“Can you get us to the top of Google?” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that by an accounting firm, I wouldn’t be rich but I’d definitely be able to take a pretty nice holiday.
So how do you achieve the legendary first place in Google? And once you get there, what happens?
In the last decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of accounting firms across the English-speaking world, helping them with their websites and online marketing.
Ranking highly in search engines, such as Google, holds an almost universal fascination. It’s an obsession for some firms. Yet I’ve met very few who attribute their marketing success to a high search engine ranking.
I’m going to take a look at how search engine marketing works, the results you can expect from it, and finally some other ways you could spend you marketing time and budget which are more profitable.
How search engine marketing works
There are two ways you can appear on the first page of Google’s search results: either pay for an advert on Google’s AdWords platform or attempt some search engine optimisation, commonly known as SEO.
If you go for Google AdWords, the results are instant. Say you want an advert to display for the phrase “accountants Canberra”. You create your advert, then bid against other firms who also want to appear for that phrase.
If your bid is high enough, your advert will appear first, above the other firms. Then, every time someone using Google clicks on your advert, you’ll be charged the amount you bid. This can be over $10 for competitive terms like “accountants Sydney”.
This type of marketing is called pay-per-click, often shortened to PPC. It’s the main reason why Google made US$89 billion last year. PPC advertising revenue accounts for over 75 per cent of that figure.
Evaluating PPC advertising is simple as you can easily track which leads have come from it, leaving you with a simple return on investment calculation.
Most likely, you’ll need to spend several hundred dollars each month to see a result from AdWords.
Now in my opinion, there is no such thing as cheap or expensive advertising – it’s either good or bad. So if spending several hundred dollars on AdWords each month results in new business worth several thousand dollars, then go for it.
For firms with little or no marketing budget, search engine optimisation (SEO) can be more appealing. SEO is the second way you can get traffic from Google.
It’s a mixture of art and science whereby you employ a range of techniques to try and get your website ranking higher in Google’s search listings.
With Google AdWords, your advert will have ‘Ad’ next to it, showing that you paid to be there. SEO targets Google’s ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ listings which are (supposedly) free of commercial bias and considered more prestigious.
The first thing to understand about SEO is it’s not going to deliver a consistent result like paying for Google AdWords. Many firms spend hours on SEO or pay experts (often snake oil salesmen) to do it for them and don’t see any results.
So before embarking on an SEO campaign, I would urge you to think about three things:
• How much effort will it take to get on the first page of results?
• If you rank highly, will it give you the right type of leads?
• What is the opportunity cost?
How much effort will it take to get on the first page of results?
SEO is a great example of the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule. For most firms I’ve worked with, a small amount of work on SEO will produce most of the possible benefits. After that, it’s diminishing returns from what can be a huge amount of effort each month.
There’s also the conundrum that if you operate in a small town, it should be easy to get a high Google ranking – but the traffic is not going to be that high. If you’re in a major city, there’s huge traffic potential but it’s hard to rank highly as there is so much competition.
So you might ask yourself, “Is SEO the best use of my time?”
If you rank highly, will it give you the right type of leads?
If your site is in the top few results in Google, what effect will it have on your business? Not much for many firms, in my experience.
As you know, the best leads come from referrals. Leads coming from search engines tend to be much lower in quality.
If your service is highly commoditised, then sure it can work well. Think about an online retailer like Harvey Norman, who spends huge amounts on SEO. When a new product like the iPhone 7 launches, they know there will be millions of Google searches for it. If they come first in Google when someone searches for ‘iPhone 7’, most likely they’ll get the most clicks and the most online sales.
So if you do $99 dollar tax returns, then SEO could be a great tactic. But most firms are looking for business owners who want more than basic compliance.
Successful business owners aren't spending their time searching for cheap accountants on Google, they’re busy running their companies. And successful people usually have a great network – when they need an accountant, they’ll consult their peers before going to Google.
What is the opportunity cost?
You may think I’m suggesting you should forget search engine marketing altogether but it can be part of your marketing mix. The key is that it doesn’t take the place of things that will deliver more results.
In my experience, accountants lack either the skills or the time to do marketing. Even if time is your only barrier, it’s essential you do what delivers the most results in the least time.
Let’s say you spend four hours each week on marketing. Here are some things I guarantee will deliver more new business than search engine marketing, and the cost is negligible:
• Email your clients about a new service you could offer them
• Even better, call them! While you’re talking to them about the new service, ask them if they would recommend you to other business owners they know
• Have a coffee with your key business referral partners like bank managers, lawyers or software sales reps
An accounting firm is not like Harvey Norman where you buy because they have the best price. It’s about people and relationships so while the above are very traditional forms of marketing, they are very effective.
You might also think about running an event, getting serious with email marketing or boosting your social media presence.
If I ran an accounting firm, I would do all of the above before doing anything more than basic search engine marketing. Once I’d dealt with all the new business these tactics had brought in, I’d maybe take a look at search engine marketing as a way of getting additional leads.