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SEO – What’s Changed and What’s the Same



Chris Butler: Hello and welcome to the Newfangled Agency Marketing Matters podcast. I’m Chris Butler.

Lauren Siler: I’m Lauren Siler.

Mark O’Brien: And I’m Mark O’Brien.

Chris Butler: And this is season two, episode 10, and we’re gathered together in the back of Newfangled headquarters in Chapel Hill to talk about marketing stuff. We like to start out by just sharing something that we’re excited about. So who would like to go first?

Lauren Siler: I’ll go first. I’m really excited about the conversations we’ve been having with agencies about their perspective on content marketing lately. I feel like there’s this trend that’s emerging where agencies are getting more and more sophisticated about this stuff. You know, a couple years ago, most conversations that we had involved agencies who sort of started and stopped with content marketing and really just had zero idea how to even regularly produce blog posts on their site. And now, I mean, I don’t know about you Mark, but I feel like a lot of the conversations we’ve been having recently … It’s almost like these agencies have graduated to sort of a 202 level. And that’s really exciting to see, where they know how to create some form of content regularly on the site, and what they lack now is a system for understanding how effective it’s been and really understand how to take it to the next level in terms of targeting personas, and really evaluating the efficacy of the messaging, and evolving the plan from there. And those have been really interesting conversations, I think.

Mark O’Brien: I agree. And that’s right in line with what we’ve also seen, which is a lot of agencies hiring us not to get them out of a really messy emergency, but to just elevate the clientele. So not hiring us out of desperation, which does happen, and we get that. There are emergencies, and all firms go through those dips, but we’ve just seen a lot of firms who come to us who are really strong, they’re performing well, everything’s going great, but they know it could be going a lot better. And those are the ones who also, by coincidence, happen to have a strong marketing program going on with the content already.

Chris Butler: What do you got on-

Mark O’Brien: Oh, right. Yeah.

Chris Butler: … the topic of evolution?

Mark O’Brien: Right. Yeah. So, another thing that I’ve been really excited about, and this is something I’ve just been doing for fun and the love of it, and as a way to deepen my relationship with a lot of our agency partners, is I’ve been speaking with them about traction. We’re not getting hired for this or anything, but we’ve gone through the traction model here at Newfangled. That’s based on, do you know Wickman’s book Traction? He calls it the entrepreneurial operating system. It’s had a huge impact on Newfangled. We really couldn’t run without it at this point. It’s just shot through every aspect of our culture, and a lot of agencies need it, right? This is a system for very clearly setting ten year, three year, one year, quarterly, weekly goals for the entire organization, the departments and the individuals. When we really think about how all those things cascade, that’s quite a bit of rigor that needs to be in place, and very few entrepreneurial agencies have that.

So it’s a system that I’ve really enjoyed sharing and I’ve also really enjoyed sharing our process for going about it with a lot of agency principals. It’s been nice for me because it’s allowed me to extend my relationships with them beyond the initial biz dev process. Also, many of them have also decided to take part in the strategic coach program that Blair and I got into three years ago that’s also had a huge impact on Newfangled. So, it’s been really fun for me again, not getting paid for it, just to able to speak with these principals about these sort of governing tools that they can use to take the firm to the next level.

Chris Butler: Yeah. We had a mini super secret event back in December with a few other agencies to sort of talk shop about traction behind the scenes. I think it was three other agencies that have implemented traction, some more recently than others, but I found that really valuable to be able to compare notes about what works, what doesn’t, learn how other people have interpreted those structures. So, yeah, it’s been a huge paradigm shift for us, and I’m glad to see that spreading across a world where agencies start with a lot of creative inception, but not a whole lot of structural rigor.

Mark O’Brien: And they’re hungry for this.

Chris Butler: Yeah, absolutely.

Mark O’Brien: Most agencies that hear about it want to do it.

Chris Butler: My thing, actually, will segway us pretty well into the topic, I think. I don’t know if you knew this, but according to Google, out of trillions of searches that they are indexing every single year, 15% of them are still new, meaning what was searched for has never been searched for before.

Mark O’Brien: 15%.

Chris Butler: 15%.

Lauren Siler: Wow.

