SEO Showdown: Real Results vs. the Straw Man

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I am a little bit chapped today. Chapped, as in something has “chapped my hide,” cheesed me off, and generally irritated me. Okay, maybe a couple things. (There is a point to this, and a payoff for reading it, I promise!)

The first thing that irritates me is that the “new thing” in search engine optimization (SEO) appears to be press releases. Everyone is sending out press releases to get more links to their sites, their clients’ sites, etc. They’ll just make up any old thing and pretend it’s newsworthy, because it doesn’t matter. Nobody actually reads online press releases, do they?

The online PR thing is automated and all these press releases end up archived somewhere, with link popularity passed on indefinitely (maybe). But it’s only a matter of time before the PR wire turns into total spam, isn’t it? I can see it now, we’ll see days with press release titles like:

  • “Online Viagra Seller Offers Best Prices, Free Shipping”
  • “Web Casino Offers Gamblers $50 Free Just For Signing Up”
  • “Supermodel Has Wardrobe Malfunction, Photos Online Now”
  • “Search Engine Optimization Firm Achieves Top Google Placement for Highly Competitive Keywords”

Wait a second… that last one is from an actual press release. Maybe we have already reached the edge of the cliff on this press release thing.

If you want to go read that press release and come back, I’ll wait…

Anyway, to get to the point of this, I have to say one thing first. That is one silly press release. However, that is not the point I want to make today. The point I want to make today is about the criticism this firm has attracted from others in the search engine marketing world.

Some folks have argued that getting rankings for search terms like “Microsoft exchange hosting” is not any kind of achievement, because very few people are searching for that. It’s probably true that very few people are looking for that service, but the purpose of search engine marketing is to reach the people who are looking for what you have to offer.

If there are only a few of them out there, then you must target them precisely. Outside of search engine marketing, there are few ways to reach such a small audience effectively, so the channel can get crowded, and costs can get pretty high.

In fact, when I checked the maximum bid prices on the popular Overture pay-per-click (PPC) advertising service, I found out that the top advertisers for “Microsoft exchange hosting” are willing to pay $8.02 per click to get access to that small group of searchers.

Although this firm’s client is probably not getting a flood of traffic for their top rankings, the value of the traffic they are receiving is extremely high. If they only get 10 visitors a day from their organic search engine listings, that’s $2000+ per month worth of free traffic.

Since the cost of reaching those rankings was probably not terribly high, there’s a very good chance that their SEO campaign was a success. Worthy of a press release? Naw, I’m not going that far. But I’d be willing to bet that their client is quite pleased with the results.

Real Results vs. Straw Man SEO

Let me contrast the above case, where “unpopular” or “uncompetitive” search terms can deliver real business results, with the goofy methods some so-called SEO firms will use to promote themselves.

I’ve seen SEO “consultants” claim that their top ranking for “guaranteed top placement money back seo consulting firm” was a demonstration of their great abilities, when in fact, nobody would ever search for that, or try to outrank them. Claiming top rankings for meaningless phrases is like the “straw man argument” in debate, so I refer to it as “Straw Man SEO.”

Although our press-release-happy SEO firm could probably stand to ease off on the PR just a bit, they are not guilty of beating up a straw man. Any search term that costs $8 per click on the pay-per-click side is definitely competitive. Even with a low number of searches, gathering a few such search terms together can easily justify the effort.

Tomorrow, I’ll dive into a longer discussion of keyword metrics, including how we measure the competitiveness of a search term on the SEO side, and get a sense of which terms are really worth targeting.

To “tease” the topic a little bit, there’s more to that question than how much advertisers are willing to pay, or how many others are trying to compete. SEO requires more up front effort than PPC… but then you have to figure in longevity… wow, this stuff is complicated!

What we really need is a better model to help us understand the balance between SEO and PPC. We’ll start building that tomorrow.

Dan ThiesDan Thies
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