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Custom vs. Off-the-Shelf Software

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Business needs vary enormously from one organization to the next. So, naturally, continual improvement to processes and techniques to effectively run the business is a must. Business owners always have to step out of the normal day to day to evaluate whether or not we're being effective, how we can improve inefficiencies and how we can plan for the future. 

Because competition comes so strong and swift, we are in an age of process perfection. That is, we must understand our processes and constantly mine them for improvements. In many ways, we need to be like McDonald's where every small step has a predetermined sequence. This doesn't mean we'll abandon creativity and personality. With all their systems, McDonald's can be an amazingly creative force (e.g. Monopoly, kid's meals, play places). It's a common misunderstanding that boundaries limit creativity, but the contrary is really true (see "Creative Constraint: Why Tighter Boundaries Propel Greater Results"). Instead, we need to impose boundaries by tightening processes. One way to do this and track results effectively is with specialized software.

This isn't an easy task and choosing the right software to help you grow and adapt is crucial. The question often becomes "should I build a custom app that fits my needs exactly, or can I adopt off-the-shelf software to get close enough?"

Sometimes, this is an easy decision. Accounting software is used by just about every business, so there are an enormous number of flavors to choose from - Quickbooks, Microsoft Dynamics, MAS90, etc. Building custom software for your accounting needs usually doesn't make sense. The biggest issue arises when the business need is not a commodity, such as, a recycling company that needs to monitor pickups, drop-offs, sorting, and selling. Or a school district that wants to monitor facility usage and automatically adjust the HVAC system and unlock doors. 

But, even with non-commoditized needs, someone out there probably has fulfilled the need and built an off-the-shelf solution that you might be able to use. So, the decision ultimately becomes how good is the fit or can you do it better with a bigger bottom-line impact by building a custom application?

Here are some pros and cons of both. 

Off-the-Shelf Software

PROS:

  • Lower up-front cost
  • Contains many features, often more than you need
  • Support is often included or can be added with a maintenance contract
  • Upgrades may be provided for free or at reduced cost
  • If it's software-as-a-service (SaaS) there is no hardware or software to install

CONS:

  • Slow to adapt or change to industry needs
  • Your feature request may get ignored if it doesn't benefit the larger customer base
  • May require you to change your process to fit the software
  • Higher customization fees (proprietary software vendors often charge ridiculous hourly fees unless they provide an open API)

Custom Software

PROS: 

  • You can start with the minimum necessary requirements and add on later
  • Can be tailored to your exact business needs and processes
  • Changes can be made quickly

CONS:

  • Very high initial cost
  • All changes and feature requests will be billable
  • May incur additional costs ramping up new developers

Ultimately, you'll need to decide if you can use out-of-the-box software and fit a square peg into a round hole without too much pain or if you should build around the processes and systems you've worked so hard to develop. I suppose you could also do nothing and stick to the old way you do things but what's the fun in that?

I was once told by a business veteran that if there is a software solution that is good enough, then why incur the expense for custom development? I guess the answer depends on how fanatical you are about your business systems and how effective you believe yours to be over theirs. 

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Do you have any questions regarding software? We are here to help! Contact us today. 

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5 Lesser-Known Benefits of Software-as-a-Service

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Since the idea of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) has been around for quite a few years, the benefits have become pretty well known.  The SaaS proponents stand behind the lower cost of entry, the speed of implementation and availability of the software (not installed).  I wanted to dig a little deeper and take a look at some of the lesser known benefits of the Software-as-a-Service model.

No IT Staff Necessary

No IT Staff NecessaryMany small to medium sized business don't have internal IT staff, which makes them a perfect candidate for SaaS adoption.  In the world of web content management systems, an often-used alternative to SaaS is the Open Source platform (Joomla, Drupal, Wordpress ,etc).  While these programs have their place in the market, they are often written for "geeks" by "geeks".  We have helped numerous companies and organizations migrate away from these platforms after they have become frustrated with their supposedly "easy-to-use" open source system. Without internal IT staff, simplicity should become a major factor in the decision making process.  

