SEO Industry Has Some Snake Oil, But Also Much Success

by Jennifer Beever

This week I read Nick Baron’s blog entry, SEO is today’s snake oil. Nick is a trend spotting and new media consultant who authors the Societrends blog. Nick’s opinion is that SEO experts are selling snake oil – that anyone who can read can access search engine optimization intelligence and implement techniques that make a web site move up the list of search engine results. At the end of his blog entry, Nick posted a link to an opposing blog entry by Tom Demers, titled Snake Oil SEO – Who’s Really Selling Something, Here? Tom is a Senior Marketing Manager at WordStream, a search marketing firm that has been doing SEO for ten years. He defended SEO experts and wrote that those that are effective do SEO work full time and have documented success stories.

I’ve always been good at seeing both sides of a story. I agree with both Nick and Tom. SEO can be snake oil, but at the same time, I know SEO works!

I rolled up my sleeves and learned SEO in 1998 when I landed a client in the healthcare industry. The company had tried exhibits at medical symposia and advertising, but were not getting good results. At the time, one third of the use of the Internet was for health-related inquiries. I decided the most cost-effective thing I could do for the client (in addition to new collateral and PR) was to have their web developer optimize their web site.

This was back before the search engine industry consolidated, when you had to optimize for several major engines, including Inktomi, Alta Vista and others. The web developer (with whom I work to this day) did not understand nor did he believe in SEO. So, I researched SEO online, took notes, and fed the web developer lists and lists of features, content and code to add to the site. We transformed our client’s business. They went from a brick and mortar medical lab that had 80 technical hits per month and a trickle of referral business, to a lab whose web site attracted thousands of discrete visitors each month and converted them to new patients and lab work orders. So, Nick is right. You can study SEO, apply what you learn, and get results.

But now, unlike in 1998 when there were few SEO experts, in 2009 a fairly standard and proven body of knowledge for search engine optimization has emerged and is used by some very reputable SEO firms. There are good and bad practices, aka “white hat” and “black hat” techniques. White hat techniques include keyword analysis and positioning, links from reputable sites and multi-media content. Black hat techniques include keyword-stuffing and link-farming that can get your web site delisted. So, I agree with Tom – many SEO firms produce results and have documented success stories.

The problem is that the SEO industry (the web development industry is similar) is fragmented, and that means huge variations in price and quality. Last year for one of my client projects we received proposals ranging from $1,500 to $40,000 for SEO of a fairly large web site. For another client I got one proposal for $2,200 and a second for $20,000 to build a new web site.

In addition to large price variations, the quality varies. Just as with web development companies, SEO companies appear to have low barriers to entry. Unfortunately, there are lots of SEO vendors working from their dining room table or garage who have hung out the SEO sign but may not have much experience. If you do a little research on SEO best practices, ask what techniques the SEO company uses and talk to references, I believe you can select a capable SEO vendor.

I’ve met with prospective clients that have been sold snake oil. In one case, a startup company was promised big results quickly by… (can you guess?) …you’re right, an SEO expert! They have not seen the results they were promised. Their situation could be a matter of the SEO expert not knowing how to get results, or it could be a matter of poor expectation-setting by the expert. SEO can take many months to get right, depending on how popular your keywords are. But regardless, any company that has bought the snake oil is wary, gun-shy, suspicious and unhappy. This makes it tough for the next consultant or service provider who will have to work extra hard, set better expectations, and perhaps get paid based on performance once they show results.

Do you have an SEO or marketing snake oil story? Please share it in the comments.



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