When Client/SEM Communications Break Down

Would you issue a press release without conferring with your PR agency? Would you stop taking an important medication without first checking with your physician?

Of course not. You engage professionals to guide you. You pay them for their counsel.

Why, then, do some companies make changes to their Web sites without first consulting the search engine marketing (SEM) firms they hired? The answer has eluded me for nearly 10 years.

Part of the answer may be a breakdown in communication. Three major types of communication breakdowns can reduce an SEM firm’s effectiveness in delivering results.

The SEM Firm Doesn’t Know You Plan to Test

Not all site changes that affect online visibility are connected to a site redesign. Recently, a client began testing different landing pages in important areas of its site. Some pages enjoyed high rankings on very important keywords and produced the highest conversion volume — real money that client could see each month on the analytics reports. It wanted to test these landing pages to see if the conversion rate could be increased further.

We were alerted to the testing only when the client noticed rankings and revenues declined after making those changes.

After some investigation, we determined four versions of some pages were served. This resulted in 302 redirects, a notice to the search engines a page has been “temporarily moved.” Meanwhile, the search engine saw four copies of the same page, something search engine crawlers don’t like at all.

The result? Rankings on core-asset keywords plummeted as visibility vanished. Revenues shuddered and began a quick downward spiral. Fortunately, the client acted quickly to fix the pages. All the lost search engine rankings have subsequently returned.

Moral: If you make any significant change to any page of your site, it may affect your SEM campaign. Consult your SEM firm before making changes.

The SEM Firm Isn’t Included in Brand Strategy Meetings

A client once advised us that its senior marketing people (the offline contingent, as I recall) had met and determined they would no longer target any iteration of the word “mortgage” on their Web site or in marketing materials. The word “home loan” was much more civilized and had a softer sound. The client would remove “mortgage” from the site.

One major problem: Keyword combinations that included “mortgage” were queried with far more frequency by the target audience and converted better for this particular brand. Traffic plummeted. Conversions dropped as important mortgage-related keywords lost ranking.

The online marketing team scrambled to repair the damage. We helped them reintroduce their important mortgage-related keywords in the site’s content and regain their lost search results’ real estate, so to speak.

Moral: If offline marketers or brand marketing teams make recommendations that would change your site, consult your SEM firm prior to committing to the changes. You’re very unlikely to attain rankings for, and traffic and conversions from, keywords that don’t appear in site copy.

The SEM Firm Isn’t Involved in Site Development

We first experienced this in 1999. A dot-com (later, a dot-bomb) client called one morning and asked us to open a browser window. With great excitement, they directed us to their newly redesigned site. A thing of beauty: frames, Flash animation, JavaScript, gorgeous graphics that contained all the site’s text. But no HTML text, or (as it should be called) “Web site text a machine can read.” It was the most beautiful invisible-to-search-engines site ever commissioned.

The client couldn’t understand our response. Instead of glee, we expressed dread. We diplomatically pointed out the new site presented some serious challenges to the SEM campaign.

Almost immediately, their Web site’s visibility began to disappear. As each search engine updated its index, our client’s rankings plummeted. We worked quickly and the client did its best to be responsive, but the new site lost much of the ground the previous SEM campaign achieved. It was months before the situation was corrected; several months with very limited search referral traffic, few conversions, and few new prospects introduced to the brand.

Moral: Inform your SEM firm of site redesign plans before anyone commits to design, platform, template, layout, or copy. Engage your SEM firm’s expertise early in the process, or risk losing any gains you produced together.

A friend of mine once asked, “How will you ever grow to trust your own judgment if you never consult it?” How many of us engage experts and fail to consult them? If you engage an SEM firm, remember: Any change to your site could affect the firm’s efforts and your own bottom line.

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