Lisa Barone has done it to me again. Her latest post on Outspoken Media’s Blog, “Why Bloggers Should Put Up, Shut Up & Pay Their Tax“, created another fever-pitch of comments. I’m not going to craft a reply post because, frankly, the comments on that post are all the discussion and reply anyone will ever need. But there was a very striking comment made by Alan Bleiweiss that resonated deeply with me: creating and building something out of the ashes.
There were a lot comments that suggested investing money into a business, putting your life-force into it, and grinding the pavement to dust were the true testaments to ensuring your business survived.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, having started a business last year. You can’t fight the entrepreneurial spirit, but there is always a time when you question the decision. Did I make the right choice? Can this business live, breathe, and succeed? After thinking about it, my honest, gut answer, is that the SEO entrepreneur is a lot like a restaurant owner; over 50% are going to fail within the first three years .
That SEO Dream is Dead, Kid.
Like it or not, it’s a reality. And, please don’t misunderstand, I’m am not saying SEO is dead. SEO is alive and well. I really do believe that the idea of an pure SEO shop is dead. Just look at the search marketing landscape a moment.
1) The Exponential Growth of SEO as an Industry
In the last three years, everyone is trying to capitalize on the SEO game. The market has exploded into stratosphere. So when I hear comments, that it’s all about passion, talent, and sweat-equity that will all but guarantee success, I have to shake my head a bit. Look, there’s is absolutely no substitute for those qualities. If you aren’t mentally prepared to dive in head-first, then turn around now. But the landscape is drastically different from where it was ten years ago. Hell, even five years ago, when SEO was just this thing “geeks” did.
Now a company is facing everyone and anyone who’s ever read a blog about SEO. Now a company is facing overseas outsourcing at a fraction of the cost. Now a company is facing traditional agencies building out “digital” arms of their business in order to cash in and feign relevance.
2) SEO Isn’t Enough Anymore
Another sad, but true, fact. Personally I think SEO is a lot more than just keywords and links, and that it is the core to building a great website that produces great content and converts. Something I’ve said for a long time now, an SEO must be capable and fluent in everything search marketing. Specialties are dead for the consuming public. They want one-stop-shops that can combine SEO, paid search, social media, and conversion optimization to create aggressive strategies. Whether they listen or not is a question unto itself.
Ten years to fifteen years ago, SEO lone gun men/women (Aaron Wall, Rae Hoffman, David Harry, Greg Boser, Meg Geddes (a.k.a. Netmeg), etc.) were the standard. Small, niche groups of people who studied and experimented to hone their craft. And, really, it’s all you needed. With the web making breakthrough after breakthrough, crushing barriers at the speed of sound, even the lone gun men/women adopted and incorporated the other search marketing channels.
3) Super-Groups: The New SEM Assassin
If you were lucky enough to get in on the first few floors of this SEM industry, then creating and securing a reputation was easier. I didn’t say it wasn’t ball-busting, grinding work. It’s hard work to convince people that you can help build them a better website that ranks better in search engines. Especially with something so foreign.
It was simply easier. Less competition. Less people competing for the bullhorn. A more connected community; warriors of the same ilk. It existed and so did they; an easy match. Fast-forward ten years, and everyone is a SEO/SEM expert. Shouting to be heard. Elbowing their way to the fifteen second spotlight, only to fade to oblivion moments later. Because of the proliferation of our service, our knowledge, profit-centers splinter thousands of ways now, instead of hundreds. No one can make any money.
Of course there are those that all the stars lined up and they caught lightning in a bottle. But that’s the absolute exception, not the rule. Much like that sweet American Dream: the true Horatio Alger legend; rags to riches. Instead of settling for a quarter of the business, why not get fifty percent or more by creating a super-group?
Expect to start seeing the most talented SEMs/SEOs in the game congealing to form a powerhouse SEM group. It’s already happening (i.e. Blueglass Inc. and Outspoken Media). These super-groups offer the best talent, a wide variety of specialties, and have an existing client base to ward off the new company doldrums. I have the utmost respect for those two companies and the people associated with them, but I have no illusions that I could compete with them. Economies of scale. More manpower to throw at something within days than I could muster in months.
It’s the next phase of the SEM industry.
Or Maybe It Isn’t Dead?
Maybe there is still hope for the small SEO company? People working out of one room buildings and in-home offices building respectable client lists and knocking out dynamite work? Maybe we all catch lightning in a bottle a few times in this lifetime and it up to us to know what to do with it?
So a good friend, Hugo Guzman, wrote a really great piece today “How to figure out how much you should pay for SEO services?” I consider Hugo to be wise, wily, and trusted in all things SEO and SEM. That is to say, you can trust his advice because it will rarely ever lead you astray.
The same is true of his last post. With a few exceptions. Per estimated possible achieved conversions is a smart, efficient, and fair model for both sides. Chances are, with this model, an agency or individual would earn more than if they simply estimated hours and deliverables.
Exception One: Client Knowledge
This exception is the client. It’s the biggest exception and wild card of all. While Hugo states in the post that a client would earn $100 profit from a single widget, we’re under the assumption the client produced that number for them. Here’s the problem with that single assumption: most clients have no idea what their profit from a web lead is. I know, it’s hard to believe. And you probably think I’m full of crap. Experience has taught me that only a small percentage know (could be bothered after nearly a decade or more of search marketing) to find out what their margins are from web leads.
What they do know is how much that widget/product costs to produce. What they do know is the margins they make selling that widget/product at retail price. Hence the term “loss leader”. This, however, is not the same as CPA (cost per acquisition). If the $100 they stated is the margin based on the cost/retail equation, then this is simply incorrect. Marketing has a cost, and all too often, clients and companies do not include this as part of the CPA equation.
Exception Two: What is a True Conversion?
