November 15, 2017 | Sarah Danks


From 2007 to 2017

They say the traditional ten-year anniversary gift is aluminum (or tin). Well, cheers to ten years in business! (image source)

It’s a classic roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-it-yourself start-up story: the year was 2007. A guy with a plan struck out on his own and started building a business with nothing more than a laptop, an Internet connection, and a passion for search marketing.

While search engine optimization (SEO) was offered, it was pay-per-click (PPC) marketing that propelled ThinkSEM forward.

Now it’s ten years later, and here we are: no longer a start-up, but a bona fide, real-life small business! It’s fun to look back and reminisce about “ye goode olde days” of search marketing, but now we can also look back at how much our business has changed to move along with the rapid landscape we call home.

Many aspects of search have drastically evolved since back then; most notably SEO, PPC, and design.

Here’s a little break-down of how all three have morphed over the years.

How SEO has changed since 2007:

Way back then — in 2007 and before — there were three main search engines:

  1. Google
  2. Yahoo!
  3. MSN

Oh, and the best place to learn about search engine optimization was, of course, at SEOMoz.

Back then, there were some SEO “tactics” one could engage in that would propel websites to the forefront of the search engines results pages (SERPs).

For the record, the aforementioned looked like this back then:

The most popular one was keyword stuffing. One of the major ways search engines determined rank was by how many times a keyword appeared on a web page. Talk about content being written strictly for search engines!

Something else that worked to boost rankings was building links — most popular method was purchasing them — another important aspect of determining importance on the web was how many links pointed to a website or page. Bonus points if the same anchor text was used over and over again (think of the “Miserable failure” Google bomb).

Anyone remember that pesky meta keywords tag? The meta keywords tag was the behind-the-scenes way of telling search engines what the page was about (as if they couldn’t crawl the on-page content accurately enough?)…

…it was also a way to spam the search engines into thinking your page was about something it wasn’t, just so it would show up in SERPs to get “hits.”

I remember looking for a new couch for my apartment way back when, and so I Googled something like, “suede couches” (don’t ask why), and I got a TON of results for Britney Spears websites. Yeah, that actually used to be a thing.

Confused, I sent along the results to a buddy of mine — Clint Danks — who just happens to be the founder and owner of ThinkSEM — and within minutes he explained what had happened: the Britney spears sites’ meta keywords tags were LOADED with thousands upon thousands of random keywords so they’d show up when people were searching innocently for something else.

Crazy.

Another spammy technique that was not only popular, but we saw it quite often, was white-on-white text. Pretty self-explanatory on that one: there’d be a huge, seemingly empty white area after the (visible) content on a page…

…then you’d highlight over it and there’d be hundreds — if not thousands — of keywords jammed into the area in the same color as the background. Visitors to the page couldn’t see them (unless they knew what to look for, which most didn’t), but search engines of course could read all of it.

Something that wasn’t very spammy but maybe not the friendliest for visitors to actually read was something called a “geography block.” We used these a lot on legal websites to rank for states and cities — think of it as the earliest type of “near me” optimization!

Securely nestled in the footer of every website would be a “where we provide services” block of text oftentimes containing dozens — if not dozens of dozens — of cities, counties, and variations of suburban neighborhood nicknames, all written for the express purpose of showing up in Google searches for things like, “DUI attorneys in Roseville, MN.”

Ah, the good ol’ days.

Search Optimization in 2017:

Many (many, many) times over the years marketers have touted that SEO is dead. Of course it never is, but it sure has changed!

Now, we’ve got mobile searches on the rise, voice search is commonplace, “near me” searches are far more nuanced than ever before, social media engagement is an influencer, AI/Rankbrain have made search engines (read: Google) ever more intelligent, the SERPs are full of answer boxes and rich snippets…

…and above all else, pleasing the user is most important. Long gone are the days of writing specifically for search engine bots.

Oh, and SEOMoz is just Moz, and the search engines are Google, Bing, and Yahoo!. Yes, Yahoo! still exists, though who uses it still I’m not sure.

But, like I said, SEO wasn’t the only service ThinkSEM offered — pay-per-click has always been our bread-and-butter. Let’s look at how that service has advanced over the years.

10 years of PPC Marketing:

In 2007, pay-per-click (PPC) marketing wasn’t new, but it was new enough that it was still somewhat shrouded in mystery. How so? Well, back then click fraud was a thing.

Think 20-something dudes living in their parents’ basement getting paid to click repeatedly on ads. There were basically two types of click fraud:

  1. Network click fraud
  2. Competitor click fraud

Network click fraud was when a company would generate false clicks on ads to increase its payout on the ad network. If someone placed ads on network sites, whenever clicks were recorded, the marketer received payment, so if you paid someone to sit and click those ads, you’d generate more cash flow for yourself.

With competitor click fraud, a company would pay someone to target their competitors’ ads. By continually clicking on them, you could drive up that business’s marketing costs and essentially make them over-spend (or shut down their ads due to reaching their monthly budget…either way, they lose).

Pretty dirty pool, huh? And everyone thought only SEOs wore black hats back then.

