Why SEO Never Lived Up To Its Potential

IAB Canada President Chris Williams asked me a great question last week.

We had just finished presenting the results of the new eye tracking study I told you about in my last three columns. I had mentioned that about 84% of all the clicks on the page in the study were on some type of nonpaid result. I had also polled the audience of some 400-plus Internet marketers about how many were doing some type of organic optimization. A smattering of hands (which, in case you’re wondering, is somewhere south of a dozen, or about 3% of the audience) went up.

Williams picked up on the disconnect right away. “We have a multibillion-dollar interactive advertising industry here in Canada, and you’re telling me [on search at least] that only represents about 16% of the potential traffic? Why isn’t SEO a massive industry?”



As I said -- great question. I wish I had responded with a great answer. But the best I could do fell well short of the mark: “Uhh..well…[pick up slight whining tone at this point] SEO is just really, really hard!”

OK, maybe I was slightly more eloquent than that, but the substance of my reply was essentially that flimsy. SEO is a backbreaking way to earn a living, whether you’re a lone consultant, an agency, or an in-house marketer.

Coincidentally, I was also in an inaugural call last week with a dear friend of mine who asked me to serve on the advisory board of his successful digital agency. I asked if the agency offered SEO services. I got the same answer: SEO was just too hard to make it profitable. The company dropped SEO a few years ago from its services portfolio.

It Was a Case of Showing Search the Money

The potential value of SEO hasn’t changed in the almost 20 years since I started in this biz. In fact, it’s probably greater than ever. But SEO never seems to gain traction. The reason becomes clear when you start following the money. (which became Overture, which was swallowed by Yahoo) sealed SEO’s fate when it started auctioning off search ads in 1998.  Google eventually followed suit in 2000 -- and the rest, along with SEO, was history.

Even devout SEOers (myself included) eventually followed the money trail to the paid side of the house. The reasons why were abundantly and painfully clear when you consider this one particular example. We had the SEO contract for one fFortune 500 brand that brought in about $300K annually. At the time, it would have been our biggest SEO contract, but it was also resource-intensive. We had an entire team working on it. We did well, securing a number of first-page results for some very high-traffic terms. Based on what analytics we had, it appeared that SEO was driving about 90% of the traffic and was converting substantially better than any other traffic source, including paid search. This translated into hundreds of millions of dollars in business yearly. But we could never seem to grow our contract beyond that $300K ceiling.

Paid search was another story. From fairly humble beginnings, that same brand became one of Google’s top advertisers, spending over $30 million per year. The management of that contract became a multimillion-dollar account. Unfortunately, it wasn’t our account. It belonged to another agency -- a much smarter and more profitable agency.

Why We Got Pigeon-Holed with SEO

If, as a service provider, you live and die by SEO, it’s probable that you’ll end up dying by SEO. Here’s why. To gain any traction, you need to have influence over almost every aspect of the business. SEO has to become systemic. It has to be baked into the way an organization does business. It can’t be done as window dressing.

Most organizations don’t get that. They get tantalized by initial easy wins: things like cleaning up code, improving crawlability and doing some basic content optimization. Organic traffic skyrockets and everyone cheers. Life is good. But then it gets hard. The next step means rolling up your sleeves and diving deep into the guts of the organization. And if that organization isn’t ready to open the kimono to the SEO consultant at all levels, you hit a brick wall. This is typically where the organization falls prey to more unscrupulous SEO promises and practices from other vendors, which invariably get slammed by a future algo-update. And that brings us to the last challenge for SEO.

Flip Your SEO Coin

Even the best SEOers can get blindsided by Google. A tweak in an algorithm or a shift in ranking factors can drop you like a rock from the first page. And, if the recent study showed anything, it was that you can’t afford to drop from the first page. Traffic can go from a roar to a whisper overnight. That’s tough for the marketing department of an organization to swallow. People in the C-Suite that sign off on a sizable SEO contract have a tough time understanding why their investment suddenly got flushed down Google’s drain, perhaps never to resurface. They love control, and SEO offers anything but. As important as SEO is, it’s not predictable. You can’t bank on it.

So, Chris, thanks for the question. As I said, it was a really good one. And I hope this is a little better answer than the one I came up with on the spot.

4 comments about "Why SEO Never Lived Up To Its Potential".
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  1. Myron Rosmarin from Rosmarin Search Marketing, Inc., October 23, 2014 at 5:41 p.m.

    Soooo, yeah. Extremely well put. It's a really hard problem. The rules keep changing. The clients have unrealistic expectations. You have to be adept at navigating across multiple departments within an organization. You have to be well versed across a number of disciplines including online marketing, web development, data analytics, salesmanship. What's not to love?

  2. Scott Brinker from ion interactive, inc., October 23, 2014 at 6:08 p.m.

    Is this a bug or a feature though? Seems like Google has long been focused on making SEO a "result" of companies doing good things, rather than a search-specific optimization "cause" to generate good rankings. They seem to have gotten what they wanted.

    Now as Google starts to do that with paid search, the world gets interesting for those agencies too...

  3. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, October 24, 2014 at 11:41 a.m.

    Good point Scott. I feel a follow up column coming on!

  4. Steven Arsenault from, October 26, 2014 at 3:15 p.m.

    Scott shone a light on the fact that Google is rewarding companies for what it defines as 'doing good things'. The upshot being that companies are going to wake up to the reality that part of their marketing is really about creating content. Content is everywhere and everything. Reality is I believe that it is a new way of thinking. Web sites will change from static non changine pages to living villages of information create both by marketing and the communities these smart companies create run by smart platforms the integrate all the touch points. Social networks will be harnessed to raise visibility of corporate web sites from their central core while companies will wake up the the fact that they can engage more that a single blog because different departments have different things to say. Companies will celebrate events with social tools that enable the creation of on the fly micro sites while social casting of events bolsters their corporate visibility in search terms not associated with their business - yet anchored to their local and global markets. Brands will start building their own community as content merges with community - all resulting in commerce. Overall marketing departments will enjoy social tools that turn their sites into social hubs with media calendars that schedule content delivery while big data monitors social and SEO results across the Internet. All of these processes for smart companies of the future really effectively manage and harvest valuable various forms of content that make their dynamic, ever changing web properties alive for search to follow and reward with high volume SEO results over thousands of search terms.

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