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With the tremendous changes seen in the search engine marketplace over the past year, the conduct and techniques of winning search engine marketing campaigns have changed. Tactics and assumptions that worked last year may not produce the same results today. With a realignment of market share between Google and Yahoo, and the introduction of new algorithms and services, the playing field looks remarkably different in 2004. Search Engine Marketing campaigns have become far more complex over the past twelve months. Good SEO and SEM firms have had to become competent with a larger number of marketing tools offered by the search engines. Due to these changes, many Search Engine Marketing firms have had to raise their prices or alter the levels of service offered to clients. In reconciling our techniques with the changing landscape, our industry in many cases, has not done enough to explain how and/or why we make our decisions, recommendations, and on-site modifications.
The Shifting Landscape of Cybersearch
In keeping with a basic law of the web, the landscape of search has changed radically over the past twelve months. The two major changes were the erosion of Google’s dominance and the rapid acceptance of paid contextual advertising programs.
The change with the greatest impact on the behaviours of SEO firms was the loss of distribution dominance Google enjoyed for about 18-months. From the middle of 2002 to the beginning of 2004, Google’s database supplied approximately 76% of all search results in one way or another. In mid-February of this year, Yahoo stopped drawing results from the Google database. Around the same time, MSN stopped drawing results from LookSmart and shifted to the Yahoo owned Inktomi directory. These two actions fundamentally changed the nature of search engine marketing campaigns as the distribution of results was suddenly and radically altered.
The second major shift in search engine marketing was the exceptional acceptance of Contextual Advertising programs such as Google AdWords/AdSense and Overture’s Content Match. Both these programs provide advertisers with an amazing array of distribution sources and, by most accounts have been very successful for the advertisers, distribution partners, and the search engines. Of the two programs, Google’s AdWords/AdSense is the most sophisticated with advertisements placed in a greater number of venues based on keywords entered by a searcher, or keywords present in content on a website.
Anatomy of a StepForth / SEO Campaign
Search engine marketing has become more popular than ever. Most SEO or SEM firms are contacted directly by potential clients, most of whom are checking out several SEO/SEM firms at the same time. Due to increasing consumer knowledge and the rise of SEO/SEM popularity, the volume of contacts from potential clients has increased dramatically over the past 12-months. Last year at this time, our office would conduct about ten site reviews per week, of which we would convert about 1/4 to sales. With the increase of interest in the past year, our office is putting out five to ten reviews a day! Our internal “Best Practices” code says that all potential client sites must be reviewed in writing before a service quote or contract can be provided. This review process allows us to take a hard-look at each website before committing to a specific SEO technique or service fee. It also puts our thoughts in writing in order to limit misunderstandings between our sales department and the potential clients.
Once a review and quote are provided to a client, we try to have a 15 – 20 minute conversation with the client and (if applicable), their webmaster. This step is extremely important in order to ensure that; A) everyone understands the process, and B) there are no unreasonable expectations on the part of the client. An example of unreasonable expectations is the idea that SEOs can drive a specific amount of traffic to your site. While several under-ethical firms may promise an increase of 10,000 visitors per month, no company can actually control what web users do without using underhanded and highly unethical tactics. This part of the process is important to the entire industry. Before committing the first key-stroke, we need to know the client understands what we are about to do, how long it will take, and what the effect might be. This is called “informed consent” and it is critical to preventing misunderstandings, hard feelings and the idea that SEOs are scammers. After speaking with the client and their technical staff, we download the site from the host-server, make a safe (zipped) copy of the original site, and begin working. For SEO practitioners, this is where the most interesting phase of any campaign begins.
Contracts and Paperwork
We are in an industry that provides a product made up of electrons. Unless you own your own particle accelerator, (I got mine on EBay), chances are you will never see or even perceive the existence of electrons. Nevertheless, we sell the manipulation of them by the terra-dozen. If you are selling or buying something intangible, such as Intellectual Property of some for or another, you had better provide or be provided with a strong contract. StepForth’s contracts have undergone an evolutionary process over the past seven years. Starting with a quick one-pager, our standard contract has grown to 16 pages! One of the reasons the document has gotten so large is that search engine marketing has gotten far more complex and E-Commerce has become a far more serious affair. Our documents not only protect StepForth and our clients, they also provide the base terms and conditions that are followed by the SEO staff throughout the campaign.
