In part one of this series, I introduced readers to custom jewelry designer Carrie D Mader and our crack team of online marketing consultants. In today's article (which is admittedly late, but hey, I'm 7 and a half months pregnant and running after a 20 month old, sometimes time gets away from you!) I'll be talking about some of the challenges facing Carrie and our team and some of the software solutions that we're going to be putting in place to take care of them.

As with many small business owners trying to make a go of it online, Carrie's biggest stumbling block wasn't so much a lack of time or money (though such things DO come into play), it was a lack of understanding of how to move forward. In fact, Carrie summed that sentiment up perfectly in one of our earliest emails, echoing the thoughts that I'd heard from hundreds of small business owners over the years... "It's so hard for us small biz people to know who to trust. And I don't want to be a shopping cart expert, or an SEO expert...I just want to make jewelry!"

But the problem with "just making jewelry" is that you have to be able to find and trust people to take care of the other things. For someone that knows little about how SEO, shopping carts and other online marketing techniques work, it can be very difficult to decide who to trust. Even beyond that problem, there's the issue of conflicting advice.

Carrie had already started a thread in a discussion forum looking for some feedback on her site and the direction she should be taking, but the responses she was getting were disheartening. In fact, the most common feedback she was getting was that she needed to completely ditch her site and start 100% from scratch with a new design and build team. Multiple posters told her that she needed to fire her e-com developer because the developer didn't fully understand SEM. (It didn't matter that the e-com developer was clear up front that she knew nothing about SEM and that Carrie was out trying to find someone that could help out both of them in that respect.) Thus, the responses that she was getting served as the perfect example of what turns many small business owners off on the idea of even TRYING to redirect their marketing efforts.

Those in the industry are rarely able to view a new project through the true limitations of budget and time. Thus, "solutions" are often presented with an "all or nothing" mentality. The problem with that line of thinking is that even when it's desirable to start from scratch, it's usually not practical. What Carrie really needed was advice that could help take her business to the point that she could afford to invest in a better back-end. That advice also needed to walk the line between being practical and being affordable.

Usability Challenges

The absolute biggest challenge facing Carrie in terms of selling online was the fact that she didn't have a proper understanding of how people were using her site. Since budget was an issue, Carrie was running the commerce part of her site off of a shared MIVA Merchant license. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, except that MIVA is well known for having some usability issues associated with their shopping cart. In other words, people tend to get confused during the checkout process and then abandon ship.

That meant that Carrie, Matt and I needed to get a real grip on where any abandonment was taking place so that we could work with Carrie's MIVA developer to get some solutions in place. We also knew that there were going to be some issues related to how shoppers were navigating her site. Carrie was not using the standard "across the top" navigation style that most shoppers are used to. She also had the greatest majority of her content pushed pretty far down the page due to a very large rotating Flash image.

The problem Carrie was facing was the fact that she had no idea how people used her site. She was relying on a low cost web stats program that told her little more than the number of hits she had to her site each month. She had no way to track visitors through the site, no ability to track conversions, and very little ability to even tell where her traffic was coming from. That meant that we needed a good analytics solution and we needed it fast.

Regular readers of Search Engine Guide won't be surprised to hear that it was the good folks at ClickTracks that stepped up to the plate on this one, offering Carrie a free copy of ClickTracks Optimizer to use with the site. Since Matt and I were both already using the Pro version of ClickTracks, that put the three of us in a great position to be able to get down and dirty with some real analysis of the site and how it was being used.

Search Marketing Challenges

One thing that Carrie did have going for her was the fact that her site was being indexed by the major search engines. Google, Yahoo and MSN all seemed to know she was there, she just wasn't ranking for much because her site had never been optimized. Carrie admitted that she'd always thought of SEO as being a combination of "voodoo, smoke and mirrors" and as such, had been hesitant to make any changes to her site. While understandable, that also meant that she had very little content on her pages and that important SEO areas like the Title tag were simply a hodgepodge of words and phrases that would do little to help drive search traffic.

In fact, when we took a look at the phrases that were sending traffic to her site from the search engines, we could quickly see that the greatest majority included some variation of her name. Carrie (understandably) ranked really well for phrases like "carrie mader jewelry" and "carrie d mader" but was nowhere to be found for the "money phrase" like "custom bridal jewelry" and "wedding necklaces." In fact, with the exception of a few phrase from the long tail like "ibiza jewelry" and "st topez jewelry" Carrie hadn't managed to crack the top thirty on any phrase related to her business. That left her sinking money into Google AdWords and Yahoo! Search Marketing campaigns to keep the flow of traffic steady.

