The responsibilities of SEO practitioners have changed to include far more of the digital ecosystem, yet for so many, much of the SEO process remains the same. Currently there are several segments of SEO strategy seen as optional that are actually absolutely imperative to the success of an SEO campaign, as well as to the synergy of other initiatives within the marketing mix. In other words, SEO must adopt and adapt in order to be taken seriously and command the type of influence required to drive change. As it stands, SEO looks to disrupt the symphony (or cacophony) that is a brand’s marketing mix. Let’s discuss a new process that allows SEO to improve the effectiveness of all digital marketing channels – not just inbound.
Disclaimer: Kanye West is awesome, but you understand how he is perfect to illustrate these points.
Problems with the Old Process
I’ve heard SEO called a lot of ugly things in the past few years. My favorite one lately was delivered to me by the wonderful Brittan Bright after someone passionately declared to her that SEO is the “Calculus of Marketing.” I love it simply because it fits. Just like Calculus, if you’re not looking at the aggregate value of what you’re working on you may do a lot of work for a result that doesn’t seem big in the grand scheme. Just like Calculus, SEO is quite specific and esoteric to those that haven’t studied it. Just like Calculus, you can be completely successful without it altogether. And finally SEO and Calculus both set a barrier of entry that excludes more than it includes.
With all that said, here is the typical SEO process as it has been defined over the years.
Although we often treat it like one, SEO has never been an initiative that existed within a vacuum. It has always required changes be made across a complete digital ecosystem in which there are numerous stakeholders. However, this existing process always asked for change without justification with regard to the purpose of goals of these touchpoints. For example, if my recommendation is to change a title tag there has been no justification as to how that affects the CTR of a page shared on Facebook. Perhaps the social media team has discovered that the target audience clicks through less when a page title doesn’t feature a brand name. That’s a hypothetical situation but let’s go into a little more detail as to why SEO will not continue to work this way.
No Regard for Market Research
Just as the diagram above suggests, most SEOs jump right into keywords, analytics and competitive analysis of those keywords. Wrong move; search is about fulfilling needs. Before looking at a single keyword there needs to be a deep understanding of business objectives and the market. Standard kickoff questions often look like this:
- What analytics package do you use?
- Are there any other domains or sites that you own?
- What SEO efforts have been done in the past?
- List your top 3 competitors.
- Do you have social media accounts?
- What keywords are you looking to rank for?
The biggest problem with this is we often take these inputs at face value. That is to say, very often the brands that the client believes they are competing with offline are not the sites they are competing with for keyword coverage in the SERPs. Also the keywords a client may think they should rank for are not the keywords that are going to help them meet their actual goals.
To simplify it, many SEO teams send clients kickoff questions to get a sense of the keywords they should target and then hop right into the keyword tool. Pages are optimized. Keywords are allocated to pages. Links are built. Content is pushed into social. Performance is measured to identify subsequent opportunities. Obviously it oftentimes goes far more in-depth for many, but this is basically the widely accepted process.
One of my biggest issues as a consumer of Search that understands SEO is if the results I click appear to be overly optimized I become quite leery of the content. This is simply because in my experience many copywriters (SEO or otherwise) often don’t know what they are talking about. Recalling dusty memories of early in my own SEO career when I wrote copy, in most cases I was just a human article spinner. I definitely read a few wiki articles and the top results for a given keyword and just reworded what other people said. I shared all that to say: Becoming an expert in the niche that you are optimizing for is an extremely underrated step in the SEO process. For this reason, if I were to hire an agency, I would prefer one with extensive prior experience or specialty in my vertical. All my in-house SEOs – make some noise!
Little Regard for the Audience
Truthfully, the real differentiation between clients happens in a latter set of questions. Unfortunately, the following doesn’t get asked enough in the standard SEO kick-off:
- What is the purpose of your site?
- What are you trying to get users to do once they arrive?
- Who is your target audience?
These are typically questions that Conversion Rate Optimization teams focus on rather than SEO teams. For shame SEOs, for shame!
We all want traffic and we all want to rank #1 for juicy head terms, but these things are not goals. By themselves these are not KPIs that make clients successful. Simply put, if you rank highly for keywords but aren’t fulfilling the needs of people searching for them, you just put a ton of effort into exactly the wrong thing. It’s not about the keywords; it’s about the people searching for them.
