Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Website promotion: Does it pay to pay?

Why do I always hear the voice of Sarah Jessica-Parker in my head when I write one of these snappy little questions? Sex and the City hang-ups aside, this is actually a very important question for the small and medium-sized business sector, at least for those businesses trying to promote themselves on the internet. As the owner of a relatively new business ( with a virtually internet-only marketing strategy, I live or die by my success on the web and I have seen enough of both sides of this particular debate to publish some conclusions. First I’ll describe the issue, then give my conclusion and then modify it by detailing some important exceptions.

The internet marketing debate - PPC versus SEO

For those who don’t know the terms of the debate, it comes down to time versus money. Do you spend time steadily improving your website’s search engine rankings to attract custom or lots of money buying traffic? Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involves changing its content, layout and structure to “optimise” your site for search engines in relation to certain keywords (“lawyer spain”) and adding quality links from other sites to prove its worth and popularity. Alternatively you can buy traffic by signing up with search engines or other big internet players (e.g. Facebook) to place links to your site on search engine result pages (“sponsored results”) or by placing box ads, banners etc on other popular sites, usually on a Pay Per Click basis so that you pay only for the visitors the ads bring in. Google’s Adwords product is the dominant force in this sector.


Although it can certainly “pay to pay” I have decided to concentrate on SEO and other ways of “organically” growing traffic for my website. The advantages of paying are:

  1. You can control the process more than conventional advertising as you select the targeted keyword combinations and, to some extent, how and where they are distributed on the net.
  1. The results are pretty much instant and measurable – you should be able to calculate the profitability of your campaigns and adjust your strategy accordingly.
  1. You save time having to work your way up the rankings which you can employ actually serving clients

However there are significant downsides to pay campaigns:

  1. The traffic you pay for can be variable and skewed. Only a certain proportion of people click on sponsored search results or ads. You may also take a hit to your credibility – there is something “spammy” about paying for traffic.
  1. The expense builds up quickly the more successful you are although you can monitor profitability and adjust your campaigns to make sure they are worthwhile.
  1. You don’t have to spend time on search engine rankings but you still have to produce a decent website. There is no point paying for traffic to a boring or unappealing website that doesn’t generate sales or leads.
  1. Tailoring a campaign is highly skilled and time-consuming task if done well, particularly selecting the right keyword combinations and how to target your ads. There are Google certified AdWords consultants to help you and some of them offer free AdWords vouchers to get you started e.g.

For all these reasons I have adopted the approach of continually improving my website adding content which will over time improve my rankings and draw people to visit and importantly link to it. I also publish articles on various websites which helps draw people to the site via the author credit at the bottom. The advantages of this approach:

  1. Improved credibility. The visitors to my site already have a good opinion of the business because they generally have liked the articles.
  1. The site is more interesting and relevant so people should stay longer and engage with the business.
  1. Only time, not money required
  1. A long term strategy. Every time I publish a new article or improve the site it is a permanent benefit which will in time establish a strong competitive position which competitors will find hard to match.

Caveats and exceptions

You shouldn’t go away with the impression that I have no time for paid internet promotion. I have done a very successful campaign on a PPC basis (Starting a business in Spain) and will use the technique again. It has its place, for example when you are doing a guerilla campaign on a niche topic and need quick results. Here are some other exceptions to my conclusion that it doesn’t pay to pay:

  1. Not everyone can be no1. Type “spanish lawyer” into Google and you will get 12 million results. It would be very difficult for a new law firm in Spain (like Advoco) to break into the top rankings for this search term. In some cases the alternative to paid advertising is invisibility.
  1. SEO takes time. Despite what SEO consultants and salesmen will tell you, a solid organic SEO strategy takes time to bear fruit. If your business needs immediate cashflow then paid ads can help fill the gap.
  1. SEO and PPC are not mutually exclusive. We have seen how the PPC user cannot neglect content but likewise organic SEO practioners can still benefit from advertising for example to fill gaps and niches that their SEO currently doesn’t cover.
  1. We are not all blessed with the skills to make SEO work. There are a multitude of tools and articles to assist you with the technical side of SEO but there is a skill in assembling and creating quality content that not everyone will be able to develop. You can employ consultants and buy content but this undermines the money-saving argument for SEO.

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