Ensure Your Business Survives the Recession

Dollars are scarce in today’s economy. Phone book advertisements, radio spots, billboards, and other forms of advertisements have not become any cheaper in recent times, and in fact, costs are on the rise. In uncertain financial times, it can be very uncomfortable to sign a contract binding your business into a predefined term that commits you to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars over the next several months to a year. With no guaranteed results and no way to effectively measure return on investment (ROI), most business owners would prefer not to be bound to such contracts, especially since such contracts usually include stiff exit penalties for early termination. But what are the alternatives?

We live in an Internet world today, and most people are familiar with finding what they want through search services like Yahoo!, Google, and Bing. As consumers, we’re all familiar with the concept of typing a few words in the search bar and clicking the search button to explore our options. As business owners, however, the process on how to achieve a prominent placement in the search engine listings is often a murky, undefined, seemingly “random” process. Additionally, it can be very confusing when telemarketers and solicitors call on your business with various conflicting packages, promising to deliver “guaranteed” results but at a steep price tag. Many times, the lip service is gone once you sign the contract.

Using the Internet to advertise your business is a viable way to cut costs, focus marketing efforts, and deliver incredible results, but there are a few key points that you must know in order to protect your interests. Here are a few deceptive practices and myths to be careful about if you consider marketing your business online:

Deceptive Practice #1: Guaranteed Placement

There is no such thing as “guaranteed” placement on any of the major search engines. I wish there were, but if you think about it, such guarantees don’t make sense. It’s always possible that someone else might be willing to pay more for higher placement in the sponsored links area of search engine results. In the organic (or natural rankings) area of the search results, there is only one “number one” spot, so if someone offers you a “guarantee” that they can get your website to the number one spot, you’d have to question how they can possibly do that for your business when other unscrupulous sales people are making the same guarantees elsewhere. And what if they approach another business in the same industry as yours? Are they guaranteeing your competitor the #2 spot? I doubt it. What about the sales person four states away that is pitching their prospective client that they “guarantee” the number one spot? How can that be? In short, it can’t. Individual telephone or marketing companies may own their own, propriety search services in which they may guarantee placement within their own listings, but you must consider how narrow or wide-reaching their services encompass, and whether the price is worth the exposure for the number of people who search through them versus the major search engines. Regardless of how many angles someone tries to play it, there is no way to ethically guarantee a particular placement on the major search engines. If someone makes such a claim, show them the door.

Deceptive Practice #2: “We work closely with the search engines”

It sounds great, and it would be quite the cozy situation if it were true, but again, no one has the “inside scoop” on how to tip the scales in your favor by “being in bed with” the search engines. Every professional, competent Internet marketing provider keeps up-to-date on current changes, but to say “working closely with” is, at best, misleading. If someone gives you a sales pitch that they have an inside track with Google, Yahoo!, Bing or any other search service, they’re blowing smoke and trying to “sell” you on a relationship that simply can’t exist. Why can’t it exist? Because search engines would go out of business if they compromised the integrity of their ever-changing algorithms. (Their “algorithm” is the formula they use to rank and score websites based on weighted criteria, and it is “super-double-top-secret”). True, experienced search engine companies stay very familiar with updated materials and guidelines that search engine companies make public, but nobody has the executive privilege of calling up a particular search engine and saying “Hey, I’ve got a client that needs to be ranked number one for a particular keyword. Can you ‘hook me up?'” Anyone who says that “they’re in bed with the search engines” is making promises in the dark.

Deceptive Practice#3: Flat Rate Offers for Search Engine Submissions

Buyer beware. You may receive solicitations in the mail that appear to be bills but the fine print reads, “This is a solicitation. This is not a bill. You are under no obligation to pay this amount.” Elsewhere in the correspondence, in much more conspicuous print, you will see the words, “Remit the following amount by (some date).” It’s a legal scam. How can it be legal, yet still be a scam? Quite easily, actually. They will deliver EXACTLY what they advertise, which is often some number of keyword phrases submitted to some number of search engines on some periodic basis over the next year or so. If they do what they promise they’ll do, it’s legal. However, submitting a website to search engines without properly preparing it (called “optimizing”) for submission and marketing to the search engines produces virtually zero results for you. Therefore, taking your money for something that will knowingly do nothing for you makes it a “scam,” at least in my opinion.

