CHICAGO Ron Springer is overhauling his company's website and is spending a big chunk of his marketing budget to help boost its search engine ranking. He had no idea he might be throwing his money away on an outdated strategy.
"If search engine isn't what gets you up to the top of the list, what is?" said Springer, who runs boutique event planning firm Esprit Productions in Libertyville, Illinois. "We designed it with search engine totally in mind."
Entrepreneurs like Springer may want to reconsider pouring money into search engine optimization (SEO) as their primary marketing strategy, according to Chris Dixon, who recently penned a controversial blog (bit.ly/gjIzMJ), titled: "SEO is no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups".
"I talk to a lot of startups and almost none that I know of post-2008 have gained significant traction through SEO," wrote Dixon, the co-founder of online startup Hunch, who has invested in numerous startups, including Skype and Foursquare.
Dixon was immediately taken to task by defenders of SEO, the popular means of boosting an organization's presence in Internet searches with keywords and relevant Web links.
Among them was Dave McClure, a prominent angel investor and founding partner of the Silicon Valley tech incubator 500 Startups. "I'm contrarian because SEO works. SEO obviously matters," said McClure, adding it generates "huge amounts of monetization on the Web, huge amounts of traffic - organically and paid."
SEO NO "MAGIC POTION"
Many technology experts don't buy Dixon's argument, but most, including McClure, concede that SEO must be viewed as part of a more comprehensive strategy that gives increased weight to newly emerging platforms. They also point out that higher standards for quality are making effective SEO even more time-consuming than ever before, adding to the difficulty faced by startups with limited resources at their disposal.
"I'm not saying you can't make progress with SEO," said Ryan Evans, who runs the Chicago-based online marketing company Rand Media Group. "But I think there's a lot of people out there selling SEO as a magic potion and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
To illustrate an increasingly balanced approach among Internet promoters, Evans cited the tagline for online marketing conference SES (Search Engine Strategies), which bills itself as: "the leading search and social marketing event."
"SEO has become less of a technical exercise done in a vacuum," said Evans, who uses a combination of SEO, public relations, pay per click, email and social media to gain momentum for clients.
An integrated approach is certainly the thinking behind HubSpot, a software platform that helps small businesses use and measure a variety of Web-based marketing techniques - blogging, social media, content management and email - to help generate qualified business leads. Founder Dharmesh Shah said his company, itself a startup, draws two of every 10 visitors by way of Facebook and Twitter. Despite that he remains a strong proponent of SEO.
"The big reason SEO is still important to small business is simple: people are still using search engines, especially Google, with great frequency," said Shah, another critic on Dixon's blog. "And unlike other channels to reach customers, connecting to users searching is worth more, because there is active intent."
BLACK HAT BE GONE
Shah maintains the playing field for small companies deploying SEO has leveled off in recent months. Quality standards have improved, making it harder to throw big bucks at the process by creating server farms and using other questionable, so-called "black hat" tactics.
"In the early days of search engine optimization you had some rough and unsavory charters that were doing all manner of unpleasant things to try and game the system," Shah said, adding the emphasis now is on creating relevant, original content and an engaging online experience. "Now Google and all the search engines have gotten much better about (detecting) that."
That may be one of the reasons why small businesses are increasingly relying on SEO. According to a survey by email marketing company Constant Contact, 29 percent of small businesses were engaged in some form of SEO. An additional 13 percent had plans to employ SEO within six months, according to the survey, which polled nearly 3,800 small companies in March.
Dixon, who said his column has been "widely misunderstood" to be against SEO in general, believes it should be used to augment a marketing campaign and "should not be core to a startup's business plan."
However, he is not as optimistic as Shah about the decrease of black hat practices, despite Google's best efforts, and in his blog insisted there are "many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people working to game SEO." In this atmosphere, startups that produce high-quality content will be hard pressed to appear high up in search engine results, argued Dixon.
"Until that changes," he wrote in his blog, "startups - who generally have small teams, small budgets, and the scruples to avoid black-hat tactics - should no longer consider SEO a viable marketing strategy."