How SEO can screw up your…

Some Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics can give you a marginal boost in rankings, but hurt you on a net basis.

The main culprit is usually an overweening preoccupation with on-page keyword optimization, but link-building can hurt too.

This article is not about black-hat SEO practices, which are covered in plenty of detail elsewhere. Instead, we’ll look at “good” SEO practices when they’re overdone.

Let’s see what gets hurt.

Muddied Product Positioning
Pretend you sell software to corporate accountants. Corporate accounting software is obviously your #1 target phrase, but you naturally care about capturing related searches. So your SEO advisor says, “hey, let’s target some other key phrases too.” Next thing you know, they’ve added pages on your site titled Corporate Controller Software and Shareholder Accounting Softwareand Corporate Asset Management Software, in part since those are phrases that the keyword suggestion tools returned. And then the SEO advisor includes links to those pages within your left-hand navigation, because that helps the new pages rank higher. Your problem reveals itself when a prospect visits your site, and sees all those links. Prospect then thinks, “well, this company’s product does a whole lot of different things!” And that may not be the market positioning you want.

Underperforming Website Copy
There is an allegedly optimal level of “keyword density” that makes a given page rank well. For example, if you have “organic tea” occurring six times on the page, that’s better than two occurrences. Visitors read differently than search engine spiders, however, and they still respond to effective copy. Stuffing pages with key phrases, then, may reduce the conversion power of a page. So your tradeoff is higher traffic versus page effectiveness. Would you rather have a page that gets 100 natural search referrals and one conversion, or 30 referrals and two conversions? It’s possible to have both, but how are you going to get there? It’s much easier to test and change copy (and design) for improved conversion than to test keyword optimization. We think there is more upside with conversion-building efforts, and other SEO tactics. Landing pages for pay-per-click ads are a great place to test copy and design.

Cluttered Website Navigation
The left nav, footer, and site map page get heavy weight with search algorithms, since they are treated as pointers to a site’s most important pages. SEO advisors often will load the navigation with links to search-engine-friendly pages. This distracts people from your intended sales funnel. Excessive intrasite linking means people go in circles, and get frustrated. Repetition of keywords and phrases in links will lead to guesswork by the prospect: “Is the thing I want behind this link or that one?” Every site visitor has a finite number of clicks they’re willing to spend at your site – don’t make them click more than they have to.

Noise in Measurement
Your SEO scorecard should be visually simple, and focussing on the biggest business drivers. Don’t let it get cluttered with ranks of long-tail search terms in second-tier engines. Doing so obscures the high-value Google terms, which – like it or not – is where the money is. Track infrequent terms on a second worksheet if you must, and present an aggregate performance metric for the lot of them on the scorecard. Also, don’t track search terms which bring unqualified traffic.

Confusing Site Maintenance
This is a minor factor that can be avoided, but we’ll mention it anyway. Regular content changes to web pages is a healthy thing for SEO. For sites not built with a content management system, one byproduct of changing content is an accumulation of defunct and unlinked files on your webserver; the “retired” versions of live pages. You might even have new and old style sheets. Over time this can clutter up your webspace, to the point where it costs your webmaster time. You should have a system for saving old files (in case you need to revert back to them, or audit for troubleshooting purposes) that is clean and organized. Moving them to a hidden directory is one way. Giving them a unique extension like .defunct is another, since sorting by type gives the webmaster a method of visually ignoring the retired files.

Repetitive Blog Entry Titles
If you’ve got a business blog, resist the temptation to consistently pack your entry titles with keywords. Include keywords in the basenames instead, and save the keyphrases for your marquee blog content.

Meta Descriptions
Inside the top of your web page, there is usually a field for a description of the page. It looks like this:
<meta name=”description” content=”The leading purveyor of premium tea”>
Google often uses the copy after content= as the blurb under your listing in a search engine results page. This is a marketing opportunity, a chance to help position your product effectively before the click. Enthusiastic SEO advisors may instead see the META description field as a chance to further pack your page with more keywords. Yet doing so may mean a less-well-performing blurb, which means poorer conversion from the search results page.

Blackened Wikipedia Reputation
Even though a link from Wikipedia to your site hasn’t counted in the search algorithms since 2005, it’s still a potential source of inbound traffic. Don’t go adding links to your site within Wikipedia content, however, unless your content has the right patina of independence. Wikipedia editors are quite mindful of commercially motivated edits, and squash them with a Puritan zeal.

Why Interview Customers?

Interviewing customers for marketing purposes can be done two ways.

  • Regular calls from your marketing team to customers. This keeps your marketers focussed on customers.
  • A series of 10-15 interviews, outsourced to a third party who can understand and speak knowledgably about your products and services. The interviewer works from a set of basic questions, but in a conversational manner – to get the customer to open up about their needs and experiences.

