Beta Software Launch on Search Engine Forums

ML Sep 21, 2006

To discover whether HitTail was going to be a viable service, we soft-launched it, announcing it to no one except unofficially in the SEO forums. I figured they were going to be our harshest critics and our best feedback. And so, I was right. On the whole, the forums were remarkably open and receptive, and we received exactly the feedback we needed to engage in agile development. And we got to know the forums even better, and I share the biggest take-away’s here in this post.

Some SEO forums are insular, and some are incredibly open. And the original Search Engine Forums where I made my start ended up (still) being the most open of all. This makes it the unsung hero of the field, receiving very little attention because of the recurring “green” topics that get rehashed over and over. It’s almost painful for jaded SEOs to visit these days, but there are the rare few, like Duane Forrester, who when I ask why he still frequents it responded “I like to help people, and this is where they are.” It’s one of the most noteworthy search engine forums on the Internet for this reason and due to its habit of enthusiastically embracing “newbies.” You’ll find that most of the “old timers” who have moved onto other forums made their start here. If they say they didn’t, they’re lying, because it was the ONLY SEO forum until Doug and Brett started their own a few years later.

And so, we worked our way through the forums, looking for a specific type of feedback from each forum, based on their flavor. From Search Engine Forums, we looked for whether newbies could even “get” the long tail notion. From Doug Heil’s ihelpyou forums, we sought the white hat perspective. From SearchEngineWatch, we looked for what the mainstreamers of the SES crowd thought. I also learned what some of the flavors of forums previously unknown to me were like, such as SEO Roundtable, SEO Refugee, SEO Chat (the best optimized forum), Cre8asite and HighRankings. I also discovered surprise “cross-over” forums that expressed interest and brought me into the discussion without me seeking them out, such as Digital Point and osCommerce. And finally, I discovered that a forum that I had originally thought was great, but discovered that it had become so insular that by the time I visited a thread where someone linked to us, it was gone.

It’s a very different world than when I started out with the first and only Search Engine Forum back in 1998. If there’s an identified marketing niche, then there’s a forum, such as AdSensers and Affiliaters. It’s just way too much to address every one, so I spiraled out from the center, starting with those who remembered me (SEF).

Because of Google PageRank and the link spamming epidemic, these forums have become particularly sensitive to link-dropping. And soft launching the HitTail service in these forums came dangerously close to link dropping, and could have backfired. But I was never one to walk away from a challenge if the pay-off was big enough, and my ace in the whole was my savoir-faire. I was an original “old-timer” in SEO though most of them forgot me. So, whenever the neighborhood pit-bull charged, I was able to happily deal like the dog breaker in Call of The Wild. I think it took some folks who wanted to play “let’s pile on the PR guy” by surprise. To this day, one of the most satisfying experiences is when people see me associated with a PR company, assume they can tear me apart on technical issues, SEO experience or nuances.

The joy of sparring aside, we did learn some very important principles from our forum activity. First, HitTailing is useful to everybody at all levels of SEO. Even the advanced SEO pro’s can benefit from it as a time-saving device. But pride and “not invented here” syndrome can pretty thoroughly close minds to the possibility (in some cases). For the beginner SEO, it’s a great way to immediately take advantage of the long tail principle and make your services look quite advanced, for mainstream marketers it’s an intimidation-free way to cut your teeth on organic search optimization, and for the great unwashed masses of bloggers, it’s a never-ending flow of blogging ideas that just “seem right”. We really struck a chord and have something that just may cross the chasm into mainstream marketing. That’s the reason for naming it something that can be used as a verb (HitTailing).

Another thing we learned that there’s a huge trust issue that needs to be overcome, and our mission involves taking some very counter-intuitive positions and holding them. We respect privacy at all costs. Everyone’s data is their own, and there is no aggregating, cross-pollinating, identification of verticals, resale or otherwise. We just process each site’s data and feed it back to them. We point out how a PR firm whose stock and trade is reputation cannot/will not violate this privacy. It is a covenant. And for the more technically inclined, we point out that although we use a cookie, it is the most privacy-respecting kind. It’s a session-only non-persistent cookie. There’s no unique ID’s to identify users. And we publish a Platform for Privacy (p3p) policy that spells it all out. As a reward, our cookie works at the highest cookie-enabled security settings and doesn’t set off any of the browser privacy warnings. Sticking to such a respectful privacy policy is critical to building trust.

And the last thing I learned from my rekindled emergence in the SEO forums is the nature of forum software itself–its strengths and weakness, and reasons for the proliferation of forums in recent years. Unlike blogging software, forums never fully embraced RSS feeds and pinging, so monitoring the forumosphere is a much bigger challenge than the blogosphere. Neither have forums fully become search engine friendly (some claim to have done so, but none are tweaked-out optimized like Movable Type or WordPress blogs). So, forums are to be relegated to being second-class citizens until they get as savvy as blog software. And finally, forums software is often free and so easy to set up, so anyone can do it. Maybe we’ll crack the nut of providing perfect forum software for HitTailing. No promises. Hmmm.

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