5 Lessons I’ve Learnt About SEO After Leaving The SEO Bubble

Post by Tom Baker
04 Sep 2018

After 10 or so years working in-house as a marketer, I have recently taken the plunge into becoming a consultant. It gives me time to reflect on my previous career and hopefully share some advice for those working their way up. One thing I’ve always noticed is that there’s a lack of quality information out there for in-house marketers especially when it comes to developing non-technical skills to accelerate your career development.

This post is geared towards SEOs but a lot of the points I make can be applied to most digital marketing channels.

This post starts with a preamble about my career. Bare with me. It is relevant.

For the first 5 years of my career I worked my way up from an SEO beginner to become Head of SEO at a multinational sports betting firm. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of success in that role but I knew that I wanted a bigger challenge. Since then I’ve worked in much broader marketing roles and finally became Head of Marketing for a successful start-up.

I now spend more time creating SEO strategies than I have in the past 5 years. It’s great to get back to my first marketing discipline. It’s got me thinking about what I’ve learnt as a senior in-house marketer and how I would have approached SEO earlier in my career with the benefit of this experience.

So without further ado, here are 5 actionable lessons I learnt as a non-SEO that will help you to be a better in-house SEO.

1. Rankings should not be your Prime Obsession

It’s natural to spend most of your time thinking about rankings. Achieving high rankings is the challenge you set yourself as an SEO. It’s what drives traffic and conversions. You may believe that it is your job to achieve good rankings. Wrong. Your job is to increase profit per visitor from organic search (or any other channel you manage). This is what your manager will want (or should want) to see. As with all of these tips. Put yourself in their shoes and think about how you can help them to achieve their objectives.

Senior managers will be tasked with increasing profit or a similar high-level goal (increasing the user base etc.). As nice as it is to achieve high rankings they are useless unless they are contributing to this goal. Thinking in terms of profit and revenue will not only make your manager happier but it will also sharpen your mindset. A good rule to live by to get you thinking outside of your SEO box is;

‘If the activity is not helping us to achieve the higher level goal (profit, revenue, users etc.) then we shouldn’t be doing it’

For more info on how to report and optimise towards the most impactful KPIs, I urge you to read Avinash Kaushik’s blog and subscribe to his newsletter.

Developing this mindset is vital no matter what type of marketing you do or how senior you become. It will always be relevant.

To round-off this point I turn to Twitter. I follow a number of ‘famous’ and not so famous SEOs. I see far too much navel-gazing and arguing like bishops arguing over how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Dallying over niche aspects of SEO and giving them undue weight is a surefire way to distract yourself from the main goal.

For example, this tortuous thread about what knowledge you should have as an SEO.  Does your boss care about these things? Does any of this get you closer to achieving your goals?  Once you’ve answered these goals get on with optimising towards business goals.

2. Talk to Colleagues in a Language that’s Relevant to them

Leading on from the need to optimise strategy and objectives to the higher goal (and not obsessing over things that don’t contribute to that goal) is the need to talk in a language that your colleagues understand. I think this is especially true of SEOs for two reason

  1. SEO tends to be about completing a laundry list of tasks that combined get you to your goal
  2. SEO is still perceived by some to be a dark art. This belief is perpetuated by some SEOs who like the idea of being seen to work black magic (often when it’s really not).

Let me be clear. You are not doing yourself any favours if you can’t explain how you are reaching your objectives (this applies to any discipline).  You will quickly lose credibility if people can’t understand what it is you do or your reporting focuses on low level tactical ‘wins’. By this I mean don’t report

“We have successfully optimised 100 titles tags, removed 300 duplicate meta descriptions and the number of reduced broken links down from 500 to 200”

Whilst that might seem important to you, a manager can only read that and think so what? Instead, couch your communication in terms of wider objectives and the cause and effect of the work you have completed.

“We have completed 70% of the project to improve the customer experience for users referred from search engines. Since completing this work we have seen an increase in traffic of 10,000 (300% period over period) and a decrease in bounce rate of 30% (indicating customers are receiving a better experience). Those improvements have led to an increase in revenue (or whatever the higher level KPI is) of 50%.”

As a general rule, provide insight in terms of what those improvements mean for the user and the impact that has on the higher level goal.

Now back to the nature of SEO. SEO is inherently challenging to communicate. No one truly knows how Google’s algorithms work and the work tends to be very technical. Those two things combined make it hard for outsiders to understand what SEO is.

