Recently, I was working with an organization that was building a new website. My role was to help with the strategic role of the website, work on SEO and analytics, and help them evaluate the bids submitted from a number of companies to build the actual site.
Included in one of the bids was a line item in the budget, under the heading Search Engine Optimization, and the amount of $250.
I’ve seen this before from various bidders, and I have to say that I can’t blame them for putting in an item like this. Companies and organizations have heard of this magical thing called “SEO” that is the magic bullet that guarantees internet success. Unfortunately, not including a line item like this may have the consequence of having their bid disqualified. I can see the decision-makers standing around a table, five or six bids laid out in front of them, and someone saying “let’s dismiss this one out of hand – they don’t say SEO, while this guy does SEO, and it’s only $250″.
Problem is, for only $250 you don’t get real SEO. Only some window dressing, if you even get that.
In this instance, I had been working with this group for a bit of time on developing a web strategy, so they knew what was involved in Search Engine Optimization. They knew what the process entailed. They knew that you needed to understand your organization’s goals and strategies and tie them to the website. They knew that you had to identify your main target demographics and put yourself in their shoes. They knew you had to research actual web usage to develop keywords. They knew content had to correspond to the keywords and target audiences. They knew you had to customize your measurement software and analyze performance. They knew SEO was not a one-time only item.
And they knew that you can’t do all this for $250.
So what was included in the $250? Who knows, but I would not be surprised if it included items such as filling in meta keywords (which has absolutely no impact anymore). Maybe submitting a sitemap (which has very minimal impact).
Search Engine Optimization is not a small add-on. Sure, they may be some technical items that you can do to an existing website to make it more search-engine friendly. But when building a new website, those should be as standard as windshield wipers on a car.
If you are paying an extra $250 for “Search Engine Optimization” on a new website, you should be quite suspicious. It means one of two things. Either the company you are talking to does not know what SEO really is. Or they are trying to charge you extra for the windshield wipers.
For a non-profit organization, it is critical that people become engaged. The organization has a mission, and advancing that mission inevitably involves engaging people for financial, volunteer, or other kinds of support. Society doesn’t change without a push, and the organization is there to provide that motivation. The website plays a role. Exactly what that role is may change between organizations, and in today’s world, it’s almost guaranteed to be an important factor.
But meeting the goals of a non-profit organization is an ongoing process. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to advance the mission without being able to measure progress. In measuring engagment with people through a website and other internet strategies, having tracking tools such as Google Analytics is only the tip of the iceberg. Even more important than gathering the numbers is having the ability to understand and interpret what the data is saying.
Engagment is not a yes/no option – different people will engage with your organization at different levels. It is up to each organization to build their own model for levels of engagment, and to use their website to support their efforts.
In the for-profit world, this is a well-studied topic, often referred to by terms like “marketing funnel” or “customer path”. It is the process that their customers pass through that eventually leads to buying a company’s products or services. It usually looks something like the picture below, although each business will have their own terms, and may add or subtract stages to the process depending on their particular situation.
For non-profits, there are similar paths and stages for how people are engaged. Although there are quite a few models out there for a “non-profit marketing funnel”, the reality is that the goals of non-profits are much more varied than in the for-profit world, so the models are themselves more varied. What is your ultimate level of engagment? Is it a volunteer? Is it a regular donor? Is it a commitment to action? Is it a participant? Maybe there are multiple streams that are applicable to the organization. Perhaps it looks like the diagram below, or perhaps it looks more like a plate of spaghetti, with multiple directions.
Although the web site is an important component of engagment, it has to be remembered that a website is simply a tool to help a non-profit meet its goal. It should be designed keeping in mind people who are at the various levels of engagment in your model, and the website can encourage them to advance up the chain. It should be easy for someone at each level to find the information that they can relate to, and it should provide what they need to move to the next level. And it should be measured as it happens.
There are a variety of website actions that can be recorded, and they can be interpreted in terms of the levels of engagement model for the organization, such as
- visiting multiple pages
- downloading white papers or fact sheets
- making an on-line donation
- participating in social media
- contributing to a forum
- joining a mailing list
- sending an email
- inquiring for nearest location
- signing an on-line petition
The trick is to link the user’s action back to the engagment model, to use it as an indication of the success of the website in helping meet the organization’s goals.
