Note: This piece operates under the assumption that organic search algorithms will continue to improve in their ability to identify & serve the best content to satisfy searcher intent.
A major issue that I face with many clients is they misunderstand how SEO works on a basic level. This often leads to a poor working dynamic that stunts growth in organic search. In order to establish a proper dynamic for a smooth, successful campaign, you must give SEO fair representation & influence at the marketing table to help guide the direction of the company. Below I discuss a quick history lesson in SEO, why the misunderstanding of SEO exists, why SEO’s relationship with other channels matters, and specifically what the role of an SEO should generally look like. Let’s see how many time I can say “SEO” in this article.
A Quick History Lesson
The role of an SEO has been and likely always will be to:
- Proactively pursue avenues of improving a website’s organic search performance.
- Monitor and respond to all metrics & platforms that affect or are affected by organic search performance.
- Stay up-to-date on organic search news & trends, and respond accordingly.
What sometimes changes in the role are the tactics required to fulfill those functions.
A common misconception about SEO is that it’s a solitary channel that requires little-to-no collaboration with the other marketing departments. In the past, this was true. No more than a few years ago, SEO tactics were geared towards acquiring several links with exact match anchor text with little regard for validity. One could see success in organic search with some paid links and a good page title; however, as Google’s ability to identify spam has improved, SEOs have had to pivot towards more holistic, sustainable strategies that align closely with the other marketing channels like PR and branding.
As these big algorithmic shifts shook the industry, over and over, people proclaimed the “death of SEO.” In reality, the evolution of our industry began accelerating rapidly, quickly leading to a practice far different from the one prior. It was more of a near death experience resulting in a new outlook on life. SEO still continues to undergo massive changes as a profession, but our future is clearer now (unless my assumption at the top of this piece is incorrect).
Classically, SEO has been silo’d from the rest of the marketing team because there was no need for collaboration. However, as it has evolved, the need for collaboration has grown to be essential because SEO is now intimately tied to all other marketing channels through the organic search algorithm. Unfortunately, most companies have not yet been able to pivot to meet this need.
Why SEO is Misunderstood at the Most Basic Level
I’ve lost count of the number of clients who just want the “secret sauce” that’s going to skyrocket them to the first page, as if no one else has thought to use this fabled secret sauce, too. SEO is a profession for a reason–it’s more complex than a bottle of sauce we can pour on your website. (Side-note: Please stop using phrases like “secret sauce” and “link juice.” It’s just gross.)
Firstly, many non-SEOs do not understand the basics of organic search. They are not difficult to understand at a basic level, so if you are in the dark, please read the piece linked above to get caught up.
Even if you do understand the basics of organic search, you still may not understand the fundamental reality of it. The organic search space is a vast ocean of complexities, which literally not a single person on Earth comes close to fully understanding. Many clients find this hard to believe, but consider the following:
- Google’s algorithm is updated ~500 times per year.
- Google uses over 200 unique signals to determine website rankings.
- In 1998, Google had a total of 26 million indexed pages; in 2008, 1 trillion indexed pages; 2013, over 60 trillion indexed pages.
- Many of the 60 trillion webpages are constantly morphing & undergoing changes that alter their organic search landscape.
- Every single marketing channel directly and/or indirectly affects organic search ranking signals.
When you combine all of the convoluted factors relating to organic search rankings, you begin to realize why SEOs may occasionally have difficulty providing straightforward answers about changes in organic rankings (assuming they are honest & transparent). It’s probably not that they aren’t experts or that they’re cheating you in some way. It’s that there are so many complex factors & relationships to consider that these situations would take a lifetime to dissect and understand. Yes, there are some situations that are easy to understand–like when Google releases a Penguin update and your organic traffic immediately plummets–but many changes in organic metrics do not have obvious correlations like that. Consider a small algorithm change that Google does not announce that causes a very small number of sites’ organic traffic to fall. It would be difficult to diagnose the exact cause of the decrease for one of those sites in this circumstance. I understand why we lose professional credibility when we cannot provide an explanation (which is why many SEOs are known for spitting BS), but it’s often realistically impossible.
Our professional credibility is also not helped by our recommendations going obsolete due to organic search changes. Just recently, we recommended a client implement authorship, and then Google dropped authorship photos the very next day. It’s only natural for clients to feel frustrated and cheated by situations like this, but when I say “It’s not our fault,” I mean it. It’s not a reflection of our expertise, it’s a reflection of the way organic search works.
