A Grand Plan for SEO

I wasn’t sure whether to title this column “SEO Firestorm 2,” as it continues a previous column, which enjoyed a bit of an incendiary reaction in certain quarters. I wrote a much longer piece on my blog in response to the feedback. And that set off yet another but connected debate on budgeting for SEO (define).

One vociferous commentator from the “sandbox exists” camp led the charge against me for having no empathy with mom-and-pop outfits. This isn’t the case at all. However, it did spark something with me when he posed the situation of small companies with small SEO budgets, say $1,000. Out of curiosity, I asked the commentator what a client could get for $1,000.

He responded, “1K would get you a couple hours (give or take) of phone consulting from a leading SEO firm…. Will their site rock the SERPs [search engine results pages] for competitive keywords? Of course not. But it would give them a foothold.”

I find this a rather unsatisfactory marketing spend for a mom-and-pop outfit.

I have experience as a consultant with two of the leading companies in the industry. The first part of my job is getting a tight grip on what my clients’ products or services are, their markets and their competition, what their overall marketing strategy is, and the best way to integrate and implement search.

Following this discovery period, I can then usually go back to a client with, literally, the bare bones of a plan for us to work on as a team. All this takes considerably more than a couple of hours.

As for smaller companies getting a “foothold” with their newfound, scant knowledge? Are they able to use it themselves? In a volatile, highly competitive SEO climate, it’s rather like giving an inexperienced climber a foothold at the bottom of Everest and telling him to make his own way from there.

I flew to London last week, in part for a Search Marketing Association UK (SMA-UK) meeting. I took the opportunity of having a crowd of SEM (define) firm owners around one table to air their thoughts. I asked, “If a potential client came to you with only a grand, what would you say to him?” With such industry veterans as Barry Lloyd and Ammon Johns present, the answers varied from “I’d say let’s go to the pub” to “Buy a couple of good books, such as Aaron Wall‘s and Andrew Goodman‘s, then take your wife out for a nice dinner.”

Needless to say, some answers were facetious. They were, however, grounded in years of SEO experience.

In a quest for a balanced view, I contacted my friend and long-time champion of online small businesses, Dr. Ralph Wilson. Like me, Wilson’s been online since the Internet ran on steam. His popular newsletter, “Web Marketing Today,” celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

“Paying another firm to do some SEO seems to start at the $1,500 to $2,000 range but probably doesn’t include much link-building, which is critical,” he told me. “I don’t know of smaller SEO firms that have really thought of working on a consulting basis, though there might be some out there.

“Moreover, very few small business people I know would even think of paying $500 to $1,000 per hour for advice, especially if they aren’t really confident that they know enough to follow the steps necessary to implement the advice. So, I don’t believe small mom-and-pops can really get much SEO for $1,000.”

SEO remains only one arrow in a marketer’s quiver. Beyond words on a page and linkage data, other external forces that affect a search engine algorithm are at play. And as I’ve remarked before, end-user data is becoming a major factor.

I’ve written before on classic integrated marketing communications. The shape of marketing communications is changing, and communications planning will be the umbrella description for marketing strategy in the future.

I’ve also written at length about network theory and how it’s implemented into search engine algorithms via linkage data. In a connected world, communities hold great power, and not just via hyperlink analysis on the Web. The groundbreaking book “Communities Dominate Brands” provides a truly realistic glimpse into the way communities have affected the way we market. Communities have huge pulling power on brands and at search engines. Tapping into those communities using multichannel programs and radically rethinking old-style advertising techniques is the future of marketing.

Will it only be megacorps that survive in the modern marketing environment? No. Mom-and-pops can tap into it, too. Just don’t expect them to do it all for a grand.

Wilson’s answer to my question prompts another question: What do you think a reasonable entry-level SEO budget is for a smaller firm? Yes, there’s a whole lot of “how long is a piece of string?” in there. But generally speaking, I’m talking about professional copywriting, site optimization, link building, tactical promotions, and everything else it takes to really get a foothold and compete.

What are your thoughts?

Mike is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ. Be sure to check out the follow-up column with readers’ feedback.

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