The Changing Face of Web Marketing

The internet is changing fast, that much is sure. For years upon years, decades upon decades, the world seemed to change slowly (though I'm sure it seemed fast at the time). Cars have taken over 100 years to get to the point where they are now. Innovations in other areas, such as food production, have also come along slowly as new ideas are tried and then rolled out more broadly.

This isn't true of web marketing. The internet has only had wide adoption for little over 20 years now, and SEO first started in around 1996, which was only 17 years ago. And this world is changing fast. Think about it:

  • Until February 2011, content sites like eHow and Wikihow dominated the search results with low-quality crap
  • Paid links worked like a charm and sites were rarely penalized
  • Aggressive anchor text would rank your site and keep it ranking
These days the landscape is different:
  • Panda has sites running for cover and many have not recovered
  • Paid links still work, but Google is better than ever at finding them
  • Aggressive anchor text will most likely knock you out of the SERPs
  • Link removal companies now exist
It's tempting to say "SEO is dead" or "SEO is dying". I'm not saying that, by any means, but the game has changed. With the advent of: local search, personalized search, Google monetizing more lucrative search results, and the rise of social media, we're now dealing with:
  • Loss of traffic to head terms, even when rankings don't change (while Google inserts their properties above the fold)
  • Increasing importance of citations for local businesses, as well as new market opportunities for areas they used to gain traffic from
  • Increased importance of branding and investing in channels other than SEO (such as social and email)
  • Marketers needing knowledge of semantic search and what the heck entities are
There are many other areas that I could cover here, but you get the point. Businesses can no longer afford to rely on just one traffic source in order to stay in business. Once that traffic dries up or the tactic becomes less effective, the business will have to adapt or else will fail. I prefer to build for the longterm, so that's what this post is about.

Pick a non-Google Vertical

As I said a month ago and Dr Pete said in his Mozcon presentation, Google is increasingly moving into spaces that it can monetize either through its own programs (such as HotelFinder) or increased product listings (PLAs), and this is pushing organic results below the fold.

Here's a screenshot of a search for [london hotels] (the pink shows Google properties):


Here is a very commercial branded search for [asset tags]:


SEObook had a great post a while ago about choosing a niche/vertical which I highly recommend you read. Even then, the vertical you choose will never be completely safe from Google, or any other large competitor with a lot of resources, entering the market. My hope, then, is that you take Dan Martell's approach to it:

The validation Dan is talking about is that it is a lucrative space, one that Google deems worthy of entering or disrupting, but this is also a challenge (one that Dan is apparently game for).

Change Strategies As Google Changes

What should you do when Google makes changes that directly impact your business, such as increasing cost per conversion (CPC) when sales aren't necessarily increasing by the same amount? Or, when Google launches a new product that directly competes with yours and offers it for free (Amazon does this too, by the way). What if you see changes in your organic traffic graph one day simply because Google moved in on your SERPs and began to monetize them for itself?  

Let's explore some ways to diversify so that you're not left out in the cold when (not if) this happens.

Invest in Multiple Channels

The beauty of online marketing is that the many channels all work very well. One downside of this is that people tend to pick just one and focus on that for a time without taking a more longterm approach to revenue and business. Organic search may be your cheapest acquisition method today, but I can assure you that it won't always be. As Patrick McKenzie (@patio11 on Twitter and HackerNews) says, it's easier to scale short term revenue than longterm revenue, but focusing on the former often works to the detriment of the latter.

Have doubts that any one tactic has a shelf life? Take into account the following changes that have taken place in just the past couple of years in online marketing:

  • Google targeted thin content (goodbye Demand Media)
  • Google targeted manipulative linking practices (goodbye lots of spammers, and unfortunately legit businesses too)
  • Google changed the inbox layout, and now email marketing could be less effective
  • Facebook changed how far your brand's page posts can reach, but you can now pay to promote

Focus On Bright Spots

Many of you organic search specialists are not going to like this, but other channels convert well too. For example, if you look at the channels that convert best for Distilled into either consulting or DistilledU subscriptions (our online training platform), organic search plays a role but others play almost as large of a role:


Beyond organic search, consider the following sources:

  • Social media
  • Social campaigns
  • Lifecycle email campaigns
  • Community engagement
  • Thought leadership
It's weird to mention "thought leadership" as a channel in itself, but I do so because it encompasses all of the following (which are valuable beyond their SEO implications):
  • Forums (HackerNews is how Patrick McKenzie first built his reputation online)
  • Guest content (Forget about the links. What about the mindshare and reputation?)
  • Interviews
  • Conferences
Once you know what works, invest in that but not to the exclusion of other channels (remember short term vs longterm). For example, on one of my side projects I know that right now my best acquisition channels are targeted content on other sites and social media. That is where I will invest until the organic flywheel begins to turn:


Sometimes Tactics Don't Scale

Scaling tactics can be tricky. Often, in order to scale a tactic you need to scale the number of people you have working on it as well. When this happens, you end up making mistakes that can be costly.

For example, I have a client who did bad link building for years before they started working with Distilled. As a result, they've suffered in every algorithm update for the past couple of years, especially Penguin, and so have been conducting large-scale link removals through their outsourced team.

Unfortunately, after being siloed away from the process, I found out that they were actually doing things that could hurt organic traffic even further. One of my co-workers, who built some links to good content we produced for them in the past, received this email:


Epic facepalm. This was a painful learning experience, but it revealed a larger truth:

When tactics don't scale, you need strategy.
I loved the recent post by Paul Graham that argues to Do Things That Don't Scale because it gets at the heart of business -
Sometimes we need to stop focusing on more and instead invest in better.
If you're interested in the product side, you should read this post about not adding more features to your product, but actually getting back to the basics and figuring out where your blind spots may be. Are customers ignoring new features, and instead just wanting certain basic features to work better? This sort of visibility can drive your product strategy, which then informs and betters your tactics longterm.

By investing in things that don't scale easily, you can begin to see outsized returns on the investments that you strategically make. For example, an ecommerce company can easily continue large scale guest posting that could get it in trouble (check out Google's updated guidelines on "link schemes"), or it can invest in great content that hits its user base and gets it in front of its target audience (building brand and thought leadership along the way).

My ecommerce client has done just this, and they've received links from Mother Nature Network, REI, ClickZ, Huffington Post, Examiner, and many more. Here's a snapshot of one of its sites over the past year:


Measure Multiple Types of ROI

At the end of the day, revenue puts food directly on the table. Links don't do this, neither do emails or social media.

But (!) these are all tools that we can use to measure ROI, and to make a case to clients or bosses for investing in these channels, if we're able to measure the lifetime value of a visitor, an email, or social media.

I'm not going to dig deep into this because others have dealt with the topic in many different places. One piece of advice, though, is to ensure that your tagging is up-to-date in order to properly attribute your ROI. I recently learnt this lesson when I published an article on Medium. When I looked at my referral traffic to the site I had linked to, I saw this:


Sad face. If this was a client's site, and not my own, I wouldn't be able to say definitively where that traffic came from. So do yourself a favor and not only learn how to tag your campaigns, but also do it!


Online marketing is changing. Specialists will always be specialists and generalists will always be generalists, but as marketing changes we need to set in place systems that allow us to adapt quickly to changes. The data driven marketers are the ones who will succeed longterm, because we know our target markets and how to reach them. We're building content, outreach, acquisition, and consulting teams now because we know that all of these will be valuable in the future.

The best marketers of the future are not the specialists. The best marketers of the future are those who know how to learn new strategies and tactics, and also know when to say that they need to learn more.

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