If you have the budget resources the best time to hire an SEO is before you start your website projects. However, most people new to the web lack the cashflow needed to buy quality SEO services. Further if they don't understand the complexities of the market and get bombarded with cheap (and low to no value) SEO package offers from web hosts, registrars, and email spammers they may think SEO should be cheap and easy, causing them to buy garbage - and become distrusting of the concept of SEO.
Your best bet (if you are new to the SEO field) is to do as many of the following as are practical
start a test Google AdWords campaign (and use the conversion feedback from this to help inform your SEO strategy)
if you are in a competitive AdWords market you might also want to watch the Google AdWords videos, and read books by guys like Andrew Goodman and Perry Marshall
buy 2 or 3 SEO books from Amazon.com (and see where some of the general tips and ideas overlap...mark up the books and take notes)
join a high caliber SEO membership site
read 5 or 10 of the top SEO blogs for a minimum of a month or 2
go to an SEO conference or 2
...and then from that collection of knowledge you can start building a bit of a strategy, some momentum, and some cash flow. That way if/when you do hire an SEO, you are the type of client who is worth having (ie: one that will receive a positive ROI, one who knows the basics and will make sure suggestions are implemented, and one who is willing to allocate significant resources in the search game).
If you are a small or local player in a fairly non-competitive non-saturated niche (a clue here might be if your AdWords campaign is instantly profitable then the market probably is not too saturated) you might be able to do well hiring an affordable SEO right out of the gate, but when you get down into the lower price bucket for services there is a market for lemons effect and over 99% of the offers are scams.
In spite of claims to the contrary, you can do SEO and SEM yourself, especially if the market is not saturated. More and more companies SEO is getting baked right into their content process and company culture - many companies that hire third party consultants also have an in house SEO team. Search is the highway new customers drive on for the next hundred years. SEO will be taught as a fundamental piece of marketing strategy in the next decade.
The big limitations to doing SEO yourself are if you don't understand some of the risks vs rewards and use a singularly focused SEO strategy then those types of sites can have wildly fluctuating rankings and higher than needed risk levels. The more supports you have the more solid and stable your search rankings will be, but if you just find 1 loophole that works and exploit it aggressively then when it stops working those types of sites can come crashing down.
This is where having an SEO consultant on retainer makes a lot of sense. It prevents some of the oh crap, I just destroyed my business moments that Google shows business owners every day. Think of an SEO consultant on retainer as an insurance policy on your business.
In the last couple days I have had multiple people contact me about their site after it got whacked in Google. That is sorta the wrong time to contact an SEO...it is far better to do so while you still have growth, momentum, and cashflow. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
If your site is banned or filtered then sometimes you have to take a step back before moving forward. A site that was banned for buying too many links will be looked at and evaluated more closely upon review by Google - such reviews take some gray hat opportunities off the table... a significant lasting cost in a competitive set of search results where business is often won or loss on small differences in strategy.
And in many cases where a site was penalized for being too aggressive there are similar techniques that can be used with a far lower risk profile. Hiring an SEO who can help you manage risk and growth while you have momentum (or during the slightest pull back) makes a lot of sense. It is leveraging expertise to help build a stronger foundation and a deeper competitive moat.
But asking them for help after your site is banned is much harder because for them to help you get unbanned they might have to try to ask for some favors or try to leverage their feedback channels they earned with the search engines. If they just keep making requests to get penalties removed then that makes them look pretty spammy, kills those feedback channels, and in some egregious cases penalties can take years to be lifted.
The goal of an SEO is not just to rank your site, but to keep it ranked as the structure of the web changes, Google's business goals change, and your competitive landscape changes. This often means working the gray areas to get a site built up, and then pulling back on the sketchier stuff as momentum is built and solid supports take over the role of pushing up rankings.
Managing risk is probably the singular most undervalued aspect of SEO consulting. Largely because the cost does not appear until it does - and by then it is already too late.
One thing I believe about online marketing (and SEO in particular) is that the more rigid the advice the lower its value, particularly when it is cast out to a general audience. Why? Online marketing incorporates psychology, sociology, game theory, etc. The human mind is complex. Understanding how many of them work together (or against each other) is even more complex.
There are hundreds or thousands of ways to win a market. Each idea is a tool that has potential risks and potential rewards on a per market and per project basis.
Link Building in 2003
With link buying people get emotional and just consider it out of the question. Back when I got started as an SEO, many SEOs were considered spammers simply because they even did any link building at all. Why?
It was amazingly effective.
It was time consuming and expensive work that many established SEOs did not want to do for their clients.
Since then the web graph has got amazingly polluted and paid links are treated similarly to how link building efforts were treated back then.
Few SEO Tips Are Universal
Rand recently stated that he no longer recommends paid links. If you philosophically didn't believe in buying links then why would you spend $1,000,000+ building a web graph of link data? What good is researching all the link data if you take link buying off the table as one of the options? Most of the competing links that you can replicate will require some level of payment.
Sure link buying does not make sense for everyone, but it makes a lot of sense for some businesses. And if you don't buy links then there is little purpose to link research tools, IMHO.
The potential risks & ROI in link buying are not the same for everyone. Saying link buying is off the table is like saying keyword research is off the table. Sure if you are TechCrunch you don't need to do keyword research to succeed, but it still wouldn't hurt to consider it.
