Modeling Your Website After the Greats

Many if not most site owners would love to become as big, profitable, and well known as Google, Amazon, eBay, and other giants of e-business. This article examines how these great companies became great, and suggests how you can follow in their footsteps.

The Prequel

Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, said “All I have seen is because I stood on the shoulders of Giants before me.” Modeling successful e-businesses and their practices is equivalent to standing on the shoulders of giants. It is not a guarantee of success in itself, but it beats re-inventing the wheel every time you want to build and market online. With the successes of companies such as eBay, Priceline, Monster, Amazon, and finally Google, it is clear that they are the best e-businesses in the world.

Salesmen study the tactics of great salesmen, read their books, listen their tapes, and practice. Great generals study military history and philosophy, examine the tactics of soldiers from ancient Greece through the present day, and apply them to modern warfare. But in the world of website marketing, it seems this modeling process is ignored. The Internet is a whole new media, but the same practices that are used in the past are supposed to be applied to this media.

Instead we have a rash of self-styled instant gurus who promise you instant results. They tell you that such and such Internet product or marketing strategy will be the next big thing online, and that you should part with large sums ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars to become an “instant” Internet success. Or at worst, an “overnight” success. If there is one thing every truly successful person, online or offline will tell you (and most of the time, they are too busy being successful to try and get a few hundred dollars out of you with a sales copy written in red, and a few dozen testimonials), it is there are no “instant” fixes, and “overnight” means at least a few months of daily research, continuous learning, some form of mild obsession with the business and a bull headed determination to succeed.

There is a lot of truth in the idea that a successful business should focus on a niche market (although this has led to so called “idiot products” that are extremely unique and wacky but nobody wants to buy), and that info products are a huge hit. So it is good to base an Internet business on that technique. But the terminology given to the above themes (niche markets, info products) ignores an underlying theme which runs consistently through ALL successful e-businesses, and also through all bricks-and-mortar businesses, and that is that they all address a need.

Addressing a need, creating value, adding value to life, and reducing pain. By whatever name, it means that the customer and his needs are the most important things to you, not your money, not your dream car, but the man who holds the mouse. Let us look at some illustrations.

Google’s First Day

Google began when two Stanford graduate school students decided to do something about a problem. They decided to address the pain of there being no easy way of searching for things online. And they decided to base software then called backrub (which sounds like a pain reliever) on both keyword searches as well as inbound linking from other sites to that site. They first noted a pain, and then they sought to address it. This is a rule that applies both online and offline. Your driving motivation must be towards the customer, must be basically selfless, and must add value to your customer’s life. It must be bigger than just you.

Amazon’s Golden Day

Another illustration is Amazon, the book site (did I need to say that? more on branding later). Mr. Bezos sought to provide a large selection of books to a desktop bound mouse owner. He cut out the process of going through a dozen bookshops and two years of searching before I found a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War (Derma Translation) and made it available to people averse to searching for books. Instead of going through all that pain and effort, all they needed to do was use a search box. 

Ignore the greats at your peril; it is not only e-tailers that should take heed. All web sites should address a need. Information is at a premium. What information needs does your web site address? If your focus is not needed, then you won’t be visited. The fundamentals will get you all the time. The Internet does not spare “fools.” Pareto’s principle applies with a more diverse ratio (the top 2% get 80% of the business). For example, if an e-book you are selling does not address a need, then no matter how well you optimize your site, no one will bother to find it.

Eat Internet, Drink Internet

After the need of the information age consumer has being found, and you decide to assuage his pain, you must find ways to market your website to him. This is where search engine optimization, site design and consulting come in. All the leverage available to you must be exploited fully. Your most important resource is human resources — in this case, it is you. You must be interested in using every means to identify your customers, and lure them into becoming repeat customers by offering value. Get a database of their emails; track them; send a free e-zine. Use every tool available to find out how they arrived at your site. Write and rewrite your web copy until it does what you want it to do. There is no “instant;” “instant” success costs money, which may or may not come back. If you don’t study the Internet, the Internet will not reveal itself to you.

