traction book

SEO: Mostly about showing up?

In previous posts about getting traction for my Bandcamp recommendations project (BCRecommender), I mentioned search engine optimisation (SEO) as one of the promising traction channels. Unfortunately, early efforts yielded negligible traffic – most new visitors came from referrals from blogs and Twitter. It turns out that the problem was not showing up for the SEO game: most of BCRecommender’s pages were blocked for crawling via robots.txt because I was worried that search engines (=Google) would penalise the website for thin/duplicate content.

Recently, I beefed up most of the pages, created a sitemap, and removed most pages from robots.txt. This resulted in a significant increase in traffic, as illustrated by the above graph. The number of organic impressions went up from less than ten per day to over a thousand. This is expected to go up even further, as only about 10% of pages are indexed. In addition, some traffic went to my staging site because it wasn’t blocked from crawling (I had to set up a new staging site that is password-protected and add a redirect from the old site to the production site – a bit annoying but I couldn’t find a better solution).

I hope Google won’t suddenly decide that BCRecommender content is not valuable or too thin. The content is automatically generated, which is “bad”, but it doesn’t “consist of paragraphs of random text that make no sense to the reader but which may contain search keywords”. As a (completely unbiased) user, I think it is valuable to find similar albums when searching for an album you like – an example that represents the majority of people that click through to BCRecommender. Judging from the main engagement measure I’m using (time spent on site), a good number of these people are happy with what they find.

More updates to come in the future. For now, my conclusion is: thin content is better than no content, as long as it’s relevant to what people are searching for and provides real value.

BCRecommender Traction Update

This is the fifth part of a series of posts on my Bandcamp recommendations (BCRecommender) project.
Check out previous posts on the general motivation behind this project, the system’s architecture, the recommendation algorithms, and initial traction planning.

In a previous post, I discussed my plans to apply the Bullseye framework from the Traction Book to BCRecommender, my Bandcamp recommendations project. In that post, I reviewed the 19 traction channels described in the book, and decided to focus on the three most promising ones: blogger outreach, search engine optimisation (SEO), and content marketing. This post discusses my progress to date.

Goals

My initial traction goals were rather modest: get some feedback from real people, build up steady nonzero traffic to the site, and then increase that traffic to 10+ unique visitors per day. It’s worth noting that I have four other main areas of focus at the moment, so BCRecommender is not getting all the attention I could potentially give it. Nonetheless, I have made good progress on achieving my goals (first two have been obtained, but traffic still fluctuates), and learnt a lot in the process.

Things that worked

Blogger outreach. The most obvious people to contact are existing Bandcamp fans. It was straightforward to generate a list of prolific fans with blogs, as Bandcamp allows people to populate their profile with a short bio and links to their sites. I worked my way through part of the list, sending each fan an email introducing BCRecommender and asking for their feedback. Each email required some manual work, as the vast majority of people don’t have their email address listed on their Bandcamp profile page. I was careful not to be too spammy, which seemed to work: about 50% of the people I contacted visited BCRecommender, 20% responded with positive feedback, and 10% linked to BCRecommender in some form, with the largest volume of traffic coming from my Hypebot guest post. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t scale, but the most valuable thing I got out of it was that people like the project and that there’s a real need for it.

Twitter. I’m not sure where Twitter falls as a traction channel. It’s probably somewhere between (micro)blogger outreach and content marketing. However you categorise Twitter, it has been working well as a source of traffic. Simply finding people who may be interested in BCRecommender and tweeting related content has proven to be a rather low-effort way of getting attention, which is great at this stage. I have a few ideas for driving more traffic from Twitter, which I will try as I go.

Things that didn’t work

Content marketing. I haven’t really spent time doing serious content marketing apart from the Spotlights pilot. My vision for the spotlights was to generate quality articles automatically and showcase music on Bandcamp in an engaging way that helps people discover new artists, even if they don’t have a fan account. However, full automation of the spotlight feature would require a lot of work, and I think that there are lower-hanging fruits that I should focus on first. For example, finding interesting insights in the data and presenting them in an engaging way may be a better content strategy, as it would be unique to BCRecommender. For the spotlights, partnering with bloggers to write the articles may be a better approach than automation.

SEO. I expected BCRecommender to rank higher for “bandcamp recommendations” by now, as a result of my blogger outreach efforts. At the moment, it’s still on the second page for this query on Google, though it’s the first result on Bing and DuckDuckGo. Obviously, “bandcamp recommendations” is not the only query worth ranking for, but it’s very relevant to BCRecommender, and not too competitive (half of the first page results are old forum posts). One encouraging outcome from the work done so far is that my Hypebot guest post does appear on the first page. Nonetheless, I’m still interested in getting more search engine traffic. Ranking higher would probably require adding more relevant content on the site and getting more quality links (basically what SEO is all about).

Points to improve and next steps

I could definitely do better work on all of the above channels. Contrary to what’s suggested by the Bullseye framework, I would like to put more effort into the channels that didn’t work well. The reason is that I think they didn’t work well because of lack of attention and weak experiments, rather than due to their unsuitability to BCRecommender.

