Knowing When Not to Optimize

Practically every SEO has a horror story or two about certain past clients. Is there some way we can tell in advance that a job is going to be problematic? Yes, there are certain warning signs. Itai Levitan discusses some of the most common ones.

Just about every SEO that I’ve met has a passion for search engine optimization. It’s a mysterious and intriguing practice, and we SEOs love it! It’s fun to tweak those pages and receive almost immediate feedback as search engine ranking fluctuation are realized. SEO is never boring, because each website is unique, as are the various stages of the search engine optimization work process. SEOs love everything about it, from the initial investigation of the site and its market, learning about what the website is trying to achieve and how; following through to the keyword research and strategy, the optimization, link building, monitoring and improvements. Throughout the SEO process, SEOs are almost always feeling a positive tension and inner drive. They are inspired to work those late hours, knowing that SEO is probably going to pop up in their dreams anyway!

There are various reasons why almost every experienced SEO has taken at least one project that she or he later regretted. It’s simply hard to turn down a SEO project, whether you are servicing a client, optimizing your own site, helping a friend out or what have you. Most SEOs like the challenge, and are not afraid to carve their way in the world. Some see it as a secret riddle that is calling out to be solved, and can’t refuse the challenge. Other SEOs, who are freelancers or employees of SEO firms, simply need to optimize another website as part of their work.

But in certain cases, “just say no” applies to SEOs as well. There are many reasons why this can be true. For example, some projects are just too much trouble and are aiming too high while lacking sufficient time and/or budget to get the job done right. There are a number of situations where we SEOs should stop to look at certain warning signs before diving into another optimization project.

So what happens when you take on a SEO project that you should not have accepted? Well, first there are the disappointing results. Not only to yourself, but to other stakeholders and especially – when relevant – to clients. I am a great believer in (1) reputation, which cannot be directly purchased and needs to be earned and (2) motivation, which is essentially the core of every success story out there, including SEO success stories. Unfortunately, I have seen myself and others fall at least once with a project that should not have been agreed to in the first place. Fortunately, there was no damage to reputation, but there was some damage to my motivation, at least in the short term. Why is this important? Because that can also cause the SEO to lose his/her cool or logic, and these two traits are key to SEO success.

How can we SEOs identify the situations where we’re going to be sorry later that we took on that problematic SEO project? There are plenty of warning signs, and here are some of the main ones worth mentioning, which I have come across over the past few years.

I don’t know if you’ve come across this, but I just love it when someone approaches my team members and me with a very long list of very specific search queries that she or he wants a site to rank first with. So much for getting creative at building the right keyword strategy! The person just went to Overture’s keyword suggestion tool and copied a long list of keywords. Well, maybe that’s not exactly what was done, but you get the point.

One of the better things that I’ve learned from Jill Whalen, one of the SEO pioneers, is that SEO is very much about focus. A site is quite limited in the number of phrases for which it can target and achieve top search engine rankings. Whether you’re a strong follower of the Hilltop algorithm approach, believe that the race will be won by the best link campaign, or that content is and will always be king, it doesn’t change the fact that a site is still quite limited in the number of search phrases it can realistically target. Now, of course, there are massive sites out there that can achieve top rankings for hundreds and even thousands of phrases, but those are extreme examples.

Sometimes, you may get pushed into taking on a project that is too optimistic, shall we say, in regards to the number of highly competitive, unique phrases that shall be targeted. If you are not careful, disappointment may be on its way.

Competing with an existing market leader in a highly competitive market

Sometimes, someone will say “Yeah, we’ve launched a new site. We’re doing this and we’re very serious about that and we plan to become leaders in this other thing… blah blah.” Now the sand-boxed, link-unpopular site is supposed to compete with a market leader that has been developing a mammoth link campaign since 1994 (and the first version of that site even used to be compatible with IE 2.0 and Netscape 3.0!).

Just as in any market, the goals and strategy must be realistic about the player’s relative positioning in the marketplace. If the leaders are too far ahead, this better be put openly on the table. It’s highly recommended that alternate strategies be formulated.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I have a 100 percent perfect track record with sites and customer satisfaction. But I can say that the biggest disappointment that I caused a client happened when the reason behind their drop in rankings was out of my control. The site was hosted on a really unstable server belonging to some reseller of a reseller.

During a really bad month, the site was unavailable for more than 20 days. As a result, rankings dropped about 5-10 pages on Google for several weeks. If you notice that a site is hosted with a really problematic hosting plan, you never know what sort of rankings you may drop to one day. And it’s just a matter of time before that happens.

Wants top rankings but site design/architecture/content cannot be touched

“My site is in Flash with Frames and full of slow loading images. Now, it has to stay that way because my art director said it’s great for the corporate image. My marketing consultant also admits that it promotes brand awareness. Oh yeah, and you can’t touch or add any text on the site, either. Good luck.”

My answer: “Thanks and good luck to you, too — with the PPC, mate.”

Excuse my cynicism, but the point is that SEOs, in most cases, need to touch the design, architecture and/or content of the site. Personally, I see inflexibility to changing a site as the toughest challenge for SEOs. For me, it is better to have more flexibility on a site and compete in a more competitive market than to have less flexibility and compete in a less competitive market. In any case, beware of the projects where you see that SEO flexibility is the very last priority, or even non-existent.

Previous SEO did damage

But there’s something worse than inflexibility – the unknown damage that a previous SEO may have done. As a policy, I and the SEOs at search engine marketing firm EasyNet engage in “white hat” SEO only. Beyond the moral standpoint, we believe it is the only way to achieve and sustain SE leadership position for the long run.

Still, any SEO may encounter a “damaged” site. In the worst case, it was “black hat” SEO that gave that site the boot from its historic search engine placements. But accidental mistakes that a “white hat” SEO may have caused will still have the same affect from the engine’s point of view: punishment.

The problem with this situation is that you don’t know when the punished site will come back to life. As SEO is very much about organized project management, it is hard to work out any objectives or schedules with such a heavy mist over the return of rankings.

“The site is launching today. Are we going to be seeing results at the end of the week?” Yes, there are cases like this, too.

One of the strongest points that PPC advertisers happily highlight is that results are immediate. This can’t be said, in most cases, for SEO, and that trend is becoming stronger. If the people behind the site have no patience to wait for the SEO to do his initial analysis, keyword research and strategy, on and off page optimization, then wait for the engines’ rankings to show up – that should be a warning sign for you as the SEO that this is a possibly problematic project. This is one of the more typical cases to watch out for.

Insufficient budget

The most typical case to watch out for, in my opinion, is the one with the lack of project budget in relation to the project goals. For instance, if very significant resources must be invested into a SEO project, but the client has pushed the negotiation too hard, then damage is going to be caused both to the client and the SEO. In general, this can happen between an organization and any provider of outsourced services, whether SEO or not. The same goes for inhouse SEO or for yourself when optimizing your own site.

The army marches on its stomach, and the SEO races on time and money (there is also skill, persistence, creativity and more, but we’ll leave that for now). If there is a mismatch between these basic resources and what is planned to be achieved, then you better watch out.

Stop and think

I’ve mentioned only selected, not all, reasons not to engage in certain SEO projects. Before we give in to our passion to take on another project and engage in something that many of us find creative and beautiful, we should pause to consider the possible pitfalls. This article is just a little reminder for SEOs to think with their minds and not only their hearts when deciding whether to take on a particular SEO project.

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