Being an SEO specialist is one of the best career paths you can take these days. Anyone can get into it, it pays well and it can open doors to lots of other opportunities. Hone your skills at it and you can do very well for yourself. Be mediocre at it and you’ll at least be able to pay your bills.
However, it’s not all unicorns and candy canes in the kingdom of SEO. At the end of the day, you’re paid to produce results just like any other employee. If you don’t generate the kind of impact that fattens up your client’s bottom line, you can expect to hear this or some variation of it within a few months:
In all fairness to SEO specialists, it’s not always their fault. A lot of times, a perfectly competent SEO comes along with the best intentions but ultimately fails because their clients or bosses stand in the way. Whether it’s due to ignorance, obsessive-compulsiveness or insecurity, higher-ups sometimes doom their own projects because they can’t stop themselves from backseat driving.
The solution: help them understand some important things about SEO as a craft and as a business element. We’ve listed down eight of the most common sticking points between SEOs and their bosses – and what you can do to address each one:
1. You Can’t Guarantee Rankings
In the same way that buying a race horse doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win a derby, hiring an SEO is no guarantee that you’ll dominate Google’s search results. SEO may be a craft, but it’s also a form of competition. When you set out on an SEO campaign, you are in fact starting a war of relevance against every competitor in your niche with a website.
If your boss expects you to help a website rank number 1 for short, highly competitive keywords, it’s time to facilitate a quick reality check. Help your boss understand that SEO is supposed to give his business a fighting chance to rank but It’s no magic bullet that will slay all his opponents.
Remind your boss that if he has an SEO, his competitors almost certainly have them too. What’s more, his rivals may have been doing SEO years and years before he even thought of dabbling in it. Therefore, it would be unreasonable for him to expect that he’ll be on top just a few months after he joins the battle.
Essentially, there are several reasons why a #1 ranking can’t be guaranteed. Cite them to your boss or client if he presses for justifications:
- Google has too many unknown ranking factors. They claim to track 200+ ranking signals and the SEO community only know for sure what a fraction of these are.
- Google updates its algorithms all the time. In the first half of 2017 alone, there have been two major updates and several smaller ones.
- Google tests new configurations of algorithms all the time, making the SERPS very unstable from position 6 and beyond.
- You’re not the only one doing SEO. Your competitors are consistently working to outrank you.
- Ultimately, SERPs can be influenced but not controlled. It’s impossible to guarantee anything over something you have no direct control over.
Unfortunately, some SEO specialists and agencies aren’t helping to dispel the myth of guaranteed rankings. As a matter of fact, it’s used as a crutch for sales pitches, which perpetuates the misconception. Check out this example below:
I didn’t really bother to see what they really mean by “guaranteed SEO.” For all I know, they might guarantee satisfaction and not rankings, which is completely legitimate. Still, I’m of the opinion that this type of advertising innuendo perpetuates the myth of guaranteed rankings instead of putting a rest to it.
Bottom line: tell your boss that if anyone tells him that they can guarantee a #1 ranking for a competitive keyword, the one making that promise is a really good cheater or a liar. Maybe both.
2. SEO Cannot Save a Troubled Business
Any sensible, forward-thinking business person will tell you that getting significantly more search engine traffic will do wonders for his or her business. After all, more organic traffic means greater chances to sell. In my nine years in the industry, I’ve seen businesses rise and fall depending mainly on how well their websites perform in their Google rankings, which underscores the value of SEO to business growth and its direct impact on cash flow.
While it may be true that SEO can help accelerate business growth, it isn’t quite as helpful for resuscitating a failing business. This is mainly because of the following reasons:
- SEO takes time to kick in and you’re never quite sure when it’ll return your investments
- SEO’s effects are not easy to predict. You may target the top spot and land just within the top 10. As you may know, there’s a world of difference between ranks #1 and #7.
- If the business is in trouble, it probably has bigger problems than search visibility. Its remaining resources are better spent on correcting its fundamentals and stabilizing itself again.
