When SEO is Not the Right Solution

I had a meeting today with a prospective client and the account manager at one of my agency clients.  The prospect was coming in to talk about her need for a web site for a new product she wants to sell and where she had heard that SEO was something she needed.  I had almost no information going in – no previous site to refer to, no insight into the products, or the market.  Yet as soon as I heard the domain name she had chosen, I knew there was almost no chance I was going to recommend comprehensive SEO – because sometimes, SEO is just not the right solution…

Don’t get me wrong – SEO should be integrated as part of a best practices plan for any web site, regardless of the market.  Except I’ve been there, done that too often as far as being presented with a web plan that comes at a time when there’s not enough capital to properly market a company’s offerings.  This is also sometimes exacerbated by the fact that the market is so “out there” that too much work needs to go into SEO early on that the cost at such a vital time in the business life cycle can actually harm the company’s chances at success.

And above all else, I take great pride in the fact that I have an ethical responsibility to help new clients understand the right way to go about building a business, even if it means less money to my agency clients or to me.

Understanding Startup Mentality

Something that many of us in the search industry have is startup business experience.  I happen to have a lot of it.  I’ve started several businesses over a thirty year span, I’ve worked in management at several, and I’ve served on advisory boards for several others, in several industries.  This experience has blessed me with great insight into many aspects of what it takes to succeed and where many new business owners make some of the most common mistakes.

When Words Don’t Work

I can’t share the domain of this prospect here, however I can tell you that when I heard it, I immediately thought – is this a joke?  Or is going to be the “pet rock” of the 21st century?  Well, I discounted the “joke” notion right away – this is someone who was coming in to hire my agency client to create a professional ecommerce site – dropping several thousand dollars on the table.  I don’t know of too many people who would do that just for a laugh.

Which left me immediately recognizing that this was a product line in the gag gift market.  A quick search for other products referred to in the domain name showed me there are apparently only two other sites in existence where something even close to being similar are offered.  On the surface, that might sound like an awesome opportunity, yet it was a confirmation to me that any SEO initiative here would need to be massive.

The reason I felt this is simple.  If a product offering is so rare, the words people use to describe it when they’re doing a search are  highly refined because people know about the product already, which doesn’t take too much to optimize for since only two other sites are direct competitors.  Except that also means that anyone who has never heard of this stuff isn’t going to initially be looking for it.  They’re going to be looking for stuff that falls within the general category – in this case, a branch of the gag gift market.

And if a brand new site is going to compete in the gag gift market, that site’s going to have to have a massive amount of SEO applied.  Because the general gag gift market is huge.  Well not necessarily for that single phrase – there’s actually only about 225,000 pages that come up for the exact match “gag gift”.  And then there’s gag gifts, humorous gift, humorous gifts, funny gift, funny gifts, funny gifts for men, funny gifts for women…  and the list goes on.  And on.  And on.

Startup Business Reality

When she explained this product offering, I actually got it – saw the opportunity.  Saw how it could be a smash hit of untold proportions. This is when I rattled off a series of questions to determine whether this was going to be one of the many times I’ve needed to be the reality check in someone’s business life.  And here’s what I learned.

This is a one person company.  It’s all her idea, her product creation, her vision.  She’s never run a business before, ever.  She estimated that after the cost of the web development, she’s got about $5,000 a month allocated for her entire marketing budget.  Total.  And it’s not an endless well she’s got either.  If this doesn’t fly in just a few months, she’s done.

When SEO isn’t The Right Solution

So here we have a situation where this is a brand new venture.  It has to “succeed” in 3 months or less.  It’s so unique that nobody knows what it is yet.  It’s in a broad enough category that without a lot of focused effort, it’ll get lost in a sea of other products because it doesn’t fill a need, it’s a whimsical purchase thing.

With all of these facts before me, I stepped out of my SEO guy persona and into my wise and caring business advisory persona.  And let her know that, in my opinion and experience, other than baseline optimization around her product brand and product name, SEO should be the last thing she spends marketing money on.  In this situation, she should, instead, consider several other marketing paths.

Banner Ads

I suggested considering the strategic placement of banner ads on sites or blogs that get mid-level traffic where those sites cater directly to the niche market segment that the first version of her products would be ideal for.  of course, banner ads can cost a lot of money, however by choosing not the top most visited or popular sites, the cost of those banners would be more digestible.  And by getting banners only on sites that have visitors who would be considered her ideal market, it’s a much more highly qualified prospective customer base. She liked this idea a lot.


I suggested a Facebook Fan page be set up because as soon as a single new customer bought one of these, they were going to want to tell their friends about it.  And having a Facebook Fan page would be the first opportunity to help go viral.  She looked at me and said – I’ve never used Facebook…  [headdesk]


I could easily see videos being created that showcase this product in a humorous light, without needing to invest in a full blown commercial production.  And with the right combination of social media effort, one or more of these could also go viral. The notion of video sounded interesting to her, but more like a “yeah next year, after we succeed…” kind of a way.  [headdesk x 2]


She’s never been on Twitter either.  So this one was kind of painful. Yet I explained that with a Twitter account targeted at her specific ideal customer, she could start a humor based campaign where the product was only a secondary thing.  She didn’t grasp that so we quickly moved on.  Because she wasn’t listening actively at this point.

