The Kind Of SEO I Want To Be

I’ve had my share of SEO predictions fall flat on their face. But I remember distinctly sitting in the office of a VP in my former ‘big agency’ life (guessing around 2009), talking about how Google will have to move into identifying, comprehending, and processing intent, while finding new ways to judge popularity. PageRank was a great start, but it can’t scale. Our culture is completely online now – the Google algorithms, relativity speaking, can’t keep up. It’s easy to forget Google isn’t magical. They’re still a powerful but limited machine.

I would postulate on Google eventually looking at more abstract factors where good old fashioned online marketing campaigns could get recognized. Where pieces and results of campaigns become crumbs that make up influence in aggregate. Truth was, I was seeking internal support for expanding the SEO group’s output, instead of mild data crunching and producing thin, quick-and-dirty recommendations. In 2009 it seemed obvious that Google would eventually shut down “gaming the system” schemes – of which they recently did a reasonably good job (with some causalities). It seemed to me that if anyone could understand programs to scale and distort, it’s Google. It also felt like the routine tactics of SEO couldn’t last forever. It felt like time to start getting creative.

I wanted to believe in the power of marketing effecting SEO. Not just because that was my college background and interest, but because it seemed logical. Marketing has shaped our culture. Our culture is online. Thus, Google needs to continue understanding the culture’s role and response in marketing. In there lies understanding of the queries.

SEO Bus?I didn’t (and still don’t) think all SEOs need to be marketers. Digital PR? Not all SEOs use the same side of their brain but still remain pertinent. It’s sensational to say, “the SEO industry must adapt to *THIS* or die!” Like anything in marketing channel, that’s awfully limiting. Defining rules and standards? Not for me, I shake that kind of stuff off. No person (or concept) is going to be able to drive the SEO bus alone. The Magical Mystery Bus drives itself.

Where’s The Bus Going?

Let’s think about the clues we have at hand, which to me suggest a path towards SEO marketing.

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Here’s the definition of marketing from the AMA. ”Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

I really wish PPC didn’t get the label of search engine marketing (SEM). It doesn’t seem to fit today. It’s like when alternative music became mainstream – it became the alternative to what? I would like to use the term search engine marketing for the concept of big ideas that Google notices, appreciates, rewards, and shares. I want to impress Google by impressing their users first. I’m not going to try to make up a new term (I have shame), but we refer to it at Greenlane as SEO marketing; a non-creative name for creative campaigns. It’s what I couldn’t convince a big agency of doing.

Here’s a couple very recent things we know:

They took away all our keyword-level data

This is a raw nerve. [not provided] is a jerk, but not that significant change in my book. Lazy SEOs can now fully hide behind this when they tell their clients, “sorry – I can’t prove how awesome we are without keyword level data.” Or, they can promote themselves to the client when total organic data is on the rise (even if it’s branded terms from some other online marketing channel in the other side of the house, where the SEO had no influence). There’s lots of posts floating around basically admonishing you from caring about this total loss since the “representational sample” we’ve been playing with was already soiled since October 2011. On that I totally agree. When Annie Cushing called these keyword data remnants “junk data,” it’s not just because she’s proven, but because it’s common sense. I do however disagree with the posts that scold you for ever caring about keyword data in the first place. That’s got to be tweetbait!

For me, I did like the remaining organic keyword data in at least one of the ways I liked all the organic keyword data. I liked it as a unique source of inspiration and guidance. Those weird keywords you found that you wanted to immediately discount. I got into the habit of analyzing them hoping to find a wormhole to another universe. I loved the, “why the hell did Google think I was relevant to that, and why did people come to my site for it,” moments. This keyword data led to topic creations that flourished for not only my own site, but my clients as well. However, this was quite limited – it was only important for the handful of possible topics you were already somehow relevant for in Google’s eyes, not the myriad of topics you could be relevant for in the demands of searchers. You need to think the other possible topic universes are even richer in opportunity.

The keyword data was great to have, but it was a small sample of your actual opportunity. We have to adapt.


Google wants to be better an answering questions. We assume it’s more than turning Google into what was supposed to be. Every query is a question, so Hummingbird presumably is a good old fashioned Google engine update. If Hummingbird’s value is to understand the meaning of the words, “ communicating, delivering….” for the value of “customers, clients, partners, and society at large” seems to be more important in my book. This suggests to me SEO is more about communication than ever before. Content, as a general artifact, isn’t the king it used to be. The topic that answers presumed query intent may be more valuable, and that takes some iteration to get right. That’s certainly a content marketing principal.

Direct signals

Why does Google care about site speed? Why do they care where ads are located? DOM, bounce, hierarchy – whether Google infers or uses GA data is debatable (either Google is lying, or they’re not). The bottom line is these are things I believe they should be looking at, but won’t make too prominent because they’re all game-able direct signals. Until they can weed out bots artificially crawling a site and leaving footprints to emulate a visitor’s “happy, successful site session,” we might as well (at the minimum) look at these items as a usability feature to improve the visitors experience aside from Google. As an SEO, we did a good job getting the traffic, but why should we stop there? Why not make sure the material the searcher receives is indeed inline with their query.

Not all direct signals are cut and dry. So maybe Google plusses don’t help you rank. They sure help you figure out what your community likes; that could help you rank.

We’ve seen Google overcome a lot of garbage the last few years. Sure, they blew up a few innocent communities bombing the bad guys, but they’re not afraid to make changes. They’re wise to pull back on things that can backfire. So with some technical site characteristics being a factor, it’s safe to think there will be more, no? Help the conversation continue by helping the site improve. In the meantime, take advantage of everything else and produce good communication that will maybe have its day in the sun when the algorithm catches up.

The Kind Of SEO I Have Become

The (re)launch of our agency came with many changes from my original launch as a sole proprietor in 2005. From a partner, to employees, to 15 clients – it all brings different responsibilities. Some Keith and I still need to learn. Case in point – this week we lost our first client. It was mutual. We weren’t on the same page, and as part of our postmortem, I see why. Where we are promoting the big picture ideas above, they were looking for the type of work I was doing in 2009 at the big agency. Strictly keyword focused stuff. I don’t want to say we evolved, because I don’t want it to downplay the significance of other SEO approaches, but we have organically morphed into something shaped by our personal 13 year SEO experience. We are looking for clients that have morphed the same way we have.

We do creative things. We consult with companies – hand in hand – to create and drag the right campaigns to the ground. It’s all very much based in SEO, but in thinking of all the strategies and projects we have going on across our portfolio, I’m pretty excited to see where SEO goes. I feel like we’re seated well. I’m banking on it, so to speak. I think this is one prediction that shows no sign of falling on its face, and something I hope all SEOs are taking a good hard look at from time to time.

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