Getting Started in This Business – SEO or Getting the Word Out


Tarrytown LighthouseI am encouraged each day when I see the number of people who have taken the time to visit and read my blog.  I will do my best to continue providing useful information to my readers.  I also want to thank PhotoBookPress.com for their very flattering blog post about the book I did with them.

So far I have talked getting yourself online, getting paid, getting “stuff” your customers  and keeping your customers happy.  In this installment I will talk a little about getting yourself noticed when people are looking for your products or services.

Most internet users find what they are looking for through one of two mechanisms, references from “friends” or search engines.  I will focus on search engines.  There are a lot of search engines out there, among the better known ones are Bing, Ask.com, Yahoo and that little newcomer, Google.  Regardless of which search engine you prefer, they all work basically the same way.

The value of a search engine comes from its ability to convert your search request into a list of websites that might match it.  In order to do that, they have “crawlers” that are constantly out there finding content.  Crawlers are software tools that go from website to website taking in the content of each page and adding key characteristics to the search engine’s database.  That provides the raw material from which the search engine produces your search results.  Where search engines differ is in the algorithms they use to store the data about the website, the mechanisms they use for search and retrieval of those data and how they understand your search request.

The details of how a search engine works are very proprietary to its owner.  In most cases, there is not one single person who has all the detailed knowledge.  Because of that, anyone who claims to know everything about how a given search engine works is either: lying, delusional or looking for a very expensive lawsuit to be filed.  Most of the search engines also make periodic minor changes to their algorithms to improve performance and/or discourage people from trying to cheat their way to a higher position in the search results.

What is publicly known is the data elements available to a search engine.  Based on experience and some good guesses, it is possible to determine which of these is more important.  Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) is a serious business.  There are many companies out there that will try and sell you their services to improve your search engine placements.  I am not a big fan of these services.  Several years ago I was working at a small business that had a website.  I got called one day by one of these services offering me a month free and the ability to cancel at any time.  I figured for fun why not.  As soon as I got off the phone I did some searches for our business on various engines and captured the results.  Shortly before the month was over, I repeated the process and got pretty much the same results.  A lot of factors can influence positioning in a search result, so minor fluctuations are to be expected.  Since I saw no appreciable change, I cancelled the service.

Assuming that you are using a hosted solution for your online store, your hosting company probably provides you with information about SEO.  Having clear concise text on your pages is one important step, but only the beginning.  The remainder of the data the crawler will look for is in your site/page meta data.  As you may recall from an earlier post, meta data are descriptors about your site that while not always visible in the browser are visible to the crawler (and if you know how to look in your browser you can find them).  Don’t assume because there is a title on your page, or a description, that it is the same as populating the meta tag.  As an example, when you see a search result for pages, it will usually have some text from the page.  If you look at my Galleries page you will see that there is no descriptive text on that page.  If you do a Google search for John Feist Photography galleries, you will find several listings.  The one referring to my galleries page has a description.  This came from the page descriptor meta tag.  My hosting company, PhotoShelter.com, provides several tools that make optimization easier.  First on the design page for each of the pages on my site, they indicate which data fields correspond to meta tags used by search engines.  The other major tool is a SEO rater.  This tool asks a few questions and then looks at the site to produce a number from 0 to 100 as an indication of how well the site is search optimized.  When the results are presented, the various categories used are displayed along with indications where improvements could be made.

Aside from providing text where there is none, careful use of meta tags allows you to get more keywords about your site or page into the search engine.  Don’t just repeat the text from your page in the meta text.  Many of the search engines have algorithms to find and devalue those.  The same applies to the old “trick” of putting lots of invisible words on the page to fool the search engines.

There has been a lot written about SEO.  One guide that I found to be quite useful came from Google.  This is a .pdf that is freely available and provides a lot of good information about how to optimize your site for their engine.

