We love SEO. We love the fact that it brings cumulative results instead of temporary ones. We love that it makes consumers feel like they chose you, instead of feeling like you pushed them into a sale. We love that it takes both creative and technical skills to succeed long term.
But SEO has also taught many of us some pretty terrible marketing lessons, and we need to be careful to sift those out if we want to run a sustainable business. Here are a few of those awful lessons.
1. It’s okay to build a marketing strategy around something you can’t control
Let’s face facts. A very large and vocal minority in the SEO community spends a lot of time writing conspiratorial rants about Google. And believe me, I get it. Google is a search engine monopoly with more data about your online actions than any other company on the planet, an incessant need to please shareholders, and possible backroom deals with the NSA.
Many of the criticisms tossed at Google are legitimate, but the more obsessive they become, the more they begin to resemble conspiracy theories. And according to Dr. Tim Melley’s book Empire of Conspiracy, conspiracy theories say something very specific about the psychology of the person behind the rant:
- They have a very individualistic personality (and pretty much all entrepreneurs do)
- They lack a sense of control (and that’s interesting, isn’t it?)
It’s not unreasonable to conclude that a large portion of the SEO community feels that Google is conspiring against them, in large part, because they are handing their sense of control over to Google.
We don’t have control of Google’s algorithms, and we never will. It’s worth noting that the more you see SEOs adopting social media, referral traffic, and “inbound marketing,” the less you see them writing about Google’s self-interests.
Could it be that they feel more in control of their future?
We couldn’t call ourselves SEOs if we didn’t care about Google’s algorithms, and frankly a bit of Google skepticism is healthy for SEOs, and society as a whole. But anti-Google rants aren’t actionable.
On the other hand, if you diversify your traffic sources in ways that generate sales and don’t depend on Google, yet help improve your rankings, you’re going to feel more in control of your future and protect yourself from Google’s gambles in the years ahead.
2. You can make money without offering value of any kind
This “insight” comes from the “black-hat” side of SEO. The biggest problem with this awful piece of marketing advice is that it’s absolutely true. You can win a top spot in Google by spamming the web with terrible, algorithmically spun content, paid links, and low quality junk. In fact, this terrible marketing lesson predates SEO altogether, going back to what Seth Godin calls the TV industrial complex. As long as you can convince people you offer value, you can sell them something.
The trouble starts when the veneer begins to peel away and consumers start to realize that you don’t offer anything of value. You can’t churn and burn forever, and in the internet age this strategy starts to break down much sooner.
Long term success demands that marketing is built into the product itself. A product needs to be worth using and worth talking about to be sustainable. The same goes for the associated brand, and the connotations that the product attaches to it.
SEO has been and still is a good way to level the playing field. Those who claim that SEO is losing its value as a level playing field are romanticizing the days when it was possible to keep junk in the search engines for extended periods of time. The truth is, that was a short era. It didn’t start until Google had been around long enough for thousands of low quality article directories and link sellers to saturate the space, and it only lasted until Google started bringing the hammer down with things like Panda.
I’m not here to sell some of the inbound marketing lies that are creeping into this industry. Content alone, no matter how good, isn’t going to get rankings without promotion. But let’s be clear here. If content doesn’t have a unique selling proposition, if it’s not worth consuming, it’s just not sustainable.
3. You don’t have to spend money to make money
This isn’t really a problem on the agency side of things, but it has been a problem for quite some time in the “affiliate marketing” and “make money online” spaces. There is a belief in some circles that links = rankings, and links = free, therefore SEO = free. And in isolated cases this can work for a period of time. But it always comes toppling down.
Sustainable SEO always costs money, either through the time value of money or through outsourcing.
If you want natural links, you’ll need traffic. That means you’ll either need to buy traffic or spend a decent amount of time learning how to create content capable of sending referral traffic.
If you want authoritative links, you’ll need to invest in outreach and content marketing skills.
If you want to embark on a large scale link building campaign, you’ll need to hone your project management skills and invest in project management software like WorkZone or any other.
Make no mistake, SEO and inbound tactics offer far better long term ROI than traditional marketing (when used correctly). But it takes investment, and it takes time.
4. Why test anything when you can take expert advice and case studies for granted?
Both advocates of natural SEO and traditional SEO are guilty of this.
Expert advice, and case studies especially, are a great place to start. But that’s all they are. I’m of the opinion that you aren’t doing real SEO until you’re testing and measuring results. We need to be data driven and we need to know what that actually means.
This industry, like any industry, has its share of sheep. It’s easy to parrot what industry leaders say. SEOs have learned that they can earn a massive amount of exposure and links by being very transparent about what they do and sharing their own proprietary data. You can get a lot farther in this industry than most just by taking advice from the right people. And that, perhaps, is the source of the problem.
There’s a shortage of information on how to test and measure SEO successfully, perhaps because it’s not as enthralling as a polarizing rant or a simple how-to trick. Rest assured, it can be done, and you must do it if you really want to call yourself an optimizer.
Despite its incredible power as a leveler, SEO is only sustainable when it isn’t too far removed from business fundamentals and the need for customer retention. Learn wherever you can, but be discerning. This industry has its share of bad apples.