Google Value Chain

Hi Google. I’m the guy who created HitTail, the long tail keyword tool, and am one of the most highly recommended SEO guys on LinkedIn. Feel free to reach out to me at miklevin at gmail dot com.

Get ready for another one of my long, rambling posts. The pay-off is better understanding Google’s value chain–and what a value chain IS. So, bear with me.

I’m a HUGE fan of the fundamentals of business. I often equate business principles back to the way it must have been at the dawn of the first village-cities, when seasonal herd migration patterns made seasonal cities into meeting places and giant swap-meets for our ancestors. They were just discovering things like taking a rock and artfully shaping it makes it able to be traded for MUCH more than the cost of the raw materials (picking it up off the ground). At some point in history was the first primitive conceptualization of what we know today as the manufacturing value chain.

The value chain is simply the process by which raw materials acquire more value as they get processed into finished goods. The best products have efficient value chains, where very low cost raw materials get converted into very high-cost products, with relatively little skilled labor or time spent manufacturing. Oil is one such product, because the raw materials are just sucked out of the ground (free?), and the refinement process allows you to spike the cost to above $65 a barrel (at the time of this writing).

Now THAT’S a business. To get much better, you have to look at Visa, which conducts $4.6 trillion per annum, and gets about 2.5%. That’s about $115 billion per annum for just keeping the Visa/Mastercard uber-servers running–not even calculating in what the individual banks make on interest alone. The value chain is a bit more complicated here, but they’ve made YOUR reputation (the raw material) into something of value (credit-worthiness), and the product (debt) of value to THEIR customers (banks) so they can deliver the finished product (deferred payments, with interest).

Are you getting it?

Every business has a value chain, no matter how convoluted. Raw materials are taken. In the manufacturing process, value is added. The end customer generally pays a premium for that product, and everyone who adds value in the manufacturing process gets their cut. How valuable that cut is at each step, is known as the margin. This is true, whether your product is gasoline, donuts or deferred payments.

So, why all this gobbledygook in order to discuss Google’s value chain?

Because one must follow a convoluted thought process just like with Visa. And it goes…

1. Nobody pays to use Google. No financial commitment has been made on the part of Google users to use Google. And it’s only that sort of financial commitment and subsequent loss-of-face if the solution doesn’t work out that locks you in as a customer to the vendor. If there’s no cost of switching, and there was never really a purchase in the first place, then you’re not a customer. You’re a user. And mainstream users are notoriously disloyal to brand.

2. If WE are not Google’s customers, and search is not Google’s product, then what is? How can we even begin to examine Google’s value chain if we can’t even get the players straight? Well advertisers, specifically users of Google’s AdWords service, are Google’s customers. And traffic delivered to customer websites is the product. And the ability to explicitly control what traffic ends up on what websites is the whole of Google’s value chain.

Google’s ability to arbitrate traffic comes completely from users choosing them as the de facto standard choice for search. It’s like club membership in a free club. It took nothing to sign up, and if you find another club, you can switch easily. But the fact that your club meetings are always successful and always a great hit, turns your club into a forum and a venue. Your club has taken raw materials (club membership) and added value (single-point exposure for advertisers). So now, the club is in the position to take sponsorships to help offset the cost of supporting the club.

That’s Google… before IPO.

Now, take your club and make sure the hottest stars of the day are always in club attendance as guest speakers. Now, offer interested parties the ability to hold a stake in the club, on the off-chance the club becomes REALLY successful. Now, give that club a market capitalization of $149.2 billion dollars, which exceeds the amount of money being annually earned from advertisers by a factor of x10 (conservatively), and make it the top-recognized brand on the planet.

That’s Google… now.

So, Google’s value chain is collecting up the “club-less” wandering masses of the Web (the raw material or rocks), creating a series of turnstiles and wayfinding “signs” to route these people (shaping the rocks to arrowheads), and giving advertisers access to uniquely sorted and pre-qualified sets of these visitors, based on interests expressed through keyword searches, and now long web-surfing user profiles (the arrowhead marketplace).

Yes, understanding Google’s value chain is still an esoteric process at best. And while there are plenty of established models in life and business to look at, what Google’s doing is still so relatively new and at such a massive scale, that it’s still a bit hard to wrap your mind around.