Deceptive Practice #4: Using a Name to Define Itself

This is a common ploy that capitalizes on the unsuspecting and th unknowing. It’s pretty typical (although not guaranteed) that a company will appear in the number one spot on search engines when using the name of the company as the search term. It makes sense that a company’s name will be the best fit for search results when searching using the company’s name. (Sounds redundant, right?) Do not let anyone fool you by telling you that they worked hard for the money to achieve great results by showing you that your company comes up prominently when you search for yourself. Such results often happen almost “automatically,” with no effort at all. Plus, how many people really search for you by company name? The goal in search engine optimization and marketing is to get your company “found” by searching for your products, services, manufacturers, etc.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) is like the Wild West. Technology has expanded much faster than laws have been able to keep pace, and therefore there are plenty of opportunities for fraud and deception. The burden of maintaining integrity in the system has fallen largely on the individual search service companies like Google, Yahoo! and Bing, which explains why those companies need to continually update and refine their algorithms to keep the riff-raff out. In true “Western Movie” style, the terms to describe “good guy” practices is dubbed “white hat SEO/SEM” while the “bad guy” practices are labeled “black hat SEO/SEM.” It sounds over dramatic, but the “good guys” engage in industry best-practices and adhere to ethical approaches, whereas the “bad guys” try to subvert the search engine algorithms and are usually the ones who engage in deceptive practices while preying on the ignorance of unsuspecting business owners.

Someday, there will undoubtedly be legal controls in place to support SEO/SEM malpractice lawsuits, much like how consumers are protected from medical or legal malpractice. I look forward to that day, because it will “clean up” the industry. As it stands now, the search engine optimization and marketing industry is the only one I can think of in which:

there is no way to ethically guarantee results
SEO/SEM practitioners can collect money with the disclaimer of “no guarantees”, and
after collecting money for no-guarantee work, SEO/SEM companies can legitimately deliver “no results”.

Of course, reputable SEO/SEM companies that engage in fair practices will likely take measures to make a happy customer, but the overall big picture allows for a lot of dubious practices in the market place. The few “bad apples” that leave a trail of destruction spoil it for the bunch who are honest, white hat SEO/SEM service providers.

How can you protect yourself? How can you be reasonably assured of not being ripped off? First and foremost, get references. Secondly, check those references. And finally, apply common sense to the situation, resisting the urge to take the bait of anything that seems “too good to be true.” Any company that offers to provide you with SEO/SEM services should be able to provide you with qualified references. Even so, be sure to contact their actual clients to ensure a couple of things:

  • is the company easy to work with?
  • are the clients happy with their results?
  • are the results producing traffic?
  • would the clients recommend the company?

Remember, the level of service you get will differ based on what you pay. SEO/SEM efforts, done properly, are based on data but are somewhat subjective. In other words, there is more that one way to achieve positive results, and different SEO specialists can achieve comparable outcomes by employing different techniques and strategies. This often makes it difficult to compare “apples to apples” as a business owner when you are trying to determine the best company to hire for your search engine project. Here is another scenario to consider:

Let’s assume you have a typical seven or eight-page website in a moderately competitive market. You can interview three separate companies regarding the same SEO/SEM project, and you may receive three dramatically different prices for the same job. One bid, for example, may come in at $200 to optimize your site, while the others come in at $1200 and $3000 respectively. Is the $200 bid the best value? Is the $3000 bid overpriced? Not necessarily. All three salespeople can look you in the eye, shake your hand, and tell you that they will optimize your site for their respective prices. The confusing part is that they are each being honest with you.

The person who quotes you $200 to optimize your site may do so by doing some cursory research to select a few keywords, and then use those same keywords on each page of your website while also adjusting basic information in your web page titles. Can that person legitimately say that your site has been optimized? From the “something is better than nothing” department, yes. In such a scenario, your site has been optimized– to a degree.

In comparison, the $3000 bid would likely be much more thorough of a job. There may be several hours of detailed keyword research conducted, including an in-depth analysis of each of your top competitors’ websites to define the best quality words and phrases to use. Then each page of your site might be individually optimized using specific sets of keywords to maximize the effectiveness of each keyword, including changes to the textual content on each page to include strategic placement of keyword phrases throughout. Additionally, pictures on the site might be annotated with descriptive labels (called alt-tags) on each page, and additional characteristics involving fonts, links, descriptions, etc. may be adjusted to refine the page characteristics so that search engines “smile upon” the website when your site is indexed. Certainly, you can be confident that your website was optimized in this case.

