Anyone who works in the SEO industry gets questioned more than a few times on what they do for a living. Explaining what we do to someone not in the know, or who isn’t that tech savvy, can sometimes be difficult.
I’ve been put in this “So, what do you do, exactly?” situation many times. At first, I found it quite awkward to answer the question, as many people have no idea how search engines work nor the logic behind search engine optimisation, and I didn’t do a great job of explaining it to them. But eventually I got pretty good at communicating it in a way that most people could understand (my parents were the benchmark – if they could get it, anyone could!).
They way I used to explain it was simple: “You’re a business, you’re online and you sell a product – let’s say, keyrings. There are countless other businesses/websites trying to sell the same thing. What we do, is help your business gain more exposure through search engines like Google by recommending and making different changes to your website so it comes up for search queries like ‘keyrings’, ‘buy keyrings’, ‘custom made keyrings’ or whatever it may be. That way, your website gets more exposure, more traffic and hopefully more sales, as users tend to click on the first results they see in a search engine.”
This would inevitably lead to “how?” questions, so I’d then explain a few things about ranking factors, the optimisation process, how much it costs, etc. While this makes for a great conversation starter, the problem was that I could only ever express the nutshell version of SEO in a typical ten or fifteen minute chat.
Now as the end of 2012 approaches, I find myself reflecting on my last 5 years working in this industry and how much has changed during that time. And I realise that there’s no way I’d be able to explain all that we do to someone I just met in less than an hour.
So, I’ve decided to jot down my thoughts on the roles and responsibilities of an SEO, what we actually do now, and what’s going to happen to the industry moving towards 2013.
The Essence of SEO
When I think about what the essence of an SEO’s role, I come up with this:
The role of an SEO is to provide users with information that is helpful to them.
While SEO is a complicated business when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, what it all really comes down to is helping the user. I’m a true believer that helping the user is what ethical SEO is all about.
An SEO needs to be well-versed in many skills. We typically come from marketing/web backgrounds and may be strong in one or many areas, but we need to learn a bit of everything along the way as its very much a sink-or-swim career. You either learn what you need to as you go and succeed OR remain stagnant, fall behind and fail.
Search engine optimisation is a form of online marketing. As such, SEOs are responsible for getting maximum exposure for their client’s website while remaining focused on the experience of the website’s users. There is no point driving a whole bunch of search traffic if the user isn’t going to be interested in interacting with the website. So the SEO changes made to a website to help market it better are targeted towards the end user and not primarily toward the search engines.
The search marketing goals and objectives should be mutually agreed upon by the client and the SEO agency, with milestones and targets being set/monitored monthly. Traditional marketing elements can also be applied online, such as creating word of mouth through viral campaigns, billboard advertising in the form of online banners and more. Researching traditional marketing helps to gain a broader understanding of what needs to be done to help the business itself (rather than only the website) and helps get out of the bubble of on-page/off-page SEO focus.
Once an SEO has worked out what needs to be done from the marketing side, it’s time to develop the strategy for achieving it. There are countless strategies that can be applied, but most start with a website health check to identify what needs to be done and what areas need the most attention. From there, it is much easier for the SEO to determine where their focus should be.
The predominant SEO strategies are on-page website changes and off-site link building campaigns. The initial execution timeframe will vary depending on the website. New websites and websites that have some age behind them usually require different timeframes, as many aged websites have had some level of optimisation applied already so they require less initial work. Ongoing work is typically carried out in a monthly cycle planned a 2-3 months ahead as a minimum. Planning work much further in advance isn’t usually effective because the strategy may need to change based on the results it achieves. Also because Google is always changing its search algorithm anyway, so SEO strategies need to be able to adapt to those changes.
There are many tweaks and changes that can be made on a website that will help it perform better from a usability as well as a search engine perspective. These items have been tried and tested by SEOs over the years and have become what’s known as best practice. There are also several guides such as Google’s “Search Engine Optimisation Starter Guide” and the Google Webmaster Guidelines that should be observed. More complex changes require experience, intuition and experimentation by the person performing the SEO work and as such there is a slight art to it. Generally once the strategy is executed and the website is optimised, the SEO will monitor the results through various tools throughout the analysis phase.
Once the initial work of an SEO strategy is done, it’s time to analyse the results to determine whether to continue with the original strategy or change it. There are many elements that are analysed on a weekly/monthly basis (and daily as well if need be), however the major elements that an SEO will pay attention to are:
- Off-site Signals
- Keyword Rankings – are the primary keywords moving up in position?
