Over the weekend I had an excellent conversation with a dealer who was weighing whether to invest more heavily in PPC advertising or to take the plunge into the world of SEO. She knew the stats and was well-aware that most clicks come from organic search (even noting that she, herself, could not recall ever clicking on a paid listing on Google) but she had the Forrest Gump Syndrome about the benefits of search engine optimization.
"You never know what you're gonna get," she said in a pitch-perfect Alabama Hanks voice.
Unfortunately, for the most part, she's right. In today's competitive automotive market, there are dozens of vendors with very similar pitches talking about what they're going to do. There's a catch-22 when asking what to expect with SEO services. Most will have the disclaimer that says something to the effect of "results may vary." Others will make impossible claims such as "You'll be #1 for all of your keywords, promise!"
It got me thinking over the weekend about what activities, tracking, and results the dealer should be expecting from their SEO vendor. I will go into more details in the future about how to grade a vendor's activities and results, but the low-hanging-fruit in this equation is knowing what an SEO vendor does with "the big 4" search components:
What Do They Do With The 4 Primary SEO Components?
Google and Bing have never revealed their search ranking algorithms even in part, but they have both hinted that of the hundreds of things that go into determining ranking, there are 4 categories of components that a website can directly impact:
- Onsite Content - For a long time, the automotive industry has been aware of the importance of having unique HTML content, but the challenge is in how they go about putting it on the site. Is the process automated or are there humans writing real content on the pages? How are Title Tags, the most important individual aspect of SEO on a page, determined? Is the content added to the site valuable and sharable (which will be discussed below)? Is there a strategy around the internal linking structure that helps to tell the search engines what different pages are about? Are microformats used, and if so are they following schema.org's guidelines to embed structured data for the search engines? This is only a sample of the questions that should be asked of SEOs about what they'll do to pages.
- Offsite Signals - The primary measure of the validity of a site in the search engines' eyes is how other websites react to them. Are there links coming from quality, relevant sites leading to pages on your website? Are these links bought (a big no-no), traded or reciprocated (a minor no-no), or are they delivered through organic, natural means? Are they coming from unique sources or is the bulk coming from the same network or Class-C IP (which is less of an issue today because of cloud hosting, but still something that must be considered)? Are the links "smart" in that they're contextual, in a "good neighborhood", and not part of a link-farm structure? Most vendors are using some variation of link-building today, but unfortunately the majority do not qualify as high-quality, valuable inbound links that normally only come from aggressive manual effort and quality content building.
- URL Structure - This is the easiest, no-brainer SEO component out there, yet I still see it botched by some. If you see this URL, you'll be able to read it and know exactly what you're about to see before you visit the page: randomdealerwebsite.com/washington-dc-chantilly-va-new-2012-chevrolet-camaro-vid93696590-cc9176210. In this example, the search engines know a couple of things. They know that it's a 2012 Chevrolet Camaro. They also know that it's in the Washington DC area. Finally, they know that it's part of an inventory of other vehicles because of the unique identifying numbers and letters that follow it. These factors will help the page rank well for a term like "2012 Chevrolet Camaro Washington DC". Even if your SEO provider is not your web provider, they can still make a difference with targeted URLs on pages they create like this: randomdealerwebsite.com/fife-nissan-dealers.
- Social Signals - This is the "new kid on the block" when it comes to standard SEO best practice components. Google loves Google+ and Twitter. Bing loves Facebook and Twitter. Both like other social signals such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. The concept of content marketing has been around since before the internet and manifested itself nicely in recent years, but since 2009 it has been a major component in determining search results as well. Having valuable, sharable, non-sales-related content on the site that people will blast out on Twitter, Facebook, and other social channels adds credence to your website's overall authority in the eyes of search. It should be the goal of every website to become a social authority in their local market and pertaining to the automotive industry in general. Here's one example that had exceptionally-fast results: The Willys Post.
In the future I will post some questions dealers should ask and expectations they should have of their SEO providers, but this is a good place to start. Knowing what they do with these 4 components will open the door to knowing the truth about whether their SEO is real or like a box of chocolates.