Sunday, March 23, 2014

SEO tips for small business

SEO tips for small business
By far, the most popular post in this entire blog over the past two years was an early one on “Getting Your Website Found by Google” which offered some simple ideas on search engine optimisation (SEO).

When I attend small business networking events, it again seems that many of the conversations end up making reference to websites and internet marketing and what people are doing in an attempt to improve their site’s ranking in search engine results.

Most small business owner’s now-days recognise that having a strong presence in the digital world is an imperative for any chance of business growth. And once you start thinking about your website, you’ll probably also start reflecting on where it ranks for different keywords and phrases that you want your business found for online. And maybe that's when you start scratching your head, feeling irritated and frustrated that your competitor’s website ranks higher than your business – particularly when their site doesn’t seem to look anywhere near as appealing or impressive as yours.
I'm sorry to have to say that, even though your website may have been built by a professional graphic designer or website developer and equipped with all of the bells and whistles - they may not necessarily have constructed it on a solid foundation of SEO principles .
·       SEO is as much about  what’s “behind the scenes” as what the visitor actually sees on the website

There is no question that search engine optimisation (SEO) is one of the most successful strategies for online success. It is based on ensuring that both your website design and construction is aligned with the criteria that search engines use to evaluate websites. This evaluation will then enable the search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask ….) to determine how relevant your site might be for keywords that can be entered as search terms.

I am convinced that the best SEO practitioners are worth their weight in gold. My experience over the past ten years confirms for me that both the success of my business – and at times, the lack of it – has been directly proportional to the search engine performance of my various websites. An analysis of your site for SEO purposes should identify both on-page and off-page issues that you can action in order to improve search engine ranking performance.

·       Some tips from an SEO expert
One of the leading figures in the shifting SEO landscape within Australia over the past decade has been Jim Stewart. He is the founder of StewartMedia, a Melbourne based digital consulting agency that specialises in helping both small and large corporates improve not only their search engine ranking results – but also showing them how to improve their rates of conversion of enquiries into sales.

Jim agreed to share some of his experience with SEO and online marketing.

1.   What motivated you initially to start your own consulting business – and what were the early challenges that you faced?
In 1994 I was desperate to get a job in the then fledging Internet industry. I just loved the technology. I got several jobs from various internet related businesses but I finally realised that I was making myself unemployable. The skills I had at the time were a bit of everything. A bit of coding experience, some network management experience, sales experience, PC tech, public speaking, radio etc. Really not enough strength in any one area that would make me stand out from the crowd.

Also I did not like being told what to do by other people. That was the clincher. In my life as an employee I had more than once criticised upper management. So I decided it was time to put up or shut up. The one thing I knew that I was really good at was explaining the benefits of complex technology to business people.

2.   What inspires you most about the work that you do?
Helping others grow their business. Early in my career, from 1989 - 1991 I sold newspaper advertising. In that time I spoke to hundreds of businesses. Back then it was not only your job to sell the ad space in most cases you had to create the ad copy as well. I used to love getting feedback from clients on how well a campaign had gone for them.

With SEO & PPC (pay-per-click) advertising, you can see it happen in real time.  We got a call from a client recently frantically asking us to switch off the ad campaign we had created for her. The reason; the phones were ringing too much and they couldn't cope. I love those calls – not a bad sort of problem to have, is it?

3.   What do you think would be some of the most common mistakes that small business owners make with their websites and SEO?
Probably the most common is duplication of content. Typically this is because Google can find the same page being on their site at more than one address.

Other common problems include slow-loading websites and sites full of technical errors (eg. incorrect use of H1, H2 and H3 tags in back-end coding)
But the most damaging SEO mistake that we see now-days is lots of spammy back linking. I have lost count of the conversations I have had over the last 18 months with stressed business owners who have experienced their incoming enquiries drying-up overnight because of a Google algorithm change. If you are doing SEO the right way, then any change to the formula that Google use to evaluate websites should not result in your website ranking lower.

4.   Can you explain the difference between white hat and black hat SEO techniques?
Black hat refers to some clever techniques that were used in the past in an attempt to “fool” Google and manipulate their search results. These days when people say black hat they are more commonly referring to the practice (mal-practice) of buying backlinks. However, I would call this more of a dunce’s hat – because these are short term strategies that can damage your business in two ways.

