You may have heard that, without SEO, your business is not going to survive the ever-growing, ever-competitive Web.
According to a 2016 HubSpot report, 57% of B2B marketers says that SEO is way more effective at generating leads than other marketing activities, and SEO and marketing blogs everywhere encourage companies to optimize their online presence for search engines, alluring them (rightfully) with the perspective of a faster growth.
However, SEO is not always the best answer for every business. There are thriving businesses that don’t rely on SEO at all – think about that tiny local bakery, bookshop, or hairdresser (there are plenty in my Italian town) who might have put up a Facebook page but not a website. If they have one, they only use basic on-page SEO and they don’t use it for customer acquisition anyway, because they get most of their clientele by word of mouth.
So you might be wondering: When is it better to focus budget and resources on SEO? And when is that not a good idea?
The short answer is: it depends on your business goals and on the psychology of your customer.
For the long answer… this article is the answer.
Focus on SEO if…
1. People Are Searching for What You Have to Offer (Even Locally)
“If you’ve hit a sweet spot where people are searching for what you have to offer, and it’s not impossible to rank a site that isn’t already ranking, then I think [SEO is] an extremely effective method of marketing,” says Eugene Farber, founder of BUZZergy Marketing. “It gets you right in front of the people that are actively searching for your offerings.”
That doesn’t exclude local businesses at all. “Many of the business we serve at Vivial would fall under this category. If you have a local service area and are offering products or services that people are actively searching for, putting a focus on local SEO can have tremendous results for driving business through your doors.”
2. Your Online Strategy Is Focused on Client Acquisition and Engagement
“If your business’ growth is tied to people discovering and engaging with you, then SEO is worthwhile,” says Robert Boston, president of Risr Marketing & Growth Solutions.
That applies even if your audience is seniors. Boston says: “You’d think that SEO would be less important if your audience is older, but we’ve found that not to be the case. In fact, older audiences make SEO even more important because they’re not likely to do much digging when looking for something – they’ll search and latch onto the first or second thing they come across unless a friend or family member recommends something else.”
Client acquisition is directly related to SEO, because your website has to be found for you to get leads, and most customers today use search engines to find the products and services they need.
Mike Koehler, president and chief strategist at Smirk New Media, shares: “One client we had was looking to rank on the first page in about 40 keywords in his city. With only consistent social media and web content we were able to help him hit that goal in six months on all but six of those words.”
That’s even more important if your online business is built around giving answers to users with urgent questions. Jessica Carmona, Marketing and Business Growth Manager for Guarana Technologies, shares: “Having a SEO-focused marketing strategy is a good idea when your product or service is something that does better in an intent-driven digital environment rather than, for example, an interest-based one. if you’re like us (Guarana) – a service that answers a specific need – you might be better off investing heavily in SEO in order to be present whenever your potential customer looks for your service/product.”
Industry also matters. Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal, also shares that “90% of our customer acquisition comes from organic search engine optimization” and he recommends SEO to “technology start-up peers when they can afford to play the long game. Organic search efforts will take 2 to 3 years to see the real rewards. However, once authority is established in organic search it can be a robust competitive advantage. If your success depends on a low customer acquisition cost, then organic search will be the best customer acquisition channel you can focus on, however, if you have only got 12 to 18 months to prove out a concept, odds are you will not be able to unlock search SEO as a channel in that short amount of time.”
3. You Are Willing to Give It Time
The majority of expert responses I received for this article agree that SEO requires anything from 6 months to 3 years to see results, so if you are willing to give it time (and budget), SEO can be a good option for your business.
As Jarod Spiewak, owner and lead SEO of Jarod Spiewak SEO, says: “Marketing is a long-term investment that requires capital over a period of time before a return is made. If you’re looking to see quick results, the good SEOs won’t touch your campaign, and the one’s who are willing to will just waste your money.”
4. You Can Produce Content Around Your Business
SEO is strongly connected to content marketing. All major search engines will reward premium content over merely optimized webpages. So, if your strategy is to use content to promote your business, and promote it massively, SEO becomes a necessity.
Kristie Forsman, director of digital marketing at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices The Preferred Realty, shares: “We were able to find opportunities outside of our main keywords. These newly discovered, long-tailed keywords were hyper-local and, when combined together, had fairly high monthly searches. So, we developed new content on our site around these keywords and were able to rank. In some cases, these keywords give us more qualified users because they were searching for something more specific than the general keywords we were focused on before.”
5. You Run an International Business
The Web is where people from all around the world meet – it just makes sense to use the power of SEO to reach as many target customers and users worldwide as possible.
Don’t Focus on SEO If…
… your ROI is going to be so small to make the endeavor a waste of money and time.
Let’s see these situations in detail.
1. You Can’t Measure Results (ROI)
“Are you able to measure how much new clients/business are you generating thanks to your SEO work?” is the question Cristian Rennella, CEO & VP of Marketing at elMejorTrato.com, asks.
“If you can not measure your Return on Investment (ROI), your will try SEO for the first weeks or even months, but in the long run (and SEO is a long run investment nowadays) you will end up giving up and start to follow the new shining object (Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, etc).”
