Over the past ten years the mindset of SEO has evolved significantly. In the early years, website optimization was considered more of an IT expense handled by computer geeks. But over the years, businesses (and SEOs) began to change their frame of mind, realizing that search engine optimization was much closer to traditional marketing than they had thought.

After all, SEO is about getting exposure. Whether that is through on-page optimization, link building, social media, etc., the idea is to get as many targeted eyeballs on a site as possible. But that itself isn't enough, because once the eyeballs are on the site the website has to make some money too. So now SEOs focus on usability (enhancing the visitor/shopper's experience on the site) and conversions (getting sales, leads, subscribers, etc.). Exposure only brings traffic, usability allows the visitors to find the information they need, but ultimately it's the conversions that matter most.

SEO is marketing but isn't just marketing

It has taken many years for SEO to be considered a marketing expense both within the SEO community as well as the business community that seeks out SEO. I sometimes wonder if the pendulum has now swung too far away from SEO being a function of the IT department. SEO is very different from traditional marketing.

Marketing has always been about two things: creativity and analytics. The creativity creates the ads that work, but the analytics prove that the creative elements work. Analytics also can determine where the creativity will most effective (TV, radio, demographics, etc., etc.). But SEO marketing has introduced an entirely new element into the mix, and that is the need for several dozen computer related skills.

This, of course, creates a new wrinkle in the whole concept of marketing. SEO is marketing that can break things. When Marketing was just creative or analytical, there really wasn't much to break. A marketing campaign either worked or it didn't. (Of course, there was always the potential to damage company reputation, but that's a different kind of damage than I'm referring to.)

With SEO, you can break a website so it doesn't work, and you can break search engine rankings. You can break contact forms, shopping carts, links, and a whole lot more, that all effect the ability of a site to make any kind of money, despite the quality of other marketing efforts. These breaks can, and often do, make a site unusable or unrankable. Sometimes the damage is temporary, other times it can last longer. Much of that depends on how quickly the problem is discovered and a solution is implemented. Sometimes, however, breaking a website is necessary in order to make it work better.

One step back to get two steps forward

There are many analogies I can pull from to illustrate this point. Sometimes doctors have to re-break a bone in order to set it for a proper healing. When you take a car in for a tune-up, you drive it in, but for several hours or days, the car is undrivable until the tune-up process is complete as old engine parts are removed and replaced with new parts.

Another good analogy is a body with cancer. In the early stages, the person often feels just as healthy as they always have, but the doctors know that unless the cancer is treated things will only get worse. A person with severe cancer may go in for chemotherapy which essentially makes someone who may feel healthy feel very, very sick. But this is designed to rid the body of the cancer, and set the stage for what will hopefully be a cancer-free and healthy body.

Implementing search engine marketing can often do the same thing to a website. Sometimes you have to break it in order to help move the site to the next level of success.

Break it to heal it

It would be great if every time a change was made to a site that the result was positive. Unfortunately, that's not the real world. Sometimes in SEO you make a change hoping to help, but it ends up hurting. What worked somewhere else won't necessarily work everywhere.

We find this to be true of PPC just as much as SEO. Sometimes a new ad performs worse than the old one. Or a change to a landing page reduces conversions instead of improving them. But these "setbacks" are an important part of moving toward more success. With each change, you learn from what doesn't work just as much as you learn from what does.

That's the wonderful thing about testing, which is an important element to both online and offline marketing. Testing changes helps you improve upon previous successes, even if it creates minor set-backs along the way.

But there are other times when breaking a site is absolutely necessary for its success. Any site that grows from a few products which are easily manually added to HTML pages, to hundreds of products, needs a content management system. This, of course, will cause all new URLs to be created. Similarly, a site moving from standard HTML to a php framework, may also find that URLs will have to change.

I recently encountered an issue on a site that produced two duplicate pages for every one legitimate page. The only solution here was to re-develop how the site generated its pages. This, too, caused a complete change in the URL structure, leaving hundreds of pages indexed in the search engines, no longer available. Even with redirects in place, it would never be a seamless transition.

Situations like this require that you break things before you can fix them. But in the end, the result more than compensates for the temporary downtime, hiccups and losses that happen as you move through the changes.

Hurry up and wait to move forward

It would be great if we could get a tune-up without ever having our car taken out of commission. Even better, to be able to heal cancer without every having to go in for an operation or devastating chemotherapy. It would also be great if sometimes SEO created a perfect transition from mediocre to resounding success. But the nature of the world applies equally to search engine optimization.

Not every week is going to be more successful than the previous, but the idea is to make sure that the long-term trends favor improvement. But that's the funny thing about long-term trends. You can't analyze them in the short-term. It's very hard to patiently sit through a negative downturn, hoping that all things turn out rosy. But that patience can often be just the thing you need to move forward successfully.

Panicking in face of set-backs is rarely a successful approach to anything. Panicking leads to hasty decisions that are rarely in your own best interest. But having an understanding that set-backs happen and are, at times, necessary in a successful search engine marketing campaign, can certainly help one think rationally when not everything comes up rosy. Sometimes you have to take a step back, just to move forward around the obstacles in your way. Other times you have to break something in order to fix it.

March 6, 2008

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


I bet if most companies could make enough profit with offline marketing which obviously has less chances of "messing up", they would but the internet isn't going anywhere so online marketing it is! With the algorithms constantly changing, one must remember that their competitors are facing the same issues and challenges.

That's great advice. I think you've got it right that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better – it applies to a lot of things in life really. Another thing is the fact that the company has to be willing to work hard on their site to see results.

I totally know the feeling, every time I redo an ecommerce site into something more search engine friendly like OsCommerce it just kills me to lose those rankings. We all know with 301s you can get most of the links back, but all those lost deep product links :(

Yes, search engine rankings are important. But many sites are found because they are recommended by another internet user.

When a site is not only product orientated but has quality content people come back again and again to read the content. Just like I do on this site.

I don't think I'd agree with the part about how SEOs break things. Generally speaking, we recognize things that other people have broken or implemented poorly and suggest fixes/alternatives.

I do agree with the point about how SEO is more of a marketing function than a technical one.

Thanks Rueben for your comment. Part of my article addressed simply the posibility of breaking things, simply because of the technical nature of a site. Misplace a character on an .htaccess file and the whole site goes down. Screw up a robots.txt file and you wipe out search engine rankings. These are all things that I have seen happen even with the best of SEOs.

But there is also the very real possibility that in order to fix something you have to make drastic changes. Now while these changes are not meant to render a site non-functional, they can cause a site to lose rankings albeit temporarily.

Sometimes a site re-design can do that, but most commonly is when the URL structure of a site must change. For the latter, redirects can be put in place but such a transition is rarely every an easy one.

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