Firstly you will eventually get found out and punished by Google. Every day we report sites to Google that are buying backlinks and that are ranking higher than our clients. So you can imagine how many other SEO companies are doing the same thing. The other reason that it is a bad idea is that it does not build a culture of publishing within an organisation. This is one of the most important areas for businesses that want to succeed in the digital world. If you are just relying on building backlinks, then you are probably not adequately focused on publishing compelling content that will naturally grow you quality back-links.
White hat SEO is founded on an ethical approach that embodies and complies with all of the guidelines, policies and intentions of Google in their attempt to deliver search results that are most relevant for the search engine user.

5.   How can a small business owner who is thinking of using an SEO agency or consultant, avoid the risk of incurring a Google penalty because the agency employed “spammy” techniques to get short term ranking success?
I would suggest that they ask to see at least a couple of sites they have worked on before and examine their backlinks by using a tool like Majestic SEO or Open Site Explorer . If you look carefully at the backlinks and they seem “spammy”, I would most definitely stay away. By spammy, I mean there doesn’t seem to be any real depth of quality content or information supporting the site from which the link is derived …..therefore it’s likely the site’s just been established for the purposes of “farming” links.

6.   For a small business owner with a limited online marketing budget, what advice would you offer?
Start a blog. It's one of the best things you can do, not only for ranking but also over time helping to establish yourself as an authority figure in your field  You could also consider starting an adwords campaign to see what the popular phrases are in your industry ….. This can be done by varying the keyword phrases that your ad is based upon, and measuring which gets the higher response rate with clicks.

7.   Any other final SEO tips for small business?
Make sure you measure. Check in on your Google analytics and understand what you are measuring. Importantly, make sure you have Google webmaster tools setup for your website, so you can see exactly what Google thinks of your site. There, you can check to confirm that all of the pages of your site have in fact been properly indexed by Google.

You can actually receive instruction straight from “the horse’s mouth”” about any HTML improvements that may be needed in order to help improve your site’s ranking. For example, it will list any internal pages which have duplication of content or duplication of title meta-tags. Rectifying what are sometimes small technical errors has the potential to produce significant improvement in your ranking results.
Finally, I would suggest that you try to develop some time management routines for generating new posts and fresh content for your blog by setting yourself an editorial calendar - and then sticking to your schedule.

Gee, there’s heaps more we could talk about – in particular how to leverage social media for building quality back-links – but I reckon that’s enough for now.

Thanks to Jim for sharing some of his business experience – as well as some great tips on SEO.
In closing, if you’re a small business owner then I would personally classify having some basic knowledge of SEO as important as being able to read a balance sheet. OK, so maybe you have an accountant looking after your finances – but you still have to be able to recognise if they’re not doing their job properly.

I know you can’t be a specialist at everything – of course you must know when to outsource and leverage the expertise of others. But if you’re going to hire an SEO agency, the problem is that there seem to be so many of them out there - spruiking their SEO solutions and making extravagant promises .... I think you’ve just got to have some basic knowledge about internet marketing so that you can get good “bang for your buck” and not get conned by any black hat practitioners.

Associated posts - Starting Your Own Business  and Social Media Marketing
About the author
Brian Carroll is the founder of Performance Development, a corporate training company in Melbourne, Australia.  He is a qualified psychologist, experienced management coach and an engaging presenter, with a passion for helping people develop their full capabilities. You can find out more about Brian at his Google + profile

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Small Business Tips: Getting your pricing right

small business pricing decisions
If you run a small business and you’re thinking about developing or reviewing the marketing plan for your business, then pricing decisions will be one of the most crucial commercial decisions that you’ll be making. Apart from “testing the market”, you might have wondered if there are any core principles or guidelines that you can draw upon that could help to minimise the risks of making poor proving decisions? 

Supply & demand

At it's most simplest, we recognise that the dynamics of supply and demand in the marketplace is a basic law of economics that we cannot escape. And the more exclusive your service or product is perceived to be, the higher the price you could potentially be charging.

