Tag Archives: software

Google bans hyperlinks

Summary: My AdWords account was suspended after ten years of continuous advertising. I was told that hyperlinking from my domain to any another domain was a breach of Adwords policy. This is clearly ridiculous and not what their policy says. But I had to appeal higher up and it took 11 days to get my suspension overturned.

I have been advertising my PerfectTablePlan seating plan software continuously on Google AdWords since the 7th March 2005. Just shy of 10 years. Google emailed me on the 20th Feb. But it wasn’t a thank you for 10 years of loyal custom. It was to tell me they had suspended my account.

Hello,

We wanted to alert you that one of your sites violates our advertising policies. Therefore, we won’t be able to run any of your ads that link to that site, and any new ads pointing to that site will also be disapproved.

Here’s what you can do to fix your site and hopefully get your ad running again:

1. Make the necessary changes to your site that currently violates our policies:

Display URL: perfecttableplan.com

Policy violation: Software principles
Details & instructions: https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/50423?hl=en

2. Resubmit your site to us, following the instructions in the link above. If your site complies with our policies, we can approve it to start running again.

There was no detail about what I had done wrong. As far as I was aware, I complied with their policies. I had a look through the linked page, but it was about “Malicious or unwanted software”, “Low value content” etc. I couldn’t see anything that obviously applied to my website or software. My software is bona fide. I’ve been selling it for 10 years. It was used to help plan the seating at one of the official events for the Queen of England’s Diamond Jubilee, don’t you know!

I went to the AdWords support page to try and work out who I could talk to. A chat pop-up appeared. So I did an online chat with a Google AdWords employee. He told me that I needed to:

  1. Add a link to the uninstall instructions on my download page. I told him that my uninstall was completely standard for the platforms I support (Windows and Mac). But he insisted.
  2. Remove some links that were ‘redirections’ from my reviews page.
  3. Explain the value of what my software did. I pointed out that this is what the entire website is for. He backed off on that one.

Google doesn’t put uninstall instructions on the download pages of its own software (exhibit A). I was annoyed by the hypocrisy. Also their policy says you mustn’t:

[make] it difficult for users to disable or uninstall the software

It doesn’t say you need to include uninstall instructions. However I wrote a page of uninstall instructions and linked to it from the download page.

I looked at my reviews page. There were 16 links pointing to genuine reviews of my software on various blogs, download websites, magazine websites and Amazon. However some of the links pointed to pages that no longer existed and a few were redirected at the other end. All the redirections seemed completely harmless (for example one was just a redirection to the the same page, but http instead https). But I removed all the links except this one:

amazon_reviews_resized

This link just pointed to http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0017YOSE2/. No redirection at the other end.

I then emailed AdWords support on the 21st Feb to say that I had complied with their requests. I heard nothing for several days. I tweeted them on the 24th and they asked me to fill out an online contact form with my details. I did that on the 25th.

The next day I was woken around 8am by a phone call from AdWords support. I think it was the person I did an online chat with. The line wasn’t great, English obviously wasn’t his first language and I hadn’t had my morning coffee. So it wasn’t a great conversation. But, as far as I understood it, he told me that he couldn’t remove the suspension because I was ‘redirecting’ people from my review page to amazon.com. I tried to point out that it was just a hyperlink and it went exactly where it said it would. But he seemed to be saying that I wasn’t allowed to hyperlink to any external domain from my perfecttableplan.com domain. That is obviously ludicrous and I just about managed to stay civil. Surely I had misunderstood. Soon after I received this email:

Hi Andy,

As per the conversation we had over the phone. I would suggest you to remove the link from your website wherein it redirects me to a different website.
If I click on the link it is taking me to Amazon.com, which is a redirection from your website.

The policy says it has to be on the same website but I guess it is deviating a bit from it.
You can provide information about your products and services in the website but ensure those are not clickable.

Please see the link for policy forum for bridge page here.

Once the changes are done, please write back to me so that we can consult and get this done for you at the earliest.

Have a lovely day ahead.

I emailed back:

I have now removed the link to Amazon.com from this page, as directed:
http://www.perfecttableplan.com/html/reviews.html

> Please see the link for policy forum for bridge page here.

