Why I joined FreshBooks

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Feeling wonderfully refreshed right now, after a week lounging on a beach at the West end of Jamaica, followed by a week back in the country reconnecting with the kids and packing in a little skiing in this gorgeous Spring-like weather.

Beyond the vacation and family time, though, there's something else putting a major bounce in my step these days, and that's the new gig.

I've been kind of coy about where I was going to land after Thornley Fallis, for a couple of reasons, but now it’s time to come out of stealth mode and ‘fess up to the fact that I’ve jumped enthusiastically into a brand new role at FreshBooks.

It's always exciting to start a brand new job. Getting to know the new people, figuring out which end is up, starting to piece together the clues that will eventually drop through the filter and end up as part of the big plan for the year ahead. I've always loved this feeling of starting something new. It's just invigorating.

Coming to FreshBooks, though, is like taking this feeling and cranking it up to 11. Everything about this opportunity just felt right, from the very first moment Mike McDerment and I started chatting about it. After ten years in the agency world, I already knew my next move was likely to be back into the software business; back to the roots and backbone of my career. So when Mike pinged me a while back to ask: "Ever thought about coming client side?" my immediate gut reaction was "Hell yes!"

This is no exaggeration: if I'd sat down and made a dream list of all the software companies in the world I might possibly be interested in working with, FreshBooks would have been right at the top.

Why? A whole slew of reasons, I guess, but let me see if I can distill some of them into the main categories:

1. The people

Ask just about anyone in the Toronto (or broader) tech community what they think of FreshBooks and you'll hear something like "Oh - those guys are great!" The reputation of the team here is as well-deserved as it is well-protected.

They (we!) have some of the best people you could possibly hire if you wanted to build a kick-ass software team - seriously. The people I'm working with are just exceptional. Plus the integrity and culture is fiercely protected by one of the most intense and in-depth hiring processes I've ever come across. You don't get to join the FreshBooks team unless you're a clear and strong fit. They've got a really good thing going on here and they're smart stewards of the team balance. Getting picked to join FreshBooks is a little like winning software Olympic gold.

I guess I'd been in a kind of complementary orbit with the FreshBooks folks for a few years now. I got to know co-founder Mike through his role with the mesh conference and meetings at various geek community events. Long before we ever talked about working together, I'd also voted for FreshBooks twice as a judge of the PICK 20 Awards. I did so as an honest admirer of the way they do things here and the role many FreshBookers play in the community. Along the way, I got to know Corey Reid through our involvement in HoHoTO, and several other team members through other channels. I liked everything I saw about the FreshBooks team - people who were way smarter than me and would drive me to create great work.

In short, it just made sense from a personal fit perspective.

2. The platform

The core of what FreshBooks offers, as a web app, is deceptively simple. We're in the business of getting people paid for what they do.

If you're a freelancer, a small business person, an entrepreneur - that's a pretty compelling statement: we get you paid. I like the idea of a business being built on such an elegant economy of purpose.

Yet it is, as I said, deceptively simple - and remarkably powerful. If you can absolutely nail one of the most basic needs of any business (raise an invoice; collect money), just think of where you might be able to go beyond that...

Obviously, I'm not going to start getting into any roadmap futures here, but while the current FreshBooks product itself is pretty darn cool, there's also a long, long way you can go when you're starting from such a solid main idea.

I've often said that the thing I missed most about working in consulting roles in the past 10 years was the enforced distance from the product. When you're a consultant, you get to advise and, at best, influence - but you rarely get to really own the thing.

Getting back into a software company is a lot about getting back in touch with my product marketing gene. And here, it's not just the product; it's the platform and where we can go with it. Thinking about that has instantly kicked my creative mojo back into high gear.

3. The promise

Another key factor for me in weighing the decision to join this team was the overall promise of FreshBooks.

Note: I'm not talking about the "potential" of the company or what this might translate into in terms of stock options and other material aspects (although that stuff is appealing, of course).

Potential is something that might be achieved, if the stars align, you execute well, and the conditions are right. Too many variables there.

A promise, on the other hand (for a good Catholic boy like me), is something you're brought up to deliver on - and the FreshBooks team has a strong record of delivering.

But it's more complex than that. On reflection, "promise" may not be quite the right word for the solid feeling of confidence I have about joining FreshBooks. It's a very young team, and yet there's a certain quiet maturity about the way these guys conduct themselves.

From everything I learned prior to joining, and everything I've been able to glean in my very short time here, FreshBooks feels like the archetype of a new wave of post-Cluetrain businesses. These guys are, IMHO, one of a relatively small group of companies built from the ground up around what you might call social business principals. Or, at least, you might call it that if you were in the business of applying wanky labels to doing the right thing.

Think about Rackspace, Zappos, or FTJCO - these guys are among a handful of companies who've emerged in the past few years doing things in a completely different way from what customers in their respective markets had grown used to. It’s not necessarily a revolution – that part already kinda happened when the read/write web emerged. It’s more that all of these companies, FreshBooks included, take a certain engaged cluefulness as read amongst their teams, customers and suppliers. It's in our DNA.

We can’t dissemble, couldn’t fake it if we tried – we’re just naturally inclined to run our businesses the way things should be done because we're simply not wired to even contemplate any other way of doing it.

It's not about social media, but one example of what I mean can be seen in the way these guys have applied the principles and tools of that space. Look: there are thousands of companies out there doing cool and groovy things in the social media/Web 2.0 universe. That's all good. But what I've always really liked about the way things work at FreshBooks is that social media (indeed, all forms of media) are just standard, accepted parts of the job, they're not the job itself. Nobody here puts out a blog post because they think you gotta have a blog. They blog, email, snail mail, tweet or even just pick up the damn phone on the first ring because that's part of the job.

In a world where every customer is engaged and every customer has a voice, the social media tools and principles are hardly worth even thinking about any more - they're just all part of the new perspective included as standard in our view of the world. It’s the business that’s the thing, not the tools that help us run the business and service our customers. Yes, there's a certain essential philosophy of transparency, authenticity, and immediacy often associated with companies doing things in the social media world - but it's the attitude that's important, not the technologies.

tl;dr - I've been doing this stuff for long enough now that I like to think that I get it. And I also think I'm a good judge of companies that get it. These guys got it a long time ago.

4. The position

So what is it I'm actually going to be doing here? This is one of the best things about the new gig. My official role is Vice President, Marketing Communications. A fairly ordinary title, perhaps, but here's why I think that's so cool...

Way back before I went over to the Dark Side of PR agency life, I spent many years running just about every aspect of software company marketing you can think of. As a Jack-of-all-trades and all-round marketer it took me a while to figure out the aspects of marketing I was most interested in (and best at).

One of the main reasons I moved into PR was that I'd finally discovered communications was the slice of marketing I loved the most. I figured going into the agency world was a good way to focus on that specific area and get better at it - and I learned a hell of a lot in those 10 years.

So while I'm still fascinated by every facet of the marketing puzzle, I know enough to realise that I'm far from an expert in all areas, and the world of marketing has moved on a long way in the past few years.

The great thing about this FreshBooks gig is that they already have a terrific VP Marketing who is really strong in all the areas I'm not (and vice versa). Mitch Solway is marketing yin to my communications yang. Minimal overlap, maximum fit. It rocks.

So my gig is part storyteller, part flack, part marketer, part evangelist, part author, part creative director: it's a job that is broad and diverse in scope and, in some ways, needs to be defined through doing it, as we're creating the role from the ground up. There's a huge amount to do, a ton of remarkable stories to tell, and an even bigger story still being written through every customer interaction, every single day.

In short, as you can tell, I'm pretty excited about joining the FreshBooks team. This feels a lot like coming home.

