There's no shortage of questionable search-engine optimization (SEO) tactics by big companies, from Overstock.com's scheme to increase its search rankings by offering discounts to college students to BMW's efforts to boost pageviews using special landing pages.
But can something good come from SEO, regardless of the color of its hat? Could good SEO lead to better customer service?
"Absolutely," says J.M. Marino, and SEO expert with Digitaria. "An optimized site -- which is ranking competitively within the search engine for the keywords and phrases their customers are searching for -- can see significant improvements in customer service and visitors more easily finding what they were seeking."
But Peter Kent, an SEO consultant and author, is doubtful that better SEO can lead to better service.
"That's a stretch," he told me. "An optimized site is not by definition more customer-friendly. You can have a very well optimized site that is not at all customer friendly. In fact, it's a very common situation."
In other words, efforts to improve your company's site rankings may improve overall customers service. But it doesn't have to.
You don't have to be a consumer advocate to be fascinated by this discussion. After talking with a lot of SEO practitioners for my latest book, I'm convinced there's a close connection.
Horst Joepen, the CEO of Searchmetrics, says SEO is just one piece of the ecommerce puzzle. "Another very important issue is trust and usability of the website as well as conversion optimization. If you get relevant traffic to your site, but you are not -- or appear not to be -- trustworthy, or the user can not find the "buy here"-button, or the check-out process is to long or complex, you won't raise your sales," he says.
And how does that serve your customers? It doesn't.
Here are a few other ways good SEO can improve service.
It can make a site more user-friendly. A poorly-optimized site is often confusing to customers, say experts. "If customers are searching off-website to find answers, improving search engine visibility would greatly benefit the companies' customer service initiatives and brand perception," says Jeff MacGurn, director of SEO services at Covario.
It can boost confidence in your company. Badly-optimized sites tend to erode customers' faith in a product. When they land on the wrong page or become disoriented, "they lose confidence and leave," says Eric Petersen of Mission Web Marketing. "In order for any marketing campaign to be effective, your site should be professionally designed with clear conversion and customer service goals in mind."
It can help customers find the information they need. "That makes the shopping experience better, thus improving customer service," says Garrett Smith, the chief revenue generator at Performance Etail. "So a by-product of SEO could be good customer service simply because the site's architecture is well structured, making it easier for customers to buy, contact and or get help."
But should an SEO project be undertaken with the idea that it will improve service? Maybe not.
"If you want to improve customer service for branding or publicity purposes, or to win more repeat customers, or simply to be a more awesome company, then there are better ways to spend that money than on SEO -- like social media and internal customer service training," says Sam McRoberts, the CEO of VUDU Marketing.
The more I dig into the topic of SEO from a service angle, the more convinced I am that better service is just a byproduct of a responsible SEO campaign. It isn't the driver.
Companies do SEO to bring in more pageviews, of course. To increase conversions. Ultimately, to increase sales.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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