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One of the widest divergences between vendor and dealer that I've seen in discussions has been the concept of "SEO success." Many vendors rate success as being on the front page (top 10) of Google and Bing for keywords. Many dealers do not consider it a success until they're ranked #1.
If the heatmap to the right is an indicator, the debate should be an easy one to settle. According to both the statistics that I've heard and the heatmap, being "above the fold" organically, in maps, and in PPC ads is the base-level indicator of success. That doesn't mean that dealers shouldn't expect more from their vendors, but it does mean that vendors cannot claim victory with first-page rankings alone.
It definitely depends on the keywords, of course, but in general what do you consider a keyword success? Is it "#1 or bust" for you? Is being in the top 3 or the top 5 where many of the clicks happen your realistic expectation for most keywords as long as there are some where you're ranked #1? I'd love to hear your thoughts, both dealers and vendors, on this issue.
JD, great start of a discussion and the answer really depends on your client's expectations. There are a few types of SEO keyword goals that come to mind:
One set is based on "ego" and not actual business objectives. This occurs when a dealer demands that a specific keyword be optimized in spite of click data. These phrases can get a dealer "above the fold" but few clicks to the dealer website occur.
Recently a dealer called. He was excited about a geo-targeted attack in adjoining states. We did some research. Few if any customers or visitors were coming from these areas. Despite that research and the fact that local keywords were more lucrative to attack, the dealer instructed us to focus on the out of state keywords.
Success in this case is making the client happy regardless of calls, leads, or visitors.
Another set of SEO keyword goals is to optimize a Dealership name or Dealer Principal name to push down negative commentary on Google Page One or to Defend your brand against website that want to "poach" traffic off your name. This is where the term POD Score came into being: Page One Defense. The dealership name is the #1 organic search phrase that drives traffic to a dealership so making sure you get the MOST traffic from your own name makes sense.
If you have noticed lately, a company called Reputation.com has been blasting satellite radio advertising a similar service. SEO and IRM have now gone mainstream.
Once again, when optimizing Page One for a dealers name their main website will normally be in position #1, Page one and related microsites, blogs, videos, or social media sites underneath. Pushing down sites like RipOffReport.com or PissedConsumer.com even if they are in positions 5-10 is an important goal for some dealers.
In this case "success" would be defined as pushing all negative posts or lead poachers off page one. We have accomplished this many times for dealers and it just takes some time to own the entire page. Thankfully for dealers, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+ make that Page One cleanup easier.
A third set of keyword goals are what I would call "core" keywords that related to the dealership franchise, the city where the dealership is located, and surrounding cities in and around their PMA. For example if you have an Acura dealership in the DC area, showing up on Page One for "DC Acura" or "DC Acura Dealers" may be a goal of the client.
In major metro markets, success is not a easy as most would suggest however working with JD on many shared clients have yielded very strong results. If a dealership is not in a very competitive market core keyword goals can be achieved through basic SEO. Showing up above the fold for "Boston Nissan" or "Atlanta Mercedes Benz" is not a task for the light hearted.
For core keyword goals, success in competitive markets must be painted with a brush of patience. This is where SEO vendors see the most customer falloff because dealers have little patience to wait.
It is important to note that since Google Places often shows us for many core keyword goals, success is also related to your online reputation. When a consumer types in "Boston Dealers" or "Used Car Dealers" these keywords often trigger a listing of businesses and their ratings. If your dealership has low or poor reviews, being on Page One may be actually driving traffic AWAY from your dealership.
Old school advertising wisdoms often survive when evaluating more modern media and metrics - like SEO when compared to quantifiable objectives in conventional media like reach, frequency and cost per point. Other more current guages and goals for successful advertising/marketing plans rooted in old school best practices are relevancy and transparency of message as well as the viral value of word of mouth advertising now referred to as reputation management.
A simple answer to your question could be whatever the dealer client describes as success since he is the one who typically establishes his objectives and goals for his advertising dollars and the golden rule often applies. Unfortunately, dealers often don't know what they don't know and true SEO and digital marketing experts must provide knowledge and direction beyond the skills and experience of their clients to earn their fees.
In my mind, even ROI isn't a singularly sufficient answer since it has both quantifiable and qualifiable results with short and long term impact that isn't always easily verifiable. The most applicable answer to "How Do You Judge Success of SEO" is to manage the expectations of your client and invest the time it takes to educate them as to what SEO is, how it can be integrated into both his branding and retail advertising/marketing plans, how SEO can be leveradged through viral applications of video and social networking, the technical aspects of the changing business rules controlled by search engines like Google and of course the need to inspect what you expect on a regular basis.
In summary, providing a comprehensive SEO plan that involves your dealer client before, during and after his investment in SEO is what they pay consultants like you, Brian Pasch - and yes, even me - the big bucks for.