Interview with IBM Distinguished Engineer, Mike Moran

September 26th, 2007

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Interview Transcript

Mike Moran is an author and pioneer in search marketing at IBM Corp. Since the early 2000s, Mike has worked to establish ground-breaking strategies on a corporate level, in order to implement SEO changes on a massive scale.

Stephan Spencer, Netconcepts’ founder and president, interviewed Mike about the unique challenges that mega-corporations have related to SEO implementation, understanding the ROI and hidden benefits behind SEO, and what the solutions are to solving those challenges. Read more about how savvy decision-making and well-written processes can help solve SEO implementation problems on a corporate level.

Stephan Spencer: Hi. I’m Stephan Spencer, founder and president of Netconcepts. I have here with me today, Mike Moran. Mike is the Distinguished Engineer and Product Manager of OmniFind Enterprise addition, an IBM software group. So, he’s part of the huge IBM company. He also is the co author of the book, “Search Engine Marketing, Inc.” I understand, Mike, you have a new book that’s just come out, as well?

Mike Moran: Yeah. It just came out last week. It’s a book on Internet marketing called, “Do It Wrong Quickly” on how the Web changes the old marketing rules. And it’s basically about helping people understand the attitude change they really need to take to do Web marketing. It’s not the same as traditional marketing where you really need to make sure you do things right the first time. You can’t screw up a TV ad because you’ll blow your whole year. But, if you’re doing Internet marketing you have an opportunity to try something out, see how your customers are responding to it and maybe change it if it’s not working.

So, it’s not that I’m telling people to do it wrong on purpose. I’m asking them to admit that what we first try is almost always wrong. And instead of us trying to convince each other that everything we’re doing is OK we, instead, need to be open to the feedback from our customers and figure out where to go from there.

Stephan: What great advice. Yep. So, “Let’s Do It Wrong Quickly” and is that also published by IBM Press?

Mike: It is.

Stephan: OK. Great. Well, congratulations on yet another book.

Mike: Thank you.

Stephan: Share with our listeners a little bit about what you do at IBM and what you have done. I understand that you’ve been involved some SEO initiatives at IBM. I also understand you’re involved on some internal search initiatives. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Mike: Sure. The job title that they gave me is Distinguished Engineer which is means that it’s an executive level technical position which is basically the kind of thing that maybe a CTO would be in a smaller company. So, I’m in charge of technical strategy, and, whatever new things are happening.

And, I’m doing that on behalf of the IBM team that’s responsible for our enterprise search engine. So, it’s the kind of search engine you would install on your intranet, or, as a site search for your external website. So, we offer integrations with commerce engines to help you sell more. We also can help your employees find things better. And, so, all those kinds of things are part of the OmniFind product line.

We also have a free search engine that we do in conjunction with Yahoo that you can download that does up to a half a million documents. It’s very easy to install. And, it’s gotten a lot of great reviews.

We’re also working to deliver analytics capability for customers. So, beyond search, you often need to analyze information, and, be able to, to see from the text what kind of conclusions you can draw. So, you might be examining your product feedback from your customers. So, people are sending you email telling you that they’re having problems with products or services that you offer. And, you might want to analyze those things to see if you can find some patterns in that. And, so, that’s what OmniFind Analytics division does. All sorts of different tech stories into technologies that we, we, we sell and I work on.

So, before I worked with IBM’s Internet Search product, I worked on IBM’s website for eight years at ibm.com. So, I had a whole bunch of different roles there. But, one of the things that I worked on that might be most interesting to your listeners is that I was pioneered their search marketing campaigns. So, the first time they ever did search marketing that was something that, that I was involved with, and, I continued to manage that until I left ibm.com.

And, that’s where we got a lot of ideas for the first book that we wrote. I worked on that with Bill Hunt. And, we figured out an awful lot of things that you need to know to do things in a large company. There’s a lot of other books out there and great information that’s out on websites about what kind of knobs to turn and dials to switch around. And, there’s all sorts of technical information to tell you how to get people to change your website so that it’ll rank higher.

The problem with all that stuff is that you often don’t know what the genesis is for that. So, you don’t know why you’re doing it. You don’t know what the payoff is. And, you also don’t know how to do it in a large company.