Frees Up IT Staff Time

If you do have the luxury of having an in-house IT staff, they are probably strapped for time and bogged down with multiple duties.  Off-loading some of the workload of maintaining a web hosting server and a website is a quick, and usually cost-effective way, to make your IT staff more effective.  Utilizing an easy-to-use, SaaS content management system allows your marketing staff to take control of the most powerful marketing tool at your disposal, your website.  Keeping your IT staff out of your marketing efforts is essential to your online success. 

Eliminates Frustrating Maintenance

SaaS products can be quickly and easily patched and upgraded by the company responsible for the software, eliminating time-consuming maintenance for the customer.  Because SaaS products are built around one central core, applying a patch to it remedies any problems that may be occurring for all of the users.  There is no need to worry about software versioning, expensive updates, or in-house hardware problems.   

Less Learning Curve (Typically)

Easier Learning CurveBecause SaaS products are web-based, users typically latch onto them faster than installed software.  We all use the Internet every day, whether it be for browsing, shopping, or connecting with people, we have all become accustomed to web-based interfaces.  SaaS products piggy-back off this familiar look and feel, making the learning curve much less intimidating.

Never Out of Date

Subscribing to a Software-as-a-Service platform grants you a free pass to each and every update that is released for the software.  You can rest assured that you are getting the latest technology each and every time that you log onto the system.  This allows you to focus on completing your tasks, not wondering if the system will work.

Which SaaS products do you utilize?  What are some of the pros (or cons) that you see in the service offering? 





 

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How Much SEO is Too Much SEO?

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Google’s Matt Cutts let the cat out of the bag at SXSW this year and explained that Google would be rolling out a change to their algorithm that actually penalized overly optimized websites.  While he didn’t say what Google was considering “overly optimized”, there has been some speculation as to what it could be.

Matt Cutts

"Stop trying to game the system...write better stuff"

First things first – Too Much Onsite SEO

This will actually be a pretty common find once Google rolls out the change.  For years, people have been taught to put their top priority keywords in the title tags of the pages.  This wasn’t (and still isn’t) a “spammy” tactic, so hopefully the penalty here won’t be too harsh.  The thought process here, however, is that a title tag that is full of keywords isn’t exactly conversational, and therefore hurts the overall usability of the site.  For instance, which one of these sounds better to a searcher:

Website Content Management & eCommerce System | Marketpath CMS

OR

Marketpath CMS – The Easiest Damn Content Management System Available

Personally, I’d click through on #2, and I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one.  However, traditional onsite SEO (at least the past 5 years of it) would laugh at that title tag.  Using words like “the” “damn” and “available” would be an amateur mistake.  These words are filler words that don’t help my keyword strategy.

Other onsite items to review once the change goes live are things like internal links that all utilize the same anchor text, page structure that doesn’t make sense other than to create more places for keywords, and snippets of text that appeal more to search engines rather than users.

Next – Too Much Offsite SEO

If you’ve contracted with an external search engine optimization firm, there is a good chance that they have built links to your site to boost rankings.  While there has already been a decrease in the importance of links in the overall ranking algorithm, sites with unnatural link profiles may be penalized even further with this update.  I’d be willing to guess that 999 times out of 1000, sites with unnatural link profiles have contracted out and bought links (either directly or indirectly), which is technically against the Google Terms of Service, so it’s only fair to get penalized. 

The thought process here is a natural one.  Google’s goal is to deliver the most relevant content for a search query.  The most relevant content isn’t always delivered because other, less relevant sites may be optimized to rank better.  Removing links from the algorithm and replacing them with other signals might help Google finally achieve what they are trying to do – rank content based on quality, not technical SEO.

