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Search engine marketing (also known as SEM) – done correctly – can be a huge money-making opportunity for your business. Like anything, however, there are also many opportunities to lose your shirt. Sadly, as the search engine marketing industry “grows up”, the number of scams invented to rip off potential buyers will only increase.
The good news is that you should be able to recognize most search engine marketing scams within the first 30 seconds of reading an email or listening to a phone sales pitch. To that end, I’ve created a list of the top fifteen “warning signs” to look for when talking to someone about spending money on search marketing. Avoid these scams today and avoid learning the hard way later!
- “We Have 50 Billion Searches A Month” (But You’ve Never Heard Of Us): To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are lies, darn lies, and statistics. Any search engine that tries to lure you into a contract based on a huge number of searches is probably lying, or at best using a very loose interpretation of the word “searches” (for example, a pop-up might be considered a search). In general, if you haven’t heard of a company and they are claiming billions of unique visits, something is wrong. The end result for you will likely be lots of clicks, but few sales.
- “We Have A Distribution Network Of Over 10,000 Sites”: Once again, the law of big numbers – if a salesperson tries to sell you on his search engine solely on the fact that it is “really big,” this is a major warning sign. As an advertiser, your number-one goal is return on investment. One thousand clicks that don’t convert for you are worse than one click that doesn’t convert, after all. And again, if you’ve never heard of this search engine, what are the chances that they are powering legitimate websites? Probably slim.
- “We’ll Submit Your Site To 10,000 Search Engines”: This one has been around since at least 1998. It certainly does sound great – your little website in the search results of thousands of search engines. There are more than a few problems with this scenario, however. First, think about your own searching behavior. Try to name more than 10 search engines you’ve used in the last two years. If you can’t, you’re not alone – 99% percent of search engine traffic comes from five search engines (Google, Yahoo!, AOL, MSN, and Ask). So getting listed on 10,000 search engines is far less valuable than simply getting on one of the top sites. Second, “submitting” a site to a search engine is well and good, but actually getting accepted by the search engine is what matters. Anyone can apply to Harvard, but if you don’t have a 3.9 GPA, it’s probably a big waste of time and money. A better idea: manually submit your site to major search engines like Google, Yahoo! and MSN Search.
- “We’ll Get You Hundreds Of Links Through Our Link Network”: Ever since the rise of Google, link building (getting other websites to link to yours) has become very popular, simply because Google’s PageRank algorithm considers the number of quality links to your site as part of its equation for determining how highly your site will rank in Google search results. Note, however, that I said “quality” links, and herein is the problem with “link networks” (often derisively called “link farms”). Link farms often consist of thousands of sites that contain nothing more than paid links on them. They are considered to be of very poor quality by Google and oftentimes hurt your Google ranking more than they help. In fact, being associated with a link farm can sometimes even result in having your site blacklisted entirely from Google. To be clear, there are legitimate search engine optimization (also known as SEO) strategies that involve buying links, but these usually involve buying a few links from a site with a high Page Rank. This is an advanced strategy, however, which I would avoid until you have perfected the basics of search engine optimization.
- “We Cost Half As Much As Google!”: It certainly does sound appealing – getting a $10 Google click for only $5 on another search engine – but this is like valuing a 1974 Pinto the same as a 2006 Ferrari. You get what you pay for. Clicks that cost significantly less than the market rate on leading search engines are almost always cheaper because they simply don’t deliver results. Sure, there are always diamonds in the rough, but it probably isn’t worth your time to scout out these limited opportunities. If you are really, really tempted to try a smaller and cheaper search engine, do as much research as you can in advance. Visit the WebmasterWorld forums and check out what other advertisers think of a particular search engine. Even typing a search engine name into Google or Yahoo! can sometimes reveal some interesting information (like advertisers complaining about poor quality). And if you are still convinced that this search engine could be the Holy Grail of advertising, start with as small a budget as possible and only invest more money once you’ve seen actual results.
- “We Guarantee Top Ten Search Engine Placement”: Some search engine optimization (SEO) companies will promise you that your site will show up “at least five times” in the top ten results of Google. Sounds great, right? Millions of people visit Google every day, so this sort of exposure should be a gold mine for your business. Well, it turns out that, like search engines themselves, all searches are not created equally. Showing up in the top ten for the search term “compare DVD players” is far more valuable than showing up for “red 1989 DVD players in Ohio.” The key is to measure success not by where you show up, but by how many leads and sales you get from your search engine optimization efforts. Legitimate search engine optimization companies will work with you to identify converting keywords that will work for your business, as opposed to hitting some arbitrary metric.
- “We Guarantee You’ll Show Up In Google In 24 Hours”: Though it would be great to have your website appear in the Google organic search results in 24 hours, it would also be almost impossible. If you follow the best practices of search engine optimization, Google will eventually find your site. It may take a day, it may take a week, it may even take a few months, but eventually Google will find you. The problem with anyone who guarantees that you will show up sooner is that – unless they actually work for Google and control the Google spider (which they don’t) – no one can predict how quickly your site will show up in the search results. And thus, by making such a promise, they are exposing themselves for what they are – con artists.
- “This Domain Name Made $20,000 A Day”: You may see a URL for sale on eBay with the claim that the domain made thousands of dollars over the last few weeks/months/years. And perhaps the domain is only selling for a few thousand dollars, so you figure you will recoup your investment in a matter of days. Again, this is a situation where you have to put yourself in the shoes of the seller – if you had a $20,000 a day domain, would you sell it for $3,000? Of course not! Buy a domain if you think it works for your business, but don’t buy a domain based on some mythical expression of past performance.
