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Is SEO Worth The Money For Small Businesses?

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Like some Cold-War-era duel between the Eastern block and the West, search engine optimization (SEO) pits bitter adversaries against one another, and the stakes are high. In this case, however, rather than global annihilation, it is the survival of someone’s business that could be at risk.

The recent arrival of other powerful methods (i.e., social media) to get visitors to small business sites may have blunted the importance of SEO in some people’s minds. However, as many small business leaders are all too happy to report, having top search engine rankings still delivers extremely valuable traffic.

For local businesses, this couldn’t be more crucial. A report released in October 2012 by online ad network Chitika revealed that at least one-fourth of all searches on the three largest search engines (Google, Yahoo, and Bing) were looking for something local.

Hitting Close To Home

With the rise in mobile internet use, local search has really taken off. Industry estimates from Microsoft say that by 2014, more than half of all internet use will be via mobile devices. For restaurant owners, this has never been more important, as YP’s latest Local Insights Report shows it as the most-searched-for local business category. Google also estimates that 50% of all online searches have some local intent. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that many searchers use the internet to find information about something they want to buy or a local business they would like to patronize.

Combine all these indications together and it’s easy to see that having a business found on the search engines can mean big — well — business. In fact, one might think that ensuring one’s website is listed and ranked well in the search engines would be worth almost whatever it cost. People looking for a specific product or service go to their search engine of choice, type in a query for what you sell, and the money just comes rolling in!

While it can work that way — and at times it does — just being listed high up in the search engines is no guarantee that you’ll be paving the corporate driveway with gold anytime soon. For one thing, there are many other things a business website must do right in addition to ranking well in the search engines.

First Things First

The first order of business is user experience. Your site’s pages must load quickly and your site must be a great place to visit, with an attractive design, logical navigation, and high-quality content. The fact remains, even if people do show up at your site due to your SEO efforts, if your site doesn’t convert or the visitors never return, all the search engine results in the world don’t mean diddly squat.

The reality is that everything in your business ultimately boils down to Return On Investment. If you get a positive ROI on a certain activity, it stays; if not, bye- bye. For SEO to deliver a positive ROI, the traffic it brings has to generate sales. It may take 20 visits and a call from your sales department, and your website may just be a lead generator for your sales funnel, but at some point in the process, a visitor has to become a buyer.

A poor website makes the conversion ratio suffer. If conversions aren’t up to par, the ROI hill is a difficult one to climb, indeed. So, before you can answer the question of whether or not SEO is worth the money, your site must generate some from the traffic you send there. If it does, you can begin to look deeper. But be prepared, because as with many other business questions, the answer is a resounding “it depends.”

What’s On The Menu

Let’s look into what a typical SEO contractor — if such an animal exists — delivers to their client. Obviously, one wants top search engine rankings, but many pieces go into that puzzle. Services that SEO contractors may offer under the SEO umbrella include:

  • Keyword analysis Discovers which keywords offer the most value to your business, and which will be easiest (i.e., most affordable) to rank for.
  • Website analysis and optimization So called “on page factors” (i.e., website aspects that a search engine spider evaluates) are one thing that is 100% within your — and your SEO contractor’s — control.
  • Content analysis, optimization, and creationContent isn’t just good for keeping visitors coming back, it’s what keeps the search engines interested as well. You need high-quality content, but having said content optimized to pull in the kind of search engine results you’re looking for is a vital part of good rankings. Search engine optimizers will offer to source and optimize content for you or optimize the content you supply. Don’t forget to include the content you use for content marketing initiatives in this as well.
  • Market analysis — How should you attack your market from an SEO perspective? Are there aspects you had not considered that could help you achieve your goals? Geographically, this analysis can range all the way from local to global markets.

SEO contractors may offer any or all of these, as well as other options. They may subcontract out portions, so be sure to discuss the breadth of service offered. Talk to several firms to see what each offers. What do they promise, and how long will it take to see results?

