How to approach SEO in your strategic planning cycle

November 3, 2021


SEO is an investment in your expertise, authority and trust. It’s a long-term investment in future brand visibility, and it needs to be sold that way internally. On this episode, Geoff Kerbis zooms out to look at SEO on a more appropriate timescale, answering questions like:

  • Why should companies invest in SEO?
  • How do you set the right expectations?
  • When to focus on SEO -vs- a website redesign?
  • What other pitfalls should marketing leaders avoid?

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop, where we go in the trenches to make sense of digital marketing topics and trends. I’m your host, JohnTyerman. And I am here today with a recurring guest, Mr. Geoff Kerbis, SEO Team Lead and Senior Account Manager at Silverback Strategies. Geoff, how are you doing today? 

Geoff Kerbis:  I’m doing well, John, thanks for having me back. 

John Tyreman:  I am so glad to have you back. And I’m excited about our topic of how to approach SEO in your strategic planning cycle, because a lot of marketers are going through that particularly right now. But before we dive into that topic, I like to kick these podcast episodes off with an icebreaker as I’m sure you know. Because as of this recording, we’re fresh off of Halloween, it got me thinking – Geoff, what is your favorite holiday and why?

Geoff Kerbis:  John, this is a wonderful question. I will give you my favorite traditional holiday. And then I will give you my favorite non-traditional holiday because I think they both have a place in the world. Favorite traditional holiday: I am a big Thanksgiving guy, because I think it’s the perfect holiday as an American. As an American, you know, one of my favorite things to do inherently is eat. And talk about getting up, in my family we would make this beautiful coffee cake to start the morning off with like fruit and stuff like that and you are eating from sunrise, watching the parade to the last play of whatever football game is on. And it’s always nice to be surrounded by friends and family. I think that’s the big thing about the holidays is being able to spend it with either your blood relatives or your chosen family to be able to enjoy each other’s company as well. Now my favorite non-traditional holiday is a little bit less romanticized, but it is National Donut Day in Chicago. The reason why is because in Chicago it’s a huge deal. It’s actually where the holiday was started in order to raise funds for the, I believe it was the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. They would sell donuts to help with the fundraising efforts. And it’s continued as a tradition ever since. There are so many different donut shops that will give away a free doughnut if you buy a cup of coffee or so on and I highly recommend it to anyone. It is just a fun little holiday/non-holiday for you to spend in the Windy City.

John Tyreman:  But what day is National Donut Day?

Geoff Kerbis:  The first Friday in June is always National Donut Day in Chicago. So if you are planning a trip make sure you go to Chicago first Friday of June and it was, as I said, established by the Salvation Army in 1938.

John Tyreman:  National Donut Day, first Friday in June in Chicago. Be there. Well, let’s dive into our topic here so Q4 in the calendar year, your fiscal year, this is a common time where businesses go through a strategic planning period. I’ve gone through a few different cycles myself. There’s a lot of moving parts and there’s different ways to construct marketing budgets and plans and investments and strategies. Let’s start here. Why should companies invest in SEO in the first place?

Geoff Kerbis:  I like to think of SEO as the opportunity to drive true visibility to what your organization does. And what is important to your organization. When we think about SEO, I always talk about crawling, indexing and ranking. The number one thing that executives care about is ranking. It’s always going to be on your mind. But we can’t really get to ranking unless we have a site that is crawlable, that is indexable. And when we think about SEOs and having them in our team, a lot of organizations, when we think about having a corporate side SEO or client side SEO, I always bring up this image of someone who might be slightly neglected in their opinion, they might be shoved in the closet of the marketing team and only let out when something’s not ranking number one. But really, SEO needs to be a partner and all of the decisions that happen because if you are truly investing marketing research dollars, dollars into product development, why wouldn’t you invest dollars into making sure that your product can be found on the internet where a large majority of your customers or clients are going to be spending their time?

John Tyreman:  Yeah, so investments in SEO and the opportunity to drive true visibility. I like that because organic search is market driven naturally, if you know who you’re going after. But those investments can have a significant lead time before they really impact revenue. So I’m curious from your perspective, when you’re talking to a marketing executive, how do you set the right expectations for them to set to other stakeholders within the organization like sales leaders and finance leaders in terms of the impact that that’s going to provide?