A properly managed, intelligently scaled business that consistently satisfies its customers shouldn’t have to rely on a constant stream of leads from SEO to stay afloat. At the end of the day, SEO is like taking vitamins. It can make your business a lot healthier but it won’t cure your business cancer.
3. SEO is never “Complete”
I’ve been in the SEO game for nine years now, and one of the most common questions I keep hearing from bosses and clients is about when their SEO campaigns would be “completed.”
As SEOs, it’s our responsibility to help our clients and employers understand that SEO is never really “over.” Even if you wake up tomorrow and see that you magically rank #1 for every target keyword you have, it doesn’t mean that your optimization should stop due to the simple fact that your rankings won’t stay that way forever. SERPs are inherently dynamic and ever-changing; your competitors will keep chipping away at your lead and at some point, they’ll overtake you.
It’s not necessarily their fault, but sometimes managers and business owners equate SEO with related disciplines such as web design or copywriting. Those disciplines are project- based – meaning they have definite start and end dates. The output is solely dependent on the work of the service provider and there is no competition involved in determining the success of the endeavor.
SEO is a whole different ballgame. With constantly-changing algorithms, hordes of competitors to deal with and so many unknown factors, optimization has to be done on a continuous basis to ensure that the website is able to adapt to changes and maximize its visibility. In short, you can tell your boss when your tasks can be completed but you shouldn’t ever tell him or her that SEO is ever “complete.”
4. Google Changing Its Mind is Not Your Fault
Having a boss who doesn’t care about SEO isn’t good, but a boss who cares too much about SEO without understanding its nuances is just as bad. If you have a boss or a client who checks his site’s rankings more than once a day and asks for an explanation each time a keyword falls a spot or two in the SERPs, you know what I’m talking about.
These are also the same bosses who tend to unload all the blame on an SEO when something goes seriously wrong with a campaign such as a massive drop due to an update or worse, a penalty.
Sometimes, it’s the SEO’s fault indeed. More often than not, it isn’t. Sometimes Google just changes its mind about what it considers good for its SERPs and it couldn’t care less if your business suffers as a result. Here are just a few examples:
- Penguin and Anchor Text. In April of 2012, Google rolled out the Penguin update which penalized websites for unnatural links. Many of them were easily identified due to highly keyword-focused anchor text. A lot of link builders lost their jobs and clients as a result, but prior to Penguin, keyword-focused anchor text was a non-issue. Some SEO experts even encouraged the use of exact match links for the purpose of increasing “relevance” between the links and their target pages.
- Guest Posting. In the aftermath of Panda and Penguin which laid waste to content farms and PBNs, many SEOs needed to find alternative sources of backlinks with better quality. Guest posting became the new bread and butter of link acquisition and soon, everyone was doing it. Prior to the guest posting boom, Google was fine with this link building strategy. A couple of years later, Matt Cutts famously came out with a post proclaiming the demise of guest posting. This sent shockwaves throughout the SEO community and link builders again received heat for focusing on this tactic.
Again, this isn’t necessarily the fault of SEOs – Google just happened to have a change of attitude. Any reasonable boss should be able to understand that this is a shift in the business landscape that was hard to anticipate for anyone. You can’t really knock an SEO for using a technique that’s been proven to be highly effective.
- Google+ and the Author Markup – Remember Google’s Authorship Markup? If you’ve been in the SEO game for at least five years, you probably do. This was an era that started when Matt Cutts announced that Google would track content data in relation to their original authors. To regular people, this meant nothing more than the appearance of author photos in the SERPs. To SEOs, this meant so much more.
To SEOs, this looked like the beginning of an age when Google would be able to universally recognize an author’s work wherever and whenever it appears on the web as long as it had the “rel=author” HTML element. As you may guess, heavy speculation started on the potential of authors to make an impact similar to PageRank. People even started referring to it as “AuthorRank,” triggering a gold rush to optimize for this new “ranking signal.”
After investing in fuzzy AuthorRank optimization techniques for years, SEOs were shocked when Google suddenly announced that they would no longer track data related to the “rel=author” element. This is most likely because Schema was coming to age and entities could be tracked better using that type of microdata.
