Big Data, Big Problems: 4 Major Link Indexes Compared

Posted by russangular

Given this blog's readership, chances are good you will spend some time this week looking at backlinks in one of the growing number of link data tools. We know backlinks continue to be one of, if not the most important parts of Google's ranking algorithm. We tend to take these link data sets at face value, though, in part because they are all we have. But when your rankings are on the line, is there a better way to get at which data set is the best? How should we go about assessing these different link indexes like Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush for quality? Historically, there have been 4 common approaches to this question of index quality...

  • Breadth: We might choose to look at the number of linking root domains any given service reports. We know that referring domains correlates strongly with search rankings, so it makes sense to judge a link index by how many unique domains it has discovered and indexed.
  • Depth: We also might choose to look at how deep the web has been crawled, looking more at the total number of URLs in the index, rather than the diversity of referring domains.
  • Link Overlap: A more sophisticated approach might count the number of links an index has in common with Google Webmaster Tools.
  • Freshness: Finally, we might choose to look at the freshness of the index. What percentage of links in the index are still live?

There are a number of really good studies (some newer than others) using these techniques that are worth checking out when you get a chance:

  • BuiltVisible analysis of Moz, Majestic, GWT, Ahrefs and Search Metrics
  • SEOBook comparison of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and Ayima
  • MatthewWoodward study of Ahrefs, Majestic, Moz, Raven and SEO Spyglass
  • Marketing Signals analysis of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and GWT
  • RankAbove comparison of Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and Link Research Tools
  • StoneTemple study of Moz and Majestic

While these are all excellent at addressing the methodologies above, there is a particular limitation with all of them. They miss one of the most important metrics we need to determine the value of a link index: proportional representation to Google's link graph . So here at Angular Marketing, we decided to take a closer look.

Proportional representation to Google Search Console data

So, why is it important to determine proportional representation? Many of the most important and valued metrics we use are built on proportional models. PageRank, MozRank, CitationFlow and Ahrefs Rank are proportional in nature. The score of any one URL in the data set is relative to the other URLs in the data set. If the data set is biased, the results are biased.

A Visualization

Link graphs are biased by their crawl prioritization. Because there is no full representation of the Internet, every link graph, even Google's, is a biased sample of the web. Imagine for a second that the picture below is of the web. Each dot represents a page on the Internet, and the dots surrounded by green represent a fictitious index by Google of certain sections of the web.

Of course, Google isn't the only organization that crawls the web. Other organizations like Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and SEMrush have their own crawl prioritizations which result in different link indexes.

In the example above, you can see different link providers trying to index the web like Google. Link data provider 1 (purple) does a good job of building a model that is similar to Google. It isn't very big, but it is proportional. Link data provider 2 (blue) has a much larger index, and likely has more links in common with Google that link data provider 1, but it is highly disproportional. So, how would we go about measuring this proportionality? And which data set is the most proportional to Google?

Methodology

The first step is to determine a measurement of relativity for analysis. Google doesn't give us very much information about their link graph. All we have is what is in Google Search Console. The best source we can use is referring domain counts. In particular, we want to look at what we call referring domain link pairs. A referring domain link pair would be something like ask.com->mlb.com: 9,444 which means that ask.com links to mlb.com 9,444 times.

Steps

  1. Determine the root linking domain pairs and values to 100+ sites in Google Search Console
  2. Determine the same for Ahrefs, Moz, Majestic Fresh, Majestic Historic, SEMrush
  3. Compare the referring domain link pairs of each data set to Google, assuming a Poisson Distribution
  4. Run simulations of each data set's performance against each other (ie: Moz vs Maj, Ahrefs vs SEMrush, Moz vs SEMrush, et al.)
  5. Analyze the results

Results

When placed head-to-head, there seem to be some clear winners at first glance. In head-to-head, Moz edges out Ahrefs, but across the board, Moz and Ahrefs fare quite evenly. Moz, Ahrefs and SEMrush seem to be far better than Majestic Fresh and Majestic Historic. Is that really the case? And why?

It turns out there is an inversely proportional relationship between index size and proportional relevancy. This might seem counterintuitive, shouldn't the bigger indexes be closer to Google? Not Exactly.

What does this mean?

Each organization has to create a crawl prioritization strategy. When you discover millions of links, you have to prioritize which ones you might crawl next. Google has a crawl prioritization, so does Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush. There are lots of different things you might choose to prioritize...

  • You might prioritize link discovery. If you want to build a very large index, you could prioritize crawling pages on sites that have historically provided new links.
  • You might prioritize content uniqueness. If you want to build a search engine, you might prioritize finding pages that are unlike any you have seen before. You could choose to crawl domains that historically provide unique data and little duplicate content.
  • You might prioritize content freshness. If you want to keep your search engine recent, you might prioritize crawling pages that change frequently.
  • You might prioritize content value, crawling the most important URLs first based on the number of inbound links to that page.

Chances are, an organization's crawl priority will blend some of these features, but it's difficult to design one exactly like Google. Imagine for a moment that instead of crawling the web, you want to climb a tree. You have to come up with a tree climbing strategy.