- “Your Ad Will Show Up In The Browser Bar”: A few years ago, a company called “RealNames” partnered with Microsoft to allow advertisers to show up when a person typed a word into their browser bar. For example, let’s say you typed in “mortgage” into the Internet Explorer browser bar. Ameriquest could pay RealNames $1000 for the right to have their page displayed in this instance. For popular words and phrases, this was a highly effective form of advertising. However, when Microsoft ended their relationship with RealNames, the business model went out the window. That has not stopped companies from trying to use the good reputation of RealNames to con unsuspecting advertisers into buying far less effective versions of this product. You see, when RealNames was partnering with Microsoft, the volume of impressions for these “browser searches” was very high, simply because almost everyone in the world uses Internet Explorer, a Microsoft product. These new companies can’t get access to Internet Explorer. Instead, they have to rely on people downloading special software (often spyware) onto their computer. The result is that very few people willingly download the software, and those who do so unwillingly don’t have a positive impression of the URLs they see when they type something into the browser bar. Few searches plus bad user experience equal poor performance for the advertiser.
- “Just Try A $1000 Test”: Imagine you are a salesperson at a small, failing search engine. You’ve got to put bread on your family’s table, but you know that the product you are selling is really bad (from the advertiser’s perspective). You talk to skeptical advertisers every day who have never heard of your search engine and would rather spend their time adding keywords to Google than talking to you. You quickly realize that your best chance for success is a lot of small, quick deals instead of a few giant deals. If you can just get a bunch of individuals to deposit a few hundred or even a thousand dollars each, collectively you can drive enough revenue to hit your monthly commission number. I get these kinds of calls all the time. My advice is to turn the conversation on its head: if a salesperson is promising amazing results to you, ask him to prove it by giving you a free test – say $250 or $500 worth. Any search engine that truly has good traffic should consider this a reasonable request.
- “Our Proprietary Technology Has A Sophisticated Algorithmic Bidding Platform That Monetizes Clicks 24 Hours A Day”: As pay-per-click (PPC) advertising becomes more and more complex, there is an increasing need for advertisers to use software to help them manage their marketing campaigns. This software sells for as little as $50 to as much as $100,000 a month. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you are considering, you will inevitably get a sales pitch filled with multisyllabic and confusing words. Oftentimes, that’s the point. Many companies want to hide their relatively basic technology by dressing it up in techno-gibberish. If you don’t understand how software works, ask. If you still don’t understand, ask again. And as a last resort, you can always ask for a free trial – remember, the proof is in the pudding!
- “We Don’t Have A User Interface Yet”: A legitimate search engine will have an online user interface where you can log in to review your spend, adjust bids, and deposit more money. Any search engine that requires you to call up an account rep to make changes is probably running out of someone’s garage. You can rest assured that this is a fly-by-night operation, and you aren’t going to see any results from your spend. Until you feel that you have maximized your return from the top search engines, it’s really not worth taking a risk on an unknown traffic source.
- “You Simply Can’t Do Search Marketing Without An Expert”: This is a great scare tactic that some search marketing agencies use on small businesses. They tell horror stories of people who lost thousands of dollars buying the wrong keywords, or spent countless hours trying to optimize a website with no results. In truth, some businesses need a professional search engine marketing firm, but some definitely do not. In most cases, it comes down to the size of your business. If you plan to spend $50 a day on paid search and you are running your business part-time, you probably aren’t ready to commit a few hundred dollars a month to outsourcing your search efforts. Simply by reading the tutorials provided by Google and Yahoo! and reading message boards, you can learn enough to run a small-scale search campaign and get some decent results. On the flip side, if you are really looking to grow your business and you don’t want to spend 30% of your time focused on your marketing, then by all means, consider working with an agency. But even in this instance, I recommend you choose an agency that sells you on the positives, rather than the negatives.
- “Search Engine Optimization Is So Easy, Anyone Can Do It”: The flip side of the previous point. There are plenty of eBooks online that claim they can make you into an expert for only $49.95. Search engine optimization is one of those things that are easy to do, but hard to do well. There are probably five or six main techniques that you can quickly implement that will have a dramatic impact on your organic search efforts (title tags, good content, a linking strategy, clean HTML code, manual submission to search engines). Do these things and you will see some results on the search engines, but if you want to really succeed at SEO – for example, if you want to show up on the first page of Google for a very popular keyword (like “mortgages” or “DVD players”) – you have no chance of achieving this sort of success without a full-time, qualified SEO expert helping you out.
- “Buying Paid Search Ads Will Help/Hurt My Ranking”: These are two polar-opposite conspiracy theories floating around the Internet these days. One goes like this: Google wants to reward people who spend lots of money on paid search, so they give these companies an under-the-table bump in organic search results. The other theory argues that companies that spend on paid search get penalized in the organic search results as a way of encouraging these companies to spend even more on paid search. Both of these theories are ridiculous – Google has far too much on the line to play favorites in their organic search results. Any company that tries to get you to spend more on pay per click (or spend more of your budget on optimization) with this sort of reasoning does not have your best interests at heart.
When I was in college, our coffee shop was called “TANSTAAFL”, which was a butchered abbreviation of Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman’s famous quote “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” At the end of the day, any marketing offer that seems too good to be true probably is. Careful planning, research, and hard work are prerequisites to success in search engine marketing. Believing in a “get rich quick” sales pitch is not.