If your site has more than a few pages, you can submit a site map to the search engines.  Each search engine has its own tools for creating these maps.  In most cases, you might need to ask a techie friend for some help in putting them together as most assume you have certain technical skills.  There is another reason for submitting a site map.  Most search engines will have their crawler revisit your site when they get a new or revised site map to be sure that their data are up to date.

Finally, having done all the work, you probably want to know if your site is being visited along with a host of other data about visitors to your site.  Your hosting company many provide some of those data.  Google provides a free set of webmaster tools to help you with this.  The key is setting up for Google Analytics (part of the webmaster tools).  Again, this may take a little time and could require some techie help, but not much.  The basic process is to register your site and prove that it is yours.  From there, you get a bit of code to embed as a meta tag.  Most hosting services have existing options to facilitate this.  Once that is in place, every time someone goes to your site, the data are added to the Google analytics database where you can view and analyze them.  As with site maps, there are other hosting resources (free) for tracking site traffic.  Unlike site maps where it makes sense to submit them to a number of engines, you only need one tracking service.

As I said at the start, SEO is a big complicated topic.  You can find tons of material online.  I hope that the above gives you a basic understanding and helps you to increase your visibility and sales.

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Getting Started In This Business – Customer Service


Ducks In A RowThis is the fourth in a series of posts about my experiences in starting an online business.

I want to start this post with a thank you to everyone who has sent me positive feedback and comments.  It’s nice to know that someone has read a post(s) and found it useful.

That’s a good lead in to talking about customer service.  At a fundamental level, what defines good customer service hasn’t changed since well into the last century.  Your customers expects you to make their shopping experience pleasant and easy.  They also expect that the product you advertise on your site is what they will get.  Your customers also expect to get a quality product that will perform as advertised.  And finally, your customer expects that if s/he has questions or an issue with their purchase, you will be there to answer them and resolve the issue.

What has changed in the digital age is how we deliver customer service.  I’m going to assume that like me you are starting a small business with few employees other than yourself.  In that scenario, you have dozens of things to do each day, probably more than there are hours in which to do them.  Don’t fall into the trap of neglecting your customers in order to do other things.  Remember, just as you can become an overnight success on the web, a negative review of your site can turn that success into an overnight failure.

Because of those time limitations, I’ve structured my customer service to work via email.  The beauty of this model is that I can access my email any time,  any where.  Most customers do not necessarily expect to be able to call you on the phone.  Have you ever tried to call Amazon?  Not easy!  Customers are used to email and other electronic media.  That means that you need to keep tabs on your business in box.  Many businesses have set up an auto reply to their in boxes so that as soon as a message comes in, the “Thank you for contacting us we will get back to you shortly” mail goes out.  Setting this up is not hard, but it does take time.  If you want to assign a problem number or something like it, that takes more time and effort.  In most cases, getting back to your customer within two hours works fine.

Be wary of trying to use social networking and interactive tools to provide customer service.  Facebook, Twitter, etc. are not the place to do customer service.  They are there to be part of your marketing strategy as a mechanism for telling your fans, followers, et al what is new and exciting on your site.  That doesn’t mean you should ignore these networks.  If someone is unhappy and posts it on a social network, you need to respond to the problem, but not via the social network. Take it “off line”.  Beware of trying to implement online or real time chat.  Chat can be a very nice tool, but that too takes time and effort to implement and maintain.  More importantly, you need to have someone available to do the “chatting”  24 x 7 since you never know when someone will want to contact you.

