A generation or so ago, a certain type of business owner made it a priority to choose a name that started with the letter “A” (or preferably multiple “As”) so that they would be listed first in the Yellow Pages. Thus were born a host of companies with names like “A All-Valley Plumbing” (yes, that’s a real business in my home town), “AA Financial Enterprises” (ditto), and one of the best-known examples: “AAA” (the American Automobile Association). How much this strategy contributed to their success is open to debate. Some of these companies have survived for decades, others haven’t. Meanwhile, many businesses that don’t start with “A”, “B”, or even “K” are thriving, including alphabetically-challenged firms like Wal-Mart, Verizon and Zappos.com (though to be fair, Zappos succeeded well enough to be purchased by A-list giant Amazon.com).
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the modern equivalent of this marketing ploy, albeit a far more complicated and expensive one. The moving target of SEO is to “own” certain search terms so effectively that you show up first — or at least on the first page — when a user types in the magic keywords.
There are compelling arguments for certain brands to invest heavily in SEO, but is it worthwhile for a solo creative professional or small design firm? Here are seven things to consider before you dive down the SEO rabbit hole:
Is quantity or quality your goal?
Fans of SEO are quick to point out that it generates more web traffic. But is it the right kind of traffic? A “successful” SEO strategy can end up wasting a lot of your time if it simply spawns a lot of low-quality leads. People who search for creative services using nothing more than a Google search are often looking for the lowest price or the quickest fix, and frequently fail to recognize the value of a professional’s talents, experience, unique perspective or specializations.
Can you compete against companies with deep pockets?
If a solo creative’s SEO efforts can be compared to a fishing rod, the corporate equivalent is a fleet of trawlers operating further offshore. Stated more simply, if the search terms you’re angling for are also coveted by a big-budget brand, you may not be able to afford the SEO game. Big companies have big bucks to invest in paid search ads and can afford to hire dedicated SEO teams. You might be able to beat the big guys by selecting your keywords carefully. Maybe. Even words like “freelance”, “designer”, “copywriter” and “independent” are being played by web services that want to be the middleman between companies and solos, so you may need to start your keyword search somewhere else.
Are you faster than Google?
Google’s search algorithm changes 500-600 times a year — sometimes as often as 2-3 times a day — to keep their search results as relevant as possible and foil those who try to game the system. This makes many SEO strategies vulnerable to change at any time. What gets you on page one today may not work tomorrow, or even later today.
Can you entice search engines without discouraging buyers?
Remember those radio ads that mentioned the product name five times in 60 seconds? I don’t either, because this kind of “numbers game” mentality handicaps even the best copywriters. SEO methodologies can create similar risks by shifting your writer’s emphasis from persuading a potential buyer to persuading a search engine. This can be particularly damaging if the result is unreadable by the people you want to reach most, because even if they find you they’ll move on just as quickly. Never forget that you’re writing for humans.
Are you willing to do the follow-up work?
Counting hits, opens, likes or whatever isn’t enough. You’ll need to track the quality of your SEO results. Is your SEO campaign attracting the right customers? Are they just clicking, or are they actually reading, sharing, using and best of all buying as a result of your efforts? If you don’t have a way to follow this data or the time to commit to tracking it, you’re leaving most of the value of SEO on the table.
Are you willing to keep up with technology?
As the web becomes increasingly mobile and app-driven, consumers are loosing patience with the need to tap text into phones and tablets. That’s already driving big innovations in voice recognition, photo search, and anticipatory computing systems like Siri and Google Now. Facebook recently acquired voice-recognition start-up Wit.ai for the same reason, anticipating more voice recognition demand not only in phones and tablets, but in vehicles, appliances, and smart homes. These trends are likely to spell changes for the SEO game in the near future.
Are there better investments for your time and money?
Whether you do it yourself or pay someone else to manage it for you, SEO is probably going to cost you time, money or both. The cost may be worth it, but consider the value of other options before you commit. Is SEO likely to be a better value than targeted or localized content marketing? What about networking at events that attract high-potential prospects? Consider too, the very best SEO strategy, recommended by Google itself: posting useful, highly-relevant content on a regular basis.