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To App or Not to App? That is the Question.

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I seem to have this conversation often. While meeting with clients and prospects to discuss their websites and general Internet marketing strategies they lean in and say with some degree of certainty, "we also need an app." My response, 9 times out of 10, is "no, you don't." Here's why:

Apps are expensive. Utilized primarily for the marketing and promotion of your products or services, an app will not yield a very good return on your investment. An app must be built for multiple platforms (iOS and Droid at the very least), requires developers who are currently very expensive and in demand, and then will require maintenance for bug fixes and operating system changes.

Apps are clunky. A user not only has to make a conscious effort to find and then install your app, they also have to make a conscious effort to open it. You might be able to lead users to the app store by providing a friendly link on your website but that still requires effort. Most people won't take those steps. I already have too many apps installed by my kids, like Math Puppy, Castle Doombad, and Celebrity Pimple (don't ask). I don't want more apps I don't plan to use frequently. The other issue is that you also probably don't provide enough regular content to hold users interest and keep them coming back for more. If you don't provide the content and it takes extra steps to open the app, it likely ain't gonna work.

With that said, however, there are many occasions where building a custom app could be very beneficial. Here are some examples:

Lots of great, engaging content. If you do provide a great deal of content through your website (i.e. blogs, news, white papers, etc) then you could benefit from an app. You'll need solid readership for this, though. If you don't already have a core group of followers who read and share your content, then build that first and then reevaluate your need for a custom app later. If you do, apps can be a great tool that your core users will have with them at the tap of a finger. You can push alerts for new posts and events, provide more integrated sharing methods (email, SMS/texting, facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc), and take advantage of some of the other built-in capabilities, like photos, videos, and GPS. 

Some examples of content oriented apps include Smashing Magazine, Marketing Profs, and our friends over at the Marketing Tech Blog.

Integration with existing applications. Let's say you're a manufacturing company or a retail operation, your app could allow users to place orders, virtually assemble and preview products, login to their existing accounts, or interact with your company's data in any number of ways. This reason alone is primarily why companies build apps. Integration with existing databases and applications provides a convenient and easy mechanism to conduct business with you and gives you a big advantage over rivals.

Some examples of apps that integrate with existing services: Amazon, LinkedIn, Chase, Google Drive, and realtor.com.

There are many considerations when deciding if you need an app but I can narrow it down to two:

  1. Will it help you sell a lot more widgets or land new accounts? If the answer is no, easy peasy. No more questions. If the answer is yes then the follow-up question is:
     
  2. How much are you willing to invest to make this happen and what is your minimum anticipated return? That's where a feasibility study comes into play and is beyond the scope of this post. But simply ballparking it would suffice.

If you can't justify an app, perhaps you should convert your site to a responsive/mobile website. This will improve the overall user experience for everyone who reaches you on a handheld device or tablet and is a great way to push off the need (or perceived need) for an app.

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Was Net Neutrality a Loss for the American Public?

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Will net neutrality block the InternetYesterday the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's net neutrality rule. There are many pundits who are claiming this is the end of free expression over the Internet and the beginning of content censorship. With this ruling Internet providers now have the legal authority to block, slow down or speed up any content they want that is delivered over their networks. Imagine MSNBC paying Comcast and AT&T to speed up and prioritize the delivery of their content so that a rival like Fox News gets relegated to a slower speed or blocked entirely. Or perhaps Verizon went to Google and Facebook and demanded fees to allow their broadband subscribers access. Why not? Direct TV just did it with The Weather Channel. Comcast dropped the Big Ten Network several years back and I could no longer watch Hoosier basketball. It was a travesty!

This is not a fair comparison, though. Cable companies broker deals with networks to provide what they feel is the content their subscribers want. And cable companies pay those networks for access. In the case of the Internet, broadband providers don't pay websites for their content. They only pay to plug into the bigger global network and they get paid by their subscribers for access to that network.

What this Means

With the net neutrality rule struck down, broadband providers have a case to regulate the content delivered on their private networks and if they do, they have to tell their customers what they are blocking or regulating. In my mind, I feel this is fair. They own the physical network and equipment that connects people to the larger Internet. It is not a publicly funded infrastructure. 

They have already done this before, too. Several companies still block access to SMTP port 25 (SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transport Protocol). This is the standard port (or channel) through which email is sent. They did this because home users were getting infected with viruses that would scan their computers and consequently send email via port 25 to everyone on their contact list or use their computer as a make-shift email server to spam others. Most email users send email securely through other ports now, so this doesn't matter as much, but broadband providers were getting hammered with unauthorized virus-related traffic which affected everyone's Internet experience. So they shut it down.