Even before Dr Jekyll self-dosed himself to become Mr Hyde, the idea of self-experimentation runs through our culture. As any fan of comic books know, without self-experimentation, half of the super heroes of our fantasy world would never have come into existence.
In the world of search engine optimization, our industry has laid out a series of best practices, based on guidance from the search engine companies themselves and from the experience of practitioners. And, like in the world of science, it is only through experimentation that we can really understand the world around ourselves, and improve our base of knowledge.
But, when someone is paying you to improve the returns of their website, it would be unethical to try experiments on their website just to see what will happen. So, we need another way.
In my personal case, I have access to a second business. I am co-owner (with my wife) of The Turret Bell. This is a small seasonal store that specializes in Prince Edward Island Books and Music, and has a year-round on-line sales outlet. For years now, I’ve been using this site as my own private little plaything, trying different SEO and analytics ideas. Over time, partly as a result of my experiments and partly because of some fundamental problems with the structure of the site, it had become a bit disorganized and unfocused. So, I embarked upon a complete redesign of the site.
And this is where I decided to play Dr Jekyll, and break some of the rules. The only one who would be hurt would be me and my site, and in the end I’d have a better idea of what would happen if I wasn’t careful.
In this case, I wasn’t changing the location of the site. It would still be at www.turretbell.com. But, I thought I’d drop in the new site and replace the old site without taking basic SEO precautions like page redirects.
I tracked what would happen with a handful of keyword phrases, items that we previously ranked highly for, such as “Prince Edward Island Books”. I fully expected to see a drop in ranking, but was a bit surprised by the impact of my experiment.
First, within a day or two, Google Webmaster Tools started screaming at me about broken links, since some of the old pages were still resolving, but the links off those pages were dead-ends. Then the ranking dropped. For instance, for “Prince Edward Island Books”, we were in the top two or three before the change.
After the change, we dropped right out of the top 50. Essentially, we became invisible.
I was expecting a hit, but the extent of the drop took me by surprise. It really emphasized to me the importance of planning and carefully executing a strategy for making major changes to a website. This little experiment sure taught me a lesson about making sure that everything is lined up carefully when updating a website.
Unfortunately, it’ll now be a bit before this website recovers. But I certainly have a better appreciation now for the potential consequences next time a client comes to me with plans for a new website.
In the meantime, if anyone wants to purchase some PEI Books and Music, I have a website that could use the help.
There is certainly no shortage of search engine optimization tips, tricks, advice, and rules available on the internet. However, the vast majority of the articles you wil find are oriented towards business sites, not non-profit or charitable organizations. Despite there being a large overlap between the SEO tactics for businesses and non-profits, there are some fundamental strategic differences.
The most fundamental difference, of course, is the purpose of the organization. Businesses exist to make money. An investment has to have a positive financial return, bringing in more money than was expended. Money is the objective. For non-profits, this is flipped on its head. Money is not the objective, but it is the constraint. Whatever the objective of the non-profit organization, there are very few that have an unlimited pot of money, so they have to figure out how best to achieve their goals within the constraint of their budget.
Optimizing for non-profits is, in my opinion, a much more difficult problem. The objective is often more difficult to quantify, making evaluation more difficult.
So, how does this affect search engine optimization. On the surface, it seems that it is the same beast – get the highest rankings and the most visits possible. But that’s only the first layer of the puzzle. Not all visitors are equal. While the business has the option of just increasing their budget and ignoring the bad hits (so long as the overall profit keeps growing), the non-profit does not have that flexibility. Increasing an investment in one area means reducing an investment elsewhere.
That means that evaluating your effectiveness is even more important. But it’s also harder.
Many non-profits invest in SEO or pay-per-click advertising, and judge the impact of their efforts through website hits. But that isn’t good enough. The organization has to go further, and determine the value of a visitor. Since it’s not about the profit, this is not an easy task, but it is possible, especially if the website is developed with this in mind.
Search engine optimization is not just about increasing your ranking and hits. It is much more difficult and complex that that. And if you’re a non-profit, the task is even more difficult.
