The In Search SEO Podcast
How to Get Your Clients to Buy Into Your SEO Efforts
[This is a general summary of the podcast and not a word for word transcript.]
We sat down with the magnificent Heather Physioc to discuss how to get your clients on board with your SEO program:
- How to get your SEO clients to invest more time into what you’re preaching!
- The nitty-gritty details of what good client communication looks like!
- How to get into your client’s head so that you know how to speak their language!
Plus, BERT is back! We pick apart Google’s segmented news carousels. What’s working, what’s not, and what’s really freaking interesting!
Analyzing Google’s Multiple News Carousel Format [04:58 – 18:39]
Back in December, Google announced it had changed the Top Stories carousel on mobile. Now, for select “topics,” Google is showing multiple carousels that tackle the story, topic, entity, query, or whatever you want to call it, from multiple perspectives.
Let’s go through some examples.
Let’s say you search for news related to the recent impeachment kerfuffle in the US. Normally you would get one carousel of news articles, but not in this case. Mordy searched for impeachment news the day after the Oscars aired and got three carousels:
- Oscars 2020 Brad Pitt Wins Best Supporting Actor
- Trump News
- Also in the news
So Google breaks the news down for the keyword into 3 separate carousels!
There’s so much to talk about here and a full post on this is forthcoming probably over the course of the next few weeks.
Why would Google show a carousel about Brad Pitt when searching for news related to the Trump impeachment hearings? Evidently Brad Pitt said something about Trump’s impeachment during his acceptance speech at the Oscars and because of Pitt’s comments, Google got highly specific with that first carousel showing an article related to Pitt’s elucidations on the current state of political affairs.
Now, what’s interesting is that the second carousel went really generic with ‘Trump News’. It’s a good example to sort of see where we stand with this thing. It can be great and not so great all at the same time.
Another really interesting point is that this segmentation of Trump’s impeachment (or lack thereof) pushed actual news about the topic down to the third carousel. Articles about actual politicians weighing in on the issue were pushed down to the “Also in the news” carousel, i.e., the actual news.
In other words, the new Top Stories multiple carousel segmentation format is more “entity-centric” than it is news-centric and Mordy is not sure how good that is when you’re trying to cover the news. It seems that Google is not yet good at relating to a topic or an entity from a specific lens, in this case just a news coverage lens.
There were a lot of examples like this where Mordy thought more genuinely newsworthy items got pushed down in favor of entity segmentation.
Here’s what Mordy means by “entity breakdown.” Mordy ran a query for ‘NFL News’ and he got the segmented News Box. Do you know what it said? Just 8 days after the sport’s biggest event, the Super Bowl, the lead carousel was… ‘XFL News’! To explain, the XFL is a new league that launched the day before Mordy did the search. It has no affiliation with the NFL and is meant to offer fans some football now that the real league, the NFL, is on break.
In other words, Google took Mordy’s query of NFL news and said, “NFL is American football and what is most important or most relevant to the concept of American football? The XFL.” In the end, the carousel had nothing to do with the NFL, the specific entity written in the query but was focused on football more conceptually.
Again, there were multiple examples of this.
Now for BERT. Google mentioned when they announced the launch of the segmented News Box that they are using the BERT algorithm to better gauge where a specific storyline begins and ends. Well, that might need a little work. Mordy did a search for Bernie Sanders news and got a carousel called “Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders News” except that most of the content within the carousel was about Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg! So, some work is needed.
Getting Your SEO Clients to Buy-In: A Conversation with Heather Pysioc [18:39 – 46:16]
Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO podcast interview session, please put your hands together for renowned industry speaker, a professor of digital marketing at the University of Kansas, the group director of discoverability at VMLY&R. Please give it up for Heather Physioc!
Heather: Thank you so much for having me on.
M: You don’t look like a professor.
H: Yeah, I’m the cool professor.
M: So you’re not wearing leather patches on your jacket?
H: No, just tattoos and glasses. I’m a professor at KU and I teach one class for the spring semester each year.
M: So we could talk about your years of experience in the SEO industry in digital marketing, but I have to ask you, at one point, it looks like you are the editor of a music magazine?
H: Yeah, I started working in journalism when I was a teenager. I had written for the local newspaper then I started a music magazine to sort of blend my passion for writing and my excitement to be online and my love of local music. So I ran that for about eight years before moving on, but that was a lot of fun.
M: What kind of music was it?
H: I liked to focus on rock and roll, heavy metal, and as much angst as I could get.
M: Nice. So let’s talk about getting your client on board with your SEO program. I’m going to start off with a bit of a cliche because I like cliches, actually. What’s the most important thing you think is out there when you’re trying to get your client on board with what you’re trying to do?
