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Three days ago we wrote about Bing’s new Webmaster Tools. One of the most important features of the new tools is the Link Explorer. Not only can this kind of tool be useful for scoping out your own links to ferret out the good from the bad, but you can also use the tool for competitive research.

What you want to do is pick a handful of your most fierce competitors. These are the companies online that are in the same business niche you are in and that are seeking out the same customers. Visit each of their websites and analyze them. Then, go to Bing Webmaster Tools and enter their URLs.

What you are looking for is links. Link you don’t have and links that are from valuable authoritative websites both within and outside of your niche. Don’t just focus on the links that are coming from sites within your niche. All links can provide value if you do them right. Find good, quality links and make a spreadsheet.

Next, you’ll want to visit of the link partners of your competition and request a link from them. But don’t just send an e-mail requesting a link. Do a little research first. Find out or imagine why that website’s owner decided to link to your competition. What do they have that you don’t have? Or better yet, what benefit do the readers of the linking website receive from that link? Try to think in terms of benefit to the webmaster or the website’s readers. Then present an offer that is attractive to them by telling them why they should link to your website.

That’s how you can use links for competitive research.

Remember when Bing marketed itself as a “discovery engine.” They tried to set themselves apart from Google and other search engines by defining themselves differently. It must have worked because a lot of people are now using Bing and they’ve actually gained some search share since they got serious about competing. But I don’t hear any talk of being a discovery engine any more.

Foursquare, on the other hand, has decided to use the phrase to describe its new service.

I like the idea of a discovery engine, especially as it relates to the Foursquare mission. You can now use Foursquare to learn all about places you want to visit, or just dream about. If you are in Berlin, for instance, you can use the service to discover what sites and locations in Berlin you can see next. That’s actually a pretty cool and useful service.

But how can you use it for your business? If you have something interesting or exciting that people might have an interest in, then you can use Foursquare as a social media destination to share your location.

Or, if there are things to do near your business, just point people to those sites. In being helpful you will likely draw people back to your business to show their appreciation for your helpfulness. That’s what social media is about – what it’s always been about, in fact.

So is Foursquare a different social media site now? It seems to be.

The best way to succeed – at anything – is to exercise continuous improvement. And the best way to do that is to measure what you do. Figure out what works and what doesn’t and change what doesn’t. That’s what Website Optimizer can do for you.

Google’s Website Optimizer is a method of testing and tracking your online marketing experiments so you can see what is working and what is not. You can use it to test your landing pages using an A/B testing model or conduct a multivariate testing experiment. Which model you use depends a lot on your marketing campaign.

The Website Optimizer is particularly effective with pay-per-click advertising campaigns. It lets you know how your campaigns are working.

If you have a desire to increase your website traffic or sales conversions, decrease bounce rates and CPA (cost per acquisition) rates, determine the best website design, or see which landing page is most effective, then Website Optimizer is a handy tool.

It’s imperative to test what you’re doing to see if it is working, whether you are engaged in a social media campaign, search engine optimization, or pay per click. Once you figure out what works and what doesn’t, it’s a matter of tweaking until you get it all just right. Think of it as making small adjustments until you get the right mixture of the right elements in your online marketing plan.

No, this is not a Google algorithm change. Rather, it’s a Bing new webmaster tools update. They’re calling it the Phoenix Update.

Fortunately, these tools actually look useful. Here’s a short list of new webmaster tools that Bing is offering webmasters now.

  • New Link Explorer – It’s unclear whether this tool will be as useful as Yahoo!s old link tool, but it looks like it has many of the same features. You can analyze links for any web domain including your own. I sure hope it’s as useful as Yahoo!s was.
  • SEO Reports – Weekly reports to show how you stack up against 15 SEO best practices. I can’t wait to use this one.
  • SEO Analyzer – Scan a page from any of your verified web domains and this tool will analyze that page to see how you measure up against the aforementioned SEO practices.
  • Fetch as Bingbot – See how the Bingbot sees your web pages
  • Canonical Alerts – This tool will let you know if you are using your rel=canonical tags correctly.
  • URL Removal Tool – Just as the name implies, you can block your pages from Bing SERPs.
  • Keyword Research Tool – This makes me wonder if Bing is trying to siphon Google’s keyword research tool traffic. If it’s as useful as Google’s tool, you never know what could happen.

Every now and then Bing introduces something that could have come straight from Google. I think they must have spies working over there.

It’s no secret. If you don’t make your content interesting, then no one is going to read it. You’ve got to make your content interesting or your readers will go somewhere else. So what will make your content more interesting?

Here are 5 ways to improve your content so that you retain readers, get more traffic, and convert more of that traffic into customers.

  1. Add images – If you just write content and you don’t include images, then you are probably driving people away. Add some images to your content to break up the grey space.
  2. Use bullet statements – Bullet points make your content more scannable. People like to scan, then move on.
  3. Write shorter paragraphs – If you’re accustomed to writing long paragraphs, stop it. Online, people prefer shorter paragraphs. They’ll scan your content and slow down to read the interesting parts.
  4. Make your content interactive – Give your reader something to do – click a link, watch a video. Get your content to interact with them.
  5. Employ humor – People love to laugh. So entertain them. Make sure your humor is appropriate for your audience.

Your content doesn’t have to be bland. You can make it more interesting with just a few little adjustments. Watch your traffic stick around longer and watch more of it convert.

Some SEOs will tell you that SEO is too hard to learn and should be left to the professionals. I will say that SEO is complex. It’s not too hard to learn. If you have the time to apply yourself, the initiative to go along with it, and the drive to pursue it, then you can learn it. But do you?

The reason many small business owners hire an SEO firm is because they don’t have the time to learn all the ins and outs and the nuances of search engine optimization. You don’t really have to.