But do this little exercise. Take all the public market capital of every online search marketing company and add it together, and see if it comes anywhere near Google’s $149.2 billion (you have to keep Microsoft out of the equation). All other search companies added together don’t equal Google. Now, look at the percentage of search traffic that’s reported to go to Google. Now, the numbers here vary, but you’ll hear anywhere from 60% to 90%. If you have any doubt remaining that Google is in a position to dominate, and indeed replace the “Web” or “The Internet” as the big world computer network, then put it aside.

There’s a generation of kids growing up Googling “Is Google God?”

It’s a reasonable question, considering that at some point in any modern household, a frustrated parent upon being bombarded by the “Why… Why… Why…” child-ask game that always ends in God or the Big Bang, tells their kid to go ask Google.

Two and two, right? Google must be God. Now how’s THAT for brand loyalty?

Well, I’m here to say that having achieved the level of success that Google has, but with the entire foundations built on a shaky business premise and “club membership” goodwill value chain, that the first priority is to fortify and diversify. The AdWords money keeps pouring in, because Google charges those who cannot find their own audience to use Google’s visitor routing capability.

But what if you no longer needed Google in order to find your audience?

What if there was a method for finding your audience that worked with Google, but did not require you to pay? What if that same method worked with Yahoo, MSN and Ask.com?

Is that something you might be interested in?

What if using that method actually resulted in you building a business asset, as surely as if you were expanding a distribution network, increasing warehouse size, growing the size of your fleet of trucks, or buying property where you could run your own billboard ads? And if expanding that infrastructure only cost you (essentially) the cost of labor?

Is that something you might be interested in?

Well, that’s HitTail. HitTail is based on the premise that no matter how things change, something is “always nearly working for you”. And by zeroing in on what’s almost working for you, and merely knowing one or two of the important factors for relevancy, you can make tiny tweaks and systematically push these results over the edge (onto the first page of results).

We understand that things may change dramatically.

We know that technologies like Ajax, and radically new search technologies, such as small world theory, social arbitrage, surfing animated ontologies and the like are going to make things crazy-new.

But even then, there are going to be things that are “almost working for you” and clues that can be zero’d in on, which nobody else has thought to look at (but we have). So, there will always be HitTail. And HitTail will always remain a sustainable, long-term, cross engine marketing technique, that could even carry over into a post-Bubble 2.0 burst world.

Huh? A Web 2.0 bubble you ask? But cash hasn’t been flowing into startups anywhere near the insane rate of the late-nineties.

Sure it has. It’s just been betting safer. Follow the market capitalization to know where the Web 2.0 bubble currently resides. And marketers, hedge your bets with a low-cost, long-term, cross-engine AdWords alternative.

Selling The Dream – Voice Above the Din

Selling The Dream is my all-time favorite Guy Kawasaki book, probably because it’s the first time I was introduced to his brand of evangelical marketing, at a time that I thought I could really change the course of computing history. I was a student intern with Commodore Computers at the time the second generation Amiga Computers came on the scene–a kooky, ahead-of-it’s-time creative platform. It didn’t hurt that when I picked up my first copy of the book, it contained a surprise signature by the author, which I later found to be authentic, based on a signed letter Guy returned to me a few months later, as I was trying to entice him to help me lead a stockholder revolt. Unfortunately, this chapter in my life didn’t have a happy ending, as the demise of Commodore (as we knew it) was a forgone conclusion, and I was just along for the ride as it played out. What a heart break.

How does this relate to HitTail? Hold tight. We’re getting there.

Anyway, Selling The Dream, is an under-billed book on the Internet, probably because it pre-dated the popular Web, and reads a bit antiquated today, now that social networking and blogging has filled a lot of that evangelism space. Today, The Art of The Start gets most of the attention. But it’s Selling The Dream that taught me about passionate business, and clear thinking. And those are two critical elements of effective HitTailing, and the line that clearly delineates our users from AdSense spammers. Our registered users are often social causes and independent small businesses. They are folks who need to raise their voice above the blogging masses. HitTail sites are full of passion and purpose. And the posts are well-thought out steps in a plan to achieve niche dominance.