H: Yeah, so at the risk of providing a cliche answer, the number one thing for me is open, honest, and frank communication. This early moment in the partnership when your client or your boss is starting up a search program with you is absolutely crucial. What happens here in these early conversations is what will set the stage for the entire search program so it’s really important that we get it right. If you find yourself overselling the value of search you could be setting yourself up to fail by creating unrealistic expectations for your client without setting any boundaries or establishing any clarity for their expectations.
I find that search professionals are also way too quick to jump right into the tactical execution. We know what the low hanging fruit is. We’ve seen a few sites in our time. But we should really be taking a step back to observe the situation, understand the client, the brand, their customers, how their organization works, how your immediate client or boss works, how they’re measured, who they report to, internal politics, resourcing issues, and so on. All of that comes through communication and dialogue.
I always tell my team there are four C’s in client communication. You have to be clear, confident, concise, and consistent. This phase is a lot more about listening than it is about talking. This has to be constant throughout your relationship from day one throughout the entire search program. Your client needs to know that they can depend on you, that you have their best interests in mind, that you’re going to be thorough with executing the best work possible for them, and they’re not going to get that message unless you’re communicating effectively with them.
M: So there’s a lot we can dive into there. Let’s start with communication. In real terms, how do you go about effectively communicating with the client?
H: Talking to them is a good start. Is your question about how we specifically tactically communicate with a client or tools that we use to establish the communication at the beginning of the partnership?
M: Let’s start with how do you establish effective communication? What are some techniques and strategies and pointers and tips and things to avoid?
H: I think a helpful tip here is to think of the relationship with your boss, the CMO, the head of digital, or your client as if they speak a different native language. You’re different people with different roles, backgrounds, experiences, and ways of doing things. This base understanding that you’re approaching every situation through different lenses is very helpful in communicating effectively from day one.
There are a few things I recommend anytime I’m talking about clear communication. The first is verbally articulating the purpose that you share and verbally asking if they’re aligned. Asking them to verbally align and putting that out on the table allows people to adjust or clarify as necessary.
I also believe that every call and every meeting should close with a short summary of what you heard and everybody should leave knowing who owns what, i.e., knowing what they’re responsible for. I think that little closer builds a lot of confidence with our clients and our bosses. When you’re talking about projects with clients, be sure to talk about the pros, the cons, the costs, the potential results including how long you think it might take to see those results and tell them specifically how you’ll be monitoring and following up.
Just be honest. Your boss or your client are smart and capable. I think we are guilty of thinking they don’t understand, but they’re usually quite logical. So if something isn’t working or presents obstacles, say something, they have a right to know. They’ll get it, just get them in the trenches with you.
Finally, make sure you’re translating that SEO speak. We’re talking to CEOs and CMOs, not other SEOs. So make sure you’re using language that aligns with their real business goals. Those are my five tips.
M: One of the things you mentioned was that when you’re establishing communication you need to think about, who you’re speaking to, what their background is, what their goals are, what their processes, etc. That’s a lot to chew on at one time. How do you go about knowing those 1 million checkboxes before you walk into a conversation? How do you actually do that?
H: I did a bunch of research last year in the search industry with a lot of surveying and interviews and I came to discover that as search professionals we believe that onboarding clients is important to setting the partnerships up for success. But that same exact research found that we tend to onboard clients inconsistently from one to the next if we even bother going through an onboarding exercise at all.
So, my team here at VMLY&R developed a few tools that we use with our clients which we’re now starting to share with the industry a little bit more. One of them is the immersion workshop. So all of those things that I listed off from before can at least be conversations that are initiated if not fully exposed in an immersion workshop. This is a fully immersive crash course on the client’s organization and how search fits into their world. It helps you as the practitioner to get really smart really fast. It opens those lines of dialogue where you start to build relationships with not only the stakeholders at all different levels and different departments in the organization, but also with your fellow practitioners, implementers, developers, content creators, analytics experts, etc.
This immersion workshop allows you to align the roadmap for this search program. It allows you to agree on how you will measure success. It has mission and vision sessions where a lot of times the client will actually present them to us. They love to be heard. They know their business and they want us to know their business too. We’ll have stakeholder sessions where we learn who in the organization has a stake in the success of the program but may not be the ones implementing it like the head of sales or the head of different business units. And finally, we have a practitioner session with the SEOs alongside developers, content creators, analytics experts, and paid search. And then we have discussion guides to get us through the whole two-day exercise to ask the kinds of questions we talked about earlier.
M: That’s a really amazing program. I’m wondering though, do you ever get pushback from the company saying, “Hey, this sounds great, but we don’t have time to do all this.”
