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SEO – Giving yourself search results

What do you know about SEO?
The web plays a major part in almost every small business today. When establishing a small business, one of the first steps is creating a web presence so that when someone searches for your goods or services online, you appear. I’m not a web expert by any means. But, I had the good fortune to sit in on a SEO meeting for publishers last year and man did I learn a TON. So, since when I tried to do research on what SEO was I had trouble finding good pointers, I’m going to write some up for all of you.

Forgive me for doing this tonight instead of following along in my book, but I feel like it’s an important and useful topic.

The Basics
For starters, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. This means optimized or made the best possible for search engines like Google and Yahoo. The idea behind a SEO is that when someone is looking for information on a topic that you’ve written about, they find your site.

When a site is designed based around some basic SEO principles it increases the number of visitors that site gets because that site comes up higher in the search results. For example: if you were to type SEO into Google – the first answer to come up is using SEO best.

Implementation
SEO is generally implemented on three levels: in the site architecture, in its editorial content and in what I’ll call “marketing.” Site architecture is building the site so it has a strong foundation; that is, so search engines can navigate it easily. Editorial content online is different than in print – search engines, while smart, are not clever. They require you to be literal (example: if your headline is “A marriage not made in heaven,” Google will not know that article is about a tech device). Marketing online, like marketing anywhere, is about exposure.

Site Architecture
How a site is built greatly influences how well and how quickly Google can look through it for relevant content when a user inputs a specific query, or search term. While, again, I am not a developer or web designer, here are some things briefly outlined so you know what to ask YOUR designer or developer about when creating your site.

Site Map – A site map is essentially an outline or flow chart of your site. It tells Google how to navigate your website and helps make sure that the search engine can access every part of your site.

Heading tags – When programming/designing a site, there are several heading levels that can be applied to different portions of the text. Normally, a heading one tag is the main title line for the article or what in print would be the “headline.” Then a heading two tag would be the dek (or subheading). Again, keep in mind the example with the tech device; if your headings are too clever, Google won’t know what you mean. Be sure to keep them simple. One technique that is used is the swapping of the heading one and heading two tags – so if you have a clever heading, it gets a heading two tag (so google sees it as less important) and you label your subheading or dek with a heading one tag, and make that content more literal.

Internal Linking – Internal linking is good. Link between articles whenever it is relevant. It encourages readers to browse your site further and increases the amount of time spent on your site. It also creates “incoming links” which I’ll discuss further in the Marketing section.

Meta Heads – The best way I can think of to describe Meta Heads is to tell you they are invisible words that are added at a programing level that tell Google what that page is about. They are not actually in your content, but are added to your site code (the coding that a web browser reads when figuring out how to display your website) and talk directly to the search engine.

Editorial Content
A word that gets thrown around a lot when talking about SEO is “Keywords.” Keywords are terms that people search for. That’s actually all that means. There are sites (some, like Wordtracker.com, offer a free trial) that track how many times a particular search query is input into a search engine. Keywords are normally words that are frequently included in these queries – words that search engines end up looking for often. The idea is that if you know what people are looking for (these keywords) and you include them in your pieces, your pieces will come up more often. For example: if you write about weddings, you choose as keywords “bride,” “wedding dress,” “matrimony,” “vows,” etc. because when someone is looking for information about weddings, those are words they commonly search for.

Directing more users to your site is not the only benefit of keywords however. When used correctly, with a proper understanding of specific search terms and how searches are conducted, keywords will help the right readers find your site – the ones that are actually looking for the kind of content you provide and are interested in your topic. Keyword density (how often a keyword is used in an article) is one of the things Google measures when determining search result ranking (the order the results will appear in). The more keywords that are in a chain (one after another) the more specifically the searcher’s term and your site match (example: black and white puppy might come up if you search for black puppy or for white puppy, but the user who looks for black and white puppy will find exactly what they’re looking for).

Marketing
After relevance, marketing is the next determining factor in how high a particular site is in the results a query returns. Essentially, this boils down to two things: domain domination and incoming links. Google knows The New York Times means business. So, a domain like The New York Times will come up higher than, say, a blog post. There isn’t much that you can do about this.

Incoming links, however, you can do a lot about. Google counts the number of incoming links in order to evaluate the quality of your content.  Furthermore, Google also searches the pages that link back to your page. The idea is that the more people who liked your work enough to link back to it, the more authoritative the piece must be. The more of those pages that are also about the topic the user is searching for, the higher it rates the quality of those incoming links. In a post later this week, I’ll discuss how to create / encourage incoming links in order to increase your website’s exposure.