Chris Butler: Which blew my mind. I would have thought that it would have been sub 1% at this point-

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Chris Butler: Given the enormity of search that’s going on. But what that should tell you, and I can source that, by the way. Google has a blog of their own where they talk about their search improvements, so I think if you just search latest quality improvements in search and Google blog you’ll find that. But what strikes me about that is that that means that there’s an enormous amount of opportunity. If 15% of searches are totally new, the reason for that is because information is evolving. Think about the things that we search for, or people in our industry are searching for, relative to what we do or what they need. Those phrases barely existed five years ago. It’s not like the language is new, it’s just ideas are evolving and changing and new things exist, new concepts and practices exist, and that’s what you should be pursuing. I actually, one could probably mount a venture where they analyze what the new searches are and cross reference that with opportunity within their firm, and could probably end up in a neat business development practice from that alone.

Mark O’Brien: I love that so much. Not really it’s this abundance idea, which is a very coach concept, and that also relates to the way agencies position themselves. You’d think that by now there have been so many agencies for so long that everything’s already been spoken about, and all the expertise has already been developed and disseminated, and it’s just not true. Just yesterday we were speaking with a firm out of Portland, Maine, and they haven’t yet really defined their positioning, but it’s so clear that there’s just a boatload of expertise inside that firm and their work is so cutting edge. And why is it cutting edge? That’s new thought. That’s new expertise that needs to be shared about new ideas that haven’t been written about or searched for yet.

Chris Butler: Right.

Mark O’Brien: And that’s really exciting.

Chris Butler: People hear the word niche and they don’t like it because it sounds small and limited, but over 15% sounds small and limited, but what’s 15% of a trillion? You know, that’s incredible. And this is a worldwide phenomenon. This is Google worldwide, and that’s true of what we do. The kinds of services that we and our clients offer, they’re geographically agnostic at this point.

Mark O’Brien: Great. So, it’s time to talk about what we want to talk about, which is SEO. A topic we actually don’t talk about very often anymore, because we feel like it’s done, right? It’s that curse of knowledge thing. Once you know it, you feel like everyone else knows it, and that’s the end of it. But really, we see it’s still obviously critical. A lot of our firms that we work with and speak with are still confused about it. What many firms do is they either under or over shoot it. They either ignore it completely and their site is wholly unoptimized, or they get so into all the tweaky little things you can do to hyper optimize your site that they kind of miss the point. The truth is really, as usual, in the middle ground.

So today we want to talk about SEO. We want to talk about what has changed and what hasn’t changed, but really focus on what hasn’t changed. I want to say before that, during the recording of our last episode, I realized that we need to fight more, the three of us. We need to disagree live. We just got out of, the three of us along with Dave Mello and Chris Creech just got our of our traction meeting and Chris Butler and I got into this really awesome disagreement about if we should allow free email addresses on our site for form submissions. I firmly believe we should not, and Chris firmly believes we should. It was a really fun point counterpoint. We need to do that more. We need to disagree. One of the main reasons we disagree is because Chris Butler’s impression of Donald Trump is really wrong. No, it’s actually right.

Chris Butler: If it’s wrong I don’t want to be right.

Mark O’Brien: If it’s wrong you don’t want to be right kind of thing?

Chris Butler: Exactly. Although we disagreed on this we’re still friends, but SEO tends to draw out a lot of disagreement. I’ve noticed whenever I’m talking to clients about SEO there’s a lot of misperception, but there’s a lot of … You were talking about they’re missing the point. The dynamic that I hear the most from the people that we work with is why aren’t you doing X, Y, and Z with us, or for us, or why aren’t you telling us to do X, Y, and Z?

Mark O’Brien: Right. Yeah.

Chris Butler: The answer to that is almost always the same. It’s actually because A, B, and C are more important. And A, B, and C tend to have way more to do with creating content and making sure it’s relative to those personas and making sure the positioning is right and being within that 15%, let’s just call it that for shorthand, than what metadata you might tweak or what additional articles you might add there just for the sake of casting a wider net, which is bogus. A lot of people think SEO is a bogus practice, too. They think it’s gamesmanship, right? So we have to get people in the right perspective, which is somewhere in the middle.

Lauren Siler: Right. There’s a balance, right? There’s a balance between the bigger picture of thinking about how to express your expertise in the right way, and talking about what you know your prospects are searching for and getting really, really, really good at that. And I think of a common thing for our agencies to do is to become super formulaic about the way that they think about SEO. So they get lost in what should the URL say, versus the H1 tag, and how long should it be and all these things, which are important considerations, but if you focus on that at the expense of expressing your expertise in the most optimal way possible, it’s not going to matter if you’ve got a perfectly optimized H1 tag on your blog.

Chris Butler: Exactly.

