Wal-Mart Offers SEO and SEM Services

It sounds like an April Fools’ Day joke, but SEO-focused journalists first got wind of it around Christmas. Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart’s brand for bulk sales to small businesses, now offers search marketing services. What does this mean for SEO and SEM consultants?

SEO journalists are writing about this all over the web, from Search Engine Journal to Search Engine Land. Aaron Wall links to it and threatens to fight back by selling Chinese-made US flags for three cents each. Tameka Kee of Media Post Publications thinks it might be a sign that SEM has moved one step closer to becoming a commodity. And at least one commenter with a name that is somewhat familiar to members of our SEO Chat forum wondered about their return policy.

On the face of it, the idea of Wal-Mart even entering this kind of business seems ridiculous. SEO and SEM are highly specialized fields; to do it right, an SEO consultant needs to spend a serious amount of time with each client to understand the needs of their business. Once they get a feel for the company and its field, the next step is keyword research; then there’s planning the ad campaign, especially if pay-per-click marketing is a factor, going over the web site with a fine tooth comb to hit all the on-page optimization, building links for off-page optimization…the list goes on and on.

The point is that SEO and SEM don’t lend themselves well to a cut-rate approach. Sure, there are large SEO firms that offer to raise your rankings in Google for “just a small fee,” but many of those firms send out notorious amounts of spam to get customers. They’re scams. Can Wal-Mart legitimately offer such a knowledge- and labor-intensive service at bargain basement prices?

Judging from the Sam’s Club web site, that’s exactly what they propose to do. Search engine optimization packages start at $25 per month. Pay-per-click packages start at $50 per month. Not surprisingly, those prices are within the range of many small businesses. What will they get for their hard-earned cash?

{mospagebreak title=A Closer Look at Sam’s Club SEM}

For search engine optimization, Sam’s Club offers LeadConnect. Both from the name and the description, it sounds like a repackaged version of Innuity’s LeadConnect service. The Sam’s Club service gives you a tool to create your profile, which is distributed “to major search engines and online Yellow Page directories like YPGuides.” The service also submits your web site URL to the major search engines and directories. Your profile, by the way, appears to be simply your business information – address, phone number, and so forth. This is what you get for your $25 per month.

So what do you get for $50 per month with the pay-per-click advertising package? Sam’s Club sets up a campaign for you in Google and/or Yahoo, creates your ad, and will send a targeted number of “qualified consumers” to your web site each month. As with the other service, it would appear that you get what you pay for.

If you’re shaking your head in disbelief right now, you should be. Submitting your web site to major search engines is an all-but-obsolete practice. As for the other items, you’re probably thinking that it would be easier for anyone, especially a small business owner, to just do it himself and save the fee. Indeed, a number of people who commented on posts reporting the service said that it was a waste of money if that was all it offered. One poster claiming to have once worked for an agency that Innuity bought out said that “Those guys haven’t a clue what they’re doing. They turned SEM into an assembly line affair, a cookie cutter one-size-fits-all approach. I feel bad for those small businesses who get suckered into this deal.”

While it may sound strange to you, this move by Wal-Mart makes sense on a lot of levels. First, it’s worth keeping in mind that Wal-Mart also offers to build web sites for businesses. That particular service – which is free to Sam’s Club members — has been around for nearly two years at least. Bill Sweetman posted to his blog at the end of January 2006 that he found a three-page brochure at his local Sam’s Club for the service. Given that a web site building service already exists, why not expand into SEO and SEM? After all, how else are all those sites going to get traffic?

Another way the SEO and SEM services make sense for Wal-Mart is that they do fill customer needs. Remember, Sam’s Club aims at the small business market. Many if not most small business owners have never heard of SEO or SEM, and don’t have a lot of time to devote to their web site or other Internet-related activities. They would rather pay someone else a small fee to handle that part of their business, and not deal with the headache – after all, that’s why they shop at Sam’s Club for many of their bulk purchase needs, so they don’t have to deal with invoices from lots of separate suppliers.

{mospagebreak title=Black Hat, White Hat…Sam’s Hat?}

On the one hand, the service probably won’t hurt most small businesses. With as little as you get for your $25, it seems unlikely that Sam’s Club will engage in black hat SEO practices. But that’s the point, of course; businesses will get very little for their money, and that’s going to affect the rest of the industry, especially those SEO consultants who deal with small businesses as clients.

Say you’re a small business owner and an SEO consultant has just quoted you a price for his or her services. It sounds exorbitant. The first words off your lips are going to be “Why should I pay you so much when I can pay Sam’s Club $50 per month?” Ouch.

Let’s take an even worse scenario. Say you’re a small business owner who tried the service from Sam’s Club. Maybe you even stuck with it for six months or so. But you never saw the increase in your business that you hoped for. Sure, your site got more traffic, perhaps, but most of it didn’t actually convert. So you decided to discontinue the service. Three or four months later, you’re approached by an SEO. What’s your reaction? “I tried SEO for six months, and it didn’t work for me. Why should I try it again?”

It may sound like I’m saying that Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club are doing the same kind of thing with SEO and SEM that they’ve been accused of doing with mom-and-pop stores and small retailers in general across the US. That is, they’re offering goods that are perhaps just good enough, but cost much less and are more convenient to get. Because of the better prices and better hours, consumers choose to shop there, which squeezes the smaller businesses with tighter margins out of business. Think about it. You can’t afford to offer SEO at Wal-Mart prices any more than a small artists’ cooperative can afford to sell handmade jewelry at Wal-Mart prices – and quite possibly for the same reasons.

{mospagebreak title=An Opportunity to Educate}

Don’t think for a minute, however, that you might have to consider rolling back your prices. That way lies madness, and there’s no way you’ll stay in business by competing directly with Wal-Mart. Vince Bank, also known as onlineprguy, explained it best in his blog, Darwin PR: “SEO is a highly technical, personalized, and customer-specific offering best tackled by firms taking a great deal of time to understand your business…Sam’s Club is dumbing down this concept to laughable extremes.”

If you want to stay in business, then, you’ll need to do exactly what you’ve probably had to do for years: educate your customers. Let them know how much work actually goes into doing SEO and SEM the right way, and how it pays off. Sure, they can go to Wal-Mart, but they’ll get a lot more from you. In the long run, in fact, your services are a better deal, because they offer a much better return on investment.

Indeed, taking the long view, Wal-Mart’s entry into the SEO and SEM business may be one of the best things to happen to the field. In one quick stroke, the retailing giant made tons of small businesses aware of the concepts. Now these firms know that such services exist, what they’re for, and that they might want to optimize their web sites or put search ads in Google or Yahoo.

If you look at it from that point of view, then, Wal-Mart is actually doing half of your job for you. It is explaining the purpose of SEO and SEM, and trying to convince small businesses that they need to buy those services. All you need to do is show why Wal-Mart’s offering will never deliver the results that you can. Does Sam’s Club spend hours doing keyword research? What kind of advice would they give on H1 headers, templates, and font changes? How about the infamous subdomains vs. subdirectories issue?

You can offer your clients all this, and more, because you’ve put in the time to learn your field. On top of that, you’ll be putting in the time to learn your client’s field well enough to make a difference as to where they show up in the SERPs. This is the kind of obsessive attention that you can’t buy for $50 per month, and you shouldn’t be afraid to make that clear to anyone who wants your services. Remember, it leads to the kind of increases in business that your clients won’t be able to pick up at Sam’s Club along with the kitty litter.

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