And, so, those are the kinds of things that we set out to add to the book that we wrote that’s in addition to the kinds of things that you would normally get for just the technical information of how do you write your content, and to track links, and all that really important information. We wanted to ground it in business and, we also wanted to make sure that people who worked in large organizations would know how to get those things done.

Stephan: Right. So, there are so many organizational issues and politics and all that, you have to be really good at that as much as you are at technical issues, like, solving your rewrite issues, and, redirects and, and, your internal linking structure.

Mike: I think that’s right. The thing that we found is that the most difficult parts of search marketing in a large company had to do with getting everybody to do the right thing. And, in fact, it’s true of all sorts of Internet marketing. There’s no way to centralize the kinds of things that you need to do. But, you do need to coordinate them.

And, that’s what makes it so challenging in a large company. So, you’re never going to have a blogging department. And, you can’t outsource your search marketing totally to an agency. There’s no way for you to just make somebody the czar of Web marketing. It doesn’t really work.

What you need to do instead is to figure out how to speak with every specialist that you have in the company and be able to teach them all what the new parts of their job are.

And, that’s a really difficult thing. So, it’s true for trying to get blogging going within a company. It’s also true for search marketing.

So, you need to make sure that the webmaster knows how to code a robots.txt file. And, you have to make sure your copywriters know how to use the terms within the pages. And, you need to make sure your product people know how to name their products. So, there’s all sorts of things that each specialist needs to know how to do.

And, in a large company, getting everybody to do those things and have them do it consistently, and, have them do it over and over again. And, making sure that those things don’t get undone over time is a real challenge. And, so, that was a lot of what we set out to figure out is how can you make these kinds of things happen? And, how can you do it in such a way that other large companies could learn from it?

Stephan: So, what were some of the things that were stumbling blocks or hurdles that you had to get around at IBM to get these search marketing initiatives accomplished?

Mike: Some of the things that were hard might seem easy in a small company. Some of things that, for small businesses, they just totally struggle with are things like attracting links. Well, IBM had links in spades. I mean, we had a million links to all of our pages.

We were having problems just getting the right words on the pages. We were having trouble even getting copywriters to understand that they needed to put certain terms on the pages because that’s what people were searching for. Nobody had a clue that people were searching for these things.

And, so, just being able to get people to centralize doing keyword management and to be able to roll out that kind of information throughout the organization I mean, we’re in over 90 countries on our website, and, in over 30 languages and, so, all these kinds of things really daunting.

So, there were a few things that we did. One of the first things we did was put together a scorecard. And, what the scorecard had on it was it was a roll up of all of the statistics that we gleaned from crawling all of our own pages.

So, what we did is we analyzed, for example, how many of these pages flat out didn’t have a title on them not didn’t have a good title. But, we had found that over 13 percent of our pages had no title on them at all which in organic search marketing basically, means you’ll never be shown.

We did the same kinds of things for description information. This was back in the early 2000s when descriptions meant a little more than they do now. But, we also looked for broken links. We looked for all sorts of things that would cause your search ranking to really be hurt, or, your crawling to be hurt.

And, what we did was roll up all those statistics country by country, division by division and, we set benchmarks where they had to be yellow for this thing. Or, green if you got over a certain benchmark. Or, if you were well under what we were looking for, then you’d be red.

And, so it needed to be very simple because it was for executives. And, so, if every month, you bring the executives in the room and you tell them that they’re red and their whole organization is not doing a good job in this area, they really didn’t understand what that meant. They didn’t know what it was I was trying to get them to do. But after a few months of being embarrassed, what would happen is they’d go back to their teams and say, “I don’t know what Moran wants, but whatever it is, just do it because I’m so tired of going to this meeting and being told I’m red again.”

It was basically management by embarrassment where the executives don’t want to be embarrassed in front of each other. So, then what they did was they figured out how they were going to get their organizations to do these things because somebody thought it was important and they were just trying to look good. That’s basically one way that you can go after this stuff. At a larger organization you can use processes and procedures against itself. So, if you can build all these jobs into the job descriptions and into all the policies and all the things that people do in large companies to keep things going, then you can get people to really do a lot of work.

Another thing that we did was we actually looked at how many different organizations in IBM were bidding against each other in paid search. We used that number to actually justify hiring a central search team. If you can imagine how many different parts of IBM were bidding against each other for the word “Linux” because they have Linux services, and servers that run Linux and software that run on Linux and everybody had a Linux something.

