Why Clients Still Buy SEO? 13 Experts On the Value of SEO Today
Is there still value in SEO today?
Do clients still believe in it?
Can SEO exist on its own today or has been merged into other marketing disciplines?
If you wondered about any of those things as well or perhaps would like to know how clients perceive SEO services today, this post is for you.
Wondering about the value of SEO myself, I decided to find out what industry leaders think on the subject. In my research I asked a group of experts two open ended questions. Below is the actual email everyone received (I only cut out my introduction, didn’t feel I need to present it here):
“I am especially interested in how customers perceive SEO after all recent Google changes: updates, penalties, changes to SERPs etc. The post will be published on https://blog.SERPs.com.
Value is generally understood as what customers perceive to be the reason (or benefits) to buy a particular product or a service. It is often described using a simple formula:
Value = benefits (what I get) – costs (how much it costs me (in money, time, convenience etc.) to get it)
What I would like to find out is, how, from your experience as a practitioner customers perceive the value of SEO today. Is it still seen as an independent marketing strategy or a part of a larger mix? Also, why they still buy our services, especially after so many obstacles from Google and unpredictability of the results.
Lastly, what do you think SEO companies should be doing to increase the perceived value of SEO?”
Who responded (in alphabetic order):
- Jason Acidre – Co-founder/CEO Xight Interactive / Author at Keiserthesage.com
- Tad Chef – Blogger from seo2.us
- Annie Cushing – Analytics Expert at Annielytics
- Brian Dean – Link builder and SEO at Backlinko
- Nick Eubanks – Owner at SEONick.net
- Matt Fielding – SEO Manager at Custard Online Marketing
- Julie Joyce – Owner at Link Fish Media
- Stephen Kenwright – Content Marketing Strategist at Branded3
- Scott Krager – CEO of SERPs.com
- Paul May – Co-founder of Buzzstream
- Paddy Moogan – SEO Consultant at Distilled, Author of the Link Building Book
- Bill Sebald – Owner at Greenlane SEO
- Dan Sharp – Founder and Director at ScreamingFrog.co.uk
Here are their answers:
As a practitioner and a business owner who’s also investing in SEO (and being able to get almost over half of our business leads from it), I believe that SEO – as a marketing platform and a business investment – still holds and provides tremendous value to any type of business.
SEO as a practice is continuously evolving. It’s getting more difficult along the changes that search engines implement not just to their ranking algorithms, but also with how Google is redefining the search experience (through more complex search results and very detailed snippet displays).
And for as long as people are searching for something (product, service, and information they need), SEO will be there and just keep on growing – also given that people are getting more reliant with search engines and the Internet as a whole.
The value is certainly there, since search has proven itself to be a strong channel for customer acquisition long before. Keeping up with the constant changes is not the problem, in my opinion. The only question is if your business is really up to it for the long haul? Because like any other investments, it’ll require time/budget/hard work before you get the most value from it.
Q: What, from your experience as a practitioner is the value of SEO today?
A: SEO today is the glue of different approaches to get traffic, conversions and sales on the Web. It’s about
- customer acquisition.
Now that SEO has become so hard that only real experts are good at it the number of SEO service providers will dwindle. Also the competition in the remaining SERPs (after all most of Google page 1 is ads and Google services now) becomes less fierce due to the chaff being sorted out by many Google updates. So the quick and dirty shortcut SEOs will be gone soon. Many have already rebranded and are posing as marketers instead. Personally I’d advise you to work with real marketers with university degrees in marketing or sales instead of self-styled marketers formerly known as SEOs.
You still need someone for SEO though so that the Internet aspects you can optimize get taken care of.
So while indeed the value of SEO gets diminished by Google updates and the tendency to remove search results altogether the value of
- optimized headlines be it for social media audiences or searchers
- the technical functionality of your site
- website speed and performance
- user experience and conversion friendly features
- the need to promote your content creatively
are still best optimized and implemented by versatile high quality SEOs who have been blogging, fixing sites and link baiting for years.
Q: Why do people buy those services, especially after so many obstacles from Google and unpredictability of the industry?
A: SEO is still the unique selling proposition many businesses don’t have. Today everybody has clean design, great content, social media presence and solid marketing. So how do you differentiate? SEO can still give you the competitive advantage the others don’t have. At least when you find the few competent SEO specialists there are.
I think decision makers’ perception of SEO is largely dependent on their own experience with it or what they’ve head from colleagues who have enlisted the help of an SEO contractor or agency. For those who received short-sighted SEO services, such as overly aggressive or shady link building, and have gotten burned, the perception is that buying SEO services is like scooping fire into your lap. Those who had the benefit of a practitioner who encouraged them to focus on sustainable endeavors, like content creation, information architecture, and usability, probably have a much more positive perception, which they then pass on.
Also, why they still buy our services, especially after so many obstacles from Google and unpredictability of the results.
For many companies, moving up even a few spots in Google for their money terms can unleash a firehose of revenue and opportunity for them. So they weigh the risks and proceed accordingly.
Lastly, what do you think SEO companies should be doing to increase the perceived value of SEO?