My first official outing as an ambassador for FreshBooks will be at the SXSWi festival kicking off in Austin, Texas later this week. Come find me if you're there and you could win one of my shiny new business cards.

Got to go now, the support lines are calling...


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

This feels like a really weird post to write.

After more than three years at Thornley Fallis, I’m leaving for pastures new. More than that: I’m leaving the agency business entirely and getting back into software – my first and enduring passion. I can’t say exactly where just yet, but this is a really exciting move for me and I can’t wait to break the news.

First, though, a fond farewell to Thornley Fallis & 76design – my home-away-from-home and extended family for the past three years. It’s hard to be leaving at a time like this. The firm is probably in the best position it has been in all the time I’ve known them, with extraordinary new people coming into the team, terrific clients, and some genuinely cool new projects in the pipeline for 2010.

I will always be proud to be able to say that I worked with Joe Thornley, Terry Fallis and the entire team there – remarkable people doing outstanding work. Joe’s recent post about “The New PR” paints a clear picture of the vision of the firm; a vision I know they’re putting into action every single day.

Having followed the PR business closely from the inside for the past ten years, I don’t think there’s another agency anywhere in Canada capable of delivering the quality of service and consistent innovation the TF team turns out. I would heartily recommend TF to anyone. Thank you, Joe, and thank you to the whole TF/76design crew – it’s been a great ride.

My decision to move on from my agency years and return to “the client side” has much more to do with the opportunity in front of me than anything else. I wasn’t looking around, but something came along that just made instant sense, from the very first conversation. But now that I’ve settled into the idea, I don’t think I’ll miss being an agency bloke. Timesheets kill me.

More news about the new gig as soon as I’m able to reveal it. For now, adieu TF crew, see you at Third Tuesday!

HoHoTO 3.0 - Why do we do this?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

[Cross-posted from the main HoHoTO page]

Yes, we're doing it again.

As those of you following the tweets have noticed, HoHoTO is returning this December 16th at The Mod Club in Toronto.

New to all this? Wondering what the heck a HoHoTO is and whether you need an inoculation? Check out this summary video from last year's phenomenal event, or just... well, you know what to do. If you're still confused, here's my post about last year's event.

Last year, we set the ticket prices at a starting level, then steadily increased the price as the days ticked down toward the event. This year, we're taking a different approach - less strongarm, more faith in the natural generosity of our fellow Torontonians. I'll get to the full explanation about ticket pricing in a minute.

First, let's remind ourselves why we're doing this in the first place:

HoHoTO grew organically out of a shared belief among a relatively small group of people. A belief that spread like a wildfire through the tweetstreams and blogvines and quickly turned a much, much bigger group of people on to the same core idea:

That people in our own town are hungry and - dammit - we can make a difference.

HoHoTO is about a lot of things. It's about having an insane night of unbridled, unforgettable FUN. It's about meeting old friends and new and spilling drinks on them. It's about dancing like you're 19 again. It's about awesome raffle prizes and fantastic surprises. It's about creating memories to last a long, long time.

But at root, it's about something even more important. Not to get all glum and earnest on you, but HoHoTO is - and always has been - about helping feed Toronto's hungry.

That's why we do this thing.

  • In Toronto, people just like you and me made more than a million visits to food banks last year.
  • Food bank use is growing - up 18% nationally this year over last. The largest ever year-over-year increase on record.
  • More than 37% of the people using food banks are children (and if that doesn't break your heart, you need to examine your soul)
  • The median monthly household income in Toronto is only $980. Hunger in the GTA is a result of lack of money, not lack of food.

Now you have a sense of why HoHoTO was created -- to help the Daily Bread Food Bank with desperately needed funds and food.

So far, with our original Holiday party in 2008 and the summer spinoff (oh so wittily labeled HoHOTo) we've managed to raise over $38,000. This year, we're going to try to beat that in one night. Our goal is $40,000. Yes, we're mental.

Here's the deal. If you're employed, gainfully self-employed, or independently wealthy and thinking of coming to HoHoTO, the chances are you're a hell of a lot better off financially than any of the people we're trying to help. So we've got a bunch of $20 tickets available - but are you really only good for twenty bucks?

A hundred bucks to you is what you take out of the ATM on a Saturday night and find it's all gone by Sunday morning. To a food bank user, that same $100 could be all they have left after rent and basics to feed their whole family for a month.

Please: before you say you can't afford any more than the basic ticket, stop and think. Yes, you can.

This year, you'll see there are blocks of tickets available at a range of price levels. There's no difference between the $20 and the $100 tickets. Only you will ever know the size of the donation you choose to make.

If $20 really is all you can spare, that's cool. We still want you there, and we know you'll be spending more on the night for drinks, cabs, etc.

But please, if you can - think of paying for your ticket at one of the higher levels. It's just the right thing to do.

OK. Enough begging. The tickets are now officially on sale, here. Hook yerself all up and get ready to have the ultimate Santastic holiday experience at the return of the original party that Twitter built.

Be there, or we'll bauble your eggnogs.

What question would you like to ask Steve Ballmer? (Part II)

Monday, October 19, 2009

This has been interesting.

At the very end of last week, I put out a call for questions to ask Steve Ballmer this week on the eve of the Windows 7 launch. Encouraged to note that I ended up with a really good selection of questions, as well as an entertaining handful of obscene, scatological, ribald or just generally cheeky ones (as expected).

I've arbitrarily chosen a small handful of the best questions, tweaked the wording slightly, where needed (mainly just editing for length), and created a mini Twitter poll to help pick the final question.

The candidate questions are:

  1. Many felt the Vista launch was not your finest marketing moment. Have you made a conscious effort to market Win7 differently?
  2. What is the primary goal for Win7 - where does this OS fit in Microsoft's overall strategy?
  3. Which features in Win7 will best combat the Mac OS and which features go way beyond your competition?
  4. The transition from XP to Vista was a very steep learning curve for the average user. Will the shift to Win7 be as big?
You can vote at the poll over here.

Voting closes at 07:00 Eastern Time tomorrow morning, October 20th.

The question with the most votes will be included in a special one-on-one interview with Mr. Ballmer himself later this week. (No, I'm not doing the interview myself - this is a kind of proxy interviewing thing).

BTW - if, on reading the questions, you think you could come up with something even better, feel free to email or leave me a comment here. Who knows...

What one question would you put to Steve Ballmer?

Friday, October 16, 2009

I promise this is not a joke.

Through some fine friends in the media, I've been invited to ask a question that will be put to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in a special interview he's doing with a Canadian publication next week, on the eve of the Windows 7 launch.

I was exceptionally surprised and immensely flattered to be asked. Strangely, perhaps, my first instinct was not to try and come up with some dazzlingly intelligent and incomparably deep question on my own - instead, I immediately knew I wanted to crowdsource it.

I want you, my lovely blog readers, Twitter followers, RSS relatives, and Friendfeed roommates, to help me craft the ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything (from a Microsoftie Windows 7-centric POV, that is).

Think of it this way: you're the only person standing in the elevator at the foot of the CN Tower, about to take the short ride from the ground floor to the main deck at the top of the tower. Just as the doors are closing, Steve Ballmer steps in and intones a friendly "hello".

You have about 58 seconds alone with one of the most influential men on the planet and certainly one of the most powerful tech industry executives of all time. Time enough to ask him just one question.

What's it going to be?

Serious, searching, or flippant. How are you going to use your one question?

Give me your suggestions in the comments here, by email (to: michaelocc AT gmail.com), or on Twitter (@michaelocc).

Only one restriction: the topic is Windows 7, so let's try and stay on topic, please. I know you want to dig into Vista. I'm sure some of you might just want to say: "So Steve. Bing. Really, Steve? Bing? Really?"

