Web and off, are the ones that are focused on promoting their members, not the logo that’s on the site. Make your community about your customers. Ask them questions. Ask for their help in running things. Get feedback. Find out what they’re doing. You’ll learn a lot about how to market to them and you’ll strengthen your community by making them feel important.

Make it easy for people to contribute, share

The harder you make it for people to join your community, the less likely it is that they will. Stop throwing unnecessary barriers in their path. If you want people to leave blog comments, don’t force them to register in order to do so. If you want them to sign up for your newsletter, don’t create a 10-step sign up process. If you want them to tweet your blog posts, then put a button right in the post that lets them do it in one click. If you want them to subscribe to your blog, then constantly show them how. Whatever it is you want them to do, make it super easy for them to do so. Otherwise, they won’t. People are lazy and there are plenty of communities willing to cater to that.

Reward people who contribute

Highlight the users who are most vocal and active on your site. These people ARE your site. The more invested you can make them in what you’re doing, the more they’re going to want to help you promote it and support you. Give back to them by creating a leader board that shows off their contributions, give them a chance to guest post, to moderate comments, get a sneak peak at new products or make them part of a special “focus group” that can get into new areas of the site before anyone else. Find little ways to “thank them” for being so supportive and helping to build a thriving community on your site. The top contributors on your site hold a tremendous amount of power. Respect that and show them you value them. Otherwise, they’ll take their value and contributions and host them somewhere else.

Protect it

This can be really hard, but you need to be the one who will stand up and lay order in your community when it’s necessary. It’s okay for community members to be critical of you, but they need to be respectful of one another. If you create an environment where people are allowed to attack one another and be vicious, then no one is going to want to hang out there. Make your members feel safe. The best way to encourage them to go to bat for you is for you to first go to bat for them. If someone is getting picked on, say something. If someone is taking advantage of the home you’ve created, lay out some ground rules to stop it. Being the “adult” in the room isn’t fun, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to create a healthy community where people feel safe.

How are some ways you’ve been able to create a community on your site?

From Small Business Trends

Tips for Building a Community on Your Site

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5 Microbusiness Trends: MidYear Update

Crystal ball gazing can be a popular pastime at year end. It makes sense; we are all overcome by that Janus impulse to look at the year that is over and the new year that will soon be upon us, in a re-enactment of rituals of passage that are older than time.

All the experts weigh in with their predictions at that time of year, too. They let us know what the coming year will bring in their particular area of expertise.

It’s a fairly easy thing to do, after all. For a lot of people, those predictions alone can cement your place as an expert in their minds.

Even better, it’s pretty rare for anybody to go back and check your predictions for accuracy.

Of course, if you manage to avoid those “put up or shut up” moments, your value as an expert is somewhat compromised. At that point, you have to just hope nobody notices — and that’s no way for an expert to have to live.

Microbusiness entrepreneursSo, in the interests of establishing my bona fides as an expert (in addition to the fact that I just like you guys a lot), I have decided to indulge in an accountability moment. I direct your attention to my January 11, 2009 article, “Top 5 Microbusiness Trends for 2009.”

I got the idea to do this, by the way, from a communication I received about this White House report, which covers a variety of topics including where the future of the job market is heading over the next decade or so.

Top of their list are health care and energy, which also happened to be the top two industries cited by yours truly as the best opportunity sectors of 2009. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that, if the economists think these two industries will be producing a lot of jobs, there will be plenty of revenue opportunities there for firms, too.

Fancy that. The White House Council of Economic Advisors has vindicated my prediction. Not too shabby.

In that article, I also predicted another spike in microbusiness numbers during the 2008-2009 period, with nonemployers continuing to lead the way. Thanks to the data lag, we won’t know if I was right about that for another year or two but the signs are propitious.

If I was wrong about anything, it is the fact that the nonemployer (e.g., sole proprietor) population spike began back in 2007, a year earlier than I thought it would. Given what has happened in the job market since then, there is no reason to imagine the growth in nonemployers has slowed down.

Not much to say about microbusinesses and social networking, except that it looks as if I was right to call it a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. And, also as I predicted, the avalanche of small business owners turning to social networking as a low-cost or no-cost marketing method has spawned a whole new industry in social network consulting.

I wish I could say that my prognostication of more attention from lawmakers showed signs of coming true. I’m sure that by now you think my continuing to blow hot air in this direction is nothing more nor less than wishful thinking at this point.

Ah, but it ain’t necessarily so! And while there haven’t been any hearings scheduled to look into the finer points of firm size standards, there has been more attention focused on microbusinesses this year than we’re used to seeing on Capitol Hill. Interestingly, however, that attention is not coming from lawmakers.