Mark O’Brien: An example of important disagreement that happens inside of the four walls of Newfangled is that the title of this podcast is what hasn’t changed about SEO, but the first idea I threw out just to oversimplify a point was nothing about SEO has changed since 1999. When we talk about SEO, as always, we’re really only talking about Google. We don’t care at all about any other search engines. We don’t. Some people do, but we don’t. The truth is, and as soon as I said nothing’s changed about SEO since 1999, everyone else in the room cringed and jumped on me, basically.

Chris Butler: Yeah,everyone was wrong.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. Wrong.

Lauren Siler: God, please don’t let that become a thing.

Chris Butler: Oh, we’re going to do that four or five more times.

Mark O’Brien: Oh, it’s a thing. It’s a thing for this one podcast. Let us get it out of system during this podcast, because it’s too good not to. But there is a truth in it, in that the basic, basic, basic rules that really have been in place since 1999 are still so true. If you follow those rules, things will work out. Now there are lots of other things that have come about since then that are also true, but they don’t negate the original truths. It’s like, I wrote a book in 2011. That book’s still entirely true. It’s just that there’s, if I were to write it again there would be 80% more stuff that just simply isn’t even mentioned in that book, right? It’s kind of like that. And what we see still the agencies we work with who follow our advice on SEO, which is primarily about content creation, they are nailing it. We’re giving them the same advice, really, that we gave them 10, 15 years ago.

Chris Butler: Right. Because in 1999, one thing that was really common that is no longer valid is that people would do a bait and switch technique. So what they thought SEO was was to get their information in front of as many searchers as possible, regardless of what the searcher was searching for. What’s changed about SEO is that the idea is to get your information in front of as many people who are searching for that thing as possible. So matching search intent. And really, what? There are four things that we tell our clients to do. Four simple things when it comes to metadata. Outside of just write this kind of content and all the stuff that Lauren, you personally do with clients, just put that aside. When it comes to SEO proper, what? Four things. What are those four things?

Lauren Siler: Right. So there are four main elements, right? There’s the H1 tag, which is the primary header tag on that page. There’s the SEO title, which is the title of the post that’s actually displayed in search engine results. There’s the URL itself, and then there’s the meta description, that small little description that, again, shows on search results pages. We can work through how to sharp shoot each one of these things, but the first thing to keep in mind is that for each one of these elements, the H1 tag, the title tag, the URL and the meta description, these are four different areas of SEO real estate that you have at our disposal to describe what the article is about using relevant keywords, but different keywords. The idea is that you want to be casting a wide net that allows you to hopefully pull in searchers who may be looking for your content in different ways. So you don’t want the description and the H1 tag to be identical to what it is in the title tag, because those are two different areas that Google is looking to to understand what this content is about, and two different opportunities for you to describe what the content is about using keyword rich phrasing.

Chris Butler: Right. And one area why this is really critical is because I think we decided it was about 25% of the internet is run on WordPress at this point, or the web is run on WordPress, and WordPress, by default, when you add a post to WordPress it inherits whatever you say the title is to its title tag. So the differentiation between the title field, what you’re calling this article, and what shows up in the top of the browser and what is indexed in search engine results, are two different things. They’re two different pieces of metadata. By default, WordPress treats them the same. You actually have to install a plugin to differentiate those, which everyone should install, because otherwise you are missing out on an opportunity to have an editorial title, the thing that people see and that you have named the thing, and a search oriented title, that title tag, which is meant to match search intent and search queries. That’s what’s being indexed. That’s critical to differentiate.

Mark O’Brien: So the basic advice that we’ve been giving, literally forever, that is still entirely true, and if you follow this advice and your site is properly coded, that matters, then things will work out. And that’s this. You basically start with thinking about what is on your prospects’ minds. What has to do with the overlap between your expertise and your prospects’ pain points. Get as close to that truth as you can. That’s the single most important element of SEO is talking about something that is relevant and meaningful. Then write that article. That’s step two. Then, after you write the article, read it and think to yourself, get out of your own head, put yourself in your prospects’ seat, and say, “If I were my prospect, what phrase would I use to search for this article?” That is your thesis statement. That prospect based phrase that they would use to search for this article, that’s your thesis statement. Then you use turns on that statement for what I would say are the three elements of SEO: the title tag, the URL and the H1 tag. I never talk about meta description. Those are the three things, and we’re going to disagree about that.

So those are the three things that you use to occupy different turns on the thesis statement. Because the point is Google’s going to read this article. And why I don’t ever talk about meta description is because Google reads this article and oftentimes is going to supply its own description on the search engine results page that’s going to override whatever you put in that meta description area, and Google does not use the meta description space to index or prioritize things. So, I’m taking a very Google-centric approach to this. And that’s it. That’s the advice we give, and the agencies that have followed that advice specifically, as long as their site is properly coded, things are going to work out really, really well for them.

