SEO Revisited: An Updated Look at Search Engine Optimization
Search engines control what results users view, and their algorithms are black boxes you have no influence over. I'd argue that it's better to focus your efforts where you can actually control the outcome.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece titled “SEO Demystified” in which I tried to provide some clarity about Search Engine Optimization, a topic that has engendered a lot of discussion over the years. It’s also caused many marketers to spend a fortune on consultants, sometimes with questionable results. One of our clients once mentioned to me that they were working with an SEO consultant whose advice was that they advertise on Google using 5,000 keywords. Needless to say, it was expensive and the client was not happy with the outcome.
A few days ago, I read an article in Wired UK about a British couple who took on Google because it was manipulating search results to favor its own business that provided a similar service. The company, Foundem, had developed a comparison shopping site that became the go-to site for price comparisons in the UK. Initially, Foundem had ranked first or third in search results. Then, suddenly, it was down in the 70s and 80s (though it stayed on top on Yahoo and Bing). In a single stroke, Foundem had effectively vanished from the internet and, for all effective purposes, was dead. As the article says, today Foundem’s website is the digital equivalent of a boarded-up house (take a look for yourself). To make a long story short, the couple went after Google with the European Commissioner for Competition and, despite many ups and downs, persisted in their quest. The end result 11 years later was a £2.1 billion fine against Google from the EU.
It’s a fascinating story and the reason I bring it up is that, in my opinion, search engine results are a “black box” whose workings a marketer has no control over. In 2014 The Huffington Post published an amusing article titled “The Best Place to Hide a Dead Body is Page Two of Google” in which the author argues that “The best and safest way to do SEO is just good old-fashioned marketing and PR. This new reality points to search engine visibility being a trailing indicator of good marketing.” Although my position may be controversial to some, I tend to agree.
Think about it. How hard is it, and how many resources are necessary, for you to get yourself to the highest rankings in the search engines? Is it even likely you’ll succeed? How many companies have the resources and the patience to do so? I would argue few if any. Here's another argument supporting this: in some categories, a large portion of first page search results is dedicated to Google adwords and Google Maps results. Even if you were able to get on the podium of page one search results, you probably won't be at the top of the page anyway.
My advice aligns with the Huffington Post recommendation: focus on smart digital marketing. Digital marketing enables you to precisely target the audience you want and, with the technology we have today, to know who engaged with your ad and then retarget them to maximize the effectiveness of your ad spending. That way you can fine-tune the frequency and reach of your ads to ensure results. The added bonus is that because you control the process and can interpret results in real time you can quickly see what works and what doesn’t, reallocating inefficient spending to make sure that every dollar is as productive as possible.
So next time somebody talks about SEO, think twice about it. Maybe you should stick with lead generation and advertising. Isn't it better to put your resources behind an approach that will pay dividends rather than take a shot in the dark?