Following on from Kerstin's tip at the beginning of this chapter, Kevin shares that to get greater decision-maker buy-in, SEOs need to start communicating using more conventional business metrics.
Kevin Gibbons says:Make sure that you start everything with a forecast. SEOs often go wrong when they rush into problems and start off too tactical. They may try to improve areas of weakness on their website, or look to strengthen areas up, but without considering why. I like the framework of Simon Sinek - start with 'Why', and go from there to 'How', then to 'What'. I've been reiterating that for years. Rather than starting with 'How', and the tactical, look at 'Why' with forecasting. From a business level, there's so much to get out of that. Rather than sprinting in the wrong direction, you're developing a strategy first. With that approach, you know that you're going in the right direction. Once you are, then it's time to accelerate. It's about starting with a strategy first, then building that into a clear forecast you can use to set expectations with clients. You want to know what success looks like in the next 12 months, or even in the next 5-10 years. A longer-term vision of the business should be aligned to your SEO strategy.
How does an SEO decide on the metrics to incorporate within the forecast?
Keep them as business-focussed as possible. There's not a one-size-fits-all -it comes from conversation with the client. You need to know what their business objectives are, and what they are looking to achieve. It may fall back to organic revenue, but you don't want to make assumptions. Too often, agencies go straight into 'pitching mode' without listening to what successful means within the business. I have a mix of experience, with nearly 20 years in SEO and running a business for around 15 years. Business owners should treat SEO as an investment. When they're looking at the tactical parts of SEO, sometimes that can be viewed as a cost. They end up looking for deliverables like an audit, or keyword research, and looking at the rate. The client sees this an investment in SEO. That money could have been spent on paid search, or email marketing, or even the stock market for direct returns. It's not about SEO versus PPC, there's always been a place for both channels, but SEO needs to be creating something that is adding value. The metrics should be about what the business is trying to achieve, and that's normally a return on their investment. It could be cost savings, or brand awareness, but SEOs need to identify what success look like from the client's perspective. Whether it's revenue, number of sales, or profit, you need to dig into it so that you can start working backwards. I advocate having a hierarchy of KPIs and picking one target. Otherwise, you're chasing two rabbits. If organic revenue is that one target, then you can start to work back and figure out the type of traffic that you need, or the type of rankings to secure. More tactically, you could then even identify what type of links you need to get from different publishers, or which pages need to be optimised. When you have these lead and lag indicators, clients don't have to make an SEO 'leap of faith'. You can show progress all the way through, that keeps you heading towards the end goal without losing sight of why you're doing that in the first place.
Should SEOs be focussed on things that are likely to convert straightaway, and how long should it take to pay back on the investment in SEO?
To a certain extent, that's the right way to approach it. If you're having a short-term impact, then you can get more investment and buy-in for what you're doing. Prioritise terms like page two rankings, that you can tip over the edge on to page one. Those are great for forecasts, because you're almost there, you're just not yet getting the traffic and revenue to match the hard work that's been put in. If you can get that easy win, you can build towards more competitive terms that might take a while. The timeframe does depend on the market that you're in and the competition that you're against. Remember that you're fighting a moving target. Often, forecasting is done because businesses want to get to where their competitor is already. They want to know what it will take to close the gap. That assumes that the competitor will do nothing, which is often not the case - they're switched on and heavily invested in themselves. You need forecasts on where they will be in two years' time, to surpass what their success will look like in the future. In terms of ROI, a marketing director will be looking to make a return within 6-12 months at a minimum and want to reap the rewards within a couple of years. This isn't paid search, where you can put money in and get traffic back quickly, it's a longer-term investment. However, at the end of those 12 months, if you've secured a lot more organic traffic, you have a much stronger base from which to start the next year. Your outlook does need to consider the long-term timeline as well. If you're always invested in short-term tactics, you have to keep investing to keep it going. It's a tap that can be turned off. You need realistic expectations, but you need to look at the return that you're getting from the cost.
What SEO tactics are likely to bring a ranking that's just off page one onto it?
We've had some good wins purely with content and making the experience stronger. Think of E-A-T, particularly the authority of content. You need to make sure that you've got content that can be trusted. You can take keywords that are on the edge of page one, and tip them over the edge just by improving the content. The UX will sometimes help as well. Certainly, there are things you can do to boost your click-through rate, like title tags and meta descriptions. Make sure that it's as targeted as possible for those terms. Give Google a signal that you deserve to be amongst the page one listings, if not higher. The three pillars of SEO have always been the same: technical, on-site content, and link reputation. In an ideal world, you would be as strong as possible in all three. The quickest wins though, unless you have serious technical issues, are from investing in the content experience.
How do you challenge business owners that want you to focus on bad metrics, and what types of metrics are those, typically?
I'm not a fan of link metrics because I think you're choosing the wrong target. I think link metrics can be a KPI, but it shouldn't be the main goal. The main goal should be a business metric. Ideally, it should be revenue focused. Whether you've generated 40 links, 100 links or 300 links shouldn't be the main outcome. That doesn't do much from a brand, or business performance, perspective. I would even question focussing on domain and link authority metrics. That's not Google, it's from a third-party tool that gives an indication of strength. If your whole strategy is built on wanting to change a score of 60/100 to 70/100, that can be changed by the way the tool provider calculates things. It's not a bad metric, but it's not the end goal - it's a way to help you secure that goal. If you're judging the success and failure of SEO on KPIs it's hard to get true investment. If you're judging on ROI, it's much easier because you can show the business owner that there's been, say, a 5-6 times return for the spend, and how you did it. It goes back to those lead and lag indicators. Set the importance levels of what you're doing in the right way and understand what the true goal is.
What do you think SEOs should stop doing to focus more time on proper business metrics?
There are two things. One is that not all clients are great clients. By which I mean, not all agencies are a good fit for every single client. If you are an agency or an SEO provider, you need to know what to say 'No' to. Sometimes you might want to focus on organic revenue, and they might want to focus on specific KPIs that you don't feel are the right target. Most failures come from a misalignment of goals from the very start. You need to be clear in stating what you want to be judged upon. Be prepared to walk away. It's hard because agencies want to win new business and take on new work. Things go wrong when they end up adapting to the way the client wants to work, and not playing to their strengths. The second part of that is, once you are clear on your goals, to put all your effort into focusing on them. That sounds obvious, but too often when SEOs are trying to increase organic revenue, they get distracted by doing X, Y, and Z to improve blog awareness traffic. First, hit the target. Make the client happy. If there are ways to extend the strategy to generate more awareness long-term, then you can look at it later. Start with what's most important. It's about prioritisation. You can do SEO all day long for, pretty much, any website on the internet. You're not going to run out of things to do. You need to prioritise what's most important, and where your efforts will have the most value.
You can find Kevin Gibbons over at ReSignal.com.
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