Sorry all, that this post ran so long. Generally, I try to keep posts a quick read. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t do this topic justice without going in-depth. Let me know if you find it helpful!

*Taken from my notes on the SEO for Publishers seminar at the Publishing Business Conference and Expo 2009, hosted by Publishing Executive.

Defining My Business

In chapter 2 Parker discusses the importance of defining your business. Before finding the right business model, Parker tried several other ideas and had them fail because of a lack of focus. She hadn’t thought out who she would write for, and what she would be writing.

So I am taking a critical look at who I want to work with and what I want to do for those clients.

I have said all along that I want to work with small businesses on developing their brands via the written word. I want to help by creating brochures, website content, company profiles, press kits, press releases, sales letters – anything that requires translating their business into words that will then go out to their potential clients.

That means, first and foremost, that I need samples. In this case, I can’t think of a better way to “create” samples then to do so for myself.

So, if you check out my goals, you’ll see that I’ve added creating sample work to my goals for this month.

Now the problem that Parker outlines for working with small businesses is that a lot of the time they are one-hit-wonders. They need these documents when starting their companies, and then do not need them again for quite a while – if at all.

This means that the writer targeting that demographic has to constantly be marketing her/himself and looking for new clients, which is a lot more work than establishing a clientele that consists of medium to large size businesses, which need writers more frequently.

This is a serious point that I need to consider. How can I have a constant stream of work if I need to constantly find new customers? It makes it a lot more difficult. However, I think I have a possible solution.

Part of the reason working with small businesses appeals to me so much is because I really enjoy working with people who are passionate about what they do. I find it refreshing to talk to someone who may not know a lot about writing, but who has put a lot of time and work into their company because they really believe in it. I find those kinds of people inspiring.

So that I can continue to do that, I am going to try and find small businesses who manufacture products. Those companies will need regular press releases, even if nothing else. I can then work on a quarterly basis, touching base as each new “season” goes into manufacturing. Initially, I’ll be able to create all the “start-up” materials; then I can work with them on press releases and seasonal catalogs.

The issue now is finding these companies, and finding a way to reach out to each of them. And that’s where another of my goals for this month comes in. I’m going to sign up for a Meetup.com small business networking event as soon as I get my business cards printed (which will hopefully be after I get paid this week – depending on the printer). Hopefully, that will put me in the perfect position to meet a few potential new clients – or at least collect some business cards. And later I can follow up with pricing and other information.

Books on Freelancing

While I’m using How to Start a Home-based Writing Business, by Lucy Parker and working my way through it here, on this blog, there are other books that I’ve already read that established in my mind what freelancing writing was.

During college I spent a semester doing an independent study, creating articles that I pitched to magazines. Below are some of the books I found helpful, and a short description of each of the books.

Get A Freelance Life, by Margit Feury Ragland, and endorsed by Mediabistro.com, with a forward by Media Bistro founder Laurel Touby.

This is probably one of my favorite books on freelancing. It discusses all the major questions a freelancer faces, and provides simple, understandable answers. The final section of the book is how to deal with the business end of being a freelancer – something many people forget IS part of being self-employed. It has all sorts of helpful lists, including a list of websites freelancers can use, a section on contracts, what to do, what NOT to do … it covers everything from how to write your first pitch to how to negotiate the best kind of contracts. I’ve read it cover to cover, and have pages highlighted, dog-eared, and have post-it tabs sticking out the top. I highly recommend this one.

Starting Your Career As a Freelance Writer, by Moira Anderson Allen

This book has a tone that is a little more formal. However, it is also a great source for information. It deals with some of the inner questions we writers ask ourselves, those things we are too embarrassed to ask others, and those technical questions we need to know but don’t want to ask. It breaks down types of articles, and gives tips on how to generate new ideas when you think you’re dry. It talks about how to find a unique slant. Again, we have how to write a query letter. This book has a much more detailed contracts section (detailed, in that it’s much longer) and even goes into doing your taxes. It’s a good book to pick up if your already writing freelance, and you want to expand or become better at it. It’s a little less about just starting out, but I found it helpful and informative (and I’m just starting out). Again, a good book.

