One of the biggest challenges that we have faced in the post-Penguin era of SEO is explaining to clients how the new landscape of SEO works. We have found that many potential new clients do not understand the fundamental shift that the Penguin update had on SEO strategies. I am not naive enough to think that so-called “black hat” techniques no longer work, but as a company, we decided that we do not want to put our clients and, by extension, our business at risk in the face of future Google updates.
It is with that in mind that I want to share two emails that we sent to clients outlining our positioning relative to the changes in the SEO industry:
Hey [Client Name],
We wanted to talk to you about this over the phone, but we understand that you have an extremely busy schedule and would like to get this ironed out as soon as possible.
We have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks discussing our campaign with [Client Site] as it relates to the changes in SEO and the way that we at Highly Relevant now execute our campaigns. While we believe that we can continue to drive value for your business, we are concerned that your expectations for the campaign are not in line with what we are capable of delivering from an “SEO-only” standpoint.
There are two ways to do SEO at this point:
1) Try to find loopholes and gain quick traction while knowing that in a finite amount of time, Google will catch on and penalize you; or
2) Build a real and trustworthy brand and offer services that people are willing to get behind.
We decided as a company that we are not comfortable putting our clients — and by extension, our livelihood — on the line by trying to outsmart Google. We excel at establishing and marketing brands with real products and companies that are willing to invest in a sustainable and diverse online presence. Having a varied approach to online marketing is the best way that we have found to achieve lasting results and insulate yourself from the constant fluctuations in our industry.
We are explaining to our clients that launching a brand cannot be completely viewed in terms of immediate ROI, but should rather be looked at as a series of asset-building services. We have found that working with clients that neither share in that understanding nor have the same approach can be detrimental to a campaign.
*Email continues into campaigns specifics that have been redacted
This second email was sent to a client of another agency that was inquiring about our services. It demonstrates the importance of managing expectations and establishing transparent communication at the onset of a campaign:
Hi [Client Name],
First, I want to thank you for reaching out to us about doing work on your site. I also want express my shared frustration with you about the fact that the Link Disavow Tool was unsuccessful. Unfortunately, it seems that the only viable option at this point is to build on one of the other domains that you own. With that said, I do believe that we can help you with your Internet marketing efforts.
However, before we talk about the future and how I think that we can help you, I want to provide some context for the discussion by explaining the differences between the SEO landscape of the 2006-2011 era and the way the industry currently operates. I will apologize in advance for being long-winded, but I think it is important for you to have a solid understanding what SEO is in 2013.
SEO in the Past
As I am sure you know, in very broad terms, there are two main things that search engines look at when evaluating your site and determining which keywords are relevant to it. The first is on-page factors. Basically, search engines are looking at a few key areas on your site to determine what each page is about (page title, headlines, bolded words, etc.). The second major factor is off-page signals, in the form of links to your site. Search engines view each link as a vote, and each vote is given more or less weight depending on the strength of the linking site.
For many years, SEO was pretty basic. All you had to do is have the right keywords in the right places and outsource “link building” to someone who would build hundreds, if not thousands, of crappy links to your site. In the old model, the total value of 1,000 crappy links could represent the same strength or authority as 1 real citation from a website using your site as a reference for its readers.
You can see how this would be problematic within the model that search engines were using to try to find truly informative and relevant sites to display in their search results. I also want to point out that there is nothing wrong or immoral about this approach — I do not mean to point fingers or place blame on anyone. This is simply how SEO was done. If you did not use these tactics, in many cases, you were dead in the water from a ranking standpoint.
SEO in 2013
The on-page factors have not changed too dramatically over the years and are pretty standard at this point. Anyone with a few years of experience and some technical ability should understand the basic fundamentals well enough to make an SEO-friendly site.
The dramatic shift in the landscape happened on April 24th of last year and primarily affected off-page factors. Google released an update that identified sites that were using the method that I described above and subsequently removed the authority associated with those links and, in some cases, penalized them for breaking their Webmaster Guidelines.
As you can imagine, this sent shockwaves through the SEO community and created what I believe to be our biggest competitive advantage in the industry. No longer can you direct hundreds of nonsense links to your site and see results. At best they will do nothing for you, and on a long enough timeline, they will likely hurt you.
What we do as a company is leverage our clients’ expertise and competitive advantages to create content for other sites to link to that is professionally written, properly researched and cited, and relevant to searchers. We will also use our proprietary version of online PR to reach out to relevant sites and pitch guest blog post ideas and news-worthy items, citing your site as the source.
Given your prominence in the [client niche] community, there is no doubt that we can leverage your expertise and relationships to generate high-quality links to your site that will increase its rankings. However, this will require you to have a more active role in the process than in the past, very similar to the arrangement that we had with the content on [previous site we worked on together].
Again, I apologize for being long-winded, but I wanted to be thorough in my explanation and set realistic expectations for the campaign.
I also want to reiterate that if you are willing to participate in the process, we can create a marketing package that will be effective in helping to grow your business.
The purpose of sharing these emails is to draw attention to both the limitations and opportunities that the Penguin update created for the SEO industry. While it did take away a few popular SEO techniques, its overall goal was to make it easier for users to find sites that are relevant to whatever they may be searching for — and it ultimately helps us do our job with honesty and integrity. By leveraging the credibility and expertise of our clients within their respective industries, we are able to separate them from the crowd and show the search engines that their websites and products are both relevant and worth sharing.
Mike Floyd is a Managing Partner and Director of Client Services at Highly Relevant as well as an avid fitness enthusiast. And although he now loves living on the West Coast, he is still the Baltimore Ravens’ biggest fan.