Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Avoiding Potholes on the Road to Telecommuting and Working From Home

Working from home is as old an idea as America itself.  It enjoys surges in popularity at times, depending on changes in the economy or technology.

In this particular day and age, the reasons for working from home vary widely.  Some telecommute to corporate jobs to save time, gas, or because their company is short on space.  Others are reinventing their careers after the economy forced them out of their regular job.  Still more see working from home as their contribution to the environment; "reducing their carbon footprint" by using fewer resources. 

The reason I decided to build SDOC Publishing from a home office rather than establish a separate office comes down to one word:  costs.  I spend less money by using a residential office, I keep the overhead very low, and the savings are passed on to my customers.  Everyone's happy!

But working from a residence requires enormous planning and discipline that many don't notice at the onset.  It isn't for everyone and the pitfalls are many.  Enough that what I thought would be one blog post may end up being a series!

Pothole #1:  Working From Home is NOT the Same As Working In an Office

When working at an office for any business or corporation, there is a management structure in place to ensure accountability for the work done.  A worker who is self-employed or telecommuting actually has two jobs:  labor and management.  Anyone who thinks that  managing employees "isn't really work" has never had to do it!  Residential workers have to get their job done, but they also have to plan their work schedule, evaluate the results, determine ROI (return on investment) of the resources, and determine future goals of the company. 

So working from home requires more time management skills and more discipline than working in an average office. 

A written, printed, tangible schedule is your best friend.  Physically seeing blocks of time set aside for all of the above tasks (and whatever else your particular enterprise needs) makes a big difference between accomplishing your business goals and not accomplishing anything.  If you are telecommuting for a larger firm, this type of schedule (with results that show you're following it) will make your manager's job easier in tracking your work.  Which means you are more likely to continue working at home - or even keep your job!

Pothole #2:  Working From Home is NOT a Substitute for Child or Other Family Care

Put out the torches.  Drop the pitchforks.  Hear me out before running me out of town for heresy.  In more recent decades women especially have chosen to work from home because it keeps them closer to their children and, supposedly, involved with caring for them at home.

This is the trap that most parents - moms and dads alike - fall into.  They convince themselves that they can multitask between work duties and home/family duties.  It takes less than a week to figure out why this situation never works.  Here's why....

Accomplishing work tasks and caring for family members of any age requires two different mindsets.  Splitting attention between two different jobs divides the quality of your performance.  This too goes back to scheduling specific times for specific tasks.  Anyone who attempts to do both at the same time will end up neglecting both the job providing the paycheck, and the people relying on them for care.  This applies not only to children of all ages but other family members - such as seniors or family members recovering from illness or injury. 

Young children need attention and activity.  People recovering from injury need assistance.  Seniors have a host of health needs - including mental and emotional health.  If you have to work from home (or work anywhere, period) ensure that their care is provided for.  Children are the most flexible:  many work hours can coincide with school and after-school activities.  But younger children may still need a babysitter or nanny - even at home.  Many cities have organizations that provide senior adult activities.  The bottom line is, count the cost:  ensure that it's worth the time you put into your work to get assistance for caring for family members.  Or, delay your work-from-home plans until the cirucmstances change. 

To be continued...!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Naked Truth About Search Engine Optimization

I had a fascinating week with individuals contacting me about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for my website business.

1) A gentleman contacted me on LinkedIn, inviting me to take his sales call. He wanted me to buy into his SEO services and then charge my customers for them. I asked what he provides in his paid service that I don’t already provide to my customers. His boiled-down answer was a “link farm” to generate inbound links, otherwise nothing. I didn’t take the call.

2) A call came into my office one afternoon from a very young gentleman who tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade me that he was a potential customer. A couple of minutes into the conversation he confessed that he was selling SEO services. I told him getting my clients’ web pages ranked highly isn’t a problem for my company. The call ended abruptly.

3) In the space of one week I received two phone calls and three emails from companies asking me to “partner” with them in providing SEO from data centers overseas. The time these inquiries consumed was so great I had to put a disclaimer on my website that says I don’t outsource any of my work to any other firm, foreign or domestic.

The people I encountered in these scenarios had a few things in common. They knew the programming “tricks” of inserting keywords into the code of a website that would get a search engine to rank it. They probably didn’t know how to persuade a customer to buy the product or accept the message once they got to the site. Most of all, they probably didn’t care.

Whenever a new technology becomes popular, self-styled “experts” pop up like mushrooms after a rain. But how do you tell a real SEO “expert” from a hustler riding the buzzword wave?

Search Engine Optimization is only one small part of creating the content of a website. It actually has more to do with paying attention to the programming details after the content has been crafted. A true SEO expert is a word craftsman. The first step is always – ALWAYS – to write copy that appeals to the target customer and persuades them to take the desired action. A copywriter for websites has to know who the audience is: the age range, gender percentages, geographic location(s), and educational levels all play a part in how the text is crafted. Keywords, words that one would expect website visitors to type into a search engine to find the site come out of this research.

What salespeople commonly call “SEO” is the second step in the process. Out of the text crafting and audience research come commonly-used words: titles or adjectives mostly. When it becomes clear what individual words from your text are going to resonate mostly with your audience, you choose those for your SEO strategy. “Strategy” is almost a misnomer; it’s less a procedure and more just paying attention to details. In addition to the text on the page, there are places to “hide” text in ways that put them in plain sight to search engines. Page titles, “alt” tags in images and “meta” tags are the most common and the most useful. The more your most effective words are repeated consistently through your site’s readable text and “hidden” tags the greater attention Google and other search engines will give them.

