by Benjamin Pfeiffer
Earlier today, Barry wrote on Search Engine Roundable about a thread over at Cre8asite that details the balance between good user centered design and the ability to maintain rankings. When it came down to it you will ultimately have to sacrifice somewhere and often its hard to reach the right balance of both. Ideally we would all like balance for our sites, we want both the usability of a well planned site to assist in high conversions and we also want high rankings. Not just any rankings, we want a #1 ranking in Google. The most coveted position, and even without any pre-conceived knowledge about SEO you may know that that is the spot to be. Like the undeniable truth of viewing a fine diamond, you don't need to be a gemologist in order to understand its rarity and value. Likewise, you don't need to be an SEO these days to know the value of effective targeted natural search marketing campaign. These campaigns are as valuable as a fine diamond sometimes, and there are a lot of those that know this. This brief article on the industry will talk about those that are capitalizing on it.
I have a problem with the SEO industry today, and it's something that I don't see getting any better. It's got me so worked up today, that I feel it's important to tell all from the way I see it. I actually see the problem compounding over time, until the lines are so blurred in terms of what a real SEO is supposed to do that it will drown those people that actually do the work of a true SEO. The ones that know how to make the whole puzzle of SEO work, and do it for real. SEO may one day be wrapped up with traditional forms of marketing like media and print. One of the reasons for this will be the reduction in effectiveness that SEO services return. Some of this will be a loss of consumer confidence. The cost of SEO will outweigh the return more or less. While SEO was once being trumpeted as more effective than print, TV, banner ads, and so on, it may eventually concede to levels of regulated mediocrity. These services will be inaccessible to smaller to moderate companies who can't afford mediocre forms of marketing, much like they do today. This will partly be fueled by the growing enterprises of big time SEO operations who leave an aftermath of dissatisfied clients.
The problem I have with the industry has to relate to large SEO companies and the supposed quote on quote "SEO" work they do for clients. Often the only real "work" they do is paying someone to issue an invoice and collect a check each month. I am particularly concerned with the lack of work SEO companies do, and then charge as if they had done it. Clients are not seeing results they had been promised. Many clients are helpless to obtain a refund even for the work. If you have been around the search marketing industry for a good while you might be familiar with issues for the opposite problem happening early on in its history. The smaller SEO or consultant charging for services but never delivering. This was growing pains. Now obviously some people got ripped off, and for the most part this is still happening today, except for the fact that there are "bigger" personalities that people can instantly recognize doing it. It's now become a business to rip people off. These personalities are not people per se, but more or less the large scale SEO operations that have arisen to capitalize on all the money flowing into our small little industry. There is so much money flowing in recently that it's a no brainier to be involved. Two years ago I would have said the same thing, and so could many others. It is why there are the first indications of problems arising now. For many companies it's like getting into a bank vault without needing the combination. It can be too easy to make a buck these days in the SEO industry. I am not joking either, people are getting rich and your probably not one of them. For those that are, the problem with company brands or images is that you have to maintain them, and doing so requires keeping a front, this front is then backed up credibility wise with the acquisition of premium large cap corporate companies as clients. Think of any major corporate company at your local shopping center, and any one of those would work as a good "front" client to impress future clients. For the most part the work promised to these large corporate companies is done with timeliness, excellence, and dedication. They get the top experts and the best service possible. I have worked with such clients, its enjoyable work as it's more challenging than doing search marketing consultancy with mom and pop sites on limited budgets and time. Time is one thing you will learn is the rarest commodity in an SEO client. However as I began above these big corporate clients serve as a front for integrity to gain new clients.
The reason I go into this, is that I see so many businesses and webmasters swayed by the “awe” of such work, as if it's a good indicator of the work that will be done for them. People tend to need assurance when spending a good deal of money on something that can not be guaranteed. Now while I don't have a problem at all with any of the tactics to gain large scale clients, and for the most part I applaud such acquisitions. Most larger companies do a great job and should be recognized for it, yet it should be noted only for that job. That should not be transferred nor thought as an indicator of what type of services they offer their other clients. There is a remarkable difference between doing SEO for Wal-Mart's network of sites and doing SEO for John's Soy Candle Emporium. You can't compare it, as each is so different in its needs that you can't interchangeably offer the same service to each, or the same rate to each either. Imagine it as trying to squeeze a square block through a round hole. It just won't work.
