First let me state that by inferring "long-term investment", I do not mean on par with your 401k plan and dream house. But I am talking about strategic marketing and (potentially) brand recognition.
Consider the inital working process of a traditional SEO campaign
- Keyword research
Any SEO company of good quality needs to understand the keywords that are going to drive the right users to your website. To do this, they need to understand your business, what your online objectives are, the sales process and (to some extent) your revenue and pricing models. From this discovery, we're then able to research and propose the best keywords from a standpoint of organic search volume and popularity.
- Tagging and Content Recommendations/Implementation
This is usually the first step in an SEO campaign. Once we have an agreement on keyword strategy, we take the keywords and merge them into your existing content. Overarching themes should be more prominent on the site, and we want to capture the overall message (hopefully the best/most popular keywords) on the home page. This is not about being the most popular kid on the playground (in terms of keyword selection). This is about working with your company to create the most appropriate, yet most desirable keyword-based message for your company
The way search engines work is changing
As recently as 2005, SEO's could reasonably predict when a search engine update in listings would happen. But it was because of this that it was "wait and see" game in terms of page changes and how effective they were - which would mean as much as a month wait if your changes were implemented and crawled right after an update took place. Yahoo of course, was the first to fully integrate Direct Submit into their search engine programs, which guaranteed 48 hour spidering on specific pages, but it was really the integration of Search Engine Sitemaps that has appeared to have shifted the indexing process.
While sitemaps in general are a contentious topic, no one will argue that this was Google's first real step to attempting to understand, from a user's perspective, what pages are available on a website for the search engine to find. The use of sitemaps (if you agree that they work) as well as the integration of other input-based search programs (Google Base and Yahoo 360 as examples) will shift the way that search engines like Google update their index, from a standpoint of understanding page-specific information.
But just because Google (and now Yahoo) allow you to tell them what you are about, does not mean that you get a free ticket to the top of the rankings for "insurance quote".
Back to SEO - Next Steps in a successful SEO Campaign
The next two steps in an SEO campaign are equally important, but take up one critical resource - time.
- Links, Links, and more Links
Your site needs more links, better links and high quality links. I'm not going to delve into a topic that could span an additional 5 pages of detail, but rather to just state that the link building process has matured into a much more detailed (and arguably better) process. The bottom line is that "gaming" the search engines is not as easy as it was.
- Competitive Analysis
Beyond the general understanding of the fact that competitor A has a website, you need to know what they have on the site (features, functionality etc), what their keywords are and how they rank, and what sites (links) point to them. In cases where they rank higher than you for "x" keyword, you need to know why and more importantly, what to do about it.
These things take time and like business in general are constantly changing and evolving. Your time investment in these two subjects does not end in one month or after a one-time investigation.
Considering the link process
- You spend time obtaining a new link
- Search Engine crawls that new link and finds your site
- Search Engine "digests" the text that is the link, around the link, and what the overall page (where the link was located) was about
- Search Engine still has to go back and either a.) see if the place the link was located has a sitemap but most definitely b.) cross-reference the existing database of information they have on the link's site and your site
This doesn't happen overnight. Well, the actual process could happen overnight, but even with new search engine services in place for webmasters, I've yet to hear anything from Google or Yahoo or MSN stating that they "process inbound links faster these days". In fact, our monthly reports, while definitely indicating keyword shifts, oftentimes do not always reflect our inbound link building efforts, especially in Google on a regular, 30 day basis. Thus, my understanding would be that the real value in inbound links, for SEO, can take months, especially when it relates to improving keyword rankings.
Now take a look at what your competition is doing
But beyond the process of search engines, your business still needs to be aware of the competition and what the competition is doing, whether they realize it or not, for SEO. Are they building new theme pages to capture different keywords? Are they forming new partnerships to gain high quality inbound link relationships? Have they began a site redesign for purposes of a better user experience? If you buy SEO services for a month, or for a one-time project, you get that SEO's understanding of the competition at that point in time. That's like investing in EMC in 2000 because their balance sheet looked really solid. Real SEO companies not only understand how your site should perform for search, but they acknowledge why the competition is where they are, and what you need to do, ongoing, to stay ahead of them.
You should tailor how much you need to budget for SEO ongoing as it relates to the objectives of your online marketing strategy. If your revenue model requires you to draw traffic and sales leads directly from the web, it makes sense to spend more time, money and effort in increasing and maintaining your online presence through search. If you keep a brochure of yourself online and that is your only objective, maybe not so much. But how the search engines see your site, and rank your site for the words your customers enter in their everyday search queries can change, and as technology changes and evolves, may be changing everyday from now until the day that the Internet goes away. This is why you need to look at SEO as a long term investment.