What Would D-Mac Do


Monday, October 31, 2011

Nobody Cares What You Know Until They Know You Care

I was reading a post earlier (I was going to link to it but I think that distracts from my point) today where the author in question was suggesting how a SEO professional could use dating to explain how SEO works. He makes analogies to how Google is like the parents of impressionable girls deciding who their daughter should 'date' (the dater of course being your clients' website). Everything was sound and ultimately drew some amusing comparisons. Then it occurred to me that reams and reams of blog posts have been written about 'how to explain SEO' but almost all of them are just witty ways to take jargon and make cute examples they think your client will be able to relate to. Now there’s' nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but one thing that I think isn't really said very much in our industry is that at the end of the day, our clients don't hire us because of how smart we are. They hire us because they trust us to be their coach on all things SEO/Digital. To that end, a coach is only worth what he can motivate his/her athletes to do. The same is true in the agency world. I've definitely seen enough evidence through my career to convince me that this is true.

To that end let me go ahead and say this: The best SEO's out there aren't necessarily the most knowledgeable. There is one main reason for this. It is patently obvious to anybody who's worked on any enterprise account, but 7 out of 10 things a client probably SHOULD do, they simply won't do. URLs won't be SEO-perfect, site load-times don't always net out where you'd like them to be, certain phrases will never appear anywhere on a client's site even though that's precisely the way people look for them, splash pages will continue to exist because the client got orders from on high to require the user to 'pick a country', the Facebook Page will never be integrated with the site 'because that's handled by a different team and they have their own budget and agenda' etc. etc. ad nausea. The larger the organization the more moving parts, and the more elaborate otherwise-simple situations becomes. Your job is to maximize those 3 things they CAN do, or to be enough of a Type A personality to push through SEO initiatives above other projects. If you can't do either of those because you're too hung up on whether or not this or that canonical tag is implemented, well you may be a clever SEO, but your client still hasn't moved the needle.

I've said this to people on my team before, but I truly believe the best SEO's are ones that think of themselves less like a consultant and more like a personal trainer (I've had a coach for years for triathlon so this is a relationship I'm quite familiar with). A good coach doesn't wait around for you to complain that you’re cramping up on your Saturday workouts to point out that you may want to rest. They email you on Friday to say "hey your heart rate is running high this week; you should probably lay back on the bike for Saturday". Good coaches communicate with words that imply that you are on the same team. Russ emails me when I'm having trouble getting workouts in and says "I'm concerned we might need to change direction on the workout times to have the most effect for Memphis next month". See what happened there? First off, I didn't email him asking about it, he reached out to me. And on a more fundamental level, he uses words like "we" when talking about our goals. He could have very easily said "I notice you're not finishing all the workouts I give you. You may have a tough time in Memphis". Notice that essentially is giving me the same information as the former sentence, but is very much in a contentious accusatory tone. Now I'm on the defense. And he's less of a coach and more of a consultant.

Back to my original point. The following aren't rules or guidelines I've ever seen posted anywhere (and I fully expect they do exist somewhere because I know I'm not the only one that thinks like this). They probably apply to all facets of business (and relationships in general), so take or leave. But without disclosing too much, I'll just say that we've had a very very successful year on my team and while it's important my team has the knowledge to navigate our clients through the various challenges, I would say the REAL factors in our success could largely be attributed to the following (caveat: my own experiences proves these things true to me and me alone- I don't expect them to prove true for every circumstance. This is purely my own observations):

-We use language that implies we're on the same team. The importance of this actually dawned on me when I was getting my bike fitted. Adam over at Get A Grip is their resident fitting expert (for those unfamiliar with high-end cycling, there's a lot more than adjusting a seat height to properly fitting a bike to a person, it also cost a pretty penny...about $300 for an hour of Adam's time). So we've done the video sequence and I've sat on the fitting model bike. Then Adam looks at some charts, writes down various things about your range of motion etc etc. Then as we're making adjustments, Adam takes ownership of what's going on. "I'd like for your left knee to point in more, we'll get more power on the downstroke that way"...."I'm concerned where your shoulders are, that's going to start being a problem on longer legs" "I'd like to have your back straighter because then we can just let the carbon's rigidity do the work on climbs". See what's going on here? This is Adam working alongside me. He sounds like he thinks of us as a team (nevermind that I haven't seen Adam since the Chili cook-off last year and other than Chicago, he's never actually been to one of my races). Anyway after that fitting, I thought "Why can't I apply that same mentality to MY clients?" I started doing it. I talked in terms like "I'd this title tag to use xxxx keyword at the front because we'll really pop out in a result page and we'll be able to get more clicks" or "I'm concerned we're not as authoritative as we could be because we've got some old domains we didn't redirect to the new site". It seems trite but minor tweaks like this in how you communicate things can be the difference between perceived indictments on the client's website the constructive oversight of a coach on the team.

-We Email Ad Hoc ideas for the site without the client asking for them - I liken this to being at a restaurant and having a waiter that notices if your water/soda is empty and refills it without you asking. It's subtle, doesn't really put the waiter out of their way as they are bustling around anyway but yet it makes a major difference on your perception of service. Being a SEO is a lot like this. Common things we'll reach out to the client on include any time a new tag/tool is launched we let the client know (the rel-prev tag was a recent example of this). It doesn't take us more than 5 minutes to read the blog post (which we'll do regardless) and send a note to a client. If you apply the first principle of speaking as a team ("This is a tag I think we should take a look at because the site has a huge library and I'd like to make sure engines have as many indicators as possible what page to show users in results") you can get huge gains in perception from this.