Waiting in Obscurity is a Real Cost
Let's say that you are starting a brand new project and have 0 market momentum - a position almost every successful webmaster starts from at some point in time. I don't think there is risk in buying a few links because you have to start from somewhere. Most of the people who launched new websites in the past year will be out of it by the end of next year. The biggest online risk for new webmasters is perpetual obscurity.
While being obscure you are not...
building brand and momentum
building customer loyalty
optimizing conversion flows
catching up with established competitors who are re-investing into growing their businesses
One way or another you have to start doing some push marketing to build momentum. Eventually pull marketing can drag you along, but you don't benefit from it until AFTER you have built some awareness and market momentum.
At Pubcon 2 years ago Stephan Spencer mentioned you might get penalized 5 years from now for links you bought today. I said that I got started in SEO less than 5 years ago and if I didn't buy any links back then I wouldn't be speaking into the microphone right now. I also said that if you get penalized 5 years later for what you did back then well then you didn't build much of a business.
Some SEO consultants who are trying to appear like the safe option (to pull in corporate consulting clients) think that saying they don't recommend link buying makes them look wholesome, but any SEO who has worked for fortune 500s knows that once you get in the board room all that matters is efficacy.
Having wrote that, I can think of numerous instances where we advised clients to approach their overall strategy in a way that was less spammy and less risky than what they were already doing and what they were proposing.
If you don't buy links it is hard to influence the anchor text, particularly if you are doing SEO at the enterprise level AND want to get deep links into commercially oriented pages. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on organic SEO because ranking a few spots higher in Google can be worth a lot of money. If you know a #5 ranking is worth x, then there is a good chance that a #1 ranking can be worth something like 8x.
A Tool is a Tool
Am I advocating that everyone go out and buy links? Not at all. I am just saying that it does not make sense to categorically take it off the table. Link buying is a tool which has various value levels depending what market you are in and how your company is positioned.
Paid links can be a stepping stone or part of your strategy, but rarely should they be your entire strategy. On some client projects we have done we have suggested shifting away from doing as much link buying or reciprocal linking because we felt that the strategy needed to be more holistic and well rounded. It worked, and there was no reason to stop doing what already worked, but going forward it would make sense to leverage some of the brand assets and audience to build other types of links.
Where Link Buying Can Lead You Astray
If link buying is your only SEO strategy it is hard to stay competitive long-term because
if your link profile is nothing but paid links that is risky
if your link profile is nothing but paid links that is easy for competitors to clone
if you are in a big money market some competitors will have other assets to leverage against you in addition
Doing a bit of link buying way back when helped get me some exposure, but it didn't produce the explosive ROI that we got from doing things like going to conferences, networking with people, and launching a bunch of popular SEO tools. Link buying can be considered a support, but the most successful businesses typically have numerous supports.
To build demand, we started asking for email addresses for our alpha 9 months in advance of launch. Then when we had too many people sign up, we asked people to put a little badge that said “I want Mint” on their blogs to get priority access. We got free advertising and 600 link backs which raised our SEO juice.
See how they required links as payment for priority access? Well I would say they got a nice return on those link buys. And so would they. And now that they have so much momentum they can't and won't be penalized for buying links. ;)
Where Link Buying Can Make Sense?
if you are new and have nothing to lose
if your brand & link profile are so big that buying a few links won't stick out
in markets where the competitive barrier set by all the top ranked competitors includes an array of link buying (not saying you should match them link for link, but it might make sense to cherry pick a few of the best opportunities)
getting a few deep links with targeted anchor text
The truth is that getting bad links happens to great sites. We know this happens. In fact, we’ve never seen a decently ranking site that doesn’t have a few (or more) bad inbound links. We take the approach that bad inbound links won’t adversely affect your site ranking unless most or all of your inbound links are from bad sites.
Consider this as well: perhaps the reputation of the site linking to you is bad, but the content on the actual linking page is relevant to the page on your site. This could possibly be a decent inbound link—not as good as one from an authority site, but it might give you a little link goodness.
When it comes to inbound links, just remember this: zero inbound links are better than all bad inbound links. But if you have many good, relevant inbound links from respected sites, a few bad links won’t count against you (but they won’t help you, either).
So in general they look at the overall profile of the business when making editorial decisions and are not likely to penalize you for having a couple bad links. They not only won't penalize you for having a few bad links, but even expect them to be there.
I don't buy all that many links for SEO purposes. But I don't think it is a good perspective for most webmasters to remove the option from their tool set. Had I not bought links back in 2003 and 2004 I am not sure if I would have as big of an audience as I do today.
If you are just starting out and have limited capital you might want to approach link buying creatively (like Mint did), but if SEO is core to your business strategy you shouldn't be afraid to buy a few links.
IIf you could tell the web 2.0/read-write/blogging/crowd-sourcing crowd one thing about search marketing, what would it be?
In a recent talk, given to bloggers, by Google Engineer Matt Cutts, Matt posed the question:
"What Do SEOs know that bloggers might not know?"
Matt goes on to talk about the merits of keyword research in terms of topic selection, and how understanding this concept can bring you a great deal of traffic. In summary, if you find out what keywords people search on, then add these to your page, you stand a good change of having those searchers land on your page. As SEOs know, there's more to it than that, but that's the quick version :)
Let's look a bit deeper into keywords.
Search Is A Reverse Broadcast System
I think Danny Sullivan first described search as a "reverse broadcast system". It's a great way to describe the value of search, and how to approach search in terms of marketing.
