Richard Masters                                                  

business advice for  SME's

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Welcome to my personal blog.


In this blog I give my personal views on some of the key business issues facing SME's.


I take the general view that small business is poorly served in this area because it is dominated by people who ultimately have commercial self interest at heart.

By richard masters, Oct 22 2013 09:08AM

The simple answer to this is: it depends!

If search is not an important part of your marketing strategy or you rely on PPC advertising then it will probably be of no significance at all.


•If you currently get at least some business through ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ search (i.e. not paid for)or,

•If you would like to take advantage search but have been put off by the expense or by the level of competition from the big players.

Then you should be aware of the implications and read on!

The recent Google changes: Hummingbird

You may not have noticed, but the marketing world has been alight with comments and opinions on Google recent update to its search algorithm (rules or recipe by which it decides what web pages to return for any particular search enquiry) codenamed “Hummingbird”. I found over 100 articles or blogs posted over the 2 weeks alone since the announcement of September 23rd!

This has been described as the most significant evolution in the entire 15 years of search history and comes on the heels of three previous significant updates codenamed caffeine, panda and penguin respectively which introduced pretty significant changes in their own right.

The Hummingbird update has two components:

1. The search terms that users specify in their enquiries are now regarded as private by Google and they will not be made available for analysis. These terms, often referred to as keywords, have been the basis for the keyword strategies prominent in most SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) strategies adopted by marketers.

2. Longer search queries often expressed as sentences are now recognised by Google. This is referred to as ‘semantic search’. The main driver for this is the rapid and inexorable rise of mobile and verbal searches, where users ask questions as whole sentences rather as discrete staccato keywords. These sentences provide context for the search intent and allows Google to better understand what users actually want and return the most relevant pages accordingly.

Taken together these two components have introduced a large discontinuity into the search market and questioned the ongoing success of existing keyword based strategies.

So what are the implications for SME’s

If you have invested in keyword research and have a successful search strategy based on this approach you should not need to worry in the short term. Google will still return results against these terms.


• In the medium term you need to diversify away from a purely keyword based strategy towards tactics that are likely to be more successful in the post hummingbird world.

• If you have been put off search, in the past, by the resources required to construct a keyword based strategy, then now is the time to consider whether you now benefit from organic search with a much lesser investment of resources.

I have seen this in practice already. Several websites I am involved with, are already beginning to rank on the first pages of phrase based searches. Previously they have not got a look in with compared to the big organisations in the market space who dominated the rankings.

The next question is, of course, so what should SME’s do to exploit this opportunity?

What to do next?

This is of course the million dollar question and, unsurprisingly, the literature is less forthcoming on this issue. However I have managed to glean the following list from the collective wisdom expressed in the recent literature:

1. Customer centric content. Review all of your web pages and other marketing material from an 180 degree perspective i.e. from your customers perspective. Are you actually describing your products and services in your terms rather than answering your customers problems and addressing their concerns? Are you writing in their language or yours? If you are, great, you should get listed, but if not, you need to think about rewriting it.

2. Original and quality content. Google now searches all content and it is looking for original and quality content. Is your content original and addresses real customer concerns? Turning top FAQ’s into “How to” guides or a blog posts is a very good way of quickly and easily developing content that is not only customer centric but also addresses clear concerns which users may well search for.

3. Long form content. Google is now looking for in depth not short superficial content. Do you use long form content to explain the value you can add to your customers? If Google does not find this type of content, irrespective of how visually attractive and keyword laden it might be, it will not get listed.

4. Fresh content, Google likes to see recent content and content produced on a regular basis. Clearly a blog is the classic way to achieve this but also the refreshing of evergreen content, constantly updated FAQ’s, and integration of social feeds and news feeds for your particular area on interest are other ways of achieving this. Clearly, if you have an inflexible website or one that is expensive to update then this is problematic and you need to look at employing things such as CMS systems ( for example Wordpress) or Website Builders (e.g. Wix, Weebly, Moonfruit etc.)


5. Integration of other media types. Google likes the adoption of other media types in addition to straight text. Examples being: Podcasts, Video, Infographics, Slideshows etc. The adoption of so called ‘rich media’ types of content has already started by the larger companies and brands and this is likely to accelerate in the future. Turning “how to” guides into videos is an easy way to start as intrinsically some things are better shown than explained in words.

