Another Milestone Moment

This week we had our 6th release of Grouvia Beta.  This release marked another major milestone for us – all the 1.0 features are implemented.

That’s not to say they are all implemented perfectly, or even completely.  We still have some missing pieces and a few hundred bugs.

But I’m just sayin’…

For the next two and a half weeks we have to focus very clearly on launching http://www.  This means we will…

  1. FIX BUGS.
  2. Work on the SEO strategy.
  3. Fix more bugs.
  4. Post as many free ads and links as possible.
  5. Test bug fixes.
  6. Improve the site’s marketing copy and landing pages.
  7. Fix more bugs.
  8. Convert the static  marketing pages to Drupal content.
  9. Fix… etc.
  10. Build demos and how-to articles.
  11. LAUNCH.

I’m torn between having one more bug fix release to beta before the production launch.  But honestly I just want this thing in production.

I mean, Facebook has tons of bugs, and people keep using it!

I’m really excited.  We’re turning a corner.  And getting to the next phase is always fun.

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Link Building – It’s a messy job but somebody’s gotta do it.

I can’t seem to get through the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for Dummies book on my own, so my friend who is an SEO expert agreed to do some barter work for me.

Link building is a key component of any good SEO strategy.  Or so she told me and I had to agree because I didn’t know any better.

Link building is an ongoing effort, she says.  You do it a little bit every week, for several weeks at a time, and then repeat that over and over.  In a nutshell, it requires 2-3 people posting comments, blog entries, forum replies, answers to questions, etc, on high ranking sites a whole bunch of times, all containing links back to your site.

At some point, you will see your site’s PR (page rank) improve enough that your SEO effort takes on a life of its own and you don’t need the manual link building any more (or much).  At least that’s the idea.

So now that I’ve done a little research into how this works, let me tell you something: it is not as simple as it sounds.  Let’s go over some of the finer points of link building:

  • First of all, this work is BORING and I certainly can’t spend hours and hours every week doing this.  So I decided to get some cheap VAs (virtual assistants) to help.  I posted a very simple job opening on oDesk and within 2 hours had close to 50 applicants.  Whoa horsey!!!  I shut that faucet off as soon as I could chat the help desk to ask them how.
  • My personal ethics will not allow me to use black hat methods.  If you don’t know what that is, look it up on wikipedia.  Trust me, it’s bad.  But what it means is that I have to filter out any candidates who I think might use these techniques, because the last thing I want is for Grouvia’s reputation to be tarnished before we’re even one lap into the race.
  • You have to hit all different kinds of sites, from ebay and craigslist to blogs, article comments, review sites, and answer sites.  You have to hit the ones that have high PR, you have to hit them at different times of the day, and you have to hit them from different IP addresses and different devices and browsers.
  • Here’s a critical piece:  the things you hit have to be RELEVANT to your subject matter.  You can’t just hit anything — you have to hit stuff that means something to your site and your site’s audience.  For Grouvia I could hit anything group-related.
  • Finally, the things you say in these posts have to be relevant and valuable.  You can’t just put a comment on a blog post that says “thanks for the great post, signed soandso at http://www.grouvia.com”.  That would be spam and I get that all the time on my blog.  I trash them, even if it’s the only comment.  Especially the ones that are written by a non-English speaker.  Please.

My friend (the same one I talked about earlier) does this for a living.  She started doing it with stock sites when she was a day-trader, and according to her it works like a charm.

The whole thing seems really scummy, but everyone does it.  Apparently if you don’t do it your site is destined for Internet purgatory forever because nobody will ever find it.  Either that or you’ll have to pay for search engine advertisements which, when you have no money, is not much of an option.

[I just found this hilarious post called 101 Ways to Build Link Popularity.  Maybe he’ll see my link and link back to me.]

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    Usability is Still King

    As I mentioned in my last post, I have come up for air and started picking up the marketing tasks I abandoned last month.  I decided to take a look at Grouvia’s Google Analytics numbers, and I noticed we are getting a high bounce rate on some of the marketing pages.

    The marketing copy was originally developed based on what we were trying to deliver with Grouvia.  The initial surveys we did back in the beginning gave us insight into what people are looking for, and our initial feature set was based on that.  So the development of the marketing copy was based on feature-needs, not necessarily real-life needs.

