Snake Oil: Losing your money on SEO

As a web developer, nothing has been more frustrating over the years than talking to clients who’ve spent big bucks on SEO firms in hopes of raising their Google search rankings. The one that really sticks out in my mind is a client who spent several thousand dollars with an SEO firm for a report and recommendations for increasing her traffic; my job was to take several thousand dollars more of her money to implement those suggestions.

To be fair, many of the suggestions were solid: include meta-tags, use the right title tag, use alt-tags on your images, make sure your text includes your search terms. But added to those suggestions were several that just blew my mind. I won’t go into them, because it’s too tangential, but suffice to say they would have made the site unreadable for most visitors, and the text would clearly have been written for search engines instead of people.

For any business running a website, it’s heartbreaking to have a great product or service, only to find your traffic nonexistent and your search rank at the bottom of the pile. SEOs prey on that feeling of helplessness and, for a steep price, offer you hope. Unfortunately, if you read the fine print, they’ll admit they can’t promise you more traffic or — more importantly — conversions. And they shouldn’t.

Generally speaking, the companies with the best search rank are exactly who you’d expect them to be. They’re established businesses that already boast lots of traffic. In that way, the Internet as an ecosystem is no different than the actual business world. If I want to buy a computer, odds are the first places that will spring to mind are Best Buy or Dell or HP — not Chuck’s Computer Warehouse in Great Bend. Chuck’s been in business now for six months. He builds the machines in his basement, but uses substantially the same parts as the big boys. If Chuck wants to compete with the big boys, how does he do that? If he’s running a primarily Internet-based business, the temptation is to hire an SEO firm and get his site on the first page of Google search results for, say “buy a computer.” Right?

HP, Dell and Best Buy didn’t get where they are by SEO alone. They got there using tried-and-true advertising — print, television, radio, online. As power players, they’ve held quite a bit of authority over the computer sales market for a considerable amount of time. But if you search “buy a computer” on Google right now, HP and Best Buy don’t even show up on page 1. Instead, you get newegg.com, tigerdirect.com and a few others. Some of which I’ve never heard of, and would never send my money to. But that’s the company Chuck would be in with the help of an SEO. He may see a dramatic spike in traffic, but will it translate into sales?

SEO can’t sell a computer. Maybe it will drive traffic, but those numbers are false comfort; they’re often inflated and many of the “visits” you track are accidental or worse. You don’t want someone stumbling on your website; you want them heading there on purpose with the intent to buy.

I’d venture to guess that almost nobody visits the Dell website just to hang out. You visit when you’re ready to buy a computer. The same thing applies to Chuck. If he’s got a great search rank and lots of traffic but isn’t selling anything, the immediate reaction is that his deals aren’t good, right?

Not really. Chuck’s problem may be that his website looks unprofessional, and thus his business seems untrustworthy. Or it could just be that he isn’t getting the traffic he really needs: direct traffic from people who are ready to buy. There is only one way to get that traffic: Advertising.

Save the money you’d spend on SEO and put it into advertising. Carefully identify your target demographic and try different ways of reaching them. Create a real ad campaign that creates top-of-mind awareness for your company or product. Make sure it can’t be ignored (remember Head On? Yeah, apply directly to the forehead), and advertise in places you know your target demographic visits. Chuck needn’t worry about advertising in the local newspaper, but if he can afford an ad with C-NET, he might actually see some results. But if Chuck is only interested in selling to the local market, national ads are the exact wrong way to go. And Chuck must make sure to tell his story: What makes Chuck’s computers different or better than his competitors?

The bottom line is this: You want your site to be a destination. If customers aren’t thinking of you before they type in their search terms, seeing your name in their search results will not change their mind. Rather than focusing on visits from those who stumble across your site, focus on getting visitors who went there on purpose — with money in hand, ready to buy.

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4 Responses to Snake Oil: Losing your money on SEO

  1. Josh says:

    Did you see the piece at Brow Beat over the summer about Esquire’s slimy SEO practices?

    As you mention, SEO isn’t entirely hogwash — but tricking people into coming to your site is. We [the company I work for] got on the first search results page on Bing when you searched for Michael Jackson’s new song this morning — but if you clicked through, you actually got an article about the song with a link to listen to it; we didn’t trick you into coming for it and not offer it.

    But instituting certain practices have definitely boosted our results — not just better-placed keywords but some writing style and some coding, as well.

    • asciidan says:

      Wow. Great link. I never pay attention to what Esquire is doing online — or off, for that matter — but that’s about as slimy as it gets!

      Since I know where you work, I’ll ask if it’s really your goal to be known as the site with Michael Jackson’s new song it. I would argue that the traffic you’d get from that isn’t the right traffic — especially if you’re looking for results for your advertisers. As geeks, you and I want as much traffic as possible, but advertisers want as much local traffic as possible, hopefully from folks who can head over to Drivers Village and buy that new car.

      Fortunately, you guys have cornered the local market, and nobody is likely to steal your lunch any time soon. Probably ever. The trick (and you likely know this all too well) is getting advertisers to pay what the eyeballs are worth. But that’s another discussion altogether. Suffice to say you have everything going for you: a great domain name, top-of-mind awareness and good content. You are a destination site, which makes your search engine rankings nearly irrelevant.

      My main point above is this: SEO tricks will almost always get you in trouble with Google, and they rarely work for a sustained period of time, given the fact that Google changes its algorithm about 450 times per year. If everybody just followed best web practices and ignored all the tricks the SEO folks are trying to sell them, we’d have a much better Internet altogether.

      • Josh says:

        Well, while it’s not our primary goal to be “known” for such content — that is, we don’t want it *replacing* the local news and sports we’re a destination for — if you’re someone in Nebraska looking for MJ’s new tune, yes, we’d love to give you the chance to get it here, rather than sending you to the Washington Post or some other random place Google might find for you — and then to give you the option to click around, since you’ve already found at least one thing on the site you’re interested in, maybe there’s more.

  2. […] agree with that, and I’ve said it before. I believe now, and have believed for years, that SEOs can only provide raw numbers, and way too […]

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