While most firms are ethical and work very hard to deliver for their clients, the SEO industry has earned a bad reputation from some companies making outlandish claims and failing to back them up. It can easily take months to deliver the desired results, and even then there are no guarantees. As any practitioner will tell you, SEO is both art and science. The search engines complicate matters, changing their search algorithms seemingly at a whim. Keeping ahead of them requires experience, insight, and sometimes more than a bit of luck.

The Survey Says …

After I spoke with many small business owners in the US and the UK who have used, or are currently using SEO providers, one thing became abundantly clear — some had far better experiences with their SEO contractors than others.

Some, like New-York-based OK Uniform company (selling both online and at their physical location), had mostly positive experiences. OK manager Avi Cohen said, “We get amazing results from our local SEO efforts, and can use more improvements for our national and international sales.” Cohen indicated that, “On Google our company appears on the top results for any search term with the words ‘uniform’ and ‘new york’ (or ‘nyc’ and ‘ny’) in it. Our national website sales have increased but not on the same level as our local results, but we think it is mainly due to limitations of the platform we are using.”

His experience is far from unique. Cohen, who limits his company’s SEO budget to $1,000 per month feels he has definitely gotten his money’s worth. Dustyn Shroff, a Managing Partner at the Boca-Raton-based lifestyle management firm One Concierge, has had similar positive experiences with his company’s SEO contractor. Shroff has plenty riding on SEO performance, as his website is the primary vehicle bringing in new customers for his business. He has used a small, local SEO provider with great success. The SEO provider manages their blog, website, and social media initiatives, in addition to performing purely SEO functions.

Their provider heavily optimized the company’s website as part of their service package. “They optimized every page and took care of our backend so that we would begin to rank higher on the Google search results, “ noted Shroff, who also said the SEO firm worked with them to make the site draw the kind of traffic they were looking for. “Traffic to the site has gone up, as well actual conversions,” he remarked. One Concierge spends $500 monthly for their SEO efforts.

Shroff isn’t alone with his views on the importance of hiring an SEO provider. Craig Bryant, owner of Bryant Electric Services, an 18-person electrical contracting company based in Austin, Texas in business for 30 years, echoes Shroff, saying his business achieved outstanding results from their SEO provider, Geek Powered Studios.

He noted, however, that Geek Powered Studios was his company’s second try at the SEO game. He actually increased his SEO budget with Geek over his previous provider. His spend went from $800 monthly to $1,200 per month, plus the cost of PPC advertising, which GPS also manages for them. From an ROI perspective, Bryant said the increase was “absolutely worth it, in that our sales have tripled” since going with their new company, and that their phone is now ringing off the hook. Previously getting less than 10 calls per week, Bryant now reports consistently receiving 8-14 calls each day.

Small business consultant and coaching firm American Small Business Centers, based in Cincinnati, also say their $900 monthly SEO budget has delivered an attractive ROI. Owner Tom Lunney says his choice for SEO provider, locally based Bare Knuckle Marketing, “is very serious about what they do for me and it shows in my bottom line.” BKM uses a comprehensive approach to SEO, helping Lunney with his initial website design to ensure it worked from an SEO perspective, and then expanding their efforts once the site was completed. Lunney stated, “They edit my blog posts to ensure I am using the keywords that are achieving results for me and have made suggestions about topics I should be blogging about to ensure top performance of my web presence.”

But it’s not just local small businesses that use SEO firms to good effect. National commercial real estate startup TheSquareFoot retained the services of an SEO firm in their growth quest. Co-founder Aron Susman said their SEO provider not only helped them achieve better search results, they took over the reins of TheSquareFoot’s PPC ad campaigns, turning a bad PPC experience into a positive one.

Susman said they were happy with the time it took for their company to achieve results from their SEO efforts, saying their keywords “saw movement pretty quickly, within a few months.” Instead of just helping them rank for chosen keywords, their provider assisted in determining what the targeted keywords should be.

Christina Duren is Marketing Manager for another small business working in a national market, insurance claims software firm JDi Data. She has great things to say about the company’s SEO provider, Marvist Consulting. Duren noted Marvist has “worked diligently on our behalf in choosing correct keywords, and tips on to effectively post blogs/articles to increase our organic SEO rankings as well.”

