SEO Not Working For You? Here’s Why.


There are a lot of posts out there attempting to give search engine optimization (SEO) a bad rap. Posts that declare SEO is dead, that it’s a scam or that it’s made up of equal parts black magic and bad intentions. If you read them, these posts typically have one thing in common – they’re written by people who know absolutely nothing about SEO or what goes into properly optimizing a Web site. They may be a DIYer, someone who was recently scammed or worse, a blogger with enough information just to be dangerous. And while I’m sympathetic, sometimes when things aren’t going as planned, you have to ask yourself – is it user error? Often you’ll find that it is.

If you’ve made the investment into SEO and you’re not seeing a return, here are some possible reasons why.

You’re writing a check your brand can’t cash

Being an SEO is a bit like being an athlete. As excited as you may be, you’re not going to magically wake up tomorrow with the strength to overtake a Kenyan in the New York Marathon. But if you train for it, sculpt your body correctly, and build that foundation in your legs and muscles, then you might have a fighting chance…to come in directly after the Kenyans (let’s not be ridiculous). SEO works in a very similar way.

The brand new site you launch tomorrow probably isn’t going to rank for highly competitive terms right out of the gate. You need to find your legs first. You need to go after that low-hanging fruit, build your foundation, and earn your authority in your space. Once you do, you’ll find yourself gaining more power and the chance to overtake the bigger players and search terms in your industry. Dreaming of that top five ranking for a super competitive term is fine, but be sure to inject your plan with a bit of reality. Determine what terms you can realistically expect to rank for and go after those first. It’s a long road to the Olympics.

Your SEO budget < Your Latte Bill

When we talk to clients about starting an SEO campaign, we often use the term that they’re ‘investing in SEO’. Because that’s how we look at it – it’s an investment into your company and the development of your brand. And there’s a cost associated with that. While your SEO budget will be determined by your internal resources, your goals, and the competitiveness of your market, if you’re not willing to dedicate more to SEO than you do to your weekly coffee bill, chances are you’re not going to see a great return. Investing in SEO now will save you money later by giving you the traction you’ll need to build from in the future.

You chase unicorn tactics

Two years ago you couldn’t enter an SEO conference without smacking into a conversation about Page Rank sculpting (or, “siloing” if you were SEO-raised by Bruce Clay). It was the latest craze and it was all people wanted to talk about. Unfortunately, they were obsessing over it much to the detriment of the rest of the Web site, completely forgetting about everything else they should be doing to their Web site. Things far more important (and basic) than cutting the juice off to your Contact Us page. And we see that a lot. SEOs and site owners focusing on the shiniest technique of the moment without first making sure they’re getting the basics right. It doesn’t matter how well you sculpt your Page Rank if you’re screwing up your own internal linking or not hitting the SEO basics. Take care of that stuff first before you try chasing unicorns for that remaining magic. In the time it took people to play with their Page Rank, they could have been creating content people like or moving important pages closer to the root so they’d naturally get more juice. Don’t climb the tree until you’ve double-checked you’ve collected everything on the ground.

You’ve optimized your site for the wrong keywords

One of the most epic ways to bomb your site’s SEO is to go after the wrong keywords, as noted in our post SEO Mistakes That Just Make You Look Dumb. We’ll see this happen in a couple of different ways:

  1. The site owner does no research: Because someone is an expert on their topic, they presume that they know exactly what terms a searcher would use to find a site like theirs. What they forget, is that searchers are NOT experts. Their language, habits and way of speaking are completely different. Father doesn’t always know best. Instead of guessing and being WRONG, why not just take advantage of the many keyword research tools that are out there to give you qualitative data you can trust.
  2. The site owner is blinded by research: And then you have the site owners who only see search volumes and ignore how well a term may (or may not) convert. They’ll optimize their site around terms that have the potential to bring a lot of eye balls, but then get frustrated when none of those eyeballs do anything. Remember, it’s the conversions you’re going for, not blind traffic.

You suck at link development

Listen, link building is hard. If your SEO efforts aren’t going as smoothly as you had hoped, crappy link development may be the reason why. When you’re not an SEO, it can be difficult to come up with a marketing plan to help your site attract varied, high authority links. Hell, it’s not a bed a roses even when you are an SEO. To rank for competitive terms you’re going to need more than just branded byline links and directory submissions. This may be an area where you want to bring in a professional to help you with Link development to ensure you’re building a well-rounded link profile that will benefit your site and not set off any red flags. If you have no idea how to attract a healthy link, consult with someone who does.

You hired a bad SEO

Everyone’s always poking at the sheer volume of “social media experts” that exist on the Web, but the situation isn’t much better when it comes to the self-proclaimed “expert SEOs”, no matter how old school or in with Matt Cutts they claim to be. If the SEO you’re working with isn’t helping your site see results and can’t justify what they’re doing, it may be time to move elsewhere. The Internet has made it far too easy for people to claim they have skills they really don’t possess. If you’re in that situation, Hugo Guzman has a great post on how to hire an SEO when you don’t know anything about SEO that may of service.

