Insiders find every aspect of search engine optimization (SEO) fascinating. But the real world doesn’t. An SEO professional may live and die by every algo update and latest social signal split-test, but please know that the non-SEO world couldn’t care less.
Take, for example, a carpet cleaner, a dentist, a veterinarian, roofer, plumber, mover, even doctors, lawyers... you get the idea. They are busy running their businesses. Over the years a divergence has developed between the SEM blogs and the realities of small business marketing. A course correction is needed.
Let’s first be clear, small business needs online marketing. In fact, many of these businesses need online marketing far more than their larger corporate brothers. The big guys can swing fat SEO budgets around as they “explore” different social media outlets and “experiment” with social engagement as an alternative customer service strategy.
The small business profile is not nearly as pretty, particularly in this economy. Often hampered by small margins, super tight budgets and a general lack of respect from vendors who give them their lesser-trained account managers, many small business owners are living on a frustrating edge.
It Used to be so Simple
A small business owner who has been around for a while is often especially unhappy with the migration to online marketing. The rules used to be simple. You set up shop, bought your yellow pages ad, and then had a modest budget for other media outlets such as radio, newsprint, fliers, coupons and perhaps local television.
While you’d expect great enthusiasm for the new online economy, you often hear frustration and bitterness. Why is small business so mistrustful of online marketing? And what is so special about SEO that has them particularly distrustful?
1. The Rules Keep Changing
Last year’s big Panda updates were the obvious big SEO news. It was, as algorithm updates go, a major change that impacted 12 percent of Google’s search results. And SEO shop phones across the country rang off the hook from small business owners who were scrambling to figure out what it all meant for their traffic.
Trained empiricists will be fascinated by the scientific reviews of Panda. But this is inaccessible to small business owners who really ask questions such as, “Hey, does Panda mean that Google is finally going to get me for that guy I hired last year to spin articles and post them to 2,000 article sites?”
Was Panda really about “thin content” as everybody claimed? You can find all sorts of human and machine spun content still warm and cozy in Google’s database today, leading many to believe Panda was really more about duplicate content (still) than anything else.
But back on point, the small business world isn't interested in debates. They want the yellow pages, conceptually anyway. And SEO is about as far from that as possible because the rules keep changing.
2. The ROI Calculation is Difficult
As much as the small business world resented the yellow pages for its monopolistic stronghold over them, it was a known quantity. In many respects, pay-per-click (PPC) ads bought through Google AdWords are the modern day equivalent of the yellow pages.
Google is where people go today, much like the yellow pages is where they went in 1985. Plain and simple. In similar fashion, small business has a love-hate relationship with Google AdWords, feeling the same resentment toward high prices and lack of options.
When small business turns to SEO out of desperation, they are looking for a cheaper option. Read: An option with a higher return on investment (ROI). And they have heard the wild stories about how great the ROI is on SEO. But is it really?
According to Google’s rules, SEO vendors can’t promise ranking. Therefore, vendors can’t really promise ROI. In what other business is that acceptable?
Furthermore, SEO vendors can’t price with precision because nobody other than Google really knows if it will work (more on that in a minute). Even when you try to use Google’s own estimates of traffic to build your case, it might turn out that AdWords is giving us bad data anyway.
3. Fear of Ending Up on Google's Blacklist
Step back for a moment and think about another area in business where the proposition is something along the lines of “this could be a great long-term investment that will boost your business or it might take you down entirely.”
What? Seriously? It just doesn’t happen like that in the real world. Until now.
Last years’ JCPenney SEO problem illustrates just how difficult this issue is. Not only did JCPenney’s distasteful tactics work, they were not detected by Google. That is, until someone decided to get the New York Times involved.
While the news did expose the need for all companies to assure that they (and their SEO firms) are carrying out quality SEO tactics, the whole concept was a bit confusing to the small business owner who is still trying to successfully implement SEO strategies that will help grow its customer base.
4. SEO Seems Overly Technical
Just talk to a pro about SEO. Enough said. But if you don't believe in how overly jargon-filled SEO is, watch this hilarious video.
Particularly in light of the risks associated with hiring an overly-aggressive SEO firm, the buyer has to be somewhat educated to avoid becoming the next JCPenney. But small business owners don't have time for this. They can’t step away from their shop, store or van to take a three-day seminar on the difference between on-site and off-site SEO. They don’t want to know the importance of long-tail vs. head-term strategies.
5. "SEO Doesn’t Work"
The final, and perhaps most important, reason that small business hates SEO is that it is often perceived to “not work.” Sure, sure, the comments section will fill up with statements such as “not if you hire me” and “not if you do it right.” But let’s get real.
On a competitive keyword phrase you can be looking at years of effort to make it to position 1, if ever. For a Fortune 100 company with billions of Wall Street dollars at its disposal, this may be OK. But not on Main Street.
Given the sharp traffic drop associated with position 2 or 3 (let alone position 7 or 8), SEO can be seen as a big ROI gamble – even when you do make it to Page 1. Misaligned expectations, poor tracking and reporting, and impatience often lead to the conclusion that money was wasted.
Small business needs SEO, but it feels like SEO has not yet figured out that it needs small business.
A good SEO needs to help their small business customer see that the basic tenets of Google’s ranking system have been the same for years (read: quality onsite content and inbound links). Even as social signals are integrated, and thin content is removed from Google, it will be in a measured fashion with plenty of time to react.
SEO should sharpen its ability to quantify ROI potential (pre-sales) without breaking Google’s rules, especially through bundled offerings that down-play the perceived ambiguity of search engine rankings.
Strong technology support, in the form of tighter analytics, PPC, phone, email, backlink and social media data integration, combined with real business results (i.e., sales / revenues) will allow small business and SEO to communicate quickly, and in understandable terms. In other words, SEO will speak small business language and reduce the current learning curve requirement (which is steep). These efforts will lead small business owners to the conclusion that, like the yellow pages and PPC, SEO does work.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!