As someone who has spent a significant part of their career working directly in search marketing, it’s rare that I can’t find a business case to be made for SEO being in the digital, and broader marketing mix.
There are few growing industries, businesses, or organizations that don’t have a web presence or some type of online level of engagement with their audiences.
SEO is a discipline that takes more time and focus than paid media and other quicker-to-launch and results channels.
That doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It hurts me when I hear phrases like “SEO doesn’t work for us” or “we don’t believe in the value of SEO.”
There are at least 10 reasons why SEO doesn’t work.
Very few have to do with only external, industry factors.
Most of the time when SEO fails, it’s due to one or more reasons ranging from unrealistic expectations or inherent challenges within the company or organization.
There’s no yelling like an angry reality TV celebrity consultant coming in to fix things up here. Just plain truths that might hurt a bit if you can relate.
These are definitely necessary to understand before starting SEO or if you are not sure it will work for you.
1. Unrealistic Expectations
If we’re turning to SEO for our last-ditch effort to save a business, or as the magical source that will produce all of our engagement and conversion goals, we need to pump the brakes.
I’ve witnessed SEO do those things, but those scenarios are rare and come with undue pressure.
Like media channels and other digital marketing disciplines, SEO can be planned, projected, and benchmarked.
Seek out industry data, competitor research, and audience (keyword) data to know what the potential for SEO might look like.
2. Giving up Too Soon
Like many organic efforts, we have to remember that SEO doesn’t have a quick switch that we can flip.
Variables in algorithms, factors with our sites, the fact that links matter, and the competitive landscape all make promising or counting on specific timing for SEO ROI and profitability difficult.
Owners and executives hate the non-committal nature of SEO professionals when it comes to timing for results.
SEO pros hate being asked and pressured into giving an answer with so many unknowns.
The known thing that makes SEO fail though is pulling the plug too soon.
“Too soon” is before you get through the range of indexing, technical, content, on-page, and external (links and more) factors.
The more competitive the space, the more time you need.
The more issues you have when you start that you need to work through, the more time you need.
3. Thinking Tactically Instead of Strategically
Many SEO tactics have stood the test of time and are still important today.
However, that has also caused undue weight being placed on them.
If you write new tags or optimize them, I doubt you’ll see much lift. If you get one new link, you’ll likely not see a difference.
Dabbling in specific tactics is dangerous.
When SEO doesn’t work, it’s often because it was started with a checklist or set of tactics without direction.
Strategy means we’re using research, setting goals, planning out a methodology, measuring the impact, and having mechanisms built in that allow for agility.
It’s painful to hear terms today that have no meaning or relevance.
It’s one thing to have the right tactics in absence of a strategy (noted above).
It’s a deeper challenge and reason for SEO failure when using practices that have little or no opportunity for success to start with.
Even seasoned SEO professionals need ongoing updates for their methods and understanding of the SEO profession.
The risk of outdated or ineffective performance comes with having someone add SEO to their responsibilities, those that cost very little, or those that haven’t done SEO in the recent past.
5. Lack of Audience Demand
I mentioned that most of the time it’s hard to find a case where SEO can’t help a business.
That’s not always 100% true.
Or, at the very least, I can definitely attest that there are times where it shouldn’t be one of the leading or highest priority channels in the marketing mix.
When a company’s target audience isn’t searching for what they offer, that’s a warning sign that SEO won’t work.
It isn’t a case where SEO efforts can’t get the site ranked for certain keywords – it’s about the fact that those rankings won’t matter in terms of driving traffic and/or leads and sales.
Some examples include products or services that are ultra-technical, have zero awareness, or in selling models that are private and aren’t conducted publicly on the web.
SEO is an inbound channel. We have to have people actively coming to a search engine, do a search, find us, and click through to see it work.
When there’s no opportunity (or desire) for that, then investing in SEO and working to optimize can be a pointless exercise.
6. Unfavorable SERP Features
There are many moving targets in search.
For its entire existence, Google has used the search results page as a big experiment. Looking back in time we can see and remember the different layouts and types of content in the SERPs.
Each keyword can have a different layout and pull in different featured pieces of content or “knowledge.” Organic search results are just one piece of the SERP.
SEO expectations need to be filtered by considering how busy SERPs are and where the organic results appear across the range of focus keyword terms and phrases.
If organic results are pushed way down the SERP below ads, images, local listings, and other content, the traffic potential for a number one organic search ranking is less than it would be for a page where organic results are above the fold near the top.
Rankings don’t equal traffic and conversions. SEO may not work despite number one rankings if SERP features are working against us.
7. IT Issues
I know many wonderful, talented IT professionals.
Even my friends and the best-of-the-best sometimes don’t understand or like SEO requests.
Security, functionality, and data often outrank seemingly subjective requests from the SEO team.
This is often the best-case scenario – just justifying the need or ask.
SEO doesn’t work when the IT infrastructure or support doesn’t exist. Or, when SEO isn’t even an option for prioritization by IT.
If technical site factors can’t be touched, updated, or addressed, things like indexing and site speed can suffer before we even start talking about on-page factors and CMS needs.
8. UX Issues
For SEO campaigns and efforts that are measured against conversions (not just awareness or initial clicks/engagement), UX can often make or break the opportunity.
It’s one thing to get rankings and traffic. It’s another if that traffic doesn’t convert.
You can have the best rankings and alignment with research, consideration, and bottom of the funnel intent success.
However, if the UX is a train wreck and people can’t navigate to where you need them to, then SEO will be judged as a failure.
9. Poor Team Structure
Teams are potentially something weird to think about when it comes to SEO working or not. However, this is often a hidden issue.
Whether it’s tied to skill sets, experience, priorities, our resource commitments, the team (or person) responsible for SEO combined with others that need to support it, can make or break SEO efforts.
Early in my career, I was more able to do SEO in a silo. That has changed a lot – which is a positive thing.
If there’s no real commitment to the team and prioritization by all involved, then SEO is at risk.
We need people within the team or adjacent for content, IT, UX, and other levels of support.
10. Lack of Investment
SEO traffic is free!
While no media dollars are required internal or external resources are needed.
Whether it’s hard costs with an agency and/or in software, plus the soft costs of internal employees and resources, SEO definitely has a cost.
Not fully funding the effort with hard and soft costs can keep SEO working from the start.
Seeing the all-in investment need is critical.
We all want all of our marketing efforts to work.
SEO is no exception.
Whether there are one or more factors or challenges that stand in our way, being aware of the reasons why SEO doesn’t work is important.
SEO is an investment at many levels. Knowing where to resolve challenges or what can sink it before it starts, or after efforts are underway, can go a long way to making it work and unlocking the potential opportunities for reaching marketing and business goals through it.