But no. Let's stick to Windows 7, please. OK?

And no - before you ask - no one has asked me to do this. No fellow flack has put me up to this. The journalist asked me directly, and I decided to have a little fun with it.

I'll assess all the questions I get between now and Sunday night (October 18). Then in my entirely arbitrary and subjective wisdom I'll tweet my choices for the top three questions and ask you to vote.

The question that gets the most votes by 23:00 Monday, October 19, will be included in the interview and actually put to Mr. Ballmer himself. I'll then link to the interview results here once it's published.

How cool is that?

[UPDATE Monday, October 19: 16:30 - Not counting the utterly silly, but often genuinely amusing ones, I've got 29 questions in so far, from the comments, email and on Twitter. Thanks! Still time to squeeze a few more in, if you have any brainwaves. I've started sorting and ranking the ones I think make most sense, and will have a Twtpoll up later this evening to ask for votes on the top three. Stay tuned.]

Customer service lessons from a news distribution service

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Disclosure first: CNW Group, Canada's main national newswire service, continues to be a valued client of my firm, Thornley Fallis.

I just wanted to get that important point across up front. This relationship is already a matter of public record and something I've blogged, tweeted and even appeared in videos about in the past.

Still, given the topic of this post, it's worth repeating in full: for the past three years I've done a fair amount of work with CNW Group in our role as their Agency of Record. Naturally, as a PR firm, we often use the services of a newswire. CNW Group gets a lot of our business, out of loyalty (of course) but also because we happen to think they do a very good job.

Having said that, there are - as our friends at CNW know - times when we've used other wire services. It's entirely appropriate that we should. Personally, I'd love it if 100% of our business went through CNW, but that's not the way it works.

Sometimes, we have clients who express a particular preference for a different service. On occasion, we've also been asked to experiment with some of the newer web-based news distribution services, just to evaluate their effectiveness.

Point is: I like CNW a lot and I'm naturally inclined to be loyal to them. But that doesn't mean I'm not interested in offerings from other news distribution services. Quite the opposite, in fact - I'm more inclined to want to learn about competitive services, for all kinds of (fairly obvious) reasons.

I felt all this contextual blah was necessary before getting into the real meat of this post. You'll soon see why.

Earlier today, I had a lengthy and, let's say, "interesting" email exchange with the provider of a competitive service. I've posted the entire exchange, below.

I was tempted to give this the detailed, line-by-line fisking it so richly deserves. On reflection, though, I've chosen to just post it with minimal additional commentary. Frankly, I don't think it really needs much help.

For the record: I've altered absolutely nothing of substance from the original email thread. I have made only three cosmetic edits worth noting:

1. I have removed the name, company name and address details of the other party. Given my relationship with CNW, it wouldn't seem entirely fair to name the competitive vendor involved in this rather vigorous exchange of views. Let's call the other protagonist "George" and his company "OtherWire";

2. I've reversed the order of the email thread, to save you having to do that bottom-to-top scrolling thing, and;

3. I've added colours to make the two sides of the discussion a little clearer, just in case. The messages I received are in blue, my responses are in red, any additional comments that were not part of the original email thread are in italics. Where I've removed links or any other info, I've said so in CAPS. Those of you reading on a handheld or through an RSS reader that doesn't support the formatting can either click through to the full post, or just follow along - it's probably not that hard.

So, with all the lengthy disclosure our of the way, let the tomfoolery commence:

-----Original Message-----
From: admin@otherwire.com
Sent: July-09-09 1:40 PM
To: Michael O'Connor Clarke
Subject: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

I noticed that you do not currently use OtherWire to distribute your company's press releases.


If you would prefer to have your email address removed from this list,
please click the link at the very bottom of this message. Do not reply
to this message.


I founded OtherWire in April 2001 and offer the same or more exposure
for your PR pieces, for considerably less money, compared to any of our

In today's market, you need to save money where you can.


Also, please read this comparison:


With OtherWire you can:

* Reach more than 230,000 bloggers and 170,000 media contacts
* Increase traffic to your website
* Optimize your ranking in search engines
* Guarantee placement of your press release on top websites like Yahoo!,
AltaVista, AOL, Google News, Google Finance, Twitter and Topix and
thousands of others
* Have all of your press releases published and remain live during your
paid subscription period
* Post your release to thousands of media contacts
* Track your press releases in real-time (newswires and blogs) with
custom software developed by OtherWire
* Get 10% of your paid subscription donated to a charity of your choice

We offer a one-off price of just $39.99 per press release or you can
subscribe for unlimited access and send any number of press releases for
just $59.99 per month (discounts are available for advance payment).
This includes agencies, who can submit all of their client's PR through
a single account.

Yours sincerely,


P.S. If you do not send more than 5 or 6 press releases each month, or
if your annual press release distribution spend is less than $612, then

On the other hand, if your company would like to have your own White
Label version of OTHER SIMILAR DISTRIBUTION SERVICE, either for your multiple offices' use or to get into the Press Release Distribution business, please visit LINK TO OTHER SIMILAR DISTRIBUTION SERVICE


Michael O'Connor Clarke wrote:

Thanks George,

As the Agency of Record for CNW Group (the main Canadian national
newswire, co-owned by PRNewswire), I don't think we'll be switching
service providers any time soon.

Also, your comparison chart is plain wrong, IMHO. But please feel free
to prove me wrong. If you have examples of client-issued releases that
have received more coverage due to distribution through your service
compared to a major newswire, I'd be interested.



OK, so perhaps my initial response was a little snarky. I'll grant that. But I could have just hit 'delete' or flagged his message as spam. I thought I should give him a chance to respond and educate me. As I said above, I'm genuinely interested in all kinds of news distribution services - it's part of my job.

I didn't have to wait long for a response from "George"...


From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 2:25 PM
To: Michael O'Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution


I didn't think you would be interested, but then, you never know.

In any event, well, as you say, it's your opinion. You are incorrect. But that's your right--to be wrong.

You don't know how OtherWire is distributed. We have more than 200,000 journalists who receive our twice-daily news feeds, plus more than 400,000 distirbution points through a number of partnerships including Moreover and frankly, all the rest.

So if you can show me where I am not correct, I will accept what you say, but speaking without actually understanding how my system works suggests inexperience at best.

Yours sincerely,


Michael O'Connor Clarke wrote:

If you didn’t think I would be interested, then why send it to me? Is that the same philosophy of approach you use when sending stuff to journalists?

I’m not trying to be a dick, George. Even before starting to work with CNW as a client, I’ve had a long-time interest in the business of news distribution and the necessary evolution of the wire services in this disintermediated world. I’m genuinely interested.

I believe your comparison chart is incorrect for a couple of reasons:

-- The pricing shown for competitors’ “global distribution”. If a BusinessWire release goes directly into the editorial systems of the majority of mainstream international media (plus Bloomberg, Reuters, AP, etc.) and is also simultaneously submitted to Yahoo! News, Google News and so forth – how is your global reach any better than theirs?

-- I don’t know how all of the services you compare work, but do know how to get a release out through the PRNewswire network within 30 minutes. That’s about as close to “immediate distribution” as I think anyone can offer. What am I getting wrong?

But, again, for Public Relations professionals, the mechanics and reach of a distribution service are, in truth, rather less important than the results. Results = coverage. And coverage is not the same as distribution or syndication.

This is an argument I’ve had with wire services for many years. Just because they can pipe a client’s news release semi-directly into Yahoo! News, for example, does not mean that my client should consider that a mark of success. That’s output; we’re focused on outcomes.

When a journalist (traditional or citizen) reads a release and chooses to cover the story – only then do we have something worth measuring. If you can demonstrate to my satisfaction (i.e. with evidence) how OtherWire makes that process more effective, I’ll concede, apologize, and even blog about it.

