What is your position?
I'm the director of marketing. I've had this role since late-2010 and have been with the company almost since its beginning. We've had a chance to work with a number of small businesses and various enterprise clients across a wide swath of industries. I've had a chance to oversee a lot of our product lines, from SEO, to paid, to social media services. I've provided strategy for everything that goes along with that, including the work that we do for ourselves, as a digital marketing agency. All of our inbound channels roll up to me as well. It's been an exciting ride.
Response to Survey
About half of small businesses don't have a website. Does this surprise you, based on your experience?
I continue to be amazed at the number of small businesses without a website, who are still relying on things like direct mail and classified advertising in order to drive business. In today's age, even if some people haven't yet adopted a hard marketing strategy, it would be expected that they'd at least have a website. This tells me that there's still a lot of opportunity for growth within both the web design and marketing industries. There are a lot of businesses that have not caught up to the times in terms of digital marketing.
Within the next five years, it will be very interesting to see how the influx of business owners is handled by the industry. My understanding of the results was that half of the companies in the United States which have a website don't engage in SEO, which lowers their chance of being found even further. I think that there are a number of different reasons for this. There's still an education gap, especially within the SMB segment. A lot of business owners don't understand why they'd need to pay for something or to continue to do something which may have been free in the past, if they had a well-optimized website. Even if they hadn't done any traditional SEO, it is possible that they operated in a smaller market and came to rank high by chance or due to low competition. It can be a hard pitch to make them understand that, at this point in time, their competitors are engaged in ongoing SEO initiatives so, unless they're willing to step out to the table and pay, they're likely to be left behind. A second factor is that, a lot of these small businesses have been told by their web design firms that SEO is part of the design. What's really happening is that these vendors are taking some steps in order to make the sites SEO-friendly. We would consider this to be an SEO-light type of initiative, or one-time-search-engine-optimization. A lot of business owners are of the opinion that they already built their SEO along with the website.
Again, this goes back to an education effort which needs to be done for business owners in order to make them understand what makes sites rank well in searches, what they need to do in terms of one-time edits to the site, as well as ongoing content updates for it, and what they need to do in order to generate some off-site authority and trust factors to supplement what's going on within the site. It mostly comes down to education and budget.
How can you convince a small business owner who isn't currently using SEO services or altogether doesn't have a site, that adopting these items is a good idea?
By the time we've engaged with someone, they'll usually already understand that they have a need. They understand that competitors are surpassing them, although they may not yet understand why. They certainly know that they need to be doing something differently. We're not trying to pitch our services very hard to small businesses who don't yet know that they need SEO. The day will come for each of them to realize that they need to do something because they're losing out in the competitive market. They have a hard time watching their competitors surpass them and they spend a great amount of time worrying about that, wondering why it's happening and what they can do to fix it.
We always begin with a competitive analysis, looking at their market, what top competitors are doing within their geographic location as well as within top metro areas, in order to reverse-engineer a strategy which will help them rebound and get where they want to go. We're not trying very hard to educate the person which doesn't know that they need help, but rather those that understand they need to do something differently.
In our data, we've seen that things are going to shift within the next two years, with 60% of small businesses planning to implement a strategy. Do you agree with these figures?
We continue to see a large number of small businesses come to us as a first-time SEO engagement. They've either had a web design company do a bit of work in this sense, and they realize that they need an ongoing engagement, or they simply tried to figure it out themselves. People realize that they need to become professionals in something other than running their business in order to do the work right, so the best course is to simply hire a professional.
We also have many clients who are on their second or third round with SEO companies. A lot of them have had a previous bad experience, either with a local or national company, or with independent contractors. A lot of SMBs are ready for a second run with an SEO agency, but they're gun-shy because of said experiences. A lot of the responses we've received mention costs. I'm sure that this is a major factor holding businesses back.
You've said that, by the time they come to you, they know the value of SEO, but I'm sure you've also gotten a lot of resistance. How do you approach convincing them to engage in your services?
We largely use the competitive analysis and reverse-engineer a strategy which will allow them to compete with as well as to surpass main competition in their industry or area. We very much subscribe to the philosophy that, if someone thinks it's expensive to hire a professional, they should try hiring an amateur. Price is definitely a continued objection and it will most likely always be this way for SEO done right in 2016 and beyond. There aren't any shortcuts in SEO anymore. All the so-called loopholes have been closed over time. While, in 2013 and before, there were many things that someone could do in order to seem more authoritative than they actually were, right now it's necessary to actually become authoritative. That process is more involved than what SEO was previously.
The best option is not choosing the cheapest provider. That being said, there are a lot of agencies which charge a lot more than it would be required to get the right results. It's a matter of trying to do what we can on our end in order to be a price leader and provide as much value as we can at the very best cost. I feel that our offering is very attractive in terms of what a client pays and what they get in return.
Only 34% of small businesses have hired an SEO company or freelancer. Is this on par with your experience?
Most small businesses still require quite a bit of attention in the education department. There's still a knowledge gap in terms of them understanding what's required to win at this game. A lot of them continue to take on a lot of these responsibilities themselves and delegate them to people in-house. This leads to the conclusion that the only viable options for maintaining high search engine rankings is either hiring a team to do it fulltime in-house, or contracting the service to someone else. We're still within the walk-up process and there's a lot of education that needs to be done by those in our industry as well as through real world experiences. People need to try different things, fail at certain things and eventually figure the path that will work best for them. There's still a large segment of the market which is underserved and is not currently utilizing the services made available to them. I think that this projects well for SEO and digital agencies in general.
