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Common sense about search engine optimization

In my last post, I include a quote about “hope” from Thucydides’ Melian Debate. But since I really couldn’t pop it out from memory (I could a couple decades ago — in the original Greek, no less!), I googled it for a translation. There, to my surprise, sitting in the number one position of almost 20,000 results, was . . . my page on the Melian Debate. Posted way back in 1994.

Try it. Go to Google. Type in “Melian Debate.” That’s little old humble me at number one. (If a result says, “wsu.edu/~dee,” it was written and published by me.) But one out of 20,000 ain’t the big time in SEO>

Try a few other search terms. Say, “Gilgamesh,” the great mythic hero of Mesopotamia. My modest little summary of the legend written way, way back in 1994 is number 2 out of 2,200,000 results. Only Wikipedia out-googles my page. (And the design of my page really, really, really sucks!) Try “Jesus of Nazareth”: number 16 out of 1,600,000.

Try “Julius Caesar.” Number 15 out of 4,490,000. Try “Confucius,” the center of the Chinese philosophical universe. Number 8 out of almost 5 million. “Torah”: number 4 out of 7 million. “Aztec” clocks in at number 3 in almost ELEVEN MILLION results; “Hebrew history” hits number ONE out of ELEVEN MILLION results (handily beating out Wikipedia). “Socrates.” Number 3 out of THIRTEEN MILLION. Even “Plato.” My measley, humble little discussion of the broad-foreheaded founder of Western philosophy (written in 1994) clocks in at number 5 out of TWENTY-SIX MILLION results.

“Ancient Greece”: number 5 out of 24,000,000. “Early Christianity”: number 2 out of 35,000,000. “Homer,” the poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey: number 2 out of 41,000,000 (only Wikipedia sits higher).

I could do this game for another bazillion pretty darn big search terms.

But how about we play this game for keeps? Try “Islam.” You know, the largest religion in the world? 144,000,000 results. That’s ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR MILLION. (“Christianity,” by contrast, gets only 83,000,000 results; “sex” outdoes every religion on the planet with over 750,000,000 pages devoted to it according to Google). So, out of 144,000,000 pages on Islam, where does my very, very modest contribution on the subject sit? Number 17 — second page of Google results. And it’s a frameset!!!! (Framesets seemed like such a great idea back in 1994 just like “blink” seemed like such a great idea in 1993, back in the days when HTML was SHTML, that is, “Silly Hypertext Markup Language”).

According to Google, there were over 5,000,000 Google searches on “Islam” (just the one word) last month. Google rates the “advertiser competition” on the term as 100%.

I must be a genius at search engine optimization, right?

Not even. I don’t even rise to the drooling dummy level. The total amount of search engine optimization done on these pages: zero, outside of some ham-handed mid-90′s era meta tags. Total search engine optimization budget: zero. Total work done on these pages since 1998: zero, zero, zero.

Hell, Google didn’t even exist in 1998 when I wrote my very last page in this first-ever Web-based textbook.

And it illustrates a point that I flog mercilessly in our book Shoestring Venture: The Startup Bible and repeat ad nauseum to every client I work with: “search engine optimization is not an option, but it’s the only marketing activity you’ll engage in where you have absolutely NO CONTROL over the results.”

So, in this spirit, we offer up some common sense about search engine optimization, and we start with the SEO “promises” to put your site in the “top ten search results” (what happens when client number 11 walks in the door?)

More after the jump.

I recently witnessed the meltdown of a business relationship between a good friend of mine who had an insurance agency and a good friend who did search engine optimization. Why? Because, despite the promises, sometimes search engine optimization works brilliantly, and sometimes you struggle and struggle at it. And most of the time, it takes a lot of work, a lot of flexibility, a lot of time, and, sorry, a lot of money.

And there’s one very simple common sense reason for it: only the search engines control search engine placement. You don’t control it. SEO wizards don’t control it.

In fact, it is the only marketing activity where you have absolutely no control over the results.

