LinkedIn Answers Asks “What Don’t You Trust About SEO?”

A couple weeks ago I came across an interesting discussion on the trustworthiness of SEO in LinkedIn Answers. The question posed was fairly simple:

What don’t you trust about SEO (search engine optimization)? … and why?
SEO is a fundamental aspect of making your website relevant to your visitors and prospects. The major search engines have SEO consultants on staff because it is so critical to effective paid placement. Yet, there are many examples of genuine disdain being expressed for SEO on LinkedIn as though it is a false promise rather than a business tool. Why?

LinkedIn Answers - Should You Trust an SEO?

What made the discussion important was that a very relevant conversation about the SEO industry was happening outside of the traditional SEO channels. Regardless of position, experience or background, business professionals were providing their perspective on the perceived lack of trust in the search engine optimization industry.

At the time I started writing the article, 21 people had responded to the question, with varying opinions and perspectives on the trustworthiness of SEO. I wanted to respond to some of the comments and opinions and provide answers or guidance where possible. In the end, the best medium for doing so seemed to be a blog post breaking down some of the main objectives and challenges being posed to the SEO community.

Here goes…

SEO ISSUE: Lack of Understanding of SEO and Search Engine Technology

John C: Maybe a lack of understanding of what SEO is really all about, and how search engines work.

The same sentiments are echoed by Kevan B and David M takes that one step further by explaining how it is often important for honest SEO practitioners to “redirect customer expectations”.

We can get you more business, but ranking #1 for the only keyword that has occurred to you shouldn’t be the goal.

In my opinion, this is one of the core challenges of the industry. Unfortunately, there are a lot of varying opinions and ideas as to what SEO means (from an industry & business perspective), based on individual perspectives and professional objectives.

For an greater understanding of search engine optimization, here are some recommended resources and organizations:

  • Search Engine Land – News and information on search engines and the search engine marketing industry
  • Search Engine Watch – A similar, competitive resource for SEM and search engine news.
  • SEMPO – A global non-profit organization serving the search engine marketing industry and marketing professionals engaged in it.
  • Specific SEO Resource: SEOmoz Search Engine Ranking Factors – Note that these factors are specific to Google.
  • Local SEO Resources: SEMNE and the Boston SEO Meetup – Two local organizations for those in the New England Region.

The reason I would recommend these resources specifically is because of the collaborative requirements associated with creating and maintaining each one. A diverse group of experienced individuals contribute or have contributed on a regular basis.

SEO ISSUE: Failure to Set The Right Expectations

Michael C: The problem is that many SEOs are not honest about the results customers can expect to get. The result is overpromise/underdeliver.

There are great resources online for understanding the types of questions prospective clients will want to ask when evaluating the “would-be SEO professional”. Here are a few:

The bottom line is that companies interested in hiring a company or consultant to work on their SEO initiatives need to educate themselves on the right questions to ask in the screening phase. While some of the information above is light-hearted, the investment in SEO may be expensive, so making educated decisions are essential.

SEO ISSUE: Tracking Performance

Lilia T: Overall it (SEO) can fall on the side of too much information. Which statistics do you pay attention to? Which ones will really impact your business? If that’s not well defined, SEO options become overwhelming and paralyzing.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of information out there and it certainly can get overwhelming. In addition to the resources mentioned above, marketers need to consider the website statistics that end up impacting a company’s bottom line.

Some important SEO related statistics:

  • How many conversions are your SEO initiatives generating?
  • What are the most productive keywords (as it relates to conversion metrics)?
  • What is the cost per conversion action for SEO?
  • How do the quality of leads (conversions) and cost/conversion compare to other marketing efforts?

SEO ISSUE: Price Gouging

Dennis C: Now that I have seen so many bad SEO people I think the only right thing to do is guarantee results. We charge a small up front fee with a heavy bonus structure.

The way I look at it is, If you take top dollar for mediocre work you are nothing more than a common thief. So if you are good you should guarantee you work.

It’s definitely admirable that a company would guarantee the results of their SEO initiatives but complete incentive-based SEO pricing models may not make sense for every business offering SEO services.

Looking at the answer in more depth, I would agree that the delivery of marginal work while still charging high end rates is no way to run a business. Proven results, solid references and a professional relationship that works well for both the client and consultant are all important components of the evaluation process and a successful engagement.

And then again…
Several respondents pointed disdain towards SEO companies and consultants that guarantee a number one ranking or “top rankings in Google”. Todd Mintz’s article from Inside CRM explains that “Nobody hates SEO (search-engine optimization) scammers more than ethical SEO practitioners.”

