Reactive SEO vs. Proactive SEO

I, for one, love and respect our spam-fighting, quality-content-loving overlords.

Perhaps because I’m mainly associated with the PPC side of our company, I and my paid-media contemporaries can get a little cantankerous about the details of paid search products, as addicted to them as we and our clients may be. That can tend to overshadow the awe and wonder we should feel about search technology as a whole.

Through relentless effort via algorithm updates (primarily Panda), Google has weeded out low-quality and thin content from the SERP’s. More than that, it’s driven a stake through the heart of business models that are cooked up only because they can scale to a lot of pages, producing a lot of thin or faux content. Why should junky, automated crap be given the same opportunity to monetize large streams of traffic as companies that have built the strategies and infrastructure to support the generation of interesting, useful, deep, or timely content?

Good content can mean a lot of things. As long as it is unique (preferably, but not always, coming from real people or at least an original data source), and as long as someone or many someones would want access to it, then you want as open-ended a definition of good content as possible. It’s obvious to most users that the search engines (yes, Bing’s doing it pretty well in their own right) have stepped up to that challenge. Search engines are amazingly good today at serving news results, video, tailored info-boxes, or whatever seems to be most germane to that particular user’s query.

If it were up to me, tweets would be incorporated into a high number of SERP’s. I like tweets. 🙂

If there is any area where the search engines have failed us — and that’s a quibble I’ve long held — is the possibility for power users to go into a dashboard and weight things just a little bit to their tastes: lower weight on YouTube, higher on tweets, reminders of which geo areas are more salient to them,… maybe even digging into some of the algorithmic secret sauce at a high level to tell the search engine you prefer content that has been shared more, content that has a particularly low bounce rate, or whatever. The search engine companies won’t give us a dashboard like that; these are the same people who won’t even trust us to drive a car on our own, so I don’t expect it anytime soon.

In any case, credit where credit is due.

Google gets tough on thin content

Every so often, on the second, third, or fourth page of the SERP’s for a query I’m interested in, I’ll see one my old nemeses: a thin content megasite that used to gobble up far too much referral traffic, now deservedly relegated to the wilderness.

I’ve worked closely with some very large, high-quality content producers both in traditional media and in startup-land. Some of these properties have achieved success over a long period of time. But it’s scary to look back at what we might have done if we’d considered our task from the up-close perspective of the hired-gun, under-the-gun SEO. When advising such companies, it would be fairly common for new execs to paint me with that brush. I would bristle, and remind them that SEO isn’t something I work on directly for them. A lot my job would be to fend off reactive SEO ideas to ensure we stayed the course on fundamental strategy for creating content of immediate or lasting value. It’s not that we didn’t do any SEO — we just didn’t do what people reactively thought SEO might entail. Every director and VP of sales, marketing, operations, or any other function, of course, tends to know just enough SEO to be dangerous. They can’t be allowed to touch anything. 🙂

It has always been hard to stay the course in this way, but it’s getting easier because the thin content plays have been hammered hard by Google’s updates. There were times when thin content sites ruled the roost in our verticals for two-plus years — where we wondered if our white hat approach was ever going to be rewarded. It was.

Content as an investment

But this isn’t just about being white hat or black hat, but really about company strategy. There’s a reason people sometimes have to raise money to start a company, to get a strong advantage and a loyal following. Take, an immensely popular site that shows middle-class digerati how to enjoy a fun sort of artisanal, tactile lifestyle. Two of their early investors were Gary Vaynerchuk and Marissa Mayer, a couple of notables who know a little bit about content. The company has recently raised $20 million from Intel Capital.

It may not be popular to hear this, but the long-term victories tend to go to companies in the traditional sense of those with some capital, reach, and resources, who are building not only assets that scale, but who can also afford the irrational niceties such as real-world, offline events. If the real world is beautiful, which I happen to think it is, then companies willing to bite off a bigger slice of it will benefit from what Seth Godin calls “beauty as a signalling strategy.”

The days of “hiding behind your computer and spamming,” thankfully, are largely behind us.

Content and reputation asset building require commitment

Companies that work with Page Zero for a Findability engagement get a fully proactive — not reactive — approach to building up those long-term assets. This can be achieved at different scale by companies large or small. Core SEO remains a vital kernel of the exercise — to be sure, many companies are making so many small and large technical mistakes that these often need to be overcome — but it’s the proactive, “asset building” aspect of communications that really gets our motor running. Every digital agency today (at least, when they begin to perform any activity that is not direct-response paid media) needs to understand that they are inheriting complex, mature, and accountable functions that were formerly assumed by PR firms — sometimes, firms with significant size and professional depth. It’s OK to be nimbler and smaller, but regardless of size, digital agency work is unlikely to move the needle if it’s conceived as cookie-cutter, task-driven stuff — you have to be a linchpin.

A long-term, proactive view of Findability achieves multiple goals simultaneously. Not only do we hope it leads to a long-term improvement in reliable traffic streams, any company will do better by being seen as an authority: by staying engaged and fresh in its communications. Information flow is inextricably related to trust. Insofar as the locus of these interactions moves out to social media platforms, multiple boxes get ticked: for one, the company projects a well-rounded personality. No personality at all in today’s online environment poses a huge reputation risk.

Now you’re probably asking yourself: can you really outsource that? You definitely don’t have to — it’s just that it’s also difficult to build that function in-house. Building it in-house also means less flexibility; you really have to staff up and invest like you’re gearing up for a long game.

Outsourcing is a logical solution to many problems. Just make sure that’s not confused with offloading the responsibility in an offhand way. If you’re planning to hire an agency to help, the agency may need strong direction and regular collaboration. But it’s myth to think that every function is best performed in-house. Advertising, marketing, and PR agencies have been around forever. Collaboration is a must, but hiring outside specialist firms doesn’t have to mean “someone else is speaking for your company.”

All too many companies, though, have plunged ahead with tactics purported to “make the engines happy,” and that’s where you run into trouble, IMO. Conceiving the exercise as a commodity and doing just enough to “please the engines” degenerates into hiring the lowest-cost, commodity workers to plug away at creating mediocre junk for your otherwise reputable company’s most visible assets. So think “engage” a seasoned agency, as opposed to offloading and outsourcing unpleasant commodity work. That can be rewarding and a great use of resources, especially if it relieves company execs of the burden of constantly micromanaging tactics, or questioning the quality or value of the work being done.

Not every company can raise millions to build a wealth of content and engagement in a short period of time, as has done, but the principle is clear: companies must invest in content strategy and a well-rounded approach to being found online. There are no guarantees in life. But if you’re looking for reasons to upgrade from a thinner, cheaper SEO and content strategy, to a more robust one, you should find plenty of reasons every time you Google a few queries in your industry vertical. Thin content and cheap SEO tactics no longer cut the mustard.

We started this conversation with a distinction that, I fear, makes sense only in a 2005 world where this-type-vs.-that-type-of-SEO is even a valid category for what we’re arguing about. Maybe we’ll soon be in a place where we no longer have to call it SEO of any type. Moz had the guts to drop SEO from their name. Good on them.