But you should learn the basics.

Don’t assume all SEO companies are on the up and up. Many are not. But don’t color the entire industry with the same paint, either. There are a lot of fine SEOs who are honest about what they do and how they do it. An SEO company that won’t share its tactics with you may not be an honest one. Beware.

A good SEO firm has nothing to hide. If you suspect that your SEO firm is engaging in black-hat tactics and they haven’t disclosed the risks, then you should fire them. That’s not to say that a white-hat SEO company will be any better. SEO – all SEO – has some risks.

Search engine optimization is not a panacea for a bad website. Nor is it the answer to a bad web marketing strategy. Nevertheless, it can help you get your brand in front of the market you want to attract.

Talk to an honest SEO firm and be sure to ask a lot of questions.

Since the Panda and Penguin updates, SEOs and Internet marketers have come out of the woodwork to tell us all how to survive the updates, how to recover from the updates, and how to ensure the next update doesn’t kill our rankings. Quite frankly, I think it’s unnecessary. If webmasters had been focused on delivering good content all along, then the discussion would be moot.

“But I followed Google’s guidelines!”

It doesn’t matter. Following the guidelines is one thing. Providing excellent content that readers want to read is another.

We’ve entered the age of content marketing, like it or not.

What Is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is the process of writing content for your website and elsewhere that promotes your brand, improves your reputation, and drives traffic back to your website. You are looking at driving traffic, not improving rankings.

Don’t know the difference? Try achieving a No. 1 ranking on any search engine that doesn’t deliver traffic to your website. It happens. Believe me, it happens.

Here’s a question: Would you rather have a page 2 ranking that sends you 10 unique visitors per month or a No. 1 ranking that doesn’t send you any? Now see my point?

The purpose of content marketing is to drive traffic to your landing pages and convert that traffic into sales. It doesn’t really matter where your traffic comes from. That’s irrelevant. You want as much traffic as you can get and you want it to be targeted traffic. Pursuing search engine rankings is the old way of marketing online. Delivering fresh, original and unique content is the way it should be done now. In fact, it’s the way it should always have been done. And when you do it that way, you’ll get the traffic you want and the traffic you deserve.

We’ve known for a while now that Bing and Facebook were in good with each. They’ve developed a pretty cozy relationship over the last few years. Last year, Twitter and Google were playing nice until Twitter ended their relationship with Google abruptly. Now I know why.

Bing made them a better offer.

Both Facebook and Twitter have toyed with the idea of developing a competing search engine. But no one has ever developed a search engine that even came close to the powerful Google. Until Bing.

Google has wanted its own social network. Until now all their attempts have been failed attempts. Then someone came up with the idea of Google+. Bingo! Huge sucess. Well, OK, it’s been a success.

Google+ is Google’s search engine plus social networking. Not everyone is buying it, but the people who are buying it are really buying it. On June 1, Bing announced something similar, only they don’t have their own social network so they’ve partnered with Facebook and Twitter.

Along with the new features in its search engine, Bing has redesigned its search results pages. They’ve added a third column.

The cool feature about the new Bing-Facebook relationship is that you can now query the search engine and then tag your Facebook friends on the search to get their feedback and have them answer your question. Beyond that, Bing will also notify you of experts in that area and you can ask the recommended experts. Pretty cool. But let’s take it a step further. If someone does have the answer to your question they can answer you on either Facebook or Bing.

Isn’t that nice?

I haven’t played around with the new Bing much, but this excites me. I think it can be a big boon to businesses trying to market themselves online. Your search engine marketing now has even greater potential.

Have you noticed that one thing is constant at Google? That one thing is, Change. It comes at us daily.

Why does Google make so many changes so often?

I think Google has one goal in mind. To make its search products better. By doing so, they’re aiming at making the Internet better. And of course to increase their profits. That’s a given.

One of the latest changes at Google is the incorporation of Google Local into Google+. If you own a local business and you have a local listing, then it makes sense to also have a Google+ account now that these two services are tied together. The recent changes are pretty much forcing us all to succumb to Google’s dominion.

Another recent change at Google (Google Local specifically) is the removal of stars from business reviews. As Mike Blumenthal says, this change will result in fewer reviews on your Google Local listing and you will have to focus on the quality of your content and authorship markup. You should be doing that anyway.

If that isn’t enough, Google has also recently announced that Webmaster Tools is being completely integrated into Google Analytics. So if you want to use Webmaster Tools you’ll have to have a Google Analytics account.

What do you think about these changes? Are they good or bad? Will you start using, if you aren’t already, Google+ and Google Analytics?

What is the difference between SEO and SEM? Does it matter?

It might not matter to some people, but there is a subtle difference. SEO stands for search engine optimization and usually refers to the process of writing web page content so that it stands a better chance of ranking in the search engines. If your web pages rank in the search engines, then that’s free traffic for your website. You don’t pay for that traffic.

Search engine marketing, or SEM, refers to any form of search engine marketing and that includes the aforementioned SEO. But it doesn’t stop with SEO.

Search engine marketing most often refers to organic search (SEO) and paid search (PPC). But it could also include other forms of search engine marketing including display advertising, paid placement services, link building, search query sponsorships, or other services depending on the search engine. But most Internet marketers use the term SEM to refer to SEO and PPC.

Typically, a search engine marketing campaign consists of a combination of SEO and paid search strategies. A search engine marketer may find himself managing a pay-per-click campaign simultaneously with a link building campaign. And that may include guest blogging, article marketing, and even some on-site content management.

Most of these terms overlap in some way, but it helps to understand what your search optimization team is saying when they communicate with you. I hope this helps clarify things a bit.