While it was frustrating for Carrie to pour money into paid search listings each month, the record of that traffic actually played in her favor when it came to our organic search marketing plans. The benefit that gave us was that we would be able to use Clicktracks to examine those pay-per-click phrases so that we'd know which ones resulted in the best onsite actions. That would let Stoney deGeyter, our organic search consultant, work with Carrie to help optimize her code, her tags and her content so that she'd be more likely to drive non-paid search traffic for those same phrases.

Our biggest challenge moving forward looked like it would be the MIVA e-commerce system. MIVA, as with most out-of-the-box e-commerce solutions doesn't always give a site owner as much control over their content as we search marketers would like. That said, the team also knew that there were some modules out there that we could find for Carrie to purchase that might make the process go a bit more smoothly.

With that in mind, Stoney began working with Carrie on coming up with a plan to organically optimize her site while I set aside time to start digging through her pay-per-click campaigns to see where we could make some improvements and where we might need to add or remove listings.

Content Challenges

Another issue that Carrie was facing was deciding what direction to take her content. In our early emails, Carrie and I had discussed the possibility of using a blog to drive both new content and incoming links to the site. As it turns out, Carrie had had some success with this method in the past, but had some concerns about reintroducing it now that her business was more established.

"...when I was planning my wedding I wrote about it AD NASEUM on the wedding channel in an online journal. That is honestly how I started my business, I had a big following and lots of people talked about me starting the business and so many of my clients came from there. My concern about publicly blogging is that the stuff I would want to write about are funny kid and husband things. I don’t want my target clients to know too much about my personal life… although feedback I get again and again from my existing clients is that they buy from me because they feel they know me."

With that in mind, we talked about the possibility of adding a more personal feel to her site by playing up the character of her pieces and of her as the designer. The line of thinking here was all those great descriptions that get carefully written up for catalogs like J. Peterman. Carrie could relate to that line of thinking, especially on the emotional drive to buy based on the product descriptions..."after reading those descriptions I wanted safari jackets and big billowy skirts that I never would have looked twice at otherwise."

At the same time, Karri Flatla, our content consultant was quick to point out the fine line that needed to be walked when it came to adding a personalized touch to content. Site owners need to be careful to keep their product content and sites customer-centric, not seller-centric. That means that while you can inject personality, you have to be careful to do so in a way that appeals to your readers own emotions rather than the emotions and personality of the designer. That meant that Carrie and Karri were going to need to carefully craft a strategy that balanced the needs of creatively interesting content with the need for the customer to feel personally invested in what was being discussed.

With all of the above in mind, the team was also going to have to do some research into the keyword phrases that were currently performing well for Carrie and into the related phrases that she could expand her campaigns to target. For that, Karri and Carrie will be using Trellian's Keyword Discovery tool. (With a special thanks to Trellian's David Warmuz who generously donated a year's worth of free access to the tool for Carrie and our team.)

Viral and Link Building Challenges

Another issue facing Carrie was the task of building new links to her site. While it's true that there's no shortage of related keyword phrases that she can optimize her web site for organically, it's also true that direct links from blogs, bridal sites and fashion sites were going to produce valuable traffic. Those links would also help to boost her organic search listings over time, making link building a high priority in her overall marketing plan. At the start of the project, Carrie's links were still few and far between. She'd done little to solicit links, nor did she have much of a plan in terms of how to go about soliciting them. As such, Yahoo! was showing less than one hundred indexed links and few of them were targeted with good anchor text.

Lisa Stewart, our link building consultant pointed out that Carrie needed to not only consider her own linking strategy, but also the strategy that was being used by her competitors. That left Carrie and Lisa working to identify Carrie's list of businesses that she planned to go head to head with so that Lisa could do a little digging into the strategies that were working for those sites. The plan then was to combine those types of strategies with some new and original ones to help Carrie's site surpass the competition.

We also knew that since word of mouth had been a big player in Carrie's early success and since viral marketing (the online version of "word of mouth") was such a successful method of building links, that some type of viral marketing campaign would need to come into play. Carrie pointed out that her brides love to have their custom pieces featured on the site and that those same brides often link in to their personal creations from blogs and discussion forums. Since we had already discussed the possibility of starting a blog on the site, we also knew that there was the potential to utilize the blog for the same types of features. The idea of adding more personality to the site by blogging about custom pieces and the individual brides seemed to have a pretty good chance of meshing nicely with the need for a viral marketing component that would drive new links to the site. The challenge was figuring out a way to tie it all together.

Coming up...

In the next article, we'll start diving further into some of the keyword related issues for the site. From finding out what words Carrie's potential clients were using to search with to learning how different phrases resulted in different usage patterns on the site, there's quite a bit to be learned from spending a little time figuring out the language of your customers.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

July 27, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Real Small Business, Real Big Ideas - The Carrie D. Mader Project Part 2