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Over the Edge

"We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth."
Vernor Vinge, The Coming Technological Singularity

My dad told very few stories during our childhood, but one of my favorites went like this:

A wealthy Frenchman (all Dad's stories were set in France where he grew up) lived in a mansion at the top of a mountain. Needing to hire a new driver, he scheduled an interview with the three best chauffeurs in the province.

"The road to my villa is steep and narrow," he said to the first. "How close can you drive to the edge of the road without going over?"

continue reading at medium.com...

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Rediscover the Power of Discovery

Most mistakes and failures in technology projects are caused by a birth defect, i.e., something was missing at the earliest stages of development. The DNA of any web project is formed in the discovery sessions, and everything that follows bears the DNA's imprint.

Or it should.

Too often, discovery is confused with creative brainstorming. In the beginning, we are not trying to invent or create a need or a problem or even an opportunity. These things exist like a genetic code, waiting to be recognized and mapped. The creative part comes later when we start experimenting with possibilities and ideas related to what we've found.

But if discovery isn't exactly creative, it can still be exciting. Discovery isn't just fact finding, it's a treasure hunt—and much of that treasure is buried. There's no better tool to unearth the buried things than the simple art of listening. Over the years I have recognized a few listening techniques that make discovery sessions more productive.

Listen to the quiet voices.
  • Important insights are often missed because the group is dominated by stronger voices. It is our job to hear every concern and idea and evaluate later.
Listen for repetition.
  • Real needs have a way of working themselves into every conversation. Repetition can be a good marker for priority.
Listen for the problem, not the assumed answer.
  • Business owners have a tendency to be solution oriented, and approach an issue with pre-defined strategies. No solution is correct unless it is solving the right problem.
Listen to what is not being said.
  • This is the hardest technique, but perhaps the most rewarding. Take a mental inventory of the problems and solutions that have been discussed and ask, "What is missing?" "What larger issue do these problems suggest?" "What constraints are limiting these solutions and what could we do if those limits did not exist?"

This approach not only applies to initial discovery with the client, but also in every team meeting, collaborative conversation, and review session throughout the project's lifetime. After all, birth doesn't have to be a one-time event.

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Fair Use and Parody

Our crack legal team has suggested we mention that the prevoius post was entirely a work of fiction and intended as parody. Or that the previous post was inserted into our feed by a nefarious hacker. I can't remember which.

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Google accidentally leaks additional planned features for News personalization.

Just before today's update to Google's News personalization form, this version appeared for a few brief seconds, shedding light on possible new features in an upcoming release...

Google news featured uncovered

1. Given the current polarized atmosphere, providing the ability to filter results according to political leanings is not surprising, but the default settings will be viewed as a bit heavy handed.

2. After countless complaints, Google apparently has agreed that users should be able to dial back the Panda update in News results because "spun" articles have such a rich tradition in American journalism.

3. While less sinister than hiring an agency to highlight a competitors shortcomings, referring to this feature as "Personalization" is a bit of a stretch. An internal document claims that the "None" and "Fewer" buttons were omitted due to the long label, but a casual glance shows this is not entirely true.

4. We almost missed this one. Unable to find a legal way to incorporate results from other search engines, Google, in a bold move, will evidently allow users to swap algorithms to uncover otherwise missing results.

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If your last citation was a speeding ticket, your business may be losing customers

Ask around and you'll hear that after claiming and updating your Google Places page, nothing is more important than citations for improving search results for a local business. A citation is basically any mention of your business that associates your business with a location. A citation is not necessarily a link—just a mention will do. The quantity and quality of citations is a powerful signal to the search engines that your business exists and is where you say it is. And the more confidence Google has in your location, the more likely you'll be found in Google's all-important local results.

So how do you get these little gems? It's actually easier than building organic backlinks, since there are so many sites that actually want your local listing. But easy doesn't mean quick. Be prepared to invest 40 or more hours of your own time unless you're willing to spend a bit of money for a good automated LSV (Local Search Visibility) service.