Consider this offline example of Target using data on customers to identify when they’ve become pregnant to learn when to ramp up efforts to turn mothers-to-be into long-term big spenders at the wholesale department store. You can do this far more effectively with Search if you’re mindful of your audience and their needs. This measurement of intent plus interests plus demographics plus network is the Holy Grail of Marketing. With that in mind it becomes quite clear what Google’s ulterior motives are with Plus and the consolidation of privacy policies.
Recently, I had a short conversation with AJ Kohn via Twitter about personas and how client research can prove useless. I agree somewhat because clients that have done audience research beforehand may have only looked at offline factors. To that point, it is important that we validate or disprove those insights with our own research rather than taking what the client says at face value. Our goal is to optimize, not paint by numbers.
SEO Disrupts Most Digital Strategies
As much as I hate to say it, the reality of SEO is that it disrupts much of digital planning even when it’s included from the onset.
Most other digital capabilities start from the target audience before they do anything. User Experience has user stories, personas and user flows. Strategy teams build personas and need states by examining demographics and psychographics in efforts to really try and understand what does and will influence and fulfill the target audience.
Whichever of these teams develops these audience insights then feeds them to other teams so that efforts are glued together by the target consumer. Paid channels such as Facebook Ads, Display Advertising and Paid Search benefit from this significantly in their ability to target demographically. Media teams examine the available audience by vendor and allocate dollars based on where the delivery will be most effective.
Traditionally, Organic Search ignores this step entirely and declares “HEY! I’M HERE NOW WE’RE DOING THIS MY WAY!” This is partially why SEO gets shunned by brands when they are determining where to distribute their efforts within the marketing mix. SEO is certainly effective, but it has always been a maverick that didn’t want to play by the rules. There is little meritocracy because if channels were chosen only by ROI – Display Advertising would have died 10 years ago. Evidently, they are not chosen this way so for SEO to get buy-in it needs to be team player.
Many Link Building Initiatives Exist in a Vacuum
Regardless of the hundreds of strategies, tactics and tools that are being born for link building daily, every successful link building campaign boils down to making news and/or making friends. As SEOs, we try to strong arm how and where brands will do this. Making news and building relationships are functions of many different groups and initiatives within a business from top to bottom. How is it that we as SEOs believe our best initiatives can exist outside of the things the brand itself contributes to?
Brands launch PR campaigns, social media efforts, events, so on and a variety of other social strategies to facilitate the awareness of the news they create. How is link building any different? The fact of the matter is, it isn’t. Therefore it should be attacked from, and included with, the same standpoint as the rest of a brand’s social strategies for both scale and effectiveness. Simply put, link building is better when the entire muscle of a brand is leveraged.
To do effective SEO now, at the very least, you have to be a digital strategist, social media marketer, a content strategist, conversion rate optimizer, and a PR specialist. I’m skipping anything coding related because although I believe you should be able to build a website you don’t necessarily have to. SEOs are already inherently each of these things, however in most businesses these are all different capabilities that sit in different groups, or offices or cities. Who are we to upset an entire digital ecosystem and undermine so many people?
Well I work with some awesome digital strategists, content strategists, creatives, etc. and while they tend to have impressive grasps of web trends, audiences and their specific capabilities they typically don’t know how to leverage cross-channel campaigns as specifically as SEOs or Inbound Marketers. It is now the role of Inbound Marketers to drive strategies that looks far more like this (sorry guys, Kanye had to go – busy schedule):
I wish very much that I could be there for your “aha!” moment right now as no doubt you recognize many of these steps and can guess where other tasks will fall. Now let’s break it down completely – forgive me for anything that is obvious.
Opportunity Discovery – Opportunity Discovery is a cyclical process of understanding brand opportunity with regard to business goals, target audience, industry specifications and past performance. It’s cyclical in that insights from one step often refine insights from another step in the process.
Business Objectives – Everything must be done within the context of the goals of the brand. This requires a deep understanding of where the brand has been and where it’s going. In many cases businesses large and small may not understand how to translate their goals and therefore it is the job of the Inbound Marketer to do so.
Market Research – The reason why SEO gets such a bad rap for polluting the web is that so many people simply do not build content that is worthwhile or has utility for the market. At this point, the entire team must take a deep dive into the industry and be able to have more than cursory conversations on the subject matter. For those that believe this to be a largely arduous task I suggest specializing in verticals of interest.
