Why You Need To Get To Failure As Quickly As Possible

The cliché Failure is not an option, in my opinion, is misguided, and unless on the back of some high school wrestler’s shirt, is annoying. Sure, failure isn’t an option if you’re piloting a 777 on final approach or are Ed Harris.

Failure can mean certain defeat; I’m certainly not implying there’s not an end-point in some situations. Technically, though, failure is an option, but typically not the desirable one. Hell, I made my trainer, Rusty, rename his push ups till failure workout to push ups till exhaustion, attempting to spin my internal dialogue to say that even though I could not lift my body with my triceps again, I still, always have options.

In fact, we need to completely understand the minute details of a failing system, in order to identify the alternatives and, yes, options, to resolve an issue before the point of failure occurs. Marketers have the luxury of trial and error. There may not be a lot of time to consider all options when troubleshooting a hypothesis; but at least, most of the time, we have data to help.

At Define, our team occasionally diagnoses recurring workflow and deliverables. Recently, we went at one of our favorite pastimes, keyword research.

Trying to rethink keyword research, is akin to reinventing the wheel. There are a lot of tools and different approaches to help analyze the massive amounts of data Google offers, and while we may stray to new flavors of the month, we always come back to the mothership that is the Adwords Tool.

Spoiler alert: we came to this conclusion yet again while trying to find a way to make keyword discovery and content creation workflow easier.

SEO To Editorial

“Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?”

To take a step back, we’ve seen a significant shift in the past 12-18 months with editorial teams in that we (the marketers/SEOs/drivers of traffic/audience developers/soothsayers) have actually been invited to a previously verboten party, that being the planning of the editorial calendar.

Typically, in enterprise publishing, our group sits at the end of the proverbial content creation chute waiting for the widgets to come sliding down so we can bolt on our SEO part, whether it fits or not, and send it on out into the world in hopes of attracting eyeballs and popularity. Rarely were the streams crossed where editorial teams would ask for story ideas, as it was inconceivable to believe SEOs understood what audiences wanted or needed. Enter data.

One of the many steps in any good SEO training process involves teaching editorial teams how to qualify their audience. In other words, discover the migratory patterns of a particular herd and to reach them before or as they arrive at the watering hole. This is where the obvious benefits of Google Trends and Adwords come into play.

Over my 16 years in search and marketing, I’ve given intro, advanced and ninja training on this type of keyword research; after all, SEO is quite simply identifying and targeting your audience. With each new tool that emerges, some cause us to think maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to do this. Editorial teams are hungry for the information, they want it fast and need it to be accurate. Which brings us back to our experiment.

Is there a way to research, quantify and provide content creation ideas faster and more accurately? And if so, can that process be streamlined and taught?

We started in by learning about APIs (and by that, I mean attending the school of Richard Baxter at SEOGadget.com): what it meant to pull in, work with and manipulate the data. This was followed by dumping into Excel to make some sense of the massive compiled lists (attending the Excel School of Anne Cushing at SEERInteractive.com), culling the results, dumping back into tool number two (some paid, some free), edit some more, dump into a third tool for even more refinement.

Throughout this process, we considered many options:

  • Type – was this for trending/breaking news or for a feature piece where research was necessary to determine trends and seasonality?
  • Difficulty – was the project around head, body or tail phrases?
  • Opportunity – is there an audience around the topic?
  • Time – how long will this research take and will it scale to an enterprise environment?

(There were others, but these were the umbrella headings.)

Findings: These Effects Weren’t So Special

After working through the exercise(s), we also attempted to develop new procedures and workflow, taking scalability into consideration. Editorial teams have enough to do, and in the land of enterprise marketing and audience development, traction and favor can be lost if too many new obstructions are added to the content creation process.

The first iteration of our findings and new procedures on keyword research was a five-page document. Five – pages – long. Now, this was good stuff, mind you. Exhaustive keyword research and refinement techniques would produce a never-ending supply of calendar opportunities and style guide amendments to ride into the Golden Age of Internet Publishing!

Ultimately though, we missed the mark, as there was no way we could ask a team, on deadline, in many cases, with a CMS held together by baling wire and duct tape, to stop what they were doing and follow our extensive checklist of instructions. It was unrealistic for an enterprise environment.

The second iteration produced thousands of keyword variations, which is good, right? Lots of options and opportunity to cast a wide targeted net of potential traffic-capturing goodness and some workflow shortcuts.

However, if you’ve ever seen the look from an editor when all they want to know is should I use the phrase ‘picture’ or ‘photo’ with our galleries? And, you point to the 15,000 variations on that theme? Not a realistic option when quick, accurate answers are needed. Segmentation was necessary.

Iteration number three was to reduce the process, instructions, and visuals down to one page. This proved very difficult. So much to teach and so little room to explain, even single-spaced and with font size 10 (Calibri, naturally). This satisfied the time component of the exercise, but missed many aspects of the original goal.

We worked the exercise to exhaustion, aka failure.

Even Failure Is Powerful, Powerful Data

So what now? We discovered the wheel was still round and still rolled when pushed. However, the takeaways from this experience, as unsuccessful as it was, proved to be the best parts; and, when we took inventory, there were still options and opportunities left over to consider.

1.  We know from experience we can’t put a five-page document in front of an editorial team but, learning new tools and attempting to develop new procedures, in fact, revealed some great presentation material for our education slide decks – a critical part of any engagement.

2.  We segmented the research process, as one size doesn’t fit all. Want to truly reach an editorial team? Provide them with a customized approach to find their target audience. Style guide keyword research is different from research for variations on recurring seasonal traffic, which differ from trending and breaking news.

3.  Time will always be a factor, and reducing the workflow necessary is one obstacle we haven’t quite cracked yet. That is to say, I’m exhausted, I’m on the mat, but have ideas.

While we didn’t come up with an alternative approach to keyword research and content creation workflow, we learned about many new tools — enterprise, paid and free — developed some one-sheeters to distribute at the appropriate time in a campaign, and most importantly, discovered new educational opportunities for the many workshops and trainings we perform.

Failure is an option because in our world it presents so many opportunities, one of which may be there is no better answer, but that’s still a valuable data point and one we may revisit again in the future. The bottom line is: I’m happy to find failure, even if that means we just go back to the old ways of working a problem, as long as we fail get to the point of exhaustion as quickly as possible.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO


About The Author: is the founder and CEO of Define Media Group, the enterprise audience development and search marketing company. He consults with top brands worldwide and is a leader in digital marketing and search. Marshall was responsible for building About.com into the most successful content network on the Internet and from 2005-2010 he was the Chief Search Strategist for the New York Times Company.

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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    “Ultimately though, we missed the mark, as there was no way we could ask a
    team, on deadline, in many cases, with a CMS held together by baling
    wire and duct tape, to stop what they were doing and follow our
    extensive checklist of instructions. It was unrealistic for an
    enterprise environment.”

    I’ve run into this situation before as well. You try to come up with a guideline/checklist for your content creators to follow but even that might not be as easy as you think. Sometimes the writers themselves don’t want to do it, other times they straight up can’t (for one reason or another).

  • Andrew Shotland

    Sounds very familiar Marshall. In my experience, particularly when dealing with media organizations, if your keyword-research-for-editorial recommendations doc is > two pages, it’s too long. Even two pages is pushing it. So you make a one-pager and put all of the good stuff in a spreadsheet as backup, which gets filed in the Cloud somewhere. What these guys need is a machine where they type up their article and the machine translates it for SEO. Until then, many will continue to practice Avoiding the Hard Work of Optimization Til Failure…er, Exhaustion.


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