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.
Perhaps more importantly, the volume and relative secrecy of those changes make it difficult for the typical small business to keep up. (SEOmoz publishes a running timeline of Google's algorithm changes for those keeping score at home.) Some small companies that once invested heavily in their search rankings are now simply walking away and redirecting their marketing efforts toward social media, partnerships, and--wait for it--actually speaking to other people.
"We've given up on Google," said Eric Shannon, co-owner of Oh My Dog Supplies, in a phone interview. Shannon said he and his partner "knew nothing" about SEO when they started Oh My Dog in 2006. But SEO's appeal was clear--and common among small online retailers: It was cheap, compared to other channels such as pay-per-click advertising.
"It is very difficult for us to make money on AdWords or any other paid media," Shannon said. A keyword buy on AdWords has typically cost Oh My Dog anywhere between 30% and 50% of the total sale, according to Shannon. The problem: Their break-even point is around 32% of the sale price.
SEO paid off for Oh My Dog. The online store did $2 million in sales in 2010, 70% of which Shannon attributed to organic search results on Google. But revenue plummeted to $1.1 million in 2011 following Google's Panda update, which knocked Oh My Dog out of the top spot for keywords like "dog bowls," "dog beds," "dog clothes," and "dog collars." According to Shannon, large retail chains like Petsmart, Petco, and Overstock.com took their place. Oh My Dog's problems earned it marquee billing in a May Wall Street Journal story on the adverse affects the Penguin update had on some small businesses.
Things haven't improved since. "We'll be lucky to do $500,000 this year," Shannon told InformationWeek.com. Oh My Dog has been sent to Google's equivalent of ice hockey's penalty box. Today, almost none of the site's visitors are referred there by Google--unheard of for most online businesses.
"We don't even rank for our own name anymore," Shannon said. Indeed, a recent search for "Oh My Dog Supplies" produced only a paid ad for the company's homepage. The natural results included the retailer's pages on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube (apparently, Google exile has its limits), the Better Business Bureau, and Retailmenot, in that order--but no homepage. The next-to-last link on page one? A page on the portfolio site for John Garland that says he worked with Oh My Dog from 2009-2012. "Using skills and tactics I’ve learned over the years from working with Eric and following SEO trends, I’ve helped keep OMDS at the top of the SERPs for some very competitive keywords," the page reads.
Shannon confirmed that Garland was on the Oh My Dog payroll through the end of last year. "It is definitely possible that the work he did resulted in the penalty, but it wouldn't have been his fault," Shannon said. "Most of the link building strategy was designed by me personally." Much of that strategy was built around syndicating content--with links back to Oh My Dog--to sites like Hubpages, Squidoo, and Ezinearticles. A key part of Google's recent updates has been to reduce the value of "low-quality sites" in its search results.
"I still don't think we did anything too crazy," Shannon said. "We weren't doing anything black hat, like renting text links or spamming blog comments."
According to Shannon, Google has rejected two requests for reconsideration. He characterized the company's response as a form letter that said only that Oh My Dog is in violation of the search engine's rules, but did not specify which rules Oh My Dog was violating. Shannon assumes it's either content on the Oh My Dog website or the links to it from elsewhere on the Internet. But he's no longer trying to figure it out--he's simply packing up and moving on.
The online store will soon abandon its prior address and re-launch with a slightly different domain name: OhMyDogSupply.com. It has no plans to do any intentional SEO, but instead will focus its marketing efforts on social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
"It's going to be a much more social approach than we've ever done before," Shannon said. He also knows that approach will require much more patience. The person who searches "dog bowl" on Google probably wants to buy a dog bowl. The person who clicks on a dog photo on Facebook might just think it's cute. "It's a much longer-term strategy," he said. "We're just trying to scrape by until we get something working."
Every company needs a social networking policy, but don't stifle creativity and productivity with too much formality. Also in the debut, all-digital Social Media For Grownups issue of The BrainYard: The proper tools help in setting social networking policy for your company and ensure that you'll be able to follow through. (Free with registration.)
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 14, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program.