    There’s a lot more behind this of course, but I don’t have the time or desire to write a novel-length blog post, nor would you have time to read it, so you’ll have to trust me that a lot of thought and planning went into all this.  But there’s only so much you can do without a huge pile of money to do market research.

    In an effort to root out what was causing the high bounce-rate, I asked a colleague unfamiliar with Grouvia to spend an hour with me so I could virtually observe her as she went through the web site.  We started on the home page while she pretended she was a user looking for a place to manage her neighborhood homeowners association (HOA), of which she is President.

    We talked through each of the pages she thought she might visit during her evaluation, and she told me everything that came to mind, both good and bad, without reservation or bias.  She was great at this, I could not have chosen a better person to do this with me at this point.

    The exercise both opened my eyes and confirmed what I thought — it’s time to re-write the copy.

    Now for an interesting twist:  last week I posted a job opening on oDesk for candidates with SEO/SEM expertise to help me improve the search engine rankings of Grouvia.  (I mentioned I was going to do in last week’s post.)

    One candidate wrote to me saying she would not be able to apply for the position because she was booked until February, but she was nice enough to spend some time looking at the Grouvia site, and giving me her opinion of the content, as well as some tips on how to find a good SEO person to hire.

    I was very impressed by, and grateful for, this gift.  What she said resonated with me, especially one thing in particular:  “Your sites [sic] content is currently on a very advanced reader understanding level and unless you are only trying to appeal to the college graduate, you may want to tone that down some.”

    Well knock me over with a feather.  So.  Like.  Duh.

    Fast forward to the pseudo-usability test with my colleague (who just so happens to be a Ph.D and probably in a  stratospheric reading comprehension level.)  I mentioned the candidate’s comments and she said she’d heard that you should always write your copy for an eighth-grader.

    Oh sure.  Like I know how to talk to an eighth grader, much less write marketing copy for one.

    I think I’ll need to delay my SEO tasks until I rewrite the web site copy.  Or maybe I need an SEO expert who can also write at an eighth grade level and then we will accomplish two things at once.

    Either way, I’m rediscovering that marketing is still way more fun than programming.

    * * *

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    How to Increase Adoption Rates

    I wrote the headline for this article hoping that it would inspire me somehow.

    The signups for Grouvia Beta have been slower than I had hoped.  If I sit down and think about all the reasons this could be, here’s the list I come up with.

    1. Hello?  It’s Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa, and people are distracted by many other obligations.  How many times have you said “I’ll do that after the holidays” in the past two weeks?
    2. The month-long break I took from marketing to do design and programming was a bad move.
    3. People can’t see Grouvia’s value from reading the marketing materials or looking at the web site’s front pages.
    4. People don’t trust beta software.
    5. People are wary of brands they’ve never heard of.
    6. The SEO for the site is bad and we’re not getting in front of our target audience.

    This list is not in any particular order.  But it seems to logically break down into things I can (3, 5, & 6) and can’t (1, 2, & 4) do something about.  So let’s just ignore the latter ones and focus on the former.

    People can’t see Grouvia’s value.

    Starting next week I will review all of Grouvia’s marketing content that exists out on the Internet (or as much of it as I can find).

    I’ll look at everything from the Groove blog posts to the emails I send out and the status updates on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I’ll make an attempt to look at it critically and take notes about anything that someone might not understand or care about.

    Also, I’ll try to find someone to sit down with me and just walk through the web site and help me figure out where the communications need improvement.

    People are wary of brands they don’t know.

    I’ve heard that people won’t recognize your brand name until they’ve seen it at least seven times.

    Someone told me recently that they advertised their product on Facebook and wrote the ad in such a way that people wouldn’t click on it.  When I first heard it I thought it was stupid.

    But the point here is that if nobody clicks on your ad you don’t pay anything.  So without much effort I could throw together a Facebook ad without a call to action, just to start getting the Grouvia brand some cheap exposure. OK, so maybe it’s not so stupid after all.

    The SEO is bad.

    I did some Google AdWords testing a couple months ago with decent results.  I wrote about it in a blog post at the time.  I decided after a few weeks to put it on hold because although people were clicking the ad they weren’t signing up.

