Sunday, December 17, 2006

5 Myths about SEO

When you size up the search marketing industry, you really have to marvel at all the different information sources, many of them conflicting, and how search marketers are able to stay on top of what’s current and relevant compared to noise and malarkey.

In the course of talking to prospective clients, prospective business partners, attending conferences and events, reading blogs, books, discussion threads, forums, newsletters and industry publications, you can get exposure to an amazing variety of observations about SEO. Many of them are spot-on. Some of them are tales of a mythical nature. A few are just plain bunk.

For some context on this post, I think it is important to note the distinction in intent for most search engine optimization efforts: SEO for publishers, blog networks and affiliates is a different thing than SEO for lead generation and on-site transactions/sales. Many tactics are the same, but the intentions and outcomes are very different.

The myths outlined below are more concerned with SEO for lead/sales generation that we work with at TopRank.

1. “Search Engine Optimization is a collection of tricks to fool search engines“.

If you’re “fooling” the search engines, then you’re probably fooling users too. Guess how well that kind of activity converts? “Real” SEO involves a lot more than optimizing content, getting links and using disposable marketing “tricks”. Tricks and tactics may be a matter of semantics depending on who you talk to, but many of the tactics we associate with productive and long term SEO include:

Search Marketing Strategy
Competitive Analysis
Keyword Analysis
Creative Copy Writing
Web Design & User Experience
Information Architecture
Server Side Issues
Code Optimization
Other channel marketing that affects SEO (social media, news search, blog search, etc)
Ongoing Content Development
Ongoing Link Building
Web Analytics
Conversion Analysis
2. “People in our market don’t use search engines.”

I actually used to keep my laughter to myself when people would say this. You don’t have to do too much research to find out if a market is viable for marketing via search engines.

According to a study by comScore qSearch, there are 4.9 billion internet searches per month and 133 million unique searchers. Those numbers have actually gone up a bit since the study. It is certainly true that in some market categories in the developed world that search usage is minimal, but I have a hard time thinking of any.

A quick way to start investigating a market is to search and find out if how much relevant content is out there. If your market is brand new, then you may have an easier time dominating it on search engines by becoming an authority on the topic earlier than your competition.

3. “SEO is a single event”

This one is still pervasive and indicative of what search engine optimization used to be. Sort of like “SEO circa 1999″ when all you had to do was update Meta tags, add keywords to web pages and submit. Those are the Model T days of SEO.

Search engines like Google look at 100-200 factors or “signals” to determine relevancy and to decide how to sort search results. Add in the increasing numbers of competing documents from various media, blogs and web site along with more savvy search marketers and it’s easy to realize that effective SEO requires ongoing attention. “Attention to what?”, you might ask. How about: creative link building, creation and promotion of new content, integration with other online/offline marketing, social media, analytics and optimization refinements.

4. “SEO is a function of IT”

Search engine optimization started out in the cubicles of IT, but has moved it’s way into the executive offices for many companies. I believe the most recent SEMPO state of the search industry research shows that companies are no longer borrowing from other cost centers to fund their search marketing initiatives. It’s a business decision line item like any other marketing expenditure.

However, IT and Web Design/Development “buy-in” are critical for proper implementation and it’s important to understand that in larger organizations, SEO is multi-departmental. Marketing, IT, Public Relations, Legal, Creative and possibly operations might all be involved in some way with a strategic initiative to help reach business goals through improved organic search performance.

Regardless of the size of the company, SEO initiatives should be managed strategically by the business like any other major marketing initiative

5. “Our site doesn’t get a lot of visitors, so SEO wouldn’t work for us.”

With comments/myths like this, you must be wondering, “Who in the world is Lee talking to?” You would be surprised how many intelligent, accomplished corporate marketers have said the above. It appears to be the classic “chicken before the egg” type of thinking.

The reality is that comments like this are an indication of insecurity about search as a discipline or about search as a viable marketing channel for a particular business. Smart people say things like this because they are not confident about the solution being presented and want to get out of or avoid the conversation. Anyone else who uses such logic just doesn’t understand marketing.

Either way, I always recommend to companies that if they’re considering search engine optimization, regardless of who helps them, they need to look at it long term. SEO is not push button marketing and it is not for the impatient. The minimum amount of time we recommend is 6 months after implementation before evaluating whether SEO has promise as a profitable marketing channel. Anything less than that is not worth starting.

I can’t let you go without a few Bonus Myths:

Flash is bad - No, it’s the absence of text and complete reliance on Flash that is bad.
Database generated urls are bad - The major search engines are very good at indexing complex urls. Stay away from session ids though.
Keywords in meta tags is optimization - Just say no.
Extra domain names boost rankings - Pure malarkey. Make sure you redirect them properly. See Bruce Clay’s explanation on this.
Multiple copies of my site helps rankings - Can you say “duplicate content”? Don’t do it.
My competitors get away with spam techniques, so I can too - I can hear my mom now, “And if your friends told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?”. If a competitor is “getting away” with blatant search spam, you have a few decisions to make. One of them is how to be more creative and more aggressive (within guidelines) at becoming the authority for your category and topics.
Are there more myths and misconceptions, misunderstandings and pure bull$#@! out there about SEO? Sure there is. And the fact that, in some ways, keeping up to date with search marketing best practices is like putting a puzzle together when the picture likes to change from time to time, makes it even more challenging.

It’s all the more reason to find trusted resources that you can rely on and to build a network of people to bounce ideas off of so you can separate the facts from the myths. There is no substitute for firsthand experience.

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