Posted by bookworm seo

With every tweak and change that Google brings to its search result pages, the "potential-ROI" balance on search tips ever more towards PPC and away from SEO. I realized this when I read Aaron Wall’s Marketing Lessons from Google.

Search marketing leaders demand results, so it’s irrelevant that the means of practicing SEO remain the same. What is relevant is that Google is decreasing the ability of SEO to provide stable, measurable results. As Aaron points out in his post, Google seeks to undermine competing business models.

Aaron’s written before about how Google has been promoting informational results to encourage marketers to buy AdWords, but I always dismissed that as standard SEO-Wikipedia-jealousy. Of course, Aaron’s discrete about the industries he works in (though his frequent mortgage-oriented posts are probably a good hint), so I couldn’t compare notes, making it harder to appraise the accuracy of his argument. 

But as Rand’s bullet list indicated, it’s not just about demoting e-commerce sites. Consider the effect of the following:

  • Multiple images listed at the top of the search results
  • Side-by-side video blocks (from YouTube, naturally), often in the top three positions
  • Greater Google Books distribution through Google’s search results lately, which has (affiliate?) links to Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and certain other book stores
  • News articles and other Onebox items
  • Personalized results making sites that aren’t even in the top 100 otherwise show up top 10
  • Further personalization of the search results as users manipulate their own listings
  • Geo-targeting making results change even within cities and certainly across regions and countries – this is huge, imho
  • Maps featuring all your competition, including those that aren’t even online with a website

The effect is that a number 1 ranking is no longer a #1 ranking. It’s a #1 ranking on your computer while you’re in that city…until tomorrow when some jerk uploads pictures to his authority site, while you’re logged in, as your keywords stay out of the news, and until the next algo tweak decides your link profile sucks …

Risk scares people sh*tless. PPC alreadyhas most of the corporate search marketing budget cornered because you’re guaranteed X clicks so long as you bid roughly the same amount. Plus Google keeps producing ‘lite’ versions of industry tools that help people optimize their spend (unknowingly helping Google skim part of that back through AdWords, perhaps…)  .

All these changes introduce more risk and more uncertainty into the SEO equation. Not to mention that as people get used to generally relevant results, they stop scrolling and places 6-10 decrease in value to where a 5-result SERP wouldn’t bother folks. Thus, SEOs have to compete harder as the zero-sum game divides the spoils even more sharply.

It’s why I couldn’t cut a deal with Action Coach, a business coaching company that approached me for SEO services to help them rank in Google.ca.

Their site is already ranking #1 in Google.com. (Uh, at least when you turn off personalized search and check the American – not Canadian – Google.com.) So I should have been ecstatic to gather the low-hanging fruit and rank them in Canada, right?

Well, my philosophy towards SEO is that I want a win-win for the client and myself. So if I don’t think the ROI potential looks good, I’ll tell them. My Toronto SEO friend Dev Basu and I were just discussing this last night, discovering that we both decline leads where the search volume is too low to justify the SEO spend. And I’m proud to say that I’ve always included testing with paid search before running SEO in my proposals. Which is where things stuck, I believe, with Action Coach.

The search volume for their keywords is dramatically less here in Canada than it is in the US or elsewhere. And while I might be ignorant, I’ve yet to see research indicating that ROI on a set keyword is equivalent across regions or countries. If anything, AdWords’ geotargeting capabilities suggest the opposite. 

So when I wrote in the proposal that I wasn’t prepared to take on the contract unless we tested via AdWords first (which, in not responding, it seems they declined to do)… That’s not to say there isn’t some value in measuring ROI based on rankings, but that’s diminishing every day as they fluctuate constantly. It’s already hell to project how your SEO ROI is going to look, and the trend towards it is only getting worse. 

The next time a panel moderator asks that generic "Where will search be in 5 years?" question, the answer should be obvious: organic will be even more fractured, so therefore you had better be a PPC Rockstar by then.

p.s. @ Rand – Please don’t take this personally. I wouldn’t be fortunate enough to do SEO at all if SEOmoz hadn’t taught me so much when I was a newb. And I’m fully aware that you’re still light years ahead of me in this game, as this eye-opener demonstrated :). 

@YOUmoz readers: Please, make it worthwhile for myself and others to keep writing for you guys. Take a minute to thumb, comment, Sphinn, get YOUmoz’s RSS feed or <shameless plug> swing by my blog (go search for it 🙂 ) for more</shamelessness>.

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