Articles for May 2011

“We rank therefore we rock,” said the agency – Beware the misleading ranking claim

Technology WinDisclaimer: This post is not intended as an attack against anyone, so be advised that any keywords/rankings that I go on to mention are purely examples – any correlations between the agencies ranking for them and the way they market themselves is purely coincidental and unintended.

A good measure of any agency can be seen in how they do what they do on themselves. If a PR agency has a bad reputation in the press, a web design agency has a poorly-built website or an SEO agency doesn’t rank for anything then it’s not a very reassuring sign.

So it’s understandable when an web design or online marketing agency that does SEO wants to let people know when they rank for a keyword. “Hooray, we rank! We rock!” Right? Not necessarily. It may sound great on the surface, but dig a little deeper and it may not be that impressive at all.

We rank ≠ we rock (necessarily)

Sometimes on Twitter I come across a web design agency which provides SEO services saying that they rank #1 on page 1 organically in Google for a keyword like, say, “web designers in cardiff”. At first, that sounds really impressive, but think about it for a moment… That’s just one variation of a number of things someone might type into Google. There’s a lot of different things someone might search on in order to find effectively the same thing:

  • “web designer” could be singular or plural: “designer” or “designers” (2 variations)
  • It could be “website designer(s)” instead… (4 variations)
  • …Or you could just call it “design” (6 variations)
  • Although arguably a different requirement, some people are inclined to call it “development,” or might be looking for a “developer” or “developers” (12 variations)
  • They might be looking for one in “cardiff” or maybe “south wales” or “wales” as a whole (36 variations)
  • When typing in keywords containing locations, searchers tend to put the location afterwards, either with or without the “in,” or before, e.g. “web design cardiff,” “web design in cardiff” or “cardiff web design” (108 variations)

We’re now up to 100+ different ways that someone might be looking for a web designer/developer in Cardiff or the wider Wales.

Variations and their search volumes

Not only that but some variations are undoubtedly going to be more popular than others, whether it’s due to searcher’s habits, one term being more renowned or used than another, or perhaps Google Suggest highlighting a particular search term as a searcher starts typing. Just looking at some of the variations using the Google AdWords Keyword Tool can show the difference (which can be used for free and by anyone, by the way):

web design cardiff and variations in the Keyword Tool

According to its results, “web design cardiff” receives c. 2,400 searches per month, while the bottom three keywords – including the aforementioned “web designers in cardiff” – show no data whatsoever, suggesting that search volume is minimal or non-existent. It’s likely that “web design cardiff” has a lot of agencies fighting over it, trying to optimise themselves and their sites for that keyword, simply because of how popular and in demand it is. Likewise, this should suggest that the likes of “web designers in cardiff” will have very few people going for them – after all, why optimise your site for something that no one’s searching for? Therefore, in comparison it should be an easy one to rank for… I bet that keyword sounds even less impressive now, doesn’t it?

How about the website that ranks highly for “web design cardiff” though? Surely that’s a good sign of an agency that knows how to do SEO! Perhaps… While it certainly carries weight to rank for the whale, it may not be a good sign if they don’t also rank for littler fish, either. Maybe they’re focussing all of their energies on just that one keyword? Or maybe they just got lucky?

What’s a business to do?

Someone in the market for an SEO agency may not know all of this stuff, along with how to check for search volumes, and that’s fair enough. If gauging an SEO’s performance on their own rankings, it is wise to check a few rankings in their industry and location(s).

I did a presentation for Liberty Marketing recently and in the Q&A session afterwards I was asked how we rank. Fortunately I was able to say that we do quite well – as I type this, we’re the #1-3 result for searches such as “seo cardiff,” “online marketing cardiff” an even just “marketing cardiff” (even though we don’t provides any offline marketing services whatsoever). We’re also on page 1 for “online marketing agency,” which – with no location keyword involved – means we’re competing UK-wide. Not too bad for a three-year-old agency.

Of course, my advice would be not to go down this route at all. I’ve heard stories of people who have somewhat naïvely recruited SEO agencies by simply typing “seo” into Google and asking the top few results for proposals. Compared to other industries, it’s possible for a site to have gamed the system and used dodgy, black-hat technique to have gotten there in the first place. You could end up hiring someone who engages in dodgy practices which can have long-term damaging effects on your site, or – in the worst case scenario – is simply a con artist.

If it were up to me, I’d work on the basis of recommendations and testimonials. I’d also think about the competition of an industry – a high result in a UK-wide insurance search (likely to be in the 1,000s of searches each month) is certainly going to be a lot more impressive than someone looking for a particular niche product or trade in a small town or city. After all, regardless of the industry, a happy client is what makes a good agency.

[iPhone/thumbs up image credit: Stéphane Delbecque]