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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”.

Category SEO
Alan Bleiweiss Forensic SEO Consultant at Alan Bleiweiss Consulting

Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites from medium scale to world class enterprise. He ...

When SEO is Not the Right Solution

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