If your search engine optimization efforts are starting to feel as rewarding as banging your head against the wall, it’s time to ask yourself why. If you’re not sure where to start and need an SEO audit, we’ll leave the light on for you.

Your Comments

  • Daniel Dessinger

    When I first heard of you, you and Susan were talking about siloing / pagerank sculpting all the time. Feels like it’s been a lot longer than it has been.

    • Lisa Barone

      It certainly does. :) I got a good SEO upbringing from the folks at Bruce Clay. Very thankful for my time there and that they let me come back and visit when I miss them. :)

  • Hugo Guzman

    I really dig the marathon runner analogy. It’s particularly valid not only because it describes the SEO “fitness” of a particular site, but also because I feel that unlike most online marketing channels, SEO is definitely a marathon and not a sprint.

    All too often, you see companies abandon SEO after a few months because “they’re just not seeing the ROI” when in reality, it can sometimes take not months but years for SEO efforts to deliver a positive return on investment (e.g. good SEO is typically not cheap).

    But on the flip side, since SEO is one of the few channels that provides “marketing equity” that ROI will typically be sustained into perpetuity as opposed to disappearing as soon as you turn off the media spend budget.

    • Lisa Barone

      Right on. I definitely could have added “you haven’t waited long enough” to my list of why your SEO efforts aren’t panning out like you had hoped. If you expect to see immediately results, do some PPC. SEO is a marathon and you have to be in it for the long haul and put up with all that damn training. :)

  • Michael VanDeMar

    Um… that’s not a unicorn. Maybe if you added some rainbows…?

  • steveplunkett

    Good Article Lisa..

    Very Very True… however in really big business they have been used to doing limited engagement seo “projects”.. think SEO is like PPC… and we know. it’s not..

    Once you get them thinking year over year and budgeting within that year for seasonal or regional spikes.. then it becomes clear..

    lately i’ve found it’s not the SEO that is hard.. or takes up all the time, (meaning billing), it’s correcting all the inaccurate or disinformation on the web by amateur SEOs.

    • Lisa Barone

      Ha, true statement, Steve. Blogs often make people just smart enough to be dangerous, but not smart enough to get themselves out of the hole they fell into. I blame all those pesky SEO bloggers. ;)

  • Jill Whalen

    Ahahaha…when you worked for ole Brucey you used to diss me for saying similar stuff to this. We’ve certainly gone full circle and I’m glad you’re on the correct side of SEO these days :D

  • Al Sefati

    Good article thanks. I have always said SEO and link building should be an on going thing or else it wont work. Specially as it gets tougher with major search engines in particular Google checking for unnatural link building patterns and etc, many companies make mistake of looking at SEO the wrong way.

  • Brian Harnish

    Very good post Lisa. I’d also like to add a couple of additional points:

    1. The on site SEO sucks.

    Of course, this could be traced back to the points you mentioned – hiring a bad SEO and the Chasing Unicorn Tactics information. If you’re focusing on some myth like keyword density or using black hat tactics like invisible keyword spam, then any other SEO that you perform is not going to translate into results well.

    2. Setting realistic expecations for the client during the initial conversation

    There are plenty of clients who have many misconceptions of what SEO really is, and don’t understand the reasoning behind why certain steps are being taken on a website. Therefore, as SEOs it is definitely one of those things that we need to ensure that we do right at the outset – to help increase client longevity and retention. Without appropriate expectations being set, there is the likelihood that clients will misinterpret or outright declare that the SEO isn’t working for them when in fact the SEO is doing everything that it can at the point that the website updates register on the search engines.

  • Doc Sheldon

    Another great post, Lisa.

    Your “shiniest technique of the moment” made me laugh, ’cause it’s so true. Siloing has been replaced with a dozen different baubles, and the latest seems to be social. When will people realize that SEO is never just ONE thing, but a strategy based on several different aspects!

  • N-Touch Marketing

    Once again your article is right on. Getting new clients to understand that this is a real marketing concept and not just smoke and magic can be one of the hardest things we run into. We deal with mostly small business owners that come in with small available resources and expect to take down the giants. I will be holding onto this for future use with talking to them.. Thanks for the great info.

  • dhiraj

    very informative, many people saying that SEO is dying, I would love to recommend this article to read .

  • Tom Elliott

    I agree, SEO is badly misrepresented all over the place. I recently read an article on the guardian website – an authorative news site in the UK – which still claimed META keywords were the way forward and certain sites get a ‘special pass’ from Google (i.e. Wikipedia)… I hope more of these dangerous bloggers as you put it read this post!

  • Tom Aikins

    I’ve been doing internet marketing for a while now and I can tell you that this information is good. It’s pretty basic but it’s correct and it’s a good guide for newbies to check out. It’s also useful considering the fact that there are so many unethical and incompetent SEO companies out there now.

  • Moosa Hemani

    Nice Post Lisa! but i really wanted to add one thing in particular through ‘Your SEO budget < Your Latte Bill' cover this point a bit but my addition is are you ready to change?