The Renegade Writer, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell

This was a book I was really excited to buy, but that disappointed me. It’s written by two successful women writers, but it’s a bit too chatty for my tastes. I still haven’t managed to finish it. The books about, as the title suggests, how to be different and stand out in ways that will help you succeed. It gives a lot of examples and tells the stories of many different people who have followed it and succeeded – but it works a little too hard to sell itself.

The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner

This book is from an editors point of view, and she discusses writing and writers. It’s much more a story style, without much how-to. I’m somewhere in the middle of this book – it’s not something you can’t put down, but it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I find it interesting because I’m trying to go into editing. Witty, and interesting, but not a must-have.

Woe is I, by Patricia T. O’Conner

The self-proclaimed “grammarphobe’s guide,” this book is the best grammar text book I have ever read. I highly recommend it, and I have insisted several of my friends buy it, and bought a copy for my brother who is a science/math person, starting college in the fall. It is a friendly and fun guide to grammar. I never thought grammar could be interesting until this book – I’m being repetitive but I hope it’s getting the point across. If you have any doubts look at the “contents” page. With chapters entitled, “Yours Truly: The Possessives and the Possessed,” “They Beg to Disagree: Putting Verbs in Their Place,” “Comma Sutra: The Joy of Punctuation,” and others, you can understand my enthusiasm. I had to buy this for a class, and ended up absolutely loving it.

A few words to the wise & more tips from Chap 1

Well, it is late Tuesday night and I have not heard from the event planner. I take it this means I am not being given his writing assignment. Oh well.

On the up side, my “free” e-zine article was published today on Personal Branding & Improving your Google-ability. I’ll report of I see an uptick in the number of visitors here at the blog referred from the piece.

The piece is on personal branding. In The Book (see my about page if you don’t know what I’m talking about) Parker recommends thinking about potential topics that you know enough to write about and about the kind of writing you would like to do, ultimately.

Personal branding is a topic I happen to know a fairly significant amount about. I think it is one of the things I would like to begin writing about on a regular basis. I have a great idea for a piece on networking – the idea that people have forgotten how to socially network because of online social media. It would provide tips for starting conversations and the like, or finding appropriate places to meet people in a business setting.Perhaps if I don’t find a place to have it published, I’ll write it and post it to ezine. If I do, I’ll link to it here.

In addition to thinking about this, I’ve been considering another tip that Parker imparts in chapter one. Read, read, read. After reading a piece that is particularly well written, I try to deconstruct it and figure out what it is about the piece that makes it read well. Is it the sentence structure? The pace? Does it have the perfect arch (my nemesis when I attempt short story writing is creating a successful arch).

Parker suggests reading samples of work within the field you would like to write in (or ad samples, if your dream is to write ad copy) and then to analysis them for tips that can carry over to your own writing. However, P. Trunk, on her blog, recommends quite the opposite – she says it becomes impossible to create something original if you are too well read within your topic; and it tends to make you feel inadequate. I’m still on the fence on whether to side with P. or Parker.

This piece is a bit of a hodge-podge but I have two more quick notes / lessons I’ve learned that I’d like to share this week. First, in an effect to continue reading outside of my typical reading choices, I joined a book group a few months back. So far, I’ve only made it to the first meeting, (the second being while I was away for the holidays) but I enjoyed that meeting quite a bit. I think that meeting to discuss writing with other people who enjoy it as much as you do can be incredibly mentally stimulating. I’m finishing up a book tomorrow during the day for book club tomorrow evening.

And second, I want to offer a caution on networking. I recently responded to a craig’s list ad for a graphic designer. She was looking for a writer to do some sales letters for her. I offered to trade services; I had tried my hand a few times at creating a business card for myself, but to this day haven’t created something I’m happy with (see below for 2 examples of what I’ve come up with). I turned around two sales letters that she seemed very happy with. In return, she set out to work on my business card.

I had second thoughts about the trade when I saw her portfolio, while working on her sales letters, but by then I had already agreed to the trade. While her designs are not bad, per-say, they are also not quite what I was looking for. So a word to the wise – when networking, be sure to check someone’s work before offering to let them work with a client (I’m glad she was doing the cards for me, and not someone I was working for) and be sure of the quality of their work. Otherwise, it may reflect poorly on you.

My Business Cards (designed by me)

Interviewing for Jobs

So, a big part of finding work, even as a freelancer, is applying and interviewing for jobs. As I mentioned in my post a few days ago, I recently reevaluated my sales pitch / application email and ended up revamping it and improving my response rate significantly.

One of the jobs that replied to the new format actually got to the interview stage this week, and I talked to him yesterday on the phone.

