When you hear the phrase “in-house SEO expert” or “in-house SEO,” certain things immediately flash to mind. There’s the glamour bits built around the perceptions fostered from hearing of six-figure salaries, or direct involvement in big projects and depth of contact many in-house search marketers seem to have within the executive workings of their companies.
Add to this the ability to take a site from dud to stud in a matter of months with proper, well executed SEO plans, and being an “in-house SEO expert” sounds pretty good.
Now, balancing those points is the reality of the daily life of folks in this line of work. There’s the need to change cultures, the need to speak across multiple disciplines within a company, the always-required results from a profession that’s only part science, part art, and the need to extract seemingly divine results from non-existent data to support investments of real time and money. As someone on the inside of this profession, as an “in-house SEO expert” (a moniker I am beginning to wear like a straight jacket), I can tell you—there is no glamour. Sure, bringing in good results through SEO efforts is a good thing, but there is a definite need to manage expectations in this field.
Adding a 40% lift in year-on-year inbound traffic from the engines might sound good (it is), but if those watching the numbers think this will happen every year, you’re doomed.
So let’s focus in on getting work done for a minute. You have 11 meetings a day, all with different people, all of whom have a vested interest in the traffic you can bring, but they control the content—in short, you need each other. You exist because they need the results of your work; they exist because you bring in traffic. Symbiotic?
Yes. Comfortable? Maybe… if you’re lucky.
In my day, I meet with Program Managers, Product Unit Managers, Engineers, Developers, Designers, and smattering of other folks. Each is directly invested in the control of the content for their channel(s). Each is an expert in their area—some editorially focused, others Dev focused. Two common facts link them all: 1) they are experts, and 2) they control their content and do it the best way they can.
Adding SEO work into this mix is tricky business. We’re billed as “SEO experts” as if that title has inherent powers. Recall the “part science; part art” comment I made earlier. Many who do not work in this profession still feel that those who do seem to possess some special knowledge that will work wonders. Granted, increasing traffic by a factor of 2 or 3 IS wonderful, but doing so requires very special circumstances – the perfect storm, if you will.
We’re brought into the mix, and the response is, basically, “We want what you can offer us, so long as it adds no more work, requires no changes, and limits our need to invest more.” Everyone loves us …until they get to know us. Think back to the last site audit you did – when you discovered all those things that needed to be aligned to have an “optimized” website in the final result. Recall the looks from those in the meeting when you started talking about “content development,” “internal linking,” the need to limit the use of rich media when designing (or at least account for its use and work with it in new ways), the need to define content to match keywords, etc. Chances are many of those looks were not glowing endorsements of support. Those folks were not chomping at the bit to change their ways of doing things, not on the word of this “SEO expert.”
The trouble starts and ends with calling us “SEO experts.” By doing this, we’re limited to being seen as practitioners of some art. Certainly useful, but misunderstood. Anyone who does this sort of work can easily tell you their efforts span across all areas of a website: design, navigation, coding, research, platform, content management system choice, content development, domain choice, technologies used, etc.
The practical point here is that we are NOT “SEO experts;” we are, in fact, “usability experts.” The crawlers are simply one form of user. Very simple users, but very important users nonetheless. Our goal is not to add work for those managing our websites. Our goal is to help them understand how to make a better product for users.
By bringing us into our respective programs as “SEO experts,” we’ve been lead to a position of promises built on perceptions. Many assume we bring some odd twist of specific knowledge that is known to only a select few, and that this bit of knowledge will somehow fit within what already exists with little-to-no modifications, yet will yield dramatic results.
The truth is far simpler—we’re not “SEO experts,” we’re “usability experts.” We help folks build better sites and fix broken ones. The darkest point of truth that many wish to ignore is that being successful through search optimization requires following a certain path—it varies a bit, but all paths to search optimization flow in the same direction. Those paths will always cross every area which affects content on a website. Since the goal of our efforts is more users, we design for usability using SEO tactics as tools. There are no other, easier paths to success in this area. Wanting it to be different will not make it different.
Being an “SEO expert” is one step on the path to being a “usability expert,” but not the only one.
This line of thinking is not a new one—I certainly am not the first to think to mention it. But, the clarity of this point has recently crystallized for me. By asking for the changes I need done to sites to make them more SEO compliant, I am affecting the user’s interaction with the website directly. Taken to a degree beyond the content on the page, these efforts can influence how contracts get written for content partnerships, and which technologies may be required to transfer content between partners. There are no HTML tags or keywords at this point—this is business development territory, folks. Influencing a product at such an early stage is way beyond SEO.
I’m having my business cards redone tomorrow. “SEO” has got to go.
Duane Forrester is an in-house SEM with Microsoft, sits on the Board of Directors with SEMPO, can be found at his blog where he speaks about online marketing and monetizing websites and is the author of How To Make Money With Your Blog. The In House column appears on Wednesdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.