How to think like an SEO: A Search Engine Optimisation Primer for Marketing Managers

SEO

Want to learn SEO? I feel for you. It’s a nightmare. Even if you’re already an SEO.

If as a more generalist marketer you’ve tried to research SEO before, you’ll be well aware of how overwhelming it all is. There’s an absolute deluge of different training materials and guides out there, both free and paid-for, and they’re rarely consistent.

One site says to include your keyword in the title and twice on the page. One site gives specific keyword densities based on word count and competitor benchmarks. Another says it’s all about Latent Semantic Indexing, actually, and you actually need a neural network to figure out which 23 sub-variants to include. Then there’s this other guy who just keeps trying to sell software…

Why is it so difficult to teach yourself SEO?

The reason for all the noise is that SEO “how to” content is created for a variety of reasons, not all of them helpful. It can be broadly categorised into one of four buckets:

  • Content that’s been written by people who don’t know much about SEO – either copywriters working to a brief, over-enthusiastic beginners, or scammers.
  • Content that’s been written by SEO’s for SEO’s – solid stuff, but focused on minutiae and assuming a high level of existing knowledge.
  • Content that’s been written by SEO’s for non-specialists to impress them/make them think it’s difficult – most agency blogs demonstrating how “innovative” they are, i.e. overplaying new shiny approaches and neglecting the basics.
  • Content that’s been written by SEO’s for non-specialists to turn them into SEO’s – there are some very good chapter and verse guides out there, but they’re often pretty in-depth, and not always helpful if you just want some quick actionable tips.

At Cameo we’re not keen on sending clients to research SEO on their own, because it can be really difficult as a non-specialist to differentiate between these types of content – and particularly, to avoid the last category. While SEO has improved its reputation as an industry in recent years, there’s still a lot of misinformation out there, and it’s hard for a beginner to separate the solid advice from conjecture, outdated information, people who are just trying to sell you stuff, or those who are just plain wrong.

We’ve found that even if we direct our clients to quality SEO training content, few have the time to wade through reams of in-depth technical details. They’re not trying to become an SEO, they just want to make a few on-site improvements.

So what’s a stressed-out marketing manager to do?

The good news is that if you’re an experienced marketer, you already have many of the skills an SEO specialist will rely on day-to-day, and you can apply these without necessarily understanding all the technical terminology an SEO might use to explain what’s happening. That’s what we’re going to show you how to do in this post.

Granted, there are some areas where you’ll need expert support – the finer points of technical SEO are a case in point (although you can make a good start there too – see our checklist below!). An experienced SEO can also usually get you off the starting block more quickly and efficiently than you might be able to yourself, and a trained eye will almost certainly be required to get you to the next level once you have the basics in place. However, there’s no reason whatsoever not to have a go at the basics yourself if resources are limited.

How we teach our clients to do SEO at Cameo

At Cameo our core team are SEO specialists, but we try not to overload our clients with technical jargon that won’t help them. When we’re training generalist marketers on SEO topics, we try as far as possible to teach the concept, not the terminology.

Rather than making our SEO training sessions a lesson in rote memorisation of words like “canonicalization” or “latent semantic indexing”, we try to guide our clients to start thinking more like SEO’s. We’ve found that this gets them much further than being able to recite a laundry list of different ranking factors and random acronyms.

Most of the basics of SEO aren’t difficult for an experienced marketer to grasp, even if their digital knowledge is limited. So, if you’re a marketer who wants to think like an SEO, what are the key concepts you should you be thinking about?

SEO CORE CONCEPT 1: Search is about people, not about search engines

To get a feel for what SEO is really trying to achieve, open up your browser or mobile search app and navigate to your search history. Scroll back at least a few weeks, ideally further. If you’re anything like me, you’ll see a stream of consciousness tracking the ups and downs of your life. A lot of it you probably won’t even remember searching.

For a lot of people, search is a reflexive behaviour. You’ll search just about every question that goes through your mind, from the functional (how long’s the walk to the train station?) to the passing interests (I’ve definitely seen him in something before, was he in Brooklyn 99?) to the intensely personal (is that just a cough or am I dying of something horrible?!).

To do well in SEO, it’s not enough to just have technical chops. You need to have empathy.

Whatever search term you’re trying to rank for, you need to understand what that search means to the person who’s typing it. Where it fits in the stream of consciousness that is their search history, what it’s likely to have been preceded by and what it might be followed by, and crucially, what they’re hoping to get back when they type it.

Getting a good feel for the people behind the search terms helps you interpret their needs and craft on-page wording to keep them on the page. Understanding what people actually mean when they search can help you make your pages more useful, and in modern SEO, that’s an essential prerequisite for any sort of rankings or visibility.  

SEO CONCEPT 2: Let Google do the heavy lifting

A lot of SEO’s like to give the impression that they “know  the secrets” of Google’s algorithm. That is – and I mean this as charitably as possible – impossible and completely untrue.

Ten or fifteen  years ago, it would have been fair to say that there was a set of rules which controlled which websites would rank highest in Google for a given key phrase. Even though Google didn’t share the exact details, SEO’s had a pretty good idea of the general principles it operated on, and sometimes they’d find a loophole that helped them climb the rankings faster (albeit often just temporarily).

Today, Google’s algorithm isn’t a fixed set of rules – the results are tweaked via machine learning constantly, which means that not even Google’s own engineers can predict exactly what will rank for a specific keyword. This means that not only do SEO’s have less ability to control the outcome, but that the general principles are fuzzier and loopholes virtually impossible to find. There really isn’t any “secret sauce” in SEO any more. 

