2014: Reflections on a terrible year

If you're among my closest friends, you may have noticed I've been pretty stressed this year. HSBC can take the blame for most of that - when, in January, they offered me a mortgage unprompted over the counter, and then told me being self-employed wouldn't be a problem, I stupidly thought I might end up with a mortgage from them.

Ten months later and with the help of the excellent Contractor Financials, I finally managed to buy my first house, too late to get properly moved in before Christmas, with the result that I've spent the past six weeks basically living on a bed and no other furniture.

I'm not totally miserable, by any means - I'm happy to have a place of my own and all that, it's just unfortunate that it took at least six months longer than it should have done, and all the time spent chasing the bank(s) for a decision left me with a backlog of work that I still haven't quite caught up on (sorry, clients).

So that brings me to 2015 and my promises to myself and to my clients for the new year.

Regular clients get priority - no more delaying regular delivery of work in order to fit in short-notice one-off orders.

No more huge, repetitive orders that eat into my very soul. If more than about 25-30 pages are needed with basically the same long-tail keyword phrase, I'm not going to do it anymore, it physically hurts me every time I take something on like that.

And I think basically, those two things should get me back to working at my best. It's been a tough few months but I'm already making amends, and now I have my new place (and will finally get the last of the furniture I need in January) I'm in a much better position for getting the work done.

Small businesses in particular, I want to help you - whatever your budget is, I'm sure I can help you use it in a way that will have real results.

Get in touch and let's work together to make 2015 a much better year for all concerned.

Poundland's NYE prize draw might be the best ever

There's nothing quite like a good competition - and Poundland's newly launched social media prize draw is undoubtedly a fine example of how a great prize doesn't have to eat into your business's bottom line.

It's a simple enough retweet-based prize draw:


...and if you follow the link to the Terms & Conditions, you can see exactly what's in the hamper. It's brilliant.
  • one pack of 30 half pint plastic tumblers
  • one pack of 20 large tumblers
  • one 50g colour hair spray
  • one pack of 8 plastic cocktail glasses
  • one pack of 80 white napkins
  • one pack of 30 white paper party plates
  • one pack of 18 silver paper party plates
  • one pack of 250 straws
  • one pack of 40 colourful disposable shot glasses
  • one pack of 40 clear disposable shot glasses
  • one inflatable guitar
  • one inflatable microphone
  • one pack of 50 balloons
  • one pack of 18 silver plastic cutlery set
  • one pack of 80 white disposable cutlery set
  • 6 packs of 100 cocktail sticks
  • one curly wig
  • one straight wig
I'm not too sure who would need 600 cocktail sticks, but I suppose it depends how many pickled onions you plan to put on sticks.

The thing is, assuming all of these are Poundland products, that's a total prize value of £23. At retail price, not cost price.

I'm not dissing the competition at all, I've retweeted and followed Poundland and I'll be delighted if I win - I just think it's a genius prize.

The tweet cost them nothing (well, assuming they didn't hire a social media exec especially for this) and the prize can't have cost much more than £10 max at cost price.

As I write this - less than 15 minutes after they tweeted it - it's been RT'd 50 times and favorited by 8 people too, and at least some of those (including me) will have followed Poundland on Twitter as a result of the tweet.

No doubt the retweets and follows will continue to grow - how many would you need to make it worth £10 for a tweet?

Wish me luck, I really want those wigs.

Alyssa Smith: "We don't need to be Bill Gates"

If you follow me on Twitter, it's no secret that I'm a big fan of jewellery entrepreneur Alyssa Smith.

Admittedly her product range is aimed mainly at female customers, but I'm still holding out hope for a bespoke design as soon as I'm in a position to place an order!

In the meantime, it's been great to see Alyssa's public profile grow and grow, thanks in no small part to her endless and tireless efforts on Twitter, endorsements from celebs like Suzi Perry, and occasional appearances as the back end of a bus.

Now she's not only international on the web, she's also national on the TV, following an appearance on Channel 4 News.


My first impression as I watched this was that Alyssa had almost been put there as a target for the 'no' side of the debate - as though being a successful entrepreneur makes you the bad guy when so many others fail.

