Guest posting: Oodles.com founder Steve Sherlock warns start-ups not to let an obsession with Search Engine Optimisation blind them to the needs of customers.
For an online start-up, climbing to the top of Hitwise is a little like a young rock band scoring a number one single. It’s a great buzz and a nice reward for some hard work.
Unless you start believing your own PR, however, you’ll know that topping the charts is no guarantee of long-term success. Without something memorable to offer and a solid brand, chances are you’ll soon sink without trace.
The problem with many Australian online start-ups is they think building a brand begins and ends with SEO. As a result, too many end up stuck, like doomed rabbits, in Google’s headlights.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with SEO and SEM. In fact, in the early stages of a company’s development they can be important tools.
But in the race to gain search engine momentum start-ups can lose sight of the fact that their real aim must be to impress users, not Google. In fact, as their obsession with SEO grows, many lose sight of exactly what they stand for and who their clients might be.
In the case of my start-up company, Oodles.com, we knew our brand had to mean something to consumers. And we recognised the need to identify a unique product positioning if we were to achieve meaningful differentiation from competitors.
We also realised that until we fully understood those things there was little point in throwing ourselves into SEO and SEM.
That meant we didn’t get as much early traction as we would have liked, but once we eventually connected with the right clients (in our case frequent travellers) we were rewarded with strong direct traffic, solid client loyalty and enhanced conversion rates, all of which has helped buffer us from the impact of fickle search engine algorithms.
In the absence of a clear direction, another mistake online start-ups make is to design a site for SEO, then expect users to put up with it.
Our priority was to design a site that offered the best possible user experience, then utilised SEO. As our targets became clearer, our product offering and design continued to improve – now even the major car rental companies’ yield managers log on every day to perform price comparisons with their competitors.
Unlike many online companies we have also combined SEO and SEM with a variety of other targeted online marketing techniques – from banner advertising to affiliate marketing – that have helped drive quality traffic. I’m not suggesting we’re gifted marketers, but I do think we’ve achieved a level of sophistication many SEO-shackled ventures never realise.
Our approach is bearing fruit – in the latest Hitwise ratings Oodles.com topped the car rental category for the second month running and in doing so we beat giants such as Avis, Hertz and Budget.
It’s nice to be at the top of the Hitwise parade. But hopefully, the approach we’ve taken will ensure we are building a brand with a long-term future. The last thing we want to be is another one-hit wonder.
Steve Sherlock, Founder, Oodles.com