I’m not a Luddite, one of those 19th-century factory workers who destroyed machines because they thought industrialization would replace their jobs. On the contrary, I love new technology. 

In the mid-’80s, I created what has become one of the largest and most successful self-insurance pools in the nation for political subdivisions. Part of this process was a feasibility study: That study occurred prior to the proliferation of Lotus 1-2-3 (predecessor to Excel) so I did all of my projections with an adding machine along with yards and yards of paper tape.  

We used two-dozen Apple IIGS computers to leverage our employees’ abilities to could keep the expense ratio for that insurance company under 27.5 percent, which compared favorably to the then-common expense ratio of about 35 percent. Using Appleworks and spreadsheets that I devised, my employees could quote a premium for the average city in under 30 minutes, something that would have taken them five to seven hours using paper and calculators.

In short, I love computers. And, like most, I spend a large part of every day on the Internet learning and communicating with my clients and companies. Even so, I think most of what we read and hear about the success of agents using their individual websites to attract a large volume of new business is a hoax.

The promise (in theory) …

For the last four years, I’ve been involved in creating a large website meant to increase the efficiency of Internet marketing for independent agents. So far our efforts have been one long, very expensive lesson. We’ve invested a significant amount of money and time and have developed a system that works, but not yet on a scale that would satisfy a large paying customer.

The world of websites is highly speculative, as Google sets the rules for ranking on a search-return page and won’t tell anyone exactly what those rules are. The search giant’s fickle and secretive nature has added to our cost and has increased the width of the moat for those who want to develop cost-efficient leads through websites.

A few days ago, I attended an all-day seminar held by one of our agency’s contracted insurance carriers. The instructors stated that if insurance agents:

  1. created a visually pleasing website,
  2. posted interesting content,
  3. included relevant captioned pictures,
  4. paid attention to keywords,
  5. properly titled their pages,
  6. made sure their site was responsive to mobile devices and secure (https),
  7. claimed the proper local search pages,
  8. blogged frequently,
  9. wrote interesting meta descriptions,
  10. made sure they had positive reviews from clients,
  11. responded properly to those reviews, and,
  12. became proficient in website analytics,

… then they would have leads pouring into their agency.

Utter nonsense.

Unfortunately, the average agent who followed this advice would be out of business. They’d have no time (and limited marketing resources) to sell or service their customers, because maintaining a good website and attracting page visitors requires a significant investment of time and money.

Google does offer advice. One of Google’s primary tenets is, “Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.” That seems to oppose the primary purpose of the seminar instructors’ list. Similarly, most of what they suggested appears dated and ineffective when compared to current expert opinions.

… and the sobering reality

Think of the Internet as a very large convention. Your booth is one of approximately 500,000 other booths competing for attention. In order to “rank” high enough so that Google places you on the front page (or in the main “convention aisle”), you need to have content that is unique and desirable. Then you need to have an Internet pedigree, which very, very few insurance agencies can afford.

An Internet pedigree is often defined as your Domain Authority (DA). It is a number between zero and one hundred, with a one hundred being the best. Most agencies have a DA in the teens. Most insurance companies have a DA of between fifty and eighty. DA is believed to be part of the algorithm used by Google. Many think it is combined with Page Rank and several other factors to help Google decide how to rank your page when they respond to a search.

For example, when “auto insurance” is the search term, Google tells me they found 156,000,000 results. The top results are insurance companies with high DAs. Even the mega insurance information website, Trustedchoice.com — which has a high DA — came in on the fourth page on the day of my search. The first independent agent listed was on the seventh page. Almost no one goes beyond the first page, so the worth of coming in on the seventh page is negligible.

A search on “auto insurance” is so competitive that the cost for Pay Per Click for that term is over $73. That is a lot to pay for one website session. Even with a conversion rate of 20 percent, which is aggressive, that would put your acquisition cost at over $350 for just that portion of the expense.

Long-tail search

The instructors in our seminar suggested that we concentrate on long-tail search. “Long-tail” are the longer and more complex phrases people use to search. It is widely held that the more esoteric the search, the easier it is to rank on the first page. That is excellent advice. Except in this very competitive world it is becoming harder and harder to rank, even for long-tail.

Our site has well over 1,000 indexed pages. Indexed pages are recognized by Google. Yet we struggle to have about 275 keywords ranked on the first two results pages.

For example, if you search for “what do I do when my car has been keyed” our site ranks second. We don’t have “keyed” as a keyword. In fact, we don’t pay all that much attention to keywords anymore. Over a year ago, Google announced that more than one-fifth of all searches entered in the search bar had never been used before. People are becoming more and more specific in their searches, and are writing longer inquiries.   

Google’s bots can read for “context,” so keywords seemingly have diminished in importance. The bots will match inquiries with what they think is the most relevant, unique content. Supposedly if Google finds two pieces of content that are the same on two different sites, they may consider it a deceptive practice and an attempt to manipulate search engine results. Google does not like to be “scammed,” and will punish with low rankings those websites that attempt to put one over on them.

