It is amazing how many people hire online marketers without the faintest idea of what online marketers actually do. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is fairly simple - SEOs will try and improve your site's performance, usually by trying to leverage their knowledge of how search engines work and tricks they can use to make sites seem more relevant than they actually are to specific keywords.
Marketing online, though, need not have anything to do with search engines. Search engines are irrelevant - good positions and traffic are a by-product of effective online marketing.
Unfortunately, after educating a client on what online marketing is, they usually assume that if they pay you a few hundred pounds, you can make their site compete with the very best out there.
People are obsessed with money. Absolutely obsessed. Even more so in a company environment. The chances are the most of the time, the person you are talking to at a client (or potential client) company is not the top dog. They have to justify their decisions, and they certainly have to justify what they spend.
The problem is that the way most people look at SEO (and they are thinking SEO, not marketing - it's up to you to show them the difference) is that they're going to pay a certain amount of money for the top spots for certain keywords. You can guarantee they've been told another company will guarantee 10 number 1 positions for $50.
This is where ROI comes into play. ROI stands for "Return on Investment". Paying $50 for a $0 return is a bad idea - but people do it all the time, because it's cheap. Paying $5,000 for a $50,000 return is a great idea - but people gasp at the very idea they could spend that much in the beginning, despite the potential.
In order to measure a return, you need to use tracking. If you're focussed on natural search, measure natural search traffic. See how many people come to the site, and where from. See where they go in the site. See if they view products, add them to a basket, and complete sales. See if they view products then come back weeks later to buy them. Measure that over time and you can tell a client exactly what effect your marketing campaign is having - and you will be able to show them what they are getting for their money. Usually, telling a client you are going to do this will also put their mind at ease - much easier to spend money on someone when that person tells you how they're going to measure their success. Most companies involved in SEO and online marketing focus on positions, not results.
The other thing to bear in mind with money conversations is that most companies think of their site like a brochure. They think of it as a print-like cost, where they pay a fixed sum and that's it. They put the site up, leave it, and expect results. They should be thinking of a site like a salesman. A salesman that never sleeps, rarely gets ill, and can handle virtually unlimited enquiries. As such, they should be thinking of the money they spend more like a wage.
(Note: PPC is something of a difficult subject to bring in to a monthly spend on a site. You should have a monthly spend on PPC, but it should be managed as a separate entity.)
The same traffic you are monitoring to see where site visitors are coming from and what they are doing when they reach the site can also give you some good places to start making changes. Break the traffic down by area, by language, by time of day (user time of day, not server time of day), and track who converts to a sale and who doesn't. Track people through the sales process, and watch which links they click to navigate and buy products.
This will tell you a huge amount about the current users of the site. It will show you quick wins, opportunities, and highlight problems. Forget search - if on your first day marketing a website you can spot that there is a problem with the site checkout process and get it fixed, you could double sales from existing users. That's a good start to any campaign.
Look at language and area closely as well. If a site is getting traffic from the US, but only sells to the UK, look at similar companies only serving the US and strike a deal with them. You direct US traffic to them, they direct UK traffic to you, and you both do slightly better.
Check browser usage stats, especially if the site is a tables-based dinosaur. The chances are that it is an inaccessible mess. Get it cleaned up! Semantic markup is key - it allows user agents (browsers, search engine spiders, screen readers) to attach specific meaning to different areas of a page. Unlike with tables, semantic markup allows you to differentiate between a header and normal content, or to identify an address. Accessible coding is likely to draw attention, and should help you retain a higher percentage of your visitors, and should help reduce the running costs of your website (lower bandwidth bills and quicker turnarounds on redesigns, for example, both save you money).
Dynamic sites are slightly trickier to improve. Most of the time, they are restricted, with the original authors not allowing access to the website code. Even if access to the code is allowed, changes may be overwritten later or worse cause immediate problems on the site. That said, making a site easier to use is important, and often dynamic sites are not easy to use.
Look at the pages users visit in the site, and how they get there. Look at the products they buy and spot themes. Use that information to make the important sections and products easier to find and organise. For example, if listing products, don't make people click through 4 levels of navigation to find them - improve the product navigation. Once they get there, allow them to reorder the page according to what they consider important, be that name, price, manufacturer - whatever is possible.