There are many curated lists of citation sources around the web, but many of the best sources will be specific to your location or niche. It's well worth your time to look beyond the search engines, IYPs and review sites to dig up as many opportunities as possible. Here's a quick run down of the type of sites and sources you'll want to take advantage of:

  • Search engines (Google Places, Yahoo Local, and Bing Local)
  • IYPs (CitySearch, YellowPages.com, SuperPages.com, etc.)
  • Reviews (Angie's List, Yelp, Brownbook, MerchantCircle, ShopCity, etc.)
  • User-generated content (MyMaps, KML files, etc.)
  • Vertical directories (search for "[industry] directory")
  • Event calendars (search for "[city] events")
  • Hyper-Local Sites (search for "[neighborhood] [city]")
  • Local Groups and Associations (sometimes worth joining groups just for the listing)
  • Unstructured NAPs (ask link sources to include Name, Address, & Phone)
  • Inbound anchor text (ask link sources to include localized keywords)
  • Location service check-ins (encourage customers to check in at your location)
  • Geo-tagged content (upload and share geo-tagged images and videos)
  • Your competitors citation sources (click the "more" link at the bottom of their Google Places page)
  • Your own website (you should be your own best citation source!)

More than 20% of searches have local intent, and over half of mobile searches have local intent. Add to that the fact that Google often assumes local intent even when a location is not specified. This is why a high organic search rank is no longer enough for a company doing local business. Local search results are based on an entirely different algorithm—one that relies heavily on local citations.

The good news is there's no end to the opportunity. The bad news is it's a time consuming process. The pleasant surprise is that for a relatively small cost, a big chunk of this work can be done for you, and an immediate ROI is likely to result.

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The Top, #1, Most Important Step to Improve Local Search Results

When 32 top experts on local SEO were asked to identify the most important factors for achieving greater visibility in local search, there was nearly unanimous agreement on what belongs at the top of the list: Claim and update your Google Places page. Assuming Google knows you exist, Google has already created your "Places" listing, including a dedicated page with details about your business, photos, reviews, and more. So where does this information come from? Unless you have claimed your own page, it comes from anywhere Google can get it, including submissions from random strangers and your competitors. So here's a quick why, where, and how to claim and update your page:

Why?
  • The Google Places page may the first thing people see about your business, so you want to make a good first impression.
  • A "claimed" page will actually rank better in search engine results—Google insiders have confirmed this.
  • Claiming your page will protect it from inaccurate or malicious posting, since you will be the only one who can edit your business info. (Reviews, of course, cannot be edited or removed.)
  • Once claimed, you can enhance the page by adding photos, videos, coupons, weekly specials, etc.
Where?
  • If you don't already have a Google Account, create your free account at www.google.com/accounts.
  • Go to Google Maps, search for your business name, and click on the "more info" link next to the name.
  • If you see "Business owner?" in the upper right, click the link to begin the process.
  • If you see "Owner-verified Listing" someone (either in your company or outside) has already claimed the page.
  • If you did not find your business on Google Maps, go to http://www.google.com/local/add to add a new listing.
How?
  • Fill out the basic information about your business, including Company, Address, Phone, Website, etc.
  • Be sure to use all your important keywords in the business description.
  • Click "Next" to enter Categories, Hours of Operation, Payment Options, Photos, and Video.
  • Use the "Additional Details" section to add custom information fields to your listing.
  • Google will ask you to verify ownership via one of three methods: phone, text message, or snail mail.

You've done it! And it was easy and free! Now keep the listing updated, continuing to add timely information, specials, events, etc., and responding politely and professionally to reviews. And don't forget to check out your Google Places dashboard to view analytics on activity, impressions, actions, keywords and more.

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Five Ways to Promote Your Business With Yelp

That buzz you've been hearing may just be the 38 million Yelp users talking about businesses—including yours!—in your community. But there's no need to let people talk behind your back. Yelp give business owners a way to join the conversation, and build customer relationships while you're at it. It's easy, fast, and most likely, profitable.