It says:

“Landing pages that are solely designed to send users elsewhere

# /Examples/: Bridge, doorway, gateway, or other intermediate pages”

The review page isn’t a landing page. It isn’t linked directly from any of any of my Google ads. To get to it the user has to:
1. click on the ad
2. click on ‘customers’ in the navigation bar
3. select ‘review’
4. click on the Amazon.com hyperlink (there is no automatic redirect)

Also I am only linking to that page so they can read independent reviews of my product. I don’t [want] them to buy it from Amazon!


Please re-review my site at your earliest convenience.

The reply by email was:

Andy,

I understand your point, but from your website the link is taking to Amazon.com. When I click on the link I am taken to this page.

You can write in as for further information please visit this link xyz.com/reviews.. [1]

The link should not be clickable. It is taking from your website to a new webpage.

Request you to change it so that we can review and get it enabled.

Awaiting your response.

Have a great day ahead.

I replied:

I was phoned by someone from Google this morning and have now removed that link.

Can you clarify the situation regarding links to other sites. Does the AdWords policy mean that no site advertising on Adwords can ever hyperlink to another site (surely not)? Assuming that isn’t the case, what hyperlinks are allowed and what hyperlinks are not allowed?

He replied:

Hi Andy,

Thanks for writing in, hope you are doing great.

With regards to your email I would like to confirm that any links that are taking a user to a new website is not allowed.
You can provide links, which are not clickable.

The user must not get redirected to a new website.

Hope this answers your query.

I have bolded the offending line for emphasis. There it is in black and white. No hyperlinks.

I replied:

So I can’t have a clickable hyperlink to *any* non http://www.perfecttableplan.com page from *any* http://www.perfecttableplan.com page without breaching AdWords policy? Is that correct? Please clarify.

He replied:

Hi Andy,

Thanks for writing in again.

With regards to your email I would like to confirm that any links which are taking a customer to a different website are not allowed.
If the link is taking the advertiser to any specific page of your website then it is alright but it should not redirect any other website.

Hope this helps.

Feel free to drop in your questions or queries. I will be glad to assist you on them.

Have a great day ahead.

There it is again. A world wide web without hyperlinks between domains? This is clearly absurd.

I approached AdWords expert Aaron Weiner from Software Promotions. He agreed that this was a complete misinterpretation of their policy and kindly offered to talk to his Google contacts in the US to see if they could help resolve it. On the 28th Feb he forwarded me this email from Google:

I have taken a look at the site and the previous interactions that your client has had with our team. I apologize that the communication has not been very clear for your client – I am going to take ownership of it from here and make sure that we get this site back up ASAP.

From what I can see now, the site appears to be compliant with our policies. I have contacted our policy team to have them review it right away. I have also asked them to clarify the issue with linking to third party reviews. Obviously we would not want an ad to direct to a different domain, but I do not see any problem with linking to reviews once the user has landed on your site. I am going to get some clarification on this to see if we are missing something,

Thank you for your patience and please let me know if you have any questions. I will be in touch soon.

On the 3rd March I got an email from Google:

Great news! We’ve re-reviewed your site and determined that the following site complies with our Advertising Policies

Followed by this email forwarded by Aaron:

Thank you for your patience while our policy team reviewed your website. They confirmed that the site is compliant with our policies and you will see that it is now re-enabled. I checked the ads this morning and I can see that they are serving.

I also confirmed with them that there is no policy against linking to third-party reviews on your website. You can add those links back to the reviews on your site.

I read through the chat that you had with ******* and I think that there may have just been some misunderstanding as to the specific problem with the site. I sincerely apologize for the confusion caused by that. I have reached out to ******* to clarify the policy with him.

It’s pretty shocking that a Google employee (or contractor) should have a such a poor grasp of the  policy they are enforcing. It shakes my faith in Google. Previously I thought that, even if they were a little bit evil, they were at least competent with it.

Also the entire situation was handled badly. They could have sent me an email clearly stating the policy violation and giving me a few days grace to fix it. Surely I deserve that much after 10 years as a paying customer?

My account was suspended for a total of 11 days and I wasted quite a lot of time and mental energy. For what? I removed a few hyperlinks from my reviews page and added a link to some uninstall instructions. How is that going to help anyone?

