Organic search engine optimization (SEO) is an effective marketing strategy that provides marketing accountability. There are several reasons why organic links are so valuable. The reasons cited below come from industry research:
- Well-optimized sites enjoy sizable gains in unique visitors and conversions.
- Search users prefer organic listings to sponsored listings.
- Organic listings produce more conversions than other online strategies.
- Search engine listings provide branding.
- SEO provides an excellent return on investment (ROI).
Organic SEO's track record
Research and case studies document the effectiveness of organic SEO for increasing qualified traffic and sales. Here's just one example from SEMPO's case studies:
A pure SEO campaign for Wyndham Hotels' wedding services conducted by Proceed Interactive generated more than 3,000 wedding-related leads for the 20 resort properties listed on the site during the first year. This represents an average of 9.9 leads per day or approximately 290 leads per month, representing over $21 million in potential business. In March 2005, Wyndham booked approximately $182,000 in wedding services through these sites.
While SEO sounds like a must-have marketing strategy, many marketers seem to prefer paid search strategies.
Paid search rules
PPC (pay-per-click) text ad listings generate the bulk of search marketing revenues. Incredible as it sounds, Google gets 95 percent of its revenues from AdWords. SEMPO reports that PPC accounted for 82 percent of search engine marketing revenues in 2004, while SEO got a paltry 12 percent share.
Yet organic listings are valuable and longer lasting. They provide branding and produce an excellent ROI. So why is SEO lagging so far behind? Many decision makers are either uninformed or misinformed and need to be educated. Some think it's a black art, which it certainly is not if search engine guidelines are closely followed.
What obstacles must SEO overcome?
In Danny Sullivan's "Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense of SEO," he describes the difference between "content-SEO and other flavors." Basically, he's talking about white-hat and black-hat SEO techniques. Below are a number of obstacles that may hamper organic SEO from ramping up in the revenue stream:
- Abuse of SEO techniques that damage relevancy.
- Proliferation of black-hat SEO techniques that result in penalty or removal from search engine databases.
- Auto-submission software that over-submits when misused.
- Unscrupulous vendors that over-promise and fail to perform.
- The website design best-practices disparity between web designers and web-standards advocates versus SEO practitioners.
- The long wait for organic SEO to show results.
Abuse of SEO techniques
An excellent SEO technique, if used properly, is the use of ALT tags to describe images. ALT tags should contain a brief text description of the image, which will appear upon mouse over. This text is also read aloud by voice-activated screen readers for low-vision users. Search engine spiders will pick up relevant keywords in ALT tags. However, this has been abused by some SEOs who put countless keyword repetitions in ALT tags without relevance to the image. The spider doesn't know the text isn't relevant to the graphic and simply thinks this is keyword-rich material. It's a dirty trick and can be very frustrating for disabled people who depend on ALT tags to accurately describe website images.
Black-hat techniques give SEO a bad name
The controversy between white-hat and black-hat SEO techniques has existed since the inception of SEO. Basically, the white-hats use optimization techniques recommended in the Webmaster Guidelines from the major search engines. The black-hats disregard some of these guidelines to get higher rankings. Disregarding the guidelines can result in penalties (lower rankings) or complete removal from the search engine's database.
Google's Webmaster Guidelines warn against:
- Hidden text or hidden links
- Cloaking or sneaky redirects
- Automated queries to Google
- Pages loaded with irrelevant words
- Multiple pages, sub-domains, or domains with substantially duplicate content
- Doorway pages created just for search engines
The dangers of auto-submission software
Google's guidelines specifically state, "Google does not recommend the use of products such as WebPosition Gold that send automatic or programmatic queries to Google." That's because these programs consume computing resources, and Google claims they violate their terms of service.
Auto-submission software was accepted in the early days due to the relatively small size of the internet (approximately 20 to 40 million public documents). Currently, with more than eight billion public documents indexed in Google, and given that search listings are a huge source of revenue for search engines, there is scant possibility for submission software to be effective. Submission services won't improve your search engine listings and can inadvertently lead to search engine spamming through over-submission, resulting in removal from the engine's database.
