SEO is a complex game. Here’s how to align all players to win.


SEO is a myth. Forget about SEO. 

This is one of my favorite opening lines when the topic of search engine optimization comes up, but I don’t really mean it. I lead with it because, as a program of digital marketing and a driving force for customer acquisition strategy, SEO can be widely misunderstood. We have to take a step back to understand where healthy search engine results come from, how high up the chain the program needs to originate, and why aligning content and technical stakeholders behind a search performance strategy is critical. The work can feel like it never ends, but that’s kind of the point. It doesn’t. And an evaluation of your assets is happening whether or not you’re optimizing for it—so it’s best to understand how to get this program on the right footing in your organization.  

To rank for [it], say [it]… And then say it again.

Let’s start with the most important point: SEO itself shouldn’t be your focus. Let me explain. We get caught in the tunnel vision of a classic trap mindset: “How can we get onto page one in search?” or, “How can we perform better in search?” These questions are typically asked by the wrong team at the wrong time in the process, dealing with assets too late in the game. Invariably, the expectation is that a quick post-production review by an SEO strategist will make a page, an article, or a campaign ring the digital bells to achieve page-one results—or, hey, at least we tried. 

But performing in organic search is a complex undertaking that requires an understanding of the interplay between creative, technical, user engagement, the referral ecosystem, and—always, always—content. And this really is why I say forget about SEO—focus instead on everyone’s role in the process, particularly how important content is to get right. And it’s hard to get right. If the adage in TV news production is, “If you say it, I must see it,” then in digital it must be, “If you don’t say it, you won’t rank for it.” Words matter here, still, and they must be holistically planned throughout your entire digital program, onsite and off. You’re never just building a page or a message or a campaign. That would be like saying you’re building a seat. Or an armrest. Or a steering wheel. Noyou’re building a car. And you need to make it powerful.

It’s worth talking about because this is why SEO shouldn’t be an afterthought in your marketing content planning. If we think of your site as your key ranking opportunity (and this will vary by business and industry), then every page, every paragraph, every headline, every backlink, every mention, and every performance metric contributes to its total success in search. That’s a lot to coordinate across many teams. And, in fact, the work here really begins far upstream when we align the core terms we’re going to discuss across the site with our brand and product messaging goals. Yes, we’re still talking about keywords in 2020 because the fundamentals haven’t changed. Keywords as a pillar of your content plan aren’t everything, but they are the starting point for understanding what searchers may be looking for and how you want to get in front of them. Doing this elegantly takes deep alignment early on between digital, strategy, creative, and technical efforts. Everyone who has a hand on content needs to understand their work impacts search results. This is why it’s hard—there are a lot of priorities to balance.

Everyone who has a hand on content needs to understand their work impacts search results.
Shifting our gaze: Digitally, what is the content really for?

It’s not revolutionary to say that content is key, and I’m not saying anything extraordinary by acknowledging that digital doesn’t own content. How content is planned and produced varies widely and there’s no one process to speak to, evaluate, or critique—in most settings, large or small, teams are doing the best they can. There are resources to be strategic about content, or there aren’t. There are content teams or individual freelance writers. It all varies. Content flows as the foundation of so many programs and initiatives—but 20 years of search engine optimization and performance teaches us that one constant in the business of developing and producing strong digital results is how your content is read and evaluated by search algorithms. And what that means is that, as far as using search as a measure, every content organization or effort is measured by the same rules. 

So, again, I say throw SEO out the window. And if that raises an eyebrow, good. If you want to build a high-performing, intelligent website with a high potential to perform and convert in search, then we need to broaden our understanding of the actual digital role of content on your web properties, and shift our gaze from an end-of-the-production-process checklist to an integrated approach that focuses on bringing more teams to the table. Don’t funnel the work out—bring more teams in. SEO is not a program run by one person or one team. It’s a lens that applies to all of your customer messaging and publishing and that’s because—and this isn’t revolutionary to say either—what really matters to Google isn’t you. It’s the users—the search audience—and providing content best positioned to satisfy their search queries thoroughly. 

So, acknowledging that we get all our key technical elements right, performing well in search has a higher likelihood of succeeding when we understand a term I’ve made up—“content-signaling”—and what it takes to make that happen. Build the right content, and—on its own distribution of keywords and topics and technical elements and backlink authority—that content will signal to Google that you are a powerful resource for whichever search queries you’ve made your targets. Get this right, and you legitimize your content as worth surfacing to users. There are other objectives for your content with specific regard to your brand and audiences. But digitally, this is how this works. 