The final step in the SEO process is generating “inbound links”: links from other websites to the ones you’re creating. There are all kinds of techniques to accomplish this. Back in the day (ten or so years ago) the hot technique was “website awards”: a graphic badge on the site declaring the site “cool” or “hot” or whatever made a splash. The “award presenter” linked to your site if you displayed the badge.

Those awards have gone the way of the dodo but the principle remains. You can try a link farm but if one of the human observers for a search engine company catches wind of it, you can bet on your rankings plummeting. I use and recommend online press releases. Again, the word craftsman comes to the fore. You can issue a press release online with anything on it and a link, and you’ll get inbound links. But if the story is picked up and displayed in any news agency you have the added bonus of convincing visitors to see the site, even when they’re not actively looking for it.

When a fly-by-night SEO salesman comes along, they’re usually only focused on the second step with absolutely none of the research and effort that goes into crafting the site content itself. They’re selling a “get top-ranked quick” mentality that may work in the short term for getting search engine rankings, but probably won’t translate into sales or other action. Any copywriter knows there is no such thing as a quick solution to good copy. It’s true in print media and it remains true on the web.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Who Crowns the King? The importance of website design in reinforcing text content

I'll never forget the first few weeks of serving on the Internet Advisory Committee at M. D. Anderson.  The idea of promoting any kind of health information on the web was still new.  We were promoting very cutting edge therapy, including clinical trials, and our hospital's name was world-renowned for decades.  All we thought we had to do was follow the practices we did in our research labs and clinics:
  • Take our technical protocols and translate them into everyday-speak for the general public.  The same thing we did when writing informed consent forms for our patients entering treatment.
  • Make sure that any claims we made followed the US FDA and FTC guidelines To. The. Letter.
  • Don't miss any details.  Be ready to answer any questions.  Follow up with everyone we met.
Pretty simple, right?  After all, "Content is King".  As long as the text was straight, eveything else was secondary.  "Just details."

Then at one meeting we were presented with information gleaned by one of our consultants, a group called "Hamilton Interactive".  These consultants were surveying our visitors determining how they found our site, what they were looking for, did they decide to subscribe to our services, etc.  The primitive version of web audience research made easier by Web 2.0 and other technologies today.

The results were shocking.  When it came to those website visitors that wanted to be M. D. Anderson patients, they made their decision based on appearance.  They chose the hospital's programs because of how the website looked. 

No one on that committee slept for at least a week.

We had utterly no doubt that our medical information was the best there was.  But using our name and putting out that information wasn't enough.  The public and potential patients had to believe it.  That was a critical step that, until then, we had taken for granted.  That's the part that the appearance played.

There are four steps to distributing information on the Web. 
1)  The website is live and visible on the Web, and can be found by visitors.  (This is a joint effort between the webmaster, the ISP, and the search engines)
2)  The visitor reads the content that the webmaster has placed on the site.  (That content is what the webmaster can directly control.)
3)  The visitor accepts and believes the content to be true and accurate.  (The webmaster can influence this choice, which is the subject of this blog.)
4)  The visitor acts on the information they see.  (This can also be influenced by the webmaster.)

So you hire your webmaster, you consult over content, back and forth creating and reviewing and editing until it looks just right.  You go over it one more time to make sure the words you want your visitors to use in a search engine are included.  But the design, the aesthetics, have to underscore the content, convey the feeling that the text is trustworthy and the interactive features are worth using. 

I've heard some folks ask, incredulously, "Do people really make their buying decisions based on a graphic logo?  Or colors?"  The answer is YES!!!  That's why ad agencies can charge a fortune for 30-second commercials.  Colors and graphics and designs are the persuasive part of your web communications. 

Here are some items your webmaster should consider when designing your site:

Color:  Color conveys emotion.  The message it conveys varies between men and women, and in various countries.  Your webmaster should discuss with you who your audience is, who you expect or want to visit your site, as much as what you are promoting.  Then use color accordingly.  There are analyses of this concept all over the web but this is a good one to start with:

Layout and Shapes:  Men and women perceive shapes and layout differently. 
Men respond to straight lines and orderly rows and columns.  This is easy to do in a square- or rectangular-shaped computer screen.  Bold.  Simple. Straightforward. 
Women respond to designs that are asymetrical, or involve curved lines, and random or detailed embellishments.  If you think I'm exaggerating, take a trip to the Womens' Center at Northside Hospital in Atlanta.  Look at the floor:  there's not a straight line anywhere in that linoleum pattern.  Some of the walls in the main entrance are curved as well.  In addition, exam and L&D rooms all have flowered borders decorating the top of the walls.  In the Atrium outside the coffee/snack bar, there is a plaque that goes into deep emotional detail about the color choices in each section. 
(Here is a slideshow of some of the elements I just described.  Ironically, the womens' center website has a more masculine aesthetic - except for color - in spite of the largely female audience.  Go figure.)

The old adage is still true:  "Content is King".  You could edit that to say Usability is King too.  But Design and Look and Feel are what put the crown on his head.  You can't have one without the other.  The greatest text in the world won't sell your product or deliver your message unless your website visitors believe what you say.  The website's text is the message, the apperance is the persuasion. 

Work with your webmaster to make sure your message is being delivered and received at all levels.