SEO has always been the red headed step child of the Internet. A magical realm where the least valuable content could rise to the top just by having an “expert” in some far off land consult their collection of dried chicken bones. They would then create the appearance of value for you by raising an army of zombie computer bots who would mindlessly “read” your blog or “view” your video over and over. In addition they would conjure “authority” for your content by creating hundreds or thousands or millions of links to your sites (from parked domains).
Back in the day this actually worked because they were meeting the rather simple conditions that the search engines were programmed to seek out in order to determine the quality of content. Unfortunately for providers of low quality content everywhere the search engines and the Internet audience have been growing up.
The result is that these old tricks no longer work. This does not keep Black Hat SEO practitioners from peddling the same old thing to new and unsuspecting businesses on the web. It just means that what they do is no longer effective and they are now little more than the scammers that they used to be so good at promoting.
Does this mean that SEO is dead? No, not at all, in fact good SEO is becoming more important all the time. As the search engines have matured their tastes in content have become more complex. In order to properly optimize even high quality content there is a whole lot more that has to be done every time you create and upload a new blog post, news release, photo or video.
The relative safe haven for content producers used to be digital advertising. At least there you knew what you were getting for the money you were spending. Programs like Adwords and Google Analytics enabled you to see the effectiveness of your marketing budget in microscopic detail. Now Big Data allows you to track potential customers across the web like a big game hunter on safari and learn their interests and habits. Then you can target them at the exact moment when they are most likely to be ready to purchase your product.
That was awesome. Unfortunately the quarry is evolving and becoming more wary. At the same time the competition for keywords and position has become more competitive and for many small businesses this has meant that advertising to their local market has become quite expensive.
In addition the big, national or global digital ad agencies are now telemarketing small businesses so hard that they are turning the market against advertising. That may not be a bad thing because I can’t help but question the real effectiveness of running automated campaigns for thousands of small businesses. It is like Wal-Mart trying to act like a local business. A one size fits all shirt from a sweat shop in China is nothing like a hand made shirt from a local tailor. Cheap products are attractive to cash strapped consumers and businesses alike but cheap, mass produced goods are usually just that, “cheap”. You sacrifice quality for a lower price and I think the same is true in advertising.
Last night I was doing a bit of research on Google Trends and what I found there seems to confirm this line of reasoning (at least in general terms). In the image below (click to enlarge) you can see the amount of Google search traffic on the terms Small Business, SEO and Advertising over the period of 2004 until the present and slightly beyond.
SEO, Advertising and Small Business Trends
Over the ten year period represented by this graph advertising has seen a steady decline with a general leveling out over the last 4 years. Small business too has seen a decline and leveling out which generally mirrors the decline in advertising as a search term.
SEO on the other hand has seen a slow but steady rise within the same time period. The result is that today all three search terms have almost equaled out into a single line on the graph. SEO is still trailing advertising by a tiny margin but the Google Trends site is predicting that searches for SEO will actually eclipse advertising in January of 2015.
This data does correspond with what I have seen in the actual marketplace. Improvements to the Google search algorithm over the past year have brought this into sharp focus. I have done several blogs on related topics; SEO Rules For 2014 and Beyond and one on the necessity of having someone take on the role of Content Manager for every successful business or website.
The outcome of this is going to be an evolution in what a full service agency does on the web. My own strategy for small business is to optimize a website and its content across a spectrum of channels and using a hybrid strategy of quality content + SEO + advertising in this mix:
- First optimize their website and then each piece of new content according to on-site SEO best practices as established by Google.
- Then distribute this content to as wide an audience as possible using RSS feeds and aggregators as well as news bookmarking sites and social media.
- Develop a robust social media program involving Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, Linkedin and Google+
- Use news releases where appropriate
- Create and maintain local business listings on all appropriate channels
- Use advertising to enhance and extend all of the above
The above model is one that takes constant monitoring in order to stay on peak performance. It also requires an ongoing learning process as the requirements to maintain a site in line with beast practices is always evolving. Large companies can afford to hire specialists in each category but most small businesses cannot. The choice is to either invest a significant amount of your time in both doing the work and keeping abreast of changes or to hire someone to do it for you.
To meet this new demand digital agencies that want to serve small business clients in the best way possible will have to become diversified according to these requirements of the marketplace. I believe that those who do adapt and do it well will see a resurgence in business as clients see the benefits of doing things right reflected in their bottom line.