Looking to succeed online? Be guided by these three words

At the turn of the year I wrote a post on this blog hoping predicting that the impending recession would see many of the aptly named ‘snake-oil SEO salesman’ go out of business as buyers become more aware of what is required to succeed in search engine marketing and in particular, demand that companies have both the ability and track record in delivering ROI.

Unfortunately, the reports I am hearing suggest that this is not the case. If anything even more companies and individuals appear to be popping up offering ‘guaranteed top search engine rankings’ and ‘top website ranks’. I said back at the turn of the year and I repeat it again now; sometimes I just want to find these people and wring their necks. They prey on the naivety of what remains a relatively uninformed audience, they rarely deliver, don’t even pay up on their ‘guarantees’ when they don’t deliver (due to their cleverly written contracts), devalue the better agencies and ultimately inflict great damage on the reputation of the search industry.

So in light of the fact that the recession seems to be breeding, not wiping out, the ‘snake-oil salesmen’, please, please take heed of my advice; there are no magic formula’s, tricks or otherwise to achieving online success, especially where search engines are concerned. If it sounds too good to be true…that’s because it is. No search engine marketer can guarantee any ranking, for any keyword, on any search engine – FACT.

To get some perspective, and avoid bad decision making, I recommend going back to the ‘old school’. If you ever studied marketing at university do you remember reading about the customer life cycle? Although, admittedly, I have forgotten a great deal of what I learnt at university (nothing to do with the cheap alcohol, honest), the customer life cycle has always stuck with me. If you are not familiar with it, it is a term used to describe the steps a customer goes through when considering, purchasing and maintaining loyalty to a product or service. This theory is as relevant today as the day it was written but for reasons unbeknown to me is often left at the door when considering a search engine marketing strategy. Too many people; agencies, clients and especially those nasty ‘snake oil salesman’, are still focused on gaining search engine rankings; nothing else, just being well placed on the search engines. But to successfully grow your business through the web you must consider what happens once you have got the traffic to your website and also how you maintain a relationship with those people who do choose to buy from you.

So lets look at three stages of the customer life cycle that should arm you with an overriding strategic formula that separates the long term approach that is necessary to achieve online success from the short term nonsense spouted by ‘snake oil man’.

This is concerned with driving targeted traffic to your website. The amount of traffic will depend to a large extent on your ‘reach’; in simple terms how far and wide you can spread your message so as to engage your target audience and bring them back to your website.

Search engines are at the very centre of a successful acquisition strategy but search engine marketing cannot operate in isolation. An effective online marketing strategy combines search engine marketing with social media and content strategies to maximise reach. The last year or two has seen the gradual convergence of these channels to the point where one cannot operate in isolation of the other two. A piece of video content for example, can be used to engage your audience on your own website. However, it can also be used to enter a social space, such as YouTube. In turn, Google index the content and feature the video in their search results.

It’s all very well driving targeted traffic to your website. But turning these visitors into customers is an altogether different challenge and can only be achieved by delivering an intuitive user-experience along with engaging content, and of course an offering that is different to that of your competitors. Therefore, when we talk of the word ‘optimisation’ it should be used to describe not optimising for search engines but optimising for visitors. Question an agency about their approach to optimisation; what are they doing to improve the user-experience? What content do they suggest can be added to the site to make it a better resource for website visitors? If they are only interested in stuffing the copy you already have with numerous occurrences of a keyword or adding some Meta tags to your site, it’s time to walk away.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that optimisation is not a one time hit. It is a continual process where changes are made to your site based on analysis of stats, such as Google Analytics, user-testing and the inevitable shifts in your business, competitors, search engines and the Internet at large.

Repeat business is an essential component in achieving online success because as the old adage states, it is a great deal cheaper, and easier, to sell to somebody who has bought from you previously than to somebody who hasn’t at all.

To encourage repeat sales you must deliver great service and an engaging overall experience with your brand. In an age where social media sites, such as blogs, forums and review sites offer an open invitation for customers to say both good and bad things about your business, products/services and market at large, you must deliver on your promises. At the same time you must also embrace social media and other tools, such as email, as a means of creating open dialogue with your customers and prospects.

By focusing on these key stages of the customer life cycle you can increase ‘reach’ and therefore targeted traffic to your website. Through initial, and ongoing, optimisation of your website you will improve conversion rates leading to increased sales. By analysing your post-sales processes and communication with customers you can improve customer retention rates therefore maximising the revenue generated by your website and returns for your digital spend.

Of course, so as not to turn this into a dissertation, I have really only touched on each of these stages and what each of them entails. But I hope that it will go some way to showing there is no magic formula to achieving success through search engine marketing (unless you want to call the customer lifecycle itself a formula!). So, in making a decision on an agency or indeed any marketing decisions that you take in-house, go back to the marketing books you studied at university and start applying old-school theory to new-school environments. Because ultimately, nothing has changed other than the environment you are selling in. You have a product, an audience and a means of getting your message to them. In choosing to engage with your company, the customer still works through the same buying cycle as they did in 1978. So get back to basics, use common sense and let’s rid the industry once and for all of ‘snake oil man’. Because as I stated in my last article on this topic, if you are not educated and therefore fooled into buying crap, there will always be people only too willing to sell it to you!

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