Specialists. They are wonderful, smart, and talented people who can push boundaries and solve complicated problems. They are also the people who invented lead plumbing, asbestos insulation, and solved our toxic waste disposal issue by sinking leaky barrels down to the ocean floor.
When specialists solve a problem, they often create other, unforeseen problems because they tend to look through their own self-imposed keyholes. Over time, these specialists broaden their horizons after realizing that the materials they use and methods they employ matter just as much as the predicted outcome. Turns out copper won’t make poison of your drinking water.
So you’re probably asking me to get to the point – what does this have to do with SEO?
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with many professional SEOs over the years who understand that the point of SEO is not to gather a trophy collection of high rankings in Google, but to have those trophies produce traffic, interaction, and ultimately revenue (or some other comparable value). To this end, they understand that ranking number 1 for “women’s fashion” and sending users to a page that looks like this is a failure:
Women’s Fashion – Fashion for Women who like Fashion
Women’s fashion is a fashionable, womanly way of being a woman with style (commonly referred to as Fashion, or Women’s fashion). Check out this link to women’s fashion (it comes right back to this page! surprise! FASHION). Maybe you’re looking for fashion BY women, or fashiony women.
Whatever you want in the world of women’s fashion, we have fashion for the woman in your life (unless you are a woman, and want fashion). Let’s say hooray for fashion, fashion, fashion! Go women! Fashion!
Let’s do some math:
Fashion + women = women’s fashion.
Of course, that’s a bit of an extreme example, but we’ve all seen it.
Unfortunately, I’ve also had the displeasure of working with some SEOs who have a total disregard for usability (although truthfully, I’ve seen this problem much more frequently the other way around: usability engineers who pretend that search isn’t a top-5 use case, when it’s usually #1). They literally say, “Our job is to get rankings, and it’s someone else’s job to make the conversions happen.” That attitude is the lead pipe with mercury strychnine lining of the internet. Since SEO involves the modification of the very pages that will need to produce conversion post-click, this is an incredibly irresponsible, naive, and downright ridiculous way of going about search engine optimization, but I’d say that 3 out of 4 SEO engagements end up more or less this way.
This notion of unaccountability is the age-old plague of specialists who have not yet matured (or learned) enough to realize the value of synthesizing efforts into a single fabric, rather than loosely stitching together a hideous quilt of specialist’s favorite patterns.
How to pick a good SEO
So with all of that specialist ragging behind me, let’s break it down into how you can prevent this disaster on your site (or your company’s).
1. Get a reporting sample. You’re looking for a report that talks about what’s happening with rankings, and WHY. If your SEO doesn’t have an opinion on why movement is happening, what are the chances they’ll come up with a tactic to change it? You’re also looking for post-click actions in the report, and again WHY. Your SEO should be trying to drive good traffic to your site, and either diagnosing or doing their best to help your usability / analytics resources diagnose any issues with on-site performance. Let’s not forget, you’re investing in SEO for a return, not a trophy case.
2. Talk to the SEOs, both the ones who do the selling and the ones who will do the actual work. Larger agencies may put less-experienced staff on the busy work of keyword buildouts and title + meta creation, but guess what? Those are arguably the most important tasks. Make sure that their process includes a review and some sort of feedback from analytics and usability folks (or a savvy businessperson) to validate that these phrases will work on these pages. Refine keyword lists, even if you have to give up search frequency, to best fit the purpose of the target page and ensure a positive experience for visitors if engines choose that page as the best for that key phrase (and of course, there’s no guarantee of that). Also, try to get a general feel for the value they place on the return of the program. If it “feels” like all they care about is rankings, they aren’t going to be a true partner.
3. Demand 6-month performance reviews. This is something that both you and your SEO should love. One of the hardest parts of search engine optimization is deciding how to keep it going. By having in-depth reviews of engine and site-side performance every 6 months, the strategy and tactics can be refined to continue boosting performance over time as the algorithm and competitive aggression changes.
Follow these three rules and I’m sure you’ll be shocked by how many candidates are weeded out. Remember that the professions of SEO and analytics / usability are VERY different, so you shouldn’t expect to get one person that wears both hats: that would just be a waste of a specialist’s time. What you’re looking for is a specialist who is aware of and cares about the collateral effects of their work. This person/agency will apply their specialized knowledge responsibly so you don’t end up with mutant fish at the bottom of your sea.