Geoff Kerbis:  The way that I like to think about it is we have the customary three to six months. It’s the big joke, right, within SEO that anything you do it’s going to take three to six months to see dividends paid off. And with that, I like to think that the earlier you can have your SEO partner, agency and internal employee start working on your strategic plans for the upcoming year or upcoming two years, the better. I’ll give you a great example. So I was working with a client and they were coming up with a revolutionary new product idea that was set to launch in the upcoming year right around June, based off of feedback we were receiving from their internal product development team. So with that information in hand, we decided that there wasn’t going to be any search volume associated with this new idea because it was a brand new, revolutionary concept within the chosen industry. So we decided to have a conversation with the product development team of what was the market research that really spawned this new idea? Okay, great. What are the key phrases that you think are going to come from this new product? What are the features that are going to be the things that are going to be key search items that when you heard a consumer talk about, you said, “Wow. We need to make a product around this”. And so the idea then became let’s look at the editorial calendar that we’re going to be building out for February, March, April, and start developing topics, start developing content that can help support the expertise. And, John, I know you’re probably thinking, “Wow, that’s really early. That might be.. you don’t even have the product out”. But you’re making hints to Google that you’re an expert within this space, right? You’re already setting the foundation of “Hey, we really know a lot about this synonym to the feature that people are looking at, or this topic that we’re developing a product to ramp”. You’re setting the stone, making sure that when it comes to building out or this new investment you’re making, you’re investing in the expertise, authority and trust so Google sees you have a product and is willing to push your query or push your content for that query. Does this take a lot of convincing? Absolutely. But what I would say is when there are great examples of folks who have built search volume from nothing to thousands and thousands and the way they have done so is being willing to invest in content early, to be able to establish an identity and then be able to really produce from that investment later when they launch.

John Tyreman:  It seems like… I like how you phrase that – that SEO is an investment in your expertise, authority and trust. It’s kind of like an investment in your brand, which can have the time to impact that’s longer than a calendar year or a fiscal year.

Geoff Kerbis:  Absolutely. John. I would say that, you know, one of the things I think that gets flack from SEO is it’s not as flashy, right? There’s not a fun banner, or you don’t see a result on Google for an advertisement or it’s not a fun TV ad or a radio spot. SEO, I’ll admit it, I’m within this space, can sometimes be a little bit boring to work on. But, you know, I find it really exciting when we start seeing, “Hey, the position’s gone up two spaces. Are we number one yet? No. But here’s what we’re going to do to help. We’re going to optimize this piece a little bit. We’re gonna add a few words here and slowly make small, meticulous adjustments to be able to get that extra ranking”. SEO is a lot like – I’m a big fitness fanatic. So it’s a lot like working out right? You’re not going to be able to go into the gym one day a little bit overweight and then have the perfect body. It’s never going to happen. But if you consistently work on your craft and work on making sure you have an optimal form, making sure that you’re eating correctly, you’re fueling your engine in this case correctly, you’re gonna start seeing results. And finally, maybe in three to six months, we’ll be able to get the body that we would like.

John Tyreman:  It’s not as quick a fix as like a paid media investment where you can throw dollars and a little bit of time at the problem. But SEO is really an investment in the big picture and it has to be sold that way internally. That’s what I’m taking away from this and you know, SEO can be invisible sometimes, right? Like you mentioned, there’s a lot of tedious work that’s done behind the scenes. It can be less glamorous than a website redesign which, you get these flashy new pages, it looks great. Trying to prioritize between like investing in the unsexy stuff behind the scenes and the flashy redesigns, how do you help marketing leaders kind of prioritize between those two and make that decision? What are some of the questions that you would ask a marketing leader who’s struggling with that?

