Before going on, I want to make one thing clear. I am not setting out to be intentionally provocative with this article. It goes without saying that there are some excellent freelance search experts able to offer their clients first class advice in how to plan and execute an SEO strategy.
Instead, I am driven by helping those buying digital marketing services, SEO in particular, to make more informed decisions when sourcing external partners and agencies.
I am passionate about SEO, and digital marketing more generally, but I also understand it has its pitfalls, the main one being the complex, crowded and confusing market for SEO services.
As such, my purpose is not to antagonise the world of freelance SEO but to simply encourage buyers to question whether it is realistic for a freelancer to deliver every aspect of a highly effective SEO strategy on their own.
The well-publicised Panda and Penguin updates have had a significant (and in my view, positive) impact on the discipline of SEO. Whilst there remains a technical aspect to SEO, these updates (along with other fundamental changes to how Google ranks and displays its search results), have significantly changed the skillset and attributes required of today’s SEO practitioners.
Let’s take a look at four of these areas in a bit more detail to explain my argument:
Customer insight, analysis, segmentation and persona development
Fundamentally, SEO is a marketing discipline, not a technical one meaning that an understanding of basic marketing principles is essential. Nothing is more important to a successful marketing strategy than a strong understanding of the audience you are looking to attract.
Today’s SEO strategies need to be underpinned by genuinely useful and engaging content (more on this later). But creating this content can only be achieved with an understanding of your customers, namely their problems, needs and motivations in purchasing a product and transacting with your business.
As such, SEOs need to possess the skill to interrogate their clients’ customer profiles and data and, if required, conduct research, carry our surveys and arrange focus groups on behalf of the client, as well as analyse, segment and build personas from all of the sourced data.
From keyword targeting all the way through to the hot topic of the moment ‘content marketing’, this level of customer insight is vital to shaping SEO strategy but is too often ignored in the quick pursuit of rankings.
Online PR and brand building
Recent years has seen the gradual convergence of SEO and PR. Planned and executed in the right way, online PR not only raises awareness of a brand and their products but also supports a broader SEO strategy by building links from contextually relevant, high quality websites.
This is a far cry from buying links in mass or subscribing to blog networks, which many SEO’s employ due to ease (possibly laziness!) and the immediacy of which such techniques have historically had a positive impact on search engine rankings.
In the past, Google’s algorithm was not quite clever or sophisticated enough to ignore the poor quality links these techniques garnered but that is changing. The Panda and Penguin updates represent perhaps Google’s most aggressive attempt to clean up its search results and in turn, this is having a major impact on the approach that needs to be taken to link building in particular.
Visiting a website and sticking in your credit card details in return for thousands of links remains an option but presents a greater risk than ever before.
In contract, the skills one would associate with the world of PR, namely research, relationship building, storytelling, writing, pitching and negotiation are needed to build the kind of links Google rewards.
Content strategy and execution
Yes, it’s a massive cliché but content is king in the context of today’s Google. But I’d caveat this by saying that content needs to be genuinely useful and engaging and not, as has too often been the case in the past, created purely for the purposes of gaming search engines i.e. keyword stuffed articles.
Google has been hammering well known article sharing sites, as well as blog networks in recent months, which in turn has impacted the search results for businesses overly reliant on links from these sites.
As such, SEO’s now need to possess the skill and creativity to plan and execute a multi-format content strategy with two key objectives in mind:
- Creating a richer and more rounded website experience, thereby aiding the ‘stickiness’ of a website and conversion rates
- To gain visibility across search engines (think 'universal' or blended search), as well as relevant blogs, forums, online media and social networks, whilst being compelling enough, where relevant, to be shared by the target audience
Content strategy and execution is a discipline in its own right. If you are looking to build a genuinely compelling brand experience shortcuts cannot be taken.
We’ve also been witnessing recently the growing influence of social media on search results. Many believe we are moving towards a time when links have less influence on search results. Instead, your ‘social status’ will have the strongest bearing.
The SEO benefits of social media, in my opinion, should be seen as the by-product of a strong social media strategy, not the core objective. In turn, SEO’s need to understand the wider role social media plays in connecting with an audience at each stage of the buying journey.
Therefore, SEO’s need to have the skill and experience to help the client develop a social media strategy, deliver training and support, create policies and processes and ensure their clients up-skill accordingly so that social media contributes to the wider commercial objectives of the client not just the SEO objectives of the agency.
So how many people does it take to deliver an effective SEO strategy?
From the specific experience of how our agency has evolved in the last few years, I’d say at least four or five.
Broadly speaking, this might include;
- A website optimisation expert, covering everything from keyword research through to conversion testing
- A content strategist to plan, create, optimise and promote content – PR skills will be essential to this role
- A social media expert would be integral to the team, not just because of the ‘social search’ angle but also to develop and manage the wider strategy I refer to above
- I’d also argue an analyst would be needed who can interrogate tools such as Google Analytics and make informed decisions on how to optimise marketing channels and drive efficiency
It will also need one of those people, or somebody senior to them, to have the expertise and vision to develop the strategy and ensure it is working in unison with offline marketing and PR activity. Nothing can work in a silo.
The freelance world might disagree with me but frankly I do not think there is not an SEO in the world who can lay claim to having the expertise and experience to deliver, hands-on, every single facet of what makes up contemporary SEO.
What do you think? Has Panda killed the SEO freelancer or at the very least changed the approach they take to the delivery of SEO services?
P.S. If you freelance in SEO and believe you do possess each of the skills above in abundance, please get in touch – I’d pay you a very healthy wage!