These are just some of the tactics that could bring search success in the post Hummingbird world. This plays to the strengths of SME’s because, by their very nature, they are very close to their customers and their ever changing needs in a way that large organisations find it difficult. One thing that is certain is that static web pages and marketing materials which depend on keywords will rapidly cease to be successful.

The bottom line.

For SME’s the bottom line is that Google has not exactly leveled the playing field but it has now at least made the whole playing field visible in a way it wasn’t before:

• It ultimately allows SME’s to compete with big companies and brands with huge budgets. Don’t expect it to be easy as these organisations are full of very smart people with large budgets and expect them to dive into content marketing even more than they currently are with rich media content and attempt to dominate the revised organic search results just like they have with social media. A large percentage of search result “real estate” is already given over to’ paid for’ results and expect this to increase as ultimately this is how Google makes its money. Small businesses have one major advantage: they understand and are intimate with their customers in a way that big companies and brands cannot be. Therefore, developing content that specifically addresses their wants, needs, concerns and problems, offers a much better chance for smaller businesses to feature at the top of search results than in the past.

• Whilst big budgets are helpful an awful lot can be achieved by repurposing content you already have or writing down knowledge you already have by way of doing your business. If you do this and produce really useful customer focused content you will get found.

If you have any ideas of what SME’s

could do to exploit this opportunity then please share them in the comments for other people to see.

I have created a list of the articles I have found the most useful in compiling this post; these can be found in the Hummingbird curation at the end of this link.

Richard Masters, 18/10/13

If you found this useful you might like:

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Or Contact me: Richard Masters

By richard masters, Aug 17 2013 07:19AM

Matt Cutts, head of Web Spam at Google, is one of my modern day heroes- as he has been resolute in initiating changes to the search algorithms to return the results listings that best match the users search intent. This crusade can probably be traced back to Christmas 2010 when JC Penny appeared to top the entire search listings within the NY area for just about any product. Enough was enough. A programme of algorithmic changes have followed since that date known collectively as the Penguin and then Panda updates which have progressively outlawed these dubious practices.

These changes, although often criticised at the detailed level, have been almost universally welcomed by everyone involved in Digital Marketing. With the penalising of “Black Hat” methods the emphasis has shifted to the importance to content and content marketing to get noticed in search. Marketers have thrown themselves enthusiastically onto this new altar and articles abound extolling the virtue of creating more and more content.


However, this has created a new problem- the sheer volume of low quality, boring, plagiarised content that is flooding the web, all competing for attention and Googles approval via prominent search ranking.

There is so much content nowadays that it is a full time job to even read the titles on some of the main curated lists circulated on a daily basis! This is before selection of appropriate material to read. Let alone finding the time to read and absorb and evaluate the content itself!

Recent research has confirmed that it is over posting and poor grammar are the two biggest turnoffs for consumers of this deluge of recent content

Now Googles own Quality Guidelines give us lots of clues as to what it regards as quality content but in reality this is just guidance and, in fairness, rooting out the obvious abuses is a herculean task in the short term.

It would be nice to think that user approval systems, such as Googles own +1 system, would be some help but in reality this is more a vote for the popularity of the source rather than the content, (rather like TV talent competitions!) with approval often being given without even reading, let alone evaluating, the content concerned!

So, what could Mr Cutts do address this veritable mud slide of mediocre material? Here are some suggestions based upon my particular pet hates...

1. Relegate content with numbered lists in the title.

I have reproduced, below, an extract from a curated list of articles from a well known source, this shows a whole section in which all of the articles started with some form of numbered list in the title (Three things you did not know about x etc.). Now this is an extreme example, but overall in the lists I analysed, over 40% used this device.

This format, to me, is a key indicator of potential low quality. I do not know who originally concluded that articles in this form are more successful, but it is now part of digital marketing folk law that is avidly adhered to as a winning formula. The reason it is popular, appears to me to be because it allows authors to sling together a series of partially (and usually borrowed) points and quickly produce some impressive looking content. These points have usually been assiduously culled over a period of time and inserted in a note system, or the like, under a ”content ideas” tab for later editing into a post or article.