Of course, there are many reasons for issuing a news release beyond just getting coverage, but that remains the principal objective in the majority of cases. Outcomes drive business results. Firing content out to hundreds of thousands of distribution points is of relatively limited value.

Usual caveats apply: IMHO, YMMV, etc.



From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 2:59 PM
To: Michael O'Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution


Journalists subscribe to our service. Your email was gathered with a number of others and frankly, I could not be bothered to remove it. What I said is that I would not have thought or didn't think that you would be interested.

In addition to the network that I have already described, we have more than 400,000 RSS feed readers who receive their news directly into their inbox. We submit to every one of the services you mentioned with the exception of Yahoo News and frankly, we prefer Google News and Finance. That having been said, I am told that we will be indexed by Yahoo shortly. In any event, I say we have the same or better exposure than the companies mentioned. Period.

I have been an NUJ member for 23 years, so that's for the advice about how journalists work, but really, I didn't need it.

In any event, I don't really care about the competition since they are all too expensive and really don't offer anything different that we offer. In today's market price is everything and looking at the number of press releases our competitors submit each day (we scan all of the sites), I think I am correct in thinking that their business(es) are going down, while I have seen an 800% increase since May.

Yours sincerely,


Michael O'Connor Clarke wrote:

Well thank you, George, for missing my point – indeed, all of my points – by such a wide margin.

I was truthfully, genuinely interested in learning more about how your service might help my clients.

For what it’s worth, notwithstanding our understandable preference for our friends at CNW, we continue to use a range of different services to distribute news. Some of our clients insist on using BusinessWire or Marketwire. Sometimes, we just experiment with PRWeb, PRLeap or other services to see if we can help enhance our clients’ success rates.

Again: at all times, what we’re interested in is the outcome of our efforts. On this point, I wasn’t presuming to offer any advice about how journalists work, but merely sharing some thoughts about how PR people and their clients do.

“Exposure” through push-based distribution is never a factor in the measurement schema my clients apply. They honestly don’t care (and I can’t bill for) the number of points of distribution our releases reach; they only care about tangible evidence of our results.


Again (one last try): if you have any solid evidence of results, we’d be happy to consider your service for the portfolio of options we offer to clients.

Over to you,



From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 3:32 PM
To: Michael O'Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

Sorry. You're too wordy.

Try a book publisher.

Best wishes,


And there you have it.

Or, well... not quite all of it. There was one final salvo.

From my obviously biased point of view, I believe I was being remarkably restrained in my last message to "George", but I'll let you be the judge. Here's what I sent back, and his immediate response:


Michael O'Connor Clarke wrote:

No thanks. But I think I will try a blog post. Be interested to see what my readers think – I’m trying to figure out whether I’m being the dickhead here or...



From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 4:44 PM
To: Michael O'Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

You are.



So tell me. Do you agree with "George"?

The Top Five Myths of SEO (IMHO) - Myth #3

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

In this third post in the series, I want to dig into the incessant focus on on-page optimization factors.

But before I do, I need to address a little housekeeping. Anyone who's been following me on Twitter recently, or any of the threads emanating from the first posts in this series, may have noticed that the as-yet unpublished fifth post in the series has been scooped a couple of times by friends of mine.

Ed Lee, in the comments on my second post in this series, raised this excellent point:
...the problem with a series of posts around SEO implies that there are a series of simple problems that need to be fixed. nothing could be further from the truth. SEO is, in truth, a complex and ever changing subject... that, like all aspects of communication, relies on an integrated approach that blends technology, content and authority.

He's quite right, of course. As I said in my response to Ed's comment, there's always something new to learn with SEO and website optimization in general; it's a moveable and ever-moving feast of experimentation. My 5th Myth was going to be a piece all about how SEO has to be an ongoing process, not a discrete series of tactics.

I was also going to talk about how this is just way too complex, and volatile a subject domain for anyone to fully understand and that it requires near-constant study to keep up with. Some of the speakers at the upcoming Search Engine Strategies conference spend a significant portion of their daily work lives doing precisely that - studying and experimenting in the space. People like Andrew Goodman, already mentioned in an earlier post. Or Jeff Quipp, whose firm, Search Engine People employs:
...a dedicated research group, with the sole mandate of performing ongoing real time statistical analysis and experimentation to help understand search engine algorithms as they evolve.
This stuff is hard. Too hard to be boiled down to a series of five little myths by a search dilettante.

The other thing I was planning to say at the end was that any list of "Top 5" this or "Top 10" the other, is inherently suspect. Something my great friend Frank Paynter pointed via Twitter. All true.

It seems lame now, but I had intended this series to work on one level as a bit of a self-referential joke. Blog posts with "Top 5"-type titles tend to work well as linkbait and search engine fodder - especially when your blog is set up to forge meaningful URLs from the title of each post. So here I am laying into SEO chicanery, whilst indulging in a rather sad little example of the game itself. It sounded a lot cleverer in my head.


The third big mythical nit I want to pick with the SEO snake oil peddlers is the disproportionate emphasis placed on "on-page optimization" by many practitioners in the space.

On-page optimization is, essentially, the sum of all the various tweaks, edits, keyword sprinklings and structural massaging you can do to optimize the pages of content in your website. In my definition of on-page factors, I'd include such things as: paying attention to the page titles, those dreaded meta tags, header tags, your use of appropriate and relevant keywords (yes, I know), internal links between pages within your site, images (and the appropriate Alt Text for each image), etc.

The whole point of on-page optimization is, as the name suggests, to understand and focus on how a search engine sees the individual pages of your site. There are some groovy tools out there that can help when you're playing around with this - sites that will let you look at your own website the way a search engine spider would. (Sadly, my favourite spider simulator, Seebot.org, has been offline for a couple of weeks).

By contrast, "off-page optimization" is all the stuff that goes on outside of your main home on the web; the linky-love that draws direct traffic, attention and, ultimately, search karma to your site.

If on-page optimization is the sum of all things you can do to your own web pages, you can think of off-page optimization as all the things other folk might do that would help pull direct people to your site.

They might write about your organization and include a link to the site, or bookmark your site at delicious.com, submit one of your pages to Reddit or Digg, mention you in a forum, post a link on Twitter, or even (to stretch the thought a little) chat about you over the garden fence.

Another word for this might be: publicity.

[Aside: Yes, naturally I'm going to be a little biased here - my business is, in many ways, the publicity business, although I've always pushed back at that label as a simplistic and narrow view of what PR is really all about. Only one part of my job actually includes generating tangible publicity. At the same time, I have to love the first factor listed at the Wikipedia entry for off-page optimization - it points to news releases as one of the ways to draw attention to your site. Yay!]

On-page stuff you can tweak and fiddle with as often as your budget will allow; the off-page stuff is, to a degree, outside of your direct control. Sure, you could submit your own pages to something like Digg, but that's cheating (and will quickly get you flagged as a spammer).

At the heart of this, though, is why I like to see a balance between on-page and off-page efforts. While on-page tuning is important, I think it's even more vital to stay focused on the overall authority of your entire site and surrounding ecosystem.

If you were to look at the web through the blinkered lens of an on-page purist, you'd be surprised to find that there are many millions of crummy, poorly optimized pages that still seem to come up very high in the search engine results. But how can this be?

It's because the human web -- you, me, the dude in the next cubicle, and millions of hopeful searchers like us -- are teaching the machine through our links, clicks and every online action. When enough of us find something online that's useful, valuable, interesting or just funny, and we share that something with our friends, the off-page optimization happens. The linky-love happens. The inbound traffic and search rank happens.

