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Why SEO is the last thing brands should be doing in 2014

SEO has long been seen by brands as the most important and profitable way to drive sales online, so you might wonder why we at Branded3 (an SEO agency) believe it’s the last activity that they should be focusing on. The simple truth is that SEO has changed so much in recent years that it’s now totally dependent on other marketing activity and just doesn’t work as a stand-alone channel anymore.

It’s changed from being an activity that was conducted on its own by an agency (or an in-house SEO techie) who just got on with it and sent a report at the end of the month, to being dependent on every other channel - from PR and content strategy to products and design.

Pulling rank
We firmly believe that you can only rank if you deserve to rank. This means that brands need to have the sort of site that people want to find when they are searching for something. If you are not very well-known, have mediocre products, poor customer service and a low-quality or badly designed website then there are dozens of other sites that Google would prefer to rank higher than you.

Too many smaller businesses are happy to neglect website design, content strategy, social media, online PR and customer service in favour of doing SEO because they know that ranking well on Google will give a directly measurable ROI. The problem is that in 2014, all of these things are SEO - you have to have great design, great content, great customer service and lots of people talking about you on blogs and social media sites in order to show Google that you deserve to rank. By not doing all of these, you are dooming your SEO campaign to fail.

Some sectors (such as fashion) are well aware that brand and design are important and SEO is a secondary consideration. But there are still many markets where products are not exciting, brands are less important and businesses focus on rankings first and marketing second. These are the markets where SEO isn’t working well on a long-term basis because the tactics being used are often not those that Google wants to reward.

There are thousands of businesses in the UK in these markets who have wasted money swinging from one SEO trend to the next over the past five years, only to end up with declining rankings and poor performance. The time has come for clients to stop looking at short-term tactics that are doomed to fail and to focus on building a business customers love to find. The rankings will follow suit.

Penalty shots
One of the key areas of concern in the SEO space at the moment is that those working at the cheaper end of the market are increasingly unable to deliver long-term sustainable results within the sort of budget that SME clients have to spend.

Smaller clients can no longer afford to do the sort of good quality SEO that is going to deliver real long-term value, but there are still plenty of agencies targeting the SME market promising results – something has to change. Google has been clamping down on SEO activity that doesn’t adhere to its Webmaster Guidelines over the past two years with some notable headline penalties against major brands in 2014 already.

Sites such as Expedia, Irwin Mitchell, uSwitch, Halifax, Dialaphone, William Hill and musicMagpie have all been reportedly penalised by Google with plenty of blogs speculating on the causes. (It’s important to note that the industry can only speculate about penalties because only the agency, the client and Google really know what’s going on; the outside world has to make an educated guess based on trending tools such as

From SEO to PR
As the world of SEO changes, the most interesting trend recently has been to see whether SEO agencies can become PR agencies quicker than PR agencies can become SEO agencies. From what we have seen, the SEO industry has won that race hands-down. Most large SEO agencies have comfortably transitioned into delivering the sort of media coverage for clients that was always the domain of a PR agency, either by training or (as we did) hiring a team of PR experts to take on the role for them.

SEO agencies have always been nimble and willing to adapt to the latest trends while PR agencies appear to be more traditional. The biggest hurdle a PR agency faces is that it’s really difficult to hire in the SEO space at the moment. If a PR agency wanted to hire a technical SEO team it would be difficult to find candidates experienced and dynamic enough, especially outside London.

We know first-hand how hard it is to hire in the SEO space as we’ve grown to 70 people without hiring anybody with previous SEO agency experience. Indeed, most SEO agencies in the north have long since realised that the only way to grow is to become heavily involved in graduate recruitment, something you can only do when you have a really robust training programme in place.

We see the future of SEO as an umbrella service covering the optimisation and improvement of all marketing channels, one where there are no short-cuts and no temptations to break Google’s guidelines for short-term gains at the expense of long term sustainable rankings.

SEO has become a barometer for the overall online presence of brands with rankings dictated by how much your customers and potential customers love your brand and want to find you in the search results. Two years ago this seemed like an impossible goal, but in 2014 it’s the reality and brands have to adapt to the new model or risk being left behind.