What You SEO Isn’t Always What You Get

Photo by Martie Casas

Search engines seem wonderfully simple — type in what you’re looking for, hit return, then scroll through for the most relevant answers. Those with even a rudimentary knowledge of how search engines work, though, will tell you that it’s not quite as simple as all that, and that behind the scenes the likes of Google, Bing and Yahoo make sure consumers only see the answers they want them to. This has led large companies to shell out big bucks for adverts on the first page of search results, while smaller businesses now have analysts feverishly gaming Google AdWords. Even humble copywriters have reskilled themselves to ensure their work is search engine optimised.

All of this is based on the simplistic assumption that consumers move seamlessly from need state to internet search to purchase. Which may fit our behaviour for the smaller things we buy — if you’re in Manchester and want a cappuccino, for instance, you won’t go far wrong by putting in your location and searching “coffee”. But even then, some consumers will go to great lengths, and do a lot of research, to make sure they get the best milky froth the Northern Quarter has to offer.

For big ticket items the amount of research is considerably larger. Consumers not only sift search engine results, but trawl through social media, and ask the opinion of friends, family and colleagues. Experts come into the mix, too — in-store advice, for example, or specialist TV programmes and Youtube vloggers. If a consumer is choosing what car or washing machine to buy, or what holiday to go on, it’s only at the end of this long, complex process that they open up a web browser with the intention of actually parting with their cash. This means that all the expensive adverts and gamed adwords and search engine optimised copy only really come into play at the point when the consumer has already decided what they want to purchase— by which time they’re all pretty much irrelevant. Considering this, one wonders if the $60bn US companies spent on SEO in 2015 was money well spent.

While SEO is an important part of promoting and selling products and services, it should not be seen as the only way of connecting with customers, or of understanding what they want and need. Consumers use search engines to educate themselves about what they’d like to buy, what they can buy, and to find out where they can buy it. But this is only part of a journey that, as shown above, contains many other elements that are both the on- and off-line. By focussing too much time, energy and money on SEO, big brands and small businesses alike are missing out on the profits to be made from influencing the wider conversation with consumers.