The Search Engine Optimization Conundrum

Think you need SEO help?

Let’s try something. Google “SEO”. Then click on the “10” in the Gooooooooogle pager at the bottom. Go ahead and do it. I’ll wait…

See how many SEO companies are ranked 90 or more? Granted, SEO is an extremely competitive search term, and if every one of those companies was doing everything right with their own sites, still someone would have to be number 100, right?

But even more interestingly, there are scores of websites ranking higher than many of those SEO companies, and these sites clearly are not targeting the keyword “SEO.” I won’t supply examples, because the results constantly change, but it’s fairly consistent. Does this mean that spending hundreds of dollars on SEO is not a worthwhile investment? Not necessarily, but it does mean that SEO is a bit more complex than these companies make it out to be.

Search engine optimization is a huge and growing industry with companies investing significantly in SEO, whether it be in-house or with an SEO agency. Using an external agency, a business or organization could be expected to spend from $200 per hour, with monthly payments reaching $2,000 per month. In-house will cost even more, taking into account salaries and benefits. SEOmoz found that external agencies tend to do a better job as well, focusing more on keyword research and social media marketing than their in-house counterparts.

I have often arrogantly claimed that web developers know just as much about SEO as SEO professionals. That was because most of my contact with these professionals came from small SEO companies jumping on the SEO bandwagon and/or in-house “SEO professionals” hired because they knew what CPC was. I know that a good, well-oiled SEO company can actually help even me, the arrogant web developer, improve page ranking, search engine marketing and drive traffic to my client’s site — but not by much.

And what about non-profits? What should non-profits and NGO’s do when they have a low budget? Are the SEO steps the same from non-profits as business SEO?

Yes and no. Mostly no. Search engines really don’t differentiate between a business and a non-profit. What you do with your revenue really isn’t their business (yet). But there is a difference because the users you want on your site are not searching for the same reasons as consumers search. Like any site, you need to define your target audience, create the same backlinks and balance your keywords. But there are tools you should use that aren’t a high priority for businesses (like blogging). An SEO specialist will need to understand the organization’s goals to be able to target correctly. Generating traffic is generating traffic, but since the intended outcome is different, the work is different as well. And a good SEO should teach a non-profit how to fish.

Non-profits have causes. They need donors and the donation world has been turned on its head. Microdonating, social media outlets, vast amounts of information available to all, make getting people to hear you a far cry from the find-a-rich-donor-and-talk-his-ear-off method. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “it’s the issue stupid.” SEO has to focus on the issue — make it loud and make it clear.

Whether you are a business or a non-profit, you need to ask any SEO professional or company some basic questions before you hire them.

  • Are there guarantees? As soon as you’re finished will my site rank on page one in Google?
    If they answer yes, move on to someone else. Seniority, content, search terms, backlinks, all take time to register and raise your page ranking. If your content isn’t good enough, you may never make page one, no matter what they tell you to do. But in time, you have a fair shot.
  • What are the steps to increase my site’s search results?
    Somewhere in the answer should be to examine the site structure: page titles, errors or issues, etc. And then they should say something about analyzing content and backlinks. That’s basic. The rest is icing on the cake.
  • Google is never sleeping. How can you actually know what you’re doing if the algorithms are a moving target?
    There are two parts to the answer you are looking for here: Firstly, study. The SEO professional should be hooked into the SEO notifications coming out all the time. Secondly, testing. Changing SEO means that testing should be going on all the time — and not on your live site.
  • I’m a quick learner, can I do SEO research on my own? What tools should I use?
    Any skirting of this question is a red flag. There are many free tools that you can use and any SEO professional should know them. The confident professional’s arsenal is being able to provide the right advise once the research is in. I know I’m shooting myself in the foot here, but for non-profits, I would strongly recommend self-help — it’s cheaper and no less effective. Maybe just pay a consultant to get you started. But SEO is not rocket science (we need a better metaphor, rocket science isn’t that difficult these days).

And those tools? Start here:
Google Trends

SEO is constantly changing, and only the best SEO professionals will be keeping up with the changes. There will also be a lot of hit and miss and what worked yesterday, won’t work tomorrow. Google already tries to look at quality, which is both subjective and very difficult to quantify for SEO.

And did I mention the Semantic Web?