The changing face of SEO

26th June 2019 – 29 minutes read  SearchSEOTrends
Imogen Davies – SEO Lead

We’ve all heard the saying that “SEO is dead”, and, from the
stories I could tell, it might be easy to believe it is. SEO isn’t what it once
was (it’s barely what it was 6 months ago) but that isn’t a bad thing. The
industry’s lost a lot of terrible habits – from content spinners to link farms
– but it’s gained a lot of good ones too.

The thing is, what SEO was, is dead. What’s happening
now, and has been happening over the last couple of years, is evolution, or… SEOvolution…
no. That’s terrible. Almost as terrible as what we used to call SEO.

For some time now, the industry has needed to change how it
does things, and that is finally starting to happen. Instead of focusing on
search engines, we’re focusing on users. Finally! Instead of focusing on the
website, we’re looking to the SERPs. Great! But many are still approaching it
all with a single-channel mindset and this isn’t helping.

To those people who refuse to believe that SEO is changing, “SEO
is dead”. But for people who are embracing the exciting changes, SEO is alive
and kicking.

The problem
with single channel mindsets

As an industry, we are so used to talking about SEO as the
be all and end all for all of your website problems but there’s an issue with
this. Every problem you encounter is ‘solved’ by a single-channel,
single-minded approach that normally goes something like this:

Client: “I can’t get traffic without paying for it with ads,
what do I do?”

SEO: “Well, Kev, you need to build some landing pages to
capture users organically”.

Client: “But I’ve got landing pages, that’s where I send my paid
traffic, what can I do organically?”

SEO: “Well, you’ll need to target the keywords properly”

Client: “Okay, how do I do that?”

SEO: “Map them to your landing pages then optimise your
landing pages with them…”

Client: “But I have all of that for PPC, otherwise my
quality score would be bad…”

SEO: “Then you clearly need links. Let’s create an outreach
strategy for building links into your website so it gets more authority than
your competitors.”

Familiar? Thought so. You’ll also notice that I have left
out any kind of ‘technical’ issue because, while SEOs can identify them, they
can very rarely implement them as they need developers. And if anyone was in Polly
Pospelova’s talk at Search Leeds
, you’ll know that SEOs and developers
don’t normally get on that well! But when they work together, marvellous things
can happen. If, as SEOs, we don’t look to developers to help with our solutions,
we miss a monumental aspect of performance improvement.

But more than that, the exchange above is one that has
happened time and time again. The key theme from it? If you actually listen to
the client, they are giving you clues as to what to do. They are telling you
that:

  1. PPC is working for them.
  2. The landing pages they are driving people to
    from PPC are working.
  3. The keywords they are targeting are capturing
    the right audience.
  4. They have a good quality score for their
    keywords.

What does this tell us as SEOs? Nothing. It’s PPC. Down with
the enemy!

Wrong.

That tells us that our client has:

  1. Keyword data they can share with us.
  2. Landing page reports they can share with us.
  3. Search Query reports they can share with us –
    impressions, clicks, conversions.
  4. Quality score reports.

But when we work in SEO or PPC or Content, it is so, so
difficult for us to step away from what we know and into the world of what we
don’t and what-if. So, we miss opportunities. We miss opportunities to listen
to our clients, to identify areas where channels can work closer together, and
to genuinely drive valuable growth for their business.

We need to start looking to other channels to build suitable,
lasting solutions. Nothing has ever been solved by one person looking at one
thing and fixing one part.

Go against everything you know and work behind enemy lines

As SEOs, we’ve been conditioned to think of PPC as “the
enemy”; to think of Developers as “the enemy”; to think of Google as “the
enemy”. But that only feeds the single-channel mindset, meaning you’ll never
actually get very far without any of them. The truth is, we’re all in the same
boat. And if we don’t work together then we’re sailing towards rocky shores,
because sand is too smooth for us!

As an industry, we thrive on the challenge. This is true for
SEO, Biddable Media, Print, Publications, Traditional Marketing, and everything
in between. The challenge is what keeps us moving forwards.  

