“SEO is bullshit.” It’s a refrain you hear over and over these days. The funny thing is, it’s true. Mostly. Search engine optimisation specialists can do awesome work – otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
The official line peddled out by Google is that search engines should return sites that contain, “good and useful content that is relevant to the user’s search.” Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or rank a site, but the most long-term, worthwhile way is to do good SEO work: actually adding value to the web, creating engaging content, attracting new users to sites they’d more than likely want to visit anyway, tagging pictures, describing sites more effectively, and marking up data to ensure users can find anything relevant to their search.
This should in turn improve site traffic and conversions – which, as an SEO, you would meticulously test, track, and measure your website’s performance. We use a mixture of tools and stuff we’ve built specifically for a particular job, but a good starting point is Raven – which is great for taking the pain out of reporting and also has some other pretty nifty functions. But you can use anything you like – even if it’s just a spreadsheet (like this one).
Unfortunately, like any unregulated industry, digital marketing has its share of snake oil salesmen, charlatans and cowboys. They mark themselves out by not only promising you the world, but also making one or both of the following claims:
Before we explain why the above two claims are pure unadulterated bullshit, we must first look at why so many businesses fall for them in the first place: they’re looking for a quick fix. While quick fixes are possible in any industry, they are often short-lived, and you shouldn’t take them at face value. Quick fixes lead to quack practices.
Of course there is a positive correlation between ranking well in Google and attracting site traffic, customers, and conversions. It’s simple psychology: the vast majority of users expect Google to return the most relevant results to whatever they’re searching for. However, there are many other factors that influence on-site conversions from searching users.
For example, if your site ranks well for a relatively unrelated keyword or a keyword with little to no monthly searches, the chances are your sales won’t improve drastically. If your site ranks well for a particularly highly-searched keyword, but has little to no relevant information on-site, does not make the conversion process easy for users, or just looks downright unappealing, good rankings won’t help sales.
The fact is, no one can guarantee you a specific amount of customers. Digital marketing is a science, but Google’s variables make surefire predictions virtually impossible. The only way to get genuine, sustainable repeat custom is by making link-worthy original content, optimising your web pages to Google’s standards, and building your brand’s trust online.
Any digital marketer or agency worth their salt will be able to provide a robust strategy before commencing work. Rather than, “we can get you customers,” they should explain how they will expose your business to new customers, why these users are likely to convert, and (to a reasonable extent), the different elements that make up the overarching plan. Then, over time, a genuine SEO specialist really will increase awareness of your brand and improve conversion rates over the long term.
Typical black-hat SEO hacks may get short-term results, but this may end up costing you in terms of website penalties, your customer’s trust (and ultimately fewer customers), and rankings in the long-term (bad backlinks can destroy your site’s authority permanently).
Should you ever hear such a bold, sweeping claim during a pitch, be suspicious immediately. As mentioned previously, anyone with a basic understanding of search engine ranking can achieve rankings for low-competition, irrelevant, or spuriously long-tail keywords. These aren’t being searched for by the majority of users, so any page 1 rankings for them won’t affect your bottom line.
To make sure you’re not being spun a fairy tale, always ask the chest-puffing digital marketer, “for what keywords?” Serious marketers will be honest about the time, work, and effort it takes to rank for competitive keywords – this could be months, or even years. The fact is, search engine optimisation is a slow-burn process, and you should be prepared to be in it for the long haul with an agency or freelancer that you trust to get the job done.
It’s also reasonably easy to rank websites relatively quickly using “black hat” methods that are not Google approved. For a seasoned black hat SEO veteran, even rankings within days are not uncommon. These can be achieved through a combination of methods:
Google’s algorithms are incredibly advanced, and with the various updates to them, including Penguin, Panda, and Hummingbird, the search giant can and will discover when these kinds of tactics are being used – and penalise you for them (just not necessarily immediately). Your site will eventually drop off the rankings altogether, which is incredibly bad for business. In order to avoid paying through the nose for these dodgy tactics, make sure to ask, “how long will the high rankings last?” If you experience any hesitation, defensiveness, or vague answers, walk away. The last thing you need is to spend a month at #1 in Google before plummeting … with your site and products never to be seen again.
There are many other factors that affect Google’s search results; so many that while SEOs can make an impact, they can’t control everything. For starters, search result pages are affected by a user’s search history – and not just their history on their desktop computer. Mobile search results on smartphones and tablets are significantly different to desktop search results thanks to Google’s mobile friendly updates too, so there really is no guarantee that your website will always come out on top.
Make sure to ask your potential pitcher about their understanding of mobile friendliness, whether your site will only rank well for past customers, and most importantly, if there are any factors they know of that they cannot control. You’ll soon sort the wheat from the chaff.
Remember, there are also some questions you should be asking yourself before delving into the world of digital marketing. Firstly, what exactly are you hoping to achieve? Are rankings the be-all and end-all of it? Or do you want brand awareness, sales, or new customers? Are you trying to break a new product? Rankings are all well and good to have, but as we’ve seen previously, high rankings won’t help if they aren’t part of a wider marketing strategy. As recommended by advertising mastermind Dave Trott in his award-winning book, Predatory Thinking, any good marketer shouldn’t be looking to apply a one-size-fits-all method to you as a client – they should be looking to solve business problems by applying their skills to you specifically.