By just analyzing the keyword “competition” that was intramural and how much money we were wasting by bringing all those bids over to Google instead of just having one consolidated page that showed all the things we could do in Linux and letting the customer decide which way they were going after they got to the IBM site that helped us to really reduce our cost and make sure that we did a good job of being able to justify hiring a central team.

Stephan: That’s great. I love that management by embarrassment. That’s great. That sounds like a book title.

Mike: Maybe it will be.

Stephan: So, what were some of the successes that you were able to accomplish besides getting people to not have red on their spreadsheet anymore? What sort of tangible benefits did you bring to IBM.com from the search marketing initiatives?

Mike: Well, we had less than one percent of visitors coming from search engines when we started back in 2001. Within just a few years, we had gotten to 25 percent. We were shocked because we really didn’t think we would get that high a percentage coming. The assumption was, “Well, most of our customers already know who they are.” They know how to type dotcom after IBM or they bookmarked the site or they’re coming back to a certain place. But, what we found more and more is that customers really were discovering us and that they didn’t know that we had certain things that we sold and we were doing an awful lot of work to bring the stuff in.

If you think about how organic search, once you’ve got it into the DNA of the organization where they just do this kind of thing automatically, there really isn’t any cost to it. It doesn’t cost very much at all. I mean, paid you have to really look at what you’re spending on that so that you can figure out what your return on investment is. But organic, it’s all startup cost, and once you get everybody trained and they’re doing things, they just start doing keyword analysis automatically, and there’s really little cost associated with it. All that just drove tremendous amounts of revenue.

Stephan: Would you say is that there’re some things that are automated or in place that there’s no additional cost that are scalable, the SEO tactics on the IBM website?

Mike: I think that some of the things that really don’t cost very much are things like optimizing templates. If you look at how most organizations that are of any size are using dynamic websites that’s really important because it holds down your cost of content management and it can allow you to change things very rapidly. All those things are good, but a lot of search marketing consultants shudder when they see that kind of situation because they know that it can be extremely difficult to make changes to a site. It’s much easier to change a static site where you have files of HTML that are just lying around. You can pick out a few pages and make the changes.

The good thing though is that if you can figure out how to get these organizations to change things, then when you change something, you’ve actually changed thousands or even millions of pages at the same time. So, you can make these optimizations in the templates. At IBM it will obviously be WebSphere that we’re using to deliver Web pages. But no matter what your portal or application server system is, you could be making those kinds of templates changes so that you have a good title. You have good descriptions. You have things that are happening based on people just entering things into the content management system. Suddenly, they ripple out into a very strong HTML representation of the page that the search engines really appreciate. Those are the kinds of things that, once you got them done properly, they seem to just run by themselves.

Stephan: These different content management systems out there, WebSphere being one of them, and e commerce platforms and so forth, they vary in the search engine friendliness factor. Let’s just say, for example, that you have a relatively search engine unfriendly platform that doesn’t allow you to do much with the URL structure and that’s not very optimal. It has lots of parameters in the URL, the ampersands and equal signs after the question mark. What sort of issues did you have getting past those barriers with the IBM.com site?

Mike: Those were some of the most painful things. Back when we started, IBM’s products were not very search marketing friendly. The WebSphere commerce, WebSphere portal server, all those products did not have the ability to create static looking URLs. So, what happened was that it was hard to get Google to crawl those things. We had to do all sorts of things to get pages out there that Google would crawl and I’m just using Google short hand for any search engine but, we worked with those IBM product people and now I’d say that our products are very search friendly. So, we had to work with them for quite a while to get that to happen.

Now, if you use WebSphere commerce, you’ll not only have a chance to have your URLs come out so that they look static URLs and they’re very easy to crawl for search engines, but you can automatically generate a sitemap the way they describe at sitemaps.org, as Google pioneered, so that you can even control how frequently your pages should be crawled and what kind of priority to enhance. Those kinds of features are things that, if you’re using a dynamic system from another vendor that doesn’t have that kind of capability, you really ought to work with them and talk to them and make them understand because I don’t think that they’re doing this on purpose. I think it’s just out of ignorance. So, you have to really work hard to make sure that those are the kinds of things that you aren’t stuck with, because that can really hurt your organic search marketing.

Stephan: Are there still things that are still left to be done, or may never get done, at IBM.com in terms of search marketing?

