Posted by Sheena_Schleicher
[Estimated read time: 23 minutes]
A number of years ago I sat in on a webinar that covered behaviors of great SEOs, a topic that really intrigued me as a young but experienced digital marketer wanting to grow in the space. Through a variety of interactions in response to the presentation, mostly sharing how each person worked with brands to get things done, someone used the phrase “SEO Enabler” to describe my approach.
I liked the concept and went on to frequently refer to myself as an SEO Enabler when sharing how I work with brands. And over the years, it has not only become a key differentiator but an approach that has allowed me to take brands to levels of organic search success I didn’t think possible. Here’s how I describe it:
It’s the type of thing that requires a ton of upfront time and effort (I’m talking months or years of work to set up), but can lead to incredibly exciting growth that’s sustainable, scalable, and natural.
Here’s what it takes
Whether you’re an in-house SEO specialist, independent consultant, or you work at an agency, you likely work with various teams or departments with agendas and responsibilities completely different than and sometimes conflicting with your goals. The following characteristics and activities are the ones I’ve found most important for SEOs aiming to enable and empower their organization(s) to support organic search strategies while pushing through roadblocks, silos, or conflicts with those inevitably difficult team members. In other words, here’s how an SEO Enabler gets an entire organization to support, get excited about, and contribute to the brand’s SEO strategy.
*Disclaimer: I realize this post is lengthy and may take some time to get through, but I firmly stand by this approach and think those who take the time to understand and implement some or all of these will become more valuable and respected marketers.
1. Market with passion & empathy
Before you hit the proverbial snooze button on this “love makes everything better” sentiment, let me explain what I mean.
If you don’t care about the product or service of the brand you’re working with, trying to market it is a losing battle, or at least not a fun one. We all want to have a little fun in our work, right? More importantly, though, the most effective SEOs have a keen ability to see opportunities everywhere. To develop that skill, you need to deeply understand and appreciate whatever it is you’re marketing.
While I’d accept the challenge to see how far I can take a brand whose product I have zero in common with, I think we can all agree that the creative ideas (cue “seeing opportunity everywhere”) come much more easily with brands we relate to and maybe even use. Being passionate about your work is also contagious, so it’s a great way to get others excited about and supportive of your efforts.
But we don’t all have the luxury of being so selective of the brands we work with, especially if you work at an agency. The trick is to identify something you could get passionate about with every brand you consider working with.
Take for example one of my brand partners who offers a SaaS product. A software brand doesn’t quite seem like something I’d care much about. But wait, they’re an eLearning software brand, and education is something I hold near and dear to my heart, and is absolutely something I could get passionate about. Fast forward about seven years and that software brand I didn’t think much of at first is now one of my favorite and most successful brand partners. It’s been a fun, enjoyable experience.
Another example is a project I was involved with in my early years as an SEO working at an agency. The brand sold adult diapers. Gahhh… How in the world was I going to market this? The answer turned out to be marketing with empathy.
Putting myself in the shoes of people dealing with incontinence and trying to understand the impact it has on their lives and the lives of their family members suddenly triggered an abundance of ideas about how we could tell the brand and customer’s story – in ways that surprised, delighted, and informed – and that increased search visibility, site traffic, and revenue.
2. Understand business objectives beyond SEO
Listen up, SEOs, this is a big one: Think about what your goals are as an SEO and for the specific websites you’re working with. Here’s what you’re likely thinking about:
- Improve rankings and increase organic search traffic
- Increase conversions/revenue from organic search
- Produce more high quality, helpful content
- Improve query-to-page relevancy
- Resolve duplicate content issues
- Resolve technical issues / crawl errors (404s, poor page speed, etc.)
- A thousand other things to reach “SEO success”
We all know there are 100+ things you’re working towards as an SEO, some more critical than others. These things matter tremendously to you and your team, as individuals driving the SEO/
digital marketing strategy. But have you asked about and do you understand what the greater business objectives are?
If your answer is “Yes. More profit,” you need to dig deeper. This is critical because…
- It helps you understand internal budget/resource allocation and focus, meaning you’re able to adjust your projects and/or forecasting when top business priorities override SEO tasks.
- The more you’re aware of overall business objectives, the more likely you (and your keen ability to see opportunity everywhere) may be able to contribute.
