How you will know if it’s real SEO

For the majority of small businesses, and most mid-size businesses, an effective SEO program is not cheap to develop. Here’s why.

Nearly every day there’s a query on one of writers’ lists I follow asking for the name of someone who can “do” search engine optimization (SEO) for websites. It’s apparent that the person thinks that “doing SEO” involves producing a list of keywords so the web producer can stick the keywords on the client’s website.

Soon thereafter, I hear that the writers and producers were rather miffed when the better SEO practitioners quoted them a stiff price. C’mon, how expensive can a list of keywords be?

Admittedly, there are a number of small business websites for which a fairly simple list of keywords will suffice. (I’ll be talking about this in a small-business SEO seminar I’m developing.)

But for the majority of small businesses, and most mid-size businesses, an effective SEO program is not cheap to develop. Here’s why:

  1. You’ve got to start with good data analyses. You need data analyses of not just the client’s site, but the competitors’ sites as well. Knowing what keyword searches are taking customers to competing websites is crucial to deciding what keywords to put on your own site.
  2. You need an expert to recommend how to use the keywords on your site. Some sites need keyworded blog posts, while others merely need keyword-rich content. Others (based on their names and their industries) can’t be helped much by keyworded site elements. These folks will  need to buckle down and buy some Google ads. A good SEO practitioner can provide valuable guidance on creating and testing a Google ad campaign.
  3. You need to set up a web analytics program  — before any SEO work is done. It’s critical that you know the baseline of your site’s web traffic. That way, after you fix the site, or buy ads, you can immediately see and quantify the differences, and measure the effectiveness of the SEO program.

There are a wide variety of SEO firms out there, some good, and some bad. How do you find the right one?

  • Go into it with a budget. You’ll drive away the better SEO folks by expecting their solutions to be cheap.
  • Start by asking: Can my business be helped by SEO, and, if so, how much? Listen carefully to the answers. Some businesses can get enormous benefits from SEO; for others, SEO is nowhere near as cost-effective as improvements to print advertising, signage, word of mouth, product quality, or customer service.
  • Be wary of one-size-fits-all SEO solutions. An SEO solution needs to be customized to match your business needs and your capacity and willingness to spend resources on a social media or SEO program.
  • Don’t be intimidated by SEO practitioners who say their analyses and strategies are too complex for you to understand. If they can’t explain SEO to a client, they have competitors who can.

A few words about testimonials

If you come across a detailed, comprehensive testimonial — for an individual or for a company — you can pretty much be assured that it’s well deserved.

To get a good reputation, you need to do more than just please clients and colleagues. You need to get them to talk to others about how pleased they are.

And, to get a really great reputation, you need to focus their talk — make sure it’s falling on the right ears. Telling other people what you want them to say about you, and to whom? Is this getting complicated? It sure is.

Starting small: Linkedin recommendations

If you use Linkedin, you’ve probably gotten a request from someone to write a recommendation that will appear under on the person’s profile page. How did this strike you? Was it something you wanted to do? Was it easy to do? Did you feel comfortable doing it?

I ask these questions because I struggle with recommendations — and writing them should be easy for me:

• I’m a sole proprietor, so I don’t have to ask my boss if it’s OK to gush about another company.

• I’m a professional writer, and it’s relatively simple for me get out some words of praise, be they glowing or merely reserved.

And yet, I struggle with these testimonials. Am I writing what the person wants me to say? Am I writing what their prospective clients would want to hear? (And are those two things even aligned in the requestor’s mind?)

The Big Time: corporate client testimonials

I bring up these issues because I’m often asked to help craft endorsements and testimonials about companies from their clients.

If doing a two-paragraph recommendation for a former colleague on Linkedin has its challenges, the issues with corporate client testimonials can be massive.

Does this customer-service policy make me look fat?

Typically, a company sales staff would love a client organization to write a testimonial that hits on each one of its strategic sales points. Let’s say that for Company A, those are

• trendy design

• rapid delivery

• customization of the product (on large orders)

• local service contractors for rapid repairs

The problem is that few customers are involved with all four sales points. The company that loved your trendy design and quick delivery has never called you for repairs. The company that loved your customization and needed a quick repair had no need for rapid delivery and barely noticed your product design.

It may also be that the customer who loved the design and delivery was disappointed when the repair work was bungled.

And yet, the expectation is that the client somehow sees you exactly as you see your (idealized) self.

Talk is cheap; hard data requires senior management

The sales force’s “dream” testimonial is filled with numbers that substantiate the customer’s high opinions of your work and quantify the difference your product or service made in their operations: With your service contract, they experienced 50% less downtime than they had while getting service from your competitor. As a result of your product’s trendy design, they doubled their sales to 20-somethings and high-spending homeowners.

Ah, but the problem is that the store manager or buyer for your customer’s organization has no authority to reveal that business-sensitive data. They know that the CEO or CFO of their company would need to sign off on it — and might well decline to make that sort of business data public. All they are authorized to give you are kind words and soft generalizations: They love your great customer service, and 20-somethings like your nice designs.

The CEO or a VP of Company A could, of course, ask his or her counterpart at Company B to make the endorsement. But, in practice, that sort of “ask” is rarely on a CEO’s or VP’s radar.

The good news

I’m not leaving you with much good news if you’re in the business of soliciting or writing client testimonials, but there is a silver lining for those of you who read them: If you come across a detailed, comprehensive testimonial — for an individual or for a company — you can pretty much be assured that it’s well deserved.

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