Why good SEO is strategic

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From its inception as a marketing discipline nearly a decade ago, SEO has generally had a tactical focus. And that’s fine. After all, the specific tactics used to gain links, mentions, rankings, traffic and other KPIs are amazingly interesting subjects in their own right. (I’ve long been fascinated by the exact position of the demarcation line between White Hat and Black Hat SEO).

But SEO is much more than tactics, hacks and tools. Today, in many organizations, SEO’s role as a strategic business driver is becoming more deeply felt.

Let’s itemize five ways that SEO has strategic impact.

  1. Lowering digital media costs. In many verticals, PPC costs range well beyond $10 a click. (In the legal field, paid clicks can exceed $200.) Favorable organic positions materially reduce these costs, freeing up digital ad dollars to deploy against segments that would otherwise be unaffordable. That’s an important, material and strategic impact of SEO that’s often discounted in the C-suite.
  2. Market share defense. Organic listings in the SERP don’t only increase your traffic and revenue; they take revenue from the competition. In B2B, where customer lifetime value is high, investing in high-quality content optimized for search should be a strategic goal. Any time you miss an acquisition opportunity in search (paid or organic), chances are that opportunity is going to the competition. SEO, in other words, is a strategic asset — with offensive and defensive value — in the battle for market share.
  3. Branding impact. SEO and public relations aren’t the same thing, but they share a convergent goal: to increase the general visibility and favorable public impression of clients (which is why so many SEO agencies have added “PR” to their service offerings, while PR agencies have added “SEO” to theirs). Increasing awareness is a high-level strategic marketing goal. Today, online reputation management (ORM) always includes a tangible SEO component. SEO isn’t the only piece of the influence puzzle (paid media is especially vital when dealing with reputation management crises), but it represents a key component of any influence-building campaign.
  4. More efficient (non-search) media campaigns. Searchers often are compelled to begin query sessions because of exposure to some other marketing touch point (for example, a mention in a news story, in a TV drama, a remark of a friend or other offline event). Search traffic can therefore be used as a barometer of other media’s effectiveness. Search behavior can also reveal patterns in one’s targeted audience that provide unique, unexpected and strategic marketing insights.
  5. New product/service development. Search (both paid and organic) is a real-time, massively scaled focus group in which one can (with enough data) perform an accurate predictive analysis of what customers are looking for — and, in some cases, invent products for which there’s search demand (but no product yet). There’s huge potential upside in this kind of “virtual focus group” research, which in some cases has the potential to be more valuable to the organization than old-style qualitative consumer research studies.

How strategic is SEO in your organization?

Ask yourself this: Who does your SEO team leader report to?

  • The digital marketing director?
  • VP of Content/SEO?
  • The tech team (CIO)?
  • SEM Manager?
  • VP of Acquisition Marketing?
  • Director of Marketing (or CMO)?
  • The CEO?

Obviously, the higher the report, the more likely that SEO insights will be heard, appreciated and shared across the organization.

But the org structure rarely tells the complete tale. So ask yourself this:

Are SEO concepts and insights brought in at the conceptual stage of any new project or at the implementation stage? The earlier these concerns can be introduced, the greater the likelihood that web projects will not have to be re-engineered post-launch. SEO, as has often been said, is not a condiment to be sprinkled on a dish after it’s been cooked; it needs to be baked in from get-go.

How does one bring this about? In a Search Engine Land column posted back in 2012, Eric Enge quotes Adobe’s Warren Lee, who recommends a systematic, multi-step approach for kick-starting strategic SEO in the organization, including:

  1. enterprise-wide training on the importance of SEO, with specific training on a departmental basis.
  2. institution of integrated processes with cross-functional workflows.
  3. consistent meetings that ensure that search visibility is always top of mind in any marketing decisions made.

There’s much work to be done. To many on the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, “SEO” is still a geeky term whose effects are considered to be marginal/ignorable, not central/essential. SEO knowledge is often confined to impenetrable marketing silos.

Even the language often used in meetings — especially the not-so-innocent term, “from an SEO perspective” — puts SEO in a conceptual cage it doesn’t deserve to be in. The result is that the contributions by SEO teams are systematically undervalued, specific recommendations are often ignored and opportunities are lost.

The good news is that organizations able to build SEO into their marketing projects and processes — as an integral part, not an add-on — can do very well in the future.

Marketers should demand that their agencies and SEO consultants include training and SEO best practices integration into the organization’s workflows as part of their services. The better agencies are already recommending it, and many others will do it if asked, even though it sometimes means more SEO is done in-house.

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