Every website is unique and presents a number of differing challenges to the SEO practitioner. More often than not, we did not create the sites we work on so there is always some degree of a learning curve with every site we see. For me, this is the most exciting part of the job in that I am paid to learn as much as I possibly can about a wide array of design techniques and coding languages. At this point, we have already decided which techniques to apply and where to apply them and have received informed consent from what we hope is an informed client. An important part of our service is the treatment of virtually every optimizable page in the site. While this can become quite tedious at times, the evolution of design offers us the wonders of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which can facilitate site-wide modifications by altering a single file. By the time the SEO Application phase is over, our SEOs have worked on the titles, tags, text and navigation on each page of a website. An important note, even though some of the pages within the site are not likely to achieve strong placements, a sense of continuity throughout the site is important for live-visitors and for the site owner.
Link Building and Acquisition
Link density and relevancy is extremely important to Google and, to a lesser degree, to Yahoo. Most of our contracts call for the creation or acquisition of 25 – 50 fresh, relevant links from sites with relativity high page ranks. This is a tedious process that requires our staff to contact other webmasters directly and request a link on their page. We often have to explain the benefits of links to these new contacts and must sound very hollow after repeating the same message over and over again. We do find that the personal contact goes much further than an Email contact.
SEO work often requires modification of visible content on a website. After a third-party vendor makes any changes to another company’s website, the client should have the opportunity to examine the changes before they go live to the web. Changes in technology have forced us to alter our methods of gaining client approval for site modifications. In previous years, we were able to use our own server to temporarily host a client’s site before posting it to their actual host-server. Now, with CSS, dynamically generated content and other site compilation techniques, we need to use the client’s host-server to display their modified website. This can cause obvious problems as posting to the client’s host-server often means posting live on the web. We have two work-arounds for this issue. The first and simplest is to arrange a specific time for the client to inspect the site, usually while on the phone with the Optimizer. This gives our SEO the chance to explain to the client what was modified, why it was modified, and the expected results from the modification. We consider this an important step as it gets the client to approve of the work while boosting the client’s SEO education level. This step takes about ten minutes on the phone but can save hours in phone time later.
Site Submission and Monitoring
Once an optimized site is posted, the submission and monitoring phases begin. This is the only part of SEO that has become simpler this year than it was last year. For the most part, newer search engines such as Google and Yahoo will find a website without the necessity of submitting it directly. That is because spider-driven search engines acquire sites for their databases by sending their spiders to follow every link they can find and record all information from those links. If your website has any incoming links, chances are the major search engines will find it faster than in the olden days of manual submissions. One still needs to manually submit the site to directories and smaller search engines however, the time it takes to do submissions has been cut in half from last year. Another major change in the search engine environment is the death of paid-inclusion programs. Last year we expected our clients to pay $139 + for inclusion to the various search engine databases. This year, we have been able to eliminate that extra client cost from our service-quotes.
It can take between 5 days and 8 weeks to see Top placements on the major search engines. This year, the time it takes has decreased however, with Google only updating itself once per month, getting a strong ranking at Google tends to take a bit longer than on the other search tools. On average, the fastest seems to be Teoma/Ask Jeeves. StepForth begins monitoring client sites 10 days after posting an optimized site to the host-server. We tend to check each site at least once per day. Once we see any placements in the Top30, we forward a debut listing report. That report is followed with monthly placement reports showing clients where their sites sat at the end of each month. (Clients are encouraged to monitor positions themselves during the month). Sometimes we also study client logs to determine how our campaign is working and where it can be more effective. A great tool for extracting data from client logs is Click Tracks.
Post Promotion Period
StepForth Campaign contracts tend to last either 3 or 4 months, depending on the size of the site and the competitiveness of the keywords we are targeting. After this period has ended, our clients tend to be found in the Top10 (92.5% as of today’s date). This is the point when it is important to decide if an SEO maintenance program is important to the client or not. If the client site is holding its placements over 8 weeks and the competition seems minimal, chances are the client’s site will not require maintenance services. If, on the other hand, the site is bouncing around the Top10 without solidifying a placement, or if the competition is especially fierce, we tend to recommend a monthly maintenance program, based on a month by month written contract. We find the split between clients requiring maintenance and those that do not require maintenance to be about 50/50. We do not sell clients on maintenance unless we feel they really need it. We would rather receive positive reviews from these clients than take their money for a service they don’t need. The positive reviews will go a lot further than the minor amount of money would.
Every SEO company is different and has different methods of providing services. Some are more detailed than others. In light of the difficulties recently faced by clients of a not-so-ethical firm, I believe the SEO/SEM industry needs to be more communicative with clients and offer them every opportunity to learn from their campaign. We need to provide documentation along with our contracts, and most of all, we need to improve the overall image of the service sector. Search engine marketing is going to become more important and much more technical in coming years. All the more reason for our internal systems to become tighter and offer clients more transparency and ultimately, consumer safety.