A critical skill in any professional services role is setting appropriate expectations. Within organic search marketing, both agencies and individual professionals frequently fail to successfully communicate the risks associated with reliance on search rank to their clients or employers.
Part of this is a matter of incentives. Being the one truth-teller in the room can cost contracts and goodwill. Taking that into account, at some point in the sales cycle, a frank communication of risk avoids nasty surprises for the client, giving them a better sense of the risk/reward tradeoff inherent in relying on search rank. Ideally, organic search marketing professionals should make their clients and employers a partner in assessing risk, rather than a perceived victim of externalized decision-making. This is often challenging, given that very un-technical stakeholders are driving very technical decisions in many cases.
No form of SEO is guaranteed to be immune from Google penalties on an indefinite timeframe, however. If any form of effective SEO becomes the dominant means of driving rank, it is guaranteed to become the next penalty vector. Additionally, Google’s sheer market share of search inherently creates a volatile marketplace, as any move by that one company immediately reshapes the majority of that marketplace. It is both a professional responsibility and a best practice not to hide this fact.
The big problem for organic search marketing is that it relies on a set of companies that would rather SEO did not exist in the first place. Don’t get me wrong – Google and Microsoft are happy to be able to drive their own visions for site structure, making sites more readily indexable and parseable. Ultimately, though, they make their money on ads that compete directly for both clicks and marketing budgets with organic search. There is always an inherent tension, because while organic brings the eyeballs, pay-per-click (PPC) pays the bills, regardless of how much time, energy, and money you put into a “white hat” strategy as pure as the driven snow, if a critical number of actors do the same things, you will find yourself in Google’s crosshairs. This is exemplified by Google’s recent hand-wringing about guest blogging. In this environment, we must assume that effectively all SEO is a risk/reward tradeoff, as tactics once deemed “white hat” can be reclassified by Google retroactively.
This being the case, how can search marketing professionals maximize rewards while mitigating risks? Well, there are a lot of competing theories. The one thing they all have in common is that they will become a liability if one-too-many start doing the same – and if it actually works, they eventually will. You are lifted up by the same tide that grounds you, and Google is the moon. This is a consequence of an inherently volatile market, as one actor has, while not a true monopoly, an effective one.
What search marketing professionals can do in response is, tautologically, be responsive. Part of what provides you the breathing room to do that is conveying to your clients or employers to expect the unexpected, both good and bad, when you rely on search to drive conversions.