The article provides first-hand reports from well respected SEO professionals on how shady SEO practitioners operate, so “companies are less likely waste their money on worthless — or even damaging — services.”

SEO ISSUE: Effective SEO Campaign Measurement

Sean W: I believe the real truth of why SEO is given lower priority by many ‘decision makers’ is the inability to measure or forecast ROI accurately.

This question merits a good deal of discussion for the industry moving forward. Being able to demonstrate how the implementation of an SEO recommendation – even if it was done in coordination with other recommendations – impacted a company’s overall business performance is an invaluable asset for an SEO company to have under their belt.

SEO ISSUE: Poor Decisions in SEO Tactics

Sam D: This is why many mistrust SEO. You always have a sword of Damocles hanging above your head. (referring to how algorithmic changes may wipe out all of the SEO strategies a business has been working on)

All due respect to Sam D and the person he quoted in his reply, but if a company is relying on ways and means that put the company at risk of getting penalized by search engines – particularly on an ongoing basis – I would suggest re-evaluating the SEO objectives and strategies in general.

That being said, the extreme case of not being interested in strategies designed to improve a website’s visibility in search simply does not make sense. The latest search engine numbers from ComScore or any similar reputable services tracking user behavior online should help validate that notion.

SEO ISSUE: Snake Oil SEO Salesmen

Oliver D: What I don’t trust is the consultants. I am that web developer who turned to SEO to help my clients get real viable traffic at no extra charge. SEO is a joke. Consultants – change your title tags and keywords – push a couple of reciprocal links your way – then they “cross fingers” harder than you! One day google might wake up and change algorithms. Then all SEO false promises are just that.

Snake oil salesmen trying to capitalize in a hot market are a sore spot, particularly when an industry is trying to achieve a certain level of respectability. In addition to the “questions to ask an SEO consultant” links mentioned above, websites like SEMCompare provide reviews and testimonials for a wide range of search engine marketing related services.

One Related Tip: research the experience and background of an SEO professional or search engine marketing company using a professional networking tool like LinkedIn or ZoomInfo even before the interviewing and proposal process has begun.

SEO ISSUE: Failing To Understand The Complete Value of Keyword Traffic

Aaron S: It (SEO) may work for niche terms or complex phrases, but for big-name items like “diagramming software” I don’t think it will hold much water for companies like ours.

It is very true that not every organization will be able to compete for every competitive keyword in search. But it is also true that part of the value of search engine optimization is uncovering of keyword variations which also may bring valuable traffic and leads to a business.

As an example:
One of our clients ranked well enough in organic search to drive nearly 4,000 referrals for a specific keyword we were targeting, over a 6 month window. But in addition, approximately 2,500 additional organic search referrals came from variations of that keyword phrase and all a result of a well defined content building strategy and over 20,000 unique keywords drove organic traffic to the website..

Of course, an SEO business cannot be targeting all of those keyword variations, but we certainly had a role in obtaining a decent percentage of them through content generation and website strategy.

SEO ISSUE: Understanding The Client’s Perspective and Business Needs

Robert H: Seems to me that every SEO consultant I have ever spoken to makes a recommendation that is basically an All-or-Nothing proposal.

I have never had a consultant try to sell me a load of BS: “I can make you #1 on Google!” Rather, it’s the other way around. “Do all of these things and maybe, MAYBE, you’ll move up a couple of ranks, but we really don’t know, because SEO is so complicated and no one actually knows.” Well, that’s just fantastic then, ain’t it?

While this relates to the issue of guaranteed or pay-for-performance services, it cannot be overstated how valuable the understanding a client’s business is to an ongoing SEO consulting initiative.

Unfortunately, I am certain that there are SEO consultants and companies that are able to do this better than others. The key questions to ask in the screening phase is “how proficient at delivering and managing the recommendations process is an SEO company?” and “how in-depth the company will get in implementing SEO recommendations?”.

Final Thoughts and Considerations
Comments are now closed on the question of SEO trustworthiness via LinkedIn Answers, but there are an additional 20+ responses (43 total responses) worth reading and taking into consideration.

Scott H may have said it best when he wrote:

I think part of the problem is that a lot of company managers don’t understand that an SEO plan functions best if it is part of an overall strategy.

As search engine algorithms and technological innovation advance, it’s not really possible to consider “SEO” as an independent strategy for traffic acquisition online. The requirements of an effective SEO plan may touch a wide range of marketing and IT initiatives, from website architecture to copywriting & content generation to public relations & brand management.

Education on how search engine optimization can actually be a part of a complete online marketing program and the knowledge of how to better screen and select reputable SEO professionals and organizations are the first steps towards building trust in the value of SEO.

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