“Is SEO worth it?” and “Is SEO dead now that ChatGPT is here?” are questions I hear regularly as the owner of a digital marketing agency.
I’m not going to make friends with this blog post, I’m almost sure of it. But it’s time someone in the industry sat up and told the truth about SEO – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
First, what is SEO or Search Engine Optmisation?
SEO Definition: Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the process of affecting the visitiblity of a website or a web page in a search engines “natural” or un-paid “organic” search results. In general, the earlier or higher ranked on the search results page, and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine’s users. (Reference: Wikipedia)
What do I know about SEO and why should you listen to me?
The feature image of this blog post (shown above) is a screen shot of my Google Analytics account for one of my businesses. It shows the continual growth of traffic (visitors) to my website over 4 years from the time I launched that company in 2010.
When I started that company I had 1 strategy in mind – build my business using SEO (or Search Engine Optimisation).
Back then, SEO was a tactic that you could use quite aggressively. I entered into a market that was filled with big budget businesses who play with millions of marketing dollars each year. I was a little, 1 man band with a shoestring budget. But I had something they didn’t: the ability to quickly adopt and master a strategy that was still misunderstood and underutilised at the time.
I spent hours grinding out that strategy – often 14 or 16 hour days just on doing SEO. I’m talking scouring the web for link opportunities: Getting high page rank ‘follow’ links, leaving blog comment links, mixing up anchor text in my links, adding deep links to my website, revising my sites architecture to squeeze every ounce of ranking effectiveness I could. I wrote a shitload of articles and blog posts. I created mini niche websites and optimised those for additional, highly targeted traffic. I created Squidoo pages, Hubpages, WordPress.org pages. I syndicated, I guest posted, I optimised images, URL’s, Titles, headlines, keyword density… you name it, I did it.
SEO was like a winnable game. Each week I’d check my rankings on dozens of keywords I was optimising my site for. Each week I’d see a result for my efforts. That little green indicator showing my rankings were increasing was like a shot of adrenaline in the arm.
If I got a red number, it meant I lost rankings, so I’d start with my competitor research. I’d reverse engineer their website. I’d use software to see where their links are coming from – how they are beating me and I’d set out to smash them out of the ball park.
Can I do SEO? Yep.
The result? I’ve made over $30M in sales due to SEO on that one website.
Surely that means SEO is worth it right? Not so fast my friend…
Now, if I was unscrupulous, I could leave you with these numbers and you’d probably be thinking “Far out, $30M in sales just from SEO”.
That wouldn’t paint the whole picture and you’d be making the same mistake I see so many people make.
Misconception #1: Visitors = Profit
The one common metric that every SEO agency pushes into the face of every business owner who contracts them is Website Visitors.
They’ll say: “Surely, if the traffic is going up each month, it must mean we’re doing something right? Surely, if the traffic is going up, we’re doing our job?”
Here’s the killer. I know a lot of businesses who can show me an increase in website visitors, but tell me they haven’t acquired any new business to speak of.
They’ll tell me they’re making the same profit as the year before when they had 25% less visitors.
Here’s the cold, hard truth;
When my website finally jumped from 2,500 visitors a month to 10,000 visitors a month – my sales didn’t grow one bit.
So what is going wrong here? If we’re paying for SEO and we’re seeing results like more visitors, why aren’t we getting more clients?
The problem is; You’re not getting relevant visitors to your site.
For example, take a look at your Google Analytics and navigate to Audience > Geo > Location. Here you will see a map that reveals where your website traffic is coming from.
If you’re a local business, then would website visitors from other countries be ‘relevant traffic’?
You can also view different dimensions such as City – so if you’re a Perth based business, Sydney traffic might be pointless.
Tip: Modify the results by adding a segment of people from your location and you’ll see the traffic that is most relevant to your business.
All of a sudden those 10,000 visitors a month shrinks dramatically.
SEO brought in visitors, but not the kind that will grow your business.
