If you’ve ever been involved in defining an organization’s SEO strategy, chances are you’ve experienced a situation like this: an executive calls you into her office with an important request. She needs to you to improve or fix her site’s SEO. The problem is, in her very next breath, she restricts your ability to do that. She says stuff like, “Our site is too wordy. Can we remove some copy from the page?”
Why are executives so undereducated about SEO best practices? Is it because they’ve always had experts on their teams to whom they can delegate SEO research and activities? That could be one very plausible explanation. Another possible reason is that search engine optimization rules and best practices change all the time, so it’d be impossible for someone at the senior level to stay updated on the specifics.
The fact is, though, that a baseline of knowledge of SEO is essential for any brand that’s seeking to implement a successful marketing transformation. I’ve determined that it’s my job (and my team’s job) to educate executives on what SEO is, and what it isn’t. If we don’t educate them now, we will never be able to meet their expectations later.
So what’s the best way to educate a C-level exec about SEO? Start with these six points.
1. Brands Don’t Control Search Engine Performance
The idea of control versus influence is really the first core concept that executives need to understand and accept. Brands can’t control their listings in search engine results; the best they can do is hope to influence and shape them. As you likely know, brands can’t just decide to top search engine results pages (SERPs), flip a switch, and make it so. They have to work toward that goal—and in most cases, they have to work really hard to do it.
It’s your job to educate your executives on this fact—because if you don’t, you will quickly find yourself and your team in a no-win situation. Everyone wants “better, stronger SEO” but they need to know that it’s a process, not a commodity that can just be purchased and installed. And there’s no SEO exchange rate, either; no rule that says for each dollar spent, you get X amount of SEO benefits in return.
I realize this can be a tough sell, but don’t be discouraged. Investments in SEO can be quantified. Be sure to identify and baseline any metrics related to SEO that are important to your leaders so that you can show improvement over time.
2. There Are Factors You Can Control
At last count, there are well over 200 individual factors that go into determining where a page will land in SERPs. That’s a lot to contend with, and it’s definitely not something I’d expect the average C-suite executive to understand. However, it is important for them to understand the difference between the factors brands can control and the factors they can merely influence, so that resources can be directed to the most efficient areas.
Search Engine Land created a resource I regularly refer to, called The Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors. The table breaks down SEO factors into two major groups first: on-the-page and off-the-page factors. The vast majority of brands have a lot of room for improvement in both areas, but can really only control the on-the-page factors—and that’s where you should start your SEO efforts.
3. Only Search Engine Developers Know Exactly How SEO Works
Most people who are versed in SEO know what they know from the experimentation of others. I’m personally included in that group. If your leaders want to hire an SEO expert because they believe that doing so will guarantee success, it might be worth helping them reset their expectations. Proven experts in search engine optimization are certainly around, but, in my experience, they’re few and far between.
When it comes to expertise in SEO, it’s your job to temper the expectations of leadership whether you’re the (official or unofficial) in-house SEO expert or not. The fact that expertise is a relative term is a critical concept for your leadership to understand. Unless you were once a search product manager or engineer at Google, chances are you rely on others’ expertise to drive your knowledge. You can become an expert on known best practices, but SEO isn’t magic—and there will be bumps along the way.
4. If You Don’t Provide Any Budget, Don’t Expect Miracles
Once upon a time, SEO was known as the “free” way to gain web traffic. There was paid search, which required a budget—and then there was SEO, which didn’t.
That’s no longer the case. In fact, some brands spend thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars improving SEO every single month. If your leadership doesn’t provide budget, they shouldn’t expect miracles—and it’s most definitely your job to educate them as to why.
Being charged with improving SEO with no budget is like being asked to raise brand awareness with no money. Search engine optimization, like billboards, TV, PPC, and other tactical marketing efforts, requires resources. That’s because good SEO requires good content—and good content is never free. Constant production and refinement of content across media and channels should be planned and budgeted for in the same way your other marketing tactics are. Doing so without a budget will definitely hamstring your chances of success.