Knowing that you can get useful, actionable data from a
single source should be music to any SEO’s ears. So why don’t we utilise PPC (or
Data, or Content) more? Because we don’t want to stray from the path we were
taught to walk on. We, as humans – not even just SEOs – inherently do not like
change. If we can avoid it, we do. Why? Because it is harder for our brains to
form connections about expected behaviour or things that might happen when we
have less exposure to it.

But, when we do stray – because our minds are frantically
trying to figure out what to do, and what to expect, and how we should react
and all the things – we’re actually at a heightened processing level.
Because our brains haven’t been exposed to these situations as much, they need
to start forming new connections, and quickly. When this happens, we form new
memories, new relationships and, ultimately, new “triggers” to be released upon
future encounters.

That means that the more you expose yourself to new
situations, the more you learn. Ground-breaking, right? No, agreed. But, what
is important here, is that if you continue to just approach things from one
perspective, you’re going to run out of solutions. So, using our well-versed
client interaction above, how do we utilise the PPC data they have to assist
with our SEO approach?

Keyword Data

Keyword data from PPC gives us great insight into the
competition of a keyword, the cost of performing in PPC for it (and, thus, the
potential saving if Organic can work for it), and a more accurate view of how
frequently it is searched for. You can also go a step further and pull out the
split of broad, phrase and exact match to tie into your own landscapes. Juicy,
right? How about one step further and combine that with the data you can get
for keywords from GSC?

Landing Page Reports

The landing page report tells you how good (or bad) your
landing page is from a paid perspective. Why do SEO care? Because this is
basically Google saying “this is what you should do”. It might be for PPC, but
there is no reason SEO cannot use this as a foundation for landing page
requirements.

Search Query Reports

Search query reports give you absolutely everything you need
at keyword level to know how to prioritise your organic targeting. Use them.
Use the impression data and cross-reference it with GSC data. Use the click
data and cross-reference it with GSC data. Use the conversion data and cross-reference
it with GA data. Boom. Prioritised keywords to go after.

Quality Score Reports

Finally, quality score reports. These essentially tell you
how relevant a landing page is for a keyword and ad. Imagine this at scale.
Imagine this for every organic keyword you have as well. Imagine that you are
in the initial stages of a project, and you’ve done your initial keyword
research and now you’re mapping your keywords to the landing pages that you
think relate to them the best. If you’ve got the Quality Score report, and
there is overlap between your organic keyword set and your paid keyword set,
then instead of relying on what you think is best, you can align your thoughts
with what Google is saying.

But that isn’t all. There are whole parts of this score
devoted to the landing page experience, including things like speed. This,
combined with all the data SEOs can get their hands on, is an absolute goldmine
at the start of a strategy.

Use all the
things!

SEO is no longer just about getting your website to rank and
then driving traffic to it. There is so much more at play. Even if you do rank
in position 1, you can’t guarantee you’ll get the traffic. Rand Fishkin
published a post recently looking specifically at where people click in the
SERPs, with data from Jumpshot showing that in Q1 2019, in the US, almost 12%
of all search clicks from Google were directed back to Alphabet-owned
properties. More worrying, in Q1
2019 Google sent approximately 20% fewer organic clicks
via browser
searches than they did in 2016.

The SERPs are changing. Rapidly. The rise of zero-click
searches (currently at approximately 49% according to Jumpshot)
means that users don’t need to click on a website to find the answers they are
looking for. Users don’t need to leave the SERPs. So… how do you drive organic
traffic then?

Use. All. The Things.

Use all the data you can. Know what your SERPs are like.
Know what results you get for your keywords. Know what your competitors are
doing.

But not just from an organic perspective, from a digital
perspective. You need to know if your keywords are showing more ads, or whether
they are showing the local pack, featured snippets, images, videos, answer
boxes, people also ask, FAQs, reviews, comparisons. The list goes on.

You need to know, with as much data as possible, how the
SERPs are changing for the industries of your clients. That means utilising
PPC, utilising data science teams or even utilising PR agencies or your
in-house PR teams. But one thing as an industry we always forget to do is
utilise our clients. They know their industry. They know their competitors.
They know more about their business challenges than you do.