Needless to say, SEOs were questioned again for chasing what was eventually a whole lot of nothing. In my opinion, it’s unreasonable to do that since SEOs were anticipating where the industry was going and there was no telling which direction Google was heading. If AuthorRank became the next big thing, SEOs and the businesses they support would be the first to reap the benefits. Just because authorship was eventually a dud doesn’t mean that SEOs shouldn’t have invested in it.
As SEOs, it’s our responsibility to help bosses and clients understand the nature of Google and its constantly-evolving measures of relevance. Ranking drops and gains will happen all the time because SERPs are naturally unstable. Our job as SEOs is to make sure we’re following all the best practices that maximize our chances of success. Setting the right expectations to clients will minimize the amount of angst both sides experience when something goes awry, allowing you to focus on more constructive tasks that will help your site bounce back.
5. More Pages Don’t Mean More Traffic
Taking the right approach to indexing is a critical SEO element that non-SEOs and novice practitioners often get wrong. People who haven’t spent much time studying technical SEO usually assume that having more pages indexed by Google would lead to greater volumes of search traffic to their websites. While this sounds sensible and straightforward, it’s usually untrue and counterproductive.
Google and other search engines are pretty lenient about indexing pages. As long as the page meets some minimal quality standards, it can enter Google’s SERPs. However, not all pages are built equal. Pages that satisfy searcher intents (informational, navigational, transactional) usually make good organic landing pages. Those that don’t correspond to these intents are not.
When pages that don’t respond well to organic traffic intent usually have poor engagement signals such as high bounce rates and low times on site. This is usually because their content is “thin” and are not inherently useful to people who’ll land on them. Examples of these pages include:
- Blog tag archives
- Checkout pages
- Internal search pages
- Internal filtered pages
- Doorway pages
- Admin pages
- Staging pages
- Affiliate pages
- Unmoderated user-generated content pages
As you may know, the common denominator among these page types is that they’re not exactly rich in content which most searchers will benefit from. As such, it’s best to keep them off the SERPs because they’ll just consume your site’s crawl budget and drain away precious internal link equity that should stay more focused within your legitimate organic landing pages.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that Google has massive, but not infinite, storage capabilities. As much as possible, it wants to cache worthy organic landing pages that its users will appreciate while leaving out the thin ones that would dissatisfy searchers. This helps Google become more efficient with storage usage, which can help it save on resources. Credit to Jason Acidre for that explanation.
I’ve personally seen this on my own site when I accidentally allowed Google to index my blog tag archives. Rankings suffered and subsequently rebounded when Google finally recognized and followed the noindex tags I added on the errant pages. My friend and former client Sam Nam had a similar experience with a website he handled. After consolidating some content assets into more comprehensive ones and deindexing pages that weren’t great organic landing spots, his ecommerce sites gained significant ranking traction which translated to roughly 30% more organic traffic. All this despite having fewer total pages indexed.
Unfortunately, most bosses are not aware of this and they would almost always prefer to have as many pages indexed as possible. This is where you bring out a PowerPoint deck and help your boss understand the things I just mentioned so they can understand that when it comes to indexing, less is more.
6. SEO is Still about Branding
Up until the past five years, there was truth in the notion that SEO was the great equalizer between big brands and SMEs. SEO was supposedly a more level playing field where smaller companies can outrank bigger ones if they outfox and outhustle them enough.
Since 2011, though, Google has rapidly and consistently evolved. The coming of Panda and Penguin, the overhaul of its algorithm with Hummingbird, the introduction of RankBrain, the influence of Knowledge Graph and the apparent influence of Schema has made it a far smarter AI than ever before. Along with this wising up came its apparent bias towards brands. Today, Google’s SERPs are dominated by the top brands in their respective industries.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Brand bias is a good thing. Legitimate brands tend to behave more responsibly whether it’s in terms of the content they publish or the way they do business. This gives the main players in Google’s SERPs a higher level of trustworthiness than what was there previously. Prior to the shift to brand bias, even fly-by-night websites can easily rank and do business as they please.