    I decided back then that it was just too soon to advertise, because technically Grouvia didn’t even exist yet.  It’s possible that it’s still too soon to advertise.  I won’t know until I do another test.

    An alternative approach is to try to improve Grouvia’s organic search rankings.  I may need to pay somebody to do this.  I don’t have the knowledge and I think it will take a good deal of time for me to learn how to do it and then craft and execute a plan.

    So I think the bottom line is that both of these approaches (paid vs. organic search results) take either too much time or money.  The unfortunate result is that this particular item falls to the bottom of the list for now.

    I’ll do it after the holidays.

    * * *

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    Beta Success!

    Last week we launched the new beta site for Grouvia.com.

    It was a thrill and a relief. This is a major milestone for Grouvia and it was only a month late.

    There are 170 bugs in the application right now.  And that’s down from about 400 a month ago, so it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.  Only 19 of them are considered “major” and that’s just my personal assessment of their severity.  The vast majority of them are typos, layout issues, alignment problems, and missing “nice to have” features.

    So if you haven’t looked at grouvia lately (or at all), please go take a look.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    I have made one huge sacrifice in the past month about which I am more than a little concerned.  I have completely let our marketing efforts go.  I have barely eked out these blog posts, and have done no posts to the Grouvia Groove blog.  I have stopped reading/commenting on other blogs, I have stopped reading/commenting on LinkedIn discussions, I have stopped all tweeting.  Basically the Grouvia marketing efforts are now in disaster mode.

    I’m not sure if I have made the right choices, but I do feel that the quality of Grouvia was too important to let slip.  So I have spent the last month testing, documenting bugs, retesting fixes, and doing my own light coding of the user interface.  I think these efforts have paid off, because Grouvia looks a thousand times better than it did last month, but at what cost I am not sure.  I may not know for a while, if ever, what price Grouvia will pay for this.

    I still have some cleanup work to do over the weekend, and then I can leave the developers alone for a while so they can implement the rest of the missing features.  They believe we can have the entire project wrapped up by the end of January.  I am cautiously optimistic but I’m not holding my breath.  There have been too many disappointments on this project so far to believe that sunny days will always shine on us.

    But today it’s sunny, and I intend to enjoy it.

    Begging for Users

    A few weeks ago I got a connection with the director of an historical society in the town where my sister lives.  According to their home page they were looking for someone to build their new web site.

    Aha!  I thought.  Grouvia is a solution they might want to look at, given that it’s specifically built for these types of groups.

    So I sent them an email with an overview of how I could help.  Given my background I could easily build them a nice web site for a good price if that’s what they wanted.  So I offered this options as well.

    The director emailed me and we set up a conference call.  The day of the call he canceled.  We set up another one, and he canceled that one.  We rescheduled again.  He just canceled that one also and we’ve rescheduled it for next week.

    So far I have already put about 2 hours of my time into trying to get this customer and I haven’t even spoken to him yet.  What I really would like is to understand what their goals are for their site, and determine if Grouvia would be a good fit.  Building a custom web site for them wouldn’t be bad.  It’s not our core business, but we’re a startup, it’s income, and I know he’d ultimately be happy with our work.

    Eventually Grouvia will sell itself.  However, I am starting to think that this Begging Process Begging Process is one of the things we will need to do to get early adopter groups to put their sites on Grouvia.  I know this really is marketing – a combination of digital public relations, outreach, blogging, micro-blogging, networking in the physical world and getting the word out there in as many different venues as is possible.  But sometimes I just feel like I’m begging.

    These early groups are the ones who will give us the best feedback on Grouvia’s features, help weed out the leftover bugs, and most importantly, provide us with testimonials,  references and case studies.  That is why spending all this time trying to get these early customers is worth it.  Each rescheduled meeting helps me develop my patience, gives me additional time to revise what I want to say, and brings us closer to an actual launch date after which there will *really* be something to sell.

    * * *

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    Ratings are Overrated

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, and something that happened recently hit home hard enough to really send me over the edge.

    So let me go ahead and put it out there:  I have a problem with user ratings.

    I have been a member of Amazon for 10 years.  I am completely loyal to them and probably spend a minimum of $1,000 per year with them.  I have had similar relationships with other sites that have soured, while Amazon continues to stand tall (no pun intended).

