Pretty much every business that is cognizant of the importance of a web presence already has a website of some kind. Really knowledgeable agencies have active sites that are changing regularly and providing valuable information to their clients and prospects. These websites are becoming integral communications tools for agents with their clients and with their target audiences.

Agents who have been “told” they need web presence but really don’t understand why, have duplicated the Yellow Pages electronically and have websites that are basically billboards, telling anyone who happens to find them who they are, where they are and when they’re open. Some even have on-line applications and quoting devices on their sites – but are finding them to be relatively useless.

As the impact of telephone books continue to diminish in direct correlation to the automation capabilities of the general public, agencies understand that more people every year, older as well as younger consumers, are searching for services like insurance through search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing instead of looking through a telephone book. Like the old Yellow Pages, people search for attractive sites that are informative and evoke a sense of competence and professionalism in their insurance agencies. I don’t know about you, but it’s much easier to find a Greek restaurant, books, a certain type of shoe – or a specific insurance product by searching the web for it than it is to try to find my local Yellow Pages and leafing through it.

So the Search Engines developed technology to lead the folks who used a search engine to websites and pages that are most appropriate to their desired search. Search Engines’ use of algorithms and “spiders”, meta tags and page stuffing is far beyond what most normal people need to know about this subject. But it IS important to know that the Search Engines are trying to return to their inquirers the websites that are most appropriate to their search terms.

And the critical need for every business is to have their websites appear high on the web searches. The number of visits to a website diminishes radically the further down the search list your website appears to a viewer. Most searchers only view the first or second pages of search engines before linking to one of the recommended sites. That’s why Search Engines offer higher, shaded positions at a paid submission service (cost per click) and many offer paid advertisement positions in a separate column. But most vendors still rely on the “natural” (un-paid and free) search results that are based on some mysterious method that Search Engines employ to identify the right websites in response to a user’s keyword search.

A search today for the word “insurance” brought 816,000 results in .2 seconds with Geico, AAA, and State Farm as the paid (shaded) results. “Auto Insurance” search brought me 296 MILLION results in .22 seconds, reflecting that everyone with a website selling auto insurance will be returned. However, the first page only allows some 15-20 displays, so that’s where most people will stop. “Insurance Agent” returned 126 MILLION responses. “Independent Insurance Agent” returned 216 MILLION hits. And, finally, “Independent Insurance Agent Cherry Hill, NJ”, where I live, still returned almost 1.7 MILLION hits – proving that even specific territorial general searches won’t guarantee that you will be found by your constituents.

So we have to find a way to make our websites appear high enough on the list of a searcher that he can link, call or visit you or see your information on your site. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was a discipline that responded to this need beginning about 15 years ago (generally coinciding with the popularization of Google and the other search engines. This new discipline was originally meant to show us how to establish our websites in a way conducive to the search engine technology to allow them to a) find us, and b) identify us to searchers as a likely response to their search. The effort of website developers to show us how to establish our sites to be attractive to the search engines was a formidable task and a worthwhile one. But something changed quickly from the establishment of websites to properly attract the Search Engine tools (called “spiders”) in response to searchers to a set of programs implemented by developers and other techies to MANIPULATE results to make Search Engines more likely to find our site and to place it high on their search results.

SEO has changed from being a tool to properly define your site to search engines to an industry into itself meant to ‘fool’ search engines into placing your site high on their search response.

But do you really understand the concept of SEO?

SEO is the engineering and manipulation of search engines to gain a more favorable position for your business when people search for the key words that are most appropriate for your business. When your SEO provider recommends changes to your content to make it friendlier to the keywords that are most often used for insurance agency searches so that was a worthwhile activity made to generate better results for searchers. However, the monthly charges for SEO as a marketing strategy to artificially raise your website’s presence in websites altered the terrain and caused the Search Engines to spend millions of dollars to refine their technology.

Google, Yahoo, Bing and the other search engines created their searches to identify the websites that are most frequently accessed using the keywords that are appropriate to your business. SEO has become a multi-million industry dedicated to “fooling” the search engines into directing traffic to YOUR website by qualifying the keywords and look of your website to their designed targets.

In the infancy and youth of web search engines, SEO worked well. Smart ‘techies’ could flood the websites with frequent use of keywords and ‘pings’ sufficient for the search engines to recognize your website near the top of any search for “insurance” or the specific keywords that would target your site for web searchers.

However, search engines companies are spending a millions of dollars in attempts to invalidate SEO efforts that try to ‘fool’ them in to thinking that websites are more responsive to searches than the site’s historical results would otherwise prove. And, as the Search Engines become ever smarter about their searches and results, it is becoming increasingly difficult for SEO companies to keep sites high on search results.

In the Yellow Pages, if you spent obscene amounts of money on ‘double-truck’ colored advertisements, you got preferential placement at the beginning of a category so when someone opened the book they would see you first. The YP certainly priced themselves out of the market as more insurance agents are understanding that they are not getting the return for their investment that they once did. Now, SEO services are charging for monthly services to keep your site high on the search engines results for your keywords. This is worthwhile to you only if the results bring you net income that are more than the costs incurred.

IF you are paying for SEO and are not getting Google Analytics or some measure of your hit rate and success of the SEO efforts, you are likely wasting your SEO dollars. You must be as involved in cost justifying this expense as you are with any other expense in your agency. And the critical nature of your site’s presence on the search engines depends on whether your strategy is for simply having a presence on the web or making it a primary marketing and communications tool for your agency. If your goal is the former, don’t waste your money on SEO beyond the proper design of your site. If your goal is the latter, analyze your SEO results every month or every quarter and make sure you are getting your monies worth from a service that would otherwise be invisible to you.