What The Hell Happened To My Internet Marketing Program?

Brian Bluff co-founded Site-Seeker with his brother Eddie in 2003. He received his degree in micro-electric engineering from RIT and later served in the United States Navy.

Internet marketing in the 2000’s was like the gold rush and the Wild West all mixed together – a lot of people made an awful lot of money and there were no rules. One time we hired a bunch of my daughter’s college-aged friends to “SEO” a handful of websites. The only requirement to get the job, was that they have a laptop and that they know how to use MS Excel. In other words none of these young folks knew anything about SEO or Internet marketing programs!

With a little training and two week’s time, this group of newbies had SEO’d over three hundred webpages across 30 different sites. The results were fantastic!

  • The pages jumped to the top of the search engines and on average saw a 37% increase in traffic for their most important keywords.
  • Even better, the sites generated a ton of leads, held their top positions for years, and made the owners a lot of money.

And that’s how it went for years! It was relatively easy. If you knew the basics of Internet marketing strategy and put a little elbow grease into it, you could rank. Those that tried were rewarded and those who didn’t began that crazy downward spiral losing more and more market share every year.

But, then it all changed. It began with the Great Recession – 2007 through 2009. Next, or in parallel, came the rise in social media. A few years later, Google began a multi-year effort to improve their algorithm. During all of this, we changed too: the keywords we use to query the search engines have changed as have the devices we search on or with. Finally, we engage differently online today then we did just a few years ago.

The Great Recession + Social Media = Change

I’ve both learned the hard way and taken advantage of the fact that recessions cause changes in marketing tactics. When the economy is weak, and the “r” word is tossed around, companies duck their marketing heads, stop spending, and old marketing habits and relationships fade away. Then when the economy improves, companies stick their heads up and start fresh with the goal of doing things better, cheaper and utilizing the latest technology and tactics.

In this case, the new Internet marketing technology and tactics were centered around social media. Those that decided to participate benefited, although not nearly to the extent as early SEO adopters. Those that didn’t, missed this opportunity too.

The recession was so significant that many of the companies that weren’t generating online leads just couldn’t compete for a much smaller amount of business. For many this was the end of the game – lights out. 

Panda & Penguin Hurt A Lot Of Sites, But Improved Search Results

Then came Panda and Penguin and a whole bunch more pain.

The first iteration of Google Panda was released in February 2011 and Google Penguin in April of 2012. Panda upended about 12% of search results and Penguin about 3%. This might not seem like a lot, but when you consider that most of the content on the web is junk and largely ignored you understand that it was the companies that had been trying, those that depended on Google traffic and invested in their Internet marketing programs that got hurt.

I’m not saying that Google’s bad or anything like that, they were just trying to do their job better. However, I am saying that the days of the gold rush and wild west came to a screeching halt, and many of the companies that worked hard over the years to gain search traffic saw the benefits of that work evaporate.

Here’s an example of what we see way too often.

This graph shows search engine organic (unpaid) visitors vs. time for a site operating in a very competitive industry. These guys invested heavily in their Internet marketing program and used to do a lot of SEO using techniques that made them a lot of money over the years. Now however, some of those tactics are hurting the performance of their site. Add to that some pretty serious duplicate content issues and bad development choices, and this is what we see all too often.

We’ve Changed Too – Different Search Terms

We as users of search engines have changed too. We are both influenced by Google’s Autocomplete feature, and by our own search engine experience.

Google (and Bing) Autocomplete suggests terms as we type. It allows us to find information quicker by providing predictions below the search box. This influences our search patterns as we often settle for (click on) one of the displayed terms instead of following through with our original intended search. In the below example, I began a Google search for “forklifts” on both my laptop (left) and smartphone (right). Notice the blue arrows pointing to the term “forklifts for sale”. If I were looking to purchase a forklift, why wouldn’t I click on “forklifts for sale”?

Similarly, if I were searching for “used forklifts” I’d be influenced to click on “used forklifts for sale”. See the orange arrow in the below image.

Autocomplete is based on the most popular searches, so while it’s not causing a shift in search patterns, it is speeding up the shift. Regardless, the fact is that search patterns have changed. You can see this in the below screen shot from Google Trends. It shows that in the old days we searched for “Used Forklifts” a lot more than we do today; whereas today the term “forklift for sale” is significantly more popular (more commonly searched).

Managing Your Keyword List – Ranking And Traffic

CEO’s and Marketing Managers make the mistake of monitoring rank for keywords on their outdated “top keywords” list. They judge the success or failure of their Internet marketing programs based on how they rank against that list. This approach is riddled with problems.

  • Even if their keyword lists have been updated, today search engine rank is individualized and impacted by a number of factors including the user’s behavior (search history), social graph (connections), location, and recency (age of content). That means that the ranking data you collect means a lot less than it once did.
  • Add in the increased prominence of paid search and you’ll find that even a “top position” – whatever that means, will deliver less traffic that it once did.
  • Oh yeah, you really can’t tell anyway because Google no longer pass keyword data into Google Analytics.

Mobile Search Engine Rank – Your Site Has To Be Mobile Friendly

Since we’re talking about change, we’ve got to throw mobile traffic into the mix. Here’s a Google Analytics screen shot from an organization that hosts an annual conference. A few important points:

  • Mobile, smartphone in this case, traffic in general is increasing – no surprise here.
  • It’s also influenced by the information needs of the visitor at the time of their search. During this organization’s annual conference, mobile traffic peaks. You can guess what’s happening – users are walking the floor of the conference and need information about the next session, they are planning their day around the agenda on the website, or maybe they just want to know who’s sponsoring that night’s party.

Whatever the case, just remember that the search engines reward sites that people love and giving users a poor experience does not generate love. At SMX West, Matt Cutts (leads Google’s webspam team) said that Google wants mobile sites to appear more in mobile search results and he expects that trend to continue.  The bottom line here is that if you don’t have a mobile site, get one. If your sites not mobile friendly you can expect companies with mobile friendly sites to rank above you, and of course that’s bad. 

Internet Marketing Going Forward

  • Learn the lessons of the past decade and get in, or back in, the internet marketing game. Search is still very important and it presents incredible opportunities just like in the past. Today however, there are rules and you should pay attention or suffer the consequences.
  • If you’ve been hurt over the past few years and haven’t yet recovered, start today. If you don’t know how, give me a call.
  • Know what metrics to follow and don’t get comfortable with feel good metrics like search engine ranking. Instead concentrate on metrics like conversions, return visitors, bounce rate (as appropriate), search engine impressions and clicks, indexation, and other data points related to your business goals or site performance.
  • Build a website that users love. That means great content, highly usable, mobile friendly, and quickly loading.
  • Be online where your target audience is – explore social media, push great content out through social channels and engage in a useful manner whenever possible.
  • Make a very close friend out of Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools.
  • Understand how people are searching for solutions to the problems your company solves.
  • I know I said it above, but GO MOBILE.