Build the right content, and...that content will signal to Google that you are a powerful resource.
Write for humans as well as for AI. Or signaling never ends.

Up to now, we’ve been talking about setting up your body of content to perform in search. But it’s important to understand that search is just a scorecard of how well you did. You aren’t actually optimizing for search (see, forget about SEO). You are optimizing for two types of content consumers, two audiences. While traditionally we think about audiences as groups of humans to segment and connect with via different types of messaging and creative assets, digitally our starting point is pretty simple: digital content is speaking to both humans and AI. Boom. Humans are your first and most important audience layer. It’s humans who become brand loyalists, humans who become brand ambassadors and advocates, humans who talk about you on social and make referrals, humans who will buy your products. 

Strategy and creative teams will help you understand the groups of people you’re actually talking to and design content to help your brand resonate with them. But SEO brings in another layer—we take into account how AI consumes your content. AI is giving you your search performance rating. Teams groan about long-form content, but AI reads it all. And, generally, pages with more content tend to outperform those with less. This is by no means the only guiding principle, but it’s important.  

So, while humans (at least today’s humans) want their questions answered in the first paragraph so they can get on with their lives, AI is reading every word. And it is comparing bodies of content sets against each other, along with every other metric we’ve mentioned. When we talk about the search algorithm, this is it. No living person will ever consume every item you’ve published to your site. But Google knows it’s there, all of it, and it all contributes to your quality ratings. And so, longform matters. The words you choose matter.

Breaking this down: 

  • AI reads content page by page and sitewide. 
  • It reads it offsite on related blogs and social channels. 
  • It reads the performance data that demonstrates how successfully real humans interacted with it. 
  • It determines if your content set successfully satisfied a particular search query. 
  • It gives you a grade. Over time, it’ll give you lots of grades. And those grades add up to real search rankings for particular pages or for your whole site.
  • AI determines the value of every word included on your site on its own, how it paired with others, how often they paired, how specific they got, and whether those pairings or phrases gained traction in the wider community. 

The work of ranking is a matter of seeing the digital landscape, getting your audit right and your keyword targets selected, understanding the strength of your competition, identifying your easy wins and your must-wins, and getting short- and long-term publishing plans in place. 

And then iterate. Make content moves. Tighten your technical game. See how it impacts your rankings. Go back, and do more. Do it again. Add more content. Edit your pages. Work for more backlinks. 

Do it again. It will feel like it never ends. It doesn’t.

The endgame: See the whole board.

This will date me, but my favorite episode from the TV series The West Wing often comes back to me. President Bartlet is working through a foreign policy emergency, and he spends the episode playing an ongoing game of chess with his communications director, Sam. Bartlet always knows more than Sam and Sam can’t understand how the president is always a step ahead of him. As the president’s policy talks break down, he chats with Sam over another failed chess move. The breakdown of the negotiations? Not entirely a bad thing. His advice to Sam? See the whole board. 

If we only focus on what’s immediately in front of us—how to move from position 30 to position 1 in search—and if we think this is about a quick edit of maybe some tags on a page before it goes live—we miss the myriad start points, factors, influencers, audiences, and algorithms that actually do the work to get us there. This is dynamic work. The field changes constantly. Whether you’re an agency or in-house, small business or multinational, showing up in search requires a shift in mindset that threads responsibility for the key drivers (signals) throughout your entire marketing program. 

This is dynamic work. The field changes constantly.

See the whole board. Educate broadly how this works. Invite everyone to the table to problem-solve how you’ll get there. Understand what your competitors are doing, what they’re talking about, how robust their content programs are. Understand that your marketing copy is an asset with the potential to drive business outcomes for years to come. Don’t forget about SEO, because you absolutely can drive dramatic improvements in your search presence. It’s far more doable than most teams realize, and everyone has a role to play. Build your marketing content strategically and collaboratively. And keep doing it. SEO is not a myth—it’s just hard work. And from the earliest phases of content design to performance analysis years later, it’s work that—powerfully—never ends. 

About Jennifer Fey

Jennifer Fey is senior vice president for digital media at Firewood. Jennifer has more than 20 years of digital experience with combined strengths in performance media, customer experience, SEO, web ecosystems, customer relationship management, social, and enterprise marketing technology. She is a giant Battlestar Galactica nerd.