SEO’s Strategic Role in Business Success

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has traditionally been understood as a set of tactics used to gain increased search engine visibility without paying for clicks. Consequently, the focus of the majority of articles, webinars, and other informational content on SEO is limited to tactical coverage. There’s nothing necessarily wrong about this approach; after all, there are still many business managers (and potential clients) who – even more than 20 years after Google’s first iteration – still need a tactical overview in order to understand the central role that SEO plays in today’s marketing environment. 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 another, perhaps more important dimension of SEO: its strategic role in business success (or failure). Here, then

Using SEO to tell a Brand Story
Marketing plans – even the best ones — will fail unless an appropriate strategy (AKA “brand story”) is in place to guide 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 and in functional organizations are the subject of serious (and often continual) discussion in the C-suite. Once answered, they constitute the foundation for all tactics designed to bring them about. Once upon a time, “brand stories” were hatched at the top of the org chart and percolated down. Today, they percolate up – from searchers, commenters, influencers, and the public at large. Using SEO to identify how a brand is actually – not hypothetically – perceived, is one of the best ways to discover the nature of this collaborative effort and capitalize upon its true potential.

This discovery can be accomplished in a number of different ways, but the common thread underlying all exploratory methods is the keyword phrase. Through analysis of keywords used to access the client site, one can develop intelligence that both identifies how the client is being perceived and how it could be perceived, if the appropriate SEO-optimized content were deployed.

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 regarded 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 the front lines” with their fingers on the pulse of the organization’s target audiences in a way that others in the organization may find impossible to achieve. Insights derived from SEO 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 use search behavior to show management whether the organization’s latest TV, radio, or newspaper campaign is actually working.

SEOs also can detect – often long before it’s noticed by other departments – where the “brand story” has holes, needs patching, or might even be a candidate for wholesale revision. These insights – strategic insights — often arrive unexpectedly (“gee – we never thought of our products in this way, but look at these links — maybe we should!”). By closely monitoring search behavior – past and present – a strategically-minded SEO can serve as a force to align the enterprise’s current product set with an audience that the CMO may not even know exists.

Will SEO ever get the respect it deserves?
In too many organizations, the insights and strategic intelligence-gathering potential of SEO is never put to optimal use. Compartmentalized, marginalized, and relegated to the realm of “those tactical nerds downstairs,” its true potential simply withers on the vine. This is a waste – and possibly a killer given that there are likely organizations out there (competitors) who aren’t making this mistake.

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 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.

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 perceived to be limited and whose insights are deemed to be irrelevant to the course of higher-profile (typically paid media) campaigns. Perhaps only generational change in the C-suite can ensure that SEO is accorded the status it deserves in the modern marketing plan.

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