Saturday, April 16, 2011

Many Websites Look Like Zombies to Google Search

A while back I emphasized how important is to have a company website these days (Publish Your Website Or Customers Won’t Find You). I should have added that a website not optimized for search engines is lost in the heap of a billion dead websites. Unless someone searches for your company by name, it won’t show up in the first few pages of any search results.

Search engines are programmed to rank websites based on their popularity and relevancy. These are subjective elements, but there are specifics that even a computer program can evaluate to set your ranking, and thus determine whether your site is alive and a good match to a specific search request. Yet recent research indicates that almost half of small business websites are still missing these basics, and thus are essentially dead to the search world.

The solution is keeping your site alive and vital, and following basic search engine optimization (SEO) suggestions. Here are some high-value elements you need, if you hope to see your company on any page of results for relevant user queries:

  • Relevant and constantly updated content. Web sites that haven’t been updated in the last couple of years can’t possibly be alive. These days, the best way to provide fresh content is to attach your blog to the website, and add new entries at least a couple of times a month.
  • Create inbound and outbound links. Contact related web sites that are well known, to request reciprocal links. Another way to get inbound links is review other site blogs, and leave your comments with your link. Register your business in relevant directories, and sign up in all local directories. Make sure you have no dead links on your own site.
  • Web page title tags. You need to name every page of your web site, and these names must contain your important search keywords. Check every page of your web site to make sure a title is predominantly displayed as the first line of a search result. Missing and meaningless tags will cause your site to be ignored by users, even if found.
  • Web site keyword tags and description. These are elements, normally added by your website designer, which contain one or two sentences that briefly explain to the search engine what each web page is about. These same tags and keywords should be used liberally in each page text to give that page a higher ranking.
  • Image attributes and sub-folder names. Search engines process every word on your web site, even optional internal names assigned to images (alt tag) and folders. Thus even internal names of website elements must be properly named (eliminate computer generated text) to amplify your search position.
  • Reduce page load time. Eliminate flashy ads that delay entry to your site. Search engine spiders (also known as bots) take into consideration the page’s size in kilobytes. Web pages that take a long time to load will discourage search engines and human viewers alike. The usual culprit is a picture or graphic that is larger than 20 kilobytes.

Completion of these tasks is not the full SEO job, but will keep your company out of the Internet dead zone. You can contract an SEO specialist at this level for a couple of thousand dollars, or you can do the work in-house, if someone on your team has some basic tools and web maintenance skills. SEO does not have to be a major expense.

Another alternative is to buy your way out of the zone with Search Engine Marketing (SEM). If you give Google enough money, their search engine will put you up as a preferred provider for any search keyword you buy. That may be a quick fix, but will definitely be more costly in the long run.

But the cost of doing nothing is even greater. Websites that look like the walking dead to Google search, work like no website, which means that your business will suffer. Work on a good website is never done, but there is no time like the present to wake up and get started.

Marty Zwilling


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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Many Startups Stumble on International Cultures

By Ernst Gemassmer

Most of us have travelled abroad and experienced the challenges and frustrations of getting what we want without being laughed at or insulting our hosts. Similar issues prevail when doing business in other countries, cultures and languages. Even if you think your business is all local, multi-ethnic sensitivities are more relevant than you may think, including the US.

Although the Internet gives you pervasive reach, it hasn’t reduced the world to one locale for your business. The international opportunity is large, as I related in an earlier article, but there are some major challenges as well. Here are a few examples from my personal experience:

  1. You need to translate/localize your products. I was once asked by a top executive of a major software company why we were not selling more products in Finland. I informed him that we needed to translate the software into Finnish at a cost of $50,000.

    He did not seem to understand that Finland was not part of Scandinavia and that English is not too well understood by most people there (with the exception of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland). He could not be persuaded to commit the funds required for localization. Thus, we did not translate the product and sales remained at an insignificant level.

    Translation not only increases sales, but in many countries it is required by law.

  2. Local laws prevail. Some years ago Brazil had a major balance of payments deficit. Therefore Brazil made it difficult to import products from abroad. Corporations were encouraged to export from Brazil to generate foreign currency and they were allowed to keep a portion of the foreign currency. Companies became creative by selling and trading foreign exchange licenses.

