While it may seem like it’s not in my best interest to convince people not to hire an SEO—or to at least to wait to hire one—I too often find potential clients who believe that hiring an SEO is the cure for all of their businesses woes. The truth is that while a good SEO can certainly help your business, SEO alone, no matter how good, can no longer take an unsuccessful business and make it successful.
It’s true that back in the day, those SEOs who knew all the tricks and loopholes, where to “acquire” links that worked to make a site rank, and all the on-page manipulations could usually make a site rank with SEO alone (especially given enough budget and resources). Those days are over. Even if you had a site that successfully used those relatively easy tactics to be successful, it’s very likely that in recent years, you’ve seen a sharp decline in traffic unless you have something else going for you.
The owners and managers of sites that are either just starting out, or have seen their traffic decline, too often believe that simply fixing the SEO or “doing” SEO is going to save their business. With the changes Google has made over the past few years, this simply is not the case anymore. Google has actually become much much better (though not perfect, certainly) at ranking sites that actually “deserve” to rank because of things they’ve done beyond SEO. Now don’t get me wrong—except in rare cases, you still need good SEO to rank well. It’s just no longer all you need to rank well.
I look for a few certain things in my potential client’s sites, and ask them certain question to see whether SEO is right for them, and whether working with them is going to be successful for both of us.
Be Remarkable (and Be Able To Communicate Why You Are)
This is first and foremost the most important thing you need to do before becoming successful at SEO. The search engines, and Google in particular, have become much better in recent years at ranking those sites which truly “deserve” to rank. These are sites that usually have something remarkable about them. This could be a new service no one else has offered before, great user engagement and entertaining content, or something else that makes them special.
This doesn’t mean these sites have to be the absolute best at something—and neither does yours—in order to drive organic traffic. But you need something that makes you special. One of the hardest things to do is to take a very hard, impartial look at your site and your business as though you were an outsider, and ask yourself, “What makes us special? What makes us stand out from the crowd? Are we truly better at something than all or most of our competitors?”
If you can’t resoundingly answer “yes,” then an SEO isn’t going to be able to do the things necessary to get you to rank well. If you can’t answer “yes,” then you need to change your business so that you can answer yes before you worry about getting more traffic to your site.
One of the most difficult conversations I’ve had to have with clients or potential clients is one where I have to ask these questions and point out to them that from an outsider’s perspective, I see nothing that shows me they truly deserve to outrank all of their competition. How would you answer the questions, “What makes your site special?” or, “Why do you truly deserve to rank #1?”
The Internet offers myriad ways to compare prices. If you don’t have an exclusive product and you aren’t the least expensive for what you sell, you had better have something else that adds a lot of value for the consumer. Before you start looking for ways to drive more traffic to your site, have you done a thorough price comparison of your products versus the competition?
And yes, your competition includes Amazon if they sell the same products. If they can offer it cheaper and faster, you had sure better have something that gives you an advantage over them like customer service or fantastic product information.
Product Selection and Merchandising
As with pricing, you need to make sure you have the right products, the right product mix, the right merchandising, etc. Again, the biggest part of SEO is getting people to recognize that your site is uniquely valuable and useful.
If people come to your site and don’t fall in love with the products, can’t buy what they really need, or can’t find the right products with the right product information, they aren’t going to see you as a valuable enough resource to link to or share with their friends.
If you don’t have the resources internally to do an audit of your product mix and merchandising there are lots of good resources out there. If you’re not an expert at online merchandising (and you really should be if you’re running an e-commerce store), hire a great merchandising consultant or get yourself some training.
High Quality, Engaging Content
This may seem like a no-brainer. Now, if providing content is the primary focus of your business, this is really the publisher version of having the right product and price for an e-commerce store. Do you offer information available nowhere else? Is it truly of higher quality, more in-depth, more entertaining, more actionable, more controversial, more something than your competition? Do you truly believe an outsider would think it’s remarkable? Again, if you can’t answer “yes,” you’d better fix that first.
On a related note, I also far too often see “content strategy” being used as a crutch for otherwise unremarkable businesses. Yes, you need to get links and social shares and attention for pages on your site. Far too often, I see sites dumping a ton of cash into creating content and content strategies without fixing all the other issues. If your site, or business, or business model isn’t remarkable in some other way, just creating great content isn’t going to save you.
Of course, if your raison d’être is to create content, then content is your product, and this doesn’t apply. Now, I’m not saying don’t create great content. Creating content that is useful, entertaining, or otherwise valuable for your potential customers or users is still massively important. But as with SEO, it’s not going to save an otherwise-mediocre company. Create great content; just don’t rely on great content alone to fix your SEO issues.
