Every business that wants to generate more new customers through its website covets one thing: The golden chalice of being at the very top of Google’s search results. It is often said, in the world of marketing, that if you can dominate search you can dominate a market. This is the power of being found first and you should make it your goal.
Before I begin, there are various search engines but the two most popular are Google and Bing (owned by Microsoft). I am focusing on Google as it has over 90% of the search market but you should also keep your eyes on Bing as it is gaining share and presents some unique opportunities for ranking.
You don’t have to buy your way to the top, and even that’s dangerous.
Just as in life, there are two ways to get to the top: you pay for it or you work for it. The paid route is called Sponsored Search, which is a form of Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising. A word of warning before you spend a dime on it: 9 in 10 companies I meet have wasted money on this and regret doing it.
I am frequently staggered by the level of waste I see and I would discourage any company from trying to do it themselves. Google’s Sponsored Search platform is designed to look easy when, in fact, it isn’t. It is particularly well designed to burn through your money. These platforms all require a solid level of expertise to generate a good return and I would never recommend them for clients unless they have pockets at least £500 per month deep. If you cannot afford to spend this at least, and to use an expert, you are very likely better off putting the money you have into something else. It is common for companies spending less than this, especially if they are doing it themselves, to see not one single enquiry.
A cautionary tale: In the last month, my company took over a client’s Sponsored Search campaign and we found it had wasted almost £20,000 over a 24-month period. This was down to one, major oversight: They were paying to rank first for their own name, which was already ranking first in the unpaid (organic) search results, directly underneath it. Nobody spotted it for two years. The other common way I see companies waste money is through poor targeting: Paying top dollar per click (I have seen it as high as £10 per click) because they have not optimised their campaign properly and are paying for search terms that they do not realise have nothing to do with what they offer.
It is that easy to get it wrong with Sponsored Search, and even when you get it right it can be expensive to rank first, so avoid it unless you have a decent budget and can call on the right expertise.
What is Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and why is it so valuable?
SEO is a methodology for improving the way the pages that make up your website appear in Google’s search results when someone is actively looking (searching online) for what you do. Here is the really good news: Most companies do little to nothing in the way of optimisation as they have no understanding or appreciation for the value of it; they are largely ignorant to it. The same rule likely applies to your competitors and therein lies the opportunity for you to outrank them.
When I speak to a new client about SEO, the first thing we do is to produce a benchmarking report for them (we often do this free of charge so, if this interests you, please get in touch with me on the details below). We do this in order to get a view of the search landscape and see how they rank for the most popular search terms in their industry versus their direct competitors. It is very common for us to see that everyone is doing a poor job and that there are plenty of big opportunities being overlooked. In this instance, we can typically improve rankings, to be better than the competition, within as little as 1-2 months. Yes, that fast! It used to be the case that optimisation work would need many weeks to take effect as we had to wait for Google’s indexing system to catch up with the changes. Nowadays, we have tools that can force Google to re-index pages and improve their ranking positions within a matter of hours.
Done right, you can see the benefits of SEO very quickly.
The fundamentals of how it works (but the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper).
I must start by stressing to you that there are no shortcuts to decent SEO and it a hugely complex and ever-changing area of expertise. It typically takes a year to understand the fundamentals and we have to keep our finger on the pulse every single day. This is because Google updates the way it indexes pages (its core algorithms) as many as a dozen times per year. The landscape is always changing and it is our job, as the experts, to try and stay as close behind that curve as we can because it is virtually impossible to be ahead of it. The best work is done manually by those who know what they are doing and who have their own proven methods – it is not done by novices or offshore companies that charge $50 per month. Knowledge is power in SEO and current, expert knowledge costs money.
There are three main areas to SEO: 1) On-page content, 2) “Under-the-bonnet” code and schema and 3) Off-page content, citations and backlinks.
Broadly, the first one is changing and adding content that people can see on the site. The second is what people cannot see; fixing issues within the HTML itself and problems that may be preventing pages from indexing well, often at all. The last is influencing the references to your website from other websites; this helps Google to validate and attribute trust and relevance scores what you are saying on your own site.
What good SEO costs – you get what you pay for.
At the bottom end of the spectrum you can do the basics and pay nothing for it. If your website is built on WordPress, which most are, you can simply add a plugin such as Yoast that will automate some core principles to fix the most obvious problems with it. Most website hosting companies also provide functionality through your Control Panel/cPanel to implement similar automations. If used properly, this will do about 10-20% of what can be done and that may be just enough to get you ahead of your competitors. However, remember that you and your competitors are all trying to outrun a lion. Your goal is not to run faster than the lion, it is to run faster than your competitors! My point here is that installing a plugin like Yoast is incredibly easy, so assume your competitors have done it too. If you are all running at the same pace then you are all equally in danger, so it probably will not be enough to rank highest. You need to do more – don’t be the one getting eaten.
The next option, and you will have seen countless spam emails promoting it, is “cheap SEO”. You may be shocked and surprised to know that lots of agencies who offer SEO services do not have a clue how to do it and they white-label services from offshore companies such as these. Avoid this like the plague – it is cheap for a reason and you have to ask yourself how much time and value you are actually getting for circa £100 per month once everyone has been paid. We are NOT one of these companies and have a dedicated team that looks after our clients month after month.
TFA, my agency, sits in the mid-ground. We offer packages to suit client needs and budgets that start from £395 per month. We have no need to tie clients into lengthy contracts (many want you signing up for 12 months) because we know the price is good for the results we deliver and that is why our retention rate is 96%; we lead on results. If you are spending between £300-£500 per month then you should be getting a good service and good value for money.
At the top end, agencies will charge you upwards of £1,500 per month. Knowing the industry, I am of the opinion that companies spending this amount of money are generally not getting any extra value over spending a third of this with my company. I do caveat that by saying that, of course and as in all industries, there are some incredible companies out there and they charge what they do based on their success; they are for bigger companies who can afford it and want the very best. Do you want prosecco or champagne?
That’s all for this month. Next month I will get into some of the core principles that you can apply yourself and see better ranking within days, guaranteed.