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How to Win at SEO and Still Lose

By Heshy Friedman

“Where’s my traffic?”

Our Creative Director, David Kunkel, spent many years working for an international IT staffing and services provider. As a primary subcontractor to IBM, with a superior product, lean cost structure, a talented sales team and dedicated, motivated employees, it should have enjoyed decades of growth and a commensurate rise in stock price since its founding in the ‘60s.

Instead, it has consistently achieved modest profits and low growth. It has opened and closed offices, acquired and shed subsidiaries and overseas partners, built and trimmed staff, changed its organizational structure and restructured its business again and again.

Meanwhile the market that it focused on—healthcare—has grown over 250% in just the last decade.

Yet its stock price has been stagnant—it has been stuck under $10 a share for decades, it trades in a very narrow range, and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future—unless they try the one thing they’ve avoided all those years.

In fact, its failure to grow is why David now works with us. His entire department was cut during another round of cost-cutting and staff trimming that—again—failed to achieve any material gains in any meaningful measure of corporate value.

That department? Marketing Communications. And that’s where our story really begins.

The main complaint his old company’s salespeople had was—consistently— “no one has ever heard of us,” coupled with “it’s hard to explain what we do.” True, their customers are happy, and happy customers make referrals. In fact, the company was committed to a strategy of growth through referrals, i.e., word of mouth. Since the rise of the internet, they added social media and SEO to their efforts.

But traditional business-to-business advertising? Market research? Customer surveys? Nope.
Funny thing, David comes from an advertising background—agency and Yellow Pages. (Remember the Yellow Pages? The “internet” before the internet? They sell web services now, but that’s another article.)

To every VP he could buttonhole, every CEO he could talk to (and he dealt personally with them all), he made the case for advertising. They all dismissed the idea. “We can’t afford it,” “Where would we advertise?” and “We’ll market ourselves online.”
Result? Inaction. And market performance to match.

Big companies don’t advertise because they’re big…

Coca-Cola vs. supermarket cola; Oreo vs. Hydrox; Lay’s vs. Ruffles. One is huge, the other … not so much. “Of course you see the leader’s advertising everywhere; they can afford it,” you might say. You’d be wrong.

Big companies are big because they advertise.

How about Coke vs. Pepsi? Oreo vs. Keebler? Lay’s vs. Doritos? Do you see the pattern now? These giants compete with each other head-to-head because they advertise at similar rates. They know advertising is an investment. They’ve grown into the giants they currently are over decades, by investing in themselves through advertising.

Here’s the big misconception: “Google is a search company.”


Google is an advertising company. Search is the service on which they build their advertising business. They make no money on search, but they’re hugely profitable. So naturally, they are growing advertising at the expense of search as they mature.

Over the past five years, Google has changed their user experience: They’ve filled the top half of their first search page with factual results, so that searchers no longer need to click through to the website that generated those facts; they’ve reduced the search results per page from ten to as few as seven; and they’ve made sponsored results less and less distinguishable from organic search results.

Here’s a millennial-generation example: Airbnb vs. VRBO.

Airbnb: founded in 2008; worth about $30 – $40 billion

VRBO: founded in 1995; purchased by HomeAway, now part of Expedia. Worth about $19 billion.

Which one has better SEO? The answer may surprise you: VRBO whips Airbnb in organic search!

That means subject-matter searches like:

  • hilton head rentals
  • ocean city maryland rentals
  • cape cod rentals
  • vacation homes

So where did all those branded searches come from?

Lots of places; but not from SEO. Airbnb’s customers come to the internet with its name already in mind.
Airbnb has invested heavily in the following:

  • Sponsored search result advertising
  • Internet banner advertising
  • Traditional advertising—TV, billboards, magazines, bus shelters, etc.
  • Relationships with referrers like Kayak, Trivago, BringFido, Hometogo, etc. (These relationships are money in the bank, since they leverage their partner’s advertising and SEO as well.)

And they’ve done the research and implemented the results to optimize

  • UI and UX (that is, website design and functionality)
  • Customer experience, partner experience, fee structure, etc. (that is, business design and functionality)

You get the idea. Real-world stuff. Hard stuff. Expensive stuff.

So, what’s your takeaway? How can you be more like the big players?

Remember: Your brand is the most valuable thing in the world next to your actual business concept. Maybe even more so. Invest in it. Start small, but start today.

A great brand and the right exposure can make a bad idea work—after all, “Slap Chop”-type vegetable dicers have been around for nearly a century, yet pitchman Vince Offer made millions selling his version at $40 a pop—and it’s not better than the rest.

Conversely, with poor marketing and limited exposure, a great idea will go exactly nowhere.

Just ask David about his stock options. Or better yet, ask his former CEO.

Bottom line: Do the SEO—but also do the rest. Invest in your company every way you can.

Contact us today for more information.

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