Insights from the Tactical to the Strategic
What made The Beatles one of the best rock bands ever? It wasn’t necessarily each individual in the band, but rather the sum of its parts.
Sure, Paul McCartney and John Lennon made some great songs in the ‘70s (Live and Let Die, Imagine, and Band on the Run, just to name a few) but do they hold a candle to the best of the Beatles? Not quite. The Beatles were a great band because they were able to combine the unique talents of all their members in a way that really resonated with everyone from pre-teens to grandparents.
Search Engine Optimization should function similarly, Tom Rusling, Reflexive Media's founder and managing director, argued during MuraCon 2017. Working at a leading agency provider of services related to search and content marketing experience, Tom has seen firsthand how SEO can benefit any brand. By combining the talents of many different diverse individuals, from executive to technical staff to content marketing teams, businesses can effectively SEO themselves and position themselves for years or even decades of success, just like the Beatles.
Unlike many other elements of marketing or even of a business as a whole, Tom noted you really can’t test out SEO on the side to see if it works or not. The whole website - and indeed the whole business - needs to be focused on SEO best practices. With Google handling at least 2 trillion searches (yes, with a T) annually, it’s imperative for companies to be where their audience is - namely, visible on search.
As such, to do SEO right, Tom recommended having strong leadership at the top of the organization to lead all SEO-related efforts, everything from site development to ongoing content marketing experiences. For example, think about the difference Steve Jobs made when he returned to Apple in the late ‘90s. Without this kind of leadership, SEO efforts will likely flounder.
“What I’ve seen in these larger organization situations is you actually do best when you have a very strong top down leadership or mandate to make sure that everyone appreciates the importance of doing these things,” Tom said. “And when there isn’t that top down kind of buy-in and support and mandate, that’s where I see especially medium to larger organizations start to have some troubles.”
Still, getting this kind of buy-in is no easy feat. After all, many executives would rather focus on other efforts, like attending sales calls or speaking at conferences, than spend a lot of time on SEO. Worse, Tom noted that some business leaders still think SEO is “a bunch of hocus pocus voodoo.” But, those involved in day-to-day SEO need to convince their superiors otherwise.
"The way to get management’s attention in those instances is to start showing; A, we’ll do a lot of activity to quantify the size of the audience, and how big is it, and how much they’re missing out. We take a very quantitative financial approach to that because if you put missed dollar opportunity in the faces of some of that level of management, that’s the number one way to get people’s attention,” Tom recommended. “The number two way is you do the same process and you start showing what maybe one of their or two of their competitors are doing and then the 'me too' factor jumps in real quick.”
Like clovers, wise men and blind mice, SEO best practices come in threes. According to Tom, there are three key elements to SEO:
On-page technical factors like title tags, internal link structure, etc.
On-page content experience, i.e. the quality of the word, images, videos, etc. on the page
Off-page factors like external links
Back in the old days of SEO, search engine optimization sometimes used to be thought of as the domain solely of technical folks. Nowadays, SEO tends to fall squarely on the shoulders of creating marketing teams. There may be a magical, near-mythical person out there that can handle all three elements for you. But, you’re likely much better off getting a team in place to handle all of the diverse elements that go into SEO than you are finding this unicorn.
“In an ideal situation, you want to make sure that you’ve got both sides of those coming in and helping in your SEO programs, again, whether it’s an agency, individual consultants, or an internal team that you’re developing,” Tom suggested.
So now you’ve got your team in place and your C-suite is fully on board with SEO. What’s the next step? Hopefully, you’re making an effort as early as possible to get going with a robust SEO strategy. Too often, companies wait until the website is just about ready to go before considering SEO best practices. However, it’s generally too late at that stage. To see the best results, companies should be keeping SEO in mind from the very beginning.
"It mystifies me how often this happens that we get brought in at a very late date," Tom said. He added, "If you’re going to build the building, don’t call the structural engineer after you’ve build it, right?”
Why is this? Why is SEO so critical that it needs to come at the very beginning? For one, think about how much information Google and other search engines are noting when determining how to rank pages for specific search terms. Everything from the URL and title tags to site structure and content markup is being indexed and considered. If your site structure and domain are not optimized for search, then likely any subsequent pages are not going to perform spectacularly on search engine results pages. Even the very best content marketing experiences can’t overcome sloppy site structures and poorly considered URLs.
But, it goes beyond even just the technical considerations. SEO is about more than just showing up in search results. At its core, SEO is about making sure your audience can find you. It’s about providing the right information at the right time to the right people. It can be easy - and tempting - to think about SEO just in terms of search engines. But, in reality, it’s about people and their needs.