Stop taking unnecessary risks with money that isn’t theirs. I think of the money companies entrust to me as someone’s reallocated college fund for their kids or retirement savings. If I feel like an engagement is starting to lull and a company isn’t implementing the recommendations I’ve already laid out, I put the engagement on hold and encourage them to come back when they’ve gotten through what I’ve already given them. It can take clients aback because sometimes they feel like they’re getting fired. But I refuse to work a campaign I can’t win at because my goal is to never waste someone else’s money. I’m not setting myself up as a leader to be emulated, but I do think if more practitioners made a commitment to only take on (and keep) clients they can actually help, the overall reputation of our industry might experience a boon.
The perceived value of SEO in general has dropped significantly post-Penguin. On the other hand, the value of REALLY GOOD SEO has skyrocketed.
Because the value that average SEOs bring to the table is next to nothing, and can even get into negative territory when you factor penalties into the mix. On the other hand, the select few that are true SEO experts can charge ridiculous rates (and get them).
Although SEO is ideally part of a larger marketing strategy, it’s still treated fairly independently. SEO worked really well for MANY years as an independent part of a site’s operations. That’s why it will take some time for SEOs to get integrated into a marketing team.
People still invest in SEO services despite the cost and risk because a) Half of all internet traffic starts on Google and b) that search engine traffic converts like crazy. There’s no good replacement for that traffic.
SEO companies can increase their perceived value by either positioning themselves as a top 5% SEO firm or re-branding as a one-stop-shopping inbound and content marketing solution.
I think SEO has evolved to be one of the sharper tools in a marketer’s toolbox. It’s should never be the lion’s share of the budget, but depending on the vertical market, competition, and nature of the business objectives – organic search still offers a lot of opportunity to get your brand in front of your target audience at any stage in the conversion funnel. The core value created by SEO is that once you reach break-even on a specific optimization campaign, search results can continue to send qualified traffic to your site and create new customers, continuing to add value and deliver return far into the future.
To increase the perceived value of SEO I think vendors need to spend more time reporting on the hard dollars that their campaigns have delivered. In particular I think there needs to be more detailed reporting, more case studies tying specific changes in rankings to increased traffic, conversions, and revenue – and tests showing the net impact of organic search campaigns.
While we have been in conversation with businesses who have given up on SEO in favour of PPC, they are the exception. In general, when people don’t see results from their current agency they look around for other providers rather than throwing in the towel altogether.
When clients are happy and seeing a return on our services through their organic search traffic, they stick around. Google might take a little away from them now and then but even those who have been completely wiped out by manual actions realise that there is a way out of a penalty and choose to pursue this. While they may have to dedicate some additional spend to the removal of a penalty, they see the long-term benefit of search visibility and are generally willing to invest in getting it back.
To increase the perceived value of SEO, we should stop talking about rankings and measure something that makes a tangible difference to someone’s business. Our motto is quickly becoming ‘KPIs, not keywords’ and I think that’s what SEOs should concentrate on. Leverage the longtail by transferring all available knowledge and expertise from your client’s brain to your website, and watch the traffic roll in. If you make it engaging enough, revenue will follow!
I think that most clients have a good understanding of the value of SEO but at the same time, they don’t always understand what it takes to do a good job, and what it costs, labor-wise. They see loads of companies offering low rates and that’s appealing to them even though those companies may have very little experience and can end up causing harm to the sites. We tend to work just on links, so usually we are regarded as being a little independent group that doesn’t need to work with anyone else, and I think that’s a shame. Our efforts would be maximized if clients let us have a bigger say in other marketing efforts I think, but since links are still regarded as something that’s just off-page, it’s difficult to get them to pay attention. If we’re building links to a page and it’s ranking in the top 3 but the CTR is incredibly low, that says that we’ve done our part but that someone else needs to do something to maximize the ROI, but…we’re link builders. It’s still a big battle to fight.
It’s funny how whenever there’s a big Google change, we get more clients who want to buy links. It happens every single time. We might have a day or two after a big announcement where it’s quiet but then it starts again. They don’t initially say they want to buy links so our usual first proposal is not for paid links, but it almost always ends up coming around to that. I think it’s the only way clients feel like they are in control of the links.
I think we all need to better educate our clients, as we get busy and just do our jobs. I’ve had a very bad experience with recognizing some site problems, nothing to do with us, and alerting the clients, only to get blamed for them even when it was obvious that these issues had nothing to do with us. We sounded the alarm, you see. It has made me more reluctant to speak up to be honest, and I do get tired of taking the time to explain why something could be done to help our efforts, something very simple that would take 5 minutes, and it’s met with a “just build the links and bill me” response. However, I definitely believe that it’s my job to educate the clients, so in the end it’s my mess to sort. I think that if SEOs better understand areas outside of their own niches, it’s easier to see the bigger picture, and if we keep pushing clients to listen to us when we can present a broader idea of how things should go, it will be beneficial to all of us.
