When people approach me about building websites, more often than not, one of their top concerns is Search Engine Optimization (SEO). “Can you get us to be number 1 on Google?” they ask.

You hear a lot about SEO. A lot of website agencies offer SEO services and promise that SEO rankings are the holy grail of the online world.

But while having excellent search engine rankings is important and is a good thing, I’m here to tell you that, contrary to popular belief:

SEO is NOT the holy grail.

There is something else that’s much more important than SEO, and I’ll tell you what it is in a moment. But first, how can I make such a huge claim in the face of so many people saying exactly the opposite?

I’ve Held the SEO grail in my own hands!

A few years ago I built a website for a community service agency that served people in a three county area of upstate New York. It wasn’t a big agency, but they were doing good work. Important work. Work that, unfortunately, isn’t being done any longer because they went out of business.

Their executive director came to me wanting a little 3-page website. It was to be an “online brochure.” Just information about the agency. A homepage, a staff page, and a programs page. That’s it.

It was an easy site. And, because we did everything right when we built it, we were able to get to number 1 on Google. I remember calling the Executive Director one sunny April afternoon to give him the good news. “Guess what! We’re number 1.”

“That’s great,” he said.

And that was it. He put a little blurb about it in the next issue of his newsletter that he mailed out. And nothing. He didn’t keep the programs page up to date with current events. He didn’t keep the staff page up to date. There were no “Thank you to our great volunteers!” notes on the homepage.

For him, it was a brochure. Something that he wanted to bother with only as often as he changed his printed brochure. Every couple years.

In spite of the neglect, the site continued to rank at or near number 1 for 18 months. Ahead of major for-profit companies and national organizations. I suggested maybe he’d like to consider offering opportunities for supporters to donate online, but he declined. “Too expensive,” he said. “Besides, our supporters are mostly older and aren’t online.”

For two years, he was sitting on a gold mine. But all that time he continued working his tail off, coordinating roadside coin drops and pizza night at Uno’s once a month, selling tickets to “charity night” hockey games on which he was getting nickles and dimes.

Unfortunately he couldn’t sustain his agency on nickles and dimes and in 2012 he went out of business. He went out of business and his mission failed, even though he had consistantly ranked in the top 3 spots on Google for 2 years.

Out of that painful experience, I leared what the real holy grail is online.

The real holy grail online is Having an effective understanding of what the purpose of your website is and an effective strategy to make it fit into the mission of your organization.

If you don’t have a clear understanding of what your website’s purpose is, not even having a #1 Google ranking will help you.

So I’ve learned to ask every client that comes to me wanting to know if I can get them the #1 spot on Google this very simple yet vitally important question:

If, hypothetically, we’re able to get you to #1 on Google — what then? What would you do with that platform for your mission?

Until you can answer that question, you’re not ready to build a website. Let alone worry about how Google is going to rank it.

So, how do you answer that question? I’d love to see your answers in the comments.

Photo credit: Jim H