Also in 2007, the PPC marketer with the highest bid won the top position, which was the most sought-after location. That didn’t mean it was the most lucrative; that’s what most marketers thought so they fought to get there.

Back then, sponsored search ads showed up on the top AND right-hand side of the SERPs:

There were rumors that suggested having a (successful) PPC campaign could actually boost your website’s organic search performance; along with the opposite: that a PPC campaign could cannibalize your SEO efforts.

The only bidding options were broad match, phrase match and exact match…

…and since PPC was still “new” enough that not everyone knew a lot about it, many marketers gravitated towards broad match.

Pay-per-click in 2017:

Fast forward ten years, and click fraud is an urban myth all the young SEMs hear about but have never seen. Right-hand SERP ads are long gone, and the bidding auction is much more highly developed than simply trying to buy the “top spot.”

Right-hand sponsored ads are gone, replaced by — in some cases — Google Shopping ads:

Now we’ve got broad match modified in addition to the original three bidding options, and it’s glorious.

In today’s paid search world, it’s not just a matter of generating clicks; rather, it’s about winning conversions. The landing page is one of the most important aspects of a PPC campaign, and there are a slew of companies whose sole purpose is offering DIY landing page platforms to build the best conversion experience possible.

Obviously a pillar of our online marketing company has been — and always will be — web design. The way businesses present themselves on the www has changed drastically in the past ten years…

…and we’re no exception.

Take a stroll back through memory lane and see how our own design preferences have developed over the years.


Our Design Changes over 10 years:

Think2007: the first iteration of the website was oh-so-exciting.

The main goal? To get a website live on the world wide web, start promoting services, and gain some “equity” online (read: link juice and SEO love).

The content revolved around packages for various services — complete website packages, SEM packages, etc. — because Clint thought that would be easy for potential clients to digest. Of course, every case is unique, but he wanted something visitors could choose from…

…plus, let’s be honest, it was a first stab at having a company website.

Since the business at this point was just a one-person shop, this web design — and the content — were contracted out to friends in the industry for the right price.

2007 Web Design

As you can see, the THINKing was, it would be great to offer all aspects of online marketing (back then it was pretty much known as the blanket term “search engine marketing,” hence the business name).

One of the things you learn as a new company is you don’t need to be — in fact, can’t be — everything to everyone. But, when you’re first starting out and excited to share your knowledge of all things online with a brand-new audience, you try it anyway.

So, he fell into the “spray and pray” type of marketing.

The next ThinkSEM web version came a year and a half later.


The second design version was after Clint had a better understanding of what the business was — the focus shifted off web design services (he really only offered landing page design at this point) — he was getting into high-end PPC management.

2009 Web Design

The concept of having landing pages was starting to become a thing, “newish,” and having a dedicated page to support JUST PPC efforts was the cutting-edge of SEM at the time.

Back then, Clint used Tim Ash’s tool (SiteTuners) to help build — and assess — landing pages. He also relied on Google’s Website Optimizer (a free tool provided to handle A/B and multivariate testing).

From the marketing aspect, he was figuring out who the business was…

…but from a branding standpoint, he was still fishing for the best representation and company messaging. This design was where he started playing around with having a tagline — “The Next Step in Search Marketing.”

This design was also where he started to hone in on the company wheelhouse: PPC management with customized landing pages.

The next iteration came in 2011.


ThinkSEM’s third web design was our first design by an in-house designer (Dave, still with us today!). We got a new logo — something more polished, more grown-up. We stuck with the same tagline; it worked, so why change it?

This version veered away from the popular “white space” web design look that was so popular and instead embraced a bit of a darker look.

2011 Web Design

We were still pushing paid search — and the custom landing pages that accompanied it — but this is the period where we started to move away from ad hoc SEO projects. Again, SEO was still a major player in online marketing, but we were focusing efforts on where we could make the most headway for our clients.

With pay-per-click, we had control over performance, budgeting, and lead volume. We hung onto SEO as a service because it’s there, and always will be…

…but now we started pushing website design more heavily because, again, we finally had an in-house web designer/developer.

This web design actually only lasted about six months; we revised it because it just wasn’t as effective at generating leads for us.

At the time, we didn’t have a big design portfolio, because up until this point all design work had been a) contracted out and consisted almost entirely of b) landing pages.

It took far longer to get the design aspect of the business off the ground than we’d anticipated…


…but we were taking on more clients, slowly evolving our design chops and building a respectable portfolio.

2012 Web Design

Normally we redesign the ThinkSEM site every 15-18 months, but this version (#4) hung around for two solid years. We sat on it for a while because we were really planning out the next iteration: outlining new content, delving into content marketing, introducing social media into the mix (we were a bit behind the curve on that aspect, but of course the main focus of the business was still PPC and custom landing page design).

We wanted a different look and feel for promoting ourselves more heavily. We were also gearing up to move everything to the WordPress environment (up until this point, all the sites were statically built).

At this time, we had also launched some side projects like ThinkLegal and ThinkCreative, off-shoots of the main brand that we thought would bolster our clientele.

What really ended up happening was we diluted our marketing efforts (and the main brand) by having ancillary businesses. We got rid of those and started putting all the efforts back into the “mother ship,” as it were.

