When it dawned upon me in early 2019 that I was entering my 21st year of running my search marketing agency, White Chalk Road, I began to reflect on two important questions.

  1. How did I manage to survive 20 years in a specialist industry that has few, if any, comparable Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) survivors in Australia?
  2. If I were to retire soon, what would I pass on by way of lessons learned and what may lie ahead in this still relatively new and evolving search marketing industry?

Of course, these are impossibly large questions to answer in one article, so I will only address those key lessons that may help others survive and thrive in the search marketing industry.

No doubt, my perspective might provoke some debate – but isn’t that a good thing?  For too long, we as Australian online marketing agencies have been insular and absorbed in our own businesses.  So, it is time to be frank about mistakes made and give some valuable insights to those in the industry – competitors and colleagues alike.

The past 20 years have seen many changes in the evolution of search marketing, mostly for the better. Each major change or digital era has brought opportunities to learn.

There is No Secret Sauce to Marketing Online

Digital marketing is not rocket science just because it’s online or in a more technical context than traditional marketing. However, in the early days of internet marketing (circa 2000 – 2008) – what I call the ‘Guru Era’ – you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise!  

Remember Google’s birthdate of September 1998? Six months later I started White Chalk Road and vividly remember the Y2K (year 2000) bug that occurred in the midst of the dot-com boom (aka internet boom/ & crash 1995-2002).  The heightened interest and greed that occurred during this period fuelled the rise of the internet marketing gurus, particularly those seeking to gain income from their so-called expertise.

How many people still remember getting unsolicited emails from slick sports-car driving, marketing experts who promised a 20-CD collection of ‘internet secrets’” as if there was some sort of secret sauce to SEO or selling products on the Internet?  

No doubt there were tactics that these self-proclaimed experts had learnt from designing carefully crafted ‘squeeze’ pages followed by carefully worded autoresponder emails, but the conservative cynic in me soon realised that most – if not all – of these ‘net gurus’ made their income preaching rather than practicing what they preached.

For a short while such ‘secret sauce’ selling businesses created an income for themselves. However, for those gullible enough to think they could sell real products at sustainable profits (including counting their own labour costs) using their methods, I suspect there were many frustrations and chasing of better gurus and ‘self-help’ products.  

While the introduction of Google AdWords in October 2000 helped the gurus and their disciples get their message out, the growing hype about the potential of Google AdWords and AdSense (mid 2003) to earn money for the work-from-home enthusiasts and SMEs led to unsustainable expectations.

Almost overnight, it seemed, everyone was running AdSense and affiliate marketing and the gurus quickly jumped onboard with their info products about how this was a game changer – instead of helping genuine or established businesses understand how to do digital or search marketing.

AdSense ended up fuelling many sites considered to be “made for AdSense” or “content farms,” which in turn resulted in complaints that Google’s search results were rewarding poor quality content or had a conflict of interest as they were taking a substantial cut of the AdSense revenue.

Google reacted with the Panda update, but this didn’t happen until 2011 well after the worst of the guru era. In the meantime, AdSense Arbitrage prevailed, together with overpromised affiliate programs (arbitraged or not) and SEO eBooks preaching a combination of the bleeding obvious mixed with dubiously secret ‘optimising techniques’.

What I Learned from This Secret Sauce Mistake

  • Anything sold with overtones of ‘get rich quick’ or secret sauce or ‘its quick and easy’ peddled by those who spend most of their time selling advice instead of services, then treat with caution.
  • Yes, we all need professional advice from time-to-time and this should have a serious dollar value attached to it. But let’s make sure that whomever is giving advice is well qualified, in a business marketing sense, and has reputation to lose if they give poor advice.
  • There is no such thing as a free lunch – so just work harder for longer on your marketing and product/service to deliver real value for the end consumer!  

Just as there is no secret sauce for weight loss, there is no secret sauce to successful search or internet marketing.

Marketing Needs to be More Targeted and Personalised

As more information became available on the internet – and search and Google became more dominant – the way people bought messages and goods changed radically.  That change necessitated an inbound marketing approach and hence the need to target and personalise marketing should have become obvious sooner than it did.

