Cowboy alert

Cowboy alert

Business leaders need an effective SEO plan now more than ever, writes Andrew Mernin, but how do you avoid the rising tide of cowboys in the profession?

If you can outrun a Google panda, tread carefully around the Google spiders, and avoid confrontation with the Googlebots, you might have what it takes to win the search engine optimisation (SEO) battle. But the fight to the top of search engine listings is never over. Once you’ve reached the top of the mountain you are faced with an ongoing war as you defend your territory from competitors vying to overthrow you.

In an industry full of jargon – much of which evokes images of Doctor Who baddies or a journey to a futuristic dystopia – finding a trusted SEO supplier is never easy. Furthermore, ensuring your company achieves long-lasting results with the precious funds invested in your chosen SEO partner is equally difficult. From its beginnings as a dark art bordering on criminal activity, SEO has evolved dramatically.

And in 2012, thanks to a perfect storm of favourable conditions, demand in the sector looks set to soar. Internet speeds are getting faster with Virgin Media and BT leading the charge. Traffic is at an all-time high – Sainsbury’s recently reported a 20% leap in e-commerce sales in the run-up to what was its busiest online Christmas on record. Wages in senior SEO positions are also reportedly going up, creating a clamour among the technologically-gifted to get involved in the sector. Throw in a greater hunger for online revenues and there is plenty of evidence to suggest a strong year of growth ahead for SEO in 2012.

But as demand goes up, so too will the number of unscrupulous search engine cowboys who prey on businesses that don’t know their affiliates from their algorithms. By wowing marketing managers with too-goodto- be-true promises at rock bottom prices, they play a game of white smoke and mirrors that ultimately ends in disappointment for the unsuspecting corporate customer.

Many North East businesses I have spoken to in recent weeks tell me they are inundated with calls from alleged SEO champions promising world domination, for less than the price of a hot dinner. And, as one Newcastlebased marketing executive advised me recently, these calls are not coming from distant lands where many online scams originate, but from UK-based operators.

“They’ve clearly done no research on our business and they make all sorts of wild promises for suspiciously low prices,” says the executive whose large firm offers professional financial services to thousands of the region’s businesses. “We won’t necessarily spend more on SEO this year, but we will have more focus on SEO,” he adds.

One of the region’s SEO suppliers which certainly has no cowboys in its ranks is Mediaworks – just ask ScS, Azko Nobel, Eversheds or one of its other major national and international clients on its books. Founder Brett Jacobsen sees unqualified, inexperienced or just plain immoral SEO “professionals” as the industry’s single biggest threat.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it definitely is,” he says of the rising tide of SEO cowboys offering £50 to £100 a month promises to get your business to the top of the search list. Neil Robbins, managing director at affiliate marketing firm Silverbean – also based in Newcastle – is equally scathing about “charlatans” who promise the world but deliver little. But the firm’s current growth, which looks set to take its annual turnover from £1.2m to £2.5m in the next 18 months, perhaps proves that demand for SEO services in the North East has held strong, despite many business leaders getting their fingers burned by con artists posing as pros.

Of course, SEO is not the only industry damaged by an influx of the underqualified. Will writing, web design and PR are among numerous sectors whose standards are challenged by rising redundancies which have forced people into launching services they may not be able to deliver to the expected level. However, with online sales continually breaking records, not investing in SEO is not an option for any business with a web presence. Last year, online retail sales rose by 14% to more than £50bn, with predictions that the growth will continue to hit high streets, according to a new report.

Shopping comparison website Kelkoo predicted a similar increase this year, well above the expected 3.65% rise in total retail sales. Online shoppers spent an average of just under £1,500 each on 39 items last year, with internet retail trade accounting for 12% of total spending, the highest in Europe.

A similar recent report from the IMRG Capgemini eRetail Sales Index predicts that £77bn will be spent online in the UK this year. All of which highlights the pressing demand for goods and services firms to fight their way to the top of searches constantly and consistently. It is not only investment in SEO that is required, though; it is the right investment in the right SEO partner.