Sometimes price is negotiable

We also recognise that the price point where we position our product or service must exceed our costs by a certain margin that allows us to make a sustainable profit. Sometimes, we will be willing to negotiate and will agree to vary our prices based on the volume of an order or on the terms of payment of the customer. And there will be times when we run promotions on certain items, and will discount our prices.

Increasing your profit

We're in business to make money. In broad terms, there are 3 ways of increasing profit in your business.
i) increase the volume of your sales (up-selling, cross-selling, improve your marketing and sales conversion)
ii) reduce your operating costs (negotiate better rates from suppliers)
iii) raise your prices, thereby increasing the profit margin per sale (being careful to assess effects on sales volume)

But before making any decision to change your prices, what else should you consider?

An interview with a pricing expert ...

Jon Manning is the founder of a consulting business Sans-Prix that offers expert guidance to both small and large business in how to determine a pricing structure that will best align with their overall business strategy. For more than ten years his business has assisted companies such as Sensis, Australian Unity, Flippa and Medibank.
Jon is also the founder of, a platform where SME's can ask a panel of global pricing experts and thought-leaders what price to charge for a product or service - and just as importantly, why.
I was delighted when Jon agreed to share with us some of his experience and insights into pricing decisions .....
1.   Jon, what was your motivation when you first established your own consulting business?

I returned to Australia from a six year stint in the UK in 2002. During that time, I'd done some really ground-breaking work (dynamic pricing on the High Streets of the UK, Europe and Main Street, USA). I looked around and saw so many companies doing a poor job with their pricing (eg using cost-plus), and thought to myself that, with my UK experience (and 15 years of Australian pricing experience before that), I could really add value to this business critical, but often neglected, function.
The reason I started PricingProphets was, when I told people what I did, the most common response I got was "Oh, you do pricing? How much should I charge for such-and-such?" I decided that I could solve that problem online, by ‘productising' a consulting service, and is the result.

2.   Deciding on a business name is one of the first big branding decisions that a budding entrepreneur makes. Do you go for something quirky and memorable, or something that represents the nature of our business? ....... Would you like to explain how you decided on your business name?
My first business I called Sans Prix. Like any French term, it has a few meanings: 'without price' and 'beyond price'. But it also means 'priceless', which is what I believe a knowledge of pricing is worth to a company (this was years before a credit card company’s advertising campaign of the same name)  .

My other business is called PricingProphets. I was originally going to call this business 'Crowded Price' (as it's a crowd sourcing website for pricing), but then I changed the business model slightly and that name wasn't suitable. I was coming back from a business trip to Shanghai, hadn't slept all flight, and was waiting for my bag to come off the carousel at Melbourne Airport. When it finally appeared, it was behind a big road case (which the owner nearly dropped on my foot), and painted on the side was "Community Prophets". Straight away, I grabbed my bag, called a Muslim friend of mine from the taxi to ensure that it would not be culturally offensive, got home and quickly registered the PricingProphets domain names and Twitter handle.
PricingProphets is obviously a play on words (pricing profits), but it also reflects the business model, where I am wanting to project the panel of experts as alike to “messengers” and “gurus”

3.   What should SME owners be considering when they are making decisions around pricing their products and services and where they want to position themselves in their market?
I think there are a couple of key considerations here. The first is to understand what value customers receive from their product or service. And that may not necessarily be what the SME thinks it is, because value is in the eyes of the beholder. Ask three people why they have private health insurance, and you'll get three different answers (get out of the public health system, get back to work / home quicker, get my choice of doctor)

Secondly, because customers care about value, they don't care about the SME's costs. So price increases based on increases in the rate of inflation don't stick anymore. 
Seth Godin summed this up beautifully once when he said: "If your customers only care about price, then the reason is probably because you haven't given them anything else to think about"

4.   Jon, quite often we see start-ups try and differentiate themselves by pricing low – what are your thoughts on this?
So there are positives and negatives here. Let's start with a couple of negatives. Firstly, if you can win a customer on price, you can lose a customer on price. So there's usually no customer loyalty when you’re playing the price game.  And it’s often not long before a competitor aims to match, if not beat your price. Secondly, and you hear this so many times, the theory that you can start low and raise prices later – but rarely does this ever come true. My experience is that this is a complete fallacy.

