If You Don't Rank, Did You Fail?

There's a great Nike commercial starring Michael Jordan.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed

How many SEO goals are aimed at winning the battle, and not the war?

Rankings vs Profits

One of the big mistakes those new to SEO make is to focus too much attention on rankings. It's easy to see why, as rankings provide such an obvious scorecard. You either rank or you don't.

The trouble is, rankings are seldom an appropriate measure of success, just as Michael Jordan shooting or missing an easy shot doesn't make him a success or a failure.

For example, I recently saw a comment on a leading SEO site whereby the commenter chastised the site owner for not appearing top ten for the phrase "search engine optimization". As far as the commenter was concerned, this meant the SEO was a failure at SEO, because he didn't rank for that industry-defining phrase.

What the commenter failed to grasp, of course, was the big picture.

What is Your Primary Objective?

I would estimate the site in question receives 100s of thousands of visitors, and that their business model delivers significant revenue. The fact they don't rank for the phrase "search engine optimization" is pretty much irrelevant in terms of their primary objective, which is to make money.

Secondly, the term "search engine optimization" isn't the prize some might imagine. The people who use the term "search engine optimization" may well be optimizers, not potential customers. That's fine if your target market is other SEOs, but not if you're selling services to customers.

Thirdly, you would need to put a lot of effort into ranking for such a term, and you'd have to question whether it would ever pay off. Contrast this with the effort required to rank well for a wide range of related keyword terms that, when aggregated, produce more highly targeted traffic than "Search engine optimization" ever would. This site may well have lost the ranking battle for that keyword term, but they're probably winning the war.

Business is About Making Money

The guy who focuses too much on ranking as an end goal will ultimately fail, because ranking is not a business goal. This is not to say rankings aren't important - a number one ranking for a lucrative term is worth a lot of money - but if the ranking isn't tied into your business goals, then how do you really know if you're succeeding or not?

Michael Jordan's is probably the greatest basketball player of all time. The greatest SEO of all time probably doesn't care that much about rankings day to day, s/he probably cares about the overall goal, which is almost always to make money.

What an Online Business Needs to Succeed

There's an interview here with Shoemoney where he talks about the three things an internet business needs to work:

  • Has To Make Money
  • Has To Grow Virally
  • Provides A Needed Service

Note that those goals are all business orientated. He doesn't say rank well, or get the most traffic, or appear in Technorati's Top 100. Those aspects might be part of a strategy, but if those are an SEOs end goals, then they're probably not going to be in the internet game very long.

Creating Engagement

That second point is one often overlooked by SEOs. If you rank well, and get traffic, and that traffic only engages with you once, then does that really support your business goals? Someone who visits once and leaves is not nearly as valuable as the visitor who returns often, or helps spread the word about you. Does you strategy focus on achieving that very valuable outcome?

Consider the value of an average site visitor to this site versus a person who subscribes to the RSS feed, sets up a user account, installs our SEO tools in their browser, and hopefully becomes a premium member. The average visitor comes and goes - thousands of them, every single day. Most of them are worthless to our business objectives, but those who commit to repeated engagement generate word of mouth marketing and are more likely to become customers. We give our visitors about a half dozen ways to engage with us. The increased engagement builds trust. That leads to subscriptions, and anytime we have an important announcement, we know over 100,000 people will see it.

In the book "The Dip", by Seth Godin, Seth offers some practical suggestions on how you can turn failure to your advantage. Just as Michael Jordan probably learned a lot from the shots he missed, so can we by redefining failure as an inevitable part of success.

when you see failure as a learning event, not a destination, it makes you smarter, faster

In this interview, Seth illustrates how big companies can focus on the wrong (expensive) battles, and lose the war:

Here's an easy one—Bud TV. They've spent more than $40 million on it so far, yet if we look at their traffic numbers they do worse than a site on sheet rubber sales. What happened? Budweiser had a top down, we-speak-to-the-public mindset when it comes to commercials. They buy Super Bowl commercials for $2 million or $3 million each because they can. Bud TV was all about "let's send messages straight to consumers." Hold that up next to YouTube, which was built from the ground up around individuals sharing with each other, and Bud TV lost. Wouldn't it have been better if they had just embraced YouTube and used it for what it was good at, rather than trying to build their own channel and invent their own form of new media?

We Have Failed, Just Like Bud

Not every site we launch is profitable. Sometimes we start a site and then realize we lack the passion to go through with it, other times major algorithm shifts and/or competitors shifting strategies have made sites heavily reliant on certain models/ideas/strategies no longer profitable.

The beauty of failure online is that it costs almost nothing to leave a failed website running, and you can always come back to it later, or use it nepotistically to help make it pay for itself. If you lose $10,000 on building a website then it only needs to about 3 years for it to pay for itself if it makes $10 a day - and less time if you are using it nepotistically. How much does it cost to rent a good link from the clean parts of the web?

And that leads to one of the best tips in the SEO space. If you are successful somewhere, try to work related markets such that you can take best practice knowledge to make your future projects much more successful. You are better off dominating a market than being an average to slightly below average playing in a dozen markets.