So how do you optimize for off-page joy? C'mon, Bunky, you can figure this one out...

Focus on creating stuff that is useful, valuable, interesting, funny (or accurate, informative, entertaining, new, different, authoritative, well-researched, short on BS, etc.).

Again, very few people really know how the search engines do that voodoo they do do so well, but one thing seems clear: a huge part of your search rank is built on popularity. Google's PageRank is one version of this (although the business is way more complicated than just that today). In simplified terms, it's a measure of how many other sites and sources are pointing at yours.

In this sense, search rank is a gift you receive from others in return for producing quality material. Your web content is like an American Idol contestant who just received the most votes for a rip-roaring cover of "Play That Funky Music" (yeah, I kinda liked Adam too). When people like your stuff, they vote with their links. The more votes you get, the higher up the search rank you climb.

You can tweak the living blue blazes out of every SEO-friendly toggle and widget on your site, but if the core material is a gently steaming pile of ordure, you're still not going to get any votes. If your writing just plain bites, people will stay away in droves. If your ideas are rank, your rank will be... er... you get the picture.

Achieving that elusive high search rank is not all random karma for creating good stuff, of course. There are specific things you can do to help improve your off-page reputation and inbound linkflow. You'll find plenty of checklists and ideas for off-page optimization online if you hunt around for them -- some good, some a little dubious. Use discernment and avoid spammy techniques.

The point of all this is to demonstrate what I see as an increasingly close connection between intelligent SEO and just good online communications practices. I'm not saying that on-page optimization is irrelevant, but the slavish focus on the tools and techniques for tweaking individual pages and site architecture sometimes gets in the way of sound communications.

Assuming you have a finite budget, it makes sense to me to seek a balance between the SEO basics within your site and paying for original, creative, interesting content. If you're using both an SEO consultant and a professional communications firm, have them work together.

As I said above, I'm naturally inclined to look at this from the perspective of someone whose principal product is words, but I've heard quite enough about the technical aspects of on-page SEO, with little attention paid to the quality of the content and the outbound marketing and communications activities needed to really drive awareness and interest from outside your site.

In trying to figure out how to express this, I threw together this Venn diagram, showing how I think the three sisters of search engine. Let me know if you think this makes sense.

In short: do worry about optimizing your site pages, for sure, but don't forget the creative quality of your ideas and your core content, and the way you spread the word.

Back to:
Myth #1: The Importance of Keyword Meta Tags
Myth #2: The Magic Keyword Density Percentage
Next up - Myth #4: Google partnerships and multiple site submissions

The Top Five Myths of SEO (IMHO) - Myth #2

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Continuing in my short series of five big SEO myths, this one is perhaps the most controversial of the concepts I’m going to tackle.

In the first post in the series, I laid into the discredited but still apparently widespread practice of stuffing keywords into the meta tags of a web page. My research into how keywords are used by search engines also led to me taking a long hard look at the notion of Keyword Density and the idea that there is some magic optimum number that will make all the difference between search engine success and failure.

For those of you who already know what Keyword Density is and why it’s deemed so important, I might as well get this out of the way right up front: frankly, I'm just not buying it.

Quick disclaimers:

i. As with all the posts in this series, I'm writing from the perspective of a Public Relations bloke. My observations relate to how news releases and editorial copy perform in search engine terms; the same thoughts are not necessarily going to hold water when looked at from a broader web content perspective.

ii. I still have a lot to learn about all this stuff. If I get things wrong (as I inevitably will) I will add updated and corrected info in future posts.

OK. Onwards. If you want the really short version:

From what I've learned, Keyword Density is not entirely irrelevant, but it’s far from being the most important determinant of SEO success.

Rather than worry about achieving an optimum density percentage, people would do a lot better to focus on writing good, interesting copy.

[Note: I'm drawing heavily on the fact that I spent many years working in the knowledge management software business before moving into PR. I would never have considered myself a true KM expert, and I'm certainly not an expert in SEO - I'm a mere flack, after all - but I think I learned enough about keyword-based indexing and search techniques to be mildly dangerous. I've also dredged up from memory some of the old examples and thought models we used to use back in my KM days. Grateful credit to a number of my old KM buddies for seeding the dark and dusty corners of my mind with some of these still useful examples.]

Keyword Density is, according to Wikipedia's simple definition:
...the percentage of times a keyword or phrase appears on a web page compared to the total number of words on the page.
Let's say you're searching for the keyword "bogus" and you come across a 100-word document that happens to include that keyword six times -- that document has a density of six out of 100 for the keyword "bogus", or:

6/100 = 0.06 - expressed as a percentage a keyword density of 6%

The same document would probably have a totally different keyword density for other words, obviously. It's all relative. This density thing is considered important to SEO experts for all kinds of purportedly good reasons. Let's dig into it and I'll try to explain how I think this stuff works...

Think of the way a search engine functions. A potential customer sitting in front of the search engine is trying to find information that is important to them. As a search engine developer, you want to offer up useful and meaningful results when they search. Using only the simple keywords the user provides, somehow you have to try to figure out what information would matter most to that individual right now.

This is a massively hard thing for any computer system to do. Most of us aren't really terribly good at searching -- it's hard for us to translate the concepts and ideas we're looking for into simple keywords.

At the other end of the search pipe, it's almost indescribably challenging to build a computer system that can understand what all the stuff out there on the Web is about. And "aboutness" is really, really important. To a computer, the words and phrases in a document are just bits: ones and zeroes. They have no meaning; the computer doesn't know what the document is about.

People know that a certain arrangement of words on a page, with spaces and punctuation just so, will turn a set of otherwise random characters into something that has meaning; that has aboutness.

Think of it this way: say you've forgotten both the name and the author of an old poem you remember learning as a child. You recall the sense of the thing, but you can't remember how it went.

So you wander into a favourite second-hand bookstore to see if you can find a copy. Without even the poet's name, though, you're going to be kind of hosed.

Luckily, the ancient shopkeeper (let's call him Mr. Ptolemy) is both exceptionally well-read and has a prodigious memory.

Trying to describe the poem to our friendly bookstore owner, you mention that it's about the choices we all have to make in life, and the consequences we will inevitably face from those choices as we grow older.

Somehow, splendid chap that he is, Mr. Ptolemy is able to discern that you're talking about Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken".

He understood precisely what you meant and, as he recites a couple of favourite lines ("...Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference"), it all snaps into place. Yes! That's exactly the poem I'm looking for!

Now try to imagine sitting in front of the Web version of Google and achieving the same result. What keywords would you have used? "Life" and "Choices" perhaps? Neither of those words appears anywhere in the poem. So where are you going to start?*

You have the sum of all human knowledge at your fingertips, but all you can do is describe what the document you want is broadly about. And all the computer can do is a kind of textual number-crunching based on word frequency, link relationships and keyword concepts.

Do you see how hard this stuff is for the people who build search engines?

Without getting deep into the kind of incredibly clever semantic search stuff my friends at TextWise do (disclosure: they're a client), it's really quite amazingly hard for most software systems to understand in any real way what even a simple document is about. So search engines were built around certain compromises.

Typically, in documents, web pages and things like that, there is going to be some kind of discernible relationship between the words they contain and what the document is actually about (unless, it seems, we're looking at poetic metaphors). A document that uses the word "astrophysics" several times is likely (but far from certain) to have something to do with the general topic of astrophysics.

From this, we can infer that a whole bunch of documents and web pages with many similar words (astrophysics, astrophysicists, cosmologists, cosmology, etc.) are more likely to be about the same thing than documents with no similar words. This is useful, because it means we can start grouping stuff together into clusters of inferred aboutness.