I talked to a number of other software authors and found that quite a few of them had also had their AdWords suspended for policy violations, such not having uninstall instructions. Oliver Grahl of PDF Annotator, who has also been suspended previously, commented:

“Every day, live your life as if it was your last day (getting traffic from Google). One bit in their databases can ruin a whole business and all the lives behind it. Pretty scary.”

I understand that Google is engaged in a continual battle with people trying to game the system to their advantage. But they need to be careful that legitimate businesses don’t end up as collateral damage. Training their staff adequately would be a good start.

Hyper Plan v1 launched

Hyper PlanI quietly launched Hyper Plan v1 yesterday. I thought I would write a bit about the approach I have taken, as it might be of interest to others planning product launches. It is also a good way for me to gather my thoughts for later reference.

Validation

I like the idea of validating a product without actually creating it first. I did that for my start your own software business training course, waiting until I had enough deposits before I actually sat down and wrote the course (all 460 slides of it + exercises). But I didn’t know how to do that with Hyper Plan. Validating software is harder.

No-one was telling me that they needed a better visual planning tool. It was just an idea for a piece of software that I wanted. I could see that a lot of people spend a lot of time sticking Post-It notes to walls. But I couldn’t see any other software quite like what I had in mind. And I had no idea if other people would buy the product I had in mind. So it is quite risky. It would be much less risky to make a variation on an existing successful product. But I just can’t get excited about that. Also I have a steady income from PerfectTablePlan, so I can afford to take some risks.

I talked to various people I knew about my idea. But it was difficult to get far without having some software to show them. Also I didn’t want to ask friends for money, so this limited the value of the feedback. I could have phoned up some businesses and told them “It’s like a planning board, but in software” and asked for some money. But I didn’t really see that getting me far either.

I could have started an AdWords campaign and put up a landing page. But it was hard to describe exactly what the product was going to be. Partly because it was different to anything else I had seen. But also I didn’t know myself! I had lots of ideas and design scribbles, but I didn’t really know what the end product was going to look like in detail without creating it first.

So I decided to build something quickly, iterate on feedback and see what happened when I asked for money (the only true validation). Even if it failed, at least I get to do some programming!

Beta

I started coding on 08-Sep-14. By mid October I had thrown up a website with the first beta version for Windows and Mac. I allowed people to download the beta in return for giving their email address. The beta put up a warning that it would expire on 17-Jan-15. This meant I didn’t initially have to write any trial/licensing code. I made it clear that the plan was to have a commercial version for sale before then. I emailed the list each time there was a new release and encouraged them to send feedback.

I put out a number of beta releases and got some very useful feedback. A lot of the feedback was from fellow mISVs giving me a hard time about the shortcomings of the early UI, but that was still very welcome. The first release was very rough and ready. But it improved significantly in terms of UI and features with each release. I put out 5 beta releases over October, November and December. The world didn’t beat a path to my door, but the feedback was encouraging enough that I kept going.

Building v1

Hyper Plan is written in C++ and Qt and compiles into Windows and Mac binaries. I have written about why I decided to develop it as a desktop tool elsewhere. It is around 20k lines of C++ code. About 100 lines of that code are platform specific, mostly to try to improve the look and feel on Mac OS X.

I also planned the marketing, wrote a quick start guide, created the website and built installers for Windows and Mac. Not bad for 18 weeks, part-time around various other commitments (mostly PerfectTablePlan and a little bit of consulting)! It helps that I was using technology and tools that I have used extensively before.

I have tried to follow my own advice and cut some corners:

  • I did the Hyper Plan logo myself. It isn’t great.
  • The website is fairly basic. I’m not a web designer.
  • I did the website video+voiceover myself. It isn’t great.
  • The software doesn’t have all the features I would like it to have.
  • The software UI could be more polished.
  • There is minimal documentation (just a quick start guide).

I can improve on all of these later. However the software seems very solid, with only 1 crash reported in third party testing (now fixed).

I would have liked to have got to v1 even quicker, but (inevitably) quite a few shortcomings in my original ideas had to be addressed during the beta to make it a useful product. Also, I couldn’t resist a bit of gold plating (animations with easing curves, oh yeah!).