H: Definitely, but I find it happens more with smaller clients. Now I work with enterprise clients, but in the past, I worked with small businesses. I think it all boils down to one key thing which is that magic word of communication where we explain the benefits and outcomes of doing an exercise like this. And it’s short, we’re talking a day or two, it can be streamlined, you can really focus on the most important sessions if it’s a smaller piece of business. But we talked about how essential it is to really understand their business and their priorities and their customers in order to do our best search work. So when we frame it we tell them we’re going to do better work, it’s going to save you money, and it’s going to save you time because we’re not going to backtrack by getting things wrong. It’s going to save you headaches because you don’t have to give us critical feedback all the time because we didn’t understand your business to begin with.
As search professionals, I think we greatly undersell ourselves and our abilities by saying, “Oh yeah, I’m just here to write title tags and meta descriptions.” We’re search strategists, but in order to help clients win in this increasingly crowded competitive landscape, we need to understand their business, their landscape, what they’re up against, and what opportunities are there to win. I think most clients understand that and we just have to take the time to explain it in a useful way and be flexible. Let’s adapt to their needs and make them feel comfortable with the exercise.
M: As an educator and myself being a former teacher, when you’re walking in, you don’t really know how much people know or how much they don’t know. How do you sort of scaffold that? Maybe you run the risk of speaking at one level and you think you’re communicating with them, but you’re really not.
H: Yeah, that comes up all the time with enterprise clients. Every search program is on a maturity continuum. About two years ago, we developed a search maturity curve and maturity assessment. This is a continuum on which brands evolve iteratively from one step to the next. And the gap between each phase may become wider as they go up the scale because as you go up the maturity scale, things get harder and more abstract and complicated. The idea is not to skip levels and go from never doing search before to being a well-oiled search machine overnight. That’s unrealistic.
So on the low end of this maturity curve, they may have a very limited or disjointed search program or it’s entirely starting from scratch. In the middle-end, you may have a brand that is doing search in a repeatable or defined way. They kind of have a feeling SEO is important and they just started implementing the basics, but it’s pretty ad hoc. And if they’re a little more advanced, maybe they’re documenting real processing standards while becoming more proactive, strategic, and goal-oriented. But a lot of times you’ll find that organic search is still siloed from other parts of the organization at that phase. At the highest end of the maturity curve, you have brands that I call optimized. This means search is part of that company’s DNA. It is baked into their marketing from end to end. The practice is integrated across the organization with different departments at all levels. They’re always iterating, and proactively bringing new search ideas to the table all while approving or even innovating their search work. These brands tend to be the market leaders in search because they know that their work is never done. There is no finish line.
So we created this maturity model and we shared it out with the industry. But then we also created a really useful survey of questions that we administer to the client. I’m actually going through one right now with a brand. They have a record-high number of survey participants at 49 so I challenge anyone in the industry to beat that. So we administer the survey and it asks them questions that get to the heart of where their organization stands on five key pillars: process, personnel, planning, capacity, and knowledge. It’s got a Likert scale from extremely not true to extremely true. It’s also got open-ended answers and I actually find that the juiciest content comes out in the quotes from those open-ended answers. So we calculate the scores as a whole and map where they are on the maturity curve. We calculate where they are on those five criteria, but I think what really helps it hit home with the clients is those quotes that I’m pulling out. They’re anonymous, they’re from all these different departments, and you’ll see quotes like, “My organization has no idea what’s going on when it comes to search. It’s completely disjointed,” and “We don’t allocate enough resources,” and “Search is always an afterthought.” It’s really eye-opening stuff.
M: Do you find there’s one particular problem that usually sticks its head out more than others?
H: Yeah, there’s a few. One of the big ones that’s probably one of the toughest is resources where they don’t have enough content creators so they don’t have enough budget to do the things they dream of doing. It’s not infinite dollars and time that we have to work with. That’s a common one that’ll come out, but a lot of times revealing it in this way helps CMOs know where to shift the budget.
Another one that comes up I believe 95 percent of the time in any organization that has more than one department is alignment. It’s important to know how to work between departments, to make sure everybody’s moving in a common direction. Especially when you get in these big enterprise organizations, it’s a really hard battle for them to fight. I don’t see our goal as search professionals is to just edit their website. We have to help them make search part of their organization’s DNA.
M: That sounds very hard. I’ve never done it, but it sounds incredibly hard.
H: It is hard. Not everybody’s bought in or not everybody feels that it’s important as it is so you have to bring them along for the journey or you’re going to be fighting all the way.
M: How continuous does this program have to be? Is it once a month, once a week? I feel that if you start and then you stop you might leave a sort of gap that is perhaps too long where you lose the momentum.
