SEO — otherwise known as Search Engine Optimization — is the process of improving a website so that search engines can more easily index relevant content with the goal of improving how soon it will show up in a search engine’s index. Online (and sometimes offline) contractors abuse the term “search engine optimization” to sell a service to improve SEO ratings. About ninety-eight percent of those so-called contractors — and likely more — are quacks. Companies can waste significant amounts of both time and money on these contractors to improve their website’s SEO ratings. If you’re the business, unfortunately, that contractor is hoping to fool you into paying him for a rain-dance.
Let me re-iterate if you missed the last paragraph: in the majority of cases, these SEO services are a pile of crap. If you’re an executive paying someone to improve your company’s website SEO, I can almost guarantee you’re wasting money that you could be spending on your employees. Most of these contractors know they’re selling you a rain dance and use that as a business opportunity to sap you for as much money as they possibly can.
One half of a search engine generates an index of all the websites that it has found on the Internet. The other half is what the user primarily interacts with: the user types in a set of keywords (a query) and the search engine tries to find relevant information in its indexes related to that set of keywords (a set of results). This creates a bottleneck: a search engine is a gateway for websites traffic. SEO, as we’ve discussed earlier, is the process of optimizing a website so a search engine can find more relevant results for a user’s query.
They key to optimizing a website then — as trite and obvious as it seems — is through relevant and useful content.
That easy, you say? Well, not really, no.
Machines generally have an extremely hard time trying to understand what is and isn’t relevant to users. They can do massive amounts of statistical analysis on the data that they collect but that takes a significant amount of time and most users are impatient. Most modern search engines use other relevant metrics: for example, from the search engine’s point of view, if a user clicks on a result and then clicks the “back” button in their browser, the search engine will see that the user has immediately requested the results page again and notice that the website the user viewed was not useful to them. There are other metrics that search engines use, but the overall message is that a search engine’s results reflect the usefulness of content to a user. If a user doesn’t like what they see and they leave the website, not only will they likely never come back, but the search engine will notice that as well, compounding the effect of useless and irrelevant content.
There are many metrics but it all boils down to a bit of common-sense and a bit of understanding that your users are more than countable business goals. You might have some default blame-reducing phrase like “That’s not a problem for us! We have good content!” and your SEO-contractor will likely agree with you. The fact is, however, that if your statistics say your content is useless or irrelevant to your users, no amount of paying a contractor to improve your SEO will solve the problem. If your users find your website in any way irrelevant or useless for their direct and immediate needs, they will leave and they will never come back.
So, it’s fairly clear that it’s important for users to see relevant and useful content. The prerequisite for that is to understand who your users actually are. If are targeting everyone indiscriminately and you’re not Facebook or some other Web 2.0 social media big-shot, you’re heading for a world of hurt. Take a step outside of your business mindset and think about all the people who come to your website. Put yourself in their shoes. What purpose do they have when they visit your website? What should they come to you for? What do they expect to see when they hit the first landing page? You can’t target your content for an undefined market segment and expect to succeed.
At this point you’re probably asking, “Okay, this is all great information, but what can we do to fix it?”.
That’s a tough question and it the answer, like so many things in this world, is that it depends. I don’t have a degree in marketing or business administration, yet if I know your business, I can definitely tell you some ways your content is failing to deliver and usually within reading one or two pages. Again, take a step outside of your business mindset and hear me out.
Your website likely isn’t delivering what you expected from it because the content on your website is broken. By broken, it means large numbers of your visitors view one page, and the close your website in their browser. Your users don’t want to read what you have to say, and stuffing more keywords, semantic tags, images, “alt” attributes, and flash media into the page won’t fix the problem they have. Improve the experience of your users on your website by adding real, useful, content. What is useful to your users is completely dependent on who you’re targeting. Real content targeted at real people tends to deliver real results.
Most people visit a website to answer a question that they have. That question could be an answer to a number of their problems, or they could be seeking advice about a subject or information about an industry, or they are looking to buy a product, in that order. If you can’t immediately answer that question they came to you for, they will leave. Mission failed. Most corporate websites focus exclusively on only the last of those three segments to the exclusion of all else. They likely see it as the quickest return of investment: it’s a quick, fast, and easy way to make a buck from their online presence. That short-sighted thinking means that when that last segment they exclusively targeted evaporates — it quickly will when search engines rank the website poorly — the website becomes costly dead weight instead of an active revenue stream.
Many websites also suffer from ego-driven development. The most visible symptom of EDD is company-centric, egoistic website content. Websites suffering from it usually talk about “our commitment”, “our products” or “our services”. See the common word there? It shifts the focus from the visitor back to the company itself. It might make the pointy-haired boss happy to see it but it provides absolutely no value whatsoever to the visitor. Many normally savvy business owners tend to believe that marketing and sales copy is all about their business but absolutely nothing could be father from the truth. Your visitors don’t care about your company. They only care about what the company can do for them right now.
Many websites also like to list lots of facts about their products. As any marketer (or any behavioral psychologist) worth their salt will tell you: people react to emotional stimuli and then rationalize the feelings with facts afterward. Facts are great for post-purchase rationalization, but they don’t connect with people on an initial emotional level. Save the facts for the flat-sheets and technical documentation. Tell people about the benefits that your product provides, and show how it compares to alternatives provided by others in the community.
Often a company will list the facts given to them by an expert in their company, without thinking about how those facts relate to the visitor. The technical people that were supposed to recommend your product will never see the website because the executive that wanted to demo the product got scared away by the information overload. This isn’t to say that you should strip all factual content from your website. On the contrary, facts increase credibility and authority, but listing the product’s benefits increase the number of customers because it appeals to their own self-interest.
The greatest way to improve your SEO isn’t to hire an outside contractor to perform some magic voodoo. Instead, target a defined market segment as a whole, solve a problem they have, and improve your content to be more relevant to your users. There’s an analogy from SEO that applies here: website content is like a good book. A search engine is merely a scout for massive publishing house (website visitors) to find the good writers. If no one wants to read your book because it doesn’t answer the questions they have, then it won’t get published. Yes, you can write a masterpiece vetted by every expert you have on staff, but it won’t matter if it doesn’t get published by the publishing house. Mission failed.
How does this all relate back to SEO contractors? In short, most of those so-called experts are not actually experts at all. They know how to manipulate statistics in Google Analytics to temporarily give you a rating boost that seems positive, but only for a premium fee. It’ll give your company a temporary ego boost and may attract some temporary visitors but it won’t increase your revenue in the long-term or help to create a community around your products. In short, these contractors are gaming you for your money and likely selling you bogus.
Don’t waste your money on SEO contractors. Spend it building useful, customer-focused content that will keep visitors and attract all segments of the market. The more reasons for people to stay on your website, and the more positive traffic you can keep, the less important SEO will be, and the higher your search ratings will be.