Whether or not you agree that sites that are overly optimized should be penalized (we’ve had that argument internally), the change is coming.  The best thing you can do at this moment for your site’s well-being hasn’t changed, however.  Keep an eye on the changes as they are rolled out, read some blogs about those changes, and modify your strategy accordingly.  The heart of your strategy will remain constant, focusing on good content creation and marketing

 

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Why Marketpath Has Stayed Out of the SEO Game

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Marketpath is not an SEO company.  We have never tried to be an SEO company.  We will never try to be an SEO company.  Now, if you’re an existing client, you may be saying to yourself “Wait, these guys had an SEO phase during our project…what gives?”  If you’re an avid reader of our blog, you may be thinking to yourself “Two out of every three articles these guys post mentions SEO…what gives?”  Well, both questions would be warranted, but allow me to retort (said in my best Samuel L. Jackson voice, of course).

SEO is Notorious for the “Flavor of the Month”

Pinterest is this Month's Superman Ice CreamKeeping up with the changes from Google and the rest of the web in regards to SEO is a full-time job.  Whether it is Google Caffeine, the Panda Update, the introduction of the +1, Google+, Schema.org, or this month’s flavor - Pinterest, keeping up to date with what needs to happen from an SEO standpoint requires an army of people to do well.  It seems that not a month goes by where I’m not reading some article about X product that is “changing the SEO game forever!”, only to not really hear about it a month down the road.  Over the last two months, for instance, focus has shifted from “how to use Google+ for business” to “how to use Pinterest for business”.   We simply don’t have the staff, or the desire, to throw our hat into the ring of these larger SEO firms that do their jobs so well.  Our SEO recommendations go as far as Title Tag creation, help with Meta descriptions, and some content revisions…you know, the basics of what any site should be doing.

We’ve Always Preached the Foundations

Being a software company who creates an easy-to-use content management system, we’ve always preached that creating compelling content is the best way to attract traffic.  Stop trying to game the system by buying links and focus on content.  Write blog posts, build landing pages with links for white papers and case studies, and host webinars on your most popular topics.  Be social.

Lately, SEO companies have been slowly moving away from the secretive tactics they have employed and become more upfront with what works.  Content is once again becoming king, which is a good thing.  Create it, share it, and reap the rewards.

The Long Tail

Competing for highly-sought-after keywords can be extremely expensive.  The truth is, if you’re ranking well for 1-2 highly targeted, highly competitive keywords, you’re probably getting less traffic than someone who ranks for 400-500 highly specific, easy-to-attain keyword phrases.  Blog posts are great for this.  White papers are great for this.  Video is great for this.  A lot of people type in brand new, never before searched phrases into Google every day.  These phrases are the long tail and can really help drive traffic to your site.

The Long Tail of SEO

SEO is rapidly changing, and will always be rapidly changing.  It may be called different terms, like inbound marketing or search marketing, but at the end of the day the goal of a search engine has remained constant since the beginning of the industry.  Delivering the best, most relevant results for each search query will always be at the core of what search engines are trying to accomplish.  Become the expert in your industry by sharing your knowledge, and you’ll be rewarded.

 

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PIPA and SOPA - My Letter to Congress

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I'm really not a big protestor but I do protest this legislation and I hope you will too. This will inevitably affect everyone who uses the Internet. Here's my letter to Senator Dan Coats, Senator Richard Lugar, and Representative Dan Burton. Look up your representatives and senators to send a clear message that you do not want this legislation to pass.

Representative/Senator _______,  I have a small business that provides a good living for many people. We are happy and we work very hard. Our business is not without its risk, though. We provide a system that allows users to create and update content on their website so they too can promote and market their own businesses and organizations. Many are for-profit and many are non-profit. They rely on their websites to help them grow new clients, maintain existing clients, and provide a service to their communities. Without their websites many would go out of business and many people would lose their jobs. 
 
The proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation is not without its merits but it is certainly without complete due diligence and support by most of the Internet community. This legislation does not provide the proper boundaries for large corporations and government regulators and will be abused. It will inevitably squash  many small companies, new companies, and even older established companies. Like I said, my company provides software that allows our users to update and create content on their websites. And since we provide this system we are at risk of being shutdown if one of our customers posts copyright protected content. Additionally, our customers are at risk if we are forced to shut them down because they have been accused of misusing protected content. Companies with large capital reserves could sustain a shutdown while the legalities are worked out but small companies like mine and those of my customers could survive only days or weeks fending off an attack from a well funded legal team. 
 