Mike: There’s always stuff that’s left to be done, because one of the things that we talked about in our book that we’re hoping is different from other books, and I’m pretty confident that it is, is that we really show you what the return on investment is for taking these things all the way through from idea to implementation. So, what that tells you is that you’ll know when maybe it’s more advantageous for you to be working on something else because that might have a higher return on investment, even though there’s more work to be done in search.

I would say that at IBM.com, some of the things that we still need to do is I still don’t think that we’re doing enough in paid search. I think that we could be doing more there. I think it’s always a battle to try and coordinate all of the organizations and really communicate best practices. I know that every few months, even though I don’t work at IBM.com anymore, I get brought in on phone calls with people around the world where they’re hoping that I can help train people and help them understand.

There’s a continuing battle because there’s always turnover in a large organization, of people moving from one part of IBM to another or from one job to another. They don’t understand all the things that they need to know, that maybe their predecessors did. That kind of thing, where we want to find a way of capturing the corporate knowledge and making that easier to pass on rather than just having people show up on phone calls to be trained, I think that’s one area that we’d really like to work on and I’m not sure I have a real good idea for how to do that yet.

Stephan: I guess, looking ahead in your crystal ball over the next couple of years where IBM.com could be in terms of search marketing and where the search engines are heading because of course, they’re changing, they’re evolving as time goes on. So, where do you think things are going to set in two or three years time? What’s going to be different?

Mike: I think that the big thing that you see coming is kind of an explosion in terms of content. When you look at things like what Ask.com is doing and what Google is doing in universal search that they’ve given to see much more of that where, in addition to the regular vanilla Web pages that always came up in the search result, you’re going to see images, videos, blogs and all sorts of different kinds of information.

So, that’s been a focus area for IBM.com for a couple of years now, not because we were doing it in anticipation of Search coming about, but because we just thought this was the right kind of way to go after our marketing message. The assumption that we make, which I think is usually going to be borne out, is if you do the right thing in terms of the content, eventually the search engines are going to reward that. So, the fact that we’ve got thousands of people writing blogs, the fact that we’ve got lots of videos that are up with software demos and all sorts of ways of using this kind of new media, I think that really helps us when the search engines decide, “You know this stuff is really important once you start integrating that into the regular search results.”

I think the same kind of thing will happen as personalization becomes more prevalent because the thing that we’ve really emphasized, Bill and I, over the years is to really have a target customer in mind for everything that you do. So, it’s important to write your content in terms of a specific audience, you know, specific set of personas. By doing that, I think you’re going to set yourself up to personalization because as the search engine does a better job of understanding what it is that different kinds of people want to see from the same search query, I think that you’re going to see more targeted messages, have a chance to resonate a lot more with search engine the same way we’re reading that they resonate with the people.

Stephan: What are some of the personas that you were targeting with IBM.com?

Mike: When I first was working on search marketing, we have done some really good work that showed that there are several different kinds of customers that tend to rely on IBM. Some of them are, what you would call Web savvy. They’re people who absolutely to research and buy everything they can on the Web. As opposed to some other people who, they might be interested in learning information on the Web but they might be much more likely to close an order for 50 servers offline.

So, we’ve looked at several different kinds of personas that cut across that way that basically has to do with what kind of buying behavior they have. By analyzing that, we’ve been able to target our content so that there are different kinds of messages that are pointed at people, whether they’re trying to learn on the Web or whether they’re trying to compare things or whether they’re trying to buy.

Stephan: OK. So, back to the question of looking ahead several years. Where do you think the IBM product WebSphere, I guess – WebSphere Commerce, WebSphere Portal Server – where are those going to be? If you had to the crystal ball gaze again, in a couple of years’ time in order to better service this brave new world of personalized search and universal search and so forth.

Mike: I think what you’re going to see is more integration of different kinds of feedback mechanism. So, one the things that I really emphasized in my new book, “Do It Wrong Quickly”, is that the feedback mechanisms that you need to enable are different from the kinds of things that you enabled for offline marketing. You’re not really looking for the number of homes reached or you’re not necessarily looking only at target demographics for your message. What you’re really looking for is how many people have seen it and how many people have been responded to it? If possible, how many people have bought or done with whatever the conversion is on your website.

