SEO Success Means Letting Go of PPC Expectations
You're spearheading your company's Internet presence and you're in charge of SEO and/or PPC campaigns. You attend conferences and trade shows, and listen to experts discuss this and that about how to best conduct your various campaigns. You know SEO is a long-term investment, but do you really understand what that means? With all of the chatter that exists in the Internet marketing world, do you really understand the implications of that tiny little statement -- "SEO is a long-term investment"?
The answer is a very important consideration, one with a lot of expectations, planning and resources behind it. It is worthwhile to explore this and make sure that not only you but your entire team and stakeholders have the same understanding. All too often SEO campaigns are entered into with PPC expectations.
"Isn't SEO where you hire someone to tinker with my site and in a couple of months I start to rank better in search engines, thereby reducing my need to spend money in paid search campaigns?" Well yes, but no. This is a common perspective when it comes to Internet marketing, but SEO and PPC are two completely different marketing techniques that work at differing speeds toward different goals.
The Farmer Versus the Grocer
A good analogy here is to compare a corner grocer to a farmer bringing product to market. The corner grocer buys food and turns it around to make money immediately -- this is like PPC. A farmer plants the seeds and tends to the crops, spending time, water and other resources rather than money to grow product to sell -- this is like SEO. In the end, both achieve a return on their investment. However, their approaches vary.
Ideally, an Internet company would want to be able to do both types of marketing, SEO and PPC. Understanding the difference between these techniques and their application will help you avoid a frustrating collision of expectations.
Pay Per Click Shows Direct ROI
A PPC campaign is a buy-it-now strategy. Designed to let you immediately start playing the game, this marketing technique gets visitors to your site and into whatever conversion funnel your site has. This is really not much different than spending money on a TV or print ad. With PPC ads, your company is putting itself out there where potential customers are looking in the hopes that your ad will bring people in for a closer look. Paid campaigns should be seen as an advertising expense, and the expectations can be judged in much the same way. You can calculate the number of people who saw the spot at a given moment and correlate that to site metrics to gauge what increase, if any, was gained. It is an immediate expense meant for rather immediate returns; it can be very expensive and yet very lucrative in the right conditions.
Search Engine Optimization Develops Value Long-Term
Where so many people misunderstand the rationale behind an SEO campaign is that it is often seen as an extension of the above marketing philosophy: throw money into an organic campaign because PPC is rather expensive, and once the organic traffic gets to a certain level, cut back on the PPC budget. This reads well on paper, but it is the wrong way to approach an SEO campaign.
A strong organic campaign should be thought of like a brand awareness campaign. It is planned from the get-go as a long-term engagement with an eye on the long-term gain. Ideally, there should be no short-term expectation here from anyone with any stake in the project.
Everyone involved needs to understand that a proper SEO campaign (a full "campaign" being different from a simple "project") can take years, depending on the specific keyword sets being targeted. Short-term gains are great, and they may occur as obvious site errors are corrected. But with this kind of a marketing technique, there is not a clear marker that lights the way at the three, six, nine or twelve month mark.
Problem #1: A Harvest Takes Patience
Most people get this short-term/long-term division between PPC and SEO on the conceptual level. Where things break down is in the practical implementation. It's one thing to understand that crop-growing takes time; it's another thing to have the patience to wait.
One of the first questions clients ask at the inception of nearly every SEO campaign in history is "When will we be able to see some measurable results?" This is often uttered in the same breath as "What metrics will we be watching to gauge success?" These questions inherently bring the project supervision back to a PPC mentality. Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with asking these questions. In fact, they do need to be addressed. Your company is spending money; it is only fair to expect to have some means of knowing that the expenditure is worthwhile. The issue here is the expectations being discussed. What those questions usually imply is something along the lines of: "How soon can I justify this project to the CFO/VP/boss?" and "What can I look at right now that will let me report regularly to show immediate gains?"
The problem that most SEO campaigns have is that someone somewhere in the chain expects to see something happen now. And if not now, then soon. And if it doesn't happen soon, then people start to get nervous. Before long people start to get really nervous, the concept of "long-term" is forgotten, and a traditional ad campaign mentality takes over.
Problem #2: Crop Conditions Must be Ideal
The other typical complication that often arises is that a site may need to change rather significantly for SEO to succeed. In the store versus farmer analogy, the store can be any size and color with whatever signage desired to bring people to the door. The farmer, however, can only grow crops under certain conditions. A farmer that refuses to adapt to the conditions of the land will find a very disappointing yield. This is exactly what happens in an SEO campaign where the site managers refuse to adapt their site to the needs of the campaign. Often a company decides that an SEO campaign is just the thing they need -- but only if they don't have to change any of the site's content, or the way the site navigation connects pages, or the spiderability of their cool Flash pages, etc. In short, many sites are like a farmer in the desert refusing to make the changes necessary to properly irrigate. The PPC mentality kicks in, and it will be argued that the site functions fine and conversions are just peachy from other traffic sources. The farmer tries to put on a grocer's hat, observing that since the turnips that were bought to sell did just fine, the ones that were planted should do just as well -- despite the lack of water and proper tending.
Farming for Success
The correct approach when beginning an SEO campaign is to align the expectations of everyone in the process and ensure that those expectations reflect the long-term, farmer's mentality. Metrics and measurement should indeed be discussed, but with an eye on the horizon and not on the daily/weekly/biweekly results a paid campaign might see. The goal of your SEO campaign is gaining and holding over time solid rankings in the main search engines for primary keyword sets, and thus the traffic associated with the searches for those terms.
Ultimately when it comes to marketing on the Internet, anyone can benefit by becoming a farmer. Just don't commit to planting your crops until you are fully aware of what you are getting in to. After all, SEO is a long-term investment that can yield a great harvest.