SEO is a marathon, not snakes & ladders!
Siddharth Lal, MD, Bruce Clay Australia talks about the journey and relevance of SEO for today’s enterprise, wherein 94% of consumers research products online and Google is their most preferred ‘intent-based medium’. He strongly suggests that companies desist from taking unethical short cuts en route to ranking on Google search pages, as the penalties are quite severe, with an extremely tough return to the top of the pages.
IBT: What was the vision with which Bruce Clay started in 1996 – a time when the internet era had just dawned, the world knew a bit of Yahoo, and Google wasn’t even born?
Siddharth Lal: In fact, I remember when I moved out of India in 1994 and joined university – the internet had just started off. There was no Google, and we had a number of search engines like Infoseek, Altavista, Looksmart and Ask Jeeves.
There were also very few websites involved at that point of time, and Bruce Clay (founder of Bruce Clay, Inc) had been involved in tech companies for decades. When he first came across the internet, he envisioned that commerce would soon move to the web and there would be a demand for digital marketing agencies to help businesses navigate the challenges of online marketing.
And this is also exactly how I launched Bruce Clay in India. Over these years we have evolved and now we specialise in search marketing, both SEO and Google ads management, in addition to meet the growing needs of the Indian businesses. We have become a 360 degree digital marketing agency – we do content creation and content marketing, social media and web design as well.
IBT: Even when you started in India, it was a relatively virgin market for SEO. How do you see the importance of SEO today vis-à-vis that time?
Siddharth Lal: When I first returned from Australia and set up shop in India, in late 2009 or early 2010, I was devastated, as I was quite optimistic about the opportunities. I started pitching SEO services to other companies, but they would turn around and say, “But Siddharth, you know my local web designer looks after the website, so why do I need SEO? I pay Rs. 10,000-15,000 to the web designer, it’s all done!”
So, I was actually shattered! For the first couple of years, it was really tough going for me because businesses were just not interested in it.
Today, on the other hand, everyone uses the internet, especially Google; whether they want to rent a house, buy a house, buy a car, look for a job or book a holiday. In fact, nowadays, even when you go to the doctor, you are second guessing him and saying, “No doctor, I think it should be this” because you are Googling it all, right?
Again, just as a trivia perspective, today about 94% of consumers research products online. Before they buy, they check out the reviews etc. as well. As you can see, Google has become an integral part of the daily lives of the consumers, and therefore by default, businesses have had to move online as well.
Now, I particularly love Google because it is an intent-based medium; you only go to Google when you have a search intent. So, you go in and type that search, telling Google what you are searching for. And exactly at that point of time, either the ads come out or the organic results come, but they are very specific to what you are looking for. So, you have in-market audiences and get consumers from the entire marketing funnel, i.e. Top to Bottom of the funnel. Social media, on the other hand, is not an intent-based medium.
So, if a business wants, it can target those people who are still in the research mode. Or it can drill down into the funnel and target people who are much further into the consumer decision journey, e.g., “I want to buy a car under Rs 5 lakhs, four door, blue colour.”
So, Google can get you massive amounts of free and low cost traffic. The internet is a low cost way for a business to get into that online world and build its brand. Moreover, you have got a worldwide audience versus a traditional business, where despite huge upfront investments, you are limited by a geographic radius around your retail outlet.
IBT: Post-Covid there must be some market insights which you may have gathered through experience or research about how clients have started to respond to SEO and their approach. What are their questions today?
Siddharth Lal: It’s dependent on the type of business and industry you are in. A lot of our clients have completely shut down their work, because businesses are in survival mode and they are trying to conserve cash flow. For example, we have clients in the hospitality industry, as well as travel agencies and entire businesses in the event space who have paused their work.
On the other hand, we are getting approached by businesses now, who had not considered SEO or even an online strategy. As an example, someone in the steel industry recently approached us and became a client, because they said, “You know what, I have always thought of this medium, but because I was doing so well in so many other things, this never really became a priority, but today it’s a priority for us.”
COVID-19 has given businesses that had not thought of digital a new lease of life, because there are all these other businesses that have invested in Digital Marketing a long time ago. Now, these businesses have paused their Digital Marketing investment, so this is an opportunity for those businesses that have the cash flow to make the investment into digital and catch up in this race.
IBT: As you said, there are lot of companies who will now want to go digital. So, any broad advice – when you start-up and how you start evolving a digital presence? What kind of trade off do you keep between organic and pay-per-click (PPC)?
Siddharth Lal: At a basic level, if you are business who wants to invest in, say, a digital marketing strategy, it is important to understand your target market and where it is located. A starting point for the digital strategy should always be an audit to understand the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of your own website. Based on this audit, you create a roadmap of what needs to be done.
PPC or Google Ads is the quickest way to get sales and amplify your brand. It’s like a water tap, where money is your water – you turn it on, you get sales; you turn it off you lose the sales. Now, within Google Ads, there are two main pillars – Google Search Network and Google Display Network. The Search Network is really more about immediate results! Say, you are an online tutor selling guitar lessons. Someone types in ‘how to learn a guitar’, your ad appears, customers click on the ad & go to the website, and instantly you get a new student.