Trial

I decided to go for a fully functional, time limited trial for Hyper Plan on the grounds that the more invested in it people become, the more likely they are to buy it (see this article for a discussion of the merits of different trial models). I didn’t want the standard 30 consecutive days trial, as I know many people install software, forget about it for 30+ days and then can’t continue with the trial. So I went with 7 days of non-consecutive use. I may A/B test longer trial lengths in future.

Pricing

I am a big fan of multiple price points. But I don’t yet know enough to segment the market for this product. So I decided to go with a single price point. I can always split the product into multiple price points later on (e.g. add a more expensive ‘professional edition’), as I did for PerfectTablePlan.

The product is positioned (in my mind at least) as a better alternative to sticking Post-It notes to the wall and a cheaper and simpler alternative to fully fledged project management tools. This rather limits what I can charge for it. I wasn’t sure whether to price the product at $30 (for an impulse buy) or $50 to try to send a signal that it is aimed more at serious users. So I split the difference and went for $40. Also that gives me some room to experiment with discounts. I may experiment with different prices in future.

Ecommerce

Avangate has been doing the payment processing for PerfectTablePlan for some years now and I have been generally very happy with their service. Also they protect me from the horrors of the new EU VAT legislation. So it was a no-brainer to use them as the payment processor for Hyper Plan. They set me up with a separate account/control panel for Hyper Plan.

Expenditure

I haven’t added it all up yet. But the total expenditure to date for Hyper Plan is a few hundred dollars. This was mostly third party testing by testlab2.com, the cost of the hyperplan.com domain (which I have been sitting on for a few years) and fees for sending out email newsletters. I already had icons, a hosting account and a web template from previous projects, so there was no additional cost there. Obviously the opportunity cost of my time is a lot more.

Marketing

Initially I plan to concentrate on:

  • cross-selling to my PerfectTablePlan customers
  • SEO (content + back links)
  • AdWords

Some of the keywords I would like to get traffic on have an estimated top of page 1 bid price of £23 in AdWords. Yikes. But I have a lot of experience with AdWords. Hopefully I can pick up some well targeted and much cheaper clicks with a long tail strategy (using the Keyword Funnel software I developed). Only time will tell.

I have quite a few other ideas that I can try. But I am still very much validating if this product has a market and, if so, what I have to do to get the elusive ‘product-market fit’.  I don’t plan to spend much effort and money on marketing until I have that better figured out.

Version 1 launch

292 people had given their email address to download the beta by yesterday. Most of the sign-ups came from mentions of Hyper Plan in my PerfectTablePlan newsletter, on this blog and on a couple of forums. I didn’t do any paid advertising and, as yet, there is very little organic traffic to the Hyper Plan website.

There was no big launch. No press release. No party. Not even a tweet. I just announced v1 to my mailing list of 292 people yesterday morning. I offered a discount to anyone who purchased a license in the next 7 days. I had absolutely no idea how many sales I would get.

I got 12 sales and a couple of enquiries about organizational licenses yesterday. That is better than I expected for day 1. So I am quietly encouraged that there may be a market for this product. But it is very early days yet. Thankfully I have PerfectTablePlan paying all the bills, so there is no pressure to hit any revenue targets.

Always Be Selling

Obviously I am not going to miss the chance to try to flog you a license, dear reader. Are you interested in visual planning software? Do you know someone that might be? Hyper Plan is very versatile. I have used it for planning Hyper Plan development and marketing, my daily TO DO list and tracking Xmas present purchases. It is also highly suitable for agile/Kanban/Scrum type planning. You can find out more here and download the free trial here.

If you buy a license by the end of 22-Jan-15 you can get 20% off (feel the marketing!). Use the coupon SSWBLOG in the shopping cart to get the discount.
discount

Feedback

If you have any comments on the product or website, I would be happy to hear them.

Remarketing – does it work?

remarketingIf you go to Amazon and browse watches, you will suddenly notice a preponderance of watch ads everywhere you go on the Internet. This is ‘remarketing’ (also known as ‘retargeting’ or, more colloquially, ‘cyber stalking’). Wikipedia defines it as:

a form of online targeted advertising by which online advertising is targeted to consumers based on their previous Internet actions, in situations where these actions did not result in a sale or conversion.