Giving content that uses this device a lower quality score will no doubt catch a few gems but overall may well cause a significant increase in the overall quality of published content.

2. Downgrade anything with word “Awesome” somewhere in the title

Clearly to be effective, content should be well written and balanced. I find that the vast majority of pieces with “awesome” in the title are usually far from it and usually indicate either a lack of judgment by the author or indeed the desire to impart some importance to the subject matter that simply is not there.

The English language is rich and diverse with a wide choice of adjectives, indeed my battered and aging thesaurus lists awesome under “Wonderful” along with 52 other alternatives (twenty of the best ones are reproduced in the figure below)including such words as: Marvelous, Magical, Stupendous, Sensational, Extraordinary. Fantastic Unbelievable, Fabulous and even Thaumaturgic! All of these words have subtly different connotations and can only make content more informative and meaningful.

So come on Matt send content containing the word “awesome” to room 101 with a hefty quality penalty,

3. Penalize organisations which promote content publishing schedules.

I fully expect howls of outrage at this point! - but stay with me for a moment.

I am in fact a great fan of publishing schedules- but they are not right for everyone. If you are a large organisation with substantial teams of people responsible for producing content or organising content with multiple authorships then, clearly, a publishing schedule is a must for all sorts of good reasons.

Translate this into the situation of a small business or an individual (which are numerically huge compared with the former categories) and you get a recipe for poor content. The tyranny of a schedule allied to the mantra of quantity- you must publish x items daily or at least very regularly, is a formula for the proliferation of low quality dross.

I have over the years stopped subscribing from a number of blogs and the like, simply because although the authors at one time produced interesting and insightful pieces, the quality dropped off , and this was almost always was allied to an increase in the periodicity of publishing. The posts often became clearly formulaic, unoriginal, and often regularly featured the numbered list technique described above.

Unfortunately, the shibboleth that quantity is important is clearly in the best interests of those commercially involved in producing content and therefore will not be popular

4. Demote content from people who have expert, ninja or guru etc. in their description line.

I often wonder what people thing they gain by giving themselves a self appointed title which implies they know what they are talking about and therefore I should pay particular attention to their pearls of wisdom. To me it has the reverse effect.

The motives behind people who attempt to boost their credibility by adopting such titles have to be questioned and therefore, by implication, the veracity of the content they generate.

Now maybe the new authorship index will help this (certainly more than a Klout score!) but this may end up measuring popularity rather than quality- and then we are back into the quantity versus quality argument again.

Matt, in the interim, please mark them down!


This, somewhat light heated, consideration of the current trend towards the overproduction of current does throw up a number of more important considerations:

1. The importance of curation

Personally, most of the content I consume comes via curated lists of some form or another. The problem with this approach is that the vast majority of curation lists concentrate on the basic activities of aggregation and classification. The net result of this is that even scanning the lists to assess what to read in depth (or file away for later) is a herculean task in its own right. I would like to see curators come off the fence and take on the more advanced curation tasks of saying what is good and original and what is not(selecting and contextualising). Clearly this might reduce popularity- but sometimes you have to take risks to move forward.

2. Quality is always relative.

One of the dangers of advanced curation is that what is relevant to one person is not to another. Clearly the requirement of someone who is familiar with a topic is very different from that of a novice. For example, being a complete numpty at even the most basic of DIY tasks them I need really basic guides which a skilled tradesman would regards a complete waste of time and may well scoff with some of the simplistic advice given. In this situation I believe it should be the responsibility of the provider to indicate at what level context the information is being offered at. Some organisations, to their credit, do classify their content into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. Wider adoption of this practice by more content creators and curators would help the consumer identify what content is relevant for them.

Well there you have It.- some off the wall ideas on how to stem the tidal wave of mediocre content and avoid having to throw the ‘baby’ of valuable content out will the bathwater of regurgitated dross..

Anybody else got any other ideas for Matt on how to achieve this?

Stop Press

After penning this piece, I note that Google have announced that they are indeed to produce listings of what they regard as in depth and quality pieces of content- wow that was quick Matt!

Richard Masters

If you enjoyed this you might like:

Linked In: Connections are for show relationships are for Dough!

