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By Thomas Baekdal / Lonneke Reitsma - March 2015

It's Time to Aim for More Than SEO

This article is a collaboration between myself and Lonneke Reitsma from Het Communicatielokaal. Lonneke is a brilliant person who knows a lot about online marketing and search strategies, as well as inbound marketing and analytics. Almost everything in this article is based on her concepts and ideas for approaching SEO in today's markets, combined with my writing.

It's no secret that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has changed dramatically over the past five years. In fact, if you were to meet someone from 2009, they probably wouldn't even recognize it.

In 2009, search optimization was a tactic, and a directly measurable one. You would focus on words and phrases, and you would measure how effective each was at generating traffic. The ranking was based on the same thing as well. A rank, or what we used to called a 'pagerank', was determined by a somewhat simplistic measurement of how popular you were in terms of connections. And the way you optimized it was by what keywords you used.

Today, as we all know, the tactics of SEO have been annihilated in every way possible, requiring us to approach SEO from an entirely different perspective. Everything you know has changed.

SEO is no longer a marketing tactic. Today, SEO is a result. And to achieve this result you have to make sure that a lot of things fall into place.

Smarter and bigger, and much more complex

The key thing to understand about search is that it's far from the simplistic tool we knew in the past. The volume of data being processed by search engines is just immense, and the quantity of signals they use is at a level of complexity that is simply staggering. The more complex your market is, the more challenging this becomes.

If you have a brand with a simple, unique and distinct product, you can get away with having a simple strategy. Your uniqueness will carry it through. But the more competitive your market is, and the lower your product differentiation is, the harder it will be to stand out.

In areas like search, which is based on earning your place, this becomes a very big problem. And, in these cases, you find that you need to turn to other factors to make yourself stand out.

A company that makes energy efficient lightbulbs, for instance, is going to have a really hard time. This company is just one of many, and no level of SEO optimization is going to change that. Sure, you try to optimize your pages, and do all the fancy things, but everyone else is doing that too.

You need to do something that allows you to stand out. Can you make a better product? Can you make yourself a better brand? Can you drive up awareness and retention rates so that more people think about you first? Are you better at defining and explaining your value? All of which will have an impact on search.

In other words, you can no longer just focus on a single thing and hope that it will magically give you better SEO. SEO is the result of all the things you do.

Online technologies are smarter

A big part of the change that we are seeing is caused by how the digital world has become smarter. When you wanted to do something in the past, you were always the one deciding what to do. You would choose which magazines to advertise in, which billboards to appear on. But today, we are increasingly living in a world where everything is automated and programmatic.

As a brand, that means you don't really decide where or how to advertise. Instead, you make your brand available to certain events or signals. And when one of these are triggered, your brand message is added to it.

We now live in a world where algorithms determine who will see what and when. And this is not just true for search. It's also true for social media, and increasingly even in traditional media. Programmatic buying of ads is booming across the media industry, just like ranked based social and search algorithms.

This is interesting in terms of targeting, but it also means that people are encouraged to think less. We are creating a culture where people expect your brand to be shown to them when the algorithms think the signals match, rather than based on a deliberate decision by the people involved.

In terms of sheer targeting, this opens up so many new potentials, but it also takes away some loyalty. A loyal customer is someone who seeks you out, while a programmatic and automated customer is someone who just happens to come across your brand.

It's not a question of good or bad. But it does dramatically change how you think about reaching your market, what resources, data and tools you use.

This is true for search as well. You cannot just look at that as keywords, search volume and link building, because your reputation influences it as well. It's the combination of all these factors that makes the difference.

It's a not question of this or that. It's a question of this and that.

In a world of algorithms, it's the pattern that exists between your brand strategy, your social strategy, your advertising strategy, and your search strategy combined is matched with what people are going to see.

What is your reputation? Do people recognize you? What are your retention rates? Are you trusted? What is your reputation? Are you known?

As a brand, you need to look at all of these. And you need to do this for all your channels, including search.

SEO - How does it work?

Today, search is based on pattern matching. On the user side, Google (and others) are trying to build up a profile of their interests. In the same way they are also trying to build up a profile for your site. And the search results are then matched by comparing the patterns of both. The sites with the best matching pattern get ranked the highest.

The result of this is that the search queries are no longer directly linked to what you may find. If you search for snowboards, for instance, you might end up seeing links to articles that don't even use that word in the description or the headline.

