One of the most difficult problems SEO professionals can face is convincing companies that search engine optimization is a worthwhile investment. We spend a great deal of time dealing with industry specific lingo: algorithms, Panda, Penguin, link building, PageRank, nofollow, canonical tags. These words are completely meaningless to most people in most companies. In our favor are New York Times articles that reference how a big brand name may have had a tough time with link building. Unfortunately, that’s also a double-edged sword because some people will walk away from those stories thinking that SEO is spam, regardless of what Google publishes.
I had an interesting email discussion with a very prominent blogger in the field of photography who had completely written off SEO as being a bag of card tricks that scammers and spammers use. In fact, his online marketing knowledge was so far off base that his yardstick for measuring success revolved around tracking the number of unique IP addresses visiting his website. You see, this is also part of the problem that some people exhibit–it’s not just about their perception of SEO, it’s about the online space as a whole. Metrics, to the uninformed, can be extremely deceiving, so before we get to the part where we sell the idea of SEO and what it can do for your business, we have to educate, reset expectations, and often explain the fundamentals of the online space.
Many times, it is as basic as explaining the difference between SEO and PPC, but more often it’s the nuances and the gray lines between them. The use of social media and its affects on SEO also play a role in causing confusion. This space is definitely getting more and more complicated, without a doubt. It wasn’t all that long ago that the online space was just SEO, certainly within the lifespan of my teenage daughter–it’s all relative. The online space is accelerating quickly in its sophistication, driven by impatient and fickle consumers and the need for marketers to find ways to quantify and measure segments of gray.
Watching the online space is not a business owner’s center of attention; they’re busy running their business, so it’s easy to miss the subtle changes that occur in the SEO world. However, this knowledge gap from the business owner’s point of view still does not excuse the attitude and dismissal of a practice that has greatly contributed towards the success of so many businesses. That shift in mindset requires us to optimize the brain, rather than a website, and typically SEO people overlook this.
OK, let’s regroup. Imagine that we’re now dealing with someone who is at least willing to listen and talk about it–someone who is curious and has the influence in the organization to make it happen. This is the person who we’re interested in talking to.
I describe the process of integrating SEO into your business using four Cs.
When we talk about culture within organizations, usually the first things that spring to mind are the more social aspects: dress code, working hours, ping pong, videos games, and free snacks. These are all good things, but corporate culture is what really counts here. That is how an organization operates and, most importantly, how it communicates. What are the chains of command? Who are the influencers and blockers? Who are, or have the potential to be, your greatest allies and informers?
This working knowledge of the corporate culture is important to understand because you need to know who needs more of your attention, what drives them, and which buttons to avoid pushing. The corporate culture also shares metrics and key performance indicators. If SEO doesn’t have much exposure here, you have work to do. In most businesses, SEO needs to have a top down approach. We need leadership to understand the importance as they’re the key decision makers and can quickly change company policies and bring focus to important issues.
Within Google, performance is a driving force behind a lot of what they do. Steven Levy wrote in his book In The Plex about how Sergey and Larry think about performance all the time and integrate it into everything they do. This top down approach and integration into the corporate culture ensures that everything they do will incorporate performance planning and measurement. I believe SEO needs to have the same approach within an organization to ensure that products and features are built with SEO baked in. Without this approach, SEO simply becomes the spit and polish on the final product.
So often SEO professionals find out about site changes when they’re live and perhaps only happen upon them by chance. This is extremely wasteful, especially if the changes cause problems. The frantic scramble to start testing and analyzing the changes causes scheduling problems and impacts other projects. In the extreme case, keeping an SEO professional out of the loop has even happened with a complete site redesign!
Here’s one really telling way to know if you’ve successfully conveyed the importance of SEO–when launching some new content, do you have managers and non-SEO people asking if you launched the XML sitemaps? Or whether a link needs to be nofollowed? If so, you’re on the right track. It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand where to submit them, what they are, or how they’re used. The point is, they know it’s an important item from an SEO point of view, which means they value it. So rather than scoff at them, embrace the fact that they’re trying to keep you in the loop and thank them with a big smile on your face.
People need to be curious about SEO, they need to have a hunger for knowledge and a playful sense of intrigue. If people are already in this state, you’re golden and can start the process of educating and bringing the right people up to speed. But too many times, this is not the case. What you may find is that it’s a blend of attitudes and mixed feelings. This is your chance to recognize the curious Georges and get them on your side. Don’t fight the battle alone; get allies on board and attack from multiple angles. Outflanking is also completely acceptable, as long as you don’t jeopardize your own position in the process. While this sounds like a battle strategy, my preferred method is more akin to psychological warfare.