Here are some examples, pulled from my experience working with a number of brands over the years, of SEO contributing to greater business objectives:
Business goal: Form new partnerships
When I heard a major firm sent an RFP to my SaaS client (news that excited everyone in the organization), I immediately started thinking about how we, the search marketing team, could up our B2B game across all channels.
Here’s what a recent message to my brand contact looked like:
“I know you’re head down on the ‘XYZ’ RFP project this week. With that, I wanted to discuss what new ads we could activate to help create the right B2B messaging / digital presence we need right now. When you have a few minutes and if you think it makes sense, I’d like to get the low-down on the partnership in case I have SEO, content, or PPC ideas that could help us seal the deal.”
Partner response: “GREAT idea! I’ll call you at 3.”
Our brief yet valuable conversation spurred a number of ideas intended to digitally nurture an existing relationship that led to the RFP in the first place.
We did this by increasing spend on ads with more B2B-oriented messaging (targeting regions where key decision makers are located), fine-tuning partner page content and adjusting editorial calendars to speak to the needs of this potential partner’s customer base. We also prioritized certain dev tasks aimed at enhancing the brand’s professional image and highlighting successes the firm might care about (like innovation and customer satisfaction).
Very simply, we focused in on tailoring the brand’s messaging within the SERPs (ads, title tags, meta descriptions, etc.), as well as finessing the messaging and brand experience on every web property we could (primarily the main website, the blog and all social profiles). And these changes would not have happened if I didn’t ask to be involved (more on that later).
The partnership opportunity is still in the works, which is a great sign considering the impact it will have on both businesses. Regardless of the outcome, we’ll know we leveraged every opportunity we could to nurture some very important brand impressions and conversations.
Business goal: Increase market share
A pretty standard business goal, sure. But your approach doesn’t need to be so typical.
In one case, I worked with a client to identify key industry influencers of the new market we were after, by looking at SEO metrics like traffic, rankings, link profile, etc., as well as community engagement and sentiment. We then formulated a strategy to partner with one particular influencer – a person who had the attention and respect of a market we wanted – to create a content-rich, SEO-friendly blog site (owned and funded by my client) that offered valuable tips, advice, and tutorials for free while subtly endorsing our brand. (Fun fact: We actually modeled many aspects of the site’s content strategy after the Moz Blog.)
The site was live for about two months when all of the sudden its rankings and traffic skyrocketed (which I strongly believe was due to the free top-quality content, on an SEO-friendly site, which triggered loads of comments on every single post). What’s more, the site began ranking in the top 3 positions for highly competitive terms my client had been after for years.
While the strategy was working great and the blog was generating more leads than we anticipated, we suspected we could take it further and get more value.
I’ve always advocated for building out one really great website rather than diluting efforts/resources with a bunch of microsites, so we devised a plan to merge the blog with the brand’s website. Starting with the blog’s top ranking and most visited URLs, we worked with the brand’s content team to repurpose (and improve), then redirect the blog’s pages to our brand’s version.
It was a bit of a risky move since the blog’s community was very much at the heart of its success and because there’s no guarantee our plan would pay off, but it was the right move for supporting my client’s business objective of increasing market share.
Two weeks later, the brand’s version of content had taken over the top two positions. The site now drives qualified visitors from a new market. We’ve since duplicated this tactic with a number of the blog’s top content, and it continues to work. Talk about a win for SEO contributing to overall business objectives!
Business goal: Lessen reliance on affiliates
When I first heard how many millions were being spent on affiliate relationships, I immediately thought I was in the wrong business.
The more I learned about a particular brand partner’s engagement with their affiliates and the more I dug into the data, I realized (to put it bluntly) my client was getting screwed.
The goal of the affiliate relationship, from my client’s perspective, was to increase brand awareness and to reward brand evangelists for sending business their way. But the data revealed a very different story: Part of the agreement was to allow access to affiliate site analytics and Webmaster Tools, so I was able to review rankings, top landing pages, and query data, then compare them against the brand’s data.
I discovered two problematic themes:
- The affiliate URLs that drove traffic to my partner’s site were only ranking for our branded keywords
- The majority of the clicks to those landing pages came from “brand + coupon” related search queries
These two themes indicated that the affiliates were not contributing to brand awareness. Instead, they were banking (literally) on the brand’s already fantastic reputation and demand by placing brand-provided content and coupon codes on the affiliate sites that helped them secure rankings for our branded terms. Did you follow all of that? Put simply, we unintentionally turned “brand partners” into search competitors.
