A Cautionary Tale

In 2006, what turned out to be the absolute peak year of the mortgage boom in the U.S., I decided to accept a job offer with a mortgage company. I was in Southern California at the time, kind of the epicenter of real estate in the U.S., and I knew guys making $80,000 a month…yes $80 grand a month.

For an enthusiastic, hard-working, and slightly naive 24-year old, that's a tough prospect to ignore.

I started at a company full of young misfits; these were guys that would be lucky to get a job at McDonalds. The guy starting on the same day I did thought it pertinent to share with me, on the first day, that he had just gotten out of prison – prison, not jail. Mortgage companies in SoCal at the time were literally hiring anyone. They were making so much money they didn't care. If you were confident and could handle rejection, you could work almost anywhere.

It was odd for sure, but I saw that $80,000 paycheck and thought, "what the hell!"

At first I didn't know anything about the mortgage biz; after about a month I realized this company was scamming people. The details are outside the scope of this post but feel free to ask me about it anytime.

No amount of money is worth that so I moved on. In early 2007 the mortgage industry collapsed completely and the majority of mortgage companies in SoCal, and probably across the U.S., went out of business.

I got a call about a year later from one of the guys I worked with at that first company. It turns out he was now in the SEO business. He had recruited several people from that other company and he was calling to recruit me as well.

Those same guys who were scamming 70-year old ladies out of their homes were now working in SEO.

SEO is a great business for these guys. Companies all over the country have realized they need, at least to some extent, SEO work. Many of these companies don't have a clue how SEO works or how much it should cost, but they've heard over and over that they should "start doing SEO."

Then one day they get a call from one of my old co-workers selling SEO for a couple hundred bucks a month and it's too good an offer to pass up.

They spend the money for 6 months or so, see no results, then hire another company for a couple hundred bucks a month. Rinse, repeat.

Finally, they realize maybe SEO is more complicated than they thought and they call someone like us. This is why somewhere around 80% of all non-referral clients come to us after working with another company. I've heard this story so many times I thought I'd write a blog post for anyone thinking of hiring one of these companies, just to give you a perspective on why you can't possibly expect to get much out of a $200/mo SEO budget, and why you could actually end up damaging your ability to rank in the future.

Before I get into it, you should know one thing that might save you a ton of time, money, and frustration…

You need to have realistic expectations

Half the companies I speak with that got burned could have avoided all that wasted time and money had they remembered one simple life lesson: If it's too good to be true then it probably is.

I spoke with someone recently who worked with another company prior to calling us. This company apparently told them their business would explode and they'd have to open a new office to house all their new employees. Sure, that sounds awesome, but come on guys! You're going to triple your business over the course of a 6-month SEO contract?

not-bloody-likely

Likewise, what do you expect to possibly get out of a couple hundred dollars per month in marketing? Let's look at the keyword, "plumber," for example. According to Google's keyword tool there are 880 searches per month for "plumber" in Cincinnati. If you ran a pay per click campaign on AdWords, Google estimates you might get 9-12 clicks a day at $10/click, for a total cost of $64-80 per day. That's just for that one keyword.

Now, let's assume you get the same number of clicks if you rank for the term "plumber" in Cincinnati. Presumably, that would be worth at least $64-80 per day, or roughly $2000+ per month.

From that perspective, does it really make sense that a company would essentially sell you something that is worth $2000 per month for a few hundred? If I could realize that kind of ROI I'd just hire a bunch of cheap SEO companies and move to Fiji.

What goes into SEO?

People generally think of SEO as just getting ranked in Google for a set of keywords. SEO is quite a bit more than that. I like the definition Rand Fishkin gave in this interview: SEO is "the practice of improving a website's technical structure, content, and marketing with the goal of attracting more and better quality traffic from search engines."

Of course, better rankings can improve the quantity and quality of traffic from the search engines, but it's far more complicated than that.

So, here's a very brief overview of the various tasks involved in SEO:

  1. On-site technical audit.
  2. Customer research.
  3. Keyword research and mapping.
  4. Content.
  5. Link / citation building and PR.
  6. Reporting.

Why low-cost providers can't do these effectively

There's probably nothing new in the list of SEO tasks above. Every SEO proposal, no matter how cheap, will likely include some version of those tasks. Let's examine each task to get a deeper look.