Old School Gift Shows

She could buy a table at a gift show and have retailers come to her.  Or she could hire a rep who could do the shows or even go around to their existing accounts and do the selling for her.  Sounded too big a vision for her current mindset.  But she took notes as I discussed how that would work.

Direct to Retailers

In this scenario she could just go door to door direct to retailers – boutique and mid-size stores, asking if they’d carry her product.  Right away, she said there wasn’t a market for it here in California (the first version here is ideal for politically conservative people), to which I replied – that’s not the case in Orange County, and in any case, there are conservatives spread throughout California.  And with a rep doing the selling, it would be up to them to find the stores.  She put this one down as another one for “next year…”

PR Isn’t Dead Yet

In spite of what some people would have you believe, I explained to her that old fashioned PR is another very low cost approach.  In this case, I suggested she could try and get the products featured in any number of ideal-market blogs or sites – it’s just a matter of finding the “Daily Candy” equivalent within the gag gift market.  Or she could send it to Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, etc. etc…   She laughed nervously at these suggestions, thinking no big name conservative would even consider her product worthy enough to talk about to their millions of followers.  I gently offered that she at least think about it because all it would take would be just ONE of them mentioning her product to their followers…

She liked the Daily Candy concept and said she’d research those opportunities. 

An Endless List Of Possibilities

The list of other marketing methods out there that each by themselves could be perfect in this situation is endless.  It just takes creative thinking.  And all of them would be a lot easier than her having to generate a site with hundreds of pages of unique high quality content in the gag gift market, especially when she initially only has a couple products.

And as much as I love bringing in the cash, I hate seeing someone throw good money out the window because they “should”.

Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors a month. A noted industry speaker, author and blogger, his posts are quite often as much controversial as they are thought provoking.
Alan Bleiweiss

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35 thoughts on “When SEO is Not the Right Solution

  1. That is an example of being truly helpful. Kudos to you for doing the right thing for this client. If they don't realize it now, at some point in the future they will be very grateful. We should ask ourselves if our goal is to do SEO well for the client or to help them be successful with their business. There's a difference.

  2. Another scenario is when a business never paid much attention to their website. They have not installed Analytics, did not invest in content creation and have not done anything to promote the website. As a result – there is no traffic and there is nothing to optimize, really. They do not rank because there is no content.

    Good insights, Alan. Limited budget plus “sink or swim” situation is definitely a special case. I hope your client succeeds. The fact that she is already thinking about SEO is putting her ahead of her competition, I am sure.

  3. @lyena I see the apathetic site owner mentality all the time. And it's true. I refuse to work on a site if a client's not willing to do what needs to be done with content.

    @Big Help Bill thanks. The last time I had to step into that role it caused the client to realize they probably shouldn't even be in business. Ouch! :-)

  4. Alan – it's good to know that you are able to step out of your SEO persona and in to an advisory role when necessary. I admire you for your ethics in not taking her business – she came to the right person, and I hope for her sake she doesn't search out another company because many other “SEOs” she is likely to find would just shrug and take her cash.

    On the other hand however, you presented very valuable marketing advice to her which she seemed disinterested in trying. Too much work to learn Facebook or Twitter perhaps but regardless if she wants to succeed she herself has to put her own effort into this project and not just throw what little money she has at it expecting it to succeed. I have dealt with many people who shy away from having to use social media and other tactics to promote their business. I just don't feel sorry for anyone who has the means and opportunities to help themselves but don't take advantage of them.

    1. Thanks Rebekah

      Helping to educate a client about alternative paths is something I feel is vital, so I do my best, yet I also understand that some people are just not ready to hear it. Sometimes I shake my head, sometimes I laugh, and yet, sometimes I understand there's other life factors involved, preventing them from opening to a bigger vision. When I get that awareness, I empathize. Mostly, I just shake my head. :-)

  5. It seems like the client was looking for seo to provide an immediate response to their needs, when it can take several months to achieve rankings or more (ok, maybe more with those generic phrases) And the client wanted to achieve top placements and visibility without lifting a finger in any way or spending any extra money.. Your suggestions of social networking needs, marketing etc appeared to be to much trouble…and though those are offered in many seo companies as additional services for clients who have no time, they may not of wished to pay for having it professional done. So basically, you would have had a client who, if you took on the project, would have been yelling at you in less then 30 days wanting to know why the seo on the site was not getting them significant rankings, visibility, sales conversion etc. And then you would have to tell them all the other options offered that would have been beneficial that they refused to consider.

    So…if you choose to speak with an seo professional, company whatever…you should consider taking their advice. :-)

    1. All true Bonnie. As for considering the notion of taking an SEO professional's advice, that does require having an open mind, and all too often people just don't, for too many reasons, right? That's when it's up to us to have the skills needed to properly evaluate the situation and be willing to walk.

  6. Nice work Alan! I've been in that situation many times. I usually tell this type of client something like “you don't need 'SEO', you need sales”. And then I work up a similar strategy as what you've outlined. Sure, SEO is great, but on a limited budget and timeline, there are sometimes better ways to prioritize efforts.

