Here’s the two points that a lot of SEO companies try to make:

1. We have a proven, methodical, scientific system.

2. Search results continually change in an unpredictable way.

These two statements contradict each other. People crave certainty, especially in inherently chaotic areas, and some are quite happy to promise it.

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How to spot an internet scam

I feel like the guys in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink that could just look at a supposedly 3,000 year-old statue and say “fake”. But I’m beginning to see that there are a lot of people still falling for fake promises made by websites.

Here’s a quick test that helps me when I have any doubt: go to Google, type in the url of the website (like internetscam.com for example) and look at the results.

People who claim to be big players can be found out very easily with this method. Not a lot of results? Probably haven’t been around too long.

Are all the results directory listings or otherwise neutral? Are they all ads? They’ve probably done some SEO but still not a definitive result.

The jackpot is really blog and forum results where somebody writes quite clearly “so-and-so is a rip off” or even “so-and-so is legitimate”. Look for real people giving real reviews and unsolicited feedback.

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Chicago from the air

from flickr: caribb

Chicago looks great from the air. Miles of tiny suburbs and then suddenly a short burst of skyscrapers and then Lake Michigan to the horizon.

The building height here is kind of like a Black Swan. The average height is probably just above normal house height, which tells you nothing. It doesn’t describe the suburbs and it leaves you completely unprepared for downtown.

What does this mean? Beware of averages.

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Reasons why Vista is awesome

It feels good to bash Vista. I find myself screaming at it on a near daily basis. But when I use another OS, I find that there are some small things that I miss. I thought it would be interesting to think of as many good things about it as I could. So far I’ve got:

1. toolbar previews on hover

I don’t know if this has a name, but if you have multiple windows open and you hover the mouse over the toolbar, you get a little pop-up preview of that app or web page. At first I thought this was feature bloat but I’ve come to find it useful for checking how something is running while I’m, for example, watching a video.

2. alt tab to desktop

In addition to cycling through windows, you can get to the desktop, minimising all windows. This seems intuitively right, but it’s really a completely different function when you consider it.

3. massive icons

You can get some really big icons in your folders. Good for picture and video previews. I might be alone on this or just getting old, but I love giant icons.

4. partitioning took about 20 seconds

There are a lot of things that require fewer screens, fewer choices and less technical know-how. For example I recently had to partition my hard drive and I settled down for what I imagined would be a fairly long headache. About half a minute and I was done. What? This is a Microsoft product right?

5. er…

Ok I’m done. Anyone else?

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Twitter and keeping in touch

from flickr: dbarronoss

from flickr: dbarronoss

I was challenged to try twitter for two weeks. It’s taken me around 24 hours to love it. It’s like the bodysnatchers.

One thing I happened to read a few days ago was someone proclaiming how sad it was that we needed these shallow social apps to keep in touch. Why don’t we just pick up the phone?

Pretty true I thought. But in practice, I’ve found that friendships run deeper when there is some kind of web connecting them. People I don’t see every day, whether online or off, tend to fall off my radar. Not because I don’t like them or because I don’t care but because that’s human nature.

Or maybe I really don’t care. Whichever, I think that it’s better to actively maintain relationships by any means that work than see them dissolve through inadvertent neglect.

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How to fix eBay

eBay sign

from flickr: Ryan Fanshaw Photography

This has been bothering me for a long time. I use eBay a lot, and recently it has become less fun, but I can’t put my finger on why exactly.

The site is flooded with generic, no-brand products, (at least in the categories I spend most of my time) being sold for razor thin profits (usually through inflated postage charges). Products have become commodities. There is no call for quality or good service. The opportunity for the home seller is drowned out in a the noise.

There are other subtler problems which are more about expectations. Customers assume that goods on eBay are cheap, but for many things you can find cheaper alternatives online. (Books are a particularly good example.) It’s also taken for granted that service will be unpolished. if you’re buying it online, from a stranger, often second-hand, it’s somehow implicit that you can’t expect to be treated well.

The main problem facing eBay is that it dominates online auctions. And it’s difficult for anyone to compete in that kind of venture without a very distinct service. When you hold that kind of power, it’s easy to be complacent.

So how do you solve these problems? I’m not sure what the best strategy would be, but here are some things I’ve been considering:

1. Separate auctions from fixed price.

It’s difficult to separate businesses from individuals, but easier to separate true auctions from fixed price sales. Commodity sellers don’t like fixed price because it represents too much risk. That’s why I like auctions, they give me an illusion that I might get a good deal.

2. Encourage better service.

Getting sellers, even people like you and me sitting at home, to think of themselves as service providers and giving them good advice on how to improve their customer service would improve the whole experience of the site. It could also lead to better differentiation between sellers. However, this might require that they…

3. Change the feedback system.

Feedback does a lot to punish and prevent scams. If a seller has pages of good reviews, you feel more confident parting with your money. But it’s more difficult to identify great service, something above and beyond. Perhaps a higher level of positive feedback is required. A new category which identifies the exceptional.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of how I handle a sale on eBay and I’ve come up with a few ideas I’m going to try over the coming months. In a way, it’s a great environemnt to test customer service ideas.

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Black Swans in SEO

SEO is full of Black Swans. If you’ve read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s incredible book you’ll know just what that means, but if you haven’t just think of them as massive, unpredictable events that have profound effects.

Traffic spikes are Black Swans. So are #1 rankings in Google. SEOs are always chasing them, and like the deluded traders in Taleb’s book, they are always developing systems and rules for creating them.

