One of the most difficult aspects of my job is helping people outside of the digital marketing industry understand the way search has changed over time and convincing them that when they come to us asking for “SEO”, now what they really need is digital marketing.
It’s not that people do not understand, at a basic level, what it is that we do; it’s more that what constitutes SEO has itself changed, as search engines have developed and become more sophisticated and as the online environment itself has matured. People’s understanding of SEO remains slightly behind the rapidly-changing search marketing environment.
Most people outside our industry still think of SEO as a quick route to phenomenal traffic. Make sure you have a functional website, throw some keywords onto your pages and a load more onto your blog, get a bunch of sites to link to your website and BAM! – page 1 rankings for all the most competitive phrases. This idea of SEO is associated with the early wave of adopters who optimised their websites when most law firms were arguing about whether they needed a website at all, and hence, got remarkable results quickly – often taking advantage of Google’s (relative) lack of sophistication at that time which made it easy to manipulate the search results.
As a result, many law firms believe that by doing “a bit of SEO” they can compete nationally for even the most highly competitive words and phrases.
Google’s new focus
Since those early days the online landscape has changed and search engines have evolved. In 2015 everybody’s doing at least a “bit of SEO” which means that, if you’re only just starting, or if your previous efforts led to problems with Google for not following its guidelines closely enough, or if you’re not willing to invest what your competitors are investing, you’re immediately at a disadvantage.
But the biggest change is a result of improvements to how Google works. Rather than analysing the number of mentions of a phrase on a page and the number and quality of links to a site, Google now does its best to understand the experience that searchers expect when encountering a business online. For example:
- Does a brand have active social accounts?
- Does it have a clear business address?
- Does it have recommendations in the form of reviews?
- Does it have links pointing to it from relevant and trustworthy third party sites?
- What is the user experience of the website?
- Are the pages unique and informative and providing something that cannot be found elsewhere on a more authoritative site?
As part of this change, Google now, more than ever, can understand the difference between reputation earned and reputation bought – which means that rather than being able to buy or barter links from any number of sites and networks, links – which Google sees as votes for the target site – must now be earned through great content and ongoing PR efforts. This has fundamentally altered the nature of SEO.
In addition, Google’s focus on user experience and delivering the best results for its users means that they try to show large, national businesses for generic phrases and more local results for mobile searches and for searches where a location is mentioned. For example, if you are a small local firm that only does business within your town, should you appear on the first page of Google for a generic search to people across England and Wales? Is that a good result for Google’s users? Rather, should Google not list your site in a more local search in order to send the most relevant traffic?
You need to be realistic in your goals and rather than focusing on chasing rankings for specific keywords, think about the most important themes of your website and how your content answers the most important questions visitors might have about those themes. In turn, you should measure the success of your campaign on your overall visibility:
- How often are your pages shown in Google’s search results?
- How often are those results clicked?
- How good is the quality of traffic that arrives on your site?
Today, SEO is all about getting the base platform right so that the rest of your digital marketing efforts will have the maximum impact. SEO consultants spend their time ensuring that the technology of your website works in the best possible way and that search engines can find, index and understand the subject of all of your pages. They make sure that when users come to your pages, those users find the information they expect and they understand what to do next. A good SEO consultant will also focus on constantly improving how users interact with your website to drive up engagement with your pages and the number of searchers who convert into leads.
Your SEO consultant is also responsible for ensuring that all your digital marketing efforts remain up to date based on changes in Google’s algorithm and they will consult with the people working on promoting your business off-site through PR to ensure that nothing they do accidentally falls foul of Google’s guidelines. In most digital agencies, the PR and outreach team will work together with the SEO team on all campaigns.
The way we look at this process is using the model of Presence, Awareness, Conversion.
Your SEO consultant works with designers, developers and content writers to ensure your presence, or your website, looks great, has awesome content, and is easy for search engines to understand. Your campaign then moves into the awareness phase where content marketers, social media experts, PR consultants, email marketers, and PPC specialists work hard to raise your profile anywhere online that your target market goes. Finally, your SEO consultant, again alongside designers, developers and data analysts, will continually work to improve the user experience and conversion rate of your website. To grow your business online, any digital marketing campaign should work constantly to improve your presence, expand your awareness and improve your conversions.
How is this different from the old way? “Link building,” or the practice of acquiring as many links as possible through whatever means, is no longer pursued – instead, digital marketers promote websites online in much the same way that traditional marketers promoted businesses before the internet existed.
Only by having a comprehensive digital marketing strategy, will you reap the benefits of SEO – because SEO alone is no longer enough to build visibility and drive traffic to your website.
What to expect
If all you do is “SEO” – by which I mean working on-site and perhaps acquiring a few basic links – then, if you’ve never done anything before, you may see a small upturn in your traffic.
However, if you want to compete and continue to grow your business and start getting return on your investment, you should expect slow month-on-month growth for the first 12–18 months as you build brand awareness and Google starts to trust that your brand is authoritative and delivers a good user experience. The number of keyword phrases for which you rank will grow month on month and the average ranking position will improve as you go from outside the top 100, up to page 8, page 6, page 4.
At around the 12–18 month mark, if all the right signals are in place and you have been working hard to promote your brand and your content, you should start to see faster growth as more of your pages are shown within the top 3 pages of the relevant search results.
By roughly the third year of your campaign you should have reached optimum visibility for your brand. The height of this peak will be dependent on a number of factors, including your budget, the quality of your content, the activity of your direct competitors and how well Google understands your brand – but you need to be realistic based on the market in which you operate – is it niche or generalist? Is it local or national?
To sum up
SEO remains as important an activity as ever, as it can provide the right platform without which your other marketing efforts will struggle. However, within a mature search environment, having a well-rounded online marketing campaign which mirrors your offline efforts with advertising, social media, content, PR and even email marketing, is the only way to ensure success.
Image: Digital Marketing by Joe the Goat Farmer on Flickr.