Matt Colebourne is the CEO at Searchmetrics, a global provider of search data, software, and consulting solutions. I spoke to him about why he believes that organic search and SEO don’t get the “love” they deserve from organisations, how to make SEO a whole-organisation effort and tap into its true value, and what major trends he foresees for search marketing and SEO, including why the demise of third-party cookies makes search all the more powerful.
Tell us about your role – what does a typical day look like?
I don’t have a typical day; they’re all very different. We’re a dynamic business in a growing and rapidly changing market. My role involves a combination of both strategic and operational responsibilities.
So, one day I might be speaking at an event about the importance and ROI benefits of SEO and its role within digital marketing strategies. On another, I could be working closely with customers and prospects to ensure we’re delivering on their needs. And, of course, sometimes I’m taking care of the basics such as budgeting and planning.
A key part of my job – and something I’m passionate about – is acting as a sounding board and player-coach to my team. I want to ensure people feel empowered and supported to act and make decisions. I’m not a strong believer in a company structure where everyone is required to get approvals for individual decisions. In a fast-changing industry this just ties up time and increases the chance of missed opportunities. Instead, I aim to give everyone a clear remit within which they can do their job – with the ability to make decisions independently. At the same time, I encourage individuals to consult with colleagues to get good ideas and to test new concepts.
Do you think that brands in 2022 put enough emphasis on SEO, and search marketing in general? Why or why not?
No. While things are changing, I still don’t think organic search gets the attention it deserves in the wider marketing mix or the business. Part of the problem is that it’s seen as a largely tactical, technical discipline that senior marketing and business chiefs don’t find easy to get their heads around.
Sometimes I think we don’t help ourselves because we focus on metrics such as keyword rankings that don’t translate to what a business is trying to achieve. SEO is a proven marketing channel that delivers fantastic return on investment (ROI) – we need to focus on that ROI rather than SEO-specific metrics that can confuse marketers because they don’t align with the other metrics they’re used to seeing.
We need to focus on that ROI [of SEO] rather than SEO-specific metrics that can confuse marketers because they don’t align with the other metrics they’re used to seeing.”
The other problem is that SEO flies under the radar and rarely features in boardroom discussions because it doesn’t command the huge media budgets of areas such as paid search and display advertising.
There is also an opportunity for SEO to deliver a fundamental understanding of today’s digital audiences and their online triggers, making it the perfect start point for digital marketing leaders to make a whole host of important decisions.
I believe data from search is possibly the biggest untapped source of strategic market information. Think about it like this: when people search, it’s a clear active expression of their demand – whether they’re researching a product they eventually hope to buy, or just finding information. Which means, if you aggregate and analyse all the searches related to your market, you can answer questions about the size and dynamics of market demand, how that varies regionally and seasonally, as well as identifying changes in customer behaviour and customer pain-points. You can also learn more about your competitors and important aspects of their marketing by analysing their search and content strategies.
Search provides a huge, accessible, constantly updated data set that can provide important strategic insights for marketers. Companies just aren’t using it enough yet.
With Google rolling out updates that do more and more of the “work” in surfacing the right content in response to a search query, where does that leave search marketers? Is there still a need for human involvement?
Google and the other search engines have gradually fine-tuned their algorithms to the point where many of the go-to techniques that SEOs traditionally relied on to improve search visibility are no longer as effective.
Improving your search performance today starts with building an in-depth understanding of your customer and your market. With this you can develop online content that answers people’s search queries better than anyone else at each stage of the buyer journey. And if you can do that, Google is much more likely to display your content ahead of others.
Technology solutions can play an important role by providing data to help you get to grips with the types of content your customers are looking for and providing clues on how best to optimise to make it appealing and helpful. There are also tools that can pinpoint and automate routine technical fixes. And increasingly AI can support automated content creation. But I don’t believe we’re close to the day where you can totally do without human involvement. Your content needs to be head and shoulders above your competitors and that’s only likely if you involve the judgement and expertise of human content marketers and creators.
What can organisations do to make sure that SEO is a whole-organisation effort, not just something that is siloed off as the purview of specialists?
Firstly, companies need to ensure there’s a better organisation-wide appreciation of the importance of organic search. 60% of purchases start with a search and business leaders and employees need to understand that the way the company appears in searches is now one of the most important factors in how they’re viewed by the outside world. Your search presence plays a role in everything from brand awareness, your ability to drive sales and develop business partnerships, to the calibre of people you are able to hire.
Next, companies need to drive home the message internally that delivering SEO success requires collaboration across the organisation. Not just the SEO team, but everyone needs to be aware of how their role can impact what appears in searches – from web developers, product and category managers, content writers, PRs and marketers, to user experience specialists and customer service and community management. In some cases, you might need to take the practical step of widening employees’ job specifications to incorporate some element of SEO.
What do you predict will be the major trends for search marketing and SEO over the coming year?
One trend I think we’re already seeing is the shift in what we think of as important search sources. People don’t just search on traditional search engines anymore, and the searches they perform on sites as varied as ecommerce marketplaces and stores – Amazon, eBay and Walmart – as well as on Facebook, Pinterest and other social sites, are becoming increasingly important for some companies. So, depending on who you’re targeting, your search strategy will need to include optimising for multiple different search sources.
Another major development over the next few years will surround how SEO will support the emergence of the broader discipline of ‘demand optimisation’. Search data will start to be valued not just for optimising website search performance, but also for its ability to give companies a better all-round understanding of how their customers’ needs are evolving – by analysing the searches they make. Search data can support better decisions in areas such as ‘what features do we need to add to our new product’, ‘what’s the best time to launch it’ and ‘what is our inventory and distribution strategy?’
The forthcoming restrictions surrounding the use of third-party cookies are also going to have a significant and positive impact on SEO. It’s probably going to get much harder to track people’s behaviour and gather demographic data over multiple sites. Search doesn’t rely on this data because we have something better – intent; a stated desire to research something or purchase something.
In some ways this makes search even more powerful. Because with search you’re not targeting people based on assumptions about their demographics or which sites they’ve visited – which can often be misleading. Instead, you’re targeting them based on their active intent as revealed by the keywords they’re entering into the search bar – whether that’s researching a holiday or trying to find an XXL football shirt.
What’s next for Searchmetrics?
We are making a number of strategic moves based on what we expect to happen in the short and medium term, both in terms of product development and also our company development and structure.
One of the main things we see holding back a greater focus on organic search and SEO is the need for a multi-disciplinary approach. So, we’re very focussed now on becoming a complete solution for digital marketing professionals – not just SEO. For example, while we can argue successfully that the ROI of SEO spend is usually better than paid search, the fact remains that you can have a paid search campaign up and running in a day and be getting results immediately thereafter.
The other issue that stops many companies doing more with organic search is the lack of in-house skills – and there’s a general shortage of such skills at the moment. So, we are now very much a solutions provider rather than simply a product company. As well as our platform, we also provide the people (whether our own people or supplied by our partners) to deliver a managed service.
At the same time, our data continues to be a huge part of our future. We are already working with major brands and retailers on leveraging search data to understand and drive digital demand. This is now part of our stated Company Vision and is an area in which we’re striving to become smarter, better and more sophisticated. We aim to be able to amalgamate search data from multiple sources to allow clients to really understand demand with an accuracy never before achieved.
Learn more about how to make the most of organic search and develop an effective strategy with Econsultancy’s SEO Best Practice Guide.