In other words, HitTail is helping to sell the dream.

HitTailers are a bunch of Guy Kawasaki disciples and don’t know it. We are creating passionate users. It occurs to me every time I see another blogger post that they love HitTail, even though analytics software has been around forever, and been free for quite some time. Why then, does HitTail inspire folks to spontaneously evangelize it? It’s because there has been a disconnect, until now, between the gathering of information from your Website visitors, and your ability to turn around and use it. It should be an almost automatic process, with the website owner “getting into the zone”, listening to what their website is trying to tell them, as if reading entries dropped in a suggestion box. When the suggestion is good, the website owner is enabled to act upon it almost immediately, making a much tighter spiral development cycle than was possible in the past–in a process that has more in common with Edwards Deming’s TQM or Japain’s Kaizen than Web development.

So, thanks Guy, for helping me sell the dream.

And to all the HitTailers out there who are reading this, I’m not so much promoting a book, as I am a way of aligning one’s true nature to one’s endeavors in life. The Internet is a remarkably enabling technology. Theoretically, we are approaching a point where, as Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, might put it, infinite consumer demand is being met with infinite supply. But that supply isn’t the mega-stores. It’s you. People liked to bust on Time Magazine‘s naming of “You” as the person of the year. But they nailed it. But it’s not just posting YouTube videos to change the course of elections. It’s finding your market, no matter where in the world your customers might be located, and having the ability to raise your voice above the din (with HitTail, of course).

Crushing The Competition

So, there’s definitely a competitive edge to HitTailing. The idea is to dominate a conceptual niche. It’s not really to the “exclusion” of your competitors, because that would be too spammy, but it is quite possible to keep corralling your target audience back to your site over and over and over. And it is inevitable that your competition will keep encountering you during their keyword testing, and you are likely to frustrate them to no end. But the real satisfaction is being all over the keyword results they’re not even thinking of testing–but the actual prospective customers ARE.

When I was first playing around with long tail keyword optimization, it was in an emerging industry with lots of small fish (both in terms of competitors and prospective customers). I started out in a company named Scala which already had a long history in a related space that transitioned very naturally into the emerging industry of digital signage (hanging monitors and cable TV computer channels). But no one knew what the practice of using flat panel TVs as signs was going to be called. It could have been anything from “electronic displays” to “out of home advertising”. It was really wacky the terms that were popping up. One thing I intuitively sensed was that to name the industry in the formative stages was to exert extreme control on the market as it developed.

And so it was true. After I moved on from that company to a NY PR firm, I was contacted by two of my biggest competitors from my previous life in digital signage. I learned exactly how frustrating it was to them how Scala had dominated the conceptual niche of digital signage–no matter what you thought to call it. Blogs weren’t so big at the time, and I simply called my writing “vignettes.” They were micro-stories about how digital signage might be used, and it gave me opportunity to experiment with different names and ideas. Each time I posted, Google promptly picked up the post and my systems suggested new terms. Before long, I not only dominated a conceptual niche, but found myself in the position of shaping it–because all online research led back to me (my writing).

Though people didn’t cite me very much directly (what competitor would), I saw my language reoccurring everywhere I looked. I was defining the very rules by which digital signage solutions would be measured. And I am fairly certain it predisposed the entire base of prospective customers for digital signage toward Scala solutions in a way that’s still paying off for them to this very day.

Well its a few years later, and those competitors are a few years wiser, and of course I’m not with Scala anymore. HitTail is being offered as a free service to the world, and competitors who were previously frustrated by the existence of an in-house secret weapon that was so devastating that it kept them from even being at the table, now suddenly find the playing field a little more even.

But this evolution of search engine marketing savvy has not occurred in every industry yet. There is still ample opportunity to crush the competition by achieving niche dominance. However, the onus is on you to start sooner rather than later, because natural search results don’t move fast. They have a great deal of inertia (Google more than most), so it’s like moving the Queen Mary. So, if you’re in a race, there are two things that are most important…

1. Putting the energy into the race now.
2. Not letting your competition know it’s on.

Long Tail Marketing

It’s amazing how quickly controversies flare up and play themselves out. The Lee Gomes Wall Street Journal old-school response vs. Chris Anderson’s long tail book lit up the blogosphere. The WSJ article is available for direct linking, something you can never assume to be true with the WSJ. They essentially “lock up” their content, allowing it to be searchable via Google (as a content partner), but not always reachable. I guess when they need to be a player in the blogosphere, they let articles out on a case-by-case basis.

