Scroll back three decades with me. Texas Instruments has just released its first home computer and the gatekeepers to technology open their humble shops, beautifully clean, beautifully quiet, carpeted, furnished with curious ergonomic kneeling chairs. The small computer store has the convivial hush and vibe of a library and the owners practically live there, so truly engrossed are they in the emergence of the new inventions they vend. You remember these guys…dressed casually to the point of rumples, stains on their button-up shirts worn notably sans neckties, often bearded, chubby, bespectacled, soft-spoken with an air of pleased abstraction.
The world may dub them nerds or geeks, but as a little girl making frequent trips to the shop with her computer programmer father, I know these men are wizards whose spells speak of sprites and ROM, floppy disks and if/then, Basic and text adventures. I learn magic passwords like random from them as they kindly suffer me to kneel in all of their chairs, doodle on their koala pads, run my small hands over all of their keyboards. In fact, I think the wizards hardly notice me, so intent are they in their conversation with my father about two strange creatures known as peek and poke.
Yet, while I hunt the wumpus, I am listening to their knowledge and their world becomes part of mine and my whole approach to the land of technology is filtered and colored through the lens of gentle familiarity and an acceptance of children as small apprentices to the craft. Their shops were spare and sparse, their manners often awkward and opinionated in their zeal, and their love of electronics marked them as an odd minority in that distant age, but how I miss these guys!
A crashing wave of nostalgia hit me this week when my laptop died and I was forced to visit Best Buy in the nearest major city. I searched first to see if any of the small businesses had survived and though I found a couple clinging to the misty borders of box store homogeneity, none of them carried laptops and so I was forced to enter the giant sliding doors into a realm that feels to me anything but human. The thudding noise – this underlies the whole Best Buy experience as various TVs, computers and video game systems vie with one another to make the deepest boom and the most jarring screech. You cannot escape the disorienting cacophony no matter which corner of the store you seek and it reaches its uncomfortable apex when you approach the shelves of technology. The floors are unyielding to the feet and the ceilings loom darkly out of sight. There is no place to sit down.
Gone are the bearded wizards with their passion for long chat and and the thrill of the newest thing, replaced by tense-looking youths who doubtless have their winning qualities but who are very obviously just doing their job. No one is happy, no one is excited. Jeff D. approaches, half-choked in his executive tie, sales folder in hand, alarmingly trained in the upsell.
When you take your computer home, he warns you in monotone, it will not boot up and belong to you. It will belong to Windows and Norton and a dozen other companies who will plague you with popup installation ads unless you pay extra to have those workers Best Buy dares to term ‘geeks’ remove these programs for you. In fact, unless you pay extra, the computer may not work when you get it home. Pay extra for inspection. And even if it works for a few weeks, if you don’t pay extra for a warranty, they will feel no shame about not helping you. You can log into Best Buy’s website and give Jeff. D. a review as a favor to him, but he will never become your friend in the computer shop. He will always remain just Jeff D. and he probably won’t be there the next time you visit Best Buy. He will have moved on to work in another big box. Perhaps that’s just as well for him.
My Atari 2600, built in 1977, still works beautifully and so do all of its games, but my Compaq Presario, built in 2004, didn’t last 5 years before it was so broken that replacing the parts would have been almost as expensive as buying a new model. I’m typing now on my new HP laptop and it’s very shiny and very slick, but it won’t become my companion as the TIs and Commodores and Atari 800s became in the homes of yesteryear, proving their worth by sticking with us for the long haul. My HP will break in a couple of years, and even with my expensive upsold warranty from Jeff D., I will probably end up buying whatever they’re selling in 2013. I won’t haul my broken box into a shop where the wizards feel personal regret and accountability over a weird boot error, where they will huddle over my keyboard trying to work some un-do spell and continue to earn my trust, friendship and business for the long haul. The wizards are gone and Best Buy has gobbled up their realm, replacing the healthy drive for a good reputation with the sickly complacency of monopolistic ‘who cares?‘.