I liken search engines to being a 'reverse broadcast network.' People pay tons to be on television because you can get your message out in front of millions of people: broadcasting. With search engines, millions of people are telling you *their* messages: what they want to buy, purchase or get information about. You don't broadcast to them; instead, it's the reverse, they broadcast to you. There's very little if anything as a marketing or information medium that I can think of that compares to this. It's golden and still today amazingly unrecognized
In search marketing, you prosper when you let your visitors determine your content. They broadcast their intent to you, by phrasing a search query, so you should listen to that intent, and respond by providing appropriate content. Google does the match-making.
For example, if you learn that 5,400 people a month search for "antivirus software comparison", you could research and create this information, thus matching that demand with your supply of information.
How do we determine visitor intent?
The Search Phrase As A Means To Measure User Intent
If you're not an SEO and encountering this blog for the first time, you now now the most important thing about search marketing, and that is you need to match the content of your site to the intent of the search visitor. In a blog post recently, Seth Godin talked about the problem with advertising:
"(The internet) has created a surplus of attention. Ads go unsold. People are spending hours on YouTube or Twitter or Facebook or other sites and not spending their attention on ads, because the ads are either absent or not worth watching"
Seth was talking about the differences between old media advertising and new media advertising, but this is a problem related primarily to to a mismatch of user intent. The intent of users on Facebook is primarily social. Search, however, provides a more specific - and ultimately more lucrative - eco-system for the online marketer.
The intent of the visitor may be determined by analyzing the search phrase itself.
An informational search is when people want to find out about something. i.e. What is the capital of Finland?. A navigational query is when users want to find a certain site i.e. Dell Computers A transactional query is when users want to aquire, although not necessary buy, something. For example, "where can I get guitar schematics"
There is a fair degree of guesswork involved in determining user intent. The keyword itself may provide clues. For example, "buy LCD monitor overnight delivery" tells you a great deal about user intent. "LCD monitor", less so.
When evaluating keyword terms, and deciding what content to provide, it pays to examine the keyword query in terms of query type. For example, the query "Buy LCD monitor overnight delivery" is clearly transactional. A visitor would expect to see an e-commerce page that facilitates a purchase, as opposed to a Wikipedia entry explaining the history of LCD monitors.
Generally speaking, transactional queries are good to target if you monetraize by providing something, either a good or service based upon a transaction or call-to-action. Navigational queries are good to target if you provide "where to" information - like a directory or a list of links - or you provide information closely aligned to a web destination. Informational queries are self-explanatory.
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, and numerous points of cross-over i.e. a query might be informational, navigational and transactional.
The takeaway point is it is to seek to understand the main visitor intent. It will effect what information you present and how you present it. A page based around achieving a transaction will look very different to a page that provides information. If you're ranking well for a transactional query, but you only provide information, you'll lose an opportunity to engage visitors.
On-Page Keyword Integration
Once you've figured out user intent, and chosen your keyword phrases, you then need to integrate these terms into your content. A page should reflect and confirm the intent of the searcher. If the searcher is expecting to undertake a transaction, then the page should be organised in a way to facilitate the transaction.
Amazon provides a good example:
The "Buy Now" function is never far away from the users mouse click. The title is clear and prominent. Informational aspects are relegated to the bottom of the page.
You should provide confirmation the visitor has arrived in the right place. A good way to do this is to feature the search phrase high up on the page, preferably as a headline. This serves two purposes - it tells the search engine what the page is about, and confirms to your visitor that what they searched for and what they got are the same thing. If the visitor has to wade through too much information in order before getting a signal of confirmation, they're more likely to click back.
PPC marketing strategy also supports this theory. Common PPC practice is to include the keyword in the ad title, which can lead to higher click-thru rates than if you leave the keyword out. It stands to reason that a searcher expects to see the same keyword term they searched on echoed back at them.
The Long Tail
Did you know that 20-25% of search phases at Google are unique? 1/4 of all keyword searches have never been searched before! This is why it is important to include related phrases and synonyms on your page. The addition of related phrases and concepts allows you to pick up additional search visitor traffic from obscure combinations of keyword phrases.
The term "The Long Tail" was coined by Chris Andersen, and applied to online retailers, such as Amazon:
"A frequency distribution with a long tail has been studied by statisticians since at least 1946. The distribution and inventory costs of these businesses allow them to realize significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. The group comprised of a large number of "non-hit" items is called the Long Tail."
The Long Tail also applies to search. Whilst millions of people search for "used cars", a few hundred search for "used cars east texas". If you sell used cars in east Texas, then it makes sense to target these specific, long tail terms. What these terms may lack in sheer traffic numbers, they make up for in broadcasting specific intent.
Match that intent with your service provision, and you're laughing.
Having assembled a keyword list, find related keywords and synonyms of those terms. You can use the SEOBook Keyword Research Tool. Or Google's Keyword Tool
Split the obvious terms into transactional, navigational, and informational. This will dictate how you prioritize the content on the page. i.e. a transactional query needs a clear call to action featured prominently
Create pages. Place the keyword term in a proment place on the page, preferably in a heading. This will help confirm to the visitor they have arrived at the right palce
Watch visitor traffic and interaction. If you're seeing high frequency - or strong conversions - for obscure terms, consider writing a page dedicated to this term.