Audience Research –The Facebook Ads tool is the Adwords Keyword Tool of personas. The Doubleclick Ad Planner is also good for understanding the demographics of existing sites. If available, Facebook Insights gives demographic data on the existing users visiting the site as well. The output of this is a set of user segments and stories or – personas.
Analytics Mining – As always, you should mine existing analytics data to understand who is visiting. Take deep dives into keyword performance, especially in concert with any internal Search data, to identify opportunities. All in all, this is no different than normal unless the client has already been tracking their audience at which point you can see if who they are trying to attract is actually coming or not.
Social Listening – Using a core set of keywords, collect data on the conversation around those keywords. Keep track of patterns and identify user segments, demographics and need states of the people partaking in that social conversation. You’ll also want to keep track of how these users are using the keywords as this will allow you to eliminate ambiguity in keyword decisions and help to create messaging that resonates with the audience during the customer decision journey.
Quantitative Analysis – Services such as ComScore, Quantcast, Forrester Research, etc. track a multitude of data points on users in various verticals by demographic. Leveraging these reports gives you deeper insight into what types of users visit your competitors and exist within the market.
Keyword Research – Keyword Research must be completed with regard to the audience not just a determination of whether the keyword is viable from a search volume standpoint, but whether the keyword intent matches the business goals. Keywords should then be correlated with target personas and need states to help drive the build of content that is optimized for people first and search engines second.
Site Audit – Under the New SEO Process the Site Audit becomes decidedly more comprehensive, as it covers UX issues that would normally fall into a CRO Audit. Specifically, the audit talks about things impeding the conversions due to incongruence with the target audience in addition to the standard SEO technical issues that it covers.
Asset Inventory – A standard practice SEOs are already doing wherein there is an understanding of what a brand controls and is willing to leverage to the benefit of the campaign.
Content Audit – What content inside our outside of the site can be leveraged?
Brand Relationships – What other companies, businesses, groups and events are the brand involved with?
Offline Assets – What tools, venues, prizes, etc. are at the brands disposal?
Competitive Analysis – As always, competitive analysis is a collection of high-level audits of competitors across the vertical. The difference is that since site audits are completed with regard to the audience, the competitive analysis must also include a determination of how other brands are capturing that audience.
Measurement Planning –A standard practice amongst analytics teams the Measurement Plan is the Statement of Intent and determination of Key Performance Indicators with regard to the business goals and audience. Avinash Kaushik covers measurement planning in his Digital Marketing and Measurement Model post. (Hat tip: @scotttdodge)
Content Strategy Development – Content Strategy and Development are big picture initiatives with a variety of stakeholders, so it often carries with it the most pushback. Creative teams just want to take big swings for big ideas and brand managers just want to advertise. To be effective we have to show how our content ideas will connect with the brand’s target audience and make sure content is designed to our specification.
Content Ideation –With all this social data we have collected and correlated to keywords we can now come with ideas for content with portions of the target audience built-in. Do so.
Wireframes – are an early deliverable in the design phase of a website wherein we can annotate considerations for SEO and CRO to ensure that Creative teams design with both in mind. Be very involved in this phase.
Content Build – Once all your points are baked in, it’s time to let the Creatives do what they do. If they come back with creative is not congruent with what is agreed upon in an earlier phase, then you now have data to back up your position with the client.
Technical Development –Technical SEO is the price of admission and cannot be ignored, so this where we make sure that the structure of the house is sound.
Technical Build –At this point, we’ve done all we can do now we just wait to see what the tech teams come back with. We’ve specified everything in wireframes and hopefully have had some say in the build of the CMS, but the tech team is going to do what they know. We’re just going to have to wait to see what they come back with unless they are open to our input during the actual build.
Implementation Audit – We’ll always have to double-check the work of a technical team and this is the spreadsheet in which we do it. An implementation audit briefly recounts the issues outlined in the site audit and wireframes and says whether or not they were successfully implemented. This is the easiest way to show that the bottlenecks are not so much with the SEO team but the tech team – as they oftentimes are.
Social Strategy – Typically link building is an initiative that exists by itself, in the new SEO process link building is an initiative that must be completed as part of a broader scope. While it is clear that low quality tactics like blog commenting continue to work, even those are far more effective coupled with a social push across PR and social media. Leveraged strategically, you are launching a piece of content with a cross-channel marketing push and therefore the link velocity will appear more natural to search engines and the return on the social strategy is likely to be higher. While link building has always been about casting the widest net, social strategy is about casting the rightest net the widest. I just made up a word. Kanye approves.