As mentioned above, my main limiting factor is a lack of time to spend on the project. However, there’s no pressing need to hit certain traction milestones by a specific deadline. My stretch goals are to get all Bandcamp fans to check out the project (hundreds of thousands of people), and have a significant portion of them convert by signing up to updates (tens of thousands of people). Getting there will take time. So far I’m finding the process educational and enjoyable, which is a pleasant surprise.

Applying the Traction Book’s Bullseye framework to BCRecommender


This is the fourth part of a series of posts on my Bandcamp recommendations (BCRecommender) project.
Check out previous posts on the general motivation behind this project, the system’s architecture, and the recommendation algorithms.

Having used BCRecommender to find music I like, I’m certain that other Bandcamp fans would like it too. It could probably be extended to attract a wider audience of music lovers, but for now, just getting feedback from Bandcamp fans would be enough. There are about 200,000 fans that I know of – getting even a fraction of them to use and comment on BCRecommender would serve as a good guide to what’s worth building and improving.

In addition to getting feedback, the personal value for me in getting BCRecommender users is learning some general lessons on traction building. Like many technical people, I like building products and playing with data, but I don’t really enjoy sales and marketing (and that’s an understatement). One of my goals in working independently is forcing myself to get better at the things I’m not good at. To that end, I recently started reading Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares.

The Traction book identifies 19 different channels for getting traction, and suggests a simple framework (named Bullseye) to ranking and quickly exploring the channels. They explain that many technical founders tend to focus on traction channels they’re familiar with, and that the effort invested in those channels tends to be rather small compared to the investment in building the product. The authors rightly note that “Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don’t have is traction – real customer growth.” They argue that following a rigorous approach to gaining traction via their framework is likely to improve a startup’s chances of success. From personal experience, this is very likely to be true.

The key steps in the Bullseye framework are brainstorming ideas for each traction channel, ranking the channels into tiers, prioritising the most promising ones, testing them, and focusing on the channels that work. This is not a one-off process – channel suitability changes over time, and one needs to go through the process repeatedly as the product evolves and traction grows.

Here are the traction channels, ordered in the same order as in the book. Each traction channel is marked with a letter denoting its ranking tier from A (most appropriate) to C (unsuitable right now). A short explanation is provided for each channel.

  • [B] viral marketing: everyone wants to go viral, but at the moment I don’t have a good-enough understanding of my target audience to seriously pursue this channel.
  • [C] public relations (PR): I don’t think that PR would give me access to the kind of focused user group I need at this phase.
  • [C] unconventional PR: same as conventional PR.
  • [C] search engine marketing (SEM): may work, but I don’t want to spend money at this stage.
  • [C] social and display ads: see SEM.
  • [C] offline ads: see SEM.
  • [A] search engine optimization (SEO): this channel seems promising, as ranking highly for queries such as “bandcamp recommendations” should drive quality traffic that is likely to convert (i.e., play recommendations and sign up for updates). It doesn’t seem like “bandcamp recommendations” is a very competitive query, so it’s definitely worth doing some SEO work.
  • [A] content marketing: I think that there’s definitely potential in this channel, since I have a lot of data that can be explored and presented in interesting ways. The problem is creating content that is compelling enough to attract people. I started playing with this channel via the Spotlights feature, but it’s not good enough yet.
  • [B] email marketing: BCRecommender already has the subscription feature for retention. At this stage, this doesn’t seem like a viable acquisition channel.
  • [B] engineering as marketing: this channel sounds promising, but I don’t have good ideas for it at the moment. This may change soon, as I’m currently reading this chapter.
  • [A] targeting blogs: this approach should work for getting high-quality feedback, and help SEO as well.
  • [C] business development: there may be some promising ideas in this channel, but only worth pursuing later.
  • [C] sales: not much to sell.
  • [C] affiliate programs: I’m not going to pay affiliates as I’m not making any money.
  • [B] existing platforms: in a way, I’m already building on top of the existing Bandcamp platform. One way of utilising it for growth is by getting fans to link to BCRecommender when it leads to sales (as I’ve done on my fan page), but that would be more feasible at a later stage with more active users.
  • [C] trade shows: I find it hard to think of trade shows where there are many Bandcamp fans.
  • [C] offline events: probably easier than trade shows (think concerts/indie events), but doesn’t seem worth pursuing at this stage.
  • [C] speaking engagements: similar to offline events. I do speaking engagements, and I’m actually going to mention BCRecommender as a case study at my workshop this week, but the intersection between Bandcamp fans and people interested in data science seems rather small.
  • [C] community building: this may be possible later on, when there is a core group of loyal users. However, some aspects of community building are provided by Bandcamp and I don’t want to compete with them.

Cool, writing everything up explicitly was actually helpful! The next step is to test the three channels that ranked the highest: SEO, content marketing and targeting blogs. I will report the results in future posts.