These are all old topics by now, but epitomize the message behind long tail marketing. Large mainstream press is still the 800 lb. gorilla of media, and a Lee Gomes article can make quite a stir. But the reaction is swifter and broader than the mainstream media has a backchannel to handle. All the activity that would normally be routed through letters to the editor now take place online and in real-time. And where Chris’ longtail site is no WSJ, it’s perhaps a 400 lb. gorilla of the blogosphere.

And that epitomizes the battle. Chris was the self-proclaimed winner, because he was able to respond to the WSJ article through a blog that he controlled about as quickly as the WSJ hit the news stands. And his site already had considerable reach and notoriety, and so was able to make his voice heard instantly. Everyone knew where to look. It all played out in a single day, and Chris’ voice boomed like a Chicago hardline rocker across the Internet. Lee’s voice on the other hand was quiet and delayed, relying as he did on an associate Nick Carr to get out his response the next day.

And this in essence summed up the debate. Yes, the old school way of doing business isn’t going away. Chris never said that it was. Sure, there was some bombastic exaggeration in promoting the book. Language like “the new shape of business” and “the hit is dead.” But Chris constantly makes the concession that the long tail effect is strongest where product is electronic, or otherwise lends itself to the new model. If I recall correctly, he has a chapter dedicated to this fact.

Hits play an important role in our national psyche. They give us common currency for that water cooler discussion. It turns a diverse population into a global village. The same technologies allowing long tail successes also have an amplifying effect on true hits, and allow rapid global distribution. Before long, the $100 laptop and global Internet mesh will allow people in any country in the world to see blockbuster hits. Unmitigated, this could result in global homogenization, and put culture and tradition in jeopardy.

So, the long tail effect actually plays an important social role in mitigating the homogenization that comes with better technology, economies of scale and gentrification. It’s actually a shame in some ways that the long tail phenomenon is most effective with online economies. I would love a multitude of high quality niche specialty shops. Problem is that a shopping mall that could even begin to rival the diversity and choice available online would have to be not the size of The Mall of America, but the size of Minnesota itself.

And this ultimately is why the long tail is so often coupled with the concept of marketing. The actual transaction takes place with a combination of online payment and fulfillment through either electronic or physical means, such as shipping. In many ways, once the prospect makes their purchasing decision, these details of the transaction are of no consequence. The place where the long tail effect was most important was in the marketing phase. The processes of marketing and sales have been brought closer together than ever before in history.

A person has a need. This person turns to the Internet and performs a search. They find one or more sellers. Relationships are formed. Relationship deepen as the person continues their research, and becomes a prospect. One particular prospect-seller relationship strengthens, based on the merits of the product, pricing, or some other factor. The prospect places the order and becomes a customer. If handled properly, the customer becomes a repeat ongoing customer. And therefore, the Peter Drucker mission of any company is fulfilled: to get and keep customers.

This is the dream of almost all marketers: a nearly automated customer-finding, relationship-managing, deal-closing, up-selling, success-story manufacturing machine. The level of automation that can be brought to the process is at unprecedented new levels, and the case studies that Chris put in his book, such as Amazon and Rhapsody are excellent examples. For Lee Gomes to latch onto the 98% rule as an attempt to invalidate such a fundamental shift in the way business MAY be conducted is silly.

Business is changed forever, and Marketers are in the drivers’ seat. There are unlimited products and services. There are factories across the globe that will manufacture them, and talented workforces across the globe to provide service. The most precious resource in all of business is shaping up to be natural search traffic. It’s the oil of the knowledge worker economy. It’s the finite natural resource that’s there waiting to be tapped into by the prospectors of the information age. And Marketers are the new long tail prospectors.