Any Business can now build its own Website

Is the BBC's new classification of social classes of use in marketing?

Or Contact me: Richard Masters

By richard masters, May 15 2013 10:55AM

Recent research has shown that although LinkedIn is widely regarded as the best social platform for new business development in the small businesses B2B sector. In fact a relatively few are successful- but those that are successful are very successful. So what is the key to success?

LinkedIn as a Business development platform

Research by organisations such as HubSpot over the last few years has established that LinkedIn is one of the most effective of the social platforms ( they prefer the term professional networking)- especially for small business in the B2B sector. The diagrams below illustrate these findings.

Furthermore, 2013 research by the Wall street journal and Vistage of small business CEO's has established that not only is LinkedIn the most frequently used platform, it also the one regarded as having the most potential for the future. This can be seen in the following diagram.

The Reality for Most business Users is different

The reality for most small businesses users does not accord with this rosy picture! They have spent time developing a 100% complete "All Star" profile, got hundreds of connections, joined lots of groups, created a company page, got references and endorsements galore- but still no new business!

So who is successful at Business Development on LinkedIn?

An insightful new piece of research by Jill Conrath "Cracking the LinkedIn Sales Code" (free to download if you register), has gone a long way to explaining this conundrum. Some 3094 "sellers" (covering sales, entrepreneurs, consultancy, and management roles) were surveyed. The two diagrams below show the top level findings of the survey.

This shows clearly that only a small percentage of LinkedIn users are in fact very successful at generating leads. Furthermore, it shows that the most successful people have a distinctive characteristics:

-They view LinkedIn as strategic

-They invest a lot of time and effort into it

-They often invest in the additional features offered by the paid version.

What do they actually do differently?

Business development using linkedIn can be seen as a three stage process:

Stage1: Establishing a presence

Stage2: Identifying key prospects and leads

Stage3: Relationship development (lead nurturing)

It is in this third phase that successful users appear to be very different. In particular the following traits stand out:

1. They use linkedIn to develop personal contacts into relationships with the ultimate goal of achieving offline contact with them.

2. They use LinkedIn to extensively research prospects and organisation in greater depth before contact.

3. They actively engage in Groups they join and share resources and enter conversations. Less successful people join groups but simply "lurk"

4. They use the Advanced Search facility to identify leads and create prospect lists (including the advanced filters).

5. They use LinkedIn's InMail facility to contact and establish relationships

6. They use their first level contacts to get referrals

LinkedIn has seen this coming

LinkedIn is a pretty smart organisation and it has clearly seen this demand for relationship development coming and it has quietly introduced a number of new features to support these activities:

1. LinkedIn Business Premium. This is the basic upgrade for business development and offer three levels of additional features covering: InMail messages, Introductions, Open link capability and advanced search options.

2. LinkedIn Sales Navigator. This is a further premium options specifically for "sales pro's" which includes a number of additional features such as insights discovery and engagement. It also features the ability to directly interface with CRM systems such as Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics.

3. Upgraded LinkedIn Contacts. In a recent announcement a significant upgrade to the basic contact functionality was introduced which effectively introduces social CRM capabilities and will allow users to take a holistic view of interactions with connections

It's the dough not the show that matters

The conclusion from the above analysis are:

- LinkedIn can clearly be a successful vehicle for generating new business leads within the B2B sector.

- A "stamp collecting" approach to linkedIn with hundreds of connections, a weighty profile and prolific group memberships, are not the keys to success.

- The key to success would appear to be is to focus resources into using the facilities of linkedIn and basic sales techniques to develop in depth relationships with potential leads.

- linkedIn are progressively introducing new tools to assist with these more in depth business development activities

If you enjoyed this you might like:

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By richard masters, Apr 8 2013 11:42AM

The recent publication by the BBC of a new classification of social groups in the UK, including a calculator, has created a huge amount of interest and debate- much of it hugely amusing!

I have to come clean- here is mine. Seems about right to me! (note to myself: must get out more and meet different people)

You can calculate yours here.

Now that the hullabaloo has subsided it is instructive to ask the question: "Is this of any relevance or use in Marketing ?"

Traditional approaches to classifying customers

Classifying customers into groups has always been central to marketing both for understanding customer behaviour and targeting particular groups based on their attributes.