Well, I’ve done some reading on interviewing for jobs (I actually enjoy this kind of reading – yes I am just that strange) and I tried to apply it on the phone with him.

Ask questions – make it clear that you are interested in what he does and how he wants to do it, then show that you understand that and that you’re capable of doing it.

So I did. I asked about who his ideal clientele will be. When he told me it would be for a website, I asked if he was going to charge for access to the information. I demonstrated (or at least tried to) a genuine interest in understanding both his motivations for doing this and his plans.

The job in this case is mostly web content, through he is also potentially interested in sales letters, brochures, etc. The client owns an event planning company that wants to create an educational website for other event planners. He is planning on charging for the content (ie. putting it behind a paywall) and creating different levels of service to help teach them how to be better event planners. He hopes to target everyone from recent graduates to long time planners, and wedding planners to celebrity event planners.

I did my best to follow all of the interview tips I’ve read. But he asked a few times  if I thought I’d be comfortable writing the type of pieces he mentioned needing -I said of course, and that I had sent him samples. He said okay. I then tried to prove I knew something about those topics by naming the kinds of articles I felt I could write. He seemed to relax a bit.

A lot of my reading suggests that if you can get the interviewer to do most of the talking – not because you’re unresponsive but because they are excited about the project and can tell your interested – than that is a good sign for how the interview is going.

So, I got him to talking. I asked about the kind of content he wants. He divided it into two sections – general business education, on marketing and SEO and that sort of thing, and event planning specific content, like how to choose the perfect venue.

Our conversation ended with him saying he had a few more people to talk to and that I’d hear back Monday or Tuesday.

Now I didn’t get that vibe like – wow, I am SO going to get this job, but i also didn’t get that “she is kooky and there is no way I want to work with her” vibe. So I can honestly say i have no idea if I’ll get an offer. But even if I don’t, I figure the interview was good practice and it shows that I can get to that point.

I did learn though, that I probably need a little more practice interviewing for this kind of thing. Go figure. One more thing to add to the to-do list.

Research is one of a Writer's most valuable skills

Knowing how to do research is one of a writer’s most valuable skills. Tonight, I spend several hours researching some of the things Parker mentioned in chapter one.

One of the things Parker does that I like is she includes a real live story from a real live writer at the end of every chapter. At the end of Chapter 1 her example is Kristen King. Within the piece she lists a few sites that Kristen has used to help her build her career, both sites she wrote for and sites she created.

One of the goals I set for myself this week (on my goals page) is to visit the sites mentioned and share my opinions on them with all of you. So let’s get started.

I’m investigating 3 websites:
-www.notes-in-the-margin.com, which King writes
-www.inkthinkerblog.com, which King also writes and
-ezinearticles.com, which King said she wrote for to help promote herself and lead people back to her site.

Notes in the Margin, which I think has a fantastic name, is informative but it’s clear that despite it’s current blog format it was intended as a newsletter. While that may seem like a negative remark, I really don’t mean it that way (I found the piece on how to be a successful internet freelancer very helpful). It’s just not a format that invites comments or reader participation. The writing is very “How-to” – it assumes that you, the reader, do not know anything about the subject matter the writer is writing on. For the time being, I think that signing up to receive it as a newsletter is going to be helpful, so I have. But I think it’s likely that once I break past the “start-up” phase, I’ll un-subscribe. I’ll definitely spend some serious time before then on the site reading though. Just scrolling down my eye caught on several more interesting pieces.

The Ink Thinker Blog, which has a significantly less cool name, also seems less helpful for a newcomer. It is much more oriented toward writers who want to talk about their writing, man. And about the creative process, man. You know how it is. Well, no, you don’t, but I’m telling you. After skimming the site quickly I’m closing the window. It appears that each piece is based around a quote on writing. Fun, if you’re trying to kill time. Unproductive, if your goal is to learn something about improving your writing.

Now, the controversial site. See, ezine.com is a site where you submit articles that you don’t get paid for. I’ve avoided this kind of site in the past because I have no desire to just feed crap out there. I think I’m worth money; I think my time is worth money. Thus, why I want to write as a business. But according to King, writing pieces on Ezine led people back to her sites. It boosted her SEO (incoming links do that) and promoted her as a writer. It was easy to sign up; initially you can post 10 articles, which are then reviewed. If they make the cut then you are allowed to submit an unlimited number of pieces. Since Parker / King recommended it, I gave it a shot and submitted a piece on improving your Google-ability (i.e. when someone types your name into Google, making sure the results they get are really you).

The cons: my piece isn’t up yet, so I can’t link to it here and show all of you my shining brilliance. I didn’t know this would be the case until after I submitted it (granted, I didn’t actually read the terms and agreements section and probably should have). It apparently takes 7 days for them to review the article and actually post it. I have no idea if I will be notified at that time. If I am, I’ll let you know (I was notified, and the piece can be found here).

The pros: It was painless. Total I spent about an hour working on it. It spell checks your work before you submit – it even pops up a reminder box and says, “would you like to spell check this before submitting?” You get to enter your own byline / signature (I included a link back to my site in my signature). You can link to your own work. You can probably even link to articles on similar topics that you’ve done (both on their site and elsewhere) providing valuable incoming links for your site and/or articles  (because incoming links improve your SEO, in case you don’t know that).

Was it worth it? I won’t know until they post it in 7-10 days.

Getting down to Business

Before I start, I have to say I had a total epiphany two days ago (before starting this blog). I realized that as a writer, I should spend some time crafting an appealing sales letter for when I apply to writing jobs on Craig’s List (yes, I know, not the most appealing way to find work but it’s a temporary thing-more on this another day.) I’ve written damn good sales letters (if I say so myself, though my clients say so too) but wasn’t applying those ideas. So I did. And it increased my response rate by some crazy amount (like… 2/4 vs. 1/15). I’ve gotten several responses and there is one client I am actually looking at working with! I know, I totally should have thought of this sooner, but hey… we’re all slow sometimes, right?

Now onto the meat of this post. Chapter one in THE BOOK (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here) tells me I should outline a business plan. So I’m going to give you the dirt folks. Each of these sections will eventually have their own posts as I develop them more fully but for now …

1. The Executive Summary: My Mission is building a freelance business and my first goal is making $500 a mo. by June (when my student loans become due). I will work with people who sell things – goods and services (though hopefully not themselves). Words connect us; they communicate ideas. They are how you persuade someone to buy stuff from you (perhaps, in the case of late night infomercials even stuff you really don’t need). Basically, they are powerful stuff. My job/goal is to harness that power and put it in the hands of my clients.

2. The Management Plan: This is supposed to be about personnel; well it’s just me baby. Though I am going to work to set up a referral network of web designers, graphic designers, Pr people, etc. who I can pass those portions of assignments on to and who will refer clients with writing assignments to me.

3. The Organizational Plan: I need to do more research before deciding how I want to license and structure my business; however my office set up is the “office” in my apartment (note: it is also a sewing room, as my roommate has her own fashion line – see her website here). I will use my current desk, computer chair and Mac computer. I have an internet connection but no fax or landline phone (are there online companies that will allow you to fax documents to a website and then print? I think so…). I’m also supposed to state my timetable here. Well, my timetable for getting this show started is now.

4. The Service & Product Plan: I plan to sell my writing. That was easy. JK. I plan to write sales letters, brochure content, web content, etc. I want to write things that will represent the business or client they are for. This is probably a bit broad and will be narrowed down as I go.

5. The Marketing Plan: Well, this blog. I need to start a twitter account for this too (added recently – @MelissaBreau). Networking. With a Capital N.  Other than that … well I guess this section still needs some development. Eventually, I’d like to have a website, and email local businesses with my info and see if I can get any fish to bite. (Note: This section is also supposed to evaluate competition etc. That will be forthcoming as I do research.)

6. The Financial Plan: Can I just put to make money? No, the book says I need to create balance sheets et al. Bummer. I’ll have to get back to you on this one then. However I did do the math and making $500 a month means doing 1 hr 15 mins a day of paid work. Sounds do-able, right?

Getting Started as a Home-based Writer (chap 1)

In chapter 1, Parker discusses a number of important ideas – but many of them are ones I’ve heard before. Namely, “Until you make it, fake it,” the idea that corporate writing is the best way to pay the bills, and networking. However, there were also quite a few new useful tidbits.

She discusses:
-How to gain skills you don’t have
-How to gain professional associations
-The importance writers writing a business plan & looking into legal requirements

I’ve used this first chapter to set myself a series of goals (see my goals page, which will be updated regularly).

I’m going to continue applying to freelance jobs that have been posted online and work on a business plan outline. I’ll keep you (and whoever reads this) up-to-date on my progress and what’s going on!



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