Many bosses and clients are still stuck in the non-brand bias mindset. Even in 2017, you’ll find a lot of people who think that a small brand can outperform a large, trusted one with enough optimization. That is hardly ever the case these days and business people who think they can prosper in SEO without adding some branding elements to their campaigns are in for a big letdown.
If your client has no idea how to start optimizing for brand signals, consider taking the following steps:
- Choose a domain and business name that’s brandable. Never choose a name just because you want to insert a keyword in it.
- Get listed on Google MyBusiness.
- Have a unique web design and logo
- Get listed on trusted business directories, the BBB and other sources of local citations.
- Brand your marketing collaterals and official documents such as PowerPoint decks, letterheads and social media pages.
- Later on, you can try going for paid ads that prominently display your brand and convey what you do.
These are not hard to pull off and with just the right kind of communication with your boss, it also shouldn’t be hard to secure his or her blessing to embark on some branding work.
7. SEO Pays Dividends Long After You Start to Rank
Some clients and bosses like to equate SEO with traditional advertising. In their mind, SEO should pay off almost as soon as it starts being worked on. This can’t be farther from the truth as SEO is more similar to investment banking than it is to TV or print advertising.
SEO takes time and for the first few months, clients should expect negative returns on investment. If they try to assess your performance based on your service cost versus the organic-driven sales they get, they will almost always see losses. However, business owners who understand how SEO works would know that the best time to evaluate an SEO campaign’s ROI would be around a year after it starts.
For non-competitive keywords, the effects of SEO can be felt within a few weeks. However, most commercial keywords are moderately to heavily competitive and ranking is bound to take some time. Most SEOs will agree that effects will start to be felt in earnest in around 18-22 weeks after a campaign starts.
That might seem like a long time to start seeing results, but good SEO’s effects are more than worth the wait. When your Google listings start ranking well, your boss will find himself with a consistent supply of leads for a long time moving forward. Unlike in advertising where he has to pay each time your ad shows or get clicked on, SEO pushes virtually free, highly targeted traffic in significant volumes month after month.
If you factor in the fact that the customers you gain from SEO will likely buy from the website repeatedly, you can see how much the investments in SEO can eventually pay off. If your boss or client ever asks you to justify the cost of your services, give them a short presentation on the lifetime value of SEO.
8. You are Not the Master of Everything
SEO is the umbrella term that encompasses the entire process of helping a site gain search visibility. A SEO specialist is the person who executes that process. However, that job title has become a bit of a misnomer as the years passed. Due to the fact that Google tracks such a wide array of ranking signals, diverse skill sets are required to make an SEO campaign truly work.
SEO needs a little bit of everything: content creation, coding knowledge, UX sensibilities, technical SEO skills, branding savvy, link building expertise and more. Usually, it’s pretty tough to find all those skills in just one person. That’s why the craft and profession of SEO has evolved to accommodate specializations within the job title. Some SEOs are good with its technical aspects and coding but may be very limited link builders. Others may be wizards in link acquisition but cannot write to save their lives.
Whether you’re an in-house company working exclusively for one company or a freelancer who has your own client, you need to acknowledge your strengths and limitations as an SEO and communicate it with your employer. Otherwise, your boss might assume that you know how to do everything in the craft and expect you to be the master of everything. While it’s not impossible to be good at everything, it’s more likely that you’ll have one or two weaker areas. A campaign can succeed faster and at a higher level if you acknowledge this and seek the help of those who are better than you.
In the US, it’s common for companies to have one or two SEOs in house who do mostly on-page and technical optimization. Time consuming link building work is often outsourced to agencies like ours. This doesn’t mean that our clients are incompetent in this area. It simply means that they acknowledge that we have the processes, connections and tools to build links faster than they can at a lower price. It’s a win-win situation because they get what they need and we generate more revenue.
Of course this doesn’t mean that you should stop expanding your SEO skill set. It simply means that you have to have the professional courage to admit to your boss what you can’t do so he or she can get you some help.
Ultimately, SEOs also need to be fair and considerate to their bosses and clients. The more effective they are at communication, the more they promote a common understanding of issues that need to be addressed.