What could be a more appropriate topic for my first-ever blog entry? Blogs and RSS Feeds are taking off. You can’t turn around without running into advice on how to write one and why you are missing the boat if you don’t have one—almost regardless of whether you have anything to say.
I hope I have something to say, but just in case I don’t, I’ll start my blog by quoting what others say, starting with this well-attended session from the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York.
Amanda Wattlington, formerly of iProspect and author of Business Blogs: A Practical Guide, says that blogs and RSS feeds are vital for any marketing site. She argued that blogs allow your readers to subscribe to your regularly-supplied information, while avoiding the problems of spam filters for e-mail newsletters (and do not require your readers to provide their e-mail addresses).
She quoted Robert Scovel of Microsoft as saying that “Anyone that has a marketing site today without an RSS feed should be fired.” Amanda says that measuring RSS results is not mature yet, but you can count the number of subscribers, the number who view the summaries, and the number who actually click on your content.
How do you keep your blog/RSS feed easy to find by search engines? Amanda described several critical characteristics. First, write fresh, topical, and keyword-rich content. Also use categories, not just dates, and write good anchor text. Link a lot from your blog and you will get links to your blog. Keep your template simple so that it does not confuse the spiders and, most of all, syndicate your content widely.
Amanda reminded us that success can come quickly, but there is huge growth to come—only 5% of Internet users have RSS readers installed. Some are using Web aggregators, she said, but many Internet users are not using RSS at all.
Next up on this panel was Stephan Spencer from (and author of a blog). Stephan explained that blogs are unspammable ways to reach readers that replace e-mail newsletters, but they can do much more. Visitors can use Web-based aggregators such as Bloglines or install an application such as NewsGator to start receiving blogs, but what do search marketers do to write one?
Stephan has a five-step approach 1) Give it away: News alerts, latest specials, clearance, events, new articles, top 10 sellers, and many more. 2) Make it easy to subscribe: You can use buttons that make it easy to add to specific aggregators or use link tags. 3) Track subscriber behavior: Count the subscribers in user-agent fields in your log files and count viewers of summaries and clickthroughs deeper into your site. 4) Personalize: Use interests tick boxes. Allow users to remain anonymous if they choose. Personalized feeds are good for readers but don’t always reinforce the same themes to give you strong links for search marketing. 5)Think about search engines: Encourage links to RSS directories and search engines (use this list). Let your syndicators use your summaries through a technique called “trackback.” Pay attention to your title—it will be the link text in search results. Use 301 redirects from your syndicators so that the link value accrues to your site rather than the affiliates. FeedBurner is a good RSS metrics package, but it uses 302 redirects, so it does not help you gain link value through search engines, the way 301s do.
Stephan recommended an e-book called Unleash the Marketing & Publishing Power of RSS.
Greg Jarboe of SEO-PR was the next speaker in this informative session. Greg explained that RSS success requires a combination of marketing and technical skills, just like search marketing, because RSS is a bit tricky technically but strong content is what makes your blog popular.
Greg says that we’re just at the beginning of the blogosphere. In 2004, 27% of Internet users began to read blogs (a 58% increase) and the growth is continuing.
Greg expounded on an interesting case study. BTI, a small phone company, faced extremely competitive search marketing situation. They could not compete with large phone companies for terms like “VOIP small business” and others—they had too much competition. They started out trying search marketing but could make no headway.
They decided to start a blog. Most blogging software is designed to let one voice discuss something regularly. But companies need ways for multiple authors to speak with one voice. BTI developed their own tool to let their employees talk about VOIP, but they did more. They invited well-known VOIP bloggers to post to their blog. They also used RSS feeds to bring in content based on search terms to keep their content fresh without having to write it all themselves.
Success happened quickly. It attracted 164 links in June, 1,312 in December, and 1,441 in February, yielding 50 #1 rankings in August and 120 in November, some for very competitive keywords like “small business VOIP.” They have a link from their blog to their corporate site which caused site traffic to increase 60%.
Greg showed that using blogs to get search rankings has very high value. It’s hard to get good organic search rankings, but blogs can work very well. It’s much easier to drive links to blogs than to a normal corporate Web site, because the content is designed to be fresh and topical—it causes people to want to link to it. Blogs are starting to look like newspapers—would you rather read a newspaper or a corporate brochure? If corporations can create their own newspapers, they can fill them with ads for their products.
After the panel presentations, the floor was opened to questions from the audience.
Q. What companies are doing this?
A. Cisco has a Newsroom blog that looks just like their regular Web site, but it is actually a blog and attracts lots of links.
Q. Will blogs end up like e-mail?
A. They might. If bloggers are not responsible, then the same kind of spammy content may start appearing in blogs and feeds. The difference, though, is that readers can turn it off, so spammers need to constantly move to new feeds, but it could happen.
Q. Are there dangers in blogging from a corporate site?
A. Yes. A corporate blog from a corporate site might not be accepted by the blogosphere, but that depends on your company’s reputation and what you say. Greg said that BTI used a BTI subdomain because they were concerned that people know that it was a legitimate BTI voice. Amanda thinks that transparency is important—don’t hide your identity. Stephan says that you need to decide if you want a news blog or an author blog (where you have a point of view).
Q. Is there a culture change required inside the company to do blogs?
A. Greg says that most companies do need that culture change. Can your Web site management and legal reviews be circumvented in your culture? Think: don’t your sales people and PR people answer questions from customers and reporters? Another way: The conversations are happening already without us, so we need to participate. Pick a pilot project to show success. The BTI blog had a problem because they had no good writers, so they hired a writer that works a few hours a week to write three stories a week. Amanda says that the company has to be willing to let the voice be heard without censorship for this to work, perhaps by establishing a blogging policy. Microsoft has 90 bloggers at the moment. Stephan says being absent from the conversation is deadly—Kryptonite lock company did not know that Bic pens could pick their locks, but bloggers did. They suffered enormous bad publicity and then recalled $10 million worth of locks. By being plugged in, they might have recalled far earlier (costing less), changed their design, and looked responsible. Ignoring the bloggers made them look unresponsive on top of having bad locks.
Q. Does this take a lot of work? How can the cost be justified?
A. The panel thought it was much cheaper than other forms of marketing, including paid search. Stephan points out that there is no substitute for the image of thought leadership that you get from having a blog and being quoted in well-respected blogs. You can’t buy the kind of PR that some well-done blogging posts can bring. Greg says that blogs are the advance guard of buzz and that none of his clients want their ROI disclosed because it is a competitive edge. And their return happened in months, rather then the time that so many marketing campaigns require. To reduce your costs, you can hire a blogger for very little money—many bloggers are happy to get hired to write blogs for your company.