Organic traffic, from Google and other search engines, remains critical to many merchants (see our Digitalis post on which one suits your ads best). It generates a steady stream of prospects while insulating merchants from over-relying on Amazon for sales.
We speak with Daniel Carnerero, a regular collaborator, exiting Managing Director at Darlings of Chelsea, and newly appointed CEO of the Ennovators Group, on bare-minimum SEO strategies for ecommerce, and the general SEO market situation.
Digitalis: What is the bare minimum that SME sized merchants can do to maintain or improve organic search traffic?
D. Carnerero: It all comes down to their resources, mainly time and money. If there’s very little time, but they have some money to invest, there are lots of options out there. If they have no money and little resources, they have to prioritize those aspects that will bring the best return to the business.
In any case, the worst thing to do is go with the low-cost option. You’re better off doing nothing than potentially harming your search engine optimization from working with a low-quality provider, or hiring someone with no experience and little supervision. Don’t hire somebody who’s going to negatively impact your reputation in the eyes of Google.
Digitalis: What if a merchant says, “We could do a day a week, and I’ve got the budget for one paid SEO tool.” What would you recommend?
D. Carnerero: The question in here is to understand their objective and desired return. You have to be outcome focused. There are plenty of great tools readily available (Majestic, Ahrefs, LinkResearchTools, SEMrush, Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl). But you still need someone making the data-driven decisions for the business, a tool on its own is a waste of money. You’re better off spending that money on a person, versus a tool, if there’s nobody who’s going to capitalise insights from that tool.
Digitalis: Is not the outcome for most to obtain more traffic?
D. Carnerero: Yes, but not all traffic is created equal. You can easily double or triple someone’s traffic but it does not mean that it will be relevant or benefit the business in any way.
You can buy Facebook likes legitimately with ad campaigns but now you’ve got a bunch of unrelated likes clogging the system, with no purpose and not supporting your overall goal.
You could also do the same thing with SEO. You can add a bunch of nonsense into the system and be in a worse situation because it lacks relevance, substance and purpose. Whether you hire someone or use a tool, or follow someone’s advice in a blog post, down the line, you will be figuring out that something’s gone wrong.
Digitalis: How do merchants choose which one or two tools are best for them?
D. Carnerero: It comes back to having a smart, specific, measurable, and attainable goal. This could be, for example, a goal of increasing organic traffic over the next year by 100%. It can be possible, or maybe not, but it is clearly very specific.
So now there’s a goal and you can go out thee searching for the right tool for you. And then you start by identifying what is your weakness in terms of your SEO. If your link authority or link equity is poor, then you should focus your tool investments on things for link analysis and link building.
If, on the other hand, it’s an internal linking structure issue and how you pass link equity internally around your site (for example, fast navigation not properly configured for SEO) then you have to go for something else, from DeepCrawl to Screaming Frog, or possibly Botify.If you have little budget, then Screaming Frog is a great option. It’s free for up to 500 URLs.
If you wanted to improve organic rankings, you could study the search analytics reports in Google Search Console, which is free. But probably you’re going to want extra capability, such as a rankings tracker. Develop a list of keywords that you want to rank on and feed them into the rankings tracker tool. Rank Ranger and STAT Search Analytics are good tools. Both can also track your featured snippets, which appear at the very top of the organic listings — an instant answer, essentially.
For link building, “Link analysis” is figuring out whether you have toxic links and whether your link profile looks natural and not engineered. LinkResearchTools is of great help in here.
Digitalis: What is a toxic link?
D. Carnerero: Those that Google does not want to see linking to your site, such as porn sites, spam websites, and sites that are infected with malware and viruses. Having those sorts of sites linking to you is not a good thing. They could result from a negative SEO attack, where a competitor — someone — wants to push you down the search results. Someone could buy bad links on your behalf or build toxic, low-quality links to your site.
Every ecommerce merchant should monitor toxic links. A great tool is Link Detox, which is part of LinkResearchTools.
Digitalis: Amazon is increasingly dominant. Many consumers now start product searches on Amazon. Is optimizing organic search traffic on Google less important than optimizing for Amazon search?
D. Carnerero: The commonsense answer is to optimize for everything and everywhere, as in anything you do in life. Amazon is a great starting point for consumers. But, for ecommerce merchants, if you’re putting all your eggs in their basket then you’re sitting on a ticking bomb, waiting to get replaced by Amazon themselves.
Amazon are staggeringly positive for the economy and consumers. However, they would notice your success and act on it; in basic terms, they will acknowledge the success of your product and create a white product version of it, this is, an AmazonBasics version of your product and then just sell it direct. So now you are out of business, as you cannot compete with their cost structure and speed to market.
Digitalis: Anything else?
D.Carnerero: Just to highlight that there are quick wins for any business approaching SEO activities, but the true success lies beneath a longer term strategy, having a logical structure on your website, being relevant, trustworthy and engaging.
Digitalis: What is the effectiveness of SEO consultants?
D. Carnerero: Like in any industry you can find a bit of everything. As a general rule, and in my opinion, search engine optimization consultants are activity-focused. They will typically suggest a huge laundry list of various activities to perform. Perhaps the list is prioritized, but nonetheless it is frequently saturated of action items. Unfortunately, many of these activities won’t really impact SEO that much. Consequently, you end up spending your time covering the low-value activities off the list they provided. If you’re focusing effort on action items that don’t have significant return on investment (writing meta tags, tweaking keyword density, building out a comprehensive robots.txt file, …) you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.
Digitalis: What about the myths in SEO?
