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SEO, SEM: Is it All Just Marketing Smoke and Mirrors?

Posted on September 9, 2014

Most business owners I speak to have dabbled at some point in using professional search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimisation (SEO) services and those that haven’t have stayed away because they don’t understand it and don’t trust it.

It can be difficult to understand what’s being done by SEO and SEM companies and how to measure performance.  To many it’s smoke and mirrors, explanations and reports that make no sense and lots of money being spent on something that doesn’t deliver return.

As a skilled online marketer, using SEM and SEO in my own marketing and with clients for over 10 years, I know how difficult it can be to understand the value of work being done. Heaven help a business owner who doesn’t have a strong understanding of or skills in marketing.

Here’s what I’ve learnt when it comes to using these services.

Know the differences and set your expectations accordingly

SEO – is the process of optimising the content on your website, the structure of your site and creating and distributing content external to your website to make it more likely you’ll appear for key search terms.

SEM – or pay per click advertising – is paying for ads to appear when users search using certain terms on Google.

SEO usually takes longer to see results; however, the results can have lasting effects. SEM will drive results quicker but can be very expensive, particularly if the keywords you are targeting are very competitive.

Be clear on why you are using it

SEO is really to ensure that you are not being penalised by not having your site structured properly (e.g. enough internal links, using keywords a certain way).

It’s simple hygiene that should be standard for anyone with a website. You can further boost SEO performance by doing online PR ensuring that you are creating quality content on third party sites that link back to your own.

Any results from on page SEO should show up in traffic to your site fairly quickly.  However, with off page SEO it can take time. However, an investment in SEO will continue to perform for you versus ads.

SEO is getting harder and harder to do as Google tightens up its algorithm to stop websites from influencing the results. SEO companies can’t predict when and how Google will change their algorithm, which means they have very little control at the end of the day as to the results they can achieve should their process of optimising be penalised by a Google algorithm update.

I’ve had clients report a 50% drop in traffic overnight because their SEO company’s tactics have been negatively affected by an update.

What we do know is creating quality content regularly is a must-do. If that’s not realistic, then it’s unlikely you’ll see much return for investment.

SEM is a great tool to quickly drive traffic to your website and understand how it converts to leads or sales. Once your campaign is set up you will soon see results and you can test and optimise your site and campaign to improve them.

However, a close and watchful eye is paramount and weekly if not daily optimisation is needed to make it work.

Why so often is it a waste of money?

No one understands the results:

  • Any one who is not a digital marketing expert will often feel completely bamboozled by the reports that their SEO or SEM company sends reporting the results of their activity.
  • Terms like page bounce, authority ranking, conversions, etc, make no sense to your average business owner.
  • If you can’t understand the reports it’s impossible to make decisions as to how you could improve your results

Results aren’t reviewed often enough:

  • Most providers will send through reports and then suggest a meeting to review. Because the reports are so confusing to someone who isn’t an expert the meeting and review gets put in the too hard basket. So underperforming campaigns continue to underperform until the client gets fed up and cancels the campaign.
  • Alternatively agencies don’t send reports often enough so that budget can be optimised quickly.
  • Or, agencies send reports but don’t make any clear recommendations to the client. They expect the client to have the knowledge to then suggest changes back to the agencies.

Budget and resources have not been allocated to really make SEO and SEM work

SEO and SEM are only part of the solution when it comes to driving leads and sales from web searches.

There are a lot of other factors to consider. SEO and SEM only do the job of driving traffic to your site, beyond that your site and other online marketing needs to turn that traffic into revenue.

Clients don’t realise this when they go into the process of committing precious budget and haven’t got budget or resources left over to:

  • Make the necessary changes to their website to optimise conversion
  • Regularly update content on their site so they appear professional
  • Attract search traffic into their database by creating opt in content such as whitepapers, e-guides, free reports, etc.
  • Run regular electronic direct marketing campaigns to influence people who have opted in through to a sale.

Lack of knowledge and management of providers

Your provider is not going to give you an independent opinion. You still need someone to be keeping your agency accountable. To read and understand the reports, hold meetings and manage any changes to the campaign to improve results.

To make SEO and SEM work you will need some marketing skills to execute any of the above and/or manage and liaise with your search company.

So how do you make it work?

Start small: Commit to a small amount of budget initially and test and optimise before expanding to more search terms and more additional work. Perhaps focus on one keyword and create a simple landing page to avoid having to change your whole site.

Choose your agency very carefully: Make sure your search engine marketing company is really up to snuff. Ask for copies of reports and references. Perhaps also ask clients they work with on their site and contact clients independently.  Ask how often they review the results of their work and make recommendations and how easy it is to work with them.

Do they offer a service to do further work on your site, create content, etc to amplify the SEO and SEM results?

Have an internal watchdog: Make sure someone in your team has the skills to manage the suppliers and oversee the campaign. If you don’t have an in-house marketer experienced in managing SEO and SEM campaigns, look to work with an independent marketing consultant who can guide you and keep your SEO and SEM agency honest.

Used well, SEO and SEM are very accountable and cost-effective forms of marketing. If your current campaign is underperforming, or you feel like you need help in undertaking more online marketing activity, don’t be afraid to get the help you need. It will be worth it in the long run.