  • You decide to climb the longest branch you see at each intersection.
  • One friend of yours decides to climb the first new branch he reaches, regardless of how long it is.
  • Your other friend decides to climb the first new branch she reaches only if she sees another branch coming off of it.

Despite having different climb strategies, everyone chooses the same first branch, and everyone chooses the same second branch. There are only so many different options early on.

But as the climbers go further and further along, their choices eventually produce differing results. This is exactly the same for web crawlers like Google, Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs and SEMrush. The bigger the crawl, the more the crawl prioritization will cause disparities. This is not a deficiency; this is just the nature of the beast. However, we aren't completely lost. Once we know how index size is related to disparity, we can make some inferences about how similar a crawl priority may be to Google.

Unfortunately, we have to be careful in our conclusions. We only have a few data points with which to work, so it is very difficult to be certain regarding this part of the analysis. In particular, it seems strange that Majestic would get better relative to its index size as it grows, unless Google holds on to old data (which might be an important discovery in and of itself). It is most likely that at this point we can't make this level of conclusion.

So what do we do?

Let's say you have a list of domains or URLs for which you would like to know their relative values. Your process might look something like this...

  • Check Open Site Explorer to see if all URLs are in their index. If so, you are looking metrics most likely to be proportional to Google's link graph.
  • If any of the links do not occur in the index, move to Ahrefs and use their Ahrefs ranking if all you need is a single PageRank-like metric.
  • If any of the links are missing from Ahrefs's index, or you need something related to trust, move on to Majestic Fresh.
  • Finally, use Majestic Historic for (by leaps and bounds) the largest coverage available.

It is important to point out that the likelihood that all the URLs you want to check are in a single index increases as the accuracy of the metric decreases. Considering the size of Majestic's data, you can't ignore them because you are less likely to get null value answers from their data than the others. If anything rings true, it is that once again it makes sense to get data from as many sources as possible. You won't get the most proportional data without Moz, the broadest data without Majestic, or everything in-between without Ahrefs.

What about SEMrush? They are making progress, but they don't publish any relative statistics that would be useful in this particular case. Maybe we can hope to see more from them soon given their already promising index!

Recommendations for the link graphing industry

All we hear about these days is big data; we almost never hear about good data. I know that the teams at Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, SEMrush and others are interested in mimicking Google, but I would love to see some organization stand up against the allure of more data in favor of better data—data more like Google's. It could begin with testing various crawl strategies to see if they produce a result more similar to that of data shared in Google Search Console. Having the most Google-like data is certainly a crown worth winning.

Credits

Thanks to Diana Carter at Angular for assistance with data acquisition and Andrew Cron with statistical analysis. Thanks also to the representatives from Moz, Majestic, Ahrefs, and SEMrush for answering questions about their indices.


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Great Ideas in Action at Donna's Travel Center

DonnasCocaNewlIA.jpgIn 2013, Donna’s Travel Center in Marysville, Washington, added a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that allows customers to choose from more than 40 Coca-Cola products to create their own special drink.

This Great Idea allows Donna’s to capitalize on the growing trend of customization. Allowing customers to create their own unique products is becoming an expectation, especially for millennials.

Customization elevates customer loyalty and engagement—and this leads to word-of-mouth promotion to potentially untapped customers. 

Photo Credit: Amy Toner/NATSO



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Cookies and Rice Crispies at Pine Cone Travel Plaza

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For four decades Jim Glover has owned Pine Cone Restaurant in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. In late 1990, he also bought Pine Cone Travel Plaza.

Located 40 minutes outside of Madison, Wisconsin, the location features a convenience store, CAT Scale, ATM, copy and fax services, and a fresh deli and bakery in addition to the travel plaza.

These days the fresh deli and bakery is really buzzing. “We offer many services, but the bakery has been the largest increase in the last couple years. The bakery in general has doubled in the last five years,” Glover said.

He attributes the growth to customers wanting freshly prepared, quality food. “We make everything from scratch and fresh to order,” he said.

All food offered at the location is made there and is fresh. Glover doesn’t buy anything pre-made. This is a strong selling point for the truckstop and keeps customers coming back. “People really like food that is made in house. I hear this daily. They don't like the pre-made food/bakery,” he said.

They also take the time to offer specialized food. “Customers love that we make their food to order,” Glover said.

Glover told Stop Watch most truck drivers seem to have less time now than in years past. As a result, sales of the truckstop’s grab-and-go items have increased. “The biggest items for grab and go would be cookies and rice crispies,” he said, adding that they make most everything they sell available in a grab-and-go format with yogurt cups, subs, bakery items and pizza being especially popular.

He’s also noticed a big increase in sales of salads and strawberries and other fruits, especially in the summer. “I wouldn't say that they are eating healthier, but there is a noticeable increase in the summer with fruits and salads,” Glover said.

“The biggest difference I hear about our location is that our prices are very low,” he added. He said most the truck drivers are just amazed by the prices and quantity of food they receive.

This focus on food is keeping the truckstop very busy. “We don't have any plans for future change. Right now we are so busy we are just trying to keep everything going,” he said. 

/// Read more about Pine Cone Travel Plaza's Sweet Tooth Heaven here.

 

Photo Credit: Darren Schulte/NATSO

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This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

The magazine is mailed to NATSO members bimonthly. If you are a member and not receiving Stop Watchsubmit a request to be added to the mailing list. Not a memberJoin today or submit a request to receive additional information.



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Customization + Variety = The Future of Truckstop Beverage Sales

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From traditional and craft sodas to coconut water to energy drinks, today’s consumers have more choices than ever when selecting a beverage, and the number of drinks competing for cooler space is expected to grow.

“As the food service continues to grow, the beverage companies are going to keep introducing new products,” said Stephanie Kowitz, director of shopper insights for Coca-Cola.

The good news for the travel plaza industry is that their customers are buying those beverages. Kowitz said 64 percent of inside sales at truckstops and travel plazas include the purchase of a beverage, and three beverage categories—carbonated soft drinks, energy and water—deliver over 70 percent of the volume of beverage sales.

While there is a lot of potential within the category, travel plazas are most often limited by their cooler space, which means they need to be sure they stock the right products.

To help make space in their coolers, Darren Schulte, vice president of membership for NATSO, suggests operators look at the number of sizes they offer and said it isn’t necessary to offer every available option.

When determining what size to stock, Kowitz said larger immediate consumption package sizes, such as one liter, are an advantage for truckstop retailers over convenience stores.

Sean Flynn, general manager of Flynn’s Truck Plaza, has tried to cut down on the number of facings he gives one product. “Every soda company wants as many facings of their best-selling product as possible. That doesn’t help us sell, but it just looks good,” he said. “If guy wants a Coke 20 ounce, he is going to get the Coke 20 ounce and you don’t have to have 10 facings of it.”

Flynn said that he has found grouping like items together—such as colas with other colas—makes more sense for the consumer. Flynn has been able to maximize cooler space so he could dedicate one door to local, craft sodas, which is appealing to locals and travelers alike.

“We have gone to a local bottler, Polar Beverages. They have some local flavors—a birch beer, Cape Cod cranberry dry seltzer—that you don’t see other places,” Flynn said.

Flynn said it is fun for customers to try new flavors and he hopes they find something that will bring them in again. “If you find something unique you can’t get at a large chain, that is a benefit,” he said.

To help determine the best product mix, Schulte suggests operators look at their local demographic. “Every travel center is different, but sometimes travel center owners or operators, because they’re on the interstate, can forget they have a strong local presence and forget to consider what the local trends or flavors are,” Schulte said.

In addition to craft sodas, craft beers are one way to tap into the local flavor. Schulte said, “There might be a particular craft beer in your market that really does well and why wouldn’t you want to offer that and make that part of what you’re known for?”

Michael Ouimet, president of Ouimet Resources, which operates travel center restaurants in 11 states and provides consulting work, has one location that features 100 types of beer and displays 99 bottles of beer on the wall. “We display them by the bottle and you can pick six for one price,” he said. “It is a point of difference.”

Broadway Flying J Travel Plazas dedicated one door in its 15-door cooler at one Montana location to local craft beers, which has resonated with a range of customers. “We’re on the road to West Yellowstone, and we have a lot of tourists who try the craft beers,” said Damon Borden, a manager at Broadway Flying J. “Even the locals know you can get it at our store and come back and get it.”

Broadway Flying J sells the craft beers by the six-pack and in 24-ounce bottles and has placed special signage on the door. What’s more, staff has taken time to visit the local breweries, so they can answer any questions customers have about the beers.

While the craft beers are popular, the top-selling drinks at Broadway Flying J Travel Plazas are energy drinks, which are selling even better than water, Borden said. “Monster is our top seller, even greater than Red Bull,” he said.

Flynn has also found success with Bawls Guarana, an energy drink. “There was no distributor around here, but we bought pallets from the manufacturer and kept them in our warehouse. We had people driving down from a state away to get it,” he said.

Flynn is also having success with canned iced coffees and coconut water. Americans are now buying around $400 million in coconut water annually, according to the research group Euromonitor.

Kowitz said tea sales “are exploding,” and the National Restaurant Association listed specialty iced tea as a top trend in 2015.

Iced coffees and teas are the fastest growing beverage segments Borden sees. “We sell as much in the winter as in the summer. That Gen X customer is moving away from coffee in general and is looking for iced coffees and smoothies and iced teas,” he said.

While SKU count is important, Schulte said the ability to customize is a priority. “One of the growing trends is customization of your fountain drinks, like the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine,” Schulte said. “There are dozens of flavors on that machine, but I think there are 30,000 different combinations you could come up with. That is what customization is. That makes sense versus having every soda under the sun in your cooler.”

During The NATSO Show 2015, J.T. McMahan, sales director for Coca-Cola, told attendees, “Customization is king.”

