Pelland Blog

There Is a Test for That!

June 14th, 2017

Here in my home state of Massachusetts, a problem in recent years involved elementary schools (already considered to be among the best in the country) that were concentrating too much effort on teaching students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test, commonly known as MCAS. More recently replaced by newer testing that is in line with the national Common Core Standards that have been adopted by most states, the problem with MCAS was that teachers had to devote far too much classroom time teaching students to score highly on tests rather than actually learning. I am not a teacher, but is seems to me that it is more important for students to learn effectively than to be taught to pass tests with the highest possible scores.

A similar issue takes place when companies that market their website services run bot-based tests that present audits of potential website errors, warnings and load speeds. There is no question that it is important to have a site that renders properly and loads quickly across a full range of browsers and devices; however, all speed tests have their limitations. To run an automated test that purports to present the final word on the quality of a website and the experience that it offers to visitors is a flawed concept at best and a competitive potshot at worst.

No bot can effectively measure the quality of the end-user experience because that is an inherently subjective process. There is a tradeoff between a site that is visually exciting and a site that loads instantly, and many of the “errors” that bots identify account for mere milliseconds in the scope of initial overall page load times. A site that consists of nothing but text will usually run a perfect score, but how many reservations do you think such a site might generate for a campground or outdoor resort? My advice is to avoid falling for the bait, particularly when it is offered by companies that fall short themselves when it comes to overall quality and integrity of design – factors that directly influence human-based decisions rather than bot-based tests.

Let me offer an analogy that relates to the family camping industry. Many parks have begun offering one of the many “wine and paint” sessions that have become popular in recent years. They all follow a similar formula, where an artist whose career has never caught fire leads a session where attendees drink just enough wine to encourage their creativity but not so much wine that they can’t find the end of the paintbrush with the bristles. The idea is for everybody to copy the painting that the session leader paints. The order of the day is uniformity, a lack of originality, and the building of self-esteem. If Pablo Picasso was still alive and attended one of these sessions, his work would be the laugh of the evening.

When it comes to websites, the single most important consideration is whether or not a site is mobile-friendly. A site that is not optimized for display on mobile devices – particularly smartphones – presents an impediment to the end-user experience. What is most important is how long it takes before a user is able to read and navigate your site. Whether some images might take a few seconds to load is not an impediment to that experience.

If you are wondering whether your website is up to par, ask for a human, personalized evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. That will take some time and effort to prepare, but it will offer results that are based upon the actual experiences of human end-users, not the bots that will never contact you to make a reservation for Site 127 for the second week of August.

Times change, along with the ways that websites are viewed and the algorithms that determine how they are ranked in search results. The one thing that is consistent is the importance of working with a knowledgeable and reliable company with a trusted track record to stay on top of things and to represent the best interests of your company.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

All Links Are Good … or Are They?

April 4th, 2016

One of my clients recently contacted me, concerned that his New Hampshire campground was listed without his prior knowledge or authorization on several websites that purported to be online campground directories. He discovered this when one of the sites contacted him on behalf of a camper who wanted to make a reservation to stay at his park and another contacted him to “claim” his listing. At first glance, these would appear to be good things, wouldn’t they? Any resource that is sending you business is generally welcome to do so. After all, your campground is probably sent online traffic from a variety of referring sites – everything from Go Camping America to your state association website to Good Sam to your local tourism association.

In the instances that my client described, something just didn’t seem right.

Over the years, a number of websites have sprouted up that are essentially directories of local businesses. Many of these have evolved from so-called “yellow pages” companies, and their business model is to persuade gullible business owners to pay for enhanced listings. In my own instance, about a third of these local directories lists my company’s street address correctly, but then locates us in the next town. Another third list our fax number as our phone number. Do I care? Not really, because these sites get close to zero traffic, and they have little if any effect – either positive or negative – upon the SEO of my company’s official website. These websites are working with compiled data, obviously harvested from unreliable sources.

The sites that my client described were an entirely new breed. Also based upon compiled data, their business plans are no longer focused upon selling enhanced listings but in providing reservation services where they collect referral or transaction fees. These can be problematic indeed. My client has gone through a fairly labor-intensive process of getting his business de-listed from several of these sites. The more that I looked into them, the better my understanding of how my client’s instincts were probably right on target.

Campground reservations are accurately perceived as a multi-billion dollar business, and companies that would like a piece of the action are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. Funded with infusions of venture capital, the focus is on generating income from the collection of processing fees on those reservations, either in real-time (with campgrounds that get on board) or with the type of delayed booking that initially caught my client’s attention. One such site posts that it “anticipates” use by 1 million campers per month, even though it does not currently show up as even a blip on the radar at Alexa, the leading provider of comparative website traffic analytics.

What is the problem with these sites? Well, first of all there is a problem with compiled data. How often is the data updated and how accurate is the initial source? (Think back to those local sites that list my business in the wrong town or with our fax number as our primary phone number, where incorrect data tends to perpetuate itself.) On one of these sites that my client called to my attention, I perused the campgrounds listed in my home state of Massachusetts. I am intimately familiar with the industry players in my home state, and I found fictitious listings, listings for municipal parks that have nothing to do with camping, listings for campgrounds that have been out of business for several years, and listings for summer camps.

