Perceived wisdom for marketers in pre-web days revolved around the ‘4P’s’ reference for product, price place and promotion. In retail terms this meant that your product offering was important in terms of relevance to your target market and of suitable quality with a stock-holding to meet market demands and its price was competitive within the geographical market. Your retail outlet was in a relatively fixed location and any promotions and advertising were consistent with your geographic and demographic targets. With this background, statistically a start-up business had only a 66% chance of survival beyond year 3. Move forwards to the current market place and any retailer will be under severe pressure from the on-line retail sector but jump into the shark pool of the internet and find out how tough things really are!
Our business, PenFountain.com, is a small on-line and retail niche re-seller of high value pens and writing ephemera. The business was established in 1998 as a general stationers, with a significant on-line presence in the pen market having been launched in 2006. From day 1 of the internet business launch we have achieved modest growth and remain a respected specialist business through our broad product offering competitive pricing and, above all, service excellence. Much of our early search engine optimisation (SEO) was outsourced on the basis of our limited human resource being focused on product entry and general business administration across the 2 streams.
- The Caran d’Ache Ivanhoe – a more radically styled fountain pen
As the current recession has inevitably bitten into the retail sector at all levels, so the on-line market dynamic has started to spin inexorably faster and faster. At PenFountain.com, we reviewed our commitment to outsourced SEO early in 2010 and concluded that the work being carried out by a third party on any e-commerce website, with the increasing sophistication of SEO by competitors, was no longer viable. We brought the SEO programme in-house in March 2010. This was a dramatic step given our limited knowledge of such a sophisticated subject but a situation that we were confident we could only improve on. The difficulty with SEO copywriting for any e-commerce website is the paradox between the required product knowledge to write relevant copy and the keyword-rich balanced style required for search engines. We believe we are now starting to understand this to a greater degree although, are by no means experts in the field.
The high-end pen market is very much a niche and, in hindsight, we had had a relatively gentle journey through our early years. However, the recession has now woken some of the larger high street players from their complacent slumbers and increasing numbers of brands are now playing the web. Late entry is proving to be something of a handicap to some of them but their ability to play the ‘reliable supplier’ hand is something of a problem to a few smaller players. However, with their higher overheads, it is clear that some of the on-line pricing is proving to be a little painful. Generally speaking their pricing is only just competitive with the incumbent players but, digging deeper often finds issues relating to delivery that may be more restrictive such as, delivery to store and pricing at odds with their in-store offering.
The biggest problem facing the smaller players however, is the resources that the brands can throw at SEO and therefore, their visibility on the web. In the niche markets, we have been relatively untouched by the presence of the larger players but, as the recession becomes more prolonged, (0.2% ‘growth’ is not real growth in the retail markets – what impact would ‘0.2% discount on all stocks’ have as a headline grabber!) so the pressure is applied for the big boys to find opportunities previously overlooked. Such is the case for the high-end pen market. In the last 6 months we have seen 6 previously unseen major brands suddenly popping-up offering fountain pens at special on-line prices.
In the last couple of years SEO has also become increasingly sophisticated with numerous tools becoming available to check keywords, keyword density, links and link building, web marketing, social networking and blogging. Each facet requires a detailed knowledge and understanding to establish its relevance to the smaller operator to identify whether it may be worth ‘parking’ or may be of sufficient importance even to warrant outsourcing in order to maximise its impact. Speak to ‘an expert in the field’ and the chances are that outsourcing with them at a price is the only real choice offered. However, the price of getting it wrong is that you may or may not start to lose rankings, slowly but surely.
A further factor in this chess style game we call on-line retailing is that you need to keep your eye on the franchiser, Mr Google. Just to ginger things up a little, periodic adjustments are made to the tilt of the game board and you suddenly find that not only have the goal posts moved slightly, but some of the players suddenly find themselves facing the wrong way. Recent announcements from Google affecting PenFountain.com have been the adjustment to the algorithm to weight searches away from keyword rich URLs, such as ours, and to favour more informative product descriptions, such as ours (hopefully). These changes need to be tracked and responded to promptly.
Recognition of the importance of social media as an adjunct to your SEO is another factor with Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin requiring attention. Other search mechanisms require addressing including blogging and You Tube. Each adjunct can potentially drive traffic to your website and increase the possibility of developing positive incoming links.
For the small business player, all of the issues discussed are extra to the day to day planning and administration of the small on-line business. The PAYE, the VAT, the accounts, pick, pack and despatch of incoming orders and, in the case of the dual activities of on-line and bricks & mortar retailing, serving customers! Compare this with the larger players where they will have individual experts in any number of the SEO disciplines. This is quite clearly a daunting prospect but with the right advice from reliable sources, while very tough, it is possible to prioritise the activities to achieve a significant improvement in search engine ranking.
Beware! There is also a significant number of charlatans prepared to take money in exchange for work and advice about how to improve your rankings. Failure can be difficult to prove with a high ranking being achievable against very obscure, virtually irrelevant, keyword searches. Whilst, prime positions against significant keyword searches can succeed or fail simply by the order in which the words are placed in the home page title.
Compared with the traditional, pre-web 4P’s the market has changed. No longer can you operate in your chosen local geographic market place. Whether you like it or not, we are all part of a global market. Your product offering can remain ‘as chosen’ except, the web specialist will not have a selection of faster moving lines from a given manufacturer but, potentially, a full range ostensibly from stock. The pricing has to reflect the global market place as well with both customers and competitors able to price-check across an almost unlimited number of e-commerce websites. Your place is as dynamic as any other component of the process. All businesses start at the periphery of the global market and, using the SEO and web marketing tools available, effectively moves the location closer towards the web ‘high street’; the top 5 on Google.
Having taken SEO for PenFountain.com on, I started out reviewing the content of each of the existing pages and analysing what I thought needed to be included from a common sense perspective in terms of product description. However, as the market tightened it became clear that more refined SEO was required to maintain position. Finding an inexpensive and reliable source of information and support without commitment to long-term expense was an obstacle until a recommendation through Surrey Chambers of Commerce introduced us to Jan Klin Associates http://www.janklin.com/ . Jan is extremely knowledgeable and, importantly, conversant with the latest developments in the ever-shifting game board that is Google. Perhaps, one disappointment is that as part of the web research recommended by Jan is that we have found that in addition to the increased competition, the fountain pen market is decreasing in size!