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Success Online Isn’t a Prepackaged Plan

by Joe Schaefer No Comments April 23, 2011

I think I read Todd Malicoat say something along the lines that if you can’t afford to buy into certain directories, then you shouldn’t have a website. I partly agree with that. My bigger takeaway is that if you’re not willing and able to put into a project the necessary elements, including sweat and tears, you probably shouldn’t expect success.

Plus, you need to fall flat on your face in order to learn pretty darn quick what to change in order to stay on two feet.

Success (especially online) is more of a multi-faceted journey that doesn’t come prepackaged or straight off the shelf. In fact, it takes testing, mistakes and regrouping to get to that sweet spot.

I’ve sat in countless client meetings where the client has said “I want XY and Z success, how soon can I have it?” Or, “I want XY and Z success with the web assets I already have, make that happen with SEO.”

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I’ve even sat in internal meetings where management or owners have said, “We have this project, it has to be the best and it has to work when we launch it, so go make that happen.” Or, “This didn’t work, forget it.”

Sure, these are too broad to apply to everything we as web professionals do online, but I hope you’re getting the gist. Broad, untested and misguided expectations are the fuel for the fire of disappointment and failure (and can be a motivation killer).

My point is, you’re never going to get to the sweet spot without making mistakes or reinventing what you tried to invent in the first place. Also, you’re not going to get to the sweet spot without being methodical and flexible.

Take for instance Amazon.com. It’s a great site, throngs of people like it, use it, respect it and so on. But surely its first iteration wasn’t what it is now. I’m sure at any given time they are running hundreds of tests and retests while developing new things just to turn around and test them too. Making a great product like Amazon is surely a laundry list of lessons learned.

In the world of web design, development and web marketing we over-think things and deliver an experience that we believe is the one the masses want. In all reality, people want simple, fewer paths of resistance. Or, those fewer paths we *do* create don’t contain the content that the audience really gives a hoot about.

That can lead to looking to other successes and emulating or straight up copying. When (in my opinion), it’s those things that are completely unique or are truly utilitarian (or both) that help light success on fire.

I’ve actually heard potential clients say, “I want Facebook, but it can’t look like Facebook.” There’s all kinds of wrong in that statement, but really, what audience needs another Facebook? That question speaks volumes.

And, smaller fish have tighter budgets…I get that. But in the long run, it’s still the same process of getting your feet wet and remaining mindful of flexibility, consumer behavior changes and just *not* knowing how to please all the variables. Then you dive. Then you get out, dry off, get your feet wet but this time up to your knees and dive again.

My mom used to say, “Did you learn your lesson?” “Yep, mom, I did.” Then I’d go screw up the same way. That’s all because as a kid I figured I knew it all and could get by on screwing up again because I was a kid. But, eventually it seeped in and by trial and error (again and again), it kind of clicked and I didn’t make the same mistakes, which brought me to experience new things and make mistakes with them too. Then the process starts again.

The same holds true for products, services and even the ilk online. Brands big and small find their definitions of success by the same trial and error or lessons learned model. What they do (hopefully) is make a plan based on educated decisions, deploy, measure, regroup and start again in order to build on both the successes and failures.

So, for a client who wants to rule the SERPs or make money hand-over-fist, they have to do the same and put everything they can into it, making adjustments along the way. This way, over time, they’ll realize those successes they set out to gain in the first place.

And since I like to think I’m an SEO geek, my real world example comes from that very industry.

I watched SEOmoz go from a consulting business and transition into an incredibly useful and successful SEO software company. And even though my opinion of SEOmoz never changed, there were surely things along the way that irked me. Small things. So small that I can’t even remember them.

Yet SEOmoz always came across as being very well put together and always delivering a good ‘product’ that kept me coming back. I’m sure there are many others who agree. But, SEOmoz isn’t exempt from learning lessons along the way in order to continue to improve on and deliver a consistently top-notch product.

Rand FishkinRand Fishkin of SEOmoz tells me that a big challenge they faced as builders of software and tools for SEO centered around constructing an effective interface to communicate massive amounts of data.

The lesson he left me with was, “We (in the product development field) think we’re building products that we ourselves would want, but in fact, it’s all about building something that’s accessible and useful to everyone.”

One particular story about their product development lesson goes a little like this:

When their link index, Linkscape, launched in 2008 they created the classic Linkscape tool and it gave users a great amount of details about meaningful metrics. Those metrics applied to each site/page/link, but Rand says that made it “both unwieldy and challenging to comprehend.”

Rand continued by saying, “The metrics were all new, and although they were taken from our intuition and learning about what the search engines might be doing, for all but the most advanced of SEO professionals, the material was overwhelming and frustrating to apply.”

In January of 2010, SEOmoz launched Open Site Explorer that mimicked Yahoo!’s Site Explorer.

Rand says, “This proved to a be a huge step forward. We simplified many metrics down to two ‘big ones’ – Page Authority and Domain Authority, which used machine learning in combination with ranking models to predict the combination of all our link metrics that would have the highest correlation with rankings at Google. We maintain other metrics like mozRank (which imitates PageRank) and mozTrust (which imitates TrustRank), but the simplicity and familiarity of the new tool has made a huge difference.”

As for the future, Rand says, “Between May-June of this year, we plan to re-launch a big update to OpenSiteExplorer using the lessons we’ve learned about simplifying data and interfaces. There’s a select segment of users who want that powerful, deep data approach, and for them, we’ll have exportable, customizable results, but for the standard interface, we plan to simplify even further.”

An old friend of mine, filmmaker Steve Balderson, once said, “If you feel the need to write something clever—simply eat something spicy and the feeling will pass. You’ll be much happier in the end.”

For me, in my world of working on the web, that means two things: (1) Being creative for the heck of it and without a flexible plan can lead to frustrating results and (2) if you are going to create, be ready to work at it for the sake of improving your work based on experiences and lessons learned. Maybe it’s also that people aren’t prepared to embark on a sometimes steep incline to get to those success points they envisioned when setting out to create something for people to consume.

All in all, online success is rarely (if ever) a pre-packaged plan that you can just pull of the shelf.

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