Help me fend off these SEO vampires
April 22, 2012 6:44 AM   Subscribe

My boss wants to pay an SEO company more than he pays me! Help me convince him otherwise.

I've been in my current job for 5 years. In that time, I have never considered our search engine placement to be of any significance. We are a real estate company. They do so many things backwards. For instance they hide the address of the property on the MLS so people have to 'call to get more details' so we can somehow hook them. I've tried to explain that, today, someone is very very unlikely to come to our website to search listings that they can't even get details on. They are much more likely to go to zillow (or trulia, or insert MLS aggregation website here) were they get many more details and a much broader result. Who's wrong, me or the boss? There's an upcoming meeting and I need ammunition. Or I need to be accepting. My gut instinct is that it's foolish to spend money on SEO optimization of our website when we're a leading real estate agency in our area (#1 by some counts, absolutely #1 by our name, and typically in the top 10 for "(region) homes for sale)" etc.) and that no one comes to our website to search for homes. Zillow et all have much more staff and a refined search engine that we couldn't afford to build ourselves and frankly I believe anyone who really wants to find a home will just type some keywords into google or bing or what have you. What do I do??? What do I say???
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"Why are we spending money to ensure that search engines see the information on our website as high-quality and relevant to the search market segment we wish to capture before any of that information is actually on our website?"
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:49 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

1) Be accepting. It's always valuable to hear from others about how they perceive the problem and what they would do to solve it. At worst, you gain insight into other ways to skin this particular cat.

2) Insist on metrics. Don't let them do a bunch of handwaving; if they are any good, they will be able to give you measurable performance indicators that you can tie into the contract. If they give you a metric that you already satisfy (number 1 in searches for your name) then challenge them on it.

3) Identify personal opportunity. Consider your organizational structure. Since you are the company's expert on SEO and internet presence, try to turn this to your advantage- you are going to presumably outsource a chunk of your job, so you'll be freed up to A) manage the vendor and B) pursue other opportunities in the company- mobile SEO, planning for how to defend your company against the obvious disintermediation that Zillow is planning, etc.

Your company is considering a significant investment in what you do now- this means it's important. By acting as a team player and a manager (rather than a producer), you can turn this to your advantage.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:14 AM on April 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

Read the SEO company's proposal. It likely doesn't properly explain how increased website traffic will result in increased sales. The whole point is selling more homes, not getting more website visitors. My guess is that the SEO people haven't properly addressed that idea.
posted by davebush at 7:17 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have access to any analytics data? If so, you can start developing an understanding of what users do when they hit your website. Do they click through/search to specific properties? If so, is the bounce rate high (>60%?) I suspect if you're providing underwhelming information, you're probably seeing a really high bounce rate on a number of your pages.

This indicates that getting people to the site isn't the problem; it's that they're arriving and not finding what they want. Content is paramount. SEO doesn't guarantee the kind of return you want on actual conversions (people performing the tasks you want them to), it just generates more traffic. You should be quick to point out that more traffic who bounce are not going to increase sales.

At the end of the day, if you can turn the discussion from pure volume to a discussion on what you want the visitors to do, you can install metrics and provide ammunition for changing your own behaviours.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 7:18 AM on April 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Here's a link to a study on who actually comes to broker sites and why -- it's a little out of date, but may be news to your boss. To quote the money line: 85% of traffic to broker sites come from consumers who are already know about that broker and are looking for it on purpose. That's from WAV Group, which is a brokerage consulting firm your boss may or may not be familiar with --- they're pretty well regarded.

You'd have to probably purchase local-market-specific information about web traffic to find your area -- but for many markets and certainly for the country as a whole, there's no broker site in the top ten for web traffic in real estate search. (Experian has such stats; I know WAV has used that data to analyze local markets). Inman News publishes an update every month on this --- last time I checked it was Zillow-power Yahoo Homes and Zillow itself battling for the tops spot, followed by, Trulia and, plus a bunch of others.