But a couple of positives ….. It is great for customer acquisition. And if you're disrupting an industry and your product is a component of what another company is offering as a bundle (think Skype disrupting telco's in the phone call space), then a penetration pricing strategy also makes sense. You just can't charge the same price the big boys are charging when you haven’t established either any brand recognition nor any real credibility.

5.   Does it make any difference whether you’re a Business-to-Business (B2B) or Business-to-Consumer (B2C) as far as pricing decision making goes?
Once again, there are two considerations here. Yes, B2B pricing is different. It's more complex, it's less driven by technology (such as ecommerce, booking & reservations systems, point-of-sale systems), customer volumes are typically lower, and there are more dimensions and stakeholders involved (finance want profitability, marketing want market share, sales want discounts to close deals). You often have to deal with the arch-enemy of Pricing in B2B environments: the Procurement Manager.

But what they do have in common is, at the end of the day, they are both dealing with human behaviour and decision-making: do I buy or don't I?

6.   When customers are making judgements about what seems a “fair price” they weigh up the value they would be receiving in the exchange ...... What can small business owners do to add “extra value” and attempt to strengthen customer loyalty?
There are two critically important rules of pricing. The first is that value is in the eyes of the beholder. We talked about that a few minutes ago. If all value is subjective and in the piercing eyes of the beholder, then the key for SME's is to work out what represents "extra value" to the customer. Ideally, you should be looking for something that is of low costs to the SME, but of high perceived value to the buyer. For example, maybe including same-day delivery of your product when a certain volume is purchased – or making coffee available in the waiting area if customers are not being served immediately – or free gift wrapping.

The second rule of pricing is that all value is contextual. People pay more for a cold beer in a five star hotel than they do in their corner grocery store, despite the fact it's the same beer. So if an SME can create a premium context, they should be able to charge premium prices.

7.   Any final tips on marketing and pricing Jon?
Firstly, there is no bank in the world that accepts a deposit of market share, Facebook fans, Twitter followers or newsletter subscribers. They only accept a deposit of cash, and you earn that cash from optimising the pricing of your product or service. It's worth investing the time, thought and research to get it right…… at least as much time as what many SME’s are allocating to their social media marketing campaigns (where it seems to me that “ROI” is difficult to quantify)

Secondly, where possible, I recommend to my clients that they always try to offer customers three choices. If you give the customer one choice, you've got a 50:50 chance of closing the sale. If you give customers two choices, you are putting them in a position where they have to make a price-based decision. But when you give the customer three choices, two things happen. Firstly, they start thinking to themselves "which one do I buy?" (not, should I buy from this vendor?), and secondly, you're now asking them to make a value-based decision.

Thanks for your thoughts and tips on pricing, Jon.
There's no doubt that small business can't compete with larger businesses on price alone - because of their advantage with volume, their costs will be lower. So it is essential to look creatively for opportunities to "add extra value" to the experience of the customer if we're going to succeed in building customer loyalty. Of course, if you can also build brand awareness within your local community, this will provide your business with some protection in the event of a "price war" erupting in the wider market.

About the author
Brian Carroll is the founder of Performance Development, a corporate training company in Melbourne, Australia.  He is a qualified psychologist, experienced management coach and an engaging presenter, with a passion for helping people develop their full capabilities. You can find out more about Brian at his Google + profile

Monday, March 10, 2014

What your customers really want - but don’t always tell you

small business tips
If you run a small business, then you well know that your revenue stream is directly dependent upon your ability to deliver what your customer expects. However, now-days customer expectations are dynamic and evolving and your business needs to be capable and agile enough to keep pace with these changes.

Your business needs to be able to shift gears and adapt quickly – whether it’s to changing customer expectations or changing competitor practices – in order to remain poised for sustainable growth.  The following lists seven of the most essential things that customers expect from your business.

1.  Value

Your customer’s level of satisfaction depends upon the value he feels he has gained from the transaction, versus what it has cost him for the product or service that he has received. There is no single absolute measure of value as it entirely depends on the perception and taste of the beholder. However, there are a range of different metrics that can define value and it is important that your business recognises which of these metrics are suited for the kind of customers that you look to target.

