This post will give chief marketing officers the understanding and vocabulary to ask the right questions of their teams when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO). As a CMO you simply don’t have the time to micromanage digital marketing. You know SEO is important, perhaps critical, for your business, but you’ve got 100 other things that are also critical. You’ve got a to-do list a mile long and an inbox with hundreds, maybe thousands, of unread emails. You rely on your team to handle SEO, but you’d like to understand SEO better so you can be sure. What if they’re not taking care of SEO, and you get called out by the CEO for it? Your team gives you metrics that seem to show progress, but you know in the back of your mind that rankings, visitors, and traffic aren’t what the CEO really wants. “Instead of tracking rankings, how about tracking leads or sales?” you wonder. Your instincts are right. But you may be worried that in order to effectively manage your team so they can manage SEO the right way, you’ll need a multi-day training course. That probably wouldn’t hurt, but if you’re like many CMOs and simply don’t have that kind of time, here’s a brief overview of what a CMO needs to know in order to ensure SEO is being handled correctly.
Some things never change, or at least they change more slowly. Here are the basic aspects of managing SEO any CMO should understand.
Rankings are old-school. The old way of doing SEO was to do everything possible to rank for a small handful of “golden” keywords that would generate massive amounts of traffic. For example, a SaaS company with a project management tool would try to become #1 for “project management” and “project management software.” Every month they and their SEO firm would run a report and see where they ranked for these and a few other keywords. If the rankings were up, that was success. If they were down, the SEO firm had to scramble to get the rankings up fast.
There are multiple reasons this doesn’t work so well anymore. One is that Google is increasingly customizing search results based on location, device, and user. If you do a Google search on a smartphone in Hong Kong you will get different results than someone doing the same search on their desktop in Phoenix, Arizona. Sometimes the variance can be small, other times the entire first page of search results will be different.
More importantly, people are performing more searches using their voice via tools like Google Now and Siri, and that means the search terms they use are changing. These “natural language” searches might look more like “What project management tool should I use for my small business graphic design studio?” Focusing on these long tail searches yields faster results due to lower levels of competition, and allows you to target customers with highly customized content that will produce leads and sales at a higher rate. But there might be a hundred variations of just this one example of a search, not to mention thousands of others. Tracking rankings for all of them has limited utility, especially when, as Google Fellow Ben Gomes said in an interview in 2012, “16% to 20% of queries that get asked every day have never been asked before.”
Some rankings should be tracked, but in instead of focusing on rankings as a primary metric, focus on the metrics that matter–leads and sales. This means adopting a more holistic view of SEO that overlaps with other forms of digital marketing such as content marketing, social media marketing, and conversion rate optimization.
SEO requires a long term effort. If your company is in trouble and needs marketing to boost sales and leads right now, SEO is not the tool for you. SEO is like a freight train–it takes a lot of effort to get it going, but once it’s going you get a lot of mileage from it. If you need fast results, turn to paid search, digital PR, and content marketing. How long does it take SEO to work? Initial results may be seen within 2 to 4 months, but for substantial results you’re looking at 8 to 12 months.
The best links are earned, not built. You’ve heard that Google and other search engines will boost the rankings of a website if it has lots of links pointing to it. That’s still true, but what has changed is that the links need to be the right kind of links. The best links come from websites where it’s not easy to get links, like those of major news outlets or reputable bloggers. These links are earned by creating content worth linking to. That means creating great content. Good content is so good you would be willing to read it. Great content is so good you would pay to read it. As Rand Fishkin of Moz says, “good, unique content needs to die.” Good isn’t good enough anymore.
Not every link is a positive. Bad links will hurt your SEO efforts. Make sure your team is regularly reviewing reports from Google Webmaster Tools to see which sites are linking to yours. When you find bad links pointing to your site, you may want to disavow them and file a reconsideration request.
SEO is content marketing. Ok, there’s more to SEO than just content marketing, but it’s a huge part of the SEO game. Want to target long tail keywords? Create content to focus on those keywords. Want great inbound links? Create great content that will attract great links. Technical SEO is still critical, but the long term work involved in SEO is primarily content marketing. If your team doesn’t have a plan for generating high quality content, then they don’t have a real SEO plan.
Outsource or in-house? There’s a time to hire an agency, and a time to bring it in-house. Bottom line–unless you have a budget of $300,000 USD per year to dedicate to building an in-house SEO team, and you know who you’re going to hire to build it for you, you’re probably better off hiring an agency. There is a tempting idea that you can hire one person who can “do it all” when it comes to SEO, but it’s largely a myth. These people are rare, and if you do find one, you’ll have to pay her upwards of $150,000 per year. If someone tells you she can do it all, but she wants a salary of $60,000, then that’s not someone you want to hire for any position. She’s going to produce mediocre results, at best. For that same $60,000 per year, you could go hire an SEO agency to put five people on your account, each of them an expert in their respective field. You won’t get 160 hours per month from those five people, but you are going to get better results. And you don’t have to deal with the HR side of things.