H: When I do the immersion workshops it’s usually one big burst to start up the partnership, but you should have a continuously regular line of communication throughout. We’ll revisit the maturity survey along with just a health assessment of their digital portfolio annually to see how we are progressing. As their SEO lead, you have to demonstrate that you are on top of things all the time. You want to show them that you’re going to proactively communicate and follow up so they don’t have that anxiety in their minds about what’s going on in the black box of SEO. You should have a regular cadence of proactive updates on whether you’re doing what you both agreed on or not. You should have monthly reporting calls, which to a lot of SEOs is probably no surprise, but you’d be surprised that people often don’t have those touchpoints. They’re living in email and not having conversations with their clients.
I would strongly recommend something called a quarterly business review where you’re zooming out and looking at how we are progressing against our roadmap. Do we need to pivot anywhere? Is it working? Is it not working? Has anything changed in the client organization? But that’s a pretty casual check-in, a quarterly one to two hours of effort is not too much to ask. I’m a big fan of setting up annual planning. Prepare for it from the beginning knowing that it’s coming and that gives you a chance to reestablish the mature assessment and strategy each year.
Make it a point to proactively send out the results of wins or to propose challenges that the client should take. As a client, they’ll be thinking, “Oh, this person is on top of it. I don’t need to be thinking about this because they’re going to tell me when to think about it and when I have a decision to make.”
M: With the maturity scale. Do you find it’s getting harder now that SEO is getting a little bit more abstract?
H: Yes, sort of. So depending on the client, the client becomes a little bit more abstract as they mature. Now, if you started with a brand in the simpler stages of maturity and grew up with this client, they’re probably learning as they go and you’ve probably earned their trust through measured results. You’ve got their buy-in, you get proven wins, you keep communication high, and you’re continuing to educate the client as you go. That client is moving along that journey with you. I think it’s no more than normal problems as you become more abstract. As for the brand that may have started on the higher end of the maturity curve, my hope would be that they have a better understanding of search in general. So as it gets more abstract, in my experience, it hasn’t been too terribly difficult to keep them on board as long as they were on board with me the whole way.
M: How far do you feel you have to go with this? How many details do you feel you need to give a client for them to develop their appreciation of what you’re doing in SEO? Aren’t you running the risk of it being overwhelming?
H: Great question and great point. Again, remember we are speaking to very busy CEOs and CMOs, not other SEOs so we have to learn to read, write, listen, and speak their corporate language. They don’t need to know about HTTPS, SSL encryption, and canonicalization. They care about ROI, earnings per share, and operational costs. So how can we translate the technical aspects and jargon of what we do into something that is meaningful for those business goals that they care about? Remember, the goal is not to teach your client or your boss how to do search. That’s what they’re paying us to do, but rather to understand the impact that search is going to have on their business and their goals. Focus on what’s in it for them, the benefits. Maybe it’s brand visibility if you’re focusing more on high funnel awareness search or conquests of competitors in the search space.
At the end of the day, we’re all in business to make more money. They don’t care about the super granular technical steps to get there. They basically want to know how much is it going to cost, how long is it going to take, and what do you need from me. If your client has a search background then that’s great, but otherwise, it really makes more sense for us to zoom out to about 10,000 feet and use basic layperson analogies and visualizations. Anything we can do to communicate clearly and keep their attention right. And always, always, always tie your work back to what they actually care about.
Optimize It or Disavow It
M: Speaking of reporting to clients and how much they need to know or don’t need to know, what is the better of two evils… Giving them an overly complicated technical report that they will have no idea what you’re talking about or giving them a report that’s way too thin and they don’t think contains enough data?
H: Oh, this hurts. I’m going to say the overcomplicated report with not enough explanation. I’ll say this because at least there’s transparency in the data. Someone could theoretically parse it out, draw conclusions, or ask questions about it. Over-communication is better than under-communication, right?
I feel like the clearly oversimplified report would feel to a client like smoke and mirrors or like the person who created the report has no idea what’s going on with your search program which could shake the client’s confidence. But disclaimer, do not do either of these in real life.
M: Awesome. Thank you so much, Heather. I really appreciate it.
H: Thank you so much for having me on.
SEO News [46:41 – 50:25]
Google Resolves Google Post Issue: Last week we mentioned that there seemed to be a bug around Google Post submissions with the thought being that Google was enforcing their image guidelines. Well, it seems that there was actually a bug that Mike Blumenthal, a Local SEO superstar, says has been fixed.
Search Console Adds Performance Report for Review Snippets: Rejoice! Search Console now contains a performance report specifically for your pages that show with reviews on the SERP (as organic results). To this, you can now see Impressions, CTR, etc. for those pages using review markup.
Birds of Prey Being Renamed for Better SEO: Warner Brothers, to help lift poor ticket sales for its Birds of Prey movie, has made the film more searchable by changing its online title to ‘Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.’
Next week, Feb 25th, there will not be a podcast. Mordy will be at SMX West speaking about core updates and between being away and all of the flying we just won’t have time to pull off an episode.
The In Search SEO Podcast will be back on March 3rd!