-We respond to emails from a client immediately (or absolutely ASAP). If I'm at my desk, you can be sure that if you're a client on my watch, you'll get a response from me within minutes of sending me an email. This is actually a lesson I learned from my web hosting industry days. Back then, uptime was everything (it probably still is). We had 99% Service Level Agreements which basically stated if we were down for more than 1% of the time out of a year without notice, we were on the hook to refund fees. This mentality filtered through our customer service as well. We generated buzz in the various hosting forums about our quick responses and we created a reputation as being the best in the business for service (that hosting company has since been sold and suffice to say, the owners live quite comfortably now). Now when I'm talking about a response, I don't mean that we necessarily are able to answer the client's question (or address a concern). At this juncture we just acknowledge the email and let them know we'll be getting back to them (if needed). We make sure we tell them what we'll be doing in the meantime (if we need to check with somebody, if we're going to need some time to put data together, or even if we have other things we need to finish up). We try to make sure they have a reasonable expectation of when we'll get their issue addressed (by noon, end of day, end of week etc). I've heard horror stories about consultants and agencies taking days (?!!!) to get back to clients on things. This rapid response cuts both ways too. We've found that the quicker we are to respond to our clients, the quicker they are to respond to us. It's like that old adage, 'you teach people how to treat you'. Again- this isn't a time suck (as a wise man once told me "the point of marketing isn't to be busy"), but it's a subtle habit that makes a world of difference in the SEO's relationship with their client.

-We relate our outcomes to what we want for users not search engines - This one is an easy pitfall for SEO's to fall into. But the basic premise is it's a lot easier for a non-search person to understand how a recommendation will affect the end user more than it will a spider. For example, when we're talking about something like a XML sitemap (or lack thereof), the benefit I would say in a technical sense is "Having this will allow a spider to crawl the site quicker and more effectively which will allow more pages to be rapidly indexed". You know what? That means nothing to the C-level guy who deals with the site as a matter of procedure because he's tasked with the digital marketing of his company. But what if you skip all the nuts and bolts and cut right to the chase? "I want to make sure when we're appearing for a search related to the Widget 5674 Lugnut set, we're showing people the page that has the Widget 5674 Lugnut set on it instead of a homepage that they'll have to click around to find it (who can't relate to that seriously?). This file will help engines understand all the pages on the site and why the Widget 5674 Lugnut set page is a better page to show people than the homepage if that's what they are looking for". Sure there are a lot of things involved in landing page optimization, but at the end of the day, I'm conveying a benefit that is a lot more relate-able than anything regarding indices and crawl rates. I've noticed that Google's engineers will talk in terms like this. I'm sure Matt Cutts could bore somebody to tears talking about the various intricacies of Google's spam detection algorithms and the Python therein. But he doesn't. I also suspect that there's a sense of confidence that shines through when one doesn't rely on jargon and talking over people's heads to establish credibility. Matt Cutts probably doesn't have any real problem with self-confidence because well, he's Matt Cutts. And as a result, he is able to communicate fairly complex concepts in relatively simple ways (you could get into a huge discussion about latent semantic indexing and keyword taxonomy just to explain that Google doesn't want to show users pages about boiling puppies if they search for 'hot dogs' or you could just say "We want to make sure when somebody searches for a hot dog, they don't get content about boiling puppies"). I realize this is a bit anti-thesis to typical SEO projects as our industry seems to pride itself on the various acronyms and jargon we come up with, but regardless, I've found doing away with all that is huge for moving the needle. Especially the higher-up the chain in the company you go.

-We avoid absolutes - Imagine you're a client who has paid considerable money for a website. It's entirely flash driven, and there's nothing in a static form to work with. It's essentially a single URL splash. Now imagine a SEO consultant comes in and the first thing they say is that your site will not be SEO (or mobile for that matter) friendly until you essentially create an entirely new site. You have no hope of ever ranking or moving the needle for that site for anything until you essentially blow the thing away and start over. If you talk in absolutes ('this won't rank', 'the site cannot be crawled'), this is exactly what is being interpreted by your client. What do you think they'll think about the viability of SEO for your project? All of a sudden those dollars seem better spent focusing on things you CAN move the needle on and as far as the client is concerned, you've basically told them your of little to no use to them. Sure you could research keywords and harp all day long about the virtues of social media but as the wise man said 'being busy isn't the point'. Believe me, we've found ourselves in this position with clients MANY times. But we play the hands we're dealt. Perhaps here I would say "Well there's definitely some challenges with a site like this, so we should look at some options to compensate and help get our content to the engines and also find some avenues to promote the content beyond just this site". I can address the cost/benefit of creating an xml feed of content or a static version of the site later, but the last thing I want a client thinking at this site is the situation is utterly hopeless. Sometimes redesigns happen down the road, but at this point, we're now in a coaching role for that new site.

I'm sure there's plenty of other factors that have helped us be successful (boyish charms? rugged good looks?) but ultimately, I am of the mind establishing the groundwork for a partnership comes from how you treat your client, not necessarily by beating them over the head with Google's webmaster guidelines.

Monday, October 24, 2011

E-Commerce Article online

An article I wrote for E-Commerce Magazine is online here. I was trying to get across that there are plenty of free resources for SEO online in addition to premium tools...many of which are everyday things that can assist in optimization but are often overlooked.