The second problem is the potential for these sites to compete with your own official website and your own chosen online reservation engine, a situation that can only serve to confuse consumers and that could inflict harm upon your business. I know that I do not want any other company representing my business, and I would be feverishly protective against any threats to my company’s unique online identity. Particularly if pricing (that may or may not be accurate) or reservations enter into the equation, the potential for problems is very real.

Thirdly, if you choose to get on board, be sure to read the fine print. The “Terms of Service” listed on one of these websites, when copied and pasted into a Word document, consisted of over 20,000 words that ran 42 pages in length. That’s a far cry from the old-fashioned handshake agreement of years past and probably reason to proceed with caution.

Keep in mind that any online directories or search engines built upon compiled data (even Google itself!) need businesses like yours as much as you need them. Without listing real businesses that consumers are seeking, they have no product to offer. It is your decision whether or not to get on board with any particular website. Understand the potential risks and benefits, and then make a decision based upon what is best for your business and how it can most effectively meet the needs and expectations of its core clientele.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Referring Sites Bark Up Some Traffic

August 4th, 2015

The challenge of any website is to convert traffic into buyers who take the site’s prescribed call to action. Whether it means putting an item into a shopping cart, signing an online petition to save the whales, making a charitable contribution, or reserving a campsite for the third weekend in August, if a site lacks traffic it has no chance of converting those numbers of visitors into buyers. Fortunately, there are many ways to drive traffic to your site.

Many businesses have become convinced in recent years that the key to traffic is strictly a matter of search engine optimization (SEO). In desperation and out of confusion, they fall prey to a host of companies (who often initiate contact through spam or from a telemarketing boiler room operation) offering so-called guaranteed search engine placement or keyword analysis services that usually run automated software. Some other companies act like they possess a uniquely secret talent, with one recently proclaiming itself to be the “official SEO company of the campground industry”. The claims can get pretty preposterous. I actually received a telemarketing call a while back from an outfit in India called “BS SEO”. The name says it all!

With the decreasing role of search engine traffic, the role of referring sites becomes ever more important. The cumulative impact from established referring sites is not only measured directly by the traffic that they generate but also from the listings and their positive influence upon search engine rankings. With that in mind, one of your goals should be to ensure that your website is listed in as many online resources that are relevant to your business as possible. More importantly, check to confirm that the listings and links to your website are correct and unbroken.

Where to List

The best way to start is to compile a list of resources where your business should already be listed as one of your benefits of membership. Never assume that these listings are correct and up-to-date. Check them individually, and you will often be surprised by outdated content that could be negatively impacting the effectiveness of your listing. Start this list with your membership listings on any local, regional, or state chambers of commerce and tourism boards to which you belong. Check for details like current e-mail addresses, as well as your correct Web address, ideally including a direct link to your website.

Next on the checklist for campgrounds and related businesses are the state, regional, and national associations where your business maintains membership. These include National ARVC’s Go Camping America website and your state association website. When checking listings recently on three of the largest campground state association websites in the United States, I was shocked by the number of broken website links that I encountered. Most of those were the result of programming errors within the sites, a few were the result of spelling errors, but others were the result of updated information that was never passed along to the association by the owners of the individual campgrounds.

There were also several instances of campgrounds that had lost the domain names that were listed, even though they had new websites built under new domain names. Rather than sending people to their new (and presumably improved) website, visitors encountered either a “404 file not found” error page or a page indicating that the old domain name was for sale – either way leading many people to conclude that the campground is out of business and permanently closed. In one or two other instances, I found campgrounds with new domain names and who had not lost control of their old domain names, but did not provide redirects from the old to the new.

I should also mention that I encountered many websites with e-mail addresses that were invalid, making any attempt to contact the businesses bounce faster than a basketball. I have also encountered phone numbers that go to voicemail but that are either not set up to accept voicemails or have mailboxes that are full. Why not just lock your doors and find another line of work?

Each of the state associations has a member services website, usually password-protected, where you can enter any listing information that may be incorrect, incomplete, or entirely missing. Check your listings, and get ensure that they are as complete, correct, and up-to-date as possible.

Those are some of the most obvious resources where your campground would expect to be listed. Next, it is time to get listed in any of a wide range of specialized directories that relate to your business. Be sure to include performers who are scheduled to appear at your park. Almost all of them have their own websites, where they list their upcoming performance schedules. Provide links to them on your website’s activities schedule, then insist that they provide reciprocal links to your site. Many fans of these performers follow their schedules and could become first-time guests at your park.

Dog-Friendly Online Directories

There are many websites that list campgrounds that cater to specific types of camping. Some, for example, list campgrounds with yurts. Others list campgrounds with free wi-fi service. Others list campgrounds that are pet-friendly, and I will concentrate on these. Pets are indisputably the new family members. If your park is pet-friendly, there are many online resources that will help you to spread the word. Some of these sites even offer free listings or free trials. To save you time in researching these resources, I have compiled a comprehensive list of sites that cater to pet-friendly travel. I have excluded any sites that appear to be down, list only hotels, or are tied into another paid service.

In each instance, I am listing the website’s URL, its number of yearly visitors (as shown at StatShow.com), its annual listing fee, and the cost per thousand yearly visitors. This last number is an apples-to-apples way of comparing the cost-effectiveness of each site.

