Grace Chu of SEO firm First Click Marketing immediately hit the ground running when she started the company four years ago, acquiring a number of large clients within the first few months of operation.
But Chu says the ignorance of search engine marketing among larger companies was a problem she found difficult to overcome.
"This isn't sexy. SEO is about words, descriptions and coding, and it's constantly talking about numbers and how that relates to consumer behaviour. It's a totally different way to do marketing than companies are used to."
"When we started four years ago, there was a gap in the market. At that time, you could use Google AdWords in order to track customers, but the whole search marketing side wasn't very prominent. We had to show clients they could find out how users got to a page, did they trigger actions on the site, how many pages they viewed and how they left. If you track properly, we told companies they could apply that offline as well."
Chu says the marketing experience she gained while on the eBay Australia team helped her relay to potential clients the benefits of SEO and moving search budgets online. Her strategy worked, gaining clients including DealsDirect, MySpace Australia and Channel V.
The company recorded $2.4 million revenue during 2007-08 with 87% growth during 2008-09, equating to approximately $4.5 million revenue.
Overcoming the initial hurdles
Despite Chu winning over some clients with her marketing background, not everyone was coming along for the ride. Many Australian companies were slow to catch onto AdWords and digital marketing, let alone the relatively new world of SEO.
"There was quite a lot of demand for online marketing, but in the paid sector for AdWords and so on. Organic marketing, or search marketing, has taken off over the past four years but four years ago there was a lot more education required in the industry."
"But I've always been crazy about internet marketing and I saw a big potential for it taking off in Australia. I had to help businesses understand objectives, and how they could utilise search marketing to acquire online users, instead of using a normal retail approach for the internet."
The bright side of the downturn
While the advertising and marketing industries were hit during the downturn, Chu took the hard times as an opportunity to market to perspective clients.
"We were affected mainly through the smaller clients, because they were affected obviously by the economy. But we also benefited from the downturn because of an increased spend on online marketing."
One of First Click's clients reduced their overall marketing spend by 40%, but Chu says she convinced them to discover SEO as an alternative to internet marketing.
"The downturn forced companies to look at their return on investments more clearly. Before the downturn they could get by, but when less money is coming in they want to look at getting a good result."
"So we took advantage of that need and showed them we knew how to look more closely at their customers. We could offer them details about the customers they acquire, what products they are buying, how much time they are spending online, etc. Additionally, we showed them that by using SEO we could get them more customers. We showed them how to increase their ROI, and reduce their cost per customer."
The strategy was so successful that Chu says the company is now on the search for new developers to help deal with the increased workload.
Finding the right talent
But the search for good talent has become a challenge in itself, Chu says.
"This is such a specialised industry that finding the right talent is hard. It's impossible to find people who can move from traditional marketing to SEO very quickly, so you need the right skills set and unfortunately that's hard to come across."
"The other problem related to that is this is such an emerging industry still that if you don't know the market yourself then how are you going to know what to find in a developer? We get lots of CVs but we have to be careful in discerning what experience and talent is required. We find that to be a challenge, and it's the only thing holding us back from growing the company."
But as the industry grows, Chu says more competition means she constantly has to revisit the company's strategy and figure out new and interesting ways of gaining work. One advantage, she says, is due to the company's niche offering.
"There are many companies which offer integrated marketing services... so they will come in and do creative design, SEO, media sales, etc, a whole-in-one solution. So they can come in to a business and offer to do everything for one price. That is attractive to a company, and it often works."
"The hardest part of this business is then saying no to things we can't do. We do SEO, we don't do website design or display advertising, and if we did we would stretch ourselves. We do figures and analytics, and we're going to stay there."
But Grace says over the next 12 months, her company will be busy in pursuing the emerging trends in the SEO market to push the company's borders.
"The big trends at the moment are spending more time to integrate the impact of social networking into SEO, and showing businesses how to track that. That is the biggest, hardest target. The second trend is focusing on how to direct SEO to different industries and clients."