By Scott Kasun
Have you been burned by SEO companies in the past? Sadly, you’re not alone.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that easily more than half of the clients we work with have horror stories of previous experiences with SEO firms – some to the extent that they have sworn never to attempt a campaign again. It’s a shame, since our digital marketing plans are the most powerful things we have to offer, and they are heavily loaded with SEO practices.
See if this sounds familiar: An “SEO expert” provides you with some reports about your search engine rankings, possibly even with a comparison between your rankings and those of your competitors. They recommend a handful of SEO tactics, likely starting with Google Ads and also possibly including local directories and something called “backlinking.” They make vague claims about “top ten rankings,” promise lots of traffic and swear that the campaign will “pay for itself in no time.”
Green Arrows, More Traffic & Better Rankings – But Something Isn’t Right
You get reports that all seem rosy. Your rankings have increased, traffic has increased and you’re being plied with tons of data that you don’t really understand (and that they condescendingly explain in jargon they know means nothing to you). It all looks like a huge success.
There’s just one problem. The phone isn’t ringing, and you haven’t noticed a difference in the number of people contacting you – except now, the SEO company is taking credit for all of them.
The Digital Marketing Hostage Situation
Sometimes, it gets even worse. You start asking questions, only to find out you’re locked into an agreement that stipulates that you have to continue for a certain number of months. Or, even better, you find out you don’t actually own the new, “SEO-optimized” site that they created. If you stop paying, that site disappears – and even your legitimate properties (such as your Google business listing) are now pointed to that site.
So, what broke down? Surely, there can’t be that many nefarious companies out there, ready to pounce on unsuspecting clients, take a few months worth of payment and leaving nothing but scorched earth behind?
Prior Success Doesn’t Promise Future Prosperity
I may be naive when I say this, but for the most part I do believe that most of these firms do operate with best intentions. They might have had success with similar campaigns in the past, but when they try to replicate it they fall short. And trust me when I say that we’ve had campaigns with which we have had the Midas touch – everything we do brings great results. And we have had just the opposite, where we are fighting tooth and nail for every victory and nothing comes easy. The problem is that the easy ones can convince you that you are smarter than the system, which leads to boasts and false promises that can’t be backed up.
What Can Go Wrong: When Nefarious Actors & Novices Promise You The World
I’ve talked before about the low barrier of entry for this industry. As much of a pain as it would be, I’d readily accept some sort of regulatory body that would vet firms for basic competency and accountability. Every novice – or outright swindler – is a black eye to those of us that are doing it right. We’ve spent more time than I care to think about convincing people who have been burnt to take another chance.
So, just how do the bad companies screw things up? Well, like most things, there’s a thousand ways to do it wrong set against only a handful of ways to do it right. And you guessed it – the wrong ways are easier, cheaper and come bearing gifts and whispering sweet nothings.
Simple Logic Dictates Reasonable Outcomes, But Nothing Should Be Promised
I’m no mathematician, but the formula we are looking for is pretty simple, and can be broken down into a basic A + B = C equation: Increased Traffic + Quality Website = Conversions.
They say confession is good for the soul, so here goes. When we first learned to do SEO, we were pretty excited about the new powers we had gained. Holy cow – look what we can do! We can influence how the search engines list websites; we are gods that walk the Earth! And, filled with hubris, we went out to the world and spoke widely of our prowess. And we did exactly that – we improved search rankings, which took care of the “A” in our equation: we were able to increase traffic to sites, sometimes by many multiples.
But, we took a few things for granted. One, we assumed that all traffic was good traffic. Second, we hadn’t really considered the next part of the equation (which seems blatantly stupid in retrospect, but in our defense, we were drunk on power) and assumed that the website was up to snuff.
So we would swagger in with our amazing reports – Look! 35% more traffic! 99 ranked phrases! Organic reach increased by 65%! We blew through your Adwords budget in just 2 weeks!
And the client, confused, would simply ask, “well, where are the leads?” Talk about deflating the ego.
The Real Equation For A Successful Campaign is Much More Complicated
We quickly realized that there was much more to it. And the ABC equation is hilariously inadequate. Let’s start with Increased Traffic, and the many pitfalls with being shortsighted in this step.
To this day, there are still companies out there (mostly overseas) that offer $99 packages that will bring hundreds, if not thousands of visitors to your site. Or worse, they will sell hundreds of backlinks to your site, claiming that it will increase your search visibility. Please, for the love of all that is holy, stay away from these offers. Most of the traffic will come from toxic URLs, your spam score will skyrocket, and you can wind up with irreparable damage to your site. And there are plenty of novice SEO “experts” that will resell those services (most don’t know any better), and you’ll never know about it until after the fact.
But All That New Traffic Is Good, Right?
There are those that claim that ALL traffic is good, in much the same way PR folks will claim that “bad press is better than no press.” Spam traffic aside, I do agree – to a point. For example, we have a couple of blog articles on this site that have become very popular; to the tune of a few thousand extra visitors per month. We love the traffic, as it’s a great signal to Google that people find our site valuable. But here’s the thing – if we didn’t know what we were looking at, that traffic increase would seem like a miracle (a recent report indicated a 543% increase in new users. Yes, 543%). And an SEO firm would love to take credit for that. But exactly zero of that traffic is translating to leads, and it’s not surprising, as the articles are really just informative, not written to convince people to convert.