If you have a proper understanding of what is happening in
the SERPs for your clients, your keywords, your competitors and the industry,
you can start looking at issues at a digital scale. But not just any issues;
issues that matter to your clients because you know what their pain points are
and how they tie into the digital pain points.

Then, and only then, are you truly able to start making
informed decisions about where your strategies should take you.

Map SEO
to other channels

Anyone who has worked with me in the past 3 years will know
that what I am about to show you is my brain on paper. A wonderful mess of connected
chaos. Or, in terms that aren’t so scary, the relationship between everyday SEO
activities and other channels:

Don’t worry, you don’t actually need to be able to read this – I’m just showing you how my brain works!

But this doesn’t just look at how SEO fits into everything
else, it looks at how everything fits into everything. With connections mapped
out we can see relationships between:

  1. SEO
  2. Direct
  3. PPC
  4. Affiliate
  5. Social (Organic & Paid)
  6. PR
  7. Email
  8. Influencer
  9. UX
  10. CRO

We can see the relationships because they are there. We can
see the connections because they make sense on paper. But, without mapping it
all out, there is no way of seeing just how much overlap there is between what
you do in your day-to-day and what other teams do.

Every single point above is a channel that your audience can
interact with and in each of those are multiple sources, platforms, and
touchpoints for them to encounter. A single user could go through 100
touchpoints before they decide to convert on your site, so you need to be there
whenever they are thinking of your products. As a very basic breakdown, overlap
across channels could be seen like this:

The more we understand about the relationships between
channels and how each links into the others, the more we can amplify the
experience people have on your site, ensuring consistency between messaging,
and ultimately improving the digital performance for your clients.

SEO is becoming more and more about the user, and how they
interact with your website as well as how their behaviour is changing. Jill
Quick did a fantastic talk on this
at Search Leeds, exploring why marketing
and UX are a match made in heaven so, if you have 5 minutes, it is well worth
checking out.

But my job is SEO, not “digital marketing”

You don’t need to be an expert in all the channels to see
how they can work together and understand the impact they have on each other.
In fact, you need specialists in your teams to really cut through all the noise
and speak up if proposed solutions are going to negatively impact their field.

I’m not telling you to suddenly start calling yourself a
digital marketer. I’m not even telling you to leave SEO. I’m telling you to
leave SEO as you know it. Retire old habits. Leave what you know behind you,
learn from your experience, and move into a new era of your career.

With SEO becoming much less about on-site and much more
about in-SERP, if we don’t change how we approach situations then we will be
left for dead. As our Business Director and Head of SEO, Hannah Thorpe, said, Google
is changing into a Discovery Engine
, instead of a Search Engine, which
means that, effectively, SEO is changing into DEO.

SEO is not simply about rankings anymore. It is much more
geared towards awareness than it perhaps was in the past. If Google is becoming
a discovery engine, we need to make sure Google understands relationships between
a website and their online presence; not just that they understand the website
and magically rank it.

EAT has been (or should have been) at the forefront of every
SEO strategy for years, and there is no reason for this to go away. But this is
primarily focused on the website, so it doesn’t really leave room for other
aspects, apart from links from external sources to boost your authority and
trust signals.

Now, we need to be moving towards things like Entity
Recognition, in-SERP optimisation, and cross-channel journeys. A newer version
of the usual roadmap could look something like this:

The tricky part of this is knowing how to report on it, and
what metrics to measure. Right now, everything is still in the process of
changing, and so many within the industry still report on SEO as a last-click
channel. But what if we changed that?

Is SEO still last click? Not really

To really understand the impact your SEO work is having on a
client’s website, you need to look past last click. You need to be able to see
how much of a part you had to play in the whole journey. How much of “SEO” is
actually “DEO”?