Don’t use this as an excuse to project an image as some black magic hacker. Don’t throw jargon and acronyms around in an attempt to make yourself look clever.

Obfuscating in this manner would lead me to think you’re either doing some very dodgy or you don’t know what you’re doing (the two are often the same thing).

Build trust and credibility by working hard to explain SEO in terms that people can understand. Break down the barriers and I guarantee you’ll get far more support and a lot more respect.

3. Good is Good Enough

I’m going to use an example that’s specific to SEO but the concept can be applied to any discipline.

Let’s say you’re working with a website that has significant technical issues that are reducing the ability to rank for key terms.  As a good SEO you will dive into the causes, decide on the best solutions, communicate those solutions to people/teams that can implement the solutions and create a workflow to prioritise and roll-out the changes.

This is a fantastic place to be but I’ve often seen SEOs become reluctant to invest in increasing inbound links until they’ve ‘perfected’ the on-page and technical aspects of the website they’re working on.

Don’t fall into this trap. Perfection is a fallacy because things constantly change. Whilst improving the website is necessary it is not sufficient to help you achieve the wider business goals (revenue, users etc.).

As an SEO you have to make a judgement on when the website is in a good enough state for new links to start to have an impact on rankings. By developing this simultaneous process you will be far more productive and reach your goals much quicker.

As I say, this approach can be applied to other areas. For example, don’t wait until your tracking systems are capturing 100% of user behaviour before you start to execute whatever campaign you’re working on.  You’ll never achieve the 100% goal and time spent getting from 95%-99% accuracy is time that could be spent delivering against your actual goals.

4. Build a Broad Foundation

I’ve previously discussed improving digital marketing skills in more detail. Suffice to say once I left the comfort of my 5 years experience in SEO I had a steep learning curve. That was because I hadn’t thought ahead.  To not only progress your career but also to be a better SEO you need to have a broad understanding of inter-related disciplines.

This does not mean become an expert in every discipline imaginable. It means learning the core principles of those disciplines and if possible finding ways to apply those lessons.  Working on your own website is a great place to start.

For an SEO I would advise gaining experience in

  • UX
  • Copywriting
  • Communications & PR
  • Customer research/personas
  • Conversion rate optimisation
  • PPC
  • Coding

5. Customer Research doesn’t end with your Keyword Tool

It’s a cliche but understanding your customers is the most important thing you can do as a marketer. Customer research is an inherent part of SEO.  Completing your keyword research is really about trying to understand what your customer is trying to achieve and how you can best help them to achieve that goal.

Looking back, the keyword research I completed would have been so much better if it had been set within the wider context of customer needs and desires.

Keyword research makes us feel like we’re learning about the customer but it is really only one part of the puzzle.

You can be a better marketer by developing a more rounded approach to understanding your customers.  This means;

  • Speak to customers – ask them why they needed the product or service, why they chose your brand over others, what nearly stopped them from buying from you and so on
  • Develop an understanding of how user intent changes through the conversion journey and how your website content should adapt to serve needs as people move through the process
  • Define customer personas – who are the archetypal customers. How does your product or service fit into their lives, what are their demographics, where do they take inspiration from and what language do they use to describe the product, service or contribute to the community
  • Use your CRM data – you’re likely to have a treasure trove of customer data. Use the data to hone in on the most profitable customer segments. Understand how they were acquired and the commonalities that indicate why they are the most profitable. Turn this information around and use it to inform the type of content you create, where you acquire links from and how you prioritise which landing pages to optimise.

As an SEO you’re probably trained to you use quantitative data keyword tools and Google Analytics.  There’s no doubting their importance but to create a more rigorous strategy blend your quantitative data with a qualitative understanding of the customer.  This is how I now complete my keyword research. I suggest you do the same too!

What this all means is that you need to take a collaborative approach to defining your strategy.  Don’t work in a vacuum. Lean on the teams around you for insights that will give you an edge over your competitors and best serve your customers.

To conclude, the sooner you start thinking about the bigger picture and not just the nuances of SEO (or any other channel) the sooner you will add value to your company and ultimately succeed in your career.  Your strategy and execution will improve by paying greater attention to business objectives and a rigorously analysing customer needs.

Tom Baker

The guy writing this stuff. Previously worked in-house doing all sorts of marketing for start-ups and large brands. Now helping business to sell on Amazon and growth their D2C revenue

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