Additionally, we determined that the visibility of the coupon code field on the brand’s checkout page was actually helping affiliates. We’ve all been there: You’re about to click “Place Order,” when you see a promo/discount code box and think “Oh! They offer discount codes. I better go Google [brand] + coupon code.” The affiliate ranks at the top, gets the click, plants the cookie, and then gets the commission on a sale they contributed very little to.
And when this happens hundreds or thousands of times, you can guess who’s really winning, and how frustrating this realization was to my brand partner.
Here’s how SEO logic was able to contribute to the now-even-more-critical business objective of relying less on affiliates:
- We must dominate rankings for “[brand] + coupon code” and all variations. Create a well-optimized landing page (more if various types are offered) and offer the very best discount we can (not available to affiliates or anywhere else) on that page.
- Make the promo-code box less visible in the checkout to reduce the likeliness of close-to-converting visitors leaving to go find one and ending up on an affiliate site.
- Brand management in the SERPs to include increased content, press and social activity, as well as more spend towards branded AdWords campaigns. The more we produce and search real estate we take up, the more we can push affiliates ranking for branded queries down and potentially off of page 1.
Business goal: Empower retail partners
If you’ve ever worked with a brand who has an e-commerce site but whose products are also distributed through retailers (online or brick-and-mortar), it’s likely you’ve heard time and time again about the need to be sensitive to retail partners.
It can be frustrating seeing online retailers absolutely killing it in rankings, traffic and sales for your brand’s products. Meanwhile, the brand site you’re working on is severely lacking inventory (presumably because it’s all been shipped to retailers), is unable to offer incentives like free shipping or promotional discounts (since it would upset retail partners), or is just generally considered a lower business priority compared to retailer success.
You would almost think the opposite would be true – that the brand site, with all of its authority, would always outperform retailers – but that has not been my experience working with a number of major brands, especially if they’re sold at big box stores.
Here’s where being an SEO Enabler can be really valuable.
Working to optimize and grow the main brand site should always be a top priority as an SEO, but if retailer success is such a top business objective, think of how you can devise an SEO strategy to help both the brand and retailer sites.
For example, a very common issue among manufacturer and retailer websites is duplicate product descriptions. What if we can find a solution that resolves an ongoing SEO issue while also empowering retail partners? It’ll take more resources and a substantial commitment from various teams, but here’s how it’s worked for me.
It starts with a habit of sharing SEO knowledge with everyone you work with, not simply directing but explaining in simple-to-understand language why we need to do things a certain way. By doing so you’ll likely have already shared about duplicate content and why it needs to be avoided and resolved wherever possible. You’ve planted the seed and increased the chances of getting buy-in/approval when you propose a big new project of writing two versions of every product description in the new catalog, one for brand use, one for retailer partner use.
You might hear something like, “OK, but that’s just an SEO project you’ve already made us aware of.”
True. And what’s also true is that it only solves the duplicate content on our end. All of the retail partners still have the same product details.
Since our business objective is to empower retail partners, we can present for-retail-use-only product details along with a brief SEO guide (and maybe a consult for premier partners) about how they can make their version unique, why it’s so important to do so, and how it can grow their sales. So we’re not only resolving a duplicate content issue for both parties, empowering retail partners with valuable SEO understanding, and helping them sell more product, but we’re also strengthening the business relationship by looking out for their best interest.
Business objective nurtured and an SEO win for all. And let me just say that this was like pure gold when presented to and executed by a particular household brand we’re partnered with.
Business goal: Increase customer satisfaction
Every business wants happy customers, so this should always be on your radar, but the brands that are winning big make customer satisfaction a top priority. That means offering the absolute best product or service at the best value, always improving and innovating, listening and responding to customer feedback, treating customers like human beings, showing that they themselves are human, and delighting customers whenever there’s the chance.
So how can you, as an SEO, contribute to this business objective? For me, I think of how insanely valuable an SEO-minded person’s insights on consumer and competitor research can be:
- Keyword research helping us understand consumer needs, showing exactly what and how people are searching for our product/service
- Competitive analysis where we can dive into how other brands are presenting their product/service, in addition to understanding what they’re ranking for and what’s driving traffic to their site
- Demographic/persona data that can help us better tailor marketing messages and overall content strategies
- Community sentiment gathered by analyzing customer reviews and social activity with the brand
- Emerging trends identified by keeping an eye on community forums/social activity, new rankings driving traffic to industry publishers
Business goal: Expand products and/or territory
Have you ever wished you were involved in product planning and decision making before it was ever launched?
