One of THE buzzwords of 2009 in the creative industries was ‘crowdsourcing’. It divided opinions to say the least.
Some people saw it as a more flexible, more open, more direct (and cheaper) way of getting things done.
Others saw it as a threat, as the death of their industries.

Crowdsourcing is a reality that won’t go away just yet and instinctively we’ve always leant towards to the first group, but divisive issues need to be tried and tested.
We already used crowdsourcing techniques very succesfully in our RAAK logo experiment, but that project was of course of a more personal, a more creative nature.
So when we got the chance to apply the concept on a commercial project, with a real client, we jumped at it.
And this is what we learnt.

The job was to design a website and a brand identity for a start-up consultancy agency called Consultifi. Because of our plug-in model, we don’t work with in-house designers and normally we would tap into our network and instruct the most suitable designer for the job. But this time we decided use the Crowdspring service, boasting more than 45,000 designers.

After a good 10 days, we ended up with no less than 218 entries. Some of them were variants on the same theme or re-workings, but we did have about 120 unique designs. Not bad for an unglamorous, serious business consultancy company.
The client was happy and we thought it was quite a success, so below are a few things we learnt from our experience.

* Consider paying more
We analysed the mean and average of the budgets of similar concepts. We decided to stretch our budget a bit. Because by doing so, we would sit in the top 5 of ‘logo and stationery’ projects and not amongst those other $500 briefs.
Also, we do believe in the motto “you get what you pay for”, so by increasing the amount we were hoping to reach out to better designers. Crowdspring says their stats confirm that: the more you pay, the more entries you get.
But of course, more doesn’t necessarily mean better.

* Include things you don’t want in your brief
Saying that the brief is important is stating the obvious, but I was surprised to find how few people include what they don’t want.
Creatives will only send in a design if they think they have a chance of winning. Remember: they see this as a competition. They’re up against 45,000 other designers. So the more doubts you can take away from them, the more likely it is they will have a shot at your brief. If you don’t want black-and-white, spell it out from the start. If you don’t want capital letters, tell them.
The brief for a boring immigration law job did just that and despite the relatively low budget, they got over 200 entries.

But won’t that close off certain routes, I hear you think? Nah.
Even though we briefed the creatives to create a logotype and ignore a non-text logo, some of them still sent one in. And even though we asked them to avoid the word ‘consultifi’ in all lowercase, some still used it.
If creatives feel strong about their idea, they will go off-brief. I’ve experienced this with music video directors, with graphic designers,…: if they think it works, they will try and convince you.
In this project, one of the designers even wrote a long email about why he thought we were wrong.
You can’t always predict what will work and what not, so we did consider some of these entries.

* Set aside enough time for feedback
On that immigration law job I mentioned above, the client also gave lots of feedback on each design. Another a reason of the quality of their entries, I think.
Crowdspring recommends you give ratings. One, because it’s only fair to the designers and two, because it will improve the designs. Other designers go and read your feedback on other entries and learn what you want and -again- what you don’t want.
As a comparison: a more creative, exciting project (for a media agency) with a similar budget only got 60-odd entries. But they did stop rating and giving feedback after a few days.

I found the rating system quite hard to manage, because a 3-star rating in the beginning might only have been a 2-star later on, once we got better entries.
But the feedback opportunity is very useful. It does give you the chance to finetune designs directly with creatives. And it does make the process more human.

* Don’t end your project on a Monday
Simply because there’s a chance you will receive a massive amount of entries in the last few days. In our case, a good 40% of the entries only came through in the last day. Not sure if this is because creatives fear being copied or simply because deadlines are there to be pushed.
But it does leave you with little time for feedback. Especially if those last days are a Saturday and Sunday and you don’t want to spend that time rating almost 100 designs.

* Be prepared to make quick decisions at the end
Especially if you work for a client. We sort of missed that you’re meant to make a decision within 7 days. And we hadn’t anticipated our client going on holiday. We were open about it and told the creatives, but then realised Crowdspring’s terms state that they have the right to chose a winner on your behalf if you take too long. Admittedly, when we contacted them, they got back to us really quickly, assuring us that we were doing the right things. So I’m not sure if they ever apply that power.
From a functionality point of view, Crowdspring could make the decision-step a little bit easier by adding a shortlist functionality. That way you can compare all your ‘shortlisted’ designs on one page; and share that page with your client.

