SEO: The Road to Strategy

First published July 8, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’m burnt — toasted, roasted and completely fried. I’ve just spent the last two days in stakeholder meetings with a client. In those two days I’ve met with representatives from every department imaginable — from channel sales to governance, corporate relations to analytics, corporate marketing to website design, social media to IT. In total, a dozen meetings with almost twice that many people. I’ve got about 20 pages of notes I have to sift through.

Why?

I’ll give you the same answer I gave before each meeting, in what officially became known as the “preamble”:

“You might be wondering why you’re here. For the past two years we’ve been working with your company on the organic visibility of your website. With organic optimization, there are really two things you have to think about — what you say about yourself, and what others say about you. Up to now, we’ve been focused on the first category: the content on your website, how the site is coded, the keywords customers might use to find you. That was relatively straightforward because you controlled all the things we were looking at. But now, we have to look at the second category — what others are saying about you. And that gets a lot more complicated. Now, suddenly, we need to understand what’s happening in almost every aspect of the business. What makes it even more complicated is that we have to begin to understand how all those pieces fit together.”

What became clear over the two days was that the discussions that we initiated about our SEO strategy could also have been the beginning discussions required to craft a companywide strategy. The fact is, trying to please a search engine algorithm means you have to think of your online presence in its totality. Google and Bing determine your online relevance based on nothing less than the digital footprint of your organization. And, as the boundaries continue to dissolve between the virtual realities of our businesses and the brick-and-mortar reality, who we are online is who we are, period.

This opens up an interesting challenge for organic practitioners. They have to be prepared to step out of their cozy niches, wedged somewhere between the worlds of marketing and IT, and be ready to truly “get” their clients at all levels. The best SEO practitioners have to abandon the quick fixes, like buying links, and roll up their sleeves, putting in the sweat equity required to come up with strategies that come from the very DNA of the company. SEO tactics that are grounded in the day-to-day business and the strategic objectives of the company will always outperform the “links for hire” and ghostwriter content creation that still flourishes in this business. Is it easy? Hell no. Is it worth it? I believe so, or wouldn’t have spent the last two days holed up in a nondescript meeting room across the hall from cubicle B23.

Here’s the thing. Trying to understand what is required for the next phase of SEO is imposing a discovery process and discipline that I believe will make us better vendor partners and make our clients better marketers. The same is true, by the way, for a truly authentic social media strategy. A while ago, I wrote a column in which I said that companies “get the SEO rankings they deserve.” It’s also incumbent upon us, as partners in this process, to be ready to rise to the challenge for those clients who have proven themselves ready to move beyond the quick fixes and questionable practices.

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