by Matthew Smith, Director at Longacre in Newport, Pennsylvania
Last week it was reported that Expedia, the travel website, was penalized by Google for artificially boosting traffic. “Penalized,” in this case, means Expedia’s ranking in the Google search results was sent tumbling. This is serious stuff – Expedia’s stock plunged 5%, apparently on the bad news.
This is the second time in as many months that Google has been in the news for penalizing a website. It’s not something new, though. Google has been doing it for years, just with less fanfare.
Fear of penalty was one of the reasons Longacre decided to fire its SEO firm. We made the decision in November, right after our last blog post here, “To SEO or Not to SEO.” (For a refresher on SEO, or search engine optimization, check it out.) In light of the Expedia news, we have decided to lay out our reasoning. Here are the three reasons Longacre stopped paying for SEO:
Reason #1 – Keywords
In SEO, the first thing you do is identify keywords, or keyword phrases, relevant to your website. The problem is, Longacre does not neatly fit into a keyword phrase. If you run a camp, maybe you target keyword phrases like “girls camp,” “sports camp,” or “community service travel program” – or, more probably, some variation of those with a longer tail. If keyword phrases work for you, that’s great. But we couldn’t find a keyword phrase that worked for us. We even considered something like, “summer camp growth experience,” but that sounds ridiculous, and nobody searches for it anyway. This problem, the keywords problem, wouldn’t go away.
Reason #2 – Gray Hat Techniques
The second reason is gray hat techniques. SEO techniques fall into three categories: white hat, black hat and gray hat. White hat techniques are those that Google tells you to do, and explains how to do. Your website needs white hat techniques to be properly read by the Google bots. Some of these techniques are pretty simple. We can do them ourselves without professional help.
Black hat techniques are clear no-nos and are used to get an edge. They may boost your website’s ranking, but Google tells you not to do them, and if you’re caught, Google will penalize you. (In Expedia’s case, the company was caught paying other sites to link back to it.) Some black hat techniques were above-board in the past but now Google outright discourages them.
Gray hat techniques, the third category, are neither white nor black. They’re in the middle, although I think of them as moving toward black. These techniques have not specifically been identified by Google as no-nos, but you know they’re not consistent with the spirit of the search rankings. Google will probably name them in the future, it’s just a matter of when. Watching our SEO firm employ gray hat techniques filled me with a sense of dread: what happened to Expedia could happen to us at any time.
Why, you might wonder, would an SEO firm employ gray hat techniques? Because they work. SEO firms use them to get results for their clients. Maybe it’s myopic, maybe it’s bad business, but it’s what I’ve seen. (It’s analogous to the stock market and the emphasis on short term profits.)
We could not let go of the possibility that Google would penalize us for failing to keep strictly to the straight and narrow.
Reason #3 – Opportunity Cost
The third reason is, there’s an opportunity cost to paying for SEO. I have a marketing budget and my partners hold me to it. If I’m paying for SEO, it means I’m not paying for other stuff. It’s not that SEO has zero value for us. It’s just that other investments should have more value.
There are two things I’m spending our SEO money on: user experience and public relations. Google has told you to make user experience a priority, and this makes sense: visitors to your site should find what they’re looking for. Your site should make visitors happy, not confused or frustrated.
Since Google now rewards us if our visitors are happy, we took some of the SEO money and hired a firm specializing in conversion rate optimization. We took the rest of the money and hired a public relations consultant. It takes nuance to communicate the value of the Longacre experience (more words than we can fit into a keyword phrase, at least) so media coverage about Longacre, or pieces referring to Longacre, could be very effective.
Although we now understand that success in PR can take years, we have already found value in the PR process itself. For example, we write more, posting to our own blog and blogs like this one; and writing, as it turns out, helps us tap into the national conversation. In the years to come, and in an era marked by rapid change, I expect our PR effort to help us stay relevant.
In the writing of this post, I thought to myself how scattered Longacre’s tactics have been since 2011, the year we began our venture into digital marketing. On the one hand, it’s indicative of what the learning curve has felt like. On the other hand, despite being outgunned by bigger camps and national brands, I feel lucky to be small enough to turn on a dime. If we realize something isn’t working, like paying for SEO, we can make a decision, shift gears and leave it behind.
Matthew Smith is a second-generation director at Longacre, which uses the summer to prepare ambitious teenagers for long term success. Matt blogs at CampEasy about Longacre’s venture into digital marketing. Follow him on Twitter @longacreleaders.