We started UniBul Merchant Services several years ago from scratch and were able to grow it to become a real business, one which was producing real revenue within months of launching our website. Looking back, I can’t quite explain how we did it, as back then, we knew nothing about search engine optimization (SEO), either of the on- or off-page variety and we certainly had no clue how to promote our website efficiently. I remember that the very first thing that we did was to try Google AdWords, with absolutely no effect at all. We segmented the country into geographical regions and created separate campaigns running for each one of them. We then set up dozens of ads within these campaigns, each optimized for a single keyword and with a dedicated landing page. Yet, as I said, we just ended up pouring money into the AdWords black hole, with no return at all.
It took us several months to see the obvious, but eventually we discontinued our paid advertising campaigns and focused our attention on figuring out how to grow organically. Soon afterwards, all of our efforts were concentrated on SEO and an integral part of the new strategy was building a business blog. Yes, we did launch the Credit Card Blog solely for SEO purposes. Fast-forward three and a half years to the present and the roles are now reversed: the blog is at the core of our marketing strategy and everything SEO-related that we still do revolves around it. As our traffic grew over time, the blog increased our reach in a way no other marketing tool could have achieved. Readers appreciated the fact that we were sharing our expertise with them for free, whether or not they were our clients, and became far more likely to sign up with us. Moreover, The Credit Card Blog helped all of us at UniBul and me personally to get to know what our existing and prospective clients really cared about and to focus on delivering it. It is an ongoing learning process, which benefits both our organization and our clients. So here is a short summary of what I learned from my years of blogging.
Traditional SEO Is a Waste of Time
When we started, we learned the basics of on-page SEO — things like title tags, meta descriptions, keyword density and positioning, image alt texts, etc. — and made sure our blog was well-optimized. Fortunately, using WordPress as a blogging platform made our job an easy one, as we could simply install a plug-in to do the job for us (we still use the All in One SEO plug-in, although nowadays there may be better options). Then we shifted our attention to off-page SEO, which is the concept of promoting your website through references to it on other websites — thinks like back-links, social media signals (Facebook likes, tweets, LinkedIn shares, Pinterest pins, etc.), bookmarking, etc. We ended up spending a lot of money on off-page SEO, both through our internal efforts and through hiring external agencies.
What did we learn? Well, I’m sure many would quarrel with my verdict, but here it is anyway: traditional off-page SEO is a waste of time. Link-building, which is off-page SEO’s core strategy, is an incredibly time-consuming process, which can deliver highly dubious results, at best. See, the problem is that there is only one authority whose judgment on the quality of your optimization matters — Google. And the reason this is a problem is that Google’s rules for SEO best practices keep evolving and compliance is never assured — what worked yesterday (and was absolutely legitimate) may not work or be against Google’s rules tomorrow. For example, you may have spent years painstakingly building links, only to discover that, following the latest update of its algorithm, Google would count them against you, because they were not of the right kind, and that would cause your traffic to plummet. I speak from experience — we have been on the receiving end of a Google penalty (although for a different reason, as far as I can tell), which permanently reduced the rate of our traffic growth.
So we ended up abandoning our link-building initiatives and all other off-page SEO programs we were running, which were not connected to social media. And then, we focused our social media efforts exclusively on building our presence on the main platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus and, more recently, Pinterest. If you follow the links, you will see that we have been quite successful at it. These are mostly within our control and, more importantly, social media traffic is helping us gain at least some independence from Google’s algorithmic updates. My only regret is that we didn’t shift course earlier.
Blogging Changed It All
But it is our blog that is by far our biggest marketing asset. It is now three-and-a-half years old and, having fully recovered from a huge drop in traffic following a hacker attack just over a year ago, it is now growing fast again and I fully expect it to keep the growth rate high for as long as we continue to put in the same amount of effort. As a side note, if you are a WordPress-based blogger, you should do a couple of things to fend off hackers. Firstly, if you haven’t done it already, you need to immediately change your administrator account’s user name from the default “admin” to something else (just Google it to learn how to do it). Then, you should install a plug-in (we use Limit Login Attempts) to prevent hackers from repeatedly trying to guess your WordPress password until they succeed. Amazingly, since we installed this plug-in, after we had cleaned up the mess created by the hackers (and that was a painfully slow process) a year ago, it has locked out no fewer than 5,674 people from trying to log into the blog’s administrator account! Furthermore, and separately from securing your WordPress account, if your blog is hosted on a dedicated server, you should contact your web host and ask them to restrict access to your server to specific IP addresses — your own and the ones of the other administrators — so that no one else would be able to log in, even if they somehow discovered your credentials.