The Trail of Broken Promises
This year alone, 60% of all new clients I have taken on have been what I like to call the "recycled SEO". A recycled SEO client is a client who has previously worked with another SEO company, who was either got scammed, not delivered upon, or cheated in some way. They also might have had optimization done that is really just SEO spam, or they never got anything at all. They are extremely frustrated, confused, and unsure with how to market their websites on the internet most importantly the search engines that they don't know what to do. It's usually not till after I sign a client or after the first phone call that I learn about their previous SEO experience with other companies. To make a quote for a client you only really need to know about the last company if they did anything to harm the site. The saddest part about all these is that most "legit" large SEO companies sometimes don't do anything at all to the sites. So as you can see I don't make an effort to find the history unless the client voluntarily gives it too me. If they do, I ask more questions and learn more about the situation. Interestingly, it seems that the companies that are known to spam the engines with hidden text, hidden links, CSS hacks, doorway pages, and so on really do more work than the "legit" SEO company. Is it really easier to spam a search engine rather than do the real work it takes to rank a website high in the engines? Why is the work being paid for not being done? May I introduce you to the new S.E.O.
The Rise of the Sales Efficiency Organization (S.E.O)
I had a new prospective client call me today, to follow up on a proposal I sent them. They wanted more detailed information about where all the money would be allocated to. I said okay, and we started to talk more about the site. We arrived at the subject of cost and that he had trouble understanding why I charged more than said "XYZ SEO company". He told me that the company was charging about $450 a month for the SEO work. I looked at the site, and I asked "What SEO work?". He said, well the SEO work on the site they did. I asked if they had ever touched the code of the website, requested FTP access, etc.. He said no, not at all, but they promised him that the SEO work was there, but the reality was that there was no such search engine optimization done to the site. No PPC marketing either, no link building. Nothing. Bizarre I know, and you wouldn't believe me if I told you it was a well known company. The client continued to tell me he had been paying for 6 months. That's about $2700 in fees for nothing... Now obviously the client got swindled by someone that never did the work. They did in fact convince this client that they had actually done something. Therein lies the problem, the sales problem.
The story above is a true story, one I witnessed today and on many occasions and used to illustrate what I see so commonly among new clients and interested people this year. I usually follow up the client with a debriefing of the incident, and explain the situation and what he is to do next. I don't care if they become my client, because frankly I am too busy. I want to help just as long as they are treated fairly and honestly. If at all I hope I can save some people some trouble.
Now, SEO companies are morphing into what I call a "Sales Efficiency Organization". Or S.E.O for short. They are primary sales companies that are set up with high efficiency to pump out as much SEO service sale churn as possible. Sell SEO to as many customers as possible for the highest amount possible. Instead of devoting resources to growing a link building division, they instead grow a phone or email sales staff capable of selling a screen door to a submarine. It's that effective, and it's so good in fact it that so many are getting taken in than the organization can handle. They are getting sloppy, because it's too easy to sell SEO and too hard to deliver SEO. Have you have cruised an SEO company website to find pictures of the management and staff? Have you seen those pictures that have like a ton of people in the picture and at the bottom of the picture is says "Sales Team". You quickly glance to the other pictures and find the one with the "SEO Consultants" with about 5-10 people. Or better yet you get a massive picture of the whole team only with the label "XYZ team", it hard to tell who is who. This ship may reach a critical mass one day and when that does you better be half way to Bermuda when it happens.