    Our own subsidiary, of a major technology company, started to repair and service competitive products in order to maintain our own technical staff and service capabilities. Thus, when the government creates restrictions, think out of the box.

    Managing foreign exchange reserves is every bit as challenging as managing a family budget. Brazil is now a powerful country, but similar examples still prevail in many developing nations.

  3. Respect local customs and practices. A successful sales person wanted to become more familiar with the international market and requested a transfer to the Latin American sales group, based in the US. I counseled the department manager against hiring since she would be subject to personal challenges in selling to our partners in Latin countries. Eventually I relented and she joined the group.

    Unfortunately my prediction turned out to be true, she felt harassed by one or more of our business partners and left the group shortly thereafter. Even though we had agreed to provide her an equal opportunity to pursue her goals, we could not protect her from the different perspective on comments and advances in Latin America. Thus, hiring decisions should be made carefully, after fully understanding local practices.

    Although most Latin American countries have significantly improved working environments for women, few companies would yet dare send a women employee to work in Saudi Arabia.

  4. HR rules are local. I had organized European operations into regions and the country manager for Italy reported to the central European manager based in Germany. This organizational structure worked well until the two senior managers got into a shouting match and the Italian manager indicated that he was resigning.

    His manager accepted his resignation and documented the case in the personnel files. Shortly after leaving the company we were notified that the Italian ex-employee was suing us for creating an unacceptable working environment, which led to his resignation. We retained legal council in Milan and were advised that we would loose if the case went to trial. After some painful negotiations we settled the case out of court for a twelve-months severance payment.

    When hiring staff internationally, always be well informed about local laws and prevailing practices. Not following this advice can be very costly. Although labor laws are increasingly unified in the European Common Market, major differences are still encountered in many countries. Proceed with caution.

  5. Watch your product naming. Product naming is always a major effort and mistakes can result in costly failures. You may recall the Chevy Nova, a compact car from GM. Pundits in Latino countries quickly picked up on the name, ‘no va’ means ‘does not go’ in Spanish.

    Thorough name searches as well as professional advice in this area is highly advised. Cultural and religious implications must be very carefully considered.

Thus, I would recommend that you proceed with extreme caution and sensitivity. Great care must be taken in dealing with different religions, customs, dress codes, foods and alcohol issues. This can be frustrating, but the business world is getting smaller, and cultural issues can make or break your business. Have you properly factored international into your product or service?

Today’s article is presented by one of the founders of our Startup Professionals team, Ernst H. Gemassmer. He resides in Silicon Valley, California, and has long helped entrepreneurs there, as well as providing turn-around assistance as interim CEO and business coach for several companies. You can contact him directly at ernst@startupprofessionals.com.


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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Google Yourself to See How Other People See You

The measure of an entrepreneur used to be the number of real friends claimed, but times have changed. Now the measure is how many hits one has on a Google name search, factored by some formula, like the sum of all positive messages minus 100 for every negative message. If you don’t define yourself effectively, the Internet will do it for you in ways you never imagined.

That’s the reason every good parent should be coaching their child from birth to avoid posting all the naughty things on social networks that can come back to haunt them later. To illustrate the point, here is a true story posted by Seth Godin a while back:

“A friend advertised on Craigslist for a housekeeper.

Three interesting resumes came to the top. She googled each person's name.

The first search turned up a MySpace page. There was a picture of the applicant, drinking beer from a funnel. Under hobbies, the first entry was, "binge drinking."

The second search turned up a personal blog (a good one, actually). The most recent entry said something like, "I am applying for some menial jobs that are below me, and I'm annoyed by it. I'll certainly quit the minute I sell a few paintings."

And the third? There were only six matches, and the sixth was from the local police department, indicating that the applicant had been arrested for shoplifting two years earlier.

Three for three.

Google never forgets."

It doesn’t take much imagination to extend this example into your own business world, with potential customers and business associates checking you out. Can you imagine how many positives and how many years it will take to offset the impact of three negative posts entered by the entrepreneur herself in some spirited moments?