If you cannot spend the time to eat and drink the Internet, and you can afford it, then hire or go into partnership with someone who does — your sixteen-year-old son, cousin, neighbor or nephew perhaps. This will enable you to discover all the leverage you need to find. Good staff will not necessarily cost a lot; you can offer them a share of the profits. If you can’t handle permanent staff, then a web consultant should be hired. When Jeff Bezos headhunted Richard Dalzell from Wal-Mart, Joy D.Covey from Avid Technology, and Mary Engstrom Morouse from Symantec, he ran the risk of their being headhunted over time. But by having a long term profit sharing plan, he kept his workers.

Techno Leverage

The Internet offers so many tools that it would be ridiculous not to take advantage of them. They reduce the need for man hours to be spent online responding to emails and make tracking your customers easier. Despite the fact that technologies are rapidly changing and the half life of new technologies can be as short as 180 days, it is suicidal, repeat suicidal for a web site not to use as many tools as possible, and to change them as regularly as possible. If you want to be able to handle large numbers of customers, you must automate email responses, tracking, and e-zine subscription. The automation will definitely keep your running costs down. With a lot of your systems automated, you can run relatively large sites with a few staff (even with part-time staff)

Technology is also used in getting customized solutions to your own firm’s unique problems. If it is not available off the shelf, then get programmers to build it. Illustrations include Amazon’s first software, which they used to take and confirm credit card payments. Google did the same with coding their search engine program. Not all of us are computer science graduate students, however. Nowadays, custom-built solutions can be contracted out to software development firms.

The Internet has redefined trade wars and price wars. You want to undercut the market. Somebody else has the same idea. Who has the cheapest product is no longer the question your average (is there any such person?) consumer wants to know. Instead, they want to know who will deliver fastest, who has the best terms, and who has the most credibility.

For sites that just offer content, it’s all about value. With no value, even a highly ranked site will see its hits tapering off. Even when things are free, like email services, value is paramount. Check the Gmail versus Yahoo Mail battles, or Yahoo against every other free email provider. Yahoo only retained market share by continually adding value to their product via services like Messenger, Geocities, Groups, and large memory blocks.

Always offering value assures the customer he is getting value for time spent on your site. Peterson.Com site offers search facilities for job seekers and college students, apart from other services. Others offer content, free ezines, free ebooks and downloads or up-to-date information. Keep the customer on your site and keep the customer coming back by offering content. This is a technique that you ignore at your peril; it is a task that requires constant review of your content. As I wrote earlier, there is no instant success, no overnight number one (unless you use pay per click) on the search engine rankings.

Brand Your Site

This is the model that will keep your site immortal. When people think of online search, they think of Google. For online books, it’s Amazon; online airline ticket auctions, Priceline; online job postings, Monster; free email, Yahoo Mail; online auctions, eBay. The examples never end. Your site branding encompasses everything from your domain name to the actual service you provide, whether it’s content or products, to how you provide your services. Great site branding is a must for a great site. If your site lacks an image or an identity, it is eminently forgettable. And people will forget it; in this way you lose the most priceless marketing tool, word of mouth or “cyber buzz.”

Some of the large sites have started disobeying the models of branding, assuming that they are big enough to do it. This is a mistake; it leaves them open for someone else with better branding to step into the gap. It has happened to businesses well before the days of the Internet, and it can happen again just as easily. And since this is the Internet, extinction, not relegation, is guaranteed. A super site that is watering down its branding is Amazon. They want to become an online retail store; perhaps we should ask Mr. Bezos what percentage of his earnings come from only books.

Network!

The final rule is networking; this is made easier via affiliate programs, cross linking between sites and submission to search engines and directories. The giants do it via partnering; see Yahoo’s search formerly done through Google. They also make exclusive deals, and mergers and acquisitions. Two of the most prominent examples are Yahoo buying Overture and eBay purchasing PayPal. This increases web presence, and creates synergy instead of competition. In that case, everybody wins.

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