So, what can you do? Many of the business-oriented tactics do apply, which is good. But evaluating their effectiveness is somewhat different when you don’t have a profit objective. It all comes down to determining a value of your visitors, which comes from your organization’s objectives. Why do you exist? What is a first-time visitor worth? Does a repeat visitor indicate success more than a first-time visitor? How about a subscriber? Someone who donates? What are the different levels of engagment, and what is each of them worth? These are all very difficult questions for an organization to answer, but they are essential for a true SEO effort for non-profits.
Search Engine Optimization is a sexy term these days. It has worked its way into the standard business language over the past couple of years, and is today’s version of the advertisement in Yellow Pages – something that every business feels it needs, or they might be left behind by their more aggressive competitors.
But even given its sudden prevalence in business circles, search engine optimization is still little understood, particularly by small and medium sized businesses and organizations that do not have the time and resources to dedicate to the topic. After all, it is a pretty technical field that requires specialist knowledge, tools, and skills.
Or does it?
If I sit down with a small business owner to discuss their website, I can talk on for hours about canonicalization, site hierarchy, URL structure, user agents, and a number of other technical issues. But is that really the most important thing about search engine optimization? Is it a topic that is so specific that you need advanced degrees to understand?
No, it isn’t.
So, what is the one piece of advice I would pass on to the small business owner? Take a look at your website from the perspective of your customer or potential customer. Look at your content.
Consider your website from a fresh perspective. Look at every page individually. Who is this page speaking to? Is it targeting your existing customer? Is it targeting a first-time visitor? Is it targeting the guy around the corner who just wants to know what time you are open?
The most important part of search engine optimization is your content. What does your website say, and who is it speaking to? Is it a match for your potential customer, and for what they are asking from the search engines?
For almost any website, the one improvement that can be made is to improve content. Make sure that you are speaking to your target audience clearly and without jargon. That is the most important factor in search engine optimization.
Make sure you check out the latest issue of Island Business News. You’ll find the latest column contributed by Analytic-OR, on the importance of making sure your website matches your business goals. Here is the text of the column:
If you’re a business owner, chances are you either have a website, or are intending to create a website. What makes a good website? If you go to a web development company, they will often ask you to look around on the internet and find websites that you like.
So, try that exercise.
Browse around the internet, check out ten or twenty websites, and choose which ones you like the best, the ones that you would like to emulate on your own site.
Now, it doesn’t matter which sites you picked. Instead think about how you chose those sites. Odds are you placed a high priority on the visual appeal of the site. But is that what is really important?
Take a look at Amazon, arguably the most successful web-based retailer on the internet. What do you think of the look and feel of the site? It’s certainly not the prettiest site, with a simple logo, muted colours, and an aggressive sell of their products. Did any of your favourite sites look like Amazon?
For the vast majority of people who choose their favourite web sites, the answer is no.
So why is Amazon so successful if their website, their public face, is far from being a favoured site for most people? The answer is simple. Amazon knows what they want to accomplish from their website, and they design their website around those goals.
How about eBay? Again, one of the most successful websites in existence, but there are certainly lots of websites that are much more attractive. Like Amazon, eBay knows what they want to achieve with their website, and they have built their website around those goals.
If you have a large family, you don’t buy a sports car to bring the kids to soccer practice, simply because you like its looks. You find which vehicles are big enough to fit everyone, and only then do you bring in other factors.
It should be the same with your website. Start with your business goals. What do you want to accomplish, and how can your website help you meet these goals? What does the website have to do, and how can it best meet these requirements? Only after you have answered that question should you then be asking what package you need. Starting with the look of your site is going about the process in reverse. If you’ve settled on the look of your site first, then all you have is a pretty face, not an effective website.
So what goals should you set for your website? If you are an online retailer, the answer is simple. Your goal is to sell product. But the answer isn’t quite as easy for other businesses or organizations. Some websites are to generate sales leads. Some are to distribute product information. Some are to communicate with your customers. Every business
has different goals, and the role of their website is different.
If your business is unique, why just copy someone else’s solution? Their problems, their goals, and their solutions will be different from yours. Make sure your website meets your needs, not those of someone else.
Of course, to maximize its impact, your website requires ongoing attention. If you know what you want your website to accomplish and work on search engine optimization, then you can set up measurements with web analytic tools such as Google Analytics to see what is working and what is not working. Now, in the future, you have good information on how to get even better results from your website.
It may seem a bit strange for someone who makes their living from creating, analyzing, and updating websites to suggest that maybe you don’t even need a website. But for some businesses and organizations, this may be the case.
