Jan 12, 2009

Can I Twitter us to the top?

I'm skeptical about most technologies, especially those that everyone is talking about. Myspace, Facebook, Search Engine Optimization, Twitter, Linkedin... I've turned my nose up at them more times than I can count. But I have come around to a number of technologies, technological innovations, and technical strategies kicking and screaming for the most part, always in the interest of promoting my company or our creation. So far they've been worthwhile contributions to the effort.

My newest challenge is making Twitter work for us... but before I get to that, I'd like to expound on the other strategies we've employed in our quest to drive traffic to the RFP Database.



Search engine optimization

SEO can be done two ways; white hat and black hat. White hat involves making your site more accessible to search engines, proper naming of links, key terms, key phrases, page titles, etc. It also involves getting quality links to your site. The black hat method involves the creation of multiple landing pages under different domain names, having dummy sites set up to provide links to your site, and other methods of spamming and tricking search engines. The black hat method is something you do NOT want to do if you want to run a respectable business or end up penalized by Google.

One of the important aspects of SEO to keep in mind is that search engines aren't your only audience; your site needs to be accessible and usable by human beings as well as search engines. Your SEO strategy can't interfere with your audience targeting strategy and usability.

When we redeveloped the RFP Database in the fall of 2007 we created a listing site that made use of clean urls, categorizing the projects, RSS feeds, and sorting of listings. We made a strategic decision to attempt to make our content as accessible as possible to search engines and others. I initially thought of SEO as a scam, something that less-than-honest internet companies offered as a service to customers, bilking them out of marketing and advertising money. I still do to some extent, but have come to the belief that Search Engine Optimization should be replaced by a Search Engine Strategy. The question you should ask is "how can I make my site receive more quality visits from search engine visitors?"

This strategy has worked very well for us over the last 2 years. Over 40% of our visitors arrive via a search engine query, the average visit from a search engine visit is nearly indistinguishable from a visitor that typed in our URL to arrive at the site, and over the course of one year the number of visits we receive per month from search engines has tripled.

Blogs, yours and others

I know I've written about it before but I don't think I can stress it enough: get your site mentioned as often as possible on quality blogs. If you're having trouble getting mentioned in blogs, set up your own! Use bookmarklets to make it easy for you to post items to your blogs and less of a chore.

Years ago I read a great article in Fast Company Magazine about self-branding and how to use blogs and self-publishing as a way to increase the value of your personal stock. Self branding enables you to showcase your talents, organically getting your name and information in front of people who might be interested in your services, and get networked to people who could help you grow your business. It was a while before I implemented this advice and it has paid dividends over the last year or so for Confluent Forms.

I have also made a concerted effort to get our website mentioned on any blog that discusses the topics of Requests for Proposals. These links to the RFPdb have contributed to the overall page rank of the RFP Database (currently a respectable 5), but also continue to get us mentioned in time-sorted search results and enable us to show up dozens of times in regular search results for content that has keywords and phrases not in use on our site.

LinkedIn, Facebook, and other sites

While often derided as websites for teenagers to post pictures of themselves, and trendy sites that have little business purpose, using the more business-oriented LinkedIn or slightly-more-professional-than-Myspace Facebook can have a positive networking effect for your company and services. Initially I was skeptical that LinkedIn could have any successful impact on my company and its performance and merely used the site to reconnect with old co-workers. Fine, but nothing spectacular, and not much in the way of "networking." I decided to try spending more time on the site, and instead of passively using it, actively network and self-brand myself as an expert.

After giving my profile a makeover, I made extensive use of LinkedIn's Answers section. I started asking questions, answering questions, and tried to make myself a fixture on topics that I believe I am an expert on. I also started asking for recommendations from people that I've worked with in the past or who had used my services, building out my profile into something that I would be proud enough to add to my email signature. As a result of this work I have noticed a significant increase in the volume of proposal requests we receive, inquiries for expertise, traffic to our sites referred to by LinkedIn, and we have landed some very nice projects that originated from a LinkedIn query.

More recently I have turned my attention to using LinkedIn, specifically the new "Groups" functionality, to promote our sites as well as creating a RFPdb LinkedIn Group that enables our more active networking users to meet each other, collaborate on proposals, and advance our site's mission of facilitating business to business communications.

And now... Twitter

Approaching Twitter has been no different than the above mentioned technologies and my initial aversion to them which can be summarized as follows:
  • Blogs: why should I care what some nutjob thinks about whether his cat has dreams, how to garden in your basement, or any slightly less ridiculous topics
  • SEO: easy way for unscrupulous technology teams to take your money, show short term results, then get you perm-blocked by Google
  • LinkedIn/Facebook/Myspace: embarrassing frat-party photos or people trying to sell me get-rich-quick schemes
Yes, I'm exceptionally skeptical to most new technologies... I'm still trying to figure out why Google bought YouTube for a gazillion dollars and opened themselves up to ridiculous amounts of liability.

So why should Twitter be any different?

Responding to other people

The casual way to get started on Twitter is simply to create an account and start giving updates on your life or posting short messages (under 140 characters). You can tell people your account name and they can follow the short, meaningless updates on your life. You can also respond to other people's messages and/or choose to "follow them", getting up to the minute updates on whatever your chosen people have said. People can also choose to follow you... but why would they want to?

I started simply enough, running searches for queries such as "rfp", and responding to peoples messages, touting the RFPdb, responding with links, etc. It was very slow going.

Manually adding links and announcing new project

Taking a page out of our blog strategy I began to announce new project listings and currently active popular projects on Twitter, often consisting of the title, adding "rfp" to the announcement, and a link to the project. This was a time consuming process, but I started noticing users following me leading me to believe that if I kept the posts coming, that I could assemble a legion of followers...

Twitlet, Twitterfeed, and creating a topic

Nothing makes life easier than tools that allow you to automate a process. Twitlet is a simple tool that allows you to make a Twitter bookmarklet for quick submission to the system, as well as enabling the embedding of "short urls" for inclusion in the post. Good, but not great yet. However, through this tool I learned about topics, the ability to highlight a word or phrase using the # sign to create a linkable query. Using this knowledge in conjunction with Twitterfeed allows you to fully automate the submission of tweets by setting up a service that takes the RSS feed from your site, automatically posts it to Twitter with a link to the article, and allows you to prefix it with a topic link.

Putting the legions of followers to use

I'll admit we're not at this point yet. I don't feel we have reached critical mass enabling me to put my twitter-followers to use in an unstoppable digital mob. My buddy Garry has told me stories of his successes using Twitter and Reddit to draw traffic to his site and I'm looking forward to doing the same... we'll see what the future brings! In the meantime, follow us on Twitter and track the growth of our Twitter army.

Update: an example of a possible Twitter/Facebook army usage