I've been reading a lot of posts lately from small business owners and search engine optimization companies talking about the push toward organic search during a bad economy. After all, good organic search campaigns tend to deliver some of the most effective (and least expensive) traffic your site is likely to see. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. In fact, there are some instances in which you'd do best to focus your limited marketing dollars elsewhere.

A perfect example of this comes when you're trying to establish a new market. My friend Aruni Gunasegaram, founder of Babble Soft learned this lesson the hard way earlier this year.

This week, Aruni pens part four of a series she's written about search engine optimization. She writes this post several months after ending an organic search campaign with a firm she'd hired. It's an open and honest look at her experience hiring and using a search marketing firm.

Aruni writes:

There were things I should have researched and understood better before engaging a SEO firm. I made the decision hoping it could be part of a 'silver bullet' solution to raise our trial and conversion numbers and as we all know, the silver bullet doesn't usually hit where you want it to. I also think that the firm could have advised me better upfront on things like website conversion, dropped the ball a couple of times, and could have proactively paid more attention to the direction things were going. When I last checked their site, it looks like they have changed their focus more to SEM (search engine marketing) than just SEO.

I think this is a very important point. A lot of companies (far too many) will hire an SEO firm without really understanding what's going to be done or what needs to be done to their site. This is a big mistake. Search engine optimization at it's core is not complicated, but it's very easy to do wrong and it's very easy to claim you can optimize a site without having the skills to back it up.

Engaging a SEO firm is a lot like hiring a lawyer. The right one will save you tons of money in the long run. The wrong one will bleed you dry. It's absolutely essential that you understand at least the basics of what a good search engine optimization campaign entails. Reading sites like Search Engine Guide or books like Matt McGee's "How to SEO Your Site in 60 Minutes" can go a long way toward educating you enough to make good hiring decisions.

Aruni goes on to make an important point on why SEO didn't work as well for her as it could have:

The biggest lesson I learned was: SEO is not a good choice when you are creating a market! It's hard to predict what people will search for when looking for your product in a market that is not well defined. It's hard to even know how many or if they are looking for your product!

It's an excellent point and one that some companies really take to heart.

If you have created a completely new product that serves a completely new niche, there simply may not be enough people searching for it to make search marketing efforts worthwhile. If this is the case, you'd do far better to spend your money engaging a good public relations firm or working on a social media strategy that will help you break into the marketplace by engaging your customers in the places where they have conversations. You'll have to educate them before you have any shot at selling to them.

Aruni's full post is a must read for any small business thinking of hiring an SEO firm right now. While I disagree with her that search engine marketing companies are an expense that can or should be cut when times get tough, I do agree that SEO is not a practical expense for all small businesses.

Before you make your next hiring decision, consider things carefully. Make sure your company can benefit from search engine marketing services. Make sure you have a solid grasp on what the firm you hire should be doing and above all, make sure you are tracking the results and tying ROI to their efforts.

October 23, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Right on Jennifer! In my opinion, it's not a time to cut back on SEO, not at all. This is a time to lean in and widen that gap between you and your small-business competitors. That philosophy, not only works in search, it's working off-line as well. Take an industry like mortgage brokers and think about what businesses are now in a hole as a result. A local small-business entrepreneur can wield some savvy deals working with people that were providing marketing services to that industry. Carpe diem folks, it's time to move forward without hesitation.

Thanks for bringing this up Jennifer. Many people expect too much of the SEO process: as we both know it can be weeks before you really start to see a return on SEO efforts, especially in a highly competitive niche. Much better to get things rolling with a judicious ad campaign. However, it may still be well worthwhile for small businesses to hire help with keyword/search term research. Making a mistake here and marketing to the wrong niche, however you do it, can be disastrous.

When establishing a new market, paid search and offer page testing can help a new business determine price points, selling propositions, and more. The results from the paid search campaign and testing directly inform what SEO processes should follow. There's nothing worse than driving a strong social campaign to a product or offering that's improperly sold, priced wrong, etc. Paid search is no panacea but it gives you a bit of a tiller for steering things like design, money keywords, and customer mindset.

Those of us who do both paid and organic search need to do a good job explaining which traffic source is reasonable at what phase in the business and how the different types of SEM work together.


Two comments come to mind. The first is that you can optimize your website for search engines--without hiring anyone. It's a question of providing keyword rich content that addresses the needs of your target audience.

The second comment is that you can optimize for completely new products in completely new niches. These products are substitutes for something that the customer is buying today. So, one alternative is to optimize around the technology you are replacing, will supplement, etc. Another way to look at the problem is that people buy to address needs. If you know who you're trying to reach--and what their needs are--you can optimize around those keywords.

I hired lots of so called firms that say they are going to do a great job. Most have no clue about the nofollow tag for instance, the ones I tried, others did not get any results...

...probably the hardest part is to find the right one and the best part is to hire someone to do specific things like article submission, article writing, instead one firm to do all seo.

That is how I use people to help me!

Thanks Jennifer for sharing my story.

Thanks to everyone for their great comments. It's been a frustrating experience but I've learned from it and hopefully my story can help others when they evaluate hiring someone to do their SEO.

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