You don’t have to look too far back to find a time when SEO was a relatively simple process. The emphasis was very much ensuring that technical elements both on and around a site were compliant with what the respective search engines considered to be best practice and, because of that simplicity, SEO was something that could be restricted to one set of specialists, in one department, working to one set of KPIs.

Those days are long gone. Google has ensured, through its Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird updates, that SEO is considerably more than a technical exercise. Instead, it is one in which drives to the very core of a business operation.

But despite these changes, many brands are still structured in a way that sees SEO, and digital in general, as a separate marketing discipline. The latest Stickyeyes guide, SEO Strategy Development & Planning: A Best Practice Guide, explains what you need to do to [steps you need to take?] to ensure your brand stays once step ahead.

Why SEO has to be a business-wide consideration

Prior to the Penguin and Panda updates, search engine optimisation was primarily a technical exercise.  It was about ensuring that your site did the right things from a technical perspective, that you had content covering the keywords that you wanted to rank for and that enough links pointed to your site from the right places. As a result, ranking in a given market was relatively easy, provided that your pockets were deep enough.

Google realised this, and introduced a series of updates that turned SEO on its head. It wanted search results to be focused on the consumer because, if Google was delivering the most useful, the most relevant and, perhaps above all, the most impartial search results, people would keep their trust in Google. These changes have meant that SEO is, first and foremost, about the end user.

That means that SEO can no longer be the sole domain of a few technical specialists working away in the corner of the office, simply running a monthly report for the board of directors, because it touches on too many departments. SEO is about content, branding, PR, web design, IT, mobile, graphic design, video, media buying, legal, social media, customer relations and so much more.

The barriers between all of these respective departments need to be broken down, because the success of your digital strategy is intrinsically linked to how well they communicate throughout the business.

It’s a cultural shift that many brands have struggled to adopt but, as we’ll see later, those that have embraced the change are reaping the rewards.

Understanding your customer is critical

Customers at the supermarket

There was a time where SEO was about doing what was right for Google, rather than what was right for your customers. Modern SEO has almost turned that notion completely on its head.

Content marketing is now a foundation of any good SEO strategy. Consumers are craving informative, relevant, useful and engaging content as part of their buying process and the brands that are able to deliver this are being seen as authority figures in their given niche.

A key part of this approach is to ensure that this content is aligned with business priorities and is based on clear objectives and relevant market research. It should be tailored to the needs of the audience, be integrated into pre-existing operational infrastructures and it should leverage existing assets and online materials.

Because such a strong emphasis is being placed on content by search engines, the sheer volume of branded content circulating around the internet has increased exponentially. Much of this content is simply “content for the sake of content” – produced because brands have been told that they need to produce content by their marketing agency. As a result, much of this content lies undiscovered or unappreciated, failing to drive any meaningful return.

The key to avoiding this trap is for brands to understand how their customers and their target audiences behave online, and how they consume branded content when they are in both a buying and a non-buying mind-set.

Understanding these behavioural characterises and the motivation of your customer base is fundamental to creating content that is:

  • Relevant to the product, brand or service.
  • Authentic, credible and trustworthy.
  • Engaging, useful, interesting and capable of adding value.

This approach applies to both functional content, which is designed to guide your audiences and customers to the most relevant page for a given keyword and drive a conversion, and creative content that builds your brand, generates social media shares, earns positive media coverage and acquires high-quality backlinks.

The former relies on understanding how consumers use search as part of their buying and research process. For example, if you are a multiple location business and your customers are using localised terms, it would be prudent to focus your content strategy around geographic locations and user intent, thus providing a more relevant user experience.

In terms of creative content, this involves understanding what types of content your audiences consume in general, even when they aren’t in a purchasing frame of mind. What publications do they read? What media do they consume? What devices do they consume that content on? Answering those questions will help you determine not only what content to create, but also where to build relationships to distribute that content. This brings us onto our next challenge.

The importance of a multi-channel, collaborative communication effort

Whilst lots of brands are creating content, few of them are getting their content seen, consumed and applauded.

Great content must be shared to generate coverage, which in turn helps drive brand advocacy, engagement and natural links that will aid SEO rankings. Central to achieving this success is an approach that puts SEO at the heart of digital strategy and leverages other channels to drive direct traffic and engagement. This is where core, traditional marketing principles of PR, branding, media buying and content become so intrinsically embedded in digital.

SEO is a multi-channel effort which is built around three key pillars of marketing communication - owned, earned and paid.

owned earned paid model

Owned media channels are fully controlled and owned by a single brand. These can drive early ground swell and engagement with any content led campaigns. One of the most common examples is a website, although blog sites and social media channels are other examples of owned media properties too. Channels like social media and blogs are extensions of a website, and all three are extensions of a brand as a whole.

Earned communications focus on driving quality coverage of authentic and natural links. If owned media sites are the destination then earned media is the vehicle that helps people get there. Earned media is essentially online word of mouth, usually seen in the form of 'viral' tendencies, mentions, shares, reposts, reviews, recommendations, or content picked up by 3rd party sites.

Paid media is a good way to promote content in order to drive earned media, as well as direct traffic to owned media properties. Paying to promote content can help get the ball rolling and create more exposure. Social Media sites like Facebook and Twitter offer advertising that could potentially help boost content as well as website traffic. Using retargeting, Pay per Click and display ads is also an effective and direct way to drive searchers to owned media and helps to increase traffic and/or conversions.

How has made an ‘SEO first’ model work.

If digital marketing was an orchestra, SEO would be the conductor”. Those were the words of’s Head of Organic Performance, David Harling, at the Reykjavik Internet Marketing Conference 2014., a hugely successful financial comparison brand, claimed that research had highlighted SEO is its most profitable digital channel. It was the channel that drove the strongest lifetime values and was the most trusted in the eyes of consumers.

The brand’s success in SEO was built on four key pillars:

  • Team interactions creating a compelling strategy.
  • Team interactions delivering technical SEO expertise.
  • Team interactions producing the right content.
  • Team interactions amplifying the content.

There is one word that is consistent across all of those four pillars; team.

Achieving this corporate culture wasn’t easy. The brand had to overcome an obsession with acquisition, there were notable challenges with recruitment and pulling individual departments from their respective disciplines to focus on a new end goal is something that carries inherent risks, but the rewards were clear.

And those rewards will come from having a team of talented people that are committed to technical excellence, creating remarkable content, ensuring that content reaches the right audiences and fostering positive brand sentiment.

For practical insights, step-by-step recommendations and checklists to help you develop an effective and sustainable SEO strategy, download our free 45-page guide now