Paying to Play in SEO

The Bad SEO  Rep Thing

SEO as an industry has for a long time now suffered with a terrible rep. The web is littered with case after case of burnt individuals recounting stories of being mislead at best and defrauded at worst – An examination of a lot of these tales will often reveal a well trodden path of company promised one thing whilst delivering another, usually in the form of not very much at all, or in extreme cases a nice page 6 ranking penalty from the Google monster.

Top 10 is it then Len?

I think it’s interesting that this happens, despite the wealth of info out there.  Google even publishes a guide to SEO, which for the DIY brigade, is a good little reference point. Yet the reality is that whatever way you dice it, there’s only ever really 10 organic spots to be had and unless you’re above the fold, you might as well not be there.

Sure, there’s Local,  Universal and Social and all that blah blah blah but let’s face it, if you aren’t ranking at positions 1 to 5  in a clean non obfuscated SERP then…need I state the obvious?

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Now of course, there are many reputable SEO practitioners and agencies out there – damn good ones in fact, who when asked to deliver come up with the goods or are honest enough to be clear and transparent setting realistic expectations and deliverables.  The flipside is, that there are also a good number who are at best mediocre and at worst chuffing rubbish. No, I’m not going to name names, that would be silly and harmful to my bank balance, and to be completely truthful  I don’t really know any SEO Cocks other than the few who occassionly follow me on Twitter promising wealth beyond my wildest dreams.

I do think it’s worth touching upon how such people get to proliferate ( low barriers to entry, lots of disinformation, lack of a recognised point of Industry authority, uninformed buyers, greed, unrealistic expectations of product etc ).

Everybody Wants to Rule the World, especially Business People

People with businesses in a particular niche quite often want to rule their little worlds. The mindset of most business people is one of make money, be profitable, grow, expand. The internet of course, is one such vehicle that offers an apparenteasy road to riches; who amongst you never heard of someone making money online? How many blogs out there are full of accounts that showed company X  increasing its bottom line by a 1000% or more!?

So the ground is ripe for virtually every business person out there, be they large Corp or SME to naturally want to grab a slice of that pie. We marketers are not short of an idea or two and will happily provide them with the rationale to succeed – we’ll put together fancy presentations with projections and volumes and trends and numbers and pound note signs, yet how many of us are completely and utterly frank?

Sure, you’ll all say, not me guv, we offer utter transparency in all of our dealings and would never ever lead anyone up the garden path. Well, ok , so sure, no one in their right mind is going to publicly come out and say ” Yep, we delude prospects, it’s a good way of getting sales”   because…well, that would be very silly indeed.

I do get around though, and I do talk to people, and I do hear stories that make me think hmmn, yep, I get that and I understand why it happens.

People Need Their Jobs and Often Do As They Are Told

Example: sales person in company X needs to hit targets. Get’s assigned a vertical, let’s just say it’s the finance vertical. He or she has a long list of prospects, leads etc sourced from email lists, or conference events attended by marketing bods or directors looking to get a hook in this SEO thing and make their company money.

Sales guy calls a lead up, its in the ‘Loans’ vertical let’s call it “Freds Exorbitant Loan Company’, the dialogue might go a little like this.

Sales guy: Hi I hear you are interested in our SEO services

Loans guy: Yes, very much so, we want to rank for loans in Google

Sales guy: You do huh, I think we can help you with that, it is very competitive though and might take some time and a considerable investment

Loans guy: Sure, we understand that, but can you get us to page one for loans

Sales guy: Sales patter, sales patter, anything to get the sale…

And on it goes.

Buyer Beware Do Your Homework

The reality is, that to compete or rank in the loans vertical for a run of the mill small time loan broker/money lender is just not realistic. It’s an industry full of big time players running into the 100′s of  thousands  who throw millions daily at PPC and organic, employing teams of people working on their rankings day in day out. ‘Freds Exorbitant Loan Company’ is very unlikely to have a USP, he won’t be a money supermarket, or a big bank, or radical new way of lending or anything else other than a tuppence ha’penny lead selling robbing bastard, yet greedy sales guy will often tell him what he wants to hear.

Does sales guy say:

look mate, don’t bother with SEO, you aren’t going to rank for loans in month of happy Sundays, go spend your money on PPC unless that is, you want to invest a million quid in a radical idea that will create buzz in the marketplace and with TV and newspaper ads will help put you on the map’

If he does PPC he might, but that isn’t what Loans guy wants to hear. He wants to believe he can get there and in some cases he’ll be helped to solidify that idea in his mind. he isn’t told that there are only a max of maybe 6 positions worth having and that in the game of catchup he is very very far behind. No, he is told what he wants to hear because the guy wants to make the sale.

The Tip Of an Iceberg?

Ok, so I picked an extreme – but the principle holds true – the sales guy wants to convert, the marketing guy wants to believe that the SEO can deliver.

