Many who manage web sites invest great effort and expense in search engine optimization (SEO), the practice of optimizing the content and format of a site and its pages so as to attract the most search engine traffic.

SEO is important to online businesses, because qualified web traffic can translate into eyeballs (if a site sells advertising) or sales (if it’s an e-commerce site) or potential clients (if the site is run by, say, a consulting firm).

I’ve been around the practice of SEO for about 15 years (before it was even called SEO), and I’ve come to believe in a central truth about it:

If you want search engine traffic, the first thing you have to do is deserve it.

This means providing honest, substantive content.

This also means offering well-executed services and a customer experience that serves the visitor well.

This concept is approximately equivalent to customer-centeredness in marketing or user-centered design in software development. A business has to make a profit, try to grow, strive for market share — but business success in the long term is hard to come by without a strong customer focus, or user focus in the case of web traffic.

By all means, optimize your site for search engine traffic, but be aware that few businesses make it for very long by tricking Google.

Do what you can to direct web traffic to your site, but make sure you deserve it.

AB — 5 May 2011

Most marketers would say that good strategy requires you to treat your customers well — turn them into raving fans and they will recommend you to friends and family. In the online world, good reviews and links from grateful customers will contribute to good search-engine optimization (SEO), that much-sought collection of factors that results in high rankings in search engines.

But according to a Nov. 26, 2010, article by David Segal in the New York Times, one online entrepreneur has turned conventional wisdom on its head. His solution: Generate good SEO by creating enemies instead of fans. Enraged customers that you have ripped off and abused will fill Internet consumer web sites with negative reviews that will actually increase your ranking in Google searches. (See “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web” for the full astonishing story.)

I would hate to contribute to the success of the retailer profiled in Segal’s article, so I’m not going to name him or his site. This SEO contrarian runs an e-commerce business selling designer eyeglasses. Segal interviewed one of his customers who says that when she complained and tried to get her money back after paying for fake designer frames, she received threats of sexual violence, phony legal documents, harassing phone calls, and a threatening email with a photo of the building where she lives and an “I am watching you” message.

Evidently, though, the marketer in question uses this kind of customer abuse as an SEO strategy. When he received many complaints on one consumer site, he posted this message in response:

Hello, My name is ********* with *********.com I just wanted to let you know that the more replies you people post the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement Its a new proven to work strategy when you post all kinds of negative it always turns positive. I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.. Thanks so very much for your continued effort. I really appreciate it.

This retailers’s create-enemies strategy is carefully crafted. It has to be, or he would lose his credit card merchant accounts. Segal, who interviewed the retailer, relates:

The only real limit on his antics is imposed by Visa and MasterCard. If too many customers successfully dispute charges in a given month, he can be tossed out of their networks, he says. Precisely how many of these charge-backs is too many is one of the few business subjects that Mr. ********* deems off the record, but suffice it to say he tracks that figure carefully and dials down the animus if he’s nearing his limit. Until the next month arrives, when he dials it back up again.

Has this retailer’s recent notoriety reduced his Google rankings? Evidently not. A search today on “lafont designer eyeglasses” reveals the following rankings:

Google search on 'lafont designer eyeglasses'

 

The listing for the master of dysfunctional customer relations is third in organic search results.

Building a business by enraging your customers is exhausting work, Segal learned from his interview with the retailer:

Mr. ********* typically works from about 10 a.m. until 5 the next morning, spending much of that time feuding with unhappy customers. He describes this grueling regimen of confrontation with a heaviness that is enough to make you want to give him a hug.

“I’m sure this is taking a toll on my health,” he complains. “I probably won’t live as long as you.”

One can only hope.

– AB, 27 Nov. 2010

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