It is almost accepted as an inviolable truth today that any business or organization needs to be on the internet and that without a web site, failure is certain. That’s certainly not true. All of the reasons for creating a website certainly hold true, and the majority of businesses and organizations do in fact benefit from an internet presence. But that’s not a universal truth.
The first thing anyone considering a website should understand is that there is no such thing as a free ride when it comes to your internet presence. Creating an effective internet presence requires an investment. That investment can be in the time, in money, or in staff resources diverted from other efforts, but there is an investment involved. Even the lowest cost options – joining a “free” internet page service, or having your brother’s best friend’s son design and put up your page need your attention, and the time you put into it is indeed an investment.
Before automatically assuming that you absolutely need a website, consider whether or not any of the following apply to you:
- You are not willing to make the investment for a quality website. Your website is part of your public face. In particular for potential or first time customers or clients, your website is often their first stop. First impressions are hard to reverse, and if you are not willing to make the investment for a quality website, it will show in the result. A poor quality website can actually do more harm to your business than having no website at all.
- You expect that customers will flock to your door simply by putting up a website. If you expect that fame and riches will come your way simply because you have a website, think again. The old saying “build it and they will come” is nothing but a straight-out lie. A website does not build success – your business model builds the success, and your website is simply a vehicle to support your business. If your business model assumes that building a website means instant success, then not only do you not need a website, but you need a new business.
- You want to build a website and never have to deal with it again. This is an unrealistic expectation, and anyone that develops a website with this approach usually becomes surprised and disillusioned by the result. Even if you are happy with your first effort, at some point you will want to make changes. Businesses and organizations evolve and change (particularly when they are young) and you will want your public fact to reflect who you are today, and not who you were last week or last year. Even if the business does not change, your customers change and technology changes, so your image and reputation have to change just to keep up. If your plan is to make a single investment in a website and never touch it again, then just save your money.
Before creating your website, make sure that you have realistic expectations. There can be great benefits in having a quality website that reflects and supports your business or organization goals. But, like any other aspect of your business, that does not come for free. Realizing that potential requires investment in quality, an understanding of exactly how it can help you meet your goals, and ongoing attention.
If you aren’t willing to make the commitment, then you’re better off staying away.
But if a website has a purpose, it is very important to be able to measure its success. Unfortunately, most web sites that I see out there have a very cloudy purpose, and no way of measuring their success. In fact, in many cases, there is no way to even know what constitutes a success.
A lot of poorly performing websites could have been improved if the owner asked (and received a good answer to) a very fundamental question:
How will I measure whether or not my website has been successful?
First off, many developers will answer this by saying that they will provide you with Google Analytics so you can see how many visitors you have. If this is the answer, walk away. If, in addition, they say that they will provide you with Google Analytics for an extra cost, run away as fast as you can! If this is the answer you received, your website is not being taken seriously. Not because of any malicious intent from your developer, but probably because they just don’t know any better.
Why is this question so important? Mainly because the only way to measure success is to know what success means. There is no standard way to define a successful website. It will be different for every business and every organization that wants or has a website. But, by thinking about measuring success, you have to define success. A good web developer will spend a significant amount of time with you, trying to understand your business, your business goals, and how a website can help meet those goals.
But that’s only the first step. The next part is to make sure the website is designed to guide your visitors down the right path, and to know whether or not you have succeeded. And that means more – a lot more – than just knowing how many visitors you have and where they come from. It means defining your Key Effectiveness Indicators, and making sure that your website is laid out to capture the information required. A real web developer will be able to explain the reasons for the choices made in designing your website, what they will be measuring, how they are planning to measuring it, and why those measurements are important for your business.
The entire website should flow from a good definition of your business goals. It is the job of a web developer to take your information, to work with you to describe how a website can help you meet those goals, and show you how to measure the impact of your website.
Imagine yourself a year or two down the road. You have that unsettling feeling that your website is not delivering the way you hoped it would. But what should you do? If all you know is the number of visitors and their origin, does that really help you make any decisions? Probably, you’re right back where you were before – just knowing you need something, and hoping that whatever you end up with will work. But you’re still shooting blind.
Running a business or an organization means making decisions and always looking for improvement. Making good decisions needs information. And the only way to get good information from your website is to plan for it from the start.
