Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Lost in a Fog?

Imagine yourself, for a moment, standing in a fog. The fog is so dense that you can barely see your proverbial hand in front of your proverbial face. You know you have to move, to get somewhere, but you can’t see where you’re going. What’s your first step?

Do you ever feel that way? Since you decided to start a home based business on the web, sometimes it feels like the fog is pretty thick. And often that first step, deciding what sort of business to do, is the scariest. But, you know that you have to make that choice. You can’t just stand in the fog forever. You won’t get anywhere. You’ll end up in the same place you’ve always been.

1. Start with yourself

This is the best place to begin. In the foggy situation above, that’s all you can see to begin with, right? Do a bit of personal assessment.

What are your interests? What are your hobbies, and your skills? What drives you? What are your passions? Begin by simply brainstorming out a list of things you enjoy. Then take it to the next step, by asking yourself to think of ways to make money in each one of the interest areas. Don’t worry too much about how good or how practical those ideas are at the start. You can sort through that later. For now, just come up with possibilities.

Now, you’ll find yourself with a lot of possibilities. You might notice that the fog is starting to dissipate already, even if only a little bit. Maybe you can see a few more inches in front of you.

Begin eliminating the ideas that you don’t particularly like, or the things that seem to be too difficult, or possibly not cost-effective. Before long, you’ll be left with several good and potentially workable possibilities for a business.

2. Research the Ideas

Head out on the net, and do some studies. Nothing blows away a fog like the warm wind of information. Pick one of your ideas to begin with, and look at other sites that are doing the same thing, or similar things. Don’t be afraid of competition. The Internet is huge, there will be competition. But do study it. How are they presenting their products? What sorts of business models are they running? How could you do it better?

If your website is going to be product-based, you’ll need to research some product sources. Do searches for wholesale or even drop-ship companies that handle those product lines.

As you do these steps for each of the business ideas you have, you’ll be able to see more clearly. The fog is scattering more and more, and you’re beginning to see ground in front of you.

3. Take a few steps

Part of the trouble is, however, that not only are you seeing ground in front of you, but you’re probably also seeing it to your left, your right, and even a bit behind you. Which way do you go? At this stage, it can be a tough decision. You want to know what the end is going to be, but we can’t always see the future. You also don’t want to end up like the donkey that starved between two bales of hay.

Sometimes, we just have to take a little risk, make a little decision, and take a few small steps. Choose a direction and begin to investigate that direction with more vigor. My father used to tell me, “It’s much easier for the good Lord to guide your feet when they’re moving!” If your first few steps are small, changing your direction will be relatively easy.

As you research one of your ideas in more depth, the fog scatters more, and you can see more and more ground around your feet. Continue this process. Learn, step. Learn, step. Pretty soon, you’ll add a third part. Learn, step, do. Learn, step, do.

4. As the knowledge grows, the fog dissipates.

The more you know, the more you do, the more the winds blow away the fog. And ultimately, the more clearly you can see. Soon the fog is gone, and you can see the horizon, and your goals. That’s when your pace quickens, your steps get livelier, and your progress zooms.

And your business succeeds.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Ooooh, Sticky!

A pretty common buzzword in the website world these days is “sticky”. The successful sites are the “sticky” ones. What does it mean?

It means that when people come to your site, they tend to stick around. It’s not just pop in, pop out, but rather something there at your site draws them in and holds them there. And in a word, it’s “content”.

That’s another important buzzword running around the website world. “Content” is what gives your site substance. It’s what search engines look for. It’s what people search for using search engines. It’s what makes visitors choose your site over someone else’s. It’s information, it’s pictures, it’s advice, it’s interest. There’s a very technical term for all this. We call it “Stuff”! Or even better, “Good stuff!”

But we need to back up a moment.

Before you can think of what sort of “good stuff” you want on your site, you need to have a clear picture of what your site is about. What it’s for, what it will do for you and your audience.