Misconception #2: All SEO is Equal
To understand what I mean by relevant visitors, I need to explain some fundamental workings of Google and Bing.
Search engines provide answers when someone is looking for something.
So when you go to Google and type in “mountain bikes” Google is going to provide you with a list of options.
In this example “mountain bikes” is the keyword phrase. This is what you typed into Google.
That keyword is just one of millions of variations when it comes to the term “bikes”.
Each different search produces different results.
Results for “mountain bikes” is very different from “mountain bikes under $1000” which is different again from “mountain bikes sydney”.
All the results in the ‘Organic’ listings (not the paid ads) will be different. But I would also argue, that the users doing the search are different too.
What do I mean?
The intent of the searcher is different.
A user searching for the generic “mountain bikes” is probably just interested to see what’s available, or might be looking for a stock image for a brochure or perhaps some other random reason.
A user searching for “mountain bikes Sydney” is probably much more likely a potential customer to a bike shop in Sydney.
So which website visitor do you want to attract?
The potential customer right?
As a Google Ads Agency, we need to identify search intent early so less money is wasted on ads that don’t convert. But many SEO agencies don’t care about conversions as much as they should. They’ll generate traffic and show you an increase in website visitors so clients feel their business is improving…
Unfortunately, you can’t be sure what your website visitor searched for in the search engine because Google now hides a significant number of search keywords in Google Analytics (and even partially hidden for Google Ads).
When Google says they sent 35,034 organic website visitors to your website but you don’t know what they typed into Google because Google Analytics doesn’t show you that data… it’s hard to know what the quality of website visitors is like.
They used to show you what people typed into their search engine to find you… but Google decided to make search more secure so they no longer do. There is a lot of speculation as to why they made this change, but one theory ties to the fact that their paid Adwords revenue significantly increased after making this change.
So in summary, getting the right traffic to your website is not only difficult, but it’s barely measurable using SEO.
This is probably why you’re growing in traffic volume, but it’s not having an effect on your customer numbers or profit results.
Misconception #3: Ranking for specific keywords
In the golden age of SEO (which was only a few years ago) you could easily target very specific keyword phrases.
In today’s world, it’s harder to go for specifics.
Yes, an SEO agency will optimise the website for those specific phrases, but ultimately the power is with Google as to what you do and don’t rank for.
That power can’t be understated either. Because as many businesses found out over the last couple of years, Google can change their algorithm and wipe your rankings from their search results.
Really you ask?
Imagine spending thousands of dollars on SEO only to find it was all in vein and you have to start again. Ouchy momma!
Damn you panda.
So should we pay for SEO?
This is a great question and I wanted to outline a strategy for you going forward so you can assess if SEO is worth paying for, or if it’s simply a waste of money.
Take this quick test;
1. Are you paying less than $1000 per month for SEO? YES / NO
If you answered Yes, my guess is you’re getting little to no value and could potentially be damaging your website rankings if the business looking after your SEO is creating spammy links that Google penalises.
It’s kind of common sense, but if an agency is charging you $300 a month you have to wonder, what exactly can they get done each month for $300? I mean, a typical SEO staff member with a few years experience cost $70,000+ in salary (plus superannuation). They’ll need a PC, software licences, holiday leave etc. So their $33 p/hour salary means they might spend a few hours on your SEO each month. It’s really not a lot. Include time for reporting and support… umm…
Today, SEO requires an intelligent marketing strategy to work. If you’re doing it on the cheap, the business working for you is cutting corners.
2. Is your business growing at the same rate as your website visitor numbers? YES / NO
If you answered No, my guess is that you’re generating irrelevant website traffic as your website visitors increase.
That can happen for a few reasons;
- People are looking for information but will never become a customer.
- Your website visitors are outside of your serviceable locations.
- Visitors have already made a sale and are wanting supporting documentation/advice.