Understanding SEO vs PPC
On the other hand, if you were doing SEO, your website will not appear for that search today. It might be a year or 6 months, whatever time it takes. In SEO, the investment is not that high and once you reach the top, at least for a period of time, you can sustain that. Then slowly you will drop, then you will again make an investment and again rise. So, in the long run, SEO is like an investment; and in the short run, it’s PPC or Google Ads. You should have a blend.
As a quick tip, always advertise on your own brand keywords as well. If you can get your SEO and your PPC strategy working together, that helps with online reputation management or ORM as it pushes down competitors and other negative sites as well.
IBT: A lot of agencies may tell you to do many things, and even undercut prices with a lot of promises. What factors should you consider while finally selecting your SEO agency?
Siddharth Lal: That’s something we come across all the time. Unfortunately, it is the mindset that Indian businesses have towards cost optimisation. We’ll get asked, “Hey we have heard about your agency and we would want to work with you.” And when we give them the price, they would say – a smaller agency is giving 1/3rd the cost and giving guarantees.” At the outset, we say that we cannot guarantee results because:
a) We do not control Google, & Google has never revealed their algorithm.
b) You do not control your competitors.
c) Finally, you do not even control the client’s website because your suggestions may not be implemented due to various problems like website architecture, old technology, bureaucracy at the client’s end, etc.
The worst thing you can do is hire a wrong agency based on price, especially in SEO. That’s because in the SEO world, you can get penalised. Once you are penalised, it’s a very hard road to come back out.
So you should look at how long the agency has been in business, whether they have the track record, are they thought leaders, are their leaders getting reviewed, experience of the team members, awards won, case studies, etc. Don’t sign a long term contract, keep it short so that you can test and work with them. But if you get a recommendation, it’s fantastic because you already know that it’s a good agency.
IBT: What are the key elements of a successful SEO strategy for a business?
Siddharth Lal: At a very simple level, there are three pillars of SEO. The first is on-page SEO, which is your content. Make sure it is great quality content and you have key words that people are looking for. Then you move to the technical SEO – your site architecture and pages. Think of it like a family (parent-child), have those parent-child kind of pages in your architecture, think of your website security and website speed.
The last thing you want is a slow loading website and especially in India, with lots of people loading websites on a mobile device. If your competitor’s website opens in 4 seconds and yours opens in 10 seconds, then you have lost the customer.
Then from a links perspective, remember as I said, how Google started was links. But here you want to be careful, you don’t want to pay and get links because you can get penalised. But you want to make sure that other websites refer to you.
So, that off page brand building aspect is important. Even if they don’t link to you, they mention you because that tells Google this is another important website.
IBT: What are some of the major ‘To Do’s’ and ‘Not to Do’s’ for companies that are working to ramp up their Google rankings?
Siddharth Lal: Like I said, 20 years ago it was heavily skewed towards links. Basically it is about how other web sites are talking about you and linking to you. To a lesser extent, it was the content, quality, keywords, etc. Fast forward to 2011, and Google came out with penalties – Google Penguin and Google Panda. The Google Penguin penalty was targeting unnatural links.
People understood that one way to get good rankings was to get links and the other way was to buy them. One of the known cases of website selling links was Forbes, which got penalized. Going back 10-15 years, BMW was de-indexed from Google as well. Then there is J.C. Penny, which was ranking for everything.
Post a major investigation, they were penalised and moved away from the first page of results. Big brands like BMW still have a chance of coming back, as Google wants them in their index.
And in terms of evolution also, think about it from the perspective of a decade ago. The algorithm that was powering Google was not as advanced, so the keywords really mattered. If the match between the search query and the content on the website was not exact, it made a difference. But today, the keyword matching requirement has changed, Google has made advances in their algorithm and the updates are called Hummingbird, Rank Brain, BERT etc. Using artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning, they are even understanding the context and sentiment attached to the content you are writing.
Similarly, around 4 to 5 years back, Google could not understand an image. But today there has been so much advancement that you can train your algorithm to work out what that image is about whether it’s a bunny rabbit or a locomotive.
Therefore, my recommendation would be to focus on good content, great user experience on your website and get your brand name on third party sites in front of your target audience. Don’t try to cheat, or take short cuts. SEO is a marathon, and not a game of snakes & ladders!
Siddharth Lal (Twitter: @siddlal) is a domain expert in Digital Marketing (specialising in SEO & Google Ads) and is a speaker and instructor at various industry forums including TEDx, DMAI, SES, Adtech etc. In 2005 he used his Digital Marketing knowledge to transform his entire business from an offline model into an Internet Marketing powered inbound sales organisation which translated into $15 million in online sales for its channel partners.
In 2009 he set-up the Bruce Clay office in India. He has worked with leading brands like Hindustan Times, Atos, NEC, Bata, Saavn, ICICI Lombard, goibibo & helped them massively scale-up their online presence by optimising their Digital marketing strategy. He blogs at www.oneclickcustomers.com