* Buy the URL from the company you’re working for
A lesson we learnt the hard way. While we were running the project, someone bought the dot-com and dot-net urls for the company and then tried to sell it to us.

Is the Consultifi identity the best logo since the Swoosh? Probably not.
Will we use it again? Probably, yes.
Is it a replacement for design agencies? I doubt it very much. I would think that developing a brand identity that really makes a difference does benefit from a more traditional, in-depth (and thus more expensive) approach.
But it does offer a good opportunity for smaller companies or start-ups, who get the chance of getting a very decent design done for a very decent price.
And for creatives from all over the world (our ‘winner’ alexe is from Romania) to be exposed to briefs.

So it’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.

It’s almost trite to say that you need to be found and ranked highly by Google. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is very important. Many of even the slowest moving parts of the traditional media and marketing sectors industries, like PR and advertising, now see that too.

But for some time now I have wondered about the added value of traditional SEO practices, and whether in fact SEO as a discipline is not in terminal decline.

SEO is being being replaced by another practice. Let me explain why SEO is in decline and what will replace it.

The SEOBOOK blog also recently wondered about the future of SEO:

SEO came about soon after the advent of the web crawler. The commercial imperative was obvious – where there was web traffic, there was money to be made. Positioning a page first in the engines was pretty much a licence to print money.

Still is, of course.

But they continued:

“In 2009, SEO plays fall into three distinct categories.

* Agency model: people offer services to others for a fee.
* Affiliate model: people gather traffic and funnel it somewhere else for a performance fee.
* Content model: people generate content and make money off advertising.

The last model is, I’m guessing, is one a lot of SEOs will pursue. Many do so now. “

That most SEOs will make their money from content may come as a startling prediction. But not if you consider these three developments killing traditional SEO:

  1. Many platforms and frameworks for web development currently come out of the box SEO primed;
  2. Some activity does not happen on the open web – take Facebook – and when it does, the page and the link is not its primary unit (yet). Take Twitter as another example.
  3. The most successful long term SEO technique is called Linkbait and it’s got little to do with SEO.

Many platforms and frameworks for web development currently come out of the box SEO primed

Are you doing eCommerce? Magento is one of the great new eCommerce platforms and it does what you would want SEO wise. Each product has its own page and link and the Title, Headings,… tags are sorted in accordance with SEO best practise.

Matt Cutts, head of search quality at Google reckons WordPress is the best search engine optimised blog platform and in a video he tells exactly why it is a fantastic SEO choice. WordPress is of course now the platform of choice for much more than just blogs.

What about other web publishing platforms? I’m no Joomla expert, but as far as I can tell it is also SEO-ready without too much additional effort.

Put frankly, anybody building such a CMS, blogging or eCommerce platform that does not integrate SEO best practice is foolish. See how the mighty Flash is struggling for survival today. There’s only one reason. Search engines can’t make sense of Flash in spite of lots of people trying to make it SEO friendly.

It is fair to say that only when building a completely bespoke website or when significant mods to existing frameworks are done that SEO expertise needs to be on hand.

Some activity does not happen on the open web and when it does, the page and the link is not its primary unit (yet)

Facebook is huge. Facebook wants its members to be more open and expose their users’ Walls, Status Updates and Photo Albums to the open Web.

Facebook - coaxing users to be more open

But it is a tall order to get users to change their habits when part of Facebook’s success was the exclusivity of interacting only with your crowd.

The majority of activity on Facebook is still hidden from Google and despite Facebook’s best intentions this is unlikely to change soon.

And outside Facebook there are other problems for search engines. Says the SEOBOOK:

Consider social media. Is a page the basic unit of Twitter? No, it’s the sentence. How about Youtube? The video. Social networks? The person. All can be extracted, re-purposed and dis-intermediated without losing meaning.

And then there’s the problem of the real time web.

When Michael Jackson died, Google was beaten to the punch by Twitter and Wikipedia for a couple of hours. So far the real time web remains out of SEO’s reach. Yes, Google now integrates Tweets into its results, but are they ranked? No. Then it’s outside the domain of SEO.