How to Achieve Online Success

How does a website become massively popular? I’ll start with two paragraphs that are a barrage of questions that are on many peoples’ minds these days…

How reliant is a company on getting Dugg, SlashDotted? Does your site have to become the darling of the Web 2.0 meme-chasing elite to get traffic? Does your business need to attempt to change our very lives forever in order to make your story undeniably compelling? Do you need to hire a slick PR firm to influence what gets written about, by whom, and in what tone? Does every endeavor need some sort of self-propagating viral component to be competitive these days? Is it all based on luck?

How special are the products that hit it big in generating free word-of-mouth publicity? Can an “average” product break through the online noise and make a big splash anyway? Can Sam’s Jams carve out a super-niche for itself and makes Sam a very comfortable living without having to raise VC funding? Or does everything have to be a big development effort on just the right product that positions itself in the path of the tornado, to virtually guarantee success like HitTail or Riya?

I’ll exercise my powers of prognostication, and predict that both HitTail and Riya are assured successes because they are in the tornado’s path, per Geoffrey Moore’s teachings. They are cases of a clearly defined need and a sorely felt pain, meeting a product that has an easy distribution channel and low barrier to entry. You know such products that got swept into the tornado by how quickly they become mainstays, and how obvious they were in hindsight. You’ve got Google and Blogging and FireFox and Flickr and del.icio.us, and a host of other Web-based killer apps.

And soon, you will have Riya, because for years now, Google through Google images has created a pain point in the land of pictures, but has had an inadequate 6-month update cycle and no ability to “find other pictures like this”. Flickr added something like that, which actually works with little sketches that you make, and that’s a case of getting it ALMOST RIGHT. But the missing component is that Flickr only works with Flickr uploads. Riya is going to crawl the Internet for all pictures, everywhere, and almost assuredly let you discover new things daily–outside the walled gardens of today’s photo sites, and way more rapidly than Google Images. This satisfies a vacuum so strong, graphic designers and other industries feel its tug daily. Yes indeed, Riya is about to get swept into that Tornado and carried effortlessly across the Chasm. All the work went into developing the right product at the right time. And is that luck? No. Is it the path everyone must take? No.

But before we get to the path that others may take without needing the weather-prediction capabilities of Riya, we have to look at how business models fundamentally vary. In particular, anything funded by VC’s (venture capitalists), have to have massive upside potential to interest them. VC’s probably wouldn’t invest in Sam’s Jams, unless Sam had the ability to sell to every jam-lover on the planet. And that’s unlikely, because jam making is a cottage industry with a relatively low barrier to entry and a well established distribution channel (eBay search).

Many business models fall somewhere between Riya and Sam’s Jams. In particular, any product that has long selling cycles into difficult markets. These are the subject of a sales technique called “Solution Selling.” Doing justice to describing Solution Selling, and the markets that need it would require its whole own post. Suffice to say, they’re generally more upscale products that require research and deliberation before the sale is made. The rule of 5 or 7 apply in these markets (5 or 7 interactions between customer and business before the sale occurs). Because making these sales take such a long time, and there are fewer prospective customers than in huge consumer markets, every prospect is gold. They must be fiercely competed over by only 2 or 3 vendors in the space. And the “relationship” between customer and company is paramount. An aside point is that margins are shrinking in these markets, forcing larger companies to buy smaller ones to remain profitable–ah, but that’s a subject for another post as well.

Such products are never going into the tornado. They’re too boring and special-interest. But its huge business full of competitive players who NEED that online exposure. Otherwise, they won’t be found when their relatively small prospective customer base goes searching. And when they do go searching, there’s really no telling what keywords they’re going to use. What keywords does someone use when looking for an order entry system that can measure product quantities in fluid ounces or unit length? Get it? It’s really obscure stuff with millions of dollars of customer relationships at stake… every instant of every day, as prospects go Googling.

HitTail is designed to bridge the gap between the massively popular tornado riding business model, and the lower-profile, but totally viable models of Sam’s Jams or Liquid Length Order Management Systems. By riding the tornado, HitTail is providing a means for the other types of businesses to reach their prospective customer base without spending a dime on advertising. While it is much more effective when supplemented by advertising and other online outreach efforts, HitTailing with enough patience, can be effective entirely on its own. It’s like the vendor golden ratio: cost, quality, speed–pick any two. HitTailing is choosing cost and quality, while sacrificing speed.

