Happy New Year! I have been taking a nice long holiday break and am now ready to get back into blogging. I haven’t been idle over the break. I’ve mostly been writing for other projects, such as my InformIT page and a video lecture series I am getting close to releasing.Continue reading “Content Strategy is the New SEO”
If I seem absent from this site, it is only because most of my work is published now by Biznology. In that blog, I am following a long thread about how to optimize digital experiences for Google post SEO. SEO as we know it is dead. But attracting an audience through Google is not optional. So how do we do it in that age post SEO? That is the point of my monthly posts at Biznology.Continue reading “6 Ways Google Killed SEO And What to Do About It”
When I say that search and social are interdependent, I don’t just mean that any effective digital strategy ensures that you do both well. Of course, they are both strong drivers of relevant traffic to your sites. But I also mean that they are interrelated. That is, you can’t do search effectively without an effective social strategy and you can’t do social effectively without an effective search strategy. Since this is a controversial position, allow me to explain now and explain after the jump.Continue reading “How Search and Social are Interdependent”
Since before I started this blog with my co-author Frank Donatone, I’ve been engaging in a long and fruitful virtual debate with a group of people I lovingly refer to as the search haters. My latest blog about this can be found on Biznology: “Five Critical Roles that Need SEO Skills.” Not that the group of search haters is organized or has its own user group. But there is a long line of folks who are willing to trash the practice of SEO on the basis of two facts:
- SEO has sometimes been practiced by unscrupulous agencies to try to gain unfair advantage for their clients, thus this is what most SEO amounts to
- Search results are sometimes wildly irrelevant to search queries, thus search is not all that helpful in providing relevant content to audiences
I write this in the hope that I might influence a few search haters into a more sympathetic understanding of SEO. As the above Biznology post indicated, I spend the majority of my time training folks on SEO. Much of this is in countering myths 1. or 2. above. If I can preempt some of this training by influencing a few people now, I just might be able to get down to business with new hires in digital marketing sooner.
A Smashing Debate
Since I wrote the above blog post, several of my colleagues have alerted me to a couple of long and detailed blog posts in Smashingmag.com. The first is called “The Inconvenient Truth about SEO.” In it, author and apparent search hater Paul Boag makes some good points about the way SEO is sometimes practiced. But he also makes some logical and factual errors. Most of the logical or factual errors were well countered in a follow-on blog called “What The Heck Is SEO? A Rebuttal”
The most important is the counter to point 1. above. Authors Bill Slawski, Will Critchlow rightly say that this is a straw man. Most SEO is in fact practiced by people who only want the search traffic commensurate with the value of their content, using legitimate means of attaining it. SEO spam is like junk mail spam or email spam: Even though it is not representative of all SEO, we remember SEO spam (aka black hat SEO) because it is so annoying, So our tendency is to over generalize from black hat SEO to all SEO. The authors also did a good job curating the results of a poll of SEOs in describing what it is SEOs actually do.
I highly recommend that you read both posts, especially the accounts of what SEOs actually do in the rebuttal. As an SEO, I do all of those things and then some. The picture that emerges is that SEOs are really just digital strategists who will do whatever is needed to ensure that clients get ROI for their web development efforts. Since most people search for information “often or always,” being available in search results for the queries your target audience cares about is job 1. So, as I describe in Biznology and elsewhere, the role of an SEO is helping everyone else on the team understand how their work affects search results, i.e., training.
Still, the rebuttal is incomplete. I won’t take Boag’s post apart in detail. But I do want to point out a fallacy in the hopes that it will illuminate why myth number 2. above is a commonly held belief. Here is what Boag says:
Your objective should be to make it easier for people who are interested in what you have to offer to find you, and see the great content that you offer. Relevant content isn’t “great content”. Someone searches for a pizza on Google, and they don’t want prose from Hemingway or Fitzgerald on the history and origin of pizza — they most likely want lunch. An SEO adds value to what you create by making sure that it is presented within the framework of the Web in a way which makes it more likely that it will reach the people that you want it seen by, when they are looking for it.
What is Relevance, Again?
First of all, I completely agree with everything in the above quote, except the bold part. The way I read it, he is saying that content need not be great in order to be relevant. Considering that I say content quality is a proxy for relevance, the bold statement in the Boag quote is a problem for me.
Let’s revisit our definition of relevance. Content is more or less relevant to the audience to the extent that:
- It maximizes the audience’s ability to achieve their information goals
- It minimizes the effort required by the audience to achieve those goals
We unpack these two conditions in probably more detail than most of the readers of our book need. But if you are interested in the complete picture, see Audience, Relevance and Search. For most of you, it suffices to say that content is optimally relevant if it helps the audience get the information they need in the shortest possible time. (Note that it sometimes takes longer to grasp overly condensed text. So I don’t say, “in the smallest possible space”.)