Now let’s add a level of practicality.  While not listing a phone number sounds good, in practice it may not work.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I do most of my interacting with PhotoShelter.com via email.  However, there are times when getting an answer to a simple question could take ten minutes on the phone or three days on email.  PhotoShelter.com hosts my site as well as those for about 70,000 other photographers.  They have a phone number listed.  Sometimes when I call I get voice mail, as in “all our operators are busy assisting other customers”.  When that happens I leave a message and normally get a call back within an acceptable time frame.  That works fine for me.  Could PhotoShelter.com augment their support staff so that I never get voice mail? Sure, but then I suspect I’d have to pay more for the service!
  • Last year I wanted to do a high quality coffee table book for my wife for Christmas.  I chose PhotoBookPress.com to do the book based on a recommendation in a photo magazine.  They are set up to do everything in the ordering process online.  As I was setting up the book I wanted, I wasn’t happy that what the software was showing me was the layout I had chosen.  Photo Book Press custom prints and hand binds each book, so there are lead times to consider.  I called them about my concern.  I get a fast response from one of their technical people.  He apologized and explained that they had done a software upgrade that hadn’t worked as expected.  He then walked me through a work around that allowed me to get everything in to them in time for Christmas.  As the production process takes several weeks, I got email updates so that I knew where my book was in the process.  The book arrived in time for Christmas and was a big success.

On the flip side, when I switched cell phone providers and went from a Blackberry to an Android phone, there were several features I was used to that were not on my new phone.  Searching the App Store (not necessarily a pleasant experience) I found an app that looked to be exactly what I wanted, Enhanced SMS and CallerID (eCid).  I bought the app, downloaded it and it didn’t work through my blue tooth headset.  After trying the remedies suggested on the vendor’s site, I sent an email.  Over the course of about two hours and several emails we concluded that the app would not work with my particular headset.  The vendor immediately offered me a refund.  I opted to keep the app and upgraded my headset to one that the vendor told me works well (and came from a company who’s headsets I like).  The new headset and app have been working well together for nearly a year.

The above three examples should give you a flavor of what it takes to provide really great customer service.  To wrap up, what you need to remember about customer service is:

  • Deliver what you promise.
  • Be sure you have told your customer how to contact you.
  • Be attentive to all your customer service channels.
  • Be honest with your customer.  If it will take two weeks to get them a replacement tell them that!
  • Be responsive to your customer.  Even if you don’t have any news, if it’s been a while since you updated them on an issue, send them a note repeating your last status saying that you are working on their issue and try to give a realistic completion date/time.
  • Remember what seems like a strange, unusual, weird or stupid question or problem to you is anything but to them.  If you know anyone who was doing IT type support work in the early days of windows, ask them how many times people called saying that the foot pedal didn’t work or the cup holder was broken.
  • And finally, while the old saying “the customer is always right” may not be true for you, DON’T TELL THEM THAT!

Getting Started In This Business – Fulfillment or Getting People Their Stuff


In the previous two posts I looked at creating your website or store and the back office you need in order to actually sell something.  Assuming that you have done them, the next question you need to answer is how will your customers get what they have purchased?

You have three possible choices for fulfillment: electronic, outsourced or self fulfillment.  Not all will apply in all cases.  Regardless of your fulfillment method(s) you must be sure that they can handle almost any volume.  We go into a business with the expectation that it will be successful.  In internet terms, that can happen literally overnight or faster.  Assume you get a customer who buys from you and is really happy with your product, the online experience, timely delivery, etc.  and that customer is very socially networked.  A very good review of your new business can end up in front of millions of eyeballs in hours!  While that isn’t likely to happen, what will you do if your original sales estimates are off by a factor of 10 or 100?

The best option is to have orders filled automatically and electronically.  If you have purchased music from iTunes or software from Microsoft you have used this model.  There is a major entry criteria to using this model…you must be selling something digital!  If you are selling something digital you have two choices as to how you will deliver: use your own infrastructure or use someone else’s.  There are a number of reasons to “outsource” this component.  As with hosting a website, the vendors who provide this service have the experience and business motivation to do it well.  If you are a small business, do you have the time to go through all the security concerns to assure that your “warehouse” is secure.  Do you have the time to do the maintenance that this infrastructure requires?  Do you understand how the automatic fulfillment process works to a level where you can implement and manage it?

The bottom line is that if you are outsourcing your hosting, your hosting company can likely provide fulfillment services or direct you to a partner of theirs who can.  Not only will such partners have what you need to deliver you products safely and efficiently, they will also have the ability to scale up or down to meet your needs very quickly and provide you with good data about your completed orders.  Will there be a cost? Yes.  Figure that into your pricing and get back to what actually makes money for you.