For this, I have to step out of the B2C/B2B e-commerce world where conversions are tracked and measured online. If that’s all of your clients, then consider yourself fortunate to have that data at your fingertips. If you’re like most of us, you deal in conversions through contact forms, sign-ups, and requests for quote. SEOs and SEMs do and should consider this a legitimate conversion, but to your client it isn’t. Not included in the CPA equation to achieve true ROI from website “conversion”
The conversion for your client is the physical sale/contract farther down the funnel. As SEOs we get clients 80% of the way to a sale; deliver targeted, interested, and consumer-ready leads to their doorstep. All the client has to do is knock that last 20% out of the park. Nonetheless, that last 20% isn’t even revenue yet. It’s still accumulating costs until it closes the full 100%.
Exception Three: Corporate Sales Channel Organization
This is beyond your control. I understand that and deal with it daily; I feel your pain. And yet, most companies sales channels are an absolute mess. Most have no idea what’s up or down, if it’s this or that. Here’s the problem: without accurately tracking the leads life-cycle, the client honing their own sales channel into an efficient machine, there is no possibility of true ROI to ever be attained. And, if you’re honest with yourself a moment, you know that your clients aren’t the only ones that suffer from this. Your company does too.
Exception Four: Market Fickleness
Even though Hugo was taking an entire year’s worth of data, accounting for seasonality, it does not account for market fickleness. 2008 being a perfect example. Taking all of 2007′s data would have produced a number that would have been unachievable in 2008 and subsequent two years due to a complete global economic meltdown. In this case, how does the pay-per-performance model shield the client?
Why Most Still Use Hours/Deliverables Method
If nothing else, the three exceptions above should sufficiently cover why many might still want to use the “traditional” method for SEO pricing. Let’s be honest, many SEOs are either clueless about different pricing models, or simply follow steadfast tradition because “that’s the way it’s always been done”.
Hugo did bring up a very good point that by using pay-per-performance model (of sorts), you can actively price-out and have to turn away potential clients. Additionally, using the per-per-performance model, seems to be geared to fairness and reward for both participants, but one must remember the consumers and markets are volatile and never a “sure thing”.
With a hours/deliverables model, there is a very likely possibility someone (you or the client) will get the sharp end of the stick. Either it takes you more hours than estimated to deliver what was promised (LOSS | Client: Gain) or it takes you less time to accomplish the work (GAIN | Client: Loss). Nonetheless, pricing out a client still has roughly chance depending on hourly service rates. Secondly, hours/deliverables model is rarely affected by market/consumers, only in the most dire of times. And, even then, corporations believe that search marketing is a right bit cheaper than a traditional campaign.
Finally, clients are accustomed to a hours/deliverables method. New systems are puzzling and raise suspicion, even properly demonstrated and explained. You have to earn trust right from the get-go.
Googling Yourself Isn’t Just About Huge Egos
We’ve all done it. You do it in secret. In the dead of night and it’s just you and the monitor. No one can ever know you’ve got an ego to stroke. It’s a secret shame you have to carry around.
All euphemisms aside (in case you missed them), I’m here to tell you that it perfectly acceptable to Google yourself. In fact, if you’re a business with a website and you’re not googling yourself, you’d better learn how to. Fast.
Beyond keeping tabs on what the world-at-large is saying about you, a business has got to know what Google has in its index. Does Google think you’ve got more pages on your site than you really have? Does Google have less pages? Moreover, simply googling yourself might allow you to find something ominous, as was the case with me.
A Google Away From Finding You’ve Been Hacked
I’m sure I’m not the only who’s ever had their site hacked. It happens, even to the best of us. Whether through careless implementation (in my case) or because someone out there is determined to break into your site, hacking happens. For me, it started with Google Webmaster Tools and seeing five pages of my total 26 missing from the index. Curious, I wanted to find out which five, so that I could buff up the content to make it more relevant or kill them off in robots.txt.
Why kill off those pages? If you stop those pages from being spidered and indexed, the theory is that you strengthen your entire domain trust and relevance and increase the juice flowing from the more powerful pages. It’s the same principle as the “nofollow”, just using different means.
After performing a site: command (site:[your-site-here]), I saw that Google was registering over 300 pages it attributed to my site! Obviously, this must be some kind of mistake. Digging around the results, I found that there were TONS of pages created, using bogus URLs (with keywords), on the site, killing my domains trust and relevance. Which, in turn, had slaughtered my site’s placement for some terms I was doing relatively well for.
I just think what might have happened if I’d never googled the site. Who knows how many garbage pages would have been created, who knows what kind of damage might have been done? It could have gone on for months more if I hadn’t taken the two minutes to google myself and investigate it. And the damage might have been irreparable by the time I found it (i.e. a sandboxed site for all of eternity).
A Blessing in Disguise
Of course I was pissed. Of course you want to hunt down the slug that hacked you and serve a little revenge. But after all the hemming and hawing, you’re still left with a site that’s trashed. And, for me, it was a blessing in disguise. It gave me the opportunity to revamp the whole thing. New look, new feel, and, most importantly, a new site architecture. It allowed me the chance to put the site on new platform, eliminate the fluff content that wasn’t getting indexed, and beef-up the content that needed a polishing. And in the end, I think I have a stronger site because of the hacker. A blessing in disguise.
The Mores of the Story
What to take away from this? Google yourself. Sure, it might be egotistical, but it’s helpful and essential too. If you google yourself and help build a stronger search marketing effort and website, why wouldn’t you? Secondly, disaster always strikes. You won’t fully be able to stop yourself thinking negatively about it (to be honest, I’d question someone’s humanness if they could), but what kind of intestinal fortitude you have to kick that disastrous event in the mouth and triumph over it.
And a special thanks to Matt Siltala for encouraging me to get this one out there. :-)