Last month, the New York Times published an exposé on the search engine optimization (SEO) practices employed by JC Penney. A Times journalist uncovered online marketing tactics that run contrary to the guidelines of the major search engines, Google and Bing. These tactics pushed JC Penney’s website artificially high in the results when someone searched for “area rugs” for example. In response, both search engines have since applied a penalty, removing JC Penney from these results and cutting into the retailer’s pocketbook – Penney’s makes $1.5 billion online annually.
JC Penney is not the first website to be exposed. Ever since people started looking for answers on the web, search engines have been playing an increasingly sophisticated game of technical cat and mouse with marketers attempting to game their search algorithms. Old-school brands like BMW and online powerhouses like Overstock.com have both been caught and penalised for manipulating the search engines.
Today, it’s not just large companies engaging in search engine marketing. As more and more people turn to the web for information, small businesses from shoe stores to lawyers to B&B’s have embraced the flood of customers that can be delivered by search engines. By extension, more small businesses are becoming involved in the art and science of SEO and an increasing number of them are turning to consultants to navigate this technical marketing channel.
Search is a particularly challenging business – it is constantly changing, is highly technical and amazingly competitive. Finding a high quality search agency can be difficult for a small business owner. Choosing the wrong one can be disastrous – according to the JC Penney marketing department, the dubious search tactics were deployed by their SEO agency, SearchDex. Additionally, it can be very easy for just about anyone to proclaim to be an SEO guru while hiding behind confusing technical jargon and fleecing clients with outdated, ineffective or even dangerous advice.
How do you find good SEO help? While the following is somewhat simplistic, small businesses employing or considering hiring an SEO agency should consider the following red flags.
Access to Information
Your agency should provide you with direct access and training to the reporting metrics of your site. Thanks to a free tool called Google Analytics, every site owner has access to an extremely sophisticated and easy to use reporting tool that tracks the site’s performance. Reputable search agencies encourage their clients to use Google Analytics and hold themselves accountable to the results displayed there. If your SEO agency or website developer doesn’t provide you with access to Google Analytics, consider this a red flag – they are most likely trying to mask their own miserable performance.
It seems clear that you can measure the success of an agency tasked with improving your site’s ability to rank by looking at how your site improves in ranking for given terms. This; however, is an overly simplistic approach and never really paints a broad picture. For starters, people use a wide variety of terms to describe what they are looking for: “seattle divorce lawyer” “attorney for divorce in seattle, wa”” and “best divorce lawyer in king county” are all looking for the same information. Limiting your focus to one of these terms misses the vast majority of the overall opportunity. Additionally, searchers are using more specific queries to find information.
These “long tail” searches make up the majority of search volume and look like this: “aggressive father focused divorce attorney for child custody fight in north Seattle”. Ranking reports ignore these longer queries. Finally, the search engines are increasingly returning customised results based on a user’s physical location, past surfing history or even social network. Recent studies report that up to 60% of search results, depending on the query, are personalised. Again, ranking reports fail to capture this type of information.
Instead of ranking reports, great SEO agencies focus on quality traffic – users who come to the site, view lots of pages, and convert into paying customers.
One of the primary ways in which search engines determine which pages to surface for a given query is the quality and quantity of links pointing to that page. Each link works as a vote of confidence for that content – essentially the more people who link to a page the more likely that page has high quality content. Additionally, the anchor text (the actual words in the link) can help a page rank for those specific words. Because links can be so effective, search marketers spend a lot of time generating content for links. In many cases, they try to manipulate the search engines by creating pages with nothing but links, or in some cases even buying links (both tactics are violations of search engine guidelines.)
It’s relatively easy to check the links to a site by finding them through an search engine named Blekko. Just search for any site on Blekko and underneath the results click on the word “links” to display all of the links that Blekko has found for that site. Audit those pages to see if most of them are simply lists of links or blog comments with anchor text for things like “digital cameras” “free Viagra” or “cheap timeshares in New Hampshire”. Finding these results is a clear red flag that your agency engages in dubious SEO tactics.
Pay for Performance or Promising Fast Results
SEO is a long term investment, requiring ongoing development of strong content. Agencies that “guarantee” quick results or those who are paid based on their results are incentivized to cut as many corners as possible. For example, an agency whose pay is contingent on achieving a top 3 ranking for a given term is incentivized to purchase links to collect their pay for performance bonus. While this tactic may work in the short term, once the search engines catch on (and long after the agency has collected their fee), the long term damage to the business can be considerable. Just ask JC Penney.
The best thing to do when hiring or managing a search agency is to come armed with a thorough understanding of the fundamentals. “Marketing in the Age of Google“, written by ex-Googler, Vanessa Fox is the best book that combines the art and science of SEO with the fundamentals of business. Once you have a baseline understanding, require regular meetings with your agency where you discuss how search is impacting your bottom line. If they can’t have that conversation, it’s time to find someone who can.
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