Kowitz said creating easy food and beverage bundles can help spur beverage sales and meet customers’ needs. “Thirty-nine percent of food service shoppers say the availability of combination offers is important to their location decision,” Kowitz said. “Combination bundles are most important for midmorning snacks, lunch and mid-afternoon snacks.”

Operators may want to tap into marketing that encourages customers to make a purchase for now and for later, such as signage that shows a fountain drink bundled with a bottled beverage.

While gas and diesel is the most influential item that determines when and where a customer stops, the most impulse purchases are candy, gum, mints, salty snacks, carbonated soft drinks and candy. 

/// Read Twelve Travel Plaza Customer Insights from Coca-Cola and Seven Ways Truckstop and Travel Plaza Operators Can Spur Inside Sales for more beverage retail insight from Coca-Cola.

 

Photo Credit: Flynn’s Truck Plaza

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This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

The magazine is mailed to NATSO members bimonthly. If you are a member and not receiving Stop Watchsubmit a request to be added to the mailing list. Not a memberJoin today or submit a request to receive additional information.



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Truckstop and Travel Plaza Operators Find Ways to Boost Food Service

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Food service is becoming a more important component of the overall sales at truckstops and travel plazas, and today’s customers are demanding greater quality and convenience in the food they purchase. To be successful in food service, operators need to look at several aspects of their business, including their current offerings, their current customer demographics, and the wants and needs of customers they hope to capture.

“Truckers stop two to four times other than when they are fueling. Capturing those stops can bring the highest profitability for independents,” said Jim Fisher, founder and chief executive officer of the market research firm IMST Corp.

Evaluating Existing Offerings
The first step to growing a food service program is for truckstop and travel plaza operators to understand the success of their current food programs, said Darren Schulte, vice president of membership for NATSO. To do that, operators should compare fuel gallon sales to food service sales.

“Are the customers that are fueling with you coming inside and eating with you? Make a connection so you understand what a customer means to your inside,” Schulte said, adding that operators can compare fuel sales to coffee, grab-and-go or full-service restaurant sales.

Schulte said that locations vary, so there is no “right number” when it comes to the ratio of fuel and food service purchases. Simply having a number gives operators a place to start. “Once you have it, start examining it as you make changes,” Schulte said.

Even programs that are doing well should consider how they’re going to transform in the future. “The food service industry is all about change and what is current and what is hip,” said Michael Lawshe, president of Paragon Solutions. “You have to be evolving.”

Because there are so many aspects to a food service program, knowing where to make changes can be challenging.

Lawshe said that often times, operators don’t know exactly where to start. “They say, ‘Maybe I’ll make it pretty or change the booths or add chicken.’ There are a lot of maybes, and the challenge is to do away with what is easiest and what is most convenient and do the work to determine what is best for your location,” he said.

Before operators can determine how they’re going to grow their food service, they need to have a good understanding of what they want to accomplish and whether or not they can commit to it, Fisher said.

“Understand within your organization if you’re capable of handling a strong food service program or if you’d be best served to go the franchise route or go the lease route,” Fisher said. “The first step is to take a hard-core analysis of your organization and establish if you can do this and do it successfully.”

Understanding the Customer
Lawshe said growing food service always comes back to who the customer is. “You want to understand who your customer is today and what your customer base could be,” he said, adding that data is the key to understanding existing and potential customers along with how their needs are changing.

Among professional drivers, speed has become more important as hours-of-service regulations have changed. Michael Ouimet, president of Ouimet Resources, which operates travel center restaurants in 11 states and provides consulting work, said that, on average, a long-haul, regular route trucker is only eating one full-service meal every other day. “Fifteen years ago that was two full-service meals a day,” he said.

Not only are today’s drivers pressed for time, the younger generations have grown up with quick-serve brands. “For that generation, if they weren’t eating fast food three or four times a week, it was unusual,” Ouimet said.

In addition to looking at existing sales, operators should ask fuel customers where they are buying their inside purchases, Fisher said. “I think retailers should be constantly surveying their customers,” he said.

“Getting customer feedback is critical, but that only gives you insight into the existing customer,” Lawshe said.

To help understand customers, Lawshe often obtains studies from IMST or other groups that do statistical analysis. “There are so many layers that you can dig deeper into,” he said. “Often times it will say there are preferences toward this type of food—Mexican or pizza—and this demographic is in the area.”

Fisher said, “There is data out there that takes the buying habits of the residents and locals and shows where they’re spending their money. We will also do a study that shows within trade areas with similar characteristics to this trade area, on a national basis, where consumers are spending their dollars—pizza, chicken, sandwiches.”

Rather than take a “build it and they will come” approach, Fisher said locations should cater to the demographic. “Trade areas dictate what will be sold,” he said, adding that trade areas are constantly changing. “After 10 years, the trade area you built to serve is very different and you better be adjusting, too.”

Lawshe said examining potential customers is important for future growth. “It isn’t just who you’re getting today, it is who you are missing today that you have to find,” Lawshe said. “Once you understand that profile, you can look operationally at a whole series of questions.”