  7. Next time someone asks me to coffee to discuss SEO for their startup, I'm going to send them this first.

    A few other reasons SEO may not be a good fit:

    – Board is filled with VC's who have never invested in SEO-based businesses and think it works like a linear (or hockey stick-shaped) response function
    – Their revenue plan has SEO driving material revenue inside of 12 months but their opex has the organic search budget set unrealistically low
    – Their developers don't have experience creating a site architecture where the site must drive 70%+ of traffic from organic search.
    – Their product managers don't have any background in SEO
    – Competitors have already exploited all of the best long-tail content opportunities

    1. Jeremy,

      I have to agree with all of these except the last one – I think the only time competitors having already locked things up is a factor when the client doesn't have or isn't willing to allocate the budget to do the footwork to overcome that, though it does become a factor similar to the situation I encountered yesterday in terms of how much work needs to take place.

  8. All true Bonnie. As for considering the notion of taking an SEO professional's advice, that does require having an open mind, and all too often people just don't, for too many reasons, right? That's when it's up to us to have the skills needed to properly evaluate the situation and be willing to walk.

  9. Jeremy,

    I have to agree with all of these except the last one – I think the only time competitors having already locked things up is a factor when the client doesn't have or isn't willing to allocate the budget to do the footwork to overcome that, though it does become a factor similar to the situation I encountered yesterday in terms of how much work needs to take place.

  10. Great article Alan and fun to read.

    I think one of the biggest hurdles to clear in providing a good service is getting the right expectations set at the start which often means a certain amount of education for the client. If they're not willing to listen, they'll probably turn into a poor client. I have also tried to dissuade clients from making what might have turned out to be a poor investment for them because that would ultimately also be storing up problems for myself.

  11. Great stuff, Alan. This conversation repeats itself in paid search frequently because the entrepreneur has heard paid search is “fast”. It is, but only if people search for what you carry in fairly unambiguous language, eg “Palin Bobble Head”. “Gag gifts” and cousins would be a disaster for this client in paid search.

    We have always steered folks down the right path and away from hiring a paid search agency in these cases for a number of reasons: 1) It's the right thing to do; 2) These folks may go on to other ventures where our services will make sense, and we'd like them to leave with a favorable impression; 3) They may have friends who already work for those types of companies; 4) They would end up cranky and unpleasant, and life is too short to deal with cranky people; 5) it's good Karma; and 6) we sleep well at night.

    Glad to hear you're cut from the same cloth!

  12. Alan,Glad you mentioned using social media. I thought the article was going to end at the client being told spending money on SEO was not a productive use of her money and thats it.

  13. Alan…. You were an excellent advisor for your potential client. Hopefully she won't create any bad press about your. I did what you did for a client with no resources and several fierce competitors that were already dominating her niche, for less that she was planning on charging. She left my office and then posted several negative reviews about my company on Yelp and other rating services. Sometimes, people just don't see that you really are trying to help them. Big Help Bill…. you are absolutely correct. Kudos.

  14. wow – thanks for all the comments that came in since yesterday. I really appreciate the affirmations on my desire to do right by the client even when it's not profitable in the short term…

  15. You did well to try to point her in the right direction but this reminds me of “you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink”. If someone REALLY wants to succeed there is an awful lot of information they can research and implement for themselves but for some reason they fail to do this. Nothing wrong with asking for expert advice if the task is really beyond your skills but by and large it's not – just takes time.

  16. Good advises you gave her. Although I doubt banners, especially because nobody exactly knows what the business is. Instead I would prefer P.R. as with P.R. you have the opportunity to explain the business and to persuasive others to hire her.


    Stijn Driessen

  17. Great post. I'm in the same boat as you Alan.

    I see absolutely no value in taking money off clients where I just know they haven't really thought through their business strategy properly. Sometimes it feels like I'm really peeing on their parade but ultimately if the person is serious about their business they'll take the advice onboard.

    After all, what goes around comes around…

  18. This is a great post and great story. I think many of us realize that SEO isn't always the solution but we don't always admit that to anyone outside the client meeting. PR sounds like a definitely good idea here as well as even doing something unusual like inviting friends over for a launch party and selling it to them at cost to generate some buzz.

    I'd also think about sending it to some writers who might consider doing a review or mention of the gift. And she could also consider contacting some sites that sell gag gifts that are of a similar theme or that would appeal to a similar audience.

  19. Nice work Alan! I’ve been in that situation many times. I usually tell this type of client something like “you don’t need ‘SEO’, you need sales”. And then I work up a similar strategy as what you’ve outlined. Sure, SEO is great, but on a limited budget and timeline, there are sometimes better ways to prioritize efforts.

  20. hey Alan Bleiweiss,
    WOW…your blog is really very Interesting and Quite effective…
    tricks you have mentioned are really awesome..
    thanks a lot for your effort.

  21. I had fun reading this post. I want to learn more on this topic.. Thanks for writing this amazing article.. Anyway, I’m going to subscribe to your feed and I hope you post again soon.