Let me throw you some examples. Let’s say your site has some products on the catalog pages. Let’s say you’re selling CD players, speakers, boom boxes, and mp3 players. What is the site really about? Some might say, “It’s about selling stereo gear”. I disagree. I say that it’s really about enjoying music.

Another one: Let’s say that you’re site is selling tents, backpacks, camp stoves, and sleeping bags. Again, it’s not about “selling camping gear”, but, instead it’s all about enjoying the outdoors.

When you take a step back from looking just at you products, you can see that your products are enhancing some kind of experience. It’s that experience that should be the focus of your site. Because with the focus on the experience, then your site opens up to a lot of possible content. You can include much more “stuff” in your site that will interest your audience.

For example, in the case of the audio site, how about reviewing new music CD’s? And not just the major labels. The Internet is famous, now, for expanding the possibilities of indie music, that being music that is recorded and promoted without the benefit of a major label. Make your site about your favorite genre!

If the camping site is what yours is about, then you could include reviews of campsites. Articles about how to set up a campsite, or camp recipes would really fill out the site.

Whatever your site is about, step back from the products and discover the experience. Then brainstorm what sort of information you can share that would be relevant to that experience, and enhance it. Think of your audience. What would they want to know about?

Once you’ve thought of what sorts of things your audience would want to read about or see, then you can go about figuring out how to get it and put it on your site.

If you’ve been at all active in the subject area that your website covers (you should at least be interested in what you’re selling, right?), then you might have a fundamental knowledge base about that topic. That would give you some experience to write your own articles. Like to camp? Write about some of the things you’ve learned. How do you camp in wet weather and stay dry? How do you lay out a camp ground? How about a checklist of things to bring on a camping trip? RV vs. roughing it? You don’t have to be fancy, and you don’t have to be eloquent, you just have to be concise and informative. Tell a few of the stories that taught you what you’ve learned.

It’s good to get started with a few articles, and then add a new one every week or two. It keeps the content fresh. That keeps both visitors and spiders coming back. Build up an archive of great information.

Sometimes, you can go out onto the ‘net and find other people’s articles. Often, with a simple contact, they’ll give you permission to reprint their article on your site simply in exchange for a link back to their site. As an example, if anyone wants to use any of these articles here at SOHOman, just drop me an email and include a linkback.

Encourage your visitors to help you. For example, everyone has a camping horror story. You know, one of those weekend where nothing goes right and, in retrospect, is really funny, even though they weren’t laughing at the time. Have people send in those stories and post them on the pages. Then your visitors get the sense of participating in your site. It builds a community and a rapport. It’s a lot of fun, too.

Here are some more ideas for content. Always remember that the content should be relevant to your site’s theme and audience.

· Quotations and inspirational thoughts
· Puzzles and games
· Jokes
· Case studies/success stories
· On-site blogs
· Resource directories
· Testimonials.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Some Random Ideas About Web-Based Businesses:

1. Do what you love, love what you do

I see so many people that think they can pick up on someone else’s business idea and run with it, with no personal investment in it. They’re not interested in that business, and because of that they’re not knowledgeable. Yet they want to jump in and succeed by sheer will.

Make your passion into your business, and you’ll do much better in the long run.

2. Build a mailing list.

When a visitor to your site leaves an email address, it’s like they’re giving you a seed to plant in your customer garden. If you plant it in your list, water it with gentle reminders, it will take root and grow into a repeat paying customer. Leaving an address is truly the second-best thing a visitor can do at a site, just barely under buying something.

3. Never turn down a breath mint

This is one of life’s great rules. Either it’s being offered just to be nice, or you need it. Either way, it’s a good idea to accept it. This also applies to other offers of help.

4. If someone offers you money, take it

I told you that last one to set you up for this one. If someone were to hand you money, wouldn’t your first reaction be to take it? So, if someone presents you with an opportunity, and you can carry it through, take advantage of it.

