Is search engine optimization a holy grail or fool's gold? These small businesses say it's the latter, and explain why they no longer bother with it.
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Rare is the small business that would not love to appear at the top of relevant Google search results. Yet plenty of those businesses think search engine optimization (SEO) is worthless.
Their reasons vary. Some have been disappointed by SEO vendors that pitched the sun, moon, and stars. Others found little return on the investment of financial and human resources needed to do SEO well. Then there are those that run afoul of Google's policies, even if they don't quite understand why. The reasons are many, and they often overlap. But the end result is the same: They've all quit SEO.
"Time equals money, and SEO takes way too much time, with results that are not directly quantifiable," said 30A owner Mike Ragsdale, via email. 30A is a "hyper-local" community guide that's part of the TownWizard.com network. Ragsdale dropped his formal SEO efforts about two years ago even though every penny of 30A's $300,000 annual revenue is generated by its various Web properties. Instead, he now focuses on pay-per-click advertising, social media, and "writing authentic content." Both social media and content marketing are rapidly expanding facets of SEO; in that sense, Ragsdale's still very much participating in it. But you can bet that he won't be paying anyone else for help.
"I wasted way too much time and money dealing with online snake oil salesmen who claimed to 'have a friend who wrote code at Google' or people who promised top-level rankings for certain keywords within six months," Ragsdale said. "After dealing with a dozen different options over a period of years, I walked away from all of their virtual voodoo."
The SEO game's shadier operators--those vendors promising all manner of too-good-to-be-true results--have fostered a brood of disillusioned small businesses. "I gave up on SEO last year after spending way too much money on empty promises from reps who promised me I'd get on the first page of Google," said Shane Fischer, an attorney in Winter Park, Fla., via email. Fischer couldn't recall precisely how much cash he doled out for such services, but said they cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 per month.
The real issue for Fischer, though, was that the calls he received as a result of hiring SEO help weren't the calls he wanted. "The inquiries I did get were from people who were price shopping, rather than people who were concerned about spending the money necessary to ensure I do a good job on their case," he said. Fischer has since reallocated his SEO spending toward networking events and referrals through various business organizations. "I find that referrals from these sources generate more revenue and more repeat business than anything SEO ever did for me," Fischer said.
The husband-and-wife team behind Jolly Good Tours, which runs guided tours of England and Ireland, thinks it does just fine with SEO. Co-owner Gregg White still isn't a fan. "It is pointless," he said via email. One of White's reasons: Page one is often dominated by paid ads, particularly in his industry. Another: In his view, most people aren't very good at using Google and its various tools and tricks for improving search results--that's particularly true of college students, a key customer segment for Jolly Good.
Finally, like Ragsdale and Fischer, White isn't offering a ringing endorsement for SEO experts. "When small business owners attend workshops on SEO, the experts never ever mention that it depends what you are selling," White said. Geography also plays a role. "If you have a coffee shop in town, you will get on the first page--unless there just happen to be 1,000 coffee shops in your town. In our business, searches for England tours regularly turn up 100,000,000 results." (White might actually be underselling it; my search for "England tours" returned 136,000,000 results.)
Still, when SEO is done right, strong rankings can drive powerful traffic to smaller companies with limited marketing resources--traffic that's all the more invaluable when those businesses exist entirely online.
Several small business owners told me that "SEO done right" is an increasingly moving target that makes the legwork decreasingly worth their while. Google's Panda and Penguin updates to its search algorithm were the most commonly cited reasons. Those changes revamped the conventional wisdom about SEO fundamentals such as keywords and links--"have a ton of both," to paraphrase the old rules.