Shady SEO vendors
Ever get an unsolicited email offering to submit your site to 1,500 search engines? Our industry, and the internet in general, is vulnerable to unrealistic marketing schemes promising fantastic opportunities, quick results and bargain prices. These schemes have persuaded thousands of site owners to invest in products that claim to build traffic but fail to deliver. SEO is a worthy objective, but consumers are vulnerable to the hundreds and thousands of disingenuous internet vendors claiming to be credible, with no ability or intention of fulfilling their promises.
Disparity between designers and SEOs on site design
Designers know the importance of building a site that will attract search engine traffic, but not all are proficient in search engine optimization techniques. By the same token, SEOs normally aren't trained in website usability.
You need a well-designed site for consumer usability and accessibility, as well as one that's properly optimized for search engine visibility. To quote designer and SEO expert Shari Thurow, "Usability and search friendliness go hand in hand."
Maybe it's a right-brain, left-brain thing. Designers are focused on aesthetics and technology, delegating content tasks to writers. Some designers give secondary importance to the site text, with the attitude that it's just an insertion into the design. Online writing gurus like Nick Usborne believe, "…the purpose of the design is to support and showcase the text." One solution would be for more designers to hire SEO copywriters to create their content.
Looking at it the other way around, the SEOs are focused on keyword-rich text, Meta Tags, inbound links and search-engine-friendly site architecture. That's because they know what search engines are looking for in text, links and HTML code when indexing and ranking web pages.
Some of the cool stuff designers use, like Flash, heavy graphics, frames and dynamic content, are detrimental for indexing. There are special treatments for dynamic sites, but some of these design techniques should be avoided.
Bridging the gap between designers and SEOs
Education, training and mutual understanding are the key. Search engines read pages in ways designers might not expect. They're focused on text, code and links. Design and esthetics don't matter when spiders crawl websites. However, design and persuasive copy are imperative for converting prospects and customers. That's why you have to design a website for both customers and search engines.
The goal is to design a site that is both spider-friendly and user-friendly. If the designer doesn't know how to make it spider-friendly, he or she needs to consult with an SEO expert at the get-go. It's always easier and less costly to incorporate SEO principles into the design before rather than after.
The long wait
Improving your organic search engine rankings can be a slow process. That's because of the way search engines work. The crawler-based engines have three parts: the spider, the index and the algorithmic software.
- The spider visits web pages to read text and follow links within your site. It comes back on a regular basis (monthly or bi-monthly) to pick up changes.
- The index holds the documents found by the spider in a database. Copies of spidered pages are kept here, and the database is updated when the spider brings in new or revised pages. This process takes time, causing a delay between indexing and updating the database.
- The algorithmic software is unique to each search engine. It evaluates billions of pages in the index, sorting them according to relevancy, in answer to keyword search queries. Most algorithms are based on text, code, architecture and inbound links.
So while it can take months before your organic links appear, or show improvement, in search engine results pages, your paid search listings appear immediately.
Paid search versus organic SEO
The cost-per-click fees for paid search have been rising significantly over the past few years. Some experts think the industry is nearing maturity and that price increases won't be sustainable in coming years. Paid search popularity, however, remains strong.
While it's wise to utilize both PPC and organic SEO techniques, the powerful benefits of SEO should not be minimized. The durability of your organic SEO investment goes a long way in elevating your brand to a premier position in the major search engines -- because organic links are valued by the majority of users and account for the majority of offline conversions.
Getting into the top 10 organic listings may be a slower process, but ultimately it can be worth more than perching at top of the sponsored listings.
Paul J. Bruemmer is president of trademarkSEO, a search engine optimization firm serving clients nationwide. Bruemmer specializes in organic search engine optimization, competitor intelligence reports, web analytics and SEO consulting. He has provided search engine marketing expertise and consulting services to over 10,000 websites, including many of the most prominent names in American business. His articles have published at ClickZ, MarketingProfs, Search Engine Guide, Pandia, WebProNews, SitePoint and ISEDB.