It seems that a lot of businesses are focusing strongly on on-site optimization, rather than quality content. Is this surprising to you?
It continues to surprise us how many people, not just in the small business, but also in the mid-market and larger, national segments are under the impression that SEO is comprised solely of on-site work. With all of Google's attention on on-site factors in terms of quality, site speed and mobile responsiveness, I can see the tendency to lean heavily in this direction. In-house IT teams and web designers have an understanding of SEO only extending to what exists within the site, usually. Much of the education business owners have received is from the people that don't understand the entire picture. As I've said, education is still necessary. Generally, what we've found was that, doing on-site SEO the right way doesn't progress a page towards high search rankings; it's merely a requirement along the way. If done right, it's a ticket to getting in the game.
If someone wants to move to the head of the table, there is a lot of off-site work which needs to be done, including content creation and distribution for the acquisition of high-quality links. We've gone through a few rounds with small businesses which have hired SEO companies and haven't gotten results or had been penalized because of aggressive SEO work. There's a bit of anxiety to the idea of acquiring inbound links. Many owners associate them with whatever got them penalized before. Extensive conversations about acquiring links naturally and building them responsibly, as well as having a solid SEO strategy for the future, in order to not make the same mistakes are important.
This lined up with what we've seen: there are many segments of the market where there is a lack of understanding regarding what drives high search engine rankings. This is something which we will continue to address perpetually, as the algorithms become more complicated. There will always be a gap between the knowledge that the professionals and agencies hold, and those that are staying informed enough to keep up.
Only 26% of small businesses use paid search. What is your response to this?
More of them ought to be doing this. It's the same situation I've described before: some of them may have done it in the past and been burned. They thus have anxiety about spending money on online advertising systems they don't fully understand. If a business is going to launch into an SEO strategy which requires a 6-12 month commitment in order to provide the required rankings, they should take the opportunity first to test converting and transactional intent keywords using paid search. In a short amount of time, they can learn quite a bit about consumer behavior and what the best keywords to optimize for should be. They may not be the ones that drive transactions in the industry, and business owners owe it to themselves to understand that before they engage in long-term search engine optimization initiatives. We advise all of our clients to engage in a balanced strategy if their budget permits it.
They should invest in paid search, as well as in organic search, together with paid and organic social media marketing as much as they can in order to mimic larger organizations and the general trends within their industry. They'll see the dividends and become market leaders, instead of trying to play catch-up with their competitors. For quick profitability and quick returns, paid search continues to be the most reliable method to generate short-term returns on investment.
For a lot of small businesses, it can be a tough nut to crack. There's a lot of competition, so finding someone that can be trusted in order to step between the landmines of wasting budget is important.
Could you talk about 180's specific approach for convincing a business of your services' value, and how they differ from other agencies?
Our offering spans a wide segment of the market, anywhere from low-spend small businesses, to mid-market and enterprise companies. We've tried to create what we feel is the very best in class offering for each of those segments. What ties them together in terms of approach is that we want out SEO results to be future-proof. We don't want to be the ones left holding the bag when an algorithm update drops and clients' rankings decrease. We're not in the business of necessarily generating quick wins at the expense of doing things the right way. Throughout our history, we've tried to provide sustainable SEO results and we hope that, with each successive algorithm update, our clients' rankings would actually improve, rather than get worse.
A lot of that implies conforming to current best practices as well as reading into what Google have told us about where they're going. We've found that, in our industry, there's a tendency not to adopt new best practices until an algorithm updates and destroys the last batch. Search engines are very much in the mode of tipping their hand towards their direction. Announcements and updates are made with 12 month forewarning. If we choose to be responsible, we can get in front of those things before they become problems.
We believe in doing SEO in a way which will allow rankings to increase over time. That way, authority and trust will only increase. We've always tried to distance ourselves as much as possible from the quick-win strategies of the past. This is more difficult than the road taken by a lot of SEO companies. SEO done the right way is not necessarily cheap and it's not easy. It doesn't happen overnight but, if done the right way, it should pay dividends for years to come.
This is the type of work which we try to engage in and hope that others might engage in as well.
Future of the SEO Industry
Do you feel that the knowledge and the standards for success are higher than ever before? Does your company get pushed for transparency and measurement more than you were a few years ago?
This does line up with what we've seen. We find that it's almost always a good thing. We love the fact that a lot of our clients are better educated about what it takes to get the right sort of SEO results than they were two or three years ago. The more knowledgeable small businesses become about what it takes to win high search engine rankings, the easier that makes our job in many ways.
The standard for success is higher, but the level of collaboration is higher and expectations about timelines are more correct. Having small businesses and agencies begin to speak the same language for the first time can only be a good thing and should help improve the quality of service in the market as well as results. The bad experiences companies may have had in the past can end up as a positive for us. They now have a frame of reference in order to understand what they don't want. The outcomes that they don't want lead them to educate themselves enough to choose the right providers and make sure that the work being done is being done responsibly. This lines up with what our objectives had been for them all along. It very much contributes to them having a good SEO experience, rather than a bad one.