11:22 AM
Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey

Why These SMBs Say No To SEO

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.

5 Social Networks To Achieve 10 Business Tasks
5 Social Networks To Achieve 10 Business Tasks
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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 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.

[ For more on SEO for small business, see SEO For SMBs: 7 Timely Tips. ]

"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.

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 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 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: 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.)

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