The individual that quoted you $1200 would likely involve something in the middle, perhaps with less market research and a more universal selection of keywords on each page, but still including alt-tags and other content adjustments to improve the website’s merit with the search engines.

In all three instances, your site would be optimized. The difference would be the level of detail involved with the job. I wish it were just that simple, but the story continues…

It’s true that you can do too little to achieve any worthwhile results. For example, if your budget is only $50 to optimize a website in a highly competitive market, spending the $50 on optimization would probably do nothing for you, and it would be better to take the money and treat yourself to a nice dinner. It’s also true that you can wastefully spend too much money without seeing any improvement. For example, if you do achieve page 1, number 1 results in the organic rankings on Google consistently with a $200 budget for a particular set of keywords, increasing your budget to pay for more marketing efforts using those same keywords won’t yield any better results. (i.e., you can’t get better than #1.) In between the “too little” and “too much” areas, there is a very large “gray area” of spending that will produce varying results in varying time frames.

Optimization is a part of marketing. It is the preparatory work to ensure that your site is ready to be promoted, much like how producing a television commercial is the preparatory work in getting the commercial ready to be aired on TV to the public. The other part of the equation is the actual marketing of the site itself. Marketing the site, which involves submitting it to search engines and then promoting the site on an ongoing basis, is akin to broadcasting the television commercial. If you only air the commercial once, you might see some short term results from it, but in the long term the money spent to produce the commercial would be wasted because people would forget about it. Likewise, if you only market your website for one month, your site will not gain visibility in the long-term. Search engine marketing is an ongoing process. You need to establish a budget for it, just as you would for a phone book ad, magazine ad, radio spot, etc.

The good news: Actively promoting your website to the public is much less costly than traditional methods of advertisement, as long as it is done correctly. The end result of effective SEM is that you receive focused, pre-qualified buyers for your goods and/or services, and you can measure your ROI by reviewing which keywords are working, how long your visitors stayed on your site, knowing which pages they visited, and seeing when and where they left your website.

The bad news: There are obviously a lot of “small parts” to the SEO/SEM puzzle which pose a “choking hazard” to the non-technical business owner. Consequently, the process of actually getting the job done can be confusing, frustrating, and (for the unsuspecting) expensive. This is where a little bit of information and education can save you a whole lot of grief and time.

What most people do not realize is that the quality of your website’s optimization (the SEO part of marketing) often directly affects the costs of the ongoing marketing costs for the site. For example, when Google indexes your website (which means that it “takes inventory” of your site’s contents), it assigns a quality score to the merit of your keywords based on the content and construction of your site. If you participate in a marketing campaign using a pay-per-click service like Google Adwords, the higher your quality score, generally, the lower the cost per click for a given keyword selection. This means that you can end up paying less per keyword than your competition, but actually achieve higher placement in the sponsored links area of the search results.

In the example scenario above, the $200 bid for your job would probably not yield the same quality score impact as the $3000 job. However, if your budget doesn’t support the more expense, detailed work, then it may be more comfortable for you to pay a slightly higher price per keyword (in a pay-per-click campaign), but spend less money on the optimization efforts for your site.

In many ways, you can compare SEO work with putting a heating system in your home. To equip your home with a heating system, you can pay more up front for a geothermal system, and realize a monthly cost savings over a long period of time. Or, you can put in a heat pump for less money up front, but your electric bill will be somewhat higher on a monthly basis. Either system will heat your home, but the break even point will be very different depending on the choice you make. Detailed versus general SEO works much the same way, and the variables that you must consider are 1) when do you want to start seeing results, and 2) how much do you want to spend monthly or quarterly on an ongoing basis?

The key to remember is that your website should first be optimized (to whatever degree you can comfortably afford) prior to marketing it. There are some search engines (and search related services) that will place your site (or a business listing that represents your company) in their search results for a “raw dollar amount” without your site being optimized, but such services can typically only do so within their own service networks. If your customers generally do their searches via major search engines instead of phone company or private industry search sites, then the dollars you spend for top placement within a marketing service’s proprietary system may not be worth the cost.