But in the end it turned out to be a fair and balanced discussion of the value of education even for those who go on to create a job or business of their own (like me!), the topics - like business finance - that are missing from university degrees when preparing people for self-employment, and the risks involved with trying to go into business on your own.

Like Channel 4 News, who chose Alyssa's quote as the title for this segment on their website, I especially loved the line "We don't need to be Bill Gates", which sums up my own approach to self-employment perfectly.

I'm not trying to be a billionaire, I just feel lucky that I get paid for doing something I really love doing, and I price my services accordingly - enough so that I can afford to pay my bills and live reasonably comfortably, but not so much that I'll be able to retire in 2015.

The fact is, if I'm not getting paid to write, I write other stuff for fun anyway, so I may as well have enough work to fill my day, hopefully without getting swamped.

Maybe that's one of the most important things in an entrepreneur - a genuine desire to work in their chosen profession, and to give it the effort it requires.

From what I've seen of Alyssa, she's definitely not lacking in effort, and it's great to see she's being rewarded for the blood, sweat and tears I know she's put into her business.

Visit Alyssa Smith's website here or follow her on Twitter.

So here it is... Merry Christmas?!

It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!!!!!

OK yes, I know the 'winterval' is not yet upon us, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be starting your marketing campaigns now.

As I've pointed out in the past, the Christmas 'buy cycle' is a laggardy one, and you need to factor in lead times for:
  • shoppers' travel plans home for Christmas (1 week)
  • delivery/collection (at least 1-2 weeks, maybe 4 weeks or more)
  • shoppers' browsing (1-2 weeks)
  • your own restocking delays (typically 2-4 weeks)
  • organic SEO efforts to take effect (anything from 0 days to 4-6 weeks)
Read that list from bottom to top, and you have your run-up to Christmas in chronological order, but add up all of the delays and you've got a lag time of around three months on any online marketing you choose to carry out for Christmas.

Factor into this the simple fact that you don't want your campaigns to come to fruition on Christmas Day itself, and that your initial marketing efforts are likely to need to be spread out over 4-6 weeks in their own right, and you soon find yourself in the middle of summer, planning your Christmas campaign.

Or you should do, if you want it to be successful...

Riding the Buy Cycle

Think I'm exaggerating? Take a look at this Google Trends chart of searches for 'Christmas gifts' and 'Christmas presents' over the past few years...


Not surprisingly, the drop-off after Christmas is precipitous, and search volumes remain very low for the first half of each year.

But volumes start to rise exponentially in August, roughly doubling in each subsequent month until Christmas arrives, and there's no trend like a rising trend if you're trying to make money.

Early Adopters

Does anyone seriously start their Christmas marketing campaigns in August? Erm... well, yes they do, actually.

In fact, my local pub had Santa hats on its ale pumps in July, along with a 'Book now for Christmas' hoarding and leaflets on the tables.

Yes, really.
You might think this is too early - and when the landlord started singing Christmas songs on the karaoke (I'm not joking) it did get to be a bit too much - but when they're booked up for Christmas while the other bars and pubs are cutting prices, it will be worth it.

It's not just bricks-and-mortar businesses that are getting on their Buy Cycles early this year:


Beth is a 'safe pair of hands' when it comes to marketing copy, so it's good to see her clients are already putting her talents to work on their Christmas campaigns.

And she has her own valuable insight on how to build up towards Christmas without being quite so obvious as wearing Santa hats in July - her post 'The C Word' is well deserving of a read for more evidence-based reasons why you should start early, and how best to go about it.

Beat the Crowd

So what are the best options for organic SEO campaigns in the run-up to Christmas 2014?

Looking at the Google Trends data again, it's clear that worldwide, people prefer the term 'Christmas gifts' to 'Christmas presents', but in the UK the two are on roughly equal terms over the years - so include both of them as primary keywords in your on-page text content.

In the UK, the past decade has seen a clear shift away from mass-market shop-bought gifts, towards more independent, artisan and even home-made presents.