If you look at where vendors who sell Web tools need to go in the face of that kind of trend, you’re going to see more integration of metric. I mean, when you see Google coming out with a free offering for website optimizer where they’re doing multivariate testing, I think you’ll going to see those kinds of things integrated into the Web platform so that it becomes very easy for someone using a content management system to begin to make those kinds of changes and say, “I’d like to test these 13 different things. Then, what the optimization program tell me which ones seem to be getting the highest click rates.”

So I think, the kinds of Web metrics and Web analytics vendors, I think the multivariate testing vendors, I think all those kinds of capabilities, you’re going to see more and more built in to the Web publishing platform so that companies have a very easy way of being able to not only create content and publish it to the Web, but also be able to optimize that content not just for search marketing but for conversions.

Stephan: That can lead to actually to an interesting problem. If you have optimization of conversion rate through, let’s say Optimost or Offermatica that sort of multivariate testing system. You might end up with an optimal “version” that is best at converting customers, but it might end up devoid of all those important keywords because that was one of the other versions that didn’t perform so well. Yet, when you optimized for search positioning, you may not take into account that there’s a particular version that would resonate most with your customers and, therefore, get the best conversion rate.

Mike: Yes, I think that that is certainly possible. So, I think one of the tricks is to avoid what I call “suboptimizing” which is picking only a piece of the equation such as getting high rankings in Google or reducing your abandoned carts. If you pick too small an area to optimize, you will be able to optimize that but it won’t necessarily optimize your total outcome. That’s why, when I talk about that with metrics, I think that the most important to me from a marketing point of view, you’re interested in impressions, you’re interested in selections, and you’re interested in conversions.

So those are the things that you have to keep balancing at each other because if you find that you’re not able to optimize all of them with a single campaign, I think what that’s really telling you is you know what you’re doing. I think that you’ll never going to have a situation where one particular design or one particular message is going to optimize everything across the board. You have to have the tools available to you that what you do the tradeoffs so that you’re optimizing the overall outcome even if each particular step of the way might be suboptimal if you just looked at that one thing.

Stephan: So, what does IBM look at, then? For IBM.com, you talked about impressions, selections, and conversions. How does that all map out and relate to the ROI? What does this picture look like to let’s say a top level IBM executive?

Mike: On both of our books, we kind of lay out the techniques that we’ve pioneered at IBM.com that we call the “Web conversion cycle”. What that allows you to do is allows you look at what your return is based on all these analytics. So, the kinds of metrics that we’re talking about here are basically activity metrics. They don’t really tell you how much that’s worth. By understanding, for example, for an online sale what the profit is is associated with that. That gives you a real idea of what the value is of driving an additional visitor to your site.

But a lot of companies and IBM is especially true for these cases they have offline sales. So, most companies that have website, they do not have a shopping cart on their website. What they do is a fairly minimal part of their sales, and IBM is no exception to that. What is really important is to be able to tie whatever your online conversion is to link that to move people offline.

Look at how car companies do it. You can go to Cadillac and build your own car and you can say, “I want this kind of upholstery, I want this kind of engine in it.” All kinds of things that you can pick and you can configure everything you want, and what you do, you print the whole thing out. You walk that into the dealer and say, “Give me one of those.”

Now, the reason that works is because people will do almost anything to spend half hour less with the car dealer. But, there are also ways that you can tie your offline sales to the Web. You can do something as simple as putting a phone number on the website that is not used anywhere else in your marketing communications. So everybody who calls that phone number is moving there from the website.

You can do Contact Me forms. IBM has a Call Me button. So if you press that button, then we know what Web page you were on and we will call you back, I think within 30 minutes, with a specialist and the product for the page that you pressed the button for. So those kinds of things are all ways of you tying what’s going on on the Web to your actual sales offline and that helps you understand what the return on investment is.

Stephan: Right because that’s actually for business to business companies. That’s one of the biggest problems. I’ve got all this budget that I could spend but I’m not going to spend it because I don’t know that it would actually generate a positive ROI. If you can track the long lead times and that offline purchase through unique 800 numbers, and so forth, that would help justify a bigger and bigger spend.

Mike: I agree. The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the people who are saying well, “I don’t want to spend that because I can’t justify the ROI, ” they are the same people who have no problem dropping loads of money on trade shows and other kinds of offline marketing that may be more traditional. So print ads, TV, they’ll spend all the money on that and they have no ability to tie things back on those either.