Tracking Current and Future Trends
Across the board, the current trend is toward freshly prepared, quality food. “Years ago drivers who were surveyed would tell you they were eating better, but then they’d go and buy the double cheeseburger in the restaurant. There is a group now that is going to encourage all of us to step up our game on freshness and flavor,” Ouimet said. “I think that locations that have really good full-service restaurants are going to get a little bit of a bump because the guys who are eating that one full-service meal are looking for something real and homemade. They’re looking for something special.”

Fisher said that in recent years, fast food chains, such as Wendy’s, McDonalds and Burger King, have lost their edge. McDonalds reported an 11 percent decrease in revenue and a 30 percent drop in profits for the first three months of year. The chain also announced that it had closed 350 poorly performing stores in Japan, the United States and China in the first three months of 2015, and Fisher said this type of performance is creating opportunities for truckstop and travel plaza operators.

Ouimet said he is seeing sales of healthy grab-and-go items increase. Salads, fresh fruits and vegetables, hard boiled eggs and deviled eggs are flying out of his grab-and-go cases. Sapp Bros. Travel Centers has seen its food sales increase, particularly in the grab-and-go arena. Sapp Bros. operates a proprietary restaurant, Apple Barrel, at six travel centers. “We have quality ingredients and are proud of what we serve. When we talked about how that translates into grab and go, we wanted that quality to carry over,” said Jeff Ryan, director of merchandising for Sapp Bros.

Sapp Bros. began preparing and packaging grab-and-go foods in its restaurant that it could offer in its c-stores. “We do hot meals along with sandwiches and salads and yogurts,” Ryan said. “The grab and go continues to sell very well and increases month over month continuously.”

What’s more, the grab-and-go sales haven’t led to a decrease in restaurant sales, Ryan said. “It is all incremental sales. There are two different customer bases—one that has time to sit down and enjoy a meal with us and one who wants a quality meal and doesn’t have time to sit down and enjoy it,” he said.

Ryan said the hot to-go specials depend on the daily special in the restaurant. “We prepare the same special of the day and put them in to-go packages where the products are labeled and clearly seen and available on the self-serve hot cases,” he said, adding that they take the same meal, chill it and sell it cold in the c-store for drivers to re-heat later.

The restaurant also prepares desserts to go. “It seems like even the customers who want to eat healthy five days a week want to indulge every once in a while. It is human nature,” Ryan said.

When it comes to packaging food, Ryan said Sapp Bros. uses clear containers and labels, which are important so customers know what they’re getting and when it was prepared. “It builds confidence within that transaction,” he said. “We concentrate on freshness and early on we said we wouldn’t worry about waste but focus on providing freshness.”

Unfortunately, shrink is simply part of doing business within the fresh category. Ryan said, “Over time, if you always provide fresh products, your self-branding builds and sales grow. As your sales build, the waste goes down.”

Fisher said, “People are afraid of shrink, but it becomes a part of doing business. To offer fresh, if it says use by such and such, get rid of it after that. If it says 12:20 and it is 12:30, dump it.”

Fisher added that proprietary programs, such as Sapp Bros.’, hold the most potential for profits. Ouimet said that one challenge for independent operators has been that they haven’t always documented their programs.

“You might have Betty Lou who makes great sandwiches and is doing great, but then Betty Lou leaves and the program dies. More operators are starting to put together more documentation because they realize the program is only as good as the documentation that goes with it,” he said.

Optimizing Offerings
Schulte said once operators understand who their customers are and what they want, they can consider making over their menus.

But evolving doesn’t mean simply adding to the menu. “People in our industry tend to let their menu grow, but they don’t cut anything. For everything you add to the menu, you probably should be taking something off,” Lawshe said.

Fisher said, “You have to evaluate and say, ‘Is this still a viable product to have?’”

To make the most of their menus, Schulte recommends operators look at customization rather than growing their SKU counts. “It is the 80-20 rule. Figure out the 20 percent of the products in the food service that you sell the most of and expand on those,” Schulte said. “You can focus on your chili and put chili on Frito’s or hot dogs or spaghetti. It is the customization that matters.” [Customization is also important in a location’s beverage offering. See related story Customization + Variety = The Future of Truckstop Beverage Sales].

In some cases, remaining successful means finding a new way to take on a traditional offering. “Our industry loves the full breakfast and all that it entails, but there are many ways to do that,” Lawshe said.

Instead of having wait staff take orders, operators could have customers order at the counter, then have the food delivered to the table. “It is more like the Panera Bread model—you go through the line, you have a full menu, you order and then they bring it to you. There are a lot of efficiencies in doing that,” Lawshe said.

Taking a Holistic Approach
While the food and presentation within a food service area is a primary driver of a program, Fisher said locations have to look at their overall operations when looking to increase sales.

“If you have great food service but your price sign has dirt behind the numbers and your dispensers are filthy, that’s not going to promote food service,” Fisher said.