These are often a result of creating broader content on your website that extends beyond the normal sales cycle. The normal cycle is part of the buyers journey and consists of three phases that are ‘Awareness, Consideration and Decision’. If your content doesn’t support those phases, reconsider the type of content you’re producing.
If your content on your website fits those phases, then you may not need new content at all. Rather, you might find you are better off revising and improving your existing content to improve your long-tail keyword rankings.
3. Is the SEO company looking after your SEO creating really great content? YES / NO
Google rewards companies with good rankings if they publish great content that gets shared by website visitors naturally.
So creating a great video like this that gets 10 million views is an excellent SEO strategy.
However, if the SEO company is only writing a 300 word article to publish on your business blog – and it’s much like the other gazillion articles they published previously, then there’s a good chance you’re wasting your SEO dollars.
Unfortunately, we now live in a world that includes ChatGPT. That means written content (which can be converted simply to video content using AI software tools like Synthesia) means the game of producing original content has changed significantly.
I would note, ChatGPT really does still read like it was written by AI. There are additional tools that can added on to re-write AI text so it doesn’t read like it was created by AI… all in an effort to sound more ‘human’.
What a game we’ve entered. AI is an advantage in some ways, but once everyone is using it, the advantage is gone.
But here’s what hasn’t changed…
Understanding your clients customer journey and what they are looking for. Knowing that and producing relevant content that compels a potential customer to contact you IS THE DIFFERENCE. Because content marketing requires next level market knowledge and insight.
4. Have you run a pay per click (PPC) campaign on your high ranking keywords? YES / NO
Here’s where the rubber can really hit the road.
If your SEO provider has given you a report that shows you ranking #1 for certain keyword phrases, you should run a PPC campaign on those keywords and set up conversion tracking.
That way you’ll see if people who search for those keywords actually convert to customers.
A few years ago, I was approached by a business to do a marketing audit for them. We were investigating a whole lot of things from their overall lead generation strategy, their web presence, their sales funnel, etc…
When it came time to review their SEO strategy, they sheepishly confessed they didn’t really know what SEO was, but they just knew they needed it. That’s not unusual. What I did find unusual was how they had been sold the SEO service.
They were asked to nominate 3 primary keyword phrases they wanted to rank for.
There was no other instruction given. Just “Tell us what you want to rank for”. So they randomly chose 3 phrases.
“Building” | “Fine Homes” | “Construction Companies”
I can’t blame them for choosing those words, they make sense if you’re a new home builder right? Unless of course you know how Google works and how keyword phrases are vastly different in intent.
None of those 3 phrases would have given them 1 cent of business if they managed to rank #1.
Had they run a PPC campaign, they would have discovered that within a week and cancelled the so-called SEO campaign, saving them thousands in wasted dollars – and in wasted opportunities.
What other options do you have?
OK so at this point you might have seen a few red flags with an SEO campaign.
So what other alternatives do you have?
We often think of marketing/advertising in terms of channels.
Each channel has different opportunities;
- TV – Great for large brands with broad demographics
- Radio – Excellent brand recall – again great for bigger brand businesses
- Google Ads – Bidding on keywords with high user intent can bring better quality leads
- Facebook Ads – Get your best ad offers in front of your target audience before your competitors
- and so on…
So then if you’re considering SEO as a service, consider this one comparison;
Spending $1500 p/month on SEO or $1500 on Facebook Ads (lead generation campaign)
- Takes 6 months (or longer) to rank on page 1
- May not generate significant traffic to the website until you rank in the top 4 positions on Google (the top position on Google generates ~30% of the clicks, with the second position only ~15%).
- Subject to change if Google makes changes to their algorithm. So all your SEO work can be wiped out in minutes.
- An average Facebook Ad campaigns often generate leads for less than $100 each
- That would mean your business gets 15 or more new leads a month with the prospective clients name, phone, email as well as qualifying questions
- Those leads can become referrals generating more business
- You can concentrate on improving lead quality by taking steps within your control
So if you were to choose only 1 activity of the two above, which would it be?