    One of my reasons for being so loyal to Amazon is that their member rating system is beyond compare.  When you read user reviews of books for example, you are pretty much looking at the real deal.  For the most part, people say what they think.

    Sure, there are authors who will try to artificially increase a particular book’s rating by having all their friends and neighbors and parents and fans go on to the site and give it good ratings.  However, I’d like to believe the law of averages will eventually take care of that and besides, most readers are savvy enough to see through these games.

    Now, contrast this with another site, (which I won’t mention but if you email me I’ll tell you privately), that lauds itself in its marketing materials because “our vendors get all 4.5 star or above ratings.”

    Can someone explain to me how this is useful?  What does it say about this company?  That any vendor below 4.5 stars gets summarily kicked off their site?

    NO!  What it says is that they “encourage” their raters to give good ratings.  So please, tell me how this helps me, as a consumer, to decide whether to use this service or not?  In other words, if everyone gets 5 stars, what is the point???

    It reminds me of the 60-Minutes article a few years about about the Millenials, who feel that everyone in the game deserves a trophy whether they won or not.  Which is ridiculous when you think about it.  A game isn’t a game if someone doesn’t win.  Giving trophies to the losers sets these kids up for a lifetime of unreasonable expectations.

    In addition, how does the losing team (or poorly performing vendor) ever learn of their weaknesses, in order to try to improve them?  Not only is it not fair to the readers, it’s not fair to the vendors!

    Here’s another example:  A couple of months ago I ordered two exercise tapes from a seller on a popular auction site.  The condition was listed as “Like New” which to me means the box is open and maybe the tape has been played once or twice but it’s otherwise indistinguishable from a new item.

    I received the tapes and after watching them both, found that one of them was in only fair condition.  The color was off, the viewing was scratchy, and the sound was inconsistent, which is indicative of a VHS tape that has either been played too many times or sat in someone’s trunk for a half a year.

    The tapes were cheap and I did not want to send them back, I was happy enough with  my purchase, but I wanted to make a point.  So I gave the seller a “neutral” rating and stated that one of the tapes was not in the advertised condition.

    An interesting thing happened.  The auction site REALLY did not want me to leave this less than perfect rating.  It discouraged me *strongly* and made me agree to a list of statements by checking off a series of boxes, before it would finalize my rating.  Huh???

    Now, for the icing on the cake… In last week’s post I mentioned that I had hired two VAs.  One of them delivered substandard work, and I felt that I paid her for 10 hours to do something I could have done in about two.  So I politely told her I didn’t need her any more and ended her assignment, and generously gave her a 4-star rating.  She had all 5-star ratings previously, which honestly stumped me a bit given the poor quality of the work I got from her.

    She emailed me and asked me to please change my rating to all five stars, because she “cares about her reputation.”  She mentioned that she had given me five stars in return and so would I please reconsider my rating.  Well, I did not respond to her because what I really wanted to tell her was that she was lucky I didn’t give her two stars.

    Whatever happened to “Gee why didn’t you like my work? What could I have done to make you happy? Can I make it up to you?”

    I have had several of these WTF moments over the past several months regarding ratings.  I have thought a lot about it, and I have come up with a list of possible reasons for why this trend may be taking place.  These really are guesses, I claim no expertise in this field except for a healthy dose of insight into human nature.

    • People don’t like conflict and giving someone a poor rating “to their face” is hard to do.  Amazon’s products are very impersonal, which makes it easier to be honest.  Hiring a freelancer to do work for you on the other hand, is very personal.
    • Most people don’t know how to give constructive criticism.
    • Sites that support ratings systems have come to believe for some reason that having better overall ratings makes their site or product more desirable.
    • People would rather not give a rating at all if they have a bad experience, which skews the ratings (but they WILL tell their friends about it).
    • People believe that they deserve a good rating automatically, without having to earn it.
    • Somewhat related to the previous point, but worth its own mention is the whole concept of the entitlement generation.  Urban legends about millenials whose mothers call their bosses when they don’t get a favorable annual review come to mind.

    I’d love to hear what others think of this, whether you agree or disagree.  If you agree, can you offer your own suggestions for what might be happening here?  If you disagree with me, why?  Really, I want to know.

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