They both have a job to do. They all have someone somewhere who they need to bullshit. Marketing guy can’t really say to uninformed CEO of shitty offline company bringing nothing new to the party:

Boss, our product is shit we need to do it better, we aren’t Barclays Bank or Moneysupermarket

He should, but he’s often caught up in a wealth of other company politics that prevents him from doing so.

Sales guy conversely, might not really get what he does and won’t have the balls to say to his marketing director or CEO :

Boss, why the effers are we even attempting to service these SME’s who don’t have a hats hoot in hells chance of ranking for their desired keywords, we are just taking their money and deluding them”

I’d imagine that there are 1000′s of examples  like this, where companies/individuals have been lead to believe in one thing, whilst getting another. Net effect is disgruntlement, suspicion and another poke in the eye for the SEO industry.

Get realistic, get Transparent

Transparency is the answer. Yet in reality, it is  clearly a difficult path for some to tread in a global marketplace of others who will say anything to get the sale . Buyers need to get savvy and ask the probing questions. If the company says it can get them there, then get it to put its money where its mouth is. Offer revenue shares, allow the promoting company to share in what it delivers.  If the company believes in what it is saying, then it shouldn’t really baulk at the idea, if it does then…time to look at a different pricing model or just wake up to the fact that it might take a whole lot longer than any 12 month contract suggests.

Maybe the Industry needs to agree to a benchmark of standards that say – if you want to rank for X whilst being the size of Y and only established for Z then you haven’t got a chance in hell.

Yet to say so, would be to consign to defeat the very notion that is clearly alive and well on the web, the view that anyone with a good idea, who is fleet of foot, adaptive, entrepreneurial, adds value etc can succeed and win against the odds, and there’ll always be someone who believes in that.

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20 thoughts on “Paying to Play in SEO

  1. Dean Cruddace

    Rob I totally understand your viewpoint on this, but as a freelance SEO I rely solely on ME and for those sins I have to be brutally honest with myself before I ever go back to any prospect.

    If I offered the rosey apple and ended up giving them the shitty eaten core after 3 years of fighting to gain a top 5 slot in a competitive niche, firstly I would hang my head in shame then I I dare say I am not going to gain too many friends in the prospects industry and you know as well as I do that they talk to each other.

    Thankfully I concentrate on a small client base and deliver what I promise and if I can`t or won`t I let them down gently or at the very least pass them along to a larger firm who may be able to handle their goals (budget permitting).

    I love that all of my work is referred through word of mouth so I know I must be doing something right.

    Great post Rob and for those shite by night flyboys, its only a matter of time before we come after you.

  2. Terry Van Horne

    Rob, Well said mate! The hardest job is maintaining customer expectations. I try to set expectations realistically out of the blocks… that is before they’ve signed on the dotted line. If I don’t think they “get it” where expectations are concerned…. they don’t have enough money to hire me… life’s tooo short. In the end ya loose money on those client relationsships.

    1. robwatts Post author

      Hey T, good to see you on my humble blog sir! Indeedy – not worth the headache – some things cost a lot of money to do well. No one wants to work on a pile of shit, yet that’s exactly what some prospects are they have no automatic right to rank for what they desire and need to be told, it needs to be laid out clearly why and what others are doing in the space to succeed. I’m not convinced that this is happening everywhere…

  3. Bob Gladstein

    Sometimes, it’s not the SEO, but the client who makes promises they can’t keep. No matter how clear you are about setting expectations, it doesn’t sink in. You tell the prospect what they should expect, they tell you they understand and agree, and then you find out that they’re still living in fantasy land.

    I’m dealing with a guy right now who started asking me why he’s not at the top of the SERPs yet before I’d made a change to a single page of his site. He seemed sensible enough during the sales process.

    1. robwatts Post author

      lol! Hi Bob, good to see you – I get that – I worked w/ someone once upon a time who had an awful web dev company. When their rankings tanked, they found it easier to blame us, rather than face up to the fact that they’d hired a stinker of a web dev company who charged them 10k to implement a htaccess driven set of redirects that they’d failed to do properly. The job would be gr8, if it weren’t for the clients ;)

  4. Joanna

    Awesome rant. Glad you finally got it off your chest.

    It takes a brave SEO to tell a client “look, your product is rubbish”. It’s even worse when they say “SEO is our last chance”. We can but try to show them how to find a USP. The great thing about being an SEO is you can’t help but learn a hell of a lot about marketing in general and finding niches – you learn that each time you do competitor analysis, even on a market you’ve never encountered before. Often, that’s when you find that your [potential] client may not have a hope. Who are we then to tell them not only we’re not going to work with them, but that their dreams of being top dog in that market (not just SERP) are just that, dreams. But we have to. Lesser of two evils and all that…

    The product has to be good; right time, right place, well researched, or we’re swimming upstream in sh1t cre3k. It needs to have SOME traction to generate buzz! As the SEO, that’s not going to make the work rewarding to do either. We may lose ££ when we lose that client, but we’ve gotta take that leap, for both our sakes…

    1. robwatts Post author

      Hi Joanna, thx for the comment – I think that so long as there’s a realistic assessment of verticals and accepted minimums and that those are communicated, then there’s transparency all round.