And Rodrigo's right --- customers will bounce immediately if they don't find the info they want. Oftentimes nowadays customers won't go to a broker site at all unless they've already spent considerable time searching and there's a specific listing that that broker has that they want to see. You're not going to be able to compete with Zillow on the supplementals --- maps, tax data, price charts, all that stuff. But more importantly, if you're already #1 for "Smallville real estate" --- there's no place else for you to go, and if your boss is too thick to see that you'r not going to win this battle.
posted by Diablevert at 8:48 AM on April 22, 2012

I am a recent homebuyer in the silicon valley area, where maybe we are a bit more Internet savvy than the world in general, but I found that for a day or two I would visit websites of realtors if they showed up on the first page of google search results for phrases like "cityname real estate", but shortly gave that up when I realized that none of them would actually give me any useful information, most notably the addresses of the listed properties, and I started using only zillow and Redfin which actually try and cater to someone who wants to shop for homes online.

My gut feeling is that you are right, there's no particular reason that Internet home shoppers will want to go to a web site that doesn't help them find homes. However, IMO, that's going to be a huge problem for you as more and more people become Internet home shoppers. You are either going to want to show up in google search results and have a useful site, or have a useless site with an irrelevant google rank, and slowly be put out of business by Redfin.

If you want to succeed as a small/local competitor to zillow and such, then you have to provide a comparable experience, which requires letting people drive by properties on their own on their way home from work, or looking them up on google street view. If you dot care to compete in that space, then your google ranking matters less, except that people who want to be driven around town while you guys try to sell them things might use it to find your phone number.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:51 AM on April 22, 2012

If you don't believe that your company's SEO rankings matter (and, sidebar, i really think you're wrong about that), and your boss believes so strongly that it does matter that he's willing to spend lots of money to get around your objections, then you have already lost the argument, and any efforts on your part will be viewed as obstinacy.

There are plenty of reasons to be at the top of search rankings - people search out real estate companies for reasons other than just looking at listings, and there is quite a possiblity that your company could re-instate listing details - its not an either/or choice. Plus, "we're already popular so we don't need to adapt or improve" is the kind of complacency that puts formerly successful companies into bankruptcy.
posted by Kololo at 9:20 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

If these guys weren't recommended or referred to your boss by someone your boss trusts, that would throw up some major flags for me. If they were referred or recommended by someone for whom they did work and who was happy with the results, I'd be a little less leery.

Does this outfit have experience working with real estate agencies in other geographical markets? Are they working for any agencies in your market? What is their policy in regards to taking work from two customers competing in the same market? If they don't have prior experience working for real estate agencies, do they have a coherent plan that goes beyond "we will boost your site's traffic by X%" or "we guarantee you'll be in the top 3 results for your chosen keywords"?

How do they plan to boost your site's traffic / increase your ranking for specific terms? Generally, a reputable SEO consultant will spend the bulk of his time working on improving your current site, whereas an unreputable consultant will spend the bulk of his time trying to generate 'backlinks' to your site. If you hear 'backlinks' in the discussion, consider that a red flag. The more they mention backlinks, the more I'd be worried, and I'd ask them for more details on their backlink-generation campaigns. The majority of SEO consultants focus on backlinks, using all kinds of dubious tricks to try to fool google into thinking that your site is an authoritative resource on its subject matter.

If these look like backlink scammers, you should tell your boss that, in the long run, unethical SEO won't pay off. Google is constantly adjusting their algorithms and working hard to identify sources of bogus backlinks. Your company's site could end up being penalized if google suspects that you've paid for bogus backlinks - I have seen this happen. Furthermore, these bogus backlinks may boost your site's ranking and traffic for a short time, but as they're weeded out as bogus, the site will start to slide again. This means you'll need to buy new backlinks to get back up in the rankings. So, even if you don't get dinged for a while, you may end up having to pay these guys every month in order to see longer-lasting results.

If these guys talk about generating positive reviews for you on Yelp, Google Places or, really, anywhere, beware. Review services keep an eye out for bogus reviews, and, again, your site could be dinged if it's flagged as an abuser.

