It’s a phrase loaded with misconceptions and one that I love to discuss with business owners, but more often than not it feels like I’m talking them down from a ledge. SEO is often seen as a gateway to better ranking in search for transactional keywords (the ones people use when they are ready to buy or select a vendor). These searches are the tip of the spear and are therefore extremely valuable. Because of this Google puts their properties in front of searchers for these keywords and “organic” results are pushed down in search results.
“Now hold on!” I hear the chorus say, “SEO is a critical part of web marketing.” So let’s start from a different perspective because I’m not saying SEO has no value, I’m just saying its value is not where you might think it is and more importantly many of the agencies that hock SEO are taking your money because they are counting on the way it is misperceived by many business people.
SEO Marketing Goals
Let’s strip down SEO by marketing goals to better understand where the value lies. The goal of any traditional SEO effort is to improve a site’s organic ranking for important Transactional Keywords. These are typically broad, highly competed terms like “roofing contractor near me,” or “personal injury lawyer near me,” etc. These terms are very valuable and have therefore been marginalized by Google to monetize them with their own paid insertions. If you type any of these terms into Google, the result will display zero organic results in the first screen view, sometimes the second one as well. The array of Google SERP Features (ads, GBP, etc.) means the likelihood of your business website cracking the first screen organically is zero.
So then, let’s scroll down to the next screen view; typically, we will get to the local pack or map view (which has recently changed to be much larger). Here you might have a shot of appearing organically. However, it won’t be your website; it will be your Google Business Profile (GBP). This contains lots of information about your business including your web address. However, it is not positioned by your website SEO. An optimized landing page associated with the URL in your GBP does seem to provide a slight influence on rank performance, but the reality is optimizing that GBP has the most influence. But even an optimized GBP will not guarantee performance, and it’s not even your property; it belongs to Google.
So let’s keep scrolling down to the next screen view. Now, three screens down we get to what is traditionally considered “organic” search results. Now what you will see are aggregator sites for the service that is being searched. These are massive sites that are directories set up for your search query because they in turn sell positions within their own site to businesses. These are sites like Yelp, Superlawyers, Houzz, and many more.
Now, after scrolling down two or more screens, you have arrived at your organic core search results. With so many opportunities to diverge on their path before they get to these links, how effective do you think this strategy will really be?
But I hear business owners tell me “These Local SEO companies showed me ‘actual’ results in their search tool!”
The reality is that search results have become customized down to the level of individual users. The results I get by typing in “roofer near me” will be different than the person standing right next to me. To attempt to show rankings to clients purveyors of link-building SEO programs use search tools that strip out as many of the influencing factors to get “clean” search results, but these are just another version of search results that none of your potential customers will ever see. So what exactly are you paying for?
Is Local SEO a Waste of Money?
The answer is NO, but it can be. As you can see above, the dream of being the “best ‘fill in the service’ near me” in organic search results borders on futility because of the way Google structures the SERPs. But SEO should be a part of your overall marketing strategy. There is typically SEO work to be done to optimize a website, build citations, build links, nurture reviews and other ongoing monthly efforts to attain optimum results with Google, but the reality of organic rankings in typical search results will not put you in front of transactional searches.
As a small local business, your overall marketing approach must include some paid search as well as a smart SEO strategy that improves the overall keyword performance of your website. Your focus for Transactional Intent should be on your Brand Stack. These are properties that you don’t own but that are prominent places to put your brand in front of consumers. This includes your Google Business Page, Facebook Business Page, Bing Places and many others. Optimization of these and incorporating a solid SEO approach into your website will get the most bang for your buck in local SEO. Ideally, this would also include a solid content marketing strategy that will leverage the SEO value of Informational Search Intent. By using a comprehensive approach and including Local SEO in your overall marketing strategy, you can see real-world benefits to SEO.