I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider 95% of “SEO campaigns” are the blind leading the blind. Specifically, clients understandably approach a marketing company expecting that company to rank them higher in Google searches, often for highly competitive keywords that many of the business’s competitors are also gunning for.
The problem is that most marketing companies follow a very routine playbook, especially when it comes to local or smaller businesses: Apply some H1 tags and keywords, pump out some generic blog posts as “long-form content”, briefly ramp up social media postings with flimsy excuses to link back to the website, and establish a baseline pay-per-click advertising budget. The fact is that despite Google being transparent about what on paper is how you rank higher in search results it’s getting harder to do and it’s very difficult to excel at.
Most marketing companies offer “SEO” as a supplementary or add-on service at best, and what most of them won’t tell you is that they’re generally planning to throw as much as possible at a wall and see what sticks. Though on the other hand that’s more ethical than the companies that claim to guarantee higher search engine rankings. Let me make this clear: Any company or agency that tells you they can guarantee you higher Google placement is claiming to be intimately familiar with the Google algorithm, and they’re either 1) Lying, or 2) About to get their door kicked in by hundreds of Google lawyers each waving a lawsuit.
Even when it comes to the problematic ways that most SEO campaigns are run for small businesses, it leads to a bigger problem: Small businesses are effectively being priced both in terms of time and money out of organic Google SEO campaigns.
A few years back I wrote about how fundamentally, Google stopped being a meritocracy where searches are categorized by popularity and relevance years ago. These days in order to effectively compete with all the people who want the same organic Google search results as you, you need one of the following:
-Lots of money to spend on qualified people. For local businesses, generally between hundreds if not thousands of dollars per month. (Most don’t have this or the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t pay out)
-Lots of time to do it internally. (Most don’t have this either)
-The ability to try and cheat Google. (I really don’t recommend this one)
Some of you may have already noticed the problem.
It’s simple: Bigger companies will always have more money and resources. They’ll almost always have more people to hire. They’ll have the more to hire people to run these campaigns effectively, they’ll have internal employees for whom it can be part of their job, and they can be the ones who coordinate with external agencies rather than business owners or other employees who always have something else on their plates.
Even for a local campaign the results can put a dent in most Main Street business budgets. Search Engine Journal estimated a $500 a month for a local search engine marketing campaign, which if anything seems to lowball it. I would generally expect to spend between $1,000 to $3,000 on a dedicated SEO campaign – yes, even if you’re a local business like the corner drugstore.
It’s not necessarily true that the money you put into an SEO campaign automatically means better results since that hinges on the quality of the work, but if you can spend more money to hire people your odds are significantly better. Most small businesses don’t have the ability to do that, and you’re just not going to get the results you probably want paying that $50 per month SEO “package.” Not when SEO campaigns require lots of time and hard work.
Time is, of course, infinitely a more precious resource than money. I already discussed it in my previous article on the topic, but let’s reiterate the issue of writing just one blog post. In a given day you are going to need to find time to do the following:
-Brainstorm a good blog post topic
-Research and fact check everything you’re going to say
-Write the 800-1000 word article (these types of articles should be substantial)
-Add appropriate production value (such as adding images or case studies)
Cross-reference that with your busy schedule as a business owner. Now imagine doing that over and over again, on an almost daily basis, pumping out enough high quality content to even get noticed by Google, let alone start getting indexed more highly.
It’s a very similar cost-benefit analysis in terms of time rather than money that almost never plays out. People are excited and eager to get started, realize that a single blog post or two isn’t going to skyrocket them to the top of Google search results, don’t see the results they want after just 2-4 weeks and then they lose interest or other work-related issues immediately pop up.
I previously said that the bitter pill to swallow is that creating the type of content that Google likes is exceptionally hard work and huge amounts of time go into it. It’s why there’s an entire industry of people who are paid thousands of dollars to do it. These people are often paid by bigger companies that have the money to hire them and the timetable, patience and revenue to see these sorts of strategies through.
In short, the way Google is structured as it stands, it’s turning into a haves and have-nots systems where the haves get more and the have-nots get less. Google favors established brands – and larger brands are more likely to be established or at least recognizable in Google’s eyes. Combine that with larger brands’ ability to effectively play better by the rules Google has set over the last several years and you’ll realize why small business SEO efforts are quickly turning into an uphill climb that’s only getting steeper by the year.
This additionally isn’t helped by Google now actively minimizing the difference between the appearance of an organic search result and a paid one. If you can bet the competition and money investment is steep for organic searches, you can safely assume that just about all of your keywords – except on a very localized level – are already being sought after by bigger companies who will have more money than you.
In other words, Google may not be a “pay-to-play” system directly where you literally pay Google to rank higher – but given the proportionally large investment of time and money into Google it may as well be. It’s a distinction without a difference at this point.
So what’s a local business to do?
This is going to vary heavily on the size of your business even within the definition of a “small business” in addition to your geographical market, industry type, and products and services you sell. There’s no easy solution or right answer that applies to everyone.
Each of these would merit their their own follow up articles, but a few things to consider:
- Despite me having just spent over 1,000 words dunking on it, don’t rule out SEO entirely. The important thing is to manage your expectations and be realistic. Don’t treat SEO as some kind of money jackpot – it’s not uncommon for businesses that rank highly on Google to not see much more of a traffic or business influx.
- Focus on local keywords. Why target a 50 mile radius when there are potentially hundreds of customers right in your back yard? This is of course contingent on the size of your community but don’t be so quick to assume you can’t do well with local campaigns.
- Spend more time on Google Places. Being a far more localized version of Google can do wonders for your search visibility.
- Know when to back off. If you’re not getting the results you want there’s no shame in not prioritizing search engines. There are many other ways to reach customers that may ironically end up making your website more visible.
Google has changed quite a bit over the years – but that doesn’t mean you can’t do well on it or even that you need SEO. Just know what you’re up against and what the pathway is, and go from there.