And we have sites that have worked far better than expected. Tools like SEO for Firefox give you a good idea of roughly how competitive a market is, but it is hard to know what lucky breaks you will get or be 100% certain you will rank a brand new site in a competitive market. Strategy and experience increase your odds of success, but algorithms can and do change. Take what the search engines give you and keep doing what is working. Sometimes that means buying a site they already like. Don't hate Google, simply create (and replicate) what they want.

What Are Your Goals? Why?

Constantly re-evaluate your marketing strategy to see if it is leading you towards winning the battle, but losing the war.

What are you measures of success and failure in terms of SEO? What are you measuring, and how?

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Published: April 1, 2009 by A Reader in marketing


April 1, 2009 - 12:11pm

I agree with everything you say in that Post, and it has actually reinforced me - I think finding a great niche and dominating it (if you can pull it off) is also great, because there are so many synergy effects. You dont have to do the whole gaining momentum thing by relying on directories and the like to send you traffic. You can use synergy effects by leveraging another (or multiple other) sites you have in that niche to get the word out....though of course that might not be a good idea, if youre trying to stay under the radar :-)

PS: Let's not forget was MJ says with that quote is BS (it was a commercial,right?), though. He made 56.9% of the game winning shots he was trusted to made during the last 24 seconds. Sure he has missed some but WAY less than anybody else. Matter of fact you'd have to multiply the scoring efficiency in those clutch moments of Kobe Bryant (who's guarded as tough as MJ was, thus the comparison) by more than a factor of 2.5 to reach that scoring efficiency in the clutch - MJ was the man!;-)

April 1, 2009 - 3:23pm

Right on the money, Peter.

What you're striving for is a business-minded approach to natural search.

When talk to clients about it, we use the "Need/Solution" model, which is all about mapping their business need (e.g. how they make money and how much they make per acquisition) and then use those insights to map out the most cost effective approach to driving business results (not ranking, and not even visits necessarily, but actual conversion).

This often leads to conversations relating to analytics tracking, conversion optimization, web dev, etc...

Which is a good thing for us, since we push the integrated model.

In any case, whether you're an independent webmaster/business owner trying to build a profitable web business, or part of an agency (offline or online or even search-only) it is the true business need that should drive strategy.

Not the uptick and downtick of rankings.

April 1, 2009 - 5:05pm

Right on the dough here, Peter. I think boiling it down to Shoemoney's 3 points is essential website strategy...makes everything else have a purpose. I monitor rankings for my clients about once a month after I know I am indexing regularly - then I try to identify trends over longer periods of time. So I like being able to see them, but do not put anywhere near the value on them that some of my coworkers have. Give the c-levels a few vanity wins in the SERPs and they generally figure you have it all under control.

April 1, 2009 - 10:04pm

I didn't catch the point Shoemoney made till after I posted the interview, but it's an important one. A business...

* Has To Make Money
* Has To Grow Virally
* Provides A Needed Service

April 2, 2009 - 12:32am

Arent those really just two separate points?

I see "provides a needed service" as the key to "has to make money". I cant really think of any site that "make(s) money" without providing a needed service. However, if it does (just in case someone comes up with a site that does), could "provides a needed service" not be ditched from the list?

I tried to think about what he said, and really couldnt see those as 3 separate points, but just as two:

- get exposure
- monetizable

April 2, 2009 - 8:17am

There are a lot of sites that make money without providing a needed service

  • thin affiliate sites
  • made for AdSense sites
  • many other ad driven models
April 2, 2009 - 11:21am

thanks. I guess I see the point, now. Somehow, I just have a hard time trying to separate those two points in my head, because I think they sort of overlap (as in "site needs to have a sound and sustainable way of monetization")...but I think I get his points which is what counts (I hope).

April 2, 2009 - 8:04pm

When you said "And that leads to one of the best tips in the SEO space. If you are successful somewhere, try to work related markets such that you can take best practice knowledge to make your future projects much more successful. You are better off dominating a market than being an average to slightly below average playing in a dozen markets."

That is my realization regarding SEO. I was successful in getting my video production site into the top rankings on the search engines, so I am going to work that particular niche to provide SEO services to film and video production companies. Being located in Toronto with over 400 such companies is an advantage of course, as is over 30 years experience in the industry.

April 2, 2009 - 8:21pm

so what are your goals with seobook.com ?
i mean - of course they are to make money :)
but what are your means for that, if not getting to good SERPS in as many SEO keywords as possible thereby getting more traffic ?

April 2, 2009 - 10:17pm

Most of our sales come from word of mouth marketing. SEO is very good at selling tangible items, but for intangible high-end services (like SEO) you would usually do far better with word of mouth marketing.

April 3, 2009 - 1:58pm

I told a stakeholder at one of the largest technology about how they could get tremendous ROI if they spent more money trying to build out a word of mouth marketing initiative.

Got a blank stare...

A lot of mainstream brands (incredibly) still aren't getting the power derived from word of mouth online.

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