So much for digital fulfillment.  What if you need to actually deliver a physical product to your customer?  Here again you get the two options: do it yourself or let someone else do it.  This time the answer is not as cut and dry.  For my photo site, I have some sales that are fulfilled automatically through PhotoShelter.com.  These are the downloads of an actual image.  I also offer my images imprinted on a number of different surfaces and media.  PhotoShelter.com has arrangements with a number of photo labs who are ready and able to do the fulfillment that I need.  All I need to do is decide which of the lab’s I want to offer.  From there PhotoShelter.com lets me set the retail price for each offering.  When a customer orders a physical product the order is automatically sent to the lab for fulfillment.  The lab will complete the order and send it to my customer.  All labeling, return addresses, etc. will show John Feist Photography and not the lab.  For me that set up is ideal.

Not all fulfillment works that easily.  If your business manufactures or resells a product, you will need to decide if you want to work with a fulfillment house.  If you do, you will need to get your product to the fulfillment house, determine that your hosting company can route your orders to the fulfillment house and make sure that your fulfillment house has sufficient inventory.

The alternative to working with a fulfillment house is doing your own fulfillment.  A number of photographers who host on PhotoShelter.com self fulfill some or all of their offerings.  In some cases this is because they offer signed prints.  In other cases they want to have absolute control over the quality of what goes to the customer.  There is nothing wrong with doing that.  Doing your own fulfillment does place additional burdens on you:

  • First, what shipping options you will offer.  Can you turn orders around to do next day or two day shipping?
  • You need to establish a relationship with a shipping company (usually UPS or FedEx) and understand their pricing so that you can add that to the total cost to your customer.  Typically online vendors do NOT include shipping in the product price.  Recognize that you will probably not be able to get the same cost structure for shipping as the “big guys” get.  Big customers get big discounts.
  • Put a cost on what it takes to actually receive the order and convert that into a package ready to be shipped.  That is the handling component of Shipping and Handling.  You may consider that to be part of your markup when doing it all yourself.  Bad idea!  What is your time worth?  What if you have to pay someone else to do that work?  The only way you will know what it takes to do the handling is to dry run it until you are satisfied that the process works reliably and reasonably efficiently.  Be realistic!  Use a stopwatch to determine the time it takes to do the individual tasks, understand how you transition from task to task (e.g. print out orders, pick inventory, pack, etc.)  You’ll be amazed at the time and effort involved in those “connectors”.  Be realistic about doing these tasks for numerous orders and not just one.  Once you understand the time, effort and materials involved talk to your accountant about figuring out those costs.
  • Where will you keep your inventory, do your processing and how will you get your packages to the shipping company?  Remember, your inventory must now include all the supplies you need for shipping.

New age stuff aside, self fulfillment can be the right option for you.  Just make sure that you understand all that is involved before taking it on.

Another consideration when you are planning fulfillment, regardless of who is doing it, is real time inventory management.  Consider this scenario.  You go online to order something.  You place the order and pay the premium for next day shipping.  Six hours later you get an email from the vendor stating that they are very sorry, but your item is out of stock and they will let you know when they have more.  Odds are you will not be writing anything nice about the vendor or buying from them again.  You need to be sure that when the customer is looking at your offerings, you tell them if something is not available and if possible when you expect to have it in stock.

One final reminder that is not exactly part of fulfillment.  Don’t forget about sales tax!  I am not going to try and explain how it works, when it needs to be collected, etc.  Sales tax laws and requirements differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Check with your accountant as to when you have to collect sales tax and at what rate.  Remember, when it comes to sales tax you are collecting it for one or more governmental agencies.  In the current economic climate, most state and local governments need every penny they can get, so don’t get yourself in trouble when it can be so easily avoided.

I do hope that you are finding these posts useful.  I appreciate feedback, questions, comments and constructive criticism.