Rinse and repat
So long as your site is being crawled by Google, and you've got a few inbound links, traffic will soon flow to your door. What you do with all that new found traffic is up to you :)
Recently a well known SEO blogger mentioned that they didn't understand why real professional SEOs advocate variation between page titles and on-page headings. This blog post is a free SEO consult for that person :)
Hopefully it clears the public SEO space of some misinformation.
Are You Missing Keywords?
People search for literally billions of unique search queries each month. You either target those searchers, or you miss them. Think about how many people query Google every day, and then look at this graphic:
Keyword tools are driven off of a sample of keyword data, and are thus top heavy. In some cases a keyword tool will only show you 5 or 10 related keywords for a core keyword that has driven traffic to a page via hundreds of unique search keywords.
What is Duplication?
Each piece of duplication in your on-page SEO strategy is ***at best*** wasted opportunity. Worse yet, if you are aggressive with aligning your on page heading, your page title, and your internal + external link anchor text the page becomes more likely to get filtered out of the search results (which is quite common in some aggressive spaces).
Even if you build a site (and a particular page) that are authoritative enough to capture a #1 keyword ranking, if your on-page SEO is strong you still get far more traffic from longtail keywords.
How to Include Variation in Your SEO Strategy
So how can you balance your on-page SEO strategy to capture more of the highly valuable search traffic? You can...
use singular vs plural
use various keyword modifiers
change word order
The bottom line is using more relevant keyword variations = more traffic.
Apples to Apples
Thinking about this site...we have competitors who have similar site age, way more inbound links, ~10x the number of employees, 5 times as many pages of content indexed by Google, more comments on each page, and yet we still get more search traffic.
Meanwhile I have made over 15,000 forum posts + build out a bunch of other websites (ie: doing a lot of work other than SEO for this site)...so our relative out-performance on much more limited resources comes from using a smarter and more comprehensive SEO strategy.
We don't get as much Twitter traffic, but then we don't target the hype and misinformation game as well as others do. ;) (Everyone has their own niche target market!)
Some people understand SEO on a mechanical level. Others understand it on a holistic level. This is one of those tips that separates the men from the boys. ;)
Some content management systems force the page title and the heading to be the same by default. But both Drupal (Page title) and Wordpress (SEO title tag) have plugins that allow you to make the on-page heading different from the page title. This allows you to optimize for different things. You can...
create a headline for RSS readers that is designed around piquing curiosity and/or targeting emotional reactions to pull in clicks
create a keyword laden page title that is designed to pull in latent search traffic
Not only does variation allow you to target those 2 different audiences (and pull in more search traffic), but readers often link to content using the official title in the anchor text. So if you make the page title and on-page heading different that can help you get more keyword variation in your inbound link anchor text as well.
What is the purpose of that new page you're adding to your site?
Is it to rank highly for a keyword term? That's half the battle won, of course :)
After the visitor has arrived on your page, what do you want the visitor to do next?
According to Seth Godin, you probably want a visitor to do one of five things:
Click to go to another page on your site
Register for something
Click on/view advertising
Pass your message on to a friend
So, if you build a landing page, and you're going to invest time and money to get people to visit it, it makes sense to optimize that page to accomplish just one of the things above. Perhaps two, but no more.
Keep that desired action firmly in mind when you design and optimize your pages. The first rule of optimization is to optimize for humans. Ranking a page, only to have visitors click away, is a waste of time and effort.
Optimize For Focus
In the SEOBook Forums, we offer site reviews as a service to members.
We often see sites where it isn't clear what they visitor needs to do. This is usually caused by too many options presented on one page. By trying to please all audiences, we often end up pleasing nobody.
Decide the key action you want people to take, and relegate all other options. Either move some options to a different page, or reduce the visual weight of other options relative to the main action you want a visitor to take.
Here's a great example of a site where the one key action is in clear focus: DailyBurn.com
An exception to this rule is when the user is very familiar with the site. A lack of options often means too many clicks to get things done. However, if your page is focused on the first time searcher, then simplicity and clarity is the way to go.
Do you know where people's eyes focus when they land on your site?
Check out this tool at FenGui. The tool tries to work out how people will visually scan your site. Some web statistics packages, such as Google Analytics and ClickTracks, provide visual click tracking based on user activity.
Before deciding on a template for your site, it is a good idea to test out your ideas using PPC. Knock up a few different designs, run a short campaign and use split/run testing to determine which page layout result in the user taking the desired action most often. Armed with this information, you're less likely to waste time in your SEO campaign.
There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to web design, because each element you add will affect what is already there. Or not there.
However, a few factors remain constant:
The eye will be attracted to color blocks
The eye will be attracted to human faces or forms
Whitespace promotes readability - keep paragraphs short, use headings and bulletpoints
Make sure all visual elements underscore the desired action.
Where Web Design/ SEO Often Goes Wrong
The success of a page should be measured by one criteria:
Does the visitor do what you want them to do?
Often, other criteria will blur this vision. For example, a designer who is more interested in winning awards than ensuring your pages do what they should, may make a page pretty, but sometimes pretty doesn't result in a desired action. An SEO can sometimes be overzealous in terms of keyword usage, which can result in dense text and odd-phrasing, which has the potential to put visitors off.
There is little point putting a lot of effort into attracting visitors if they don't do what you want them to do.
A Word About Adsense
Positioning of adsense can be the difference between making pocketmoney and making a living. Look at Adsense as a visual element, as opposed to a block of text. Typography and text layout are design elements, every bit as much as graphics.