So, sometimes I think the Web is held to a higher standard of proving its ROI than the thing that you’re taking the money away from. I think we need to be careful to work very hard to try and get the ROI in place so that we’re using good direct marketing principles to be able to prove what the worth is of our investment. But I think we also need to be careful about looking at what the alternatives are and whether we are applying the same kind of rigor to those.

Stephan: Very good point. Let’s just go back to where we think search is heading and so forth. There has been a lot of talk about The Long Tail, Chris Anderson’s excellent book, his blog and all the articles and everything. There is just so much about The Long Tail. Do you have any thoughts on how The Long Tail is going to play out over the coming years in terms of search marketing, in terms of conversion and online sales?

Mike: Yes, I think that’s a seminal book. It really explains to people, one of the major differences of the Web versus other ways of marketing. I think that you are going to continue to see that play out. I think we are only at the beginning of understanding The Long Tail because I think that as marketers get savvier, there is going to be more and more content that is more and more tightly focused.

As personalized search comes in, you’re going to be targeting things even more. What that’s going to do, is it’s going to cause searchers to be even more specific about what their searches are because they know that they’re going to get a really targeted answer to it. I think that there is going to be an even longer tail. That tail is not going to be just based on keywords, it’s going to be based on demographics as well.

As you personalize search, you’re not going to have the concept of being number one for a certain keyword. What you’re going to have is a situation where you were number one for a certain demographic for the keyword. Or, you will want to know for what percentage of people you were number one for a particular period of time. What your average ranking is, is another way to think about it.

So those kinds of things are going to create an even longer tail. Just as today, you can go to Microsoft and pay more to have your paid search ad shown to a certain demographic, I think you’re going to see more and more of that as personalization really starts to take root. I think it’s going to be a Long Tail but it’s going to be a Long Tail that has multiple dimensions.

The advice I have been giving to small businesses who are starting to get frustrated because they take their successful offline business and they put it online and they think, “Wow, we’re going to be opened up to all these new customers. This will be great.” The problem is, they’re not doing anything to really specialize themselves.

I was working with a company that sells bedding. I said to them, “What is your unique value proposition?” They said, “Well we have very high quality and we have low prices.” And I’m like, “OK well how many of your competitors could say the same thing?” And the answer is, “All of them do.” So what are you really going to specialize in? Can you tell me that you are selling mattresses that are sealed against dust mites so that somebody who has allergies really should buy this?

You have to get very, very targeted when you are a small business to be able to break through the clutter. I think those are the kinds of things that are going to really be the things that separate the winners and losers as we go forward.

Stephan: So how can a small business with a small product line, a small number of SKUs, compete with a huge big box retailer, somebody that’s got tens or hundreds of thousands of SKUs, has tons of content on the Web and therefore tons of potential in terms of Long Tail SEO? How does a small guy compete against that?

Mike: Well they compete against them successfully every day. I, far more often, come across large companies that are lamenting that all of their affiliates have higher rankings than they, the merchant. They want to know, “How come we can’t get number one for our own product?”

The reason is because they’ve often focused on a catalog approach. They’re not taking advantage of the Long Tail even though you’re right; they have the potential. They’re not taking advantage of it. What they’re doing is, they are putting up catalog pages. So here’s the feeds and speeds. Here’s the specs, here’s the features and here’s the comparison chart against four of our products.

You know what they don’t do? They don’t actually talk about what problems they solve. They don’t tell customer success stories. They don’t have that kind of rich textual content that allows you to grab hold of that Long Tail. Instead of telling me this is a problem we worked through at IBM instead of saying, that I have a Blade server that runs cooler than other computers, I mean that’s nice. For somebody who’s shopping for a Blade server, because they already know they need one, that’s great. But how about the person that’s typing in, “overheating computer room.” They are not going to find that page. They don’t even know that getting a new kind of computer that runs cooler is even an option for them. They may think they’re looking for an air conditioner or they might be thinking that they need to move to a larger computer room space. They don’t know what they need to do. They just know they have this problem.

So we call this problem-oriented content – “learn content” – because that’s the thing the customer is doing. They’re not ready to shop yet where they’re ready to compare things. They’re certainly not ready to buy; they’re really learning. They know they have some itch they need to scratch. What they’re looking for is information that’s almost unbiased in its nature.