The proof in this is that we’ve been utterly burned by Best Buy in the past. They sold us a defective part once that crashed our company’s main computer, and not only would they not give us our money back for the bad part, they also charged us for looking at the broken computer. The ‘geeks’ were glassy-eyed and defensive…seemingly not out of loyalty to their big box but simply out of uncaring policy. No one was helpful. No one cared. We left their domain with hot faces and unspoken curses on our lips but here we are, doing business with them again, certainly not because they’ve earned it but because they’ve managed to become the only game in town.
Once upon a time, the local small computer store was the only game in the town where I grew up, but how different their efforts to gain and keep customers and friends were! They are long gone now. Did it not pay to be passionate, honest, accountable, generous, fair? I am wondering about the lesson in all this. Why did our society look the other way when these small, worthy businesses disappeared, one by one, off the map, falling beneath the shadows of the generic box stores?
I can’t see that we gained anything good in this trade-off of franchises for family-owned businesses. But I’m sure I’ve gained a very different attitude about entering the land of technology in modern times. I am wary. I am irritated and on-guard against being treated with indifference and hung with absurd price tags for purchases that break after a few years’ use. I am longing for some chubby, bearded fellow to lean across the bulk of a big cream-colored monitor and listen to my tale of who I am and what I need and then solve my problem by showing me, with pride, the very best solution to my quest. I’m yearning to hear him say, “let me know if you run into any problems. I’ll be here.”
Walking out of the inharmonious din and dimness of Best Buy this week, I realized my old magic passwords don’t work anymore. The quiet cult of technology of the late 1970s and early 1980s mutated into yuppie executive-ness and then was swallowed by the monsters of franchise. Everyone has technology now. And, in this, I see the true trade-off. The shelves of today’s storehouses are piled high with laptops, notebooks and iPhones, and they are the sum total point. Things are not cheap, but they are throwaway. The human element is what’s missing. The old gatekeepers, amiable, whimsical and charming, are gone. The machines rule.
If you haven’t already checked out the new Place Pages interface in Google Maps yet, try this sample search for Barbara Oliver & Company Jewelry in Buffalo and you’ll see the full page information layout that is causing buzz in Local Search circles this week.
If you’d like to read up on this, take a gander at my latest Search Engine Guide Post, Google Maps Place Pages Widens Local Horizons, and don’t miss these insightful posts from Mike Blumenthal and Greg Sterling.
Initially, word had it that Google would not be indexing these Wikipedia-like information pages about businesses, neighborhoods, landmarks and cities, but Mike Blumenthal reports that he is already seeing them in the SERPs and that certainly makes sense to me. We’re awaiting clarification from Google on this point, but just imagine how powerful a Place Page could be for any small business making an effort to occupy as many places in the organic results as possible with good, positive, informative entries for their brand name search – possibly even for other keyword searches.
It’s early days yet, but I think Place Pages could become a powerhouse for local business owners and users. Google is pulling so much data from so many different place and, provided that the data is accurate, Place Pages could become real go-to pages for numerous facts about all kinds of places. If you run a local business, definitely stay tuned into this story. I think it’s going to develop into a big one.
Bad Apples! Anyone who follows Local Search news knows how they’ve spoiled Google’s barrel when it comes to locksmith listings. No one has done a more expert job of covering this topic than Mike Blumenthal of locksmith whistle blowing fame. The shenanigans going on in a typical search for Locksmith San Diego CA have brought us not only this, with 117 co-opted restaurant reviews fueling the top listing:
….but also this, with some pretty ugly accusations of illegal business practices cluttering up the user reviews portions of the results:
The last time I looked, legitimate locksmiths weren’t hand-making tortillas in their windows and quality search results were not delivered by heaping on extra toppings of indictments of fraud, but hey, that’s Google’s headache, not mine.
And that’s what I had to tell totally, utterly, absolutely, unquestionably legitimate locksmith, Glenn Younger, when he called me up several months ago to discuss a redesign of his website. Since 1914, Grah Safe And Lock have been Good Apples to their neighbors. This is an authentic and trustworthy local security specialist and locksmith company that has helped thousands and thousands of residents and business owners to be safer over the past century – not some fly-by-night entity with phony Google Maps rankings on the brain. But, as Glenn and I discussed within seconds of my answering his call, Google has yet to learn to tell the difference and because of this, we were going to have to act as though Google didn’t exist if we were to approach this contract with sanity and purpose.