For instance, if I search for 'Snowboard', one of the links Google displays is a link to Ken Block's mad F150 Snow Raptor, which I posted about over at G+. What does that have to do with a snowboard, you ask? Well, it has a snowboard rack, but in this case, Google is ranking that link higher because of how it relates to me, rather than how it relates to the word.

Another example is that the search will always try to identify what your site is about, and what it is known for. If your site is known to be related to skiing, you are more likely to be ranked higher when people are looking for that.

And this is just a simple example of the many different nuances that exist in the SEO world today.

But remember, personal preferences and affiliation is also only one of many signals. You can't just optimize for personal connections either, because in many cases, the personal signal might not play that big of role at all. It all depends on relationships that exist between you and what you are searching for.

If there is a strong relationship that the search engines have identified, it's likely that your results will be more strongly influenced by them. But if it's for something vague and generic, personal affiliation won't make much of a difference, if any at all.

The point is that SEO works much the same as branding. If your brand fits with the people who are looking for you, the reputation of your brand will mean that you are far more likely to reach them than if you have no fit at all. This is true for search engines but it's also true for social media, and even real world word-of-mouth.

If you and a group of friends are sitting at a local coffee shop, talking about the Volvo Ocean Race, and you mention that you are looking for a new sweatshirt, the conversation is much more likely to focus on brands like Helly Hansen, Musto, or Henri Lloyd. These are the type of brands that people know have a strong relation to that race.

And the brand mentioned first would be Musto because your friends know that they are the official supplier of Volvo Ocean Race merchandize.

Search now works the same way. It looks at what it is you are talking about, in relation to what the brands are known for, and then tries to match that in the best way. It's not looking at any specific thing, instead it's finding the best match for all the signals combined.

But what if your friends don't know that you are interested in sailing? What if you hadn't told them? What would they say then? Well, in that case, your friends might simply suggest that you head over to ASOS. It's the 'generic' choice of shop that has the highest overall reputation. But it's not a targeted reputation. It's the fall-back type of reputation that people will point to if they don't know what to specifically suggest.

ASOS is not a bad web shop at all. It's actually quite good. But it's not a targeted web shop.

Again, search engines now work the same way. If they don't understand the relationship that you have to what you are searching for, they will opt to show you generic search results instead. These results will still be ranked based on how well the words you search for match the reputation of each site, but it is ranked in relation to you as a person.

So, basically, when it comes to thinking about your search strategy, it comes down to three main elements.

The most important element of all is your brand reputation. As in, how likely is it that your brand would score high across all the many different signals that search engines are looking for?

But within this reputation, we have two types of search. We have the targeted type where there is a direct relationship between the people search and what they find. Then we have the untargeted type where people come across your site because you happened to be a generic result.

This is important to keep in mind when it comes to creating a search strategy. It's not just a single strategy. It's three strategies that have to come together, and since the first part of that is all about your reputation, it's really not about search at all. It's a strategy that spans across everything you do.

Obviously, the more targeted your search traffic is, the better. The exception, of course, is when you are a company like ASOS, where your business is much more about scale than the individual products. But most brands are nothing like ASOS.

So, how do you use your reputation to create more targeted SEO? Well, it's simple. You need distinction. You need to do something that makes you special. Musto is special because it's distinctly selling sailing-wear and it's the merchandiser for Volvo Ocean Race. That distinction has a far bigger influence on their SEO than any other factor.

It's this distinction that allows Musto to beat ASOS in SEO when it comes to targeted people who like sailing, and especially when it comes to sailing related queries.

In other words, think of SEO as the mix of people, interests, reputation and content.

In the future it's also likely that more signals relating to people will be given a higher priority. For instance, Google recently made a new agreement with Twitter, causing them to have access to all public tweets. And in theory, this means Google Search can compare what people talk about with what they link to, across a much bigger data set.

For instance, Google may find that many people who drink Coca Cola are also often talking about IKEA. So in the future, it may be that if you search for 'kitchen table', that Google will show some results to you if you are a Coca Cola lover, and another result if you are not.

There are so many fascinating things that can be done with data. However, this is not something I would design specifically for today. First of all, because you can't control it, and second of all because it's not really a thing... yet.

But the point is that search is now much more about the mix of so many different signals. So, the strategy for search is not just about the page you make. But also about how you fit into the world.

SEO and the customer journey

How do you create a good search strategy in this world of algorithms, profiles and patterns? Obviously, since what you search for is what you find on a page, a part of it is always going to be about writing publishing content that resonates with what people need.

