Fishing for SEO

Ahh, the fortune cookie. Never before or since has so much wisdom been packed into such an unfulfilling dessert. Who knew a piece of paper shoved into a cookie in some factory could pack so much insight?

After every plate of General Tso's chicken I finish, I'm surprised how often this little confectionary afterthought relates back to SEO agency life. The one fortune I find most personally frustrating to receive in cookie form is the old Lao Tzu proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

It seems as if SEO agencies are constantly asked to teach people to fish while other marketing services are safe from this request. Sure, clients have taken services in-house, but I've never run into a client who has asked to be taught how to do paid search or media or creative (even if they did, we simply wouldn't agree to take on that type of business).

SEO seems to fall into a world in which it's completely acceptable to ask someone to train themselves out of their job. The key to getting past such requests is to better educate your agency counterparts and better understand the motivation behind this all too common request.

Agency Fishing

Facing SEO training inquiries in the office is at best irksome. At worst, we feel as if there's some belief that our full-time jobs can be whittled down to a 101-level course. Equally vexing, we all know what would happen if we asked a user experience, information architecture, or creative professional to perform their job in an hour or train us on how to do their work -- tacking on the obligatory stipulation that they do it for free as well.

SEO isn't merely a best practice. SEO is an expertise that requires a level of training and continued education. Sometimes it gets lost in an agency because of a misguided perception that "best practices" -- the stripped down, barebones "SEO for Dummies" basics of the service -- are all you need.

Let's be clear. Best practices will most likely get you crawled and may meet your contractual search marketing objectives, but they won't make a site competitive.

Successfully integrating SEO into the agency process requires a foundation of education. The goal here is SEO forethought in the site design phase, so you're not shooting yourselves in the foot.

We must be open to answering a SEO question even when not completely integrated into the process. Providing some insights helps reveal to agency counterparts why SEO integration can't be taught in an hour. You have experts for a reason, and it's smarter to look to them instead of trying to do other people's jobs.

Client Fishing

Client SEO training requests make a little more sense and also aren't always the wrong way to go. Clients try to find ways to manage costs, and they'll try to pull something in house if they can.

Despite the ways SEO integrates into the search marketing process, it sometimes still feels like technical work or something that should be owned by an IT department -- at least from the client perspective. Because of this, clients often ask if there's a way to layer a foundation of SEO into their site and then teach them how to take it over. This isn't always a bad thing, but your goal as the agency is to assess the benefit of client training then plot the best course of action.

First, ask why the client is asking about SEO training. Is your client just looking to save money? Do they think that SEO is a one-time fix?

Educating the "one-time fixers" is simple enough. Walk them through what year one looks like; then provide some thoughts on how year two would be structured. Explain that their site must change in harmony with the search algorithms over that time period, which is why they'll need some sort of ongoing engagement.

See how they answer questions phrased from their perspective. "After your agency creates a TV plan for you in 2009, do you just duplicate it in 2010?" The answer, of course, is no.

The other side of the client coin could honestly just reflect that a client feels as though their team can handle it. In this instance, structure the SEO campaign with a focus on guiding the client toward eventually taking over daily operations and maintenance.

Teaching a Client to Fish

If a project warrants "teaching a man to fish," who on the client's side will be the fisherman? The client may not be able to simply add SEO work to an employee's existing responsibilities (in some states that could be considered cruel and unusual punishment). Instruct your clients on what knowledge is needed and how to staff for it. Help them craft a job description and even offer to help with the interview process.

Starting this conversation helps ground SEO aspirations in reality and dictates what an existing engagement really becomes. After discussing this with your client, you'll know if they're really willing to fish.

Once both you and the client understand the transition, provide an SEO consulting plan that focuses on making fixes and developing processes. It starts with working on site architecture, technical aspects, publishing process, CMS, and other structural elements. Ideally, you should create an infrastructure that allows for future additions to be optimized.

Know When to Fish, Know When to Teach, but Don't Just to Walk Away

More important than anything else, don't get worked up when a fellow non-SEO agency member or client asks, "Can you show us how to do this ourselves?" Take a breath, remain calm, and examine the situation.

Sometimes people want something for free. Sometimes there's ego involved. Other times, someone might have a legitimate reason for making such a request. The key is to know when "teaching a man to fish" is warranted.

No matter what, when you inevitably receive this question, engage it. Often there's an opportunity lurking just beneath the surface. A little candid discussion just might yield interdepartmental engagements or a deeper client campaign. But more importantly, you'll learn why the client wants that knowledge and what they intend to do with it.

Having a frank and honest talk about someone's perception of SEO is never a bad idea. By taking a sincere interest in someone's perspective on the subject (and educating where necessary), you create strong connection with the person and may be looked to for expert advice in the future, which is the point of an agency service.

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About the author

Joshua Palau is the vice president of Search for Razorfish. In this role he is responsible for the global strategy, product development and operations of their paid, organic, and feeds offerings.

He helps clients to understand how search fits into the overall marketing plan and constantly researches the rapidly changing industry to help clients anticipate, and respond to, changes in the landscape.

Joshua is an active writer who has authored several Razorfish POVs on topics such as managing paid and organic search, reputation management, and social search optimization. In addition to writing his SEW column, he serves as the editor of Razorfish's weekly newsletter, Search Marketing Trends.

Joshua began his digital career in 1996 and has a diverse background working on the publisher, client, and agency side. Prior to joining Razorfish, he has worked for Hearst Magazines, About.com, and Johnson & Johnson.

His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.