Given that:

a) It is hard work to get potential purchasers to visit your website

b) some 99% of visitors to a typical website leave without buying anything

It seems to make sense to spend some time and money reminding non-purchasers to come back to your website in the hope that they will eventually purchase.

The basic mechanics of remarketing are:

  1. Sign up with a remarketing publisher such as Google, Perfect Audience or Adroll.
  2. Upload some graphical ads.
  3. Bid to show these ads on other sites.
  4. Add a script on your site which cookies visitors for remarketing.
  5. When your visitor leaves your site and goes to another site in the remarketing publisher’s network, the remarketing cookie is read and an ad is shown (or not, depending on how much you and other advertisers are bidding per impression).
  6. Hopefully people will see your ad, click through and buy your product. Or they may just be reminded to continue the trial, without clicking the ad.

A number of people I have spoken to told me it was very cost-effective. But when I asked how they knew that these remarketing conversions wouldn’t have purchased anyway, I didn’t get a satisfactory answer. It seems straightforward enough to test this: run an A/B test, showing remarketing ads to 50% of your visitors and see what difference it makes to conversions. But an online search and some asking around turned up very little data. The one decent study I found quoted an 18% increase in conversions (yes please!), but was for an ‘e-commerce website’. So, dear reader, I have done the experiment using Perfect Audience for remarketing, Visual Website Optimizer for A/B testing and my table planner software as the subject. Here are my results:

visits sales conversion
rate
Control (No
remarketing )
10,539 162 1.54% (±0.15)
Remarketing 11,137 174 1.56% (±0.15)

So the remarketing showed an increase in sales of 1.6% over 21,676 visits and 336 sales. However it is noticeable that the 95 percentile error bars are rather large compared with the conversion rates. I am only 95% sure that the conversion rates are in the range 1.69% to 1.39% (control) and 1.71% to 1.41% (remarketing). Which means the change in conversion rate could be anything from +23% to -19% (but given normal distribution curves, most likely somewhere in the middle). According to Visual Website Optimizer, we can only be 56% sure that the increase in conversions is a real effect, and not just a statistical anomaly. The graph below shows the convergence of the conversion rates over time (blue is the control, orange is with remarketing).

remarketing experimentIt gets worse when you factor in the cost of the remarketing. I know the value of the sales and the cost of the ads over the period of the experiment. So I can work out that for every $1 I spent on remarketing I was getting around $0.95 back in extra sales. It isn’t looking like a winner for me, especially when you factor in the time taken to set-up and administer it.

Some points to note:

  • Remarketing resulted in 1.8% less installs than the control. This is probably just a statistical anomaly (67% chance of being statistically significant).
  • I choose Perfect Audience based on the recommendation of Rob Walling, who has experimented with Google, Adroll, remarketer.com and Perfect Audience. Unlike Google, Perfect Audience allows remarketing across a wide range of platforms and websites, including Facebook and Twitter. I found their system to be relatively flexible and easy to set-up. But being billed weekly is a bit tedious for my bookkeeper.
  • I showed my ads on Facebook and various websites. I didn’t show them on Twitter as my previous experiences with advertising on Twitter haven’t been great.
  • With remarketing you pay per impression, not per click. I set my CPM (cost per thousand impressions) relatively low. I ended up averaging $1.55 for web ads and $1.14 for Facebook ads.
  • Click through rates were miserable, averaging just 0.051% for both web and Facebook ads.
  • The average cost per click was $2.58. This is a lot more than I pay per click on Adwords.
  • I remarketed to people that arrived on my home page. I stopped targeting them after 30 days or after they had purchased.
  • I didn’t remarket to visitors from developing countries, as they very rarely buy my software. Had I remarketed to visitors from every country the remarketing conversion rate would probably have been slightly higher, but the ad costs would have been significantly higher.
  • I didn’t get any complaints from customers about being ‘stalked’.
  • I just knocked up some ad graphics myself (examples below). I got the idea for an attention-grabbing ugly ad here. It didn’t perform well though.

buy_image_ad_300x250

ugly handwriting 300x250 3I probably could probably improve the ROI on remarketing with some experimentation. E.g.:

  • Trying professionally designed ads.
  • Trying different bids.
  • Experimenting with only showing ads to people who have installed the trial vs only showing ads to people who haven’t installed the trial.