Rather, we are getting a lot of “don’t forget the micros” rhetoric from many more small business lobby players than Kristie Arslan of the National Association for the Self-Employed and Todd McCracken of the National Small Business Association.

Now, suddenly, trade groups are bragging about how tiny most of their members are. Even representatives from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business are singing Hymns to Microbusinesses.

As I said in my original article, somebody has to roll that snowball off the top of the hill. I suppose it was too optimistic of me to imagine that somebody was going to be a politician.

But then, of course I’m optimistic! I’m a microbusiness owner.

* * * * *

About the Author: Dawn Rivers Baker, an award-winning small business journalist, regularly reports and analyzes small business policy and research as the Publisher of the MicroEnterprise Journal, where the nation’s business meets microbusiness. She also publishes the Journal Blog.

From Small Business Trends

5 Microbusiness Trends: MidYear Update

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BizSugar: 7 Lessons in The First 60 Days

It’s been a little over two months now since my company, Small Business Trends LLC, acquired BizSugar.com, a site for small business news.

It’s been a learning experience, and it occurred to me that it might make a good case study about acquiring a Web business. So I plan to periodically report on how it’s going.

It’s still early but I’m reasonably pleased with BizSugar’s progress so far.  BizSugar is nowhere near on the scale of a site like Digg, which gets millions of visitors and page views.  But for a small business site it is promising.  Traffic has tripled in fewer than 90 days.  The number of new people joining the site and contributing content is accelerating, and that is extremely gratifying.

What is BizSugar?

BizSugar is a bookmarking and sharing site where readers can share content — their own and others’.  Then readers vote on content.  The content with a combination of the most votes and other activity gets promoted to the home page, gets featured on Twitter, and may get featured in our Top 10 widget, our toolbar and our weekly newsletter.  (More on these in a moment.)  In turn, that usually means added brand visibility and traffic for the content author.

The site is a little like Digg, but with key differences.  Aside from the obvious fact that Digg is huge and BizSugar is still small, another difference is the niche focus.  BizSugar is dedicated solely to content of interest to SMBs — small businesses and midsize businesses.

What Have We Been Working On?

A lot of our activity has been behind the scenes. Here’s what we have worked on and accomplished:

Learning how to run the site – The site uses the Pligg software which, in one sense is great, but also has a few quirks.  As others have written, Pligg sites are not easy to manage.  Translation: We have been learning how to manage the site through trial and error — emphasis on the “error.”

We have had great support from the former owner of the site, DBH Communications and its President, John Holsen.  That has made things easier.  John gave us detailed instructions in long explanatory emails. He has generously answered questions long after the deal closed.  He even jumped in a few times to save us from making a mess of things.

Despite all his support, we’ve still managed to “bork the site” (as one of the team members calls it) a couple of times through little quirks.  That highly technical term “bork the site” means that part of the site became inaccessible for an hour or two or three, until we figured out the problem and fixed it.  :)

One of the challenges of open source software like Pligg is that you are on your own when it comes to support.  There is no 1-800 number to call.  This means we’ve spent hours on forums and blogs trying to discover the source of problems, how to implement fixes, or just how to change something.  But in a way that’s good.  It’s forced us to learn the site from the inside out.

Recruiting Moderators — One of the first orders of business was to recruit Moderators.  The Moderators’ biggest role is to be “ambassadors” to help share all the BizSugar goodness with the world, and also to create a welcoming community feel.  The moderators provide a familiar human face on the site.  The moderators also keep an eye on the site 24/7 and clean out spam entries.

We’ve been lucky to get several Moderators whose dedication goes above and beyond:  Shawn and Heather Hessinger; Martin Lindeskog; Amanda Stillwagon; TJ McCue; and Mary Grace Ignacio.  Staci Wood, who is the Small Business Trends Operations Manager, also jumps in to the fray.  I can’t say enough good things about the  team.  You rock!

We’ll be expanding the Moderator team with a few more people in the near future, as the site grows.

Growing the Newsletter and Blog – I assigned people to update the BizSugar blog and make sure the BizSugar top 10 newsletter (pictured below) goes out each week.

Amanda composes and issues the newsletter each week like clockwork (with the exception of one week early on when we managed to “bork” the mailing system for a couple of days).  We have about 1,800 subscribers. Subscribers are growing at the rate of about 200 a week now.

