John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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Transparency in the Land of Opportunity

Aaron posted a great review of transparency in SEO over at SEO Book. You should read it. He goes into detail on how the marketplace seems to attach value to claims of transparency and “open” ness, even though those credits are largely misplaced. He reviews how Google abuses that to its advantage in numerous ways. I consider the Internet to be the “Land of Opportunity” since we all have so many ways we could apply our web efforts.

Transparency and Openness in SEO and Beyond

In reading the review I found myself nodding in agreement on point after point. It also reminded me of SEOMOZ, which Aaron didn’t mention by name, but which is probably the most vocal self-proclaimer in the SEO space when it comes to claims of being “open” and “transparent”. I consider them big abusers of that… “open” tools that are actually marketed via the freemium strategy, use of “dot org” domain for a clearly commercial enterprise, default “opt out” web crawler that leverages the good will of publishers to feed the commercial tools (and requires reciprocal brand promotion in order to “opt out” after the fact). I think seomoz would have been a great candidate for a case study on exploitation of “open” and “transparency”, if Aaron had needed another one.

Aarons article also prompted me to comment here about another form of “transparency” that relates to web marketing — validity of marketing claims and the inferred claims buried in testimonials.

Time and again these days we see slick tool vendors launch into the social media space with great websites and promising feature sets, accompanied by claims of value, uniqueness, efficacy, and general awesomeness. These claims are backed by testimonials from major voices. VERY OFTEN those testimonials from “major voices” appear to me to be very carefully worded. They don’t actually make any factual statements. They read like horoscopes.. snippets that sound GREAT the first time you read them, but upon analysis you can see they could apply to anyone (not just you). Here’s an example:

I have yet to see a platform on the market that can do all the things that Chirpaloo does. It is powerful!

Now it might seem I just questioned the integrity of “Patrick Mueller, Managing Director, Smly.com”. I don’t mean to… it’s just and example of a testimonial that COULD come from someone who actually uses or used the tool, or… from someone who looked at the claims and said “wow… [if it does all that] it’s way cool”.

It may also seem I am questioning the integrity of Chirpaloo, the oddly named twitter tool that published that on its home page, as its most prominent testimonial. Nope.. at least not intentionally. But I am pointing out an apparent problem with their marketing.

Chirpaloo.. a tool that claims to be awesome, but doesn’t publish a price. A tool that offers a demo video but doesn’t let you watch it. They require a sign up form (for contact information) in order to “schedule a demo”. These are not trust-instilling facts about the Chirpaloo web site. So, lacking trust factors, I must look more closely at what is offered.. the testimonials, and the specificity of the marketing claims.

Here’s another of the home page testimonials:

“We began using Chirpaloo at its earliest stages and found it an invaluable tool for our attendee marketing efforts for Pivot Conference. With the next iteration of the platform, we believe Chirpaloo will become even more valuable for us in 2012 and beyond.” Mike Edelhart, CEO, PivotCon

See? It reads like he used it during beta or alpha (not likely to have paid for it), for a specific event, and hasn’t used it since. His “testimonial” is little more than assurance that they do have something under development, and that he believes they will (eventually) have something at least more useful than it was when he checked it out.

Is that really a great testimonial? On SECOND read, does it instill confidence? One of the four best testimonials they could locate? (they selected 4 for their home page).

Pivot Conference is a branding/social media conference, so naturally the very existence of a twitter tool is relevant to them out of the gate. I’ll stop analyzing Chirpaloo here, because I’m not gaining any confidence as I look deeper (which is why I started looking… I didn’t see satisfactory trust signals). There is no shortage of incomplete, erroneous, badly-designed websites on the Internet.

And that’s the tie in to transparency and openness. If your product is amazing, let the amazingness do your marketing. If people are using it effectively, your marketing work should involve opening up access to that knowledge, not creating new content to help express that fact that you’re amazing, or get people to schedule a relatively expensive (time and attention wise) phone conference. That’s the beauty of the Facebook “like”… Facebook doesn’t promote your brand, your satisfied customers do. Facebook is enabling for that communication to reach everyone else.