    Mostly SEOs suggested the change they need in the website from usability and point of view and client respond two letter to that two page recommendation that is 'No'

    I guess clients should be flexible enough to at least change their comic sense MS font :p

    usually ethical SEOs recommendations are based on a research and mostly client no is based on his personal likes and dislikes.

    This is what i feel or may be what i have faced quite a few time.

  • Sammi Mwangi

    Seo is indeed a marathon- you have to “build that foundation in your legs and muscles”, and that calls for patience. I personally think expecting to get those ‘super high fruits’ within unrealistic time ,is reason behind frustrations by many.

    Excellent post. And by the way am Kenyan, and am totally impressed for that marathon analogy. And soon we will be trying to overtake you in seo…Thank you.

  • Jamie Fairbairn

    On the flip side of what Hugo said I’ve had to work hard to convince clients they need to keep up their SEO efforts once they’ve achieved the results they were looking for.

    The average business doesn’t have someone using tools to monitor their competitors’ SEO activity and by doing nothing for months rather than keeping the effort up their ranking may drop again (depending on how competitive the search terms are).

    • Hugo Guzman

      That’s actually a very valid point, Jamie, particularly in more competitive niches.

      SEO should continue on forever. Like happiness, it’s a direction, not a destination.

  • David Hartstein

    Thanks for the post Lisa. It’s a very nice overview of some of the common mistakes with SEO work. It’s amazing how quickly optimizing your website properly can seem overwhelming, especially when you don’t have the right tools at your disposal. I especially like your points about devoting the proper time and resources to SEO. Much like social media, it seems that a company hears about SEO and thinks it can be done in an afternoon on a slow day. Thanks again for the great content.

  • Michael Feiman

    @Brian Harnish, I couldn’t agree more with regards to setting proper expectations. As far as I’m concerned, SEO firms are just this generation’s PR firms. The function is essentially the same, it’s just the medium is online instead of offline. Help your client get noticed, get your client mentioned in the “key” places and increase overall exposure. If an SEO firm doesn’t set proper expectations, they’re going to overpromise, underdeliver and get fired by the client.

    Unfortunately, the industry still has such a “wild west” mentality that the number of bad SEO firms outnumber the good ones by a factor of 10. Someone should put together a definitive list of how to know when you’re getting hustled by an SEO firm along with pricing expectations so potential clients don’t get sticker shock when SEO sales guy finally reveals the cost (as we know, no good salesperson will talk about price until the very end of his/her pitch).

    • Greg

      While I don’t have the list to keep from getting hustled, I do have a simple tactic for getting them to close their pie holes during their unsolicited sales call pitches- pop ’em into The Google and ask them to explain why they don’t rank, if you can’t rank you, how can you rank me? Have a nice day :-)

  • Val @ Web Tracking Guide

    Great post, very true!

    It is strange for me how many people manage to get SEO wrong, when it’s so easy to get it started in the right direction:
    1) Do at least some keyword research
    2) Create an appropriate title, description, h1 headline and URL for each page
    3) Focus on getting quality text links with your anchor text

    Instead, people go all esoteric on it, spending all their time, money and energy on the techniques that probably account for 1% of their ranking score. Maybe they think it has to be tough or advanced.

  • Steve Loates

    Nice post, Rhea.
    Common sense and practical insights. What a concept. Really loved your marathon analogy.

  • Scott Golembiewski

    I like to create content, and write good quality posts with images and stuff I think people will link to. Seems to work for me.

    I enjoy my work, like teaching others about it, but I’m amazed at how slow this has been for companies to understand its worth investing in.

    Some companies are seeing it now, investing in additional sites on single topics and specific content. Once they can start making sense of how its measured they will likely be investing more and more.

  • Le Juge SEO

    When you’re a consultant there is also the fact that you have given all recommendations to your client but hey… they did not budgeted the modification of the website or the link bilding media budget … or nobody is available to write the content… etc … as a result nothing is done on the website and who is blamed?

  • Johanna

    Great post, thanks for sharing good and bad SEO pratices

  • Maxime

    SEO is definitly not dying. Even if the algorithm is making a lot of progress in understanding content without being helped by meta or some optimisation, there always will be some microformats or coding conventions to describe the content in a better way.

  • Garry Arnold

    None can contradict the significance of this post. I appreciate more to know about good and bad SEO practices. Awesome!

  • Vlad

    The best advice you gave is probably “don’t hire a bad SEO”. A good SEO will take care of the rest of the stuff :). I guess that also comes with your SEO budget being higher than your Latte budget though.

  • Jenn@ t1 service

    I’d love to see a post from you on how to build good internal link structure. Siloing worked well for us for less competitive search terms, but not so great for more competitive ones. I’m wondering if there’s some big secret I might have missed!

  • Leanne

    A lot of the problem, too, is the time investment. Many clients will choose to do certain tasks themselves to save a few dollars. The only trouble is that they are saving a few dollars on a million different things at their company which means they don’t really have the time to do their part. So it doesn’t get done… and then they start calling and wondering why their goals aren’t being met.

    While I understand wanting to retain control of certain tasks for whatever reason, if you really just don’t have time to do them, for your own sake, pay someone else to do them. They work a lot better that way. :-)