Are your eyes drawn to Adsense as you scan the page? If not, you may need to tone down other visual display elements, including color, to make Adsense Ads stand out. If Adsense is the way you monetize, the desired user action is the click. Are other elements on your page, be they links or graphics, competing for that click?
Got some training budget? Well, we would recommend this training course - of course ;) Tells you all about SEO and internet marketing - and more - as well as providing personal support in the forums.
Should You Do It Yourself?
Like anything, doing it yourself requires a personal investment in terms of your time. It also requires a desire to dive into technical aspects of search engines and publishing on the web.
If you have neither the time nor the desire, there are many professional SEOs who can take care of the task for you.
How To Select An SEO Professional
Whilst there are training courses run by independent operators, there are no formal industry certifications for SEO providers.
The reason for this is that few SEOs agree on optimal process and practices. Secondly, the search engines have an uneasy relationship with SEO. This is mostly due to the fact SEO competes with the search engines click-driven business model, and overly-aggressive tactics used by some SEOs can degrade the quality of search results.
The way to judge SEO professionals isn't by any claimed qualifications. SEO professionals should be judged by their results. In the SEO world, talk is cheap.
What To Expect
An SEO will adapt content and links in an effort to get you more exposure in search engine results pages.
While it would be nice to be able to pay an SEO to get you a #1 ranking for a high trafficked term, forevermore, SEO doesn't work this way.
The search engines rank sites based on a number of criteria, and that criteria is a closely guarded secret. Secondly, even if SEOs did know the criteria, it may not help. For example, Google places weight on historical factors, such as links built up over a long period of time. These links may be very difficult to obtain.
The criteria is also in a state of flux. What worked a few years ago may not work now.
Typically, what an SEO will do is ensure your site is included in the search engine indexes. Some web design approaches make it impossible for search engines to index a site. The SEO will also tweak existing content, and add new content, with the aim of ranking pages for topic areas related to your business. This can be a hit and miss affair, but generally speaking, the more content you have on your site that the search engine is able to see, the more traffic you're likely to receive.
An SEO will also try and get links pointing to a site, as links are a big part of Google's ranking criteria. If you're feeling adventurous, here is the maths that lies behind Google.
Over time, you should expect search engine referrals from targeted visitors to rise after having implemented an SEO strategy.
What To Watch Out For
Poor Metrics/Illusion Of Action - Some SEOs use poor performance metrics, one of which is ranking.
If no-one searches on a particular phrase, then ranking for the phrase is pointless. It's the equivalent of putting up a sign in a desert, miles form the road - no one will see it. It is very easy to get a page to rank for a keyword term that has little competition. Mention the keyword phrase on your page somewhere, and it will likely rank.
Instead, consider defining performance goals based on your business metrics. Do you want more traffic from search engines? Do you want more conversions? Align these goals with your SEO goals. Ensure the terms you're ranking for translate into measurable business advantage.
Overly-Aggressive Tactics - the search engines take a dim view of aggressive tactics, which can result in a site ban. Whilst this is highly unlikely, it can happen. If you wish to remain cautious, then your SEO should stay within published search engine guidelines. There is an appeals process if your site is penalized, however this can take time.
This is largely a risk vs reward question. The reason some SEOs are aggressive is because it can get results when less aggressive techniques fail. This is not to say aggressive techniques will always work, or that less aggressive techniques won't. A lot depends on the site and the area in which you're competing.
Guarantees - there are no such thing as ranking guarantees, especially if they imply the SEO has control over the search engine results. They do not.
Carefully examine the terms of the guarantee. Worthwhile guarantees, as far as the client is concerned, are where the SEO promises to satisfy criteria based on measurable, business metrics.
For an indepth look at selecting an SEO provider, members can take a look at Aaron's "Buying SEO Services"
There are a number of ways to monetize a site. Aaron covers the options in extensive detail in the "Monetization" members area , however today we'll take a close look at just one aspect of monetization, Affiliate Marketing.
What Is Affiliate Marketing
Affiliate Marketing is a marketing method whereby one business rewards another business for sending customers, visitors and/or sales.
Mostly, affiliate marketing rewards come in the form of revenue share on a sale. Site A (the affiliate) funnels visitors to Site B (the merchant). If a transaction is completed by the merchant, the affiliate receives a commission on the sale. Do this numerous times a day in a high-margin area, such as loans, and both the affiliate and the merchant can make a lot of money.
Affiliate marketing is nothing new.
In the carpet markets in Turkey, you get pestered by salesmen whos job is to tempt you off the street and across the threshold of a carpet shop. He - its invariably a he - might get paid for bringing you to the door (the online equivalent is equivalent to cost-per-click), or, if you buy a carpet he receives a commission (cost per action). Or perhaps a mixture of the two.
The benefit to the merchant is that he doesn't have to pay the full time wages of the salesman, and he only pays him on performance. The benefit to the salesman is that he doesn't have to own a shop, carry merchandise, deal with transactions, or any of the other costs associated with running a carpet shop.
In 2006, MarketingSherpa estimated online affiliates worldwide earned US$6.5 billion in bounty and commissions
The Players & How It Works
The Affiliate Marketing industry consists of three core players:
The Prospective Customer
As the affiliate model became big business, further levels emerged, including sub-affiliates and affiliate networks. We'll take a look at the role of the networks shortly.
The Pros Of Affiliate Marketing
Easy To Set-Up - You simply need to select a program, sign-up, add the tracking code to your site, and you're good to go.