What NOT to say: When discussing your project with a search engine optimization and/or marketing consultant, avoid asking the question, “What placement will I get on the search engines if I hire you?” It reveals that you aren’t familiar with how search engines work, and it tips your hand that they might have “low hanging fruit” to make a sale. Of course, if you are savvy to how search engines work (and the limitations that SEO/SEM companies are subject to in achieving results), then asking this question may be a qualifier/disqualifier for the sales person who solicits you, depending on their response.

What to ask: It’s reasonable (and shows insight) to ask an SEO/SEM consultant how involved their SEO efforts will be for the price. You may not have a good feel for what a reasonable budget is, so you can ask them to provide a “Good / Better / Best” proposal that outlines what they would include for different levels of optimization, so you can make a “best fit” budget decision for your business. With regards to marketing efforts, ask about the number of blog posts and/or article publications that can be expected for the money (for organic marketing), or what keyword selections (and their corresponding popularity demand) would be used for pay-per-click advertising.

I’m a firm believer that a company’s SEO/SEM strategy needs to be customized to their specific market (local, regional, national, etc) and industry within that market. To illustrate the point, the roofing repair market in Seattle, WA, is much different than the roofing repair market in New Orleans, LA. In both cases, companies in roofing repair would likely focus on local search results within 50 to 70 miles of the business location. Priorities, word choice, and economic factors in each market will have a different impact on the best choices for keywords to use in each. Yes, of course, there will be some overlap. But in the big picture, the competition within each market is limited to the local area, so there would be a much more narrow approach to addressing the competition in order to achieve the best search engine results.

Comparatively, a health and nutrition company that wants to be competitive nationally for vitamin sales would involve a much different strategy in achieving desired results. The amount of time and effort, and consequently the costs involved with doing the job right will be completely different.

Therefore, if you are presented with a one-size-fits-none “package” deal to promote your business at some flat price, you might think twice about the quality of results you can expect for the money, given that many companies are “very good” at living up to the no-guaranteed-results nature of search engine marketing. Spend your money wisely. Ask questions. Get references. Check them. There is no “free lunch”, and unfortunately in the search engine arena, you may not get what you think you pay for.

Qualifying Your SEO/SEM Provider

The biggest challenge you will face in achieving positive results via Internet marketing will be finding a capable, competent, ethical, experienced search engine company. In your interview process, if the sales person seems more interested in pitching you on their product rather than learning about your needs, beware. If you feel pressured into “closing the deal” by time-sensitive “now or never” discounts, or if you don’t get straight answers to your questions, walk away. Sometimes the right answer to a question is “it depends,” but such an answer should be followed by a reasonable, understandable explanation. Your prospective search engine optimization and marketing provider should be more interested in providing you with an education than in taking your money.

What to Expect if it’s Done Right

Again, based on the ethical issue that no one can guarantee placement, your best indicator will be checking out references from different potential providers to get a reasonable assurance that a particular company has delivered for customers in the past. A proven track record is a good indicator that you have found a reputable, reliable company. Why is this so important? Because you will have to trust them to look out for your company’s best interests in an ever-changing, no-guarantee environment, so you want to have some peace of mind that you aren’t overpaying for their service, and they will not be using your business as a guinea pig to experiment. By talking with their references, you can also assess whether a client’s prominent search engine placement is short-lived or consistent. Short-term and intermittent placement on search engine results may be (but not necessarily) an indicator of black hat SEO techniques, rather than white hat best-practices that yield more consistent results. Realize that there is little to no correlation between what one customer paid for their SEO/SEM work versus what another customer might have paid. The amount of money it costs to do the job is typically tied to the amount of time involved, and it will vary widely based on industry, market, and each client’s goals.

All things considered, when you find a SEO/SEM provider you are comfortable with, trust, and can afford, you can expect your costs to be a fraction of what you pay for traditional advertisement, while yielding better results. This allows you to cut your advertising costs while increasing revenues. As more revenues flow in, meaning better cash flow, you can pare back your traditional advertising (meaning, reduce but not discontinue), and redirect the additional funds to additional internet methods for compounding effects.

Budget permitting, you can even use the Internet to measure ROI on your traditional marketing methods. For example, by securing multiple domain names (which are inexpensive), you can target your marketing efforts by individual source (such as billboards, magazines ads, etc.) and measure the traffic from each source. There are many ways to creatively and cost-effectively use search engine and Internet methods to measure, monitor, adjust and control the marketing success of your business.