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How to Show Up at the Top of Search

As a web developer, one of the most common questions I get from clients is, “How do I get to the top of search?” And that is usually coupled with people asking, “What do I need to do? What SEO can we do to get there?” And people seem to think that SEO is a free ride to infinite money and riches, and it’s a great thing.

SEO is very important, and it should definitely be a part of your marketing plan, but website visibility has moved well beyond SEO. Unless you’re in a very niche market, competition is so high, you will have to invest hundreds of hours and thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars in SEO essentials. This includes but is not limited to content generation, backlink outreach, strategic partnerships, and consistent social posts (YouTube, Linkedin, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and any other site that may suit your niche).

What Shows Up at the Top of Search?

For example, if you’re in my space such as web development, and you’re trying to be at the top of search, you’re up against some big players that make a ton of money doing very niche things.

To give a simple example, I looked up the search term “SEO”,  and there is a whopping 135,000 people searching for this term each month. A keyword as simple as “SEO” is a pretty broad term and would be considered a high funnel term at best (meaning it attracts a broad audience that is likely far from making a purchase decision on a website). So while keyword ranking difficulty is a little less, the cost per click averages at about $6 a click, which is pretty expensive.

What we see here in the actual search results (see screen capture) is that there are four ads when you search for the term SEO before the first organic search result. This is important because four people are paying to show up at the top of search before the first organic search result from moz.com, which by the way, is a huge and highly competitive company.

The presence of so many ads shows you there’s value in paying for ad space – these companies are not paying to lose money at the top of search.

When you are building a website, create a marketing mix, strategize, and understand the value of each important search term that could add value to your business. Unlike SEO, paid advertising can get your site showing up at the top of search almost immediately. All you need to do from there is learn from these search results.

A word of caution before you start investing serious advertising dollars: run some low budget tests and establish a baseline click-through rate, cost per acquisition, and cost per lead if at all possible.  Failing to establish baseline metrics can be an expensive lesson.

So, take your time, limit your budget, test, test, test, and then come out of the gates once you know your numbers a little bit, with a good investment, and it will pay dividends over time. Of course, you should always watch your numbers. You need to be very cognizant of what you’re testing, make sure you have a good understanding of your baseline metrics, and limit your testing variables to a small, single, or maybe two items to make sure that you don’t have confounding results.

So How Does SEO Work in Today’s Search Context?

So how does SEO work these days anyway? Google will give the best search result for a given keyword the top rank. At the end of the day, Google isn’t perfect, so not all results are perfect, but there are agencies that are dedicated to building SEO and placating the system to help companies ascend in the rankings.

Large agencies exist to help companies with SEO because they’ve figured out how to consistently help clients improve their rank presence, or they have a system to help anyone who’s willing to pay to make their way up in the ranks. There are experts: very cunning, smart people, who know how to do whatever it takes, and there’s always a new tip and trick or nuance to ranking at the top.

Despite all the “experts” you also get people that are flat out lucky and get an early start on a search term. That person would have to build something really great that’s an inch wide, a mile deep, and really answers a question. If you pick the right niche, you could still be that person.

Realistically, if you write a website that has 100,000 words of content, you might rank for something if it’s about a really narrow subject.  You would have to get your keywords and latent semantic indicators dialed in, but this is still a possibility despite all the competition.

Even if you put in all the time and hard work to make your way up the SEO rankings organically, you are not guaranteed results. Even if you do get the results, the thing with SEO is that its unmetered traffic. Anybody can go click that organic search result, and you might show up for terms that you don’t want to show up for. That’s up to the search engine, and there’s really nothing you can do about it aside from strategizing on how to maneuver your organic search results once they’re up.

How does Paid Search Compare to SEO?

With paid search, you have complete control. You choose the key terms you want to look for, keywords, and you want to bid a certain dollar amount. If you know your cost per click goals, you know your cost per acquisition goals for your leads and clients, how much money your average customer generates you, etc. then there’s a simple math equation to tell you how much you should invest in your ads. Your bid strategy may land you third in the search results, or even on page two, but as you grow and develop your site for paid mediums, you will end up with a high-value asset in your advertising plan. You can turn it off anytime you like.

Focus on a paid search strategy, because, at the end of the day, if you can invest a certain amount of money and get a certain amount of money back, that’s a much easier equation than a black box of, “How much money am I going to have to invest into this website before I show up on the top of Google search? And then, when I’m at the top, how long am I going to be at the top before Google makes an adjustment and knocks me down?”It might be one position… but it might be 10 pages. You just don’t know. Google is trying to create a better experience for the user. Organic growth is good because it seems free, but don’t kid yourself on the true cost to rank organically. It costs a lot of money to get your search results to the top, so you might as well just invest a much smaller and more incremental amount on your ads.

So, I try to show people that if you want to show up at the top of search, you need to invest money.

So How Do I Get On Page One Efficiently?

Invest a good portion in advertising and a little bit in organic on-site content. If you invest a little bit in organic search, making sure you have quality content depth, good blog articles, and a great overall website experience. You may just show up organically. A perfect search engine would show the best result for any given search, and with competition constantly increasing, you will have to fight extraordinarily hard to win top real estate for SEO.

It is imperative that you never stop optimizing your site. Build it so that way it loads fast and looks good on mobile and desktop. Not only will this help your odds with SEO; you’ll actually reduce your costs per click on your advertisements as well by improving your quality score.

So, that’s it in a nutshell. I can’t give you some sort of secret potion to make your way to the top, but it is important to give you a developer’s perspective of where I see people throwing money away. From experience, the lion’s share of wasted money falls on gratuitous amounts of SEO and optimization to rank for free at the top. It’s just a fallacy at this point. Unless you have a super niche term and you want to spend a lot of time; maybe in six months to three years, you might rank at the top.

If you’re looking to get going, get online and get customers now, invest your money in advertising, and find the medium that works for you. And again, that could be Google, but that could also be Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Yelp, or any site that has enough traffic and offers advertising opportunities.

It’s up to you to see what converts for your site and your business, but it’s nearly instant when you pay for ads, as opposed to SEO, which is a long-term, time-consuming process. Oh, and don’t count out Bing. Bing’s actually a really great way to invest too. So, make sure you have a multichannel approach. There are so many places where you can show up. Just make sure that you heavily research and look for what’s right for your business. 

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