Second-to-lastly, many SEOs have personal opinions about how the algorithm will react to certain things, but they will of course state their opinions as facts in order to be perceived authoritatively. This leads to clashing “facts” about SEO. The reality is that we don’t have direct access to the algorithm. Be wary of those who position all of their recommendations as definite, when in fact many of these recommendations are what they think might work based on knowledge & experience. A good SEO will often include several risk-mitigating, success-bolstering facets into their recommendations, and even then, the initiative could still fall flat.
Lastly, SEOs must constantly pivot to match the frequent & sometimes gargantuan algorithmic shifts. Therefore, the profession today is worlds away from what it was just a few years ago. Naturally, this has led to confusion about what SEOs actually do because it has changed so much so often. I discuss how to rectify this issue later in this article.
Why does SEO’s relationship dynamic with other channels matter?
It matters because the amount of traffic that flows through organic search is substantial for many industries, and there are many factors that the other channels will overlook that greatly affect organic search performance. The difference between hitting these factors and missing these factors could sometimes mean the difference between ranking on the first page and not ranking at all.
Additionally, many of the recommendations you would receive from your SEO would actually improve the performance of the other channels. For example, many companies with a strong social team still fail to implement Twitter Cards and Open Graph protocol tags. SEO is good at filling in the gaps across the board.
Thus, empowering SEO to have a strong relationship with all marketing departments not only improve organic search performance, but the performance of other channels, as well.
What is the role of an SEO?
At this point, I hope that we’ve reached a basic understanding of how SEO works and why it’s important to your marketing efforts (if we have not, please comment why), as this is essential to effectively incorporating SEO into your team. So how do you incorporate SEO?
Specifically defining the role of SEO is one of the more challenging issues that we face in this nebulous profession because it takes a little time to establish on a case-by-case basis. For instance, some clients that I work with primarily require technical work whereas others primarily require help bolstering external signals (e.g. links & citations around the web). These are vastly different situations that require vastly different solutions. Those requiring technical work will primarily involve collaboration with web development, whereas those requiring help bolstering external signals may require collaboration with PR, social, and content. Thus, the role of SEO differs greatly in each situation.
Even as an SEO’s role is established, it can (and probably will) drastically change as initiatives are completed, as higher priority initiatives are discovered, or as the algorithm is updated. If technical SEO work for a company is largely completed, then the next step is not to end the campaign but to pursue the next greatest opportunity in organic search. If that next step is a strong content marketing campaign, then that would require a large shift in responsibilities.
Below, I discuss the requirements to understanding your SEO’s role.
Understanding in Communication
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but nobody likely knows the role of SEO specifically for your company better than an SEO does. While this is true of any profession, I would argue it is truer for SEO due to how the role can quickly & significantly shift, as explained in the previous section. If you want to understand and refine the SEO’s role, then it’s your duty to understand the basics of the organic search ranking factors in order to have a knowledge base when discussing this. It will also provide insight as to how SEO fits into your marketing mix.
Especially important is two-way communication. If you’re simply talking at your SEO saying, “We got some links! Why aren’t we #1 yet?!” and not listening to their response, then you are hindering progress. Be receptive to all responses. That does not mean that you should blindly accept whatever is told to you. It simply means that you must be open to good and bad news in order to be on the same page and continue to find the next step to improve performance.
Give your SEO a voice at the marketing table to express ideas & their benefits, especially for ideas that affect existing processes of other teams. They may raise several disruptive topics. While you need not say yes to each one to be successful, you should give these ideas respectful consideration (assuming that your SEO can explain the idea & its potential benefits clearly).
Agility in Action
As previously stated, SEO’s role can change quickly & unexpectedly. Perhaps an algorithm update caused organic traffic to plummet 80% overnight. If you care about regaining and maintaining your organic rankings, you will need to allow your SEO to pivot immediately. This pivot may be temporary or permanent depending on the situation. You may even need to temporarily dedicate a fair amount of resources to realign your website with the algorithm.
As organic search algorithms improve in their ability to return appropriate content to answer search queries, SEO becomes more “holistic” from a marketing standpoint. I often position SEO’s role as “filling in the gaps” that affect organic search. These gaps may be found on the website, on social media profiles, in email marketing, or anywhere else. In order to effectively fill these gaps, you must give your SEO:
- The voice within the company to influence decisions and processes
- The freedom to pivot when necessary
- The resources required to build your digital presence with regard to organic ranking factors
It really comes down to balancing understanding & action. Some companies act without understanding, which may stem from one-way communication. Other companies may communicate too much without ever acting. This is dangerous for any team, but it’s deadly for SEO. Acting with a clear understanding of a situation will have a higher success rate.