An outcome of the turbulent economy and people's desire to save spending money? Or a return to traditional values of 'It's the thought that counts', rather than a materialistic consumer market?

Either way, it's worth focusing on the bespoke or hand-crafted elements of your products wherever possible, to tap into this clear breakout trend.

Beyond that, the old rules apply - 'top Christmas gifts', 'gifts for men', 'gifts for Christmas' and 'gifts for her' are all rising trends at the time of writing, so get your copywriter working now on your Christmas Gift Guide, and make sure it's distributed to your email subscribers and posted on your website well before November arrives.

We Are The Slackers

We are the slackers.
The immature entrepreneurs;
we are the will-not-stay-laters,
the go-home-on-timers,
the overtime haters.

We are the jackers.
The stick-your-jobbers;
I'll make my own,
wear my own clobber,
work from me bed
and forget all the bother.

We are the worthy.
The set-our-own-pricers;
the get-haggled-downers,
the get-paid-laters,
the where-did-my-money-goers;
the late-cheque paycheck blowers.

We are the cash and the flow.
The sausage and the sizzle.
The legwork and the admin.
The boss and employee.
The name on the door.
The place where the buck stops.

We are the slackers,
given half a chance
to pause for breath amid the dance
of work and invoice,
advertise,
pitch for jobs of perfect size
to fill the day but not the night,
keep the deadlines not-too-tight
but do the job and time it right;
not so much motivation, more of a fight
to stay on course, to stay on track,
to do the work and send it back
at the right time, on the right day;
and then sit back and hope and pray
our invoice does not go astray;
that this client, at least, will choose to pay.

We are the jumpers who ask 'how high?'
then leap for you into the sky
while you throw pennies at our feet,
each shiny coin a tiny treat.

We are neither organ grinder, nor monkey;
yet when clients call the tune
we rush to be their dancers;
we are the Freelancers.

In-Depth Articles in Google Search Results

Sometimes when you search for something on Google, you are presented not only with the usual organic results, news headlines, images and so on, but also with a grid entitled In-Depth Articles.

Google's own example for this is a search for 'censorship', and running the search confirms that In-Depth Articles appear on Google UK search engine result pages (SERPs), although you may have to scroll down to see them.

Clearly a first-page ranking in the organic results is better than inclusion in the In-Depth Articles, as long as this grid continues to appear at the bottom of the first page rather than the top.

But if you are trying to improve your SEO for a highly competitive keyword, and Google are currently including In-Depth Articles for that term in their SERPs, it might be wise to publish one or more detailed pages of content dedicated to that topic, and see if you can leapfrog your way to this often-overlooked front-page part of the SERPs.

How do I get there?

Luckily, Google offer very clear guidance on how to improve your chances of inclusion in the In-Depth Articles box.

There are no guarantees, and any SEO agency that promises results with 0% doubt is lying to you, but follow Google's own guidelines and you maximise your chances of having your page included.

First of all though, make sure you have a good page of content to start with - I would recommend a word count of at least 2,000 words, based on what Google are already including in the In-Depth Articles box, and that really is a bare minimum.

It should be well written, on a clear subject area, properly researched and structured well with subheadings etc - you can include some opinion if appropriate, but what you really want is a literature review, or something that looks like a detailed Wikipedia entry.

Once you have that in place, there are certain other things to consider...

Pagination

Would it be appropriate to split your article over several pages? If so, there is specific pagination markup to use, to allow Google to crawl those multiple pages as parts of the same single article.

I would personally advise against this - it's an unnecessary complication, and the In-Depth Articles I've seen in Google's SERPs (such as the ones on the 'censorship' results page, for instance) tend to be on a single page.

There doesn't seem to be much value in splitting an article over several pages, except to boost your total page views so you have stronger-looking analytics results to show to advertisers; there's no obvious benefit to users of your site in this age of high-speed internet access, when even a large article should load in full quite quickly.

Schema.org

One of my absolute favourite issues at the moment, Schema.org is a set of markup that tells the search engines additional information about your content.

This can include author information, references to opening times, review scores, and so on, addresses and contact details, and other additional data that is invisible to visitors to your site.