Google Analytics announced today a new metric, which is really an adjustment of one of their standard measures. In addition to bounce rate, users can now measure Adjusted Bounce Rate. The full blog post announcing the addition can be found on the Google Analytics Blog.
While the old bounce rate had its uses, its real impact was quite limited for many reasons. One of the principal reasons comes from a limitation with Google Analytics itself (and almost any other analytics software). Namely, that the analytics software cannot tell when you leave their site. This has implications for a number of Google Analytics measures, but it has a direct impact on bounce rate.
The unadjusted bounce rate is sometimes used to indicate uninterested visitors – namely, those who end up on your site, but the site is not what they were actually looking for. It has long been recognized that there is a problem with this interpretation. The bounce rate does not distinguish between those who leave your site after visiting a single page because they are unhappy, and those who leave your site after visiting a single page because they have found exactly what they are looking for. These are two very distinct populations, but they were lumped together by using bounce rate.
The Adjusted Bounce Rate adds the element of time to the data interpretation. Essentially, all it does is recognize visitors who spend a certain amount of time on your site. The website owner can set the time. But then Google infers that visitors who stay on the page for a certain amount of time are successful interactions, and those who stay on the page for less than that time are unsuccessful interactions.
There is nothing really new in this approach, as it is a solution that has actually been implement in various Google Analytics hacks. The difference is that Google is now putting it into their reporting, so that it is easier to find without further customization.
It is somewhat limited in that a success is now defined as inactivity, where it is much preferable to interpret user activity.
Not a perfect solution, but it is a step forward.
Website analytics, when used effectively, depends entirely upon choosing the right Key Effectiveness indicators for the website. What is the reason for the existence of the website, and how does it contribute to the business or organization? What actions on the website indicate a conversion? And finally, what is the value of each of these conversions?
Determining this value is not an easy task, but this is the step that makes everything else worthwhile. Without determining some kind of a value for the successful interactions that occur, how is it possible to determine the overall impact the site is having?
When the website is in support of a for-profit business, the task can be even more difficult. After all, if the website is part of a business designed to make money, we have an ultimate measure to start from – the profits of the company. It’s usually not trivial to then distill down the value of the website, and then the value of each conversion on the website, but at least there is a clear baseline from which to start.
In terms of optimization, for business, revenue is the objective. For non-profits, revenue is a constraint.
So how can we set a value for conversions for non-profits if we aren’t even trying to make a profit? The first step is to get out of the limiting mindset of equating value with money. Sometimes it makes sense to think in financial terms, but not always.
Remember that every website exists for a reason. Creating and maintaining a website is a drain on money and resources, so there has to be a reason for its existence. Exactly what that reason is forms the basis for the value calculation. But in general, the value of a conversion can be categorized in three ways.
- Economic value. Not everything for a non-profit revolves around the bottom line, but there is always a financial component. Sometimes that financial component can be grasped in one way or another. Some non-profits include raising money, for themselves or for others among their goals, so this activity can form the basis for conversion value. Alternatively, some websites are in place to save money, perhaps providing information on-line instead of through salaried staff. The amount of savings can be used as the basis for a value calculation. In these cases, money is the direct objective.
- Relative value. Not everything lends itself to a pure economic analysis. Particularly for non-profits, if your objective is not to make money, sometimes other measures work better. In this case, the value you attribute to each conversion is not designed to capture financial aspects, but rather to measure benefit. In these cases, the values are designed not to capture an absolute measurement, but instead to capture a relative measurement, showing how the value of the website changes. A relative measurement cannot exist in isolation – it requires context to have any real meaning, and is only good for comparisons. These comparisons are usually made over time, so improvements in value can be measured.
- Hybrid value. As was mentioned, for non-profits, money is a constraint, not an objective. So, although it is not the entire reason for existence, it does sometimes make sense to incorporate it into a measurement, but as a limiting variable. This leads to measures such as benefits accrued per dollar spent. There is still a relative aspect to these measures, since the benefits accrued are often relative. But at least they can be related to something a bit more substantive – the money that is input.
Depending on the organization and the objectives of the website, the mix of the different types of measures will vary, will always be customized, and will often change over time. But maximizing the use of analytics always involves giving a firm value to the conversions on the webiste.