Is your baby ugly? Does the design of your site support your brand identity? Can people find what they’re looking for? Does the design and user interface indicate that you are trustworthy? Again, one could write volumes on user interface, design, etc.
If your site looks like it was built in 2001, or just built by your nephew after reading HTML for Dummies, that’s also something that needs to be fixed before you embark on trying to drive a ton of new people to your site, or trying to get people to link to you after viewing your site.
If you’re brand-new to thinking about UI and design, a great place to start is with the book Don’t Make Me Think.
If you can’t answer these questions, you’d better figure this stuff out before you invest a ton in a strategy like long-term SEO. It’s frequently a lot easier to get a 50% bump in sales by optimizing your site to convert than it is to try and drive 50% more traffic. Some of my favorite conversion optimization resources are:
Know Who Your Customers Are and What They Want
This is just as important as being able to communicate why you believe your company is remarkable. To be successful at SEO, you need detailed, in-depth knowledge of who your customers truly are, what’s important to them, and what they want from your site. Without this knowledge, an SEO doesn’t know what keywords to help you target with your site, what content to help you create, or where you should be promoting and publicizing your site in order to build relationships with the right people who are going to drive links and social shares to your site.
When I ask this question of a potential client and they can’t answer, it makes me wonder how much they truly know about their business and how invested they are. Again, there are lots of resources that can teach you how to find out more about your customers. There are some great simple solutions for surveying customers like:
If you have the resources, I would also encourage you to go through the process of building personas for your customers. Some good resources for learning about personas are:
This can be another tough one. Frequently, when someone goes looking for SEO help, it’s because they are suffering some crisis in sales and revenue on their site. If you’ve been hit by a sudden drop in traffic such as that caused by a penalty or algorithm update, then yes, acute SEO intervention may help you in the short term.
However if you’re turning to SEO to fix a long, slow decline in revenue, or to try to make your brand-new company or site skyrocket in sales, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. SEOs who promise you results overnight with very little effort are usually akin to just about every other offer that promises you overnight success.
SEO is usually a process that takes a long-term commitment to:
- get the technical aspects of your site just right.
- help you build content and information on your site that makes you an expert or authority.
- slowly build the visibility and relationships with the trusted, knowledgeable people in your field who might promote your site or link to you, provided you’ve shown them that you deserve it.
The entire process can take weeks or months, or even longer. If you’re hoping for an SEO to swoop in and save the day, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. Which kind of leads me into my next and final recommendation…
Have Other Sources of Revenue
Do not rely on organic search traffic alone for the success of your business. Ever. Google has shown too often that they can make a simple tweak to their algorithm, which can drop sites that haven’t done everything exactly right (and sometimes even then) out of the search engine results.
Even as someone who makes their living doing SEO, I would tell any client they are absolutely foolish to put all or even most of their eggs in the organic traffic basket. This means you need to cultivate all your other possible revenue streams whether they be PPC advertising, email, social, offline advertising, or word of mouth, as well as making sure you’re doing everything right for SEO.
I frequently recommend to potential customers who need a sales and revenue bump in the very near term that they engage a really good PPC consultant or firm, spend their money on that for a while, then come back and talk to me later. Not only does PPC advertising generally show much faster return, I also know that if a good PPC company can’t make a positive ROI for a site, that site generally has a lot of other problems that just SEO isn’t going to fix.
While a part of SEO is making sure your site is built correctly. by far the biggest part is getting attention for your site. This attention can come in the form of links, traffic, press mentions, and/or social shares.
Quite honestly, given a really good technical SEO audit and enough development resources, the SEO done on your site is really the easiest part. Creating a site or product that is truly special, and then promoting that to the people who are going to share that information and talk about you are the hard parts. A good SEO or online marketing company should be able to help you do the promotion part, but first you have to create something that is truly valuable and worth talking about.
Unless you’ve been hit with a Google penalty or algorithm update (which you might be able to be recover from quickly), SEO is a long and sometimes expensive process. An SEO who tells you differently is probably just trying to make a quick buck off you.
The key to SEO success in 2014 and beyond is to create something truly remarkable and valuable, make sure your site is built right, and then make sure enough of the right people know about how remarkable and valuable you are. If you can’t honestly look yourself in the mirror and know without a shadow of a doubt that your company is one of those remarkable companies, you need to fix that first or you won’t be able to build truly sustainable SEO success.