Curb appeal is crucial for interstate locations. “Appearance gives you the ability to bring that customer in for the first time, but an appearance is like an Army recruiter—it will only get you once. To have a behavioral, habitual change, you have to have that total experience for customers,” he said.



Photo Credit: Ira Wexler/NATSO

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This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

The magazine is mailed to NATSO members bimonthly. If you are a member and not receiving Stop Watchsubmit a request to be added to the mailing list. Not a memberJoin today or submit a request to receive additional information.



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Truckstop of the Future

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To stay relevant, businesses have to change as their customers change. New innovations can drive sales and create convenience, and the truckstops and travel plazas of the future will embrace improvements that will enhance the customers’ experience. Some early adopters are all ready rolling out technology and new designs that may eventually become the norm.

Purchasing At The Pump
Time is becoming a more important factor for professional and four-wheel drivers alike. To help speed them on their way, a number of companies are developing technology that will allow customers to purchase food at the pump.

Vendgogh has developed a vending machine that integrates with a store’s point-of-sale system. Customers can pay for beverages at the same time they pay for fuel at the pump and pick them up from a vending machine adjacent to the pump. The machines are already in use at some Kangaroo Xpress, Murphy USA and Wilsons Gas Stops locations.

Darren Schulte, vice president of membership for NATSO, said, “I think eventually you’ll see some type of a bell hop situation where the driver can order his food right at the pump and the food will be brought out to him. We are already seeing Wawa and Sheetz doing it for cars.”

“If you’re a truckstop today and you have people on the islands already, how hard would it be to turn that person into an order taker? You now have a way to give a driver something to eat. Trucks don’t have a drive through,” Schulte said.

Drivers Staying In The Cab
As technology has improved, drivers have been able to take care of more and more business from the cab. Drivers no longer have to leave the truck to make phone calls, watch television or send a fax. In the future, drivers may have even fewer reasons to leave the truck, which means truckstops and travel plaza operators will have to continue to find ways to compel drivers to come inside. 

Increased Food Sales
Food service sales, particularly of grab-and-go items, are becoming a larger part of a location’s overall revenue. Learn more in Truckstop and Travel Plaza Operators Find Ways to Boost Food Service.

Drive-Through Lanes
As customers look for even greater convenience, the number of drive-through locations at truckstops and travel plazas is likely to increase. NATSO member Jack Grewal, president of Grewal Brothers Corp., recently opened a drive through for four-wheel customers at the company’s location in Paulding, Ohio. Since it opened, a steady stream of customers has been coming through, Grewal said.

Customers can purchase anything at the drive through that is for sale in the store, be it a gallon of milk or a case of beer. “Beer and pop are the most popular, but our overall sales are doing pretty good, especially in the winter time because people don’t want to get out of their cars,” Grewal said, adding that the drive through has one dedicated employee.

Drive-Through Scales
The Weigh My Truck app from CAT Scale Co., based in Walcott, Iowa, lets drivers visit a scale, weigh and receive their information without ever having to open their door, roll down their window or get out of the truck. Drivers receive a copy of their ticket via email or access it online for six months. Drivers can also set their preferences, so a weight ticket is automatically sent to someone at their company.

Larger Beverage Selection
The drinks drivers are purchasing at truckstops and travel plazas have grown beyond a traditional cup-of-joe or a soda. Today, sales of energy drinks, teas and custom coffees have exploded and those within the industry said beverage choices are going to continue to improve. Learn more in Customization + Variety = The Future of Truckstop Beverage Sales.

Easy To Navigate Layouts
To draw customers in from the pump, locations have to be clean, safe and welcoming. Once customers are through the door, it is important that they can find what they want quickly and easily. Chuck White, vice president of brands and marketing for DAS, said the average c-store customer spends 140 seconds shopping. “Retailers must make it easier for customers to find their way, and more intuitively place the right products in the right place along the consumers' path-to-purchase,” White said. “It is clean sightlines and aisles and the use of way-finding signage—whether it is color coded or is the same shape with the same box—that allows people to use their senses to get to the right place faster. The drugstore CVS has a color-coded way finding system. It is adapting benchmarks across our shopping life and bringing them into a travel center.” 

Customers Interaction via an App
More and more customers are using smart phones, and businesses are finding ways to use apps to improve their customers’ shopping experience. WaWa recently launched its mobile app. Customers can use the app to make mobile payments or pay with a Wawa gift card. They can also find a local Wawa, check fuel prices, view nutrition information and track their loyalty points. 

Real-Time Feedback
A growing number of operators are turning to real-time information to help them improve their product mix and their overall atmosphere.

To ensure their restrooms are always in order, Coffee Cup Fuel Stops is rolling out surveys via iPads placed near the restrooms so customers can rate the restrooms and alert managers if a restroom needs service.

Gilbarco Veeder-Root has created a survey at the pump that allows business owners to learn more about their customers through the Applause TV with VNET system. Greg Erwin, vice president of Erwin Oil, recently tested the systems and used the surveys to ask customers about everything from their favorite coffee flavor to their favorite NCAA team. In return, customers received coupons. “By targeting Millennials with this feature, we were able to grow sales on targeted products,” he said.