Link Strategy – Link building for most businesses, particularly small businesses, is not an “if you build it, they will come” situation. Therefore it is not enough to just launch content and hope for the best, we must continue to supplement content launches with smaller complementary content launches, outreach and manual submission link building. This is where this strategy is defined with its own measurement plan. Yes, I’m saying we should report both our prospects and the links we close. If you’re proud of your work that shouldn’t be a problem. Link Building is just like a PR campaign in that there is no guarantee of placements and should be explained as such.
PR – News is better than advertising, so a key part of social strategy is doing things that make news. Users spend a large part of their day reading, sharing and linking to news so make it a large part of the social strategy to make sure that content is newsworthy and get it to the news outlets that your audience frequents.
Contests – Contests are an excellent way to get a one-to-many return on incentives. Rather than performing outreach and directly offering them a free sample or (gasp) money request that they enter a contest wherein their entry is a blog post about the brand’s topic that contains a link. Also add a layer of gameplay to the contest by determining the winner through the number of times their post is shared in social media. Unbounce had a similar blogging contest in 2011 but link building wasn’t the goal of the campaign so they had all the posts on their own site.
Events – Throwing a party, conference or trade show is another one-to-many return for link building. Simply host an event and invite influencers in the brand’s audience where the stipulation for attendance is that people must blog about it and link back to you.
Social Media – is a two way street. Not only is it a place for discovery but also a place for conversation. Use that conversation to find the influencers in the space with regard to the target audience and business goals. Build social media profiles to be authoritative and engaging to easily get your content shared and also convert sharers into linkers. Regardless of where Google is headed, the social graph will never completely replace the link graph.
Social Implementation – is the phase when you let it all rip for the best synergy.
Measurement – is not just about whether or not we hit the goals. It’s the insights into why that makes measurement the most valuable step in Online Marketing. Measuring with regard to the audience helps with understanding the why even further than speaking in concrete abstracts such as bounce rate of a keyword. After all the ability to tangibly measure is why digital marketing is far more effective than traditional.
Reporting – is tailored specifically to the goals of the client. There’s no one-size-fit-all report. For example, a client business goal may be to get user segment A to watch a video and therefore, the primary metrics reported should be the Time On Site and persona type versus traffic and keyword. Rankings are only important with regard to how they’ve affected traffic. Everything should be focused on who (persona A) and why (because the message is unclear) rather than what (“blue widgets for sale ranked #5”).
Link Reporting – Under the umbrella of social strategy there is a lot to be said about what has been done to increase visibility. Aggregate rankings should be reported with regard to link building efforts to show the direct correlation between the two. Furthermore, link prospects and closes should also be reported with close rates to show clients what is being done on their behalf. This is obviously a subject of contention within the community, but if the links you build are so suspect that you are afraid to show them to the people you’re building them for – you need a different approach.
Optimization – I had an art teacher once that always used to say “No work of art is ever finished, we just give up.” The art and science of SEO is never complete and there is always an opportunity to do more.
Conversion Rate Optimization – While CRO is far more baked into this strategy it still likely to take its own seat at the table. That is to say that while SEOs may also be CROs they may be too close to the project to properly optimize. This is much the same way that the mixing engineer of a song is not supposed to also be the mastering engineer. At this point, a separate CRO Team should run A/B Tests, Usability Tests and so on and report back.
- Continued SEO – Do it all over again!
A Better Web
Not to go all “land of milk and honey” on you guys, but the consumer is the biggest winner here. Naturally businesses benefit immensely as well, but the more we optimize with people in mind the more likely their needs will be fulfilled and consequently, the more likely we are to get those people to convert. Including people throughout the process and making the core goal to encourage them to do something ultimately makes the web a better place because everything we create will have a distinct purpose for the user and never solely for search engines. This is not to say we are circumventing the technical tenets of SEO as they are the price of admission.
SEO has always been an industry that explains itself using empirical data. Starting from the audience, a place that businesses can understand, it is far easier to get buy-in for SEO initiatives. So when we make recommendations and explain the impact of our efforts on a target audience that has been determined as a focus of all initiatives, it’s easier to obtain brand buy-in than when we’re just talking about keywords and traffic.
