The best advice for executing SEO in 2014 is to always be open to new ways of thinking about the industry. Over the past few years, SEO has been forced to evolve and segment into several distinct practices: content marketing, public relations, reputation management, technical consulting and so on.
While these segments are often divisive – geeks shunning community managers, web analysts dismissing copywriters – their presence forces both generalists and specialists alike to be more introspective, to question the services they offer, and to push the industry to evolve at an excitingly disruptive pace.
Recently I've been contemplating whether SEO should be considered a marketing service at all – and I've been meditating on the fact that it is undeniably closer to being a "feature" of web development, rather than a way of marketing a brand to an audience.
Thinking about SEO in this way unlocks a new approach to search optimization. It distances the SEO folks from other marketing channels and allows them to adopt a vocabulary that imitates developers and designers.
When we start thinking about SEO as a feature of a product, instead of a marketing service, it aligns efforts with innovative methodologies found elsewhere in digital: lean/agile development, responsive operating systems and user-centric design.
Though SEO is admittedly still – at its heart – a way of optimizing a marketing channel, I've always found it productive to think about our service offering through alternative or unconventional lenses.
How to Improve Upon the Product
Historically, search optimization comes as an afterthought for many businesses.
Once the site has been built, the SEO team is usually brought on to "push" the website out into search engines, and execute tactics in hopes of bringing more visibility and traffic to the website.
Many SEO professionals subscribe to this methodology. They encourage and educate clients to perceive search optimization as a way to better market their website within the search marketplace. They use marketing-speak, such as share of voice, to describe the hold or presence of a brand within a vertical.
Yet, this approach paints SEO into a corner that proves difficult to escape.
It creates the illusion that SEO is a turnkey solution – similar to PPC, similar to paid social – through which new or existing customers are attracted to an established, unchanging environment: the website.
It enables the misconception that optimization is performed continuously around a website rather than from within one.
In recognizing SEO as part of the product rather than a service offering – iterative rather than delivered – we reposition ongoing optimization as something that occurs before the product is deemed finished. We underscore the fact that, in digital, nothing is ever finished. We promote the idea that we are continuously building upon a product – finessing and developing its edges – instead of optimizing a marketing channel for user acquisition or sales.
We cement the foundational idea that SEO is about "pull" – not "push."
SEO professionals are not new to the concept of "building."
The key difference here is to view optimization as a way of improving upon a product, rather than influencing the ranking factors that surround it.
While off-site SEO is still a ways away from becoming obsolete, the real, direct "marketing" advantages that link building yields are obviously diminishing. Instead, naturally, the practice looks to accrue signals that are then considered as part of the total build of the product.
In this way, we can spot the differences between earned and paid off-site media. Those who lean towards content marketing may vouch for seeding infographics or exploiting native advertising – but these services are limited not only in scale, but also in projecting their ability to succeed. Those who lean towards manipulating search rankings through grey-black hat practices open themselves up to exposure and penalization.
SEO – as a verifiable and valuable way of marking a business – then becomes defunct. As a significant component of product development, however, it glows.
How to Structure SEO Roadmaps
SEO roadmaps conventionally follow a one-two punch model of execution: first, jazz up the website, then start building links to various pages in any way possible. Somewhere along the way, you measure the success or failure of various attempts to gain rankings, and then showcase the resulting improvement or stagnation in organic traffic.
I think we can do better than that.
Rajen Sheth at Google Ventures has a remarkable way of structuring product roadmaps that illuminates how to not only better plan your SEO efforts, but also clarify to managers or clients the various milestones you hope to achieve.
While slightly unambitious, this roadmap outlines the step-by-step builds that the SEO will add to the website over time. It also showcases a vision of where the website could be months down the line.
Here's a little more information on the differences between these buckets:
- Committed: Committing to dates for well-understood features or things that are under development
- No Timeline: Committing to necessary features with no set date of completion
- Visionary: Aspirational goals that the website is currently light-years away from
By moving away from a Plan --> Build -->Optimize -->Measure framework, you can begin to tell stories with their builds, tie improvements to particular initiatives and communicate reasoning or prioritization more clearly.
How to Better Understand the User
With the death of keyword data via (not provided) and algorithm updates that favor context above content, many SEO professionals have begun to deepen their understanding of user behaviour. This shift has caused a rethinking the meaning of keywords – imbuing queries with characteristics such as "search intent" or "purchase propensity."
We begin to ask questions that sound like this:
- At what stage of the customer journey is the user?
- How well does my mobile website rank in search?
- Does this feature align with the users' search intent?
Although this evolution in SEO is a positive one, I want to argue that it too closely imitates the language of marketers.
Through the lens of product development, search optimization looks like this:
- At what stage of the user journey is the customer?
- How well does my mobile experience satisfy the customer?
- What features can I add to or remove from my website to improve it?
The difference, however slight, is important to take note of.
Although the second set of questions sounds like it could fall outside the scope of SEO, erring into UX or CRO, the answers to them are infinitely more meaningful to the optimization of a product.
While some champion the idea that "new SEO" is about creating great content and acquiring links organically, there stands an opposing view that heralds product development and optimization.
It is undeniable that organic search will remain a prevalent and profitable marketing channel for years to come, but in the short term it will be critical to think of, practice and sell SEO as something larger than a way of marketing.
Jack Allen of iProspect contributed to this post.