The cult of SEO

Over the last year I have surprised by the number of businesses and consultants offering search engine optimisation and digital marketing management.  Many of these consultants appear to be presenting SEO as a magic bullet; a single step to digital marketing success and many appear to be using extremely out of date tactics to try to place a business website at the top of a search engine results page

Having done some research into the backgrounds of some of the consultants offering these services it also concerns me that many have no formal marketing qualifications.

The process of search engine optimisation is a structured tactical approach to increase the position of a company or its products in search engine natural or organic results listings when selected keywords or phrases are used.  it is the achievement of a high Page ranking (a term used by Google to assess websites out of 10 for their compatibility with their search engine and which is named after Larry Page, one of the founders of Google)

Search engines work using bots (called crawlers) which search the web looking for particular criteria on websites.  These bots use complex algorithms such as Google Pigeon and Google Panda to identify appropriate keywords and content.

In the early days of the internet, crawlers used to search, almost exclusively for meta data.  That is the programming text which sits behind images text and other website content.  This led to an unscrupulous tactic; which I suspect some SEO consultants still use; where the meta data would be filled with regularly repeated keywords.  It was the equivalent of listing your business as AAAAAAAAAAAAA11111111111 plumbers in the yellow pages directory so as to be the first entry read by consumers.

The big search engine firms recognised that this practice was an issue and they changed their algorithms to ignore the use of repeated meta data content.  Today, these algorithms look for geographic data, content, regular site updates, site links, use of social media as well as the use of keywords.  Simply stuffing meta data with repetitive phrases is no an appropriate tactic for SEO and it is unlikely to work.

Another factor is the increasing use of paid advertising on search engines which now tends to be listed above search engine listings.

One concern I have is that many of these consultants, and others who offer to manage a firms social media accounts, do not do so in a consistent way which recognises the wider strategic intention of a company’s internet site.

The digital marketing guru, PR Smith, who developed the SOSTAC digital marketing programme defines this strategic process using the mnemonic TOPPP SITE:

  • Target Markets – which groups of consumers are you trying to reach?  If you are selling fashion to the under-30s, it is imperative that you have an active and high-profile internet and social media presence.  For example Ugg, the sheepskin boot manufacture employs a group of high profile bloggers to create a virtual brand community, where wider youth culture is discussed, not just Ugg products.  If you are selling gardening services to the elderly, traditional promotional media such as direct mail or print media advertising may be a more appropriate promotional channel.  This does not mean that you do not need an internet presence but that traditional media should be used to signpost potential consumers to your site.
  • Objectives – You have to think strategically about why you want to be on the web.  Is your presence to attract new customers or to retain your existing client base?  Are you engaging in Electronic Word of Mouth?
  • Processes – What processes are going to be part of the website?  Is it going to be a retail site?  Is it primarily to be used for promotion or are you going to incorporate electronic customer services?
  • Partnerships – Search engine algorithms look for site links and links to social media sites.  Therefore you should think strategically about what sites you are linking to.  Are you linking to other companies in your sector, are you linking to professional associations or sites where there is improved synergy?
  • Sequence – What is the sequence of your digital marketing strategy? Do you want to develop credibility on the internet before you raise your visibility?  The mnemonic RACE identifies the sequence stages of digital marketing – Reach consumers, Act to get consumers to initiate dialogue, Convert that engagement into sales, Engage post-sale with consumers to get them to repurchase.
  • Integration – Do you want to integrate consumer data, some of which may be online whilst the rest is in traditional non-electronic form.  Do you want to link your social media activity to your CRM database? Do you want to do this with both inbound and outbound activity and campaigns?
  • Tactical tools – Search engine optimisation is but one tool in strategic digital marketing; it is not the only tool.  Do you want to use pay-per-click or pay per view advertising? Do you want to engage in email marketing or do you want to engage in digital public relations or content marketing?
  • Engagement – The customer engagement ladder is a well-respected marketing theory.  It states that consumers move through various stages of engagement with an organisation.  They begin as prospects (who are aware of an organisation but who have not contracted with that organisation) and at the top of the ladder they are brand advocates who use word of mouth to get others to use a particular company.  Ugg refer to their brand advocates as ‘brand fans’ and some get the opportunity to work for Ugg.  Obviously, depending on the position a consumer is on the customer engagement ladder, website content may need to be adapted.  This may involve the creation of secure site access and password protected content for your most valuable and trusted consumers.

There is far more to digital marketing than Search Engine Optimisation.  It is just one strategic tool amongst many in the digital marketing toolbox.  Before deciding whether SEO consultancies are an appropriate resource for your business, you need a comprehensive digital marketing strategy which is consistent with you other marketing activities.  If you are going to involve a third-party consultant please ensure that they have appropriate digital marketing qualifications and that they are a member of a professional body such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing.