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Open a conversation with a business owner or a marketing professional and ask them what they think about search engine optimization (SEO). Depending on the context and the experiences of the people involved, you might get a glowing review of how great SEO was for their brand. But you might also get an eye roll and an excoriation of the strategy.
Part of the reason for such variety in opinions about SEO is that people have different experiences when managing a campaign. Although there are plenty of anecdotal examples of companies that have built their entire marketing strategies around SEO and succeeded, there are also millions of people who have seen their SEO campaigns fail.
It’s almost impossible to measure the number of companies that practice SEO (since “practicing SEO” is a vague term reliant on self-reporting), so it’s practically impossible to definitively state what percentage of companies ultimately fail when practicing SEO.
Still, in my experience, the majority of SEO campaigns end up unsuccessful – that is, they don’t meet the expectations of the people managing them. Why is this the case?
High expectations (and quitting too soon)
One possible explanation is that, going into a new SEO strategy, people set expectations that are too high. SEO experts and general marketing enthusiasts often proclaim that SEO is a near-perfect strategy. They claim it’s useful for every business, it’s cost-efficient and it’s capable of generating massive returns.
Although these claims are technically true, they set people up to think that starting an SEO campaign is like flipping a light switch that instantly starts bringing people to your website. If you don’t see results right away, or if those results are disappointing, you might feel like the campaign is unsuccessful.
This is also the reason why so many marketers abandon their SEO efforts prematurely. SEO is a long-term strategy that takes months, or even years to fully take off. If you quit after a couple of weeks, you’ll be destined to fail.
Some campaigns fail because of the lack of effort on the part of the people executing the campaign. Perhaps they believe that the strategy is risky, so they don’t want to spend too much time or money on it. Or perhaps they simply don’t have the skills or experience necessary to write high-quality content, build links and improve their website.
Whatever the case, SEO isn’t a strategy that can succeed with fractional effort. The only way to get decent results from a campaign is to make a concentrated effort to produce large quantities of great work. It’s human nature to cut corners, then blame the strategy for your own failures.
Competition (and no plan to avoid it)
Any business owner should be able to recognize the importance of competitive research and understanding the competition as it relates to your business operations. But too many of those business owners ignore the competition factor when planning an SEO strategy.
The reality is, most industries and most keyword terms are already being dominated by established players who have spent years building their domain authority enough to rank highly for their target markets. If you want any chance of disrupting these players and displacing them from their entrenched positions, you’ll need a massive budget (and a targeted strategy).
Alternatively, you could come up with a plan to avoid the competition. For example, you could target a different audience segment, or you could strategically target a rarer set of keywords and phrases that your current competitors aren’t touching.
In any case, if you don’t have a plan for how to handle the competition, it’s going to compromise your entire strategy.
Scams and black hat SEO
It’s also worth noting that many businesses fall prey to scams and companies practicing “black hat” SEO. If a business owner doesn’t have much personal experience in SEO, they’ll be likely to hire an external agency or a contractor to help them execute the work. Naturally, they’ll gravitate toward professionals who are inexpensive — and/or those who promise big results.
Unfortunately, these two avenues often lead to non-native speaking writers, people who abuse link schemes and “experts” who don’t care about the long-term reputation of your brand. While you might see temporary results in the early stages of your relationship with this type of company, eventually, you’ll be hit with a penalty — or your rankings will fall back to where they “should” be. It’s a discouraging experience, but an avoidable one.
It’s a shame that so many SEO campaigns fail, but it doesn’t have to be the reality. If you’re patient enough to commit to SEO long-term, if you have a plan for the competition, if you do what you can to create great content, and you stick to third-party providers with experience and integrity, there’s no reason SEO can’t work for your brand.
Originally appeared in Entrepreneur