The Myth of Rankings - Beyond Search Engine Optimization

What follows is a condensed version of a conversation that happens all too frequently when I am approached by a prospect interested in search engine optimization (SEO):

Prospect: We need our website optimized, because we aren't showing up for any searches.
Me: What searches have you tried?
Prospect: We don't show up for ANYTHING.
Me: Why do you want to show up in searches?
Prospect: Well, it seems like we should. Our competitors do, and our website is WAY better than theirs.
Me: But, really, what would you stand to gain from showing up prominently in search engine results?
Prospect: Well, we could get more people who are looking for our products or services to find out about us.
Me: So, what you are saying is that increasing your search engine results could help you to increase sales and awareness?
Prospect: Yes.
Me: Now we're on the right track. Since your goals are to increase sales and awareness, have you thought about not only improving your search engine rankings, but also getting more people to take an action on your site that leads to a sale, getting more people to read your press releases or whitepapers so that they can consistently associate your company with your offering, or sending your prospects a regular newsletter to reinforce your name and expertise?
Prospect: Didn't you hear me? Our website is great. We just don't show up for searches.

And so it goes.

A consistent problem with the "ranking-centric" mindset demonstrated above is that it doesn't reflect a powerful rationale for getting involved in SEO. Where is the true business case? What tangible results are desired? In general, if a prospect can't explain what he or she hopes to achieve beyond "higher rankings" or "more traffic," we'll first try to educate, and, if that person can't move beyond these base subjects, we'll kindly refer them elsewhere.

More and more frequently, people are getting into SEO for the wrong reasons (and sometimes for no real reason at all). Achieving high rankings for targeted keyphrases, while an admirable and worthwhile goal, is really only a small piece of the entire online marketing puzzle. In this article, we'll discuss a few additional, but equally vital, pieces.

Website Conversion

Website conversion is the art and science of getting more of the people who come to your website to take the action that you want them to take ? fill out your contact form, read your whitepapers, sign up for your newsletter, or (in the case of e-commerce) buy something. For a company that is trying to build offline business, this action is typically something that gets prospects into the sales pipeline through some form of online registration. For a company or organization that is trying to build awareness, this action can be a number of things ? getting visitors to a certain page of the site, getting them to stay longer at the site, or getting them to tell a friend about the site.

The critical point that is commonly overlooked in a ranking-centric mindset is that no number of high search engine positions will address the real problem if your website is not serving as an effective marketing and sales tool. And, as I have said many times before, the overall net effect of raising your conversion rate from one to two percent is the same net effect as doubling your traffic, and it is almost always easier. Increasing the number of visitors to a site that does not convert them effectively is like pumping high performance gasoline into a car with engine trouble ? it might help the car to run a little bit better, but if you'd done repairs before adding the premium fuel, it really would have hummed.

Online PR

Your website is only one potential online destination where people can find out about your company, and a typical user will regard your site as an advertisement since you have complete control over the content. With optimized press releases and expert articles, however, you can have your company name mentioned on popular news sites and industry portals, where credibility is more inherent. Optimized Press Releases

Press releases that are optimized to appear when certain terms are typed into news search engines are an excellent way to build name recognition and credibility. If someone is taking the time to look for news related to your industry, he or she is probably either in your business, learning about your market, or writing a piece about your industry. The last category is especially significant since a recent study* indicates that 98% of journalists go online daily, 92% use the Internet for article research, and 73% use it to find press releases. Whatever motivation a person has when he or she searches for news related to your industry, you want your company represented in the results. Expert Articles

Another great way to promote your expertise and business is to write expert articles and submit them to the leading online publications in your field. At least one person in your company is almost certainly an expert in your field ? why not let everyone know that? A person that reads an expert article published on an industry portal, and who subsequently clicks through to the website (from the link in the expert's bio) is extremely targeted and already has a favorable impression of your company. Moreover, the same study cited above found that 76% of journalists go online to seek news sources or experts. When your company has demonstrated that you have experts on staff by publishing articles in credible, non-biased forums, the phone invariably starts to ring. Your experts will be asked to provide their opinions, quotes, or experiences for feature articles, often in prestigious industry publications. The benefits of this, of course, do not need explanation.

A side benefit to both of the strategies above is that they increase the number of inbound links to your website and, therefore, can help greatly enhance your search engine rankings ? which might be the primary reason you looked into SEO in the first place.

Newsletters

Direct mail was once considered a marketer's dream ? but email newsletters can be much more effective. Imagine a direct mail list with a low delivery cost, where every single person on the list has shown an interest in receiving such mailings. Such is the nature of opt-in email newsletters. People have shown enough interest in your company, or, at least, in what your company has to say, to invite you to communicate with them on a regular basis. They are essentially giving you permission to keep yourself "first in mind" whenever they are considering your products or services. Such opportunities are rare in the marketing world. By combining the conversion principles you have applied to your website to your email newsletters, you can also get people to take an action that puts them into your sales pipeline without worrying about getting them to your website itself.

Conclusion

These are only a few of the additional ways to expand an online initiative beyond a misdirected ranking-centric approach. Weblogs (or blogs) are often considered another new frontier in online marketing, and we haven't even touched on paid media opportunities such as banner ads or pay-per-click marketing. However, the three components mentioned above are important elements of a complete and successful online marketing initiative. An SEO campaign launched without considering them is like driving a four-cylinder car with only one cylinder firing ? it will move, but you'd definitely reach your destination more quickly ? and more smoothly ? with all four.

*Middleberg-Ross Survey and Pew Internet and American Life Project

Scott Buresh is managing partner of Medium Blue Search Engine Marketing. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including ZDNet, WebProNews, MarketingProfs, DarwinMag, SiteProNews, SEO Today, ISEDB.com, and Search Engine Guide. He was also a contributor to the recently released Building Your Business with Google For Dummies (Wiley, 2004).

Medium Blue is an Atlanta search engine optimization company with local and national clients, including Georgia Pacific, DuPont, and Boston Scientific.

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