I believe that companies that need popularity the most are in it for the long haul, and view building their reputation as a long-term project. So, will HitTailing make your non-tornado-riding business massively popular without any of the factors in the question-stuffed paragraphs above? If you don’t have to pay back VC’s, then the answer may be yes, depending on your definition of massively popular. If your potential user base worldwide is 100,000 people, and you reach every one of them through HitTailing, and sell to 50% of them over the course of 10 years, is that massively popular?

I would say that the above scenario is a massive success within your market. And if you want more success, you would have to expand your market. Massive popularity comes with massive markets. If your product isn’t mainstream, don’t expect to be top of mind. But if your product has a clearly defined market of people who are able to talk to each other, and keep talking about you because they keep discovering you whenever they research, then you have achieved popularity saturation. Whatever customers have the potential of coming your way, eventually will. And we have documented cases of early HitTailers achieving that level of success. If there are any journalists out there who would like to talk about this, email us at hittail at connors dot com, and we’ll hook you up with folks who are ready to talk.

So, to put a fine point on it, your product doesn’t need to be designed and rigged to be catapulted to enormous popularity to be successful. But you do need to take advantage of those products and services that are designed to let you capture the maximum share of whatever market you’re in. Dominating natural search through HitTailing is the smartest and cheapest way to do this, although it will take some time. In time, you can build your business to dominate a super-niche, a category of businesses that was not possible before the easy ability to tap into the worldwide potential customer base, and to get your product to them with ease. Cottage industries can be category killers, if you choose your industry and keywords wisely.

The Long Tail Approach to Marketing

So, this morning a very interesting yet obvious suggestion came in on the HitTail site: long tail approach to marketing. Yes, obvious. Did I think to specifically frame this site in those terms? No! Is it worth it? Most certainly, yes! Many, many folks will be researching exactly this, once the long tail concept becomes even more mainstream.

Chris mentions that he identifies the long tail in the curve that maps sales against demand. Even products that have sold very little (one unit) have SOME demand, and there are many, many of them that constitute the tail. Since his fateful article in Wired, people have been writing him to tell them how they see the long tail applying everywhere, well beyond business. But marketing is perhaps the most obvious next step, and the struggle to understand how to take advantage of the long tail effect is apparently starting to occur, as the suggestion in HitTail reveals.

So, to take advantage of the long tail in marketing, you have to think in terms of terms. In other words: long tail keywords. Which do you target and why? And how do you do it intelligently, so it doesn’t become a full time job? Because just as demand for products is nearly infinite in Chris’ model, the combination of terms that describe ONLY YOUR product or service are likewise nearly infinite… leading many to blog without a clue.

Blogging without a clue (great subject for another post), while useful for floating a few test balloons, doesn’t help you zero in on what’s working best. The best way to take advantage of the long tail in marketing is to blog WITH A CLUE. Sure, you can pull just any one of your “small” keywords out of your analytics, but it’s not very efficient. Why?

First off, you’re going to have to wade through the same whole long list of keywords every time. The ones you have already considered don’t get filtered out. It becomes impossible to manage the big picture: what HAVE I already written about, and what new things MIGHT I write about? In this sense, HitTail becomes more than just a timesaver. It becomes an expert advisor, discounting everything you already considered, and bringing potentially new and lucrative ideas to your attention.

How in the world is this connected to the long tail concept? And how is this marketing? Well, to quote a business guru who has been around the block a little longer then Chris, the recently departed Peter Drucker, “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

Think about that for awhile. Think deeply on it. The “Search”, a privilege reserved for the very few in the past–research librarians, information brokers, etc. — is now available to all. An “understanding” of the customer is magically embedded into the search terms they are performing. As marketers, we are reverse-engineering their research procedure, and attempting to put ourselves directly in their path… with the right message… at the right time… to fulfill a need or desire that they just attempted to articulate.