1. Claim or add your business profile on Yelp. Yelp calls this "unlocking your profile." It takes about two minutes and is completely free. Once your profile is unlocked, you will be able to:

  • Communicate with your customers (both privately and publicly)
  • Update your business profile with description, photos, services, and more
  • Promote special offers and discounts
  • Announce events, sales, and important dates
  • Track how many people view your business page

2. Let your customers know you are on Yelp. This will give your customers an opportunity to tell others about their experience with your business. Yelp encourages you to do this, and will even provide "People Love Us on Yelp" stickers for businesses that have many positive reviews. At the same time, Yelp warns to never solicit reviews. This seems a little disingenuous, i.e., Tell your favorite customers, "Hey, we're on Yelp... wink, wink." but don't say, "Please leave a nice review." Of course, it makes sense for Yelp to say this, both to protect their brand and to make the service as valuable and trustworthy as possible. The bottom line is, don't spam Yelp. Yelp uses very effective filters to block spammy reviews. More importantly, other Yelp users and businesses can smell overly-positive, solicited reviews and could create trouble, including adding negative reviews to your profile. Genuine reviews will accrue gradually over time, and while 70% of Yelp reviews tend to be positive, even the most favorable will likely include both pros and cons.

3. Engage your customers. Yelp is a two-way street. Okay, it's a thirty-eight-million-way street, but we're talking about the back and forth that Yelp makes possible between you and your customers. Set yourself up to receive email notifications when reviews about your business are added, but don't write a word until you've read Yelp's excellent article on Responding to Reviews. This article offers a succinct, step-by-step tutorial in how to best engage happy or unhappy customers, not only on the Yelp site, but in any social media forum.

4. Create offers and announcements to promote sales, specials, press releases, events, etc. This is one of the most powerful tools available to business owners on Yelp. Why? Because these announcements will show up on your business page, in Yelp's search results, in the Offers and Announcements directory, and could even be included in Yelp's weekly email blast to local customers. Also, Google indexes these pages, so they may even reach out beyond Yelp's site. Just make sure offers and discounts are worthwhile, and presented in a concise and attention-getting style.

5. Review other local businesses on Yelp. Once you've set up your Yelp account, you're ready to add reviews for other businesses as well. This is quick and easy, and well worth the time. Business owners who see positive reviews from a neighboring business will be motivated to return the favor. As stated above, don't gush; simply write with honesty and respect. Remember, your review is directed to potential customers here, not the business owner. To make this even easier, grab the mobile Yelp app for your iPhone, Droid, Blackberry, or Palm Pre.

Postscript: Yelp has faced criticism and even lawsuits alleging that Yelp offered to remove bad reviews for customers who purchased advertising. Yelp has vehemently denied the practice, and said the confusion came from a policy that allowed businesses to highlight a "favorite" review if they were a paid advertiser. Yelp has since removed this feature and made their filtering methodology more transparent to protect their reputation as a repository of unbiased reviews.

Take Action...
one

Claim and complete your business profile.

two

Publicize your Yelp profile on your Web site, printed materials, etc.

three

Interact with reviewers, whether their comments are positive or negative.

four

Regularly post special offers, deals, events, and announcements.

five

Become part of the Yelp community by reviewing other businesses and building your reputation.

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10 Best (practical) Business and Marketing Resources From 2010

On December 23, Mashable posted a list of the 150 Best Business and Marketing Resources From 2010. That's a lot of reading! In case you don't have 12 hours to spare, here's a condensed list of the 10 most practical and actionable articles for marketing your local small businesses in 2011. (Summaries excerpted from articles.)

One

8 Ways to Reduce Your Site's Bounce Rate
With the explosion of social media sharing and help from smart search engine optimization, many web users are bypassing businesses' home pages and landing directly on product pages and blog posts. Thus, businesses need to optimize their "first impressions" at all entry points in order to reduce bounce rates.

Two

4 Tips for Writing SEO-Friendly Blog Posts
You could spend thousands of dollars to have a search marketing firm optimize your business's blog for search engines, but chances are that you can learn a lot of the fundamentals yourself, saving yourself a lot of money as long as you have the interest and the time. Here's a basic primer on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for your company's blog.

Three

HOW TO: Optimize Your Site for Search Engine Marketing
While social media may have the media's attention and Twitter and Facebook are garnering a lot of the hype, search still trumps them when it comes to driving traffic and being discovered by potential new customers.

Four

HOW TO: Market Your Small Business With No Budget
In fact, the toughest challenge facing small business marketers these days is not cost, but finding a strategy to get your message heard over the din of a noisy Internet. For advice on this, we checked in with a few experienced social media marketers. Here's what they had to offer.

