Internet Myths 101 (written June, 2012)

All the talk about Search Engine Optimization and the seemingly endless number of firms offering its services has led to a belief that SEO is a (if not the) magic bullet for success for any website. Due to the fact that the algorithms used by the search engines remain a necessary, closely guarded secret, a number of misconceptions and needless complications have arisen about SEO. However the misconceptions can easily be dispelled and a simpler, more effective approach achieved.

Myth #1 – Rankings are #1. Being on top is great, but at what cost? Is it worth spending thousands of dollars to get the top ranking for the wrong word? The fundamental rules of marketing: reaching the right user with the right message still apply. Duff Beer would never advertise in Teen Magazine so it shouldn’t try to have the top ranking for the “Duff” keyword if the bulk of the traffic is looking for Hillary Duff (which was the 6th most searched term in 2004 and the first 5 sites returned on the keyword “Duff” all related to Hillary Duff on Google).

Myth #2 – All search, all the time – some engines are better than others. In fact 4 engines dominate. According to Nielson/NetRatings, 87% of all search activity occurs on 4 sites – Google, MSN, Yahoo and AOL. All other search engines make up the rest. While every lead has value, it is worth the time (and money) to calculate what that value is before spending search optimization dollars on the wrong sites.

Myth #3 – All you need is search – some SEO firms recommend that a site be designed and developed for search results instead of for users – changing navigation and page content to better suit search algorithms rather than actual customers. Search however is still only a part of a company’s overall on line efforts. And while it might be true that 70% of new users to a site come through a search engine, most businesses continually see about half of their monthly traffic come from other sources beside search. While many other sources have strong brand names, data suggests that they are effectively converting users to returning customers through proper site design, appropriate functionality, culminating in a strong user experience. Search might get users through the door, but you need something to make it worth the visit and to keep them coming back.

Myth #4 – You need more Meta – many SEO firms focus on Meta tags and description, which can be a costly, labor intensive undertaking, requiring constant changes and adjustments. It’s also a waste of time. Few major search engines utilize Meta data in their current algorithms and it is actually unclear if this data influences rankings at all. Search Engine Watch indicates that they haven’t changed their Meta data in years and have seen no impact on their own rankings.

Myth #5 – Free is better – Always good in theory but it’s also good to remember that you usually get what you pay for. Paid search has become an effective marketing tool for many companies for a number of reasons. It is an important part of most search engines’ business models – it has to be effective in order to attract additional advertisers (according to Jupiter Research, $1.6 billion was spent or paid search in 2003, accounting for 25% of total online advertising (up from 10% the previous year); companies have greater control over their effectiveness; and users are provided with relevant results. While unpaid search might drive more traffic, businesses have seen better quality clicks with paid search with higher conversation rates as well. Research has shown that paid search has an average conversation rate of 3.5% compared to 0.75% for unpaid (“natural”) search. That’s big!

Myth #6 – The more, the merrier-The reality is that not all traffic is created equal. You need to make sure that you have selected the correct search keywords, mapped them to the relevant pages on the site, and that they meet well defined business objectives. Ultimately, the proof is in the results.

So how do you avoid the misconceptions and implement a simple yet effective SEO initiative? The critical step is to know what users are doing and how (if) they are meeting your business objectives. Measuring behavior from the search terms (both paid and unpaid) through the transaction is the key to making SEO more effective.

So now you know about SEO. You know how it should work. Before undertaking any SEO initiative, a company should understand what the impact is going to be on its site. You should have a good understanding of your current paid and unpaid search results (through measurement), how search fits into the company’s overall business objectives, the business goals for the website, what its cost/lead and cost/transaction targets are and other well defined success metrics. This will go a long way to avoiding the myths of a magical (and usually needlessly expensive) search solution to your website needs.

The author of this article is Larry Costello, President of All-American Print & Mail, 2200 Wilson Blvd #102-57, Arlington, VA 22201.