Social amplification. If you’re producing great content, that’s great, but does anyone know about it? You also need to spread that content through your social media channels, and encourage partners and customers to do the same. This type of amplification sends social signals to the search engines, but more importantly gets your content in front of more people. Some of these people are going to be bloggers and journalists, the exact people you want to reach in order to get high quality links back to your website.
Cost. Costs for SEO are as varied as those for auto repair. The primary difference in price isn’t the “mechanic,” however. Mechanics work on cars that are the same or similar, and predicting the time and cost involved for a particular task is much more straightforward given mass manufacturing and precision parts. In SEO there is no mass manufacturing, and no precision parts. Everything is custom made, and everyone has a different understanding of the work involved in delivering on your objectives. If you ask three firms for pricing to help you grow sales by 20% during the next 6 months, one firm might focus its attention on technical SEO, while another will lean toward content marketing, and the last will emphasize social media. None of them will have operated in precisely the same circumstances you are presenting, so it’s an educated guess in all three cases as to how much work will need to be done to produce the desired results. And each firm is likely to be pressured by different situations. One might be at capacity and so their price will be higher, whereas another firm might be desperate for new clients, and will offer a lower price. Add it all up, and you end up with varying prices for the same outcome. Sorting through it all can be difficult, but generally speaking full service SEO will cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars per month to tens of thousands, depending on what you need and how aggressive you want to be.
Recent SEO Developments
While the basics tend to remain more or less the same over time, there have been some interesting recent developments in the world of SEO.
Mobile. Google now recognizes mobile-friendly websites. While PC sales have remained flat, mobile sales continue to climb. In 2014 time spent on mobile devices exceeded that spent on desktops for the first time. Some companies are adopting a mobile-first strategy, meaning they focus on the mobile user first, then desktop is an afterthought, rather than the other way around, as has been tradition. Don’t have a website that takes advantage of responsive design to shift to match any browser size or shape? Get one.
Tweets are now indexed. Early in 2015 Twitter and Google struck a deal, and as a result you’re likely to see more tweets showing up in Google search results. Exactly how this will play out and how it will impact SEO remains to be seen. Miriam Hirschman explores the possibilities in a post at Search Engine Land. What isn’t in doubt is that being active on Twitter is more important than ever.
Search results are dynamic. This has been shifting for years, but lately is becoming more pronounced. As Google gathers more information about you, it is learning how to give you customized search results. That means when you type in a search, what you see may be different than what someone else typing in the same thing sees. It means when you search for local retail businesses, Google will probably show maps. When you search for basic information you’re likely to see “knowledge graph” results, or short summaries that answer your question without you needing to click through to a website. How might that impact your business?
Implied links. As my fellow contributor Jayson DeMers points out, you can now build links without getting a link. “Google appears to placing more emphasis on brand mentions and citations, which are less likely and less easy to be manipulated for the purpose of achieving higher search rankings,” DeMers says. Remember that time your company was mentioned in a New York Times piece, but they forgot to link to your website and you couldn’t get them to respond and include the link after the fact? No worries, maybe you’ll come out ahead for it.
CRO is SEO. Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is now an integral part of SEO. If SEO is how you get traffic to your website through organic search results, CRO is how you turn that traffic into customers. An SEO strategy without CRO is like having a retail store with locked doors and no employees. CMOs need to focus not just on generating traffic, but turning that traffic into concrete metrics that are synonymous with company growth.
Marketing automation. As long as I’m mentioning CRO, I should bring up marketing automation. In its simplest form, marketing automation takes leads generated by your SEO efforts and performs automated tasks with those leads. It may send emails to them to let them know their online form submission was received and provide them with more information that will assist them through the buying process. It may score leads based on criteria like how they found your website, which pages they visited, and how long they spent on each page, so that your sales team knows which leads to follow up on first. Marketing automation is one more way to improve the results you get from SEO without changing anything about your SEO strategy.
An October, 2014 Gartner report found that 68% of organizations have a separate digital marketing budget, and that it averages a quarter of the total marketing budget. A report commissioned by Adobe and the CMO Council finds that “69% of senior marketers are currently allocating their digital marketing funds to website content, development and performance optimization,” and that “53% are spending part of their budget on social media community growth and engagement.” These areas of increased spending overlap with and compliment SEO efforts. SEO has become not just a ancillary form of marketing, an afterthought to traditional marketing campaigns, but is becoming an integral part of the forward-thinking CMO’s strategy.