But the content is only the the point of entry. The interesting part is how we get to this part and what people do afterwards, and even more how it relates to what you need as a brand.

The first part of this is your audience. There are many ways we can think about this depending of what kind of business you have.

The best thing for any brand is to be distinct, and to be distinct you have to lead your customers. By that I mean, you need to define your own target. Who are you? And why do you exist?

There is always a tendency for many brands to think about their strategies of just reaching 'whatever', and trying to maximize exposure. But it's about understanding that there is a difference between exposure and targeting.

Obviously, as a brand, you always have a tendency to want to reach as large an audience as possible, as wide as possible. We all want to grow. But search is tricky.

On one hand, you never know who will come to you site, because you have no control or influence over who is going to find you. It's Google that decides who to match you with. But on the other hand, search is targeted by its definition. It's searched. It's not random traffic like you would get from a billboard. It's highly specific, and highly intentional traffic.

So, you are faced with the challenge of having to work with an unknown audience in terms of who they are, but highly specific in what they aim to get. And this is a tricky proposition. Because, as a brand, your role is then to laser focus these potential customers towards the purpose of what you do as a brand.

Take a travel agency specializing in trips to gorgeous mountains in Norway, where you arrange the trips and rent out the cabins. You now have a whole slew of different types of customer. You have the younger crowds who are there to have fun. You have the families who are there as a group. You have the couples who are there for a romantic retreat, or the elderly who are there for the scenery and the culture.

And even within each of these, you have different types of preferred activities. You have the snowboarders, the downhill racers, the cross-country skiers, the people who are there for pleasure, and those who are there for leisure... and they are all coming to your site via search.

So, your challenge is to convert this traffic into a targeted outcome.

For instance, when I searched for skiing in Norway, the top result was a page that offered me this:

They didn't really know who I was because of the vagueness of what I searched for, so they are now trying to narrow in on what it is that I want. Do I want to go alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country, telemark, snowkiting, or (weirdly) summer skiing?

They are trying to figure out what person I am. And based on this trying to figure how to put me on the right journey.

Remember, every person who arrives at a site does so based on a specific intent. When I search for 'Skiing in Norway', it's not because I'm interested in flowers. It's probably because I want to go skiing. And as an individual, I have personal preferences that make me prefer one type of skiing over another. And your job as a brand is to identify that preference.

Obviously, when I search as vaguely as I did for 'skiing in Norway', you will have no idea what I'm looking for, hence the page above where they are trying to identify the right path just for me. But what if I searched for "Alpine skiing norway relaxing resorts"?

That tells you a lot doesn't it?

This is where it gets complicated. In the past, we could go into our analytics and just look up what search terms people used. That's no longer the case. In today's world, due to increased security and privacy, almost all searches are 'not provided'. We simply don't know what people searched for specifically.

People still arrive via search, we just don't know how.

So... we have to be smart about it. Since we don't know what people searched for specifically, we need to look at other factors. One factor is where people ended up. And this is why the strategy is now much more than a few keywords.

Remember, search algorithms are increasingly looking at patterns. So a person with a personal pattern matching that of "Alpine skiing norway relaxing resorts" is likely to be looking for a page about that. Which means that the best SEO plan is to make a page just about that.

Think about the different types of personalities and needs people might have, and design sections, landing pages, and topics for each of these personas (as we call them). Don't just be random. Create a content strategy that matches the pattern of each type of person you want to reach. And then work your marketing to make yourself known for each of those things, so that Google can recognize that pattern and know how to match it.

And there is a huge untapped potential for doing this, because most brands do this pretty poorly. Just look what I got when I searched for "Alpine skiing norway relaxing resorts".

This is not exactly what you call targeted, is it? This is the old world randomness. In which each site hasn't considered who their customers are. I mean, sure, the first item on this list sounds interesting. But when you go to the landing page, you end up on what is probably the most boring page on the entire internet.

Okay, so +10 points for creating content that matches people's intent and thus driving the right kind of SEO. But their SEO strategy completely forgot that search is as much more than just getting people in. It's about the journey itself.

Your search strategy doesn't stop when people arrive on your site. It starts there.

So, the first step of any SEO strategy is to understand your audience. And you do this by defining the personalities of each type of person, or as some call 'personas'. And when you know who your target market is, and you have divided that up into different personal interests, that's when you can design it around a customer journey.

The weakest point of the journey is when people arrive at your site without any specific indication of intent. Like, for instance, when they arrive at your front page. People who arrive at your front page, from search, are the unknowns. You know they are probably interested in your type of market, but not why or even how.

