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The Story Of Slim (Or, How To Learn Search Marketing From Bad Employers)

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Usually when we learn from examples, we learn from someone’s success. Sometimes it’s good to look at someone who did it wrong.  The shortest job stint in my life was for one year, but despite my unhappiness, I did learn some good primary lessons that are still effective today.

Let me introduce you to Slim (name changed to protect the careless).

world's dumbest bossSlim wasn’t much of a businessman.   He started out as a blue collar type with a hobby collecting a certain kind of collectible.   As the market swung, Slim’s hobby started turning into a passion for a lot of other people in the area.   Slim began supplying merchandise related to this hobby at local shops.  He was soon able to open his own store.

As the internet and ecommerce grew, interested searchers started using Google to find retailers who were selling these collectibles online.  The small town shoppers who loved the brick and mortar store weren’t the only audience Slim could reach.  To his credit, he partnered his physical store with an ecommerce store. Opportunity abound!

I worked for Slim doing SEO.  His pay rate was insulting, but because he was becoming semi-popular in his genre, and I was able to negotiate a small commission on sales, I thought it was worth a shot.   I should have recognized the cheapness as a sign of things to come.

Things started out fine.   The ecommerce platform was an antiquated catalog management system with a cheap front end plastered on.   Though it was anything but intuitive, the whole system was manageable and pretty wide open for web customization (aka hacking).  Actually, it was one of the most flexible platforms I’ve ever used only because I knew the programming language.  For a while in the mid 2000’s, the more expensive the CMS (content management systems), the more “Fisher-Price” it was.  This allowed for anyone to do the basics, but nobody could get under the hood to do the advanced SEO work. Don’ t worry – times are changing.  Most CMS systems you review today have much more SEO options baked in.  But I digress.

Eventually things started to slip downhill.   Granted, I had the ability to implement content and keywords as I saw fit, but anything else was nearly impossible. It was quickly becoming a competitive market place for this merchandise. It required some extra SEO work to not only get those rankings, but improve the conversions.  My commission was on the line.

Slim was a paranoid man. Every computer in the company was on lockdown. Nobody (except the executives) was able to view non-related websites.  Slim was so worried about someone taking a mental coffee break and checking their Myspace page or IM’ing a friend, that nobody could successfully explore the outside net. Checking competition was difficult. Finding SEO support and research was nearly impossible. Forget any kind of social marketing or link building – there was no way to research and perform off-page SEO.  Every employee felt disrespected and untrusted. Getting them to contribute to the company wide goal of implementing SEO into every little thing they do was a pipe dream.

Slim had an ego; delusions of grandeur. Slim thought he had the answers. As the web got competitive, he refused to lower prices.   He was very hesitant to any discounts.  Through analytics it was clear customers were coming in, browsing the items, reviewing merchandise price, and leaving to a competitor.  Sales were harder to make, while lower priced competitors were getting positive blog posts written about them, and forum discussions linking back to them. This was helping their SEO. On the web, you get editorial when you do something really good, or really bad. Nobody talks about the websites that are off the grid. Discounts and loyalty programs weren’t going to happen.
Speaking of blog posts, as Web 2.0 swept the country and blogs became a household word, Slim didn’t trust them.   He didn’t like providing any editorial content that could elicit negative commentary.  He wanted to censor.   He wanted complete control not only over those who spoke about the company online, but who linked to the company as well (I’m not kidding).  I’m very glad I wasn’t there when Twitter got big. I can imagine, “Don’t let them follow us! Or them. Or them. Or them. You know what? Give me a list each day of new followers so I can review them.”

Once I determined SEO had hit its limit in this company, and I wasn’t going to change Slim’s ways, I pushed for paid search. My budget was $50 a day. It wasn’t even enough to buy a decent portfolio of brand terms, but I was crafty.  I was able to turn a respectable ROI.  Profit! “Aha,” I thought, “Slim will have to see the value in this and raise the budget.  Raising the budget equals more sales.  More sales equals more commission.   More commission equals dinner!”

No dice.  He wouldn’t raise it.  I still don’t understand why.

So, with the small SEO I was able to do, with the skimpy PPC, we still managed to make the web a somewhat profitable channel for his company.   I took the results to Slim, but he didn’t budge. The proof was in the pudding. The revenue was in the tens of thousands.  The logic was smacking him in the face.

“Slim – we did it.”

“I don’t know. This is all different. I’m not sure it’s real.”

“Slim, it’s real. It’s the way of the world. Our purchasing demographic is much wider than the locals in this town.”

“I know my business.”

“Slim, can I get a budget increase for AdWords?”

“No.”

“Can I get a raise?”

“No.”

“I quit.”

SEO is not a one and done activity. When I started with a new company I couldn’t help but peek over at Slim’s website on occasion. The keyword rankings were slipping. The competitors were growing. The competitor’s backlinks were growing. His competitors were “getting it.” I felt partially vindicated, but also depressed watching my year’s work deteriorate. Slim never saw the potential his site had, and never put his faith in his online marketing strategy.

Takeaways:

Ecommerce is still young.  Things are always growing, always changing.  The proof to take chances are continually present.  If you’ve missed the boat for the last few years, you still have time.  You have to be diligent and listen to the sounds around you.

Trust your employees to be your allies. Treat them correctly as a group, and you’ll have a team of loyal helpers to brainstorm new ideas, bring their knowledge to the SEO game, and implement SEO in their specific channels. Got a bad apple?  Remove the bad apple and replace with a good apple!  Don’t be a Slim.

Unblock your internet, open communication. It’s the country’s biggest communication tool – you wouldn’t condemn them from the telephone (I hope).  Let them use social media within reason.   Ask them to teach you what they like about their social media platforms.  How do they use it?  How do their friends use it?  What are they learning?   What trends are they swept up in?  Keep the channels open for them to do some research and development for you.   You want your employees to be your experts.  Don’t cut them – or yourself – off at the knees. And do not prohibit IM. Many people can express ideas through email and IM that they can’t formulate into words at any given time. IM is a business tool. Use it.

Take advantage of Web 2.0. Take advantage of blogs, Twitter, social networks, voting sites, bookmarking sites, any type of site that provides editorials. Let the product reviews generate your content – both the positive and the negative. Consumers are savvy today. If you censor them, they’ll let many people know it. Ask Dell computers. If you’re going to be part of the web you need to consider being a human entity. The charm of brick and mortar stores are often the friendly faces behind the counter. The web is the same way – it needs friendly faces. If you are a good company the positive sentiments you receive will outweigh the negative. Have faith in your business.

This is only for those new to the ecommerce game.  Be competitive with your pricing.  You have no choice. Discounts are your weapon.  It’s a big internet. If you think you have it cornered, and you’re not Amazon.com, you probably don’t have the control you think you do. Customers know how to search and compare.   Google helps them every day.  They know how to refine their searches.  They usually know when a site is not quality within 2 seconds. Check your bounce rates. If the higher majority of your customers are exiting quickly you might have either a pricing problem or an image problem.

Spend money to make money.  In marketing online, it’s can’t all be about the ROI if you want to take chances, but it’s certainly about believing in your business and your online strategy. When you open the flood gates via SEO or paid search, it offsets your losses. If you don’t have the money to invest in heavy PPC, invest lightly and build it up. SEO and PPC are real.  It works.  It worked for your competitors and has made Google billions.


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