Let’s focus briefly on the outcomes from a series of interviews:

You’ll get a list of the words and phrases that customers use to describe their perfect solution. Knowing this improves the benefit statements in all your written material: web, email, print, advertising, PR. It also helps your SEO and PPC program.

Your positioning and messaging can be sharpened. Interviews with “model customers” in your target market reveal what closed the deal for them. Adapt your messaging accordingly and you’ll win more deals from that kind of customer.

If there is magic in customer interviews, it lies here: clear, generalizable themes emerge from about ten of these talks. Why? Given a large enough sample within a customer segment, the job descriptions of your buyers don’t differ greatly from each other. They are rewarded the same ways. They’ve looked at your competitors’ website, your own, and read the same magazines as each other. And more often not, they wind up using the same phrases to describe the experience of buying and using products in your space. It’s uncanny. Customer interviews are massively helpful for a small- or medium-sized company with a moderately complex sales cycle. We use an interview program as the foundation for every substantial client engagement. Lastly, customer analysis is one of our four standard ingredients in developing a overall marketing strategy. Thes others are Corporate Strategy, Competitive Positioning, and Product Benefits.

I have to add a disclaimer. Much of what I think about customer interviews is based on Kristin Zhivago’s “Reality Check” program. Her excellent guide to interviewing is in the appendix of her book. Like me, she’s a marketing consultant, but our services differ somewhat. Call either of us and we’ll tell you how.

Nine Reasons to Interview Your Customers

Any marketer responsible for strategy should be talking to customers regularly. See our article on interviewing customers for the primary reasons why you should. We can think of nine “secondary reasons” why customer interviews are useful. These are in no particular order, since their net benefit depends on your own situation.

Let’s call one of your customers Joe.

  1. Makes the Customer Feel Good. This has three parts. Joe speaks his mind (which is therapeutic on its own); Joe thinks complaints will get addressed and praise passed along (which appeals to his sense of fairness); Joe thinks your product is more likely to meet his future needs. Of course, you have to follow up on the last two things, but if you’re not committed to that anyhow you should have a long think about your business.
  2. It’s Cheaper Than You Think. If you delegate it to someone in-house, the incremental financial cost per interview is about $35, for a transcriber’s time. There are some fixed time costs associated with an interview program: generating the list itself, reviewing it for outliers, giving your callers some basic background about each account, and the phone tag typically involved with arranging a 30-minute conversation. If you outsource it to a freelancer or consultant, expect to pay $150 per interview, including transcription. This might be part of a larger package of interviews.
  3. Discover Hidden Opinions. (I’m cheating a little here, since this is usually possible only if you outsource the interviews.) With interviewee anonymity, you’ll learn things your customers won’t ordinarily tell you or your sales rep. Why? Under a promise of anonymity, people will open up to third parties (providing the interviewers know enough about your company and your products to sound credible). Joe is more likely to comment on personal interactions, e.g. the support staff didn’t want me on the phone any longer, the sales rep didn’t tell me when the maintenance fee kicks in. The point of gathering this kind of information isn’t to find tattletales and bust your employee for a single event, but to uncover consistent breakdowns. Joe is also more likely to comment truthfully on price to a third party interviewee, since he’s mentally out of the cat-and-mouse pricing game with your sales rep.
  4. Seeds for Case Studies. An interview with a happy Joe can be converted into a case study rather easily.
  5. Testimonials. Once you have a nice quote actually leave Joe’s lips (instead of your writing it for them, which is the way it usually goes), it’s easier to get customer approval. Even if the customer’s CorpComm department refuses permission to publish the testimonial, you can anonymize it. Anonymized testimonials are worthwhile only if the quote is specific to a product feature.
  6. Helps Your SEO Program. If you can take Joe’s interview (anonymous or not) and put it online, you’ll get a marginal boost with the search engines. While it’s unlikely that you’ll get a good inbound link into an interview, the addition of fresh content containing good keywords will help.
  7. Internal Use. Share all or part of the interview with colleagues. This is especially useful in big companies with an intranet.
  8. Counterbalance Salesperson Anecdotes. This may not seem as “nice” as the above reasons, but marketers can’t ignore this. In the B2B world, the salesperson is often the only one talking with customers. They pass customer comments up the ladder, especially when those comments relate to lost sales or a greater chance at account growth and retention. All good so far! However, the aggregate of all those sales “touches” gives Sales disproportionate authority on What The Customer Wants. A marketing team that aims to go beyond simple product marketing and marcomms — into marketing strategy — has to be an equal or better authority on What The Customer Wants, in the CEO’s eyes. Customer interviews give you some of that authority.
  9. Get New Ideas. Interviews “get your head out of the building” and make you think of new promotional/selling/content ideas. Although there are always more ideas than time or money, you’re always better off with a greater pool of ideas. So put your free thinkers on the interview team. Make them stick to the basic script, but encourage them to follow the flow of the talk and ask their own followup questions. Make them do calls offsite.