Give your small business marketing efforts a boost with these free and affordable tools for creating optimized content for blogs, websites and social media networks.
If you want your small business to be found in Google searches, or you want to develop a following on social media networks, you need to create content. Like any small business marketing effort, creating content can be a lot of work. But there are a variety of free or inexpensive Web tools that make it easier to develop search-engine-optimized content and social media updates. Here are five of the best.
At the recent Search Engine Strategies conference in San Francisco, I attended a demo for InboundWriter, a new online tool that helps you optimize Web content for search engines.
InboundWriter is billed as the "first social writing application." The free version lets you optimize up to eight documents per month; more than that requires a $20 monthly plan. While there are a few other keyword-optimizing tools out there, none that I'm aware of are as comprehensive.
The small business software works like this: After setting up your account, you create a new document. Next, tell InboundWriter what the document's topic is; you can supply up to three terms. Once you've entered those terms, you can also give InboundWriter some websites your site (or blog) competes against.
All this information provides InboundWriter with context, so it can make its best guesses as to the keyword phrases for which you should optimize your content. After you type your document (I prefer to copy and paste text from Microsoft Word), you'll receive a document score from 0 to 100, based on how well or poorly your document is optimized for relevant keyword phrases.
InboundWriter displays a list of focused and relevant terms and rates them as to how effective they may be for optimization purposes. The software calculates how many times you've used a given term and provides easy-to-follow recommendations.
For instance, for a blog post I wrote, "Checking email on vacation? Read me first," InboundWriter made the following suggestion: "You are using the Focus Term 'vacation' in your title - nice job. However, it is not at the beginning of the title.
We suggest starting your title with a Focus Term to increase emphasis. This will help improve your score. The star rating of a term reflects how well the term is suited for your current strategy."
While helpful, InboundWriter has some room for improvement. For instance, it suggested I consider optimizing my blog post for "renewable energy" and "solar power information," topics my post didn't touch upon. (Although I guess you could argue that a vacation is its own form of renewable energy.)
Also, typing into InboundWriter's document field can be extremely slow, and the sluggishness tended to cause me to make errors. But these are minor quibbles. InboundWriter is a must for anyone writing online content, and I'm looking forward to the WordPress plug-in that's in the works.
Distributing keyword-optimized press releases can help potential customers find your website through Google and Bing searches. And it can help you get noticed by media and bloggers (as long as your release has genuine news or useful information, of course.)
There are multiple press release services available online. Some are too expensive and complicated for the average small-business person without a PR/marketing background. Others are free but don't provide any guidance or SEO boost. PRWeb manages to find a happy middle ground.
PRWeb's rates are reasonable, ranging from $80 to $360 per release; I usually go with the $200 per release rate, a level that includes search engine optimization. As you go through the process of creating your release, however, PRWeb will offer a number of add-ons, which can add up quickly if you're not careful.
The interface is easy-to-use, and the PRWeb Learning Center provides practical advice on how to SEO your release; press release writing tips; and more. I've found their phone support to be friendly and helpful, too. And PRWeb provides good (though not extensive) analytic data about the traffic and distribution your release receives, too.
As with InboundWriter, it's best if you write your release in Word or another text editor, then copy and paste it into PRWeb's template. Two complaints: Formatting, such as italicized book titles, is stripped out, and at least with the $200 level, you can't add hyperlinked phrases to your release (which can help with SEO).
HootSuite is a free-to-inexpensive social media dashboard/content management system. From one browser window, you can simultaneously post the same update to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress.com, MySpace and other social networks. And here's what I love, though it's not a unique feature: You can schedule updates to be posted at a future date and time.
HootSuite lets you view multiple "streams" in one window. For instance, in one glance you can see your sent tweets; your @ mentions on Twitter; and retweets of your tweets. You can create streams based on keywords that matter to your business. Because I write an iPhone blog, I've created a Twitter stream in HootSuite using the keyword "iPhone." The stream shows me see what the Twitterati is saying about Apple's smartphone at any given time.
And that's just for starters. HootSuite provides a dashboard view of your Twitter followers (how many people are following your followers, how many people they're following, and their Klout scores). HootSuite has a great (and free) iPad app, too.
The HootSuite Pro plan ($6 per month, plus optional upgrades) offers the capability to create a variety of analytics reports, which may be overload for some small businesses but are like catnip for marketing/Web analytics types. You can have several people posting social network updates from the same HootSuite account; link your Google Analytics; and more.
There are more powerful social media dashboard/monitoring tools available. But they can be quite expensive, and HootSuite is all most small businesses need.
Blogger, Google's free blogging platform, has been around awhile, so it lacks Tumblr's heat. And it doesn't have WordPress's universe of plug-ins and SEO controls. But if you've got a blog idea, want to get it going with minimum fuss, and don't care about having endless design and SEO options, Blogger may be your best choice.
I know several small business people with zero blogging experience who started posting to Blogger within minutes.
Blogger gives you a fair amount of choices for customizing your blog's design and widgets and some decent analytics (though you'll get more if you add Google Analytics to your blog).
There's an option for automatically optimizing your blog for smartphone screens, too. And because Blogger is owned by Google, your blog is by default search-engine friendly.
You can't easily edit your blog's meta description and other HTML, however, as you can with WordPress.org and WordPress SEO plug-ins such as All-in-One SEO. In fact, Google has apparently removed the option to edit your blog landing page's HTML from Blogger's new interface.
While most people won't need that feature, I used it to edit my blog landing page's HTML title tag, so that I could put my most important keyword phrase up front (where it counts most for SEO). In addition, I used the Edit HTML option to add a verification code from Bing's Webmaster tools, once I discovered Bing had only indexed two of my blog's posts.
The solution is to either switch back to Blogger's old interface, if you can, and use the Edit HTML function; or follow the workarounds outlined by bloggers such as DragonBlogger.
Wouldn't it be nice if, as you blog, you'd have a list of relevant images, articles, keyword tags and hyperlinked phrases that could be easily added to your post? That's the idea behind Zemanta, a free browser plug-in (for Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari) that's well worth installing.
It's a simple concept: After installing the Zemanta plug-in, you go to your blogging platform and create a new entry. Zemanta shows up on the side of your browser window. As you write your blog post, Zemanta figures out what your topic is and presents you with related images, articles, tags and hyperlinked phrases to add to your post. Zemanta will also recommend your posts to other bloggers as they write, which can help increase your blog's visibility.
My only complaint: When you add any of its suggested content, Zemanta automatically adds its name to the end of your blog post. You can remove it, however. You've got nothing to lose with Zemanta, so give it a try.
Other Small Business Marketing Resources
James A. Martin is an online marketing and PR consultant specializing in SEO, blogging, and social media. He is the author of the blog A Southerner in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter.
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