If you get through the meeting, and the guys have passed the above tests, you might be dealing with some reputable consultants. Again, their plans should go beyond simply boosting the site's traffic or ranking in searches.

Don't sign a long-term contract with them. Tell them you'll want a monthly report on performance metrics. If you're not running an analytics program yet, set it up now so you have baseline statistics to compare against. Make sure your company is the owner and admin of the analytics account.

If these guys are reputable, and seem to know their stuff, I suggest you go the accepting route. Give them the litmus test, and if they pass it, be wary but don't be negative - you might learn something, and they might actually bring your company more business. Not saying the following applies to you, but I have seen lazy IT guys who ride the gravy train suddenly throw a fit when their boss decides to bring someone in from outside. If the outsiders are good, the lazy IT guy usually comes out on the losing end of the deal - say hello to lazy, unemployed IT guy.
posted by syzygy at 9:30 AM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a search engine optimization consultant. (I am not your search engine optimization consultant. Nor am I a vampire, though in some cases, I agree, the comparison is apt.)

If I were optimizing a real estate website of the type you describe, I would focus on improving the site's visibility in local search results for real estate agents. Not in search results for local homes for sale, obviously, since your employer is apparently not interested in providing consumers with that kind of information (though personally I think that's a shame -- many of the more successful agents I know in my area provide plenty of detailed, friendly information on their sites, in fact taking the opposite strategy from your firm and trying to show off their expertise by providing more info than MLS -- but I'm no real estate expert so I can't really judge either strategy).

SEO could almost certainly draw in some quantity of customers for you; it may or may not be worth the price. The way to find out is to do a little SEO research on your own, before you talk to these SEO people (who may or may not be vampires). Preliminary SEO research is not hard to do and I recommend that anyone who is planning to meet with an SEO consultant do some beforehand, just to get an idea of what SEO may or may not be able to do for you.

Google offers a number of free tools that can help you.

If you do not currently have Google Analytics installed, GET IT. It's free and easy to install and it can help you figure out all sorts of things about how people are getting to and using your site, which is good info to have whether or not you are specifically focused on improving traffic through search. If you do have Google Analytics installed already, go in there and poke around. Use the Traffic Sources Overview to see what search terms people are using to get to your site already -- this can help you figure out what's already working for you and what's not.

To get a vague idea of how many search users are out there whom you might be able to attract but aren't currently because of poor search rankings, you can use the free Google Adwords Keywords tool. It's aimed at people doing paid search engine marketing but you can use it to get a good general idea of what sorts of things people in your target demographic are searching for. You can enter a term like "Austin real estate agents" and the Keywords tool will give you an estimate of how many users search for that term each month; it will also offer you related search terms and give you a very, very general idea of the competition for each term by letting you know how competitive the term is in paid search (i.e. how many rivals are paying for Google ads for that term).

You should also, before the meeting, review Google's free Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, so that you have an idea of Google's official SEO guidelines -- and then pay attention during the meeting to make sure the firm your boss is thinking of hiring won't be violating any of them. (The last thing you need is some black hat hack of an SEOer getting your site blacklisted by mistake.)

And your boss should definitely meet with more than one SEO consultant and get a range of estimates before deciding on a plan to go with. Hiring someone to do work on your site is like hiring a contractor to do work on your house, really. Estimates will vary widely and it's very important to find someone you can trust.

(As an aside, IMO SEO works best in concert with a savvy social media strategy, which your company may or may not be willing to pursue.)
posted by BlueJae at 9:33 AM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have anecdata for you. (On preview, sorry about the length).

Three years ago we had to buy a house in a hurry - we had to leave our cozy rental and the market was such that we decided to buy. I had a month to make it happen and relied heavily on the internet to find prospective properties. If I could find a property online that seemed roughly right, I'd put the agent on a shortlist and would make an appointment to go and see it, and any others that I'd found with the same agent. Sometimes the agents would be able to recommend other properties but this was rare - we had specific requirements. I saw 25 properties in 2 weeks and then we made a purchase.

