Staying Honest and SEO Myths
I got a call this week from a man asking for information about a new website. Certain details will be anonymized, so let’s call him Bob. Bob was looking for a website for his growing painting business in a small city in Minnesota and has been in business for a long time, generating leads on Facebook and seemingly having good success but wanted to move on to an actual website. He wanted to host some information about his business, pictures, a contact form, all standard stuff.
So it seems Bob’s had a lot of difficulty finding quality businesses in the past and as such isn’t very trusting. I completely understand this as I’m not trusting either, which is why this blog is anonymous at this time. However, Bob wasn’t just distrusting, he couldn’t shake the belief that I was trying to screw him and tried to trap me in everything I said.
I started talking about pricing and mentioned that our hosting service includes both email and hosting, and we charge by the year. Bob says we’re out to get him because hosting is free. Facebook doesn’t charge, Wix doesn’t charge, blogger doesn’t charge, wordpress doesn’t charge, etc. Contracts are evil, charging by the year proves we don’t trust our customers.
At this point I tried to bring the conversation around by switching over to talking about our website options, but Bob’s concern moved to how much traffic he would get from his website. Now of course, creating a website does not mean you’ll get any traffic at all. We do offer SEO and marketing services, so I began to pitch those.
Well, Bob knew that traffic comes down to how many links you get and wanted to know how many links he would get for his website. I started explaining that SEO doesn’t work like that, and the types of things we would do, but that’s how Wix does it so that’s how it’s done. He wanted numbers on how much traffic and what ranking we could get him, asking how many websites he’ll be on? I tried pitching Adwords where we can make some guarantees about traffic, but he doesn’t believe in marketing and Wix just allows you to type in the keywords and guarantees you’ll be listed on a number of sites (I’m aware this isn’t how Wix works, thier own documentation about backlinks states that quality > quantity).
He didn’t believe that any other ranking factors were important, and that nothing other than backlinks would affect his site, after all, he made a website a few years ago that ranked well with just the backlinks that Wix provided.
Eventually, an hour into our conversation, I was able to share our pricing structure for the website itself where Bob determined that it cost too much and would try elsewhere.
Ultimately, am I angry that I spent an hour on a frustrating phone call? No. It just gives me a chance to explain some of these misconceptions, talk about how they came about in some cases, and reflect on how I can do better next time.
Running an ethical business makes these things a lot harder. It’s very easy to lie in the initial meeting to give someone a great impression. It’s easily to low-ball the quote, and tell someone what they want to hear, knowing you’ll go over budget and make up for it later. It’s easy to skimp on the quality of service to get a lower price, or contract out to overseas developers that don’t care about you. It’s easy to guarantee 100 links a month on SEO and deliver on it, but they’ll all be low quality and no one will ever visit from those domains.
Because we don’t lie there are a lot of clients we don't get the first time around. We don’t intentionally lowball quotes, we don’t outsource our core business, we don’t promise work we can't deliver in a quality way, and we’re local. And while we’re not the most expensive, we’re not cheap either.
Give the person you’re talking to a little benefit of the doubt
A good salesman will be able to control the conversation and not really let things get out of hand, but I’m not a salesman. We’re a small company. We don’t have a sales department. I just happened to be the guy available when the phone rang. I’m also the developer who will be doing the project, so I’m sure if you’re calling me I know a little more than you about hosting, websites and search. If that weren't the case, you wouldn’t be calling me.
Don’t trust them implicitly, either, but let them talk first, and then ask questions about anything you don’t understand. If they can’t explain it in a way you understand or that you agree with, then go somewhere else. Likewise, if I can’t explain things in a way you can understand and agree with, I’m quite happy for you to go somewhere else. Just like you’re looking for a good business to help you, we’re looking for customers that fit with our business model and the way we do things. This isn’t going to be everyone and that’s fine. Wix, Squarespace, or just having a facebook page are perfectly fine for some businesses. We have no shortage of work.
Hosting is not free.
There are many sorts of business models that internet companies use, but I can guarantee that 100% of the time, someone is paying for hosting. Hosting includes storage, processing and bandwidth to deliver your site over the Internet. This means that somewhere, for every website there is a computer or computers responsible for storing and delivering your website to it’s visitors. These computers are called servers, are stored in datacenters, with redundant power, redundant internet connections, redundant storage, redundant air conditioning and backups. All equipment is high quality and very expensive.