While we in digital or search marketing agency land soon realised this, as industry providers we failed to effectively communicate this to the wider business community before the data-driven digital era (circa 2009+).

Additionally, in the post Global Financial Crisis era, I first noticed that the touchpoints along the customer digital journey were getting greater and more complex and the data tools to handle that complexity were growing exponentially.

As an agency, we were discovering that Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems were becoming essential for businesses. The rise of social media in SMEs (circa 2009) and its associated demographic data, together with analytics data from sources such as Google Analytics, Google AdWords, Moz, SEMrush and many others, necessitated a marketing channel approach to analysis, strategy and reporting.  

Then,  in late 2009, Google’s personalised search feature was applied to all users of  Google’s search engine, including those who were not logged into a Google account.

What I mean by personalisation in search relates to varying search query results based on the searcher’s location, their search or web browser history and their social networks.

So as CEO of a search marketing agency, I figured that if Google was putting more personalisation into search, then why wouldn’t we be smart enough to tailor our analysis, strategies, reporting and marketing advice around the data we now had at our disposal.

Meanwhile, I noticed that bigger businesses were already using the term ‘data driven marketing’ and marketing departments were attempting to segment and personalise their marketing, albeit not effectively for the online component.

As an agency, I was curious to know why online discussion about data driven marketing and digital marketing, together with an ever-increasing availability of fancy tools and applications, didn’t translate into more serious digital business spend outside of hotspots in the USA and UK.

As a small agency in Perth Australia in the early days of 2010, I couldn’t yet afford to invest too heavily into high-end market automation tools, dashboards and SEO/SEM campaigns beyond the budgets of my client base.  Someone needed to educate the market.

By the time 2014 came around I was running out of patience with the lack of take-up. To find out why things were moving so slowly in Australia, I undertook some in-depth research.   

The first era internet gurus were silent about these matters.  It seemed their target market was gullible want-to-be small business entrepreneurs.  Their voices were replaced by the more mature voices of serious data-driven software application vendors such as Moz (e.g. Rand Fishkin) and SEMrush or technology writers like Danny Sullivan (Search Engine Watch/Google).

So, curiosity lead me to investigate the bottlenecks to progress in digital marketing.  At a local level in Perth, I knew – admittedly somewhat belatedly – that I had to work more proactively to ‘educate my market’. But first, I had to discover what the surveys were saying at a macro level.  What I found was not too dissimilar to what was eventually written up in APAC Digital Marketing Performance 2015.

“Looking later into 2015, marketers admit that their greatest challenge will likely be how to tackle the very voice of the customer—managing the data, insights and analytics that are being collected by digital marketing engagements.”

“Even in leading regions like Australia, only 32 percent believe that their ability to report on digital’s value to the business and actual engagement with customers is excellent.”

“Overall, confidence is spilling over into a belief that digital is enabling engagement through continuous touchpoints that connect a brand directly with its customers. Some 66 percent of respondents say digital is enabling additional touchpoints and opportunities while nearly half say digital is delivering more cost-effective customer acquisition.”

The APAC Dashboard is full of marketing jargon, but it says to me that while everyone believed that digital marketing was critical, most marketing managers couldn’t get the budget and expertise they needed.

“Digital is critical. Ninety-three (93) percent of marketers surveyed believe that digital engagements will drive competitive advantage for their brands.”

“The reality is that those marketers who are tying digital performance to business performance (versus those only tying success to campaign metrics or single-vector measures) are enjoying increased budgets.”

What I Learned from Data-Driven Marketing

Knowledgeable professionals are needed to assist businesses – SMEs in particular – to collect meaningful data about their target market and online behaviour using appropriate software tools. Those professionals also need to help businesses interpret how that information can be married to digital marketing strategies and campaigns to deliver value and return-on-investment (ROI).  

Until value can be articulated, preferably in plain language, then we cannot expect business owners to invest sufficiently or optimally in digital or search marketing.

It was no surprise to me that in an APAC Digital Marketing Survey in 2015, “making a business case for digital spend” was mentioned by 39% of the respondents as a top challenge.

