When I was in 6th grade, track and field was all the rage. I've never been particularly athletic. But it was 1984 and everyone in my class was pretty fascinated with the Olympics that year. As you can imagine the school's annual track meet turned into a mini-Olympics.

So I surveyed the events and the sign-ups for each one. I decided that the long-distance running events held the most promise for glory. The 2 mile, in particular, only had 2 other girls signed up—so I was pretty much guaranteed a "medal". That sounded pretty exciting. Maybe I could go for the gold!

However, watching the other events leading up to the 2-mile, I soon learned that one of the other girls was a seasoned runner. She knew all about pacing, how many minutes she should be able to run a mile in, and all that fancy stuff. At that point, I knew that first place was pretty much done for. I barely knew how many laps around the track I had to run. I ran the race anyway and wound up coming in second—which was just fine by me.

It's not all about winning—a place or a show can be just fine

Whenever I talk to a client about search engine placement, this track meet comes into mind. The client comes to me wanting to be #1 for their chosen search term. But for many small businesses, being ranked first is not truly that important—and depending on the search term, being #1 may hurt their business.

How can being #1 possibly hurt?

I know, saying that being on top can hurt your business sounds pretty unbelievable. But, being in first place has several disadvantages:

1. Getting to first place for desirable keywords takes a lot of work. The world of search engine placement is highly competitive. Most people with a website are trying to get placed in the Search Engines.

With all of this competition, you'll have to do a lot of work on your site to get the search engines' attention. This could include keyword research, changing your headlines, editing your text, submitting your site, getting links coming in to your site, and making sure that your site is content-rich. It takes a fair bit of work just to get listed, and then even more work to get to the top. Aiming for third or fourth place can be easier to achieve, and cuts down the amount of work required to get there.

2. The climb to the top is often slow. Raising your ranking on the search engines isn't an instantaneous process. After you've made your changes, you have to wait for the search engines to stop by and re-rank you.

You probably won't get to the top spot on the first try—so you'll have to go through this process a few times to make headway. The quest to get to the top can take quite a while, and having to work repeatedly on optimizing your site for search engines can take your focus and attention away from your business.

3. Being #1 can bring you more "browsers" instead of qualified prospects. Holding the top spot means that you're most likely to be a visitor's first stop on their search. Instead of having a focused idea of what they're looking for, the people who are coming to your site may only have a vague idea—which means more hand-holding and question-answering for you.

This can become a real problem if you work to be ranked first for a more general search term like "marketing consultant". You'll have lots of visitors, sure, but are they really the best visitors for you?

The sheer number of visitors is much less important than the quality of visitors that arrive at your site. Are they looking for what you're selling? Do they have the right sort of budget to work with you? Are they in an industry that you like working with? Are they going to connect with your personality?

If you get them to your site, but they then answer "no" to any of the above questions, they won't buy from you—which can be more frustrating than having them never come by at all.

4. Sometimes the top spot gets skipped! Some searchers automatically click lower in the list instead of clicking on #1. This may be because they assume that the person in the #1 spot would be too busy to help them, or would have higher rates. Or they may just skip over the top slot visually because it's close to paid ads at the top of the page.

Being a few listings down actually reduces this skip-over factor, and makes it more likely that a rushed visitor will notice your listing.

5. People often aren't ready to buy the first thing they see. Your customers will want to do their due diligence research before making a purchase. If you're number one on the search results list and they start researching from the top, you may find that by listing 4 or 5 they feel informed enough to purchase. And you will have been long forgotten just because they clicked on it first.

If a visitor comes to your site after having seen other options, they may be more prepared to make a purchase immediately. This could help you close more sales.

6. Staying on top is challenging. Imagine a pyramid of cheerleaders competing for the "longest time in a human pyramid" World Record. They're up there, trying to keep the girl on top stable for hours at a time. Sounds exhausting, right?

It's equally tiring to try to stay in the top spot on the search engine rankings. Because, while you're sitting smugly on top, other companies are working on their sites, trying to climb over you. Unless you keep checking and keep working at it, that #1 slot may not be yours for long. This vicious circle takes your attention away from your business as you have to work on your website endlessly.

Does that mean that if you do reach #1 you should take steps to lower your ranking?

If you're already in the top spot for a search term, don't panic—you've already conquered #1 and 2 on this list by being patient and working through the process.

But if you find that you're suffering from any of the other problems on the list—too many browsers, not enough visitors because you're being skipped, or lots of visitors and not enough purchasers, you may consider experimenting with letting other companies take over the top spot for a while to see if your site will benefit.

Being in first place isn't everything in the search engine race. But if you can get into the top 10 results, you'll improve your traffic, get more interested prospects to your site, and probably close more sales. And there should be a medal for that!