For a travel agency that organizes skiing trips, for instance, you don't know what type of skier they are, or what type of activities they are interested in. You do not even know whether they are interested in living in a cabin near the slopes, or at a hotel closer to the center. That's two very different type of visitor.

Thus, the first step of your journey is to guide people into a more targeted path through your site. And within this path take them on a real journey that both inspires and informs.

As I said, search is only the beginning.

However, when people arrive at a different point on your site, like your page for family cabins, you have a much better idea who your audience is, and what they are looking for. They are probably a family, meaning they probably want to do both alpine skiing (for the youngsters), and perhaps cross-country skiing for the parents.

This is a target and an intent that you can design into your landing page.

But remember, you cannot do this reactively, because you don't know what search terms people use. The only way you know people's intent is to look at where on your site they end up. But to know that you first have to design your site so that people have a place to come.

This is why these personas are so important. To win at search, you need to define your target market and their intent in advance. Design a series of landing pages that are tailored to just the type of person you want to reach, with the information and insight such a person would need (and search for). And from there you can take them further along the customer journey.

But search starts with the understanding of your customers, with a plan for how to influence them. Without this, you will never get anywhere other than getting random search traffic to your home page.

This leads us to the journey itself. The landing page is just the beginning. Selling a skiing trip is often the result of several weeks of deliberation, and search is only one part of that.

In fact, Google recently detailed how different channels influence the customer journey for different industries. Here is where search shows up for the travel industry in france:

Remember, these are averages. But, as you can see, display and social exists mostly to create awareness, followed by search, email, and referrals. In other words, search is less about awareness but still very early in the deliberation stage.

Specifically, generic paid search, and organic search is in what we call the 'getting smart stage', before the stage of consideration. While brand search is much more in the brand paid search stage.

In other words, the way people behave with search changes depending on how ready they are to decide. They will search generically when they are still just trying to figure out what to do, but shift to a much more specific brand search when they want to get the best price.

Again, this is a personal behavior that you can design your site for. Observe where and how people arrive at your site, and try to determine where on this path they are.

But, again, this is a simplified path based on averages. In reality, the path looks more like this, as described in "Building Customer Momentum and Lifetime Value".

Think of your relationship with your customers as the result of momentum. In order to get a sale, and indeed to get them to become loyal and come back another day, you need to build up momentum for each of these main points.

To begin with, search will often be of the generic type. People still do not know who you are or what you do. And your role is to turn that exposure into awareness, and lead that into a more targeted form of momentum based on your product and your message.

Later on, as people travel further along this journey, their interests become more refined and more specifically targeted, which you have prepared for with your personas.

And now, instead of focusing on awareness, your landing pages and messages shift towards the more practical information and outcomes.

But this isn't just about search, of course. Every part of the brand is influenced by this. Your advertising campaign is directly linked to it as well. Remarketing, for instance, is a great way to progress people to the next stage of that journey. So are the rest of your marketing activities.

It all fits together. If people find you via search, you need to back that up with advertising and other marketing activities to increase that initial momentum. And if people find you via advertising, your search strategy later on isn't to create generic awareness, but to focus on the far more specific type of landing pages.

Similarly, the more people know about your brand and your market, the more defined your search strategy needs to be. For instance, nobody ever searches for 'smartphone' hoping to find an iPhone. Instead, people are far more likely to seach for "iPhone 6". So if you want to reach people in that market, creating a landing page that talks about smartphones would be a mistake.

If people don't know who you are or what you do, the less specific the search is as well. You search and marketing strategies, as well as customer journeys, must reflect that. You must assume that the point you reach people is going to be at a much less defined stage than for other products. And thus, your strategy is to correct that.

But always remember to think of it as a whole. If you only think about SEO, you end up with a page like that of "Radisson Blu: Snowboarding and Alpine skiing". It has all the right keywords I searched for, but nothing on this page encourages me to learn more. It doesn't build momentum, which also means that my retention rates will be very low, causing the rest of their marketing strategy to fail. A remarketing campaign, for instance, probably wouldn't work either because of it.

It all fits together. The momentum acts like a multiplier effect, causing even more traffic, even more name recognition, even more sales.

This is the key to search.

It's about identifying your target market, dividing them up into personality types that you can create content for, and looking at how people arrive at your site. You then use the information that you already have to define a customer journey that builds up enough momentum to get them to connect.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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