Search engine optimization (SEO) can deliver strong results for every client, but columnist Marcus Miller explains why it may not be right for every business or every situation.
This may seem strange coming from an SEO guy, but there are many situations where organic search may not be the best option for a given marketing challenge.
In fact, there are times when SEO is just simply not a good fit. In this article, I am going to look at a few common scenarios we see at my agency where we have been contacted for SEO and have fed back that we believe that SEO is either not aligned with their requirements or there is some other form of mismatch (speed, budget, etc.).
This is the first and most common issue we see. The business wants to rank for a given term within a fixed time period for a set budget. Ultimately, you have to survey the landscape; and whether you are a local business or a national business, you must be realistic about what your spend needs to be to effectively move you to where you want to be.
Estimating the cost of SEO projects is often difficult in itself. There are a lot of variables, but, in most cases, by using tools like Majestic and Ahrefs you can get a handle on what the competition looks like and what a ballpark approach to moving forward will look like.
Of course, even when attained, work must be done to maintain your highly desirable organic placement, and whilst this is typically less than the cost to aggressively move forward, you will have to factor this into your marketing budgets.
The availability of budget can also lead people towards the SEO dark side. There will always be someone willing to play fast and loose with Google’s guidelines to show short-term improvement and relieve you of your marketing budget — whilst likely doing more harm than good over the long term.
The timeframe issue usually crops up along with budget, and there is commonly a desire to be top three within a given time period. Again, you can’t simply dictate how long this will take.
For one, SEO can be and usually is a moving target. Furthermore, if you are on page three and want to rank in the top three listings on page one, then we have to do some work and get a handle on how quickly you can move forward. Typically, as we get closer and closer to the top of the first page, then the improvements can slow down and results can jump around a little.
As with determining a budget, you should be able to get a handle on the digital mountain you have to climb and be able to approximate a timeframe that factors in the available budget. We can be informed here by the project management triangle that teaches us that SEO projects can never be good, fast and cheap, and at best it will only ever hit two of these criteria — the work could be good and fast, but it certainly won’t be cheap.
3. Ad competition
Whilst there is much fuss and bluster regarding Penguin and Panda and other components of the algorithm that aggressively target low-quality content or attempts to manipulate the results, the real war on spam is fought by the page layout team.
Google’s recent moves to show four ads at the top of the search results page for some queries, and then to make these ads even bigger, has pushed organic content further than ever down the page. Factor in site links and ad extensions in paid results, and you could have more than 20 links above the first organic listing. Blend in some local results, image results, news, or other content into that first page, and organic listings for highly commercial terms can look like a poor relative of the big booming ads.
Competition in the ad space is fierce as well. Advertisers have a close eye on what keywords are driving results and can sculpt perfect landing pages and ad creative to ensure the organic listings around commercial terms are seeing fewer and fewer clicks. Organic may get more clicks overall; however, when we look at purely commercial terms, the paid results were seeing two clicks for every one organic click, and just think how Google has bullied commercial organic since then!
4. The wrong keywords
We see this often, and it is usually the case that some keywords are unlikely to deliver the goods while others don’t work because there’s no strategy in place to turn those clicks into customers. The best example here would be where informational keyword searches are targeted but the user is dropped onto a specific commercial page; for example, “best LCD TVs” drops the user on a page listing LCD TVs rather than some editorials or reviews to help that user make a purchase decision.
Often it is not clear how a given set of terms will perform, and as such, we like to conduct some basic testing using PPC to better determine the value of those keywords. Buying 1000 clicks and demonstrating results with some simple sums to determine metrics can help you dodge an SEO bullet.
You may see some resistance against this approach, but a one-month PPC campaign that generates no results is better than a six month SEO campaign that ranks the terms without the results.
Ultimately, Google is so smart now that ranking for specific terms absolutely requires the best content for that search term. So again, if you are not able or are unwilling to create that content, this may not be the best SEO strategy for you.