But it doesn’t really seem worth the opportunity cost given the results to date.

Of course, my experiment is just one data point. Remarketing might work better for you if you have a higher average lifetime value for a customer (many of my customers buy the $30 version of PerfectTablePlan for their wedding and never purchase from me again). If you have a B2B product with an average lifetime value in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, it is probably worth a try. You will have to run your own A/B test to find out. If you do, please let me know what the results are.

My new product : Hyper Plan

scrum kanbanI have just launched a new product. First some back story. A few years ago, my wife and I were renovating the house we live in now. Trying to schedule and track all the different tasks, tradesmen and quotes was a real pain. We stuck Post-it® notes onto a whiteboard to try to keep on top of it all. The Post-it notes represented the various jobs that need doing. We placed them in columns (representing what stage they were at: needs quote, accepted quote, scheduled, doing, done) and rows (representing the various trades: plumbing, roofing, electrical etc). It worked, but it was far from ideal:

  • I wanted to see status vs trade, status vs room and room vs trade. But changing the layout was a pain, so I had to pick one layout and stick with it.
  • Colours were useful for extra information. But we were limited to just the few colours that Post-it notes come in.
  • There was only limited space to write on the note.
  • My wife couldn’t read my handwriting.
  • We had to use a separate spreadsheet to track the budget.
  • Post-it notes would fall off and get lost after being moved a few times.
  • I ran out of Post-it notes.

That is when the idea of Hyper Plan first occurred to me. It has been burning a hole in my brain for the last 5 years. Now I have finally got around to implementing it.

Hyper Plan is Post-it note style planning, implemented in software. In software you are no-longer limited by the number of Post-it notes you can afford, the amount of wall space you have or the number of colours Post-it notes come in. You can even change the layout and colours with a mouse click. All with animation and easing curve loveliness.

The sorts of planning you can use it for include:

  • project planning
  • planning what is going into your next software release
  • event planning
  • Kanban / Scrum / Agile
  • planning a holiday
  • to do list (I know!)

Anything where you have discrete tasks that you want to be able to categorize (e.g. by person, status or type), schedule or track in a visual form.

Here is a 2:42 minute overview in video form (with audio):

Hyper Plan videoCan’t see the video? Try this mp4 version (10.7 MB).

Hyper Plan is quite different to anything else I have seen. That could be a good thing or bad thing. I am putting out an early beta to try to find out.

Hyper Plan is not currently for sale. I don’t want to take the time to set up all the payment processing and licensing until I am confident someone might actually buy it. The current beta version will run completely unrestricted until 17-Jan-2015. There are Windows and Mac versions. Hopefully a commercial version will be available for sale by the time the beta expires. If not, I will release another free version.

Currently it is very much an MVP (minimum viable product).

  • The UI is a bit rough around the edges.
  • The logo was done in 5 minutes in Word.
  • The documentation is just a quick start guide.
  • Some important features are not implemented yet (e.g. printing, exporting and undo).

But I have tried to follow my own advice and resist foul urges to spend months polishing it (which is hard!). What is there is pretty robust though, and I think it demonstrates the concepts. Hopefully I will know in a few weeks whether it is worth taking the time to polish it to commercial levels.

I would love to know what you think. Particularly how useful you find it for ‘real’ planning tasks. Even responses of the form “I wouldn’t use this because…” are helpful. Please also email a link to anyone else you think might be interested. Particularly if you have ever seen them sticking Post-it notes to a wall or swearing at Microsoft Project! My contact details are here.

buttonFAQ

Q: Why is it desktop, rather than SaaS/mobile?

A. I think stories of the death of desktop software are exaggerated. Also:

  • I can build a minimum viable product much quicker for desktop.
  • Differentiation. Some people prefer desktop apps, e.g. because they don’t have reliable Internet or don’t want to store their data on third party servers.
  • Less competition. Everyone else seems to be doing SaaS/mobile.

I might add SaaS and/or mobile versions later, if there is enough demand. Note that DropBox (or the Google, Microsoft or Apple equivalents) allow you to easily sync a Hyper Plan file across multiple computers.

Q: So it’s Trello for desktop?