I actually suggested he get in touch with Mr. Blumenthal if he was interested in more insight into the Google locksmith spam scandal, and Glenn was not only already very hip to Mike’s blog but he was, in fact, spearheading efforts to bring legal attention to the locksmith spam problem. Being at ground zero with the issue, Glen knew more about the locksmith fiasco than I did and I was very impressed with his patience, his knowledge and his commitment to an eventual solution. Glenn had done some assessment of this situation that is so negatively impacting his industry and reported,
“In California we have just documented over 60,000 fraudulent locksmith listings in Google alone.”
Bottom line…we couldn’t take on this project with our normal goals of achieving high Maps rankings for this local business and we were going to have to follow Google’s own good advice of doing things for humans instead of for search engines. Our aim was to improve the design, usability and content of GrahSecurity.com so that users arriving at the website, from whatever source, would be welcomed, educated and assisted in finding the services they need. These were excellent goals that we could accomplish for Glenn and his team.
One of the key purposes of any website is to establish a feeling of trust between the site user and the company being presented. This is especially critical when the services being offered hinge on something as sensitive as home or business security. In addition to creating a simple and professional new visual design for the whole site, one of our main objectives was to establish a very personable About Page for this company. I wanted a photo of Glenn Younger there – and doesn’t he radiate solidity, honesty and helpfulness? I wanted to get the company’s YouTube videos onto this page to show that they have been featured in local news reports. I wanted to include information about their century of serving the local community and I wanted to give users multiple options for keeping up to date on this business as well as reviewing them. We’ve got links pointing to everything from Kudzu to Yelp to Twitter and I feel that this level of interactivity suggests legitimacy, accountability and a very real presence in San Diego.
Of similar importance to us was the handling of the services and equipment Grah Safe And Lock offers. Their original website had all of this information listed on a single page, but we saw a great opportunity to break this content out into multiple unique pages that would give the locksmiths the room they needed to more fully explain what each of these items are. This is a chance for Grah to educate their users and demonstrate experience and knowledge. At the same time, this multi-page approach will help the website stand a better chance of winning organic rankings for exact match and long tail phrases.
A third task was to create an on-site blog for Grah Safe and Lock so that they will have the ability to share safety tips and local security news with their community. We’re really looking forward to seeing the locksmiths use this blog to good purpose.
Finally, we spent some time creating a few new profiles for this business in indexes other than Google’s and that should continue to strengthen Grah’s presence on the web.
Signs Of Effort People Can Trust
Fraudulent schemers are unlikely to invest the kind of care, time and effort that has gone into creating this new site for Grah Safe And Lock. Spammy tactics may be winning bad apples high Maps rankings right now, but we believe that a website like this one has its feet firmly planted for present and future success.
The state of spam in industries like Glenn Younger’s remains a tremendous discredit to Google’s good name, but forward-thinking business owners in similarly troubled verticals will not let that stop them. They will continue to move forward, looking for ever better ways to connect with their users and serve them well. As one of the largest, – and certainly the oldest – locksmith companies in San Diego, Grah Safe & Lock deserves to be at the top of the 10-Pack if Google wants to deliver relevance based upon performance and trustworthiness. But as things are, Google’s Maps results for locksmiths simply can’t be seen as relevant.
Until they work these problems out, there are many other ways to pursue visibility, and I can only hope that if you ever lose your keys in San Diego, you’ll skip over the 10-pack and make it to a website like Glenn Younger’s where you can be confident that you’ll be doing business with a licensed, local professional, not some scammer whose only merit is that they’ve pulled the wool over Google’s algorithmic eyes.
This project was a pleasure from start to finish and we are very proud to be including this ethical, smart and friendly locksmith company in our portfolio.
What This Great Client Had To Say About The Project:
“My expectations of what a web design firm can do for a company have been forever altered after working with Miriam and Liam at Solas Web Design. My industry has many challenges, and so hopes were not high, but after working with real professionals who focused on what IS possible, we are very pleased with the results. Working around the challenges, coming up with creative solutions and using best in class and state of the art web design principles, Solas gave us much more than expected. If you are in a situation where you would like to stand out as an exceptional company, Solas Web Design should be your first call.”
Think of yourself as an e-commerce vendor? Google’s Matt Cutts says think again and if you haven’t yet seen this short video clip, please do watch it. The message is clear: don’t be a vendor, be a….