Geoff Kerbis:  One of the things I always like to ask when someone’s considering a redesign is what’s the purpose and the goal of the redesign? And I usually look for a couple of warning things right? “Well, we think our website looks boring” is one of my favorite ones, or “We have some new branding we want to input and we just figured let’s change the UX as well”. Conversations that aren’t associated with a specific metric always concern me. And conversations that might be associated with a specific metric that has to do with awareness or visibility are ones that my antennas are up and they’re wiggling. Because that’s a sign that we have an SEO problem. We might not have a website design problem. And it’s a lot cheaper to invest in SEO than in a new website. Breaking news, right? And one of the big things that I like to also make the client aware of is, “Hey, if we’re going to redesign the website, we’re going to migrate the website to a new platform, there will be a loss in organic traffic”. It is going to happen a lot of the time. I have seen perfectly executed migrations and still have seen a loss in traffic, because Google has to recalibrate how they think about your site. So what do I normally prioritize instead? I like to really look at how can we optimize what we have? It’s a lot cheaper, right? It’s a lot cheaper to do a technical audit of your site and clean up things that might just need a nice little spruce up. Maybe an H1, H2 audit is something that’s needed. Maybe you’re missing a critical piece of content that your competitors have. Let’s do a content gap analysis and try to figure out what pieces of content that we can build that would make sense and gather you that additional traffic that you’re looking for. Now, if it is truly a conversation of, “Hey, we haven’t redesigned our site in, let’s say, five years, and we are missing critical sections that are important to our organizational flow and our organizational process”. That’s wonderful. But make sure that you’re establishing the importance of SEO in this process. I cannot tell you how many times I have worked with a client in my history, where they’ve redesigned a site and I’ve looked at the site, and I’m the first SEO to look at the redesign site and have to have the conversation of, “Well obviously visibility was not a priority here”, because it’s really heartbreaking. A lot of time has been spent focusing on, “Oh wow, this is really pretty. Ooh, I really liked that JavaScript. What if we put a fun iframe in here that collected all the information and was the purpose of this page?” There’s a ton of dollars that went towards hurting your visibility. When you thought, “Wow, we’re doing something great here”. So how do you rectify that? I think that’s the number one question of people thinking, “Oh, God, like what if I did that?” Make sure you have an SEO as part of your process in everything from organizing the order of your site, the flow of your site, how text is displayed on your site. Have a technical audit done at the beginning and the end of any site redesign because you want to make sure that the first impression Google gets of your newly migrated or redesigned site is an excellent one. Because the second, the third, the fourth impression, they’re gonna be a lot less impactful. Will they help? Sure. But you don’t want it to be too late.

John Tyreman:  So I can see how in those types of meetings when the group gets together and they look at different concepts for new web pages or layouts and templates and things like that, there’s got to be some tension or or at least back and forth between like the design team and the SEO team. How have you successfully navigated those situations?

Geoff Kerbis:  Oh, what a great question, John. Because if an SEO was in charge of web design, it would just be a blank page with text and no elements on it. But I have nothing but respect for my fellow designers that work in digital marketing, because they have a Herculean task that I admit, I could never do. But I find that what helps is having frequent meetings when possible. There are instances where that’s not possible. Maybe the agency that’s redesigning your website isn’t the same agency as the one that manages your SEO. In that case, it’s making sure that there’s a common understanding and a weekly touch point to see some of the pages that are being worked on. And having an understanding, what I’ve normally done, is shared what I’m doing when I do a technical audit, so they can be on the lookout of making sure they’re not falling into those traps. I mentioned iframes before, because they’re not crawlable by Google, right? Google doesn’t understand what’s happening in your iframe. So if I’m working with an agency and I inform them hey, let’s try to avoid making sure that a page does not have the main bit of content or the main focus of the page in an iframe. Normally, if that’s something that someone can check off on a page before they say, “Hey, I finished it”, awesome. Some ways that this can be done: I like creating checklists for my design teams, whether it’s internal agencies, client side or a partner agency. This allows for someone to be able to look at the checklist and say, “Did I commit any of these sins?” No. Awesome. Because then it is a collaboration, it’s not us saying “Wow, you did a terrible job”. It’s “Thank you for appreciating this list and considering it when you designed this page”. Now, does that always work? Absolutely not. Does there have to be compromise? 100%. It has to be a collaboration. It cannot be SEO dictating or design dictating because then you might have a site that looks really boring, or you might have a site that’s beautiful, that’s not functional for visibility purposes.

John Tyreman:  I’m furiously taking down notes, Geoff, because these are all relevant things that I personally am working on. So I’ve got my own selfish interests here. I didn’t know that iframes were not crawlable. So that’s new to me. What are some other pitfalls or challenges that marketers should consider when planning for an investment in SEO?