URL

Yearly Visitors

Annual Fee

CPM

GoPetFriendly.com 280,320 Free $0.00
DogFriendly.com 1,540,665 $119.00 $0.08
BringFido.com 1,177,855 $249.00 $0.21
PetsWelcome.com 592,760 $150.00 $0.25
PetFriendlyTravel.com 598,965 $199.00 $0.33
TakeYourPet.com 77,745 $129.00 $1.67

Somebody searching for camping accommodations on one or more of these sites is an excellent prospect to become a guest at your campground, probably a camper who has not stayed at your park before and would be unlikely to choose your park without this referral “nudge”. Since most people probably refer to only one of these resources – rather than searching through multiple resources – listing your park on more than one site is probably going to significantly expand your reach.

Building your presence on referral sites is only one of many ways to attract new guests. Now that you have this information at your disposal, put it to use!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Truth in Packaging

June 10th, 2015

When it comes to processed foods, probably the most deceptive phrases are:

  • Serving suggestion.
  • Enlarged to show detail.
  • All natural.

The serving suggestion lets you know that the strawberries and blueberries in that bowl of cereal are not included in the box, the image that is enlarged to show detail helps you to really see what that cracker or potato chip looks like, and the words “all natural” have no definition whatsoever and can include just about every chemical compound found on the planet. The first two phrases are usually shown in very fine print, whereas the last phrase is generally promoted in large text with an eye-catching graphic.

PackagingBuzzwords

It is unfortunate that parts of the business world have adopted language that essentially applies this same sort of lipstick to their pigs. A used car becomes “previously owned”, previously frozen fish in the supermarket becomes “thawed for your convenience”, products made in China might be “assembled and packaged in the USA”, and most people know that a “processed cheese product” is anything but real cheese. In particular, some of this deception has become commonplace in the Internet industry.

Serving Suggestion

If you have ever registered a domain name with a company like GoDaddy, you will encounter their version of the “serving suggestion”. I just went to GoDaddy to try to register a domain name for $9.99, the sale pricing for new domain name registrations. Before checking out, I am presented with an offer the “Get 3 and Save 67%” by registering the .net, .org, and .info versions of the domain name, as well as an opportunity to “target local shoppers” by adding the .nyc version of the domain name for an additional $39.99.

As I pass on those options and proceed to the checkout, I am encouraged to “Protect My Personal Information” by adding so-called “Privacy Protection or Privacy & Business Protection” for between $7.99 and $14.99 per domain per year. (The $14.99 price is made to appear particularly attractive, since it is discounted from a “regular” price of $32.97.) The next options are “Website Builder Hosting” for anywhere from $1.00 to $10.99 per month, and E-mail hosting for anywhere from $3.99 to $7.89 per month. Then, of course, I will be encouraged to register my domain for the maximum period of 10 years, rather than only paying for a single year.

Under this exercise, I only wanted to register a single .com domain name for $9.99 (plus a mandatory $0.18 ICANN fee). Most people are confused by all of the options – after all, doesn’t “privacy protection” sound important? – and will pay for at least some of the unnecessary add-ons. If I purchased everything that GoDaddy suggested, but still only registered my domain name for a single year, I would be paying $375.51 per year for that $9.99 domain name. Yes, those are “serving suggestions”.

Enlarged to Show Detail

Many website builders have a way of exaggerating their skill levels. Often, these are the local jack-of-all-trades computer shops in town, where the owner fancies himself a webmaster in between attempting computer repairs and selling home theater systems. In other instances, this might be your son or daughter or that smart kid down the street, generally telling you that “anybody can build a website.” In yet other instances, you might be misled by TV commercials from companies like Wix, Weebly, SiteBuilder.com, VistaPrint, or those wonderful folks at GoDaddy again … all suggesting that it only takes a few mouse clicks to build a website for your business for next to nothing or even free (before, of course, leading you back into the “serving suggestions”).

Needless to say, there is not a single website for any seriously legitimate business that was built under any of those scenarios. Even among companies that are engaged full-time in website development, there is a propensity toward exaggeration and a “sure, we can do that” attitude. Your best protection will be a careful review of their portfolio and references. It has been said that “the proof is in the pudding”, and you may want to confirm that the dessert being served matches the dessert being described on the menu. If you are being promised a world-class website, that is unlikely to result if there are no signs of the necessary skills visible in previously completed projects.

All Natural

The trickiest to detect is the claim that a product is made with all natural ingredients. From processed foods to pet food, from cosmetics to candy, there are no clear standards or definitions for the term “all natural”. As a result, consumers need to rely upon their own instincts, underfunded consumer watchdog organizations, or the slowly moving wheels of governmental regulatory agencies for protection. Snake oil was all natural, but it never cured a single disease other than psychosomatic disorder.

The snake oil of the Internet age is search engine optimization, commonly known by its acronym: SEO. How many phone calls have you received recently from somebody offering to get your website “listed at the top of the Google search results”, offering to help get your business listed on Google Places, or asking you to “update your Google front page listing?” In most instances, you have probably gotten dozens of such calls. Not a single one of them has actually come from Google or a company that is legitimately sanctioned to call on Google’s behalf.

In a recent phone call with the former president of one of the world’s leading e-commerce companies, I was struck (but not surprised) by his advice to “never hire an SEO agency”. Wasting time trying to find a legitimate SEO company is like trying to find a “good” fortune teller, used car salesman, or payday loan company. They are all truly good at taking your money. SEO is nonetheless big business. Be suspicious of companies that offer SEO reports as a means of getting their foot in the door, offer to “fix” your website so that it will “start ranking higher on the search engines”, or show you Google Analytics charts and graphs with misleading annotations that allegedly document their expertise.