Remember also that people like to tell other people about things they find. If a user likes something on your site, they may email the address of the page they are on to a friend. Most people use forms to set the ordering criteria of a page. That means that the user will be sending a friend a URL that will show that friend something different to what the user currently sees. Make life easy for your users - use URLs, not forms, wherever possible in a site.
Titles are tricky. They're important to the user, they provide the text for bookmarks, they appear in search results, and search engines use them as part of ranking algorithms. You need for fit branding into a title, and describe a product, ideally also incorporating a call to action. Tricky stuff. But not impossible.
First, consider the brand. Most companies think their company name should be the first thing in a page title, even if the rest is unique for each page (as it should be). However, unless the company has a household brand name, the company name is irrelevant to the searcher. They're looking for a product (or the answer to a question), so show them you have it.
Next, remember that as titles are used as the text for bookmarks, links and appear in search engines, they should, when taken out of context, by themselves, leave no doubt what a page is about.
A good example of a title is:
You've included the all-important product name twice in the title, along with a call to action, a hefty dose of branding, and not added irrelevant information. It's a title that tells the user straight away what the page is about. No messing around.
Product is important. The object you sell though is only half of the picture. A user will want support from you. They will want information. They may want news. All of this is part and parcel of the package a company offers. Your site needs good, visible support (including a phone number), as well as plenty of good, original information. Guides to products, online manuals, FAQs, advice - there are always areas, in any industry, where content can be added.
Content need not be solely posted on the website either. Big news should be released as a press release, and there are plenty of services that will distribute press releases for you. These will be reproduced all over the web, allowing more and more people to hear of the company. Most press release services will allow you to embed a link to a site in a press release, generating more direct traffic as well.
When writing content, or advising on the writing of content, remember that it is not about keywords. Sure, keywords are important, but there is more to it than simply stuffing as many keywords into text as possible. Content needs to answer questions - to provide information. It needs to give a user what they are looking for, and they need to feel that it has done that. Content that is written for SEO can read very badly with too many keywords in, and can mean that although more people see an article, most of them leave the site straight away to find a better one.
A good way to add content to a site is a blog, or a news section. Aside from adding plenty of information, this gives a great opportunity to connect with the user. Consumers are constantly being targeted, from every angle, by companies anxious to take their money. Sometimes they get trodden on. When adding content to your site, stay on the side of the average consumer. Recently, in the UK, the energy companies all raised their prices dramatically. Sites that allow users to compare fuel prices almost all missed a great opportunity to have themselves noticed - not one of them posted a decent news item denouncing the changes as unnecessary or over the top. They all simply commented on the change factually.
While on the one hand, some of these companies may be unable to comment in this fashion (and many companies have strict policies regarding neutrality and customer perception), at least one should have been able to stand out by taking a clear, customer-supporting position on the issue. That is the kind of thing that gets companies noticed and remembered, and spotting opportunities like that is key to a good marketing strategy.
Not all content need be inflammatory of course. It does need to be unique in some way, however. It can be controversial, but it could also be definitive - the ultimate and complete guide to a topic. Controversial content is interesting to the user, and definitive content is just plain useful - either makes for good content for any website.
Users go through different stages when buying products, and one of the early ones is a research stage. There is always a good chance that a user will come back to the same place that helped them or impressed them when they were doing research to buy what they were looking for. This is branding - associating specific ideas and feelings with your company. You want your users, when they revisit the web to make a purchase, to think of your company first.
Which brings us nicely to our last, and most important point. Why would a customer think of any company first, ahead of any other. Content will help, yes. A nice design might even make a difference. More than anything else, though, customers pay attention to the company that stands out from the crowd - the company that is different, that offers them something nobody else does. Often known as a Unique Selling Point, or USP, this is the thing that makes you memorable, or if ignored helps you blend into the crowd.
Many businesses don't know their own USP. They can't tell you, when you ask, what makes them different. Many of them will just say "because we're better than the others", but can't explain why. Usually, however, a quick chat will reveal what makes them stand out. Whatever the USP is, it needs to be clear and obvious on the website. The customer can't miss it, because if they don't know what makes one business different from another, they're not going to remember it.