Geoff Kerbis:  Well, we talked about how much time it takes, right? I think that’s the number one thing. SEO also, when you invest in it, and this is something I found common, it’s a very easy thing to point out and blame for other sins within your organization. Because… and that is really, the thing I think is the reason why and this is my personal perspective, is because it’s something that is misunderstood as a whole. When you are asking to be part of a strategic planning time period, it is the job of the SEO, whether internal agency, whatever, to be the educator as well. Because if you’re not the educator, and there is a misunderstanding on the process, you’re going to be the one who is probably blamed for underperformance in some circumstances and situations and things that maybe you didn’t even touch. That’s one of the major pitfalls that I found. Another is bringing in SEO too late. And we just talked about this with website redesign. But the earlier you can bring in your SEO team so they can just be a part of the conversation, the more insights and data they can bring to either support your strategic plan or allow you to pivot a little bit later. A great example of this was, I had a team that I was working with, they were looking at investing in one of their skews a little bit more heavily but they were doing so purely based off of one report from marketing research that was done a few months prior. And with that they brought us in early and this was the saving grace. We were able to look at some of the trend data associated with that scheme, as well as how much competitors were investing in said scheme. And you might be thinking, “Well, how did SEO know what the competitors were investing?” We were looking at all the new pieces of content that the competitors had put on their site over the year period to see if there was anything that popped up within the category. We noticed that competitors were actually taking off pieces of content, which might be a small signal that they were getting rid of the product as a whole. This was really exciting because then we were able to identify new keywords that would possibly be very winnable, that they could pivot their marketing program. Turned out to be fairly successful. Right? They were able to go in knowing, “Hey, we can own XY and Z keywords if we write good content, and we point to the content appropriately”. So we prioritize having strong linking, making sure there was a home banner page that automatically went to the product once the product was launched, making sure that the sitemaps were uploaded in a timely basis and Google prioritizing the indexing of said product. It led to a successful campaign and then that’s not also to mention that we made sure that we were working directly with our paid media team so that we understood the keywords that they were planning on paying for so that we weren’t spending money unnecessarily on terms that we were trying to win from an organic perspective.

John Tyreman:  That is so interesting, because I’m… the more that we talk Geoff, the more that I see SEO as a key part of the big picture in terms of not only moving the brand forward in terms of creating visibility and connection with the market, but also as a research arm to understand the competitive nature of the landscape that you’re operating in.

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, and I definitely agree, John. Sorry to interrupt but, you know, prior to being an SEO, I did work in market research and in marketing consulting, and SEOs have an ability, if they’d like to, to be trend analysts and be market researchers. It’s the beauty of this field. We can be a lot of different things. We can be content gurus, we can be data, or technical geniuses. It’s really where you want to invest your time. So when you’re picking out an SEO, right? You’re picking out an agency maybe or someone to fill that internal role. Ask them what their interests are outside of SEO too, because that’s also going to be a big part in how they’re going to be helping you in your strategic planning. Are they going to be an arm of your market research team? Great. Are they going to be your content strategy team? Excellent. Or are they going to be making sure that your site’s running tip top shape? Not saying that an SEO can only have one of these focuses – they can have all of them. It’s just making sure you have the right one.

John Tyreman:  That’s great, Geoff. So do I hear you right? It sounds like the role that an SEO agency can play in the strategic planning period is really to plug into that market research to influence content strategy, and then technical maintenance on the site. Are those those three main buckets in your mind?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, no, that’s… John, I would say, if I can add, we’re a market researching portion of your team. We are looking at the technical aspects of your site and how we would like to invest fixing up. We’re  the data and measurement team, because that’s one of the things that people forget is making sure that you’re measuring these optimizations that you’re making. We’re also part of your design team, right? We are looking at that site and trying to think how are we making this the best site to be able to function so that we can measure this data. Because at the end of the day, your C-suite of executives is going to say, “Hey, we put x amount of dollars in. What did it do?” And if you can’t come back with data, what’s the point? And finally, one of the big things I like to think about is we’re on the beat. We are your reporters, right? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed when an SEO doesn’t talk about the trends within the industry. Because unfortunately, not everyone’s Twitter timeline is made up of the John Muse and Barry Schwartz’s of the world so you have to be in SEOJournal, in SEO Roundtable, keeping up with the news, and also trying to be the little conspiracy theorists to try to think what is Google prioritizing for the upcoming year that you have to put into the strategic plan? And here’s a clue for everyone listening:  It’s most likely mobile search, because Google has announced that they’re doing continuous search now on all phones and devices. So how are you going to stand out in a world where scrolling finger is the number one thing that we have learned from the Instagrams, Facebook’s and Twitter’s of the world?

John Tyreman:  Gosh, I wish we could just keep talking. I know that we’re at our time now. Thank you so much, again, for the examples, the insight, dropping industry news. If folks want to connect with you to learn more about SEO, where can they find you?

Geoff Kerbis:  Absolutely. You can find me on LinkedIn. My name is G-E-O-F-F-R-E-Y. Don’t ask me why – ask my parents. And if you want to find me on Twitter for terrible sports takes as well as some SEO insights, my name is @RunGeoffRun and I look forward to hearing from you all, connecting and discussing.

John Tyreman:  Thank you, Geoff. 

Geoff Kerbis:  Of course.