No. 119
August 31st, 2008

Why Snake Oil SEO Still Sells

Photo Credit: Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery by GreatBeyond

Hidden in the middle of Will Scott’s excellent piece on Yelp last month was the following insight, which certainly rings true in my experience with small business owners (emphasis mine):

For me it all leads back to a central frustration I feel from small businesses: they understood the Yellow Pages. You pay more, you get a bigger ad, you get more calls. How hard is that?

As skeptical as I am of the print Yellow Pages, Will is absolutely spot-on with that comment. It is an incredibly easy-to-understand business, and has been around long enough where pretty much everyone understands how it works.

Search engine optimization, even for the rare small business owner who has heard of it, is much more complicated and is inherently somewhat opaque.

Differences between the Yellow Pages and SEO

Part of the problem is that search engines have only been around for 8-10 years, and so they’re relatively new, but consider just some of the other differences:

YellowPages: Instant gratification. Your ROI is directly correlated to how many calls you receive in a given year.
SEO: Delayed gratification. You may not see ANY ROI for several months, and you won’t fully know the ROI for a particular SEO campaign for several years.

YellowPages: one-time investment. You pay money, and you get an ad. Once that book goes out of circulation, your ad is gone.
SEO: permanent investment. (see ROI)

YellowPages: Clear positioning process. The guys who are paying the most, and who have been in the book the longest get top billing.
SEO: Confusing positioning process. Some people think websites pay Google for top rankings. Some people think placement is completely random. Some people think Google is immune to influence.

Making SEO More Like the Yellow Pages

In some respects the goal of snake oil salesmen and women might be considered admirable: they’re trying to boil down SEO into essential, easy-to-understand components. It’s just unfortunate that those components like

  • Search Engine Submission
  • Sitemap Generation
  • Meta Tags
  • Keyword Density
  • Ranking Reports

aren’t particularly useful to gain higher rankings or increase relevant traffic!

And even pay-per-click, whose concept is to be sure MUCH easier to understand than SEO, is often not an option for small businesses because of the costs involved with setting up a campaign and the inability to compete with national competitors’ advertising budgets.

More productive SEO techniques like link building, site architecture, and social media campaigns aren’t easily-defined deliverables. Even Title Tags aren’t immediately easy to understand because the average internet user / small business owner doesn’t even know where to find them.

Why Snake Oil Still Sells

Complicated topics almost never have a simple solution (look no further than our current energy crisis and John McCain’s Drill Here, Drill Now “strategy,” not that Obama’s is much better).

But in an age of soundbites and headlines, everyone is strapped for time and looks for something easy to latch onto. Snake oil SEOs have taken a page from the politicians’ books. They’re successful because they’ve realized this trend and have capitalized on it with a scalable, drastically over-simplified “product” and combined it with aggressive “marketing outreach.”