Conclusion? SEO is still very important but its reach does no longer cover everything.

The success of Linkbait – Linkbait is not SEO

The highly respected SEOMoz blog recently evaluated the continued significance of Linkbait as an SEO strategy even when other techniques are failing or changing.

There have been more than a few debates and suppositions over the years about the potential value of linkbait/viral content strategies and whether search engines will always reward these practices. Today (actually, it’s late at night here in Oslo), I wanted to tackle this debate and succinctly present reasons why I believe this methodology will remain powerful and effective in the long run.”

But hang on – what the hell is Linkbait? If you’re thinking it’s some uber-complicated strategy requiring sophisticated technical know-how you’re very wrong.

British SEO expert Patrick Altoft explains what Linkbait is:

Linkbait is the practise of adding content to websites with the aim of attracting links from other sites. The content can take various forms, from a unique tool, or a breaking news story, to a well written article to a controversial image.

This simple definition should send bells ringing. No, the definition is not wrong. But what kind of people do you want to hire to create so-called Linkbait? SEO experts?

A good journalist smells of Linkbait. A film director reeks of it. Calling Linkbait an SEO strategy is like calling war a kind of politics. Perhaps it is a kind of politics, but it does not describe the kind of things that happen in a war effectively. In a war you need a different set of skills and mindset than in vanilla politics.

Why does Google like Linkbait?

Because it follows the model of how Google’s search works. Namely that it’s a meritocratic selection engine, which treats links likes votes. Not unlike Digg if you think about it. In short, search is a social form of voting and good Linkbait respects that model.

In this video – which we have posted before – Matt Cutts, head of Search Quality at Google explains Linkbait and how effective and cheap it can be to use.

Linkbait encourages creativity

What kind of Linkbait has proven to be successful? A recent SEOMoz study asked this question in the context of blogs. This is what they found:

* Content is the most important thing to a post, but posts with extra visual content attract extra links.
* Adding simple visual content, like lists and images, can increase the number of (Independent Linking Domains) ILDs by good percent.
* Posts with videos will attract almost 3 times more ILDs than a plain text post.
* Posts with all three media types (videos, images, and lists) will attract almost 6 times more ILDs than a plain text post.
* Contrary to common beliefs, large posts seem to attract more links than posts with 900 words or less.
* Posts with between 1800 and 3000 words will attract more than 15 times more ILDs than a post with less than 600 words.

To summarise it. Content attracts links. And content that’s well organized attracts even more links.

If you want to play the Linkbait game really well you’re going to look to hire copywriters, journalists, photographers, editors, animators, videographers and yes even media-savvy programmers – the so-called creative technologists. (The New York Times recently laid off staff and hired two dozen programmers.)

In short, Linkbait requires content skills, not search engine optimization skills.

But is SEO’d content itself really all it is cracked up to be?

I’m going to – reluctantly – drive one more stake through SEO’s heart. Pay special attention if you are in the business of publishing.

The Guardian recently featured an interesting article on why SEO should not be the only driver in site design. It featured the opinion of Matt Kelly, the associate editor of the Mirror, responsible for their recent successful forays online.

According to Kelly, “users” are people who discover content through Google, devour it, and then return to their search engine to look for more elsewhere.

“Often they have no idea which website it was they found the content on. Result? Users don’t care about the websites they visit, and as a consequence, advertisers are less willing to spend their cash to be associated with our content.

“We are to blame for allowing ourselves to be talked into believing that search engine optimisation is the be-all and end-all of successful website design.”

But, said Kelly, accumulating increasing numbers of unique users is of no long-term value. It is an “absurd metric that values one visit from one random Google News user as highly as daily visits, for an hour a time, from someone who treasures the content we produce.”

He argued that the “quest for a gazillion unique users from wherever, and for however little engagement, has been responsible for denuding many of our newspaper sites of the great brand and value and character that actually differentiates what we do, from all the aggregators and cheap, worthless news sites out there.”

Yes, an SEO’d site can drive users that don’t know your service or business. But you need to make sure they love what they find.