Five

HOW TO: Use Social Media for Lead Generation
Social media is the top emerging channel for lead generation among technology marketing professionals according to the annual Unisfair marketing survey. Being that social media is a great place to attract new customers, we put together a quick guide on how to use social media for lead generation.

Six

Why Complaining Customers Can Be Good For Your Business
Companies love positive feedback. But what about when feedback is, well, less than pleasant? Rather than try to sweep these unhappy customers under the rug, look at them as a challenge and an opportunity to improve your brand and leverage them for some publicity.

Seven

HOW TO: Build A Twitter Strategy for Your Business
A lot of social media advice revolves around confusing, high-concept buzzwords: There are only so many times you can be told to "listen" and "engage." Concrete advice can be hard to come by, and while this guide won't tell you what you need to tweet, it will provide you with the real questions you need to ask in order to craft a Twitter strategy for your business.

Eight

HOW TO: Use QR Codes for Small Business Marketing
A Quick Response (QR) code is a two-dimensional code that can be scanned by smartphone cameras to automatically pull up text, photos, videos, music and URLs. These codes have become mobile-friendly ways to point people in the offline space to online resources.

Nine

HOW TO: Make a Successful Marketing Video for the Web In today's YouTube crazed society, video is more accessible and easier to create than ever... This is why small businesses must learn to properly utilize videos to market their services on the web. These same videos can also be used in offline and online branding, sales, marketing and PR strategies. A great video will pay off ten-fold.

Ten

Why SMS Marketing Still Makes Sense for Small Business
While the Western world has focused on smartphones and flashy apps, SMS marketing is still a hugely important part of our mobile lives. Companies or small business that can nail down their SMS marketing strategy, especially when the space is still ripe for innovation, can open up a number of opportunities.

And best of all, you now have an extra 11 hours to enjoy Chrismas with your family!

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The Four Pillars of Online Marketing: Search, Mobile, Local and Social

In a recent interview, Google Vice President, Marissa Mayer, succinctly summed up her company's four key areas of business: Search, Mobile, Local and Social.

Nice to know, but if you're a small business owner, why should you care about how Google is structuring their business? Because, while Google's product may be information, Google's business is advertising. And Google has structured their business model around the four spaces that matter to any advertiser or business trying to reach people online.

So Google's "four key areas" provides a valuable metric by which to measure the reach and scope of our online marketing efforts. Or, put another way, 'Does our marketing plan really take advantage of the full spectrum from Search to Mobile to Local to Social?' Even today, the majority of businesses have have barely tackled half of one, i.e., they've worked on SEO for their Web site. (Paid advertising being the other half of Search.)

SEO has been the golden calf of online marketing for well over a decade, and it's still critical to your online success. But online marketing is not a one-cylinder vehicle, and putting all your effort into tuning one cylinder may leave your business sputtering and making little headway. Why not build on what you've already accomplished by exploring news ways to reach more customers in new spaces online.

Lucky for us, Google has given us a nice set of buckets to help organize our ideas. Here's a non-comprehensive list to jump-start your thinking. Which of these online marketing tools or techniques have you employed, and which do you need to learn more about?

Search
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
    • Keyword research
    • Onsite SEO
    • Inbound links
    • Competitive analysis
    • Linkbait
    • Article marketing
    • Google Analytics
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
    • Multi-variate testing
    • Pay for Inclusion (PFI)
    • Pay-Per-Click (PPC)
    • Conversion tracking
Mobile
  • Mobile Web site
  • Mobile advertising
  • Text messaging (SMS)
  • Multi-media messaging (MMS)
  • SMS advertising
  • Voice (IVR)
  • Mobile applications
  • QR codes
Local
  • Citations
  • Google Places
  • Yahoo Local
  • Bing Local
  • Local directories
  • Google Tags
  • Offers through Groupon, Local Social
  • Event calendars
  • WIFI advertising
  • Classified ad sites
Social
  • Blogging
  • Guest blogging
  • Twitter account
  • Facebook page
  • Linked-In profile
  • YouTube channel
  • Reviews
  • Geo-social check-in apps
  • Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon, etc.
  • Brand listening
  • Influence tracking

Feel free to tell me what I have left out or put in the wrong bucket. Then pick just one new opportunity from the list above and put it to work for your business.

