Organic search can sometimes be difficult for a marketing person to get their head around. This is because Organic search doesn't follow regular business rules. It follows Google's Rules.
In business most of us are familiar with the rules of engagement. Barring everything you learned in Economics, HR, Strategic Planning, Finance, it all boils down to this: If you have enough money, talent and time, you can have basically anything you want. And executives are used to this.
So I'm in a meeting with a client yesterday and the Marketing Director brings in the CEO. This is pretty typical, top executives of fortune 1000 companies usually don't get involved in search conversations – until it starts making them significant money. Then it gets a lot of attention!!!
Keep in mind, we've done a bunch of paid search for them over the past year but organic hasn't been much of a priority. When they revised their website earlier this year I pretty much begged them to let us optimize it for them (basic stuff the site still needs more content). So, the CEO looks at me and he says I understand that we've been working with you guys for a year and I know you come from a reputable company. I know that you are an industry expert and I appreciate that. But there are some things that I just don't understand……
Question #1 "Why is it that company XYZ who isn't even a player in my industry is ranking higher than I am?"
The short answer is because the other guy has been at this for longer than you have and is probably paying more than you.
The longer answer is okay, I'll do a little snooping around. Hmm. Do they have different title tags for different pages? Are they using Meta tags and H1 tags? My very quick and dirty opinion without putting any time into a real competitive assessment would be that they've probably optimized their site. Okay let's do a quick comparison of back-links. OHHHH they have 157,367 links and you have a couple thousand. Again. They have been at this longer than you and have been paying someone (or doing it themselves – time is money) more than you have. And it doesn't matter to Google that this company is just some guy working in his basement in his underwear.
Question #2 "If I'm willing to pay, why can't I have it by Monday?"
I think that it's time for a discussion about Google's Rules. Google, Yahoo, MSN are competition with each other. Their single most important Key Success Factor is Relevance of Search Results. If you search on Google and consistently don't find what you're looking for then you will switch search engines. If everybody does that, they'll go out of business. If they budge on their policy of not allowing advertisers to manipulate the organic search results by paying their way to the top, they will go out of business. And your $10K, $100K, whatever you're willing to pay isn't worth risking the BILLIONS that they're currently making. So no. You can't have it by Monday.
This usually leads to Question #3 "If Google doesn't make money from Organic Search then how do they make their money?" he asks suspiciously after I just told him he can't have what he wants.
They make their money from Paid Search. Think of it as Bait and Switch. People use MSN <insert your favourite search engine> because they trust that they are going to find what they're looking for. The search engines know that roughly 20% of people will click on the paid search results above and to the right of the organic results. Some people don't know that those results are Paid Ads. Some don't care. Some are evil and smile every time they click on the paid ad thinking to themselves ha ha I just cost that guy 10 cents. In any case that 20% of all the clicks equates to Billions of Dollars spent per year. If they dont' protect the 80% they lose the 20%.
Question #4 "You're telling me that organic is a long term strategy and I probably won't see results for 6 months to a year. Why should I pay you for a year before I see any return on my investment? Why won't you give me a guarantee?"
Because that's how long it takes. I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear to get your business. There a few people in our industry who are willing to offer guarantees. In our business those people often have a bad reputation. Usually I end up getting the client after the snake oil salesman, er other SEO is done and even if it didn't cost the client much money at the time, we both know that it did cost them a lot. It cost them the opportunity cost of working with the wrong company for a year and ending up unhappy with the final results. We don't have control over the search engines we can just affect them. If you give me seeds I can't guarantee you a flower. All I can do is make sure that it has enough soil, sunlight and water.
I understand that it's a bit of a leap of faith. That's why you invested so much in the selection phase of the process way back when. That's why you checked our other clients rankings and spoke to our referrals. That's why we put together both a Strategy and Tactical Plans outlining how we were going to implement that Strategy. That's why we have regular meetings and progress reports so that you can be assured that we are moving towards our agreed upon objectives. But yes, in the end it does come down to trust.
<okay you and I both know that they'll probably start seeing improvement much sooner than that but I strongly believe in managing my clients expectations. Under-promise and overdeliver has saved my ass many a time>
Question #5 "Perhaps we should spend a few minutes discussing this algorithm thing" We initially skipped quickly through this part of the presentation because he thought it sounded more techie than marketing.
The algorithm is really complicated with 100's of different variables. But we can group all of these variables into 2 big buckets In-Page Factors and Off-Page Factors (I'm not even going to get into Behavioural factors at this stage in the game).
Think of the In-Page factors as all of the stuff that you can do to your website to make it more search engine friendly. You can program it in a language that the search engines can read (not flash), you can make sure that the spiders can crawl from page to page by including navigable links and minimizing password protected areas. And you can have a content rich site with lots of different pages that use keywords to tell the search engines what these pages are about. If you do all of this you will probably rank well for Non Competitive Keywords. But please keep this in mind. Optimizing your site just means that it is Possible for your site to rank well in the SERPS. It doesn't mean that you necessarily will. In fact, I look at it as table stakes. You have to optimize to even be in the game but it doesn't mean that you're going to win.
In the late 90's it didn't really take much to rank for whatever you wanted. Stuff enough keywords into your page (either on the page, in meta tags or even using white font on a white background). And the search results sucked. If you'll remember you couldn't search for anything back then without getting porn results. Enter the Google guys. Larry Page and Sergey Brin cleaned up the algorithm by introducing links into the equation.
The premise of links is much like that of research citations. If many people link to you (or cite you) then you must be an important resource. Of course just as the in-page factors have gotten quite complex to combat manipulation of the results, so has the linking algorithym. It's not just about getting quantity of links, it's about quality of links, the age of the links the power and age of the site behind the links, etc, etc.
All of this to say that it takes a long time to do all of this, especially if you want to do it right. And if you want to rank for competitive keyword phrases then you have to do it all. Short cuts are not a sustainable strategy.
So, how did my conversation with the CEO end? Positively of course! An educated client is a happy client and now we're both part of the same team working from the same play book.