How I Overcame an Unhealthy Reliance on Search Engine Rankings

Last Updated Dec 13, 2010 1:15 PM EST

By Christian Arno, Founder, Lingo24, Aberdeen, Scotland
I launched Lingo24, a translation services company, in 2001 with a friend. By 2006 we had 45 employees. The vast majority -- 80 to 90 percent -- of our company's growth in its early years was due to our high visibility on the Internet. If you had Googled "translation company" or "translation agency" in 2006, my company would have come up as one of the most prominent results.

Unfortunately, we were so dependent on our search engine rankings that when they suddenly fell away in 2006, our revenue dropped off, too. (At some point Google decided we ranked too highly, so they pulled us back.) We had to let three people go. That was one of the worst things that I've experienced as an entrepreneur.

Over time, we improved our search engine rankings, but we also had to fundamentally rethink our business approach. Rather than waiting for clients to come to us, we had to start actively reaching out to them.

The root of the problem
Originally, I didn't want to hire any sales people because I saw us as a Web company -- and I thought a Web company didn't need a sales force. But if your main method of generating sales goes away, you have to find a new method.

So when Google pushed our page rank down, I knew that we had to do much more than just boost our rankings again in order to maintain our growth. Now, we needed a sales team. Given that we had no experience managing one -- and that our initial team would be just one person -- we needed a self-starter who could drum up business independently.
Over the course of several months, we went through three sales people before we found one who was reliable and would stick around. Once that person proved himself by building relationships with major clients, we set about developing a team that could expand our reach into new international markets. One of our main sales strategies was to reach out to companies that were about to release a new product in a foreign country or were otherwise expanding into another country. Some of the sales people we hired were fluent in the languages spoken in regions we were targeting, such as Scandinavia or the Netherlands.

Our sales team now includes more than 40 people whose jobs are primarily focused on selling, and we estimate that only 65 percent of our new business comes to us through search engines. Developing an outbound sales channel was one of the toughest things I've ever done in business. Managing sales people and keeping them motivated is challenging, and it's something we are still working hard to refine today.

Boosting the rankings
Although we've become much less dependent on search engines, our ranking still has a large impact on our sales. Fortunately, we've also greatly improved our standing in the last few years by being more proactive.

The key was to focus on generating quality links to our site. To do it, we started contributing valuable content to the types of sites that our customers -- many of whom are trying to sell products in foreign markets -- might be reading. We write stories or guest blog posts that share our expertise -- such as how to strike the right tone if you're marketing a product in China or why it might help to write your Web site in Unicode -- and ask for a link back to our website in return. Using techniques like this, it took about three years to get our search engine rankings back to normal.

The company as a whole has continued to grow, and altogether we now have 140 employees. In 2009 our revenue hit just over $8 million last year, up from $5.8 million in the previous year. Search engines are still our biggest sales channel, but they're no longer our only channel -- and that makes our business much more sustainable over the long run.

Christian Arno founded Lingo24 in 2001 shortly after graduating from Oxford University with degrees in French and Italian. He came up with the idea for the company while studying in Italy, when he realized that the translations industry was slow to adapt to the Internet.
-- As told to Zack Anchors