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Localize Your Content - Improve Your SEO

A Google search returns a single list of results, but that list is usually made up of two very different types of results: organic and local. The local results can occur whether or not the searcher enters geographic terms. The likelihood of your Web site being included in those local results increases with the confidence Google has about your company's location and the degree to which your location matches the searcher's.

Optimizing a web site for local search used to mean simply displaying a business address on every page. These days, this is only a minor part of the process. Ranking well for local search requires an optimized Google Places page, listing in local directories, numerous external citations, and much more.

But what about good old on-site SEO? Is it really all that minor of a factor in local ranking? There is not universal agreement on this, but many experienced SEOs warn not to ignore this area.

Steve Hatcher of "GeoLocalSocial" says, "Your own website should be a strong citation for your listing. Good onpage SEO for your website strengthens those quality signals from that citation."

At a minimum, you'll want to list the cites and communities where the business operates. But there are many more ways to use location-based content to to make your site more visible in Google's increasingly location-dominated search results. And besides, location-based keywords can improve your organic ranking as well.

In his searchenginewatch.com article titled, "The Importance of Localized Content - Local SEO Takes Center Stage", Ray Comstock suggests creating dedicated pages that highlight content unique to your geographical area. Possible topics include:

  • Shipping rates
  • Sales tax differences
  • Warranty repair locations
  • Dealer locations
  • How products/services are adapted to local climate

Obviously, this only scratches the surface. Why not:

  • Add written driving directions noting streets and landmarks by name;
  • Include city and state along with every testimonial or customer quote;
  • List drive times from various surrounding locations;
  • Find ways to incorporate your state, city, or community frequently in page copy, such as "We are the first company in [location] to...", or, "We serve more customers in [location] than...", etc.

All of the above techniques have the additional advantage of making your content even more valuable to your customer, and do it in a way that is non-spammy and integrated seamlessly into your content. Comstock nicely sums up the motivation and the benefits of making these efforts:

"The key is to provide true value to these end users by surfacing very relevant information that is specific to them based on their city or state. By doing so you not only increase your propensity to show up in organic search queries in those places, but you also potentially improve your conversion rate by creating a more custom experience for those users..."

Be creative and think beyond the "Contact Us" page to make your site a rich target for location-aware searching.

Take Action...
Don't

These guys wrote the book on great customer service.
John Smith

Do

These guys wrote the book on great customer service.
John Smith, Kansas City, Missouri

Why

Non-spammy way to insert another location citation.

Don't

We are 20 minutes from downtown, and 15 minutes from the airport.

Do

We are 20 minutes from downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and 15 minutes from the Kansas City International Airport.

Why

People often search with landmarks, i.e., "Shoes near downtown Kansas City"

Don't

We are located at 4700 West 119th Street in Leawood, Kansas.

Do

We are located at 4700 West 119th Street in Leawood, Kansas.

From I-35, take the Quivera Road exit and proceed East 4 miles to Nall Avenue. Turn left at the next light into the Town Center Mall parking lot.

From I-435...

Why

Highways, streets and mall names are often used in search requests.

Don't

We are the only company in the city to offer...

Do

We are the only company in Overland Park, Kansas to offer..

Why

Non-spammy way to insert another location citation.

Don't

We serve customers throughout the metropolitan area.

Do

We serve customers in Leawood, Overland Park, Lenexa, Prairie Village, and throughout the greater Kansas City area.

Why

No one searches for "metropolitan area". Repeat city names where possible.

Don't

Three Area Locations:

123 Main Street
Kansas City, Missouri

4700 West 119th Street
Leawood, Kansas

456 Central Avenue
Overland Park, Kansas

Do

Three Area Locations:

123 Main Street
Kansas City, Missouri

4700 West 119th Street
Leawood, Kansas

456 Central Avenue
Overland Park, Kansas

Why

Using the entire address as anchor text to link to a dedicated page for each location gives you an internal link, a high-value landing page, and another opportunity to convert visitors to customers.

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