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Not Such Great Expectations – or – The Client Who Got Away

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!
A friendly new acquaintance of mine, Donna Fontenot, just published a podcast (you know, one of those things you download and listen to, a bit like a radio show) entitled Should You Work From Home?. If you are considering quitting your day job to work from home on the Internet, I highly recommend listening to Donna’s podcast to get a realistic view of the long term planning and long work hours that go into beginning to earn a partial or full income from the Internet. Many of the inquiries we get from people hoping to start a small web-based business are all the proof I need to know that Donna’s advice needs to be heard and learned from.
Selling Stuff Is Not A Business Plan
Recently, we received an inquiry from a potential client via our website email form. This form has a place for the client to explain the focus of their business and their hopes for their website design. In this case, the information this person provided sent up two big red flags for us:

1) Their hope was to sell a variety of unrelated stuff, most of it fiddly items in saturated markets like cell phone accessories. With over 13 million entires in Google’s index for the broad term cell phone accessories, we are looking at a market that is going to be borderline impossible for a small business owner with a limited budget to break into.
2) Their desires for their website was to look ‘cute’ with Flash graphics and lots of popups. This plan, if acted upon, basically spells out the death of this business idea. The only way I could think of a small business even beginning to crack into such a market would be with a very plain website, loaded with a huge inventory of compelling, longtail text articles, and designed with such clean, intuitive navigation that it could be effectively used by a sleepwalker or crawled by a bot on NyQuil. Choosing, instead, to trip up the bots and arrest any potential paying customer with flashing imagery and aggravating popups is simply the worst way a business owner could go in this competitive, challenging situation.
Tell It Like It Is
It can be tough when you are communicating with a stranger. You’ve never met this potential client. You don’t know anything about their life. But at this point, I have received so many inquiries with almost identical hopes detailed in them, I have to go with my gut feeling and be completely honest with the person on the other end of the email wire.
I took the time to compose a lengthy reply to this contact, explaining my concerns about their plan, asking what type of market research they had done, urging them to read our introductory guide to SEO so that they could begin to learn about the basics of search engine friendly design. I feel a bit sad dashing cold water over someone’s hopes. I worry about the person. For all I know, they are in a miserable job with a crazy boss, or they are in poor health, or their family is about to lose their house and their goal of making a living online is bordering on a last desperate hope to change a bad situation in their life. It would be so easy to flatter them, play into their unrealistic expectations, take their money, build their ill-conceived website and walk away. But what a rotten thing this would be to do!
The best thing I can do for this person is to tell them the truth; that selling some stuff is too vague to be called a business plan and that their business will fold if they go with a Flash-based website. I say it more politely than this, but I want them to hear the truth from me, because I want them to rethink what they’re doing before they hastily blow their budget.
No Reply
Almost invariably, I never hear back from folks after having rained on their parade. Not even a thanks for the information. It leaves me wondering what becomes of them. Do they go away, cloister themselves in a comfortable room and sit down to seriously rethink their strategy, or do they simply move on to the next designer who is only to glad to develop their Flash website for them? The cynic in me assumes it is the latter. All of the website redesign work we do has confirmed my suspicion that our industry is flowing over with designers who think a pretty site is a good site. On rare occasions, I have managed to talk contacts out of their Flash pipe dreams, but 98% of the time, contacts like these never become clients of ours.
Are You Formulating Your Own Small Business Plan As I’m Typing This?
Make me happy and take my advice. Spend the time to do the following things well before you put up a single web page on the Internet.
1) Research Your Market
Skilled business people will have many ways of discovering supply and demand in a given market, but here’s a really simple one to start out with. Pick the top 10 products you would like to sell online and type these terms into SEO Book’s Keyword Suggestion Tool. The results returned to you will give you a fair idea of the number of searches being performed each month for the keywords in question.
Then, go to Google and type in your ten terms again, one at a time. Look at the thin blue bar just below the search box. On the right hand side, you can see the number of documents Google has indexed for the keyword in question.
If you discover that only 5 people a month are searching for your product, but that the Google index contains 3 million pages for the product, chances are you’re looking at a losing business idea. Conversely, if you discover that 6,000 people a month are searching for a product and the Google index only contains a few thousand entries for the term, you’ve got a much better chance of trying to meet the demand.
2) Learn About Search Engines
Remember, you’re going onto the Internet to make use of the traffic the Internet provides. You are largely dependent on search engines shuttling that traffic to you. You need to learn how to please the search engines in order to win the traffic. You are playing in their backyard. You can either hire an SEO-based web designer like me to build your search engine friendly website and teach you how search engines work, or you can learn the ropes yourself. Please, if you are forming your strategy, take the time to jumpstart your education by investigating these resources:
Our Simple SEO Guide for the Small Web Business
Matt McGee’s Quick Checklist for Optimizing Your Site.
Matt’s Six Common Retail Pitfalls
Danny Sullivan’s Article on Universal Search
Matt McGee’s Article about Local Search
These are just a few of the great articles that have been written, for your education, by industry experts. They are free to you to read. All you have to spend is the time. Also, take note of the links in my blog roll. These blogs and sites are authored by my colleagues who offer the best information for both small and big business owners. Get into the blog reading habit to continue your education.
When it comes down to it, education is why I consistently tell it like it is to those contacts whose inquiries show up in my inbox, laden with not such great expectations. I believe that it is the education of the small business owner that spells out ultimate success or failure. Don’t Rush. Spend the time now to research your market and study how search engines work. It’s the smart thing to do if you are serious about making a living online.