The Complicated Part About “Getting To The Top Of Google”

I almost decided not to publish this article.

I’ve been mulling over one like this for a while, but it needs to be said. Especially after a meeting with a prospective client who was increasingly crestfallen when I told him the price range of an search engine optimization campaign for his highly competitive regionally-driven keywords (SEO campaigns aren’t even something I do, but it’s an understandable question):

“Damn…there goes another marketing plan. I figured that I’d need to spend some time or money getting to the top of Google but I can’t handle that amount. My other alternatives are probably word of mouth marketing and newsletter marketing, but I just really need to get bodies in the door and it seemed like Google was the best place for that, it’s where everybody is. What are the time and cost investments for newsletter marketing? I need to promote without breaking the bank.”

At least this business owner has done his homework. He had an inkling of the work and associated money it takes to get to the “top of Google” even if he underestimated it. He’s still searching for the online marketing equivalent of winning the lottery though: A way to catapult to the top of Google with no risk, no major time investment and no major financial expenses. A term I like to call the SEO jackpot.

At least once a month I’ll have a discussion where people ask me the associated costs of an SEO campaign to get to the top of Google not just for local communities  but an entire region if not an entire state. I’m sympathetic to the sticker shock reactions, but then one person I spoke with recently followed up with this: “Man, that’s a lot of money I can’t spend. I get that campaigns cost money but is there a way I can get to the top of Google without having to spend anything at all?”

That’s when I hit the publish button.

What Do You Want From SEO?

Generally there are a lot of variations on this question that can be boiled down to:

Become the #1 search result for Google, kick back and let the gold rush of eager customers fill my coffers while having to do no marketing work, saving me money and having the best life ever.”

If only it were that easy. This also brings up a variety of other issues like how you’ll handle the influx of traffic and orders from a logistical standpoint, but that’s a separate blog post.

It’s not as if I blame small business owners who think that all you need to do is wave a magic wand to appear at the top of Google search results for any given product or service. Most people just don’t know any better. That’s why I suspect a lot of marketers have jobs.

Let’s ask the first question: What do you really want to achieve by “getting to the top” of Google? Have you done research and concluded that actual business dollars will come from people clicking through to your website? Or is this just part of a general strategy to make money?

If it’s the latter, a separate inconvenient truth about Google search results is that being at the top of Google doesn’t guarantee the most clicks. Ahrefs did a fascinating study recently where they analyzed over 100,000 keywords. Their research concluded that the number 1 listing gets the majority of the traffic only 49% of the time. That’s still considerable, especially for the high-traffic keywords people usually want to rank first for, but the first in a long line of caveats.

Here’s the Complicated Part

I’ll give you the short version upfront. There are three major ways to ascend the search results of Google:

1. Have lots and lots of money to hire truly qualified professionals (and let’s face it, if you want to rank higher on Google in the interests of making more money you probably don’t have that)

2. Put in months if not years of ongoing hard work and dedication (most aren’t interested in this)

3. Cheat (I wouldn’t recommend this one; most SEO companies take this approach)

Wait…Why Do I Need to Either Spend Money or Time On This?

SEO being portrayed as a mysterious, magical process is a tradition as old as Google itself. Lots of SEO companies will cold pitch you describing the “flaws” they’ve “discovered” with your searchability. Others will present “report cards” usually with a low rating, like a 40/100 in an attempt to scare you. We’ll take a swing at these companies later.

The facts are that SEO is relatively simple. It just requires a lot of work.

There’s no secret sauce: Google sorts and has always sorted by popularity and relevance. The definition of popularity and relevance has changed somewhat over the years but Google recently codified what they really mean. Way back in 2011 Google introduced the Panda update to its algorithm. Panda was introduced in order to facilitate the ranking of valuable, informative and helpful sites to people searching. It was released at a time when “content farms” were so rampant that users were complaining about search results. Panda was introduced with a blog post by Google detailing how it would sort websites (and how it continues to do so):

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”

There you have it, folks. For all of these companies that claim they have the secret technique to getting to the top of search engines, Google flat out gives it away.

