Over the last decade the search engines have become one of the most active channels to market for the professional services sector. There are two principle reasons why this has become so important:
- There’s a compound return few other channels offer – a lot of professional service work is transactional and short term, which means companies require a constant inflow of new leads. Unlike other channel activities such as PPC or social media marketing, which is highly ephemeral and transitory, SEO is a long term investment in which you are building an asset. Every new page, link and positive signal is a penny in the bank that will go on providing a return, allowing firms to build their lead generation over time whilst gradually reducing their ongoing costs. This separation of costs from return (unlike PPC for example, which has a permanently direct connection between the two), explains why so many professional service firms view it as such a smart use of their resources.
- The conversion rates are high – while there is variation here depending on the keywords and landing pages in question, the user intent is typically such that they are actively seeking help when they arrive on the firm’s site, which means not only are they likely to enquire, but those leads are then more likely to convert than via more outbound methods. Again, the significant volume of leads most firms require simply to stand still means this high conversion rate is of huge importance as they simply do not have the sales resources to invest in long lead times and high drop out rates.
So how are the best professional service firms going about their SEO? I’d suggest their strategies can be broken into the following components:
- Building mega landing pages – when we talk about on-page optimisation, most people will limit the conversation to title tags, alt tags and keyword density, but on-page SEO is so much more than that. The firm needs to view the market from the perspective of their audience and consider the near limitless breadth of possible goals they might have when they make a given search query. Are they hoping to find pricing information, details about the service itself, case studies that show how people with similar challenges engaged with the firm and achieved a positive outcome, or even their address and instructions for travelling there. The more of these audience objectives and expectations they can satisfy, the more likely it is that Google will consider it a useful result, particularly if it covers a range of rich media formats and appears high quality and carefully considered.
- Developing a legitimate link strategy – having awesome on-page SEO is only half the story. The trouble is that you’re unlikely to be the only firm who’s had that idea, so the question then becomes – why should Google take your page that little bit more seriously than it does the other 10-20 quality results for that particular search query? We refer to this as “authority”; to what degree does Google consider the domain in question a trusted and authoritative resource within the market? The greater the authority, the higher the content is going to rank (all other things being equal). There are lots of ways that Google determines authority, and the exact break down of signals are highly market specific. For example, not may professional services firms are likely to be hugely active on Pinterst, so I’d suggest that probably isn’t going to be a huge factor in that search vertical, but LinkedIn, on the other hand, is a key tool for just about any professional services organisation, so it stands to reason that Google would consider the brand’s LinkedIn activity as part of their overall credibility. In truth, however, we can never really know this for certain and Google’s machines are constantly developing so what worked yesterday is by no means guaranteed to work today. The best advice anyone can offer is to focus on building a real brand that offers true value to your audience. Oh, and build links. In 20 years of SEO, there remains no signal with greater correlation to rankings than link acquisition. The links should ideally be from trusted and relevant sources, so other professional service organisations or institutional bodies, for example, would be fantastic, but as long as the link is from a “real” website (i.e. not one built entirely for the purposes of link solicitation) then it can only be a good thing. Developing a strategy for acquiring these links is then of course the real challenge. The most scalable approach invariably involves a degree of PR; get a good story gaining some traction in the press and you can quickly find you have 20, 30 big domains pointing to you (our record is 400 in 24 hours, including every major news platform you’ve ever heard of!). However, PR is difficult to predict and control, and can also be extremely costly. Manual link outreach, on the other hand, is much less scalable, but once the outreach specialist is in a good routine the results do become far easier to predict. For most professional service companies, the best thing they can do is simply be aware of the value of links, so that when opportunities arise they don’t miss them. For example, perhaps an industry website features you brand but doesn’t link to your website – understanding the potential value of that link means you’ll be inclined to reach out and request the link be added; a seemingly small detail that over time could have utterly profound implications for your lead generation!
- Creating a compelling content strategy – over the last decade there has been a gradual shift from link building to content generation, and for good reason. Ultimately Google just wants to rank those brands offering the best experience and that principally comes down to the content generated. As more and more professional service firms have joined the competition for content, the bar has been raised. No longer is it sufficient to simply create lots of good quality, professional content – you have to do more. There has to be something that distinguishes it from the rest of the market. Something remarkable. For example, perhaps the firm does a lot of work within the technology sector. In which case, could they bring together thought leaders in that market and interview them for incredible insight? Our new content strategy, for example, is a collaboration with the family of Alan Turing in which we are running podcasts with senior thought leaders from professional service firms that are dominating and disrupting their industries. By spearheading the content with a truly exceptional initiative, you are better able to cut through the noise and really make an impact – on both your audience and Google!
SEO is a constantly moving discipline, and the days of trying to game the system by exploiting the shortcomings in the algorithm are long gone. The most important thing is to focus on the same thing as Google themselves – providing the best possible experience to the audience in question. Build a strategy that puts the audience first and execute it relentlessly, and in time the SEO will all but take care of itself.