If you make a living selling stuff to consumers, chances are the next few months are pretty important. Here's a quick list of things you need to get in order before Hanuchristmakwanzaa:
In case you've been under a rock, Google has released a new blended search results page that mixes local results right into the organic web results.
This affects you whether you're a local business or not, because personalized results may include Google Places listings even if the user didn't include a place name. The example below is the result of a search for 'jeans', right after I searched for 'los angeles jeans':
So, even if you're internet-only, get reviews and citations, submit to relevant yellow pages directories, and read up on basic local search ranking factors.
Check your house e-mail list. Remove any duplicate subscribers, stale addresses that are bouncing and any folks who recently requested removal.
Also, test it. Make sure that folks who subscribe are actually ending up on the list. Don't laugh - I've seen lots of sites where the 'get our newsletter' form ends in a 404 error.
And, talk to your e-mail provider. Ask them: Are they blacklisted anywhere? If you don't believe them, use mxtoolbox to verify. If you find a problem, don't freak out. Just contact your provider and ask them if they're aware that they've got a blacklisting issue.
That list is your best asset. It's not too late to do some quick pre-holiday list building. Some ideas:Tell site visitors you'll be e-mailing out special offers on Black Friday/Cyber Monday. Remind them to sign up.Offer free product now, or a discount now, in exchange for a signup.Make sure you remind customers that they can sign up when you send order confirmation e-mails, etc..Offer incentives to current subscribers if they get their friends to sign up. Can lead to junk, I know, but it may be worth doing.
Do whatever you can to grow that list!
Check out your Facebook page. Update it. Clean up any spammy posts.
Set up a 'shop' tab that shows images of our products with links back to your site, too.
Create a space on the page for all those great holiday offers you're going to do.
Then put a crystal-clear link back to Facebook, and a clear call to action, on your site. "Follow us on Facebook" is nice. But "For special offers, follow us on Facebook" is even better.
If you don't have a Facebook page, set it up now.
If you don't have a Twitter account, set one up now. I'm not so concerned with marketing here - depending on your audience, Twitter may be a total loser in that respect. I'm concerned about customer service.
Folks tend to complain on Twitter. If they have a bad experience, they're doing to gripe via tweet. Be there to answer their concerns when they do.
Test the following pages using Google Page Speed or Yahoo's YSlow:The home page.A category page.A product page.Any other page, chosen at random.
Get your pages loading in 3-4 seconds or less. This can help with search rankings, pay per click marketing quality score, and, most important, with conversion rates. A faster loading page is like having a fantastic salesperson in your store: Customers can see exactly what they want, faster.
If you don't already have one, get your pay per click campaign running on Bing and Google right now.
Don't get aggressive just yet. Buy very focused phrases on exact or phrase match, and buy branded terms. Spend as little as possible. Your goal is to have a decent account history and quality score when you really start pouring it on.
I won't make this into a huge SEO checklist. I already have one of those. Read it and implement as much as you can, now.
If you're too busy, at least:Have good, descriptive title tags on all product pages.Write unique and compelling description tags, so folks will click through to your site.Check Google Webmaster and Bing Webmaster Tools for any alerts or problems. If there are, fix them.
If you don't already, it's time to start making daily updates to your site's content.
Write on your blog.
Post updates on Facebook, Twitter and any other, relevant services.
Update your home page whenever possible.
Onsite updates will help you rank better, and encourage visitors to return more often. Offsite updates will build your following, so that you have a bigger audience to sell to in 6 weeks.
If your site kicks ass this year, you'll want to show your boss the pretty graph. If it fails, you'll want to know why.
If, however, some nubwit deleted the analytics tracking code from every page of your site, you're screwed. Check it now, not when you're up 20 hours a day filling orders.
Also, double-check that you're tracking sales and other goals. And, get funnel tracking set up, too.
Set up a multivariate testing tool on your most-visited pages. Google Website Optimizer will do just fine.