Focus On Your Core Skills - If SEO is your key skill, you can focus 100% on rankings and traffic generation. You leave all the customer handling, sales, returns, legal issues and transactions to someone else.
You'll also be amongst esteemed company. The top affiliate marketers who use SEO to generate traffic typically rank amongst the highest-skilled SEOs. They live or die based solely on their ability to rank well in highly competitive areas.
Low Startup Costs - setting up commerce delivery online can require a lot of start-up investment. The affiliate need not invest anything other than some time. If one area doesn't work out, the affiliate can quickly move onto another area. The merchant has to too many sunk costs to do likewise.
Multiple Income Streams - once you've honed your sills in one area, you can apply them to any area you choose. There is no limit to the number of merchants you can work for, so you are free to develop multiple revenue streams. Some merchants will give you ongoing revenues based on customer activities, too.
Cons Of Affiliate Marketing
Low Level Of Control - Unless you have a close relationship with your merchant, you have little control over offers.
If their competitors are offering better services and/or lower prices, you can't counter unless the merchant changes their offer in line with the market. You're also pretty much stuck with the same standard offer available to every other affiliate you're competing against, making it difficult to differentiate.
There are exceptions.
Sometimes super affiliates - those affiliates who consistently put through high sales volumes - get offered special deals. It's unlikely you'll know what these deals are unless you become a super-affiliate. Some programs allow pricing control, but mostly, you're dealing with cookie cutter offers.
Customer Base Not Locked In - The merchant keeps the customer.
Typically, you deliver the customer, the merchant pays you a one-time commission, then that customer remains theirs for all subsequent purchases. The value of the merchants business increases the more customers they have.
As an affiliate, you don't tend to have lock-in on the customer. Some affiliate deals offer you on-going revenue, however.
High Competition - One of the pros of affiliate marketing is that is is easy to sign up and get started.
This is also a negative.
If it is easy for you to sign up, then it is easy for everyone to do likewise. There are new affiliate hordes arriving each and every day. The incentive for the merchant and affiliate network is to sign on as many performing affiliates as they can, so they don't really care if you face ever increasing levels of competition.
This is why top affiliates look for private deals. More on this shortly.
PS: As I stated above, you'll be amongst esteemed company. The top affiliate marketers who use SEO to generate traffic are typically very highly-skilled SEOs. They live or die based solely on their ability to rank well in highly competitive areas. These people will also be your competitors :)
Pay On Performance - This is a great option for the merchant. They only pay when they sell something. What this does is transfer all the advertising risk to you.
You may spend weeks or months on SEO and make no sales. This might not even be your fault. You get great rankings and traffic, but the merchant has an uncompetitive offer, or loses customers at the point of sale.
Middlemen - As the affiliate area has grown, so too have the number of middlemen.
The biggest middleman in the chain is the affiliate network. The affiliate network is the go-between linking the merchants with the affiliates. Commission Junction is one example.
The network often provides valuable reporting tools and tracking, as well as affiliate and merchant support. Of course, all this costs money and places an additional layer between the affiliate and the merchant. Whilst the network may provide benefits in terms of reporting and support, it also reduces the level of control and contact the affiliate has with the merchant.
Limited Growth Potential - Because you can't lock in your customers or adapt deals to suit changing market conditions, growth potential is limited. Like the carpet salesman, you rely on a new stream of visitors each and every day with no way to grow what you do, other than by adding sub-affiliates.
There is a solution to many of these problems, however.
There are many affiliates making very good money following the model I have outlined above.
However, as affiliates get more and more successful, they often look to partner direct with merchants. This way, they cut out the middlemen - leaving more profit for the affiliate - and gain a closer relationship with the merchant.
Some affiliates structure the entire deal, and take a percentage of the merchants earnings over time. Whilst this approach requires upfront organization, the long term payoffs can be huge compared to the traditional network-driven affiliate model.
But how do you do it?
First, you need to look at areas where there is high returns and low levels of competition.
Make a list of merchants who have a web presence in your chosen area and have the ability to take online orders or inquiries. Approach these merchants directly. It's a good idea if you can demonstrate potential traffic levels and sales, so come armed with this information.
Look to sign up exclusively i.e. you're the only affiliate working with them. Also try to get a cut of ongoing revenue i.e. if the customers becomes a repeat customer, you receive repeat commissions. The bonus to the merchant is that you're a salesman willing to work on a commission basis. There is little risk involved for the merchant, and most will be only too happy to at least consider your proposition.
These types of deals require a high deal of trust and transparency, so it's unlikely you'll get everything you want right away. Suggest a trial run to prove your worth, then negotiate favorable terms once you've proved yourself. If the merchant turns you down at that point, then you simply go to his/her competition, with your accumulated data, and make the same offer.
This way, you should be able to build up a private label affiliate system. You can bring on your own hand-picked sub affiliates to work with you, too, and if you've selected your market correctly, you should face little or no competition. As you have a close, direct relationship with the merchant, you can work on structuring product and service offerings that remain competitive. It becomes more of a partnership that can be nurtured and made valuable over time.
Some of the biggest money-making affiliate opportunities you'll never hear about.
In 2009, Google places a lot of trust in authority.
Authority, in terms of ranking, typically means "an established site with a high number of inbound links from authoritative sources".
Ranking might also have something to do with a sites popularity. And the usage patterns. And various other signals of "establishment" known only to the Google alchemists.
Whatever way you look at it, a new site is difficult to get ranked in competitive keyword areas.
