Quality Content Generates Business

By Tim Parker

Google SearchHaving an online presence is increasingly important for professional services firms and other B2B marketers.  For most businesses, it has become essential. As a result, many professional firms have spent heavily in upgrading their websites.  But that is not nearly enough today.  The reason is that most prospective clients do not go directly to your website.  They use online search engines, entering terms that capture the kind of professional expertise they need.  If your firm’s website does not come up high in the search engine results, prospects may not know your firm exists—even if it is a leader in its field.

So how do you rank high in search engine results?  You need to have high-quality content that other websites will link to—articles, presentations, and the like.  Search engines place greater value on popular websites, and having many web pages link to your web pages is a good measure of popularity.  Producing great content is a sure-fire way to rise up the ranks of search engine listings.  Let me explain why and what you can do about it.

In a 2007 survey, search marketer Enquiro Research found that businesspeople looking to purchase products and services have an overwhelming preference to start their online research with a search engine. While approximately one in three goes directly to a vendor or industry site, two thirds use a search engine. Of those, Google is the overwhelming favorite, chosen by 77%. If you want your website to generate inquiries, it must appear high for the search terms that  prospective customers use for your type of services.

You can position your site prominently on a page of Google search results by paying for Google AdWords, the “sponsored links” that appear to the right of and above your search results. Cost per click varies according to the popularity of the keyword, but is generally around a couple of dollars, rising to as much as $30 per click for some keywords such as the lung cancer example below. At 100 clicks per day, a pay-per-click budget for this term could run to $3,000 per day. That’s more than $1 million a year.

But not only can these listings be expensive, in generating clicks they are not nearly as effective as organic search—the results that come up on the left side of the Google search results. A recent analysis by Hubspot showed that organic results get more than 75% of the clicks, and that the first organic result captures more than 25% of all clicks. That’s more than double the second result. Even the last organic result on the first page gets 3% of people of the clicks; this is about the same rate as the second pay-per-click ad.  And unlike the ad, it’s free.

How quality online content generates leads

That doesn't mean there is no place for paid listings in your marketing strategy.  If you can’t rank well organically, pay-per-click may be appropriate. But all other things being equal, if you want people to find you, the best way is to rank high for your keywords in the organic listings.

So how do you finish high on the list of search engine results? I talked about the first requirement in a previous article: using words that clients use when they type into a search engine. Realize that these words may not be the ones a professional services firm uses to describe its expertise.  Therefore, identifying the words that clients use is important.

But there is another key requirement: getting other web pages to link to the content on your site. The greater the number of other sites that are linking to content on your site, the higher your web pages will appear in search engine results. Leading search engines such as Google keep track of how many sites link to yours, and which ones they are. Google uses these ‘backlinks’ to calculate a “PageRank” for pages on your site – a measure of each page’s importance according to the ‘votes’ it receives from other pages on the web which link to it1.

But how do you get other sites to link to your content? There are two main ways:

  1. The “sledgehammer” approach: Apportion a huge budget and have a marketing team generate reams of articles, and dig up links from wherever they can. 
  2. The “precision” approach: Publish high-quality material that other sites will want to link to, let them know it is there and make it easy for them to link to it.

For most B2B businesses, it’s more effective to do the latter.

1. The sledgehammer approach

Consider the way a number of law firms have tried to rank high in the search engines for searches on mesothelioma, a medical condition that has become a major source of litigation.  Mesothelioma (meso for short) is a terminal lung cancer usually caused by asbestos in the workplace. There are only about 3,000 incidences of mesothelioma annually in the US.  But because employers can often be shown to have been negligent and because the settlements are large, law firms that concentrate on these cases put substantial effort into capturing searches by people looking for information on mesothelioma.

If you run a Google search for mesothelioma, several of the page 1 results are for meso ‘resource sites’ sponsored by law firms. (The others are for public interest sites such as the National Cancer Institute or Wikipedia.) The competition for this search term is brutal. At the time of writing, the fourth-ranking site, sponsored by a law firm, has 3,500 pages of content and nearly 50,000 backlinks.

