SEO Is Not Free

It’s not unusual for certain individuals within an online organization to be under the mistaken impression that natural SEO (define) efforts are free. It doesn’t help that Google returns over 5 million results for “seo is free,” either. Google does, however, return only 5,000 or so results for an exact match on the search query “seo is free.”

Relatively speaking, this disparity in Google results could be interpreted that 99.999 percent of the people associated with an online organization believe that SEO is free. Of course, the data could be construed inversely to support the observation that that 0.001 percent of those in an online organization understand that SEO isn’t free.

Of course, there’s a myriad of free SEO tools and quick-hit auditing services to help people diagnose their sites’ SEO performance and a seemingly infinite profusion of free advice on how to do SEO yourself. As a result, it’s completely fair to say that industry players and so-called experts like myself actually contribute to the erroneous notion that SEO is free.

So let’s clear a couple of things up right away.

Improving a Web site’s performance in the major search engines requires the online organization to make an ongoing investment. That investment comes at a cost, and that cost has to be budgeted for. Just because an online organization doesn’t have a budgeted line item for SEO doesn’t make SEO free.

Allow me to give you a couple of examples of how and why SEO isn’t free.

Ever heard about an organization that invested serious money to design an all-Flash or AJAX (define) based site as part of a dazzling wow-factor online marketing initiative for a popular online brand? Did you also hear that the same organization was dismayed 30 days after the launch when the site’s search engine performance was subpar? This organization obviously failed to invest a comparable amount of time and money in making the site visible to the search engines.

Now this site will have to live with the fact that its home page and a spattering of visible text links located outside of the Flash and dazzle programming are the only pages indexed by the search engines. The organization must choose between accepting a poor return on its investment and spending some more money on improving the site’s search engine visibility.

If hiring a third party to optimize the site is unacceptable — because optimizing the newly launched site is unbudgeted — then someone within the organization has to learn how to make the content visible to the search engines, and that someone had better know a little something about best practices.

Do you know of an online organization that did a ton of text-link buying and selling as part of its budgeted online marketing programs? Is that same organization in a frenzy to regain lost search engine referrals since Google’s text-link buying and selling smackdown last year?

If hiring a third party to help clean up the site’s performance is unacceptable — because optimizing the established Web site is unbudgeted — then someone within the organization has to learn how to get back in Google’s good graces, and that someone had better know a lot about groveling and SEO best practices.

Finally, are you, the individual reading this column right now, on company time or your own time? If you are on company time, then someone somewhere is paying your salary, so gaining SEO insight isn’t free. (If you are on your own time, I really have to wonder why you don’t have something better to do.)

To be fair, each of these examples is a bit extreme. But they are very real examples I’ve had to deal with recently. While many online organizations are interested in trying to hire an SEO firm to improve site performance, they also send a very mixed message when they discover SEO isn’t free.

When an organization says, “We don’t have any budgeted money for SEO,” it’s like trying to hire a construction company to build a new corporate headquarters and informing the general contractor that the organization isn’t likely to have the money to pay for the building.

Perhaps the idea that SEO is free stems from the misguided notion that every Web site is somehow entitled to volumes of natural search referred traffic. SEO isn’t an entitlement program. It’s an ongoing investment that must be resourced properly. It’s not a one-hit, one-phrase paradigm. It’s not built on quick wins for trophy phrases. There are hard costs and soft costs associated with building a successful SEO strategy that deserve proper budget allocations.

The hard costs include hiring staff, educating said staff, allocating marketing time, allocating technical resources, potentially engaging an SEO firm, and outfitting an in-house team with the tools of the trade. The soft costs include missed opportunities, such as delay-to-market costs while in education mode; the cost of competing; conflicting technical priorities, and faulty tactical SEO implementations.

Attaining peak search engine performance is not free. It’s an ongoing, evolutionary process that requires adequate budget allocations year after year. If you are surrounded by those who think SEO is free, now is a great time to remind them that they get what they pay for.

PJ is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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