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Talking about Scale in Marketing

John Doherty —  February 27, 2013
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I tweeted this about a month ago when I was frustrated at Google for still allowing sites in some verticals to rank off of bad content or links simply because they are a brand and “belong” in that search result. In fact, one could argue that users expect these companies to be there. After all, it makes sense for a company like John Deere to rank for [tractors], no?

Is this fair of me, though? Is it Google’s fault that SEOs have to scale their efforts of content creation and linkbuilding to become competitive in competitive verticals?

I’ve stewed on these thoughts for a bit of time and come to a few conclusions. Many of these might not come as a shock to you, but I think they’re worth stating.

Sometimes SEO Isn’t The Answer

Let’s be honest – SEO is a subset of online marketing. Sometimes I even wonder if it really is marketing, or if it’s website tweaks and links, and the real marketing comes in with the content we produce and outreach we do.

SEO is a slow burn of traffic. One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they think about SEO is thinking that all they need to do is rank for a few choice terms, and they’ll win the Internet. The problem in some verticals, like travel, is that many of the head terms are incredibly competitive:

hotels

I would argue that a healthy SEO campaign reveals results like this:

traffic up and to right

To win online, you need to invest in more than just one channel. I wrote here about the importance of varying your traffic sources, and this especially applies in competitive verticals where you have to pay handsomely to play.

Choose Your Vertical Wisely

Following on the last point, some verticals are going to be easier to enter than others. Before you enter a vertical, you should do extensive competitive analysis to know what it will take to rank, or even better just make money, in that vertical.

This includes, but is by no means limited to:

* Cost of keywords for paid search
* Competitiveness of keywords
* Competitors (amazon is hard to unseat, for example)
* Types of content needed onsite

You then need to calculate the amount of traffic you need to generate to turn a profit, and the amount of effort required to achieve this traffic. The equation is actually pretty simple:

Traffic*avg conversion*avg sale = revenue
Time*hourly rate = cost

Quite simply, can you put in the money up front to generate a return later?

If you want to read the most exhaustive piece I’ve ever read on this subject, check out this post on SEObook from January 2013.

Quality Wins Longterm, Quantity Burns

Some wise people have said recently online that anything good can become bad when you try to scale it, such as guest posting. Multiple examples have shown that the slow and steady approach to marketing and brand building is the way to really win online.

Mike King recently gave an example in his Searchfest presentation about the one guest post thst he wrote on SearchEngineWatch. He had just spoken at a conference and discovered that it was possible to migrate your social share counts when you move URLs. Through this one guest post, which sought to answer a real problem, he landed a client worth about $250,000 to his company.

One of my favorite examples of quantity burning you down was this test done about what happens when you build 10,000 dodgy links to a site. The site ranked well for a little while, but then suddenly disappeared off the face of the SERPs.

dodgy links

Distilled has taken the approach of building our brand steadily and purposefully. Last year, we had over 852,000 visits to our website. What other consultancy do you know of that does that? We publish content twice a week on our own blog, once a week on SEOmoz at minimum, and engage on social media channels. No scale here, but it works.

John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

7 responses to Talking about Scale in Marketing

  1. Anthony Pensabene February 27, 2013 at 8:36 am

    i consider myself more creative with my thoughts and intended content a longer-term investment. But from a salesman’s perspective, I think a link builder who can show the accelerated/scaled process is more enticing to a client despite the observations in the post here.

    anecdote- a peer asked me to write a post..
    i stated i could devote x hours for y money.
    he stated he couldn’t see the rationale in paying y.
    i said i couldn’t see the rationale in spending any thing less than x time for something of quality (that i would put my name on.)
    he decided to look for someone else.

    it’s a minor anecdote, and you address a larger notion here, but i think it accurately addresses some of the tension at work. it’s kind of like immediate gratification.. people like to get what they want quickly..

    i remember my parents buying me a ‘justification for higher education’ poster as a kid, with a big mansion by the beach with nice cars in the garage. i got the message as a kid.. but in the day-to-day it’s a lot harder to accept that progression, that patience in building something of quality..

    • This perfectly sums up the issue with finding a good client vs finding a great client. A client who understands the slow burn are the ones who are great to work with. That doesn’t mean you can’t see some great quick wins, but it’s great to work with people who have their eyes set on the horizon.

  2. Arg, this left me wanting more. I was with you right up to the end, then it just ended!

    Scale really stumped me when I was starting out as a one-man department at a larger design agency. I could see it was necessary for the immediate impact people were looking for, but I couldn’t work out a way to deliver it without compromising on quality or surrendering too much control.

    Obviously I know the secret answer now, but best we don’t talk about that in public. *nudge, nudge, wink, wink*

  3. Whenever I find myself starting to write something like a blog post, I just can’t stop until it’s as well thought out an researched as a mini essay from college, so the idea that quality will win out in the end is reassuring because I find it more of a waste of time to spend 1 hour on a blog post than 3 hours on the blog post.

    Obviously there is a case for both sides. Sites like Business Insider, Mashable, and Huff Post do well pumping out short SEO’d content but then on the flip side, sites like Slate, the Verge, and SEOmoz do well with super high quality content. So pick what you’re good at I suppose when writing content? I think we are getting rewarded more and more for quality content on the web albeit slowly.

    • Joe,

      Great comparison. I think sites that have no real product/service (ala Mashable) really have to pay the pageview game, while SEOMoz’s blog/content’s true value is to bring them customers, not ads. Thus, content that is thoroughly researched is more important to enhancing SEOMoz’s brand.

  4. Absolutely true John! SEO is not always necessary for all the sites to rank. A good and well recognized brand offline will be very competitive and difficult to beat online. For other sites which are trying to build a great brand to get numerous conversions and leads online, an organic content strategy is must to help yield fruitful results.

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