Well, to get into the path of these researchers, you have to look at the RE in research. It implies they are searching again? What did they search on last time? Was it something similar? Did they find you before, and were they perhaps trying to tell you something merely by the act of searching? Of course, the answer is yes. And this ties into concepts by another business guru hero of mine: Edwards Deming, the father of TQM (total quality management). Demming is often contributed with helping to rebuild Japan’s economy after WWII by teaching how to listen to the customers and employees, and working it back into the product. This resulted in transforming such products as the Honda Civic from junk to premium quality. More recently, the process is attributed with Harley Davidson’s textbook comeback. Try thinking about long tail marketing being a very similar process, but the information being provided to you is coming in through “search” instead of the suggestion box.

HitTail is in great part about corralling them back using the very information they provided to you the first time, but in more intelligent and strategic ways. It will be the truly enlightened marketing department that internalizes this message and puts it to work in everything they do.

Be an SEO Entrepreneur

So, you want to be an SEO Entrepreneur? Thankfully, there is growing acceptance of what is considered as “best practices” for search engine optimization. And even more fortunately, they are closely related to Web usability standards. It can be learned. It can be taught. It can be the foundation of entrepreneurial business. The market is of nearly unlimited size (everyone with a website), and of unlimited levels of business Ma & Pa companies to Fortune 500’s.

But avoid the pitfall of becoming a pay-per-click campaign management company by accident. The process goes like this: you have to do a certain number of technical things before a website can start producing decent natural search hits (free hits). Refer to the ducks under the SEO best practices link. If each of these projects is not carried out in full, the overall effect of SEO is significantly diminished. Any one factor CAN bring up and carry the others, but you have to have that factor way out of proportion to the others. Do a Google search for Google patent for an example. You will find the top result violates cardinal rule #1 of SEO: search/human-friendly URLs. But that silly patent is so linked-to, that it overcomes all other factors. But small-time sites generally don’t have any factors that are so disproportionately powerful as that page. So small-time businesses have to get all their ducks in a row and carry each and every one of those projects.

When the projects aren’t all carried out, you may end up doing something that over-stimulates the search engines in the short-term, but won’t last. What happens is everyone gets excited by seeing a rising trend in the search hits, but go into panic as the results wear off. In a desperate move to keep levels up, you look at what emergency measures you can take, and realize mounting a pay-per-click campaign could do the trick. So semi-effective SEO naturally morphs into ongoing SEM. But what an SEO entrepreneur really needs to consider is how you can forcibly get your clients to line up and shoot every duck, and step in with a natural optimization campaign to keep the tension in the machinery after the effect of the short term over-stimulation wears off.

Huh, what was that gobbeldygook? Simply put: fix the site, then start adding content.

But fixing the site can be a monumental task–something an outsourced firm is in no position to do. In many cases, you have to be expert enough in the systems your clients are using to teach them how to do it. You have to have enough technical chops to talk tech with the IT folks, without them calling you a marketing know-nothing the moment you leave the room. You have to respect the concerns and motivations of all parties involved. You have to balance SEO recommendations with aesthetic, artistic and usability concerns. And you have to get everyone to want the same thing you do. Fixing a site is often more political than technical!

These difficulties are why we sometimes just sigh and ask for a directory on your site for us to FTP files into. You can then step in with Blogger or some other blogging software and just put files into place that easily satisfy all the “ducks” from best SEO practices. You don’t get the same short-term exciting pop in traffic as a fixed site. But it’s sometimes the only viable course.

You can set up team-blogging, and let other people add their voice. But most important of all, you can guide them on a corporate blogging strategy (or website content expansion strategy) that keeps the “stimulation” constant.

Most people who blog, have this constant publishing mindset. The more you publish, the more your audience gets in the habit of reading you, the more pings go out over blog news services, the more the search engines notice life in your site, the more overall traffic you get. But most online PR people and SEO professionals stop their strategy there, without realizing that the strategic choice of topics has as much to do with bringing in the correct qualified traffic as the act of blogging (or site expansion) itself.

So, if you’re an entrepreneur considering SEO as your new line of business, consider this: you won’t be anything more than a media buyer in the keyword bidding rat race if you don’t watch out for that pitfall. Being a “pure” SEO is remarkably difficult, because there is no formulatized strategy for SEO. Once there is, the formula stops working because the engines adapt and change to stop spamming. HitTail is about the only formulatized approach to SEO that can be brought with equal effectiveness to any website, any search engine, and produce the type of stable long-lived results you need for happy, long-term customers.