The lines blur somewhat between content marketing, social media marketing, and SEO once we get into the informational end of the keyword spectrum, so ensure your strategy allows for this.
There are lots of ways in which keywords may not be the best fit, from ad competition to just being strategically off by a few degrees. Ensure your keywords perform before you commit to a long-term campaign.
5. New businesses
Organic search can take time and effort, so if you are setting up in an existing and highly competitive industry and absolutely require fast results, then SEO may not be right for you. Even in the local business space, we can see campaigns take six months or longer to really deliver the goods.
If speed is important to you, you may want to focus on a marketing tactic that can deliver the goods quickly. Then, look at slowly building up your organic traffic in the background whilst carefully measuring the results from your organic campaign.
6. New product or service
If there is not much awareness around the product or service you are launching, then SEO may not be the best option. If no one is searching for you or what you do, then no one will find you.
In this instance, you need to focus on the pain points of your customers so you can target them with ads or content that raises awareness of your product or service. You’ll want a more typical funnelled approach that makes the prospect aware of you and then educates them as to how your product is going to make their life easier, make them money, and/or save them time.
7. Only prepared to settle for first place
SEO is a zero-sum game, so if you’re targeting highly commercial terms through organic search, then it there is always going to be competition. There is no magic formula here, and if you take a bite out of someone else’s digital apple they will likely want to bite you back.
Instead of focusing on rankings, which are flaky and variable due to any number of algorithmic factors like location and personalization, look at return on investment for organic in relation to other channels, and consider what you can do to ensure you maximize profit from organic search.
8. Too much brand competition
Sadly, we are now seeing certain sectors where there is just too much brand competition. Now, I am a firm believer in the idea that even when the top slots are occupied by big brands, these are often generalist sites.
So if you focus on being the expert and the very best result, you can worm your way in without having to duplicate Amazon’s link profile or some such. Again, you have to be careful.
9. Multiple countries
Targeting multiple countries is completely doable. It can also be expensive and complicated to do well in organic search. Again, we come back to the budget and timeframe issues, so by utilising platforms like AdWords, you can quickly and easily target multiple locations with laser precision.
At the very least, test the water by using a paid search campaign and a country- specific landing page so you can determine that your strategy has merit before you roll out an expensive international search campaign.
10. Multiple languages
This is an extension of the multiple countries issue, and when you have to target multiple languages across multiple locations, this can get hugely complicated very quickly. If you look at somewhere like Switzerland where there are four languages commonly spoken (German, French, Italian and Rumantsch), you are going to need four language versions of your content for this location alone.
Ensuring your sparkly sales copy translates well to the target audience can be an issue itself, so again, ensure you know what you are getting yourself into.
SEO and digital marketing have grown up over the last fifteen years or so. There is a still a touch of the Wild West spirit to marketing online, but you must be realistic about what can be achieved in a given timeframe, especially when entering competitive markets and/or competing with established brands.
That is not to say SEO won’t work for a given business, but can you get where you need to be with the resources you have available? Much like all marketing, you must be prepared to invest in your campaign, and you absolutely must be consistent to see results. Those that spend without much planning or have never stopped to consider how achievable their goals are within organic search often get burned in the SEO services wasteland.
It’s also important to distinguish SEO jobs like chasing big commercial keywords and how your business is presented in search results when a customer Googles your name. You may not want to go after the big terms, but you will most definitely want to ensure your digital shop window on Google looks the part — so be clear on the many kinds of SEO and in particular how you are presented on a search engine.
What we typically see at my agency is that SEO works best as part of an integrated digital marketing campaign that is aligned within a single strategic plan. SEO, PPC, content marketing and social media typically form the backbone of this plan, along with time-proven marketing principles like commitment, investment and consistency. Get all of these elements working together, and consider all the angles from reputation management to branding, and your campaign will deliver far more than the sum of its parts.