Chris Butler: To be fair, they will use the meta description by default unless they feel that what is being queried for better matches other text. In some cases that might be an incoherent string of text.

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Mark O’Brien: You can’t control that.

Lauren Siler: Yeah. The reason that I do advise clients to think about the meta description is that you’re right that as far as looking at the keywords in the meta description, that’s not really impacting your results from a search ranking perspective. However, once you do make it to the results page, the user is often scanning through that list, and those meta descriptions that are pulled in is what the user, it’s one of the points that the user is evaluating to discern whether or not they should click on your result versus someone else. When I’m talking to clients about thinking about their SEO, and specifically the meta description, what I’m telling them is think about it almost as ad copy. So assuming that this is the meta description that gets pulled in, how are you best enticing this user to click on your result over somebody else’s?

Mark O’Brien: And if Google happens to use the meta description you provided, then that works out.

Lauren Siler: Which happens.

Mark O’Brien: It happens.

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Chris Butler: One little point about the URL. We mentioned having a friendly URL, which really just means that you are actually thinking about the text that’s in that URL, it’s not being inherited, it’s not a string of numbers or actually reveals what language you used to code the thing.

Mark O’Brien: It’s not directory based.

Chris Butler: Right. Here’s what we don’t care about, and people ask me all the time about, and honestly I just wish people would stop. Underscores, dashes, who gives a rip? Okay? Google has come out and said that they don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Do you have a directory beforehand that’s articles? You know, forward slash articles, forward slash your text. Nobody cares. There are all kinds of people who are making a living by getting really pedantic about that kind of thing, and I’m sure in some world that might matter, but in ours it definitely doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t matter as much as actually having an article in the first place.

Mark O’Brien: Absolutely. So, big point, the main thing that’s going to differentiate you is your expertise. Without that, none of this really matters. Google really cares, Google wants to know what you know, Google want to share that with the right people. You can make it easier for them by articulating the expertise very clearly, coding it so it’s indexable, and framing those three points properly from the perspective of the persona you’re trying to attract, which is Google’s main customer in this case.

Chris Butler: I guess that about settles it. With that, let’s wrap up by sharing some content that is relevant to this that we want people to dig into. Mark, I think you’ve got something on your mind?

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. We’ve got a webinar coming up in a few weeks with Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching, and Blair and I will be speaking about the interplay between sales and marketing in the business development landscape. I’m really excited about that. As most of you probably know, Blair owns a sales consultancy firm that is called Win Without Pitching, and we focus solely on the marketing side of things. So it will be really fun to debate what comes first, and how one influences the other, and what the order of priority should be in the sales and marketing relationship.

Lauren Siler: Great. I am going to recommend that you check out a video that I did with Adam Rightor back in 2015 called Strategy Sessions: Developing Your Link Building Strategy. So, at the beginning of this podcast Chris mentioned that we’re often asked so many questions about SEO and it really first comes back to the basics, which we’ve talked about today. One of the more advanced things that does come up is around link building, and I think that there’s a right way to do that and there’s a wrong way to do that. So, if SEO is on your mind and you want to continue to dig into this topic, this video talks about the optimal way to go about developing a link building strategy.

Chris Butler: And that goes to show that we do have a ton of content on our site about SEO, even though we don’t make it sort of a top line thing to talk about. There’s a wealth of knowledge in there if you’re interested. And on that note, I was going to reference, Mark said that not a whole lot’s changed. I wrote an article back in 2010 called How SEO Works. I looked at it last night in prep for this, and everything in there is still true. It goes through all of these points that we’ve just talked about in terms of how to think about all those four critical areas of metadata real estate.

But if you want the current stuff, we’re not SEO experts anymore. That’s not what we sell, it’s not what we do. If you want the current stuff, I would say go to Search Engine Land. They are the best blog, in my opinion, on the web about SEO, and I’d definitely check them out. But it’s going to get wonky, so if you’re not interested in the detail, don’t bother. The other thing is go to Google themselves. They actually have a blog that most people don’t know about, and they actually have a whole article on how search works and what’s up to date. They have videos about it, they’re talking about how they evolve their algorithm. So that’s, all one word. So check that out.

So, thanks for joining us. Find us on iTunes, share us with your friends, rate us, that would really help get the word out about the podcast. And join us next time in a couple of weeks. We’ll see you then. Thanks.