 

JulyAugustSWCoversmall.jpg

This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

The magazine is mailed to NATSO members bimonthly. If you are a member and not receiving Stop Watchsubmit a request to be added to the mailing list. Not a memberJoin today or submit a request to receive additional information.



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Navigating the Norms

Being a successful business owner typically means operating within a certain set of norms. That certainly seems easy enough, but the challenge is that norms and the trends they are linked with can be ambiguous.

On the surface, the definition seems quite simple. Psychologist Francesca Cancian said, “Norms are interpreted as shared conceptions about what identities or roles exist and what actions and attributes define a person as a member in good standing with a particular rank.”

Norms are ubiquitous in life. Every time we enter a room, open our mouths to speak, walk down the street or conduct a meeting, norms are in play. Without norms, it is doubtful that there could be such a thing as a free market economy or democratic politics or indeed society as we know it.

For business owners, evaluating the norms can be complex. We find ourselves not only asking what the norms and meaningful trends are, but also how they’re measured and how long must they be measured to be meaningful. Norms span all aspects of our operations. What are normalized interest rates? What are normalized margins? What are normalized sales?

However, norms can be mysterious beasts. David Nelson, a director of several industry study groups, said, “I think of normalize as reverting to the mean.” He added that normal weather would be average weather for the time of year it is being reported on while the normal or natural rate of unemployment is the long-term average rate of unemployment, which averages 5 to 6 percent in the U.S.

Nelson said normal interest rates would be something like the rate of inflation (or anticipated inflation) + the real rate of interest, which is around 3 percent for low risk. “Crude prices are trickier but looking at the inflation-adjusted real price over time would give some idea of whether the real price of oil is higher or lower relative to historical norms.” [See chart above].

New norms emerge when fundamental circumstances are permanently, as opposed to temporarily, altered. It’s often argued that all trends revert back to a norm, and staying current on trends and peeling back the layers involved in them is crucial to meeting our customers’ needs.

When examining what might be a new norm, I often think of a quote from Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” he said.

Ultimately, norms are guidelines or expectations that are constantly changing, so we must be vigilant in asking three questions: Is this a new norm? Who declared this a norm? What normalization methodology was used?

JulyAugustSWCoversmall.jpg

This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

The magazine is mailed to NATSO members bimonthly. If you are a member and not receiving Stop Watchsubmit a request to be added to the mailing list. Not a memberJoin today or submit a request to receive additional information.



via Business Feeds

Restaurant Owners Band Together on Facebook to Find Dine-and-Dashers

dine-and-dashers

Facebook has several different uses for businesses. But one Ohio restaurant owner recently found a new use for the social media giant aside from the obvious ones, like marketing and responding to customers.

Steve Schimoler, chef and owner of Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland, created a Facebook post after two brothers visited the restaurant and allegedly left without paying – they were dine-and-dashers.

His post included a photo of the men, along with a caption that read:

“Better shot of the two who walked last night from Crop and Cento. And they are brothers. [Names withheld]. Apparently they are notorious for this before. Can run, but can’t hide. Watch out share any info please if you know where they may be. He uses other peoples numbers and addresses apparently.” [sic]

As it turns out, the men had a history of being dine-and-dashers and had done the same at multiple restaurants in the Cleveland area in the few days prior to the incident. So Schimoler’s post got a lot of visibility in the community. And the very next day, David Flowers, general manager of Johnny’s, another restaurant in the area, apprehended the men when they again tried to be dine-and-dashers and skip out on their bill.

He had recognized the men from Schimoler’s Facebook post, so he knew to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. Schimoler said to WKYC on the Facebook post, as reported by Business Insider:

“It worked instantly because the word got around quickly.”

Though most businesses simply use Facebook to get the word out about their products or services, this story illustrates the power that the platform can have.

However, not every post has the same reach as Schimoler’s did in this situation. For a post to get around and have an impact this quickly, it needs to relate to a lot of different people.

If his post was framed as just asking for help from people, it might not have had the same impact. Instead, he created a post that was aimed at informing others who might find themselves in the same situation.

There was a clear audience (other restaurant owners in the area) so people knew when the post related to them. And those people were also more likely to forward the post on to other relevant individuals.

With all of the different functions that Facebook offers for businesses, people sometimes forget that it’s first and foremost a platform for communication. So, whether you have questions, concerns, or cautions for people in your network, don’t be afraid to reach out on the platform.

You never know how it might be able to help your business.

Image: Crop Bistro & Bar

This article, "Restaurant Owners Band Together on Facebook to Find Dine-and-Dashers" was first published on Small Business Trends



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Restaurant Owners Band Together on Facebook to Find Dine-and-Dashers

dine-and-dashers

Facebook has several different uses for businesses. But one Ohio restaurant owner recently found a new use for the social media giant aside from the obvious ones, like marketing and responding to customers.