So what are you to do while you're waiting for your authority signals to build?
Way, Way Off Site SEO Tactics
Consider placing content on established sites.
There are a number of reasons why you might do this, including increased exposure, the obvious back-link advantages, and the kudos that comes with appearing on a high profile site. Compare the effort of writing one killer article for a high profile site, with - say - begging other webmasters for links. The effort may be comparable, but the rewards of following the former path can be significantly higher.
Even if you get no link value from content placement, at very least you'll get your name seen. This can lead to people seeking you out, whether you rank or not. We'll look deeper into branding aspects shortly.
Try putting up a page on Work.com, Squidoo, HubPages, Knol and any other established sites that allow user contribution. This also provides a testing ground to see if the keywords you have chosen are worth ranking for, before you attempt to rank for the same keywords on your own site.
Are you good with video? Make a few video's and place them on YouTube.
Win Friends And Influence People
A good, meaty reply to a popular blog post can garner you a lot of attention, particularly from the webmaster who runs the site.
Because webmasters deal with constant spam and low quality contributions, a well-considered comment from a new writer will really stand out. The webmaster may follow your link back to see where that great comment came from. You're now on their radar, which increases your likelihood of getting a mention.
Make sure you already have similarly high quality content on your own site that is link worthy. BTW, I follow every comment left on my SEOBook posts, and find it a great way to learn about what other webmasters are doing. Lurkers never appear on radars.
You'll also get a reasonable idea of the amount and quality of the traffic that a page ranking for your chosen term, receives.
Position Against The Market Leader
If you have a competing product to a product already reviewed on Amazon, it can be a good idea to provide your own lengthy review. This is an online way of positioning against the market leader.
Here's an example.
Check out this singing course. Now scroll down to the review comments. The first long review you see is by the author of a competing singing course product.
This is a cunning way to leverage the popularity of the established leader. Get your own product alongside the market leader, which will then encourage readers to draw comparisons. In this case, the first review is associated with a product that is significantly cheaper than the product it reviews, a point the writer alludes to in his opening line.
Why Brand Is Important
Some webmasters only consider the back-link possibilities of these strategies, but they're missing the big picture.
Links are, of course, important, but also aim to build brand recognition. There is little point getting in front of people if they don't remember you, so to get the most out of the above strategies, you must be consistent and memorable.
Individuals make themselves memorable by adding a personal photo. Companies make themselves memorable using brands. Brands are a way of helping consumers make associations between your products and their problems. Aaron goes into depth on branding and how to leverage brands for SEO in the members area. In short, your brand, as well as being memorable, needs to hit empathetic points with your customers. A brand must resonate.
If you can convince people that your brand is what they need, regardless of where they see it, then they will seek you out by typing your brand name into the search box. Whilst you're waiting to rank for generic keyword terms, direct your efforts into making people aware of your brand.
As an aside, when choosing a brand name, check out Aarons post on Domain Names As Natural Brands. Aaron quotes this great line from Rick Schwartz, which is killer:
NATURAL BRANDING or BUILD and CREATE BRANDING
This alone is worth the price of admission. Brad told us his story of spending millions and millions to advertise and brand with his original 3 word creative domain name. When he switched and used a fraction of those ad dollars to buy a category killer domain name, he transformed his business. The dollars he was using to brand was now freed up to do other acquisitions and grow his business in a more dramatic way. NATURAL BRANDING may be the simplest way to describe what a great domain brings to the table."
Few small operators are going to have much money to spend on brand building, which is notoriously expensive. Weigh up the cost of getting a really good, memorable generic name. You're telling people who you are and what you do at the same time.
Try not to position yourself against an existing market leader with a strong brand. Instead, define a category you can be first in, and establish your brand there. I talk more about this aspect in my post"Marketing Driven SEO Strategy".
Look for ways you can contribute to other sites in order to build awareness, links and brand recognition. Find out where your competition is mentioned and try to get mentioned in the space. Leverage the authority of existing sites.
Is your Web site and marketing strategy really the best it can be? Focusing on what everyone else does and why your organic SEO life is so unfair distracts you from doing what will benefit you most - improving YOURSELF. The best thing you can do for your Web site is to focus on IT and not spend all your time whining about your competitors.
Reporting your competitors is no more an SEO strategy than a heavyset person complaining about what good genes her skinny friend has is a weight loss technique.
Life is never about being fair. Either you focus on what matters or you do not. If people are beating you with low grade spammy stuff then either you are not very good at marketing or you are not putting your full potential into your projects. Outing others because you are not good enough to compete is simply a sleazy business practice.
SEO Question: Hello, How do site suchs as: ____ and _____ work with flat fees Where everyone else charges us up the wazoo.
Do you offer such a program for my business. - Thanks, Paul
Short answer: "Laws control the lesser man. Right conduct controls the greater one." - Mark Twain
Some People Provide Value, Others Steal Money
Long answer: Believe it or not, at one point in time I was an SEO client who bought a trashy scammy service. The site I was trying to market was terrible, they offered no link building solutions for it, and instead suggested I create copies of pages on the site with hidden links pointing back and forth to try to rank well for some obscure 5 word phrases that nobody searches for.
Now those people could have told me that my site was a poor website and I can improve it by doing x, y, and z. But they didn't care about the actual outcome of the work. They just wanted $149 and they got it. That was over six years ago, and they are still scamming people today.