In reality, it’s not just the Internet that captures everything we do – just look around you at the cameras in public buildings, banks, and everyone’s cell phone. Remember the news with the videos of the latest celebrity exploits, or the cell phone photos that are snapped of every public and private activity and printed in magazines.

There’s still a bit of the “wild west” left in the Internet, especially as it relates to social networking sites, so keep your wits about you as you explore and act. Don’t be tempted into thinking that can safely relieve your tensions or aggressions in the anonymous massive numbers on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

In case you think the number of friends is a meaningful measure, remember that social networking has also totally destroyed the meaning of the word “friend.” Teenagers have hundreds of friends on Facebook by the time they are sixteen, most of whom they have never met face-to-face, and other people collect thousands on LinkedIn. Many of the top Facebook users boast proudly of their “whale” status (5,000 friends or more).

I’m not here to argue whether it is right or not. Just recognize that it is what it is. So do your business networking and social networking with your eyes wide open. In fact, if you live your business and personal lives that way, you might actually hope that someone is looking over your shoulder, and catches you in a glowing moment. Be known for your strength. Then you can be happy that Google never forgets.

Marty Zwilling


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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Pivot Now is Less Painful Than Turnaround Later

By Ernst H. Gemassmer

Startups struggling for survival are not uncommon, due to economic changes, management problems, or product issues. If these challenges can’t be resolved by the existing team with “course corrections” or “pivots,” an investor will often bring in an experienced CEO to tackle the turnaround before or after bankruptcy.

This is a hard and painful process for everyone, but it’s usually better than the alternative of liquidating or losing the assets and antagonizing many customers. The issues are often similar, so I’ll relate a real case from my own experience to illustrate the process and the results.

In this case, a private equity firm engaged me to assist in the purchase of a German software supplier. Upon successful completion of the acquisition I was asked to initiate a major turnaround or business restructuring, since the current course had led to bankruptcy.

Here is a summary of the processes required, timeframes, and the results:

  • Restructure management teams. This effort required two weeks of interviews with senior and middle managers to identify the team required to take the company forward. The challenge was to locate current staff with enough product/customer knowledge but with enough drive and desire and willingness to make the required changes.

    It was essential to move with deliberation and speed. Procrastination could only cause unnecessary additional anxiety. Clearly required was ‘leadership from the front’.

  • Determine key customer satisfaction levels and requirements. The company had succeeded in selling its products to the leading German and international automotive companies and their suppliers. Customers interviewed were generally satisfied with the software products as well as customer service. However, they were confused by the company organization structure.
  • Optimize staffing requirements. The first order of business, which soon became apparent, was a significant reduction in staffing. During its rapid growth the company had followed an unusual growth path by establishing a separate company with its own infrastructure and staffs in each German geographic region. Fully staffed entities were also established in a number of countries in both Western and Eastern Europe.

    In addition the company had started to sell its basic software to other industries as well. All this led to a staff level exceeding 700 employees, contributed to lack of control and eventual bankruptcy. The organization both within Germany and other countries was quickly streamlined, in line with customer feedback.

  • Negotiate changes with the company union. The company had a worker’s council similar to a labor union in structure. German law dictated the need for a worker’s council based on the number of employees. Numerous meetings were held with individual members of the council as well as the entire council. Eventually several key members of the council understood the challenges facing the company and worked hard to convince their colleagues to agree to staff reductions. This task took about two months and required a lot of patience, soft pressure and persuasion.

Patience on part of the new management team ultimately led to a successful restructuring. When I returned to the US after many months, the company had been restructured, had come out of bankruptcy, and did not lose a single important customer.

The message for startups is to do course corrections or pivots often along the way, and you won’t have to endure a bankruptcy and turnaround to get back on track. An even better course is to seek and heed the advice of experienced advisors during the critical early phase of charting direction and growth of your startup.

Today’s article is presented by one of the founders of our Startup Professionals team, Ernst H. Gemassmer. He has long helped entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, as well as providing turnaround assistance as interim CEO for several companies in Europe. You can contact him directly at ernst@startupprofessionals.com.


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