A. Not really. I had the basic idea before I ever saw Trello. And I’m not stupid enough to compete with a free tool from the great Joel Spolsky! Trello is great at what it does. But Hyper Plan is different in quite a few ways. In Trello the emphasis is on collaboration and workflow. In Hyper Plan the emphasis is on visualization and planning. Hyper Plan allows you to present your information in lots of different ways with a few mouse clicks. It also has a built in ‘pivot table’ type feature that is much easier to use than Excel pivot tables. This is really useful for totalling effort and expenditure by different categories.

Post-it is a registered trademark of 3M.

The scrum photo is licensed under creative common by Logan Ingalls.

Why have my sales dropped?

why have my sales dropped?If you spend as much time as I do hanging around forums for independent developers, you will often see questions of the form “I only made X sales today/this week/this month, has something gone wrong?”. There are two distinct possibilities:

  1. Something has changed (e.g. your website is broken); or
  2. It’s a statistical fluctuation.

Rather than guessing, we can use some stats to work out the probability that a drop in sales is just a random fluctuation.

The Poisson distribution gives us the probability of a given number of discrete events occurring in a fixed interval of time (or space), if these events occur with a known average rate and independently of each other. It can be used to investigate the accuracy of v1 flying bombs, the number of 19th century Prussian soldiers kicked to death by horses and the number of South Africans attacked by sharks. It can also be used to calculate the probability of getting <= n sales per day/week/month, if we average N sales per day/week/month.

Poisson distribution

A comparison between the number of PerfectTablePlan sales per day over 90 days (blue histogram) vs predicted by the Poisson distribution (red histogram). We would expect the prediction to become more accurate with more data, assuming nothing else changes. Obviously things do change over the lifetime of a software product, hence the relatively short time span chosen.

Using this online Poisson distribution calculator we can work out some example probabilities:

expected
number of sales
over period
Probability of drop in sales of: 5 10 50 100
>= 20% 44% 33.3% 8.6% 2.3%
>= 40% 26.5% 13% 0.2% 0%
>= 60% 12.5% 2.9% 0% 0%
 = 100% 0.7% 0% 0% 0%

(0% = too small for the calculator to display)

For example:

  • If we average 5 sales per week, the chance of a 40% or more drop in sales (i.e. a week with 3 or less sales) is 26.5%.
  • If we average 50 sales per week, the chance of a 40% or more drop in sales (i.e. a week with 30 or less sales) is 0.2%.

So the less sales we make (or the shorter the period we look at), the bigger the random fluctuations we can expect. If I was averaging 5 sales per week, I wouldn’t be too worried about a drop of 40% in sales for one week. In fact, I would expect it to happen approximately one week in every 4 (running a business that averages 5 big B2B sales a year, must be very stressful!). But if I was making 50 sales per week, a 40% drop in sales should only happen by chance approximately once every 10 years. I would definitely check for other causes.

Assuming it isn’t just a statistical blip, the most likely cause of non-random change is an issue with your website. Rather than waiting for a problem, I suggest you set up continuous monitoring that emails or SMSs you if a problem occurs. There are various services for this. I use free pingdom.com and siteuptime.com accounts. Using 2 different services protects you against one of them silently failing.

If your website is up, what else have you changed recently? Check your analytics for changes and your Google webmaster tools account for warnings. Has traffic dropped (perhaps you been slapped by Google)? Has the number of downloads/trials dropped while the traffic stayed the same (perhaps there is a problem with downloading/signing up)? If you have made a new release, double check there are no major bugs in the installer or software. “It works on my development machine” doesn’t cut it with customers, so check it on a non-development machine or a clean VM.

Don’t assume that random strangers on the Internet will email you to tell you that something is broken. Perhaps 1 in a hundred or a thousand will. The rest will just click the back button. You can improve your odds by having loyal and engaged customers and a clearly displayed email address and/or phone number. But still don’t depend on it. When is the last time you noticed an issue on a website and took the time to report it?

Also some seasonal variation in sales is likely. The pattern depends on your market. Many businesses see a drop in sales in the northern hemisphere summer. But my wedding table plan software sells better in the summer. Hopefully you will know the pattern for your product after a year or two.

Random fluctuations and the lack of visitors to report issues means that it is hardest to tell whether a drop in sales is real when you start out. This is  when you need the sales most, both financially and emotionally. It gets easier as your traffic and sales improves. No one said that life was fair.

