The rising price of search engine optimization SEO

If you’re a small business or law firm with a website, you probably have a vague understanding of “search engine optimization” (SEO), the process that is supposed to cause your site to rank high in Google searches. SEO is constantly changing as Google adjusts its search algorithms and competition for those high search result spots becomes more fierce.

The result: small businesses have been priced out of the SEO process and are no longer able to compete with the in-house SEO teams and large budgets of mid-size and large companies.

Lawyerist has an insightful article that focuses on the SEO landscape for law firms, but the analysis applies to every business. In a nutshell, the only way to improve your search ranking today is to have a website that is constantly changing and developing, with frequently updated content that attracts attention around the web.

Mid-size and larger companies have teams of web developers and content writers. They are writing new content for their own sites daily and they’re contributing high-quality articles as guest bloggers on other sites. They are earning backlinks from around the web by others who are genuinely interested in what was said.

Small businesses and solos can’t keep up. Paying another company to create the same effect artificially has become far more expensive – and it has been made less effective by the changes that Google and others have put in place in the last couple of years.

Search results in large markets are dominated by large well-funded companies but it’s worth noting that a small business or firm can do more in smaller markets which have not been saturated by the bigger companies. Even in Sonoma County, though, the only small law firms that rank high in search results are either paying a fortune to FindLaw or similar companies, or they devote huge resources to their websites and blogs every single day.

The Lawyerist article includes a trip down memory lane. When the Internet was young (until 2008), search engines were simple and looked for things like the metatags in a web site header and keywords on web pages. It was common to register lots of domain names and have links among them. You’ll still see websites with long lists of cities on the home page, hoping to turn up in searches for those city names, and redundant descriptions that use the same terms over and over. When you see a sentence like this, it’s a bit of SEO history: “When a bankrupt person looks for a bankruptcy attorney, the debtor needs a bankruptcy lawyer who knows the bankruptcy law so the bankruptcy lawyer can provide debt counseling and effectively represent the debtor who wants to declare bankruptcy and get debt relief under the Bankruptcy Code.”

As the Internet took over from other traditional marketing tools, competition drove the creation of networks of thousands of websites run by SEO companies that tried to play games with the search algorithms. Costs ballooned to hundreds and then thousands of dollars a month for websites and SEO games. Well-funded companies spent endless hours trying to stay ahead of Google’s tweaks to the search algorithms, writing and rewriting their content to spin keywords and create cross-links that would pass muster.

Google was increasingly unhappy with search results that led to SEO game players instead of genuinely interesting sites. In 2012, it introduced a major update that was aimed squarely at the techniques used by the SEO companies that were playing games, downgrading sites that were over-optimised. It caused an uproar in SEO circles as many sites dropped precipitously in search rankings almost overnight.

The emphasis now is on “white-hat” SEO tactics: earning a high search ranking by featuring constantly updated high-quality content.

It takes time to do it yourself. Paying someone else to produce thoughtful, insightful content for your website is expensive. It’s hard to get people to link to your website. The search engine algorithms now are tuned to favor larger companies and firms that can devote teams of people and large budgets to content creation. It’s always possible to buy paid advertising space on Google and other ad networks but that has also become so expensive that it’s out of reach for many small businesses.

None of this is a reason to give up. Write blog articles, contribute to social media, stay active online, update your website – all of those things will make a difference. But don’t expect to get on the front page of Google just by paying someone to get you there. If you do pay for help, expect the price tag to be breathtakingly high and going up all the time.

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