Or to put it another way, the majority of “search engine optimization” beyond mechanically making sure your website is visible to Google and has the appropriate keywords (talk to your web designer about that part!) is creating good content.

Don’t think you can get around this by creating regular blog posts with nothing but external infographics or insubstantial website updates; Google isn’t stupid. They spell out clearly how to rise to the top of search results but won’t give you the details; Google is understandably discrete about how much it shares for fear of people gaming the system.

Content Creation Can’t Be That Hard…Right?

That question is tempting fate to the nth degree and it makes everyone who works in content creation professionally smack their head against a wall.

The bottom line 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.

Imagine how busy you are as a business owner during the day. Let’s say you decide to embark upon a content creation journey with a blog post. Not just a few paragraphs or a few lines of commentary where you link to an extraneous article, but an authentic blog post worthy of being published by a news outlet. That kind.

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)
-Proofread it

One survey found that people take about three hours to write a blog post. The study also found that bloggers spend six hours on their average post. Even if you spend an hour and a half prepping a solid piece of fresh content for your website are you going to have time for that in your day?

More importantly, are you going to be able to even think about doing that consistently? Do you have the output to write amazing content every month, or week? Or every single day? Content strategist Liz Murphy wrote a brilliant article on how hard this whole process is and how so many clients (and even other agencies) will let it slack off after realizing the amount of work that goes into it.

At first, clients or teammates will nod along enthusiastically as we educate them about the importance of content. They’ll get on board and commit to creating content at a particular cadence, to ensure we’re driving the best results possible.

Heck, they might even do a great job at being my partner in content crime for a little while. Then, enthusiasm begins to wane.

My “just checking in” emails are opened, but ignored. Drafts I’ve worked on languish for weeks on end. Hollow refrains of, “I promise it’s next on my list,” turn me into that girl waiting by the phone for the guy who never calls after a night out on the town and a fancy steak dinner.

Liz makes several of the same hypotheses that I’ve done. Maybe people just underestimate how much work goes into creating content. Maybe they think they’ll get used to it. Either way, this is the process almost every single time: 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’ve seen this myself with websites. Websites, much like the content people set out to create for those websites, aren’t as mission-critical as making payroll or paying the electric bill (sorry, fellow designers, but it’s true). So SEO campaigns that are done “internally” wind up getting put on the backburner again, and again, and again, until they’re forgotten about altogether.

It’s a horrible feedback loop. Lack of results beget lack of interest, especially when you don’t realize that almost every single competitor wants to get to the top of search results the way you do. Here’s where I quote Liz again: If you’re not investing the time and effort required to create killer content, you shouldn’t be surprised when you see lackluster results. Whether those results are coming from you or the SEO agency you’re paying a few hundred bucks a month to.

The Cost of Paying For It

No problem. I can’t do the work myself, that’s why you pay other people to do work for you. Just offload the work to someone and kick back while the work does itself, right?

This is where the sticker shock comes in. Costs of SEO vary widely between the length of the campaign and the work involved, but one company ballparked that the only substantial value is if you’re paying a reputable company north of $1,000 per month, which from my perspective seems accurate.

I’ll pause to let those of you expecting a much lower figure recover your jaws after they just crashed into the floor.

Even for a local campaign the results can put a dent in most Main Street bank accounts. Search Engine Journal estimated a $500 a month for a local search engine marketing campaign, which if anything seems to be on the conservative side in my experience.

This is the unintended consequence of Google prioritizing content as a means of sorting search results as much as it has. Their efforts to provide a living search engine that provides the best content based on search results has resulted in the creation of a haves and have-nots system where having money is almost a prerequisite. The more money you have the better content creators you can hire to create a content engine that will get you into Google’s good graces.

So while aren’t “buying” your way to the top of Google search results in the strict sense you may as well be. You’re either paying in time or money – and lots of it – and either of those are precious resources to any small business owner.