Facebook has over 60,000 servers, this is very old data and I can’t be bothered to find newer data because the point is ultimately that this costs a lot of money. In facebook’s business model, the cost of hosting is passed on to the advertisers, who advertise on your pages, and to users in general. Facebook makes money through advertising. It’s been said that whenever you’re getting something for free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product - this is the case with facebook. They sell your data, advertise on your pages and give you little control over what you can do with your pages.
Wix on the other hand is a Freemium service. It’s business model is to start you out with basic services that they pay for until you need something more complex and sign up for a premium cost-based plan. Business that don’t use much of Wix’s infrastructure they don’t charge for, just those who have grown larger or need more complex features.
Our model is simply to charge everyone the same price. We’re a small business and this makes the most sense for us at this time. It isn’t the most fair, but it means that your costs will be predictable and we know we’ll be able to cover our costs, you have full control over what you can do with your website and hosting, free (as in freedom, not beer) to buy services from whoever you want, and we won’t advertise on your site. You can add anything you want at no additional cost, unless you want us to help and then we bill for it.
Ultimately, whichever of these is best for you is your choice.
Charging by the year is not meant to scam you
We bill yearly for the simple reason that with the way current financial systems work, small payments are inefficient. If you mail checks, you have to pay 47 cents per stamp, if you pay by credit card, most processors will charge 30 cents per payment + 2.9% overall. No matter which method, this means that after 1-2 years, a whole month’s hosting cost will have been taken in fees. This means we have to raise rates, and this is why hosts that do allow monthly billing charge more for it. This does NOT mean you’re “stuck” with us. You can leave at any time, and we prorate the service and mail you a refund. We have no cancellation fee, no fee to break contract, we simply refund you for the unused months of hosting once your service is terminated.
Side note. We also require down payments for large projects unless we have an existing business relationship. Unfortunately, it’s very common for software developers to not get paid, and we feel that our down payment of 25% is the most fair for both of us, after which we bill every few weeks until the project is done. We have done jobs that we’ve never gotten paid for, as any developer with enough experience will also relate to. Our work is often subjective, we write off work whenever we feel we didn’t adequately meet expectations, however, this is a business and we need to get paid for our work. Does this mean we don’t trust you? Maybe a little. But there were certainly people we shouldn’t have trusted in the past. The best way we’ve found to deal with it is with the down payment. If you have any better ideas about what to do here, I’d love to hear it. Use the comments below to tell me about your ideas.
A contract does not mean we’re out to get you
The written contract lays out the limitations and expectations for you and for us. One thing our contract does is state that you’re the owner of anything we develop for you, and therefore, you have the right to leave at any time and take the website with you. This is NOT something that everyone provides, and without the contract your rights are ambiguous left to argue in court based on verbal statements or limited to just what the law allows. Our contract also states everything we plan to delivery to you, so you can sue us if we don’t provide it. Pretty much any reputable business will require a contract for large projects or purchases.
Quality Design is expensive
For someone to create and build a website with a custom design that’s truly representative of your brand, modern and unique is not going to be cheap. It’s going to take time to interview you and understand your brand and how you want to be presented, come up with a color scheme, typography, graphics, content, and then combine them into a layout, build it, and build any custom functionality takes time. Business that are cheap reuse cookie-cutter designs, tweak them with new colors, don’t give you options or care about your brand, won’t help with content and it won’t be fresh or offer a good user experience. We’ve had a lot of clients come to us after going the cheap route and it’s sad to see someone spend what’s still going to be a good chunk of money, only to have to throw it away.
You always get what you pay for.
Marketing isn’t evil
Marketing is simply presenting your business to your computers. Branding, SEO, SEM, the website itself, even your facebook page are all marketing. To be fair, you meant ads, and yes, ads have a bad reputation, and don’t always bring in the best customers. BUT, ads offer guarantees. I can say for sure that when I pay for ads on a keyword, a certain number of people will see the name of your brand come up. Studies show that this does work, otherwise large companies wouldn’t be spending billions on it.
It’s a lot easier to do bad SEO than good SEO. It even sounds better, too. Bad SEOs will tell you they’ll generate a certain number of links per month, and they’re not even lying. They will actually do it, too!