SEO now only delivers strong ROI when it’s combined with good design and great content. Businesses generally accept that they have to spend on SEO as part of a wider digital marketing strategy; those that have previously just invested heavily in low quality linkbuilding and not much else are struggling because they’re having to spend more on design, content, social, CRO and so on…the companies that have always done a good job with these things seem to be finding more value in SEO now because it fits in with their strategies. The best SEOs feed off a company’s own PR and social efforts to deliver better quality links more consistently, and have a better understanding of how design and development impact conversions.
The biggest challenge is that we have to measure things in a way that’s at odds to how we’ve traditionally reported on our efforts. More education on dealing with (not provided) is helpful…what’s more important in increasing the perceived value of SEO is for the industry to be more vocal about how it fits into the wider marketing strategy. Clients think the SEO agency still sits quietly in a dark corner and only reports on activity once per month, and that can’t be the case anymore.
Companies still buy SEO services because the value of an organic visitor can often be 10x or 100x that of a visitor from social media or other more sexy mediums. Businesses ultimately care aboout business results: new revenue, new leads. Organic traffic can deliver those real results and so savvy businesses will always want more.
I’ve definitly seen a shift with business moving more and more SEO functions in-house. Either they got burned by an outside agency, or they realized how core a stragic value SEO is to their business and wanted that core value inside their own company.
Let me begin by saying we’re a software provider in the space – we don’t provide SEO services. (Many people are better at that than us.)
As far as: is it an independent strategy or part of a larger mix?
We see it as part of a larger mix, as just one method of influencing the customer journey. Rather than an independent strategy, we think SEO should be integrated broadly into content marketing, social marketing, blogging, support, and everything else you do that touches a customer. Many people still start their investigation of new solutions in the search box, but often they’re looking for information about the space as whole, comparative information, best practices, and more. In some ways, SEO should be a layer across every part of the organization that produces content, rather than a silo.
SEO companies that can make this transition to full-on consultants that help clients understand how search affects their business and how they can best position themselves in results to drive revenue and reduce costs will have a long and fruitful future.
SEO companies should develop more core competency in metrics and customer insight – not just web metrics but things like share of voice measurement and mapping customer journeys to keywords – to be able to show how their work directly affects the bottom line.
They should also act like next-level PR and content marketing agencies, and develop core abilities in building relationships with web influencers, as well as being able to create content that stands out (that Seth Godin would describe as remarkable) – in ideas, design, and more.
The clients that we’re working with more and more are interested in long-term results. This means that our work is looking more and more like good marketing as opposed to pure SEO. This takes away many of the risks and makes it less likely that the client will be hit by penalties and even though things are still unpredictable, clients are still happy to invest in our services when they know it is a long term strategy. They appreciate the value of long-term thinking and appreciate that short-term, quick wins that may violate search engine guidelines are far riskier than they used to be.
In terms of what companies should be doing to increase the perceived value of SEO, I think that moving away from older methods of reporting such as rank checking, number of links etc will help us a lot. Instead, if we focus on traffic, conversions and revenue, we will be talking the same language as the c-suite of the client and show that SEO (and online marketing in general) can add serious revenue to the bottom line of a business.
All the recent index and algorithm changes didn’t seem to slow down our flow of prospects. If anything, it made them a bit wiser – in a great way. Perhaps the cute animal names have leaked more into the mainstream and gotten on website owners’ radars, and ultimately helped the SEO industry. It seems many of our current prospects seem to know something about these updates, which possible helps qualify them for services that are more long-term. I find prospects now seem to understand backlinking and the value of smart content more so than before. They understand the difference between white and black-hat SEO (even if they don’t know those specific labels). Definitely a bit of a change over five years ago, where introductory conversations were heavier on educating the client on what SEO really was.
In my past life in an ROI agency, most the clients looked at SEO very black or white. “If I give you $10,000 a month, how much will you give (guarantee) me?” I still come across that mentality once in a while, but not nearly as often. Most of the business owners I come across now understand SEO is not an advertising channel per se, and more of a universe where many different digital marketing channels connect. Despite all the “SEO is Dead” articles that continually roll out, I’m glad to see most savvier businesses don’t believe it. To their credit, they have the sense to look around and see that optimization is still very much required to compete in natural search. I’m also quite happy to see that the Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird updates seem to only be encouraging business owners to think smarter about their website values, and discourage “phoning it in”.
I think savvy businesses still understand the value that SEO can bring, even though it’s harder than it used to be to ‘cut corners’ with techniques that would get you burnt today or measure performance with (not provided).
You could argue that due to the changes, extra complexity and unpredictability, there is actually a greater need now for SEO expertise and someone who can take ownership and be responsible for the channel, whether internally or externally via an agency. Paid search is saturated and while SEO won’t be the right for every business, there is still plenty of opportunity organically, when performed in the right way.
Also, what do you think SEO companies should be doing to increase the perceived value of SEO?
I believe it’s important to be realistic first of all and education goes a long way. Some SEO companies are already demonstrating their value in new ways, in terms of actual measurement, attribution and reporting on real things that matter to a particular business. This has its challenges, but so does every channel.
What do you think?
Do you think there is any value for clients in SEO today? Why they still buy it? I would love to hear your thoughts on this too.