Once you have secured your blog, you are free to focus on the important things and there is nothing more important than quality. See, a direct result of our blog venture is that over time I learned how to write sales copy and blog articles.?á It is a feedback loop, in which my persistence and the blog’s success have been mutually reinforcing each other and have led to a continually improving product quality and an increasing number of visitors. Most importantly, writing is a skill that can be applied to any business field, so long as you invest the time and effort necessary to develop a minimal level of expertise.
That being said, examples abound of hugely successful blogs that are being maintained by people with poor writing skills and / or dubious expertise in their fields. TechCrunch, Mashable and The Huffington Post are perhaps the three most conspicuous examples. One very interesting case, however, is Neil Patel’s QuickSprout. I don’t think you can find a blog as popular as this one (and it is immensely popular!) that is quite as poorly written. The reason QuickSprout is successful is that Patel has accumulated a great amount of expertise in his field (mostly SEO) and is willing to share it with us. In doing so, he has created a huge marketing platform for his two businesses. So there is a model to replicate for you: become an expert in your field — or rather convince the rest of the world that you are one — and then mercilessly promote yourself until a sufficient number of potential customers believe in your greatness and begin to do a good deal of the marketing for you. And, as Patel demonstrates, so long as you can convince others that you are an expert, it doesn’t matter how poor your writing skills are.
The second-most important factor for your blog’s popularity, after the quality of your articles, is the consistency with which you publish new material. You don’t necessarily have to publish new content daily, although if you can find stuff to write about, you absolutely should be doing it, but you do have to stick to your schedule, whatever it is. If your readers don’t know when a new article will be published, they won’t know when to come to your blog and eventually will stop coming to it at all.
Our blog’s readership has grown organically — we have been promoting it only on our own (admittedly popular) social media accounts and through email marketing to subscribers. I am certain that we could have had more success if we had done some guest posting and perhaps even paid advertising on StumbleUpon or Facebook, but for some reason or other we never did it — our focus was elsewhere, which leads me to my main point.
Why I Blog
See, blogging has helped me hone my analytical skills, which, in turn, has enabled me to identify the latest industry trends, often before other experts. For example, I was convinced from the very beginning that Square would become the next PayPal and my prediction is quickly turning into reality. More importantly, however, blogging has helped me make better business decisions for UniBul. For example, by keeping up with the goings-on in our industry on a daily basis, which is an essential part of the process of collecting ideas for new blog posts, some time ago I became convinced that, if it is to be successful, UniBul would have to change its business model and we ended up turning our focus to the high-risk end of the market — a good decision.
But there is something else about UniBul’s way of blogging, which gives me the confidence to recommend it to others. See, many successful bloggers, Patel very much included, tell you to write in a style that makes your blog readable by the widest possible audience; essentially they tell you to dumb your presentation down, so that everyone can get it. Well, that may or may not be the right strategy for businesses selling $10 trinkets (I suspect that it isn’t and even if it is, Amazon would soon compete you out of existence), but it is certainly not what you should be doing if you were operating at the high end of your industry, selling services for thousands of dollars at a time, as is the case with UniBul. Let me illustrate my point with an example.
Do you know that The Economist, to pick a name at random, whose product is perhaps as far from being dumbed down as you can get, charges advertising rates for its online content that are dozens of times as high as those of the vast majority of websites out there (here is the magazine’s 2011 media kit; I don’t have time to look for the latest one)? What do you think enables The Economist to command such a high price? It is, of course, the make-up of its readership base — advertisers pay such high fees, because they know they are targeting The Economist’s readers. Now, how do you think these readers would react if the magazine decided to dumb its content down, so that everyone could get on board? Just as importantly, how do you think advertisers would react to such a change? If The Economist were indeed “successful” at expanding its readership base, advertisers would demand a much lower price, because their target audience would have changed for the worse (as far as they are concerned), and the end result may well be lower overall revenue for the magazine, to go along with higher operational costs. To make matters worse, The Economist’s cachet for highest quality would be irredeemably damaged.
So, at UniBul at least, we don’t compromise on the quality and style of our content and trust that our target readers would enjoy the experience. So far, the strategy has worked just fine and I have no reason to expect different results in the future. Then again, if the facts change, I would do as Keynes suggested all these years ago and change my mind. Wouldn’t you?
Image credit: Flickr / tarop.