Since my work is most notably around topics of paid advertising, I rarely get around to discussing advertising opportunities like SEO. If you are not familiar, SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is the process of improving the quality and quantity of website traffic to a website or a web page from search engines. In more simple terms, it’s an attempt to get your website to appear first when keywords are searched for on Google.
There have been both misuse and abuse of the term SEO that gets a lot of business and advertisers confused about its value & purpose. This blog post won’t be about how to rank first on search engines but instead will explain the concept, value, and most importantly, whether or not it’s a good investment for your business.
Intro To SEO
I am pretty sure you are familiar with the difference between organic results and paid ads on Google, but in case you are not here is an image to show the difference.
*Anything that has the word “ad” or “sponsored” next to it has nothing to do with SEO, it’s a paid promotion.
The first thing to understand is that SEO is not free. Although SEO drives free and organic traffic, creating SEO content requires time and money. For example, think of going into brick and mortar stores and handing out business cards for your services. When people see these business cards and call you for your services, you don’t pay for that call or lead. But the money that you invested in printing and designing these cards, delivering them to stores, hiring people to help you distribute them is what costs you the money. You might be thinking that it sounds like a one-time investment that at some point just continuously drives people once you establish this network, but what about all your direct or indirect competitors who are also handing out business cards to those same businesses. What if they put them instead of yours or there are just too many that your business cards barely get noticed. The point is, the promotional work to stay ranked at the top never ends. The less work you put into maintaining your high ranking, the higher the chances that it will drop over time and you will rank lower. Traffic coming from organic ranking on search engines is free, but getting to a point where you get traffic from search engines costs a lot of time, money, and other resources.
The history of SEO in one minute
The way search engines decide how to rank websites changes all the time with one goal in mind; to give you the most useful information. SEO has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years. Companies like Google have developed groundbreaking technologies to optimize what gets ranked. In the beginning, SEO was literally viewed as a way to manipulate search engines to show your website in front of your competitors. ‘Black hat methods’ (methods that can lead to penalties from search engines) and white hat methods (more acceptable methods that won’t put your website at risk) have been used as blueprints for businesses who wanted to invest in SEO. Terms like keywords, outbound & inbound links, tagging, page authority, outreach, and a bunch of other methods are now used to put your content on the front page. These different strategies are referred to as technical SEO or search engine manipulation.
Before artificial intelligence became a prominent and dominant factor in tech companies, companies like Google had to refer to other algorithms to understand how to create their organic ranking systems. Back then, SEO optimization was split into two areas: the first would be to make sure your website is as “keyword rich” and user-friendly as possible (onsite optimization), and the second was getting as many high quality or highly ranked (authority) websites referring and recommending your website using a link or article which essentially tells the search engine that you are legit (off-page optimization). Search engines understood early on that all these methods are being manipulated and shifted focus to optimize their ranking system to a higher degree of understanding the content of the websites and not the value a user gets out of it.
Today, search engines have groundbreaking AI algorithms that can analyze the content on your website, how relevant it is, and how users are responding to it. They can now read through your content on your website and rank how original it is and whether or not it adds original value to the search. These algorithms are constantly being updated to give the user the most accurate information possible for their search.
Technology and change don’t always promote equality and fairness. One of the main problems of how search engines currently rank websites is the unfair distribution and opportunity that small or new websites have against existing websites. Search engines rank based both on user experience and the website’s traffic. Established businesses have an unfair advantage over newcomers who dream of getting a small market share of organic reach.
The need to diversify.
A valid argument that I get from a lot of businesses who want to invest more in SEO is the need to diversify. They say that social media has become such a crowded space that the cost to acquire a new customer is becoming burdensome. Diversification is extremely important, but there is no guarantee that you will even get free traffic from investing in SEO.
Reading the data wrong.
