A few years ago, after a long period, I said goodbye to a client. I was responsible for the design and technology of their new website. After the launch, the number of bookings doubled. The board, responsible for the association, had been working with an online marketer for a while, who collected statistics through Google Analytics and reported them. From this particular board, I never really heard that they were happy with my work and the result. That was not a problem as I also did not report the results.
However, I had to make regular adjustments regarding search engine optimization (SEO), and I increasingly got the impression that the success of the website was directly linked to these adjustments. At the same time, the requests for adjustments from this marketer became increasingly strange. They were based on outdated views about search engines and focused on machines instead of visitors. In my opinion, this was not a way to improve results. Fortunately, with my knowledge and experience, I was able to explain very well why the marketer's proposals would not only be meaningless but also bad for the image of my client. Or so I thought.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The board completely supported the foolish, misguided, and sometimes even unethical proposals of the marketer. Being right and getting your way are two different things. Now, it's not about being right for me; it's about what's best for my clients, and that was not what this marketer was focused on. This became even more apparent when he proposed that we engage in greenwashing to score better on certain search queries. No thanks! That was the cue to say goodbye for good. It wasn't my loss: it hadn't been a pleasant collaboration for a long time. Still, I like to share this story to provide more insight into which advice is useful and how to recognize when the interests of a marketer or agency are primarily hidden in their own profits. I'm doing this for free. Imagine that.
Organic search results - the revenue model
Online marketing agencies often charge expensive monthly subscriptions without concrete guarantees. And I understand that last part very well, as you can't guarantee that you'll perform well within the service of a party over which you have no influence.
So what happens then? Marketers focus on what they do have control over: the website. This is followed by expensive advice, which is in turn followed by requests to the web developer that are not free of charge. These requests have been proven to have little or no effect on the search engine ranking.
What do you need for a good position in search engines? The most important thing is: a good and clear story. There are also things that can help a lot, such as focusing on:
Not entirely coincidentally, these are also points that the user will appreciate, right?
Then there are a number of technical points that will help. Such as:
the required meta tags;
alt text for images;
an xml sitemap;
redirects in the right place;
canonical tags and
jSON-ld schema objects.
would like to note that jSON-ld schema objects are relatively new. The other requirements have been precisely and exactly the same for the past twenty years. This information is also available to everyone, whether or not you are a tech expert. It's not rocket science and doesn't even have much to do with marketing; it's more about web development and common sense.
Before I forget: no, you do NOT need a "WordPress website with the Yoast SEO plugin" for this. Even if your online marketer claims otherwise. If your online marketer demands a WordPress website with the Yoast SEO plugin, it actually means that this marketer is lazy and keeps doing the same trick. He is familiar with only one tool and not willing to look for alternatives for you. Time is money, after all.
In other words: trust ethical and experienced developers. We really know what we are doing. And the alternatives that exist. More on that later. It is completely understandable that an average client in a website project does not have this knowledge, by the way. That is not necessary. But then look for a reliable website builder who asks smart questions, thinks along with you and stands on your side, instead of that of the multinationals. But I am not done yet.
Sponsored search results - know what you're doing
Aside from SEO marketing, we need to talk about Search Engine Advertising (SEA). This refers to the paid results in a search engine like Google, where you pay for a better position in the search results.
This works, for example, with tools like Google Tag Manager, which places a tracking code on your website. This code follows the user around the web and can, for example, show a personalized ad at a later time and in a different place on the web, based on the information that has been collected. Commercially very interesting, isn't it? It's also widely used, but problematic? Absolutely.
Companies like Google and Facebook build profiles of visitors so that advertising can be targeted at a particular audience. That is their very lucrative business model. And this model goes far. The classifications that these companies make are extremely dubious. For example, you can advertise based on religion, political preference, medical problems, or mental health. This is very personal and also protected information. And there's more.
One thing I see far too often is that privacy laws are not being properly followed when these kinds of methods are used. Remember the introduction of the cookie banner? This followed from new European legislation (GDPR) that aimed to better protect the privacy of citizens online. Collecting information without consent was no longer allowed. Since then, explicit consent is required from the internet user.