We are living in challenging times. In order to survive and prosper, you need to cut through the chatter and filter out the noise. Should you really expect one business to provide the same services for significantly less than most others, should you really expect companies to provide free services with no strings attached, and should you really believe that there are companies with magic wands that will make your website suddenly appear more highly ranked than any other relevant search results? Sometimes business decisions come down to who you can trust, and trusting your own instincts is almost always the soundest business decision.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Mobilegeddon?

May 13th, 2015

No doubt you heard the cries of alarm a few weeks ago, when so-called experts warned of the end of Internet search as we knew it, effective April 21, 2015. Perhaps you have also noticed the eerie silence since the uneventful passing of that date.

This past winter, the national news media spent two days ignoring real news events to warn of the impending “storm of the century” that was headed toward my home base in Western New England. We were in the bullseye of the forecast map, with a prediction of 30 or more inches of snow. After all was said and done, I believe that we received 6 or 7 inches. A few local meteorologists apologized for the inaccurate forecast that was fed to them by the National Weather Service. Other than that, the “story” was dropped – for obvious reasons – like a hot potato.

I am embarrassed that so many of my peers jumped on the sensationally-named “Mobilegeddon” bandwagon. It was particularly disturbing when the dire warnings were used by companies that were in a position to exploit the fear that was generated by the spread of this misinformation. Let’s face it: If his midnight ride was based upon unconfirmed rumors that “the British were coming”, Paul Revere would be long forgotten as a little-known Boston tinsmith.

As I pointed out at the time, many self-proclaimed “experts” cited a Google blog post, a comment reportedly made by a Google employee, and a speculative article that had appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine as the bases for a warning that was an outright exaggeration. What the new Google algorithm means is that sites that are mobile-friendly will gradually gain an edge over sites that are not mobile-friendly, being flagged as “mobile friendly” alongside mobile search results. This rise in the ranking of mobile-friendly sites will come at the expense of sites that are not deemed mobile-friendly, but it does not mean that those latter sites are suddenly going to be dropped from being indexed. Mobile-friendliness is only one – although a very significant one – of over 200 ranking signals that Google employs to determine the best search results.

Using historical – and factual – Google Analytics data that I drew from actual client websites, I was able to draw the following conclusion: If we presume that 35% of the traffic to a website comes from search engines, and that 50% of that traffic comes from Google, and that 50% of THAT traffic comes from users of mobile devices, it would mean that a site that was not mobile-friendly would lose approximately 9% of its traffic if the website was totally dropped from mobile search results on Google (something that was not going to happen and did not suddenly happen on April 21, 2015.)

According to statements made in a live stream on Google’s Webmaster Central on May 8th, the search giant realizes there are “small businesses who (sic) don’t have the time or the money (to have built a mobile-friendly site yet) … that are still fairly relevant in the search results, so we need to keep them in there somehow.” For example, if you run one of the leading campgrounds in Sturgis, South Dakota, Google is not going to drop your website from mobile search results just because your website is not deemed mobile-friendly. That would run totally contrary to the delivery of accurate and comprehensive search results, the overall basis for Google’s commanding success in the search market. A non-mobile site will still rank highly if it presents the content that users seek.

Mobile search rankings have always been different that desktop search rankings, and that gap is going to gradually but continually widen over time for sites that are not mobile-friendly. According to a recent report by digital marketing agency Merkle|RKG, fully 46% of Fortune 500 companies and 29% of the Internet Retailer 500 businesses do not yet have mobile-friendly sites. Even among the Top 10 of the Fortune 500, there are companies that do not yet have mobile-friendly sites: Phillips 66 (# 6 on the list) and Valero Energy (# 10 on the list). On the other hand, Google reports that there was a 4.7% increase in the overall number of mobile-friendly sites that were introduced in the two months leading up to the April 21st algorithm update. You can expect the numbers to increase, along with the volume of mobile-based Internet access, by less proactive companies that slowly embrace the inevitable.

As of May 1, 2015, Google has confirmed that the new search algorithm has been fully rolled out, although the differences that have been measured by both major online marketing agencies and the people who earn a living by monitoring the inner workings of search engines have been almost immeasurably lackluster. This was not the “storm of the century”; however, to use another weather-related analogy, neither the presence of that storm nor the lack thereof would represent a reason to deny long-term global warming. In other words, the mobile-friendliness of your website is in the ultimate interest of your business. Just don’t panic.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Your Website: It’s All About the Results

April 30th, 2015

So many people obsess about the amount of traffic that their websites receive, putting far too much emphasis on the numbers of visitors rather than the behavior of those visitors. This would be somewhat similar to a suburban shopping mall acting like business was great because the mall is packed with teens on a Friday or Saturday night, out to enjoy a social experience but spending little if anything with any of the mall merchants. Anybody who has ever worked in sales quickly learns the difference between people who like to try on clothing versus people who actually buy the clothing if it fits, people who like to kick tires versus people who are actually out to buy a car, or people who like to attend open houses versus people who are prequalified to buy a new home.

With a website, the metrics that count are goals and conversions. Goals in the outdoor hospitality industry are generally going to be reservation-related calls to action, and conversions are when visitors respond to a website’s persuasive abilities. Until that happens, your website is simply spinning the wheels on one of those old-fashioned hit counters that were ever-present on websites in the early days of the Internet.