The content is overwhelmingly medical, covering dozens of varieties of meso, treatment options, doctors’ details and so on. Consequently, the average reading standard is graduate school—not obviously tailored to the ex-brake shoe factory worker wondering if he is suffering from meso. However, the intention for the site is not primarily to inform; it is to rank high in search engine results. The largest font on the page, apart from the site name, is the 800 number at the top.

Even though this content is not novel in conveying original research or thinking, for copyright reasons it still has to be original—often it is written by freelancers for around a dollar a word. For this site, that adds up to between $1 and $2million in copywriting. The backlinks are generated in many ways, including the placing of display ads on sites as diverse as veterans’ blogs and heavily trafficked consumer sites. Generating this many links and this much content is labor-intensive and expensive.

2. The precision approach

Executives who engage professional services firms are sophisticated B2B buyers.  A more effective approach to getting your web pages high to rank high in their searches is to publish material that is useful to them, and let other sites link to it because they think it is useful too. This will be more effective than posting dozens or hundreds of articles on your website, the “sledgehammer approach.”And it will cost you less because you won’t have to hunt or pay for backlinks. While having a number of articles—lots of content—is still important, far more important is having very good content.

The law firm Wilmer Hale (www.wilmerhale.com) has a publications section on its website with around 1,500 articles on dozens of areas of law. However, unlike the meso sites, this material is not written for the express purpose of capturing searches.  It is often a by-product, or related to, client work.  It is generally written to inform clients on matters that about which they might be concerned. It is primarily useful to Wilmer Hale in helping establish credibility with potential clients. But the material also helps Wilmer Hale rise up the search rankings.The firm’s main publications page has thousands of inbound links and a Google PageRank of 5/10 (about the same as the highest-ranking meso sites).

One site that links to Wilmer Hale publications is the Law Pundit Blog, which lists it as a useful legal resource. Other sites, such as The Compliance Exchange, a forum for legal and other professionals, frequently link from specific articles directly to Wilmer Hale notices and publications.

Some sites, such as the Law section of the Berkeley Electronic Press Legal Repository (www.bepress.com), don’t just link to Wilmer Hale material, they feature it. They give Wilmer Hale a link back to its home page for each article.  Because this is an important site in its own right, sometimes its extract of the article ranks higher for the same search. A search for instance on Spanish Competition Tribunal returns the Wilmer Hale article at #5 and the bepress.com abstract of the same article at #3.

If you search Google for each of Wilmer Hale’s specialty areas, more than 20 return a Wilmer Hale publication in the first two pages of results; nine of them return results in the top five. For instance, if you search on ‘Financial Institutions’ Law, Google will return a Wilmer Hale paper on the second page about “New Twists in Anti-Money Laundering Rules.” This paper is one of 90 in this particular section. (A more specific search, such as ‘insurance aml rules law’, would return this paper high on page 1.)

All of this drives traffic. Although Wilmer Hale is only the 20th biggest law firm in the country, in terms of the number of articles on its site, it is among the top four. In terms of inbound links, it is again in the top four, and in traffic per $100,000 of company revenue (that is, web traffic adjusted for company size) it is number two.

If Wilmer Hale was singularly focused on creating leads with its material, there are some further things it could do. It could better optimize keywords for relevant searches and place social media links on articles (e.g., to delicious and Digg, online forums on which members vote for content), so that readers can easily recommend them. It might also bring some sections a little more up to date, and perhaps spin more articles off its research and client work in online industry journals that clients read, with links back to the Wilmer Hale site.  It could also produce more podcasts, videocasts and other online media to communicate better its expertise and views. However, it has already done the most important thing: publish and continue to publish valuable content on its website.

For B2B, quality matters more than quantity

Good content is important for reassuring your clients and prospects that you are an expert in your field and have a track record of success. But it also helps new customers find you online. If your website has lots of good content, it is far more likely to be found by people who do not already know you. And it is far more likely to engage them when they get there. So long as you have sophisticated customers, quality online content is far more likely to make your phone ring than quantity.

1Though in fact, the Page in PageRank derives from Larry Page who devised it

2Website-specific statistics such as links, PageRank etc. are estimates derived from Bloom Group research with public information

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