To continue fostering curiosity, act upon the wisps of info that might come your way. Chase down each piece of info about a site problem, a new feature, or a conversation, and ensure that when you have to take action, your results are communicated back to the informer. Let them know that because of the info they provided, you were able to find the issue, put corrective measures in place, and make/save the company money. Also be sure to communicate this to their manager in their presence. What you’re doing is creating a cycle of behavior and reward. With enough repetitions you’ll soon have lots of people curious about how they can help you.
This is where a lot of the magic happens and where small mistakes can cause big problems. Some of the best people to foster curiosity are the developers. Often they don’t get a lot of say in the requirements and are just expected to code to the specs. That typically leaves them feeling very anxious because if something breaks, developers are then expected to fix it and clean up the mess.
One of the really fantastic things about developers is that they’re always learning. As new technologies emerge, they’re just expected to keep up and many put in extra hours at home working on personal projects or reading to maintain their proficiency and knowledge.
When working with developers, the best ways to get them on your side (apart from beer), is to write requirements with helpful explanations of what the code does, why it works and even cite 3rd party resources. Big hint: They tend to specifically like it when you cite Google’s help pages.
Once the project launches, make sure you give them a shout out and follow up with the success story. People like to be rewarded for their work, and a little recognition will go a long way, especially when that next project is just around the corner. Below is a 20 minute TED talk about the work/reward relationship that describes this very well.
Yes, people say “Content is King”. I’m not sure I 100% agree with that, but generating good quality, authentic, trustworthy content will go a long way into improving traffic, business and the company’s reputation or credibility. My friend Alan did a good job explaining this with his QUART concept. Unfortunately, this is usually one of the hardest nuts to crack because when companies bring on an SEO company, they usually don’t understand they also need to make internal changes to fully realize the SEO investment. SEO is not about waving a magic wand, it needs to be a true partnership.
When companies start working with an SEO agency, they often don’t realize that they may need to hire writers and leverage other resources to generate content. They typically rely on existing staff and tack on content creation as a secondary job function. Be careful with this approach as it can easily lead to frustration and failure. Depending on the size of the commitment and investment in SEO, the company is going to need help hiring writers, or outsource it. SEO companies and agencies will often be very willing partners to do the heavy lifting but will still need to lean heavily on the company to provide them with the necessary stats and facts.
The client will need to work very closely with the agency to ensure that the right content is being produced, published and marketed. Establishing a content strategy is the fundamental first step. This is not just “oh, we’ll create a blog.” There are many ways to create a content strategy. A good start might be to answer these four basic questions:
- Who is your audience?
- What are they looking for?
- What content do you have right now?
- What content does the competition have?
Once you’ve answered these, you can start to delve into more details around what messages you need to produce, how the audience breaks down, and building a content/funnel matrix. This is a way to map existing content into the phases of the sales funnel. It’s a really useful tool to help understand strengths and gaps.
OK, so once you’ve gotten to that point, you will also need to think about the content delivery. In that stage, you will start to think about issues such as content format, life-cycle, media types, voice, and measurement. Ultimately, we’re doing this to generate business, but it’s not realistic to paint a broad brush stroke and measure all content equally. Top of the funnel content is not going to generate immediate conversions, so comparing it to lower funnel content, such as technical specifications or demos will tend to skew perceptions. This is an important concept for the company to understand, because similarly we just as we don’t judge all vehicles the same–each have different load capacities, fuel efficiencies, capabilities, and designs for specific audiences to fit specific needs–the same should be true of the content that’s produced.
The four Cs framework is one way to boil down how integrating SEO into an organization can take place. I recognize this is not the only way and obviously each company and SEO agency or consultant works differently. However, having done SEO over the last 15 years for various companies, from Fortune 100s to mom and pop businesses, these four Cs represent the most common areas that need to be addressed.
You may have picked up on one thing about these – a lot of the work needed to be successful is not actually traditional SEO. For example, you can’t meet with leadership and start talking about canonical tags. You have to adapt your language and help them appreciate the why and what it means to them in dollars and cents. There are a few simple techniques that can be used to foster and maintain curiosity – this is one of the key Cs, because getting, and keeping, people curious will grease the wheel when it comes to getting the important, but tricky little things implemented. Very often, the asks we have fall outside of our contact’s immediate line of power.
The code part is relatively simple. There’s documentation about how to do SEO all over the web, and as time goes by, the search engines are providing more tools, information and better algorithms. The search engine that is the 6yr old child is now perhaps 8 or 9 :)
Content strategies and content marketing have been written about a lot over the last 3-5 years, and rightly so. Once you have the first three Cs locked into place, you have to get that content out there for search engines and users to find. Doing it properly is not just a matter of firing up your favorite keyword research tool; there’s a lot of planning and preparation that needs to take place before you start putting pen to paper.
I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy post, I haven’t written much on my blog in a long while, but hopefully this is going to be the start of a comeback for me–although I promise not every post will be quite as long :) If you enjoyed this, or have a difference of opinion, please leave a comment below.