At Cameo, we’ve long since given up trying to “stay ahead” of Google. Instead, we look at what Google is trying to achieve with its algorithm – which is to return high quality, fast, secure, trustworthy websites that answer its users’ questions. There’s no way to trick  Google into thinking that a site is like that if it’s not – we just have to make our clients’ sites do those things.

Instead of focussing too much on how we think Google might be measuring things like quality content and trustworthiness, it’s far easier to focus on what customers would consider to be markers of quality and trust, and then let Google’s technology do the heavy lifting to figure out how brilliant we really are.

I was taught a long time ago to “build the result that Google would be embarrassed not to show”. That’s truer now than it ever was.  

SEO CONCEPT 3: Understand Google’s limitations

While Google’s technology is virtually unrecognisable compared to the early days of SEO, and it does some truly mind-blowing things, it’s still fundamentally just software. This means that, for the time being at least, it has limitations, and that means our philosophy of focussing on customers gets us some, but not quite all, of the way.

A big part of an SEO’s job is spotting the gaps between a human being’s understanding of a website and a search engine’s ability to interpret the same content, and bridging them.

For example, a human being can look at a graphic of five stars on a page and understand that it’s a review rating, but we need to spell it out for the machine or they might miss it. That might mean using technological tricks (usually in the form of extra tags or code on a page) to provide additional information that’s just for search engines.

Text content is also a crucial gap bridging tool, as search engines are often limited in how far they can interpret visual media. This means adding captions to images, transcripts to videos, and generally being aware that a contextual clue which is screamingly obvious to a human might be less so to a machine (or even to a human who’s using a screen reader, or a human who just isn’t that digitally savvy – accessibility is never a bad thing!).

Finally, bridging the gap between human understanding and a machine’s capabilities means saying exactly what we mean. If we expect a user to search a particular set of words, we need to make sure those words are featured on the page. Prominently. We need to make sure they’re visible when they spot our website in the search results so they know to click on it, and we need to include them elsewhere on the page to make doubly, trebly sure they know they’re in the right place. Search engines can do a lot, but it’s far easier for them, and for humans too, if we avoid beating around the bush.

Putting it into practice – a checklist for thinking like an SEO

We get it – this is a lot of conceptual talk when really you just want to know how to tick the SEO box on your marketing plan.  It’s important to understand the reasoning behind the process, though.

It’s easy to find a checklist of “SEO best practice tips”. There are free tools which will scan your site and spit out personalised ones. But if you implement these by rote without really considering your audience, they’ll probably not help very much.

Just understanding “what to do” doesn’t mean you’ll end up with good SEO. Instead, your success with SEO will be impacted by how you go about your work, and the strategy and thinking time you put into it.

So, as a non-SEO specialist marketer, what’s the best way to actually do some SEO?

  1. Visualise your users in their moment of need. Picture that point leading up to the moment they find your website and experience that “aha!” moment. What’s just happened? Why are they searching? What are they searching and what are they hoping to find?
  • Search the term you think they’ll search. Look at the pages which are already ranking – they’re there for a reason. What’s good about them? What does the fact that they’re the highest-ranking results tell you about what your users might be looking for? What do the results look like (the blue link and the text underneath)?
  • Look critically at your site – if a user was searching that term and your site did rank, which page would be the one to solve their problem? Is there even a relevant page, or do you need to create one?  Open up your chosen page. Look at the design, the content, the videos, imagery, fonts. Open it on your mobile phone and do the same. Then compare against the sites which are already ranking. Are you in the same ballpark If not, what needs to change? If you are, how could you be even better?
  • Look at just the text on your page. No videos or images. Does it answer the question your user had when they searched, or is there vital information contained within images or videos? If they don’t know anything about your industry, does it walk them through the process? Does it speak to them in the language they’d use? Does it inspire them?
  • Create an improvement plan for your page. Categorise your changes as: text content, visual and design changes, search result appearance (this is your title tag and meta description – I know, we promised no jargon, but these are so important that they’re just unavoidable).
  • Implement your changes. Title and meta description are usually easiest. On-page content comes second. Design and visuals tend to be more work. Prioritise accordingly based on the resources you have available to you.

Download this list as a PDF for future reference:

None of this sounds very much like SEO…

Probably not, but that’s the point!

As a generalist marketer there’s really no need for you to dive into the mess of specialist terminology that SEO’s use day-to-day. The majority of the acronyms and fancy words are used when we need to be very specific about communicating what we mean to developers, or, honestly, when we want to make ourselves sound clever.

The areas we’ve covered here are deliberately broad concepts – if as a generalist marketer you’re getting into areas of SEO that require highly technical terminology, you’re best off consulting a specialist, because you could be straying into areas where there’s a high risk of causing more harm than good.

Probably the biggest shift in SEO over the past decade, though, is how far it’s possible to get with these broad concepts. Google does more of the heavy lifting for us technically than ever before, so an experienced marketer with a good knowledge of their customers can make real SEO change by following the checklist above.

So: instead of memorising an endless list of jargon, try using the tips above to apply your existing marketing knowledge in a way that’ll improve your site’s SEO performance.

Need more help with SEO?

At Cameo we live and breathe SEO, and can help you fill in the technical gaps in your knowledge to get your site performing at a new level. Find more about the training we offer, and to chat to us about your current approach and see how we might be able to help, get in touch today.

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