We officially moved solely to WordPress for web design — starting with our own site. It was at this time that our designer, Dave, started pushing us to move towards responsive web design (RWD). This was at the end of 2011 and moving into 2012, right on the cusp of when responsive design was becoming known.

Kudos to him for making that move, because it turned out we were way ahead of the catering-to-your-users curve. Now, Google factors “mobile-friendliness” into its ranking hierarchy…

…and we don’t have to worry about it because it’s a standard offering here and has been for years.


Version 5 of our web design came in 2013, and brought along with it some rockin’ changes.

Ha.

We decided to go a different route design-wise and added some concert imagery (Clint’s a huge rock/metal fan so we incorporated one of his loves into the web design because, why not?).

This is also the layout where we began playing around with different colors — notice our cheerful yellow calls-to-action! Experimenting with colors, imagery, etc. is something we felt we needed to do.

2014 Web Design

We incorporated a new tagline (Think. Act. Evolve.) and expanded our services — again — to include offerings such as package design, print collateral, etc. Since we’d had clients asking us about these things in the past, we decided to try it on for size and play around with being a full-service online marketing agency.

But, again, it spread us thin and we cut the chaff and pared it back down to the basics we were good at.


In the next website version, we turned around and went back to a more “techy” look.

Again, we got a new logo and went back to black, white, and grey tones, with our signature red “pop” of color (don’t tell Dave I said that.). This version — number six — was cleaner, had more “white space,” and was simpler (and, for the record, my personal favorite).

2015 Web Design

Going into this project, we were thinking “this is who we are,” we need to tell people what we excel at: paid search, lead generation for professional services companies (and the resulting web design that goes along with that), and of course SEO, because it’s a fundamental part of online marketing.

At this time, Dave had an idea: build out design “templates” (he hates that word) that would be a simple, cost-effective way for smaller businesses to get a customized web design. Thus, Themes Plus was born.

In regards to our design approach for ThinkSEM: we wanted to have a simplified look, including the logo and the website itself; our focus was on who we are, who we cater to and we just rolled with it.

No more trying to be everything to everyone. I.e., if an existing client wanted services we didn’t offer (traditional marketing services), we’d refer them to colleagues who offered those services. It took a long time to learn how to say “no” to clients, but it was for everyone’s best interest and was a big step for us.


And here we are at the end of 2017, with ThinkSEM Version 7.

Clint’s always been involved in our site design decision-making, but designer Dave wanted to run with a concept and he was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. We segued from a more “static” site into one with a more fun approach that incorporates video background.

It’s not interactive, per se, but more “moving” than our other static imagery.

2017 Web Design

A lot of internet marketing company websites can tend to look the same…

…there’s a certain look and feel that we’ve somewhat come to expect from this business — so with this latest version, we wanted to break the mold a bit and do something a bit more “out there,” and fun.

This time around, we’re focused on telling people up front that we’re all about lead generation — and the main vessels we use to deliver leads to our professional services clients are pay-per-click, custom landing pages and responsive web design.

Each of our designs is a reflection of where we were at that time…

…we’ve been told by others in the industry they love this new design, and that it suits us.

I tend to agree.


After Ten Years in Business…

…I think we can safely say we know who we are, we know what we’re good at, and we’re here to stay.

Where do we see ourselves in the next decade to come? Who knows! We’ll try new things, see what works, but overall we’ll continue to focus on lead generation.

For our company in general: there are certain clientele we excel at helping, and we’ll continue focusing on partnering with those.

We know where our strengths lie, and how we can best help people with their online marketing efforts. For the foreseeable future, we’re still catering to professional services clients, acquiring their leads through PPC efforts, custom web design, etc.

Where we go from here also depends on the personnel we acquire over the years to come: if people have a certain skill set that’s new or can add to our company’s value, we’ll utilize that.

Really, though, in online marketing it all depends on what the search engines decide to do. Algorithms are constantly evolving, and we need to adapt to keep up.

SEO has evolved past mere keywords and links, and as long as Google keeps pushing down the organic results in favor of paid ads (and other media) we’re going to adhere to best practices and go with the flow.

SEO is never going away — it has changed drastically, and will continue to do so, but there’ll always be a need to optimize websites to show up on the first page of Google. And, nestled on top of all that organic fighting are the highly prized paid search slots.

Google makes money on increasing the click-through-rate (CTR) of their ads, after all.

Recently, Rand Fishkin offered a break-down of Google’s stats in 2017. What interested us the most is the following gem: every time a search engine results page loads, 54.5% of visitors click on an organic listing. 42.5% don’t take ANY action (we were actually shocked at how high that number is!).

And, here’s the kicker: only 3% of people click on a paid ad. Even now, in 2017. So, even Google has a bounce rate!

The point? As an online marketing company focusing on PPC management, we’re chasing that lowly 3%. Google’s revenue would skyrocket if that increased to only 4% — but until it does, our main goal is getting a very small portion of the SERP action for our clients.

We’ll continue to grow in size and clientele, and there’ll be many more iterations of our web design in the years to come.

Quite the journey we’re on! Happy anniversary to us, and cheers to the next ten years…

 


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