D. Carnerero: Sure, there are complete myths surrounding SEO that do little, if not nothing, for your organic search rankings. They cover from XML sitemaps helping Google rankings, which is not the case, to exchanging links boosts rankings. Some still believe that the content of the Home page must be updated daily. As in many other areas, some of the fake news travel faster than the real ones, and stay around for longer.
Digitalis: So, what to do?
D. Carnerero: In my view, and as mentioned earlier, the secret to success is to become outcome-focused. Identify your ultimate outcome or goal, then concentrate on that outcome with laser-like focus. Once you achieve it, you set a new goal rather than resort to working down the list of lower return activities. So you may never get around to those XML Sitemaps tweaks, but that’s okay. The world won’t end because of it. And you’ll be building the value of your online business.
Digitalis: But surely it cannot be that simple, especially when reading books, listening to consultants, podcast and so on?D. Carnerero: This leads to a bigger issue, one of critical importance, that in many cases people forget about when running around multi-tasking. A business owner should always be working on building the asset value of his/her business. By doing so, you are executing on your exit strategy, or ensuring its long term viability.
If you don’t have an exit strategy, you have a very expensive job — meaning it’s a job you can never quit, one with long hours, full of stress, with rare or nonexistent vacations, and a salary that may or may not come depending on the cash flow of the business.
Digitalis: So only work on clear outcomes?
D. Carnerero: If you ask me, yes. By focusing on tangible outcomes, you can grow your revenues and stay focused on what’s important. Most ecommerce businesses rely on traffic from search engines, and it’s easy to fall under the influence of consultants who suggest an array of activities to grow that traffic. But many of these tactics — in my experience — are simply a waste of time, and not good enough. Consultants tend to apply a set of general rules and practices to start with, but surely this cannot effect every business in the same way. Knowing your business takes time, and when you pay for someone else’, there’s pressure in delivering something quickly.
Digitalis: What would your advice be to a business owner when choosing an SEO professional?
D. Carnerero: I am clearly biased in here, but trying to be objective, my personal opinion would be:
- Stay away from agencies/companies that guarantee top rankings. If you’ve been in the business long enough, you know that there are few guarantees with search engine marketing.
- Inquire about realistic expectations on performance. Inquire about results with previous accounts in a similar vertical and/or sites with similar competition levels.
- Ask the consultant how it plans to execute your SEO campaigns. If you’re not getting a reasonably comprehensive response and/or hearing statements such as “we know SEO secrets,” choose another firm. An SEO firm could have a slightly different methodology for getting you best results. However, if the company is unable to explain the method to the madness, then it doesn’t know what it is doing or it will likely do something “unconventional” (which you might get penalized for later on).
- Look around for company reviews and ask permission to contact their existing clients. It’s likely that you’ll get referred to a success story; nevertheless, you will probably learn a lot about day-to-day interaction going on behind the scenes.
- Make sure you will own all accounts, domains, content, graphics and/or any other media used to promote your site. If your search-marketing guru builds out micro-sites and blogs, distributes video clips, or creates content, you’ll want to ensure all of this content is legally owned by you. It might get really messy, for example, if you realize that you don’t own half of the domains utilized in your SEO strategy. Spell this out in the contract.
- Ask to see sample reports. Determine the minimum level of reporting to be delivered by your future SEO provider and the frequency of the report delivery. Some might suggest a one-page report every six months; this is not acceptable, in my view. You need to know how much you’re spending, your profitability levels, traffic patterns, and in depth custom analysis of your SEO campaigns. Same as you would do with your paid ads.
- You tend to get what you pay for. Both SEO and search engine marketing are very time-consuming tasks. Your consultant will need to spend time and resources to monitor new developments, industry news, industry research and so on. If you’re negotiating a contract, it’s a good idea to inquire about company-wide hourly rates to understand how much time will be spent on your account. If a firm does not use hourly rate calculation, then determine how much your SEO/SEM campaigns will cost each month.
Digitalis: What about when a company you employ fails to deliver, and the client’s rankings are penalized? Is that fair? Why is not the SEO company being punished instead?
D. Carnerero: It just doesn’t work that way, whether it seems fair or not. Anyone can call himself or herself an SEO professional, but the same can be said for many other professions. Skill and knowledge levels vary greatly in any industry, as does the professionals’ interest in providing a fair service for a fair price.No true professional is going to reveal his client’s private data; that would be a breach of confidence and likely a violation of a nondisclosure agreement. You wouldn’t like your data being public either.
Digitalis: And this would be likely to reflect in the pricing?
D. Carnerero: Some might think that because organic search is “free” traffic that SEO shouldn’t cost much. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Seasoned SEO professionals command larger salaries. In order to pay those salaries, agencies need to charge higher rates. Lower agency rates mean that the staff is most likely inexperienced and more likely to recommend or perform tactics that are questionable or outdated. This isn’t 100 percent true however, by and large, price, experience and quality of recommendations go hand in hand.
Digitalis: So it is all about selecting the right SEO company or professional?
D. Carnerero: After you choose an agency, no matter how comfortable you feel with them, or good they are, you must manage their actions. Make sure you follow their recommendations and ask its staff to explain until you’re sure you understand not just what is proposed but why. They will be acting on your behalf so check their plans before starting, and check their work afterwards. Watch your organic search traffic and revenue trends in your web analytics tools for signs that the SEO program is having a positive or negative effect.
Digitalis: We hope we have been able to clarify some of the key points around SEO and hiring the right SEO partner to any given business. Thank you for your time today and sharing your experience.
D. Carnerero: It’s been a pleasure. SEO remains a very subjective topic despite the large volume of data and tools available.