Explicit consent is not simply notifying the user that their data is being collected. Explicit consent, or opt-in, is when nothing is tracked until the user has been able to review what information is being collected and for what purpose. The user must also agree to this. Checkboxes that are pre-selected do not count. This is what the cookie banner does. If it is not present or is not complete enough, then it is illegal to collect data.
But there is something else: according to this European legislation, you cannot use analytics services from outside the EU without consent. Did you know that? And do you remember the tools used by online marketers? Exactly.
The consequences? For you, not for the online marketer with good advice: a potentially hefty fine from the Dutch Data Protection Authority, not to mention reputational damage. The Netherlands is still lagging behind other European countries in enforcement, but they have adjusted their guidelines accordingly. Companies in Germany are already being heavily fined, and rightly so. This law is designed to protect our privacy against the whims and growing power of big tech. Privacy above commerce.
Apart from legal objections, there are also ethical objections. A web of cross-references is built up based on surfing behavior and search queries. The danger of collecting and bundling this type of information is significant. Think, for example, of the influence on the US presidential elections in 2016, where American citizens were bombarded with fake news based on personal characteristics.
In my websites, I only build in cookie banners that comply with privacy legislation. A response I sometimes get from marketers is: "If we implement the banner according to your wishes, we won't get any data at all!"
(I'll give you some time to let this sink in)
Dear Mr. Marketer, these are not my wishes, this is the law.
It has been clear for some time now that -when given the choice- users do not want to be tracked at all. On a website of one of my clients with a cookie banner that complies with the law, 90% do not give permission. On iOS (the software of the iPhone), only 25% give permission for tracking.
So my advice to marketers would be: just look at privacy-first methods for measuring visitor behavior and advertising, because this legislation is not going anywhere for the time being. That's more logical than, as I recently experienced, lying to a client that a cookie banner that respects the law would have a negative impact on organic search results. Total nonsense, I haven't even mentioned ethics.
It's frustrating because there are perfectly good alternatives available. As part of my service, my clients have access to the paid package Fathom Analytics: a privacy-friendly alternative to Google Analytics that doesn't require implementing a cookie banner.
I've given access to this tool to multiple online marketers, but not a single one of them has taken it seriously so far. The argument: "It's not Google Analytics." No shit, Sherlock.
But web browsers like Safari, Brave, Firefox, and Edge already block most trackers by default. So with a large portion of visitors (on my own site alone, 37%) you're not measuring anything at all, not even statistics. So how valuable is this data really?
Moreover, you can question whether retargeting (showing an ad later based on collected data) is really more effective than traditional online advertising. With the latter, anonymous ads are shown based on your search queries. Instead of being bombarded with ads about gardening tools after visiting a website on the topic, you only see the ads when you're actually searching for "gardening tools" or visiting a Facebook group about gardening. More and more studies indicate that context-based advertising works just as well as retargeting. For example, the Dutch public broadcasting company NPO stopped retargeting in 2020 and actually achieved better results. The New York Times had a similar experience. And also Apple found contextual ads outperforming personalised ads in the App Store.
Now this is about publishers who achieve better results without the use of tracking cookies. Advertisers also seem to achieve better results. Airbnb reduced its marketing budget by 58% and achieved 95% of the same traffic as the previous year.
If you just think about it calmly and without dollar signs in your eyes, contextual advertising is also a logical idea. Suppose you're selling shoes and want to advertise online. What's more effective: advertising to a 40-year-old man who is mildly depressed and for whom a marketer thinks blue sneakers will be attractive based on not-so-reliable data sets, or advertising to someone who's actually searching for "blue sneakers"?
I strive for long-lasting relationships with my clients based on trust in each other's expertise. It is important to me to create websites in an ethical manner, with a focus on minimizing CO2 emissions and upholding principles of accessibility and privacy. I prioritize compliance with relevant laws and regulations. I understand that not all clients may have extensive knowledge of online marketing and website development, and I am always willing to explain why certain strategies work and why others do not. All claims I make are verifiable. Can the same be said for your online marketer? Ultimately, everyone is free to make their own choices in this area, but if you are looking to profit by disregarding the law and privacy, please do not call me.
This article was originally published in Dutch and is translated by ChatGPT.