HitCounter_12179513_600x191_24T

The conversion of traffic to buyers is a complex process that relies upon several factors. Discount incentives are always the most effective online selling tool, but those are not always practical for every type of business. More subtle but equally effective factors might include time-sensitivity (Enter “free firewood bundle” in the comments box when making your reservation before midnight tonight!), limited inventory (Only 3 campsites still available for Father’s Day Weekend!), or a connection with another event (Reserve your site for the weekend of July 25-26, camping only 4 miles from the Downtown Food Festival!) are all viable incentives.

Incentives should not be limited to a single call to action. Your website should offer far more than simply a means for making a reservation. The time of that reservation (or the reservation confirmation) is also the time to offer an incentive for an extended stay, offer upgrades, and offer add-on services.

Okay, you understand the concept of website conversions, but how do you convert your basic traffic into buyers? If you are running Google Analytics or another traffic analysis tool on your website, you are probably familiar with the concept of “bounce”. These are people who visit your site and leave almost as quickly as they arrived for any one of a variety of reasons. (Note that the vast majority of traffic that appears in bounce rates consists of robots. Our concern is with actual visitors who get frustrated and leave.) It is quite simple to deduce that the means to reduce your site’s bounce rate is to increase the time that visitors spend on your site. The bonus here is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time that a visitor spends on your site and the likelihood of that visitor taking your prescribed course of action.

Quite simply, your challenge is to determine ways to get visitors to increase the amount of time they spend on your site. Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket (otherwise known as your site’s Home page). Distribute useful content throughout the pages of your site, encouraging visitors to click through to learn more.
  • Keep your site’s navigation highly intuitive. Make it crystal clear how a first-time visitor will find his or her way from point A to point B. Navigation should be consistent from page to page, located either across the top of the page or in a left side column, and it should be clearly labeled. Few people are going to click on a navigational link that presents a shortened equivalent of “Can You Guess What You Will Find If You Click Here?”
  • Present a visual flow that encourages exploration. A wall of text will not work. Balance text and graphics with a liberal dose of “white space”, a visual relief from sensory overload.
  • Keep the most essential content front and center, in newspaper parlance what is called “above the fold”. To sell newspapers, the lead stories are not buried at the bottom of the front page, initially invisible to a prospective buyer at a newsstand. With your website, try to present your case without requiring the user to scroll down the page (because that scrolling might never occur).
  • Keep your content easy to read. Choose font sizes and colors wisely, ensuring that there is sufficient contrast with background colors. Use headlines, bullet points, sidebars, and graphics to encourage engagement but, above all else, keep things simple.
  • Provide at least some content on your site that is not easily found elsewhere. Most people enter a site through its Home page (a website’s equivalent of your home’s front door); however, unique content that is of interest to your potential customers can present a side entrance with a very prominent welcome mat, particularly once that unique content gets indexed by search engines. This could be a blog, a consolidation of information compiled from other resources, or links to articles of interest to your visitors.

The common obsession with traffic, at the expense of conversions, misses the function and purpose of a commercial website. Focus on what is truly important, and you will be putting your website truly to work for your business.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Sky Is (Not) Falling

April 6th, 2015

Chicken Little was well-intentioned when he hysterically warned of impending disaster. The only problem was that his predictions were based upon conjecture rather than facts. Back at the turn of the millennium, modern-day Chicken Littles mongered fear over the impending “Y2K” disaster that, of course, never happened. More recently, there has been more than a bit of press about the implementation of the next round of Google search ranking algorithms that will only begin to be rolled out on April 21, 2015. Without doing any research of their own, many self-proclaimed “experts” are citing a Google blog post, a comment reportedly made by a Google employee, and a speculative article that recently appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine as the bases for their warnings of dire consequences for today’s typical website. Like grade school students spreading rumors in the schoolyard, it is time for some people to take a “time out”.

TheSkyIsFalling

Like the news networks that love to exaggerate stories and develop sensationalist headlines like “Stormageddon” and “Blizzard of the Century” (and, of course, the aforementioned “Y2K”), the new buzz word amongst the uninformed is “Mobilegeddon”. People using this type of terminology remind me of those who blindly share urban legends on Facebook, without taking a moment to first check the facts. The stories may generate excitement, but they lack credibility.

The fact is that Google will be rolling out a new set of search algorithms starting on April 21st; however, this does NOT mean that a website that is not deemed mobile-friendly will suddenly drop from the results of Google searches made from mobile devices. That is an outright exaggeration. What the new algorithms mean is that sites that are mobile-friendly will have an edge over sites that are not mobile-friendly, being flagged as “mobile friendly” alongside those search results. This rise in the rankings of mobile-friendly sites will come at the expense of sites that are not deemed mobile-friendly, but it does not mean that those latter sites are suddenly going to be dropped from being indexed.

Chicken Littles have suggested that half of a site’s traffic is suddenly going to disappear effective April 21st, if the site is not mobile-friendly. This is patently untrue. Using historical Google Analytics data that I have drawn from actual campground websites, let’s presume that 35% of the traffic to a website comes from search engines, and that 50% of that traffic comes from Google, and that 50% of THAT traffic comes from users of mobile devices. Do the math. That would mean that, if a website was totally dropped from mobile search results on Google (which is NOT going to happen at this time), that site would lose approximately 9% of its traffic. That is the reality, rather than conjecture and misguided speculation.