(Homonyms tend to bugger this all up, I'm afraid. Our astrophysicist would mean something quite specific if she searched for "stars". To a teenage celebrity gossip junkie, the same keyword means something entirely different. And a poor chap who just had difficulty spelling the word "asterisk" would be even more confused. But let's not get too far down that path - semantic disambiguation blows my mind.)

By now, you should have already figured out how some of the earliest search engines worked.
  1. Build a really, really big index of words and pointers to where they appear in lots and lots of documents.
  2. Use the frequency of word-use as a guide to which documents are most likely to be about the topics your searcher is interested in.
  3. Layer on some synonym cleverness and you've got the start of a workable way to navigate through an ever-expanding online corpus of knowledge.
It's from this approach that the notion of keyword density rose to prominence in the SEO world.

Unscrupulous marketers in the early days of the web figured out that early, dumb search engines could be fooled. A document that included the word "astrophysics" in every second sentence might, the theory went, end up being ranked as the single most relevant and useful document about astrophysics in the entire universe. (It wasn't really quite this unsubtle, but you get my drift).

Having worked out the importance of density, web marketing monkeys started stuffing their pages with hidden keywords. Remember that old practice of embedding white text on the white background of a page? That was a density game.

The search companies quickly caught on though, as the Wikipedia entry notes:
In the late 1990s, which was the early days of search engines, keyword density was an important factor in how a page was ranked. However, as webmasters discovered this and the implementation of optimum keyword density became widespread, it became a minor factor in the rankings. Search engines began giving priority to other factors that are beyond the direct control of webmasters. Today, the overuse of keywords, a practice called keyword stuffing, will cause a web page to be penalized.
If you do any research into this stuff at all, you'll soon see that there's something of a balancing act going on. On the one hand, you don't want to get downranked as a spammer for having too many keywords stuffed into your web pages. On the other, you don't want to run the risk of ranking too low by not including enough keywords.

There's a two-step consulting process taking place out there:
  1. Help the client figure out the most important keywords that will attract the right audience to their web pages (e.g. people who want to buy a couch in Canada are probably searching for "chesterfield" not "setee");
  2. Optimize all web content to hit the right proportion of keywords-to-text throughout.
The general consensus right now seems to be that maintaining a keyword density of between 2-3% in your web content is optimal.

Any higher than 3% and you might get marked as spam, any lower than 2% and you're just not even on radar. These numbers vary widely, mind: I've seen optimal density recommendations as high as 8% - which seems insane to me.

Think about this in PR terms for a second: to achieve 2-3% recommended density in a short, 400-word news release, you’d need to repeat the chosen keyword 8-12 times. We've all read news releases like that - the ones that sound like they were written by robots.

Here's the thing, though: other than a relatively small group of real experts (the people who actually build the search engine algorithms at Google and elsewhere) no one really seems to know whether keyword density has any impact on search engine results.

In fact, I've been unable to find a single shred of evidence that any major search engine in use today gives preference to a particular ratio of keywords in web pages.

There are a lot of conflicting opinions out there, and I could be 100% wrong about this, but stick with me...

In all of the reading I've been doing on this topic, it was one particular comment from Eric Brantner at the site Reve News (geddit?) that really sparked my skepticism. In a piece titled "Keyword Density: The SEO Myth that Never Dies", Eric writes:
The simple truth is search engines are far too advanced to be tricked by something as basic as an optimal keyword density
...and that makes a great deal of sense to me.

As an aside, I think one part of the problem is that people often completely misinterpret the idea behind those optimal density numbers. It's easy to assume "recommended density" should be taken as a guide to add more keywords into a web page until you hit the magic ratio, and there are scores of online keyword density calculators that promise to help you figure out your sweet spot.

In fact, if keyword density measures are important at all, they're primarily useful in helping to manage keyword overload -- to ensure your content doesn’t get discounted as spam.

Optimal density is something you're encouraged to work down to, not up towards. There’s a good article on this topic at the delightfully snarky SEOElite blog and another useful analysis on the well-known SEO Tools site.

Getting back to the main point, though, I’ve come across a number of sources making the (entirely believable) assertion that keyword density on a single document doesn’t actually matter much at all. And here's why: keyword density is an internal measure. It ignores the fact that no web page is an island.

In other words: assessing keyword density can only tell you something about the individual web page (and its numeric placement in a simple ranking table) - it's a way of analyzing word frequency in a document in relation only to the document itself.

Think of a great long list of documents, arranged in order of percentage density for the keyword "street".

- At the top of the list is a document that has a very high density, as it contains the keyword many thousands of times in a 2,000 page file (let's say it has a density of around 8%).
- Way further down the list is a web site that mentions the word fifty times out of 35,000 words (0.14% density).
- Somewhere in the middle is a Wikipedia entry with 133 uses of the keyword out of 2,700 words (5% density).

So which of these is actually the most relevant document? The answer, of course, all depends on what you're looking for.

That first document in the list includes the word "street" thousands of times because it's the Yellow Pages. Probably not what you had in mind.

The web site with a keyword density of less than 1% is the hip young online magazine you're looking for - the one that just happens to be about all things "Street", but is way too fearsomely cool to use the word more than a handful of times in its masthead and elsewhere.

At this point, the logic of my analogy crumbles and leaks rather, but you get the point. Just because a document uses the same word lots of times (or even just enough times) does not mean it's the most relevant and useful document for every search.

It’s like: if I stood in front of an audience for an hour and dropped the word “astrophysics” into every fifth sentence, a completely unsophisticated listener might assume that I know something about astrophysics just because I used the word a lot.

But linguistics research has shown that frequency has no bearing on relevance - and it doesn't take any kind of research to prove that I know the square root of bugger all about astrophysics (nor about SEO, for that matter).

The best and most advanced search engine algorithms (such as those in place at Google, for example) are designed to index and “understand” words in a document in the context of the index in which that document appears. The ultimate search engine, perhaps, would be one that (amongst its weaponry) had the ability to understand the true relevance of any single document when compared with every single other document in the known dataverse.

Again: the fact that a particular document happens to use a certain keyword a dozen times does not necessarily mean it is an authoritative source of info related to that keyword. Good search engines know this and have largely devalued keyword density as a ranking parameter. It’s still used, but it is not nearly as important a measure as it was way back at the dawn of the Web.

In short: frequency is not the same as relevance.

SEO efforts that focus too slavishly on achieving the optimum keyword density run the risk of creating dry, robotic copy that's a nightmare for human visitors to read, and may even be down-ranked by sophisticated search engines.

Perhaps I'm being naive here, but I can't help thinking that the goal of the search engines is to work the way our Mr. Ptolemy does in the bookstore example above. The search engine tries to understand what it is you're really interested in, and offer that stuff up to you through the browser.

Google uses more than 200 different signals to try to determine the best information to offer up for any search, and they change their algorithms (by some accounts) several times a week. In the midst of all this high-power computing, what they're trying to do is mimic a really good human guide. They do this by looking for the cues to what other people deem to be the most valuable, relevant, useful and interesting content on any topic - using all kinds of different "signals".

With all that sophistication going on, I can't help but think that such a simplistic notion as "keyword density" is a real red herring. Good content, well written, is as important today as it has always been. Write something useful, meaningful, intelligent, newsworthy or just genuinely interesting (or all of these), and the search engines will find you.

Before I shut up about this, a final thought on keywords. I've laid into them pretty hard in the first couple of posts here, and I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea. While I'm just not ready to go along with the magic "optimal keyword density" malarkey, I'm still a firm believer in the importance and value of using the right keywords for the audience you hope to attract.

Keywords are, after all, the simple inputs we use to search - so it's important to research and understand the words, phrases, synonyms and circuitous routes that bring people to your site. Studying your site analytics can be great for this.