- Competitiveness – what are the competitors doing? How can we leverage what they’re doing in our own strategy, and how far ahead/behind are we from them?
- On-site Signals
- Website Analytics
- Traffic – are the keywords being targeted bringing in the traffic that was predicted in the marketing/strategy phase?
- Conversions – as a result of more traffic/more qualified traffic are there more conversions for this website?
- Website Analytics
The work that’s carried out for an SEO campaign must be recorded for future reference as well as for reporting to the prime stakeholders involved. To build credibility and trust with their clients, SEOs keep records of work done and why, plans and targets for the future, as well as milestones and goals achieved to date. Different metrics are important to different clients/relationships and as such reporting should be unique to each.
In any situation, an SEO must be able to effectively explain to the client what the most important metrics are based on the campaign’s agreed-upon goals and the client needs to understand how the campaign is performing. Every campaign should have some sort of metric relating to ROI in order for it to be profitable and sustainable in the long term.
There are often many stakeholders involved with a search marketing campaign, therefore it is imperative to have an excellent verbal and written communication skills. If the campaign is to be successful, the SEO must effectively communicate with all those involved such as the client (to report progress), the accountant of the client’s business (to report expenses), and the web developer (to make and follow up on technical requests).
And of course, there is nothing worse than for a newly redeveloped website to lose its previous optimisation work, and having to start again on the long process of crawling its way back up through the rankings. The predominant reason for this disaster is a lack of communication between the client, the marketing agency and the developer/designer.
An SEO will typically assist in designing and developing websites according to search engine best practices. This is to ensure things like proper markup, page load, URL structure and internal linking are all set up correctly. While conversion isn’t a traditional SEO speciality, those who are good will know best practices for conversion, such as placing calls to action on each page as well as doing some level of split testing. Those who are great will know to do this regularly and get a conversion expert involved to make the campaign even more successful.
I myself come from a programming background with experience in web-based languages such as PHP and ASP, which is very useful to bring to an SEO role. While technical skills aren’t absolutely necessary, they can become very useful as they can prevent things being lost in translation when communicating with development teams and so forth. Having a programming/technical understanding of a website can help an SEO to think outside the box and allow for many tweaks and changes that may otherwise be overlooked by those without said skills. Executing URL rewrites becomes much easier, editing files doesn’t need to be a back and forth between many different parties. It can even save the client money by just paying the multi-skilled SEO vs. paying the SEO and a dev team (who, let’s face it, are ridiculously expensive anyway!).
A Holistic View
In previous years, an SEO’s pure focus would be to optimise a website to get it a higher ranking in search engines, resulting in more traffic and then (hopefully) more conversions. These days it is impossible to solely focus on this one area and ignore the others. Now, an SEO must also look at other areas – it’s no longer just about search engines.
The game has turned into what many are calling “inbound marketing” where the focus is to use as many channels as possible to gain a following of users/customers by giving benefits to them. Some of the channels that will become increasingly important in 2013 and beyond are:
- Social media – is the client “in the game”? What could they be doing better to gain larger outreach?
- Paid search – are there areas they are missing out on? What could they gain from a paid search campaign?
- Email marketing – is the client capturing email addresses for EDM opportunities?
- Offline marketing – is there scope to do radio? TV? Even things like letterbox drops and newspaper ads – never rule these out as they can be ridiculously effective in the right industry.
- Conversion – what elements on the website can be changed to improve the conversion rate of the website?
- Discussion – is the client involved with online discussion such as forums, blogs, Q+A sites etc?
- Video – is the client producing video content not only for their own site but for popular video networks such as YouTube and Vimeo?
- Word of mouth/Referral – are clients asking their customers for more customers?
- Document sharing – is the client sharing documents and templates they have created that can make life easier for the current and future customers?
- Webinars/Education – is the client educating their customers through online channels such as webinars or offline channels like workshops and seminars?
- News/Press releases – is the client sending out press releases when things change in their organisation?
- Research/White papers – is the client performing research and statistical analysis on their industry and sharing it with interested parties?
Has the person in charge of your SEO campaign adopted this mentality? If not, send them this article and give them something to think about. This industry is more competitive then ever and it’s very important to stay on top of it and do as much as you can to get your message out there and help the end users: your future customers and clients.