Wait…Why Is It That Expensive?

I discussed the long, laborious process of creating good content above. Imagine doing that every single day. Now imagine the billable hours that rack up if you’re paying someone else to create great content for you. Especially when your competitors are likely partaking in some of the same practices.

You’ll also need to factor in research. Even prior to sitting down and writing out the case studies, I mentioned earlier that you need to evaluate whether or not “getting to the top” of Google is even worth the time and money. Keywords, various metrics and competitors all need to be researched.

Something else to consider in terms of research is understanding the business and industry inside out. In order to write content about your business and industry with the expertise that you would, your company needs to essentially know your business as well as you do. That takes time.

Lastly and most importantly is the time. In order to really notice a difference in your search engine rankings you need to have an ongoing campaign with a steady drip feed of website updates and new content. That doesn’t happen in 2-3 months, which is why most SEO campaigns range between 6-12 months. So even on the very low end of the spectrum you’re looking at upwards of $6,000-$12,000 for a campaign.

Unless, of course, you try to skimp on it. Which leads me to…

The Seedy World of Cheap “SEO”

Part of why people consistently underestimate the price of SEO campaigns as much as they do is the cottage industry of rock-bottom pricing SEO “experts” – or worse – people who haphazardly bundle “SEO” into their marketing/web design plans without any real context behind that behind blank promises.

These companies will usually offer you SEO for as low as $100-$200 a month, and they’re the type of companies that will try to terrify you into thinking your search results are a disaster with scary looking “report cards” that I mentioned earlier. They often have the trappings of legitimacy, especially when they claim to be “partnered with Google.”

Make no mistake: This is a lie. No SEO company works directly with Google, nobody knows the “secrets” of how Google works and the SEO experts E-mailing you are not smarter than a multibillion dollar corporation with some of the top engineers in the world working for it.

Wait, but I’m only paying $100 a month for SEO and my website is at the top of my search results!

Trying to cheat Google is so common that there’s an entire industry associated with it, black hat SEO. If an SEO company promises the moon and stars for rock bottom pricing and seemingly manages to deliver it, there’s almost guaranteed to be foul play involved.

Similarly if an SEO company promises to boost your search rankings without any real involvement or input from you that’s also a very bad sign for the reasons discussed in how involved any business owner has to be when it comes to legitimate SEO.

This Forbes article covers a lot of the bad, worse, and worst of the SEO tricks often used to inflate websites, a few of which I’ve discovered on this very article. The article even notes correctly that many SEO companies don’t intentionally set out to deceive search engines and just consider this business as usual.

Google doesn’t care either way. While these SEO tricks will work temporarily the search engine will eventually figure out what’s really going on. Getting penalized by Google can be either irritating or a death sentence depending on the type of business you’re in and how reliant you are on search engine traffic, and fixing the damage can be an ordeal.

So yes, if you use a cheap SEO company and notice results overnight you may think you’re set and you may indeed coast for a time. When Google finds out what you’re doing don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The bottom line is that unless you can pay top dollar for an SEO campaign to embed itself into your business, spend lots of time creating high quality content and work closely with you to do it, you’re wasting money.


Okay, that went on longer than I expected. So to recap some of the major points:

  1. Know if you will really benefit from being at the top of the Google. In many situations you may get lots of traffic, but that doesn’t translate into dollars
  2. You’ll essentially be on a sliding spectrum of money versus time when it comes to SEO. If you want to do everything yourself you’ll save money but spend a huge amount of time on it. If you pay real professionals to do it you’ll save time – but you’ll see a big drain on your bank account.
  3. If you want to (legitimately) reach the top of Google either way, it requires time, sacrifice, work, and risk, and it’s not guaranteed to work. There are no guarantees and no shortcuts.
  4. Don’t try to cheat Google. The longer it works, the bigger of a shock it will be when Google retaliates.

Remember: There have probably been no shortcuts in your business, so treat Google the same way.