A Past S.E.O. Example
Some of you might remember the Traffic Power incident recently. If you don't then I encourage you to do a search in Google and read up on it. This company was set up as a sales efficiency organization in order to sell as many SEO packages as possible to clients and charge them on a monthly recurring basis to maintain the spammy doorway pages. They had to get extremely crafty in order to maintain some effectiveness with search and continue to sell their services. They at least had to make all the clients they had feel they got something for their money. This was great for while, until guess what they reached a critical mass and someone noticed and pushed the red button. Overnight, all of the Traffic Power's clients were gone from Google. Mass chaos erupted and people didn't know what happened. This not only effected new clients, but it also affected old clients who had used them quite a long time ago. Traffic Power still keep around the old doorway pages of its clients to redirect traffic to new clients in the same category. Some old links were never taken off. Luckily Google was kind enough to work with victimized webmasters and make sure they got penalties lifted. While that mess is behind us, it is a very good example of a company who lost its main focus.
I had the unique oppourtunity at a past conference to talk with the managing director of the largest SEO company in Britian. Most would probably not agree, but in reality their claim was probably true. By largest I mean the number of staff they eimployed was around 60-70 at the time. Lucky for me, the fine chap was a bit drunk off American beer and we talked for about an hour on the details of his operation. The conversation started out with "I can't tell you that" to my questions and later in the evening he fussed up on the details of the organization. He told me his company employees the largest sales team in Europe to sell SEO. They have about 60 people manning phones and computers taking orders. I thought at first he meant he had 60 SEO/SEM optimizers working on websites. No he had 60 trained sales staff with no prior experience to search engine marketing. They were just selling a product. I then asked him how many SEO's he had as he probably had a good deal of business. He said they had 2-3 people actually doing anything on a regular basis. All that they had to do was get the clients keywords insert them into their program, and it would create hundreds of pages of optimized garage they could feed the engines. He said they hosted these pages most of the time. I was blown away and shocked obviously. He then later fussed up that they had around 200 clients, half of which went down after Florida (which had just happened) and he got a smile and said they had a solution to the problem. He ended with telling me he had made a good deal of money and if his tactics got attacked he wouldn't really care as it would be too hard to track the source down and they could always modify the program. I don't know what happened to his company but from what I know its still around cranking out clients and spam pages for the search engines. .
Can you blame companies for selling SEO like this? Yes and no. I think sometimes it's natural for things like this to get used in this fashion. With anything that becomes popular there will always be those that want to gain from it. Often these large companies work to raise awareness for the industry and they bring in more clients for us all. The more people know about it, the more interest they might show in what SEO can do. They also have a greater chance to cause more damage. What these larger companies need to realize is that SEO can not be sold the way they are doing it. This is not a product that can be boxed up and shipped like a set of Ginsu knives. It just doesn't work that way, and it's only getting more difficult for SEO's to do their jobs.
A cursory look back at the dot com boom and eventual bust has parallels to what is happening with the SEO industry. Like the dot com boom a lot of money flowed into the market, it was fueled by heightened esteem and belief that such an economy would never end. The reason there was a dot com bust was that money was being made out of thin air. There was an abundance of millionaires but not a lot to base that status on. While I don't think there will be a big bust with the SEO industry, there might be little bangs and pops here and there that will correct it.
Back to the true SEO and his role today. Growing confidence in the services offered for SEO I think will need to improve. Reputation of the industry is also an issue that has been addressed many times, and discussed most notably in forums such as Search Engine Watch and other notable forums. People are talking about it and discussing it, and for the most part it's pretty well known about. However it's hard to say what to do. The true SEO who actually does the work it takes to rank a website often times doesn't make a whole lot of money. There are too many other costs involved and time is one of the biggest. Its a long process to get to the top if you have a new website and you need to realize that. Search engines themselves are making it a lot harder as well. They are getting more sophisticated in order to circumvent some of the SEO work. Search engines may prefer for websites to get created without SEO in mind. This brief article was intended to highlight some of the problems being faced and to serve as an advisory notice so that webmasters and business owners are aware of the pitfalls out there. You need to make sure you are getting what you pay for, and don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't buy SEO from someone who tries to "sell" you SEO services and produces a lot of hype. Instead buy SEO services for the real talent behind the sale, as they will tell you the real issues facing your website and not a pre-packages version of what all sites face. You will be a lot happier in the long run.