Especially when I encounter product names and messaging that are far, far off from how consumers understand and search for the product. And even more so when those product names (that might be unalterable since they were used throughout print and/or POP materials) also programmatically dictate URLs and important SEO content areas throughout the site.
Experiencing this a handful of times has made me very sensitive to any mention of a new product or service launch. And it’s an area I’m a little bull-headed about since getting it right before launch (informed by extensive consumer and competitive keyword research) can not only prevent a lot of headaches and save money but also set the new product up for tremendous success.
As an SEO Enabler, your goal should be to ensure everyone in the organization thinks about SEO implications and opportunities in everything the business does. If product expansion is a brand objective, it’s your responsibility to make sure SEO strategy is included from the get go.
Business goal: Commit to corporate social responsibility/goodwill activity
If you have 10 minutes, I encourage you to watch this SXSW 2015 discussion on StubHub’s commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
The heart of the matter, as StubHub’s head of communications Emma Leggat shares, is for brands to ask themselves “What is the portfolio of assets that we have to offer as a company, and how can we best deploy those for good? How can we do more than just write checks? How can we leverage our very platform, our very audience to elevate causes that matter and to shine a spotlight on those causes and worthy nonprofits that really could never reach this kind of scale?”
More and more businesses are realizing the value of supporting causes and organizations the brand and their customers care about to drive meaningful change. And while most businesses have nowhere near the resources or platform StubHub has to offer, having a philanthropy program of any size in place can do more good than you might think.
The more obvious benefits include:
- Helping and supporting those who benefit from the cause
- Charitable contributions tax deductions
- Humanizing and showing the personality of your brand, connecting more deeply with customers
- Community building
- Team camaraderie and employee fulfillment
There are, of course, many more benefits of businesses giving back, but now we’ll look at opportunities an SEO Enabler might see:
- Website content
- Press coverage
- Social visibility and engagement
- Branded search results
- New market
- Partnership/influencer amplification
It’s important to note that while a lot of people and businesses financially support important causes, it’s obvious when the act of kindness is really a means of getting more sales, followers, likes, etc. Real value comes when brands contribute in ways that show they genuinely care.
Business goal: Increase employee retention/team growth
My strategy for this actually came from efforts to combat affiliates ranking for brand terms.
One goal was for the brand to own the entire first page of Google, meaning every site that ranked on page 1 for brand-related terms was a site owned or a profile secured by the brand (ads, website, blogs, social profiles, “In the news,” Wiki page, etc.). With all others pretty much filling up page one, Glassdoor was a particular site we wanted to push to the front. It ranked on page three for the brand name, had one employee review (which was 5-stars), and had very little engagement. I knew this brand had an exceptionally talented, loyal and happy team top to bottom, so I devised a plan for building this profile out to reflect that truth.
I knew that soliciting employee feedback in the form of online reviews must be handled very, very carefully as the results could be detrimental to the team and the business. We started by first informing key individuals-directors, managers and people who were particularly outspoken about how much they loved their work-about what our SEO goals were with the Glassdoor site.
Everyone was onboard.
While encouraged, we made it crystal clear that participation was completely voluntary. We also wanted this to benefit more than SEO, so the intention was also to give employees the opportunity to provide constructive feedback to their managers. The idea was to talk about and resolve any areas of dissatisfaction, which would improve workplace happiness while preventing any issues from surfacing for the first time on the review site.
The results were greater than expected. Our efforts facilitated valuable conversations between team managers and employees about what’s most important to them (like benefits packages, growth opportunity, work/life balance, workplace happiness/enjoyment). Glassdoor engagement spiked with nearly 20 new 5-star ratings (along with some incredibly touching reviews) and the profile jumped to the first page for branded queries, displacing a major affiliate.
In the midst of all this I realized how our SEO efforts had a much greater business impact than anticipated, and comments from the president of the company confirmed just how valuable it was to employee retention and business growth objectives.
A few months after kicking off this initiative, the President shared that several of the top candidates currently being interviewed for a new position have mentioned how much they really want to work at the company because of all the great things they read on the Glassdoor profile. While this strategy won’t always work quite this smoothly for every brand, it’s a worthy opportunity to consider and goal to work towards.
3. See opportunity everywhere
One of the most valuable characteristics of an SEO Enabler is the ability to see opportunity to grow your brand’s search and overall digital presence at every step of the funnel.