Secondly, if you’re not just after rankings, it might be worth considering different ways to go about it: do you really need a digital marketing agency? Any good agency should tell you if they can’t offer what you’re after. Maybe you’d be better off hiring a freelancer? Or more traditional advertising, or a PR agency? Of course, digital marketing is becoming a much more full-service industry these days – but all those different buzzwords, though they sound impressive, might not be what you’re looking for.
The two aforementioned outlandish claims we’ve been discussing are usually the main alarm bells for dodgy digital marketing practices. However, there are many others – so here are a few that you should be wary of when looking for a new agency:
As mentioned previously, the search giant updates its algorithms daily – sometimes even hourly. Google employs counter-intelligence to make sure their sensitive information doesn’t get out. Not to get too hyperbolic, but one of our ex-Positives has a brother working in the Google X-Labs – and even he didn’t know what was going on there. Add to this the fact that many public mouthpieces for Google – such as the infamous Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Webspam – have been criticised by digital marketers as being purposefully vague, often using smoke and mirrors, and generally just not telling the whole story. There are digital marketers out there that continue to “chase the algorithm,” but the only cast-iron fact is this: nobody knows how Google works, and anyone who claims to is spouting bullshit. RankBrain is not an algorithm. Machine learning is not AI. Don’t be afraid of buzzwords.
Admittedly, PageRank – the number Google supposedly uses to discern how strong or high-quality a site is – is the only official metric the search giant has ever revealed to us. However, it’s also quite old, and no longer the only method used by the algorithm to rank a website. There are actually around 200 different search engine ranking factors, and most of them are third-party. If all your pitching marketer can talk about is PageRank, ditch them. If they instead look at many different elements, including content, links, social shares, and even click-through rates, they’re probably more worth your time. Oh, and just so you don’t get bamboozled by buzzwords, feel free to check what you’re told against Moz’s Search Ranking Factors 2015. Print it out every year and stick it on your meeting room wall as a deterrent.
Links are still the lifeblood of a website’s rankings, and a cornerstone of a good SEO campaign. However, links are also not as simple as they used to be. Gone are the days when you could build 10,000 shitty links to a website and rocket to the top of the SERPs. Nowadays, it’s not just the number of links that matters. It’s the context and the quality of them. SEOs that build thousands of links to your site in a very short space of time are usually just submitting to hundreds of directories, pressing buttons in XRumer, or just paying for the links. All of these are against Google’s Terms of Service, and they will catch up with you eventually. Steer clear of these “link building” practices – the last thing you want is to have to shell out more for another agency to just remove them all again. (Render Positive do Toxic Link Audits, by the way).
“Going viral” is the process of a piece of content, a campaign, a website or a fashion trend being picked up, shared, linked to, and talked about by massive amounts of people worldwide. The thing about “going viral” is that nobody knows precisely what makes something go viral. In the words of Dave Trott, the medium by which consumers experience marketing is always changing, but the consumers experiencing marketing never change. “Going viral” is a phenomenon that happened long before digital marketing, and still nobody knows for certain what will become popular. As a result, make time for digital marketers that advocate using data to anticipate campaigns that have a good chance of doing well with your target markets – but don’t listen to wideboys crowing about “going viral.” They’ll be the first ones making excuses when it inevitably doesn’t; anyone who says they “can make you go viral” doesn’t know their arse from their elbow.
This is a tricky one, purely because it’s been said so much by so many digital marketers that it’s become quite the cliché. To an extent, it’s true – as you can see from the Search Engine Ranking Factors above. However, much like with link building, social media, or any other digital practice, content should provide only a part of a wider strategy. If all an agency is doing is content creation, then they’re neglecting everything else: organic and paid search, social media, conversion rate optimisation, blogger outreach, and all the other tried and tested methods. The fact is, an infographic isn’t going to increase your audience by several orders of magnitude. Knowing where your target markets hang out, creating useful, informative content with them in mind, and getting it in their faces? That could definitely be a step in the right direction.
Steer clear of outlandish claims. A good agency is honest and upfront about their methods.
Always expect good communication. Regular (usually monthly) reports explaining why digital marketing represents a good return on investment (ROI) are a must.
Tracking, testing, and constantly refining are the name of the game. Your ideal agency will be proficient in analytics tools in order to gauge how well your campaigns are performing over time. If your key metric is conversions, they need to be improving. If you’re after rankings, these should be moving in the right direction. If not, why not?
They should be doing their research. This means knowing your business inside-out: your keywords, your topics and contexts, your customers, and your competition.
They should always be on the cutting edge – not following the pack. As soon as what’s “new” has been figured out by an agency that’s following everyone else, it will have been figured out by everyone. Digital marketing is always evolving, so your agency needs to be evolving with it.
These are just a few good qualities that a decent digital marketing agency ought to possess. There are many, many more elements in the world of worthwhile digital marketing practice, but something that comprehensive would take years to write – and upon completion, would more than likely be outdated. Just remember, a good digital marketing agency shares its qualities with any good marketing campaign: honesty, integrity, knowledge, and an appreciation for its clients and customers.
Here are a few great links for further reading, but remember, this information could go out of date as search engines continue to evolve:
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