1. On-site technical audit.

When SEO companies say they review your website, update title tags, content, etc, those are all things that are generally included in a site audit. The problem with low-cost providers is two fold:

  1. They don't do a thorough audit. A thorough site audit on a small, simple website takes at least 10-15 hours. That time increases exponentially with site size and complexity. Why? Because there's no quick way to do it. You have to review every page on the site manually.Here's a checklist on the Moz blog of just some of the items covered in a site audit. And here's another list from Hubspot of completely different checklist items.Skim through those lists and imagine going through that for every page on the site. We can use automated tools to help with the process, but that 10-15 hours? That's with the help of automated tools. Automated tools are great for tasks like scanning the entire site to find broken links, or 301 redirects, but they won't tell you what those broken links should be changed to or if the 301 redirects are being used properly. Automated tools are great and they certainly help the process, but they won't do the job for you.
  2. They take shortcuts. If you're paying a company a few hundred dollars a month for SEO, it would take your entire contract term to cover the cost of a thorough site audit; and that's for a really simple website.So, obviously they have to take shortcuts. They don't do full site audits. They very briefly review meta tags and content on the site. In other words they do what they can within the budget, but it's not enough.A perfect example is the site audit we did for the Roofing Annex (case study here). They had a navigation issue on the site that wasn't immediately obvious. Even we didn't catch it at first, but it prevented Google from crawling most of the website. We found the issue because we noticed there weren't quite as many pages showing up in search results as we would expect. We dug into the code and found that some of the navigation menus were being served with JavaScript, which search engine bots mostly ignore. Google couldn't even see the navigation links and so it couldn't find those interior pages. That took a bit of digging to find, but that's a relatively obvious example.

    There are hundreds of potential problems that could cause you to not rank at all, or rank worse than you should. Case in point: we did a site audit for Paradrome Properties in Cincinnati and then implemented the recommendations. Their traffic more than doubled as a result.

2. Customer research

Andrew just published a post about how important it is to understand your customer when advertising online. That post was about pay per click advertising specifically, but it's just as important when it comes to SEO.

There are so many details that you need to understand about your target customer in order to maximize your online marketing spend. The good news is you probably don't have to pay millions for market research to be way ahead of your competition. Some basic research, surveying, and buyer personas can go a really, really long way.

Low cost SEO providers don't do this at all. Even if they did, they'd be terrible at it. Why? Because it's complicated. This is high-level strategy stuff. You think those old mortgage "colleagues" of mine know what it takes to understand a customer and turn that understanding into an actionable marketing gameplan? Not a chance.

And if you don't understand your customer, how can you possibly know what keywords to target? How can you possibly know what stage of the buying cycle someone is in based on the search query that led them to your website, or the content they're consuming on your site?

3. Keyword research and mapping

Every SEO company says they do keyword research. I've seen it done to such varying degrees; I've seen it consume 20 minutes, and I've seen it consume hundreds of hours. The difference between low cost keyword research and diligent keyword research can best be illustrated by this case study. But here's  an overview.

Low cost providers generally take a list of 10 or so major keywords, figure out, very quickly, which pages on your site most closely match each of those keywords, and update the meta tags and content accordingly. Not a very long process, and that can certainly provide some benefit. But it's missing an incredibly important aspect of keyword research: intent.

If you're a dentist in Cincinnati, a low cost provider might throw "Best Dentist in Cincinnati" in your meta title tag, make sure it appears a few times on the homepage, then build some crappy links to the page hoping it ranks for "Best Dentist in Cincinnati." But that's missing the intent behind that search.

If someone searches "best dentist in Cincinnati," they're most likely looking for a list of some of the top dentists in Cincinnati. Do a search for that term. What do you see at the top? The top 3 results are all directories like Yelp and Vitals.com, not actual dentists in Cincinnati. Why? Because they match the intent of that search much better than the dentists do.

If I were a dentist, I would create a page on my site called, "Best Dentists in Cincinnati." I would aggregate all the reviews from Google, Yelp, Vitals.com, etc, and then I would list all my competitors on that page. I'd make it sortable by rating with links directly to their reviews. Then I'd make sure I was listed at the very top and I'd do whatever it took to get better reviews than my competitors.

We've ranked pages at the top of the search engines with this strategy and it required absolutely no off-site work. What it did require was a thorough understanding of the intent behind each and every search query. It required that we understand that intent, create great content to feed that intent, and then promote that content. Low cost SEO providers don't do this; they wouldn't have the time or expertise to do it even if they wanted to.

Additionally, the low cost approach completely misses the more specific, longer keywords that make up 70% of all search traffic. That means if you're only optimizing for 10 major keywords you could end up missing out on 70% of potential traffic to your site.

Most search traffic comes from long tail keywords

4. Content

I sort of covered this in #3. The only thing I'll add is that over the past year, Google's changed the way it ranks web pages. Content is so incredibly important now. But not just any content. Like I explained above, you can't just pump out 10 blog posts a month; that completely misses the point of creating content. You have to understand what searchers are looking for and give them that. It takes thought, planning, research, expertise. All things you can't expect to happen for a couple hundred bucks a month.