For example, one particular customer visiting a restaurant may find value in how delicious the food is, while another customer would place more value and importance upon the overall ambience and service. At the end of the day, no customer wants to pay more than the perceived value of the benefits he is receiving. So at the very least, your business needs to understand the priorities of customers in your particular target market whilst also remaining aware of your competition, so you can tailor your unique value proposition accordingly.

2. A great service experience

As far as customer service is concerned, as you no doubt have already learned, the key is to ensure that this is consistently delivered and to the best of your ability. We are living in a society where customer is the king and you simply cannot afford to compromise on customer service. Customers want to be treated as special and a small businesses typically has a greater opportunity than their bigger competition to build a personal relationship with them. So make sure that if you are employing staff, that they are friendly and actually like dealing with people.

3. Trust earned through reliability

No business can afford to risk breaking the trust of their customers – which can be a long time earned, and yet very quickly lost. Avoid becoming the type of small business that will over-promise in an attempt to win a sale – and then fail to deliver what has been promised……. If your business does not keep a promise, it will obviously lead to a dissatisfied customer who loses trust in you. But worse still, they will often likely tell at least ten of their friends and family about their disappointing experience. So if you are going to make any type of mistake in your estimates of how long before a job will be completed or something is delivered, always be conservative in your estimate. You are better off under-promising and over-delivering to your customer.

4. Quality

If you want to win over your customers, provide them with a quality product or service every time. By doing this consistently, you will eventually create a brand that wins customer respect and loyalty. But if you’re really looking to differentiate yourself, then consider this “A good business gives customers what they want – a great business gives them what they need”……

Imagine for example, you go into one shoe store and ask for a particular pair of size 10 runners, which they get for you. You go into another store and ask for the same thing – and they say “Sure, I’ll get those for you sir – but may I ask what you will be using them for”. Then as it turns out, there is a pair of runners that is actually better suited for your requirements. Which of these two stores would you most likely return to next time?

5. Listen for the subtle messages

Do not expect that your customers will always tell you what they do not like about dealing with you – although admittedly a few will do this quite clearly!. However for the majority of your customers, you need to learn to recognise the subtle hints and signals that they give to you.
Many of your customers aren’t going to always tell you directly for example, that your employees are not well presented. They might instead make what seems a flippant remark – “Is today casual Friday?” Neither will they necessarily tell you that one of your employees seems a little sour or difficult to deal with – instead they might simply ask “Can I speak with Julie about this, she knows our history better than Rob” ….. You need to learn the art of listening to your customer’s subtle messages – before they send you a more direct message and vote with their feet.

6. Convenience at its best

Improving ease and convenience for the customer has been a driving force behind so many innovations in business. There are endless ways that your business can continue to innovate your product and services. One aim of your small business should be to regularly search for incremental opportunities to improve the experience of your customer.
This improvement could be in the nature of your product/ service itself, or in the way it is presented, or the way in which it is delivered, so their shopping experience becomes even more satisfying. By way of example, a shop that sells garment can offer to provide home delivery for an altered garment – there’s no doubt this would be very much appreciated by their customer.

7. Accountability

Customers are willing to deal with only those businesses that are accountable for the goods or services they are providing. Your business needs to be proactive in providing your customers with a prompt response in the event of a complaint. Sometimes we get things wrong – so your first priority is to solve the problem.
If you’ve made a mistake, then admit it quickly – and compensate your customer. Provide the product/service free, or at least provide it at a significant discount. Doing so, chances are that you will retain customer goodwill. And then once the problem has been solved – your next priority later will naturally be to prevent any recurrence. This often requires having a look at how your procedures can be improved.

Wrap up
Although you might well feel that you're aware of these small business tips on “best practice”, it can never-the-less be helpful to occasionally step back from the day-to-day operation of your business and  evaluate how well you are actually running your business. You may feel your business ticks all of these boxes and if so, that’s great...... Just watch out for that most devious of enemies - complacency.

Our guest author:

Boni Satani is an online marketer associated with Australia’s Leading 1300 & 1800 Number service provider – Zintel Communications. .

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to also take a look at Innovating & Adapting in Your Small Business 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Making Good Decisions in Your Small Business

making good decisionsEvery day in your business, you are required to make decisions – some big and others not so big. Decisions for example, like  …..