The agents that got put on the shit-list were the ones that consistently turned up at the top of searches but had no concrete property information. In my view, they were wasting my search time, and I was not going to ring them for more information so they could waste more of my face time. The agents who did have stuff online, but who consistently tried to get me to also see inappropriate properties were shuffled to the bottom of my list and I considered their listings last.

From the start, each agent that I personally spoke to was informed that this was a time-sensitive issue. I was frank about what I wanted. I still got the run-around and it was generally from agents with crappy listings who had a few properties but tried to "shop them around" to me. It didn't work. In the end, if they couldn't give me information in a timely fashion or made it hard for me to find, I dumped them.

The property we ended up with was through a young agent who had concise, well-photographed and documented information which was all available online - either through their own website or through a real-estate agregator. He was polite, listened to what I wanted and didn't try the hard-sell. He got the sale partly because the house was good and partly because he was easy to deal with.

People my age (late 30's) are web-savvy and time poor and we ARE the market. For what it's worth, I think you're completely right. Good luck fighting the good fight.
posted by ninazer0 at 4:16 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
"Thanks to everyone that has answered. The meeting is tomorrow morning and I feel much more prepared. I'm happy to hear that most feel as I do, that people on the internet have little to no interest in wasting their time calling people when they have so much information from other companies at their fingertips. To syzygy 'backlinks' are a big part of the proposals they submitted (there are multiples). They promise in the least expensive version 500 a month. And it EXACTLY sent up a red flag to me. I'm by no means in the SEO business (My main function at the company is systems administrator) but whenever I hear about someone that thinks they can game google, my eyebrows go ^_- and I freak out. My job is by no means in jeopardy. I serve too many functions (and thus pretty much work 24/7/365). It's a small but successful company and it irks me that they're willing to pay more per month to some SEO company than they pay me per month. (Which was another red flag, $4000 dollars a month for SEO??? I have no idea what this person said to get into my bosses head, nor whether that is the going rate for SEO for a company my size, but I do know they could hire one more of me for a little less than that price, whose primary function could be SEO but could help out in so many other areas during the downtime, and since I'm the only one at my company I could certainly use the relief!). I appreciate the reponses greatly you guys :)"
posted by jessamyn at 5:03 PM on April 22, 2012

From the OP:
"Special thanks to BlueJae, Diablevert you guys knocked it out of the park with linked documents, tylerkaraszewski and ninazer0 I can't wait to share your personal experiences! I feel like that's the same thing I've been telling them time and again!"
posted by jessamyn at 5:17 PM on April 22, 2012

$4000 dollars a month for SEO
Don't forget to remind your boss that this is $4k nett that he has to recover to even break even, not $4k in new sales paying for the work.
posted by dg at 6:38 PM on April 22, 2012

OP: 'backlinks' are a big part of the proposals they submitted (there are multiples). They promise in the least expensive version 500 a month.

These guys are 100% bogus. They're trying to game google. They may get you a temporary bump in traffic or search ranking, but it will only be temporary, and the end result may be that your site is blacklisted in search results.

If they're focusing on backlinks, they're probably also doing other unethical stuff that may end up coming back and biting you.

In the end, it's your boss' money, but if I were his employee, I'd try to warn him that these guys are not worth spending any time or money on.
posted by syzygy at 11:23 AM on April 23, 2012

Most of these backlinks are likely to come from 'content farms'. I've seen this in practice - these are often blogs with reasonable google ranking that have gone dormant. Their owners have sold or rented out the blogs to content farmers who post bogus articles with keyword-rich links back to your site.

The other ways then can manage 500 backlinks per month are through link-trading and comment spam. In link-trading, they'd put keyword-rich links on your site to other customer sites, and links on those customer sites back to your site. With comment spam, they'd hit blogs around the web, leaving bogus comments with links back to your site.

Neither of these is a good way to go about improving SEO. Google specifically has an eye out for content farms, comment spam paid backlinks and link traders.

You may also want to do a quick google search on this company and its owners - see if you can find any dirt on them. Guys like these usually have some skeletons in the closet.

Good luck!
posted by syzygy at 11:33 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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