SEO, Authenticity and The Wizard of Oz

Most of us know the story of The Wizard of Oz and the Tin Man had no heart. But what about your web site’s content?

Too many consultants fool their clients into believing that search engine optimization (SEO) is more important than what information than the soul of the content once the eyeballs arrive. It’s foolhardy to think that by simply rigging your copy and meta tags to drive search traffic your way that your site will magically be propelled to the top tiers of your market and that legions of people who were “looking for you” will be routed your way.

The whole SEO craze is based on two fundamental untruths:

1) That there millions of people out there searching for you who can’t find you because when they Google you, you’re not at the top of the list.
Guess what? At some point, you quickly realize that there are only a few spots atop a Google search. Someone is bound to be on Page 2. Yes, it would be very cool is someone thousands outside of your market would be induced to visit your site to make a purchase or learn more about your institution, depending on what it is you’re offering them.

But do the people in your own neighborhood know what you are doing? Once you’ve branched out from that starting point, it’s far more important to cultivate the areas where you are dominant, versus trying to stretch your arms to reach places that you’re not naturally able to reach. In some cases, you get help from special events or speakers who give attention to your institution.

At that point, it’s where content needs to shine. Do you think Wiley College really capitalized on The Great Debaters movie with Denzel Washington? It’s doubtful that look at their site they really have any sort of web strategy at all, opting instead for “we have to have a web site, because everyone does”

I call that the “slumlord web strategy.”

At that point, SEO might not have mattered nearly as much as having a web site put together that would put them in a position to capitalize on all of the attention.

The questions it raises are more prescient than the answers. When your institution gets it one shot in the spotlight, how will you capitalize? Why is your institution still using print materials to drive people to the web site, rather than using the web site to drive people to your campus? Whether virtually or in real time, the more eyeballs you engage, the better off you are.

2) That more traffic is a good thing and will result in more sales.
Really? Is it that easy? It reminds me of the old business plan fable that “if we just capture 1% of the U.S. population, our product will be a hit.” Well good luck selling to 1% of the population. What happened to doing what you do well? What happened to authenticity?

If we’re talking about higher education, institutions need to do a better job of knowing who they are. No marketing company can tell you who you are better than your people can. They might be too mired in the institution to really get a fresh look at it, but the consultants should be bringing out your strengths and giving people seeds that will bear fruit long after the consultants have come and gone.

I realize that with the sometimes overly collaborative, input driven world of higher education that it works a lot better to bring an outsider in to tell you what you ought to do. But do you notice how often marketing campaigns across time lack cohesion? If you look at some institutional materials over a 5-10 year period, it might be possible that it looks like materials for 5-10 different schools.

While this might be endemic more to budget, materials and presentation, the web offers you a platform to provide information in vibrant, dynamic ways. This isn’t rocket science, but when you consider that newspapers — who should understand presenting information better than anyone (until you work at one how untrue that is) — are just starting to figure out how to leverage the information tools at their disposal now, you can understand why it’s come slowly for other markets.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t know your soul, neither will anyone else. You have to engage your audience in authentic ways if you want to break through to them. All of the traffic in the world means nothing if when you get your chance to shine, what you have to say isn’t compelling, interesting or authentic.