So is SEO dead?
Absolutely not. Businesses are still making money because Google and Bing puts them at the top of the search results.
But things could change quickly for a lot of industries that relied on SEO with Question and Answer formats. Chat functionality is now built into Bing and Google is sure to follow suit shortly. So instead of typing into Google “recipe for roast chicken” and having to choose from 10 different search results… you could simply type that same thing into ChatGPT or Bing Chat and get your answer.
That method just changed search engine referral traffic to countless websites and once the general public get used to it, SEO traffic will be heavily reduced for some websites and will impact some industries more than others.
So you can see how some old SEO techniques that were once highly effective are now dead. What used to work and could rapidly promote your business up the Google rankings ladder, quickly, easily and cheaply is not available anymore.
If you’re responsible for the company email account, you’ve probably had weekly emails from companies in India that promise 1st page rankings for only a few hundred dollars a month. That kind of service is dead. It doesn’t work. It did a number of years ago, but not anymore.
Don’t be tempted. They will cost you reputation with Google, and that’s not something you want to mess with.
Where to from here?
OK so now you know SEO isn’t all gravy. It can work, but it requires work to do so. So what can you do to make SEO worth it if you’re going to commit to that channel?
Answer: Smart content marketing with some amplification
Content marketing is what Google wanted you to do all along. It’s the new form of SEO that can not only work as far as search engine results and rankings, but it can work on different mediums as a great marketing campaign both in paid and free promotion.
What’s more is, you’re building a stronger business asset. With content marketing, you’re enhancing your brand in highly visible places. You’re creating good will. You develop a fan base. You can increase customer loyalty.
Not only that, great content can be amplified with advertising and by optimising on external channels other than your website.
Social Media Advertising and YouTube video optimisation are amazing ways to amplify your best content.
Take a look at our Best Facebook Ads page as an example.
This is what we consider to be feature length, unique, evergreen content.
We amplify that content using paid social media ads to drive visitors to our website.
Sure, we could spend $1500 a month on paid SEO services to try to rank for certain keywords. Or we could amplify that content and spend $1500 on Facebook Advertising and drive traffic and receive leads and opt-ins on our website.
Our YouTube videos supplement this strategy. We optimise our YouTube videos so they are discovered when people are browsing YouTube or searching on Google for advice/information. Those videos build brand authority and trust and the links in the video description send potential customers to our website.
So is SEO still worth it?
Everything you ever wanted your business to do can be a direct result from your content marketing strategy – AND it will positively impact your search engine rankings as a side effect.
The HelloFlo video shown in this post is a perfect example of great content marketing.
Our pillar content like the Best Facebook Ads page is another example of great content marketing.
This blog post is another example of content marketing and our YouTube video brings people to this page for more information. We have active clients who found us from this blog post and became Facebook Advertising clients because they saw our content.
So giving something of value to your target market, while creating marketing assets will serve you for years to come. The content you create, be it in the form of blog posts, white papers, pillar content pages, videos and more will boost your organic rankings on search engines and draw in more customers.
I hope that for some of you reading, you’re now better equipped to answer your own question of whether a paid SEO campaign is worth it for your business.
If you feel that SEO is worth it then I recommend you do the following;
- Generate ideas for content topics that your market would benefit from.
- Use sites like Answer the Public to see what kind of questions relate to those topics
- Filter your ideas and only pursue those that would improve your SEO results, website traffic AND generate new business. If the ideas don’t tick all 3 of those boxes, delete it from your ideas list.
- Create a content marketing plan to create the content and publish it in a timely manner. Depending on your business and available resouces and time, it could be as little as once a month or a few times a week.
- Produce the content and make sure it is optimised and amplified for best results.
If you’ve seen examples of great content marketing amplified through social media channels and want to know if that would work for you, get a proposal from us today.