In the last 24 hours, I know that people have come to my blog through searching for me by name (with all kinds of creative misspellings) or by searching for such diverse things as:

social media experts
future of branding
twitter policy
the machine stops
i hate vista

(I'm still the #1 ranked site in Canada for this last example, btw - and do you think Microsoft has ever reached out to me in any way?)

Studying the keywords people use to find you can teach you a lot. They're still the key drivers of search and any professional communicator will want to be sure they're using the same kind of vocabulary as the potential audience they're seeking to engage. Again, there are a lot of online tools you can use to experiment with keywords. Go Google.

Just don't get too hung up on any spurious notions of optimal keyword density, OK?

*[In case you're wondering, if you Google "poem about life choices", without the quotation marks, one of the top five results just happens to be a link to Robert Frost's poem. Darn it. This doesn't mean that any part of my argument is necessarily invalid, though. It simply proves that I'm not very good at coming up with illustrative examples for some of my points.]

Back to Myth #1: The Importance of Keyword Meta Tags
Next up - Myth #3: On-page optimization is the thing

The Top Five Myths of SEO (IMHO) - Intro and Myth #1

Monday, May 25, 2009

This is the first in a short series of posts exploring what I believe are some of the top myths in Search Engine Optimization. I was going to throw all five myths into a single post, but then I realised that would make for an even more than usually lengthy piece, so I've split the whole thing up into (slightly) shorter chunks.

I've been doing a great deal of reading about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in the last few months, partly out of general professional interest, and partly in order to better understand certain aspects for some of our client work.

There's a necessary and logical connection between Public Relations and SEO. Search engines like news - frequently updated, fresh content. This is the rationale behind Google News and the Yahoo! home page looking a lot like an online newspaper. As a flack, I'm kind of in the business of news and, more particularly, in the business of helping clients to get their news in front of as many of the right people as possible.

This is a deliberate over-simplification, but one of the primary tools we use in PR to convey a client's story is, of course, the news release. It's been said before that in the old days 80 to 90 per cent of the expected audience for a news release was members of the media. With the disintermediating effect of the Internet, the thinning out of media, and the growth of online audiences, as much as 50 per cent of the audience for any news release comes directly to the release through search. It's direct-to-consumer PR, in other words.

The main news wire services have seen this in the growth of direct traffic to their websites. News feeds that once ran directly into the specialised editorial systems in traditional news rooms, available only to journalists, stock traders and a select few others, are now widely available online for anyone to see just by visiting CNW Group, Marketwire, Businesswire or one of the newer, online-only distribution services. [Disclosure: I should probably mention, just in case, that CNW Group continues to be a valued and valuable client].

With news going direct to consumers, and directly into the indexes of the main search engines, it makes sense that the issuing organizations should pay attention to the way those search engines handle their news. If you think of yourself as one of the leading sources on a particular subject, you want to make sure your sage pronouncements and carefully-crafted messages are showing up high and bright in Google searches to do with that subject.

Our opinions today are formed and shaped by what we learn online. The vast majority of product purchase decisions are supported by online research, as are investment decisions and service choices. In this research-driven market, it's increasingly important to rank at or near the top of search results. I've seen comments suggesting that if you are on the second or third page of results you might only get one per cent of the search traffic that the top ranked site gets - and I can well believe that.

Hence, there is a natural relationship between the practice of Search Engine Optimization and the business of PR. Really good PR is, I think, a form of story-telling. Good SEO, it seems, is the practice of ensuring those stories reach the right ears (or eyes).

After months of online and offline research, soaking up as much information as I've been able to handle in spare hours, I still feel I've only just scratched the surface of this weird and nebulous topic. It's a moving target, that much is clear. As the major search engines continue to refine their algorithms to produce ever better results, the paid optimization consultants flex and respond in efforts to keep their client content as close to the top of the search results as possible.

I'm looking forward to the upcoming Search Engine Strategies conference, coming to Toronto in early June - hoping to learn a lot more from some of the most active participants in the field, including the luminously intelligent Andrew Goodman of Page Zero Media and a host of other interesting speakers and search technology experts.

One thing I'm keen to test is a personal theory I've arrived at through research and analysis over the past couple of months. I'm hoping to engage some of the speakers and attendees at the conference to see if what I've come to understand about the current state of SEO is true. In particular, I've synthesized a set of what I believe are giant myths about the way SEO works - ill-founded claims that still keep popping up all over the place but, from what I've learned, can't possibly be valid - even if they once were.

Obvious, up-front caveat: just in case it's not clear enough already, I'm really not an expert in this stuff. It's entirely possible I could be talking out of my ningnong here, but this stuff seems to make sense with what I've been able to learn and test in the last couple of months.

MYTH #1: The importance of keyword meta tags

I'm going to start with something that should be really basic, 101 level stuff to many of you - but it's startling how many people who seem interested in SEO don't know about this.

If you look at the source code of just about any web page, you'll see a whole bunch of special code elements called the "meta tags". I'm not going to go into detail about them here; you can learn a ton of information about meta tags on some much better sites than this one, if you're interested.

Suffice to say, the meta tags are, as the name suggests, a kind of special metadata, that can be used to describe the content and structure of the page. The "Title" meta tag, for example, determines what text appears in your browser's title bar as you're viewing the page. There are other meta tags for Description, Language, and so on.

One of these meta elements, the "Keywords" tag, is a relic of the early architecture of the World Wide Web, from way back in the pre-Google days. The first search engines (WebCrawler, Magellan, Alta Vista, Lycos, and others) looked for this hidden tag as a key set of clues to the topic of your website. Webmasters were supposed to use the Keywords meta tag to list some of the main subject keywords describing the content of the page - like a library index card describing what the page was about.

Of course, many people quickly caught on to the idea that this could be gamed. Stuffing a competitor's product names into your keywords was a quick and dirty way to try to steal some of their attention. Listing multiple synonyms for topics of interest to your target customers was another common form of "keyword stuffing" - trying to artificially increase the rank of your page by making it appear more relevant to a broad array of topics.

This kind of abuse became so rampant that it quickly led to the Keywords meta tag becoming completely ignored by modern search engines. Although many people still use it, and a lot of self-proclaimed SEO experts still seem to recommend it, the Keywords meta tag seems to be as vestigial as your appendix.

From what I've been able to glean, Yahoo! is alone among the major search engines in still giving this meta tag some (minor) weight. Google, it seems, has never put any value on the information in this tag. In discussing this with others, I had a couple of people question whether there was any evidence to this effect, so I went hunting.

It's hard to find any concrete word from Google on this subject, but here's something useful. In the comments of this post on the Official Google Webmaster Central blog, you'll find the blog author, Google employee John Mueller, says:
...we generally ignore the contents of the "keywords" meta tag. As with other possible meta tags, feel free to place it on your pages if you can use it for other purposes - it won't count against you.
Also, the Wikipedia page about meta tags states:
With respect to Google, thirty-seven leaders in search engine optimization concluded in April 2007 that the relevance of having your keywords in the meta-attribute keywords is little to none
This is a reference, btw, to an excellent study published at SEOmoz, one of the definitive pieces on search engine ranking factors.

So you think by now the word would be out and people would have stopped going on about the Keywords meta tag. And yet I have direct experience of "experts" who are actively charging clients for stuffing words into this part of their web page source code, claiming that it will help improve their ranking in the search engines.

It won't. Try this yourself: run a Google search for "keywords meta tag" - without the quotation marks. I don't want to link this, I want you to run the search for yourself. Now read what the first three or four articles that come up have to say about the subject.

Better? Good - now stop paying your SEO consultant for something that's just plain useless.

In short: using the Keywords meta tag in your web pages won’t necessarily hurt your rank in search engine results, but it absolutely won’t help either.