Is your business growing to a point where you should hire another staff member? ….. Another delivery was late, should you change couriers or give this one another chance? …. Should you increase your overdraft with the bank? …… Is it time to upgrade your old computer? …… Should you be doing more with social media as part of your digital marketing strategy? ….. Is your website due for a bit of a refresh  or does it require some serious surgery in order to rank better? …… Maybe there are different keywords that you should be chasing? ……. Is there a new product that you need to add to your existing product mix for your customers? ….. What should you have for lunch?
One thing’s for sure, a business owner who doesn’t know how to make good decisions won’t be in business for long!

Successful businesses are run by people who make good decisions – and much more often than not, they can tell you exactly the reasons why they did or didn’t make a particular choice.  So what are some of the most common traps to avoid, to help you make better decisions?
Five deadly decision making traps
1.   Making every decision a big decision.

You’ve got to recognise what are the trivial issues in your business that are simply not worthy of too much thought. Otherwise, you won’t have enough time to allocate to the more significant issues that have a greater impact on your business - and which are therefore deserving of more thinking, research and analysis
2.   Relying upon hearsay or speculation.

The quality of your decision will only be as good as the quality of the information that feeds into it. So be careful of treating what others say as necessarily factual. Just because someone tells you that a particular brand of business accounting software is “useless” doesn’t mean that it is. What they might be really saying to you is they never properly learned how to use it.

3.   Allowing yourself to be rushed into a decision.

Just because someone tells you they need a yes or no from you by the end of the day, doesn’t mean that you have to accept their deadline. Who knows, maybe the timeframe is negotiable? ….. But if you feel you’re being asked to make a major decision and not being given enough time to think things through – then it could be the other party is quite deliberately placing that time pressure upon you so as to exclude critical analysis.  Don’t be afraid to say that you need more time to think about it, so you can make a measured decision that will be right for you and your business.

4.   Too much heart – and not enough head.

Allowing emotion to rule you when you need to make a big decision is almost always a recipe for disaster. If you’re angry for example, then you might tend to focus your decision making on ways to “get even” with the other person – rather than the best way of recovering from a situation that has caused you loss or pain. If we’re feeling intense emotions – be it anger, fear or frustration – then we may not be thinking clearly. We may be failing to see all of the options we have available to us. So, if you’re in an emotional state, try stepping back and taking a few deep breaths before you start deciding on a course of action.

There’s an old saying “ Never make permanent decisions on feelings that may be temporary”. Try to keep your focus on your ultimate goal – but try not to have so much tunnel vision that you are neglecting to recognise the risks and alternatives surrounding a given situation.

5.   Asking the wrong people for advice.

Quite often when you’re faced with having to make a big decision, you’ll turn to other people for their guidance and suggestions. Of itself, this is OK – indeed, it can be a wise thing to do. Seeking counsel from experienced, trusted business advisers  can certainly help you. But too often business owners are unknowingly asking the wrong people. They are seeking advice from others who have a vested interest themselves in the outcome – and stand to gain from a particular choice. There have been incidents when accountants for example, have advised their clients to invest in particular properties, and have been motivated more by the prospect of commissions rather than what is really in the best interest of their client.  

And one final tip in closing……
As far as possible, once you’ve done all your research, and you’ve investigated all of your options, and you’ve assessed the relative pros and cons of each option – and you’ve only made your decision after having slept on it …… well then – it’s time to move into action with confidence and determination.

Try to avoid second-guessing yourself. Worrying about whether you’ve made the right decision will serve no useful purpose. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t formulate a back-up plan. What it is saying, is that when you are implementing your choice, you need to have conviction in your actions. Do not allow any demons of self-doubt to feed inertia within you. Do not allow the fear of making a wrong decision to paralyse you. OK, sometimes you’ll make a wrong call – just make sure that you learn from it and get better for next time!
You might also like to have a look at the Harvard Business Review article on decision making tips

About the author
Brian Carroll is the founder of Performance Development, a management training company in Melbourne, Australia.  He is a qualified psychologist, experienced management coach and an engaging presenter, with a passion for helping people develop their full capabilities. You can find out more about Brian at his Google + profile