That’s right! A minstrel, a troubadour, a town crier, a bard. You need to learn to sing the praises of your products loud and long if you’re aiming for good Google rankings. You may have viewed your job in your e-commerce venture as little more than assembling a catalog of SKUs, but if you want to experience the benefits of garnering search engine traffic, Google is making it clear that you will have to become a storyteller.
A Storyteller. That may seem like a rather archaic job description in our brave new world of iPhones and KML files, tweets and RSS feeds, but it’s the stories you tell that are the true stuff of your connection with the rest of the world, no matter what the medium. Google’s index is already groaning with thin content price comparison sites and similar wordless lists of things to buy. In this virtually mute setting, your business will distinguish itself by altering the way you view those items commonly known as product pages and coming to see them as the chapters in the story that explains why your business exists, page by page.
Turning Product Pages Into Story Pages
Just a few days ago, I came across some old television commercials at the end of an ancient video tape. Judging by the enormous frizzed hairstyles abounding, these ads definitely dated to the early 1980s. Pretty much everything advertised, from pasta sauce to syrup, was being billed as having half-the-fat. Half-the-fat must have been really huge in the 80s! I couldn’t help thinking about how food advertising has changed since then, largely thanks to corporations like Whole Foods who came to the powerful realization that they could sell products by telling stories.
In my pantry right now, I have a tin of cocoa powder. While it doesn’t say anything about having half-the-fat, it tells me all this:
-It’s Fair Trade
-It’s produced by a method described as ‘Full Circle Sustainability’
-The scientific name of cocoa is ‘theobroma cacao’
-This means ‘food of the gods’
-Cocoa originated in South America
-By purchasing this product I am ‘directly supporting a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development and environmental stewardship.’
-Ingredients and nutritional data are given
– And, I can learn more by visiting the company’s website
If this little tin of chocolate can tell me this much about itself, think of the room you have on any given web page to inform, educate, entertain and inspire. Whole Foods’ typical products aren’t just bread or strawberries or tea. They are organically produced in the verdant foothills of the Andes, by honored sustainable farmers whose lives are improved by the benefits of health care and educational programs. Being half-the-fat just isn’t enough any more for shoppers who have now come to expect a literary justification of a product before they will make a purchase. Recognize this trend and it will breathe new life into your entire website and especially into your product stories.
We specialize in working with niche-oriented companies and these types of businesses tend to offer the richest fodder for the creation of winning copy, but almost any business owner will be able to ask himself some of the following questions in order to get into the proper frame of mind for writing about products in a new and meaningful way:
What Problem Does This Product Solve?
Does it make the house safer, assuage hunger, organize messes, calm the mind, clean something, strengthen something, beautify something, get people somewhere they need to go? When someone purchases this product, what will it accomplish for them that they need to have accomplished? This is always the first question to ask, as solving a problem is the purpose of almost any product you could possibly hope to sell.
Who Made The Product?
Yes, who actually created this thing you are selling? Do you know? Was it fine old gentleman sitting on porches in the mountain fastnesses of the Ozarks? The active ladies of the wool-producing capitol of Minnesota who alternate shifts in the local woolen mill with giving community service talks at the chamber of commerce? Mom and Pop? The family business? Sweatshop labor in Asia…uh-oh…maybe it’s time to go into a new business where you can tell a better story.
Why Do You Sell This Product Instead Of Another One?
Is it greener, softer, more durable, brighter, more powerful, tastier, healthier, prettier, better smelling, domestic, imported, cheaper, higher quality, safer than X? What made you choose to sell candles made with beeswax instead of paraffin? Why is your trail mix created with sunflower seed oil instead of lard? Why do your garden lamps operate on solar power instead of electricity? What made you pick this product in your inventory over something similar you could have sold? What was your reasoning?
Who Uses This Product?
Kids, adults, elders? Lawyers, technicians, contractors, interior decorators? Sick people, healthy people, hungry people, eco-conscious people, busy people, religious people, confident people, scared people? Maybe young men hunting for jobs use it. Maybe women over 40 do. Maybe famous people use it. Define who the product is for and you’ll know you’re addressing the right audience, while helping that audience to identify that this is the product for them.