Many Big Organizations Sell Scammy No-Value SEO Services
Most SEO buyers are allured by the prospect of free traffic and that free price-point sets their anchoring for the price. Further their first introduction to SEO comes from non-SEO. Many web hosts, domain registrars, clueless web designers (who talk up web standards but do no actual SEO research), and sleazy telemarketers offer low priced flat rate packages that have no value. Some of the domain registrars and web hosts run on such thin margins that they would be bankrupt without selling stuff like the scammy bolt on no value SEO packages. To highlight such scams I created dollarseo.com to show how they did not work.
Which Creates a Market For Lemons Effect
John Andrews also highlighted this issue in the past, in a post about a market for lemons, comparing the market for SEO services to the used car market:
As non-selling good cars were removed from the market, masquerading “lemons” dominated, setting the tone for the used car market, and further blocking actually good used cars from appearing. In the end, the used car market becomes a market for lemons, not a used car market.
It seems SEO has the same problem. As “boiler-room” SEO firms cold-call companies and pitch ridiculously low prices for SEO contracts, based on old and incorrect SEO information readily accessible to consumers, high quality SEO firms start looking “too expensive”. Consumer research into SEO does not reveal better information, since that knowledge comprises a significant portion of the value SEO consulting, and is thus not freely published. The entire market for SEO services starts to become a market not for actual search engine optimization, but more a market for “snake oil SEO” than true SEO.
Consider the Baseline
To further put the economics of SEO in context, any great SEO should be able to profit from marketing their own websites about their own interests. If I was still interested in baseball cards (like I was in high school) I have no doubt that I could make 6 figures a year promoting a website about baseball cards. That interest faded. But any interests I have I can attempt to monetize. That sets the barrier kinda high for client services. Why would I market someone's thin affiliate site selling Viagra cheaply when if I poured the same effort into my own sites which I love I would make far more profits?
Competent SEOs Have Many Options
Because of snake oil SEO salesmen (and people who want to buy something cheap) the SEO market is very hard to extract money from in service based businesses unless...
you run your own publishing business (monetized through affiliate ads, contextual ads, lead generation, direct ad sales, creating & selling your own products + services) and optimize your own websites (which we do)
you sell information and/or tools that others can use to apply to learning SEO (which we do)
you sell other niche services (like keyword research or link building) that help clients, but are only a piece of the overall strategy (we do not do too much of this, but sometimes do)
you have very few select high end client relationships (which we do)
you hire a bunch of salesmen to sell worthless trash to the bottom 80% of the consumer market. (which we do NOT do)
This site is about 90% of my labor and about 30% of our profit. But we still run it for a variety of reasons...
it is one of my favorite hobbies
running this site (and interacting with hundreds of smart SEOs) helps give us more feedback on international markets and inform some of marketing strategies
there are a lot of ways to make money online that are somewhat dirty, but this site is pure as snow and helps thousands of families put food on their tables.
Some Markets Are Competitive & Expensive
Anyone who is selling flat rate SEO services is selling a service priced without exploring the market and learning how competitive it is. Ranking well for credit cards might be worth millions of dollars. But it might also cost that much to rank. Ranking for Salem, Oregon bus rental is far easier and can be done using less than 1% of the capital investment.
Worse yet (for the consumer of a flat rate SEO service), SEO is a winner take most market. Most people click on the first page of the search results, with most those clicks happening on the top few listings. So lets say one of the flat rate companies was surprisingly not a scam and actually gave a crap about your business. This is doubtful in most cases, but lets just consider it. Well if they under-price the flat rate and rank you on page 2 or 3 you still are not going to get very much traffic, and (in spite of them trying their best on limited resources) you still probably lost money because page 3 of the search results = fail.
Is Google Flat Rate?
And here is another way of looking at it. Google AdWords doesn't sell their keywords for a flat rate. The words live in an auction that rises and falls with consumer demand. At the same time, advertisers who are paying Google over $10,000,000,000 a year are starting to put some of that budget into organic SEO. With the average SEO employee earning roughly $80,000 a year it is hard to believe that an outsourced discount flat rate package can compete.
Flat Rate Dream Homes Located in _____ for Only $5,000
I am not sure who came up with this analogy. I think it was Danny Sullivan (he is always great with those), but how many contractors do flat rate home building? Probably 0 legitimate ones. Everything is important from the foundation, to the number of rooms, to the materials used, and any special requests need to be considered.
Knowing if the house is on the side of the mountain, if it needs rocks cleared away, if it is in a swamp and could sink is important. Likewise legitimate SEO consulting aims to know the direction of the market, understand the brand, evaluate domain name selection, survey the market, and assess strengths and weaknesses.
Only AFTER all that work has been done to establish a foundation then you have to establish a well researched market strategy and keyword strategy. Then you need to do push marketing and other forms of marketing to build links. You might need to build 100 or 100,000 to compete. No matter how perfect your site is optimized, you generally are not going to rank for competitive keywords until AFTER some link building has been done. On-page optimization has a glass ceiling.
Rarely, if ever, do flat rate SEO service providers build quality links. And if the do buy them, then it is generally to some prescribed generic schedule rather than a specific plan catered to your market and your website. And while the provider is stuck working within that flat rate someone else is subscribing to sites like this one, learning SEO, and aggressively reinvesting their profits to further build a competitive advantage.
It is very hard for an outsourced discount service to compete with a self-interested business owner.
In the markets worth being in, pre-defined flat rate SEO rarely gets it done.