There are plenty of valid reasons why every business should be moving to replace a conventional website with a new mobile-friendly site, and to do so sooner rather than later. However, the people who are suggesting panic are doing a tremendous disservice by encouraging the jerking of knees rather than the exercise of a careful plan for execution that includes properly methodical planning and budgeting for the long-term investment in mobile-friendly technology.

In years past, many businesses were advised to buy into expensive mobile apps or separate mobile websites, in an attempt to capture the market for users of mobile devices. In retrospect, those dollars were generally not well spent. Today, the dust has settled and responsive website technology has taken its place as the mobile-friendly solution that Google and the other search engines prefer, with one site presenting full content that is optimized for every device. If your site is not currently mobile-friendly, make plans for the transition – as I have said, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, don’t panic. The sky is not falling, and the world is not about to end on April 21st.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Mobile Is Not Just a City in Alabama

February 4th, 2015

Nobody needs to be convinced these days that their business needs to have a website. What surprises me is how many people think that the website that was built 4 or 5 years ago, before the commanding surge in the use of mobile devices, could be adequately serving their needs today. Let me simply say that times have changed.

SportsCar_HorseBuggy_600x137_100

Statistics compiled by Google, based upon the Google Analytics software that is running on websites around the world (and probably including your own) demonstrate that 50% of all website traffic is now mobile. In fact, this past holiday season, 22.5% of all online sales came through mobile devices (which are defined as either phones or tablets). Those numbers are impressive.

Google is now warning website owners if their sites fall short of being mobile-friendly … what they refer to as “critical mobile usability errors”, with the presumption being that these sites will soon be penalized in search results. Google is reportedly ready to begin downgrading those sites that are not configured for proper display on smartphones. The impact of that upon an older website could be tremendous, since the #1 source of new traffic to most websites is generated through organic searches on Google.

Taking steps in that direction, if you currently perform a Google search from your phone, the search engine results page will now label sites that are deemed to be mobile-friendly. Sites that fail that test typically display text that is too small to read on a phone, links that are too close together for fingers to navigate, or the lack of a mobile viewport (requiring users to pinch and zoom in order to view content). A site that is not mobile-friendly is not only at risk of losing out in its search ranking, it is losing its owner business today.

Let me demonstrate. I just performed a quick check of the Google Analytics on the conventional website of one of our clients, confirming that within the past 30 days, the lion’s share of the site’s traffic came from the users of mobile devices. The breakdown was 47.56% of visitors using smartphones, 14.98% using tablets, and only 37.45% using either a desktop or laptop computer. Keeping in mind that this is not a mobile-optimized site, the smartphone users visiting this site were spending only 60% of the amount of time on the site as the dwindling numbers of users of conventional computers. The bounce rate (the number of visitors who arrive at a site, then leave very quickly) was about 64% higher for smartphone users. Users of tablets, with larger displays, were somewhat more tolerant.

Nobody would have imagined this scenario a few years ago. Considering the fact that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time spent on a website and the likelihood of the user taking the intended course of action (in the instance of a campground, typically this means making a reservation request), these numbers are foreboding.

Before You Panic, Check Your Site

Fortunately, Google has provided a quick online test that will let you know whether or not your site is mobile-friendly. Go to the following link, where you may enter your URL:

https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/

If your site passes the test, congratulations are in order. If it fails the test, it is time to at least think about budgeting for a replacement. The next question involves what type of mobile solution will best suit your needs. For all practical purposes, there are three choices.

  • Responsive Web Design: This is the option that is recommended by Google. A responsive website serves the same site content to all devices, with a fluid page layout that adapts to each device. These sites are easy to maintain, but they may be expensive.
  • Separate Mobile Site: This was the preferred option prior to the onset of responsive design. It involves the construction of separate mobile content. User’s devices are detected and shown content that is specifically built for that device, or they are redirected to a mobile-specific URL. These sites are more difficult to maintain (because content is duplicated among pages) and they do not present consistent content across all devices. For these reasons, this option is falling out of favor.
  • A Mobile App: This is a separate application that is built for mobile users. It must be downloaded and installed by the user, and it is often used in conjunction with a website. An app has a usability advantage for smartphone users, but the costs are both prohibitive and unnecessary for most small businesses, both upfront and when it is time to maintain and update content.

The bottom line is that, if you are concerned about mobile traffic to your site (and you should be concerned!), there are decisions to be made, and you probably do not want to indefinitely delay making those decisions. Your new site should adhere to a specific set of best practices. These include the avoidance of software that it not supported on most mobile devices, particularly Flash. (There are alternate ways of presenting animation, using CSS or JavaScript, that are mobile-friendly.) Your site should also not include text that is unreadable without zooming, content with a screen width that requires horizontal scrolling on small devices, or links that are not far enough apart for fat fingers to navigate.

There are new websites being launched every day that are based upon old methods. Investing in one of those today is roughly equivalent to going out to buy a new car but coming home with a horse and buggy instead.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Four Quick and Easy Ways to Boost Your Website’s Search Engine Ranking

October 7th, 2014

One of the most common questions I hear from the owners of campgrounds and other small businesses is, “How can I improve my site’s search engine ranking?” There is a long list of answers, most involving steps that should be taken by your site’s webmaster. Unfortunately, if you are your own webmaster or you hired a local person who lacks expertise regarding search engine optimization (SEO), you may be in for a rude awakening. On the other hand, if you hired any of the industry’s established website development companies, your site should be in good hands. To be certain, let me guide you through four tips that will allow you to check the status of your site.