Search engine algorithms are black boxes. SEOs do some work, the algorithm works its magic, and rankings and traffic come out the other side. SEOs then work by induction to determine the algorithm, but if you know anything about induction you’ll know how unrewarding it can be.

People love certainty and they’re prepared to bypass reason to believe in it. That’s why so much stock market software exists that promises big returns, and it’s the same with SEOs that promise high rankings or big traffic.

The alternatives are not pretty. Tell your customers that you can promise nothing and see how happy they are when you bill them. Tell SEOs that their strategies are based on faulty reasoning and they’ll ask you what the alternative is.

There are two meta-strategies that I think will work well here. Number one, educate your clients. Show them what SEO is and tell them how rankings in Google are generated, then they’ll be less quick to buy search marketing snakeoil.

Number two, cover as many angles as you can. Look at on-site optimisation, look at link-building, look at ads, look at social networks, video etc. It might be one thing affecting your placement, it might be one hundred, but keep your hand in everywhere, keep every plate spinning. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you know how SEO works because you’ve had a few successful campaigns.

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6 reasons why your customer service sucks

Dave Gorman has had trouble with his BT broadband. Reading his comments on BT’s customer service, I can sense his understanding that the people he’s talking to don’t have any power to help him.

Having worked in customer service I cringe every time I read stories like this because I know what it’s like to be between an angry but reasonable customer and an uninterested bureaucracy. Why is customer service done so badly? It seems like an afterthought, something that a company is forced to do apart from their core business. But in fact, it’s an amazing marketing tool. People only remember the couple of days when things went wrong, not the years of blip-free service. If you can fill those couple of days with amazing service, you can generate customers for life.

Here’s what is wrong with the current approach to customer service (specifically in the UK):

1. You don’t give your representatives any power to solve problems.

Even in organisations that don’t use scripted responses, front-line staff usually can’t do anything outside of a pre-determined scope. The difficulty with this thinking is that customers complain when things go wrong. That means that normal procedures don’t apply. Almost every customer complaint can be solved efficiently by dropping procedure right away and cutting the Gordian knot. Sometimes this requires creativity but often the customer will even tell you how the problem can be solved. It couldn’t be simpler.

2. They’re usually the least knowledgeable people in your organisation.

People who answer the phones aren’t engineers. This is because engineers are busy engineering. I can understand that. What sickens me, is that engineers, managers, CEOs, finance, HR or anyone from any other department would rather take a bullet than talk to a customer for five minutes.

And this isn’t a “training issue”. Believe it or not, training courses aren’t some kind of magic wand that turns minimum-wage phone answerers into physicists.

3. You don’t back them up.

Why do people ask to be transferred to a manager? Because managers hate hassle, and will do anything to exit a conversation. This means that after you’ve spent half an hour defending a terrible policy, your manager will bypass it in the blink of an eye so that he can get back to playing minesweeper. This makes you look like a dick and your manager looks like a “solutions provider”.

4. You bullshit them.

Who is more likely to go along with your stupid corporate policy? Someone whose salary you pay, or a customer who is having a bad day?

You can feed any line to your staff and they will sit there and nod, but a customer isn’t fooled for a second. And your staff will get more and more fed up with explaining something that they know is stupid.

5. You try to save money.

How much do you spend on advertising? Large companies spend thousands to put their name on a board in a sports stadium so that for a fleeting second it registers in the mind of an onlooker.

How much does it cost to post a part to a customer, or to ship their order for next-morning delivery? How much does it cost to say sorry? To refund a week or a month’s subscription? To send them a free gift? People remember these things for a lot longer and they tell their friends and family too.

6. You treat complaints like problems not opportunities.

Do you know what I do when I get crap service? I don’t go back for it. Usually, I don’t say anything, I just don’t turn up again. Every time someone is disappointed in your product or service and tells you about it is a rare opportunity to make your company better. It pinpoints with laser accuracy the problems that your customers have.

If you route these complaints so that you never have to deal with them directly, you’re missing one of the most important business measures you have.

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SEO scams

In two days, I’ve been exposed to two SEO scams.

One company offers first place ranking in Google for £650. Their small print says that if this doesn’t happen they’ll refund you but keep an admin fee of £75. What’s more, their “first place” seems to be in sponsored ads not organic results. You can buy those yourself.

The second was a phone call saying that they had a spare place on the first page of Google for “insert relevant keywords here”. I thought wow, who is this guy? Does he actually run Google? Because I hear that they don’t exactly need the money.

For any of you who are in the dark, let me make this absolutely clear: no one can guarantee you any place in the search rankings for any keywords.

Check out Google’s own guidelines on this. (Scroll down to No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.)

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Charlie Brooker on SEO

My favourite TV critic Charlie Brooker has a piece in the Guardian about SEO. It’s interesting to see how someone outside of the business sees it and in this case he sees the particularly unlikeable aspects of it. Stuffing topical keywords into online articles is all it is apparently.

Doing SEO for small or new businesses is miles away from this. These people are the enemy.

It’s a common mistake to think that traffic equals sales. But when you visit a site that’s full of spammy articles, what do you do? You click away.

The more people who employ dodgy techniques to get high page rankings, the more difficult it is for a new business to break through this spam barrier. And I want them to break through. When someone has a great product or service, I want to hear about it. But as in all media, good product does not equal good marketing.

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