When I began planning to move to Hong Kong in early 2013 to open an office of my digital marketing agency, I expected to find a lot of competition from other SEO firms. I certainly expected to find many more competitors here than in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was moving from. After all, the entire state of Utah is home to only 3 million people, whereas Hong Kong has over 7 million. And, while Salt Lake City hosted a Winter Olympics and is a rapidly growing hub for businesses like Microsoft, Intel, as well as many homegrown startups, it’s hardly a world city like Hong Kong, which is regularly mentioned alongside other cities like London, Tokyo, and New York. Still, Utah has hundreds of SEO firms, some with hundreds of staff. That’s why I was surprised to find that Hong Kong, on the other hand, had just a handful of firms that even claimed to provide SEO services.
Since 2013, many agencies and individuals have popped up claiming to offer SEO services in Hong Kong, but the industry remains underdeveloped for a metropolitan area of this size. Likewise, the talent pool is also small. It’s rare to find an individual with more than 2 to 3 years of SEO experience.
Why is Hong Kong Behind When it Comes to SEO?
What accounts for the state of the SEO industry in Hong Kong? There appear to be two reasons:
1. a fear to be first
2. the desire for quick returns
Mountain climbers enjoy taking risks, but business people don’t, and that goes double in Hong Kong. It’s safe to do what everyone else is doing, and risky to lead. People are rarely fired for not doing something that might have worked. Companies in Hong Kong want to see someone else do SEO first.
This dynamic is compounded by the fact that SEO takes time to generate results and is an inherently long-term marketing tactic. Hong Kong business have not been slow to engage in search engine marketing (SEM), which involves purchasing paid search advertising through services like Google AdWords. If you want to generate sales and leads quickly you can set up an AdWords account in minutes, display your ads the same day, and generate sales just as quickly. Contrast that with SEO, which takes a minimum of several weeks to start getting traction, and 6 to 12 months to get substantial results.
“Wait, wait, wait…hold on!” you say. “If SEO takes sooo long, why would anyone do SEO? Why not just do SEM all the time?”
SEO and SEM
Some speak of SEO vs. SEM as though it were a choice between one or the other, but they are different marketing tools that serve different purposes. Where possible, it’s ideal to invest fully in both. But when budgets are constrained and one must choose, it’s important to know about three primary differences between SEO and SEM.
Speed. We already mentioned one difference, which is the time to generate results. If you need results fast, go for SEM. If you’re confident in your business over the long term, start today with SEO.
Cost. SEM costs less at the beginning, since SEO doesn’t generate any leads or sales at first. However, there is a point at which the cost per lead or sale with SEO dips below SEM, and with ongoing SEO that cost will continue to decline while the cost of SEM will most likely hold steady.
Volume. Most people using search engines don’t click on paid ads–they click on the natural or organic results, the ones you get through SEO. If you only invest in SEM, you may be missing 70% or more of the sales you could be getting.
There’s one more difference between SEO and SEM, which is that the benefits of SEM stop the day you turn off your ads. SEO, on the other hand, can sometimes produce benefits for years, even if you allow the service to stop. But beware, this doesn’t mean you can do SEO for a year and then plan to let it go for a year or two and then simply pick up where you left off. This will give your competitors a chance to catch up and pass you by, and it may be difficult or impossible to catch up. To win at SEO you need to start first, and do ongoing work to stay ahead.
How to Do SEO Right
SEO is essentially four activities:
Technical setup. Is your website set up the right way?
Content. Your content tells the search engines what your website is about and how good it is compared to your online competition.
Inbound links. Links that point to your website, also called incoming links or backlinks, are an important factor in how Google ranks your website.
Analytics. What gets measured gets better.
Once a website is set up the right way, the ongoing SEO activities are primarily creating content, building links to that content, and analyzing results.
Creating Great Content
People consume good content. People will pay for great content. Even if you give your content away for free, make it so good people would pay for it. If you’re not sure what that means, look at what kind of content people buy, like magazines, newspapers, books, audio books, and movies.
If you want to build a library of great content that will make your SEO unbeatable, answer questions your customers have. Which questions? Ask your sales and customer service teams. If you’re just starting up then you can guess at what questions your audience might have that are related to your products and services, or you can use websites like Quora to see what questions people are asking.
Publish your answers as blog posts or in a FAQ section on your website. Put extra value in your answers by including professionally designed infographics, interesting statistics, and advice from recognized experts and influencers. Make each answer a valuable resource others will want to link to because it’s so good. Share that content through your social media channels and email newsletters.
Building High Quality Links
The old way of building links was to go for quantity. Even now I can find SEO services online that promise “I will build 6000 contextual niche related links!” The price? A grand total of HK $40. DO NOT hire these services.
If you do hire these services you will likely receive a penalty from Google, your website will be removed from their index, and then you will have to pay someone to track down those 6,000 links and email the owners of all those websites to get the links removed. Some companies find this too expensive, so they simply abandon their website and create a new one. Regardless, this is not what you want.
The right way to build links is to do it naturally. If you have a page on your website that focuses on a particular topic, find high quality websites that also focus on that topic, or a related topic, and see if there is an opportunity for them to link to your website as a resource. The best links often come from editorial sources like online magazines and newspapers. Obtaining one of these links can be challenging and often involves work that looks more like public relations than SEO, but a single link from a high traffic, credible website may be worth more than hundreds of medium quality links.
Google Analytics is free and provides more insights than most companies know what to do with. But even if you do nothing but look at which pages of your website are most popular and what path people are taking to research your offerings, you’ll gain valuable insights that can boost leads or sales dramatically.
When and How Should You Outsource SEO?
Will your business die without SEO? Then build an in-house SEO team. Otherwise, you should probably outsource. Your time is too valuable. If you plan to hire an agency to do your SEO, follow these tips to make sure you hire the right one:
Ask for case studies. It may be hard to find an SEO company that has worked with a company like yours before, especially if you are doing something innovative that is rare or has never been done before. Nevertheless, get case studies and ask for details.
Check references. If an SEO agency can’t provide you with the contact info of three satisfied customers, is that an agency you want to hire?
View sample reports. How will your SEO firm show you that they’re getting results for you? Ask for one or more reports for other clients the firm is working with so you’ll know what to expect, and you can be sure it will match your needs.
Ask who will be working on your account, and how many other accounts they manage. We recently hired an SEO expert who was tasked with managing 150 clients at his previous employer. It’s not hard to do the math and see this meant he couldn’t dedicate much time to each client. A better number is 15, although larger accounts can justify a dedicated account manager.
There is a lot more you can learn about SEO, but if you apply the simple tips I’ve shared here, you’ll avoid the biggest, most common mistakes, and you’ll see your company grow.
Josh Steimle is the CEO of MWI, a digital marketing agency with offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Singapore, and the US. He is a TEDx speaker, has written over 200 articles on digital marketing and entrepreneurship for publications like Forbes, Inc, Time, Mashable, TechCrunch, and is the author of Chief Marketing Officers at Work.