March 20, 2012
‘Page One’ is Nirvana, Utopia, and the Holy Grail all rolled into one Google Street Map location where the little yellow man hovers triumphantly next to your company offices. Better change that ‘yellow man’ to ‘solid gold man’ – 24-carat success that’s heading down your street sometime soon. And it’s all thanks to those SEO people who strode confidently into your world last week.
“We’ll have you on Page One within weeks,” they tell you. “We’ll do some keyword research and pretty soon you’ll be drowning in sales leads.”
This is a beguiling scenario – and one which is probably played out thousands of times in as many businesses every week across the world. The mere mention of the word ‘SEO’ makes corporate eyes glaze over with dreams of world domination.
What some of the more unscrupulous SEO people fail to mention is that Page One rankings don’t come easily – and certainly not where the more competitive (and therefore commercially worthwhile) keywords are concerned. They omit to mention that SEO isn’t a magical ‘quick fix’ that will propel web pages to top rankings in a matter of weeks. They also forget to remind you that there are so many aspects to web page rankings other than placing keywords in all the right places. (That may have worked five years ago. Today, things are very different.)
The other side of this coin is that clever SEO can result in high page rankings for companies who are not necessarily the best in their field. Unfair? Yes – but it was ever thus. Just think about the big companies of ten or twenty years ago with huge advertising budgets who created massive exposure for brands that weren’t necessarily ‘the best’. (More about this later!)
Is Page One Always Paved With Gold?
Even when all the SEO elements are in place to give you a fighting chance in today’s complex and competitive SEO environment, there is still a raft of awkward (and often unanswerable) questions that arise about the value of web page rankings.
Depending on whose research you read, the difference in click-through rates (CTRs) between a Number One ranked page on Google and the page in second place can be a massive two or three times! This difference narrows considerably between pages ranked second or third. It continues in rapidly diminishing slices to the bottom of Page One where a Number Ten ranked page is of dubious commercial value.
To give you an idea of how insignificant a number ten ranking can be: the CTR figures for a number eleven ranking – i.e. top of page two – are marginally higher simply because the eyes of the relatively few searchers who click onto page two are drawn to the top of the page!
Getting back to the top rankings of Page One – a page ranked at Number One on Google is rewarded with a ‘winner-takes-all’ jackpot. The value of a top-ranked page is likely to be out of all proportion to its relative ‘quality’, usefulness or relevance to a searcher’s keyword query. Arguably, this is the biggest single flaw in the whole ‘search’ concept. The fact is, however, it’s only human nature to click on the top-rated page because it’s perceived as being ‘the best’. If Google ranks it Number One (with all its sophisticated selection techniques), conventional wisdom says it MUST be the best!
What a layman wouldn’t realize is that a Number One ranking may be the result of superior SEO, and nothing to do with the merits of that particular business. The other ‘problem’ is that, by definition, there is only one ‘Number One’ spot. Google has no place for ‘joint second’ or ‘joint-anything’ in its rankings! That can only be in the eye of the beholder.
Statistically, lower-ranking web pages can still attract respectable numbers of viewers and clicks. The reverence given to top pages in the web rankings may be about misplaced confidence, but all pages ranked below the top two or three positions will inevitably attract a certain degree of skepticism whose quality appeal will be compared, rightly or wrongly, in a less favorable light.
The saddest part of all this is that Google’s algorithms rank pages with great accuracy – but only according to their own criteria. Can robots realistically assess product quality, for example, or amazing customer service?
Herein lies the paradox – or unfairness – of SEO. For companies whose offerings aren’t necessarily the best, good SEO is worth its weight in gold. For those companies without effective SEO support (for whatever reason), the otherwise brilliant aspects of their business will go begging, in the online world at least.
Some would argue that a top-ranked site would soon be rumbled if it didn’t deliver on its promises. The ultimate business truth for a top site begins to emerge with the landing page that a ‘click’ delivers. What first impression does the site create? More specifically, how impressive is the design, website copywriting, ease of navigation and every other aspect of usability?
This extends to the pure ‘physical’ contact that a prospect has with the business in terms of inter-personal chemistry and service efficiency at every stage in the sales process. Much of this lies outside the scope of SEO where the ultimate responsibility of converting leads to sales rests with the company itself.
The REAL Value of Keywords
An important question in SEO is how much intrinsic value resides in a specific keyword and, whether SEO has the potential to take everyone on a fool’s errand?
When it comes to bigger companies, for instance, can a massive SEO investment in trying to achieve top ranking for almost-generic, ultra-competitive keywords be worth all the disappointment and soul-searching? Surely, in so many cases, there has to be a better way?
At the other end of the scale are smaller companies with a limited marketing budget, particularly in the business-to-business sphere. There is often a fine balance to achieve when it comes to investing in SEO for what can only be low-traffic keywords in niche sectors, even where higher gross margins per sale indicate otherwise.
Realizing this, many companies will opt out of the online sales dance, or resign themselves to having a website that is little more than an ‘online brochure’ presence or a support mechanism for Pay-Per-Click or social media activities. Others, however, will persist in their delusion, often encouraged by SEO companies who – out of business naivety or pure self-interest – will over-promise when it comes to levels of return on investment (ROI).
Whatever the type or size of business which embarks on SEO, a Page One ranking would likely be the original aim. Raw keywords, by definition, are the online thread running through everything a company does. To achieve sales inquiries based on effective keyword selection will validate its SEO involvement. Whether it delivers on ROI or not depends on many factors outside of SEO on the one hand – but also within the scope of SEO on the other.
Despite the voices of so many SEO evangelists, the down-to-earth reality is that the online sales process is, in its essentials, no different from the bricks and mortar process – except of course in the false expectations whipped up by SEO hype.
Mike Beeson is a UK freelance copywriter, journalist and PR consultant specializing in website and SEO copywriting. Mike’s company, Buzzwords Limited, was established over 20 years ago and is located in Knutsford, Cheshire (south Manchester). For more information, visit: www.buzzwords.ltd.uk/website_copywriting.htm or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org