SEO can work well for your business if it's done right. The trouble is, you may have a very hard time figuring out if it is in fact being done right.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of SEO is that it is (overwhelmingly but not completely) about leveraging the offering of one company: Google's search engine.
Google today has more ad dollars than all print media in the U.S. and more than 40 percent of online ad spend. This has nothing to do with SEO per se, but gives you an idea of its dominance. SEO is the art and science of making the latest Google site-relevance algorithm "like" your site, without paying for AdWords.
It is also rather alarming that so much energy needs to be put into appearing high on Google's first page - apparently there is a widespread belief (and I am not one to refute it) that only by appearing in a keyword search can anyone be expected to find your site. If this seems like an exceedingly narrow hose through which to force your marketing, rest assured it is.
Over the years Google has continued to refine its algorithm to defeat the most obvious ploys of SEO such as keyword stuffing and irrelevant (gratuitous) inbound links. Now, presumably, the algorithm is about promoting the most relevant and authoritative sites for any particular search. The continuing changes in the algorithm may have to do with showing better results but may also have to do with hoping you'll stop doing SEO so much and knuckle under to SEM (which means you pay them for positioning).
That said, SEO is a large practice area for many digital marketing agencies.
In a recent round of proposal reviews for a customer, SEO services ranged from a few hundred dollars a month to several thousand a month. If you speak with SEO vendors, they all say they are going to do the same thing. It's nearly impossible to tell what the expensive teams will do differently than the inexpensive, except that you can be reasonably assured they will spend more time on it, be more up to date on the algorithms and in general be more thorough.
These days, SEO specialists tend to want to manage your content. The claim typically is made that they will "work with your content" to make it more appealing to Google. Does this mean they are copywriters? It does not.
But what it does mean is that they will take care to adjust content so that relevant material is easy to find (based on keywords important to the business); that you have enough good information without repetition (repetitive pages causes your site to get demoted by Google). They will also want to make sure your metatags are in good order, of course; and they talk about truly arcane things like "canonicals," which has something to do with the way the domain is registered with Google.
Google also looks at things like the length of time the domain has been live and how many pages (it's a Goldilocks principle - not too many, not too few, and no gratuitous content). They look at how often the site is updated - which is why everyone and her uncle are commissioning young people to write blogs for their sites usually for only nominal payment.
But how to measure SEO success?
It's not that easy, and at best inferential. For instance, there is no way Google is going to tell you that yes, for these reasons you are now showing up above the fold. You are there, or not there. And you are always left wondering if it is SEO or keyword selection (especially in longtail) or any of a number of other unknowables. By inference you can say, "I paid these guys $X and then I started showing up better" and leave it at that. But what about social media? This is not typically part of SEO but it can be. Greater activity on social media leads to greater visibility overall for the site, which translates into more mentions, links, forwards, etc., and all of this amounts to what, for lack of a better term, we can call "authority" or at least legitimacy. Authority drives search engine rankings. That it has nothing to do with actual expertise or actual authoritativeness is troubling, and points out that SEO is a never-ending dance with what Google seems to want.
There is a school of thought that SEO is not that complicated, and that to spend thousands per month on it is a waste; and that the same results can be achieved just by being smart and diligent about your site.
Another school of thought is that it's a dark art that you cannot handle yourself and you had better turn it over to the guys at Hogwarts.
Too many marketers focus on SEO success as a measure of success in and of itself. It is not. Marketers focus on top line but not often enough on the bottom line. Which means: OK, they got to your site via Google. But then what? If you're spending any money at all on SEO, you must spend a great effort in not wasting those visits you get from click-through. How about the site itself? Do you see lots of one-page visits (is your bounce rate high)? Are you getting visitors to do what you hope they will do on the site? If not, then you should probably stop spending on SEO because, apparently, people are showing up and not seeing what they want; which means your site, as a selling tool, is weak.
SEO can work well for your business if it's done right. The trouble is, you will most likely have a very tough time figuring out if it is being done right.
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Andrew V. Edwards is a digital marketing executive with 20 years of experience serving large organizations, and has been an operating executive and digital marketing consultant since the 1980s. Currently he is a partner at Efectyv Digital, a digital analytics consulting firm. Andrew combines extensive technical knowledge with a broad strategic understanding of digital marketing and especially digital measurement, plus hands-on creative in the form of writing and design.
In 2004 Edwards co-founded the Digital Analytics Association and is currently a director emeritus. He has designed analytics training curricula for business teams and has led seminars on digital marketing subjects.
Besides writing a regular column about analytics for ClickZ, Andrew wrote the groundbreaking "Dawn of Convergence Analytics" report, which was featured at the SES show in New York (2013).
His book Digital Is Destroying Everything, published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be released on June 15, 2015.
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12:00pm ET/9:00am PT