Another of my contracted carriers has a large Internet effort that helps agencies with their sites. I’ve used analytical tools on those agents’ websites who use their services. Those tools allow me to gauge the website’s traffic, view their keywords and dozens of other pieces of relevant data going back for several years. I’ve not been able to see any difference in traffic levels for the majority of the sites I’ve checked before and after those agencies spent hundreds of dollars a month for this service.

Further, we’ve looked at individual sites and have found that this “service” posted identical content on several sites. As stated above, this is considered very bad practice by most experts in the search engine optimization field.

Well-intentioned advice

A few years ago I attended the annual meeting of one my agency’s contracted insurance companies, during which the company assembles the top 1 percent of its agencies. They had an owner of a local agency speak to us in a breakout session about their agency’s website. According to the company and the agency, they had done everything right with their site. It was obvious that they had spent a great deal of time and money on it. Their site currently has a DA of 41, which is one of the best I’ve seen for an independent insurance agency.

I recently checked their site with my tools, and they’re getting about 3,000 visitors a month. Given standard conversion ratios, that would mean they’re getting between 10 and 20 inquiries a month. That amount of activity could be purchased from leads companies for far less.

A friend of mine has had a good agency website for years. It has a DA of 16, which is within the average range for agencies with sites. He has contracted with two different insurance company services and told me he’s getting eight to 10 inquiries a month and only about one of them would be a preferred customer.

Obviously, he can’t afford to pay more than about $100 a month for such a service, when compared to simply buying leads.

Best practices, revisited

It is my opinion that a local agency should view its website as an electronic calling card, a landing page for their social media, and to facilitate communication with their current customer base. They should construct their site to convince those who want to validate their professionalism and verify that they’re worthy of trust.

A well-constructed agency website also should be part of an overall social media strategy, which includes Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, that are designed to showcase the agency’s strengths.

There are many success stories out there that are legitimate, but they involve large agencies with elaborate websites, operating a national marketing program. A website designed for a local strategy, seeking to reinforce your strengths could be done much easier with far less expense.

If you are set on going “all-out” on a national website, Hagerty.com is a great example of an online portal that works through a combination of great, extensive content and proper techniques. They provide a valuation tool for classic cars and attract a great deal of traffic under searches such as “1965 Shelby Cobra.” Among other things, Hagerty.com also has thousands of backlinks, or links pointed to their site. The average local agent would be extremely lucky to have several dozen backlinks. Backlinks are considered by most search engine optimization (SEO) experts to be essential to raising your domain authority.

One can only imagine the amount of resources Hagerty has devoted to its site.  

Is aggregation the answer?

I believe in aggregation. In 1989, I started one of the pioneer agency aggregations. I knocked on over 100 insurance company doors, most of which were politely slammed in my face.

Travelers was the first company to agree to my “new” idea. It took a $3 million investment to get our large cluster off the ground. In 1992 and 1993 my group was the largest producer in the nation for Metropolitan Property and Casualty. That seemingly opened the eyes of many in the industry to the potential of aggregation. Now some people suggest that 40 percent to 50 percent of small agencies in the country are part of an aggregation. People are starting aggregations with extremely small investments because the concept is now mainstream.

Similarly, I believe the only way agencies can succeed in attracting cost-efficient leads on the Internet is through agency website aggregation. The logical answer would be to bring companies and agencies together under a mega-site that is independent of any one company or agency, but implementation of that concept has been problematic.

Although we feel our “aggregation” website’s content has the correct tone and information the user is seeking, I readily admit we haven’t proved the correct formula for this to work. Our agency website aggregation program has been endorsed by the National PIA for several years. We have received great support from a number of companies that has allowed us to test our theories, including Travelers, Harleysville. Hartford, State Auto, State Fund Mutual, Mendota and Kemper.

Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to attract the kind of insurance company financial backing needed. More importantly, when Google changed the rules and quality backlinks became necessary to create a large amount of traffic, we were not able to immediately respond.

The other agency association website aggregation project, Trustedchoice.com, has been able to attract links from a few dozen companies and several hundred agencies. They’re starting to attract traffic, but after spending many millions and more than five years of work their traffic is a fraction of that enjoyed by Hagerty.com. By some measurement, their traffic is about 5 percent of what esurance.com is now getting.

So what have we learned?

Website aggregation can work, just as insurance agency aggregation did. It will work because people want to buy locally, because they know and trust an agent. Small agencies working together in an aggregation attract the large insurance companies to do business with them in an efficient manner. Small local agents can attract new clients efficiently with aggregated websites.

The traffic is out there. Many large insurance websites’ traffic doubled over the last year. The probability that a local insurance agency can attract a fair share of that increasing traffic through a cost-efficient program is almost impossible.

Because the returns for SEO are so nebulous, agents need to watch every dollar they spend on their website, after they’ve covered the basics.

Agencies need a website. Agencies need to be active in social media and local search driving people to take a look at their operation. They should take part in Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter, for a start. They need a good website to validate themselves to people checking them online.