Monday, March 20, 2006

SEO Contribution to a Press Article

I was asked this morning for a contribution on SEO for a trade publication, which got me thinking about the ideal SEO offer to clients. This is what I came up with.

Not since the youthful days of Lester Wunderman, has the industry seen such a radically new idea as Search Engine Optimisation. Fundamentally marketing and advertising are changing. It used to be the case that building a brand was accomplished by booking space on the biggest mass media platform you could afford and wait for the message to trickle down from the top. The theory was that by scatter bombing as big an area as possible you would reach all the consumers that would be interested in buying your product. Actually the scatter bombing analogy is very accurate to what is happening. Sure you were likely to hit the key targets but you were also going to reach a lot of people who didn't care about you or your product.

Vietnam taught the US military that scatter bombing wasn't the best way of winning a war, and as a result they now offer smart bombs which apparently knock on the door and ask if the target is in before exploding, and all this is recorded for posterity on video. Search marketing offers the same kind of efficiency and the same benefits and SEO means that any buyer sees your message at exactly the time that they want to make a purchase. That's the Utopian dream of business, right? Mass media's hold on advertising budgets is loosening and Search Marketing increasingly offers a greater return on investment. It is a new technique and consequently the search market is still growing up. Currently there is much talk about what is and what isn't ethical SEO.

Google's advice to Webmasters concerns the content of a site and much of it is to do with good web design practice and writing good copy (the latter of which is often overlooked by many web designers and clients during a project).

The conversation about unethical practices is long and involved, but can be encapsulated in a phrase. If a surfer enters a search term and the results lower their satisfaction then the chances are that unethical tactics have been employed. This should be avoided at all costs as the success of the whole search model relies on the user's satisfaction with the results they get.

This neatly covers the most common unethical practices such as keyword spamming, where long lists of repetitive and non relevant keywords are strung together. Another technique is hiding content which the rest of the site doesn't present to make it look more attractive to the search spiders. Google and the other search engines are getting very hot on these topics and very public removals have been made in the last few weeks. Action of this nature which at times has been over zealous is however understandable because their entire business model depends on the surfer satisfaction ratio remaining high.

The other side of SEO is about promoting your clients site on other sites and is very close to the offline offering of PR agencies. Its about ensuring that any online conversation about your client's industry includes a reference to your client and a link to their site. So industry publications, press articles and discussion boards are very useful to increase page ranking. These technique were so efficient that Google stopped including many blogs in their main search index when they created their Blog Specific index, however the value of blog specific search engines is going to grow and this avenue should not be overlooked. Spaming blogs with automatic comment programs though is unethical and this technique should be avoided on the grounds of reducing surfer satisfaction. Sending relevant bloggers information on your client and their products is ethical and many bloggers are highly receptive to approaches from companies so that they can write up their own reviews.

The ultimate penalty for infringing the SEO ethical practices is removal from the index which means that you, your products and services will be completely invisible to the Internet audience and therefore have to rely on other forms of promotion, which will invariably cost more than well executed SEO. In most cases SEO will provide benefit to clients and a return on investment. In a few cases the offer is either too weak or too complicated to define through copy or keywords or the results are needed too quickly for SEO to be suitable and in these cases there are online and offline alternatives to SEO. As with every aspect of media it is about aligning the needs of the client with the most suited solutions.

My opinion is that SEO practitioners shouldn't simply be looking at an existing site and seeing how to blast it up the rankings, they should be analysing the needs of client's customers and adjusting/adding content which is relevant, clear, complete and valuable for them with specifically targeted keywords. This should then be presented in the most efficient ways for the search spiders to find. It isn't about turning a sows ear into a silk purse, its about going to the haberdashers and getting silk and thread to create it.

SEO takes time, so the results won't be immediately obvious and clients should be aware of this. The results also should be monitored because search is not a static business. This means that SEOs should be talking to clients about ongoing relationships to monitor and update the content keywords and rankings each month. SEOs who guarantee top ten listings in hundreds of search engines with results within two weeks are either lying or they are employing unethical practices. They could also mean Search Engine Marketing which is a different, but related, kettle of fish.

For short campaigns SEO is probably not going to be quick enough to produce excellent results and alternatives should be sought but for websites and web presences with a long shelf life, SEO offers the most cost efficient way of promoting your business.

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