Compare the following statement:
“We want to build links targeting websites with a PageRank of 3 or higher. We’ll reach out to a variety of prospects and target anchor text for keyword opportunities identified by our extensive keyword research in order to gain rankings for your brand.”
“We’d like to launch a contest targeting Influential Moms with over 5000 followers on Twitter. To enter they’d write blog posts that link back to our properties in order to drive traffic for our target Listener Moms that are using Search to buy more healthy cereal.”
Both ideas would potentially accomplish the same goals however the former will require far more explanation for the client and ultimately more effort on the part of the SEO team. Whereas the latter explains a link building campaign in terms of the brand’s target audience and business goals then further lays out a campaign wherein the brand commits cross-channel resources that the SEO team can leverage. Understanding the business objectives and the audience make it easier to develop and deliver strategies that client can easily get behind.
Getting on the same page with the other capabilities allows SEO efforts to be scaled considerably for brands large and small. This is how we regularly achieve those otherwise rare instances of synergy between capabilities when the PR team is facilitating Link Building, the Content Strategy teams and Creative teams are creating link bait and SEO is both driving and supplementing those efforts. That is the perfect storm where we spend far more time chiseling our perfect sculptures rather than polishing poop and our efforts have far more impact with less effort.
Learnings and wins in SEO can influence other channels. Imagine we discover through social listening, keyword research and/or measurement are a large number of the client’s target audience is looking for “red kanye west t-shirts” but the client only sells every color but red. We now have a tight business case as to why that client should start manufacturing the t-shirt in red. Conversely, what if we find out that people love the shirt but bounce from the landing page because they hate the user experience of the site? There is any number of scenarios that when explained purely from the context of search brands are far less likely to make a move. However when you explain these insights through the context of personas and market research you have a tighter case that can affect change across all channels and capabilities.
[not provided]…so what?
Google has positioned itself to take away all of our organic keyword referral data and let’s be honest they ultimately will take it all. Plus, and the consolidation of privacy policies to allow cross-product data access, is Google’s way of positioning itself to attain the Holy Grail of Marketing. However, measuring through our audience essentially allows us a new way to determine the effectiveness of a campaign. We know the keywords we are targeting for a given page and we can see rankings and analytics of a given landing page by channel to determine whether or not Search is driving traffic. The true measure of success was never the rankings, nor the traffic but how well the page a given page converted for our visitors. If we track conversions based on audience that is the only metric that is truly worth optimizing against. The holistic performance of a channel is what brands are concerned with, not necessarily the performance of a given keyword.
The following are a list of posts, pages, tools and presentations to help get a deeper understanding of personas and need states and how to apply them to various Inbound Marketing efforts.
- 10 Steps to Personas [INFOGRAPHIC]
- Develop Personas
- Personas: Setting the Stage for Building Usable Information Sites
- Using Personas to Boost Online Marketing and SEO [SLIDESHARE]
- Understanding Your Audience Using Social Media [MOZINAR]
- AIDA: Attention-Interest-Design-Action
- Landing Pages and the Decision Making Process
- McKinsey Customer Decision Journey [VIDEO]
- Customers Go On a Journey, Escaping the Funnel
Useful Social Tools
- Radian6 – PAID
- Lithium – PAID
Quantitative Analysis Providers (PAID)
During the #seochat I did on the SEO Process there were some questions of whether this applies to small businesses or not, citing that small businesses only care about the #1 spot and they “just want rank.” Yes, understanding what makes an audience tick applies to all businesses. Again, the ability to quantify the interests and intent of your audience and track a brand’s ability to persuade is the advantage of digital marketing of any kind. As I said on Twitter, #1 is not a goal, but a means to an end. #1 gets users to the door; it doesn’t keep them in the house.
Finally, the new SEO process is a call for us to speak the language of other capabilities and deliver strategies that can plug and play with what brands truly understand. The new SEO process is not about chasing the algorithm; it’s about fulfilling the needs of the people the algorithm serves. It’s about creating and discovering the content that resonates with the people that a business is trying to reach and then also covering the technical bases required to get results. It’s about understanding the connections between keywords in the mind of your target audience in order to optimize for them effectively. And most importantly, it’s about having SEO become the driver of the marketing mix rather than the outcast. No doubt SEO will remain the esoteric “Calculus of Marketing” but it’s time to prove that we can actually do the math so to speak.
So fellow marketers—what’s it gonna be? Keep it classy or keep it Kanye?