The legislation is not without its merits. I certainly don't want my copyrighted content and my hard work redistributed for others' gain. But this legislation is not the answer. We already have copyright laws in place. What SOPA and PIPA provide is an "EASY" switch for larger companies and government agencies to flip on and off as they wish, with little to no consideration for the families and lives affected at the other end. It has clear deficiencies and will most certainly be abused.
 
Please vote NO to SOPA and PIPA legislation so we can continue innovating and rebuilding America's new foundation.

More Resources

 from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet

SOPA Bad for the Internet, Bad for America

Wikipedia Blackout

All About PIPA and SOPA, the Bills That Want to Censor Your Internet

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Being Everything to Everybody

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As a Software-as-a-Service website content management system (CMS) provider, we have to be cautious of trying to be everything to everyone.  The fact is that no CMS is the perfect fit for every website.  We have our niche, WordPress has its niche, and there can even be a place for Microsoft’s SharePoint (if you have the budget and technical staff, of course). 

We have realized that there is a point at which sites grow out of the WordPress niche and graduate into our niche.  We have been pretty successful migrating these sites into our content management system, training users on how to use our CMS, and then supporting them along the way at no extra cost.  This seems to be a perfect fit for small-to-medium sized businesses across the country that need a little more than WordPress can offer.  We are more than happy to play in this space, and our customers seem happy to have found us

More Features...MORE!And while we are continually adding features to Marketpath CMS, either because of new trends on the Internet, new technologies, or customer requests, we realize that, at some point, our customers may grow out of our system – and this is a good thing.  It means that our software probably played a small part in their successful growth, and we’re happy to have been a part of it.

This lesson can most likely be applied to more than just our business.  Have you ever had the problem of trying to add too many features/services/products to meet the demands of a potentially large account instead of sticking to what has made you successful?  Remember, jack of all trades, master of none - right?             

 

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Is Your Form Killing Your Conversion Rate?

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Simple Web FormThe purpose of most well-crafted business websites is to convert visitors into sales leads (or customers, if your site is ecommerce). There are many aspects that go into engaging your website's visitors and convincing them to give you their information. Some of these aspects are easy to modify and test, like the placement, size and color of call to action buttons. Others are a little more difficult and costly, such as an overall website design change.  However, the element that your site relies on to convert visitors to leads, the form itself, may be hurting your website's ability to do its job.  Is your form actually discouraging visitors from filling it out?  Here are a few elements of your web form to check.

Too Much Required Information

New visitors to your website don't necessarily trust you yet, so don't expect them to give you the keys to the castle.  Chances are you don't need to know all of the information about a potential customer to start a conversation about your product or service.  If you can get away with just learning their name and email address, perhaps a phone number, then go for it. 

Too Many Form Fields

Even if you're not requiring each form field to be filled out to submit the form, seeing a large form can be discouraging.  Does knowing a client's location really help you prior to speaking with them?  If not, eliminate the field all together and see if the amount of submissions increases.  Try this with other fields that may not be necessary (Fax number, address, multiple phone numbers, title, etc.).

Budget/Invasive Questions

Eliminate the "How much is your budget for this project" question.  Yes, qualifying leads is important; however, this goes back to the trust issue of your website and a potential client.  Chances are they don't want to tell you how much money they have until they've at least talked with you.  There is a good chance your budget question has discouraged a qualified lead from contacting you. Check out this case study done by ClickTale that shows a 20% form abandonment rate due to a budget question.

The takeaway from this article should be a desire to test new formats for your web collect forms to increase conversion rates.  Test, analyze, rinse and repeat until you have found the perfect balance for your web form. 

Do you have experience testing your web forms?  If so, what are your favorite tools?  Leave your feedback in the comments below.     



 

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