By Rob Weatherhead, Operations Director, Latitude Express

Search engine marketing represents a huge opportunity for SMEs (small and medium enterprises) to develop a presence online and generate sales through their website. It presents an opportunity for them to reach customers who would otherwise be unavailable to them and generate profits for reasonably little investment.

But whilst many SMEs are now using pay per click (PPC) to generate visitors from the search engines a large proportion still ignore search engine optimisation (SEO) and the natural search results as a channel. According to research Latitude carried out in conjunction with BT, only 3.5% of the top 100 SME websites are optimised from an SEO perspective and 90% don’t make their website content easily accessible to search engines.

SEO is an activity which, when fully understood and engaged, can generate significant traffic and business online when done properly. So what are the main barriers to SME adoption of SEO?

1. Expertise and resource

SEO consists of two clear parts, on page, and off page. The on page work consists of the amending and manipulation of the websites content, structure, and format to ensure it is both visible in the eyes of search engines, and made relevant to your target keywords and market. The off page work involves generating links back to your website from other sites through various means. Whilst both of these elements generally require the SME’s involvement, the on page work is more heavily reliant on their cooperation. Either doing it themselves or via a web designer the SME will be required to relay and interpret information provided by an SEO provider and make amends to their website, this is where the first barrier comes. Many SME’s do not have the ability, or the available skilled resource to make the changes recommended by an SEO provider. Those that put in the effort to learn how to make changes, often find it refreshingly easy, but in most cases, in the face of html code or complex CRM systems the SME will give in, or simply not have the time to give it a go. And unfortunately the “friendly” neighbourhood web designer sees this as an opportunity to make a pretty penny and quotes a small fortune for the work, even though in reality they are minor amends.

2. Short term mindset

Many SMEs operate in the here and now. Fighting a constant battle with sales today, this week, this month and making sure they cover their short term overheads whilst hopefully making some profit along the way. When operating in this way, it is difficult to consider the longer term strategy and building for a future 6-12 months away. SEO is an investment for the future at first, and will only likely start to show return after the 3 month mark, sometimes longer. It is often therefore difficult for SMEs to consider investing an amount of money each month without seeing a return and many turn to PPC as a more immediate revenue generator.

3. Feelings of inferiority

When speaking to SMEs about SEO there is often a perception that they will be unable to compete with the larger brands in the market as they lack the budget/time/expertise etc. Whilst in some instances, where significant investment is needed, this might be true; there are actually a lot of areas of SEO which benefit the SME over their larger rivals. Frequency of content updates is becoming a major influencer since the Mayday update, which also included a shift from domain level to page level authority, another benefit to the SME (read about the Mayday update benefitting SMEs). There are also thousands of long tail opportunities where SMEs can focus their efforts and achieve good results rather than worrying about the vanity positions on high volume keywords.

4. Snake oil experiences

Nearly all the SMEs we speak to about SEO have at least one tale of false promises and lack of results. Unfortunately there are some companies who aim to capitalise on the mystery surrounding SEO and use it to make a quick buck. Promises of number 1 position that turn out to be Google Adwords, cleverly worded deliverables that mislead the buyer, and long term contracts paid up front that were never going to deliver anything are all still common place in the SME SEO market. These leave an extremely sour taste in the small business owner’s mouth and make them highly sceptical of engaging in SEO in the future.

5. Their web designer already made their website “SEO

Nearly all web designers, whether agency or freelance, tout their work as “search engine optimised” or even sell additional services such as “search engine submissions” to unsuspecting SMEs. Whilst not all designers are doing so in a misleading manner (some are building optimised websites) others fall under the snake oil category (search engine submissions = zero value) and most of them are misleading SMEs as to the value of SEO and how it works. SEO is not a one off task that is done at the point of building the website, it is an ongoing process which needs to work with all of your business departments. Also, by selling an “SEO package”, however useless, at a nominal fee as a bolt on for the site, it significantly devalues SEO as an activity and means the SME is never going to be willing to pay what it takes to achieve success.

These are my ideas as to the main barriers to SEO take up in the SME market, what do you think? Is there something I have missed?

Rob Weatherhead heads up the SME solutions function at Latitude Group offering search engine optimisation to the UK SME market.