SEM’s Elusive Long View

I received an odd phone call a few years ago from a gentleman with laser-like focus. (I’ve changed the query term slightly, but it’s pretty close.) “I absolutely have to rank number one for ‘baby harness’ by Monday.”

I wasn’t optimistic, as it was already Thursday afternoon. But I tried to figure out whether we could help him. I asked if he’d consider PPC (define) ads, as there was still a small chance that such a campaign could be producing results within a couple days.

“No PPC. Just organic.”

I asked what other keywords or veins of query strings he’d be interested in pursuing.

“Just ‘baby harness’. Are you even listening to me?

I was certainly listening. He had the disposition of a fugitive who was minutes away from being nabbed by a U.S. Marshal, and I pictured him at a pay phone, fumbling with change and constantly looking over his shoulder.

This man’s predicament was extreme but not unique, and it points to an issue that has historically plagued SEM (define) campaigns. The characteristic most lacking in search engine optimization/SEM clients isn’t an understanding of analytics or page coding or application development. It’s patience.

When Do We Start?

Our request for proposal (RFP) form has a field for “projected campaign start date.” I’m always struck by the large percentage of respondents who fill the blank with terms like “now,” “immediately,” “tomorrow,” or even “yesterday” or “a month ago.”

I say I’m “struck” by the percentage, because I’m not amused by it and I do take it seriously. I know the earnestness and urgency with which these folks fill out a form, because unfortunately at this point, many are desperate for results and want to leave no room for doubt about their incredible shrinking windows of opportunity.

While many potential clients need to be more patient, that doesn’t mean I’m unsympathetic to their plight or that I believe their problems can be solved with the mere utterance of “you need to be more patient.” I know it’s far more complicated than that.

Typically, Web marketers end up in this rough situation for one of the following reasons:

  • They’ve promised results for a while and finally realized they can’t achieve them on their own.
  • They’ve just been hired into this role and immediate search success is the sole measurement for their success or failure.
  • Their boss knows a little about search and they’re the unwitting victim of “vanity search” demands.

These people rarely end up becoming clients because their circumstances generally prohibit them from being receptive to our message that they’re at least three to six months away from beginning to see serious return on their investment.

Often, I’ve observed, these companies’ sites look exactly the same a year or two down the road. They’ve spent so much time looking for the vendor that can offer quick results that they would have been smarter to go with an earlier vendor who told them it would take six months to do the necessary foundational work to reap future benefits.

Investing For the Future

You’ve probably heard the statistics a million times about the lifetime income differential between high school dropouts, high school graduates, college graduates, and those with advanced degrees. Typically, the more educated you are, the more you’ve put off earning a significant income in the early years but over time, you more than make up for it.

This is a near-perfect comparison to site development and organic search success. Ask yourself this: With all things being equal, which would you rather have after 12 months, a shack with power and plumbing, or the foundation of a mansion?

There’s no right or wrong answer, because how you answer is based on your perspective. If you have nowhere to live right now, a shack sounds pretty good. If you’re not even sure you’ll be doing this in three years, you might think a mansion’s foundation is a waste of time. If you’re in this business for the long haul, you owe it to yourself to make an investment in your search footprint that will grow over time to respectable proportions, not necessarily one that will begin to bear fruit immediately.

Building the Foundation

An example of a shack is building an incrementally better text generator that is one step ahead of an algorithm’s nonsense detector, or the constant rewriting of body copy to find that magical keyword density. An example of a solid foundation is hiring an industry expert to write regular articles and to continue to stay at the forefront of your industry.

Sometimes the best way to look forward is to look back. Some of the organic powerhouses of 2008 did not exist in 2005. Similarly, some of the best sites of 2011 don’t exist today. If you’re starting a site today or planning to improve an existing site, it can be depressing to think of all the work you’ll need to do to be successful in two or three years. But it can be enlightening to know that the rest of your competition may be similarly depressed.

Taking the “long view” of SEM might seem like a luxury, but it’s not. It’s absolutely essential for anyone who wants a solid future. It’s the single best investment in your time and resources that you can make.

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