What’s It Made Of?
Just what is acai berry, anyway? Where does it come from? What is its place in history, its origin, its chemical and nutritional properties? What is copper? Where does it come from? How is it mined? How does LED lighting work? Who invented it? What can you tell me about the components that make up your product whether these are parts, features or ingredients?
Who Can I Give It To?
Is this suitable for gift-giving? For Mother’s Day, Easter, Hanukkah? Will it ease Uncle Joe’s arthritis or help Aunt Pat to get her first good night’s sleep in a century? This ties into the question of who uses the product but it’s a chance to shine a special light on the product as a gift-giving solution.
Where Does It Fit Into The Human Story?
Is it something used only at bath time, something once used by astronauts, something Shakespeare wrote about, a signature of the 60’s, a staple of the Roman Empire, an essential for an authentic Chinese dinner? What is the historical and modern scenario in which this product falls neatly into place? What does my purchase of it connect me to? Does a long history of use dictate the sense of buying this item or is it so new that no one before has ever enjoyed its benefits until now?
What Do People Say About It?
We can think of this briefly as customer testimonials, and the power of being able to give evidence of satisfied customers is certainly potent. Use full names if you can – even avatars. Go beyond this, too. Has the product received any press from organizations, traditional media, bloggers, review boards? Does it qualify for certification by any quality boards? Does it meet certain standards? Could trusted, well-known or influential people be persuaded to try and recommend this product? Is a form or function in place for customers to send you feedback about the product? Tell them you want to hear from them.
Does It Work Well With Something Else?
You’ve bought the barbecue. Don’t forget the coals! Are there other items in your inventory that can be tied into the product you are selling, expanding the text content on the page and strengthening your internal linking structure? Are there any additional uses for the product I might not have thought of, whether on its own or in combination with something else? Will I benefit more from a total package rather than a single purchase?
Technical specifications, directions, assembly instructions, care instructions, expiration instructions, replacement instructions…the list goes on. If I need to know something about the use, maintenance or eventual replacement of the product, your page can give me those guidelines. Even if you plan to include those things when you ship off the package, why not lay it all out on the page so that I can feel confident that I’m making a fully-informed purchase?
I hope these few suggestions I’ve given have gotten the wheels turning in your mind and helped you to start envisioning this more in-depth approach to featuring and defining the products you sell. Don’t think you can pass muster as a story teller? For some business owners, this will honestly be the case. Writing well, even with guidelines, is not everyone’s forte. Do you have employees? Perhaps one of them is a budding writer, just waiting for you to discover their hidden talents at bringing your company’s inventory to life with the written word. No dice? Well, then….
You could always hire a professional copywriter. Matt Cutts’ video makes it pretty apparent that you are going to need someone prosy on your team if you want to compete in Google’s game.
“O! Fie!” you say. “You mean I’m going to have to hire a storyteller to write copy for me if I can’t do it myself?”
You’ll be smart if you do, yes. Companies hire pros to write their ad copy, their jingles, their press releases and speeches. When you understand that acquiring the skills of a professional copywriter may mean the difference between being somewhere or nowhere in Google’s SERPs, the essential wisdom of budgeting for this becomes suddenly clear.
Can You Do This Cheaply?
There are services out there offering copywriting for pennies, yes. The creation of your content can be outsourced to such companies which employ a stable of cheap writers who will put words between paragraph tags for you. It’s unlikely that you will speak directly to the writers and there is no guarantee that you will even share the same native idiom with the writers employed. Taking this path will result in your acquisition of some text for your website’s pages…but it certainly can’t be described as authentic story telling.
If you’ve read all the way to this point in this article, take my advice and decide that you are going to develop a relationship with an individual writer who is going to devote the time required to learning all about you and your business. How can someone write truthfully, genuinely or compellingly about your company and the products you sell without knowing you and knowing what you’re hoping to achieve?
When a potential copywriting client comes to me, I see that as the start of a meaningful relationship. I need to hear his voice, be attentive to his manner of expressing himself, listen to his stories about his typical customers. I need to see all his print marketing materials, and sometimes, I need him to send me samples of his products so that I can put into words what it’s like to hold that product in my own two hands. E-commerce sites depend on people being willing to buy things without physical interaction. Good copy approximates that interaction as closely as possible while instilling a sense of experience and correct expectations in the potential customer. Good copy informs, entertains, inspires and engages.