Ah, but how do you figure out if SEO had a part to play? You
map everything you possibly can. For example, tools like Sistrix, SEO Monitor,
or AWR will give you breakdowns of the SERP results for a keyword – you export
this data periodically and you’ve got a running document showing you how SERPs
are changing for your keywords over time.

You can then take that document and overlay it with GA, GSC,
and AdWords data to get as much information as possible about what that keyword
is doing for your site. You can even speak to your data science teams to devise
a way to capture this automatically – imagine that!

I know that we can’t move away from reporting on SEO as a
last click channel completely, but we need to be able to report on the impact
it is having across digital, not just as single-channel performance. Just as
PPC will look at things like linear attribution, we need to be able to look at
things through an almost customised lens.

But what if you don’t do it all for a client, say you just
do SEO? The good news here is you aren’t then responsible for what happens
across all the other channels. The bad news? You cannot influence what they do.
You want them to turn off brand bidding because you’re ranking in position 1
organically and they are ‘stealing your clicks’? Their answer is almost always
going to be “not a chance, this is driving performance for us”. But without
working closely with them, you won’t know if they have to be bidding on brand
to stave off competition, or if they just do it for presence.

With things like this, communication is key, but it doesn’t
mean that you should only report on SEO because that’s all you’re employed to
do. A client will, in fact, employ you to improve their organic presence, but
if you’re only looking at it through the data you have, not the data that is
available, then you’re back to square one with the single-channel,
single-minded solutions.

Reporting on the whole picture instead of part of it will
let you see much, much more than you are currently. But you do need to get buy-in
from the other agencies, otherwise it won’t work, and you’ll all say you’re
working together but the minute you leave the room it is back to siloes.

Believe
in direct

As a marketer, you’re told to ignore direct traffic coming
to the website because your goal is to grow the organic presence, or the paid
presence, or the social presence, etc. So, you only get measured on the
improvement you can show for those channels. Is that fair? No. Why not? Because
although most channels aid performance, for the most part they all play a part
in awareness as well. If you are continuing to drive awareness for a brand, why
wouldn’t someone go directly to the website they’ve seen 100 times over the
last month through various channels, searches and sources?

In fact, if they are coming to the site through direct,
haven’t you technically exceeded at your job? With Search becoming much more
about retaining users than acquiring new ones, because new ones aren’t loyal
but returning users might stick about for a long time, wouldn’t it make sense
to understand how your direct traffic level is changing?

Of course, wherever possible, we want to be using custom
attribution models to identify every channel that plays a part but, as a
starting point, just understanding the relationship between your marketing
activity and a change in Direct traffic attribution is key.

Take it
offline

The final piece of the puzzle is understanding what your
users, customers and audience are doing when they aren’t online. How frequently
do they visit your stores, where do they live, how old are they, are they
seeing family at the weekend etc. The offline piece is the hardest part to
connect to because you’re relying on people to give you accurate information.

You’re relying on store assistants adding all the data into
backend systems. You’re relying on HitWise (or similar tools) to give you
insights into who they are, their demographics, psychographics, and
socio-economic information.

But if you can match it all up, and tie the offline data
into the online data, you’ve got everything you need to know about your
consumer purchase decisions and buying behaviours. You can then start moulding
their online journey to match their offline journey, giving them one seamless
experience from one to the next.

Is SEO
worth it anymore?

Absolutely. SEO, good SEO, is still worth its weight in gold.
There is no denying that it still has a huge part to play in your online
performance, especially when it comes to real estate in the SERPs. But we
absolutely must change how we are doing it and how we are thinking about it.

“Traditional” SEO dies out as we move towards DEO, going
further than just optimising a website and more into optimising the end to end
experience. How do we ensure we’re present for our users at every step of the
journey?

We optimise everything we used to, and then optimise in-SERP.
We take up as much of the organic real estate as we can, including zero-click
searches, and report on everything we can. We match what our organic approach
is looking to achieve with what other channels are trying to achieve, and we
stop looking to single channels to fix problems. Short-term that will work
fine, but if you’re looking for sustained, long-term growth, you need to adapt
the ways you work.

SEO isn’t dead. It’s finally coming to life.