The great thing is this comes more easily once you have the right passion and appreciation for what you’re marketing and a clear understanding of business objectives. It’s also important to connect with every department. If you don’t know what the various teams in your organization are working towards, you won’t see the opportunities.
Get comfortable with asking to be included in projects you would not normally be involved with to ensure you’re in the loop on all initiatives and constantly contributing new SEO-informed ideas.
You’ll need to be prepared with specific reasons why it’s important for you to be involved, as most organizations are wary of having too many cooks in the kitchen. But one or two wins and it’ll become habit to include the SEO lead in all future projects.
4. Aim to educate
This is an area I believe has contributed most to my success as an SEO strategist, and it’s what I love most about Moz.
By aiming to educate and empower client-side teams with a solid understanding of how SEO works, I’ve been able to establish a mutual trust with brand partners. Partners trust me to always do what’s right for their brand, even if that means giving away the “know-how,” and I trust them to stick with me for long-term success. Enabling non-SEO teams to make SEO decisions independently also frees you up to focus on the next big opportunity.
This approach takes a lot of upfront effort, and never stops, but it pays off tremendously.
Here are some tips for being an SEO Enabler that people can learn from:
- Don’t worry about teaching yourself out of a job. Your goal must not be to hoard great ideas but to help brand teams think more like a search marketer. You might even consider inviting clients along to industry conferences.
- Guide, don’t preach. There’s a big difference. And it largely has to do with presentation and tone when sharing knowledge, as it’s critical to not come across as condescending or to create more confusion.
- Be a good storyteller. It’s the best way to help non-SEOs understand how it all works. My favorite tactic is to use analogies like having content teams think of Google as a college professor that will be grading (ranking) your term paper on a curve.
- Consider the needs of the department. Sharing SEO knowledge that’s tailored to provide value specific to a team or department will have a much greater appreciation and adoption than sharing for the sake of sharing.
- Be well-researched, prepared to answer questions but be honest if you don’t have an answer.
- Listen more than you speak.
- Be respectful and kind to everyone. Too often search marketers seem arrogant as if we have some special knowledge that makes us better than other marketers or departments.
5. Know when to sound the alarm, highlighting successes
Sharing about wins and losses, along with well-thought-out insights that tell the data’s story, is a key component of being an SEO Enabler striving to educate and empower non-SEO teams.
When it comes to actually doing this, there are two critical lessons I’ve learned:
Know when to sound the alarm
Things happen, and it’s important to have a protocol in place for when to sound the alarm, who to notify, and how to resolve major issues. The very first thing on your list, however, needs to be finding the root cause.
For example, are we really not getting any traffic, or did something happen to the tracking or GTM code on the site that’s causing us to lose data?
Be thorough in your investigation and identify a solution before involving various teams.
My best advice when it comes to reporting is to not wait until the end of the month or quarterly performance reports to highlight wins. While comprehensive analysis and reporting decks will always be valuable, they need to have a defined purpose.
From my experience on the agency-side, the purpose is usually to prove the worth of the services, to satisfy a reporting line item in the SOW, and/or to get another contract.
Now, as an independent consultant working with partners almost like an in-house team member, the purpose of highlighting wins is usually more for keeping the momentum going and resources available, so that everyone can say, “Look how great our efforts have paid off. Let’s do more.”
And some of the most impactful ones have been in the form of a brief email with a quick summary of specific SEO/digital marketing efforts and what they have generated for the brand, along with some bullet points and screenshots to show the growth.
Brand partners love these types of quick updates. I often see them getting forwarded throughout the organization, garnering even more excitement and support for SEO.
What I’m referring to as an SEO Enabler is really an SEO-minded marketer who understands that to achieve the best results, you need to figure out how to enable and empower the people around you. Sometimes that means taking on the role of the evangelist, the teacher, the salesperson, the liaison, the town crier, the cheerleader, or any other role that helps you share SEO knowledge and strategy in clear, actionable ways.
Over the years, especially working agency-side, I’ve realized that some of the most experienced and knowledgeable SEO players are not enabling the people around them, whether due to structural silos preventing departments from collaborating or because they’re simply being pulled in too many directions.
We’re all guilty of it. But I hope this posts serves as a reminder to never be too busy to create an environment that encourages learning and growth.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. What do you think about the idea that more of us must become SEO Enablers?
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