Rennella shares an anecdote to make his point: “In my last startup, a construction supply company in Argentina, we did content marketing and SEO, we had a couple thousand visitors a month, but after a year we decide to close SEO because we didn’t know if we were making money or throwing it in the trash.”
You’ve got to be realistic when it comes to deciding on creating a budget for SEO. Will Coombe, co-founder of Sharpe Digital, shares: “Before taking on a client for an SEO campaign, we always ask ourselves the question: Can we achieve a positive return on investment on an SEO campaign within 6-9 months? From our experience, this is usually the timeframe whereby if you’re not seeing significant increases in revenue through your SEO efforts, you’ll likely give up and your belief in ranking organically will start to dwindle. ”
2. You Work with Affluent Clients
“Our business-to-business ad agency specializes in working with clients who work with affluent consumers, and SEO is not a good strategy for them,” says Kelly Edwards, co-founder and CEO of Lawton Marketing Group. “A wealthy consumer looking for a financial advisor to invest his money is not going to use search engines to find the right person. He or she will ask people they know for referrals. The same goes for a wealthy consumer looking for a realtor or a plastic surgeon. They are referral-oriented consumers, not people who are going to google for services.”
That doesn’t mean you should exclude SEO completely, however. “It is still important that the businesses have a strong web presence,” says Edwards, “because the people who are referred to them are likely going to look them up online and vet them before they reach out, but they will be doing branded searches at that point.”
3. Your Approach Is Not Content-Based
Spending money on SEO might not be necessary if your approach is not content-based (like in situation #4 in the “DO SEO” list), especially since successful SEO in 2017 is linked closely to content marketing and not a matter of simple on-page optimization anymore.
“If a business wants to achieve SEO success it must first recognize SEO and content marketing as long-term investments that require ongoing commitment, effort, and funding,” says Donna Duncan, content marketing consultant at B-SeenOnTop LLC. “If a business wants to achieve SEO success it must first recognize SEO and content marketing as long-term investments that require ongoing commitment, effort, and funding.”
If your approach is not content-based you might find social media marketing a better option to create engagement around your products and services.
4. Your Business is Based on Community-Driven Engagement and Sales
Jessica Carmona says that “if you’re like Buzzfeed, you might not need to focus on optimizing your titles in order to match popular key phrases since their website gets 50% of their traffic from social media. In that case, you’d focus on enticing and curious content, that would pick people’s curiosity, rather than solve a problem or answer a query. Although basic SEO is always advised, you might want to focus your marketing efforts on creating shareable content and fiercely monitoring people’s reaction to it. Buzzfeed is the kind of business meant for an interest-based platform such as social media.”
Web Traffic Expert’s SEO copywriter Billy Peery shares: “In industries with high competition and low margins, SEO can sometimes prove a weak option. Take the restaurant industry. While there are situations where restaurants can use SEO to thrive, it can also be hard to compete with every other location in your area. For this reason you might be better off doing community outreach. SEO often requires a monthly fiscal commitment, and doing things well enough to beat your competition is time-consuming.”
Therefore, if your business is a restaurant, Peery suggests that you “host a stand-up comedy night, or some equally interesting piece of community outreach. This allows your restaurant to carve out a niche, attracting people the other guys haven’t thought to target.”
Much better than SEO.
5. You Don’t Focus on Client Acquisition or Your Customer is Institutional
“I’d argue that SEO can take a back seat in your marketing strategy if your focus isn’t on new client acquisition,” says Robert Boston. “If, for example, you’re an accounting firm whose business relies on working with the same accounts year after year, you may not have much of a need for SEO. On the flip-side, if you’re a relatively new accounting firm SEO can be a great way to bring new clients through the (digital) door.”
Boston also adds that “SEO is less of a priority if your primary customer is institutional, such as the Federal Government or Universities. These types of customers don’t usually go out looking for new vendors. They rely on their RFP system and personal relationships to meet their needs.”
6. Your Business Revolves Around Who You Know (Not Who Knows You)
When Billy Peery was considering taking up a client who sells yacht fuel to captains, he ultimately decided no “because the business wasn’t about discovery. The terms surrounding yacht fuel salesmen are rarely searched for. The captains don’t care what your website says: they want to know you as a person, shake your hand. I couldn’t help the client if no one searched for yacht fuel online. If you’re in a business where handshakes are more important than contracts, SEO might not be a great fit.”
7. You Need Immediate Results
“SEO is usually a long-game,” says Tieece Gordon from Kumo Digital says. “It doesn’t use the pay-per-click model and as such has an advantage when it comes to unconverted clicks. Whilst it is a
powerful way to drive traffic, it isn’t always the best plan of attack. It takes time to build a decent SEO profile. In some cases, startups and small businesses can be waiting a while to start benefitting. This can be of trouble if a business or site is seasonal or just starting out.”
Billy Peery suggests that you go directly with PPC if you can’t wait for SEO to bring in results: “PPC is a better option for fast results. As a matter of fact, many e-commerce businesses use PPC to great effect. If you sell solely online, you don’t want to rely on organic traffic by itself. Google changes its algorithm 1-3 times per day, which makes organic search traffic volatile. E-commerce owners are going to want to use some SEO, because the ideal situation is one where you have many different sources of traffic. But depending on your niche, it may be better to lean more heavily on PPC, where you pay for the ad and you know it’ll appear.”