It has been possible to identify four distinct approaches in the past:

1. Socio-demographic groups. Such as Social Class and Socio-Economic Groups (SEG's)

2. Generational Groups ( Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Y, Z etc)

3. Personas ( behavioural characterisations)

4. Hybrid Groups ( combinations of the above types)

( for more details of these types see this Slideshare presentation)

The new Social Types

The three criteria used are based on the concept of "capital" and are:

-Economic capital

-Social capital

-Cultural capital

From a marketers perspective, what is interesting about the new approach is that it is really an extension and refinement of the Socio-demographic approach but with the addition of Culture which I guess either forms a new classification or makes it a hybrid group. Generational and Persona perspectives are largely subsumed within the cultural capital element.

So will this be useful for marketers?

My initial view is that the short answer may well be yes: In more detail

1. It appears a more up-to-date and contemporary basis than Social Class and SEG and could usefully supersede these classifications.

2. For B2C marketers, especially those concerned with promoting lifestyle brands, it could be a useful framework to look at the 3'a's: aspirations, associations and affiliations.

3. It provides a more comprehensive basis for the definition of hybrid groups and can be usefully used in conjunction with generational groups and individual personas to provide more highly targeted market groups.

Clearly, they will not replace the use of personas and generational groups, but where a broad brush approach is required, they certainly should provide useful perspective and are certainly more relevant than existing socio demographic approaches.

Only time will tell if these groups will actually prove to be useful from an operational marketing perspective, but I suspect they may well emerge in the lingua franca of marketing speak over the next few years!

What do you think?

If you enjoyed this you might like:

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By richard masters, Feb 12 2013 11:52AM

Lets face it, most businesses- however small- need a website these days. It is possible to debate whether all businesses need one but, on balance, the weight of evidence would suggest that most do.

The traditional approach

The traditional approach to building a website has been to hire a website designer who takes a brief and produces a website to an agreed specification at an agreed cost. Often these are little more than electronic brochures. Any additions/changes required are then made by the designer at an additional cost.

An unwelcome cost

For most businesses they represent an unwelcome upfront cost which they could usefully do without. Furthermore, they usually require regular updating which can be a further ongoing cost to the businesses P&L. They are seen as a necessary, but irritating, evil!

The changing role of websites in business

Furthermore, as most businesses are now aware, the role of websites are changing and they are now seen as being much more than simple brochures, but are the focal point for a large number their customer facing activities. The centre of their marketing ecosystem if you like.

The dilemma

Clearly, this poses a dilemma for a lot of businesses, they know they desperately need to invest in developing their marketing activities but they realise that this will require further significant investments from already stretched P&Ls. However if they don't do it they will potntailly be at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.

The case for Website Builders

Over the recent years a new class of product has emerged into the marketplace- WYWYG Website Builders- these tools enable businesses to build their own websites with minimal external expertise. If you can use a basic word-processing editor, you can use these tools.

A recent article identified 15 tools that are available on the market. The diagram below shows the number of sites that have been developed using just a handful of the more common tools- nearly 50 million, so it's not untried, nor unpopular, technology

I recently reviewed the capabilities of a few of them in some depth by building a basic website for an actual business using each of them in turn. They all delivered perfectly acceptable results!

Some advantages of Website Builders

In my judgement the advantages of these tools can be summarised as follows:

1. They cover the whole range of activities necessary to set up and run a website. A one stop shop including domains and hosting if you like.

2. They are flexible and business driven, allowing web pages to be updated in real time - just like you would any other document in your business.

3. They are facilities rich in that they allow you to easily incorporate: images and videos, other documents such as PDF's, Blogs, product information, slide shows, contact forms ,forums, online shops, payment systems etc

4. They allow the ready integration with social activity systems such as LinkedIn, Twitter and facebook etc via smart "widgets", to create in integrated marketing system rather than a static website.

5. They allow multiple users to update the site, so the endeavour can be a joint one if required.

How to get started

The good news is that most of the systems ( which are web based) have adopted the prevailing Freemium business model and allow you to build a free system first to check it does what you want before committing to the approach for real! The paid for cost are then only a few pounds a month including your own custom domain name. Most take transfers, if you have an existing purchased domain.