Putting the M Back in SEM

Once upon a time, back in the early days of the Web, marketers would spend lots of time gathering links that would encourage visitors to click on them and drive traffic. Somewhere along the line, Google’s PageRank algorithm changed that, and marketers became obsessed with building (or buying) links that helped them rank in the search engines.

Now that Google has gone on a crusade against paid links, and has begun discounting suspected paid links in its ranking algorithms, marketers have once again returned to the concept of building links that drive traffic.

That idea was a common theme this week at SES Toronto. Just about every session offered the same general advice: stop chasing algorithms and build a site that people will trust; build links that will drive qualified traffic, and the SEO benefits will follow.

Get Into the Experience Business

In the “Beyond Linkbait” session, which I had the privilege to moderate, Mike McDerment, CEO and co-founder of Freshbooks, explained that even though he had spent his past life as an SEO, he purposely built Freshbooks.com to not be search engine friendly.

The site is still built to be crawlable by search engines, but instead of optimizing title tags and on-page copy for certain keywords, McDerment made sure the titles and pages would entice users to click on Freshbooks’ listing in the search results, and feel comfortable about the company once they got there.

“We’re in the experience business, and relationships are the currency,” McDerment said. He noted that, contrary to popular belief, businesses don’t want to do business with other businesses. They want to do business with people, especially people who understand them well.

By building a business focused on building relationships with people, Freshbooks was able to explode its traffic, and get many more customers than it would have gotten through SEO, he said.

McDerment has instilled at Freshbooks a culture of “making love to the customer.” One example where Freshbooks has gone above and beyond to please customers was when a man in Fiji objected to McDerment’s posts about new Triscuit flavors, because they were unavailable in his country and he was dying to try them. The company promptly sent him some boxes of the new crackers, and he subsequently blogged about it, got picked up by ReadWriteWeb, and then wrote an article for the Fiji Times newspaper about his experience.

Another time, one of the company’s Twitter followers tweeted about getting stood up for a date. The Freshbooks employee responded that Freshbooks would never stand her up, and then the company sent her flowers. That also resulted in positive blog posts and happy customers.

Focus on the End, Not the Means

The other presenter in the “Beyond Linkbait” session was Greg Jarboe, president and co-founder of SEO-PR. Jarboe shared a similar theme, woven through three of SEO-PR’s clients.

“Too often, people get stuck on the artifact — the links. Links shift in value. They’re a means to an end. Getting traffic to your site — that has value,” he said.

Jarboe uses a news hook to build links. By creating press releases that are optimized to rank well in Google News, SEO-PR is able to drive traffic directly to client sites. By building personal relationships with journalists and bloggers, SEO-PR is able to get talked about in places where potential customers will find his clients.

Moving Forward by Looking Back

Before Google made links the be-all, end-all of search engine marketing, people used to focus on advertising in places that would bring the right users to their site. And then they would focus on building a site that would keep them interested once they arrived, and persuade them to buy something, if that was their goal.

When search traffic got cheap and abundant, it was often easier to just get more people to come to your crappy website and still get enough to buy something, than it would be to target relevant traffic, and build a site that converted well.

Now, increased competition makes search traffic less cheap and less abundant, at least on the more competitive terms. So now, marketers are realizing something they should have known all along: Google rankings are not the end goal. Google rankings are one means of getting to the end goal, which is getting customers to spend money on your site.

Many marketers did know this all along, and those are the ones that don’t freak out every time Google changes its algorithms. Now, it seems there are more people out there like them, going back to put the “marketing” back into “search engine marketing.”

Submissions are now open for the 2009 Search Engine Watch Awards. Enter your company or campaign before July 17, 2009. Winners will be announced at SES San Jose.

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