Bryson Meunier: A lot of .Net readers seem to believe that SEO is snake oil. What would you tell these people to convince them that SEO is a legitimate marketing strategy?
Vanessa Fox: Unfortunately, spam and SEO tend to get grouped together in people’s minds (and even in some practitioners’ actions, unfortunately). I completely understand why those outside of SEO might have that “snake oil” perception. However, real search engine optimization should absolutely be woven into traditional marketing and web development practices. SEO is about:
- Using search data to better understand your audience and their needs
- Ensuring that you’re solving your audiences’ problems and providing differentiated value
- Raising awareness through traditional and new media channels
- Building a web site infrastructure with the understanding that search has become an important acquisition channel, which means crawlability and indexability of content are requirements just like security and speed are.
SEO is not about tricks or manipulating algorithms. It’s about understanding the online landscape and evolving to meet your customers where they are. I devoted an entire section of my book to this topic (the beginning of chapter 6):
“The phrase search engine optimization tends to bring up bad memories of e-mails asking you to trade links and web pages with repeated words but no real information and no place to click but the ads. SEO implies optimizing a site for search engines, but understanding how search fits into your business isn’t really about that at all. It’s about operating your business effectively within the current landscape…. But the term SEO is often more associated with buy-cheat-viagra-while-you-pay-poker-online-and-file-a-mesothelioma-class-action-lawsuit.com than it is with customer engagement, usability, product strategy, and more sales.
The term SEO doesn’t describe well the whole picture of integrating a search acquisition strategy into a more comprehensive business strategy:
- Using search data to build a comprehensive and effective product and content strategy.
- Understanding searcher behavior and building searcher personas that maximize customer satisfaction and conversion.
- Realizing the customer acquisition funnel often begins with the search box, not your web site.
- Integrating organic search with other marketing efforts.
- Ensuring the technical architecture of the site can be properly crawled and indexed by search engines so that it can be visible to searchers.”
BM: .Net’s readers are largely Web professionals who may see SEO as extra work and may add it at the end of the web design process if they’ve added it at all. Why should these people take SEO more seriously (if indeed they should)?
VF: Search is ubiquitous. We all search all the time. If the readers of .Net think about it, they likely search all of the time. Organizations are losing 1) tremendous insight into their customers and potential customers if they don’t take advantage of the free search data that’s available from the millions of searches we do each day; 2) the opportunity to reach a significantly larger audience who through being visible in search results.
BM: If SEO is about improving the user experience and good content from a search engine’s perspective, why isn’t doing usability and content strategy enough?
VF: I believe that SEO in general doesn’t need to be a separate activity from usability and content strategy. I think that both disciplines should incorporate best practices from search rather than thinking of it as something tacked on later. Particularly, the data available from search is extremely valuable. Also, understanding that many visitors begin with a major search engine and that any page of the site can therefore become the home page of the site can shift how we look at both page design and content. I’ve done several webinars on this topic, such as http://oreillynet.com/pub/e/2179.
SEO includes another critical component, which is that the site architecture has to be built to be crawlable and indexable. Again, I don’t think this should be something tacked on separately, but SEO technical best practices should instead be built into web development processes.
BM: A lot of software has been introduced in the past couple of years that seeks to automate aspects of the SEO process (e.g. Bloomreach, RIO, Conductor, SEOMoz, etc.). Will SEO itself ever be completely automated?
VF: SEO can never be completely automated because at the core, it’s still about understanding and engaging with audiences and providing them with unique value. However, in the past, we have had great ways of measuring progress and ROI and lots of data is available to do that.
With Blueprint, the search analytics software my company is building, our goal is to gather that data and provide hard metrics and ROI and market opportunity analysis. In addition, a great deal of diagnostics around technical issues can be automated. Our software, and some of the products you mention, provide diagnostic reports on what technical issues can be fixed for greater crawlability and indexability. Our software, for instance, analyzes server logs to see exactly how search engines are crawling the site and what problems they’re encountering.
BM: Part of this article is about emerging trends in optimization, including social SEO (i.e. social signals incorporated into web search), semantic search, mobile and local SEO, multimedia SEO, etc. What would you say are some promising trends in SEO today and why?
VF: In the near term, search is still primarily text input (whether through a keyword or voice) with a textual display. Within that framework, the search engines are evolving as the web evolves (incorporating additional signals, such as those from social, taking advantage of new technologies such as structured data and HTML5 and so on) so it’s important to also evolve. Think about how your audiences may be accessing the web (it might be from a tablet or smartphone rather than a computer) and what technologies are available to enhance that interaction (structured markup of authorship, for instance).
In the longer term, we need to to think in an even more flexible way about how our audiences may be accessing our information. It may not be through a device at all and it may not be through explicit search. Technologies like Google Glass and Google Now, for instance, are current examples. In the past, I might head to my bus stop and do a search on my phone to see if my bus is on time. But if I have an Android phone, Google Now will notify me with that information automatically based on past behaviors and current location. Responsive design will not only become more important but will take on new meaning as we perhaps have new ways to access content that doesn’t involve looking at a screen.
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