Transparency in SEO World

SEO is a strange field where transparency will hurt your ability to earn a living. In SEO, there are real issues that create real challenges to openness and transparency. Aaron notes that, when he highlights how SEO firms promoting themselves as “open” and “transparent” can’t possibly be sincere, because openness and transparency in SEO destroys SEO value. But that’s not the case for twitter tools, and most “normal” Internet industries. Most industries do not have the worlds most powerful Internet company (Google) highlighting them as the biggest danger to their business profitability (something Google did in its pre-IPO paperwork – it warned investors that SEO could kill Google).

So it seems to me, openness and transparency are important. If your product is expensive, don’t hide that fact. If you hide the price and it turns out to be expensive, I have to assume you yourself have very little confidence that the market will recognize the value. THAT awareness should drive your marketing, not cause you to hide your pricing. If your success depends on people overlooking or not noticing that your service is not a very good value, you very likely have a big problem.

If your product has a lot of bugs, help everyone see the benefits of using the parts that work well. That’s all we’re looking for any way… we don’t actually want to buy your promises. We want to buy what works. If you sell us promises, we will be disappointed and it will be your [your brand’s] fault. If you sell us something that is awesome for task “A” and we discover it is indeed awesome for task “A”, but is terrible at task “B”, we can honestly evaluate it on its merits. We won’t feel cheated if we make the purchase knowing we’re buying an awesome Task “A” tool that also tries to do Task “B”.

Open. Transparent.

Exploitation of Transparent and Open Claims

On the other hand, there is one very legitimate business case when it’s SMART to hide the price, promote the promises over the facts, and present great SOUNDING testimonials from BIGVOICES instead of trust inspiring testimonials from actual experienced customers. Exploitation. Raise money, sell a product that might not be ready yet, or sell a promising product into a high-demand marketplace where there is a lot of need, not yet a lot of awareness, etc. Use “open” and “transparent” to exploit the market buyers.

Not the same as Aaron’s notes on Google, but in between my own observations about SEOmoz and perhaps the most slimy segments of the affiliate marketing world, where blatant lies and often completely fake testimonials are purposefully used to generate fake buzz and raise money from high-pressure sales.

Testimonials look like transparency, but should be real not crafted. Good ones should instill trust. Otherwise it looks like fake transparency, which is a red flag for trust. Marketing claims should be specific and demonstrable, so they empower the consumer to make a deal (buy your offering). If you can’t do that, sell what you have, not what the market wants. To do otherwise is doomed to disappoint customers, which is brand failure at best, and fraud at worst.

Credit Card Re-Billing Interview Test

One of my interview tests when dealing with affiliate marketers or people who were at some point active in strategic alliances and online marketing, involves credit card re-billing. I find a way around to discussing the amazing effectiveness of credit card re-billing, including float and slippage. Re-billing is the system of “sign up now and we’ll bill you monthly, until you cancel”. Float is the free money you make from their money, which is in your account before they use any of your services (or cost you any expenses). Slippage is the free money that you get when they paid, but didn’t consume.

The obvious part of the discussion should be, well, obvious to all participating. Free money is the most profitable revenue. I get some value from watching how a potential partner represents the credit card subscription/re-billing opportunity and their experiences with it. Not every one of them is a thief.

The not-so-obvious parts will hopefully come up in the conversation (if the candidate is at least trustworthy). That’s the connection between costs, charges, optimization of float and slippage, and management of customer accounts. It’s real work to run any business, and real work to run a very profitable business.

The nuanced parts are rarely brought up by potential candidates, but when they are, I have a candidate. Why is the re-bill so successful? Because of trust, risk, and power. The sign up is based on potential (which involves trust, as I showed earlier). Trust is also closely tied to risk. Power, which is tied to risk, belongs to me (the consumer). Take away my power, and I have risk, so I re-evaluate my trust in you.

I own my power and I own responsibility for risk. I own the responsibility for the transaction (the deal). The ONLY thing you own is the potential and the deliverable that you promised, and which I decided was the basis for the bargain. Leave me to mine, and take care of yours — then we can do business.

Re-billing? If you are trustworthy and enable me to retain my powers as a consumer, I may invest in you based on your potential to deliver, even if I know I am giving you “free money” month after month via the re-billing mechanism. It’s a deal I make, not a deal your sales guy closed, or a trick your re-bill scam pulled on me.
Open and transparent can only apply to your part — the promise and the deliverable. When you are using it for my parts (the risk, the trust, the close), you are very likely exploiting the consumer, and nothing more benevolent than that.

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