SEO isn’t a channel – it’s a culture

Articles relating to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) frequently start with a headline such as “SEO is dead” in a deliberate attempt to grab attention.

There’s some merit to the view that SEO is dead, but I think it’s a little dated. Sure – it can be argued with a high degree of confidence that Google has “won” the battle with people trying to game the system, but that doesn’t mean SEO is dead.  

SEO is a culture

In this article, I’ll set out why I think SEO is a corporate culture more than it is a channel. There are many components for a successful SEO strategy, but they cannot exist in isolation from one another, and they rely on a cultural ethos to succeed. 

Organic veg patch

I like the idea that SEO is like an organically cultivated vegetable patch, whereas PPC is like genetically modified crops with a healthy dose of chemicals to accelerate it’s growth. I’m no eco-warrior, but I can see the benefit in taking natural products such as leaf mould, manure and even rooster pellets, and planting crops designed for our climate and indigenous wildlife. You’re working with nature, rather than trying to bend it to your will.

But how frustrating is it when your lettuces get devoured by snails, your soft-fruit picked at by birds and your neighbour’s crops are twice the size and pest free? The balancing thought is that you’re expressing yourself and your values. You’re also doing your bit for environmental sustainability, as well as reducing cost. But it takes so much more effort, takes longer to deliver results, and there are set-backs along the way. And that’s why it’s so much like SEO.

 

Sunset on water

Building blocks

Individuals and agencies build careers and businesses around SEO, so what I say below is necessarily paraphrased.

Let’s look at some of the key building blocks of SEO at a high level

Links

A site designed from a neutral perspective (i.e. not specifically for SEO) will attract links from website owners and individuals who find the content on your site interesting, relevant and current. I think of them as kindred spirits. There will be an association between their website and it’s content and yours. They won’t be talking about gardening on their site, and link to yours which is about car insurance. Why would they? Google knows this, understanding their site, your site, and the relevance between them. Links get the value they deserve.

A “good” website will also link to other related websites, looking to highlight relevant information from other sites to it’s audience. By being a useful destination, it will gain traffic and loyalty, and while some of the traffic will leave, on balance it’s a good thing. I have no specific SEO commercial objective for this site, so I’m happy to link out to other sites at will. That’s how a genuine site works.

Acquiring links on a paid basis, or simply on an exchange basis just doesn’t work. Writing crappy content to be placed on websites prepared to accept it will just get crappy content placed on crappy sites, generating crappy link equity. The inbound link quantity and the number of inbound linking domains may look good for a while, but it’s a charade.

So, how do you get links? It comes to either good chance, or good content. It’s better to rely on good content.

Content

Before looking at good content, let’s doff our cap to good luck. If your business hits the headlines big time for all the wrong reasons (scandal maybe), you’re likely to attract lots of genuine links from high authority (respected and trusted) sites. This will give your SEO a nice bump, but it’s not the ideal way of going about things.

Good content it is then. But what is good content? It needs to be unique, timely, interesting or funny, and shareable. Not much then…

Unique. Re-packaging somebody else’s hard work doesn’t cut the mustard. People see it for what it is, and by the time you’ve seen somebody else’s work, flattered the original creator by re-cycling it, and promoted it, it’s certain to be out of date. Nope, whether it’s data from your organisation, data that you’ve commissioned through surveys, data that you’ve purchased and sliced in a new way, or simply a strong view-point, you have to put in the hard yards. This takes time.

Timely. Timely is easy. You simply set up a content calendar based around the seasons, festivals, public holidays, notable dates, sport and the like. This way, you can plan your Valentine’s special 6 months in advance, and off you go!

Except there’s little new in the obvious. It’s been done to death, so unless you have a genuinely new angle, your efforts will be picked up only by people desperate to fill space. You’ll also be drowned out by retailers of flowers, chocolate and greetings cards. And the rest of the population will be so tired of “bl..dy commercialisation” that they won’t want to know anyway…

Timely takes time, planning, subject matter knowledge and being fleet of foot. You need people whose job it is to anticipate events within your sector, write content quickly and engagingly, with an opinion, and to get it approved for use ASAP. This type of person is a precious commodity, and might not come cheap.

It also needs to be backed by somebody graphically creative to bring it to life. People like graphics and infographics. They can drop it on their site, bringing their site to life, and hopefully linking to your site. Then it needs to be built digitally in shareable formats. And all of this needs to be done quickly, which is an organisational consideration.

Interesting or funny

Broadly speaking, you either need to inform or entertain people, and quickly. We’re accustomed to consuming news and information in bite sized chunks on the train, tube, loo, plane or while dual-screening. Interesting is tough, while funny is arguably tougher.

Writing for a B2B audience on interesting subjects shouldn’t present too much of a problem (see above), but you must have an opinion. A point of view. Without this, you’re just pushing facts. Allowing people to publish content with an opinion makes businesses jumpy, lest they offend or upset people. That freedom to “breath” as a brand is a core business decision, without which content has little chance of success.

“Funny” takes the discussion about freedom of expression to the next level. The current social climate closes many doors on humour, and often rightly so. A business needs courage and conviction.

Promotion

So, you have your unique, timely and engaging content. Brilliant! Not so fast – you need to tell the world. You must place your content on your website, and comfortably before anyone else. This is a given, however you’ll only reach your existing audience, plus anyone searching for words or themes contained in your content.

You can pay for placements, but people will only accept so many promoted tweets, Facebook ads, or emails with your communication gems. You’ll get a certain amount of value from NewsWires (not much in my view) or PR, but really you need a platform to share to an audience who know you, trust you, and will share your content. This is your social following on whichever of the myriad platforms you choose to develop.

But Social takes soooo long to build a following. You need to nurture it, feed it and love it, just as you might your organic veg patch seedlings. You need the content described above, the creative skills, time and humanity to make it work. Social cannot be forced, and every brand starts at zero followers/ likes etc. It’s a long-term investment with an ROI that is possible, but itself time-consuming, to demonstrate.

Every journey starts with a first step.

Website

Having solved all of the challenges above, people will start exploring your website. Finding, or looking for, your content. Not everything can be deep-linked to, or sit on your homepage, so a search function is useful.

People are impatient, so your website needs to be quick to load. People uses thousands of browser/ operating system/ device/ orientation/ size combinations, which your website needs to cope with, just like that.

You need people to hang around on your site for a while, and not just bounce off after 3 seconds in large numbers.

The structure of your website, and it’s navigation and technical build need a lot of thought, and re-building a website with hundreds or thousands of pages of content is little or no fun, so it needs to be right at the outset.

Google understands the impact of all of the above being wrong, and “judges” your site by it. Planning a website for SEO takes time and care.

Checklist

That’s quite some list, so let’s re-cap:

  • Research & Insight
  • Time
  • Creative copy-writing
  • Opinion
  • Digital design and build
  • People & Knowledge
  • Test & Learn outlook
  • Social management
  • Empathy with your audience
  • Empowerment
  • Organisational agility
  • Patience
  • Cultural expressiveness
  • Humility & Resilience – not everything will work
  • Technical expertise
  • Budget (SEO isn’t free…)

Cultural

The above points are far-reaching, and summarised. No one part of the above can succeed without the others as they inextricably inter-linked.

SEO needs a significant, multi-disciplinary team that is empowered and supported by an open and forgiving organisation, and one that is patient. Changes cannot be forced at pace.

That requires an organisational focus, and an outward looking perspective. Those two points together, I would argue, mean that SEO requires a cultural shift.