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- 1 –
The Open Directory Project

The Open Directory Project was formed as an open-source alternative to the Yahoo! Directory’s paid site submission process, back in the days when Yahoo! was an online directory, not a search engine. Years later, you can still pay $299.00 to submit your site to the Yahoo! Directory, and you can submit your site for free to The Open Directory Project at http://dmoz.org. There are three good reasons that your site needs to be listed in The Open Directory Project:

  • Inclusion of a website in the Open Directory has a positive impact upon your site’s Google PageRank.
  • The Open Directory Project licenses its content distribution through hundreds of small search engines.
  • The Open Directory Project data is included in the directory services of major search engines, including Google and AOL Search. That’s right: Your search on Google will often reference site listings from the Open Directory.

The submission process is simple. First, check to see if your site is already listed. Go to http://dmoz.org and enter your business name into the search box at the head of the page. A business can only be listed in one category. If your site is listed, fine (unless you strongly believe that the listing should be moved to another category). If you are not listed, you can drill down through the hierarchy of categories to find the right place to list your site. For a campground in the United States, that category will be Recreation > Outdoors > Camping > Campgrounds > North America > United States > [Your State]. When you reach that page, you will also be able to confirm whether or not your site is listed. Do not be surprised if it is not. For example, there are 155 campgrounds listed on the Ohio Campground Owners Association website, but only 27 Ohio campgrounds listed in The Open Directory Project. There are also 200 campgrounds listed on the Campground Owners of New York website, but only 81 New York campgrounds listed in the directory. (Keep in mind that the actual numbers of campgrounds are probably higher because not all campgrounds belong to their state associations.) If your site is not listed, click on the “Suggest URL” link to go to the site submission page for that category.

Enter the following information on the submission page:

  • Your site URL. (Check the Regular option.)
  • Your site Title (taken from the Title tag of your site’s Home page).
  • A description of your site in 25-30 words. Try to write this as objectively as possible. The more that you embellish the text, the more likely it is that your description will be edited.
  • Your e-mail address.
  • Enter the captcha script at the bottom of the page, and hit Submit! You are on your way.

Total cost: $0.00

- 2 –
Use a Permanent Redirect

This tip will need to be implemented by the company that is hosting your website, and there should be no charge for them to do so. Most people do not realize that their website’s URL, with and without the ‘www’ subdomain prefix, counts as two sites and splits what should be the combined impact of the site’s traffic upon its search engine ranking. Since the ‘www’ prefix is not necessary, some people will type your address using the prefix and others will not. What you need to ensure is that – either way – the visitor will be taken to one version of your URL … the version without the ‘www’ prefix.

The solution is to implement a permanent redirect (known as a 301 redirect), so that any traffic to www.YourWebsite.com will be redirected to YourWebsite.com. It is easy enough to check to see if this is being done. Go to a browser and in the address bar (not a search box!), type in your site’s URL with the ‘www’ prefix. See if the ‘www’ remains in the address bar or disappears when the page is loaded. Then type in your address without the ‘www’ prefix, and confirm that the site also appears. If so, all is well. Much to my surprise, I often see sites that are incorrectly set up on their server so that they will ONLY appear if the ‘www’ prefix is used … a major error!

Total cost: $0.00

- 3 –
Find Unlinked Online References to Your Business

If there are websites that mention your business by name but do not include a link to your website, those mentions are providing little benefit. Particularly if your Web presence is relatively new, or if you recently changed its URL, there could be several sites that mention your business without a link or that provide a link to an old URL. Either way, you want to discover those and try to get the listings updated. Generally speaking, this is a two-step process.

The first step is to do a Google search for your business by name. Hopefully, your website will be the first search result! Go down the list of the first 50 or 100 search results. If there are sites that you do not recognize, click through to see if any of these appear to be legitimate sites that are lacking a link. In those instances, you will probably find a link that says “Claim this business”; otherwise, look for an “update listing” or “contact” link. Following those links is the second step.

Keep in mind that there are many local listings sites (often some sort of variation of the old yellow pages phone directory concept). Unless there is a very low, one-time fee, I generally advise against paying a site to add a link to your listing. A chamber of commerce, travel site, or camping-related site that provides specific information about your campground is probably a worthwhile listing; however, many of the sites that charge a fee for links are sites that generate low levels of traffic and probably zero searches for your businesses. They are little more than link directories. You want links on as many sites as possible that are legitimately capable of sending traffic to your site.

You might also want to search for the names of competitors or other nearby businesses, in an effort to discover any sites where your business may not even be listed by name but where it could be added. If you would like to stay abreast of any new listings that might materialize, set up a Google Alert for your business name, and you will be notified.

Total cost: $0.00, in most instances.

- 4 –
Consider SSL

Google recently announced a new HTTPS ranking signal, indicating that SSL throughout a site will give that site a slight SEO advantage. Up until now, SSL was typically used only by sites that were engaged in online commerce or the transmittal of sensitive information, but an argument may now be made for broader implementation. SSL provides a secure protocol, where exchanged data is encrypted rather than being written in plain text. It provides levels of data integrity and authentication that are lacking in usual data transfer.

If your site is handling transactions that involve the entry of users’ personal information (such as if you are selling merchandise or accepting payments through an online gateway), it should be using SSL. If a site uses SSL, there are sound reasons for the SSL to be used throughout the site, not simply on payment pages. If your site is purely informational (which applies to the typical campground website), there has been no reason for it to use SSL – at least up until now.

