Beware of SEO soothsayers

I wonder how many smaller businesses know who to approach for genuine, impartial advice on their web presence? Is it the business directories, web designers, web developers or software-as-a-service providers? Perhaps it’s hosting companies, advertising agencies, search engine optimisers or e-marketers?

More likely than not, you might turn to a fellow business operator that seems to be doing OK online for advice on supplier candidates.

Of course, nowadays all of these firms are clamouring to be the firm of choice when it comes to grabbing your e-dollar.

Yet perhaps none of them have a right to it.

The problem is that the bulk of providers are taking a tactical approach to your business. In their often myopic attempts to gain all important early mover advantage, and take advantage of the confusion on the part of the smaller business operator, they are pushing their particular product and service as the panacea.

When really, truly independent, generalist advice and planning is the obvious answer to a business that is not really sure on where to start.

The world of medicine provides a great analogy.

If left to their own devices, chances are people would see an orthopaedic surgeon when they needed an orthodontist. Or an obstetrician when they needed an optometrist (the mind shudders!).

So over centuries of trial and error, the notion of the general practitioner acting as a first port of call for health complaints became the norm, sparing the poor consumer much confusion and as much physical and financial pain.

Of course the web’s promise of information on demand is undoing much of this structure as consumers help themselves to a vast virtual library of medical information – but that’s another story.

But the web services industry is so young, it hasn’t yet built a true generalist/specialist structure – at least not as far as smaller organisations are concerned.

This situation hasn’t been helped by moving goalposts.

Initially it appeared as if the business directories would be the first port of call, as they attempted to replicate the listing to premium ad model of their printed mainstays (and its financial “rivers of gold”).

But all encompassing, convenient and fast search engines quickly stole their thunder.

Then it appeared that your friendly neighbourhood web designer would inherit the mantle of one stop e-business shop. However, rapid developments in technology and a growing breadth of e-marketing techniques soon left many of them overwhelmed by skill shortages and cheap competitors, which literally forced them back to the drawing board.

No wonder many small business operators found it all too hard and did nothing at all.

Only this week I’ve been dealing with a client going to the wrong specialist, or more precisely, asking the right specialist to do the wrong thing.

We had just completed work on what I thought was a quite impressive website that would generate inquiries, attract traffic and generally provide the information service the client required.

However before we had a chance to launch the site, the client heard about the importance of search engine optimisation. All of a sudden I was faced with a barrage of questions about linking strategy, title tags, H2 headings and “alt tags” among other things.

This line of questioning seemed very strange from someone embarking on their very first website.

Now don’t get me wrong; search engine optimisation is a critical component of the overall website and e-marketing mix. However, care must be taken to ensure that equally important aesthetic, usability and promotional aspects of a site are not compromised by ruthless focus on SEO. And that specialist SEO is considered alongside the other promotional media as a means of bringing traffic to your stie.

The danger is that too much focus on SEO will lead to a website that search engine “robots” love, but your customers hate. In other words, high traffic, low conversion.

As it turns out, my firm has worked hard to achieve this balance for many smaller businesses by creating sites that both attract traffic and convert to inquiries and/or sales.

I’m sure SEO specialists reading this will have fun pointing out the optimisation flaws of my firm’s websites. But they are also likely to forget that smaller organisations don’t have the budget to hire in specialists to do this work. And in many cases this expertise is not required anyway.

But back to my case study. Taking aboard this new line of questioning, I assured the client that our “generalist” SEO work would be effective as it had been in the past.

Unfortunately I didn’t convince him, and just before launch was told that he’d hired an SEO specialist to “work on the site”.

Which of course at that point was a waste of time. Because the site wasn’t yet launched, there was no way of proving that the SEO work we had done was not going to be effective. We simply had no evidence to show that it wouldn’t, because by not going live we hadn’t had a chance to create quality links, and in turn have Google’s robots crawl the site to rank it.

My advice in that case was to launch first, let our generalist but usually effective SEO work do its stuff, then assess it before making some adjustments – and then, if required, bringing in the expensive specialist.

Alas the specialist had his way with the client, obviously impressed by a recent doctorate qualification in the area.

So reluctantly I trained the specialist how to use the website’s CMS so he could optimise to his heart’s content.

A few weeks later, said client called to say the website was now ready for launch. As a generalist, I was intrigued to see what could be learnt from the specialist’s handiwork.

But nothing prepared me for what I was about to see.

What was once an attractive and enticing home page was now nothing short of a disaster.

In place of my friendly and welcoming opening line was a large heading with two words describing the general service the client offered. If it were a doctor, the two words would have been “Medical Advice”.

Sure it was true, but hardly a headline that captured the attention or interest of visitors. In other words, what about this medical advice? Was it good, bad or ugly. Cheap or expensive? Is it based in China or Chelsea? And did they bulk bill?

Then the carefully placed images and teasers of the client’s main services – critical not only to appeal to the “scanning” nature of web users, but also to provide a clear snapshot of the services offered, had been replaced by an ugly slab of text that not only made cumbersome reading, but would not even be attempted by visitors. What’s more it spread right across the screen, making it even less appealing to the eye.

Same slab of text too was suddenly single spaced unlike the double spacing of the previous paragraph.

Even the critical invitation to join the e-newsletter was removed – immediately losing an opportunity for the client to passively grow his database – the new rivers of gold.

So the home page went from being an inviting statement, which not only created a sense of professionalism and engagement, to a cold, ugly and ultimately repugnant document.

And what should have given visitors a sense of comfort, control and enticement was replaced by a page that was really an effort to understand and would have the client reversing out of the site as quickly as a drink driver spotting a booze bus.

And therein lies the problem of hiring specialists when you really need a generalist.

Many specialists will simply find ways of taking as much budget as they can with performing their work for you. Which is no different to hiring any specialist. They are in business after all.

The problem is, going to them is an invitation to spend your money on a treatment that may not be appropriate to your specific need.

For example, your category of business may be so competitive that to keep optimised in for relevant search terms may cost a considerable sum of money and ultimately may not deliver a good return on investment.

Whereas well placed advertising (for example) may lead to awareness of your brand and actually publish your domain name, meaning yours is the first website the customer will visit instead of trying to find your needle in the Google haystack. Or Adwords, which allows you immediate control over your position by amending keywords, bids or budgets, etc etc.

So take care out there. By all means approach specialists, but just make sure there aren’t more cost effective ways of attracting traffic than what can become a costly exercise – in more ways than one.

And if you do, ensure that they have an understanding of what content constitutes good appearance, usability and promotion of your product instead of that which appeals solely to robots.


Craig Reardon is a leading eBusiness educator and founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which provide the gamut of ‘pre-built’ website solutions, technologies and services to SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.

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