5. Focus, focus, focus

What is your site and your business really about? Can you sum up what your site is for and who your audience is in less than 12 words? If not, then your site may be too scattered. It’s tough to generate interest on the net if you’re selling Everything to Everyone. Your search terms get diluted, your efforts spread too thin.

Choose your audience and go after it!

6. 90% of life is in showing up

I had a jazz band director that drilled this into our heads. “I’d rather work with 20 mediocre players that are here ready to work every rehearsal than 10 virtuosos that I can’t count on.” How does that apply to business? As long as you keep showing up, day after day, promoting your site, posting your blog, sending out your newsletters, editing your site, shipping your products, you will be a success in the long run.

7. Don’t need to be excited, just get it done

I see lots of people that get very psyched and anxious at the start of their business to dive in and get it working. They’re driven, they’re focused, they’re committed, and within a few months, they’re burned out. Pace yourself, stay on task, get it done, and it will all work.

8. Don’t need to be discouraged, just get it done

When it gets slow, or even when it simply plateaus, and you have a hard time finding the motivation to push forward and progress, don’t let discouragement set in. You don’t have to push yourself hard, or guilt yourself into submission. Just show up daily and get it done, and you’ll be surprised at the end of the week how suddenly you’re further along that you were the week before. Somehow, things moved forward.

9. Do or do not. There is no try

Remember in Star Wars, when Yoda was teaching Luke? He told Luke to lift the X-Wing out of the bog. Luke says, “I’ll try”. Yoda says, “Do not try. Do, or do not. There is no try”

10. Keep turnaround times low

When someone trusts you with his or her money, respond quickly. Give them their products as soon as possible. Let them know the progress, if it’s going to be delayed. Fast turnaround times keep customers happy.

11. Build a rapport with your customers

They’re not credit card numbers, they’re people, and the more you can interact with them on a personal level, the better the relationship. Respond to their questions. Set up a message board on your site, and be an active participant. Blog. There are lots of ways to become a person to them, too.

12. A hub and spokes

My music site has lots of satellite sites. I’ve gotten signed up with lots of music hosting sites, that have artist pages. There are songs to download and a little bit of information, and a link back to my main page. My blogs all point back to my main site. There are a lot of ways that people can get back to my main site. Having all those linkbacks boosts my search engine ranking, too.

13. Keep books

Knowledge is power, and the more you know about how your business is going, the better you can plan ahead. Also, it keeps the tax guys happy.

14. Celebrate every gain

I see a lot of people minimize their own success. “You got your first sale!” “Yeah, but it was only one…” “10,000 hits to your website!”, “But it wasn’t 20,000…” You get the picture. Let yourself celebrate everytime you accomplish something. Don’t minimize, and it’ll keep you appreciative of the success you’re having.

15. Set a mission statement

If you’re going to get somewhere, you’ve got to know where somewhere is. Alice asked the Cheshire Cat which path to take. “Well I rather suppose that depends on where you want to go, doesn’t it?”

“But I don’t know where I want to go…”

“Then it doesn’t really matter which path you take, does it?”

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Coming to Terms

I first started in the Internet business about nine years ago or so. At the time, I was even then concerned about having already missed the boat. ECommerce has only grown since then. I started by designing a basic website called “Independent’s Day”, or “IndieDay” for short. I didn’t even have a .com at the time! It was all about selling independent musicians’ CD’s. It failed miserably.

The next thing I tried was a crafting site with my wife. She was into rubber stamping at the time, and so we started making stamps and selling them online. I designed most of the stamps myself, and we had a great time doing it together. She minded the craft side of the business, and I minded the online sales. We did pretty well. But my wife has very troublesome pregnancies, and so before our first was born, we decided to shut down.

But in the meantime I had learned a lot.

Then came Mark Hansen Music, where my personal professional passion is. Since then, I’ve added a number of sites, both commercial and non, to my list of active sites.*

I tell you all that background to tell you this: I’ve seen a LOT of change. And a major part of that change has been centered in the search engines. And I’m not just talking about Who’s the current King of the Hill, or which one is doing promotions with which one, or who is buying out who. I’m talking about the changes in the way they rank the sites that list with them.