The downside is that we now have severely skewed data. It’s fairly simple to adjust, as we can add filters to our reporting that mostly ignores that traffic. But you can’t really get rid of it all, since analytics can only tell you so much. Again, though, we’ll take that little bit of bad for the traffic – but make no mistake, we are not confusing it with the goal of quality traffic.
The Importance – and Reality – Of Quality Traffic
This is the other place that SEO firms can put a hurting on you, and it hits square in the wallet. The most popular paid ads (PPC) platform out there is Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords). The platform is incredible in that it is simultaneously the easiest software to implement and the hardest software to master. There’s no effective beginner interface; if you were to log on you’d one of two options – one for experts that would make your eyes glaze over and another that is so simple that you can accidentally spend $500 without knowing what you did. But there ARE automation tools that most beginners use, and this is where they get into trouble.
Google Ads is Google’s cash cow. It’s what made them bajillions of dollars, and continues to drive the bulk of their revenue. It makes sense that Google developed tools that help you find additional phrases to associate with ads, and encourage you to spend more and more.
A Solid Google Ads Strategy Takes Time, Experience & A Level Of Empathy
All of that said, Google Ads – when done right – can be an effective tool for lead generation.
Baked into Google Ads are tools that help you find keywords and phrases, that will help you find related phrases, and that will automate the keyword choosing process and pretty much put the entire campaign on autopilot. With a few clicks, you can have ads running and driving traffic to your site. But without proper research, vetting and consideration, you may only find out that your campaign failed after you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars. You have to 1) know what you’re doing and 2) care about what you are doing.
Keyword research is one of the most time intensive things that we do, and there’s only one way to get good at it – experience. We use at least half-dozen resources to do our research, but all the software in the world is useless without an actual experienced analyst crunching everything. This is where the novices really fall short, and to make matters worse, it’s not a one-time shot.
A lot of companies will create that magic initial keyphrase list, dump it into Ads and then set up monthly recurring billing. Sure, they take a loss that first month, but after that the only time they put in is for reporting, and they let Google take care of the rest. And you can guess how that typically goes. We’ve taken over accounts and seen thousands of dollars wasted in non-performing keywords per month. Some clients were paying hundreds of dollars a week for their own brand name – against no competition. As an inherently frugal guy, it’s heartbreaking.
If you are paying someone to manage your paid ad campaign, then they should be actually managing it. That means reviewing everything monthly (or even more often) and making adjustments – adding better phrases and junking non-performing ones. Messing around with negative keywords. Experimenting with all the new options the platform offers. There is no such thing as “set it and forget it,” at least not without wasting money and opportunity.
Reporting Is Whatever You (Or They) Want It To Be
Ah yes – reporting. Again, the lack of basic standards for our industry leads to abuse and obfuscation at every turn. Trust me when I say that even the worst campaign will have SOME positive metric. All it takes at that point is a skilled marketing person to create a report that highlights the good and downplays the bad. And some folks are remarkable at positioning bad news so that it sounds like good news (“That high bounce rate? Oh, that always happens as a result of all the additional traffic that is coming to the site! Did I mention the 33% increase in site visitors?!!”)
#1 tip: Figure out what metrics are important to you and your business before you start your campaign, and make sure they report on those every month along with their other reporting. So if you are trying to increase the number of people that submit contact forms, use that as a reporting metric. There’s no hiding from that information.
The Rest of The Equation – The Quality Website
It’s pretty simple. Users are ungodly skeptical. They will come up with more reasons not to do something on a site than they will to do it. Anything can turn them off. A site that loads too slow, has confusing messaging, inefficient navigation, doesn’t look up to date – all of it can lead to drop offs.
A lot of companies spend 4-6 months (or more) with a web firm getting a new site built. And that’s just about the last time they put energy toward it, until they decide to build a new one. At the same time, organizations with high performing websites have internal teams that work on sites daily, or they retain digital marketing firms like ours to do that work for them. It’s pretty simple to guess which companies are seeing the return on their investment.
Conversions are tricky. People are fickle, and tastes change at a moment’s notice. What is avant garde today, is passe tomorrow. Keeping a website up to date is paramount. Content needs to be continually updated and added (this is a huge positive signal to Google) and the UX (User Experience) should never stop being tested and improved upon.
You Have to Have “The Talk”
If your SEO company does not even talk to you about your current site – run. It’s possible that you have a perfect site, but it’s not likely. There’s always room for improvement, and a site that is highly conducive to conversion is vital to any SEO campaign.
As long as we are on the topic: be open to website updates! We’ve had to walk away from projects when the site owner steadfastly refused that the site needed updates. I suspect he looked at it as an attempt to get more revenue from him, when in reality, we knew that the campaign would be a failure without the updates.
Sure, we would have been successful driving quality traffic to the site (amazingly so, and it was difficult to walk away considering the intel we had), but there was no way people would convert at the rate he was hoping for without some updates. The fact that there are companies out there that would gladly have taken the money only adds to the problem, and he would have ended up as another disillusioned person that claims, “SEO doesn’t work.”
We’re All Ears To Your Digital Marketing Company Horror Stories
Do you have a similar story? Have you been burnt by previous efforts with SEO? We’d love to know about it. Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll update this post!
Scott Kasun started ForeFront Web in 2001 and specializes in strategy, design and UI/UX. He still likes to dabble in programming, and our actual developers have locked him out of more websites than we can count. You can follow him on Twitter @scottkasun.