Steve Schimoler, chef and owner of Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland, created a Facebook post after two brothers visited the restaurant and allegedly left without paying – they were dine-and-dashers.

His post included a photo of the men, along with a caption that read:

“Better shot of the two who walked last night from Crop and Cento. And they are brothers. [Names withheld]. Apparently they are notorious for this before. Can run, but can’t hide. Watch out share any info please if you know where they may be. He uses other peoples numbers and addresses apparently.” [sic]

As it turns out, the men had a history of being dine-and-dashers and had done the same at multiple restaurants in the Cleveland area in the few days prior to the incident. So Schimoler’s post got a lot of visibility in the community. And the very next day, David Flowers, general manager of Johnny’s, another restaurant in the area, apprehended the men when they again tried to be dine-and-dashers and skip out on their bill.

He had recognized the men from Schimoler’s Facebook post, so he knew to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. Schimoler said to WKYC on the Facebook post, as reported by Business Insider:

“It worked instantly because the word got around quickly.”

Though most businesses simply use Facebook to get the word out about their products or services, this story illustrates the power that the platform can have.

However, not every post has the same reach as Schimoler’s did in this situation. For a post to get around and have an impact this quickly, it needs to relate to a lot of different people.

If his post was framed as just asking for help from people, it might not have had the same impact. Instead, he created a post that was aimed at informing others who might find themselves in the same situation.

There was a clear audience (other restaurant owners in the area) so people knew when the post related to them. And those people were also more likely to forward the post on to other relevant individuals.

With all of the different functions that Facebook offers for businesses, people sometimes forget that it’s first and foremost a platform for communication. So, whether you have questions, concerns, or cautions for people in your network, don’t be afraid to reach out on the platform.

You never know how it might be able to help your business.

Image: Crop Bistro & Bar

This article, "Restaurant Owners Band Together on Facebook to Find Dine-and-Dashers" was first published on Small Business Trends



via Small Business Trends Business Feeds

Search in China Goes Beyond Baidu as Qihoo 360 Launches in Hong Kong

Qihoo 360 hopes a partnership with an agent in Hong Kong will help promote its search engine capabilities to international brands looking for new channels to reach Chinese consumers.


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Bing Beats Out Google in AOL Deal

bing aol deal

Bing has trumped Google with the announcement of a new Bing AOL partnership. The 10-year deal will be effective Jan. 1, 2016, with Bing powering search and search listings across the AOL portfolio of sites.

Google previously held the AOL deal since the early 2000s. The company may not view being outed as a great loss. According to a recent analysis report by comScore,Google holds around 64 percent of the core search share in the US. AOL is currently only holding just over 1 percent of the search share.

But even with Google holding the majority of search in the U.S., Bing is catching up. The company has pushed just over 20 percent of the share hold and is slowly taking more ground. This new Bing AOL partnership is just another step for Bing in the company’s quest to gain more of the market.

Microsoft says in the announcement:

“Now with 20 percent organic market share in the U.S., Bing continues to grow organically as well as through key partnerships like the one with AOL. This deal with AOL is the latest to validate the quality of Bing results and the performance of the Bing Ads marketplace. Bing is also an integral part of popular first- and third-party devices and services.”

The new Bing AOL partnership will also see AOL taking over as Microsoft’s seller for display formats, such as mobile and video, in nine markets: Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.

Google may dominate search in the US but this new partnership could keep the company on its toes. Bing is pushing to gain more of the market and become a force with which to be reckoned. The deal with AOL may not give a large increase to Bing’s percentage, but every bit helps.

This article, "Bing Beats Out Google in AOL Deal" was first published on Small Business Trends



RSS Business Feeds

Bing Beats Out Google in AOL Deal

bing aol deal

Bing has trumped Google with the announcement of a new Bing AOL partnership. The 10-year deal will be effective Jan. 1, 2016, with Bing powering search and search listings across the AOL portfolio of sites.

Google previously held the AOL deal since the early 2000s. The company may not view being outed as a great loss. According to a recent analysis report by comScore,Google holds around 64 percent of the core search share in the US. AOL is currently only holding just over 1 percent of the search share.

But even with Google holding the majority of search in the U.S., Bing is catching up. The company has pushed just over 20 percent of the share hold and is slowly taking more ground. This new Bing AOL partnership is just another step for Bing in the company’s quest to gain more of the market.

Microsoft says in the announcement:

“Now with 20 percent organic market share in the U.S., Bing continues to grow organically as well as through key partnerships like the one with AOL. This deal with AOL is the latest to validate the quality of Bing results and the performance of the Bing Ads marketplace. Bing is also an integral part of popular first- and third-party devices and services.”

The new Bing AOL partnership will also see AOL taking over as Microsoft’s seller for display formats, such as mobile and video, in nine markets: Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.

Google may dominate search in the US but this new partnership could keep the company on its toes. Bing is pushing to gain more of the market and become a force with which to be reckoned. The deal with AOL may not give a large increase to Bing’s percentage, but every bit helps.

This article, "Bing Beats Out Google in AOL Deal" was first published on Small Business Trends



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