I once worked with a client converting his Mustang parts ecommerce site to a database-driven site way back in 2002. Back then, if you searched “Mustang parts,” his site came up number one out of tens of thousands of results on Google, Hotbot, and Altavista (today it comes up in the fourth or fifth position on Google). His total SEO work on the site: zero. His Web designer didn’t even use meta-tags, which were still useful back in 2002. Since then, he has done exactly zero additional work on SEO and EM, but is making money hands over fists on Internet sales with a — you got it — zero Internet advertising budget.

Pretty good, eh? Zero SEO budget, zero Internet ad budget, tons of money in Internet sales.

Here’s the funny part. He gets calls and junk mail monthly from SEO experts who “guarantee” him a top ten placement and tons and tons of customer traffic “that he is currently missing out on!”

At the same time, Amazon pays hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars monthly on SEO for the products it offers online. How many Amazon books on Mustang parts show up in the top ten? Zero. How many books on Plato? Zero. How many books on Islam offered by Amazon show up in the top 100 of a Google search on Islam? Starts with a “z” and ends with a “zero.”

At the same time, my San Diego friend did one month of work on a Dallas insurance agent and propelled him to the top on three key terms. And, you guessed it, money rolled in like water.

So, it seems that search engine optimization and marketing is a crap shoot, right?

Well, kind of. Search engine optimization has a lot to do with what users in Internet land do, so in that sense, yes, it’s a crap shoot. But SEO and SEM people who know what they’re doing can significantly increase the odds of the game in your favor (but increasing the odds doesn’t “guarantee” that you’ll shoot a winning pair of dice).

I know this is an oversimplification, but at least it’s more honest than the “promises” you see on SEO and SEM sites.

So, before you pull the trigger on SEO or SEM (or pull your hair out if you’ve already pulled the trigger, here’s some common sense about SEO and SEM:

Common sense rule number one: if you depend on your Web site for revenue or lead generation, then SEO and SEM is a requirement, not an option. As Pascal says, “your boat has launched.”

Common sense rule number two: you (and SEO and SEM experts) have no control over search engine placement. You can only increase the odds of a good placement, you (and SEO and SEM experts) can never “increase your placement.” Read those two sentences again. You’ve got to be realistc when you start SEO and SEM.

Common sense rule number three: SEO and SEM experts offer you an extremely valuable service and, if they know what they’re doing, they’re worth it.

Corollary to rule number three: notice that I said, “if they know what they’re doing,” not, “if they get results for you.” Sometimes the best SEO and SEM works, sometimes not. But the folks who know what they’re doing are more likely to succeed.

Common sense rule number four: effort doesn’t count, success counts.

Corollary to rule number four: even the best SEO people whiffle the ball sometime. Successful SEO and SEM techniques may fall flat when applied to your Web pages and keywords. Since you are fully realistic about rule number two, you set a reasonable SEO/SEM time period, budget, and goals. If you don’t meet those goals, then you re-evaluate. It’s your job to manage the process, not your SEO/SEM expert (whether they’re great or goats, they just want to make money off of you, like everyone else you do business with). So if you hire an SEO specialist and don’t get the results you want in one or two months time, that’s your fault, not his. If you don’t manage the process with a schedule and goals, then you have no cause to complain.

Corollary to the last corollary: that being said, SEO/SEM experts worth their salt will help you manage the process and set reasonable goals. They will give you weekly updates on the work they’ve done and weekly or monthly reports on your search engine placement and Web traffic, starting from day one (goals have no value without a baseline). When I ran a micro-SEO shop as a Director of Web Marketing, my employees did monthly reports in Word and Excel to all our clients. Every report measured search engine placement relative to keywords and monitored search engine traffic to the site and conversions that could be traced to search engine origins. Your SEO/SEM should do the same.

Common sense rule number five: search engine placement means absolutely zero if there’s no “there there” on your Web site. SEO/SEM people think in very narrow terms — search engine placement and search engine traffic. But if you’re getting good search engine placement and low-quality traffic, you’ve done something terribly wrong on your Web site or your keyword selection. Unlike the sales pitch you get from SEO vendors, SEO/SEM is a tool, not the alpha and omega of Web marketing.

Our book fully discusses the mechanics of search engine optimization and marketing, so if you haven’t got a copy on your desk, then you should rectify that deficiency as soon as possible.

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