SEO is only part of a digital strategy

I was recently asked by a client how to increase web sales.  This in and of itself is not a strange question for a client to ask. It is after all one of the most fundamental questions and concerns for any e-commerce business.  However, I was still shocked by the question as it was born out of a lack of understanding of digital strategy. 

When I started working with this client I was focusing primarily on SEO.  I made sure that they were submitted to the free directory services, I worked on their keywords, I had fresh and unique content created for their site, validated their code,  got their products listed on price comparison sites, posted answers to relevant forums and blogs linking back to their site.  In short I did whatever I could for free or little cost to help them with SEO.  And it worked, their traffic increased by over 100% their sales increased by 600% and things were looking pretty good for them.  So good in fact that they made the decision for me to switch my focus to other areas as they were sure that this trend would continue.   When they came to me with this plan I cautioned them that the work was not done and there was a high possibility that these trends would not continue without full time attention and an evolving digital strategy. No amount of data or anecdotal evidence would sway them, their mind was made up.  But I had said my piece and prepared them for the back slide that their sales would take.  In effect their fate was in their hands. 

Flash forward, and two months after they switched my focus they asked the question that sparked me to write this post.  Their sales had leveled off and had started taking a nose dive.  My answer to them was simple.   You have to be prepared to allocate a budget and spend money on a diversified digital strategy if you hope to increase your sales.  In short you have to spend money to make money.

Now don’t get me wrong there is an awful lot SEO can do with minimal or no monetary investment as illustrated by the dramatic upswing this client initially saw.   However, in the long run you are going to have to do things that cost money.  If you want to sell things you have to advertise what you sell.  Ask any major e-commerce player and they will tell you the same thing.  SEO alone will only take you so far.  You have to incorporate paid search advertising, display advertising, email marketing, listings on PPC price comparison sites, content network advertising, affiliate programs, and social media.   Advertising will not only help you catch buyers at the right time in the buying process it will help build brand awareness, and help increase your site popularity. These strategies will in turn help your ongoing SEO efforts.  The common factor in all these digital strategies is that they are not free to implement.  

What I see quite frequently, particularly from small businesses, is that they budget for creating a website and not much else.  They are operating on what I like to call the Field of Dreams: If you build it they will come principle.  They pay a design firm to develop an “SEO friendly” website, get some server space, and then sit back and expect orders to start rolling in.  When that doesn’t happen they take what little money they have and hire an SEO professional to do some cleanup but don’t budget much beyond the SEO professionals fees. Leaving the SEO professional to do what he/she can with little to no budget.  This can help them out a bit but it will not get them to where they want to be or assumed they would be when the decided to build a website.  The assumption was likely having a website and optimizing it for the various search engines was all they would need to do to start seeing meaningful and profitable traffic.  What they failed to account for was that their site is only a handful of pages of the billions that the search engines index and that they need other strategies to differentiate themselves from the pack and raise their level of popularity.  I think that much of this thinking has to do with the very unrealistic expectation that someone will stumble on their site and be so impressed that they will tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and so on and so on.  Creating a snow ball effect where their traffic and popularity will increase exponentially, driving more and more sales.  This is a very risky proposition.   There are very few if any e-commerce sites that are so unique and compelling that they will essentially go viral.  And even if this does happen the site will probably be replaced in the public consciousness by the next big site and be forgotten in a matter of weeks or days.  

Regardless of the assumptions that many people make about websites and e-commerce they need to be marketed just like any other business or product.  Money will need to be spent to promote them and any budget for a website has to include marketing dollars. There needs to be a comprehensive digital strategy to maintain brand awareness, drive qualified profitable traffic and support SEO.  Take a global brand like Coke for example. They are one of the most recognizable brands in the world and unless you do not posses any of your 5 senses you are probably aware of them.  Despite this level of awareness they still spend billions of dollars a year on advertising. And they are doing it in ways that are directly comparable to digital marketing.  They use radio and TV commercials to build and maintain brand awareness much like display adverting on the web.  They advertise in magazines which were just content networks before content networks were a real thing.  They pay stores to place their products on end caps and in desirable shelf locations so that they are visible when their consumers are making a buying decision, which is nothing more than paid search.  Oh yeah and they also do web marketing.  Why do they do this if they are so recognizable and popular? They do it because they are not the only game in town and they need to separate themselves from the pack.  They also realize that they have to spend money in order to do it. 

No matter if you are an SEO professional or a business owner looking for SEO services it is important to know that SEO should always be just one piece of a much broader online marketing strategy.   Business owners should be budgeting for additional marketing efforts while SEO professionals should be prepared to explain the importance of including other marketing strategies for the broadest most cost effective reach possible. 

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