What they don’t tell you is, bad SEOs generate bad links. Generally what they’re talking about here is adding links to your site from other websites. As you can imaging, we can’t just add links to other websites, because we don’t have control of them. (You can create links on social media and directories, but this is a little different and we’ll get back to it.) So, what bad SEOs do is add forum posts, spam comments, add links on broken sites or sites with default passwords, hacked sites, or foreign sites. Search engines aren’t dumb, and don’t attribute much value, or possibly even negative value to these links in the form of penalties.
The reason is simple. If there were any simple trick to getting one the first page of search results, everyone would do it, but it can’t work - there’s only 10 results on the page.
In fact, it did used to work similar to this. Google’s initial algorithm used eingenvectors to track the rank value of pages based on a function of the value of all links pointing to it. Each page started with an initial value, and as links were found pointing to it, a portion of the rank of the initial page was passed on to the linked page.
As you can imagine, this one ranking signal is easy to game, and in the early 2000s this was done all the time. To stop this, Google started adding more signals to it’s ranking algorithm and there are now over 200 signals, according to John Mueller in Google’s latest webmaster hangout in which he also recommended avoiding link building yourself completely.
The search engine’s goal is to show the searcher the best results for their query. Of course, the ‘best’ is subjective, but Google’s stated their goal is to get the search engine to evaluate it similar to a human. If you’re trying gimmicky things like just adding more links, it’s inevitably going to catch up with you, in the form of either a manual penalty or an algorithmic penalty when Google tunes their algorithm to better detect the techniques you’re using.
We’ve on several occasions had to deal with reversing these penalties for customers, because their previous SEO took the low road and just create a bunch of links, only to fall into this trap. It doesn’t work.
Building quality links means reaching out to other websites, and asking them to link to you, or providing them content to post with links to your site. Also note that this needs to be for free, because paying for links is a violation of Google guidelines and will result in penalties if caught. Affiliate program links are also a violation, and there’s a lot of gray area surrounding this in Googles Guidelines.
Good link building is a value proposition. To built quality links, you have to have something of high quality that people would reasonably want to link to. This means writing high quality content that’s relevant to your site and business, and having a good user interface and design. And if your content really is good, people will build the links for you. If you have information relevant to someone, they will pass it on.
There’s simply no legit way to generate links to bad content.
This is why I dislike SEO. Doing it properly means working closely with your business, and taking a ton of time to generate high quality content for you and/or improving your content. No one seems to want this, they just want to pay a bit of money to have magically good rankings without getting involved. You need to be involved as a client if you want it to really work. And frustratingly, doing it wrong is easier to market. You can promise links, you can promise good rankings. You can’t promise anything when you do it correctly.
The other purpose of link building is to solicit traffic directly. If a prominent website links to you for a valid reason, you can expect that some people will click the link to your site - and the search engine isn’t even necessary!
Directories and social media
These generate essentially 0 SEO value at this time. Google’s John Mueller has stated that they don’t give any ranking value to social media links - they’re too easy to create to be meaningful. Social media is a separate yet completely valid way to reach your audience. Outside of specific niches, directories also have little to no value, simply because real people don’t use them. We can easily build directory links, but beyond the few that people use, they won’t help you.
The “keywords” you enter in your CMS are ignored by search engines
This has been the case for a long time. Wix doesn’t make you rank for those keywords, your content does. Leave keywords blank unless instructed by your developer (sometimes we use them for other things, like on-site search) because it’s a waste of time and just slowing down the page load.
It is also very easy to promise that you’ll rank #1 for a certain number of keywords. This is useless. I can easily get you to rank #1 for obscure things like “bobcats riding on a zamboni”, but ranking #1 doesn’t matter if no one is searching for it.
Titles and h tags
Similarly to links, these tags aren’t magic ranking bullets. They are important, sure, but just one factor among many that affect the rank of your site. I can spend all month researching and trying different title tags and it probably won’t make a noticeable boost in your rankings unless they were already terrible.
There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy
I can’t tell you what needs to be done for SEO until we start working with you. I can’t tell you how to improve something that doesn’t exist yet. We need to do research, find out what users are looking for, find out how users react to the site, and areas we can improve the presentation and information. Then we can come up with recommendations for you. I can’t recommend a plan or promise any results without doing anything else first.
I hope this information has been helpful to someone out there. I haven’t named the place I work, and I won’t be providing independent consulting services - if you need help with SEO, check out the SEO Subreddit /r/seo. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to leave a message in the comments below.