Get ready to test different offer language and creative. For example, if you're providing free shipping on your ant farms, you'll want to test:
"Free shipping on all ant farms!" against
"Get our workers running: Get free shipping on all ant farms"
You can't test this ahead of time. Holiday shopping turns the most civilized person into a raving lunatic. So you'll want to test options right during the holidays. If your site's a busy one, you can probably run a 2-hour test and then go with the better option right away.
It pays off, big.
Find all relevant coupon sites. Some of my favorites are Retailmenot.com, Dealcatcher and CouponMom. Make sure you've got the list ready, and that you submit your offer information to each site on the timetable they want.
Don't forget to find all of the holiday-focused sites, too. There are lots of Cyber Monday specials-type sites out there.
Fulfillment operations are the only thing that can make me sob one minute and laugh the next, while tinging both with hysteria. Make sure your warehouse, downloads provider or whoever it is that puts your product in people's hands is set up to handle whatever load you're going to send them. Things to verify (where relevant) are:Will they be updating inventory more often during the holidays.If your wildest dreams come true, and you get 20x your normal volume, can they handle it?What's their backup plan if their integration with your store goes kerplooiee?Who can you call for therapy/ranting/support if it all goes to hell?
Start sending product samples and special offer information to relevant bloggers soon. If you can get them writing about you around November 15-20, you're going to see a nice boost.
If you're worried they might jump the gun and publish special offer info too soon, then send them a product sample and let them know you'll be sending them offer information closer to the holiday shopping maelstrom.
Don't just send them crappy product and a form letter, either. Make sure you connect with each blogger/reviewer personally. It's a pain, I know, but it'll pay off.
Schedule a code 'freeze' for your site. Command your development team to keep their little paws off your web site throughout the holidays. Do not change your mind on this.
I've seen the most innocent little changes result in conversations like this:
CEO: Hmmm, we haven't had any orders in an hour.
DEV: Site's fine from my machine.
CEO: Yup, looks OK for me, too. But I'm worried.
DEV: Maybe we just don't have any customers.
CEO: We were getting 50 sales an hour. Where'd they go?
CEO: Can you test the site from another computer?
Dev gets up, walks 5 feet to another desk, tests the site.
DEV: Looks fine.
CEO: Panicking now. No, I mean, from a computer outside the office.
DEV: Oh, sure.
CEO: What does 'hmmm' mean?
DEV: Well, the site's working, but the 'add to cart' button was gone.
CEO: Sound of blood vessels popping. Urk...
DEV: Turns out it still worked for us because we had it cached. Funny, huh?
CEO: Gack.... Thump
Don't let this happen to you. Freeze your code.
Speaking of popping vessels and panic: Put a clear set of guidelines in place, juuuust in case the poo hits the fan. Remember Ian's Law of Pessimism #421: The chance of total website meltdown is directly proportional to your potential sales.
If you can afford it, put a complete working copy of your site on a service like Amazon EC2. Update it every few minutes. That way, you can quickly switch over when Santa Claus crashes his sleigh directly into your datacenter.
Yes, I'm paranoid. I'm also still in business after 15 years. Hmmm...
Submit a product feed to Google and any other relevant shopping engines. Optimize that sucker: Use category names that match Google's. Include custom fields to describe the product. Submit it now and test/tweak until you get the best possible result.
Product feed optimization has changed a bit in the last year, but my article about it from 2009 can still help.
Get your XML sitemaps for pages, images and video all updated and submitted to Google and Bing. These maps may not improve rankings, but they'll help ensure that search engines are aware of all of your products and pages.
Please don't make me explain this one, ok?
This is Xenu - say hi:
Load it. Love it. Use it.
Defensive design saves orders. Review your checkout process: Does it make it easy for customers to get back on track if they, say, put an extra space on their credit card number?
And, check your 404 error page. Make sure it's nice and helpful, like this:
Not stark and vaguely threatening, like this:
Above all, don't end up like Wells Fargo.
Run through these 20 items. Hopefully any psychological trauma this year's holiday season brings won't be related to lost sales.