Broadband companies have also blocked peer to peer ports where a lot of content pirating takes place. This consumes enormous bandwidth and much of the traffic, in my non-statistics based opinion, is illegal. They've also had a hand in limiting traffic from video services, such as Netflix, which consumes many gigabytes of data for a single movie. Once a threshold was met, they began to throttle, affecting the end user's experience.

Why it Doesn't Matter (so much)

First of all, I don't think you're going to see much more than we do already. If broadband providers begin to block access to certain websites then customers will move to another provider (assuming they have the choice). To begin blocking and throttling common sites regularly, though, providers will quickly encounter significant technical hurdles.

  1. HTTPS. Website traffic (which aside from video streaming traffic represents most of the traffic on the Internet) uses the HTTP protocol. Standard HTTP sends everything over network port 80 in plain text. It's easy to sniff network packets and see where a user is going. But then there is HTTPS which is the secure version of HTTP. It traditionally runs over network port 443 and all of its traffic is heavily encrypted with increasingly robust SSL certificates. In other words, it's nearly impossible to decrypt, so broadband providers can't find out where the user is going, except by the physical IP address (e.g. 64.255.250.10). Even with that they may know that CNN runs their web servers on the IP address 157.166.238.133 but CNN likely has hundreds of servers with varying IP addresses and can change most of those with just a few mouse clicks (yes, I'm oversimplifying here!). Bottom line, it is really hard to crack an HTTPS web session and keep track of the millions of domains and their rotating IP addresses. Using HTTPS keeps your sessions private and does not allow broadband providers much insight into what you're doing. The only caveat is that the website you're visiting must have an SSL certificate in place so that you can use HTTPS with their site.
     
  2. Proxy Servers. A proxy server is basically a virtual tunnel for Internet traffic. Within minutes, I can redirect all my computer's traffic to a proxy server in India or Hong Kong which then acts as the origination for all of my network traffic. My broadband provider only knows that I have a connection to some random IP address on some random port. If they block it, I can choose another and then another. I have a nearly unlimited number of choices through which I could direct my traffic and they will have no idea what I'm doing.
     
  3. New Protocols. HTTP and HTTPS are just two out of hundreds of protocols that define the delivery of data from its source to its destination. There are others that could be adopted in place of HTTP. If so, broadband providers would have to redevelop their snooping infrastructure to accommodate those new protocols.

Perhaps you're thinking that the average individual wouldn't take these steps and you're right... for now. With an entire world of people wanting open and free access to information they will continuously innovate to get around those evil corporations and easy to use tools will be developed for the average Joe Schmoe to do the same.

The only real leverage broadband providers have is to generally limit how much data people consume or throttle the speed at which it is delivered. Not where it comes from. We're lucky right now that we get fast, unlimited data but the idea of charging fees for heavier users has already been pushed around. And, as long as people have a choice of providers, they should be able to charge based on quantity and speed. But if they begin to do this you can bet your wallet that the backlash from their subscribers will be severe and harsh. Consumers found their voice online a long time ago and their message will certainly be heard.

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What Does Google’s Hummingbird Mean for SEO in 2014?

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Semantic Search.

That’s the phrase to keep in mind with the introduction of Google’s new Hummingbird algorithm. While previous updates Penguin and Panda were modifications to the company’s existing algorithm, Hummingbird is a complete replacement. What does that mean for SEO? In a nutshell, the days of extensive keyword data are over – at least in regard to individual search terms driving your site optimization strategy.

Google’s Hummingbird AlgorithmHummingbird is based on semantic search, which means that individual terms are no longer the main driving force behind what gets found during an online search. Instead, Google provides results it believes meet the context of the search and the user’s overall intent. Rather than one or two individual words triggering the results, entire phrases within the search help generate what is found.

For most, the change shouldn’t come as a surprise. Google has been moving in this direction for some time now, improving their technology to eliminate sites designed to game the system. Forward thinking web development businesses have anticipated the shift. Though extensive keyword data was valuable, and still is to some degree, it doesn’t remove the fact that what matters most is rich, engaging content that can be shared across networks.

Google’s position is clear: As the dominant search engine, the company wants to make sure they provide the results users want. The questions are simple:

  1. What is the user’s intent?
     
  2. In what context are they asking for this information? In other words, why is it valuable to them?

Though Google owns the market, they’re savvy enough to realize that the closer they are to the user’s target, the more likely they’ll remain the industry leader. At the heart of the movement is the need to instill trust. The user puts their trust in Google, and they, in turn, attempt to provide the best answers.

As a website owner, your job is to create valuable, relevant content. That’s what will draw people in. If you don’t, you can’t expect Google to find you.

Are you generating quality content that takes into account the changes in SEO? If not, Marketpath can help you put together a content marketing program. Contact us today to learn more.

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