The beginning of 2014 marks four years that I’ve been with Commerce Kitchen. I started working with Tynan, Jamie, and crew just two months after I moved back to Colorado from Los Angeles, where my daughter had been born the previous July and where I had just finished grad school.
When I started doing search engine optimization I was excited about understanding the formulas behind it. I wanted to know all the details of how a website gets ranked, and I wanted to master the techniques and tricks that would push it to the top five of the SERPs.
With Tynan’s guidance I read everything from SEOmoz (now Moz), Search Engine Land, and other SEO blogs–both white and gray hat–and began learning the ins and outs of various optimization tools, keyword tools, link finding tools, and more.
For a while I tried everything. We had a system for finding local links, then Google changed local. We had a time-consuming, but effective method for researching and securing competitive links, but then we realized that so many of these links were low-quality links that competitors has purchased, traded, or obtained in ways that violated Google’s webmaster guidelines.
We were able to get our clients sites ranked for many different keyphrases, then Google took away keyword data for searchers logged in to Google. This meant we lost most direct keyword data.
I experimented with Commerce Kitchen. I played around with every strange SEO trick out there so I knew what they were all about before deciding whether or not they were a good idea for our clients. I bought Twitter followers, hired an external link-building company, experimented with addresses closer to city centers, and did pretty much any trendy thing just to see. Just to know.
One year after I started doing SEO, Google released the Panda algorithm update. SEOs were divided into two camps: those whose sites were affected by the update and those whose weren’t. Our sites did fine through Panda, and despite the battle cry of the white hat SEOs who finally felt vindicated, many sites engaging in black hat tactics were doing just fine.
My competitive research still showed that horrible websites with horrible SEO tricks that blatantly violated Google’s rules were ranking number one. Being more inclined toward ethical SEO, despite my flirtations with the dark side (I was a tourist there anyway), I joined the indignant and frustrated ranks of those who wanted to do effective SEO but do it ethically.
The summer after Panda I went to my first MozCon in Seattle and felt inspired by all the cool things SEOs were doing. Then as soon as I returned home and began working on overtaking the competition I was once again disheartened. Bad SEO still worked. It was cheap, it was fast, it was mean, and it worked.
The Penguin algorithm update came a few months later, but by this point I started reconsidering how I was approaching SEO. Google would continue to change its algorithm, unethical SEOs would continue to exploit whatever they could, and I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of that. The quick fix of an unethical SEO is devastating to a business in the long run, but so many businesses who are obsessed with their rankings want something that only an unethical SEO can offer.
I began looking at my work as something different. I can’t call myself an SEO any more. I don’t want to.
My work in SEO has opened up an entirely new way of understanding business, and for that I’m grateful for all the research, all the experimenting, the conferences, the blogs, the forums, the community. Where SEO is concerned with organic search traffic, I’m now concerned with marketing that works.
Sometimes SEO doesn’t work, despite rankings.
What I mean is this: ranking well in organic search may not get your business the clients you need. This is true for Commerce Kitchen and this is true for many of our clients. The leads we get from organic search are rarely leads that turn into true conversions, whereas the leads we get from referrals have a much greater chance of becoming valuable relationships.
Organic search can bring a good amount of traffic to your site, and it can even result in online conversions, but we must go beyond this. If a conversion is determined to be someone filling out a contact form on your website, then your organic conversions may be through the roof.
But don’t stop there. Find out which of those online conversions are actually worth something to you. Follow the trail from first contact to last payment. Put a price on these conversions. Then decide how important it is to spend your entire marketing budget on ranking well in organic search instead of working on a well-developed referral strategy, developing an outreach campaign, finding speaking opportunities, doing paid advertising, networking with other businesses, hosting events, and on and on.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think about semantic markup, good website architecture, and links. I think about these things constantly. But they’re part of a larger strategy to do marketing that works for each individual business, based on data that comes directly from each business and based on my knowledge of what online communities respond to and why.
I have to say I’m very happy with the evolution of my career. The things I initially liked about SEO (the need to constantly learn and adjust, the freshness of the industry, the creativity) are even more true now. I can work with my brilliant team to create full-blown marketing strategies crafted specially for each client.
I love that.
It’s fun, it’s exciting, and most of all it makes so much more sense to do marketing that works.