By Aaron Wall, CEO, SEOBook.com
In 2003 I started publishing websites and one of the things that became immediately and obviously important to me was that search was big and it was going to keep getting bigger. The more I read books by marketing luminaries like Seth Godin, the more I realized that search would play a crucial role for many businesses. But I had a big problem. I didn’t have much to sell and I didn’t have much money to advertise whatever I wanted to test selling. And so I began to study how Google and other search engines work and why they ranked certain sites and pages.
In November of 2003, Google did a major update to their relevancy algorithms called “the Florida Update.” Up until that point, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was really easy: all you needed to do was buy links with the keywords you wanted to rank for and have them point to your website. Anyone (or at least anyone who could afford to buy a few links) was easily able to rank. Many SEO companies were scurrying around in a mad panic over that update because it instantly changed their business model; lots of customers weren’t ranking where they had previously because the rules of the game had changed overnight.
Since I was new to the industry, I didn’t have many customers yet, so I had the time and opportunity to figure out what went wrong and test some ideas on how to get around the algorithmic changes. I wrote an article about it and suddenly I had hundreds of businesses calling to ask if I would do SEO for them. Since I was so new to the business, my exposure exceeded my actual acumen, so I was pretty selective with the number of clients I took on. A month later, though, it seemed that I’d gone from being “in demand” to fading back into the obscurity from which I’d come.
Recognizing the Opportunity
Given that it seemed SEO consulting as a business model was somewhat feast or famine, I thought that there was room for an information product in the SEO space. Great books tend to be under-priced compared to the value they deliver, but niche ebooks seemed to be able to sell for much higher prices. Further I was able to buy the domain name SEOBook.com back then for only $8 because it was common knowledge within the industry that any published book on SEO was too far out-of-date to be useful. I used that line of thinking as part of my sales angle, and the cover image for my ebook said “The Only Current SEO Book on the Planet”.
One other big publishing trend in 2003 was that blogs first started really taking off. I noticed some other sites which (in my opinion) were no better than my own kept getting links for creating new content, and most of the sites that were benefiting from that were blogs. So I decided to blog daily, and presumed it would help me build exposure in the marketplace and emphasize the freshness of the ebook.
The first version of the “ebook” was a 24-page HTML document that I gave away on Christmas 2003. I got feedback from some friends who had read it, and started selling it for $39 in early February 2004. At first, sales were quite slow. A few a month, a few a week, a few a day.
In April 2004, I sold 34 ebooks, and was pretty certain the model was going to work. In October 2004, a mentor of mine suggested I increase the price of from $39 to $79. At its peak, I think I sold about 40 or so ebooks a day, with the steady rate for the last few years being closer to a dozen or so.
I went to many conferences and spoke about SEO over the years, and we also had an affiliate program which paid 50% of the ebook’s sale price to affiliates for driving conversions. We also gave away many free SEO tools, to get further exposure in the marketplace. Each time I did a major rewrite/update, people would mention it publicly and it would drive additional sales volume. I also advertised using Google AdSense on forums related to our topic because sometimes people would ask about our ebook after seeing the ads, and it was not uncommon for those question threads to turn into testimonial threads which drove $1,000+ in incremental revenue.
From the start I made the ebook easy to steal with no DRM because I wanted people to spread it and realized that piracy was just another channel to get my ebook into the hands of more readers.
Challenges to Overcome
Over the years SEO kept growing more convoluted, complicated, and expensive. And given that (along with my increased experience in the field) a lot of answers that were once “yes” or “no” became “maybe” or “it depends”, lots of people wanted far more than just the ebook from me.
Further, there was a bit of a perfect storm that seemed like it could have destroyed my business model.
- Some of the “get rich quick” guru types entered our market with hyped-up launches, and absolutely destroyed the customer quality at the low-end of the market — lazy dreamers looking to get rich quick with no effort would want to take their absurd promises and claims and use them against me even if my ebook was less than 1% the price of what the hype guys were selling.
- It was getting harder to do customer management for 10,000+ customers, and every day it got harder as the market grew more complex and the customer count increased.
- The rise of multimedia membership sites which were perceived to be of higher quality and value than a static ebook.
- Given that my business model lacked recurring charges, it was hard to segregate customers based on how much they wanted to spend.
- Given that other people were charging more than me, they could afford to spend more on advertising and affiliates and thus drive me out of the markets.
- Google launched a search suggest feature on their search box which recommended searchers look for things like “seobook torrent” and “seobook rapidshare”.
In February 2008 I launched a membership site which incorporated training modules, a private SEO community forum, and private member’s only SEO tools.
To help get the community up and running, I gave our ebook customers a free 3-month trial to the membership website. The first 100 members were able to join for $50 a month, and after that we raised the price to $100 a month. After about a year or so we had something like 500 members, but the site had many conversion issues we needed to fix. After a few months of working with Conversion Rate Experts, we improved our conversion rate by making registration more compelling and optimizing the conversion funnel.
We set our membership limit at 1,000 members, but as we got close to that limit it was clear that it was still a hard number of clients to keep servicing. I raised the price for new members to $150, but the demand still exceeded supply, so I ended up having to close the site down to new member registrations for about 3 months.
When we re-opened we increased our price to $300 hoping it would help curb demand a bit, and it did.
Some of the keys to success for our membership site are:
- We put out a monthly newsletter which recaps the latest news and often offers exclusives you can’t find elsewhere.
- Given that we have kept it small and intimate, we are able to interact directly with our customers. Upon request, we do website reviews, and I have made close to 20,000 forum posts. We also have some of the best minds in the business as moderators, and some of our customers know more about SEO than most SEO professionals, and they tend to help each other out a lot as well.
- Our price point filters out riff-raff, but whatever noise somehow gets through often ends up being sorted out by our community. It’s ok to be new to the field, but it is not ok to hype get rich quick stuff and we don’t do reviews of porn websites and such.
- In addition to running our site about SEO, we also run a number of other publishing sites which help give us a pretty broad perspective on how search works and what is changing. In contrast, many of our competitors only run sites about SEO, but do not publish other profitable websites.
Lessons Learned Along the Way
I did a lot of things wrong in the process of building our site out.
Namely, I spent way too much time being helpful to people for free via email (even non-customers), and I tended to undervalue my time (at least until I met my wife and she helped me correct the behavior). Now when people ask me questions about how to improve their business via email I say, “Feel free to start a thread in our member forums.”, and it basically tells the people that if they value my opinion they can pay for it, and if not that is fine, too.
Over time, I have learned (the hard way – likely answering over 100,000 emails) that if people do not pay for information they tend not to respect it enough to act on it.
Another thing I did wrong when transitioning between the sites was that I had programmers do a lot of custom cross-integration of the programming. It was a bit of a hack job integrating 2 Drupal installs, Vbulletin forums, our affiliate software, and tying it all together with the Paypal API. If I were to do it today, I would be more likely to use aMember or Wishlist Member.
One final area where I could have done far better, if I was primarily driven by profit yield, is targeting.
My wife runs a site about pay-per-click advertising and it makes sense that businesses which are paying to advertise would be willing to spend more to save money by advertising more efficiently. But the reason most people are drawn to SEO is that they want *free* traffic, and so many of them are not in the mindset of spending money on knowledge.
There are literally 5,000+ SEO blogs, so you really need strong word of mouth recommendations to sell information in a saturated market looking for free stuff. The lack of targeting, though, means that the most common customers tend to be those who are free thinker types who relate to what we publish, and that makes running the site a lot of fun.
Aaron Wall is the CEO of SEOBook.com.