“Miriam, your copywriting for our soap descriptions is nothing short of fine literature.”
(A recent copywriting client).
That’s what you want to be saying when your professional copywriter hands over the stories she has written about your company’s products. You want the satisfaction of knowing that your inventory’s tale has finally been well told and that all future customers will see you have gone the extra mile to make their shopping experience exceptionally satisfying.
And don’t forget, the mighty benefit of this effort, this investment of time and creativity, will be a feast for Google’s bots. In one fell swoop, you will have seen to the needs of human users and search engines and your website will be the better for it.
Today’s a good day to take a look at those pieces of data you call product pages and begin to imagine how you can infuse them with new warmth and life. What story will you tell? Your audience awaits.
At Solas Web Design, we make no secret of our green sensibilities. When we’re not hard at work in the office, we’re hard at play on our organic micro-farm, working towards our future goals of total self-sufficiency. We’re deeply invested in the pursuit of an eco-friendly mode of living and our ears really prick up when a new client comes to us and tells us how his or her small business fits into the better green world so many of us are trying to build.
I was totally delighted to hear from soapmaker, Jackie Barth, several months ago. Jackie has been making natural bar soaps for years, enjoying healthy success at trade shows and fairs. Jackie had come to the decision that she could improve her life by cutting down on the miles she was covering to bring her hand made soaps to customers by creating a place for them to shop with ease and pleasure online. This week, we’re celebrating the launch of Dragonfly Soaps on the web and if you lean towards natural bar soaps, we hope you’ll pay this new website a visit.
Our Favorite Aspects Of This Fun Project
We were absolutely thrilled to learn that a professional Rodale Press photographer, Thomas MacDonald was going to be handling the photo shoot of Dragonfly Soaps’ beautiful products. Professional photography really brings out the colors and textures in the bar soaps and that addresses one of the main challenges in selling items that have such sensory, tactile appeal. Mr. MacDonald had become a fan of Dragonfly Soaps’ handcrafted bar soaps after trying them and this partnership resulted in some of the prettiest product photos it has ever been our pleasure to utilize in website design.
Visual website design needed to play a supporting role in the project – stepping back and letting the products shine through while the site navigation did the legwork of getting customers to whichever category of soaps they might like to investigate with as few clicks a possible.
Our absolute favorite part of the project was the copywriting. Jackie sent us a whole wonderful box of her handmade soaps and then put her faith in us to write the copy that would give a clear sense of the benefits customers would enjoy from each unique bar of soap. We really had a ball describing the natural, botanical ingredients and bringing to life the romance of soaps like Lemon Chiffon, Jasmine, and Oatmeal Almond.
Each product became a chance to write a mini article that would be the next best thing to holding one of Dragonfly Soaps’ bar soaps in one’s own hands and by the end of project, Jackie and her business partner were calling me the J. Petermen of soaps and the Queen of Copywriting. I’ll take those compliments with much pleasure! Is the copy for your website’s products or services engaging, informing and entertaining your customers? Today’s a good day to ask yourself that question.
We are truly proud to do our best for a company that operates on a green scale of ethics. Dragonfly Soaps handcrafts their bar soaps in small, careful batches. Nothing toxic is created or disposed of from their workshop. They donate the ends and scraps from their soapmaking process to worthy charities and their packaging and print materials are printed on recycled paper. Their product is Made in the USA and simply lovely. When we understood these details about Dragonfly Soaps, we felt totally confident that we were the right match for their project and we look forward to continuing to work with Jackie and her team towards success on the web.
Do You Run A Green Small Business?
Call us up at (707) 981-7943 and tell us your story. We build SEO-based websites, offer copywriting and local search marketing services to you. Most of all, we get to the heart of what your business is all about and help you discover the most effective way to present the benefits of what you are offering to your clientele.
Our blogging has been on the light side for the past month or so because we’ve been so busy working for our wonderful clients. We’re excited about launching DFSoaps.com and have a handful of other big projects underway at the moment, but we definitely have time to listen to what you’ve got to say about your green small business and we’d love to hear from you!