You have to almost think like a newspaper reporter where you are explaining, OK look if you have an overheating computer room, there are really several things you can do to fix it: You can get a bigger computer room, you can turn off a bunch of your computers and use fewer computers, you can get a bigger air conditioner or you might want to look at this Blade server thing where you can get computers that are a lot cooler. They don’t throw off so much heat and if you do that, then you’ll probably find your computers are going to run faster as well. And by the way, we happen to sell that. If you want more information, click here.

That’s a different kind of page than most marketers are used to writing. It’s not full of hype. It’s not this breathless stuff that says, “Act now and get a free ice crusher.” It’s more helpful information. It’s the kind of thing where you’re really trying to help the customer solve their problem and you’re saying to yourself, “Hey, if I do that, enough of that business is going to come to me.” That’s the kind of thing that big companies can easily do but so can small companies. I find small companies, right now, are doing that a lot better than the large companies.

Stephan: I’d say that is true. At Netconcepts, we have focused on that approach of building a lot of learn content. If you go to our corporate website, netconcepts.com, you’ll find a whole learning center. It has screencasts, articles, blog posts, webinar recordings, podcasts; you name it, tons of stuff. It definitely does work in our favor not just in terms of search marketing and getting that Long Tail searcher in but also getting them converted into a customer.

Mike: I agree and it also, I will bet, is the part of your site that gets the most links because it is that kind of unbiased really helpful content that somebody is willing to direct their reader to. They are much less likely to direct their reader to some catalog page that says here are the specs for a blade server. They’d be much more likely to direct them to a page that says here’s a really helpful article about what to do if your computer runs too hot.

That’s the kind of content that helps small business get the kinds of links that they need because that’s what the big problem is for small businesses. We talked about what happens with big businesses, where they’re struggling to get all the rowers rowing in the same direction. You have all these people. You’ve got to tell a million people what to do and get them all to figure it out and do it consistently every day and that’s hard. But also, hard from a small business point of view, is how do they get attention, how do they get links, how does anybody pay attention to what they’re doing. By writing this kind of content, I think you are far more likely to see it happen.

Stephan: And there’s a way to not just write the content from a learn perspective but also to write it in a way that it becomes link bait. It becomes so humorous or entertaining or useful that people just can’t help but link to it.

You asked the question, is the learning center one of the most linked to areas within our site. It is one of the most, but the actual most linked to piece of the site, is our plugin that we developed, the free plug in for WordPress, called SEO Title Tag. That went viral because tons of WordPress bloggers are looking for some free optimization tools to plug in to their WordPress software. So here’s a great free piece of software that you can just download and use.

Mike: That makes sense to me. If you think about it, it’s the same thing. The attitude that you bring to either creating a tool or writing content is, your whole idea is almost one of altruism where you are saying, “I’m going to do something that’s useful and I’m not going to get anything for this. I’m going to let it be free. People can have it; they can do whatever they want. My assumption is that if I do those things, enough good stuff is going to come back to me that is going to help my business.” It is a very different attitude from the way old line marketing has been done.

So I totally agree that tools, because it’s this useful thing for people and that kind of content that really solves people’s problems. When you really go out and solve somebody’s problem for free, you’re going to find a million links coming to you because that’s what people are looking for on the web. That’s what they want to provide publicity for.

Stephan: So, are there any examples of really cool, free tools or link bait that ibm.com offers that has worked well?

Mike: I think that we’ve got a number of different things. We have configuration things that help people to figure out what kinds of things they need to do to use their computers.

The other thing that we do is we’ve got a lot of white papers. Why we don’t use any other color paper, I don’t know. But they like to have a lot of technology discussions or discussions of services. Those things attract an awful lot of links because they are really kind of giving away some of the secrets and some of the inside workings of some of our products and services work. When you do that, you find that you get a lot more people linking to it.

I don’t think things from IBM are going to go viral because it’s just not a consumer market and it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to work that way. But I think within their own market segments, they become very widely known.

I’m not sure that you’ll always need examples of hits. I think a lot of what you need to do is to just do basic blocking and tackling. One of the things we did a couple of months ago, is to put big del.icio.us buttons on a lot of our content pages because it’s just making it that much easier to highlight it for the next person.

