November 20, 2008
These are tough times, no doubt. The pinch is on every business to cut unnecessary costs and improve efficiency. Those businesses that were squeaking by to begin with are now in danger of closing their doors.
Advertising is usually one of the first items on the chopping block (though it shouldn’t be). You’ve got to cut costs, and you certainly don’t want to lay off any employees if you can help it, so you start looking a bit more closely at your marketing budget to see where you can reign in ad spending. It’s a natural reaction to a tightening budget, and there is a good reason for it.
Most business owners know that you need to advertise. Sure, word of mouth is great – there’s nothing like a referral from a happy client to instill trust in a prospect – but you still need to be proactive in getting the word out. The trouble with advertising in the traditional sense is that it is difficult to know whether your efforts are working and what is generating the best value for your dollar. The uncertainty makes it hard to keep throwing money into your ad spend. When your budget tightens it is even harder to justify the cost when the benefits are fuzzy at best.
But marketing on the web is different. The costs are lower, return on investment can be much higher and traffic data allows you to chop out the dead wood and optimize your budget. Search engines are a primary driver of traffic on the web (second in use only to email according to a report by Pew Internet & American Life Project and comScore). Search engine optimization (SEO), as a result, has received an increasing amount of well-deserved attention.
For most small businesses, SEO is new. Some have considered it, perhaps even done a bit of research on the topic, but haven’t yet invested in it. Others have invested in it in the past and found themselves disappointed with the results. A few have found real success.
In this economy, why should a company consider a new marketing channel like search when they’re already looking to cut their budget? What about the risks involved in such a new endeavor? What if it doesn’t work? These are all valid questions. For those who spend most of their time building and maintaining their businesses and systems, reading up on what makes search engines tick is unlikely. Understanding SEO enough to truly leverage it for growth can seem a long way off.
So why SEO, and why now?
- Unparalelled ROI
A 2006 MarketingSherpa survey of 3,053 client-side marketers determined that SEO was viewed as the most valuable marketing solution in terms of ROI, even higher than email marketing to in-house email lists. ROI is everything – especially in uncertain economic times.
- Targeted Traffic
Traditional “push” marketing/advertising options often have you publishing an advertisement in a place where you’re hoping it will get a lot of eyeballs. That’s great, but the real question is: who owns those eyeballs? Are they the right people? Do they want or need what you’re offering? With SEO, up front keyword research can tell you a lot about your market and what kind of language they’re using. When choose your keywords and optimize for them, you’re addressing an existing need or desire – and you know that at least a good portion of visitors referred from search engines through your target keywords are looking for exactly what you’re offering. In short, SEO helps to drive high quality traffic to your website and gets your message in front of the right people at the right time.
- Precise Tracking
Web analytics allow you to track your users with a great deal of granularity. The most basic and easy to set up analytics platform is Google Analytics – and it’s free. Out of the box, Google Analytics will tell you where visitors are coming from (including what search engines and keywords), what pages bring in the most users, what keywords have the lowest bounce rates (the measure of users who immediately leave your site after viewing one page), what keywords drive the most pages per visit and average time on site and a lot more. With basic conversion tracking you can even tie keywords to conversion rates – an incredibly valuable way to identify the most valuable keywords and focus on them. Bottom line: with web analytics you can identify the dead wood in your campaign and focus on better opportunities to optimize your marketing budget in real time.
How should you approach SEO?
If you’re considering investing in SEO as a marketing channel there are two basic options:
- Take the SEO work on in-house
- Hire an agency or consultant and outsource SEO
The In-House Option
Hiring for an in-house SEO position is often out of the budget range for small businesses – in this economic climate especially. Existing employees, on the other hand, can play an important role – especially those who are already regularly updating your website. It requires careful research, planning and execution, but with the right training and guidance much of the work required can be handled in-house.
There are also some simple things you can be doing in-house to improve your SEO.
- That company you partner with – do they have a website? If so, consider asking them to link to you (after you link to them). Links are a powerful way to improve your search engine rankings.
- That trade organization you belong to – do they have a directory on their website where they list and link to members? That could be the source of a quick and easy link.
- Thinking about starting a blog? It’s a great way to build content on your site and bring in attention and links – just keep in mind you’ve got to be serious about it and actually post regularly.
Search engines are very complex, but in the end the websites they reward with high rankings are those that get the simple things right: they feature interesting content on a regular basis, they stick around with the same domain name and with the same topic for years and they build links over time and from other relevant and trusted websites.
The Outsourcing Option
Full disclosure: I am biased. I run a search engine marketing agency. But I hope you’ll hear me out anyway.
Hiring an SEO agency to either handle the full scope of work or to consult on research and strategy and delegate to your web developer makes sense in many situations. SEO agencies usually spend a great deal of time researching strategies and tactics and compiling resources – all of which can help you hit the ground running with your SEO campaign. But you need to find the right agency.
Let’s be clear: no SEO agency can guarantee you rankings or growth. If they tell you they can, they’re being either dishonest or foolish, or both. The bottom line is that SEO experts don’t control the search engines. Changes to Google’s algorithm can, and usually do, come unannounced. That is out of our hands.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the burden of risk should fall entirely on your shoulders. Failure of a campaign shouldn’t mean you lost your investment, the agency “did their best” and it just didn’t work out. Smart agencies recognize that the best thing they can do is share the risk with the client. How? Simply: they set specific goals and benchmarks and stick to them. That may mean they continue working at a discounted rate if they don’t reach a goal. On the other hand, they may offer to work on a performance-based contract from the start so their compensation will be linked directly to the return on your investment. The point is, it should be more of a partnership than a client/vendor relationship. That is as important now as it ever has been.
SEO is scalable – you don’t have to throw everything and the kitchen sink into it. Sometimes just taking a few small steps here and there over time adds up to success. Other times you need a one-time overhaul of your site, or maybe a long-term relationship with an expert who can help chart the course. It will depend on the goals you set for your website and how realistic they are given the limits of time and resources. But search engines are going to remain the primary driver of traffic and sales on the web for the forseeable future. SEO, for that reason, shouldn’t be an afterthought to your marketing plan, even in tough economic times – indeed, with such a high potential return on your investment, it should be a priority.
About the Author
Mike Tekula is the President and Founder of Unstuck Digital, Inc., a Long Island SEO company that provides clients with effective and affordable search engine marketing strategies.