“You don’t SEO your website, you SEO your business and you SEO your business practices,” Tom astutely noted.
Now that you’re in the right mindset, it’s time to get started. A great place to kick off your SEO efforts is with keywords. Once you have a good sense of your audience, its needs, your value propositions and your marketplace, you can move onto the keywords.
When it comes to keywords, you need to balance the technical elements with the human side of the equation. With your keyword research, you want to find terms that are competitive, that you can conceivably rank for. And while technical on-page elements like URL and title tags are important to keep in mind, so too is user intent.
What do we mean here by searcher intent? In short, what is someone expecting to see when they type in that particular term? What kinds of content experiences will best correspond to that search term? What kind of person is typing in that term into a search engine in the first place? If your target audience is even using that keyword to begin with, at what point in their buyer journey would they be likely using it? It’s critical to have all these questions answered when looking into the right terms to target.
After the list of keywords has been established, go ahead and create the site structure. Now is the time to determine what pages to have on the site and what each page should say. This is where content marketing experiences will really start to come into play.
As far as site structure is concerned, Tom had a few main recommendations:
“At the end, we’ve got just about every keyword in this set,” Tom said. “It’s mapped to a page. The pages are created. We optimize the pages around the title tags, the meta descriptions, the header content, the body content. And now we feel like we have a plan for every significant way that that audience is searching.”
And now we’re done with technical SEO and content experiences?
The answer to this question is, perhaps unfortunately, not quite. SEO is not a one and done experience. Tom noted that you’ll likely always be taking actions like applying canonical tags to ensure similar pages don’t cause keyword blurring, updating pages as fashions and trends come and go, and finding new keywords to target, among many other activities.
SEO isn’t a quick win anyway. It requires a lot of upfront investment that may not pay dividends until years down the line. But, when everything is set up well right from the beginning, companies can expect to continually perform well with minimal added investment for a long time afterwards.
“We have to do a lot of upfront work. You have to invest in that and, in the best case scenario, the response is going to be latent and it’s going to be six months,” Tom noted. “Now, this is usually classified as a horizon problem because I spent $20,000 a month or six months and what do I have to show for it? And go -- well, if you start looking at [it,] we’re creating a perpetuity of marginally cost-free traffic for you, and now go and measure that in two years and look at the 24-month lift, and all of a sudden these things turn into often very successful, very profitable marketing exercises for companies.”
To see the effectiveness of good SEO in action, look no further than Firm of the Future. Created as an offshoot of one of Intuit’s blogs, the goal of the site is to help convince accountants of the merits of the cloud and other new technologies. One of the main issues Inuit encountered was, how they could get their target audience to appreciate the merits of their points when they didn’t seem to be searching for this information in the first place?
"Here’s the challenge. You’re coming to us with that and I say, well I just looked and guess how many searches a month is someone going, how do I change my accounting firm business model? Right? Any guesses? Zero, right?," Tom recalled. "So we started thinking about like looking at how do, you know, what are the ways that people are searching for this. The things that Intuit wants to help influence and change the thinking of, aren’t [those] things that people are looking for, right?"
Instead of looking for direct hits, Tom and his team instead wanted to see what other potential terms the target accountant audience was looking for. The idea was to bring them to target pages with content they’re searching for now, and then provide such an optimal content experience on the site that they’d want to keep clicking around and learning more.
The team first started with painstaking keyword research, initially identifying close to 10,000 potential terms. That list was then whittled down based on the audience. For example, terms related to accounting tests were thrown out, as those sorts of keywords are probably used by very new accountants. In comparison, keywords related to ethics were likely more in line with the target audience.
Once the final 3,800 words were identified, the team went to work mapping keywords to specific pages. The type of keyword dictated the type of page: top-level keywords became associated with key category pages, while longer and more specific terms were deemed more worthy of blog posts. In this way, searcher intent was closely tied to the content experiences provided.
“There’s nothing that difficult, any one thing that is that difficult in technical SEO,” Tom noted. “The thing that’s difficult is that there is kind of 100 things that you have to do right and there can be that one land mine that can sabotage every other effort.”
Despite the effort, the results are already coming in. According to Alexa, Firm of the Future has quickly grown its audience since late 2016. Thanks to its significant upfront investment in SEO, the site will likely continue to perform well in the future.
As Tom noted at MuraCon this year, SEO has to be a central, coordinated effort across the entire business in order to succeed. But, when done right, these efforts can yield great results for years on end.