Next Myth: The Magic Keyword Density Percentage

Now we are six

Sunday, April 26, 2009

It's the second time I've thought of using that title for a post, and the connection between the two thoughts exists on several levels.

The first time was when Ruairi turned six years old last December. This time: well, this time we're not talking in ages. To my considerable surprise, and largely thanks to Ruairi's patient influence, we seem to have acquired a sixth family member.

Say hello to Cooper - born February 21, 2009, which makes him a mere nine weeks old by my count.

Cooper's a kind of 'doodle mashup. Somewhere between an Australian Shepherd and a Standard Poodle with, we think, a trace of something else stirred in for good luck. He's also 8% toe-licker, 6% rug-worrier, 4% random sneezer, and at least 82% heart-breaker.

We have a dog. Crikey. We have a dog.

If you'd have asked me last week, I would still have told you, with confidence, that I was a confirmed cat person - yet here I am, falling hard for the finest bag o' rags scruffy pup in the known universe.

OK, back up. How did we get here?

Cooper is, essentially, a promise kept. We're all animal lovers, but of all of us, the most utterly devoted to beasts of every variety is certainly Ruairi. He's been asking for a dog for as long as I can remember, but at least since he was three years old. We promised him long ago he could have a dog when he reached Grade One - once he was in full-time school. For the past few months, the quiet campaign has intensified, and we knew we were going to have to do it soon. Still and all, we kept finding reasons to put off the decision.

Leona and I both grew up around dogs, but it took me a long time to get my head around the idea of raising a pup. Then last weekend, as I walked down the hill into Riverdale Park for one of Charlie's cross-country practice sessions, it all finally clicked into place. Nothing like a walk in the park to make you realise how a dog could fit into your life.

So - after months and months of research, reading, talking to friends, and observing the hundreds of neighbourhood pooches - we've finally done it. Yesterday afternoon we made the long trek out through one of the filthiest storms I've ever driven through, to the rural calm of Wallenstein, Ontario and a lovely, clean and happy Mennonite farm to take a look at their latest litter of pups.

Several of our friends scoffed at the thought that we were "just going to look" at the pups. They were all absolutely right, of course, as I guess I knew they were. We were ready. We knew we were ready and so, it would seem, did the wee beastie who rode back with us, snuggled in Leona's arms.

The first night was pretty rough. Poor Cooper found it hard to adjust after the disorientation of his first car ride, the excitement of his strange new home, the flood of affection from his new family members, and the misery of separation from his siblings.

We're doing the crate-training thing, which some people will tell you is cruel (often the same people who'll angrily swat a pup on the nose when it piddles on the carpet). The books and many experts seem to agree it's one of the best things you can do for a young dog. Try explaining that to a 9-week-old snufflehound, though. Little Coop was not a happy chap last night.

Not wanting to take him from the crate, but also unable to harden my heart entirely to his lonely whimpers, I ended up - soft idiot that I am - grabbing a sleeping bag and bedding down beside him on the hardwood. Somehow, we both survived intact and (barely) rested. At the same time, this doggie Ferberizing seems to have forged an instant bond between us, such that Cooper has hardly left my side all day.

He's imprinted on me as deeply as I've fallen in love with him.

Today has been a whirl of visits from friends, romps in the garden, walkies, walkies, and more walkies. The comical little scruff has settled in beautifully, so far. Who knows what the next years will bring?

Welcome to the family, little Cooper. It's a joy to have you here.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, we named him Cooper for a number of reasons; one being his fuzzy-headed likeness to a certain favourite comic magician of my childhood.

[UPDATE: He slept through the second night without a peep out of him, and then did his business immediately on being taken outside at 6am. I'm inclined to think this was less a miraculous instant housebreaking epiphany and more the result of him being plain tuckered out after all yesterday's excitement, but I'm not complaining. Good boy, Cooper!]

Mesh 09 Bootstrapping a Startup panel

Friday, April 03, 2009

This will be my fourth time speaking or moderating at mesh - Canada’s premier web conference. Four mesh events in four years, and four times they’ve invited me to participate. Seems the organizers like the cut of my “immoderate moderator” jib, which is deeply flattering and rewarding as I always have a lot of fun doing it.

This year, I’m not running a panel on any of the topics with which I’m normally associated. As the title of this post says, I’m cat-herding a group of experienced entrepreneurs as we unwrap the issues surrounding getting a startup company off the ground.

First question: why me? Well, as it happens, I have more experience in this space than might be immediately obvious. Sure, I’ve done PR and marketing consulting for a whole slew of early-stage technology companies in the past 9 years or so. I’ve helped startup clients secure a healthy chunk of “holy grail” media coverage, with a good assortment of Globe, Post, CTV, CBC, CityTV, Global and even TechCrunch, Engadget and ReadWriteWeb hits. But long before moving into the PR agency world I also had my own direct experience of bootstrapping a startup.

It’s a long story, but pretty much the whole reason I’m in Canada today goes back to 1996, when the tiny, struggling software firm my friends and I had started in the UK got bought by a much bigger Canadian systems house, who we’d just beaten in a competitive bid for some juicy NY-based business. I arrived in Toronto in the middle of February, ’96. Worked solid 18 hour days for most of that summer and closed the IPO on November 7th of the same year. Hey – it was the 90s, that’s we rolled back then.

Point is: although the market is very different these days, I think I can go into this panel session with a reasonable idea of some of the hot topics we should be exploring. But I also need your help.

One of the best things about mesh, in my experience, is the way that the discussion extends well beyond the four walls and fixed time slot of any single session. Plus, whether I’m directly involved in a session or just sitting at the back, I love it when the conversation is lively enough to erase the divide between the experts on stage and the people formerly known as the audience.

Vigorous, even heated debate, is a lot more interesting than a lot of polite consensus from a panel of even the smartest speakers – and it gets us a lot closer to understanding key questions if there’s a healthy cloud of discussion before, during and after the focal point of the session.

It’s also safe to assume that not all of the brightest and best minds on any topic will actually be in the room at the time of the panel chat (that’s one of the benefits of live-blogging and tweeting, of course).

So with all that in mind, I thought I’d kick off part of the discussion here and see if we can spill it over into the panel session next Wednesday afternoon. The panel for this slot is a terrific group of smart entrepreneurs: my old friend, Mic Berman (Embarkonit), Carol Leaman, CEO of the excellent PostRank, and Keith McSpurren, Founder & President of CoverItLive.

With the collected decades of experience this trio has to offer, the hard-won scar tissue of their years in the startup trenches, what are some of the questions you’d want me to fire at them? If you’re an early-stage entrepreneur yourself, or thinking the time is right (despite the soggy market) to finally turn your killer idea into your day job: what one thing would you most like to know from people who’ve been there, still doing that?

I’ve got a list of some initial questions worked up (below), but are these good enough to make our panellists earn your attention? Let me know what you think...

1. What are the two most important ingredients for startup success?
2. What is the most common mistake made by entrepreneurs when bootstrapping (and how do you avoid it)?
3. How do you mitigate the risks of a bootstrapped operation in the midst of recession?
4. Would you be utterly insane to launch a new startup right now?
5. Do you think Canada is a better or worse environment for startups than elsewhere?
6. Who do you turn to for your advice, support, and encouragement?
7. What one book should every founder read?
8. What online resource could you – as an entrepreneur – not live without?
9. Who are Canada’s startup heroes (and villains?)
10. If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich already (or, if you are, can you lend me a tenner)?

Help us make this panel the most useful session on building a startup you’ll ever attend. What am I missing?


Michael O'Connor Clarke's main blog. Covering PR, social media, marketing, family life, sundry tomfoolery since 2001.

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