When I am consulted on search engine optimisation (SEO) for a startup or a small business, the first question I need answered may surprise you. I don’t want to know what search phrase you want to perform well for. I don’t want to know how much traffic you want to generate. I’m not yet interested in what state your existing website is in, how large it is or how hard the project will be. All I want to know is this: why?
Why do you want to undertake this SEO? It’s going to cost you money, and money is a scarce resource, so what reason do you have for choosing to pick the phone up and get a quote for some SEO? The reason I want to know is because the answer will shape everything that follows. And the answer often prompts me to advise the customer that they’ve picked the wrong solution to the problem they have.
You see everything begins with a problem that needs to be solved. In the case of most SEO projects the problem is that the business wants more customers, and so someone has decided that the solution is to undertake some SEO and therefore — hopefully — skyrocket straight to the top of Google for a high competition search phrase, bringing in hundreds or thousands of new customers who eagerly buy all that the company has to offer.
But if it were that simple, everybody would be doing it. Right?
Getting more customers with SEO
So let’s return to the original problem: you want more customers. How can we get more customers? Well there are actually a lot of potential options, not just SEO. Let’s talk a little about Google AdWords, Google’s pay-per-click advertising programme. But first consider taking a small sum of cash, say £500, and investing it into a modest SEO programme.
That £500 isn’t going to buy you a massive SEO campaign. There is a lot that can be done for £500, but we’re talking in the region of 1-2 days worth of work, not months of solid work, and there’s only so much that can be achieved in the SEO world in 1-2 days. And when will you see the results of the work? Probably not for a few months at least.
Getting more customers with AdWords
But what about pay-per-click? This may in fact be a great option for driving traffic to your site as you can more easily target the phrases that matter to your business. There might be hundreds of websites selling garden gnomes, but you can rise above them simply by being willing to pay for your potential customers’ attention. It takes about 24 hours to get everything set up, so by this time tomorrow you could potentially be sniping customers from Garden Gnome Emporium and All Things Gnome, your competitors.
So let’s say you invest that £500 into AdWords instead of SEO. £500 can buy a substantial amount of traffic from AdWords when done right. How much? Well that depends on many factors, but suffice to say that for a small website £500 could potentially buy several months worth of quality traffic.
AdWords for new websites
For new websites the benefit is potentially even greater. Google uses over 200 factors to determine your website’s position in the search results. Of particular relevance:
138. Direct Traffic: It’s confirmed that Google uses data from Google Chrome to determine how many people visit [your] site (and how often). Sites with lots of direct traffic are likely higher quality sites vs. sites that get very little direct traffic. In fact, [one] SEMRush study … found a significant correlation between direct traffic and Google rankings.
139. Repeat Traffic: Sites with repeat visitors may get a Google ranking boost.
144. Dwell Time: Google pays very close attention to “dwell time”: how long people spend on your page when coming from a Google search. This is also sometimes referred to as “long clicks vs short clicks”. In short: Google measures how long Google searchers spend on your page. The longer time spent, the better.
From this it is clear that a website with no traffic is missing out on three absolutely critical ranking factors. Without these three metrics Google cannot accurately make a judgement on your website and so you will be destined to sit at the bottom of the pile. But at the bottom of the pile you’re not going to be able to get any traffic in order to build your ranking factors.
In order for Google to rank your website you need traffic to the website. But without traffic to the website your SEO efforts are worthless. Welcome to catch-22!
That’s where pay-per-click advertising saves the day. You can use this to kick-start your website’s SEO. A few months of advertising may be all you need in order to get the traffic onto your website to allow your SEO to start performing.
Should I not be doing SEO?
Whoah hold on there! I’m not suggesting you should never do SEO. But I do want to stress that SEO isn’t always the answer. It’s certainly not a silver bullet. Some good reasons to do SEO include:
- When your site has never been optimised.
- If your site hasn’t been optimised for a very long time (e.g. 2+ years).
- If you have a good reason to think that optimisation that was previously done has been lost, for example if your content has changed radically recently.
- When recent updates to the search engines mean your site is being left behind in some way, e.g. with the recent push to move the web to HTTPS.
- When you’ve got money left over in the marketing budget that you don’t know what to do with, or when the business is bringing in such obscene amounts of money that you’re desperate for ideas of what to do with the cash.
- As part of an ongoing digital marketing strategy.
But the real kicker is that SEO is bigger than the actual optimisation on your website. It’s also about content generation: you need to be regularly working on your blog and your site’s primary content to keep the site fresh. On-page optimisation can only help to promote the content that’s there. Promoting stale or poor content is a fool’s game.
Converting and retaining customers
One final thought I want to share is that it’s also not sufficient to just put people in front of your website. You could put me in front of a MacDonald’s every single day for a year and I wouldn’t buy anything from them because they don’t offer anything I want to eat. But convince MacDonald’s to create a reasonably priced meal that aligns with my personal dietary requirements and I’ll happily give them a try.
So clearly it’s not enough to just drive the traffic to the website, you need to ensure that you are also offering the services your visitors are looking for. That means ensuring that you are targeting the right people with your SEO and digital advertising campaigns, and that once they reach your site it makes it easy for those people to find the information that answers their questions and convinces them that your company is the right fit for them.
If a potential customer reaches your website, after searching “garden gnome for sale”, but cannot actually find any gnomes to buy on your website then they will leave. This is what we call website optimisation and is a topic for a different blog, but you can get the gist from this example and it’s a crucial point for you to consider.
So what have we learnt?
- Don’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that SEO is the answer to getting more customers.
- Put yourself in your customers’ shoes as you use your own website. Would you want to buy from your company, if you knew nothing about it other than what you can see on the site? Would you be able to easily navigate through the site and make a purchase or make an enquiry?
- Consider whether the money you were going to spend on SEO might better be served in a digital marketing campaign to drive traffic to your site.
- Ensure you are regularly updating your primary content and creating new content — even if time is an issue!
- Make SEO a part of your digital marketing strategy, not the whole of your digital marketing strategy.