Do not expect the use of SSL on your site to push it to the top of search rankings. That is not going to happen. However, use of the https protocol is one of 200 or more signals that currently influence Google search ranking.

There are complications involved when converting a site to use SSL, and some of these cons may offset the pros of making the switch – not the least of which is the added cost of secure hosting and the annual SSL certificate renewal. Discuss these with your webmaster to determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs in your instance.

Total cost: Varies.

When it comes to SEO, there are no easy answers and no one-size-fits-all solutions. Establish a trusted working relationship with a knowledgeable webmaster who makes the best interests of your business a top priority.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Build Your Campground Website’s Traffic in 10 Easy Steps

August 6th, 2014

The best website in the world is ineffective if nobody sees it. It is a fact today that too many people obsess over search engine optimization (SEO) and the employment of a wide variety of tricks in an effort to outsmart Google’s search ranking algorithms. The bottom line is that nothing is more effective or easier to implement than links to your site from established websites with related, relevant content. Referring sites will send you direct traffic. More importantly, the presence of your links on those sites will also enhance the ranking of your own site, due to its direct association with sites that are already deemed to be “important” by Google.

The most important referring sites will be travel-related sites like TripAdvisor, and industry-related sites like Go Camping America. Once you have the big players covered, it is time to get your website listed on the “B list” of referral sites, and I will save you some work by presenting the following list of 10 websites that include online directories of campgrounds. Nine of the ten offer free listings. Check each site to see if your park is already listed, or if an existing listing might require corrections or updates. If your park is not listed, follow the links to get your site added.

Although every valid link is helpful, links from highly ranked sites with heavy traffic are the most valuable. For that reason, I am including the Alexa ranking and the StatShow traffic estimate for each site. The Alexa ranking is a metric that presents the site’s overall ranking against all other websites. The lower the Alexa ranking number, the better. StatShow indicates the average number of users and page views per month, where the higher the numbers, the better. As an example, the Alexa ranking of Amazon.com is 10, with a StatShow ranking of 220,280,520 visitors and 3,150,011,700 page views per month.

  1. RV Points. This is a relatively new site, launched in early 2012, that looks like it is trying to be the Groupon of campgrounds. Listings are free, although there is a fee to be listed as a featured park. You do not have to present a special offer to participate. Go to http://rvpoints.com, then follow the signup link. Alexa ranking: 10,821,800. StatShow ranking: 1,320 / 2,940.
  2. Leisure and Sport Review. This site provides a state-by-state listing of events and lodging, including both campgrounds and cabins. Find it at http://www.lasr.net, with a signup form at http://www.lasr.net/addBusiness.php. Alexa ranking: 222,547. StatShow ranking: 64,350 / 141,570.
  3. Mile By Mile. Nothing fancy in this directory of resources, including campgrounds, that is designed to help families plan road trips across the United States and Canada. http://www.milebymile.com, with edit listing / add listing form at http://www.milebymile.com/update.php. Alexa ranking: 477,532. StatShow ranking: 29,970 / 65,970.
  4. RV Resources. Nearly 15 years old, this site presents everything that has to do with RVing, including a directory of campgrounds. http://www.rvresources.com, with a listing form at http://www.rvresources.com/addsitenew.php. Alexa ranking: 530,214. StatShow ranking: 27,000 / 59,430.
  5. RV Zone. One of the oldest RV-related sites on the Internet, this site offers listings that are quick and easy to submit. http://www.rvzone.com, with the “suggest a site” link at http://www.rvzone.com/SuggestASite.cfm. (No stats currently available.)
  6. WorldWeb.com. This is an international travel directory that includes both the United States and campground listings, representing a useful resource for international travelers to find your park. Go to http://www.worldweb.com, then follow the Add > Business link in the upper right of the page. Alexa ranking: 26,275. StatShow ranking: 544,920 / 1,198,860.
  7. The Modern Outback Adventure Travel Guide. Based in British Columbia, Canada, this site presents comprehensive listings of campgrounds, resorts, wilderness lodges and destinations in the United States and Canada. Find it at http://www.modernoutback.com, then add your listing at http://www.modernoutback.com/addlisting.html. (No stats currently available.)
  8. RVNetLinx.com. This site lists campgrounds, campground associations, RV repair services, employment ads, and more. http://www.rvnetlinx.com, with a “submit your site” form at http://www.rvnetlinx.com/wpsubmitsite.php. Alexa ranking: 3,080,156. StatShow ranking: 4,620 / 10,200.
  9. RV Mechanic. This is an online directory of everything that relates to RV repairs. It also includes a directory of campgrounds, with an easy form to add your listing. Find the site at http://www.rvmechanic.com, then, to add your listing, go to http://www.rvmechanic.com/company_register.html. Alexa ranking: 560,380. StatShow ranking: 25,560 / 56,250.
  10. RV Park Hunter. This one is not free, but costs $25.00 per year on the 1 year plan, or $10.00 per year on the 5 year plan. http://www.rvparkhunter.com, with a listing form at http://www.rvparkhunter.com/listing.asp. Alexa ranking: 2,883,568. StatShow ranking: 4,950 / 10,950.

As you can see from the statistics, some of these sites might actually send some significant traffic to your site, which you can track and verify if you are running Google Analytics. In other instances, the greater value will be in simply having the search engine robots visiting the sites and catching the outbound link to your site.

This post was written by Peter Pelland