5. Strong SEO Requires Good Content Marketing
Once you are able to convince your leadership that SEO isn’t free, you need to focus your resources on the areas that will provide the best return. In the past, that may have been outright link building, but that should be all but avoided today. Instead, place your focus on the quality of your brand stories and answering your customers’ questions through content. A solid content strategy is one of the first steps in an effective SEO strategy. Once you’ve established your content strategy, you can turn your attention more to off-page and outreach efforts.
You should approach being a content proponent within your organization as your job, even if it’s not. I mean, shouldn’t it be everyone’s job to advocate for your customers? That’s what being a content champion is all about: providing customers with the information they seek. When you position your influence as championing the user, rather than championing a tactic, you’re more likely to find success.
I’ve had a few directors in the past suggest some tactics that just don’t work any longer, and could even get our brand into trouble. Rote link building is no longer a valid tactic. Link earning is a valid tactic—as long as your content, in its current state, is worth linking to. Here again, most brands are best served starting out with a focus on what they can control—optimizing their content, optimizing their delivery experiences, and sprinkling in a strong keyword strategy to start. If you provide good content and promote it on a basic level, the links should come on their own.
If you provide good content and promote it on a basic level, the links should come on their own.”
Educating the C-suite on the benefits of content marketing is your job because while optimization of your existing content can help, it’s not a reliable long-term strategy. You have to put a plan in place to produce relevant content (not just blog posts) that maps to your customers’ intentions across and into their decision journeys. Tweaking a few settings on the product pages, landing pages, and blog posts you have up will keep you busy for a few days or weeks, but you’ll eventually run out of incremental SEO improvements to make.
6. Search Algorithms Are Complex Digital Organisms
This concept is probably going to be one of the toughest to explain to your senior leadership, but it’s also one of the most important. Education in this area often starts with questions from your leaders.
For example, I once had a leader ask me: “Why don’t I see my home page when I search for (a specific term)?” I took the time to think though that question with the leader. I asked her if the words in her question appeared anywhere on the page.
I asked if the page answered her question or a direct or indirectly similar question.
I asked if she would recommend that page to her neighbor, if they were to be interested in that product or service. Again, she said no. Thinking through her question in this manner helped her to understand that it’s in search’s best interest to provide the most relevant matches possible, and it’s our job to make our pages relevant to users’ questions.
Change is inevitable, and in SEO, it’s also very much a constant. In fact, the SEO company Moz actually created a tool it calls Mozcast, that serves as a barometer for SEO. It very simplistically shows how search results can fluctuate on a regular basis. If the Mozcast barometer is stormy, search results are experiencing a high degree of change. If it’s calmer, results aren’t as turbulent.
Another visual tool I like to use when trying to put the changing nature of search algorithms into perspective for my leaders is the Google Updates Timeline from Rankwatch. This timeline shows changes to the algorithm in a very linear way—often making it easier to understand how search continues to evolve. A few highlights of search marketing transformation over just the past few years include:
- RankBrain Update–Google’s machine-learning & AI addition, October, 2015
- Mobilegeddon Update–Google’s updates to favor the mobile experience, April, 2015
- HTTPS Update–August, 2014
- Google Hummingbird Update–Google’s focus on semantic search & user intent,August, 2013
- GooglePanda Updates–Deranking of “thin” websites, starting in February, 2011
- GooglePenguin Updates–Updates to penalize grey and black hat tactics, starting in April, 2012
Tools such as Mozcast and the Google Updates Timeline can help executives understand the complexity of search algorithms—but the fact is, there are no simple answers for questions like “Why do you see one set of results, when I see another?” It’s important for marketers and leaders alike to understand search isn’t a static concept, and what worked very well yesterday may be penalized tomorrow.
It’s your job to educate yourself and your senior leaders on the changing nature of search because, on some level, C-level executives know that search is evolving, but they may not understand the intricacies of what goes into the results that are served. (This can be challenging to explain even with the tools mentioned above, so I would stick with having this conversation through the lens of customer needs and intent.)
Education of organzation leaders in SEO is important, and it likely falls squarely on your shoulders to do so. They don’t need to be experts, but they do need to understand what is and is not within the realm of possibility for their teams to accomplish, given organizational, cultural, and budget challenges. It will take some time, but this education is well worth the investment. Your future self will thank you for setting them up for success.