In my 10 years of agency life I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to speak with hundreds of business owners and operators, each and every one of them driven to grow their business, connect with more customers, and bring their vision of a better product, a better service or a better way of doing things to the world. It’s that passion that in turn drives me and my colleagues to do our best for them, to break new ground in their market by getting creative and finding new customers that before resisted, or were simply unaware.
But there’s another common trait which a surprising number of business owners have which can stymie even the best SEO and digital marketing efforts: they won’t be themselves. Either they don’t know who they are, or they refuse to admit it.
This tendency reveals itself when the conversation turns to SEO, that hyper-technical meat-and-potatoes marketing that requires hard decisions about what a business is going to be. The conversation goes something like this:
Business: We’re X. We make X. Our customers are looking for X.
Me: Great! I’m a big fan of X myself. Let’s optimize for X.
Business: Not so fast. X is what we do, but it’s not who we are. X is boring. X is plain. X isn’t really on brand. Our brand is really more of a Y.
Me: Okay, great, let’s have a look. Hmmm… people don’t really search for Y. Someone who wants Y would probably just search for X. We can talk about Y, but we should still optimize for X.
Business: Is it possible to optimize for X while only talking about Y?
At this point, I’ll usually suggest we resolve our conflict through the proud English tradition of shin-kicking, but I’m told that these days it’s considered more professional to provide a well-reasoned argument on your company blog. (Thus, here we are.)
The truth is if you’re a duck, and you want to rank like a duck, you’re going to have to quack like one, too. Being yourself is the first rule of SEO.
Search Engines Don’t Care About You
Don’t take it too harshly. They don’t care about me either, and I’m on Google, like, all the time. But as passionate business owners and SEOs there is a tendency to get so caught up in the vision of what you want a business to be – what you want it to rank for (or NOT rank for), and what people you want to look for you – that you can lose sight on what it is search engines really do.
Search engines serve users. Not businesses. Not websites. Google has no vested interest in where your website ranks in its organic search, or how much traffic you generate. They don’t care. None of them do. What search engines care about is how well their search results serve the needs of their users. Were the top results relevant? Did the user select the first result and stay on that website a long time? Did they find what they were looking for?
If your optimization strategy, and by association your entire website, doesn’t help the search engines serve their users, then those search engines aren’t very likely to serve you either.
And that’s common sense. If a user searches for “coffeemakers,” and you’ve optimized your content for “cold brew coffee systems,” perhaps even avoided the term “maker” altogether for fear it would reduce the prestige of your product, then the search algorithms will never determine that your site is relevant to the original search. Instead, those search engines are going to find websites that wear the badge of “coffeemaker” loud and proud and give the top spots to them.
As they should. That’s how search is supposed to work, and people continue relying on search, because more often than not it does work.
Before You Do Something Rash…
This system cannot be tricked. You cannot mask the keywords you wish to optimize for – for example by hiding content on the page or creating content that users can’t see while search engines can. In fact Google and other search engines may penalize or even blacklist your site for trying these deceptive tactics.
If you’ve been with me so far, the reason should be obvious: search engines serve users. They build their user-base on the reliability of their search results. Attempts to deceive the algorithm effectively hurt the search engine by falsifying its results. They don’t like that! It’s in their own best interest to serve up websites that best fit the search based on everything a website presents about itself.
So What Can You Do?
Put simply, if you want to rank in search for X, you need to optimize for X by targeting it visibly and prominently in your title tags, headers, page content and domain-level (URL) features. This will not get you there alone, and ranking isn’t everything, but it is a statement of purpose: “We are X. We deserve to rank for X.”
I know, however, that with some businesses this is a river that won’t be crossed, at least not by taking the bridge. In those cases, you have a long swim ahead of you, but there are still things you can do. Here are some legitimate options for targeting core keywords without making them central to your messaging:
Pay For Them. You can compete for those terms in paid ads or pay-per-click (PPC). This allows you to appear in search results for keywords you prefer not associate directly with your business. They’ll be in your ad, but they don’t have to feature prominently on your website. A quick caution, though: to improve your success in PPC, it is still recommended to have at least one page on your website optimized for the ad-targeted keyword. This is because your ads’ quality scores, which affect the cost, are directly influenced by the relevance of the web pages they promote. If you run an ad on X, you need to be sending users to a web page about X, in no uncertain terms.
Build More Pages. You can build out more pages of your site, so that you keep your current sitemap with its more on-brand optimization plan, and then have additional pages targeting X. The challenge you will face here is that these pages need to be unique in content and purpose. Meaning, a page about your services optimizing for Y and a page about those same services optimizing for X would be a no-no. It’s duplicative and considered poor SEO.
Blog About It. You can operate a blog and exclusively target your X keywords there, safe behind the assumed informality of blogging. Doing this, users would still not find your website proper through search, but they may find individual blog articles you’ve written, which you could then link to your main pages through anchored text and navigation.
Just Don’t Do It. SEO is complicated, expensive and never-ending. Honestly, it’s a hassle. So it’s surprising there aren’t more companies that decide, and confidently, just not to bother with it. If your customers don’t come from the search engines – if you live and die by referrals or relational networks, like many B2B companies do – then just don’t optimize for X. Believe in your brand, and go get’em.
To Thine Own Self
In researching and preparing this article, I’ve done my darnedest not to be anti-brand. Quite the opposite: I love brands, and I love originality. I love companies that do it their own way; who qualify a customer base, support it, grow it, and in time come to own it. This isn’t a call to throw out your brand and get in line behind the highest-volume keywords like everyone else. After all, if everyone is optimizing for X, then what kind of dent can you really hope to make optimizing for it too?
No, this is a call to be yourself. If you’re Y, then be Y, through and through. Don’t pretend to be X. That’s a losing battle every time. And if you need X to survive, then be X, unabashedly. Determine what you are first, and accept that no matter what choice you make, something will get left behind.
But what you’ll get in return is an opportunity to build a cohesive, focused vision of the kind of company you want to be. If you are simply willing to understand, accept and be who you are, you will find greater success
in SEO and digital marketing over the long run.