      The problem comes when maybe that process is fractured across depts and the lines become blurred. There’s a direct conflict of interest between the person trying to get the sale ( and not doing the work) and the person doing the work. It’s in the SEO’s interest that he or she is working with both sets of legs. Hopping around with one arm tied behind one’s back trying to compete with that 800lb Gorilla is…futile? The prospect meanwhile is blissfully unaware as the sales person will be doing their utmost to instill confidence in getting that all important signature. :)

      Don’t get me wrong, i’m all for realism. If there are gaps, then talk about them and make the most of them, help the client/prospect succeed using all the tools in the box – I just think to talk in those terms whilst fairer, is at the same time potentially less profitable for the doers and might leave the prospect feeling a little deflated.

      For sure, it’s an education thing too – the whole holistic approach and examination of what they are doing and how those gaps can be closed, but that’s long term and probably not what most prospects turn up at the door for in the first place!

  5. Adam Chronister

    Setting client expectations is key. Then reiterating them over and over. I also feel that the more I can get a client involved in the SEO process the more they take ownership or at least some responsibility for the campaign.

    1. robwatts Post author

      Hi Aaron, good to see you here – Absolutely, the best campaigns are often those that have complete and utter buy in from the client.

  6. John Pickering

    Rob – Can you get me a top five position for ‘Printer Cartridges’ or ‘Ink’?
    I’ve got a budget of <£250/mth
    I realise that the likes of PC World, Dixons, Staples, Comet and specialist electronic office supply companies like Viking Direct, Lyreco and Euroffice will all provide stiff competition….
    But, surely you have got the ideas, cunning and team of expert link builders to provide results that will amaze me?
    ##########
    I'm only joking, I mean come on….. these companies will have their own in house team of people working on getting them SE exposure.
    I'm working with me and a part time packer from a small starter unit, about the size of a garage.
    As time goes on, I only see SEO getting harder and harder as the big lumbering multi-million turnover monoliths gradually wake up to gaining income from this stream.
    The only place for minnows like me is to feed off the longer tail opportunities, go to places where the big agencies won't bother with, or even know exist.
    Great post – I used to work for a company filled with politics and confusion, where you couldn't really mention the truths, like selling someone a polished turd is never going to fix their problems or get them where they want to get.
    All the best, John

    1. robwatts Post author

      Hey John, gr8 comment, thx very much – I thi nk tere’s always a place for the small guy, but he has to work hard and think outside of the box. Being small offers all manner of pluses for fleet of footness, Many of the big boys are slow lumbering asses who have to have a billion meetings to sign off a blog post.

      One of the things I love about SEO and online in general is that it never sits still. There’s always a new opportunity to be had that is massively cheap in the scheme of things. Great new platforms like Twitter for instance enabled for all manner of new sharing methods and outreach. Mixed w/ a good bit of engagement and boom, lots of positive signals.

      ps. that 250 per month budget…I think you missed off a nought at least ;)

  7. Hugo the enterprise SEO guy

    Good stuff, Rob! Over the years I’ve been able to train my sales folks to not do what you’re describing here.

    It also helps that I get involved in the sales process early on. That helps me make sure that sales folks aren’t making claims that aren’t based in reality.

    1. robwatts Post author

      A good approach Hugo, if only everyone else who serves the needs of those looking to rank did similar! We’ll all be a whole lot more respected as an Industry too.

      We haven’t had a Traffic Power for some time, but there are most certainly lesser variants out there.

      What I am pleased about is that the community is pretty good at policing and outing scammers so on that front at least, we are getting there. Still a way to go mind!

  8. Paul

    Now, the first practice of SEO is search engine compatibility… A lot of sites hide behind “romulan cloaking devices” that make them invisible to search engines — anybody who knows the unwritten web standards can help improve a site in that respect, but beyond that…

    The trouble w/ SEO is that business people wish it was something they could tack on to an existing site or an existing business. If you’re going to think about it that way, it really has got to be “pay to play”… An auction, like the way that Adsense works. You’re going to have to spend A LOT of resources to rank for “loans” because everybody else is…

    And then you run into one of the classic problems of advertising: it’s so satisfying to hear the name of your business on the radio that not everybody thinks rationally about the ROI of their efforts… There’s always some guy who’s got too much money and not a lot of sense who can outbid competitors and drive prices too high.

    Now, if you want to make money at SEO you’ve really got to think like a search engineer in reverse: how can you make search results better? Now that’s a totally different perspective from how most people do business.

    1. robwatts Post author

      Hi Paul – nice comment, love the meander ;)

      Indeed, egos and desires and I know better than you. The world is full of thick CEO’s w/ more money than sense…

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