Pat Ahern, director of traffic generation at Junto:, advises that you ask yourself important questions: “What does your growth timeline look like? How much research do customers need to do before purchasing your product/service?”
Ahern shares: “While some clients have seen significant growth within a few months, most SEO efforts take 4-6 months to see consistent results. Those who invest in SEO will see compounding ROI, but those who need to invest in short-term growth should look at other avenues for customer acquisition.”
Also, “SEO works best for businesses that have a longer sales lifecycle, as this opens the door to create content focused on moving customers further along the buyer’s lifecycle, and ranking in search engines when their customers search for that content. A company that sells packs of gum might see some return on their initial SEO efforts, but would likely see a much larger return by investing in other marketing initiatives.”
8. Search Engines Simply Aren’t the Right Channel
Dustin Monthgomery, SEO specialist at MovingBlankets.com, says: “There are some times when it makes sense for SEO to take a backseat to a more effective marketing channel. The most popular example being fashion. Customers respond much more to images and social proof in that industry specifically, than to search results.”
Matt Boaman, search marketing manager at Godfrey, suggests that you use Google Adwords’ Keyword Planner to make a first informed decision. “If people are not actively searching for various keywords on a monthly basis that describe your products or services, there is not a valuable enough audience to invest the time focused on an organic SEO approach.”
“This doesn’t mean your website shouldn’t be optimized using best SEO practices,” Boaman warns, but simply you don’t need a long-term investment on monthly campaigns to get sales and conversions.
Adam White, founder of SEOJet, shares: “There have been a couple of times when I had to tell a client it just didn’t make sense. The first was a musician trying to promote his new album. He would get so much more bang for his buck doing Youtube ads or FB ads than trying to rank for some generic music keyword. The other was a similar type of experience, it was the release of an independent film. Because they needed traffic before the release of the movie, SEO wasn’t a good option for them. Anytime you need results on a time crunch spending your budget on paid ads is a smarter investment.”
9. Your Website Isn’t Ready for SEO
Michael Bates, organic search executive at WeAreBoutique.co.uk, says: “Rebranding and product launches are periods in which we find that PPC, earned coverage, and paid media really come into their own. These allow brands to engage with consumers ahead of time, and with a consistent message, so that when they go online, users are aware of the product and brand. When they arrive on-site, we can ensure that on-site creative, branding, and messages are consistent with other touch-points, driving better user retention, and increased engagement.”
Putting branding and paid media first is a winner for newly launched businesses, whereas SEO could be dangerous to implement right away, because it would lead to less visibility.
“Had the budget been weighted towards SEO, brand awareness and searches would be lower,” Bates says, “and you would struggle to rank against established incumbents on generic terms ahead of launch. After the initial launch, SEO can take a greater share of the budget and build upon the foundations laid through other channels, letting Google know your brand is now relevant within this market sector. Further coverage and generic rankings will become easier to obtain as a result.”
Doing it 50-50
SEO might not be the answer for your business (or just not yet) but excluding it entirely – even in its most basic form – would be shooting yourself in the foot.
Bryan Koontz, CEO of Guidefitter, says: “When evaluating marketing strategies and ultimately allocating budget to the most effective campaigns, the debate over SEO is presented. From my
experience, a diversified marketing tactic that includes SEO along with other strategies is crucial. For any small to medium sized business to avoid SEO completely would surely spell doom for the future of their organization. Even large Fortune 100 companies are not immune as ranking for specific category pages (vs. homepage) becomes increasingly important.”
Doing it 50-50 can work. “A few SEO and non-SEO strategies that we employ with measured success are high-quality link building and local community PR. While some companies shy away from link building, we’ve embraced the opportunity by capitalizing on our business partner and manufacturer relationships. We’ve noticed first-hand the impact it can have on our inbound marketing, sales, and digital leads.”
Koontz adds that “PR is an essential part of the marketing mix for any company, no matter the size, industry, or structure”, because it “acts as the bridge between your business and the outside world and is essential for communicating your current business initiatives with the audiences these pertain to. We start by first leveraging our local community and connections to build a foundation of awareness. I advise all businesses to get active in local events that pertain to your industry, whether that be local conferences, Chamber of Commerce meetings, food drives or other philanthropic endeavors, or even something like a local 5K where the press is bound to be present. This non-SEO-focused marketing strategy gives local media members the opportunity to get familiar with your company and include you in publications. “
Whether your business is more on the lines of “DO SEO” than “DON’T SEO”, content writer Heidi Hecht’s advice is a pearl of wisdom to keep in sight as you work on your strategy:
“[Don’t] get too hyperfocused on SEO to the detriment of attracting the audience that is most likely to actually buy if they like what they see. [..] Remember that you’re selling to a human audience, not Google.”
And with that, I feel that you now have all the valuable insight to make an informed decision for your business – one that will greatly impact its future.
To your success!