Again, I can add this markup to your content for you - and this time I would advise doing so, if you are aiming for inclusion in the In-Depth Articles box.

Authorship

Finally we have a clear SEO benefit for websites with Google Authorship implemented, as this is a recommendation for those aiming for inclusion in In-Depth Articles.

I can not only help you to set this up using one of Google's approved methods; I can also prove to you that it is working correctly, using Google's own testing tool, even before your Authorship details have started to appear on the SERPs.

Again, this is something I would recommend implementing, even if you are not aiming for inclusion in In-Depth Articles.

Paywalls

Your content should not be behind a 'paywall' or in a subscribers-only part of your website.

I don't actually expect this to be an issue with the vast majority of my clients, as you need to be akin to the Financial Times to really even consider a paywall, but it's something for you to consider when deciding where on your website to publish your in-depth content.

Logos

Whereas Google Authorship has (until recently) displayed a headshot of the author in search results, In-Depth Articles prefers something more corporate.

As such, you should make certain to use Schema.org markup on your content page, to highlight an image as being your company logo - in turn raising the likelihood of it appearing alongside your article in the In-Depth Articles grid.

I would recommend this if you are aiming for inclusion, and again I can help you to make sure your content contains the correct Schema.org markup.

What do I do next?

If you want to know more, read Google's own page describing these guidelines.

Writing something genuinely in-depth is not for the faint-hearted, and I would expect to charge my full rate for a 2,000-word researched article complete with all of the relevant Schema.org markup etc.

There is no 100% guarantee of inclusion, either - that's up to Google to decide - but either way you're going to end up with a highly optimised page (or pages, if you've opted for pagination) which should perform well in search either way.

I would urge everyone, even if not considering In-Depth Articles, to read up on Schema.org and implement it as soon as possible if your content could benefit from it.

Not many people - especially small businesses and amateur webmasters - are using Schema.org yet, relatively speaking, so it could give you a clear competitive edge in the SERPs.

Contact me for more information on In-Depth Articles, what I can do for you, or any general enquiries at all.

Now We Are Three...

Friday was my 31st birthday (June 27th, 2014) and that means something special for my career as a freelance writer, too, as July 1st 2014 will be the third anniversary of the day I officially went freelance.

That might sound like the two are not really related, except for being within a few days of each other, but there is an intrinsic connection that will never, ever change.

And that is because the last day in my agency job (June 30th 2011) was also my first day back after taking a break for my birthday.

I arrived back to find that nobody knew what work I was supposed to be doing, and as I'd handed my notice in anyway, there didn't seem much point in giving me anything to do - so I left there and then, nearly a month ahead of schedule.

An early start to my freelance writer career was probably one of the best birthday presents I got, and it's still kinda nice to get my Facebook 'happy birthday' notifications in the same week as my LinkedIn 'business anniversary' notifications.

It also means my birthday is always a time to look ahead to the next year of my business, and assuming Google don't abandon Authorship completely, that's one of my key areas of focus for these coming 12 months.

Very few of my existing clients are making use of Google Authorship - especially using my own name, rather than a pseudonym - but it's a good chance to gain an advantage in Google Search results.

Even if you don't think it affects your ranking (and I'm still not certain either way, although Google insist it has no ranking value...) having a byline alongside your search result gives it legitimacy.

The latest rumours seem to hint at Google streamlining the inclusion of Authorship in the search results - getting rid of the passport-photo-style headshot image and the indication of how many contacts you have on Google+, but retaining the byline, which is the actual valuable part of the whole process.

I've been offering for some time to help clients set up Google Authorship, whether or not they want to use my profile or one of their own in-house team - but I'm hoping this year that the streamlined inclusion of author bylines helps Authorship to mature as a long-term part of the search landscape.

And as an experienced and quite capable writer of online content, I'm hoping more clients take advantage of the option of having my byline placed on their pages when they publish articles they have paid me to write.

No doubt in a year's time the entire search landscape will have changed once again - I certainly can't imagine Google+ going mainstream without a major rethink of its functionality - but in the meantime, it's good to have something to work towards in my fourth year of Phronesis Freelance.