By David Lapetina (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has traditionally been understood as a tactic used to gain increased search engine visibility without paying for clicks. Consequently, the focus of most articles, speeches, webinars, and presentations is on its many tactical dimensions, e.g. how to get links, social shares, improve website performance, write the ideal keyword-optimized article, and develop other signals that tell search engines that one’s content is meritorious enough to warrant a high placement on the SERP (Search Engine Results Page).

There’s nothing necessarily “wrong” about taking this approach; after all, there are still many business managers (and potential clients) who – even 21 years after Google’s first iteration – still need a tactical overview in order to understand the central role that SEO plays in any modern integrated marketing plan. And as long as the search engines’ algorithms continue to be opaque and subject to rapid revision, tactical tips, reverse-engineering studies, and “how-tos” will always be in demand.

This treatment, is, however, incomplete, because it obscures, perhaps, the most important dimension of SEO: that, in today’s ubiquitously connected world, SEO is “strategic” and should be regarded as such by top management.

Tactics vs. strategy
As Moz’s Rand Fishkin points out in a recent presentation, one danger of considering SEO as an exclusively tactical discipline is that one can easily become “lost in the metrics.” While it’s necessary for marketers to know – in very granular detail – how visitors discover their content, how this content is mapped to the buyer’s journey, which channels contribute most to conversions, etc., these are all just means to an end. Marketing plans – even the best ones — will fail unless an appropriate strategy (AKA “brand story”) is in place whose shape guides the effort. This story can only be constructed after asking – and answering — a set of core business questions relating to mission, vision, and values. These questions are high-level in nature, are the subject of serious (and often continual) discussion in the C-suite, and once answered constitute the foundation for all tactics designed to bring them about. Once strategy is set, all else follows from the resulting “brand story.”

This approach has worked very well in the traditional marketing world. But it can often break down in the new one. Why? Because brand stories – traditionally hatched at the top of the org chart and percolated down – are necessarily top-down and one way, whereas SEO stories are bottom-up and two-way. This matters because – in a world in which searchers and customers are in control, stories are collaboratively written – and SEO is one of the ways that one can discover the nature of this collaborative effort and capitalize upon its true potential.

SEO: real-time marketing intelligence
In many organizations, SEOs simply do what they’re told, report back results, and make adjustments as necessary to better align their efforts to management’s expectations. But in truly enlightened organizations, SEOs are listened to and what they have to say is taken seriously by senior management. In other words, they’re not regarded as “tacticians” but as key players in terms of providing marketing intelligence. This intelligence is often more accurate (and certainly more timely) than that which traditional focus groups, brand studies, and other traditional market intelligence-generating mechanisms can provide.

SEOs are, in other words, “in the front lines” and they’ve got their fingers on the pulse of the organization’s target audiences in a way that others in the organization may find impossible. Their insights can explain – and often predict – whether or not the “brand story” is thriving or failing. Furthermore, because search behavior is responsive (and reactive) to the impact of the organization’s other media exposure, SEOs can accurately tell management whether the organization’s latest TV, radio, or newspaper campaign is actually working.

SEOs also can see – often long before it’s detected by other departments – where the “brand story” has holes, needs patching, or might even be a candidate for wholesale revision. These insights – strategic insights —  may arrive unexpectedly (“gee – we never thought of our products in this way, but look at these links — maybe we should!”); conversely, these insights might actually validate the top-level brand story. In either case, they need to be reported to the C-level, and the C-level needs to follow up.

SEO needs to be liberated from its “tactical cage”
Unfortunately, in many organizations, the insights and strategic intelligence-gathering potential of SEO is never put to good use. Compartmentalized, marginalized, and relegated to the realm of “those tactical folks downstairs,” it simply withers on the vine. This is a waste – and possibly a killer given that there are likely organizations out there (your competitors) who don’t do this.

Is SEO strategic in your own organization? Ask yourself this: are SEO concepts and insights brought in at the conceptual stage of any new project or at the implementation stage? The earlier these concerns can be introduced, the greater the likelihood that web-based marketing projects will not have to be re-engineered post-launch.

Also ask yourself this: who exactly does your SEO group report to? The digital marketing director? The SEM manager? The VP of Acquisition Marketing? The CEO? Obviously, the higher the report, the more likely that SEO insights will be heard, appreciated and shared across the organization in a way that actually moves the marketing needle.

Is there anything you can do to make sure that SEO has its proper place at the marketing table? In a Search Engine Land column published in 2012,

in 2012, Eric Enge quotes Adobe’s Warren Lee, who recommends some concrete steps to bring this about, including:

  1. Enterprise-wide training on the importance of SEO, with specific training undertaken on a departmental basis.
  2. The institution of integrated SEO processes with cross-functional workflows.
  3. Consistent meetings whose purpose is to ensure that search visibility is always top of mind in any marketing decisions made at every level of the organization.

SEO’s profile, status, and respect in the organization is improving — but there remains much work to be done. To many on the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, “SEO” is still a geeky term whose impact is marginalized. This needs to change – the sooner the better – and those organizations able to make the changes first will soonest benefit in the marketplace.

Steve Baldwin
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Steve Baldwin

Editor-in-Chief at Didit
Steve Baldwin writes and edits technology content. He lives in Brooklyn, runs free wild parrot safaris at BrooklynParrots.com, and his personal site is stephencarlbaldwin.com.
Steve Baldwin
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