There’s Oodles more to life than SEO

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

9 thoughts on “There’s Oodles more to life than SEO

  • June 9, 2009 at 6:07 pm
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    “Our priority was to design a site that offered the best possible user experience, then utilised SEO.”

    SEO should actually be part of the Information architecture phase of development of a website. SEO, user experience, and client loyalty aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Did you write this because you don’t rank on the first page of Google for the phrase [car rental sydney], which according to google’s own keyword tool, had some 22,200 Australian searches in April? Wow – that’s a lot of potential clients to ignore….

    If you don’t understand SEO, and can’t do SEO – don’t bag it.

    Reply
  • June 10, 2009 at 11:09 am
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    @Chris
    Appreciate your feedback. Good to get a debate going…

    I agree SEO should actually be part of the planning phase. We are 4-6 weeks off launching a totally newly designed site, and have had our in-house SEO guy involved throughout.

    Part of my point is that; when a compromise is required between design and seo, then we’d err on the side of our users rather than a google bot! Perfect balance between the two would be ideal but ultimately I don’t think ‘perfect balance’ exists.

    I have actually been involved in SEO’ing of car hire sites for over 10 years. Sites I founded are rentnewcars, carhire.com.au and vroom vroom vroom. All are very focused on SEO and getting as many low cost visits to the site as possible. i.e. lots of key words on the page for google to read, but not really relevant to the user.

    With that experience under our belt, our goal with Oodles.com is to bypass generic keyword search. We want people to think “car hire & oodles” and go straight to oodles.com.

    Like one does with “jobs & seek”, “hotels & wotif”. With oodles.com we’ve tried to imagine that there are no search engines, and instead get PR and WOM. We are a long way from being a seek or wotif, but that is our goal and we’re making progress!

    ( BTW we are #2 on google for “cheap car rental Sydney”) We actually get pretty good organic traffic, but we are not nervous about the google index changing, coz we don’t rely on it.

    Chris according to Hitwise Oodles.com is the number one site by visits in our category. So we must be doing something right http://twitpic.com/5hglt

    Steve

    Reply
  • June 10, 2009 at 3:10 pm
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    “Our priority was to design a site that offered the best possible user experience, then utilised SEO.”
    Steve – congrats on your Hitwise rankings – but you still don’t get that SEO can coexist with usability.
    For example – although you claim ‘the best possible user experience” – try using your site with Javascript disabled. Then come back & tell me about that user experience – the user with Javascript disabled (I’ll give you a hint – your site just won’t work……)
    SEO is about structure, and accessibility. And yes, content, and links.
    Your architecture missed the boat on accessibility. SEO at the IA stage would have solved this issue – for all users….
    Its also about SEM – have a look at what makes a good ‘Adwords quality score’ in paid search….

    Reply
  • June 10, 2009 at 3:44 pm
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    @chris – yep could always do better in usability and seo and sem.

    * 96.74% of visitors to our site have enabled java in their browser. showing the rest an error message with instructions on how to enable java is our plan.
    * but we are not in bad company given Kayak.com also requires java to be enabled.
    * sem is a big part of our marketing spend with a cr of 6% compare to direct cr 25%. admittedly we moved to a management company who have achieved half the roi that we did ourselves. not surprisingly we are bringing it back in-house.

    but i have to say chris, given that you are not prepared to identify yourself, to me your comments lack accountability and i think the tone of your comments also reflect this.

    i dont think i have ever commented in a blog, forum etc and not identified myself. but each to their own.

    Steve

    Reply
  • June 10, 2009 at 4:09 pm
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    Just followed you on Twitter Steve.

    I mostly post with full disclosure, but on this occassion I didn’t, as I didn’t expect a conversation. First time I’ve ever commented at thumbrella.

    Reply
  • June 10, 2009 at 4:56 pm
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    Hi Steve,

    Interesting article…

    SEO is a marketing-strategy as any other marketing-strategy with the sole purpose of attracting customers. A combination of multiple marketing-methods is far better compared to putting all your eggs in the same basket.

    I like the way you and your team are doing the branding of Oodles, which should be part of every company’s marketing-strategy. Your marketing-approach is well-refined and diverse. That’s probably the big power behind Oodles.

    However, SEO is still a powerfull tool that can attract many new customers that haven’t been in touch with your brand yet. Thus, I don’t blame companies that focus on SEO and SEO only, but they probably miss out on a whole lot of other marketing-opportunities and -approaches.

    Besides this topic, I’d like to know your vision on conversion and what thrives customers to buy online ?

    Kindest regards,

    Kristof

    Reply
  • June 10, 2009 at 5:40 pm
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    @kristof

    thanks for the contribution.

    im a bit buggered actually. i say that with smile – though this web 2.0 stuff can be hard work!

    i’ll keep this short and just quote a good read called the brand bubble.

    something like: “it takes courage to have a clear direction & people follow courage”.

    basically they are saying that consumers follow/invest in brands if they believe that the brand will be around for a while to come. by being different, and targetting a specific audience (as apposed to everyone) is an important factor in people buying into online brands, not just as one off customers but as people who buy into the brand emotionally.

    in our case we are positioning oodles.com as the brand for frequent flyer members and a large % of our bookings come from this group.

    Reply
  • November 4, 2009 at 9:29 pm
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    Just came across this post. Well done you deserve big pats on the back and seem very willing to give them to yourself. I think your site is pretty lame though, worse than that vroom one you also claim to have started. What’s with hitting up commenters to identify themselves, isn’t it that person’s right to be anonymous?

    Reply

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