One of the reasons that a lot of businesses want to push forward and invest in SEO is because they think that they are already getting a lot of organic traffic and are acquiring new customers from organic searches. They think that if it’s already driving results, boosting it up will drive even more customers. This happens because platforms like Google Analytics, WordPress, or even Shopify analytics show you “organic” as a traffic source when it comes from a Google search. What a lot of people forget to look at is what exactly those searches were for. When digging through the data, they find that almost all of them came from people who searched for their brand or product name. When someone searches for your brand name, in most cases you will be ranked first without any SEO.
It looks like this –
To see what exactly users search for, click on the search console.
Here is an example of how it looks for my website.
Aside from not having clear transparency to the data, many advertisers invest in SEO without having clear marketing goals. They lack the answers to how much money they are willing to invest over time and what results they would consider successful. Without having clear goals, your organic marketing investment is unlikely to yield promising results as your investment would be based on presumptions of what you consider reasonable and not based on the data.
Is SEO a good investment for your business?
Ask yourself, how do your customers find your business? Do they search on Google or do they find you on social media on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or Tiktok? If they do search on Google, who are the competitors that pop up first? The general thumb rule that I use is that service providers should invest in SEO and social products should invest in SMM (social media marketing).
The reason being is that every business has two main resources that make up its marketing potential; money and human resources. Money pays for the actual promotion and human resources are the time it takes to create, manage, and optimize the marketing efforts. Your resources should be focused on where you are likely to get the best return on investment. If you are selling a product and the majority of your customers are coming from social media platforms, where should the most resources be allocated? Creating more content for social media or trying to get to the first page for a competitive keyword on google?
The same thing goes for service providers, if the majority of your customers come from Google, should you invest in promoting your business on Facebook? Identify where your current customers are coming from and invest your resources there.
My recommendations for investing in SEO.
Obviously, most marketers would tell you that investing in SEO is always a good idea, regardless of the outcome. They will use the argument that you can’t rely on paid ads alone and if you are not on Google, you don’t exist, and so on. I view it as a prioritization of resources. Unlike paid advertising, SEO is not guaranteed. You’re paying for people to try to rank you higher by using different methods, but you are not paying Google. That makes all the difference. When you advertise using paid advertising, you are paying the platform directly and that platform guarantees that your ad will reach people. With SEO, your website ranking could potentially stay the same. That money could have been allocated to more profitable channels.
My recommendation is very simple. Don’t invest in traditional SEO directly, invest in creating content with the value that can attract and interest potential customers and at the same time will help rank your websites higher. This means that instead of hiring companies that claim to be experts on SEO that will essentially try to manipulate search engines like Google to think that your website needs to be ranked higher than what it currently is, invest instead of creating valuable content around your business or brand.
Google no longer needs you to use keywords and could care less whether or not it’s “SEO friendly.” Its algorithm can read through your content like a human could and will suck out all the important insights about the quality and relevancy (also known as relevancy score). If it suggests your website for a search query of “cheap car rentals” it wants to make sure that this suggestion is relevant to the user. This means that more than just ranking how valuable the content is, they will measure how relevant it was for that specific user and will credit your website for it. So keeping your website relevant and informative for any area or region that you are targeting is vital. Create and maintain a presence on all main social media channels and work on driving as much traffic as you can.
In the past we used to attempt to manipulate search engines to rank us high in hopes that it would drive traffic, now we first establish the presence and drive traffic in order to be ranked higher on search engines. Remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Search results use wide periods for a time range to measure success. This means that your website won’t be ranked high just because you’ve been very active in a particular week. It’s a process that takes a while. Don’t invest your resources in creating content if you don’t plan to continue to do so in the long term as it will just be a waste of your time and money. Plan for years and remember that consistency is the name of the game.
SEO can be a great way to bring in organic traffic to your website, but isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Over the past 20 years, SEO has evolved from a technique to manipulate search data to a complex algorithm that analyzes a webpage’s content for the value that it brings to a particular search. It’s important to remember that although SEO drives organic traffic, it still takes time and money to put together. So, is it worth it for my business? A general rule of thumb is that service providers should invest in SEO while social products should focus on SMM.