But It’s Not All Good …

All’s not all a bed of roses in the SEO garden, however. Some companies have either had miserable SEO experiences, or have gone through more than one very bad SEO provider before discovering another they felt was doing a good job for them. Sam Francis, Technical Director for Tek Express LLP, a laptop computer repair company operating throughout the UK, reported that his company went through three SEO firms over five years before finally finding one that satisfied them.

Francis said the first firm they hired did the job, and got their company to the front page for many of their desired search terms. However, he discovered that they did this mainly through using paid links, a practice Google frowns upon and has recently penalized heavily, so fearing for his company’s website, he bid the company “goodbye” at the end of their contract.

The second SEO provider Francis retained simply didn’t do the job, and after six months, “they kept making new excuses as to why our standing hadn’t improved.” That prompted Francis to find yet another provider, this time looking to a US company, who so far at least, has offered somewhat improved performance. This company gave him a free trial period to win his business, but after a year, Francis is starting to feel that things could be better. He isn’t a fan of the five-hour time difference either, as it makes timely communication more difficult.

His experience however, pales in comparison to that of Jayme Pretzloff, who manages the online marketing efforts for firearms and self-defense training firm Blue Line Defense and jeweler Wixon Jewelers. For Blue Line, Pretzloff has tried four different SEO companies and has had little success with individual SEO consultants. He stated, “The biggest thing small business owners must understand when hiring an SEO company or consultant is that there are many flakes in the industry who can do more harm than good. When we decided to hire an SEO company about two years ago, we were excited for results, but we’ve been through three hack-job companies in this time period. They promise the world but don’t do half of what they say. By over-promising and under-delivering, these companies are giving SEOs a bad name.”

In fact, things went so bad for Blue Line Defense, Pretzloff pulled the SEO efforts back in-house for Wixon. Pretzloff isn’t ready to give up on SEO yet, saying, “The fantastic thing about SEO is it is completely scalable and adaptable to any business model and in any budget. It’s not like traditional advertising where you need a high impression count to make an impact.”

While Pretzloff is still sold on SEO’s merits despite some bad experiences, one business owner who may not be seeking the services of an SEO provider any time soon is Bill Edward, whose company Castle Ink specializes in environmentally friendly printer ink cartridges. Edward’s company used to do all of their SEO in-house.

Their decision to go to an outside firm for some link building to the company’s website turned out to be a poor one. In fact, Edwards pulls no punches when describing the experience. “Working with an SEO firm was the biggest mistake we’ve made in our seven years of operation,” he said. The debacle points to the importance of using a company that abides by Google’s recommendations, rather than using what the industry refers to as black hat techniques in an effort to gain quick ranking improvements.

Castle Ink was hit hard when one of Google’s recent algorithm updates severely penalized exactly the kind of behavior their SEO provider had engaged in. Although Castle paid the company nearly $5,000 for the work, the end results were definitely not what they were looking for. Edward noted, “The Google update that hit in April led to significant penalties for us, and literally cut our traffic in half.” Edwards explains that it wasn’t because they tried to take shortcuts, either. Castle wasn’t using a small, untested local SEO provider but one of the large, national companies with a good reputation.

The Bottom Line

So, does SEO make sense for a small business or does it cost too much? While there is no hard-and-fast answer to that, it appears that SEO can be a tremendously valuable marketing initiative. Many of the company executives interviewed for this article were strong supporters of SEO.

Most of the success came to those who used a comprehensive approach, working with all aspects of the company’s online presence, and staying away from any tactics the search engine companies deem questionable. Going big budget was no guarantee either, with some businesses that spent relatively little reporting excellent results, and a few who spent relatively more not being satisfied.

In the end, SEO can deliver a good ROI for small businesses, but you need to check out potential providers carefully. Ask to talk to some of their current and past customers, keep informed about the industry yourself, and always remember, even with the best of preparation, there are no guarantees.

About the Author

Steve's company, Most Pixels Marketing Solutions, helps businesses use inbound marketing to drive traffic and build profitable relationships, with a long-term focus on delivering more customers, more often.

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