Training course update

I ran my second ‘Start your own software business’ course over the weekend of 22/23 March. Here is what some of the attendees had to say:

“I thought I knew most things about setting up and running an ISV but Andy filled in all the gaps and taught me stuff I hadn’t even thought about! I would, without hesitation, recommend this course (which is great value) to anyone thinking of starting a small software company or even an existing company that wants to ensure they give their business the best chance for success. Well done Andy!”
Anonymous (gainfully employed)

Roger Pearson“PC Pro magazine (not easy to impress) gave PerfectTablePlan a glowing review. That gives you some idea of Andy’s talent for programming and marketing. His weekend training program allows the attendees to garner his expertise for themselves and their software projects. Andy knows his subject – his experience is extensive, practical and hard-earned. I have run 2 successful small software business in the past. By attending his course I wanted to find out from someone who was actually doing it today, how I could apply techniques and best practice to my next software project. Did I succeed? Without a doubt. Andy was meticulous in his planning of the event and thorough in his presentation. I couldn’t ask for more. Top marks. I recommend Andy’s course to anyone venturing into the world of running a small software business.”
Roger Pearson

Derek Ekins“I recently attended Andy Brice’s “Start your own software business” course. Andy teaches some very practical skills to evaluate your idea, find if there is a market and launch your product. Behind most of the topics Andy had a story of how this particular lesson was learnt and how he has successfully implemented it. I now feel I am equipped with some practical knowledge of how to launch a software product. Thanks Andy.”
Derek Ekins

I will be following all their progress with interest.

I hope to run the course again in 2014. If you are interested in attending, please fill in the form on the training page.

Exploit the long tail of Adwords PPC with Keyword Funnel

Adwords Keyword FunnelI released my new product Keyword Funnel today. It is a tool to help Adwords advertisers improve the profitability of their Adwords campaigns.

I have found the best way to get a decent volume of affordable conversions from Google Adwords is to use a ‘long tail’ strategy. For my Perfect Table Plan product there are a few ‘head’ keyword phrases that have high search volumes, such as “table plan” and “seating arrangement”. But these aren’t very well targeted (“table plan” might have been typed in by someone who wants drawing plans to make their own dining room table). Also lots of other people are bidding on these head phrases, pushing the bid prices up. This combination of poor targeting and high click prices makes it hard to make a profit on head keywords.

So I prefer to concentrate on ‘tail’ terms such as “table plan software mac” and “wedding seating arrangements program”. These are much better targeted, so convert a lot better. The clicks are also cheaper because less people are bidding on them. However the search volumes are much lower, so you need a lot of these tail terms to get a reasonable amount of traffic. At least hundreds, and preferably thousands. Hence ‘long tail’.

the long tail of Adwords PPCThe good news is that you can mine lots of different sources of data for these long tail keywords. For example you can extract keywords from your web logs, Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools accounts. Even though many searches are now listed with the keywords ‘not provided’ by Google, it still isn’t hard to come up with thousands of candidate keyword phrases. The bad news is that they aren’t in a usable form. Before you can import them into Adwords you need to:

  • Sort out duplicate phrases, foreign characters, capitalization and other noise.
  • Remove unwanted and negative keywords.
  • Group keyword phrases into tightly focussed adgroups.
  • Put the results in a form Adwords understands.

I tried to use Excel for this. But, marvellous tool though it is, it really wasn’t up to the job. So I wrote my own tool. This worked very well, but it wasn’t a commercial quality product. So I started again, from scratch 6 months ago. Keyword Funnel is the result.

Keyword Funnel allows you to add hundreds of keywords to new or existing Adwords campaigns in minutes, rather than hours. This makes long tail Adwords campaigns with hundreds or thousands of keywords a much more realistic proposition. It also allows you to set up new campaigns in a fraction of the time.

Keyword Funnel is available for Windows and Mac. It is priced at a one-time fee of just $49 (up to 2 Adwords accounts) or $99 (unlimited Adwords accounts). You can download a free trial from the website and it comes with a 60-day money back guarantee. The website is currently a little unpolished, but the software is well tested and robust. Any feedback is welcome.

Try Keyword Funnel now!