We had to make some enhancements to the BizSugar blog.  We opened up comments on the blog.  Bit by bit we are adding interest and interactivity such as widgets and images.  Shawn Hessinger updates the blog regularly now.  He is also involving community members by interviewing them.  I think the blog is still too hard to find, and plan to make it more visible (the only link on BizSugar is a footer link ).

Assembling an Advisory Board – We also assembled an Advisory Board to give input on the future direction of the site.  The Advisory Board consists of the moderators above, plus some people we know who are active members of the Small Business Trends community:  Zane Safrit; Joel Libava; Travis Campbell; Servaas Schrama.

Building an Operations Manual — We’ve been building an Operations Manual as we go along.  We  took  all those emails from the former owner, along with the notification emails/instant messages we send to the team after we solve some problem or other, and dumped them into a single document.  This way, critical  knowledge is not locked up inside one person’s head.

Getting Visitors — Visitors have been growing steadily and I’m pleased with that growth.  We’ve had a couple of spikes in traffic and pageviews, mostly from social media, but overall the trajectory has been steadily upward, as this pageview graph shows:

Traffic

A nice chunk (20%+) of the traffic growth has come from Twitter.  BizSugar Hot Topics (items that make it to the home page) are publicized through the BizSugar Twitter account.  We are also adding at least one human tweet a day during the workweek for some human personality.  If you see the initials “SH” after a BizSugar tweet, that’s Shawn.  If you see “AC” that’s me tweeting.

Slowly each day we build a following through Twitter, and that is gratifying.

Building Engagement – It turns out that getting visitors to a community site is easier than getting engagement.  By engagement, I mean people discussing stories and voting on submissions and actively participating.

There’s still a tendency for people to visit, submit one of their own stories, and then leave.  But if you do that, you limit the value you get out of the site.

So we are working on a number of strategies to help visitors see what’s in it for them to participate beyond submitting.  That includes reaching out one by one to the existing active participants in the site, introducing ourselves.  Or we are tweeting @ them (sending tweets or retweets) so that they know we notice them.

Also, recently Amanda and I (along with some help of Tim Grahl and his team) set up a BizSugar toolbar.  I’d had Adam Boyden, the President of Conduit, on my radio podcast show a while back and was intrigued with the Conduit toolbar creation platform.  So we played around and developed a BizSugar toolbar. With it you are alerted when new items go hot on BizSugar. You also can submit items directly from any Web page with our “submit” bookmarklet.  The BizSugar toolbar is here.

Registrations and responding to support requests – One area that I am not satisfied with is the way a small percentage of the registration confirmation emails keep getting blocked by certain ISPs.  This leads to unhappy people and abandoned attempts to register for an account.

Also, I recently discovered that emails coming to the support address had fallen into a black hole through a  technical glitch.  So if you are one of the 4 people whose email about not being able to register we ignored, my sincerest apologies.  That’s unacceptable and we’re fixing that.

Revenues – Right now the site earns no revenues.  It is an expense from a P&L perspective.  The focus right now is on developing it into a rockin’ site first.  The good news is that I’ve already had inquiries about sponsoring the site, although I’ve put those on hold.  Providing a quality site experience comes first.

7 Lessons Learned

I could go on, but I think this post is long enough.  I’ll save more for the next post, including profiling some of the loyal community members.

Meanwhile, let me recap with 7 lessons drawn from our first 60 days’ experience:

  • Educate yourself if it’s OPEN source – If you ever consider acquiring a website built on open source software, take into account the time you will have to devote to self-education and trial-and-error.
  • Get post-closing transition help from the seller – Always structure your deal to include a commitment from the former owner to assist with the transition post-closing.  Be a judge of character, too, and have high confidence that the seller will actually follow through and help in a pinch.  It’s one thing to have a contract stating that post-closing support is required.  It’s another to try to enforce it if your seller won’t cooperate.
  • Create an operations manual — As you learn things about your new site, take the time to build an operations manual. That way knowledge can be shared among the team. You will build a more knowledgeable team and a stronger business.
  • Actively manage your Web business — Be prepared to spend time managing your Web business. If you’ve never run a Web business, you might be tempted to think ‘put up a website, and voila, it runs itself.’  Nothing could be further from the truth for most Web businesses. You have to devote some amount of time, even if it’s just an hour or two a day, to actively manage most Web businesses.  It’s just like businesses in the real world.
  • Work at increasing community — Growing visitors is challenging, but increasing engagement in a community site is much dicier.  Put yourself in the visitor’s shoes.  Is it clear WIIFM (”what’s in it for me”)?  If not, work on it until you get it right.
  • Involve others  – Don’t try to do it all yourself.  Without a good team and dedicated moderators and loyal community members, you won’t have a chance at success. You may be a control freak (many entrepreneurs are), but let others in.
  • Don’t rush your monetization strategy — Don’t try to eke out pennies too early, by slapping up lots of ads before the site gets its sea legs.  Spend time creating a quality brand and user experience first.  It is how you build premium value.  This is different from having no monetization strategy at all — it is about setting priorities and doing the right things in the right order.