So it’s great if you have the kind of campaign that Blendtec does when they say, “Will it blend, ” and you have people all over the place talking about what you’re doing. It’s terrific; you ought to try for that kind of thing in certain kinds of markets. But a lot of what you can do is just very basic stuff that allows all of your messages to be easier to pass along because that’s the thing about the Web is if you look at the whole social media marketing approach, it’s really how do you get word of mouse. How do you get people to pass along everything that you have to say so that it amplifies everything you do?

That is, to me, in some ways more important than trying to find something that goes viral which is very, very hit or miss.

Stephan: So the social networks are really gaining in popularity. Of course, there are the major ones, MySpace and Facebook, but I keep hearing about new ones all the time. Quechup is a new one I just heard about a couple of weeks ago. I just can’t even keep track of them all anymore. How does IBM play in the space of social networks. You mentioned putting big and del.icio.us buttons but that’s just like a baby step, right? So does IBM have a presence in any of these social networks?

Mike: A lot of our consultants are in Facebook and LinkedIn. I think that for kind of a personality based sale, like, “I would like to hire this consultant,” I think those kinds of things make a lot of sense for IBM. But I’m not sure social networks make sense for all marketers. I think that there are a lot of things in social media that can make sense. I think that we’ve got a big presence in Second Life. It’s not just to be there just to be there. It’s that we want to make sure that we are delivering value so we’ve delivered virtual conferences that way where you can actually interact with experts.

I also see private virtual worlds popping up, where there are companies that will now host an event for you. It’s kind of like Second Life meets WebEx, where they have all that kind of 3D avatar-like experience that you get from Second Life but they also have all the control and metrics and lead generation and follow up that you can get from WebEx.

So I think you need to look at what the technologies are that are coming out and really see how they fit into your marketing strategy. I don’t think you just jump on these things just to say you’re in them. I think experimenting is good and trying something out to see if it works is a great idea. I mean that’s what “Do It Wrong Quickly” is all about but I also think that are too many people that are feeling stressed. It’s like, “Oh no, another social network started. What do we do now?”

I think really you need to focus on making sure that you understand what the value is that you’re trying to drive. You can look at each opportunity as it comes along and you can kind of decide, “Well this is the same as those kinds of things. What did we do there? Does it make sense to be in 13 of them or should we only be in three?”

This is no different from what you do in search marketing, for example, where you say, “OK, there’s a lot of different search engines out there. How many of them do I really want to operate paid search campaigns for?” And it’s not that paid search is good, bad or different, it’s that there’s a limit to how many you go after. I think that’s going to be true for each of these opportunities.

Stephan: That’s great advice. I see that we’re out of time here but I really do appreciate you spending the time with us. Do you have any final parting comments or words of advice?

Mike: I think the biggest advice I’d like to give people is that they shouldn’t feel as though everything that comes along is something that they need to hop on. But they also shouldn’t feel like they need to wait if they see something that really looks like it works. I think people tend to go to one of the two extremes. There are people who seem very optimistic and every time something new comes along, they want to jump into it. I think there are people who tend to be more conservative and so they want to see something prove itself before it happens. What I’d like to get people to do is to kind of be in the middle of that.

The way you can do that is by looking at everything as being feedback based. If you’re always looking for feedback to tell you whether the thing you’re trying is working, then, what you end up with is, you’re not just driven by whatever your personality is of being aggressive or being conservative. You’re driven by what the numbers tell you. I think if you can get to that kind of rational, metrics based decision making, that’s really what the essence of “Do It Wrong Quickly” is about. It’s about trying something, getting the feedback and then quickly changing to something else if it’s not working or when you are trying to improve it.

I think that’s really the thing that is the hardest thing for people to do, especially for marketers. A lot of them have gone into marketing as a refuge from Mathematics, right? English majors deserve a living too. They’ve gone to all this kind of trouble to make sure that they can find a place to be and the problem is that the numbers have found them. I think you then tend to retreat to whatever you’re comfortable with. Rather than looking for your comfort zone, I think you want to derive comfort from getting closer to your customers.

Stephan: That was Mike Moran, distinguished engineer and product manager at IBM, co-author of “Search Engine Marketing, Inc” and author of the new book, “Do It Wrong Quickly.” To order his books, or to learn more about search engine marketing, go to his website, www.mikemoran.com.

Thanks, Mike. Appreciate it.

Mike: Thank you, Stephan.

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  2. by Interview with IBM’s Mike Moran — January 2, 2008 @ 3:56 pm