Selling the tangled web of SEO

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There has been a lot of buzz this week about search engine optimization. Worth its salt? A scam? An art? A science? Phooey? I thought the days of such debate were over. Then just yesterday, I overheard this conversation.

"But I want to know exactly how the algorithm works before I give you one penny," insisted the client.

"Um, that's sort of why Google makes billions," replied the sales rep.

My, being part of the early days of a medium can certainly be fun. Nothing like having to explain the mechanics of the underbelly before you even can discuss the rewards.

I wonder if the same was true at the advent of television advertising, when Bulova first coughed up $9 for a 10-second spot during a 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Maybe the conversation went something like this:

"I won't buy your newfangled moving picture advertising until you tell me exactly how this television set thing works," said the client.

"You see, sir, the cathode ray tube is an electronic vacuum tube employing a focused beam of electrons," the sales rep replied. "As electrons are negative and the anode is positive, the latter attracts the former as they come off the cathode, resulting in a beam. This beam flies through the vacuum in the tube and hits the flat screen at the other end of the tube. This screen is coated with phosphor, which glows when struck by the beam."

Sounds a bit silly, doesn't it? So how exactly did we create such a tangled Web when selling SEO? And is there a way out?

For starters, Google's early remarks that all search engine optimization is a sham did not help the industry. Over the past few years, the engine has been much more flexible in accepting that not all sites are built according to the engines' criteria, and has invested in building Webmaster relations.

Now that we have passed that mark, the focus is really on the SEO camp. Unfortunately, we as an industry are not so good at packaging our services for the chief marketing officer set. Even the most sophisticated search firm tends to drive the conversation toward tactics and not overarching business strategy.

I usually advocate grouping search engine optimization activities into a) bridging any obstacles to a search engine spider b) making sure the spider can read content that is dense enough for the topics consumers are searching for and c) there is a positive linking structure. If you need to take the conversation deeper with the tech folks, by all means do so. Just don't get mired down in the early stages.

Assuming that we have sold through the concept that search engine optimization has value, that there are major steps and lots of tedious details that the outsourced search firm will attend to, the final sticking point is usually fee structure and sticker price.

Like all marketing, search engine marketing is scalable: There are $10,000 solutions and $1 million solutions. Most firms present a project-based fee and spread the cost over 12 months.

While this is great for cash flow, few will disagree that the majority of optimization work is executed upfront, prompting the question, "What exactly do I get for $25,000 a month?"

Herein lies the shift that must occur in our industry.

If I asked, "What exactly do you get from Google AdWords for $1 million a month," most would spit back, "An average cost per click of 50 cents that is immediate and guaranteed."

Now take that same logic, dividing the cost of last year's search engine optimization fees by the quantity of natural search traffic (above a baseline) driven to your site over that period of time. I would be hard-pressed to find a firm that did not find search engine optimization to be the more efficient route.

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