Content Marketing is King in Search Marketing

The internet has helped content marketing become a mainstream form of marketing. While the term was around in the early days of Google (circa 1998), the growing power of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and later LinkedIn made online content marketing more accessible and content shareable. Around 2012 professional digital and search marketing agencies started to modify their services to take advantage of the growing consensus that content was king.

By 2014 a Content Marketing Institute report indicated that 93% of B2B marketers were using content marketing as part of their overall marketing plan.

The growing emphasis on content marketing, particularly in the context of organic search, excites me.  Like anything, this term or the service it represents can be applied badly, but the upside and the growing sophistication of using multiple forms of content is an opportunity to provide real value to readers and distinguish between service providers.

“Digital transformation elevates the responsibility to deliver relevant, personalised and timely engagements. This means that marketers must stop using digital as an inexpensive push channel and realise that customers have truly taken control of their own journeys with a brand.” (APAC 2015)

The top digital priorities became (APAC 2015):

  1. Strengthen digital content strategy
  2. Social media optimisation
  3. Richer, deeper customer profiling and insights
  4. Higher levels of customer engagement
  5. Improve website

What I Learned from The Content is King Movement

Several traditional SEO practices have changed for the better.

  • There used to be article writing and directory syndication but ‘link building’ has now developed and evolved. Content marketing, which takes the form of blogging, guest posting and interactive content such as video and infographics, are the future.
  • Content is king and quality content will help a site, business or brand whether it is published on an owned website or a third-party site. The content should be optimised for the audience it targets and not just for Google.

We Need to Adapt to A Quantum Leap in Competition Online

The early years of the internet delivered many advantages in the democratisation of technology, knowledge and business. Some might say that the internet, and Google in particular, helped ‘level the playing field’ in worldwide business.

Indeed, this new world order was one of the things that originally attracted me to the internet and starting a business that could potentially help new and exciting start-ups in Australia.

Twenty years later, Google and Facebook have come to dominate web marketing channels to such a point that this, together with the growth in e-commerce, has led to fierce competition increasing the cost of entry into web marketing.  Near enough is no longer good enough on the Web. Buyers are more time-poor and discerning and so is Google.

What I Learned from This Shift in Competition

The online world has become more complex and competitive, so we need to plan and invest in:

  • Educating the market about the relevance and potential benefits of:
    • SEO inclusive of content marketing
    • Local search
    • Paid search advertising (e.g. Google Ads and extensions)
    • LinkedIn advertising
    • Facebook advertising
    • YouTube advertising
    • Pinterest
    • Display advertising (e.g. Google Display)
    • Mobile marketing
    • Video content development
    • Instagram advertising
    • Mobile responsive design
    • Remarketing
    • Google shopping
  • Developing and implementing a comprehensive digital marketing strategy
  • Increasing search marketing efforts: building domain authority and consumer engagement through planned content marketing

The Future

From my surveys and understanding of WA and Australian businesses over recent years,

common barriers to investing more in digital or search marketing include:

  • Management not understanding potential ROI or how to measure it
  • Not having the organisational knowledge of the digital era
  • Lack of qualified or skilled staff
  • A limited budget – no doubt influenced by the above three factors

Digital marketing is, or should be, for most businesses, central to minimising costs and maximising returns on marketing spend.

Despite this, most businesses in Australia do not have a clear written digital marketing strategy and even fewer have an integrated marketing strategy: one action plan and set of budgets.

A single, well researched strategy drives co-ordination and facilitates a more consistent and cost-effective approach to communication and marketing in general.

What I Believe Should Happen

  • Businesses need to develop and implement a comprehensive digital marketing strategy and ensure that it is a fully integrated subset of their broader marketing strategy.
  • We need consultative and collaborative relationships with consultants or agencies and clients to understand the business value of digital marketing initiatives and drive online performance, brand lift and return on marketing investment.
  • We need a consummate customer focus, continuously data driven, while creating the right mix of marketing channels and strategies to suit each business’ unique circumstances.
  • This consultative data-driven approach needs to generate understanding of what motivates the consumer at various points of the sales funnel, so we can drive dramatic and measurable results across multiple digital channels with customised content and technology support.
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