There is a reading of Boag in which his quote agrees with our definition. If by placing quotes around “great content” he means to connote “literary masterpieces,” then fine. A small percentage of your audience on the web is looking for highly crafted, poetic prose. An even smaller percentage is looking for long-winded stories told from a fictional voice. Highly relevant content on the web is typically brief, to the point, and abundantly clear. (Note that this does not make it boring. It is the antithesis of boring to the audience in that it answers their most pressing questions.)
Part of my insistence on spending entirely too much space in the book explaining how web content is fundamentally unlike print content is to emphasize this point. On the web, readers are in charge of the story. It’s their story. The writer must try to understand the reader well enough to figure out what they need to complete their story, and to provide it in the easiest and quickest way. Turns of phrase and other poetic language tend to reduce relevance on the web by introducing ambiguity in a fundamentally literal medium. Worse still, internal company jargon and other brain-dead colloquial language (e.g. “leverage,” “paradigm shift,” “next generation,” etc.) defeats relevance.
If this is what Boag means, then I agree completely with his quote. But, if this is what he means, why then does he take the side of the search hater? We published our book in 2010. I’ve spoken about it at high-end conferences a dozen times. The whole industry has rallied behind the vision outlined in the book (whether they were aware of it or not). The search engines have followed suit with algorithm changes like Panda that reward relevant content as we define it and punish black hat SEO. Most decent SEOs practice it as we preach it (again, whether they’re aware of our book or not).
Can we please dispense with the myths so we can give SEO its rightful place in digital strategy?
The other day, a colleague stopped by my desk and asked a question that took me aback: “Executives don’t really search that much, do they? That’s the domain of geeks, right?”
The question implies that most of my work has been misguided. I primarily work on sites built for the executive audience and I place search as the most important facet of content strategy for this audience type. I have written here and elsewhere that more than 85 percent of the executive B2B tech audience starts their journey with search and more than 70 percent of them continue to use search throughout the buy cycle. This information comes from numerous studies by Google, Tech Target and others.
If the premise of my colleagues’ rhetorical questions is correct, my work is a fraud. Also, if I’m wrong, site performance improvements I have seen over and over again using my methods are also a fraud. Fortunately, In the soul searching that followed his question, I have reassured myself. Not only do I trust the studies, but I have done deeper research on why executives use search so extensively to make purchasing decisions. I presented the research this summer at the Social Media Strategies Summit. But it bears repeating in this context. If you’re interested, please read on.
Search is the best way to learn new things
For as long as I have practiced SEO, pundits have been proclaiming the death of search. In articles too numerous to list, the self-proclaimed experts on the web have declared that users hate to search and they only do it because navigation is so screwed up, they are forced to search. My own opinion is quite the opposite: When users are presented with new information challenges and too many options to sort through one by one, they prefer to let the search engine filter them. It is simply the most efficient way to find new information. And it is getting better and better.
There are times when we prefer other ways of getting information. I use Twitter, for example, to get the best information on my area of expertise. If you follow the leading experts in a field, you are bound to get fed more information than you can possibly consume on a topic. This is what social media are best at: Helping you geek out on a topic.
But if you try to take a systematic approach to learning a new topic, you will miss a lot of information on social media platforms. First you have to know whom to follow, and that requires a degree of domain expertise. Once you follow the right people, you will miss a lot of information as it whizzes by like billboards on the Autobahn. This is where social media stumbles, and why executives especially like search. If you crack open the executive brain with me, you’ll see why.
Executives are generalists
Profile any senior executive and you will find one characteristic they all share: They have all led numerous diverse organizations. Executives climb the corporate ladder by moving from one organization to another and demonstrating leadership effectiveness at each stop along the way. To do this, they have to quickly get up to speed on the practices of the people they lead. Some of this involves trusting their people to help them get up to speed. Much of it requires research. In the digital age, where do they do this research? Search.
The executive understanding of the practices of their people is an inch deep and a mile wide. The more people that report up to them, the wider and thinner this understanding gets.
In contrast, developers and other geekier types (the people whom executives manage) are heavy users of social media. They learn from members of their communities the (sometimes closely held) tips and tricks of the trade. When I started in the tech field, forums were the places I would go to geek out. Now I just work really hard to follow the right people and publications on Twitter. And I try not to miss anything.
We are always learning new things, and for this we use search. Executives just have a lot more need of it than developers because they move around so much. When they make purchasing decisions, they don’t do it from an expert’s perspective using social media. They do it from a generalist’s perspective using search.