Back in the old days, the META tags reigned supreme. Especially the Keyword Tag. You had to have a huge keyword list of all the things people might search for in your list. And that list was hidden in the deep coding of your site. Invisible to the public, seen only by nosy geeks and search engine spiders. People used to do all kinds of tricks, like putting multiple repeats of their keywords in the list, and coming up with hundreds of irrelevant keywords. They’d put 10 or 20 repeats of a dirty word in their META keywords because that’s what people were supposedly searching for.

But then, someone else would come along and repeat that word 50 or 100 times, and the whole thing kinda snowballed out of control. Even the dirty sites got into the game, by including mainstream keywords in their list. There was a time in the late 90’s where it seemed like you couldn’t even search for “mom’s apple pie recipes” without getting at least two or three dirty sites in the list.

Fortunately, that all stopped working. The search engines decided that was absurd and did two things. First of all, they started penalizing people who had too much repetition in the keyword list. Second, they started paying more attention to the keyword matches in the actual website.

Then the webmasters started including huge lists of keywords at the bottom of their pages, sometimes hidden by making the text color the same as the background color. Then the search engines started checking and penalizing for that, and the cat-and-mouse game continued.

Finally we arrive at where we are today. It’s still a constantly changing flux, with the search engines constantly adapting their ranking criteria, and the webmasters trying to game their systems. And each search engine still does things a bit differently. But even still, it’s all starting to settle into some basic constants.

One of those constants is that the META tag keyword list is basically ignored now. What’s most important by far, now, is keyword matches in the actual content of the site, especially in the visible text of the site.

That shift is now so complete, that I actually prefer not to refer to them by the phrase, “key words” any more. That harkens back to the old META tag system so strongly that I think it’s confusing. Instead I use “Search Terms”. I think that “Search Terms” better describes their function. It’s what people are searching for. A search term is what you want to optimize your page for. It’s the term that you work into your site in all the right places, so that when someone searches for it, you rank high.

And picking the right search terms for your optimization efforts is the new key. But it can be tricky.

You want to find search terms that are first of all, relevant to your site. That’s what the filth purveyors found. When they were appearing on clean searches, rather than drawing people in, they were making people mad. Using irrelevant search terms just makes it harder for people to find what they’re looking for, whether or not it’s you.

Then you need to find words that are high in demand, and low in supply. Let me clarify. In economics an item is valuable when it is both rare and wanted. Like a diamond. If diamonds looked like raisins, it wouldn’t matter how rare they were, because nobody would want them.

Search terms are the same way. The most valuable term for your website is one that lots of people are looking for, but not so many people are using in their sites. If I go into Overture.com’s Keyword Selector Tool, and search for “Music”, I would find that in March of 2005, 9,963,606 searches were done for the term. Wow! 9 million+! That’s a whopping lot! That means that “Music” is in high demand! What a great search term, right?

Well, hold on. Let’s jump to Google.com for a minute, and search for the same term. Hmmm… Let’s see… Not much… Only about 508 MILLION websites are competing for ranking using that term. Let me say that again: 500+ M I L L I O N. OK, that’s a lot of competition. Supply is way high, here.

So, maybe I need to narrow things down a bit. Let’s try “Rock Music”. OK, that’s a bit better, only 96 million sites. How about “Christian rock music”? That’s more my style anyway… 13 million.

Now that’s still very high, but you can see how focusing my search terms has made the numbers more and more manageable. I could keep narrowing and trying different search terms, bouncing between Google and Overture, testing supply and demand until I found some search terms that had the best balance between the two. Not so much competition, but still in demand.

Then, I’d return to my website, and I’d make sure that those search terms were written sensibly into my text and titles there on my main page and my sub pages. And that’s one way I’d improve my ranking.

I’d work on my terms!

*My current active sites: Mark Hansen Music, Musician's Tools, Latter-Day Songs, Mo' Boy Blog, and this blog