5. Link / citation building and PR

Most low cost providers offer link building. The key difference is they do scalable link building. They have to right? I can't possibly charge a few hundred dollars a month and make any kind of profit if I'm using all kinds of advanced link building and PR strategies. So, they build links that are scalable. They leave blog comments, they write guest blog posts on low-medium quality sites, they build directory links or put links on their own internal blog network. Some even say they have relationships with a bunch of website owners where they can place links.

That's all great, but scalable link building is ineffective link building. Here's why: Google's purpose is to push highly relevant content to the top of the search results; content that's relevant to what the searcher is looking for. Google doesn't want you to game the system and they've gotten pretty damn good at making sure you don't. So, in general, if anyone can acquire a link, it's not worth much because it does nothing to distinguish you from every other site that has that link. It'll basically be ignored.

Low cost providers don't have time to spend 10 or 20 hours to acquire a single link, even though it might be worth it, so they build easily scalable links. You think you're getting something for your money and you might even see a small bit of movement, but by and large it's a waste of time.

Nearly all scalable link building strategies either no longer work or will soon leave you vulnerable to Google penalties.

6. Reporting

Reporting on metrics that matter is incredibly difficult. People have written books on how to create meaningful reports – this one's great by the way. Every project is going to be different. There will be different goals and hence different ways to measure progress toward those goals.

Most low cost SEO companies that I've encountered don't even set goals, much less measure progress toward those goals in any meaningful way.

Usually you just get a report of all the crappy links they built this month, or how many phone calls you got with no way to know where those phone calls actually came from. The idea of custom reporting based on the goals of your particular project would be completely out of the question.

Well rounded digital marketing

SEO is really becoming just a part of a well-rounded digital marketing plan that includes SEO, PPC, social media, on-site optimizations, content marketing, etc. Things like bounce rates can affect SEO now, so the lines are blurring and it's no longer enough to focus exclusively on one aspect of SEO, like link building. You need to have a well-rounded approach and keep the focus on the visitor at all times.

What does a low-cost SEO project look like

We've covered what low cost SEO won't get you. Let's take a look at a typical low cost SEO project. This is based on my own extensive research and evaluation of new and prospective clients who have worked with low cost providers in the past.

  1. Technical site audit – Like I said above. The low-cost approach to this usually consists of asking the client for a list of 10 keywords they want to rank for, then changing a few meta titles and the content on a few pages.
  2. Customer research – There is none. There's little to no focus on the customer. Has your low-cost SEO company ever asked you questions like, "Why do your customers buy from you?" or, "Have you ever surveyed your customers?" If not, good luck.
  3. Keyword research and mapping – This usually consists of 20 or 30 minute's research on major terms, with no attention given to searcher intent or long-tail keywords.
  4. Content – Even low-cost providers are blogging nowadays. Unfortunately, if you don't understand the customer, and you don't do thorough keyword research, you can't possibly write content that will get found by those prospects and speak to their needs, wishes, questions, whatever.
  5. Link / citation building and PR – I spoke to a white label provider that a lot of agencies outsource to recently. I asked how they build links. They said they have a network of websites that they own and contacts with websites where they can place links. This is pretty typical of low cost providers. It won't do much good at all, and could actually get you penalized.
  6. Reporting – Boilerplate reports that show overall traffic numbers without any segmentation, or rankings for some vaguely related collection of keywords. No strategy, no insight into what's actually going on.

But for $200/month, why not try it?

The next thing you might be wondering is, if it's only $200/month, why not give it a shot? If it doesn't work you're out a whole $1200 over 6 months. I'll give you 3 reasons:

  1. At the typical hourly rate SEO companies charge ($100 – 150 per hr – source), you'll get about 2 hours of work for that. At that rate, it would take 5-8 months just to do the site audit on a simple site. That's clearly not feasible. So it's either that or the company is willing to accept a significantly lower hourly rate than what is typical in the industry. I would seriously think about what possible reason there could be for that.
  2. You'll waste 6 months or a year. That's fine as long as you're okay with giving your competitors a 6-12 month head start.
  3. You may not even know what you're missing. You may actually end up ranking for a keyword or two, but because of the lack of transparency in reporting, and the general lack of knowledge and experience at low-cost SEO companies, it won't deliver the results you were hoping. I mentioned the company above that was told their business would explode. Those guys actually are ranking for one keyword related to their business, but it's not driving many leads at all. That's a very common, and fixable, problem with a reasonable budget. Other companies rank for a few keywords, get a few leads a month, and think that's all SEO is when, properly managed, they could be doing much, much better.
  4. Finally, if that wasn't enough to convince you, Google is now actively penalizing websites. They never did this in the past. All those companies that were taking shortcuts before now run the risk of not only delivering sub-par results, but actually having their clients penalized. They do it all the time.

So, the next time you get a call from someone offering "front page rankings" for $200 a month promising all kinds of amazing things, ask yourself, "Does this even make sense?" Then re-read this blog post ;-).