Other thoughts you’d like to add?

From Small Business Trends

BizSugar: 7 Lessons in The First 60 Days

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Seven Reasons to Read Twitterville

Twitterville - 7 reasons to read Twitterville is a book with a collection of anecdotes and stories about businesses using the social media site Twitter.

One of the best things about this book is how the author, Shel Israel, captures the people and companies that make Twitter such an addicting phenomenon.  While reading the book you begin to feel as if Twitter is a place — a small town perhaps — where you know many of the people.  It’s a place where they may know you, too, or at least know your name.  And you feel welcome … and at home.

That’s why the name “Twitterville” is so apt.

The subtitle of the book is “How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods.”  It is a business book.  But if you are expecting a how-to book for businesses, telling you step by step what to do on Twitter — that’s not this book.

Twitterville is a rich compilation of stories, examples and anecdotes.  It’s thorough in covering the culture and key events in Twitter’s short 3-year history.  I doubt that anyone has explained Twitter inside and out the way Shel Israel does, from a business perspective.

He starts with a short history of Twitter itself, which although just 15 pages, should not be skipped.  It sets the stage for subsequent chapters, which take you through Twitter’s “coming out party.”  You learn important tidbits that explain how Twitter became so popular so quickly.  This is essential to help you understand what Twitter is all about.

7 Reasons You Should Get This Book

Here are 7 reasons to get the book Twitterville.  I’m sure there are more, but these reasons stand out to me:

  1. If you are trying to get your arms around the Twitter phenomenon, Twitterville will immerse you in it for a deep long drink.  The book captures the culture of Twitter brilliantly.
  2. Twitterville is enjoyable to read.  It is well written and the prose flows easily.  It doesn’t necessarily feel like a typical business book, but feels more like a well-written biography of an interesting person.
  3. Twitter insiders will eagerly turn every page of this book.  You’ll be thinking, “Oooh, I wonder what he talks about next.”   It covers many people, businesses and personalities you may have heard of or had interactions with.  (Because after all, Twitter is a place where you can address a message to companies like Starbucks and get a quick response.)
  4. It helps you learn to recognize the undesirables that every community has.  There’s a section on spammers and trolls and other assorted ne’er do wells, that will help you spot them and deal with negative behavior.
  5. You will learn lessons about how your business can participate in Twitter.  But your brain will get a bit of a workout in the process.  The author expects you to participate in drawing lessons from the examples he offers up.
  6. For those interested in personal branding, there’s a good section on it, one that emphasizes giving and authenticity.  But in fact, examples of how people have built personal brands on Twitter are scattered throughout the entire book.  Ideas for how to brand yourself and build your professional reputation abound in this book. So, if you are someone longing to make a name for yourself in the professional world, there’s much to learn and be inspired by.
  7. Midsize to large businesses, especially, will find lessons in this book.  Twitterville has a chapter on small businesses, and examples of small businesses are scattered here and there.  Small businesses have a much smaller place in the book than large businesses.  Still, there are lessons that any size business can draw on throughout the book.

Sound like the kind of book you’ve been waiting for?  I received an advance review copy of Twitterville.  If you order it now, you’ll be among the first in line for when the book ships in another 2 weeks.

Give Twitterville a read — you’ll like it.

From Small Business Trends

Seven Reasons to Read Twitterville

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Development and Research

Meeting of the Minds

“We do things a little differently around here,” (as comedian Maria Bamford notes) is one of those phrases you often hear starting a new job. I think all companies like to perceive themselves as unique.

But let’s face it, there are only so many ways to send an invoice, change copy toner or sit through a meeting.

After playing with different ways to show a “different” company (trapezes, cubicle campfires, juggling bears) I went with a subtler reverse on research and development. Although now that I look at it, I’m pretty sure a few of my previous employers took the development first approach.

* * * * *

Mark Anderson, professional cartoonistAbout the Author: Mark Anderson’s cartoons appear in publications including The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review. Anderson is the creator of the popular cartoon website, Andertoons.com, where he licenses his cartoons for presentations, newsletters and other projects. He blogs at Andertoons blog.

From Small Business Trends

Development and Research

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